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The Xenophile Historian

China Taiwan

A Concise History of China


220 to 1279

(All dates are A.D. from now on)

This chapter covers the following topics:
China's Medieval Age
The Sui Dynasty
The Tang Dynasty
The Tang Decline
The Song Dynasty
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China's Medieval Age

220 to 589

The period between the Han and Sui dynasties lasted for more than three centuries, and was politically one of the most turbulent times in Chinese history. Today it is often considered a dark age, but China never had a dark age in the sense that Europe had one after the fall of Rome. Chinese civilization saw considerable technological and intellectual development during these years; the literacy rate did not drop when the land's unity ended. Still, you have to admit that more often than not, it must have been a rough time to be alive.

At the end of the previous chapter, we saw China split into three states, each one ruled by a powerful warlord and named after a state which had existed in the area some five hundred years earlier. North of the Yangtze River was the largest state, the kingdom of Wei, which claimed the Han throne because Xiandi, the last Han emperor, had bequeathed his title to the son of the first warlord of Wei. In the southwest, centered on the province of Sichuan, was the kingdom of Shu, ruled by another branch of the Han family. The third kingdom, a state named Wu in the southeast, had no valid claim to rule China but acted like it did anyway. For sixty years the three kingdoms contested with one another to rule all China. Military adventurers gained reputations as heroes and developed a code of chivalry among themselves, as in Medieval Europe and Japan.

The first Wei king, Cao Pei, and his successors backed up their claim by pointing out that they controlled the ancient Chinese heartland, the North China plain. This gave Wei the richest farmland, and the most people; one census of the era gave Wei 29 million people, compared with 11 million in Shu and 7 million in Wu. The northern kingdom also kept its court at Luoyang, the same site as the capital in late Zhou and Han times, and employed a corps of officials so enormous that they could have staffed the Han dynasty at its peak. The southern states usually evened the odds by forming a common alliance against Wei. Wu's advantage, as we saw already, was that it had the largest, most experienced navy, while the many mountain ranges of the west gave Shu the most defensible terrain.

Map of the Three Kingdoms.

The beginning of the end of the Three Kingdoms Era came in 263 when the army of Wei subjugated Shu. However, the Wei triumph was short-lived because its rulers were never able to curb the power of the northern aristocrats. One of them, Sima Yan, overthrew the Wei monarch in 265 and founded the Jin dynasty. Fifteen years later (280) he conquered Wu and brought all of China back under one ruler. The next ten years brought peace and prosperity to the land, but upon Sima Yan's death in 290 three of his sons and several other relatives started a power struggle for the throne that plunged China into civil war again.

Ironically, one of the causes of the fighting was Sima Yan's peace-enforcing policy. After the conquest of Wu, Sima Yan decreed a general disarmament in order to reduce costs and turn the soldiers back into taxpaying peasants. Most soldiers were ordered to go home and surrender their arms; the weapons would then be melted down to make coins.(1) But most of the discharged veterans sold their weapons to the highest bidder, which was often a barbarian tribe. Sima Yan's relatives refused to cut back on their armies anyway, protesting that they needed as many bodyguards as they could get.

As China descended into chaos, the barbarians came back, never missing a chance to grab some more loot. Often an invasion was not even necessary; many of them came into China as immigrants during the Three Kingdoms Era, invited by officials looking for mercenaries and unskilled labor. In 304 a community of Xiongnu living in Shanxi let their kinsmen through the Great Wall and set up their own state, called the former Chao dynasty by later historians. During the next 150 years five barbarian tribes--three from Mongolia and two from Tibet--regularly invaded, plundered and occupied the North China plain. Sixteen Chinese-ruled and barbarian-ruled kingdoms rose and fell in different parts of northern China during that period, each one of them lasting for only a few years before it was overthrown by a rival.

In the strife and confusion of the Sixteen Kingdoms, one general stands out. He was a Chinese-educated Tibetan, Fu Jian. In 357 he took charge of the army in his state, nowadays called Former Cin, and began the conquest of its neighbors. A superb organizer, Fu Jian brought together his own Tibetans, native Chinese, and remnants of the Xiongnu and another Mongolian tribe, the Xianbei, producing a force that was military rather than tribal in structure. He also broke with tradition by creating an infantry; this idea was anathema to the Mongolians, who always fought mounted, but made sense to the Chinese and Tibetans, who were used to traveling on foot. This infantry proved to be more effective than cavalry when it came to taking fortified towns.

By 376 Fu Jian's army had conquered all of northern China; he ruled both of the traditional capital cities, Luoyang and Chang'an, and controlled the western trade routes. But it was not enough; like Sima Yan, he had a dream of restoring the Han empire, with himself in charge of it. In 383, he marched south with an army that reportedly numbered one million men--far more than the Jin rulers could muster. But his horsemen, used to the mountains and steppe lands of the north, weakened in the subtropical heat, and the expedition bogged down in the soggy plains along the Yangtze. Then the outnumbered southerners began to attack isolated units of the northern army, and bribed other units to defect; they also spread false rumors about their size that caused much of the northern army to panic. At the battle of Fei river in Anhui province, the south won by using psychological warfare as much as by using force.

Fu Jian beat a hasty retreat. Once they saw he was beatable, northern enemies took up arms. Within a year, the north had splintered into five small kingdoms, and Fu Jian fell victim to an assassin arranged by a turncoat Tibetan follower.

In 397 the Tuobas, a clan of the Xianbei tribe, founded a kingdom in Shanxi that was called the Northern Wei. Over the next 40 years they conquered six other states, reuniting the north in the process. Then their armies pushed as far south as the Yangtze River, but they failed to conquer the southern empire and reunite all of China.

The Tuobas left their mark on Chinese culture by changing the current fashions. From them came the large hat later worn by Chinese aristocrats, decorated with sable tails and pheasant feathers. Chinese cavalrymen replaced their loose upper garments, long skirts, and low shoes with the belted tunics, trousers, and boots of the intruders. Another nomad invention that proved very useful was the stirrup, which gave riders a much firmer anchor in the saddle. But the impact of China on the Tuobas was even more dramatic. From the start, the Tuobas knew they were in a rather precarious situation, ruling a state where the population was 99 percent Chinese, 1 percent Mongolian. They had gained the throne through superior use of arms, but so they would not have to rely on force alone, they practiced a policy of Sinicization. The Tuobas so thoroughly adopted Chinese customs, language, writing, government, Buddhism, etc., that within a generation one could not tell the difference between Tuobas and Chinese. The last steps in the Tuoba conversion came from Emperor Xiaowen. In 493, Xiaowen moved the capital 600 miles south, from its original site at Datong to time-honored Luoyang; in 496 he decreed that the name "Tuoba" would no longer be used, and took for his family the Chinese surname of "Yuan."

