FC57: The Sung & Mongol dynasties (906-1368)


FC57 in the Hyperflow of History;
Covered in multimedia lecture #1871.

The Sung Dynasty (960-1279) .  The fall of the T'ang Dynasty ushered in a brief period of chaos referred to as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (906-960).  Despite this turmoil, Chinese civilization maintained itself, especially in the South where many people fled to avoid the northern nomads. Out of this chaos, two new kingdoms emerged.

First of all, the semi-nomadic Khitan built a powerful realm in the North that even encompassed the Great Wall.  What made the Khitan so dangerous was that they had partially absorbed Chinese culture, thus fusing their nomadic energy with Chinese sophistication.  In the middle Ages, many people mistook the Khitan as the Chinese and referred to China as Cathay (land of the Khitan).  Throughout this period, the Khitan kept up pressure against a new Chinese dynasty, the Sung, who brought all but the northernmost provinces and the Great Wall under their control.  Sung government was efficient, maintaining the irrigation and flood control projects to ensure economic prosperity.  The Sung also weakened the influence of the military in favor of the bureaucratic gentry who were hostile toward the military.  This and the lack of pasture for good cavalry horses in the south caused the Sung to pay less attention to maintaining a good native-born military and to rely more heavily on expensive mercenaries and paying tribute to keep their northern enemies at bay.  Therefore, when the Sung did finally attack the Khitan, they were no match for their mobile horse archers who forced them onto the defensive.

In the early twelfth century, the Sung called in another nomadic people from further north, the Jurchen ruled by the Chin dynasty, to destroy the Khitan realm.  Unfortunately, the Jurchen, proving less civilized and more dangerous than the Khitan, turned against the Sung and forced them even further south after 1126. One advantage of ruling in the South was that its numerous waterways and lack of pasture impeded invasions by any nomadic cavalry, thus keeping Sung China relatively secure.

Despite these pressures, the Southern Sung Dynasty (1126-1279) still flourished with a thriving economy based largely on rice agriculture.  This helped create a more urban society, with five Chinese cities reaching populations of one million.  Ironically, the more comfortable urban culture hurt the status of Chinese women, since their labor, which was so vital on the farm, was not needed nearly as much in town.

Economically, the Chinese were the first to use paper money, getting the idea from the bills of credit used under the T'ang Dynasty.  The advantage of paper money was that it saved the burden of transporting heavy cash (which was all in copper coins), especially taxes, long distances.  As its nickname, "flying money", implies, paper money was easy to print (thanks to block printing also invented by the Chinese), and its overuse later on triggered inflation.  Even such measures as scenting it with perfume or sewing in threads of silk failed to solve this problem that still bothers governments today.

The Chinese economy, largely blocked from overland trade to the northwest, saw rapid expansion through the vigorous pursuit of sea-borne trade to South-east Asia and into the Indian Ocean.  Unlike the northern Chinese, who preferred to remain on land, the Chinese in the South were more at ease with the sea.  (Even today, a preponderance of Chinese immigrants to the United States originates from the southern parts of China.)  Several technological innovations helped the Chinese in their maritime ventures.  First of all there was the Chinese sailing ship, the junk, which was faster and several times larger than any European ships then sailing.  It also had a sternpost rudder and separate watertight compartments, something European sailing ships would not be able to match until the 1800's.  Another invention brought back by Arab traders to Europe that would be vital to later European explorations was the compass.  For centuries, the Chinese had used the compass for divination and fortune telling before applying it to navigation.  Chinese compasses pointed south, since that was where spring winds came from and was considered the most important direction on Chinese maps.

By 1200, the Chinese had replaced the Arabs as the dominant commercial power in the Indian Ocean, trading books, paintings, and porcelain along with silk, tin and lead.  All this trade brought large numbers of foreign traders to China, many of whom settled down in self-contained communities where they could live under their own laws.  One of the most prominent of these was a Jewish community that survived into the 1800's.

Two other Chinese inventions deserve mention here: the water-powered clock and gunpowder.  The Chinese clock was powered through a complex system of gears and escapements.  In addition to keeping daily time, it also tracked celestial time and the movement of the sun, moon, and planets for astrological purposes so the emperor would know the best time to embark upon various projects and ventures.  Although it was an imperial monopoly, the clock made its way to Europe where it would be adapted in the later Middle Ages to tracking daily time.  Eventually, the clock would heavily influence Western Civilization's concept of time by breaking it into precise and discrete units that still regiment our lives today.

Gunpowder, according to legend, was the accidental result of a Taoist alchemical experiment for replacing salt with salt petre (the active ingredient in gunpowder).  Contrary to popular belief, the Chinese did use gunpowder for military purposes in the form of rockets and firing projectiles out of bamboo and metal tubes.  Most likely, it made its way westward to Europe thanks to the Mongol conquest of China in the 1200's.  Eventually, the Chinese invention of gunpowder would be instrumental in the rise of the nation state in Western Europe and Europe's colonial dominance of the globe in the late 1800's and early 1900'.

The arts, in particular painting, flourished under the Sung Dynasty.  Chinese painting heavily reflected Buddhist and Taoist values by emphasizing nature and even empty space.  Some painters were so brilliant that they could create a painting that had to be viewed from multiple perspectives.  This contrasted greatly with European painting, which put more emphasis on humans as the center of attention.

The Mongol Empire (1279-1368)

Although the overland routes to the West were mostly cut off, the Sung Dynasty did see some trade, largely in the form of superior iron weapons, going north through the semi-civilized Jurchen to the much more dangerous Mongol tribes further north.  In the late 1100's, the most remarkable nomadic leader of all time, Genghis Khan (1167-1227), combined the use of Chinese weapons, Mongol fierceness, and his own genius for organization and generalship to launch the conquest of the most far-flung empire in history.  He succeeded in conquering northern China, but the large fortified cities, lack of pasture for the Mongol horses, and the vast network of waterways obstructing the way kept him from conquering the Sung Dynasty in the South.  Therefore, he left it to his successors to complete the conquest, which his grandson, Kublai Khan, did in 1279.  By that time, Mongol conquests spread from the Pacific to Eastern Europe and the Middle East.  Although there were several virtually independent Mongol khanates, Kublai Khan was recognized, at least in theory, as the supreme ruler over all.

Mongol rule led to several changes in China and Asia.  For one thing, the Mongols protected safe travel across Asia and reopened trade along the Silk Road.  Because of this, Western Europe, then recovering from the Dark Ages, re-established contact with China, allowing numerous traders and missionaries to make their way there.  Among these travelers was Marco Polo, whose account of his travels and the wonders of the East sparked a growing interest in China which would help stimulate the Age of Exploration some two centuries later.

The Mongols ruled with a brutal efficiency that not only discouraged any criticism of them, but also discouraged innovations in the arts.  Among the Mongols' ruling policies was replacing the civil service exam system with the use of non-Chinese governors and officials and even a foreign script.  However, in the 1300’s, the civil service exam was restored as the Mongols in turn succumbed to the influence of Chinese civilization.  Mongol rule was especially unpopular with the Chinese, who looked for any opportunity to revolt.  Two factors helped provide that opportunity, dissension within the Mongol ranks and corruption among their bureaucrats.  Finally, in 1368, the Chinese overthrew Mongol rule and established a new dynasty, the Ming, which would once again restore Chinese power and wealth.