Bloody shovel

Don't call it a spade

The Song Dynasty’s Decline

So we left the story at Song Huizong. Huizong was as I wrote a consummate artist and a famous bon vivant. He knew how to enjoy himself. That means he generally wasn’t interested in politics. Politics is generally very boring, pushing paper around, taking decisions about stuff you know nothing about. However Huizong was very willing to do politics if the topic at hand was interesting enough; interesting enough for such a consummate artist, that is.

There is one topic he did like to discuss, which was war. Artists tend to like war. The glory of fighting, thousands of men armed to the teeth and killing each other in mass pitched battles. There’s something aesthetically very striking about that and artists across the world tend to be very attracted to it. Huizong was no exception, he was very much into war.

The thing is the Song dynasty had been founded explicitly as a peaceful state. The Song founder had decided the army was more trouble than it was worth, so he instituted a meritocratic bureaucracy and let it run the state more or less unimpeded for 100 years. That results in unprecedented prosperity, the reign of the 4th emperor Renzong being regarded as the historical peak of Chinese government. That produced its own set of problems, though. While you may not be interested in war, war is interested in you. While the Khitans in the Northeast were quite honorable, the Tanguts caught notice that the Song had no army to speak of, so they started to harass the border in order to extract more money. The Song had to keep 1 million soldiers in the frontier, which weren’t easy to pay. And the tax revenue wasn’t getting any better. The commercial economy grew with the typical effects: rich getting richer, using their wealth to buy tax exemptions, the poor getting poorer, rising in rebellion every few years.

Things started to change when Huizong’s father, Shenzong ascended to the throne in 1068. The guy was 19 years old. If 3000 years of Chinese monarchy have produced any lesson, the lesson is that young monarchs are trouble. They always are. Young people are by definition inexperienced, so they tend to do stupid stuff. And generally, young men like to fight. They are eager to fight. It’s in their blood. Sometimes that turns out well, as Han Wudi who basically tripled the territory of China in 30 years and crushed every single army around it. But usually young emperors pick fights without thinking, and the outcome is catastrophic.

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Gimme War

Huizong’s father was livid at how his dynasty was so small, so much smaller than the previous ones. Vietnam lost! The Northwest lost! He couldn’t stand those fucking Tanguts harassing the frontier. That won’t do. He had to punish them. By any means necessary. He started to come up with plans to fuck every goddamn tribe in the frontier. You give the reigns of power to a 20 year old kid and of course he wants war.

The mandarins weren’t having it, though. Your majesty, you see, we signed treaties with all these people. We can’t just go and attack them just like that. And you know, your great grandfather weakened the army for this and that reason. Please don’t be so rash. It’ll be ok.

But the young emperor wasn’t having it. If these mandarins didn’t want war, he’d find some who did. By this time the Imperial Examinations had been going on for a 100 years. And for all its benefits, the imperial examination system had been producing more grads than there were official positions available. There was a pretty big cohort of frustrated intellectuals who wanted a government position but couldn’t get that. Interestingly the court paid a salary to all examination grads, even if they didn’t have an official job. But that didn’t help morale either. They wanted to do something, to prove their worth. A textbook example of elite overproduction. Eventually the emperor found a mandarin who was willing to play ball. He found Wang Anshi.

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Inventing Socialism in 1070.

Wang Anshi sent a letter to the emperor telling that he knew exactly what to do to beat the evil barbarians, and that all the problems had been caused by evil mandarins who only thought of themselves. Wang Anshi had a far ranging plan of legal reforms, which amounted to the invention of Socialism. Yes, the Chinese also invented Socialism.

Wang Anshi argued that the tribute to barbarians had caused an increase in taxes which was oppressing the peasantry, and that rich landlords were making all the money. He basically ordered the nationalization of everything. Agricultural loans were to be done by the state; a welfare system was instituted for the old and the poor, prices were fixed, wages raised, speculation and monopolies forbidden by law. The raised revenue were to be used to reform the army and beat the barbarians.

