Skip to ContentGo to accessibility pageKeyboard shortcuts menu
OpenStax Logo
World History Volume 1, to 1500

12.1 The Indian Ocean World in the Early Middle Ages

World History Volume 1, to 150012.1 The Indian Ocean World in the Early Middle Ages

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Identify important political developments in South Asia
  • Discuss religious and social practices in South and East Asia
  • Describe the rise and fall of the Sui and Tang dynasties in China

Beginning in the eighth century, the Khyber Pass, renowned as the means by which Alexander the Great and his army traveled from Afghanistan to India, made it possible for a new religious tradition to enter northern India. This tradition was Islam, which soon came to dominate the areas of modern-day Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as portions of India. In time, Muslims created the powerful Delhi Sultanate, which stretched from the Punjab in the northwest to Bengal in the northeast.

Islam arrived in China during the early Tang period (618–690 CE) by way of the Silk Roads trade as well as through diplomatic missions sent to the Tang court at Chang’an by the Umayyad caliph at Damascus. Before Islam’s appearance in China, the Tang dynasty, like its predecessor the Sui, had been influenced by the Indian tradition of Buddhism; the Sui emperor and his Tang cousins adhered to many Buddhist precepts. Monumental constructions such as the Grand Canal and the Huaisheng Mosque, which was built in the seventh century CE and stands today in Guangzhou, demonstrate the grandeur of these two dynasties. Yet, in the end, their expenses outran their income, leading to their ultimate collapse.

South Asia in the Early Middle Ages

India, usually referred to as South Asia, shares the Asian subcontinent, culture, and history with several countries in the modern period, including Pakistan and Bangladesh. Before the Middle Ages, two powerful religious and philosophical traditions emerged there, Hinduism and Buddhism, the latter spreading by traveling merchants via the Silk Roads, both overland and overseas.

In the fourth century BCE, Alexander the Great, his army, and his people came to what is today Afghanistan and the region of the Hindu Kush. Although they did not remain there, for the next three centuries this Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom continued to trade with India and spread Greek ideas. The arrival of Alexander’s army in the region was a crucial step in the process of bringing the Afro-Eurasian world closer together. Long-distance travel in this period was still arduous and undertaken primarily by merchants, but important cultural shifts were beginning. Although Alexander’s death shortly after his Indian campaigns meant that neither he nor his successors came to rule over this part of the world, disparate and previously separate cultures and peoples began sharing material goods, technologies, and ideas in ways that only continued as the centuries passed. This change was accelerated by the rise of the Mauryan Empire, the first major kingdom to dominate the Asian subcontinent. The Mauryan Empire was founded by Chandragupta Maurya in 322 BCE and lasted until around 185 BCE. During that time, the region saw great intellectual developments, such as the implementation of place value in numbers and the addition of zero to the numbering system, while long-distance trade continued to expand and widen the spread of these new ideas and concepts.

While India experienced a time of unity and great success during the Mauryan age, the subcontinent again broke into separate kingdoms following invasions by the White Huns, which fatally weakened the empire. One of the more stable regimes to emerge in this period was the northern kingdom of Thanesar, under its Buddhist ruler Harsha Vardhana, whose reign lasted from 606 to 647 CE. We know a great deal about Harsha thanks to contemporary accounts by the Indian poet Bana and the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuan Zang. According to both, Buddhism had penetrated the region surrounding Thanesar to a considerable degree, despite the Guptas’ earlier favoring of Hinduism. It was also clear, though, that Buddhism had declined as a result of Gupta neglect because its monasteries throughout India were in a state of disrepair. Still, Xuan Zang found Harsha’s kingdom well run, wealthy, and justly administered. As far as the monk was concerned, Thanesar was a model state. It did not outlive its king by many years, however. Soon after Harsha’s death, the Arab advance that began in the early part of his reign had become a wave that, in the early eighth century, swept across northern India.

In the early seventh century, the new religion of Islam had begun to expand, encompassing Arabia and soon spreading even farther. By 659, Muslim forces were advancing eastward and clashed with the rulers of Sindh in modern-day Pakistan; by the early eighth century, armies of the Umayyad Islamic state had conquered the region. Under increasing pressure from foreign invaders, India splintered into rival principalities ruled by independent rajas, or princes. These kingdoms, which extended from the Indus River valley in northwestern India to the Ganges River in the northeast, flourished for a time. However, long centuries of fending off invasions by Islamized Turkic warlords from central Asia had taken their toll.

