Diminished Empire and Nomadic Challengers: Song (960—1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) 

The half century between the Tang and Song dynasties is known as the period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, in reference to five short-lived regimes in the north and ten minor kingdoms competing in the south during these years. Chang’an and Luoyang, the two Tang centers of power, were devastated in the civil wars that finished off the Tang, and the city of Kaifeng, at the mouth of the Grand Canal and three hundred miles closer to the grain-producing regions of south China, became the center of competition among the generals of the north. In 960, General Zhao Kuangyin seized control of Kaifeng and proclaimed a new dynasty, the Song (pronounced Soong).

Zhao Kuangyin, known to history by his reign title of Song Taizu, was one of the pivotal emperors in Chinese history because he created a more centralized state than ever before. From 960 to his death in 976, he conquered the south and brought the best troops in the empire under his own direct control to protect the capital. He persuaded his most powerful generals to retire with generous stipends, and he placed their armies in outlying areas under the direct control of his own civil bureaucrats. Many of the powerful aristocratic families of the Tang era were killed or greatly weakened in the civil wars that ended the Tang, and so the Song emperors had far fewer rivals for power than their Tang predecessors. In the Song dynasty, civil bureaucrats were much more likely to become government officials through competing in the civil service examination system rather than through blood ties to other officials.

In the Song period, China came closer than ever before or since to achieving the Confucian ideal of a central bureaucratic state ruled by the emperor with the advice and management of civil bureaucrats who were deeply committed to the Confucian classics. Perhaps in reaction against the perceived excesses of the Tang empress Wu, Song emperors prevented threats to their power from their wives and in-laws. And unlike their Han and Tang predecessors, they suffered no threats to their power from the eunuchs who served the imperial household.

Yet the Song—because Taizu and his brother, who succeeded him, elevated their Confucian scholar-officials over their military commanders—were never as militarily powerful or assertive toward their neighbors as the Han and Tang had been. A powerful nomadic group, the Khitans, occupied the entire northeast, including much of Mongolia and Manchuria, and began to adopt Chinese methods of ruling under a strong leader, Abaoji, who rose to power just as the Tang collapsed. When Abaoji died in 926, his Chinese Confucian advisors suggested that his wife should follow him to the grave. She responded that with only young children in line to succeed him, she would have to remain alive to carry on his work. But to the astonishment of all, she cut off one of her hands to be buried with the deceased emperor, proving her loyalty to him even as she refused to join him in death. She then led the Khitans on a successful campaign to capture sixteen prefectures in the area of today’s Beijing, and she proclaimed a new Khitan dynasty, the Liao.

For the first few decades of the Song dynasty, the Khitan Liao administered Chinese communities in Chinese style and Khitan nomadic communities in their traditional tribal ways. They also continuously threatened Chinese settlements in the north and even managed to wound the Song emperor in 979. In 1004, after the Liao had successfully occupied much of the Yellow River valley, the Song and Liao courts signed a treaty meant as an agreement between coequal states. The Liao agreed to withdraw from their recently occupied territory, and the Song state agreed to pay the Liao court 200,000 rolls of silk and 100,000 ounces of silver annually. This was virtual extortion of the weak Song state by the powerful Liao, but the payments were cheaper than war, and a small fraction of the Song military budget (which came to absorb over 80 percent of all state spending).

The Khitan Liao was not the only threat to the Song dynasty. To the northwest the Tanguts, another nomadic group who came from Tibetan stock, ruled over their own state, the Xi Xia. Like the Khitans, the Tanguts ruled with a combination of Chinese and nomadic tribal methods. And like the Khitans, they occupied northern territory once held by the Tang dynasty and were a continual military threat to the new Song dynasty. In 1040 the Song court agreed to pay the Tangut Xi Xia court substantial annual payments as well, thus buying peace on the northwestern frontier.

The constant border threats required continuous expansion of the Song military, which swelled from 387,000 troops in 975 to 1,259,000 troops in 1045. The cost of training and equipping such a large army, on top of the very large annual “ransom” payments to the Liao and Xi Xia rulers, threatened to bankrupt the state in the eleventh century. In response to this crisis, Song officials in these years carried on the most thorough debate since the Warring States period over the nature of “good government” and the proper relationship between the state and the society it ruled. The result was factional bureaucratic argument and infighting that lasted a generation and has echoed through the halls of Chinese government ever since.

