This chapter concentrates on China’s imperial age and emphasizes the cultural and
philosophical contributions of this important period. During this time, which corresponds to
the European “middle ages,” the most notable feature of Chinese history was the reunification
of China and the recreation of a centralized bureaucratic empire consciously modeled on the
earlier Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.). China was able to develop a unified state at a
time when political fragmentation in Europe brought about small, independent kingdoms.
The Sui dynasty (589–618) sprang from Chinese–Turkish origins, reestablished a
centralized bureaucracy and rebuilt the Great Wall and other public works. After a period of
political disintegration and civil war among contending aristocratic factions, the Tang dynasty
was established. Chinese historians have often compared the short–lived Sui dynasty with
that of the Qin in that it provided a foundation for the subsequent progress of China.
The Tang dynasty (618–907) established an efficient bureaucracy through frugality, and
expanded Chinese borders to their greatest extent. The chapter explains the intricacies of
Tang administration especially during the years of good rule from 624–755. Although the
government was centered on the figure of the emperor, aristocrats were given generous tax
concessions and served as officials at court. Women continued to play a role in government; a
concubine, Wu Zhao, (625–706) ruled for seven years as regent before she deposed her son
and ascended to sole power herself.
The reign of the emperor Xuan Zong (713–756) is particularly noted for its cultural
brilliance and the capital grew to approximately 2 million people. The Tang dynasty applied
a four tier foreign policy of military aggression, use of nomads against other nomadic tribes,
establishment of strong border defenses (Great Wall), and diplomatic action. However,
during the mid–eighth century, China’s frontiers began to contract and external enemies in
Manchuria and Tibet contributed to growing internal dissension. By 907, the Tang dynasty
had been carved into independent kingdoms. Still, the fall of the Tang did not lead to the
kind of division that had followed the Han.
The chapter continues with a section on Tang culture. The creativity of the Tang period
arose from the juxtaposition and interaction of cosmopolitan, medieval Buddhist and secular
elements. Tang culture was cosmopolitan not just because of its broad contacts with other
cultures and peoples, but because of its openness to them.
The reestablishment of a centralized bureaucracy stimulated the tradition of learning and
contributed to the reappearance of secular scholarship. For the first time, scholars wrote
comprehensive institutional histories, compiled dictionaries, and wrote commentaries on the
Confucian classics. The most famous poets of the period were Li Bo (701–762) and Tu Fu
(712–770), who were often quite secular in their literary approach.
The Song dynasty (960–1279) continued the normal pattern of dynastic cycles set in
Chinese history. The breakdown of the empire into northern and southern sections after 1127
was followed by the Mongol conquest of the Southern Song in 1279. Instead of a detailed
enumeration of emperors and court officials, the chapter emphasizes the various changes
during the Tang and Song dynasties that affected China’s agriculture, society, economy, state
and culture; taken together, the developments in these areas explain why China did not lapse
into disunity after the political collapse of the Tang dynasty (see detailed analysis under
“KEY POINTS AND VITAL CONCEPTS”).
The greatest achievements of the Song dynasty were in philosophy, poetry and painting.
The chapter details the Neo–Confucian ideas of Zhu Xi (1130–1200), which brought a degree
of stability to Chinese society. The outstanding poet of the period was Su Dungpo (1037–
1101), who believed in a limited role for government and social control through morality. A
leading painting style was created by Shi Ke in which human figures were not the dominant
focus of the art form.
The Song dynasty collapsed by 1279, under the military dominance of the Mongols.
Genghis Khan united the various Mongol tribes and, bent on world domination, established
an empire that extended from the Caspian Sea to the Pacific Ocean. The Mongol rule in
China is but a chapter of a larger story. In 1279, under Genghis’ grandson, Kublai, the Yuan
dynasty was established, but did not change Chinese high culture to any degree. The
language barrier assisted in preserving the Chinese way of life. The Southern Song area was
the last to be conquered and the least altered by Mongol control. The Yuan dynasty collapsed
KEY POINTS AND VITAL CONCEPTS
1. Varieties of Buddhism: During the early Tang, the principal Buddhist sect was the
Tiantai. But after its mid-ninth century suppression, other sects came to the fore. They
included Maitreya (Mi Lo), a Buddha of the future who will appear and create a paradise on
earth; Amitabha (A Mi T’o), the Lord of the Western Paradise, who helped humans obtain
salvation and whose sect was the largest in China; and finally, Ch’an, or Zen in Japanese.
Zen was anti–intellectual in its emphasis on direct intuition into one’s own Buddha–nature.
It taught that the historical Buddha was only a man and exhorted each person to attain
enlightenment by his or her own efforts. The discipline of meditation, combined with a Zen
view of nature profoundly influenced the arts in China, Korea and Japan.
2. Transitional Elements in Late Imperial China: Long term changes in the society,
economy and state explain why China experienced only brief periods of disunity after the
collapse of the Tang and Song dynasties. The aristocracy weakened over the course of the
Tang, and its fall allowed serfs to gain greater control of their land and the independence to
move as they pleased. Trade increased during the Tang and commerce became more
sophisticated with exchange no longer based on silk but rather on coins of copper and
silver. The commutation of land tax to a money tax gave farmers more control over their
own time. The transition during this period from conscript to professional armies also
resulted in the stabilization of society. In government, imperial China became more
autocratic with the Song emperors assuming direct personal control over state offices and
appointments. The aristocracy thus declined as a separate political competitor and were
elevated to positions of influence through the examination system. The central government
during the Song was also better funded because of a growing population, tax base, and the
establishment of government monopolies on salt, wine and tea. Thus the gradual
establishment of an efficient, well–funded and autocratic state reduced the potential for
long–term dislocation of Chinese civilization.
3. Mongol Control of China: The Mongol’s major objective in the world was to conquer
China. This movement brought them into contact with other superior civilizations.
However, the major concentration on China diverted their small resource base to lessen the
impact on the Chinese population. Therefore, the high culture of China was not lost to the
barbarians and after the fall of the Yuan dynasty in 1368, Chinese civilization continued in
the pattern of the great empires. The Mongol efficiency in controlling the empire proved to
be a greater obstacle than the more populated areas could overcome. The four groups, with
the Mongols at the top and the Chinese at the bottom, brought about division within the
Yuan Empire. The continued language barrier between the Mongols, speaking Altaic, and
the Chinese brought constant friction to the area. This activity did not permit the Chinese
civilization to continue in a manner much the same as before the arrival of the Mongols.
4. Imperial China in Global Perspective: Rough parallels between China and Europe
persisted until the 6th century C.E., but then a fundamental divergence occurred. Europe
tailed off into centuries of feudal disunity while China reunited and attained a new level of
wealth, power and culture. Why? One reason was that the victory of Buddhism was less
complete than that of Christianity in Europe. Confucianism survived within aristocratic
families and the concept of a united empire was integral to it. In contrast, the Roman
conception of political order was not maintained as an independent doctrine, and empire
was not a vital concept in western Christian thought. In addition, China possessed a greater
cultural homogeneity and higher population density; this explains why China could absorb
barbarian conquerors more quickly than could Europe. Although comparisons across
continents are difficult, it seems likely that Tang and Song China had longer stretches of
good government than any other part of their contemporary world. Not until the nineteenth
century would comparable bureaucracies of talent and virtue begin to appear in the West.
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