Middle and Late Imperial China: A.D. 589-ca. 1800

The History of China. Editor: David Curtis Wright. 2nd edition. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

Sui Unification and Tang Succession: 589-907

After over 350 years of internal division, China finally managed to pull itself back together. This was accomplished by the Sui, a short-lived dynasty (589-618) that used, like the Qin before it, extraordinarily harsh measures to achieve unity. Also like the Qin, the Sui was overthrown because of its harsh and totalitarian nature and replaced by a milder, long-lasting dynasty. Just as Han followed Qin, so the Tang (A.D. 618-907) followed the Sui.

The first Sui emperor surveyed Chinese farmlands and, with the power of his new state, confiscated land from wealthy landlords who had been charging outrageous rents for centuries and depriving Chinese governments of their needed revenue. The new taxes he imposed on China’s peasants were lower than the former rents had been, so the peasants welcomed this change. He also reestablished the capital at Chang’an, the former Han capital, and began digging the Grand Canal from southern China to Chang’an. This canal eventually became an important waterway linking northern and southern China. This helped reconnect north and south, which had been separated from each other for a long time and ruled over by different governments.

The first Sui emperor was, unfortunately, succeeded by his megalo-maniacal son, Sui Yangdi, who is second only to Qin Shihuang in Chinese history for being a harsh and extravagant despot. He pressed his people to the breaking point and ruined much of that which his father had accomplished, ultimately dooming his dynasty. He wasted money on huge construction projects and built a massive and ostentatious palace for himself. He was obsessively driven to complete the Grand Canal, at enormous expense. He even pressed women into construction work when male laborers were too few. When the canal was finally finished he took a flamboyant tour down it. His power was, for a time, seemingly limitless; his every whim was satisfied. He is notorious in Chinese history for compelling thousands of women to make paper and silk blossoms and paste them on the branches of bare trees in the wintertime, in order to cure his wintertime depression.

Yangdi squandered national resources on huge, unsuccessful military campaigns. He attacked Korea three times during his reign but failed to conquer the peninsula, and his defeats cost the lives of several hundred thousand troops. In 617 he attacked the Turks; this action also ended disastrously for the Sui and almost resulted in Yangdi’s capture. All of these military debacles seriously depleted the state budget, and to make up for the shortfall, he required taxes to be paid years in advance. When the peasants could take no more of this and rebelled, he appointed a general named Li Yuan to quell the rebellions. Li Yuan, however, was fed up with Yangdi and soon turned against him. A Sui official assassinated Yangdi in 618, and Li Yuan created his own dynasty, the Tang, which was to last for almost 300 years.

The Tang is one of China’s two golden ages. Almost every Chinese points to the Han and the Tang as the two times when Chinese civilization was at its highest and most powerful. The Chinese call themselves “men of Han” after the Han dynasty, and they call overseas Chinese communities and Chinatowns “Streets of Tang People.” Like the Han, the Tang had a huge territory that extended in a long arm out along the Silk Road into Central Asia, and, also like the Han, the Tang managed for a time to defeat the northern barbarians and extend their domination over them. In the Han, the barbarians were the Xiongnu or Huns, but during the Tang they were the Turks. This may surprise some modern readers because we usually think of the Turks as living in modern Turkey and other parts of the Middle East, but the earliest known Turk homeland was in the area known as Mongolia today. Eventually, the majority of Turks migrated westward and converted to Islam. In fact, the founding emperors of the Tang dynasty were themselves part Chinese and part Turkish, and they spoke both languages and were familiar with both cultures. Their Turkish heritage was enormously beneficial to them in establishing authority over the Turks.

By the early eighth century, Tang China was the world’s wealthiest, most powerful state, and its capital, Chang’an was the largest city in the world and surpassed Constantinople in splendor. Chang’an was the terminus of the Silk Road, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, where merchants from all over the Eurasian world gathered to trade and enjoy the amenities of sophisticated urban culture. Tang Chang’an was a very cosmopolitan and multicultural city in which many world cultures and religions flourished. Foreign music, cuisine, dances, and wines were all the rage in Chang’an, and the Tang Chinese had a taste for foreign exotica and foreign objets d’art. Powerful, confident Tang China had no need to fear or despise foreigners or their cultures.

The Tang had a series of competent and energetic emperors, one of whom was a woman, Empress Wu, who usurped the throne at the end of the seventh century and reigned for 23 years over the dynasty, which she renamed Zhou. (Actually, it is technically inaccurate to call her an empress because an empress was only the wife of the ruling emperor.) Empress Wu was the first and only female emperor (huangdi) to reign and rule in Chinese history. Traditional Chinese historians have long portrayed her as a ruthless, ambitious, and unprincipled woman who changed the dynasty’s name and dealt harshly with her critics and opponents. But she was by no means a failure, and during her rule she did see one accomplishment that had eluded her Sui and Tang predecessors: the submission of Korea to Tang suzerainty.

The Tang eventually overcame Empress Wu’s challenge and restored the dynasty’s name and ruling royal clan. During the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712 to 756), the Tang reached its greatest height culturally and militarily. Some of Tang China’s greatest poets and painters flourished during his reign. When Xuanzong became enamored of one of his son’s concubines, Yang Guifei, he turned significant political and military power over to her. She took advantage of Xuanzong’s doting by appointing her relatives to prominent positions of leadership in the government and military. One such appointed relative of hers, An Lushan, came out in open rebellion against the Tang in 755 and plunged China into years of chaos that shook the dynasty to its very foundations. Tang China never fully recovered from this period of rebellion, which was suppressed at length and with great difficulty in 763 with the help of the Uighurs, another warlike pastoral nomadic people who had defeated the Turks in Mongolia a decade or two earlier and were now the masters of the steppe. Tang China entered a long and gradual period of decline. Late Tang China was a melancholy time, and this general national mood is superbly reflected in some of the lyrical poetry of the time.

The Tang dynasty slipped into precipitous decline during the late ninth century when a huge domestic rebellion led by Huang Chao broke out in the drought-stricken North China Plain and quickly spread to other areas. In 879 Huang Chao captured the southern Chinese city of Canton (Guangzhou) and slaughtered thousands of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian merchants there, perhaps because he blamed them in part for China’s difficulties. Huang Chao’s rebellion was overthrown with the help of the Kirgiz, yet another warlike pastoral nomadic people, but this was a hollow victory. The Tang continued as a shadow of its former greatness until 907, when regional military commanders formerly loyal to Tang decided to end the fiction of the dynasty’s power and authority over them. These commanders then became warlords and vied with one another to become China’s next great unifying dynasty. The period of the Five Dynasties lasted from 907 to 960, when a warlord regime called Song finally managed to impose some measure of enduring unity to the majority, but not all, of historically Chinese territory. The Song lasted from 960 to 1279, when all of China was conquered by the Mongol descendants of Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan).

Tang government was efficient and effectively organized. The first beginnings of the well-known Chinese civil service examination system date back to Han times, but during the Tang the system was further institutionalized as one way for the government to recruit bureaucratic personnel. Tang testing evaluated a candidate’s cultural knowledge, literacy, handwriting, and even physical appearance, and background investigations of promising candidates helped the government learn more about their general characters and reputations. Candidates who passed these multiple levels of assessment were then put on a waiting list for government jobs. Perhaps only one in every five hundred candidates who began the entire process ever attained a government job. The majority of people who got such jobs came from old aristocratic families. Occasionally a hometown boy with no prominent family background succeeded at the examinations, but this was the exception. The Tang was a predominantly aristocratic society.

New officials started with lowly positions in areas distant from the Tang capital, but as their careers progressed they gradually climbed the ladder of government promotions. The Tang government had a highly organized system of ranks and salaries for its officials, who were not allowed to remain in any one locality for very long. The government feared, probably with justification, that an official who remained in an area too long might become too comfortable there, put down roots, and eventually become corrupt. Every three years or so, the Tang government rotated its officials throughout the Chinese population of the Tang empire.

