In This Chapter
• The end of strife and the Sui dynasty
• The Tang dynasty
• The Song dynasty
• The golden age of Chinese culture
• The emergence of Neo-Confucianism
The emergence at the end of the sixth century of the Sui dynasty from the long and chaotic warring states period brought China again under the rule of a strong dynasty. Later during the seventh century, the Tang dynasty revived the bureaucratic traditions of the Han dynasty including the civil service examination. This revival helped the later Song dynasty consolidate rule over Chinese territory.
During this time of relative political stability, Neo-Confucian philosophy developed to provide the ideological basis for centralized rule under later imperial dynasties. The result of these strong dynasties and Neo-Confucianphilosophies was a Golden Age of art, literature, and culture that lasted 700 years.
Out of the Chaos: The Sui Dynasty
After the collapse of the Han dynasty in 200 C.E., China suffered from more than 300 years of civil war, chaos, strife, and instability. The people needed a savior to bring them out of their cycle of suffering. The Sui dynasty that emerged did not actually qualify as a savior, but it did bring stability to the region. The Sui dynasty was able to consolidate power among the warring three kingdoms and gain some control over eastern Asia by 581. The dynasty was named after the second and last emperor of the dynasty, Sui Yangdi.
Sui Yangdi was the reason for the strength of the dynasty and also its collapse. The second emperor took on a massive public works project, the Grand Canal, which linked northern and southern China through the Huang He and Chang Jiang Rivers and a series of canals. Sui believed, justifiably, that this type of link would increase trade and unity in the region. He was a visionary; but like most visionaries, he was not a practical man.
Sui was a cruel ruler and forced the peasant population of China to build the Grand Canal. In addition, he raised taxes to unbearable heights to fund the materials to build the canal. To make matters worse, Sui led an extravagant and expensive court life and engaged his armies in several military expeditions that turned out to be disastrous. Eventually the people of China had had enough and a rebellion overthrew the Sui dynasty and Sui himself was promptly killed.
Although things ended rather poorly for the Sui dynasty, it did serve two very importantpurposes. First, it consolidated power provided a beginning to stability in China. Second, the Grand Canal provided China with improved communication and trade. Thus the Sui dynasty served as a bridge to the much more enduring Tang dynasty.
What in the World
During the twentieth century with the development of roads and railroads, the importanceof the Grand Canal faded and it fell into disrepair, used only by small boats. The Communist Chinese government took on the Grand Canal as a new public works project in the late 1950s and modernized it over a period of five years. Today, the canal again is used as a way to transport goods to market.
The Tang Dynasty
The Tang dynasty seized power and ruled China after the overthrow and murder of Sui in 618, remaining in power until 907. The Tang rulers built on the new unity created by the Grand Canal and brought years of peace and stability to China.
Reformers and Pencil Pushers
The Tang rulers were reform-minded. They saw that if they increased the government’sability to administrate, they would increase their power. The Tang dynasty restored the civil service examinations, which had been out of use since the Han dynasty.
This gave the Tang a pool of competent bureaucrats to administrate the government, which was needed because Chinese control had been extended to new regions of southern Asia, including Tibet. The Tang also established diplomatic relations with southeastern Asia in an effort to expand trade. Finally, the Tang took on the awesome task of breaking up the powerful landed aristocracy and redistributing land to the peasant population.
The Problem with Pencil Pushers
Despite all of the advances with the civil service examination and the bureaucrats, problems arose in the Tang dynasty. The first problem was bureaucratic corruption. As with any bureaucracy, the Tang bureaucracy became large and corrupt as members entered government service for self-interest, and the extension of Chinese control to new territories brought the problem of maintaining control over those territories.
The Tang had developed a well-trained pencil-pushing army to administer the empire, but did not balance that with a well-trained military army to protect the empire. (Sometimes the sword works better than the pencil.) So the Tang hired soldiers (sword-hands): the Uighurs, a group of Turkic-speaking people from central Asia. Eventually, the hired Uighurs saw the weakness of the Tang dynasty (too many pencils and not enough swords!) and overthrew the dynasty in 907.
