According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Song dynasty (960-1279) was weaker than its predecessor, the Tang, and ruled over a smaller territory. To the north and northwest, the Song faced strong alien regimes: the Khitan Liao dynasty (907-1125) and the Tangut Western Xia (Xi Xia, Xia, 990-1227). These regimes posed a constant military threat, which the Song defused by making payments of silk and other goods to both the Western Xia and the Liao according to negotiated agreements. Still, the burden of maintaining troops for the defense of the empire was significant and caused serious financial problems for the imperial government (the cost of the payments to the Western Xia and the Liao was small by comparison). [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Even though China was the economic powerhouse of East Asia, with by far the largest population, it was not militarily dominant and had to adjust to a multi-state context. In this period when the horse was a major weapon of war, the grasslands north of China offered greater military advantage than China’s industrial prowess. During the Song period, three non-Chinese groups formed states that controlled the grasslands to the north of the Song, where the colder, drier climate favored animal husbandry over crop agriculture. Over the course of four centuries, these Inner Asian states gained more territory occupied primarily by Chinese. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer ]

The Khitans (Liao dynasty, 907-1125), beginning in the 10th century, gained a strip of land that included modern Beijing. The Jurchens (Jin dynasty, 1115-1234), after defeating the Khitans in the early 12th century, went on to push Song out of North China. The Mongols (Yuan dynasty, 1279-1368), after defeating the Jurchen in the early 13th century, went on and fully defeated the Song to control all of China.

From the perspective of the Song, these three northern rivals had much in common. They all were master horsemen who were very hard for the Chinese to defeat in open battle. Their basic social structure was tribal, but they had adopted many elements of Chinese statecraft. Beginning in 1004, the Song made efforts to buy peace by agreeing to make annual payments of money and silk to them in exchange for their agreement not to invade.

The Khitan, Jurchen, and Mongol states all ruled over their Chinese subjects in ways that drew on Chinese traditions, making distinctions between Chinese subjects and other subjects (which included several different northern ethnic groups). All three non-Chinese states made concerted efforts to maintain their own ethnic identity and to keep themselves from being absorbed by the numerically much more numerous Chinese.

Liao Dynasty (937-1125) and the Empire of the Khitans

The Liao dynasty ruled an empire uniting the nomadic Khitan people of northern China from A.D. 937 to 1125. Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The Khitan, a league of tribes under the leadership of an apparently Mongol tribe, had grown steadily stronger in north-eastern Mongolia during the Tang epoch. They had gained the allegiance of many tribes in the west and also in Korea and Manchuria, and in the end, about A.D. 900, had become the dominant power in the north. The process of growth of this nomad power was the same as that of other nomad states, such as the Toba state, and therefore need not be described again in any detail here. When the Tang dynasty was deposed, the Khitan were among the claimants to the Chinese throne, feeling fully justified in their claim as the strongest power in the Far East. Owing to the strength of the Sha-t'o Turks, who themselves claimed leadership in China, the expansion of the Khitan empire slowed down. In the many battles the Khitan suffered several setbacks. They also had enemies in the rear, a state named Po-hai, ruled by Tunguses, in northern Korea, and the new Korean state of Kao-li, which liberated itself from Chinese overlordship in 919. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“In 927 the Khitan finally destroyed Po-hai. This brought many Tungus tribes, including the Jurchen (Juchen), under Khitan dominance. Then, in 936, the Khitan gained the allegiance of the Turkish general Shih Ching-Tang, and he was set on the Chinese throne as a feudatory of the Khitan. It was hoped now to secure dominance over China, and accordingly the Mongol name of the dynasty was altered to "Liao dynasty" in 937, indicating the claim to the Chinese throne. Considerable regions of North China came at once under the direct rule of the Liao. As a whole, however, the plan failed: the feudatory Shih Ching-Tang tried to make himself independent; Chinese fought the Liao; and the Chinese sceptre soon came back into the hands of a Sha-t'o dynasty (947). This ended the plans of the Liao to conquer the whole of China.