South of the Yangtze River the Jin dynasty survived until 420, ruling from a city that would later be called Nanjing (literally "Southern Capital"). Southern China stayed united, but dynasty followed dynasty in rapid succession. The reunification of the north under the Wei/Tuobas did not bring an end to the turmoil; the north and the south had been divided long enough for separate cultures and dialects to develop, and like the Yankees and Rebels of the Civil-War-era United States, they did not like each other very much.(2) Both the northern and southern rulers had a dream of restoring the Han empire--even Hun chiefs claimed Han ancestry, recalling that a Chinese princess had been given to their leader Mao Dun around 200 B.C.--and this led to numerous petty wars. In 347, the south reconquered the economically valuable province of Sichuan; in 529, a southern army briefly captured the northern capital, Luoyang. Other wars, however, got the land and the people nowhere.

One million Chinese from the north emigrated to the more stable south between 300 and 600 A.D.(3) In earlier ages the south had been a frontier region, where Chinese rubbed elbows with Vietnamese, Thais, and other non-Chinese; now the south became China's cultural center. It was here that literature, especially poetry, continued to develop with the vigor that it had in the Han era. Here in the south the Chinese learned to grow rice, instead of the wheat and millet that were staples in the cooler north, and it was in the south that tea, the future national drink, was discovered during this period.(4)

The aristocrats who moved south soon came to dominate the government the way they had in the north. Under them family status became so important that genealogy was critical. Families needed a proper ancestry if their members were going to be eligible for high office or to marry someone from a highborn family. Books recording bloodlines appeared under such names as Register of the One Hundred Clans, and related records were kept just as carefully; e.g., tax registers used white pages for records involving northerners, and yellow for the original residents. The government even set up a bureau of genealogy, which employed scholars to study family trees and weed out fraudulent claims.

The most important cultural change came in religion. Since Confucianism had failed to provide a solution to the continuing disorder, many Chinese looked for another way to escape their troubles. Under these conditions Daoism flourished as it never had before, but the greatest beneficiary of the chaos was Buddhism. Buddhism had been introduced from India during the Han dynasty, but its otherworldly outlook, teaching escape from the rat race of life through meditation, made it look like an impractical doctrine to followers of Confucius, who were always more interested in the here-and-now. And the idea that salvation comes quickest to those who refuse marriage and live apart from society was alien (and antisocial) to the family-loving Chinese. Even the practice of shaving the monk's head violated Confucian teaching, which held that altering the body in such a way was disrespectful to the parents that made it.

Consequently it took a long decline in the popularity of Confucianism before Buddhism could take its place. One story told about Sun Hao (264-280), the last king of Wu, claims that he detested Buddhism so much that he had to be talked out of destroying the few temples the sect had managed to build in his kingdom. When he spotted a Buddhist image in one of his parks, he had it moved to a urinal. Then he called his courtiers and amused them by performing what he mockingly called "the washing of the Buddha." But he was immediately struck down by a mysterious, painful disease; he recovered, it was said, only after he accepted the new religion and ordered everyone at his court to adore the Buddha.

Buddhism did have some aspects that appealed to the Chinese. First of all, the monasteries were islands of peace in those troubled times for those seeking refuge; merchants used the monasteries as banks and storehouses for their trade goods. It appealed to barbarians like the Tuobas seeking something beyond the simple pagan beliefs of their ancestors; being foreigners themselves, the religion's non-Chinese origins did not bother them, and may in fact have been a plus. Its teachings on charity to people and nature made perfect sense to Daoists. Individual monks famed as soothsayers or magicians gained converts among the ordinary people, and the large amounts of Buddhist scripture written in India over the past 1,000 years attracted the interest of the well-educated.

Unlike Europe, where Christianity converted the masses before it converted any monarchs, in China the conversion to Buddhism started at the top and spread down. It began when some scholars joined monasteries; these "gentleman monks" could move comfortably in the houses of the great families and carry on intellectually stimulating conversations with their Confucian and Daoist colleagues. The first emperor of the Eastern Jin dynasty employed a monk from the highborn Wang family as a court chaplain, and the next emperor, Ming Di, converted and became the first Chinese monarch to openly champion the new faith. Soon the shaved heads and saffron robes of monks became a common sight at the court in Nanjing.(5)

Priests and monks became advisors to monarchs, but they still tried to keep their independence. This was an unusual concept for the Chinese, who did not separate Church and State and had always seen religious functions as part of an emperor's duty. This also could be risky; once a governor ordered a monk to return to secular life as one of his ministers, and when the monk refused, the governor had him whipped to death. In 403, the Jin emperor went to his most respected monk, Huiyuan, and asked him if clergymen can bow before the throne like other people do. The aged priest answered a few months later with a courageous essay that the emperor accepted, entitled A Monk Does Not Bow Down Before a King.

By 420, there were 1,768 monasteries and more than 24,000 monks and nuns in southern China. The last Jin emperor, Gong, was a particularly devout Buddhist. When deposed by a successful general named Liu Yu, Gong was ordered killed in the time-honored way: by "voluntarily" taking poison. Gong refused to do it, though, saying, "The Buddha teaches that he who commits suicide cannot return to a human body." The guards smothered him with a bedcover instead.

Gong's brave death ended the Jin dynasty, and while power passed to the military, they were unable to bring stability to south China. After the Jin came the Early Song (420-479), Chi (479-502), Liang (502-557), and Chen (557-589) dynasties; all ruled from Nanjing. Each was begun by a general of obscure background who seized the throne via bloody intrigue, and each ended in much the same way.

Whereas intellectuals promoted Buddhism in the south, in the north the monks who gained the most converts were famous soothsayers or magicians. There the first monk to be accepted as a member of the imperial court was a Central Asian named Fuotudeng, who astonished a Hun emperor by making lotus flowers materialize in a vase that appeared to contain only water.

