by Morris Rossabi
Distinguished Professor of History at Queens College of the City University of New York and Senior Research Scholar, Adjunct Professor of Inner Asian History at Columbia University
The arts of China yield vivid and appealing insights about its economy, politics, religions, society, history, and culture. They offer a remarkable guide to the development of Chinese civilization. Students can scarcely gain a better introduction to Chinese culture than by examining its works of art. Many Chinese, after all, consider these artifacts as the most exemplary and beautiful products of their civilization. Yet in addition to their beauty, they often reveal a great deal about Chinese values and beliefs. To be sure, each painter or artisan implants his or her individual character and craftsmanship on his or her own creation, but society’s attitudes and ideologies frequently emerge. The artist or craftsman, in turn, contributes his or her own innovations to Chinese civilization. In short, Chinese art reflects but also advances its civilization throughout history.
I. Earliest Civilization
II. Zhou and the Origins of Chinese Culture
III. Han Consolidation and Domination of Confucianism
IV. Disunity and Reunification
V. Song: A lesser Empire
VI. Mongol Rule
VII. Ming: A Return to Chinese Rule
I. Earliest Civilization
Even before the founding of the first dynasty, Chinese craftsmen produced objects that were useful but also had great style. Neolithic villages (ca. 6,000-2500 BCE) were the first identifiable Chinese cultures. The most important transformations in the Neolithic were the development of agriculture and the growing dependence on farming for survival. A fragile hunting-and-fishing economy converted to a more stable agrarian-based society. The earliest known Neolithic sites stretched from southern Hebei province to eastern Gansu province. And several have been found in southern China. The residences and cemeteries excavated in the northern areas share specific characteristics—round or square houses, underground storage pits, use of specialized stone tools, including, knives, axes, hammers, mortars and pestles, and simple handmade red or brown pottery. The Yangshao sites have been the most well-investigated of the early Neolithic cultures. Although the Yangshao villagers hunted various animals, including deer, raccoons, and foxes and domesticated the pig, agriculture replaced hunting and fishing as the main sources of sustenance. Millet was the principal food crop, and fishing also added to the villagers’ diets.
The most significant Yangshao advances in art were the production of pottery, which varied in color, decoration, and shape. (Photo #1) The people in the villages used a red pigment to paint a large number of the vessels, but some were grey or black. The shapes of the remarkably diverse vessels were dictated by their use, from tripods for cooking to thin-topped but large-bodied jars for storage to both small and large bowls for food and for rituals. The decorative motifs also varied and included geometric designs, realistic depictions of fish, and abstract representations of fish and animals. The depictions of fish and animals reflected the continued importance of hunting and fishing in the villagers’ economy. Some symbols on the pottery may have indicated ownership or the potter’s own identity and may be related to the onset of a written language.
The villagers’ tools and ornaments were diversified. Stone chisels, polishing tools, hoes, and spades supplemented the stone axes, knives, and arrowheads of earlier times. The fashioning of decorative items such as rings and beads made of jade and other precious and semi-precious stones revealed a sophisticated economy. Most of the jade derived from the modern region of Xinjiang, which was quite a distance from the Yangshao villages. Its presence in the Yangshao sites indicates an extensive long-distance trade.
The Longshan sites in the modern province of Shandong were another major Neolithic culture. Longshan pottery was principally black and gray, differing from the Yangshao painted pottery. (Photo #2) Most vessels were unadorned, although some were decorated with incisions or appliqués. New forms, such as steamers and cups with handles, supplemented the Yangshao tripods and jars. The pottery reveals an increasing concern for rituals, which is also shown in the unusual animal decorations on the black pottery. The Longshan peoples devoted considerable attention to burials, with pottery and furnishings found in the more elaborate graves. It appears that the more elaborate the burial, the higher the social status of the deceased.
Traditional Chinese sources refer to a semi-legendary Xia dynasty (ca. 2100 BCE-1800 BCE), but many scholars have questioned its existence. However, some have attempted to substantiate its historicity by pointing to finds at Erlitou in the modern province of Henan. The site and its artifacts appear to be cultural midpoints between the Longshan Neolithic culture and the Shang (ca. 1600BCE-1028 BCE), the first attested Chinese dynasty. (Photo #3) The scale of the Erlitou palace and several of the tombs reveal a more developed culture than the Longshan. Stone tools comprised the vast majority of the implements excavated at the site, but the inhabitants also used bronze knives and chisels. Gray, black, and red pottery provided most of the food and storage containers, but bronze wine vessels began to appear. Bronze weapons and musical instruments added to the various stone vessels. Objects made of more valuable materials and probably used for ceremonies and rituals were found more often in this era. Jade ceremonial knives and axes, lacquer drums and cups, and turquoise plates were new objects not found in Longshan sites. Can the Erlitou be identified with the Xia dynasty? This question remains controversial, and the archeological evidence is still insufficient to provide incontrovertible proof.
The Shang is the first attested Chinese dynasty and is much better documented than the Neolithic culture. The dynasty, whose dates are still in dispute but which probably originated in the sixteenth century, BCE and ended in 1028 BCE, witnessed remarkable changes from Yangshao and Longshan. It had well developed towns and not merely villages. Rituals and ceremonies were more elaborate, and a system of writing was created. The modern city of Anyang, in modern Henan province, has been the center of most excavations. The Shang buildings were of large proportions, including above-ground structures, which have been identified as palaces and tombs. The large number of below-ground dwellings indicates that much of the population did not live as elaborately as the palace inhabitants. Enormous storage pits, which contained the elite’s goods, as well as bronze, jade, and stone workshops were built near the palace. Also nearby were sizable tombs with precious objects in the pits, the coffins, and other parts of the grave. Hundreds of jades, bronzes, pottery, weapons, cowry shells (which were used as money), and musical instruments were scattered throughout the tombs.
Perhaps the most important artifacts were the bronzes, which reflect sophistication and advances in the arts and crafts but also yield information on religion, social relations, and government. Some of the data derives from fragmentary and cryptic inscriptions on the bronzes. They occasionally narrated the circumstances under which the bronzes were cast. Several were produced to commemorate military expeditions, gifts, or special rituals. Many were designed for ritual purposes and served as drinking vessels, food containers, and cooking implements on ceremonial occasions. Bronze craftsmen also fashioned musical instruments, chariots, weapons, and farm tools. The decorations on the bronzes yield insights about Shang values and religion. Fantastic animals, which sometimes combined features of different creatures, were characteristic of motifs found on the bronzes. The so-called taotie mask was the most distinctive of these mythical figures. Recognized by its prominent and large eyes which gaze directly at the viewer, the taotie has puzzled scholars who have attempted to understand its possible ritual or religious importance. Speculation on its meaning ranges from its use to protect humans to its identification as a grotesque and malevolent monster. What appear to be its jaws, as well as its horns and snout, give it a ferocious appearance. A number of other animals, including dragons, were represented, although their precise meaning is also unclear.