“For this there were several reasons. A nomad people was again ruling the agrarian regions of North China. This time the representatives of the ruling class remained military commanders, and at the same time retained their herds of horses. As early as 1100 they had well over 10,000 herds, each of more than a thousand animals. The army commanders had been awarded large regions which they themselves had conquered. They collected the taxes in these regions, and passed on to the state only the yield of the wine tax. On the other hand, in order to feed the armies, in which there were now many Chinese soldiers, the frontier regions were settled, the soldiers working as peasants in times of peace, and peasants being required to contribute to the support of the army. Both processes increased the interest of the Khitan ruling class in the maintenance of peace. That class was growing rich, and preferred living on the income from its properties or settlements to going to war, which had become a more and more serious matter after the founding of the great Song empire, and was bound to be less remunerative. The herds of horses were a further excellent source of income, for they could be sold to the Song, who had no horses. Then, from 1004 onward, came the tribute payments from China, strengthening the interest in the maintenance of peace. Thus great wealth accumulated in Peking, the capital of the Liao; in this wealth the whole Khitan ruling class participated, but the tribes in the north, owing to their remoteness, had no share in it. In 988 the Chinese began negotiations, as a move in their diplomacy, with the ruler of the later realm of the Xia; in 990 the Khitan also negotiated with him, and they soon became a third partner in the diplomatic game. Delegations were continually going from one to another of the three realms, and they were joined by trade missions. Agreement was soon reached on frontier questions, on armament, on questions of demobilization, on the demilitarization of particular regions, and so on, for the last thing anyone wanted was to fight.

Song Dynasty Tribute to the Khitans

Khitan horsemen

As a result of the Treaty of Shanyuan in 1005, the Liao received an annual payment of a hundred thousand taels of silver and two hundred thousand bolts of silk from Song China. In 1042, the amount increased to two hundred taels of silver and three hundred thousand bolts of silk. A silver ingot from the Song dynasty, dated to the 11th or early 12th century and measuring 14.8-x-9 centimeters, was found in Dayingzi Rural Area, Linxi County, Inner Mongolia. “This silver ingot has an inscription engraved in Chinese on one side, part of which reads ‘forty-nine taels and seven,’ referring to the weight of the ingot. The ingot is most likely an example of the tribute items presented by the Song dynasty to the Liao empire. [Source: Cultural Relics Management Institute of Linxi County, Asia Society]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: The policy of nonintervention in the north was endurable even when peace with the Khitan had to be bought by the payment of an annual tribute. From 1004 onwards, 100,000 ounces of silver and 200,000 bales of silk were paid annually to the Khitan, amounting in value to about 270,000 strings of cash, each of 1,000 coins. The state budget amounted to some 20,000,000 strings of cash. In 1038 the payments amounted to 500,000 strings, but the budget was by then much larger. One is liable to get a false impression when reading of these big payments if one does not take into account what percentage they formed of the total revenues of the state. The tribute to the Khitan amounted to less than 2 per cent of the revenue, while the expenditure on the army accounted for 25 per cent of the budget. It cost much less to pay tribute than to maintain large armies and go to war. Financial considerations played a great part during the Song epoch. The taxation revenue of the empire rose rapidly after the pacification of the south; soon after the beginning of the dynasty the state budget was double that of the Tang. If the state expenditure in the eleventh century had not continually grown through the increase in military expenditure—in spite of everything!—there would have come a period of great prosperity in the empire. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

In 1125 the Khitan empire was destroyed. It will be remembered that the Song were at once attacked, although they had recently been allied with the Jin against the Khitan.

