Technological Development and Cultural Change in Tang and Song China/ Chinese Influence in East Asia

The Chinese economy was stimulated by increased agricultural production, improved transportation, and population growth and urbanization. Foreign demand for Chinese products grew rapidly and augmented the growth of the economy. Trade grew so rapidly that a shortage of copper coins used for monetary transactions resulted. To solve the problem, Chinese merchants developed alternatives, such as letters of credit, often known as "flying cash." They also used promissory notes (payment pledged for a later date) and checks, which allowed one to draw funds against cash deposits. The need for alternatives to cash led to the invention of paper money by wealthy merchants during the late ninth century. The first paper money was printed notes which could be redeemed for merchandise, much like a check. There were problems, however, as on occasion merchants were unable to honor their notes (similar to one overdrawing a bank account); and the result was disorder and occasionally riots by those who felt they had been cheated.

By the eleventh century, the economy had become so dependent on cash alternatives that the abolition of paper money was impractical; therefore the government forbade the issuance of paper money by anyone other than the government. The first governmental paper money was produced in 1025 in Sichuan province; but by the end of the century, most of China was using printed paper money, complete with serial numbers and warnings against counterfeiting. The practice was soon adopted by a number of nomadic tribes in central Asia.

There were problems with paper money. Governments often printed more notes than they had cash reserves to cover, and a loss of public confidence in the notes resulted. For a time, notes were honored only at 95% of their face value (a procedure known as "discounting"). By the time of the Qing dynasty, tighter fiscal controls restored confidence in paper money; although it remained an important part of Chinese economic development throughout the era.

Trade was also important, both by land and sea. Muslim merchants from the Abbasid Empire revived the old Silk Roads network, and Byzantine merchants often traveled them to China. Musicians and dancers from Persia were common in large Chinese cities, and the presence of foreigners and foreign districts became commonplace. Mariners from Arabia, Persia, India and Malaya established large merchant communities in several large Chinese cities. The size of foreign districts is indicated by a report of the sacking of Guangzhou, a large Chinese city in a reign of terror during 879 by a rebel general. The report indicates that 120,000 foreigners were massacred.

The prodigious Chinese economy and tremendous value of exports and imports transformed much of the entire hemisphere. Wealthy Chinese enjoyed spices from southeast Asia and exotic products such as kingfisher feathers and tortoise shells. Possession of many items became a sign of prominence, often because of their scarcity and foreign origins as well as because of intrinsic value, as in the case of pearls, horses, and incense. In the meantime, wealthy merchants and rulers in Persia, India and east Africa wore Chinese silk and set their tables with Chinese porcelain.

With the exchange of products and people, Mahayana Buddhism soon appeared in China during the Tang and Song dynasties. Buddhist merchants had visited China by way of the silk roads as early as 200 B.C.E., by their faith had attracted little interest. Confucianism, Daoism, and cults which honored ancestors were more popular. However, with the collapse of the Han dynasty, Confucianism suffered a loss of creditability. The entire rationale of Confucianism had been to provide public order and provide honest, effective government; however with warlords and nomadic invasions rampant, Confucianism appeared to have failed. Confucian educational and civil service systems declined and rulers often openly scorned Confucian values.

The end result was the influx of a number of foreign religions, including Nestorian Christians and Manichaeans, as well as Zoroastrians who fled ahead of the Islamic conquerors of Persia. The Nestorians established a community as well as Muslims, both of which primarily served the needs of foreign merchants and converts from nomadic groups in China. Although the more sophisticated residents of Chinese cities developed a taste for foreign music, food and trade goods, they had little interest in foreign religions.

Buddhism was more successful than the other religions of salvation. It came by way of the silk roads to oasis cities in Central Asia as the result of the work of Buddhist missionaries. Over time, larger Buddhist communities developed in China, and hundreds of cave temples were erected in various cities. Monks also assembled libraries of religious literature and ran scriptoria to reproduce Buddhist texts. Buddhism appealed to the Chinese because of its high moral standards, its intellectual sophistication, and its promise of salvation. Additionally, Buddhist monks often accumulated large estates donated by wealthy converts and distributed a portion of their harvests among local residents during hard times.