At the heart of the debate was Wang Anshi (1021-1086), an eccentric idealist who argued that the state needed drastic reforms to fulfill its classical Confucian obligations to serve the people. Wang believed that most Confucian officials had lost touch with the true meaning of the classics and had grown too comfortable to perceive the crisis faced by the state. In 1069, Wang Anshi rose to the position of chief councilor (like the prime minister) under the young and ambitious Emperor Shenzong. Wang immediately declared a series of reforms, starting with a government program to make low-interest loans to poor peasants, both to prevent their exploitation by private loan sharks and to use money-lending to raise state revenues. He ordered a land survey to assess new tax rates based on the actual productivity of the land. He declared that taxes would be collected in money, not in labor services, a change aimed particularly at the wealthy. He vowed to reduce the size of the expensive professional army and to train local citizens in self-defense militias. He proposed a nationwide school system to educate those of modest means and called for changing the emphasis of the civil service examinations from poetry and memorization of the classics to current political and economic problems. Wang’s government would become more directly involved in the economy, compete with private merchants, set up government pawnshops nationwide, and buy local products to transport and sell elsewhere. This would increase state revenues and undercut excessive profits of the merchant class.

When officials opposed Wang’s ideas, he was quick to dismiss them from office. He frightened the wealthy and well established, the very people who dominated the government. He tried to do too much too quickly, and his loan program backfired, for local officials ended up charging interest rates as high as the loan sharks, thereby defeating the purpose of the program. Wang stirred up such powerful opposition that he was forced to resign from office in 1076. After Emperor Shenzong died in 1085, all of Wang’s reforms were repealed, and the dynasty continued to limp along financially, not recognizing the disasters that were approaching.

One of the most articulate critics of Wang Anshi’s policies was the brilliant scholar-official Su Shi, better known as Su Dongpo (1036— 1101). Su had a sharp tongue and suffered through two periods of exile for his opposition to Wang’s reforms, but it is indicative of the nature of political battles in the Song that he remained on friendly terms with Wang. They exchanged poems with each other even in old age. In this regard, the Song dynasty represents the high-water mark of civil political debate in imperial China. Before and after the Song, factional political conflicts were more often resolved through force—the arrest, exile, or execution of one’s opponents.

Despite his political persecution, Su Dongpo became one of the most admired of all Chinese literati. He was a student of the Book of Changes and the Analects of Confucius, as well as Daoist alchemy and Chan Buddhist meditation. Known for his compassion, he worked tirelessly to provide flood control measures and famine relief, found orphanages and hospitals, and provide medical care for prisoners. Su’s main legacy to Chinese culture was in his poetry, his calligraphy, and his writings about art. He saw poetry as a way of painting, painting as wordless poetry, and both as precious vehicles of self-expression. He left behind 2,400 treasured poems and 300 song lyrics—a new genre of poetry he did much to popularize. One of the few Chinese literati to master every style of poetry as well as painting and calligraphy, he epitomized the ideal that inspired Chinese scholars from Song times into the twentieth century: the brilliant scholar, versatile artist, and conscientious official who would risk his political career to do the right thing and, when driven out of power, would take great solace and pleasure in the beauties of nature and the arts.

In 1101, the year Su Dongpo died, another new emperor, Huizong, took the throne and stated his intention to restore Wang Anshi’s reforms. The result was only to intensify rivalries and tensions among Huizong’s officials without addressing the fundamental problems of financial and military weakness. Huizong was frankly more interested in art and literature than in the nitty-gritty problems of government. He was a skilled painter and calligrapher and a passionate collector of paintings, ancient bronzes, porcelain ware, and beautiful stones. He particularly excelled at delicate paintings of flowers and birds, and he perfected an exquisite form of calligraphy called “slender gold.” He brought many painters to his court, where he supervised and instructed them as if the survival of the empire depended on their artistic abilities. Unfortunately, it did not.

