“China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed” John Makeham (Part 6)

Great Changes: The Tang-Song Transition (Second Half)

This is the second half of the chapter on the Tang & Song dynasties & it covers the Song Dynasty and the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty. The time period covered is from 960AD through to approximately 1370AD.

Orientation Dates: Mostly English history for these, plus the dates of some of the Crusades. 1066AD is the Battle of Hastings. First Crusade was 1095AD to 1099AD. “The Anarchy” was between 1135AD & 1155AD (post). Third Crusade (Richard Lionheart & Saladin) was 1187AD to 1192AD. Gerald of Wales lived at the end of the 12th Century (post). Fourth Crusade (and sack of Constantinople) was 1202AD to 1204AD. Magna Carta was signed by King John in 1215AD. Edward I conquered Wales between 1277AD & 1283AD. Hundred Years War started in 1337AD. Black Death arrived in England in 1348AD.

The Northern Song

Like many of the Chinese ruling dynasties the Song Dynasty is split into two parts – first the Northern Song, then the Southern Song. The Northern Song started by re-unifying most of the country, all but the most northern parts of what had been China under the Tang Dynasty. Unfortunately the book didn’t give me a map of this, so I had to resort to looking it up in another book. They (again like the immediately preceding dynasties) tried to change the military focus of the culture – during the reigns of the first two Emperors of this dynasty (about 40 years from 960AD to 997AD) the military was overhauled and put under the control of civilian officials at the top level. The Emperors also made the civil bureaucracy more important by presiding as the final examiners who appointed all the bureaucrats. This lead to problems later in the dynasty – by the end of the mid-Northern Song period (around 1085AD) the elite regarded themselves as co-rulers of the empire and bureaucratic factionalism weakened the power of the dynasty.

The threats from the north of China (see below) meant that despite backing away from military rule the Northern Song had to maintain a large army. This in turn meant that higher taxes were necessary to pay the military expenses (and to pay tribute to the northern peoples), and there were attempts to reform the tax system to make it more efficient. These reforms seem to have been poorly implemented and as they often went against Chinese tradition (for instance by trying to employ specialised bureaucrats rather than follow the Confucian ideal of generalists) they ultimately failed which wasn’t good for the long term prospects for the dynasty.

Despite all this the Northern Song dynasty was a time of economic growth, and of a cultural renaissance. The economic growth partly came from properly integrating the south of the country into the economy for the first time – farming with new crop varieties that grew well there, and by improving the Sui canal system to integrate the nearer south with the northern heartlands. Maritime trade was also a growth area, and was particularly important as the country was now cut off from the Silk Road due to losing their more western provinces. The increased maritime trade lead to better ship building, and better maps – which could be up to the standards of the 19th Century maps of the Western world. Some southern cities had large colonies of foreign merchants within them – from places such as India, Arabia and Persia. The book says that this was a time almost of an industrial revolution, again comparing to 19th Century in the West (in this case saying that coal production was on similar levels to 19th Century Britain).

And shortly after discussing the trade with outsiders the book says “China looked inward during the Song Dynasty, and so remained isolated from the rest of the world”. Which doesn’t seem to add up, to me. This is used to lead into discussing the art of the Song period – which was more focussed on realistic depictions of nature than was previously the case, although increased realism doesn’t mean that there weren’t also symbolic constraints on how you depicted things. This time period was also the time when Neo-Confucianism flourished.

The Khitan (Liao) and Jurchen (Jin)

So the Northern Song never managed to whole re-unify what had been Tang China. During this time (960AD through to 1125AD) the people in the north were ruled by the Khitan – who were a northern tribal group of pastoral nomads. They conquered some of the Chinese settlements in the north and became increasingly Sinified in their rule over them – although the majority of their society stayed nomadic. The rulers even took a dynastic name, the Liao dynasty, and attempted to conquer Song China. This failed, but the resulting peace treaty in 1005AD involved the Song paying the Liao tribute.

In 1125 the Liao rule of northern China was supplanted by a new wave of nomadic tribesmen from the north. These were the Jurchen, who first conquered the Liao and then before they were even finished doing that they started to invade Song China. In 1127 they succeeded in taking the Northern Song capital and pushing the Song rulers back into southern China – this was the end of the Northern Song and the start of the Southern Song.

The Jurchen rulers took the dynastic name Jin and ruled over the northern part of China for a bit over a hundred years, until the Mongols displaced them in 1234. At first they were the rulers of the territory via the same officials who had ruled the districts under the Liao or Song administrations. But the Jin encouraged the Jurchen people to move into their new territory, and gradually came to directly rule the region. Over time they became more Sinified – partly as a deliberate act of policy by the ruling Jin designed to reduce the importance of the traditional Jurchen elite. This was then reversed by later Jin Emperors, and the various competing reforms reduced the military power of the Jurchen people. The book makes it clear that this was another large & prosperous empire, on a par with the Southern Song – they were trading partners despite occasional conflict and neither could defeat the other.

