Grace Weissman

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Political Control in the Tang and Maya Empires
During an essential period of technological advancement and expanding trade, the
rulers of the Tang (618 to 907 c.e.) and Mayan (200 to 900 c.e.) Empires were tasked with the
essential role of maintaining political control over their domains. The Tang, in China and
Central Asia took power in 618, ending the brief rule of their predecessors, the Sui.
Encompassing costal land to the East and reaching far to the West, the Tang capital, Chang’an,
served as a hub for trade all throughout Asia. Meanwhile, across the world in Mesoamerica,
the population of the Mayan Empire was thriving, despite existing in a difficult tropical climate
with fragile soil. Impressive urban centers boasted beautifully decorated religious sites and
great scientific and mathematical developments were made. In order to maintain control of their
influential empires, Tang and Maya rulers used similar techniques of invoking religious support
for their authority and decentralization of power, however had differing methods of appointing
political officials and asserting supremacy over neighboring states.
One of the ways both Tang and Mayan rulers obtained political power was by claiming
to have their positioned endorsed by the gods. Buddhism endowed kings and emperors with the
role of shepherding humans into the Buddhist realm. Holding such an essential religious
function ensured that the will of the people would be with their political leaders in the Tang
Empire. Similarly, the kings of dominant Maya city-states built monumental temples and
performed rituals that matched their jurisdiction with the power of gods. In societies that were
culturally dominated by religion, religious leaders had an immense influence over the people.
By combining that immense religious influence with the mightiest leader of the empire, kings
were enabled with nearly unbounded political control in the Tang and Maya Empires.
While the practice of decentralization manifested itself in slightly different ways in each
empire, both had political authority distributed to rulers of smaller amounts of land throughout

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the civilization. In order to prevent an over concentration of power, local Tang nobles, gentry,
officials, and religious establishments were permitted to exercise a great amount of power. This
was an effective move to maintain political control, as one central emperor would have
difficulty enforcing his rule to everyone in his empire, which spanned several thousand miles.
By allowing more direct political power figures, the whole empire was more accountable to be
under the emperor’s control. While the Maya Empire was never fully united politically, the
small city-states of which it was comprised operated under a comparable system to the Tang.
Some were part of a political hierarchy, but most were independently lead by a king and his
councils of priests, nobles, and other advisors. While the overall government structures of the
Tang and the Maya differ from one another, both operated under the premise that the fewer
people a ruler has authority over, the more effective they will be in holding power.
Although many similar methods of political were suited for the Tang and Maya empires,
certain cultural differences required some differing techniques. While the Maya employed the
common practice of selecting government officials based on their lineage, the Tang developed
imperial examinations to select the most skilled worker for the job. In the turbulent Mayan
empire where separate city-states were constantly fighting and adjusting it made sense for kings
to choose elites like them who had proven to be loyal. Since those high up in government were
representing the same interests they comprised a unified front of officials who were much more
likely to successfully exercise their political control. On the other hand, the huge Tang dynasty
was all ruled by one emperor and his significantly larger bureaucracy. To fill those official
positions, applicants were tested using the imperial examinations. While the bureaucratic
officials certainly had a role in exercising political authority, the incentive of taking the tests in
and of itself was a method of political control on its own as well. Since the government wrote
the tests and controlled its standards of success they also wielded the power to inculcate the

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millions of young men vying for political roles. While the smaller divided Mayan governments
used a more nepotistic method of selecting political officials, instilling ideals and selecting
talented workers for the involved network of the Tang bureaucracy was more effective strategy
for having the emperor’s orders collectively carried out.
The final way both governments needed to assert political control was in their
relationships with surrounding nations. Despite the fact that the Maya are considered one
empire because of their shared culture, in this regard the city-states can be considered
independent entities, as they were not politically unified. Tensions were high among the
opposing Mayan groups and warfare was an important aspect of Mayan society. Kings actively
participated in war, seeking captives and keeping commoners as slaves, while sacrificing elites
in religious rituals. Succeeding in this form of competition between city-states helped
legitimize the rule of a king as well as inspiring awe and approval from citizens. However,
because the Tang was a completely separate country from the nations around it and contained
Chang’an, the center of trade for all of Asia, the emperor had more leverage for civil
negotiations. A tributary system held that in order to receive permission to trade in China, other
nations must pay tribute to the emperor in recognition of China’s supremacy. While the Tang
and the Maya both had similar aims of subordinating neighboring nations, their actual methods
of foreign policy differed greatly, from the Tang diplomacy to the Maya violence.