Post-classical history

Chapter Four


The Lost Homeland

Between 1127 and 1150, the Song are exiled by the Jin, the Dai Viet adopt the Mandate of Heaven, and a Khmer king builds the biggest temple on earth

IN 1127, the poet Li Qingzhao and her husband abandoned their home and fled from the advancing troops of the Jurchen. They traveled south with a cartful of rare manuscripts and antique bronzes, leaving behind them a lifetime’s collection of books and art. Before they reached the southern city of Nanjing, where they would settle as refugees, the Jurchen burned their home to the ground. The Song dynasty, which had been ruling from the Yellow river valley since 960, was driven from its capital city of Kaifeng; the Song emperor Qinzong was hauled north and imprisoned until his death; the dominance of the Song over China was broken.1

“The long night passes slowly,” Li Qingzhao wrote, wistfully, of her vanished home, “with few happy thoughts / Then I dream of the capital and see the road back to it. . . .” But she never followed the road; Kaifeng was lost forever.2

For the Song dynasty, the defeat was both unexpected and embarrassing. The Song were heirs of the four-thousand-year-old Chinese imperial tradition, holders of the ancient Mandate of Heaven, heirs of the legendary Yellow Emperor.* The invading Jurchen, on the other hand, had been nomads less than a generation before. They had begun to move towards a national identity only twelve years earlier, when the brilliant and ambitious Akuta, leader of the Wanyan clan, had adopted a Chinese dynastic name for himself (the “Jin Emperor”)† and set his eyes on the conquest of the rich empire to his south.

To the Song, the Jurchen were still merely barbarians: “Our vast land now smells of goat and sheep,” complained the poet Chen Liang, also driven south by the Jurchen. But despite the scorn the Song felt for the raw northerners, the Jurchen continued, inexorably, to advance. Gaozong, younger brother of the captured Song emperor, escaped south and proclaimed himself the next Song ruler; but he was forced to reestablish his court at Lin’an, on the far side of the Yangtze river, and even there he was constantly threatened by Jurchen raids. Jurchen horsemen pressed down farther and farther into the central plains, looting and burning the towns they passed. In 1129, Yangzhou fell to the invaders; in 1130, the Jurchen crossed the Yangtze and sacked Ningbo, on the southern coast.3

The emperor Song Gaozong, who had just turned twenty when Kaifeng fell, was forced to move from hiding place to hiding place. He grew so desperate that he sent an embassy to the Jurchen generals, offering to become their vassal if the raids would only stop: “I have no one to defend me,” he wrote, “and no place to run.”4

But the Jurchen did not want vassals. The Song scorn was not entirely undeserved; the Jurchen were mounted soldiers with no experience of running a state, no mechanism for administering a conquered country. They wanted to conquer China, not govern it as an occupied land.

So Song Gaozong’s plea was rejected, and the battles continued. But this turned out to be the saving of the Song. As fighting dragged on, the northern warriors struggled with unfamiliar southern heat. The terrain, crosshatched with streams and canals, slowed their horses. They had no experience with water warfare, but they now faced the barrier of the Yangtze. The Jurchen troops, growing fatter with plunder and loot, were less inclined to ride hard and far. And the Song themselves, adjusting to their exile, were mounting an increasingly powerful resistance by ship.5

The Song, like the dynasties before them, had always supplemented land armies with sea power. More and more warcraft were built to patrol the Yangtze. The river, noted one Song official, was the new Great Wall against the barbarians. In 1132, the emperor authorized the creation of a new government agency, the Imperial Commissioner’s Office for the Control and Organization of the Coastal Areas, to take charge of the fleet. The Song warships had now become the world’s first permanent, standing, government-run navy.6

The navy tipped the struggle back towards the Song. For a decade, power teetered between the two sides, neither able to make much progress past the Yangtze. Slowly, the Song court began to accept the reality of its position: the north was, at least for the moment, lost. In 1141, the emperor Gaozong agreed to sign a peace treaty with the Jurchen. Thirteen years of war had given him no choice. He could no longer afford to mount endless expeditions into the north; the cropland in the south was untilled, the farmers drafted into the army; the only other road for the Song ended in poverty and famine.