The diverse shapes of the vessels and their decorations reveal the skill of the bronze casters. The quality and the large number of bronzes indicate the presence of a sizable industry and skilled artisans. Along with a sophisticated bronze industry, the Shang also produced jade, ceramic, and lacquer objects. Jade knives, weapons, and jewelry, often with incised decorations of animals or simple geometric designs, have been found in many burial sites. They may have served as offerings to the spirits or ancestors. The bi ring, a jade object in the shape of a disc, probably had such ceremonial associations and may have been used in divinations. Like the motifs on jade, the designs on lacquers and ceramics reveal an interest in the depiction of animals.
Knowledge of the Shang emerges not only from its physical remains but also from oracle bone inscriptions. Shang Kings used tortoise shells, along with cattle bones, in divinations. The bones and shells were placed on a heated surface, and the Kings would then interpret the cracks that developed, often based on their pictorial representations. Chinese characters developed from these depictions. Divinations concerned potential military ventures and hunting expeditions, the harvest, sacrifices to the ancestor, and predicting weather and other natural phenomena. The diviner sought responses from the ancestors and deities. The oracle bones reveal much about Shang society. The King was the main diviner, a ritual function that at some stage translated into political power. Other members of the elite included princes, diviners, officials, and landlords to whom the King granted land or jurisdiction over towns. Their principal responsibilities were to offer tribute of goods and to train a military force that would support the King on expeditions. Knowledge of the non-elite is limited. Peasants farmed the fields, served as soldiers, offered tribute, and performed corvée labor. Artisans had a high position in the social hierarchy, lived more comfortably, and had access to more goods than ordinary commoners. Specific clans dominated particular trades such as bronze casting and jade carving. In sum, the Shang was a stratified and sophisticated society, and its arts and crafts attested to its successes.
II. Zhou and the Origins of Chinese Culture
Yet the Zhou dynasty (1028 BCE-256 BCE), consisting of peoples from western China, overwhelmed the Shang and took power. Later stereotyped accounts, which represented the views of the Zhou, portrayed the last Shang Kings as corrupt and evil, which allegedly led to their loss of support from Heaven. Society was reputedly chaotic, offering the Zhou a pretext to depose the Shang. There is no independent verification of this version of events. In any case, a Zhou King defeated the Shang, but he required considerable assistance to do so. He rewarded his retainers by awarding them noble titles, giving them land, and offering them almost unchallenged authority over their regions. In return, the retainers, now lords, were required to offer tribute, or basically, taxes, and to supply military assistance when the King called upon them to do so. The resulting Zhou system was decentralized and resembled European feudalism. The structure operated well if the lords perceived the central government and the King to be competent and strong.
However, weakness would erode the nobles’ loyalty. In 771 BCE, a non-Chinese group attacked the Zhou and forced it to abandon its capital and to move eastward for a safer location, an indication of the dynasty’s weakness. The collapse of the so-called Western Zhou and its replacement by the Eastern Zhou signaled the deterioration of the Kings’ authority. Individual nobles capitalized to create their own States and did not really pay obeisance to the Zhou Kings. As the Kings continued to weaken, several of the nobles conceived of replacing the Zhou and unifying China under their own dynasty. Their conflicting desires led to a period of so-called Warring States from the late fifth to the mid-third century, BCE. Intermittent wars among the States contributed to considerable loss of life and damage to the land.
Under these circumstances, a number of men deriving from the lower nobility presented ideas that they hoped could unify China. They intended both to contribute a common vision and morality to the Chinese and to offer the individual a means of achieving inner calm in a period of tremendous chaos. Confucius, the most renowned thinker, described five virtues that ought to guide human relations, a means of achieving stability and harmony. Proper moral action in Man’s basic relations would, according to him, translate into a just, benevolent, and workable political system. The perhaps legendary Laozi and the real Zhuangzi opted for a mystical philosophy that emphasized individual cultivation in beautiful natural surroundings away from society. This Daoist philosophy did not lend itself to governance but instead offered inner peace to adherents. Although it did not provide a model for political stability, it proved to be important for the arts. Shang Yang and Han Feizi, two officials in the State of Qin, described a more draconian approach toward unification. Starting with the proposition that Man was inherently evil, they asserted that the State required a strong and all-powerful ruler to curb and suppress Man. This authoritarian system necessitated strict laws, harsh punishments for transgressors, and a centralized army to enforce the ruler’s will. The ruler issued laws to regulate the economy, the culture, and the society in which the individual lived, causing this philosophy to be labeled Legalism.
During this chaotic period, bronzes continued to be produced in large quantities and with some new features. More elaborate designs, including new motifs of intertwined dragons and snakes, characterized some of the bronzes. The rulers also lavished more attention on bronze weapons because of the unstable and strife-torn conditions, and bronze mirrors began to appear. Distinctive lacquered objects, including drums, cups, and boxes were found in tombs, perhaps indicating a belief in an after-life. Musical instruments, utilitarian vessels for eating and drinking, and mortuary objects, all made of lacquer, have been excavated and appear to have been highly valued, as evidenced by their positions in tombs. Gold and silver bowls and jade ornaments revealed a high level of craftsmanship. All of these luxury goods attest to the existence of a prosperous elite that could afford them.
Despite the political decentralization and weakness of the Western Zhou, its artistic achievements were not negligible and indeed paved the way for the efflorescence of the Eastern Zhou. Bronze weapons and vessels now, on occasion, had sizable inscriptions, indicating a greater use of the written language. The inscribed bronzes imply that the Zhou elite had them cast to commemorate such significant events as victory in battle, treaties, or marriages or to communicate with the ancestors. However, as the number of bronze workshops increased, the vessels fashioned at these sites were no longer used exclusively for rituals. Output grew, and the less decorated and the more secular the bronzes became. The decorations began to differ from those of the Shang. The shapes became less complex, and different animal forms were rarely combined to depict the Shang’s legendary animals. The vessels no longer portrayed the taotie mask, and some represented animals, and especially birds, in a naturalistic style. Instead of bronzes produced for court rituals and for awe-inspiring purposes, the Zhou used them for ordinary occasions, eroding the evocation of majesty and their religious functions. Decorative objects that had little ritual significance, such as bronze mirrors and belt buckles were often commissioned, and some began to imitate the “animal-style” art of the nomadic pastoral peoples with whom the Chinese had greater contact during this period.
The State of Qin (256-207 BCE), which adopted the philosophy of Legalism, emerged victorious from the struggles of the Warring States and unified China in the third century. It rode to power on its military forces, including its cavalry. It then imposed a central government on the various States. The entire population owed obligations to the new ruler, now known as an Emperor, rather than to feudal lords. The First Emperor issued laws that applied to all, including the nobility, standardized the writing system, weights and measures, and currency, empowered centrally-appointed officials to govern local regions, and established a tax structure to garner needed revenues.
The Qin organized mammoth building projects to bolster the First Emperor’s majesty and legitimacy. Most important was the building of the so-called Great Wall, which was designed to protect against incursions by the non-Chinese steppe peoples residing north of China. The sources allege that 300,000 forced laborers worked on its construction. The Qin also built numerous palaces and roads. Perhaps the most spectacular project was construction of a tumulus for the First Emperor. Although it has still not been excavated, literary sources reveal that its interior was stocked with precious valuables from all parts of the Empire. A discovery in 1974 of an adjacent site composed of an army of more than seven thousand life-size terra cotta statues, accompanied by statues of horses, and bronze weapons and chariots confirm the monumental plan for his burial. This massive project required the use of large numbers of corvée laborers, who lived in appalling conditions. The Qin was oppressive and overly ambitious. It undertook too many projects in too short a time. Forced labor and excessive imposition of taxes to build all of these projects bolstered the opposition, as did the severe laws and harsh punishments.
