5.2 Classical China


Year(s) Event(s)
221 BCE China Unified
206 BCE – 8 CE Former Han Dynasty
25 – 220 CE Later Han Dynasty
220 – 589 CE China Disunified
589 – 618 CE Sui Dynasty
618 – 907 CE Tang Dynasty
960 – 1279 CE Song Dynasty
1279 – 1368 CE Yuan Dynasty


China Unified Under Shihuangdi and the Qin


Map 4.9 | Warring States & Qin Conquest | This map shows states that yet remained at the end of the Warring States Period, when the state of Qin was unifying China through massive military campaigns. Dates for the fall of each state are indicated, the last being the state of Qi in 221 BCE Author: Ian Mladjov Source: Original Work License: © Ian Mladjov. Used with permission.

Full-size image of Map 4.9 – Warring States & Qin Conquest

In 221 BCE, the Qin state finally succeeded in defeating its rivals and unifying China for the first time in centuries. The king of the Qin decided that “king” was not grandiose enough and gave himself the title “emperor.” He is thus known as Shihuangdi, the First Emperor.

Shihuangdi moved quickly to centralize power under his rule. He ordered a census of the population, standardized writing, weights, measures, coinage and built thousands of miles of roads in order to allow his troops to move more quickly. While Shihuangdi is often glorified by historians, the traditional evaluation of the First Emperor’s rule is a negative one due to his cruelty, and megalomania. It is under his rule that the Great Wall of China is constructed and the Terracotta Army was part of his legacy (See Module 1).

Read this page from Macrohistory here to learn more about the unification of China.

Key Questions

  • What were the social, political, and cultural consequences of unification of China under a strong centralized government?


“China Unifies to First Emperor.” History as a Mirror: Using China’s Past to Shape Its Future. 2000. Accessed May 1, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=32960&loid=610464. 3:32.


“The Emperor’s Death and the End of a Dynasty.” In Search of History: The Great Wall. 1996. Accessed May 1, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=42717&loid=95996. 2:18.

The Former Han Dynasty, 206 BCE – 8 CE


Map 4.10 | Map of the Han Dynasty in 2 CE | During the Western Han, the capital was located at Chang’an, while during the Eastern Han, it was located at Luoyang. Note the location of the Xiongnu confederation of nomadic pastoralists living on the steppe lands to the north of China. Han China also extended control far into Central Asia in order to secure the Silk Road trade routes. Most of the dependent states and tributary cities indicated by green and orange dots were brought under the control of China during the reign of Emperor Wu. Author: Yeu Ninje Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0Full-size image of Map 4.10 – Map of the Han Dynasty in 2 CE

After Shihuangdi’s death, the Qin Dynasty collapsed leaving a vacuum in central power. Historians debate causes but highlight weak successors manipulated by the intrigues of a high minister and court eunuch; excessive demands on the population for building projects, tax revenue, and military conscription; and a climate of fear created by the harshly punitive legal system. Regardless, by 207 BCE revolts were breaking out across the land, as rebels accrued armies, seized territory, and even declared themselves kings. China then fell into a state of civil war for five years. The eventual victor of this chaotic period would be Liu Bang, A former farmer and village headman who rebelled and built an army and kingdom through his military acumen and charisma, Liu Bang defeated his adversaries and declared himself emperor of a new dynasty  He was known as Emperor Gaozu. Gaozu was from a family of commoners. He did not destroy the centralization of government, but he did remove some of its arbitrariness. For example, taxes were reduced, and a policy of non-interference was adopted. This led to relative peace and the Chinese population grew quickly to 58 million according to the 2 CE census.[1]

The Han Dynasty, ruled by 24 successive emperors from the Liu imperial family, is normally divided into a Former or Western Han (202 – 8 BCE) and Later or Eastern Han (25 – 220 CE) because for a brief time an imperial in-law usurped the throne and established his own short-lived dynasty. This brief interregnum aside, the Han Dynasty lasted 400 years, making it second in length only to the Zhou Dynasty. So important was the Han to establishing a pattern in Chinese civilization distinguishing people belonging to it from those around them that Chinese people today refer to their ethnic group as Han Chinese. Also, after adopting the foundations laid by the Qin Dynasty, the Han further strengthened them, cementing an imperial pattern that persisted in China until the fall of the last dynasty (Qing) in 1911.

Political System and Society of the Han Dynasty

The majority of people– as much as 90 percent of the population–were farmers, living out their lives in villages of a dozen to over 100 households. Some were independent farmers who owned small farms; some, tenants who leased land from owners of larger farms; and some, local magnates with large estates. The government relied heavily on the first group for revenue and conscription and therefore tried to keep these owner-farmers in business with low taxes, relief in times of hardship, and improvement in their agricultural methods. Unfortunately, over the course of the dynasty, many farmers fell on hard times and were forced to sell their land to powerful landlords, thus becoming their tenants or even slaves. Landlordism thus became a major social and political problem, as local great families dominated ever more dependent poor, undermining the central government’s revenue base.

The remaining ten percent of the population lived in urban areas–the towns and cities of Han China–as artisans and traders or officials and garrison soldiers. By some estimates, the total population during these centuries hovered at 60 million, which means about six million were urban residents. Many cities, such as the capitals of both the Western and Eastern Han, had over 100,000 residents. The first imperial capital, Chang’an [chawng-an] (“Forever Peace”), was a walled city with twelve gates, watchtowers, market places, residential wards, administrative buildings and, of course, the imperial palace. Some of the agricultural produce, manufactured goods, and raw materials filling up the marketplaces testify to what artisans and traders were busy making, buying, and selling: cooked meats, pickled vegetables, fish, and grains; utensils and tools made of wood, brass, and iron; lacquer ware, jade, and furs; and textiles fashioned from silk and hemp. Imperial highways and lesser byways, and canals and other waterways, provided the routes for moving these goods both within and beyond China. Ever suspicious of the profit motive and believing in the foundational importance of the farmer, government officials supervised city markets and established agencies to regulate the most important industries.

Figure 4.11 | Estate of a wealthy official during the Eastern Han Dynasty, as represented in the interior of his tomb Author: User “Editor at Large” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 2.5

These commoner classes–farmers, artisans, and traders–were governed by a highly organized state and its corps of educated, professional civil servants. For administrative purposes, the empire was eventually divided into roughly 100 commanderies and 1300 counties. 130,000 officials constituted the bureaucracy. At the lowest level, working with village and town leaders, county magistrates handled such matters as tax collection, population registration, conscription for military service, law and order, and public works. They submitted reports to, and took orders from, commandery level military and civil officials, who then did the same with the nine ministries of the central government. These ministries handled such matters as revenue, justice, and foreign relations. The heads of each of these ministries, as well as two chancellors, routinely held audiences with the emperor to decide all policy matters. An independent branch of government, the censorate, audited the rest and reported directly to the emperor.

