China History 102:
The Tang dynasty, where we left off last time, was one of the longer period of stability and considered a zenith of Chinese culture, was responsible for a number of beautiful things; such as the incredible life-like horses in 3 coloured glazes, but also was responsible for some unspeakable horrors;
Emperor Taizong, 2nd of the Tang dynasty, was definitely the greatest of the dynasty, if not of the whole of Chinese history, and certainly became the benchmark for all future rulers to measure themselves against. His reign was one of the most prosperous and peaceful ever known, with China being the most important and economically powerful nation on earth.
Buddhism flourished with Xuanzang travelling to India bring many texts to China, a story immortalised in “Monkey, Journey to the West”, the arts reached a zenith with Tang Poetry being considered the best in Chinese history, the distinctive 3 glaze pottery of the time is seen as the perfect balance between aesthetic beauty and realism and culture became a cosmopolitan fusion that attached people and goods from over the world with the Silk Road.
However, It was also was when the hideously painful process of foot binding began to be practiced among the court ladies.
There were a number of blood bath of succession purges with vast quantities of would be emperors and their entire families being slaughtered to prevent any challenge to the eventual victor. The level of unscrupulous conspiracy even reached the level of that a woman, Wu Zhao, became the concubine of two successive emperors, in itself considered incestuous, but even that was not enough influence and so she murdered her own child but blamed the Empress Wang, resulting in her demotion, detention and eventual execution - and the promotion of Wu. It was said that poor Wang was dismembered and drowned in a vat of wine.
When the Emperor died the former consort then declared herself first regent and then finally outright emperor, and became known as Wu Zetian. She then proceeded to have extravagant affairs with first a Buddhist abbot, and then a pair of brothers half her age – eventually the court had enough and a rabble of outrages statesmen stormed the palace and at which point she rose from bed briefly to defer power to her son. Tang scholars, with their usual aplomb with words, recorded that there was “nothing quite like her since antiquity.”
The death knell for the Tang however was the An Shi Rebellion; when one of the Tangs many military governors formed a rebel army of those dissatisfied with the extravagant lifestyle of the court and proclaimed a rival dynasty. The rebellion was put down but heaven was clearly not appeased as then there was massive flooding along the Grand Canal, drowning thousands and destroying much arable land, and the government collapsed in response to this. It briefly recovered, albeit much smaller, and instigated some reforms and developed a large, centralised eunuch-lead army. But this too turned against them as the common people once again rebelled, in the Huang Chao Rebellion, this time against the abuse of power by the military commanders and this time it was more than the dynasty could survive.
China entered another one of it periods of dynastic turmoil; this time known as the ‘5 Dynasties and the 10 Kingdoms’, where those same military governors graduated to warlords, and each claiming a territory leading to rapidly replaced sequence of dynasties in the North and 10 fractured kingdoms to the South.
Meanwhile, on the Manchuria and Mongolian steppes the nomadic tribes of the Khitan overthrew the Uyghurs, and formed their own dynasty to rival that of Han in China-‘proper’. The Uyghurs had some form of diplomatic relations with the Tang; usually in the form of a lavish tribute and/or a princess bride to be paid to ensure that Uyghur cavalry left Tang assets, particularly those on the Silk Road unmolested. Under the inspired leadership of Abaoji, the Khitan tribes united and drove the Uyghurs west in a way that would foreshadow the rise of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire in 1200.
Once the dust had settled in China, with the various states being once again united under the first Song emperor, the new dynasty found that it had a rather large and powerful neighbour to contend with to the North. Relations flip flopped between cordial and diplomatic and outright warfare as the Song first tried to recapture land lost in the protracted collapse of the Tang, before the huge inequality in trade meant that it would be a fare more economical solution to allow the Khitans to also demanded tribute from the Chinese court, which would immediately be spent back buying Chinese produce. The Song even went to the unprecedented length of accepting the Khitan empire, known as the Liao Dynasty, as their equal, with them being known as the ‘Northern -’ and ‘Southern Courts’. This state of affairs continued for some time, the Song flexing their military muscle instead on their southern frontier, in a badly executed episode in Vietnam, until the Liao dynasty started to be bedevilled by Jurchen rebels. The Song, eager to finally reclaim dominance over their northern brothers formed an alliance with the Jurchen, lending forces to help topple the Northern Court, but in doing so demonstrated their own military weaknesses. The Jurchen formed the Jin dynasty, and immediately invaded Song territory.
