From the Sui Reunification... the Tang Consolidation


An early Chinese description describes the Xianbei as nomads who both hunted and herded and who lived in temporary dwellings with domes, probably a kind of yurt. The Xianbei chose their leader for his bravery and judgment, this source notes, commenting that the position could not be inherited. Terming this type of rule tanistry, a modern analyst defines it as rule of the tribe “by the best qualified member of the chiefly house.” What this meant in practice was that all contenders for power had to prove their ability to lead by defeating their rivals in battle. Vanquishing one’s rivals was a crucial sign that the gods approved of the new leader. A competent leader could attract thousands of followers, both from his own tribe and others, while an incompetent ruler could quickly be deposed. Under the system of tanistry, because there was no clear line of succession, a son could replace his father, but so could a brother or an uncle. Whenever a leader died, his sons and brothers would organize campaigns against each other until a new leader could be selected, often at a meeting of the tribal elders. (Open Empire, 158)
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of this form of leadership transition ... and what might this tell us about the capacity of such peoples to form a stable government?
As the Tabgach gradually shifted their base from the Yin Shan Mountains in Inner Mongolia to northern Shanxi province, they derived more of their income from taxing the Chinese peasantry, and they adopted a Chinese law code. A new ruler, known only by his Chinese name, Tuoba Gui, took power in 386, the traditional date for the founding of the Northern Wei dynasty. Following the custom of the nomads, the young state established no permanent capital because the capital was wherever the ruler pitched camp. In 396, Tuoba Gui assumed the Chinese title of emperor, and in 398 he began to build a permanent capital in northern Shanxi at Pingcheng. ...

Although the new capital in Pingcheng seemed more foreign than Chinese, some of the Tabgach were drawn to Chinese ways. Those who married the children of socially powerful Chinese clans gave birth to a mixed aristocracy who could speak both Chinese and Tabgach, who rode on horseback, and who supported Buddhism. A female member of this mixed aristocracy came to power with the death of her husband the emperor in 465. Dowager Empress Feng exercised considerable influence on the young new emperor, gained even more power following the young man’s death in 476, and ruled unchallenged as regent to her step-grandson until her own death in 490.
As soon as Dowager Empress Feng gained power she began systematically to appoint Chinese to office and just as systematically to lessen Tabgach influence. ... In 493, Emperor Xiaowen (reigned 471-499) implemented a series of measures designed to make his empire Chinese, the most remarkable of which was to establish a new capital in Luoyang, which had lain in ruins since 311. Even in shambles, Luoyang represented the past glories of Chinese civilization. To rebuild the city required ten years, and by the time workers doing labor service had completed their task, the emperor had died. During this decade of capital building, the emperor promulgated other ambitious edicts as well. The royal family dropped their own family name of Tabgach and adopted Chinese surname Yuan instead. They ordered officials to take Chinese names, to speak Chinese at court, and to wear Chinese clothing. Following the earlier Chinese precedent, the emperor also appointed impartial judges who ranked Tabgach families according to a nine-grade system that determined which offices they could hold. (Open Empire, 158-62)
  • Why did Empress Dowager Feng and Emperor Xiaowen make such a radical departure from the traditional Tabgach/Xianbei style of rule?
Although historians have traditionally interpreted Emperor Xiaowen’s policies as a step along the inevitable process of becoming Chinese, the emperor’s moves to suppress native Tabgach ways masked a move against the military, a group who retained significant power at the Northern Wei court. The Chinese model of government granted the emperor more power than did the traditional power-sharing practices of the steppe, and Emperor Xiaowen wanted all the power he could get. (Open Empire, 163)
 Migrations to the South
Among the Chinese of the north, South China harbored a fearsome reputation as an uncivilized, malarial place far from the capital. Few Chinese speakers would have chosen to live in the south, but the fall of Luoyang to the steppe peoples prompted the first reluctant migrants to go there. ... From a modern vantage point we know the climate of the south, with two to three times the rainfall of the north, was perfect for the cultivation of rice. But the migrants fleeing the north viewed south China with apprehension. The hot, wet climate provided the perfect home for illnesses, including malaria and other dangerous fevers. Before the lowlands of the south could be cultivated, dikes had to be built around the rice fields so they could be flooded and drained as needed during the growing season. The transformation of the swamps of the south into rich rice paddies took long centuries and a great toll on those who settled there. (Open Empire, 166)
Life in the North vs. Life in the South
The Family Counsels of Mr. Yan
We can see the continuing influence of steppe culture on north Chinese life in the memoir of a Chinese official, Yan Zhitui (531-after 590), who wrote The Family Counsels of Mr. Yan sometime before China was reunified in 589 by the Sui dynasty. Yan’s book of advice is directed to his children and reflects his experience as an official under four different dynasties. In such difficult times, the only strategy for survival, he felt, was complete mastery of both spoken and written Chinese, the necessary tools for officials in whichever dynasty came to power. Accordingly he urged his sons to speak Chinese correctly and to study hard. Yan did not, however, think his sons should learn the Xianbei language, for it was a secondary pursuit that would only distract them from their core studies. (Open Empire, 165)
Yan Zhitui on Gender
In the south the husband must cut a good figure in public, however impoverished the family may be. He would not scrimp on his carriages or clothes, even if his extravagance causes his wife and children to suffer hunger and cold.
       In the north of the Yellow River it is usually the wife who runs the household. She will not dispense with good clothing or expensive jewelry. The husband has to settle for old horses and sickly servants. The traditional niceties between husband and wife are seldom observed, and from time to time he even has to put up with her insults.
(Open Empire, 165)