In the early twelfth century another nomadic group, the Jurchen, formed a powerful coalition of tribes to the northeast of the Khitan Liao under a new leader, Aguda. Aguda had his own dynastic ambitions and proclaimed himself emperor of the Jin dynasty. When Aguda’s forces attacked the Song’s dangerous neighbor, the Khitan Liao, Huizong’s court allied with the Jin in hopes of eliminating its strongest nomadic threat. The strategy backfired as the Jin defeated the Liao with Song help and then kept right on marching in 1127 into Kaifeng, the Song capital. Huizong and his son were captured by the Jin and later died in captivity. Many court officials and another of the emperor’s sons fled to the south. They established a new capital south of the Yangzi River at Hangzhou, where the many rivers and canals and wet rice fields prevented easy invasion by nomads on horseback. Thus, the Song dynasty is divided into the Northern Song (960-1127) and the Southern Song (1127-1279).

It is easy in retrospect to blame the self-absorbed emperor-artist Huizong for “painting while Kaifeng burned,” but there was a self-perpetuating weakness built into the Song state that went far beyond Huizong and his artistic passions. Without control over the northern and northwestern territories that had been held by the Han and Tang, even the Northern Song lacked the capacity to breed the large numbers of horses needed to fend off its powerful nomadic neighbors. In the Southern Song, the main focus of debate among Confucian officials was whether to mount an aggressive counterattack against the Jin occupiers of the north or rest content to maintain a reduced empire in the south.

In 1139 the Southern Song court, under the leadership of chief councilor Qin Gui, signed a peace treaty with the Jin. The fiery Southern Song general Yue Fei attacked the idea of conceding the north to the barbarians as a treasonous betrayal of the nation’s best interest. When the Jin broke the treaty and sent troops southward in 1140, Yue Fei led Song forces in repelling them. However, Yue Fei was seen by the court as dangerous, reckless, and sure to invite a deeper invasion by the Jin or else, in his frustration, to threaten the Song ruling family itself. He was ordered to withdraw from the territory he had taken in the north. Recalled to the southern capital of Hangzhou and held under house arrest, Yue Fei was accused of plotting against the emperor and killed in prison in early 1141. Qin Gui concluded a new peace treaty with the Jin on even less favorable terms to the Southern Song. Since Song times, the Chinese have regarded Yue Fei as a great heroic patriot and Qin Gui as the ultimate traitor to his nation.

Mongol Empires CA 1280 CE

The fate of General Yue Fei reflected the Song dynasty’s assertion of civilian control over the military and some shifting cultural assumptions in the Song that helped prevent an aggressive military campaign against the Jin regime in the north. Song Confucian officials were much more self-consciously condescending toward their nomadic neighbors than their Tang predecessors had been. Many of them scorned the martial values they saw in their nomadic neighbors. Whereas horseback riding and archery had been considered perfectly respectable pastimes for the Tang aristocracy, the scholar-official class in Song times became much more concerned with Confucian scholarship, literature, and the arts.

One reason for this cultural shift was the changing nature of Chinese society in the Song period. In the Tang, powerful aristocrats often inherited their official positions, but in the Song, the Chinese elite became much more dependent on the civil service examinations to win positions in government. Consequently, families who wanted to maintain their elite status in society had to provide an extensive classical education for their sons. Examinations were very difficult, requiring years of intense study in preparation, and only a small percentage of candidates could pass them and win official appointments. The invention of printing in the Tang and its spread in the Song made more books available to more families, greatly intensifying the competition for civil service examination degrees and official appointments. Confucian scholar-officials came to see their main task as intellectual and cultural—to master the best of Chinese culture in art, literature, and philosophy.

In self-conscious contrast to the uncivilized “barbarians” of the north, Chinese officials looked to men of genius like Su Dongpo for reassurance that China’s was after all a far superior culture. In the strong negative reaction to the reform attempts of Wang Anshi, Song Confucian scholars made a clear choice to reject his aggressive moves to build a strong state. Instead, they opted for a more idealistic form of Confucianism that put less emphasis on governmental institutions and more emphasis on what we might call China’s moral and spiritual rearmament.