From the outset, the Han Dynasty inherited the Qin legalist system of government, with its emphasis on rational and efficient methods of administration and use of systems of rewards and punishments to promote order. Confucianism made a comeback in the Han Dynasty, but there were changes. Now Confucianism became revered as moral guidance and a kind of cosmological plan. However, early in the Han, Confucian scholars criticized Qin governing for lacking humaneness, and Han rulers increasingly saw the benefit of Confucian ideas to governing. This change was particularly the case with Emperor Wu [woo] (r. 141 – 87 BCE). During his reign, Confucius’s ideas were molded into an ideology that legitimated monarchy and a hierarchical social order. This ideology is called Imperial Confucianism. As an ideology, it simply provided a blueprint for how the political and social order should function.

The role of the emperor was elevated as Confucian scholars argued that he had the power to link man, earth, and Heaven. Confucian ideals were useful in that they helped the emperors maintain power and provided justification for their rule through the mandate of heaven. Also prevalent during this period was a fascination with astrology, shamans, portents, and the occult. Another cultural element of the Han Dynasty would be the development of a comprehensive Chinese history. Similar to Herodotus, Sima Qian visited historical sites, examined artifacts, and interviewed people, eventually writing the Records of the Grand Historian, the first Chinese history.

Figure 4.12 | Painting depicting paragons of filial piety on a box excavated from a Han Dynasty tomb | During the Han Dynasty, Confucian values penetrated society, especially the idea that a child should actively demonstrate their reverence and respect for parents. Author: User “PericlesofAthens” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

Rulers saw the benefit in having officials who were highly educated, loyal, of good character, and who understood the formalities of ritual and etiquette. An Imperial Academy was founded at the capital in 124 so that students could be educated in classical Confucian texts, including the Analects. Across the country, these students were nominated by local officials based on their learnedness and virtuous conduct. Successful graduates went on to serve as officials, and, because that conferred the highest prestige and status on an individual in Han China, Confucian values penetrated society. Texts were compiled explaining good etiquette, conduct, and ritual requirements for each family member and members of society based on their superior or subordinate status. Filial piety was celebrated in both art and texts, and law codes reinforced social norms by, for example, supporting the authority of the family patriarch, division of property among sons, and arranged marriages. In brief, over the course of the Han Dynasty, Chinese increasingly identified themselves as defenders of a Confucian civilization.

The emperor was at the pinnacle of both Han society and the political system, while the imperial family and in-laws constituted a privileged aristocracy. The emperor’s authority derived in theory from his having received the Mandate of Heaven (See Module 1), his virtue, and his role as mediator between the celestial realms and human world; as such, he could expect his subjects’ obedience and loyalty. He resided within the walls of the imperial palace at the capital city, attended by eunuchs who handled his personal needs, palace administration, and the imperial harem. Emperors had numerous consorts but also a principal wife–the empress–who held a special status and was quite influential, usually because she bore the heir to the throne, but also because she and her in-laws were an intimate part of the emperor’s palace life. Often, the imperial family, imperial in-laws, eunuchs, and high officials broke apart into squabbling factions fighting for power and influence; this contention had deleterious consequences for the smooth functioning of the political system.

Like India’s Guptas, the Han government was supported by taxes and forced labor; however, this did not meet the demands of the government. In order to pay for military campaigns, Emperor Wu confiscated land, minted money, and increased taxes on merchants. Eventually, the government established monopolies on profitable products, undermining private commerce.


China and the Outer World during the Han Dynasty

Strengthened by its ever more confident political system and society, Han China also became an expansive empire, occupying and colonizing territory all along its borders. Sometimes this process was gradual: as migrants and merchants moved into neighboring areas, the government followed by setting up garrisons to protect them and eventually counties with civil servants to govern them. In other cases, armies were sent to subdue unstable borders or to secure trade routes. Regardless, as the dominant power in the region, China’s actions profoundly influenced and shaped the history of peoples and states in neighboring areas of Central and East Asia.

Traditionally, the biggest threats to the settled agricultural population of China came from non-Chinese nomadic pastoralists scattered about the steppe lands along the northern border. These skilled horsemen and hunters tended their herds from horseback, resided in mobile campsites made up of yurts, and organized as tribes. These tribes usually selected the most skilled male warriors as their chieftains and also periodically organized into confederations so as to raid Chinese villages and towns During the Han, the most threatening confederation was knit together by Xiongnu [she-ong-new]. The founding emperor, Liu Bang, sought to subdue them with his armies but was defeated and forced to pay tribute and offer imperial princesses in marriage to their chieftains. Emperor Wu, however, enjoying a stronger government, sent massive armies of over 100,000 soldiers campaigning deep into Xiongnu territory, breaking up their confederation and forcing them to relocate. Although his armies suffered great losses, Emperor Wu established garrisons across the northern border to consolidate his gains and protect China.

Another important aspect of the Former Han Dynasty would be the development of Chinese lordship of the Silk Road. The Silk Road was the trade route across Central Asia that linked China to western Asia and ultimately to Europe. As Emperor Wu brought the Xiongnu under control, he became curious about Central Asian territories lying to the west of China. Interested in finding allies that might support him in his efforts to control nomad confederations, he sent envoys on exploratory missions. They returned with news of trade routes extending from oasis city-states ringing the forbidding deserts of the Taklamakan Desert to countries lying beyond the Pamir Mountains. What they were speaking of were the earliest Silk Roads.  This control over the important trade routes allowed the Former Han Dynasty to extend their power and spread the Chinese culture even further. Merchants had been using camels to carry such goods as silk from China to distant civilizations while bringing back gold, horses, and various handicrafts and foodstuffs. For that reason, beginning in 104 BCE, Emperor Wu dispatched armies to subdue the region as far as the Pamir Mountains, making the Han Dynasty overlords to Central Asian states, which were now obligated to send tribute and hostages. A frontier network of walls and watchtowers was then extended partway into the region. The Silk Roads were thus secured, and, because it could be conducted more safely, the volume of traffic grew. During the Han Dynasty, China demonstrated its intention of being a dominant player in Central Asia.

Map 4.11 I Map of the Silk Road Trade routes during the Han Dynasty

Full-size image of Map 4.11 – Map of the Silk Road trade routes during the Han Dynasty

The Silk Road

Beginning in the 2nd century BCE, the Silk Road connected the East to the West. The route was opened up during the Former Han Dynasty. The Silk Road was not a single, long road constructed across the hostile lands separating the continents: it was a number of smaller paths or roads connecting towns, cities, and settlements along the route that allowed trade to prosper and lead to an exchange of ideas, goods, and technologies.

The Silk Road saw the height of its splendor during the Tang Dynasty, and Tang officials kept a tight control on travel along the road, collecting tolls for travel and duties for goods that passed along the route. When the Mongols invaded China (see the Yuan Dynasty), they destroyed much of the infrastructure, such as toll gates, and this actually made travel along the route easier and safer. Under the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty, the Venetian Marco Polo traveled to China and returned to write his famous account of the splendor and exoticism of the East.

Explore Volume I of The Travels of Marco Polo at Project Gutenberg and watch the videos about Polo’s travels along the Silk Road.

Polo, Marco. The Travels of Marco Polo. Volume I. Project Gutenberg, January 8, 2004. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10636/pg10636-images.html.


“New Worlds of Knowledge to Travels of Marco Polo.” Inside the Medieval Mind: Knowledge. 2008. Accessed May 1, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=42041&loid=610465. 6:11.


