World History 1 220 - 14.1.2 The Inner Asian Steppe and Chinese Dynastic Struggles

Steppe peoples organized themselves under widely varying degrees of centralized authority. At one end were small self-governing nomadic clans with fluctuating membership and modest herds in remote parts of the steppe. At the other extreme were settled societies with fixed capital cities, centralized administrations funded by routine taxation, and a writing system for their language. In between were larger groups of seminomadic tribes that were mostly preliterate, with more loosely fixed memberships and territorial ranges than the settled societies. In the wake of the Tang dynasty collapse at the beginning of the tenth century, some seminomadic tribes seeking the prosperity and technology of China transitioned to more settled and centralized civilizations.

Taking advantage of the power vacuum caused by the collapse of the Tang dynasty, two steppe peoples extended their rule from the Inner Asian Steppe into northern China: the Khitan Liao, linguistically a Mongolian people who formed the Liao kingdom, and the Xia, sometimes called the Tangut, linguistically a Tibetan people who formed the Xi Xia kingdom. These kingdoms became a bridge between the long-established, highly centralized, and sedentary civilization of China and the nomadic tribes of the steppe (Figure 14.5).

A map is shown with land highlighted beige and water highlighted blue. White lines run through the map, visible on the blue water and blue wavy lines run throughout the beige land. The Aral Sea is labelled on the land in the west. Land fills two-thirds of the image in the northwest and water is shown along the south and east. The Bay of Bengal, the Gulf of Thailand, the South China Sea, and the Sulu Sea are labelled along the south. The Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea, and the Yellow Sea are labelled in the east and the Sea of Japan (East Sea) is labelled in the northeast. West of the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea is a long oval area highlighted blue and labelled “Jin (Jurchen).” Going south there is a triangle shaped area highlighted orange with a black dashed line running down it, dividing it into a third at the west and two thirds at the east. The west is labelled “Song” while the east is labelled “Southern Song.” West of the southern half of the blue Jin area is a small oval highlighted green and labelled “Xixia (Western Xia).” A black dashed line starts in the northern part of the blue Jin area, heads northwest, then south and then straight west, coming back to the east and ending at the Yellow Sea. It is labelled “Liao (Khitan).” Areas labelled in the beige include: Mongols (north of the Liao area), Qara Khitai (in the west), Uyghurs (west of Xixia), Tufan (Tibetan) (west of Song), Dali (west of Southern Song), and Goryeo (a peninsula to the southeast of Jin (Jurchen)).
Figure 14.5 Multiple sovereign political units emerged from the chaos of the Tang dynasty’s collapse in the early tenth century. Note the loss of Song territory—which previously occupied much of the blue area in the northeast—as a new dynasty, the Jurchen Jin, expanded southward, displacing the Khitan Liao and taking many Song lands. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The eight tribes of the Khitan Liao spent the chaotic years between the Tang and the Song making a transition to life as a settled people with administrative institutions. Establishing a permanent capital city in the north in 918, their leader abandoned the traditional elections in favor of a hereditary monarchy. A dual system of administration was adopted, using traditional tribal practices of governance in areas populated predominantly by steppe people, while a system of exams similar to that used by the mandarins selected officials in the majority-Chinese parts of the kingdom. The processes of centralized administration required a written script, which was finalized in 920. The Liao dynasty also promoted economic development by moving Chinese workers skilled in technologies that steppe people did not practice, like metallurgy, to teach their crafts to those living in the steppe.

In 1004, the Song and the Liao agreed to the Treaty of Shanyuan. This pact highlighted the changing relationship between the steppe people and the Chinese between the Tang and the Song dynasties. In it, both the Song and the Liao emperors were referred to as Sons of Heaven. The two states were recognized as equals, each having the rights and obligations of border control and extradition, and neither allowed to alter the waterways that flowed between them. Tellingly, however, on the issue of tribute, the Song were obligated to give the Liao an annual payment of 200,000 bolts of silk and 130,000 ounces of silver (worth about USD$2.7 million in 2020 prices). No reciprocal obligation of the Liao to give tribute to the Song was specified.

The Song resented this relationship with the Liao, and in 1120 they bankrolled the revolt of one of Khitan Liao’s tributary states, the Jurchen, a steppe people who were themselves transitioning to more centralized, sedentary structures apart from their traditional tribal organization. Once the Liao and the Jurchen were locked in combat, the Song attacked from the south. Exploiting divisions within the Liao kingdom, the Song and the Jurchen were victorious by 1125. The remnants of the Liao royal family fled west with supporters and founded the Kara-Khitan state. The Jurchen assumed rule of the former Liao lands as the Jin dynasty.

