Imperial China, Chs 5-8

These chapters focused on the rise of the Song dynasty, known in this period as the northern Song. Chapter 8 examined the Xi Xia to the northwest of the Song.

Chapter 5 contained an interesting commentary on the limits of the Chinese emperor’s (huangdi) power. First, he was constrained by Confucian norms and the values of the scholar-elite who ran the state for him. His authority could be challenged successfully on ethics or tradition.

Secondly, he faced practical limits to his authority: his commands were carried out by institutions he had inherited from his predecessors. Apparently even strong rulers rarely tried to change these structures. Mote notes that there were no examples outside of China to draw upon (to the knowledge of the imperial court, I assume he means). Change was slow and conservative; precedent mattered.

Chapter 6 covers the Song ‘world of ideas’, using the lives of several contemporary scholars as lenses on intellectual life, court politics and the imperial examinations (keju). The general theme here is of provincial families climbing up the class ranks over a few generations. You needed some level of wealth to pay for tutors for the exams, and then a son who was extremely intelligent and could pass the highest national exams, thus ensuring he’d have a good career as a scholar-bureaucrat in the capital.

I loved this paragraph about honesty in the exam system:

The candidates’ names were removed or pasted over and replaced with numbers to ensure that the examiners could not identify them… To obviate the responsibility of recognizing a candidate by his handwriting, in 1015 a bureau of copyists was established to make uniform copies of the papers for the examiners to read. Each papers had to be read by two examiners; if their opinions were widely disparate, they had to reconcile them before submitting their report to the chief examiner. Elaborate efforts were made to verify the identity of all the candidates sitting for an examination to prevent substitutes from sitting for names candidates, and candidates were searched on entering the hall to prevent memory aids or copies fo previously successful answers from being secreted in their clothing. The examinations were too important for the government to tolerate corruption, and when it was discovered, it was punished with severity.”

Seems pretty similar to how exams were regulated when I took them in school and university!

This was a fairly meritocratic way of finding the next generation of bureaucrats. You really had to know your stuff to pass the imperial. It was abolished in 1905, but the modern gaokao system has a similar meritocratic, open outlook.

Chapter 6, examining the Song elite and its relation to society, notes that the population of Song China was probably 100m by 1100, with about 6m of those people living in urban areas. I don’t know how these figures have held up since publication, but Mote says 6m was probably about the urban population in the entire rest of the world at the time. (It seems like a good rule of thumb to revise upward my notion of the size and development of China prior to the great divergence.)

This was an increase in the urban population relative to the preceding Five Dynasties period, which mean that agricultural productivity must have grown – otherwise a society cannot support a greater share of non-farmers.

This was caused, Mote writes, by the development and selection of better rice crops and other grain crops, and by a larger share of the Chinese population living in the ‘agriculturally rich’ Central and South China. The growing urban centres handled the markets necessary for farmers to sell their non-subsistence produce. This was most developed in the huge capital, Kaifeng, which had a population of 1m. There was a rich elite with lavish tastes, whether bureaucrats of various standing, examination candidates, or military commanders, supported by a host of staff depending on their wealth and status. This created demand for luxury, exotic products, and for entertainment aimed at large audiences of ordinary people.

One scholar has suggested that the mingling of urban and rural in cities helped to relax the rigid social stratification in imperial China, contrasting it with other medieval societies. Mote himself believes that the society was much more open than its predecessors and contemporaries around the world.

The Xi Xia in chapter 8 face a similar dilemma to their neighbours, the Liao empire: to what extent should they copy the Chinese? As noted above, there was no other real model for ruling over a large territory. But the more Chinese you became, the less steppe, and this caused friction in Xia. More to come on this later in the book.

Share: