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First Edition

Britannica Educational Publishing

Michael I. Levy: Executive Editor
J.E. Luebering: Senior Manager
Marilyn L. Barton: Senior Coordinator, Production Control
Steven Bosco: Director, Editorial Technologies
Lisa S. Braucher: Senior Producer and Data Editor
Yvette Charboneau: Senior Copy Editor
Kathy Nakamura: Manager, Media Acquisition
Kenneth Pletcher: Senior Editor, Geography and History

Rosen Educational Services

Alexandra Hanson-Harding: Senior Editor
Nelson Sá: Art Director
Cindy Reiman: Photography Manager
Nicole Russo: Designer
Matthew Cauli: Cover Design
Introduction by Laura La Bella

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

The history of China / edited by Kenneth Pletcher.—1st ed.

p. cm.—(Understanding China)
“In association with Britannica Educational Publishing, Rosen Educational Services.”
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-61530-181-2 (eBook)
1. China—History—Juvenile literature. I. Pletcher, Kenneth.
DS735.H56 2010

On the cover: The Great Wall, China’s most famous landmark, was built over a period of
more than 2,000 years. © Churchill

Page 14 © Chen.

On page 20: The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, part of a large religious complex called
the Temple of Heaven, was built in 1420 in Beijing. © Chen
Introduction 14

Chapter i: The Beginnings

of Chinese history 21
Introduction 21
Prehistory 22
Early Humans 22
Neolithic Period 24
Climate and Environment 24
Food Production 25
Major Cultures and Sites 26
Incipient Neolithic 26
Silk 27
Religious Beliefs
and Social Organization 32 57
The First Historical Dynasty: The Shang 33
The Advent of Bronze Casting 33
The Shang Dynasty 35
Royal Burials 36
The Chariot 37
Art 37
Late Shang Divination and Religion 38
State and Society 39

Chapter 2: The Zhou

and Qin Dynasties 41
The History of the Zhou (1046–256 BC) 41
Zhou and Shang 42
The Zhou Feudal System 44
Social, Political, and Cultural Changes 47
The Decline of Feudalism 47 59
Urbanization and Assimilation 47
The Rise of Monarchy 48
Economic Development 50
Cultural Change 53
The Qin Empire (221–207 BC) 54
The Qin State 54
Struggle for Power 55
The Empire 56
The Great Wall of China 57

Chapter 3: The han Dynasty 60

Dynastic Authority and
the Succession of Emperors 61
Xi (Western) Han 61
Prelude to the Han 62
The Imperial Succession 63
From Wudi to Yuandi 65
Wudi 65
From Chengdi to Wang Mang 66
Dong (Eastern) Han 67
The Administration of the Han Empire 69
The Structure of Government 69
The Civil Service 69
Provincial Government 71
The Armed Forces 72 81
The Practice of Government 73
Relations with Other Peoples 76
Cultural Developments 78

Chapter 4: The Six Dynasties

and the Sui Dynasty 83
Political Developments
During the Six Dynasties 83
The Division of China 83
Sanguo (Three Kingdoms; AD 220–280) 84
The Xi (Western) Jin (AD 265–316/317) 84
The Era of Barbarian Invasions and Rule 85
The Dong (Eastern) Jin (317–420) and
Later Dynasties in the South (420–589) 85
The Shiliuguo (Sixteen Kingdoms)
in the North (303–439) 86 93
Intellectual and Religious Trends
During the Six Dynasties 87
Confucianism and Philosophical Daoism 87
Confucius 88
Daoism 90
Buddhism 92
The Sui Dynasty 95
Wendi’s Institutional Reforms 96
Integration of the South 97
Foreign Affairs Under Yangdi 100

Chapter 5: The Tang Dynasty 102

Early Tang (618–626) 102
Administration of the State 104
Fiscal and Legal System 105
The Period of Tang Power (626–755) 107
The “Era of Good Government” 107
Rise of the Empress Wuhou 110
Prosperity and Progress 114
Military Reorganization 115
Late Tang (755–907) 117
Provincial Separatism 118
The Struggle for Central Authority 120
Cultural Developments 122
The Influence of Buddhism 122
Trends in the Arts 125 123
Du Fu 125
Social Change 126
Decline of the Aristocracy 126
Population Movements 127
Growth of the Economy 128

Chapter 6: Political Disunity

Between the Tang and Song Dynasties 130
The Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms 130
The Wudai (Five Dynasties) 131
Huang He 132
The Shiguo (Ten Kingdoms) 133
Barbarian Dynasties 135
The Tangut 135
The Khitan 135
The Juchen 136 124

Chapter 7: The Song Dynasty 138

Bei (Northern) Song (960–1127) 138
Unification 138
Consolidation 140
Reforms 142
Decline and Fall 145
Nan (Southern) Song (1127–1279) 147
Survival and Consolidation 148
Relations with the Juchen 150

The Court’s Relations with the Bureaucracy 151

The Chief Councillors 153
The Bureaucratic Style 155
Chinese Civil Service 157
The Clerical Staff 158
The Rise of Neo-Confucianism 159
Internal Solidarity During
the Decline of the Nan Song 162
Song Culture 163

Chapter 8: The yuan,

or Mongol, Dynasty 168
The Mongol Conquest of China 168
Invasion of the Jin State 168
Genghis Khan 169 179
Invasion of the Song State 170
China Under the Mongols 172
Mongol Government and Administration 172
Early Mongol Rule 172
Changes Under Kublai Khan
and His Successors 173
Economy 177
Religious and Intellectual Life 178
Daoism 178
Buddhism 180
Foreign Religions 181
Confucianism 181
Literature 182
The Arts 183
Yuan China and the West 186
The End of Mongol Rule 188 191
Chapter 9: The Ming Dynasty 190
Political History 190
The Dynasty’s Founder 191
Hongwu 192
The Dynastic Succession 192
Government and Administration 196
Local Government 197
Central Government 197
Later Innovations 198

Foreign Relations 201

Economic Policy and Developments 205
Population 205
Agriculture 206
Taxation 207
Coinage 208
Culture 208
Philosophy and Religion 209
Fine Arts 211
Literature and Scholarship 211

Chapter 10: The Early Qing Dynasty 214

The Rise of the Manchu 214
Dorgon 217
The Qing Empire 217 210
Political Institutions 218
Foreign Relations 222
Economic Development 223
Qing Society 226
Social Organization 228
State and Society 229
Trends in the Early Qing 230

Chapter 11: Late Qing 231

Western Challenge, 1839–60 231
The First Opium War and its Aftermath 232
The Antiforeign Movement
and the Second Opium War (Arrow War) 234
Popular Uprising 236
The Taiping Rebellion 236
The Nian Rebellion 238 215
Muslim Rebellions 239
Effects of the Rebellions 240
The Self-Strengthening Movement 240
Foreign Relations in the 1860s 241
Industrialization for “Self-Strengthening” 242
Changes in Outlying Areas 244
East Turkistan 244
Tibet and Nepal 244
Myanmar (Burma) 245
Vietnam 245

Japan and the Ryukyu Islands 246

Korea and the Sino-Japanese War 247
Reform and Upheaval 248
The Hundred Days of Reform of 1898 249
The Boxer Rebellion 251
Reformist and Revolutionist Movements
at the End of the Dynasty 253
Sun Yat-sen and the United League 254
Sun Yat-sen 255
Constitutional Movements After 1905 256
The Chinese Revolution (1911–12) 257

Chapter 12: The Early

Republican Period 259
The Development of the Republic (1912–20) 259 255
Early Power Struggles 259
China in World War I 260
Japanese Gains 260
Yuan’s Attempts to Become Emperor 261
Conflict Over Entry into the War 262
Formation of a
Rival Southern Government 263
Wartime Changes 263
Intellectual Movements 264
An Intellectual Revolution 264
Riots and Protests 265
The Interwar Years (1920–37) 265
Beginnings of a National Revolution 265
The Nationalist Party 265
The Chinese Communist Party 266
Mao Zedong 268
Communist-Nationalist Cooperation 268 267
Reactions to Warlords and Foreigners 269
Militarism in China 270
The Foreign Presence 271
Reorganization of the KMT 271
Struggles Within the Two-Party Coalition 273
Clashes with Foreigners 273
KMT Opposition to Radicals 273
The Northern Expedition 274
Expulsion of Communists
from the KMT 275

The Nationalist Government

from 1928 to 1937 276
Japanese Aggression 278
War Between Nationalists
and Communists 278
The United Front Against Japan 280

Chapter 13: The Late Republican

Period and the War against Japan 281
The Early Sino-Japanese War 281
Phase One 281
Nanjing Massacre 282
Phase Two: Stalemate and Stagnation 283
Renewed Communist-Nationalist Conflict 285
The International Alliance Against Japan 286 301
U.S. Aid to China 286
Conflicts Within the International Alliance 287
Phase Three: Approaching Crisis (1944–45) 289
Nationalist Deterioration 290
Communist Growth 290
Efforts to Prevent Civil War 291
Civil War (1945–49) 291
A Race for Territory 292
Attempts to End the War 293
Resumption of Fighting 294
The Tide Begins to Shift 296
A Land Revolution 297
The Decisive Year, 1948 297
Communist Victory 298

Chapter 14: Establishment 310

of the People’s Republic 300
Reconstruction and Consolidation, 1949–52 302
The Transition to Socialism, 1953–57 305
Rural Collectivization 306
Urban Socialist Changes 307
Political Developments 307
Foreign Policy 310
New Directions in National Policy, 1958–61 311
Great Leap Forward 313
Readjustment and Reaction, 1961–65 316

Chapter 15: China Since 1965 323

The Cultural Revolution, 1966–76 323
Attacks on Cultural Figures 323
Attacks on Party Members 325
Red Guards 326
Seizure of Power 327
The End of the Radical Period 328
Social Changes 330
Struggle for the Premiership 331
Consequences of the Cultural Revolution 334
China After the Death of Mao 334
Domestic Developments 335
Readjustment and Recovery 335
Economic Policy Changes 336
Political Developments 338 326
Educational and Cultural
Policy Changes 340
International Relations 340
Relations with Taiwan 341
Conclusion 342

Glossary 346
For Further Reading 348
Index 349

Introduction | 15

O n October 1, 2009, the People’s

Republic of China celebrated its
60th anniversary with a stunning display
The Qin dynasty (221–207 BC) was
so influential that the name “China” is
derived from Qin. Shihuangdi was its
of weapons, rumbling tanks, and smartly founder and most notable emperor. On
dressed soldiers under a blue sky in the the one hand, he was a cruel tyrant. On
capital city of Beijing. It was an impres- the other hand, changes he made during
sive show of military might that displayed his reign helped to define China even
China’s rising power in the modern world. today. The boundaries he set during his
From a nation devastated by civil war reign became the traditional territory of
and the ravages of World War II, China China. In later eras China sometimes
has become the world’s third-largest held other territories, but the Qin bound-
economy and a major player on the world aries were always considered to embrace
stage. But the ability to renew itself is far the indivisible area of China proper. He
from new for China. Despite upheavals developed networks of highways and uni-
that have shattered the country, China is fied a number of existing fortifications
unique among nations: its many cultural into the Great Wall of China, a UNESCO
and economic accomplishments stretch World Heritage site today. He established
across a continuous period, from its earli- a basic administrative system that all
est recorded history, more than 4,000 succeeding dynasties followed for the
years ago, to today. This book will reveal next 2,000 years. His tomb near Xi’an
much about this exceptional nation and contains one of China’s most famous
its long, varied history, which reaches treasures—6,000 life-sized terra-cotta
back to one of the earliest periods in statues of warriors.
world civilzation. The Han (202 BC–220 AD), the next
China was ruled for centuries by great Chinese imperial dynasty estab-
dynasties, each contributing to the coun- lished much of Chinese culture, so much
try’s cultural development. The first so that “Han” became the Chinese word
Chinese dynasty for which there is archae- denoting someone who is Chinese. Under
ological evidence is the Shang dynasty its most famous emperor, Han Wudi,
(c. 1600–1046 BC). They left behind beau- China fought against its northern nomad
tiful bronze objects, including massive neighbours, the Xiongnu, and took con-
ritual vessels and bronze chariots, which trol of the eastern portion of the Silk
showed that Shang society was sophisti- Road, a trading route that allowed China
cated and organized enough for its to sell goods as far away as Rome. He also
people to create large-scale foundries. started China’s civil service system in
Eventually, the Shang were conquered by which young men competed through
their western neighbours, the Zhou (1046- exams for government jobs.
256 BC). The great philosopher Confucius After the Han dynasty fell apart, China
was born during Zhou times. was a fractured state. This time was known
16 | The History of China

as the time of the Six Dynasties. Although The Song (960–1279) was one of
China was not united in government, it China’s most brilliant dynasties. During
retained its essentially Chinese charac- the Song period, commerce increased,
ter. This era was a time of development the widespread printing of literature
for two of China’s three major religions: became popular and a growing number
Daoism and Buddhism (The other is of people became educated. An agricul-
Confucianism). tural revolution, including cultivation of
The short-lived yet significant Sui an early ripening strain of rice, produced
dynasty (581–618) unified the country after enough food to feed a population of 100
more than three centuries of fragmenta- million people—by far the largest popula-
tion. One of the greatest accomplishments tion in the world at the time. Artistically,
of the Sui dynasty was building a great the Song dynasty marked a high point for
waterway, the Bian Canal, which linked Chinese pottery. But militarily, the Song
north and south China. This system, were less powerful. During this dynasty
further enlarged in later times, was a valu- the Juchen continued to control much of
able transportation network that proved China’s central plains. This caused a spir-
to be extremely important in maintaining itual crisis that led to a new form of
a unified empire. Confucianism known as Lixue “School of
The Sui set the stage for the succeed- Universal Principles,” which synthesized
ing Tang dynasty (618–907), which metaphysics, ethics, and self-cultivation,
stimulated a cultural and artistic golden and became important in China for cen-
age. Some of China’s greatest poets, such turies to come.
as Li Bai and Du Fu, lived and wrote dur- In the late 12th and 13th century,
ing the Tang dynasty. Genghis Khan, the great Mongol war-
Next came another time of political rior-ruler, was slashing his way across
instability (907–960) during which three Asia and Europe. He started the work of
northern peoples, the Tangut, Khitan, conquering the rich prize that was China,
and Juchen, occupied parts of China’s and began the Yuan dynasty (1206–1368)
traditional territory. The Tangut became but was only partially successful. It
middlemen in trade between Central wasn’t until his grandson, Kublai, took
Asia and China. The Khitan founded the control that the Song dynasty was com-
Liao dynasty by expanding from the bor- pletely defeated—a fight that took several
der of Mongolia into southern Manchuria. decades. Being ruled by a foreign invader
This area remained out of Chinese politi- was difficult for native Chinese, who
cal control for more than 400 years and were not allowed to hold the highest
acted for centuries as a centre for the positions in court and were called “south-
mutual exchange of culture between ern barbarians.” But at the same time,
the Chinese and the northern peoples. The Yuan rule had certain benefits for the
Liao were overthrown by the Juchen. Chinese. The Mongols reunited China.
Introduction | 17

They left religion alone. A large, well-read 19th century as Chinese rebelled against
bourgeoisie enjoyed novels and plays. both Qing policies and these foreign
Because the empire was so vast, China incursions.
engaged in more extensive foreign trade Finally, in 1912, the Qing dynasty
than ever before, allowing the country to abdicated and Yuan Shikai became presi-
become richer and more stable. dent of China’s new republic. But when
Chinese rulers reclaimed leadership the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or
of the country during the Ming dynasty KMT), made up mostly of former revolu-
(1368–1644). During the Ming, China tionaries, won a commanding majority of
exerted immense cultural and political seats in the new legislature and
influence on East Asia. This era was obstructed Yuan’s agenda, the president
famous for its brilliant art, especially craft undermined parliament and eventually
goods, such as cloisonné and porcelain. took on dictatorial powers. He then tried
The “willow pattern” porcelain wares to appoint himself as emperor but died in
became a famous export good to Europe. 1916 before doing so. Still, Yuan managed
The Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12) the to leave behind foreign debt, a legacy of
last of China’s imperial dynasties, began brutality, and a country fracturing into
when the Manchu, descendants of the warlordism.
Juchen, took over China. From the begin- On May 4, 1919, students organized
ning, the Manchu made efforts to become protests and riots in the nation’s major
assimilated into Chinese culture. These cities, and waves of workers went on
efforts bred strongly conservative, strike to pressure the government to
Confucian cultural attitudes in official oppose the decisions made at the Paris
society and stimulated a great period of Peace Conference after World War I
collecting, cataloging, and commenting ended, especially the decision to allow
upon the traditions of the past. During the Japanese to keep control of valuable
this time, there was significant trade with Chinese land, resources, and railroads
other countries—in the 18th century, 10 that they had taken in the previous
million Spanish silver dollars a year decade. This outburst led to the estab-
flowed into China. In its early days, Qing lishment of the Chinese Communist
China had a favourable trade balance, Party (CCP). After spending several
but gradually it became weak, and begin- years recruiting new members, the CCP
ning in the 1820s, European powers such began to compete with the KMT for con-
as Britain began demanding conces- trol of China.
sions and other special favours from In 1928, the Nationalists formally
China (including control of some Chinese established a reorganized National
territory). The Qing dynasty was not Government of the Republic of China.
strong enough to resist. A series of brief Meanwhile, Japan was moving aggres-
wars and uprisings took place during the sively to extend its power in Manchuria,
18 | The History of China

and nationalism was growing among the 10 years of civil war, had developed a
Chinese people. powerful discipline and sense of cama-
Throughout most of the 1930s, the raderie. After the war ended with Japan’s
KMT clashed with the CCP. The commu- defeat in 1945, the Nationalist govern-
nists established their own rival ment began to deteriorate.
government in 1931 at several bases in In 1949, the communists took con-
rural areas of central China. In late 1934, trol, establishing the People’s Republic
the Nationalists forced the communists of China and installing Mao Zedong, the
to abandon their bases. The communists chairman of the CCP, as its leader. Using
fought their way across western China in the Soviet model, Mao’s government
what became known as the Long March. wanted to focus on organizing China’s
By 1936, the remnants of several Red industrial workers. But four-fifths of
armies had gathered into an impover- China’s people were underemployed,
ished area in northern Shaanxi and impoverished farmers. To address this
reorganized themselves. During the problem, Mao came up with the First
Long March, the communists developed Five-Year Plan (1953-57), which redis-
cohesion and discipline. Mao Zedong tributed land and forced farmworkers
rose to preeminence as a leader. into small agricultural collectives. This
The Sino-Japanese War (which later plan had some success in helping to
developed into the Pacific theatre of reduce hunger. However, this success
World War II) began in 1937 with did not carry out in his next large pro-
Japanese attacks near Beijing. The CCP gram, the Great Leap Forward (1958–60).
and KMT formed an alliance (the United During that campaign, the large-scale
Front) to fight against the enemy, but collectives Mao had envisioned to
during the war’s first year, Japan won increase China’s food were also pressed
victory after victory. By late December, to engage in small-scale industrial pro-
the Japanese had invaded Shanghai and duction. However, agricultural output
Nanjing. Between 100,000 and 300,000 declined, and this, combined with a series
people were massacred by Japanese sol- of natural disasters that further ravaged
diers in Nanjing. By mid-1938, Japan crop production, led to mass starvation
controlled the rail lines and major cities in the country.
of northern China. The next years con- Indeed, life under Mao was a time of
tinued to be a bitter time, and the constant social upheaval and uproar.
Chinese suffered terribly. Eventually, the Under his leadership, China went through
alliance between the CCP and KMT one kind of social revolution after
began to fracture, as both sides fought another. Posters extolling the virtues of
to control territory. The Nationalist gov- the latest propaganda campaigns, with
ernment became increasingly corrupt, names like “Let a hundred flowers blos-
while the communists, having survived som,” “The Four Olds,” and “Bombard the
Introduction | 19

headquarters,” blanketed the country. priorities changed. It began to reach out

Often, those who participated in one social more to the world, and to develop as an
movement were attacked in the next. economic powerhouse. In 1978, China for-
In 1966, Mao unleashed the most far- mally agreed to establish full diplomatic
reaching of his upheavals: the Great relations with the United States. In educa-
Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a time tion, top priority was given to raising
when many authors, scholars, school- technical, scientific, and scholarly talent
teachers, former party leaders, and other to world-class standards. The collective
intellectuals were denounced as subver- farming system was gradually disman-
sive to the country’s cause. Bands of tled. Private entrepreneurship in the cities
Red Guards (paramilitary units of radical increased. It modernized its factories and
students) roamed the country attacking developed its transportation infrastruc-
those whom they deemed unsuitable. ture; its cities grew rapidly. China joined
Sometimes different Red Guard groups the World Trade Organization in 2001.
even attacked each other. Students, China faces many problems, among
intellectuals, and party members were them serious environmental issues,
encouraged or forced to moved out to the widespread economic inequality, and a
countryside and told to “learn from the sometimes repressive government. Its
poor and middle-class peasants.” image was tarnished in 1989, following
The consequences of the 10 years of the deaths of protestors in Tiananmen
the Cultural Revolution were severe. In Square. Still, the world clamours for
the short run, political instability pro- Chinese goods, and this has led to China
duced slower economic growth. In the becoming a major player on the world
long term, the Cultural Revolution left a stage—it now has the world’s third larg-
severe generation gap in which poorly est economy and is among the top
educated young people only knew how to trading countries. China remains cohe-
redress grievances by taking to the sive and vital, as it showed when it hosted
streets, an increase in corruption within the glittering 2008 Summer Olympics in
the CCP, and a loss of legitimacy as Beijing and again demonstrated its abil-
China’s people became disillusioned by ity to reinvent itself and to innovate, even
politicians’ obvious power plays. Perhaps after 4,000 years of history.
never before had a political leader What follows is a more detailed nar-
unleashed such massive forces against rative of China’s vast history with more
the system that he had created. comprehensive information on the dynas-
After Mao died in 1976 and the ties, movements, and events that account
Cultural Revolution subsided, China’s for the nation’s rich history.
The Beginnings of
Chinese history

With more than 4,000 years of recorded history, China is

one of the few existing countries that also flourished eco-
nomically and culturally in the earliest stages of world
civilization. Indeed, despite the political and social upheav-
als that frequently have ravaged the country, China is
unique among nations in its longevity and resilience as a
discrete political and cultural unit. Much of China’s cultural
development has been accomplished with relatively little
outside influence, the introduction of Buddhism from India
constituting a major exception. Even when the country was
penetrated by such “barbarian” peoples as the Manchu,
these groups soon became largely absorbed into the fabric
of Han Chinese culture.
This relative isolation from the outside world made pos-
sible over the centuries the flowering and refinement of the
Chinese culture, but it also left China ill-prepared to cope
with that world when, from the mid-19th century, it was con-
fronted by technologically superior foreign nations. There
followed a century of decline and decrepitude, as China
found itself relatively helpless in the face of a foreign
onslaught. The trauma of this external challenge became the
catalyst for a revolution that began in the early 20th century
against the old regime and culminated in the establishment
of a communist government in 1949. This event reshaped
22 | The History of China

A Chinese scientist holds the unearthed bones of a human who lived 25,000 years ago. AFP/
Getty Images

global political geography, and China Paleolithic Period [Old Stone Age] began
has since come to rank among the most about 2,500,000 years ago and ended
influential countries in the world. 10,000 years ago) at sites such as Lantian,
Shaanxi; Hexian, Anhui; Yuanmou,
PREhISTORy Yunnan; and, the most famous, that of
Peking man at Zhoukoudian, Beijing
Early Humans municipality. The Lower Cave at
Zhoukoudian has yielded evidence of
The fossil record in China promises intermittent human use from about
fundamental contributions to the under- 460,000 to 230,000 years ago, and fossils
standing of human origins. There is of Peking man found in the complex
considerable evidence of Homo erectus have been dated to about 770,000 years
by the time of the Lower Paleolithic (the ago. Many caves and other sites in
The Beginnings of Chinese History | 23

This map shows China and its special administrative regions.

24 | The History of China

Anhui, Hebei, Henan, Liaoning, Shandong, Neolithic Period

Shanxi and Shaanxi in northern China
and in Guizhou and Hubei in the south The complex of developments in stone
suggest that H. erectus achieved wide tool technology, food production and
distribution in China. Whether H. erectus storage, and social organization that is
pekinensis intentionally used fire and often characterized as the “Neolithic
practiced ritual cannibalism are matters Revolution” was in progress in China
under debate. by at least the 6th millennium BC.
Significant Homo sapiens cranial Developments during the Chinese
and dental fragments have been found Neolithic Period (New Stone Age)
together with Middle Paleolithic arti- were to establish some of the major
facts. Such assemblages have been cultural dimensions of the subsequent
unearthed at Dingcun, Shanxi; Changyang, Bronze Age.
Hubei; Dali, Shaanxi; Xujiayao, Shanxi;
and Maba, Guangdong. Morphological Climate and Environment
characteristics such as the shovel-shaped
incisor, broad nose, and mandibular torus Although the precise nature of the
link these remains to modern Asians. Few paleoenvironment is still in dispute, tem-
archaeological sites have been identified peratures in Neolithic China were
in the south. probably some 4 to 7 °F (2 to 4 °C) warmer
A number of widely distributed H. than they are today. Precipitation,
erectus sites dating from the early although more abundant, may have been
Pleistocene Epoch (i.e., about 1.8 million declining in quantity. The Qin (Tsinling)
years ago) manifest considerable Mountains in north-central China sepa-
regional and temporal diversity. Upper rated the two phytogeographical zones of
Paleolithic sites are numerous in north- northern and southern China, while the
ern China. Thousands of stone artifacts, absence of such a mountain barrier far-
most of them small (called microliths), ther east encouraged a more uniform
have been found, for example, at environment and the freer movement of
Xiaonanhai, near Anyang, at Shuoxian Neolithic peoples about the North China
and Qinshui (Shanxi), and at Yangyuan Plain. East China, particularly toward the
(Hebei); these findings suggest an exten- south, may have been covered with thick
sive microlith culture in northern China. vegetation, some deciduous forest, and
Hematite, a common iron oxide ore used scattered marsh. The Loess Plateau north
for colouring, was found scattered around and west of the Qin Mountains is thought
skeletal remains in the Upper Cave at to have been drier and even semiarid,
Zhoukoudian (c. 10th millennium BC) with some coniferous forest growing on
and may represent the first sign of the hills and with brush and open wood-
human ritual. land in the valleys.
The Beginnings of Chinese History | 25

A farmer in Shaoshan, Hunan province, China, gathers bundles of dried millet stalks. Frederic
J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

food Production shellfish. By the Bronze Age, millet, rice,

soybeans, tea, mulberries, hemp, and
The primary Neolithic crops, domesti- lacquer had become characteristic
cated by the 5th millennium BC, were Chinese crops. That most if not all of
drought-resistant millet (usually Setaria these plants were native to China indi-
italica), grown on the eolian and alluvial cates the degree to which Neolithic
loess soils of the northwest and the north, culture developed indigenously. The
and glutenous rice (Oryza sativa), grown distinctive cereal, fruit, and vegetable
in the wetlands of the southeast. These complexes of the northern and southern
staples were supplemented by a variety zones in Neolithic and early historic
of fruits, nuts, legumes, vegetables, and times suggest, however, that at least two
aquatic plants. The main sources of ani- independent traditions of plant domesti-
mal protein were pigs, dogs, fish, and cation may have been present.
26 | The History of China

The stone tools used to clear and and geographical, are not discussed in
prepare the land reveal generally improv- detail in the following paragraphs.
ing technology. There was increasing
use of ground and polished edges and of Incipient Neolithic
perforation. Regional variations of shape
included oval-shaped axes in central and Study of the historical reduction of the
northwest China, square- and trapezoid- size of human teeth suggests that the
shaped axes in the east, and axes with first human beings to eat cooked food
stepped shoulders in the southeast. By did so in southern China. The sites of
the Late Neolithic a decrease in the pro- Xianrendong in Jiangxi and Zengpiyan
portion of stone axes to adzes suggests in Guangxi have yielded artifacts from the
the increasing dominance of permanent 10th to the 7th millennium BC that include
agriculture and a reduction in the open- low-fired, cord-marked shards with some
ing up of new land. The burial in incised decoration and mostly chipped
high-status graves of finely polished, stone tools; these pots may have been
perforated stone and jade tools such as used for cooking and storage. Pottery
axes and adzes with no sign of edge wear and stone tools from shell middens in
indicates the symbolic role such southern China also suggest Incipient
emblems of work had come to play by Neolithic occupations. These early south-
the 4th and 3rd millennia. ern sites may have been related to the
Neolithic Bac Son culture in Vietnam;
Major Cultures and Sites connections to the subsequent Neolithic
cultures of northwestern and northern
There was not one Chinese Neolithic China have yet to be demonstrated.
but a mosaic of regional cultures whose
scope and significance are still being 6th Millennium BC
determined. Their location in the area
defined today as China does not neces- Two major cultures can be identified in
sarily mean that all the Neolithic the northwest: Laoguantai, in eastern and
cultures were Chinese or even proto- southern Shaanxi and northwestern
Chinese. Their contributions to the Henan, and Dadiwan I—a development of
Bronze Age civilization of the Shang, Laoguantai culture—in eastern Gansu
which may be taken as unmistakably and western Shaanxi. The pots in both
Chinese in both cultural as well as cultures were low-fired, sand-tempered,
geographical terms, need to be assessed and mainly red in colour, and bowls with
in each case. In addition, the presence three stubby feet or ring feet were com-
of a particular ceramic ware does not mon. The painted bands of this pottery
necessarily define a cultural horizon; may represent the start of the Painted
transitional phases, both chronological Pottery culture.
The Beginnings of Chinese History | 27

Silk is an animal fibre produced by certain insects as building material for cocoons and webs. In
commercial use it refers almost entirely to filament from cocoons produced by the caterpillars of
several moth species of the genus Bombyx, commonly called silkworms. Silk is a continuous fila-
ment around each cocoon. It is freed by softening the cocoon in water and then locating the
filament end; the filaments from several cocoons are unwound at the same time, sometimes with
a slight twist, to form a single strand. In the process called throwing, several very thin strands are
twisted together to make thicker, stronger yarn. Produced since ancient times, the secret of how
silk is made was closely guarded for millennia. Along with jade and spices, silk was the primary
commodity traded along the Silk Road beginning about 100 BC. Since World War II, nylon and
other synthetic fibres have replaced silk in many applications (e.g., parachutes, hosiery, dental
floss), but silk remains an important material for clothing and home furnishings.

Silkworms spin cocoons on a silk farm in Zhejiang province. China is the leader in silk pro-
duction and trade. China Photos/Getty Images
28 | The History of China

In northern China the people of southern Shandong and northern Jiangsu

Peiligang (north-central Henan) made was characterized by fine clay or sand-
less use of cord marking and painted tempered pots decorated with comb
design on their pots than did those at markings, incised and impressed designs,
Dadiwan I; the variety of their stone tools, and narrow appliquéd bands. Artifacts
including sawtooth sickles, indicates the include many three-legged, deep-bodied
importance of agriculture. The Cishan tripods, gobletlike serving vessels, bowls,
potters (southern Hebei) employed more and pot supports. Hougang (lower stra-
cord-marked decoration and made a tum) remains have been found in southern
greater variety of forms, including basins, Hebei and central Henan. The vessels,
cups, serving stands, and pot supports. some finished on a slow wheel, were
The discovery of two pottery models of mainly red-coloured and had been fired at
silkworm chrysalides and 70 shuttlelike high heat. They include jars, tripods, and
objects at a 6th-millennium-BC site at round-bottomed, flat-bottomed, and ring-
Nanyangzhuang (southern Hebei) sug- footed bowls. No pointed amphorae have
gests the early production of silk, the been found, and there were few painted
characteristic Chinese textile. designs. A characteristic red band under
the rim of most gray-ware bowls was pro-
5th Millennium BC duced during the firing process.
Archaeologists have generally classi-
The lower stratum of the Beishouling cul- fied the lower strata of Beishouling,
ture is represented by finds along the Wei Banpo, and Hougang cultures under the
and Jing rivers; bowls, deep-bodied jugs, rubric of Painted Pottery (or, after a later
and three-footed vessels, mainly red in site, Yangshao) culture, but two cautions
colour, were common. The lower stratum should be noted. First, a distinction may
of the related Banpo culture, also in the have existed between a more westerly
Wei River drainage area, was character- culture in the Wei valley (early
ized by cord-marked red or red-brown Beishouling and early Banpo) that was
ware, especially round and flat-bottomed rooted in the Laoguantai culture and a
bowls and pointed-bottomed amphorae. more easterly one (Beixin and Hougang)
The Banpo inhabitants lived in partially that developed from the Peiligang and
subterranean houses and were supported Cishan cultures. Second, since only 2 to 3
by a mixed economy of millet agriculture, percent of the Banpo pots were painted,
hunting, and gathering. The importance the designation Painted Pottery culture
of fishing is confirmed by designs of styl- seems premature.
ized fish painted on a few of the bowls In the region of the lower Yangtze
and by numerous hooks and net sinkers. River (Chang Jiang), the Hemudu site in
In the east, by the start of the 5th mil- northern Zhejiang has yielded caldrons,
lennium, the Beixin culture in central and cups, bowls, and pot supports made of
The Beginnings of Chinese History | 29

porous, charcoal-tempered black pottery. valley and Banpo traditions of the 5th
The site is remarkable for its wooden and millennium. The Miaodigou I horizon,
bone farming tools, the bird designs dated from the first half of the 4th millen-
carved on bone and ivory, the superior nium, produced burnished bowls and
carpentry of its pile dwellings (a response basins of fine red pottery, some 15 per-
to the damp environment), a wooden cent of which were painted, generally in
weaving shuttle, and the earliest lacquer- black, with dots, spirals, and sinuous
ware and rice remains yet reported in the lines. It was succeeded by a variety of
world (c. 5000–4750 BC). Majiayao cultures (late 4th to early 3rd
The Qingliangang culture, which millennium) in eastern Gansu, eastern
succeeded that of Hemudu in Jiangsu, Qinghai, and northern Sichuan. About
northern Zhejiang, and southern one-third of Majiayao vessels were deco-
Shandong, was characterized by ring- rated on the upper two-thirds of the body
footed and flat-bottomed pots, gui with a variety of designs in black pig-
(wide-mouthed vessels), tripods (com- ment; multiarmed radial spirals, painted
mon north of the Yangtze), and serving with calligraphic ease, were the most
stands (common south of the Yangtze). prominent. Related designs involving
Early fine-paste redware gave way in the sawtooth lines, gourd-shaped panels, spi-
later period to fine-paste gray and black rals, and zoomorphic stick figures were
ware. Polished stone artifacts include painted on pots of the Banshan (mid-3rd
axes and spades, some perforated, and millennium) and Machang (last half of
jade ornaments. 3rd millennium) cultures. Some two-
Another descendant of Hemudu cul- thirds of the pots found in the Machang
ture was that of Majiabang, which had burial area at Liuwan in Qinghai, for
close ties with the Qingliangang culture example, were painted. In the North
in southern Jiangsu, northern Zhejiang, China Plain, Dahe culture sites contain a
and Shanghai. In southeastern China a mixture of Miaodigou and eastern,
cord-marked pottery horizon, repre- Dawenkou vessel types (see below), indi-
sented by the site of Fuguodun on the cating that a meeting of two major
island of Quemoy (Kinmen), existed by at traditions was taking place in this area in
least the early 5th millennium. The sug- the late 4th millennium.
gestion that some of these southeastern In the northeast the Hongshan cul-
cultures belonged to an Austronesian ture (4th millennium and probably
complex remains to be fully explored. earlier) was centred in western Liaoning
and eastern Inner Mongolia. It was char-
4th and 3rd Millennia BC acterized by small bowls (some with red
tops), fine redware serving stands,
A true Painted Pottery culture developed painted pottery, and microliths.
in the northwest, partly from the Wei Numerous jade amulets in the form of
30 | The History of China

birds, turtles, and coiled dragons reveal and serving stands, and many styles of
strong affiliations with the other jade- tripods. Admirably executed and painted
working cultures of the east coast, such clay whorls suggest a thriving textile
as Liangzhu. industry. The chronological distribution
In east China the Liulin and Huating of ceramic features suggests a transmis-
sites in northern Jiangsu (first half of 4th sion from Daxi to Qujialing, but the
millennium) represent regional cultures precise relationship between the two cul-
that derived in large part from that of tures has been much debated.
Qingliangang. Upper strata also show The Majiabang culture in the Lake
strong affinities with contemporary Tai basin was succeeded during the 4th
Dawenkou sites in southern Shandong, millennium by that of Songze. The pots,
northern Anhui, and northern Jiangsu. increasingly wheel-made, were predomi-
Dawenkou culture (mid-5th to at least nantly clay-tempered gray ware. Tripods
mid-3rd millennium) is characterized by with a variety of leg shapes, serving
the emergence of wheel-made pots of stands, gui pitchers with handles, and
various colours, some of them remark- goblets with petal-shaped feet were char-
ably thin and delicate; vessels with ring acteristic. Ring feet were used, silhouettes
feet and tall legs (such as tripods, serving became more angular, and triangular
stands, and goblets); carved, perforated, and circular perforations were cut to
and polished tools; and ornaments in form openwork designs on the short-
stone, jade, and bone. The people prac- stemmed serving stands. A variety of
ticed skull deformation and tooth jade ornaments, a feature of Qingliangang
extraction. Mortuary customs involved culture, has been excavated from Songze
ledges for displaying grave goods, coffin burial sites.
chambers, and the burial of animal teeth, Sites of the Liangzhu culture (from
pig heads, and pig jawbones. the last half of the 4th to the last half of
In the middle and lower Yangtze the 3rd millennium) have generally been
River valley during the 4th and 3rd mil- found in the same area. The pots were
lennia, the Daxi and Qujialing cultures mainly wheel-made, clay-tempered gray
shared a significant number of traits, ware with a black skin and were pro-
including rice production, ring-footed duced by reduction firing; oxidized
vessels, goblets with sharply angled pro- redware was less prevalent. Some of the
files, ceramic whorls, and black pottery serving stand and tripod shapes had
with designs painted in red after firing. evolved from Majiabang prototypes,
Characteristic Qujialing ceramic objects while other vessel forms included long-
not generally found in Daxi sites include necked gui pitchers. The walls of some
eggshell-thin goblets and bowls painted vessels were black throughout, eggshell-
with black or orange designs, double- thin, and burnished, resembling those
waisted bowls, tall, ring-footed goblets found in Late Neolithic sites in Shandong
The Beginnings of Chinese History | 31

(see below). Extravagant numbers of

highly worked jade bi disks and cong
tubes were placed in certain burials,
such as one at Sidun (southern Jiangsu)
that contained 57 of them. Liangzhu
farmers had developed a characteristic
triangular shale plow for cultivating the
wet soils of the region. Fragments of
woven silk from about 3000 BC have
been found at Qianshanyang (northern
Zhejiang). Along the southeast coast
and on Taiwan, the Dapenkeng corded-
ware culture emerged during the 4th and
3rd millennia. This culture, with a fuller
inventory of pot and tool types than had
previously been seen in the area, devel-
oped in part from that of Fuguodun but
may also have been influenced by cul-
tures to the west and north, including
Qingliangang, Liangzhu, and Liulin. The
pots were characterized by incised line
patterns on neck and rim, low, perforated
foot rims, and some painted decoration.

Regional Cultures
of the Late Neolithic

By the 3rd millennium BC, the regional

cultures in the areas discussed above
showed increased signs of interaction
and even convergence. That they are fre-
quently referred to as varieties of the
Longshan culture (c. 2500–2000 BC) of
east-central Shandong—characterized by Black pottery stem cup, Neolithic
its lustrous, eggshell-thin black ware— Longshan culture, c. late 3rd millennium
BC, from Rizhao, Shandong province,
suggests the degree to which these
China; in the Shandong Provincial
cultures are thought to have experienced
Museum, Jinan. Height 26.5 cm. Wang
eastern influence. That influence, diverse Lu/ChinaStock Photo Library
in origin and of varying intensity, entered
32 | The History of China

the North China Plain from sites such as aesthetic coherence. It was evidently the
Dadunzi and Dawenkou to the east and mixing in the 3rd and 2nd millennia of
also moved up the Han River from the these eastern elements with the strong
Qujialing area to the south. A variety of and extensive traditions native to the
eastern features are evident in the North China Plain—represented by such
ceramic objects of the period, including Late Neolithic sites as Gelawangcun
use of the fast wheel, unpainted surfaces, (near Zhengzhou), Wangwan (near
sharply angled profiles, and eccentric Luoyang), Miaodigou (in central and
shapes. There was a greater production western Henan), and Taosi and
of gray and black, rather than red, ware; Dengxiafeng (in southwest Shanxi)—that
componential construction was empha- stimulated the rise of early Bronze Age
sized, in which legs, spouts, and handles culture in the North China Plain and not
were appended to the basic form (which in the east.
might itself have been built sectionally).
Greater elevation was achieved by means Religious Beliefs and
of ring feet and tall legs. Ceramic objects Social Organization
included three-legged tripods, steamer
cooking vessels, gui pouring pitchers, The inhabitants of Neolithic China were,
serving stands, fitted lids, cups and gob- by the 5th millennium if not earlier,
lets, and asymmetrical beihu vases for remarkably assiduous in the attention
carrying water that were flattened on one they paid to the disposition and com-
side to lie against a person’s body. In memoration of their dead. There was a
stone and jade objects, eastern influence consistency of orientation and posture,
is evidenced by perforated stone tools with the dead of the northwest given a
and ornaments such as bi disks and cong westerly orientation and those of the
tubes used in burials. Other burial cus- east an easterly one. The dead were seg-
toms involved ledges to display the regated, frequently in what appear to be
goods buried with the deceased and large kinship groupings (e.g., at Yuanjunmiao,
wooden coffin chambers. In handicrafts Shaanxi). There were graveside ritual
an emphasis was placed on precise men- offerings of liquids, pig skulls, and pig
suration in working clay, stone, and wood. jaws (e.g., Banpo and Dawenkou), and
Although the first, primitive versions of the demanding practice of collective
the eastern ceramic types may have been secondary burial, in which the bones of
made on occasion in the North China up to 70 or 80 corpses were stripped of
Plain, in virtually every case these types their flesh and reburied together, was
were elaborated in the east and given extensively practiced as early as the first
more-precise functional definition, half of the 5th millennium (e.g.,
greater structural strength, and greater Yuanjunmiao). Evidence of divination
The Beginnings of Chinese History | 33

using scapulae (shoulder blades) dating served to validate and encourage the
from the end of the 4th millennium decline of the more egalitarian societies
(from Fuhegoumen, Liaoning) implies of earlier periods.
the existence of ritual specialists. There
was a lavish expenditure of energy by The first historical
the 3rd millennium on tomb ramps and dynasty: the Shang
coffin chambers (e.g., Liuwan [in eastern
Qinghai] and Dawenkou) and on the The Advent
burial of redundant quantities of expen- of Bronze Casting
sive grave goods (e.g., Dafanzhuang in
Shandong, Fuquanshan in Shanghai, The 3rd and 2nd millennia were marked
and Liuwan), presumably for use by the by the appearance of increasing warfare,
dead in some afterlife. complex urban settlements, intense sta-
Although there is no firm archaeo- tus differentiation, and administrative
logical evidence of a shift from matrilineal and religious hierarchies that legitimated
to patrilineal society, the goods buried in and controlled the massive mobilization
graves indicate during the course of the of labour for dynastic work or warfare.
4th and 3rd millennia an increase in gen- The casting of bronze left the most-evi-
eral wealth, the gradual emergence of dent archaeological traces of these
private or lineage property, an increase momentous changes, but its introduction
in social differentiation and gender dis- must be seen as part of a far-larger shift
tinction of work roles, and a reduction in in the nature of society as a whole, repre-
the relative wealth of women. The occa- senting an intensification of the social
sional practice of human sacrifice or and religious practices of the Neolithic.
accompanying-in-death from scattered A Chalcolithic Period (Copper Age;
4th- and 3rd-millennium sites (e.g., i.e., transitional period between the Late
Miaodigou I, Zhanglingshan in Jiangsu, Neolithic and the Bronze Age) dating to
Qinweijia in Gansu, and Liuwan) the mid-5th millennium may be dimly
suggests that ties of dependency and perceived. A growing number of 3rd-mil-
obligation were conceived as continuing lennium sites, primarily in the northwest
beyond death and that women were likely but also in Henan and Shandong, have
to be in the dependent position. Early yielded primitive knives, awls, and drills
forms of ancestor worship, together with made of copper and bronze. Stylistic evi-
all that they imply for social organization dence, such as the sharp angles, flat
and obligation among the living, were bottoms, and strap handles of certain
deeply rooted and extensively developed Qijia clay pots (in Gansu; c. 2250–1900
by the Late Neolithic Period. Such reli- BC), has led some scholars to posit an
gious belief and practice undoubtedly early sheet- or wrought-metal tradition
34 | The History of China

possibly introduced from the west by

migrating Indo-European peoples, but no
wrought-metal objects have been found.
The construction and baking of the
clay cores and sectional piece molds
employed in Chinese bronze casting of
the 2nd millennium indicate that early
metalworking in China rapidly adapted
to, if it did not develop indigenously from,
the sophisticated high-heat ceramic tech-
nology of the Late Neolithic potters, who
were already using ceramic molds and
cores to produce forms such as the hol-
low legs of the li cooking caldron. Chinese
bronze casting represents, as the continu-
ity in vessel shapes suggests, an aesthetic
and technological extension of that
ceramic tradition rather than its replace-
ment. The bronze casters’ preference for
vessels elevated on ring feet or legs fur-
ther suggests aesthetic links to the east
rather than the northwest.
The number, complexity, and size—
the Simuwu tetrapod weighed 1,925
pounds (875 kg)—of the Late Shang ritual
vessels reveal high technological
competence married to large-scale,
labour-intensive metal production.
Bronze casting of this scale and charac-
ter—in which large groups of ore miners,
fuel gatherers, ceramists, and foundry
workers were under the prescriptive con-
trol of the model designers and labour
coordinators—must be understood as a
Bronze jia, Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046
manifestation, both technological and
BC); in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art,
social, of the high value that Shang cul-
Kansas City, Mo. Courtesy of the Nelson
ture placed on hierarchy, social discipline,
Gallery-Atkins Museum, Kansas City,
Missouri (Nelson Fund) and central direction in all walks of life.
The prestige of owning these metal
The Beginnings of Chinese History | 35

objects must have derived in part from thought to have ruled from about 1600 to
the political control over others that their 1046 BC. (Some scholars date the Shang
production implied. from the mid-18th to the late 12th cen-
Chinese legends of the 1st millen- tury BC.) One must, however, distinguish
nium BC describe the labours of Yu, the Shang as an archaeological term from
Chinese “Noah” who drained away the Shang as a dynastic one. Erlitou, in
floods to render China habitable and north-central Henan, for example, was
established the first Chinese dynasty, initially classified archaeologically as
called Xia. Seventeen Xia kings are listed Early Shang; its developmental sequence
in the Shiji, a comprehensive history writ- from about 2400 to 1450 BC documents
ten during the 1st century BC, and much the vessel types and burial customs that
ingenuity has been devoted to identify- link Early Shang culture to the Late
ing certain Late Neolithic fortified Neolithic cultures of the east. In dynastic
sites—such as Wangchenggang (“Mound terms, however, Erlitou periods I and II
of the Royal City”) in north-central Henan (c. 1900 BC?) are now thought by many
and Dengxiafeng in Xia county (possibly to represent a pre-Shang (and thus, per-
the site of Xiaxu, “Ruins of Xia”?), south- haps, Xia) horizon. In this view, the two
ern Shanxi—as early Xia capitals. Taosi, palace foundations, the elite burials, the
also in southern Shanxi, has been identi- ceremonial jade blades and sceptres, the
fied as a Xia capital because of the “royal” bronze axes and dagger axes, and the
nature of five large male burials found simple ritual bronzes—said to be the ear-
there that were lavishly provided with liest yet found in China—of Erlitou III (c.
grave goods. Although they fall within 1700–1600 BC?) signal the advent of the
the region traditionally assigned to the dynastic Shang.
Xia, particular archaeological sites can The archaeological classification of
be hard to identify dynastically unless Middle Shang is represented by the
written records are found. The possibility remains found at Erligang (c. 1600 BC)
that the Xia and Shang were partly con- near Zhengzhou, some 50 miles (80 km)
temporary, as cultures if not as dynasties, to the east of Erlitou. The massive
further complicates site identifications. A rammed-earth fortification, 118 feet (36
related approach has been to identify as metres) wide at its base and enclosing an
Xia an archaeological horizon that lies area of 1.2 square miles (3.2 square km),
developmentally between Late Neolithic would have taken 10,000 people more
and Shang strata. than 12 years to build. Also found were
ritual bronzes, including four monumen-
The Shang Dynasty tal tetrapods (the largest weighing 190
pounds [86 kg]); palace foundations; work-
The Shang dynasty—the first Chinese shops for bronze casting, pot making, and
dynasty to leave historical records—is bone working; burials; and two inscribed
36 | The History of China

fragments of oracle bones. Another village of Xiaotun, west of Anyang in

rammed-earth fortification, enclosing northern Henan. Known to history as
about 450 acres (180 hectares) and also Yinxu, “the Ruins of Yin” (Yin was the
dated to the Erligang period, was found name used by the succeeding Zhou
at Yanshi, about 3 miles (5 km) east of dynasty for the Shang), it was a seat of
the Erlitou III palace foundations. These royal power for the last nine Shang kings,
walls and palaces have been variously from Wuding to Dixin. According to the
identified by modern scholars—the “short chronology” used in this article,
identification now favoured is of which is based on modern studies of
Zhengzhou as Bo, the capital of the lunar eclipse records and reinterpreta-
Shang dynasty during the reign of Tang, tions of Zhou annals, these kings would
the dynasty’s founder—and their dynas- have reigned from about 1250 to 1046 BC.
tic affiliations are yet to be firmly (One version of the traditional “long
established. The presence of two large, chronology,” based primarily on a 1st-
relatively close contemporary fortifica- century-BC source, would place the last
tions at Zhengzhou and Yanshi, however, 12 Shang kings, from Pangeng onward, at
indicates the strategic importance of Yinxu from 1398 to 1112 BC.) Sophisticated
the area and considerable powers of bronze, ceramic, stone, and bone indus-
labour mobilization. tries were housed in a network of
Panlongcheng in Hubei, 280 miles settlements surrounding the unwalled
(450 km) south of Zhengzhou, is an exam- cult centre at Xiaotun, which had
ple of Middle Shang expansion into the rammed-earth temple-palace founda-
northwest, northeast, and south. A city tions. And Xiaotun itself lay at the centre
wall, palace foundations, burials with of a larger network of Late Shang sites,
human sacrifices, bronze workshops, and such as Xingtai to the north and Xinxiang
mortuary bronzes of the Erligang type to the south, in southern Hebei and north-
form a complex that duplicates on a ern Henan.
smaller scale Zhengzhou. A transitional
period spanning the gap between the Royal Burials
Late Erligang phase of Middle Shang and
the Yinxu phase of Late Shang indicates The royal cemetery lay at Xibeigang, only
a widespread network of Shang cultural a short distance northwest of Xiaotun. The
sites that were linked by uniform bronze- hierarchy of burials at that and other cem-
casting styles and mortuary practices. A eteries in the area reflected the social
relatively homogeneous culture united organization of the living. Large pit tombs,
the Bronze Age elite through much of some nearly 40 feet (12 metres) deep, were
China around the 14th century BC. furnished with four ramps and massive
The Late Shang period is best repre- grave chambers for the kings. Retainers
sented by a cluster of sites focused on the who accompanied their lords in death lay
The Beginnings of Chinese History | 37

in or near the larger tombs, members of contained 468 bronze objects, 775 jades,
the lesser elite and commoners were bur- and more than 6,880 cowries suggests
ied in pits that ranged from medium size how great the wealth placed in the far-
to shallow, those of still lower status were larger royal tombs must have been.
thrown into refuse pits and disused wells,
and human and animal victims of the The Chariot
royal mortuary cult were placed in sacrifi-
cial pits. Only a few undisturbed elite The light chariot, with 18 to 26 spokes per
burials have been unearthed, the most wheel, first appeared, according to the
notable being that of Fuhao, a consort of archaeological and inscriptional record,
Wuding. That her relatively small grave about 1200 BC. Glistening with bronze, it
was initially a prestigious command car
used primarily in hunting. The 16 chariot
burials found at Xiaotun raise the possi-
bility of some form of Indo-European
contact with China, and there is little
doubt that the chariot, which probably
originated in the Caucasus, entered
China via Central Asia and the northern
steppe. Animal-headed knives, always
associated with chariot burials, are fur-
ther evidence of a northern connection.


Late Shang culture is also defined by the

size, elaborate shapes, and evolved decor
of the ritual bronzes, many of which were
used in wine offerings to the ancestors
and some of which were inscribed with
ancestral dedications such as “Made for
Father Ding.” Their surfaces were orna-
Ceremonial ivory goblet inlaid with mented with zoomorphic and
turquoise, c. 12th century BC, Shang theriomorphic elements set against intri-
dynasty, from the tomb of Lady Fuhao,
cate backgrounds of geometric meanders,
Anyang, Henan province, China; in the
spirals, and quills. Some of the animal
Archaeology Institute, Beijing. Height
forms—which include tigers, birds,
30.5 cm. Wang Lu/ChinaStock Photo
Library snakes, dragons, cicadas, and water buf-
falo—have been thought to represent
38 | The History of China

shamanistic familiars or emblems that surface of the bone. Among the topics
ward away evil. The exact meaning of the divined were sacrifices, campaigns,
iconography, however, may never be hunts, the good fortune of the 10-day
known. That the predominant taotie week or of the night or day, weather, har-
monster mask—with bulging eyes, fangs, vests, sickness, childbearing, dreams,
horns, and claws—may have been antici- settlement building, the issuing of
pated by designs carved on jade cong orders, tribute, divine assistance, and
tubes and axes from Liangzhu culture prayers to various spirits. Some evolu-
sites in the Yangtze delta and from the tion in divinatory practice and theology
Late Neolithic in Shandong suggests that evidently occurred. By the reigns of the
its origins are ancient. But the degree to last two Shang kings, Diyi and Dixin (c.
which pure form or intrinsic meaning
took priority, in either Neolithic or Shang
times, is hard to assess.

Late Shang
Divination and Religion

Although certain complex symbols

painted on Late Neolithic pots from
Shandong suggest that primitive writing
was emerging in the east in the 3rd
millennium, the Shang divination
inscriptions that appear at Xiaotun form
the earliest body of Chinese writing yet
known. In Late Shang divination as prac-
ticed during the reign of Wuding (c.
1250–1192 BC), cattle scapulae or turtle
plastrons, in a refinement of Neolithic
practice, were first planed and bored
with hollow depressions to which an
intense heat source was then applied.
The resulting T-shaped stress cracks
were interpreted as lucky or unlucky.
Oracle bone inscriptions from the village
After the prognostication had been
of Xiaotun, Henan province, China;
made, the day, the name of the presiding
Shang dynasty, 14th or 12th century BC.
diviner (some 120 are known), the sub-
Courtesy of the Syndics of the University
ject of the charge, the prognostication, Library, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire
and the result might be carved into the
The Beginnings of Chinese History | 39

1101–1046 BC), the scope and form of sources), appears to have been divided
Shang divination had become consider- into 10 units corresponding to the 10
ably simplified: prognostications were stems. Succession to the kingship alter-
uniformly optimistic, and divination nated on a generational basis between
topics were limited mainly to the sacrifi- two major groupings of jia and yi kings
cial schedule, the coming 10 days, the on the one hand and ding kings on the
coming night, and hunting. other. The attention paid in the sacrificial
system to the consorts of “great lineage”
State and Society kings—who were themselves both sons
(possibly nephews) and fathers (possibly
The ritual schedule records 29 royal uncles) of kings—indicates that women
ancestors over a span of 17 generations may have played a key role in the mar-
who, from at least Wuding to Dixin, were riage alliances that ensured such
each known as wang (“king”). Presiding circulation of power.
over a stable politico-religious hierarchy The goodwill of the ancestors, and of
of ritual specialists, officers, artisans, certain river and mountain powers, was
retainers, and servile peasants, they ruled sought through prayer and offerings of
with varying degrees of intensity over the grain, millet wine, and animal and human
North China Plain and parts of Shandong, sacrifice. The highest power of all, with
Shanxi, and Shaanxi, mobilizing armies whom the ancestors mediated for the liv-
of at least several thousand men as the ing king, was the relatively remote deity
occasion arose. Di, or Shangdi, “the Lord on High.” Di
The worship of royal ancestors was controlled victory in battle, the harvest,
central to the maintenance of the dynasty. the fate of the capital, and the weather,
The ancestors were designated by 10 but, on the evidence of the oracle bone
“stem” names (jia, yi, bing, ding, etc.) that inscriptions, he received no cult. This
were often prefixed by kin titles, such as suggests that Di’s command was too
“father” and “grandfather,” or by status inscrutable to be divined or influenced;
appellations, such as “great” or “small.” he was in all likelihood an impartial fig-
The same stems were used to name the ure of last theological resort, needed to
10 days (or suns) of the week, and ances- account for inexplicable events.
tors received cult on their name days Although Marxist historians have
according to a fixed schedule, particu- categorized the Shang as a slave society,
larly after the reforms of Zujia. For it would be more accurate to describe it
example, Dayi (“Great I,” the sacrificial as a dependent society. The king ruled a
name of Tang, the dynasty founder) was patrimonial state in which royal author-
worshiped on yi days, Wuding on ding ity, treated as an extension of patriarchal
days. The Shang dynastic group, whose control, was embedded in kinship and
lineage name was Zi (according to later kinshiplike ties. Despite the existence of
40 | The History of China

such formal titles as “the many horses” or originally based on kinship was one of
“the many archers,” administration was the characteristic strengths of early
apparently based primarily on kinship Chinese civilization.
alliances, generational status, and per- Such ties were fundamentally per-
sonal charisma. The intensity with which sonal in nature. The king referred to
ancestors were worshipped suggests the himself as yu yiren, “I, the one man,” and
strength of the kinship system among the he was, like many early monarchs, peripa-
living; the ritualized ties of filiation and tetic. Only by traveling through his
dependency that bound a son to his domains could he ensure political and
father, both before and after death, are economic support. These considerations,
likely to have had profound political coupled with the probability that the
implications for society as a whole. This position of king circulated between social
was not a world in which concepts such or ritual units, suggest that, lacking a
as freedom and slavery would have been national bureaucracy or effective means
readily comprehensible. Everybody, from of control over distance, the dynasty was
king to peasant, was bound by ties of relatively weak. The Zi should above all
obligation—to former kings, to ancestors, be regarded as a politically dominant lin-
to superiors, and to dependents. The rou- eage that may have displaced the Si
tine sacrificial offering of human beings, lineage of the Xia and that was in turn to
usually prisoners from the Qiang tribe, as be displaced by the Ji lineage of the Zhou.
if they were sacrificial animals and the But the choices that the Shang made—
rarer practice of accompanying-in-death, involving ancestor worship, the
in which 40 or more retainers, often of politico-religious nature of the state, pat-
high status, were buried with a dead king, rimonial administration, the mantic role
suggest the degree to which ties of affec- of the ruler, and a pervasive sense of
tion, obligation, or servitude were social obligation—were not displaced.
thought to be stronger than life itself. If These choices endured and were to
slavery existed, it was psychological and define, restrict, and enhance the institu-
ideological, not legal. The political ability tions and political culture of the
to create and exploit ties of dependency full-fledged dynasties yet to come.
The Zhou and
Qin Dynasties
ThE hISTORy Of ThE ZhOu (1046–256 BC)

T he vast time sweep of the Zhou dynasty—encompassing

some eight centuries—is the single longest period of
Chinese history. However, the great longevity of the Ji lin-
eage was not matched by a similar continuity of its rule.
During the Xi (Western) Zhou (1046–771 BC), the first of the
two major divisions of the period, the Zhou court maintained

Ceremonial bronze jian, Dong (Eastern) Zhou dynasty (770–

256 BC); in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis,
Minn. Courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
42 | The History of China

a tenuous control over the country Zhou and Shang

through a network of feudal states. This
system broke down during the Dong The name Zhou appears often in the ora-
(Eastern) Zhou (770–256 BC), however, as cle bone inscriptions of the Shang
those states and new ones that arose vied kingdom, sometimes as a friendly tribu-
for power. The Dong Zhou is commonly tary neighbour and at other times as a
subdivided into the Chunqiu (Spring and hostile one. This pattern is confirmed by
Autumn) period (770–476 BC) and the records found at the Zhou archaeological
Zhanguo (Warring States) period (475– site. Marriages were occasionally made
221 BC), the latter extending some three between the two ruling houses. The Zhou
decades beyond the death of the last also borrowed arts such as bronze casting
Zhou ruler until the rise of the Qin in 221. from their more cultivated neighbour.
The origin of the Zhou royal house is The Zhou royal house, however, had
lost in the mists of time. Although the tra- already conceived the idea of replacing
ditional historical system of the Chinese Shang as the master of China—a con-
contains a Zhou genealogy, no dates can quest that took three generations.
be assigned to the ancestors. The first Although the conquest was actually car-
ancestor was Houji, literally translated as ried out by his sons, Wenwang should be
“Lord of Millet.” He appears to have been a credited with molding the Zhou kingdom
cultural hero and agricultural deity rather into the most formidable power west of
than a tribal chief. The earliest plausible the Shang. Wenwang extended the Zhou
Zhou ancestor was Danfu, the grandfather sphere of influence to the north of the
of Wenwang. Prior to and during the time Shang kingdom and also made incur-
of Danfu, the Zhou people seem to have sions to the south, thus paving the way
migrated to avoid pressure from powerful for the final conquest by Wuwang.
neighbours, possibly nomadic people to In Chinese historical tradition
the north. Under the leadership of Danfu, Wenwang was depicted as intelligent and
they settled in the valley of the Wei River benevolent, a man of virtue who won
in the present province of Shaanxi. The popularity among his contemporaries
fertility of the loess soil there apparently and expanded the realm of the Zhou. His
made a great impression on these people, son Wuwang, though not as colourful as
who had already been engaged in farming his father, was always regarded as the
when they entered their new homeland. A conqueror. In fact, Wu, his posthumous
walled city was built, and a new nation was name, means “Martial.” However, the lit-
formed. Archaeological remains, includ- erary records indicate that the Zhou
ing ruins of courtyards surrounded by actually controlled two-thirds of all China
walls and halls on platforms, confirm liter- at the time of Wenwang, who continued
ary evidence of a Zhou state. to recognize the cultural and political
The Zhou and Qin Dynasties | 43

superiority of the Shang out of feudal loy- (as tabulated by Dong Zuobin, although
alty. There is not enough evidence either it is traditionally dated at 1122; other
to establish or to deny this. A careful his- dates have also been suggested, includ-
torian, however, tends to take the Zhou ing 1046, which has been adopted for this
subjugation to the Shang as a recogni- article). Wuwang died shortly after the
tion of Shang strength. It was not until conquest, leaving a huge territory to be
the reign of the last Shang ruler, Zhou, consolidated. This was accomplished by
that the kingdom exhausted its strength one of his brothers, Zhougong, who
by engaging in large-scale military cam- served as regent during the reign of Wu’s
paigns against nomads to the north and son, Chengwang.
against a group of native tribes to the The defeated Shang could not be
east. At that time Wuwang organized the ruled out as a potential force, even
first probing expedition and reached the though their ruler, Zhou, had immolated
neighbourhood of the Shang capital. A himself. Many groups of hostile “barbar-
full-scale invasion soon followed. Along ians” were still outside the sphere of
with forces of the Zhou, the army was Zhou power. The Zhou leaders had to
made up of the Jiang, southern neigh- yield to reality by establishing a rather
bours of the Zhou, and of eight allied weak control over the conquered terri-
tribes from the west. The Shang dis- tory. The son of Zhou was allowed to
patched a large army to meet the invaders. organize a subservient state under the
The pro-Zhou records say that, after the close watch of two other brothers of
Shang vanguard defected to join the Wuwang, who were garrisoned in the
Zhou, the entire army collapsed, and immediate vicinity. Other leaders of the
Wuwang entered the capital without Zhou and their allies were assigned lands
resistance. Yet Mencius, the 4th-century- surrounding the old Shang domain. But
BC thinker, cast doubt on the reliability no sooner had Zhougong assumed the
of this account by pointing out that a vic- role of regent than a large-scale rebellion
tory without enemy resistance should not broke out. His two brothers, entrusted
have been accompanied by the heavy with overseeing the activities of the son
casualties mentioned in the classical doc- of Zhou, joined the Shang prince in rebel-
ument. One may speculate that the Shang lion, and it took Zhougong three full
vanguard consisted of remnants of the years to reconquer the Shang domain,
eastern tribes suppressed by the Shang subjugate the eastern tribes, and reestab-
ruler Zhou during his last expedition and lish the suzerainty of the Zhou court.
that their sudden defection caught the These three years of extensive cam-
Shang defenders by surprise, making paigning consolidated the rule of the
them easy prey for the invading enemy. Zhou over all of China. An eastern capital
The decisive battle took place in 1111 BC was constructed on the middle reach of
44 | The History of China

the Huang He (Yellow River) as a strong- and the city were therefore identical,
hold to support the feudal lords in the both being guo, a combination of city
east. Several states established by Zhou wall and weapons. Satellite cities were
kinsmen and relatives were transferred established at convenient distances from
farther east and northeast as the van- the main city in order to expand the ter-
guard of expansion, including one ritory under control. Each feudal state
established by the son of Zhougong. The consisted of an alliance of the Zhou, the
total number of such feudal states men- Shang, and the local population. A
tioned in historical records and later Chinese nation was formed on the foun-
accounts varies from 20 to 70; the figures dation of Zhou feudalism.
in later records would naturally be higher, The scattered feudal states gradually
since enfeoffment might take place more acquired something like territorial solid-
than once. Each of these states included ity as the neighbouring populations
fortified cities. They were strung out established closer ties with them, either
along the valley of the Huang He between by marriage or by accepting vassal sta-
the old capital and the new eastern capi- tus; the gaps between the fortified cities
tal, reaching as far as the valleys of the were thus filled by political control and
Huai and Han rivers in the south and cultural assimilation. This created a
extending eastward to the Shandong dilemma for the Zhou central court: the
Peninsula and the coastal area north of it. evolution of the feudal network but-
All these colonies mutually supported tressed the structure of the Zhou order,
each other and were buttressed by the but the strong local ties and parochial
strength of the eastern capital, where the interests of the feudal lords tended to pull
conquered Shang troops were kept, them away from the centre. Each of these
together with several divisions of the opposing forces became at one time or
Zhou legions. Ancient bronze inscrip- another strong enough to affect the his-
tions make frequent mention of tory of the Zhou order.
mobilizing the military units at the east- For about two centuries Zhou China
ern capital at times when the Zhou feudal enjoyed stability and peace. There were
states needed assistance. wars against the non-Zhou peoples of
the interior and against the nomads
The Zhou Feudal System along the northern frontier, but there was
little dispute among the Chinese states
The feudal states were not contiguous themselves. The southern expansion was
but rather were scattered at strategic successful, and the northern expansion
locations surrounded by potentially dan- worked to keep the nomads away from
gerous and hostile lands. The fortified the Chinese areas. The changing
city of the feudal lord was often the only strength of the feudal order can be seen
area that he controlled directly; the state from two occurrences at the Zhou court.
The Zhou and Qin Dynasties | 45

