Society and Economy in Medieval China

This article deals with the society and economy in medieval China. This period of Chinese history gave rise to major technological innovations, and it therefore forms a critical time and place in world history.


Section 1: The end of the Han empire and the period of division

Section 2: The Sui and Early Tang dynasties

Section 3: The Late Tang dynasty and the half century of disunity

Section 4: The Song dynasty

Section 5: Under the Mongols


Section 1: The end of the Han empire and the period of division

A census in 140 CE showed that the Han empire (201 BCE to 220 CE) had a population of some 50 million people. This was down from nearly 60 million at the beginning of the 1st century CE. The large-scale wars and disruptions which accompanied the Wang Mang usurpation probably account for most of this fall, but it may also have been due in part to the increasingly harsh economic conditions faced by ordinary peasants in Late Han times.

A census taken in 606 CE, just after the end of the period of division (220-589 CE), showed the population of the empire to be just over 46 million people. This came after a period of population expansion but even so is was well down on Late Han levels, let alone those of the Former Han. This shows how damaging the troubles of these centuries had been for China’s people.

Within China, there had been a major change in the distribution of the population during these centuries. In Han times the vast majority of the people had lived in the north: the south was a thinly populated frontier region. The chaotic conditions which followed the Han’s fall in the north had caused large-scale migration to the south, and as a result, by the end of the 6th century about a third of the population lived there.

Social developments under the Late Han

The later Han dynasty owed its throne to the support of the landed elite which had grown up under the early Han. As a result, government policies now favored this group. Landed estates grew unchecked and many peasants lost their land to become tenant farmers or serfs.

The rich, in short, were getting richer, and the poor poorer. This process was aided by the fact that high posts at court and in the bureaucracy increasingly went to members of the great landowning families, and these ensured that the interests of their class were well served by government.

In the later 2nd century CE, the Han empire went into steep decline. Standards of government fell. Complex and costly operations which had to be undertaken on a regular basis, such as maintaining the large-scale irrigation systems on which much agriculture depended, began to fail. With dykes in disrepair, flooding occurred more often.

After 180 CE stable government came to an end. The administration became increasingly corrupt and oppressive, and the rich landowners prospered at the expense of the poor rural population. Peasant unrest grew, culminating in the huge uprising of the “Yellow Turbans”. This violent episode led directly to the end of the Han dynasty (220 CE).

Social developments under the successor states

The struggles between the “Three Kingdoms” which succeeded the Han was a terrible period for the Chinese population, especially in the north where most of the fighting took place. Millions perished as a result of the widespread and brutal warfare, and millions more lost their livelihoods and homes.

In this situation, the wealthy landowners made even more gains than they had done previously. Many peasants were killed in the wars or fled the fighting for the south, never to return; the vacant land was grabbed by neighboring landowners. Many more peasants placed themselves and their farms under the protection of local landowners, many of whom had fortified their residences against the prevailing disorders of the time and hired armed followers. Trade suffered badly, towns and cities shrank in wealth and importance, and large estates turned into defended, self-sufficient economic units in order to survive.

In the late 3rd century and early 4th century, several nomadic groups from the beyond China’s borders took advantage of the disordered state of Chinese society by moving into Chinese territory. They sacked many cities, including, in 311, the great city of Louyang. China now became divided into two parts. In the north, the barbarian invaders established several kingdoms, while in the south a succession of native Chinese dynasties continued to rule.

The barbarian invasions of the north set in motion another wave of peasants southward. Those desperate refugees often behaved towards southern communities in the same violent way as had the barbarian nomads towards their own towns and villages. This forced many southern communities to turn to the local landowners for protection. These recruited mercenary bands to defend their local patches against incursions. This development strengthening their dominance of local society.

Hitherto, the southern provinces had been under-populated; from this period on their population levels began to rise sharply. Through the private initiative of many landowners much new land was claimed for agriculture by draining marshes, terracing hillsides and clearing forests, and then settling tenant farmers on the new lands.

As society settled down after the upheavals, the economy of southern China expanded despite the political instability, with increased agricultural production, a rising population and reviving trade.

By the end of the 4th century, therefore, a powerful landed class had arisen in both southern and northern China, whose authority rested on the possession of large country estates which formed self-sufficient economic units, very much like manors in western Europe. In the north, this situation enabled the rise of a ruling class of mixed “barbarian” and Chinese origins, as once-hostile groups intermarried with one another. This mixed aristocracy became ever more Chinese in its ways, and more and more of its men took up an official career in the bureaucracy, filling the highest offices of state.

