Social Studies

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In what ways did China And Europe parallel each other in their development until the sixth century CE? How did they diverge after that?

  • Social Studies -

    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
    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
    in 1368.
    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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