The Sui-Tang Era
The initial steps of the rise of the Sui dynasty in the early 580s looked at first to be just another factional struggle of the sort that had occurred repeatedly in the splinter states fighting for control of China in the centuries after the fall of the Han.
Wendi, a member of a prominent north Chinese noble family that had long been active in these contests, struck a marriage alliance between his daughter and the ruler of the northern Zhou empire, who had only recently defeated several rival rulers and united much of the north China plain.
After considerable intrigue, Wendi seized the throne of his son-in-law and proclaimed himself emperor.
Though Wendi claimed to be an ethnic Chinese and his son-in-law was from nomadic origins, the nomadic peoples who had long dominated the thrones of north China rallied to the usurper.
In part, their support reflected the degree to which the nomadic warrior elite, who made up only a small minority of the population of the north China kingdoms, had been assimilated into the culture of the Chinese majority.
In addition, Wendi went out of his way to win over the nomadic military commanders by reconfirming their titles and showing little inclination to favor the Confucian scholar-gentry class at their expense.
With the support of many of these nomadic commanders, Wendi completed the extension of the empire across north China and in 589 attacked and conquered the weak and divided Chen kingdom, which had long ruled much of the south.
With his victory over the Chen, Wendi reunited the traditional core areas of Chinese civilization for the first time in three and a half centuries.
Wendi won widespread popular support by lowering taxes and establishing ever-ready granaries throughout his domains. These bins for storing grain were established in all the large cities and in each village of the empire to ensure that there would be a reserve food supply in case floods or drought destroyed the peasants' crops and threatened the people with famine.
Large landholders and poor peasants alike were taxed a portion of their crop to ensure that the granaries were filled for times of crisis. Beyond warding off famine, the surplus grain was dumped on the market in times of food shortages to hold down the price of the peoples' staple food.
The experience of previous Chinese dynasties had revealed that food shortages and sharp price increases were major sources of social unrest, including riots and rebellions that could
end in widespread movements to overthrow the government.
Sui Excesses And Collapse
The foundations Wendi laid for political unification and economic prosperity were at first strengthened even further by his son Yangdi, who murdered his father to reach the throne.
Yangdi extended his father's conquests and drove back nomadic intruders who threatened the northern frontiers of the empire.
He promulgated a new and milder legal code and devoted considerable resources to upgrading Confucian education and restoring the examination system for regulating entry into the bureaucracy.
These latter measures were part of a broader policy of promoting the scholar-gentry in the imperial administration, often to the detriment of the great aristocratic families and nomadic military commanders.
Yangdi was overly fond of luxury and delighted in construction projects that reached megalomaniacal proportions.
He forcibly conscripted hundreds of thousands of peasants to build numerous palaces, a new capital city at Loyang, and above all a series of great canals to link the various parts of his empire.
His demands on the people seemed limitless. In his new capital at Loyang, for example, Yangdi had a vast, heavily forested game park laid out. Because there were not enough trees on the site chosen, tens of thousands of laborers were forced to dig up huge trees in the nearby hills and cart them miles to be replanted in the artificial mounds that tens of thousands of other laborers had built.
Even before work on his many construction projects had been completed, Yangdi led his exhausted and angry subjects into a series of unsuccessful wars to bring Korea again under Chinese rule.
His failures in the Korean campaigns between 611 and 614 and the near-fatal reverse he suffered in central Asia at the hands of Turkic nomads in 615 set in motion widespread revolts throughout the empire.
Provincial governors declared themselves independent rulers; bandit gangs roved and raided at will; and nomadic peoples again established control over large sections of the north China plain.
Faced with a crumbling empire, an increasingly deranged emperor retreated to his pleasure palaces in the city of Yangzhou on the Yangtze River to the south.
When he was assassinated by his own ministers in 618, it looked very much as if China would return to the state of political division and social turmoil it had endured in the preceding centuries.
The Emergence Of The Tang And The Restoration Of The Empire
The dissolution of the imperial order was averted by the military skills and political savvy of one of Yangdi's most illustrious officials, Li Yuan, the Duke of Tang.
Of noble and mixed Chinese-nomadic origins, Li Yuan was for many years a loyal supporter of the Sui ruler. In fact, on one occasion, Li Yuan had rescued the impetuous Yangdi, whose forces had been trapped by a far larger force of Turkish cavalry in a small fort that was part of the Great Wall defenses.
But as Yangdi grew more and more irrational and unrest spread from one end of the empire to another, Li Yuan was convinced by his sons and allies that only rebellion could save his family and the empire.
From the many-sided struggle for the throne that followed Yangdi's death and continued until 623, Li Yuan emerged the victor. In 618, after major military successes in north China, he took the imperial name, Gaozu, and founded the Tang dynasty that would rule China for nearly three centuries.
Together with his second son Tang Taizong, in whose favor he abdicated in 626, Gaozu laid the basis for the golden age of the Tang.
Tang armies conquered deep into central Asia as far as present-day Afghanistan, thereby forcing many of the nomadic peoples who had dominated China in the Six Dynasties era to submit to Tang overlordship.
Of all the nomadic peoples on the empire's borders, the Turkic tribes posed the greatest threat.
Therefore, the early Tang rulers sought to play one Turkic people off another, a stratagem that very often succeeded.
They also completed the repairs begun by the Sui and earlier dynasties on the Great Wall and created frontier armies, partly recruited from the nomadic peoples, that gradually became the most
potent military forces in the empire.
Leaders of Turkic tribes were compelled to submit as vassals to the Tang rulers, who took the title of "heavenly khan." The daughters of the Turkic khans were often married into the imperial family.
The sons were sent to the capital both as hostages to guarantee the good behavior of the tribe in question and as students who were to be educated in Chinese ways in the hope of their eventual assimilation into Chinese culture.
The empire was also extended to parts of Tibet in the west, the Red River valley homeland of the Vietnamese in the south, and Manchuria in the north. In the Tang period, the Yangtze River basin and much of the south were fully integrated with North China for the first time since the Han.
In 668, under the emperor Kaozong, Korea, whose peoples' resistance had done so much to bring down the Sui dynasty, was overrun by Chinese armies, and a vassal kingdom called Silla was established that long remained loyal to the Tang.
In a matter of decades the Tang had built an empire that was far larger than even that of the early Han, an empire whose boundaries in many directions extended beyond the borders of China today.
Rebuilding The Bureaucracy
Crucial for the restoration of Chinese unity were efforts undertaken by the early Tang monarchs to rebuild and expand the imperial bureaucracy. A revived scholar-gentry elite and reworked Confucian ideology played central roles in this process.
From the time of the second Sui e peror, Yangdi, the fortunes of the scholar-gentry had begun to improve markedly.
This trend continued under the early Tang emperors, who desperately needed loyal and well-educated officials to govern the vast empire they had put together in a matter of decades.
The Tang rulers also used the scholar-gentry bureaucrats to offset the power of the aristocracy.
As the control of the aristocratic families over court life and administration declined, their role in Chinese history was much reduced. From the Tang era onward, political power in China was shared by a succession of imperial families and the bureaucrats of the civil service system.
Members of the hereditary aristocracy continued to occupy administrative positions, but the scholar-gentry class came to staff most of the posts in the secretariats and executive department that oversaw a huge bureaucracy.
This bureaucracy reached from the imperial palace down to the subprefecture, or district level, which was roughly equivalent to an American county. One secretariat drafted imperial decrees; a second monitored the reports of regional and provincial officials and the petitions of local notables.
The executive department, which
was divided into six ministries - including war, justice, and public works - ran the empire on a day-to-day basis. In addition, there was a powerful Bureau of Censors, whose chief task was to keep track of officials at all levels and report their misdeeds or failures to perform their duties.
Fitally, there was a very large staff to run the imperial household, both the palaces in the capital at Changan and the subsidiary residences of the princes of the imperial line and other dignitaries.
The Growing Importance Of The Examination System
Like Yangdi, the Tang emperors patronized academies to train state officials and educate them in the Confucian classics.
In the Tang era and under the Song dynasty that followed, the numbers of the educated scholar-gentry rose far above those in the Han era, though this elite and its dependents remained only a tiny fraction of the total Chinese population.
In the Tang and Song periods, the examination system was also greatly enlarged, and the pattern of advancement in the civil service was much more regularized.
Several different kinds of examinations were administered by the Ministry of Rites to students from the government schools or those recommended by distinguished scholars.
Specialized exams in law, calligraphy, or mathematics could earn the successful candidate only a lower-level position in the Tang bureaucracy.
The highest offices could be gained only by those who were able to pass
exams on the classics or the even more difficult exams on Chinese literature.
Those who passed the latter earned the title of jinshi. Their names were announced throughout the empire; their families' positions were secured by the prospect of high office that was opened up by their success; and they became overnight dignitaries, whom even their former student friends addressed formally and treated with deference.
A further round of written and oral examinations determined the jinshi holder's ranking in the pool of civil servants who were eligible for the highest positions in the imperial administration, and thus the office he actually received.
Success in exams at all levels won the candidate special social status, which included the right to wear certain types of clothing, freedom from corporal punishment, and the power to demand services and outward signs of respect, such as bowing, from the common people.
Even though a much higher proportion of Tang bureaucrats won their positions through success in civil service examinations than had been the case in the Han era, birth and family connections continued to be important in securing high office.