The career of Mahmud of Ghazna is a good example of these developments. The son of a Turkic mamluk, or military slave, who ruled from 998 to 1030, Mahmud was intent on developing his region as an important Islamic state and launched dozens of campaigns against the princes of northern India from his base in Afghanistan. The onslaught was quite successful, for by the twelfth century, the Muslim Ghaznavid dynasty ruled an area that stretched from the Aral Sea in the north to Lahore in the east and encompassed the vital Silk Roads conduit of Khurasan in the southwest (Figure 12.3). The Muslim advance did not end with the establishment of the Ghaznavid state, however. Wars raged across northern India, and by the end of the twelfth century, the remaining independent Indian princes had become fatally weakened. Vulnerable to conquest, the kingdoms of the rajas collapsed.

A map is shown. Green areas with some white and brown bumpy regions are shown in an upside down “U” shape with blue in the lower middle. In the middle, a large area is highlighted in gold and labelled “Ghaznavid Empire.” Within this area, these cities are labelled with black dots, from west to east: Teheran, Ispahan, Nishapur, Merv, Herat, Zaranj, Balkh, Ghazni, Kabut, and Lahore. These cities are labelled with a white and black dot: Somnath, Mathura, and Kannauj. The city of Shiraz is labelled outside this highlighted area in the west, and Urgench, Bukhara, and Samarcanda are labelled in the north. All three are labelled with a black and white dot.
Figure 12.3 The Ghaznavid Dynasty. At its height, the Ghaznavid Empire encompassed a vast swath of central Asia and included parts of modern Iran, Afghanistan, and the historical region of Turkestan. With several vital trade centers such as Samarkand and Merv, the state for a time played a key role in maintaining Silk Roads connections between the East and West. (credit: “Map of the Ghaznavid Empire” by Unknown, created in DEMIS World Map Server/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0)

In the twelfth century, a new line of Turkic invaders arose in present-day Afghanistan, led by Muhammad of Ghur (Ghur was an especially important town in the region). A Persian ruler subject to the Ghaznavids, Muhammad declared his independence from Ghazna and conquered most of the lands of his former lords. In 1192, his forces defeated an army of some 100,000 Rajputs, considered Hindu India’s most ferocious warriors, in one of the most violent engagements of his increasingly bloody career. The crowning achievement of Muhammad’s campaigns was establishing a Muslim state at Delhi, deep in the heart of northern India. It endured as the Delhi Sultanate for more than three centuries (1206–1526), during which time it was the center of Islamic India (Figure 12.4).

A map is shown. Land is highlighted beige and water blue. In the southwest, the Arabian Sea is labelled, and in the southeast the Bay of Bengal is labelled. The top half of the map is land and an upside down triangle shaped mass sticks out in the lower half. Most of this land is highlighted orange except for a “U” shaped section at the southern tip and a circle section in the east. These cities are labelled within the orange area, from north to south: Lahore, Delhi, Ahmadabad, Bombay, Daulatabad, Goa, Madras, and Tranquebar. Along the southwestern coast, Calicut and Cochin are labelled outside of the orange area.
Figure 12.4 The Delhi Sultanate. The orange shading shows the Delhi Sultanate in 1330, at its greatest extent. Its size allowed it to control much of the Indian Ocean trade on the western side of the subcontinent. However, the absence of larger cities in the center and south-center of the subcontinent meant that Indigenous peoples there were less likely to come into contact with Islam and its practitioners, so this region was not under the control of an Islamic state. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Thus, through a series of invasions over the course of some five hundred years, Arab and then Turkic invaders made their way into northern India, bringing Islam and stimulating political integration in the process. Because the minority Muslim rulers did not enforce cultural homogeneity, the invasions also strengthened the cultural diversity that was already a hallmark of Indian social order. For example, the Islamic rulers of the sultanate gave Hindu subjects the status of dhimmis, which protected their rights as non-Muslims, although they still had to pay the special tax, the jizya, placed on non-believers. The sultans of Delhi often employed Hindu laborers on construction projects such as the building of mosques, which led Muslims to integrate certain forms of Hindu symbolism and motifs such as trees and plant life into the structures. In the fourteenth century, Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq expanded and even encouraged Hindu religious freedom, himself participating in Holi, the annual celebration of spring, while he allowed Hindu pilgrimages to the Ganges River, Hinduism’s holiest site.

Before the arrival of Islam in South Asia, Hinduism was the dominant religion in the subcontinent. The result of a synthesis of beliefs that occurred after the Vedic period of Ancient India (c. 1500–500 BCE) and a response to Buddhism’s commercial and urban influence, Hinduism developed a philosophy and belief system more widely accessible to the rural and agrarian peoples of India. An elaborate universe of Hindu deities was also established that included divinities from other religions, widening Hinduism’s accessibility and appeal. Perhaps most importantly, Hinduism stressed personal devotion to a particular deity to obtain a truly individualized religious experience.

