China: 3000 Years of History, 50 Years of Revolution. Robert Louzon 1998

Chapter V: The Second Period of Middle Ages (907-1276)

This second period of Middle Ages very closely resembled that which followed the Han era, at least in the sequence of its events. The succession of events was the same. At first, there was a 60 year period of ‘anarchy’ during which China, the China of the north and of the south, was divided into a great number of rival states whose frontiers were more or less constantly changing. This is the period which, as a counterpart to the period of the ‘Three Kingdoms’ that existed at the start of the first Middle Ages period, Chinese historians describe as that of the ‘Seven Kingdoms’, because of the number of states into which the China of the south was divided at the close of the period. [1]

Then, in a second phase, a Chinese succeeded for a while in recreating national unity, but his successors could not maintain their authority over the China of the north, and finally had to be content with reigning over the regions of the Blue River, whilst the Yellow River was under the domination of a Mongolian people. This dynasty, which was that of the Song, was thus the equivalent of that of the former Jin. [2]

Finally, after three centuries, an alien dynasty once more, like the Tuoba Sui Dynasty, was to achieve China’s unity.

Fundamentally, however, there was a profound difference between the two periods of Middle Ages. Whilst the first was no more than a moment’s interruption in the course of a period whose general line was in the ascendant, this second period of Middle Ages was something in the nature of an interlude between the end of the ascendant period and the beginning of the period of decline.

This decline was revealed in one way by the fact that the Chinese empire had no further period of rebirth. It is true that there were still to be occasions when China was again an empire, but it was no longer the work of the Chinese themselves, but rather that of alien conquerors who moulded an empire in which, although China proper was certainly the preponderant part, the Chinese themselves were not the masters. On the other hand, during those brief spells when China was governed by Chinese sovereigns, it was no longer an empire they ruled, but a China in recoil upon itself, a China that had once again become a purely national state, scrupulously abstaining from all conquests and from all forms of imperialism. The aspirations of the poet Du Fu were then fulfilled. In striking contrast with the two great imperial Chinese dynasties of Han and Tang, which marked the first 12 centuries of China’s national history, there were only dynasties of ‘little Chinese’, that of the Song in the eleventh and twelfth centuries during the Middle Ages, and then later, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, that of the Ming.

The Song: Recoil and Planning

China’s policy of withdrawal was not pursued out of set purpose, but was imposed upon it by necessity.

When, after the era of the Seven Kingdoms, the general who was destined to become the first ruler of the Song Dynasty had himself nominated as emperor by his soldiers in 960, [3] and had established his authority over almost the whole of China, his successor’s principal task was to complete the unity of his realm by incorporating into it the last provincial state that remained, that of Beijing, ruled by a Mongol people known as the Khitan (Qidan). But in spite of two campaigns against them, he failed to do this. [4] Moreover, a little while later, the Khitan themselves took the offensive, which led them almost to the gates of the imperial capital.

It was from this time (1004) that the Song abandoned the policy of making war and decided to leave the barbarians undisturbed, not only in their steppes beyond the Great Wall, but also on the inner side of it, in the Chinese territories of the far north, in their Kingdom of Beijing. It was also from this time on that Beijing began to play an important part in the history of China, though that city was not the creation of the Chinese themselves, but of the barbarians.

Thus a century passed during which the Song ruled over the whole of China except Beijing. Their capital could no longer therefore be one of the old capitals of the marches – Chang'an or Luoyang in the mountains, but Kaifeng, a city situated scarcely more than 200 kilometres east of Luoyang, but in the very heart of the Great Plain – that plain which is the land of peace.

The equilibrium thus achieved was destroyed in 1126. At that time, the Mongols, who were represented no longer by the Khitan, but by another tribe that had freshly emerged from barbarism, the Nüzhen, whom the Song Emperor Hui Zong had the imprudence to rouse against the Khitan, made themselves masters first over the Khitan in Beijing, and then over the Chinese in Kaifeng. [5]

Pacifism, like every other policy, must be undertaken as a whole. It cannot be practised partially. If it is to succeed, it must be total, without the slightest deviation. By having attempted to reconquer Beijing by means of the Nüzhen and thus having adopted a policy of war by proxy, the Song were thenceforward deprived not only of their capital, but of the whole of northern China. The history of Byzantium and of Nanjing was to be repeated; the Chinese now reigned only over the Blue River, the Yellow River remaining entirely under the domination of the Nüzhen.

