The Age of Confucian Rule

The Song Transformation of China

Dieter Kuhn
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 2009

By Ina Asim, Associate Professor, Pre-Modern Chinese History, University of Oregon

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Traditional Chinese historiography has long viewed the Song dynasty (960-1279) as a dynastic period of shame. While the Han dynasty was seen as the formative period of Confucian concepts of statecraft, and the Tang dynasty as the ‘Golden Age’ of aristocratic rule that left a legacy of abundance in military prowess, literary and artistic accomplishments, and material culture on a level previously unknown in East Asia, the historical judgment for the emperors of the Song dynasty has been one of disdain. In The Age of Confucian Rule Dieter Kuhn shows that the opprobrium of the military weakness, which had resulted in a dramatic loss of large parts of the formerly imposing territory to invading nomadic neighbors, had blanketed the remarkable improvements and impressive innovations that the Song created in the areas of science and technology – e.g. printing, time telling, earthquake prediction, land reclamation, hydrology – and mechanization in agriculture and sericulture, the backbones of tax revenue related production. Kuhn’s volume in the Belknap Press series on the History of Imperial China demonstrates exquisitely how a close reading of literary and visual sources, imperial decrees, and personal records, matched with the material evidence of archeological excavations, reveals a level of advancement in Song society that refutes the stale stereotypes based on the idea that success in politics is exclusively linked to territorial expansion and military prowess.

The volume begins with a thorough and multi-faceted overview of topics that excellently capture China’s transformation during the Song dynasty from the age of aristocratic rule into a society led by a new ruling elite of scholar-officials trained for government purposes. This emerging elite formulated its principles of state ideology based on fresh interpretations of the Confucian doctrine and centered its political efforts on the creation of a strong civil government. Members of this elite were recruited through an instrument that favored cultural values over military expansion: the rigorous civil examination system used to select talent based on knowledge and education that ultimately terminated the kinship-based ladder to power positions in government.

In his introduction, the author prepares the stage for what is to come in the following twelve chapters: he gives an account of the formative phase of the Song state and its new approach to government, which aimed to redeem the loss and destruction caused during the territorial disintegration at the end of the Tang – a noble political goal that was impossible to achieve, as the Song not only faced the taxing process of consolidating the state and its institutions, but also a large-scale economic recovery after war had left the defense shattered and the agriculture in shambles. The efforts to overcome the devastation resulted in reforms of the systems of taxation and allowed commerce to extend its tentacles even to remote areas in Song provinces. A cultural evolution gained momentum and revitalized philosophical quests. It also ignited aesthetic pursuits in the arts as well as scientific research and experimentation and the promotion of artisan production in various fields. The backdrop of these developments was not only the necessity to overcome the scars of war. As Kuhn shows, the Han population’s feelings of cultural superiority with regard to structures and practices characteristic of the multi-ethnic tribal societies of their neighbors was a driving force. And while the Song military was ultimately too weak to ward off the Mongols, it was the ethical and philosophical quests by Song intellectuals that shaped neo-Confucian ideology into the persisting foundation of the Chinese civilized state.

In chapters one through four, Kuhn presents a historical overview from the decline of the Tang dynasty to the defeat of the Song in the Mongol conquest. Kuhn reveals the dynamic interaction between the neighboring Liao (or Khitan) and Xixia (or Tangut) empires and the Song, as well as the strategies of those Song emperors who significantly shaped the internal and external political contacts and the vibrant economic development of the Song. He also brings to our attention the critical balance of securing tax revenue to cover expenses for the army, appeasement payments to the Song neighbors, and investments in the domestic economy that the Song government faced. These challenges motivated reformers to come forward with concepts that remind us of discussions not unlike those we still witness among economists: the level of involvement of the state in the economy clearly is no new topic, but was contentious as early as the eleventh century, when chief councilor Wang Anshi presented his emperor with a set of reforms that he envisioned would strengthen the state and its economy, stabilize the livelihood of the farmers, strengthen the military by training farmers to serve as soldiers, and restructure the contents of the civil service examination by testing professional skills. Though his ideas were initially dismissed by conservative voices that warned against too much government involvement through regulatory processes, their rejection was ultimately reverted.

Kuhn then carefully explores the complex co-existence of the Jin (or Jurchen) and the Song after the former invaded the northern part of China and stopped their conquest only at the Huai River. The court was forced to flee south and establish a new capital in Hangzhou. Once the author has familiarized his readers with the political factions of the Song and the conditions of interdependence between the Song and their neighbors, constructed through parameters of coexistence vigilantly watched by both sides, in chapters six to twelve Kuhn allows us a closer look into the internal world of Song society: intellectual pursuits of the scholarly elite and the rites of passage are the lens through which the author explores the conditions that shaped the intellectual sphere of the Song. A close look at the transformation of life in urban settings, particularly in the commercially vibrant capitals of the Song that knew only limited curfew regulations, sported an alluring nightlife, and were hubs of commerce and fashion alike, make Kaifeng and Hangzhou come to life before our eyes. The world of the artisans and their changing modes of production, as well as issues of money and taxation and of the maintenance of wealth and health of Song households, provide insights into the conditions of the social fabric and the material culture of Song society.

With this work, Kuhn has made a complex era of transformation accessible which has not without reason has been called the Chinese renaissance. As the new scholarly elite shaped the discourse of government, affluent merchants explored the challenges of long-distance and maritime trade, and city dwellers chased the fashionable promises of urban life. A rich selection of reference works in various languages documents the growth of the field of Song history as well as the transformations in the study of Song history. Ten maps and twenty-three illustrations enhance the reading experience, which will be enjoyed by anyone interested in Chinese imperial history and World History of the period.