The “equal fields system” was the Tang’s way of dealing with the age-old landlord problem. In this system, most large private land holdings were simply confiscated and remanded to government ownership. (This idea was not the Tang’s but came from previous dynasties during the Period of Division; however, the Tang was the first dynasty to give it widespread implementation.) The government then distributed plots of its land to peasants to farm, but not to own. That is, although the peasants were given sole right to farm land for their own living, nobody could buy it from them and they could not sell it to anyone. This was land, not real estate. Able-bodied males from age 16 to 60 were given exclusive rights to plots of land approximately 14 acres in size, and in exchange for these rights, the peasants were required to pay three types of taxes to the government: grain, corvee (a fixed number of days of laboring on government-sponsored construction projects), and cloth. In essence, peasants rented the land long term, with tax payments as rent. Of course, the Tang government instituted the equal fields system so that it would not have to compete with landlords and mortgage sharks for revenue from the land. Extensive government surveys underpinned this system, and with a powerful and highly organized government it all worked for a while. When the government weakened after the An Lushan rebellion in 755, the landlord problem gradually began emerging once again, and eventually the system fell apart.

Many Chinese view the Tang as China’s single greatest age for poetry. During China’s last dynasty, the Qing (1644-1912), a compilation of Tang poetry called Three Hundred Tang Poems became very popular, and even today some cultured Chinese families still encourage their children to memorize large parts of it. Famous Tang poets include Li Bo, Du Fu, Bo Juyi, and Li Shangyin.

Emperor and Khan: Tang Relations with the Turks

Li Yuan’s son, the second Tang emperor, is known to Chinese history as Tang Taizong. An energetic and assertive personality, Taizong was much more aggressive and ambitious than his father. Taizong secured what his father could not even imagine: the submission of the Turks to Tang over lordship. He understood the Turks well and knew their psychology. During the 620s, when the Turks were making threatening moves toward the Tang, Taizong twice dashed out of the gates of Chang’an on horseback and rode into the Turk encampments, where he actually challenged the Turk khans to personal combat. Overawed by his bravado and confidence, the Turks on both occasions backed off. Taizong predicted that the Turks would eventually weaken themselves through civil war, and in the late 620s his predictions came true. In 630 the Turks decided to avoid self-destruction by submitting to the Tang, and they agreed to recognize Taizong as their “Heavenly Khan.” With this, Taizong became without question the most powerful man in the world. He reigned as emperor over the Chinese and Heavenly Khan over the hordes of warlike Turkic mounted warriors on China’s northern frontier. Tang domination over the Turks endured for half a century. The Tang then deployed Turks along its northern frontiers as guards. Other Turks went into China and were eventually assimilated into Chinese civilization.

This peculiar relation between the Chinese and the Turks symbolizes Tang China’s approach to the outside world in general. Chang’an, the Tang capital, became the cultural and economic center of Asia. The Japanese and Koreans greatly admired Tang civilization and sent many envoys to learn its culture and methods of government. The Japanese even modeled their first capital cities after the Tang capital. Nara and Heian were virtual scaled-down copies of Chang’an, and the “Japanese” tea ceremony and the formal kimono dress were based on Tang precedents. Silla dynasty Korea (A.D. 668-935) copied Tang governmental organization in extensive detail, and the earliest literature in both Korea and Japan was in large part written in pure Chinese. Taizong himself was part Turk and so could not entertain arrogant or condescending attitudes toward foreign peoples and cultures. He had a very open-minded attitude toward all peoples, and his style was reflected and perpetuated throughout the rest of the dynasty. He fostered and protected foreign religions, and in Chang’an were found Buddhist temples, Jewish synagogues, Islamic mosques, and Nestorian Christian chapels. (Nestorian Christianity was condemned as heresy at the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431 because of its seemingly heterodox views of Jesus Christ. It eventually declined in the West but spread through much of Asia, where it achieved its greatest extent from the seventh through tenth centuries.) China in Tang times was wide open to the outside world, more so than in any other period until the twentieth century. China imported much from the rest of the outside world and gained its widespread taste for tea, an important Southeast Asian crop, during this time. It also gained a taste for foreign wines.

For the Chinese, Tang domination of the Turks was evidence that China and its emperors truly possessed the Mandate of Heaven; how could they not, when all of China and the majority of its erstwhile enemies recognized Tang leadership? From the Turks’ point of view, however, this period of submission was an unfortunate step they had to take to prevent their own dissolution. With Taizong’s death in 649, things began to change when the young Turks began to question their fathers’ loyalty to Tang China. By 680 the Turks had formally broken away from Tang control and asserted their independence. Patriotic Turk hotheads began to bemoan the fact that their people had ever submitted to Chinese overlordship at all. The Turks pursued their own national destiny until 744, when they were conquered not by the Chinese but by the Uighurs, a related Turkic-speaking people. In 745 the Uighurs presented the Tang Chinese with the head of the last Turkish khan to prove that they were now the masters of the steppe lands on China’s northern borders. The Uighurs never did accept an inferior position vis-a-vis China. In fact, in many ways, the Uighurs lorded it over China because the Tang had, in the 750s, asked for and received their help in quelling the An Lushan rebellion. Tang China after An Lushan owed its empire to the Uighurs and knew it, so Tang authorities never dared cross the Uighurs. Uighur horsemen haughtily pranced about the streets of Chang’an, seemingly aware of popular Chinese resentment against them but caring little about it.

Partial Recovery: Song, 960-1279

The Tang dynasty came to an end in 907, when the last Tang emperor gave up his throne. With this abdication, China entered a brief period of disunity called the Five Dynasties period, which lasted from 907 to 960. Each of the Five Dynasties lasted only a brief time before being overthrown by another, and all of them ruled only in northern China. (During this period, the south was ruled by a series of motley regimes that were later called the Ten Kingdoms.) During the Five Dynasties, a powerful barbarian people on China’s north, the Kitans, conquered a portion of northern China and proclaimed a new dynasty of their own: the Liao (907-1125). The portion of northern Chinese territory occupied by the Kitan Liao was not recovered by a native Chinese dynasty until 1368.

Lasting unity over most of China’s historical territory was finally achieved in 960 by Zhao Kuangyin, who became the founding emperor of the Song dynasty (960-1279) and is known in Chinese history as Song Taizu, or “Grand Progenitor of the Song.” Taizu was originally a general for the last of the Five Dynasties, but he turned against it when he deemed its fortunes were finished. The story of his rise to power is known to every educated Chinese. According to some Song historical materials, Zhao (the future Taizu) awoke one morning in his military camp and was startled to find a yellow robe draped about his shoulders. He immediately understood the momentous meaning of the robe: yellow was the imperial color, and only the emperor could wear a yellow robe. He thrice protested his inability and unworthiness to be emperor, but his lieutenants were so insistent, and the voice of the people was so enthusiastic, that he finally agreed reluctantly to bow to the popular will and proclaim his own dynasty, the Song, with its capital at Kaifeng (which was then known as Bian or Bianliang). His dynasty lasted for over 300 years when it was overthrown by the Mongol descendants of Chinggis Khan in 1279.

Zhao was probably more ambitious and less reluctant to assume power than this idealized version of the events indicates. He was unhappy that the emperor of the dynasty against which he rebelled was a mere child and probably concluded that he himself was more qualified to unify China, and the unification of China was very much on his mind after he proclaimed his dynasty. He had two great tasks before him: first, the conquest of the south and the internal unification of China and second, recovery of the parts of northern China conquered by the Kitans. He had his work cut out for him.