I had a distant relative [in the south] in whose household there were many concubines. When any were pregnant and the time of delivery drew near, janitors and servants were set to watch. As soon as the birth pains were noticed, the watchers waited at the door and peered through the windows. If a girl were born, it was snatched away at once; though the mother screamed and cried, no one dared to save it; one could not bear to listen. (Open Empire, 165-6)
  • What do these accounts regarding the treatment of women tell us about the different cultures that were emerging in the north and in the south?
  • How might this be related to the previous discussion of tanistry?
  • How does it relate to the “One-Child Policy” in contemporary China?
Religion in the South
Mao Shan (Shangqing/Supreme Clarity) Daoism

The Mao Shan adherents continued some of the practices of the Five Pecks Daoists, such as curing the ill, but they tried to distance themselves from practices that had given the Daoists a bad name, specifically certain sexual rites. Tao Hongjing systematized the many gods and immortals into seven levels housing both divine immortals as well as the spirits of the dead. The lowest level lay under the earth, as did the level above it, which housed candidates for immortality.
       The lowest level in the Mao Shan system, where the souls of the dead went to be judged, replicated the indigenous Chinese view of the afterlife, which held that souls of the dead would go to a series of courts in the underworld, where their future would be decided and where they would most likely remain forever. The Mao Shan Daoists offered a slightly more optimistic view of the afterlife for they claimed the authority to intervene with the officials of these underworld courts. They also taught that the dead could lodge underworld suits against people who had wronged them when they were still alive. If the targets of the suits had already died, then their living relatives could suffer as well. The Daoists
claim to intercede on behalf of the dead in the underworld courts brought them many adherents. (Open Empire, 167-8)