The Jin were not content to supplant the Liao. The Song had already been paying them a modest tribute of luxury goods, and the Song need for help to defeat the Liao convinced the Jin that, while seemingly rich and prosperous, the Song were militarily weak. Their perception would certainly have been reinforced if they had been aware of the temperament of the Song emperor Huizong. In power since 1100, Emperor Huizong was more renowned as a Daoist poet and artist than an effective ruler. His most famous work, a poem and painting titled Auspicious Cranes, depicts the sighting of a flock of cranes, a traditional Chinese symbol of greatness and longevity and one of the links between humanity and the heavens in Daoism (Figure 14.6). Huizong interpreted the sighting as a sign his reign would be glorious and long. The Jin had other ideas, however, and attacked the Song in 1126. Huizong quickly abdicated in favor of his eldest son, Qinzong, who proved no more adept in military matters than his father. With Jin forces occupying large parts of Song territory north of the Yellow River valley and laying siege to the capital, Qinzong dispatched a peace mission, led by his half-brother Gaozong. The Jin took the mission hostage and extracted a hefty ransom and annual tribute to release its members and end the hostilities.

An image of a painting on a long, thin rectangular yellow highlighted background is shown. At the left, Asian script is shown in black ink with several columns of writing. Two areas are stamped with red shapes. In the middle, more Asian script shows, but faded and in lighter black on a darker yellow background. At the right, an image is painted of eighteen white birds with black feet flying in a blue sky while two birds sit atop a structure in the middle of the image. The structure is wider at the bottom and thinner at the top, showing gray vertical lines inside, with a projection at each end where a bird sits. The ground is sandy colored and small rectangular gray structures with vertical lines sit in either corner of the forefront. A red and white square stamp sits in the right corner.
Figure 14.6 Emperor Huizong’s poem and painting from 1112 uses ink and paint on silk to commemorate a good omen , the reported sighting of a flock of cranes on one of the palace buildings. (credit: modification of work “Auspicious Cranes” by Liaoning Provincial Museum/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The peace proved short-lived as Qinzong tried to entice the former Liao mandarins, who were now working in service to the Jin, to revolt. They reported Qinzong’s clumsy intrigues to the Jin emperor, who launched a more protracted attack. Bent on conquest and revenge this time, the Jin refused to be bought, and in 1127 they took the Song capital and seized the entire imperial household, goods, and people, including Huizong and Qinzong. In what became known as the Jingkang incident, the Jin went on a three-week rampage of raping and looting throughout the city.

Gaozong, who proved much more politically adept than his father or his brother, had been sent south to lead reinforcements back to the capital. Upon learning of the capital’s fall, Gaozong united the military and mandarins behind him, proclaimed himself emperor, and rallied Song forces to halt the Jin advance. This event is considered the beginning of the Southern Song dynasty. War continued to rage until the 1140s, when the two sides agreed to the Treaty of Shaoxing, in which Gaozong ceded all Song territory north of the Huai River to the Jin, acknowledged the Song’s tributary status to the Jin, and agreed to pay an annual tribute of 250,000 bolts of silk and 325,000 ounces of silver (more than USD$6.7 million today). Huizong died in captivity before the treaty was signed. Perhaps as a statement of contempt for his incompetence, Gaozong did not negotiate for his elder half-brother’s release, condemning him to live out his remaining twenty years as a Jin captive.

Within a dozen years of conquering the Liao Empire, the Jin began embracing the institutions and structures of the Song Confucian state. Landed aristocrats, generally descended from tribal chieftains, were replaced by mandarins selected by Confucian exams. The capital was relocated from the traditional Jurchen homeland in northeast Asia to Zhongdu, around contemporary Beijing. Confucian texts and Chinese literature were translated into Jurchen to speed the spread of Chinese culture and values, and the mandarin exams began to be given in Jurchen as well as proto-Chinese. Jurchen families were bribed (or forced) to relocate into former Liao and Song areas to mix with the Han population.

Meanwhile, despite the huge setbacks and defeats of the second quarter of the twelfth century, Gaozong and his immediate successors were able to unite and stabilize the Song dynasty. The long period of warfare allowed many ethnic Chinese to move south as refugees, where government assistance enabled them to find land or employment. By 1200, the Southern Song population was roughly the same size as it had been under the last census of the Song, despite encompassing much less land, and the economy seemed to have recovered to prewar levels.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax