Lecture 8—Imperial China (589 AD – 1368 AD) Reestablishment of Empire: Sui (589-618 AD) and Tang (618-907 AD) Dynasties
The Sui Dynasty (589-618 AD) founded: Sui Wen-ti (d. 605), founder of the Sui dynasty, was a general of mixed Chinese-Turkic ancestry in the North, where for centuries, these cultures had mixed. He reunited the North and reconquered the South, rebuilding the Great Wall and conecting the Yellow and Yangtze rivers with the Grand Canal.
The Second Sui Emperor: Yang-ti (605-618 AD) gained the throne after his father's death (possibly by murder). He further extended the empire, but, unlike his father, he did not seek to gain support from the nomads. Instead, he restored Confucian education and the Confucian examination system for bureaucrats. By supporting educational reforms, he lost the support of nomads. Unsuccessful wars against the nomads and Koreans ensued, weakening him at home. The court went bankrupt and the generals and peasants revolted. The winner of this chaos was a Chinese-Turkish aristocrat related to the Empress, who founded the Tang dynasty.
The Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD):
Government: The first Tang emperor began as a regional governor. He had to reconcile two interests: his desire for a centralized bureaucracy and the desire of Chinese aristocrats to keep power.
Centralization: Three central bodies ran the country: Military Affairs, the Censorate, and the Council of State. Military Affairs ran the military, obviously enough. The Censorate monitored the other two branches and local government for malfeasance, reporting it to the Emperor. The Council of State, made up of the heads of the upper level bureaucracy, met with the Emperor daily and was most powerful. Six ministries carried out the will of the government: Personnel, Revenues, Rites, Military, Justice, and Public Works.
Centralization of Lands: The emperor owned all land; in theory, he granted equal lands to all able-bodied men, who then owed him taxes in labor and grain for its use. In practice, aristocrats used perks of office to hold onto larger swathes of land.
Recruitment: The recruitment of officers favored aristocrats, both by selection bias but also by their ability to afford to study well for the Confucian system of examinations.
The Empress Wu: Wu Zhao (626-ca 706 AD), a concubine of the second emperor, so entranced his heir that he recalled her to court and eventually married her as his Empress; she then began disposing of all her rivals, female or male. When he suffered a stroke in 660 AD, she took over completely. After his death in 683, she ruled 7 years as regent, then deposed her son and ruled fifteen years in her own right, the only woman to do so. She was overthrown in 705. Despite her oddities, such as seeing herself as a Buddhist messiah, the system was so durable it could survive her.
Emperor Xuan Zong (713-756): The next emperor repaired the Grand Canal, conducted a census, and ruled over great prosperity from Chang'an, his capital. It was an administrative city which lived off taxation, designed to show the power and majesty of the Emperor; it was laid out in a grid, along traditional Confucian ritual lines. It covered over 30 square miles and had over a million people; it was the largest city on Earth in the 8th century AD. (China had 50 million people at this time.)
The Tang Empire: The Tang defended their borders with four methods. First, when necessary, they invaded their neighbors—Tibet to the west, Turks to the Northwest and North, Mongols in Manchuria. Second, they manipulated nomads to turn on each other. Thirdly, they stationed troops along their defensive fortifications on the border. Finally, they turned border states into tributaries, using them as shields against invasion. Some of these tributary states drew a lot of ideas from China for their own processes of state formation—government methods, literature, philosophy, medicine, and Buddhism.
Rebellion and Decline: In the mid-eighth century, signs of decline began to appear. However, after the revolt of An Lu-Shan, the empire recovered with the aid of the Uighur turks and began another century of prosperity. A strong emperor reformed the land system in 780 AD, changing to fixed taxes for each province, collected twice a year. The country had shrunk to half its former population. In the late 800s, it destabilized again. By the 880s, warlords divided it up and deposed the last Tang in 907 AD. But China did not dissolve into centuries of discord this time.
Tang Culture: This was a period of dynamic tension between Buddhists and secular culture, a cosmopolitan time of exchange of ideas with China's neighbors. Traders brought many religions and cultures into China.