Established bureaucrats not only saw that their sons and cousins got into the imperial academies, they could pull strings to see that even failed candidates from their families received government posts.
Ethnic and regional ties also played a role in the staffing of bureaucratic departments.
This meant that though bright commoners could rise to upper level positions in the bureaucracy, the central administration was dominated by a rather small number of established families.
Sons followed fathers in positions of power and influence, and prominent households bought a disproportionate share of the places available in the imperial academies.
Many positions were reserved for members of the old aristocracy and the low-ranking sons and grandsons of lesser wives and concubines belonging to the imperial family. Merit and ambition counted for something, but birth and family influence often counted for a good deal more.
The Many Schools Contend: State And Religion In The Tang And Song Eras
The Confucian revival threatened not only the old aristocratic families, whose power diminished as that of the scholar-gentry bureaucrats grew, but also the Buddhists, who had become a major force in Chinese life in the Six Dynasties era.
Many of the rulers in the pre-Tang era, particularly the ones from nomadic origins, had been devout Buddhists and strong patrons of the Buddhist establishment. As we have seen, in the centuries after the fall of the Han, Buddhist sects had proliferated in China.
The most popular were those founded by Chinese monks, in parh because they soon took on distinctively Chinese qualities. Among the masses, the salvationist "pure land" strain of Mahayana Buddhism won widespread conversions as a refuge from an age of war and turmoil.
Members of nhe elite classes, on the other hand, were more attracted to the Chan variant of Buddhism, or Zen as it is known in Japan and the West.
With its stress on meditation and the appreciation of natural and artistic beauty and its Daoist hostility to written texts and scholasticism, Zen had great appeal for the educated classes of China.
The combination of royal patronage and widespread conversion at both the elite and mass levels had made Buddhism a strong social, economic, and political force by the time of the Tang unification.
The early Tang rulers continued to patronize Buddhism while they sought to promote education in the Confucian classics. Emperors like Taizong endowed monasteries, sent emissaries to IndiT to collect texts and relics, and commissioned Buddhist paintings and statuary.
On one occasion, Taizong displayed remarkable veneration for Buddhism by personally traveling to welcome home the famed pilgrim-monk
Xuanzang, who was returning with Buddhist scriptures collected during 17 years of travel in India.
No Tang ruler, however, matched the empress Wu (690-705) in supporting the Buddhist establishment.
Not only did she contribute large sums to build or improve monasteries and reward Buddhist cooperation with impressive grants of land, at one point she sought to elevate Buddhism to the status of a state religion. The empress Wu also commissioned numerous Buddhist paintings and sculptures.
The sculptures are particularly noteworthy due to their colossal size. She had statues of the Buddha, which were as much as two and three stories high, carved from stone or cast in bronze.
Some of these statues were housed in great caves near her capital at Loyang; for others she had equally huge pagodas built. With this sort of support, it is not surprising that Buddhism flourished in the early centuries of Tang rule.
By the middle of the 9th century, there were nearly 50,000 monasteries and hundreds of thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns in China.
The Anti-Buddhist Backlash
Buddhist successes inevitably aroused the envy and enmity of both Confucian and Daoist rivals. Some of these attacked the religion as alien, even though the faith followed by most of the Chinese was very different from that originally preached by the Buddha or that practiced in India.
Daoist monks sought to counter Buddhism's appeals to the masses by stressing their own magical and predictive powers, a tendency that led to a continuation of a long-standing Chinese fascination with alchemy and potions for fertility and longevity.
Most damaging to the fortunes of Buddhism, however, was the growing campaign of Confucian scholar-administrators to convince the Tang rulers that the large Buddhist monastic establishment posed a fundamental economic challenge to the imperial order.
Because monastic lands and resources were not taxed, the Tang regime lost huge amounts of revenue due to imperial grants to Buddhist monasteries or the wills of ordinary Chinese, which turned family properties over to Buddhist monasteries as an act of religious devotion. The state was also denied labor power, because it could neither tax nor conscript peasants who worked monastic estates.
By the mid-8th century, it was clear that the rapidly growing Buddhist monastic orders were a major drain on China's resources and a clear economic competitor of the Tang dynasty.
Measures to limit the flow of land and resources to the monastic orders gave way in the 840s to open persecution of Buddhism under the emperor Wuzong (841-847).
Thousands of monasteries and Buddhist shrines were destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of monks and nuns were forced to abandon their monastic existence and return to ordinary civilian lives.
They and the slaves and peasants who worked their lands were again subject to taxation, and monastery lands were parceled out to taxpaying landlords and peasant smallholders.
Tang Decline And The Rise Of The Song
The motives behind the mid-9th century Tang assault on the Buddhist monastic order were symptomatic of a general weakening of imperial control that had begun almost a century earlier.
Following the decades of controversial but strong rule between 690 and 705 by the empress Wu, who actually sought to establish a new dynasty, a second attempt to control the throne was made by a highborn woman who had married into the imperial family.
Backed by her powerful relatives and an extensive clique of prominent courtiers, Empress Wei poisoned her husband, the son of Empress Wu, and placed her own small child on the throne.
But Empress Wei's attempt to seize power was thwarted by another prince who led a palace revolt that ended with the destruction of Wei and her supporters.
The early decades of the long reign of this prince, who became the emperor Xuanzong (713-756), marked the peak of Tang power and the high point of Chinese civilization under the Tang dynasty.
Initially Xuanzong took a strong interest in political and economic reforms, which were pushed by the very capable officials he was able to appoint to high positions.
Increasingly, his interest in running the vast Tang Empire waned, and he devoted himself more and more to patronizing the arts and to the enjoyment of the considerable pleasures available within the confines of the imperial city.
These diversions included music, which he played and also had performed by the numerous musicians he summoned and the thousands of concubines who vied in the imperial apartments for the attention of the monarch.
After the death of his second wife, the aged and lonely emperor became infatuated with Yang Guifei, a beautiful young woman from the harem of one of the imperial princes.
Their relationship proved to be one of the most famous and ill-starred romances in all of Chinese history.
While Xuanzong promenaded in the imperial gardens and gave flute lessons to Yang, who was raised to the status of royal concubine, she packed the upper levels of the government with her avaricious relatives and assumed an ever greater role in court politics.
The arrogance and greed of Yang Guifei and her family angered rival cliques at court who took every opportunity to turn Yang's excesses into a cause for popular unrest.
Xuanzong's long neglect of state affairs resulted in economic distress
that fed this unrest and in chronic military weaknesses that rendered the government unable to deal with the disorders effectively.
The deepening crisis came to a head in 755, when one of the emperor's main military leaders, a general of nomadic origins named An Lushan, led a widely supported revolt with the aim of founding a new dynasty to supplant the Tang.
Though the revolt was eventually crushed and the Tang dynasty preserved, victory was won at a very high cost.
Early in the rebellion, Xuanzong's retreating and demoralized troops mutinied, first killing several members of the Yang family and then forcing the emperor to do away with Yang Guifei herself.
Xuanzong lived on for a time, but his grief and disillusionment rendered him utterly incapable of continuing as emperor. None of the Tang monarchs who followed him could compare with the able leaders the dynasty had rather consistently produced in the first century and a half of its rule.
Equally critical, in order to defeat the rebels the Tang had both sought alliances with nomadic peoples living on the northern borders of the empire and delegated resources and political power to regional commanders.
As had happened so often in the past, in the late-8th and 9th centuries the nomads used political divisions within China to gain entry into and eventually assert their control over large areas of the north China plain.
At the same time, many provincial governors became in effect independent rulers. They collected their own taxes, passing little or none on to the imperial treasury; raised their own armies; and bequeathed their titles to their sons without asking for permission from the Tang court.
Worsening economic conditions led to a succession of revolts in the 9th century. Some of these were popular risings led by peasants.
The largest and most dangerous revolt for the dynasty was the Huang-chao, which was named after its Robin Hood-style leader, a former salt merchant.
Though it raged from the mid-870s into the 880s and at one point engulfed much of south China, the Huang-chao rebellion failed to win scholar-gentry support. As had been the case in many earlier popular risings, this failure, in combination with internal divisions and poor organization, eventually led to the defeat of the movement.
But Tang efforts to put down the massive rising meant additional concessions to provincial lords and nomadic military commanders, and thus a further weakening of the dynasty.
The Founding Of The Song Dynasty
By the end of the 9th century, little remained of the once-glorious Tang Empire. By 907, when the last emperor of the Tang dynasty was forced to resign, China appeared to be entering yet another era of nomadic dominance, political division, and social strife.
For several decades, control over various regions was contested by upstart dynasties - some established by nomadic invaders, others founded by former provincial officers of the Tang.
In 960, however, yet another military commander emerged to reunite China under a single dynasty. Zhao Kuangyin had established a far-flung reputation as one of the most honest and able of the generals of the last of the "Five Dynasties" that had struggled to control north China after the fall of the Tang.
Though a fearless warrior, Zhao was a man of scholarly leanings, who collected books rather than booty while out campaigning. In the midst of the continuing struggles for control in the north, Zhao's subordinates and regular troops insisted that he proclaim himself emperor.
In the next few years, Zhao, renamed Emperor Taizu, routed all his rivals except one, thus founding the Song dynasty that was to rule much of China for the next three centuries.
