Imperial Resurgence in China and East Asia

Restoration of the Chinese Empire: Following the collapse of the Han dynasty, China experienced a time of intense internal turmoil. China was brought under centralized imperial rule in the late sixth century by Yang Jian, a ruler from Northern China. He came to power when a Turkish ruler appointed him as duke of Sui in Northern China. His patron died in 580 with his only heir a seven year old boy. Although Yang Jian installed the child as ruler, he forced him to abdicate one year later; and claimed the throne for himself under the Mandate of Heaven. He then sent military expeditions throughout China and consolidated the entire land under his rule by 589. He was the first Emperor of the Sui Dynasty which only survived for thirty years; but in that time established a tradition of centralized rule. As Emperor, he imposed tight political discipline throughout the land.

Sui Emperors placed tremendous demands on their subjects. They ordered the construction of palaces, granaries, defensive walls, and dispatched military forces to Korea and central Asia. They levied high taxes and imposed compulsory labor services. The most ambitious project of the Sui was the Grand Canal, constructed under the reign of Emperor Sui Yangdi, and built to facilitate trade between northern and southern China. Water was the most feasible means of transport; however Chinese rivers tend to flow west to East. For that reason, the only feasible way to transport rice and other foodstuffs inland was by the use of a canal. The Grand Canal was in fact a connection of interlinking waterways that, when completed, stretched over 1240 miles, and was 40 paces wide. Roads ran parallel to the Canal on either side.

The Grand Canal was operative for over one thousand years, and integrated the economies of northern and southern China. It thereby established an economic foundation for the political and cultural unity of China.

The Canal remained important until the arrival of the railroads; but still exists and is still functional, although its usefulness as a trade route is minimal.

Although the projects of Sui Yandi were grandiose and functional, they were also quite expensive. They were paid for with exorbitant taxes which generated hostility among the peasantry. The situation was aggravated by forced labor. The Grand Canal alone required the work of millions of workers, compelled to work against their will. The situation was exacerbated by military reverses in Korea which led to a series of rebellions. In 618, he was assassinated by a disgruntled minister. His death marked the end of the Sui dynasty.

After the death of Sui Yandi, a rebel leader named Chang’an declared himself Emperor of a new dynasty, which he named Tang, after his ancestral homeland. The Tang dynasty ruled China for over 300 years during which time its Emperors organized China into a powerful, productive, and prosperous society.

The most important of the Tang rulers was the second, Tang Taizong, who was ruthless and ambitious. In fact, he murdered two of his brothers and deposed his father to gain the throne. Once there, however, he proved to be an effective ruler. He fancied himself a Confucian ruler who ruled with the best interests of his subjects at heart. During his reign, he built a magnificent city at Chang’an, named for the founder of the dynasty. Also, during his reign, banditry ended, the price of rice remained low and taxes on peasants were one fortieth their annual harvest, a rate which amounted to 2.5 per cent. This last figure was somewhat misleading, however, as peasants were still required to perform forced labor and to pay rent on lands which they farmed.

Three policies of the Tang Emperors explain their early success:

A well managed and maintained transportation and communication network. Aside from the Grand Canal, Tang rulers maintained a network of roads, horses, even human runners for communication purposes. Along the roads, Tang emperors maintained Inns, post offices, and stables to provide comfort for travelers. The system worked so well that travel across the Empire could be accomplished in as little as nine days. In fact, a corps of 9,600 runners was employed to relay fresh seafood to the Tang Court from a distance of over 620 miles.

A fair distribution of land based on an "equal field" system. The system allotted land to individuals and their families on the basis of the land’s fertility and the needs of the person receiving it. One fifth of the land became the hereditary possession of the recipient; the rest was available for redistribution when the original recipient’s needs and/or circumstances changed. This equitable system avoided the concentration of property into the hands of the few which had caused problems during the Han dynasty.