We have thus returned to the situation of the fourth century, when the north was united into a single kingdom under the barbarians, instead of being divided into several kingdoms, and the counterpart of Byzantium would no longer be Nanjing, on the banks of the Blue River, but Hangzhou, to the south of the river and on the coast. The centre of Chinese civilisation thus continued to shift from north to south, and from mountain to sea.

As for the capital of the Nüzhen kingdom, it remained Beijing, the old capital of the Khitan, which also implied a shift nearer to the sea, because in ancient times it was Shaanxi in the bend of the Yellow River that was the barbarians’ favourite territory; now it was the coastal province of Jilin.

This last move, however, did more than reveal the increasingly commercial and maritime character of the Chinese economy; it is also to be explained by the origin of the new occupiers.

The barbarians who dwell along China’s frontiers are really of two different kinds. Some, of whom we have almost exclusively spoken so far, are shepherds of the Mongolian steppes; but to their east there is another country, Manchuria, which owing to its proximity to the sea is much better watered, and instead of steppes possesses great stretches of forest. The nomads who inhabit it belong to the Mongol branch – the Tungus, who also populate the forests of eastern Siberia. It is these who now penetrate China, and who naturally penetrate it by means of Jilin, the closest Chinese province to Manchuria. The Khitan were Tungus, and so were the Nüzhen, and it was Tungus who were to rule China from the seventeenth to the twentieth century.

The loss of northern China as a consequence of their attempt to reconquer Beijing was a lesson for the Song that they did not forget. At the court of Hangzhou, it was the pacifists, thoroughgoing pacifists, who held undivided sway in the emperor’s councils. They wanted peace at any price to such an extent that they did not hesitate to disgrace and even execute generals found ‘guilty’ of gaining a victory. Such was notably the fate of general Yue Fei. [6] The dreams of the poet Du Fu were now indeed more than satisfied.

What was it that caused this Chinese withdrawal in the face of the barbarians – a withdrawal that began then and has lasted down to our own day? Like all such withdrawals, it was occasioned by an arrest in technical progress. It is technical progress that is the great factor of disequilibrium in human societies. Technical revolutions and the economic developments that follow them disturb the state of equilibrium of a society, and set in motion all the political and social processes that make up its history. They are as much the cause of conflicts with people abroad as they are of internal ones.

Now at the time with which we are dealing, Chinese technique and the economy had attained their full development. We have seen that it was under the Tang that Chinese industries acquired a complete mastery of their technique, and that it was at the same time that the colonisation and assimilation of the south had been completed, whilst maritime commerce had established itself upon the largest possible scale on the basis of the navigation then available. Thenceforward, in the absence of any new technical revolution, the Chinese economy was bound to stagnate, but a stagnant economy is incompatible with political expansion. Political expansion, even a purely defensive one, can only be brought about under the stimulus of economic expansion, which at one and the same time demands and permits it. If the Song resigned themselves first to the loss of Beijing, and afterwards to the loss of the Yellow River, it was because the Chinese technique and economy were themselves already in a state of ‘retreat’.

The Song era was certainly a great one for those who pursued the arts. Precisely because technique had completed its development and attained perfection, it was bound to produce masterpieces; the products of the Song pottery are marvels of craftsmanship. It was also the great era of painting. Even so, pottery and painting are but minor arts beside the architecture and sculpture that flourished under the Han and Tang dynasties.

It was above all in the domain of economic and social policy that the stagnation of technique produced its most remarkable results.

As abroad, so also at home it was a policy of peace that the Song pursued. The refusal to expand abroad was accompanied by a corresponding refusal to expand within. This refusal to expand within found expression in the pursuit of a total economic equilibrium by means of a controlled economy.

The end of the first Song period – the period during which they had held Kaifeng as capital and ruled both the Yellow and the Blue Rivers – was a great era of ‘reforms’. For more than half a century, from 1069 to 1126, the ‘reformers’, the most famous of whom was the scholar Wang Anshi, [7] had the direction of Chinese policy almost without interruption.

