Let us reestablish our historical narrative. The Han Dynasty fell to warlords in 220 CE. For over 3 centuries three warring kingdoms, i.e. Wu, Wei, and Shu Han, fought for supremacy over all of China. As such, this is frequently called the Three Kingdoms period. Wang Bi lived at the beginning of this period. The northern Wei kingdom prevailed, conquering the other 2 kingdoms by 280 establishing the Chin dynasty. Due to so many years of civil war, China had been weakened. They had not been able to control the growing power of the nomadic tribes of the north. In 316 CE “declaring themselves the rightful heirs of the Han, these Hsiung-nu attacked and pillaged”1 the Chin capital at Ch’ang-an. The remnants of the Chin dynasty moved south, as always. This began the period in Chinese history called the Sixteen Kingdoms. During this time, China was split up into many warring kingdoms, primarily in the north. Chinese warlords, Tibetan tribes, Mongolian tribes and the Hsiung-nu all battled amongst themselves for supremacy.
“After 316 two quite different societies developed in the north and the south, though both used Han as their model since no other model for a sedentary, centralized state was at hand.” 2
The north was infused with militaristic nomadic traditions, while southern cultures tended to be more art and trade based.
China had no real borders. The location of the Imperial capital changed depending upon political circumstances. The imperial power emanated from wherever the capital was located. This phenomenon occurred regularly throughout Chinese history. The dynasty is almost identified with its capital. As an example, the Chou Dynasty is divided into Western and Eastern Chou by the location of the capital.
Contrast that with the European development: the rulers seemed to more tied to their cultural geography3. The French when conquered did not move south into Spain. The leaders of the warring Italian or German states seemed to be tied more intimately to their location. The European rulers tended to be more connected culturally with their peasantry, than the Chinese rulers were with theirs.
There were major geographical reasons behind this difference. France and Spain were separated by the imposing Pyrenees. France and England were separated by the treacherous English Channel. France, Switzerland, and Italy were separated by the impassable Alps. Thus many of the European cultures were separated by such intense geographical boundaries that cultures developed in isolation. This created a unique sense of national identity based somewhat on a common language.
Because of the cultural assimilation of the ruling class and the peasantry due to relative geographical isolation, there developed a sense of cultural identity between ruler and ruled that seemed to be absent from Chinese politics. While the peasantry might be at odds with the aristocracy in European politics, they still considered themselves to belong to a common culture with their rulers. The French peasantry, while oppressed by the aristocracy, would still fight to the death against English invaders. Witness the Joan of Arc phenomenon in France when she inspired the people to fight against the invading British4. The Chinese peasantry were not a military factor except in the sense that they could be drafted to fight. Contrast this with England where the agricultural peasantry fought the Roman army to a standstill. Throughout the Scottish/English interaction, the Clan peasantry always had to be factored in militarily. There are geographical reasons for this difference between Europe and China.
Geographically, the wide eastern coastal plain connects all of China proper. It is only split into the north and south by a mountain range that separates the Yangtze and Yellow River valleys, which merge on the eastern coast. Hence any political power, which was strong enough to control the coast, could easily dominate both the Yangtze and Yellow River Valley cultures.
Whenever the Imperial government wasn’t strong enough to control the coast, China would always separate into at least a northern and southern government based around the two river valleys. Sometimes the government wouldn’t even be strong enough to control the entire north or south, at which times these political groupings would splinter further. The ruling class was never disconnected from itself to grow into separate cultures. This created a fluid aristocracy, which could relocate as circumstances permitted. The Shang contracted; the Chou and Chin dynasties both moved south after nomadic invaders sacked their capitals.
While the Chinese aristocracy was geographically fluid, the peasantry wasn’t. While the aristocracy was bound by literacy from the earliest dynastic times, the peasantry had established local languages and customs which differed just as much as the European cultural differentiation.