Another noteworthy immigrant from Central Asia was a monk named Kumarajiva, the son of an Indian father and the princess of Kucha (a city in western Xinjiang), who had been dedicated to serve the Buddha since the age of seven. In 382 Kumarajiva was captured by one of Fu Jian's army expeditions, and brought back to Chang'an. Now in his early thirties, he gained a reputation for his sense of humor and his failure to remain celibate. He also was an expert at translating Sanskrit into Chinese, so in 402 the Tibetan ruler of a state called Later Cin put him in charge of a team of scholars, and together they translated no less than 98 lengthy Buddhist scriptures from the original Sanskrit. Kumarajiva did not think the texts could be translated perfectly, though; once he said, "Translating Sanskrit into Chinese is like feeding a man with rice chewed by another; it is not merely tasteless, it is nauseating as well." The original Indian texts were lost over time, but 52 of Kumarajiva's translations survived and are still used by Chinese Buddhists today.

Many of the texts used by the translators were brought to China by Chinese monks who made the dangerous journey abroad to Buddhist holy places. In 399 a monk named Faxian traveled to India and spent the next fifteen years collecting Buddhist literature from the original sources, translating them from Sanskrit into Chinese as he went along. Afterwards other scholar-monks followed in Faxian's footsteps; interestingly enough, their descriptions of what they saw provide the best historical information that we have on fifth century India, since the Indians rarely bothered to record dates on events happening in their land.

The Northern Wei (Tuoba) kingdom was the first in north China to make Buddhism the state religion. One emperor, Tuoba Hung, found Buddhism so fascinating that he abdicated in 471 so he could spend all his time studying it. Unlike in the south, where the monks stubbornly kept their independence after they converted the government, the northern monks joined the administration with little hesitation. The emperor gave them their own department--called the Office to Illumine the Mysteries--and the monks justified bowing down to imperial authority by claiming that the emperor was a Bodhisattva, a reincarnation of the Buddha.

One observer in the sixth century counted 1,367 monasteries in Luoyang. An imperial prince complained that one third of the city belonged to the temples, spilling over into meat and wine markets so that "Sanskrit chants and the cries of butchers unite their echoes under contiguous eaves" and temples "are wrapped in the odors of meat." One of the largest temples, the Jingming, sprawled like a palace around hills and ponds and contained more than 1,000 rooms. Outside the capital city, magnificent sculptures depicting scenes from scriptures and images of the Buddha were carved into the cliffs of Henan and Shanxi provinces. Usually the emperor paid for this work, and so much of it was done that no modern census can be considered accurate: one count puts the number of images outside of Luoyang at 97,306; another claims 142,289.

No political system established by man lasts forever, and roughly a century after it was founded, the Northern Wei kingdom was brought down, in part by the Buddhism it had so vigorously sponsored. In 515 a recently widowed empress, Ling, seized power in the name of her son, who was still a child. An extraordinary woman, the empress dowager was an athlete with nerves of steel and unerring aim that made her the best archer at the court. Also a devout Buddhist, she gave a vegetarian banquet for 10,000 monks at her father's funeral. Then she built the extravagant Yongning Temple, the tallest structure in all of China; its main tower had bells of gold and stood so high that it could be seen thirty miles away. Eventually her spending emptied the treasury, and in 523 a revolt was touched off on the northern frontier by Tuoba and other non-Chinese soldiers, who had kept the ways of their ancestors and resented the court's acceptance of Chinese customs as well as its spendthrift behavior.

In 528 Empress Ling decided she did not want to step down; she killed her son and enthroned a younger one. Luoyang blazed with revolt and confusion. A Tuoba general led a coup that drowned Ling and the infant emperor in the Yellow River and killed 2,000 courtiers. Six years later (534), the Yongning Temple was destroyed by fire, and the Northern Wei kingdom split into two rival states, called the Eastern and Western Wei (both claimed the Tuoba heritage as well as the Wei name).

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The Sui Dynasty

589 to 618

For the next 21 years the Eastern and Western Wei kingdoms fought constantly. Once exhausted, they were overthrown by native Chinese warlords, who called their kingdoms Northern Qi (in the northeast) and Northern Zhou (in the northwest). In 577 the Zhou conquered Qi and reunited the north, their army commanded by a general of mixed Chinese and Xianbei ancestry, Yang Jian.

The Northern Zhou triumph was short-lived. A year later Yang Jian's patron, Emperor Wu, died after a sudden illness, and the next ruler, nineteen-year-old Yu-wen Yun (also called Xuan Di), proved to be erratic, coarse and vicious. Less than a year after becoming emperor, he announced his retirement, but because his son was only a small child, he did not give up any of his powers. As ex-emperor, Yun raped the wife of a kinsman, promoted two concubines to become additional empresses (a very unusual move, when the first empress was alive and well), terrorized the court, and threatened his chief wife by threatening to exterminate her entire clan. In 580 he called Yang Jian (who by the way was the father of the empress) to court and instructed his guards to kill the general on the spot should he show any change of emotion. Then Yun hurled the worst insults he could think of at Yang Jian, but the general had been warned by his friends; he stood still as a statue, took it all and survived. Soon after that, the empress displeased Yun again, and he ordered her to commit suicide, only to be talked out of it in time to spare her.

There was no doubt about it; the dynasty would have to go. Fate made it easy for Yang Jian. He secretly put in a request with Yun's best friend to be stationed at a distant post, away from the ex-emperor's temper, and the friend arranged to have him command the next campaign against the Chen dynasty in the south. Before the troops could start marching, though, Yun fell ill and died. Yang Jian seized the throne in a coup, ordered the execution of Yun's eight-year-old son and 59 other members of the Zhou family, and renamed his house Sui after the family lands in the Wei valley.

Unlike his predecessors, Yang Jian was competent enough to keep the throne once he had it. In 589 he destroyed Nanjing, bringing down the Chen kingdom, and for the first time in three centuries China had just one emperor again. Chang'an was restored to serve as the imperial capital, and so was Luoyang; a devout Buddhist, Yang Jian was haunted by the murder of Northern Zhou's ruling family, and may have wanted Luoyang as a place to escape their ghosts. The civil service bureaucracy of the Han was reinstated, and Confucianism became the state religion again, but Daoism, Buddhism and other creeds were tolerated.