Convinced by Mencius that moral goodness is ultimately the most powerful force in the world, Neo-Confucian scholars called for individual self-cultivation and rectification of moral faults through study of the Confucian classics and “quiet sitting,” a Buddhist-influenced form of meditation and self-reflection. The most important Neo-Confucian scholar was Zhu Xi (1130-1200), who synthesized the work of many Neo-Confucians into one great philosophical system. He wrote commentaries on and edited all the early Confucian classics. His interpretations became the only accepted answers in the civil service examinations from late Song times until the examination system was abolished in 1905.

Another consequence of the growing concern in Song times to differentiate China from its nomadic neighbors was a change in gender relations and gender ideals. As noted, Tang court women were often very active physically and, at times, very assertive politically (e.g. Empress Wu). In the Song period, male Confucian scholars attacked nomadic cultures for their immorality in allowing women so much freedom of movement and in their custom of the levirate, in which a widow was expected to marry her husband’s brother. Song male Confucians saw the levirate as a form of incest and outlawed it in Chinese society. In their horror at the levirate, some scholars argued that widows should never remarry at all, and some went so far as to praise widows who committed suicide in order to avoid remarriage. In reaction against their “uncivilized” nomadic neighbors, many Chinese literati began to emphasize more than ever that a woman’s proper place was in the home and nowhere else.

Foot-binding, which first became popular in the Song dynasty, probably began with court dancers who bound their feet in the belief that small feet were more attractive on a female dancer. In the Song, mothers and grandmothers began binding their daughters’ feet at four to six years of age. They took a long strip of cloth, bent the four smaller toes down under the foot, leaving the big toe in place, and wrapped the foot tightly, pulling the front and back of the foot together. As the growing foot pushed in vain against the binding, the arch bent and broke, and the heel was pulled under the foot to form its own “natural high heel.” The tightly wrapped toes withered, and with circulation impaired, there was always a danger of blood poisoning. The pain was excruciating for at least two years; the result was a tiny, cramped foot three to six inches long.

Why did mothers and grandmothers subject their daughters to such pain so needlessly? Scholars still argue over this question, but the main motivation probably was the quest for social status. Song society was more fluid than Chinese society had ever been, and prominent families were very concerned to marry their daughters to other families of equal or greater prominence. Marriages were arranged by parents for the benefit of the family, and a high-status marriage was very desirable for both the daughter and her family. In this kind of competitive atmosphere, anything that made a daughter seem more attractive, more genteel, and more virtuous would improve her marriage prospects. Foot-binding was associated with virtue because it suggested that the girl with bound feet was not one to “run around wildly” and demonstrated that she came from a good family that could afford to have her confined at home like a “good girl.”

Ironically, the bound foot also came to have erotic associations. The foot was always covered, and some males found that unwrapping, fondling, even sucking a woman’s bound foot was sexually exciting. Finally, women covered their bound feet with beautiful embroidered cloth shoes, adding to their allure. So the female bound foot came to symbolize many things: wealth, leisure, sophistication, artistic skill, beauty, virtue, and sexiness—a powerful combination of positive associations.

In other ways, the Song marriage system improved women’s cultural opportunities, as wealthy families began to educate more of their daughters so they would be able to teach their young sons in the basics of literacy, to give them a head start in their long examination preparation. Female literacy thus became one more qualification in the competitive marriage market. This began a trend that was to continue on into the twentieth century.

China’s greatest female poet, Li Qingzhao (1084-c. 1151), lived in the Song period. She had a very close relationship with her husband, Zhao Mingcheng, and they shared a passion for poetry and collecting antique seals, paintings, and bronze inscriptions. Together they compiled an extensive catalogue of early bronze inscriptions and stone carvings. She sometimes celebrated their love in her poems. “Should my beloved chance to ask / If my face is fair as a flower’s / I’ll put one aslant in my hair / Then ask him to look and compare.” When the Jin invaders came in 1127, the couple’s home was burned, and they lost most of their precious art collection. They fled to the south, and Zhao died two years later, leaving his wife a widow at forty-five. Little is known of her last twenty-two years apart from the fact that she briefly remarried an abusive man and filed for a divorce within three months. Such behavior was scandalous to Chinese scholars in later periods, when chastity was seen as the only proper course of action for a “cultured” woman as a widow.