The one rival Taizu could not overcome was the northern Liao dynasty that had been founded in 907 by the nomadic Khitan peoples from Manchuria.
This failure set a precedent for weakness in dealing with the nomadic peoples of the north that would plague the Song dynasty from its earliest years to its eventual destruction by the Mongols in the late 13th century.
Beginning in 1004, the Song rulers were forced by military defeats at the hands of the Khitans to sign a series of humiliating treaties with their smaller but more militarily adept northern neighbors.
These treaties committed the Song to paying what was in effect a very heavy tribute to the Liao dynasty to deter it from raiding and possibly conquering the Song domains.
The Khitans, who had been highly Sinified during a century of rule in north China, were apparently
content with this arrangement.
They clearly regarded the ethnic Chinese empire of the Song as culturally superior, an area from which they could learn much in statecraft, the arts, and economic organization.
They may also have reasoned that their own numbers were too small to govern all of China, even if they were able to conquer it, and that they would dangerously overextend themselves if they tried.
Song Politics: Settling For Partial Restoration
A comparison of the boundaries of the early Song Empire with that of the Tang domains reveals that the Song never matched its predecessor in political or military strength.
In part these relative weaknesses of the Song resulted from imperial policies that were designed to ward off the conditions that had destroyed the Tang Empire.
From the outset, the military was clearly subordinated to the civilian administrators of the scholar-gentry class.
Only civil officials were allowed to be governors, thereby removing the temptation of regional military commanders to seize power in their own right. In addition, all military commanders were rotated to prevent them from building up a power base in the areas where they were stationed.
At the same time, the early Song rulers strongly promoted the interests
of the Confucian scholar-gentry, who touted themselves as the key bulwark against the revival of warlordism.
Officials' salaries were significantly increased and numerous perks - including additional servants and payments of luxury goods such as silk and wine - made government posts more lucrative than ever before.
The civil service exams were fully routinized. They were given every three years at three levels - district, provincial, and imperial.
Song examiners passed a far higher percentage of those taking the exams, and these successful candidates were much more likely to receive an official post than their counterparts in the Tang era.
As a result, the bureaucracy soon became bloated with well-paid officials who often had little to do.
Thus, the ascendancy of the scholar-gentry class over its aristocratic
and Buddhist rivals was fully secured in the Song era.
In the coming centuries, emperors and rebels, nomadic conquerors and wealthy merchants would rely on the scholar-gentry to run the great bureaucratic apparatus that served as the backbone of Chinese society.
Even rulers who distrusted them and eunuchs and nobles who continued to vie with them for power could not imagine the government functioning without them.
The mandarins, as they would be called by Western visitors, had established themselves as the indispensable guardians of Chinese civilization.
The Revival Of Confucian Thought
The great influence of the scholar-gentry in the Song era was mirrored in the revival of Confucian ideas and values that dominated intellectual life. Many scholars sought to recover long-neglected texts and decipher ancient inscriptions.
New academies, devoted to the study of the classical texts, were founded, and impressive libraries were established. In some cases these institutions of learning were located, like the imperial academies, in major urban centers.
Some of the most renowned of the new schools were situated in remote mountain and forest regions, where students could pursue their studies free of the many distractions of urban life and in a setting where they could gain inner tranquility and wisdom by observing nature.
The adherents of new schools of philosophy propounded rival interpretations of the teachings of Confucius and other ancient thinkers and sought to prove the superiority of indigenous thought systems, such as Confucianism and Daoism, to imported ones, especially Buddhism.
The most prominent thinkers of the era, such as Zhu Xi, stressed the importance of applying philosophical principles to everyday life and action. These neo-Confucianists believed that the cultivation of personal morality was the highest goal to which humans could aspire.
They argued that virtue could be attained through the acquisition of knowledge gained by book learning and personal observation as well as through contact with men of wisdom and high morality.
In these ways, the basically good nature of humans could be
cultivated, and superior men, fit to govern and teach others, could be developed.
Neo-Confucian thinking, which would have a great impact on Chinese intellectual life during the eras of all the dynasties that followed the Song, affected many aspects of Chinese life.
Its hostility to foreign philosophical systems, such as Buddhism, rendered Chinese rulers and bureaucrats less receptive to outside ideas and influences at a time when it was increasingly critical for them to be aware of developments in other civilizations.
The neo-Confucian stress on tradition and past precedents was one of a number of forces that eventually did much to stifle innovation and critical thinking among the Chinese elite (though these effects were not strongly felt in the Song era, when there were persuasive alternatives to neo-Confucian philosophical positions).
The neo-Confucian stress on rank, obligation, deference, and proper decorum and the performance of traditional rituals reinforced class, age, and gender distinctions, particularly as these were expressed in occupational roles.
Great importance was given to upholding the authority of the patriarchal head of the Chinese household, which paralleled that of the male emperor of the Chinese people as a whole.
If men and women kept to their place and performed the tasks allotted by their age and social rank, the neo-Confucians argued, there would be social harmony and prosperity.
If problems arose, the best solutions could be found in examples drawn from the past; historical experience was thought to be the best guide for navigating the uncertain terrain of the future.
Roots Of Decline: Attempts At Reform
The means by which the Song emperors had secured their control over China did much to undermine their empire in the long run. The weakness they had shown in the face of the Khitan challenge encouraged other nomadic peoples to carve out kingdoms on the northern borders of the Song domains.
By the mid-11th century, Tangut tribesmen, who had originally come from Tibet, had established a kingdom named Xi Xia to the northwest of the Khitan kingdom of Liao.
The tribute that the Song had to pay to each of these peoples for "protection" of their northern borders was a great drain on the resources of the empire and a growing burden for the Chinese peasantry.
Equally burdensome was the cost of the army, numbering nearly one million soldiers by the middle of the 11th century, that the Song had to maintain to guard against invasion from the north.
The emphasis on civil administration and the scholar-gentry and the growing disdain among the Song elite for the military also took their toll.
Though Song armies were large, their commanders were rarely the most able men available, and funds needed to upgrade weapons or repair fortifications were often diverted to the scholarly pursuits and entertainments of the court and gentry.
At the court and among the ruling classes throughout the empire, painting and poetry, which account for some of the most splendid achievements of the Song era, were cultivated, while the horsemanship and hunting that had so preoccupied earlier rulers and their courtiers went out of fashion.
In the 1070s and early 1080s, Wang Anshi, the chief minister of the Song Shenzong emperor, attempted to ward off the impending collapse of the dynasty through the introduction of sweeping reforms.
Wang, who was a celebrated Confucian scholar, ran the government on the basis of the Legalist (see Chapter 5) assumption that an energetic and interventionist state could greatly increase the resources and strength of the dynasty.
For 20 years, in the face of strong opposition from the conservative ministers who controlled most of the administrative apparatus, Wang sought to correct the grave defects in the imperial order.
He introduced cheap loans and government-assisted irrigation projects to encourage agricultural expansion. He taxed the landlord and scholarly classes who had regularly exempted themselves from military service.
Wang used the revenue received to establish well-trained mercenary forces to replace armies that had formerly been conscripted from the unprepared and unwilling peasantry.
Wang even sought to reorganize university education and reorient the examination system so that analytical skills were given precedence over the rote memorization of the classics that had long been
key to success.
Reaction And Disaster: The Flight To The South
Unfortunately, Wang's ability to propose and enact reforms was totally dependent on continuing support from the Shenzong emperor. In 1085 the Shenzong emperor died, and the new emperor favored the conservative cliques that had long opposed Wang's changes.
The neo-Confucians came to power; reform halted and many of Wang's initiatives were reversed. As a result, economic conditions continued to deteriorate and peasant unrest grew throughout the empire.
Faced by banditry and rebellion from within, an unprepared military proved no match for the increasing threat from beyond the northern borders of the empire. In 1115, a new nomadic contender, the Jurchens, had overthrown the Liao dynasty of the Khitans and established the Qin kingdom north of the Song Empire.
After successful invasions of Song territory, the Jurchens annexed most of the Yellow River basin to what had become the Qin Empire and forced the Song to flee to the south.
With the Yangtze River basin as their anchor and their capital transferred to Hangzhou, the Song dynasty would survive for another century and a half.
Politically the southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) was little more than a rump state carved out of the much larger domains ruled by the Tang and northern Song. Culturally, its comparatively brief reign was to be one of the most glorious in Chinese history, perhaps in the history of all humankind.
Tang And Song Prosperity: The Basis Of A Golden Age
In addition to being the era in which China was reunified under strong imperial regimes, the Tang and Song centuries were a time of major transitions in Chinese history.
Major shifts in the balance of population within China, new patterns of trade and commerce, renewed urban expansion, novel forms of artistic and literary expression, and a series of further technological breakthroughs all contributed to new directions in the development of Chinese civilization.
These shifts became particularly pronounced in the late Tang period and the centuries of rule by the Song dynasty (960-1279).
The China that emerged from this era was vastly more wealthy and market oriented and much more bureaucratized, urbanized, and cosmopolitan than the civilization that had first come to fruition in the Han epoch.
The Growing Importance Of The South
The attention given to canal building by the Sui emperors and the Tang rulers who followed them was compelled by a major shift in the population balance within Chinese civilization.
