The Non-Han Dynasties of the North

 
 
The Kitan Liao Dynasty
Little is known about the origins of the Kitans, but they claimed descent from the Tabgach, who had ruled China in the fourth and fifth centuries as the Northern Wei (see chapter 4). Although the Kitans had the same skin and hair coloring as the Chinese, the men’s distinctive hairstyle set them apart. Like the Tabgach before them, the men shaved the tops of their heads, leaving a fringe along the hairline from one ear to the other. They allowed the hair in front of the ears to grow into long braids.
 
 
One dynamic leader, known to us only by his Chinese name Abaoji, brought together a loose grouping of Kitan tribes in the years immediately after the collapse of the Tang. Abaoji (reigned ca 907-926) was fully aware of the significance of the timing, and Kitan histories claim he first unified the Kitans in 907, the last year of the Tang dynasty. ... He replaced traditional tribal rule with a dual administration: the north-facing section of the bureaucracy served the Kitans, while the south-facing half governed their Chinese subjects. Officials were appointed to the northern government on the basis of family ties; those in the southern government often had to pass civil service examinations. ...
Although the two administrations appeared equal on paper, the northern officials had much greater access to the emperor, who was always on the move. Twice a year the emperor scheduled meetings with the officials of both the southern and northern administrations, but because the officials of the northern administration traveled with the emperor, they had year-round access to him. Also, all military authority rested decisively in northern hands, leaving the southern administration much weaker. (OE, 277-9)
 
 
Even after two hundred years, although the Kitans had adapted Chinese architecture, burial practices, and diplomacy for their own purposes, they retained a distinct cultural identity. They had also designed a dual-facing administration, the political innovation that allowed their successors in the north, the Jurchen, and then the Mongols, to govern China. The Kitans, under Abaoji’s leadership, had made the crucial administrative breakthrough, but they themselves never governed much settled territory. They retained control of the huge band of grassland to the north of China, and to the continued discomfort of the Song, they managed to hold onto their sixteen prefectures around Beijing without ever extending their control beyond that small area. They were fully capable of conquering the area north of the Yellow River, as they showed in 947 and again in 1004, but they could not run the civil administration in such a large area. Instead, they set huge indemnities as the price of their withdrawal, which the Song agreed to pay. (OE, 288)
 
The Jurchen Jin Dynasty
The successors to the Kitans, the Jurchen succeeded where the Kitans failed. They not only conquered north China but also ruled it for over a century as the Jin dynasty. The early Jin emperors encouraged the adoption of Chinese cultural ways and a Chinese-style state as a means of enhancing their own authority, and when their successors ordered their subjects to return to the Jurchen language and customs, they were hard-pressed to do so. The price of adopting a Chinese-style administration required an obliteration of much of their tribal past. At the end of the Liao dynasty, the Kitans had avoided much contact with the Chinese, and they traveled as a distinct group to settle in Central Asia. In contrast, the Jurchen blended almost indistinguishably into Chinese society, and only the Jurchen who lived in the Manchurian heartland retained their traditional ways. (OE, 288-9)
Jurchen Egalitarianism
From the commanding general down to the soldiers, everybody ... had millet gruel and roast meat for food, and there was no difference in quality between high and low. When their country is involved in great affairs [war], they all go out into the wilderness and sit down in a circle, drawing in the ashes. Then they deliberate, starting from the lowest one present. When the council has come to an end, they wash away the charcoal and not a human voice is heard — such is their secrecy.
       When the army returns after a victory, another great reunion takes place, and it is asked who has won merits. According to the degree of merit, gold is handed out; it is raised and shown to the multitude. If they think the reward too small, it will be increased.
(OE, 291)
 
Once peace had been arranged with the Southern Song, the Jin emperors faced the challenge of governing a society of some fifty million in which they remained a minority of four million. The emperors of the twelfth century saw two distinct strategies: either they could adopt Chinese-style governance completely or they could do their best to retain traditional Jurchen ways. Whatever choice they made, though, they had to face the reality that most Jurchen quickly adopted Chinese ways, and the emperor could do little to stem the trend. ... Jin documents show a wide range of wealth, with some families owning large estates and others being forced to work the land, as was true in south China at the time. When the census takers documented that some Jurchen had managed to amass huge amounts of land at the expense of their brethren, the emperor ordered the distribution of free foodstuffs to poor Jurchen. Emperor Shizong saw the disparity in wealth as yet another sign of the decay of the Jurchen society all around him. (OE, 295-7)