The Muslim Turks who arrived in India in the twelfth century recognized the Hindus as a protected people, allowing them to practice their own religious traditions and govern individual territories so long as they paid taxes and tribute. Buddhists, however, were not given the same measures of religious freedom, although it is not clear why. They were forced to flee or be executed, and many went to areas of Southeast Asia, Nepal, or Tibet, where Buddhism remains a major religion today. Over time, in the northern areas of the Indian subcontinent, which include modern Pakistan and Bangladesh, many Hindus converted to Islam, which then became the majority religion of the region. In the Vijanagar Empire in southern India, on the other hand, far fewer conversions took place, perhaps due to its distance from the centers of Islam.

In 1221, the province of Khurasan, which had invaded the Punjab in the tenth century, was itself invaded by the Mongols from China, led by Chinggis Khan (often referred to as “Genghis Khan” in the West). The Mongols then turned their attention to the Delhi Sultanate, which managed to successfully weather an attempted Mongol invasion in 1222. Over the next several decades, northern India experienced a series of invasions accompanying renewed Mongol expansion. Although most were repelled, countless Muslims were displaced and resettled on sultanate lands deeper in the subcontinent’s interior.

A Multicultural South Asia

Throughout the decline of the independent principalities of northern India and, ultimately, the conquest of the Delhi Sultanate, the north slowly became increasingly Muslim, while the south retained Hindu cultural beliefs and ideas. By the thirteenth century, Buddhism had diminished as a popular form of worship in India and Hinduism had evolved from a religion in which only priests offered sacrifices to one in which a wider array of people could actively participate. With this change came increased personal devotion to the individual gods, including Vishnu and Shiva (Figure 12.5). Each village usually had a temple in which they were enshrined and worshipped, and various incarnations of the gods developed from these numerous local beliefs. For example, Krishna was an incarnation of Vishnu. Eventually, Vishnu and Shiva came to have consort wives, and their powers could not be activated except through union. Thus, many female deities also came to be worshipped. In contrast, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Confucianism all feature male-centered systems.

An image of a painting is shown with a green background and a sliver of blue and white sky at the top. An open building is shown with a pink and red decorated roof, and red, black, and yellow decorated awning. The side walls are black and the bottom border is pale orange with décor. Inside, in the middle, a blue figure with four arms sits cross legged with the right foot atop the other on a white rug with red scalloped edges. He wears orange flowy pants, a large gold and black crown with three red and white feathers, earrings, necklaces, and bracelets. His eyes are large, his lips are red, and short black hair shows under his crown. One arm rests in his lap while the other three hold objects in the air: a large gold ring, a long gold scepter, and a white and gold shell. He faces to the left where a pale figure stands on his right foot with hands folded in front of his forehead, bowing, with his left foot crossed over his right leg. He is bald except for a small mound of black hair atop his head, has large eyes, a small moustache, wears earrings, necklaces, and bracelets, and yellow flowy pants. He stands on a square pink mat. In front of him on the floor are four gold objects in various shapes, one a white and gold shell. To the right of the figures is a green and white patterned rectangle with a red rug rolled up on top. The background is blue with faded scenes drawn in blue across the upper top.
Figure 12.5 The Hindu God Vishnu. This eighteenth-century painting on paper shows the poet Jayadeva (left) bowing to Vishnu, the beneficent preserver. Vishnu is one of three major Hindu gods; the others are Brahma (creator of the universe) and Shiva (giver and destroyer of life). (credit: “Jaydev worshipping lord Vishnu” by The Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The Hindu religion evolved to become the dominant religion likely because it was a belief system with broader appeal than Buddhism. Originating in the period following the Vedic Age (c. 1500–500 BCE) and evolving over centuries, Hinduism developed from much older traditions, especially those of the Aryan peoples who arrived in India beginning in the third millennium BCE. One particularly distinctive facet of Hindu tradition that originated among these peoples was the Indian caste system. At its origin, the caste system was limited, and all of society was organized into four categories known as varnas. The four major varnas were Brahman (priests), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaishya (merchants and farmers), and Shudra (servile people). In these early days of the system, a person’s varna was determined by their profession but also their dharma—their adherence to proper behaviors for their caste as stipulated by cosmic law, including avoiding contact with lower castes—and the karma they accrued by virtue of their dharma (Figure 12.6).