In 841 BC the nobles jointly expelled feudal structure and familial ties fell
Liwang, a tyrant, and replaced him with a apart, continuing in several of the
collective leadership headed by the two Chunqiu states for various lengths of
most influential nobles until the crown time, with various degrees of modifica-
prince was enthroned. In 771 BC the tion. Over the next two centuries the
Zhou royal line was again broken when feudal-familial system gradually declined
Youwang was killed by invading barbar- and disappeared.
ians. The nobles apparently were split at In the first half of the Chunqiu period,
that time, because the break gave rise to the feudal system was a stratified society,
two courts, headed by two princes, each divided into ranks as follows: the ruler of
of whom had the support of part of the a state; the feudal lords who served at the
nobility. One of the pretenders, ruler’s court as ministers; the shi (roughly
Pingwang, survived the other (thus inau- translated as “gentlemen”) who served at
gurating the Dong [Eastern] Zhou the households of the feudal lords as
period), but the royal order had lost pres- stewards, sheriffs, or simply warriors;
tige and influence. The cohesion of the and, finally, the commoners and slaves.
feudal system had weakened. Thereafter, The state ruler and the ministers were
it entered the phase traditionally known clearly a superior class, and the common-
as Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn). ers and slaves were an inferior class; the
The familial relationship among the class of shi was an intermediate one in
nobles gradually was diluted during the which the younger sons of the ministers,
Chunqiu period. A characteristic of the the sons of shi, and selected commoners
Zhou feudal system was that the extended all mingled to serve as functionaries and
family and the political structure were officials. The state rulers were, in theory,
identical. The line of lordship was divided into five grades; in reality, the
regarded as the line of elder brothers, importance of a ruler was determined by
who therefore enjoyed not only political the strength of his state. The ministerial
superiority but also seniority in the fam- feudal lords, however, often had two or
ily line. The head of the family not only three grades among themselves, as
was the political chief but also had the determined by the lord-vassal relation-
unique privilege of offering sacrifice to ship. In general, each state was ruled by a
and worshipping the ancestors, who group of hereditary feudal lords who
would bestow their blessings and guar- might or might not be of the same sur-
antee the continuity of the mandate of name as the state ruler. The system was
heaven. After the weakening of the posi- not stable in the Chunqiu period, and
tion of the Zhou king in the feudal everywhere there were changes.
structure, he was not able to maintain the The first important change occurred
position of being the head of a large fam- with the advent of interstate leadership.
ily in any more than a normal sense. The For several decades after 722 BC, the
46 | The History of China

records chiefly show battles and diplo- the meetings became regular, and the vol-
matic maneuvers among the states on untary contribution was transformed into
the central plain and in the middle and a compulsory tribute to the court of the
lower reaches of the Huang He valley. overlord. The new system of states under
These states, however, were too small to the leadership of an overlord developed
hold the leadership and too constricted in not only in northern China under Jin but
the already crowded plain to have poten- also in the south under Chu. Two other
tiality for further development. The states, Qin and Qi, though not command-
leadership was soon taken over by states ing the strength of the formidable Jin and
on the peripheral areas. Chu, each absorbed weaker neighbours
The first to achieve this leadership into a system of satellite states. A balance
was Huangong (reigned 685–643 BC), of power thus emerged among the four
the ruler of the state of Qi on the states of Qi, Qin, Jin, and Chu. The bal-
Shandong Peninsula. He successfully ance was occasionally tipped when two of
rallied around him many other Chinese them went to war, but it was subsequently
states to resist the pressure of non-Chi- restored by the transference of some
nese powers in the north and south. small states from one camp to another.
While formally respecting the suzer- A further change began in the 5th
ainty of the Zhou monarchy, Huangong century BC, when the states of Wu and
adopted a new title of “overlord” (ba). He Yue far to the south suddenly challenged
convened interstate meetings, settled Chu for hegemony over the southern
disputes among states, and led cam- part of China, at a time when the strong
paigns to protect his followers from the state of Jin was much weakened by an
intimidation of non-Chinese powers. internecine struggle among powerful
After his death the state of Qi failed magnates. Wu got so far as to claim over-
to maintain its leading status. The leader- lordship over northern China in an
ship, after a number of years, passed to interstate meeting held in 482 BC after
Wengong of Jin (reigned 636–628 BC), defeating Chu. But Wu’s hegemony was
the ruler of the mountainous state north short-lived; it collapsed after being
of the Huang He. Under Wengong and attacked by Yue. Yue held the nominal
his capable successors, the overlordship overlordship for only a brief period; Jin,
was institutionalized until it took the Qin, and Qi were weakened by internal
place of the Zhou monarchy. Interstate disturbances (Jin split into three con-
meetings were held at first during emer- tending powers) and declined; and a
gencies caused by challenges from the series of defeats paralyzed Chu. Thus, the
rising southern state of Chu. States balance-of-power system was rendered
answering the call of the overlord were unworkable.
expected to contribute and maintain a A half century of disorder followed.
certain number of war chariots. Gradually Small states fell prey to big ones, while in
The Zhou and Qin Dynasties | 47

the big states usurpers replaced the old The Zhou feudalism suffered from a con-
rulers. When the chaos ended, there were tinual dilution of authority. As a state
seven major powers and half a dozen expanded, its nobility acquired vassals,
minor ones. Among the seven major pow- and these in turn acquired their own vas-
ers, Zhao, Han, and Wei had formerly sals. The longer this went on, the more
been parts of Jin; the Qi ruling house had diluted the family tie became and the
changed hands; and Qin was undergoing more dependent the ruler became on the
succession problems. The only “old” state combined strength of the vassals. At a cer-
was Chu. Even Chu, a southern state, had tain point, the vassals might acquire an
become almost completely assimilated to advantageous position, and the most
the northern culture (except in art, litera- dominant figures among them might
ture, and folklore). The minor powers had eclipse the king. The Zhou royal house
also changed: some had retained only perhaps reached the turning point earlier
small portions of their old territories, than the other feudal states. As a result,
some had new ruling houses, and some the Zhou royal domain and its influence
were new states that had emerged from shrank when Pingwang moved his court
non-Chinese tribes. The long interval of to the east. The ruling houses of other
power struggle that followed (475–221 states suffered the same fate. Within a
BC) is known as the Zhanguo (Warring century after the Zhou court had moved to
States) period. the east, the ruling houses in most of the
feudal states had changed. In some cases
Social, political, and a dominating branch replaced the major
cultural changes lineage, and in others a powerful minister
formed a strong vassaldom and usurped
The years from the 8th century BC to 221 the authority of the legitimate ruler.
BC witnessed the painful birth of a uni- Bloody court intrigues and power strug-
fied China. It was a period of bloody wars gles eliminated many established houses.
and also of far-reaching changes in poli- The new power centres were reluctant to
tics, society, and intellectual outlook. see the process continue and therefore
refused to allow further segmentation and
The Decline of Feudalism subinfeudation. Thus, the feudal system
withered and finally collapsed.
The most obvious change in political
institutions was that the old feudal struc- Urbanization and
ture was replaced by systems of incipient Assimilation
bureaucracy under monarchy. The decline
of feudalism took its course in the Simultaneous with the demise of feudal-
Chunqiu period, and the rise of the new ism was a rise in urbanization. Minor
order may be seen in the Zhanguo period. fortified cities were built, radiating out
48 | The History of China

from each of the major centres, and other difference in writing system and style
towns radiated from the minor cities. from those of the Chinese states.
From these cities and towns orders were Zhou civilization was not assimilated
issued, and to them the resources of the so easily in the south, where the markedly
countryside were sent. The central plain different Chu culture flourished. For
along the Huang He was the first to be some centuries, Chu was the archenemy
saturated by clusters of cities. This is of the Chinese states, yet the nobles of
probably the reason why the central the Chu acquired enough of the northern
states soon reached the maximum of culture to enable their envoy to the courts
their influence in the interstate power of the north to cite the same verses and
struggle: unlike the states in peripheral observe the same manners. The Chu lit-
areas, they had no room to expand. erature that has survived is the fruit of
The period of urbanization was also a these two distinctive heritages.
time of assimilation. The non-Zhou popu- To the north were the nomadic peo-
lation caught in the reach of feudal cities ples of the steppe. As long as they
could not but feel the magnetic attraction remained divided, they constituted no
of the civilization represented by the threat; however, when they were under
Zhou people and Zhou feudalism. The strong leaders, able to forge a united
bronze inscriptions of the Xi Zhou period nomadic empire challenging the domi-
(1046–771 BC) refer to the disturbances of nance of the Chinese, there were
the barbarians, who could be found prac- confrontations. The “punitive” action
tically everywhere. They were the into the north during the reign of
non-Zhou groups scattered in the open Xuanwang (827–782 BC) does not seem
spaces. The barbarians in inland China to have been very large in scope; both
were forced to integrate with one or sides apparently had little ambition for
another of the contenders in the inter- territorial aggrandizement. Cultural
state conflicts. Their lands were annexed, exchange in the northern frontier region
and their populations were moved or was far less than the assimilation that
absorbed. The strength of the large states occurred in the south along the Yangtze
owed much to their success at incorpo- valley, and it was mainly concerned with
rating these non-Chinese groups. By the techniques of cavalry warfare.
time of the unification of China in the 3rd
century BC, there was virtually no signifi- The Rise of Monarchy
cant concentration of non-Chinese
groups north of the Yangtze River valley Internal political changes also took place
and south of the steppe. Bronze pieces as states grew in population and area.
attributable to non-Zhou chiefs in the late The most basic of these was in the pattern
Chunqiu period show no significant of power delegation. Under feudalism,
The Zhou and Qin Dynasties | 49

authority had been delegated by the lord principal form of local administration in
to the vassal. The new state rulers sought the Zhanguo period.
ways of maintaining and organizing By that time, practically all the major
their power. states had chancellors, who acted as lead-
In the state of Jin the influence of ers of the courts, which were composed of
kinsmen of the ruling house had been numerous officials. Whereas in the feudal
trimmed even before Wengong estab- state the officials had been military offi-
lished his overlordship. Wengong cers, the more functionally differentiated
reorganized the government, installing court of the Zhanguo period usually had
his most capable followers in the key a separate corps of civil service person-
posts. He set up a hierarchical structure nel. Local administration was entrusted
that corresponded to the channels of to prefects, who served limited terms.
military command. Appointments to Prefects were often required to submit
these key positions came to be based on annual reports to the court so that the
a combination of merit and seniority, ruler could judge their performance.
thus establishing a type of bureaucracy Regional supervisors were sometimes
that was to become traditional in Chinese dispatched to check the work of the pre-
government. fects, a system developed by the later
The Chu government was perhaps Chinese imperial government into the
the oldest true monarchy among all the “censor” system. Fiefs of substantial size
Chunqiu states. The authority of the king were given to only a few people, usually
was absolute. Chu was the only major close relatives of the ruler. There was lit-
state in which the ruling house survived tle opportunity for anyone to challenge
the chaotic years of the Zhanguo period. the sovereignty of the state. The majority
Local administration went through a of government employees were not rela-
slow evolution. The prefecture system tives of the ruler, and some of them might
developed in both Jin and Chu was one not even have been citizens of the state.
innovation. In Jin there were several Officials were paid in grain or perhaps in
dozen prefects across the state, each hav- a combination of cash and grain. Archives
ing limited authority and tenure. The Jin were kept by scribes on wooden blocks
prefect was no more than a functionary, and bamboo strips. These features com-
in contrast to the feudal practice. Similar bined indicate the emergence of some
local administrative units grew up in form of bureaucracy.
Chu. New lands taken by conquest were The new pattern was the result of the
organized into prefectures governed by efforts of many reformers in different
ranking officials who were evidently states. Both practical men and theoreti-
appointed by the king. The prefecture cians helped to form the emerging
system of Jin and Chu was to become the structure, which, though still crude, was
50 | The History of China

the forerunner of the large and complex developed among the northern states,
bureaucracy of later Chinese dynasties. including Qin, Zhao, and Yan. The Qin
Military technique also underwent cavalrymen were generally drawn from
great changes in the Zhanguo period. In the northern and northwestern border
the feudal era, war had been a profession areas, where there were constant contacts
of the nobles. Lengthy training was with the steppe peoples. The rise of Yan
needed to learn how to drive and shoot from a rather obscure state to a major
from a chariot drawn by horses. There power probably owed much to its suc-
was also an elaborate code of behaviour cessful adoption of cavalry tactics, as well
in combat. The nature of war had already as to its northern expansion.
changed by the late Chunqiu period, as
the nobility had given way to professional Economic Development
warriors and mercenaries. In some states,
special titles of nobility were created for Important changes occurred in agricul-
successful warriors, regardless of their ture. Millet had once been the major
origin. Foot soldiers were replacing war cereal crop in the north, but wheat gradu-
chariots as the main force on the battle- ally grew in importance. Rice, imported
field: the expansion of the major states from the south, was extended to the dry
into mountainous areas and the rise of soil of the north. The soybean, in a num-
the southern powers in an area of swamps, ber of varieties, proved to be one of the
lakes, and rivers increased the impor- most important crops. Chinese farmers
tance of the infantry. gradually developed a kind of intensive
Battles were fought mostly by hordes agriculture. Soil was improved by adding
of foot soldiers, most of them common- manure and night soil. Planting fields in
ers, aided by cavalry units; war chariots carefully regulated rows replaced the fal-
apparently served only auxiliary roles, low system. Great importance was placed
probably as mobile commanding plat- on plowing and seeding at the proper
forms or perhaps as carriers. All of the time (especially in the fine-grained loess
Zhanguo powers seem to have used con- soil of northern China). Fields were
scription systems to recruit able-bodied weeded frequently throughout the grow-
male citizens. The organization, training, ing season. Farmers also knew the value
and command of the infantry required of rotating crops to preserve the fertility
experts of a special type, and professional of the soil, and soybeans were often part
commanders emerged who conducted of the rotation. Although iron was used
battles involving several thousand men to cast implements in the 5th century BC
along lines extending hundreds of miles. (probably even as early as the 8th cen-
A few treatises on the principles of war- tury BC), those early examples
fare still survive, including Bingfa (The discovered by archaeologists are of
Art of War) by Sunzi. Cavalry warfare rather inferior quality.
The Zhou and Qin Dynasties | 51

Irrigation became necessary as pop- alkaline soil and replace it with fertile
ulation pressure forced cropland to be topsoil, and, in the south and in the
expanded, and irrigation works were con- Sichuan Basin, to carry water into the
structed in many states beginning in the rice paddies. The irrigation systems
late Chunqiu period. These projects were unearthed by archaeologists indicate
built to drain swampy areas, leach out that these were small-scale works carried

Wood bowl decorated in red and black lacquer with stylized birds and animals, from Changsha,
Hunan province, China, late Zhou dynasty, 3rd century BC; in the Seattle Art Museum,
Washington. Diameter 25 cm (10 in). Courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum, Washington
52 | The History of China

out for the most part by state or local arts. The shi provided the administrators,
authorities. teachers, and intellectual leaders of the
Another significant change in the new society. The philosophers Confucius
economic sphere was the growth of trade (551–479 BC), Mencius (c. 372–289 BC),
among regions. Coins excavated in scat- Mozi (Mo-tzu; 5th century BC), and Xunzi
tered spots show by their great variety (Hsün-tzu; c. 300–c. 230 BC) were mem-
that active trade had expanded into all bers of the shi class, as was also a large
parts of Zhou China. Great commercial proportion of high-ranking officials and
centres had arisen, and the new cities leaders of prominence. The interstate
brought a demand for luxuries. The liter- competition that drove rulers to select the
ary records as well as the archaeological most capable and meritorious individu-
evidence show that wealthy persons had als to serve in their courts resulted in an
possessions made of bronze and gold, sil- unprecedented degree of social mobility.
ver inlays, lacquer, silk, ceramics, and The populace, most of whom were
precious stones. The advancement of fer- farmers, also underwent changes in sta-
rous metallurgy led to the earliest tus. In feudal times the peasants had
recorded blast furnace and the earliest been subjects of their lords. They owned
steel. The Chinese had been casting no property, at most being permitted to
bronze for more than a millennium; turn- till a piece of the lord’s land for their own
ing to iron, they became highly skilled at needs. The ancient texts tell of the “well-
making weapons and tools. The Han his- field” system, under which eight families
torian Sima Qian (writing c. 100 BC) told were assigned 100 mu (15 acres, or 6
of individuals making fortunes in the hectares) each of land to live on while col-
iron industry. lectively cultivating another 100 mu as
As the old feudal regimes collapsed the lord’s reservation. Individual owner-
and were replaced by centralized monar- ship grew as farming became more
chies during the Zhanguo period, the intensive, and, increasingly, farmers were
feudal nobility fell victim to power taxed according to the amount of land
struggles within the states and to con- they “owned.” The land tax had become a
quest by stronger states. During the common practice by Zhanguo times. By
Chunqiu period these parallel processes paying taxes, the tiller of the field
drastically reduced the numbers of the acquired the privilege of using the land
nobility. as his own possession, which perhaps
A new elite class arose in the late was the first step toward private owner-
Chunqiu, composed of the former shi ship. As states expanded and new lands
class and the descendants of the old were given to cultivation, an increasing
nobility. The members of this class were number of “free” farmers were to be found
distinguished by being educated, either tilling land that had never been part of a
in the literary tradition or in the military lord’s manor. With the collapse of
The Zhou and Qin Dynasties | 53

the feudal structure, farmers in general development of Confucius’s notion of

gradually ceased to be subjects of a mas- excellence, combining virtue and ability.
ter and became subjects of a state. Even the individualist thinkers known as
A similar transformation occurred Daoists (Taoists), who did not follow
among the merchants and artisans, who Confucius, formulated their teachings as
gradually passed from being household a rebuttal to the Confucian system.
retainers of a lord to the status of indepen- Confucius and other pre-Qin think-
dent subjects. Thus, the feudal society was ers viewed the traditional political
completely reshaped in the two centuries institutions of China as bankrupt and
preceding the Qin unification. tried to devise a rationale for something
to replace them. Some, such as Confucius,
Cultural Change put their main emphasis on the quality of
the ruling elite group; others, such as
These great political and socioeconomic Shang Yang (died 338 BC) and Hanfeizi
changes were accompanied by intellec- (died 233 BC), regarded a well-organized
tual ferment, as the people tried to adjust governing mechanism as the only way to
themselves to a rapidly changing world. an orderly society. The development of
Ideas about the proper relationships the new centralized monarchical state
between members of society were natu- after the middle of the Chunqiu period is
rally questioned when the old feudal order not only the embodiment of the ideas of
was shaken, and in that period the great these various thinkers but also the work-
teacher Confucius elaborated the social ing premise in the context of which they
concepts that henceforth became norma- elaborated their theories. The high
tive for Chinese civilization. In place of degree of social and political conscious-
rigid feudal obligations, he posited an ness that characterized most of the
order based on more-universal human pre-Qin philosophical schools set the
relationships (such as that between father pattern for the close association of the
and son) and taught that ability and intellectual with government and society
moral excellence rather than birth were in later China.
what fitted a person for leadership. The burgeoning commercial life of
The great thinkers who came after the period also influenced other spheres,
Confucius, whether or not they agreed especially in the prevalence of contrac-
with his views, were conditioned by his tual relationships. Thus, a minister would
basic assumptions. Mozi, originally a roam from one court to another, “selling”
Confucian, based his system on a con- his knowledge and service to the most
cept of universal love that was largely accommodating prince, and the quality
an extension of the Confucian idea of of his service was determined by the
humanity; the “worthy man” Mozi rec- treatment he received. This kind of con-
ommended as the ideal leader was a tractual relationship remained common
54 | The History of China

in China until the tide of commercialism Zhou court. The record is not clear. In the
was ended by the restriction of commer- old annals Qin did not appear as a signifi-
cial activity under the Han emperor Wudi cant power until the time of Mugong
in the 2nd century BC. (reigned 659–621 BC), who made Qin the
The local cultures of China were main power in the western part of China.
blended into one common civilization
during Chunqiu times. Through contacts The Qin State
and interchanges, the gods and legends
of one region became identified and Although Qin attempted to obtain a foot-
assimilated with those of other regions. hold in the central heartland along the
Local differences remained, but, from Huang He, it was blocked by the territo-
that time on, the general Chinese pan- ries of Jin. Qin failed several times to
theon took the form of a congregation of enter the eastern bloc of powers and had
gods with specific functions, represent- to limit its activities to conquering,
ing a celestial projection of the unified absorbing, and incorporating the non-
Chinese empire with its bureaucratic Chinese tribes and states scattered
society. within and west of the big loop of the
Bold challenges to tradition have Huang He. Qin’s success in this was duly
been rare in Chinese history, and the recognized by other powers of the
questioning and innovating spirit of the Chunqiu period, so that the two super-
Chunqiu period was to have no parallel powers Chu and Jin had to grant Qin,
until the ferment of the 20th century, along with Qi, the status of overlord in its
after two millennia had elapsed under the own region. The eastern powers, how-
domination of Confucian orthodoxy. ever, regarded Qin as a barbarian state
because of the non-Chinese elements it
The Qin empire (221–207 BC) contained.
Qin played only a supporting role
The history of the Qin dynasty may be in the Chunqiu power struggle; its loca-
traced to the 8th century BC. According tion made it immune to the cutthroat
to the Qin historical record, when the competition of the states in the central
Zhou royal house was reestablished at the plain. Qin, in fact, was the only major
eastern capital in 770 BC, the Qin ruling power that did not suffer battle within its
house was entrusted with the mission of own territory. Moreover, being a newly
maintaining order in the previous capital. emerged state, Qin did not have the
This may be an exaggeration of the burden of a long-established feudal sys-
importance of the Qin rulers, and the Qin tem, which allowed it more freedom to
may have been only one of the ruling develop its own pattern of government.
families of the old states that recognized As a result of being “underdeveloped,” it
Zhou suzerainty and went to serve the offered opportunity for eastern-educated
The Zhou and Qin Dynasties | 55

persons; with the infusion of such talent, royal decree. The law was to be enforced
it was able to compete well with the east- impartially, without regard to status or
ern powers, yet without the overexpanded position. He convinced Xiaogong that
ministerial apparatus that embarrassed the rank of nobility and the privileges
other rulers. This may be one reason why attached to it should be awarded only to
Qin was one of the handful of ruling those who rendered good service to the
houses that survived the great turmoil of state, especially for valour in battle. This
the late Chunqiu period. deprived the existing nobility of their
A period of silence followed. Even the titles and privileges, arousing much
Qin historical record that was adopted by antagonism in the court.
the historian Sima Qian yields almost no One of his most influential reforms
information for a period of some 90 years was that of standardizing local adminis-
in the 5th century BC. The evidence sug- tration. It was a step toward creating a
gests that Qin underwent a period of unified state by combining various locali-
consolidation and assimilation during ties into counties, which were then
the years of silence. When it reemerged organized into prefectures under direct
as an important power, its culture supervision of the court. This system was
appeared to be simpler and more martial, expanded to all of China after unification
perhaps because of the non-Chinese in 221 BC.
tribes it had absorbed. Another measure taken by Shang
Yang was that he encouraged production,
Struggle for Power especially in agriculture. Farmers were
given incentive to reclaim wasteland, and
Until the 5th century BC, China was dom- game and fishing reserves were also
inated by the central-plain power Wei, a opened to cultivation. A shortage of
successor to Jin, and by the eastern labour was met by recruiting the able-
power Qi, a wealthy state with a new rul- bodied from neighbouring states,
ing house. Qin remained a secondary especially from Han, Zhao, and Wei. This
power until after the great reforms of policy of drawing workers to Qin had two
Xiaogong (361–338 BC) and Shang Yang consequences: it increased production in
(Wei Yang). Qin, and manpower was lost in the neigh-
Shang Yang, a frustrated bureaucrat bouring states. In order to increase
in the court of Wei, went westward seek- incentives, the Qin government levied a
ing a chance to try out his ideas. In the double tax on any male citizen who was
court of Qin he established a rare part- not the master of a household. The result
nership with the ruler Xiaogong and was a breakdown of the extended-family
created the best-organized state of their system, since younger children were
time. Shang Yang first took strong mea- forced to move out and establish their
sures to establish the authority of law and own households. The nuclear family
56 | The History of China

became the prevalent form in Qin there- the other contending powers. It contin-
after. As late as the 2nd century BC, Han ued maneuvering in order to prevent the
scholars were still attacking the Qin fam- others from uniting against it. A common
ily structure as failing to observe the topic of debate in the courts of the other
principle of filial piety, a cardinal virtue states was whether to establish friendly
in the Confucian moral code. Shang Yang relations with Qin or to join with other
also standardized the system of weights states in order to resist Qin’s expansion.
and measures, a reform of some impor- The Qin strategists were ruthless: all
tance for the development of trade and means, including lies, espionage, bribery,
commerce. and assassination, were pressed into the
Qin grew wealthy and powerful under service of their state.
the joint labours of Xiaogong and Shang For a time, the eastern power Qi had
Yang. After Xiaogong’s death, Shang seemed the most likely to win. It defeated
Yang was put to death by enemies at the Wei, crushed Yan in 314 BC, and annexed
Qin court. Tablets of the Qin law substan- Song in 286 BC. But Qi was overturned
tiate the survival of Shang Yang’s policies by an allied force of five states, including
after his death. Qin. Zhao, the power with extensive terri-
What remained of the Zhou royal tory in the northern frontier, succeeded
court still survived, ruling over a frag- Qi as the most formidable contender
mentary domain—poor, weak, and totally against Qin. In 260 BC a decisive battle
at the mercy of the contending powers. It between Qin and Zhao destroyed Zhao’s
was commonly felt that China ought to military strength, though Qin was not
be unified politically, although the pow- able to complete its conquest of Zhao for
ers disagreed as to how it was to be done several decades.
and who would be the universal king.
Huiwang, son of Xiaogong, claimed the The Empire
royal title in 325 BC. The adoption of the
royal title by Qin was of course a chal- When Qin succeeded in unifying China
lenge to Qi and Wei. Qin pursued a in 221 BC, its king claimed the title of
strategy of dividing its rivals and individ- “First Sovereign Emperor,” Shihuangdi.
ually defeating them. Qin appealed to the He was a strong and energetic ruler, and,
self-interest of other powers in order to although he appointed a number of capa-
keep them from intervening in any mili- ble aides, the emperor remained the final
tary action it was taking against one of its authority and the sole source of power.
neighbours. It befriended the more dis- Shihuangdi made a number of impor-
tant states while gradually absorbing the tant reforms. He abolished the feudal
territories of those close to it. system completely and extended the
Within half a century, Qin had administration system of prefectures and
acquired undisputed predominance over counties, with officials appointed by the
The Zhou and Qin Dynasties | 57

great Wall of China

 The Great Wall of China (Chinese: Wanli Changcheng; “10,000-Li Long Wall”) consists
of a series of defensive structures built across northern China. One of the largest build-
ing-construction projects ever carried out, it runs (with all its branches) about 4,500 miles
(7,300 km) east to west. Large parts of the fortification date from the 7th to the 4th century
BC. In the 3rd century BC the emperor Shihuangdi connected existing defensive walls
into a single system fortified by watchtowers. These served both to guard the rampart and
to communicate with the capital, Xianyang (near modern Xi’an) by signal—smoke by day
and fire by night. Originally constructed partly of masonry and earth, it was faced with
brick in its eastern portion. It was rebuilt in later times, especially in the 15th and 16th
centuries. The basic wall is about 23 to 26 feet (7 to 8 metres) high; at intervals towers rise
above it to varying heights. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.

The Great Wall of China covered in winter snow. China Photos/Getty Images
58 | The History of China

central government sent into all of China. influential men in the provinces were
Circuit inspectors were dispatched to compelled to move to the capital.
oversee the local magistrates. China was Weapons were confiscated. Hundreds of
divided into some 40 prefectures. The intellectuals were massacred for daring
empire created by Shihuangdi was to to criticize the emperor’s policies. Books
become the traditional territory of China. dealing with subjects other than law,
In later eras China sometimes held other horticulture, and herbal medicine were
territories, but the Qin boundaries were kept out of public circulation because
always considered to embrace the indivis- the emperor considered such knowl-
ible area of China proper. In order to edge to be dangerous and unsettling.
control this vast area, Shihuangdi con- These things have contributed to make
structed a network of highways to Shihuangdi appear the arch tyrant of
facilitate moving his troops. Several hun- Chinese history.
dred thousand workers were conscripted Some of the accusations leveled
to connect and strengthen the existing against him by historians are perhaps
walls along the northern border. The exaggerated, such as the burning of
result was a complex of fortified walls, gar- books and the indiscriminate massacre
rison stations, and signal towers extending of intellectuals. Shihuangdi himself
from near the Bo Hai (Gulf of Chihli) claimed in the stone inscriptions of his
westward across the pastureland of what time that he had corrected the miscon-
is today Inner Mongolia and through the duct of a corrupted age and given the
fertile loop of the Huang He to what is people peace and order. Indeed, his polit-
now northwestern Gansu province. This ical philosophy did not deviate much
defense line, known as the Great Wall, from that already developed by the great
marked the frontier where the nomads of thinkers of the Zhanguo period and
the great steppe and the Chinese farmers adopted later by the Han emperors, who
on the loess soil confronted each other. have been generally regarded as benevo-
Yet the emperor failed in another great lent rulers.
project: digging a canal across the moun- Shihuangdi was afraid of death. He
tains in the south to link the southern did everything possible to achieve
coastal areas with the main body of China. immortality. Deities were propitiated,
Shihuangdi, with his capable chancellor and messengers were dispatched to look
Li Si, also unified and simplified the writ- for an elixir of life. He died in 210 BC
ing system and codified the law. while on a tour of the empire. Excavation
All of China felt the burden of these of his tomb, near modern Xi’an (ancient
11 or 12 years of change. Millions of Chang’an), revealed more than 6,000 life-
people were dragooned to the huge con- size statues of soldiers still on guard.
struction jobs, many dying on the long His death led to the fall of his dynasty.
journey to their destination. Wealthy and The legitimate heir was compelled to
The Zhou and Qin Dynasties | 59

Some of the army of terra-cotta warriors that have been excavated at the Qin tomb near
Xi’an, Shaanxi province, China. In all, some 8,000 pottery soldiers, horses, and chariots were
buried there, only a portion of which have been unearthed. Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

commit suicide when his younger The uprising spread rapidly as old rul-
brother usurped the throne. Capable ing elements of the six states rose to
and loyal servants, including Li Si and claim their former titles. Escaped con-
Gen. Meng Tian, were put to death. scripts and soldiers who had been
Ershidi, the second emperor, reigned hiding throughout the land emerged in
only four years. Rebellion broke out in large numbers to attack the imperial
the Yangtze River area when a small armies. The second emperor was killed
group of conscripts led by a peasant by a powerful eunuch minister, and in
killed their escort officers and claimed 206 BC a rebel leader accepted the sur-
sovereignty for the former state of Chu. render of the last Qin prince.
The han Dynasty

T he Han dynasty was founded by Liu Bang (best known

by his temple name, Gaozu), who assumed the title of
emperor in 202 BC. Eleven members of the Liu family fol-
lowed in his place as effective emperors until AD 6 (a 12th
briefly occupied the throne as a puppet). In AD 9 the dynastic
line was challenged by Wang Mang, who established his own
regime under the title of Xin. In AD 25 the authority of the
Han dynasty was reaffirmed by Liu Xiu (posthumous name
Guangwudi), who reigned as Han emperor until 57. Thirteen
of his descendants maintained the dynastic succession until
220, when the rule of a single empire was replaced by that of
three separate kingdoms. While the entire period from 206
(or 202) BC to AD 220 is generally described as that of the
Han dynasty, the terms Xi (Western) Han (also called Former
Han) and Dong (Eastern) Han (also called Later Han) are
used to denote the two subperiods. During the first period,
from 206 BC to AD 25, the capital city was situated at
Chang’an (modern Xi’an), in the west; in the second period,
from AD 25 to 220, it lay farther east at Luoyang.
The four centuries in question may be treated as a single
historical period by virtue of dynastic continuity, for, apart
from the short interval of 9–25, imperial authority was unques-
tionably vested in successive members of the same family.
The period, however, was one of considerable changes in
imperial, political, and social development. Organs of gov-
ernment were established, tried, modified, or replaced, and
The Han Dynasty | 61

new social distinctions were brought into intensive administration. Several reigns
being. Chinese prestige among other were characterized by palace intrigue and
peoples varied with the political stability corrupt influences at court, and on a num-
and military strength of the Han house, ber of occasions the future of the dynasty
and the extent of territory that was sub- was seriously endangered by outbreaks
ject to the jurisdiction of Han officials of violence, seizure of political power, or
varied with the success of Han arms. At a crisis in the imperial succession.
the same time, the example of the palace,
the activities of government, and the DyNaSTIC
growing luxuries of city life gave rise to auThORITy aND ThE
new standards of cultural and technologi- SuCCESSION Of EMPERORS
cal achievement.
China’s first imperial dynasty, that of Xi (Western) Han
Qin, had lasted barely 15 years before its
dissolution in the face of rebellion and Since at least as early as the Shang
civil war. By contrast, Han formed the dynasty, the Chinese had been accus-
first long-lasting regime that could suc- tomed to acknowledging the temporal
cessfully claim to be the sole authority and spiritual authority of a single leader
entitled to wield administrative power. and its transmission within a family, at
The Han forms of government, however, first from brother to brother and later
were derived in the first instance from from father to son. Some of the early
the Qin dynasty, and these in turn incor- kings had been military commanders,
porated a number of features of the and they may have organized the corpo-
government that had been practiced by rate work of the community, such as the
earlier kingdoms. The Han empire left as manufacture of bronze tools and ves-
a heritage a practical example of impe- sels. In addition, they acted as religious
rial government and an ideal of dynastic leaders, appointing scribes or priests to
authority to which its successors aspired. consult the oracles and thus to assist
But the Han period has been credited in making major decisions covering
with more success than is its due; it has communal activities, such as warfare
been represented as a period of 400 years and hunting expeditions. In succeeding
of effective dynastic rule, punctuated by centuries the growing sophistication of
a short period in which a pretender to Chinese culture was accompanied by
power usurped authority, and it has been demands for more-intensive political
assumed that imperial unity and effec- organization and for more-regular
tive administration advanced steadily administration; as kings came to dele-
with each decade. In fact, there were gate tasks to more officials, so was their
only a few short periods marked by own authority enhanced and the obedi-
dynastic strength, stable government, and ence that they commanded the more
62 | The History of China

widely acknowledged. Under the king- scarcely survived the death of the first
doms of Zhou, an association was emperor in 210 BC. The choice of his suc-
deliberately fostered between the author- cessor was subject to manipulation by
ity of the king and the dispensation statesmen, and local rebellions soon
exercised over the universe by heaven, developed into large-scale warfare. Gaozu,
with the result that the kings of Zhou and, whose family had not thus far figured in
later, the emperors of Chinese dynasties Chinese history, emerged as the victor of
were regarded as being the sons of heaven. two principal contestants for power.
Anxious to avoid the reputation of having
Prelude to the Han replaced one oppressive regime by
another, he and his advisers endeavoured
From 403 BC onward seven kingdoms to display their own empire—of Han—as a
other than Zhou constituted the ruling regime whose political principles were in
authorities in different parts of China, keeping with a Chinese tradition of lib-
each of which was led by its own king or eral and beneficent administration. As
duke. In theory, the king of Zhou, whose yet, however, the concept of a single cen-
territory was by now greatly reduced, tralized government that could command
was recognized as possessing superior universal obedience was still subject to
powers and moral overlordship over the trial. In order to exercise and perpetuate
other kingdoms, but practical adminis- its authority, therefore, Gaozu’s govern-
tration lay in the hands of the seven ment perforce adopted the organs of
kings and their professional advisers or government, and possibly many of the
in the hands of well-established fami- methods, of its discredited predecessor.
lies. Then in 221 BC, after a long process The authority of the Han emperors
of expansion and takeover, a radical had been won in the first instance by force
change occurred in Chinese politics: of arms, and both Gaozu and his succes-
the kingdom of Qin succeeded in sors relied on the loyal cooperation of
eliminating the power of its six rivals military leaders and on officials who orga-
and established a single rule that was nized the work of civil government. In
acknowledged in their territories. theory and to a large extent in practice,
According to later Chinese historians, the emperor remained the single source
this success was achieved and the Qin from whom all powers of government
empire was thereafter maintained by were delegated. It was the Han emperors
oppressive methods and the rigorous who appointed men to the senior offices
enforcement of a harsh penal code, but of the central government and in whose
this view was probably coloured by later name the governors of the commanderies
political prejudices. Whatever the quality (provinces) collected taxes, recruited men
of Qin imperial government, the regime for the labour corps and army, and
The Han Dynasty | 63

dispensed justice. And it was the Han

emperors who invested some of their
kinsmen with powers to rule as kings over
certain territories or divested them of
such powers in order to consolidate the
strength of the central government.

The Imperial Succession

The succession of emperors was her-

editary, but it was complicated to a
considerable extent by a system of impe-
rial consorts and the implication of their
families in politics. Of the large number
of women who were housed in the palace
as the emperor’s favourites, one was
selected for nomination as the empress;
while it was theoretically possible for an
emperor to appoint any one of his sons
heir apparent, this honour, in practice,
usually fell on one of the sons of the
empress. Changes could be made in the
declared succession, however, by depos-
ing one empress and giving the title to
another favourite, and sometimes, when
an emperor died without having nomi-
nated his heir, it was left to the senior
statesmen of the day to arrange for a
suitable successor. Whether or not an
heir had been named, the succession was

Funerary banner from the tomb of Lady

Dai (Xin Zhui), Mawangdui, Hunan
province, ink and colours on silk, c. 168
BC, Western Han dynasty; in the Hunan
Provincial Museum, Changsha, China.
Wang Lu/ChinaStock Photo Library
64 | The History of China

often open to question, as pressure could dowager Gaohou arranged for two infants
be exerted on an emperor over his choice. to succeed consecutively. During that
Sometimes a young or weak emperor was time (188–180 BC) she issued imperial
overawed by the expressed will of his edicts under her own name and by virtue
mother or by anxiety to please a newly of her own authority as empress dowager.
favoured concubine. She set a precedent that was to be fol-
Throughout the Xi Han and Dong lowed in later dynastic crises—e.g., when
Han periods, the succession and other the throne was vacant and no heir had
important political considerations were been appointed. In such cases, although
affected by the members of the imperial statesmen or officials would in fact deter-
consorts’ families. Often the father or mine how to proceed, their decisions
brothers of an empress or concubine were implemented in the form of edicts
were appointed to high office in the cen- promulgated by the senior surviving
tral government; alternatively, senior empress.
statesmen might be able to curry favour Gaohou appointed a number of
with their emperor or consolidate their members of her own family to highly
position at court by presenting a young important positions of state and clearly
female relative for the imperial pleasure. hoped to substitute her own family for
In either situation the succession of the reigning Liu family. But these plans
emperors might be affected, jealousies were frustrated on her death (180) by
would be aroused between the different men whose loyalties remained with the
families concerned, and the actual pow- founding emperor and his family. Liu
ers of a newly acceded emperor would be Heng, better known as Wendi, reigned
overshadowed by the women in his from 180 to 157. He soon came to be
entourage or their male relatives. Such regarded (with Gaozu and Wudi) as one
situations were particularly likely to of three outstanding emperors of the Xi
develop if, as often happened, an emperor Han. He was credited with the ideal
was succeeded by an infant son. behaviour of a reigning monarch
The imperial succession was thus fre- according to later Confucian doctrine;
quently bound up with the political i.e., he was supposedly ready to yield
machinations of statesmen, particularly place to others, hearken to the advice
as the court grew more sophisticated and and remonstrances of his statesmen,
statesmen acquired coteries of clients and eschew personal extravagance. It
engaged in factional rivalry. On the death can be claimed that his reign saw the
of the first emperor, Gaozu (195 BC), the peaceful consolidation of imperial
palace came under the domination of his power, successful experimentation in
widow. Outliving her son, who had suc- operating the organs of government,
ceeded as emperor under the title of and the steady growth of China’s mate-
Huidi (reigned 195–188), the empress rial resources.
The Han Dynasty | 65

from Wudi to yuandi (Hsiung-nu; northern nomads) and in

Central Asia, though Wudi never took a
The third emperor of the Xi Han to be personal part in the fighting. The policy
singled out for special praise by tradi- of taking the offensive and extending
tional Chinese historians was Wudi Chinese influence into unknown territory
(reigned 141–87 BC), whose reign was resulted not from the emperor’s initiative
the longest of the entire Han period. His but from the stimulus of a few statesmen,
reputation as a vigorous and brave ruler whose decisions were opposed vigorously
derives from the long series of cam- at the time. Thanks to the same states-
paigns fought chiefly against the Xiongnu men, manpower was more intensively

Wudi (b. 156 BC—d. March 29, 87 BC) is the posthumous name given to Liu Che, the
sixth emperor of the Xi (Western) Han dynasty. He is noted for vastly increasing
the Han’s authority and influence
abroad and for making Confucianism
China’s state religion. Under Wudi,
China’s armies drove back the nomadic
Xiongnu tribes that plagued the north-
ern border, incorporated southern China
and northern and central Vietnam into
the empire, and reconquered Korea.
Their farthest expedition was to Fergana
(in modern Uzbekistan). Wudi’s military
campaigns strained the state’s reserves;
seeking new income, he decreed new
taxes and established state monopolies
on salt, iron, and wine.
  The Wudi emperor is best remem-
bered for his military conquests; hence, his
posthumous title, Wudi, meaning “Martial
Emperor.” His administrative reforms left
an enduring mark on the Chinese state,
Drawing of the Wudi emperor (lower right)
and his exclusive recognition of of the Xi (Western) Han dynasty, receiving
Confucianism had a permanent effect on a letter. Snark/Art Resource, NY
subsequent East Asian history.
66 | The History of China

used and natural resources more heavily to contrive a replacement candidate

exploited during Wudi’s reign, which (posthumous name Xuandi) whom he
required more active administration by could control or manipulate. Xuandi
Han officials. Wudi participated person- (reigned 74–49/48), who began to take a
ally in the religious cults of state far personal part in government after Huo
more actively than his predecessors and Guang’s death, had a predilection for a
some of his successors. And it was dur- practical rather than a scholastic
ing his reign that the state took new approach to matters of state. While his
steps to promote scholarship and reign was marked by a more rigorous
develop the civil service. attention to implementing the laws than
From about 90 BC it became appar- had heretofore been fashionable, his
ent that Han military strength had been edicts paid marked attention to the ideals
overtaxed, leading to a retrenchment in of governing a people in their own inter-
military and economic policies. The last ests and distributing bounties where they
few years of the reign were darkened by a were most needed. The move away from
dynastic crisis arising out of jealousies the aggressive policies of Wudi’s states-
between the empress and heir apparent men was even more noticeable during
on the one hand and a rival imperial con- the next reign (Yuandi; 49/48–33). 
sort’s family on the other. Intense and
violent fighting erupted in Chang’an in From Chengdi to Wang Mang
91, and the two families were almost elim-
inated. A compromise was reached just In the reigns of Chengdi (33–7 BC), Aidi
before Wudi’s death, whereby an infant— (7–1 BC), and Pingdi (1 BC–AD 6) the con-
known by his posthumous name Zhaodi duct of state affairs and the atmosphere
(reigned 87–74)—who came from neither of the court were subject to the weakness
family was chosen to succeed. The stew- or youth of the emperors, the lack of an
ardship of the empire was vested in the heir to succeed Chengdi, and the rivalries
hands of a regent, Huo Guang, a shrewd between four families of imperial con-
and circumspect statesman who already sorts. It was also a time when considerable
had been in government service for some attention was paid to omens. Changes
two decades; even after Huo’s death (68 that were first introduced in the state reli-
BC), his family retained a dominating gious cults in 32 BC were alternately
influence in Chinese politics until 64 BC. countermanded and reintroduced in the
Zhaodi had been married to a grand- hope of securing material blessings by
daughter of Huo Guang; his successor, means of intercession with different spir-
who was brought to the throne at the invi- itual powers. To satisfy the jealousies of a
tation of Huo and other statesmen, favourite, Chengdi went so far as to mur-
proved unfit and was deposed after a der two sons born to him by other women.
reign of 27 days. Huo, however, was able Aidi took steps to control the growing
The Han Dynasty | 67

monopoly exercised by other families to precedents of the dim past. He appealed

over state affairs. It was alleged at the to the poorer classes by instituting mea-
time that the deaths of both Chengdi, sures of relief, but his attempts to
who had enjoyed robust health, and eliminate private landholding and abol-
Pingdi, not yet 14 years old when he died, ish private slaveholding antagonized
had been arranged for political reasons. the more wealthy members of society.
In the meantime the Wang family had Experiments in new types of coinage
come to dominate the court. Wang and in controlling economic transac-
Zhengjun, who had been the empress of tions failed to achieve their purpose of
Yuandi and mother of Chengdi, exercised increasing state resources, which were
considerable powers not only in her own depleted by enormously costly prepara-
capacity but also through several of her tions for campaigns against the Xiongnu.
eight brothers. From 33 to 7 BC five mem- The last years of his reign were dislo-
bers of the family were appointed in cated by the rise of dissident bands in a
succession to the most powerful position number of provinces; several leaders
in the government, and the status of other declared themselves emperor in differ-
members was raised by bestowing titles ent regions, and, in the course of the
of nobilities. The empress dowager lived fighting, Chang’an was entered and dam-
until AD 13, surviving the decline of the aged. Later it was captured by the Red
family’s influence under Aidi, who sought Eyebrows, one of the most active of the
to restore a balance at court by honouring robber bands, and Wang Mang was
the families of other consorts (the Fu and killed in a scene of violence played out
Ding families). Wang Mang, nephew of within the palace buildings.
the empress dowager Wang, restored the
family’s position during the reign of Dong (Eastern) Han
Pingdi. After the latter died and an infant
succeeded to the throne, Wang Mang was The Han house was restored by Liu Xiu,
appointed regent, but in AD 9 he assumed better known as Guangwudi, who reigned
the imperial position himself, under the from AD 25 to 57. His claim had been con-
dynastic title of Xin. Insofar as he took tested by another member of the Liu
imperial power from the Liu family, Wang house—Liu Xuan, better known as Liu
Mang’s short reign from 9 to 23 may be Gengshi—who had been actually
described as an act of usurpation. His pol- enthroned for two years, until his death in
icies were marked by both traditionalism the course of turbulent civil fighting.
and innovation. In creating new social Chang’an had been virtually destroyed
distinctions, he tried to revert to a system by warfare, and Guangwudi established
allegedly in operation before the imperial his capital at Luoyang.
age, and some of his changes in the struc- The new emperor completed defeat-
ture of government were similarly related ing rival aspirants to the throne in 36. As
68 | The History of China

had occurred in Xi Han, dynastic estab- place their own interests above those of
lishment was followed by a period of the state.
internal consolidation rather than expan- During the last 50 years of Dong Han,
sion. Guangwudi resumed the structure northern China became subject to inva-
of government of the Xi Han emperors, sion from different sides, and, as was
together with the earlier coinage and sys- observed by several philosopher-states-
tem of taxation. The palace once more men, the administration became corrupt
promoted the cause of scholarship. and ineffective. Powerful regional offi-
Eunuchs had come to the fore in the Han cials were able to establish themselves
palace during Yuandi’s reign, and several almost independently of the central gov-
had succeeded in reaching powerful posi- ernment. Rivalry between consorts’
tions. Guangwudi’s policy was to rid the families and eunuchs led to a massacre of
government of such influences, together the latter in 189, and the rebel bands that
with that of the families of imperial con- arose included the Yellow Turbans, who
sorts. Under Mingdi (57–75) and Zhangdi were fired by beliefs in supernatural influ-
(75–88), China was once more strong ences and led by inspired demagogues.
enough to adopt a positive foreign policy Soldiers of fortune and contestants for
and set Chinese armies on the march power were putting troops in the field in
against the Xiongnu. To prevent incur- their attempts to establish themselves as
sions by the latter, and possibly to emperors of a single united China. By
encourage the growth of trade, Han influ- 207 the great Han general Cao Cao had
ence was again brought to bear in Central gained control over the north, and, had he
Asia. Chinese prestige reached its zenith not been defeated by Sun Quan at the
around 90 and fell markedly after 125. battle of the Red Cliff, which later became
Dynastic decline can be dated from famous in Chinese literature, he might
the reign of Hedi (88–105/106), when the well have succeeded in establishing a
court once more came under the influence single dynastic rule. Other participants
of consorts’ families and eunuchs. The in the fighting included Dong Zhou, Liu
succession of emperors became a matter Bei, and Zhuge Liang. The situation was
of dexterous manipulation designed to resolved in 220 when Cao Pi, son of Cao
preserve the advantages of interested Cao, accepted an instrument of abdica-
parties. The weakness of the throne can tion from Xiandi, last of the Han emperors
be judged from the fact that, of the 14 (acceded 189). Cao Pi duly became
emperors of Dong Han, no less than 8 emperor of a dynasty styled Wei, whose
took the throne as boys aged between territories stretched over the northern
100 days and 15 years. Factions gradu- part of China and whose capital was at
ally increased in number, and their Luoyang. A year later, in 221, Liu Bei was
members, like the families of imperial declared emperor of the Shu-Han dynasty,
consorts and like the eunuchs, tended to thereby maintaining the fiction that as a
The Han Dynasty | 69

member of the Liu family he was continu- altering the underlying principles of gov-
ing its rule of the Han dynasty, albeit in ernment but at applying them expediently
the restricted regions of Shu in the south- to the changing dynastic, political, social,
west (capital at Chengdu). In the and economic conditions of later centu-
southeast there was formed the third of ries. One of the problems faced by Han
the Sanguo (Three Kingdoms), as the governments was recruiting able and
period from 220 to 280 has come to be honest men to staff the civil service of an
described. This was the kingdom of Wu, empire; those individuals eventually
with its capital at Jianye, under the initial became known in the West as mandarins.
dispensation of Sun Quan. Although the Chinese writing system had
recently been reformed, which facilitated
The administration drafting documents, officials still needed
of the Han empire considerable training before they attained
sufficient competence. Much of the train-
One of the main contributions of the Han ing occurred in local-level bureaus, where
dynasty to the future of imperial China aspirants for imperial appointments
lay in the development of the civil service served the equivalent of apprenticeships.
and the structure of central and provin- Meritorious young men advanced from
cial government. The evolutionary clerical positions to head various local
changes that subsequently transformed bureaus. Having proved themselves in
Han polity beyond recognition were not these positions, they were then eligible for
directed at altering the underlying prin- recommendation or sponsorship, the
ciples of government but at applying standard means by which civil servants
them expediently to the changing dynas- were recruited. Officials were invited to
tic, political, social, and economic present candidates who possessed suit-
conditions of later centuries. able qualities of intelligence and integrity,
usually established in their service in
The Structure of local bureaus, and at certain regular inter-
Government vals provincial units were ordered to send
a quota of men to the capital. At times
The Civil Service candidates were required to submit
answers on questions of policy or admin-
One of the main contributions of the Han istration. They might then be kept at the
dynasty to the future of imperial China palace to act as advisers in attendance, or
lay in the development of the civil service they might be given appointments in the
and the structure of central and provincial central government or in the provinces,
government. The evolutionary changes depending on their success. However, at
that subsequently transformed Han polity that time there was no regular system of
beyond recognition were not directed at examination and appointment akin to
70 | The History of China

what evolved during the Sui and Tang adherence to regular hierarchies of
dynasties. authority, by the division of specialist
The recruitment system was impor- responsibilities, and by a duplication of
tant for two reasons directly related to the certain functions. It was hoped that these
nature and development of Han society. measures would keep individual officials
First, the apprenticeship system assured from accumulating excessive amounts of
that entry into the imperial bureaucracy power. The uppermost stratum of officials
was based on administrative merit. Thus, or statesmen comprised the chancellor,
men of little wealth could enter clerical the imperial counselor, and, sometimes,
positions and support themselves while the commander in chief. These men acted
preparing for higher-level careers. (This as the emperor’s highest advisers and
recruitment system differed strikingly retained final control over the activities of
from the later examination system that government. Responsibility was shared
often required years of study in order to with nine ministers of state, who cared for
master the Confucian Classics and to matters such as religious cults, security of
develop writing skills.) Second, powerful the palace, adjudication in criminal cases,
families, increasingly in the Dong Han diplomatic dealings with foreign leaders,
period, were able to dominate the clerical and the collection and distribution of rev-
and other positions in the local bureaus, enue. Each minister of state was supported
thereby limiting to those powerful fami- by a department staffed by directors and
lies the candidates for imperial subordinates. There were a few other
bureaucratic service. Control of local major agencies, which ranked slightly
positions in turn strengthened the pow- below the nine ministries and were
erful families by allowing them to responsible for specialist tasks. Functions
manipulate tax and census registers. were duplicated so as to check the growth
Such families created the social milieu of power. Occasionally, for example, two
from which the aristocratic families of chancellors were appointed concurrently.
the post-Han period were to emerge. Similarly, financial matters were con-
There was a total of 12 grades in the trolled by two permanent ministries: the
Han civil service, ranging from that of Department of Agriculture and Revenue
clerk to the most senior minister of state. and the Privy Treasury.
No division in principle existed between The foregoing structure of regular
men serving in the central offices or the organs of government was known as the
provincial units. Promotion could be Outer Court. With the passage of time, it
achieved from one grade of the service to became balanced by the growth of a sec-
the next, and in theory a man could rise ondary seat of power known as the Inner
from the humblest to the highest post. In Court. This grew up from members of the
theory and partly in practice, the structure secretariat and had started as a subordi-
of Han government was marked by an nate agency in the Privy Treasury. The
The Han Dynasty | 71

secretariat officials had acquired direct end of the period, their administration
access to the emperor and could thus cir- came to differ less and less from that of
cumvent the more formal approaches the commanderies, which formed the reg-
that protocol required of other officials. ular provincial units. Each commandery
The secretariat rose to prominence dur- was controlled by two senior officials, the
ing the latter part of the 1st century BC governor and the commandant, who were
and was at times staffed by eunuchs. Its appointed by the central government.
members were sometimes distinguished Commanderies could be established at
by receiving privileged titles that con- will: by dividing larger into smaller units,
veyed a mark of imperial favour without by taking over the lands of the kings, or
specific administrative responsibility. by establishing organs of government in
The highest of these titles was that of regions only recently penetrated by
supreme commander, and, when this Chinese officials. Provincial government
title was accompanied by the right or the was not necessarily pervasive throughout
imperial instruction to assume leader- the lands where commandery offices
ship of the secretariat, the powers of existed, but there was a steady advance in
the incumbent outweighed those of the provincial government during the Han
highest ministers of the Outer Court. An period. During Gaozu’s reign 16 com-
official thus named could effectively manderies existed, but by the end of the
control decisions of state, to the discom- Xi Han there were 83 commanderies and
fiture of senior officials such as the 20 kingdoms.
chancellor. It was in this capacity that Each of the commanderies consisted
Wang Mang and his four predecessors of some 10 or 20 prefectures, the size of
had been able to assert their power with- which corresponded to that of English
out fear of check. counties. The prefect’s headquarters were
situated in a walled town, from which his
Provincial Government administration was extended and his offi-
cials were sent to collect taxes, settle
At the outset of the Han dynasty, vast disputes, or recruit able-bodied men for
areas were entrusted as kingdoms to the service. The prefectures were themselves
emperor’s kinsmen, while the central subdivided into districts. The command-
government administered the interior eries included a number of nobilities, the
provinces as commanderies. But by about holders of which enjoyed a noble title
100 BC the imperial government had and income from the taxes collected in
deprived the kingdoms of their strength, them by central government officials.
and most of their lands had been incorpo- The nobles exercised no administrative,
rated as commanderies under the central judicial, or other power over their nobili-
government. Although the kingdoms sur- ties. The number of nobilities varied
vived in a much-reduced form until the considerably, sometimes totaling several
72 | The History of China

hundred. The system was used as a politi- emergency or when a campaign was being
cal instrument for reducing the power of planned with a defined objective, those
the kings, rewarding military officers and officers were appointed for a specific task;
civil officials, and treating surrendered when their mission was fulfilled, their
enemy leaders. Special arrangements commands were brought to a close.
were instituted for provincial govern- Beneath that level was a complement of
ment at the periphery of the empire. colonels whose duties consisted of smaller-
Agencies of a specialist nature were set scale activities. In addition, the governors
up both there and in the provinces of the and commandants of the commanderies
interior, with responsibilities for such were sometimes ordered to lead forces.
matters as supervision of the salt and The commandants were also responsible
iron industries, manufacture of textiles, for training conscript soldiers and setting
fruit growing, and sponsored agriculture, them to maintain internal discipline and
as well as control of passage in and out of to man the static lines of defense in the
the frontier. north and northwest.
From 106 BC the government tried to The Han armies drew their recruits
supervise the work of provincial officials from conscripts, volunteers, and convicts.
more directly. A total of 13 regional inspec- Conscripts, who formed the majority,
tors were appointed, with orders to visit were obliged to serve for two years, either
the commanderies and kingdoms of a under training or on active service. This
specified area and to report to the central duty devolved on all able-bodied males
government on the efficiency of officials, other than those who had acquired privi-
the degree of oppression or corruption, leges of rank or those who could pay for
and the state of popular affection or disaf- substitutes. The latter practice was prob-
fection. Although the arrangement was ably rare. In addition, men were liable for
not yet tantamount to the creation of a lim- recall to the armed forces in times of
ited number (about 20) of large provinces, emergency. Volunteers were the sons of
such as came about from about the 13th privileged families and probably served
century, it may have facilitated the estab- as cavalrymen, and convicts were some-
lishment of separatist provincial regimes times drafted to work out their terms of
at times of dynastic decline. sentence in the army. There is ample evi-
dence to show that Han commanders
The Armed Forces used to draw on Central Asian tribesmen
as recruits, and the tribesmen were par-
The command of the armed forces was ticularly valuable as skilled cavalrymen.
also arranged so as to avoid giving exces- A number of foreigners also served with
sive powers to a single individual. Officers distinction as officers. While little is
equivalent to generals were usually known of the organization of armies on
appointed in pairs, and, in times of campaign, garrison forces were divided
The Han Dynasty | 73

Horse and Swallow, bronze sculpture from the tomb of General Chang, Leitai, Wuwei county,
Gansu province, 2nd century AD, Dong (Eastern) Han dynasty; in the Gansu Provincial
Museum, Lanzhou, China. Height 32.4 cm. Robert Harding Picture Library

into separate commands consisting of edicts declaring the imperial will. Such
perhaps four companies. Each company instructions often took the form of repeat-
had a strength of some 40 or 50 sections, ing officials’ proposals with a note of
each of which comprised one officer and approval. Some edicts were couched as
up to five men. comments on the current situation and
called in general terms for an improve-
The Practice of Government ment in the quality of government or for
more-vigorous attempts to achieve a just
As the final arbiter of power, the emperor— administration. The emperor also issued
and at times the empress dowager—issued formal deeds of investiture to kings or
74 | The History of China

noblemen and letters of appointment for varied with the age and sex of the mem-
senior officials. Edicts were circulated bers of the household. Other taxes were
to the relevant authorities for action, levied in respect to wealth and by means
together with books of other regulations of property assessments.
such as the statutes and ordinances, lay- In addition to service in the army,
ing down entitlements for services able-bodied males were expected to pro-
rendered to the state and penalties for vide one month’s service annually in the
infringing its prohibitions. Officials could state labour corps; tasks included build-
suggest methods of government by sub- ing palaces and imperial mausoleums,
mitting written memorials, and there transporting staple goods such as grain
were occasions when an emperor called a and hemp, and constructing roads and
conference of senior statesmen and asked bridges. Sometimes conscript labour was
their views on topical problems. used to repair breaches in riverbanks or
The Han governments regularly dikes, and men were sent to work in the
issued calendars to enable the court to salt and iron industries after these were
follow a cosmically correct ritual sched- taken over by the state.
ule and officials to maintain their records The establishment of state monopo-
correctly. Regular means of transport lies for salt and iron was one of several
were kept for the use of officials traveling measures taken in Wudi’s reign to bring
on business and for the conveyance of China’s resources under the control of
official mail from one office to another. the government. Agencies were set up
Provincial and local officials were respon- about 117 BC to supervise mining, man-
sible for two regular counts without ufacturing, and distribution and to raise
which government could not proceed: revenue in the process. The measure
the census of the population and the reg- was criticized on the grounds of both
ister of the land and its production. principle and expedience and was with-
Returns, which were submitted for the drawn for three years from 44 BC, and by
number of households and individuals the mid-1st century AD the industries
and for land under cultivation, eventually had in practice reverted to private hands.
found their way to the capital. One count Final measures to standardize the coin-
that has been preserved records the exis- age and to limit minting to state
tence of some 12,233,000 households and agencies were taken in 112 BC, and, with
59,595,000 individuals in AD 2. Two other the exception of Wang Mang’s experi-
main forms of revenue collection were ments, the copper coin of a single
the land tax and the poll tax. The land tax denomination, minted from Wudi’s
was levied in kind at a 30th (sometimes a reign onward, remained the standard
15th) part of the produce, the assessment medium of exchange. Little is known of
depending partly on the quality of the the work of other agencies established
land. Poll tax was usually paid in cash and in Xi Han to stabilize the prices of
The Han Dynasty | 75

staple commodities and to regulate their The Han government, like the Qin,
transport. Such measures had been the ruled by dispensing rewards for service
answer of Wudi’s government to the and exacting punishment for disobedi-
problem of moving goods from an area ence and crime. Rewards consisted of
of surplus to one of shortage. exemptions from tax; bounties of gold,
The government ordered migrations meat, spirits, or silk; amnesties for crimi-
of the population for several reasons. At nals; and orders of honour. The latter
times, such a migration was intended to were bestowed either individually or to
populate an area artificially—the city of groups. There was a ranked scale of 20
Xianyang during the Qin dynasty, for degrees, and, after receiving several of
example, and the state-sponsored farms these awards cumulatively, one could rise
of the borderlands. Alternatively, if the to the eighth place in the scale. The more-
defense of the periphery was impractical, senior orders were given for specified
the population was sometimes moved acts of valour, charity, or good adminis-
away from danger, and distressed folk tration, usually to officials, and the
were moved to areas where they could highest order was the rank of nobility. In
find a more prosperous way of life. addition to conferring social status, the
From about 100 BC it was evident to orders carried with them legal privileges
some statesmen that great disparities of and freedom from some tax and service
wealth existed and that this was most obligations.
noticeable in respect of landownership. In theory, the laws of Han were bind-
Some philosophers looked back nostal- ing on all members of the population,
gically to an ideal state in which land and some incidents testify to the pun-
was said to have been allotted and held ishment of the highest in the land. But
on a basis of equality, thereby eliminat- some privileged persons were able to
ing the wide differences between rich get their sentences mitigated. Nobles,
and poor. It was only in Wang Mang’s for example, could ransom themselves
time that an attempt was made to abolish from most punishments by forfeiting
private landownership and private slave- their nobilities. Han laws specified a
holding. But the attempt failed because variety of crimes, including those of a
of powerful economic and social opposi- social nature such as murder or theft,
tion, and the accumulation of land those that infringed the imperial maj-
continued during Dong Han. In the last esty, and those that were classed as gross
half century or so of the dynasty, country immorality. There was a regular proce-
estates acquired retainers and armed dure for impeachment and trial, and
defenders, almost independently of the some difficult cases could be referred to
writ of government. The great families the emperor for a final decision. The
thus came to exercise more power than punishments to which criminals were
appointed officials of state. sentenced included exile, hard labour,
76 | The History of China

flogging, castration, and death. In the relations with the Xiongnu at the price of
most heinous cases the death sentence gold, silk, and even the hand of a Chinese
was carried out publicly, but senior offi- princess. However, as Wudi’s govern-
cials and members of the imperial family ments began establishing strong policies,
were usually allowed to avoid such a China took the offensive in an attempt to
scene by committing suicide. When the throw back the Xiongnu to Central Asia
death penalty was invoked, a criminal’s and to free the northern provinces from
goods, including members of his family, the threat of invasion and violence. By
were confiscated by the state. Such per- 119 BC, campaigns fought to the north of
sons then became slaves of the state and Chinese territory had attained this objec-
were employed on menial or domestic tive, and after a short interval it was
tasks in government offices. Government possible to send Han armies to advance
slaves were sometimes given as rewards in the northeast (present-day North
to meritorious officials. Korea), the south (present-day Vietnam),
and the southwest. As a result of the cam-
Relations paigns fought from 135 BC onward, 18
with other peoples additional commanderies were founded,
and organs of Han provincial govern-
Simultaneously with the rise of the Qin ment were installed as outposts among
and Han empires, some of the nomadic peoples who were unassimilated to a
peoples of Central Asia, known as the Chinese way of life.
Xiongnu, succeeded in achieving a mea- Chinese government was by no
sure of unity under a single leader. As a means universally accepted in those out-
result, while the Chinese were consoli- lying regions. But despite large losses
dating their government, the lands lying and expenditures incurred in fighting
to the north of the empire—and the the Xiongnu, the Chinese were able to
northern provinces themselves—became mount expeditions into Central Asia
subject to incursion by Xiongnu horse- from about 112 BC. The defensive walls
men. One of the achievements of the Qin were repaired and remanned, and by
dynasty had been the unification of the about 100 they were extended to the
several lines of defense into a single sys- northwest as far as Dunhuang. Chinese
tem of fortification, the Great Wall. By travelers, whether diplomats or mer-
keeping that wall, or line of earthworks, chants, were thus protected as far as the
manned, the Qin dynasty had been free Takla Makan Desert. It was at about that
of invasion. With the fall of Qin and time that trade routes skirting the desert
China’s subsequent weakness, the wall were established and came to be known
fell into a state of disrepair and lacked a collectively as the Silk Road.
garrison. Until about 135 BC, Han gov- The success of Chinese arms in those
ernments were obliged to seek peaceful remote areas was short-lived. Long lines
The Han Dynasty | 77

of communication made it impossible to disruptive factor in the 2nd and 3rd cen-
set up garrisons or colonies in the forbid- turies, to the detriment of imperial unity.
ding country to the west of Dunhuang. The Han expansion into Central Asia
Diplomatic moves were made to implant has been represented by the Chinese as a
Chinese prestige more firmly among the defensive measure designed to weaken
communities that were situated around the Xiongnu and to free China from inva-
the Takla Makan Desert and that con- sion. Allowance must also be made for
trolled the oases; it was necessary for the commercial motives. Some of Wudi’s
Chinese to win those peoples’ support, statesmen were well aware of the advan-
thus denying it to the Xiongnu. In a few tages of exporting China’s surplus
cases the Chinese resorted to violence or products in return for animals and ani-
plots to remove a leader and to replace mal products from Central Asia, and
him with a candidate known to favour the there is evidence that Chinese silk was
Han cause. More commonly, one of the exported at this time. No attempt can be
alien leaders was married to a Chinese made to estimate the volume of trade,
princess, with the intention that he and, as the transactions were conducted
should in time be succeeded by an heir through Parthian middlemen, no direct
who was half-Chinese. These endeavours contact was made by this means between
and the military ventures met with partial Han China and the world of Rome and
success. While the Chinese position in the Mediterranean. China’s export trade
Central Asia was subject to question, was sponsored by the government and
relations with the Xiongnu leaders var- not entrusted to private merchants.
ied. The visit of a Xiongnu leader to The Great Wall formed a boundary
Chang’an in 51 BC was hailed as a mark separating the Chinese provinces from
of Chinese success, but the ensuing the outside world. Traffic was controlled
decades were not free from fighting. at points of access, not only to check
Chinese prestige declined toward the incoming travelers to China but also to
end of the Xi Han and recovered only prevent the escape of criminals or desert-
during the reigns of Mingdi and Zhangdi, ers. At the same time, a ban was imposed
when the Han government was once on the export of certain goods such as
more strong enough to take the field. Ban iron manufactures and weapons of war.
Chao’s campaigns in Central Asia (from The wall also formed a protected cause-
AD 94) reestablished the Chinese posi- way for travelers to the west. Watch
tion, but again the full strength of Chinese stations were erected in sight of each
prestige lasted for only a few decades. other to signal the approach of the enemy,
During the Dong Han, China suffered and the garrison troops were highly
invasion from the northeast as well as trained and disciplined. Meticulous
from the north. The settlement of records were kept to show how govern-
Xiongnu peoples south of the wall was a ment stores were expended and rations
78 | The History of China

