Reunification and Renaissance in Chinese Civilization: The Era of the Tang and Song Dynasties

Theme 1: Interaction Between Humans and the Environment

The technological innovations greatly improved in the Tang and Song dynasties. This caused the economy to advance during these time periods. An important invention was the movable type printer, created by Bi Sheng. With paper, which was also made during this era, China became one of the most literate civilizations of the time. Because of these two inventions, the Chinese developed accurate written records, which were important in administrative and intellectual matters.

Junks and the Grand Canal were also important technological achievements that greatly improved the Chinese economy through transportation. Junks helped to establish a stable overseas trade, which funded the empire and its many subjects. The Grand Canal connected the empire from north to south so that supplies and resources could be transferred, therefore improving economy and unifying the empire. Also a Chinese credit instrument that greatly contributed to the currency was flying money in China. Flying money reduced the dangers of robbery and was an early form of currency.

Theme 2: State-Building, Expansion, and Conflict

The Tang Dynasty was responsible for creating a vast empire that was far larger than that of the early Han Empire whose boundaries extended far beyond the borders or present-day China. During the Tang Era, Buddhism flourished until Emperor Wuzong  who began to persecute Buddhists as a result of their steadily increasing wealth and power. In addition, the scholar-gentry became an important social class, as each emperor relied solely on the bureaucracy to maintain the empire. The Tang Dynasty eventually collapsed when Emperor Xuanzong lost control of his subjects due to his rising interest in material pleasures and to his concubine Yang Guifei. 

After the Period of Five Dynasties, which was when five dynasties were almost established, Zhao Kuangyin founded the Song dynasty. Although Zhao did unify a large area of China, he did not manage to conquer the Khitans of the Liao dynasty and the Tangut tribes of Xi Xia. They would always remain a threat to the success of the Song Empire, since the Song rulers had to pay tribute to them to prevent invasions. The Jurchens, who ruled over the Jin kingdom, eventually conquered the Yellow River basin and forced the Song to move to the south, where they established one of the greatest empires of Chinese history. The Southern Song empire lasted from 1127- 1279 C.E., or until the Mongol invasion.


Above: A timeline for Chinese history

        Wendi: By seizing power though a marriage alliance he had organized, he became the ruler of the northern Zhou empire. He secured his power base by winning the support of neighboring nomadic military commanders instead of the Confucian scholar-gentry class. After defeating the Chen kingdom, he reunited the traditional core areas of Chinese civilization for the first time in three and a half centuries. Wendi lowered taxes and established granaries, which helped to stabilize the economy and improve the lives of peasants and landowners alike. 

Huangzhou: When the Song rulers were forced to flee to the south due to the ever-increasing threat of the northern nomadic peoples, Huangzhou became the capital of Song Empire. Its location allowed its traders & artisans to prosper through the sale of goods and the manufacture of products from materials drawn from throughout China as well as overseas. In the late Song dynasty, the city had more than a million and a half residents and this city famed for its wealth, cleanliness, and the number and variety of diversions it offered.

Above: A portrait of Yangdi

Yangdi: Yangdi killed his father, Wendi, in order to become emperor. He was successful in expanding the empire even further. Unlike his father, Yangdi favored the Confucian scholar-gentry instead of the aristocratic families and nomadic military commanders. Yangdi’s construction projects and failed military campaigns later caused economic and political problems to China. He was later forced to flee to Hangzhou, where he was assassinated. 

Above: This is a map of the Tang dynasty.

Li Yuan: Li Yuan began the Tang dynasty when he won the succession battles that had started soon after Yangdi’s death. Li Yuan used to be the Duke of Tang and the minister for Yangdi, but had abandoned Yangdi once he had grown too corrupt. He took the imperial title of Gaozu and made the Tang dynasty one of the golden ages of China.

Changan: Changan was the capital of the Tang dynasty. Its population was 2 million, which was larger than any other city in the world. This portrays the strength and power of the Tang dynasty.

Ministry of Public Rites: The Ministry of Public Rites administered examinations to students from Chinese government schools or those recommended by scholars. This helped develop the Chinese bureaucracy, and helped some talented but lower-class men to become one of the scholar-gentry.