An image of a painting is shown on a richly decorated gold, red, green, black, and green background. Black script is cut off on the right and left sides and the frame is gold squares with alternating green and red dots inside. In the middle, a pale white figure sits on a highly decorated gold and black tiered throne with richly decorated blue pillows and white flowers. She wears elaborate gold and red decorations in her black hair which hangs down to her armpits. Necklaces, earrings, and bracelets cover her body and her legs are both decorated with designs. She is bare chested and wears short red cloths at her pelvic region. Her hands are in front of her chest and the thumbs and pointer fingers are touching. Her eyes are thin and wide and she looks down at a figure sitting at her feet and smiles. The woman sitting cross legged on the floor is gold colored and her body is adorned in jewelry and designs as well. She has long black hair and elaborate décor in her hair as well. She has her hands raised at her sides and looks up at the throned figure with a smile and open, almond shaped eyes. In the background a small, stacked, gold building can be seen and vegetation is displayed in the top two corners.
Figure 12.6 Bodhisattvas. In Buddhism, bodhisattvas are people who are seen as spiritually advanced and on the path toward Buddhahood. This detail of a twelfth-century manuscript painting depicts Maitreya, a bodhisattva who, according to Indian tradition, is the teacher of dharma. (credit: “Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Maitreya Detail” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Karma worked both ways: A believer’s failure to follow their dharma resulted in negative residue, whereas faithful obedience resulted in positive residue. At the personal level, the incentive behind amassing karma was samsara, the continuance of the soul after death and the soul’s transformation. The more positive karma someone built up, the greater the chances of being reincarnated in a higher varna in the next life—with the ultimate goal being the attainment of moksha, or release from the karmic cycle and the achievement of a complete understanding of the world. If too much bad karma accumulated, on the other hand, the opposite occurred: reincarnation at a lower varna.

Yet the ramifications of the caste system went far beyond the personal. Nothing less than the continued existence of the universe was at stake. Adherence to dharma helped ensure the universe remained in balance, while failure to do so risked chaos and destruction. A rigidly hierarchical system of social segregation maintained this belief system. However, the varna communities created by the caste system also provided social support to their members and a vital stabilizing element in an Indian society otherwise rocked by political upheaval, foreign invasion, and war (Figure 12.7).

Two columns of rectangles are shown. The left column is light blue inside with a darker blue border and black print. The rectangles are smaller at the top and larger at the bottom. Inside, the rectangles are labelled, from top to bottom, with: Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra. The rectangles are connected with a red vertical line between them. The right column is all the same sized rectangles with these labels inside, from top to bottom: “Priests,” “Rulers, warriors, landholders,” “Skilled workers, artisans, traders,” and “Laborers, servants.”
Figure 12.7 The Indian Caste System. The Indian caste system was a hierarchical one, with ranked varnas that, in the system’s earliest days, related to a person’s profession. Someone could move up or down within this hierarchy depending on their dharma and their accrual of karma during their lifetime. Still, such mobility came primarily through reincarnation at the end of a person’s life. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The basic social unit of Indian society and the focus of life was the extended family, which included parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and in-laws. Most peasant families lived in villages and worked as farmers. Farming was more important than cattle raising for several reasons, not least the prohibition against eating cows. Hindus believe these animals to be sacred but also used them as draft animals on farms. Their manure helped fertilize crops, and their milk was a sustaining element of the Hindu diet. Key crops were rice, millet, wheat, barley, lentils, and peas. The extended family’s large web of relationships encouraged everyone to work together for the betterment of the community. Villages were usually walled, with gates that were shut at night after the farmers returned from the fields.

Like Confucianism in China, Hinduism fostered a patriarchal family structure in which women were subservient. Men were viewed as stronger than women and less governed by their emotions, while older men, due to age and presumed experience, were thought to be wiser than younger men and thus superior to all others. Male domination of Hindu family life was reinforced by the fact that the oldest male was head of the household and might have several wives, who generally came to live with their husband’s parents.

Although children often assisted the family in daily work such as farming, in wealthier homes the basics such as reading, writing, and arithmetic might be taught. Daughters were often married at a young age, and finding the ideal husband—who could provide for the family financially—was a key concern. A wife had no life apart from her husband, and if widowed, she might shave her head, sleep on the floor, eat only a single meal a day, and avoid attending family festivals. A wealthier widow, particularly from the Kshatriya or warrior caste, might throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre in an act of ritual suicide known as sati.

In Their Own Words

Crime and Punishment in Tenth-Century India

Abu Zayd al-Sirafi was a sailor from Sirafi, a center of the spice trade, who traveled throughout the Indian Ocean during the tenth century. The following is his account of how Indians used ordeal by fire to allow the gods to decide whether an accused person was guilty. As you read, note whether Abu Zayd felt this was an effective system and consider what biases may exist in his account.

