The Dynasties of Medieval China

Luoyang longmen grottoes / Photo by Tgasrio, Wikimedia Commons

Examining the Tang, Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties.

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 08.23.2018
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

The Tang Dynasty, 618-907 CE

Rise of the Tang Dynasty

The Tang dynasty, generally regarded as a golden age of Chinese culture, was founded by the Lǐ family, who seized power during the decline and collapse of the Sui dynasty.


The Tang dynasty (Chinese: 唐朝) was an imperial dynasty of China preceded by the Sui dynasty and followed by the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. It is generally regarded as a high point in Chinese civilization and a golden age of cosmopolitan culture. Its territory, acquired through the military campaigns of its early rulers, rivaled that of the Han dynasty, and the Tang capital at Chang’an (present-day Xi’an) was the most populous city in the world.

With its large population base, the dynasty was able to raise professional and conscripted armies of hundreds of thousands of troops to contend with nomadic powers in dominating Inner Asia and the lucrative trade routes along the Silk Road. Various kingdoms and states paid tribute to the Tang court, and the Tang also conquered or subdued several regions that it indirectly controlled through a protectorate system. Besides political hegemony, the Tang also exerted a powerful cultural influence over neighboring states such as those in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

The Tang dynasty was largely a period of progress and stability in the first half of its rule, followed by the An Lushan Rebellion and the decline of central authority in the later half of the dynasty. Like the previous Sui dynasty, the Tang dynasty maintained a civil service system by recruiting scholar-officials through standardized examinations and recommendations to office. Chinese culture flourished and further matured during the Tang era; it is considered the greatest age for Chinese poetry. Two of China’s most famous poets, Li Bai and Du Fu, belonged to this age, as did many famous painters such as Han Gan, Zhang Xuan, and Zhou Fang. There were many notable innovations during the Tang, including the development of woodblock printing.

Decline of the Sui Dynasty and the Founding of the Tang

Emperor Yang of Sui: Portrait painting of Emperor Yang of Sui, the last emperor of the Sui dynasty, commissioned in 643 by Taizong, painted by Yan Liben (600–673).

The Sui dynasty was a short-lived imperial dynasty of pivotal significance. The Sui unified the Northern and Southern dynasties and reinstalled the rule of ethnic Han Chinese in the entirety of China proper, as well as sinicized former nomadic ethnic minorities within its territory. By the middle of the Sui dynasty, the newly unified empire entered an age of prosperity with vast agricultural surplus that supported acute population growth. Wide-ranging reforms and construction projects were undertaken to consolidate the newly unified state, with long-lasting influences beyond the short dynastic reign. The Sui dynasty was succeeded by the Tang dynasty, which largely inherited its foundation.

After a series of costly and disastrous military campaigns against Goguryeo, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, ended in defeat by 614, the Sui dynasty disintegrated under a sequence of popular revolts culminating in the assassination of Emperor Yang by his ministers in 618. The dynasty, which lasted only thirty-seven years, was undermined by ambitious wars and construction projects, which overstretched its resources. Particularly under Emperor Yang, heavy taxation and compulsory labor duties eventually induced widespread revolts and a brief civil war following the fall of the dynasty.

After Yang’s death, the Sui dynasty’s territories were carved into a handful of short-lived states by its officials, generals, and agrarian rebel leaders, and the process of elimination and annexation that followed ultimately culminated in the consolidation of the Tang dynasty by the former Sui general Li Yuan.

Li Yuan was duke of Tang and governor of Taiyuan during the Sui dynasty’s collapse. He had prestige and military experience, and was a first cousin of Emperor Yang of Sui. Li Yuan rose in rebellion in 617, along with his son and his equally militant daughter Princess Pingyang, who raised and commanded her own troops. In the winter of 617, Li Yuan occupied Chang’an, relegated Emperor Yang to the position of Taishang Huang or retired emperor, and acted as regent to the puppet child-emperor, Emperor Gong of Sui. On the news of Emperor Yang’s murder by General Yuwen Huaji on June 18, 618, Li Yuan declared himself the emperor of a new dynasty, the Tang.

Early Tang Dynasty and the Rise to Prosperity

Li Yuan, known as Emperor Gaozu of Tang, ruled until 626, when he was forcefully deposed by his son Li Shimin, the Prince of Qin, conventionally known by his temple name Taizong. Although killing two brothers and deposing his father contradicted the Confucian value of filial piety, Taizong showed himself to be a capable leader who listened to the advice of the wisest members of his council.

Emperor Taizong: Emperor Taizong (r. 626–649) receives Gar Tongtsen Yülsung, ambassador of Tibet, at his court; painted in 641 by Yan Liben (600–673)

For the next hundred years, several Tang leaders ruled, including a woman, Empress Wu, whose rise to power was achieved through cruel and calculating tactics but made room for the prominent role of women in the imperial court. Wu’s rule was actually a short break in the Tang dynasty, as she established the short-lived Zhou dynasty; the Tang dynasty was restored after her rule. In 706 the wife of Emperor Zhongzong of Tang, Empress Wei, persuaded her husband to staff government offices with his sister and her daughters, and in 709 requested that he grant women the right to bequeath hereditary privileges to their sons (which before was a male right only). Just as Emperor Zhongzong was dominated by Empress Wei, so too was Ruizong dominated by Princess Taiping. This was finally ended when Princess Taiping’s coup failed in 712 (she later hanged herself in 713) and Emperor Ruizong abdicated to Emperor Xuanzong.

During the forty-four-year reign of Emperor Xuanzong, the Tang dynasty reached its height, a golden age with low economic inflation and a toned down lifestyle for the imperial court. Seen as a progressive and benevolent ruler, Xuanzong even abolished the death penalty in the year 747; all executions had to be approved beforehand by the emperor himself. Xuanzong bowed to the consensus of his ministers on policy decisions and made efforts to staff government ministries fairly with different political factions. His staunch Confucian chancellor Zhang Jiuling (673–740) worked to reduce deflation and increase the money supply by upholding the use of private coinage, while his aristocratic and technocratic successor, Li Linfu (d. 753) favored government monopoly over the issuance of coinage. After 737 most of Xuanzong’s confidence rested in his long-standing chancellor Li Linfu, who championed a more aggressive foreign policy employing non-Chinese generals. This policy ultimately created the conditions for a massive rebellion against Xuanzong.

Trade under the Tang Dyansty

By reopening the Silk Road and increasing maritime trade by sail at sea, the Tang were able to gain many new technologies, cultural practices, rare luxuries, and foreign items.


Through use of land trade along the Silk Road and maritime trade by sail at sea, the Tang were able to gain many new technologies, cultural practices, rare luxuries, and contemporary items. From the Middle East, India, Persia, and Central Asia the Tang were able to acquire new ideas in fashion, new types of ceramics, and improved silver-smithing. The Chinese also gradually adopted the foreign concept of stools and chairs as seating, whereas before they had always sat on mats placed on the floor. In the Middle East, the Islamic world coveted and purchased in bulk Chinese goods such as silks, lacquerwares, and porcelain wares. Songs, dances, and musical instruments from foreign regions became popular in China during the Tang dynasty. These musical instruments included oboes, flutes, and small lacquered drums from Kucha in the Tarim Basin, and percussion instruments from India such as cymbals. At the court there were nine musical ensembles (expanded from seven in the Sui dynasty) representing music from throughout Asia.

There was great contact with and interest in India as a hub for Buddhist knowledge, with famous travelers such as Xuanzang (d. 664) visiting the South Asian subcontinent. After a seventeen-year-long trip, Xuanzang managed to bring back valuable Sanskrit texts to be translated into Chinese. There was also a Turkic–Chinese dictionary available for serious scholars and students, and Turkic folksongs gave inspiration to some Chinese poetry. In the interior of China, trade was facilitated by the Grand Canal and the Tang government’s rationalization of the greater canal system that reduced costs of transporting grain and other commodities. The state also managed roughly 32,100 km (19,900 mi) of postal service routes by horse and boat.

The Silk Road

Tang period jar: A Tang period gilt-silver jar, shaped in the style of northern nomad’s leather bag, decorated with a horse dancing with a cup of wine in its mouth, as the horses of Emperor Xuanzong were trained to do.

Although the Silk Road from China to the West was initially formulated during the reign of Emperor Wu (141–87 BCE) during the Han dynasty, it was reopened by the Tang in 639 CE when Hou Junji (d. 643) conquered the West, and remained open for almost four decades. It was closed after the Tibetans captured it in 678, but in 699, during Empress Wu’s period, it reopened when the Tang reconquered the Four Garrisons of Anxi originally installed in 640, once again connecting China directly to the West for land-based trade.

The Silk Road was the most important pre-modern Eurasian trade route. The Tang dynasty established a second Pax Sinica and the Silk Road reached its golden age, whereby Persian and Sogdian merchants benefited from the commerce between East and West. At the same time, the Chinese empire welcomed foreign cultures, making it very cosmopolitan in its urban centers.

The Tang captured the vital route through the Gilgit Valley from Tibet in 722, lost it to the Tibetans in 737, and regained it under the command of the Goguryeo-Korean General Gao Xianzhi. When the An Lushan Rebellion ended in 763, the Tang Empire had once again lost control over its western lands, as the Tibetan Empire largely cut off China’s direct access to the Silk Road. An internal rebellion in 848 ousted the Tibetan rulers, and Tang China regained its northwestern prefectures from Tibet in 851. These lands contained crucial grazing areas and pastures for raising horses that the Tang dynasty desperately needed.

Despite the many western travelers coming into China to live and trade, many travelers, mainly religious monks, recorded the strict border laws that the Chinese enforced. As the monk Xuanzang and many other monk travelers attested to, there were many Chinese government checkpoints along the Silk Road where travel permits into the Tang Empire were examined. Furthermore, banditry was a problem along the checkpoints and oasis towns, as Xuanzang also recorded that his group of travelers was assaulted by bandits on multiple occasions.

The Silk Road also affected Tang dynasty art. Horses became a significant symbol of prosperity and power as well as an instrument of military and diplomatic policy. Horses were also revered as a relative of the dragon.

Seaports and Maritime Trade

Foreign merchant: Figurine of a Sogdian merchant of the Tang dynasty, 7th-century.

Chinese envoys had been sailing through the Indian Ocean to India since perhaps the 2nd century BC, but it was during the Tang dynasty that a strong Chinese maritime presence was found in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, into Persia, Mesopotamia, Arabia, Egypt, Aksum (Ethiopia), and Somalia in the Horn of Africa.

During the Tang dynasty, thousands of foreigners came and lived in numerous Chinese cities for trade and commercial ties with China, including Persians, Arabs, Hindu Indians, Malays, Bengalis, Sinhalese, Khmers, Chams, Jews and Nestorian Christians of the Near East, and many others. In 748, the Buddhist monk Jian Zhen described Guangzhou as a bustling mercantile center where many large and impressive foreign ships came to dock.

During the An Lushan Rebellion Arab and Persian pirates burned and looted Guangzhou in 758, and foreigners were massacred at Yangzhou in 760. The Tang government reacted by shutting the port of Canton down for roughly five decades, and foreign vessels docked at Hanoi instead. However, when the port reopened it thrived. In 851 the Arab merchant Sulaiman al-Tajir observed the manufacturing of Chinese porcelain in Guangzhou and admired its transparent quality. He also provided a description of Guangzhou’s mosque, its granaries, its local government administration, some of its written records, and the treatment of travelers, along with the use of ceramics, rice-wine, and tea. However, in another bloody episode at Guangzhou in 879, the Chinese rebel Huang Chao sacked the city and purportedly slaughtered thousands of native Chinese, along with foreign Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Muslims in the process. Huang’s rebellion was eventually suppressed in 884.

The Chinese engaged in large-scale production for overseas export by at least the time of the Tang. This was proven by the discovery of the Belitung shipwreck, a silt-preserved shipwrecked Arabian dhow in the Gaspar Strait near Belitung, which contained 63,000 pieces of Tang ceramics, silver, and gold. Beginning in 785, the Chinese began to call regularly at Sufala on the East African coast in order to cut out Arab middlemen, with various contemporary Chinese sources giving detailed descriptions of trade in Africa. In 863 the Chinese author Duan Chengshi (d. 863) provided a detailed description of the slave trade, ivory trade, and ambergris trade in a country called Bobali, which historians suggest was Berbera in Somalia. In Fustat (old Cairo), Egypt, the fame of Chinese ceramics there led to an enormous demand for Chinese goods; hence Chinese often traveled there. During this time period, the Arab merchant Shulama wrote of his admiration for Chinese seafaring junks, but noted that their draft was too deep for them to enter the Euphrates River, which forced them to ferry passengers and cargo in small boats. Shulama also noted that Chinese ships were often very large, with capacities of up to 600–700 passengers.

Religion under the Tang Dynasty

Religion in the Tang dynasty was diverse, and emperors sought support and legitimation from some local religious leaders, but persecuted others.


Taoism was the official religion of the Tang. It is a native Chinese religious and philosophical tradition with an emphasis on living in harmony and accordance with the natural flow or cosmic structural order of the universe commonly referred to as the Tao. It has its roots in the book of the Tao Te Ching (attributed to Laozi in the 6th century BCE) and the Zhuangzi. The ruling Li family of the Tang dynasty actually claimed descent from the ancient Laozi.

Taoism has had a profound influence on Chinese culture, and clerics of institutionalized Taoism usually take care to note distinctions between their ritual tradition and the customs and practices found in Chinese folk religion, as these distinctions sometimes appear blurred. Chinese alchemy, Chinese astrology, Chan Buddhism, several martial arts, traditional Chinese medicine, feng shui, and many styles of qigong have been intertwined with Taoism throughout history.

During the Tang dynasty, the Chinese continued to combine their ancient folk religion with Taoism and incorporated many deities into religious practice. The Chinese believed the Tao and the afterlife were a reality parallel to the living world, complete with a bureaucracy and an afterlife currency needed by dead ancestors. Funerary practices included providing the deceased with everything they might need in the afterlife, including animals, servants, entertainers, hunters, homes, and officials. This is reflected in Tang dynasty art and in many short stories written in the Tang about people accidentally winding up in the realm of the dead, only to come back and report their experiences.


Buddhism, originating in India around the time of Confucius, continued its influence during the Tang period and was accepted by some members of the imperial family, becoming thoroughly sinicized and a permanent part of Chinese traditional culture. In an age before Neo- Confucianism and figures such as Zhu Xi (1130–1200), Buddhism began to flourish in China during the Northern and Southern dynasties, and became the dominant ideology during the prosperous Tang. Buddhist monasteries played an integral role in Chinese society, offering lodging for travelers in remote areas, schools for children throughout the country, and a place for urban literati to stage social events and gatherings such as going-away parties. Buddhist monasteries were also engaged in the economy, since their land and serfs gave them enough revenue to set up mills, oil presses, and other enterprises. Although the monasteries retained “serfs,” these monastery dependents could actually own property and employ others to help them in their work, and could even own slaves.

Tang period Bodhisattva: A Tang dynasty sculpture of a Bodhisattva, a being who, motivated by great compassion, has generated bodhicitta, a spontaneous wish to attain buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.

The prominent status of Buddhism in Chinese culture began to decline as the dynasty and central government declined during the late 8th century and 9th century. Buddhist convents and temples that had been exempt from state taxes were targeted for taxation. In 845 Emperor Wuzong of Tang finally shut down 4,600 Buddhist monasteries and 40,000 temples and shrines, forcing 260,000 Buddhist monks and nuns to return to secular life. This episode would later be dubbed one of the Four Buddhist Persecutions in China. Although the ban would be lifted just a few years later, Buddhism never regained its once dominant status in Chinese culture.

This situation also came about through a revival of interest in native Chinese philosophies, such as Confucianism and Taoism. Han Yu (786–824)—who Arthur F. Wright stated was a “brilliant polemicist and ardent xenophobe”—was one of the first men of the Tang to denounce Buddhism. Although his contemporaries found him crude and obnoxious, he foreshadowed the later persecution of Buddhism in the Tang, as well as the revival of Confucian theory with the rise of Neo-Confucianism of the Song dynasty. Nonetheless, Chan Buddhism gained popularity amongst the educated elite. There were also many famous Chan monks from the Tang era, such as Mazu Daoyi, Baizhang, and Huangbo Xiyun. The sect of Pure Land Buddhism initiated by the Chinese monk Huiyuan (334–416) was also just as popular as Chan Buddhism during the Tang.


Nestorian Stele: The Nestorian Stele, erected in Chang’an 781.

The Tang dynasty also officially recognized various foreign religions. The Assyrian Church of the East, otherwise known as the Nestorian Christian Church, was given recognition by the Tang court. In 781, the Nestorian Stele was created in order to honor the achievements of their community in China. The stele contains a long inscription in Chinese with Syriac glosses, composed by the cleric Adam, probably the metropolitan of Beth Sinaye. The inscription describes the eventful progress of the Nestorian mission in China since Alopen’s arrival. A Christian monastery was established in Shaanxi province where the Daqin Pagoda still stands, and inside the pagoda there is Christian-themed artwork. Although the religion largely died out after the Tang, it was revived in China following the Mongol invasions of the 13th century.

Religion and Politics

From the outset, religion played a role in Tang politics. In his bid for power, Li Yuan had attracted a following by claiming descent from the Taoist sage Laozi (6th century BCE). People bidding for office would have monks from Buddhist temples pray for them in public in return for cash donations or gifts if the person was selected. Before the persecution of Buddhism in the 9th century, Buddhism and Taoism were accepted side by side, and Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–56) invited monks and clerics of both religions to his court. At the same time Xuanzong exalted the ancient Laozi by granting him grand titles and writing commentary on him, set up a school to prepare candidates for examinations on Taoist scriptures, and called upon the Indian monk Vajrabodhi (671–741) to perform Tantric rites to avert a drought in the year 726. In 742 Emperor Xuanzong personally held the incense burner during a ceremony led by Amoghavajra (705–74, patriarch of the Shingon school) reciting “mystical incantations to secure the victory of Tang forces.”

While religion played a role in politics, politics also played a role in religion. In the year 714, Emperor Xuanzong forbade shops and vendors in the city of Chang’an to sell copied Buddhist sutras, instead giving the Buddhist clergy of the monasteries the sole right to distribute sutras to the laity. In the previous year of 713, Emperor Xuanzong had liquidated the highly lucrative Inexhaustible Treasury, which was run by a prominent Buddhist monastery in Chang’an. This monastery collected vast amounts of money, silk, and treasures through multitudes of anonymous people’s repentances, leaving the donations on the monastery’s premise. Although the monastery was generous in donations, Emperor Xuanzong issued a decree abolishing their treasury on grounds that their banking practices were fraudulent. He collected their riches and distributed the wealth to various other Buddhist monasteries and Taoist abbeys, and used it to repair statues, halls, and bridges in the city.

The Literati

Scholar-officials, also known as the Chinese literati, were civil servants appointed by the emperor of China to perform day-to-day governance, and came into special prominence during the Tang dynasty.


The first half of the Tang dynasty was largely a period of progress and stability. Like the previous Sui dynasty, the Tang dynasty maintained a civil service system by recruiting scholar-officials through standardized examinations and recommendations to office. These scholar-officials, also known as the literati, performed the day-to-day governance of the state from the Han dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty, China’s last imperial dynasty, in 1912, but came to special prominence during the Tang period. The scholar-officials were schooled in calligraphy and Confucian texts.

Since only a limited number could become court or local officials, the majority of scholar-officials stayed in villages or cities as social leaders. The scholar-officials carried out social welfare measures, taught in private schools, helped negotiate minor legal disputes, supervised community projects, maintained local law and order, conducted Confucian ceremonies, assisted in the government’s collection of taxes, and preached Confucian moral teachings. As a class, these scholars claimed to represent morality and virtue. The district magistrate, who by regulation was not allowed to serve in his home district, depended on local scholars for advice and for carrying out projects, giving them power to benefit themselves and their clients.

Imperial Examinations

The imperial examinations were a civil service examination system to select scholar-officials for the state bureaucracy in imperial China. Although there were imperial exams as early as the Han dynasty, the system became the major path to office only in the mid-Tang dynasty, and remained so until its abolition in 1905. Since the exams were based on knowledge of the classics and literary style, not technical expertise, successful candidates, and even those who failed, were generalists who shared a common language and culture. This common culture helped to unify the empire and the ideal of achievement by merit gave legitimacy to imperial rule.

Imperial exam results: Candidates gathering around the wall where the results are posted. This announcement was known as “releasing the roll.”

The examination system helped to shape China’s intellectual, cultural, and political life. The increased reliance on the exam system was in part responsible for the Tang dynasty shifting from a military aristocracy to a gentry class of scholar-bureaucrats.

The entire premise of the scholarly meritocracy was based on mastery of the Confucian classics. This had important effects on Chinese society. Theoretically, this system would result in a highly meritocratic ruling class, with the best students running the country. The examinations gave many people the opportunity to pursue political power and honor, and thus encouraged serious pursuit of formal education. Since the system did not formally discriminate based on social status, it provided an avenue for upward social mobility regardless of age or social class.

Examination cells: Chinese examination cells at the South River School (Nanjiangxue) Nanjing (China). Shown without curtains or other furnishings.

However, even though the examination-based bureaucracy’s heavy emphasis on Confucian literature ensured that the most eloquent writers and erudite scholars achieved high positions, the system lacked formal safeguards against political corruption, besides the Confucian moral teachings tested by the examinations. Once their political futures were secured by success in the examinations, high-ranking officials were often tempted to corruption and abuse of power. Moreover, the relatively low status of military professionals in Confucian society discouraged similar efficiency and meritocracy within the military.

Wu Zetian’s Reforms

A pivotal point in the development of imperial examinations emerged with the rise of Wu Zetian, later Empress Wu. Up until that point, the rulers of the Tang dynasty were all male members of the Li family. Wu Zetian was exceptional; a woman not of the Li family, she came to occupy the seat of the emperor in an official manner in 690, and even before that she had begun to stretch her power within the imperial courts behind the scenes. Reform of the imperial examinations to include a new class of elite bureaucrats derived from humbler origins became a keystone of Wu’s gamble to retain power.

In 655, Wu Zetian graduated forty-four candidates with the jinshi degree, and during one seven-year period the annual average of exam takers graduated with a jinshi degree was greater than fifty-eight persons per year. Wu lavished favors on the newly graduated jinshi degree-holders, increasing the prestige associated with this path of attaining a government career. This clearly began a process of opening up opportunities to success for a wider population pool, including inhabitants of China’s less prestigious southeast area. Most of the Li family’s supporters were located to the northwest, particularly around the capital city of Chang’an. Wu’s progressive accumulation of political power through enhancement of the examination system involved attaining the allegiance of previously under-represented regions, alleviating frustrations of the literati, and encouraging education in various locales so even people in the remote corners of the empire would work on their studies in order to pass the imperial exams. Wu thus developed a nucleus of elite bureaucrats useful from the perspective of control by the central government.

Decline of the Tang Dynasty

After the difficult suppression of the An Lushan Rebellion, the jiedushi increased their powers and accelerated the disintegration of the Tang dynasty.

An Lushan Rebellion

The Tang dynasty, established in 618 CE, after experiencing its golden age entered its long decline, beginning with the An Lushan Rebellion by Sogdian general An Lushan. The rebellion spanned the reigns of three Tang emperors before it was finally quashed, and involved a wide range of regional powers; besides the Tang dynasty loyalists, others involved were anti-Tang families, especially in An Lushan’s base area in Hebei, and Arab, Uyghur, and Sogdian forces or influences, among others. The rebellion and subsequent disorder resulted in a huge loss of life and large-scale destruction. It significantly weakened the Tang dynasty and led to the loss of the Western Regions.