Given the Song’s assertion of civil authority over military leaders, its elevation of civil over martial values, and the growing military power of its nomadic neighbors, it may seem surprising that the dynasty was able to survive as long as it did. The main reason for this was a virtual economic revolution that made Song China the most prosperous and highly developed society on earth. Agricultural productivity increased dramatically in Song times, in part because more land came under cultivation as the population continued to move southward. New strains of early-ripening rice were developed in the south, allowing for two rice crops per year. The government began to print agricultural manuals to spread the newest techniques for increasing crop yields. Farmers began specializing in crops such as mulberry trees for silkworms, tea, sugar cane, bamboo, hemp, and ramie to produce fibers for cloth, and eventually cotton (introduced from India in Tang times), which became a major cash crop by the end of the Song. Interregional and international trade expanded, and along with these came a thriving money economy.

This detail from Qingming Festival Along the River, an eighteenth-century, thirty-holiday in the Northern Song

This detail from Qingming Festival Along the River, an eighteenth-century, thirty-holiday in the Northern Song capital of Kaifeng shortly before it was conquered is filled with shops and stalls selling goods and services, and a plethora of vendors, Museum, Taipei, Taiwan, Republic of China

In 1120, just before the loss of the north to the Jurchen, the Song government collected eighteen million ounces of silver in taxes.

In the early Song period, advances occurred in iron smelting technology, including the use of explosives to mine iron ore and the use of hydraulic machinery to power bellows that could generate higher temperatures for smelting iron and steel. The Song government sponsored the largest iron-smelting industry in the world, which produced 125,000 tons of iron in 1078 (quantities not reached in Europe for about another eight hundred years). Iron was important for making plows, other farm implements, locks, nails, musical instruments, and pans for making salt. Chinese peasants probably used as many iron tools in Song times as in the early twentieth century.

Eight-foot-long copy of a twelfth-century handscroll, depicts a Spring Festival by the Jin invaders in 1127

Eight-foot-long copy of a twelfth-century handscroll, depicts a Spring Festival by the Jin invaders in 1127. The famous Rainbow Bridge spanning the Bian River shoppers, and people transporting goods across the bridge. National Palace

Much of the iron industry produced weapons for defense and coins for the thriving money economy. Chinese coins were round with a square hole in the middle, so 1,000 coins could be strung on one string. In 1041, the Song court ordered one army in Shaanxi Province, facing the Xi Xia on the northwest frontier, to be supplied with three million strings of cash (requiring 29,000 tons of iron). The government mint produced eight hundred million coins a year by the year 1000 and six billion coins a year by 1085. The government also sponsored the manufacturing of iron weapons in great quantities. In 1084, the court sent to one army on its northwestern frontier 35,000 swords, 8,000 shields, 10,000 spears, and a million arrowheads, all made of iron.

As agriculture became more specialized and interregional trade expanded, the government began in the early Song to allow a few merchants to issue paper certificates for cash deposits in one city that could be redeemed for cash in another city, greatly increasing the convenience of long-distance trade. In the early twelfth century, the government took over the printing and issuing of these certificates, creating the world’s first paper money. Song merchants organized guilds, formed partnerships, and raised money by selling stocks in their enterprises. The thriving agricultural and commercial economies of Song times can also be seen in thousands of Song-era contracts that survive, including tomb contracts that were drawn up to apply in both the world of the living and the dead.

The Song capitals of Kaifeng and Hangzhou functioned as commercial centers far more than had the Tang cities of Chang’an or Luoyang. Before it fell to the Jin invaders in 1127, Kaifeng was the largest city in the world, with perhaps one million inhabitants. After the fall of Kaifeng, the Southern Song capital of Hangzhou became an equally thriving center of trade and entertainment. A guide to Hangzhou written in 1235 describes its markets for every kind of commodity, artisans’ workshops, teahouses, inns, wineshops, restaurants, professional banquet caterers, every kind of entertainment, including trained bears and insects, as well as public and private gardens, and many volunteer organizations of people with hobbies such as music, physical fitness, exotic foods, and antique collecting—and the list went on and on.

