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The Role of War in Song Dynasty, China Essay


Introduction

China has a long and rich history involving many dynasties, political and military periods, and cultural events. Out of all the dynasties that ever ruled in China, the Song dynasty is known for its impact on the changes in governmental and military approaches to ruling the country. There was a variety of reasons why the war had a great impact on this dynasty.

Through the analysis of war evolution, strategic culture, and the interaction between wen and wu, the paper demonstrates how the Song dynasty developed and how it changed its strategies of government under the effect of war. The central argument of the paper is the tensions between civil and military officials. The thesis of the paper is that the importance of the military increased greatly due to security threats faced by the dynasty. The main question raised in the thesis is answered through the analysis of civil officials’ response to such a state of affairs.

The Role of War in the Formation of the Song Dynasty

The formation of the Song dynasty was greatly impacted by the synergy of politics and war.1 Thus, the role of war in this dynasty’s development cannot be overestimated. Not only did politics and war frame the government structure and territory of the empire but they also had a strong effect on the dynasty’s culture and character.2 Whereas these two sources of power were “virtually inseparable” for the first emperor, Song Taizu, they were separated overtime under the reign of the second emperor, Song Taizong.3 Finally, in the reign of the third emperor, Song Zhenzong, they were almost completely detached from one another. This process has been known as the upsurge of civil power over military power.

Still, it is not possible to say that such a shift occurred due to a “prescriptive imperial plan” that was determined to give priority to civil values over military ones.4 There were some explicit historical arguments for the change. Even though political power was changed to “government bureaucrats,” the irony of the situation was that the civil-dominated government that appeared at the beginning of the eleventh century was known for its politics and led wars for nearly five decades.5

At the end of the tenth century, civil officials were entitled to power in the government bureaucracy since they had none outside of the central government. At first, the imperial government of Kaifeng did not have much power itself. Political and military control belonged to the emperor whose authority was created by his military accomplishments and personal ties with the generals who were in charge of the central armies.6

Such personal connections made it possible for Song Taizu to concentrate the military power of the dynasty on conquest instead of fighting. Further, each consequent military achievement allowed the emperor to focus the military power on political consolidation. Eventually, the dynasty was disconnected from the person of the emperor. Due to the success of wars of conquest, the power was obtained by the government.7

When the central government in which bureaucrats served secured authority, they gained power. At the same time, military concerns became close to external matters even though they were still supporting an “enormous bureaucratic apparatus” in the central government.8 Military men used to serve the court and to be paid by it. Moreover, they governed imperial armies instead of supporting their forces in the defended areas. All of these changes were caused by military success and developed by political struggles. In the directions of the Song dynasty’s early history, there was nothing “natural or inevitable.”9

At the end of the tech century, the Song government was composed of city officials and military men who had no advanced degrees but occupied authoritative positions. Therefore, it is possible to say that the tenth-century culture prepared the ground for the prospering civil culture of the eleventh century. However, it was not equivalent to the eleventh-century “civil dominated, politically driven” culture.10 Starting with the eleventh century, the development of the Song dynasty was associated with demilitarization, submission of military men to civil control, and the termination of a lengthy period of the domination of violence in Chinese politics.11

The Evolution of War and Song Dynasty’s Place in It

At the beginning of the Song rule, this dynasty was considered to have the power to unite China. However, it broke down in the twelfth-thirteenth centuries.12 Two forces are believed to have “trapped” the Eurasian “lucky latitudes” in a cycle of productive and counterproductive wars.13 Productive wars helped to create safer, larger, and healthier societies. Counterproductive wars broke large societies into smaller ones and took away wealth and prosperity.

The first of these forces was related to the geographical position of the country. Agrarian empires did not realize the danger posed by not numerous but extremely mobile forces coming from the steppes. Even the most military skillful dynasties such as Tang could not manage to govern the “shifting alliances on the steppes” for longer than several generations.14 The second force was the problem of scale that the empires failed to solve.