The power of the jiedushi, or provincial military governors, increased greatly after imperial troops crushed the rebels, taking administrative power away from the scholar-officials. The discipline of these generals also decayed as their power increased and the resentment of common people against the incapacity of the government grew, and their grievances exploded into several rebellions during the mid-9th century. Eventually the jiedushi ushered in the political division of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, a period marked by continuous infighting among the rival kingdoms, dynasties, and regional regimes established by rival jiedushi. Many impoverished farmers, tax-burdened landowners, and merchants, as well as many large salt smuggling operations, formed the base of the anti-government rebellions of this period.

Tang warrior: A Tang pottery warrior from Duan’s Tomb, Shaanxi.

The An Lushan Rebellion and its aftermath greatly weakened the centralized bureaucracy of the Tang dynasty, especially in regards to its perimeters. Virtually autonomous provinces and ad hoc financial organizations arose, reducing the influence of the regular bureaucracy in Chang’an. The Tang dynasty’s desire for political stability in this turbulent period also resulted in the pardoning of many rebels. Indeed, some were even given their own garrisons to command. Political and economic control of the northeast region became intermittent or was lost, and the emperor became a sort of puppet, set to do the bidding of the strongest garrison. Furthermore, the Tang government also lost most of its control over the Western Regions due to troop withdrawal to central China to attempt to crush the rebellion and deal with subsequent disturbances. Continued military and economic weakness resulted in further erosions of Tang territorial control during the ensuing years, particularly in regard to the Uighur and Tibetan empires. By 790 Chinese control over the Tarim Basin area was completely lost.

The political decline was paralleled by economic decline, including large Tang governmental debt to Uighur money lenders. In addition to being politically and economically detrimental to the empire, the An Lushan Rebellion also affected the intellectual culture of the Tang dynasty. Many intellectuals had their careers interrupted, giving them time to ponder the causes of the unrest. Some lost faith in themselves, concluding that a lack of moral seriousness in intellectual culture had been the cause of the rebellion.

Collapse of the Tang Dynasty

In addition to natural calamities and jiedushi amassing autonomous control, the Huang Chao Rebellion (874–884) resulted in the sacking of both Chang’an and Luoyang, and took an entire decade to suppress. Although the rebellion was defeated by the Tang, the dynasty never recovered from that crucial blow, weakening it for future military powers to take over. There were also groups of bandits, the size of small armies, that ravaged the countryside in the last years of the Tang. These bandits smuggled illicit salt, ambushed merchants and convoys, and even besieged several walled cities.

Zhu Wen, originally a salt smuggler who had served under the rebel Huang, surrendered to Tang forces. For helping to defeat Huang, he was granted a series of rapid military promotions. In 907 the Tang dynasty was ended when Zhu Wen, now a military governor, deposed the last emperor of Tang, Emperor Ai of Tang, and took the throne for himself. A year later the deposed Emperor Ai was poisoned by Zhu Wen, and died. Zhu Wen was known posthumously as Emperor Taizu of Later Liang. He established the Later Liang, which inaugurated the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period.

The Song Dynasty, 960-1271

Origins of the Song Dynasty


The Song dynasty was an era of Chinese history that began in 960 and continued until 1279. It succeeded the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, and was followed by the Yuan dynasty. It was the first government in world history to issue banknotes or true paper money nationally and the first Chinese government to establish a permanent standing navy. This dynasty also saw the first known use of gunpowder as well as the first discernment of true north using a compass.

The Song dynasty was divided into two distinct periods, Northern and Southern. During the Northern Song (960–1127), the Song capital was in the northern city of Bianjing (now Kaifeng), and the dynasty controlled most of what is now Eastern China. The Southern Song (1127–1279) refers to the period after the Song lost control of its northern half to the Jurchen Jin dynasty in the Jin-Song Wars. During this time, the Song court retreated south of the Yangtze and established its capital at Lin’an (now Hangzhou). Although the Song dynasty had lost control of the traditional “birthplace of Chinese civilization” along the Yellow River, the Song economy was still strong, as the Southern Song empire contained a large population and productive agricultural land. The Southern Song dynasty considerably bolstered its naval strength to defend its waters and land borders and to conduct maritime missions abroad.

Social life during the Song was vibrant. Citizens gathered to view and trade precious artworks, the populace intermingled at public festivals and private clubs, and cities had lively entertainment quarters. The spread of literature and knowledge was enhanced by the rapid expansion of woodblock printing and the 11th-century invention of movable-type printing. Technology, science, philosophy, mathematics, and engineering flourished over the course of the Song. Philosophers such as Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi reinvigorated Confucianism with new commentary infused with Buddhist ideals, and emphasized a new organization of classic texts that brought out the core doctrine of Neo-Confucianism. Although the institution of the civil service examinations had existed since the Sui dynasty, it became much more prominent in the Song period. The officials who gained power by succeeding in the exams became a leading factor in the shift from a military-aristocratic elite to a bureaucratic elite.

Founding of the Song Dynasty

Emperor Taizu: A court painting of Emperor Taizu of Song (r. 960–976), who founded the Song dynasty and unified China.

The Later Zhou was the last of the Five Dynasties that had controlled northern China after the fall of the Tang dynasty in 907. Zhao Kuangyin, later known as Emperor Taizu (r. 960–976), usurped the throne from the Zhou with the support of military commanders in 960, initiating the Song dynasty. Upon taking the throne, his first goal was the reunification of China after half a century of political division. This included the conquests of Nanping, Wu-Yue, Southern Han, Later Shu, and Southern Tang in the south as well as the Northern Han and the Sixteen Prefectures in the north. With capable military officers such as Yang Ye (d. 986), Liu Tingrang (929–987), Cao Bin (931–999) and Huyan Zan (d. 1000), the early Song military became the dominant force in China. Innovative military tactics, such as defending supply lines across floating pontoon bridges, led to success in battle. One such success was the Song assault against the Southern Tang state while crossing the Yangtze River in 974. Using a mass of arrow fire from crossbowmen, Song forces were able to defeat the renowned war elephant corps of the Southern Han on January 23, 971, thus forcing the submission of Southern Han and terminating the first and last elephant corps to make up a regular division within a Chinese army.

Consolidation in the south was completed in 978, with the conquest of Wu-Yue. Song military forces then turned north against the Northern Han, which fell to Song forces in 979. However, efforts to take the Sixteen Prefectures were unsuccessful, and they were incorporated into the Liao state based in Manchuria to the immediate north instead. To the far northwest, the Tanguts had been in power over northern Shaanxi since 881, after the earlier Tang court appointed a Tangut chief as a military governor (jiedushi) over the region, a seat that became hereditary (forming the Xi-Xia dynasty). Although the Song state was evenly matched against the Liao dynasty, the Song gained significant military victories against the Western Xia (who would eventually fall to the Mongol conquest of Genghis Khan in 1227).

The Northern Song Era

During the Northern Song (960-1127), the Song capital was in the northern city of Kaifeng, and the dynasty controlled most of what is now Eastern China.

Beginning of the Song Dynasty

Emperor Taizu of Song (r. 960–976) had unified the empire by conquering other lands during his reign, ending the upheaval of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. In Kaifeng he established a strong central government over the empire. He ensured administrative stability by promoting the civil service examination system of drafting state bureaucrats by skill and merit (instead of aristocratic or military position) and promoted projects that ensured efficiency in communication throughout the empire. In one such project, cartographers created detailed maps of each province and city that were then collected in a large atlas. Emperor Taizu also promoted groundbreaking scientific and technological innovations by supporting such works as the astronomical clock tower designed and built by the engineer Zhang Sixun.

Diplomacy and War

The Song court maintained diplomatic relations with Chola India, the Fatimid Caliphate, Srivijaya, the Kara-Khanid Khanate of Central Asia, and other countries that were also trade partners with Japan. However, China’s closest neighboring states affected its domestic and foreign policy the most. From its inception under Taizu, the Song dynasty alternated between warfare and diplomacy with the ethnic Khitans of the Liao dynasty in the northeast and with the Tanguts of the Western Xia in the northwest. The Song dynasty used military force in an attempt to quell the Liao dynasty and recapture the Sixteen Prefectures, a territory under Khitan control that was traditionally considered part of China proper. Song forces were repulsed by the Liao forces, who engaged in aggressive yearly campaigns into Northern Song territory until 1005, when the signing of the Shanyuan Treaty ended these northern border clashes. The Song were forced to provide tribute to the Khitans, although this did little damage to the Song economy since the Khitans were economically dependent upon importing massive amounts of goods from the Song. More significantly, the Song state recognized the Liao state as its diplomatic equal.

Northern Song dynasty: The extent of the land holdings of the Northern Song dynasty in 1111.

The Song dynasty managed to win several military victories over the Tanguts in the early 11th century, culminating in a campaign led by the polymath scientist, general, and statesman Shen Kuo (1031–1095). However, this campaign was ultimately a failure due to a rival military officer of Shen disobeying direct orders, and the territory gained from the Western Xia was eventually lost. There was also a significant war fought against the Lý dynasty of Vietnam from 1075 to 1077 over a border dispute and the Song’s severing of commercial relations with the Đại Việt kingdom. After Lý forces inflicted heavy damages in a raid on Guangxi, the Song commander Guo Kui (1022–1088) penetrated as far as Thăng Long (modern Hanoi). Heavy losses on both sides prompted the Lý commander Thường Kiệt (1019–1105) to make peace overtures, allowing both sides to withdraw from the war effort; captured territories held by both Song and Lý were mutually exchanged in 1082, along with prisoners of war.

Political Rivalries

During the 11th century, political rivalries divided members of the court due to the ministers’ differing approaches, opinions, and policies regarding the handling of the Song’s complex society and thriving economy. The idealist Chancellor Fan Zhongyan (989–1052) was the first to experience a heated political backlash when he attempted to institute the Qingli Reforms, which included measures such as improving the recruitment system of officials, increasing the salaries for minor officials, and establishing sponsorship programs to allow a wider range of people to be well educated and eligible for state service.

After Fan was forced to step down from his office, Wang Anshi (1021–1086) became chancellor of the imperial court. With the backing of Emperor Shenzong (1067–1085), Wang Anshi severely criticized the educational system and state bureaucracy. Seeking to resolve what he saw as state corruption and negligence, Wang implemented a series of reforms called the New Policies. These involved land value tax reform, the establishment of several government monopolies, the support of local militias, and the creation of higher standards for the Imperial examination to make it more practical for men skilled in statecraft to pass.

The reforms created political factions in the court. Wang Anshi’s “New Policies Group” (Xin Fa), also known as the “Reformers,” were opposed by the ministers in the “Conservative” faction led by the historian and chancellor Sima Guang (1019–1086). As one faction supplanted another in the majority position of the court ministers, it would demote rival officials and exile them to govern remote frontier regions of the empire. One of the prominent victims of the political rivalry, the famous poet and statesman Su Shi (1037–1101), was jailed and eventually exiled for criticizing Wang’s reforms.

Decline and Transition to Southern Song

While the central Song court remained politically divided and focused upon its internal affairs, alarming new events to the north in the Liao state finally came to its attention. The Jurchen, a subject tribe of the Liao, rebelled against them and formed their own state, the Jin dynasty (1115–1234). The Song official Tong Guan (1054–1126) advised Emperor Huizong (1100–1125) to form an alliance with the Jurchens (the Alliance Conducted at Sea), and the joint military campaign under this alliance toppled and completely conquered the Liao dynasty by 1125.

However, the poor performance and military weakness of the Song army was observed by the Jurchens, who immediately broke the alliance, beginning the Jin–Song Wars of 1125 and 1127; during the latter invasion, the Jurchens captured not only the capital, but also the retired Emperor Huizong, his successor Emperor Qinzong, and most of the imperial court. This took place in the year of Jingkang and it is known as the Jingkang Incident.

The remaining Song forces regrouped under the self-proclaimed Emperor Gaozong of Song (1127–1162) and withdrew south of the Yangtze to establish a new capital at Lin’an (modern Hangzhou). The Jurchen conquest of northern China and the shift of capitals from Kaifeng to Lin’an was the dividing line between the Northern and Southern Song dynasties.