The Grand Canal, which Yangdi imperiled his throne to have constructed, was designed to link the original centers of Chinese civilization on the north China plain with the Yangtze River basin over 500 miles to the south.
Because the great river systems that were essential to China's agrarian base ran west to east - from the mountains of central Asia to the sea - the movement of people and goods in that direction was much easier than from north to south.
Though no major geographical barriers separated the millet-growing areas of northern China from the rice-producing Yangtze basin, travel overland was slow and difficult and the transport of bulk goods like millet or rice was prohibitively expensive.
The great increase of the ethnic Chinese population in the southern regions in the later Han and Six Dynasties periods made improving communications between north and south imperative once the two regions were joined by the Sui conquests.
Not only did more and more of the emperor's subjects live in the southern regions, but the Yangtze basin and other rice-growing areas in the south were fast becoming the major food-producing areas of the empire.
By late Tang and early Song times, the south had surpassed the north in both crop production and total population.
Yangdi's Grand Canal was intended to facilitate control over the southern regions by courts, bureaucracies, and armies centered in ancient imperial centers such as Changan and Loyang in the north.
The canal made it possible to transport revenue collected in the form of grain from the fertile southern regions and to transfer food from areas in the south to districts threatened by drought and famine in the north.
No wonder that Yangdi was quite literally obsessed with canal construction. By the time the Grand Canal was finished, well over one million forced laborers had worked, and many had died, on its locks and embankments.
The completed canal system was an engineering achievement every bit as impressive as the Great Wall. It joined the Yellow River to the cities of the northeast and to the Yangtze basin and the sea on the south-central coast.
Most stretches of the canal, which totaled nearly 1200 miles in length, were 40 paces wide, and imperial highways lined with willow trees ran along the banks on both sides.
Its construction not only created a bridge to join north and south China, it opened up the south to migration and commercial development on a scale unimaginable in previous centuries. The maintenance of the canal system became a priority for all Chinese regimes from the Tang onward.
A New Age Of Commercial Expansion
Tang conquests in central Asia and the building of the canal system did much to promote commercial expansion in the Tang and Song centuries.
Tang control deep into central Asia meant that the overland silk routes between China and Persia to the west were reopened and protected, a vital step in the intensification of international contacts in the postclassical period.
This facilitated mutually beneficial exchanges between China and Buddhist centers in the nomadic lands, as well as with the Islamic world farther west.
Horses, Persian rugs, and tapestries passed to China along these routes, while fine silk textiles, porcelain, and paper were exported to the centers of Islamic civilization.
The canal system within China made possible greater regional specialization in products such as tea, copper, and tropical fruits, which could be transported and sold throughout the empire.
The access the canals and better roads provided to the ports on the southern coast led to a revival of trade with the coastal kingdoms of Southeast Asia.
As in the Han era, China exported mainly manufactured goods to the "lands beneath the wind (southern monsoons)," while importing mainly luxury products such as aromatic woods and spices.
Ships for overseas trade and canal and river transport improved dramatically and multiplied many times in the Tang and Song eras. In late Tang and Song times, Chinese merchants and sailors increasingly carried Chinese trade overseas instead of being content to let foreign seafarers come to them.
Along with the dhows of the Arabs, Chinese junks were the best ships in the world in this era.
They were equipped with watertight bulkheads, sternpost rudders, oars, sails, compasses, bamboo fenders, and gunpowder-propelled rockets for self-defense.
With such vessels, Chinese sailors and merchants became the dominant force in the Asian seas east of the Malayan peninsula. But the elites of the land-based and largely self-sufficient empires of post-Tang China lacked strong motives to sustain overseas exploration or project Chinese power through the military domination of the sea.
The heightened role of commerce and the money economy in Chinese life was readily apparent in the numerous and enlarged market quarters found in all cities and major towns.
These were filled with shops and stalls that sold products drawn from local farms, regional centers of artisan production, and entrepots as distant as the Mediterranean.
The Tang and Song governments supervised the hours and methods in these centers, while merchants specializing in products of the same kind banded together in guilds to promote their interests with local officials and to regulate competition within the trading community.
This expansion in scale was accompanied by a growing sophistication in
commercial organization and forms of credit available in China. The proportion of exchanges involved in the money economy expanded greatly, and deposit shops, an early form of bank, were found in many parts of the empire. The first use of paper money also occurred in the Tang era.
Merchants deposited their profits in their hometowns before setting out on trading caravans to distant cities. They were given credit vouchers or what the Chinese called flying money, which they could then present for reimbursement at the appropriate office in the city of destination.
This arrangement greatly reduced the danger of robbery on the often perilous journeys merchants made from one market center to another. In the early 11th century, the government itself began to issue paper money when an economic crisis made it clear that the private merchant banks could no longer handle the demand for the new currency.
The World's Most Splendid Cities
The expansion of commerce and artisan production was complemented by a surge in urban growth in the Tang and Song eras. At nearly two million, the population of the Tang capital and its suburbs at Changan was far larger than that of any other city in the world at the time.
The spread of commerce and the increasing population fed urban growth through most of the Tang and Song periods. In the north and especially the south, old cities mushroomed in size as suburbs spread in all directions from the original city walls.
Towns grew rapidly into cities, and the proportion of the empire's population living in urban centers grew steadily.
China had numerous cities with over 100,000 people, whereas most other preindustrial civilizations were fortunate to have more than a handful of large urban centers and some had none.
The number of people living in large cities in China, which may have been as high as ten percent, was also far greater than that found in any civilization until after the Industrial Revolution.
China's cities were more than just large and well planned. They were endowed with markets stocked with products from much of the then-known world; with parks and delightful gardens, both private and public; with numerous baths, where one could also get a massage and a cup of tea or rice wine; and with sumptuous restaurants that specialized in the varied and delicious cuisines of the different regions of China.
Of all China's remarkable urban centers in this era, perhaps none surpassed the late Song capital of Hangzhou in size and sophistication.
With a population that exceeded one million and a location on the Jiantang River near the East China Sea that allowed it to draw on the wealth and creativity of north and south China and overseas trading centers, Hangzhou has rarely been matched for sheer beauty and the high level of civilization it exemplified.
Expanding Agrarian Production And Life In The Country
The movement of the population southward to the fertile valleys of the Yangtze and other river systems was part of a larger process of agrarian expansion in the Tang and Song period.
The expansion of Chinese settlement and agricultural production was promoted by the rulers of both dynasties, who actively encouraged peasant groups to migrate to uncultivated areas or those occupied by shifting cultivators or peoples of non-Chinese descent.
The state supported military garrisons in these areas to protect the new settlements and complete the task of pacifying indigenous non-Chinese peoples or driving them from the empire if they would not submit to Chinese rule. State-regulated irrigation and embankment systems also advanced agrarian expansion, and the
great canals made it possible for peasants who grew specialized crops such as tea or who cultivated silkworms to market their produce over much of the empire.
The introduction of new seeds, such as the famed Champa rice from Vietnam; better use of human, animal, and silt manures; more thorough soil preparation and weeding; and multiple-cropping and improved techniques of water control increased the yields of peasant holdings.
Inventions, such as the wheelbarrow, eased somewhat the laborious tasks linked to plowing, planting, weeding, and harvesting that occupied much of the time of the great majority of the Chinese people.
The rulers of both the Sui and Tang dynasties had adopted policies aimed at breaking up the great estates of the old aristocracy and distributing land more equitably among the free peasant households of the empire.
These policies were, of course, designed in part to reduce if not eliminate the threat that the powerful aristocracy posed for the new dynasties.
They were also intended to bolster the position of the ordinary peasants, whose labors and well-being had long been viewed by Confucian scholars as essential to a prosperous and stable social order.
To a point these agrarian measures succeeded. For a time the numbers of the free peasantry increased and the average holding size in many areas rose.
The fortunes of many of the old aristocratic families also declined, thus removing many of them as independent centers of power. They were gradually supplanted in the rural areas by the gentry side of the scholar-gentry combination that dominated the imperial bureaucracy.
The extended-family households of the gentry that were found in rural settlements in the Han era increased in size and elegance in the Tang and Song.
Family And Society In The Tang And Song Eras
Though Chinese family organization at various class levels in the Tang and Song centuries closely resembled that found in earlier periods, the position of women showed signs of improving under the Tang and early Song, and then deteriorated steadily in the late Song.
As in the classical age, marriages were viewed primarily as alliances between families; extended-family households were preferred but they could normally be afforded only by the upper classes; and the male-dominated hierarchy promoted by Confucius and other early thinkers held sway at all class levels.
In the Tang era, the authority of elders and males within the family was buttressed by laws that prescribed beheading as a punishment for children who struck their parents or grandparents in anger and two and one-half years of hard labor for younger brothers or sisters who hit their older siblings.
Over the centuries a very elaborate process of forging marriage alliances developed.
Professional go-betweens, who were almost invariably women, assisted both families in negotiating such prickly issues as matching young men and women and the amount of the dowry to be paid to the husband's family.
In contrast to India, brides and grooms were generally approximately the same age, probably because of the Confucian abhorrence of mixing generations. Among the lower classes and in rural areas, the age of marriage was generally lower than in the cities and among the scholar-gentry.
Some potential sons-in-law were adopted by their prospective parents-in-law at birth, though the marriage ceremony did not actually take place until both parties had at least reached puberty.