Song prosperity also stimulated international trade, particularly along the southeast coast, where Arab Muslim merchants operated huge Chinese-made ships with watertight compartments and used the Chinese invention of the compass to facilitate a thriving long-distance trade between China, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean. By the early twelfth century, Quanzhou, a coastal city in southern Fujian, had half a million residents. The general prosperity of Song times can also be seen in population growth. Scholars now estimate that China’s population grew from perhaps 70 million in 750 to about 100 million in 1100 and perhaps 110 million (including the Southern Song and the Jin state in the north) by 1200, a rate of population growth the world had never seen before.

Reflecting the prosperity of these years, Chinese silks, lacquerware, and porcelains reached their highest level of technical refinement in the Song. By the late Tang, Chinese craftsmen had perfected the production of true porcelain, using purified clays, firing at temperatures of 1300 degrees centigrade, and producing the fusion of glaze and body to produce a glossy translucent surface. Song porcelains are particularly treasured by collectors around the world for their beautiful monochrome glazes and simple, elegant shapes. While the Song court sponsored the manufacture of large quantities of the finest porcelain, for the first time in the Song period, highly skilled artisans began to produce such things as porcelain and lacquerware on a large scale for the marketplace. During the Song, porcelain surpassed silk as the premier Chinese export, reaching markets as far west as the Persian Gulf and the west coast of Africa.

Perhaps no cultural symbol is more closely associated with the Song dynasty than landscape painting. Song painters emphasized the beauty, harmony, and magnificence of the natural world, particularly forested mountains amid streams and valleys. In many paintings, human beings are absent or barely visible, blending into the larger harmonies of nature. If a hut or house appears, it blends in with the natural landscape and never dominates or detracts. The busy urban official treasured the rare times when he could get away to the tranquility of deserted mountains and streams and took great pleasure and solace in the landscapes hung on his wall, or rolled in his drawer, to be brought out and shared with friends over wine and the chanting of poetry. Poetry and painting were identified in another way, as painters and calligraphers regularly wrote poems on landscape paintings. The beautiful language and calligraphy of the inscription came to be seen as necessary complements to the painting itself.

Despite the economic prosperity, intellectual brilliance, and artistic greatness of the Song dynasty, it was continuously under military pressure from its nomadic neighbors to the north and west and in the thirteenth century succumbed to a newly arrived nomadic force, the Mongols of Central Asia.

Before defeating the Southern Song, the Mongols created the most effective fighting force and the largest land empire the world had ever seen. The process began with the rise in 1203 of Temuchin, a skilled fighter, who was able to unify a whole federation of Mongol and other nomadic tribes into one large fighting force. In 1206 Temuchin took the title Genghis Khan, or “Ruler of the Oceans” (that is, the world). Skilled and ferocious fighters, the Mongols under Genghis Khan, and later his son, Ogodei, established their capital at the oasis town of Karakorum in today’s Mongolia. Mongol troops were organized in groups of 100, 1,000 and 10,000, and there were 129 thousand-soldier units when Genghis died in 1227. Troops traveled with three to five horses per soldier so they could carry supplies and weapons, change mounts regularly, and keep moving rapidly for days on end. Military commanders used flags, torches, and message carriers to maintain effective communications between units. Soldiers wore light armor made of leather with metal scales and helmets of leather or iron and carried leather-covered wicker shields. Each soldier carried two powerful compound bows and a large quiver of at least sixty iron-tipped arrows. With the use of iron stirrups, soldiers could shoot arrows accurately from a standing position while riding on horseback at full gallop. Light cavalrymen carried a short sword and two or three light spears; heavy cavalrymen carried a mace or spiked club, a curved long sword, and a twelve-foot wooden spear with a metal blade. With the prospect of rich rewards in war booty for loyal service or death for insubordination, Mongol troops were fearless and disciplined in battle.

