Chinese Dynasties (1000-1300 CE): T'ang, Song & Ming

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  • 0:11 Song, T'ang, and Ming…
  • 0:34 T'ang Dynasty
  • 2:40 Song Dynasty
  • 4:38 Ming Dynasty
  • 6:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore three important Chinese dynasties of the Middle Ages: the T'ang, the Song, and the Ming, which all ruled for a few hundred years each between the 7th and 17th centuries C.E.

Song, T'ang, and Ming Dynasties

When you think of China, what do you think of? Perhaps you think of tea and delicious food, or perhaps you think of beautiful and intricate Chinese dragon costumes often put on parade during the Chinese New Year or other holidays. Many of these traditions began several hundred years ago. In this lesson, we'll explore three important dynasties from Chinese history when many of these traditions began: the Song, T'ang, and Ming dynasties.

T'ang Dynasty

The T'ang Dynasty was founded only a couple generations after China had been reunified by the Sui Dynasty. Prior to the Sui, China spent several centuries in a continuous state of warfare, rebellion, and civil war between powerful families and neighboring states. Though the Sui lasted less than 40 years on the imperial throne, their reunification of China stuck. Not only did the T'ang rule over a united China, but the T'ang inherited coherent and well-run political and state institutions from the Sui, which tremendously benefited T'ang rulers.

After the collapse of the Sui Dynasty, the T'ang emerged as the most powerful group, and in 626 C.E. the family patriarch and general, Li Yuan, declared himself Emperor Kao-tsu, first emperor of the T'ang Dynasty. Though Kao-tsu's reign was relatively short - only eight years - his descendants ruled China for nearly three centuries! The various T'ang rulers were generally wise and kind rulers interested in improving China. The T'ang period saw the Chinese economy expand rapidly as diplomatic relations and trade was established between China and other regional powers like Japan, Korea, and Persia. The ages-old Silk Road routes were reestablished as well, and Chinese goods were traded as far west as the Mediterranean.

In 8th-century China, the T'ang emperors were great patrons of the arts, and Chinese culture flourished. Great works of art depicting both natural settings and the ostentation of the Chinese imperial court established artistic techniques that Chinese artists are still taught today. In addition, now revered Chinese writers, like Li Po, Wang Wei, and Tu Fu, produced great works of poetry.

T'ang rule was at its height in the early 8th century until a rebellion of troops and court officials began the An Lushan rebellion in 755 C.E. The warfare cost thousands of Chinese lives and even several members of the royal family perished. Though T'ang rule was eventually reestablished, T'ang authority never fully recovered, especially in the outer provinces. After several invasions from outside states, The T'ang regime was eventually toppled in 906 C.E.

Song Dynasty

After more than a half-century of turmoil and warfare, the Song Dynasty emerged as the next great rulers of China. Established in 960 C.E., the Song Dynasty ruled less territory than the earlier T'ang Dynasty and its borders were far less secure. Song rulers routinely had to pay off nomadic invaders, such as the Jurchen and the Xi Xia. These military incursions proved so problematic that the Song rulers eventually had to leave their capital, Bianliang (modern Kaifeng), and abandon nearly a third of their northern territory to invaders in 1127. This separates the two eras of the Song Dynasty, with the earlier, larger iteration termed the Northern Song Dynasty, while the post-1127 version, with its capital moved to Hangzhou, is known as the Southern Song Dynasty.

Despite the lack of political stability, especially on its frontiers, the Song Dynasty is as renowned, if not more, for its cultural and artistic achievements as the T'ang Dynasty. For example, Song-era architects established the architectural style with curved roofs, which are recognized as distinctively Chinese today. In addition, Song rulers were prolific patrons of the arts and literature, and Song-era painters developed a keen sense of naturalist art, which sought to depict Chinese landscapes as realistically as possible.

Though Song rulers had little success at patrolling their borders, they were successful at creating a more effective central bureaucracy. Indeed, it was Song rulers who were instrumental in removing much of the power from the sons of noble Chinese families and subsequently placing that power in a meritocratic, civilian institution. The appointment of well-schooled non-nobles not only improved Chinese governance, but also improved the power and reach of the emperor, as many appointments in faraway regions were now made by the central government.

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