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Buddhist Religious Practice in Imperial China  

Natasha Heller

Buddhist practice transformed the religious landscape in China, introducing new forms of mental cultivation and new ritual technologies within an altered cosmology of spiritual goals. Buddhist practice was carried out by individuals, but was equally as often a communal activity. A basic unit of religious practice was the family; Buddhist cultivation was also carried out by communities of practice at monasteries, which were also sites of large-scale rituals. Forms of religious practice included meditation, oral recitation, ritual performances including confession and vow making, and merit-making activities. Meditation encompassed following breath and exercises that recreated Buddhist images in the practitioner’s mind. Meditation could be carried out while sitting, or while walking, and might also incorporate recitation of scriptures, names of the Buddhas, and dhāraṇī. Indeed, meditation practices were most often embedded in liturgical sequences that included confession, vows, and merit dedication. The goal of these religious practices might be personal spiritual development; through the concept of merit transference, religious activities also worked to benefit others, especially the dead. The fundamental of components of Buddhist practice were present very early in the tradition’s history in China, and over time these elements were combined in new ways, and with reference to changing objects of devotion. The four major bodhisattvas of Mañjuśrī (Wenshu 文殊), Samantabhadra (Puxian 普賢), Kṣitigarbha (Dizang 地藏), and Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin 觀音) were especially important as objects of devotion, and also were emplaced in the Chinese landscape, where they were incorporated into pilgrimages.

Article

China’s Imperial Institution  

Yuri Pines

Emperors were the symbolic and administrative pivot of the Chinese empire ever since its establishment in 221 bce. They were arguably the most powerful human beings on earth. Their nominal authority was limitless, and it encompassed the administrative, military, economic, social, religious, and intellectual spheres to mention only a few. Moreover, the emperors’ semi-sacral status added superhuman dimensions to the imperial position. And yet, only very few emperors were able to impose their will in full. The combination of limitless institutional authority and limited personal power is the major paradox of China’s emperorship. The contradiction between the emperor’s nominal omnipotence and his limited ability to impose his personal will on his subjects was imbued into the imperial institution from its very inception. Chinese thinkers of pre-imperial age (pre-221 bce) sought peace and stability in their realm and came to the conclusion that these are attainable only under the omnipotent universal sovereign. Yet being aware of the dangers of the ruler’s potential mediocrity, these thinkers tried to create a system in which the ruler reigns but not rules, and the effective power rests with the ministers of proven intellectual and moral abilities. Although the system they envisioned never worked perfectly and allowed periodic recurrences of the emperors’ abuse of power, overall their goal was achieved. The imperial literati were more often than not able to moderate the emperor’s whims and create a viable mode of rule in which the hereditary monarchy at the top was maintained by the meritocratic bureaucracy below. Despite persistent tensions, the system was flexible enough to ensure the empire’s exceptional political durability.

Article

Civil Law and Jurisprudence in Imperial China  

Nap-yin Lau

In terms of jurisdiction and punishment, the border between civil and criminal laws in imperial China is not clear cut. The same officials can handle both civil and criminal cases, and lawfully impose the same punishment, such as the death penalty, on unfilial sons and traitors alike. In terms of the sphere of interests, however, the officials know very well that some violations are more concerned with private interests than public interests. For example, they will settle loan disputes in accordance with the original private contract between the money lenders and borrowers, unless the interest rate is so exorbitant that it necessitates government intervention. Consequently, the imperial Chinese and modern Western civil laws are roughly common in their coverage of marriage, divorce, succession, disinheritance, property matters, and so on. And, like the Western laws, the Chinese laws have experienced historical changes, many of the most important of which occurred during the Song dynasty (960–1279) or the “Tang-Song transformation,” so called to highlight the tremendous progress of China from the medieval to the early modern stages. Against the principle of filial piety, both sons and daughters are now allowed to sue their parents without fear of the death penalty if their accusations are true. Against the principle of communal family, both sons and daughters can possess privately earned properties not to be shared by their parents and siblings. Against the principle of patrilineal succession, unmarried daughters have their inheritance rights increased at the expense of the sons, reaching the ratio of two shares for a son and one share for a daughter. Against the principle of different rights according to different status, a formal concubine can inherit the spousal patrimony and establish an heir when the wife is absent. These changes reflect that the legislative principles, though still far from enshrining equality before the law, are paying increasing attention to the balance of duties and rights with decreasing regard to family relation, gender, or status. As to the judicial practices, they are nearing the rule of law and becoming more predictable instead of inconsistent. These are the less-known or even misunderstood aspects of the civil law in imperial China.