Moving now to India, if a man accuses another of an offense for which the mandatory penalty is death, the accuser is asked, “Will you subject the person you have accused to ordeal by fire?” If he agrees to this, a piece of iron is first heated to such a high temperature that it becomes red-hot. The accused man is told to hold out his hand, palm up, and on it are placed seven leaves from a particular tree of theirs; the red-hot iron is then placed on his hand, on top of the leaves. Next, the accused has to walk up and down holding the iron, until he can bear it no longer and has to drop it. At this point, a leather bag is brought out: the man has to put his hand inside this, then the bag is sealed with the ruler’s seal. When three days have passed, some unhusked rice is brought, and the accused man is told to husk it by rubbing it between his palms. If after this no mark is found on his hand, he is deemed to have got the better of his accuser, and he escapes execution. Moreover, his accuser is fined a maund [about 82 pounds] of gold, which the ruler appropriates for himself. On some occasions, they heat water in an iron or copper cauldron until it boils so furiously that no one can go near it. An iron finger-ring is then dropped into the water, and the accused man is told to put his hand in and retrieve the ring. I have seen a man put his hand in and bring it out unharmed. In such a case, too, his accuser is fined a maund of gold.

Abu Zayd al-Sirafi, Accounts of China and India

  • What biases do you see in this account?
  • Does Abu Zayd feel ordeal by fire is an effective system? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think ordeal by fire was once a common method of identifying guilt around the globe?

Toward the end of the Gupta period, in the sixth century, rulers began giving land grants to officials and Brahman priests to help stimulate local economies. Often entire villages were included in the gifts, and their inhabitants came under the control of the grantees. Eventually, land grants were also awarded to temples and monasteries, in the hope that this could encourage wider economic growth and lessen dependence on the central state.

Although this was a politically chaotic period, new ideas and belief systems spread and many cultural and technological advances occurred. Improvements in shipbuilding and textile manufacturing stimulated coastal trade, for example, especially in Southeast Asia. Paradoxically, many such developments were the result of the same forces that destabilized India’s politics, for the continual invasions and migrations of foreigners in the north cross-fertilized the region’s cultural base, producing new ideas and practical innovations. The diffusion of ideas was enhanced by India’s annual monsoon winds, which lengthened maritime traders’ exposure to Indian society and culture by preventing those who arrived in summer from returning home until the winter monsoon season.

One of the most influential and enduring effects of trade was the spread of Buddhism, which began to take hold elsewhere as it competed with, and in some ways reshaped, Hinduism. Many Southeast Asian regions adopted it, from what is now Thailand up to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and down to Java. By the first century BCE, there were two branches of Buddhism: Theravada (“the path of the elders,” the oldest extant form of Buddhism) and Mahayana (“the greater vehicle”). Mahayana, the larger branch, spread along the great trade routes of Asia into the borderlands of the Parthian Empire, eventually reaching China, Korea, and Japan, where it was gradually infused with local ideas. Theravada Buddhism established itself in Sri Lanka, southern India, and parts of Southeast Asia. Unlike Hinduism, Buddhism did not emphasize the caste system and in many instances opposed it, thus strengthening its influence abroad. It therefore appealed to lower-caste individuals as well. Nonetheless, Hinduism influenced many monarchies, particularly through the concept of dharma. Sanskrit, the written language of India, also spread to many southeast Asian courts, cementing the broad influence of Indian culture.

Sui and Tang China

Following the collapse of the Han Empire in 220 CE, three states ruled over China: the Wei in the north, the Wu in the south, and the Shu in the west. A temporary reunification occurred under the Western Jin dynasty from 265 to 316, but from 316 to 589 China was again divided, this time into north and south. Along the Silk Roads, merchants established monasteries, convents, and shrines, bringing Buddhist traditions into China. Many Chinese traders therefore adopted Buddhism, particularly under the Sui dynasty (Figure 12.8).

A map is shown. Land is shown in beige in the west and water is shown in blue in the east and southwest. A backward “C” shaped area with a long, thin portion sticking out toward the west is shown highlighted in gold on the east coast. It is labelled “Sui Dynasty.”
Figure 12.8 The Sui Dynasty. This map shows the extent of the Sui dynasty in 609. Like the Qin before them, the Sui pursued empire-building and vast public works projects such as the Grand Canal, which was vital to the movement of Sui armies during campaigns in the south. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

A Mongol general from northern China, Yang Jian, was an affirmed Buddhist. His military abilities allowed him to gain such fame that he was able to create a marriage alliance between one of his daughters and a northern prince. With growing power, at the death of the ruler, he claimed the role of regent to his grandson before later deposing him. Yang then made himself the first emperor of the new Sui dynasty in 581 and adopted the name Wen. Emperor Wen gained his soldiers’ allegiance by granting them lands acquired through conquest, a years-long process that reunified most of the old Han lands. To consolidate his control over the empire, Emperor Wen created a powerful centralized government, with loyal bureaucrats appointed to rule its many territories. To eliminate the risk that these powerful regional administrators could amass followers into a rebellious army, Wen periodically moved them to different territories, forcing them to build new networks from scratch.