Their policy consisted of the application of two great measures, each complementary to the other.

The first, by which any controlled economy begins, was the fixing of prices. It was necessary to stabilise the economy, and to that end to stabilise prices, because it was the variation in prices that led to economic disequilibrium. The mandarins were accordingly charged with the task of fixing the prices of all commodities in every region, and these prices were made rigorously obligatory for everyone.

Nevertheless, stable as technique might have been, and insignificant as progress might be, there is a class of variations in production that cannot be avoided, and this is variations in production due to irregular atmospheric conditions. In China, as everywhere, and even more often in China than anywhere else, harvests may be very good or very bad. In order to avoid the consequences of this irregularity, two methods were simultaneously adopted.

In the first place, the state put in reserve the surplus harvests of the good years, and released them on the market during the bad years. But this method was very dangerous, for it is undialectical: unlike the variation of prices, it tends not to allow the balance between production and consumption to be re-established. In a nutshell, after the farmer has reaped a good harvest and made a considerable amount of money (since the unit prices did not vary), he is tempted to sow a great deal more, and the surplus tends to become excessive. The opposite happens in the event of a bad harvest: since the low yield is not compensated for by a rise in price, the farmer was unable to recover his expenses, and so became disposed to abandon or neglect the cultivation of a product that was manifestly in short supply. With the object of overcoming this second and most immediately dangerous phenomenon, the Chinese reformers proceeded to complete their system of fixed prices by establishing a great credit institution by means of which the state made yearly loans to agriculturists, enabling them to sow and grow their crops when there had been a shortfall in the harvest of the previous year.

This credit to agriculture was followed by credits to commerce and industry. A country’s economy is all of a piece. If we want to direct one branch of it, we are led inevitably to direct the whole lot.

When a poor harvest leads to a lessening in the demand for industrial products by the cultivator, the manufacturer, not being allowed to go below the fixed prices, is unable to put his goods within reach of his customer’s purse, and so he cannot sell them. If he is then to continue in business, he must borrow. So the state was obliged to lend money to industrialists as well as to cultivators.

Fixing of prices by the state, stockpiling of goods by the state, and granting credit by the state, these were the three measures by which Song China attempted to stabilise the national economy, thereby ensuring that, come what may, commodity production would always be on an even level, and always at the same rhythm.

These methods are to be found at the roots of any controlled economy in any country and in any era, for ways of controlling the economy are not unlimited. State-fixed prices, state purchases and state loans were the measures, as we have seen, that were even decreed by the Emperor Wang Mang in the first century of the Christian era; they were also the measures adopted in the Egypt of the Pharaohs; they were the measures adopted by Diocletian [8] when he inaugurated the lower empire, those that were practised by the Incas, [9] and those which states sometimes still try to adopt even in our own day.

It goes without saying that this stabilisation of the economy can only succeed in eras in which technical innovation is dormant, because the variations in production engendered by technical progress would break through the strong strait-jacket aimed at preventing their existence.

On the other hand, in times that immediately follow periods of great progress, it is quite clear that a controlled economy arouses the liveliest interest, for the simple reason that, wearied by continual upheavals and the constant insecurity that technical progress brings into everyday life, people everywhere are eager for a respite.

So it came about that as the creative genius of China had not been exhausted at the time of the Emperor Wang Mang, the controlled economy remained at the planning stage, a state in which the laws were never enforced. With Wang Anshi, on the other hand, this policy was really put into practice, and for several centuries, with adjustments of one kind or another, it continued to influence not only the last Song emperors, but even their successors – those of the Mongol Dynasty. [10]

This policy of directing the economy was accompanied by a democratic policy. Not only were measures adopted to advance education, examination fees being reduced in the proportion of 100 to two, but there was also the most ambitious attempt made since Athenian times to suppress the two great pillars of the state – the army and the administration – as distinct bodies separated from the people.

