F. W. Mote’s Imperial China, 900-1800. Ch1: ‘The Five Dynasties’

I’m going to blog my way through this book, reading a chapter at a time and then posting notes and observations. I have a strong interest in China, but I am not an expert on the country in this or any other period, so pointers and corrections are welcome (contact details are here).


Mote sets the scene for the early part of his book by giving a very quick overview of Chinese history before the 10th century C.E. The last dynasty in this period is the Tang (618-907). The role of steppe-based people from what Mote calls ‘Inner Asia’ played a key role in Tang internal politics, and it’s clear that they will do so for much of the rest of China’s history too (ever heard of the Mongols?).

The steppe people during the Tang dynasty and later are Turkic, although Mote says there is a bit of ambiguity around that — language seems to be the primary indicator, and some groups spoke languages closer to Persian or Tibetan. They were nomadic, in contrast to the sedentary Chinese (and the sedentary Europeans in the same era, of course).

Lots of competition between these Turkic and Chinese military leaders led to the collapse of the Tang dynasty. Five short-lived dynasties followed in the northern part of China, giving the chapter and this period of history its name. There were also ten ‘states’ in the rest of China, which are only called states rather than dynasties because it suited later Chinese historians to ascribe legitimacy to those five northern ‘dynasties’. Central and southern China became economically dominant in this period, while the northwest grew impoverished. The more successful warlords of the period developed strong, centralised governing structures in their region. Meanwhile, the social elite of the Tang dynasty was ‘permanently displaced’, setting the stage for a new equilibrium. The political centre of the state also shifted east from the two capitals Chang’an and Luoyang to Bian (modern day Kaifeng).

This period of instability lasted from 907-960, when the new Song dynasty was established and finally got a grip on all of China.

But what does ‘China’ mean here? It’s not the modern state, but (crudely) the eastern part of it. It’s roughly the coloured part of this map. This is quite important for the later part of the chapter, in which Mote explains the geography of the whole region (continent?) and how it affected geopolitics.

Mote underlines the importance of ‘Inner Asia’, roughly the area on the above map (within the grey borders of modern China and Mongolia) stretching from the Pamir mountains at the western end of Tibet to Manchuria, just north of modern-day North Korea. Depending on how exactly you draw the boundaries, that’s an area of over 4 million square miles. China ‘Proper’ is 1.8 million square miles, by comparison.

Owen Lattimore lends Mote a helpful metaphor, describing this region of steppes and desert as the ‘Inner Asia sea… seeing its oases as islands and the edges of sedentary societies as its shores.’ (25) The steppe-nomads are thus ‘sea-roaming’ and the sedentary peoples are ‘shore and island dwellers’. Pretty memorable!

China proper had a population of around 80 million in the 10th century, compared to an estimated 5 million across the whole of Inner Asia. Mote points out in passing that China’s population was a third of the world total at the time, which is pretty staggering.

Apparently the pastorial nomadism of the steppe peoples was the best way for people to survive in that part of the world. This makes sense (why else would they do it? People aren’t stupid) but then Mote reminds the reader that this undermines traditional anthropological theories about pastoral-nomadism being a stage between ‘hunter-gatherer’ and ‘sedentary agriculture’. The nomads had higher living standards than they would if they settled in one place in their region, but the sedentary societies to their south and east were richer, and so were juicy targets. The stage is thus set for several centuries of bloodshed. And 943 more pages.

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