Among the urban upper classes, marriages were consumated somewhat later. It was not uncommon for the son of a scholar-gentry family, who was busy with studies for the state examinations, to delay his marriage until he was 30 or more years old.
Contrasting Fates: The Roles Of Women In The Elite And Commoner Classes
Both within the family and in society at large, women remained clearly subordinate to males. But some of the evidence we have suggests that, at least for women of the upper classes in urban areas, opportunities for personal expression increased in the Tang and early Song.
As the example of the empresses Wu and Wei and the concubine Yang Guifei make clear, at the highest levels of Chinese society Tang women could wield considerable power.
That they also enjoyed access to a rather broad range of activities, if not career possibilities, is indicated by a surviving pottery figure from the early Tang period of a young woman playing polo.
Some semblance of women's rights is evidenced by provisions in Tang and Song law for divorce by mutual consent of both husband and wife, as well as those prohibiting a man from setting aside his wife if her parents were dead or if he had been poor when they were married and later became rich.
These suggest that Chinese wives had more defenses against capricious behavior by their spouses than was the case in India at this time.
The practice that was reported in late Song times of wealthy women in large cities like Hangzhou taking lovers (or what were politely called "complementary husbands") with the silent though presumably unwilling complicity of their spouses, also indicates a remarkable degree of female independence.
In Chinese, as in Islamic civilization, court politics in the Tang and Song eras were increasingly complicated by the intense involvement of both women and eunuchs attached to the imperial household.
In both cases, the practice by which emperors (and in many instances high court officials) took both an official wife and concubines, who sometimes numbered in the thousands, was the root cause of this growing source of political instability.
Not only did both wives and concubines compete for the ruler's favor, they sought to use royal patronage to advance the fortunes of their relatives and friends at court.
Very often wives, and sometimes concubines as in the case of Yang Guifei, became central figures in court cliques that vied for power. In fact, some Chinese historians have claimed that Yang encouraged An Lushan, with whom it is suggested she had a romantic involvement, to revolt and overthrow her husband.
The need to defend against liaisons between the women of the imperial court and outside males also led to the large-scale employment of eunuchs to keep watch. In both Chinese and Islamic civilizations the eunuchs soon became a major party to palace intrigues, and on numerous occasions dominated weak emperors or caliphs.
The contests between rival cliques became the most intense in struggles for succession to the throne.
The fact that neither Muslim peoples nor the Chinese were able to establish a clear order for political succession was, of course, a critical factor in the rise of these disputes.
Different wives and concubines sought to gain a ruler's support for their own sons. They and their allies engaged in all manner of plots and resorted to deception, defamation of character, and even murder to have their way.
The mother of the caliph al-Rashid, for example, cleared the way to the power for her son by poisoning another royal prince who had been designated heir to the throne by her husband, al-Mahdi.
The woman who became Tang Empress Wu began her rise to power as a favored concubine. After her second husband's death, she installed one of her young sons on the throne, intending to rule in his stead.
When the youth tried to assert his authority, Wu had him replaced by another, more docile, son. Six years later, she deposed this puppet emperor, claimed the throne outright, and even sought to found a new dynasty.
The actual seizure of the throne by Empress Wu was exceptional, but the deep involvement in imperial politics by women at Islamic, Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese courts was not. Despite the fact that she was a very capable monarch, subsequent Chinese historians vilified Wu because she was a woman who dared to rule in her own right.
Evidence of the independence and legal rights enjoyed by a small minority of privileged women in the Tang and Song eras is all but overwhelmed by broader trends that point emphatically to the worsening condition of Chinese women in general.
The assertion of male dominance both within the family and beyond was especially pronounced in the thinking of the neo-Confucian philosophers, who, as we have seen, became a major force in the later Song period.
The neo-Confucians stressed the woman's role as housemaker and mother, particularly the bearer of sons to continue the patrilineal family line.
They advocated the physical confinement of women and stressed the importance of virginity for young brides, fidelity for wives, and chastity for widows, who like their counterparts in India were discouraged from remarrying.
At the same time, men were permitted to have premarital sex without scandal, to take numerous concubines if they could afford it, and to remarry if one or more of their wives died.
The neo-Confucians attacked the Buddhists for promoting career alternatives, such as the monastic life and female scholarship, to marriage and raising a family.
They drafted laws that favored males in inheritance, divorce, and familial interaction, and they excluded females from the sort of education that would allow them to enter the civil service and rise to positions of political power.
No practice better exemplifies the degree to which women in Chinese civilization had been constricted and subordinated by the end of the Song era as dramatically as foot-binding does.
This counterpart of the veil and seclusion in Islam may have had its origins in the delight that one of the emperors had taken in the tiny feet of his favorite dancing girl.
Whatever its origins, by the later Song era upper-class males displayed a decided preference for small feet, a preference that later spread to lower-class groups, including the peasantry.
In response to male demands, on which the successful negotiation of a young woman's marriage contract might hinge, mothers began to bind the feet of their daughters as early as the age of five or six.
The young girl's toes were turned under and bound with silk, which was wound more tightly as the child grew. By the time she reached marriageable age, the woman's foot had been transformed into the "lotus petal" or "golden lily" shapes that were presumably preferred by prospective marriage partners.
Bound feet were not only a constant source of pain for the rest of a woman's life; they greatly restricted her mobility by making it very difficult to walk even short distances.
Restricted physical mobility, of course, made it easier for husbands to confine their wives to the family household and impossible for women to engage in most occupations.
For the latter reason, the lower classes, whose households were often dependent on female labor to make ends meet, were slow to adopt the practice.
But once it was in fashion among the scholar-gentry and other elite classes, foot-binding became vital to winning a suitable husband for a young girl.
Since a good marriage for her daughters was the primary goal of any self-respecting mother, the practice was unquestioningly passed from one generation of women to the next.
Upper-class women came to accept the pain and disfigurement associated with foot-binding because they saw it as essential for a chance to have what they considered a full and happy life.
Their constricted vision of the possibilities for self-fulfillment and willingness to endure a painful and unnecessary physical deformity to achieve it say a great deal about the lowly position to which women had been relegated in China by the end of the Song era.
As we have seen, new agricultural implements and innovations, such as banks and paper money, contributed a great deal to economic growth and social prosperity in the Tang and Song eras. In this respect, the engineering feats of the period are particularly noteworthy.
In addition to constructing the Grand Canal, Tang and Song engineers made great advances in building dikes and dams and regulating the flow of water in complex irrigation systems.
They also devised ingenious new ways to build bridges, long a major focus of engineering efforts in a land dominated by mountains and waterways. From arched and segmented to suspension and trussed, most of the basic bridge types known to humans were pioneered in China.
The single most important of the many technological advances made in the Tang era, the invention of explosive powder, had at first little impact on warfare.
For centuries, the Chinese used these potent chemical mixtures mainly for fireworks, which delighted emperors and the masses alike.
By the late Song, however, explosive powder was widely employed by the imperial armies in a variety of grenades and bombs that were hurled at the enemy by catapults.
Song armies and warships were also equipped with naphtha flamethrowers, poisonous gases, and rocket launchers that were perhaps the most effective weapons the dynasty employed in its losing struggle to check nomadic incursions. On the domestic scene, chairs were introduced into the household, the habit of tea drinking swept the empire, coal was used for fuel for the first time, and the first kite soared into the heavens.
Though the number of major inventions in the Song era was lower than in the Tang, several were pivotal for the future history of all civilizations. Compasses, which had beeneused since the last centuries b.c. by Chinese military commanders and magicians, were applied to sea navigation for the first time in the Song period.
The abacus, the ancestor of the modern calculator, was introduced to help merchants count their profits and tax collectors keep track of the revenues due.
And in the middle of the 11th century, a remarkable artisan named Bi Sheng devised the technique of printing using moveable type.
Though block printing had been perfected in China in the preceding centuries, the use of moveable type represented a great advance in the production of written records and scholarly books.
Combined with paper, which the Chinese had also invented much earlier in the Han period, printing made it possible for them to attain a level of elite literacy that excelled that of any preindustrial civilization.
Conclusion: The End Of The Song: The Legacy Of Two Great Dynasties
By retreating to the south, the Song rulers had managed to survive the assaults of the nomads from the north.
They could not retreat far enough to escape the onslaught of the most brilliant nomadic commander of them all, Chinggis Khan, who directed perhaps the most powerful military machine the world had seen up to that time.
The Song rulers bought time by paying tribute to the Mongol Khan and striking alliances with him against their common enemies, the Tanguts and Jurchens.
But once the nomadic dynasties of the north had been beaten, the Song domains lay open to Mongol conquest.
This was delayed for a time by the death of Chinggis Khan and struggles for succession. By the late 1260s, Kubilai, who had long had a strong interest in Chinese civilization, had emerged as the paramount Mongol lord, and he was ready to launch a sustained effort to conquer the southern refuge of the Song dynasty.
By 1279, decades after Kubilai Khan had proclaimed himself emperor of China, the south had been completely conquered and the last claimant to the Song throne had drowned attempting to escape to Vietnam.
Though nomads once again ruled China, the wisdom of Kubilai and the strength of the early Mongol, or Yuan, regime meant that China was spared the period of division and chaos that had marked earlier transitions from one dynasty to the next.