Emperor Wen was succeeded by his son Yang Guang. Like his father before him, Emperor Yang Di, as Yang was known, was ambitious and grandiose. During his reign, he continued his father’s practice of building large public works through forced labor, completing the Grand Canal in 609 to connect Luoyang in central China with Hangzhou in the south. The canal made the movement of foodstuffs and supplies between north and south possible on an unimaginable scale. From the south, with its warmer and wetter climate, came rice; from the drier and cooler north came crops such as wheat and millet (Figure 12.9). A crucial step in the economic integration of overland trade was taken when the canal was connected to the Sui capital and eastern terminus of the Silk Roads in Chang’an, finally extending all the way north to Beijing. Construction of this arm of the canal took seven years and required as many as five million workers, sometimes including entire populations conscripted to labor on the project. An early form of a police force supervised, enforcing corporal punishment on anyone refusing to work.

A map is shown with land in the western portion highlighted beige and water in the eastern section highlighted blue. The Sea of Japan is labelled in the northeast, the Yellow Sea is labelled in the east, and the East China Sea is labeled in the southeast. The city of Beijing is labelled in the north, the city of Luoyang is labelled in the southwest and the city of Hangzhou is labelled in the south. All are labelled with pink triangles. The cities of Suzhou and Huzhou are labelled with black dots by the East China Sea. South of Beijing, the Tanghul River is labelled, the Wei River is labelled south of that, and the Hunong River, the Middle River, and the Bian River are labelled east of the city of Luoyang. A thick orange line begins at the city of Beijing and heats east, then south along the Wei River, where it is labelled “Northern Canal.” It continues southeast along the Hunong and Middle Rivers where it is labelled the Huai-Yang Canal. It continues southeast toward the city of Suzhou where it is labelled the “Jiangnan Canal.” Then it heads east toward the East China Sea where it is labelled the “East Zhejiang Canal.” A thick purple line runs from the city of Luoyang northeast and meets up with the Southern Canal. Another thick purple line also starts at Luoyang and heads east along the Bian River and stops right before the Hui-Yang Canal.
Figure 12.9 China’s Grand Canal. This map of China’s Grand Canal shows how it connects the country’s north and south, just as rivers connect the east and west. The canal became critical to centralizing control of the Sui Empire. Its primary route is shown in orange, while the purple indicates shorter-lived expansions constructed to connect the southern Chinese provinces with this important economic thoroughfare. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The Grand Canal was essential to the economic and administrative integration of the newly reunified Chinese empire under the Sui. The canal made it easier for goods to be transported and provided increased revenue by allowing the government to tax the products being shipped. It also greatly improved communication and the effectiveness of the government, as officials were able to travel quickly between north and south and to send communication more easily across the Chinese interior. The canal was also a vital tool of Sui foreign policy, allowing Chinese armies from the north to travel to the borders of Korea, from which Yang Di launched his futile campaigns of conquest.

The Past Meets the Present

The Grand Canal

The modern city of Hangzhou, situated at the head of a large bay extending out into the East China Sea, has a population of almost twelve million and is known around the country and world for its robust economy. One of the keys to Hangzhou’s success is the busy canal that extends northward from the city and is plied around the clock by numerous barges carrying bulk materials to distant locations in the interior. The origins of the canal date back over two thousand years to pre-imperial China, and its use today is a reminder of the enduring legacy of ancient Chinese engineering and determination.

Commonly referred to as the Grand Canal, this man-made waterway has portions that were built in the fifth century BCE. But it was during the Sui dynasty when these older canals were connected, refurbished, and extended to create a continuous water route stretching 1,100 miles from Hangzhou to Beijing. Built with conscripted workers, it was intended to supply southern-produced grain to the large cities in the north, facilitate the movement of troops, and to generally better integrate the northern and southern portions of the vast empire.

Completing the canal, fitted with lock gates to regulate water levels over different elevations, was an engineering feat and a testament to the boldness of the emperor. It was supplemented by a parallel imperial road dotted with post offices. Unfortunately for the enslaved, peasants, and others conscripted to build it, the costs were enormous. An estimated two million workers died constructing the canal; and the cost in both lives and taxes almost certainly contributed to the downfall of the short-lived Sui dynasty in 618. Later dynasties, however, found the canal quite useful. By the fifteenth century, hundreds of years of expansions and technological improvements had made the Grand Canal the central feature of a vast and indispensable inland transportation network (Figure 12.10).