The Qin’s major contribution to art was the spectacular sculptures discovered near the First Emperor’s tomb, but it also produced armies of miniature sculptures and bronzes. The miniatures allegedly protected the tombs of the Qin leaders from grave robbers, while the bronze belt buckles and horse bridles and saddles evinced borrowings from the “animal style” art of the nomadic peoples. The decorations represented animals in combat or in heraldic or in distorted positions or composite animals or finally animals with geometric designs.
III. Han Consolidation and Domination of Confucianism
The turbulence of the Qin era permitted Liu Bang, a commoner, to overthrow the first unified dynasty in Chinese history. Liu founded the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) and was determined to avert a reversion to the Zhou era profusion of bitterly hostile states whose conflicts resulted in chaos. His dynasty devised institutions and policies that survived for much of Chinese history, and it witnessed the triumph of Confucianism as the dominant philosophy and the means of legitimizing the dynasty through rituals and the reputed blessings of Heaven. The Han set up administrative structures for central and local governments and devised methods of recruiting officials, levying taxes, and of conducting foreign relations. However, the Han declined in the last years of the first century, BCE, allowing a reformer named Wang Mang to overthrow the dynasty in 9 CE. Many officials resisted his reforms, and he faced a devastating change in the course of the Yellow River during his reign, leading to numerous deaths and dispossessed peasants, ultimately culminating in rebellions against him.
The Han was restored in 25 CE but was a much weaker dynasty. Court struggles and violence bedeviled the Later Han. Empress Dowagers and their relatives, on occasion, wielded power in the name of their young and inexperienced sons, contributing to instability at court. Eunuchs capitalized on the chaos to seek power, adding to the confusion and conflicts. By the second century, there were pitched battles among different factions at court. A millenarian movement and other rebels challenged the dynasty, further weakening it. In 220, a foreigner from the region north of China defeated and destroyed the Han.
Artistic development reflected the grandeur of Han aspirations. Constructions of elaborate tombs with numerous burial objects confirm the desire for majesty and ornateness. The variety of shapes (rectangular, square), materials (stone, brick), and motifs (bedrooms and a kitchen for the comfort of the deceased in the afterlife) reflects the differing regions in which the tombs have been uncovered. The tomb of Liu Cheng and his wife Dou Wan offers evidence of the attempt to show the court’s majesty. The corpses were clothed in a suit composed of two thousand pieces of jade linked with gold thread. This costly and painstaking work, which was designed to preserve the bodies, indicates the Han elite’s grand ambitions. Both life-sized and miniature sculptures reveal similar goals—the desire for grandiosity and the intricacy of exquisite detail. Large statues in front of the tombs honored Han generals and officials, and relatively small clay figures of servants, animals, and entertainers were buried with the deceased. Because members of the elite planned to recreate their lavish lifestyles in the afterlife, they required the services of these clay representations, known as mingqi.
Like the tombs of earlier dynasties, Han graves also contained numerous bronze artifacts, including harnesses, swords, belt buckles, and mirrors which were often embellished with decorations of real and mythical animals, humans, and symbols representing the yin-yang cosmology. Jade objects, lacquer bowls, baskets, and boxes, with depictions of humans, animals, and landscapes also attest to the Han’s majestic and ostentatious aspirations. (Photo #4 and Photo #5) Han art, in addition, testifies to China’s increasing contacts with the outside world. For example, foreigners valued Chinese silks and organized caravans that crossed Asia to obtain the silks—hence the development of the so-called Silk Roads.
IV. Disunity and Reunification
The immediate aftermath of the Han dynasty’s collapse was the fragmentation of China into Three Kingdoms. Three states, Wei, Shu Han, and Wu clashed repeatedly for four decades. Later Chinese sources romanticized this era, especially in the fourteenth-century novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, but contemporaries confronted chaotic conditions. Each of these states was, in turn, toppled by the end of the third century. Such internal struggle weakened China and permitted non-Chinese peoples from the regions north of China to conquer sections of the country and to establish their own dynasties. Disenchanted with the chaos in the North and attracted by the fertile soil and abundant water of the South, many Chinese crossed the Yangzi River and began to populate regions that had not always been part of China. (Photo #6) They established several dynasties, but none could unify the South, much less the whole country.
Late in the fourth century, much of the North fell to a people known to the Chinese as the Tuoba, who established a Chinese-style dynasty called the Northern Wei. The Northern Wei retained its martial heritage but also began to set up an administrative structure to govern the mostly Chinese population. Its Emperors soon realized that they required a system of thought or philosophy to justify their rule and to gain the acquiescence, if not the support, of the Chinese majority whom they now attempted to govern. In the eyes of many Chinese, Confucianism, which had promised stability and harmony, had not prevented the fall of the Han dynasty and thus lost some of its credibility. The Northern Wei Emperors also would not want to be bound exclusively to a Chinese philosophical system. Instead they chose Buddhism, which had been transmitted along the Silk Roads from Northern India through Central Asia to China. The Northern Wei rulers became ardent patrons of Buddhism, providing tax exemptions for monks and funds for the construction of temples and monasteries.
The two most lavish examples of government patronage were the construction of the Yungang and Longmen caves. The Yungang caves, built just a few miles from the Northern Wei’s first Chinese capital at Datong, contained sculptures carved out of the rock. Some were colossal depictions of figures in the Buddhist pantheon, while others were smaller and included images from the Buddha’s life. The court and wealthy patrons donated most of the funds for the images and the associated inscriptions in order to gain merit or karma. Many of the sculptures exhibited Indian and Central Asian influences, and indeed the conception of cave sculptures derived from South and Central Asia. The cave complex at Longmen, near the city of Luoyang where the Northern Wei transferred its capital in 494, was an equally extraordinary site. Situated adjacent to the picturesque Luo River, Longmen contained sculptures and inscriptions produced principally in the Northern Wei and later dynasties.
The Northern Wei prospered for about a century, but its transfer of the capital south to Luoyang, the heartland of China, signaled the elite’s accommodation to Chinese civilization, which led to conflict with their confreres who sought to retain and affirm their traditional nomadic pastoral and military lifestyles and values. Such struggles weakened the Northern Wei and led to its ultimate collapse by the mid-sixth century.
The Buddhism that the Northern Wei championed began to be adopted in both North and South China. Buddhist translators facilitated such acceptance by making Buddhist teachings more appealing and less foreign to the Chinese. They chose Daoist terms to interpret Buddhist concepts. By the deliberate use of so-called matching concepts, translators sought to make unfamiliar ideas more palatable to the Chinese. Moreover, Buddhist monks also ingratiated themselves by either serving or advising various Chinese governments.
The arts somehow prospered during these difficult times. For example, Xie He, the first important critic of painting, described Six Principles for evaluating paintings, including whether a work expressed the spirit (qi) that fused Nature and Man. Such paintings have not survived, but some sources describe landscapes meant to induce serenity. Calligraphy as an art form developed during this era, although precious few examples have survived.
