Humanities 210 MIC/WIC- Cora Agatucci
Cultures & Literatures of Asia

China Timeline 3:
Tang, Song, Yuan, &
 Ming Dynasties
(7th - 17th c.)

Asian Timelines Table of Contents Literary & Cultural History
Learn more about selected Chinese topics by clicking the links embedded in these timelines.
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The timeline pages are under construction and probably always will be...

TANG DYNASTY 618 - 907

T'ang Dynasty era saw monumental shifts from north China plain to Yangtze River Basin (which becomes major food-producing region) and southern coastal areas, creating new centers of population, production, and trade. The Tang era produced renewed urban expansion; renaissance in the arts, scholarship, and invention; institutionalized education and civil service exams for the (shi) scholar-bureaucrat testing knowledge of imperial dynasties, painting, calligraphy, poetry, law, mathematics, and astronomy. The Tang were also receptive to foreign contacts. (See Paul Brians' Lecture 21: Sui, T'ang, & Song (Sung) Dynasties)

Reviving Confucianism, Tang Emperor Tai-zong (626-649) played the role of the perfect Confucian ruler: responsible, self-critical, and attentive to the counsel of his Confucian advisors.

668: Conquest of Korea (...and later Tibet & part of Sinkiang). The Tang expanded the boundaries of China through Siberia in the north, Korea in the east, and what is now Vietnam in the south. They also extended their control into modern-day Afghanistan of the Silk Road (Oliver Wild, 1992: the most significant trade commodity of which was not silk, but religion. Buddhism came to China from India along the northern branch of the Silk Road. See pictures of the region).

Empress Wu: The Tang period produced the only woman ever to bear the title "Emperor," the ruthless and brilliant Empress Wu (627? - 705), who is credited with first including the composition of classical poetry as part of the civil service examination. Empress Wu, or Wu Zhao (Chao), assumed the imperial throne in CE 690, after a complex career that included a stint as a member of Tang Taizong's harem, then as a Buddhist nun, later consort of Tang Gaozong, managing by intrigue to oust his legitimate empress, and from about 660 to dominate the Tang court, ruling through puppet emperors following the death of Gaozong, until she took the throne herself. Her vigorous and able reign is treated badly by traditional Chinese historians. Her rise to power sheds light on the role of women in the Tang period at a time when they enjoyed relatively great personal freedom and influence. (See also image of a Tang era lady.)
840s: Buddhist persecutions: T'ang emperors sought to break the power and disperse the wealth of Buddhism, but Buddhism remained influential in China. The Tang royal house bore the surname Li and traced their lineage back to Laozi, the founder of Daoism. Some emperors also professed a personal devotion to Buddhism, but neither Daoism or Buddhism was ever elevated to a state religion. See photo of Mount Wudang (Wu-tang) in northwestern Hubei province, the site of a complex of Daoist temples and monasteries dating back to the Tang. Daoism was to some extent eclipsed but never eliminated during the height of Chinese Buddhism in the Tang. The worship of Laozi, for example, had become firmly established, and, indeed, received extensive state support since the imperial family claimed descent from him. In some important ways, moreover, Daoism and Buddhism were mutually reinforcing and borrowed or took on interchangeable doctrinal approaches, techniques of meditation, and deities.


Tang Literature & "Old Style" Prose

Chinese prose, as well as poetry, flourished during the Tang dynasty. Poetic skill was required for success on the civil examinations for young men aspiring to become scholar-bureaucrats in the imperial system. Literary skill was also a means of social advancement.

LI PO (701-762)

In reaction against the highly artificial "literary" prose of the era, and in the midst of mid-Tang era political and cultural turmoil, one prose master Han YŁ (768-824) advocated a "neo-classical" style—that is, a return to simple and straightforward writing in the classical style, and the return to Confucian values, rather than simply memorizing their content and forms. Han Yu championed "old style prose" free of stylized formality. As a result of Han YŁ's influence, political and philosophical treatises, informal essays, and tales of the marvelous (ch'uan-ch'i) were all written in the "neoclassical" style, and encouraged the development of longer and more complex prose narratives. In this style, tales of supernatural encounters with ghosts and amorous fox-women, as well as human romances of daring in love and boldness of action set in the world of courtesans, represent some of the early specimens of Chinese literary fiction.

