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Under Mongol rule and the Pax Mongolica, Song China became part of the much wider world of the Mongol Empire. Although it was split into four khanates in 1260, Qubilai consolidated control over Goryeo and Dali and, where conquest failed (as in Dai Viet, Kamakura Japan, and Java), pursued diplomatic and commercial relationships, especially on the Indian subcontinent. Mongol rule integrated China into an overland global economy parallel to the maritime one in the South Seas and the Indian Ocean. Ceramic production under the Mongols played a major role in maritime trade, while the blue-and-white porcelain seen in the Yuan exemplifies contact across Eurasia. Textile production likewise stimulated commerce and contact across Eurasia. Silk production long antedated this era, but patterns and designs produced under the Mongols exhibit Central Asian influences, as silk from China made its way westward as far as the Mediterranean and beyond. The Mongol era dietary, A Soup for the Qan, illustrates Eurasian interconnections visible through the lenses of food and medicine. Along with steppe shamanism, the Mongols favored Tibetan Buddhism, but they also implemented policies of official toleration toward recognized faiths (including Eastern Syriac and Roman Catholic Christianity), creating one of the most ecumenical societies in world history.
Two aspects of identity shaped the lives of women, men, and children in the Song more than anything else: gender and generation. Gender determined an individual’s place and role both within the family and in society. Generation – position in a descent line – defined an individual’s place and role within the family, and this was also reflected in society. Some individuals and groups lived outside the molds created by gender and generation – Buddhist and Daoist nuns and monks, for example – but these exceptions highlight the norms. Legal cases and government law codes inform us about the official structures that circumscribed daily life in marriage, family, and community. Other sources, such as funerary inscriptions, biographies, and anecdotal collections, allow us to flesh out both the customary and the extraordinary practices of marriage and family life. Extrafamilial relationships, such as those of men and courtesans, friendships between women and between men are also important features of individual social and emotional engagement with others. Due to reticent sources, we know far less about childhood. Ideas of gender, marriage, and family among the Khitan and Jurchen differed greatly from those of Song people, and encounters between and among them generated new configurations for all.
Thephysical structures within which people lived, learned, prayed, and played – the “built environment”– were both technological accomplishments and expressions of cultural and social meaning. From imperial palaces to domestic residences, from schools, temples, shrines, monasteries, and tombs to theaters and shops, buildings were placed in urban or rural landscapes following the principles of geomancy (most notably tombs) and other religious traditions (monasteries on sacred mountains, for example) or responding to commercial and social needs (shops, restaurants, and theaters in urban centers). Buildings were also products of the natural environment, constructed from materials that were either readily accessible or affordable to buy. The natural environment was more than a source of building materials or a backdrop for human activity. Rivers, lakes, forests, and mountains, along with the geological makeup of the land and its soils, were features of the natural landscape experienced by human actors who utilized and managed them with varying degrees of success. Climate also was a powerful and often unpredictable force that people were dependent upon for survival. Geographic space as imagined and represented through mapping is an equally important approach to deciphering human activity in relation to the physical environment.
Cities that rose up around trade differed significantly from those built as political and ceremonial centers, as the earliest cities in China were. Cities that grew as centers of trade showcased the expansion of commerce and the maritime connections that helped to fuel the Song economic revolution. Commerce drove urbanization during the Northern Song as both domestic and foreign trade increased dramatically. The population of the Northern Song capital, Kaifeng, grew to around a million, and port cities such as Quanzhou along the southeast coast made room for communities of foreign merchants along with their native residents. Both literary accounts such as Memories of the Eastern Capital and the unique visual representation of city life in Spring Festival along the River richly portray diverse aspects of Song urban life: order and disorder, festivals and entertainment, access to goods and services, food supply and distribution, intermingling of different social classes and genders. The Khitan Liao, Tangut Xi Xia, and Jurchen Jin also established multiple capital cities as they formed centralized states and empires. In part these were modeled on Chinese cities, but archaeological and other evidence has shown that cities often served quite different purposes for nomadic pastoral peoples.