The Southern Song Era

The Southern Song (1127–1279) was the period after the Song lost control of its northern half to the Jurchen Jin dynasty in the Jin–Song Wars and retreated south of the Yangtze, establishing a capital at Lin’an.

Foundation of the Southern Song

After capturing Kaifeng, the Jurchens went on to conquer the rest of northern China, while the Song Chinese court fled south. They took up temporary residence at Nanjing, where a surviving prince was named Emperor Gaozong of Song in 1127. Jin forces halted at the Yangtze River, but staged continual raids south of the river until a later boundary was fixed at the Huai River further north. With the border fixed at the Huai, the Song government promoted an immigration policy of repopulating and resettling territories north of the Yangtze River, since vast tracts of vacant land between the Yangtze and the Huai were open for landless peasants found in the Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Jiangxi, and Fujian provinces of the south.

Continued War with the Jin

Southern Song in 1142: The extent of the land holdings of the Southern Song dynasty, significantly reduced from Northern Song’s holdings by the Jin dynasty.

Though weakened and pushed south beyond the Huai River, the Southern Song found new ways to bolster its strong economy and defend itself against the Jin dynasty. It had able military officers such as Yue Fei and Han Shizhong. The government sponsored massive shipbuilding, harbor-improvement projects, and the construction of beacons and seaport warehouses to support maritime trade abroad, including at the major international seaports, such as Quanzhou, Guangzhou, and Xiamen, that were sustaining China’s commerce. To protect and support the multitude of ships sailing for maritime interests into the waters of the East China Sea and Yellow Sea (to Korea and Japan), Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and the Red Sea, it was necessary to establish an official standing navy. The Song dynasty therefore established China’s first permanent navy in 1132, with a headquarters at Dinghai.

Southern Song era ship: A Song era junk ship, 13th century; Chinese ships of the Song period featured hulls with watertight compartments.

With a permanent navy, the Song were prepared to face the naval forces of the Jin on the Yangtze River in 1161, in the Battle of Tangdao and the Battle of Caishi. During these battles the Song navy employed swift paddle-wheel driven naval vessels armed with trebuchet catapults aboard the decks that launched gunpowder bombs. Although the Jin forces commanded by Wanyan Liang (the Prince of Hailing) boasted 70,000 men on 600 warships, and the Song forces only 3,000 men on 120 warships, the Song forces were victorious in both battles due to the destructive power of the bombs and the rapid assaults by paddle-wheel ships. The strength of the navy was heavily emphasized after that. A century after the navy was founded it had grown in size to 52,000 fighting marines.

The Jin-Song Wars engendered an era of technological, cultural, and demographic changes in China. Battles between the Song and Jin brought about the introduction of various gunpowder weapons. The siege of De’an in 1132 was the first recorded appearance of the fire lance, an early ancestor of firearms. There were also reports of battles fought with primitive gunpowder bombs like the incendiary huopao or the exploding tiehuopao, flammable arrows, and other related weapons.

The Song government confiscated portions of land owned by the gentry in order to raise revenue for military and naval projects, an act which caused dissension and loss of loyalty amongst leading members of Song society, but did not stop the Song’s defensive preparations. Financial matters were made worse by the fact that many wealthy, land-owning families—some of which had members working as officials for the government—used their social connections with those in office to obtain tax-exempt status.

The Mongols

Although the Song dynasty was able to hold back the Jin, a new foe came to power over the steppe, deserts, and plains north of the Jin dynasty. The Mongols, led by Genghis Khan (r. 1206–1227), initially invaded the Jin dynasty in 1205 and 1209, engaging in large raids across its borders, and in 1211 an enormous Mongol army was assembled to invade the Jin. The Jin dynasty was forced to submit and pay tribute to the Mongols as vassals; when the Jin suddenly moved their capital city from Beijing to Kaifeng, the Mongols saw this as a revolt. Under the leadership of Ögedei Khan (r.1229–1241), Mongol forces conquered both the Jin dynasty and Western Xia dynasty. The Mongols also invaded Korea, the Abbasid Caliphate of the Middle East, and Kievan Rus’.

The Mongols were at one time allied with the Song, but this alliance was broken when the Song recaptured the former imperial capitals of Kaifeng, Luoyang, and Chang’an at the collapse of the Jin dynasty. The Mongol leader Möngke Khan led a campaign against the Song in 1259, but died on August 11 during the Battle of Diaoyu Fortress in Chongqing. Möngke’s death and the ensuing succession crisis prompted Hulagu Khan to pull the bulk of the Mongol forces out of the Middle East, where they were poised to fight the Egyptian Mamluks (who defeated the remaining Mongols at Ain Jalut). Although Hulagu was allied with Kublai Khan, his forces were unable to help in the assault against the Song due to Hulagu’s war with the Golden Horde.

Kublai continued the assault against the Song, gaining a temporary foothold on the southern banks of the Yangtze. Kublai made preparations to take Ezhou, but a pending civil war with his brother Ariq Böke—a rival claimant to the Mongol Khaganate—forced Kublai to move back north with the bulk of his forces. In Kublai’s absence, the Song forces were ordered by Chancellor Jia Sidao to make an opportune assault, and succeeded in pushing the Mongol forces back to the northern banks of the Yangtze. There were minor border skirmishes until 1265, when Kublai won a significant battle in Sichuan. From 1268 to 1273, Kublai blockaded the Yangtze River with his navy and besieged Xiangyang, the last obstacle in his way to invading the rich Yangtze River basin.

The End of the Southern Song

Kublai Khan officially declared the creation of the Yuan dynasty in 1271. In 1275, a Song force of 130,000 troops under Chancellor Jia Sidao was defeated by Kublai’s newly appointed commander-in-chief, General Bayan. By 1276, most of the Song territory had been captured by Yuan forces. In the Battle of Yamen on the Pearl River Delta in 1279, the Yuan army, led by General Zhang Hongfan, finally crushed the Song resistance. The last remaining ruler, the 8-year-old emperor Emperor Huaizong of Song, committed suicide, as did Prime Minister Lu Xiufu and 800 members of the royal clan. On Kublai’s orders carried out by his commander Bayan, the rest of the former imperial family of Song were unharmed; the deposed Emperor Gong was demoted, given the title “Duke of Ying,” but was eventually exiled to Tibet, where he took up a monastic life. The former emperor would eventually be forced to commit suicide under the orders of Kublai’s great-great grandson Gegeen Khan, who feared that Emperor Gong would stage a coup to restore his reign. Other members of the Song imperial family continued to live in the Yuan dynasty, including Zhao Mengfu and Zhao Yong.

Culture under the Song Dynasty

Social life and culture during the Song was vibrant and diverse, with important achievements in the arts and lively popular entertainment.

Society during the Song Dynasty

The Song dynasty was an era of administrative sophistication and complex social organization. Some of the largest cities in the world were found in China during this period (Kaifeng and Hangzhou had populations of over a million). People enjoyed various social clubs and entertainment in the cities, and there were many schools and temples to provide the people with education and religious services. The Song government supported social welfare programs, including the establishment of retirement homes, public clinics, and paupers’ graveyards. The Song dynasty supported a widespread postal service, modeled on the earlier Han dynasty (202 BCE–CE 220) postal system, to provide swift communication throughout the empire. The central government employed thousands of postal workers of various ranks to provide service for post offices and larger postal stations. In rural areas, farming peasants either owned their own plots of land, paid rents as tenant farmers, or were serfs on large estates.

Women in the Song Dynasty

Empress of Zhenzong of Song: Official court portrait painting of the empress and wife of Zhenzong. Notice the heavy ceremonial facial painting and elaborate clothing, typical of royal women.

Although women were on a lower social tier than men (according to Confucian ethics), they enjoyed many social and legal privileges and wielded considerable power at home and in their own small businesses. As Song society became more and more prosperous and parents on the bride’s side of the family provided larger dowries for her marriage, women naturally gained many new legal rights in the ownership of property. Under certain circumstances, an unmarried daughter without brothers, or a surviving mother without sons, could inherit one-half of her father’s share of undivided family property. There were many notable and well-educated women, and it was a common practice for women to educate their sons during their earliest youth. The mother of the scientist, general, diplomat, and statesman Shen Kuo taught him essentials of military strategy. There were also exceptional women writers and poets such as Li Qingzhao (1084–1151), who became famous even in her lifetime.

Men dominated the public sphere, while affluent wives spent most of their time indoors enjoying leisure activities and managing the household. However, women of the lower and middle classes were not solely bound to the domestic sphere. It was common for women to manage town inns and restaurants, farmers’ daughters to weave mats and sell them on their own behalf, midwives to deliver babies, Buddhist nuns to study religious texts and sutras, and female nurses to assist physicians. Many women kept a close eye on their own financial matters; there are legal case documents that describe childless widows who accused their nephews of stealing their property.

Social Life under the Song

The populace engaged in a vibrant social and domestic life, enjoying such public festivals as the Lantern Festival and the Qingming Festival. There were entertainment quarters in the cities providing a constant array of amusements. There were puppeteers, acrobats, theatre actors, sword swallowers, snake charmers, storytellers, singers and musicians, and prostitutes, and places to relax, including tea houses, restaurants, and organized banquets. People attended social clubs in large numbers; there were tea clubs, exotic food clubs, antiquarian and art collectors’ clubs, horse-loving clubs, poetry clubs, and music clubs. There were regional styles of cooking and cuisine, as well as of performing arts. Theatrical drama was very popular amongst the elite and general populace, although Classical Chinese—not the vernacular language—was spoken by actors on stage. The four largest drama theaters in Kaifeng could hold audiences of several thousand each. There were also notable domestic pastimes, as people at home enjoyed activities such as the go and xiangqi board games.

Religion and Philosophy

Religion in China during this period had a great effect on people’s lives, beliefs, and daily activities, and Chinese literature on spirituality was popular. The major deities of Taoism and Buddhism, ancestral spirits, and the many deities of Chinese folk religion were worshipped with sacrificial offerings. Tansen Sen asserts that more Buddhist monks from India travelled to China during the Song than in the previous Tang dynasty (618–907). With many ethnic foreigners traveling to China to conduct trade or live permanently, there came many foreign religions; religious minorities in China included Middle Eastern Muslims, Kaifeng Jews, and Persian Manichaeans.

Song intellectuals sought answers to all philosophical and political questions in the Confucian Classics. This renewed interest in the Confucian ideals and society of ancient times coincided with the decline of Buddhism, which was then largely regarded as foreign and as offering few solutions for practical problems. However, Buddhism in this period continued as a cultural underlay to the more-accepted Confucianism and even Taoism, both seen as native and pure by conservative Neo-Confucians. The continuing popularity of Buddhism is evidenced by achievements in the arts, such as the one-hundred painting set of the Five Hundred Luohan, completed by Lin Tinggui and Zhou Jichang in 1178.

A Luohan painting: One of the Five Hundred Luohan, painted in 1207 by Liu Songnian, Southern Song period.

Chinese folk religion continued as a tradition in China, drawing upon aspects of both ancient Chinese mythology and ancestor worship. Many people believed that spirits and deities of the spirit realm regularly interacted with the realm of the living. This subject was popular in Song literature. People in Song China believed that many of their daily misfortunes and blessings were caused by an array of different deities and spirits who interfered with their daily lives. These deities included the nationally accepted deities of Buddhism and Taoism, as well as the local deities and demons from specific geographic locations. If one displeased a long-dead relative, the dissatisfied ancestor would allegedly inflict natural ailments and illnesses. People also believed in mischievous demons and malevolent spirits who had the capability to extort sacrificial offerings meant for ancestors—in essence these were bullies of the spiritual realm.

Arts and Literature

Chinese painting during the Song dynasty reached a new level of sophistication with further development of landscape painting. The shan shui style painting—”shan” meaning mountain, and “shui” meaning river—became prominent features in Chinese landscape art. The emphasis laid upon landscape painting in the Song period was grounded in Chinese philosophy; Taoism stressed that humans were but tiny specks among vast and greater cosmos, while Neo-Confucianist writers often pursued the discovery of patterns and principles that they believed caused all social and natural phenomena. The making of glazed and translucent porcelain and celadon wares with complex use of enamels was also developed further during the Song period. Longquan celadon wares were particularly popular in the Song period. Black and red lacquerwares of the Song period featured beautifully carved artwork of miniature nature scenes, landscapes, or simple decorative motifs.

