Don't call it a spade
The Song Golden Age
People are asking for more Chinese history. I agree. Chinese history is great. It’s long, it’s well documented, and it’s documented in explicitly moralistic terms. Chinese thought has been always focused in how to achieve good governance, and histories are written as to contain parables of what good government is, and what bad government leads to. The most valued history book in China, the Zizhi Tongjian 資治通鑒, written by Sima Guang in 1084, again explicitly states that it is to be an aid for emperors and mandarins to achieve good governance. Good government leads to nice things. Bad government leads to death and misery. That’s all Chinese intellectuals have ever cared about. I think it’s a good priority to have.
Sima Guang was a brilliant scholar, and it’s a huge pity that he finished his book just before the best story in Chinese history happened. The Jingkang Incident of 1127. Oh man, that’s such a great, great story. There should be more books about it. It’s perhaps the most compelling story in the history of mankind. It’s just so unbelievably simple, yet dramatic. It’s so good it seems fiction. But no fiction is this good. Anyway, let me tell you this story. It’ll probably take several parts.
So again, the time is the Song Dynasty, 960-1279. If you’ve been reading my posts on the Water Margin, you have some minimum background. The Song Dynasty was under many accounts the most wealthy and successful of all Chinese dynasties. Not to date; the best dynasty, period. Better than anything than came later. Richer, more urbanized, and arguably with better technology. The Song Dynasty had machinery that the Qing Dynasty didn’t have in the 19th century. The Song economy had huge foreign trade links, and the Song government in 1000 again had higher revenues than the Chinese government in 1900.
Some argue that that was the result of better governance. As seen in the previous post, the Song had solved an eternal problem of Chinese governance: how to deal with the military and the aristocracy. The solution they took was to screw them both, and put the government completely in hands of the bureaucracy. They set up their model civil examination system, reduced the number of eunuchs to a minimum, took care the armies in the provinces didn’t get too big, kept most of the imperial family in the capital so they didn’t develop territorial power. I wonder if urban life was also meant to keep them busy having fun while depressing their fertility. Not a bad research idea.
Anyway, of course the obvious result of all that is that the army sucked balls. The Song army sucked really badly. How badly? Well compare a map of the dynasties of China.
This is the first big Chinese dynasty, the Han dynasty, 202 BC – 220 AD. See it owns most of China proper, it also includes north Vietnam, north Korea, and the Tarim Basin, i.e. the Silk Road oases where today the Uyghurs live. It didn’t start like that; the imperial territory was extended mostly by one guy, the emperor Wu (156-87), who was a truly amazing individual. I should write his story some day, but you could also watch 漢武大帝 which is an awesome show.
Anyway the Han Dynasty fell mostly when the Roman Principate fell. Like Rome too it kinda recovered once, but then they started fighting each other and the northern barbarians took over one half of it. Oh, parallels. And people say there are no patterns in history.
Anyway, Rome never recovered its glory, but China did unite again. It took a while, until the Sui Dynasty, but the whole thing didn’t start working properly again until the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Tang’s peak territory looks like this:
Look at that. The Tang owned all the Han did, and then some. The Tang owned the whole Mongolian steppe, Central Asia well up to the borders of Persia, not only north but a big chunk of South Korea. Now all that is, well, theoretical. The core Chinese land remained the same, everywhere else was populated by foreign peoples. But the Tang had beaten them militarily, every single one, and forced them to swear allegiance. It didn’t take much for that allegiance to disappear; in about a century the Tang lost of all of Central Asia, the Tarim Basin, Mongolia and Korea. But the Tang had managed once to crush everyone, fair and square. The Chinese still love to read about the great Tang Taizong and how he led the best Chinese armies ever to beat everyone up to Persia.
Let’s look now at the Song then.
The Song were beyond small. They were by far the smallest dynasty in Chinese history. They lost Vietnam, which is still around by the way. They let a bunch of quasi-Tibetan herders, the Tanguts, grab the Northwest, the path to the Silk Road, land that had been Chinese for a thousand years. And they even lost the northern edge of the Chinese heartland, the land around Beijing today. Look at this topographic map.