Young emperor of course loved all this stuff. But the mandarins were really not having it. It was against them that all these reforms were aimed to. Landlords made their money by scamming the peasantry, giving them loans to buy seed, then buying grain at bottom rock prices when the harvest came all at once. All those commercial monopolies were also owned by mandarin families. This reform basically destroyed their fancy livelihoods, and they weren’t going to go down that easily. An extremely harsh factional fight paralized the whole government. Most of the mandarinate just wasn’t enforcing the new laws. Wang Anshi responded by removing all traditional checks on power and basically setting a dictatorship, and putting his own people in all important positions, reforming the very examination system so that future grads would be on his faction by default.

But the policies were just not working. Farming loans were being done by the government; so now the local officials became the landlords, and made money under the table for themselves. Local officials weren’t usually people of the land, so they extracted money even more viciously than the landlords, who had to be minimally nice to keep their local reputation. Government loans were set up to be lower than what landlords used to charge; but officials were actually forcing peasants to take loans even if they didn’t need them! Bureaucrats had quotas to meet, you know. So grab this super-low 20% interest loan now, or else. Ah, socialism.

The conservatives of course also took care to sabotage everything that the government was trying to do. They were pretty fond of their privileges, mind you. Eventually a famine happened, the local officials botched it, and the conservatives took the chance to blame it everything on Heaven’s displeasure with the damn socialists. The army reforms also didn’t go anywhere. As the rest of the world learned 900 years later: socialism doesn’t work because government officials are also people. It could have worked out if Wang Anshi had an army of devoted followers and 50 years to implement the whole thing. But he didn’t; all he had was his good prose and the favor of a dumb emperor. The whole thing barely lasted 5 years.

What it did do was completely destroy the stability of government. The mandarins had been a fairly cohesive bunch, playing nice with the emperor and with each other, respecting the constitution, such as it was, and governing by consensus. The New Laws of Wang Anshi brought factional disputes to court and henceforth everybody was constantly shitting on each other, and making up stuff in order to curry favor with the emperor. And the Emperor was into war. Yingzong died, succeeded by his son, who then died and was succeeded by his brother, who is this Huizong I’ve been writing about. Obviously the children followed the policies of their father. Not doing so would imply daddy was wrong, and that’s unfilial.

Several wars against the Tanguts resulted in complete destruction of the Song armies. They kept trying, though, I guess arguing that China had population to burn, which it arguably did. In 1096 the Song started to get the upper hand, but then the Khitan came in and threaten to attack the Song if it didn’t stop. The Song could barely manage to bully 10,000 Tibetan herders in the desert, but it was no match to the Khitan nomads in the Northeast, and grudgingly accepted.

So there we have Huizong, who was probably painting in his palace, while some concubine played the harp, and his buddies were pouring drinks while casually talking about those damn Khitans who denied our empire of its glory. Some day we should go raise an army and kill all those fuckers, right your majesty? Damn right, pour some more wine please.

Then news come that the Khitans are collapsing. The Khitan emperor Tianzuo had been an awful monarch. He spent the whole time, literally every day out of the palace with his buddies hunting in the countryside. The administration and the army decayed with rampant corruption, and nobody took care to straight things out.

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Now even if the Khitan ruling class were a bunch of corrupt slackers, the Khitan still should have had nothing to worry about. The Tanguts to their west was effectively a vassal state, they had them bought and controlled; and the Song down south were just not a threat. They hardly had a functional army. So the Khitans could have potentially kept being a failed state forever. Alas, they had trouble to their east.

Now to recap, the Khitans were a steppe people, and their language has been proven to be related to Mongol. So they were yet another tribe of Mongolian horse-archers. Let’s look at the map again.

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The Khitans lived in the steppe just north of China proper, beyond the mountains that encircle Beijing today. East of that there’s the Manchurian plain, but that’s not steppe. That’s forest. You can’t herd livestock there. You can’t farm it either, it’s freezing cold. The Manchurian plain was the land of, well, the Manchus, but they were called Jurchen back then. The Jurchen came in many varieties, some more civilized than others. A branch of the Jurchen (called by yet another name) had established the Bohai kingdom way back, but the Liao had destroyed it back in the 920s. So all that expanse of land was now mostly Jurchen tribes, down to the border with Korea. The Khitans set up a series of fortresses to keep them quiet, and extorted regular tribute in form of fish, fur, falcons, and other local produce.