The Sui dynasty, like the Qin dynasty 800 years before, was a brief time of vigorous activity. Military expeditions conquered Yunnan in the southwest and the Ryukyu islands next to Japan; they also put down rebellions in Vietnam, defeated the Turks (the newest barbarian tribe living in Mongolia), and reached the border of Xinjiang in the northwest. At home thousands of peasants were conscripted to rebuild the Great Wall. The imperial library was increased until it held 54,000 volumes.

It was one thing to unite and bring justice to the 2,000 xian (counties) of China. Keeping the soldiers happy was a whole different task. China still did not have a money economy, and it was impossibly slow and wasteful to transport the grain and clothing which made up the army's payroll by land; the only way to deliver it was by river or canal. Because the main enemy was always in the north, the army had to be stationed there, but if they could only draw supplies from the Yellow River valley China would be no stronger after unification than it was before.

The solution was to dig a canal that connected the Yangtze to the Yellow River. By ruthlessly using forced labor--5.5 million men are said to have been put to work, of whom two million were "lost"--the government completed the Grand Canal in four years. Now the surplus wheat and rice of the Yangtze could be sent by barge up the Yellow River to either the capital or the armies manning the Great Wall.(6)

The Qin and Sui dynasties were short-lived for the same reason; both made thousands suffer on their building projects. The government Yang Jian established was so authoritarian that revolts broke out as soon as his successor, the cultured Yangdi (also known as Yang Guang), showed any sign of weakness. That came in 611-614, when three expeditions sent to conquer Korea all ended in defeat. In response, 200 revolts broke out in various parts of the country during the next seven years. Then the Turks made a surprise attack over the Great Wall and surrounded Yangdi in the border city of Yan-men; he was rescued by a fifteen-year-old officer named Li Shimin. That was enough; in 616 Yangdi abandoned the north and set up court at Yangzhou in Jiangsu province. Two years later he was murdered. The Sui dynasty lasted only 29 years, but like the Qin it had permanently changed the face of China.

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The Tang Dynasty

618 to 907

In 617 Li Shimin wanted to march on Chang'an, drive out the unpopular Sui, and proclaim himself emperor. However, he wasn't qualified to lead a rebellion because of his age, so he persuaded his father, Li Yuan, to do it. At first Li Yuan refused to revolt, because like Wen Wang, the patriarch of the Zhou dynasty (see Chapter 2), he felt loyalty was a greater virtue. Li Shimin changed his mind with an incriminating trick; he and some friends sneaked into a nearby lodge where the government kept some imperial concubines, abducted one, and brought her back to his father. Li Yuan accepted her as a gift from a dutiful son, only to find out the next day that he had taken a member of the emperor's household to bed! Now he was good as dead if the emperor caught him, so he (reluctantly) became a rebel leader. Since Li Yuan came from a family that had often taken Turkish wives in the past, including Li Shimin's mother, the army he called up had both Chinese and Turkish troops. They waited in the mountains for a year while the other rebels wore each other out, before making their move on the capital, and it paid off. Li Yuan proclaimed the Tang dynasty, took the imperial name of Gaozu, and started the work of pacifying the countryside. By 624 all of China was at peace and under his rule.

As emperor, Gaozu acted with remarkable tolerance and cleverness; loyal aristocrats from all over China, not just Gaozu's old family & friends, were given important governmental positions. In one shrewd move, he doubled the number of prefectures and counties; this not only provided twice as many positions to fill, but also made it harder for individual governors to revolt again; often he offered these jobs to rebel leaders as an incentive to lay down their arms. However, his reign was cut short because the son who started it all, Li Shimin, had ambitions that were even greater. In 626 Li Shimin murdered two of his brothers, one of them the crown prince, and forced his aging father to abdicate. Despite this bad beginning, Li Shimin, who called himself by the imperial name of Taizong afterwards, was both a political and military genius, who went on to become one of China's greatest emperors (626-649). Under this half-Turkish "Son of Heaven" a second Chinese empire was created, one that succeeded because four cultural elements were combined in it: (1.) classical Chinese culture, (2.) Indian Buddhism, (3.) the bravery of the northern barbarians, and (4.) Taizong's own personal tolerance.

One of the most civic-minded of emperors, Taizong never got tired of looking for new ways to improve the government, and spent many sleepless nights reviewing various policies and appointments. He brought back the use of civil service exams to hire/promote employees according to ability, rather than family status. This time nearly everybody had to take the exams, rather than just those who did not come from a noble family, meaning that the power of the land-holding aristocrats was cut to a manageable level at last. And though any peasant could apply for and take the exams, the entry-level ones were exceedingly tough; only 2-10% of each year's applicants passed, and a satisfactory grade only put him on a list of qualified people from whom to fill future vacancies. In the name of efficiency Taizong never allowed more then 13,465 government officials on the county level or higher to manage a population that was just over 50 million. Nowadays the Tang and the next major dynasty, the Song, are regarded as two of China's best dynasties, in part because they came closer than any other dynasty to achieving the ideal Confucian system.

On the international scene Taizong sent out military expeditions that established Chinese control over a larger area than ever before. The Eastern Turkish Khanate in Mongolia was crushed and replaced with that of a friendlier tribe, the Uygurs. Korea, divided into three quarrelsome kingdoms for more than six hundred years, was united under a pro-Chinese government. The Tarim basin in Xinjiang was conquered, and even Central Asia fell into the Chinese sphere of influence. To administer the non-Chinese areas, four military governments were set up in districts with the following names: An Xi ("The Pacified West") in Xinjiang, An Bei ("The Pacified North") in Mongolia, An Dong ("The Pacified East") in Manchuria, and An Nam ("The Pacified South") in northern Vietnam. 88 non-Chinese peoples, from Tibet to Japan, acknowledged Tang supremacy and imitated Tang institutions.(7) Taizong received gifts from as far away as Arabia, the Khazar kingdom in Russia, and even the Byzantine Empire.