While the Chinese aristocracy was bound together by their literacy and resulting cultural traditions, this same literacy separated them further from the agrarian peasantry. This was not the case in Europe, where literacy was for scholars or monks, but not necessarily for the aristocracy. Indeed until the Crusades about 1100 CE exposed the European aristocracy to true imperial traditions, the aristocracy mainly differentiated themselves from the peasantry by their military training. They ate the same food except more of it. In China, the cultural differentiation based upon literacy could have begun up to 2000 years earlier in the late Shang or early Chou. While European rulers patronized science and the arts, it was not considered a necessary aristocratic talent. In China by the Han times, literacy was institutionalized as a necessary talent of the ruling class. Thus the glue that bound the aristocracy, separated them from the peasantry.
Also national pride in China was more of an aristocratic phenomenon, as they were bound by this common literary tradition. Remember that learning to read and write Chinese is so difficult that illiterate Chinese immigrants who came to America were more likely to learn our European alphabet than they were to bring the Chinese ideograms to express their own language. While national pride was aristocratic, the pride of the peasantry was local. In Europe the national pride seemed to extend into the both aristocracy and peasantry based upon participation in a common language and culture.
Because literacy was such a dominant criterion for the Chinese ruling class, anyone who could afford the necessary books and teachers to learn to read and write could become part of the Chinese aristocracy, with all the privileges that this entailed. This allowed the incorporation of alien cultures into the Chinese system. Nomadic raiders could establish themselves as legitimate rulers of any northern state merely by following the traditional rules of Chinese leadership. Contrast this with Europe where bloodline was of paramount importance.
Literacy and cultural traditions transcended geographical location for the Chinese aristocracy. The military nomadic cultures of the north were the normal invaders, while the southern cultures tended to be more peaceful. As such, the Chinese imperial government tended to move south of the Yangtze River Valley in times of danger. Militarily weak empires tended to move as far away as possible from the dangerous northern Ordos Plain that separated the nomadic cultures from Imperial China.
However, the militaristic cultures from the north would inevitably conquer the more artistically based southern cultures. As examples: the Chou conquered the Shang from the northwest. Then the Ch’in conquered the Chou from the northwest. The northern state of Chin reunited the Three Kingdoms of China. Never in historical times has a southern dynasty conquered the north. It is always armies from northern cultures that conquer the south. It is no accident that the capital of the modern Chinese state is in Beijing in the north.
The same process holds true for this historical narrative. The 16 northern kingdoms became toughened in constant warfare amongst themselves. At the same time, the south became softer militarily as infighting distracted the northern states from seeking weaker targets. The northern states finally coalesced under a single leader, the Sui. In 581 CE, they easily conquered the southern kingdom, whose capital was at Nanking. Northern and southern China were reunited again politically for the first time since the Chin had been overthrown in 316 – over 250 years ago.
Culturally the south tended to be more artistic, while the north tended to be more militaristic as they regularly battled with the nomadic cultures to the north. A constant Chinese geographical mechanism is that the military culture would dominate the north and then gradually extend southwards. Mixing with the artistic south they would become a more vibrant and creative culture. The nomadic cultures of the north would come conquering again, inevitably extending south. This cyclical process applied to the ascendancy of the Sui.
The consolidation of the 16 northern kingdoms occurred under the T’o-pa. This proto-Turkic tribe had been subservient to a proto-Mongolian nomadic tribe who had succeeded them. How did this occur? There were a few external factors. The Turkic nomadic tribes on their borders had splintered and were fighting amongst themselves. Further, the southern Chinese state was weak.
There were internal factors as well for the success of the T’o-pa in reuniting China. Early on in their history, the great Chinese families had begun to assimilate with the invading nomads. Yang Chien married into a T’o-pa aristocratic family, becoming a general and minister. His daughter married the ruler and gave birth to a son. When the ruler died, Yang Chien accepted the leadership in place of his grandson. This event established the beginning of the Sui dynasty.
He consolidated the north in 2 ways. First, he promised tolerance to the three religions of China – Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Second, his administration built great public works, including roads and an increased canal system in the Yellow River Valley. After uniting the north, he conquered the south of China in 589. He is known to history as Emperor Wen.
