Bloody Shovel 3

We will drown and nobody shall save us

Posts tagged as: Song Dynasty

The Law

A while ago I wrote some posts on the classical Chinese novel, the 14th century Water Margin 水滸傳. The Water Margin is the story of 108 outlaws, in the original 英雄好漢, which literally translates as hero 英雄 yīngxióng and ... 好漢 hǎohàn is very hard to translate. 好 means good, that one's easy, but 漢 means, well, Han, the Han Dynasty, the Han race we know today. It also means man, today normally expressed as 漢子 hànzi. But not just man, that's 男 nán. A 漢 is a real man, a strong, manly man, respected by his peers. You call someone a 漢子 hànzi as a compliment, to mean he's a real man. Add 好 to that, and you have a good+real man. I'd translate it as dude, for lack of a better fit, and also because it fits with the whole LARPing atmosphere of the men in the Water Margin.

They're just a bunch of outlaws, some with good reason, fleeing from the injustice of tyrannical government, some who lost their families to evil but connected people. Others though are just punks and hooligans; small time robbers, mountain bandits, drunkards, smugglers, that kind of people. That they spend the time calling each other great heroes is quite hilarious. Still, China has a long tradition of vagrancy and men doing their own thing, i.e. learning martial arts and forming gangs of bandits. Not everyone could pass the mandarin exam, you know. And those mandarins in the government didn't have the resources to police the whole country, so there was a...

The Song Golden Age

People are asking for more Chinese history. I agree. Chinese history is great. It's long, it's well documented, and it's documented in explicitly moralistic terms. Chinese thought has been always focused in how to achieve good governance, and histories are written as to contain parables of what good government is, and what bad government leads to. The most valued history book in China, the Zizhi Tongjian 資治通鑒, written by Sima Guang in 1084, again explicitly states that it is to be an aid for emperors and mandarins to achieve good governance. Good government leads to nice things. Bad government leads to death and misery. That's all Chinese intellectuals have ever cared about. I think it's a good priority to have.

Sima Guang was a brilliant scholar, and it's a huge pity that he finished his book just before the best story in Chinese history happened. The Jingkang Incident of 1127. Oh man, that's such a great, great story. There should be more books about it. It's perhaps the most compelling story in the history of mankind. It's just so unbelievably simple, yet dramatic. It's so good it seems fiction. But no fiction is this good. Anyway, let me tell you this story. It'll probably take several parts.

So again, the time is the Song Dynasty, 960-1279. If you've been reading my posts on the Water Margin, you have some minimum background.  The Song Dynasty was under many accounts the most wealthy and successful of all Chinese dynasties. Not to date...

The distribution of power

Another Chinese story.

Royal absolutism was invented by Shang Yang in the Chinese state of Qin, 360 BC. Of course absolute rulers had existed before, in the Middle East obviously you had plenty of god-kings; but Shang Yang's governance was recognizably modern. It was planned on secular terms, it had a central bureaucracy, and it explicitly took power from the nobility in order to strengthen the authority of the central government. The way it was framed is that the King deserves to have all the power, that's why he's the king; and that the king having all the power will result in more Order and better government, as the people will have no power to resist and create Chaos. Later Chinese political thought changed a lot: Confucianism was explicitly against Shang Yang's ideas (what came to be known as Legalism). In fact one could think of Confucianism as the revolt of the upper middle class against the centralizing legalists. A sort of English or French revolution dynamic. Happens they lost; Confucianism only somewhat won in a very, very diluted way 300 later under emperor Wu of Han.

But the idea that the power of the Ruler should be absolute absolutely carried the day in Chinese political thought. That contrasts a lot with the Western tradition which since the Greeks is obsessed with Tyranny and Despotism and basically makes it hell to run a cohesive government. Power has to be shared or else Tyranny! Much of that was the spillover from the propaganda war on th...

The Song Dynasty's Decline

So we left the story at Song Huizong. Huizong was as I wrote a consummate artist and a famous bon vivant. He knew how to enjoy himself. That means he generally wasn't interested in politics. Politics is generally very boring, pushing paper around, taking decisions about stuff you know nothing about. However Huizong was very willing to do politics if the topic at hand was interesting enough; interesting enough for such a consummate artist, that is.

There is one topic he did like to discuss, which was war. Artists tend to like war. The glory of fighting, thousands of men armed to the teeth and killing each other in mass pitched battles. There's something aesthetically very striking about that and artists across the world tend to be very attracted to it. Huizong was no exception, he was very much into war.

The thing is the Song dynasty had been founded explicitly as a peaceful state. The Song founder had decided the army was more trouble than it was worth, so he instituted a meritocratic bureaucracy and let it run the state more or less unimpeded for 100 years. That results in unprecedented prosperity, the reign of the 4th emperor Renzong being regarded as the historical peak of Chinese government. That produced its own set of problems, though. While you may not be interested in war, war is interested in you. While the Khitans in the Northeast were quite honorable, the Tanguts caught notice that the Song had no army to speak of, so they starte...

The Song Dynasty's Fall

So let's continue the rise and fall of the Song Dynasty. Let me digress a bit and let me talk about the capital of the Song.


The borders of this map are contemporary China, but look at the topography. The Song Dynasty's capital was in Kaifeng. Kaifeng is probably the most retardedly located capital of all 3,000 years of Chinese history. Up until the Song, the capital of China had been alternating between Xi'an and Luoyang. Xi'an is in the Wei river valley, which is fairly narrow and easily defended if you control the mountain passes that surround the valley. Luoyang is just east of the mountains from Xi'an, in the North China plain proper, surrounded by mountains and a large river. Southern Dynasties had their capital at Nanjing, which is just south of the Yangtze river which is huge and completely impassable without a navy. And of course Beijing has been the capital for long due to its strategic location at the northern edge of the central plains.

But Kaifeng? It's in the middle of the damn plain! It has no natural defenses whatsoever. The only reason the Song capital is there is because the warlord who destroyed the Tang Dynasty 100 years later had his base there. Kaifeng is close to Jiangnan, the Nanjing-Shanghai area which is by far the wealthiest of the country, and the Grand Canal goes through there, so Kaifeng...

The Song Dynasty's Surrender

So we left as the Jurchens conquer the Song capital of Kaifeng, empty the city of all its valuables, butcher most of the population, taking around 100,000 people as slaves. Among them the whole imperial family, 5,000 people in all, plus all their servants. The wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of the emperor and all the nobility were taken as wives, concubines, or put to work as whores in the Jurchen official brothel. Those who made it alive to the Jurchen homeland, that is. Many died on their way.

Once the Jurchen destroyed the city of Kaifeng, they grabbed one Song minister, Zhang Bangchang, gave him some of the imperial regalia they had grabbed from the Song palace, and put him as emperor of the Great Chu. Zhang was supposed to set a court at Nanjing and rule as the puppet of the Jurchens, who annexed all land north of the Yellow River, but left most Chinese territory to this puppet court. The Jurchens had no intention of ruling China at all. They had invaded to punish the Song court for its treachery and to extract some booty to share between the Jurchen generals. They achieved those goals, and then some. Setting a government in China and finding a way to rule the peasants sounded like a lot of trouble, trouble the Jurchens weren't interested in taking at all. The destruction of the Song Dynasty had also erased all public order in north China. Gangs of bandits roamed the countryside, killing landlords, public officials, Jurchen detachments and anything the...