By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Describe the political and economic structures of Song China
- Describe the way of life of Song China’s northern neighbors
- Discuss Chinggis Khan’s role as unifier and empire builder
The disintegration of China’s Tang dynasty in 907 CE left a chaotic power vacuum in the territory it had ruled. Generals turned the jurisdictions they could control into small independent sovereign states. More traditional seminomadic peoples from the sparsely settled semiarid grasslands and mountains to the north of China’s borders, such as the Khitan Liao and the Xia, seized control of many former Tang domains. As they occupied these areas, some groups switched from migrating periodically for animal grazing and hunting, with the occasional raid on neighbors, to living a more agrarian life with urban centers and formal government, which would become hallmarks of Chinese civilization. The absence of central authority and legitimate succession led to frequent conflicts within and between these groups. Other seminomadic people located farther from China such as the Tatars and Mongols in the west and north, however, continued to live in loosely organized groups that were fluid in composition and unsettled in duration. They built no permanent structures and had only sporadic interaction with those to the south, occasionally exchanging or plundering goods.
Meanwhile, in the central and southern parts of what had been Tang China, the Zhao family convinced the fractured political units that they held the Mandate of Heaven—the favor of the natural order that sustained them but could be lost by those less worthy—thus beginning the Song dynasty in the 960s. The Khitan Liao and Xia, who ruled much of northern China, refused to recognize the Zhao patriarch as the Son of Heaven, the rightful Chinese ruler. Attempts to force such recognition failed, leaving the Song with a much smaller realm than the Han or Tang. Despite this, Song China was largely stable, with a steadily rising population and standard of living. In the 1120s, military reversals led to the loss of substantial territory and set back economic growth, but the Song were able to recover, only to be faced with the Mongol invasion in the 1230s.
Song China to the Thirteenth Century
While the Song dynasty ruled over less territory than other major dynasties, it experienced tremendous population and economic growth. Its emperors created a system closer to the ideals and virtues laid out by Confucius and his followers than any of their predecessors had, and for the most part, they lived and ruled by them. Those precepts had limitations, however, especially when it came to securing the territory against the increased power of the seminomadic steppe peoples, who were now adopting the technology and lifestyle of their more settled neighbors.
Securing the dynasty’s rule required replacing local military leaders with imperially appointed mandarins, civilian government officials who could advise and, when necessary, restrain the generals on matters of foreign policy. Mandarins were the key class in the social and political hierarchy during times of stability in the more than two thousand years of Confucian dominance in China, from the second century BCE to 1911 CE. Starting as allies of the early Han emperor who oversaw local landed gentry, mandarins were selected by a process that by the height of the Tang dynasty had evolved into a system of exams on Confucian texts. The Song made great progress bringing the Confucian ideal of government by scholar-officials to fruition by enacting reforms that made the exam process more merit based and less subject to nepotism or favoritism. While the system was interrupted by the Mongol Yuan dynasty, the Song reforms became the basis for the way Chinese government officials were selected until the fall of the monarchy in the early twentieth century.
Mandarins were the top officials in China, and having sons in this class was the primary method of gaining or maintaining social status. Women, even daughters of current officials, were not able to benefit. Although existing mandarin families had significant advantages in preparing their sons to succeed on the exams, it was not unheard of for a village to recognize talent in a peasant or artisan family’s child and support that child’s study. Not only would this step elevate that family into a higher social class, it would also give the village better access to government officials.
The Song dynasty’s founding brothers, Emperors Taizu and Taizong, had both served in the military, yet they structured a government in which the mandarins applied their Confucian pacifism to protect the state by bribing potentially hostile neighbors either not to attack them or to attack hostile neighbors for the Song. This policy stemmed from the belief that the Tang dynasty had fallen because it expanded into areas populated by non-Chinese peoples who refused to adopt orderly Confucian values. Pacifying those areas took unsustainable amounts of resources. The Song attitude toward the military was summed up in a saying from the era: “Do not waste good iron making nails; do not waste good men making soldiers.”
