(The SUI, TANG and SONG DYNASTIES – continued)

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Conceit and Military Weakness under the Song Dynasty

In 960, amid the chaos in China, troops of the commander of the palace guard at the new capital of China at Kaifeng surrounded him and demanded that he become emperor. The commander agreed that he would if they vowed to obey him and not plunder, harm citizens or harm the ruling family they were overthrowing. The troops agreed, and they marched to the palace, overthrew a child-emperor who had been reigning nominally. China's period of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms since 910 was coming to an end. The new emperor at Kaifeng was Taizu (his temple name), and the dynasty he began was called the Song – not to be confused with the Liu-Song Dynasty of the fifth century.

Taizu reigned for fifteen years. He and his younger brother (who became the emperor Taizong of Song, not to be confused with Taizong of the Tang dynasty) reunified that part of China not ruled by foreigners – subjugating one provincial kingdom after the other, their troops refraining from violence against local populations and giving amnesty to local military governors who fought him. Military governors – warlords – were retired with comforting pensions, and they were replaced by civilian officials.

Junk sailing vessel

A Song Dynasty sailing ship. Click to enlarge and for details. Junk sailing vessel, enlarged

Emperor Taizong defended against Liao, and he focused on economic and literary achievements. Prosperity returned. Revenues became three times what they had been during the Tang dynasty. Elegant living spread, and the arts flourished along with a growing population. Cities – the centers of culture – became more crowded. Landowners moved there, and the wealthy were transported about in rickshaws. Gardens decorated the city. There were amusement centers, with tea or wine shops, brothels, spectator entertainment such as theaters, puppetry, acrobatics and juggling – while a few worried about the immorality of extravagance.

In the eleventh century China had an iron industry – the foundation for a modern industrial society. note12 ┬áChina's annual production of pig iron became twice what England's would be at the end of the 1700s. China's merchant ships were at an all-time high in number, and increasing. The volume of trade was increasing. But China remained under Confucian influence, and the Confucians saw commerce as not respectable. In China, when someone accumulated a little extra money from trade, rather than invest in manufacturing he was tempted to buy land and become respectable. An independent and innovative bourgeoisie was not about to develop or acquire political power in China as it would in Britain. Neither would large private commercial and industrial enterprises develop.

During the Song dynasty, non-governmental economic enterprise broke free to a degree, but merchants remained dependent on the favors of governmental bureaucrats. Paying them a share of the take from enterprise in the form of contributions for government operations and personal gifts was a part of doing business. Private enterprise developed in small farming and trading, but it did not provide the kind of accumulation of wealth needed for the development of capitalism. China remained a peasant nation with a Confucian gentry elite and little upward mobility for those from other families. The best road to advance for the sons of common folk was in the military. The road to government jobs – office work – continued to be blocked for those students who were not from wealthy families.

As in most other civilized societies, women did not own property, and they remained uneducated. Moreover, their ability to labor was declining. Footbinding was coming into fashion. It began among the aristocrats. Creating small, deformed feet was considered erotic by men, and the ability to support women who could not walk unaided was a sign of wealth. Soon men of lesser rank wanted women with such feet, and it was to become so common that grown women with normal feet would appear freakish. Footbinding was a long and painful process that lasted during a girl's growing years. And in addition to the trouble in creating deformed feet, it slowed a woman's ability to contribute labor, with women hobbling about as they did housework.

In the eleventh century, China was at a new height technologically. It had paper, moveable type and printing. China had gunpowder, steel weapons and primitive rocketry. But militarily China was no Sparta or early Rome. Confucian bureaucrats were in charge of the military, and the Confucian elite was effete compared to the vigor of China's pastoral neighbors. The Confucianists tended to be pacifist. They saw soldiers as the lowest of all groups of people. Athletics and military skills were not esteemed. China had a military but no warrior class, and its military began to be neglected, with little attention being given to the arts of warfare. Military exams and military rankings were regarded with disdain. China tried to meet its defense needs by hiring mercenary armies, but this was to prove inadequate.

The conceit of China's elite led them to believe that they did not have to adjust to military realities. They believed that their neighbors would be sufficiently awed by China's greatness and its favor from the heavens. Exercising their Confucianism they believed that if the Chinese nation behaved morally, neighboring kings would give China the respect it deserved. They believed that neighboring kings would recognize China's proper role as a superior nation and would provide China with the tribute (taxes) that China deserved.

China military power was tested repeatedly by skirmishes launched by the Khitan, an ethnicity that dominated much of Manchuria and was ruling China's far north. After being defeated repeatedly by the Khitan (the Liao dynasty) the Song emperor, Zhenzong, waged war against them successfully and signed a treaty with them in 1005, the Shanyuan Treaty. It ceded to the Khitan that part of China which they occupied, including what today is Beijing, and Emperor Zhenzong agreed to pay the Khitan annual taxes (tribute).

In the northwest the Chinese struggled against the Tangut – a Tibetan people – and the Chinese gave in to the Tangut as they had the Khitan, allowing the Tangut to occupy their territory. In 1044, China bought peace with the Tangut by agreeing to make tribute payments to them as well as to the Khitan.

The Song emperors began to experience fiscal difficulties. Population growth in China had outdistanced economic growth. Military expenses associated with northern border wars had drained China economically, as did the cost of an ever growing governmental bureaucracy. The bureaucracy, moreover, was torn by factions proposing different measures regarding tax reform and land distribution. These reforms failed, as they had during the Han dynasty, and for the same reason: opposition from the largely Confucianist gentry, who put their individual economic interests ahead of the common good.

The emperor from the year 1101 was Huizong, who was also a poet, a good calligrapher and a devoted Taoist. Huizong spent a lot of money on extravagant Taoist pageants and on maintaining his palaces and gardens. He raised taxes. And, with government officials having a weak understanding of economics, their solution to a shortage of money was to print more of it. Inflation and higher taxes created rebellion.

Emperor Huizong managed to have the rebellion crushed. Then he decided to add to his successes by freeing more of China from Khitan rule. Prompted by China's military weakness, he made an alliance with the Jurchen people of Manchuria. The Jurchen were various ethnicities within the Khitan kingdom of Liao. The Jurchen rebelled against Khitan rule, and in 1125 the Jurchen accomplished what China, with its much larger population, had failed to do: defeat the Khitan. Then the Jurchen turned their army against the Song and drove farther into China, overrunning the Song dynasty's capital, Kaifeng, in 1126. Huizong and other royalty were among around 3,000 that the Jurchen took away as prisoners, and Emperor Huizong died in captivity.

Huizong's ninth son survived and continued the Song dynasty from around the Yangzi River southward and as far eastward as Sichuan province. Once again the Chinese ruled only in the south, the dynasty there called the Southern Song. And the Southern Song looked forward to reconquering the north.

In China's far north there was no ethnic border – the result of migrations and invasions into China during centuries past and Chinese having migrated into areas north of China.


China's Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty, by Mark Edward Lewis and Timothy Brook, 2009

China: A Complete History, by J A G Roberts, 2003

Ageless Chinese, by Dun J Li, 1978

China, a Macro History by Ray Huang, 1990

The Rise and Splendor of the Chinese Empire by Rene Grousset , 1968

A Military History of China, by David Graff and Robin Higham, 2002

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