Lecture Fourteen

Five Dynasties and the Song Founding

Scope: By the late 9th century, the Tang dynasty was weakened by corruption, the diffusion of military power, and the power conflicts of great aristocratic families. In 907, the last Tang ruler was deposed, and the empire fell into a half century of fragmentation and chronic warfare. A series of regional states rose and fell in rapid succession until, in 960, two brothers established a new dynasty called the Song. These men, Zhao Kuangyin and Zhao Kuangyi, defeated various rivals and consolidated their power over the next decade, establishing a new order that would rule China until the Mongol conquest in the later 13th century. They faced a political challenge in bringing the prolonged period of military rule after the fall of the Tang to an end and resolved the problems facing them through institutional and social innovations that fundamentally reshaped the later imperial state.


I. The Tang dynasty fell apart at the end of the 9th century.

A. A combination of internal stresses tore the empire apart.

1. Military strongmen clashed among themselves over dominance at court.

2. Eunuchs gained increasing power over the day-to-day operations of the central government.

3. Great aristocratic families schemed against each other for influence over the emperors.

4. In the 880s, a civil war between rival military leaders caused major economic damage.

5. Peasant rebellions against exploitation by desperate landlords broke out with increasing frequency and violence.

6. Finally, the armies entered the capital and massacred the eunuchs, imposing military oversight on the last Tang emperors.

B. At the beginning of the 10th century, the Tang was deposed, and China fell into more than 50 years of division and warfare.

1. This period is called the Five Dynasties, after the main states that handed power down through live decades.

2. Many other minor kingdoms rose and fell during this time, as well.

3. Power was held by whoever could muster adequate force to seize it.

4. Society and the economy were subject to severe stress and disruption.

II. In 960, this age of instability was brought to an end with the establishment of the Song dynasty.

A. The Zhao brothers, Kuangyin and Kuangyi, seized power in one of the Five Dynasties states and were successful in unifying the empire.

1. Their seizure of power was essentially like all the others that had taken place over the previous 53 years.

2. They faced a basic problem, which was how to ensure that some other general would not do to them what they had done to their emperor.

3. They reunified China through a series of military campaigns and, by 970, controlled the entire empire.

B. The Zhao brothers solved their problem with innovative policies and careful political maneuvering.

1. The old aristocratic order, which had supported dynastic government from the Han through the Tang, had largely been destroyed in the chaos of the fall of the Tang and 50 years of chronic warfare.

2. The Zhao brothers used a new method to recruit men of talent to serve in their administration, the Confucian examination system.

3. Exams had been used since the Han as a minor adjunct to the main system of recruitment by recommendation.

4. Now, the Song dynasty made the exams the mainstream of government recruitment, though other ways of entering the bureaucracy, such as the “shadow privilege” given to the sons or grandsons of officials who were already serving, also remained.

III. The examinations became central to the political culture of Song and later imperial China.

A. The examinations took place on a local and national level.

1. At first, it was a two-level system, which later developed a middle, provincial level.

2. Candidates sat for examinations to test their knowledge of the Confucian classical texts and their ability to write classical Chinese.

3. Specific criteria for evaluation shifted from time to time, often involving great political controversy.

4. Men who passed at the local level could sit for the higher exams.

5. Women, merchants and their sons, and men from small “outcast” groups were barred from the examinations, but all farmers, artisans, and members of already established elite families could take part.

B. The examinations created a focus for elite cultural life.

1. What John Chafee has called “examination culture” became the mainstream of the intellectual and cultural life of China’s elite.

2. Confucianism regained its central role as the official ideology of the imperial state, with Buddhism relegated to a safely nonpolitical status.

3. The literate gentlemen who dominated China’s political culture were known as the shi, the same term used for the administrative elite in ancient times.

4. The shi encompassed a range of views and interpretations about the meaning of Confucian teachings and the nature of society and the world.

5. Debates and discussions about these issues led to the rise of diverse schools of thought and, sometimes, to political rivalries between groups of shi both in and out of government office.

6. The 11th century became an age of great intellectual ferment for China, as diverse schools of thought emerged and contended for preeminence. We will explore this development in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

John W. Chaffee, The Thorny Gates of Learning in Sung China.

Supplemental Reading:

lchisada Miyazaki, China's Examination Hell.

Questions to Consider:

1. How might the military strongmen who made themselves rulers of the many small states during the Five Dynasties justify their seizures of power?

2. Why would the generals holding positions of power under the early Song dynasty have yielded to the civil authority of the new examination system officials?

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