After They also promoted foreign trade and improvements in

After the Han Dynasty warped in A.D. 220, no ruler was solid
enough to hold China together. More than 30 local dynasties rose and fell over next
350 years. Finally, by 589, an ruler named Wendi had combined northern and
southern China once again. He reinstated a strong central administration. Under
the next two dynasties, the Tang and the Song, China skilled a lengthy golden
age (Wallace, 248). It became the richest, most powerful, and most advanced
country in the world.

The endless labor on state projects turned the people
against the Sui Dynasty. Tired, they finally revolted. In 618, a member of the
imperial court assassinated the second Sui emperor. While short-lived, the Sui
Dynasty built a strong base for the great achievements of the next dynasty, the
Tang (tahng). The Tang Dynasty ruled for nearly 300 years (618–907). The Tang
emperor who began these achievements was Tang Taizong. His brilliant reign
lasted from 626 to 649. Under the Tang rulers, the empire expanded. Taizong’s
armies reconquered the northern and western lands that China had lost since the
decline of the Han Dynasty. By 668, China had extended its influence over Korea
as well. The ruler during the campaign in Korea was the empress Wu Zhao (woo jow). From about 660 on,
she held the real power while weak emperors sat on the throne. Finally, in 690,
Empress Wu assumed the title of emperor for herself—the only woman ever to do
so in China. Tang rulers further strengthened the central government of China.
They expanded the network of roads and canals begun by the Sui. This helped to
pull the empire together. They also promoted foreign trade and improvements in
agriculture. They revived and expanded the civil service examination for civil
bureaucracy (Wallace, 250). The relatively few candidates who passed the tough
exams became part of an elite group of scholar-officials. In theory, the exams
were open to all men, even commoners. However, only the wealthy could afford
the necessary years of education. Also, men with political connections could
obtain high positions without taking the exams. Despite these flaws, the system
created a remarkably intelligent and capable governing class in China. To meet
the rising costs of government, Tang rulers imposed crushing taxes in the
mid-700s. These brought hardship to the people but failed to cover the costs of
military expansion and new building programs. Moreover, the Tang struggled to
control the vast empire they had built. In 751, Muslim armies soundly defeated
the Chinese at the Battle of Talas. As a result, Central Asia passed out of Chinese
control and into foreign hands. After this time, border attacks and internal
rebellions steadily chipped away at the power of the imperial government. Finally,
in 907, Chinese rebels sacked and burned the Tang capital at Ch’ang-an, and
murdered the last Tang emperor, a child.

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After the fall of the Tang Dynasty, rival warlords divided
China into separate kingdoms. Then, in 960, an able general named Taizu
reunited China and proclaimed himself the first Song (sung) emperor. The Song
Dynasty, like the Tang, lasted about three centuries (960–1279). Although the
Song ruled a smaller empire than either the Han or the Tang, China remained stable,
powerful, and prosperous. Song armies never regained the western lands lost
after 751. Nor did they regain northern lands that had been lost to nomadic
tribes during the Tang decline. For a time, Song emperors tried to buy peace
with their northern enemies. They paid hefty annual tributes of silver, silk,
and tea. This policy, however, ultimately failed to stop the threat from the
north. In the early 1100s, a Manchurian people called the Jurchen conquered
northern China and established the Jin Empire. The Jurchen forced the Song to
retreat south across the Huang He. After 1127, the Song emperors ruled only
southern China. The Song rulers established a grand new capital at Hangzhou, a
coastal city south of the Chang Jiang (Wallace, 257). Despite its military
troubles, the dynasty of the Southern Song (1127–1279) saw rapid economic
growth. The south had become the economic heartland of China. Merchants in
southern cities grew rich from trade with Chinese in the north, nomads of
Central Asia, and people of western Asia and Europe.