Western Xia State (1038-1227)

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “After the end of the Toba state in North China in 550, some tribes of the Toba, including members of the ruling tribe with the tribal name Toba, withdrew to the borderland between Tibet and China, where they ruled over Tibetan and Tangut tribes. At the beginning of the Tang dynasty this tribe of Toba joined the Tang. The tribal leader received in return, as a distinction, the family name of the Tang dynasty, Li. His dependence on China was, however, only nominal and soon came entirely to an end. In the tenth century the tribe gained in strength. It is typical of the long continuance of old tribal traditions that a leader of the tribe in the tenth century married a woman belonging to the family to which the khans of the Xiongnu and all Turkish ruling houses had belonged since 200 B.C. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

With the rise of the Khitan in the north and of the Tibetan state in the south, the tribe decided to seek the friendship of China. Its first mission, in 982, was well received. Presents were sent to the chieftain of the tribe, he was helped against his enemies, and he was given the status of a feudatory of the Song; in 988 the family name of the Song, Chao, was conferred on him. Then the Khitan took a hand. They over-trumped the Song by proclaiming the tribal chieftain king of Xia (990). Now the small state became interesting. It was pampered by Liao and Song in the effort to win it over or to keep its friendship. The state grew; in 1031 its ruler resumed the old family name of the Toba, thus proclaiming his intention to continue the Toba empire; in 1034 he definitely parted from the Song, and in 1038 he proclaimed himself emperor in the Xia dynasty, or, as the Chinese generally called it, the "Hsi-Xia", which means the Western Xia. This name, too, had associations with the old Hun tradition; it recalled the state of Ho-lien P'o-p'o in the early fifth century. The state soon covered the present province of Gansu, small parts of the adjoining Tibetan territory, and parts of the Ordos region. It attacked the province of Shaanxi, but the Chinese and the Liao attached the greatest importance to that territory. Thus that was the scene of most of the fighting.

The Xia state had a ruling group of Toba, but these Toba had become entirely tibetanized. The language of the country was Tibetan; the customs were those of the Tanguts. A script was devised, in imitation of the Chinese script. Only in recent years has it begun to be studied. In 1125, when the Tungusic Jurchen destroyed the Liao, the Xia also lost large territories in the east of their country, especially the province of Shaanxi, which they had conquered; but they were still able to hold their own. Their political importance to China, however, vanished, since they were now divided from southern China and as partners were no longer of the same value to it. Not until the Mongols became a power did the Xia recover some of their importance; but they were among the first victims of the Mongols: in 1209 they had to submit to them, and in 1227, the year of the death of Genghiz Khan, they were annihilated.

Jurchen Empire (1115-1234) and Its Rise to Power

Jurchen warriors

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The Juchen in the past had been only a small league of Tungus tribes, whose name is preserved in that of the present Tungus tribe of the Jurchen, which came under the domination of the Khitan after the collapse of the state of Po-hai in northern Korea. We have already briefly mentioned the reasons for their rise. After their first successes against the Khitan (1114), their chieftain at once proclaimed himself emperor (1115), giving his dynasty the name "Jin " (Chin, The Golden). The Jin quickly continued their victorious progress.

“In foreign affairs the whole eleventh century was a period of diplomatic manoeuvring, with every possible effort to avoid war. There was long-continued fighting with the Khitan, and at times also with the Turkic-Tibetan Xia, but diplomacy carried the day: tribute was paid to both enemies, and the effort was made to stir up the Khitan against the Xia and vice versa; the other parties also intrigued in like fashion. In 1110 the situation seemed to improve for the Song in this game, as a new enemy appeared in the rear of the Liao (Kitan), the Tungusic Juchen (Jurchen), who in the past had been more or less subject to the Khitan. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

In 1114 the Jurchen made themselves independent and became a political factor. The Khitan were crippled, and it became an easy matter to attack them. But this pleasant situation did not last long. The Jurchen conquered Peking, and in 1125 the Khitan empire was destroyed; but in the same year the Jurchen marched against the Song.

Northern Song Defeated by the Jurchen Jin

Song diplomats formed an alliance with the Jurchen, a dynasty of nomadic tribesmen in Manchuria to the northeast, against the Liao (Khitans). The Jurchen eliminated the Liao threat, but then turned against the Song. Sweeping southward, in 1127 they destroyed the capital at Kaifeng in central China, forcing the Song to move south, where the Southern Song Dynasty was established. [Source: Middle Ages Reference Library, Gale Group, Inc., 2001]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In 1127 the Northern Song dynasty came to an end as the Jurchen Liao conquered northern China and drove the Song court south to the Yangzi valley. There, from the capital at Hangzhou, the Song court continued as the Southern Song (1127-1279) to rule southern China. The Southern Song empire was an economically and culturally vibrant place, but the defeat at the hands of non-Chinese Jurchen people and the loss of territory rankled. So did the fact that the court was simply not strong enough to recover the lost territory. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