Buddhism was also a challenge to Chinese social and cultural traditions. Buddhist theologians often elaborated on metaphysical themes such as the nature of the soul. They often departed from written Buddhist texts to speculate on such matters. This conflicted with the Chinese, who placed great emphasis on the value of the written text, particularly the Confucians, who dwelled more on practical rather than metaphysical issues. Buddhism called for one to pursue perfection by pursuing a celibate, monastic lifestyle, whereas Chinese morality had centered on the family unit and obligations of filial piety. Chinese cultural tradition had encouraged the birth of offspring who could venerate ancestors in the future. Many Chinese claimed that the monasteries were economically harmful, as they paid no taxes. Others scorned it as an inferior religion because of its foreign origins.

The Buddhist response to these criticisms was to tailor its message to meet the needs of a Chinese audience. Buddhism was explained in concepts borrowed from Chinese cultural traditions, particularly Daoism. The classic Buddhist doctrine of dharma was translated as Dao ("the way.") Also, the term nirvana ("salvation") was translated to wuwei. Nirvana in Indian culture meant that salvation in which the individual soul escapes the cycle of incarnation; wuwei was typical of the Daoist tradition of noncompetition. Thus the Buddhist Chinese borrowed heavily from Chinese tradition to make the puzzle fit. While they encouraged the establishment of monasteries; they also praised the validity of family life and spoke of the benefits of Buddhism for the entire extended Chinese family. Among their other teachings; one son in a monastery would bring salvation to ten generations of his extended family.

A hybrid form of Buddhism thus resulted, commonly known as the Chan (or in Japanese the "Zen") school of Buddhism. Zen Buddhists had little interest in written text, but rather relied on intuition and insight in their search for enlightenment. They resembled the Daoists as much as they did the Buddhists.

Zen (Chan) Buddhism became extremely popular in China during the Tang and Song dynasties; monasteries appeared in all major cities, and stupas dotted the landscape. Many pilgrims traveled to India to learn about Buddhism at its source. Many brought back copies of treatises which deepened their understanding of Buddhism, and Buddhism became a popular faith in China. Even so, it met with resistance from Daoists and Confucians. The Daoists resented Buddhism’s popularity, which diminished the resources available for their own traditions; and the Confucians opposed its emphasis on celibacy. They denounced it as an alien superstition, and criticized Buddhist monasteries as wasteful, unproductive, and burdens on society. In the late Tang dynasty, emperors ordered monasteries closed and Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Nestorian Christians and Manichaeans expelled. They were motivated more by a desire to seize monastic lands than to eradicate the religions, and as a result, the religions were not eradicated. Buddhism remained popular and survived, and even influenced the development of Neo-Confucianism during the Song dynasty.

Song Emperors did not persecute Buddhists, but did actively support native Chinese traditions, hoping thereby to limit the influence of foreign religions. They often contributed generously to Confucian causes, sponsored studies of Confucian scholars, and subsidized the printing and dissemination of Confucian writings.

The Confucianism of the Song dynasty was different from that of earlier times, however. Earlier Confucians had concentrated on practical issues of politics and morality. They considered a stable social order of the highest importance. Song Confucian scholars also studied Buddhist teachings and were influenced by its teachings on the nature of the soul and the relationship of the individual with the cosmos. The result was a form of neo-Confucianism, the chief representative of whom was the philosopher Zhu Xi, whose writings, although Confucian in nature emphasized proper personal behavior and social harmony. His most famous work is a treatise entitled Family Rituals which provided proper etiquette for weddings, funerals, veneration of ancestors, etc. He was Confucian to the core; and as a result believed that it was important for an individual to play a proper role both in the family and in the larger society. Still, he was fascinated by the philosophical and speculative ideas of Buddhism. Being the good Confucian that he was, he argued that the academic and philosophical matters were important for practical affairs, but wrote more extensively on metaphysical themes, such as the nature of reality. His arguments were somewhat similar to Plato’s in that he said that two elements accounted for all physical being: the li, which defined the essence of a being, and the qi, its material form. Compare this to Plato’s Forms and Ideas.