The long Tang and Song epoch had proved to be truly pivotal in Chinese
and world history. Centralized administration and the great Chinese bureaucratic apparatus were not only restored but strengthened.
The scholar-gentry elite, which had for so long been the critical binding force for Chinese civilization, triumphed over its aristocratic, nomadic, and Buddhist monastic rivals.
Under nomadic and indigenous dynasties, it would continue to define and direct Chinese civilization for the next six and one-half centuries. During the nearly seven centuries of Tang and Song rule, the area that comprised Chinese civilization had grown dramatically, as the south was fully integrated with the north.
From the Tang era onward, the unified population of China would make up
approximately one-fourth of humankind.
From the Tang and Song eras, the Chinese economy would be one of the world's most advanced in terms of market orientation, volume of overseas trade, productivity per acre, and the sophistication of its tools and techniques of craft production.
No civilization, with the possible exception of that of the Romans or the Incas, could match its system of roads and certainly none had such an extensive and sophisticated canal and irrigation network.
Until the 18th century, the imperial dynasties of China possessed political power and drew on economic resources unmatched by any other civilization.
The great changes that occurred in the Tang and Song eras caution us against the temptation to equate the remarkable continuity displayed by Chinese civilization with stagnation.
China did retain or revive key ideas, institutions, and patterns of political and social organization from the classical age.
But it also changed dramatically, in the balance between regions within the empire, in its level of commercial and urban development, in technology, in the impact of outside influences such as Buddhism, and even in the degree to which the scholar-gentry exercised political power and social dominance.
Part of the genius of Chinese civilization has clearly arisen from their ability to incorporate far-reaching changes into ancient traditions and time-tested patterns of social interaction and political organization.
China continued to dominate culturally the peoples of the East Asian world - Korean, Tibetan, Vietnamese, Japanese, and nomadic - even though it did not control them politically for most of the centuries after the fall of the Tang dynasty.
Chinese inventions such as paper, printing, and gunpowder would fundamentally alter the course of development in all other human civilizations, including those as yet unknown in the New World.
If the Qin and Han epoch had established and defined the meaning of civilization in China, the Tang and Song had restored and redefined it. The persisting importance of the Tang and Song eras for the Chinese people is indicated by the fact that, even to the present day, they identify themselves as both the "sons of Han" and the "men of Tang."
Japan: The Imperial Age
By the 7th and 8th centuries A.D., the Japanese court at Nara was awash
in Chinese imports. Indigenous cultural influences, particularly those linked to Shinto views on the natural and supernatural world, remained central to Japanese cultural development.
But in the Taika (645-710), Nara (710-784), and Heian (794-857) periods, Japanese borrowing from China - though selective peaked and touched virtually all aspects of Japanese life, particularly at the level of the elites and among the populace of the court towns.
In 646, the emperor and his advisors introduced the far-reaching Taika reforms that were aimed at completely revamping the imperial administration along Chinese lines.
Japanese court scholars struggled to master thousands of Chinese characters that bore little relationship to the language they spoke.
They wrote dynastic histories patterned after those commissioned by the emperors of China, and followed an elaborate court etiquette that somewhat uneasily combined Chinese protocol with ancient Japanese ideas about politeness and decorum.
The Japanese aristocracy struggled to master Confucian ways, while they worshiped in Chinese-style temples and admired Buddhist art that was Chinese in subject matter and technique.
Even the common people were affected by the steady flow of influence from the mainland. In the towns they stared in awe at the great Buddhist temples and bowed to passing aristocrats striving to present themselves as Confucian scholars.
The peasants turned to Buddhist monks for cures when they were sick or to Buddhist magic when they needed a change of luck. They had begun to mesh the worship of Buddhist deities with that of the ancient kami, or nature spirits, of Japan.
Just as Chinese influence in Japan peaked, it began to be challenged directly by the aristocracy, who increasingly argued for a return to Japanese ways, and silently by the peasantry, who steadily reworked Chinese Buddhism into a distinctly Japanese religion.
In part, the erosion of support for Chinese ways reflected the failure of the ambitious reforms introduced by the emperor in 646. That failure led to a gradual seepage of power from the emperor and his administrators to first the aristocratic families in attendance at court and later local lords in the provinces.
As this shift of
power occurred, those who argued for a revival and strengthening of Japanese traditions at the expense of Chinese influence slowly gained the upper hand. By the 11th and 12th centuries, Japan's political and social systems had been virtually remade.
Though important Chinese effects lingered, this new order bore little resemblance to the Chinese Confucian model that had triumphed in the Middle Kingdom under the Tang and Song.
Crisis At Nara And The Shift To Heian (Kyoto)
If they had succeeded, the Taika reforms of 646 would have represented the culmination of centuries of Japanese borrowing from China.
The central objectives of the proposed changes were to remake the Japanese monarch into an absolutist Chinese-style emperor (even to the point of adding "Son of Heaven" to the Japanese ruler's many titles) and to create a genuine professional bureaucracy and peasant conscript army in Japan to match those of Han-Tang China.
But the changes necessary for these goals to be achieved were largely frustrated by the resistance of the aristocratic families and the Buddhist monastic orders who dominated both the emperor and the capital as a whole.
A century later, the Buddhist monks in particular had grown so bold and powerful that the court and aristocracy lived in fear of street demonstrations by "rowdy monks" and of the escalating demands of the heads of the monastic orders.
Their influence even threatened to engulf the throne in the 760s when a clever Buddhist prelate worked his way into the inner circle of the empress Koken.
Though his schemes to marry her and claim the throne were uncovered and foiled, it was now clear that measures had to be taken both to ensure that women could never rule Japan and to check the growing influence of the monastic orders at court.
The emperor, Koken's husband, literally fled some 28 miles and established a new capital city at Heian, or what was later called Kyoto. The Buddhists were forbidden to build monasteries in the new capital.
To get around this restriction, the monks established monasteries in the hills surrounding the new capital, and they soon reemerged as a potent force at court as royal advisors.
In addition to his efforts to control the Buddhist monks, the emperor abandoned all pretense of continuing the Taika reforms, which in any case had long been stalled by aristocratic and popular opposition.
He fully restored the great aristocratic families, whose power the reforms had been in part intended to curb.
The elaborate system of ranks into which the aristocrats were divided (patterned after that in China) was maintained. But like the Koreans, the Japanese broke with Chinese precedent in determining rank primarily by birth and allowing little mobility between the various orders.
The aristocrats had already taken over most of the positions in the central government; now their formal right to build up rural estates was restored as well.
The emperor also gave up an ambitious scheme to build up a peasant conscript army, patterned after that created in China in the Tang era.
In its place, local leaders were ordered to organize militia forces that would soon play a critical role in further eroding the actual control of the imperial household.
Ultracivilized: Court Life In The Heian Era
Though the basis of imperial political power had been severely compromised within decades of the shift to Heian, court culture soared to new levels of refinement.
For several centuries more, the Japanese emperors and their courtiers continued to inhabit a closed world of luxury and aesthetic delights.
Males and females of the aristocratic classes lived out their lives in accordance with strict codes of polite behavior, under the constant scrutiny of their peers and superiors.
In this hothouse atmosphere, social status was everything; love affairs were a major preoccupation; and gossip was rampant. By our standards, life in this constricted and very artificial world was false and suffocating.
Yet rarely in human history has so much energy been so focused on the pursuit of beauty, or has social interaction, on the surface at least, been so gracious and well mannered.
At the Heian court, members of the imperial household and the leading aristocratic families lived in a complex of palaces and gardens.
The buildings were of unpainted wood, which Japanese taste found the most appealing, with sliding panels, matted floors, and wooden walkways running between the separate residences where the many dignitaries lived.
Fish ponds, man-made lakes with waterfalls, and fine gardens were interspersed among the courtiers' living quarters.
Life in this sheltered world is depicted in the diaries and fiction written by a number of courtiers, but none captured its charm as well as its underlying tensions and sadness as wonderfully as Lady Murasaki's Tale of Genji. In this, the first novel in any language, she relates the life history of a prominent and amorous son of the emperor and the fate of his descendants.
As the story makes clear, Genji's life is almost wholly devoted to the
pursuit of aesthetic enjoyment, whether this be found in affairs with beautiful women or in musical entertainments in a garden scented with blooming flowers.
Uncouth commoners and distasteful things, such as dirt, cheap pottery, and rough popular entertainments, are to be avoided at all costs. When her rivals at the court wish to insult Genji's mother, they leave spoiled fruit in the passages where she or her maid servants must pass.
An encounter with a shriveled piece of fruit contributes to the illness that leads to her premature death.
Everyone who matters in Genji's world is obsessed with social conventions that govern everything, from which gown is proper for a given ceremony to the composition of a suitable poem to woo a potential lover or win the emperor's favor.
Indeed, writing original verse was perhaps the most valued of arts at the court.
The poems, which were often written on painted fans or scented paper and sometimes sent in little boats down the streams that ran through the palace grounds, were brief and full of allusions to Chinese and Japanese verse and classical writings.
Partly to accommodate the need for literary expression of this nature, the written script the Japanese had borrowed from the Chinese was simplified in this period, making it more compatible with spoken Japanese.
One result of these changes was an outpouring of poetic and literary works that were more and more distinctively Japanese. In addition to novels like Lady Murasaki's, some of the most elegant poetry in the Japanese language was written in this era.