One of Taizu’s steps in securing his power over China internally was to reign in the military. He was, of course, quite self-conscious about his own rise to power through a military mutiny, and he wanted to ensure that nobody else would be able to challenge his power in this way. He carefully and deliberately deprived his lieutenants of their own military authority and transferred it into his own hands. Another well-known story gives an idealized and dramatic account of how all this happened. One night at a sumptuous wine-and-dine affair with his comrades in arms, Taizu (who was apparently quite drunk) began to weep bitterly. Surprised and taken aback by this, his lieutenants asked him why he was crying. He responded that he could not bear the thought that his own military comrades, here so convivially gathered with him on this evening, might one day launch a military rebellion against him. Each of them protested that this would never happen and sought to console him. Eventually they agreed that in order to get Taizu’s spirits back up, they would remand all of their military authority over to him in symbolic exchange for one more round of wine. Taizu took them up on this (maybe he was not so drunk after all), and with one momentous toast he deprived them of their military autonomy. His success at this is known, if not universally celebrated, as the “exchange of military authority for a cup of wine.”

However it actually happened, Taizu’s consolidation of military authority in his own hands, as well as his insistence that the civilian arm of the government should have unquestionable control over the military, had important and long-range consequences. First of all, these developments significantly weakened the military. In his efforts to achieve control over the military and prevent any challenge to his power from that quarter, Taizu also reduced the size of the military, which eventually had a disastrous effect on the Song’s national security. Second, they led to an overall climate during the Song that was disdainful and untrusting of the military. Taizu canceled military conscription and relied on an all-volunteer army. As a result, the army had trouble attracting quality men. Its ranks were eventually filled with large numbers of sentenced criminals, ne’er-do-wells, and the dregs of society. A popular saying of the time went that “good iron should not be made into nails, and good boys should not serve as soldiers.”

All in all, the Song was a weak dynasty militarily. The traditional Chinese assessment of the dynasty is succinct and to the point: “heavy on civilian government, light on the military” (zhongwen qingwu). Patriotic Chinese today do not generally look upon the Song with much favor, and some disparagingly refer to it as “the little dynasty” (xiao chaoting) and even blame it for the humiliating military defeats China suffered at the hands of the British and other aggressive European powers nine centuries later. The Song’s military weakness is probably traceable to Taizu’s concerns about military threats to his government, and in retrospect it is evident that he probably overreacted to this possibility. His dynasty never grew to the size or power of the mighty Han or Tang empires. It did not rule over a far-flung empire or have a long arm of territory extending far out into Central Asia, and it failed to attract as much international admiration or envy as the Tang had.

Taizu was not content simply to have increased control over a weakened military. He also had concerns about the social sphere—namely the political or economic pressure that prominent families and lineage groups might bring to bear on his government. Taizu did not like the aristocratic style of the former Tang dynasty, and he took steps to prevent a new Tang-style aristocratic class from emerging during his dynasty. He wanted the vast majority of civilian officials in his government to get their positions because of what they knew, not who they knew or what their family backgrounds were. Accordingly, he reestablished and greatly expanded the examination system, and eventually the majority of his government officials were people who had no aristocratic family backgrounds but had secured their government employment by passing civil service examinations. This ensured that he had a fresh flow of new, nonaristocratic blood in his government bureaucracy. Of course, each new recruit into the Song government knew that he owed his position and allegiance to Taizu’s dynasty and government, and not to the wealth, prestige, or influence of his own family. In short, Taizu’s government was a meritocracy, not an aristocracy. As the sole assessor and rewarder of merit, the Song government was secure and not in a position to be manipulated by the interests or pressures of prominent families.

After eliminating any possible military and social challenges to his position, Taizu turned his attention to challenges from the government bureaucracy itself. Accordingly, he reorganized government ministries, weakened their ties with one another, and placed them beneath him hierarchically to foster ambiguous and adversarial ties among them. At the same time, he took care to strengthen and clearly define each ministry’s direct power relationship with himself. By weakening the horizontal ties between ministries and strengthening the vertical ties between them and himself, Taizu consolidated his own power over the government bureaucracy. If there was a disagreement over government policy, it was between the ministries, and he was left as the sole, unchallengeable arbiter of these differences. The man was a political animal, and he played the game well.

All of this was somewhat ironic, given the Song’s very humble territorial position. Externally, China had not been as weak since the Period of Division, when one barbarian regime after another occupied huge tracts of Chinese territory. Song China did not command the respect or admiration of its international neighbors, and the Kitan Liao (and two other barbarian states on the Song’s western and southern frontiers) frequently humiliated China with attacks on its borders and insults to its national honor. Internally, however, the first Song emperor gathered unprecedented amounts of civilian and military power into his own hands. Thus, the Song was externally weaker and internally stronger than any previous major dynasty. It is almost tempting to conclude that the one was the cause of the other, or that Zhao and his successors increased their own power internally precisely because they and their state were so weak on the international scene. As far as power relationships were concerned, a certain amount of anxiety or self-consciousness may have shaped the form and style of Song government.

Taizu died in 976 without completely eliminating the last of the holdout Chinese dynasties in the south. This was accomplished by his brother and successor, known in Chinese history as Song Taizong (Grand Ancestor of the Song). Afterward Taizong moved to recover the northern Chinese territories lost earlier in the century to the Kitans, but his two attacks against the Kitan both ended in humiliating defeat. (During the second attack, Taizong was hit by two Kitan arrows and had to be transported back to Song territory in a donkey cart.) He died in 997 without having recovered the lost territory, and a timid and vacillating emperor known as Zhenzong (“Naive Ancestor”) succeeded him.

The Kitans attacked China in 1004, perhaps in revenge for the Song’s two earlier attacks against them. To their probable surprise, however, the Kitans found that Song China stoutly resisted their invasion, and the next year the two states concluded a formal peace agreement called the Shanyuan Treaty. The treaty stopped all fighting between the Song and the Liao dynasty of the Kitans, and peace between the two states prevailed for over a century. The major results of the treaty were that the Liao called off the attack and an agreement was made that the Song would annually pay the Kitan Liao 100,000 ounces of silver and 200,000 rolls of silk. The fight ended in a draw between the two sides, but each regarded itself as victorious. The Song proclaimed victory because the Kitans stopped the attack and retreated, while the Kitans told their people that the Song was so terrified that it agreed to pay them every year if they would just go away. Regardless of which side “won,” the treaty stopped the fighting and helped usher in one of China’s greatest centuries: the eleventh. In spite of its external weakness, eleventh-century China was, overall, a very peaceful and prosperous place. Some of China’s most significant intellectual, economic, and technological innovations were made during this century.

The peace and prosperity came to an end in the early 1100s with the emergence in the north of another barbarian power: the Jurchens and their Jin dynasty (1115-1234). The Jurchens, a seminomadic people, challenged the Kitans for power north of China and eventually defeated them in battle. Song China made tentative peaceful gestures to the Jurchens but eventually went back on them, and in reprisal the Jurchens attacked the Song and took over huge amounts of its territory, including its capital city. One member of the Song royal family managed to flee to southern China, where he and his supporters set up a new capital city in Hangzhou (then called Lin’an) in 1127. From here the remnants of the Song dynasty endured until 1279 and the Mongols’ complete conquest of China. This period of Chinese history is usually called Southern Song, reflecting the dynasty’s move to the south. (The period of Song history before this was eventually called Northern Song.)

