CHAPTER 5
Diminished Empire
and Nomadic Challengers:
Song (960–1279) and Yuan
(1279–1368)

The half century between the Tang and Song dynasties is known as the period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, in reference to five short-lived regimes in the north and ten minor kingdoms competing in the south during these years. Chang’an and Luoyang, the two Tang centers of power, were devastated in the civil wars that finished off the Tang, and the city of Kaifeng, at the mouth of the Grand Canal and three hundred miles closer to the grain-producing regions of south China, became the center of competition among the generals of the north. In 960, General Zhao Kuangyin seized control of Kaifeng and proclaimed a new dynasty, the Song (pronounced Soong).

Zhao Kuangyin, known to history by his reign title of Song Taizu, was one of the pivotal emperors in Chinese history because he created a more centralized state than ever before. From 960 to his death in 976, he conquered the south and brought the best troops in the empire under his own direct control to protect the capital. He persuaded his most powerful generals to retire with generous stipends, and he placed their armies in outlying areas under the direct control of his own civil bureaucrats. Many of the powerful aristocratic families of the Tang era were killed or greatly weakened in the civil wars that ended the Tang, and so the Song emperors had far fewer rivals for power than their Tang predecessors. In the Song dynasty, civil bureaucrats were much more likely to become government officials through competing in the civil service examination system rather than through blood ties to other officials.

In the Song period, China came closer than ever before or since to achieving the Confucian ideal of a central bureaucratic state ruled by the emperor with the advice and management of civil bureaucrats who

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