Hegemony occurs when a civilization extends its political, economic, social, and cultural influence over others. For example, we may refer to the hegemony of the United States in the early 21st century, or the conflicting hegemony of the United States and Russia during the Cold War Era. In the time period between 600 and 1450 CE, it was impossible for one empire to dominate the entire globe, largely because distance and communication were so difficult. Both the Islamic caliphates and the Mongol Empire fell at least partly because their land space was too large to control effectively. So the best any empire could do was to establish regional hegemony. During this time period, China was the richest and most powerful of all, and extended its reach over most of Asia.


During the period after the fall of the Han Dynasty in the 3rd century C.E., China went into a time of chaos, following the established pattern of dynastic cycles. During the short-lived Sui Dynasty (589-618 C.E.), China began to restore centralized imperial rule. A great accomplishment was the building of the Grand Canal, one of the world's largest waterworks projects before the modern era. The canal was a series of manmade waterways that connected the major rivers and made it possible for China to increase the amount and variety of internal trade. When completed it was almost 1240 miles long, with roads running parallel to the canal on either side.


In 618 a rebel leader seized China's capital, Xi'an, and proclaimed himself the emperor of the Tang Dynasty, an empire destined to last for almost three hundred years (till 907). Under the Tangs China regained strength and emerged as a powerful and prosperous society. Three major accomplishments of the Tang account for their long-lasting power:

  • A strong transportation and communications system - The Grand Canal contributed to this accomplishment, but the Tang rulers also built and maintained an advanced road system, with inns, postal stations, and stables to service travelers along the way. People traveled both on foot and by horse, and the emperor used the roads to send messages by courier in order to keep in contact with his large empire.
  • The equal-field system - The emperor had the power to allocate agricultural land to individuals and families, and the equal-field system was meant to ensure that land distribution was fair and equitable. Part of the emperor's motivation was to control the amount of land that went to powerful families, a problem that had caused strong challenges to the emperor's mandate during the Han Dynasty. The system worked until the 9th century, when influential families again came to accumulate much of the land.
  • A merit-based bureaucracy -This system was well developed during the Han Dynasty, but the Tang made good use of it by recruiting government officials who were well educated, loyal, and efficient. Although powerful families used their resources to place relatives in government positions, most bureaucrats won their posts because of intellectual ability.

Tang China extended its hegemony by extracting tribute (gifts and money) from neighboring realms and people. China was often called "the Middle Kingdom," because its people saw their civilization at the center of all that paid it honor. The empire itself was far larger than any before it, following along the river valleys from Vietnam to the south and Manchuria to the north, and extending into parts of Tibet. In 668, the Tang overran Korea, and established a vassal kingdom called Silla.


Long before the Tang Dynasty was founded, Buddhism had made its way into China along the trade routes. By the pre-Tang era, Buddhist monasteries had so grown in influence that they held huge tracts of land and exerted political influence. Many rulers of the pre-Tang era, particularly those from nomadic origins, were devout Buddhists. Many variations of Buddhism existed, with Mahayana Buddhism prevailing, a major branch of the religion that allowed a great deal of variance of Buddha's original teachings. Empress Wu (690-705) was one of Buddhism's strongest supporters, contributing large sums of money to the monasteries and commissioning many Buddhist paintings and sculptures. By the mid-9th century, more than 50,000 monasteries existed in China.

Confucian and Daoist supporters took note of Buddhism's growing influence, and they soon came to challenge it. Part of the conflict between Confucianism and Buddhism was that in many ways they were opposite beliefs, even though they both condoned "right" behavior and thought. Confucianism emphasized duties owed to one's society, and placed its highest value on order, hierarchy, and obedience of superiors. Buddhism, on the other hand, encouraged its supporters to withdraw from society, and concentrate on personal meditation. Finally in the 9th century, Confucian scholar-bureaucrats conspired to convince the emperors to take lands away from the monasteries through the equal-field system. Under emperor Wuzong, thousands of monasteries were burned, and many monks and nuns were forced to abandon them and return to civilian life.

Not only was Buddhism weakened by these actions, but the Tang Dynasty lost overall power as well. However, Confucianism emerged as the central ideology of Chinese civilization and survived as such until the early 20th century.


During the 8th century, warlords began to challenge the Tang rulers, and even though the dynasty survived until 907 C.E., the political divisions encouraged nomadic groups to invade the fringes of the empire. Worsening economic conditions led to a succession of revolts in the 9th century, and for a few years China fell into chaos again. However, recovery came relatively quickly, and a military commander emerged in 960 to reunite China, beginning the Song Dynasty. The Song emperors did not emphasize the military as much as they did civil administration, industry, education, and the arts. As a result, the Song never established hegemony over as large an area as the Tang had, and political disunity was a constant threat as long as they held power. However, the Song presided over a "golden era" of Chinese civilization characterized by prosperity, sophistication, and creativity.

The Song vastly expanded the bureaucracy based on merit by sponsoring more candidates with more opportunities to learn Confucian philosophy, and by accepting more candidates for bureaucratic posts than the Sui and Tang.


The Song created a more centralized government than ever before, but two problems plagued the empire and eventually brought about its fall:

  • Finances - The expansion of the bureaucracy meant that government expenses skyrocketed. The government reacted by raising taxes, but peasants rose in two major rebellions in protest. Despite these warnings, bureaucrats refused to give up their powerful positions.
  • Military - China had always needed a good military, partly because of constant threats of invasion by numerous nomadic groups. The Song military was led by scholar bureaucrats with little knowledge or real interest in directing armies. The Jurchens, a northern nomadic group with a strong military, conquered other nomads around them, overran northern China, and eventually capturing the Song capital. The Song were left with only the southern part of their empire that was eventually conquered by the Mongols in 1279 C.E.


