42: The Sung Dynasty (960-1279 CE)

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The Fall of the T’ang & Political Fragmentation

In the 860’s, 20 years after the Buddhist suppression, there was another great purge. This time foreign merchants bore the brunt of the hostility.

In the early part of the T’ang, multiculturalism was encouraged. As the T’ang rulers had family roots in the nomadic cultures to the north and west, they facilitated the spread of Buddhism and were tolerant of other foreign religions. In some ways, the customs and rituals of the Chinese were just as foreign to the early T’ang rulers as were these foreign religions to the Chinese. The cosmopolitan Chinese cities housed larger groups of foreign cultures than they do today. Ch’ang-an, capital of the T’ang, boasted thousands of foreign merchants with foreign religions, including Jews, Moslems, Christians, and Manicheans.

With disintegrating conditions, a general rebellion began in 875, which lasted to 884. During the rebellion, thousands of foreign merchants were killed. As before, the T’ang retreated south to Szechwan. The aristocracy allied with the nomadic Turkic empires to suppress the revolt. However the imperial authority was so weak by this time that China fragmented into ten relatively tiny and peaceful kingdoms in the south and one fragile kingdom in the north. The kingdom was fragile in the sense that from 907 to 960 it went through 5 different dynasties.

Part of the problem was the Ch’i-tan (Khitan) of Manchuria. Proclaiming themselves emperors of the Liao dynasty, Chinese style, they invaded northern China in 946-71. Although they were unable to administer northern China politically and retreated back home, they did gain some land around Peking and were content to exact tribute from the weak North Chinese dynasty. During this period, Southern China was relatively peaceful. North China, as always, was the battleground. The boundary between these diverse cultures was the figurative front for the ongoing war between the nomadic cultures of the north and northwest and the agrarian cultures of the Yellow River Valley. Once again, the peasants of the Yellow River Valley were undergoing another shift in leadership.

There was yet another factor in the disintegration of the T’ang. Due to the weakening of the central government, the military garrisons established by the Sui and T’ang dynasties became independent political entities, allying themselves with the most advantageous partner. This further increased the general instability of the north China boundary.

The Rise of the Sung

A hostile context: enemies on all sides

At this point in Chinese history (just before the new millennium), remnants of the T’ang culture were split among 12 separate kingdoms in the South. The nomadic Khitan to the north maintained a strong control over their territory as well as parts of North China. Because of the dynastic struggles of northern China, a Tibetan based tribe, called the Tanguts had taken control of the northwest passage. Both the Tanguts and the Khitan were threatening to move south. Sandwiched between these hostile powers were a variety of northern dynasties attempting to consolidate their power.

Palace armies

Because of constant military threats from within and without, the military technology of the day had shifted to palace armies as opposed to garrison armies. The garrison armies, stationed on the perimeter of the empire, had tended to go independent in these unstable times, while the palace armies with their generals could be attended to more easily.

Sui T’ai-tsu (960-76)

A boy ascended to the throne of the last of the short dynasties, the Later Chou. The palace army, understanding the potential threats to the dynastic stability from within and without, revolted and made their commander the head of the new dynasty, called the Sung. He was called Sung T’ai-tsu (960-76).

Demilitarization of opponents

He carefully demilitarized his opponents. He offered the commanders of the armies who supported him generous pensions and then replaced them with officers loyal to him and the imperial government. Rather than relying on the feudal military cooperation of regional governors and the great families the Sung imperial government, Sung T’ai-tsu gradually replaced all the regional military authorities with civil officials responsive to the imperial government. He also replaced the rigid hierarchy of the T’ang with an interlocking system of officials. This system prevented any regional governor from amassing too much personal power. In effect, the Emperor focused all military power in the imperial government. This strategy eliminated pockets of independent military resistance.

This internal focus further centralized the imperial government. Prior to the Sung, China had been broken into independent spheres of military strength. In some cases, they cooperated to establish a common government. In other times, they attempted to establish themselves as the new dynasty. This unpredictability was not good for stability.