The greatest concentration of such art works are of Buddhist origin. Early Buddhist sculptures were massive, heavy, and austere and reflected Indian and Central Asian influences, but the later ones were refined and lighter and were characterized by flowing robes and with more human faces. Paintings at the cave site of Dunhuang survived owing to the dry climate in the desert regions of Northwest China. They offer vignettes of the Buddha’s life and depict different emanations of the Buddha and apsaras (flying figures, often of musicians). These charming frescoes, which consisted principally of Indian subjects and motifs, became increasingly Chinese in themes and styles as time went on. Non-Buddhist sculptures, particularly figures of humans and animals adjacent or leading to the tombs of Emperors or prominent nobles along a so-called spirit road leading to the main burial site, also revealed a less stereotyped and more individualized portrait of secular subjects.
In sum, this period of disunion and the attendant, often chaotic, conditions did not preclude cultural and economic developments. As in the Warring States era, political instability and dynastic change did not necessarily undermine social and cultural innovations.
China’s unification in the late sixth and early seventh centuries led to one of the greatest periods in Chinese and indeed world history. The Tang dynasty (618-907) that emerged after almost four centuries of misrule, warfare, lack of a centralized government, and declines in trade and tribute with the outside world proved to be a powerful, prosperous, and culturally productive era. It devised the administrative structure the Chinese would employ, with some variations, until the collapse of the Imperial system in 1911. It recruited officials through competitive civil service examinations, and its cosmopolitanism attracted, via the Silk Roads and maritime trade, merchants, entertainers, soldiers, missionaries, and envoys who introduced foreign religions, music and dance, goods, and technologies to China, and the Tang itself transmitted silk, tea, and other goods to numerous regions in Asia.
The short-lived Sui dynasty (581-617) set the stage for the successes of Tang rule. It unified China through force but quickly sought to establish, with the assistance of Confucian advisers, a civilian administration. It was the first dynasty to use an eclectic ideology to unify the various peoples within China. Its rulers supported and appealed to Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism as a means of legitimizing its authority. They set up administrative structures, a tax system, constructed a capital city in Changan (or modern Xi’an) and another in Luoyang, repaired walls along its northern frontiers, and built roads. Its major construction project was the Grand Canal, which provided access to the rich agricultural lands of South China for the North, which was not as fertile and needed food imports. Yet the manpower and monetary requirements for these projects posed an intolerable burden on the populace. The court drafted hundreds of thousands of laborers to extend and enlarge the Grand Canal and extracted considerable tax revenue, principally from those least able to afford these payments. The burdens of taxes and labor fell disproportionately on the least prosperous and least politically powerful constituencies. Costly and largely unsuccessful foreign military campaigns in Central Asia and Korea added to the miseries of the population, which supplied the revenues and soldiers.
Great dissatisfaction with the Sui led to a rebellion by one of its military commanders who founded the Tang dynasty. The Taizong Emperor (r. 626-649), the second and greatest Tang ruler, established a stable system of central and local governments, reined in local aristocrats, commissioned the development of a legal code, provided tax-exempt land and other support to Buddhist and Daoist monasteries and to Confucian temples and academies. He also pursued an opportunistic and occasionally bellicose foreign policy, first moving into Central Asia to gain control over oases in order to protect caravans traveling along the Silk Roads. (Photo #7) He established more peaceful relations with Tibet, Korea, and Japan.
His successors were not as competent, and inefficiency, inadequate revenues, and corruption plagued the Tang. Irregular successions also harmed the dynasty. The Empress Wu, Taizong’s son’s concubine and then wife, wrested power away from her weak husband. The Chinese sources vilify her as ruthless and vindictive and accuse her of crimes ranging from exiling her opponents to murdering them in an especially grisly manner. Yet she made some important contributions. Deeply religious, she favored the powerful and affluent Buddhist monasteries, providing funds for the construction of religious buildings, the fashioning of statues at the Buddhist cave complexes, and the translation of Buddhist texts. She also promoted a merit system by supporting the civil service examinations as the principal means of recruiting officials. After her husband’s death, she remained in power, and in 690 assumed the throne as the only ruler of the dynasty. Her own demise led to irregular successions to the throne for about a decade.
Perhaps her main contribution was to keep on encouraging the arrival of foreigners and foreign goods. Her lack of hostility toward trade fostered Tang cosmopolitanism. An astonishing variety of foreign products now arrived in China. Pistachios, kohlrabi, pepper, sugar, saffron, and jasmine were among the foods, aromatics, spices, and medicines brought to China. New fashions in clothing and hair also reached the Tang court. As important was the arrival of new religious sects. For example, Chinese Buddhism benefited from the opportunity for closer contact with other centers of Buddhism. Indians and Central Asians arrived in China to introduce new sects, explicate texts, and train acolytes. Simultaneously, several Chinese monks traveled to India to study with Buddhist masters, to collect texts, and to gather artifacts. Xuanzang, the most famous of these Buddhist pilgrims, spent sixteen years on his seventh-century travels in India and Central Asia. He returned to the Tang court in Changan with Buddhist writings and artifacts. Delighted with Xuanzang’s exploits, the Emperor built a special pagoda to house the treasures contributed by the intrepid pilgrim.
New Buddhist sects reached China, generating a golden age for the religion. The Buddhist monasteries were granted tax-free land, which they turned into highly profitable ventures. Using these profits, they also engaged in commercial operations, including pawnshops, inns, agricultural processing industries, and even banks. The wealth generated by these enterprises permitted the monasteries to construct beautifully landscaped temples of great size, as well as splendid images of gold, silver, and bronze, and bronze bells, incense burners, and ritual vessels. They also commissioned the creation of sculptures and frescoes in the cave complexes. A few even accumulated their own wealth and did not lead a life of austerity and discipline. Their secular success would make them vulnerable, especially as the Tang government faced financial shortfalls.
Other religions from West Asia also reached the Tang. Zoroastrianism, Manicheism, Nestorian Christianity, and Judaism were known but did not have wide followings. Islam was much more successful. Muslim merchants reached China both via the Silk Road and by sea. Relations between them and the Tang were generally harmonious, partly because they did not seek to proselytize among the Chinese people. Then the court recruited Muslims for positions as translators and interpreters of Arabic and Persian and often placed them in charge of the Emperor’s horses, recognizing that they were skilled in tending and breeding horses.
Prosperity and intercultural contacts had an extraordinary influence in the arts. The Emperors and wealthy patrons commissioned colossal statues of the Buddhas and other figures in the Buddhist pantheon. Many of the sculptures revealed a combination of indigenous and foreign elements. The same motifs were vital to Buddhist paintings, many of which were destroyed during a devastating repression of Buddhism in the ninth century. Secular paintings flourished as well, although few examples have survived. Paintings of court ladies and of animals have been uncovered in the tombs for Emperors and officials.
