The Later Empire: The Sung, 960-1279


The Sung, 960-1279 AD

    After the fall of the T'ang dynasty, China entered into a period of disunion which lasted from 907-960 AD. At the end of the period, a new dynasty, the Sung, partially reunified the country. Its capital was Kaifeng on the Yellow River, and it managed to rule a large area more or less effectively for 170 years. This period is called the Northern Sung (960-1127). In 1127, however, it lost the northern part of China to a new empire, the Chin, and relocated its capital to the south in Hangchow. For another one hundred and fifty years, the Sung ruled in the south in the period known as the Southern Sung (1127-1279). But the southern empire fell to the same forces that swept over northern China in the thirteenth century: the Mongols. The period of the Sung dynasty is not a period of power or stability. The Sung never managed to retake the territories that had been lost in the later T'ang, and they were constantly distracted by warfare with northern tribesChina Atlas
The Northern Sung
The Southern Sung


The Autocratic Emperor

   The greatest innovation made during the Sung was the reorientation of power around the emperor. From the earliest periods, the emperor was by and large the absolute authority. The T'ang reforms firmly placed the emperor at the absolute top of the government hierarchy. Under the Sung, however, the power of the emperor was made more concrete. The Emperor assumed personal control over several offices, and structured the government offices and ministries so that tasks would be duplicated across those ministries: this allowed the Emperor to play one administrative unit off of another.

   In addition, the fall of the T'ang and the period of disunion witnessed a precipitous drop in the aristocracy. The aristocracy that remained had their lands confiscated by the warlords during the period of disunion and so began to congregate in the urban areas. With the number and power of the aristocracy severely reduced, this profoundly changed government. In the T'ang dynasty, the emperor was more or less the servant of the aristocracy and saw to their interests; most of the government positions were staffed by the aristocracy. The Sung, however, revived and expanded the civil service examination and drew most of its officials from the examination. They were, by and large, commoners. This had two effects. It concentrated more power in the bureaucracy and less power among the aristocrats. It also, however, changed the relationship between government officials and the emperor. Previously, the emperor was an aristocrat; even though the emperor was divine and aloof, government officials were from the same class. The new bureaucracy, however, drawn almost entirely from commoners, had nothing in common with the emperor. The gulf that opened up between bureaucrats and the emperor served to concentrate more power directly in the hands of the emperor.

The Agricultural and Commercial Revolution

   The drop in the aristocracy and its movement from agricultural to urban areas precipitated an agricultural revolution in China. The great tinderbox of Chinese history had always been the agrarian crises constantly seething below the surface. Land and tax inequities had always created unmanageable poverty on the poorest farmers, who were tied to the land like slaves. Dynasties had fallen under the sword of agricultural rebellions. Under the Sung, however, the agrarian picture changed. When the T'ang eliminated the equal field system under the Twice-A-Year Tax, individual farmers suddenly found themselves with the right to buy and sell land. Under the Sung, it became possible to pay taxes using money rather than grain. Finally, the Sung more or less eliminated the conscription of labor which had been a regular part of Chinese life since the unification under the Ch'in. All of these factors resulted in a phenomenal increase in agricultural production, and the wealth of the individual farmer, though by no means large, increased significantly. Two major things resulted from this agricultural revolution: greater wealth for the general population and for the government, and more freedom as farmers were no long enslaved to their land.   The most important economic innovation of the Sung was the widespread use of money. In the form of copper coins and later silver, the use of money greatly accelerated trade within China and led to the development of credit. In addition, cities slowly converted from being administrative centers into commercial centers. Along the Yangtze River, the urban centers grew dramatically and became the cultural and economic centers of China. While China in the T'ang period and before was largely agrarian, Sung China saw the explosion of urban populations which grew by factors of four or five. Kaifeng eventually had a population of 250,000 households; in the Southern Sung, Hangchow had a population of 391,000 households. Here are some numbers to put this into perspective: during the Sung period, Rome had an average population of about 35,000 households and London a population of about 20,000 households. No civilization on earth was comparable. These cities were buzzing with mercantile activities and services. The demands for goods and services was so great, that China began an unprecedented acceleration of foreign trade. Chinese goods were traded as far afield as Africa and the Middle East, and all the major trade routes and ports were controlled by Chinese merchants.

The Confucian Revival

   The Sui and the T'ang dynasties were enamored of Buddhist and Taoist thought. Confucianism had never really died out, but it began to resurge in the latter half of the T'ang dynasty. It was during the Sung, however, that Confucianism was revived and reinstalled as the state philosophy.

   During the T'ang dynasty, the civil service examination was restored. Appointments to government positions, however, went mainly to aristocrats rather than to people who passed the civil service examination—only ten percent of government officials during the T'ang were products of the civil service examination. There were two civil service examinations during the T'ang: the first involved Confucian studies and the Five Classics (which were regarded as Confucian—they were also called the "Confucian Classics"), but the second involved Taoism. The Confucian examination was greatly expanded under the Sung. Over fifty percent of government officials were recruited from the civil service examination. The examination itself was a lengthy affair. The first examination was the regional examination. The exam was closely proctored, recopied, assigned a number, and then graded. Only a very small number of candidates passed this first exam. The second exam was the metropolitan exam taken at the capital city, which was also closely proctored, recopied, assigned a number, and graded. About 15-20% of the candidates passed this second exam (around 200 per year).Chinese Philosophy
Confucius
The Five Classics


   The Sung exam was based entirely on the Confucian Classics. The candidates had to memorize the Five Classics (wow!), interpret passages, master their literary style, and use Confucian philosophy to interpret the Classics and construct political advice. The Taoist examination was eliminated totally. The examinations were so rigorous that the candidates that passed represented the very best minds in the country. Statistically, it would be monumentally easier for you to be admitted into Harvard University than it would be to pass the civil service exam in Sung China. Imagine the following: suppose that one half of all the federal government bureaucracy and elected officials represented the top one percent of the top one percent of our population in terms of talent, education, intelligence, and, above all, ethical training. That is what Sung government looked like.