The Silk Road did not just transport goods; it also transported ideas and cultures. One of the greatest impacts of this would be the transportation of different religious thoughts such as Buddhism and Islam to the East.

Watch these film clips on the transportation of ideas and explore the Silkroad Foundation site.


“Islam Arrives in China Along the Silk Road to An Islamic Chinese Trading Post on the Silk Road.”  Journeys Into Islamic China. 2004. Accessed May 1, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=36127&loid=610466. 16:27.


Later Han Dynasty, 25 – 220 CE

The founder of the Later Han Dynasty moved the capital to Luoyang. There was a return to a stronger central government and less interference in the economy. This benefitted all of China and by the end of the first century CE, China was once again prosperous. South China and Vietnam were once again forced under Chinese control. Then in the late first century Chinese armies crossed the Gobi Desert pushing the peoples of the region north to the steppes. Some believe these refugees became the Huns of Attila. This was the last period of great rule in the Han Dynasty. Emperors of the latter half of the Later Han Dynasty were ineffective.

In the second century CE, a series of child emperors inherited the throne allowing regents and often the empresses to control the court. Once grown, these emperors often turned to eunuchs to help oust their mother’s families, but the eunuchs were also difficult to control. Armies were raised to put down the rebelling factions, but then these armies couldn’t be controlled leading to the rise of several powerful warlords. In 220, one of these warlords forced the last of the Han emperors to abdicate and ended the Han Dynasty.

Watch this  video clip that summarizes the Han Dynasty.


“Han Dynasty.” The Story of China with Michael Wood: Part 1. 2017. Accessed May 1, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=166822&loid=534391. 3:22.


China Disunified, 220 – 589 CE

The period following the end of the Han Dynasty, leads to the disunification of China – sometimes called the Age of Division or the Six Dynasties era. This period will be interrupted briefly from 280 – 316 CE when non-Chinese in northern China were able to take power and reunify China. This period didn’t last and for the remainder of the Age of Division, northern China was ruled by non-Chinese Dynasties and southern China was ruled by four brief Chinese dynasties.

The southern dynasties intermarried and developed an aristocracy that saw themselves as maintaining the culture of the Han. The capital was established at Nanking, and led to the economic development of southern China. There were a lot of opportunities for economic development in the south due to rich natural resources such as a large supply of fresh water and mild, temperate climate.

The north was a different story. The non-Chinese dynasties of the northern reaches attempted to make themselves Chinese. They moved the capital, adopted Chinese clothing, and made Chinese the official language, but they continued to follow the military practices of their non-Chinese origins. This allowed the northern area to remain relatively unstable and violent throughout the Age of Division; however, one other commonality that often bridged the gap between north and south was Buddhism.  In spite of the violence, these centuries also saw vibrant cultural developments, as Buddhism became an organized institutional religion reshaping the spiritual landscape.

Political History–From Three Kingdoms (220 – 280) and the Western Jin (265 – 317) to the Northern and Southern Dynasties (317 – 589)


Map 4.12 | Map of the Three Kingdoms | These took shape as the Han Dynasty ended. Cao Cao was the founder of the northern state of Wei. Author: Ian Mladjov Source: Original Work License: © Ian Mladjov. Used with permission.

Full-size image of Map 4.12 – Map of the Three Kingdoms

During the second century CE, a combination of factors led to massive rebellions against the Han Dynasty by lower classes living in the countryside. Many once thriving, independent farmers who fell on hard times lost their land to powerful local families who used their political connections to amass large estates. A series of floods and droughts and the famines and epidemics they caused only worsened these farmers’ plight, and the government was ineffective in providing relief. During the later Han, government revenue had fallen because local magnates kept their growing estates off the tax rolls. Also, many later Liu emperors were mere youths dominated by quarreling factions of imperial in-laws and eunuchs, so the quality of governing declined.

Desperate to escape poverty and starvation, many villagers fled their homes or joined roving bandit gangs. Some rallied behind individuals who promised the dawn of a new age, thereby becoming part of large, militarized religious societies with political goals. One was the Yellow Turbans, a society named after the yellow cloth members wrapped around their heads. The founder, Zhang Jue [jawng joo-eh], claimed he was a devoted follower of the legendary Daoist philosopher Laozi, who had by this time been deified and envisioned living in a Daoist heaven. Zhang accrued a following of disciples by instructing them in faith healing, establishing a rudimentary organization, and prophesying an impending apocalypse. He led his followers to believe that the apocalypse would be followed by an age of peace when the sky would turn yellow and all would be equal. The movement grew into the tens of thousands. Some followers proclaimed 184 CE was propitious, daubing the characters for that year in mud on the gates to government offices. The Yellow Turbans rebelled, and unrest spread across north China. Other similar millenarian religious movements followed.

The Han Dynasty was in crisis but lacked the strong leadership of earlier rulers like the founder Liu Bang or Emperor Wu. Youthful emperors were forced to rely on generals who commanded permanent standing armies around the empire as if they were private possessions. But by empowering military strongmen to suppress rebellions, Han rulers sealed the fate of the dynasty. Generals feuded amongst each other and competed to impose a military dictatorship on the court. Eventually, in 220 CE, one general deposed the Han emperor, but he failed to unite the realm because by that time the country had been divided up by three kingdoms and their rival warlords.

Within their realms, each warlord sought to strengthen his hand against the others by restoring order and establishing a functioning state. After all, they needed fighting men and revenue. Cao Cao (155 – 220 CE) was the most effective in achieving these goals. He was the adopted son of a Han court eunuch and eventually entered the military. As a commander, he earned his spurs leading Han armies against the Yellow Turbans. As the dynasty fell apart, he gained control over it and established a dictatorship in northern China. It was his son who removed the last Han ruler and established the Wei [way] Dynasty (220 – 265 AD), one of the Three Kingdoms.

Map 4.13 | China during the Northern and Southern Dynasties | The Eastern Jin was the first of the southern dynasties, all of which had Jiankang as their capital. The north was divided up among shifting kingdoms established by non-Han chieftains. The names of these ethnic groups are indicated on the map. Author: Paul Noll Source: Original Work License: © Paul Noll. Used with permission.

Full-size image of Map 4.13 – China during Northern and Southern Dynasties

By this time, as a result of the rebellions and civil wars, much land in north China had gone to waste. So Cao Cao turned it into huge state farms where he could settle his soldiers, landless poor, and, most importantly, tribes of nomadic herders from the steppe lands to the far north who had served him as he came to power. Thus, Cao rulers created colonies of farmers who supplied tax revenue and, as hereditary military families, soldiers for Wei armies. Such state- owned land and hereditary soldiers became the mainstays of warlord dynasties throughout this time.

The two other kingdoms, Wu and Han, were located in the south. Over the course of decades, the ruling warlords of all three states fought each other in campaigns involving much treachery and stratagem. In 263 CE, the Han kingdom fell to the invading forces of Wei commanders. But then, just two years later, a powerful Wei family–the Sima– usurped the throne and changed the kingdom’s name to Western Jin [jean] (265 – 317 CE). The Western Jin conquered Wu in 280 BCE, thereby bringing to an end the Three Kingdoms period.

