After the Han Dynasty collapsed in A.D. 220, no emperor wasstrong enough to hold China together. Over the next 350 years, more than 30local dynasties rose and fell. Finally, by 589, an emperor named Wendi hadunited northern and southern China once again.
He restored a strong centralgovernment. Under the next two dynasties, the Tang and the Song, China experienceda prolonged golden age (Wallace, 248). It became the richest, most powerful,and most advanced country in the world.The endless labor on state projects turned the peopleagainst the Sui Dynasty. Tired, they finally revolted. In 618, a member of theimperial court assassinated the second Sui emperor. While short-lived, the SuiDynasty built a strong base for the great achievements of the next dynasty, theTang (tahng).
The Tang Dynasty ruled for nearly 300 years (618–907). The Tangemperor who began these achievements was Tang Taizong. His brilliant reignlasted from 626 to 649. Under the Tang rulers, the empire expanded. Taizong’sarmies reconquered the northern and western lands that China had lost since thedecline of the Han Dynasty. By 668, China had extended its influence over Koreaas well. The ruler during the campaign in Korea was the empress Wu Zhao (woo jow). From about 660 on,she held the real power while weak emperors sat on the throne.
Finally, in 690,Empress Wu assumed the title of emperor for herself—the only woman ever to doso in China. Tang rulers further strengthened the central government of China.They expanded the network of roads and canals begun by the Sui. This helped topull the empire together. They also promoted foreign trade and improvements inagriculture.
They revived and expanded the civil service examination for civilbureaucracy (Wallace, 250). The relatively few candidates who passed the toughexams became part of an elite group of scholar-officials. In theory, the examswere open to all men, even commoners. However, only the wealthy could affordthe necessary years of education. Also, men with political connections couldobtain high positions without taking the exams. Despite these flaws, the systemcreated a remarkably intelligent and capable governing class in China. To meetthe rising costs of government, Tang rulers imposed crushing taxes in themid-700s.
These brought hardship to the people but failed to cover the costs ofmilitary expansion and new building programs. Moreover, the Tang struggled tocontrol the vast empire they had built. In 751, Muslim armies soundly defeatedthe Chinese at the Battle of Talas.
As a result, Central Asia passed out of Chinesecontrol and into foreign hands. After this time, border attacks and internalrebellions steadily chipped away at the power of the imperial government. Finally,in 907, Chinese rebels sacked and burned the Tang capital at Ch’ang-an, andmurdered the last Tang emperor, a child. After the fall of the Tang Dynasty, rival warlords dividedChina into separate kingdoms. Then, in 960, an able general named Taizureunited China and proclaimed himself the first Song (sung) emperor. The SongDynasty, like the Tang, lasted about three centuries (960–1279). Although theSong ruled a smaller empire than either the Han or the Tang, China remained stable,powerful, and prosperous.
Song armies never regained the western lands lostafter 751. Nor did they regain northern lands that had been lost to nomadictribes during the Tang decline. For a time, Song emperors tried to buy peacewith their northern enemies. They paid hefty annual tributes of silver, silk,and tea. This policy, however, ultimately failed to stop the threat from thenorth. In the early 1100s, a Manchurian people called the Jurchen conquerednorthern China and established the Jin Empire. The Jurchen forced the Song toretreat south across the Huang He. After 1127, the Song emperors ruled onlysouthern China.
The Song rulers established a grand new capital at Hangzhou, acoastal city south of the Chang Jiang (Wallace, 257). Despite its militarytroubles, the dynasty of the Southern Song (1127–1279) saw rapid economicgrowth. The south had become the economic heartland of China. Merchants insouthern cities grew rich from trade with Chinese in the north, nomads ofCentral Asia, and people of western Asia and Europe.During the Tang and Song dynasties, China’s populationnearly doubled, soaring to 100 million.