At the same time, Song engineers were the first to develop effective military uses for gunpowder, creating flamethrowers, handheld projectile-launching early guns, and shrapnel-laden bombs, hurled first by catapults and later by rockets. The Song had powerful military technology, but their predisposition toward Confucian pacifism and fear of a strong military that could endanger civilian rule prevented them from effectively using it much of the time.
While Tang dynasty China had emphasized increasing wealth through territorial expansion, the Song relied instead on internal economic development. Agriculture focused not on mere subsistence farming but on creating a food surplus that then supported a considerable expansion in population and, in turn, an increase in urbanization. At the same time, rural, farming households had increased purchasing power. Much of this was due to improvements in agricultural technology, which increased both the amount of available cultivatable land as well as crop yields. For example, irrigation made possible by the invention of chain-driven pumps turned unused hillsides into arable land (Figure 14.4). Peasants began planting new strains of rice that ripened quickly enough to yield two harvests per year. The Song government aided this economic development by stabilizing agricultural markets and food prices and taking advantage of new technologies that greatly increased the productivity of irrigation. It also maintained transportation and irrigation systems and spread the seeds of more efficient crops. In short, more land was open to farm, and the result was an increase in harvests and the availability of produce.
Machinery to move water uphill was a key part of the irrigation technology that fueled the agricultural revolution in Song China. Read this brief text about the history of the chain pump and its connections to China to learn more.
The resulting increase in China’s food supply fueled a huge population boom, freeing labor to work in economic sectors outside agriculture. The first complete Song census showed around fifty-five million people in the early eleventh century. One hundred years later, there were around 120 million. At its height, Song China had at least three cities with populations of more than one million and dozens of cities with more than 100,000 people; in the same period in Europe, no city other than the Byzantine capital of Constantinople even approached these sizes after the fall of the western Roman Empire.
Some scholars contend that by the twelfth century, Song China was experiencing an industrial revolution similar to that of eighteenth-century Britain. Surplus labor from the population boom provided significant opportunities for the expansion of the production of industrial goods, and the dynasty saw iron production rise from around 65 million pounds around the year 1000 to more than 250 million pounds by 1100. This was almost double what would be produced in Britain even seven hundred years later. Large-scale factory production and water-powered textile and paper-making machinery were in use in some larger cities. These developments, along with the construction of better roads and canals, allowed the Song to become a more mobile and interconnected society. The increase in productivity meant that goods could be traded over greater distances, and there was more need (and opportunity) for merchants and other support workers to interact and move these goods, thus distributing the economic benefits that came with the use of machines.
Urban Society in the Song Period
One of the most famous depictions of urban daily life in Song China is a hand-painted scroll from the first decades of the twelfth century, attributed to Chinese painter Zhang Zeduan. The title of this scroll is generally translated as Along the River During the Qingming Festival, although some suggest that Qingming refers not to a specific festival but to a more generic time of peace and order.
The Qingming scroll illustrates the prosperity and economic development of the Song period by showing a variety of everyday social and economic activities undertaken by people of all classes in an unspecified Chinese city. Traditional interpretations suggest it is a realistic portrayal of daily life in Bianjing (modern Kaifeng), the Song capital from 960 to 1127. More modern critical analysis suggests instead that the scroll dates from a generation or more later and represents a yearning for a more idealized time in the past. For example, specific features of the capital have been omitted, and the images lack the signs of crime, poverty, and homelessness that are generally typical of large cities in any civilization.
It is not difficult to understand why well-known landmarks and characteristics of the capital are absent. While the scroll was likely intended to present a realistic visual depiction of the capital, those seeking to portray places of which they are proud often show them in their best light. Thus, the exclusion of the seedier sides of life makes sense; it is a truthful representation of aspects of Song society during this period, but one that does remain dishonest by omission, and a reminder to us as modern historians to carefully analyze and think about the sources from the past on which we rely for information.
Whether the scroll was intended to reflect what the artist chose to see in the city in which he lived or was an homage to an earlier and better time, it does show several aspects of daily urban life and Song dynasty technology. Watch the animated video to learn more.