Tang crafts also revealed considerable foreign influence. Persian motifs and shapes had a significant impact on Chinese gold and silver vessels. Tang ceramicists also adapted the shapes and designs of Persian metalwork in their plates, ewers, and bowls. The foliate pattern on bowls and dishes, (Photo #8) the pilgrim bottle, and grapevine show Persian and Central Asian influence. The figures represented in the Tang tri-colored ceramics (Photo #9) included Central and West Asian merchants, entertainers, (Photo #10) and soldiers, as well as horses and camels, which were often associated with foreigners. The 1998 discovery of a shipwrecked Arab dhow near Indonesia’s Belitung Island attested to the existence of a lively trade in ceramics. Depictions of a lotus, a Buddhist symbol, as well as Arabic inscriptions and Central Asian motifs offer additional evidence of Tang cosmopolitanism. Ceramics constituted the majority of the sixty thousand objects found in the cargo, but gold and silver ornaments and ritual objects were also well represented. The motifs on the largest Tang cup ever discovered portrayed Persian or Central Asian musicians and dancers.
The cultural efflorescence of Buddhism and in the arts was, in opposition, to the turbulence of the Imperial succession and the political disruptions of the late seventh and early eighth centuries. Evasion of taxes by landlords and ever increasing tax and corvée labor burdens on the peasants continued throughout the eighth century. Chinese scholars, on occasion, attributed the decline to Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712-755), asserting that he had been diverted from court affairs by fascination with Daoism and Esoteric Buddhism. They also accuse him of neglecting official duties because of his passion for his concubine Yang Guifei. Xuanzong’s lack of interest in affairs of State certainly contributed to a mid-eighth century crisis, but no single ruler, however much attention he paid to government, could have stemmed the tide without institutional and political changes. Turbulence at court led to a rebellion by a military commander named An Lushan, who was of Sogdian and Turkic heritage. Late in 755, An rebelled and occupied the Tang capital at Changan. Court officials, who blamed the Emperor’s concubine for the disturbances, compelled him to execute Yang Guifei. The Tang survived only by recruiting Uyghur Turks who inhabited Mongolia, as well as local militias. By 763, the combined Uyghur and militia forces had defeated the rebels and re-installed a weakened Tang Emperor on the throne. The Uyghurs demanded and receive permission to trade for considerably more silk and silver than had been the case earlier, and the provincial governors who had provided the militias became ever more independent. To raise revenue, the court sanctioned the only major religious persecution in Chinese history. In the mid-840s, it targeted the wealthy Buddhist monasteries, confiscating their estates, gold and silver, and even ritual vessels. Even that effort failed to provide sufficient income. Tax evasion and government corruption remained rampant. The number of landless and homeless peasants who had been unable to pay taxes or had been compelled to sell their lands to tax-exempt landlords increased, leading to considerable misery. Government policies accelerated rather than arrested rural distress. Eunuchs meddled in and often controlled court decision-making. The resulting disturbances and insurrections were predictable. Huang Chao led the most damaging rebellion in the late 870s. The court had to call upon the Shato Turks to crush the rebels. This Turkic group overwhelmed Huang Chao and saved the Tang but then demanded more authority along the northern front. Aware of the continuing decline of the Tang, one of their leaders put an end to the Tang in 907. Even before that date, other countries and peoples in Asia knew of the Tang’s problems and thus did not travel to Changan or other cities. The number of caravans along the Silk Roads trickled down to a few, culminating in the severance of land relations between China and West Asia.
V. Song: A lesser Empire
The fall of the Tang resulted in the same kind of fragmentation that characterized the collapse of two earlier dynasties, the Zhou and the Han. No government could gain control over the country and instead local rulers or dynasties prevailed. Non-Chinese peoples on the northern fringes of Chinese territory capitalized on China’s weakness to occupy lands and to establish Chinese-style dynasties for the next several centuries. The Khitans, a people from Mongolia, founded the Liao dynasty, which controlled the area around modern Beijing and sixteen additional prefectures in North China from 907 to 1115. The Tanguts, a group influenced by Tibetan culture, created the Xia dynasty, which dominated much of Northwest China until 1227. The Jurchens erupted from Manchuria in 1115, overwhelmed the Khitans, occupied much of Northern China, and expelled the Song, the ruling indigenous dynasty, to territory south of the Huai River.
China’s heartland was similarly turbulent until 960. Five successive dynasties ruled North China and ten states dominated South China. Conflicts among these dynasties and States weakened all sides, and the battles devastated China’s territory. In 960, a military commander named Zhao Kuangyin united the disparate States and regions into one centralized dynasty which he called the Song. He moved the capital to the city of Kaifeng because Changan, the Tang capital, had been devastated toward the end of the dynasty. The Song diverged from Tang policies to avert the fate of its predecessor. Its officials asserted that the Tang had fallen, in part, because of its expansionist policies and its inability to control its military. They thus chose to become a “lesser empire” by imposing civilian control over the military and not expanding beyond the Chinese cultural sphere. Recognizing that it did not have the military resources to expel the Khitans from the northern frontiers, the Song opted for a peaceful resolution of their commercial and diplomatic relationship. The Treaty of Shanyuan, which resulted from letters sent by the two sides in 1005, entailed humiliating concessions for the Song. The court not only pledged to make payments of silver and silk but also agreed that the Song Emperor would address the Khitan ruler as “Emperor,” not as a vassal. Chinese officials believed that the expenditures on annual payments to the Khitans would be considerably below the expenses on repeated military engagements or maintenance of a large army all along the frontiers. In 1042, the Song court signed a similar treaty with the Tanguts.
The Song rulers also curbed the power of the military commanders and provincial governors who, they believed, had been instrumental in the Tang’s collapse. At the same time, a new elite based upon merit gradually replaced the aristocratic families that had dominated much of Chinese history. The civil service examinations became virtually the only basis for recruitment of bureaucrats. Although a few officials received the imperial grace of protection (yin) enabling them to bring one of their relatives into government without taking an examination, the vast majority of the bureaucracy consisted of successful graduates of the exams.
A new form of Confucianism, labeled Neo-Confucianism, buttressed the new elite and the civil service examinations. The Neo-Confucian thinkers became engaged with metaphysical questions, not merely ethics and politics, which were the province of the original form of Confucianism. They explored ideas and realms that had been the province of the Buddhists, and their efforts could be said to have been responses to Buddhist metaphysics. Zhu Xi summarized Neo-Confucian views in his work Reflections on Things at Hand, in which he supplemented the Confucian traditional emphasis on personal morality, proper relationships within the family, and the individual’s relation to the State.
The Neo-Confucians perceived of the underlying forms of the universe as a duality, the qi and the li. Qi consisted of matter or energy, the material components of the universe. Traditional Confucians focused on that aspect of the universe. Unlike qi, li could not be perceived by the senses. It constituted the metaphysical and somewhat difficult to define element in the new form of Confucianism. The ideal was co-equal forces of qi and li, and true understanding required knowledge of both. Zhu Xi asserted that “investigation of things” led to such knowledge. Scholarly study and the use of reason were his prescriptions for securing knowledge of li.
Some Neo-Confucians advocated institutional change as well as modifications in thinking. They suggested a reduction of the protection privilege, which favored the elite, and reform of the civil service examinations, including a focus on questions of policy and analysis rather than on poetry and the classics and rote memorization. Such a change would improve the bureaucracy because the most creative individuals would pass the examinations.