Jinshi: Jinshi was the title given to those who passed the more difficult exams on Chinese literature administered by the Ministry of Rites. Jinshi's names were announced throughout the empire, and their families' positions were secured by the prospect of high office that was opened up by their success. 


Mahayana (Pure Land) Buddhism: Mahayana Buddhism was the Chinese version of Buddhism that made Buddha a god and savior. It was more popular among the commoners, and was seen as a refuge from the political turmoil China faced after every dynasty collapsed.

Chan (Zen) Buddhism: Chan Buddhism, or Zen Buddhism in Japan, places natural and artistic beauty as something of great value. The upper classes of Chinese society preferred Chan Buddhism because they thought that appreciating the arts was important.

"In correct theology, the Virgin ought not to be represented in bed, for she could not suffer like ordinary women, but her palace a t Chartres is not much troubled by theology, and to her, as empress-mother, the pain of child-birth was a pleasure which she wanted her people to share." -Empress Wu

      Empress Wu (690-705 C.E.): Empress Wu was a Tang ruler who greatly supported Buddhism. She commissioned many monasteries, paintings, and sculptures that caused Buddhism to flourish during the beginning of the Tang dynasty. 

    Left: Two paintings of Empress Wu.


Wuzong:  Wuzong was a Tang emperor who promoted the open persecution of Buddhism as a result of their gradual increases in wealth and power. This caused thousands of monasteries and shrines to be destroyed, and gave rise to Confucianism. This was important because Tang rulers heavily relied on the Confucian administrators who helped to maintain their empire.

Xuanzong:  Emperor Xuanzong foiled Empress Wei's plans in seizing the throne.  His rule marked the peak of Tang power and the high point of Chinese civilization under the dynasty. His initial interest in political and economic reforms declined as he became more and more engrossed in patronizing the arts and pleasures of the city. Because he seldomly paid attention to maintaining his empire, he eventually lost control of most of his subjects. 

Yang Guifei: Yang Guifei was Emperor Xuanzong's favorite concubine who abused her power in order to pack the upper levels of the government with her relatives. Their increasing involvement in court politics eventually led to economic turmoil, which ultimately led to a revolution in 755 C.E. where several members of the Yang family were killed and Yang Guifei was executed. 

Above: This is a map of China during the Period of Five Dynasties. 

      Period of Five Dynasties (907-979 C.E.): The Period of Five Dynasties began with the fall of the Tang dynasty and ended with the beginning of the Song dynasty. Because of the political turmoil that had followed the collapse of the Tang, the five dynasties became ten different kingdoms established mainly in the south. Ten different kingdoms dominated China until the Song once again unified China.

Above: This is a map of the Song Dynasty. Notice the neighboring kingdoms of the Liao and Xi Xia. These kingdoms would always remain a threat to the Song dynasty, and would later cause their downfall. 

Zhao Kuangyin: Zhao Kuangyin was a military commander responsible for reuniting China under a single dynasty after the collapse of the Tang Dynasty. Eventually, he was renamed Emperor Taizu and began the Song Dynasty after routing all his rivals except for one who was the Liao dynasty of Manchuria. His failure to overcome them made it tough for the Song Dynasty to deal with the nomadic peoples of the north.

Liao Dynasty: The Liao dynasty was founded in 907 by the nomadic Khitan peoples from Manchuria. They were able to maintain independence from the Song dynasty, which was concentrated in the south. The ensuing military victories by the Khitans led to the payment of tributes to the Laio. Due to many treaties between them and the Song dynasty, the Liao dynasty was kept from raiding and possibly conquering Song territories. 

Sinification: Sinification is the assimilation of Chinese culture in other regions, such as Korea and Japan. This portrayed the influence that China had on its neighbors for being a cultural and trade center.

Above: This timeline depicts the development of Confucianism throughout Chinese history, ending with Neo-Confucianism. 

 "To do good for others to see is not true goodness; to do evil in fear of others knowing is indeed grievous evil" - Zhu Xi

Above: A quote from one of Zhu Xi's works

Zhu Xi: Zhu Xi was the most important neo-Confucian scholar during the Song dynasty in China, when neo-Confucianism became extremely popular. He believed that people should apply philosophical principles in everyday life, instead of just contemplating such issues and never doing anything about it.