Taizong was one of those rare individuals who rises all the way to the top of his society, yet is still willing to listen to and experiment with new ideas. He found Buddhism "not to his taste," since it had no place for the Son of Heaven in the Nirvana it promised its believers; moreover, he distrusted the saffron-robed monks, who evaded government service and the paying of taxes. Consequently he was always looking for an alternative. In 629 he received an embassy from Mohammed, the founder of Islam; after hearing the arguments of the newly converted Arabs, he built a mosque for them in Canton and encouraged them to trade regularly with China, which they did. From Persia came a company of Nestorian Christians in 635; he also listened to what they had to say, and ordered a translation of the Christian scriptures into Chinese so he could study them himself. Three years later he declared Christianity satisfactory for teaching in the empire and permitted the building of a church and monastery. Today in Xian there exists a carved stone (the "Nestorian Monument") dating from 781, with the decree authorizing all this written on it in Chinese.

629, the year of the Moslem embassy, also saw the beginning of a remarkable journey by Xuan Zang, a Buddhist pilgrim-explorer. Like Faxian, he went to India by way of Central Asia in search of sacred literature and relics, and stayed there for sixteen years before returning and writing an account of his travels that became an immediate classic.

At that time there was an imperial edict forbidding foreign travel, so when Xuan Zang started from Chang'an he sneaked out like an escaping criminal, and the border patrols were ordered to catch him before he could carry out his project. He tells in his travelogue how he bought from a stranger a lean red horse that knew the desert paths, how he dodged a fort at the main crossing point over a river with the help of a "foreign person" who built for him a bridge of brushwood downstream, how he crossed the Gobi desert guided by the bones of men and cattle, how he saw a mirage, and how he twice nearly got shot by arrows when he was getting water near the watchtowers on the desert track. After that he lost his way, spent five days and four nights in the desert without water, and then reached the glacier-topped Pamir mts., where twelve of his party froze to death. How much of this hardship really happened and how much of it was tall tales added by later writers cannot be determined now.

Next he came to the deep blue lake of the Issyk Kul, which was the winter headquarters of the Western Turkish Khan. The Khan, recently converted by a Buddhist missionary from India, put on a fine green satin robe and gave Xuan Zang the sort of grand reception normally reserved for visiting heads of state. Xuan Zang gave a fine and detailed description of the meeting, and did the same at his next two stops, the trading cities of Tashkent and Samarkand. Once in India the kaleidoscopic variety of an Indian crowd had its effect on him, contrasting strongly with the drab uniformity of the "blue ants" that walked on a typical Chinese street. He spent a good amount of time in the university cities of Nalanda and Taxila, and his account of the court of Harsha, north India's principal king, is excellent. But he surrounded it with stories of dubious origin that are pure fairy tales: stories of endless Buddhas and other manifestations, six-tusked elephants, princes so kind to animals that they let themselves be eaten by starving tigresses, huge temples built on a sacred nail-clipping, and the like. By then even the original teachings of the Buddha had been weighed down by centuries of myths and tradition; in fact it was dying out in India and the older religion of Hinduism was enjoying a revival, as Xuan Zang noted and regretted.

More hardships awaited Xuan Zang on his return journey; he fell among robbers, and at one point the great elephant carrying the bulk of his possessions drowned, greatly slowing progress. Nevertheless, they recrossed Central Asia to reach the Chinese frontier city of Kashgar (modern Kashi), and from there turned east to head for Chang'an. When they reached the capital (645) there was a public holiday, and the travelers were received with great pomp and ceremony. Twenty horses were needed to carry the Buddhas, Sanskrit books, holy pictures, and 150 "authenticated relics" that Xuan Zang brought back from India. Taizong treated him like a long-lost friend, and thinking that Xuan Zang's information on the outside world would be valuable for the intelligence corps, questioned him for days about the places and people he saw. But when the emperor asked about India, the scholar only wanted to talk about Buddhism. His Majesty then proposed that Xuan Zang give up the religious life and take a job in the foreign ministry, but Xuan Zang would not entertain this proposal for a moment. The emperor next asked for a written account of the cleric's story, and so got the classic that we now have. Finally Taizong thought that the writings of Laozi were at least as great as those of the Buddha, and would be received gladly if the Brahmans of India could read them, so it seemed natural for him to ask that Xuan Zang translate Daoist scriptures into Sanskrit. But the suggestion of promoting someone else's religion was rejected by the pious Xuan Zang, and he instead spent the rest of his years in a monastery, translating the Sanskrit scriptures he brought back into elegant Chinese writing.

The Tang dynasty was also brilliant in other ways. In 723, a Buddhist monk invented the first mechanical clock, which used water flowing into buckets mounted on a wheel to turn a set of gears. Historical literature mentions Chinese paintings in earlier eras, but it was under the Tang that the oldest existing Chinese paintings were made. Already by this date the impressionist style that the Chinese loved was fully developed. Tang (and later Song) artists were legends in their own time; one artist named Wu Daozi is said to have painted fish so realistically that they swam away when he accidentally dropped a picture into a stream! Sculpture also improved, but unfortunately we only have a few examples of Tang painting and sculpture today. Many of the Tang artists were inspired by Buddhism, and in the ninth century there was Buddhist persecution; consequently much of the religious art produced was destroyed when temples and monasteries were burned or torn down.

Porcelain kilns have been discovered dating back to the Shang and Zhou dynasties, but the oldest existing samples of true porcelain come from Zhejiang province, and date to the Eastern Han dynasty. By the time of the Tang, multicolored glazes were available and porcelain began to be mass-produced, now that the making of it had become a fine art. The secret of making silk was smuggled to the West by Persian traders in the mid-sixth century, but it did not take long for porcelain to become the new Chinese product in demand everywhere. The Tang dynasty was a time of extensive commerce between China and the rest of the known world, and many foreigners, especially Persians, came to China seeking their fortunes. Some of them did find success. A gem dealer from Oman went home with a gold-lidded, black porcelain vase that contained a golden fish with ruby eyes; it smelled of musk and sold for fifty thousand dinars. A Moslem visitor in the ninth century learned enough Chinese culture to excel in the all-important civil service exams and won an important official post. A merchant from Samarkand in Central Asia became governor over the Annam military district, and later that post was filled by a Japanese adventurer. And then there was An Lushan, an obese Turkish soldier of fortune who rose through the ranks of the Tang army to become its commanding general; his name would soon be written in Chinese blood. Never before--and never again--would foreigners visiting China find so much acceptance.