The Song capital fell to the Jin, relocating further south, and as such the Song Dynasty is sometime spilt by historians as the Northern - and Southern Song.
Regardless of the military and political upheaval there were a number of social reforms and welfare programs in place for the common people; such as retirement homes and a postal service. The cvil service allowed for meritocracy and equality between classes and as such social mobility became more common. During this time Zen Buddhism, or Chan as it was known in China, became the largest school taught, and monks travelled to Japan, where it would eventually become very popular with the Samurai, and to Korea. Also other religions from the West were introduced by foreign immigrants, such as Islam, Judaism and Manichaeism from Persia. There were a lot of social and artistic developments, with many forms of entertainment and clubs becoming popular. While it was available before the Verdi-gris coloured celadon pottery became to characterise the period.
It was also a great time for the sciences and industry; with the Song forming the first permanent Navy in Chinese history, navigation and nautical engineering became important and as such skills such as mathematics, astronomy, cartography, hydraulics, structural engineering became highly prized. But probably the most famously and influentially of all this was the time of first recorded use of gunpowder.
By the 1200s, there were stirrings on the Steppes once again; this time with the Mongolian tribes uniting behind a warrior-leader called Temujin, who destroyed all opposition to become the ‘great king’ or Genghis Khan, in Mongolian. His ‘murderous horde swept across Asia, from Pacific to Eastern Europe’ to form the Mongol Empire in a way that has become almost cliché in its telling, overwhelming China and the Song and Jin dynasties. Following his death, and the inevitable succession struggle, the empire was divided into 4 Khanates, with Temujin’s grandson, Kublai Khan becoming Emperor of the new Mongolian-ruled China, and the founding a new capital, Dadu, or Beijing.
The newly settled Mongolians adopted many customs and assimilated pretty well into Chinese culture, particularly claiming the Mandate of Heaven and forming the Yuan dynasty. He kept many Chinese government bodies as they were, and instigating many reforms and tax breaks, and utilising Han Chinese civil service. However, Kublai Khan did act as absolute monarch himself, in distinctly un-Chinese way, the Han Chinese officials were never fully trusted, and faced discrimination and struggled to reach the highest levels of power.
Kublai Khan was a patron of the sciences and religion, and developed the links with the west on Silk Road, particularly with Rome as he developed an interest in Latin, and invited missionaries to China. They never came, but Marco Polo did, who continued the technology and cultural exchange. The Yuan dynasty also attempted to invade Japan, but the Mongols had little experience at sea and fleet was destroyed by a typhoon en route, leading to the myth of the divine wind that protected Japan – the Kamikaze.
The Khan emperors following Kublai were not as powerful or inspiring and slowly the Yuan dynasty fell into debt and then famine, droughts and floods, and the populace never totally at ease with the foreign rulers, began to rebel. When an inspired Han leader rose up, it was clear that the Mandate had continued its ceaseless march into the brilliance of the Ming…
Meaning the ‘bright’ the Ming dynasty was formed when the Mongols were finally driven back north out of China, and almost immediately started to rebuild the empire back on traditional Chinese lines – reinstating many of the Tang period government and military structures.
The Ming extended their empire to the South West into the Kingdom of Dali, in what is nowadays Yunnan province, where there was a large Muslim population, and among the slaves taken back to the Capital was a young, just-castrated Muslim boy called Zheng He, intended as a companion for the young prince...
The brightest star of the Ming was Zhu Di or the Yongle Emperor; he rebuilt the Forbidden City and returned the capital to Beijing, repaired and extended the Great Wall and commissioned the Treasure Fleet. A fleet of 300 gigantic ships were commissioned to leave China to the 4 winds, on a total 7 different journeys across the world, to promote China and inform them of the heavenly majesty of the Ming dynasty and bring back whatever technology, treasure and trade they could find, all commanded by his most trusted childhood friend, the eunuch Admiral Zheng He. His fleet travelled to Africa, Asia and possibly even as far as the Americas and Europe, between 1405 and 1433, long before many Europeans had ventured that far.
The Ming dynasty was finally brought down my twin economic pressures it could not control; the main source of tradable currency was silver, and two of the biggest sources of it both simultaneously ceased trading with Phillip IV of Spain cracked down on smuggling out of South America and the Tokugawa Shogunate closing Japan to all external trade. This was compounded by the usual rumblings of a discontented heaven; with a mini ice age devastating crops in a way only outdone by the Shaanxi Earthquake that killed 830 thousand people.