Some Tang era court women, at times of a freer climate, gained reputations as poets and as a culture of romance developed at the end of the 8th century, female characters appeared as heroines in stories, not just as exemplars of virtue. The imaginative possibility of romantic love and free choice took hold, though the social realities of arranged marriage and sexuality as a means to power remained the social and political reality.

See the Earliest Printed Book (CE 868)

Tang Popular Fiction & Drama

The first group of tales written in the vernacular tradition in the Tang era were stories of common people written by Buddhist preachers in an attempt to spread their religion. They developed a narrative form called pien-wen, sometimes translated as "popularization," the beginning of popular fiction in China.

Drama (tsa-chu or variety plays; and nan-hsi or southern drama) proper developed from an ancient tradition of miming, singing, and dancing. Actors, prominent among the popular entertainers, were organized into professional companies that performed in theaters built to accommodate as many as several thousand people

SONG DYNASTY 947 - 1127

Song (or Sung) Dynasty was marked by Neo Confucian revival (which remained the core of traditional study until the 20th century), peace, prosperity, strengthened tradition of scholarly rule. The Song was renowned as a glorious period of artistic and literary production and technological inventions. One of the most important was advancement of agricultural technology, aided by the import of a fast-growing Vietnamese strain of rice, which achieved a self-sufficient and efficient food supply for everyone that remained in place into the 20th century. (Note that while the Chinese had a surplus of human labor, one incentive for the development of the Industrial Revolution in the West was the shortage of people to work the fields.) See images of Silk making, Chinese Use of Paper, Earliest Printed Book (868 CE), and Chinese Use of Tea. See also Bound Feet: "In the tenth century in China, a prince began the practice of foot binding because he loved the small 'lily feet' of his concubine. Thus traditional Chinese values for over 1000 years dictated that the feet of young girls should be bound to keep them small."

The new capital Kai-feng (Bianjing) was economically strategic, located at the head of the Grand Canal, epitimizing the wealthy, cosmopolitan, market-oriented cities of the Song period.

1050 Block printing invented.
ca. 1100 Gunpowder invented.
1119 First reference to compass used for sea navigation
1127-1279 South Song Dynasty


Song Neo-Confucianism
& New Prose Styles

The first Song emperor decided to be guided by the principle of wen—emphasizing civil, rather than military, government, cultural values and "literature." He was a strong supporter of scholarly projects, commissioning large compilations and preservations of Tang classical literature and tales that would otherwise have been lost. Song "Neo-Confucianism" (Dao-xue, or "the study of the [Confucian] way") stressed taking the creed to "heart," calling for a more personal commitment to Confucian values, measuring one’s attitudes and behaviors against the values in the Confucian Classics, and developed into an elaborated philosophy and personal religion. These "neo-Confucianist" attitudes encouraged multiple and divergent interpretations of the Classics, rather than single authoritative interpretation of consensus. Buddhism and Daoism waned but their influence can be seen in the ways the Song reshaped Han- and Tang-era Confucianism.

Printing, which existed but was not widely used during the Tang era, was institutionalized in commercial and imperial printing shops, providing uniform if not always carefully edited, editions of the Confucian Classics and the collected Daoist scriptures to be used throughout the empire. Printing of books made of light paper revolutionized access to and storage of old and new literary works. (See Chinese Use of Paper.) The Song government was less aristocratic than the Tang, opening the way wider to less aristocratic aspirants on the basis of loyalty to the state rather than of family connections and patronage.

