Introduction to the Economic History of China

By E. Stuart Kirby | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XVII
TRAITORS AND ALIENS: THE FALL OF THE SUNG AND THE MONGOL OCCUPATION

The Sung period saw an enormous increase in economic activity in China proper and the northern borderlands. People of various classes and groups were largely taken up with the pursuit of wealth and luxury for themselves. There was a great extension of the arts and graces of life, of comforts and pleasures in which all classes strove to increase their share. The limited value of the class-war theory may again be illustrated from this period. That theory is useful in helping to identify and define certain group-interests in a generalised way; but the more sharply it does so, and the more exclusively it insists on its own limited criteria, the more it distorts the picture of the real society.

In the class explanation, the Sung period appears as a great age for the 'big gentry'. Certainly, it was an age of great and increasing rural estates. Large-scale landowning flourished, to an extent even exceeding that of the T'ang period. This is, however, a judgment by results, rather than the identification of a causal factor. From this time onwards, landowning remained the chief criterion of social position, success or rank, in China. Commercial or industrial investments might often be more lucrative, and the opportunities for them were much increased, but they were generally regarded from a shorterterm point of view; the ultimate source of capital funds, as well as social prestige, was the land. The Sung gentry were men of varied kinds and origins. The proposition is rather that 'successful men became landowners' than 'the landowners became the victorious class'.

The view may indeed be taken that there was no dominant class, but rather a sustained equilibrium between the classes. Wealth, production, markets and the possibilities of personal consumption and enjoyment, increased all round in this period. Each class and group was concerned rather to make the most

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