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The Tang dynasty (618–907) went into steep decline as a result of the Huang Chao Rebellion (874–84). The imperial government and the emperor himself became the tools of regional warlords, each maneuvering for his own power in an increasingly uncertain political and military milieu. These struggles were played out in the final decades of the Tang dynasty and beyond, lasting until the mid-point of the tenth century, when the various factions and power groupings of the late Tang had become so enervated by constant warfare and the deaths of the principal players that a new generation of ambitious power-seekers rose to the top. Steppe influence remained important in these conflicts and indeed, from the retrospective standpoint of the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1115–1234) and then the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1272–1368), the intervening control of north China by the Chinese Song dynasty (960–1279) almost seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
Trained violence was a central forum for establishing the relationship between Chinese dynastic governments and their subjects. Because training in the use of violence (martial arts), along with access to weapons, determined an imperial subject’s effectiveness in carrying out violence in the service of the state, or in resisting the will of the state, imperial governments were always concerned to confine skills and weapons to those loyal to the state. Not only did different dynasties solve that problem differently at the beginning of their rule, the institutions governing training in violence changed over time in response to a government’s evolving society and external threats. Seen in this light, a state’s control over trained violence and access to weapons is a direct reflection of that state’s evaluation of its subjects’ loyalty and commitment to dynastic goals.
Although the standard narrative of the Song dynasty is one of civil dominance over the military within the government and society, the institutional development of the government bureaucracy argues for a more nuanced description. The martial side of the government achieved parity in size with the civil side during the Song, exclusive of the army and its bureaucracy. Literati with civil exam degrees filled most of the upper ranks of this martial bureaucracy and therefore occupied themselves with martial, rather than civil, concerns on a day to day basis. A significant number of important civil literati spent most of their time on military tasks and military policy. Functionally then, in contrast to their ideology, many civil literati were militarized by their roles in the bureaucracy while they were controlling it.
The Song dynasty (960–1279) has been characterized by its pre-eminent civil culture and military weakness. This groundbreaking work demonstrates that the civil dominance of the eleventh century was the product of a half-century of continuous warfare and ruthless political infighting. The spectacular culture of the eleventh century, one of the high points in Chinese history, was built on the bloody foundation of the conquests of the tenth century. Peter Lorge examines how, rather than a planned and inevitable reunification of the Chinese empire, the foundation of the Song was an uncertain undertaking, dependent upon highly contingent battles, both military and political, whose outcome was always in doubt. Song civil culture grew out of the successful military campaigns that created the dynasty and, as the need for war and armies diminished, the need for civil officials grew. The Song dynasty's successful waging of war led ultimately to peace.