In 1070, Wang Anshi in effect decreed the arming of the people; all able-bodied men were to be armed on the spot as a popular militia. In addition, a three-year period of compulsory service in government offices was imposed on everyone. With the application of these two measures, the state was united with the people. It was none other than the key concept propounded by Lenin when he wrote State and Revolution. [11] But this daring attempt by the great Chinese reformer miscarried, just as nearly a thousand years later the similar attempt miscarried in the case of the Russian Revolution. The state remained distinct from the people.

On the other hand, the policy as a whole succeeded in achieving the principal aim of all controlled economies: tranquillity. The Song era does not appear to have been troubled by great popular uprisings, as were the Han and Tang epochs.

The arrest in technical progress, confinement within national frontiers, a controlled economy, the appeasement of the class struggle – all these things between them together formed a complex interconnection representing diverse manifestations of the same state: a state of lethargy. The disposition to leave things as they were, the fear of change, the fear of growth, a fear even of defending oneself – this was the general inclination. China had come to a state of deadlock.

Deadlock, however, does not imply an absence of prosperity. On the contrary, the controlled economy vigorously introduced by the Song of Kaifeng and continued more moderately by the Song of Hangzhou, combined with the pacifism resolutely practised by the latter, was conducive to a state of general ease and well-being which expressed itself in the highly characteristic fact that at the end of the twelfth century it was one day noticed that the prisons were empty.

But it was also, and precisely for the same reason, a bleak and melancholy era, an era of ‘melancholy refinement’, as the Sinologist Soulié de Morant [12] described it. Melancholy bleakness is in essence the price of tranquillity. Consider the Sweden of today, for example, where people are reduced to drunkenness in an effort to escape from the bleakness and boredom of their lives. A melancholy bleakness is the inevitable accompaniment of material well-being. It springs from an unsatisfied need for action and adventure.

The Coming of the Mongols

For all these reasons the Song, unlike their predecessors, were not the victims of any popular uprising. Their fall was solely due to foreign events, the origin and development of which were not China’s work.

As we have said, in the course of the previous centuries, Islam had set up a barrier in the west of Asia. The Islamised Turks on the western side of the Pamirs had blocked the passage through which the nomads of the eastern steppes were wont to expand. Now the force that impels the horsemen of central Asia to press towards the west is something that cannot be held down. It again manifested itself, and this time with a violence that was all the greater because of the forces opposed to it. The thirteenth century produced the gigantic Mongolian cavalcade that was only equalled in power by Attila’s, the formidable outburst of Genghis Khan [13] and his lieutenants.

These Mongol invasions were the counterpart of the Crusades. They were Asia’s counter-offensive against Islam, just as a short time previously the Crusades had been Europe’s counter-offensive against this same Islam. The success of this counter-attack, just like that of Europe, was at first total. Just as the Crusades had led to the capture of Jerusalem in 1099, [14] so in 1259 the Asian crusades were to capture Baghdad, the seat of the Caliphate. [15] But although as simple counter-attacks designed to halt the Muslim pressure, the two Crusades achieved their aims, these counter-attacks were not transformed into counter-invasions, so the Mongols as well as the Latins had to abandon their conquests, and Islam regained complete possession of its former territories. The Latin kingdom of Jerusalem did not last a century, [16] and Mongol domination of the Middle East only lasted a little longer, 150 years. [17]

Before turning against the Muslims of the west, Genghis Khan deemed it prudent first of all to secure his rear by subduing his compatriots, the Nüzhen, who had been established for a century behind the Great Wall, and reigned over the whole of northern China. Accordingly, in 1211, Genghis Khan crossed the Great Wall, razed Beijing, pushed into Shandong, and reduced the Nüzhen kingdom to Kaifeng and the area around it. [18] He and his successors were thus in a position to pass on with equanimity to the west as far as Poland and Hungary, some 7000 kilometres from the point of their departure.

China, however, the old traditional Mongol objective, was not to be spared for too long from fresh incursions on the part of those powerful tribes who were in the process of conquering almost the whole of Eurasia. So it happened that in 1233, Genghis Khan’s first successor, Ogodai, began his conquest of what remained of the Nüzhen kingdom, and so became master of all northern China. [19]

On the morrow of this event, a new situation arose. We have seen that hitherto the Mongolian pressure had exerted itself almost without ceasing on the China of the Yellow River, the barbarians hardly ever failing to occupy it, at least in part, either as mercenaries or as rulers. On the other hand, the China of the Blue River had almost always remained untouched, a fact that conferred on it the distinction of becoming the true Chinese territory, the asylum alike of Chinese civilisation and of Chinese independence.