At the court women were expected to be as poised and cultured as men. They too wrote poems,
played flutes or stringed instruments in informal concerts, and became
embroiled in elaborate schemes to snub or disgrace rivals.
Like their counterparts in China and the Islamic world, they also became involved in palace intrigues and power struggles, as the plotting against Genji's mother makes clear.
Though it was unseemly for women to openly pursue princely lovers, some of them did - if we are to believe the Tale of Genji and other court memoirs - take the initiative.
It was not unheard of for a highborn woman to spurn a suitor and humiliate him in front of her maidservants.
The Decline Of Imperial Power
While the emperor and his courtiers admired the plum blossoms and the newest fashions in court dress, some of the aristocratic families at court were busy running the rapidly shrinking imperial bureaucracy.
By the middle of the 9th century, one of these families, the Fujiwara, exercised exceptional influence over imperial affairs.
They not only packed the upper administration with family members and the sons of allied households and shaped imperial policy, they increasingly married Fujiwaras into the imperial family.
By the middle of the 10th century, one aged Fujiwara chief minister had seen four of his daughters married to emperors.
Families like the Fujiwara also took advantage of the wealth and influence their high office ensured to buy up large estates that provided a stable financial base for their growing power.
Especially in the vicinity of the capital, they had to compete in these purchases with the Buddhist monasteries.
But both could work together in the steady campaign to whittle down imperial control and increase their own.
As the lands under their control
expanded, both the monks and court nobility greatly increased the number of peasants and artisans they effectively ruled.
Cooperation between monastic orders and court aristocrats was promoted by the introduction of the secret texts and ceremonies of esoteric Buddhism in this period.
These teachings and techniques to achieve salvation through prayers and meditation, which were focused by mystical diagrams and special hand positions, were the rage among the Heian elite.
As aristocrats and monks steadily built up their own power in the capital, however, they failed to reckon with the growing power of the local lords.
The Rise Of The Provincial Warrior Elite
The pursuit of landed estates that increasingly preoccupied the court aristocracy was also taken up by elite families in the provinces. Some of these were originally from aristocratic origins, but most had risen to power as landowners, estate managers, or local state officials.
These families not only came to control land and labor and to deny these resources to the court, but they gradually carved out little kingdoms, ruled by "house" governments, in various parts of the islands.
They ruled their kingdoms within the larger Japanese state from small fortresses surrounded by wooden or earthen walls and moatlike ditches.
The local lord and his retainers were housed within the fortress, constantly on the alert for an attack by a neighboring lord or the forces of one of the powerful families at court. Granaries for storing the rice provided by local peasants, blacksmith forges and stables, wells for water, and even armories made the fortresses self-contained worlds.
Within the little kingdoms ruled from the forts, the warrior leaders, or bushi, administered law, supervised public works projects, and collected revenue - for themselves, not the court.
The failure of the court's plans to build conscript armies also left the way open for the bushi to build up their own armies, which soon became the most effective military forces in the land.
Though these mounted troops, or samurai, were loyal to the local lord, not to the court or high aristocratic officials, they were increasingly called in to protect the emperor and his retainers and keep the peace in the capital.
As the imperial government's control over the country weakened in the 11th and 12th centuries, bandits freely roamed the countryside and the streets of the capital.
Buddhist monasteries employed armed toughs to protect themselves and strike at rival sects.
In this atmosphere of rampant crime and civil strife, both the court and high officials hired provincial lords and their samurai retainers to serve as bodyguards and to protect their palaces and mansions from robbery and arson.
These trends proved critical to the emergence of a warrior class. Counting on peasant dependents to supply them with food and other necessities, the bushi and samurai devoted their lives to hunting, riding, archery practice, and other activities that sharpened their martial skills.
Until the 12th century, the main weapons of the mounted warriors were powerful longbows, though they also carried straight swords. From the 12th century, they increasingly relied in combat on the superbly forged, curved steel swords that we commonly associate with the Japanese samurai.
The bushi and the samurai warriors who served them rode into battles that increasingly hinged on the man-to-man duels of great champions. These combats represented heroic warfare in the extreme.
The time and location of battles were elaborately negotiated beforehand, and each side strove to demonstrate the justice of its cause and the perfidy of its enemies.
Before charging into battle, Japanese warriors would proudly proclaim their family lineage and its notable military exploits to their adversaries, who often missed the details because they were shouting back their own.
A warrior code developed that stressed family honor and death rather than retreat or defeat.
Beaten or disgraced warriors turned to ritual suicide, which they called seppuku (disembowelment) but which is commonly known in the West by the more vulgar hara-kiri (belly splitting), to prove their courage and restore their family's honor.
Battles were chaotic affairs - lots of shouting and clashing but relatively few fatalities - that were won or lost depending on the performance of the champions on each side.
Though a full
chivalric code did not develop until some centuries later, Japan was steadily moving toward a feudal order that was remarkably similar to that developing in western Europe in this era.
The rise of the samurai frustrated all hopes of creating a free peasantry. In fact, Japanese peasants were reduced in the next centuries to the status of serfs, bound to the lynd they worked and treated as the property of the local lord.
They were also separated by rigid class barriers from the warrior elite, which was physically set off by its different ways of dressing and by prohibitions against the peasants carrying swords or riding on horseback.
In their growing poverty and degradation, the peasants turned to popular Buddhism in the form of the salvationist "pure lands" sect, which offered the promise of bliss in heaven for those who lived upright lives on earth.
Colorful figures, such as the dancing monk Kuya, and Genshin, whose Essentials of Salvation outlined in great detail the pleasures of paradise and the horrible tortures of hell, strove to make Buddhist teachings comprehensible and appealing both to the peasantry and the artisans in the towns.
The latter were concentrated at the court center in Heian and the fortress towns of some of the more powerful bushi.
Though their skills in pottery making, painting, and textile manufacture were celebrated by subsequent generations, the artisans were paid almost as poorly as the peasants and accorded little status.
In contrast to China, where these activities were often pursued by the scholar-gentry, in Japan they were usually undertaken by professional craftsmen who inherited their skills from their fathers.
The Era Of Warrior Dominance
As the power of the provincial lords grew, that of the imperial household and court aristocracy declined. Increasingly powerful families at tho court,
such as the Fujiwara, depended on alliances with regional lords to bolster them in disputes with their rivals.
By the 11th and 12th centuries, the provincial families had begun to pack the court bureaucracy and contest power in their own right.
By the mid-12th century, competition turned to open feuding between the most powerful of these families, the Taira and the Minamoto.
For a time, the Taira gained the upper hand by controlling the emperor and dominating at court. But when rivalry turned to open warfare in the early 1180s, the Minamoto commanders and their powerful network of alliances with provincial lords in various parts of the country proved vastly superior to the leaders or allies the Taira could muster.
More fundamentally, the Tairas' concentration of their power grabbing efforts in the capital led to the breakdown of critical links with rural notables, who often sided with the Minamoto in the factional struggles.
For five years, the Gempei Wars raged in the heartland of the main island of Honshu, much to the grief of the peasantry, whose farmlands were ravaged and who fought, forcibly conscripted but poorly armed and untrained, against each other, while the samurai clashed in their ritual combats.
By 1185, the Taira house faction had been destroyed. The Minamoto then established the bakufu, which literally means "tent," or the military government at Kamakura in their base area on the Kanto plain, far east of the capital at Heian.
The emperor and his court were preserved - in fact all the military houses would derive their legitimacy from the descendants of the sun goddess - but real power now rested with the Minamoto and their samurai retainers. The feudal age in Japan had begun.
The Declining Influence Of China
As the power of the imperial house weakened and that of the aristocracy grew, the relevance of Chinese precedents and institutions for the Japanese diminished.
Pretensions to a heavenly mandate and centralized power became ludicrous; the emergence of a scholar-gentry elite was stifled by the
reassertion of aristocratic power and prerogatives. Grand designs for an imperial bureaucracy never materialized.
The central Confucian precept that civilian administrators should rule and soldiers serve and keep out of the way was utterly violated by the growing influence of the provincially based bushi elite and their samurai retainers.
Even Buddhism, which from the outset had been a central channel for the transmission of Chinese influence, was increasingly transformed by both aristocrats and peasants into a distinctively Japanese religion.
With the decline of the Tang and a return to decades of political uncertainty and social turmoil in China, the China model seemed even less relevant to the Japanese.
As early as 838, the Japanese court decided to discontinue its embassies to the much-reduced Tang court.
Japanese monks and traders continued to make the dangerous sea crossing to China, but the emperor's advisors no longer deemed official visits and groveling before the Son of Heaven worth all the bother.
The Breakdown Of Bakufu Dominance And The Age Of The Warlords
Yoritomo, the leader of the victorious Minamoto, gravely weakened the Kamakura regime due to his obsessive fear of being overthrown by members of his own family.
Close relatives, including his brother Yoshitsune, whose courage and military genius had much to do with the Minamoto triumph over the Taira, were murdered or driven into exile.
Fear of spies and uncertainty about what one could do in order to be above suspicion lent an element of paranoia to elite life under the first of the Kamakura shoguns, or the military leaders of the bakufu.
Though Yoritomo's rule went unchallenged, the measures he had adopted to protect his throne left him without an able heir. His death and the weakness of those who succeeded him led to a scramble on the part of the bushi lords to build up their own power and enlarge their domains.