To consolidate their power, the T’o-pa instituted three innovations that contributed to their political ascendancy. First, they increased the centralization of the government by extending the political hierarchy. The shih families had grown in size and power during the decline of the imperial government. The T’o-pa reclaimed control by taking charge of the appointment of all officials, including local ones. This extended the power of the central government even beyond that of the Han. Generally in the feudal system, members of the military aristocracy communicated amongst each other to put down peasant revolts and maintain control. Under the T’o-pa imperial system, the government appointed officials to govern locally. Although the T’o-pa tended to respect the power of the clans, they appointed their own government officials.
Second, they instituted the well-field system to better collect taxes. In this system, at death one’s land reverted to the government pool. When one came of age one was given a portion of land. Thus taxes could be more easily regulated and collected as theoretically everyone had the same amount of property. While the big shih families were somewhat exempt from land redistribution, the churches were totally exempt. Many of the peasantry donated their land to the churches, especially to the Buddhist temples and monasteries.
The third innovation of the T'o-pa, which became standard Chinese military policy, was to establish military garrisons on the frontiers of the empire. Permanent settlements accompanied the garrisons. This strategy was quite different from a military operation. Under the military solution, the imperial army would sweep through the Central Asian Steppes and the nomadic army would disappear. The imperial army would go back home and the nomadic army would return.
The big problem was the arid Ordos Plain. While it included the upper Yellow River, it was primarily suited for a nomadic, not an agrarian, culture. Further, the Ordos Plain was vulnerable to attack from the nomadic empires. Plus it was relatively easy for these aggressive tribes of the Central Asian Steppes to launch raids from this flat plain into the lower Yellow River valley or northwest into Peking. For these reasons, the Chinese peasantry did not naturally migrate and settle there.
With proper irrigation, the Ordos Plain could be used for farming. However, its vulnerability to attack made the maintenance of an irrigation system impossible. Having engaged in a nomadic lifestyle relatively recently, the T'o-pa knew from first hand experience that it would be impossible to permanently vanquish the nomadic tribes.
Realizing the military importance of the Ordos Plain, the T'o-pa stationed permanent troops in this area. To better include the Ordos Plain in the imperial domain, they also relocated peasant farmers. Besides guarding the border, the troops were assigned to protect the farmers. These garrisons on the boundary sometimes became a political force in their own right.
While this was an effective way of maintaining their boundaries against nomadic attack, these garrisons, especially in the Ordos Plain, required an Imperial investment. They were not self-supporting.
During periods when the Chinese emperor was of nomadic or semi-nomadic descent like the T'o-pa rulers, the importance of this investment was understood. During periods when the rulers were of traditional Chinese descent or the imperial government was weak, they couldn't justify the expense because they didn’t understand the military significance of the region.
Many times even unto the Ming dynasty of the 15th century, the elitist Chinese administrators felt it beneath them to have to deal with these 'inferior' nomadic cultures. Stronger Chinese governments normally wanted a military action to end all actions to teach those ‘barbarians’ a lesson. Of course this never worked. The Ming took the next step and just built a wall to keep the nomads out. This is the Great Wall of China.
The semi-nomadic T'o-pa, who founded the Sui Dynasty, followed by rulers of the early T'ang Dynasty, understood the importance of these military garrisons to the peace and stability of the inner Empire. Further these institutional changes strengthened the power and stability of the central government – allowing them to rule a large and expanding geography for centuries.
In 604 CE, Emperor Wen’s son reportedly poisoned his father and took command. Half Chinese and half-T’o-pa, he is known to history as Emperor Yang. He completed and extended his father’s domestic projects, i.e. building roads, canals, grain depots and walls. It was he that built the Great Canal system by linking the many tributaries of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. He also attempted to expand China’s military influence. While initially successful, he expended a lot of military effort unsuccessfully to conquer Korea and then was routed by the Turks in 617. The decline of imperial power combined with harsh conscription policies led to domestic uprisings. He sent the Duke of T’ang to put down the Turkish invasion and went into retirement.
