stone bowl

History 100

World History to 1500

All material appearing on this page is copyrighted by Michele Scott James, 2006.

Lecture 10

Sui, Tang and Song China, Another Classical Age


Another Classical Age

Tang sculpture of a camel
This sculpture of a camel, a central Asian pack animal, illustrates the cosmopolitan nature of the Tang Dynasty.

After the Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE) China fell into a time of decentralization. The era of empire seemed to have come to an end. However, the notion of the rightness of empire was just too strong, and the Chinese empire re-coalesced in 581 under Sui Yang Chien and the Sui Dynasty.  This dynasty did the work of reunification, reinstating the Confucian imperial exam system, repairing the Great Wall, building palaces, the Grand Canal, re-conquering all of the land that had ever been claimed by China, and just generally renovating China. Because this involved a lot of change, people rebelled again this, and the Sui Dynasty, like the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) almost four hundred years before it, fell after just a few short years in 618 CE.

This allowed the Tang Dynasty to take over, and to inherit almost completely the system begun by the Sui.  The Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) represents a “typical” Chinese dynasty in length, if not in substance, for the Tang era is considered China’s Classical Age. Actually, it’s one of China’s Classical Ages--the Chinese have two. The Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) follows and represents China’s Early Modern Age.

What makes the Tang Dynasty a Classical Age? Just like Classical Greece, Tang China provides a model for future peoples: art, architecture, poetry, music, philosophy, textiles, literature, and religion.

Poetry: Du Fu and Li Bo (Li Bai)

Du Fu and Li Bo were two of the most famous poets of the Tang period. They were also friends, but rather unlikely friends because of their backgrounds and their worldviews. They are truly classical poets because of their influence on future poets in China, Korea, and Japan such as Basho the 17th century Japanese Zen poet famous for his Haiku.

Du Fu
An artist gives his interpretation of Du Fu's appearance. No known portraits exist.

Du Fu was from a noble family in reduced circumstances. He was trained as a Confucian scholar, but he never passed the Imperial Exam.  Instead he wandered, and then the disruption caused by the An Lushan Rebellion (755) further upset his life, like it did that of many Chinese. Du Fu tried a stint in government work, and like any good Confucian, tried to appeal to the government to change the way it did things to help the people, but his advice was disregarded, and he was eventually arrested.

He decided government work was not for him, and he spent most of the remainder of his life writing poetry about the human condition and lamenting the poverty and despair he saw around him. He is sometimes called the Poet Historian.

Here is an example of one of his poems called The Eight Stone Battle Formations commemorating a battle that took place before his time:

He had the magnificence

That overwhelmed the Three Kingdoms


His eight battle formations

Struck everyone with terror and awe


His stones are still in place

Despite the flooding of five hundred years


We are left with his shame as he watched

His rash lord turn on the Wu allies.


Li Bo
A picture of Li Bo reciting poetry.

Li Bo or Li Bai, called the Poet Immortal, had a noble background as well, but chose not to sit for the Imperial Exam due to the fact that his family was not in favor with the then current emperor. He instead traveled, drank, and wrote poetry and spent time with various aristocrats, who eventually introduced him to the Emperor. He worked for two years as an imperial poet and then went back to traveling. He is usually thought of as a Daoist (Taoist) poet, but he did write some Confucian poetry as well.

He is said to have been sailing drunk (big surprise here) on the Yangtze River, he looked at the reflection of the moon in the water, and when trying to embrace it, fell overboard and drowned. A more likely cause of death was mercury poisoning, possibly from drinking Daoist immortality potions.

Here is an example of one of his poems called Moon Over Mountain Pass; it displays a good Daoist sensibility, and you can also see how Daoism influenced Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism:



All the birds have flown up and gone;

A lonely cloud floats leisurely by.

We never tire of looking at each other -

Only the mountain and I.


The birds have vanished down the sky.

Now the last cloud drains away.

We sit together, the mountain and me,

Until only the mountain remains.


And a drinking song—it is astonishing how many of his poems are about drinking:


Mountain Drinking Song


To drown the old sorrows,

We drank a hundred jugs of wine

There in the beautiful night.

We couldn't go to bed while

The moon was so bright.

Finally the wine overcame us

And we lay down on the empty mountain-

The earth for our pillow,

And a blanket made of heaven.


Chang An, a Model Capital

Map of Chang An
Visitors to the city entered through the gate of Luminous Virtue and traveled up the street of the Vermilion Sparrow to the Imperial Palace. This part of the city was reserved for government buildings, while the Palace City was part of the royal household. The emperor lived in the Great Luminous Palace in the hills above the city.