Song-era painting: A Song-era painting that exemplifies new styles of landscape paintings, depicting humans as small aspects of grand landscapes.

The gentry elite engaged in the arts as accepted pastimes of the cultured scholar-official; these pastimes included painting, composing poetry, and writing calligraphy. Poetry and literature profited from the rising popularity and development of the ci poetry form. Enormous encyclopedic volumes were compiled, such as works of historiography and dozens of treatises on technical subjects. This included the universal history text of the Zizhi Tongjian, compiled into 1000 volumes of 9.4-million written Chinese characters. The genre of Chinese travel literature also became popular with the writings of the geographers Fan Chengda (1126–1193) and Su Shi, the latter of whom wrote the “daytrip essay” known as Record of Stone Bell Mountain, which used persuasive writing to argue for a philosophical point. Although an early form of the local geographic gazetteer had existed in China since the 1st century, the matured form known as “treatise on a place,” or fangzhi, replaced the old “map guide,” or tujing, during the Song dynasty.

Theater and drama in China trace their roots back to the academy of music known as the Pear Garden, founded in the early 8th century during the Tang dynasty. However, historian Stephen H. West asserts that the Northern Song era capital Kaifeng was the first real center where the performing arts became “an industry, a conglomerate involving theatre, gambling, prostitution, and food.” The rise in consumption by merchants and scholar-officials, he states, “accelerated the growth of both the performance and the food industries,” asserting a direct link between the two due to their close proximity within the cities. Of the fifty-some theaters located in the “pleasure districts” of Kaifeng, four were large enough to entertain audiences of several thousand each, drawing huge crowds that nearby businesses thrived upon. The chief crowd that gathered was composed of those from the merchant class, while government officials only went to restaurants and attended theater performances during holidays.

Technological Advancements under the Song


The Song dynasty provided some of the most significant technological advances in Chinese history, many of which came from talented statesmen drafted by the government through imperial examinations.

The ingenuity of advanced mechanical engineering has a long tradition in China. The Song engineer Su Song admitted that he and his contemporaries were building upon the achievements of the ancients such as Zhang Heng (78–139), an astronomer, inventor, and early master of mechanical gears. The application of movable type printing advanced the already widespread use of woodblock printing to educate and amuse Confucian students and the masses. The application of new weapons using gunpowder enabled the Song to ward off its militant enemies—the Liao, Western Xia, and Jin—with weapons such as cannons until its collapse to the Mongol forces of Kublai Khan in the late 13th century.

Notable advances in civil engineering, nautics, and metallurgy were made in Song China, and the windmill was introduced in China during the 13th century. These advances, along with the introduction of paper-printed money, helped revolutionize and sustain the economy of the Song dynasty.

Gunpowder and New Weaponry

Trebuchet: An illustration of a trebuchet catapult from the Wujing Zongyao manuscript of 1044. Trebuchets like this were used to launch the earliest type of explosive bombs.

Advancements in weapons technology enhanced by gunpowder, including the evolution of the early flamethrower, explosive grenade, firearm, cannon, and land mine, enabled the Song Chinese to ward off their militant enemies until the Song’s ultimate collapse in the late 13th century. The Wujing Zongyao manuscript of 1044 was the first book in history to provide formulas for gunpowder and their specified use in different types of bombs. While engaged in a war with the Mongols, in 1259 the official Li Zengbo wrote in his Kezhai Zagao, Xugaohou that the city of Qingzhou was manufacturing one- to two-thousand strong iron-cased bomb shells a month, dispatching to Xiangyang and Yingzhou about ten- to twenty-thousand such bombs at a time. In turn, the invading Mongols employed northern Chinese soldiers and used this same type of gunpowder weapons against the Song. By the 14th century the firearm and cannon could also be found in Europe, India, and the Islamic Middle East, during the early age of gunpowder warfare.

Advances in Navigation

As early as the Han dynasty, when the state needed to effectively measure distances traveled throughout the empire, the Chinese relied on the mechanical odometer device. The Chinese odometer came in the form of a wheeled-carriage, its inner gears functioning off the rotated motion of the wheels, and specific units of distance—the Chinese li—marked by the mechanical striking of a drum or bell for auditory alarm. The specifications for the 11th century odometer were written by Chief Chamberlain Lu Daolong, who is quoted extensively in the historical text of the Song Shi (compiled by 1345). In the Song period, the odometer vehicle was also combined with another old complex mechanical device known as the south-pointing chariot. This device, originally crafted by Ma Jun in the 3rd century, incorporated a differential gear that allowed a figure mounted on the vehicle to always point south, no matter how the vehicle’s wheels turned about. The device concept of the differential gear for this navigational vehicle is now found in modern automobiles in order to apply the equal amount of torque to wheels rotating at different speeds.

Mathematics and Cartography

There were many notable improvements to Chinese mathematics during the Song era. Mathematician Yang Hui’s 1261 book provided the earliest Chinese illustration of Pascal’s triangle, although it had earlier been described by Jia Xian in around 1100. Yang Hui also provided rules for constructing combinatorial arrangements in magic squares, provided theoretical proof for Euclid ‘s forty-third proposition about parallelograms, and was the first to use negative coefficients of “x” in quadratic equations. Yang’s contemporary Qin Jiushao (c. 1202–1261) was the first to introduce the zero symbol into Chinese mathematics; before this blank spaces were used instead of zeroes in the system of counting rods.

Geometry was essential to surveying and cartography. The earliest extant Chinese maps date to the 4th century BCE, yet it was not until the time of Pei Xiu (224–271) that topographical elevation, a formal rectangular grid system, and use of a standard graduated scale of distances were applied to terrain maps. Following a long tradition, Shen Kuo created a raised-relief map, while his other maps featured a uniform graduated scale of 1:900,000. A 3-ft squared map of 1137—carved into a stone block—followed a uniform grid scale of 100 li for each gridded square, and accurately mapped the outline of the coasts and river systems of China, extending all the way to India. Furthermore, the world’s oldest known terrain map in printed form comes from the edited encyclopedia of Yang Jia in 1155, which displays western China without the formal grid system that was characteristic of more professionally made Chinese maps.

Moveable Type Printing

Woodblock printing: The Bencao on traditional Chinese medicine; printed with woodblock in 1249, Song dynasty.

The innovation of movable type printing was made by the artisan Bi Sheng (990–1051), first described by the scientist and statesman Shen Kuo in his Dream Pool Essays of 1088. Movable type enhanced the already widespread use of woodblock methods of printing thousands of documents and volumes of written literature, which were then consumed eagerly by an increasingly literate public. The advancement of printing deeply affected education and the scholar-official class; since more books could be made faster, printed books were cheaper than laboriously handwritten copies. The enhancement of widespread printing and print culture in the Song period was thus a direct catalyst in the rise of social mobility and expansion of the educated class of scholar elites, the latter of which expanded dramatically in size from the 11th to 13th centuries.

The Yuan Dynasty, 1271-1368

The Mongol Invasions

The Yuan dynasty was founded by Kublai Khan, leader of a major Mongolian clan who invaded China but adopted many Chinese customs and practices.


The Yuan dynasty was the ruling dynasty of China established by Kublai Khan, leader of the Mongolian Borjigin clan. Although the Mongols had ruled territories including today’s North China for decades, it was not until 1271 that Kublai Khan officially proclaimed the dynasty in the traditional Chinese style. His realm was, by this point, isolated from the other khanates, and he controlled most of present-day China and its surrounding areas, including modern Mongolia and Korea. It was the first foreign dynasty to rule all of China and lasted until 1368, after which its Genghisid rulers returned to their Mongolian homeland and continued to rule the Northern Yuan dynasty. Some of the Mongolian emperors of the Yuan mastered the Chinese language, while others used only their native language, Mongolian.

The Yuan dynasty is considered both a successor to the Mongol Empire and an imperial Chinese dynasty. It was the khanate ruled by the successors of Möngke Khan after the division of the Mongol Empire. In official Chinese histories, the Yuan dynasty bore the Mandate of Heaven, following the Song dynasty and preceding the Ming dynasty. The dynasty was established by Kublai Khan, yet he placed his grandfather Genghis Khan on the imperial records as the official founder of the dynasty as “Taizu.” In the Proclamation of the Dynastic Name, Kublai announced the name of the new dynasty as Great Yuan and claimed the succession of former Chinese dynasties from the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors to the Tang dynasty.

In addition to Emperor of China, Kublai Khan also claimed the title of Great Khan, supreme over the other successor khanates: the Chagatai, the Golden Horde, and the Ilkhanate. As such, the Yuan was also sometimes referred to as the Empire of the Great Khan. However, while the wester khans at times recognized the claim of supremacy by the Yuan emperors, their subservience was nominal and each continued his own separate development.

The Rise of Kublai Khan and the Mongol Invasions of China

Genghis Khan united the Mongol and Turkic tribes of the steppes and became Great Khan in 1206. He and his successors expanded the Mongol Empire across Asia. Under the reign of Genghis’s third son, Ögedei Khan, the Mongols destroyed the weakened Jin dynasty in 1234, conquering most of northern China. Ögedei offered his nephew Kublai a position in Xingzhou, Hebei. Kublai was unable to read Chinese but had had several Han Chinese teachers attached to him since his early years by his mother Sorghaghtani. He sought the counsel of Chinese Buddhist and Confucian advisers. Möngke Khan succeeded Ögedei’s son Güyük as Great Khan in 1251, and he granted his brother Kublai control over Mongol-held territories in China. Kublai built schools for Confucian scholars, issued paper money, revived Chinese rituals, and endorsed policies that stimulated agricultural and commercial growth. He adopted as his capital city Kaiping in Inner Mongolia, later renamed Shangdu.

Möngke Khan commenced a military campaign against the Chinese Song dynasty in southern China. The Mongol force that invaded southern China was far greater than the force they sent to invade the Middle East in 1256. Möngke died in 1259 without a successor. Kublai returned from fighting the Song in 1260 and learned that his brother, Ariq Böke, was challenging his claim to the throne. Kublai convened a kurultai in Kaiping that elected him Great Khan, but a rival kurultai in Mongolia proclaimed Ariq Böke Great Khan, beginning a civil war. Kublai depended on the cooperation of his Chinese subjects to ensure that his army received ample resources. He bolstered his popularity among his subjects by modeling his government on the bureaucracy of traditional Chinese dynasties and adopting the Chinese era name of Zhongtong. Ariq Böke was hampered by inadequate supplies and surrendered in 1264. All of the three western khanates (Golden Horde, Chagatai Khanate, and Ilkhanate) became functionally autonomous; only the Ilkhans truly recognized Kublai as Great Khan. Civil strife had permanently divided the Mongol Empire.

The Rule of Kublai Khan

Kublai Khan: A portrait of the founder of Yuan dynasty, the Mongolian Kublai Khan.

Instability troubled the early years of Kublai Khan’s reign. Ogedei’s grandson Kaidu refused to submit to Kublai and threatened the western frontier of Kublai’s domain, and the hostile but weakened Song dynasty remained an obstacle in the south. Kublai secured the northeast border in 1259 by installing the hostage prince Wonjong as the ruler of Korea, making it a Mongol tributary state. Kublai was also threatened by domestic unrest. Li Tan, the son-in-law of a powerful official, instigated a revolt against Mongol rule in 1262. After successfully suppressing the revolt, Kublai curbed the influence of the Han Chinese advisers in his court. He feared that his dependence on Chinese officials left him vulnerable to future revolts and defections to the Song.