Article

The Classical Silk Road: Trade and Connectivity across Central Asia, 100 BCE–1200 CE  

Valerie Hansen

The Silk Road refers to all the overland routes connecting the major oasis kingdoms of Central Asia including Dunhuang, Turfan, Khotan, and Samarkand to their neighbors: the Chinese landmass, the Mongolian grasslands, the Iranian plateau, and the Indian subcontinent. The best-known routes ran east-west, but the north-south routes to the nomadic states of the Asian grasslands were also important. In the popular view of the Silk Road, extensive camel caravans carried goods over long distances, but this was rarely the case. Usually peddlers carried mostly local goods short distances. Government shipments to provision armies profoundly affected the region’s economy, because they involved much larger quantities than in the peddler trade. Rulers regularly exchanged envoys who carried gifts, exchanges that continued even when private trade fell off. Whatever the reason for an individual’s trip, almost everyone—whether envoy, missionary, artist, craftsman, or refugee—bought and sold goods to pay for travel along the Silk Road. Silk was not the primary commodity traded on these routes. Goods traveling east included ammonium chloride, paper, silver, gold, glassware, and aromatics such as spices, incense, and fragrant woods. Goods traveling west out of China included bronze mirrors, other metal goods, and paper, in addition to silk. Between 300 and 1000 ce, the most important function of silk was as a currency, not as a trade good, although it remained an important export throughout the period. A vibrant series of cultural exchanges occurred alongside these commercial exchanges. Technologies, medicine, plants, music, and fashion all moved in both directions across Central Asia. Multiple religions also entered China during this time. The term Silk Road may not be the most accurate term for these commercial and cultural exchanges, but, despite its flaws, the term has secured a firm place in both scholarly works and the popular mind.

Article

Environment and Economy in Song China  

Ruth Mostern

The period between the 9th and the 13th centuries in China, a largely temperate climate span that followed an interval of punishing droughts, was a time of pivotal economic and environmental transformation. The Song dynasty, chronologically divided into the Northern Song (960–1127) and the Southern Song (1127–1276) periods, dominated the era, but numerous other regimes and societies prospered in eastern Asia as well. Over the course of these centuries, China’s recorded population rose from sixty to one hundred million people, and perhaps 20 percent of them lived in cities. Technological innovation transformed numerous landscapes and areas of human activity, and market relations came to play a significant role in the exchange of land, labor, and goods. When deforestation caused a crisis in timber availability, some Song metalworkers shifted from charcoal to coal to power forges for iron and steel. The amount of land under agricultural cultivation expanded dramatically. In the Yangtze delta, the economic core of south China, farmers drained wetlands and constructed terraces and polders to support paddies on which they grew new strains of fast-ripening rice. Elsewhere, they turned grasslands and forests into fields, with consequences for herders and foragers, nonhuman animals, and soil stability. To the north, on the Yellow River watershed, deforestation and grasslands degradation caused major erosion that initiated an era of inundation and avulsion that transformed floodplain landscapes and modes of subsistence downstream. New maritime technologies ensured that the environmental consequences of the Song economic revolution extended beyond the borders of the realm and into distant Pacific and Indian Ocean worlds as well. Nevertheless, many Song landscapes lay outside human exploitation, and many Song practices allowed for sustainable relationships between people and the ecosystems that they inhabited.