They had to provide for large cavalry forces on remote frontiers and pay for them by taxes collected in rich provinces. Thus, there was no variety of strategies employed to manage military difficulties. According to Morris, it was impossible to find a solution to these two issues in the ancient and medieval periods.15 By the eleventh century, Morris compares the level of development in the Song dynasty to that of the ancient Roman empire, saying that it reached the highest possible level of development for an agrarian society.16 Thus, in the evolution of war, the Song dynasty belonged to the period of counterproductive war that covered the period of 1-1415 CE.

The next major period in war evolution was the revival of productive war (1415-2012 CE). This period was most known for two significant inventions: oceangoing ships and guns.17 Such changes impacted dynasties’ government choices greatly since they entitled them with more possibilities and allowed them to develop a variety of strategies. With the evolution of war, traditional kinds of productive war gradually became “unthinkable.”18

Ancient Military Texts: The Seven Military Classics

Among other aspects closely related to the role of war in the Song dynasty are the ancient military texts that explained the strategic approaches to civil and military control. The most well-known of such texts is The Seven Military Classics created in the eleventh century. This text was “a manual of military thought” written by a civil bureaucracy for the dynasty that could not hope for any territorial gains but had stability and prosperity.19

In 1040, the Song court started to gather strategic advice from old military texts.20 The major reason for deciding to make a compilation of military texts was associated with the growth of violence on northern borders, which led to the problem of better border security.21 Thus, in 1040 the emperor gave an order to find ancient texts on military strategy and combine them in one text to gain a set of practical guidelines on the organization, tactics, and strategy of war.

The encyclopedic work that appeared as a result of the combination was completed in 1044, and it was greatly affected by the military classics.22 As a result of gathering The Seven Military Classics, the Song dynasty initiated opening the first military school in 1072 where military officials could obtain the necessary training. The candidates were supposed to pass military examinations later. The required materials involved the texts that were included in The Seven Military Classics. The main function of these texts was military education. However, Johnston remarks that they raised a problem that they failed to solve: “the transmission of strategic culture from its formative period across time.”23

Despite the consistency of strategic approaches mentioned in the ancient military texts, these precepts were transmitted through the military-education system and other factors such as the emperor’s education and training of his advisers.24 Therefore, the dynasties that followed Songs had to make changes to their methods to make the most appropriate to the conditions.

Therefore, The Seven Military Classics may be considered differently when defining their role in the history of China. Undoubtedly, the Song dynasty made a great contribution to the development of military and civil strategic education. However, the drawbacks of using the texts for many decades were concerned with their unchanging nature whereas the world was constantly altering, and new approaches were needed to meet the new needs.

Strategic Culture in Song Dynasty

In the period of ancient and medieval China, there were two opposite approaches to strategic culture: moralism and realism.25 Cultural moralism considered the emperor as the supreme level of morality and virtue. The emperor was a symbol of stability and harmony within the system of political arrangements. His moral conduct was identified with his personality. Thus, the virtue of the emperor was acknowledged beyond the boundaries of the country. The recognition of the emperor’s authority was a crucial cause of the lack of need in war.26

Song dynasty is viewed under a different angle – that of moral realism. Under this approach, the core paradigm of Chinese strategic culture incorporates three essential elements. The first one is related to the belief that it is necessary to criticize and avoid war. The second premise is that it is necessary to cultivate the enemy. The third issue is that the force should be used only if all other measures were not sufficient to reach an agreement.27 It was considered that the armed force was to be employed with a defensive aim. Therefore, scholars remark that force was not considered as an effective measure and it was opposite to the virtuous and moral premises of the political system in the empire.

Zurndorfer mentions that the strategic culture of the Song dynasty depended greatly on the fact that its founder, Song Taizu, had been a general.28 Therefore, he was well aware of the threats that were presented to the government’s stability by the military. Song Taizu’s unification of China put an end to conflicts existing between regional armies that had lasted for almost two centuries.29 Learning lessons from the predecessors, the Tang dynasty, the Songs transformed military and political power to a local level.