Wang Anshi (1021-1086), the most renowned reformer, went even further and proposed major changes in government policies. He designed a comprehensive program that he believed would alleviate the sufferings of the peasantry and thus would strengthen China. He detailed his plan in a Ten Thousand Word Memorial to the throne. Hoping to deal with the problem of tax evasion, he proposed a new survey that would register all the lands, including those belonging to the large landowners. He sought to assist the peasants by providing them with cheap government loans, relieving them of dependence on landlords or usurers. His plan for a so-called Hired Services system would also benefit the peasants. Instead of having to perform corvée labor, sometimes at busy times during the agricultural cycle, peasants could now pay an additional tax that could be employed to hire a substitute. He also proposed the organization of a baojia in which each ten families would bind together to maintain order on the local level, thus saving funds for the central government. His changes faced one of the major stumbling blocks that all reforms in Chinese history encountered. They needed to be implemented by bureaucrats who profited from the existing system and would be loath to give up the graft they enjoyed. Moreover, there was a tendency to resist important changes because such efforts would imply indirect criticism of the founding Emperor who had devised the administrative structure. Wang eventually lost power, but factions continued to appear and to weaken the government. In 1126, the Jurchens from Manchuria attacked and forced the Song to abandon much of North China and to establish a new capital in Hangzhou.
The alien dynasties ruled much of China during the Song. The Khitans, originally a nomadic pastoral people, began to settle down in the tenth century and built several capital cities. They developed a written script, supported trade, and adopted Buddhism from the Chinese. Nonetheless, they still retained their pastoral heritage, as evidenced by the art works they produced or commissioned. They or Chinese artisans created gold encrusted saddles, stirrups, boots, funerary urns in the form of tents, and other works evoking their love of horses and other animals. Yet they also produced spectacular Buddhist objects and ritual objects. (Photo #11) Similarly, the Tanguts of Northwest China became ardent Buddhists and commissioned the printing of beautiful texts, the fashioning of ritual vessels, and the painting of Buddhist subjects. The Jurchens who conquered all of North China used the traditional civil service examinations, devised a law code, and levied land and commercial taxes. Influenced by the Chinese, they supported the production of plays and embellished their tombs with paintings of dancers and musicians, paradigms of filial piety, and scenes of daily life.
The Song is renowned for its illustrious painters. However, the strength of the Daghlian collection is in the decorative arts, not painting. Thus the focus here will be on the decorative arts, especially the ceramics and porcelains. The porcelains were simple and elegant, (Photo #11) and the wares were, on occasion, named for the locations where they were produced. Ding ware, in its original form a white porcelain, derived from the area around Dingzhou in the modern province of Hebei, and Jun ware, with its purple splotch brought about by copper oxidized in the glaze, was produced initially in Junzhou. Chinese celadons were prized throughout Asia. (Photo #12) The veneration of antiquity resonated with the ceramics because potters used many of the same forms and shapes found on the Shang and Zhou bronzes. Porcelain became an important commodity in seaborne trade with Korea, Southeast Asia, Persian, Arabia, and all the way to Fustat, adjacent to modern Cairo. (Photo #13)
The Song shift of the capital to Hangzhou, eventually the world’s most populous city, coincided with an economic boom in China. Bountiful agriculture and seaborne trade fostered prosperity for the elite and for merchants. The Southern Song ports also attracted Hindu and Muslim merchants who settled down in China. They built temples and mosques and even had their own cemeteries. In North China, a small group of Jewish artisans and merchants settled in and built a synagogue in the city of Kaifeng. The economic boom was not matched by similar political progress. Despite the civil service examinations, the bureaucracy remained rife with abuses. Nepotism and sales of offices were rampant, and bribery, graft, and corruption were pervasive. The court’s penchant for domestic and foreign luxuries generated repeated fiscal problems. Finally, several thirteenth-century Emperors were weak or came to the throne as infants or children, and Empresses or Empress Dowagers often dominated the court, contributing to corruption and criminality by appointing their own relatives to positions of authority.
VI. Mongol Rule
Preceded by the Khitans, Tanguts, and Jurchens, the Mongols differed from those other non-Chinese groups because they eventually conquered all of China. Under the leadership of Chinggis Khan (original name: Temüjin, ca. 1162-1227), whose greatest contribution was unification of the various Mongol groups, the Mongols initiated foreign campaigns that would lead them to forge the largest contiguous land empire in world history. Chinggis’ prowess as a military man is well known, but his willingness to recruit foreigners for military campaigns and to devise tax systems and to help him rule the territories he subjugated was also vital to his success. He does not appear to have thought of world conquest, and indeed he actually occupied just a fraction of the lands the Mongols would eventually rule. He defeated the Xia and Jin dynasties, but the major territory he occupied was Central Asia. His son and successor Ögödei (r. 1229-1241) expanded the territory under Mongol rule to include Korea, Manchuria, and much of Russia.
Chinggis bequeathed a considerable legacy to the Mongols, the most important being unity. He devised rules collected in the Jasagh, which provided a semi-legal precedent for his successors. His support for commerce eventually led to a revival of the Silk Roads trade across Eurasia and for the first time leading directly to Europe. His toleration of foreign religions also became a standard policy for the Mongols. His one failure was that he did not establish a regular system of succession to the throne. He chose Ögödei, but that succession was the only successful and peaceful transmission of leadership. Future transitions often resulted in bloody conflicts among Chinggis’ descendants, weakening and ultimately leading to the collapse of the Mongol empire.
Ögödei conquered Korea, Manchuria, and much of Russia and began to establish a tax system, especially in China, which his troops occupied in 1234. His most important step was establishment of a capital in Khara Khorum in the Mongol steppes, an indication that he intended to govern the vast domains the Mongols had conquered. Recent excavations of the site have attested to the existence of a mosque and a Buddhist temple, as well as numerous Buddhist artifacts. Stalls for craft shops have been found, and Chinese ceramics, gold objects, and other luxury goods attest to the development of a sophisticated society. Unfortunately for the Mongols, its location was so remote that it could not readily maintain the large number of people needed in what presumed to be a world capital. Within three decades, the Mongols moved their capital to the area around modern Beijing, a more central location.
Ögödei’s death in 1241 temporarily ended the Mongols’ campaigns and also witnessed the onset of a decades’ long struggle for power among Chinggis’ descendants. Ögödei’s sister-in-law Sorghaghtani Beki, who was regarded by Chinese, Persian, Hebrew, and Western sources as the most remarkable woman of her age, was victorious in this effort. Ambitious for her four sons, she adroitly maneuvered to have Möngke, one of her sons, chosen as Great Khan of the Mongol Empire in 1251. A Nestorian Christian, she supported all religions, recognizing that toleration would facilitate rule over a multi-ethnic and multi-religious domain. Although she was illiterate, she ensured that her sons became literate, thus preparing them to govern. Her sons followed her advice, but also restored the campaigns to occupy more of Asia. Möngke dispatched his brother Hülegü to defeat the Abbasid rulers of West Asia, and in 1258, Hülegü’s troops moved into Baghdad and founded the Middle Eastern segment of the Mongol domains. In 1258, Möngke and his brother Khubilai set forth to conquer South China, but Möngke’s death in 1259 temporarily ended the campaign. A struggle between Khubilai and his brother Arigh-Böke ensued and created havoc in the Mongols’ East Asian lands until Khubilai’s victory in 1264.