The Southern Song initially was not prepared to give up all of the territory it lost to the Jurchens without another fight. The majority opinion in Southern Song seems to have favored an attempt at recon-quest of the lost territories, but there was some opposition to this. In the late 1130s and early 1140s, the two main principals of this disagreement were a general named Yue Fei, who favored reconquest, and the emperor’s chief councilor, named Qin Gui, who opposed it. (These two men have been called, respectively, the greatest patriot and the vilest villain in all of Chinese history.) Yue Fei launched his attack but was recalled by Qin Gui and thrown into prison, where he died. The Jurchens were so angry at being attacked that they demanded formal recognition of their claim to the Chinese territory they had already conquered, an increase in the annual silver and silk payments over and above what used to be paid to the Kitans, and, most humiliating of all, China’s acceptance of “vassal” status vis-a-vis the Jurchens’ Jin dynasty. Acting very much against prevailing public opinion, the Southern Song government accepted these demands in 1142. Subsequently, Yue Fei was celebrated as a hero who had died fighting in the noble cause to recover lost territory for the motherland, and Qin Gui was almost universally vilified. Even today there are temples to Yue Fei’s memory in Taiwan, and on the mainland, crowds of Chinese patriots have been known to show their contempt for Qin Gui’s “capitulationist” policies by spitting on a statue of him and making demeaning gestures to the statue of his wife.

The national humiliation of being a vassal to the Jin did not last long. In the 1160s fighting broke out again between Jin and Southern Song, but this time the Song acquitted itself well on the battlefield and agreed to end the hostilities only after the Jin assented to eliminating China’s vassal status.

After this, life dragged on in the Southern Song. Being so far south, the Song government and its people became more oriented to trade along China’s coastline, and soon Hangzhou emerged as a thriving metropolis that engaged in maritime trade with many nations. Even so, however, Hangzhou did not have the same open-minded attitudes toward foreigners that Chang’an did during the Tang. China, by late Southern Song times, had learned to fear foreigners and was not as fascinated with their cultures as Tang China had been.

The great Mongol conqueror Chinggis Khan emerged in 1206 as the undisputed leader of all pastoral nomadic peoples north of China. He and his successors in the Mongol world empire intermittently attacked the Jin dynasty of the Jurchens until it fell in 1234, and after this the Mongols and the Southern Song shared a border. The Southern Song government in Hangzhou was probably not very sad to see the Jurchens defeated, but they occasionally wondered if they would be the next target of the conquering Mongols. Their worst fears were realized in the 1250s, when the Mongols began attacking southern China. The fight with the Mongols was long and hard, but by 1279 the Mongol leader Khubilai (Kublai Khan) had succeeded in conquering all of China and proclaiming a new dynasty: the Yuan. This was the first time in history that all of China, and not just part of it, had fallen to foreign conquerors.

Song Foreign Relations with the Kitan Liao, 1005-ca. 1120

In 1988 Jingshen Tao, a prominent historian of Song diplomacy and foreign relations, published a book entitled Two Sons of Heaven: Studies in Sung-Liao Relations. The purpose of his startling title was to point out that Song foreign relations were unique in Chinese history. The Song was one of only a very few periods in Chinese history when the Chinese emperor explicitly and publicly recognized a foreign ruler as the equal of himself.

Actually, the Song had no choice. The Kitans and their Liao dynasty to China’s north had proven to be more than a match for Song China. Because the Liao was a militarily powerful state that ruled over a significant Chinese population, it demanded to be treated diplomatically as an equal. The Liao would hear of no pejorative or condescending references to its regime or people, and its rulers would be called emperors (huangdi), and not something lesser such as sovereigns (jun), kings (wang), or lords (zhu). The Liao was also greatly concerned about its border security and insisted on strictly demarcating exactly where its territory began and the Song territory ended.

After the Shanyuan Treaty, the Song and the Liao recognized each other as “brotherly states” and their emperors as familial relations. These fictitious kinship ties were taken quite seriously, and both states carefully monitored the changing relationships between their emperors. (For example, an older brother/younger brother relationship would be altered to an uncle/nephew relationship when the older brother passed away and a new emperor took his place.) A fairly complex pattern of diplomatic relations between the Song and the Liao eventually emerged during the eleventh century. This diplomacy involved the frequent dispatch of ad hoc envoys and their retinues who traveled to the neighboring emperor’s court for a time and then left; the European norm of fixed embassies and permanent residential diplomacy was almost completely unknown in premodern China, as the British and other Western nations were to discover during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Two types of traveling embassies were exchanged annually between the Song and the Liao: birthday felicitation envoys and new year felicitation envoys. Several other types of embassies were dispatched on an irregular, as-needed basis when reigning emperors, empresses, or dowager empresses passed away and new ones were enthroned. All of these embassies were of course purely ceremonial, but at a minimum they did maintain yearly diplomatic contact between the two states and served as reminders of the inviolability of the Shanyuan Treaty. Other types of embassies conducted substantive, negotiatory contact between the two states.

Song relations with the Jurchens basically followed the precedents established after the Shanyuan Treaty. With the exception of the period from 1142 to the 1160s, when the Song was nominally a vassal to the Jin, Song and Jin emperors continued to regard and address each other as equals in their diplomatic communications and ritual.


During the late Tang period, a reaction against Buddhism was developing among China’s intellectual elite. An essay written by the late Tang scholar Han Yu (768-824), encouraging a Tang emperor not to receive a reputed finger bone of the Buddha as a sacred relic, is widely regarded as the opening salvo against Buddhism and the beginning of a Confucian revival that flourished during the subsequent Song period and beyond.

Neo-Confucianism was a rediscovery or reassertion of China’s Confucian past, often seemingly at the expense of the Buddhist heritage from India. The Song dynasty framers of Neo-Confucianism attempted to show that authentic Confucian thought could address many of the profound cosmological and metaphysical concerns dealt with by Buddhism. Neo-Confucianists argued that a Confucian cosmology could be abstracted from some of the most ancient Chinese texts, and they eventually identified a corpus of these texts to serve as an authoritative statement of Confucius’s ideology and the very ancient thought to which they argued he subscribed. Their purpose seems to have been to show that the secular and this-worldly concerns of Confucian thought could be expanded or conflated into a more comprehensive consideration of the universe. Buddhism was not the only cosmological game in town; Confucianism too could be shown to be profound and cosmological.

Neo-Confucianism eventually developed into two distinct strands. One school, given definitive expression by the great Southern Song philosopher and synthesizer Zhu Xi, was very rationalistic and centered on the study of principles (li), which it taught inhered in all things. Li were nonmaterial realities that were manifest in the material world, or qi. The greatest or ultimate expression of all li was the Supreme Ultimate (taiji), and the universe itself was the result of the various interworkings of these two great cosmological realities. Zhu Xi’s cosmology was perhaps a dualism, or a philosophy holding that the universe is composed of two basic and irreducible entities. Another school, definitively developed by the Ming scholar Wang Shouren (Wang Yangming, 1472-1529), was more or less a monism, or a conception of the universe as composed of only one ultimate reality. Wang Shouren and like-minded Song philosophers before him argued that the universe was not ultimately two but one; li and qi were ultimately reducible to a single complete unity, and this perfect oneness inhered in people’s minds or hearts (xin). Thus, contemplation of external phenomena and meditating on their li or principles was not as important as recovering the unity of the cosmos that was reflected within each individual.

By Song times, Buddhism was no longer the intellectual darling of the elite. Elites during the Song and subsequent dynasties were more explicitly Confucian in their public and ideological lives than their Tang predecessors had been, but many of them retained, like Han Yu himself, some measure of attachment to Buddhism and Buddhist principles in their private lives. It would be a mistake to conclude that China’s intellectuals had by Song times completely turned their backs on Buddhism; and, of course, Buddhism continued to flourish throughout other segments of Chinese society well into modern times.

The Tang-Song Transition: Major Changes in Chinese Civilization

Historians of China have noticed some fundamental changes in China between the mid-Tang and late Song periods. One fundamental change was China’s relationship with the outside world. In mid-Tang times, prior to the An Lushan rebellion, China was preeminent in the world and knew it. The Chinese had little reason to fear the outside world and seemed to find it endlessly fascinating. By the middle of the thirteenth century, this viewpoint had changed drastically. China had been recognizing the Liao and Jin states and rulers as equals, and the Mongol conquest of all China was rumbling on the horizon. Thirteenth-century China had every reason to be fearful and distrusting of the outside world, especially the barbarian warrior tribes on its northern borders.