T’ai-tsung (976-97)

Simultaneous with the consolidation of the northern Sung, T’ai-tsu began systematically conquering the southern kingdoms. After following his brother to the imperial throne, T’ai-tsung (976-97) finished the process. For the first time since the decline of the T’ang Dynasty, northern and southern China were reunited.

However the Sung Empire never reached the full extent that the T’ang had. Both Vietnam and southwest China remained autonomous. Also nomadic tribes were still in control of much of the north and northwest of their traditional territory. The Sung dynasties undertook some military actions against the Khitan and the Tangut tribes to the north and northwest. But they were unsuccessful, as the borders were still not secure.

Complicating the issue, both tribes considered themselves to be part of the Chinese Imperial tradition. Further, their ambitions were not totally unrealistic as demonstrated by the Chou ascendancy in the past and would again be seen with the ascendancy of the Manchus in the future. The Chinese have regularly found their imperial leadership in the militaristic north with its nomadic roots.

‘Brotherly Gifts’, or tribute, to the north

To buy off further northern aggression, the Sung simply paid off these nomadic empires with regular tribute payments, called ‘brotherly gifts’. Considering that the strength of their armies surpassed the military power of the T’ang, it seems unusual that the Sung were so accommodating. Not only didn’t the Sung establish a military presence in the north, they actually offered tribute to these neighbors. This apparent contradiction is understood in light of the method they used to rise to power.

In order to consolidate power in the hands of the central government, the Sung emperors had de-toothed the military aristocracy that had provided an impetus for expansion. During the T’ang, there were warrior kings, warrior princes and dukes, all devoted to battle as a way of life. During the Sung, there was no more warrior aristocracy to fuel the wars. Confucian administrators had replaced them. The Confucians were more devoted to peace and internal politics than they were to military expansion and war. Better to pay the barbarians off to avoid war than to fight and perhaps lose life. The Chinese, especially during the early Sung, were happy enough to avoid battle and enjoy their thriving culture.

The Three Doctrines, san-chiao

It was under the thriving Chinese culture of the Sung that the policy of san-chiao, or the Three Doctrines, was established.

Taoism, the Root

Modern China is characterized by the Three Doctrines - Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Taoists considered their philosophy to be at the root of the three. As the wayless Way, Taoism were more than willing to accommodate the other Ways. After all, these other taos might be effective in certain situations.

Taoist Classics, also Chinese

In addition, the Taoist classics had become Chinese. Any cultured Chinese citizen, whether Taoist, Buddhist, or Confucian, had read and was acquainted with the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu. As Cleary says,

“Ever since that time (300 AD), virtually all literate people in China have read Tao Te Ching and Chuang-tzu.”2

Buddha and Confucius, also Taoists

Taoist legends also accommodated the other 2 religions by depicting Confucius and Buddha as those who had found the Way. Still the archetypal Sage, Lao Tzu had Confucius as his student. Reincarnation was not Chinese. The Chinese had been too focused upon ancestors and the here and now. The idea of reincarnation is definitely foreign and Buddhist. But in Taoism’s accommodating spirit, Buddha was also the reincarnation of Lao Tzu.

“At the dawn of modern China, Taoism, which more than ever had become the religion of the people, presented itself as the root from which the new branches of Confucianism and Buddhism had developed; it was the oldest of the “Three Doctrines,” san-chiao, the common source. We are constantly reminded that, according to legends, Confucius was the disciple and Buddha the reincarnation of Lao Tzu.”3

Not me, I’m different

Buddhism and Confucianism attempted to separate themselves from Taoism, but couldn’t deny its influence either. It was Taoists who propagated the concept of the Three Doctrines as Chinese. The others couldn’t deny their connection and yet felt above it.

Taoism connected to superstitious peasantry

Remember, Taoism was and is inextricably connected with popular religious practices and superstitions. Mama Taoism, like Hinduism, is very tolerant welcoming all into her embrace, to transform and be transformed. What Compassion!!