The Song emperor and his art-loving father, who had retired a little earlier, were taken prisoner, by the Jurchen. The collapse came so quickly because the whole edifice of security between the Khitan and the Song was based on a policy of balance and of diplomacy. Neither state was armed in any way, and so both collapsed at the first assault from a military power. The Jin invasions were pushed farther south, and in 1130 the Yangtze was crossed. But the Jin did not hold the whole of these conquests. Their empire was not yet consolidated. Their partial withdrawal closed the first phase of the Jin empire. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Dr. Eno wrote: “The Jurchens had been a growing power in the region northeast of China for many years, a region that later came to be known as Manchuria. They were a Tungusic people, originally nomads of the northern steppe, and had for some time been competitors of the Khitan Liao Dynasty. Shortly before their invasion of China, the Jurchens extinguished the Liao and founded their own dynastic state, which they called the Jin, moving their capital close to present-day Beijing. Throughout the period of the Southern Song, the Jin Dynasty ruled North China effectively. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“When the Jurchen armies swept into China, the Song encountered the consequences of their general neglect of military preparedness in favor of concentration on civil governance. The government was forced to flee far south, eventually settling its capital in the city of Hangzhou, below the Yangzi delta, and a large mass of people followed their path, migrating from North to South China. This final major migration of people south capped the thousand-year trend to balance the populations of China’s two main agricultural regions. /+/

“The Jurchen invasion of Northern China in 1127 was recognized by Chinese as a disaster of the first magnitude. North China was the homeland of Chinese culture, and although the South had long since become an economic and cultural region on an equal level with the North, it was still conceived of by many people as the frontier, certainly not the appropriate base for a dynasty claiming to be the successor of the Han and Tang. However, in some respects, the division of China at this point created unique positive opportunities for development, and looking back, we can see that the potential existed for China to emerge from this split far stronger than it had ever been before. This did not happen, and, in fact, China from this point on seems to enter a long period of general economic and cultural stagnation, that centuries later made it vulnerable to the depredations of Western powers.” /+/

Yue Fei (1103-1142) and His Poem About the Bloody Loss to the Jin

“Yue Fei (1103-1142) was an officer in the Northern Song army. When the Song retreated south in the face of Jin attacks, Yue Fei opposed the retreat. He continued, however, to serve the emperor, rising to the rank of general and engaging in battles with the Jin and in suppression of peasant uprisings. Yue Fei experienced success in his campaigns against the Jin in 1140. The Southern Song Gaozong Emperor and his advisors, however, sought to make peace with the Jin — which involved returning the northern territories that Yue Fei had just recaptured in his campaigns. Yue Fei and his allies stood in the way of the peace negotiations. Accordingly, Yue Fei was ordered to withdraw — which he did, declaring that “the achievements of ten years have been dashed in a single day.” Yue Fei was arrested on charges of plotting rebellion (charges that his defenders insisted were trumped up) and executed in 1141.”

“Yue Fei wrote the following poem as a song to be sung to the tune of “Full River Red.” The “Jingkang period” to which he refers is the last reign-period of the Northern Song — the period in which the Northern Song were defeated by the Jurchen Jin and retreated to the south:[Source: “ Poem to be Sung to the Tune of "Full River Red" by Yue Fei, 1103-1142, from “”Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”,” edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 169-170.

Yue Fei and students

My hair bristles in my helmet.
Standing by the balcony as the rain shower stops,
I look up to the sky and loudly let Heaven know,
The strength of my passions.
My accomplishments over thirty years are mere dust.
I traveled eight thousand li with the clouds and the moon,
Never taking time to rest,
For a young man’s hair grows white from despair.