From now on, it was no longer to be the same. There was to be no more Byzantium. From now on, every time that the barbarians entered China, it was not only to establish their dominion locally, but to establish their power over the entire country, as much over the Blue River as over the Yellow River, from Beijing down to Canton. This was doubtless a result of the strengthening of China’s geographical unity due to the great development of the means of communication. [20]

Thus then, after having gained possession of northern China, again with the aid of the Song, who, repeating their former error, had supported the Mongols against the Nüzhen, [21] just as a century earlier they had supported the Nüzhen against the Khitan, Ogodai threw his hordes against the China of the south, and finally Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s fourth successor and grandson, completed the conquest in 1276 by the capture of the capital, Hanghzhou, and of Canton, the most southerly of China’s great cities.

Kublai Khan could then legitimately proclaim himself emperor of China, [22] but it had taken the Mongols a good 50 years to achieve their objective, because in spite of their former pacifism, the Song had made a desperate resistance to the invaders over a period of 40 years, and after the last defeat the last Chinese general jumped into the sea with the last Song emperor. [23]


1. The period following the fall of the Tang Dynasty, a period of extreme confusion, is generally called that of the Five Dynasties and the Ten States. The Five Dynasties were the Later Liang (907-923), the Later Tang (923-936), the Later Jin (936-947), the Later Han (947-950) and the Later Zhou (951-960). The Ten States, to begin with founded by soldiers who had served as local garrison commanders under the Tang, were Wu (920-937), Wuyue (907-978), Southern Han (907-971), Chu (907-951), Former Shu (907-925), Min (909-945), Jingnan (Nanping, 924-963), Later Shu (934-965), Southern Tang (937-975) and Northern Han (951-979).

2. The Song Dynasty is divided between the Northern Song (960-1127), ruling over the whole country, and the Southern Song (1127-1276), ruling only over the south. Its competitor for the control of the north during the earlier period was the Khitan (Qidan) Dynasty.

3. Zhao Kuangyin, the commander of the imperial army of the Later Zhou dynasty, overthrew the regime and proclaimed himself emperor (Tai Zu, 960-976), founding the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) with its capital at Kaifeng, now renamed the Eastern Capital (Dongjing). He took 15 years to conquer the states of Jingnan, Later Shu, Southern Han and Southern Tang, and in 978-79 eliminated the Wuyue and Northern Han states, thus uniting all that part of China not held by the Khitan.

4. The Khitan or Liao Dynasty (916-1125) was founded by Yelu Aboaji (Emperor Tai Zu, 960-976), and reigned from Yanjing (modern Beijing). The Song ruler Zhao Kuangyi (Northern Song Emperor Tai Zong, 976-997) made two attacks on the Khitan state that were badly defeated at Gaolianghe, near Beijing (979) and the Qigouguan Pass in Hebei (986). Peace was finally concluded between the two states at Tanzhou in 1004.

5. The Nüzhen were a subject tribe of the Liao who lived in the Songhua River valley. In 1114, their chief Wanyan Aguda threw off the yoke of the Khitan, and proclaimed himself emperor (Tai Zu, 1115-1123) and first ruler of the Jin Dynasty (1115-1276). In 1122, the Northern Song Emperor Hui Zong (1100-1125) allied with the Nüzhen in a war against the Khitan. The Nüzhen captured the Khitan emperor in 1125, and brought his dynasty to an end. They then carried out a successful raid upon Dongjing in 1127, and captured the Northern Song emperor. The emperor’s brother Zhao Gou (Emperor Gao Zong, 1127-1162) then established the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1276) in a new capital at Nanjing.

6. In 1134, General Yue Fei (1103-1141) recovered several prefectures in northern Hubei and southern Henan from the Jin, and in 1140, he won a decisive battle at Yancheng and recovered Zhengzhou and Luoyang from the enemy. But the emperor, who was determined to sue for peace, had him recalled and thrown into prison on false charges, where he was murdered.