- Contrast the types of businesses and modes of transportation depicted in the scroll with those in contemporary U.S. towns and cities.
- Does the omission of some aspects of Song society mean we should consider the scroll untrustworthy as a historical document for reconstructing the past? Why or why not?
The Inner Asian Steppe and Chinese Dynastic Struggles
Steppe peoples organized themselves under widely varying degrees of centralized authority. At one end were small self-governing nomadic clans with fluctuating membership and modest herds in remote parts of the steppe. At the other extreme were settled societies with fixed capital cities, centralized administrations funded by routine taxation, and a writing system for their language. In between were larger groups of seminomadic tribes that were mostly preliterate, with more loosely fixed memberships and territorial ranges than the settled societies. In the wake of the Tang dynasty collapse at the beginning of the tenth century, some seminomadic tribes seeking the prosperity and technology of China transitioned to more settled and centralized civilizations.
Taking advantage of the power vacuum caused by the collapse of the Tang dynasty, two steppe peoples extended their rule from the Inner Asian Steppe into northern China: the Khitan Liao, linguistically a Mongolian people who formed the Liao kingdom, and the Xia, sometimes called the Tangut, linguistically a Tibetan people who formed the Xi Xia kingdom. These kingdoms became a bridge between the long-established, highly centralized, and sedentary civilization of China and the nomadic tribes of the steppe (Figure 14.5).
The eight tribes of the Khitan Liao spent the chaotic years between the Tang and the Song making a transition to life as a settled people with administrative institutions. Establishing a permanent capital city in the north in 918, their leader abandoned the traditional elections in favor of a hereditary monarchy. A dual system of administration was adopted, using traditional tribal practices of governance in areas populated predominantly by steppe people, while a system of exams similar to that used by the mandarins selected officials in the majority-Chinese parts of the kingdom. The processes of centralized administration required a written script, which was finalized in 920. The Liao dynasty also promoted economic development by moving Chinese workers skilled in technologies that steppe people did not practice, like metallurgy, to teach their crafts to those living in the steppe.
In 1004, the Song and the Liao agreed to the Treaty of Shanyuan. This pact highlighted the changing relationship between the steppe people and the Chinese between the Tang and the Song dynasties. In it, both the Song and the Liao emperors were referred to as Sons of Heaven. The two states were recognized as equals, each having the rights and obligations of border control and extradition, and neither allowed to alter the waterways that flowed between them. Tellingly, however, on the issue of tribute, the Song were obligated to give the Liao an annual payment of 200,000 bolts of silk and 130,000 ounces of silver (worth about USD$2.7 million in 2020 prices). No reciprocal obligation of the Liao to give tribute to the Song was specified.
The Song resented this relationship with the Liao, and in 1120 they bankrolled the revolt of one of Khitan Liao’s tributary states, the Jurchen, a steppe people who were themselves transitioning to more centralized, sedentary structures apart from their traditional tribal organization. Once the Liao and the Jurchen were locked in combat, the Song attacked from the south. Exploiting divisions within the Liao kingdom, the Song and the Jurchen were victorious by 1125. The remnants of the Liao royal family fled west with supporters and founded the Kara-Khitan state. The Jurchen assumed rule of the former Liao lands as the Jin dynasty.
The Jin were not content to supplant the Liao. The Song had already been paying them a modest tribute of luxury goods, and the Song need for help to defeat the Liao convinced the Jin that, while seemingly rich and prosperous, the Song were militarily weak. Their perception would certainly have been reinforced if they had been aware of the temperament of the Song emperor Huizong. In power since 1100, Emperor Huizong was more renowned as a Daoist poet and artist than an effective ruler. His most famous work, a poem and painting titled Auspicious Cranes, depicts the sighting of a flock of cranes, a traditional Chinese symbol of greatness and longevity and one of the links between humanity and the heavens in Daoism (Figure 14.6). Huizong interpreted the sighting as a sign his reign would be glorious and long. The Jin had other ideas, however, and attacked the Song in 1126. Huizong quickly abdicated in favor of his eldest son, Qinzong, who proved no more adept in military matters than his father. With Jin forces occupying large parts of Song territory north of the Yellow River valley and laying siege to the capital, Qinzong dispatched a peace mission, led by his half-brother Gaozong. The Jin took the mission hostage and extracted a hefty ransom and annual tribute to release its members and end the hostilities.