Figure 4.13 | Terracotta figurine depicting a Northern Wei soldier on horseback | The Northern Wei was one of the Northern Dynasties Author: Guillaume Jacquet Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The Western Jin had reunified China, but that unity wasn’t to last. The policy of settling tribes of non-Chinese nomads in north China backfired. Among them, rebel chieftains rose up, carved out kingdoms of their own, and expanded their power all across the north. One Xiongnu chieftain, Liu Yuan [lee-oh you-anne], even declared he was a descendant of a Han Dynasty imperial princess and therefore had the right to restore the Han Empire. His son descended on the Western Jin court at Luoyang and eventually, in 317 CE, forced it to flee east to Jiankang [jee- an cawng] (today’s city of Nanjing).

China was again divided up among competing dynasties, a state of affairs that would persist until 589 CE, during a time referred to as the Northern and Southern Dynasties (317 – 589). Six successive Southern Dynasties were all located at Jiankang, and had as their base of power the Yangzi River basin. But their rulers were usually militarily weak and lacked revenue, due to southern China’s comprising a colonial frontier dominated by powerful families with large estates and private armies. These families highly valued their pedigrees, intermarried, and saw themselves as the heirs to Confucian civilization. At the southern court, they dominated high offices, thus constituting a hereditary aristocracy. The ruling family was always limited in power by their influence.

The situation was even more complex in the north during those three centuries. The kingdom established by Liu Yuan along the Yellow River was just one of numerous short-lived Northern Dynasties established by non-Chinese chieftains of different ethnicities. The Liu rulers, for instance, were Xiongnu, while others were of Turkic ancestry. At times, the north was divided among numerous, rival regimes, while, at others, it was unified. But all of these kingdoms shared similar characteristics. They were ruled by military dynasts who wanted to restore the Chinese empire. Their armies consisted of an elite, heavily armored cavalry drawn from aristocratic military families that was supplemented by Chinese foot soldiers. They employed educated Chinese to serve as civil officials and administer their territories.

The Northern and Southern Dynasties came to an end in 589 CE after Yang Jian [yawng gee- an], a general hailing from the ruling clan of a northern kingdom, first established control over all of north China and then defeated the last southern dynasty. He ruled his new Sui [sway] Dynasty as Emperor Wen [one]. China was once again united under one dynasty.


China’s Third Great Tradition: The Introduction of Buddhism to China


Figure 4.14 | Giant Buddhas Author: User “WikiLaurent” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Aside from the shifting configuration of kingdoms, perhaps the most notable development during the Period of Division was the introduction of Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”) Buddhism into China. Beginning from the second century CE, at the end of the Han Dynasty, Buddhist merchants and monks from India and Central Asia brought their faith and scriptures to China by the Silk Roads and maritime trading routes. The impact was immense and can be compared to the Christianization of the Mediterranean region and spread of devotional forms of Hinduism in South Asia during this same period of time. Historians estimated that by the time the Sui Dynasty reunited China four centuries later, China had approximately 33,000 Buddhist temples and two million monks and nuns. Buddhism had become a large-scale religious organization with these temples, clerics, and scriptures, as well as a widespread popular faith capturing the imagination of common people and rulers alike.

Historians have also hypothesized why this spread occurred. First of all, Buddhism clearly met a spiritual need. During the Period of Division, turmoil from rapid political change and constant warfare brought much suffering and instability to people’s lives. Now, here was a religion that explained their suffering with notions of karma and rebirth and also offered hope with paths to salvation and enlightenment. Buddhism placed the world amidst visions of multiple hells and heavens where merciful Buddhas and Bodhisattvas worked for the salvation of all beings.

Buddhism appealed to people in different ways. For scholarly elites living in capital cities or as hermits in mountain retreats, Buddhist doctrines about the nature of reality, self, and enlightenment were appealing because they seemed similar to concepts in Daoist philosophy. Both philosophies questioned the reality of ordinary understandings of the self and world, emphasized that our desires create an illusory world, and offered techniques for achieving liberation. Nirvana, for instance, was compared to the Dao (Daoist “Way”).

For rulers, Buddhism served political purposes. Since the faith became so popular, rulers who took vows and sponsored temple construction and the ordination of monks looked good because they were upholding the dharma, that is, the Buddhist law. Some even went so far as to have monks recognize them as incarnate Buddhas. Lastly, Buddhist monks–whether foreign or Chinese–were some of the most educated people at their courts and could assist rulers with mundane matters, like international relations, but also esoteric ones, such as spells and divination. Monks won support by promising that their rituals and incantations had magical potency.

Map 4.15 | Expansion of Buddhism | This map shows how Buddhism spread to China and the rest of East Asia via land-based routes in Central Asia and maritime routes. Author: Gunawan Kartapranata Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Full-size image of Map 4.15 – Expansion of Buddhism

Lastly, for most people, Buddhism was a devotional religion. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were merciful beings to be worshipped because their good karma redounded to the benefit of all beings. By going to a temple and burning incense or praying and making offerings before a Buddha statue, the faithful might have a simple wish granted: an illness cured, loved ones helped, or a better rebirth ensured.


Sui Dynasty, 589 – 618 CE


Map 4.14 | Map of the Sui Dynasty | Map of the Sui Dynasty, which reunified China at the end of the Period of Division. Neighboring states and peoples in Sui times, as well as the boundaries of modern China, are also indicated. Author: User “Arab Hafez” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

Full-size image of Map 4.14 – Map of the Sui Dynasty

In the late 6th century, the Age of Division finally came to an end as China was reunified under the leadership of the Sui Dynasty founded by Yang Jian.  Yang Jian married into a non-Chinese family from the north and thus brought the two regions together through intermarriage. The Sui [sway] Dynasty did not last long (581 – 618 CE) and only had two emperors: Emperor Wen and Emperor Yang. Both envisioned recapturing the glory of the Han Dynasty; hence, they engaged in many construction projects and military campaigns. Immense capital cities were built at Chang’an and Luoyang and, in order to supply them with sufficient grain The greatest achievement of the Sui Dynasty was the construction of the Grand Canal that connected the Yellow and Yangzi rivers. This allowed grain to be shipped across China and strengthened the cohesion of both political and economic life of China. While extremely profitable, and unifying in nature, the Sui Dynasty ended after only two generations due to unrest and warfare, brought about partly from the imposition of taxation, and enforced labor in construction projects.

Through domination of both land and water power, the Sui were able to assert control over northern Indochina and they moved onto both the Korean peninsula and the steppes. These emperors also believed that Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula were properly Chinese territory; therefore, they repeatedly launched enormous military expeditions to attack the most powerful Korean kingdom located there. Emperor Yang’s ground and naval campaign in 611 CE, for instance, required enlisting over one million combat troops and hundreds of thousands of additional men just to transport supplies. All of these campaigns met defeat.

Natural disasters combined with these emperors’ heavy demands led to widespread unrest, and the Sui Dynasty unraveled. Bandit leaders, local officials, and local elites took matters into their own hands by organizing their communities for self-defense. After the emperor took flight to the south, General Li Yuan [lee you-an], who was stationed along the northern border to defend against the steppe nomads, marched into Chang’an, where he declared the founding of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE). Emperor Yang’s life came to an end when he was assassinated by his own men.