Relations between the emperor and the bureaucracy changed as well. In mid-Tang times the emperor was primus inter pares, or first among equals, and he debated policy matters with his government ministers. By late Song times the emperor of a considerable weaker dynasty was, ironically, quite a bit more powerful internally vis-a-vis his bureaucracy than his Tang predecessors had been. He no longer debated policy but listened to rival factions of officials at court debate policy while remaining aloof from the fray. The emperor in late Song times was the final arbiter, and no longer one of the principals, of policy debates. Ministers who came into the presence of the Song emperors were much less relaxed than their Tang counterparts had been.

Most of the elite of Tang society were aristocrats, or people who came from families who had served Chinese governments for centuries. Being a member of the cultural and policy-making elite in Tang China was, on balance, just as much a matter of who you were as what you knew or how competent you were. Tang officialdom was largely an aristocracy. By late Song times, on the other hand, a slight majority of the elite came from families that had little or no heritage of government service. The Song dynasty had expanded its civil service examination system and had made official careers more available to men of talent, regardless of their bloodlines. The Song government did not want to be dominated by prominent aristocratic families and their interests. This style was started by the founding Song emperor, who wanted a class of officials more dependent on him for their positions than on any other segment of society. Song officialdom was, on balance, more of a meritocracy than an aristocracy.

Taxation changed. In Tang China, prior to the An Lushan rebellion, taxes were largely levied on people, not on land. Peasants farmed land owned by the state, and the taxes they paid to the state were more or less the rent for their land. By late Song times, on the other hand, private ownership of land was recognized, and taxes were levied on the land itself, according to how productive or fertile it was. Sources of tax revenue also changed over the Tang-Song transition. Mid-Tang revenues were largely drawn from agricultural taxes, but by late Song times commerce had expanded so much that commercial taxes accounted for fully half of the government’s tax revenue.

The monetary system also changed. Tang China used copper coins as money, but by late Song times paper money was in widespread circulation. Marco Polo described to an astonished Europe the use of paper currency he encountered in Chinese cities just after the Mongol conquest of China.

There were also important population and demographic shifts. Chang’an, the Tang capital, had been more or less China’s only major city, but by late Song times there were more than 10 cities with populations of one million or more. Hangzhou, the capital of the Southern Song, had a population of four million, which is quite large even by modern North American standards. Marco Polo described the teeming population, abundant luxuries, and unimaginable wealth and ingenuity he had encountered in Hangzhou, or “Quinsai” as he called the city, during the late thirteenth century. The population of Song China was already 100 million by 1100, far surpassing the Tang population high mark of 60 million. Urbanization, of course, was a major trend as a greater proportion of the Chinese population lived in cities by the end of the Song. Demographic shifts accompanied the population growth and urbanization as southern China was opened up to wet rice cultivation, which feeds more people per square unit of surface area than the dry cropping practiced in the north. In mid-Tang times the majority of China’s population lived in the north, but by the late Song slightly over half of China’s population lived in the south.

The quality of life of elite women worsened over the Tang-Song transition. In Tang times it was not unusual for an elite gentleman to view an educated and articulate woman as a very desirable companion, and she would often accompany him at drinking or social occasions. By Song times, however, several developments made life grimmer for women. The cult of female chastity, seldom prevalent in Tang times, was in full swing by the late Song, as was the idea that a chaste and virtuous woman should never remarry, even if her first husband died while in his youth. Concubinage was also much more common during Song times. Perhaps most bizarre of all, the practice of foot binding emerged during Five Dynasties and Song times. Foot binding catered to the foot fetish of elite Song men, who found unnaturally tiny feet attractive and normal-sized feet repulsive. To achieve the standard of feminine beauty in foot size, or “three-inch golden lotuses” as tiny feet were often called, many of the daughters in elite families had their feet deformed from an early age. Tightly wrapped bandages gradually broke the arch of the foot and caused the toes and heel to grow inward toward one another. This excruciatingly painful process was complete by the girl’s late teens, at which time she was deformed for life. Chinese literature abounds with stories of mothers who wept bitterly as they wrapped their daughters’ feet; they knew that the process hurt, but if their daughters did not have small feet, they would never be able to marry a prominent man and achieve social standing. Foot binding continued well into the first decades of the twentieth century but was finally abandoned when China bowed to modern ways and international norms.

The Mongol Conquest

In 1279 Khubilai Khan, grandson of the Mongol conqueror Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan), prevailed over the last vestigial Song loyalist resistance and brought all of China under Mongol rule. This was the first time in history that all of China had been conquered by a foreign people. The Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) established by Khubilai was only part of a larger Mongol world empire that included other “khanates” or regions conquered and ruled by the Mongols: the Golden Horde in Russia, the Il Khanate in Persia and other areas of the Middle East, and the Chagadai Khanate in Central Asia. Together, these khanates formed the largest land empire the world has ever known. Khubilai Khan was Khaghan, or Grand Khan, over all of these khanates. He was, in the words of Marco Polo, “the most powerful man since Adam.” His only significant failures were the abortive invasions of Japan he made during the later years of his reign.

The Mongol conquest of China was a long time in the making. Its roots go back to the twelfth century when a young man named Temujin, abandoned by his clan when his father was poisoned by political enemies, began building up a personal following in the steppe regions north of China, an area we know today as Mongolia. By dint of determination, luck, and the guidance of his mother, Temujin expanded his power over several rival tribes and finally became ruler of them all. In 1206, at a great assembly of pastoral nomadic warriors, he was proclaimed Chinggis Khan, which means “Universal Ruler” or “Khan from Ocean to Ocean.” Chinggis Khan attacked the Jurchen Jin dynasty in northern China, and for a time the Jin seemed willing to submit to his rule. Ultimately, however, the Jin rebelled against Mongol overlordship and was never fully subjugated by Chinggis Khan, who devoted much of his life after 1206 to conquering Central Asia, including many Islamic regions. When Chinggis Khan died in 1227 he had not subjugated the Jurchens, and the task was left to his son and successor, Ogodei Khan, who completed it in 1234.

With this, all of northern China came under Mongol control. For a time Ogodei considered exterminating all the Chinese in northern China and converting it into grasslands for pastoral nomads, but his ethnic Kitan advisor, Yelu Chucai, talked him out of it, convincing him that Chinese peasants made agriculture possible, which in turn was responsible for the enormous wealth he was extracting from China.

In 1251 Mongke Khan, Ogodei’s cousin, became Grand Khan of the Mongol world empire and decided to undertake two great conquest campaigns: one against Persia and one against China. Mongke personally mounted the campaign against Southern Song China and sent his younger brother Hulegu to attend to the conquest of Persia, which was accomplished by 1256. The Southern Song campaign was more difficult, however, and Mongke died in 1259 without having accomplished it. That honor was left to his brother Khubilai, who became Grand Khan in 1260 but did not conquer the Southern Song until 1279.

The outright conquest of China may not have been Chinggis Khan’s original intention; he seems to have wanted to intimidate China from a distance the way the Xiongnu and Turks had done before him. Möngke and Khubilai, however, had grown up near China and were somewhat familiar with Chinese culture and history. They may have wanted to replicate Tang Taizong’s fate of becoming both emperor to the Chinese and Grand Khan to the nomadic peoples. At any rate, Khubilai took up the conquest of China with relish; however, China was not conquered for almost another 20 years. China was the most difficult, and also the last, of the great Mongol conquests. Khubilai had named his regime in China the Yuan a few years before 1279, but from the traditional Chinese point of view the Yuan dynasty did not become legitimate until the last Song emperor died in 1279, after drowning at sea near modern Hong Kong.