7. The leading reformer of the time, Wang Anshi (1021-1086), was a materialist philosopher. His theory of ‘the new learning’ formed the basis of the administrative measures that were introduced at that time. Shen Kou (1031-1095) was also a reformer and a scientist. They were opposed by such conservatives as Sima Guang (1019-1086) and Cheng Hao (1032-1085).

8. The Roman Emperor Diocletian (284-305AD) attempted to fix wages and prices in his Edictum de Pretiis issued in 302AD. In spite of harsh penalties, it never really worked. Such a mechanism was not really available to the Egyptian Pharaohs as Louzon states, since real Egyptian coinage did not begin to circulate until the fourth century BC, although the state had always attempted to regulate the supply of precious metals and foodstuffs using its control of the temple storehouses.

9. The Inca Empire attempted to regulate the economy by stockpiling supplies in state storehouses (pirua). See Louis Baudin, A Socialist Empire: The Incas of Peru, New York, 1961, pp144-6; Alfred Métraux, The History of the Incas, New York, 1969, p105.

10. Kublai Khan officially proclaimed the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty in 1271, but as the Song Dynasty was not brought to an end until 1276, its dates are generally reckoned from then (1276-1368).

11. Lenin’s State and Revolution was written in the course of the Russian Revolution of 1917. In it he advocated the abolition of the separation between state and people, and between rulers and ruled.

12. ‘They [Song paintings] are all animated by the same dreamy melancholy which animates the poems of the time. An excess of emotion generally shows itself in melancholy.’ (George Soulié de Morant, A History of Chinese Art, London, 1931, p170)

13. Temujin (1162-1227), the leader of one of the Mongol clans, was proclaimed Genghis Khan, ruler of all the Mongols, at a kuriltai on the banks of the Onon River in 1206.

14. The army of the First Crusade commanded by Godfrey de Bouillon and Raymond of Toulouse captured Jerusalem in 1099, subjecting its defenceless population to a frightful massacre.

15. The Mongol army of Hulagu, son of Tule, the fourth son of Genghis Khan, captured Baghdad in 1259 after a campaign against the Assassins. The last Abbasid Caliph, Mutassim, was trampled to death by horses, and the city was put to the sword.

16. Yusuf, Salah al-Din (Saladin) defeated the Crusader army at the Horns of Hattin near Lake Tiberias in 1187, and captured Jerusalem shortly afterwards.

17. The Ilkhanate begun by Hulagu in Persia was repeatedly defeated after his death by the Egyptian Mamelukes in its attempts to take over Syria, and fell apart after the death of Abu Said in 1335.

18. Genghis Khan began his attacks on the Jin (Nüzhen) in 1211, and took their capital, Zhongdu, in 1215.

19. Ogodai began his onset upon the remains of the Nüzhen kingdom in 1229. In 1233, he captured Caizhou (Kaifeng), and the last Jin emperor committed suicide.

20. On the development of the latter at the time of the Mongol Dynasty, we have two contemporary sources: that of Marco Polo and that of the Franciscan missionary, brother Odoric, who came to China at the beginning of the fourteenth century. This is what the latter wrote: ‘Couriers galloped, belly to earth, on incredibly fast horses, or used camels. When they came within sight of the relay stations, they sounded a horn to announce their approach. So alerted, the guardians prepared another camel driver with another mount. He seized hold of the dispatches and galloped to the next relay station, where the same change took place. In this way in 24 hours, the Great Khan obtained news coming from countries that were normally as far away as at least three days journey on horseback.’ [Author’s note] Odorico de Pordenone visited China in 1325, and returned to Europe in 1330. [Editor’s note]

21. When Ogodai invested the Jin capital at Caizhou in 1233, the Southern Song Emperor Li Zong (Zhao Tian, 1224-1264) sent his troops to help surround the city. He was repaid by a two-pronged attack by Ogodai upon the Song state itself in 1235.

22. Kublai succeeded Mangu as Great Khan in 1260, and ruled to 1294, proclaiming the Yuan Dynasty in 1271.

23. After a final battle near Canton in 1279, the Song commander threw himself into the sea with the last infant emperor on his back.