The Rise and Fall of the Song
The Song dynasty rose to power around 960 by wresting power away from the Uighurs who, due to their nomadic nature, couldn’t be expected to remain in power long. The Song dynasty retained power over China until 1279.
During the Song dynasty, China enjoyed a period of economic and cultural prosperity and achievement, but not without problems. The Song dynasty lost control of the territoryof Tibet, and the Uighurs did not simply disappear from the Chinese political and military landscape. They continued to harass the borders, forcing the Song to move the capital from Changan to Hangzhou in the southern region.
When the harassment continued, the Song dynasty made a very bad decision. Like the Tang dynasty before, the Song rulers invited a nomadic, warrior group to protect them: the up-and-coming Mongols. The Mongols overthrew the dynasty in 1279, but, unlike the Uighurs, the Mongols planned to stay and created a Yuan dynasty to rule China.
The Golden Age of Chinese Culture
Beginning with the stability of the Sui dynasty and ending with the Tang Dynasty, China experienced a 700-year period of cultural achievement considered by some historians to be the Golden Age of China. However, as with any “Golden Age,” there were highs and lows throughout.
The Chinese Government and Economy
The Chinese government experienced a proverbial “shot in the arm” starting with the Sui dynasty and the reinstitution of the civil service examination. The government was rooted in the principles of the Qin and the Han dynasties, which meant China was ruled by a monarch who used a large and fairly efficient bureaucracy.
To make this rule even more effective, the Chinese empire was divided into provinces,districts, and villages administered by bureaucrats using Confucian principles. In spite of a few bumps in the road (the Uighurs and the Mongols), the Chinese emperor retained relatively successful control over a large amount of territory.
Trade and Technology
With a stable government, trade flourished within the Chinese boundaries. There was renewed trade on the Silk Road with exports of tea, silk, and porcelain going westward into central Asia and western Asia and south into Southeast Asia. In exchange for these exports, Chinese merchants imported exotic woods, precious stones, and tropical goods.
With the expansion of trade, China developed technologically as well. Steel was invented for the manufacture of swords and sickles, and gunpowder was used in the creation of explosives and flame throwers (known as the “fire lance”). Finally, cotton was grown in limited quantities for the production of cotton garments.
A Prosperous Society
The prosperity of the region during the Golden Age led to changes in the social structure. Of course at the top of this societalstructure were the emperor and the emperor’s family. They were followed by a new group of prosperous city dwellers who benefited from the riches that trade providedand spent their leisure time playing games like cards and chess (the classic strategygame imported from India) and reading the new literature that was blossoming duringthis period.
What in the World
During the Song period of China, the barter system was replaced with a cash system using copper coins. When these ran short in 1024, the Chinese started to print paper money, the first documented use of today’s most common medium of exchange.
After this group, a new class called the scholar-gentry was developing, replacing the landed aristocracy that had been broken during the Tang dynasty. It controlled most of the countryside and produced the civil servants and bureaucratic corps that became the political and economic elite of China. The rest of Chinese society was a mixture of landowners, free peasants, sharecroppers, and landless laborers.
Of course this is only half of the story of the Chinese social structure. Women, who made up the other half of the population, had little status. Most families had to providea dowry for a daughter to be married and, because women were undesirable, poor families often sold their daughters to wealthy villagers for menial labor.
The Golden Age of Literature and Art
Beyond the renewal of trade, development of technology, and societal transformations,the prosperity and stability of the Chinese dynasties allowed for the peaking of Chinese literature and art. During the Tang dynasty, the invention of block printing allowed for the production and proliferation of many works of literature, including poetry.