The humiliation of the Jingkang period,
Has not yet been wiped away.
The indignation I feel as a subject,
Has not yet been allayed.
Let me drive off in a chariot,
To destroy their base at Helan Mountain.
My ambition as a warrior,
Is to satisfy my hunger with the flesh of the barbarians,
Then, while enjoying a rest,
Slake my thirst with the blood of the tribesmen.
Give me the chance to try again,
To recover our mountains and rivers,
Then report to the emperor.

Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279)

After the Jurchen invaded Song China and captured the Northern Song capital at Bianliang (modern Kaifeng), the Song court reestablished itself in the south in Hangzhou, where it continued to rule for another 150 years as the Southern Song dynasty.

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “In the disaster of 1126, when the Jurchen captured the Song capital, and destroyed the Song empire, a brother of the captive emperor escaped. He made himself emperor in Nanking and founded the "Southern Song" dynasty, whose capital was soon shifted to the present Hangchow. The foundation of the new dynasty was a relatively easy matter, and the new state was much more solid than the southern kingdoms of 800 years earlier, for the south had already been economically supreme, and the great families that had ruled the state were virtually all from the south. The loss of the north, i.e. the area north of the Yellow River and of parts of Jiangsu, was of no importance to this governing group and meant no loss of estates to it. Thus the transition from the Northern to the Southern Song was not of fundamental importance. Consequently the Jurchen had no chance of success when they arranged for Liu Yu, who came of a northern Chinese family of small peasants and had become an official, to be proclaimed emperor in the "Ch'i" dynasty in 1130. They hoped that this puppet might attract the southern Chinese, but seven years later they dropped him. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Southern Song society was characterized by the pursuit of a highly aestheticized way of life, and paintings of the period often focus on evanescent pleasures and the transience of beauty. Images evoke poetic ideas that appeal to the senses or capture the fleeting qualities of a moment in time. One particularly important source of inspiration for Southern Song artists was the natural beauty of Hangzhou and its environs, especially West Lake, a famed scenic spot ringed with lush mountains and dotted with palaces, private gardens, and Buddhist temples. [Source:Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/

Southern Song Relations with the Jurchen and Mongols

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”:“As the social structure of the Southern Song empire had not been changed, the country was not affected by the dynastic development. Only the policy of diplomacy could not be pursued at once, as the Jurchen were bellicose at first and would not negotiate. There were therefore several battles at the outset (in 1131 and 1134), in which the Chinese were actually the more successful, but not decisively. The Song military group was faced as early as in 1131 with furious opposition from the greater gentry, led by Qin K'ui, one of the largest landowners of all. His estates were around Nanking, and so in the deployment region and the region from which most of the soldiers had to be drawn for the defensive struggle. Qin K'ui secured the assassination of the leader of the military party, General Yo Fei, in 1141, and was able to conclude peace with the Jurchen. The Song had to accept the status of vassals and to pay annual tribute to the Jurchen. This was the situation that best pleased the greater gentry. They paid hardly any taxes (in many districts the greater gentry directly owned more than 30 per cent of the land, in addition to which they had indirect interests in the soil), and they were now free from the war peril that ate into their revenues. The tribute amounted only to 500,000 strings of cash. Popular literature, however, to this day represents Qin K'ui as a traitor and Yo Fei as a national hero. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“In 1165 it was agreed between the Song and the Jurchen to regard each other as states with equal rights. It is interesting to note here that in the treaties during the Han time with the Xiongnu, the two countries called one another brothers—with the Chinese ruler as the older and thus privileged brother; but the treaties since the Tang time with northern powers and with Tibetans used the terms father-in-law and son-in-law. The foreign power was the "father-in-law", i.e. the older and, therefore, in a certain way the more privileged; the Chinese were the "son-in-law", the representative of the paternal lineage and, therefore, in another respect also the more privileged! In spite of such agreements with the Jurchen, fighting continued, but it was mainly of the character of frontier engagements. Not until 1204 did the military party, led by Han T'o-wei, regain power; it resolved upon an active policy against the north. In preparation for this a military reform was carried out. The campaign proved a disastrous failure, as a result of which large territories in the north were lost. The Song sued for peace; Han T'o-wei's head was cut off and sent to the Jurchen. In this way peace was restored in 1208. The old treaty relationship was now resumed, but the relations between the two states remained tense. Meanwhile the Song observed with malicious pleasure how the Mongols were growing steadily stronger, first destroying the Xia state and then aiming the first heavy blows against the Jurchen. In the end the Song entered into alliance with the Mongols (1233) and joined them in attacking the Jurchen, thus hastening the end of the Jurchen state.