Tourists travel by carriage through the ruins of the ancient capital of the Gaochang empire,
Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, China. The city lay on the famous Silk Road at the
foot of Huoyan (“Flaming”) Mountain, noted for the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha caves.
China Photos/Getty Images

issued; routine signals were relayed along observations, Han advances were con-
the line and daily patrols were sent out centrated in the northwest. In AD 97
to reconnoitre. Chinese envoys were frustrated in an
As a result of the campaigns and dip- attempt to visit the western part of the
lomatic activity, China’s immediate world, but a mission from Rome reached
contacts with other peoples grew more China by ship in 166. The first record of
brisk. Many of the Xiongnu and other official visitors arriving at the Han court
neighbouring leaders who had surren- from Japan is for the year AD 57.
dered to Han arms were given nobilities
and settled in the interior of the empire. CuLTuRaL DEvELOPMENTS
Zhang Qian was a pioneer who had set
out about 130 BC to explore the routes The Han emperors and governments
into Central Asia and northern China, posed as having a temporal dispensation
and, as a result of his report and that had received the blessing of heaven
The Han Dynasty | 79

together with its instructions to spread completed in AD 121, included more than
the benefits of a cultured life as widely as 9,000 separate ideograms (characters),
possible. By a cultured life the Chinese with explanations of their meanings and
had in mind a clear distinction between the variant forms used in writing.
their own settled agriculture and the In an attempt to break with earlier
delights of the cities, as opposed to the tradition, the Qin government had taken
rough and hardy life spent in the saddle certain steps to proscribe literature and
by the nomads of Central Asia. The learning. Han governments stressed their
growth of Han government both desire to promote these causes as part of
depended on and encouraged the devel- their mission. In particular, they dis-
opment of literary accomplishment, played a veneration for works with which
scholastic competence, religious activity, Confucius had been associated, either as
scientific discovery, and technological a collector of texts or as an editor, and
achievement. these works became known as the Wujing,
Han administration required detailed or the Confucian Classics. Beginning
record keeping, which generated a prolif- during the reign of Wendi, orders were
eration of documents. Official returns given to search for books lost during the
were sometimes kept in duplicate, and previous dynasty. Knowledge of texts
each agency kept running files to record such as the Shijing (“Classic of Poetry”),
its business. Following a reform of the the Shujing (“Classic of History”), the
script that had evolved before the Han Yijing (“Classic of Changes”), and the
period, a new style of writing was devel- Chunqiu (“Spring and Autumn”) annals
oped that was suited to compiling official became a necessary accomplishment for
documents. These were written mostly officials and candidates for the civil ser-
on bulky and fragile wooden strips; silk vice. To support an argument laid before
was also used as a writing medium. A the throne, statesmen would find a rele-
major development in world history vant quotation from these works; already
occurred in China in AD 105 when offi- in the 1st century BC the tradition was
cials reported to the throne the being formed whereby the civil service of
manufacture of a new substance. imperial China was nurtured on a
Although archaeological evidence indi- Classical education. On two occasions
cates the existence of paper for more than (51 BC and AD 79) the government
a century before this incident, the earlier ordered official discussions about inter-
materials were not completely super- preting texts and the validity of differing
seded until some three or four centuries versions; in AD 175 work was completed
later. In the meantime, the written vocab- on a project that inscribed an approved
ulary of the Chinese had increased in version on stone tablets, so as to allay
response to the demands of a growing scholastic doubts in the future. In the
civilization. The first Chinese dictionary, meantime—and still before the invention
80 | The History of China

of paper—a collection of literary texts had earliest acts of the Han government (c.
been made for the imperial library. The 200 BC) had been to order the formula-
catalog of this collection, which dates tion of such modes of behaviour as a
from the early 1st century AD, was pre- means of enhancing the dignity of the
pared after comparing different copies throne, and one of the latest compilations
and eliminating duplicates. The list of (c. AD 175) that still survives is a list of
titles has been preserved and constitutes such prescriptions, drawn up at a time
China’s first bibliographical list. The when the dynasty was manifestly losing
works are classified according to subject, its majesty and natural authority. Some of
but many have been lost. The importance the emperors were themselves compos-
of these measures lies both in their intrin- ers of versified prose; their efforts have
sic achievement and in the example they also been preserved in the standard
set for subsequent dynasties. histories.
The prose style of Han writers was The emperor was charged with the
later taken as a model of simplicity, and, solemn duty of securing the blessings of
as a reaction to the literary embellish- spiritual powers for mankind. One of the
ments and artificialities introduced in the nine ministries of state existed to assist
5th and 6th centuries, deliberate attempts in this work of mediation, but from the
were made to revert to its natural ele- time of Wudi onward the emperor himself
gance. Examples of this direct prose may began to play a more active part in wor-
be seen in the imperial edicts, the memo- ship and sacrifice. The cults were initially
rials ascribed to statesmen, and, above addressed to the Five Elements (fire,
all, the text of the standard histories water, earth, wood, and metal), to the
themselves, in which such documents of Supreme Unity, and to the Lord of the
state were incorporated. Compiling the Soil. In 31 BC these cults were replaced by
standard histories was a private under- sacrifices dedicated to heaven and earth.
taking in Han times, but it already The sites of worship were transferred to
received imperial patronage and assis- the southern and northern outskirts of
tance. History was written partly to justify Chang’an, and a new series of altars and
the authority and conduct of the contem- shrines was inaugurated. The Han
porary regime and partly as a matter of emperor occasionally paid his respects to
pride in Chinese achievement. Further supreme powers and reported on the
examples of prose writing are the descrip- state of the dynasty at the summit of
tions of protocol for the court. One of the Mount Tai. Wudi’s desire for immortality

Terraced rice fields near Longsheng, Guangzi province, nicknamed the “Dragon’s Backbone.”
Christian Kober/Robert Harding World Imagery/Getty Images
The Han Dynasty | 81
82 | The History of China

and for quickening his deceased favou- troops and horses serving on the north-
rites led him to patronize a number of western frontier. Water clocks and
intermediaries who claimed to possess sundials were used to enable officials to
the secret of making contact with the complete their work on schedule. The
world of the immortals. From such beliefs palace demanded the services of artists
and from a fear of the malevolent influ- and craftsmen to decorate imperial build-
ences that the unappeased souls of the ings with paintings and sculptures and to
dead could wreak on humanity, a few phi- design and execute jades, gold and silver
losophers such as Wang Chong (AD 27–c. wares, and lacquer bowls for use at the
100) reacted by propounding an ordered imperial table. Intricate patterns in mul-
and rational explanation of the universe. ticoloured silks were woven on looms in
But their skepticism received little sup- the imperial workshops. On a more mun-
port. Sometime during the 1st century dane level, technology served the cause
AD, Buddhism reached China, propa- of practical government. The state’s iron-
gated in all probability by travelers who work factories produced precision-made
had taken the Silk Road from northern instruments and weapons of war, and the
India. Shortly thereafter Buddhist founda- state’s agencies for the salt industry
tions were established in China, as well as supervised the recovery of brine from
the first official patronage of the faith. deep shafts cut in the rocks of western
From the 2nd century AD there arose a China. Water engineers planned the con-
variety of beliefs, practices, and disci- struction of dikes to divert the flow of
plines from which alchemy and scientific excess waters and the excavation of
experiment were to spring and which canals to serve the needs of transport or
were to give rise to Daoism. irrigation, and in many parts of the coun-
Most of the cultural attainments of tryside there could be seen a sight that
the Han period derived from imperial remained typical of the Chinese land-
encouragement and the needs of offi- scape up to the 20th century—a team of
cials. A textbook of mathematical two or three peasants sitting astride a
problems was probably compiled to beam and pedaling the lugs of the “drag-
assist officials in work such as land on’s backbone” that raised water from the
assessment; fragments of a medical case- sluggish channels below to the upper lev-
book were concerned with the care of els of the cultivated land.
The Six Dynasties
and the Sui Dynasty

B y the end of the 2nd century AD the Han empire had vir-
tually ceased to exist. The repression of the Daoist
rebellions of the Yellow Turbans and related sects marked
the beginning of a period of unbridled warlordism and politi-
cal chaos, from which three independent centres of political
power emerged.
The Division of China
 In the north all authority had passed into the hands of the
generalissimo and “protector of the dynasty,” Cao Cao; in AD
220 the last puppet emperor of the Han officially ceded the
throne to Cao Cao’s son, who thereby became the legitimate
heir of the empire and the first ruler of the Wei dynasty. Soon
afterward, two competing military leaders proclaimed them-
selves emperor, one in the far interior (Shu-Han dynasty, in
the present-day Sichuan province) and one in the south,
behind the formidable barrier of the Yangtze River (the
empire of Wu, with its capital at Jianye, present-day Nanjing).
The short and turbulent period of these “Three Kingdoms”
(Sanguo), filled with bloody warfare and diplomatic intrigue,
has ever since been glorified in Chinese historical fiction as
an age of chivalry and individual heroism.
84 | The History of China

Sanguo (Three Kingdoms; The role of Wu was extremely impor-

AD 220–280) tant: it marked the beginning of the
progressive Sinicization of the region
In fact, even Wei, the strongest of the three south of the Yangtze River, which before
Sanguo kingdoms, hardly represented that time had been a frontier area inhab-
any real political power. The great socio- ited mainly by non-Chinese tribal
economic changes that had started in the peoples. The rise of Jianye (renamed
Dong (Eastern) Han period had trans- Jiankang during Jin times) as a great
formed the structure of society to such an administrative and cultural centre on the
extent that all attempts to reestablish the lower Yangtze paved the way for future
centralized bureaucratic state—the ideal developments: after the north was lost to
of the Qin and Han dynasties—were barbarian invaders (311), it was to become
doomed to failure. While central authority the capital of Chinese successor states
declined, the great families—aristocratic and an important locus of Chinese cul-
clans of large landowners—survived the ture for more than 250 years.
decades of civil war on their fortified
estates under the protection of their pri- The Xi (Western) Jin (AD
vate armies of serfs and clients and even 265–316/317)
increased their power. These conditions
were to remain characteristic of medieval In addition to restoring order, The Xi Jin
China. The Han system of recruiting offi- renewed contacts with the oasis king-
cials on the basis of talent was replaced by doms of Central Asia and the Indianized
a network of personal relations and states of the far south (Funan and
patronage. The hierarchy of state officials Champa), and in 285 the Jin court even
and government institutions was never sent an envoy to distant Fergana in
abolished, but it became monopolized by Central Asia to confer the title of king on
a few aristocratic clans who filled the its ruler—a grand imperial gesture remi-
highest offices with their own members niscent of the great days of Han. But this
and the minor posts with their clients. ghost of the Han empire disappeared
Wei succeeded in conquering Shu- almost as soon as it had been evoked.
Han in 263/264, but two years later a Within two decades the Jin disintegrated
general of the dominant Sima clan over- through the struggles of rival clans. There
threw the house of Wei (265/266) and in followed an internecine war between the
265 founded the first of two dynasties various Sima princes, collapse of the cen-
under the name Jin: the Xi (Western) tral government, decentralized military
Jin. Wu, however, was able to maintain control of the provinces, famine, large-
itself until 280, when it was overrun by scale banditry, and messianic peasant
the Jin armies. movements.
The Six Dynasties and the Sui Dynasty | 85

The Era of Barbarian consisting mainly of members of the

Invasions and Rule exiled northern aristocracy. From the
beginning the Jin court was completely
For the first time the power vacuum was at the mercy of the great landowning
filled by non-Chinese forces. In 304 a families. Government in the Chinese
Sinicized Xiongnu chieftain, Liu Yuan, south became a kind of oligarchy exer-
assumed the title of king of Han and cised by ever-changing groups and
started the conquest of northern China. juntas of aristocratic clans. The so-called
Operating from bases in western and Six Dynasties were politically and mili-
southern Shanxi, the Xiongnu armies, tarily weak and constantly plagued by
supported by local Chinese rebels, con- internal feuds and revolts. (The six were
quered the ancient homeland of Chinese actually five—Dong Jin, 317–420; Liu-
civilization; the fall and destruction of Song, 420–479; Nan [Southern] Qi,
the two capitals, Luoyang (311) and 479–502; Nan Liang, 502–557; and Nan
Chang’an (316), ended Chinese dynastic Chen, 557–589—and all but Dong Jin are
rule in the north for centuries. Although also known as Nanchao [Southern
in the far northeast, in present-day Dynasties] in Chinese history; the ear-
Gansu, and in the inaccessible interior lier kingdom of Wu, 222–280, is counted
(Sichuan), Chinese local kingdoms did as the sixth dynasty.) Their annihilation
occasionally succeed in maintaining (in 589) was postponed only by the inter-
themselves for some time, the whole nal division of the north and by the
North China Plain itself became the protection afforded by the Yangtze. To
scene of a bewildering variety of barbar- the very end, their opposition to the
ian states, collectively known in Chinese north remained alive, but occasional
historiography as the Shiliuguo (Sixteen attempts to reconquer the ancient home-
Kingdoms). land were doomed to failure. The final
reunification of China was to start from
The Dong (Eastern) Jin (317–420) the northern plains, not from Jiankang.
and Later Dynasties in the South Although politically insecure, these
(420–589) dynasties were characterized by cultural
brilliance: in literature, art, philosophy,
During the entire medieval period the and religion, they constituted one of the
lower Yangtze region—the former terri- most creative periods in Chinese history.
tory of Wu—remained the stronghold of They reached their highest flowering
a series of “legitimate” Chinese dynas- under the long and relatively stable reign
ties, with Jiankang as their capital. In of the great protector of Buddhism, Wudi
317 a member of the Jin imperial family (reigned 502–549), the first emperor of the
had set up a refugee regime at Jiankang, Nan Liang dynasty.
86 | The History of China

The Shiliuguo (Sixteen Kingdoms) spite of various and sometimes highly

in the North (303–439) interesting experiments, most of these
short-lived empires did not survive this
The term Sixteen Kingdoms traditionally tension. Significantly, the only one that
denotes the plethora of short-lived non- proved to have more lasting power and
Chinese dynasties that from 303 came to that was able to unify the whole of north-
rule the whole or parts of northern China. ern China—the Tuoba, or Bei (Northern)
Many ethnic groups were involved, Wei (386–534/535)—was largely Sinicized
including ancestors of the Turks (such as within a century. In the late 5th century
the Xiongnu, possibly related to the the court even forbade the use of the orig-
Huns of late Roman history, and the Jie), inal Tuoba language, dress, customs, and
the Mongolians (Xianbei), and the surnames. This policy of conscious accul-
Tibetans (Di and Qiang). Most of these turation was further symbolized by the
nomadic peoples, relatively few in num- transfer of the Bei Wei capital from the
ber, had to some extent been Sinicized northern frontier region to the ancient
long before their ascent to power. Some imperial residence of Luoyang.
of them—notably the Qiang and the Thus, toward the end of the period of
Xiongnu—actually had been allowed to division, the north had become more
live in the frontier regions within the homogeneous as the result of a long pro-
Great Wall since late Han times. cess of adaptation. The most important
The barbarian rulers thus set up factor in this process may have been the
semi-Sinicized states, in which the for- rehabilitation of the Chinese agrarian
eign element constituted a military economy under the Bei Wei, stimulated
aristocracy and the nucleus of the armed by fiscal reform and redistribution of land
forces. Since they lacked experience in (c. AD 500). The landed gentry again
administrative matters and since their became the backbone of society, and the
own tribal institutions were not adapted rulers of nomadic origin simply had to
to the complicated task of ruling a large conform to their way of life. Another fac-
agrarian society, they had to make use of tor was the perceived intrinsic superiority
traditional Chinese ways of government. of Chinese upper-class culture: in order
In doing so, they faced the dilemma that to play the role of the “son of heaven,” the
has ever since confronted foreign rulers leaders of the barbarian court had to
on Chinese soil: the tension that existed adopt the complicated rules of Chinese
between the need to preserve their own ritual and etiquette. Likewise, in order to
ethnic identity (and their position as her- surround themselves with an aura of
renvolk) on the one hand and on the other legitimacy, the foreign conquerors had to
the practical necessity of using Chinese express themselves in terms of Chinese
literati and members of prominent culture. In doing so, they invariably lost
Chinese families in order to rule at all. In their own identity. History has constantly
The Six Dynasties and the Sui Dynasty | 87

repeated itself: in this respect the 4th- accompanied by intense intellectual

and 5th-century Jie and Tuoba were but activity. During the Han period,
the forerunners of the Qing, or Manchu, Confucianism had been slowly adopted
rulers in the 19th century. as an ideology and had gradually come to
In the early 6th century the Wei was provide the officially accepted norms,
divided between the Sinicized court and morals, and ritual and social behaviour
a faction of the nobility desperate to pre- regulating the relations between ruler
serve its Tuoba identity. Soon after 520 and subject.
the Wei empire disintegrated into rival By the beginning of the 3rd century,
northeastern and northwestern successor however, Confucianism had lost its pres-
states. Northern China again became a tige: it had obviously failed to save the
battlefield for several decades. The Bei empire from disintegration or to safe-
(Northern) Zhou (557–581), strategically guard the privileges of the ruling elite.
based in the rich basin of the Wei River, Disappointed members of the scholar-
reunified the north (577). Four years later official class started to look elsewhere.
Yang Jian (better known by his posthu- Thus, various all-but-forgotten schools of
mous name, Wendi), a general of mixed thought were revived in the 3rd century:
Chinese and barbarian descent (but Legalism, with its insistence on harsh
claiming to be a pure-blooded Chinese), measures, intended to reestablish law
usurped the throne and founded the Sui and order; Mohism and the ancient
dynasty. In 589, having consolidated his school of Logicians (Dialecticians); and,
regime, he crossed the Yangtze River and above all, a renewed interest in Daoism
overthrew the last of the Chinese dynas- and its earliest philosophers, Laozi and
ties at Jiankang. After almost four Zhuangzi. In general, this movement did
centuries of division and political decay, not mean a return to ancient Daoist qui-
China was again united under one cen- etism and consequently a rejection of
tral government, which, in spite of its Confucianism. With the breakdown of
short duration, would lay the foundation the elaborate scholastic doctrine that had
of the great Tang empire. formed the official Han ideology,
Confucianism had been deprived of its
Intellectual and metaphysical superstructure, and this
Religious Trends During vacuum was now filled by a whole set of
the Six Dynasties philosophical ideas and speculations,
largely of Daoist provenance.
Confucianism and Within this movement, two trends
Philosophical Daoism came to dominate the intellectual life of
the cultured minority. One of these was
The social and political upheaval of the closely related to the practical affairs of
late 2nd and the 3rd century AD was government and stressed the importance
88 | The History of China

Confucius (Chinese: Kongfuzi; b. 551 BC—d. 479 BC) was the renowned teacher, philosopher,
and political theorist of ancient China. Born into a poor family, he managed stables and
worked as a bookkeeper while educating himself. Mastery of the six arts—ritual, music, archery,
charioteering, calligraphy, and arithmetic—and familiarity with history and poetry enabled
him to begin a brilliant teaching career in his
thirties. Confucius saw education as a
process of constant self-improvement
and held that its primary function
was the training of noblemen
(junzi). He saw public service
as the natural consequence of
education and sought to
revitalize Chinese social
institutions, including the
family, school, commu-
nity, state, and kingdom.
He served in government
posts, eventually becom-
ing minister of justice
in Lu, but his policies
attracted little interest.
After a 12-year self-
imposed exile during
which his circle of students
expanded, he returned to Lu
at age 67 to teach and write.
His life and thoughts are recorded
in the Lunyu (Analects).

Drawing depicting the Chinese ethicist and philosopher Confucius. Hulton Archive/
Getty Images
The Six Dynasties and the Sui Dynasty | 89

of social duties, ritual, law, and the in his worldly teachings, knowing that
study of human characteristics. This mix- these mysteries could not be expressed
ture of Confucian and Legalist notions in words. Hence, his doctrine was sup-
was called mingjiao, “the doctrine of posed to be an expedient, a mere set of
names” (“names” in ancient Confucian ad hoc rules intended to answer the
parlance designating the various social practical needs of the times. This con-
functions—father, ruler, subject, etc.—that cept of “hidden saintliness” and the
an individual could have in society). The “expedient” character of the canonical
other trend was marked by a profound teachings came to play a very important
interest in ontological and metaphysical role in upper-class Buddhism.
problems: the quest for a permanent sub- Xuanxue is sometimes referred to by
stratum (called ti, “substance”) behind the the term Neo-Daoism, but this confuses
world of change (called yong, “function”). the issue. It was both created by and
It started from the assumption that all intended for literati and scholar-offi-
temporally and spatially limited phenom- cials—not Daoist masters and hermits.
ena—anything “nameable”; all movement, The theories of such thinkers as Ji Kang
change, and diversity; in short, all (224–262)—who, with their quest for
“being”—is produced and sustained by immortality and their extreme antiritu-
one impersonal principle, which is unlim- alism, were much nearer to the spirit of
ited, unnameable, unmoving, unchanging, Daoism—hardly belong to the sphere
and undiversified. This important move- of Xuanxue, and the greatest Daoist
ment, which found its scriptural support author of this period, Ge Hong (c. 283–
both in Daoist and in drastically reinter- 343), was clearly opposed to these
preted Confucian sources, was known as mystic speculations.
Xuanxue (“Dark Learning”); it came to The popularity of Xuanxue was
reign supreme in cultural circles, espe- closely related to the practice of “pure
cially at Jiankang during the period of conversation” (qingtan), a special type of
division, and represented the more philosophical discourse much in vogue
abstract, unworldly, and idealistic ten- among the cultured upper class from the
dency in early medieval Chinese thought. 3rd century onward. In the earliest phase,
The proponents of Xuanxue the main theme of such discussion—a
undoubtedly still regarded themselves highly formalized critique of the personal
as true Confucians. To them, Confucius qualities of well-known contemporaries—
was not simply the great teacher who still had a concrete function in political
had fixed the rules of social behaviour life (“characterization” of persons was the
for all time but was the enlightened sage basis of recommendation of clients for
who had inwardly recognized the ulti- official posts and had largely taken the
mate reality but had kept silent about it place of the earlier methods of selection
90 | The History of China

of officials by court examinations). By the assisted by a council of wealthy Daoist

4th century, however, qingtan meetings laity. Under such circumstances, local
had evaporated into a refined and highly Daoist masters could easily become lead-
exclusive pastime of the aristocratic elite, ers of independent sectarian movements.
a kind of salon in which “eloquent gentle- They could also, in times of unrest, use
men” expressed some philosophical or their charismatic power to play a leading
artistic theme in elegant and abstruse part in local rebellions. In the early medi-
words. It is obvious that much of Xuanxue eval period, Daoism at the grassroots
had become divorced from the realities of level continued to play this double role: it
life and afforded an escape from it. had an integrating function by providing
True Confucianism had thus lost spiritual consolation and ritualized forms
much of its influence. In the north the not- of communal activity, but it could also be
yet-Sinicized barbarian rulers were a disintegrating factor as a potential
interested in Confucianism mainly as a source of subversive movements. The
system of court ritual; ideologically, they authorities naturally were well aware of
were more attracted by the magical pow- this. Daoist rebellions periodically broke
ers of Buddhist and Daoist masters. In the out during this time, and, although some
south the disillusioned aristocratic exiles, masters occasionally became influential
doomed by circumstances to lead a life at court, the governments, both northern
of elegant inactivity, had little use for a and southern, maintained a cautious
doctrine that preached the duties of gov- reserve toward the Daoist religion. It was
ernment and the regulation of human never stimulated and patronized to an
society as its highest goals, although many extent comparable to Buddhism.
families preserved Confucian learning It would be wrong to speak of Daoism
and clung to Confucian mores. In this as a popular religion. Daoism counted its
period of internal division and political devotees even among the highest nobil-
weakness, Confucianism had to hibernate; ity. In view of the expensive ceremonies,
soon after the Sui had reunited the empire, the costly ingredients used in Daoist
it would wake up again. alchemy (notably cinnabar), and the
almost unlimited amount of spare time
Daoism required from the serious practitioner,
one may assume that only the well-to-do
The suppression of the Yellow Turbans were able to follow the road toward salva-
and other Daoist religious movements in tion. But they were mostly individual
AD 184 had left Daoism decapitated. seekers; in the 3rd and 4th centuries a
With the elimination of its highest lead- distinction gradually grew between indi-
ership, the movement had fallen apart vidual (and mainly upper-class) Daoism
into many small religious communities, and the popular, collective creed of the
each led by a local Daoist master (daoshi), simple devotees. In fact, Daoism has
The Six Dynasties and the Sui Dynasty | 91

always been a huge complex of many dif- period of division, Daoism had its own
ferent beliefs, cults, and practices. Most canons of scriptural writings, much influ-
of these can be traced to Dong Han times, enced by Buddhist models but forming a
and after the 3rd century they were influ- quite independent religious tradition.
enced increasingly by Buddhism. The other, collective, and more popu-
The basic ideal of Daoist religion— lar form of Daoism, practiced in the
the attainment of bodily immortality in a communities throughout the country,
kind of indestructible “astral body” and was characterized by communal ceremo-
the realization of the state of xian, or nies (zhai, “fasting sessions,” and chu,
Daoist “immortal”—remained alive. It was “banquets”) held by groups of Daoist
to be pursued by a series of individual families under the guidance of the local
practices: dietary control, gymnastics, master, both on fixed dates and on spe-
good deeds, and meditation and visual- cial occasions. The purpose of such
ization of the innumerable gods and meetings was to collectively eliminate
spirits that were supposed to dwell inside sins (evil deeds being considered as the
the microcosmos of the body. Renowned main cause of sickness and premature
literati, such as the poet Ji Kang and the death) through incantations, deafening
calligrapher Wang Xizhi (c. 303–c. 361), music, fasting, and by displaying pen-
devoted much of their lives to such prac- ance and remorse. The gatherings
tices. They combined various methods, sometimes lasted several days and nights,
ranging from mystic self-identification and, according to the indignant reports of
with the all-embracing Dao to the use of their Buddhist adversaries, they were
charms and experiments in alchemy. ecstatic and sometimes even orgiastic.
The development of Daoism seems The allegation of sexual excesses and
to have reached a new stage during the promiscuity may have been stimulated
4th century. An ancient school of esoteric by the fact that both men and women
learning already existed at that time in took part in Daoist meetings, a practice
southern China, exemplified by Ge Hong. unknown in Confucian and Buddhist
The retreat of the Jin to southern China ritual.
in the early 4th century brought to that The Daoist community as an organi-
region the organized religion and priest- zation and the daoshi who led it relied on
hood that had arisen in the north and two sources of income: the gifts made by
west during the Dong Han. In that con- devotee families at ceremonial gather-
text, new priestly cults arose in the south. ings and the regular “heavenly tax,” or
Their teachings were connected with a yearly contribution of five bushels of rice,
series of revelations, the first through which every family was expected to pay
Yang Xi, which led to the formation first on the seventh day of the seventh month.
of the Shangqing sect and later to the The office of daoshi was hereditary,
rival Lingbao sect. By the end of the within one family; in the early centuries
92 | The History of China

Daoist priests usually married. Because absorption of the foreign religion after
Buddhist influence also increased at this about 300, both in the Chinese south and
humble level, however, the daoshi increas- in the occupied north. A negative factor
ingly came to resemble the Buddhist was the absence of a unified Confucian
clergy, especially since most Daoist state, which naturally would have been
priests, at least from the 5th century inclined to suppress a creed whose basic
onward, went to live in Daoist monaster- tenets (notably, the monastic life and the
ies with their wives and children. In the pursuit of individual salvation outside
6th century, when Buddhism became par- family and society) were clearly opposed
amount, some Daoist leaders introduced to the ideals of Confucianism. The popu-
celibacy; in Sui times the unmarried state larity of Xuanxue was a positive and
had become general, and the Daoist powerful factor. Especially in the south,
clergy with its monks and nuns had Mahayana Buddhism, thoroughly amal-
evolved into a counterpart of the Buddhist gamated with Xuanxue, was preached by
sangha. Unlike Buddhist monasteries, cultured monks in the circles of the
the Daoist monasteries and clergy never Jiankang aristocracy, where it became
developed great economic power. extremely popular.
In spite of their resemblance to each Another stimulus for the growth of
other—or perhaps because of it—the two Buddhism was the relative security and
creeds were bitterly opposed throughout prosperity of monastic life. In a country-
the period. Daoist masters were often side devastated by war and rebellion,
involved in anti-Buddhist propaganda innumerable small peasants preferred to
and persecution. As an answer to give up their independence and to avoid
Buddhist claims of superiority, Daoist the scourges of heavy taxation, forced
masters even developed the curious the- labour, and deportation by joining the
ory that the Buddha had been only a large estates of the nobility as serfs,
manifestation of Laozi, who had preached where they would get at least a minimum
to the Indians a debased form of Daoism, of protection. This process of tax eva-
which naturally should not be reintro- sion that consequently extended the
duced into China; this theme can be manorial system also stimulated the
traced in Buddhist and Daoist polemic growth of Buddhist monasteries as land-
literature from the 4th to the 13th owning institutions, peopled with both
century. monks and families of hereditary temple
serfs. By the beginning of the 6th cen-
Buddhism tury, the monasteries had become an
economic power of the first order, which,
 The Buddhist age of China began in the moreover, enjoyed special privileges
4th century. Several factors contributed (e.g., exemption from taxes). This,
to the extraordinary expansion and indeed, became a main source of tension
The Six Dynasties and the Sui Dynasty | 93

These giant Buddhist sculptures are located at Longmen Grottoes in the outskirts of Luoyang,
Henan province. The site features more than 110,000 Buddhist images and 2,800 inscribed
tablets. China Photos/Getty Images

between clergy and government and merged with the new Buddhist ideal of
occasionally led to anti-Buddhist move- the monastic life. Many large monaster-
ments and harsh restrictive measures ies thereby became centres of learning
imposed on Buddhism (446–452 and and culture and so became even more
again in 574–578). attractive to members of minor gentry
The monastic life attracted many families, for whom the higher posts in
members of the gentry as well. In these government in any event would be unat-
times of turmoil, the official career was tainable. Buddhist institutions offered a
beset with dangers, and the monastery kind of “internal democracy”—a fact of
offered a hiding place to literati who tried great social importance in the history of
to keep clear of the intrigues and feuds of class-ridden medieval China.
higher official circles; thus, the ancient Finally, Buddhism was patronized by
Chinese ideal of the retired scholar most of the barbarian rulers in the north.
94 | The History of China

At first they were attracted mainly by the Jiankang and in northern Zhejiang (the
pomp and magical power of Buddhist rit- Hangzhou region), this trend was further
ual. Later other motivations were added developed in the late 4th and the early
to this. Unwilling to rely too much on 5th century in other centres throughout
Chinese ministers, with their following of the middle and lower Yangtze basin. The
clan members and clients, they preferred highest flowering of this uniquely
to make use of Buddhist masters, who as “Chinese” type of Buddhism took place
unmarried individuals totally depended in the early 5th century.
on the ruler’s favour. Ideologically, In the north the climax of Buddhist
Buddhism was less “Chinese” than activity and imperial patronage occurred
Confucianism, especially in the north, under the Wei, especially after the
where the connections with Central Asia beginning of their policy of conscious
constantly reinforced its international Sinicization. The Tuoba court and the
and universalistic character. This pecu- great families vied with each other in
liar “Sino-barbarian” nature of northern building temples and granting land and
Buddhism, with its foreign preachers and money to the monasteries; the monu-
its huge translation projects, strongly mental cave temples at Yungang and
contrasts with the south, where Buddhism Longmen are lasting proof of this large-
in the 4th century was already fully scale imperial protection. There was
domesticated. also a dark side: in the north the Buddhist
Because of all these circumstances, clergy became closely tied with secular
the large-scale development of Chinese government, and the government’s lavish
Buddhism started only after the barbar- treatment of the temples was counter-
ian invasions of the early 4th century. In balanced by repeated attempts at
the 3rd century the picture basically was government control. It may also be noted
not any different from Han times—there that the north remained open to influ-
are indications that Buddhism was still ences brought by traveling monks from
largely a religion of foreigners on Chinese Central Asia, and an enormous body of
soil (apart from some activity involving Indian Buddhist texts of all schools and
the translation of Buddhist scriptures)— eras was translated.
but by the 4th century the situation was Little is known of the beginnings of
changing. At the southern Chinese court popular Buddhism. Among the masses
in Jiankang a clerical elite was forming of there was, to judge from Daoist materi-
Chinese monks and propagators of a als, an intense mingling of Buddhist and
completely Sinicized Buddhism, strongly popular Daoist notions and practices,
amalgamated with Xuanxue, and their such as communal festivals and the wor-
sophisticated creed was being spread ship of local Daoist and Buddhist saints.
among the southern gentry. Starting at At that level, simple devotionalism was
The Six Dynasties and the Sui Dynasty | 95

no doubt far more influential than the official at the Bei (Northern) Zhou court,
scriptural teachings. It is also possible a member of one of the powerful north-
that the oral recital of Buddhist scrip- western aristocratic families that had
tures (mainly edifying tales) had already taken service under the successive non-
inspired the development of vernacular Chinese royal houses in northern China
literature. In any event, the constant and had intermarried with the families of
amalgamation of Buddhism, Daoism, their foreign masters. In 577 the Bei Zhou
and the innumerable local cults whose had reunified northern China by con-
history dated to high antiquity contin- quering the rival northeastern dynasty of
ued for centuries, eventually producing Bei Qi. However, political life in the
an amorphous mass of creeds and prac- northern courts was extremely unstable,
tices collectively known as Chinese and the succession of an apparently
popular religion. deranged and irresponsible young
emperor to the Zhou throne in 578/579
The Sui dynasty set off a train of court intrigues, plots, and
murders. Wendi was able to install a child
The Sui dynasty (581–618), which reuni- as puppet emperor in 579 and seize the
fied China after nearly four centuries of throne for himself two years later.
political fragmentation during which the In control of all of northern China
north and south had developed in differ- and in command of formidable armies,
ent ways, played a part far more important he immediately set about establishing
than its short span would suggest. In the order within his frontiers. He built him-
same way that the Qin rulers of the 3rd self a grand new capital, Daxing, close to
century BC had unified China after the the site of the old Qin and Han capitals, a
Zhanguo (Warring States) period, so city erected quickly with a prodigal use of
the Sui brought China together again compulsory labour. This great city
and set up many institutions that were remained (later under the name
to be adopted by their successors, the Chang’an) the capital of the Sui and Tang
Tang. Like the Qin, however, the Sui over- dynasties and the principal seat of gov-
strained their resources and fell. And also ernment until the beginning of the 10th
as in the case of the Qin, traditional his- century.
tory has judged the Sui somewhat unfairly, Wendi also took quick action to pro-
stressing the harshness of the Sui regime tect the frontiers of his new state. China
and the megalomania of its second during the 6th century had a formidable
emperor and giving too little credit for its northern neighbour in the Turks (Tujue),
many positive achievements. who controlled the steppe from the bor-
Wendi (reigned 581–604), the founder ders of Manchuria to the frontiers of the
of the Sui dynasty, was a high-ranking Byzantine and Sāsānian empires. At the
96 | The History of China

time of Wendi’s seizure of power, the and established a pattern of government

Turks were splitting into two great that survived into the Tang dynasty and
empires, an eastern one dominating the beyond. A hardworking administrator, he
Chinese northern frontier from Manchuria employed a number of extremely able
to Gansu and a western one stretching in ministers who combined skill in practical
a vast arc north of the Tarim Basin into statecraft with a flexible approach to ide-
Central Asia. Wendi encouraged this split ological problems. They revived the
by supporting the khan (ruler) of the Confucian state rituals to win favour with
western Turks, Tardu. Throughout his the literati and to establish a link with the
reign Wendi also pursued a policy of empire of the Han, and, at the same time,
encouraging factional strife among the they fostered Buddhism, the dominant
eastern Turks. At the same time, he religion of the south, attempting to estab-
strengthened his defenses in the north by lish the emperor’s image as an ideal
repairing the Great Wall. In the northwest Buddhist saint-king.
in the area around the Koko Nor (Qinghai Wendi’s lasting success, however,
Hu; “Blue Lake”), he defeated the Tuyuhun was in practical politics and institutional
people, who from time to time raided the reforms. In the last days of the Bei Zhou,
border territories. he had been responsible for a revision of
By the late 580s Wendi’s state was the laws, and one of his first acts on
stable and secure enough for him to take becoming emperor was to promulgate a
the final step toward reunifying the whole penal code, the New Code of 581. In 583
country. In 587 he dethroned the emperor his ministers compiled a revised code,
of the Hou (Later) Liang, the state that the Kaihuang code, and administrative
had ruled the middle Yangtze valley as a statutes. These were far simpler than the
puppet of the Bei Zhou since 555. In 589 laws of the Bei Zhou and were more
he overwhelmed the last southern lenient. Considerable pains were taken to
dynasty, the Chen, which had put up only ensure that local officials studied and
token resistance. Several rebellions enforced the new laws. Toward the end of
against the Sui regime subsequently Wendi’s reign, when neo-Legalist politi-
broke out in the south, but these were cal advisers gained ascendancy at court,
easily quelled. Wendi now ruled over a the application of the laws became
firmly reunited empire. increasingly strict. The Kaihuang code
and statutes have not survived, but they
Wendi’s provided the pattern for the Tang code,
Institutional Reforms the most influential body of law in the
history of East Asia.
Wendi achieved much more than The central government under Wendi
strengthening and reunifying the empire. developed into a complex apparatus of
He provided it with uniform institutions ministries, boards, courts, and directorates.
The Six Dynasties and the Sui Dynasty | 97

The conduct of its personnel was super- during the 580s. It recorded the age, sta-
vised by another organ, the censorate. tus, and landed possessions of all the
The emperor presided over this appara- members of each household in the
tus, and all orders and legislation were empire, and, based on it, the land alloca-
issued in his name. He was assisted by tion system employed under the
the heads of the three central ministries successive northern dynasties since the
who acted as counselors on state affairs end of the 5th century was reimposed.
(yiguozheng). That system later provided The tax system also followed the old
the basic framework for the central gov- model of head taxes levied in grain and
ernment of the early Tang. silk at a uniform rate. The taxable age
Even more important, he carried out was raised, and the annual period of
a sweeping reform and rationalization of labour service to which all taxpayers
local government. The three-level system were liable was reduced.
of local administration inherited from Wendi’s government, in spite of his
Han times had been reduced to chaos frontier campaigns and vast construc-
during the 5th and 6th centuries by tion works, was economical and frugal.
excessive subdivision; there were innu- By the 590s he had accumulated great
merable local districts, some of them reserves, and, when the Chen territories
extremely small and dominated by single were incorporated into his empire, he
families. Wendi created a simplified was in a position to exempt the new pop-
structure in which a much reduced num- ulation from 10 years of taxes to help
ber of counties was directly subordinated ensure their loyalty.
to prefectures. He also rationalized the The military system likewise was
chaotic rural administrative units into a founded on that of the northern dynas-
uniform system of townships (xiang). ties, in which the imperial forces were
Appointments to the chief offices in pre- organized into militias. The soldiers
fectures and counties were now made by served regular annual turns of duty but
the central government rather than filled lived at home during the rest of the year
by members of local influential families, and were largely self-supporting. Many
as had been the practice. This reform troops were settled in military colonies
ensured that local officials would be on the frontiers to make the garrisons
agents of the central government. It also self-sufficient. Only when there was a
integrated local officials into the normal campaign did the costs of the military
pattern of bureaucratic promotion and in establishment soar.
time produced a more homogeneous
civil service. Integration of the South
Since the registration of population
had fallen into chaos under the Bei Zhou, The second Sui emperor, Yangdi (reigned
a careful new census was carried out 604–617/618), has been depicted as a
98 | The History of China

supreme example of arrogance, extrava- curriculum, as a means of drawing into

gance, and personal depravity who the bureaucracy scholars from the south-
squandered his patrimony in megaloma- ern and northeastern elites who had
niac construction projects and unwise preserved traditions of Confucian learn-
military adventures. This mythical ing. Hitherto, the court had been
Yangdi was to a large extent the product dominated by the generally less culti-
of the hostile record written of his reign vated aristocratic families of mixed
shortly after his death. His reign began ancestry from northwestern China.
well enough, continuing the trends begun Yangdi also attempted to weaken the
under Wendi; a further revision of the law predominance of the northwest by build-
code that generally reduced penalties ing a second great capital city at Luoyang,
was carried out in 607. on the border of the eastern plains. This
Yangdi’s principal achievement was capital was not only distant from the
the integration of the south more firmly home territories of the northwestern aris-
into a unified China. There is little evi- tocrats but also easily provisioned from
dence that the south was ever completely the rich farmlands of Hebei and Henan.
brought into line with all the administra- The new city was constructed in a great
tive practices of the north; the land hurry, employing vast numbers of labour-
allocation system seems unlikely to have ers both in building and in transporting
been enforced there, and it is probable the timber and other materials required.
that the registration of the population, Yangdi also built new palaces and an
the essential foundation for the whole fis- immense imperial park, again with a
cal and military system, was only prodigal use of labour.
incompletely carried out in the old Chen Another grandiose plan aimed at uni-
territories. However, Yangdi himself was fying the empire was to develop still
personally heavily involved with the further the canal system his father had
south. Married to a princess from the begun in the metropolitan region and to
southern state of Liang, he had spent 591– construct a great waterway, the Bian
600 as viceroy for the southern territories; Canal, linking Luoyang with the Huai
their successful integration into the Sui River and with the southern capital,
empire after the initial wave of risings Jiangdu (present-day Yangzhou), on the
was largely because of his administration Yangtze. Much of this route followed
and the generally clement policies existing rivers and ancient canals, but it
employed in the former Chen territories. was still an immense undertaking that
His identification with the southern employed masses of forced labourers
interest was one of the reasons he began working under appalling conditions.
establishing an examination system, In 605 the canal system was opened
based upon the Confucian Classical between the capital at Luoyang and the
The Six Dynasties and the Sui Dynasty | 99

Traditional housing in Wuzhen township, Tongxiang city, Zhejiang province. Wuzhen is a

picturesque town on the Grand Canal with a history dating back more than 1,300 years. China
Photos/Getty Images

Yangtze, and in 610 it was extended south northern frontier. The construction of
of the Yangtze to Hangzhou as part of a these waterways was inordinately expen-
general effort to rehabilitate and lengthen sive, caused terrible suffering, and left a
the Grand Canal. At the same time, in legacy of widespread social unrest, but in
preparation for campaigns in Manchuria the long term the transportation system
and on the Korean frontier, another great was to be a most important factor for
canal was built northward from Luoyang maintaining a unified empire. Further
to the vicinity of modern Beijing. By 611 hardship was caused by the mass levies
the entire eastern plain had a canal sys- of labour required to rebuild and
tem linking the major river systems of strengthen the Great Wall in Shanxi in
northern China and providing a trunk 607 and 608 as a precaution against the
route from the Yangtze delta to the resurgent eastern Turks.
100 | The History of China

Foreign Affairs garrisons in Central Asia and established

under Yangdi control over the states of the Tarim Basin.
The eastern Turks had remained on good
In addition to these farsighted construc- terms with the Sui, their khans being
tion works, Yangdi also pursued an active married to Chinese princesses. In 613 Pei
foreign policy. An expedition to the south Ju, Yangdi’s principal agent in dealing
established sovereignty over the old with the foreign states of the north,
Chinese settlement in Tongking and over attempted unsuccessfully to dethrone
the Champa state of Lin-yi in central the eastern Turkish khan and split up his
Nam Viet (present-day Vietnam). Several khanate. Relations with the Turks rapidly
expeditions were sent to Taiwan, and deteriorated, and in the last years of his
relations with Japan were opened. reign Yangdi had to contend with a hos-
Tuyuhun people were driven out of tile and extremely powerful neighbour.
Gansu and Qinghai, and Sui colonies His most costly venture was a series
were established along the great western of campaigns in Korea. At that time Korea
trade routes. The rulers of the various was divided into three kingdoms, of
petty local states of Central Asia and the which the northern one, Koguryŏ, was the
king of Gaochang (Turfan) became tribu- most important and powerful. It was hos-
taries. A prosperous trade with Central tile to the Chinese and refused to pay
Asia and the West emerged. homage to Yangdi. Yangdi made careful
The principal foreign threat was still preparations for a punitive campaign on
posed by the Turks. By the early 7th cen- a grand scale, including construction of
tury, these peoples had been completely the Yongjiqu Canal from Luoyang to
split into the eastern Turks, who occu- Beijing. In 611 the canal was completed; a
pied most of the Chinese northern great army and masses of supplies were
frontier, and the immensely powerful collected, but terrible floods in Hebei
western Turks, whose dominions delayed the campaign.
stretched westward to the north of the During 612, 613, and 614 Yangdi
Tarim Basin as far as Sāsānian Persia and campaigned against the Koreans. The
Afghanistan. During the early part of first two campaigns were unsuccessful
Yangdi’s reign, the western Turks, whose and were accompanied by the outbreak
ruler, Chuluo, was half-Chinese, were on of many minor rebellions in Shandong
good terms with the Sui. In 610, however, and southern Hebei. The severe repres-
Yangdi supported a rival, Shegui, who sion that followed led to outbreaks of
drove out Chuluo. The latter took service, disorder throughout the empire. In 614
with an army of 10,000 followers, at yet another army was sent into Korea
Yangdi’s court. When Sui power began and threatened the capital at P’yŏngyang,
to wane after 612, the western Turks but it had to withdraw without a deci-
under Shegui gradually replaced the Sui sive victory. These futile campaigns
The Six Dynasties and the Sui Dynasty | 101

distracted Yangdi’s attention from the members of his entourage at Jiangdu.

increasingly vital internal problems of However, by 617 the real powers in China
his empire, involved an immense loss had become the various local rebels: Li Mi
of life and matériel, and caused terrible in the area around Luoyang, Dou Jiande
hardships among the civilian population. in the northeast, Xue Ju in the far north-
They left the Sui demoralized, militarily west, and Li Yuan (who remained
crippled, and financially ruined. nominally loyal but had established a
At that point, Yangdi decided to local position of great power) in Shanxi.
secure his relations with his northern At the beginning of 617, Li Yuan inflicted
neighbours. His envoy, Pei Ju, had con- a great defeat on the eastern Turks and
tinued to intrigue against the eastern thus consolidated his local power in the
Turkish khan, in spite of the fact that the impregnable mountainous area around
Sui were no longer in a position of Taiyuan. In the summer of 617 he raised
strength. When in the summer of 615 an army and marched on the capital with
Yangdi went to inspect the defenses of the aid of the Turks and other local forces;
the Great Wall, he was surrounded and Chang’an fell at year’s end. Xue Ju’s north-
besieged by the Turks at Yanmen; he was western rebels were crushed, and the
rescued only after a month of peril. armies of Li Yuan occupied Sichuan and
Rebellions and uprisings soon broke the Han River valley. A Sui prince, Gongdi,
out in every region of the empire. Late in was enthroned as “emperor” in 617, while
616 Yangdi decided to withdraw to his Yangdi was designated “retired emperor.”
southern capital of Jiangdu, and much of In the summer of 618, after Yangdi’s death,
northern China was divided among rebel Li Yuan (known by his temple name,
regimes contending with one another for Gaozu) deposed his puppet prince and
the succession to the empire. Yangdi proclaimed himself emperor of a new
remained nominally emperor until the dynasty, the Tang, which was to remain in
spring of 618, when he was murdered by power for nearly three centuries.
The Tang Dynasty

EaRLy TaNg (618–626)

When Gaozu became emperor (reigned 618–626), he was still

only one among the contenders for control of the empire of
the Sui. It was several years before the empire was entirely
pacified. After the suppression of Xue Ju and the pacification
of the northwest, the Tang had to contend with four principal
rival forces: the Sui remnants commanded by Wang Shichong
at Luoyang, the rebel Li Mi in Henan, the rebel Dou Jiande in
Hebei, and Yuwen Huaji, who had assassinated the previous
Sui emperor Yangdi and now led the remnants of the Sui’s
southern armies. Wang Shichong set up a grandson of Yangdi
at Luoyang as the new Sui emperor. Yuwen Huaji led his
armies to attack Luoyang, and Wang Shichong persuaded Li
Mi to return to his allegiance with the Sui and help him fight
Yuwen Huaji. Li Mi defeated Yuwen Huaji’s armies but seri-
ously depleted his own forces. Wang Shichong, seeing the
chance to dispose of his most immediate rival, took over
Luoyang and routed Li Mi’s forces. Li Mi fled to Chang’an and
submitted to the Tang. In the spring of 619 Wang Shichong
deposed the puppet Sui prince at Luoyang and proclaimed
himself emperor.
The Tang armies gradually forced him to give ground in
Henan, and by 621 Gaozu’s son Li Shimin was besieging
him in Luoyang. At that time Wang Shichong attempted to
form an alliance with Dou Jiande, the most powerful of all
The Tang Dynasty | 103

Ceramic tomb figure decorated in characteristic coloured glazes, Tang dynasty (618–907); in
the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Height 71 cm. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert
Museum, London

the Sui rebels, who controlled much of spring of 621 Li Shimin attacked his
Hebei and who had completed the defeat army before it could lift the siege, routed
of Yuwen Huaji’s forces in 619. He held it, and captured Dou. Wang then capitu-
the key area of southern Hebei, where he lated. The Tang had thus disposed of its
had successfully resisted both the Tang two most powerful rivals and extended
armies and the forces of Wang and Li its control over most of the eastern plain,
Shimin. Dou now agreed to come to the the most populous and prosperous
aid of the beleaguered Wang, but in the region of China.
104 | The History of China

This was not the end of resistance to defeated near present-day Nanjing at the
the Tang conquest. Most of the surren- end of 621. As had been the case with
dered rebel forces had been treated Xiao Xian’s dominions, the southeast was
leniently, and their leaders were often incorporated into the Tang empire with a
confirmed in office or given posts in the minimum of fighting and resistance. A
Tang administration. Dou and Wang, last southern rebellion by Fu Gongtuo, a
however, were dealt with severely, Dou general who set up an independent
being executed and Wang murdered on regime at Danyang (Nanjing) in 624, was
his way into exile. At the end of 621 Dou’s speedily suppressed. After a decade of
partisans in the northeast again rebelled war and disorder, the empire was com-
under Liu Heita and recaptured most of pletely pacified and unified under the
the northeast. He was finally defeated by Tang house.
a Tang army under the crown prince
Jiancheng at the beginning of 623. The Administration of the State
prolonged resistance in Hebei and the
comparatively harsh Tang conquest of The Tang unification had been far more
the region were the beginning of resis- prolonged and bloody than the Sui con-
tance and hostility in the northeast that quest. That the Tang regime lasted for
continued to some degree throughout nearly three centuries rather than three
the Tang dynasty. decades, as with the Sui, was largely the
Resistance was not confined to the result of the system of government
northeast. Liu Wuzhou in far northern imposed on the conquered territories.
Shanxi, who had been a constant threat The emperor Gaozu’s role in the Tang
since 619, was finally defeated and killed conquest was understated in the tradi-
by his former Turkish allies in 622. In the tional histories compiled under his
south during the confusion at the end of successor Taizong (Li Shimin; reigned
the Sui, Xiao Xian had set himself up as 626–649), which portrayed Taizong as
emperor of Liang, controlling the central the prime mover in the establishment of
Yangtze region, Jiangxi, Guangdong, and the dynasty. Taizong certainly played a
Annam (Vietnam). The Tang army major role in the campaigns, but Gaozu
descended the Yangtze from Sichuan was no figurehead. Not only did he
with a great fleet and defeated Xiao direct the many complex military opera-
Xian’s forces in two crucial naval battles. tions, but he also established the basic
In 621 Xiao Xian surrendered to the Tang, institutions of the Tang state, which
who thus gained control of the central proved practicable not only for a rapidly
Yangtze and the far south. The southeast developing Chinese society but also for
was occupied by another rebel, Li Zitong, the first centralized states in societies
based in Zhejiang. He too was decisively as diverse as those of Japan, Korea,
The Tang Dynasty | 105

Vietnam, and the southwestern kingdom closely resembled that under the Sui. The
of Nanzhao. merging of the local officials into the
The structure of the new central main bureaucracy, however, took time;
administration resembled that of Wendi’s ambitious men still looked upon local
time, with its ministries, boards, courts, posts as “exile” from the main current of
and directorates. There was no radical official promotion at the capital. Until
change in the dominant group at court. well into the 8th century many local offi-
Most of the highest ranks in the bureau- cials continued to serve for long terms,
cracy were filled by former Sui officials, and the ideal of a regular circulation of
many of whom had been the new emper- officials prevailed only gradually.
or’s colleagues when he was governor in Local government in early Tang
Taiyuan, or by descendants of officials of times had a considerable degree of inde-
the Bei Zhou, Bei Qi, or Sui or of the royal pendence, but each prefecture was in
houses of the northern and southern direct contact with the central ministries.
dynasties. The Tang were related by mar- In the spheres of activity that the admin-
riage to the Sui royal house, and a majority istration regarded as crucial—registration,
of the chief ministers were related by land allocation, tax collection, conscrip-
marriage to either the Tang or Sui impe- tion of men for the army and for corvée
rial family. The emperor’s court was duty, and maintenance of law and order—
composed primarily of men of similar prefects and county magistrates were
social origins. At that level the Tang in its expected to follow centrally codified law
early years, like the Sui before it, contin- and procedure. They were, however, per-
ued the pattern of predominantly mitted to interpret the law to suit local
aristocratic rule that had dominated the conditions. Local influences remained
history of the northern courts. strong in the prefectures and counties.
Gaozu also continued the pattern of Most of the personnel in these divisions
local administration established under were local men, many of them members
the Sui and maintained the strict control of families of petty functionaries.
exercised by the central government over
provincial appointments. In the first Fiscal and Legal System
years after the Tang conquest, many pre-
fectures and counties were fragmented to Gaozu had inherited a bankrupt state,
provide offices for surrendered rebel and most of his measures were aimed at
leaders, surrendered Sui officials, and fol- simple and cheap administration. His
lowers of the emperor. But these new bureaucracy was small, at both the cen-
local districts were gradually amalgam- tral and local levels. The expenses of
ated and reduced in number, and by the government were largely met by land
630s the pattern of local administration endowments attached to each office, the
106 | The History of China

rents from which paid office expenses paid a head tax in grain and cloth and
and salaries, by interest on funds of was liable to 20 days of work for the cen-
money allocated for similar purposes, tral government (normally commuted
and by services of taxpayers who per- into a payment in cloth) and to a further
formed many of the routine tasks of period of work for the local authorities.
government as special duties, being Revenues were collected exclusively from
exempted from tax in return. the rural population—the trade sector
Land distribution followed the equal- and the urban communities being
allocation system used under the exempt—and the system bore more heav-
northern dynasties and the Sui. Every ily on the poor, since it ignored the
taxable male was entitled to a grant of taxpayer’s economic status.
land—part of which was to be returned The Sui had made a somewhat desul-
when he ceased to be a taxpayer at age 60 tory attempt to provide China with a
and part of which was hereditary. The dis- unified coinage. Gaozu set up mints and
posal of landed property was hedged began the production of a good copper
around with restrictive conditions. Great currency that remained standard
landed estates were limited to members throughout the Tang era. But cash was in
of the imperial clan and powerful offi- short supply during most of the 7th cen-
cials, various state institutions, and the tury and had to be supplemented by
Buddhist foundations. Although some standard-sized lengths of silk.
land was hereditary, and more and more Counterfeiting was rife, particularly in
passed into the hereditary category with the Yangtze valley, where the southern
the passage of time, the lack of primogen- dynasties had supported a more highly
iture meant that landholdings were monetized economy and where the gov-
fragmented among all the sons in each ernments had exploited commerce as a
generation and thus tended to be small. It source of revenue.
is unlikely that the system was ever Gaozu also undertook a new codifi-
enforced to the letter in any region, and it cation of all centralized law, completed
was probably never enforced at all in the in 624. It comprised a code that embod-
south. But as a legal system governing ied what were considered basic,
registration of landed property and unchanging normative rules, prescrib-
restricting its disposal, it remained in ing fixed penalties for defined offenses;
force until An Lushan’s rebellion in the statutes, comprising the general body of
8th century. universally applicable administrative
The tax system based on this land law; regulations, or codified legislation
allocation system was also much the supplementary to the code and statutes;
same as that under the Sui and preceding and ordinances, detailed procedural laws
dynasties. Every adult male annually supplementing the statutes and issued
The Tang Dynasty | 107

by the departments of the central minis- the throne in 626 and is known by his
tries. Under the early Tang this body of temple name, Taizong.
codified law was revised every 20 years
or so. The systematic effort to maintain The “Era of Good
a universally applicable codification of Government”
law and administrative practice was
essential to the uniform system of The reign of Taizong (626–649), known
administration that the Tang succeeded traditionally as the “era of good govern-
in imposing throughout its diverse ment of Zhenguan,” was not notable for
empire. The Tang code proved remark- innovations in administration. Generally,
ably durable: it was still considered his policies developed and refined
authoritative as late as the 14th century those of his father’s reign. The distinc-
and was used as a model by the Ming. It tive element was the atmosphere of his
was also adopted, with appropriate mod- administration and the close personal
ifications, in Japan in the early 8th interplay between the sovereign and his
century and by the Koreans and the unusually able team of Confucian advis-
Vietnamese at a much later date. ers. It approached the Confucian ideal of
Gaozu thus laid down, at the outset a strong, able, energetic, yet fundamen-
of the 7th century, institutions that sur- tally moral king seeking and accepting
vived until the mid-8th century. These the advice of wise and capable ministers,
provided strong central control, a high advice that was basically ethical rather
level of administrative standardization, than technical. Some important changes
and highly economical administration. in political organization were begun dur-
ing his reign and were continued
The period of throughout the 7th century. The court
Tang power (626–755) remained almost exclusively the domain
of men of aristocratic birth. But Taizong
Two of Gaozu’s sons were rivals for the attempted to balance the regional groups
succession: the crown prince Jiancheng among the aristocracy so as to prevent
and Li Shimin, the general who had any single region from becoming domi-
played a large part in the wars of unifica- nant. They comprised the Guanlong
tion. Their rivalry, and the factional strife group from the northwest, the Daibei
it generated, reached a peak in 625–626, group from Shanxi, the Shandong group
when it appeared that Jiancheng was from Hebei, and the southern group from
likely to succeed. In a military coup, Li the Yangtze valley. The most powerful
Shimin murdered Jiancheng and another Hebei clans were excluded from high
of his brothers and forced his father to office, but Taizong employed members of
abdicate in his favour. He succeeded to each of the other groups and of the lesser
108 | The History of China

the Classics with a standard commentary

in 638. The schools at the capital were
mostly restricted to the sons of the nobil-
ity and of high-ranking officials. Other
examination candidates, however, came
from the local schools. The examinations
were in principle open to all, but they pro-
vided relatively few new entrants to the
bureaucracy. Most officials still entered
service by other means—hereditary privi-
lege as sons of officials of the upper ranks
or promotion from the clerical service or
the guards. The examinations demanded
a high level of education in the tradi-
tional curriculum and were largely used
as an alternative method of entry by
younger sons of the aristocracy and by
members of lesser families with a scholar-
official background. Moreover, personal
Taizong, detail of a portrait; in the recommendation, lobbying examiners,
National Palace Museum, Taipei. and often a personal interview by the
Courtesy of the National Palace emperor played a large part. Even in late
Museum, Taipei, Taiwan, Republic
Tang times, not more than 10 percent of
of China
officials were recruited by the examina-
tions. The main effect of the examination
northeastern aristocracy in high adminis- system in Tang times was to bring into
trative offices as well as in his consultative being a highly educated court elite within
group of scholars. the bureaucracy, to give members of
A second change was the use of the locally prominent clans access to the
examination system on a large scale. The upper levels of the bureaucracy, and in
Sui examinations had already been rees- the long term to break the monopoly of
tablished under Gaozu, who had also political power held by the upper aristoc-
revived the Sui system of high-level racy. Employing persons dependent for
schools at the capital. Under Taizong the their position on the emperor and the
schools were further expanded and new dynasty, rather than on birth and social
ones established. Measures were taken to standing, made it possible for the Tang
standardize their curriculum, notably emperors to establish their own power
completing an official orthodox edition of and independence.
The Tang Dynasty | 109

In the early years there was a great reign was a period of low prices and gen-
debate as to whether the Tang ought to eral prosperity.
reintroduce the feudal system used under Taizong was also successful in his
the Zhou and the Han, by which authority foreign policy. In 630 the eastern Turks
was delegated to members of the impe- were split by dissension among their
rial clan and powerful officials and leadership and by the rebellion of their
generals who were enfeoffed with heredi- subject peoples. Chinese forces invaded
tary territorial jurisdictions. Taizong their territories, totally defeated them,
eventually settled on a centralized form and captured their khan, and Taizong
of government through prefectures and was recognized as their supreme sover-
counties staffed by members of a unified eign, the “heavenly khan.” A large number
bureaucracy. The Tang retained a nobil- of the surrendered Turks were settled on
ity, but its “fiefs of maintenance” were the Chinese frontier, and many served in
merely lands whose revenues were ear- the Tang armies. A similar policy of
marked for its use and gave it no territorial encouraging internal dissension was
authority. later practiced against the western Turks,
Taizong continued his father’s eco- who split into two separate khanates for a
nomic policies, and government remained while. In 642–643 a new khan reestab-
comparatively simple and cheap. He lished a degree of unified control with
attempted to cut down the bureaucratic Chinese support and agreed to become a
establishment at the capital and drasti- tributary of the Chinese. To seal the alli-
cally reduced the number of local ance, Taizong married him to a Chinese
government divisions. The country was princess.
divided into 10 provinces, which were not The eclipse of Turkish power enabled
permanent administrative units but “cir- Taizong to extend his power over the var-
cuits” for occasional regional inspections ious small states of the Tarim Basin. By
of the local administrations; these tours the late 640s a Chinese military adminis-
were carried out by special commission- tration had extended westward even
ers, often members of the censorate, sent beyond the limits of present-day Xinjiang.
out from the capital. This gave the central To the north, in the region of the Orhon
government an additional means of River and to the north of the Ordos (Mu
maintaining standardized and efficient Us) Desert, the Tang armies defeated the
local administration. Measures to ensure Xueyantou (Syr Tardush), former vassals
tax relief for areas stricken by natural of the eastern Turks, who became Tang
disasters, and the establishment of relief vassals in 646. The Tuyuhun in the region
granaries to provide adequate reserves around Koko Nor caused considerable
against famine, helped to ensure the trouble in the early 630s. Taizong invaded
prosperity of the countryside. Taizong’s their territory in 634 and defeated them,
110 | The History of China

but they remained unsubdued and The court split into factions supporting
invaded Chinese territory several times. various candidates. The final choice, Li
The Chinese western dominions now Zhi, prince of Jin (reigned 649–683; tem-
extended farther than in the great days of ple name Gaozong) was a weak character,
the Han. Trade developed with the West, but he had the support of the most power-
with Central Asia, and with India. The ful figures at court.
Chinese court received embassies from
Sāsānian Persia and from the Byzantine Rise of the Empress Wuhou
Empire. The capital was thronged with
foreign merchants and foreign monks Gaozong was 21 years old when he
and contained a variety of non-Chinese ascended the throne. In his first years
communities. The great cities had he was dominated by the remaining great
Zoroastrian, Manichaean, and Nestorian statesmen of Taizong’s court, above all by
temples, along with the Buddhist monas- the emperor’s uncle Zhangsun Wuji.
teries that had been a part of the Chinese However, real power soon passed from
scene for centuries. Gaozong into the hands of the empress
Taizong’s only failure in foreign pol- Wuhou, one of the most remarkable
icy was in Korea. The northern state of women in Chinese history. Wuhou had
Koguryŏ had sent tribute regularly, but in been a low-ranking concubine of Taizong.
642 there was an internal coup; the new She was taken into Gaozong’s palace and,
ruler attacked Silla, another Tang vassal after a series of complex intrigues, man-
state in southern Korea. Taizong decided aged in 655 to have the legitimate
to invade Koguryŏ, against the advice of empress, Wang, deposed and herself
most of his ministers. The Tang armies, appointed in her place. The struggle
in alliance with the Khitan in Manchuria between the two was not simply a palace
and the two southern Korean states intrigue. Empress Wang, who was of
Paekche and Silla, invaded Koguryŏ in noble descent, had the backing of the old
645 but were forced to withdraw with northwestern aristocratic faction and of
heavy losses. Another inconclusive cam- the great ministers surviving from
paign was waged in 647, and the end of Taizong’s court. Wuhou came from a fam-
Taizong’s reign was spent in building a ily of lower standing from Taiyuan. Her
vast fleet and making costly preparations father had been one of Gaozu’s original
for a final expedition. supporters, her mother a member of the
Taizong’s last years were also marked Sui royal family. She seems to have been
by a decline in the firm grasp of the supported by the eastern aristocracy, by
emperor over politics at his court. In the the lesser gentry, and by the lower-rank-
640s a bitter struggle for the succession ing echelons of the bureaucracy.
developed when it became clear that the But her success was largely the result
designated heir was mentally unstable. of her skill in intrigue, her dominant
The Tang Dynasty | 111

personality, and her utter ruthlessness. the emperor took the new title of “heav-
The deposed empress and another impe- enly emperor.”
rial favourite were savagely murdered, The bureaucracy was rapidly inflated
and the next half century was marked by to a far-greater size than in Taizong’s
recurrent purges in which she hounded time, many of the new posts being filled
to death one group after another of real by candidates from the examination sys-
or imagined rivals. The good relationship tem who now began to attain the highest
between the emperor and his court, which offices and thus to encroach on what had
had made Taizong’s reign so successful, been the preserves of the aristocracy.
was speedily destroyed. Political life Another blow at the aristocracy was
became precarious and insecure, at the struck by the compilation in 659 of a new
mercy of the empress’s unpredictable genealogy of all the empire’s eminent
whims. The first victims were the elder clans, which ranked families according to
statesmen of Taizong’s reign, who were the official positions achieved by their
exiled, murdered, or driven to suicide in members rather than by their traditional
657–659. In 660 Gaozong suffered a social standing. Needless to say, the first
stroke. He remained in precarious health family of all was that of Wuhou. The lower
for the rest of his reign, and Wuhou took ranks of the bureaucracy, among whom
charge of the administration. the empress found her most-solid sup-
Although utterly unscrupulous in port, were encouraged by the creation of
politics, she backed up her intrigues with new posts, greater opportunities for
policies designed to consolidate her posi- advancement, and salary increases.
tion. In 657 Luoyang was made the second The Chinese were engaged in foreign
capital. The entire court and administra- wars throughout Gaozong’s reign. Until
tion were frequently transferred to 657 they waged continual war against the
Luoyang, thus removing the centre of western Turks, finally defeating them and
political power from the home region of placing their territories as far as the val-
the northwestern aristocracy. Ministries ley of the Amu Darya under a nominal
and court offices were duplicated, and Chinese protectorate in 659–661. The
Luoyang had to be equipped with all the Tang also waged repeated campaigns
costly public buildings needed for a capi- against Koguryŏ in the late 650s and the
tal. After Gaozong’s death, Wuhou took 660s. In 668 the Tang forces took
up permanent residence there. P’yŏngyang (the capital), and Koguryŏ
Gaozong and Wuhou were obsessed was also placed under a protectorate.
by symbolism and religion, with one However, by 676 rebellions had forced
favourite magician, holy man, or monk the Chinese to withdraw to southern
following another. State rituals were radi- Manchuria, and all of Korea became
cally changed. For symbolic reasons the increasingly dominated by the rapidly
names of all offices were altered, and expanding power of the southern Korean
112 | The History of China

state of Silla. The eastern Turks, who had agents and informers. Fear overshadowed
been settled along the northern border, the life of the court. The empress herself
rebelled in 679–681 and were quelled only became more and more obsessed with
after they had caused widespread destruc- religious symbolism. She manipulated
tion and had inflicted heavy losses on the Buddhist scripture to justify her becom-
Chinese forces. ing sovereign and in 688 erected a Ming
The most serious foreign threat in Tang (“Hall of Light”)—the symbolic
Gaozong’s reign was the emergence of a supreme shrine to heaven described in
new and powerful force to the west, the the Classics—a vast building put up with
Tibetans (Tubo), a people who had limitless extravagance. In 690 the
exerted constant pressure on the north- empress proclaimed that the dynasty had
ern border of Sichuan since the 630s. By been changed from Tang to Zhou. She
670 the Tibetans had driven the Tuyuhun became formally the empress in her own
from their homeland in the Koko Nor right, the only woman sovereign in
basin. The northwest had to be increas- China’s history. Ruizong, the imperial
ingly heavily fortified and garrisoned to heir, was given her surname, Wu; every-
guard against their repeated raids and body with the surname Wu in the empire
incursions. After a series of difficult cam- was exempted from taxation. Every pre-
paigns, they were finally checked in 679. fecture was ordered to set up a temple in
When Gaozong died in 683, he was which the monks were to expound the
succeeded by the young Zhongzong, but notion that the empress was an incarna-
Wuhou was made empress dowager and tion of Buddha. Luoyang became the
immediately took control over the central “holy capital,” and the state cult was cer-
administration. Within less than a year emoniously transferred there from
she had deposed Zhongzong, who had Chang’an. The remnants of the Tang
shown unexpected signs of indepen- royal family who had not been murdered
dence, and replaced him with another or banished were immured in the depths
son and puppet emperor, Ruizong, who of the palace.
was kept secluded in the Inner Palace Destructive and demoralizing as the
while Wuhou held court and exercised effects of her policies must have been at
the duties of sovereign. the capital and at court, there is little evi-
In 684 disaffected members of the dence of any general deterioration of
ruling class under Xu Jingye raised a administration in the empire. By 690 the
serious rebellion at Yangzhou in the worst excesses of her regime were past.
south, but this was speedily put down. In the years after she had proclaimed her-
The empress instituted a reign of terror self empress, she retained the services
among the members of the Tang royal and loyalty of a number of distinguished
family and officials, employing armies of officials. The court was still unstable,
The Tang Dynasty | 113

however, with unending changes of min- oppression and heavy taxation in the
isters, and the empress remained Hebei and Shandong area. This migra-
susceptible to the influence of a series of tion of peasants, who settled as
worthless favourites. After 700 she gradu- unregistered squatters on vacant land in
ally began to lose her grip on affairs. central and southern China and no lon-
The external affairs of the empire had ger paid taxes, was accelerated by the
meanwhile taken a turn for the worse. Khitan invasion in the late 690s. Attempts
The Tibetans renewed their warfare on to stop it were ineffectual.
the frontier. In 696 the Khitan in By 705 the empress, who was now 80
Manchuria rebelled against their Chinese years old, had allowed control of events
governor and overran part of Hebei. The to slip from her fingers. The bureaucratic
Chinese drove them out, with Turkish faction at court, tired of the excesses of
aid, in 697. The Chinese reoccupied her latest favourites, forced her to abdi-
Hebei under a member of the empress’s cate in favour of Zhongzong. The Tang
family and carried out brutal reprisals was restored.
against the population. In 698 the Turks Zhongzong, however, also had a dom-
in their turn invaded Hebei and were ineering wife, the empress Wei, who
driven off only by an army under the initiated a regime of utter corruption at
nominal command of the deposed court, openly selling offices. When the
emperor Zhongzong, who had been emperor died in 710, probably poisoned
renamed heir apparent in place of by her, she tried to establish herself as
Ruizong. The military crisis had forced ruler as Wuhou had done before her. But
the empress to abandon any plan to keep Li Longji, the future Xuanzong, with the
the succession within her own family. aid of Wuhou’s formidable daughter,
The expenses of the empire made it Taiping, and of the palace army, suc-
necessary to impose new taxes. These ceeded in restoring his father, Ruizong
took the form of a household levy—a (the brother of Zhongzong), to the throne.
graduated tax based on a property assess- The princess now attempted to dominate
ment on everyone from the nobility down, her brother, the emperor, and there fol-
including the urban population—and a lowed a struggle for power between her
land levy collected on an acreage basis. and the heir apparent. In 712 Ruizong
These new taxes were to be assessed ceded the throne to Xuanzong but
based on productivity or wealth, rather retained in his own hands control over
than a uniform per capita levy. Some the most crucial areas of government. A
tried to evade taxes by illegally subdivid- second coup, in 713, placed Xuanzong
ing their households to reduce their completely in charge and resulted in
liabilities. There was a large-scale migra- Ruizong’s retirement and the princess
tion of peasant families fleeing from Taiping’s suicide.
114 | The History of China

