China: Sui, Tang, and Song and Yuan Dynasties
The Sui Dynasty, 589-618 AD
In 220 AD, the Han dynasty of China came to an end. China then experienced an age of civil war as various groups fought to become the rulers of China. This chaos finally came to an end under the hand of Sui Wen-ti, a general. He united the northern kingdoms of China under his rule, centralized the government, reformed the taxation structure, and conquered southern China--all in a single lifetime. The government he established was remarkably stable during his lifetime, and he began ambitious building and economic projects, such as building the “Grand Canal.” The Grand Canal was built to link the Yellow and Yangtze rivers and make it easier to ship rice from the north to the south. However, unlike the founders of the Han dynasties, Sui Wen-ti did not adopt Confucianism as the state philosophy, but rather embraced Buddhism and Taoism. Sui Wen-ti employed Buddhist advisors in his program to unify the country, and Buddhism would become the government philosophy until the founding the Song dynasty several centuries later.
Sui-Wen-ti's son, Sui Yang-ti, who rose to be emperor on the death of his father, soon overextended himself, leading military expeditions against Korea. Eventually, these wars with Korea, in combination with a series of unlucky natural disasters, bankrupted the government. So he placed high taxes on his citizens, which soon led to widespread rebellion. Sui Yang-ti was assassinated. Afterwards, Li Yuan, one of Sui Yang-ti's generals, began a new dynasty, the Tang, which lasted for another three hundred years.
The Tang Dynasty, 618-907 AD
The Tang dynasty is known as the "golden age" of Chinese culture. The capital of the Tang Dynasty, Chang-an, became incredibly wealthy and supported the flowering of Chinese culture.
Because of massive, dynamic trade with other cultures, Chang-an became a meeting place of many cultures and religions: Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Islam, all of which entered China during the Tang dynasty and influenced Chinese culture. Syrians, Jews, Arabs, Persians, Koreans, Tibetans, and Japanese all lived side by side with the Chinese of Chang-an. In 636, Christians from Syria were allowed to build a church and hold Christian services barely six hundred years after the founding of Christianity and less than three hundred years after Christianity had become the state religion of Rome. The foreigners not only brought in new religions, but new clothes, cuisine, literature, and music as well. The imperial court itself had several performing troupes of actors and musicians gathered from surrounding nations permanently performing at the court.
The Tang dynasty saw the birth of two of China’s greatest poets. Li Po (701-762), came to prominence at this time. Considered one of the most powerful Chinese lyric poets, Li Po was a large, strong man hopelessly fascinated with sensuality. He wrote over two thousand poems, and over eighteen hundred of them still exist. His poetry is about immediacy, about directly conveying to the reader the experience of an event. So his poetry tended to be simpler and direct – when the reader reads the poem they immediately understand the emotions being conveyed.
While his poetry expresses a message a sense of the brevity (shortness) of life, this tragic view of the temporary nature of mortal life leads him to embrace the experiences of the world and human life. Li Po was fascinated with nature and the human world, and his poetry focused on celebrating its beauty. It is perhaps this aspect of his poetry that led to the birth of the legend of his death: he is said to have drowned
while trying to embrace the image of the moon in a pool. This legend expresses Li Po’s focus on celebrating the beauty and power of nature and life. Here is an example of his poetry:
“The moon shimmers in green water.
White herons fly through the moonlight.
The young man hears a girl gathering water-chestnuts:
into the night, singing, they paddle home together.”
The second great poet of the time was Tu Fu (712-770). While Li Po strove for allowing the reader to immediately understand his work, Tu Fu wrote a poetry that was about putting obstacles between the reader and the poet's experience. His is an elusive poetry, one which suggests possibilities and hides immediate experience under the veils of language rather than trying to communicate a phenomenal or emotional experience as directly as possible. Basically, readers have to work harder to “understand” Tu Fu’s poetry. As with Li Po, his poetry is permeated with the notion of the brevity of life, but his poetry is less about celebrating human experience than it is about the tragedy of human suffering. So while Li Po is more optimistic and direct, Tu Fu is more negative and complex. Here is an example of Tu Fu’s poetry:
“As bamboo chill drifts into the bedroom,
Moonlight fills every corner of our
Garden. Heavy dew beads and trickles.
Stars suddenly there, sparse, next aren't.