The Equal-Fields system

Ironically, this development gave state of the Northern Wei (534-586) the stability to carry out some much-needed reforms in favor of the peasantry. It introduced a major land redistribution measure by declaring that all land belonged to the state, and should only be let out for one lifetime only – it could not be inherited. Each family was then allocated land according to the number of the family members, including dependents, slaves and animals.

This was known as the “equal-fields” system, but it was hardly that. The households of families of great landowners obviously had many more dependents, slaves and animals than those of serfs; they were therefore allotted much more land. Moreover officials were soon being granted inheritable estates (often the very estates they had owned previously, though perhaps in a cut-down form), in varying sizes according to rank. Nevertheless the “equal-fields” system ensured that every family, however humble, received enough land on which to live. It also turned them from serfs, bound to their landowners, to free citizen-farmers, under the direct authority of the state and its officials. The land was theoretically reallocated on a yearly basis, and in many cases probably was, which would have ensured that the system remained reasonably fair.


Section 2: The Sui and Early Tang dynasties (589-755)

The Sui dynasty oversaw major improvements in economic arrangements within China, but the megalomania of the second Sui emperor meant that that dynasty did not reap the benefit. This fell to the Tang dynasty, long regarded as one of the most glorious in all Chinese history. The early Tang period was a time of prosperity for the people of China.

The peace of the early Tang period (at least within the borders of the enormous country) allowed the population and economy to expand. In the mid-8th century, another census showed that China’s population had risen to nearly 53 millions. This was significantly up on the population in Sui times, but still not as high as that for the Han period.

A notable aspect of the redistribution of the Chinese population was the rise in the number and size of towns and cities by the mid-Tang period. Whereas the Han empire had had 12 or so cities above 50,000 inhabitants, by the mid-8th century the Tang empire had 26 cities with over half a million inhabitants. The capital, Chang’an, had over two millions, and two other cities, Louyang and Ta-ming, had more than a million each.

The ruling classes

Under the Sui, the political power of the landowning class was constrained (albeit only slightly) by the introduction of an examination system to recruit some officials. This eventually brought men from a wider section of society (though still landowners) into senior office within the civil service.

The Tang expanded this rudimentary examination system, and also systematized the promotion of officials based on their performance. More men from lesser gentry families entered the civil service and came to fill senior posts within government. Nevertheless, into mid-Tang times, good family background still counted for much, and the old aristocratic landowning families kept their preponderance in high office. Sons of senior officials were automatically qualified for an official career and were fast-tracked to senior posts. In particular, both the Sui and Tang imperial families were drawn from the landed aristocracy of northern China, and members of this group would continue to predominate in high office in this period. The empress Wu favored men from outside this charmed circle, but did not break their hold, and they made a comeback after she was gone.

Under the Tang, candidates for the examinations at the capital came to considerably outnumber successful examinees, but even those who sat the exams and did not pass could return to their home regions with their prestige enhanced, and able to take up unofficial (but paid) local government work, or work as tutors or school teachers. From this time on a class of highly educated small-scale landowners came to prominence in the localities of China, a gentry elite who would form the natural leaders of Chinese rural society under future dynasties.

The peasantry

The mid-6th century introduction of the “equal-fields” system in northern China (see above) had significantly reduced the power of the landowning families in northern China over the peasantry, and, once China had been reunited, the Sui dynasty applied this system throughout China. The Sui also reintroduced the “ever-normal granary” system, which had fallen into disuse in the centuries of division. This was intended to alleviate the suffering of the people during times of food scarcity by purchasing surplus grain in good times so that it could be sold to people at a fair price in famines.

The Tang cut back on the over-ambitious public works of the Sui period, and the huge amount of forced labour required (which had been central in bringing about the fall of that dynasty).

As time went by, however, the “equal-fields” system began to show signs of deterioration. Population growth meant that in the most densely populated areas there was not enough available land to go round for all families to get a proper allocation. This situation was made worse because large tracts of land were taken out of the system to be given to high officials and court favorites and, even more, Buddhist temples and monasteries.

All in all, however, the early Tang periods, up to the mid-8th century, was a time of comparative prosperity for the peasantry.

Trade and industry

Under the early Tang, peace within the borders of the enormous country allowed trade and industry to flourish, and international trade reached new heights. But it was the short-lived Sui dynasty who laid the foundations for this prosperity.