Qiu Chuji
Qiu Chuji was a disciple of the founder of a particular branch of Daoism [Wang Chongyang], one of a number of new schools or sects that arose in the 1100s and 1200s in North China. In these times there were thinkers and teachers who followed only Confucianism, or only Buddhism, or only Daoism and had nothing but contempt for the other two great teachings. But there also were many who, while centering their teachings in one of the three, had a good deal of interest in the others and in fact borrowed from them more or less consciously. Some even insisted that the three great teachings really all had a common origin, or a common goal, or a common set of basic principles. The new Daoist sects in north China inclined toward some measure of “Three Teachings” syncretism in part because they emerged in a period of foreign rule, as the Jurchen Jin dynasty ruled the north and then gave way to the rising power of the Mongols. In these circumstances Han Chinese intellectuals tended to see themselves as guardians of all facets of the Chinese heritage in the face of the political power and cultural contamination of the foreign rulers. They also needed all the tools of moral persuasion, religious mystique, and magic arts they could lay their hands on if they wished to obtain from the foreign rulers a measure of toleration for themselves and their beleaguered people. The Jin actually made conscientious efforts to provide a stable Chinese-style government and to woo the Chinese elite, using many Chinese forms of government and even holding examinations, but never before had so much of China been ruled b[y] a dynasty not of Han Chinese culture and language. Bitter memories of the disgraceful collapse of the 1120s made the situation even harder to accept. Then after 1210, as the Mongols began to take and hold Chinese territory, the people of north China learned that there were situations far worse than Jin rule. (MOF, 188-9)
 
 
Nothing ... could have prepared Qiu for the valley his party was descending in the autumn of 1221, in the mountainous heart of Asia, six months after they left north China. ... It was the rise of Mongol power that had brought Qiu so far from his Shandong retreat; he had been summoned by the great khaghan Chinggis, uniter of the peoples of the steppe and creator of an imperial military machine that under his sons and grandsons would reach from the Baltic to the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea. Already Qiu was seeing evidence that the Mongols, who certainly could be terrifying conquerors, also were statesmen: that spectacular mountain road with its rock-cuts and forty-eight bridges had been constructed under the orders of Chaghatai, second son of Chinggis. It was one of the beginnings of a great trans-Asian system of roads and post stations that the Mongols built to facilitate their own communications and troop movements but which also eased the way for trading caravans.
 

 
Already seventy-two years old when he set out, Qiu had protested that he was too old for this long and difficult journey. But the great khagan was no Liu Bei waiting respectfully for Zhuge Liang to wake up, and when he summoned you, you went. Also, it might be possible to win some favor for his Daoist teachings and to cast himself and his fellow-believers as defenders of Chinese culture under alien rule and as mediators protecting the people of north China from the worst excesses of Mongol conquest and exploitation. He believed that whatever fate brought it brought, like this journey and the possibility that he would die from its rigors. But he was more likely to survive it than many men twenty years his junior; years of severely disciplined meditation, staying awake for weeks at a time, special dietary practices, and sexual abstinence had produced a body that could “sit with the rigidity of a corpse, stand with the stiffness of a tree, move swiftly as lightning and walk like a whirlwind.” ... Chinggis’s reasons for summoning Qiu were complex. The Mongol rulers were products of a world of many religions and were interested in learning about all of them, for their insights, their magic powers, and their uses in ruling peoples who followed them. Chinggis was especially interested in hearing from a Daoist because one of the central features of Daoist teaching and practice was the postponement of aging and death and even, it was said, the achievement of physical immortality. (MOF, 181-3)
 
 
The Quest for Immortality
From “External” to “Internal” Alchemy

We have encountered this pursuit of immortality before, at the courts of the First Emperor of Qin and Emperor Wu of the Han and in the traditional image of Zhuge Liang. In the Daoism of the Later Han and after, the pursuit of immortality and of other forms of mastery of nature were linked to elaborate ceremonies, hierarchical organizations, the worship of many gods, and the use as basic scriptures of the great Warring States philosophical texts Dao de jing and Zhuang zi. ... Individual seekers in their lonely retreats saw visions and wrote down texts revealed to them by the gods. Alchemists fasted and chanted spells as they worked over their retorts and furnaces. Prophets taught the common people elaborate ceremonies of healing illness and cleansing guilt, and eventually organized them in strictly governed communities that rose against the Han in the rebellions of the Yellow Scarves and the Five Pecks of Rice. ...
 
 
One of the most important forms of Daoist spiritual quest was the “alchemical” effort to follow the elaborate sequence of chemical and metallurgical processes that was supposed to lead, amid fasting, prayer, and meditation, to the production of a physical elixir of immortality. Another was a set of spiritual exercises focused entirely on the body of the meditator, in which a purified and immortal essence was supposed to be physically produced as a result of these exercises. ... One key operation was the heating of cinnabar (dan), mercuric sulfide, and the appearance out of the bright red mineral of that uncanny silvery liquid, mercury. Another common ingredient was realgar, arsenic sulfide. The results, after long heatings, repeated poundings and combinings, prayers, and spiritual preparation, were supposed to be elixirs of varying strength and purity that when swallowed contributed to the purification of the body, reversal of decay, and eventual physical immortality. Some believed that one of these elixirs also could change base metals into gold, but, unlike the alchemy of the European Middle Ages, this was a secondary goal. The manipulation of mercury was so crucial to Chinese alchemy that the word dan, originally meaning “cinnabar,” came to be used to refer to the substance that would confer immortality, and here is translated as “elixir.” Of course the mercury and arsenic made most of these compounds highly toxic. Neurological effects of first doses might include loss of appetite and thus of weight, visions, mental and spiritual exhilaration, and heightened sexual appetite. Of course heavy metal poisoning is cumulative, and less pleasant effects would follow. But some may have known of cases in which the heavy metal accumulation had retarded the decay of a corpse. And in any case when a Daoist seeker at the end of years of worship, meditation, purification, and gradually increasing doses of heavy metal compounds finally prepared to swallow a dose of elixir that was likely to end his ordinary life, he did so in faith that the elixir would complete the transmutation of part of his body into a new, subtle body that would escape the corpse and rise to join the immortals in one of the lower heavens.
 