The Duke of T’ang seized control and established a puppet Sui government. When Emperor Yang died, he accepted the abdication of the Sui heir and established the beginning of the T’ang dynasty in 618 CE. After 8 years of hard campaigning against political rivals, he achieved prominence. He is known historically as Kao-tsu. Like Emperor Yang before him, he was half-Chinese and half-nomad.
After a short reign (618-625), Kao-tsu’s son, T’ai-tsung, (626-649), forced his father to abdicate and proceeded to expand the T’ang empire far beyond what even Emperor Wen of the Han Dynasty had achieved. He was a humane administrator, listened to advice, and was an excellent general. Because of this, he was considered an ideal Chinese Emperor. With his death, one of his concubines seized control. Her long rule (650-705) was a continuation of what went before. She maintained the borders and internal stability. She is known as Empress Wu, the only woman to officially become Empress of China.
After a brief period of instability, Hsüan-tsung (712-756) ascended to the throne and ruled through the T’ang Golden Age. Near the end of his reign in 745, he became infatuated with a concubine, Lady Yang, and fell under her influence. He lost interest in government. In 750 a Yünnan tribe set up government in southwest China. This was the beginning of the long decline of the T’ang.
An imperial army sent to reassert control was routed. In 751 the Arab/Turkic Moslem expansion reached its zenith in Central Asia defeating the Chinese Imperial army in the northwest. Soon after in 755, a Turkish favorite of Lady Yang, who had been made general, revolted in the interior.
The T’ang government retreated south, as always. The T’ang relied on Turkish and Arabic tribes to reestablish control. When control was reestablished, the mighty T’ang Empire had become vassals of her allies. It took another 100 years however for the T’ang to fade out. In 907, the last T’ang Emperor abdicated, ending the extended T’ang Empire.
A few points need to be made. The fluidity of the aristocracy was quite marked during the many political changes in these centuries. The governments changed capitals easily. The stable peasantry had no say whether Mongols, Turks, Tibetans, or Chinese ruled them. The battles were between armies of warriors. The peasants merely changed military aristocracies.
Along this line, the extreme affinity between the nomadic tribes on their perimeter and the Chinese aristocracy was striking. Sons and daughters were regularly offered in marriage to ‘barbarian’ tribes. Indeed the main difference between the two aristocracies seemed to lie more in the geography that they ruled rather than any ideological differences.
The dry arid geography of the steppes does and did not support agriculture. Hence the nations of the steppes tended to be nomadic cultures, which are inherently militaristic due to constant battling over scarce and undependable resources. Due to this inherent militarism, aristocracies with their warrior-kings took turns dominating the agricultural peasantry living in China. The changes in government had very little to do with the peasantry and everything to do with who had the strongest military force.
This cycle was just a continuation of the millennia old process. Military aristocracies that regularly developed in the northwest steppes spread south. They replaced the prior aristocracy, which tended to become weakened militarily due to participation in the sedentary agricultural life for centuries.
It is a gross simplification to say that the peasantry had very little say in the government. Let’s see why.
The over all goal of the Chinese peasantry is and was social stability. Through the centuries, it had become manifestly clear that stability is generally preferable to freedom. Freedom from the imperial government tended overall to lead to social chaos, with everyone attempting to take over leadership of the country. The peasantry tended to support the imperial government that would provide social stability and security from attack. Rather be exploited than plundered, raped and pillaged.
Thus cultural ideology is secondary to stability for the peasantry. They don’t care if their rulers are Chinese or ‘barbarian’ as long as social stability is achieved. Once social stability is achieved, the second goal is tolerance. If tolerance threatens social stability, then it must go, for social stability is first.
According to surviving records, the Han Dynasty had a population of 60 million. This robust figure was halved to 30 million during the period of unrest. It took until the second century of the T’ang Dynasty before it reached 60 million again. The disruption of social stability has and had lethal consequences for the Chinese peasantry.
Emperor Wen was certainly appealing to peasant values when he championed religious tolerance and social works. As a great general, he was able to expand China’s boundaries. But his social policies allowed him to consolidate the empire. In general, the peasantry has no loyalty to any particular despot. However if a ruler also attempts to strengthen the social structure, then the support of the peasantry provides the cohesion that holds the political structure together.