The Shaoxing treaty was a humiliation. It referred to the Jurchen as the “superior state” and the Song as an “insignificant fiefdom,” and Gaozong was forced to accept the status of Jurchen vassal, complete with a hefty annual tribute. But it halted the fighting for two decades, and the shrunken Song, battered and shamed by the nomads, slowly began to build a new existence for itself.7

FAR SOUTH of the Yellow river, a cluster of smaller kingdoms had grown up in the shadow of the giant.

The peoples of these southern lands were known to the Chinese simply as Yueh, a blanket name for all non-Chinese living below the Yangtze. A thousand years earlier, the most northern of these peoples had fallen under Chinese rule. Invaded by the armies of the Han dynasty, the lands around the Gulf of Tonkin became Annam, a Chinese province under the control of a Han governor.8

But in the tenth century, Annam had broken away from its Chinese overlords and claimed the right to rule itself: not as Annam, a Chinese province, but as Dai Viet, an independent kingdom ruled by the Ly dynasty of kings.

Border spats with the Song continued to trouble the northern provinces of Dai Viet. In 1076, one of these spats had escalated into full-scale war, culminating in a Song invasion. At the mouth of the Bach Dang river, the Song forces were repelled by the great general Ly Thuong Kiet. He celebrated his victory with the song Nam Quoc Son Ho, “Land of the Southern Kingdom”:

Over the peaks and rivers of the South reigns our emperor.

Such is the destiny fixed forever on the Celestial Book.

How dare the Enemy invade our land?

Their foolish audacity will witness their bloody rout!9

The verse, still remembered as Vietnam’s first declaration of independence, was written in Chinese.

Ten centuries of Chinese domination had woven Chinese ways into the fabric of Dai Viet, and neither Song weakness nor Dai Viet independence could unpick it. The 1076 invasion ended with a border agreement between the two courts; it drew a line between China and Dai Viet, north of the Dai Viet capital Thang Long, that still exists today. But the border did not wall the Dai Viet away from the influence of the Song. The Ly kings, like their Chinese counterparts, were builders of Buddhist pagodas and benefactors of Buddhist monasteries. Chinese was still used in all court business; would-be officials still had to pass the Chinese civil service examination, based on the teachings of Confucius. And even as the Song court fled from the cradle of ancient Chinese civilization, the Ly dynasty adopted the Mandate of Heaven as its own. Their kings were “Southern Emperors,” ruling the “Southern Kingdoms” by virtue of their own, southern, celestial mandate; the mandate of the Song emperor ended north of Thang Long, and the powers of heaven protected the border between the two.10


4.1 The Kingdoms of China and Southeast Asia

Huddling at Kaifeng, beating off Jin raids, the Song could hardly push the point. For the next two centuries, the greatest threats to Dai Viet power would come from the south instead.

Two kingdoms lay below Dai Viet: Khmer and Champa, both shaped more by trade with India across the Bay of Bengal than by Chinese pressure from the north. The king of Khmer, Suryavarman II, had come to the throne in 1113 by fighting off his relatives. His reign continued, as it had begun, with war.

First he turned on his own kingdom. Under his predecessors, Khmer had begun to spiral down into anarchy and fragmentation; in a series of deadly internal battles, Suryavarman whipped his rebellious nobility into line. Then he turned his gaze outward. “He saw the kings of the other countries that he desired to subjugate,” a contemporary chronicle notes, “. . . [and] he himself went into the countries of his enemies.” It was his duty to subjugate the earth. Like his predecessors, Suryavarman followed the Hindu Devaraja, the god-king cult; as king of Khmer, he was an incarnation of the divine, one with the god. He was Chakravartin, ruler (on earth) of the universe.11

His first target was the coastal kingdom of Champa, immediately to his east. A series of raids into Champa created a high level of anxiety among the Sanskrit-speaking Cham; many of them fled north into Dai Viet, which gave them refuge. In 1128, Suryavarman used this as the pretext for a new offensive, this time directly against Dai Viet. He marched twenty thousand men into the country, and was unceremoniously driven back.12

Undaunted, he settled into a pattern of regular raids on his neighbors: sending armies in by land and fleets of warships around by water. But he made little headway against the Dai Viet. In Thang Long, a new king had just inherited the throne. His name was Ly Than Tong, and although he was only twelve, he was gifted with strong generals. Again and again, the Khmer forces were checked.