The emperor took measures to decrease the adverse outcomes of a series of brief regimes that had been ruled by bandits and rebels. He brought the empire together by gaining the greatest advantage from the warlords owning the southern and central regions known as the Ten Kingdoms.30 To prevent uprisings of the new military men, the emperor gave his generals generous pensions when they retired. Song Taizu’s follower on the throne, his brother Song Taizong, finished the process of unification and arranged the merger of Song political authority with the inauguration of civil supremacy at all government levels.31

Song Taizu and Song Taizong both destroyed the structure of big provincial military organizations that had been the basis of militarists’ power. They filled provincial posts with the officials who qualified for work through the civil examination system, which led to the revolution of the equity between civil and military affairs in the government.32 Also, these emperors put the Bureau of Military Affairs under the jurisdiction of civilian bureaucrats, which also helped in the transformation process. Some scholars consider this “new equilibrium” as the defamation of the significance of military establishment.33Still, research also indicates that such an approach enabled the establishment of a new level of relations between civil and military elites not only during the rule of the Song dynasty but also in later epochs.

The Tensions Between Civil and Military Officials

The war had a particularly adverse impact on the Song dynasty because it constituted a significant strategic disadvantage for them. Even before the foundation of the Northern Song, the Khitan people had taken the paths to the north and were able to attack the North China Plain if they wished. As a result, Songs were forced to sign humiliating treaties aimed at trying to buy peace.34 Singing such treaties was called an accommodationist strategy.

Meanwhile, the dynasty was simultaneously forced to support a massive army in case the Khitans broke the agreement and attacked China. The Jurchens, who replaced Khitans, were even more fierce and dangerous, and they soon invaded North China forcing the Song people to move south. Later, Mongols came along, which again made the state of the dynasty worse and urged Songs to reinforce the army due to the increasing significance of the military men.

The role of each emperor in the political and military creation of the empire was different, depending on his military assets, his temperament, and his predecessor’s legacy. However, all actions of the emperor as well as his officials were merged in a unified definition of how and why the Song dynasty obtained the form it had.35 On a large scale, the most important feature of the Song was the supremacy of its government bureaucracy by civil officials. 36

Also, the majority of historians agree that the civil culture and civil values were equally dominant in the period of the Song dynasty’s rule. According to Lorge, the Songs were able to obtain control not only over the martial but also over the civil aspects of Chinese society.37 Such an increase of power became possible due to the emperor’s centralization of his political authority. As a result, Songs became able of reaching a balance between the two facets of power.

In his analysis of the tensions between the civil and military officials during the Song dynasty’s rule, Lorge remarks that the initial causes of the development of such a state of affairs were to be found back during the Tang dynasty.38 With the development of Chinese society, there appeared a natural and constantly growing need in moving too much greater specialization in people’s professions. Such a movement to specialization first became noticeable during the Tang dynasty.

The most pronounced expression of such innovation was the ritual attempt to enunciate not only the martial ethos concentrated on the military temple (wuxia) but also on the circumstantial process of creating the civil temple (wenmiao).39 It was impossible to say that the change was taking place only in the civil─military division of the ritual practice or in the functional features of the government. The whole Chinese society was altering, leading to the materialistic development of social and political transformations among the elites. According to Lorge, such changes were grounded in economic enhancements that later became more vividly represented during the rule of the Song dynasty.40

Wen-Wu Interaction in Song Dynasty’s Military Culture

It is a commonly accepted fact that one of the most important features of the Song dynasty was the “dominance of government bureaucracy by civil officials.”41 However, despite a general belief that civil culture and beliefs were dominating in Song culture, there is also an opinion that those were not the most important creatures of that period. According to Lorge, there had occurred a significant change between the Tang and Song dynasties concerning the relationship between wu (martial) and wen (civil).42 However, scholars consider this change more than merely “the rise of the city over the martial.”43

The balance and unification of wu and wen under the rule of the Song dynasty occurred in the persons of government officials. They deprived generals of martial duties to extort legitimacy and power and restricted the possibility of field commanders to become prime ministers.44 Such a state of affairs became possible due to productive reconfiguration and redefinition of the qualities of martial and civil skills.