“The Song now faced the Mongols, and were defenceless against them. All the buffer states had gone. The Song were quite without adequate military defence. They hoped to stave off the Mongols in the same way as they had met the Khitan and the Jurchen. This time, however, they misjudged the situation. In the great operations begun by the Mongols in 1273 the Song were defeated over and over again. In 1276 their capital was taken by the Mongols and the emperor was made prisoner. For three years longer there was a Song emperor, in flight from the Mongols, until the last emperor perished near Macao in South China.

Southern Song Culture: One Reason for the Dynasty's Collapse

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The Southern Song period was again one of flourishing culture. The imperial court was entirely in the power of the greater gentry; several times the emperors, who personally do not deserve individual mention, were compelled to abdicate. They then lived on with a court of their own, devoting themselves to pleasure in much the same way as the "reigning" emperor. Round them was a countless swarm of poets and artists. Never was there a time so rich in poets, though hardly one of them was in any way outstanding. The poets, unlike those of earlier times, belonged to the lesser gentry who were suffering from the prevailing inflation.

Salaries bore no relation to prices. Food was not dear, but the things which a man of the upper class ought to have were far out of reach: a big house cost 2,000 strings of cash, a concubine 800 strings. Thus the lesser gentry and the intelligentsia all lived on their patrons among the greater gentry—with the result that they were entirely shut out of politics. This explains why the literature of the time is so unpolitical, and also why scarcely any philosophical works appeared. The writers took refuge more and more in romanticism and flight from realities. The greater gentry, on the other hand, led a very elegant life, building themselves magnificent palaces in the capital. They also speculated in every direction. They speculated in land, in money, and above all in the paper money that was coming more and more into use. In 1166 the paper circulation exceeded the value of 10,000,000 strings! [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Mass Migration of Farmers During Southern Song Period

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”:“It seems that after 1127 a good number of farmers had left Henan and the Yellow River plains when the Jurchen conquered these places and showed little interest in fostering agriculture; more left the border areas of Southern Song because of permanent war threat. Many of these lived miserably as tenants on the farms of the gentry between Nanking and Hangchow. Others migrated farther to the south, across Jiangxi into southern Fujian. These migrants seem to have been the ancestors of the Hakka which in the following centuries continued their migration towards the south and who from the nineteenth century on were most strongly concentrated in Guangdong and Guangxi provinces as free farmers on hill slopes or as tenants of local landowners in the plains.

“The influx of migrants and the increase of tenants and their poverty seriously threatened the state and cut down its defensive strength more and more. At this stage, Jia Sidao (Chia Ssu-tao) drafted a reform law. Chia had come to the court through his sister becoming the emperor's concubine, but he himself belonged to the lesser gentry. His proposal was that state funds should be applied to the purchase of land in the possession of the greater gentry over and above a fixed maximum. Peasants were to be settled on this land, and its yield was to belong to the state, which would be able to use it to meet military expenditure. In this way the country's military strength was to be restored. Chia's influence lasted just ten years, until 1275. He began putting the law into effect in the region south of Nanking, where the principal estates of the greater gentry were then situated.

He brought upon himself, of course, the mortal hatred of the greater gentry, and paid for his action with his life. The emperor, in entering upon this policy, no doubt had hoped to recover some of his power, but the greater gentry brought him down. The gentry now openly played into the hands of the approaching Mongols, so hastening the final collapse of the Song. The peasants and the lesser gentry would have fought the Mongols if it had been possible; but the greater gentry enthusiastically went over to the Mongols, hoping to save their property and so their influence by quickly joining the enemy. On a long view they had not judged badly. The Mongols removed the members of the gentry from all political posts, but left them their estates; and before long the greater gentry reappeared in political life. And when, later, the Mongol empire in China was brought down by a popular rising, the greater gentry showed themselves to be the most faithful allies of the Mongols!