The Grand Canal and other public works under the Sui

The Sui emperor Wendi and his son, the emperor Yang, had great public work achievements to their credit. The most important of these was the construction of the Grand Canal, which was completed in its main section in 604. The idea of this was to allow shipping to sail from the Yangtze river up to the Yellow river, without having to complete the long and dangerous sea voyage around the Shandong peninsula. In 605 the canal was lengthened to link with Beijing in the north and Hangzhou in the south.

One of the main objectives of the Grand Canal was to contribute to the efficient supply of grain and other goods from the wealthy south to the northern frontiers. This it did, but it would also prove a huge boon to the internal commerce of China. It effectively turned the inland waterways of China into a single transport system, which meant that goods could be shipped by water (a much less expensive process than transporting by land) from any region to any other within China proper.

As well as stimulating trade within China, it allowed grain to be transported in bulk from an area of good harvest to one of poor harvest. This, coupled with a network of government “ever-normal” granaries, which kept stores of grain in reserve, meant that, while peace and sound government were in operation, keeping the canals and rivers open and allowing the long-distant transport of grain to take place, famine was a much reduced threat to the people of China.

Along with the Grand Canal, the Sui overhauled the road system of China, which had become badly disrupted by centuries of division and unstable government. Many new roads were constructed, and many more were repaired.

These government initiatives laid the foundation for a major expansion of the Chinese economy in the early Tang period, and after. Numerous new towns appeared, particularly along the course of the Grand Canal, as much improved access to distant markets stimulated agricultural and industrial production in many areas.

The Silk Road

The Tang empire now reached far into central Asia, and as a result, the famous trade route across the center of Asia known as the Silk Road flourished as never before. It brought Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and Nestorian Christians to China, and communities of foreign merchants became established in many cities throughout China. The southern ports of Canton also hosted communities of foreign traders, from South Asia, India and Arabia.

Government involvement

The Tang government did much to foster commerce, above all by keeping the canal and road systems in good repair. However, the government tightly regulated markets and trade, which acted as a restraint on the expansion of the commercial sector. It also maintained huge workshops of its own, employing thousands of skilled craftsmen to fulfill the needs of the court, the officials and the army. This obviously restricted the private sector by excluding it from some of the most lucrative parts of the economy.

The Capital

Chang’an (modern Xian), the capital of the Tang empire, was undoubtedly the largest city in the world at that time, with a population of over two million. It must surely have been the most cosmopolitan as well, with ambassadors, merchants, monks, students and entertainers coming from central Asia, Japan, Korea, South East Asia and India. An entire quarter of the city was given over to foreigners, with Jews, Persians, Arabs and even a scattering of Europeans clustered round their own synagogues, mosques and churches – alongside the hundreds of Buddhist temples the city boasted.


In the mid-8th century, a census showed that China had a population of nearly 53 millions. This was significantly up on the population in Sui times, but still not as high as that for the Han period (see above).

An important aspect of the redistribution of the Chinese population was the rise in the number and size of towns and cities by the mid-Tang period. Whereas the Han empire had had 12 or so cities above 50,000 inhabitants, in a census taken just before the An Lushan rebellion the Tang empire had 26 cities with over half a million inhabitants. The capital, Chang’an, had over two millions, as we have seen, and two other cities, Louyang and Ta-ming, had more than a million each.


Section 3: The Late Tang dynasty and the half century of disunity (755 to 969)

The An Lushan rebellion of 755 to 763 led to loss of life on a massive scale in northern China. Many cities were left in ruins, emptied of their people, and in the countryside there was mass emigration from affected areas to more peaceful locations in southern China. Such was the scale of the demographic changes in these years that by the time order had been restored China’s population, which had been split two thirds to one third in favor of the north, was more or less equally divided between north and south.

The ruling class

The years of the An Lushan rebellion saw many cities destroyed, including the capital, Chang’an and the auxiliary capital, Louyang. Trade was terribly disrupted and shrank dramatically in this region. Large swathes of countryside were devastated, leading to renewed mass migration from north to south. The class of great aristocrats of northern China, from which the Sui and Tang families had originally sprung and which had dominated China socially and politically for centuries, was decimated: many families were massacred, and others were impoverished when their estates were ravaged.

Although gravely weakened by this episode, its final elimination would not came until the end of the dynasty, when the rebels in the great peasant revolts which triggered the fall of the Tang carried out widespread massacres of the landed families of the north.

The weakening of the northern aristocracy allowed members of the much larger and more widespread class of lesser landowners, the gentry, to rise in influence under the late Tang emperors; and the aristocracy’s final elimination at the end of the dynasty left them as the governing elite.