Article

Fiscal Policy and Institutions in Imperial China  

Taisu Zhang

Up until the final four decades of the Qing Dynasty, fiscal extraction in imperial China was primarily a matter of taxing agricultural production, generally in the form of an annual property tax assessed on the basis of landholding, and collected in either grain or cash. All major dynasties prior to the Qing wielded this fiscal instrument somewhat flexibly, with large-scale reforms, usually leading to significantly higher taxes, occurring around mid-dynasty, but the Qing broke this trend: the absolute volume of agricultural taxes remained locked in place for the great majority of its 278-year life span, despite a near tripling of both the population and the economy. This eventually rendered the Qing fiscal state an extreme outlier in both horizontal and vertical comparisons: relative to the economy it governed, not only was it much smaller than its major early modern competitors, ranging from Japan to Western European states to other central Asian empires, but it was also probably the smallest post-Qin dynastic state by far. Preexisting scholarship has largely failed to identify, let alone explain, this sudden and dramatic shift in fiscal policy towards the end of China’s imperial history. There are a number of possible explanations for it, some of which have appeared in the extant literature, but the most promising one—which has not appeared—seems to be that the extraordinary circumstances of the Ming–Qing transition served as the catalyst for a decisive conservative turn in Chinese fiscal thought, pushing the Qing state into a fundamentally different political and institutional equilibrium than its predecessors.

Article

Gender and Social Life in Imperial China  

Weijing Lu

Social life in imperial China was structured on the Confucian gender principles of the separation of male and female and the division of “inner and outer” spheres. Homosociality prevailed while heterosociality was limited. Homosociality dominated the forms and manners of social interaction. Men moved around freely and faced little constraint in forging relationships and networks, while women were largely homebound and secluded. In general, women enjoyed more physical freedom in earlier imperial times than in late imperial China, when seclusion of women intensified thanks to the rise of the female chastity cult and the spread of the practice of foot-binding. But even in the late imperial period, women were able to form networks and communities, in person or by means of writing. Local traditions and stages in the life cycle influenced women’s lived experiences of socialization, and class also played an important part in social life for both men and women. For example, education and a government career provided main venues for elite male socialization but for the men in lower social classes, their networks were built around localized institutions such as temple associations, sworn brotherhood, secret societies, and native place association.

Article

Imperial Maritime China  

Angela Schottenhammer

Imperial China has a long-standing, multifaceted, and interesting imperial maritime history. Of particular importance in this context are the commercial dimensions of China’s maritime contacts with the outside world. From approximately the 7th century until Yuan 元 times (1279–1367), China even developed as a commercial maritime power, although its maritime trade was, until the late 11th century, basically dominated by foreign merchants. During the Yuan and early Ming dynasties (1368–1644), China was also a naval power—the attempts of Qubilai Khan (r. 1260–1295) to subdue Japan are well known. But their maritime interests took the Mongols as far as Southeast and South Asia. The early Ming 明 period, under the third Ming Emperor, Yongle 永樂 (r. 1403–1424), is characterized by unforeseen political, military, and commercial maritime expansion. After 1435, following the instructions of the first Ming emperor, Hongwu 洪武 (r. 1368–1398), China officially retreated from the seas and prohibited all private maritime commerce, until internal socioeconomic and financial problems and the great demand of foreigners—after 1500 also including the Europeans—for Chinese products urged the government to “reopen” its borders for trade. The rulers of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing 清 (1644–1911), first concentrated on securing their maritime borders against competing commercial and political interests, then managed a flourishing trade, increasingly also with Europeans, but were finally confronted with the colonialist and imperialistic claims of the Europeans. After the Opium Wars (1839–1842), the maritime commerce and politics of China were more and more controlled by European powers, especially the British.

Article

The Imperial State and the Ruling Elite  

Song Chen

The ruling elite of imperial China was composed of diverse groups, including imperial clansmen and in-laws, eunuchs and other palace attendants, as well as incumbents of a vast civil and military bureaucracy who had hailed, in some historical periods, from different social, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. The distribution of power among these groups shifted constantly in tandem with the vagaries of political situations. Of these groups, the most prominent and best documented were the shi, who derived their status from a confluence of economic, social, political, and cultural resources. What it meant to be a shi and who qualified as a shi varied greatly over time. The first shi were men of talent who were recruited into government on account of their administrative, military, and diplomatic abilities, regardless of their family or regional origin. The rise of these shi was itself a corollary of China’s transition into the imperial era, which was marked by a persistent endeavor by warring states to build an effective bureaucratic administration staffed by capable men. Within a few centuries, however, the shi had become a semi-hereditary elite, comprising a relatively small number of families that monopolized high offices in government, resided in the capital, and married almost exclusively among themselves. This superelite dissipated in the 10th and 11th centuries, in the midst of a series of economic, social, and political changes that profoundly transformed the character of the shi as well as their relationship to the imperial state and local society. In the subsequent millennium, learning took precedent over pedigree and officeholding in defining shi status. Hence, the shi became a more inclusive epithet and was adopted by all men who had the education that qualified them for government service, thus blurring the distinction between government officials and a more diffuse stratum of local leaders. These transformations took place in the context of longue-durée economic and social changes from Song times onwards, including the growth of private wealth, the spread of printing, the expansion of the educated population, and the development of various local social institutions.