The Confucian “way of knowing” was validated through classical texts that transmitted the wisdom of antiquity. Early Song rulers promoted Confucianism as the ideological foundation of the state, and the reformulation of Confucianism commonly known as “Neo-Confucianism” took place against the backdrop of the newly unified Song dynasty. Well before the Song, the establishment of government schools and the examination system institutionalized early ideals of learning, transforming them into knowledge useful for governing a bureaucratic state. During the Song, debates over the content of the examinations – and thus what kinds of knowledge were valued – were sparked by political disputes, but disagreements were also based on deeply held beliefs about the meaning of learning and the purpose of knowledge. The cosmological underpinnings of Confucianism were articulated and transmitted through new interpretations of the Classics in the Northern Song, synthesized and systematized by the Neo-Confucian thinker Zhu Xi (1130–1200). History was a way of knowing distinct from the Classics as a source of political and philosophical principles. The Jurchen Jin incorporated and adapted these ways of knowing with their own in their rule of the north. The introduction of print technology altered people’s relationship to texts and to the transmission of knowledge.
The idea that the Song experienced an economic (or monetary, financial, commercial) “revolution” has gained broad currency in the historiography. One key development was the monetization of the economy, including the introduction of paper currency, used along with various kinds of metal currencies for all kinds of commercial transactions and even tax payments. The role of the state was crucial, both in providing infrastructure for transportation and distribution networks and in implementing policies that supported merchant entrepreneurs and promoted the development of agriculture through the introduction of new technologies and new crops. Farmers specialized in the production of certain commodities, and ceramics, textiles, and other goods were also produced for the marketplace. Both urban and rural markets proliferated, and new kinds of merchant enterprises accompanied this commercial growth. The expansion of shipbuilding and advances in both shipbuilding and navigational technology supported the growth of maritime trade. Commercial relations with Japan and Korea in particular also fostered cultural connections: the transmission of religion, books, and other cultural commodities went along with silks, foodstuffs, metals, and aromatics. Despite ongoing political and military conflicts between them, overland border trade continued between Song and its northern nomadic neighbors to supply essential and luxury goods.
The tenth to thirteenth centuries were formative in the creation of what we now know as Chinese cuisine, including its rich regional diversity. The foods that people in the Song, Liao, and Jin ate were dependent on what the natural environment provided or what could be acquired through trade. But food and drink were also products of cultural preferences that evolved over time and came to identify economic, social, and ethnic difference. Song, Khitan, and Jurchen foodways differed significantly, rooted in the experiences of steppe and agrarian life as well as the diversity of cultures. People encountered unfamiliar food and drink in the cities andthrough diplomatic and commercial exchanges between Song and its neighbors. The food and drink people consumed were also deeply tied to the theory and practice of Chinese medicine, which reached new levels of standardization and sophistication during the Song and Jin. How were medical traditions transmitted through texts and teachers? How did the state promote and regulate medical knowledge and practice? The spread of printing and commercial publishing made information about food and medicine more widely available to the literate, and others could gain access to this knowledge through oral and visual transmission.
Dynastic periodization has traditionally structured the chronological ordering of China’s history. The period from 900 to 1350 encompasses two major dynasties, Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1279–1367). Historians in China and elsewhere typically saw the Song as culturally vibrant and militarily weak, and the Yuan as a conquest dynasty that briefly interrupted the narrative flow of Chinese history until the restoration of “native” rule in the following Ming (1368–1644). Twentieth-century national politics recast China’s history along a linear (ancient, medieval, modern) timeline rather than a dynastic cyclical one, placing the Song and Yuan in a medieval-to-modern transition. The high degree of commercialization and monetization of the Song economy led scholars to view the Song as experiencing an economic transformation that fostered dramatic changes in Song society. Recent interest in cultural diversity as well as political concerns with the role of minority peoples – in both the People’s Republic of China and elsewhere – have drawn new attention to the Khitan Liao, Tangut Xi Xia, and Jurchen Jin empires that rose on the Song borders, as well as the Mongol conquest and rule of China as the Yuan dynasty. Middle-period China encompasses processes of political unification, social and economic transformations, and profound cultural achievements.
The eleventh century was a period of intense political conflict and two major reform movements as well as war with the Tangut Xi Xia. Supported by the emperor, Wang Anshi’s mid-eleventh-century program of reforms proposed to increase dramatically the power of the state to intervene in the economy and in society as a whole. Although these reforms were rescinded, and pro- and anti-reform factions took turns in power, Wang’s reform set in motion political debates that would rage for centuries after. A major reorganization of the government designed to rationalize the functions of an increasingly complex bureaucracy took place in the late eleventh century. Encounters with rising steppe empires circumscribed political debates at court throughout the Northern Song. The Khitan Liao Empire was destroyed by one of its own vassal peoples, the Jurchen, who then created their own empire and occupied the northern territory of the Song. This marked the fall of the Northern Song, with its capital at Kaifeng in the north, and the founding of the Southern Song, with the emperor’s “temporary residence” in the Yangzi delta city of Hangzhou. The Jurchen Jin was in turn defeated by the rising Mongols, who then conquered the Southern Song.