Over 48,000 poems were written and published by over 2,000 authors, the most popular of which were Li Bo and Duo Fo. Li Bo wrote poems about nature, while Duo Fo created poems using Confucian principles to highlight social inequalities and the poor.
"In 1041-49 a commoner named Bi Sheng also devised moveable types. His method was to cut the ideographs in sticky clay to the depth of the edge of a coppercoin, each one constituting a separate piece of type. These were then baked to make them hard.”
—Shen Gua, writer during China’s Song period
Chinese culture also blossomed artistically with the development of what are now considered traditional Chinese landscape paintings during the Song and even Mongol dynastic periods. These paintings were influenced by Daoist religious philosophy. The artists weren’t seeking realism; it was their intention to discover through the painting the hidden form of the landscape. Humans appeared in some of these paintings,but usually as tiny figures to show their insignificance in comparison to nature.
Religious Revival and Change
Before the collapse of the Han dynasty, several religions/philosophies were practiced within China’s territories. These were native religious/philosophical traditions of Daoism and Confucianism, as well as Buddhism, which had come to China during the first century C.E. with the help of Buddhist missionaries from India.
During the troubled times between the Han and Sui dynasties, when there were civil wars, instability, and hardship, the Chinese people embraced the religious and spiritual ideas found in Buddhism and Daoism. Confucian philosophy lost its grip on Chinese culture as order and stability disappeared. Buddhist monasteries were built across the Chinese territories and, by the time of the Tang dynasty, had become quite powerful religiously and politically. The Tang rulers, who had started to reinstitute the civil service examinations based on Confucian principles, saw Buddhism as a threat to Confucianism and the dynasty. Buddhism was also criticized as a foreign religion with too much wealth and power. Daoism was also considered a threat, with what the Tang rulers thought to be primitive beliefs. So the Tang dynasty worked to eradicate both religious traditions by confiscating lands and destroying many Buddhist temples and monasteries.
The Tang rulers did not completely end Buddhism or Daoism, nor did they stop the Chinese culture from acquiring a spiritual tradition. Religions within cultures always evolve as they interact with the progression of society and history. Such was the case in China.
Neo-Confucianism was a philosophical revival and, more important, a spiritual birth that occurred in reaction to the growing popularity of Daoism and Buddhism. Neo-Confucianistsseemed to understand that traditional Confucianism was not addressing the spiritual needs of Chinese culture, and that the Chinese government had a structural need for Confucian principles. So Neo-Confucianists combined the philosophicalelements of Confucianism with spiritual elements of Buddhism and Daoism.
The tenets to Neo-Confucianism make it much different from earlier Confucian philosophy. First and foremost was the acknowledgment of a god or Supreme Ultimate. The other important points of belief in Neo-Confucian are as follows:
• The world is real, not illusory.
• Personal fulfillment is gained by full participation in the world, not withdrawal from it.
• The world is divided into two worlds: material and spiritual.
• The goal of everyone should be to unify with the Supreme Ultimate.
With the development of Neo-Confucianism, there was little backlash with the Tang rulers’ purging of Buddhism and Daoism from Chinese culture. The people got the spiritual contentment they needed from Neo-Confucianism, while the Tang governmentgot rid of rival religions that didn’t support the philosophical underpinnings of its rule. Neo-Confucianism was in China to stay, and its impact was much more pronouncedthan Buddhism or Daoism.
The Least You Need to Know
• Although the Sui dynasty was not in power long, it ended a period of strife in China and began a period of stability and prosperity.
• The Tang dynasty renewed trade and culture with its reinstitution of the civil service examination and subsequent bureaucracy.
• The Song dynasty presided over the final years of a golden age of Chinese cultureand accomplishment.
• Buddhism and Daoism had made successful inroads in China, but these inroads were later minimized by efforts of the Tang dynasty and the emergence of Neo-Confucianism.
• Neo-Confucianism combined the philosophy of Confucianism with spiritual elements to create a new religious tradition in China.