Watch this video clip that summarizes Chinese History from the First Emperor to the Three Kingdoms.


“Chinese History from the First Emperor to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” Chinese- Neolithic to Sui Dynasty – Part 1: Timelines of Ancient Civilizations. 2003. Accessed May 1, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=76935&loid=331507. 9:45.


Tang Dynasty, 618 – 907 CE


Figure 4.15 | Statue depicting a Tang Dynasty official holding a tablet with a report for his superiors | Giant Buddhas and other revered deities in Buddhism sculpted out of the walls of caves and cliffs in Longmen, China beginning from the Period of Division Author: User “Editor at Large” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 2.5

Key Questions

  • What were the lasting accomplishments of the Sui and Tang Dynasties?


In 618 CE, Li Yuan founded the Tang Dynasty. The Tang are considered the high point of traditional Chinese civilization. The capital of Chang’an was an intellectual and cultural center in East Asia. This drew to China merchants, pilgrims, students, and missionaries into one location. This development gave the Chinese confidence and led to them opening up to the outside world. They began to adopt a more cosmopolitan culture.

Like the Han Dynasty, the Tang was one of the most dynamic and long-lived dynasties in China’s history. That dynamism was made possible by how effectively early Tang rulers consolidated the empire internally and then engaged in military expansion. Consolidating the empire required first re- establishing solid political, economic, and military institutions. Fortunately, Tang rulers could draw upon nearly a millennium of historical experience going back to the Qin Dynasty, when a centralized monarchical political system governing all of China was first established. At the capital, Tang emperors had at their disposal sophisticated ministries that in turn oversaw a vast provincial and county administrative system. To serve in high office, a man usually had to come from one of a small number of highly prestigious families with illustrious family pedigrees. These families took pride in their superior education and manners and maintained their exclusiveness by intermarrying. Thus, the Tang Dynasty was dominated by an aristocracy. Nevertheless, some men from a larger pool of locally prominent families entered the civil service based on merit, by graduating from colleges located at the capitals or succeeding at civil service examinations.

Map 4.16 | The Tang Dynasty at its height in 700 CE Author: Ian Mladjov Source: Original Work License: © Ian Mladjov. Used with permission.

Full-size image of Map 4.16 – The Tang Dynasty at its height in 700 CE

In earlier times, empires rarely flourished without a solid agricultural foundation and revenue base. To ensure sufficient grain and labor service, Tang rulers believed that land must be equitably distributed to farmers. So they implemented the equal fields system. In this system, each family was to receive an equal plot of land (adjusted for terrain and productivity) for life, as well as a smaller plot as a permanent possession. The former was for growing grain, and the latter, for hemp and mulberry trees. In exchange, each farming family had to pay a tax in grain and cloth and provide twenty days of labor service. To make this work, officials carried out censuses and land surveys and periodically redistributed land. Of course, this system was quite onerous and difficult to carry out in practice, but it did function well for about a century.

The Tang also flourished because special attention was paid to molding an orderly society through the promulgation of sophisticated law codes. From ancient times, in China, law was viewed as an expression of the will of the emperor, whose pronouncements defined illegal conduct and proper punishments for it. Also, law was critically important to maintaining order, not only in the social but also the natural world. Crimes committed both by subjects and the state could disturb the cosmos and lead to natural disasters. Thus, law maintained social and cosmic harmony. That is why codes were so important.

The Tang Code contains twelve sections, one addressing general principles, and the rest, administrative and penal law. Most of the statutes define criminal offenses and the punishment for each of them. The magistrate’s role, then, was primarily to investigate and determine precisely the nature of the crime so that the proper punishment could be assigned. In Tang times, people believed that the severity of punishment should be based on the relative status of the perpetrator and victim. For instance, a crime committed against a family member was more serious than one committed against a stranger, and a crime committed against an official was more serious than one committed against a commoner. Within families, too, the status of members mattered. Whereas a father could flog his son without consequence, a son faced capital punishment should he beat his father. In brief, Tang laws encoded the status hierarchy and values of imperial Confucianism. The most serious crimes were those committed against the emperor, country, senior family members, and social superiors. Nevertheless, those of higher status were held accountable for their actions; a magistrate who failed to justly administer the law faced punishment. In fact, Tang monarchs were so concerned that justice might fail to be upheld that they often proclaimed amnesties, nullifying the sentences of all but the worst criminals.

Figure 4.16 | Relief of soldier and horse from the tomb of Emperor Taizong Author: Yen Li-pen Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

Lastly, Tang rulers established a formidable military. At first, the army consisted of six hundred militias stationed at headquarters located near the capitals and throughout the countryside, a large standing army located at the capital, and frontier garrisons strung out along the northern border. These forces were largely maintained by drawing men from a military population. That is, Tang rulers relied on a large number of families that maintained military traditions and provided sons for periods of service in lieu of paying taxes and providing labor service. As necessary, these men could be assembled into expeditionary armies consisting of heavy cavalry and marching infantry.

Having laid these solid institutional foundations, the Tang Dynasty followed with military expansion. Offensives waged to the north divided up and subdued powerful Turkic khans and their confederations of steppe nomads. Tang imperial power was then projected deep into Central Asia, Manchuria, and northern Vietnam, making China the most dominant country in East Asia in the seventh and eighth centuries.


The Decline and Collapse of the Tang Dynasty

The first two emperors of the Tang built their armies up and conducted campaigns into Korea, Vietnam, and Central Asia. The second emperor, Taizong, earned the title Great Khan for his campaigns against the Turks. For a time, he was both the Chinese emperor and the Khan of the Turkish empire. The Tang Dynasty reached its zenith during the eighth century under the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712 – 756 CE).

Map 4.20 | The Tang Dynasty in 800 CE | Note how Tang territory had shrunk after the An Lushan rebellion. Central Asia was now controlled by Tibetan and Turkic Uighur Empires Author: Ian Mladjov Source: Original Work License: © Ian Mladjov. Used with permission.

Full-size image of Map 4.20 – The Tang Dynasty in 800 CE

The Tangs built the civil administration of the Chinese government, improving on the efforts of the Sui by implementing the use of civil service exams and establishing government schools to prepare others for service. In the mid-7th century, two different women rose to power. Empress Wu took control of the government after a stroke incapacitated her husband, and she continued to rule after his death. She proclaimed herself emperor in 690 CE, and remains the only woman to take that title in Chinese history. Later Wu’s grandson would become enamored of one of his consorts, Yang Guifei, and when he decided he would rather not run the government leaving Yang Guifei in charge, she overthrew his power through an alliance with the general An Lushan. This rebellion was put down and Yang Guifei was executed, but the damage had been done. Peace was restored only with the assistance of the Turks. During the Tang period, culture flourished and Buddhism became fully entrenched in China.


“China’s Only Female Emperor to Legacy of China’s Only Female Ruler.” War of the Words: Divine Women. 2012. Accessed May 1, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=52456&loid=610468. 16:54.