Khubilai embodied the transition from a nomadic pastoral conqueror to a sedentary ruler, but before he could start to govern he needed to pacify the Southern Song dynasty, which controlled the wealthiest domain in China. His military campaigns in South China were facilitated by the corruption, tax evasion, ineptness, and maladministration of the Song. Nonetheless, almost two decades elapsed before he overwhelmed the South. Finally, in 1279, his forces swept into South China, defeated the Song, and reunified China, a goal the Chinese had sought for four centuries and had been unable to accomplish. Even before the occupation of the Southern Song, he had quickly organized government institutions and attracted the Chinese by establishing administrative offices similar to their own. The one deviation from traditional Chinese practices was his abolition of the civil service examinations, which would compel him to rely exclusively on Chinese to staff his government. He thus employed a coterie of officials, including Central Asian Muslims, Turkic peoples, Tibetans, Mongols, and Chinese. He supported, rather than exploited, the Chinese peasants. But deviating from Chinese practices, he elevated the social status of artisans and set up the conditions for a revolution in the decorative arts. Similarly, he favored doctors, astronomers, and others who could perform useful services for the Empire. Merchants were probably the group that profited the most from his rule. He reduced their tax burdens, built roads and canals to facilitate travel, made greater use of paper money, and allowed merchants to stay at postal stations while on their journeys, and offered low cost loans to traders involved in long distance commerce.
Foreign missionaries, scientists, entertainers, military men, craftsmen, women, sailors, and physicians accompanied the arrival of merchants, creating a much more multi-ethnic and multi-religious China. Persian astronomers and doctors, Central Asian financial administrators and provincial governors, Tibetan Buddhists, Nepalese architects, Muslim supervisors of maritime trade, and Turkic soldiers assisted Khubilai and later Mongol Emperors. Moreover, commerce in Chinese silks and porcelains grew exponentially during the Mongol era. Khubilai even commissioned a Tibetan Buddhist to devise a new written script that could be used for Mongolian and other languages in China.
Despite these appeals to foreign religions and peoples, Khubilai and his successors recognized that China was the center of their newly-subjugated domains. They had to win over the Chinese. In this effort, Khubilai restored Confucian rituals at the court and constructed temples for his ancestors, a traditional practice for Chinese emperors. Most important, he shifted the capital from Khara Khorum in Mongolia to North China. In 1267, he ordered the construction of Daidu, a site near modern Beijing. Once he had built a capital in China, he adopted a Chinese name, “Yuan,” for his dynasty.
Khubilai thus patronized many features of Chinese culture. Theater witnessed a golden age, and Khubilai even built stages in the Imperial Palace complex. Dramas, which were characterized by singing, dancing, pantomime, and acrobatics, appealed to the Mongols. The plays dealt with great heroes, love affairs, and corrupt officials. Judge Bao, who was based upon a real Song figure of the eleventh century, was the hero in a number of plays. He investigated instances of official corruption that harmed ordinary people and then punished the criminals. Songs with dynamic music played on the lute and the zither enlivened performances and added to their popularity.
The visual arts, which naturally did not necessitate knowledge of the Chinese language, received the greatest Mongol patronage. Although some artists refused to work for or to cooperate with the Mongols, several prominent painters were willing to serve the foreigners who had, in fact, unified China after several centuries of disunity. Zhao Mengfu, a descendant of the Song imperial family who turned out to be the most renowned Yuan painter and calligrapher, accepted bureaucratic positions and yet had the time to paint. Li Kan, a famous painter of bamboo, became the Minister of Personnel. Patronage of these and other painters fostered the efflorescence of Yuan dynasty painting. Mongol patronage influenced the painters’ subjects. It is no accident, for example, that paintings of horses were extremely popular with the Mongol elite. However painters also worked in the traditional genres of landscapes, Buddhist and Daoist themes, and figures and did not limit themselves to subjects deliberately meant to appeal to the Mongols.
The Mongols continued their ancestors’ patronage of craftsmen, first influencing ceramics. The Yuan dynasty’s close relationship with Central Asia and Persia led to the importation of cobalt for use in the renowned Chinese blue and white porcelains. Jingdezhen, the center for the production of blue and whites, produced massive plates, jars, dishes, and vases designed for the West Asian market. The Mongols, recognizing the West Asian preference for decorations, encouraged Chinese potters to depict plants, trees, flowers, dragons, and phoenixes, all of which derived from Chinese symbols.
(Photo #14) The Mongols also played a role in textile production. Textiles, which were light and easily transportable, blended well with the Mongols’ migratory lifestyle. Chinese and Central Asian weavers, aware of the Mongols’ fondness for gold, used gold thread for clothing, Buddhist mandalas, and decorations that they produced.
These positive developments characterized the first part of Mongol rule, but reverses began slowly thereafter. The public works projects and military campaigns, especially abortive attacks against Japan and Java, entailed enormous expenditures, and the Mongols introduced Muslim financial administrators who devised arbitrary taxes and fees and inflated the paper currency to meet these revenue needs. The Yuan then experienced repeated failures after Khubilai’s death in 1294. Successions to the throne were often contested. These struggles often reflected the disputes between Mongols who believed in the necessity of accommodating to Chinese practices and institutions in order to rule and their brethren who emphasized an assertion of the traditional Mongol way of life. Such disunity weakened the Mongol elite and led to repeated purges and assassinations of Emperors. Graft, a bloated bureaucracy, and substantial government grants to Mongol princes and Chinese officials contributed to chaos, which alienated the Chinese population. The revenue shortfalls and the outsized payments prevented the Yuan from maintaining its military readiness and its infrastructure. The inattention to dams and irrigation projects led to floods and the spread of water-borne diseases. Floods and changes in the course of the Yellow River in the 1340s were the final blow. Many Chinese died or had to abandon their lands. The changes in the flow of the river also interrupted the transport of grain from South to North China, all of which damaged Mongol relations with the Chinese population. Banditry increased, and many Chinese found millenarian sects appealing. Some of these sects initiated rebellions starting in the 1350s, prompting other secular groups to join in. In 1368, the Mongol Emperors withdrew from China and returned to Mongolia.
Despite its disastrous end, the Yuan dynasty performed the important task of linking China and Europe directly for the first time in history. European merchants, envoys, and adventurers reached China in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Europeans dispatched John of Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck, two Franciscans, to urge the Mongols to avoid further attacks on Europe and to convert to Christianity. The Mongols rejected both pleas, but the two Franciscans came back with valuable reports about the Mongols, prompting European merchants to travel to seek trade with China. Marco Polo was the most renowned such merchant because of his account of his travels. Marco was deeply impressed with Chinese and Mongol culture and especially with the great city of Hangzhou. His book described paper money and the use of coal for fuel, among many other accurate observations. Although Europeans initially doubted his account, they eventually accepted it as a factual description, which prompted them to seek a sea route to Asia.
VII. Ming: A Return to Chinese Rule
Zhu Yuanzhang was the ultimate beneficiary of the Yuan dynasty’s decline. Reared in part in a Buddhist temple, he also had military training. Capitalizing on the disarray of the 1350s, he captured the city of Nanjing, gradually moved to North China, culminating in 1368 in his founding of the Ming dynasty. He instituted policies designed to avert a Mongol-like invasion of China. Unlike the Yuan and earlier dynasties , he imposed severe limitation on foreign trade and indeed all foreign contact. He also stated that a strong Emperor was needed to stave off foreign attacks. The resulting government was more despotic than in earlier dynasties. In 1370, he restored the civil service examinations as the only means of recruiting officials and enacted a law code known as the DaMinglu, which legitimized his total control over the State.