Again, the Jurchens weren’t herders. They were hunter-gatherers. Very efficient hunter-gatherers. They fished a lot. They hunted all the time. Steppe riders make strong armies because they are very good horse-archers. They ride all the time, and they hunt a lot. But Mongols hunt for sport, they eat domesticated livestock. They don’t really need to hunt. The Jurchens didn’t have a choice: hunting was how they good their food. They practiced every single day. The Jurchens were such good archers that the Khitans report being amazed at how a Jurchen man could shoot a target 200 meters away.

The Jurchens were a bunch of unruly tribes who hated each other, but in recent years the Wanyan clan had risen and subdued most of the Jurchen tribes in the area where today the city of Harbin is. Now, in normal circumstances the Khitan court shouldn’t have allowed that to happen. It’s easier to control a bunch of divided tribes than a unified ethnic group. The Wanyan clan worked case by case, sent spies and sycophants to court, raised the tribute sent to the Khitan aristocrats, and basically sold them that it was in their best interest that the Wanyan owned the whole area so they could better control the locals and produce fur and falcon more efficiently. The Khitan were very much into fur and falcon; you didn’t get far in Khitan aristocracy if you didn’t have a falcon to hunt. And the Jurchens also sent troops to help the court crack down on an internal rebellion by a Khitan rebel. And so the Khitan court stupidly look the other way while the Wanyan started what was in retrospect an obvious case of state formation of the Jurchen people.

Eventually the Jurchens founded a good excuse and rose in rebellion against the Liao. Remember the Jurchens were a hunting people. The rebelling army was at most 2500 men, while the Liao had hundreds of thousand of soldiers at their command. But premodern war isn’t a question of numbers. The Jurchens slowly grew by targeting other ethnic groups which were discontent with the Khitan. When the Khitan sent a 100,000 army to quash the rebellion, the Jurchen knew all about it. They assaulted the camp at night with 3,000 men, and killed everyone on sight, completely destroying the Khitan army.

Asymmetric motivation is a very powerful force in history. The Jurchens were few, but they were strong, and they were fighting for their people, to build a state and lord over others. They fought willingly because they had little to lose, and lots to gain. The Khitan soldiers had very little reason to risk their necks in fighting the Jurchens. Fighting China is fun, you get into China, kill a bunch of wimps, and get to grab their stuff. Silk, pots, gold, women! But fighting the fierce Jurchens? What are you gonna grab from them? Smelly leather boots? The Khitan were no match for the Jurchens, who in no time took over all the fortresses in the Manchurian plains, and were dangerously close of the Khitan capital.

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The Khitan capital remains

News of the Khitan troubles got to China’s capital. Our artist emperor was of course ecstatic. At last! We should take advantage of that. All the sycophantic ministers proposed making an alliance with the Jurchens. Let them take all the barbarian land they wanted, in exchange of the Song taking back the northern edge of the Chinese plain and the mountain passes. The Jurchens agreed, but stipulated that the Song had to take the land they wanted by themselves. The Jurchens weren’t going to do the job for them. Thus a formal alliance was achieved.

The whole thing stunk. For better or worse, Song China and the Khitan Liao Dynasty had been in peace for 100 years. The Khitans could’ve kicked Chinese ass any time they wanted, but they respected the treaty. Now that the Khitans were in trouble, the Chinese didn’t wait a minute in betraying the treaty and stabbing them in the back. That wasn’t a very nice thing to do. It wasn’t very smart either.

Nobody told Huizong that, though, who was still having fun playing soccer and visiting hookers through his secret tunnel. In 1121 He ordered his closest eunuch, Tong Guan, who is famous as the only bearded eunuch in Chinese history, to command 150,000 troops and go straight to the southern capital of the Khitans, what is today Beijing. The Khitans in their steppe homeland were running from the Jurchens as fast as they could; surely they wouldn’t hold in the south very long either.

But the Chinese were still just no match for the Khitans. The Khitan commander in the south, Yelu Dashi, who was also perhaps the most incredible heroes in this story, held the walls, struck back at the Song forces, and destroyed the whole army. 150,000 men, gone. The whole Song army vanished in what was supposed to be a cakewalk. The eunuch commander panicked. He couldn’t just go back and say he didn’t take the land! They execute you for that stuff. So he sent an envoy to the Jurchens, saying: “Hey, we’re having some trouble here conquering the city. Why don’t you come down yourselves and take it, in exchange you can have all the booty: the gold, the women, the children, take them all. We’ll pay for all supplies you need. After you’re done you leave and we’ll take the land as agreed, right?”.