Finally, we must not forget the remarkable literature that the Tang era produced, thanks to extensive government support of education. 48,900 poems from 2,200 Tang poets still exist today; the two most famous poets were Li Bo (701-762), a hard-drinking romantic, and his friend Du Fu (712-770), a more serious fellow who used his poetry to protest against political injustice. The first encyclopedias were also composed at this time. To mass-produce all these works, as well as Buddhist scriptures, printing was invented, using blocks of wood with an entire page carved on each block.(8)

The economic and military strength of the Tang empire came from a system of equal land allotments made to the adult male population. The agricultural tax paid by the allotment holders was the greatest source of government income, and the periodic militia service required of them was the source of Tang military power. Difficulties arose, however, because the government gave tax-free estates to those it favored and allowed them to be passed on to heirs with the tax-free status remaining. Because of population growth, each generation inherited smaller plots of land, but the property taxes remained the same. Many peasants ended up going into debt, while others fled to become bandits; either way it caused a decline in government revenues at a time when spending was still on the increase. At the same time, the treasury complained that the cost of waging war was too much for the country. Because of that, when the wars ended, most of the victorious soldiers were withdrawn from the An Bei and An Dong districts; the last years of the seventh century saw the survivors of the defeated North Korean kingdom (henceforth known as Parhae) and a Mongol tribe called the Khitans move in to An Dong to take their place. The Khitans immediately began to raid Chinese territory. Instead of bringing peace the policy of cost-cutting moved the war zone to China's doorstep.(9)

Until now, free, taxpaying peasants had made up the manpower of the army. But peasant conscripts make reluctant soldiers, and they did not fight as well as barbarians, so the government chose to hire Uygurs, Turks and other barbarian mercenaries; this got easier as memories of Turkish raids faded. By the mid-eighth century the armies were more Turkish than Chinese; as in the Roman Empire, this was asking for trouble because it left the defense of the empire in non-Chinese hands.

The generals came from the same background as the troops. Keeping these nomads happy--and giving their generals enough pay and responsibilities to curb their inclination to make trouble--became a balancing game that the emperors absolutely had to play if the empire was going to remain at peace. In the late seventh and early eighth centuries they succeeded, but by 751 only one of the nine armies (the one in Sichuan, which was the least important) still had a native Chinese commander. Even worse, the aforementioned An Lushan led all three armies facing the Khitans in the northeast.

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The Tang Decline

Taizong's successors were generally very able monarchs. The most remarkable of these was the Empress Wu Zhao (also called Wu Zetian), one of the few female rulers in Chinese history. Starting out as a minor concubine of Taizong in 639, at the age of fourteen, she managed to catch the attention of Taizong's son, Gaozong. This was a very good move, because when Taizong died, most of his concubines were shipped off to convents, but Gaozong, now the new emperor, kept Wu Zhao for himself. She rose steadily after that, having developed skills in treachery as well as in charm. Soon she was the emperor's favorite; by giving him a son, something the official empress hadn't done, she pulled ahead of the other concubines and was closing in on the empress herself. In 655 the empress and the former first concubine conspired together, and this crime made it easy for Wu Zhao to have them both jailed, and eventually killed. Now the new empress, Wu spent a good deal of her time causing "disappearances" among other concubines and members of the late Taizong's staff, who objected to a common mistress taking the throne; some of the latter pointed out that because she had been a consort to Taizong, her marriage to Taizong's son was a form of incest. Even the in-laws weren't safe; the emperor's uncle was killed for getting in Wu Zhao's way.

Gaozong caught polio in 660, and was always in poor health after that. Wu Zhao took over many of her husband's responsibilities, and when she wasn't busy eliminating rivals, ruled very effectively. It was the generals she appointed, for example, who finally conquered Korea. In 683 Gaozong died, and the throne went to their son, Zhongzong, but Wu Zhao felt threatened by the new emperor and empress, so in the following year she deposed him and installed another son, Ruizong. Under Ruizong, Wu continued to be the power behind the scene, until in 690 she grew tired of this and deposed Ruizong as well. For the next fifteen years, the dragon lady ruled alone; the Tang dynasty's name was changed to "Second Zhou" while she was in charge. Finally, in 705 Zhongzong's friends staged a counter-coup to bring the former unlucky emperor back; because she was now eighty, Wu Zhao chose to retire instead of fight, and died in her summer palace a few months later, thus ending the career of one of China's most ruthless leaders. Zhongzong in turn was poisoned by his empress in 710, and his brother Ruizong also got a second chance to rule.

Ruizong came back through a coup led by his brilliant son, Li Longji, and two years later he abdicated, after another coup against him failed. Now emperor, Li Longji changed his name to Xuanzong, and his reign (712-756) saw the Tang dynasty reach its peak. This was a period of stability and prosperity, and exceptional cultural achievements. The country was so peaceful and content, that some claimed nobody would take any object left unattended, and doors were not bolted at night; eventually the progressive-thinking emperor even abolished the death penalty, because he saw little need for it. As time went on, however, he became more lordly and extravagant, using the splendid appearance of his court to hide a growing problem with corruption.

The turning point came when Xuanzong fell in love with a beautiful courtesan named Yang Guifei, and neglected his duties. Yang was allowed to place her friends and relatives in important government positions. One result of this nepotism was that pro-Arab Turks inflicted a decisive defeat upon the pro-Chinese Turks at Talas (modern Dzhambul in southern Kazakhstan) in 751, and Central Asia passed into the Islamic world forever. Not long after that another of Yang Guifei's favorites, General An Lushan, quarreled with Yang's cousin over who would become the next prime minister. The cousin won the vacant seat, and the enraged An Lushan launched a rebellion. In 756 An Lushan marched west, sacked both imperial capitals and proclaimed himself emperor. The real emperor fled to Sichuan; Chang'an was subjected to loyalist attacks and rebel counterattacks; at one point Tibetan raiders occupied and pillaged it for two weeks. An Lushan was murdered in 757, but it took two emperors and six more years to put down the rebellion. In the end, the emperor came out on top only by bringing in more foreign mercenaries, this time Uygurs. By the time it was all over, warfare, government oppression and famine had killed an estimated 36 million.(10) The poet Du Fu wrote of abandoned fields overrun with nettles, fifteen-year-olds sent off to war who returned as old men--if they returned at all--and white bones bleaching in the sun in far western lands.

