Chapter 12 Transformations in Asia, 220-1350 A.D.
Reunited: the Sui, Tang, and Song Dynasties
the fall of the Han dynasty, China was divided for more than three centuries.
Finally a new dynasty, the Sui, united the country once again. Although this
dynasty lasted only a short time, it paved the way for two longer-lived
dynasties, the Tang and Song. Under these rulers, China enjoyed another golden
age of prosperity and cultural brilliance.
Division to Reunification
the collapse of Han rule, China fragmented into various warring kingdoms.
Nomadic tribes from Central Asia dominated the north, while southern China came
under the control of a series of weak Chinese kingdoms centered on the Yangtze
Six Dynasties Period.
This era of disunity, from 220-589, is known as the Six Dynasties period,
named after the six kingdoms of southern China. These southern dynasties
maintained many Han traditions, but failed to establish firm political control.
Wealthy landlords and generals vied for power and undermined the authority of
the central government.
The upheaval of the period was most notable in northern China. Nomadic
warriors raided and pillaged the heart of Chinese civilization. The old Han
capital, Chang’an, was sacked and left in ruins. As one writer noted in the
early 300s, “At this time in the city. . . there were not more than one
hundred families. Weeds and thorns grew thickly as if in a forest. Only four
carts could be found in the city.”
Eventually, however, the nomadic tribes settled down, established
kingdoms, and adopted the Chinese way of life. They also encouraged the growth
of Buddhism, which first entered China from India during Han times. By promoting
Buddhism, the new rulers hoped to undercut the power of China’s Confucian
aristocracy. Buddhism’s promise of spiritual salvation also gave comfort to
many Chinese during a time of chaos and instability. As a result, Buddhism soon
spread throughout China.
Although the southern dynasties claimed to be the true rulers of China,
it was a northern leader, Wendi, who reunited the country and forged a new
empire. By 589 he had conquered the south and formed the Sui dynasty.
An able ruler, Wendi set out to build a powerful, centralized state. He
created a new legal code, reformed the bureaucracy, and strengthened the
northern border against invasion. He also established a system of “ever-ready
granaries”—state-owned deposits of grain that could be dispensed in times of
famine or to help stabilize prices.
Wendi was succeeded by his son Yangdi, who at first continued the
policies of his father. Yangdi’s greatest accomplishment was the building of
the Grand Canal, a 1000-mile-long
waterway linking northern and southern China. However, this and other grandiose
schemes, including a failed effort to conquer Korea, strained the state’s
resources. As discontent grew, rebellions broke out. In 618 Yangdi was
overthrown and the Sui dynasty came to an end.
short-lived, the Sui dynasty had re-established the principle of strong imperial
rule in China. On this foundation their successors, the Tang, built an empire
that lasted for three centuries. The greatest ruler of the Tang period was Tai
Zong, son of the dynasty’s founder. Tai Zong was efficient, wise, and
compassionate. According to one story, the sight of locusts devouring crops
drove him to cry out, “Miserable creatures, must you eat the grain? If you are
hungry, come feed upon my heart.”
expansion and foreign relations.
Under Tai Zong and his successors, China expanded rapidly. Chinese armies
defeated Turkish nomads in Central Asia and extended China’s frontiers far to
the west, making contact with India and the Islamic world. China also conquered
portions of Korea, Manchuria, and Vietnam, and Chinese culture began to have a
strong influence on Japan.
Contact with other lands and peoples also affected China. During the 700s
and 800s the Tang capital of Chang`an became a center of world culture. The
largest city in the world at the time, with some 2 million people, Chang`an was
home to Persians, Arabs, Jews, Greeks, and many other non-Chinese residents. The influence of
these diverse peoples helped revitalize Chinese culture. Under Tang rule, China
became the most sophisticated, powerful, and wealthy country in the world.
A major reason for Tang success was the revival of the Han civil service
system, staffed by a scholar-gentry class chosen on the basis of competitive
examinations. This class of officials helped to hold the government together and
to keep it working smoothly from one ruler to another.
