Late Medieval China


A Chinese cavalryman c. 1260 is shown firing on a Mongolian warrior. The huo qiang or fire lance, which may date back to the 10th century. It was essentially a hollow tube made from thick layers of I paper, inside which was put a charge of gunpowder and shrapnel pieces. When the huo qiang was lit, it blasted out a jet of flame and projectiles, the flames having an endurance of several seconds and reaching out to a range of 9ft (3m). In a sense, here was the earliest hand-held flamethrower.

Under both the Tang and Song (Sung) Dynasties (960-1279), China experienced widespread economic growth, which in turn gave birth to a Chinese golden age. This success was based upon the development of the agricultural potential of southern China, most significantly in the production of rice in the Yangtze (pinyin, Chang) River Valley. The future of China would now be determined by the link between the bureaucratic north and the agricultural south. To solidify this crucial relationship, the government constructed the Grand Canal, a magnificent civil engineering project that was, in its time, the largest human-made waterway in the world. The canal increased transportation throughout the country, both accelerating trade and creating a sense of unity. The maintenance and protection of the Grand Canal became a major focus of the Chinese military. In times of conflict, this waterway allowed the emperor to move troops swiftly to any trouble spot.

With China’s great economic success came a softening of Chinese society, widespread political corruption, and a series of weak and incompetent emperors who eventually sapped the energy of the empire. In particular, the effectiveness of both the bureaucracy and the military was decreased, helping to create the conditions for the Mongol conquests at the beginning of the thirteenth century. These nomadic warriors first entered China at the invitation of the declining Song Dynasty. The emperor hoped that they would engage and destroy the Jürcheds and the Jin (Chin), two northern nomadic tribes that threatened to invade China. In 1234 the Jin were defeated by a Sino-Mongolian military alliance, but then, in direct violation of that agreement, the Song attempted to occupy the newly conquered land and extend their empire into the northern territories. This action shattered the alliance and set in motion the Mongol conquest of China and the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).

The Mongols would have a significant impact upon Chinese history. They established their capital at Beijing and abolished the bureaucracy based upon Confucianism and the examination system. These actions were taken specifically to negate the influence of the scholar gentry. The Mongols eventually adopted many aspects of Chinese culture and aggressively promoted its literature and art. Despite this openness, the Mongols were never able to find a solution to the Sino-Mongolian ethnic rivalry. Most of the intellectuals from the gentry class considered the Mongols to be uncouth barbarians. This ethnocentricity was exacerbated by the gentry’s resentment of the abolition of the state examination system, which blocked the gentry from gaining access to the highest levels of political power.

After the death of Kublai Khan (1215-1294), the Yuan Dynasty fell into a period of decline. There were essentially four reasons that this took place. First, the southern region was occupied by a large number of activists who had remained loyal to the Song Dynasty. As the Yuan declined, many of these disenchanted groups were emboldened to take political action that eventually resulted in an empire-wide revolt. Second, Yuan military prestige also suffered a severe blow from two disastrous military expeditions against Japan in 1274 and 1280. Third, Yuan military failures were founded in the general weakness of the post-Kublai Khan government that was beset by deep-seated corruption within the political bureaucracy. By the middle of the fourteenth century, the Mongol government was far too weak to maintain its control over all of China. Fourth, the increase in peasant uprisings and the rise of secret revolutionary societies resulted in a series of disastrous insurrections that finally forced the Mongols to withdraw to their ancestral homeland.


Military Achievement

After he had secured the eastern border, the Tang emperor returned his attention toward the west. From 736 to 755 a series of successful campaigns extended the borders of the empire to the Pamir range, bringing the Tang to the frontier of Islamic civilization and placing these two great eighth century powers on a collision course. This Sino-Islamic crisis reached a flash point at the Battle of Talas River (751), a bloody confrontation that lasted for five days. The armies of Islam ultimately defeated the Chinese forces, ending Tang westward expansion.

This defeat marked the beginning of the Tang Dynasty’s decline. Decades of military campaigns had taken a toll on Chinese society, and the losses in both revenue and productivity were significant. These problems led to widespread civil unrest, which devastated Chinese society. For more than one hundred years, the emperors and their bureaucracies had failed to return the empire to a state of normalcy, and by 884 the Tang Dynasty was shattered.

With the final collapse of the Tang Empire in 907, China fell into a chaotic intermediate period referred to as the time of the Five Dynasties (907-960). None of the dynasties was able to unify China, and order was finally restored in 960, with the establishment of the Song. Most historians refer to the Song as the world’s first modern state, and its emperors were traditionally antimilitary. The government, in constant fear of an armed takeover, made strong efforts to limit the army’s power. The Song created a military model that placed their generals under the control of the civilian bureaucracy, resulting in the military’s lowered prestige and appeal for the aristocratic class. In time, the military came to be dominated by the lower echelons of Song society, and by the middle of the eleventh century enlisted men were receiving one-tenth of their former wages. This lowered pay caused great economic hardship, and mutinies became commonplace.

The Song government was faced with significant financial difficulties. The population of China had reached 140 million, and vast amounts of money had been set aside for the construction of large-scale irrigation projects. The empire had to import the vast majority of its cavalry horses, which also cost a considerable amount of money. China’s underfinanced military was grossly ill-equipped to meet the security challenges of the nomadic horsemen of central Asia. The Song bureaucracy responded to this problem by adopting a military philosophy based upon the concept of strategic defense. Money was allocated for the construction of massive fortifications that would frustrate the light horse cavalry tactics of the nomadic armies. The military theory that all defensive structures are eventually neutralized by an opposition force came to pass in the last years of the Song Dynasty. When the Song-Mongol military alliance broke down, the aggressive Mongol warriors quickly defeated the demoralized forces of the emperor and established the Yuan Dynasty. Between 1200 and 1405 the Mongols conquered Tibet, Russia, Iraq, Asia Minor, and southern and eastern Europe.

By the middle of the fourteenth century, the Yuan Dynasty began to decline. Years of famine gave rise to peasant unrest, and a secret religious sect known as the White Lotus spread anti-Yuan propaganda concerning the reestablishment of the Song Dynasty. In turn, the White Lotus also supported a peasant rebel organization known as the Red Turban movement. Fighting broke out between the Yuan forces in the south and the rebel armies. The success of these armies was primarily due to the fact that the Yuan had failed to keep the system of defensive walls under repair. The Yuan’s nomadic heritage and military success were based upon swift cavalry movements, and a defensive mindset was totally alien to them. Eventually, the Mongols were able to defeat the rebel armies, but they were never able to regain complete political control of southern China.

From 1351 to 1368 the Mongols were involved in a series of military campaigns against Chinese forces in the south, in which they suffered a series of disastrous setbacks. The Mongols decided to abandon much of their territory and returned to their ancient homelands in the north. This strategic withdrawal marked the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368- 1644).

The new Ming emperor and his intellectual elite modeled themselves after the Song Dynasty. Like the Song the Ming adopted an isolationist policy that kept the government’s focus on protecting the homeland.