Prosperity and Progress tended to polarize politics, a polarization

that was sharpened by the emperor’s
Xuanzong’s reign (712–756) was the high employment of a series of aristocratic
point of the Tang dynasty. It was an era specialists who reformed the empire’s
of wealth and prosperity that was accom- finances from 720 onward, often in the
panied by institutional progress and a teeth of bureaucratic opposition.
flowering of the arts. Political life was After 720 a large-scale re-registration
at first dominated by the bureaucrats of the population greatly increased the
recruited through the examination system number of taxpayers and restored state
who had staffed the central government control over vast numbers of unregis-
under Wuhou. But a gradual revival of tered families. The new household and
the power of the great aristocratic clans land taxes were expanded. In the 730s

Minghuang’s Journey to Shu, ink and colour on silk hanging scroll, attributed to Li Zhaodao,
Tang-dynasty style, possibly a 10th– or 11th-century copy of an 8th-century original; in the
National Palace Museum, Taipei. National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan
The Tang Dynasty | 115

the canal system, which had been disasters of Wuhou’s time and who had
allowed to fall into neglect under Wuhou also excluded members of the royal family
and her successors, was repaired and from politics, faced a series of succession
reorganized so that the administration plots. In 745 he fell deeply under the influ-
could transport large stocks of grain ence of a new favourite, the imperial
from the Yangtze region to the capital concubine Yang Guifei. In 751–752 one of
and to the armies on the northern fron- her relatives, Yang Guozhong, thanks to
tiers. The south was at last financially her influence with the emperor, rapidly
integrated with the north. By the 740s the rose to rival Li Linfu for supreme power.
government had accumulated enormous After Li’s death in 752 Yang Guozhong
reserves of grain and wealth. The tax and dominated the court. However, he had
accounting systems were simplified, and neither Li’s great political ability nor his
taxes and labour services were reduced. experience and skill in handling people.
Some important institutional changes
accompanied these reforms. The land reg- Military Reorganization
istration, reorganization of transport, and
coinage reform were administered by spe- The most important new development in
cially appointed commissions holding Xuanzong’s reign was the growth in the
extraordinary powers, including the power of the military commanders.
authority to recruit their own staff. These During Gaozong’s reign the old militia
commissions were mostly headed by cen- system had proved inadequate for fron-
sors, and they and the censorate became tier defense and had been supplemented
centres of aristocratic power. The exis- by the institution of permanent armies
tence of these new offices reduced the and garrison forces quartered in strategic
influence of the regular ministries, areas on the frontiers. These armies were
enabling the emperor and his aristocratic made up of long-service veterans, many
advisers to circumvent the normal chan- of them non-Chinese cavalry troops, set-
nels and procedures of administration. tled permanently in military colonies.
After 736 the political dominance of Although these armies were adequate for
the aristocracy was firmly reestablished. small-scale operations, for a major cam-
An aristocratic chief minister, Li Linfu, paign an expeditionary army and a
became a virtual dictator, his powers headquarters staff had to be specially
increasing as Xuanzong in his later years organized and reinforcements sent in by
withdrew from active affairs into the plea- the central government. This cumber-
sures of palace life and the study of some system was totally unsuitable for
Daoism. In the latter part of his reign, dealing with the highly mobile nomadic
Xuanzong, who had previously strictly horsemen on the northern frontiers.
circumscribed the power of the palace At the beginning of Xuanzong’s reign,
women to avoid a recurrence of the the Turks again threatened to become a
116 | The History of China

major power, rivaling China in Central fighting broke out again, and the Tibetans
Asia and along the borders. Kapghan began to turn their attention to the Tang
(Mochuo), the Turkish khan who had territories in the Tarim Basin. Desultory
invaded Hebei in the aftermath of the fighting continued on the border of
Khitan invasion in the time of Wuhou and Gansu until the end of Xuanzong’s reign.
had attacked the Chinese northwest at the From 752 onward the Tibetans acquired a
end of her reign, turned his attention new ally in the Nanzhao state in Yunnan,
northward. By 711 he controlled the steppe which enabled them to exert a continuous
from the Chinese frontier to Transoxiana threat along the entire western frontier.
and appeared likely to develop a new uni- In the face of these threats, Xuanzong
fied Turkish empire. When he was organized the northern and northwestern
murdered in 716, his flimsy empire col- frontiers from Manchuria to Sichuan into
lapsed. His successor, Bilge (Pijia), tried to a series of strategic commands or mili-
make peace with the Chinese in 718, but tary provinces under military governors
Xuanzong preferred to try to destroy his who were given command over all the
power by an alliance with the southwest- forces in a large region. This system
ern Basmil Turks and with the Khitan in developed gradually and was formalized
Manchuria. Bilge, however, crushed the in 737 under Li Linfu. The frontier com-
Basmil and attacked Gansu in 720. manders controlled enormous numbers
Peaceful relations were established in 721– of troops: nearly 200,000 were stationed
722. Bilge’s death in 734 precipitated the in the northwest and Central Asia and
end of Turkish power. A struggle among more than 100,000 in the northeast; there
the various Turkish subject tribes followed, were well in excess of 500,000 in all. The
from which the Uighurs emerged as vic- military governors soon began to exer-
tors. In 744 they established a powerful cise some functions of civil government.
empire that was to remain the dominant In the 740s a non-Chinese general of
force on China’s northern border until 840. Sogdian and Turkish origin, An Lushan,
Unlike the Turks, however, the Uighurs became military governor first of one and
pursued a consistent policy of alliance finally of all three of the northeastern
with the Tang. On several occasions commands, with 160,000 troops under
Uighur aid, even though offered on harsh his orders. An Lushan had risen to power
terms, saved the dynasty from disaster. largely through the patronage of Li Linfu.
The Tibetans were the most danger- When Li died, An became a rival of Yang
ous foe during Xuanzong’s reign, invading Guozhong. As Yang Guozhong devel-
the northwest annually from 714 on. In oped more and more of a personal
727–729 the Chinese undertook large- stranglehold over the administration at
scale warfare against them, and in 730 a the capital, An Lushan steadily built up
settlement was concluded. But in the 730s his military forces in the northeast. The
The Tang Dynasty | 117

armed confrontation that followed nearly rebellion had spectacular success. It

destroyed the dynasty. swept through the northeastern province
During the 750s there was a steady of Hebei, captured the eastern capital,
reversal of Tang military fortunes. In the Luoyang, early in 756, and took the main
far west the overextended imperial Tang capital, Chang’an, in July of the
armies had been defeated by the Arabs in same year. The emperor fled to Sichuan,
751 on the Talas River. In the southwest a and on the road his consort Yang Guifei
campaign against the new state of and other members of the Yang faction
Nanzhao had led to the almost total who had dominated his court were killed.
destruction of an army of 50,000 men. In Shortly afterward the heir apparent, who
the northeast the Chinese had lost their had retreated to Lingwu in the northwest,
grip on the Manchuria-Korea border with himself usurped the throne. The new
the emergence of the new state of Parhae emperor, Suzong (reigned 756–762), was
in place of Koguryŏ, and the Khitan and faced with a desperately difficult military
Xi peoples in Manchuria constantly situation. The rebel armies controlled the
caused border problems. The Tibetans in capital and most of Hebei and Henan. In
the northwest were kept in check only by the last days of his reign, Xuanzong had
an enormously expensive military pres- divided the empire into five areas, each of
ence. The principal military forces were which was to be the fief of one of the
designed essentially for frontier defense. imperial princes. Prince Yong, who was
Thus, the end of Xuanzong’s reign given control of the southeast, was the
was a time when the state was in a highly only one to take up his command; during
unstable condition. The central govern- 757 he attempted to set himself up as the
ment was dangerously dependent on a independent ruler of the crucially impor-
small group of men operating outside the tant economic heart of the empire in the
regular institutional framework, and an Huai and Yangtze valleys but was mur-
overwhelming preponderance of military dered by one of his generals.
power was in the hands of potentially An Lushan himself was murdered by
rebellious commanders on the frontiers, a subordinate early in 757, but the rebel-
against whom the emperor could put into lion was continued, first by his son and
the field only a token force of his own and then by one of his generals, Shi Siming,
the troops of those commanders who and his son Shi Chaoyi; it was not finally
remained loyal. suppressed until 763. The rebellion had
caused great destruction and hardship,
Late Tang (755–907) particularly in Henan. The final victory
was made possible partly by the employ-
The rebellion of An Lushan in 755 marked ment of Uighur mercenaries, whose
the beginning of a new period. At first the insatiable demands remained a drain on
118 | The History of China

the treasury well into the 770s, partly by purposes, the northeastern provinces
the failure of the rebel leadership after remained semi-independent throughout
the death of the able Shi Siming, and the later part of the Tang era. They had
partly by the policy of clemency adopted been among the most populous and pro-
toward the rebels after the decisive cam- ductive parts of the empire, and their
paign in Henan in 762. The need for a semi-independence was not only a threat
speedy settlement was made more urgent to the stability of the central government
by the growing threat of the Tibetans in but also represented a huge loss of reve-
the northwest. The latter, allied with the nue and potential manpower.
Nanzhao kingdom in Yunnan, had Provincial separatism also became a
exerted continual pressure on the west- problem elsewhere. With the general
ern frontier and in 763 occupied the breakdown of the machinery of central
whole of present-day Gansu. Late in 763 administration after 756, many of the
they actually took and looted the capital. functions of government were delegated
They continued to occupy the Chinese to local administrations. The whole
northwest until well into the 9th century. empire was now divided into provinces
Their occupation of Gansu signaled the (dao), which formed an upper tier of rou-
end of Chinese control of the region. tine administration. Their governors had
wide powers over subordinate prefec-
Provincial Separatism tures and counties. The new provincial
governments were of two main types.
The post-rebellion settlement not only In northern China (apart from the
pardoned several of the most powerful semiautonomous provinces of the north-
rebel generals but also appointed them east, which were a special category) most
as imperial governors in command of the provincial governments were military,
areas they had surrendered. Hebei was their institutions closely modeled on
divided into four new provinces, each those set up on the northern frontier
under surrendered rebels, while under Xuanzong. The military presence
Shandong became the province of An was strongest in the small frontier-garri-
Lushan’s former garrison army from son provinces that protected the capital,
Pinglu in Manchuria, which had held an Chang’an, from the Tibetans in Gansu
ambivalent position during the fighting. and in the belt of small, heavily garri-
The central government held little power soned provinces in Henan that protected
within these provinces. The leadership China—and the canal from the Huai and
was decided within each province, and Yangtze valleys, on which the central
the central government in its appoint- government depended for its supplies—
ments merely approved faits accomplis. from the semiautonomous provinces.
Succession to the leadership was fre- Military governments were also the rule
quently hereditary. For all practical in Sichuan, which continued to be
The Tang Dynasty | 119

menaced by the Tibetans and Nanzhao, system with its taxes and labour services
and in the far south in Lingnan. had been completely disrupted by the
In central and southern China, how- breakdown of authority and by the vast
ever, the provincial government movements of population. The revenues
developed into a new organ of the civil increasingly came to depend on addi-
bureaucracy. The civil governors of the tional taxes levied on cultivated land or
southern provinces were regularly on property, and the government
appointed from the bureaucracy, and it attempted to raise more revenue from the
became customary to appoint to these urban population. But its survival
posts high-ranking court officials who depended on the revenues it drew from
were temporarily out of favour. central China, the Huai valley, and the
All the new provinces had consider- lower Yangtze. Those revenues were sent
able latitude of action, particularly during to the capital by means of a reconstructed
the reigns of Suzong and Daizong, when and improved canal system maintained
central power was at a low ebb. There was out of the new government monopoly on
a general decentralization of authority. salt. By 780 the salt monopoly was pro-
The new provinces had considerable ducing a major part of the state’s central
independence in the fields of finance, revenues, in addition to maintaining the
local government, law and order, and mil- transportation system. The salt and trans-
itary matters. portation administration was controlled
Under Daizong (reigned 762–779) the by an independent commission centred
court was dominated by the emperor’s in Yangzhou, near the mouth of the
favourite, Yuan Zai, and by the eunuchs Yangtze, and this commission gradually
who now began to play an increasing role took over the entire financial administra-
in Tang politics. A succession of eunuch tion of southern and central China.
advisers not only rivaled in influence the The weak Daizong was succeeded by
chief ministers but even exerted influ- a tough, intelligent activist emperor,
ence over the military in the campaigns Dezong (reigned 779–805), who was deter-
of the late 750s and early 760s. Under mined to restore the fortunes of the
Daizong many of the regular offices of dynasty. He reconstituted much of the old
the administration remained unfilled, central administration and decided on a
while the irregularities encouraged by showdown with the forces of local auton-
Yuan Zai and his clique in the appoint- omy. As a first step, in 780 he promulgated
ment of officials led to an increasing use a new system of taxation, under which
of eunuchs in secretarial posts and to each province was assessed a quota of
their increasing dominance over the taxes, the collection of which was to be
emperor’s private treasury. left to the provincial government. This
The central government did achieve was a radical measure, for it abandoned
some success in finance. The old fiscal the traditional concept of head taxes
120 | The History of China

levied at a uniform rate throughout the Tibetan threat was contained, Nanzhao
empire and also began the assessment of was won from its alliance with the
taxes in terms of money. Tibetans, and the garrisons of the north-
Those in the semi-independent prov- west were strengthened. At the same time,
inces of the northeast saw this as a threat Dezong built up large new palace armies,
to their independence, and, when it giving the central government a powerful
became apparent that Dezong was deter- striking force—numbering some 100,000
mined to carry out consistently tough men by the end of his reign. Command
policies toward the northeast—reducing was given to eunuchs considered loyal to
their armies and even denying them the the throne. The death of Dezong in 805
right to appoint their own governors—the was followed by the brief reign of
Hebei provinces rebelled. From 781 to 786 Shunzong, an invalid monarch whose
there was a wave of rebellions not only in court was dominated by the clique of
the northeastern provinces but also in the Wang Shuwen and Wang Pei. They
Huai valley and in the area of the capital planned to take control of the palace
itself. These events brought the Tang armies from the eunuchs but failed.
even closer to disaster than had the An
Lushan rising. The situation was saved The Struggle
because at a crucial moment the rebels for Central Authority
fell out among themselves and because
the south remained loyal. In the end, the Under Xianzong (reigned 805–820) the
settlement negotiated with the governors Tang regained a great deal of its power.
of Hebei virtually endorsed the preced- Xianzong, a tough and ruthless ruler who
ing status quo, although the court made kept a firm hand on affairs, is notable
some marginal inroads by establishing chiefly for his successful policies toward
two small new provinces in Hebei. the provinces. Rebellions in Sichuan
After that disaster, Dezong pursued a (806) and the Yangtze delta (807) were
much more careful and passive policy quickly put down. After an abortive cam-
toward the provinces. Governors were left paign (809–810) that was badly bungled
in office for long periods, and hereditary by a favourite eunuch commander, the
succession continued. Nonetheless, the court was again forced to compromise
latter part of Dezong’s reign was a period with the governors of Hebei. A fresh wave
of steady achievement. The new tax sys- of trouble came in 814–817 with a rebel-
tem was gradually enforced and proved lion in Huaixi, in the upper Huai valley,
remarkably successful; it remained the that threatened the canal route. That
basis of the tax structure until Ming times. uprising was crushed and the province
Revenues increased steadily, and Dezong divided up among its neighbours. The
left behind him a wealthy state. Militarily, Pinglu army in Shandong rebelled in 818
he was also generally successful: the and suffered the same fate. Xianzong
The Tang Dynasty | 121

thus restored the authority of the central considerably changed. The emperor
government throughout most of the Dezong had begun to delegate a great
empire. His success was based largely deal of business, in particular the draft-
upon the palace armies. The fact that ing of edicts and legislation, to his
these were controlled by eunuchs placed personal secretariat, the Hanlin Academy.
a great measure of power in the emper- Although the members of the Hanlin
or’s hands. Under his weak successors, Academy were handpicked members of
however, the eunuchs’ influence in poli- the bureaucracy, their positions as acade-
tics proved a disaster. micians were outside the regular official
Xianzong’s restoration of central establishment. This eventually placed
authority involved more than military the power of decision and the detailed
dominance. It was backed by a series of formulation of policy in the hands of a
institutional measures designed to group that depended entirely on the
strengthen the power of the prefects and emperor, thus threatening the authority
county magistrates, as against their pro- of the regularly constituted ministers of
vincial governors, by restoring to them the court.
the right of direct access to central gov- The influence of the eunuchs had
ernment and giving them some measure also begun to be formalized and institu-
of control over the military forces quar- tionalized in the palace council; this
tered within their jurisdiction. In an provided the emperor with another per-
important financial reform, the provincial sonal secretariat, which controlled the
government no longer had first call on all conduct of official business and had close
the revenue of the province, as some rev- links with the eunuchs’ command of the
enue went directly to the capital. The powerful palace armies. The eunuchs’
government also began the policy, con- influence in politics steadily increased.
tinued throughout the 9th and 10th Xianzong was murdered by some of his
centuries, of cutting down and fragment- eunuch attendants, and henceforth the
ing the provinces. It strengthened its chief eunuchs of the palace council and
control over the provincial administra- the palace armies were a factor in nearly
tions through a system of eunuch army every succession to the Tang throne; in
supervisors, who were attached to the some cases they had their own candi-
staff of each provincial governor. These dates enthroned in defiance of the
eunuchs played an increasingly impor- previous emperor’s will. The emperor
tant role, not merely as sources of Wenzong (reigned 827–840) sought to
information and intelligence but as active destroy the dominance of the eunuchs;
agents of the emperor, able to intervene his abortive schemes only demoralized
directly in local affairs. the bureaucracy, particularly after the
The balance of power within the Sweet Dew (Ganlu) coup of 835, which
central government had also been misfired and led to the deaths of several
122 | The History of China

ministers and a number of other officials. of peasant risings began in 874, following
But the apogee of the eunuchs’ power a terrible drought. The most formidable
was brief, ending with the accession of of them was led by Huang Chao, who in
Wuzong in 840. Wuzong and his minister, 878 marched south and sacked
Li Deyu, managed to impose some Guangzhou (Canton) and then marched
restrictions on the eunuchs’ power, espe- to the north, where he took Luoyang in
cially in the military. late 880 and Chang’an in 881. Although
In the second half of the 9th century Huang Chao attempted to set up a regime
the central government became progres- in the capital, he proved cruel and inept.
sively weaker. During Yizong’s reign Hemmed in by loyal armies and provin-
(859–873) there was a resurgence of the cial generals, in 883 he was forced to
eunuchs’ power and a constant fratricidal abandon Chang’an and withdraw to
strife between eunuchs and officials at Henan and then to Shandong, where he
court. From the 830s onward the first died in 884. His forces were eventually
signs of unrest and banditry had appeared defeated with the aid of Shatuo Turks,
in the Huai valley and Henan, and trou- and the Tang court was left virtually pow-
ble spread to the Yangtze valley and the erless, its emperor a puppet manipulated
south beginning in 856. Major uprisings by rival military leaders. The dynasty lin-
were led by Kang Quantai in southern gered on until 907, but the last quarter
Anhui in 858 and Qiu Fu in Zhejiang in century was dominated by the generals
859. The situation was complicated by a and provincial warlords. With the pro-
costly war against the Nanzhao kingdom gressive decline of the central
on the borders of the Chinese protector- government in the 880s and 890s, China
ate in Annam, which later spread to fell apart into a number of virtually inde-
Sichuan and dragged on from 858 until pendent kingdoms. Unity was not
866. After the invaders had been sup- restored until long after the Song dynasty
pressed, part of the garrison force that was established.
had been sent to Lingnan mutinied and,
under its leader, Pang Xun, fought and Cultural developments
plundered its way back to Henan, where
it caused widespread havoc in 868 and The Influence of Buddhism
869, cutting the canal linking the capital
to the loyal Yangtze and Huai provinces. The Tang emperors officially supported
In 870 war broke out again with Nanzhao. Daoism because of their claim to be
Yizong was succeeded by Xizong descended from Laozi, but Buddhism
(reigned 873–888), a boy of 11 who was the continued to enjoy great favour and lav-
choice of the palace eunuchs. Prior to his ish imperial patronage through most of
ascension, Henan had repeatedly suf- the period. The famous pilgrim Xuanzang,
fered serious floods. In addition, a wave who went to India in 629 and returned in
The Tang Dynasty | 123

645, was the most learned of Chinese (Zen) school, which had strong roots in
monks and introduced new standards of Daoism. The popular preaching of the
exactness in his many translations from salvationist Pure Land sect was also
Sanskrit. The most significant develop- important. After the rebellion of An
ment in this time was the growth of new Lushan, a nationalistic movement favour-
indigenous schools that adapted ing Confucianism appeared, merging
Buddhism to Chinese ways of thinking. with the efforts of Tiantai Buddhism to
Most prominent were the syncretistic graft Buddhist metaphysics onto
Tiantai school, which sought to embrace Classical doctrine and lay the ground-
all other schools in a single hierarchical work for the Neo-Confucianism of the
system (even reaching out to include Song era.
Confucianism), and the radically anti- In 843–845 the emperor Wuzong, a
textual, antimetaphysical southern Chan fanatical Daoist, proceeded to suppress
Buddhism. One of his motives was eco-
nomic. China was in a serious financial
crisis, which Wuzong and his advisers
hoped to solve by seizing the lands and
wealth of the monasteries. The suppres-
sion was far-reaching: 40,000 shrines and
temples—all but a select few—were closed,
260,000 monks and nuns were returned
to lay life, and vast acreages of monastic
lands were confiscated and sold and their
slaves manumitted. The suppression was
short-lived, but irreparable damage was
done to Buddhist institutions. Buddhism
had already begun to lose intellectual
momentum, and this attack on it as a
social institution marked the beginning
of its decline in China.
Several types of monastic communi-
ties existed at the time. Official temples
set up by the state had large endowments
of land and property and large communi-
Guanyin and attendant bodhisattvas,
ties of monks who chose their own abbot
detail of a painted mural, early 8th cen-
and other officers. There were vast num-
tury, Tang dynasty, from Cave 57,
bers of small village temples, shrines,
Dunhuang, Gansu province, China. Chen
Zhi’an/ChinaStock Photo Library and hermitages; these were often pri-
vately established, had little property,
124 | The History of China

and were quite vulnerable to state poli- pious laypersons, and from grants of
cies. In addition, private temples or lands by the state. The lands were worked
“merit cloisters” were established by by monastic slaves, dependent families,
great families, often to allow the family to lay clerics who had taken partial vows but
donate its property and have it declared lived with their families, and tenants.
tax-exempt. Monasteries also operated oil presses
A monastic community was free of all and mills, and they were important credit
obligations to the state. It was able to institutions, supplying loans at interest
hold property without the process of divi- and acting as pawnshops. They provided
sion by inheritance that made the lodgings for travelers, operated hospitals
long-term preservation of individual and and infirmaries, and maintained the aged.
family fortunes almost impossible in One of their most important social func-
Tang times. It acquired its wealth from tions was offering primary education.
those taking monastic vows, from gifts of The temples maintained their own

Main hall of Nanchan Temple, Mount Wutai, Shanxi province, China, AD 782 or earlier, Tang
dynasty; reconstructed 1974–75. Christopher Liu/ChinaStock Photo Library
The Tang Dynasty | 125

schools, training the comparatively large metre than the five-word and seven-word
proportion of the male population, which, lushi and meant to be sung, made its
although not educated to the standards appearance. The guwen, or “ancient
of the Confucian elite or the clergy, was style,” movement grew up after the rebel-
nevertheless literate. lion of An Lushan, seeking to replace the
euphuistic pianwen (“parallel prose”)
Trends in the Arts then dominant. It was closely associated
with the movement for a Confucian
In literature the greatest glory of the Tang revival. The most prominent figures in it
period was its poetry. By the 8th century, were Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan. At the
poets had broken away from the artificial same time came the first serious attempts
diction and matter of the court poetry to write fiction, the so-called chuanqi, or
of the southern dynasties and achieved “tales of marvels.” Many of these Tang
a new directness and naturalism. The stories later provided themes for the
reign of Xuanzong (712–756)—known as Chinese drama.
Minghuang, the Brilliant Emperor—was The patronage of the Tang emperors
the time of such great figures as Li Bai, and the general wealth and prosperity of
Wang Wei, and Du Fu. The rebellion of An the period encouraged the development
Lushan and Du Fu’s bitter experiences of the visual arts. Though few Tang build-
during it brought a new note of social ings remain standing, contemporary
awareness to his later poetry. This appears descriptions give some idea of the mag-
again in the work of Bai Juyi (772–846), nificence of Tang palaces and religious
who wrote verse in clear and simple lan- edifices and the houses of the wealthy.
guage. Toward the end of the dynasty a Buddhist sculpture shows a greater natu-
new poetic form, the ci, in a less regular ralism than in the previous period, but

Du fu
Du Fu (b. 712—d. 770) is often considered the greatest Chinese poet of all time. After a traditional
Confucian education, he failed the important civil service examinations and consequently spent
much of his life wandering, repeatedly attempting to gain court positions, with mixed success. His
early poetry, which celebrates the natural world and bemoans the passage of time, garnered him
renown. He suffered periods of extreme personal hardship, and as he matured his verse began to
express profound compassion for humanity. An expert in all the poetic genres of his day, he is
renowned for his superb classicism and skill in prosody, though many of the subtleties of his art do
not survive translation.
126 | The History of China

there is some loss of spirituality. Few were established, a large part of their
genuine originals survive to show the personnel often recruited from the com-
work of Tang master painters such as mercial community. The contending
Wu Daoxuan, who worked at Xuanzong’s factions of the 9th-century court also
court. As a landscape painter, the poet employed irregular appointments to
Wang Wei was a forerunner of the wen- secure posts for their clients and support-
ren, or “literary man’s,” school of mystical ers, many of whom also came from
nature painting of later times. The minor comparatively lowly backgrounds.
arts of Tang, including ceramics, metal- Although the old aristocracy retained
work, and textiles, give expression to the a grip on political power until very late in
colour and vitality of the life of the period. the dynasty, its exclusiveness and hierar-
Printing appeared for the first time dur- chical pretensions were rapidly breaking
ing Tang. Apparently invented to help down. It was finally extinguished as a
disseminate Buddhist scriptures, it was separate group in the Wudai (Five
used by the end of the dynasty for such Dynasties) period (907–960), when the
things as calendars, almanacs, and old strongholds of aristocracy in the
dictionaries. northeast and northwest became centres
of bitter military and political struggles.
Social change The aristocratic clans that survived did so
by merging into the new official-literati
Decline of the Aristocracy class; this class was based not on birth
alone but on education, office holding,
By the late Tang period a series of social and the possession of landed property.
changes had begun that did not reach At the same time, there was a return
their culmination until the 11th century. to semiservile relationships at the base of
The most important of these was the the social pyramid. Sheer economic
change in the nature of the ruling class. necessity led many peasants either to dis-
Although from early Tang times the pose of their lands and become tenants
examination system had facilitated or hired labourers of rich neighbours or
recruiting into the higher ranks of the to become dependents of a powerful
bureaucracy of persons from lesser aris- patron. Tenancy, which in early Tang
tocratic families, most officials continued times had most often been a temporary
to come from the established elite. Social and purely economic agreement, now
mobility increased after the An Lushan developed into a semipermanent con-
rebellion: provincial governments tract requiring some degree of personal
emerged, their staffs in many cases subordination from the tenant.
recruited from soldiers of lowly social ori- The new provincial officials and local
gins, and specialized finance commissions elites were able to establish their fortunes
The Tang Dynasty | 127

as local landowning gentry largely disasters. The population of Hedong

because after 763 the government ceased (present-day Shanxi) and of Guanzhong
to enforce the system of state-supervised and Longyou (present-day Shaanxi and
land allocation. In the aftermath of the Gansu, respectively) also fell, though not
An Lushan and later rebellions, large so dramatically. The population of the
areas of land were abandoned by their south, particularly the southeastern
cultivators; other areas of farmland were region around the lower Yangtze, took a
sold off on the dissolution of the monas- leap upward, as did that of Sichuan.
tic foundations in 843–845. The landed Whereas under the Sui the popula-
estate managed by a bailiff and cultivated tion of the Great Plain (Hebei and Henan)
by tenants, hired hands, or slaves became had accounted for more than half of the
a widespread feature of rural life. empire’s total, by 742 this had dropped to
Possession of such estates, previously about one-third. The Huai-Yangtze area,
limited to the established families of the which had contained only about 8 per-
aristocracy and the serving officials, now cent of the total in 609, now contained
became common at less-exalted levels. one-fourth of the entire population, and
Sichuan’s share jumped from 4 percent to
Population Movements 10 percent of the total, exceeding the pop-
ulation of the metropolitan province of
Censuses taken during the Sui and Tang Guanzhong. The increase in the south
dynasties provide some evidence as to was almost entirely concentrated in the
population changes. Surviving figures for lower Yangtze valley and delta and in
609 and 742, representing two of the most Zhejiang.
complete of the earlier Chinese popula- The revolt of An Lushan and Shi
tion registrations, give totals of some 9 Siming and his son Shi Chaoyi (755–763)
million households, or slightly more than precipitated more population move-
50 million persons. Contemporary officials ments from north to south, with some
considered that only about 70 percent of of these migrants penetrating into what
the population was actually registered, is now southern Hunan and beyond.
so the total population may have been These shifts then and later in the Tang
as much as 70 million. considerably redistributed China’s popu-
Between 609 and 742 a considerable lation: the south became more populous
redistribution of population took place. than the north, and the populations
The population of Hebei and Henan fell among regions in the south became more
by almost one-third because of the balanced.
destruction suffered at the end of the Sui There are no reliable population fig-
era and in the invasions of the 690s ures from the late Tang era, but the
and because of epidemics and natural general movement of population toward
128 | The History of China

the south certainly continued, notably in A boom in trade soon followed. The
the area south of the Yangtze, in present- merchant class threw off its traditional
day Jiangxi and Hunan, and in Hubei. legal restraints. In early Tang times there
The chaos of the last decades of the Tang had been only two great metropolitan
dynasty completed the ruin of the north- markets, in Chang’an and Luoyang. Now
west. After the destruction of the city of every provincial capital became the cen-
Chang’an in the Huang Chao rebellion, tre of a large consumer population of
no regime ever again established its capi- officials and military, and the provincial
tal in that region. courts provided a market for both staple
foodstuffs and luxury manufactures. The
Growth of the Economy diversification of markets was still more
striking in the countryside. A network of
The 8th and 9th centuries were a period small rural market towns, purely eco-
of growth and prosperity. The gradual nomic in function and acting as feeders
movement of the population away from to the county markets, grew up. At these
the north, with its harsh climate and dry periodic markets, held at regular inter-
farming, into the more fertile and pro- vals every few days, traveling merchants
ductive south meant a great proportional and peddlers dealt in the everyday needs
increase in productivity. The south still of the rural population. By the end of the
had large areas of virgin land. Fujian, for Tang period these rural market centres
example, was still only marginally set- had begun to form a new sort of urban
tled along the coastline at the end of centre, intermediate between the county
Tang times. During the latter half of the town, with its administrative presence
Tang, the Huai and lower Yangtze and its central market, and the villages.
became a grain-surplus area, replacing The growth of trade brought an
Hebei and Henan. From 763 to the mid- increasing use of money. In early Tang
9th century, great quantities of grain times silk cloth had been commonly
were shipped from the south annually as employed as currency in large transac-
tax revenue. New crops, such as sugar tions. When the central government lost
and tea, were grown widely. The produc- control of the major silk-producing
tivity of the Yangtze valley was increased region in Hebei and Henan, silk was
by double-cropping land with rice and replaced in this use by silver. The gov-
winter wheat and by developing new ernment neither controlled silver
varieties of grain. After the An Lushan production nor minted a silver coinage.
rebellion, silk production began to Silver circulation and assay were in the
increase rapidly in Sichuan and the hands of private individuals. Various
Yangtze delta region, whereas in early credit and banking institutions began to
Tang times the chief silk-producing emerge: silversmiths took money on
areas had been in the northeast. deposit and arranged for transfers of
The Tang Dynasty | 129

funds; a complex system of credit trans- Guangzhou had large Arab trading com-
fers arose by which tea merchants would munities. The northern coastal traffic was
pay the tax quota for a district, some- dominated by the Koreans. Overland
times even for a whole province, out of trade to Central Asia was mostly in the
their profits from the sale of the crop at hands of Sogdian and, later, Uighur mer-
Chang’an and receive reimbursement in chants. Central Asian, Sogdian, and
their home province. Persian merchants and peddlers carried
The increasing use of money and sil- on much local retail trade and provided
ver also affected official finance and restaurants, wine shops, and brothels in
accounting. Taxes began to be assessed in the great cities. Only in the 9th century
money. The salt monopoly was collected did the foreign influence in trade begin
and accounted for entirely in money. The to recede.
government also began to look to trade In the late Tang many officials began
as a source of revenue—to depend to invest their money (and official funds
increasingly on taxes from commercial entrusted to them) in commercial activi-
transactions, levies on merchants, transit ties. High officials took to running oil
taxes on merchandise, and sales taxes. presses and flour mills, dealing in real
The most prosperous of the mer- estate, and providing capital for mer-
chants were the great dealers in salt, the chants. The wall between the ruling class
tea merchants from Jiangxi, the bankers and the merchants that had existed since
of the great cities and particularly of the Han period was rapidly breaking
Chang’an, and the merchants engaged in down in the 9th century, and the growth
overseas trade in the coastal ports. of urbanization, which characterized the
Foreign trade was still dominated by Song period (960–1279), had already
non-Chinese merchants. Yangzhou and begun on a wide scale.
Disunity Between
the Tang and
Song Dynasties

T he period of political disunity between the Tang and the

Song lasted little more than half a century, from 907 to
960. During that brief era, when China was truly a multistate
system, five short-lived regimes succeeded one another in
control of the old imperial heartland in northern China, hence
the name Wudai (Five Dynasties). During those same years,
10 relatively stable regimes occupied sections of southern
and western China, so the period is also referred to as that of
the Shiguo (Ten Kingdoms).
Most of the major developments of that period were exten-
sions of changes already under way during the late Tang, and
many were not completed until after the founding of the Song
dynasty. For example, the process of political disintegration
had begun long before Zhu Wen brought the Tang dynasty to
a formal end in 907. The developments that eventually led to
reunification, the rapid economic and commercial growth of
the period, and the decline of the aristocratic clans had also
begun long before the first Song ruler, Taizu, reconquered most
of the empire, and they continued during the reigns of his suc-
cessors on the Song throne.
Political Disunity Between the Tang and Song Dynasties | 131

The Wudai (Five Dynasties) successive rulers moved like a relay team
along the tortuous road back to unifica-
None of the Wudai regimes that domi- tion. These militarists expanded their
nated northern China ever forgot the personal power by recruiting peoples of
ideal of the unified empire. Each sought, relatively humble social origins to replace
with gradually increasing success, to the aristocrats. Such recruits owed per-
strengthen the power of the central sonal allegiance to their masters, on
authorities. Even Zhu Wen, who began whose favours their political positions
the Wudai by deposing the last Tang depended, thus presaging the rise of
emperor in 907, sought to extend his con- absolutism.
trol in the north. While consolidating his Rather than being discarded, the
strength on the strategic plains along the Tang administrative form underwent
Huang He (Yellow River) and connect- expedient alterations so that the new
ing them with the vital transportation types of officials, promoted because of
system of the Grand Canal, he made the merit from regional posts to palace
significant choice of locating his base at positions, could use the military adminis-
Bian (present-day Kaifeng, in Henan); it tration to supervise the nearby provinces
later became the Bei (Northern) Song and gradually bring them under direct
capital. Bian’s lack of historical prestige control. Top priority went to securing fis-
was balanced by its proximity to the cal resources from the salt monopoly,
ancient capital, Luoyang, a short distance tribute transport, and in particular new
to the west, which was still China’s cul- tax revenues, without which military
tural centre. domination would have been hard to sus-
Zhu Wen’s short-lived Hou (Later) tain and political expansion impossible.
Liang dynasty, founded in 907, was Eventually, a pattern of centralizing
superseded by the Hou Tang in 923, by authority emerged. Fiscal and supply offi-
the Hou Jin in 936, by the Hou Han in cials of the successive regimes went out
947, and by the Hou Zhou in 951. These to supervise provincial finances and the
rapid successions of dynasties came to local administration. The minor milita-
an end only with the rise in 960 of the rists, heretofore the local governors in
Song dynasty, which finally succeeded in control of their own areas, were under
establishing another lasting empire and double pressure to submit to reintegrat-
in taking over much, though not all, of ing measures. They faced the inducement
the former Tang empire. of political accommodation, which
Beneath the surface, however, were allowed them to keep their residual
the continuous efforts to reintegrate the power, and the military threat of palace
political process that heralded the com- army units commanded by special com-
ing of a new empire and helped to shape missioners, which were sent on patrol
its political system. In this respect the duty into their areas. The way was thus
132 | The History of China

huang he
The Huang He (or Huang Ho; English: Yellow River) flows through northern, central, and eastern
China. The second longest river in China and one of the world’s longest, it flows 3,395 miles (5,464
km) from the Plateau of Tibet generally east to the Yellow Sea (Huang Hai). It is sometimes called
“The Great Sorrow” for its tendency to overflow its banks in its lower reaches, flooding vast areas
of rich farmland. Its outlet has shifted over the years to enter the Yellow Sea at points as far apart
as 500 miles (800 km). Irrigation and flood-control works have been maintained for centuries,
and dams, begun in the mid-1950s, exploit the river’s hydroelectric potential. A stronghold for the
Wudai regimes, it has long played a major role in Chinese history.

The icy Huang He (Yellow River) in winter, near Hukou Waterfall, northern China. China
Photos/Getty Images
Political Disunity Between the Tang and Song Dynasties | 133

paved, in spite of occasional detours and southwestern China, and in the lower
temporary setbacks, for the ultimate Yangtze region in southeastern China
unification. were of great interest. In southern China
The seemingly chaotic period was in the Min kingdom in modern Fujian and
fact less chaotic than other rebellious the Nan Han in present-day Guangdong
times—except from the standpoint of the and Guangxi reflected sharp cultural dif-
aristocrats, who lost their preeminent sta- ferences. Along the coast, sea trade
tus along with their large estates, which expanded, promoting both urban pros-
were usually taken over piecemeal by perity and cultural diversity. On land,
their former managers. The aristocratic wave after wave of refugees moved south-
era in Chinese history was gone forever; a ward, settling along rivers and streams
new bureaucratic era was about to begin. and in confining plains and mountain
valleys and using a frontier agriculture
The Shiguo (Ten Kingdoms) but with highly developed irrigation and
land reclamation. Usually they pushed
From the time of the Tang dynasty until aside the aboriginal minorities, earlier
the Qing dynasty, which arose in the 17th settlers, and previous immigrant groups.
century, China consisted of two parts: the This process turned southern China into
militarily strong north and the economi- a cultural chessboard of great complex-
cally and culturally wealthy south. ity, with various subcultural pieces
Between 907 and 960, 10 independent sandwiched between one another. Many
kingdoms emerged in China, mainly in eventually evolved along different lines.
the south: the Wu (902–937), the Nan In southwestern China the valley of
(Southern) Tang (937–975/976), the Nan what is now Sichuan presented a notably
Ping (924–963), the Chu (927–951), the different picture of continuous growth.
Qian (Former) Shu (907–925), the Hou Usually protected from outside distur-
(Later) Shu (934–965), the Min (909–945), bances and invasions by the surrounding
the Bei (Northern) Han (951–979), the mountains, it enjoyed peace and prosper-
Nan Han (917–971), and the Wu-Yue (907– ity except for one decade of instability
978), the last located in China’s most between the Qian Shu and Hou Shu. The
rapidly advancing area—in and near the beautiful landscape inspired poets, who
lower Yangtze delta. infused a refreshing vitality into old-style
Some of these separate regimes poetry and essays. In this region, a
achieved relative internal stability, stronghold of Daoist religion, the people
although none attained enough strength inserted into Confucian scholarship an
to strive to unify China. Nonetheless, the admixture of Daoist philosophy.
regional developments in southern Buddhism also flourished. These intellec-
China, in the upper Yangtze region in tual trends in Sichuan foreshadowed an
134 | The History of China

eclectic synthesis of the three major From the Wudai onward, southeast-
teachings—Confucianism, Daoism, and ern China, especially its core region of
Buddhism. the Yangtze delta, began to lead the
The Buddhist monasteries owned country in both economic prosperity
large estates and were usually among and cultural refinement. In this region,
the first to introduce new and better fertile soil, irrigation networks, and
technology. Growing commerce created highly selected crops combined to cre-
a demand for money. The ensuing short- ate the best model of intensive farming.
age of copper for coinage was met by an Interlocking streams, rivers, and lakes fed
increasing output of iron through more- an ever-increasing number of markets,
efficient methods and an elementary market towns, cities, and metropolitan
division of labour in production. When areas, where many farm products were
the limited number of copper coins could processed into an ever-expanding variety
no longer meet the growing volume of of consumer goods. Such development
trade, iron currency briefly went into cir- enhanced regional trade, stimulated
culation. With increasing commerce, other regions to adopt specialization, and
various paper credit instruments were promoted overseas commerce.
also developed, the best-known being The Song conquerors from the north
drafts for transmitting funds called feiq- recognized the high level of cultural
ian (“flying money”). Somewhat later the development in this region. After the sur-
private assay shops in Sichuan began to render of the last Nan Tang ruler, himself
issue certificates of deposit to merchants a renowned poet, the unexcelled royal
who had left valuables at the shops for library was moved to the north; along
safekeeping. These instruments, which with it went many officials who were
began to circulate, were the direct ances- skilled in art, literature, and bibliography.
tors of the paper money that emerged in The surrender of the Wu-Yue kingdom,
the early 11th century. slightly farther south, followed the same
During the Wudai, printing became pattern. Moreover, refined culture devel-
common. The most famous and monu- oped away from the coast in such inland
mental cultural production of the period mountainous areas as present-day
was the editing and printing of the Jiangxi, which shortly thereafter pro-
Confucian Classics and the Buddhist duced internationally coveted porcelain
Tipitaka, but a printing industry also and where many great artists and scholar-
emerged during the Wudai that produced officials attained positions of cultural
works for private buyers. The best print- leadership. Thereafter, southeastern
ing in the country during the Wudai and China retained its cultural excellence. At
the Song dynasty came from the regions the end of the Bei Song period, the Nan
of Sichuan and Fujian. Song based itself in the lower Yangtze
Political Disunity Between the Tang and Song Dynasties | 135

delta and located its capital at Lin-an religion, in government and education
(present-day Hangzhou), the former capi- followed the Tang model, and devised a
tal of the Wu-Yue. written script for their own language.
As traditional histories stress, this This richly mixed culture blossomed, as
period of disunity definitely had its dark evidenced by the storing at the
side: militarism, wars, disintegration of Dunhuang caves of an unparalleled col-
the old order, and an inevitable lowering lection of more than 30,000 religious
of moral standards. The dark side, how- paintings, manuscripts, and books in
ever, stemmed largely from underlying Chinese, Tibetan, Uighur, and other lan-
changes that were transforming China guages. In 1038 the Tangut proclaimed
into a new pattern that would last for their own kingdom of Xi Xia, which sur-
nearly a millennium. vived for nearly two centuries with
remarkable stability despite a series of
Barbarian dynasties on-and-off border clashes with the
neighbouring states in northern China.
On the frontier, the far-reaching influ- The kingdom’s end came at the hands of
ence of Tang culture affected various the Mongols, the first nomads to con-
nomadic, seminomadic, and pastoral quer all of China.
peoples. Three groups in the northern
areas—the Tangut, Khitan, and Juchen— The Khitan
established their own regimes in the
region. Respectively, these were the Xi To the north at the time of the Wudai rose
(Western) Xia, Liao, and Jin dynasties. the seminomadic but largely pastoral
Khitan, who were related to the eastern
The Tangut Mongols. The word Khitan (or Khitai) is
the source of Cathay, the name for north-
In the northwest the Tangut (Pinyin: ern China in medieval Europe (as
Dangxiang), a Tibetan-speaking branch reported by Marco Polo), and of Kitai, the
of the Qiang, inhabited the region Russian name for China. The Khitan
between the far end of the Great Wall in founded the Liao dynasty (907–1125) by
present-day Gansu and the Huang He expanding from the border of Mongolia
bend in Inner Mongolia. Their semi- into both southern Manchuria and the 16
oasis economy combined irrigated prefectures south of the Great Wall. This
agriculture with pastoralism, and, by area below the line of the Great Wall was
controlling the terminus of the famous to remain out of Chinese political control
Silk Road, they became middlemen in for more than 400 years. Its control by a
trade between Central Asia and China. non-Chinese state posed a dangerous
They adopted Buddhism as a state security problem for the Bei (Northern)
136 | The History of China

Song. More importantly in the long run, Tang official titles, an examination sys-
this region acted for centuries as a centre tem, Chinese-style tax regulations, and
for the mutual exchange of culture the Chinese language. The laws of the
between the Chinese and the northern second administration enforced the
peoples. established way of life, including such
The Liao made Yanjing (present-day practices as ancestral worship among the
Beijing) their southern capital, thus start- Chinese subjects. The status of Chinese
ing that city’s history as a capital, and subjects varied: some were free subjects
claimed to be the legitimate successors who might move upward into the civil
to the Tang. They incorporated their own service, while others might be held in
tribes under respective chieftains and, bondage and slavery.
with other subdued tribes in the area, Though honouring the Confucian
formed a confederation, which they then philosophy, the Liao rulers patronized
transformed into a hereditary monarchy. Chinese Buddhism. Their achievements
Leadership always remained in the hands were generally military and administra-
of the ruling tribe, the Yelü, who for the tive rather than cultural, but they did
sake of stability shifted to the Chinese provide a model for their successors, the
clan system of orderly succession. Jin, who in turn influenced the Mongols
The Liao economy was based on and, through them, succeeding Chinese
horse and sheep raising and on agricul- dynasties.
ture. Millet was the main crop, and salt,
controlled by government monopoly, was The Juchen
an important source of revenue. Other
commodities included iron produced by The Liao were eventually overthrown by
smelters. The Liao employed an effective the Juchen (Pinyin: Nüchen), another
dual system of administration to guard seminomadic and semipastoral people
against the danger of being absorbed by who originated in Manchuria, swept
Sinicization. They had one administra- across northern China, ended the Bei
tion for their own people that enforced Song, and established the Jin dynasty
tribal laws, maintained traditional rites, (1115–1234). This new and much larger
and largely retained the steppe style of empire in northern China followed the
food and clothing. The Liao deliberately Liao pattern of dual government and of
avoided the use of Chinese and added to some acculturation but at a much higher
their particular branch of the Mongolian cultural level.
language two types of writing—a smaller The Juchen, in establishing their
one that was alphabetical and a larger Chinese-style Jin empire, occupied a
one related to Chinese characters. A sec- broader geographic region in the farming
ond administration governed the farming country than had any previous nomadic
region using the old Tang system, with or pastoral conquerors. The migration of
Political Disunity Between the Tang and Song Dynasties | 137

their own people in large numbers not- was on the side of the majority culture,
withstanding, they were proportionally a which gradually absorbed the minority.
smaller minority than were the Khitan, The transplanted tribesmen, after settling
for the Jin ruled a much larger Chinese on farmland, could not avoid being
population. Because they formed a small affected by the Chinese way of life, particu-
minority in their own empire, their tribes- larly during long periods of peace.
men were kept in a standing army that Economically, the Juchen were no
was always prepared for warfare. They match for the Chinese. In time a number
were quartered among their farming of Juchen became tenants on Chinese-
subjects but were expected to respond to owned land; some were reduced to
the command of their captains at short paupers. Their economic decline altered
notice. In the military service the Juchen social relations. Eventually they were
language was kept alive, and no Chinese- permitted to intermarry, usually with
style names, clothing, or customs were parties wealthier than themselves. Their
permitted. They realized that protecting military strength also declined. It
their separate ethnic and cultural iden- became normal for military units to be
tity was indispensable to maintaining undermanned. Captains of “hundreds”
military superiority. often could put no more than two dozen
Politically, however, it was necessary men into the field, and captains of “thou-
for the Juchen rulers to familiarize them- sands” had no more than four or five
selves with the sophisticated culture of such nominal “hundreds” under them.
their Chinese subjects in order to man- Their ruling class followed a parallel
age state affairs. While limiting Chinese decline. The interests of the ruling
participation in the government, they group shifted from government affairs
shrewdly deflected the interests of their to Confucian studies, Chinese Classics,
subjects toward the pursuit of such and Tang- and Song-style poetry. The
peaceful arts as printing, scholarship, rulers found little use for the two styles
painting, literature, and, significantly, the of Juchen script that their ancestors had
development of drama for widespread devised. Eventually the Juchen, much
entertainment. (These trends continued weakened, were brought down by the
under the Mongols and enriched Chinese Mongols, led by Genghis Khan and his
culture.) In spite of the Juchen efforts, time successors.
The Song Dynasty

BEI (NORThERN) SONg (960–1127)

The Bei Song (also known simply as the Song) was the last
major Chinese dynasty to be founded by a coup d’état. Its
founder, Zhao Kuangyin (known by his temple name, Taizu),
the commander of the capital area of Kaifeng and inspector
general of the imperial forces, usurped the throne from the
Hou (Later) Zhou, the last of the Wudai.


Though a militarist himself, Taizu ended militarism as well

as usurpation. Even his own coup was skillfully disguised to
make it appear that the popular acclaim of the rank and file
left him with no choice. Taizu was masterful in political
maneuvering, and as emperor (reigned 960–976) he did not
destroy other powerful generals as had many previous
founding rulers. Instead, he persuaded them to give up their
commands in exchange for honorary titles, sinecure offices,
and generous pensions—an unheard-of arrangement in
Chinese history. The Song founder and his successors
reduced the military power of the generals and used a vari-
ety of techniques to keep them weak, but Song rulers
continued to support their social importance by frequently
marrying members of the imperial clan to members of lead-
ing military families.
The Song Dynasty | 139

assignments or honours. This seemingly

confusing formula enabled the ruler to
remove an official to a lower position
without demotion of rank, to give an offi-
cial a promotion in rank but an
insignificant assignment, and to pick up
a low-ranking talent and test him on a
crucial commission. Councillors con-
trolled only the civil administration
because the division of authority made
the military commissioner and the
finance commissioner separate entities,
reporting directly to the ruler, who coor-
dinated all important decisions. In
decision making, the emperor received
additional advice from academicians and
Taizu, founder of the Song dynasty, other advisers—collectively known as
detail of a portrait; in the National opinion officials—whose function was to
Palace Museum, Taipei. Courtesy of provide separate channels of information
the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and to check up on the administrative
Taiwan, Republic of China branches.
Similar checks and balances existed
in the diffused network of regional offi-
With a shrewd appreciation of the cials. The empire was divided into
war-weariness among the population, circuits, which were units of supervision
Taizu stressed the Confucian spirit of rather than administration. Within these
humane administration and the reunifi- circuits, intendants were charged with
cation of the whole country. To implement overseeing the civil administration.
this policy, he took power from the mili- Below these intendants were the actual
tary governors, consolidated it at court, administrators. These included prefects,
and delegated the supervision of military whose positions were divided into sev-
affairs to able civilians; no official was eral grades according to an area’s size
regarded as above suspicion. A prag- and importance. Below the prefects there
matic civil service system evolved, with a were district magistrates (subprefects) in
flexible distribution of power and elabo- charge of areas corresponding roughly in
rate checks and balances. Each official size to counties. The duties of these sub-
had a titular office, indicating his rank prefects were catholic, for they were
but not his actual function, a commission supposed to see to all aspects of the wel-
for his normal duties, and additional fare of the people in their area. This was
140 | The History of China

the lowest level of major direct imperial succession. Instead, the emperor’s
rule (though there were some petty offi- younger brother, who had acquired much
cials on levels below the district). Because experience at his side, seized the throne.
the members of the formal civil service With reunification accomplished in the
level of the government were so few, south, the new emperor, Taizong (reigned
actual administration in the yamen, or 976–997), turned northward to attack and
administrative headquarters, depended conquer Bei Han (979), the last remaining
heavily on the clerical staff. Beyond the Shiguo. He continued to fight the Khitan
yamen walls, control was in the hands of empire in the north, only to suffer a disas-
an officially sanctioned but locally staffed trous defeat in 986. Taizong’s relative
sub-bureaucracy. shortage of horses and grazing grounds
Following Confucian ideals, the to breed them, in contrast to the strong
founder of the Song dynasty lived mod- Khitan cavalries, was not the only reason
estly, listened to his ministers, and curbed for the defeat. It also resulted from a
excessive taxation. The rising prestige of deliberate policy of removing generals
his regime preceded his conquests. He from their armies, subordinating officers
also absorbed the best military units to civilians, concentrating strength in
under his own command and disciplined imperial units, and converting most pro-
them in the same Confucian style. His vincial armies into labour battalions.
superior force notwithstanding, he The Song never achieved a military
embarked on a reunification program by prowess comparable to that of the Han or
mixing war with lenient diplomatic or the Tang. Despite the occasional bellicos-
accommodative terms that assured ity of its officials, the Song government
defeated rivals of generous treatment. A failed to penetrate Indochina or to break
well-planned strategy first took Sichuan the power of the Xi Xia of Gansu and
in the southwest in 965, the extreme Shaanxi. As a result, Song China became
south in 971, and the most prosperous increasingly isolated, especially from
lower Yangtze area in the southeast one Central Asia, whence much cultural stim-
year before his death, making the reunifi- ulus had come under preceding dynasties.
cation nearly complete. The Wu-Yue, the Combined with a natural pride in internal
sole survivor among the Shiguo (Ten advancements, China’s cultural ethno-
Kingdoms) in the south, chose to surren- centrism deepened.
der without a war in 978.
The sudden death of the founder of Consolidation
the Song dynasty left a speculative leg-
end of assassination, though it was The Song achieved consolidation under
probably caused by his heavy drinking. the third emperor, Zhenzong (reigned
The legend stemmed from the fact that 997–1022). A threatening Khitan offen-
his young son was denied the orderly sive was directly met by the emperor
The Song Dynasty | 141

himself, but a few battles assured neither than it had been in the early Song. Well-
side of victory. The two empires pledged regulated civil service examinations
peaceful coexistence in 1004 through an brought new groups of excellent scholar-
exchange of sworn documents that fore- officials who, though a numerical
shadowed modern international treaties. minority, dominated the higher policy-
The Khitan gave up its claim to a dis- making levels of government. The
puted area it had once occupied south of sponsorship system, which discouraged
the Great Wall, and the Song agreed to a favouritism by putting responsibility on
yearly tribute: 100,000 units (a rough the sponsors for the official conduct of
equivalent of troy ounces) of silver and their appointees, also ensured deserving
200,000 rolls of silk. It was a modest promotions and carefully chosen appoint-
price for the Song to pay for securing ments. Many first-rate officials—especially
the frontier. those from the south whose families had
The emperor thereafter sought to no previous bureaucratic background—
strengthen his absolutist image by claim- upheld Confucian ideals. These new
ing a Daoist charisma. Prompted by officials were critical not only of palace
magicians and ingratiating high officials, impropriety but also of bureaucratic mal-
he proclaimed that he had received a practices, administrative sluggishness,
sacred document directly from heaven. fiscal abuses, and socioeconomic inequi-
He ordered a grand celebration with ties. Respecting absolutism, they focused
elaborate rites, accompanied by recon- their attacks on a veteran chief council-
structed music of ancient times, and he lor, whom the emperor had trusted for
made a tour to offer sacrifices at Mount years. Factionalism developed because
Tai, following precedents of the Qin, Han, many established scholar-officials, mostly
and Tang dynasties. from the north, with long bureaucratic
After the emperor’s death, friction family backgrounds, stood by their leader,
arose between his widow—the empress the same chief councillor.
dowager, who was acting as regent—and A series of crises seems to prove that
Renzong (reigned 1022–63), Zhenzong’s the complaints of the idealists were justi-
teenage son by a palace lady of humble fied. After half a century of complacency,
rank. Following the death of the empress peace and prosperity began to erode.
dowager, Renzong divorced his empress, This became apparent in the occurrence
who had been chosen for him by and had of small-scale rebellions near the capital
remained in sympathy with the empress itself, in the disturbing inability of local
dowager. However, the divorce was unjus- governors to restore order themselves,
tifiable in Confucian morality and and in a dangerous penetration of the
damaged the imperial image. northwestern border by Xi Xia, which
By that time the bureaucracy was rejected its vassal status and declared
more highly developed and sophisticated itself an independent kingdom. The
142 | The History of China

Khitan took advantage of the changing their idealism was modified by the polit-
military balance by threatening another ical lesson they had learned. Eschewing
invasion. The idealistic faction, put into policy changes and tolerating col-
power under these critical circumstances leagues of varying opinions, they made
in 1043–44, effectively stopped the Xi Xia appreciable progress by concentrating
on the frontier by reinforcing a chain of on the choice of better personnel, proper
defense posts and made it pay due respect direction, and careful implementation
to the Song as the superior empire within the conventional system, but
(though the Song no longer claimed many fundamental problems remained
suzerainty). Meanwhile, peace with the unsolved. Mounting military expendi-
Khitan was again ensured when the Song tures did not bring greater effectiveness,
increased its yearly tribute to them. and an expanding and more costly
The court also instituted administra- bureaucracy could not reverse the trend
tive reforms, stressing the need for of declining tax yields. Income no lon-
emphasizing statecraft problems in civil ger covered expenditures. During the
service examinations, eliminating brief reign of Yingzong (1063–67), rela-
patronage appointments for family mem- tively minor disputes and symbolically
bers and relatives of high officials, and important issues concerning ceremonial
enforcing strict evaluation of administra- matters embroiled the bureaucracy in
tive performance. It also advocated mutual and bitter criticism.
reducing compulsory labour, land recla-
mation and irrigation construction, Reforms
organizing local militias, and thoroughly
revising codes and regulations. Though Shenzong (reigned 1067–85) was a reform
mild in nature, the reforms hurt vested emperor. Originally a prince reared out-
interests. Shrewd opponents undermined side the palace, familiar with social
the reformers by misleading the emperor conditions and devoted to serious stud-
into suspecting that they had received ies, he did not come into the line of
too much power and were disrespectful imperial succession until adoption had
of him personally. With the crises eased, put his father on the throne before him.
the emperor found one excuse after Shenzong responded vigorously (and
another to send most reformers away rather unexpectedly, from the standpoint
from court. The more conventionally of many bureaucrats) to the problems
minded officials were returned to power. troubling the established order, some of
Despite a surface of seeming stabil- which were approaching crisis propor-
ity, the administrative machinery once tions. Keeping above partisan politics, he
again fell victim to creeping deteriora- made the scholar-poet Wang Anshi his
tion. Some reformers eventually returned chief councillor and gave him full back-
to court, beginning in the 1050s, but ing to make sweeping reforms. Known as
The Song Dynasty | 143

the New Laws, or New Policies, these season, thus assuring their farming pro-
reform measures attempted drastic insti- ductivity and undercutting their
tutional changes. In sum, they sought dependency upon usurious loans from
administrative effectiveness, fiscal sur- the well-to-do. The government also
plus, and military strength. Wang’s maintained granaries in various cities to
famous “Ten Thousand Word Memorial” ensure adequate supplies on hand in case
outlined the philosophy of the reforms. of emergency need. The burden on
Contrary to conventional Confucian wealthy and poor alike was made more
views, it upheld assertive governmental equitable by a graduated tax scale based
roles, but its ideal remained basically on a reassessment of the size and the pro-
Confucian: economic prosperity would ductivity of the landholdings. Similarly,
provide the social environment essential compulsory labour was converted to a
to moral well-being. system of graduated tax payments, which
Never before had the government were used to finance a hired-labour ser-
undertaken so many economic activities. vice program that at least theoretically
The emperor empowered Wang to insti- controlled underemployment in farming
tute a top-level office for fiscal planning, areas. Requisition of various supplies
which supervised the Finance from guilds was also replaced by cash
Commission, previously beyond the assessments, with which the government
jurisdiction of the chief councillor. The was to buy what it needed at a fair price.
government squarely faced the reality of Wang’s reforms achieved increased
a rapidly spreading money economy by military power as well. To remedy the
increasing the supply of currency. The Song’s military weakness and to reduce
state became involved in trading, buying the immense cost of a standing profes-
specific products of one area for resale sional army, the villages were given the
elsewhere (thereby facilitating the duty of organizing militias, under the old
exchange of goods), stabilizing prices name of baojia, to maintain local order in
whenever and wherever necessary, and peacetime and to serve as army reserves
making a profit itself. This did not dis- in wartime. To reinforce the cavalry, the
place private trading activities. On the government procured horses and
contrary, the government extended loans assigned them to peasant households in
to small urban and regional traders northern and northwestern areas. Various
through state pawnshops—a practice weapons were also developed. As a result
somewhat like modern government of these efforts, the empire eventually
banking but unheard-of at the time. Far scored some minor victories along the
more important, if not controversial, the northwestern border.
government made loans at the interest The gigantic reform program
rate, low for the period, of 20 percent to required an energetic bureaucracy, which
the whole peasantry during the sowing Wang attempted to create—with mixed
144 | The History of China

results—by means of a variety of policies: become accustomed. It also reacted

promoting a nationwide state school against the over concentration of power
system; establishing or expanding spe- at the top, which neglected the art of dis-
cialized training in such utilitarian tributing and balancing power among
professions as the military, law, and medi- government offices, the overexpansion of
cine, which were neglected by Confucian governmental power in society, and the
education; placing a strong emphasis on tendency to apply policies relatively uni-
supportive interpretations of Classics, formly in a locally diverse empire.
some of which Wang himself supplied Without directly attacking the
rather dogmatically; demoting and dis- emperor, the critics attacked the reform-
missing dissenting officials (thus creating ers for deviating from orthodox
conflicts in the bureaucracy); and provid- Confucianism. It was wrong, the oppo-
ing strong incentives for better nents argued, for the state to pursue
performances by clerical staffs, including profits, to assume inordinate power, and
merit promotion into bureaucratic ranks. to interfere in the normal life of the com-
The magnitude of the reform pro- mon people. It was often true as charged
gram was matched only by the bitter that the reforms—and the resulting
opposition to it. Determined criticism changes in government—brought about
came from the groups hurt by the the rise of unscrupulous officials, an
reform measures: large landowners, increase in high-handed abuses in the
big merchants, and moneylenders. name of strict law enforcement, unjusti-
Noncooperation and sabotage arose fied discrimination against many
among the bulk of the bureaucrats, scholar-officials of long experience,
drawn as they were from the landown- intense factionalism, and resulting wide-
ing and otherwise wealthy classes. spread miseries among the population—all
Geographically, the strongest opposition of which were in contradiction to the
came from the traditionally more conser- claims of the reform objectives.
vative northern areas. Ideologically, Particularly open to criticism was the
however, the criticisms did not necessar- rigidity of the reform system, which
ily coincide with either class background allowed little regional discretion or desir-
or geographic factors. They were best able adjustment for differing conditions
expressed by many leading scholar-offi- in various parts of the empire.
cials, some of whom were northern In essence the reforms augmented
conservatives while others were brilliant growing trends toward both absolutism
talents from Sichuan. Both the emperor and bureaucracy. Even in the short run,
and Wang failed to reckon with the fact the cost of the divisive factionalism that
that, by its very nature, the entrenched the reforms generated had disastrous
bureaucracy could tolerate no sudden effects. To be fair, Wang was to blame
change in the system to which it had for his overzealous if not doctrinaire
The Song Dynasty | 145

beliefs, his low tolerance for criticism, conservatives to power. An antireform

and his persistent support of his follow- period lasted until 1093, during which
ers even when their errors were hardly in time most of the reforms were rescinded
doubt. Nonetheless, it was Shenzong or drastically revised. Though men of
himself who was ultimately responsible. integrity, the conservatives offered few
Determined to have the reform measures constructive alternatives. They managed
implemented, he ignored loud remon- to relax tension and achieve a seeming
strances, disregarded friendly appeals to stability, but this did not prevent old
have certain measures modified, and problems from recurring. Some conserva-
continued the reforms after Wang’s tives objected to turning back the clock,
retirement. especially by swinging to the opposite
The traditional historians, by study- extreme, but they were silenced. Once the
ing documentary evidence alone, young emperor took control, he undid
overlooked the fact that scholar-officials what the empress dowager had put in
rarely openly criticized an absolutist place; the pendulum swung once again to
emperor, and they generally echoed the a restoration of the reforms, a period that
critical views of the conservatives in lasted to the end of the Bei Song. In such
assigning the blame to Wang—a revision- repeated convulsions, the government
ist Confucian in public, a profound could not escape dislocation, and the
Buddhist practitioner in his old age, and society became demoralized. Moreover,
a great poet and essayist. the restored reform movement was a
mere ghost without its original idealism.
Decline and Fall Enough grounds were found by conser-
vatives out of power to blame the reforms
Careful balancing of powers in the for the fall of the dynasty.
bureaucracy, through which the rulers Zhezong’s successor, Huizong
acted and from which they received (reigned 1100–1125/26), was a great
advice and information, was essential to patron of the arts and an excellent
good government in China. The demon- artist himself, but such qualities did not
strated success of this principle in early make him a good ruler. Indulgent in
Bei Song so impressed later scholars that pleasures and irresponsible in state
they described it as the art of govern- affairs, he misplaced his trust in
ment. It became a lost art under Shenzong, favourites. Those in power knew how to
however, in the reform zeal and more so manipulate the regulatory system to
in the subsequent eagerness to do away obtain excessive tax revenues. At first,
with the reforms. the complacent emperor granted more
The reign of Zhezong (1085–1100) support to government schools every-
began with a regency under another where; the objection that this move
empress dowager, who recalled the might flood the already crowded
146 | The History of China

Zhenshu (“regular style”) calligraphy, written by the emperor Huizong (reigned 1100–
1125/26), Bei (Northern) Song dynasty, China; in the National Palace Museum, Taipei.
Courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taipei

bureaucracy was dismissed, seeing the When his extravagant expenditures put
significant gains it would bring in popu- the treasury in deficit, he rescinded
lar support among scholar-officials. The scholarships in government schools.
emperor then commissioned the con- Support for him among scholar-officials
struction of a costly new imperial garden. soon vanished.
The Song Dynasty | 147