The peace proved short-lived as Qinzong tried to entice the former Liao mandarins, who were now working in service to the Jin, to revolt. They reported Qinzong’s clumsy intrigues to the Jin emperor, who launched a more protracted attack. Bent on conquest and revenge this time, the Jin refused to be bought, and in 1127 they took the Song capital and seized the entire imperial household, goods, and people, including Huizong and Qinzong. In what became known as the Jingkang incident, the Jin went on a three-week rampage of raping and looting throughout the city.
Gaozong, who proved much more politically adept than his father or his brother, had been sent south to lead reinforcements back to the capital. Upon learning of the capital’s fall, Gaozong united the military and mandarins behind him, proclaimed himself emperor, and rallied Song forces to halt the Jin advance. This event is considered the beginning of the Southern Song dynasty. War continued to rage until the 1140s, when the two sides agreed to the Treaty of Shaoxing, in which Gaozong ceded all Song territory north of the Huai River to the Jin, acknowledged the Song’s tributary status to the Jin, and agreed to pay an annual tribute of 250,000 bolts of silk and 325,000 ounces of silver (more than USD$6.7 million today). Huizong died in captivity before the treaty was signed. Perhaps as a statement of contempt for his incompetence, Gaozong did not negotiate for his elder half-brother’s release, condemning him to live out his remaining twenty years as a Jin captive.
Within a dozen years of conquering the Liao Empire, the Jin began embracing the institutions and structures of the Song Confucian state. Landed aristocrats, generally descended from tribal chieftains, were replaced by mandarins selected by Confucian exams. The capital was relocated from the traditional Jurchen homeland in northeast Asia to Zhongdu, around contemporary Beijing. Confucian texts and Chinese literature were translated into Jurchen to speed the spread of Chinese culture and values, and the mandarin exams began to be given in Jurchen as well as proto-Chinese. Jurchen families were bribed (or forced) to relocate into former Liao and Song areas to mix with the Han population.
Meanwhile, despite the huge setbacks and defeats of the second quarter of the twelfth century, Gaozong and his immediate successors were able to unite and stabilize the Song dynasty. The long period of warfare allowed many ethnic Chinese to move south as refugees, where government assistance enabled them to find land or employment. By 1200, the Southern Song population was roughly the same size as it had been under the last census of the Song, despite encompassing much less land, and the economy seemed to have recovered to prewar levels.
The Rise of Chinggis Khan and Mongol Unification
While an increasing number of steppe people gathered in settled communities, many still lived as nomads. The clan, a small group of several families that shared an encampment and herded or hunted together, was the basic unit of steppe society. Each clan had a ruling lineage from which leaders were selected and that intermarried with other lineages to avoid in-breeding. Thus, the ruling lineages formed an aristocracy of sorts. Clans could split apart, creating a ruling lineage for a new clan, so it was possible to move from commoner to aristocrat, although founding and leading a clan was no small feat.
Given the high mortality among the steppe peoples, the adoption of children and widows was commonplace. Polygamy was practiced by men who could support multiple wives and the children they would produce, and most households included some enslaved people. Children, wives, enslaved people, and livestock were often obtained by raiding weaker, underprepared clans.
Clans joined together to form tribes under a single leader to better protect their herds and households, cooperate on resource management and migration, and engage in united actions like raids on other clans. Eurasian tribes were loosely organized, often multiethnic and multilingual, not exclusive to a kinship network, and open to any who were willing to obey the leader. Clans drifted in and out of tribes depending on their needs and wishes. Multiple tribes periodically united around a single skillful or charismatic leader, creating a larger confederation. This unity was very short-lived, rarely lasting beyond a generation or two.