The Yuan dynasty lasted for less than a hundred years, and its decline set in after Khubilai’s death in 1294. Yuan China was administratively unstable because some Khans after Khubilai favored a more “native” or Chinese style of governance in China; others were more “traditional” or Mongolian in their approach and sought to exploit China for the good of the larger Mongol empire. This produced an inconsistency and unpredictability in Yuan government that did not bode well for its long-term longevity.

The Mongol conquerors of China seldom fully trusted Chinese officials and appointed Mongolian or Central Asian commissars to supervise them and keep close tabs on their activities. Very few governmental decisions or orders made by Chinese officials were valid without the cosignatures of the commissars. The Mongols also canceled the Chinese civil service examinations for most of the Yuan dynasty, preferring other methods of recruiting government officials. In some surprising ways, Mongol rule in China was not as harsh as might be imagined. Capital crimes and executions in Yuan China were actually few er in number than they had been during the Song. Mongols imposed laws to reduce animal suffering in China and specified quick and humane means of slaughter. The Mongols did discriminate against the Chinese, and in particular against the southern Chinese. This probably was not racism, as some scholars have labeled it, but more of a hierarchy of assessed loyalties. That is, Mongols tended to trust people who had been loyal to them the longest. Central Asians had mostly submitted to the Mongols during Chinggis Khan’s lifetime; the northern Chinese were conquered in 1234; and the Southern Song Chinese were not subjugated until 1279.

The Yuan period was not a cultural void in China. Painting flourished, as did drama and vernacular literature. A robust debate within the Confucian tradition occurred as Chinese scholars wrestled with the question of whether to serve their new Mongol masters. Some refused to work for the Mongol barbarian invaders, while others concluded that now more than ever, China needed the cultural and moral influence that Confucianism could exert. Traditional Chinese education was maintained in many private academies run by Neo-Confucian scholars. In fact, it was during the Yuan that the Four Books, known and largely memorized by every scholar in Ming and Qing times, were made the authoritative canon of Neo-Confucian ideology.

The Mongols ultimately failed to maintain order in China and contributed to many of the late Yuan’s problems, including inflation, unemployment, neglect of water conservation projects, and botched famine relief efforts. By 1368 the Chinese had had enough, and a rebel leader among them named Zhu Yuanzhang overthrew their dynasty, sent most of the Mongols packing back to Mongolia, and founded the Ming dynasty, which was to endure until 1644.

Ming Recovery: 1368-1644

Zhu Yuanzhang was the first commoner since Liu Bang, the founding emperor of the Han dynasty, to rise from the status of commoner to emperor. He was born to very poor peasant parents and was orphaned at an early age. As a teenager he became a Buddhist monk and then turned to the wandering life of a beggar when times got bad. He joined a quasi-religious movement against the Mongols and quickly rose to leadership. He had established a regime in Nanjing by 1367, and the next year he moved northward to Beijing, where he defeated the Mongol rulers and expelled them to Mongolia. He named his dynasty Ming.

Zhu gathered an unprecedented amount of political and military power into his own hands, more than the Tang or even Song emperors had. He was an extraordinarily competent and energetic ruler who attended to a myriad of administrative details himself. He was the apex of the Ming governmental pyramid, and he made all important governmental decisions himself. This was the famous “Ming despotism,” which refers not to his harsh treatment of his subjects (Zhu was in fact a populist who advocated social leveling policies and instituted soak-the-rich taxation) but to his consolidation and concentration of power into his own hands, at the expense of the bureaucracy. In fact, he may have been reacting against the late Yuan dynasty’s lack of effective, centralized power.

Zhu Yuanzhang was a gifted leader, but his shortcomings were startling. Toward the end of his life, he grew paranoid and suspicious of all those around him, even his lifelong associates and supporters, and he had many of them dismissed or worse. He was hypersensitive to criticisms and slights, real or perceived, and touchy about his personal ugliness.

The Ming government functioned well when a competent emperor such as Zhu Yuanzhang ruled over it, but when subsequent mediocre emperors came to power, the results were often disastrous. In such cases, governmental power often devolved to the eunuchs, the emasculated personal attendants of the emperor, and they were not always the most scrupulous of men. The late Ming period, in particular, was a time of administrative gridlock and decay as emperors neglected their governmental responsibilities while eunuchs ran the country as they saw fit, for their own aggrandizement.

The third Ming emperor, Yongle (r. 1403-1425), moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, where it remained for the rest of the dynasty, because his power base was mostly in Beijing and because the city was a convenient base from which to launch periodic raids into Mongolia and keep an eye on any possible attempts to reestablish Mongol domination over China. Perhaps because he was nervous about the perceived legitimacy of his succession to the throne, Yongle dispatched the Muslim navigator Zheng He (Cheng Ho) on seven maritime expeditions to areas as far away as India and even the Swahili Coast of Africa. His purpose might have been to cultivate more diplomatic contacts and thus new legitimizing recognition for the new emperor.

As the Ming dynasty wore on there was a distinct inward turn in China, and some xenophobia and isolationism emerged, although international trade and contacts were never completely curtailed. The overall Ming mood was certainly less cosmopolitan, less international, and less open than the Tang. The Ming, of course, did have its share of trouble from foreign peoples, particularly the Mongols.

Ming-Mongol Relations

By far the greatest foreign policy concern for the Ming was the Mongols, who after all had conquered and ruled China for nearly a century before being overthrown and expelled. The Mongols made frequent noises about restoring the Yuan dynasty and recovering China, and for several decades after their return to Mongolia they maintained the fiction of a Northern Yuan regime. The Chinese built the Great Wall of China during the Ming dynasty to counter Mongol revanchist threats and refused, for almost the entire dynasty, to come to any sort of a trade accommodation with the Mongols. As a result, the Ming was subjected to raids and harassment along its northern borders to an extent unparalleled in Chinese history.

Yongle’s strategy for dealing with the Mongol threat was to invade Mongolia periodically and play off rival Mongolian groups against one another, usually Western Mongols against Eastern Mongols. After his death, however, Ming China reverted to a more passive and defensive strategy. In 1449 a Western Mongol leader launched a massive invasion of Chinese territory and fought his way to Beijing. The Ming emperor himself went out to meet the Mongols on the battlefield, but this action ended in defeat and his capture. The Western Mongols thought they now had a hugely valuable bargaining chip with the Chinese, but the Ming simply enthroned another emperor. Thus deprived of their leverage with Ming China but still fearful of Chinese reprisals if the captive emperor were harmed, the Western Mongols returned the hapless emperor the next year. The entire incident embarrassed the Ming but also spelled the end of the Western Mongols’ prestige and power in the steppe lands.

The next threat to Ming China came from the Eastern Mongols, who could lay claim to the lineage of Chinggis Khan. By the 1500s the Eastern Mongols were regularly launching cavalry raids on the Ming’s northern defenses, and this continued for most of the century. In 1570, however, a formal peace treaty and trade agreement between most of the Eastern Mongols and Ming China ended most of the fighting. After 1570 the Mongols converted en masse to Tibetan-style Buddhism, which reduced their martial ardor. By 1600, the threat to China was no longer the Mongols but the Manchus, the descendants of the Jurchens.

The Examination System

The Ming reinstituted the examination system from Song times and developed it to its full extent. Like many other Qing institutions, the Qing examination system was based almost completely on the Ming precedent. To pass the examinations, candidates were expected to study Neo-Confucian teachings, which typically entailed a lifetime from childhood of rote memorization of the Four Books and the Five Classics of Chinese antiquity.