More serious was carelessness in war agents as intermediaries between candi-

and diplomacy. The Song disregarded dates and themselves.
the treaty and coexistence with the Liao The Juchen swept across the Huang
empire, allied itself with the expanding He plain and found the internally decayed
Juchen from Manchuria, and made a con- Song an easy prey. During their long
certed attack on the Liao. The Song siege of Kaifeng (1126), they repeatedly
commander, contrary to long-held prohi- demanded ransoms in gold, silver, jewels,
bition, was a favoured eunuch; under him other valuables, and general supplies.
and other unworthy generals, military The court, whose emergency call for help
expenditures ran high, but army morale brought only undermanned reinforce-
was low. The fall of Liao was cause for ments and untrained volunteers, met the
court celebration, but because the Juchen invaders’ demands and ordered the capi-
had done most of the fighting, they tal residents to follow suit. Finally, an
accused the Song of not doing its share impoverished mob plundered the infa-
and denied it certain spoils of the con- mous imperial garden for firewood. The
quest. The Juchen soon turned on the court remained convinced that financial
Song. Huizong chose to abdicate at that power could buy peace, and the Juchen
point, giving himself the title of Daoist lifted the siege briefly. But once aware
“emperor emeritus” and leaving affairs that local resources were exhausted and
largely in the unprepared hands of his that the regime, even with the return of
son, Qinzong (reigned 1125/26–1127), the emperor emeritus, no longer had the
while seeking safety and pleasure him- capability of delivering additional wealth
self by touring the Yangtze region. from other parts of the country, the invad-
During that period the government ers changed their tactics. They captured
became increasingly ineffective. The the two emperors and the entire imperial
reform movement had enlarged both the house, exiled them to Manchuria, and put
size and duties of the clerical staff. The a tragic end to the Bei Song.
antireform period brought a cutback but
also a confusion that presented manipu- Nan (Southern)
lative opportunities to some clerks. Song (1127–1279)
Supervision was difficult because offi-
cials stayed only a few years, whereas The Juchen could not extend their con-
clerks remained in office for long periods. quest south of the Yangtze River. In
Bureaucratic laxity spread quickly to the addition, the Huai River valley, with its
clerical level. Bribes for appointments winding streams and crisscrossed marsh-
went either to them or through their lands, made cavalry operations difficult.
hands. It was they who made cheating Though the invaders penetrated this
possible at examinations, using literary region and raided several areas below the
148 | The History of China

Spring Fragrance, Clearing After Rain, ink and slight colour on silk album leaf by Ma Lin, Nan
(Southern) Song dynasty; in the National Palace Museum, Taipei. National Palace Museum,
Taipei, Taiwan, Republic of China

Yangtze, they found the weather there too own administration, following the Liao
warm and humid for them. Moreover, the model of dual government.
farther they went, the stronger the resis-
tance they met, as they penetrated into Survival and Consolidation
areas that had been leading the country
in productivity and population and there- Despite the fall of the Bei Song, the major-
fore in defense capability. Besides, the ity of scholar-officials refused to identify
Juchen felt concerned about the areas in themselves with the alien conquerors.
the rear that they had already occupied: The same was generally true at the grass-
one after another of their puppet rulers roots level, among numerous roving
there had failed to secure popular sup- bands of former volunteer militias, army
port, and the Juchen had been forced to units that had disintegrated, and bandits
consolidate control by setting up their who had arisen during the disorder. As
The Song Dynasty | 149

time went on, both civilians and military rural revenues, and prosperous cities did
men turned toward the pretender to the not suffer much from the imposition. The
throne, Gaozong. He was the only son of high priority placed on fiscal matters,
the former emperor Huizong who had though not publicized as in the previous
been absent from Kaifeng and thus reform period in order to avoid a bad
spared captivity. image, persisted throughout the Nan
As the founder of the Nan Song, Song, which was a long era of heavy
Gaozong devoted his long reign (1127– taxation.
62) to the arduous task of putting the Some officials, anxious to recover
pieces together. He rediscovered the lost the central plains, wished to have the
arts of his ancestors: recruiting bureau- capital located in Nanjing, or farther up
crats, securing fiscal resources, and the Yangtze in central China. Gaozong
extending centralized control. Because discreetly declined such advice because
he started with no more than a few thou- these locations were militarily exposed.
sand troops, he had to place a much Instead, he chose Hang (present-day
greater reliance on sophisticated politics, Hangzhou), renaming it Lin’an
which he often artfully disguised. By (“Temporary Safety”), as it occupied a
praising the old, established ways of his more defensible location. It was popu-
predecessors, he pleased the conserva- larly referred to as the place of imperial
tives who remained opposed to the headquarters (Xingzai), later known to
reform system. In reality, he modified the Marco Polo as Quinsai. Economically, it
system he had inherited where it had had the advantage of being at the corner
obviously failed and pragmatically of the lower Yangtze delta, the wealthy
retained the parts that were working. He core of the new empire.
honoured the scholar-officials who had The Nan Song, through continuous
refused to serve under the puppet rulers, development, eventually became wealth-
but he was also glad to have those who ier than the Bei Song had been. Though
had compromised their integrity in so its capital was near the sea—the only such
serving. While he denounced the notori- instance among the Chinese empires—
ous favourites who had misled his father, and international trade increased, the
he used the excuse of being broad- country was not sea-oriented. Gaozong
minded in picking many of their former maintained a defensive posture against
subordinates for key positions, especially periodic Juchen incursions from the
those experienced in raising tax reve- north and meanwhile proceeded to restore
nues. A new network of officials called imperial authority in the hinterland as far
the fiscal superintendent generals was west as the strategic Sichuan and in parts
set up in each region, but they reported of Shaanxi to its immediate north.
directly to court. Urban taxes were No less important was the need
increased; they were easier to collect than for adequate military forces. Neither
150 | The History of China

conscription nor recruitment would suf- called into question the legitimacy of his
fice. Because his position was militarily succession.
weak but financially strong, Gaozong A dramatic crisis occurred in 1141.
adopted the zhao’an policy, which offered On the eve of concluding peace negotia-
peace to the various roving bands. The tions, Gaozong decided to strip the three
government granted them legitimate sta- leading generals of their commands.
tus as regular troops, and it overlooked The generals, summoned to the capital
their minor abuses in local matters. Thus, on the pretext of rewarding their merits,
the size of imperial forces swelled, and were promoted to military commission-
the problem of internal security was ers, while their units were reorganized
largely settled. The court then turned its into separate entities directly under
attention to the control of these armies, imperial control. Two of the generals
which was inseparable from the issue of reconciled themselves to the nominal
war or peace with the Juchen. honours and sizable pensions, but the
Gaozong did not want to prolong the third, Yue Fei, openly criticized the peace
war; he valued most the security of his negotiations. He was put to death on a
realm. A few minor victories did not con- trumped-up charge of high treason. He
vince him that he could hope to recover later became the subject of a great leg-
northern China. Rather, he saw war as a end, in which he was seen as a symbol of
heavy drain on available resources, with patriotism. At the time, however, his
the risk of eventual defeat. Nor did he feel elimination signified full internal and
comfortable with the leading generals, on external security for the court.
whom he would have to rely in case the
war went on. He had to get around the Relations
critics at court, however, who found the with the Juchen
Juchen peace terms humiliating and
unacceptable: in addition to an enormous In spite of Gaozong’s personal inclina-
yearly tribute, the Juchen demanded that tion, his artful guiding hand, and the
the Nan Song formally admit, with due success of his efforts to consolidate the
ceremonials, its inferior status as a vassal empire, the impulse remained strong
state. The shrewd emperor found an among many idealistic Confucians to
impeccable excuse for accepting the attempt to recover the central plains.
terms by claiming filial piety: he sought Even when silenced, they were poten-
the return of his mother from captivity. tially critical of court policies. Gaozong
To this no Confucian could openly object. eventually decided to abdicate, leaving
Significantly, Gaozong refrained from the matter to his adopted heir, but he
asking the release of former emperor retained control from behind the throne.
Qinzong, as such a move would have The new emperor, Xiaozong (reigned
The Song Dynasty | 151

1163–89), sympathetic to the idealists, southern empire alone. It was also obvi-
appointed several of them to court posi- ous that the Chinese population in
tions and command posts. Information northern China consisted of new genera-
about a Juchen palace coup and alleged tions brought up under alien domination
unrest in the Juchen empire, particularly and accustomed to it.
in the parts recently occupied, led to a The Juchen not only retained their
decision to resume the war. An initial military edge over the Nan Song but
Song attack was repulsed with such also revived their ambition of southward
heavy losses that even regrouping took expansion. An offer was made to the
some time to accomplish. Sporadic fight- governor of Sichuan, who decided to
ing went on for nearly two years in the turn against the Song court in faraway
Huai valley, reflecting a military stale- Lin’an and to become king of a vassal
mate. The outcome, in 1165, was a state allied with the Juchen. The civilian
significant change in the new peace for- officials around him, however, took quick
mula: the vassal state designation was action and ended his separatist rebel-
dropped, and the Nan Song attained a lion. Though a passing danger, it
nearly equal footing with the Juchen, highlighted the fact that the Nan Song
although it had to defer to the latter consolidation was not entirely secure;
empire as the senior one. peace was preferred.
After the death of Gaozong in 1187,
Xiaozong followed the precedent of abdi- The Court’s Relations
cating. The international peace was kept with the Bureaucracy
during the brief reign of his son,
Guangzong (reigned 1190–94), but it was Gaozong set the style for all subsequent
broken again in 1205, during the reign Nan Song emperors. The first two emper-
of his grandson, Ningzong (reigned 1195– ors in the Bei Song, both strong militarists,
1224). The 40-year span of continuous had towered above the relatively modest
peace dimmed the memory of difficul- bureaucracy they had created; most of
ties in waging war. A new generation, their successors had found little difficulty
nurtured by a flourishing Confucian edu- in maintaining a balance in the bureau-
cation, tended to underestimate enemy cracy. The circumstances under which
strength and to think once more about the Nan Song came into being, however,
recovering the central plains. The Nan were quite different. Gaozong faced
Song again initiated a northward cam- tough competition in building up a loyal
paign, and again it met with defeat. The bureaucracy, first with the two puppet rul-
event left no doubt that the Juchen ers in the north and then from the dual
empire’s hold over northern China was administration the Juchen empire had
far beyond the military capability of the set up. He became keenly aware that a
152 | The History of China

cautious handling of bureaucrats was and made it known that they had done
essential. Later, the attempted rebellion so, but they did not take concrete action.
in Sichuan taught his successors the Sometimes an emperor would either
same lesson. order an investigation or express a gen-
Gaozong was an attentive student eral agreement with the criticism,
of history who consciously emulated thereby preventing the critics from
the restoration by the Dong (Eastern) making an issue of it by repeated
Han (AD 25–220) and defined his style remonstrances. On other occasions the
as the “gentle approach.” This meant emperors would listen to the critics and
using bureaucratic tactics to deal with commend them for their courage, but, to
the bureaucrats themselves. The gentle avoid stirring up a storm, the court would
approach proved helpful in maintaining explicitly forbid the circulating of private
a balance at court and thus in protect- copies of the criticisms among other
ing councillors and imperial favourites scholar-officials. More subtly, the court
from the criticism of “opinion-officials.” would sometimes announce an official
Absolutism had grown since the middle version of such criticism, leaving out the
of the Bei Song; the emperors had dele- most damaging part. Likewise, rectifying
gated much more power than before to edicts that followed the acceptance of
a few ranking councillors. Similarly, criticism often had little substance.
imperial favourites—e.g., eunuchs, other Reconciliation at court was another tech-
personal attendants of the emperor, nique: an emperor would deliberately, if
and relatives of the consorts—gained not evasively, attribute criticism to prob-
influence. able misunderstanding, assemble the
The opinion-officials by virtue of parties in dispute, ask them to compose
their rank or conviction wished to speak their differences, caution those under
against those who abused power and attack to mend their ways, and suggest to
influence; as a result of the factionalism the critics that their opinions, though
that had plagued the late Bei Song, their valid, should be modified. The handling
effectiveness had declined and never of severe critics who refused to change
recovered. But as long as absolutism was their stand required different tactics.
qualified by Confucian values and the Seemingly accepting their adverse opin-
monarch cherished a Confucian image, ion, the court might reward them by
he had to learn to deal with some adverse promotion to a higher position, whose
opinions, and he often resorted to sophis- functions did not include the rendering
ticated delaying tactics. Skilled at of further advice. Rarely did the court
bureaucratic manipulation, the Nan Song demote or punish opinion-officials, espe-
emperors listened to criticism with osten- cially those with prestige; sometimes it
sible grace, responded appreciatively, would not even permit them to resign or
The Song Dynasty | 153

to ask for a transfer. Any such move geographic area. In addition, the size of
tended to damage the court’s valuable the bureaucracy and fluidity of its com-
Confucian image. On sensitive issues position precluded anyone from
the emperors were likely to invoke their controlling it. The tenure of chief council-
absolutist power, but this was usually lor essentially depended on the sanction
handled gently, by quietly advising the of the emperor. At times even the chief
opinion-officials to refrain from com- councillor had to reaffirm his loyalty
menting on the issues again. along with other bureaucrats. Loyalty in
Under this bureaucratized manipula- absolutist terms being another name for
tion by the court, the institution of submission, the court, bureaucratized as
opinion-officials degenerated. Often the it was, retained its supreme position
emperors appointed their own friends beyond challenge.
to such posts, but just as often, when Nevertheless, the history of Nan
the emperors hinted that they were Song politics had much to do with pow-
displeased with certain ministers, the erful chief councillors, increasingly so as
opinion-officials dutifully responded time went on. Gaozong at first had a
with unfavourable evidence, thus furnish- rapid succession of ranking ministers,
ing the court with grounds for dismissals. but none of them measured up to the dif-
Such imperial manipulations served ficult task at hand: seeking external
manifold purposes: safeguarding abso- security by maintaining peace with the
lutist power and its delegation to various northern empire and maintaining inter-
individuals, disguising absolutism, and nal security by undermining the power
keeping the bureaucracy in balance. of leading generals. Only the chief coun-
cillor Qin Kui did both; moreover, he
The Chief Councillors increased tax revenues, strengthening
the fiscal base of the court and enriching
The later Nan Song emperors preferred the private imperial treasury. For these
not to take on the awesome burden of merits, he was given full support to
managing the huge and complex bureau- impose tight control over the bureau-
cracy. Most of them were concerned cracy as long as he lived. Powerful as he
chiefly with security and the status quo. was, he avoided doing anything that
The Nan Song court delegated a tremen- might arouse imperial suspicion. He had
dous amount of power and thus had a many dissident scholar-officials ban-
series of dominant chief councillors; ished from court, but only with imperial
none of them, however, ever was a poten- sanction. He accommodated many
tial usurper. No bureaucrat during the bureaucrats, even those who neither
Song era had a political base, a hereditary opposed nor followed him, but he made
hold, or a personal following in any many of them jealous of his great power
154 | The History of China

and of the rapid promotions he gave to qualifications, questioned his political

his son and grandson. Qin Kui failed, ability, and criticized his nepotistic
however, to properly assess the wiles of appointments. Reacting to the hostility,
his bureaucratized master, who turned he made first a crucial mistake and then
out to be the more skillful politician. a fatal one. First, he banned a particular
Upon Qin Kui’s death, the emperor school of Confucian idealists, led by Zhu
shifted all blame to him and recalled Xi. This proved unpopular, even among
from banishment some of his opponents, neutral scholar-officials. After he
thus restoring in time a balance in the rescinded the ban, he attempted to
bureaucracy. recruit support and to reunite the
After his voluntary abdication, bureaucracy by initiating the war against
Gaozong retained his power by using the Juchen. After its defeat in the war,
Xiaozong more or less as a chief council- the Song executed him as a sacrifice in
lor. Xiaozong subsequently failed to find its search for peace.
a firm hand among his successive minis- Shi Miyuan emerged as the domi-
ters, and the great burden on himself nant chief councillor. He came from a
was probably one reason that he chose bureaucratic family background and
to abdicate. His son, Guangzong, was understood the gentle approach and the
mentally disturbed, unresponsive to importance of accommodating various
bureaucratic consensus, and pathetically kinds of bureaucrats in order to achieve a
dominated by his consort. He turned political balance. Promoting on merit and
against Xiaozong and even refused to refraining from nepotism, he restored
perform state funeral rites when the stability. He also recognized that the ide-
retired emperor died—an unprecedented ological prestige the followers of Zhu Xi
default that shocked the court. The solu- had won had become a political factor,
tion was equally unprecedented: the and he appointed some of their promi-
empress dowager, the palace personnel, nent leaders to highly respectable posts
and the ranking ministers agreed to but without giving them real power. Like
force his abdication and oversee the the emperors he served, Shi wanted to
accession of Ningzong. Through the cri- have both authority and a good political
sis, Han Tuozhou, who renewed the war image. Ningzong had no son, and the
against the Juchen, moved rapidly into chief councillor helped him adopt two
power. Related originally to the empress heirs. When the emperor died without
dowager and again to a new consort, he designating an heir apparent, Shi Miyuan
received deferential treatment from arbitrarily decided in favour of the
Ningzong. He was made chief councillor younger one, which was contrary to the
but found it hard to control many bureau- normal order of succession but had the
crats who objected to his lack of scholarly backing of palace-connected personnel.
The Song Dynasty | 155

Both Lizong (reigned 1224/25–1264) treasury—from which the government in

and his successor Duzong (reigned deficit had to borrow funds—and their pri-
1264/65–1274) indulged excessively in vate intelligence systems to check on the
pleasure, though much of it was carefully chief councillors. Moreover, potential
concealed from the public. Shortly after competitors always existed in the bureau-
the death of Shi Miyuan, the role of chief cracy, ready to criticize the chief
councillor went to Jia Sidao, who, though councillors whenever state affairs went
he was denounced in history, actually badly enough to displease or disturb the
deserves much credit. He dismissed emperors. The chief councillors had enor-
many incompetents from the palace, mous power only by virtue of the imperial
court, bureaucracy, and army and curbed trust, and that lasted only as long as
excessive corruption by instituting minor things went tolerably well.
administrative reforms. His strict
accounting made the generals personally The bureaucratic style
liable for misappropriation of funds. A
system of public fields was introduced, Regular posts in the Nan Song civil ser-
which cut into the concentration of land- vice numbered about 20,000, without
ownership by requisitioning at a low counting numerous sinecures, tempo-
price one-third of large estates beyond rary commissions, and a slightly larger
certain sizes and using the income for number of military officers. Besides elim-
army expenditures when the government inating most patronage privileges—by
faced external danger and fiscal deficit. which high officials were entitled to
These measures, however, hurt the influ- obtain an official title for a son or other
ential elements of the ruling class, family member—the court occasionally
making Jia unpopular. He too had failed considered a general reduction in the
to practice the gentle approach. He was size of the bureaucracy, although vested
denounced by those who had defected to interests always opposed it. Those who
the enemy and later reconciled their guilt entered government service seldom
by placing the blame on him. dropped out or were thrown out.
Except in name, the several dominant Meanwhile, new candidates waiting for
chief councillors were nearly actual offices came in waves from state exami-
rulers by proxy. They ran the civil admin- nations, extra examinations on special
istration, supervised both state finance occasions, graduation from the National
and military affairs, and controlled most Academy, and special recommendations
scholar-officials by some varying combi- and unusual sponsorship; others gained
nation of gentle accommodation and official titles because their families con-
high-handed pressure. The emperors, tributed to famine relief or military
however, kept their separate imperial expenditures. Thus, the ever-increasing
156 | The History of China

supply of candidates far exceeded the there was a huge output of legislation in
vacancies. the form of imperial edicts and approved
According to Confucian theory, any memorials that took precedence over the
prosperity that made possible more newly adopted code and soon largely dis-
books in print, more schools, and a placed it in many areas of law. Song legal
better-educated elite was all for the bureaucrats periodically compiled and
good. But the original Confucian ideal edited the results of this outpouring of
intended to have the elite serve the soci- new laws. The new rules not only altered
ety in general and the community in the content of the (largely criminal)
particular rather than flood the bureau- sphere covered by the code but also legis-
cracy. Rising educational standards lated in the areas of administrative,
made the competition at examinations commercial, property, sumptuary, and
harder and perhaps raised the average ritual law. There were literally hundreds
quality of degree holders. of compilations of various sorts of laws.
Families with members in the Perhaps as a result of the growth of
bureaucracy responded in part by suc- this legal tangle from the late Bei Song
cessfully increasing the importance of onward, magistrates made increasing use
other avenues of entrance into govern- of precedents, decisions by the central
ment service, especially the “protection” legal authorities on individual cases, in
privilege that allowed high officials to reaching legal decisions. The govern-
secure official rank for their protégés ment sought to help its officials by
(usually junior family members). People instituting a variety of devices to encour-
outside the civil service responded by age officials and prospective officials to
altering their goals and values and by learn the law and to certify that those in
reducing the stress on the importance of office did have some familiarity with
entering the bureaucracy. It was not acci- things legal. There was an increase in the
dental that Neo-Confucian academies writing and publication of other sorts of
spread during the era, emphasizing works concerned with the law, including
moral self-development—not success in casebooks and the world’s oldest extant
examinations—as the proper goal of book on forensic medicine. Despite the
education. appearance of such works, which were
During the Song period, increased intended to help them, officials were
emphasis was placed on morals and eth- under strong pressure to rule in a conser-
ics and a continuous development of the vative way and to avoid rocking the boat.
law. The early Song had adopted a legal Many scholar-officials sought sim-
code almost wholly traceable to an earlier ply to keep things quiet and maintain
Tang code, but Song circumstances dif- the appearance that there was no serious
fered from those of the Tang. As a result, trouble. The bureaucratic style was to
The Song Dynasty | 157

follow the accustomed ways in accor- the prevalent mode of operation—namely,

dance with proper procedure, find mutual accommodation. Even the emperor
expedient solutions based upon certain adopted the bureaucratic style.
principles in spirit, make reasonable The picture was not entirely bleak.
compromises after due consideration of Evasions and deviations notwithstand-
all sides, and achieve smooth reconcilia- ing, the letter of the laws and the
tions of divergent views. To protect one’s formalities of procedures had to be
own career record it was essential to fulfilled. Definite limits were set on offi-
engage in time-consuming consultations cial negligence and misconduct. For
with all appropriate offices and to report example, suppressing evidence or dis-
to all concerned authorities so that torting information were punishable
everyone else would have a share of offenses. Minor juggling of accounts
responsibility. Anyone who criticized the went on, but outright embezzlement was
bureaucratic style would be going against never permissible. Expensive gifts were

Chinese Civil Service

The Chinese civil service constituted the administrative system of the traditional Chinese gov-
ernment, the members of which were selected by a competitive examination. The system gave the
Chinese empire stability for more than 2,000 years and provided one of the major outlets for
social mobility in Chinese society. It later served as a model for the civil-service systems that
developed in other Asian and Western countries.
The Qin dynasty established the first centralized Chinese bureaucratic empire in the 3rd
century BC and thus created the need for an administrative system to staff it. Succeeding dynas-
ties further refined and expanded the system to what many consider its highest point during the
Song dynasty—although the bureaucratic style of mutual favouritism sometimes led to corrup-
tion. Public schools were established throughout the country to help the talented but indigent,
business contact was barred among officials related by blood or marriage, relatives of the impe-
rial family were not permitted to hold high positions, and promotions were based on a merit
system in which a person who nominated another for advancement was deemed totally respon-
sible for that person’s conduct.
Almost all Song officials in the higher levels of the bureaucracy were recruited by passing the
jinshi examinations (which tested a candidate’s knowledge of the Confucian Classics), and the
jinshi became regularly established affairs. After 1065 they were held every three years, but only
for those who first passed qualifying tests on the local level.
The examination system was finally abolished in 1905 by the Qing dynasty in the midst of
modernization attempts. The whole civil-service system as it had previously existed was over-
thrown along with the dynasty in 1911/12.
158 | The History of China

customary and even expected, but an influential elements in the community

undisguised bribe was unacceptable. who had connections with high circles.
The refined art of the bureaucratic style Though all bureaucrats complained of
was not sophistry and hypocrisy alone; it clerical abuses, many connived with the
required a circumspect adherence to the clerks, and none had a viable alternative
commonly accepted substandard norms, to the existing situation. One significant
without which the maintenance of gov- suggestion was to replace the clerks
ernment would have been impossible. with the oversupply of examination
candidates and degree holders, who pre-
The Clerical Staff sumably had more moral scruples. But
that solution had no chance of being
The norms for the clerks were even lower, considered, because it implied a down-
especially in local government. Some 300 grading of the status of those who
clerks in a large prefecture or nearly 100 considered themselves to be either poten-
in a small one were placed under the tial or actual members of the ruling class.
supervision of a few officials. The clerks The law did place definite limits on
had numerous dealings with various clerical misbehaviour. But when a clerk
other elements in the community, was caught in his wrongdoing, he knew
whereas the officials, being outsiders, enough to save himself—taking flight
rarely had direct contacts. Holding prac- before arrest, getting a similar job else-
tically lifelong tenure after benefiting where under a different name, defending
from the cumulative experience of their himself through time-consuming proce-
fathers and uncles before them, the clerks dures, appealing for leniency in
knew how to operate the local adminis- sentencing, requesting a review, or apply-
trative machinery far better than did the ing for clemency on the occasion of
officials, who served only brief terms imperial celebrations. What prevented
before moving elsewhere. Clerks often clerical abuses from getting worse was
received inadequate salaries and were not so much official enforcement of legal
expected to support themselves with limits as it was the social convention in
“gifts” from those needing their services. the community. For themselves as well
The clerks under honest, strict, and hard- as for their descendants, the clerks could
working magistrates would recoil, but ill afford to overstep the socially accept-
only briefly, because such magistrates able limits.
would soon either gain promotion for The net result of a large bureaucracy
their remarkable reputations, or their and its supporting clerical staff, accom-
strict insistence on clean government modating one another in various defaults,
would become intolerable to their malfunctions, and misconduct within
superiors, colleagues, subordinates, and loose limits, was a declining tax yield, tax
The Song Dynasty | 159

evasion by those who befriended collud- his followers, a state permeated by true
ing officials and clerks, and an undue Confucian practices would be so inter-
shift of the tax burden onto those least nally strong and would have such an
able to pay. attraction for outsiders that retaking the
north would require only a minimal effort;
The rise of a state lacking true Confucian practices
Neo-Confucianism would be so internally weak and unat-
tractive that retaking the lost territories
The rise of the particular school of Neo- would be quite impossible.
Confucianism led by Zhu Xi takes on Moreover, threatened by the Juchen
special meaning in this context. The Neo- adoption of the same heritage, the Song
Confucian upsurge beginning in the late felt driven to make an exclusive claim to
Tang embraced many exciting exten- both legitimacy and orthodoxy. Such a
sions of the Classical vision. Noteworthy claim required that the new departures
during the Bei Song was the emergence be interpreted as reaffirmation of ancient
of a new Confucian metaphysics that was ideals. Thus, the intellectual trend that
influenced by Buddhism and that bor- developed under Zhu Xi’s leadership was
rowed freely from Daoist terminology referred to first as Daoxue (“School of
while rejecting both religions. Of rele- True Way”) and later as Lixue (“School
vance to Nan Song political and social of Universal Principles”). Education, to
conditions was its continuous growth the thinkers of this school, meant a far-
into a well-integrated philosophical sys- deeper self-cultivation of moral
tem that synthesized metaphysics, ethics, consciousness, the ultimate extent of
social ideals, political aspirations, indi- which was the inner experience of feeling
vidual discipline, and self-cultivation. at one with universal principles. These
The best thinkers of the early Nan men, who might be described as tran-
Song were disillusioned by the realiza- scendental moralists in Confucianism,
tion that previous Neo-Confucian also made a commitment to reconstruct a
attempts had failed. Reforms that had moral society—to them the only conceiv-
sought to apply statecraft had ended in able foundation for good government.
abuses and controversies. The spread of With missionary-like zeal, they engaged
education had not coincided with an in propagation of this true way and
uplifting of moral standards. The loss of formed moral-intellectual fellowships.
the central plains was a great cultural Zhu Xi, the great synthesizer, ranked the
shock, but to talk of recovering the lost Classics in a step-by-step curriculum,
territory was useless unless it was pre- interpreted his foremost choices, collec-
ceded by a rediscovery of the true tively known as the Sishu (“Four Books”),
meaning of Confucianism. To Zhu Xi and summed up a monumental history in a
160 | The History of China
The Song Dynasty | 161

short version full of moralistic judgments, the court. The school was proscribed as
prepared other extensive writings and false learning and un-Confucian. Several
sayings of his own, and opened the way dozen of its leaders, including Zhu Xi,
for an elementary catechism, titled the were banished, some to distant places.
Sanzijing (“Three Character Classics”), Thenceforth, all state examination candi-
that conveyed the entire value system dates had to declare that they had no
of this school in simple language for connection with the school.
what approximated mass education. Most historical accounts follow the
Many idealistic scholars flocked to view that the controversy was another
Zhu Xi, his associates, and his disciples. example of factional strife, but that was
Frustrated and alienated by the prevalent not the case. The attackers were not a
conditions and demoralizing low stan- cohesive group, except for their common
dards, these intellectuals assumed a resentment toward the school, nor was
peculiar archaic and semireligious life- the school itself an active group in poli-
style. Prominent in scholarship, tics. The conflict was in fact one between
educational activities, and social leader- two polarized levels—political power and
ship and filling some relatively minor ideological authority. The nature of the
government posts, they asserted their Confucian state required that the two
exclusive ideological authority with an should converge if not coincide.
air of superiority, much to the displeasure The persecution boomeranged by
of many conventional Confucians. making heroes out of its victims and
Though they were not keen about poli- arousing sympathy among neutral
tics, the prestige they acquired was an scholar-officials. Realizing his mistake a
implicit threat to those in power. The few years later, Han lifted the ban. Most
chief councillor Han Tuozhou was par- historical accounts leave an erroneous
ticularly alarmed when he found some of impression that, once the ban was
his political adversaries sympathetic to removed, the Zhu Xi school of Neo-
and even supporting this particular Confucianism by its preeminence soon
school. A number of other bureaucrats at gained wide acceptance, which almost
various ranks shared Han’s alarm; one automatically raised it to the coveted sta-
after another, they accused the school of tus of official orthodoxy. But in reality the
being similar to a subversive religious rise to orthodoxy was slow and achieved
sect, calling it a threat to state security by political manipulation, occasioned by
and attacking its alleged disrespect for an internal crisis of imperial succession

Neo-Confucian leader Zhu Xi, ink on paper, by an unknown artist; in the National Palace
Museum, Taipei. Courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, Republic of China
162 | The History of China

and then by the external threat of the weaknesses, maintained an effective

Mongols. Shi Miyuan, the chief council- defense against the Mongols for four
lor who made Lizong emperor, created decades—the longest stand against
circumstances that forced the elder heir Mongol invasions anywhere. The final
of Ningzong to commit suicide. This was Song defeat came in part because the
damaging to the image of the court and Mongol forces, frustrated for many years
to that of Shi himself. Mending political in their attempts to break the main Song
fences, he placed a few of the school’s vet- line of resistance, drove through territo-
eran leaders in prestigious positions in ries to the west and outflanked the Song
order to redress the balance of the defenders. The Song capital, Lin’an,
bureaucracy. finally fell in 1276 without much fighting,
In 1233, the year before the Mongol all the high-ranking officials and officers
conquest of Juchen, the Mongols hon- having already fled. The empire itself
oured Confucius and rebuilt his temple came to an end in 1279, after its last fleet
in Beijing. In 1237 their emerging nomadic had been destroyed near Guangzhou,
empire, already occupying a large por- when a loyal minister with the boy pre-
tion of northern China, reinstituted a tender to the throne committed suicide
civil service examination, thus claiming by jumping into the sea.
that it too was a Confucian state. Later Chinese historians attempted
Threatened both militarily and culturally, to explain the fall of the Nan Song as the
the Nan Song made Zhu Xi’s commentar- result of internal decay and abuses, and
ies official, his school the state orthodoxy, so they stressed the problems of heavy
and its claim the accepted version—that taxation, inflated paper currency, bureau-
the true way of Confucius had been lost cratic laxity, and clerical abuses. The
for more than a millennium and that the absence of any large-scale uprisings
line of transmission was not resumed among the peasantry, however, suggests
until, inspired by the early Bei Song mas- that they overstated the seriousness of
ters, Zhu Xi reestablished it. This implied such problems. To explain this lack of
that whatever Confucianism the Mongols popular discord, most historical accounts
took over was but a pale imitation and cite Chinese patriotism, the point being
without legitimacy. that the war against the Mongols was for
cultural rather than merely dynastic sur-
Internal Solidarity During vival. Though partly true, this was not
the Decline of the Nan Song the only reason. Other significant fac-
tors contributed to this high degree of
Honouring the Zhu Xi school did not internal solidarity: (1) the government
reinvigorate the Nan Song administra- mobilized the resources of the wealthiest
tion, but the military, despite some region, that of the lower Yangtze,
The Song Dynasty | 163

without overburdening other regions; (2) stressed loyalty, and that in turn probably
the tax burden and the emergency requi- helped bolster the strength of the dynasty
sitions fell mostly on the prosperous in the face of foreign invasion and helped
urban sectors rather than on rural areas, limit internal disloyalty.
the backbone of the empire; and (3)
scholar-officials in many areas, in spite Song culture
of their shortcomings, were sophisti-
cated in the art of administration, The Song was an era of great change in
moving quickly to put down small upris- most facets of Chinese life. Some of these
ings before they got larger or offering developments were the outgrowths of
accommodative terms to induce some earlier patterns, while others were largely
rebel leaders to come over while divid- born under that dynasty. These develop-
ing the rest. Finally, the Neo-Confucian ments often related to or were made
values had pervaded the country through possible by major changes in Chinese
more books, more schooling, and greater economic life.
efforts by Neo-Confucians to promote An agricultural revolution produced
moral standards, community solidarity, plentiful supplies for a population of
and welfare activities and through wide- more than 100 million—by far the largest
spread Neo-Confucian roots planted at in the world at the time. Acreages under
the local levels by half-literate storytell- cultivation multiplied in all directions,
ers, makeshift theatres, and traveling stretching across sandy lands, climbing
companies in various performing arts. uphill, and pushing back water edges. A
The examination system itself played variety of early ripening rice, imported
a major role in the Confucianization of during the 11th century from Champa (in
Chinese society. Only a small percentage present-day Cambodia), shortened the
of the candidates actually passed the growing season to fewer than 100 days,
degree examinations and entered the making two crops per year the norm and
civil service. The vast majority, thor- three crops possible in the warm south.
oughly imbued with Confucian studies, Among other new crops the most impor-
returned to the larger society, often to tant was cotton, which was made into
serve as teachers to the next generation. clothing for rich and poor alike; silk and
Furthermore, the examination system hemp were also important. Improved
reinforced the deeply Confucian charac- tools, new implements, and mechanical
ter of the curriculum, from the lowest devices that raised manpower efficiency
level of primary education to the highest were widely used and found their way
level in the academies. Children began into guidebooks used by the literate com-
imbibing Confucian moral precepts munity leaders. The production of such
when they began to read. These precepts minerals as gold, silver, lead, and tin also
164 | The History of China

increased. Consumption of iron and

coal grew at a faster rate from 850 to
1050 than it later did in England dur-
ing the first two centuries of the
Industrial Revolution. The Chinese,
however, never developed technol-
ogy that used these two resources to
generate power mechanically.
Manufacturing made tremen-
dous headway within the
skill-intensive pattern but with the
aid of new devices, better process-
ing, a beginning of division of
labour, and expertise. Chinese por-
celain attained international fame.
Though information on ordinary
handicrafts was available in hand-
books and encyclopaedias, advanced
skills were guarded as trade secrets.
As production and regional trade
became specialized, this stimulated
mutual growth.
Transportation facilities
improved, allowing production
away from the sources of supplies
and making products available to
distant regions. The state main-
tained highways, with staffed
stations, for official travel and a cou-
rier service network, the latter being
an index of centralized government
control. Along the highways and
Longquan celadon wine jar and cover with light
bluish green glaze, Song dynasty, 12th century, branching byways stood private
Longquan, Zhejiang province, China; in the hostels and inns frequented by pri-
Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Height vate traders. Rivers carried tribute
25.4 cm. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert vessels and barges, private ship-
Museum, London ping, transfer crafts, fishing boats,
and pleasure yachts. Large ships
The Song Dynasty | 165

with multiple decks were propelled by service skill that remained unmatched
fast-moving wheels paddled by man- until the appearance of adding machines
power; many sailed on the high seas, and computers. Cities changed: the Tang
aided by accurate compasses, charts, and pattern of walled-in blocks, each for a par-
instruments as well as by experience in ticular trade, broke down; stores appeared
distant navigation. The expanding sea in various parts of cities; and trade guilds
trade, apart from that with Japan and proliferated. Though official documents
Korea, moved southward and linked up and scholarly essays adopted a down-
with merchants from Persia and Arabia. grading tone toward commercial
Some Chinese merchants began to settle activities, Song China became a society
in Southeast Asia. For the first time in of wholesalers, shippers, storage keepers,
history, Chinese naval forces assumed a brokers, traveling salesmen, retail shop-
vital military role, though China had not keepers, and peddlers. Urban life reached
become a sea power. a new intensity. The populations of sev-
An advanced money economy was eral metropolitan areas approached one
everywhere in evidence. Many cultivated million.
lands produced cash crops. By 1065 the Crowding was serious in the cities,
Bei Song government was taking in and houses usually had narrow front-
annual cash tax payments that were 20 ages. Fires were frequent and disastrous.
times what the Tang had received in 749. Neighbourhood fire squads, with water
The income of the Nan Song consisted of containers at hand, could not prevent
more cash revenues than grain and tex- destruction, and some fires lasted sev-
tile receipts. The economy had progressed eral days. Nonetheless, prosperity was
to such a state that it needed more means the keynote of urban life. Teahouses,
of exchange. Merchants used drafts wine shops, exquisite cuisines, and
called feiqian (“flying money”) and cer- catering services for private parties
tificates of deposits made elsewhere. existed in multitude and variety.
State monopoly agencies in salt and tea Pleasure grounds provided daily amuse-
followed with their respective certificates, ment and festival merriment with
which were as good as money. The gov- acrobats, jugglers, wrestlers, sword swal-
ernment first permitted printed paper lowers, snake charmers, fireworks,
money for limited regional circulation gambling, performing arts of all sorts,
and then authorized it as nationwide puppet shows, storytellers, singing girls,
legal tender. (China was the first country and professionally trained courtesans.
to do so.) Upper-class families enjoyed higher
Busy transactions approached a com- culture, with diversions such as music,
mercial revolution, carried on by rapid pets, intricate games, hobbies, calligra-
calculations on the abacus, a specialized phy, painting, and poetry. Noticeably
166 | The History of China

declining were hunting, horseback riding, knowledge so much that scholars com-
and polo. Gentility displaced sportsman- piled voluminous histories, collected
ship. The prosperous cities also provided works, comprehensive handbooks, com-
easy prey for pickpockets and profes- pendiums, and encyclopaedias. Fine arts
sional thieves. Inasmuch as pauperism also reached new heights.
appeared in cities, parallel to rural under- The term early modern has often
employment and unemployment, the been applied in describing Song culture,
government undertook relief and welfare because it not only advanced beyond
measures such as orphanages, nursing the earlier pattern in China and far
homes for the aged poor, charitable grave- ahead of the rest of the world at the
yards, and state pharmacies. time but also had many startlingly
Knowledge expanded because of new features that approximated later
specialization. Medicine embraced skills developments in western Europe. This
such as acupuncture, obstetrics, den- characterization, though helpful to high-
tistry, laryngology, ophthalmology, and light and appreciate the progress during
treatment of rheumatism and paralysis. Song times, is somewhat misleading,
The demand for improved technology, since this stage of development did not
aided by certain concerns of the Neo- pave the way for more modernity later.
Confucian philosophy, helped to On the contrary, the Song pattern
promote numerous investigations that attained cultural stability, giving rise to
approached the use of scientific meth- the myth of an unchanging China.
ods. Literacy spread with printing, which These conflicting images stemmed
evolved from rubbing through block from the cultural and regional diversity
printing to the use of movable type that of the Song, in which modern-style
facilitated much larger-scale production advances existed alongside continuing
at reduced cost. A great many scholars older practices. In some areas, such as
achieved high standing through the delta lands immediately south of the
Classical studies, newly developed Yangtze River, sizable estates grew up
archaeology, philosophical interpreta- with a complicated social pattern char-
tions, statecraft ideas, Classical forms of acterized by tenant farming. Elsewhere,
poetry, an evolving lyric poetry called ci, in areas less well-developed, owner-
which had its origin in singing, and writ- farmers constituted a greater proportion
ten versions of popular songs, called of the population, while in other regions
sanqu. Of greatest influence on scholar- the landlords tried to bind the tillers to
officials in succeeding generations was a the soil. The same confusion was
masterly prose style that was original and reflected in the status of women. During
creative but was always used in the name the Song the notorious practice of foot
of reviving ancient models. Diversified binding first became common, clearly
and specialized developments widened marking a fall in the status of women,
The Song Dynasty | 167

but there is evidence that during the capital investment. This disincentive to
Nan Song (unlike any other Chinese investment helped create a relatively sta-
dynasty) daughters as well as sons could ble economic and technological pattern
inherit property in their own names. that remained with little change for cen-
Furthermore, Song families tried in vari- turies thereafter. Despite this slowing of
ous ways to strengthen the ties created economic and technological develop-
by the marriages of their daughters to ment, however, the Song did give birth to
other families. changes. Not only did a new Confucian
The extraordinarily rapid pace of eco- synthesis emerge but also the devices
nomic and technological change that that spread the new ideas among the peo-
marked the Bei Song seems to have ple at large. The urban and urbanized
slowed during the Nan Song. For reasons culture that arose in the Song was
that are not wholly clear, Chinese society retained and developed in succeeding
did not break through its inherited pat- dynasties, when the early modern (or
terns in any radically new ways. It may be neo-traditional) pattern created in the
that, with an abundance of inexpensive Song provided both the model for and
labour, economic rationality moved men the basis of the gradual transformation of
to produce through increased amounts of some aspects of Chinese life that belied
labour rather than through innovation or the image of China as unchanging.
The yuan, or
Mongol, Dynasty

Genghis Khan rose to supremacy over the Mongol tribes in

the steppe in 1206, and within a few years he attempted to
conquer northern China. By securing in 1209 the allegiance
of the Tangut state of Xi (Western) Xia in what are now
Gansu, Ningxia, and parts of Shaanxi and Qinghai, he dis-
posed of a potential enemy and prepared the ground for an
attack against the Jin state of the Juchen in northern China.
At that time the situation of Jin was precarious. The Juchen
were exhausted by a costly war (1206–08) against their hered-
itary enemies, the Nan (Southern) Song. Discontent among
the non-Juchen elements of the Jin population (Chinese and
Khitan) had increased, and not a few Chinese and Khitan
nobles defected to the Mongol side. Genghis Khan, in his
preparation for the campaign against Jin, could therefore
rely on foreign advisers who were familiar with the territory
and the conditions of the Jin state.

Invasion of the Jin State

The Mongol armies started their attack in 1211, invading

from the north in three groups; Genghis Khan led the centre
group himself. For several years they pillaged the country;
The Yuan, or Mongol, Dynasty | 169

genghis Khan
Genghis, or Chinggis, Khan (original name Temüjin; b. 1162—d. 1227) was the great Mongolian
warrior-ruler of the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Under his leadership, the Mongols consoli-
dated nomadic tribes into a unified Mongolia and fought from China’s Pacific coast to Europe’s
Adriatic Sea, creating the basis for one of the greatest continental empires of all time. The leader
of a destitute clan, Temüjin fought various rival clans and formed a Mongol confederacy, which in
1206 acknowledged him as Genghis Khan (“Universal Ruler”). By that year the united Mongols
were ready to move out beyond the steppe. He adapted his method of warfare, moving from depend-
ing solely on cavalry to using sieges, catapults, ladders, and other equipment and techniques
suitable for the capture and destruction of cities. In less than 10 years he took over most of Juchen-
controlled China; he then destroyed the Muslim Khwārezm-Shah dynasty while his generals raided
Iran and Russia. He is infamous for slaughtering the entire populations of cities and destroying
fields and irrigation systems but admired for his military brilliance and ability to learn. He died
on a military campaign, and the empire was divided among his sons and grandsons.

The Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan on his deathbed, surrounded by his four sons. Hulton
Archive/Getty Images
170 | The History of China

finally, in 1214 they concentrated on the Jin, left Bianjing in 1233, just before the
central capital of the Jin, Zhongdu (pres- city fell, and took up his last residence in
ent-day Beijing). Its fortifications proved Cai prefecture (Henan), but that refuge
difficult to overcome, so the Mongols was also doomed. In 1234 the emperor
concluded a peace and withdrew. Shortly committed suicide, and organized resis-
afterward the Jin emperor moved to the tance ceased. The southern border of the
southern capital at Bianjing (present- former Jin state—the Huai River—now
day Kaifeng). Genghis Khan considered became the border of the Mongol domin-
this a breach of the armistice, and his ions in northern China.
renewed attack brought large parts of
northern China under Mongol control Invasion of the Song State
and finally resulted in 1215 in the cap-
ture of Zhongdu (renamed Dadu in 1272). During the next decades an uneasy coex-
The Mongols had had little or no experi- istence prevailed between the Mongols
ence in siege craft and warfare in densely in northern China and the Song state in
populated areas; their strength had been the south. The Mongols resumed their
chiefly in cavalry attacks. The assistance advance in 1250 under the grand khan
of defectors from the Jin state probably Möngke and his brother Kublai Khan—
contributed to this early Mongol suc- grandsons of Genghis Khan. Their armies
cess. In subsequent campaigns the outflanked the main Song defenses on
Mongols relied even more on the sophis- the Yangtze River and penetrated deeply
ticated skills and strategies of the into southwestern China, conquered the
increased number of Chinese under independent Dai (Tai) state of Nanzhao
their control. (in what is now Yunnan), and even
After 1215 the Jin were reduced to a reached present-day northern Vietnam.
small buffer state between the Mongols Möngke died in 1259 while leading an
in the north and Song China in the south, army to capture a Song fortress in
and their extinction was but a matter of Sichuan, and Kublai succeeded him.
time. The Mongol campaigns against Xi Kublai sent an ambassador, Hao Jing, to
Xia in 1226–27 and the death of Genghis the Song court with an offer to establish
Khan in 1227 brought a brief respite for peaceful coexistence. Hao did not reach
Jin, but the Mongols resumed their the Song capital of Lin’an (now
attacks in 1230. Hangzhou), however, but was interned at
The Song Chinese, seeing a chance to the border and regarded as a simple spy.
regain some of the territories they had lost The Song chancellor, Jia Sidao, consid-
to the Juchen in the 12th century, formed ered the Song position strong enough to
an alliance with the Mongols and besieged risk this affront against Kublai; he thus
Bianjing in 1232. Aizong, the emperor of ignored the chance for peace offered by
The Yuan, or Mongol, Dynasty | 171

A Mongol encampment, detail from the Cai Wenji scroll, a Chinese hand scroll of the Nan
(Southern) Song dynasty. Courtesy of Asia House Gallery, New York

Kublai and instead tried to strengthen town of Xiangyang (present-day Xianfan)

the military preparations against a pos- on the Han River was a key fortress, block-
sible Mongol attack. Jia secured military ing the access to the Yangtze River, and
provisions by a land reform that included the Mongols besieged it for five years
confiscating land from large owners, but (1268–73). The Chinese commander
this alienated the greater part of the land- finally surrendered in 1273, after he had
lord and official class. The Song generals, obtained a solemn promise from the
whom Jia distrusted, also had grievances, Mongols to spare the population, and he
which may explain why a number of them took office with his former enemies.
later surrendered to the Mongols without Kublai Khan’s warning to his forces
fighting. not to engage in indiscriminate slaughter
From 1267 onward the Mongols, this seems to have been heeded to a certain
time assisted by numerous Chinese auxil- extent. Several prefectures on the Yangtze
iary troops and technical specialists, River surrendered; others were taken
attacked on several fronts. The prefectural after brief fighting. In January 1276,
172 | The History of China

Mongol troops reached Lin’an. Last- and exploitation of fiefs considered as

minute attempts by the Song court to their private domain.
conclude a peace failed, and the Mongol
armies took Lin’an in February. The Early Mongol Rule
reigning Song empress dowager and
the nominal emperor—a boy—were taken The government system during the
to Dadu and granted an audience by early years of the Mongol conquest was
Kublai Khan. a synthesis of Mongol military adminis-
National resistance in the Song state tration and a gradual return to Chinese
continued, however, and loyalists traditions in those domains ruled by
retreated with two imperial princes into former subjects of the Jin state. The
the southern province of Fujian and from most important office or function in
there to the region of Guangzhou Mongol administration was that of the
(Canton). In 1277 the last remnants of the darughatchi (seal bearer), whose pow-
court left Guangzhou and eventually fled ers were at first all-inclusive; only
the mainland by boat. A faithful minister gradually were subfunctions entrusted
drowned himself and the last surviving to specialized officials in accordance
imperial prince in the ocean in March with Chinese bureaucratic tradition.
1279. When organized resistance ceased This re-feudalization of northern China,
soon afterward, foreign invaders con- along Mongol lines with a slight under-
trolled the whole Chinese empire for the structure of Chinese-type bureaucrats,
first time in history. lasted for many years.
The central administration of Mongol
China under the Mongols China was largely the creation of Yelü
Chucai, originally a Jin state official of
Mongol Government and Khitan extraction who had acquired a
Administration profound Chinese scholarship and who
had become one of Genghis Khan’s
After their initial successes in northern trusted advisers. Yelü continued to serve
China in 1211–15, the Mongols faced the under Ögödei, who became grand khan
problem of how to rule and extract mate- in 1229, and persuaded him to establish a
rial benefits from a largely sedentary formal bureaucracy and to replace indis-
population. They were assisted by Khitan criminate levies with a rationalized
and Chinese and even Juchen renegades; taxation system along Chinese lines. An
these defectors were treated as “compan- important part of Yelü’s reforms was the
ions” (nökör) of the Mongols and were creation of the Central Secretariat
given positions similar to the higher (Zhongshu Sheng), which centralized the
ranks of the steppe aristocracy. Their civilian administration and achieved
privileges included the administration some continuity. The territory was
The Yuan, or Mongol, Dynasty | 173

divided into provinces, and the provin- in Mongolia to Shangdu (“Upper

cial administrations were responsible for Capital”), near present-day Dolun in
regularized taxation. The people had to Inner Mongolia. In 1267 the official capi-
pay a land tax and a poll tax, either in tal was transferred to Zhongdu, where
kind (textiles and grain) or in silver. Kublai ordered the construction of a new
Merchants had to pay a sales tax. walled city, replete with grand palaces
Monopolies on wine, vinegar, salt, and and official quarters, that was renamed
mining products were also introduced. Dadu (“Great Capital”) before its comple-
All this enabled the treasuries of the tion. Under its Turkicized name,
Mongol court to accumulate consider- Cambaluc (Khan-baliq, “The Khan’s
able wealth. Town”), the capital became known
In spite of the success of his eco- throughout Asia and even Europe. But,
nomic policy, Yelü’s influence decreased true to nomad traditions, the Mongol
during his later years. One reason was court continued to move between these
bitter opposition from the Mongol feuda- two residences—Shangdu in summer and
tories and from those Chinese, Juchen, Dadu in winter. With the establishment
and Khitan nobles who were used to rul- of Dadu as the seat of the central bureau-
ing independently in their appanages, cracy, Mongolia and Karakorum no
which they exploited at will. Also, Ögödei longer remained the centre of the Mongol
himself apparently lost interest in the empire. Mongolia began to fall back to
internal conditions of the Mongol domin- the status of a northern borderland, where
ion in China. During the 1230s Muslims a nomadic way of life continued and
from the Middle East had already begun where Mongol grandees, dissatisfied with
to fill the higher positions at the Mongol the growing Sinicization of the court,
court, and their ruthless exploitation of repeatedly engaged in rebellions.
the Chinese created widespread resent- Kublai, who even prior to 1260 had
ment of Mongol rule. A relapse into surrounded himself with Chinese advis-
feudal anarchism seemed inevitable, and ers such as the eminent Buddho-Daoist
Yelü’s reforms fell into temporary abey- Liu Bingzhong and several former Jin
ance. China was ruled more or less like a scholar-officials, was still the nominal
colony by the foreigners and their allies. overlord of the other Mongol dominions
(ulus) in Asia. By then, however, his
Changes under Kublai Khan Chinese entourage had persuaded him to
and his Successors accept the role of a traditional Chinese
emperor. A decisive step was taken in
Kublai Khan’s ascendancy in 1260 1271 when the Chinese dominion was
marked a definite change in Mongol gov- given a Chinese dynastic name—Da
ernment practice. Kublai moved the seat Yuan, the “Great Origin.” Before this the
of Mongol government from Karakorum Chinese name for the Mongol state was
174 | The History of China

Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan founded the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty in China.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Yuan, or Mongol, Dynasty | 175

Da Chao (“Great Dynasty”), introduced administrations were actually branches

about 1217. It was a translation of the of the Central Secretariat. The structures
Mongol name Yeke Mongghol Ulus of the various provincial administrations
(“Great Mongol Nation”) adopted by throughout China were smaller replicas
Genghis Khan about 1206. The new of the Central Secretariat. According to
name, however, was a departure from Chinese sources, in 1260–61 the lower
Chinese traditions. All earlier Chinese echelons in the Central Secretariat were
dynasties were named for ancient feudal mostly Chinese; the high offices, how-
states or geographic terms; even the ever, even if they had traditional Chinese
Khitan and the Juchen had followed this names, were reserved for non-Chinese.
tradition by naming their states Liao (for Surprisingly, Kublai Khan had few
the Liao River in Manchuria) and Jin Mongols in high administrative posi-
(“Gold,” for a river in Manchuria that had tions; apparently suspicious of some of
a Juchen name with that meaning). Yuan his tribal leaders, he preferred absolute
was the first nongeographic name of a foreigners. The military sphere was
Chinese dynasty since Wang Mang affected least by the attempts to achieve
established the Xin dynasty (AD 9–25). a synthesis between Chinese and native
During the 1260s the central bureau- ways of life; there the Mongol aristocracy
cracy and the local administration of the remained supreme.
Chinese empire were remodeled on Too many antagonistic social and
Chinese lines, with certain alterations ethnic groups existed within the Yuan
introduced by the Jin state. The Central government to secure a stable rule. The
Secretariat remained the most important traditional Chinese value system had
civilian authority, with specialized agen- largely disappeared, and no political eth-
cies such as the traditional six ministries ics had replaced it. While personalized
of finance, war, officials, rites, punish- loyalty focused on the ruler, the compan-
ments, and public works. The Shumiyuan ionship of nökör relations was not enough
(Military Council) was another institu- to amalgamate the heterogeneous ruling
tion inherited from previous dynasties. A group into a stable body. This unbal-
Yushitai (Censorate) was originally cre- anced system of government could
ated for remonstrations against the function only under a strong ruler; under
emperor and criticism of policies, but a weak or incompetent emperor, disinte-
increasingly it became an instrument of gration was certain, and a decline in
the court itself and a tool to eliminate efficiency resulted.
other members of the bureaucracy. In the The former scholar-officials of China
main the territorial divisions followed remained to a great extent outside the
Chinese models, but the degree of local governmental and administrative struc-
independence was much smaller than it ture; only minor positions were open to
had been under the Song; the provincial them. The Mongols never made full use
176 | The History of China

of the administrative potential of the generally barred from holding higher

scholar-officials, fearing their compe- office (only rarely would one of them rise
tence and abilities. The ruling foreign to some prominence). The Mongols and
minority in China was more an elite of the semuren were tax-exempt and enjoyed
the colonialist type than a part of the the protection of the law to a higher
Chinese social system. degree than did the hanren and nanren.
The unwillingness of the Mongols to The formal distinction between vari-
assimilate with the Chinese is shown by ous ethnic groups and the corresponding
their attempts to cement the inequalities graded status was not a Mongol inven-
of their rule. After the Song empire had tion but a social differentiation inherited
been conquered, the population of China from the Jin state. In the same way, many
was divided into four classes. The first institutions were taken over from the Jin.
class was the Mongols themselves, a tiny Law in Yuan China was based partly on
but privileged minority. Next came the the legislation of the Jin and partly on
semuren (“persons with special status”), traditional Chinese law; Mongol legal
confederates of the Mongols such as practices and institutions also played a
Turks or Middle Eastern Muslims. The great role, particularly in penal law. The
third group was called the hanren (a term Yuan legal code has been preserved in
that generally means Chinese but that the dynastic history, Yuanshi, as well as
was used to designate the inhabitants of other sources. In addition, many rules,
only northern China); this class included ordinances, and decisions of individual
the Chinese and other ethnic groups liv- cases are collected in compilations such
ing in the former Jin state, as well as Xi as Yuandianzhang, which throw much
Xia, Juchen, Khitan, Koreans, Bohai, and light not only on the legal system but
Tangut, who could be employed in some also on social conditions in general.
functions and who also formed military Mongol and Chinese dualism is also
units under Mongol leadership. The last reflected in the problem of administra-
group was the nanren, or manzi, pejora- tive documents and languages. Few of
tive terms in Chinese, meaning “southern the ruling Mongols, even in the later
barbarian,” which designated the former years of the Yuan, knew Chinese, and the
subjects of Song China (about three- number who mastered the Chinese
fourths of the Chinese empire). The script was still smaller. On the other
lowest stratum in Yuan China was occu- hand, only a few Chinese bothered to
pied by the slaves, whose numbers were learn the language of their conquerors.
quite considerable. Slave status was Administration and jurisdiction there-
hereditary, and only under certain condi- fore had to rely largely on interpreters
tions could a slave be freed. and translators. Mongol was the primary
More than four-fifths of the taxpayers language; most decisions, ordinances,
came from the nanren group, which was and decrees were originally drafted in
The Yuan, or Mongol, Dynasty | 177

Mongol, and a Chinese interlinear ver- measure in the field of economic commu-
sion was added. This Chinese version nications that was unorthodox in Chinese
was in the colloquial language instead of eyes: about 1280, concessions for grain
the formal documentary style, and it fol- transport overseas were granted to
lowed the Mongol word order so that it some private Chinese entrepreneurs
must have seemed barbaric to the native from the southeastern coastal region
literati. Many of these Chinese versions (some Chinese government officials were
have survived in collections such as traditionally antagonistic toward private
Yuandianzhang. trade and enterprise, an attitude that the
ruling Mongols did not share). These pri-
Economy vate shipowners transported in their fleets
grain from the lower Yangtze region to
The Mongol conquest of the Song empire northern Chinese harbours and from
had, for the first time since the end of the there to the capital. Early in the 14th cen-
Tang, reunified all of China. Song China tury, however, these private fleet owners,
had traded with its neighbours, the Liao who had made huge fortunes, were
and the Jin, but trade had been strictly accused of treason and piracy, and the
controlled and limited to authorized bor- whole action was abolished. The Mongol
der markets. The Mongol conquest government never replaced them with
therefore reintegrated China’s economy. government fleets.
The Mongol administration, in its desire Another factor that contributed to
to utilize the resources of the former Song the flourishing internal trade in China
territory, the most prosperous part of was standardized currency. The Song and
China, tried to promote internal trade and Jin had issued paper money but only in
aimed at a fuller integration of north addition to bronze coins, which had
and south. The region around the capital remained the basic legal tender. The
was dependent on grain transports from Yuan government was the first to make
the south, and large quantities of food and paper money the only legal currency
textiles were needed to keep the Mongol throughout the empire (1260). This facili-
garrisons. The Grand Canal, which had tated financial transactions in the private
linked the river systems of the Yangtze, sector as well as in the state treasuries. As
the Huai, and the Huang since the early long as the economy as such remained
7th century, was repaired and extended to productive, the reliance on paper money
Dadu in 1292–93 with the use of corvée as the basic currency had no detrimental
(unpaid labour) under the supervision of effects. Only when the economy began to
a distinguished Chinese astronomer and disintegrate under the last Mongol ruler
hydraulic engineer, Guo Shoujing—an did the paper money become gradually
action entirely within Chinese tradition. valueless and inflation set in. One reason
This was preceded, however, by another for the paper currency might have been
178 | The History of China

that much bronze and copper was used China, and Genghis Khan had apparently
for the Buddhist cult and its statues, been impressed by the Daoist patriarch
another that metal ores in China proper Changchun. In 1223 Genghis Khan
were insufficient to supply enough coins granted to Changchun and his followers
for some 80 million people. full exemption from taxes and other
duties demanded by the government;
Religious and this was the first of a series of edicts
Intellectual Life granting special privileges to the clergy
of the various religions in China.
The Mongols did not try to impose their For some time it seemed as if Chinese
own religion (a cult of heaven, the forces Daoism would win favour with the
of nature, and shamanistic practices) on Mongol rulers at the expense of Chinese
their subjects. This gave comparative Buddhism. The Buddhists, however, also
freedom to the existing religions in China, profited from the open-minded attitude
including what the Mongol rulers consid- at the court; they tried to win influence
ered to be the sanjiao (“three teachings”): within the imperial family, prompted by
Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. the fact that many Buddhist institutions
Both Daoism and Buddhism retained had been occupied by the Daoists, who
their distinctive identities and organiza- relied on Mongol favour. Under the grand
tions; although they often rivaled each khan Möngke, several discussions were
other, they were not mutually exclusive. held between the Daoist and Buddhist
The Neo-Confucianism of the Zhu Xi clergy (1255–58), ending in a ruling that
school enjoyed orthodox status after the the former Buddhist temples should be
1310s, but adherents of the three teach- returned to their original purpose.
ings interacted philosophically and Imperial orders also outlawed some apoc-
intellectually in a way that popularized ryphal Daoist texts, in which Buddhism
the “amalgamation” of the three schools was presented as a branch of Daoism and
among the common people and the lite- the Buddha as a reincarnation of Laozi,
rati, if not the foreign residents, of China. the founder of Daoism. But Daoism as
such continued to exist under the Yuan,
Daoism and the fiscal privileges originally
granted to the Daoist followers of
Under the Jin dynasty several popular Changchun were extended on principle
Daoist sects had flourished in northern to all clergies.