During the rule of the Tang dynasty, Songs’ predecessor, martial achievement demanded actual service with the army “in the field in battle and on the campaign.”45 Martial accomplishments were considered as a dominant feature when applying for high government service, and the martial performance had a “non-Chinese flavor.”46 In the Song dynasty, the balance between wu and wen was treated rather differently. Everything had a Chinese character, all soldiers were professionals, and the aristocracy was basic.

All professions were separated, and no close connection between military and civil jobs was allowed. Because of such a strict division of duties, each group had a more precise set of skills.47 Under new regulations, it was not enough to have basic education to gain the possibility of working in the government. Only an extremely high level of education enabled people to work there.

The significance of wen-wu interaction during the Song dynasty is also emphasized by Zurndorfer who mentions that the Chinese state was militarily threatened by a series of ruling systems of powerful steppe peoples, and these threats were possible to mitigate with wen-wu relationships.48 The scholar notes that the Song era was noted both for its military affairs and cultural development. What concerns culture, the Song dynasty is known for its industrial and agricultural production, artistic innovation, technological progress, and philosophical renewal. What concerns military conflicts, the era is remembered for “a series of humiliating defeats” in fights against Inner Asian armies.49 The most probable reason for the dynasty’s failure to defend itself against inferior enemies is the complexity of wen-wu interaction.50

Conclusion

Although the Song dynasty aimed at solving all conflicts in a non-military way, its decisions were mostly governed by military actions. Therefore, it is possible to say that the role of war in the formation of the Song dynasty was a crucial one. Among the most significant impacts on the dynasty’s development, there was the interaction between wen (civil) and wu (martial). Because of setting a strict division between these two oppositions, only those who dedicated much time to education could try to find occupation on the government. Scholars consider these tactics of the Song dynasty to be a decisive factor in its ability to defend itself against the enemy.

The dynasty is also known for its endeavors to set up new patterns of military and civil strategy as well as cultural strategy. The strategic culture opted by the Song dynasty was cultural realism. Such a tendency is related to the fact that the first Song emperor had been a general and realized the threats posed by the government by the military. Taking into consideration the analyzed aspects of the Song dynasty’s rule, it should be concluded that war played a significant role in its formation, development, and, eventually, its fall.

Bibliography

Godehardt, Nadine. “The Chinese Meaning of Just War and Its Impact on the Foreign Policy of the People’s Republic of China.” SSRN Electronic Journal 88 (2008): 6-37.

Johnston, Alastair I. Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Lorge, Peter. “Discovering War in Chinese History.” Extrěme-Orient Extrěme-Occident 38 (2014): 21-46.

—. “The Rise of the Martial: Rebalancing Wen and Wu in Song Dynasty Culture.” In Civil-Military Relations in Chinese History, edited by Kai Filipiak, 134-143. New York: Routledge, 2015.

—. The Reunification of China: Peace Through War Under the Song Dynasty. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Morris, Ian. “The Evolution of War.” Cliodynamics: the Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History 3, no. 1 (2012): 9-37.

Zurndorfer, Harriet T. “What is the Meaning of War in the Age of Cultural Efflorescence? Another Look at the Role of War in Song Dynasty China (960-1279).” In War in Works: Transformation of War from Antiquity to Clausewitz, edited by Marco Formisano and Hartmut Böhme, 89-112. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 2011.