Tang Buddhism: This was the Golden Age of Buddhism in China. During this dynasty, Buddhism was formally organized in the Tiantai sect in a manner similar to medieval Europe's church, though it was subservient to the state. Temples had secular obligations, serving as schools, inns, bathouses, banks and doctors. In the mid-ninth century, a Daoist emperor confiscated much of the churches lands and destroyed thousands of monasteries and shrines. This enabled other sects to arise:
Maitreya Devotion: One sect worshiped Maitreya, a Buddha yet to come in the future, a cosmic messiah. This group often became the root of revolutionary movements.
Pure Land Buddhism: This sect worshipped the Amitabha Buddha, the Lord of the Western Paradise / Pure Land. It argued that in this age, Buddha's teachings had been distorted and that only faith in Amitabha could save you; all who called on him sincerely would be saved. This sect would become the largest in China, using a congregation structure.
Zen: Zen taught Buddha was only a man and told everyone to seek enlightenment on their own. A combination of physical labor and meditation would lead you to enlightenment. Many sects used koans, riddles with no fixed answer, to force people to think outside their mental boxes to break out of old habits of mind. Zen heavily influenced the arts.
Secular Scholarship: Secular scholarship and literature flourished under the Tang. Most men of letters were officials; most officials were painters or poets. The Tang revived the practice of writing histories of past dynasties. They wrote fiction as well.
Li Bo (701-762 AD): He was unusual among poets in that he had never even sat for examinations, let alone been an official. He wrote 20,000 poems of which 1,800 survive. Many involve drinking.
Du Fu (712-770 AD): He was from a literary family and gained a government job after presenting his poetry to the court at the age of 39. He had a difficult life and his poetry is aware of human suffering. Humans were short lived and only nature endures.
Transition to Late Imperial China: The Song Dynasty (960-1279)
Agricultural Revolution of the Song: From Serfs to Free Farmers:
Aristocrats: During the Sui and Tang dynasties, landed aristocrats dominated farming. The tillers of their estates were reduced to serfdom. But under the Tang and after, they went into decline. As time passed, estates were endlessly subdivided among heirs and shrank; aristocrats fled to the cities. With the end of the equal field system, farmers could own their own land and some prospered. Conscription was ended and labor taxes turned into money.
Technology: Better methods of farming and new crops arose: faster-growing rice, fertilizers, tea, and cotton. Because money taxes were fixed, increased productivity benefited cultivators.
Rise of District Magistrates: District magistrates grew in authority, but had too many villages to run them all, so peasants gained more autonomy.
Rise of the Scholar-Gentry: There now arose a class of gentry families who lived in the villages and helped run local government, acting as a buffer between peasant and government.
Commercial Revolution of the Song:
Emergence of the Yangzi Basin: From the late 9th century AD, the center of gravity of population, culture and farming shifted south. Between 800 and 1100 the population of the region tripled as China rose to 100 million people. The Yangzi's rice paddies yielded more per acre than wheat or millet in the north. Schools flourished.
New Technology: Coal and iron-smelting technology now flourished in northern china, providing better tools and weapons because it could produce carbonized steel. Printing begins with the use of inks and carved seals. The first texts, mostly Buddhist, appear in the 7th century AD. By the tenth century, a complete edition of the classics existed. Also: the abacus, gunpowder for grenades and projectiles, and improvements in textiles and porcelains.
Rise of a Money Economy: The Tang had used silk as the unit of exchange. The Song made copper coins with a hole in the middle so you could string them together. (1,000 cash was the standard for large transactions) Later, silver was made into coins as well. Letters of credit became an important component of mercantile transactions.
Trade: Rising trade turned cities from administrative centers into focal points for trade and production as well. Cities had spare money to buy luxuries; most cities were surrounded by subsistence zones, but the most prosperous cities themselves were foci of production. Cities with 100,000+ households quadrupled in number; the largest Chinese cities dwarfed European ones. Kaifeng had 260,000 households—over 1 million people. By contrast, Rome had 35,000.