Timber pagoda of the Fogong Temple, 1056, Song dynasty; at Yingxian, Shanxi province,
China. Christopher Liu/ChinaStock Photo Library
The Yuan, or Mongol, Dynasty | 179
180 | The History of China

Buddhism resentment among Chinese Buddhists

and the population at large by its brutal
The spokesmen of Chinese Buddhism and avaricious procedures, property sei-
under the early Mongol rulers came zures, and extortions from the population.
from the Chan (Zen) sect (a discipline Throughout the Yuan dynasty, com-
focused on meditation). Their high intel- plaints continued against the arrogant
lectuality and refined aestheticism, behaviour of Tibetan lamas. (Under the
however, did not appeal to the Mongols, last emperor, Togon-temür, Tibetan cler-
who felt more attracted by the mixture of ics introduced the court to sexual rites
magic practices, rather nebulous meta- calling for intercourse with consecrated
physics, and impressive symbolism in females—practices not unfamiliar in
the visual arts of Tibetan Buddhism. Indian and Tibetan cultures but shock-
Kublai Khan appointed a young Tibetan ing to the Chinese elite.)
lama known by the honorific name of Although Buddhism had won a vic-
’Phags-pa as imperial preceptor (dishi); tory among the ruling minority of China,
’Phags-pa became the head of the it was a foreign rather than a Chinese
Buddhist faith in all Mongol dominions, Buddhism. The national varieties of
including China. A special government Buddhism, especially Chan Buddhism,
agency was established in 1264 to deal continued to exist, and monasteries in
with Buddhism and served as a sort of southern China sometimes became
bureau for the imperial preceptor; it was islands of traditional civilization where
in charge not only of Buddhist affairs in monks and lay Buddhists alike cultivated
general but also of Tibetan affairs, poetry, painting, and all the intellectual
although Tibet remained outside the pastimes of the Chinese literati class, but,
administration of China proper, and no on the whole, Chinese Buddhism suffered
Mongol garrisons were ever established from the general conditions in the Yuan
in Tibet. Tibetan politicians had thus empire. The exemption from taxes and
succeeded in winning over the Mongol corvée attracted many persons to monas-
court and in retaining a more-than-nom- tic life for purely utilitarian reasons; the
inal independence. more society disintegrated, the more
After the conquest of Song China, a people sought refuge behind the monas-
special agency for the supervision of tery walls. About 1300 the number of
Buddhism in southern China was estab- monks throughout China was estimated
lished and placed under the control of at 500,000, and it must have grown dur-
another Tibetan lama. There thus existed ing the last decades of Mongol rule.
two supervisory offices for Buddhism— Monks played a great role in the rebel-
one in Dadu for northern China and lions to which the Yuan empire eventually
Tibet and one in Lin’an for southern succumbed; also, the first Ming emperor
China. The southern office caused great had been a monk for some time.
The Yuan, or Mongol, Dynasty | 181

Foreign Religions extended to the clergy of all religions,

but they were dealt a strong blow when
Tibetan Buddhism always remained out- the literary examinations were discon-
side Chinese civilization, as did other tinued following the Mongol conquest.
imported religions. A certain number of For many centuries the examinations,
Muslims came to China, all from the based on Confucian texts, had been the
Middle East or from Central Asia. The basis for the selection of officials and for
Turkic Öngüt tribe was largely Nestorian their privileged position within the state
Christian. Many tombstones with a bilin- and society. After Kublai’s accession,
gual Turkic and Chinese inscription Confucianism had a more cordial recep-
have been preserved, but none of these tion at the Mongol court through the
believers seems to have been Chinese efforts of Chinese advisers such as Liu
by origin; a census taken about 1300 in Bingzhong and the great Confucian mas-
Zhenjiang (in the present-day province ter Xu Heng. Under their stewardship a
of Jiangsu) lists the Nestorians together certain Confucianization took place in
with foreign nationalities. The number government and education. Chinese rit-
of Nestorian Christians in China was so uals were performed for a while in the
great that in 1289 a special agency for dynastic temple (taimiao), erected in
their supervision was established in Zhongdu in 1263. State sacrifices were
Dadu. Manichaeism, which had spread offered to Confucius, and the study of
to China under the Tang, became extinct the Classics was encouraged. However,
as an organized religion under the Yuan, many of the rites observed at the court
but some Manichaean communities that were either Tibetan Buddhist or
were probably absorbed by messianic inherited from the Mongol nomadic past
Buddhist sects, such as the White Lotus were continued. The emperor Buyantu
sect, a group that attracted many follow- (reigned 1311–20), one of the most
ers among the Chinese lower classes. Sinicized Mongol rulers, reintroduced
the examination system in 1313, but it
Confucianism remains doubtful how well the examina-
tions functioned. They certainly did not
Confucianism was perceived by the guarantee an official career, as those
Mongols as a Chinese religion, and it had under the Song and, to a certain extent,
mixed fortunes under their rule. The under the Jin had done.
teachings of the Neo-Confucian school of The system of the Yuan, as introduced
Zhu Xi from the Song period were intro- in 1313, provided different types of curri-
duced to the Mongol court at Zhongdu in cula for Mongols, other foreigners
the late 1230s but were confined to lim- (semuren), and Chinese; also, the require-
ited circles there and in northern China. ments were different: Chinese had to
Confucian scholars enjoyed the benefits show their complete mastery of the
182 | The History of China

curriculum, whereas Mongols and other Literature

foreigners had to give only a mediocre
performance. This inequality was even Chinese literature of the period also
formalized for the candidates who were to showed conservative tendencies. Poetry
be admitted to the state academy (guozi- composition remained a favourite pas-
jian). The first examinations were held in time of the educated class, including the
the presence of the emperor in 1315, and, Sinicized scholars of Mongol, Central
of the 300 persons granted the title of Asian, and western Asian origins, but no
doctor (jinshi), 75 were Mongols, 75 were great works or stylistic innovations were
other foreigners, 75 were northern created. During the last chaotic decades
Chinese (hanren), and 75 came from of the Yuan, some notable poets emerged,
southern China; they all received official such as the versatile Yang Weizhen and
positions within the bureaucracy, the bold and unconventional Gao Qi.
Mongols the higher and Chinese the Many prose works dealing with contem-
lower posts. The positions of power within porary events and persons were written
the hierarchy remained in the hands of under the Yuan, but these are notable for
the Mongols and other foreigners. their content, not their literary merit.
Under Buyantu, for the first time the Surprisingly harsh criticism and satire
interpretation and commentaries of the against the Mongols and also undis-
Neo-Confucian school were made oblig- guised Song loyalism found open
atory. This cemented Neo-Confucian expression, presumably because the
ideology not only among the Chinese Mongols were uninterested in what the
literati who wished to pass an examina- Chinese wrote in Chinese and, moreover,
tion but also for future generations. were mostly unable to read it. Some writ-
Chinese Confucian orthodoxy from the ers collected rare or interesting and
14th to the 19th century therefore rested piquant items and transmitted many
largely on the foundations it had aspects of Song culture to future genera-
received under the Yuan. In spite of all tions. The lament for the refinement and
this, Classical scholarship under the grandeur of the Song is a constant theme
Yuan did not produce a single remark- in Yuan writings.
able work but struggled under an During the early Yuan period, the
adverse political and intellectual climate. traditional Chinese official historiogra-
Striving to preserve their sacred tradi- phy was restored under the charge of
tion, the Confucian scholars were content the Hanlin Academy, which sponsored
with expounding the doctrines laid down the compilation of the official dynastic
by the Song philosophers, seeking to har- histories of the Song, Liao, and Jin states
monize the different philosophical issues conquered by the Mongols and undertook
and points of view rather than exploring the compilation of the reign chronicles
new horizons. (shilu) and other governmental
The Yuan, or Mongol, Dynasty | 183

compendiums. The major achievement of literature and colloquial novels found

official historiography was the compila- their clientele chiefly among the mer-
tion (1329–33) of the Jingshi dadian, a chant and artisan classes.
repository of 800 juan (chapters) of official Foreigners, chiefly of Turkic or
documents and laws; the text is now lost. Persian origin, also contributed to
Private historiography, especially works Chinese literature under the Yuan. They
on the events of the Song, fared rather wrote poetry and painted in the Chinese
poorly under the Yuan because of the way in order to distinguish themselves in
adverse political and intellectual climate. fields where they could gain prestige
The most-distinguished contribution was among the educated Chinese. All the for-
written by Ma Duanlin and titled Wenxian eigners who wrote in Chinese seem to
tongkao (“General Study of the Literary have avoided any reference to their for-
Remains”): an encyclopaedic documen- eign origin or creed. Nothing, in fact,
tary history of Chinese institutions from could be more Chinese than their produc-
the earliest times to the middle reign of tions. Even foreigners who, like the
the Nan Song dynasty. Persians, came from a country with a con-
In urban society a literature in the siderable literary tradition of its own
vernacular language began to flourish, never attempted to introduce their native
untrammeled by rigid norms of formalis- forms, subject matter, or religions. No lit-
tic or ideological orthodoxy. Novels and erary symbiosis seemed possible, and,
stories were written for the amusement of although China was exposed to more
a wide-reading public, and dramatic lit- external influences under the Yuan than
erature reached such a peak in Yuan ever before, Chinese literature shows lit-
China that later literary criticism tle effect from such contacts with the
regarded the Yuan as the classical age for outside world. It is perhaps symptomatic
operatic arias, or qu (a word that is also that under the Yuan no literary works
used for a full opera, with arias and from other civilizations were translated
chanted recitatives). The collection into Chinese and that practically no
Yuanquxuan (“Selection from Yuan translations of Chinese Classical and his-
Operas”), with 100 opera librettos, and torical works into Mongol have survived.
the storyteller “prompt books” for drama- There seemed to be only the alternatives
tized historical romances such as Sanguo of complete rejection of Chinese civiliza-
(“Three Kingdoms”) give ample evidence tion, as practiced by most Mongols, or
for the creativity and vitality of Chinese wholesale absorption by Chinese culture.
dramatic literature. This phenomenon
may perhaps be considered as evidence The Arts
that under the Yuan a certain urbaniza-
tion took place and something like a Conservatism played a dominant role in
bourgeoisie emerged, because dramatic the arts during the Mongol period. In
184 | The History of China

sponsored arts such as sculpture and artistic vision of their own, and conserva-
ceramics, the Mongols’ desire to lay tism meant mere perpetuation. Song,
claim to the Chinese imperial heritage Liao, and Jin ceramic types were contin-
was not complemented by any strong ued, often altered only by increased bulk,
while the great artistic achievement
of the era, blue-and-white ware, prob-
ably derived from non-imperial
sources. Government-sponsored
Buddhist sculpture often attained
high artistic standards, preserving the
realism and powerful expression of
Tang and Song traditions, while in the
finest sculpture of the time, such as
the reliefs at Juyong Pass north of
Dadu (1342–45), this was combined
with a flamboyant surface decor and a
striking dramatization better suited
to foreign taste than to the increas-
ingly restrained Chinese aesthetic.
Conservatism also tempered the
private arts of calligraphy and paint-
ing: the scholar-amateurs who
produced them felt impelled to
preserve their heritage against a
perceived barbarian threat.
Conservatism, however, often took
the form of a creative revival that
combed the past for sources of
inspiration and then artistically
transformed them into a new idiom.
In calligraphy, Zhao Mengfu gave
new impetus to the 4th-century style
of Wang Xizhi, which then became a
standard for Chinese writing and
book printing for centuries. In paint-
Example of xingshu by Zhao Mengfu, Yuan
ing, Zhao and his contemporary Qian
dynasty; in the National Palace Museum,
Xuan helped to complete the devel-
Taipei. Courtesy of the National Palace
Museum, Taipei, Taiwan, Republic of China opment of a distinctively amateur
style that ushered in a new phase in
The Yuan, or Mongol, Dynasty | 185

the history of Chinese painting. Their their subject matter, stylistic references,
work did not continue that of the previ- or inscriptions.
ous generation but ranged widely over Naturalistic painting styles also
the available past tradition, and past contnued in popularity throughout the
styles rather than observed objects first two-thirds of the period, painted by
became the subject of artistic interpreta- such important artists as Li Kan and
tion. The naturalism of Song painting Ren Renfa. Perpetuating northern tradi-
gave way to calligraphically inspired tions of the Tang and Song periods,
abstractions. Paintings became closely these styles were practiced chiefly by
linked in style to the written inscriptions scholar-officials associated with the
that appeared upon them with increas- court at the capital. Several members of
ing frequency and prominence. Skillful the Mongol royal family became major
professional techniques and overt visual patrons or collectors of such conserva-
attractiveness were avoided, replaced by tive styles, although imperial patronage
deliberate awkwardness and an intellec- remained slight in comparison with ear-
tualized flavour. Their works were done lier periods.
for private purposes, often displaying or In the latter third of the dynasty, with
concealing personal and political a sharp decline in the practice of painting
motives, to be understood only by fellow by scholar-officials and northerners, Yuan
literati through the subtle allusions of painting was increasingly represented by

Nine Horses, detail of a hand scroll by Ren Renfa, ink and colours on silk, 1324, Yuan dynasty; in
the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo., U.S. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art,
Kansas City, Missouri; purchase Nelson Trust (72-8)
186 | The History of China

the innovative approach of Zhao Mengfu largely with the Italian republics (e.g.,
as practiced by reclusive scholars from Genoa, Venice). To the Italians, trade
the Suzhou-Wuxing area. Four of these— with the East was so important that the
the landscape painters Huang Gongwang, Practica della mercatura, a handbook on
Wu Zhen, Ni Zan, and Wang Meng— foreign trade, included the description of
transformed and blended certain trade routes to China.
elements from the past into highly per- Direct contacts between China and
sonal, easily recognizable styles and later Europe were insignificant, however, even
came to be known as the Four Masters of though China was part of an empire
the Yuan dynasty. In the early Ming stretching from Dadu to southern Russia.
period the Hongwu emperor decimated Chinese historical and geographic liter-
the Suzhou literati and with it Suzhou ature had little to say about the European
painting; by the end of the 15th century, parts of the Mongol empire; in the official
however, Suzhou artists once again domi- dynastic history of the Yuan, references
nated Chinese painting, and the styles of to foreign countries are limited to coun-
the Four Masters became the most influ- tries such as Korea, Japan, Nam Viet,
ential of all painting models in later Myanmar (Burma), and Champa, with
Chinese history. which China had carried on trade or trib-
utary relations for centuries, and there
Yuan China and the West are some scattered data on Russia. For
some time a Russian guards regiment
As has been mentioned, Mongol rulers existed in Dadu, and some Russian sol-
favoured trade in all their dominions. In diers were settled in military colonies in
China too they eliminated state trade eastern Manchuria. As a whole, however,
controls that had existed under the Song the civilizations of Europe and China
and Jin, so that internal and external did not meet, although contacts were
trade reached unprecedented propor- made easy; Europe remained for the
tions. It seems, however, that China’s Chinese a vague region somewhere
transcontinental trade with the Middle “beyond the Uighur.”
East and Europe was in the hands of non- More important were the contribu-
Chinese (mainly Persians, Arabs, and tions from the Islamic countries of the
Syrians). Silk, the Chinese export com- Middle East, chiefly in the fields of sci-
modity par excellence, reached the ence and technology. During the reign of
Middle East and even Europe via the car- Kublai Khan, Arab-Persian astronomy
avan routes across Asia; Chinese and astronomical instruments were intro-
ceramics were also exported, chiefly into duced into China, and the Chinese
the Islamic countries. The Asian coun- astronomer Guo Shoujing operated an
tries concentrated their European trade observatory. Nevertheless, the basic
The Yuan, or Mongol, Dynasty | 187

conceptions of astronomy remained looked for potential converts among non-

Chinese, and no attempt was made to Muslim people of Asia. After Franciscan
adopt the Middle Eastern mathematical envoys brought back information on
and theoretical framework. Similarly, what was known as Cathay (northern
Middle Eastern physicians and surgeons China) in the mid-13th century, Pope
practiced successfully in China, but Nicholas IV, a former Franciscan, dis-
Chinese medical theory remained unin- patched a Franciscan mission to the court
fluenced by Western practices. In of the grand khan in Dadu (known in
geography a Chinese world map of the Europe as Cambaluc). The missionaries
14th century incorporates Arabic geo- formed the nucleus of a Catholic hierar-
graphical knowledge into the Chinese chy on Chinese soil: Cambaluc became
worldview. It shows not only China and the seat of an archbishopric, and in 1323 a
the adjacent countries but also the Middle bishopric was established in Quanzhou.
East, Europe, and Africa; the African con- A renowned Franciscan missionary was
tinent is already given in its actual Odoric of Pordenone, who traveled in
triangular shape. But this knowledge China in the 1320s; his reports, together
probably never spread beyond a limited with letters written by other Catholic mis-
circle of professional geographers, and it sionaries, brought firsthand information
is certain that the Sino-centric world con- on China to medieval Europe and today
ception continued unchallenged under throw some light on the earliest mission-
the Yuan dynasty; no curiosity of what lay ary work in China. The Franciscan
beyond the Chinese borders was aroused. mission, which had to compete with the
For the countries to be reached by sea Nestorian clergy, was carried on more by
(such as Southeast Asian countries and the foreigners in China than by the
India), Chinese works of the Yuan offer Chinese themselves. The friars preached
only a poor extract from the Song work in Tatar (i.e., either Mongol or Turkic)
Zhufanzhi (c. 1225; “Description of the and apparently won no Chinese converts.
Barbarians”). Significantly, no Chinese source men-
The situation was different regarding tions the activities of these missionaries;
European knowledge of China. The the Chinese probably regarded the
Mongol advance into eastern Europe had Franciscans as one of the many strange,
given Europeans an acute awareness that foreign sects, perhaps an outlandish vari-
actual people lived in regions hitherto ety of Buddhism. Archaeological
shrouded in vague folkloric legends and evidence of the presence of Europeans
myths. The Islamic world had similarly and of Roman Catholicism has been dis-
become a reality to Europeans with the covered only in modern times; one
first Crusades. It was, therefore, only nat- example is from Yangzhou (in present-
ural that the Roman Catholic Church day Jiangsu), where the Latin inscription
188 | The History of China

on a tombstone dated 1342 is a record of the Venetian adventurer Marco Polo, on

the death of an Italian lady whose name the other hand, inaugurated for Europe
suggests some relation to a Venetian the era of discoveries and created a new
family engaged in trade with Asia. vision of the world, with China as a part.
Only the last direct contact between Although China as a separate cul-
the papal see and Yuan China can be cor- tural entity was realized only dimly and
roborated by both Western and Chinese gradually in the European West, Chinese
sources. In 1336 a group of Alani influences spread under the Yuan
Christians in Dadu sent a letter to Pope dynasty to other parts of Asia. Chinese
Benedict XII, who sent John of Marignola medical treatises were translated into
with a mission to the Mongol court. The Persian, and Persian miniature painting
mission reached the summer capital, in the 13th and 14th centuries shows
Shangdu, in 1342. Chinese sources many influences of Chinese art. Chinese-
recorded the date of its audience as Aug. type administration and chancellery
19, 1342. The country the envoys came practices were adopted by various
from is given by the Chinese source as Mongol dominions in Central Asia and
Fulang, a Chinese version of the name the Middle East. It has even been sug-
Farang (Franks), which was used in the gested that the invention of gunpowder
Middle East as a general term for and of printing in Europe was because of
Europeans. The arrival of envoys from a sort of stimulus diffusion from China,
what must have seemed the end of the although a direct influence from China
world so impressed the court that an art- cannot be proved.
ist was commissioned to paint a portrait Chinese civilization itself remained
of the battle horse that Marignola had very much what it had been before the
brought as a present; this portrait was Yuan dynasty, with a certain cultural iso-
still extant in the 18th century but is now lationism a distinctive element. Neither
lost. Chinese literati wrote many eulogies the self-image of the Chinese nor China’s
on the portrait of the horse; the country of position in the world changed very dras-
Fulang, however, did not interest the tically. The change and challenges to
Chinese poets, and the whole embassy of which China was exposed under the
Marignola is invariably described in Yuan, however, can explain many of the
terms that point to an unbroken Sino- characteristic traits of Ming history.
centric attitude. Thus, the contact
between the pontiff and the Mongol court The End of Mongol Rule
remained without further consequence.
The end of Mongol rule over China The basic dilemma of Mongol rule in
and the strong nationalism of the Ming China—the Mongols’ inability to achieve
dynasty also doomed the Catholic mis- a durable identification with Chinese
sions of the 14th century. The reports of civilian institutions and to modify the
The Yuan, or Mongol, Dynasty | 189

military and colonialist character of their soldiers, and so the progress of the rebel
rule—became more apparent under movement in the 1350s and 1360s
Kublai’s successors and reached a maxi- remained slow. But the rebel armies who
mum under Togon-temür, the last Yuan had chosen what is now Nanjing as their
ruler. Togon-temür was not unfriendly base took Dadu in 1368; the Mongol
toward Chinese civilization, but this emperor fled, followed by the remnants
could not alter the contempt of many of his overthrown government.
leading Mongols for Chinese civilian The Mongols remained a strong
institutions. For centuries China had potential enemy of China for the next
known clique factionalism at court, but century, and the Genghis Khan clan in
this was mostly fought with political Mongolia continued to regard itself as
means; Mongol factionalism usually the legitimate ruler of China. The cen-
resorted to military power. Militarization tury of Mongol rule had some undesirable
gradually spread from the Mongol ruling effects on the government of China:
class into Chinese society, and not a few imperial absolutism and a certain brutal-
dissatisfied Chinese leaders established ization of authoritarian rule, inherited
regional power based on local soldiery. from the Yuan, were features of the suc-
The central administration headed by a ceeding Ming government. Yet, Mongol
weak emperor proved incapable of pre- rule lifted some of the traditional ideo-
serving its supremacy. logical and political constraints on
Thus, the military character of Chinese society. The Confucian hierar-
Mongol rule paved the way for the suc- chical order was not rigidly enforced as it
cess of Chinese rebels, some of whom had been under the Tang and Song, and
came from the upper class, while others the Mongols thereby facilitated the
were messianic sectarians who found upward mobility of some social classes,
followers among the exploited peas- such as the merchants, and encouraged
antry. The Mongol court and the extensive growth of popular culture,
provincial administrations could still which had been traditionally downgraded
rely on a number of faithful officials and by the literati.
The Ming Dynasty


I neptitude on the throne, bureaucratic factionalism at

court, rivalries among Mongol generals, and ineffective
supervision and coordination of provincial and local admin-
istration had gravely weakened the Yuan government by
the 1340s. And in 1351 disastrous flooding of the Huang and
Huai river basins aroused hundreds of thousands of long-
oppressed Chinese peasants into open rebellion in northern
Anhui, southern Henan, and northern Hubei provinces.
Rebel movements, capitalizing on the breakdown of Yuan
control, spread rapidly and widely, especially throughout
central China. By the mid-1360s, large regional states had
been created that openly flouted Yuan authority: Song in
the Huai basin, under the nominal leadership of a mixed
Manichaean-Buddhist secret-society leader named Han
Lin’er; Han in the central Yangtze valley, under a onetime
fisherman named Chen Youliang; Xia in Sichuan, under an
erstwhile general of the rebel Han regime named Ming
Yuzhen; and Wu in the rich Yangtze delta area, under a for-
mer Grand Canal boatman named Zhang Shicheng. A
onetime salt trader and smuggler named Fang Guozhen
had simultaneously established an autonomous coastal
satrapy in Zhejiang. While Yuan chieftains contended with
one another for dominance at the capital, Dadu (present-
day Beijing), and in the North China Plain, these rebel
The Ming Dynasty | 191

states to the south wrangled for survival then the Wu domain to the east. He also
and supremacy. Out of this turmoil captured the Zhejiang coastal satrap,
emerged a new native dynasty called Fang Guozhen. Zhu then announced his
Ming (1368–1644). intention of liberating all of China from
Mongol rule and proclaimed a new
The Dynasty’s Founder dynasty effective with the beginning of
1368. The dynastic name Ming, meaning
Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the new “Brightness,” reflects the Manichaean
dynasty, came from a family originally influence in the Song-revivalist Han
from northwestern Jiangsu province Lin’er regime under which Zhu had
who by Yuan times had deteriorated into achieved prominence. Zhu came to be
itinerant tenant farmers in northern known by his reign name, the Hongwu
Anhui province. Orphaned by famine (“Vastly Martial”) emperor.
and plague in 1344, young Zhu was taken
into a small Buddhist monastery near
Fengyang city as a lay novice. For more
than three years he wandered as a men-
dicant through the Huai basin before
beginning studies for the Buddhist
priesthood in his monastery. In 1352,
after floods, rebellions, and Yuan cam-
paigns against bandits had devastated
and intimidated the whole region, Zhu
was persuaded to join a Fengyang branch
of Han Lin’er’s uprising. He quickly
made himself the most successful gen-
eral on the southern front of the rebel
Song regime, and in 1356 he captured
and set up his headquarters in Nanjing, a
populous and strategically located city
on the Yangtze River. There he began
assembling a rudimentary government
and greatly strengthened his military
power. Between 1360 and 1367, still nom-
The Hongwu emperor, hanging scroll,
inally championing the cause of the
ink and colour on silk, 14th century; in
Song regime, his armies gained control
the National Palace Museum, Taipei.
of the vast central and eastern stretches
Courtesy of the National Palace Museum,
of the Yangtze valley, absorbing first the Taipei, Taiwan, Republic of China
Han domain to the west of Nanjing and
192 | The History of China

Hongwu is the reign name of Zhu Yuanzhang (b. Oct. 21, 1328—d. June 24, 1398), founder of
China’s Ming dynasty. A poor peasant orphaned at 16, Zhu entered a monastery to avoid starva-
tion. Later, as a rebel leader, he came in contact with educated gentry from whom he received an
education and political guidance. He was advised to present himself not as a popular rebel but
as a national leader against the foreign Mongols whose Yuan dynasty was on the point of col-
lapse. Defeating rival national leaders, Zhu proclaimed himself emperor in 1368, establishing
his capital at Nanjing and adopting Hongwu as his reign title. He drove the last Yuan emperor
from China that year and reunified the country by 1382. His rule was despotic: he eliminated the
posts of prime minister and central chancellor and had the next level of administration report
directly to him. He prohibited eunuchs from participating in government and appointed civilian
officials to control military affairs.

Vigorous campaigning in 1368 drove pacified aboriginal peoples on the border

the Mongols out of Shandong, Henan, between China and Myanmar in 1398.
and Shanxi provinces and from Dadu Thus, by the end of the Hongwu emper-
itself, which was occupied by Ming or’s 30-year reign in 1398, his new dynasty
forces on September 14, and simultane- controlled the whole of modern China
ously extended Ming authority through proper and dominated the northern fron-
Fujian and Hunan into Guangdong and tier regions, from Hami through Inner
Guangxi provinces on the south coast. In Mongolia and into northern Manchuria.
1369–70 Ming control was established in  
Shaanxi, Gansu, and Inner Mongolia, and The Dynastic Succession
continued campaigning against the
Mongols thereafter extended northwest- The Ming dynasty, which encompassed
ward to Hami (1388), northeastward to the reigns of 16 emperors, proved to be
the Sungari (Songhua) River in one of the stablest and longest ruling
Manchuria (1387), and northward into periods of Chinese history. Rulers of
Outer Mongolia beyond Karakorum, Korea, Mongolia, East Turkistan,
almost to Lake Baikal (1387–88). In opera- Myanmar, Siam, and Nam Viet regularly
tions to the west and southwest, Ming acknowledged Ming overlordship, and at
forces destroyed the rebel Xia regime times tribute was received from as far
in Sichuan in 1371, wiped out major away as Japan, Java and Sumatra, Sri
Mongol and aboriginal resistance in Lanka and South India, the East African
Guizhou and Yunnan in 1381–82, and coast, the Persian Gulf region, and
The Ming Dynasty | 193

Samarkand. Modern Chinese honour the (reigned 1402–24) and proved to be vigor-
Ming emperors especially for having ous and aggressive. He subjugated Nam
restored China’s international power and Viet, personally campaigned against the
prestige, which had been in decline since reorganizing Mongols in the north, and
the 8th century. The Ming emperors sent large naval expeditions overseas,
probably exercised more far-reaching chiefly under the eunuch admiral Zheng
influence in East Asia than any other He, to demand tribute from rulers as far
native rulers of China, and their attitude away as Africa. He also returned the
toward the representatives of Portugal, empire’s capital to Beijing, giving that
Spain, Russia, Britain, and Holland who city its present-day name.
appeared in China before the end of their For a century after the Yongle emperor,
dynasty was a condescending one. the empire enjoyed stability, tranquillity,
For the first time in Chinese history, and prosperity. But state administration
the Ming rulers regularly adopted only began to suffer when weak emperors were
one reign name (nianhao) each; the sole exploitatively dominated by favoured
exception was the sixth emperor, who had eunuchs: Wang Zhen in the 1440s, Wang
two reigns separated by an interval of Zhi in the 1470s and 1480s, and Liu Jin
eight years. Because of this reign-name from 1505 to 1510. The Hongxi (reigned
practice (which was perpetuated under 1424–25), Xuande (1425–35), and Hongzhi
the succeeding Qing dynasty), modern (1487–1505) emperors were nevertheless
writers, confusingly but correctly, refer to able and conscientious rulers in the
the Wanli emperor, for example, by his Confucian mode. The only serious disrup-
personal name, Zhu Yijun; by his temple tion of the peace occurred in 1449 when
name, Shenzong; or sometimes, incor- the eunuch Wang Zhen led the Zhengtong
rectly but conveniently, simply as Wanli, emperor (first reign 1435–49) into a disas-
as if the reign name were a personal name. trous military campaign against the
The Ming dynasty’s founder, the Oyrat (western Mongols). The Oyrat
Hongwu emperor, is one of the strongest leader Esen Taiji ambushed the imperial
and most colourful personalities of army, captured the emperor, and besieged
Chinese history. His long reign estab- Beijing. The Ming defense minister, Yu
lished the governmental structure, Qian, forced Esen to withdraw unsatisfied
policies, and tone that characterized the and for eight years dominated the gov-
whole dynasty. After his death in 1398 his ernment with emergency powers. When
grandson and successor, the Jianwen the interim Jingtai emperor (reigned
emperor, trying to assert control over his 1449–57) fell ill in 1457, the Zhengtong
powerful uncles, provoked a rebellion on emperor, having been released by the
the part of the prince of Yan and was Mongols in 1450, resumed the throne as
overwhelmed in 1402. The prince of Yan the Tianshun emperor (1457–64). Yu Qian
took the throne as the Yongle emperor was then executed as a traitor.
194 | The History of China

The Zhengde (reigned 1505–21) and far inland to terrorize cities and villages
Jiajing (1521–1566/67) emperors were throughout the whole Yangtze delta.
among the less-esteemed Ming rulers. Although coastal raiding was not totally
The former was an adventure-loving suppressed, it was brought under control
carouser, the latter a lavish patron of in the 1560s. Also in the 1560s Altan Khan
Daoist alchemists. For one period of 20 was repeatedly defeated, so that he made
years, during the regime of an unpopular peace in 1571. For the next decade, during
grand secretary named Yan Song, the the last years of the Longqing emperor
Jiajing emperor withdrew almost entirely (reigned 1566/67–1572) and the early
from governmental cares. Both emperors years of the Wanli emperor (1572–1620),
cruelly humiliated and punished hun- the government was highly stable. The
dreds of officials for their temerity in court was dominated by the outstanding
remonstrating. grand secretary of Ming history, Zhang
China’s long peace ended during the Juzheng, and capable generals such as Qi
Jiajiang emperor’s reign. The Oyrat, Jiguang restored and maintained effec-
under the vigorous new leadership of tive military defenses.
Altan Khan, were a constant nuisance on In 1592, when Japanese forces under
the northern frontier from 1542 on; in Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea, Ming
1550 Altan Khan raided the suburbs of China was still strong and responsive
Beijing itself. During the same era, Japan- enough to campaign effectively in support
based sea raiders repeatedly plundered of its tributary neighbour. But the Korean
China’s southeastern coast. Such sea war dragged on indecisively until 1598,
raiders, a problem in Yuan times and when Hideyoshi died and the Japanese
from the earliest Ming years, had been withdrew. It made heavy demands on
suppressed during the reign of the Ming resources and apparently precipi-
Yongle emperor, when Japan’s Ashikaga tated a military decline in China.
shogunate offered nominal submission The reign of the Wanli emperor was
to China in exchange for generous trad- a turning point of Ming history in other
ing privileges. However, changes in the regards as well. Partisan wrangling
official trade system eventually provoked among civil officials had flared up in the
new discontent along the coast, and dur- 1450s in reaction to Yu Qian’s domi-
ing the 1550s corsair fleets looted the nance and again in the 1520s during a
Shanghai-Ningbo region almost annu- prolonged “rites controversy” provoked
ally, sometimes sending raiding parties by the Jiajing emperor on his accession;

One of 36 stone statues (18 pairs) of officials and creatures that guard the route to the tombs
of 13 emperors of the Ming dynasty north of Beijing. Richard Nowitz/National Geographic/
Getty Images
The Ming Dynasty | 195
196 | The History of China

after Zhang Juzheng’s death in 1582, it Ming government. He banished Wei

became the normal condition of court Zhongxian but could not quell the parti-
life. Through the remainder of the Wanli san strife that was paralyzing the
emperor’s long reign, a series of increas- bureaucracy. The Manchu repeatedly
ingly vicious partisan controversies raided within the Great Wall, even threat-
absorbed the energies of officialdom, ening Beijing in 1629 and 1638. Taxes and
while the harassed emperor abandoned conscriptions became increasingly
more and more of his responsibilities to oppressive to the Chinese population,
eunuchs. The decline of bureaucratic and banditry and rebellions spread in the
discipline and morale continued under interior. The Ming government became
the Taichang emperor, whose sudden completely demoralized. Finally, a
death after a reign of only one month in domestic rebel named Li Zicheng cap-
1620 fueled new conflicts. The Tianqi tured the capital in April 1644, and the
emperor (reigned 1620–27) was too Chongzhen emperor committed suicide.
young and indecisive to provide needed The Ming commander at Shanhaiguan
leadership. In 1624 he finally gave almost accepted Manchu help in an effort to
totalitarian powers to his favourite, Wei punish Li Zicheng and restore the
Zhongxian, the most notorious eunuch dynasty, only to have the Manchu seize
of Chinese history. Wei brutally purged the throne for themselves.
hundreds of officials, chiefly those asso- Ming loyalists ineffectively resisted
ciated with a reformist clique called the the Qing (Manchu) dynasty from various
Donglin party, and staffed the govern- refuges in the south for a generation.
ment with sycophants. Their so-called Nan (Southern) Ming
A new threat had in the meantime dynasty principally included the prince
appeared on the northern frontier. The of Fu (Zhu Yousong, reign name
Manchu, quiet occupants of far eastern Hongguang), the prince of Tang (Zhu
Manchuria from the beginning of the Yujian, reign name Longwu), the prince
dynasty, were aroused in 1583 by an ambi- of Lu (Zhu Yihai, no reign name), and the
tious young leader named Nurhachi. prince of Gui (Zhu Youlang, reign name
During the Wanli emperor’s latter years, Yongli). The loyalist coastal raider Zheng
they steadily encroached on central Chenggong (Koxinga) and his heirs held
Manchuria. In 1616 Nurhachi proclaimed out on Taiwan until 1683. 
a new dynasty, and overwhelming victo-
ries over Ming forces in 1619 and 1621 Government and
gave him control of the whole northeast- administration
ern segment of the Ming empire, south to
the Great Wall at Shanhaiguan. The Ming state system was built on a
The Chongzhen emperor (reigned foundation of institutions inherited from
1627–44) tried to revitalize the deteriorating the Tang and Song dynasties and
The Ming Dynasty | 197

modified by the intervening dynasties of of government. This system of social

conquest from the north, especially the organization, called lijia (later replaced
Yuan. The distinctive new patterns of by or coexistent with a local defense
social and administrative organization system called baojia), served to stabi-
that emerged in Ming times persisted, in lize, regulate, and indoctrinate the
their essential features, through the Qing populace under relatively loose formal
dynasty into the 20th century. state supervision.
Ming provincial governments con-
Local Government sisted of three coordinate agencies with
specialized responsibilities for general
At local and regional levels, the tradi- administration, surveillance and judicial
tional modes and personnel of affairs, and military affairs. These were
government were perpetuated in ad hoc the channels for routine administrative
fashion in the earliest Ming years, but, as contacts between local officials and the
the new empire became consolidated and central government.
stabilized, highly refined control struc-
tures were imposed that—in theory and Central Government
probably also in reality—eventually sub-
jugated all Chinese to the throne to an In its early form the Ming central gov-
unprecedented and totalitarian degree. ernment was dominated by a unitary
The Ming law code, promulgated in final Secretariat. The senior executive official
form in 1397, reinforced the traditional of the Secretariat served the emperor as
authority and responsibility of the pater- a chief counselor, or prime minister.
familias, considered the basis of all social Suspected treason on the part of the
order. Each family was classified accord- chief counselor Hu Weiyong in 1380
ing to hereditary status—the chief caused the Hongwu emperor to abolish
categories being civilian, military, and all executive posts in the Secretariat,
artisan—and neighbouring families of thus fragmenting general administra-
the same category were organized into tion authority among the six functionally
groups for purposes of self-government differentiated, formerly subordinate
and mutual help and surveillance. Ministries of Personnel, Revenue, Rites,
Civilians were grouped into “tithings” of War, Justice, and Works. This effective
10 families, and these in turn were abolition of the Secretariat left the
grouped into “communities” totaling emperor as the central government’s
100 families, plus 10 additional prosper- sole coordinator of any significance,
ous households, which in annual rotation strengthened his control over the offi-
provided community chiefs, who were cialdom, and, in the view of many later
intermediaries between the citizenry scholars, gravely weakened the Ming
at large and the formal agencies state system.
198 | The History of China

Especially prominent among other Regional Military Commission. Soldiers

agencies of the central government was a from local guards were sent in rotation to
Censorate, which was charged with the the capital for special training or to the
dual functions of maintaining disciplin- Great Wall or another area of comparable
ary surveillance over the whole of military importance for active patrol and
officialdom and remonstrating against guard duty. At such times, as on large-
unwise state policies and improprieties scale campaigns, soldiers served under
in the conduct of the emperor. Equally tactical commanders who were on ad hoc
prominent were five chief military com- duty assignments, detached from their
missions, each assigned responsibility, hereditary posts in guard garrisons or
jointly with the Ministry of War, for a geo- higher echelons of the military service.
graphically defined segment of the
empire’s military establishment. There Later Innovations
was originally a unitary Chief Military
Commission paralleling the Secretariat, In the 15th century, new institutions were
but in the 1380s its authority was simi- gradually devised to provide needed
larly fragmented. The hereditary soldiers, coordination both in the central govern-
who were under the administrative juris- ment and in regional administration.
diction of the chief military commissions, Later emperors found the Hongwu
originated as members of the rebel emperor’s system of highly centralized
armies that established the dynasty, as power and fragmented government
surrendering enemy soldiers, in some structure inefficient and inconvenient.
instances as conscripts, and as convicted Litterateurs of the traditional and presti-
criminals. They were organized and gar- gious Hanlin Academy came to be
risoned principally along the frontiers, assigned to the palace as secretarial
near the capital, and in other strategic assistants, and they quickly evolved into
places but also throughout the interior, in a stable Grand Secretariat (Neige)
units called guards and battalions. through which emperors guided and
Whenever possible, such units were responded to the ministries and other
assigned state-owned agricultural lands central government agencies. Similarly,
so that, by alternating military duties the need for coordinating provincial-level
with farm labour, the soldiers could be affairs led to delegating high-ranking
self-supporting. The military families, in central government dignitaries to serve
compensation for providing soldiers in as regional commanders (zongbing guan)
perpetuity, enjoyed exemptions from and governor-like grand coordinators
labour services levied by the state on (xunfu) in the provinces. Finally, clusters
civilian families. Each guard unit of neighbouring provinces came under
reported to its Chief Military Commission the supervisory control of still-more-
at the capital through a provincial-level prestigious central government officials,
The Ming Dynasty | 199

known as supreme commanders (zongdu), irregular ways rarely had notable, or even
whose principal function was to coordi- active, careers in government. In the
nate military affairs in extended, early decades of the dynasty, before com-
multi-province areas. As the dynasty petitive examinations could provide
grew older, as the population expanded, sufficient numbers of trustworthy men
and as administration became increas- for service, large numbers of officials
ingly complex, coordinators proliferated were recruited directly from government
even at sub-provincial levels in the form schools or through recommendations by
of circuit intendants (daotai), who were existing officials, and such recruits often
delegated from provincial agencies as rose to eminence. But after about 1400,
functionally specialized intermediaries persons entering the civil service by ave-
with prefectural administrations. nues other than examinations had little
To an extent unprecedented except hope for successful careers.
possibly in Song times, Ming govern- In a departure from traditional prac-
ment was dominated by nonhereditary tices but in accordance with the Yuan
civil service officials recruited on the precedent, there was only one type of
basis of competitive written examina- examination given in Ming times. It
tions. Hereditary military officers, required a general knowledge of the
although granted ranks and stipends Classics and history and the ability to
higher than their civil service counter- relate Classical precepts and historical
parts and eligible for noble titles rarely precedents to general philosophical or
granted to civil officials, always found specific political issues. As in Yuan times,
themselves subordinate to policy-making interpretations of the Classics by the Zhu
civil servants, except in the first years of Xi school of Neo-Confucianism were pre-
the dynasty. Members of the imperial scribed. By the end of the Ming dynasty,
clan, except in the earliest and latest the writing of examination responses had
years of the dynasty, were forbidden to become highly stylized and formalized in
take active part in administration, and a pattern called “the eight-legged essay”
the Ming practice of finding imperial (baguwen), which in subsequent centu-
consorts in military families effectively ries became notoriously repressive of
denied imperial in-laws access to posi- creative thought and writing.
tions of significant authority. Beginning in the Hongwu emperor’s
High-ranking civil officials usually could reign, the government sponsored district-
place one son each in the civil service by level schools, in which state-subsidized
hereditary right, and, beginning in 1450, students prepared for the civil service
wealthy civilians often were able to pur- examinations. Especially talented stu-
chase nominal civil service status in dents could be promoted from such local
government fund-raising drives. But schools into programs of advanced learn-
those entering the service in such ing and probationary service at a national
200 | The History of China

university in the capital. Especially after Although acceptance into, and suc-
1500, there was a proliferation of private cess in, the civil service were the most
academies in which scholars gathered to highly esteemed goals for all and were
discuss philosophy and students were nominally determined solely by demon-
also prepared for the examinations. strated scholastic and administrative
Education intendants from provincial abilities, other factors inevitably intruded
headquarters annually toured all locali- to prevent the civil service system from
ties, examining candidates who presented being wholly “open.” Differences in the
themselves and certifying those of “prom- economic status of families made for
ising talent” (xiucai) as being qualified to inequalities of educational opportunity
undertake weeklong examination ordeals and, consequently, inequalities of access
that were conducted every third year at to civil service careers. The sons of well-
the provincial capitals. Those who passed to-do families clearly had advantages,
the provincial examinations (juren) could and men of the affluent and cultured
be appointed directly to posts in the southeastern region so threatened to
lower echelons of the civil service. They monopolize scholastic competitions that
were also eligible to compete in triennial regional quotas for those passing the
metropolitan examinations conducted at metropolitan examinations were imposed
the national capital. Those who passed by the government, beginning in 1397.
were given degrees often called doctor- Once in the service, one’s advancement
ates (jinshi) and promptly took an or even survival often depended on
additional palace examination, nominally shifting patterns of favouritism and
presided over by the emperor, on the factionalism. Present-day scholarship
basis of which they were ranked in order strongly suggests nevertheless that “new
of excellence. They were registered as blood” was constantly entering the Ming
qualified officials by the Ministry of civil service, that influential families did
Personnel, which assigned them to not monopolize or dominate the service,
active-duty posts as vacancies occurred. and that men regularly rose from obscu-
While on duty they were evaluated regu- rity to posts of great esteem and power
larly by their administrative superiors on the basis of merit. Social mobility, as
and irregularly by touring inspectors reflected in the Ming civil service, was
from the Censorate. It was normally only very possibly greater than in Song times
after long experience and excellent and was clearly greater than in the suc-
records in low- and middle-grade posts, ceeding Qing era.
both in the provinces and in the capital, The Ming pattern of government has
that an official might be nominated for generally been esteemed for its stability
high office and appointed by personal under civil service dominance, its cre-
choice of the emperor. ativity in devising new institutions to
The Ming Dynasty | 201

serve changing needs, and its suppres- aboriginal tribes of south and southwest
sion of separatist warlords on one hand China, who often rose in isolated rebel-
and disruptive interference by imperial lions but were gradually being
clansmen and palace women on the other. assimilated. The Chinese took for granted
It suffered, however, from sometimes that their emperor was everyone’s over-
vicious factionalism among officials, lord and that de facto (mostly hereditary)
recurrences of abusive influence on the rulers of non-Chinese tribes, regions, and
part of palace eunuchs, and defects in its states were properly his feudatories.
establishment of hereditary soldiers. The Foreign rulers were thus expected to hon-
military system not only failed to achieve our and observe the Ming ritual calendar,
self-support but stagnated steadily, so to accept nominal appointments as mem-
that from the mid-15th century onward it bers of the Ming nobility or military
had to be supplemented by conscripts establishment, and, especially, to send
and, finally, all but replaced by mercenary periodic missions to the Ming capital to
recruits. Most notoriously, the Ming state demonstrate fealty and present tribute of
system allowed emperors to behave local commodities. Tributary envoys from
capriciously and abusively toward their continental neighbours were received
officials. Despite their high prestige, offi- and entertained by local and provincial
cials had to accept being ignored, governments in the frontier zones. Those
humiliated, dismissed, and subjected to from overseas were welcomed by special
bodily punishment and to risk being cru- maritime trade supervisorates (shibosi,
elly executed (sometimes in large often called trading-ship offices) at three
numbers), as suited the imperial fancy. key ports on the southeast and south
Power was concentrated in the hands of coasts: Ningbo in Zhejiang for Japanese
the Ming emperors to a degree that was contacts, Quanzhou in Fujian for contacts
probably unparalleled in any other long- with Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands, and
lived dynasty of Chinese history, and the Guangzhou (Canton) in Guangdong for
Ming emperors often exercised their vast contacts with Southeast Asia. The fron-
powers in abusive fashion. tier and coastal authorities forwarded
foreign missions to the national capital,
Foreign relations where the Ministry of Rites offered them
hospitality and arranged for their audi-
Whereas in Ming times the Chinese ences with the emperor. All envoys
organized themselves along wholly received valuable gifts in acknowledge-
bureaucratic and tightly centralized lines, ment of the tribute they presented. They
the Ming emperors maintained China’s also were permitted to buy and sell pri-
traditional feudal-seeming relationships vate trade goods at specified, officially
with foreign peoples. These included the supervised markets, both in the capital
202 | The History of China

and on the coasts and frontiers. Thus, occasional raiding forays such as those
copper coins and luxury goods (notably by Esen Taiji and Altan Khan.
silks and porcelains) flowed out of China, The fact that the Mongols could not
and pepper, other spices, and similar rari- reunite themselves was a fortunate cir-
ties flowed in. On the western and cumstance for Ming China. As early as
northern frontiers the principal exchange the Yongle emperor’s time, the Mongols
was in Chinese tea and steppe horses. On were divided into three groups that were
balance, the combined tribute and trade often antagonistic to one another: the so-
activities were highly advantageous to called western Mongols or Oyrat
foreigners—so much so that the Chinese (including the Kalmyk), the eastern
early established limits for the size and Mongols or Tatars, and a group in the
cargoes of foreign missions and pre- Chengde area known as the Urianghad
scribed long intervals that must elapse tribes. The Urianghad tribes surrendered
between missions. to the Hongwu emperor and were incor-
The principal aim of Ming foreign porated into China’s frontier defense
policy was political: to maintain China’s system under a Chinese military head-
security and, especially, to make certain quarters. Because they served the Yongle
the Mongols could not threaten China emperor as a loyal rear guard during his
again. To this end the Hongwu emperor seizure of the throne, he rewarded them
repeatedly sent armies northward and with virtual autonomy, withdrawing the
northwestward to punish resurgent Chinese command post from their home-
Mongol groups and prevent any recon- land beyond the Great Wall. Subsequently,
solidation of Mongol power. The Yongle the Xuande emperor similarly withdrew
emperor was even more zealous: he per- the command post that the Hongwu
sonally campaigned into the Gobi emperor had established at the Mongols’
(desert) five times, and his decision to old extramural capital, Shangdu. These
transfer the national capital from Nanjing withdrawals isolated Manchuria from
to Beijing, completed in 1421 after long China proper, terminated active Chinese
preparations, was largely a reflection of military control in Inner Mongolia, and
his concern about the frontier. His suc- exposed the Beijing area in particular to
cessors, though less zealous than he in the possibility of probing raids from the
this regard, were vigilant enough so that nearby steppes. They reflected an essen-
the Great Wall was restored and expanded tially defensive Chinese posture in the
to its present-day extent and dimensions. north, which by late Ming times allowed
Frontier defense forces, aligned in nine the Oyrat to infiltrate and dominate
defense commands stretching from Hami and other parts of the northwestern
Manchuria to Gansu, kept China free frontier and the Manchu to rise to power
from Mongol incursions, except for in the northeast.
The Ming Dynasty | 203

The Ming attitude toward foreign area into the Ming domain as a province
peoples other than the Mongols was gen- in 1407.
erally unaggressive: so long as they were After the Yongle era the Ming gov-
not disruptive, the Ming emperors left ernment reverted to the founding
them to themselves. The Hongwu emperor’s unaggressive policy toward
emperor made this his explicit policy. foreign states. Nam Viet was abandoned
Even though he threatened the Japanese in 1428 after protracted guerrilla-style
with punitive expeditions if they per- resistance had thoroughly undermined
sisted in marauding along China’s coasts, Chinese control there. A new civil war in
he dealt with the problem by building Nam Viet provoked the Chinese, after
strong fortresses and coastal defense long and agonized discussion, to prepare
fleets that successfully repulsed the to intervene there again in 1540, but the
marauders. He did send an army to sub- offer of ritual submission by a usurper
due Turfan (Turpan) in 1377, when the gave the Chinese an opportunity to avoid
Turko-Mongol rulers of that oasis region war, and they welcomed it. On only two
rebelled and broke China’s traditional other occasions were Ming military forces
transport routes to the west. But he active outside China’s borders: in 1445–46,
refused to intervene in dynastic upheav- when Chinese troops pursued a rebellious
als in Nam Viet and Korea (when Koryŏ border chief into Myanmar despite resis-
was replaced by Chosŏn), and he was tance there, and in 1592–98, when the
unmoved by the rise of the Turko-Mongol Ming court undertook to help the Chosŏn
empire of Timur (Tamerlane) in the far (Yi) dynasty in Korea repulse Japanese
west at Samarkand, even though Timur invaders, a long and costly effort.
murdered Chinese envoys and was plan- In order to preserve the government’s
ning to campaign against China. monopolistic control of foreign contacts
The Yongle emperor was much more and trade and, at least in part, to keep the
aggressive. He sent the eunuch admiral Chinese people from being contami-
Zheng He on tribute-collecting voyages nated by barbarian customs, the Ming
to Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and rulers prohibited private dealings
the Persian Gulf and as far as East Africa. between Chinese and foreigners and for-
On one early voyage, Zheng He inter- bade any private voyaging abroad. The
vened in a civil war in Java and rules were so strict as to disrupt even
established a new king there; on another, coastal fishing and trading, on which
he captured the hostile king of Sri Lanka large populations in the south and south-
and took him prisoner to China. The east had traditionally based their
Yongle emperor also reacted to turbu- livelihood. Such unrealistic prohibitions
lence in Nam Viet by sending an were unpopular and unenforceable, and,
expeditionary force that incorporated the from about the mid-15th century, Chinese
204 | The History of China

readily collaborated with foreign traders 1622, took control of coastal Taiwan in
in widespread smuggling, for the most 1624 and began developing trade con-
part officially condoned. In addition, by tacts in nearby Fujian and Zhejiang
late Ming times, thousands of venture- provinces. In 1637 a squadron of five
some Chinese had migrated to become English ships shot its way into
mercantile entrepreneurs in the various Guangzhou and disposed of its cargoes
regions of Southeast Asia and even in there. Russia, meanwhile, had sent peace-
Japan. In efforts to enforce its laws, the ful missions overland to Beijing, and by
Ming court closed all maritime trade the end of the Ming dynasty the Russians’
supervisorates except the one at eastward expansion across Siberia had
Guangzhou early in the 16th century, and carried them finally to the shores of the
by the 1540s it had begun to reinvigorate Pacific north of the Amur River.
coastal defenses against marauders Christian missionaries from Europe
throughout the southeast and the south. were handicapped by the bad reputation
These circumstances shaped the early their trader countrymen had acquired in
China coast experiences of the Europeans, China, but the Jesuit tactic of accommo-
who first appeared in Ming China in 1514. dating to local customs eventually got
The Portuguese had already established the Jesuits admitted to the mainland.
themselves in southern India and at Matteo Ricci was the successful pioneer,
Malacca, where they learned of the huge beginning his work in 1583 well-trained
profits that could be made in the regional in the Chinese language and acquainted
trade between the China coast and with Confucian learning. By the time of
Southeast Asia. Becoming involved in his death in 1610, despite hostility in
what the Ming court considered smug- some quarters, Jesuit communities were
gling and piracy, the Portuguese were established in many cities of south and
not welcomed to China, but they would central China, a church had been built in
not be rebuffed, and by 1557 they had Beijing under imperial patronage, and
taken control of a settlement at the Christianity was known and respected by
walled-off end of a coastal peninsula many Chinese scholar-officials. Before
(present-day Macau) and were trading the end of the dynasty, Jesuits had won
periodically at nearby Guangzhou. In influential converts at court (notably the
1575 Spaniards from Manila visited grand secretary Xu Guangqi, or Paul Xu),
Guangzhou in a vain effort to get official had produced Chinese books on
trading privileges, and soon they were European science as well as theology,
developing active though illegal trade on and were manufacturing Portuguese-
the Guangdong and Fujian coasts. type cannon for Ming use against the
Representatives of the Dutch East India Manchu. They also held official appoint-
Company, after unsuccessfully trying to ments in China’s Directorate of
capture Macau from the Portuguese in Astronomy, which had the important
The Ming Dynasty | 205

responsibility of determining the official Yangtze delta region to northern towns

calendar. Both European technology and for their cultural adornment, resettled
European ideas were beginning to have peasants from the overpopulated south-
some effect on China, albeit still very east into the vacant lands of the north for
limited. their agrarian redevelopment, and insti-
tuted water-control projects to restore
Economic policy the productivity of the Huang and Huai
and developments river basins. (Notable among these is the
rehabilitation and extension of the
Population Grand Canal, which reopened in 1415.)
Colonists were normally provided with
Ming China’s northward orientation in seeds, tools, and animals and were
foreign relations was accompanied by a exempted from taxes for three years. The
flow of Chinese migrants from the numerous army garrisons that were sta-
crowded south back into the vast North tioned in the north for defense of the
China Plain and by a concomitant shift frontier and of the post-1420 capital at
in emphasis from an urban and commer- Beijing were also given vacant lands to
cial way of life back to a rural and develop and were encouraged to become
agrarian pattern. Thus, demographic self-supporting. Such government mea-
and economic trends that had character- sures were supplemented, following
ized China for centuries—the southward political reunification, by popular migra-
movement of population and the tion into the relatively frontierlike and
urbanization and commercialization of open north. Rehabilitation of northern
life—were arrested or even reversed. China was no doubt also facilitated by
The North China Plain had been the new availability of sorghum for dry
neglected since early Song times, and its farming. All these elements produced a
rehabilitation became a high-priority substantial revival of the north. In Yuan
project of the early Ming emperors. The times, censuses credited the northern
Ming founder’s ancestral home was in provinces with only one-tenth of the
northern China, and his son, the Yongle total Chinese population, but by the late
emperor, won the throne from a personal 16th century they claimed some two-
power base in the newly recovered north fifths of the registered total. Suspension
at Beijing. Securing the northern frontier of government incentives late in the 15th
was the major political goal of both these century caused the northwest to enter
emperors, and both had reasons for into agrarian decline, and Shaanxi even-
being somewhat suspicious of southern- tually became impoverished and
ers and hostile toward them. In bandit-infested. Support of the frontier
consequence, both emperors regularly defenses became an increasing burden
moved well-to-do city dwellers of the on the central government.
206 | The History of China

During the migrations back to north- been introduced into the Chinese econ-
ern China, the registered populations of omy in Song and Yuan times. The
the largest urban centres of the south- introduction in the 16th century of food
east declined. For example, between 1393 crops originating in America—peanuts
and 1578, Nanjing declined from 1,193,000 (groundnuts), corn (maize), and sweet
to 790,000, Zhejiang province from potatoes—created an even stronger
10,487,000 to 5,153,000, and Jiangxi prov- agrarian basis for rapidly escalating
ince from 8,982,000 to 5,859,000. (It should population growth in the Qing period.
be mentioned, however, that the actual
population in cities typically was greater Agriculture
than what was registered.) Despite this
leveling trend in the regional distribution Neo-feudal land-tenure developments of
of population, southern China—especially late Song and Yuan times were arrested
the southeast—remained the most popu- with the establishment of the Ming
lous, the wealthiest, and the most cultured dynasty. Great landed estates were
area of China in Ming times. Great confiscated by the government, frag-
southeastern cities such as Nanjing, mented, and rented out, and private
Suzhou, and Hangzhou remained the slavery was forbidden. In the 15th cen-
major centres of trade and manufactur- tury, consequently, independent peasant
ing, entertainment, and scholarship and landholders dominated Chinese agricul-
the arts. Beijing was their only rival in the ture. But the Ming rulers were not able
north—solely because of its being the cen- to provide permanent solutions for
tre of political power. China’s perennial land-tenure problems.
Although official census figures sug- As early as the 1420s, the farming popu-
gest that China’s overall population lation was in new difficulties despite
remained remarkably stable in Ming repeated tax remissions and other efforts
times at a total of about 60 million, mod- to ameliorate its condition. Large-scale
ern scholars have estimated that there landlordism gradually reappeared, as
was in fact substantial growth, probably powerful families encroached upon the
to a total well in excess of 100 million lands of poor neighbours. Song-style
and perhaps almost as high as 150 mil- latifundia do not seem to have reemerged,
lion in the early 17th century. Domestic but, by the late years of the dynasty,
peace and political stability in the 15th sharecropping tenancy was the common
century clearly set the stage for great condition of millions of peasants, espe-
general prosperity in the 16th century. cially in central and southeastern China,
This can be accounted for in part as and a new gulf had opened between
the cumulative result of the continuing the depressed poor and the exploitative
spread of early ripening rice and of cot- rich. The later Ming government issued
ton production—new elements that had countless pronouncements lamenting
The Ming Dynasty | 207

the plight of the common man but never The land-tax rate was highly variable,
undertook any significant reform of depending not on the productivity of any
land-tenure conditions. plot but on the condition of its tenure,
which might be as freehold or as one of
Taxation several categories of land rented from the
government. The land tax was calculated
The Ming laissez-faire policy in agrarian together with labour levies, or corvée,
matters had its counterpart in fiscal which, though nominally assessed
administration. The Ming state took the against persons, were assessed against
collection of land taxes—its main reve- land in normal practice. Corvée obliga-
nues by far—out of the hands of civil tions also varied widely and were usually
service officials and entrusted that payable in paper money or in silver rather
responsibility directly to well-to-do fam- than in actual service. Assessments
ily heads in the countryside. Each against a plot of land might include sev-
designated tax captain was, on the aver- eral other considerations as well, so that a
age, responsible for tax collections in an farmer’s tax bill was a complicated reck-
area for which the land-tax quota was oning of many different tax items. Efforts
10,000 piculs of grain (one picul is the to simplify land-tax procedures in the
equivalent of 3.1 bushels or 109 litres). In 16th century, principally initiated by con-
collaboration with the lijia community scientious local officials, culminated in
chiefs of his fiscal jurisdiction, he saw to the universal promulgation of a consoli-
it that tax grains were collected and then dated-assessment scheme called “a
delivered, in accordance with compli- single whip” (yitiaobian) in 1581. Its main
cated instructions; some went to local feature was reducing land tax and corvée
storage vaults under control of the dis- obligations to a single category of pay-
trict magistrate and some to military ment in bulk silver or its grain equivalent.
units, which, by means of the Grand This reform was little more than a book-
Canal, annually transported more than keeping change at best, and it was not
three million piculs northward to Beijing. universally applied. Land-tax inequities
In the early Ming years, venal tax cap- were unaffected, and assessments rose
tains seem to have been able to amass sharply and repeatedly from 1618 to meet
fortunes by exploiting the peasantry. spiraling costs of defense.
Later, however, tax captains normally Many revenues other than land taxes
faced certain ruin because tax-evading contributed to support of the govern-
manipulations by large landlords thrust ment. Some, such as mine taxes and
tax burdens increasingly on those least levies on marketplace shops and vending
able to pay and forced tax captains to stalls, were based on proprietorship; oth-
make up deficiencies in their quotas out ers, such as salt taxes, wine taxes, and
of their personal reserves. taxes on mercantile goods in transit, were
208 | The History of China

based on consumption. Of all state reve- Because during the last century of
nues, more than half seem to have the Ming dynasty a genuine money econ-
remained in local and provincial grana- omy emerged and because concurrently
ries and treasuries; of those forwarded to some relatively large-scale mercantile
the capital, about half seem normally to and industrial enterprises developed
have disappeared into the emperor’s per- under private as well as state ownership
sonal vaults. Revenues at the disposal of (most notably in the great textile centres
the central government were always rela- of the southeast), some modern-day
tively small. Prosperity and fiscal caution scholars have considered the Ming age
had resulted in the accumulation of huge one of “incipient capitalism”; according
surpluses by the 1580s, both in the capital to this reasoning, European-style mercan-
and in many provinces, but thereafter the tilism and industrialization might have
Sino-Japanese war in Chosŏn, unprece- evolved had it not been for the Manchu
dented extravagances on the part of the conquest and expanding European impe-
long-lived Wanli emperor, and defense rialism. It would seem clear, however, that
against domestic rebels and the Manchu private capitalism in Ming times flour-
bankrupted both the central government ished only insofar as it was condoned
and the imperial household. by the state, and it was never free
from the threat of state suppression
Coinage and confiscation. State control of the
economy—and of society in all its
Copper coins were used throughout the aspects, for that matter—remained the
Ming dynasty. Paper money was used for dominant characteristic of Chinese life
various kinds of payments and grants by in Ming times, as it had earlier.
the government, but it was always non-
convertible and, consequently, lost value Culture
disastrously. It would in fact have been
utterly valueless, except that it was pre- The predominance of state power also
scribed for the payment of certain types marked the intellectual and aesthetic life
of taxes. The exchange of precious metals of Ming China. By requiring use of their
was forbidden in early Ming times, but interpretations of the Classics in educa-
gradually bulk silver became common tion and in the civil service examinations,
currency, and, after the mid-16th century, the state prescribed the Neo-
government accounts were reckoned pri- Confucianism of the great Song thinkers
marily in taels (ounces) of silver. By the Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi as the orthodoxy of
end of the dynasty, silver coins produced Ming times; by patronizing or comman-
in Mexico, introduced by Spanish sailors deering craftsmen and artists on a vast
based in the Philippines, were becoming scale, it set aesthetic standards for all the
common on the south coast. minor arts, for architecture, and even for
The Ming Dynasty | 209

Poet on a Mountain Top, ink on paper or ink and light colour on paper, album leaf mounted
as a hand scroll, by Shen Zhou, Ming dynasty; in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas
City, Mo., U.S. 38.7 × 60.2 cm. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri; pur-
chase Nelson Trust (46–51/2)

painting, and, by sponsoring great schol- of Tang and Song masterpieces in all
arly undertakings and honouring genres, but independent thinkers, artists,
practitioners of traditional literary forms, and writers were striking out in many
the state established norms in those new directions. The final Ming century
realms as well. Thus, it has been easy for especially was a time of intellectual and
historians of Chinese culture to catego- artistic ferment akin to the most seminal
rize the Ming era as an age of bureaucratic ages of the past.
monotony and mediocrity, but the stable,
affluent Ming society actually proved to Philosophy and Religion
be irrepressibly creative and iconoclastic.
Drudges by the hundreds and thousands Daoism and Buddhism by Ming times had
may have been content with producing declined into ill-organized popular reli-
second-rate imitations or interpretations gions, and what organization they had
210 | The History of China

was regulated by the state. State espousal

of Zhu Xi thought and state repression of
noted early Ming litterateurs, such as the
poet Gao Qi and the thinker Fang Xiaoru,
made for widespread philosophical con-
formity during the 15th century. This was
perhaps best characterized by the scholar
Xue Xuan’s insistence that the Daoist Way
had been made so clear by Zhu Xi that
nothing remained but to put it into prac-
tice. Philosophical problems about human
identity and destiny, however, especially
in an increasingly autocratic system, ran-
kled in many minds, and new blends of
Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist ele-
ments appeared in a sequence of efforts
to find ways of personal self-realization in
contemplative, quietistic, and even mys-
tical veins. These culminated in the
antirationalist individualism of the famed
scholar-statesman Wang Yangming, who
denied the external “principles” of Zhu Xi
and advocated striving for wisdom
through cultivation of the innate knowl-
edge of one’s own mind and attainment of
“the unity of knowledge and action.”
Wang’s followers carried his doctrines to
extremes of self-indulgence, preached to
the masses in gatherings resembling reli-
gious revivals, and collaborated with
so-called “mad” Chan (Zen) Buddhists to
spread the notion that Confucianism,
Daoism, and Buddhism are equally valid
paths to the supreme goal of individualis-
Vase, cloisonné enamel, Ming dynasty, c.
tic self-fulfillment. Through the 16th
1500; in the British Museum, London.
century, intense philosophical discus-
Height 41.5 cm. Courtesy of the trustees
sions were fostered, especially in rapidly of the British Museum
multiplying private academies (shuyuan).
The Ming Dynasty | 211

Rampant iconoclasm climaxed with Li blue-on-white products, more-flamboyant

Zhi, a zealous debunker of traditional polychrome wares of three and even five
Confucian morality, who abandoned a colours predominated. Painting—chiefly
bureaucratic career for Buddhist monk- portraiture—followed traditional patterns
hood of a highly unorthodox type. under imperial patronage, but indepen-
Excesses of this sort provoked occa- dent gentlemen painters became the
sional suppressions of private academies, most esteemed artists of the age, espe-
periodic persecutions of heretics, and cially four masters of the Wu school (in
sophisticated counterarguments from the Suzhou area): Shen Zhou, Qiu Ying,
traditionalistic, moralistic groups of Tang Yin, and Wen Zhengming. Their
scholars, such as those associated with work, always of great technical excel-
the Donglin Academy near Suzhou, who lence, became less and less academic in
blamed the late Ming decline of political style, and out of this tradition, by the late
efficiency and morality on widespread years of the dynasty, emerged a concep-
subversion of Zhu Xi orthodoxy. The tion of the true painter as a professionally
zealous searching for personal identity competent but deliberately amateurish
was only intensified, however, when the artist bent on individualistic self-expres-
dynasty finally collapsed. sion. Notably in landscapes, a highly
cultivated and somewhat romantic or
Fine Arts mystical simplicity became the approved
style, perhaps best exemplified in the
In the realm of the arts, the Ming period work of Dong Qichang.
has long been esteemed for the variety
and high quality of its state-sponsored Literature and Scholarship
craft goods—cloisonné and, particularly,
porcelain wares. The sober, delicate As was the case with much of the paint-
monochrome porcelains of the Song ing, Ming poetry and belles lettres were
dynasty were now superseded by rich, deliberately composed “after the fashion
decorative polychrome wares. The best of” earlier masters, and groups of writers
known of these are of blue-on-white and critics earnestly argued about the
decor, which gradually changed from flo- merits of different Tang and Song exem-
ral and abstract designs to a pictorial plars. No Ming practitioner of traditional
emphasis. From that eventually emerged poetry has won special esteem, though
the “willow-pattern” wares that became Ming literati churned out poetry in prodi-
export goods in great demand in Europe. gious quantities. The historians Song
By late Ming times, perhaps because of Lian and Wang Shizhen and the philoso-
the unavailability of the imported Iranian pher-statesman Wang Yangming were
cobalt that was used for the finest among the dynasty’s most noted prose
212 | The History of China

stylists, producing expository writings of Lotus), a realistically Rabelaisian

exemplary lucidity and straightforward- account of life and love among the bour-
ness. Perhaps the most admired master geoisie, which established yet another
was Gui Youguang, whose most famous genre for the novel. By the end of the
writings are simple essays and anecdotes Ming period, iconoclasts such as Li
about everyday life—often rather loose Zhi and Jin Shengtan, both of whom
and formless but with a quietly pleasing published editions of Shuihuzhuan,
charm, evoking character and mood with made the then-astonishing assertion
artless-seeming delicacy. The iconoclasm that this and other works of popular lit-
of the final Ming decades was mirrored in erature should rank alongside the
a literary movement of total individual greatest poetry and literary prose as
freedom, championed notably by Yuan treasures of China’s cultural heritage.
Zhongdao, but writings produced during Colloquial short stories also proliferated
this period were later denigrated as insin- in Ming times, and collecting antholo-
cere, coarse, frivolous, and so strange and gies of them became a fad of the last
eccentric as to make impossible demands Ming century. The master writer and
on the readers. editor in this realm was Feng Menglong,
The late Ming iconoclasm did suc- whose creations and influence dominate
cessfully call attention to popular fiction the best-known anthology, Jingu qiguan
in colloquial style. In retrospect, this (“Wonders Old and New”), published in
must be reckoned the most significant Suzhou in 1624.
literary work of the late Yuan and Ming Operatic drama, which had emerged
periods, even though it was disdained by as a major new art form in Yuan times,
the educated elite of the time. The late was popular throughout the Ming
Yuan–early Ming novels Sanguozhi dynasty, and Yuan masterpieces in the
yanyi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) tightly disciplined four-act zaju style
and Shuihuzhuan (The Water Margin, were regularly performed. Ming con-
also published as All Men Are Brothers) tributors to the dramatic literature were
became the universally acclaimed mas- most creative in a more-rambling, mul-
terpieces of the historical and picaresque tiple-act form known as “southern
genres, respectively. Sequels to each drama” or chuanqi. Members of the
were produced throughout the Ming imperial clan and respected scholars
period. Wu Cheng’en, a 16th-century and officials such as Wang Shizhen and
local official, produced Xiyouji (Journey particularly Tang Xianzu wrote for the
to the West, also partially translated as stage. A new southern opera aria form
Monkey), which became China’s most- called kunqu, originating in Suzhou,
treasured novel of the supernatural. Late became particularly popular and pro-
in the 16th century an unidentifiable vided the repertoire of women singers
writer produced Jinpingmei (Golden throughout the country. Sentimental
The Ming Dynasty | 213

romanticism was a notable characteris- Labour”), on industrial technology.

tic of Ming dramas. Ming scholars also produced numerous
Perhaps the most representative of valuable geographical treatises and his-
all Ming literary activities, however, are torical studies. Among the creative
voluminous works of sober scholarship milestones of Ming scholarship, which
in many realms. Ming literati were avid pointed the way for the development of
bibliophiles, both collectors and publish- modern critical scholarship in early
ers. They founded many great private Qing times, were the following: a work
libraries, such as the famed Tianyige col- by Mei Zu questioning the authenticity
lection of the Fan family at Ningbo. They of sections of the ancient Shujing
also began producing huge anthologies (“Classic of History”); a phonological
(congshu) of rare or otherwise interesting analysis by Chen Di of the ancient
books and thus preserved many works Shijing (“Classic of Poetry”); and a dic-
from extinction. The example was set in tionary by Mei Yingzuo that for the
this regard by an imperially sponsored first time classified Chinese ideograms
classified anthology of all the esteemed (characters) under 214 components (radi-
writings of the whole Chinese heritage cals) and subclassified them by number
completed in 1407 under the title Yongle of brushstrokes—an arrangement still
dadian (“Great Canon of the Yongle used by most standard dictionaries.
Era”). Its more than 11,000 volumes being One of the great all-around literati
too numerous for even the imperial gov- of Ming times, representative in many
ernment to consider printing, it was ways of the dynamic and wide-ranging
preserved only in manuscript copies; activities of the Ming scholar-official at
only a fraction of the volumes have sur- his best, was Yang Shen. Yang won first
vived. Private scholars also produced place in the metropolitan examination of
great illustrated encyclopaedias, includ- 1511, remonstrated vigorously against
ing Bencao gangmu (late 16th century; the caprices of the Zhengde and Jiajing
“Index of Native Herbs”), a monumental emperors, and was finally beaten, impris-
materia medica listing 1,892 herbal con- oned, removed from his post in the
coctions and their applications; Sancai Hanlin Academy, and sent into exile as a
tuhui (1607–09; “Assembled Pictures of common soldier in Yunnan. However,
the Three Realms”), a work on subjects throughout his life he produced poetry
such as architecture, tools, costumes, and belles lettres in huge quantities, as
ceremonies, animals, and amusements; well as a study of bronze and stone
Wubeizhi (1621; “Treatise on Military inscriptions across history, a dictionary
Preparedness”), on weapons, fortifica- of obsolete characters, suggestions
tions, defense organization, and war about the phonology of ancient Chinese,
tactics; and Tiangong kaiwu (1637; and a classification of fishes found in
“Creations of Heaven and Human Chinese waters.
ChaPTER 10
The Early
Qing Dynasty

T he Manchu, who ruled China from 1644 to 1911/12, were

descendants of the Juchen (Nüzhen) tribes who had
ruled northern China as the Jin dynasty in the 12th century.
From the 15th century they had paid tribute to the Ming and
were organized under the commandery system, so they had
long had extensive and regular contact with the Chinese
state and, more importantly, with the Chinese military offi-
cers stationed in the Ming frontier garrisons. By the 16th
century these officers had become a hereditary regional mili-
tary group in southern Manchuria, the Manchu homeland.
Transformed by their long residence on the frontier, the
Chinese soldiers mingled with the barbarians, adopting
Manchu names and tribal customs. Still other Chinese were
in the area as enslaved “bond servants” who worked the land
or helped manage the trade in ginseng root, precious stones,
and furs with China and Korea. Later, after the conquest of
China, many of these bond servants became powerful offi-
cials who were sent on confidential missions by the emperor
and who staffed the powerful Imperial Household Department.
Under Nurhachi and his son Abahai, the Aisin Gioro clan
of the Jianzhou tribe won hegemony among the rival Juchen
tribes of the northeast, then through warfare and alliances
extended its control into Inner Mongolia and Korea. Nurhachi
The Early Qing Dynasty | 215

Panel from an imperial Chinese silk dragon robe embroidered in silk and gold thread, 17th
century, early Qing dynasty; in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Lee Boltin
216 | The History of China

created large, permanent civil-military government apparatus in their new

units called “banners” to replace the capital, Mukden (present-day Shenyang),
small hunting groups used in his early established in 1625. Whereas Nurhachi
campaigns. A banner was composed of had initially based his claim to legitimacy
smaller companies; it included some on the tribal model, proclaiming himself
7,500 warriors and their households, khan in 1607, he later adopted the Chinese
including slaves, under the command of a political language of the Tianming
chieftain. Each banner was identified by a (“Mandate of Heaven”) as his reign title
coloured flag that was yellow, white, blue, and in 1616 proclaimed the Hou (Later)
or red, either plain or with a border Jin dynasty. Abahai continued to manip-
design. Originally there were four, then ulate the political symbols of both worlds
eight, Manchu banners; new banners by acquiring the great seal of the Mongol
were created as the Manchu conquered khan in 1635, and thus the succession to
new regions, and eventually there were the Yuan dynasty, and by taking on a
Manchu, Mongol, and Chinese banners, Chinese dynastic name, Qing, for his own
eight for each ethnic group. By 1648 less dynasty the following year.
than one-sixth of the bannermen were The downfall of the Ming house was
actually of Manchu ancestry. The Manchu the product of factors that extended far
conquest was thus achieved with a multi- beyond China’s borders. In the 1630s
ethnic army led by Manchu nobles and and 1640s China’s most-commercialized
Han Chinese generals. Han Chinese sol- regions, the Yangtze River delta and the
diers were organized into the Army of the southeast coast, suffered an acute eco-
Green Standard, which became a sort of nomic depression brought on by a sharp
imperial constabulary force posted break in the flow of silver entering ports
throughout China and on the frontiers. through foreign trade from Acapulco
Modern scholarship on the rise of the (Mexico), Malacca, and Japan. The
Manchu emphasizes the contributions of depression was exacerbated by harvest
Chinese collaborators to the Manchu shortfalls resulting from unusually bad
cause. The Manchu offered rewards and weather during 1626–40. The enervated
high positions to these Chinese, who not government administration failed to
only brought military skills and technical respond adequately to the crisis, and ban-
knowledge with them but also encour- dits in the northwest expanded their
aged the adoption of Chinese institutional forces and began invading north and
models. From Chinese and Korean arti- southwest China. One of these bandit
sans the Manchu learned iron-smelting leaders, Li Zicheng, marched into Beijing
technology and acquired the advanced in 1644 unopposed, and the emperor, for-
European artillery of the Ming. They saken by his officials and generals,
created a replica of the Ming central committed suicide. A Ming general, Wu
The Early Qing Dynasty | 217

Dorgon (Chinese temple name: Chengzong; b. Nov. 7, 1612—d. Dec. 31, 1650), prince of the Manchu
people, was instrumental in founding the Qing (Manchu) dynasty in China. He joined his former
enemy Wu Sangui in driving the Chinese rebel Li Zicheng from Beijing, where Li had already
unseated the last Ming-dynasty emperor. Though some wanted to put Dorgon on the throne, he
saw to it that his nephew Fulin was proclaimed emperor (Dorgon acted as regent); this loyalty
and selflessness won him the high regard of future historians.