Neo Confucianism illustrates the influence of Buddhism on Chinese society. Even though the Neo-Confucians rejected Buddhism as a religion, their writings reflected Buddhist themes and reasoning and adapted them to Confucian values and interests. It was an officially recognized creed in East Asia well into the twentieth century in lands beyond China, particularly Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

Chinese Influence in East Asia: Both the Qin and Han dynasties had attempted to expand their empires into Korea and Vietnam, but the Tang were the first to successfully invade both. Both borrowed heavily from Chinese political and cultural traditions which they adapted into their own societies.

Korea was conquered by the Tang dynasty but later the native Silla dynasty opposed them vigorously. Neither wanted a costly and devastating war; so a compromise was reached whereby Chinese troops withdrew from Korea and the Silla Emperor of Korea recognized the Tang emperor as his overlord. Thus, although Korea was largely an independent Kingdom, its rulers maintained cordial relations with China assuming, at least for the sake of appearances, the role of a vassal state. Silla envoys kowtowed before Chinese Emperors and delivered gifts; but Korea received gifts in exchange which were far more valuable. Also, the tributary relationship allowed Korean merchants access to Chinese markets.

Korean envoys took note of the Chinese court structure and bureaucracy and organized the Korean court along similar lines. Silla kings built a capital at Kumsong modeled after the Chinese capital at Chang’an. Scholars from Korea took copies of Chinese writings back with them, and Korean interest in Confucian tradition grew. Chan Buddhism became increasingly popular among peasants and commoners as it promised them individual salvation. There were differences, of course. Korea never established a bureaucracy based on merit as was the case in China; political initiative remained with the ruling classes; still Korea reflected Chinese political and cultural traditions.

Relations with Vietnam (which the Chinese called Nam Viet) were not so cordial. The Vietnamese people resisted Tang armies, although many towns and cities soon came under control of the Tang Empire. The Vietnamese readily adopted Chinese agricultural and irrigation practices and copied Chinese administrative and educational systems. Many Vietnamese scholars studied Confucian texts and took examinations based on the Chinese educational system. Vietnamese traders also found markets in China. Still, the Vietnamese resented Chinese efforts to dominate their land, and won independence with the collapse of the Tang dynasty. Further attempts by the Chinese to dominate them were unsuccessful.

Buddhism came to Vietnam from both China and India and won a large following. Also, Vietnamese authorities established an administrative system similar to the Chinese model, and the ruling classes often prepared for careers by following a Confucian system of education. Still, the Vietnamese retained a number of their own religions and cultural traditions. Notably, women were much more prominent in Vietnamese society and culture than in other parts of Asia. They often dominated local markets and participated in business ventures which would have been closed to them in other areas.

Early Japan: The first inhabitants of Japan most likely migrated across a land bridge formed during an ice age, c. two hundred thousand years before present. Their language, culture, and religion indicated that their origins were in northeast Asia. As the population of Japan grew, small states emerged which were dominated by aristocratic clans. By 500 C.E., there were several dozen states which ruled small regions. One of these clans, apparently influenced by the Sui and Tang dynasties in China, insisted that it had precedence over the other aristocratic groups, even though it had never exercised authority outside its own territory. It claimed imperial authority; introduced reforms designed to centralize Japanese politics, and established a court modeled after the Tang Court. It also instituted a Chinese-style bureaucracy; implemented an equal field system; and provided support for Confucianism and Buddhism. In 710, it moved to a new capital at Nara, near modern Kyoto, that replicated the Tang capital at Chang’an.

Although the Japanese adopted Confucian and Buddhist traditions from the Chinese, they did not abandon their own distinctive traditions. They continued to observe their traditional religion, Shinto, which involved the veneration of ancestors and a series of nature spirits and deities.