Article

Intellectual Trends in Imperial China  

Chang Woei Ong

In a letter to his friend Wang Hui王回 (1023–1065), the great Song dynasty (960–1279) politician, scholar, thinker, and writer Wang Anshi王安石 (1021–1086) makes a distinction between the golden age of the ancients and the less-than-desirable world of the present. More importantly, it claims that the golden era was marked by a commitment to unity. Not only were morality and customs of the world made the same, but the learned were united in their learnings and opinions. The periods after the golden age, on the other hand, were marked by diversity and confusion arising from how the truth is understood. Wang believed that he had found the truth about unity and how it could be achieved from reading the Classics. His ambitious political reform (called New Policies) was a grand program that sought to bring the ideal of unity to the world through government. Wang Anshi was of course not the only major thinker in Chinese history to ponder the question of unity. In fact, a dominant and enduring theme in the history of Chinese thought is the search for unity. Faced with uncertainties arising from a diverse and complex world, thinkers in different periods and with different intellectual orientations saw it as their main mission to discover the true nature of unity and ways of realizing it for attaining a harmonious world. The process began when Confucius (551–479 bce) was confronted with the chaotic reality following the gradual collapse of the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 bce) and its institutions and cultures. It ended with the fall of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), the last imperial regime, when new ideas of nation-state began to drastically transform the Chinese worldviews. During the two millennia in between, the search for unity spanned distinctive intellectual trends often labeled as Confucian, Daoist, or Buddhist. But such loose and often retrospective labeling cannot do justice to the complexity of history. It is therefore important to go beyond the labels and examine the common assumptions about unity among the major thinkers during a given period and how that changed over time. In doing so, we will be able to trace the emergence, development, and sometimes decline of distinctive intellectual trends before the 20th century.

Article

Japanese Pirates and the East Asian Maritime World, 1200–1600  

Peter D. Shapinsky

Historians translate a variety of terms from 13th- through 17th-century Japan, China, Korea, and Europe as “Japanese pirates” (e.g., Jp. kaizoku, Kr. waegu, Ch. wokou). These constructs reflected the needs of regimes and travelers dealing with a maritime world over which they had little direct control, and often denoted bands of seafarers who based themselves in maritime regions beyond and between the reach of land-based political centers. Seafarers rarely used the terms to refer to themselves. Japanese pirates opportunistically traded, raided, and transmitted culture in periods when and places where the influence of central governments attenuated. However, some innovated forms of maritime lordship that enabled them to establish dominance over sea-lanes and territories at the heart of the Japanese archipelago. Pirates developed expertise in navigation and naval warfare that helped them acquire patrons, who provided access to networks of diplomacy and trade. In the 16th century, some Japanese pirates forged multiethnic crews that seized control of the maritime networks linking East and Southeast Asia. Labels for Japanese pirates also operated as ethnographical, geographical, and historical symbols. Traumatic assaults by waves of Japanese pirates who massacred and enslaved local populations were indelibly etched into the collective memories of Koryŏ–Chosŏn Korea and Ming–Qing China. By contrast, in early modern Japan the eradication of piracy enabled the state to extend its maritime sovereignty as well as to then commemorate pirates as ethnocentric symbols of Japanese warrior prowess.

Article

Qubilai’s Maritime Mongols  

Paul Buell and Francesca Fiaschetti

The Mongols, creators of the largest continuous land empire in history, who initiated an unprecedented era of international exchange, are mostly known for their land conquests and contacts, but, they also actively participated in maritime and land trade. The key event in this development was a Mongol commercialization ongoing with the Mongol conquest of key coastal areas in China and Iran that brought them face to face with the trading world of the South Seas and Indian Ocean. There was a military aspect of this, starting in Japan, Southeast Asia, and Java, and there was the diplomatic and informal initiatives of Qubilai-qan to expand Mongol influence over the seas as far as the Red Sea and Africa, in ways not achievable with military means alone. A thesis is that the Mongols in China ended by creating, with the help of the Mongols in Iran, a first maritime age, paralleling those established by the Portuguese and others that came later.