Kublai’s government after 1262 was a compromise between preserving Mongol interests in China and satisfying the demands of his Chinese subjects. He instituted the reforms proposed by his Chinese advisers by centralizing the bureaucracy, expanding the circulation of paper money, and maintaining the traditional monopolies on salt and iron. He restored the Imperial Secretariat and left the local administrative structure of past Chinese dynasties unchanged. However, Kublai rejected plans to revive the Confucian imperial examinations and divided Yuan society into three, later four, classes, with the Han Chinese occupying the lowest rank. Kublai’s Chinese advisers still wielded significant power in the government, but their official rank was nebulous.

Founding of the Yuan Dynasty

Kublai readied the move of the Mongol capital from Karakorum in Mongolia to Khanbaliq in 1264, constructing a new city near the former Jurchen capital Zhongdu, now modern Beijing, in 1266. In 1271, Kublai formally claimed the Mandate of Heaven and declared that 1272 was the first year of the Great Yuan in the style of a traditional Chinese dynasty. The name of the dynasty originated from the I Ching and describes the “origin of the universe” or a “primal force.” Kublai proclaimed Khanbaliq the “Great Capital” or Daidu of the dynasty. The era name was changed to Zhiyuan to herald a new era of Chinese history. The adoption of a dynastic name legitimized Mongol rule by integrating the government into the narrative of traditional Chinese political succession. Khublai evoked his public image as a sage emperor by following the rituals of Confucian propriety and ancestor veneration, while simultaneously retaining his roots as a leader from the steppes. The Yuan dynasty is traditionally given credit for reuniting China after several hundred years of fragmentation following the fall of the Tang dynasty.

Trade and Currency under the Yuan

During the Yuan dynasty, trade flourished and peace reigned along the newly revived Silk Road, contributing to a period known as the Pax Mongolica.


Marco Polo on the Silk Road: A closeup of the Mallorquín Atlas depicting Marco Polo traveling to the East on the Silk Road during the Pax Mongolica.

Kublai Khan promoted commercial, scientific, and cultural growth. He supported the merchants of the Silk Road trade network by protecting the Mongol postal system, constructing infrastructure, providing loans that financed trade caravans, and encouraging the circulation of paper banknotes. Pax Mongolica, Mongol peace, enabled the spread of technologies, commodities, and culture between China and the West. Kublai expanded the Grand Canal from southern China to Daidu in the north. Mongol rule was cosmopolitan under Kublai Khan. He welcomed foreign visitors to his court, such as the Venetian merchant Marco Polo, who wrote the most influential European account of Yuan China. Marco Polo’s travels would later inspire many others, like Christopher Columbus, to chart a passage to the Far East in search of its legendary wealth.

Trade under the Yuan Dynasty: Pax Mongolica

Pax Mongolica is a historiographical term, modeled after the original phrase Pax Romana, that describes the stabilizing effects of the conquests of the Mongol Empire on the social, cultural, and economic life of the inhabitants of the vast Eurasian territory that the Mongols conquered in the 13th and 14th centuries, including the Yuan dynasty in China. The term is used to describe the eased communication and commerce the unified administration helped to create, and the period of relative peace that followed the Mongols’ vast conquests.

Before the Mongols’ rise, the Old World system consisted of isolated imperial systems. The new Mongol Empire amalgamated the once-isolated civilizations into a new continental system and re-established the Silk Road as a dominant method of transportation. The unification of Eurasia under the Mongols greatly diminished the amount of competing tribute gatherers throughout the trade network and assured greater safety and security in travel. During the Pax Mongolica, European merchants like Marco Polo made their way from Europe to China on the well-maintained and well-traveled roads that linked Anatolia to China.

On the Silk Road, caravans with Chinese silk and spices such as pepper, ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg from the Spice Islands came to the West via the transcontinental trade routes. Eastern diets were thus introduced to Europeans. Indian muslins, cotton, pearls, and precious stones were sold in Europe, as were weapons, carpets, and leather goods from Iran. Gunpowder was also introduced to Europe from China. In the opposite direction, Europeans sent silver, fine cloth, horses, linen, and other goods to the near and far East. Increasing trade and commerce meant that the respective nations and societies increased their exposure to new goods and markets, thus increasing the GDP of each nation or society that was involved in the trade system. Μany of the cities participating in the 13th century world trade system grew rapidly in size.

Along with land trade routes, a Maritime Silk Road contributed to the flow of goods and establishment of a Pax Mongolica. This Maritime Silk Road started with short coastal routes in Southern China. As technology and navigation progressed, these routes developed into a high-seas route into the Indian Ocean. Eventually these routes further developed to encompass the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the sea off East Africa.

Along with tangible goods, people, techniques, information, and ideas moved lucidly across the Eurasian landmass for the first time. For example, John of Montecorvino, archbishop of Peking, founded Roman Catholic missions in India and China and also translated the New Testament into the Mongolian language. Long-distance trade brought new methods of doing business from the Far East to Europe; bills of exchange, deposit banking, and insurance were introduced to Europe during the Pax Mongolica. Bills of exchange made it significantly easier to travel long distances because a traveler would not be burdened by the weight of metal coins.

Monetary Policies and Paper Money

Yuan dynasty money: Yuan dynasty banknote, the chao, with its printing plate (1287)

One of the more notable applications of printing technology in China was the chao, the paper money of the Yuan, made from the bark of mulberry trees. The Yuan government first used woodblocks to print paper money, but switched to bronze plates in 1275. The Mongols experimented with establishing the Chinese-style paper monetary system in Mongol-controlled territories outside of China. The Yuan minister Bolad was sent to Iran, where he explained Yuan paper money to the Il-khanate court of Gaykhatu. The Il-khanate government issued paper money in 1294, but public distrust of the exotic new currency doomed the experiment.

Foreign observers took note of Yuan printing technology. Marco Polo documented the Yuan printing of paper money and almanac pamphlets called “tacuini.” The vizier Rashid-al-Din recognized that printing was a valuable technological breakthrough, and expressed regret that the Mongol experiment with printing paper money had failed in the Muslim world. Rashid-al-Din’s view was not shared by other chroniclers in the Middle East, who were critical of the experiment’s disruptive impact on the Il-khanate.

In 1253, Möngke established a Department of Monetary affairs to control the issuance of paper money in order to eliminate the overissue of the currency by Mongol and non-Mongol nobles since the reign of Great Khan Ögedei. His authority established united measure based on sukhe or silver ingot; however, the Mongols allowed their foreign subjects to mint coins in the denominations and weight they traditionally used. During the reigns of Ögedei, Güyük, and Möngke, Mongol coinage increased with gold and silver coinage in Central Asia and copper and silver coins in Caucasus, Iran, and southern Russia.

The Yuan dynasty under Kublai Khan issued paper money backed by silver, and again banknotes supplemented by cash and copper cash. The standardization of paper currency allowed the Yuan court to monetize taxes and reduce carrying costs of taxes in goods, as did the policy of Möngke Khan. But the forest nations of Siberia and Manchuria still paid their taxes in goods or commodities to the Mongols; chao was used only within the Yuan dynasty. Ghazan’s fiscal reforms enabled the inauguration of a unified bimetallic currency in the Ilkhanate. Chagatai Khan Kebek renewed the coinage backed by silver reserves and created a unified monetary system throughout the realm.

Decline of the Yuan Dynasty

After years of internal struggle, famine, and diminishing territorial control, the Yuan dynasty was defeated by the rising Ming dynasty in 1368.


The final years of the Yuan dynasty were marked by struggle, famine, and bitterness among the populace. In time, Kublai Khan’s successors lost all influence on other Mongol lands across Asia, as the Mongols beyond the Middle Kingdom saw them as too Chinese. Gradually, they lost influence in China as well. The reigns of the later Yuan emperors were short and marked by intrigues and rivalries. Uninterested in administration, they were separated from both the army and the populace, and China was torn by dissension and unrest. Outlaws ravaged the country without interference from the weakening Yuan armies.

From the late 1340s onwards, people in the countryside suffered from frequent natural disasters such as droughts, floods, and the resulting famines, and the government’s lack of effective policy led to a loss of popular support. In 1351, the Red Turban Rebellion started and grew into a nationwide uprising. In 1354, when Toghtogha led a large army to crush the Red Turban rebels, Toghun Temür suddenly dismissed him for fear of betrayal. This resulted in Toghun Temür’s restoration of power on the one hand and a rapid weakening of the central government on the other. He had no choice but to rely on local warlords’ military power, and gradually lost his interest in politics and ceased to intervene in political struggles, all of which led to the official end of the Yuan dynasty in China. After trying to regain Khanbaliq, an effort that failed, he died in Yingchang (located in present-day Inner Mongolia) in 1370. Yingchang was seized by the Ming shortly after his death. Some Yuan royal family members still live in Henan today.

Prince Basalawarmi of Liang established a separate pocket of resistance to the Ming in Yunnan and Guizhou, but his forces were decisively defeated by the Ming in 1381. By 1387 the remaining Yuan forces in Manchuria under Naghachu had also surrendered to the Ming dynasty.

Northern Yuan

Northern Yuan: The Northern Yuan at its greatest territorial extent.

The Yuan remnants retreated to Mongolia after Yingchang fell to the Ming in 1370, and there formally carried on the name Great Yuan in what is known as the Northern Yuan dynasty. According to Chinese political orthodoxy, there could be only one legitimate dynasty whose rulers were blessed by Heaven to rule as emperors of China, and so the Ming and the Northern Yuan denied each other’s legitimacy as emperors of China, although the Ming did consider the previous Yuan it had succeeded to have been a legitimate dynasty. Historians generally regard Ming dynasty rulers as the legitimate emperors of China after the Yuan dynasty.

The Ming army pursued the ex-Yuan Mongol forces into Mongolia in 1372, but were defeated by the Mongol forces under Biligtü Khan Ayushiridara and his general Köke Temür. They tried again in 1380, ultimately winning a decisive victory over the Northern Yuan in 1388. About 70,000 Mongols were taken prisoner, and Karakorum (the Northern Yuan capital) was sacked. Eight years later, the Northern Yuan throne was taken over by Biligtü Khan Ayushiridara, a descendant of Ariq Böke, instead of the descendants of Kublai Khan. The following centuries saw a succession of Genghisid rulers, many of whom were mere figureheads put on the throne by those warlords who happened to be the most powerful. Periods of conflict with the Ming dynasty intermingled with periods of peaceful relations with border trade.

The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644

The Ming dynasty was founded by the peasant rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang.


The Ming dynasty (January 23, 1368–April 25, 1644), officially the Great Ming, was an imperial dynasty of China founded by the peasant rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang (known posthumously as Emperor Taizu). It succeeded the Yuan dynasty and preceded the short-lived Shun dynasty, which was in turn succeeded by the Qing dynasty. At its height, the Ming dynasty had a population of at least 160 million people, but some assert that the population could actually have been as large as 200 million.

Ming rule saw the construction of a vast navy and a standing army of one million troops. Although private maritime trade and official tribute missions from China had taken place in previous dynasties, the size of the tributary fleet under the Muslim eunuch admiral Zheng He in the 15th century surpassed all others in grandeur. There were enormous construction projects, including the restoration of the Grand Canal, the restoration of the Great Wall as it is seen today, and the establishment of the Forbidden City in Beijing during the first quarter of the 15th century. The Ming dynasty is, for many reasons, generally known as a period of stable, effective government. It is seen as the most secure and unchallenged ruling house that China had known up until that time. Its institutions were generally preserved by the following Qing dynasty. Civil service dominated government to an unprecedented degree at this time. During the Ming dynasty, the territory of China expanded (and in some cases also retracted) greatly. For a brief period during the dynasty northern Vietnam was included in Ming territory. Other important developments included the moving of the capital from Nanjing to Beijing.

Founding of the Ming Dynasty

The Mongol-led Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) ruled before the establishment of the Ming dynasty. Alongside institutionalized ethnic discrimination against Han Chinese that stirred resentment and rebellion, other explanations for the Yuan’s demise included overtaxing areas hard-hit by crop failure, inflation, and massive flooding of the Yellow River caused by abandonment of irrigation projects. Consequently, agriculture and the economy were in shambles, and rebellion broke out among the hundreds of thousands of peasants called upon to work on repairing the dikes of the Yellow River.