The peasantry

In the anarchy of the An Lushan rebellion the “equal-fields” system ceased to operate properly, not only in the affected areas, but, as it relied upon vigorous oversight by the government, throughout China as a whole. It was never effectively restored, and in 780 the government gave up any pretense of maintaining the system.

The peasants were now the owners of the plots they farmed, able to buy and sell land as they wished. With few financial reserves, however, many peasants soon got into financial difficulties, and sold their plots. They became tenants on landed estates, which began to expand again under the late Tang. Some landowners even used their local power to illegally encroach on peasants’ plots, and government officials did little to stop them.

Southern China and continued economic progress

Southern China had not been hit nearly as hard by the An Lushan disaster as the north. Orderly government continued here, with central government not losing its control to anything like the same degree.

The south soon recovered economically. In fact, the economic center of gravity in China shifted decisively southwards under the late Tang. The commercial cities of the region became much larger and more prosperous than before. Large communities of foreign merchants became established in them. At the same time, Chinese merchants became more active in overseas trade, establishing communities throughout South East Asia. Some began developing direct trading links with India and the Middle East, and even perhaps as far as East Africa.

At the same time, interregional trade within China expanded in late Tang times. The Grand Canal seems to have truly come into its own at this time, and towns and cities along its course flourished as never before.

Many of the regulations on commercial activities in force under the early Tang were abandoned by the weaker late Tang regime. This had the effect of freeing trade from many official restrictions and allowing it to flourish with greater vigor. Some industries remained under government control, however, notably tea, salt and porcelain. The control of salt, in particular, was a major source of revenue for the government.

Technological advances in the late Tang period

The economic progress registered in the late Tang period fostered technological advance, and the following innovations are first recorded (and probably first occurred) at this time:

  • Wood block printing came into use, in around 868. Scholars think that it was originally developed by Buddhist monks to print prayers; later, however, the court used printing to make Confucian texts more widely available to meet the requirement for text books for those studying for the official examinations.
  • Gunpowder was invented by a Daoist alchemist. It was, however, used only in fireworks for the next two hundred years or so.
  • Another technical advance with great promise for the future was the development of true porcelain ceramics. China had a long history of making fine pottery, but the breakthrough to manufacturing translucent porcelain would allow a major industry to thrive, producing porcelain for both export and for sale within China.
  • An innovation connected to the development of printing was the introduction of paper money. The growth of interregional trade under the late Tang had created the problem of carrying large quantities of metal cash around, which was heavy and expensive to do. Some merchants therefore took to setting up banking facilities and issuing deposit certificates which could be exchanged for cash. The government eventually started issuing deposit certificates of its own, which it printed. These soon became items for exchange in their own right, and began circulating as a form of money.

The half century of disunity

In the north, the fall of the Tang dynasty was followed by repeated rounds of heavy fighting, which, along with the financial incompetence and corruption of the regimes, reduced the north to economic penury. In particular, the region of the great historic capital, Chang’an, was so devastated that it could no longer function as a center of political power. The city itself had become largely depopulated.

The northern regimes, which were of peasant or barbarian origin, were always insecure and tended to be suspicious of the gentry officials on whom they had to rely to govern their realm. From time to time they carried out vicious persecutions against them. Despite this, the influence of the gentry class grew inexorably, until a regime arose whose power rested firmly on gentry support.

The south was divided between several hostile kingdoms, and from time to time wars occurred between them. These were on a comparatively small scale, however, and the people of southern China mostly experienced peace. The region was therefore able to continue its economic expansion. Technological advances which can be traced to the late Tang period now became widespread in the south. Printing especially became much more important. Numerous publishing houses sprang up, education and literacy spread amongst major sections of the population, and the first fiction books began to appear.

The use of government-backed printed deposit certificates, which functioned as proto-paper money, spread rapidly, as did the banking system which developed to support it. Porcelain, also, became a major industry with state backing.

Family life

One trend began to appear in China in late Tang times. This was that upper class women increasingly lived in isolation within their houses. Why this should be the case is not known. Some scholars have suggested it was the result of Muslim influence, but this seems implausible given the extremely limited impact of Islam in other areas of Chinese life. Perhaps it was that, with the continuing rise in wealth, richer people had larger, more luxurious houses, and therefore could more easily keep family members at home. This, combined with a possible upswing in disorder and lawlessness, may have induced them to do so.