Neo-Confucians: Neo-Confucians revived ancient Confucian teachings. They believed that the cultivation of a personal morality is the highest human goal. Neo-Confucians emphasized rank, obligation, deference and performance of rituals reinforced class, gender and age distinctions. They also argued that Confucian learning produced talented men who could reign over others and promote the common good. Neo-Confucians flourished during the dynasties after the Song, and isolated other belief systems that came into China by creating a hostility ideal towards foreign thoughts.

Tangut Tribes: The Tangut tribes, originally from Tibet, were one of the nomadic peoples that took advantage of the weakness that the Song dynasty showed in the face of the Khitan peoples. They eventually established a kingdom in northern China, called Xi Xia.

Xi Xia: Xi Xia was the kingdom of the Tangut tribes. Song rulers had to pay tribute to them to prevent invasion, which in turn, gradually draining Song resources. This caused Chinese peasants to become economically weaker.

Wang Anshi: Wang Anshi was the chief minister of the Song Shenzong emperor who introduced many reforms in an effort to ward off the impending collapse of the empire. He was also a Confucian scholar that believed that a government under an energetic and interventionist state could greatly increase the resources and strength of the dynasty. He encouraged agricultural expansion by introducing cheap loans and government to assist in irrigation projects. He used the increased revenue he collected by taxing the landlord and scholarly classes to establish well-trained mercenary forces. He stressed the importance of analytical-thinking of instead of the memorization of the classics that was responsible for many of the successes of the scholar gentry. 

Jurchens: The Jurchens overthrew the Liao Dynasty and established the Jin Kingdom in 1115, which lied to the north of the Song Empire.

Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 C.E): As the Jurchens continually invaded Song territory, the Song peoples were eventually forced to flee to the South. The Southern Song Dynasty was little more than a rump state carved out of the much larger domains ruled by the Tang and northern Song. Its brief reign was one of the most glorious in Chinese history. 

Left: This map illustrates the Southern Song. Notice how the neighboring Jin kingdom unified the North, which remained a constant pressure to the South.

Grand Canal: Yangdi built a 1200 mile long Grand Canal during the 7th century during the Sui dynasty. The Grand Canal was costly, and many conscripted peasants died while working on it. However, Yangdi did recognize the importance of the unifying the north and south and pushed through the building of the canal. Yangdi was successful, in that the Grand Canal improved China's economy.

Left: This map shows the Grand Canal and how it was built over time. It shows which dynasty built each part of the Grand Canal, which still exists today.

Junks: Junks were ships that the Chinese built for overseas trade. Junks were equipped with advanced equipment that helped China to dominate Asian seas east of the Malayan peninsula. This caused China to have a better economy during the time in which trade was encouraged.

Below: Is a picture of a Chinese Junk

Flying money: Flying money was a Chinese credit instrument that became an early form of currency and reduced robberies. Using flying money, merchants could receive credit as soon as a voyage was completed. This improved trade in China.


Foot binding: Many women had practiced foot binding in response to male demands, e.g., many upper class men preferred women with small feet. No other practice exemplifies the degree to which women in Chinese civilization were constricted and subordinated as dramatically as foot binding. As a result of their bound feet, women's movement was greatly limited, thus making it easier for husbands to confine their wives to the family compound. It also meant that women that practiced foot binding couldn't engage in jobs that depended on hard work, which is why lower classes were slow to adopt the trend. Another result of the foot binding contributed to the decline of the deteriorated status of women.

Left: The diagrams and X-ray show the bones of a Chinese woman's bound feet.

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Bi Sheng: Bi Sheng was an artisan who invented printing with movable type. Combined with paper, which the Chinese had invented in the Han period, printing made it possible for them to attain a level of literacy that excelled that of any other preindustrial civilization. 

Li Po: Li Po was the most famous poet of the Tang era. He connected the material world with philosophical ideas, which was a Neo-Confucian belief considered important during the Tang dynasty.

Below: Is a Poem from Li Po

“He who neglects to drink of the spring of experience is likely to die of thirst in the desert of ignorance.”   -Li Po

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