Many clans and dozens of tribes occupied the Mongolian grasslands in the late twelfth century (Figure 14.7). Settled peoples like the Jin and Song had long incited these nomadic groups against one another, adding to the turmoil of incessant clan raids. In 1161, concerned that a confederation led by Mongolian speakers was growing too powerful, the Jin encouraged and supported a confederation led by Tatars to attack the Mongol-led confederation. Tatar was a Turkish language spoken by many inhabitants of the grasslands north of China. (The fluidity of membership in clans, tribes, and confederations makes it problematic to consider a group led by a speaker of one language as truly having a common ethnic heritage or long-standing communal bond such as a modern nation has. Nevertheless, perhaps for the sake of simplicity, scholars tend to refer to confederations of seminomads by the primary language of their leader.)
The Tatar attack on the Mongol confederation scattered its clans, forcing them to form new tribes and seek to join other confederations. It was in this context that a son was born to Hoelun, primary wife of one of the clan leaders of the recently defeated Mongol confederation in their camp between the Onon and Herlen Rivers. The child, born as Temujin, is better known today by the title he acquired later in life and that history most remembers him by: Chinggis Khan, meaning “universal ruler.” He completely altered the relationships between the nomadic groups on the Eurasian Steppe and radically changed the trajectory of world history.
There are no historical records of Temujin before he became known as Chinggis Khan, the powerful ruler of the world’s largest empire in his time. A work called The Secret History of the Mongols, likely written after his death, is the most potentially reliable source, though it is suspect because it is based solely on oral history interpreted by non-Mongols.
Whereas The Secret History of the Mongols recounts many heroic exploits in Temujin’s family’s struggle to survive, it paints a bleak picture of their existence on the steppe. Temujin was briefly enslaved by the rival clan until a sympathetic family helped him escape. Not long after Temujin married, raiders from the Merkit Mongol tribe attacked and kidnapped his wife, Borte. Temujin sought help from Ong Khan, leader of the Kereit Mongol confederation, to retrieve her, and she gave birth to a son not long after. The timing made it unclear who the father was; nevertheless, Temujin accepted the child as his. At some point in the early 1180s, Temujin broke with his friend and clan leader Jamukha and formed a new clan with himself as head.
Jamukha and Temujin Pledge Eternal Friendship and Loyalty
The Secret History of the Mongols is silent on how Temujin and his close friend Jamukha became blood brothers when Temujin and his family were roaming clanless on the Inner Asian Steppe. In the aftermath of the battle in which they fought together to free Temujin’s wife, Temujin joined Jamukha’s clan. The selection that follows is an account from The Secret History of the Mongols describing their pledges of unity and loyalty. As you read, think about how the two depict their relationship and what obligations they pledge to each other. Consider also how they symbolically confirm their new relationship, and how they celebrate it.
This is how they declared themselves friends by oath for the second time.
They said to each other, “Listening to the pronouncement of the old men of former ages which says: “Sworn friends—the two of them Share but a single life; They do not abandon one another: They are each a life’s safeguard for the other.” We learn that such is the rule by which sworn friends love each other. Now, renewing once more our oath of friendship, we shall love each other.”
Temujin girdled his sworn friend Jamukha with the golden belt taken as loot from Toqto’a of the Merkit. He also gave sworn friend Jamuqa for a mount Toqto’a’s yellowish white mare with a black tail and mane, a mare that had not foaled for several years. Jamuqa girdled his sworn friend Temujin with the golden belt taken as loot from Dayir Usun of the U’as Merkit, and he gave Temujin for a mount the kid-white horse with a horn, also of Dayir Usun. At the Leafy Tree on the southern side of the Quldaqar Cliff in the Qorqonaq Valley they declared themselves sworn friends and loved each other; they enjoyed themselves revelling and feasting, and at night they slept together, the two of them alone under their blanket.