“The term Three Doctrines (often translated as “Three Religions”) in fact corresponded to that form of Taoism which proposed itself as the representative of Chinese culture. For clearly, the other two partners refused responsibility for this ecumenism and sought instead to set themselves apart.”4

Confucians and Buddhists above commoners

The Confucians tended to be literati who considered themselves above the peasants – with whom Taoism was intimately associated. The Buddhists considered themselves the highest manifestation of understanding and insight. Hence they also considered themselves above the superstitious rituals of local religions.

Taoists embraced all

The Taoist didn’t mind getting dirty with a little superstitious ritual, as long as they could use the energy. In transcending polarity, Taoists put the Buddhists in the same basket as local rituals. Taoism became the Mother of them all. While some of her children felt superior to other of her children because they felt smarter or more spiritual, she loved them all the same.

Not a synthesis, instead a sharing

Let it be stressed that the Three Doctrines represented neither a synthesis, nor a merger. Each was somewhat tolerant of the other. More importantly, they borrowed heavily from one another. To maintain balance and vitality in their state service, Confucians would utilize Taoist breathing practices and meditate upon the Buddhist Void. Buddhists still emphasized the Emptiness and the Void.  After developing into Zen, Buddhism shifted to the non-verbal reality of Taoism, while practicing some degree of Confucian social responsibility. Taoist would still practice self-cultivation, but in a socially responsible way.

“Considering how much the ideas of the three had become convergent, it is surprising that their institutional interpenetration remained so slight. It seems thus incorrect to view ‘The modern popular religion’ as a syncretism of the three religions. In reality what we have here is Taoism asserting itself, as it had done in the past, as the national religion.”5

Political support against foreign invasion

This idea of Taoism as the ‘national religion’ is confirmed by the following factoid. During the Sung dynasty, the government leaned on Taoists to provide support against foreign invasion.

“The Sung government sought in Taoism an ideological and nationalist support against the Tibetans and Mongols. … Taoism served as a movement for cultural awakening and passive resistance.”6

Chu Hsi (1130-1200) – Li, Ch’i, & T’ai Chi

Humans tend to break things into parts; the reality is much more integrated. Part of the Chinese intellectual reality was that Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian concepts and books were well known to the ju, the academics that read and wrote books. To say that the intelligentsia partook of one philosophy rather than another would an overly blunt statement.

Tao-hsüeh, the study of the Way, or Neo Confucianism

Chu Hsi was the philosopher of his age. Western scholars call him a Neo-Confucian thinker and his movement Neo-Confucianism. However at the time, the Chinese called the movement Tao-hsüeh, the study of the Tao. The focus of the intelligentsia of the day was on the Tao from a Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist perspective. This movement was modern and was resisted by traditionalists in each of the three philosophies. At times, the teachings were even considered subversive of the old way and banned.

Fundamental to Oriental thought

Chu Hsi’s commentaries were so dominant that they became the status quo in the following centuries. His teachings were fundamental to further philosophical speculation in China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. His interpretations were used in the state exams that continued through to the end of Imperial times.

Ch’i, li and T’ai Chi

One of Chu Hsi’s teaching centered on li, ch’i, & t’ai chi. Briefly and simplistically, li represents the principle or form of existence; ch’i represents the life force that animates it, while t’ai chi represents the interaction of the two. Any direct translation of any of these terms limits their meaning.

T’ai Chi balance of Li and Ch’i

Chu Hsi postulated that each thing had a different li and chi. This is what makes everything unique. While each human has a general human li, they also have an individual li and chi. It is the purpose of each human to become a sage by fulfilling his own li/chi combination. Of course, it is easy to be out of balance. This is where t’ai chi comes in. Too much li, i.e. form, means not enough ch’i, life. Too much life means not enough structure. T’ai chi is the balance of structure and life. The t’ai chi point is where the divine manifestation occurs. When the individual achieves that balance and is able to manifest it, he becomes a sage.