The Manchus (formerly the Jurchen), crossed the Great Wall and invaded China, and as the closed in on Beijing the last Ming Emperor hung himself from a tree in the Beihai park, the Forbidden City garden. They formed the Qing dynasty, the last in China’s long line of imperial families.
The Qing had to contend with a long struggle with revolt and public discontent with once again being ruled by a court of foreign invaders, even though the immigrants did adapt to Chinese life even more than their Mongol predecessors. The instigated a number of conservative and controlling measured meant to both re-enforce their support of traditional Chinese values but also to crush any sign disloyalty; most well known of which was the wearing of the Manchu queue hairstyles or ironically, what has become known in Europe as the stereotypical China-man plated pigtail. The hair cutting order was enforced on pain of death, and in some areas was so resisted that vast numbers of Han Chinese were executed.
Eventually tensions erupted in the Taiping Rebellion; when a large number of Han Chinese supported a man who claimed to be the resurrection of Jesus Christ and wanting to convert China into a Christian commune. While many might not have believed the ideal, they were keen to overthrow the Manchu government and the Rebellion was fought tooth and nail; eventually taking 15 years to quell and killing between 20-30 million people. The devastation lead to as many deaths through famine as by the war itself, and the drain on the dynasty was fatal; so weakened by the sustained war the Qing had no option but to resort to the help of Anglo-French forces to crush it, but the Europeans could smell the blood in the water and with most of them having designs on carving up the world into their own empires, China was ripe for the picking.
The British in particular were keen to trade, particularly for their unquenchable thirst for tea, but the Chinese were not interested in anything but their silver. Or Opium. The British smuggled in vast quantities of the addictive drug from their colony on India, and it having a hugely corrosive effect of the Chinese way of life, the Qing tried to stop it. The British refused, knowing the fragile state of the Chinese military forces, and so started the Opium Wars, and the ceding of Hong Kong to the British.
Dowager Empress Cixi, she of the Marble Boat fame, then had Sino-Japanese War, the Boxer Rebellion and a scrap with the 8 nation alliance of European powers and Japan, in which they briefly lost control of Beijing to contend with.
When she finally passed throne to her child nephew Pu Yi on her death bed it was only a matter of time before, in 1911, China declared itself a republic. The child was allowed to remain inside the Forbidden City, a tiny island of imperialism left, completely irrelevant, it walls now looking more like a prison to keep him inside, while outside there was Xinhau revolution and the forming of a new democratic nation. Nationalist and communist parties battled for dominance, first politically and then militarily with the nationalists being initially victorious driving the communist on the ‘Long March’.
World War One passed the young non-emperor by, and he was eventually evicted from the palace in 1924, taking refuge in the Japanese Concession in Tianjin. When World War two broke out and the Japanese invaded China, the young deposed emperor was installed as a puppet head of the newly Japanese-formed Manchurian state on Manchukuo. The Japanese treatment of Chinese was appalling, with many thousands of civilians being massacred, particularly in the incident known as the Rape of Nanjing. When the Japanese were defeated and surrendered he was abandoned and imprisoned by the Chinese people as a war criminal.
The end of the war also signalled the end to the uneasy alliance and renewal of the tensions between communist and nationalist parties in China, which quickly descended back into a civil war, although this time with the communists having the advantage - by 1949 Mao Zedong was proclaiming the People Republic of China in Tiananmen Square and the nationalist were driven into Taiwan. Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ threw the Chinese into a freefall of fear, financial failure, famine and a huge death toll, yet another horrific incident in a rather brutal half century for the Chinese people.
Puyi died in 1967, just 1 year after the ‘Cultural Revolution’ further isolated and humiliated him, working as an editor for just 100 yuan a month in Beijing; a somewhat humble end to over 2000 years of Chinese imperial history, his small tomb being a far cry from the terracotta armies and mercury seas of Qin Shi Huangdi.
Chinese Historians, wanting to follow the eternal demands of the Mandate of Heaven, have a tendency to portray the succession of the various dynasties as a continuous path of emperors, when perhaps it would be better to represent it as a string of discrete beads of stability and progress with short, frayed sections of tumultuous times, but as ever, the closing line of the Chinese epic “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” have long since summarised it perfect manner…
“The Empire long united, must divide; the Empire long divided must unite.”
- Чт, 22:17: Woooo! Trip to Hong Kong in March now booked! Staying in TST with a Harbour View! Gonna be AWESOME!!
- Пт, 14:45: Why is lid yogurt so much better than the rest of the yogurt? Maybe I start selling dedicated tubs of it...