Regional Trade: This was mainly luxuries; bulk goods were only shipped where transport was cheap, such as the Grand Canal. Foreign trade reached new heights. Chinese merchants took over the port trade, using improved ships with both sail and oars, watertight compartments, better rudders, and compasses. China imported raw materials and exported finished products: silks, porcelains, textiles.
Government: From Aristocracy to Autocracy:
Growing Central Power: Song emperors had more control over appointments than previous emperors, and an independent source of advice in the Board of Academicians.
Better Funding: The Song had more money to spend than previous dynasties. Revenues in 1100 were three times the Tang peak. Growing population, taxes on trade and government monopolies were the main sources; commerce tax revenues kept growing.
Fading of the Aristocracy: The collapse of the aristocracy also strengthened emperors, removing an alternate power base and giving him more freedom in choice of ministers. Ministers were now commoners, viewing the Emperor as above them.
Rising Examination System: The exam system now produced over 50% of officials, not just 10%. About 200 a year (one in five) made it through to the final round of exams. The exams tested one's fluency in writing and the Confucian classics, along with ability to apply them to the present. A scholarly class arose which lived off government office and land; the poor could hardly afford the training. The system was hard to enter, but not impossible, however; it produced no closed aristocratic class.
Song Culture: A rising economy produced lots of surplus for the creation of culture. It was less aristocratic, cosmopolitan and secular than Tang culture had been. Many Chinese saw it as the height of Chinese culture; this was the era of the finest pottery and porcelains. It was also an age of great historians.
Philosophy: This is one of the two major eras of philosophy. Zhu Xi (1130-1200) studied Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. He passed his exams at age 18. He pioneered a new confucianism that combined elements of Buddhism and Confucianism. By the end of the Song, his neo-Confucianism became the standard interpretation. Zhu Xi made religion and metaphysics serve philosophy. Later critics asserted his teachings encouraged metaphysical speculation at the cost of practical results. His supporters asserted the metaphysics simply rationalized and undergirded the practical, leading to traditional values. His ideas emphasized continuity and discouraged change.
Poetry: Song Poets held the Tang poets in awe, but they were very good. Su Dungpo (1037-1101 AD) was the most famous poet, skilled in all cultural activities. He was a conservative, relying on morality to maintain social control. He spent much of his life in and out of office due to disputes with reformers. Around 2,700 of Su Dungpo's poems have survived, along with 800 written letters. Most of his poems were in a Tang style (shi) but he also wrote lyric poetry (ci). In both his written works and his visual art, he combined spontaneity, objectivity and vivid descriptions of natural phenomena. Su Dungpo also became a major influence on travel literature.
Painting: In China, calligraphy and painting are intertwined arts. Song painters detailed many subjects but are most renowned for their landscape art. Song paintings had no room for error; once brush hit silk or paper, you couldn't undo what you did. There was no single-point perspective; every component stood on its own, viewed from the 'most pleasing perspective'. Space was a crucial component; humans were rare to non-extant in landscapes. Zen art was as minimalistic as possible while still being recognizable.
China in the Mongol World Empire: The Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)
The Mongol World Empire: The Mongols, in the 13th and 14th century created the largest empire which has ever existed; China was but one part of this state.
Rise of the Mongol Empire: The Mongols (3.5 million strong) were pastoral (animal-herding) nomads who dwelt in the plains north and northwest of China, who warred with each other and sometimes united under leaders known as Khans. They were polytheists whose religious specialists were known as shamans, men who talked to nature's spirits. Temujin, who would become known as Genghis Khan (Great Khan), was born in 1167 AD. (He died in 1227 AD). By age 40, he united the tribes and set out to bring the entire world under the sovereignty of himself and the mongol gods. He was blessed in producing many sons and grandsons who were wise, intelligent, charismatic leaders.
Organization: Genghis grouped his tribesmen into units of 10, 100, and 1,000. They trained in combat tactics and used a sophisticated signalling system. They mainly fought as horse archers, armed with compound bows. Once they conquered areas, they recruited local troops, learning how to conduct sieges by employing engineers from conquered nations. He opened his army to many other nomad nations.