By the Song era, China had at least tencities with a population of 1 million each. China had become the most populouscountry in the world. It also had become the most advanced. Artisans andscholars made important technological advances during the Tang and Song eras. Amongthe most important inventions were movable type and gunpowder. With movable type, a printer could arrangeblocks of individual characters in a frame to make up a page for printing. Previously,printers had carved the words of a whole page into one large block (Wallace,254). The development of gunpowder, in time, led to the creation of explosive weaponssuch as bombs, grenades, small rockets, and cannons.
Other important inventionsof this period include porcelain, the mechanical clock, paper money, and theuse of the magnetic compass for sailing. The 1000s to the 1200s was a richperiod for Chinese mathematics. The Chinese made advances in arithmetic andalgebra.
Many mathematical ideas, such as using negative numbers, spread fromChina southward and westward. The rapid growth of China resulted in part fromadvances in farming. Farmers especially improved the cultivation of rice. Inabout the year 1000, China imported a new variety of fast-ripening rice fromVietnam. This allowed the farmers to harvest two rice crops each year ratherthan one. To make sure that farmers knew about this improved variety, Chineseofficials distributed seedlings throughout the country. The agriculturalimprovements enabled China’s farmers to produce more food (Wallace, 255).
Thiswas necessary to feed the rapidly expanding population in the cities. Under theTang and Song emperors, foreign trade flourished. Tang imperial armies guardedthe great Silk Roads, which linked China to the West.
Eventually, however,China lost control over these routes during the long Tang decline. After thistime, Chinese merchants relied increasingly on ocean trade. Chinese advances insailing technology, including use of the magnetic compass, made it possible forsea trade to expand. Up and down China’s long coastline, the largest portcities in the world bustled with international trade. Merchant ships carriedtrade goods to Korea and Japan. They sailed across the Indian Ocean to India,the Persian Gulf, and even the coast of Africa. Chinese merchants establishedtrading colonies around Southeast Asia. Many foreign traders, mostly Arabs,resided in Chinese cities.
Through trade and travel, Chinese culture spreadthroughout East Asia. One major cultural export was Buddhism. This religionspread from China to Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. The exchange of goods and ideaswas two-way. For example, foreign religions, including Islam and some Easternsects of Christianity, spread to China and won followers.
The prosperity of theTang and Song dynasties nourished an age of artistic brilliance. The Tangperiod produced great poetry. Two of its most celebrated poets were Li Bo, whowrote about life’s pleasures, and Tu Fu, who praised orderliness and Confucianvirtues. Tu Fu also wrote critically about war and the hardships of soldiers.China’s prosperity produced many social changes during the Tang and Songperiods. Chinese society became increasingly mobile.
People moved to the citiesin growing numbers. The Chinese also experienced greater social mobility thanever before. The most important avenue for social advancement was the civilservice system. During Tang and Song times, the power of the old aristocratic familiesbegan to fade.
A new, much larger upper class emerged, made up of scholar-officialsand their families. Such a class of powerful, well-to-do people is called the gentry. The gentry attained theirstatus through education and civil service position rather than through landownership. Below the gentry was an urban middle class. It included merchants,shopkeepers, skilled artisans, minor officials, and others. At the bottom ofurban society were laborers, soldiers, and servants.
In the countryside lived the largest class byfar, the peasants. They toiled for wealthylandowners as they had for centuries (Wallace, 258). Women had always beensubservient to men in Chinese society.
Their status further declined during theTang and Song periods. This was especially true among the upper classes incities. There a woman’s work was deemed less important to the family’sprosperity and status.
Changing attitudes affected peasant families less,however. Peasant women worked in the fields and helped produce their family’sfood and income. One sign of the changing status of women was the new custom ofbinding the feet of upper-class girls. When a girl was very young, her feetwere bound tightly with cloth, which eventually broke the arch and curled allbut the big toe under. This produced what was admiringly called a “lily-foot.”Women with bound feet were crippled for life (Wallace, 258). To others insociety, such a woman reflected the wealth and prestige of her husband, who couldafford such a beautiful but impractical wife.
The social, economic, and technological transformations ofthe Tang and Song periods permanently shaped Chinese civilization. They enduredeven as China fell to a group of nomadic outsiders, the Mongols.