—Igor de Rachewiltz, The Secret History of the Mongols: A Mongolian Epic Chronicle of the Thirteenth Century
- What personal values and behaviors in the oath Temujin and Jamukha swear to each other are important to the Mongolian-speaking peoples?
- What do the gifts they exchange suggest Mongolian speakers greatly value?
By 1187, Temujin had such an impressive force and reputation that Ong Khan turned to him when the Jin induced Ong Khan to attack the Tatar Confederation. Ong Khan and Temujin defeated the Tatars and acquired goods more luxurious than Temujin’s people had ever seen. This drew even more people to his clan. As the clans allied with Temujin grew, Jamukha expanded his clan to keep up with him. Soon those in the Mongol-speaking part of the steppe were left with the choice of joining Temujin, joining Jamukha, or risking attack by one or the other.
Temujin made drastic changes to traditional Mongol practices, in part as a reaction to the hardships he suffered growing up, which laid the groundwork for his creation of a huge multiethnic empire. As he engaged in warfare with a wider array of rivals, he considered class differences. He punished those who led any resistance and executed the leaders of rival clans, but he often spared the common people and integrated the men into his army. He ordered his fighters to refrain from looting and raping and instead to pursue any fleeing warriors to capture or kill them, minimizing future retaliatory raids by those who escaped. Rather than enslaving the captured adult males, he put the members of aristocratic lineages on trial for committing whatever affront he had used to justify the attack. Once found guilty, which was the general outcome, they were executed. Temujin then divided the spoils of the raid equally between the participants and the households of his men killed in the raid. By assuring his soldiers that their widows and orphans would not be at the mercy of whoever took them in, he reduced the incentive to desert.
Temujin also divided his warriors into units of ten, each bound to the others by oaths of loyalty, and then units of one hundred and one thousand that chose their own leaders and swore similar oaths. Only at the highest level, ten units of one thousand warriors, did he appoint commanders, and he did so on the basis of merit and loyalty to him, not kinship or clan identity. The groups drilled precision moves and learned simple musical chants that identified the formations their commanders desired in the heat of battle. This innovative organization not only forged a deadly, efficient fighting force; it also provided all males with a shared and classless role in society and unified an increasingly ethnically and linguistically diverse portion of the steppe people, whom Temujin began to call the People of the Felt Walls in a reference to their fabric-covered homes.
Temujin’s reforms introduced a new division in steppe civilization that today might be called class warfare. People from aristocratic lineages began to fear Temujin and joined with Jamukha, but commoners sought the protection and rewards of joining the People of the Felt Walls. The aging Ong Khan disapproved of Temujin’s attack on tradition and aristocratic privilege and began favoring Jamukha. After Ong Khan tried to lure him into a trap, Temujin fled to a rendezvous with his top leaders, who swore renewed loyalty to each other in the Baljuna Covenant. The covenant became a rallying point and symbol of Mongol nationalism for future generations.
The men who swore to the covenant came from nine different clans and represented at least four religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the traditional Mongol worship of Tengri, the Eternal Blue Sky. The glue that held the People of the Felt Walls together was not kinship, ethnicity, or religion but devotion to the civil society Temujin had created. Word went out from Baljuna to the scattering People of the Felt Walls to regroup and to find Temujin and the others in a remote part of the steppe.
Ong Khan believed Temujin was hiding out a weeks’ ride away in the east. Temujin and his followers were much closer, however. They surrounded Ong Khan’s forces, using the element of surprise to launch an attack that lasted three days. Demoralized, many of Ong Khan and Jamukha’s followers began to join Temujin. Ong Khan was killed while crossing alone into territory controlled by the Naiman, the last confederation that could oppose Temujin.
With Temujin expanding and the Naiman harboring Jamukha and other refugees from Ong Khan, war between the two groups was inevitable. Temujin’s discipline and tactical training of his troops paid off, and in 1204 the Naiman collapsed, its leadership dead or in flight. The survivors joined the People of the Felt Walls. Jamukha was eventually turned in by his followers and executed, along with those who had betrayed him, since Temujin felt their treachery to their lord deserved punishment.