Article

Military Technology and Organization in Imperial China  

Peter Lorge

Warfare and the military were at the center of the imperial Chinese state, though their significance was downplayed by government officials and the literati. Chinese dynasties fielded armies organized and supported by the central government that combined infantry and cavalry forces, and mixed part-time (militia) and professional soldiers. Cavalry and infantry forces were strongly, though not exclusively, connected to ethnic background. The best and most numerous cavalry came from steppe groups, and the best and most numerous infantry were Chinese. The stirrup and guns were invented in China, changing the course of both Chinese and world military history. China also had a highly developed tradition of military thought that drew upon a classical tradition and was vastly elaborated and expanded upon during the imperial period. What most distinguished imperial China from its earlier period was the effective use of war to create and support a unified state. Overall, the history of warfare and the military in imperial China was one of technological and intellectual sophistication in support of state power.

Article

The Qara Khitai  

Michal Biran

The Qara Khitai or Western Liao dynasty (1124–1218) ruled in Central Asia in the period that preceded the rise of Chinggis Khan. Founded by Khitan refugees who escaped from north China when the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1115–1234) vanquished their Khitan Liao dynasty (907–1125), they soon carved out for themselves a multicultural empire in Central Asia that combined Chinese, nomadic, and Muslim elements. Vanquishing the Qarakhanids and the Seljuks and making the Khwārazm Shāhs, the Gaochang Uighurs, and various Mongolian tribes their vassals, at its height the Qara Khitai Empire stretched from the Oxus to the Altai Mountains (namely, from Uzbekistan to western Mongolia including most of Xinjiang, China). Their biggest victory in 1141 against the Seljuks even became the basis for the legend of Prester John. Practicing religious tolerance and mostly indirect rule—leaving local rulers largely intact apart from in their capital Balāsāghūn (Burana, Kyrgyzstan)—and, using their Chinese and nomadic cultural capital, the Sinicized Buddhist nomads ruled over their heterogeneous but mostly Muslim sedentary population in rare harmony. The aging dynasty, however, could not survive the repercussions of Chinggis Khan’s rise, which coincided with the bolstering of the Khwārazm Shāh’s power. In the early 13th century, after a Naiman prince who had escaped from Chinggis Khan usurped the Qara Khitai throne, the Mongols vanquished the Qara Khitai, incorporating most of their troops into the Mongol army and channeling their skilled subject population for imperial needs. A scion of the Qara Khitai established the Muslim Qutlughkhanid dynasty of Kirman (south Persia, 1222–1306) that ruled under Mongol and later Ilkhanid aegis.

Article

The Role of Trade in Building the Mongol Empire  

Isenbike Togan

Perennial interest of the nomads in exchange and trade is known, but the transition from exchange to trade is not so well known. Exchange is a kind of barter, while trade entails traders and profits. Though both continued in war and peace, records are scarce for peacetime. Wartime activities are well documented and make it clear that once the transition from exchange to trade was accomplished, war and conquest facilitated the expansion of networks. Expansion, opening up new routes, and maintenance of the old were accomplished by conquest along these routes. The roads needed to be connected to provide safety, eliminate anxiety, and establish an environment of trust for commercial transactions. Muslim merchants were the active participants of these new commercial ventures, which had the protection of Chinggis Khan’s army of conquest. However, in building the empire, Chinggis Khan would first resort to a conciliatory attitude before taking any military measures. Trade and trade routes were the main arteries of the Mongol Empire. These networks were the agreement points among all contenders of power, merchants, warriors, and the commanding members of the ruling dynasty. It was this agreement on the importance of trade that secured the endurance of the empire.