After An Lushan's rebellion, the empire was never the same again. Indeed, with more than half the population dead, Turks and Tibetans running around loose and every general doing his own thing, it must have looked hopeless for a while. The Tang administrators finally got back some sort of control before the end of the century; they did this partly by playing off one general against another, and partly by putting the soldiers in smaller army units so that no single general could become too powerful. By 810, two big armies had been disbanded, including the An Xi garrison, and thirty little armies had replaced the other seven. The Tang court was able to control about half of these--the ones closest to Shaanxi province--while the rest became the armed forces for provinces that had stopped paying taxes and obeying imperial decrees, effectively turning China into a cluster of "warlord states." Since China still had a hard time raising horses, the Uygurs sold some of theirs, but this could only help so much; in one year the Uygurs sent fifty thousand horses, but because of a bad economy, the Chinese could only afford to pay for six thousand.

During the last years of its existence the Tang dynasty was only a shadow of its former self. In the ninth century it faced a new problem: uprisings from peasants fed up with both the central government and the warlords. The administration made a valiant effort to cope with the revolts and in 878 Tang generals succeeded in chasing the greatest of the peasant leaders, Huang Qao, away from the Yellow River. Huang Qao made a long march to the south, took Canton, and massacred 100,000 foreigners; as in other times and places, foreign merchants proved to be an easy scapegoat for China's problems. Then in 880 he returned to the north, and the imperial army melted away before him.

Once more, the Tang Dynasty saved itself by calling in the nomads from beyond the Great Wall. But on this occasion they gained very little time. In 907 the military governor of Kaifeng (in Henan province) deposed the emperor and ended the long drawn-out death agony of the Tang Empire.

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The Song Dynasty

907 to 1279

After the dissolution of the Tang dynasty came a 53-year period of disunity. The south broke up into ten small kingdoms; the north remained in one piece, but five dynasties (the Later Liang, Later Tang, Later Jin, Later Han and Later Zhou) followed one another in rapid succession. Finally in 960, the army garrison based around Kaifeng followed the example of its predecessor; it deposed the last Zhou emperor and offered the throne to its commanding officer, General Zhao Kuangyin. Zhao accepted--on condition that the ex-emperor's life be spared. Then he changed his name to Taizu, proclaimed the founding of the Song dynasty, and used excellent diplomacy to persuade the southern states to join him. In every way he stood out as the ideal example of a virtuous Confucian ruler and thus won widespread support.

Once China was reunited (979), Taizu made his next priority the reduction in power held by the generals, who had caused so much trouble since the Tang years; he reportedly said that he could not sleep peacefully at night because he kept thinking that the emperor's yellow robe might someday be placed on one of his comrades the way it had been placed on him. The size of each division in the army was cut back, especially if its soldiers owed their allegiance to anyone besides the emperor, and the tour of duty for units away from Kaifeng was shortened to three years. The early Song emperors also tightly centralized the government, to make the bureaucracy more efficient and more loyal at the same time. Their total acceptance of Confucian guidance made the Song the least aggressive dynasty in Chinese history. In any case, the vast growth of trade by sea during the Tang years meant that control of the northwest frontier was no longer essential for commerce. The payment of tribute (we would call it "protection money") to barbarians cost only a fraction of what a large standing army would have required, and avoided all the uncertainties that come with war. In addition, the population of the lands south of the Yangtze River had tripled during the Tang era, greatly increasing the imperial income through taxes and giving the government a pro-south inclination.(11)

This policy of pacifism did not have to wait long for its first test. During the period of the "five little dynasties" the Khitans replaced the Uygurs as the dominant tribe in Mongolia and Manchuria. The opening years of the eleventh century saw them break through the Great Wall and conquer Hebei province; the capital of Hebei, Yan (modern Beijing), became the new capital of the vigorous state. In 1004, after twenty-five years of fighting failed to put the Khitans in their place, the Song emperor signed a treaty that bought peace with an annual tribute. That worked, but it encouraged other barbarians to try their luck at the same game. Forty years later a tribe called the Tanguts migrated off the Tibetan plateau and founded a kingdom called Xixia in Gansu & Ningxia provinces. The Chinese now found themselves paying tribute to two nomadic hordes, and though the tribute never exceeded 2% of the Song budget, the government soon felt the financial pinch, because the costs of defense and administration were going up, too.

A prime minister named Wang Anshi tried to balance the budget with drastic administrative, land and tax reforms, but the outcry against them was intense, not only from those members of the upper class who had vested interests in the current system, but also from scholars who thought that right thinking should guide men, not government regulation in everyday life. He got to try his plan, known as the New Policies, from 1079 to 1086, but upon the death of his patron, Emperor Shenzong, the conservatives returned to power and undid most of his work. Then the next emperor, Zhezong, gave the New Policies another chance in 1093. Nobody ever agreed on whether Wang Anshi's policies were helpful or harmful, but most agreed that frequently changing course between the reformist and anti-reformist programs did not do the country any good.

In 1122 the eighth Song emperor, Huizong, tried to rid himself of the Khitans by paying another Manchurian tribe, the Jurchens, to attack them. It did not work as planned; it rarely does. Machiavelli wrote that mercenaries are always a bad bargain, because they will ruin their patron if they are poor soldiers, and they will destroy their patron if they are good! In this case, the latter happened; the Jurchens drove the Khitans out of China, but then they crossed the Yellow River and attacked Kaifeng itself. The capital was sacked in 1127, and only the Yangtze River saved the dynasty. The Jurchens set up a kingdom of their own in Manchuria and the north China plain that they named Jin, meaning gold, because as they put it, "Iron rusts, but gold lasts forever." The Song set up their court at Hangzhou, on the southern end of the Grand Canal, and there tried to continue the pre-1127 way of life as much as possible. For that reason we call the years from 960 to 1127 the Northern Song Period, and 1127 to 1279 is the Southern Song Period.

The Song lasted for another 152 years by paying more tribute than before. Although the Southern Song was militarily weak it was culturally brilliant. Historians disagree on whether the Tang or the Song era produced superior art and literature, but all agree that the high point of Chinese civilization was at some point between the seventh and thirteenth centuries. Good financial management meant that the Southern Song government was even wealthier than its Northern Song predecessor. The Southern Song emperors were dead serious about applying all the rules set down by Confucius for everyday life, so they had a bureau of inspectors monitoring the government for corruption (so did the Han & Tang), and even had inspectors watching the emperor himself, to quickly catch any deviation of behavior that might cause him to lose the Mandate of Heaven. Consequently the Song was never in danger from rebellion, or the corrupt activities of eunuchs and concubines; the dynasty was ended by decades of the hardest kind of fighting against a clearly superior military force.