Probably connected with this in some way, with its origins in the period following the fall of the Tang, was foot binding for women. This seems to have started as a fad amongst upper class women who bound their feet in imitation of a famous imperial concubine and dancer. The idea of tiny feet being a mark of feminine beauty took hold, and women in wealthier families continued this practice until the 20th century.

Section 4: Song dynasty China (969-1279)

With internal peace, new crops and technological advances led to major population growth in the 11th century. At the end of the Tang, China’s population stood at 50 or 60 million people; at end of the 11th century, it was about 100 million.

By this time it was equally divided between north and south.

The Song period saw towns and cities expand, and many new ones appear. In the 11th century ten cities had a million or more inhabitants. The most affected by urban growth were the trading ports and industrial cities of southern China.

The ruling elite

By the time the Song regime came to power the old landed aristocracy which had dominated Chinese government and society between late Han and mid-Tang times had vanished. This left the way clear for the Song to base its rule entirely on the much broader class of lesser landowners known as the gentry.

The founder of the Song dynasty expanded the examination system so that the majority of officials were recruited in this way. Thousands of candidates produced about 200 degree holders a year.  This meant that, from top to bottom, officials were recruited and promoted on merit rather than on personal connections. To ensure that the examinations had a wide pool of candidates to draw on, the government encouraged the establishment of state-supported schools in the prefectures. Promising sons from poorer families could now be prepared for the exams, and the fact that even people from poorer backgrounds had a chance of attaining power and status gave the entire system great legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese people.

Nevertheless, men from gentry families predominated at all levels of the civil service. Because they could afford the best education, men from this class were better paced to do well in the demanding examinations than the mass of the people. Though there were indeed many cases of men from poorer economic groups having good careers in the civil service, the higher echelons of government especially were largely filled by those from the landowning gentry.

The Song period also saw the gentry class become entrenched as the leaders of local society. As the population more than doubled under the Song, with no commensurate increase in the number of provincial officials, the common people in the villages and small towns saw less and less of the representatives of central government. Local administration fell increasingly to the local gentry, who fulfilled this role on an irregular, mostly unpaid basis as a matter of public duty.

The economy

The Song era is know above all else for the marked expansion of the Chinese economy which took place at that time.


The Song era saw a huge increase in agricultural production. Part of this was down to the shift in population to the south of China, which had been going on since mid-Tang times. Here, rice was the staple crop. The growing of wet rice (i.e. in flooded paddy fields) was highly labour intensive, but the crop is extremely nutritious. The Song era saw new strains of rice introduced, notably Champa rice from what is today Vietnam. This was faster growing than the native variety, and more resistant to drought. Government sponsored research led to the selective breeding of newer strains which further reduced growing times, so that farmers could grow two crops per year.

The Song government took a hand in this process by printing manuals on new techniques in agriculture and industrial processes, and employing experts to distribute them around the country. These promoted the planting of wheat as a winter crop in the north; the greater use of fertilizer (which was made easier by the rise of large towns, which produced “night soil” – human waste – on a massive scale, and turned the collection and distribution of this commodity into a major industry); sluice-gates, water pumps and other water-control devices; and techniques for the effective terracing of hills to retain good soil.

This policy is credited with contributing significantly to the economic progress for which the Song era is known.

Not all the people benefitted from these developments. The old northern aristocracy had gone, but there were still landowners aplenty in Chinese society. The end of the “equal-fields” system under the late Tang had left peasants in freehold ownership of their own plots of land, but at the mercy of market forces. Given their slender resources and lack of reserves, many peasants were sooner or later forced to sell their land to richer neighbors, whose landed properties were growing. This was a trend which had been in play from the late Tang, and in Song times there were an increasing number of large estates, worked by tenant farmers and semi-free peasants.

The growth of large estates in fact benefitted the wider economy. Wealthy landowners could afford to introducing the new crops and techniques now coming to their attention, and to invest in water control and other measures to improve the land. They also had the education to read the manuals on agriculture improvement which circulated widely in Song times, and the capitalist frame of mind to experiment with new methods.

The Song government took a generally hands-off approach to this situation. Indeed political conditions under the Song favored the growth of estates, as the higher echelons of the civil service mostly came from the landowning gentry, and had little interest in working against this class’s interests.

One of the most famous political episodes under the Song occurred when a chief minister, Wang Anshi (in power 1069-1085), attempted to introduce a raft of measures which would alleviate conditions for the mass of peasantry: more equitable taxation, government loans at low interest, the fixing of prices to ensure farmers received a fair price for their produce, and so on. However, some of these measures were unworkable in practice, some did not achieve what they set out to achieve, and others were simply too radical for the more majority of officials. Wang’s opponents eventually had him ousted from office and undid much of his program.