At first, the problem with the Tang ambitions was overexpansion. Tang rulers had expanded the empire’s boundaries in nearly every direction, including far into Central Asia. To defend the northwestern border, a system of regional frontier commands was established, each with its own commander and professional army. The earlier system of militias and garrisons manned by hereditary military families declined.

This decline turned out to be dangerous. After one general, An Lushan, butted heads with the emperor’s chief minister, he marched his frontier army of 100,000 soldiers south to the capital, forcing the court to flee. An was eventually executed by his own men, and a Tang emperor returned to the throne, but the turmoil unleashed by this rebellion rendered the Tang Dynasty ineffective. During the ensuing turmoil, the empire shrank and Central Asia was lost. Also, both Tang supporters and pardoned rebels were granted military governorships, giving them control over provinces. Many then chose not to remit tax revenue to the central government, appointed their own subordinates, and designated their successors. They had, in effect, become warlords with their own loyal, regional bases.

Furthermore, as the political system decentralized in this way, the system of equitable land distribution collapsed. Thus, much like during the end of the Han Dynasty, landlords used their power and influence to build great estates. Large numbers of farmers ended up without land and survived only by joining bandit gangs or the ranks of warlord armies. When droughts and famine hit in the late ninth century, a massive rebellion broke out. The last Tang emperor was turned into a puppet by military commanders and eventually, in 907 CE, abdicated. China then entered yet another period of division until the Song Dynasty restored order in 960 CE.




Map 4.21 | The Northern Song Dynasty in 1100 CE | Note that China (in yellow, with the capital at Kaifeng) was surrounded by powerful neighbors, such as the Khitan Liao state to the north. Khitan designates an ethnic group and Liao the name of their dynasty. Author: Ian Mladjov Source: Original Work License: © Ian Mladjov. Used with permission.

Full-size image of Map 4.21 – The Northern Song Dynasty in 1100 CE

In the mid-900s CE, the unification of China ended. Two of the states created during this period that endured were the Song and the Liao. The Song controlled the majority of China south of the Great Wall and the Liao held the area from present-day Beijing north. The Song was larger, but the Liao was stronger militarily. In the 12th century, the Liao were defeated by a non-Chinese people who created the Jin Dynasty. Eventually this dynasty was also defeated, this time by the Mongols.

Like every Chinese dynasty before it, the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 CE) was born out of turmoil and warfare. After the Tang Dynasty fell, China was once again divided up by numerous, contending kingdoms. The founder of the Song, Zhao Kuangyin [j-ow kwong-yeen], was a military commander and advisor to the emperor of one of these kingdoms, but after he died and his six-year-old son came to the throne, Zhao staged a coup. He left the capital with his troops, ostensibly to fight enemies to the north. But just outside the capital, his troops instead proclaimed him emperor, a title he accepted only with feigned reluctance and after his followers promised obedience and to treat the child emperor and people living in the capital environs humanely. On February 3, 960, the child was forced to abdicate, and Zhao took the throne as Emperor Taizu [tie- dzoo].   He was elevated to the position by his men.  In order to prevent this from happening in the future, and thus prevent his own overthrow, Taizu put the armies under the control of the central government.  He then assigned civilian oversight to generals.  Eventually these civilian bureaucrats dominated the government and society.  He and his brother, the succeeding Emperor Taizong [tie-dzawng], ruled for the first forty years of a dynasty that would last over three hundred, laying the foundations for its prosperity and cultural brilliance. The Song Dynasty saw a total of eighteen emperors and is most notable for the challenges it faced from northern conquest dynasties, economic prosperity, a civil service examination system and the educated elite of scholar-officials it created, cultural brilliance, and footbinding.

Key Questions

  • Consider the impact of Song rule on the Chinese culture. How did the civil service examinations and the scholar-official class shape Chinese society and culture?


During the Song, China once again confronted tremendous challenges from conquests by military confederations located along the northern border. So threatening and successful were these that the Song Dynasty counted as just one of many powerful players in a larger geopolitical system in Central and East Asia. The first two northern conquest dynasties, the Liao [lee-ow] and Jin [jean], emerged on the plains of Manchuria when powerful tribal leaders organized communities of hunters, fishers, and farmers for war.

As their power grew, they formed states and conquered territory in northern China, forcing the Chinese to pay them large subsidies of silk and silver for peace. So Chinese rulers and their councilors were in constant negotiations with peoples they viewed as culturally-inferior barbarians under conditions where they were forced to treat them as equals, as opposed to weaker tribute-paying states in a Chinese-dominated world. At first, they used a combination of defensive measures and expensive bilateral treaties, which did make for a degree of stability. But a high price was exacted. Halfway through the Song, the Jin Dynasty destroyed the Liao and occupied the entire northern half of China, forcing the Song court to move south. To rule Chinese possessions, Jin rulers even took on the trappings of Chinese-style emperors and developed a dual administrative system. Steppe tribes were ruled by a traditional military organization, while the farming population of China was governed with Chinese-style civilian administration. The Song Dynasty thus constantly faced the prospect of extinction and was challenged in its legitimacy by rival emperors claiming the right to rule the Chinese realm.

Map 4.22 | China during the Southern Song Dynasty, c. 1200 CE | Another military conquest dynasty, the Jin, had destroyed the Liao Dynasty and forced the Chinese emperor to relocate his capital further south, at Lin’an. Author: Ian Mladjov Source: Original Work License: © Ian Mladjov. Used with permission.

Full-size image of Map 4.22 – China during the Southern Song Dynasty, c. 1200 CE

One reason Song monarchs were able to buy peace was the extraordinary prosperity during their rule and the resulting tax revenue made available. During those centuries, China was by many measures the most developed country in the world. In 1100 CE, the population was one hundred million, more than all of medieval Europe combined. That number doubled the population of 750 CE, just three hundred years prior. The reason for such growth was flourishing agricultural production, especially rice-paddy agriculture. More drought-resistant and earlier-ripening strains of rice, combined with better technology, lead to higher yields per acre.

The impact was enormous. The productivity of farmers stimulated other industries, such as ironworking. Estimates place iron production at as high as twenty thousand tons per year. That amount made iron prices low and, therefore, such products as spades, ploughshares, nails, axles, and pots and pans more cheaply available. Seeing its profitability, wealthy landowning and merchant families invested in metallurgy, spurring better technology. Bellows, for instance, were worked by hydraulic machinery, such as water mills. Explosives derived from gunpowder were engineered to open mines. Similar development of textile and ceramic industries occurred.

Indeed, during the Song, China underwent a veritable economic revolution. Improvements in agriculture and industry, combined with a denser population, spurred the commercialization of the economy. A commercialized economy is one that supports the pursuit of profit through production of specialized products for markets. A Song farmer, for instance, as opposed to just producing rice to get by, might rather purchase it on a market and instead specialize in tea or oranges. Since markets were proliferating in towns and cities and transport via land and water was now readily available, farmers could rely on merchants to market their goods across the country. To support this economic activity, the government minted billions of coins each year as well as the world’s first paper currency.

Figure 4.22 | This section of a Song Dynasty period scroll depicts a bridge in Kaifeng, the first capital. Author: User “Zhuwq” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

A denser population and sophisticated economy led to urbanization. During the Song, at a time when London had roughly fifteen thousand people, China had dozens of cities with over fifty thousand people and capitals with a half million. Song painted scrolls show crowds of people moving through streets lined with shops, restaurants, teahouses, and guest houses.