Chang An was China’s capital city for ten dynasties, including the Tang Dynasty. The name itself means “Perpetual Peace,” and along with Bagdad and Constantinople, was one of the largest cities of its day, covering 30 square miles. It also served as the model for the capital of Korea, Gyeongju, and the Japanese capital Heian-kyo (Kyoto). It was a cosmopolitan city of two million people and attracted people from all over Asia to work and study. It was laid out in a grid pattern, with the palace facing the south, all according to the laws of feng-shui. Traders followed the Silk Road, and ended up in Chang An (later called Xian, “Western Peace”), bringing all kinds of products and ideas to the capital. Tea, used first by Buddhist monks as a meditation aid, came into fashion and was drunk by the wealthy. Chairs were also all the rage, and reserved for the highest members of society. Even the religion of the time was cosmopolitan: Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity, Judaism, and Islam were all represented in Chang An.


Buddhism: Patronage and Persecution

Guanyin the Bodhisattva of Mercy could save you even from desperate circumstances like shipwreck and hurricane.

Religion holds powerful sway over the people, and Buddhism in China was no exception. Buddhism had arrived in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE- 221 CE), but no one really noticed then. It wasn’t until the period of disunity between the Han and Sui Dynasties that Buddhism really took hold, and eventually became the state religion of one of the small kingdoms (the Northern Wei Dynasty) that developed during that time. Many people turned to Buddhism during the turbulent times of the period preceding the Sui reunification, and even during the following dynasties; particularly important was the Bodhisattva of Mercy Guanyin (Kuan Yin). Times were bad enough, that one scholar said that the intensive devotional worship of Guanyin amounted to a “universal cry for help.”

As does happen with religions, Buddhism gained many followers and became quite wealthy. With wealth came both political power and political aspirations. As the temples became wealthier, the Empire felt more threatened. Buddhism entered a relationship with the Chinese government that I call a cycle of “patronage and persecution.” This is how it works: many emperors were devout Buddhists, and gave land and money to the various sects of Buddhism. Naturally, under imperial patronage, these temples flourished. However, often when a new emperor took control, he worried about the loyalty of these temples that had been favored by the previous emperor, and so, the new emperor tried to undo the damage by persecuting the once-favored Buddhist temples. This pattern moved in cycles, and was very much related to the struggle for political power rather than any spiritual belief.

Sometimes these small “corrections” resulted in a full-scale persecution like the one in the Tang Dynasty 841-845. The reigning emperor had temple lands confiscated, 4,600 large monasteries and 40,000 small monasteries were destroyed, 260,000 monks and nuns were defrocked (returned to non-religious life), thousands of Buddhists statues were melted down and turned into coins, and thousands of acres of farmland and peasants set aside for the support of temples were returned to the public tax rolls. This was not the first persecution that Buddhism faced in China, two others in 446 and 574 were also suffered by the temples, but this one was by far the worst. This persecution so weakened the political power of the Buddhist institutions that they never recovered. Buddhism did however, continue to be a spiritual and artistic force after that.


prostitute with bound feet
This is a prostitute with bound feet, demonstrating how the "Golden Lotus" became a sexual fetish.

Footbinding is a uniquely Chinese institution surrounded by mystery and mystique. It began around the year 1000 in the Song Dynasty, and legend says it was begun by a dancer in the imperial court. Theories about how it became a social institution starting with the wealthy and privileged and stretching even into the servant and peasant classes, abound. Did women do it because men found small feet sexy? This is the most popular theory, and the one behind the traditional Chinese story (known as Yeh-Shen or Wishbones and dating from the 9th century CE) on which Cinderella is based. There are actually over 700 Cinderella stories, the great majority of which involve tiny shoes.


So what’s with the little feet? As I said, there are many theories about this. Sexy feet is the most common, but also popular are the theories that on bound feet, women, especially concubines who may have been sold into slavery by desperate families, would not be able to easily run away. My Chinese history professor had an economic theory about it. He felt that because of China’s large population, it was difficult to keep everyone employed, so since bound feet made it hard to get work done and took more people to do it, it was better for society because it employed more people. I’m not buying it, in part because China did not have a population problem until the 18th century.

tiny shoes for bound feet
Women usually sewed their own shoes, and many were very intricately embroidered.

The best theory out there is economic however. Because the Song Dynasty was a great time economically, people became quite wealthy. Now, the upper class always had a lot of money, but now there was a substantial merchant middle class with large amounts of disposable income. What better way to demonstrate that wealth than through having many wives, lots of kids, and building large urban mansions to house your family? Add to that legions of servants to wait on women who could barely move because their feet had been bound so small they could hardly balance, let alone do the work necessary to run a household.

Yes, it appears that footbinding caught on precisely because it made upper and middle class women utterly useless economically. It did catch on in the servant classes too, and eventually it also spread to the peasants, though was never as severe in method or result.

Eventually small feet did seem more attractive, and an entire culture grew up around tiny feet. They were extolled in song and story, and gained nicknames like “Golden Lotuses” and “Lily Feet.”  Sexual fetishes about bound feet developed, lasting far into the 20th century. Today scholars are busy interviewing the last of the women who had their feet bound to get their experiences first hand.

bound foot
The picture speaks for itself.

