For the purposes of this articles, the term “Medieval China” stands for that period in Chinese history between the fall of the Han dynasty (220 CE) and the fall of the Mongol (Yuan) dynasty (1368 CE).
During this period, major technological advances were made by the Chinese people – notably printing, the compass, gunpowder – which would be critical to the rise of the modern world. Medieval China thus forms a key time and place in world history.
After the fall of the Han empire, the first great empire in Chinese history (202 BCE to 220 CE), China experienced more than 350 years of disunity (220 to 589 CE).
In northern China, these centuries were characterized by barbarian invasions and other upheavals, followed by the establishment of various kingdoms ruled by barbarian dynasties. In southern China, a single, Chinese-ruled kingdom, existed. It experienced continual political weakness and instability, but the people of the south generally experienced peace.
Eventually, in 589, a Chinese general unified the whole of China under his rule, founding the Sui dynasty. He is known to Chinese history as the emperor Wendi. He brought firm government to China, pursued policies to improve the lives of the peasantry, and considerably expanded the borders of the empire, especially out into central Asia.
One of the most important of the Sui dynasty’s achievements was the construction of the Grand Canal, which connected northern China to southern China for the first time and acted as a huge boost to the country’s economy.
The second emperor of the Sui dynasty, the emperor Yang, seems to have been a megalomaniac whose harsh ruled turned sentiment decisively against the Sui regime, and rebellions started to break out from 613 onwards. These brought a new dynasty to power, the Tang. This would be one of the great dynasties in Chinese history. The Tang built on foundations laid by the Sui to preside over what Chinese scholars have traditionally seen as one the most glorious eras in their history.
A terrible rebellion broke out in 755, which took long years of bitter fighting to be put down. Although the Tang dynasty endured for another 150 years, it was unable to regain its former authority. From the 870s and 880s rebellions began to destabilize the regime, and in 907 the last Tang emperor was deposed. This was the signal for the Tang empire to break up.
China experienced fifty years of division before most of it was reunited by a general who founded the Song dynasty. The Song empire never included the whole of the country, however. In the north, the kingdoms of the Khitan (the Liao dynasty) and the Tanguts (Western Xia) remained outside Song control.
The Song dynasty period saw China’s economy flourish as never before, and it was a time of great technological advance. Society became more urbanized and sophisticated, and the population more than doubled. It was a time of great technological advance, with printing, the compass, gunpowder and other innovations coming into general use.
In 1126 Song forces were driven out of northern China by a barbarian tribal group called the Jurchen, and the Song dynasty was now confined to southern China; hence this period of Chinese history is called the Southern Song dynasty.
Under the Southern Song, southern China continuing to flourish, and its economy expanded even further. In northern China the Jurchen (Jin) dynasty also presided over a century of internal peace and prosperity. However, between 1215 and 1236 the Mongols conquered northern China, and in the 1260s and 1270s they completed the conquest of southern China.
The Mongol ruler, Kublai Khan, officially founded a new Chinese dynasty, the Yuan, in 1271. He was careful to present himself to the Chinese people as a legitimate Chinese ruler, and sought to govern his subjects well. However, the Chinese were never truly reconciled to Mongol rule, and after Kublai Khan’s reign the Mongol regime became increasingly corrupt and weak. When plague and floods increased the suffering of the people, revolts started to break out in different parts of China. These gradually coalesced into a single major movement under the leadership of a former bandit, and finally, after a long period of warfare, the Mongols were expelled from China in 1368.
The rebel leader founded a new dynasty, called the Ming, and a new era in China’s long history began.
This was a period in which the foundations laid down in the ancient period were tested and refined, to emerge as the quintessential features of Chinese civilization in later imperial times.
The imperial bureaucracy, which had developed in ancient China along with the examination system with which it was inextricably linked, continued to evolve. By the end of the period, Chinese officials were predominantly selected and promoted on merit, and the civil service was poised to take over the full running of the huge country.
One of the central questions facing the dynasties of this period was, how to administer such an enormous territory. The balance between central and provincial authorities was always in constant flux until mid-Song times, when a structure resting on hundreds of local authorities supervised by a complex and overlapping system of provincial and regional authorities emerged.
Intimately connected with the evolution of the civil service were the fortunes of Confucianism. Throughout the medieval period it remained the official ideology of government; however, the rise of Buddhism in China from late Han times onwards meant that Confucianism lost its hold even of the hearts and minds of the elite.It was only with the development of Neo-Confucianism from late Tang times onwards that Confucianism revived, once again claiming the heartfelt loyalty of the gentry.
The triumph of the gentry was a long time coming. At times, particularly from later Han times and through the centuries of division, the ruling elite was formed by an aristocracy of powerful landed families, whose hold on high office was unassailable. It was only withe the violent destruction of this class in the terrible years of the late Tang dynasty that the gentry class of small landowners was able to come to the fore. Even then big landowners were able to emerge from time to time and take hold of power, but the upheavals accompanying the transfers of dynasty tended to weaken them. In any case the rise of the examination system meant that high office would never again become the exclusive preserve of a few great families.
Similarly, the peasantry experienced ups and downs during the medieval period – in fact their fortunes were a mirror image of those of the big landowners. When large estates grew, peasants tended to fall into servitude; when the estates were broken up and their owners destroyed or weakened, an independent peasantry re-emerged.
The economic evolution of medieval China was closely linked to long-term demographic changes: a general upswing of population punctuated by some sharp downturns at times of crisis; the rise of southern China and the comparative – and at times absolute – eclipse of northern China, the ancient cradle of Chinese civilization.
The medieval period saw Chinese trade build on the foundations laid in ancient times. International commerce developed throughout the period; but much more so, so did internal trade. The economy was boosted by the increasingly integrated transport network, especially after the opening of the Grand Canal in the late 6th century.
The medieval era was a pivotal time for Chinese culture. Under the Tang it saw poetry, painting and calligraphy; under the Song and Yuan Chinese fiction and drama made their appearance. The period also saw accumulating achievements in those literary branches pioneered in ancient times, history and geography.