That force was the Mongols, a group of tribes that were united into one nation by Genghis Khan in 1206. Once they had peace at home, the Mongols embarked on a series of wars to conquer the rest of the world. Since China is Mongolia's nearest neighbor, the new conqueror went after China first. Xixia was first hit by Mongol raids in 1209; Jin was invaded yearly from 1211 onwards. Yan fell in 1215 and the Jurchens fled to Kaifeng; the Mongols renamed Yan Khanbaligh, meaning "City of the Khans." (Marco Polo called it Cambaluc). Xixia was destroyed in 1227, the year Genghis Khan died. The last part of the Jurchen empire (Henan & Shandong provinces) was conquered in 1234.

Now it was the turn of the Song, but they got a reprieve while the Mongols wasted Korea, Russia and the Middle East. That ended in 1251, when Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis, began the invasion of the south. This took longer than the conquest of the north, because the wet subtropical terrain was quite unsuitable for the cavalry that made up most of the Mongol army; the Song were also more numerous and more technologically advanced than anyone else the Mongols had met. In the end it was probably the defection of the commanders of the Song fleets that ended the war, for without them control of the seaboard and the canals would have been impossible. But Kublai never seemed to doubt who would win; in 1271 he proclaimed himself the first emperor of the Mongol Yuan dynasty. Hangzhou was captured in 1276, and by 1279 all of China was under Mongol rule.

This is the End of Chapter 4.


1. The earliest Chinese money seems to have been cowrie shells and tools like axe blades, because the oldest known coins were bronze replicas of these objects. The Qin dynasty introduced the Chinese coins we are familiar with, round disks with a square hole in the middle so they could be strung like beads. When the Han dynasty ran short on cash, it introduced bizarre alternatives like dried fish and squares of white deerskin. By the time of Sima Yan, money was in such short supply that the salaries of officials had to be paid with grain or silks instead of coins, and ordinary people lived with a barter economy. Later on the introduction of Buddhism caused the casting of so many bells and statues that the metal shortage continued for centuries.

2. Southerners viewed the northerners as uncivilized ruffians, and sniffed that the northern Chinese dialect, nowadays called Mandarin, sounded like the "braying of donkeys and the barking of dogs." Northerners in turn regarded southerners as lazy and weak.

3. Today the inhabitants of northern China often call themselves "Sons of Han," recalling the great Han dynasty. In response to this those living south of the Yangtze River refer to themselves as "Sons of Tang," because the Tang was the first great dynasty that gave the south much attention.

4. According to one legend tea was discovered by a monk who was looking for a way to keep from dozing off while meditating.

5. Nuns also appeared late in the fourth century; many of them were highborn widows or survivors of a dead prince's harem.

6. Getting grain to Chang'an was still expensive because it had to be unloaded and hauled around the San-men rapids by oxcart. For that reason, during years when the economy was really bad, the court cut costs by moving downstream to Luoyang.

7. Traditional Japanese costumes still look a lot like what the Chinese wore in the Tang period.

8. The Chinese printing press beat hand-copying manuscripts, but it was more cumbersome than the movable type press Johann Gutenberg invented seven hundred years later. The blocks of wood upon which the characters were carved had to be stored when not in use, and that took up a lot of space; a typical monastic library might have thousands of them filed away on shelves. In addition, wood doesn't last as long as lead, so sooner or later the blocks wore down or rotted away and had to be replaced.
In the 1040s an inventor named Bi Sheng developed a movable type, by putting each Chinese word on a small ceramic tile and gluing them together on a board just before use. It didn't work because of the complexity of Chinese writing; there was just no way to organize tens of thousands of tiles so that somebody could easily find each one. Bi Sheng arranged them in a wooden case according to a rhyming sequence that worked for him, but most printers found it easier to keep using the wooden blocks.

9. Spelled Cathayans in Latin; from that word Marco Polo got the medieval name for China, Cathay. The Chinese called the Khitans Liao, meaning "Iron."

10. We estimate the world's population in the eighth century to have been between 205 million and 235 million, so if the 36 million casualty figure for the An Lushan rebellion is correct, not only did more than half of China's population die, but around 16 percent of the world's population--or one person out of six--was killed. So in terms of percentages, this was the bloodiest war of all time; by contrast, World War II killed 2.8 percent of the world's population in the 1940s.
In fact, if you are looking for the wars that killed the most people, seven of the top ten were in China. Besides the An Lushan rebellion, there was the Mongol conquest in the thirteenth century (probably 30 million killed), the Manchu conquest in the seventeenth century (25 million), the wars of the Three Kingdoms Era (probably a combined total of 25 million), and the Taiping Rebellion (more than 20 million). The three wars in the top ten fought outside of China were World War II, World War I, and the wars of Timur or Tamerlane (estimated at 17 million). Add to that the staggering casualties produced by natural disasters (e.g., floods, famine, earthquakes, epidemics), and manmade disasters like the Great Leap Forward. In most cases, the lost population was replaced within a generation, because China did not have the "one child policy" it had in recent years. This has given China's rulers a rather callous attitude towards human life; body counts that would horrify most of us are not seen by them as very important. Zhou Enlai, the twentieth-century premier, once explained it by saying,"In China a million is not a large number."

11. China's total population increased from 60 million at the beginning of the Song dynasty to about 100 million in the early twelfth century. The Song was also the most urban dynasty to date, having ten metropolitan areas with more than a million people each.
However, it was a population that was nearly half crippled. During the Tang dynasty, the practice of foot binding was invented, by someone who thought that women weren't attractive enough unless they had little feet. The idea here was to wrap the feet of girls so tightly that they couldn't grow normally, so that the arches would be permanently folded, leaving feet that were small--and disfigured. Of course the process was very painful, and one Chinese proverb said that every pair of bound feet came with a tub of tears. Nevertheless, this caught on during the Song dynasty, until all but the peasants were doing it (peasant women needed normal-sized feet to work on the farm). The quest for beauty makes people do some strange things, and despite the drawbacks, foot binding did not go out of style until after the fall of China's last dynasty, in the early twentieth century.
Finally, it is worth noting that paper money was invented during the Song period, because the demand for cash still exceeded the metal supply.

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