Decline of the Jurchen and Jin

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “But a few years after this maximum expansion, a withdrawal began which went on much more quickly than usual in such cases. The reasons were to be found both in external and in internal politics. The Jurchen had gained great agrarian regions in a rapid march of conquest. Once more great cities with a huge urban population and immense wealth had fallen to alien conquerors. Now the Jurchen wanted to enjoy this wealth as the Khitan had done before them. All the Jurchen people counted as citizens of the highest class; they were free from taxation and only liable to military service. They were entitled to take possession of as much cultivable land as they wanted; this they did, and they took not only the "state domains" actually granted to them but also peasant properties, so that Chinese free peasants had nothing left but the worst fields, unless they became tenants on Jurchen estates. A united front was therefore formed between all Chinese, both peasants and landowning gentry, against the Chin, such as it had not been possible to form against the Khitan. This made an important contribution later to the rapid collapse of the Jin empire.

“The Jin who had thus come into possession of the cultivable land and at the same time of the wealth of the towns, began a sort of competition with each other for the best winnings, especially after the government had returned to the old Song capital, Pien-liang (now K'ai-feng, in eastern Henan). Serious crises developed in their own ranks. In 1149 the ruler was assassinated by his chancellor (a member of the imperial family), who in turn was murdered in 1161. The Jin thus failed to attain what had been secured by all earlier conquerors, a reconciliation of the various elements of the population and the collaboration of at least one group of the defeated Chinese.

Mongol Invasions and the End of the Song

The Jurchen were then conquered by another group of horsemen, the Mongols, in 1226. The Great Wall, which was supposed to keep horsemen like the Mongols out, was breached partly because the horsemen simply went around it and the Chinese government wasted its military budget on an inefficient and unskilled Chinese fighting force rather than hiring horsemen mercenaries who fought using the same tactics as the Mongols. According to the Middle Ages Reference Library: The Chinese were thrilled when, in 1234, the Mongols defeated the Jurchen and took northern China. The Song probably thought they would let the barbarians destroy each other, then reoccupy their country; but instead the Mongols kept going southward, and by 1279 Kublai Khan's armies had overthrown the Song. [Source: Middle Ages Reference Library, Gale Group, Inc., 2001; Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Dr. Eno wrote: "During the last century of the Song Dynasty, forces were gathering on the northern Asian steppe that were to have dramatic world consequences, affecting the shape of Chinese history. This was the period when the Mongol people were brought together under the leadership of Genghis Khan (or Chinggis Khan,1165-1227) and his successors and launched lightning cavalry attacks on both East Asia and Eastern Europe, amassing for a brief time the most far flung empire that the world has ever seen. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“In 1226, the Mongol armies brought down the empire the Western Xia state that had controlled the Central Asian corridor throughout the Song, and following this, they turned their attention to the Jurchen Jin Dynasty, exerting pressure from the north. To create a more secure military buffer, the Jin moved their capital from Beijing to the old Northern Song capital of Kaifeng, south of the Yellow River, but it was to no avail. In 1234, the Mongols brought an end to Jurchen rule in North China. /+/

“Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan (1215-94) became the leader of the Mongol forces in the east in 1260. He established a capital in Beijing, and determined to conquer all China and rule their as emperor. In 1271, he proclaimed the establishment of a new dynasty, the Yuan, and began a campaign of conquest, aiming south. /+/