The Sui Dynasty

The task of reuniting the empire proved far easier than anyone could have predicted given the preceding two hundred fifty years of disunity. The founder of the Sui dynasty, Yang Jian (reigned 581-604) was born into a powerful military family and spent the first twelve years of his life under the care of a nun in a monastery. A more traditional military education followed, and he became a general under one of the regional rulers, the Northern Zhou. In 566 he married a woman of mixed heritage, whose ancestors included both Xiongnu and Chinese families. She did not accept the Chinese tradition of taking concubines and insisted that he have no children but those she bore. In 578, Yang Jian’s eldest daughter was married to a crazed northern Zhou prince who subsequently succeeded his father as regional ruler. The ruler insisted that Yang Jian’s daughter commit suicide, presumably so that he could remarry, and only the plea by Yang Jian’s wife saved the girl. Then the ruler fell ill and died. At this point Yang Jian decided to seize power, first posing as the regent of the child emperor and then founding his own dynasty in 581, when he began his reign as Emperor Wendi. In 589, the new dynasty, the Sui, conquered the south and reunified the empire.
       The Sui dynasty, like the Qin, did not rule for long. The people of the North and South had grown apart, and the influence of the Turko-Mongol population was much stronger in the north than in the more refined, aristocratic south. The first Sui emperor took measures to try to eliminate those differences. He insisted that all, regardless of background, be treated equally before the law, and he promulgated a new streamlined law code. ... The first Sui emperor also tried to heighten his subjects’ support for his rule through Buddhism.
(Open Empire, 174-5)
The Tang Dynasty
The Tang (618-906) is known for the vitality and vibrancy of its culture — the dynamic and cosmopolitan cultural life of the capital city of Changan, a flourishing trade and cultural contact with Western Asia, the evolution of distinctively Chinese forms of Buddhism, the proliferation of Buddhist sculpture and painting, the early development of the short story and the fictional imagination, an unprecedented and dazzling efflorescence in the art of poetry. In government too there were remarkable developments that had a profound effect not only on Tang political culture but also on the course of later Chinese civilization — the revival of the civil service examination system as a basis for recruiting an effective bureaucracy based on the principle of merit, a far-reaching land reform designed to equalize landholding, the establishment of an administrative structure of the central government that would endure, with minor modifications, down to the twentieth century. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 539)

Tang Confucianism
If today Chinese civilization seems almost synonymous with Confucian culture, we need to be reminded of the long centuries during which Buddhism and Daoism exerted a powerful and formative influence. ... Indeed, it may be said that during this period, though there were Confucian scholars, there were virtually no Confucians — that is, persons who adhered to the teachings of Confucius as a distinct doctrine that set them apart from others. The sense of orthodoxy came later and mostly to an educated elite. People followed Confucius in the home or in the office, but this did not prevent them, high or low, from turning to Buddhism or Daoism to find satisfaction of their spiritual needs. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 540)
The Family Counsels of Mr. Yan
The habits and teaching of our family have always been regular and punctilious. In my childhood I received good instruction from my parents. With my two elder brothers I went to greet our parents each morning and evening to ask in winter whether they were warm and in summer whether they were cool; we walked steadily with regular steps, talked calmly with good manners, and moved about with as much dignity and reverence as if we were visiting the awe-inspiring rulers at court. They gave us good advice, asked about our particular interests, criticized our defects and encouraged our good points — always zealous and sincere. When I was just nine years old, my father died. The family members were divided and scattered, every one of us living in dire straits. I was brought up by my loving brothers; we went through hardships and difficulties. They were kind but not exacting; their guidance and advice to me were not strict. Though I read the ritual texts, and was somewhat fond of composition, I tended to be influenced by common practices; I was uncontrolled in feelings, careless in speech, and slovenly in dress. When about eighteen or nineteen years old I learned to refine my conduct a little, but these bad habits had become second nature, and it was difficult to get rid of them entirely. After my thirtieth year gross faults were few, but still I have to be careful always, for in every instance my words are at odds with my mind, and my emotions struggle with my nature. Each evening I am conscious of the faults committed that morning, and today I regret the errors of yesterday. How pitiful that the lack of instruction has brought me to this condition! I would recall the experiences of my youth long ago, for they are engraved on my flesh and bone; these are not merely the admonitions of ancient books, but what has passed before my eyes and reached my ears. Therefore I leave these twenty chapters to serve as a warning to you boys. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 542-3)
The common people are indulgent and are unable to [raise their children in the manner of the ancient sages]. But as soon as a baby can recognize facial expressions and understand approval and disapproval, training should be begun so that he will do what he is told to do and stop when so ordered. After a few years of this, punishment with the bamboo can be minimized, as parental strictness and dignity mingled with parental love will lead the boys and girls to a feeling of respect and caution and give rise to filial piety. I have noticed about me that where there is merely love without training this result is never achieved. Children eat, drink, speak, and act as they please. Instead of needed prohibitions they receive praise; instead of urgent reprimands they receive smiles. Even when children are old enough to learn, such treatment is still regarded as the proper method. Only after the child has formed proud and arrogant habits do they try to control him. But one may whip the child to death and he will still not be respectful, while the growing anger of the parents only increases his resentment. After he grows up, such a child becomes at last nothing but a scoundrel. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 543)
  • What does this tell us about Confucian education?
  • How is this relevant to contemporary China? And what about America?