The Hojo, one of the warrior families that had long been closely allied to the Minamoto, soon dominated the Kamakura regime, though they were content to leave the Minamoto as the formal rulers.
Thus, a curious and confusing three-tiered system arose with real power resting in the Hojo family, who manipulated the Minamoto shoguns, who in turn claimed to rule in the name of the emperor who resided at Kyoto.
In the early 14th century, the situation became murkier still when the head of one of the branches of the Minamoto family, named Ashikaga Takuaji, led a revolt of the bushi that overthrew the Kamakura regime and established the Ashikaga Shogunate (1336-1573) in its place.
Because the emperor at the time of Ashikaga's seizure of power refused to recognize the usurper and sought to revive imperial power, he was driven from Kyoto to the mountain town of Yoshino.
There, with the support of a number of warlords, he and his heirs fought against the Ashikaga faction and the puppet emperors they placed on the throne at Kyoto for much of the rest of the 14th century.
Though the Ashikaga were finally successful in destroying the rival Yoshino center of imperial authority, the long period of civil strife seriously undermined both whatever authority the emperor had left and that of the shogunate.
The bushi vassals of the warring factions were free to crush local rivals and seize the lands of the peasantry as well as the agents of the old aristocracy and the competing warlords.
As the power of the warlords grew, the court aristocracy, which was impoverished by its inability to defend its estates, was virtually wiped out.
The lands the warlords acquired were parceled out to their samurai retainers, who in turn pledged their loyalty and were expected to provide military support whenever their lord called on them.
Though the pledge was formal, it did not involve the legal contract that bound lord and vassal in Europe in this period. Because most of the warlord's vassals were no longer linked to him by family ties, vows of loyalty counted for a good deal less than in earlier centuries.
Vassals frequently struck deals with rival lords whom they believed to be on the rise or who promised to reward them more handsomely for their services. Acts of betrayal, including shifting sides on the battlefield, were more and more common, and unscrupulous upstarts rose and fell in rapid succession.
The collapse of any semblance of centralized authority was sharply accelerated by the outbreak of the Onin War, which raged for over a decade between 1467 and 1477.
Rival heirs to the Ashikaga Shogunate called on the warlord chiefs to support their claims.
Samurai flocked to the rival headquarters in different sections of Kyoto, where feuding soon broke into all-out warfare. Within a matter of years, the old imperial capital had been reduced to rubble and weed-choked fields.
While the shogunate self-destructed in the capital, the provincial lords continued to amass power and plot new coalitions to destroy their enemies. Japan was divided into nearly 300 little states, whose warlord rulers (the successors of the bushi) were called daimyos.
Unlike the bushi domains of earlier centuries, the daimyos' holdings, which varied greatly in size, were consolidated into unified and bounded ministates.
In the place of mud-walled forts, there arose the massive wood and stone castles that would dominate the Japanese landscape for centuries.
To discourage betrayal by their vassals, the daimyo required them to live in the towns that developed around the castles, or at least to leave members of their families there as hostages to ensure their good behavior.
Toward Barbarism? Military Division And Social Change
Though the rituals became more elaborate, the armor heavier, and the swords more superbly forged, the chivalrous qualities of the bushi era deteriorated noticeably in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Spying, sneak attacks, ruses, and timely betrayals became the order of the day. The pattern of warfare was fundamentally transformed as large numbers of peasants armed with pikes became a critical component of daimyo armies.
Battles hinged less and less on the outcome of samurai combat. Victory depended on the size and organization of a warlord's forces and on how effectively his commanders employed them in the field.
The scarcely trained and poorly fed peasant forces became a major source of the growing misery of the common people. As they marched about the countryside to fight the incessant wars of their overlords, they looted and pillaged with impunity.
Often in response to the depredations of warlord armies, the peasantry in different areas sporadically rose up in hopeless but often ferocious revolts that fed the trend toward brutality and destruction.
It is no wonder that contemporary accounts of the era, as well as those written in later centuries, are dominated by a sense of pessimism and foreboding - a conviction that Japan was reverting from civilized life to barbarism.
Despite the chaos and suffering of the warlord period, there was much economic and cultural growth. Most of the daimyos clearly recognized the necessity of building up their petty states if they were to be strong enough to survive in the long run.
Within the domains of the more able daimyos, attempts were made to stabilize village life by introducing regular tax collection, supporting the construction of irrigation systems and other public works, and building strong rural communities.
Incentives were offered to encourage the settlement of unoccupied areas, and new tools, the greater use of draft animals, and new crops - especially soybeans - contributed to the well-being of the peasantry in the better-run domains.
Peasants were also encouraged to produce items such as silk, hemp, paper, dyes, and vegetable oils, which were highly marketable and thus potential sources of household income.
Daimyos vied with each other to attract merchants to their growing castle towns, and a new and quite wealthy commercial class emerged as the purveyors of goods for the military elite and the intermediaries in trade between Japan and overseas areas, especially China.
As in medieval Europe, guild organizations for both craftsmen (carpenters, thatchers, smiths, potters, etc.) and merchants were strong in this era. They helped provide social solidarity and group protection in a time of political breakdown and insecurity.
There is considerable evidence that the growth of commerce and the handicraft industries gave a minority of Japanese women opportunities to avoid the sharp drop in status that most experienced in the age of the warring daimyos.
Women in merchant and artisan families apparently exercised a fair degree of independence that was reflected in their participation in guild organizations, business management, and the fact that their positions were
sometimes inherited by their daughters.
But the position of the women in the emerging commercial classes contrasted sharply with that of women of the warrior elites.
In earlier centuries the wives and daughters of the provincial bushi households learned to ride and to use a bow and arrow, and often joined in the hunt.
By the 14th and 15th centuries, however, the trend among the daimyo families toward primogeniture, or the restriction of inheritance to the eldest son, dealt a heavy blow to women among the elite classes.
Wives and daughters of warrior households, who had hitherto shared in the division of the family estate, now received little or no land or income.
Disinheritance was part of a larger pattern that saw women increasingly treated as defenseless appendages of their warrior fathers or husbands.
They were given in marriage to cement alliances between warrior households, raised to anticipate their warrior husband's every desire, and taught to slay themselves rather than dishonor the family line by being defiled by illicit suitors or enemy soldiers.
That the restrictions and loss of status felt by women at the level of the warrior elite were shared by Japanese women more generally is suggested by their loss of the role of the celebrant in village religious ceremonies and their replacement in Japanese theatrical performances by males specially trained to impersonate women.
Fears that the constant wars between the swaggering samurai might drag Japan back to barbarism were somewhat mollified by continuing cultivation of the arts in the warring-houses era.
Zen Buddhism, which due to its stress on simplicity and discipline had a special appeal to the warrior elite, played a critical role in securing the place of the arts in an era of strife and destruction.
Zen monasteries provided key points of renewed diplomatic and trade contacts with China, which in turn led to a revival of Chinese influence in Japan, at least at the cultural level.
Though much of the painting of the era imitated contemporary Chinese work, the monochrome ink sketches of Japanese artists were both brilliant and original. Also notable were screen and scroll paintings, some of which capture the natural beauty of Japan, while others provide us with invaluable glimpses into Japanese life in this period.
Zen sensibilities are also prominent in some of the splendid architectural works of this period, including the Golden and Silver Pavilions that two of the Ashikaga shoguns had built in Kyoto.
Each pavilion is designed to blend into the natural setting in which it is placed, to create a pleasing shelter from which one might contemplate nature.
This contemplative mood is also evident in the design of some of the more famous gardens that were laid out in this era, such as that at the Ryoanji Temple that consists entirely of islands of volcanic rock set amid white sand that is periodically raked into varying patterns.
The influence of Zen and the related Japanese ability to find great beauty in the rough and simple were also present in the tea ceremony that developed in the era of warrior dominance.
The graceful gestures, elaborate rituals, and subtly shaped and glazed pots and cups that came to be associated with the service of tea on special occasions all lent themselves to composure and meditation. Seeds Of Unity And Japanese Nationhood
The economic and cultural growth of the warlord era demonstrated that Japan would not slip back into chaos and barbarism. Interestingly, these developments, combined with measures taken by the daimyos to improve administration within their domains, laid the basis for the lasting unification of Japan.
Though often tied to particular lords and castle towns, the emerging commercial and artisan classes would in later centuries readily transfer their capital reserves and talents to building a unified economy under political leaders determined to break down regional trade barriers and to create a unified currency and system of weights and measures.
Though it was long disguised by the rivalries and warfare between the daimyo lords, the legal and administrative systems established within each of the feudal domains could, if linked together, provide the bureaucratic infrastructure for a
unified Japanese state.
Within the domains, there also began to emerge professional government functionaries who were slowly acquiring th skills that would eventually enable them to man a centralized bureaucracy.
What was needed, of course, was a leader or coalition of leaders capable of politically and economically unifying the many parts into which Japan had fragmented.
Amid the warfare and famine that ravaged Japan in the 15th century, there seemed to be little hope of such leadership eme ging. But within a century a succession of three able military and political leaders would again establish a central authority in the islands.
Though the daimyo divisions, somewhat reduced in numbers, remained, Japan was on its way to becoming a unified nation-state.