“The Mongols may have been the most dominant military phenomenon until the atomic bomb. Their army was composed entirely of cavalry, and training on the wild steppe had toughened both horsemen and horses to travel enormous distances at great speed. Warriors learned to sleep in the saddle and to tap their horses’ veins for blood when food was scarce. The tradition of Mongol warfare was raiding; the pattern was to appear seemingly from out of nowhere, attacking settlements, towns, and cities with terrific ruthlessness, as much intent upon terror as conquest and loot. In Europe, they were widely believed to be a scourge sent from God, and during the thirteenth century, their conquests there extended as far west as Hungary and Poland. In the Middle East they occupied the lands of modern Iran and Iraq, extending west through most of Turkey. The Southern Song military had been strengthened since the time of the Jurchen invasions, but it was not equipped to defend against the type of warfare launched by Mongol armies under Kublai. In 1279, the Song Dynasty fell to the invading armies in what was probably the bloodiest war ever witnessed on Chinese territory. Census figures that can provide the basis for population estimates for the period suggest that China’s population, which had burgeoned during the Song, was cut by as much as one.third, from about 120 million to 80 million, as a result of the Mongol incursions and the social chaos that followed them. Any analysis of why China did not follow the Song commercial revolution with the further development of modern institutions must take into account the devastating setback that was represented by the wars that brought an end to the Song. /+/

See The Mongols and the Yuan Dynasty

Kublai Khan and the Conquest of China

The Mongols had fought off and on with the Southern Song Dynasty for more than four decades, starting in 1235. When Mongke died the Mongols were in the middle of attacking the Song city of Hechou using a bridge of boats across the Yangtze. Many died when rough waters overturned many of the boats.

In 1268 Kublai was able to turn his full attention to the war in China. A series of campaigns, distinguished by the skill of Bayan (grandson of Subetei), culminated in 1276 in the capture of Hangzhou, the Song capital. It took three more years to subdue the outlying provinces. The last action of the war — a naval battle in Guangzhou Bay, in which the remnants of the Song fleet were destroyed by a Mongol fleet made up of defectors from the Song navy — took place in 1279. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Kublai did not share his brother Mongke's fierce desire to conquer the world. He had warred against China with determination, but apparently he realized that there was a limit to the Mongol capabilities for consolidating and for controlling conquered territory. It is likely that he recognized that this limit was being approached because of an event that occurred during the interregnum between Mongke's death and his own accession.*

Kublai Khan and the Defeat of the Song Dynasty in China

Mongol catapult

Kublai Khan became the leader of the Mongol forces in the east in 1260. He established a capital in Beijing, and determined to conquer all China and rule their as emperor. In 1271, he proclaimed the establishment of a new dynasty, the Yuan, and began a campaign of conquest, aiming south. When Kublai Khan became ruler of northern China he tried to entice the Song dynasty into becoming one of his vassals. Kublai Khan sent an emissary to the Song offering them good terms if they submitted to Mongol rule. After the emissary was taken captive war broke out. For five years Kublai Khan's army besieged Xiangyang and Fancheng, two important Song cities on the Han River that guarded an important rice growing region in the Yangtze Basin. Using catapults capable of hurling 200-pound stones and a navy of Chinese- and Korean-built ships, the Mongols captured the two cities in 1273.

Carrie Gracie of the BBC News wrote: “Kublai was hugely outnumbered. The Song dynasty was a "a monumental culture" of 70 million people, says Man, and 10 to 100 times stronger in military terms. The Mongols had to be clever. One major battle took place at Xiangyang, a city with impenetrable walls dominating the Han River, a tributary of the Yangtze. "This turned into a sort of a mini Troy," says Man. "The siege went on for five years. The Chinese could not break out, the Mongols could not break in. There were countless attempts to sneak in, to break in, to break out - all foiled. So there had to be some sort of a new initiative, and the initiative was suggested by the empire itself." [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 9, 2012 ***]

“The Mongol empire, that is. Kublai's relatives ruled all the way to Eastern Europe and he had heard of great catapults the Christians had used during the Crusades. He summoned two Persian engineers, who built the equivalent of heavy artillery - a catapult that could sling 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of rock over 200 meter-300 meter (650 feet - 1,000 feet). After a few shots to get the range, it brought down a mighty tower in a cloud of dust. The capture of the city allowed the Mongol fleets access to southern China which, for the first time, was taken by barbarians." ***

Hangzhou was captured in 1276 by a Mongol army commanded by the Turkish general Bayan. In 1279, the last Song holdout were defeated. After capturing Hangzhou, Kublai Khan showed more restraint than other the Mongol leaders: the defeated Song army was not massacred; the city's inhabitants were not massacred; and the Song court was allowed to keep some of it wealth and privileges.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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