How to become a sage: typical Chinese theme

Chu Hsi, like the I Ching, Confucius, Lao Tzu, and Chuang Tzu before him, was also exploring what it is to become a sage. Like those who preceded him, Chu Hsi stated that neither Buddhist enlightenment, nor Taoist immortality, nor even Confucian social action is the goal. Instead one’s goal is to achieve the t’ai chi of chi and li, i.e. self-actualization in modern terminology.

Tai Chi = Grand Ultimate = God?

Many times, t’ai chi is translated as the Grand Ultimate, and ch’i is translated as life force. Grand Ultimate evokes the notion of our absolute Biblical God. Sometimes writers will link the Tao and t’ai chi to this ultimate god principle. This is a distortion. Both words, while containing the concept of divine manifestation, represent principles distinct from our somewhat anthropomorphic God.

T’ai chi in-between, Tao the Path

T’ai chi is merely in-between, the interaction of li and ch’i. The idea that something magic is associated with this in-between state is the divine manifestation. The Chinese associate the magic with the in-between state itself. Master Ni once said: “Watch when the swords cross – like when man and woman cross – something special happens.” It is easy to associate t’ai chi as the Grand Ultimate with a god-like principle, when it is actually connected to the magic of the middle.

As we’ve mentioned, the Tao is the method or the path. The Tao of Heaven is the way of nature. Taoists in particular associate the tao with the Tao of Heaven. The Tao is not a God, but only Heaven’s way.

Tian, Heaven, a better translation of God

Heaven/Sky/Tian is a more accurate translation of our God principle. However, one difference is that Tian/Heaven is always balanced by Earth. Some might say that our Biblical God is balanced by Nature. Probably most devout Christians would say that Nature was just part of God, not a balance. Heaven/Tian is not an independent absolute agent, but is instead just part of the picture. In the Chinese conceptual world, everything is in balance, yin and yang - Heaven and Earth.

Man and China, the center of the universe

Humans are between Heaven and Earth. Heaven did not create humans, as much as the balance of Heaven and Earth generates the field of Action upon which humans act. Human interactions are the center of the universe for the Chinese, while God is the center of the Biblical world.

Tao of Heaven to be studied through historical development

While Heaven/Tian is a dominant force in China, it is just a force. It does not incarnate a son to save the poor humans. Its morals are not revealed by any divine work. Instead its morals are relative and unpredictable. The Chinese view the Tao of Heaven as something to be studied. It is not set or fixed by divine revelation, but instead is revealed through historical development. While historians of any cultural persuasion tend to see what they want to see, the Chinese tend to view the unfolding of history as divine revelation. Thus the Tao of Heaven is revealed through historical manifestation rather than through divine revelation.

Chu Hsi draws from all three traditions

Although we might call Chu Hsi Confucian, we can see that his themes, while related in different terminology, are common Chinese themes, not necessarily exclusively Taoist, Buddhist or Confucian themes.

The tao of Chu Hsi definitely Confucian

However his methods for achieving tai chi are definitely Confucian.

“Man can do this by developing a strong sense of sincerity or earnestness and by devoting himself to ‘the cultivation of the self’ through ‘the investigation of things’.”7

 ‘The cultivation of the self’ harks of Taoism and ‘the investigation of things’ seems related to the goals of modern science. Instead this suggestion manifested as the study of the Chinese classics. The ‘things’ were Chinese culture and history, not the laws of nature like modern science. The cultivation of self had more to do with applying Confucian moral principles to one’s life, than it concerned cultivating quietude, the cornerstone of Taoism.

Taoists attempting to achieve balance of li and ch’i for centuries

Indeed the Taoists had been attempting to achieve this state between li and ch’i for millennium. However, they hadn’t named it so clearly as did Chu Hsi. The Chinese, had simply called it fulfilling the Tao of Heaven. Chu Hsi had just brought the concept to a more individual level, pointing out that each of us is unique. Because of this uniqueness, we need to fulfill this Tao of Heaven in our own way rather than in a collective way. Confucians like Chu Hsi linked the achievement of human potential to social service. Taoists had always linked this self-actualization to physical practices. While the Confucians felt that one’s destiny would work out through the manifestation of proper moral or virtuous behavior, the Taoist stressed that proper manifestation was only possible with the proper body cultivation, which included opening up the channels through meditation and spinal alignment.