The system worked well for about a century, but came under stress from a rapidly growing population; plus influential families managed to bribe or intimidate administrators and thus retained large amounts of land which was scheduled for redistribution. Also, when Buddhist monasteries acquired land, it fell out of the distribution cycle altogether. Even so, the system did provide for stability and prosperity for almost 150 years.

Bureaucratic positions were based on merit rather than inheritance or personal favor. Candidates for government positions were recruited from those who had progressed through a Confucian educational system and had mastered a curriculum which concentrated on Chinese philosophy and literature. Most officeholders were appointed on the basis of merit; although some influential families again managed to place relatives in positions of authority. Those who worked for the dynasty were generally loyal to it. The combination of drawing civil servants from the Confucian educational system lasted China for thirteen hundred years, until the collapse of the Qing dynasty in the early twentieth century.

The Tang dynasty extended its empire by means of military force, extending its territory as far as northern Vietnam and as far west as the Aral Sea together with a portion of Tibet. The Tang Empire became one of the largest in terms of territory in Chinese history.

Chinese political theory was that China was the "Middle Kingdom," which bore the responsibility of bringing order to subordinate lands by means of a tributary system. This was accomplished by forcing neighboring areas to recognize the Chinese Emperors as their overlord; the subordinate states would also send envoys to China with gifts and would also perform the kowtow; in which the envoy would ritually bow before the Emperor and touch his head to the ground. In return, the Emperor would confirm the authority of the subordinate state to the envoy, and send him home with lavish gifts.

Although it was an elaborate ritual, the entire tributary system was largely a fiction; since the Chinese had little influence over subordinate areas. Even so, the relationship was important throughout east and central Asia as it kept relations institutionalized and augmented trade and cultural exchanges as well as diplomatic contacts.

The Tang dynasty went into permanent decline in 755 when a weak emperor spent more time on music and his mistress than on governmental affairs. A rebellion broke out, led by An Lushan, the dynasty’s foremost military leader, during which he captured the capital at Chang’an and the secondary capital of Luoyang. However, he was murdered in 757 by a soldier and Tang forces suppressed the rebellion in 763. Unfortunately, the dynasty was seriously weakened, so much so that they were forced to request the Uighurs, a Turkish people to send an army to China to oust the rebels from their capitals. The Uighurs agreed to do so only if they were given the right to sack Chang’an and Louyang after they expelled the rebels. After this travesty, the Tang house never regained control. The equal field system deteriorated and tax receipts were inadequate to meet needs. The army was unable to resist the encroachment of Turkish people, and as a result another series of rebellions broke out. A particularly serious revolt was led by one Huang Chao, who pillaged the wealthy estates and redistributed the land to the poor. Tang emperors granted greater and greater power to regional military governors in an attempt to control the rebels; however the end result of this effort was to make the military leaders the de facto leaders of China. In 907, the last Tang Emperor abdicated, thus ending the dynasty.

The Song Dynasty: The Song Dynasty reimposed imperial rule over China in the late tenth century, and survived for over 300 years; however it never build a strong state. Its rulers placed more emphasis on civil administration, industry and education than on military affairs, as its rulers mistrusted the military.

The first Song Emperor, Song Taizu (r. 960-976 C.E.), began as a junior military officer with a reputation for honesty. In 970, his troops proclaimed him Emperor and his army subjected warlords in the country to his authority. After gaining control of most of China, he persuaded his general to retire, so that they would not attempt to displace him. He then organized a governmental structure in which, in exchange for loyalty, all government officials were rewarded handsomely. Opportunities were expanded such that more and more individuals could seek a Confucian education and take civil service examinations. Many more candidates were accepted into government service than had been the case with either the Sui or Tang; and generous salaries were provided for those who qualified for government appointments. Some civil servants were even placed in charge of the military.

The end result was a more centralized imperial government than the earlier dynasties had enjoyed; but there were two major problems that ultimately led to the downfall of the Song:

The dynasty had an enormous bureaucracy that was handsomely paid; so much so that it exceeded China’s excess production. The treasury was weakened, and attempts to raise taxes to meet expenses only aggravated peasants who mounted two major rebellions in the early twelfth century. Sadly, there were so many bureaucrats within the Song governmental system that reform was impossible.