After Genghis: He divided his nation into four khanates to be ruled by his sons as vassals to the next Great Khan:
Empire of the Great Khan - Ögedei Khan, as Great Khan, took most of Eastern Asia, including China; this territory later to comprise the Yuan Dynasty under Kubilai Khan.
Mongol homeland (present day Mongolia, including Karakorum) - Tolui Khan, being the youngest son, received a small territory near the Mongol homeland, following Mongol custom.
Chagatai Khanate - Chagatai Khan, Genghis Khan's second son, was given Central Asia and northern Iran.
Blue Horde - Batu Khan, and White Horde - Orda Khan, both were later combined into the Kipchak Khanate, or Khanate of the Golden Horde, under Toqtamysh. Genghis Khan's eldest son, Jochi, had received most of the distant Russia and Ruthenia. Because Jochi died before Genghis Khan, his territory was further split up between his sons. Batu Khan launched an invasion of Russia, and later Hungary and Poland, and crushed several armies before being summoned back by the news of Ögedei's death.
Mongol Rule In China: Genghis and his successor Ogedei (and several other short-reigning Great Khans after him) approached China cautiously, taking first Tibet, then Manchuria, and only then putting the squeeze on Northern China. Beijing fell in 1227, the year of Genghis' death. By 1241, they held all of Northern China and confronted the Southern Song dynasty. Kublai, son of Tolu Khan, became Great Khan in 1260; in 1264, he moved his capital from Karakorum to Beijing. In 1271, he adopted a Chinese dynastic name—Yuan, and now went to war with the Southern Song to see who would be Emperor of China. By 1279 AD, all of China was his.
Bureaucratization: In the early years, the Mongols operated on the basis of slashing, marauding, and plundering. At one point, they seriously considered killing off everyone in China to turn it into a giant pasture for their herds. Over time, however, they came to see the value of taxation and settled rule and created their own bureaucracy. Government was highly centralized and mobile.
Mongols in China: Some 400,000 Mongols settled in China. They garrisoned China with nomad forces and kept a reserve in the steppes. Office holding was graded by ethnic origin—Mongols on top, other nomads holding the next ranks, Chinese folk at the bottom. The old examination system was used only sporadically. Still, it was only with the cooperation of low-level Chinese officials that the Mongols could govern at all.
Foreign Contacts and Chinese Culture: The Mongol empire was hugely cosmopolitan. Chinese communities now existed as far away as Russia; Persian and Arab communities flourished in China. Chinese art and technology passed to Europe and the middle east—printing, gunpowder, Chinese medicine, paintings, and ceramics.
Marco Polo: This Italian trader passed along the Silk Road to China with some of his relatives; one of our major sources for knowledge of Yuan era China is his book, Il Milione, "The Million", more commonly known today as The Travels of Marco Polo. He served Kublai Khan for a time, eventually returning home.
Religious Contact: The Mongols were religiously tolerant; a wide variety of religions now entered China, from Islam to Nestorian Christianity to Catholicism. Islam took permanent root in western China and central Asia. Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism were the most popular, though.
Conservatism: The Chinese responded by turning inward and rejecting foreign culture because it came due to the Mongols. Song dynasty art styles were copied, instead of adopting foreign art or even creating new styles. Even histories were written for the Mongol court using the traditional Chinese organization.
Drama: Yuan era dramatists made the largest contribution to high culture. They created a form of opera. Travelling troupes relied on costuming, makeup, and acting skills instead of props. Except for the arias, they were written in popular vernacular Chinese, thus enabling everyone to watch and enjoy. Justice always triumphed.
Fall of the Yuan: After Kublai's death in 1294, Mongol unity collapsed and the other khanates broke away, leaving the Yuan to live and die by their own strength—a difficult task when so badly outnumbered by native Chinese. Once the Mongol government began to suffer a series of regencies, child emperors and weak empires, few had loyalty to it. By 1311, the succession was already destabilizing. (A total of 10 Emperors ruled China between 1294 and 1368). In the end, the last of the Yuan, Ukhaatu Khan, fled to Mongolia to escape a rebel army.