You see that Beijing is at the edge of a huge plain. That’s why the capital is there, to watch the mountain passes which divide China proper from the steppes at the north. You must control those passes, else the nomads come raiding whenever they want. Well, to be fair, the Song hadnt lost it, nor it lost Vietnam or all the others. All those lands were taken during the civil war after the Tang collapsed. The Song just failed to recapture them. The area of Beijing was taken by the Khitan, a dynasty of Mongolic herders, which as you can see in the previous map, was big, very big, and very very strong. The Song tried dozens of time but they couldn’t dislodge them, nor could they beat the Tanguts, who were at most a bunch of ten thousand of herders. The Song was by far the smallest and weakest of all Chinese dynasties.
They didn’t care though: they were swimming in money. Losing access to the Silk Road forced them to trade by sea: and surprise, maritime trade is much more profitable! The Song Dynasty had higher revenues in 1000 than the Qing dynasty had in 1900. Their technology boomed: by some accounts the Song had better machinery than the Qing 800 years later. Urbanization rates were also the highest China ever saw until the 20th century.
The Song were weak, but they were rich: they decided it was cheaper to pay off the barbarians than to keep an army to fight them. And it was true. What were the barbarians going to do with all that silver anyway? They naturally spent it in buying stuff from China. So the silver went away as tribute, and came back as trade. Better than to keep an army of uppity generals and risk that they stage a rebellion or blackmail the court every now and then. While a section of the bureaucracy was against such a dishonorable treaty, the smartest Mandarins knew that in order to keep running the government they’d better pay off the barbarians and keep the military from having any influence at court.
It was a massive diplomatic coup. It worked brilliantly. The Khitan were actually fairly civilized people. They were literate in Chinese, developed their own script based on it, run a fairly sophisticated state apparatus. The problem between nomadic herders and settled farmers is that nomadic life is hard. It’s hard to live off animal products only. Nomads also want grain, cloth, paper, tea, you know, nice stuff. The only way of getting it is to trade or to take it by force. But the Khitan managed to invade a small bunch of Chinese land. It was enough for them; they got their small territory of Chinese land, full of Chinese farmers to make grain for them, Chinese scribes to run their government for them. The Khitan kept their capital north of the mountains, enjoyed their hunting and herding, and as long as the Song kept sending silver and silk, they respected a peace that lasted a 100 years.
The weakness of the Song solved the Mongol problem, allegedly for the price of the tax income of a single province. The army didn’t like it, but the army could go to hell. At the Song it was the mandarins who run things. And they were doing a mighty fine job. The population doubled to more than 100 million people. Printing was invented and developed into a national industry, as well as gunpowder. Art and literature also developed beyond anything previous. It was a Golden Age. Some people say the Song were on the breach of undergoing a capitalist revolution.
And so we come to the reign of Huizong, the year 1100.
Huizong was a very refined man. Look at his face. He was a very skilled artist, and his paintings and calligraphy have survived to our time. Take a look at the link, they’re very impressive. His handwriting is regarded as one of the best in Chinese history, and I’m particularly fond of it. It must be fun to be able to write like that. I’d be writing stuff all day.
Being an artist and all that, the emperor wasn’t very much into government stuff. He was more into the joys of life. He liked painting, writing poetry, drinking with friends, playing football (they played Cuju, which sounds incredibly hard but apparently was very popular back then). He was into women too. He famously didn’t like the uptight hookers that got sent to his palace, so he had a tunnel built to go from the palace to the fanciest brothel in the capital so he could have fun like just any other aristocrat.
He was also into gardening. He had the fanciest stones in the realm be sent to him to decorate his garden. Stuff like this.
South China is full of this weird porous stones, and our emperor had a fancy for them. He had them brought from everywhere, and sent to the palace, rewarding who brought them with lots of gold. The thing is some of these stones were huge. China had canals all around its territory, so they could be relatively cheaply transported by water. But canals have bridges over them, and some of this stones just didn’t fit below the bridges. So what did they do? These are Imperial Stones we’re talking about. Rapacious bureaucrats who wanted to look good with the emperor had bridges demolished just so they could push the stones through to deliver to the emperor. The historical record is full of commoners wailing at the injustice. This is of course the time of the Water Margin and its peasant rebellions led by herodudes.
Huizong was also fond of weird animals. He had a part of his garden set up as a zoo, full with tigers, elephants and giraffes he had sent from Africa. In summary you’ll have noticed that the emperor of the Great Song after 1100 AD is a fairly extravagant fellow. But hey, the Song is rich, they could afford a fanciful emperor. What they could not afford though is a stupid emperor. Because just as Huizong was having fun watching pandas battle with giraffes for bamboo at his home zoo, probably accompanied by some hooker, at this very moment his Khitan neighbors were in trouble. Very serious trouble.