Chapter 12 Transformations in Asia, 220-1350 A.D.

Section 1 China Reunited: the Sui, Tang, and Song Dynasties

After 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.

From Division to Reunification

Following 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 River.

The 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.”[2]

            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.

The Sui dynasty.  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.

The Tang Dynasty

Although 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.”[3]

Tang 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.

The Chinese bureaucracy.  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.

Religion 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.

BIO 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 grandeur.”[4] 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.

Decline 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 Tang dynasty.

The Song Dynasty

A 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 civilian control.

            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:

“The 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 hunger.”[5]

            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.

Economy and Society

The 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.

Economic expansion.  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.

Urban 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.”[6] 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.

Rural life.  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 conditions.

            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.

Technology.  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 the world.

            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.[7]

Literature and the Arts

The 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:

“The 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 painting.”[8]

            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.