The "old prose style" of Tang-era Han Yu was enthusiastically taken up by the Song. New styles of informal prose were explored in effort to convey more of the naturalness and ease of speech. Ou-yang Xiu (1007-1072) represented the new kind of writer and intellectual of the Song period: more learned, possessed of broader interests, and an excellent judge of talent who promoted new political and literary figures of merit, rather than family connection. His poetry and prose established the lucid, balanced, genial Northern Song style. Ou-yang Xiu’s informal writing of random notes on thoughts, experiences, and current events, and fragmentary reminiscences delivered with casual grace, such as Remarks on Poetry (Shi-hua) created a new genre of literary criticism.

Song Performance Storytelling

See Guanyin (or Kuan-yin, the Buddhist god/goddess of mercy) of the Water Moon, Northern Song/Tangut, ink and color on silk scroll, dated to CE 968, from the Dunhuang Buddhist complex controlled by the Tangut people, for whom Buddhism is still the dominant religion. After approximately the mid-Tang, institutional Buddhism held much less appeal for the Chinese intelligentsia and upper classes. In Song society and afterwards, Buddhism was increasingly appropriated by native traditions, most obviously Neo-Confucianism, and was progressively weakened. Men of quality now rejected the Buddhist priesthood for themselves or their sons, and once-great temples fell into disrepair. Buddhism among the peasant masses tended to fuse with Daoist and folk-religious elements into an almost undifferentiated popular religion.

While Buddhism ceased to be a major movement, it continued to influence Chinese arts, language, thought. Ch'an Buddhism had always stressed the immediacy of the spoken word and vernacular speech over the "dead letter" of Buddhist scripture. The most important uses of the written vernacular came in producing written versions of oral arts traditions in the Song era urban culture. There in the entertainment quarters existed a rich world of performance literature enjoyed by commoner and elite alike.

A revival of interest in the few extant examples of the ancient tradition of storytelling stimulated skillful storytelling during this period of spectacular literary achievement, and storytelling became a popular form of entertainment. The stories told by the professional entertainers, each of whom specialized in a certain type, including Buddhist sutras, chivalric romances, popular history. Another category of storyteller specialized in xiao-shuo (now translated as "fiction"): love stories, stories of heroic bandits, crime stories with a Confucian magistrate as detective. These popular storytelling genres were written down and printed in storybooks, called hua-pen, which later inspired longer Chinese novels. Out of another performance genre of musical narratives mixing verse and prose emerged theater.

While not intended to be written down, Southern Song commercial publishers, always on the look out for new material, discovered the appeals of such performance literature, and in the Song Dynasty era began a continuous tradition of written vernacular literature in print for later generations to enjoy, emulate, and develop.


Ca 1155 - 1227 Genghis (Chinggis) Khan emerges from Asian steppes as great Mongol leader, dreams of establishing a pan-Asia empire ("The sky has ordered me to rule all nations!"); Mongol Empire eventually stretches from Hungary to Korea.
1233/34 –


Mongols invade China; Kaifeng (Jin capital) falls in 1233/1234.

Daidu (or Doudian, at site of modern Beijing) founded as Mongol capital in northern China in 1267.

Hangzhou (Song capital) falls, and Southern Song Empire conquered by Mongols in 1279.

A recurring historical theme has been the unceasing struggle of the sedentary Chinese against the threat posed to their safety and way of life by non-Chinese peoples on the margins of their territory in the north, northeast, and northwest. In the thirteenth century, the Mongols from the northern steppes became the first alien people to conquer all China. Although not as culturally developed as the Chinese, they left some imprint on Chinese civilization while heightening Chinese perceptions of threat from the north.
"Though sometimes unnoticed by historians, the putting together of China’s Neo-Confucian order was hailed as a triumph of ritual and moral leadership over disorder. The Confucian stress on proper behavior of rulers and subjects showed what indoctrination and ceremonious conduct could do to maintain forms of civilization. The reality of autocratic rule was buried within the Confucian rationale, or myth, of the state—that the ruler’s superior conduct inspired emulation and harmonious subserviance from all beholders." Later, under the Ming, China’s Neo Confucian order not only reached its height, but "defined its limitations. It aimed at security for farmers, tax-gatherers, and the ruling elite, with little concern for the outside world" (Fairbank 427-428)