A number of Han Chinese groups revolted, including the Red Turbans in 1351. Zhu Yuanzhang was a penniless peasant and Buddhist monk who joined the Red Turbans in 1352, but soon gained a reputation after marrying the foster daughter of a rebel commander.

Zhu was a born into a desperately poor tenant farmer family in Zhongli Village in the Huai River plain, which is in present-day Fengyang, Anhui Province. When he was sixteen, the Huai River broke its banks and flooded the lands where his family lived. Subsequently, a plague killed his entire family, except one of his brothers. He buried them by wrapping them in white clothes. Destitute, Zhu accepted a suggestion to take up a pledge made by his late father and became a novice monk at the Huangjue Temple, a local Buddhist monastery. He did not remain there for long, as the monastery ran short of funds and he was forced to leave. For the next few years, Zhu led the life of a wandering beggar and personally experienced and saw the hardships of the common people. After about three years, he returned to the monastery and stayed there until he was around twenty-four years old. He learned to read and write during the time he spent with the Buddhist monks.

The monastery where Zhu lived was eventually destroyed by an army that was suppressing a local rebellion. In 1352, Zhu joined one of the many insurgent forces that had risen in rebellion against the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. He rose rapidly through the ranks and became a commander. His rebel force later joined the Red Turbans, a millenarian sect related to the White Lotus Society, and one that followed cultural and religious traditions of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and other religions. Widely seen as a defender of Confucianism and neo-Confucianism among the predominantly Han Chinese population in China, Zhu emerged as a leader of the rebels that were struggling to overthrow the Yuan dynasty.

In 1356 Zhu’s rebel force captured the city of Nanjing, which he would later establish as the capital of the Ming dynasty. Zhu enlisted the aid of many able advisors, including the artillery specialists Jiao Yu and Liu Bowen.

Zhu cemented his power in the south by eliminating his arch rival, rebel leader Chen Youliang, in the Battle of Lake Poyang in 1363. This battle was—in terms of personnel—one of the largest naval battles in history. After the dynastic head of the Red Turbans suspiciously died in 1367 while a guest of Zhu, Zhu made his imperial ambitions known by sending an army toward the Yuan capital in 1368. The last Yuan emperor fled north into Mongolia and Zhu declared the founding of the Ming dynasty after razing the Yuan palaces in Dadu (present-day Beijing) to the ground.

Hongwu Emperor of the Ming dynasty: Zhu Yuanzhang, later Hongwu Emperor, was the founder and first emperor of China’s Ming dynasty. Born a poor peasant, he later rose through the ranks of a rebel army and eventually overthrew the Yuan leaders and established the Ming dynasty.

Instead of following the traditional way of naming a dynasty after the first ruler’s home district, Zhu Yuanzhang’s choice of “Ming,” or “Brilliant,” for his dynasty followed a Mongol precedent of choosing an uplifting title. Zhu Yuanzhang also took “Hongwu,” or “Vastly Martial,”‘ as his reign title. Although the White Lotus had instigated his rise to power, the emperor later denied that he had ever been a member of the organization, and suppressed the religious movement after he became emperor.

Zhu Yuanzhang drew on both past institutions and new approaches in order to create jiaohua (civilization) as an organic Chinese governing process. This included building schools at all levels and increasing study of the classics as well as books on morality. There was also a distribution of Neo-Confucian ritual manuals and a new civil service examination system for recruitment into the bureaucracy.

The Economy under the Ming Dynasty

The economy of the Ming dynasty was characterized by extreme inflation, the return to silver bullion, and the rise of large agricultural markets.


The economy of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) of China was the largest in the world during that period. It is regarded as one of China’s three golden ages (the other two being the Han and Song periods). The period was marked by the increasing political influence of the merchants, the gradual weakening of imperial rule, and technological advances.

Currency during the Ming Dynasty

Spring Morning in a Han Palace by Qiu Ying (1494–1552): Excessive luxury and decadence marked the late Ming period, spurred by the enormous state bullion of incoming silver and by private transactions involving silver.

The early Ming dynasty attempted to use paper currency, with outflows of bullion limited by its ban on private foreign commerce. Like its forebears, paper currency experienced massive counterfeiting and hyperinflation. In 1425, Ming notes were trading at about 0.014% of their original value under the Hongwu Emperor. The notes remained in circulation as late as 1573, but their printing ceased in 1450. Minor coins were minted in base metals, but trade mostly occurred using silver ingots. As their purity and exact weight varied, they were treated as bullion and measured in tael. These privately made “sycee” first came into use in Guangdong, spreading to the lower Yangtze sometime before 1423, the year sycee became acceptable for payment of tax obligations.

In the mid-15th century, the paucity of circulating silver caused a monetary contraction and an extensive reversion to barter. The problem was met through smuggled, then legal, importation of Japanese silver, mostly through the Portuguese and Dutch, and Spanish silver from Potosí carried on the Manila galleons. Silver was required to pay provincial taxes in 1465, the salt tax in 1475, and corvée exemptions in 1485. By the late Ming, the amount of silver being used was extraordinary; at a time when English traders considered tens of thousands of pounds an exceptional fortune, the Zheng clan of merchants regularly engaged in transactions valued at millions of taels. However, a second silver contraction occurred in the mid-17th century when King Philip IV of Spain began enforcing laws limiting direct trade between Spanish South America and China at about the same time the new Tokugawa shogunate in Japan restricted most of its foreign exports, cutting off Dutch and Portuguese access to its silver. The dramatic spike in silver’s value in China made payment of taxes nearly impossible for most provinces. The government even resumed use of paper currency amid Li Zicheng’s rebellion.

Agriculture during the Ming Dynasty

In order to recover from the rule of the Mongols and the wars that followed, the Hongwu Emperor enacted pro-agricultural policies. The state invested extensively in agricultural canals and reduced taxes on agriculture to 3.3% of the output, and later to 1.5%. Ming farmers also introduced many innovations such as water-powered plows, and new agricultural methods such as crop rotation. This led to a massive agricultural surplus that became the basis of a market economy.

The Ming saw the rise of commercial plantations that produced crops suitable to their regions. Tea, fruit, paint, and other goods were produced on a massive scale by these agricultural plantations. Regional patterns of production established during this period continued into the Qing dynasty. The Columbian exchange brought crops such as corn. Still, large numbers of peasants abandoned the land to become artisans. The population of the Ming boomed; estimates for the population of the Ming range from 160 to 200 million.

Agriculture during the Ming changed significantly. Firstly, gigantic areas devoted to cash crops sprung up, and there was demand for the crops in the new market economy. Secondly, agricultural tools and carts, some water powered, help to create a large agricultural surplus that formed the basis of the rural economy. Besides rice, other crops were grown on a large scale.

Although images of autarkic farmers who had no connection to the rest of China may have some merit for the earlier Han and Tang dynasties, this was certainly not the case for the Ming dynasty. During the Ming dynasty, the increase in population and the decrease in quality land made it necessary for farmers to make a living off cash crops. Markets for these crops appeared in the rural countryside, where goods were exchanged and bartered.

A second type of market that developed in China was the urban-rural type, in which rural goods were sold to urban dwellers. This was common when landlords decided to reside in the cities and use income from rural land holdings to facilitate exchange in those urban areas. Professional merchants used this type of market to buy rural goods in large quantities.

The third type of market was the “national market,” which was developed during the Song dynasty but particularly enhanced during the Ming. This market involved not only the exchanges described above, but also products produced directly for the market. Unlike earlier dynasties, many Ming peasants were no longer generating only products they needed; many of them produced goods for the market, which they then sold at a profit.

Land Reform

As the Hongwu Emperor came from a peasant family, he was aware of how peasants used to suffer under the oppression of the scholar-bureaucrats and the wealthy. Many of the latter, relying on their connections with government officials, encroached unscrupulously on peasants’ lands and bribed the officials to transfer the burden of taxation to the poor. To prevent such abuse, the Hongwu Emperor instituted two systems: Yellow Records and Fish Scale Records. These systems served both to secure the government’s income from land taxes and to affirm that peasants would not lose their lands.

However, the reforms did not eliminate the threat of the bureaucrats to peasants. Instead, the expansion of the bureaucrats and their growing prestige translated into more wealth and tax exemption for those in government service. The bureaucrats gained new privileges and some became illegal money-lenders and managers of gambling rings. Using their power, the bureaucrats expanded their estates at the expense of peasants’ land through outright purchase of those lands and foreclosure on their mortgages whenever they wanted the lands. The peasants often became either tenants or workers, or sought employment elsewhere.

Since the beginning of the Ming dynasty in 1357, great care was taken by the Hongwu Emperor to distribute land to peasants. One way was through forced migration to less dense areas; some people were tied to a pagoda tree in Hongdong and moved. Public works projects, such as the construction of irrigation systems and dikes, were undertaken in an attempt to help farmers. In addition, the Hongwu Emperor also reduced the demands for forced labour on the peasantry. In 1370, the Hongwu Emperor ordered that some lands in Hunan and Anhui should be given to young farmers who had reached adulthood. The order was intended to prevent landlords from seizing the land, as it also decreed that the titles to the lands were not transferable. During the middle part of his reign, the Hongwu Emperor passed an edict stating that those who brought fallow land under cultivation could keep it as their property without being taxed.

The Role of Foreign Trade

Trade during the Ming dynasty began slowly, with severe restrictions, especially toward Japan, but later expanded to markets around the world.

Trade Restrictions

Japanese pirates: A map of 16th-century Japanese pirate raids, a phenomenon that gave rise to severe trade restrictions in the Ming.

In the early Ming, after the devastation of the war that expelled the Mongols, the Hongwu Emperor imposed severe restrictions on trade (the “haijin” or “sea ban”). Believing that agriculture was the basis of the economy, Hongwu favored that industry over all else, including the merchant industry. Partly imposed to deal with Japanese piracy amid the mopping up of Yuan partisans, the sea ban was completely counterproductive; by the 16th century, piracy and smuggling were endemic and mostly consisted of Chinese who had been dispossessed by the policies. China’s foreign trade was limited to irregular and expensive tribute missions, and resistance to them among the Chinese bureaucracy led to the scrapping of Zheng He’s fleets. Piracy dropped to negligible levels only upon the ending of the policy in 1567.

After Hongwu Emperor’s death, most of his policies were reversed by his successors. By the late Ming, the state was losing power to the very merchants Hongwu had wanted to restrict.

Trade Expands

Matteo Ricci map: Map of East Asia by the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci in 1602; Ricci (1552–1610) was the first European allowed into the Forbidden City. He taught the Chinese how to construct and play the spinet, translated Chinese texts into Latin and vice versa, and worked closely with his Chinese associate Xu Guangqi (1562–1633) on mathematical work.

After the Chinese banned direct trade with Japan, the Portuguese filled this commercial vacuum as intermediaries between China and Japan. The Portuguese bought Chinese silk and sold it to the Japanese in return for Japanese-mined silver; since silver was more highly valued in China, the Portuguese could then use Japanese silver to buy even larger stocks of Chinese silk. However, by 1573—after the Spanish established a trading base in Manila—the Portuguese intermediary trade was trumped by the prime source of incoming silver to China from the Spanish Americas. Although it is unknown just how much silver flowed from the Philippines to China, it is known that the main port for the Mexican silver trade—Acapulco—shipped between 150,000 and 345,000 kg (4 to 9 million taels) of silver annually from 1597 to 1602.

Although the bulk of imports to China were silver, the Chinese also purchased New World crops from the Spanish Empire. This included sweet potatoes, maize, and peanuts, foods that could be cultivated in lands where traditional Chinese staple crops—wheat, millet, and rice—couldn’t grow, hence facilitating a rise in the population of China. In the Song dynasty (960–1279), rice had become the major staple crop of the poor; after sweet potatoes were introduced to China around 1560, they gradually became the traditional food of the lower classes. The Ming also imported many European firearms in order to ensure the modernness of their weapons.