Emperor Yang, who followed, was fatally flawed in terms of the peasantry. This was due to his unsuccessful wars of military expansion. Further tainting him was the fact that he murdered his father. Patricide and fratricide was quite common in the Turkic political environment from which he emerged as a half-breed. However, this was unacceptable behavior for the Chinese, who stressed familial piety as a virtue. His social works were incredible, certainly benefiting social cohesion and trade. The Great Canal system, the granaries, and his road system were all notable projects that were certainly good for the country. While these projects benefited the country as a whole, it is rumored that millions of peasants were dislocated and perished in the process. The peasantry was certainly not happy about this aspect of his rule.
More important for the Chinese was the fact that he lost in the end. Obviously Emperor Yang was a typical warrior king along the lines of Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Genghis Kahn and the like. He was not happy unless he was campaigning. While successful in the traditional areas of Chinese domination, he seemed to feel personally challenged to conquer Korea, one of the geographies rarely dominated by the Chinese Imperial government. He expended much of his military energy unsuccessfully in the northeast, which significantly weakened his army. This made his government vulnerable to invasion from the northwest. Although his public works projects were incredible, his military failures tainted his rule. Further, he alienated the peasantry due to massive conscription to complete his construction projects and fill his armies.
Because of the relative shortness and rigidity of the Sui dynasty, and their public works projects, the dynasty has been compared to Ch’in dynasty of the First Emperor. While their achievements pale in comparison to that of the First Emperor5, they do have the similarity that the rigidity of their regimes allowed the tolerance of the following Han and T’ang Dynasties6. While later historians have called Emperor Yang a lunatic and madman, his incredible public works projects contributed significantly to the flowering of the T’ang in the centuries that followed.
In some ways Emperor Yang was just a typical warrior-king who was second best. While second best is fine in artistic accomplishment, it means death in battle for the warrior culture. He was just following the typical warrior code, which was fight until death, campaign until losing. This semi-instinctual warrior code has inspired a multitude of military conquerors through to Germany’s Hitler of the 20th century. The peasantry tends to favor military consolidation and disapprove of military expansion. The disapproval is not morally based; it is only because of the excessive conscription.
The first T’ang emperors were from the same warrior-king mold. Kao-Tsu, who followed, battled his entire reign to consolidate the country. Using this military momentum, his son, T’ai-tsung, spent his reign expanding the empire. Because he was successful, later generations approved his rule. Nothing breeds admiration like success. This seems to be a universal human tendency.
While ruthless in her quest for and retention of her political power, Empress Wu maintained social stability and prosperity throughout her reign. As such, she had the support the peasantry. While not providing a good moral example in the Confucian sense to the people, her rule was marked by social stability. Thus she was considered a good ruler. This example illustrates that the Chinese peasant morality transcends the somewhat the academic Confucian morality of the literate elite.7
China’s imperial influence was strongest when they were able to manage the militaristic Central Asian tribes on their northern borders. They were most successful when the Chinese military aristocracy had a cultural-genetic affinity with the nomadic aristocracy. For example, Emperor Wen of the Sui Dynasty, although Chinese, was ruling from the midst of the nomadic T’o-pa power structure. His son was half T’o-pa. The first emperors of the T’ang Dynasty, i.e. Kao Tzu, and his son, T’ai-tsung, were also half nomad. These emperors were not Chinese who understood the nomadic mind as much as they were unique individuals participating in both cultures. Because of this cross-cultural connection, they understood both traditions. T’ai-tsung was even acknowledged as the grand khan of the Turks. This was partly because of his military prowess and partly because of his nomadic bloodline. Full-blooded Chinese were not even considered and didn’t even want to be acknowledged as khans.