Even though the Song military weakness eventually led to the dynasty's demise, it is notable for economic revolutions that led to Chinese hegemony during the era. China's economic growth in turn had implications for many other societies through the trade that it generated along the long-distance routes. The changes actually began during the Tang Dynasty and became even more significant during Song rule. Some characteristics of these economic revolutions are:

  • Increasing agricultural production - Before this era, Chinese agriculture had been based on the production of wheat and barley raised in the north. The Tang conquest of southern China and Vietnam added a whole new capability for agriculture &endash; the cultivation of rice. In Vietnam they made use of a new strain of fast-ripening rice that allowed the production of two crops per year. Agricultural techniques improved as well, with the use of the heavy iron plow in the north and water buffaloes in the south. The Tang also organized extensive irrigation systems, so that agricultural production was able to move outward from the rivers.
  • Increasing population - China's population about 600 C.E. was about 45 million, but by 1200 (the Song Dynasty) it had risen to about 115 million. This growth occurred partly because of the agricultural revolution, but also because distribution of food improved with better transportation systems, such as the Grand Canal and the network of roads throughout the empire.
  • Urbanization - The agricultural revolution also meant that established cities grew and new ones were created. With its population of perhaps 2,000,000, the Tang capital of Xi'an was probably the largest city in the world. The Song capital of Hangzhou was smaller, with about 1,000,000 residents, but it too was a cosmopolitan city with large markets, public theatres, restaurants, and craft shops. Many other Chinese cities had populations of more than 100,000. Because rice production was so successful and Silk Road and Indian Ocean trade was vigorous, other farmers could concentrate on specialty fruits and vegetables that were for sale in urban markets.
  • Technological innovations - During Tang times craftsmen discovered techniques for producing porcelain that was lighter, thinner, more useful, and much more beautiful. Chinese porcelain was highly valued and traded to many other areas of the world, and came to be known broadly as chinaware. The Chinese also developed superior methods for producing iron and steel, and between the 9th and 12th centuries, iron production increased tenfold. The Tang and Song are best known for the new technologies they invented, such as gunpowder, movable type printing, and seafaring aids, such as the magnetic compass. Gunpowder was first used in bamboo flame throwers, and by the 11th century inventors had constructed crude bombs.
  • Financial inventions - Because trade was so strong and copper became scarce, Chinese merchants developed paper money as an alternative to coins. Letters of credit called "flying cash" allowed merchants to deposit money in one location and have it available in another. The Chinese also used checks which allowed drawing funds deposited with bankers.


The conflict between Buddhism and Confucianism during the late Tang Dynasty eased under the Songs, partly because of the development of Neo-Confucianism. Classical Confucians were concerned with practical issues of politics and morality, and their main goal was an ordered social and political structure. Neo-Confucians also became familiar with Buddhist beliefs, such as the nature of the soul and the individual's spiritual relationships. They came to refer to li, a concept that defined a spiritual presence similar to the universal spirit of both Hinduism and Buddhism. This new form of Confucianism was an important development because it reconciled Confucianism with Buddhism, and because it influenced philosophical thought in China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan in all subsequent eras.



As wealth and agricultural productivity increase, the patriarchal social structure of Chinese society also tightened. With family fortunes to preserve, elites insured the purity of their lines by further confining women to the home. The custom of foot binding became very popular among these families. Foot binding involved tightly wrapping young girls' feet so that natural growth was seriously impaired. The result was a tiny malformed foot with the toes curled under and the bones breaking in the process. The women generally could not walk except with canes. Peasants and middle class women did not bind their feet because it was impractical, but for elite women, the practice - like wearing veils in Islamic lands - indicated their subservience to their male guardians.


The Mongols began to breach the Great Wall under Genghis Khan, but the southern Song was not conquered until his grandson, Kublai Khan captured the capital and set up a new capital in Beijing, which he called Khanbaluk, or "city of the Khan." This was the city that Marco Polo described to the world as the finest and richest in all the world. Under Kublai Khan, China was unified, and its borders grew significantly. Although Mongols replaced the top bureaucrats, many lower Confucian officials remained in place, and the Khan clearly respected Chinese customs and innovations. However, whereas the Song had emphasized cultural and organizational values, the Mongols were most adept in military affairs and conquest. Also, even though trade flourished during the Tang and Song era, merchants had a much lower status than scholars did. Kublai Khan and his successors put a great deal of effort into conquering more territory in Asia, and they elevated the status of merchants, actions deeply resented by the Confucian bureaucrats.

As borders expanded once again, the Yuan emperors experienced the old problem of empire &endash; too few military to protect too many borders. The Mongols increased tributes and established "tax farming," (a practice that gave middlemen the responsibility of collecting taxes), which led to corruption. The gap between the urban rich and the rural poor also grew, and a devastating plague spread though the population. All of these problems inspired conspiracy among the Confucian scholars, who led a revolt, toppled the Mongols, and established the Ming Empire.

The leader of the Ming revolt, Zhu Yuan Zhang, located the capital in Nanjing and made great efforts to reject the culture of the Mongols by closing off trade relations with Central Asia and the Middle East, and reasserting Confucian ideology. Thus the Ming set off a yo-yo effect of sorts in China that had been seen before, but became accentuated in the centuries that followed. China, a great civilization that was vitally connected to trade routes, shut herself off and turned to internal strengths. During this era, it was still possible because of great distances to other empires. China could choose to be left alone, and no one could do much about it, even if it limited long-distance trade profits. However, in subsequent eras this tendency to isolate itself would strip China of her hegemony and eventually lead to worldwide humiliation.