As in Han times, the Tang civil service exam was based on Confucian
learning. The test was difficult and few candidates managed to pass. Although it
was open to all Chinese, usually only the wealthy could afford the education
necessary to pass the test. Over time, however, the civil service system created
the chance for advancement in Chinese society.
under the Tang.
The resurgence of the scholar-gentry brought a revival of Confucian thought, but
Buddhism remained the state religion in China for the first two centuries of
Tang rule. Many different sects developed, the most famous of which is known by
its Japanese name, Zen. Zen Buddhism stressed meditation as a means to
enlightenment and showed a marked similarity to Daoism.
One Chinese ruler who gave great support to Buddhism was the Empress Wu, who
ruled China from 654-705. The only woman ever to hold the Chinese throne in her
own right, Wu first ruled through her husband, the third Tang emperor, and
eventually took power directly. A tough, authoritarian ruler, Wu was also highly
capable and held the empire together. A devout Buddhist, she believed herself to
be an incarnation of the Buddha and had temples built in her name. Under Empress
Wu, Buddhist monasteries amassed great wealth.
Eventually, however, Buddhism lost official favor. The growing power of
the monasteries came to be regarded as a threat to the state. One imperial edict
claimed: “The hearts of our people have been seduced by it. . . . The
monasteries and temples are . . . beautifully decorated, daring to rival palaces
In the mid-800s, officials launched a major crackdown, destroying temples and
forcing monks to abandon their faith. Buddhism never regained its former
influence in Chinese life.
of the Tang dynasty.
The Tang dynasty reached its height around 750 and then gradually
declined under weak emperors. By 900, tax revenues had diminished, nomadic
peoples had invaded, and bloody revolts had weakened the empire. In 907 a
powerful warlord killed the emperor and seized the throne, putting an end to the
half century of political upheaval followed the fall of the Tang dynasty.
Finally, in 960, a leading general, Zhao Kuangyin, seized power and declared a
new dynasty, the Song. One of the new emperor’s first acts was to curb the
power of the military by forcefully retiring key officers. At the same time, he reinforced
the position of the scholar-gentry in government. These measures helped ensure
With a weakened military, however, the Song were unable to regain control
over the vast empire created by the Tang. Soon invaders from the north
threatened the capital at Kaifeng. To ward off attacks, the Song agreed to pay
tribute in silver and trade goods to the nomadic raiders. Over time, this tribute
became a crushing burden that caused resentment, and eventually rebellion,
within China. One rebel leader complained:
government exacts from us everything it can and presents it to the . . .
barbarians. Our enemies have become richer each day, and not showing gratitude,
they have become more aggressive and more insulting instead. Why does not the
government stop paying them annual tribute, in view of the fact that it is
constantly insulted? . . . Though we work hard all year round, we have never had
a full stomach, and our wives and children suffer constantly from cold and
In 1126 the Khitans, a nomadic people from Mongolia, invaded and captured
the Song capital. The Song court fled to southern China, where it established a
new capital at Hangchow. Though reduced in size, the southern Song continued to
flourish for another 150 years.
While the Song continued to rule in south China, in the north the nomadic
invaders did little to disrupt the normal patterns of Chinese life. Continuing
to use the local Chinese bureaucracy, Khitan rulers collected taxes from the
Chinese peasants. They used these taxes to buy the allegiance of other nomadic
groups, giving them “gifts” and other forms of patronage. The Khitan
established their capital at Beijing, which was far enough north to give them
easy access to the steppes, while also being connected by canals with the Yellow
River and the rest of China.
In 1123, a Manchurian tribe, the Jurchens, overthrew the Khitans and
established their own Chin Empire. Where the Khitans had preferred to maintain
their strong ties with the nomadic life, the Chin embraced Chinese civilization
more wholeheartedly. They also swept much further south than their predecessors.
Eventually, the Chin Empire stretched from Manchuria to the Yangtze River.
move of the Song dynasty to southern China highlighted a shift in the balance of
Chinese civilization that had been occurring for some time. The creation of the
Grand Canal, for example, had signaled the growing importance of the south in
national development. By the 600s, increasing numbers of Chinese were migrating
south to settle on the rich, rice-growing lands of the Yangtze Valley. By the
1000s the south, which was relatively protected from the raids of the northern
steppe nomads, had surpassed the north in population and economic power.