An image shows a yellow-greenish river running horizontally across the image. The top half of the image shows beige skies and hills, various green trees, brown roads, and various sized houses. Along the top shore of the river at the left, a long line of people stand dressed in bright long robes looking at the water. Behind them is a building with a brown roof and open sides. People are gathered inside. A fence runs from the building to the right along the water, the length of the image. At the left, there is a long boat with a tall rectangular sail with blue, black, and red designs on a beige background. The bottom is flat and a tent is on the left with a triangle top and no sides. People are underneath it dressed in brown and blue long robes. The walls of the middle are rows of decorated squares and the right side is taller with flags flying at the edge. Two other long, thin, flat boats are seen to the right with six people on one and seventeen on the other. A large boat is docked at the shore across the bottom. In the forefront, a long line of people is seen in the bottom left, with trees obscuring some of them. A portico is seen in the middle forefront in red, green, and blue colors and more buildings are seen in the bottom right.
Figure 12.10 Touring the Grand Canal. This image from a larger scroll shows the canal as it looked in the late eighteenth century. Created by court painter Xu Yang in 1770, the scroll commemorates the emperor’s 1751 tour of south China. Here you can see the emperor’s large touring boat moving through the city of Suzhou on a now defunct portion of the canal. (credit: “The Qianlong Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll Six: Entering Suzhou along the Grand Canal” by Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift, 1988/Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain)

During the nineteenth century, the canal entered a period of decline as a result of a change in the course of the Yellow River and the rise of competing transportation routes made possible by railroads and steam-powered ships. Today, ships can no longer travel the full length of the canal. North of Jining, the canal is too shallow. Nonetheless, the canal remains an important transportation route, facilitating the flow of many millions of tons of raw materials through the interior. And improvement efforts have been underway for decades.

  • What does the construction of the Grand Canal suggest about the ambitions of the Sui rulers, especially given the enormous costs involved in building the canal?
  • In a modern world where so much freight is moved by air, rail, and highway, why do you think the Grand Canal continues to be a vital transportation route?

In the end, and despite the great benefits of the Grand Canal, its construction overextended the Sui. Enormously costly in labor and materiel, the waterway became a great source of grievance among the Chinese people, millions of whom were forced to work on it and neglect their families and farms. The situation was worsened by the combined effects of a natural disaster—the Yellow River flooded the North China plain and triggered famine throughout the countryside—and military defeat—the Sui invasion of Korea was repelled in 612. Undaunted, Yang Di pushed ahead with a second invasion campaign, stopping only when the exhausted military revolted. The emperor was assassinated in a period of turmoil in the region before Li Yuan, a provincial governor, acceded to the throne and announced the founding of the Tang dynasty in 618.

The Tang Empire, which lasted until 907, emerged just as Islam exploded out of Arabia and swept across North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula and into central Asia. Like the great Islamic empires that thrived during this period, the Tang promoted a cosmopolitan culture, a character greatly enhanced by wider international developments. In 674, for example, the advancing tide of Arab armies from the west forced members of the Sasanian royal family to flee to the safety of the Tang court at Chang’an, at the eastern terminus of the Silk Roads. This event inspired whole communities of merchants to move from Sasanian Persia to the Chinese capital, bringing all manner of exotic products and luxury goods, from silver artwork to Arab, Persian, and central Asian musical forms and dance.

It did not take long for the Tang elite to develop a taste for these items, creating an impressive industry of Persian-Arab-inspired goods and services to meet the growing demand. As a taste for Persian-Arab culture spread, trade relations between the Tang and India blossomed, bringing everything from mathematics to new sciences and medicines to China. These different cultural streams met in Tang China’s major cities, which soon generated a diverse international culture greatly enhanced by the presence of merchant communities of Jewish people, Christians, Zoroastrians, peoples of the major Indian traditions, and a sizable minority of Muslims.

For much of its duration, Tang China was the most powerful empire in existence, and among its priorities was completing the consolidation and expansion begun under the Sui. To this end, the Tang embarked on a series of military campaigns into central Asia. Their large professional army was organized around a core of aristocratic cavalry of some seven million troops who routinely clashed with the mounted nomads of the Inner Asian Steppe, and an immense peasant infantry several million strong and garrisoned in the interior. By the 750s, Tang frontier units increasingly relied on pastoral nomadic peoples from the steppes, such as the Uyghurs, Turkish-speaking peoples who constituted the empire’s most potent military force. Over time, Tang forces pushed into Manchuria (the area immediately north of the Korean Peninsula), Vietnam, and Tibet. At its height in the late ninth century, the Tang army controlled more than four million square miles of territory, an area roughly the size of the entire Islamic world during the same period.

