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.
THE "GOLDEN ERA" OF THE TANG AND SONG
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
STRENGTHS OF THE TANG
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.
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.
THE FOUNDING OF THE SONG DYNASTY
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.
PROBLEMS UNDER THE SONG
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
- 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.
ECONOMIC REVOLUTIONS OF THE TANG AND
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
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
- 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,
and Japan in
all subsequent eras.
PATRIARCHAL SOCIAL STRUCTURES
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.
KUBLAI KHAN, THE YUAN
DYNASTY, AND THE EARLY MING (1279-1450 C.E.)
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
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.