He appointed a young grandchild as his successor, but Zhu Di, one of his sons, resented being passed over and led a successful coup to overthrow his nephew. In 1403, Zhu Di defeated his nephew and took power. Because an air of illegitimacy shadowed him, he deviated from his father’s foreign policy in order to justify his ascendance to the throne. He reversed his father’s efforts to limit contact with the outside world. The Chinese believed that a good Confucian Emperor would induce foreign rulers to come to China to become Sinicized. The more virtuous the Emperor, the more foreign leaders would arrive, and the greater the number of foreign rulers and envoys who reached China, the more legitimate the ruler. Thus Zhu Di sought to stimulate the arrival of foreign embassies to court.
His grandest attempt to promote the arrival of foreigners was the dispatch of the embassies of the Muslim eunuch Zheng He. Leading a sizable flotilla of ships, Zheng undertook seven journeys to Southeast Asia, India, and West Asia and became the first attested Chinese to reach Africa. His mission fulfilled the goal of eliciting foreign delegations to travel to the Chinese court to offer tribute. Leaders and envoys from as near as Champa (modern Vietnam) and from as far away as Mozambique sent embassies to the Ming ruler. They brought with them exotic animals, including lions, leopards, and giraffes, as well as more useful products such as spices and medicines. Court officials complained of the tremendous expense entailed in outfitting and maintaining these missions, and the Court allowed one mission after Zhu Di’s death in 1424 but then ended them.
Zhu Di dispatched still other emissaries to elicit tribute from other States. He sent Chen Cheng to the Central Asian centers at Herat and Samarkand, which were at their cultural height. Chen returned to China with a valuable record of the customs, products, and conditions in these States. In turn, Shahrukh, the son of the Central Asian conqueror Tamerlane, who ruled these regions, dispatched an embassy to China, and one of its members wrote a revealing account about Ming China. Zhu Di also sent the eunuch Isiha to the Jurchen peoples of Manchuria and other ambassadors to Korea and Thailand. Embassies from Tibet that arrived at the Ming court were noteworthy from an artistic viewpoint because the court gave spectacular textiles to the envoys, which were preserved in Tibet and have survived into modern times.
However, Zhu Di could not secure the acquiescence of other foreigners. Thus he personally led five campaigns to pacify the Mongols. The expeditions were unsuccessful because they did not take into account the Mongols’ underlying motivations. The Mongols needed and coveted Chinese products, and if the court did not grant them opportunities for trade, raids were their only recourse. Because Mongols easily eluded Zhu Di’s troops by fleeing farther into the Mongol steppes or mountains, the campaigns merely wound up to be expensive and frustrating. A similar Ming military expedition in 1449 against the Mongols had even worse consequences, as the Mongol leader Esen captured one of the later Emperors. Zhu Di also attempted to conquer Annam (modern Vietnam), but the enemy troops launched guerilla warfare against his forces. Such resistance, along with the semi-tropical heat and the infectious and parasitic diseases to which they were exposed, compelled the Chinese to withdraw after still another expensive campaign.
A positive yet similarly costly element of Zhu Di’s reign was construction of a capital. He shifted the capital from Nanjing in South China to Beijing in the North and laid out a grandiose city. The Forbidden City, where the Emperor and the court resided, and the Temple of Heaven, which were built at this time, were spectacularly beautiful but extraordinarily expensive.
Despite the failures of the military campaigns, the power of eunuchs, and the corruption and mis-administration of the court and its officials, Ming society prospered. Agriculture boomed, and such industries as textiles, porcelain, and printing developed. Some merchants became quite wealthy and had a taste for luxuries and the decorative arts. They started to collect bronzes, jades, calligraphy, lacquer, furniture, and seals. Painters also produced works for these newly prosperous Chinese.
The decorative arts prospered as well. Ceramics sites in Jingdezhen produced marvelous blue and white porcelains, (Photo #15) and potters in Dehua fashioned white wares. The cobalt blue used in decorations came from Central Asia, and some of the wares had Arabic or Tibetan inscriptions, an indication that they were produced for Muslim and other foreigners in China or for foreign trade. The sizable collections of blue and white and other porcelains at the Tokapi Palace Museum in Istanbul and the Ardebil shrine in Iran, and various Southeast Asian States attest to the scale and range of the market for Chinese porcelains. This foreign market increased with the arrival of Europeans in China, and Ming potters began to produce wares suited to European tastes. Silk production increased, and workshops fashioned exquisite dragon robes, which were embroidered with up to twelve symbols. Simultaneously, a new form of Neo-Confucianism, which was influenced by Chan Buddhism, arose, and Wang Yangming was its most renowned thinker. Novels made their appearance during the Ming. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin, Journey to the West, and The Golden Lotus were the most prominent of these works of fiction and reveal a great deal about Ming society. Through its exchanges with Tibet, the Ming was also exposed to the Yellow Sect of Buddhism and learned about Tsong-kha-pa, its most influential thinker.
Political disturbances began to overwhelm cultural efflorescence by the end of the sixteenth century. Eunuchs were becoming increasingly prominent and powerful in all facets of government; the skills of the military were dissipating, partly because of corruption and partly because of lack of funds; tax evasion was commonplace; the court initiated enormous public works projects and built even more grandiose palaces; and piracy and brigandage were pervasive. A Mongol Khan reached the very gates of Beijing in 1570. Reform efforts led by an official named Zhang Juzheng failed, and by the 1590s, the court faced rebellions among non-Chinese minorities in the provinces of Sichuan and Guizhou. Also at that time, it dispatched troops to counter a Japanese invasion of Korea. It succeeded in defeating the Japanese, but the campaigns were costly.
The machinations of the eunuch Wei Zhongxian in the early seventeenth century exacerbated these problems. Wei lived extravagantly by stealing public funds and appointed his own relatives and allies to positions at court, allowing him to acquire even more wealth and property. He and the court did not pay enough attention to the threat posed by the Manchus who resided across China’s northeastern frontier. The accession of a new Emperor in 1627 finally ended Wei’s career. Shortly thereafter, Wei learned that the Emperor planned to have him executed. Instead he averted this fate by committing suicide.
Rebels capitalized on the court’s disarray. From his base in Northwest China, the rebel leader Li Zecheng gradually occupied more and more territory from the late 1620s on. By April of 1644, Li’s forces reached Beijing. A few hours before Li’s troops entered the city, the Emperor climbed up Coal Hill, near the Forbidden City, and hung himself. The Ming dynasty ended. At this stage, court officials feared that Li might lead a social revolution that would shift power to peasants and others on the fringes of society. Having no choice and having no independent military force to defeat Li, they turned to outsiders, the Manchus, to crush the rebels. They ordered Ming commanders to allow the Manchus to enter China, and the Manchus, with the assistance of some Chinese troops, ousted Li from Beijing, and founded a new long-lived dynasty, the Qing.