In 794, the Japanese Emperor transferred his capital from Nara to a newly constructed capital known as Heian, modern Kyoto. The capital became the seat of a refined and sophisticated society that drew inspiration from China but still reflected political and cultural traditions that were distinctively Japanese. The Heian period lasted 794 – 1185 C.E. during which rulers of the island of Honshu recognized the emperor as Japan’s supreme authority. Power was in the hands of the Fujiwara family which controlled affairs from behind the throne by influencing and manipulating members of the imperial household.

NOTE: Unlike many Empires, Japanese political authority has always featured a publicly recognized imperial authority, the Emperor, and a separate ruler who effectively governs the nation. Emperors have not ruled; therefore they have not been deposed, whereas ruling parties and factions have come and gone. The present Emperor, Akihito, is a descendant of the first Emperor. He sits on the Chrysanthemum Throne, and is commonly known as the "Son of Heaven." His father, Emperor Hirohito, sat on the throne during World War II. It was he who told the Japanese people that they must "bear the unbearable," and surrender in the wake of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

During the Heian period, Japanese literature imitated Chinese models, and was even written in the Chinese language. Young men were educated in Chinese, and read the classic Chinese works, and learned to write in Chinese. Court records were kept in Chinese and scholars borrowed Chinese characters to represent Japanese words. Many Chinese characters were adapted into a Japanese syllabic script (symbols represent whole vowel sounds rather than a single sound, as in an alphabetic script.)

Japanese women rarely received a formal education, but there were important exceptions, one of which was Murasaki Shikibu, a lady in waiting at the Heian court and wrote in Japanese syllabic script rather than Chinese characters. Her most famous work is The Tale of Genji, which tells of a fictitious prince named Genji. He lived amid gardens and palaces, and reflects on the passage of time and the sorrow that time brings to humans. Genji and his friends age and reflect on past joys and relationships that are no longer recoverable.

Over time, the equal field system fell into disuse, as it had in China, and aristocratic clans accumulated most of the lands on Honshu into large estates. By 1150 C.E., two clans had accumulated most of the land, the Taira and Minamoto. They ultimately engaged in outright war with each other, and in 1186 the Minamoto clan won the conflict. They did not attempt to abolish imperial authority in Japan, but claimed to rule in the name of the Emperor. A clan leader, known as the Shogun (military governor) ruled and established a seat of government at Kamakura, near modern Tokyo. The clan dominated Japanese political life for four hundred years. Historians refer to the Kamakura and Muromachi periods as Japan’s medieval period—it was a time between the age of Chinese influence and the modern age, which was instituted by the Tokugawa dynasty in the 1500’s. During this medieval period, Japanese culture and society took on distinctive characteristics.

During these periods, Japan developed a decentralized political order; rather provincial lords exercised authority over regions which they controlled. They often fought for each other and found little use for Chinese style bureaucracy; much less for the protocol and refined conduct that had existed at court. Rather than etiquette and courtesy, they valued military talent and discipline. The most distinctive figure in Japanese political and military affairs thus became the mounted warrior, the samurai.

Samurai were professional warriors who specialized in fighting and the use of force. They were supported with agricultural surplus and labor services of peasants who worked for the lord in exchange for their military services. They were not obligated to feed, clothe, or house themselves or their families, all this was provided by the lord whom they served; so they spent their time hunting, riding, and practicing archery and martial arts. They lived by an informal but widely observed code, the bushido ("way of the warrior) which emphasized the importance of absolute loyalty to one’s lord above all else. Any samurai who failed his master would commit ritual suicide in order to avoid dishonor and humiliation, a custom known as seppuku; whereby one ritually disemboweled ones self. One always had a trusted friend standing behind, who instantly decapitated the offender to prevent suffering once the blade was drawn across one’s belly. Seppuku is often known by a cruder term, hara-kiri, meaning literally "belly slicing."