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Chinese History - 960-1126 AD - Northern Song Dynasty

China History Map - Northern Song / Beisong The collapse of the T'ang brought chaos to China as numerous dynasties vied for control. After 50 years of turmoil, one ruler emerged to re-unite the country. Tai Tsu (960-976), the first ruler of the northern Sung dynasty, was dragged out of his tent in a condition of hopeless drunkenness by his soldiers and clothed with the imperial robes; nonetheless he proved himself an excellent ruler, and after long and bitter struggles restored peace and order throughout the empire. His dynasty would last 319 years and was one of China's most brilliant and attractive.

The history of the Sung Dynasty, including as it does the reigns of eighteen Emperors, must be divided into two portions. The former deals with the Sung Dynasty proper, when the rulers of this line reigned over the whole land. This period continues until the conquest of the provinces north of the Yangtse Kiang by the Tatars in AD 1127. The second part concerns the line generally known as that of the Southern Sungs, and includes the sovereigns who ruled south of the Yangtse Kiang up to the time of Kublai Khan.

Ching nan, one of the ten States, gave in its submission in 963, as did Hou Shu in 965, Nan Han in 971, Nan Tang in 975, Wu Yue in 978, and Pei Han in 979; the whole empire was now united under Tai Tsung (976-997), with the exception of the districts ruled by the Khitan and the Hsia, under the government of Tai Tsung (976-997). The governments of Chen Tsung (998-1022) and Yea Tsung (1023-1063) were also periods of prosperity for the country, although the latter of these rulers was obliged to purchase a disgraceful peace from the Khitan. He operated with greater success against the Hsia, who were settled near Ning hsia in Kansu; they made, at any rate, a nominal submission to his supremacy. However, in the year 1038 the Hsia-wang Chao Yuan hao assumed the title of emperor. During an illness of Yen Tsung, as also during the first years of his successor's reign, Ying Tsung, the empress Tsao (Tsao Hau) played an important part as regent, though her powers were persistently limited by the famous statesman Han Ki.

The Emperor T'ai-tsu set aside military traditions and insisted on civilian control of his provinces, government, and military. Civil service exams were revived, schools spread, and literacy increased as new printing technology made books more widely available. From this grew a new class well versed in the arts and intellectual fields. The Sung boasted a welfare state that included housing and care for the elderly, state hospitals, low-interest loans for peasants, state orphanages, free pharmacies for the poor, filled state granaries, and fire stations and libraries in the large cities.

The Sung introduced paper money in 1024. Checking accounts, bills of exchange, and promissory notes soon followed. Increased yields in agriculture grew from the introduction of new tools and techniques, and advances were made in the fields of mining and manufacturing of ceramics as China moved from an agrarian to a mercantile state. Other countries took notice. From Japan to the Red Sea, countries sent fleets to Chinese ports seeking trade. China, too, explored foreign ports. Her ships, known as junks, were guided by compasses, and sported advanced capstans, pivoting sails, and watertight compartments, making China's fleet the world's greatest well into the fifteenth century.

In this the age of China's renaissance, advancements and innovations flowed. The list is impressive. New methods of bridge building, canal lock-gates, and water-powered clocks improved industry and the movement of people. Methods of acupuncture and autopsies and a physician's code of ethics were codified. Great scientific publications were compiled on zoology and botany. The field of philosophy swelled with the writings of neo-Confucians, and the arts, too, saw striking advancements in the lyrical song and portrait and landscape paintings.

During the period of Shen Tsung (1068-1085) took place the interesting attempts at reform introduced by the minister Wang An shih, who was himself a famous scholar and author; these reforms were founded upon the precedents and uses of the old Chau dynasty (1200 B. c.). The chief feature of the reform was the almost paternal interference of the government in the life of the agricultural population. The system of tithings was reintroduced throughout the population, together with the mutual responsibility of the members of the tithing, and a militia system was drawn up based upon the provincial system and the general liability to military service. In the spring of each year advances were made to the peasants from the exchequer; in the autumn, after the harvest, this amount had to be returned plus twenty per cent interest. Those liable to labor services were obliged to commute them for monetary payments. The objections raised to these reforms by some of the highest State officials (Han Ki, Sze Ma kwang, Su shih, and others) were founded upon the unreliability and the corruption of the officials, which would make it impossible to carry out the reforms in detail; as a matter of fact, it was chiefly for this reason that they failed.

The straggle between the two parties continued with varying success and under different rulers for nearly forty years, and resulted in a victory of the old conservative party. Wang An shih was canonised and his name inscribed in the temple of Kung fu tsze; in 1086, long after his death, he was deprived of all posthumous honors, and now lives in the memory of the Chinese people as the "shameful" minister. The period was also characterised by other movements in a philosophical, literary, and antiquarian direction.