Chu Hsi’s analysis foundational Chu Hsi aligned with imperial government

Because Chu Hsi’s analysis was so basic to the Chinese experience it has been adopted by the three doctrines and spread through Eastern Asia. Because of his prestige, the predominantly Confucian imperial officials adopted his solution. Chu Hsi’s method of achieving the balance point, i.e. t’ai chi, between li and ch’i, concerned the study of the Classics and government service. As such, the imperial government was quick to adopt his philosophy. This natural alliance lent it great prestige in the centuries to come. Chu Hsi was also a member of the aristocratic class of officials from the militaristic north. His background certainly influenced his solutions.

Chu Hsi advocates foot binding to spread Chinese culture

As an example of Chu Hsi’s patriarchal tendencies, he advocated spreading Chinese culture via the newly originated custom of foot binding for women. He pointed out that foot binding established the proper Confucian relation between a man and his wife or wives. By extension, this practice properly ordered society as a whole. Chu Hsi must be considered a reactionary sexist pig by anyone with the slightest feminist leanings. However his abstract philosophy has had an incredible influence because of the depth of his insight. We must not throw out the baby with the bath water.

The Decline & Fall of the Sung

The Jurchen of Manchuria, 1115

The equilibrium between the Sung, the Liao, and the Hsi Hsia continued for over a century. In 1115 the Jurchen, a northern tribe from Manchuria, proclaimed that they were yet another Chinese style dynasty called the Chin. The Chinese imperial government allied with the Chin to crush the Liao, whose land lay between them. While solving one problem, it created a bigger one.

The Jurchen Chin invade the north, 1127

The Chin were not content to just take over the Khitan lands of the Liao. They moved into China proper and sacked the capital of the Sung. As always the Sung moved south of the Yangtze River. The Jurchen and the Sung fought for decades for control of the Yangtze River Valley.

The peace treaty of 1142

Finally in 1142, a peace treaty was signed establishing the Sung in the south of China and the Jurchen Chin in the north. The peace treaty was hotly debated in China. The treaty was probably a realistic solution to the military parity between the Jurchen and the Chinese imperial forces. In general, those who signed the treaty were vilified, while those who fought the peace treaty were glorified.

The Yellow River Valley was always the traditional seat of power of a strong Chinese imperial government. This was the traditional Middle Kingdom. While the armies that fought the war were quite acquainted with the military prowess of the nomadic armies, the government officials, who favored continued military action, tended to underestimate the military strength of the ‘barbarians’ and overestimate the strength of the imperial army. The idea of bargaining with the ‘inferior barbarians’ was unpalatable to many of the government officials. This same pattern was to occur again during the Ming dynasty.

Sung continues to thrive

While the Sung Empire was constrained to the Yangtze River Valley in the south of China, the cultural and business life of their citizens continued to thrive. Indeed their capital, Hangchow, was reported to have some 2 to 4 million residents, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the world at the time. European reports of these huge cities were considered lies because the biggest cities in Europe only contained 50 thousand residents.

Time honored pattern of Chinese dynasties

The Sung have followed the time-honored pattern of Chinese dynasties. As nomads, they came conquering from the north, eventually uniting all of China. They themselves were then conquered by northern tribes and moved south. They followed the same geographical process that many Chinese dynasties had followed. Anytime a dynasty moved south, it was only a matter of time before they were conquered from the north. We have already seen this same process manifested in the Chou, the Han, Chin, and T’ang dynasties.


1 Charles Hucker, China to 1850, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 1978, p. 101

2 Cleary, The Essential Tao, p. 3

3 The Taoist Body, Kristofer Schipper, University of California Press, 1993, p14

4 Schipper, p. 14

5 Schipper, p. 14

6 Schipper, p. 14

7 China to 1850, p. 118


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