The Dragon Never Sleeps

China - Tang to Song Dynasties – 600 > 1300


            China is the anomaly.  Civilizations are supposed to rise and fall and then never rise again.  In Europe, Rome rose, dominated a continent and then faded into history.  Europe has since splintered into 47 countries.

            In India, the Mauryans and Guptas created a vibrant empire, only to see its people fall victim to a series of foreign invaders over the next thousand years.

            In the Middle East, the Persians, the British, the Turks  and the Arabs have all taken a shot at ruling the meeting point of three continents, but each failed to maintain control over the fractious area.

            Across the Asian steppe, the Huns, then the Turks, then the Mongols  took turns being the master horse people of the region.  But Central Asia is anything but united today.

            The history of the world has been the stories of how divided people come together for a brief moment under a central empire, only to eventually fade back into sectional rule.  The reality is this: humans are too different, geography is too diverse and the needs of peoples vary too much to make any kind of central rule a lasting endeavor.  Even the United States of America had to compromise, creating a government that gives authority to a central power, but also to individual states and then to local cities.  At any time, citizens of America are subject to federal, state and local laws.  This has become the balance most nations have had to accept.

            But China’s different.  China has had regional lords.  China has been united under one central authority.  However, unlike the rest of the world, China always rises again.  No matter how evil a leader, no matter how far into chaos China sunk, the Chinese always believed the Mandate of Heaven  controlled their fate.  Through the depths of interregional strife, one ruling family would emerge, establish a dynasty and bring an era of peace.  Inevitably, this ruling family would fade once corruption, external threats from nomads and natural disasters revealed the heavens had lost favor with the ruling family.  A dynasty would die, regional lords would again spend generations vying for power, and then one would emerge triumphant, forging another dynasty, and the cycle would start all over again.

            So no one should be surprised that China  again threatens to emerge as the world’s greatest economy.  They’ve been there before, they will be there again.  If history has taught us anything it’s that you don’t count out China.  The 18th, 19th and 20th centuries were definitely steps backwards, but China has proven that a few century blip is relatively insignificant for a 5000-year-old civilization.

            When the Han fell out of power in 200 AD, the resulting Three Kingdoms period decimated society, dropping the Chinese population in one century from 50 million to 20 million.   Through the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries, China  survived its own middle ages, where barbarism, violence and the utter breakdown of social order were more the norm than the exception.  Yet, it was only a matter of time before the ingenuity, tradition and staggering workforce of the Chinese was again harnessed, taking China to yet another golden age. 

            The dynasties of Sui (581-618), Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) reinstituted much of what had made China  great, while also expanding its culture across Asia, reaping the material and philosophical benefits that would allow the civilization to become, in the words of Venetian merchant Marco Polo, “the best that is in the world.” 

            China never could have grown unless they overcame two rather critical conundrums – they needed to make more food and they needed to move the food faster and further. 

            And what was the one food China could never get enough of?  Rice.  But rice doesn’t naturally grow in Northern China.  It’s too dry and too cold.  In fact, prior to the Sui (pronounced “sway”) Dynasty, most of China actually ate wheat or millet (looks kind of like corn), but by the close of the Song Dynasty, rice had become the dominant food for all of China.  The Chinese had learned how to use a wheelbarrow, how to make the most of animal poop for fertilizer and how to build dams...