To manage their realm, Song rulers implemented a national civil service examination to recruit men for office. Prior dynasties had used written examinations testing knowledge of Confucian classics to select men for office, but only as a supplement to recommendation and hereditary privilege. During the collapse of the Tang Dynasty, however, aristocratic families that had for centuries dominated the upper echelons of officialdom disappeared. The first Song emperor, Zhao Kuangyin, rode to power with the support of military men; having largely unified China, he then sought to restore civil governance based in Confucian principles of humaneness and righteousness. So he invited senior commanders to a party and, over a cup of wine, asked them to relinquish their commands for a comfortable retirement. They obliged. He and his successors consequently made the examination system the pre-eminent route to office, even establishing a national school system to help young men prepare for and advance through it. Thus, during the Song Dynasty, civil offices came to be dominated by men who had spent years, even decades, preparing for and passing through a complex series of exams. Hence, they were both scholars and officials. Success in entering this class placed a person at the pinnacle of society, guaranteeing them prestige and wealth. These scholar-officials, and their Confucian worldview, dominated Chinese society until the twentieth century.

In theory, since any adult male could take the examinations, the system was meritocratic. But in reality, because they were so difficult and quotas were set, very few actually passed them. Estimates suggest that only one in one hundred passed the lowest level exam. This ratio meant that, in order to succeed, a young man had to begin memorizing long classical texts as a child and to continue his studies until he passed or gave up hope. Only affluent families could afford to support such an education.

Nevertheless, the meritocratic ideal inspired people from all classes to try and so promoted literacy and a literary revival during the Song Dynasty. As a part of this revival and to provide a curriculum for education, scholar-officials sought to reinvigorate Confucianism. The philosophical movement they began is known as Neo-Confucianism. By the Song Dynasty, whereas Confucianism largely shaped personal behavior and social mores, Buddhist and Daoist explanations of the cosmos, human nature, and the human predicament dominated the individual’s spiritual outlook. Neo- Confucians responded to this challenge by providing a metaphysical basis for Confucian morality and governance. Zhu Xi (1130 – 1200), arguably the most important philosopher in later imperial Chinese history, produced a grand synthesis that would shape the worldview of the scholar-official class. He argued that the cosmos consists of a duality of principles and a material force composing physical things. One principle underlies the cosmos and individual principles provide the abstract reason for individual things. In human beings, principle manifests as human nature, which is wholly good and the origins of the human capacity to become moral persons. However, an individual’s physical endowment obscures their good nature and leads to moral failings, which is why a rigorous Confucian curriculum of moral self-cultivation based in classical texts like Confucius’ Analects is necessary. Most importantly, Zhu Xi argued, individual morality was the starting point for producing a well-managed family, orderly government, and peace throughout the world.

Furthermore, during the Song Dynasty, moveable-type printing also began to be widely used, contributing to an increase in literacy and broader exposure to these new ideas. Chinese characters were carved on wood blocks, which were then arranged in boxes that could be dipped in ink and printed on paper. Books on a multitude of topics–especially classics and histories– became cheaply and widely available, fueling a cultural efflorescence at a time when education had become paramount to climbing the social ladder. Other inventions that made China one of the most technologically innovative during this time include gunpowder weapons and the mariner’s compass.

Figure 4.23 | A woodblock used to print one page of classical Chinese | The characters read from top to bottom and right to left. During the Song, individual, moveable woodblocks with one character were also carved and arranged in square frames. Author: User “Vmenkov” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Looked at from many angles, then, the Song was truly a dynamic period in China’s history. However, some observers have bemoaned the fact that footbinding began during this dynasty and see that practice as a symbol of increasing gender oppression. Scholars believe footbinding began among professional dancers in the tenth century and was then adopted by the upper classes. Over time it spread to the rest of Chinese society, only to end in the twentieth century. At a young age, a girl’s feet would be wrapped tightly with bandages so that they couldn’t grow, ideally remaining about four-inches long. That stunting made walking very difficult and largely kept women confined to their homes. Eventually, the bound foot, encased in an embroidered silk slipper, became a symbol  of femininity and also one of the criteria for marriageability.

Figure 4.24 | Buddhist scroll (c. 950) showing demons threatening the Buddha with a bomb and fire lance | During the Tang Dynasty, alchemists attempting to produce an elixir of immortality accidentally invented gunpowder when experimenting with saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal. Gunpowder weapons first begin to be widely used in East Asia and during the Song Dynasty. The earliest evidence for their use is this scroll. The fire lance is a predecessor to the gun. Gunpowder and projectiles were placed in a tube and projected at the enemy. True guns and cannon are developed during the thirteenth century, towards the end of the Song Dynasty. Author: User “Vmenkov” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

More generally, social norms and the law did place women in a subordinate position. Whereas men dominated public realms like government and business, women married at a young age and lived out most of their lives in the domestic sphere. Indeed, in earlier times, China was patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrilocal. It was patriarchal because the law upheld the authority of senior males in the household and patrilineal because one’s surname and family property passed down the male line—though a wife did have control over her dowry. Importantly, ancestor worship, the pre-eminent social and religious practice in Chinese society, was directed toward patrilineal forbears. That is why it was important for the woman to move into the spouse’s home, where she would live together with her parents-in-law. Patrilocal describes this type of social pattern. Marriages were almost always arranged for the benefit of both families involved, and, during the wedding ceremony, the bride was taken in a curtained sedan chair to the husband’s home where she was to promise to obey her parents-in-law and then bow along with her husband before the ancestral altar. Ideally, she would become a competent household manager, educate the children, and demonstrate much restraint and other excellent interpersonal skills.

Figure 4.25 | Silk slipper for a bound foot, dating to a later Chinese dynasty. Author: User “Vassil” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC0 1.0 and Figure 4.26 | Painting of ladies at the Song court preparing silk. Author: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

Although gender hierarchy was, therefore, the norm, other scholars have observed that ideals were not always reality and women did exercise their agency within the boundaries placed upon them. A wife could gain dignity and a sense of self-worth by handling her roles capably; she would also earn respect. Song literature further reveals that women were often in the fields working or out on city streets shopping. Among the upper classes, literacy and the ability to compose essays or poetry made a woman more marriageable. For this reason, some women were able to excel. Li Qingzhao [lee ching-jow] (c. 1084 – 1155) is one of China’s greatest poets.

Figure 4.27 | A modern statue of Li Qingzhao placed in a museum built in her honor. | The museum is located in Jinan, China, her hometown. Author: User “Gisling” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY 3.0

She came from a prestigious scholar-official family. Her father was both a statesman and classical scholar, and her mother was known for her literary achievements. In her teens, Li began to compose poetry, and, over the course of her life, she produced many volumes of essays and poems. Poems to her husband even suggest mutual love and respect and treating her as an equal. In fact, throughout Chinese history, it was not unusual for women to challenge and transgress boundaries. At the highest level, during both the Han and Tang Dynasties, we find cases of empress dowagers dominating youthful heirs to the throne and even one case of an empress declaring her own dynasty.