On the whole, therefore, the Song state adopted a laissez-faire approach to social welfare. Apart from re-instating the traditional policy of “ever normal” granaries, a not negligible measure, at a time when landlordism was expanding again and economic conditions were pressurizing many peasants to sell their plots to their wealthier neighbors, the government stood by and let market forces take their course.

Commerce, industry and technological advance

The Song era was known in later Chinese history as one of tremendous economic expansion. There were several reasons for this. Internal stability and peace which the Song regime gave to the country allowed the economy to flourish, as it always did in China. It allowed long-term trends to come to fruition, such as the shift of the Chinese population from north to south which resulted in increased productivity in this well-watered and fertile region. Also a series of technological advances, some with their roots in the Tang era, some occurring under the Song, had a major impact on the economy. All these contributed the fundamental cause underlying this economic progress: more productive agriculture enabled a larger part of the population to live in towns and cities and engage in trade and industry.

The textile industry had always been a major industry in China – indeed, long before this time China was known as far as Europe as the source of that luxurious material, Silk. Despite the fact that knowledge of silk production had now reached Europe, Chinese silk, known fro its high quality, was still highly prized throughout the Eastern Hemisphere. Other cloths followed where silk led, as can be seen in the old English names for different cloths such as shantung, nankeen (from Nanjing) and Satin (from Zayton, the English name for the city of Quanzhou). These and other varieties where sold for export, but far more were sold within China itself. With grain, cloth formed the bulk of inter-regional trade.

The ceramics industry also flourished. At the high end, porcelain saw much technical improvement, and like Silk, became highly prized well beyond China’s borders; but also like silk, the vast majority of porcelain pieces were sold within China itself.

The iron and steel industries flourished under the Song, to equip the huge army with weapons and armor. The processing plants were often powered by coal, which became a major industry in Song times, Just like London in the 19th century, the Song capital Kaifeng was noted for having a pall of smog hanging over it.

Most commerce was in the hands of private merchants, and this class expanded greatly in this period. Merchants flourished as never before, discarding many of the social constraints under which they had labored in previous centuries to become respectable members of society. However, certain industries remained under tight government regulation: salt, tea, liquor, alum, and certain important spices and luxury goods; and of course the “ever-normal” granaries ensured that the distribution of staple crops was heavily influenced by government price controls. In the case of grains and salt, state intervention sought to ensure that key commodities were always available to people at a fair price; but a share in the profits from the regulated industries also provided the government with a large slice of its revenue.

The Song economy was highly monetized; probably more so than most European societies before the18th century. Interregional trade within China developed to an unprecedented level, and a national network of banks developed to cater for it. These undertook all the usual banking functions, including the acceptance of deposits, the making of loans, issuing notes, money exchange, and long-distance remittance of money. Weaknesses in Chinese civil law meant that banking houses tended to keep all key responsibilities within the family, and branch managers often had to have members of their own families living within the household of the bank owners as virtual hostages, to ensure their honesty.

Printed paper money, which had been gradually developing since the late Tang, was issued by the government on a large scale and was widely circulated. This was very convenient for long-distance commerce, but in time led to high levels of inflation.

One development which did not become widespread in China was printing using movable type. This innovation had occurred in Korea. However, the Chinese script, based as it is on flexible use of characters, lends itself more to wood-block printing than movable type printing.

Overseas trade

The shift of the economic center of gravity in China gave a huge stimulus to maritime trade to South East Asia and beyond. Up until now seaborne commerce had mostly been in the hands of Indian and Arab traders, but now Chinese merchants and sailors became active in it on a large scale.

Better designed and constructed ocean-going ships helped – huge Chinese junks plied the seas off the coast of Asia. Chinese shipwrights introduced compartmentalization into ship design, making their vessels far more seaworthy than before – centuries before this feature was introduced into western ships. Navigation techniques also advanced, and sometime under the Song the compass was introduced. Chinese sailors also had access to very high quality printed navigation charts. These gave Chinese merchants a competitive edge. Some ships sailed as far as India, and perhaps even the coast of East Africa. They traded cargoes of porcelain pieces and silks for spices and other luxury goods.

The trade with South East Asia flourished particularly at this time, and communities of Chinese merchants appearing in the trading ports of present-day Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaya.

