The Sui dynasty reunited China in the 580s. Emperor Wendi formed a marriage alliance between his daughter the Zhou leader, who had conquered much of China. Wendi eventually stole the throne from his son-in-law and became the first emperor of the Sui dynasty. He secured his power by rejecting the Confucian scholars in favor of the nomadic military commanders. He won the goodwill of the people by lowering taxes and establishing granaries that prevented famine. Yangdi, Wendi's son, usurped the throne. He further expanded the empire and strengthened the economy. He drove back nomadic invasions and implemented a milder legal code. However, he failed to reconquer Korea. Those failures coupled with his defeat by the Turkic nomads created a chain of events that led to the demise of the Sui dynasty.
Li Yuan, one of Yangdi's officials, saved China from collapsing back into political disorder. He set up the Tang dynasty along with his second son, Tang Taizong. Tang emperors took on the title of Heavenly Khan. To deal with the threats posed by Turkic invaders, rulers turned these people against one another and were often successful. Tang leaders restored the bureaucracy because they desperately needed scholars to administer their rule and offset aristocratic power.
Empress Wei of the Tang era attempted to seize the throne in the early 700s, largely ending in failure. This placed Xuanzong in the throne, and signaled the peak of the Tang dynasty. However, Xuanzong lost interest in ruling his empire and devoted his time to material pleasures, such as his infatuation with Yang Guifei. This affair contributed to the decline of the Tang dynasty. Yang used her position to place her relatives in high positions in the court, meeting with much discontent and opposition among rivals. Xuanzong had long neglected court affairs in favor of luxury, leading to a declining economy that added to the discontent. A revolt swept through the state, but it was crushed- at a high cost. Even after Xuanzong's reign, none of his successors were as successful as the earlier rulers. In addition, the Tang had to make alliances with northern nomads in order to suppress rebellions. This gave the nomads an opportunity to conquer a large region of northern China. Worsening economic conditions and political disorder led to many revolts in the 9th century, ending the Tang dynasty.
China once again seemed on the verge of being overrun by nomads and marred by political and social disorder, but in 960, Zhao Kuangyin united China under the Song dynasty. He became known as Emperor Taizu. He conquered most of China except for the Liao dynasty, which left the empire vulnerable in future years to nomadic invasions. In 1004, the Song were defeated by the Khitans and forced to sign humiliating treaties in which the Chinese paid tribute to the Liao in order to prevent attacks. The Song military was not as powerful as the previous Tang. To avoid the circumstances which ended the Tang dynasty, the Song allowed only civil officials to be governors so military commanders would not be able to seize power. Commanders were also rotated regularly in an effort to prevent them from building a power base in one region.
During the Tang dynasty, canals facilitated contact between the northern millet-growing region of China and the southern rice-growing region. The cost of transporting these bulk goods was considerably lowered with the Grand Canal. The presence of a power, unified state meant that the Silk Roads between China and Persia were protected. This brought greater contact between China and the Central Asian nomads and Islamic world. Horses, Persian rugs, and tapestries went into China, while China exported silk textiles, porcelain, and paper. Overseas, mainly luxury goods such as aromatic woods and spices were exported. Innovations in maritime technology also allowed Chinese merchants to bring the market to buyers instead of having the buyers come to them. In cities and major towns, there were many shops and stalls, regional centers of artisan production, and trade centers. The Tang and Song dynasties extensively supervised these markets. Many merchants who worked with similar products formed guilds to promote their interests and level the competition. The Tang were the first to use paper money; however, this practice had to be abandoned in the early 11th century due to an economic crisis.
Buddhism proliferated in many different forms. Mahayana Buddhism provided refuge from suffering, while the Zen appealed to the upper classes with its emphasis on meditation and appreciation of nature. The Tang dynasty patronized Buddhism while supporting Confucianism. Emperors funded the building of many monasteries, sent emissaries to India to bring back Buddhist texts and paintings, and commissioned many paintings and sculptures Empress Wu even attempted to make it the state religion. However, the thriving religion did not go uncontested. Daoist and Confucian rivals tried to make Buddhism less appealing to the masses. Daoist monks stressed their magical powers and Confucians convinced rulers that monasteries were a drain on the economy. As a result, thousands of monasteries were destroyed and the monks and nuns who lived there were forced to return to civilian life. This repression did not extirpate Buddhism, but it seriously weakened it, allowing Confucianism to become the dominant religion until the 20th century.
There was a great revival of Confucianism during the Song dynasty. Many Confucian texts and ancient inscriptions were recovered, new schools were developed to teach the classics, and many libraries were built. A new form of Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism, arose. It stated that personal morality was the highest goal and argued that this could be achieved through studying books, personal observation, and contact with learned men. Through these processes, people's good side would be cultivated and superior men developed to teach others.
The revival of Confucianism in the Sui dynasty under Yangdi came at the expense of the aristocracy and nomadic military commanders. This greatly enhanced the position of the scholar-bureaucrats, who were even afforded privileges to wear special clothing and were exempt from corporal punishment. They received great respect and jinshis became famous throughout the empire. Although scholars could arise from the lower ranks of society, birth and nobility proved to be much more influential. Most scholars were form the aristocracy, despite the system of merit.
The Song rulers also greatly supported the interests of the Confucian scholar-gentry. As many Confucian scholars were put in official posts, the bureaucracy was soon filled with wealthy men who had nothing to do. This gave them a great lead ahead of the aristocrats and Buddhist rivals. In addition, neo-Confucianism reinforced the importance of hierarchy. The emphasis on rank, obligation, deference, and tradition gave rise to more pronounced class, age, and gender distinctions. The practice of foot-binding signaled the declining status of women during the Song dynasty.
Emperor Yandi of the Sui dynasty encouraged Confucian education and restored the civil service examinations.
Like Yangdi, the emperors of the Tang dynasty encouraged education of the Confucian classics to produce effective administrators. Far more bureaucrats than in even the Han dynasty joined the expanding bureaucracy in the Tang and Song eras.
The civil service examination system during the Song dynasty was fully routinized. They occurred every three years and were divided into three levels: district, provincial, and imperial. Passing rates were much higher than they had been during the previous dynasty and officials were more likely to be put in higher positions.
Zhu Xi, one of the most well-known thinkers during the Song dynasty, emphasized the application of philosophical ideas to everyday life. He was one of the neo-Confucians. However, these beliefs fostered a xenophobic reaction in China. It shut out all foreign developments at a critical point in history when many other civilizations were beginning to show a great capacity for innovation. In addition, it stampeded any innovation and creative thinking by the Chinese.
Arts and Architecture
Emperor Yangdi set hundreds of thousands of peasants to work on extravagant construction projects. They built many palaces, a new capital city at Loyang, and a series of canals to further connect different regions of the empire.
The Tang rulers completed repairs on the Great Wall, as well as built thousands of monasteries and destroyed many of them.
Wendi extended the Sui dynasty to include the Chen kingdom in southern China.
The Tang dynasty further extended the empire to cover central Asia, all the way to present-day Afghanistan. It covered parts of Tibet, the Red River valley of the Vietnam, Manchuria, and the Yangtze River basin.
The Song dynasty covered most of China except for the northern Liao dynasty, headed by nomadic Khitans from Manchuria.