During the Tang and Song dynasties, China’s population
nearly doubled, soaring to 100 million. By the Song era, China had at least ten
cities with a population of 1 million each. China had become the most populous
country in the world. It also had become the most advanced. Artisans and
scholars made important technological advances during the Tang and Song eras. Among
the most important inventions were movable type and gunpowder. With movable type, a printer could arrange
blocks of individual characters in a frame to make up a page for printing. Previously,
printers had carved the words of a whole page into one large block (Wallace,
254). The development of gunpowder, in time, led to the creation of explosive weapons
such as bombs, grenades, small rockets, and cannons. Other important inventions
of this period include porcelain, the mechanical clock, paper money, and the
use of the magnetic compass for sailing. The 1000s to the 1200s was a rich
period for Chinese mathematics. The Chinese made advances in arithmetic and
algebra. Many mathematical ideas, such as using negative numbers, spread from
China southward and westward. The rapid growth of China resulted in part from
advances in farming. Farmers especially improved the cultivation of rice. In
about the year 1000, China imported a new variety of fast-ripening rice from
Vietnam. This allowed the farmers to harvest two rice crops each year rather
than one. To make sure that farmers knew about this improved variety, Chinese
officials distributed seedlings throughout the country. The agricultural
improvements enabled China’s farmers to produce more food (Wallace, 255). This
was necessary to feed the rapidly expanding population in the cities. Under the
Tang and Song emperors, foreign trade flourished. Tang imperial armies guarded
the great Silk Roads, which linked China to the West. Eventually, however,
China lost control over these routes during the long Tang decline. After this
time, Chinese merchants relied increasingly on ocean trade. Chinese advances in
sailing technology, including use of the magnetic compass, made it possible for
sea trade to expand. Up and down China’s long coastline, the largest port
cities in the world bustled with international trade. Merchant ships carried
trade goods to Korea and Japan. They sailed across the Indian Ocean to India,
the Persian Gulf, and even the coast of Africa. Chinese merchants established
trading colonies around Southeast Asia. Many foreign traders, mostly Arabs,
resided in Chinese cities. Through trade and travel, Chinese culture spread
throughout East Asia. One major cultural export was Buddhism. This religion
spread from China to Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. The exchange of goods and ideas
was two-way. For example, foreign religions, including Islam and some Eastern
sects of Christianity, spread to China and won followers. The prosperity of the
Tang and Song dynasties nourished an age of artistic brilliance. The Tang
period produced great poetry. Two of its most celebrated poets were Li Bo, who
wrote about life’s pleasures, and Tu Fu, who praised orderliness and Confucian
virtues. Tu Fu also wrote critically about war and the hardships of soldiers.
China’s prosperity produced many social changes during the Tang and Song
periods. Chinese society became increasingly mobile. People moved to the cities
in growing numbers. The Chinese also experienced greater social mobility than
ever before. The most important avenue for social advancement was the civil
service system. During Tang and Song times, the power of the old aristocratic families
began to fade. A new, much larger upper class emerged, made up of scholar-officials
and their families. Such a class of powerful, well-to-do people is called the gentry. The gentry attained their
status through education and civil service position rather than through land
ownership. Below the gentry was an urban middle class. It included merchants,
shopkeepers, skilled artisans, minor officials, and others. At the bottom of
urban society were laborers, soldiers, and servants.  In the countryside lived the largest class by
far, the peasants. They toiled for wealthy
landowners as they had for centuries (Wallace, 258). Women had always been
subservient to men in Chinese society. Their status further declined during the
Tang and Song periods. This was especially true among the upper classes in
cities. There a woman’s work was deemed less important to the family’s
prosperity and status. Changing attitudes affected peasant families less,
however. Peasant women worked in the fields and helped produce their family’s
food and income. One sign of the changing status of women was the new custom of
binding the feet of upper-class girls. When a girl was very young, her feet
were bound tightly with cloth, which eventually broke the arch and curled all
but the big toe under. This produced what was admiringly called a “lily-foot.”
Women with bound feet were crippled for life (Wallace, 258). To others in
society, such a woman reflected the wealth and prestige of her husband, who could
afford such a beautiful but impractical wife.

The social, economic, and technological transformations of
the Tang and Song periods permanently shaped Chinese civilization. They endured
even as China fell to a group of nomadic outsiders, the Mongols.


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