Footnotes

  1. Peter Lorge, The Reunification of China: Peace Through War Under the Song Dynasty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 1.
  2. Lorge, The Reunification of China, 1.
  3. Ibid., 1.
  4. Peter Lorge, The Reunification of China: Peace Through War Under the Song Dynasty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 1.
  5. Lorge, The Reunification of China, 1.
  6. Ibid., 1.
  7. Ibid., 1.
  8. Ibid., 1-2.
  9. Peter Lorge, The Reunification of China: Peace Through War Under the Song Dynasty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 2.
  10. Lorge, The Reunification of China, 2.
  11. Ibid., 1-2.
  12. Ian Morris, “The Evolution of War,” Cliodynamics: the Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History 3, no. 1 (2012), 25.
  13. Ian Morris, “The Evolution of War,” Cliodynamics: the Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History 3, no. 1 (2012), 25.
  14. Morris, “The Evolution of War,” 26.
  15. Ibid., 26.
  16. Ibid., 26.
  17. Ibid., 29.
  18. Ian Morris, “The Evolution of War,” Cliodynamics: the Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History 3, no. 1 (2012), 31.
  19. Peter Lorge, “Discovering War in Chinese History,” Extrěme-Orient Extrěme-Occident 38 (2014), 33.
  20. Alastair I. Johnston, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 46.
  21. Johnston, Cultural Realism, 46.
  22. Ibid., 46.
  23. Alastair I. Johnston, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 46.
  24. Johnston, Cultural Realism, 46.
  25. Nadine Godehardt, “The Chinese Meaning of Just War and Its Impact on the Foreign Policy of the People’s Republic of China,” SSRN Electronic Journal 88 (2008), 9-15.
  26. Nadine Godehardt, “The Chinese Meaning of Just War and Its Impact on the Foreign Policy of the People’s Republic of China,” SSRN Electronic Journal 88 (2008), 10.
  27. Godehardt, “The Chinese Meaning of Just War,” 12.
  28. Harriet T. Zurndorfer, “What is the Meaning of War in the Age of Cultural Efflorescence? Another Look at the Role of War in Song Dynasty China (960-1279),” in War in Works: Transformation of War from Antiquity to Clausewitz, ed. Marco Formisano and Hartmut Böhme (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 2011), 91.
  29. Zurndorfer, “What is the Meaning of War,” 91.
  30. Harriet T. Zurndorfer, “What is the Meaning of War in the Age of Cultural Efflorescence? Another Look at the Role of War in Song Dynasty China (960-1279),” in War in Works: Transformation of War from Antiquity to Clausewitz, ed. Marco Formisano and Hartmut Böhme (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 2011), 92.
  31. Zurndorfer, “What is the Meaning of War,” 92.
  32. Ibid., 92.
  33. Ibid., 92.
  34. Peter Lorge, The Reunification of China: Peace Through War Under the Song Dynasty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 5-7.
  35. Lorge, The Reunification of China, 6.
  36. Peter Lorge, “The Rise of the Martial: Rebalancing Wen and Wu in Song Dynasty Culture,” in Civil-Military Relations in Chinese History, ed. Kai Filipiak (New York: Routledge, 2015), 134.
  37. Peter Lorge, “The Rise of the Martial: Rebalancing Wen and Wu in Song Dynasty Culture,” in Civil-Military Relations in Chinese History, ed. Kai Filipiak (New York: Routledge, 2015), 134.
  38. Lorge, “The Rise of the Martial,” 134.
  39. Ibid., 134.
  40. Ibid., 134.
  41. Peter Lorge, “The Rise of the Martial: Rebalancing Wen and Wu in Song Dynasty Culture,” in Civil-Military Relations in Chinese History, ed. Kai Filipiak (New York: Routledge, 2015), 134.
  42. Lorge, “The Rise of the Martial,” 134.
  43. Ibid., 134.
  44. Ibid., 142.
  45. Ibid., 142.
  46. Ibid., 142.
  47. Peter Lorge, “The Rise of the Martial: Rebalancing Wen and Wu in Song Dynasty Culture,” in Civil-Military Relations in Chinese History, ed. Kai Filipiak (New York: Routledge, 2015), 142.
  48. Harriet T. Zurndorfer, “What is the Meaning of War in the Age of Cultural Efflorescence? Another Look at the Role of War in Song Dynasty China (960-1279),” in War in Works: Transformation of War from Antiquity to Clausewitz, ed. Marco Formisano and Hartmut Böhme (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 2011), 91.
  49. Zurndorfer, “What is the Meaning of War,” 91.
  50. Ibid., 91.
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IvyPanda. "The Role of War in Song Dynasty, China." October 23, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-role-of-war-in-song-dynasty-china/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "The Role of War in Song Dynasty, China." October 23, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-role-of-war-in-song-dynasty-china/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'The Role of War in Song Dynasty, China'. 23 October.

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