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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: May 2018

5 - Mature Independent Trajectories (Tenth-Sixteenth Centuries)


Late Imperial China: The Song (960–1279), Yuan (1271–1368), and Early Ming Dynasties (1368–ca. Sixteenth Century [–1644])

The Song Dynasty Situation

In 907, an upstart military commander dethroned the last Tang emperor and proclaimed himself the founder of a (brief, as it turned out) new dynasty. Once again, China was plunged into a period of division. In north China, Five Dynasties followed each other in rapid succession – three of them founded by Shatuo Türks rather than ethnic Chinese – while southern China was simultaneously partitioned into ten separate regimes. This time, however, the division was only temporary. In 960, the mother of the seven-year-old boy emperor of the last of the northern Five Dynasties, acting in the capacity of a regent, ordered the commander of the Palace Guard, Zhao Kuangyin (927–976), to lead an army north against a rumored Khitan invasion. On the second morning of their march, some of Zhao's officers entered his residence with swords drawn and hailed him as emperor.

The result was a bloodless coup that brought a major new dynasty, the Song, onto the stage. Zhao Kuangyin is known to history as Emperor Taizu of the Song (r. 960–976). Because this Emperor Taizu was acutely aware of the fragmentation that had been caused by warlordism since the middle of the Tang Dynasty, and of the frequency of military coups like the one that had brought him to power, as emperor, he was determined to clearly separate military command from civilian administration. Emperor Taizu hosted a legendary palace banquet for his senior generals at which, with a toast, he relieved them of their military commands and retired them to lives of civilian comfort in the capital.

Emperor Taizu's policies would be successful enough that dynastic change would thereafter be very much less frequent and would never again be the result of an internal military coup. Although there were roughly eighty dynasties in premodern Chinese history, only three of them came after the Song (not counting peripheral alien regimes that sometimes extended into Chinese territory). Each of the relatively few remaining changes of dynasty, furthermore, can be attributed to foreign invasion.