What may seem most amazing to modern women, Western and Chinese alike, is that women themselves did this to their daughters, who in turn did this to their daughters. Why? Why would women perpetuate this abusive practice on their daughters?

The process of footbinding was relatively simple. For upper and middle class girls, the process began at about five years old. Strips of cloth, often silk, were used to wrap the foot, and those wrappings were made tighter incrementally, gradually breaking the arch of the foot. Eventually, over a period of seven to ten years, the toes would be folded under the foot, leaving the big toe at the front of the foot to be walked on. Ideally the foot would get to be 3” small, but most only made it 4” or 4.5”. The wrappings needed to be changed daily throughout the woman’s life, and infections and gangrene were quite common. Because of the vile smell exuded by the feet, women always cleaned their feet and changed the wrappings away from their male sexual partners. Yes, all of the adoration for the tiny feet was through the wrappings and the shoes—men never saw the actual feet.

Peasant girls also practiced footbinding, but usually starting around the age of ten or twelve. They did it in preparation for marriage, and the feet were never as tightly bound or as damaged, usually getting no smaller than 5” or 6”.

diagram comparing a healthy foot with one that has been bound
The bone structure of a bound foot is shown in red, superimposed on a picture of the bone structure of a healthy foot.

Though China was a tremendous influence in the rest of East Asia, exporting its writing system, its government system, several philosophical systems, a medical system, and various artistic forms, footbinding never caught on outside of China. In fact, a number of minority groups in China refused to bind their feet, the Hakka and the Manchu (eventual rulers of China during the Qing Dynasty 1644-1911, and from Manchuria) notable among them.




"The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend"

The Song Dynasty (960-1279) began just fifty-four years after the fall of the decrepit Tang Dynasty, demonstrating again, that the Chinese seemed to have believed in the concept of “empire.” The dynasty was founded by a military man, General Taizi (T’ai Tzu). The first thing he did after securing China, was to bring his best military men to the capital to serve him directly, and retire all of the other commanders. He also replaced military officials with civil servants, and placed all of the military under the direct control of the government. He did this to insure a secure center, and to discourage the development of warlordism (wherein local military strong men take over their regions and declare independence). He did succeed in his ends, but he also weakened China’s periphery, and the Song Dynasty never equaled the landmass and glory of the Tang Dynasty, or even the Han.

The Song Empire was so weak in fact, that it was forced to pay tribute (a kind of gift tax to maintain good relations) to the nomadic kingdoms on its northern borders. Usually China was in a position to demand that tribute be paid to it, and the Tang Dynasty had some 40 nations as “Tribute States.”

All of this situation leads to our next discussion. Most long Chinese dynasties are divided into Eastern and Western parts due to the movement of the capital to better military strong holds, generally due to nomadic (the Chinese called them “barbarians”) incursions, or threatened incursions. The Song Dynasty is divided into Northern (960-1127) and Southern (1127-1279) parts; this is not good.

map of the Northern Song Dynasty
Map showing the extent of the Northern Song Dynasty with the dotted line representing the current boundaries of China. The map also shows the states on China's borders. The Jurchen were located to the north of the Liao.

In 1127 the last Northern Song emperor decided that he would try to regain lost Chinese land in the north controlled by “barbarians” (the Liao).  So he made an alliance with a mutual enemy. He said, “China hates the Liao, you  (the Jurchen) hate the Liao, let’s get together and throw them out of China.” What did the Jurchen say? Of course they said, “Sure, we’ll help you with your little problem.” The Chinese and the Jurchen together did indeed defeat the Liao, and then, of course the Jurchen turned over Northern China to the Chinese, right?






map of Southern Song Dynasty and neighoring states
Map shows the new and "improved" Southern Song Dynasty, and the new Jin Dynasty.

Well, of course not. Just exactly what were the Chinese thinking? The Jurchen took over Northern China, proclaimed a new dynasty, the Jin, and the Chinese court fled south and established a new capital in Nanjing (which means “Southern Capital”). Many wealthy merchants and farmers also fled southward, causing a massive growth in population in the South, necessitating that China trade more to survive. They even had to import food for the first time ever. This gave merchants much more clout in government, as they were indispensable to the health of the people and the economy. This is one reason the Song Dynasty is often called the “Early Modern Period,” because it roughly corresponds with similar conditions during the West’s Early Modern Period (starting around the 16th century). The problem with China, unlike the West, is that the Early Modern Period was not followed directly by the Modern Period, and instead led to the Third Great Age of Empire—so much for using Western terms for Asian history.


Anyway, back to the story. So now China had half the landmass, and almost twice the people. What to do? The last Southern Song emperor (doesn’t look good does it?) decided, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend; who hates the Jurchen as much as we do? Why, the Mongols do.”

And the rest, as they say, is history. The combined Chinese and Mongol forces did indeed overrun the Jurchen, but the Mongols did not stop there, and instead took over first Northern and then Southern China. Now all of China was lost.