One of the biggest questions in the study of China’s history is related to the impact of the Mongol conquest. The Mongols governed through multiple languages, and ruled ethnically and culturally distinct groups, in part through the adoption and adaptation of Chinese institutions. The reign of Qubilai Khan (1260–1294) laid the foundations of Mongol rule as the Yuan dynasty, establishing government administration that incorporated steppe patrimonialism emphasizing kinship and loyalty with Chinese bureaucracy. The Yuan capital, Dadu, the site of modern Beijing, was a planned political center that reflected the steppe origins of Mongol rulers as well as Chinese urban design. The Mongol conquest influenced artistic expression in a variety of ways, simultaneously continuing earlier traditions and introducing new ones. Both painters and poets left a rich legacy that can be used to reconstruct the multicultural and multiethnic world of Yuan cultural life. Regional differences mattered, especially the distinction between north and south following the loss of the north to the Jurchen in 1127. After the Mongol conquest, north and south were reunified, and Neo-Confucianism was adopted as orthodoxy by the Yuan government, clearly visible in the approved interpretations of the Classics for the examinations when they were restored in 1315.
Religion between the tenth and thirteenth centuries is a rich fabric of Buddhist and Daoist institutional warp threads interwoven with the weft of manifold local deities and religious practices. This period witnessed dramatic sectarian developments in institutionalized Buddhism and Daoism as well as an explosion of popular beliefs and practices.Official scrutiny of such religious activities at times led to suppression of what the state labeled “profane cults.” But there were few, if any, impermeable barriers between so-called “elite” and “popular” religions: clerical religions intersected with localized beliefs, and both personal and professional relationships between clergy and the scholar-official elite were commonplace. The economic and social transformations of the Song created new needs and relationships between spirits and supplicants, leading to what one scholar has called the “vernacularization” of religious practice. Buddhism intersected with empire, especially among the Khitan Liao and Tangut Xi Xia, the rulers of which promoted and patronized Buddhism. As new sectarian developments in Buddhism drew masses to congregational, faith-based practices, Chan monastic institutions also flourished. Daoism acquired influence at the Song court through patronage by more than one emperor, and experienced a renaissance through ritual reform and the transmission and canonization of religious texts.
What were the characteristics of a cultivated man and woman during the Song? Calligraphy, painting, and poetry comprised the visible and audible elements of cultivation that distinguished cultured persons from commoners. These art forms were often individualistic expressions of emotion and personal life, but they could also be used to convey veiled political and social commentary. How did public and private life find expression through cultural forms? How did visual and literary arts convey cultural, social, and even geographical identities? Women as well as men were painters and poets whose works can be used as sources for capturing features of social and cultural life otherwise absent from the historical record. Theater, opera, and storytelling were modes of cultural expression that extended across social boundaries and exhibited regional and ethnic differences as well. The development of drama during the Jin and Yuan eras provides a new source for understanding the intersection of elite and nonelite culture. Tomb artifacts representing theaters and performers as well as the texts of plays are sources that can be used to reconstruct elements of nonelite cultural forms. How did the spread of print technology contribute to the blurring of boundaries between elite and popular culture?
In 900 the Tang Empire had collapsed, heralding the demise of an East Asian world order centered on the Tang imperium. As the great aristocratic families of the Tang grappled with the end of their social and political world, new powers rose to establish regional military regimes, north and south. While the political map changed dramatically, and the social order was transformed, economic change took place in both urban and rural settings as well as along overland and maritime trading routes. The collapse of the Tang had an impact on rulers and peoples in surrounding states as well as the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago. Tang China’s nomadic neighbors realigned themselves and created new polities, notably the Khitan Liao Empire. The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms briefly captured the political stage following the fall of the Tang. The ruler of one of these states went on to become the founder of the Song, eventually accomplishing the political unification of north and south and laying the foundations of later imperial rule. Truce with the Khitan Liao was established by the Chanyuan Treaty in 1005, as the Tangut Xi Xia rose to threaten Song from the northwest.