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Grandeur and Weakness to 1279 and the Mongols

South of the Yangzi, the ruling Liu-Song family decimated itself in internal power conflicts. In 479, rule by the discredited family was replaced by that of a state official, who would found the Qi dynasty, and it would be known for its instability. The Qi dynasty would last only to 502.

Meanwhile, north of the Yangzi the Xiongnu ruler, Xianwen, (born in China and of the Northern Wei dynasty) was pushing for adoption of all things Chinese, including wearing Chinese clothes the taking Chinese wives. China was becoming more of a mix of peoples. Xianwen made having a Chinese surname obligatory. Chinese was the official language. Studying Confucius became obligatory part of education. And under Xianwen, Buddhism was looked upon with benevolence again. Animal sacrifices were prohibited and compassion for all living things had an influence in government circles.

Xianwen died in 476, and power passed to a dowager queen, Empress Hu, a devout Buddhist. Buddhism's benevolence took a break. The empress, the story goes, forced a rival into a convent and had her executed. Her son was growing restless under the tutelage of her lovers, and in 528 she had him executed. Outraged officials rebelled. She cut her hair and sought refuge in a Buddhist nunnery, but they dragged her out and killed her. In 580, the Duke of Sui, a tough Buddhist soldier from a Chinese family took power. He claimed that heaven had designated him as the rightful ruler, and to make his position even more secure he had fifty-nine murdered to eliminate earthly rivalry.

In 589, after consolidating his power, he conquered south of the Yanzi, uniting China again. By the time of his son's rule (Emperor Yang, 604-17) much more had been done. There had been land reform and improved agricultural production. Graineries had been expanded new government ministries created and money standardized. The Great Wall along the northern border had been and expanded, and a Grand Canal had been built that starting in Beijing and linked the Yellow and Yanzi rivers. A gigantic military effort to expand into Korea failed. And with rule passing to a twelve-year-old the dynasty came in the year in 618, overthrown by a military governor.

The unification of China under the Sui dynasty of 581-618 had laid the foundation fo a new age of prosperity during the long-lasting dynasty that followed: the Tang. Some Chinese would regard the Tang dynasty (618-907) as the high point of Imperial China, both politically and culturally. During the Tang dynasty. China's empire reached its greatest size. Chinese writers are said to have produced their finest poetry under the Tang.

But the weakness of the monarchical system of choosing successors remained. The last three Tang successions (in 873, 888 and 904 produced emperors who were puppets of eunuchs. In 907 a military governor usurped power. Other warlords crowned themselves as emperor, and through the 900s the rival claimants warred with each other. The era of prosperity ended. In the coming decades organized banditry roamed about, pillaging and extorting. Looking weak to its northern neighbors, China was again invaded, by the Liao, herdsmen with some agriculture – Liao a land of various cultures.

In 960, a Chinese a soldier managed to extend his power – another able leader whose troops refrained from violence against local populations, and he was good at politics, giving amnesty to local military governors who had fought against him. With this he united China except for the north and Beijing where the Liao continued to rule. He became known as Emperor Taizu, founder of the great Song dynasty, which was to last a couple of centuries – to 1279 – until the Mongol conquests.

Under Emperor Taizu and peace there was population growth, material progress and foreign trade returned. While economic growth was starting to take off in Europe (beginning around the year 1050), an iron industry was developing in China that had an annual production that was twice what of England's pig iron production would be in the 1700s. China's roads and canals helped create a nationwide market system. Paper money was used extensively. Revenues during the Song dynasty were to be three times what they had been during the Tang. Elegant living spread among the wealthy. The arts flourished.

But conceit was a danger, and China had the military prowess of foreigners to be concerned about. Confucianists officials were a problem. They believed that with China behaving morally, neighboring powers would recognize China's proper role as a superior nation and would provide China with the tribute (taxes) that it deserved. And they assumed that China's neighbors would recognize China as favored by Heaven.

Confucian bureaucrats were in charge of the emperor's military, and they saw soldiers as the lowest of all groups of people. Athletics and military skill had not been esteemed or encouraged. Little attention had been given to the arts of warfare. China's military had been neglected. But it continued to be challenged. In 1125, Manchurians known as the Jurchen came out of the north, overran Beijing and also the Song dynasty's capital, Kaifeng, about 600 kilometer southwest of Beijing. The Song dynasty paid for its military weakness. The emperor and other Song royalty were among around 3,000 that the Jurchen took away as prisoners, and the emperor died in captivity. Surviving royalty retreated south and established their capital at what is today Hangzhou, on the east coast, near where the Yangzi empties into the East China Sea. The dynasty was ruling only about 60 percent of the Chinese when it was overthrown by the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan in 1279.

CONTINUE READING: The Ming Dynasty, 1368–1644

Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.