Champa was less fortunate. The Dai Viet had been forced, in opposition to the Song, to unite themselves; the Champa had not. In name, the country was governed by a king who ruled from the city of Vijaya, but in actuality it was an unstable confederation of local rulers, isolated from each other in a series of river valleys that ran from west to east, as likely to fight one another as to stand up to the Khmer bully.13

The Champa king, Jaya Indravarman III, had neither the army nor the resources to keep Suryavarman out. In 1132, in desperation, he agreed to join with Suryavarman as an ally against the Dai Viet. But the united Champa-Khmer army too was stampeded by the Dai Viet.14

The Champa ruler Jaya Indravarman, who comes across in the contemporary chronicles as a mild and resourceless man with no idea of what to do next, decided that he’d picked the wrong side; he made peace overtures to the Dai Viet instead. The Khmer made their next foray into Dai Viet alone. Facing their armies, the Dai Viet general Do Anh Vu is said to have sniffed, “The soldiers of the Son of Heaven quell rebellion; they do not offer battle in contestation as equals.” He then clobbered the Khmer once again.15

A less determined empire builder than Suryavarman would have given up. Instead, Suryavarman turned directly on Champa. In 1145, Khmer armies sacked the sacred temple city of My Son; the ineffective Jaya Indravarman disappeared from the historical record, never to be heard from again. Suryavarman added the north of Champa to his own kingdom and installed his brother-in-law as deputy ruler there.16

That was his last great victory. In 1150, yet another invasion of the Dai Viet failed, this time because the Khmer army was wiped out by fever as it crossed the mountains towards Thang Long. And by the end of 1150, Suryavarman too had vanished from the chronicles, his exact fate unknown. He left behind a war-exhausted country, thousands upon thousands of corpses, and the most magnificent tomb in Asia.

The Khmer capital city of Angkor, built shortly after 800 by Suryavarman’s great predecessor Jayavarman II, had grown over four centuries into a vast, sophisticated metropolis. Unwalled and sprawling across swampy ground, Angkor covered perhaps 125 square miles, 320 square kilometers: larger than any other twelfth-century city, five times the size of modern Manhattan. A million people lived within its boundaries, depending on a vast network of canals and reservoirs for drinking water. The largest reservoir, the Western Baray, had been completed in the eleventh century; eight kilometers long and two wide, it held 70 million cubic meters of water, over 18 billion gallons, enough to supply the entire state of Florida for a week.17

Between military campaigns, Suryavarman had supervised the building, in Angkor, of the temple Angkor Wat: the size of a small city in its own right, covering nearly a square mile, only a little smaller than the entire medieval city of London. Angkor Wat was intended to be his final resting place. Surrounded by its own moat and defensive wall, the temple rose up in a series of concentric squares and craggy towers. It was a stone mountain, modeled after the mythical Mount Meru, center of the world of the Hindu gods. Carved bas-reliefs showed thousands of scenes of war, court life, religious ritual; scenes from Hindu epics, depictions of the afterlife with the righteous in bliss, the rebellious crushed; a massive portrait of Suryavarman himself. Angkor Wat was dedicated to Vishnu, the god who dwelt within it. Suryavarman had been god on earth; now the temple of the god would become his tomb, so that he too would live in it forever.18


4.1 Central towers of Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
Credit: © Kevin R. Morris / Corbis

Angkor Wat had taken an almost unimaginable outlay of money and men. It was designed and built with extraordinary precision: laid out so that, at the beginning of the year, the sun would fall on the bas-relief scenes of the earth’s creation, while closer to the year’s end, it would light up scenes of apocalypse. Observation points for future eclipses of the sun and moon were calculated and built into the temple. Over two million stones, some weighing as much as eight tons, were brought to the temple from a quarry more than twenty miles away. Yet the entire temple was completed in thirty-five years; the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, 420 feet long and 226 high, took over a century.19

Khmer now boasted the most glorious temple complex in the world. But the country was drained by taxes, worn out by the demands of constant war and extravagant construction. Suryavarman’s successors gave up his hard-conquered lands in Champa and retreated, drawing back within Khmer’s old borders; the kingdom’s new and extravagant beginning had almost immediately led to an end.


4.2 Angkor Wat bas-relief sculpture.
Credit: © John R. Jones; Papilio/Corbis


* See Bauer, The History of the Medieval World, pp. 568ff.

†The Jin dynasty of the Jurchen (1115–1234) should not be confused with the earlier Jin dynasty that ruled China 265–420, or with the Later Jin Dynasty (936–947), which ruled during a period of division known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. See Bauer, The History of the Medieval World, pp. 13–20 and 413–418.

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