Fireflies in dark flight flash. Waking
Waterbirds begin calling, one to another.
All things caught between shield and sword,
All grief empty, the clear night passes.”
Decline of the Tang
The Tang in its earliest years expanded its military power greatly. Like all dynasties before them, the military expansion of the Tang was followed by a slow contraction under the pressures of foreign countries. The Tang were pushed back primarily by the Mongols in Manchuria, the Turks to the west, and the Tibetans to the south.
The Tang met these challenges by sending armies, which always succeeded in the short-run but failed to keep these foreign powers down for good. Although the Tang forged alliances with other foreigners and built up defensive works, none of these strategies really worked, and eventually the Empire's borders slowly contracted back to the original Tang kingdom.
The Tang government continued to lose authority all through the ninth century. Civil war in southern China, roving bands of thieves, wars with border territories, and frequent rebellions slowly converted the provinces of China into autonomous kingdoms under the control of warlords. Chang-an itself was sacked by one of these warlords and the remaining decades of the Tang dynasty were essentially a period of chaos among small, fractious kingdoms. Finally, in 907, the dynasty fell and the country fell into a fifty year period of disunion before another strong dynasty would reunify the country, the Song.
The Song Dynasty, 960-1279 AD
Under the Song Synasty, China experienced an agricultural and commercial revolution. China had always had a major problem with poor farmers. Unequal land distribution and unfair taxation caused unmanageable poverty for most farmers, who were tied to the land like slaves. These farmers often rebelled, and many Chinese dynasties had fallen to these rebellions. Farmer’s saw their prosperity increase under the Song dynasty however. Individual farmers gained the right to buy and sell land. This allowed farmers the freedom to enter other professions. They could sell their land and use the money to open up a business or move to the city. Sucessful farmers could also now purchase land from their neighbors and expand their farms. Also, farmers could pay their taxes in money and not grain. Originally, farming families were forced to pay the government a certain amount of grain. So if you were born into a farming family, you would have to become a farmer as well to pay your taxes, because you would need to provide the government grain. Under the Song, you could use money, thus freeing you to enter other professions. Finally, the Song more or less eliminated the forced conscription of labor, which had been a regular part of Chinese life since the Qin dynasty. So farmers could spend more time working on their fields, instead of having to work for the Emperor. These factors resulted in a phenomenal increase in agricultural production, and the wealth of the individual farmer increased significantly (though most farmers never became “wealthy.”) Two major effects resulted from this agricultural revolution: greater wealth for the general population and for the government, and more freedom as farmers were no long enslaved to their land.
The most important economic innovation of the Song was the widespread use of money. In the form of copper coins and later silver, the use of money greatly accelerated trade within China, since money encourages trade since it is easier to use than bartering. In addition, cities slowly became centers for commercial activity, as people began moving to urban areas to engage in business. Along the Yangtze River, cities grew dramatically and became the cultural and economic centers of China. While China in the Tang period and before was largely agricultural, Song China saw the explosion of urban populations, which grew by factors of four or five. The city of Kaifeng eventually had a population of 250,000 households. The city of Hangchow had a population of 391,000 households. Here are some numbers to put this into perspective: during the Song period, Rome had an average population of about 35,000 households and London had a population of about 20,000 households. No civilization on earth was comparable. These cities were buzzing with mercantile activities and services. The demand for goods and services was so great that China began an unprecedented acceleration of foreign trade. Chinese goods were traded as far away as Africa and the Middle East, and all the major trade routes and ports were controlled by Chinese merchants.
Even though they were prosperous, the Song Dynasty also fell like every other Chinese dynasty before it. This time, they were overrun by a dangerous people to their north: the Mongols.
The Mongols (Yuan Dynasty) 1279 - 1368
The Mongols were an obscure people who lived in the outer reaches of the Gobi Desert in what is now Outer Mongolia. They were a pastoral and tribal people that did not really seem to be of any consequence to neighboring peoples. The Mongols were in fact a group of un-united tribes that would gather regularly during annual migrations; although they elected chiefs over the tribes at these meetings, they never unified into a single people. All that would change however, under the leadership of a powerful and vigorous leader: Genghis Khan.
Genghis Khan was the son of a poor noble in his tribe. Born sometime in the 1160's, he gradually unified the Mongol tribes and, in 1206, was elected Genghis Khan, or "Universal Ruler." He began to vigorously organize the Mongols into a military force through conscription and taxes on the tribes. With his small army (no more than one hundred and twenty thousand men), he managed to conquer far larger armies in densely populated areas.