There are a few consequence of this line of reasoning. First, the intermarriage between the nomadic and Chinese aristocracy created many nomadic bloodlines that were related to Chinese imperial blood. The Chinese Emperor could claim to be the great khan of the Turkic tribes through heredity. The nomadic rulers could also claim that they had the hereditary right to rule China. Frequently in Chinese history, through to the Manchus of the 17th century, nomadic rulers have claimed the role of Emperor of China due to bloodline.
The second point is that the further the Emperors became assimilated into Chinese ways and divorced from their nomadic roots, the less control they had over the military cultures of the steppes. This inevitably led to lack of mutual respect with ensuing military action between cultures. A few generations removed from his nomadic bloodline, Hsüan-tsung had a poor understanding of the Central Asian cultures.
The third point: we typically think of the culturally advanced Chinese in opposition to the ‘barbaric’ northern nomadic tribes. In reality there was a military parity and even cultural identity between the two ruling classes. In most instances, military innovations came from the nomadic tribes to the north. The bronze military technology including the chariot, horseback riding soldier and the compound bow all began with the Central Asian tribes.
While there were never enough nomads to populate the empire, they were strong enough to conquer China. They regularly established themselves as rulers over the agrarian peasantry. The Chinese aristocracy is comprised of nomadic rulers a few generations removed.
The further removed the Chinese rulers were from their nomadic roots, the more likely that the militaristic Central Asian tribes would dominate them. This was the case of Hsüan-tsung. While ruling at the height of the T’ang golden age, he had lost the military momentum of his nomadic blood. He eventually lost control of his army and ultimately the Empire.
The military aristocracy of China, especially during this period, was frequently made up of nomadic leaders who had intermarried with the Chinese military aristocracy for mutual gain. In general, the Chinese and nomadic aristocracy had more in common with each other than they did with their populace. This is quite different from the traditional conception that the Chinese as a group were separate from the nomadic tribes on their borders. Even though the populace of the two cultures differed markedly – one nomadic, the other agrarian, the two ruling classes had a remarkable affinity.
It was this common military aristocracy who became ‘the hereditary landowning elite’. They called themselves by the traditional name shih, which we saw during the Chou. Recall that shih was the word for warrior-officials. The first evidence of this class appeared during in the Shang. Almost 2000 years later, this group was still ruling China. During the T’ang Dynasty, their rule had become institutionalized.
“The hereditary landowning elite, who called themselves shih (the ancient term for warrior-officials), more than ever monopolized political power [during the T’ang]. They began compiling genealogical records to keep clear who was and who was not a shih. The tribal chiefs of the northern nomads assumed status as shih and even invented genealogies tracing their ancestry back to great men of China’s past, especially the Han ministers and generals. It became the rule that only shih of certified honorable ancestry were eligible for appointment in the government.”8
Centuries of social instability had thrown the peasantry into the arms of the military aristocracy, the shih, for protection. For protection they gave up their freedom, but at least they were able to survive.
1 Charles Hucker, China to 1850, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 1978, p. 79
2 China to 1850, p. 79
3 Constantine of Rome moved the Roman Empire from Rome in Italy to Constantinople in Turkey. Peter the Great of Russia moved his capital to St. Petersburg. Louis the XIV of France moved his capital to Versailles. These moves were made from a point of strength rather than a position of weakness.
4 This situation was not so true in Scotland. The royalty with heavy English ties inspired very little enthusiasm in the Highlands of Scotland. Indeed the local clans remained relatively autonomous until after the debacle of 1745, when they rose in rebellion, lost the fight, and were banned.
5 Despite his public works, Emperor Yang neither unified the country, nor did he standardize the script or the weights and measures of trade. While his Canal System connected the plains of the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, this was a process initiated by his exceptionally talented father, Emperor Wen, who consolidated China through his promises of tolerance.
6 Under the 5-phase metaphor, metal was applied to the wood and then removed. The Tao was allowed to spontaneously transform after discipline was applied.
7 We see this same phenomenon in America at the end of the 2nd millennium with Clinton as president. Although his personal morals seem to be wanting, he is popular because of his job as president. The opposing party is attempting to make a big deal of his morals, while the public doesn’t really seem to care.
8 China to 1850, p. 81