The Southern Song

As so often with this book, a map would’ve helped at this point. The Southern Song was a period when Chinese power was confined to the south of the country. The retreat, and loss of power, did nothing to stop the factionalism within the court. One minister, Han Tuozhou, even went so far as to start a war with the Jin, to discredit his opponents in the “peace” faction. This didn’t work out well for him – the Jin demanded his head (literally). And despite the fact that treating a minister like this was unprecedented for Song China they did indeed send his head off in a box, as requested.

During this era Confucianism was again reinvented to suit the current time. Neo-Confuciansim of the Northern Song period was forward looking & encouraged people to think for themselves. But during the Southern Song period a philosopher called Zhu Xi reinterpreted Confucianism with an emphasis on the authority of the teacher, and the authority of the old texts. Effectively doing what you were told became more important than thinking about what you were doing. During this time the exams for civil servants became the only way to become a part of the government (in contrast to previous eras when they were one path of many). And they became a test of moral orthodoxy as much as a test of talent.

The Mongol Yuan Dynasty

The Mongol tribes were united in 1206AD by Temujin – better known as Genghis Khan, the Great Khan. The Mongol armies then swept across large parts of Eurasia bringing them under Mongol control. This continued even after Temujin’s death in 1227AD and included the Jin territory in the north of China who were finally conquered in 1234AD. During the last part of their resistance they appealed to the Southern Song for help, but were refused. The inevitable conquest of the Southern Song was then delayed by internal Mongol politics, but completed in 1279AD by Kublai Khan’s forces. China was now fully re-unified for the first time in several hundred years – under the first Emperor of the new Yuan Dynasty, Kublai Khan.

The book concentrated on Kublai Khan and his dynasty in China, but also pointed out that he wasn’t just an Emperor of China. In fact a lot of his regime was tangential to China, he was trying to re-unify the Mongols and maintained a presence in Mongolia, Turkistan & Mongol Iran. And he was also keen on trying to conquer the other territories around China – like Korea, Japan, Burma & Java. To his Chinese subjects he was never anything other than a foreigner, as with his successors. And ultimately the Yuan efforts to conquer and control more territory weakened their rule in China.

Mongol ruled China was more religiously & cultural diverse than previous regimes had been. The Mongol elite brought other customs to the Chinese court, and patronised different religions to their Chinese predecessors. Tibetan Buddhism was one of these that rose to greater prominence during Kublai Khan’s reign. Art and literature were influenced by styles from other parts of Mongol ruled territory, and in turn Chinese styles influenced other parts of the world. During this time period blue & white porcelain became the first international art craze, prized across a large part of Eurasia, including parts of the West. Other cultural exchanges included the sciences – medicine & astronomy for instance – and even food. I was particularly struck by an aside about the food – when we go to eat at Mizu in town we often have gyoza as a side dish. These apparently derive from a Russian dish – piroshky – which entered Chinese culture during the Yuan dynasty period. I’d always thought of them as oriental. Trade occurred across the whole of Mongol territory, and beyond, which boosted the Chinese economy. Trade in the Jin and Southern Song territories had been mostly internal or between the two empires, so this greater market for their goods (and to buy goods from) revitalised the economy.

This is the time period when Marco Polo visited China. If he existed and actually visited China, that is. This book is firmly on the side of him being legit, but I’m sure we listened to an In Our Time on Marco Polo (which I don’t appear to’ve written up, must’ve been a while ago). And the experts on that programme were more inclined to think that he might’ve been a useful fiction to make a description of China more readable. Anyway, if he went, it’s Kublai Khan’s court he went to. And if he didn’t go, someone still described (reasonably accurately, it seems) the court & land. There are other Western visitors to the Mongol court described – some of them in both Chinese & Western records, for instance a papal envoy called John of Marignolli. The papacy sent quite a few envoys, and missionaries, to China and other Mongol states at this time. This was the time of the Crusades, and they were hoping for allies against the Islamic countries.

The Yuan ruled China for about a century – Kublai Khan was the most successful Emperor and after him and his immediate successor there were a series of short-lived Emperors. The Mongol state discriminated against the descendent of the Southern Song region in particular, and Mongol citizens had more rights under the law than Chinese. Eventually after those short-lived, weak and ineffectual Emperors there was increasing rebellion in the south (called “banditry” by the regime but more political than that word implies). And the Yuan Dynasty came to an end in 1368AD.

Tangents to follow up on: Mongols, and the whole history of that northern region – it’s interesting how the history of China seems to involve a lot of “barbarians” sweeping in from the north & conquering or re-uniting China.