YUAN DYNASTY 1279 – 1368

1279 – 1368 Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty was a government of occupation established by Kublai Khan ruling from his new capital now called Khanbaliz (site of Beijing). Mongol invaders willingly adopted key elements of T'ang and Song cultures and Chinese lifestyles, but the language of the Yuan court was Mongol and many Yuan officials were non-Chinese.
13th century Christianity in China: Since the 13th century, Roman Catholic missionaries had been attempting to establish their church in China. By 1800, however, only a few hundred thousand Chinese had been converted, although the mostly Jesuit missionaries did contribute to Chinese knowledge in such fields as cannon casting, calendar making, geography, mathematics, cartography, music, art, and architecture. The Jesuits were especially adept at fitting Christianity into a Chinese framework, and were later condemned, by a papal decision in 1704, as heterodox and disloyal for having tolerated the continuance of Confucian ancestor rites among Christian converts. See 14th century Jesuit missionary Matthew Ricci.

Yuan Fiction & Drama

A vigorous vernacular literature emerged in Yuan China. The growth of Chinese fiction and drama may have resulted from the Mongol reluctance to hire educated Chinese for governmental posts, and/or the refusal of many scholars to serve the Mongol regime. Thus many "poet-scholars" turned their talents instead to these new arts. The roots of the Beijing Opera, in the Four Great Anhui Troupes, were established during the Yuan era: see statue of a Yuan era actor.

MING DYNASTY 1368 – 1644/1662

1368 Ming Dynasty expels hated foreign Mongol (Yuan) regime, and general contempt for foreign "barbarians" hardens. Ethnic Chinese rule, institutions, and practices are restored.
1368 – 1644/1662 The Ming Dynasty, inaugurated by first Ming emperor Zhu Yuan zhang of uneducated peasant origins, revives shi scholar-gentry, Confucian classics, colleges/universities, civil service exam system; and reforms court abuses, factionalism, makes laws favorable to peasantry; continues public works projects. Ming emperors also encouraged the growth of agriculture, population, handicraft industries--silk textiles, tea, fine ceramics (see Ming Dynasty vase) and lacquerware--commerce, arts, and innovations in literature (e.g. Chinese novel)
14th century
Chinese cannon, Jesuit missionary Matthew Ricci, and Peking Dragon Throne.
1405-1433 Ming Expeditions to Sri Lanka, India, African coast, Arabian Peninsula, but continued Mongol invasions force Ming to turn energies back home; excluding China from era's global commercial, technical revolutions (guns, ships), and opening the way for Western international expansion. Ming build new city (called "northern capital") near ruins of Khanbaliz (in 1421), to distinguish from Nanking, the southern capital). In the 15th century, Peking (modern Beijing) becomes capital: at center of Imperial Palace is the Forbidden City, considered literal center of Chinese universe and cosmos

MING Chinese Novels
& the Book Trade

Vernacular fiction reached a new height with two early novels that could be considered Chinese prose epics:
  • San-Kuo-Chih Yen-i (trans. Romance of the Three Kingdoms), a historical novel of wars and warriors; and
  • Shui-hu Chuan (trans. Water Margin, and known to the West as All Men Are Brothers), a novel of the adventures of bandit-heroes.

These composite works of folk art were created by a number of authors from oral traditions, and fiction began to be accepted as an established literary form. The Yangtze cities of Hangchow, Soochow, and Nanking become literary centers of book trade

Besides the historical romance and the novel of adventure, the love romance (or novel of "beauty and genius" becomes a popular form. These and later Chinese novels tend to be immensely long, vast in scope and vivid in characterization and description.