Sangui, sought Manchu assistance against perceived threats in north and

against Li Zicheng. Dorgon, the regent west Asia created the largest empire
and uncle of Abahai’s infant son (who China has ever known. From the late
became the first Qing emperor), defeated 17th to the early 18th century, Qing
Li and took Beijing, where he declared the armies destroyed the Oyrat empire
Manchu dynasty. based in Dzungaria and incorporated
It took the Manchu several decades into the empire the region around the
to complete their military conquest of Koko Nor (Qinghai Hu, “Blue Lake”) in
China. In 1673 the conquerors confronted Central Asia. In order to check Mongol
a major rebellion led by three generals power, a Chinese garrison and a resident
(among them Wu Sangui), former Ming official were posted in Lhasa, the centre
adherents who had been given control of the Dge-lugs-pa (Yellow Hat) sect of
over large parts of southern and south- Buddhism that was influential among
western China. That revolt, stimulated by Mongols as well as Tibetans. By the mid-
Manchu attempts to cut back on the 18th century the land on both sides of
autonomous power of these generals, was the Tien Shan range as far west as Lake
finally suppressed in 1681. In 1683 the Balkhash had been annexed and
Qing finally eliminated the last strong- renamed Xinjiang (“New Dominion”).
hold of Ming loyalism on Taiwan. Military expansion was matched
by the internal migration of Chinese
ThE QINg EMPIRE settlers into parts of China that were
dominated by aboriginal or non-Han
After 1683 the Qing rulers turned their ethnic groups. The evacuation of the
attention to consolidating control over south and southeast coast during the
their frontiers. Taiwan became part of 1660s spurred a westward migration
the empire, and military expeditions of an ethnic minority, the Hakka, who
218 | The History of China

moved from the hills of southwest the provincial and central governments
Fujian, northern Guangdong, and south- (half of the powerful governors-general
ern Jiangxi. Although the Qing dynasty throughout the dynasty were Manchu),
tried to forbid migration into its home- but Chinese were able to enter govern-
land, Manchuria, in the 18th and 19th ment in greater numbers in the 18th
centuries Chinese settlers flowed into century, and a Manchu-Han dyarchy was
the fertile Liao River basin. Government in place for the rest of the dynasty.
policies encouraged Han movement The early Qing emperors were vigor-
into the southwest during the early 18th ous and forceful rulers. The first emperor,
century, while Chinese traders and Fulin (reign name, Shunzhi), was put on
assimilated Chinese Muslims moved the throne when he was a child of six sui
into Xinjiang and the other newly (about five years in Western calculations).
acquired territories. This period was His reign (1644–61) was dominated by his
punctuated by ethnic conflict stimu- uncle and regent, Dorgon, until Dorgon
lated by the Han Chinese takeover of died in 1650. Because the Shunzhi
former aboriginal territories and by emperor had died of smallpox, his suc-
fighting between different groups of cessor, the Kangxi emperor, was chosen
Han Chinese. in part because he had already survived a
smallpox attack. The Kangxi emperor
Political Institutions (reigned 1661–1722) was one of the most
dynamic rulers China has known. During
The Qing had come to power because of his reign the last phase of the military
their success at winning Chinese over to conquest was completed, and campaigns
their side; in the late 17th century they were pressed against the Mongols to
adroitly pursued similar policies to win strengthen Qing security on its Central
the adherence of the Chinese literati. Asian borders. China’s literati were
Qing emperors learned Chinese, brought into scholarly projects, notably
addressed their subjects using Confucian the compilation of the Ming history,
rhetoric, reinstated the civil service under imperial patronage.
examination system and the Confucian The Kangxi emperor’s designated
curriculum, and patronized scholarly heir, his son Yinreng, was a bitter disap-
projects, as had their predecessors. They pointment, and the succession struggle
also continued the Ming custom of that followed the latter’s demotion was
adopting reign names, so that Xuanye, perhaps the bloodiest in Qing history.
for example, is known to history as the Many Chinese historians still question
Kangxi emperor. The Qing rulers ini- whether the Kangxi emperor’s eventual
tially used only Manchu and bannermen successor, his son Yinzhen (reign title
to fill the most-important positions in Yongzheng), was truly the emperor’s
The Early Qing Dynasty | 219

Imperial Chinese throne of the Qianlong emperor (reigned 1735–96), red lacquer carved
in dragons and floral scrolls, Qing dynasty; in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; photograph, A.C. Cooper Ltd.

deathbed choice. During the Yongzheng the fiscal administration and rectified
reign (1722–35) the government promoted bureaucratic corruption.
Chinese settlement of the southwest and The Qianlong reign (1735–96) marked
tried to integrate non-Han aboriginal the culmination of the early Qing. The
groups into Chinese culture; it reformed emperor had inherited an improved
220 | The History of China

bureaucracy and a full treasury from his practice of father-son succession but
father and expended enormous sums without the custom of favouring the
on the military expeditions known as eldest son. Because the identity of
the Ten Great Victories. He was both the imperial heir was kept secret until the
noted for his patronage of the arts and emperor was on his deathbed, Qing
notorious for the censorship of anti- succession struggles were particularly
Manchu literary works that was linked bitter and sometimes bloody.
with the compilation of the Siku The Manchu also altered political
quanshu (“Complete Library of the Four institutions in the central government.
Treasuries”; Eng. trans. under various They created an Imperial Household
titles). The closing years of his reign Department to forestall eunuchs from
were marred by intensified court faction- usurping power—a situation that had
alism centred on the meteoric rise to plagued the Ming ruling house—and
political power of an imperial favourite, they staffed this agency with bond
a young officer named Heshen. Yongyan, servants. The Imperial Household
who reigned as the Jiaqing emperor Department became a power outside the
(1796–1820), lived most of his life in his control of the regular bureaucracy. It
father’s shadow. He was plagued by trea- managed the large estates that had been
sury deficits, piracy off the southeast allocated to bannermen and supervised
coast, and uprisings among aboriginal various government monopolies, the
groups in the southwest and elsewhere. imperial textile and porcelain factories
These problems, together with new pres- in central China, and the customs
sures resulting from an expansion in bureaus scattered throughout the
opium imports, were passed on to his empire. The size and strength of the
successor, the Daoguang emperor Imperial Household Department
(reigned 1820–50). reflected the accretion of power to the
The early Qing emperors succeeded throne that was part of the Qing political
in breaking from the Manchu tradition process. Similarly, revisions of the sys-
of collegial rule. The consolidation of tem of bureaucratic communication and
imperial power was finally completed the creation in 1729 of a new top deci-
in the 1730s, when the Yongzheng sion-making body, the Grand Council,
emperor destroyed the power base of permitted the emperor to control more
rival princes. By the early 18th century efficiently the ocean of government
the Manchu had adopted the Chinese memorandums and requests.

This 18th-century drawing depicts Qianlong, the fourth emperor of the Qing dynasty. De
Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images
The Early Qing Dynasty | 221
222 | The History of China

Foreign Relations Central Asian affairs were handled by a

new agency, the Court of Colonial
The Manchu inherited the tributary sys- Affairs, that was created before 1644.
tem of foreign relations from previous Qing policies toward Central Asia fre-
dynasties. This system assumed that quently deviated from the tributary
China was culturally and materially supe- ideal, Chinese relations with Russia
rior to all other nations, and it required being a case in point. The early Qing
those who wished to trade and deal with rulers attempted to check the Russian
China to come as vassals to the emperor, advance in northern Asia and used the
who was the ruler of “all under heaven.” Russians as a buffer against the Mongols.
The tributary system was used by the The Sino-Russian Treaty of Nerchinsk
Qing Board of Rites to deal with the coun- (1689), which tried to fix a common bor-
tries along China’s eastern and southern der, was an agreement between equals.
borders and with the European nations The Treaty of Kyakhta (1727) extended
that sought trade at the ports of south agreement on the borders to the west
and southeast China. and opened markets for trade. When
The tributary system operated in its Chinese ambassadors went to Moscow
fullest form in the Qing treatment of (1731) and St. Petersburg (1732) to request
Korea. The Korean court used the Chinese that Russia remain neutral during the
calendar, sent regular embassies to Chinese campaigns against the Oyrat in
Beijing to present tribute, and consulted Central Asia, they performed the kow-
the Chinese on the conduct of foreign tow before the empress.
relations. The Qing emperor confirmed Foreign trade was not always
the authority of the Korean rulers, restricted to the formal exchanges pre-
approved the Korean choice of consorts scribed by the tributary system. Extensive
and heirs, and bestowed noble ranks on trading was carried out in markets along
Korean kings. The Korean envoy per- China’s borders with Korea, at the Russo-
formed the kowtow (complete prostration Mongolian border town of Kyakhta, and
and knocking of the head on the ground) at selected ports along the coast, whence
before the Qing emperor and addressed ships traded with Southeast Asia. Perhaps
him using the terms appropriate to some- the most striking example of trade taking
one of inferior status. precedence over tribute was the Qing
Central Asia was another matter. trade with Japan. The Tokugawa shogu-
Tribes on the northwestern and western nate viewed the Manchu as barbarians
frontiers had repeatedly invaded China, whose conquest sullied China’s claim to
and the Manchu, who had been part of moral superiority in the world order. They
the world of the steppe, were keenly refused to take part in the tributary sys-
aware of the need to maintain military tem and themselves issued trade permits
supremacy on China’s northern borders. (counterparts of the Chinese tributary
The Early Qing Dynasty | 223

tallies) to Chinese merchants coming to China and of Hunan, Hubei, and the far
Nagasaki after 1715. The Qing need for southwest proceeded on this basis.
Japanese copper, a money metal in Land reclamation went hand in hand
China, required that trade with Japan be with the construction and reconstruction
continued, and it was. of water-control projects. This was an
activity so characteristic of a new dynasty
Economic Development that one can speak of “hydraulic cycles”
moving in tandem with political consoli-
In the 1640s and 1650s the Manchu abol- dations in China. These water-control
ished all late Ming surtaxes and granted projects varied in scale with terrain and
tax exemptions to areas ravaged by war. ecology. In central and southern China,
Tax remissions were limited, however, by irrigation systems were the foundation
the urgent need for revenues to carry on for rice cultivation and were largely the
the conquest of China. It was not until the product of private investment and man-
1680s, after the consolidation of military agement. In northern China, control of
victory, that the Qing began to permit tax the heavily silted Huang He (Yellow
remissions on a large scale. The perma- River), which frequently inundated the
nent freezing of the ding (corvée quotas) eastern portion of the North China Plain,
in 1712 and the subsequent merger of the required large-scale state management
ding and land tax into a single tax that and coordination with the related water
was collected in silver were part of a long- level of the Grand Canal, the major north-
term simplification of the tax system. The south waterway supplying Beijing.
commutation of levies from payment in The preferred crops—rice in central
kind to payment in money and the shift and southern China, wheat in northern
from registering males to registering China—retained their primacy in Qing
land paralleled the increasing commer- agriculture. In the course of the dynasty,
cialization of the economy. the cultivation of wheat and other north-
A healthy tax base required that land ern staple grains continued to creep
be brought under cultivation. Because southward; rice was transplanted to the
more than one-fourth of the total culti- best lands on the frontiers, and the
vated land had slipped off the tax rolls in cropping cycle gradually intensified.
the early 17th century, the restoration of Both on the frontiers and within China
agriculture was an important goal. The proper, new lands were opened for settle-
new dynasty began to resettle refugees ment using the New World crops that
on abandoned land with offers of tax had been introduced into China in the
exemptions for several years and grants late 16th century. Corn (maize) and
of oxen, tools, seeds, or even cash in some the Irish potato permitted Chinese to
areas. In the late 17th century the resettle- cultivate the marginal hilly lands. The
ment of the Chengdu Basin in western sweet potato provided insurance against
224 | The History of China

famine, while peanuts (groundnuts) were economic fluctuations in employment.

a new source of oil in the peasant diet. Its major goal was stability, not growth.
Tobacco, another 16th-century import, And yet the early Qing was a period
competed with rice and sugarcane for of economic growth and development.
the best lands in southern China and With the imposition of the Qing peace,
became an important cash crop. the economy resumed a commercial
Once the economy had been restored, expansion that had begun in the 16th
the Qing state attempted to keep it run- century. This expansion in turn stimu-
ning smoothly. For the most part, the lated specialization in crops sent to
state did not actively intervene in what market, which included raw materials to
was becoming an extremely complex be used in the textile industry as well as
market economy. The major exception consumption goods such as tea, sugar,
was its successful effort to offset regional and tobacco. Profit enticed merchants,
food shortages in years of crop failure. landlords, and peasants to buy or rent
Every province was supposed to pur- land to produce cash crops. A new kind of
chase or retain reserves in the managerial landlord, who used hired
“ever-normal” granaries located in each labour to grow market crops, emerged in
county, so named because they were the 18th century.
intended to stabilize the supply, and The tenant’s position improved vis-à-
hence the price, of grain. Even relatively vis the landlord’s, a wage-labour force
uncommercialized hinterlands were thus arose in agriculture, and land was increas-
armoured against famine. The ability of ingly used as a marketable commodity.
the government to respond effectively to Systems that guaranteed tenants perma-
food scarcity depended on its informa- nent cultivation rights spread in the 18th
tion gathering. During the 18th century, century through the wet-rice cultivation
data on local grain prices became a regu- zone and in some dryland cultivation sys-
lar feature of county, prefectural, and tems. Multiple layers of rights to the land
provincial reports. generally benefited the tenant and
The Qing government played a rela- improved incentives to maintain the fer-
tively minor role in the commercial tility of the soil and to raise output. There
economy. There were state monopolies was a general shift from servile to con-
in salt, precious metals, pearls, and gin- tractual labour in agriculture that was
seng, but the long-run trend was to part of a long trend toward eliminating
reduce the number of monopolies. The fixed status and increasing mobility of
state barely began to tap the growing labour and land.
revenue potential of trade, just as it Equally important processes of com-
failed to tap the expanding agricultural mercialization gained momentum with
base. Its rare interventions in trade the recovery of the domestic economy.
were motivated by a desire to dampen The 16th-century boom created new layers
The Early Qing Dynasty | 225

of rural markets that linked villages more be formalized and protected through
firmly to a market network. Although the written contract. Reliance on written con-
majority of economic transactions contin- tracts for purchasing and mortgaging
ued to take place within local and land, purchasing commodities and peo-
intermediate markets, interregional and ple, and hiring wage labourers became
national trade in grain, tea, cotton, and silk commonplace.
expanded significantly. In the 18th cen- The early Qing economy was inti-
tury, Shanghai became a thriving entrepôt mately tied to foreign trade, which
for the coastal trade that extended from consisted of junks trading with ports in
Manchuria to southern China. Southeast Asia, Japan, and the
The most-dramatic economic inno- Philippines and of the expanding trade
vations of the 18th century resulted from conducted by Europeans. After 1684,
the needs of long-distance traders for when the ban on maritime trade was
credit and new mechanisms that would lifted, Western traders flocked to
ease the transfer of funds. Native banks, Guangzhou (Canton), and foreign com-
as they were called by foreigners in the merce was finally confined to this port in
19th century, accepted deposits, made 1759. The “Canton system” of trade that
loans, issued private notes, and trans- prevailed from that year until 1842 speci-
ferred funds from one region to another. fied that Europeans had to trade through
Promissory notes issued by native banks the cohong (gonghang), a guild of
on behalf of merchants facilitated the Chinese firms that had monopoly rights
purchase of large quantities of goods, to the trade in tea and silk.
and money drafts and transfer accounts From 1719 to 1833 the tonnage of
also helped ease the flow of funds. By the foreign ships trading at Guangzhou
early 19th century, paper notes may have increased more than 13-fold. The major
constituted one-third or more of the total export was tea; by 1833, tea exports
volume of money in circulation. The were more than 28 times the export
demands of large-scale, long-distance levels of 1719. Silk and porcelain were
trade had, without government participa- also exported in increasing quantities
tion, inspired merchants to transform a through the early 18th century. Although
metallic monetary system into one in only a small fraction of total output
which paper notes supplemented copper was exported, the effect of foreign trade
coins and silver. on the Chinese economy was direct
Customary law evolved outside the and perceptible. Its repercussions were
formal legal system to expedite eco- not limited to the merchants and pro-
nomic transactions and enable strangers ducers involved in specific export
to do business with one another. commodities but also had a general
Business partnerships in mining, com- impact on domestic markets through the
merce, and commercial agriculture could monetary system.
226 | The History of China

The Chinese economy had long been ratio between silver and copper cash was
based on a metallic currency system in responsive to fluctuations in the supply
which copper cash was used for daily pur- of the metals, and changes in the
chases and silver for large business exchange ratio affected all citizens. The
transactions and taxes. The exchange economic expansion of the 18th century
brought rising demand for silver and
copper. Although domestic production of
copper increased, silver was primarily
obtained from abroad. After 1684 the net
balance of trade was consistently in
China’s favour, and silver flowed into the
Chinese economy. Perhaps 10 million
Spanish silver dollars per year came into
China during the early Qing, and in the
18th century Spanish silver dollars
became a common unit of account in the
southeast and south.


Chinese society continued to be highly

stratified during the early Qing. Hereditary
status groups ranged from the descen-
dants of the imperial line down to the
“mean people” at the bottom of the social
ladder. Many professions were hereditary:
bannermen, brewers, dyers, doctors, navi-
gators, and Daoist priests usually passed
on their occupations to at least one son in
each generation. The mean people
included remnants of aboriginal groups
who had survived Chinese expansion and
Meiping porcelain vase with a celadon settlement and certain occupational
glaze, decorated with incised floral groups, including prostitutes, musicians,
motifs, from the reign of the Yongzhen actors, and local government underlings
emperor (1722–35), Qing dynasty; in the
(e.g., jailers and gatekeepers). Qing laws
Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
forbade intermarriage between respect-
Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert
Museum, London able commoners (“good people”) and the
mean people, who were also barred from
The Early Qing Dynasty | 227

sitting for the civil service examinations. eschewed the morally ambiguous role of
Despite attempts in the 1720s to return official to devote their energies to scholar-
some of these mean people to ordinary ship, painting, poetry, and the other arts.
commoner status, the social stigma per- Others turned to managing their locali-
sisted throughout the dynasty. ties and assumed leadership in public
Servitude was commonplace in Qing welfare, mediation of disputes, and local
society. The Manchu had enslaved pris- defense. Families with a long tradition of
oners of war, and in China persons could success in examinations and official ser-
be sold by their families. Many well-to-do vice were increasingly preoccupied with
households owned some domestic ser- strategies for ensuring the perpetuation
vants. Servants were grouped with the of their elite status and countering the
mean people in Qing law, but some of inexorable division of family estates
them nonetheless achieved considerable stemming from the Chinese practice of
power and authority. Bond servants of the partible inheritance. Downward mobility
imperial house ran the powerful Imperial was a more general phenomenon than
Household Department and themselves upward mobility in Qing society; those at
owned slaves. Servile tenants of the the bottom of the social scale did not
wealthy Huizhou merchants were some- marry and have children, while the
times raised as companions to the wealthy practiced polygyny and tended
master’s son and trusted to help run the to have large families.
long-distance trade on which Huizhou In China’s long-settled and densely
fortunes were based. Servitude in some populated regions, degree holders who
cases was thus an important avenue for confronted the prospect of downward
social advancement. mobility for their sons were profoundly
Social mobility increased during the disturbed by the circumstances that per-
early Qing, supported by a pervasive mitted wealthy merchants to mimic their
belief that it was possible for a peasant way of life. The money economy and its
boy to become the first scholar in the land. impersonal values penetrated more
An ethic that stressed education and hard deeply into Chinese society than ever
work motivated many households to before, challenging former indicators of
invest their surplus in the arduous prepa- status for preeminence. Alarmed, the
ration of sons for the civil service Chinese elite joined the Qing state in try-
examinations. Although the most presti- ing to propagate traditional values and
gious career in Qing society remained behaviour. Morality books, published in
that of the scholar-official, the sharpened increasing quantities from the late 16th
competition for degrees in the prosperous century onward, tied virtuous behaviour
18th century significantly expanded to concrete rewards in the form of educa-
socially acceptable forms of achievement. tional success, high office, and sons. The
At one pole, alienated literati deliberately Qing bestowed titles, gifts, and imperial
228 | The History of China

calligraphy on virtuous widows and These lineages seem to have been com-
encouraged the construction of memo- posed of only the most elite lines within a
rial arches and shrines in their honour descent group, who focused their efforts
to reinforce this female role. Rural lec- on national rather than local prominence
tures (xiangyue) were public ceremonies and emphasized their marriage networks
staged for citizens that combined reli- rather than ties to poorer kinsmen.
gious elements with reciting the sacred Kinship was of limited use to the
edict promulgated by the emperor. increasingly numerous sojourners who
were working away from home in the
Social Organization early Qing. Other kinds of organizations
emerged to meet the needs of a more
The basic unit of production and con- mobile population. The share partnership
sumption in Chinese society remained permitted unrelated persons to pool their
the jia (“family”), consisting of kin related resources to start a business, and it was
by blood, marriage, or adoption that used to finance a wide variety of enter-
shared a common budget and common prises, including mining ventures, coastal
property. The Chinese family system was and overseas shipping, commercial agri-
patrilineal; daughters married out, while culture, money shops, and theatres. The
sons brought in wives and shared the res- trading empires created by the Huizhou
idence of their fathers. The head of the and Shanxi merchants were examples of
family, the patriarch, had the power to how such partnerships, cemented by kin-
direct the activities of each member in an ship and native-place ties, could be used
effort to optimize the family’s welfare. for large-scale business operations.
The family was a metaphor for the state, “Native place” was the principle used
and family relations were the foundation to organize the huiguan (native-place
of the hierarchical social roles that were associations) that spread throughout
essential in the Confucian vision of a Qing market centres. Some huiguan were
morally correct society. primarily intended for officials and exam-
In southeastern and southern China ination candidates; these were located in
during the early Qing, there was an the capitals of provinces and in Beijing.
expansion of extended kinship organiza- Others, located in the southwest, were for
tions based on descent from a common immigrants, but the vast majority were
ancestor. In those areas, lineages became created and used by merchants. The hui-
a powerful tool for collective action and guan provided lodging and a place to
local dominance, using revenues from meet fellow natives, receive financial aid,
corporate property to support education, and store goods. In the course of the 18th
charity, and ancestral rites. Other types of century, another kind of organization
lineages, possessing little corporate that encompassed all those engaged in a
property, existed in other parts of China. trade, the gongsuo (guild), emerged in
The Early Qing Dynasty | 229

China’s cities. Huiguan frequently powerful organization that dominated

became subunits of gongsuo, and both the Chinese underworld.
groups participated in the informal gov-
ernance of cities. State and Society
New kinds of social organization also
emerged on China’s frontiers. Native- The state barred literati from using the
place ties were frequently expressed in academies and literary societies for
worship of a deity, so that a temple or ter- explicitly political activities. Scholars in
ritorial cult would become a vehicle for Beijing and in the rich cities of the
collective action. White Lotus sectarian- Yangtze delta turned from politics to the
ism appealed to other Chinese, most study of texts that marked the empirical
notably to women and to the poor, who school of scholarship (kaozheng xue).
found solace in worship of the Eternal Influenced by their knowledge of
Mother, who was to gather all her chil- European mathematics and mathemati-
dren at the millennium into one family. cal astronomy, these scholars laid down
The Qing state banned the religion, and new rules for verifying the authenticity of
it was generally an underground move- the Classical texts and, by revealing flaws
ment. Although the White Lotus faith in previously accepted canons, chal-
was practiced by boatmen on the Grand lenged the Neo-Confucian orthodoxy.
Canal with no attempts to foment upris- Turning away from the Confucian quest
ing, its millenarian message spurred for sagehood, the empirical scholars were
spectacular rebellions; the most-notable increasingly secular and professional in
was the White Lotus Rebellion at the their pursuit of textual studies. Scholarly
close of the 18th century. associations, poetry societies, and acade-
A new form of social organization, mies were the organizational loci for the
based on sworn brotherhood, emerged empirical schools. Great libraries were
among male sojourners in southeast created, rare texts were reprinted, and
China in the late 18th century. The Triad compilation projects proliferated, culmi-
fraternities built on kinship, native- nating in the great government-sponsored
place, and contractor-worker ties but Siku quanshu (1772–82), which undertook
added special rituals that bound fellow to collect for reprinting the best editions
workers together as “brothers” in disci- of the most important books produced in
pleship to a monk founder. Secret lore, China, using as selection criteria the
initiation rituals, and an elaborate origin methods of the empirical school.
myth evolved, but the fraternities tended A hallmark of Qing society was the
to be highly decentralized autonomous expansion and extension of a national
units. Appearing first on Taiwan, the urban culture into various parts of the
Triads expanded with transport workers empire. Urban culture circulated through
into southern China and became a the market network into the hinterland,
230 | The History of China

as sojourners disseminated culture from who were “raw,” or still possessed of their
localities into the cities and back again. own culture, and those who were “cooked,”
The spread of this culture was also sup- or assimilated. The ethnic minorities
ported by increased functional literacy resisted violently, but they were gradually
and the expansion of large-scale printing assimilated or pushed farther south and
for commercial and scholarly audiences. west during the early Qing.
A wide variety of written materials were
available in market towns and cities—col- Trends in the Early Qing
lections of winning examination essays,
route books for commercial travelers, The tripling of China’s population from
religious pamphlets and scriptures, nov- the beginning of the Qing dynasty to the
els, short-story collections, jokebooks, mid-19th century rested on the economic
and almanacs. Storytelling, puppet plays, expansion that followed the consolida-
and regional drama in rural and urban tion of Manchu rule. This population
places provided yet another mode of cul- growth has been frequently cited as the
tural dissemination. In China’s cities, major cause of the decline of China in the
sojourning merchants sponsored visits of 19th century. Certainly, by the year 1800
drama troupes from their own localities, the Qing state’s surpluses—sufficient
which facilitated the spread of regional through the 18th century to pay for
drama forms outside their own territo- numerous military expeditions—were
ries. Drama was the bridge connecting exhausted in the long campaign to quell
the oral and written realms, the “living the White Lotus Rebellion. Whereas fis-
classroom” for peasants who learned cal reforms had strengthened the state in
about cultural heroes and history through the 18th century, fiscal weakness plagued
watching plays. The expansion of a Qing governments thereafter. The
national urban culture supported the vaunted power of the Qing armies also
state’s efforts to systematize and stan- waned after 1800, in part because of new
dardize Chinese society. modes of warfare. Increased commercial-
China’s non-Han minorities found ization had tied more and more Chinese
themselves surrounded by an aggressive, into large market fluctuations. In the 18th
expansionist Han Chinese culture during century the world market economy into
the early Qing. Attempts by the emperors which China was increasingly integrated
at that time to protect minorities from the worked in its favour and stimulated a
Han onslaught were largely unavailing, long period of internal prosperity. But the
and some rulers, such as the Yongzheng favourable trend was reversed in the
emperor, actually tried to hasten the 1820s and 1830s, when rising opium
assimilation of aboriginal groups into the imports altered the net balance of trade
Chinese order. The Qing categorized the against China and ushered in a period of
ethnic minorities into two groups: those economic depression.
ChaPTER 11
Late Qing

WESTERN ChaLLENgE, 1839–60

The opium question, the direct cause of the first Sino-British

clash in the 19th century, began in the late 18th century as the
British attempted to counterbalance their unfavourable
China trade with traffic in Indian opium. After monopolizing
the opium trade in 1779, the East India Company’s govern-
ment began to sell the drug at auction to private British
traders in India, who shipped it to buyers in China. The silver
acquired from the sale of opium in China was sold at
Guangzhou for the company’s bills of exchange, payable in
London, and was used by the company to purchase its large

The clipper ship Le-Rye-Moon, built for the opium trade, 19th-
century wood engraving; from the Illustrated London News.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
232 | The History of China

annual tea cargo for sale in Europe. This Guangzhou. He tried to negotiate with
“triangular trade” became a major vehicle the Guangzhou authorities on equal foot-
for realizing the potential gains from the ing, but the latter took his behaviour as
British conquest of India, providing a contrary to the established Sino-foreign
means to repatriate the company’s Indian intercourse. His mission failed, and he
revenue in opium in the form of Chinese was replaced in 1836 by Charles (later Sir
teas. In 1819 the company began to han- Charles) Elliot.
dle larger amounts of opium. Substantial In Beijing a proposal in 1836 to relax
social and economic disruption followed the opium restraint acquired much sup-
in China, not only from the effects of the port, but the Daoguang emperor
opium habit itself as it spread among the appointed a radical patriot, Lin Zexu, as
populace but from the corruption it imperial commissioner for an anti-
engendered among petty officials and opium campaign. Chinese anti-opium
from a fall in the value of copper in efforts in fact began to make consider-
China’s bimetallic monetary system as able headway in controlling the Chinese
silver was drained from the economy. side of the smuggling trade in late 1838
The Beijing court repeatedly banned the and early 1839. The critical foreign side
opium imports but without success, of the opium trade was, however, beyond
because the prohibition itself promoted Commissioner Lin’s direct reach.
corruption among the officials and sol- Arriving at Guangzhou in March 1839,
diers concerned. There was no possibility Lin confiscated and destroyed more than
of the opium question being solved as a 20,000 chests of opium. Skirmishes
domestic affair. began after September between the
After the turn of the 19th century, the Chinese and the British.
main avenue for opium smuggling was
through the designated traders who were The First Opium War
allowed only to manage the inter-Asian and its Aftermath
trade under the company’s license.
Without protection from the company, In February 1840 the British government
they cultivated the opium market in decided to launch a military expedition,
China on their own. They defied the and Elliot and his cousin, George (later
opium ban in China and gradually Sir George) Elliot, were appointed joint
became defiant toward Chinese law and plenipotentiaries to China (though the
order in general, having nothing in mind latter, in poor health, resigned in
but making money. After Parliament November). In June, 16 British warships
revoked the East India Company’s arrived in Hong Kong and sailed north-
monopoly in 1834, William John Napier ward to the mouth of the Bei River to
was appointed chief superintendent of press China with their demands. Charles
British trade in China and arrived at Elliot entered into negotiations with the
Late Qing | 233

Chinese, and, although an agreement 1842 and took Wusong, Shanghai, and
was reached in January 1841, it was not Zhenjiang. Nanjing yielded in August,
acceptable to either government. In May and peace was restored with the Treaty of
1841 the British attacked the walled city Nanjing. According to the main provi-
of Guangzhou (Canton) and received a sions of the treaty, China ceded Hong
ransom of $6 million, which provoked a Kong to Britain, opened five ports to
counterattack on the part of the British trade, abolished the cohong sys-
Cantonese. This was the beginning of a tem of trade, agreed to equal official
continuing conflict between the British recognition, and paid an indemnity of $21
and the Cantonese. million. This was the result of the first
The Qing had no effective tactics clash between China, which had regarded
against the powerful British navy. They foreign trade as a favour given by the
retaliated merely by setting burning rafts heavenly empire to the poor barbarians,
on the enemy’s fleet and encouraging and the British, to whom trade and com-
people to take the heads of the enemies, merce had become “the true herald of
for which they offered a prize. The impe- civilization.”
rial banner troops, although they The Treaty of Nanjing was followed
sometimes fought fiercely, were ill- by two supplementary arrangements
equipped and lacked training for warfare with the British in 1843. In addition, in
against the more-modern British forces. July 1844 China signed the Treaty of
The Green Standard battalions were sim- Wanghia (Wangxia) with the United
ilarly in decay and without much States and in October the Treaty of
motivation or good leadership. To make Whampoa (Huangpu) with France.
up the weakness, local militias were These arrangements made up a complex
urgently recruited, but they were useless. of foreign privileges by virtue of the
The British proclaimed that their aim was most-favoured-nation clauses (guaran-
to fight the government officials and sol- teeing trading equality) conceded to
diers who abused the people, not to make every signatory. All in all, they provided
war against the Chinese population. And a basis for later inroads such as the loss
indeed there was a deep rift between the of tariff autonomy, extraterritoriality
government and the people that the (exemption from the application or juris-
British could easily exploit, a weakness in diction of local law or tribunals), and the
Qing society that became apparent dur- free movement of missionaries.
ing the crisis of the war. With the signing of the treaties—
Elliot’s successor, Henry Pottinger, which began the so-called treaty-port
arrived at Macau in August and cam- system—the imperial commissioner
paigned northward, seizing Xiamen Qiying, newly stationed at Guangzhou,
(Amoy), Dinghai, and Ningbo. Reinforced was put in charge of foreign affairs.
from India, he resumed action in May Following a policy of appeasement, his
234 | The History of China

dealings with foreigners started fairly society. The city of Guangzhou was also a
smoothly. But, contrary to the British centre of diffusion of xenophobia, because
expectation, the amount of trade dropped the scholars at the city’s great academies
after 1846, and, to British dissatisfaction, were proclaiming the Confucian theory
the question of opium remained unset- that uncultured barbarians should be
tled in the postwar arrangements. The excluded. The inspired antiforeign mood
core of the Sino-Western tension, how- also contained a strong antigovernment
ever, rested in an antiforeign movement sentiment and perhaps a tendency toward
in Guangdong. provincialism; the Cantonese rose up
against the barbarians to protect their own
The Antiforeign homeland, without recourse to the govern-
Movement and the Second ment authorities.
Opium War (Arrow War) In the strained atmosphere in
Guangzhou, where the xenophobic gov-
At the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing, ernor-general, Ye Mingchen, was inciting
China and Britain disagreed as to whether the Cantonese to annihilate the British,
foreigners were allowed to enter the the Arrow incident occurred in October
walled city of Guangzhou. Though 1856. Guangzhou police seized the Arrow,
Guangzhou was declared open in July a Chinese-owned but British-registered
1843, the British faced Cantonese opposi- ship flying a British flag, and charged its
tion. After 1847 trouble rapidly grew, and, Chinese crew with piracy and smuggling.
as a result of an incident at nearby The British consul Harry Parkes sent a
Foshan, a promise was given the British fleet to fight its way up to Guangzhou.
that they would be allowed to enter the French forces joined the venture on the
city in 1849. Yet troubles continued. As a plea that a French missionary had been
result of his inability to control the situa- officially executed in Guangxi. The
tion, Qiying was recalled in 1848 and British government sent an expedition
replaced with the less-compliant Xu under Lord Elgin as plenipotentiary. The
Guangjin. As the promised date neared, Russians and the Americans abstained
the Cantonese demonstrated against but sent their representatives for diplo-
British entry. Finally, the British yielded, matic maneuvering. At the end of 1857 an
and the antiforeigners won a victory Anglo-French force occupied Guangzhou;
despite the fact that the Beijing court in March 1858 they took the Dagu fort
conceded a “temporary entrance” into and marched to Tianjin.
the city. The Qing representatives had no
After the Cantonese resistance in 1841, choice but to comply with the demands
the gentry in Guangdong began to build a of the British and French; the Russian
more-organized antiforeign movement, and U.S. diplomats also gained the privi-
promoting the militarization of village leges their militant colleagues secured
Late Qing | 235

by force. During June four Tianjin trea- Muravyov had sponsored four expedi-
ties were concluded that provided for, tions down the Amur; during the third
among other measures, the residence of one, in 1856, the left bank and lower
foreign diplomats in Beijing and the free- reaches of the river had actually been
dom of Christian missionaries to occupied by the Russians. In May 1858
evangelize their faith. Muravyov pressed the Qing general
In 1859, when the signatories arrived Yishan to sign a treaty at Aigun (Aihui),
off the Dagu fort on their way to sign the by which the territory on the northern
treaties in Beijing, they were repulsed, bank of the Amur was ceded to Russia
with heavy damage inflicted by the gun- and the land between the Ussuri River
fire from the fort. In 1860 an allied force and the sea was placed in joint posses-
invaded Beijing, driving the Xianfeng sion by the two countries, pending further
emperor (reigned 1850–61) out of the cap- disposition. But Beijing refused to ratify
ital to the summer palace at Chengde. A the treaty. When the Anglo-French allies
younger brother of the emperor, Gong attacked northern China in 1860, the
Qinwang (Prince Gong), was appointed Russian negotiator Nikolay Ignatyev
imperial commissioner in charge of acted as China’s friend and mediator in
negotiation. The famous summer palace securing the evacuation of the invaders
was destroyed by the British in October. from Beijing. Soon after the allies had left
Following the advice of the Russian nego- Beijing, Ignatyev secured, as a reward for
tiator, Prince Gong exchanged ratification his mediatory effort, the Sino-Russian
of the 1858 treaties; in addition, he signed Treaty of Beijing, which confirmed the
new conventions with the British and the Treaty of Aigun and ceded to Russia the
French. The U.S. and Russian negotiators territory between the Ussuri and the sea.
had already exchanged the ratification in The 1858–60 treaties extended the
1859, but the latter’s diplomatic perfor- foreign privileges granted after the
mance in 1860 was remarkable. first Opium War and confirmed or legal-
Russian interests in the East had ized the developments in the treaty-
been activated in competition with the port system. The worst effects for the
British effort to open China. A Russian Qing authorities were not the utilitarian
spearhead, directed to Kuldja (Yining) by rights, such as trade, commerce, and
way of the Irtysh River, resulted in the tariff, but the privileges that affected
Sino-Russian Treaty of Kuldja in 1851, the moral and cultural values of China.
which opened Kuldja and Chuguchak The right to propagate Christianity
(Tacheng) to Russian trade. Another threatened Confucian values, the back-
drive was directed to the Amur watershed bone of the imperial system. The
under the initiative of Nikolay Muravyov, permanent residence of foreign represen-
who had been appointed governor-gen- tatives in Beijing signified an end to the
eral of eastern Siberia in 1847. By 1857 long-established tributary relationship
236 | The History of China

between China and other nations. The treaty ports with foreign settlements,
partial collapse of the tribute system consular jurisdiction, and employment of
meant a loss of the emperor’s virtue, a Westerners as imperial personnel; thus,
serious blow to dynastic rule in China. the Chinese regarded the Western impact
During the turbulent years 1858–60, as an extension of their tradition rather
the Qing bureaucracy was divided than a totally new situation that necessi-
between the war and peace parties. It was tated a new adjustment. And at least until
the peace party’s leaders—Prince Gong, 1860 the Qing leaders remained with-
Gui Liang, and Wen Xiang—who took drawn in the shell of tradition, making no
charge of negotiating with the foreigners, effort to cope with the new environment
though they did so not as a matter of by breaking the yoke of the past.
principle but because the imminent crisis
forced them to. Popular uprising
In 1861, in response to the settlement
of the foreign representatives in the capi- The third quarter of the 19th century was
tal, the Zongli Yamen (office for General marked by a series of uprisings, again as
Management) was opened to deal with a result of social discontent. The most
foreign affairs, its main staff filled by the destructive of these was the Taiping
peace party leaders. The Qing officials Rebellion (1850–64) in southern and cen-
themselves, however, deemed this as still tral China. The Nian Rebellion (c.
keeping a faint silhouette of the tribute 1853–68) was roughly contemporaneous
system. with the Taiping in the eastern and cen-
The delay and difficulty in the Qing tral provinces. In addition, there were
adjustment to the Western presence may several prolonged uprisings between
possibly be ascribed to both external and Muslims and Han Chinese in northwest-
internal factors. The Chinese must have ern and southwestern China.
seen the Westerners who had appeared
in China as purveyors of poisonous drugs The Taiping Rebellion
and as barbarians in the full sense of the
word, from whom they could learn noth- In the first half of the 19th century, the
ing. But the Chinese staunchly held to provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi,
their tradition, which also had two the homeland of the Taiping people, had
aspects—ideological and institutional. been beset with accelerating social
The core of the ideological aspect was the unrest. After the first Opium War, gov-
Confucian distinction between China ernment prestige declined, and officials
and foreign nations. The institutional lost their capacity to reconcile communal
aspect had recently been much studied, feudings. The greatest among such con-
however, and precedents in Chinese his- flicts was that between the native settlers
tory had been found, for example, of and the so-called guest settlers, or Hakka,
Late Qing | 237

who had migrated to Guangxi and west- While this extreme egalitarianism was
ern Guangdong, mainly from eastern rarely implemented outside the original
Guangdong. The Baishangdi Hui (“God Hakka core from Guangxi, it probably at
Worshippers’ Society”) was founded by times attracted the distressed and lured
Hong Xiuquan, a fanatic who believed them to the Taiping cause. The origin of
himself a son of God, and his protégé, many Taiping religious ideas, morals,
Feng Yunshan, an able organizer. Their and institutions can be traced to China’s
followers were collected from among Confucian tradition, but the Taiping’s all-
miners, charcoal workers, and poor peas- out anti-regime struggle, motivated by
ants in central Guangxi, most of whom strong religious beliefs and a common
were Hakka. In January 1851 a new state sharing, also had precedents in earlier
named Taiping Tianguo (“Heavenly religious rebellions.
Kingdom of Great Peace”) was declared After the Taiping settled in Tianjing
in the district of Guiping in Guangxi, (Nanjing), village officials were
with Hong Xiuquan assuming the title appointed, and redistribution of farm-
tianwang (“heavenly king”). That land was planned in accordance with an
September the Taiping shifted their base idea of primitive communism. But in fact
to the city of Yong’an (present-day the land reform was impracticable. The
Mengshan, Guangxi), where they were village officials’ posts were filled mainly
besieged by the imperial army until April by the former landlords or the clerks of
1852. At that point they broke the siege the local governments, and the old order
and rushed into Hunan. Absorbing some in the countryside was not replaced by a
secret-society members and outlaws, they new one that the oppressed people could
dashed to Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, dominate.
and proceeded along the Yangtze to In May 1853 the Taiping sent an expe-
Nanjing, which they captured in March dition to northern China, which reached
1853, renamed Tianjing (“Heavenly the neighbourhood of Tianjin but finally
Capital”), and made their capital. collapsed during the spring of 1855. After
The core of the Taiping religion was a that the Yangtze valley provinces were
monotheism tinged with fundamentalist the main theatre of struggle. Of the gov-
Protestant Christianity, but it was mixed ernment armies in those years, the Green
with a hatred of the Manchu and an intol- Standards were too ill-disciplined, and
erance of the Chinese cultural tradition. not much could be expected of the ban-
In the early years of the rebellion, this nermen. The Qing government had no
politico-religious faith sustained the choice but to rely on the local militia
fighting spirit of the Taiping. In the ideal forces, such as the “Hunan Braves” (later
Taiping vision the population was to give called the Hunan Army), organized by
all of its belongings to a “general trea- Zeng Guofan in 1852, and the “Huai
sury,” which would be shared by all alike. Braves” (later called the Huai Army),
238 | The History of China

organized by Li Hongzhang in 1862. The Nian Rebellion

These armies were composed of the vil-
lage farmers, inspired with a strong sense Often in the first half of the 19th century,
of mission for protecting the Confucian plundering gangs called nian ravaged
orthodoxy, and were used for wider oper- northern Anhui, southern Shandong, and
ations than merely protecting their own southern Henan. In mid-century, how-
villages. The necessary funds for main- ever, their activities were suddenly
taining them were provided initially by intensified, partly by the addition to their
local gentry. numbers of a great many starving people
The Taiping were gradually beaten who had lost their livelihood from
down; with the capture of Anqing, the repeated floods of the Huang He in the
capital of Anhui, in October 1861 by the early 1850s and partly because they had
Hunan Army, the revolutionary cause become emboldened by the Taiping
was doomed. But the fall of Nanjing was advance north of the Yangtze. From 1856
accelerated by the cooperation of to 1859 the Nian leaders consolidated
Chinese mercenaries equipped with their bases north of the Huai River by
Western arms, commanded by an winning over the masters of the earth-
American, Frederick Townsend Ward; a wall communities, consolidated villages
Briton, Charles George Gordon; and that had been fortified for self-defense
others. Nanjing’s fall in July 1864 against the Taiping. The Nian strategy
marked the end of one of the greatest was to use their powerful cavalry to plun-
civil wars in world history. The main der the outlying areas and carry the loot
cause of the Taiping failure was internal to their home bases.
strife among the top leaders in Nanjing. Many influential clans, with all their
Not only did they give themselves over members, joined the Nian cause, and the
to luxury, but also their energy was clan chiefs played an important role
exhausted and their leadership lost by among the Nian leaders. Gentry of lower
an internecine conflict that erupted in strata also joined the Nian. The greater
1856. In addition, religious fanaticism, part of the Nian force consisted of poor
though it inspired the fighters, became a peasants, although deserters from the
stumbling block that interfered with the government-recruited militias and salt
rational and elastic attitude necessary smugglers were important as military
to handle delicate military and adminis- experts. The real cause of their strength
trative affairs. The intolerance toward was supposed to be the people’s support
traditional culture alienated the gentry and sympathy for their leaders, but creat-
and the people alike. Presumably, the ing a power centre proved to be difficult
failure of the land-redistribution policy because the Nian’s basic social unit was
also estranged the landless paupers the earth-wall community, where a pow-
from the Taiping cause. erful master exercised autonomy. In 1856
Late Qing | 239

Zhang Luoxing received the title “lord of Rivalry between the Chinese and
the alliance” of the Nian, but he was far Muslim miners in central Yunnan trig-
too weak to form a centre. Imperial pacifi- gered a severe clash in 1855, which
cation was launched by General developed into the slaughter of a great
Senggelinqin, who led a powerful cavalry many Muslims in and around the provin-
into the affected area in 1862, but his pur- cial capital, Kunming, the following April.
suit was ineffective, and the general This triggered a general uprising of
himself was killed in Shandong in May Yunnan Muslims, which lasted until 1873.
1865. Thus, the last imperial crack unit Lack of a unified policy weakened the
disappeared. Zeng Guofan succeeded Muslims, and the rebellion was brought
Senggelinqin as general and enforced a to an end partly through the pacifiers’
policy of detaching the earth-wall mas- policy of playing the rebel leaders off
ters from their men and of employing the against one another.
latter as his troops. Finally, Li Hongzhang Another Muslim uprising, in Shaanxi
succeeded Zeng in 1866 and set up encir- in 1862, promptly spread to Gansu and
clement lines along the Huang He and Xinjiang and lasted for 15 years. The gen-
the Grand Canal, using that strategy to eral cause of the trouble was the same as
destroy the revolts in 1868. in Yunnan, but the Taiping advance to
Shaanxi encouraged the Muslims to
Muslim Rebellions rebel. The first stage of the uprising
developed in the Wei River valley in
Muslim rebellions in Yunnan and in Shaanxi; in the next stage the rebels,
Shaanxi and Gansu originated from defeated by the imperial army, fled to
clashes between the Chinese and Gansu, which became the main theatre of
Muslims in those provinces. Religious fighting. Encouraged by the Nian invad-
antipathy must be taken into account, but ing Shaanxi at the end of 1866, the core of
more important were social and political the rebel troops returned to Shaanxi, and
factors. In the frontier provinces the late- sporadic clashes continued in the two
dynastic confusions were felt as keenly as provinces. In the last phase, Zuo
elsewhere, which aggravated the prob- Zongtang, a former protégé of Zeng
lems between the Chinese and the Guofan, appeared in Shaanxi with part of
Muslims. Yunnan had been haunted by the Huai Army and succeeded in pacify-
Muslim-Chinese rivalries since 1821, but ing the area in 1873.
in Shaanxi small disturbances had been There were many independent
seen as early as the Qianlong reign. Muslim leaders in Shaanxi and Gansu at
Government officials supported the that time, but they had neither a common
Chinese, and the Muslims were obliged headquarters nor a unified policy, nor
to rise up against both the Chinese and were there any all-out revolutionaries.
the authorities. Pacification was delayed because the
240 | The History of China

imperial camp was preoccupied with the thereafter the region was resettled by
Taiping and the Nian and could not afford immigrants from less-damaged areas. Its
the expenditure needed for an expedition ruined industry and agriculture had not
to the remote border provinces. fully recovered even by the beginning of
the 20th century. The area of the Muslim
Effects of the Rebellions rebellions too suffered catastrophic devas-
tation and depopulation.
The Qing authorities had to rely on local During the first half of the 19th cen-
armies, financed by the provincial and tury, a number of natural disasters left
local gentry class, to combat the large large hordes of starving victims who had
popular uprisings. To meet this need, a no choice but to join the Taiping and
special tax on goods in transit—called the other rebel groups. The worst calamity,
likin (lijin)—was started in 1853, the pro- however, was a drought that attacked the
ceeds of which remained largely outside northern provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi,
the control of the central government. and Henan in 1877–78 and caused hard-
The provincial governors-general and ship for perhaps as many as 13 million
governors came to enlarge their military people. These disasters were a serious
and financial autonomy, bringing about a setback to China, which had just begun
trend of decentralization. Moreover, the to promote industrialization to meet the
locus of power shifted from the Manchu Western challenge.
to those Chinese who had played the
main part in putting down the rebellions. The Self-Strengthening
The Hunan Army was gradually dis- Movement
banded after Nanjing had been retaken
from the Taiping, but the Huai Army, Upon the Xianfeng emperor’s death at
after its success against the Muslims, Chengde in 1861, his antiforeign entou-
served as a strong basis for the political rage entered Beijing and seized power,
maneuvers of its leader, Li Hongzhang, but Cixi, mother of the newly enthroned
until its defeat and collapse in the Sino- boy emperor Zaichun (reigned as the
Japanese War in 1894–95. Tongzhi emperor, 1861–74/75), and Prince
The rebellions brought immeasurable Gong succeeded in crushing their oppo-
damage and devastation to China. Both nents by a coup d’état in October. A new
the Taiping and the pacifiers were guilty system emerged in which the leadership
of brutality and destruction. A contempo- in Beijing was shared by Cixi and another
rary estimate of 20 million to 30 million empress dowager, Ci’an, in the palace
victims is certainly far less than the real and by Prince Gong and Wen Xiang, with
number. In the course of the Taiping the Zongli Yamen as their base of opera-
Rebellion, the lower Yangtze provinces tion. The core of their foreign policy was
lost much of their surplus population, but expressed by Prince Gong as “overt peace
Late Qing | 241

personnel appointed by the Qing. The

latter was the language school opened to
train the children of bannermen in for-
eign languages, and later some Western
sciences were added to its curriculum;
the quality of candidates for the school
was not high. Similar schools were
opened in Shanghai and Guangzhou.
A superintendent of trade for the three
northern ports (later known as high com-
missioner for beiyang, or “northern ocean”)
was established in 1861 at Tianjin, parallel
to a similar, existing post at Shanghai
(later known as high commissioner for
nanyang, or “southern ocean”). The cre-
ation of the new post was presumably
aimed at weakening the foreign represen-
tatives in Beijing by concentrating foreign
affairs in the hands of the Tianjin officials.
In 1865–66 the British strongly urged
the Qing authorities to make domestic
reforms and to become Westernized.
The empress dowager Cixi, c. 1904, late
Prince Gong asked the high provincial
Qing dynasty, China. Courtesy of the
Smithsonian Institution, Freer Gallery officials to submit their opinions about
of Art, Washington, D.C. the proposed reforms. The consensus
advocated diplomatic missions abroad
and the opening of mines but firmly
with the Western nations in order to gain argued against telegraph and railway
time for recovering the exhausted power construction. Against that background, a
of the state.” roving mission was sent to the United
States in 1868, which then proceeded to
Foreign Relations London and Berlin. This first mission
in the 1860s abroad was a success for China, but its
very success had an adverse effect on
The Zongli Yamen had two offices China’s modernization by encouraging
attached to it: the Inspectorate General of the conservatives, who learned to regard
Customs and Tongwen Guan. The former the Westerners as easy to manipulate.
was the centre for the Maritime Custom The treaties signed in 1858 at Tianjin
Service, administered by Western by the Chinese, British, and French
242 | The History of China

included provisions for them to be revised refusing the demanded execution of the
in the year 1868, at which time the Qing three (though several others were put to
were able to negotiate with due prepara- death). After the incident, however, Zeng
tions and in an atmosphere of peace for was denounced for his infirm stand, and
the first time since the Opium Wars. The Prince Gong’s political influence began to
result was the Alcock Convention of 1869, wane in the growing antiforeign climate.
which limited the unilateral most- Various interpretations have been
favoured-nation clause of the original given regarding the nature of the anti-
treaty, a sign of gradual improvement in Christian movement: some emphasize
China’s foreign relations. However, under the antiforeign Confucian orthodoxy,
pressure from British merchants in China, while others stress the patriotic and
the London government refused to ratify nationalistic reaction against the mis-
it. The resentment engendered by the sionaries’ attempt to Westernize the
refusal, together with an anti-Christian Chinese. Still others point to the Christian
riot at Tianjin in 1870, brought an end to support of the oppressed in their struggle
the climate of Sino-foreign cooperation against the official and gentry class. What
that had prevailed in the 1860s. is clear, however, is that Christianity
The treaty arrangements made just sowed dissension and friction in the
after the Opium Wars forced China to already disintegrating late Qing society
remove the ban on Christianity, but the and undermined the prestige of the Qing
Beijing court tried to keep that fact secret dynasty and the Confucian orthodoxy.
and encouraged provincial officials to
continue prohibiting the religion. The Industrialization for
pseudo-Christian Taiping movement fur- “Self-Strengthening”
thered the anti-Christian move on the
part of royalists. Under such circum- Stimulated by the military training and
stances, anti-Christian riots spread techniques exhibited during the
throughout the country, culminating in Westerners’ cooperation against the
the Tianjin Massacre in 1870, in which a Taiping and supported by Prince Gong in
French consul and 2 officials, 10 nuns, and Beijing, the Self-Strengthening Movement
2 priests died and in which 3 Russian was launched by the anti-Taiping gener-
traders were killed by mistake. At the als Zeng Guofan, Li Hongzhang, and Zuo
negotiating table, the French sternly Zongtang, who sought to consolidate the
demanded the lives of three responsible Qing power by introducing Western
Chinese officials as a preventive against technology. The ideological champion
further such occurrences, but the Qing of the movement was Feng Guifen, who
negotiators, Zeng Guofan and Li urged China to “use the barbarians’ supe-
Hongzhang, were successful at least in rior techniques to control the barbarians”
Late Qing | 243

and proposed to give the gentry stron- Management, however, was beset
ger leadership than before in local with bureaucratic malpractices. The seat
administration. of decision making and responsibility
In the first period of modern industrial was obscure, business was spoiled by
development (1861–72), effort was focused nepotism and corruption, and the spon-
on manufacturing firearms and machines, sors tended to use the enterprises as a
the most important enterprises being the basis for their regional power. The cen-
Kiangnan (Jiangnan) Arsenal in Shanghai, tral government not only was unable to
the Tianjin Machine Factory, and the supply capital but also looked for every
Fuzhou Navy Yard; there were many other opportunity to exploit these enterprises
smaller ones. However, the output was dis- as it had exploited the monopolistic salt
appointing—the shipyard at Fuzhou, for business on which those companies were
example, built 15 vessels during the half modeled. Under such circumstances, the
decade after 1869 as scheduled, but there- enterprises inevitably slid into depres-
after it declined and was destroyed in 1884 sion after some initial years of apparent
during the Sino-French War—and the success.
weapons industry was significant not so Compounding the problems were
much for its direct military purpose as for the compradors (Chinese agents
the introduction of Western knowledge employed by foreign firms in China)
and techniques through the many educa- who, acting as a link between Chinese
tional facilities that were attached to each commerce and the foreign firms in the
installation. treaty ports, accumulated vast wealth
In the second period (1872–94), from the new enterprises. Though active
weight shifted from the weapons industry in supplying capital and managerial per-
to a wider field of manufacture, and the sonnel to the enterprises, the compradors
operation shifted from direct government themselves lacked technical training
management to a government-supervised and knowledge and often indulged in
and merchant-managed method. Leading speculation and embezzlement. Each
among the several enterprises of the comprador belonged to an exclusive
second period were the China Merchants’ community by strong family or regional
Steam Navigation Company and the ties that focused his concerns on his com-
Kaiping coal mines. These enterprises munity rather than on national interests.
were sponsored by high provincial These shortcomings were deeply
officials—the central figure was Li rooted in the late Qing social conditions
Hongzhang—but their management was and more than offset efforts to construct
left to joint operation by shareholders’ and maintain the new enterprises. Thus,
representatives and the lower officials Chinese society as a whole did not
appointed by the sponsors. change structurally before 1911.
244 | The History of China

Changes in therefore, occupied Kuldja in 1871 and

outlying areas remained there for 10 years.
Having subdued the Gansu Muslim
With the decline of the Qing power and rebellion in 1873, Zuo Zongtang captured
prestige, beginning in the early 19th cen- Urumchi (Ürümqi) in August 1876 and
tury, China’s peripheral areas began to restored the whole region northward to
free themselves from the Qing influence. the Tien Shan range, except for the Kuldja
Areas affected included East Turkistan to area, and painstakingly recovered
the northwest, Tibet and Nepal to the Kashgaria at the end of 1877.
southwest, and Myanmar (Burma) and Li Hongzhang hoped to regain Ili
Vietnam to the south. In addition, the through negotiation; however, a treaty for
Japanese began asserting greater control the restitution of Ili, signed in October
over the islands east of the Chinese main- 1879, was extremely disadvantageous to
land, and their increasing interest in the China. Upon returning home amid a
Korean peninsula led to the Sino- storm of condemnation, the Chinese
Japanese War of 1894–95. negotiator Chonghou was sentenced to
death; the Russians considered this to be
East Turkistan inhuman, and they stiffened their attitude.
But the minister to Britain and France,
To the west of Kashgaria in East Zeng Jize, son of Zeng Guofan, succeeded
Turkistan (now in western Xinjiang), a in concluding a treaty at St. Petersburg in
khanate of Khokand emerged after 1760 February 1881 that was more favourable
in the Fergana region and became a yet still conceded the Russians many priv-
powerful caravan trade centre. In 1762 ileges in East Turkistan.
the Qing government countered this by Though at a cost of nearly 58 million
establishing a presence in the Ili (Yili) taels in expedition and indemnity, the
River region. When Muslim rebellion northwest was finally restored to China,
spread rapidly from Shaanxi and Gansu and in 1884 a new province, Xinjiang, was
to East Turkistan, a Tajik adventurer established over the area, which had
from Khokand, Yakub Beg, seized the never before been integrated into China.
opportunity to invade Kashgaria and
established power there in 1865; he soon Tibet and Nepal
showed signs of advancing to the Ili
region in support of the British in India. Qing control of Tibet reached its height
In Ili, rebel Muslims had set up an inde- in 1792, but thereafter China became
pendent power at Kuldja (Yining) in unable to protect that region from for-
1864, which terrorized the Russian bor- eign invasion. When an army from
ders in defiance of the Sino-Russian northern India invaded western Tibet in
Treaty of Kuldja in 1851. The Russians, 1841, China could not afford to reinforce
Late Qing | 245

the Tibetans, who expelled the enemy on 1875. The British minister in China, Sir
their own. China was a mere bystander Thomas Francis Wade, seized the oppor-
during a coup d’état in Lhasa in 1844 and tunity to negotiate the Chefoo Convention
could not protect Tibet when it was with China. Negotiated and signed at the
invaded by Gurkhas in 1855. Tibet thus northern Shandong city of Yantai
tended to free itself from Qing control. (Chefoo) in 1876, the treaty further
The border dispute between Nepal extended the British rights by opening
and British India, which sharpened after more Chinese ports to foreign trade and
1801, had caused the Anglo-Nepalese agreeing to a mission to delineate the
War of 1814–16 and brought the Gurkhas Yunnan-Myanmar border, though the
under British influence. During the war London government put off its ratifica-
the Gurkhas sent several missions to tion until 1885. Guo Songtao, appointed
China in vain expectation of assistance. chief of a mission of apology to Britain,
When political unrest flared up in Nepal arrived in London in 1877. He was the first
after 1832, an anti-British clique seized Chinese resident minister abroad, and
power and sought assistance from China within two years China opened embas-
to form an anti-British common front sies in five major foreign capitals.
with the Qing, then fighting the first When the last king of Myanmar,
Opium War. But this too was rejected. Thibaw, tried to join with France and Italy
Jung Bahadur, who had become premier to stave off British pressure, Britain sent
of Nepal in 1846, decided on a pro-British an ultimatum in October 1885, seized the
policy; his invasion of Tibet in 1855— capital of Mandalay, and annexed the
which took advantage of the Taiping country in January 1886 under the name
uprising in China—gained Nepal many Burma. During the final bargaining with
privileges there. Though Nepal sent the British, Thibaw ignored his tributary
quinquennial missions to China until relations with the Qing, yet China pro-
1906, the Gurkhas did not recognize posed that the Myanmar royal court be
Chinese suzerainty. preserved even nominally so that it could
send a decennial mission to China. Britain
Myanmar (Burma) refused, but, in a convention signed in
July 1886, it agreed that the new Burmese
In 1867 the British gained the right to sta- government should send to China a
tion a commercial agent at Bhamo in decennial envoy. This outdated practice,
Myanmar, from which they could explore however, was abandoned in 1900.
the Irrawaddy River up to the Yunnan
border. A British interpreter accompany- Vietnam
ing a British exploratory mission to
Yunnan was killed by local tribesmen on In 1802 a new dynasty was founded in
the Yunnan-Myanmar border in February Vietnam (Dai Viet) by Nguyen Anh, a
246 | The History of China

member of the royal family of Nguyen at French occupation of Tongkin in 1882–83

Hue who had expelled the short-lived and France’s proclamation of protectorate
Tay Son regime and had unified the status for Vietnam (under the name of
country, taking the dynastic name Gia Annam) in the Treaty of Hue of August
Long. The Qing, under the Jiaqing 1883, the Qing deployed its army in the
emperor, recognized the new dynasty as northern frontier of Tongkin. Efforts for a
a fait accompli, but a controversy arose peaceful settlement ended in failure, and
as to a name for the new country. Gia both countries prepared for war.
Long demanded the name Nam Viet, but In August 1884 French warships
the Qing recommended Vietnam, revers- attacked Fuzhou and destroyed the
ing the two syllables. Finally an Chinese fleet and dockyard there.
agreement was reached, and Gia Long Thereafter, however, the French navy and
became ruler of Vietnam. army were stalemated, and an armistice
Minh Mang, the second Nguyen was reached in the spring of 1885. By the
emperor (reigned 1820–41), vigorously subsequent definitive treaty, the French
persecuted Christians in Vietnam. France protectorate of Vietnam was recognized,
resorted to arms after 1843 and, by the terminating the historical tributary rela-
treaty of 1862 signed at Saigon (present- tionship between China and Vietnam.
day Ho Chi Minh City), received three During the crisis the attitude of the
eastern provinces of Cochinchina, besides Qing headquarters fluctuated between
other privileges concerning trade and advocating militancy and seeking
religion. In time, French attentions were appeasement. Meanwhile, Li Hongzhang
focused on the Tonkin delta region into and Zeng Guoquan were reluctant to
which the Red River flows, providing easy mobilize their respective northern and
access to Yunnan. But the region was southern naval fleets in accordance with
beset with many disorderly gangs escaped orders from Beijing.
from China, including the Black Flags,
who were under the command of Liu Japan and the Ryukyu Islands
Yung-fu, a confederate of the Taiping.
After a small French force had occupied Three years after the Meiji Restoration of
some key points in Tongkin in 1873, a 1868—which inaugurated a period of
treaty was signed at Saigon in March 1874 modernization and political change in
that stipulated the sovereignty and inde- Japan—a commercial treaty was signed
pendence of Vietnam. Though this clause between China and Japan, and it was rati-
implied that China could not intervene in fied in 1873. Understandably it was
Vietnamese affairs, the Zongli Yamen reciprocal, because both signatories had
failed to file a strong protest. In 1880, how- a similar unequal status vis-à-vis the
ever, the Qing claimed a right to protect Western nations. The establishment of
Vietnam as its vassal state. Against the the new Sino-Japanese relations was
Late Qing | 247

supported by Li Hongzhang and Zeng managed to rebuff these overtures. The

Guofan, who advocated positive diplo- Chosŏn government became more
macy toward Japan. approachable after he stepped down in
In 1872 the Meiji government con- 1873, and a Japanese envoy began talks at
ferred on the last king of the Ryukyu Pusan in 1875. However, the parley was
Islands, Shō Tai, the title of vassal king protracted, and Japan impatiently sent
and in the following year took over the warships to Korea; these sailed northward
island’s foreign affairs. In reprisal for the to Kanghwa Bay, where gunfire was
massacre of shipwrecked Ryukyuans by exchanged between the Japanese vessels
Taiwanese tribesmen in 1871, the Tokyo and a Korean island fort. The Treaty of
government sent a punitive expedition to Kanghwa, signed in 1876, defined Korea
Taiwan. Meanwhile, the Japanese sent an as an independent state on an equal foot-
envoy to Beijing to discuss the matter, ing with Japan. Japan sent an envoy,
and the Qing agreed to indemnify Japan. Mori Arinori, to China to report on recent
In 1877, however, the Ryukyu king asked Korean affairs. China insisted that,
for Qing intervention to revive his former although Korea was independent, China
tributary relations with China; Sino- could come to the support of its vassal
Japanese negotiations were opened at state (Korea) in a crisis, an interpretation
Tianjin in regard to Ryukyu’s position, that Mori saw as contrary to the idea of
and an agreement was reached in 1882. independence in international law.
However, the Qing refused to ratify it, From that time on, the Qing strove to
and the matter was dropped. increase their influence in Korea; they
helped open Korea to the United States
Korea and the and supported the efforts of pro-Chinese
Sino-Japanese War Koreans for modernization. However,
strong feelings of conservatism and xeno-
In Korea a boy was enthroned as the phobia provided the basis for the
Chosŏn king Kojong in 1864 under the Taewŏn’gun to return to power. In July
regency of his father, Yi Ha-ŭng (called 1882 he expelled Kojong’s consort, Queen
the Taewŏn’gun [“Prince of the Great Min, and her clique and burned down the
Court”]), a vigorous exclusionist. In 1866 Japanese legation. The Qing dispatched
the Koreans began a nationwide persecu- an army to Korea, arrested the Taewŏn’gun,
tion of Christians and repulsed the and urged the king to sign a treaty with
French and Americans there. The Qing, Japan. Thus, the Qing claim for suzerainty
although uneasy, did not intervene. was substantiated.
After the Meiji Restoration, Japan In December 1884 another coup was
made many efforts to open new and attempted by a group of pro-Japanese
direct intercourse with Korea, but the reformists, but it failed because of the
Taewŏn’gun, citing diplomatic slights, Qing military presence in Korea. From
248 | The History of China

these two incidents, Qing political influ- Islands, and the Liaodong Peninsula. Six
ence and commercial privileges emerged days later, however, Russia, Germany, and
much stronger, though Japan’s trade in France forced Japan to restore the penin-
Korea far surpassed that of China in the sula; Japan formally relinquished it on
late 1880s. May 5, for which China agreed to pay
In 1860 a Korean scholar, Ch’oe Che- 30 million taels. Gaining China’s favour
u, had founded a popular religion called by this intervention, the three powers
Tonghak (“Eastern Learning”). By 1893 it began to press China with demands,
had turned into a political movement that which gave rise to a veritable scramble
attracted a vast number of peasants for concessions.
under the banner of antiforeignism and
anticorruption. They occupied the south- Reform and upheaval
western city of Chŏnju in late May 1894.
Both China and Japan sent expeditions Immediately after the triple intervention,
to Korea, but the two interventionists Russia succeeded in 1896 in signing a
arrived to find the rebels at Chŏnju secret treaty of alliance with China
already dispersed. To justify its military against Japan, by which Russia gained
presence, Japan proposed to China a pol- the right to construct the Chinese Eastern
icy of joint support of Korean reform. Railway across northern Manchuria. In
When China refused on the ground that November 1897 the Germans seized
this was counter to Korean independence, Jiaozhou Bay in Shandong and forced
a clash seemed inevitable. On July 25 the China to concede them the right to build
Japanese navy defeated a Chinese fleet two railways in the province. In March
in Kanghwa Bay, and on August 1 the two 1898 Russia occupied Port Arthur
sides declared war on each other. Japan (Lüshun; since 1984 a part of Dalian) and
gained victories in every quarter on both a small fishing village that became
land and sea. Dairen (Dalian; called Lüda in 1950–81)
During the crisis the Qing power cen- on the Liaodong Peninsula and obtained
tre was again divided. The northern the lease of the two ports and the right to
(beiyang) navy was less powerful than build a railway connecting them to the
it appeared, lacking discipline, unified Chinese Eastern Railway. Vying with
command, and the necessary equipment Russia and Germany, Britain leased
of a modern navy. In February 1895 Li Weihai in Shandong and the New
Hongzhang was appointed envoy to Territories opposite Hong Kong and
Japan; he signed a peace treaty at forced China to recognize the Yangtze
Shimonoseki on April 17, whose main River valley as being under British influ-
items were recognition of Korean inde- ence. Following suit, Japan put the
pendence, indemnity of 200 million taels, province of Fujian under its influence,
and the cession of Taiwan, the Pescadores and France leased Kwangchow
Late Qing | 249

Map of Hong Kong c. 1900; from the 10th edition of Encyclopædia Britannica.