“End of the Qin Dynasty to Jurchen (Jin) Dynasty.” Beijing: Center of the Cosmos: Episode 1—Beijing, Biography of an Imperial Capital. 2008. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=47833&loid=610470. 4:03.


“Ancient Chinese Performance Arts.” Ancient Chinese Sports: A Window on Chinese History and Culture. 2007. Accessed May 1, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=39902&loid=64296. 2:53.


The Yuan Dynasty, 1279-1368 CE

The last major dynasty prior to China’s early modern period is the Yuan [you-an] Dynasty. Like earlier neighbors lying to the north of the Song, the Yuan was also a northern conquest dynasty. The key players here were steppe nomads living on the grasslands of Mongolia, known as Mongols, and their leader Genghis Khan. We discussed the Mongols earlier but the most important point to bear in mind is that the Mongols conquered many countries, including China, and incorporated them into a large Eurasian empire.

In the twelfth century CE, the Mongols were one of many tribes of nomadic pastoralists living on the steppes of Central Asia. Although these tribes were made up of peoples of differing ethnicity, they held in common a way of life. Since the steppe was unsuited to farming, they relied principally on their herds, but also on what they could obtain by trading with neighboring sedentary peoples. The nomads lived in temporary campsites, periodically breaking down their yurts and relocating as the seasons required. Since the tribes often fought with each other or turned to raiding, nomads were also excellent at mounted warfare. Their chieftain leaders–referred to as khans–were usually selected based on skill in battle and charisma.

Undoubtedly, the most famous khan in Central Asian history is Genghis Khan. In the late twelfth century, he accrued an army of loyal followers and began to subdue tribes across the Mongolian steppe. In 1206 CE, at a gathering of tribal leaders, he was proclaimed Universal Khan of a tribal confederation. Using a powerful military with a tight command structure, Genghis proceeded to unleash a wave of campaigning in northern China and Central Asia, thereby adding much territory to a growing Mongol Empire. After he died in 1227 CE, this empire was divided into four khanates, each of which went to one of his four sons as their territorial inheritance.

Map 4.23 | Map of Mongol Empire as it expanded during the first waves of conquests, from 1207-1225 | During this first wave, not the Song Dynasty but its northern neighbor, the Jin Dynasty, was attacked Author: User “Bkkbrad” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Full-size image of Map 4.23 – Map of Mongol Empire as it expanded during the first waves of conquests, from 1207-1225

The Mongols conquered China one piece at a time, but by 1234 they had all of China but the region controlled by the Song.Tolui, Genghis Khan’s youngest son, was granted the Mongol homeland as well as subjugated territory in northern China held by the Jin Dynasty. But this rugged warrior died in 1232 at the young age of forty, so the task of managing Chinese territory fell to Tolui’s capable wife Sorghagtani Beki and her second son, Kublai Khan (1215 – 1294 CE). Unlike his predecessors, who largely treated Chinese as chattel and ruthlessly exploited their towns and villages, Kublai saw the advantages of taking a more enlightened approach. With the advice of Chinese advisors, he adopted Chinese-style methods for governing China. In fact, after Kublai was elected as the fifth Universal Khan in 1260, he chose to move his capital from Mongolia to Beijing, making it the center of his khanate. They were able to take the remainder of China by the 1270s. Kublai then took on the trappings of a Chinese-style sovereign and, in 1273, declared the founding of the Great Yuan Dynasty. Accordingly, he asserted that the Mandate of Heaven had been transferred to him from the Song Dynasty.

Figure 4.28 | Portrait of Kublai Khan Author: User “Yaan” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public DomainKublai then engaged in a decade of conquest that concluded with the fall of the Song. This victory over the Song Dynasty, China required careful preparation. The Song was located in the southern two-thirds of China, where the terrain was matted with lakes, rivers, and canals. The Mongols had little experience with naval warfare, so they turned to Chinese advisors to build a navy. Mongol cavalry boarded the ships and floated down rivers leading to the Song capital, laying siege to cities along the way. When they reached it in 1276, Kublai’s generals took the capital without bloodshed. The regent to the young Song emperor worked out conditions for surrender to them. Hence, the Mongol Yuan Dynasty had won control over China. After Kublai died, nine of his descendants ruled as emperors until the dynasty fell to native rebellions in 1368.

Figure 4.29 | Blue and white porcelain plate manufactured during the Yuan Dynasty Author: User “Yaan” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

Key Questions

  • What impact did Mongol conquest have on Chinese culture?


Historians differently assess the impact of Mongol Yuan rule on China. Earlier generations of historians judged that violent Mongol conquests devastated the land and led to a population drop. The Mongol style of rule was despotic. Rather than sustain the openness of Chinese society and use the merit-based examination system to bring talent into their government, Mongol rulers placed Chinese in rigid occupational categories and suspended the exams. Many capable men simply avoided official service and turned to other professions.

Recent studies, however, offer a more positive assessment. Because Yuan rulers followed the counsel of Confucian advisors and adopted traditional Chinese methods for governing, for most Chinese life went on as before. The people accepted the new order and got on with the task of living. Some lost their lands or livelihoods, but the culture was still Chinese regardless of the ruling family. The Mongols didn’t understand the social mobility of Chinese society, so they assigned hereditary jobs to the Chinese people (i.e. farmer, physician, soldier, miner, etc.). Early on, much attention was paid to the farming population. To promote agriculture, Yuan rulers provided relief measures and promoted the formation of rural cooperatives. Mongols highly valued crafts and implemented policies that greatly benefited artisans and promoted their work. Hence, arts such as textiles and ceramics flourished.

Each occupation had obligations to the state. The population was further divided into four classes: Mongols, non-Chinese, former subjects of the Jin (northerners), and former subjects of the Song (southerners). This kept the Mongols in control and at the top of society. To keep the Chinese from rebelling, they were not allowed to own weapons, congregate in public or work with anything that might be made into weapons, such as bamboo.

Finally, the assessment of Yuan rule in China should be linked to a broader assessment of the impact of Mongol rule on world history.  While duly acknowledging the devastation caused by Mongol conquests, historians also find much merit in Mongol patronage of arts and support for constructions projects and advancements in the areas of medicine and astronomy. Most importantly, the massive Eurasian empire they forged initiated a new era of trade and contacts between Europe and China, as well as the regions lying between.

The Mongol Yuan Dynasty made China one part of a much larger Eurasian territorial empire. Mongol ruled lasted until 1368 CE, when native rebellions overthrew a faltering Yuan state, initiating a new period in Chinese history: the Ming Dynasty. This dynasty properly belongs to early modern history though the videos below introduce you to it bringing us forward to approximately 1500 CE.


“Genghis Khan to Absolute Ruler of China.” Beijing: Center of the Cosmos: Episode 1—Beijing, Biography of an Imperial Capital. 2008. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=47833&loid=610472. 8:36.


“Era of Mongol Domination to Renovation Under the Ming Dynasty.” In Search of History: The Great Wall. 1996. Accessed May 1, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=42717&loid=599967. 4:42.


[1] John P. McKay, et. al, A History of World Societies Vol. 1 to 1600, 10th ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015), 180.