Well, why not. The Jurchens found it to be a good deal, so they came back through the mountain passes, and conquered Beijing in a week. Grabbed the gold and valuables, took the local women as concubines, took the children as slaves, sent them back to the Jin capital, close to today’s Harbin. Just in case you don’t know, Harbin isn’t a very comfortable place.

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It was probably colder back then, and at any rate it was a wooden village. No gas heating. All the virgins of Beijing were going to be enslaved there thanks to the ineptitude of the Song armies. Ineptitude that didn’t go unnoticed by the Jurchen armies on the ground. Remember they were supposed to hand the land over to the Song authorities. The Jurchens started discussing among themselves. “This guys suck, they couldn’t take a single city that took us a week”. But the Jurchen emperor, Aguda, was a man of honor. “We had an agreement, we’ll stand by it. I’m not the kind of man that takes advantage of the weakness of others”.

But then he died.

 

 

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10 responses to “The Song Dynasty’s Decline

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  3. imnobody00 April 24, 2016 at 04:23

    A real page turner. Please go on

  4. Giovanni Dannato April 24, 2016 at 12:08

    I’m getting a lot of enjoyment and value from your Asian historical narratives. Thank you.
    Never read that much about the Song because they were never as powerful as other dynasties. They always showed up as kind of an afterthought in historical atlases I was looking through, only to show the expansion of the Mongols.
    I’ve often wondered why the USA puts such high priority on its military forces when it’s a state based on commerce and without any neighbors that could threaten it. The Song had some good ideas.

    It always astonishes me how overwhelming numbers of troops were beaten by a few steppe tribesmen in episodes throughout East Asian history. Perhaps it shows how fragile the control of elites is when the vast majority of people have no stake in the state. The average peasant may simply not have cared much who was in power, making it possible for a small force to take over a nation of millions.

    • spandrell April 24, 2016 at 13:29

      That’s pretty much it. The Song were especially bad with frequent peasant revolts. They solved the threat of military coups but they sacrificed the allegiance of the peasantry by giving too much power to the mandarin aristocracy.

      The Song army was particularly inept; but the advantage of horse archery in the era before gunpowder was immense. The only limit to the destructive power of a nomad army is discipline and the number of soldiers. Once the Mongols figured that out they conquered everything that was worth conquering on earth.

      • jamesd127 April 25, 2016 at 00:37

        Horse archery is hard. Need really good bows, good men able to take care of difficult to care for bows, and able to shoot accurately from the back of a horse.

        Assume you have a thousand horse archers. If you run into foot soldiers with shorter range weapons, you can keep the correct distance and kill any number of foot soldiers, no matter how outnumbered.

        If you run into two thousand foot archers with range equal or better than your own, you avoid them, and look for a patrol containing a hundred foot archers. Maybe you go after the supply chain, or attack the army when it spreads out to forage.

        But because your forces are mounted and can live off the land, you have superior mobility and no supply chain. This makes it easy for you to concentrate forces from a wide area to attack a vulnerable enemy force, and then disperse them over a wide area when a strong enemy force comes looking for you. Wait till the strong enemy force splits up for reasons of supply, or in order to control a wide area, and then WHAM!

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  7. sflicht December 31, 2016 at 02:01

    This series is great; I’m sad I missed it when you first wrote it. Regarding Harbin, sure the climate is poor but the Book of Knowledge (Wikipedia) says it is blessed with chernozem soil (black earth), making it potentially one of the most nutrient-rich locations for agricultural production in (modern) China. Do you happen to know whether Song-era agricultural techniques were able to capitalize on this advantage? Were the Jurchen were actually doing some farming in the region, and did either Liao or Song know about the agricultural potential?

    • spandrell December 31, 2016 at 13:01

      I recall that the Jurchens did some marginal farming in the river valleys, but never a lot. The Liao didn’t know much about it, and the Song didn’t even have access, so no. The Harbin era was pretty much hunting and fishing territory until the Russians came to the neighbourhood and the Qing court sent Chinese farmers over there in a hurry in the 1880s. Today it certainly is a very productive agricultural area.

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