The Great Tang Code
One of the great achievements of the Tang dynasty was its legal system, especially the criminal code (Tanglü), which, supplemented by civil statutes and regulations, became the basis for later dynastic codes not only in China but elsewhere in East Asia. The Code synthesizes the Legalist tradition, centered on the state, and Confucian traditions, focused more on family relations and conflict resolution in the local community. ... Overall, the Code reflects an attempt by a centralized, bureaucratic, dynastic state (not the decentralized “feudal” state idealized by the Confucians) to assert its authority and protect its power over all China. Yet the effective limits of their authority are acknowledged by the Code’s heavy reinforcement of Confucian ritual practice by which social order would normally be maintained through the family system, without recourse to law or the intervention of state power. Law was only the last resort after other, more consensual mechanisms failed. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 546-7)
In the beginning, the three powers [i.e. heaven, earth and humans] were established, and only then were the myriad forms divided. Among the creatures endowed with qi and possessing consciousness, human beings may be considered the chief. Never was a prime minister installed without the agreement of the masses, nor were penal laws promulgated except in accord with the moral teachings concerning government.
       There were those, however, whose passions were unrestrained and who acted stupidly, those whose knowledge declined and who offended criminally. If great, then they disrupted the entire world and, if small, they violated the standards for their own group. Thus it would be unheard of not to establish controls for such persons. Hence the statement
“Punishments are used to stop punishments and killing is used to stop killing.”
Punishments may not be discarded in a country; chastisements may not be dispensed with within a home. Depending on whether the times are virtuous or unprincipled, the use of punishments is great or small. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 547-8)
The Ten Abominations
Article 6

Subcommentary: The ten abominations (shie) are the most serious of those offenses that come within the five punishments. They injure traditional norms and destroy ceremony. They are specially placed near the head of this chapter [14b] in order to serve as a clear warning. ...

Article: The first is called plotting rebellion (moufan).

Subcommentary: The Gongyang Commentary states: “The ruler or parent has no harborers [of plots]. If he does have such harborers, he must put them to death.” This means that if there are those who harbor rebellious hearts that would harm the ruler or father, he must then put them to death. The Zuo Commentary (Zuozhuan) states: “When the seasons are reversed, we have calamities ... when the virtues of men are reversed, we have disorders.”

Article: The second is called plotting great sedition (mou dani).

Subcommentary: This type of person breaks laws and destroys order, is against traditional norms, and goes contrary to virtue.

Article: The sixth is called great irreverence (da bujing).

Subcommentary: Rites are the root of reverence; reverence is the expression of rites. ... “Rites are the great instrument of the ruler. It is by them that he resolves what is doubtful and brings to light what is abstruse ... examines institutions and regulations, and distinguishes humaneness and rightness.” The responsibility of those who offend against ritual is great and their hearts lack reverence and respect.

Article: The seventh is called lack of filiality (buxiao).

Subcommentary: Serving one’s parents well is called filiality. Disobeying them is called lack of filiality.

(Sources of Chinese Tradition, 549-51)

  • What does the Tang Code tell us about the premodern Chinese conception of law and its relation to the social order?
  • How is this different from contemporary Western conceptions of law ... and what might this tell us about contemporary Chinese conceptions of the relation between law and the social order?