Economy and society under the Southern Song

After the Song dynasty had been expelled from northern China by the Jurchen tribe, it continued to rule southern China for more than a century – this was the period of the Southern Song.

Under the Southern Song the south of China became the wealthiest and most populous part of the country. The Jurchen invasion of the north had led to another wave of migration from north to south, and shifted population levels decisively in favor of the southern part of the country, for the first time in history. The Southern Song empire had population of 60 million, whilst Jurchen-ruled northern China had about 40 million. The hitherto under-populated south coast regions of China were at last properly assimilated into the Chinese cultural world as it became fully settled by Chinese colonists.

This expansion of population intensified urbanization in the south. Hangzhou was almost certainly the largest city in the world at that time, with a population estimated at some four millions. The famous European visitor, Marco Polo, who visited the city just after the Southern Song had been conquered by the Mongols, was astounded – after all, Hangzhou was larger than any western city would grow until the 20th century. and he described it as not only being vast, but also very beautiful. Hardly surprisingly, his awe-struck description was met with general incredulity in Europe, where the largest cities of the time had populations of little more than 50,000.

This period saw commercial expansion also intensify, especially the maritime trade with South East Asia. Agricultural innovation was maintained, with wet-rice farming techniques being perfected and becoming more and more intensified. The economy became even more monetized than before, and its reliance on paper money deepened; inflation became a chronic fact of economic life.

As in many dynamic market economies, inequalities between rich and poor increased. In the countryside especially, more and more peasants lost their plots to larger landowners, whose estates therefore continued to expand. However, this period also saw the urban middle classes become a substantial segment of the population. This is reflected in the rise of a colloquial culture fed by an expanding publication of works of popular fiction.

Social trends

The Song period saw a much larger section of society working in non-agricultural pursuits and living in towns and cities (see below). It also saw a rise in that section of society which we would call the middle classes. Large landowners, high officials and wholesale merchants could hardly count as such, as they were the equivalent of today’s super rich; but a host of lesser businessmen, well-off craftsmen and shopkeepers, junior government officials, managers, teachers, doctors, Daoist or Buddhist priests and a host of other professionals thronged the growing urban environments.

Amongst classes above the peasantry, education expanded dramatically. This development was made possible by the spread of printing, but it was also promoted by the prestige attached to an official career; ambitious males from gentry, business and farming backgrounds, studied assiduously, knowing that success in the exams offered real opportunities for status and wealth. Even promising boys from peasant families were able to gain an education at state-supported schools in many prefectures. All this meant that the middle and upper rungs of Chinese society were far more highly educated than those of all other regions of the world at this time – as would continue to be the case until the 19th century.

One development which began to spread under the Song, but which traced its origins back to the “Five Dynasties” period of division following the fall of the Tang, was foot binding for women. This had started as a fad amongst upper class women who bound their feet in imitation of a famous imperial concubine and dancer. The idea of tiny feet being a mark of feminine beauty took hold, and women in wealthier families continued this practice until the 20th century.

Section 5: The Mongols

The period of Mongol occupation was later regarded with something like a shudder by Chinese historians – and not without reason. There seems to have been a massive fall in the population of China (always a sign of trouble in China) under the Mongols – down from 100 millions to 60 millions. The Mongol conquest of the north was far more devastating than of the south, and during this period the population of the north fell to 25% of the total for the whole of China. Some estimates put this portion to as little as 10%.

The Mongol conquests, and the invasions and wars which preceded them, had a catastrophic impact on northern China. Many large cities were sacked, and huge areas of crop-growing farmland were devastated – much deliberately, to enable the Mongols to pasture their horses on it. There is even a story that the Mongol leader, Ogedei, considered annihilating the population of northern China and turning the whole region over to pasturage for the Mongols’ herds of horses. The people were saved (so the story goes) by a Chinese official who proposed instead that the land was of far more use to the Mongols if it was farmed and taxed.

After conquest, much land was given to Mongol aristocrats, as well as to Buddhist temples. These grants of land came with rights over the resident populations, who were enserfed. The Mongols imposed harsh taxation on the region, leading to further heavy migration from north to south.