The tenth-century Buddhist painter Juran used a graceful impressionistic style to portray the idyllic and ever-changing scenery of hills, fields, trees

The tenth-century Buddhist painter Juran used a graceful impressionistic style to portray the idyllic and ever-changing scenery of hills, fields, trees. and clouds along the Yangzi River. In this Song age of urbanization, Chinese scholar officials found solace from the pressures of official life by painting, viewing, and contemplating landscape paintings that made use of empty spaces among towering mountains, trees, stones, and water to depict the beauty, grandeur, and peaceful harmony of nature. Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1911.168

With a ferocity and military effectiveness seldom seen in world history, they proceeded over the next fifty years to conquer not only the northern rivals of the Song dynasty—the Jin and the Xi Xia—but also Korea, all of Central Asia, the Russian cities of Moscow and Kiev in the northwest, Hungary and Poland in the far west, and the Persian cities of Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus, and Ormuz in the southwest.

To succeed in creating the world’s largest land empire, the Mongols, with only 150,000 troops, were quick to incorporate other groups into their armies and governmental structures. Given the enormous distances involved and the natural tensions that arose among the descendants of Genghis Khan, it is not surprising that the four large khanates soon broke apart and were never centrally controlled. More surprising than this failure was the success of one of Genghis’s grandsons, Khubilai Khan, in conquering and ruling China in the Chinese style.

In 1264, Khubilai moved his capital from Mongolia to Dadu (today’s Beijing), and in 1271 he declared himself emperor of the Yuan dynasty and the rightful inheritor of the Mandate of Heaven. As Yuan Emperor Shizu, Khubilai hired many Chinese advisors and officials and quickly set them to the task of conquering south China by hiring Chinese engineers adept at the use of catapults and explosives and commandeering Chinese ships and seamen to defeat the navies of the Southern Song. By the effective use of Chinese, Khitan, Jurchen, Korean, Uighur, and Persian troops, the Mongols were able to take most of south China by 1276, and in 1279 the last Song emperor was killed in a naval battle in the far south.

One of the reasons for the Mongols’ military success was their effective use of terror as a weapon. If a city resisted or refused to surrender, the Mongols would burn, loot, kill, and rape indiscriminately and enslave the survivors. If a city surrendered, the inhabitants might survive unharmed and be allowed to continue their lives in a normal fashion. Governing a society as complex as China’s was more difficult than conquering it. At most, the Mongol population totaled perhaps two million, ruling over a Chinese population of perhaps sixty to eighty million, much reduced by the wars of conquest from a peak in the Song of 115 million.

Khubilai established a government modeled after the Chinese dynastic institutions, with Mongols and their Central Asian allies in the most important positions but Chinese filling most middle and lower positions. Chinese were forbidden to bear arms, and to punish the Chinese literati for having resisted the Mongol conquest, there were no civil service examinations for Chinese until 1315. Because the south had put up a much greater struggle against the Mongols, strict examination quotas prevented southerners from passing in large numbers. While Mongols were generally tolerant of all religions, Khubilai Khan began to patronize and support Tibetan Lama Buddhism in particular, a form of Buddhism that includes many rituals and the belief that each priest is a lama, or reincarnation of the Buddha. Khubilai and his successors gave Tibetan lamas special privileges and allowed them to convert some Song imperial palaces into Buddhist temples and even to loot the tombs of the Song emperors to sell their treasures for money to build more temples.

The Mongol conquest of China took a terrible economic toll. The Song iron industry was devastated and never fully regained Song levels of productivity. Intense warfare greatly reduced the population, and the spread of infectious diseases, such as bubonic plague, from Central Asia to China produced several terrible epidemics that killed millions in the mid-fourteenth century (and eliminated one-fourth of Europe’s population soon thereafter). The wars destroyed farmland and irrigation works, and in places Mongol princes and generals turned rice-producing land into parks and pastures. The combined effects of war and disease greatly reduced the tax base. The Yuan government responded by printing more money, which only fueled inflation and further undermined the economic health of the dynasty.

Following their conquest of southern China, the Mongols ambitiously undertook naval expeditions of conquest against Japan in 1274 and 1281 and against the kingdom of Java in the southern Pacific in 1292-1293. They also launched attacks on Vietnam and Burma, failing in both cases but winning the symbolic “submission” of those countries to the “Son of Heaven,” Khubilai Khan. These wars were a serious drain on the state’s resources and only served to delay the economic recovery of the Yuan from the dislocations of their early years.