   Passing the exam required some wealth, since the poorest could not afford to spend years and years acquiring the education. It also required education. Massive amounts of education. That education was focused almost entirely on Confucian thought; the importance of the civil service examination, then, led to a vitally creative revival of Confucian thought.

   This revival was more than just antiquarianism. The new Confucianists fused centuries of Chinese culture and thought onto the old forms. In particular, they fused Buddhist principles onto Confucian studies. Hu Yüan, one of the principle forces behind the Confucian revival, believed that the Classics were more than repositories of ancient knowledge. He believed also that they were repositories of universal truths or principles and that it was the job of scholarship to ferret out those universal principles. Once those universal principles were grasped, then one could use them to solve any moral or political problem—any approach to moral or political problems not grounded in universal principles was doomed to failure. The Buddhists had a concept of Three Treasures: Buddha (Truth), Dharma (Law), and Sangha (the Discipline of the Monk). The Sung Confucianists constructed their own version of this set-up, the Three Treasures of Confucianism: Substance (T'i), Function (Yung), and Literary Expression (Wen). Substance corresponds more or less with the universal principles the scholar studies; function is putting those principles into action; and literary expression is the form in which these principles are articulated.

   The Confucianists believed that the failures and chaos of the Sui and T'ang dynasties were due to Buddhism and the abandonment of Confucian principles. The T'ang Confucianist, Han Y7uuml; (786-824), had proposed the active suppression of Buddhism in order to save the state. The Sung Confucianists, however, believed that Confucianism should be a positive and proseletyzing program of reform, and the Sung government, under the guidance of the civil service officials, actively set about this program of reform. This began very early in the Sung dynasty under the direction of Fan Chung-yen (989-1052), a Confucian military leader, who, as prime minister, instituted a series of sweeping changes to Chinese government. These changes included the elimination of bureaucrats, examination reform, land reclamation, and the curtailing of conscripted labor. All of these, as discussed above, contributed to a massive economic boom in agriculture and commerce. His most important reform, however, was the establishment of a public school system which trained the most intelligent and moral boys for government service. The national school system instituted by Fan Chung-yen represents the first public school system in history.

   The greatest Confucian reforms, however, came under the New Laws of Wang An-Shih (1021-1086) during the reign of Emperor Shen-tsung (1068-1085). The New Laws were the most ambitious program of reform and reorganization in Chinese history until the Communist Revolution. Most of the reforms were economic in nature; Wang An-Shih was the first political theorist in China who tied the economic health of the country with the economic health of the government and believed, as John Maynard Keynes concluded in the twentieth century, that government expenditures should be specifically tied to promoting economic growth generally. As in Keynesian economics, the first of the new laws concerned price controls by involving the government in distributing and selling food and grains. His establishment of regional militias and an equal tax system greatly reduced taxes for the poorest farmers and contributed significantly to the economic growth of the Sung. Finally, it was Wang An-Shih that rewrote the civil service examination so that it was more about the "meaning" of the Classics, and less about memorization.

Neo-Confucianism

   The Confucian revival eventually split into two central Confucian schools, the School of Mind or Intuition, whose greatest thinker was Wang Yang-ming, and the School of Principle, which culminated in the thought of Chu Hsi (1130-1200). These two schools make up what is called Neo-Confucianism, which would dominate Chinese (and later Japanese) thought for the next several centuries. Both schools agreed that the world consisted of two realms: the realm of principle (li ) (which we might call "laws") and the realm of material force(ch'i ). Principle, ultimately derived from the Sung Confucian concern with universal principles embedded in the classics, governs material force and material force makes manifest principle; the ultimate origin of principle is a single, unifying principle, called the Great Ultimate (tao ch'i ), which emanates from Heaven. The School of Mind, founded by Ch'eng Hao (1032-1085), emphasized that the human mind is completely unified and reflects perfectly in itself the principle of the universe. Since the human mind is perfectly identical with the Universal Mind or the Ultimate Principle, the duty of any philosopher is to investigate the nature of the human mind to the exclusion of all other investigations. The School of Principle believed that there was an immaterial and immutable principle or law that inheres in all things, giving them form, motion, and change. The mind of humanity is essentially the same as the mind of the universe and can be perfected to reflect that higher mind; however, the principle inhering in the human mind applied to everything, so that any investigation into any phenomenon whatsoever would reveal the principle of the human and the Universal mind. Studying the heavens or an insect will lead you eventually to that same principle which characterizes the human mind and the Universal mind. The scholars of the School of Principle believed in empirical investigation, for they believed that to find the principle of any material process was to find the principle inherent in all material and intellectual processes.Chinese Philosophy
Neo-Confucianism
Japanese Neo-Confucianism

The Fall of the Sung

   The great weakness of the Sung was holding back the northern tribes. Northern China was overrun in 1127 and the Sung emperors were forced to pay tribute to the new northern dyansty, the Chin, who were Manchurian. In order to secure their borders, the Sung allied themselves with a new peoples in the northern regions, the Mongols, who had migrated out of the Gobi Desert. Their new allies were far more dangerous than the Chin. After conquering the Chin empire, the Mongols then set their sights on the Southern Sung and quickly overran the empire. A new dynasty was erected over China, a foreign dynasty, a Mongol dynasty: the Yuan.

The Mongolian Empire: The Yuan Dynasty, 1279-1368

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 5-29-97