Genghis Khan was perhaps one of the greatest military innovators in human history, and his army consisted of perhaps the best-trained horsemen in all of human history. They fought on horseback using short bows and arrows with incredible efficiency; they could hit targets with a superhuman precision while running at a full gallop. Their speed and efficiency struck terror in their opponents who frequently broke ranks. Imagine a bunch of archers circling around you too fast for you to hit, but able to pump you full of arrows. That was what the enemies of the Mongols faced. In addition, Genghis Khan organized his troops into decimal units (one hundred, one thousand, ten thousand), and would send hand signals through the fighting to these decimal units. The result in battle was simply mind-boggling. Genghis Khan could literally move troops around in the heat of battle as easily as he would move chess pieces. Moreover, his armies were incredibly mobile and could cover immense distances with great speed. Finally, Genghis Khan was ruthless towards people who resisted the advances of his army. If a town or city fought back, he laid siege to the town and, at its conclusion, would exterminate its inhabitants, except for a handful of survivors, whom he would let go to spread word of the battle. When news of these tactics spread, Mongol armies easily and successfully took over towns that would surrender as soon as the Mongols showed their faces. The Mongols literally decimated populations in Western Asia and China as they advanced. As a result of all these tactics, the Mongol armies spread across the landscape like wildfire. They marched inexorably south into Chin territory and west into Asia and even Europe. When Genghis Khan died, Mongol armies were poised to conquer eastern Europe, which they would have accomplished had not their leader died.
The Mongolian Empire was the largest land empire in history. It extended west to east from Poland to Siberia, and north to south from Moscow to the Arabian Peninsula and Siberia to Vietnam. Genghis Khan was primarily interested in conquering China because of its great wealth. When he died in 1227, he had just finished conquering the northern city of Beijing. His grandson, Kublai Khan finished conquering China and established the Yuan Dynasty of China.
Fall of the Yuan
The Yuan was the shortest lived of the major dynasties. From the time that Kublai Khan occupied Beijing as his capital in China in 1279 to the fall of the dynasty in 1368, a mere hundred years had passed. Kublai was a highly successful emperor as was his son, but the later Yuan emperors could not stop the slide into powerlessness. For one thing, the Beijing Khans lost legitimacy among the Mongols still in Mongolia who thought they had abandoned Mongol culture and acted too “Chinese.”. The fourteenth century is punctuated by Mongolian rebellions against the Yuan. On the other hand, the Chinese never accepted the Yuan as a legitimate dynasty but regarded them rather as foreign bandits, or at best an occupying army. The failure to learn Chinese and integrate themselves into Chinese culture greatly undermined the Mongol rulers. Also, nature conspired in their downfall; the Yellow River changed course and flooded irrigation canals and so brought on massive famine in the 1340's.
Finally, a peasant, Chu Yuan-chang, led a rebel army against the Yuan. He had lost most of his family in the famine, and had spent part of his life as a monk and then as a bandit leader. He took Beijing in 1368 and the Yuan emperor eventually fled to Mongolia. He declared himself the founder of a new dynasty: the Ming dynasty, which is a story for another unit.
Answer the following questions at the bottom and back of this page. DO NOT WRITE THEM NEXT TO THE QUESTION.
1. What was the Grand Canal and why was it built?
2. Which Chinese philosophies were spread by the Sui dynasty?
3. Explain why the Sui dynasty was overthrown?
4. How did Chinese culture under the Tang Dynasty become influenced by foreign cultures?
5. Describe the difference between Li Po and Tu Fu’s poetry?
6. Describe how the Tang Dynasty weakened and was overthrown.
7. Explain the THREE reforms made during the Song Dynasty that improved the lives of farmers.
8. What effect did the use of coin money have on China?
9. Describe how cities were changed during the Song Dynasty.
Mongols (Yuan Dynasty)
10. What type of weaponry and fighting style did Mongol armies use?
11. How did Genghis Khan command his armies?
12. What policy did the Mongols have that encouraged enemies to surrender instead of fight?
13. Describe the extent of the Mongol Empire.
14. Why did the Mongolians turn against the Yuan rulers?
15. Why did the Chinese people never accept the Yuan rulers?