Central Themes and Key Points
China’s “Golden Age”: The Song, the Mongols, and the Ming Voyages

This period of Chinese history, from roughly 600-1600 C.E., is a period of stunning development in China. From the Tang (discussed in the unit on the Tang Dynasty) through the "pre-modern" commercial and urban development of the Song, ca. 1000, to the Ming voyages of exploration (1405- 1433) with ships that reach the coast of Africa. (The achievements of China under the Song are the subject of Marco Polo's "fantastic" reports when he journeys to China under the Mongols, who rule in China for eighty-nine years (1279- 1368) as the Yuan dynasty, between the Song and Ming.)

China's Preeminence under the Song (960-1279) and Commercial Development

  • The Song dynasty (960-1279) follows the Tang (618-906) and the two together constitute what is often called "China's Golden Age."
  • The use of paper money, the introduction of tea drinking, and the inventions of gunpowder, the compass, and printing all occur under the Song. (The fact that the dynasty spans the year 1000 may make it easier for students to locate these developments in time.)
  • The Song is distinguished by enormous commercial growth that historians refer to as "pre-modern" in character. The growth in a) the production of non-agricultural goods in a rural and household context ("cottage industries" such as silk), and in b) the production of cash crops that are sold not consumed (tea), leads to the extension of market forces into the everyday life of ordinary people. When this commercial development takes place in European history it is labeled "proto-industrial" growth by historians, important in European history because it is succeeded by industrialization where the production moves to cities. (In Japanese history, historians see these pre-modern and proto-industrial developments taking place in the Tokugawa period, 1600-1868.) In China, the production of nonagricultural goods at the household level begins in Song and remains an important form of production and market development in China until the 20th century. China is distinguished by early development in this area.
  • Students might consider the question: Did commercialization have to lead to industrialization, as it did in the West? This is a common assumption. Were there other factors influencing the economic development of the West? Is the Western pattern the "norm" or the Chinese pattern? What made each country's economic evolution follow the path it took?
  • Urbanization accompanies commercial growth and Chinese cities are the largest and most sophisticated in the world at this time. (Marco Polo came from one of the most sophisticated cities in Europe of his time, Venice, and yet he wrote in awe of the organization of Chinese cities which he visited in the 1200s.)
  • During the Song there is enormous growth in Chinese population and a shift in the locus of this population to southern China. Under the Tang dynasty, which precedes the Song, the population is concentrated in the north of China, in the wheat growing area. After 1127 when the Southern Song makes its capital in Hangzhou, below the Yangtze (Yangzi) River, there is a corresponding shift in the concentration of the Chinese population to southern China, below the Yangtze River. Rice is the staple crop of southern China and it produces a higher yield per acre than wheat and supports a larger population. By the end of the Song, 2/3 to 3/4 of the Chinese population is concentrated below the Yangtze.
  • The Grand Canal, built during the Sui Dynasty, connects the Yangtze and the Yellow rivers, facilitating the transport of agricultural production from the south to the north and helping to unify the economy of China.

Mongols in Asia

  • The Mongols invade China from the north, defeat the Song, and establish the Yuan dynasty in 1279, ruling less than one-hundred years, to 1368. Under Khubilai (Kublai) Khan (1215-1294), the supreme leader of the Mongols and a grandson of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan (d. 1227), the Mongols move the Chinese capital to Beijing and establish the capital of their empire there.
  • The Mongol empire spans Eurasia in the 13th and 14th centuries and facilitates trade and exchange across the Eurasian land mass.
  • Marco Polo visits China (from ca. 1275-1291) under the Mongol rule, as mentioned above.

The Ming Voyages

  • The Ming defeated the Mongol conquerors in 1368 and reasserted Chinese military and political authority on land and sea.
  • The officially sponsored Ming voyages of admiral Zheng He (Cheng He), from 1405-1433, provide an interesting basis for comparison of the Chinese and European capabilities and goals of maritime trade and exploration at this time. "... The Ming emperors sponsored an extraordinary series of seven voyages under the leadership of Admiral Zheng He. His huge fleets sailed the Indian Ocean as far as the Persian Gulf and the eastern coast of Africa, proclaiming the magnificence of the empire. While Zheng He brought lavish gifts to the states he visited and encourages their leaders to offer tribute to the Chinese emperor, at no time did he seek to extend Chinese territory." (From Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration, a pamphlet of the National Gallery of Art, 1992).
  • The first of the Ming voyages in 1405 consisted of a flotilla of 62 large ships, accompanied by 255 smaller ships, manned by 27,000 men.

Ming Dynasty China at the Time of Columbus

  • "China in 1492 was the oldest, largest, and richest civilization in the world. Its command of science and technology far exceeded that of Europe. A strong agrarian economy ensured that its inhabitants were better provided for than those of any other society on earth. The emperors of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) presided over a vast and stable centralized bureaucracy. In addition to a hereditary aristocracy, the governing elite was composed of scholar-officials recruited on the basis of merit through civil examinations open to all. Many Chinese painters of the middle Ming period were themselves officials, a situation unparalleled in the West. The idea of artist-officials arose naturally in China, where candidates for government were expected to practice calligraphy and compose poetry." (From Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration, a pamphlet of the National Gallery of Art, 1992).

European Interest in Chinese Inventions and the Chinese Political System

  • China and Chinese inventions are of interest to Europeans during the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment in Europe; the Chinese inventions of printing, gunpowder, and the mariner's compass were brought to Europe by Arab traders during the Renaissance and Reformation. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), a leading philosopher, politician, and adviser to King James I of England, was unaware of the origins of these inventions but deeply impressed by their significance when he wrote:
      • "It is well to observe the force and virtue and consequence of discoveries. These are to be seen nowhere more clearly than those three which were unknown to the ancients (the Greeks), and of which the origin, though recent, is obscure and inglorious; namely, printing, gunpowder, and the magnet. For these three have changed the whole face and stage of things throughout the world, the first in literature, the second in warfare, the third in navigation; whence have followed innumerable changes; insomuch that no empire, no sect, no star, seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these three mechanical discoveries." (From The Scientific Revolution by Peter Amey, Greenhaven World History Program, Greenhaven Press, p.23.)
  • During the period of the Enlightenment in Europe (1700s), European thinkers such as Voltaire, Leibniz, Quesnay and the Physiocrats are interested in Chinese philosophy in the 1700s. The role of the Chinese emperor as a ruler responsible for the welfare of all the people, the emphasis on agriculture as the basis of the country's wealth, the importance of education, the use of the civil service exams to select educated men for government service, and other elements of Confucian thought are studied by philosophers in France in the 18th century prior to the French Revolution. This is also the period when the Jesuits are active at the Chinese court (1600s-1700s), serving as advisers particularly in astronomy, and relaying knowledge between Europe and China.

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