1592: Hsi-yu Chi (Journey to the West, or Monkey), by several authors the most important of whom is Wu ch’eng-en (1500?-1582), a scholar-official. It is a fantastic novel derived from folk tradition featuring a variety of gods and demons, Buddhist saints and arhats headed by Sakyamuni (Buddha)
1617: Chin P’ing Mei (Gold Vase Plum, or The Adventurous History of Hsi-men and His Six Wives), anonymous, the first realistic, social novel of family and society, depicting the dark aspects of decadent Chinese society riddled with filth, corruption, iniquity, and rascality, with heavy leavening of sex.
Many important collections of short stories also appeared in the 17th century, consisting of compilations handed down from an earlier period or of works by contemporary writers. Like the novels, the stories are colloquial in style and realistic in presentation, giving an intimate picture of Chinese society.

The most popular anthology is Chin-ku Ch'i-kuan (Marvelous Tales of the Past and Present, or Marvelous Tales Old and New), which consists of 40 stories.

As the modern age progressed, the vernacular tradition became ever larger and richer. Conventional literature, on the other hand, was less fruitful, although it continued to be cultivated by members of the scholarly gentry, some of whom were fine writers.

Chinese Calendar: Illustrations from Muniutu, 1609, woodblock edition, British Library, Oriental and India Office Collections, 1997: "The two illustrations show the herdboy and the ox, a much-loved traditional theme in Chinese painting, illustration and decorative arts. They are reproduced from an edition of the Muniutu in the Library's Chinese collection. This Chan (Zen) Buddhist text relates in text and ten pictures the taming of an ox as an allegory of subduing the 'self'."

"Traditionally, the Chinese calendar was based on a cycle of sixty years, calculated by combining the Ten Heavenly Stems with the Twelve Earthly Branches in sequence. Thus, from Chinese New Year's day, which this year [1997] falls on 7 February, the year will be designated dingchou, and also referred to as the year of the ox. According to one story (there are several versions), the ox owes its place as the second of the Twelve Animals to its nature. When leading the Twelve to the Buddha's deathbed it allowed the rat to ride on its back. However, it was beaten to the Buddha's bedside by the wily rodent, which jumped down and scampered ahead as they drew close. The person born in an ox year is characterised as one who tends to grumble but who, nevertheless, is big-hearted and long-suffering.

"The twelve animals are those which, according to legend, were the first to arrive at the Buddha's deathbed. In order they are the rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, cockerel, dog and pig. Accordingly, the Buddha linked each of these with a year. The twelve year cycle was also integrated with the five elements - wood, metal, earth, fire and water - and other symbols, such as the five colours. The animals were only linked in this way with the five elements to form the sixty year cycle during the period of the Tang dynasty (618-907). "

1644 Manchu (Jurgen) nomads conquer China with gun-supported land armies.

China Timelines Introduction 
China Timeline 1: 
Early China (to 3rd c. BCE)
China Timeline 2:  Qin & Han Dynasties & "Time of Troubles"  (3rd c. BCE - CE 7th c.)
China Timeline 3: Tang, Song, Yuan & Ming Dynasties (7th - 17th c.)
URL of this webpage:
China Timeline 4: Qing Dynasty & Clashes with the West (1644-1911)
China Timeline 5: Republican & Communist China (20th c.) & China Timelines Sources

Asian Timelines: India China Japan
  were first prepared by Cora Agatucci, in 1998. 
They are slowly being updated in Winter 2001.  Please bear with me.

Other Online HUM 210 Course Resources:
HUM 210 Syllabus Course Plan Assignments Student Writing 
Asian Film Asian Links: India China Japan

Cora's Home Page | Site Map | Current  Schedule | Cora's Classes
Student Writing | COCC Links  
If you're interested in other world literatures and cultures, visit these course websites:
Hum 211 - Culture and Literature of Africa 
Eng 109 - Western World Literatures (late 18th-late 20th centuries)