Kublai Khan’s reign saw the conquest of southern China by the Mongols, but in many respects marked an improvement for the Chinese. Kublai attempted to rule according to Chinese norms – for example he revived Confucian rites at court and reinstated the examination system for the whole of China (it had fallen into disuse in the north). However, even under Kublai, Mongols and other races were favored over Chinese, particularly south Chinese. The high officials at the Yuan court came from many races: Mongols, Uighurs and Turks from central Asia, Persians, some Europeans (most notably Marco Polo), as well as Chinese, some of whom did indeed become very influential. Under Kublai’s successors the issue of sinification repeatedly troubled the Mongol regime, with one or two emperors favoring Chinese officials and Chinese culture, and others adopting a more pro-Mongolian approach. These pro- and anti-Chinese swings were sometimes accompanied by bloody purges.

Mongol garrisons were scattered throughout China, with land attached to them for their upkeep, worked by enserfed Chinese peasants. The native population was disarmed, except for a militia for local policing and anti-brigandage duties (and of course, for the brigands themselves!).

According to the Mongol scheme of things, China’s society was divided into four grades – the status of each grade depending on the date at which they became subjects of the Mongol khans. At the top were (of course) the Mongols, then the descendants of early allies, mostly central Asians such as Uighurs and Turks; then the Chinese from northern China (who also included earlier non-Chinese groups such as the Jurchen and the Khitan); and finally the Chinese from southern China, the last to be incorporated into the Mongol world.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese were never really reconciled to Mongol rule. The elite chaffed at being relegated to a secondary role in government, and the peasantry suffered more than usual at this time. Many were forced into serfdom when their lands were included in vast tracts granted to court favorites, Mongol nobles or Buddhist temples and monasteries. For the rest, the harsh taxation of the regime made life hard. Peasants continued to lose their land to big landowners. It is unsurprising that that large scale peasant revolts began to break out in 14th century China, aimed as much against the landowning class as against the alien rulers.

After Kublai’s death the quality of Mongol rule seriously declined. Corruption and oppression became rampant, and the situation was aggravated by in the 1330s and 40s by a series of terrible natural disasters. Several destructive floods afflicted northern China, one of which (in 1332) left 7 million dead; and a major outbreak of the plague occurred in the 1340s. This may well have been the “Black Death” which also affected India, the Middle East and Europe, and which was probably carried along the trade routes across central Asia which the Mongol empire had stimulated into new life. All these disasters pointed, in the Chinese mind, to the idea that the Mandate of Heaven had left the Mongol dynasty. Revolts started to break out from the late 1320s, which eventually led to the Mongol regime being ousted and a native Chinese dynasty, the Ming, being installed in its place (1368).

Commerce and industry

Mongol rule was not without benefit to China. One of these was the expansion of trade along the Silk Road, now that its entire route across central Asia was under Mongol control. The trade along this route was largely in the hands of Muslim merchants of central Asian origin, but Chinese merchants and manufacturers benefitted from the selling of goods at the eastern end of the route.

The goods traveling along the Silk Road were by and large luxury items such as silk, porcelain and high quality cottons. However, along this trade route travelled other things, not so easily quantifiable but of much more importance. Out of China flowed technological innovations such as gunpowder and (almost certainly, though this is still debated) block printing to the Middle East and Europe. From the Middle East the Mongols brought a crop new to China, sorghum. This would act as a valuable supplement to the nutritional needs of the population of north China, additional to the already existing crops of millet and wheat.

The addition of sorghum to the crops of northern China helped this region to recover somewhat after the devastations of the early Mongol years. This was also aided by government policy under Kublai Khan, who encouraged the resettlement of waste areas and promoted agricultural improvement.

The land route to the north-east of China was not the only international trade route which flourished in Mongol times. The maritime trade routes from the southern Chinese ports to South East Asia also thrived. Even in late Mongol times the old Song capital and port of Hangzhou was still a huge and busy commercial center.

The Yuan government deliberately promoted the interests of both merchants and artisans in a way that previous Chinese dynasties had not done – the Mongols had none of the Confucian attitudes, which still lingered amongst the Chinese elite, which tended to view merchants as pariahs on the rest of society. The Mongols encouraged the settlement of foreign merchants in China, especially Muslims, who formed a privileged class in many cities. These formed companies which financed and organized long-distance caravan operations which traversed central Asia between China and the Middle East.

Paper currency backed by silver reserves facilitated commercial activity. This inevitably led to inflation, on a much greater scale than under the Song. The Yuan (under Kublai Khan, at least) constructed roads, improved canals and developed the postal system. The very fact of uniting China again after 150 years stimulated interregional trade within the huge country, and with it industry such as ceramics (most notably porcelain) and textiles. The Yuan’s massive public works, including the repair and extension of the Grand Canal, imposed a heavy burden on state finances but significantly stimulated commerce and industry.

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