The beginning of relations between the Spanish and Chinese were much warmer than when the Portuguese were first given a reception in China. In the Philippines, the Spanish defeated the fleet of the infamous Chinese pirate Limahong in 1575, an act greatly appreciated by the Ming admiral who had been sent to capture Limahong. In fact, the Chinese admiral invited the Spanish to board his vessel and travel back to China, beginning a trip that included two Spanish soldiers and two Christian friars eager to spread the faith. However, the friars returned to the Philippines after it became apparent that their preaching was unwelcome; Matteo Ricci would fare better in his trip of 1582. The Augustinian monk Juan Gonzáles de Mendoza wrote an influential work on China in 1585, remarking that the Ming dynasty was the best-governed kingdom he was aware of in the known world.

The thriving of trade and commerce was aided by the construction of canals, roads, and bridges by the Ming government. The Ming saw the rise of several merchant clans such as the Huai and Jin, who disposed of large amounts of wealth. The gentry and merchant classes started to fuse, and the merchants gained power at the expense of the state. Some merchants were reputed to have a treasure of 30 million taels.

Art under the Ming Dynasty

Literature, poetry, and painting flourished during the Ming dynasty, especially in the economically prosperous lower Yangtze valley.

Literature and Poetry

Short fiction had been popular in China as far back as the Tang dynasty (618–907), and the works of contemporaneous Ming authors such as Xu Guangqi, Xu Xiake, and Song Yingxing were often technical and encyclopedic, but the most striking literary development during the Ming period was the vernacular novel. While the gentry elite were educated enough to fully comprehend the language of classical Chinese, those with rudimentary educations—such as women in educated families, merchants, and shop clerks—became a large potential audience for literature and performing arts that employed vernacular Chinese. Literati scholars edited or developed major Chinese novels into mature form in this period, such as Water Margin and Journey to the West. Jin Ping Mei, published in 1610, though it incorporated earlier material, exemplifies the trend toward independent composition and concern with psychology. In the later years of the dynasty, Feng Menglong and Ling Mengchu innovated with vernacular short fiction. Theater scripts were equally imaginative. The most famous script, The Peony Pavilion, was written by Tang Xianzu (1550–1616), and had its first performance at the Pavilion of Prince Teng in 1598.

Informal essay and travel writing was another highlight of Ming literature. Xu Xiake (1587–1641), a travel literature author, published his Travel Diaries in 404,000 written characters, with information on everything from local geography to mineralogy. In contrast to Xu Xiake, who focused on technical aspects in his travel literature, the Chinese poet and official Yuan Hongdao (1568–1610) used travel literature to express his desires for individualism, as well as autonomy from and frustration with Confucian court politics. Yuan desired to free himself from the ethical compromises that were inseparable from the career of a scholar-official. This anti-official sentiment in Yuan’s travel literature and poetry was actually following in the tradition of the Song dynasty poet and official Su Shi (1037–1101). Yuan Hongdao and his two brothers, Yuan Zongdao (1560–1600) and Yuan Zhongdao (1570–1623), were the founders of the Gong’an School of letters. This highly individualistic school of poetry and prose was criticized by the Confucian establishment for its association with intense sensual lyricism, which was also apparent in Ming vernacular novels such as the Jin Ping Mei. Yet even the gentry and scholar-officials were affected by the new popular romantic literature, seeking courtesans as soulmates to reenact the heroic love stories that arranged marriages often could not provide or accommodate.

The first reference to the publishing of private newspapers in Beijing was in 1582; by 1638 the Beijing Gazette switched from using woodblock print to movable type printing. The new literary field of the moral guide to business ethics was developed during the late Ming period for the readership of the merchant class.


Chen Hongshou painting from the Ming period: Painting of flowers, a butterfly, and rock sculpture by Chen Hongshou (1598–1652); small leaf album paintings like this one first became popular in the Song dynasty.

Famous painters included Ni Zan and Dong Qichang, as well as the Four Masters of the Ming dynasty, Shen Zhou, Tang Yin, Wen Zhengming, and Qiu Ying. They drew upon the techniques, styles, and complexity in painting achieved by their Song and Yuan predecessors, but added techniques and styles. Well-known Ming artists could make a living simply by painting due to the high prices they charged for their artworks and the great demand by the highly cultured community to collect precious works of art. The artist Qiu Ying was once paid 100 oz of silver to paint a long hand-scroll for the eightieth birthday celebration of the mother of a wealthy patron. Renowned artists often gathered an entourage of followers, some who were amateurs who painted while pursuing an official career, and others who were full-time painters.

The painting techniques that were invented and developed before the Ming period became classical during it. More colors were used in painting during the Ming dynasty; seal brown became much more widely used, and even over-used. Many new painting skills and techniques were innovated and developed; calligraphy was much more closely and perfectly combined with the art of painting. Chinese painting reached another climax in the mid- and late-Ming. Painting was derived in a broad scale, many new schools were born, and many outstanding masters emerged.


Ming pottery: Ming dynasty Xuande mark and period (1426–35) imperial blue and white vase. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The period was also renowned for ceramics and porcelains. The major production centers for porcelain were the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province and Dehua in Fujian province. The Dehua porcelain factories catered to European tastes by creating Chinese export porcelain by the 16th century. Individual potters also became known, such as He Chaozong, who became famous in the early 17th century for his style of white porcelain sculpture. The ceramic trade thrived in Asia; Chuimei Ho estimates that about 16% of late Ming era Chinese ceramic exports were sent to Europe, while the rest were destined for Japan and South East Asia.

Carved designs in lacquerware and designs glazed onto porcelain wares displayed intricate scenes similar in complexity to those in painting. These items could be found in the homes of the wealthy, alongside embroidered silks and wares in jade, ivory, and cloisonné. The houses of the rich were also furnished with rosewood furniture and feathery latticework. The writing materials in a scholar’s private study, including elaborately carved brush holders made of stone or wood, were designed and arranged ritually to give an aesthetic appeal.

Connoisseurship in the late Ming period centered on these items of refined artistic taste, which provided work for art dealers and even underground scammers who themselves made imitations and false attributions. The Jesuit Matteo Ricci, while staying in Nanjing, wrote that Chinese scam artists were ingenious at making forgeries and thus huge profits. However, there were guides to help the wary new connoisseurs; Liu Tong (d. 1637) wrote a book printed in 1635 that told his readers how to spot fake and authentic pieces of art. He revealed that a Xuande-era (1426–1435) bronzework could be authenticated by judging its sheen; porcelain wares from the Yongle era (1402–1424) could be judged authentic by their thickness.

Fall of the Ming Dynasty

The fall of the Ming dynasty was caused by a combination of factors, including an economic disaster due to lack of silver, a series of natural disasters, peasant uprisings, and finally attacks by the Manchu people.

Economic Breakdown

During the last years of the Wanli Emperor’s reign and the reigns of his two successors, an economic crisis developed that was centered around a sudden widespread lack of the empire’s chief medium of exchange: silver. The Protestant powers of the Dutch Republic and the Kingdom of England were staging frequent raids and acts of piracy against the Catholic-based empires of Spain and Portugal in order to weaken their global economic power. Meanwhile, Philip IV of Spain (r. 1621–1665) began cracking down on illegal smuggling of silver from Mexico and Peru across the Pacific towards China, in favor of shipping American-mined silver directly from Spain to Manila. In 1639, the new Tokugawa regime of Japan shut down most of its foreign trade with European powers, causing a halt of yet another source of silver coming into China. However, while Japanese silver still came into China in limited amounts, the greatest stunt to the flow of silver came from the Americas.

These events occurring at roughly the same time caused a dramatic spike in the value of silver and made paying taxes nearly impossible for most provinces. People began hoarding precious silver, forcing the ratio of the value of copper to silver into a steep decline. In the 1630s, a string of one thousand copper coins was worth an ounce of silver; by 1640 it was reduced to the value of half an ounce; by 1643 it was worth roughly one-third of an ounce. For peasants this was an economic disaster, since they paid taxes in silver while conducting local trade and selling their crops with copper coins.

Natural Disasters

In this early half of the 17th century, famines became common in northern China because of unusual dry and cold weather that shortened the growing season; these were effects of a larger ecological event now known as the Little Ice Age. Famine, alongside tax increases, widespread military desertions, a declining relief system, natural disasters such as flooding, and the inability of the government to properly manage irrigation and flood-control projects, caused widespread loss of life and normal civility. The central government was starved of resources and could do very little to mitigate the effects of these calamities. Making matters worse, a widespread epidemic spread across China from Zhejiang to Henan, killing a large but unknown number of people. The famine and drought in the late 1620s and the 1630s contributed to the rebellions that broke out in Shaanxi led by rebel leaders such as Li Zicheng and Zhang Xianzhong.

The Qing Conquest of Ming: Rebellion, Invasion, Collapse

The Qing conquest of the Ming was a period of conflict between the Qing dynasty, established by the Manchu clan Aisin Gioro in Manchuria (contemporary Northeastern China), and the ruling Ming dynasty of China. The Manchu, formerly called the Jurchen people, had risen to power under the leadership of a tribal leader named Nurhaci. Leading up to the Qing conquest, in 1618 Nurhaci commissioned a document titled the Seven Grievances, which enumerated resentments against the Ming and bespoke rebellion against their domination. Many of the grievances dealt with conflicts against Yehe, which was a major Manchu clan, and Ming favoritism of Yehe. Nurhaci’s demand that the Ming pay tribute to him to redress the Seven Grievances was effectively a declaration of war, as the Ming were not willing to pay money to a former tributary. Shortly afterwards, Nurhaci began to force the Ming out of Liaoning in southern Manchuria.

Nurhaci of the Manchu: Nurhaci’s conquest of Ming China’s northeastern Liaoning province laid the groundwork for the conquest of the rest of China by his descendants, who founded the Qing dynasty in 1644.

At the same time, the Ming dynasty was fighting for its survival against fiscal turmoil and peasant rebellions. In 1640, masses of Chinese peasants who were starving, unable to pay their taxes, and no longer in fear of the frequently defeated Chinese army, began to form into huge bands of rebels. The Chinese military, caught between fruitless efforts to defeat the Manchu raiders from the north and huge peasant revolts in the provinces, essentially fell apart. On April 24, 1644, Beijing fell to a rebel army led by Li Zicheng, a former minor Ming official who became the leader of the peasant revolt and then proclaimed the Shun dynasty. The last Ming emperor, the Chongzhen Emperor, hanged himself on a tree in the imperial garden outside the Forbidden City. When Li Zicheng moved against him, the Ming general Wu Sangui shifted his alliance to the Manchus. Li Zicheng was defeated at the Battle of Shanhai Pass by the joint forces of Wu Sangui and the Manchu Prince Dorgon. On June 6, the Manchus and Wu entered the capital and proclaimed the young Shunzhi Emperor as Emperor of China.

Battle of Shanhai Pass: A drawing of the mountainous battlegrounds of the decisive Battle of Shanhai Pass.

The Kangxi Emperor ascended the throne in 1661, and in 1662 his regents launched the Great Clearance to defeat the resistance of Ming loyalists in South China. He fought off several rebellions, such as the Revolt of the Three Feudatories led by Wu Sangui in southern China starting in 1673, and then countered by launching a series of campaigns that expanded his empire. In 1662, Zheng Chenggong founded the Kingdom of Tungning in Taiwan, a pro-Ming dynasty state with a goal of reconquering China. However, the Kingdom of Tungning was defeated in the Battle of Penghu by Han Chinese admiral Shi Lang, who had also served under the Ming.

The fall of the Ming dynasty was caused by a combination of factors. Kenneth Swope argues that one key factor was deteriorating relations between Ming royalty and the Ming empire’s military leadership. Other factors include repeated military expeditions to the North, inflationary pressures caused by spending too much from the imperial treasury, natural disasters, and epidemics of disease. Contributing further to the chaos was the peasant rebellion in Beijing in 1644 and a series of weak emperors. Ming power would hold out in what is now southern China for years, but eventually would be overtaken by the Manchus.

Provided by Boundless, published by Lumen Learning under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.