The peace that permitted these grand accomplishments was purchased at a high price, as foreign lands to the north were paid large tributes. In time, those barbarians became so powerful that they swept down on China, pushing the Sung southward. For the State at that period its military power was the most important point, and here this dynasty appeared entirely incompetent as compared with earlier and more glorious times. It ultimately succumbed to the attacks of the Tartar kingdoms then existing or in process of formation upon the frontiers. In 907, Apaochi, apparently the chief of a Tungu tribe, advanced beyond the Amur and the Liau rivers to the northeast frontier of China, where he founded the kingdom of Khitan and the Liau dynasty, or Iron Dynasty, in 916 under the title of Tai Tsu (the dynasty lasted from 916 to 1125); this kingdom gradually extended from Amur to North Pechili and from the Gulf of Liautung to the Desert of Gobi (Shamo), and carried on many long wars against China, plundering and humiliating the empire and extorting payments of tribute, until an opponent, at first its equal and soon its superior, arose in the Kin Tartars (Nu chen, Nu chi), who are the ancestors of the Manchu dynasty. They called themselves the Kin, or Gold Tatars, for, said they, "Iron rusts, gold lasts."

It was Hui Tsimg, AD 1101-1126, who adopted the fatal policy of attempting the expulsion of one enemy by the employment of another. Threatened by the Liau, the emperor Hui Tsung turned to Akuta, the prince of the Kin, for help against the Liau, with whom this prince was himself at war. Therefore they prepared cheerfully to fight the Khitans, to whom they were superior in military tactics and especially in the almost exclusive use of cavalry. Their wild charges of horsemen were not a little dreaded. "Worse than wolves and tigers " was the verdict of their enemies. They succeeded completely in the expulsion of the Khitans, but, after the manner of such dangerous auxiliaries, they did not consider the performance of this task sufficient and proceeded further to the conquest of their employers.

Akuta, who had assumed the title of "Emperor of Kin," under the name of Tai Tsu (1115- 1122), acceded to this request; his brother and successor, Tai Tsung, overthrew the kingdom of the Liau in 1125 and captured the capital and the last emperor, Tien tsu Huang ti. Te Tsung (Yie lu Ta shi), a member of the imperial family, fled to the westward and founded in Central Asia the kingdom of the Kara Khitai, the Black Khitan, or the dynasty of the Hsi Liao (the western Liau), which was destroyed in 1201 by the khan of the Naiman Mongols.

The Chinese gained no advantage by the destruction of the Liau, for the Kin proved a far more dangerous enemy. This nation forced China to make concessions of territory and payments of tribute. In 1125 they again passed the frontier, captured Loyang in 1127, and carried the emperor Chin Tsung (1126-1127) into captivity. Their kingdom, the capital of which was at first Yen (Peking), extended to Houan, where at first Kaifong and afterward the more southerly Shu-ning became the capital. Chang Pang chang, originally an official whom they had set up under the title of the emperor of Chu in the year 1127, abdicated in the same year, and Kao Tsung, the ninth son of Hui Tsung, ascended the throne, thus becoming the first emperor of the southern Sung dynasty.

From AD 1127, the Sungs lost their sway in all the region north of the Yangtse Kiang. The Chinese were completely demoralized by the furious onslaughts of the Tatar cavalrymen and made no stand even at places where a desperate resistance might have been expected. In the south a son of Hui Tsung rallied his countrymen and gave new vigor to the Sung dynasty within its now restricted area, but during all the century that followed China was practically two Empires, with two capitals. In the north was Chang-tu, not far from the site which soon became that of Pe-king (i.e. Northern Capital). In the south was, first of all, Nan-king (i.e. Southern Capital), and afterwards Hang-chow. Of the first and last of these three great cities Marco Polo has left most interesting descriptions.

But in an adjacent part of the world another ruler was forging remarkable achievements of his own kind. The Mongol ruler Genghis Khan had by 1185 conquered central Asia as far west as the Black Sea. By 1232 the Jurchen state in north China fell to his pony soldiers. His son, Kublai, would defeat the Southern Sung in 1279.

The Sung period, in spite of its unsettled political condition, has always been favorably known as a period of speculative philosophy. Five men are especially singled out as eminent exponents of truth as the Sung age understood it. These are Chao, the two Chengs, Chang and Chu. Cheng Ch'iao wrote a history of China of which an edition in forty-six volumes was published in 1749 with a preface by the Emperor Ch'ien Lung. He also wrote an authoritative treatise on the famous Stone Drums. Chu, in addition to his philosophical disquisitions, made a digest of Li Tao's extension of the history of Ssu-ma Kuang, which still remains an admirable summary of thirty-six centuries of Chinese history.

The Sung Art. The art of the Sung period was of rare excellence. The examples which have come down to us are few in number but are sufficient to show its range and dominant characteristics. The most recognizable influence is Taoist rather than Buddhist in the strict sense of the word. More accurately, perhaps, it may be said to be in large part the reflection of the Zen sect of Buddhism which had been "powerfully influenced by Lao Tzu's thought." "Man is not conceived of as detached from, or opposed to, external nature; rather is the thought of one life or one soul manifested in both, so that the springing and withering of the wayside grasses are felt to be something really related to the human spirit contemplating them, and the apparition of beauty in fresh snow, or rising moon, or blossoms opening on bare spring branches, seems the manifestation of a life and power in which men also share." The chief painter of the period was Li Lung-mien.

It is sad to be obliged to recognize that the Sung era, which in art and literature and philosophy reached such heights as to be fitly termed the " Periclean Age of China," should have been politically so inglorious,- that the highest achievements in the departments of intellect and culture should have synchronized so painfully with China's first real experience of foreign domination.7 But she was still destined, by her intelligence, to conquer the brute force of her conquerors.

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Page last modified: 02-07-2012 18:29:07 ZULU