The Tang and Song dynasties also presided over a period of great economic
activity in China. Tang expansion into Central Asia increased trade on the Silk
Route, while China’s extensive canal and river system promoted the growth of a
large internal market. China also became a major overseas trading nation. At
first, Muslim ships plying China’s coastal waters handled the bulk of maritime
trade. By the late Song period, however, China had become a major maritime power
in its own right.
Growing commerce led to the beginnings of a money and banking system. The
first currency, copper coins arranged in strings, eventually gave way to paper
money, as transactions became larger and more complex. By the late Song period,
commerce and tax revenues brought the government a huge income.
life. As trade
expanded, regional trading centers became thriving cities, bustling with
activity. City streets were filled with traffic and lined with shops selling
everything from noodles and candles to silk and pearls. Amusement quarters
featured puppet shows, plays, and performances by dancers and acrobats.
Hangchow became a sophisticated metropolis of nearly a million people.
There, officials and wealthy merchants lived in luxurious homes surrounded by
gardens. The Italian explorer Marco Polo, who visited Hangchow in the 1200s, noted
that the houses of the wealthy “are well built and elaborately furnished; and
the delight they take in decoration. . . leads them to spend . . . sums of money
that would astonish you.”
In contrast, ordinary residents lived in crowded apartments, while many of the
poor were homeless. The state set up hospitals and orphanages to help the poor,
but poverty remained a serious urban problem.
Despite the growing urbanization of China, most Chinese still lived in
the countryside. To promote rural progress, the Tang rulers tried to break up
large estates and give every farmer a piece of land. The Song, however,
abandoned this policy and land became increasingly concentrated in the hands of
large landlords. Most peasants became tenant farmers who worked under slave-like
Nevertheless, some positive changes took place in the countryside.
Technological improvements in agriculture—including new irrigation techniques
and new strains of rice from Southeast Asia—raised farm productivity and
allowed farmers to produce a surplus. Also from Southeast Asia came a new
crop—tea—that soon became a popular drink throughout China.
Agriculture was just one area in which technological change was evident
during the Tang and Song years. Spurred on by social and economic trends,
Chinese inventors made China the most technologically advanced civilization in
One of the most significant Chinese inventions was gunpowder. First
developed by the Tang for use in firecrackers, gunpowder was being used as an
explosive by 1100. Printing was an even greater invention of the Chinese. Using
carved blocks, the Chinese produced the world’s first book in 868, a Buddhist
text called the Diamond Sutra.
Other inventions included the nautical compass, the abacus, the
suspension bridge, and an early clock. Chinese inventions and products were so
advanced that the word for “Chinese” became a synonym for “superior” in
many Asian languages.
and the Arts
period of Tang and Song rule also produced a flowering of art in China. The
Chinese excelled at sculpture, textile weaving, and jade carving. The fine
Chinese pottery, known as porcelain, became famous around the world. The genius of
Chinese artists was most evident, however, in painting. Inspired by the Daoist
and Buddhist love of nature, and the Confucian ideal of self-improvement,
painters developed landscape painting to an unparalleled degree. They depicted
scenes of natural beauty—rushing rivers, jagged mountains, bamboo
groves—with practiced and delicate brushwork. As one
master artist explained:
wind rises from the green forest, and the foaming water rushes in the stream.
Alas! Such painting cannot be achieved by physical movements of the fingers and
hand, but only by the spirit entering into them. This is the nature of
Like painting, the literature of this era was also highly developed and
reflected the Daoist and Confucian roots of Chinese culture. Perhaps the greatest
literature of the time was produced by Tang poets. Chinese literary collections
contain nearly 50,000 poems written by more than 2,000 poets of this period. Two of the most famous Tang poets reflected the divergent tendencies in
Chinese thought. Li Bai (LEE BY), a Daoist, spent much of his life seeking
pleasure. His writings—happy, light, and elegant—described the delights of
life. Du Fu (DOO FOO), on the other hand, possessed a serious, even solemn
nature and devoutly followed Confucian teachings. His carefully written verses
showed his deep concern for the suffering and tragedy of human life.