There were four main levels of the Ming examinations. The first was a qualifying examination at the county (xian) level. Candidates who qualified took the prefectural (fu) examinations, which were held twice every three years. The tiny minority of candidates who passed earned the title or degree of Shengyuan, sometimes known more colloquially as Xiucai, literally “flowering talent,” and were designated members of the gentry class, a distinction that exempted them from corporeal punishment and corvee requirements. The next rungs of the system were harder to achieve. Provincial examinations were held once every three years at provincial capitals, where candidates were locked up in individual examination cells for several days while they wrote essays. Only about 1 percent of the candidates passed these examinations and earned the coveted degree of Juren, literally “recommended man.” Juren degree holders were eligible to participate in the final level of the examination system, the capital or metropolitan examinations held once every three years in Beijing. These examinations involved written essays and also a personal audience with the emperor himself, at which the candidate was evaluated on the basis of his speaking ability and personal deportment. Candidates who passed this final level were granted the coveted title Jinshi, literally “advanced scholar,” and were virtually guaranteed a lifetime of prestigious government employment.

In theory, the examination system was open to talented individuals of every socioeconomic class. In practice, however, the system was stacked in favor of the wealthy, who could afford the leisure necessary for scholarship and had a family atmosphere that encouraged learning. Still, however, a significant minority of boys from unprivileged backgrounds did succeed at the examinations, and their entry into the bureaucracy guaranteed the Ming and Qing governments a steady stream of fresh, new administrative talent.

The examination system made and destroyed lives. Most bright young boys who started out their childhoods with dreams of success at the examinations and the honor it would bring to their families and ancestors eventually had their hopes dashed, and they faded away into discouraged and disappointed obscurity, perhaps as local gentry who would have some measure of influence and prestige in their local communities but would never achieve national prominence in the government. People who passed the examinations were frequently listless and colorless yes-men who had long since learned to give the government what it wanted and to stop thinking for themselves. This submissive flatness may indeed have been exactly what the government wanted. The examination system did succeed in guaranteeing that government bureaucrats at least knew Confucian teachings, even if they did not always abide by them or believe them. Three things could be said of men who made it all the way through examinations up to the Jinshi level: they were smart, they were tough, and they were disciplined. Slow, delicate, and individualistic men did not have what it took to earn the Jinshi degree. It was smart, tough, and disciplined officials the government wanted to man its bureaucratic posts.

Manchu Conquest: 1644-1912

Administrative negligence eventually produced a crisis during the last century of Ming rule. Bad government, as well as a simple lack of government, contributed to social unrest and desperation in the countryside. Peasant rebellions in northern and southern China became widespread by the 1630s, and in 1644, when a peasant rebel named Li Zicheng entered Beijing, the last Ming emperor committed suicide. This paved the way for the Manchu conquest of China.

In 1644 the Manchus poured into China and captured Beijing, where they restored order and defeated the rebel Li Zicheng who had captured the city. Li, and not the Manchus, had toppled the Ming dynasty, and the Manchus claimed that they had come to restore order in Beijing and in all of China. They named their dynasty Qing and remained in power until 1911.

The Manchus did not come out of nowhere. In their ancestral homeland in Manchuria they had been building a conquest dynasty for several decades. The Qing state started with a leader named Nurhachi (1559-1626), who broke down the old Manchu tribal affiliations and unified the Manchus as a people. Nurhachi nursed an enormous grudge against the Ming for its complicity in the death of his father, and like his Jurchen ancestors, he dreamed of conquering China. But he died in 1626, much too early to see his dream realized. His successors carried on his “great enterprise” of constructing a conquest dynasty, and as things worsened in Ming China a steady stream of Chinese peasants defected to Manchuria and served the Manchus, who were ruling over a more orderly society. In 1636 the Manchus declared a new dynasty, Qing, which signaled their intentions to the Ming. In 1644 a Ming Chinese general allowed massive numbers of Manchu troops to enter China through a pass in the Great Wall, and with this action the Ming dynasty was finished.

The Ming-Qing transition was one of the less traumatic dynasty transitions in Chinese history. The Manchu Qing regime was attractive to many Chinese because it presented an alternative to the chaos and misrule of late Ming China and because it perpetuated Chinese institutions virtually unchanged. Indeed, the Qing was undoubtedly the most Chinese of all the conquest dynasties. Resistance to Manchu rule continued in southern China for a few more decades, but it was completely eliminated in 1683, the year the first great Manchu emperor, the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662-1722), invaded the island of Taiwan, crushed a Ming loyalist regime there, and formally incorporated the island into Chinese territory as a prefecture (fu) of Fujian province.

One token of submission the Manchus required of all Chinese males beyond the age of puberty was, on pain of death, the Manchu coiffure, sometimes called the Manchu “queue” or “pigtail.” The Manchu hairstyle for men specified that the front half of the head be shaved bald and the back portion of the hair be grown long and gathered into a single, tight braid. Many have seen pictures of men in “old China” with these hairstyles, but they should remember that this is a Manchu imposition, not a native Chinese coiffure. Starting in the nineteenth century, Chinese opposed to continued Manchu rule in China announced individual and collective rebellion by cutting off their queues and letting their hair grow out in front.

The Qing was one of China’s greatest dynasties. Eighteenth-century China was the wealthiest, most powerful, and most populous nation in the world, and Europeans often idolized China and outdid themselves for the privilege of trading with the Chinese. The first great Manchu ruler, the Kangxi emperor (r. 1661-1722), became well known in both China and Europe for his Sixteen Moral Maxims in elegant literary Chinese, which were displayed prominently throughout the Qing empire and later expounded upon through colloquial moral fables.

  1. Encourage filial piety and brotherly submissiveness, that human relations may be deepened.
  2. Strengthen kinship clans, that harmony may be manifest.
  3. Harmonize local communities, that lawsuits may cease.
  4. Attend diligently to agriculture and sericulture, that there may be sufficient food and clothing.
  5. Give place to frugality, that there may be sparing use of resources.
  6. Dignify the schools, that scholarly habits may improve.
  7. Condemn heresies, that orthodoxy may be exalted.
  8. Expound on the law, that the foolish and wayward may be admonished.
  9. Elucidate civility and humility, that manners and customs may be improved.
  10. Attend to your proper calling, that the determination of the people may be resolute.
  11. Instruct the children, that wrongdoing may be prevented.
  12. Desist with frivolous lawsuits, that the good and conscientious may be protected.
  13. Forbid the harboring of fugitives, that sharing in their fate may be avoided.
  14. Fully remit taxes, that pressure for payment may be avoided.
  15. Unite community tithings, that brigands and bandits may be apprehended.
  16. Resolve strife and quarrels, that the body and life may be esteemed.

The second great Manchu ruler, the Qianlong (r. 1736-1796) emperor, was a household word in elite European families, and Enlightenment philosophers in Europe wrote quite approvingly of the Qing’s overall secular approach to government.

During the nineteenth century, when the Qing slipped into serious decline, Chinese patriots began blaming the Manchus for most of China’s woes. China would not have suffered as much from external imperialism and internal upheaval, they imagined, if the Chinese themselves were running the dynasty. This, however, was smug conceit, and events after the overthrow of the Manchus in 1911 showed that the Chinese themselves were probably not any more up to facing the challenges of modernity than the Manchus had been. A thoroughgoing political revolution, and not ethnic cleansing of the topmost levels of government, was what finally made the difference for China.

The Qing Tributary System

The Qing was not simply a Chinese dynasty, but a multiethnic empire. The overwhelming majority of the Qing’s subjects were of course Chinese, but the ethnically Chinese core of Qing China (sometimes called China Proper) accounted for only around half of Qing territory. While the Qing’s governance of China Proper was based largely on Ming precedent, non-Chinese administrative practices and institutions were used for other areas. Until well into the nineteenth century, the Qing separately administered Manchuria more or less as an exclusive ethnic park and ancestral homeland for the Manchus. Other non-Chinese areas of the Qing empire, such as Xinjiang, Tibet, Qinghai, and Mongolia, were administered by the Court of Colonial Affairs (Lifanyuan), a high-level central government agency that exercised Qing sovereignty over these areas and directly governed them on behalf of the Qing emperors. Of all these non-Chinese areas, only Outer Mongolia (Mongolia north of the Gobi Desert) managed to escape Chinese control in the twentieth century and became an independent nation. Today Xinjiang, Tibet, and Manchuria (which the Chinese now prefer to call Dongbei, or the northeast) are very much under the direct control of the People’s Republic of China.