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Schools and Learning in Imperial China  

Linda Walton

From the consolidation of the Han empire (206 bce–220 ce) through the collapse of the Qing (1644–1911), ideas about education associated with Confucius (c. 551–479 bce) and his followers dominated both the content and the institutions of learning. In imperial China, as in all societies, the transmission of culture across generations depended on learning values and skills within the family. Beyond the bonds of kinship, more advanced knowledge was acquired through teacher-student relationships, idealized along with family in the Confucian Analects. Both modes of learning retained their importance even after the development of formal educational institutions controlled by the state. The key innovation in this regard was the imperial civil service examination system, beginning in the 7th century ce. The single most important educational institution during the middle and later imperial periods (c. 900–1900), the influence of the examination system far eclipsed that of any individual school or schools. The examinations tested candidates on a variety of topics, ranging from knowledge of the Confucian classics to poetry and philosophy, as well as politics and history. Passing the examination led to appointment as a government official, the favored career for ambitious young males (not females, who were expected to remain in the home as wives and mothers). Beyond the Imperial University and other schools in the capital and regional centers, schools founded by families, lineages, and clans, as well as by independent scholars and local government officials, provided instruction geared to passing the examinations. From the Song period (960–1279) on, the development of printing technology and the growth of commercial publishing greatly enhanced access to education, expanding opportunities for many, although competition remained fierce, and examination success, elusive.

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Song China: The First Modern Economy?  

Billy So and Sufumi So

Often considered one of the most prosperous dynasties in China’s two-thousand-year imperial history, the Song dynasty lasted for about three hundred years (960–1276 ce). The dynasty is sometimes credited with having developed the world’s first modern economy. While the Song economy lacked such essential characteristics of modern economic growth as science-based ways of improving industrial output and law-based capital markets, there was an undeniable presence of market forces that depended on a combination of product specialization, industrialization, urbanization, commercialization, monetization, and the widespread use of credit instruments. Such are the modern tendencies that many scholars have seen in Song China. The Song’s commercial growth predated the development of trade and commerce in late medieval Europe that began in the 11th century. None of the European cities of this period could compare in population size or trade volume to those in Song China. Neither the use of paper currency nor the burgeoning growth in agricultural production and commercialization existed in Europe’s commercializing economy. From this angle, Song China deserves to be recognized as the world’s first modern economy.

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The Uyghur Empire (744–840)  

Michael R. Drompp

The Uyghurs (Chinese Huihe迴 紇, Huihu回鶻) were a pastoral nomadic people living in the region of the Selenga and Orkhon river valleys in modern Mongolia; they spoke a Turkic language. The empire that they created on the steppe lasted for nearly a century (744–840) and played an important role, both politically and culturally, in East Asia. Centered on the Mongolian Plateau, the Uyghur Empire at its height controlled numerous other peoples within a territory that included lands to the north in the modern regions of Tuva and Buryatia, as well as some parts of the northern Tarim Basin and eastern Inner Mongolia.1 During its eventful history, the Uyghur Empire sent cavalry to help the Tang Dynasty put down the An Lushan rebellion, maintained strong political and economic ties with China, fought with the Tibetan Empire for control of important international trade routes, built cities on the steppe, celebrated its rulers’ achievements in stone stelae, and—uniquely in the world—adopted Manichaeism as its state religion. After their empire collapsed, the Uyghurs developed new polities in Gansu and the Tarim Basin that continued to exercise influence in Inner Asia.

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The Yellow River, the Chinese State, and the Ecology of North China  

David A. Pietz

Flowing through the North China Plain, one of China’s major agricultural regions, the Yellow River has long represented a challenge to Chinese governments to manage. Preventing floods has been an overriding concern for these states in order to maintain a semblance of ecological equilibrium on the North China Plain. This region’s environment is heavily influenced by seasonal fluctuations in precipitation, leading to a long history of famine, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when water management structures disintegrated with the deterioration of the imperial system. In the 20th century, new civil and hydraulic engineering techniques and technologies held the promise for enhanced management of the region’s waterways. After 1949, the new government of the People’s Republic used a hybrid approach consisting of the tenets of multipurpose water management combined with the tools of mass mobilization that were hallmarks of the Chinese Communist Party. The wide-ranging exploitation of surface and groundwater resources during the Maoist period left a long shadow for the post-Mao period that witnessed rapid consumption of water to fuel agricultural, industrial, and urban reforms. The challenge for the contemporary state in China is creating a system of water allocation through increased supply and demand management that can sustain the economic and social transformations of the era.