(Zhanjiang) Bay, southwest of Hong or ideological change as needless. But

Kong, and singled out three southwest- after 1885 some lower officials and com-
ern provinces for its sphere of influence. prador intellectuals began to emphasize
Thus, China was placed on the brink of institutional reforms and the opening of
partition, arousing a keen sense of crisis a parliament and to stress economic
in 1898 in which the Hundred Days of rather than military affairs for self-
Reform was staged. strengthening purposes. For the Beijing
court and high officials in general, the
The Hundred Days necessity of reform had to be proved on
of Reform of 1898 the basis of the Chinese Classics. Some
scholars tried to meet their criteria. The
The advocates of the Self-Strengthening outstanding reform leader and ideolo-
Movement had regarded any institutional gist Kang Youwei used what he
250 | The History of China

considered authentic Confucianism and plot to remove the archconservative

Buddhist canons to show that change empress dowager Cixi. On September 21
was inevitable in history and, accord- the emperor was detained and the
ingly, that reform was necessary. Another empress dowager took over the adminis-
important reformist thinker, Tan Sitong, tration, putting an end to the reform
relied more heavily on Buddhism than movement.
Kang did and emphasized the people’s The immediate cause of the failure
rights and independence. Liang Qichao lay in the power struggle between the
was an earnest disciple of Kang but later emperor and Cixi. But from the begin-
turned toward people’s rights and ning, prospects for reform were dim
nationalism under the influence of because most high officials were cool
Western philosophy. toward or opposed to the movement. In
In April 1895, when Japanese victory addition, the reformist-conservative
appeared inevitable, Kang began to advo- confrontation overlapped with the
cate institutional reform. In August Kang, rivalry between the Chinese and the
Liang, and other reformists founded a Manchu, who considered the Chinese-
political group called the Society for the sponsored reform as disadvantageous to
Study of National Strengthening. Though them. As for the reformists themselves,
this association was soon closed down, their leaders were few in number and
many study societies were created in inexperienced in politics, and their plan
Hunan, Guangdong, Fujian, Sichuan, and was too radical.
other provinces. In April 1898 the Among the local movements for
National Protection Society was estab- reform, that in Hunan was the most
lished in Beijing under the premise of active. After 1896, journals and schools
protecting state, nation, and national reli- were begun there for popular enlighten-
gion. Against this background, the ment, but Kang’s radical reformism
Guangxu emperor (reigned 1874/75– aroused strong opposition, and the
1908) was himself increasingly affected Hunan movement was shattered at the
by the ideas of reform that were broadly end of May 1898.
in the air and perhaps was also directly Though it failed, the reform move-
influenced by Kang Youwei’s proposals. ment had a few important repercussions:
On June 11, 1898, the emperor began to it produced some degree of freedom of
issue a stream of radical and probably speech and association, furthered the dis-
hastily prepared reform decrees that semination of Western thought, and
lasted for about 100 days, until September stimulated the growth of private enter-
20. The reform movement produced no prises. It also provided much of the
practical results, however. Finally, the substance for the “conservative” imperial
conservatives were provoked to a sharp reform efforts that the Manchu court
reaction when they learned of a reformist undertook after the Boxer episode.
Late Qing | 251

The Boxer Rebellion traditional Chinese customs in favour of

an alien religion. Bands of Boxers roamed
  The crisis of 1896–98 stirred a furious the countryside killing Chinese
antiforeign uprising in Shandong, Christians and foreign missionaries.
aroused by the German advances and Developing from this anti-Christian hys-
encouraged by the provincial governor. It teria, the Boxer Rebellion grew into a
was staged by a band of people called the naive but furious attempt to destroy all
Yihequan (“Righteous and Harmonious things foreign—including churches, rail-
Fists”), who believed that a mysterious ways, and mines—which the people
boxing art rendered them invulnerable to blamed for their misery and for the loss of
harm. The group’s origin is generally a sacred way of life.
supposed to have been in the White Some Boxer recruits were disbanded
Lotus sect, though it may have begun as a imperial soldiers and local militiamen;
self-defense organization during the others were Grand Canal boatmen
Taiping Rebellion. At first the Boxers (as deprived of a livelihood by the Western-
they were called in the West) directed built railways. Most recruits, though, came
their wrath against Christian converts, from the peasantry, which had suffered
whom they vilified for having abandoned terribly from recent natural calamities in

Drawing of a scene from the Boxer Rebellion uprising in China. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
252 | The History of China

northern China. After 1895 the Huang He sent an expedition of some 19,000 troops,
flooded almost annually, and in 1899– which marched to Beijing and seized the
1900 a serious drought struck the north. city on August 14. Cixi and the emperor
Vast numbers of starving people turned fled to Xi’an.
to begging and banditry and were easy The two governors-general in the
converts to the Boxers’ cause. southeastern provinces, Liu Kunyi and
Many local authorities refused to Zhang Zhidong, who together with Li
stop the violence. Some supported the Hongzhang at Guangzhou had already
Boxers by incorporating them into local disobeyed Beijing’s antiforeign decrees,
militias. The Manchu court, meanwhile, concluded an informal pact with foreign
was alarmed by the uncontrollable popu- consuls at Shanghai on June 26, to the
lar uprising but took great satisfaction at effect that the governors-general would
seeing revenge taken for its humiliation take charge of the safety of the foreigners
by the foreign powers. As a result, it under their jurisdiction. At first the pact
assumed at first a neutral policy. On the covered the five provinces in the Yangtze
part of the Boxers, there emerged some- River region, but later it was extended to
time in the autumn of 1899 a move to three coastal provinces. Thus, the foreign
gain access to the court under the slogan operations were restricted to Zhili (pres-
“Support for the Qing and extermination ent-day Hebei) province, along the
of foreigners.” By May 1900 the Qing northern coast.
government had changed its policy and The United States, which had
was secretly supporting the Boxers. Cixi announced its commercial Open Door
inclined toward open war when she policy in 1899, made a second declaration
became convinced of the dependability of the policy in July 1900—this time insist-
of the Boxers’ art. Finally, incensed over a ing on the preservation of the territorial
false report that the foreign powers had and administrative entity of China. With
demanded that she return administration its newly acquired territory in the western
to the emperor, she called on all Chinese Pacific, the United States was determined
to attack foreigners. Within days, on June to preserve its own commercial interests
20, the Boxers’ eight-week siege of the in China by protecting Chinese territo-
foreign legations in Beijing began; a day rial integrity from the other major powers.
later Cixi declared war by ordering pro- This provided a basis for the Anglo-
vincial governors to take part in the German agreement (October 1900) for
hostilities. preventing further territorial partition, to
An international reinforcement of which Japan and Russia consented. Thus,
some 2,000 men had left Tianjin for partition of China was avoided by mutual
Beijing before the siege, but on the way it restraint among the powers.
was resisted by the Boxers and forced The final settlement of the distur-
back to Tianjin. The foreign powers then bance was signed in September 1901. The
Late Qing | 253

indemnity amounted to 450 million taels Society (Xingzhonghui). Returning to

to be paid over 39 years. Moreover, the Hong Kong, he and some friends set up a
settlement demanded the establishment similar society under the leadership of
of permanent guards and the disman- his associate Yang Quyun. Sun partici-
tling of forts between Beijing and the sea, pated in an abortive attempt to capture
a humiliation that made an independent Guangzhou in 1895, after which he sailed
China a mere fiction. In addition, the for England and then went to Japan in
southern provinces were actually inde- 1897, where he found much support.
pendent during the crisis. These Tokyo became the revolutionaries’ prin-
occurrences meant the collapse of the cipal base of operation.
Qing prestige. After the collapse of the Hundred
After the uprising, Cixi had to declare Days of Reform, Kang Youwei and Liang
that she had been misled into war by the Qichao had also fled to Japan. An attempt
conservatives and that the court, neither to reconcile the reformists and the revo-
antiforeign nor antireformist, would pro- lutionaries became hopeless by 1900:
mote reforms, a seemingly incredible Sun was slighted as a secret-society ruf-
statement in view of the court’s suppres- fian, while the reformists were more
sion of the 1898 reform movement. But influential among the Chinese in Japan
the Qing court’s antiforeign, conservative and the Japanese.
nationalism and the reforms undertaken The two camps competed in collect-
after 1901 were in fact among several ing funds from the overseas Chinese, as
competing responses to the shared sense well as in attracting secret-society mem-
of crisis in early 20th-century China. bers on the mainland. The reformists
strove to unite with the powerful, secret
Reformist and Society of Brothers and Elders (Gelaohui)
revolutionist movements in the Yangtze River region. In 1899
at the end of the dynasty Kang’s followers organized the
Independence Army (Zilijun) at Hankou
Sun Yat-sen (Sun Zhongshan), a com- in order to plan an uprising, but the
moner with no background of Confucian scheme ended unsuccessfully. Early in
orthodoxy who was educated in Western- 1900 the Revive China Society revolu-
style schools in Hawaii and Hong Kong, tionaries also formed a kind of alliance
went to Tianjin in 1894 to meet Li with the Brothers and Elders, called the
Hongzhang and present a reform pro- Revive Han Association. This new body
gram, but he was refused an interview. nominated Sun as its leader, a decision
That event supposedly provoked his anti- that also gave him, for the first time, the
dynastic attitude. Soon he returned to leadership of the Revive China Society.
Hawaii, where he founded an anti-Man- The Revive Han Association started an
chu fraternity called the Revive China uprising at Huizhou, in Guangdong, in
254 | The History of China

October 1900, which failed after two was published in 1903, and more than a
weeks’ fighting with imperial forces. million copies were issued.
After the Boxer disaster, Cixi reluc- Dealing with the young intellectuals
tantly issued a series of reforms, which was a new challenge for Sun Yat-sen, who
included abolishing the civil service hitherto had concentrated on mobilizing
examination, establishing modern the uncultured secret-society members.
schools, and sending students abroad. He also had to work out some theoretical
But these measures could never repair planks, though he was not a first-class
the damaged imperial prestige; rather, political philosopher. The result of his
they inspired more anti-Manchu feeling response was the Three Principles of the
and raised the revolutionary tide. People (Sanmin Zhuyi)—nationalism,
However, other factors also intensified democracy, and socialism—the prototype
the revolutionary cause: the introduction of which came to take shape by 1903. He
of social Darwinist ideas by Yen Fu after expounded his philosophy in America
the Sino-Japanese War countered the and Europe during his travels there in
reformists’ theory of change based on the 1903–05, returning to Japan in the sum-
Chinese Classics; and Western and revo- mer of 1905. The activists in Tokyo joined
lutionary thoughts came to be easily and him to establish a new organization
widely diffused through a growing num- called the United League (Tongmenghui);
ber of journals and pamphlets published under Sun’s leadership, the intellectuals
in Tokyo, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. increased their importance.
Nationalists and revolutionists had
their most-enthusiastic and most- Sun Yat-sen
numerous supporters among the and the United League
Chinese students in Japan, whose num-
bers increased rapidly between 1900 Sun’s leadership in the league was far
and 1906. The Zongli Yamen sent 13 stu- from undisputed. His understanding that
dents to Japan for the first time in 1896; the support of foreign powers was indis-
within a decade the figure had risen to pensable for Chinese revolution militated
some 8,000. Many of these students against the anti-imperialist trend of the
began to organize themselves for young intellectuals. Only half-heartedly
propaganda and immediate action accepted was the principle of people’s
for the revolutionary cause. In livelihood, or socialism, one of his Three
1902–04, revolutionary and nationalistic Principles. Though his socialism has
organizations—including the Chinese been evaluated in various ways, it seems
Educational Association, the Society for certain that it did not reflect the hopes
Revival of China, and the Restoration and needs of the commoners.
Society—appeared in Shanghai. The Ideologically, the league soon fell
anti-Manchu tract “Revolutionary Army” into disharmony: Zhang Binglin (Chang
Late Qing | 255

Sun yat-sen
Sun Yat-sen (Pinyin: Sun Yixian; b. Nov. 12, 1866—d. March 12, 1925), leader of the Chinese
Nationalist Party, is known as the father of modern China. Educated in Hawaii and Hong Kong,
Sun embarked on a medical career in 1892, but, troubled by the conservative Qing dynasty’s inabil-
ity to keep China from suffering repeated humiliations at the hands of more advanced countries,
he forsook medicine two years later for politics. A letter to Li Hongzhang in which Sun detailed
ways that China could gain strength made no headway, and he went abroad to try organizing
expatriate Chinese. He spent time in Hawaii, England, Canada, and Japan and in 1905 became
head of a revolutionary coalition, the Tongmenghui (“Alliance Society,” or United League). The
revolts he helped plot during this period failed, but in 1911 a rebellion in Wuhan unexpectedly
succeeded in overthrowing the provincial government. Other provincial secessions followed, and
Sun returned to be elected provisional president of a new government. The emperor abdicated in
1912, and Sun turned over
the government to Yuan
Shikai. The two men split
in 1913, and Sun became
head of a separatist regime
in the south. In 1924, aided
by Soviet advisers, he reor-
ganized his Nationalist
Party, admitted three com-
munists to its central
executive committee, and
approved the establish-
ment of a military
academy, to be headed by
Chiang Kai-shek. He also
delivered lectures on his
doctrine, the Three
Principles of the People
(nationalism, democracy,
and people’s livelihood, or
socialism), but died the fol-
lowing year without having
The Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-Sen. Topical Press
had the opportunity to put
Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
his doctrine into practice.
256 | The History of China

Ping-lin), an influential theorist in the Zhidong in 1909, almost emptied the

Chinese Classics, came to renounce the Qing court of prestigious members. The
Three Principles of the People; others consultative provincial assemblies were
deserted to anarchism, leaving anti-Man- convened in October 1910 and became
chuism as the only common denominator the main base of the furious movement
in the league. Organizationally too, the for immediate opening of a consultative
league became divided: the Progressive national assembly, with which the court
Society (Gongjinhui), a parallel to the could not comply.
league, was born in Tokyo in 1907; a The gentry and wealthy merchants
branch of this new society was soon were the sponsors of constitutionalism;
opened at Wuhan with the ambiguous they had been striving to gain the rights
slogan “Equalization of human right.” held by foreigners. Started first in
The next year, Zhang Binglin tried to Hunan, the so-called rights recovery
revive the Restoration Society. movement spread rapidly and gained
noticeable success, reinforced by local
Constitutional officials, students returned from Japan,
Movements After 1905 and the Beijing government. But finally
the recovery of the railroad rights ended
Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese in a clash between the court and the pro-
War (1904–05) aroused a cry for constitu- vincial interests.
tionalism in China. Unable to resist the The retrieval of the Hankou-
intensifying demand, the Qing court Guangzhou line from the American
decided in September 1906 to adopt a China Development Company in 1905
constitution, and in November it reorga- tapped a nationwide fever for railway
nized the traditional six boards into 11 recovery and development. However, dif-
ministries in an attempt to modernize the ficulty in raising capital delayed railway
central government. It promised to open construction by the Chinese year after
consultative provincial assemblies in year. The Beijing court therefore decided
October 1907 and proclaimed in August to nationalize some important railways in
1908 the outline of a constitution and a order to accelerate their construction by
nine-year period of tutelage before its full means of foreign loans, hoping that the
implementation. expected railway profits would somehow
Three months later the strangely alleviate the court’s inveterate financial
coinciding deaths of Cixi and the emperor plight. In May 1911 the court nationalized
were announced, and a boy who ruled as the Hankou-Guangzhou and Sichuan-
the Xuantong emperor (1908–1911/12) Hankou lines and signed a loan contract
was enthroned under the regency of his with the four-power banking consortium.
father, the second Prince Chun. These This incensed the Sichuan gentry, mer-
deaths, followed by that of Zhang chants, and landlords who had invested
Late Qing | 257

in the latter line, and their anti-Beijing army troops in Hubei who were urged on
remonstrance grew into a province-wide by the local revolutionary bodies not
uprising. The court moved some troops incorporated in the league. The acciden-
into Sichuan from Hubei; some other tal exposure of a mutinous plot forced a
troops in Hubei mutinied and suddenly number of junior officers to choose
occupied the capital city, Wuchang, on between arrest or revolt in Wuhan. The
October 10. That date became the memo- revolt was initially successful because of
rial day of the Chinese Revolution. the determination of lower-level officers
The commoners’ standard of living, and revolutionary troops and the coward-
which had not continued to grow in the ice of the responsible Manchu and
19th century and may have begun to dete- Chinese officials. Within a day the rebels
riorate, was further dislocated by the had seized the arsenal and the governor-
mid-century civil wars and foreign com- general’s offices and had gained
mercial and military penetration. Paying possession of Wuchang. With no nation-
for the wars and their indemnities cer- ally known revolutionary leaders on
tainly increased the tax burden of the hand, the rebels coerced a colonel, Li
peasantry, but how serious a problem this Yuanhong, to assume military command,
was has remained an open question although only as a figurehead. They per-
among scholars. The Manchu reforms suaded the Hubei provincial assembly to
and preparations for constitutionalism proclaim the establishment of the
added a further fiscal exaction for the pop- Chinese republic; Tang Hualong, the
ulace, which hardly benefited from these assembly’s chairman, was elected head of
urban-oriented developments. Rural dis- the civil government.
tress, resulting from these policies and After this initial victory, a number of
from natural disasters, was among the historical tendencies converged to bring
causes of local peasant uprisings in the about the downfall of the Qing dynasty.
Yangtze River region in 1910 and 1911 and A decade of revolutionary organization
of a major rice riot at Changsha, the capi- and propaganda paid off in a sequence
tal of Hunan, in 1910. However, popular of supportive uprisings in important
discontent was limited and not a major centres of central and southern China;
factor contributing to the revolution that these occurred in recently formed mili-
ended the Qing dynasty and inaugurated tary academies and in newly created
the republican era in China. divisions and brigades, in which many
cadets and junior officers were revolu-
The Chinese Revolution tionary sympathizers. Secret-society
(1911–12) units also were quickly mobilized for
local revolts. The antirevolutionary con-
The Chinese Revolution was triggered stitutionalist movement also made an
not by the United League itself but by the important contribution: its leaders had
258 | The History of China

become disillusioned with the imperial the outbreak of the revolution in 1911, the
government’s unwillingness to speed the court had no choice but to recall him from
process of constitutional government, retirement to take command of his new
and a number of them led their respec- army. Instead of using force, however, he
tive provincial assemblies to declare their played a double game: on the one hand,
provinces independent of Beijing or to he deprived the floundering court of all
actually join the new republic. Tang its power; on the other, he started to nego-
Hualong was the first among them. A sig- tiate with the revolutionaries. At the peace
nificant product of the newly emerging talks that opened at the end of the year,
nationalism was widespread hostility Yuan’s emissaries and the revolutionary
among Chinese toward the alien dynasty. representatives agreed that the abdica-
Many had absorbed the revolutionary tion of the Qing and the appointment of
propaganda that blamed a weak and vac- Yuan to the presidency of the new repub-
illating court for the humiliations China lic were to be formally decided by a
had suffered from foreign powers since National Assembly that would be formed.
1895. Therefore, broad sentiment However, this was renounced by Yuan,
favoured the end of Manchu rule. Also, as probably because he hoped to be
an outcome of two decades of journaliz- appointed by the retiring Manchu mon-
ing discussion of “people’s rights,” there arch to organize a new government rather
was substantial support among the urban than nominated as chief of state by the
educated for a republican form of govern- National Assembly. (This is a formula of
ment. Probably the most-decisive the Chinese dynastic revolution called
development was the recall of Yuan chanrang, which means the peaceful shift
Shikai (Yüan Shih-k’ai), the architect of in rule from a decadent dynasty to a more-
the elite Beiyang Army, to government virtuous one.) But events turned against
service to suppress the rebellion when its him, and the presidency was given to Sun
seriousness became apparent. Yat-sen, who had been appointed provi-
After the collapse of the Huai Army sional president of the republic by the
in the Sino-Japanese War, the Qing gov- National Assembly. In February 1912
ernment had endeavoured to build up a Sun voluntarily resigned his position,
new Western-style army, among which and the Qing court proclaimed the
the elite corps trained by Yuan Shikai, for- decree of abdication, which included a
mer governor-general of Zhili, had passage—fabricated and inserted by
survived the Boxer uprising and emerged Yuan into this last imperial document—
as the strongest force in China. But it was purporting that Yuan was to organize a
in a sense Yuan’s private army and did republican government to negotiate with
not easily submit to the Manchu court. the revolutionists on unification of north-
Yuan had been retired from officialdom at ern and southern China. Thus ended the
odds with the regent Prince Chun, but, on 268-year rule of the Qing dynasty.
ChaPTER 12
The Early
Republican Period
Of ThE REPuBLIC (1912–20)

During the first half of the 20th century, the old order in
China gradually disintegrated, and turbulent preparations
were made for a new society. Foreign political philosophies
undermined the traditional governmental system, national-
ism became the strongest activating force, and civil wars and
Japanese invasion tore the vast country and retarded its
modernization. Although the revolution ushered in a repub-
lic, China had virtually no preparation for democracy. A
three-way settlement ended the revolution: the Qing dynasty
abdicated; Sun Yat-sen relinquished the provisional presi-
dency in favour of Yuan Shikai (Yüan Shih-k’ai), regarded as
the indispensable man to restore unity; and Yuan promised
to establish a republican government. This placed at the head
of state an autocrat by temperament and training, and the
revolutionaries had only a minority position in the new
national government.

Early Power Struggles

The first years of the republic were marked by a continuing

contest between Yuan and the former revolutionaries over
where ultimate power should lie. The contest began with the
election of parliament (the National Assembly) in February
260 | The History of China

1913. The Nationalist Party (Kuomintang 10, 1914, and appointed another body to
[KMT], or Guomindang), made up largely prepare a constitution according to his
of former revolutionaries, won a com- own specifications. The presidency had
manding majority of seats. Parliament become a dictatorship.
was to produce a permanent constitution.
Song Jiaoren (Sung Chiao-jen), the main China in World War I
organizer of the KMT’s electoral victory,
advocated executive authority in a cabi- Japanese Gains
net responsible to parliament rather than
to the president. In March 1913, Song was Following the outbreak of World War I in
assassinated; the confession of the assas- 1914, Japan joined the side of the Allies
sin and later circumstantial evidence and seized the German leasehold around
strongly implicated the premier and pos- Jiaozhou Bay together with German-
sibly Yuan himself. owned railways in Shandong. China was
Parliament tried to block Yuan’s not permitted to interfere. Then, on Jan.
effort to get a “reorganization loan” (face 18, 1915, the Japanese government
value $125 million) from a consortium of secretly presented to Yuan the Twenty-
foreign banks, but in April Yuan con- one Demands, which sought in effect to
cluded the negotiations and received the make China a Japanese dependency.
loan. He then dismissed three Nationalist Yuan skillfully directed the negotiations
military governors. That summer, revolu- by which China tried to limit its conces-
tionary leaders organized a revolt against sions, which centred on greater access to
Yuan, later known as the Second Chinese ports and railroads and even a
Revolution, but his military followers voice in Chinese political and police
quickly suppressed it. Sun Yat-sen, one of affairs. At the same time, Yuan searched
the principal revolutionaries, fled to for foreign support. The European pow-
Japan. Yuan then coerced parliament ers, locked in war, were in no position to
into electing him formally to the presi- restrain Japan, and the United States was
dency, and he was inaugurated on unwilling to intervene. The Chinese pub-
October 10, the second anniversary of lic, however, was aroused. Most of Yuan’s
the outbreak of the revolution. By then political opponents supported his resis-
his government had been recognized by tance to Japan’s demands. Nevertheless,
most foreign powers. When parliament on May 7 Japan gave Yuan a 48-hour ulti-
promulgated a constitution placing exec- matum, forcing him to accept the terms
utive authority in a cabinet responsible as they stood at that point in the
to the legislature, Yuan revoked the cre- negotiations.
dentials of the KMT members, charging Japan gained extensive special privi-
them with involvement in the recent leges and concessions in Manchuria
revolt. He dissolved parliament on Jan. (Northeast China) and confirmed its
The Early Republican Period | 261

gains in Shandong from Germany. The When he would not, the Yunnan army in
Hanyeping mining and metallurgical early January 1916 invaded Sichuan and
enterprise in the middle Yangtze valley subsequently Hunan and Guangdong,
was to become a joint Sino-Japanese hoping to bring the southwestern and
company. China promised not to alienate southern provinces into rebellion and to
to any other power any harbour, bay, or then induce the lower Yangtze provinces
island on the coast of China nor to permit to join them. The Japanese government
any nation to construct a dockyard, coal- covertly provided funds and munitions to
ing station, or naval base on the coast of Sun and the Yunnan leaders. One by one,
Fujian, the province nearest to Japan’s military leaders in Guizhou, Guangxi, and
colony of Taiwan. parts of Guangdong declared the inde-
pendence of their provinces or districts.
Yuan’s Attempts By March the rebellion had assumed seri-
to Become Emperor ous dimensions, and public opinion was
running strongly against Yuan.
In the wake of the humiliation of these A third source of opposition came
forced concessions, Yuan launched a from Yuan’s direct subordinates, Generals
movement to revive the monarchy, with Duan Qirui (Tuan Ch’i-jui) and Feng
some modernized features, and to place Guozhang (Feng Kuo-chang), whose
himself on the throne. The Japanese gov- powers Yuan had attempted to curtail.
ernment began to “advise” against this When he called on them for help, they
move in October and induced its allies to both withheld support. On March 22—
join in opposing Yuan’s plan. Additional with the tide of battle running against his
opposition came from the leaders of the forces in the southwest, Japanese hostil-
Nationalist and Progressive parties. In ity increasingly open, public opposition
December, Chen Qimei (Ch’en Ch’i-mei) in full cry, and his closest subordinates
and Hu Hanmin (Hu Han-min), two fol- advising peace—Yuan announced the
lowers of Sun Yat-sen (who was actively abolition of the new empire. His oppo-
scheming against Yuan from his exile in nents, however, demanded that he give
Japan), began a movement against the up the presidency as well. The revolt con-
monarchy. More significant was a mili- tinued to spread, with more military
tary revolt in Yunnan, led by Gen. Cai E leaders declaring the independence of
(Ts’ai O; a disciple of Liang Qichao) and their provinces. The issue became that of
by the governor of Yunnan, Tang Jiyao succession should Yuan retire. The presi-
(T’ang Chi-yao). Joined by Li Liejun (Li dent, however, became gravely ill and
Lieh-chün) and other revolutionary gen- died on June 6.
erals, they established the National Yuan’s four years in power had seri-
Protection Army (Huguojun) and ous consequences for China. The
demanded that Yuan cancel his plan. country’s foreign debt was much
262 | The History of China

enlarged, and a precedent had been opposed the step, but Duan favoured
established of borrowing for political pur- moving toward entry into the war.
poses. Yuan’s defiance of constitutional Parliamentary factions and public opin-
procedures and his dissolution of parlia- ion were bitterly divided. Sun Yat-sen,
ment also set precedents that were later now in Shanghai, argued that entering
repeated. Many were disillusioned with the war could not benefit China and
the republican experiment; China was a would create additional perils from
republic in name, but arbitrary rule based Japan. Under heavy pressure, parliament
on military power was the political real- voted to sever diplomatic relations with
ity. The country was becoming fractured Germany, and Li was compelled by his
into competing military satrapies—the premier to acquiesce. When the United
beginning of warlordism. States entered the war in April, Duan
Gen. Li Yuanhong (Li Yüan-hung), wished China to do the same but was
the vice president, succeeded to the pres- again opposed by the president.
idency, and Duan Qirui continued as Duan and his supporters demanded
premier, a position he had accepted in that China enter the war and that Li dis-
April. A man of great ability and ambi- solve parliament. On May 23, Li
tion, Duan was supported by many dismissed Duan and called on Gen.
generals of the former Beiyang Army, a Zhang Xun (Chang Hsün), a power in
powerful force based in northern China the Beiyang clique and also a monar-
that developed originally under Yuan’s chist, to mediate. As a price for
leadership. Duan quickly began to gather mediation, Zhang demanded that Li dis-
power into his own hands. Parliament solve parliament, which he did
reconvened on August 1; it confirmed reluctantly on June 13. The next day
Duan as premier but elected Gen. Feng Zhang entered Beijing with an army and
Guozhang, the leader of another emerg- set about to restore the Qing dynasty.
ing faction of the Beiyang Army, as vice Telegrams immediately poured in from
president. The presidential transition military governors and generals denounc-
and restoration of parliament had by no ing Zhang and the coup; Li refused to
means answered the underlying question sign the restoration order and called on
of where the governing power lay. Duan to bring an army to the capital to
restore the republic. Li requested that
Conflict Over Entry into the War Vice President Feng assume the duties of
president during the crisis and then took
In February 1917 the U.S. government sev- refuge in the Japanese legation. Duan
ered diplomatic relations with Germany captured Beijing on July 14; Zhang fled to
and invited the neutral powers, including asylum in the Legation Quarter, and this
China, to do the same. This brought on ended a second attempt to restore the
a crisis in the Chinese government. Li imperial system.
The Early Republican Period | 263

Duan resumed the premiership, and quell the southern opposition by force,
Feng came to Beijing as acting president, while Feng advocated a peaceful solution.
bringing a division as his personal guard. Duan resigned and mustered his strength
The two powerful rivals, each supported to force Feng to order military action;
by an army in the capital, formed two Gen. Cao Kun was put in charge of the
powerful factions: the Zhili (Chihli) clique campaign and drove the southerners out
under Feng and the Anhui clique under of Hunan by the end of April 1918. In May
Duan. Opposed neither by Li nor by the the southern government was reorga-
dissolved parliament, Duan pushed nized under a directorate of seven, in
through China’s declaration of war on which military men dominated. Sun
Germany, announced on Aug. 14, 1917. therefore left Guangzhou and returned to
Shanghai. Although his first effort to
Formation of a establish a government in the south had
Rival Southern Government been unsuccessful, it led to a protracted
split between south and north.
Meanwhile, in July Sun Yat-sen, sup-
ported by part of the Chinese navy and Wartime Changes
followed by some 100 members of parlia-
ment, attempted to organize a rival Although its wartime participation was
government in Guangzhou (Canton). The limited, China made some gains from its
initial costs of this undertaking, termed entry into the war, taking over the
the Movement to Protect the Constitution, German and Austrian concessions and
probably were supplied by the German canceling the unpaid portions of the
consulate in Shanghai. On September 1 Boxer indemnities due its enemies. It was
the rump parliament in Guangzhou also assured a seat at the peace confer-
established a military government and ence. Japan, however, extended its gains
elected Sun commander in chief. Real in China. The Beijing government, domi-
power, however, lay with military men, nated by Duan after Feng’s retirement,
who only nominally supported Sun. The granted concessions to Japan for railway
southern government declared war on building in Shandong, Manchuria, and
Germany on September 26 and unsuc- Mongolia. These were in exchange for
cessfully sought recognition from the the Nishihara loans, amounting to nearly
Allies as the legitimate government. The $90 million, which went mainly to
Constitution-Protecting Army (Hufajun), strengthen the Anhui clique with arms
made up of southern troops, launched a and cash. Japan also made secret agree-
punitive campaign against the govern- ments with its allies to support its claims
ment in Beijing and succeeded in pushing to the former German rights in Shandong
northward through Hunan. Sichuan was and also induced the Beijing government
also drawn into the fight. Duan tried to to consent to these. In November 1917 the
264 | The History of China

United States, to adjust difficulties with tenancy and a slow impoverishment that
Japan, entered into the Lansing-Ishii sent rural unemployed into cities and
Agreement, which recognized that armies or into banditry.
because of “territorial propinquity . . .
Japan has special interests in China.” An Intellectual Revolution
This treaty seemed to underwrite Japan’s
wartime gains. An intellectual revolution took place dur-
Important economic and social ing the first decade of the republic,
changes occurred during the first years sometimes referred to as the New Culture
of the republic. With the outbreak of the Movement. It was led by many of the new
war, foreign economic competition with intellectuals, who held up for critical
native industry abated, and native- scrutiny nearly all aspects of Chinese cul-
owned light industries developed ture and traditional ethics. Guided by
markedly. By 1918 the industrial labour concepts of individual liberty and equal-
force numbered some 1,750,000. Modern- ity, a scientific spirit of inquiry, and a
style Chinese banks increased in number pragmatic approach to the nation’s prob-
and expanded their capital. lems, they sought a much more profound
reform of China’s institutions than had
Intellectual Movements resulted from self-strengthening or the
republican revolution. They directed
A new intelligentsia had also emerged. their efforts particularly to China’s edu-
The educational reforms and the ending cated youth.
of the governmental examination system In September 1915 Chen Duxiu
during the final Qing years enabled thou- (Ch’en Tu-hsiu), who had studied in
sands of young people to study sciences, Japan and France, founded Xinqingnian
engineering, medicine, law, economics, (“New Youth”) magazine to oppose
education, and military skills in Japan. Yuan’s imperial ambitions and to regen-
Others went to Europe and the United erate the country’s youth. This quickly
States. Upon their return they took impor- became the most popular reform journal,
tant positions and were a modernizing and in 1917 it began to express the icono-
force in society. Their writing and teach- clasm of new faculty members at Peking
ing became a powerful influence on University (Beida), which Chen had
upcoming generations of students. In joined as dean of the College of Letters.
1915–16 there were said to be nearly Peking University, China’s most presti-
130,000 new-style schools in China with gious institution of higher education,
more than four million students. This was was being transformed by its new chan-
mainly an urban phenomenon, however; cellor, Cai Yuanpei (Ts’ai Yüan-p’ei), who
rural life was barely affected except for had spent many years in advanced study
what may have been gradually increasing in Germany. Cai made the university a
The Early Republican Period | 265

centre of scholarly research and inspired China was launched on a new revolution-
teaching. The students were quickly ary path.
swept into the New Culture Movement. A
proposal by Hu Shih (Hu Shi), a former The interwar years
student of the American philosopher (1920–37)
John Dewey, that literature be written in
the vernacular language (baihua) rather Beginnings
than the classical style won quick accep- of a National Revolution
tance. By 1918 most of the contributors to
Xinqingnian were writing in baihua, and This new revolution was led by the
other journals and newspapers soon fol- Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese
lowed suit. Students at Peking University Communist Party (CCP).
began their own reform journal, Xinchao
(“New Tide”). A new experimental litera- The Nationalist Party
ture inspired by Western forms became
highly popular, and scores of new literary The Nationalist Party had its origins in
journals were founded. the earlier United League (Tongmenghui)
against the Qing dynasty. The name
Riots and Protests Nationalist Party was adopted in 1912.
After the suppression of this expanded
On May 4, 1919, patriotic students in party by Yuan Shikai, elements from it
Beijing protested the decision at the Paris were organized by Sun Yat-sen in 1914
Peace Conference that Japan should into the Chinese Revolutionary Party,
retain defeated Germany’s rights and which failed to generate widespread sup-
possessions in Shandong. Many students port. Sun and a small group of veterans
were arrested in the rioting that followed. were stimulated by the patriotic upsurge
Waves of protest spread throughout the of 1919 to rejuvenate this political tradi-
major cities of China. Merchants closed tion, as well as to revive the Nationalist
their shops, banks suspended business, Party name. The party’s publications took
and workers went on strike to pressure on new life as the editors entered the cur-
the government. Finally, the government rent debates on what was needed to “save
was forced to release the arrested stu- China.” Socialism was popular among
dents, to dismiss some officials charged Sun’s followers.
with being tools of Japan, and to refuse to The formation of an effective party
sign the Treaty of Versailles. This out- took several years, however. Sun returned
burst helped spread the iconoclastic and to Guangzhou from Shanghai late in
reformist ideas of the intellectual move- 1920, when Gen. Chen Jiongming (Ch’en
ment, which became known as the May Chiung-ming) drove out the Guangxi
Fourth Movement. By the early 1920s, militarists. Another rump parliament
266 | The History of China

elected Sun president of a new southern special rights gained by tsarist Russia at
regime, which claimed to be the legiti- China’s expense and to return the Russian-
mate government of China. In the spring owned Chinese Eastern Railway in
of 1922 Sun attempted to launch a north- Manchuria without compensation. The
ern campaign as an ally of the Manchurian contrast between this promise and the
warlord, Zhang Zuolin (Chang Tso-lin), Versailles award to Japan that had touched
against the Zhili clique, which by now off the 1919 protest demonstrations could
controlled Beijing. Chen, however, did hardly have been more striking. Although
not want the provincial revenues wasted the Soviet government later denied such
in internecine wars. One of Chen’s subor- a promise and attempted to regain con-
dinates drove Sun from the presidential trol of the railway, the impression of this
residence in Guangzhou on the night of first statement and the generosity still
June 15–16, 1922. Sun took refuge with the offered in a more diplomatic second
southern navy, and he retired to Shanghai Karakhan Manifesto of September 1920
on August 9. He was able to return to left a favourable image of Soviet foreign
Guangzhou in February 1923 and began policy among Chinese patriots.
to consolidate a base under his own con- Russia set up an international com-
trol and to rebuild his party. munist organization, the Comintern, in
1919 and sent Grigory N. Voytinsky to
The Chinese Communist Party China the next year. Voytinsky met Li
Dazhao in Beijing and Chen Duxiu in
The CCP grew directly from the May Shanghai, and they organized the
Fourth Movement. Its leaders and early Socialist Youth League, laid plans for the
members were professors and students Communist Party, and started recruiting
who came to believe that China needed a young intellectuals. By the spring of 1921
social revolution and who began to see there were about 50 members in various
Soviet Russia as a model. Chinese stu- Chinese cities and in Japan, many of
dents in Japan and France had earlier them former students who had been
studied socialist doctrines and the ideas active in the 1919 demonstrations. Mao
of Karl Marx, but the Russian Revolution Zedong, a protégé of Li Dazhao, had
of 1917 stimulated a fresh interest in keep- started one such group in Changsha. The
ing with the enthusiasm of the period for CCP held its First Congress in Shanghai
radical ideologies. Li Dazhao, the librar- in July 1921, with 12 or 13 attendants and
ian of Peking University, and Chen Duxiu with a Dutch communist—Hendricus
were the CCP’s cofounders. Sneevliet, who used his Comintern name,
In March 1920 word reached China of Maring, in China—and a Russian serving
Soviet Russia’s revolutionary foreign pol- as advisers. Maring had become head of a
icy enunciated in the first Karakhan new bureau of the Comintern in China,
Manifesto, which promised to give up all and he had arrived in Shanghai in June
The Early Republican Period | 267

Mao Zedong. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

268 | The History of China

1921. At the First Congress, Chen Duxiu they had gained experience in the French
was chosen to head the party. labour movement and with the French
The CCP spent the next two years Communist Party; Zhou Enlai was one of
recruiting, publicizing Marxism and the these. Other recruits were students influ-
need for a national revolution directed enced by the Japanese socialist movement.
against foreign imperialism and Chinese By 1923 the party had some 300 members,
militarism, and organizing unions among with perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 in the ancil-
railway and factory workers. Maring was lary Socialist Youth League.
instrumental in bringing the KMT and the
CCP together in a national revolutionary Communist-Nationalist
movement. A number of young men were Cooperation
sent to Russia for training. Among the
CCP members were many students who By then, however, the CCP was in serious
had worked and studied in France, where difficulty. The railway unions had been

Mao Zedong
The Chinese Marxist theorist, soldier, and statesman Mao Zedong (b. Dec. 26, 1893—d. Sept. 9,
1976) led China’s communist revolution and served as chairman of the People’s Republic of China
(1949–59) and chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP; 1931–76). The son of a peasant,
Mao joined the revolutionary army that overthrew the Qing dynasty but, after six months as a
soldier, left to acquire more education. At Peking University he met Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu,
founders of the CCP, and in 1921 he committed himself to Marxism. At that time, Marxist thought
held that revolution lay in the hands of urban workers, but in 1925 Mao concluded that in China
it was the peasantry, not the urban proletariat, that had to be mobilized. He became chairman of
a Chinese Soviet Republic formed in rural Jiangxi province; its Red Army withstood repeated
attacks from Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army but at last undertook the Long March to a more
secure position in northwestern China. There Mao became the undisputed head of the CCP.
Guerrilla warfare tactics, appeals to the local population’s nationalist sentiments, and Mao’s
agrarian policies gained the party military advantages against their Nationalist and Japanese
enemies and broad support among the peasantry. Mao’s agrarian Marxism differed from the
Soviet model, but, when the communists succeeded in taking power in China in 1949, the Soviet
Union agreed to provide the new state with technical assistance. However, Mao’s Great Leap
Forward and his criticism of “new bourgeois elements” in the Soviet Union and China alienated
the Soviet Union irrevocably; Soviet aid was withdrawn in 1960. Mao followed the failed Great
Leap Forward with the Cultural Revolution, also considered to have been a disastrous mistake.
After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping began introducing social and economic reforms.
The Early Republican Period | 269

brutally suppressed, and there were few Guangdong. By June, five young Soviet
places in China where it was safe to be a officers were in Beijing for language train-
known communist. In June 1923 the ing. More importantly, the Soviet leaders
Third Congress of the CCP met in selected an old Bolshevik, Mikhail M.
Guangzhou, where Sun Yat-sen provided Borodin, as their principal adviser to Sun
a sanctuary. After long debate, this con- Yat-sen. The Soviet leaders also decided to
gress accepted the Comintern strategy replace Maring with Voytinsky as princi-
pressed by Maring—that communists pal adviser to the CCP, which had its
should join the KMT and make it the cen- headquarters in Shanghai. Thereafter
tre of the national revolutionary three men—Karakhan in Beijing, Borodin
movement. Sun had rejected a multiparty in Guangzhou, and Voytinsky in
alliance but had agreed to admit commu- Shanghai—were the field directors of the
nists to his party, and several, including Soviet effort to bring China into the anti-
Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, had already imperialist camp of “world revolution.”
joined the KMT. Even though commu- The offensive was aimed primarily at the
nists would enter the other party as positions in China of Great Britain, Japan,
individuals, the CCP was determined to and the United States.
maintain its separate identity and auton-
omy and to attempt to control the labour Reactions to Warlords
union movement. The Comintern strat- and Foreigners
egy called for a period of steering the
Nationalist movement and building a These countries too were moving toward
base among the Chinese masses, fol- a new, postwar relationship with China.
lowed by a second stage—a socialist At the Washington Conference
revolution in which the proletariat would (November 1921–February 1922), China
seize power from the capitalist class. put forth a 10-point proposal for relations
By mid-1923 the Soviets had decided between it and the other powers, which,
to renew the effort to establish diplomatic after negotiations, became four points: to
relations with the Beijing government. Lev respect the sovereignty, independence,
M. Karakhan, the deputy commissar for and territorial and administrative integ-
foreign affairs, was chosen as plenipoten- rity of China, to give China opportunity
tiary for the negotiations. In addition to to develop a stable government, to main-
negotiating a treaty of mutual recognition, tain the principle of equal opportunity in
Karakhan was to try to regain for the Soviet China for the commerce and industry of
Union control of the Chinese Eastern all countries, and to refrain from taking
Railway. On the revolutionary front, the advantage of conditions in China to seek
Soviets had decided to financially assist exclusive privileges detrimental to the
Sun in Guangzhou and to send a team of rights of friendly countries. The treaty
military men to help train an army in was signed as the Nine-Power Pact on
270 | The History of China

February 6. Two other Chinese proposals, controlled provinces in the Yangtze valley
tariff autonomy and abolishing extrater- and in the north; these factions competed
ritoriality, were not included in the pact for control of Beijing. In Manchuria,
but were assigned to a committee for fur- Zhang Zuolin headed a separate Fengtian
ther study. In the meantime, separate army. Shanxi was controlled by Yan
negotiations between China and Japan Xishan (Yen Hsi-shan). Each separate
produced a treaty in which Japan agreed power group had to possess a territorial
to return the former German holdings in base from which to tax and recruit. Arms
Shandong to China—although under con- were produced in many scattered arse-
ditions that left Japan with valuable nals. Possession of an arsenal and control
privileges in the province. of ports through which foreign-made
For a few years thereafter, Great arms might be shipped were important
Britain, Japan, the United States, and elements of power. Most of the foreign
France attempted to adjust their conflict- powers had agreed in 1919 not to permit
ing interests in China, cooperated in arms to be smuggled into China, but that
assisting the Beijing government, and embargo was not entirely effective.
generally refrained from aiding particu- The wealthier the territorial base, the
lar Chinese factions in the recurrent greater the potential power of the con-
power struggles. But China was in tur- trolling faction. Beijing was the great
moil, with regional militarism in full tide. prize because of its symbolic importance
Furthermore, a movement against the as the capital and because the govern-
Unequal Treaties began to take shape. ment there regularly received revenues
collected by the Maritime Customs
Militarism in China Service, administered by foreigners and
protected by the powers. Competition for
During the first years of the republic, bases brought on innumerable wars, alli-
China had been fractured by rival mili- ances, and betrayals. Conflict was
tary regimes to the extent that no one continuous over spoils, even within each
authority was able to subordinate all military system. To support their armies
rivals and create a unified and centralized and conduct their wars, military com-
political structure. Southern China was manders and their subordinates taxed
detached from Beijing’s control; even the the people heavily. Money for education
southern provinces, and indeed districts and other government services was
within them, were run by different mili- drained away; revenues intended for the
tary factions (warlords). Sichuan was a central government were retained in
world in itself, divided among several the provinces. Regimes printed their
military rulers. The powerful Beiyang own currency and forced “loans” from
Army had split into two major factions merchants and bankers. This chaotic
whose semi-independent commanders situation partly accounts for the
The Early Republican Period | 271

unwillingness of the maritime powers to were located in concession areas under

give up the protection that the treaties foreign protection. The Chinese had to
with China afforded their nationals. compete with foreign ships in Chinese
rivers and coastal waters, with foreign
The Foreign Presence mining companies in the interior, and
with foreign banks that circulated their
As a result of several wars and many trea- own notes. Foreign trade also had a great
ties with China since 1842, foreign powers advantage because there could be no pro-
had acquired a variety of unusual privi- tective tariff to favour Chinese products.
leges for their nationals. These became Christian missionaries operated
collectively known as the Unequal many schools, hospitals, and other phil-
Treaties, and patriotic Chinese bitterly anthropic enterprises in China, all
resented them. Hong Kong, Macau, protected by extraterritoriality. The sepa-
Taiwan, Tibet, and vast areas in Siberia rate school system, outside of Chinese
and Central Asia had been detached from governmental control, was a sore point
China. Dependencies such as Korea, for Nationalists, who regarded the educa-
Outer Mongolia, and Vietnam had been tion of Chinese youth as a Chinese
separated. Leaseholds on Chinese terri- prerogative. There were foreign troops on
tory were granted to separate Chinese soil and foreign naval vessels in
powers—such as the southern part of the its rivers and ports to enforce treaty
Liaodong Peninsula and the territory in rights. The Chinese government, bound
Shandong around Jiaozhou Bay, which by a variety of interlocking treaties, was
Japan had seized from Germany, to not fully sovereign in China. Past regimes
Japan; the New Territories to the adja- had accumulated a vast foreign debt
cent British crown colony of Hong Kong; against which central government reve-
Macau to Portugal; and the Kwangchow nues were pledged for repayment. All
(Zhanjiang) Bay area to France. Most this was the foreign imperialism against
major cities had concession areas, not which the KMT launched its attack after
governed by China, that were set aside being reorganized along Bolshevist lines.
for the residence of foreigners. Nationals
and subjects of the “treaty powers” (as Reorganization of the KMT
they became known) were protected by
extraterritoriality (i.e., they were subject The KMT held its First National Congress
only to the civil and criminal laws of their in Guangzhou on Jan. 20–30, 1924.
own countries); this status extended to Borodin, who had reached Guangzhou in
foreign business enterprises in China, October 1923, began to advise Sun in the
which provided a great advantage in reorganization of the party. He prepared
competition with Chinese firms and was a constitution and helped draft a party
enhanced when foreign factories or banks program as a set of basic national
272 | The History of China

policies. Delegates from throughout communists, including Li Dazhao, were

China and from overseas branches of the elected to the executive committee.
party adopted the program and the new The executive committee set up a
constitution. The program announced central headquarters in Guangzhou. It
goals of broad social reform and a funda- also decided to strengthen the party
mental readjustment of China’s throughout the country by deputizing
international status. Its tone was nation- most of its leaders to manage regional
alistic, identifying China’s enemies as and provincial headquarters and by
imperialism and militarism. It singled recruiting new members. A military acad-
out farmers and labourers as classes for emy was planned for training a corps of
special encouragement but also appealed young officers, loyal to the party, who
to intellectuals, soldiers, youth, and would become lower level commanders
women. The program threatened the in a new national revolutionary army that
position of landlords in relation to ten- was to be created. Borodin provided
ants and of employers in relation to funds for party operations, and the Soviet
labour, and Western privileges were Union promised to underwrite most of
openly menaced. the expenses of, and to provide training
The constitution described a central- officers for, the military academy. Chiang
ized organization, modeled on the Soviet Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi), who had become
Communist Party, with power concen- a close associate of Sun, was chosen to be
trated in a small, elected group and with the first commandant of the academy,
a descending hierarchy of geographical and Liao Zhongkai (Liao Chung-k’ai)
offices controlled by executive commit- became the party representative, or chief
tees directed from above. Members were political officer.
pledged to strict discipline and were to From February to November 1924,
be organized in tight cells. Where possi- Sun and his colleagues had some suc-
ble they were to penetrate and try to gain cess in making the KMT’s influence felt
control of such other organizations as nationally; they also consolidated the
labour unions, merchant associations, Guangzhou base, although it still
schools, and parliamentary bodies at all depended on mercenary armies. The
levels. Sun was designated as leader of military academy was set up at Whampoa
the party and had veto rights over its (Huangpu), on an island south of
decisions. The congress elected a central Guangzhou, and the first group of some
executive committee and a central super- 500 cadets was trained. In September
visory committee to manage party affairs Sun began another northern campaign
and confirmed Sun’s decision to admit in alliance with Zhang Zuolin against
communists, though this was opposed by Cao Kun and Wu Peifu (Wu P’ei-fu), who
numerous party veterans, who feared the now controlled Beijing. The campaign
KMT itself might be taken over. A few was interrupted, however, when Wu’s
The Early Republican Period | 273

subordinate, Feng Yuxiang (Feng precipitating what came to be called the

Yü-hsiang), betrayed his chief and seized May Thirtieth Incident. This aroused a
Beijing on October 23, while Wu was at nationwide protest and set off a pro-
the front facing Zhang Zuolin. Feng and tracted general strike in Shanghai. A
his fellow plotters invited Sun to Beijing second, more serious incident occurred
to participate in the settlement of national on June 23, when French and British
affairs, while Feng and Zhang invited marines exchanged fire with Whampoa
Duan Qirui to come out of retirement and cadets who were part of an anti-imperial-
take charge of the government. Sun ist parade, killing 52 Chinese (many of
accepted the invitation and departed for them civilians) and wounding at least
the north on November 13. Before he 117; which side had fired first became a
arrived in Beijing, however, he fell gravely matter of dispute. This set off a strike and
ill with incurable liver cancer. He died in boycott against Britain, France, and
Beijing on March 12, 1925. Japan, which was later narrowed to
Britain alone. The strike and boycott, led
Struggles Within mainly by communists, lasted for 16
the Two-Party Coalition months and seriously affected British
trade. These incidents intensified hostil-
After Sun’s death the KMT went through ity toward foreigners and their special
a period of inner conflict, although it pro- privileges, enhanced the image of the
gressed steadily, with Russian help, in Soviet Union, and gained support for the
bringing the Guangdong base under its KMT, which promised to end the Unequal
control. The conflict was caused primar- Treaties. By January 1926 the KMT could
ily by the radicalization of the party under claim some 200,000 members. The
the influence of the communists, who CCP’s membership grew from fewer than
organized labour unions and peasant 1,000 in May 1925 to about 10,000 by the
associations and pushed class struggle end of that year.
and the anti-imperialist movement.
KMT Opposition to Radicals
Clashes with Foreigners
The two parties competed for direction
On May 30, 1925, patriotic students who of nationalist policy, control of mass
were engaged in an anti-imperialist organizations, and recruitment of new
demonstration in Shanghai clashed members. Under Comintern coaching,
with foreign police. The British captain the CCP strategy was to try to split the
in charge ordered the police to fire on a KMT, drive out its conservative mem-
crowd that he believed was about to bers, and turn it to an ever-more-radical
rush his station. Some dozen Chinese course. In August 1925, KMT conserva-
(including some students) were killed, tives in Guangzhou tried to stop the
274 | The History of China

leftward trend. One of the strongest 1924 and 1925 in developing the
advocates of the Nationalists’ Soviet Whampoa Military Academy and form-
orientation, Liao Zhongkai, was assassi- ing the National Revolutionary Army.
nated. In retaliation, Borodin, Chiang Blücher returned to Guangzhou in May
Kai-shek, and Wang Ching-wei (Wang and helped refine plans for the Northern
Jingwei) deported various conservatives. Expedition, which began officially in
A group of KMT veterans in the north July, with Chiang as commander in chief.
then ordered the expulsion of Borodin
and the communists and the suspension The Northern Expedition
of Wang Ching-wei; they set up a rival
KMT headquarters in Shanghai. The left- During the Northern Expedition the out-
wing leaders in Guangzhou then held numbered southern forces were infused
the Second National Congress in with revolutionary spirit and fought with
January 1926, confirming the radical pol- great élan. They were assisted by propa-
icies and the Soviet alliance. But as the ganda corps, which subverted enemy
Soviet presence became increasingly troops and agitated among the populace
overbearing, as the strike and boycott in in the enemy’s rear. Soviet military advis-
Guangzhou and Hong Kong dragged on, ers accompanied most of the divisions,
and as class conflict intensified in the and Soviet pilots reconnoitred the enemy
south, opposition to the radical trend positions. The army was well-financed at
grew stronger, particularly among mili- the initial stages because of fiscal reforms
tary commanders. in Guangdong during the previous year,
Chiang Kai-shek, now commander of and many enemy divisions and brigades
the National Revolutionary Army, took were bought over. Within two months the
steps in March to curb the communists National Revolutionary Army gained
and to send away several Soviet officers control of Hunan and Hubei, and by the
whom he believed were scheming with end of the year it had taken Jiangxi and
Wang Ching-wei against him. In a read- Fujian. The Nationalist government
justment of party affairs, communists no moved its central headquarters from
longer were permitted to hold high Guangzhou to the Wuhan cities of the
offices in the central headquarters, and Yangtze. By early spring of 1927, revolu-
Wang Ching-wei went into retirement tionary forces were poised to attack
in France. Chiang also demanded Nanjing and Shanghai.
Comintern support of a northern military The political situation, however, was
campaign and the return of Gen. V.K. unstable. Hunan and Hubei were swept
Blücher as his chief military adviser. by a peasant revolt marked by violence
Blücher, who used the pseudonym Galen against landlords and other rural power
in China, was a commander in the Red holders. Business in the industrial and
Army who had worked with Chiang in commercial centre of the middle
The Early Republican Period | 275

Yangtze—the Wuhan cities—was nearly Expulsion of

paralyzed by a wave of strikes. Communists from the KMT
Communists and KMT leftists led this
social revolution. In January the British The climax of the conflict came after
concessions in Hankou and Jiujiang were Nationalist armies had taken Shanghai
seized by Chinese crowds. The British and Nanjing in March. Nanjing was cap-
government had just adopted a concilia- tured on March 23 as Beiyang troops
tory policy toward China, and it evacuated it, and the following morning
acquiesced in these seizures, but it was some Nationalist soldiers looted foreign
readying an expeditionary force to pro- properties, attacked the British, U.S., and
tect its more important position in Japanese consulates, and killed several
Shanghai. Foreigners and many upper- foreigners. That afternoon, British and
class Chinese fled from the provinces U.S. warships on the Yangtze fired into
under Nationalist control. The northern the concession area, allowing some of the
armies began to form an alliance against foreign nationals to flee, and others sub-
the southerners. sequently were evacuated peacefully.
Conservative Nationalist leaders in In Shanghai a general strike led by
Shanghai mobilized against the head- communists aroused fears that Chinese
quarters in Wuhan. There was a deep rift might seize the International Settlement
within the revolutionary camp itself; the and the French concession, now guarded
leftists at Wuhan, guided by Borodin, pit- by a large international expeditionary
ted themselves against Chiang and his force. Conservative Nationalist leaders,
more conservative military supporters, some army commanders, and Chinese
who were also laying plans against the business leaders in Shanghai encouraged
leftists. Resolutions of the CCP’s Central Chiang to expel the communists and
Committee in January 1927 showed that suppress the Shanghai General Labour
committee members were apprehensive Union. On April 12–13, gangsters and
about a counterrevolutionary tide against troops bloodily suppressed the guards of
their party, Soviet Russia, and the revolu- the General Labour Union, arrested many
tionary peasant and workers’ movement; communists, and executed large num-
they feared a coalition within the KMT bers. Similar suppressions were carried
and its possible alliance with the imperi- out in Guangzhou, Nanjing, Nanchang,
alist powers. The central leadership Fuzhou, and other cities under military
resolved to check revolutionary excesses forces that accepted Chiang’s instruc-
and give all support to the KMT leader- tions. The KMT conservatives then
ship at Wuhan. Others within the CCP, established a rival Nationalist govern-
notably Mao Zedong, disagreed; they ment in Nanjing.
believed the mass revolution should be Wang Ching-wei had returned to
encouraged to run its course. China via the Soviet Union. Arriving in
276 | The History of China

Shanghai, he refused to participate in People’s Army under Feng Yuxiang, part

the expulsions and went secretly to of the Guangxi army, and the Shanxi
Wuhan, where he again headed the gov- army of Yan Xishan. In early June they
ernment. In July, however, the leftist captured Beijing, from which Zhang
Nationalist leaders in Wuhan, having Zuolin and the Fengtian army withdrew
learned of a directive by Soviet leader for Manchuria. As his train neared
Joseph Stalin to Borodin to arrange for Mukden (present-day Shenyang), Zhang
radicals to capture control of the govern- died in an explosion arranged by a few
ment, decided to expel the communists Japanese officers without the knowledge
and compel the Soviet advisers to leave. of the Japanese government. Japan did
The leftist government thereby lost not permit the Nationalist armies to pur-
important bases of support; furthermore, sue the Fengtian army into Manchuria,
it was ringed by hostile forces and cut hoping to keep that area out of KMT
off from access to the sea, and it soon control. By the end of the Northern
disintegrated. Expedition, the major warlords had been
The CCP went into revolt. Using its defeated by the Nationalists, whose
influence in the Cantonese army of armies now possessed the cities and rail-
Zhang Fakui (Chang Fa-k’uei), it staged ways of eastern China. On October 10 the
an uprising at Nanchang on August 1 and Nationalists formally established a reor-
in October attempted the “Autumn ganized National Government of the
Harvest” uprising in several central prov- Republic of China, with its capital at
inces. Both efforts failed. In December Nanjing; Beijing was renamed Beiping
communist leaders in Guangzhou started (Pei-p’ing), “Northern Peace.”
a revolt there, capturing the city with
much bloodshed, arson, and looting; this The Nationalist Government
uprising was quickly suppressed, also from 1928 to 1937
with much slaughter. Between April and
December 1927 the CCP lost most of its The most-serious immediate problem fac-
membership by death and defection. A ing the new government was the
few score leaders and some scattered mil- continuing military separatism. The gov-
itary bands then began the process of ernment had no authority over the vast
creating military bases in the mountains area of western China, and even regions
and plains of central China, remote from in eastern China were under the rule of
centres of Nationalist power. independent regimes that had lately been
The now-more-conservative KMT part of the Nationalist coalition. After an
resumed its Northern Expedition in unsuccessful attempt at negotiations,
the spring of 1928 with a reorganized Chiang launched a series of civil wars
National Revolutionary Army. In the drive against his former allies. By 1930 one mili-
on Beijing it was joined by the National tarist regime after another had been
The Early Republican Period | 277

reduced to provincial proportions, and illiteracy, and underemployment in the

Nanjing’s influence was spreading. villages, hamlets, and small towns scat-
Explained in material terms, Chiang tered over a continental-size territory.
owed his success to the great financial With conscription and heavy taxation to
resources of his base in Jiangsu and support civil war and a collapsing export
Zhejiang and to foreign arms. Quick rec- market for commercial crops, rural eco-
ognition by the foreign powers brought nomic conditions may have grown worse
the Nationalist government the revenues during the Nationalist decade.
collected by the efficient Maritime The Nationalist government during
Customs Service; when the powers its first few years in power had some suc-
granted China the right to fix its own tar- cess in reasserting China’s sovereignty.
iff schedules, that revenue increased. Several concession areas were returned
Although the aim of constitutional, to Chinese control, and the foreign pow-
representative government was asserted, ers assented to China’s resumption of
the Nationalist government at Nanjing tariff autonomy. Yet these were merely
was in practice personally dominated by token gains; the Unequal Treaties were
Chiang Kai-shek. The army and the civil scarcely breached. The country was in a
bureaucracy were marked by factional nationalistic mood, determined to roll
divisions, which Chiang carefully bal- back foreign economic and political pen-
anced against one another so that etration. Manchuria was a huge and rich
ultimate decision making was kept in his area of China in which Japan had exten-
own hands. The KMT was supposed to sive economic privileges, possessing
infuse all government structures and to part of the Liaodong Peninsula as a lease-
provide leadership, but the army came to hold and controlling much of southern
be the most powerful component of gov- Manchuria’s economy through the South
ernment. Chiang’s regime was marked by Manchurian Railway. The Chinese began
a military orientation, which external cir- to develop Huludao, in Liaodong, as a
cumstances reinforced. port to rival Dairen (Dalian) and to plan
Nevertheless, the Nationalists did railways to compete with Japanese lines.
much to create a modern government Zhang Xueliang (Chang Hsüeh-liang),
and a coherent monetary and banking Zhang Zuolin’s son and successor as
system and to improve taxation. They ruler of Manchuria, was drawing closer to
expanded the public educational system, Nanjing and sympathized with the
developed a network of transportation Nationalists’ desire to rid China of for-
and communication facilities, and eign privilege.
encouraged industry and commerce. For Japan, Manchuria was regarded
Again it was urban China that mainly as vital. Many Japanese had acquired
benefited; little was done to modernize a sense of mission that Japan should
agriculture or to eradicate disease, lead Asia against the West. The Great
278 | The History of China

Depression had hurt Japanese business, War Between Nationalists

and there was deep social unrest. Such and Communists
factors influenced many army officers—
especially officers of the Kwantung Army, In the meantime, the communists had
which protected Japan’s leasehold in created 15 rural bases in central China,
the Liaodong Peninsula and the South and they established a soviet govern-
Manchurian Railway—to regard Manchuria ment, the Jiangxi Soviet, on Nov. 7, 1931.
as the area where Japan’s power must be Within the soviet regions, the communist
consolidated. leadership expropriated and redistrib-
uted land and in other ways enlisted the
Japanese Aggression support of the poorer classes. The
Japanese occupation of Manchuria and
In September 1931 a group of officers in an ancillary localized war around
the Kwantung Army set in motion a plot Shanghai in 1932 distracted the
(beginning with the Mukden Incident) Nationalists and gave the communists a
to compel the Japanese government to brief opportunity to expand and consoli-
extend its power in Manchuria. The date. But the Nationalists in late 1934
Japanese government was drawn step forced the communist armies to abandon
by step into the conquest of Manchuria their bases and retreat. Most of the later
and the creation of a regime known as communist leaders—including Mao
Manchukuo. China was unable to pre- Zedong, Zhu De, Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi,
vent Japan from seizing this vital area. and Lin Biao—marched and fought their
In 1934, after long negotiations, Japan way across western China in what became
acquired the Soviet interest in the known as the Long March. By mid-1936
Chinese Eastern Railway, thus eliminat- the remnants of several Red armies had
ing the last legal trace of the Soviet gathered in an impoverished area in
sphere of influence there. During 1932– northern Shaanxi, with headquarters
35 Japan seized more territory bordering located in the town of Yan’an, which lent
on Manchuria. In 1935 it attempted to its name to the subsequent period (1936–
detach Hebei and the Chahar region of 45) of CCP development.
Inner Mongolia from Nanjing’s control During the Long March, Mao Zedong
and threatened Shanxi, Shandong, and rose to preeminence in the CCP leader-
the Suiyuan region of Inner Mongolia. ship. In the early 1930s he had engaged in
The National Government’s policy was bitter power struggles with other party
to trade space for time in which to build leaders and actually had found himself in
military power and unify the country. Its a fairly weak position at the start of the
slogan “Unity before resistance” was Long March campaigns, but in January
directed principally against the Chinese 1935 a rump session of the CCP Political
communists. Bureau (Politburo) confirmed Mao in the
The Early Republican Period | 279

Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, two leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, during the Long
March. Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
280 | The History of China

newly created post of chairman. It was The United Front Against Japan
also during the Long March that the CCP
began to develop a new political strat- Fearing that China would be plunged into
egy—a united front against Japan. It was renewed disorder if Chiang were killed,
first conceived as an alliance of patriotic the nation clamoured for his release. The
forces against Japan and the Nationalist Soviet Union quickly denounced the cap-
government, but, as Japan’s pressure on tors and insisted that Chiang be freed
China and the pressure of the Nationalist (the Soviet Union needed a united China
armies against the weakened Red armies opposing Japan, its potential enemy on
increased, the communist leaders began the east). The CCP leaders also decided
to call for a united front of all Chinese that Chiang’s release would serve China’s
against Japan alone. Virtually all clas