The bureaucrats of the dynasty were largely scholarly, with little military experience; however they led Song armies and made military decisions. The utter incompetence of their leadership allowed nomadic people to grow and flourish on China’s northern border, primarily the Khitan, from Manchuria who ruled an empire from Northern Korea to Mongolia. They demanded large tribute payments in silk and silver from the Song. In the twelfth century, the Jurchen people conquered the Khitan, and later captured the Song capital. The dynasty then only survived in extreme Southern China until 1279 when it was ended by the Mongols.

Economic Development in Tang and Song China: Both dynasties oversaw tremendous economic development in China which stimulated trade and production throughout the Eastern Hemisphere for over five hundred years. This development began with a surge in agricultural production. When Sui and Tang Armies went into Vietnam, they encountered new strains of rice which ripened quickly, so that rice growers could harvest two and three crops per year. This rice was introduced into southern China where the food supply suddenly expanded. China thus benefited from the introduction of new food crops much as the dar-al-Islam had benefited.

New agricultural techniques were also introduced, including use of the iron plow drawn by oxen and water buffaloes. Manure and composted organic matter was mixed into the soil, and an extensive irrigation system of dikes, canals, pumps and water wheels (powered by animal and human energy) moved water into the fields. This system allowed the cultivation of new areas, including terraces on mountainsides. The end result was greatly increased agricultural production.

Increased production led to a rapid population explosion. The population, which had declined ruing the Han dynasty, grew from 40 million in 600 C.E. to over 115 million in 1200. Cities also grew with agricultural prosperity. Chang’an became the world’s most populous city with as many as two million occupants. Many other cities had populations in excess of 100,000. China was the most urbanized land in the world during the Song dynasty. Large cities housed restaurants, taverns, tea houses, brothels, music halls theaters, gardens, and specialty stores where one might purchase silk, porcelain, etc.

As in other areas, peculiar customs often prevailed in localities. In Hangzhou taverns, there were often several floors, and patrons gravitated to the floors dependent upon how much time they planned to stay there. Those who only wanted a cup or two of wine stayed on the ground floor. Those who planned an extended stay moved to the upper floors.

The social life of the Chinese was often the theme of poetry by China’s most influential poet of the time, Li Bo, who wrote verses celebrating friendship and wine. According to Chinese tradition, he got drunk in a boat on one occasion and fell overboard while trying to embrace the moon’s reflection in the water; and drowned as a result.

Increased agricultural production soon led to specialized commercial production. Since the fast growing rice produced abundant crops, cultivators could purchase it cheaply, and grow vegetables and fruits instead for commercial sale. Many specialized in such products as oranges and sugar cane which could be sent to other areas where it would not grow, and where it would bring high prices.

Increased wealth and agricultural prosperity led to a tightening of patriarchal social structure. This was perhaps represented an attempt to preserve family fortunes by enhancing family solidarity. The veneration of ancestors became very important during the Song dynasty. Descendants often sought the graces of their earliest traceable forefathers and arranged elaborate graveside rituals in their honor. Entire extended families often traveled great distances to attend rituals venerating ancestors; a practice that strengthened family identity and cohesiveness.

Foot binding: Foot binding consisted of tightly wrapping the feet of young girls with strips of cloth which prevented the natural growth of bones and resulted in tiny, malformed, curved feet. Women with bound feet could not walk naturally or easily. They often needed canes to walk by themselves and often depended on servants to carry them in litters. The practice was only popular among the wealthy and well to do, as it was believed to enhance their daughters’ attractiveness and display their high born social standing. It also increased control over the girls’ behavior. It was never popular among the peasants or lower class working people, who needed strong family members to assist with family support. However, it allowed the privileged classes to keep their daughters and wives under tight male supervision, and to manage their affairs in the interests of the larger family. Foot binding, like the Islamic practice of veiling women, was an indication of strengthened patriarchal authority.