Over surrounding areas not directly under its administrative control, the Qing exercised not sovereignty but a more vaguely defined suzerainty, which was essentially a variety of feudal overlordship. A Qing institution called the Bureau of Receptions (Zhukesi) managed relations with quasi-independent vassal states or kingdoms that included Korea, Vietnam, Burma, Siam, Cambodia, the Malay Peninsula, and even the Sulu Archipelago (today part of the Philippines, between Mindanao and Borneo). In accordance with established schedules, these nations sent envoys who offered tribute (local products) to the Qing emperor and performed before him the kowtow, a ritual of extreme obeisance that involved prostration and audibly knocking the forehead on the floor. This was a symbolic recognition that their countries were humble vassal states of the mighty Qing empire.

These nations subjected themselves to this humiliating procedure because the benefits they received for mere gestures of submission to the Qing outweighed any fleeting chagrin they might suffer. In return for offering tribute and performing the kowtow, the Qing conferred a title of recognition on the nation’s king and showered him and his envoys with lavish gifts out of all proportion to the worth of the tributary items presented. Tribute missions were allowed to remain in Beijing and trade for several days after their audiences with the Qing emperor, and this trade was fabulously lucrative. Enfeoffment by the Qing emperor often conferred legitimacy and prestige on royal families in these nations and made challenging their power quite difficult; it was no trifling matter to contemplate toppling a royal house that had received a Qing patent. Implicit in these tributary arrangements was also a guarantee of Qing military assistance in case of aggression by a third power.

Contrary to popular opinion, not all nations of the world were regarded as participants in the tribute system, which Harvard’s John K. Fairbank once labeled the “Chinese world order.” For instance, the Qing never regarded Japan or India as tributary states. Some European nations that wanted favorable trade relations with China seemed to accept elements of the system, and the resulting misunderstanding and friction led, in the nineteenth century, to war between China and some Western European powers.

Qing Intellectual Trends

The fall of the Ming was deeply troubling to many Chinese intellectuals, and for the rest of the seventeenth century and beyond many Chinese contemplated the reasons for the Manchu conquest. What had gone wrong? Several scholars seem to have concluded that one major problem was Neo-Confucianism itself. Perhaps, they speculated, the Song and Ming Neo-Confucianists had not properly understood Confucian thought after all; perhaps Neo-Confucianism was too heavily tainted with Buddhist ideas, terminology, and analytical categories.

An intellectual movement arose among many scholars who had reservations about Neo-Confucianism. For them, the best way to recover the authentic Confucian vision was a back-to-the-basics, back-to-the-original-texts approach. They sought to look back into Chinese antiquity before the Song Neo-Confucian thinkers to see what the texts really said. Many scholars concluded that the compelling inner logic of Neo-Confucianism had distracted scholars into neglecting basic textual scholarship. What did the texts themselves say apart from Neo-Confucian commentaries and glosses?

Could the texts speak for themselves? Many concluded that they could and devoted themselves to developing long-neglected textual skills. Scholars poured their lives into careful philology, or the study of origins, meanings, and authenticity of ancient texts. Some scholars devoted their lives to reconstructing ancient pronunciations or pinpointing ancient place-names. All of this work was done with the faith that, in the end, the texts now carefully understood would reveal the authentic Confucian moral vision. Implicit in all this careful textual scholarship, which the Chinese called kaozheng, was the assumption that Confucius was indeed correct about Chinese antiquity. It was the understanding of Confucianism, and not authentic Confucianism itself, that was the problem. Large numbers of Chinese intellectuals did not begin questioning the appropriateness and applicability of Confucianism itself in the modern world until the early decades of the twentieth century.

Qing scholarship was not all a matter of hairsplitting textual research. Many Qing scholars continued to think in cosmological terms, and some of them mounted sustained criticisms of kaozheng scholarship, which seemed at times to miss the philosophical forest for the philological trees.

Technological Innovations

Chinese technological prowess and inventive genius seem to have tapered off after the Mongol conquest. The Tang and Song periods, however, saw some extraordinarily important technological innovations that changed the course of world history.

Everyone knows that the Chinese invented gunpowder, but many people are surprised to learn that Chinese alchemists were seeking an elixir of immortality when they discovered the formula for gunpowder. (The Chinese term for gunpowder is huoyao, literally “fire medicine.”) Chinese alchemists as far back as Han times had experimented with sulfur and were appalled by its toxic and volatile nature when heated. To “subdue” or tame the sulfur before heating they added other substances (often saltpeter) to it. Later, during Tang times, alchemists discovered that adding charcoal to unheated mixtures of sulfur and saltpeter yielded a compound that was instantaneously combustible, even explosive, when heated. The formula for gunpowder was perfected during subsequent centuries, and during the eleventh century the Song scholar Zeng Gongliang published this formula for the first time in world history. In the West today, conventional wisdom holds that, although the Chinese invented gunpowder, they never applied it effectively in military technology. This, however, is untrue. During Song and Yuan times, the Chinese invented and used grenades, land mines, flamethrowers, and bombs in warfare. Rockets were invented in Song China during the eleventh century, and the world’s first true guns appeared in China during the Song-Yuan transition. Gun technology then quickly spread from China and reached Europe by 1320.

China was the first civilization to print books, although printing itself was not invented in China. (The use of carved seals to stamp names on various surfaces goes back to the ancient Mesopotamian civilization of Sumeria, which far outdates Chinese civilization.) The Chinese did invent and perfect woodblock printing, or the art of carving obverse images and hundreds of words onto fruitwood blocks, which were then inked and applied to paper. The first complete printed book in world history was probably a Buddhist work, the Diamond Sutra, in Tang China in 868. By early Song times entire collections of writings were printed and circulated among friends. A 130-volume set of the Confucian classics was published in Song China in 953 and sold to the public. Korea was the first country to which Chinese woodblock printing spread, and from Korea it probably was transmitted to Japan.

It is almost universally believed in the West that Johann Gutenberg was the first in the world to invent movable type printing in 1458. (Some Koreans have also argued that movable print type was first invented in Korea.) Recent studies in Chinese technological history have shown that movable type was actually another Chinese first. Song scholar Shen Gua records the first use of a complete set of movable printing type in China during the 1040s. Even so, movable type technology did not find immediate and extensive use in China because of its impracticability. Thousands of individual characters were used in ordinary Chinese writing, and the meticulous process of arranging individual character types was often more difficult than simply carving up entire page blocks from scratch. Movable type was more practically applicable to alphabetic languages, and its first revolutionary effects were undeniably felt in the West.

Other lesser-known inventions of the Chinese are somewhat surprising. The world’s first mechanical clock was invented in Tang China during the eighth century. By the eleventh century, the ingenious Chinese inventor Su Song had perfected a mechanical clock that ran in good time from 1092 until Kaifeng, the Northern Song capital, was overrun by the Jurchens in 1126. Descriptions of his and other Chinese mechanical clocks eventually made their way to Europe, where a working mechanical clock was first constructed in the early fourteenth century.

The Chinese also understood the principles of what Europeans call Mercator map projections, or the flat maps of the world that typically show Greenland to be much larger than it really is in relation to North America. European historians usually credit the first Mercator projections to the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator, who lived and flourished during the sixteenth century. But manuscript Mercator projection star maps go back to the tenth century in China, and in the late eleventh century Su Song published Mercator-style maps in one of his many technical books.

The world’s first inoculation against smallpox probably occurred in China during Northern Song times; by sixteenth-century Ming times, it was widely practiced. The Chinese even made the world’s first phosphorescent paintings in Northern Song times, centuries before phosphorescent substances were first introduced in the West during the eighteenth century.