 
Under the protection of the three old wizards, Wang Liping swallowed a grain of “gold elixir” that they had brought from Mount Lao. He took it on an empty stomach, and the “gold pill” gradually melted inside him, permeating his whole body through his circulatory system. The three teachers had him sit cross-legged and commence inner work, using the power of inner exercise to push the liquefied elixir inside his body out to the surface of his skin. ... A day passed. As the toxicity in the gold elixir gradually began to act, Wang Liping felt as if his insides were burning. He became dizzy, and his vision blurred. Finally he lost control and collapsed unconscious. Because his legs were tied up, however, he didn’t lose his cross-legged position. The Wayfarer of Pure Serenity doused him with cold water to revive him, and helped him up. All three wizards also employed certain techniques to assist their apprentice invisibly. ... On the second day, the three wizards saw that Liping’s skin had gradually changed colors, from sallow to ruddy to dark. In their judgment, based on their experience, the period of danger had passed. ... Although Wang Liping’s attainment was already quite profound, after this depletion of inner energy he had reached the limits of his endurance. The burning pain in his gut was gone, but now the skin all over his body was experiencing a variety of inexplicable sensations that were difficult to bear, burning and aching, swelling and itching. He wanted to scratch himself all over, but his mentor told him to keep still and not move at all. ... On the afternoon of the third day, Liping’s body became quite comfortable and relaxed, and the color of his skin went through an extraordinary change. The darkness, ruddiness, and sallowness changed to a healthy rosy white, and each pore became a crystalline point of brilliance, such that his skin glistened under a strong light. The gold elixir had completed its circulation throughout the body and all of it had been ejected. The “energy routes” of Wang Liping’s body, from outside to inside, had all opened up freely. ... They decided to do some deep breathing facing the evening sun in the fresh mountain air. The old masters were very much at ease in mind. Liping was at ease too, but now he had an unusual feeling. He no longer needed to use his nose and mouth to breathe as usual; all that was necessary was a slight movement of the abdomen, whereupon the energy of heaven and earth poured into his whole body from all directions through his pores, clear and cool, fluid and easy, thoroughly penetrating. Once the energy was circulating in his body, it seemed as if he had merged with the universe. (Opening the Dragon Gate, 58-60)
Only a few wealthy adepts had the leisure and funds and fewer still the courage, to pursue immortality by means of the preparation and ingestion of these chemical elixirs. From Tang times on we can find evidence of another tendency, equally bodily and physical, that taught that the elixir could be prepared by purification and concentration of essences already present in the body, without the preparation and ingestion of drugs. This teaching came to be known as the Inner Elixir (nei dan). By contrast to this the preparation and ingestion of chemical elixirs became known as the Outer Elixir (wai dan) school.
The basic concept of the Inner Elixir school is supported by passages in the Dao de jing, makes use of yin and yang, and expresses in a quite amazing way that basic optimism about the potentialities of human life in this world found so often in the Chinese tradition. Each of us is born as the result of a harmonious encounter and merging of yin and yang. As a result, each infant begins with a perfect endowment of physical, mental, and spiritual energy, true yin and true yang. ... In the ordinary course of life, however, yin and yang become mixed with each other in complicated ways, and also gradually are lost through dispersal outside the organism, resulting in aging, decline, and death. ... If one understood natural processes and learned how to pay close attention to them, one could use them to reverse their apparent natural tendencies. The natural flows of bodily fluids that ordinarily contributed to mixing of yin and yang, corruption, decay, and death could be brought to consciousness, controlled, and their directions reversed, until ultimately a repurified true yin and true yang met within the body to form an incorruptible, immortal embryo, which could be nurtured into growth until it was ready to leave the body and live an independent and eternal existence. ...
There seems to be two ways in which yin and yang are purified and then brought together. In one of them the yang essence, still mixed with yin, retained by sexual abstinence or properly controlled sexual activity, is consciously moved up a channel in the spine — reversing its normal flow down and out — to the brain, where it is forced down by constant swallowing of the saliva to join with the yin in the middle cinnabar field.In the other, the true yang is prepared in the lower cinnabar field and the true yin in the middle. In their ordinary “natural” positions yang is above and yin below, and the dissipation of their perfect harmony is aggravated by the tendency of yang to rise and yin to sink. This reversed position, in harmony with the early Daoist wisdom that preferred the feminine virtues and characteristics summed up in the “valley spirit,” places true yin and true yang in positions where their natural rising and sinking bring them together to form the Immortal Embryo, in triumphant reversal of the inevitable process of decay and death. (MOF, 183-7)