Despite the hardships imposed on the Chinese population during the Yuan dynasty, Chinese life was not greatly changed. The Mongols did not interfere with Chinese customs or religious practices. The Venetian merchant Marco Polo claimed to have spent twenty years (1275-1295) in China during Mongol rule and wrote a bestselling account of his travels. Although some have cast doubt on the truthfulness of his story, many of his observations have been confirmed by other sources. He accurately reported, for example, that relations between Han Chinese and their Mongol rulers were very strained but also that south China was far more economically advanced than any country in Europe at the same time.

Because of the Yuan imperial government’s discrimination against the southern Chinese literati, many southerners had to find ways to make a living outside of government service. Some went into medical practice, with benefits to the long-term development of Chinese medicine. Others became lowly clerks with poor pay and no chance for advancement. Others maintained the lifestyle and traditions of the Song literati and worked as scholars, painters, and poets.

Some Chinese literati refused to work in the service of the Mongol conquerors. One famous scholar-general, Wen Tianxiang, won the admiration of many subsequent generations by his refusal to surrender to the Mongol armies long after any chance of success had disappeared. He was captured in 1275 but escaped and continued to lead troops, only to be defeated again and to witness the capture of many members of his own family. Still refusing surrender, he fled to the southernmost province of Guangdong, where an epidemic claimed the lives of many of his troops as well as his mother and one of his sons. When finally captured and taken in chains to Khubilai Khan he refused to accept him as his sovereign and asked only to be executed, a wish granted in 1283.

Other Chinese literati resumed their normal lives but stayed away from the political realm. When the civil service examinations were resumed in 1315, they were based on Zhu Xi’s interpretations of the Confucian classics. Cultural trends in painting, ceramics, even philosophy and poetry continued on from the Song with little change or deviation. One painter, Gong Kai, expressed his opposition to Yuan rule in a subtle way that was to provide a model for later dissenters from imperial orthodoxy. Gong Kai had served as a minor official under the Song; he refused to serve the Yuan, lived in extreme poverty, and supported his family by selling his paintings and calligraphy or exchanging them for food. Only two of his paintings have survived; one is a shocking painting of a starving horse, symbolizing China’s fate under Mongol rule.

Another lasting contribution of the Yuan period to Chinese culture came in a form of four-or five-act dramatic operas called zaju, a term often translated as “Yuan drama.” Drawing on popular songs and Central Asian art forms, with stylized costumes and elaborate facial makeup, Yuan drama combines mime, singing, dancing, and carefully choreographed acrobatics to present melodramatic stories of crime, love, war, and politics that have been immensely popular with Chinese audiences of all social classes ever since Yuan times.

Despite the continuities of Chinese cultural trends under Mongol rule, the Chinese people never fully accepted their position as subjects of non-Chinese emperors. They felt oppressed by inflation, by high taxes, and by the quota system that denied most Chinese any high position in government. While epidemic diseases swept through China in the midfourteenth century, massive flooding began along the Yellow River in 1344 and lasted for several years. The government forced 150,000 Chinese commoners into labor brigades to repair the Yellow River dikes and then paid the men with worthless paper money. By 1351, antigovernment uprisings began under the banner of a popular Buddhist sect, the White Lotus Society. This sect declared that the end of history was near when the Buddha of the Future, Maitreya, would appear to punish the wicked (Yuan rulers) and reward the good (Chinese people). In 1368, one rebel band grew sufficiently powerful to invade Beijing and declare a new dynasty, the Ming. The last Mongol emperor and his entourage fled beyond the Great Wall to their original homelands of Mongolia.

Ironically, during this period of “foreign rule,” the Mongol court came to sponsor the very ideas of the Song Neo-Confucian scholars who had failed to protect the Southern Song from collapse and conquest. Perhaps even more important for the future of China, the Mongols managed to create a much larger land empire than even the Han and Tang and a very much larger empire than the northern Song. By making strategic alliances with the Khitans, Tanguts, Uighurs, and Tibetans and integrating officials from each of these groups into their government, the Mongols incorporated these peoples into one large empire in ways the Chinese had never previously managed. Consequently, when the Yuan dynasty collapsed in the fourteenth century, it was replaced by a Chinese dynasty of much greater extent than anything dreamed of by the Song emperors.

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