The Tang achieved several early foreign policy successes, including reestablishing Chinese rule over Korea in 668, resulting in a tributary relationship with the peninsula’s Silla dynasty. The Tang also opened diplomatic relations with Japan, which proved so effective that in 645 Japan embarked on its “Great Reform”—an all-encompassing adoption of Tang culture, including its imperial institutions (which the Silla also adopted), Confucian bureaucracy, and Buddhism.

The spread of Tang culture was greatly enhanced by several major innovations in China, including the world’s first block-printing process, which proved opportune for printing Buddhist scriptures (Figure 12.11). Like the Sui, the Tang embraced and promoted Buddhism, the scriptures of which were usually hand-copied by scribes and disseminated among students. The scarcity of these works meant that most commoners and even many elites had no access to them. China’s artisans, however, devised a way to carve the mirror-image of a text into a block of wood, add ink, and then press the block onto paper. Scriptures and other forms of writing now became more accessible, spreading ideas from the elites to the masses. Block-printing remained the major method of transferring images onto paper until the end of the nineteenth century.

A worn image of a gray paper is seen with ragged edges and stains all over on a pale orange background. The left third of the image is Asian script written in columns in black ink. The right two thirds of the image show a faded drawing of a person in robes with circles behind them sitting in front of a short table. People in various types of clothing are located above, below, and to the right of the seated figure and a patterned square design with leaves in the middle is seen throughout the left side. Decorative swirls and people floating are seen along the top.
Figure 12.11 The First Block-Printed Book. This is a page from the Diamond Sutra, the world’s first block-printed book, made in China in 868. Note the image of the Buddha in the center, and consider how the production of multiple copies of documents such as this could lead to wider knowledge of Buddhism. (credit: modification of work “Jingangjing” by British Library/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Buddhism was important not only under the Sui. The Tang period witnessed the rapid growth of two forms of Mahayana Buddhism in particular: Pure Land, which had originated much earlier in India and had found adherents in China since the fifth century, and Chan, which developed during the fifth and sixth centuries but became popular under the Tang. Pure Land Buddhism was a school of popular devotion to Amida (or Amitabha), the Buddha of the “pure land” or the uncorrupt plane of existence believers anticipated reaching on their rebirth. Like the Hindu bhakti sects in India, Pure Land Buddhists held that to achieve salvation it was necessary not to study sacred texts but rather to engage in practices accessible to everyone, especially by invoking Amida’s name.

Chan Buddhism, like Pure Land, deemphasized scriptural study but rejected the notion of personal devotion to a savior. Instead, Chan Buddhism, known more popularly by its Japanese name Zen, stressed the disciplined practice of meditation and following the example of a Chan master, who underwent great hardships performing humble tasks and wrestling with paradoxical questions, to achieve enlightenment. Chan Buddhism was austere and monastic in character, whereas Pure Land was the more popular form observed by lay people.

Buddhism’s popularity became a flashpoint for violence in Tang China, however. In the mid-ninth century, the Tang Empire cracked down on what it perceived as the threat that hundreds of thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns posed to its Confucian and Daoist leaders, who argued that Buddhism represented an alien influence on the state. Although this prompted the active suppression of Buddhist monasteries and the confiscation of their wealth, it was not enough. Blatant persecution unfolded under Emperor Wuzong, resulting in the destruction of some forty thousand temples and shrines, the closure of more than four thousand monasteries, and the forced secularization of hundreds of thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns. Culturally, the state moved to expunge the impact of Buddhism by reviving classical prose styles and the teachings of Confucius and his followers (Figure 12.12).

A simple drawn image of a man on a bright yellow background is seen. Four Asian characters are seen across the top. He has slanted, almond shaped eyes, large eyebrows, a moustache and goatee, and black hair is seen under his hat, which has wings sticking out each side. He wears a robe and his hands are tucked in the opposite sleeves of his robe.
Figure 12.12 Emperor Wuzong. Emperor Wuzong, represented in an ink drawing from a Chinese encyclopedia of the early seventeenth century, engaged in widespread persecution of Buddhist monks and nuns in ninth-century (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license) China. (credit: modification of work “Emperor Wuzong of the Tang dynasty” by Baidu/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The Tang period also produced a great deal of poetry, much of it influenced by the prevalent religious and philosophical traditions. For example, in the eighth century the poets Wang Wei, Li Bai (Li Bo), and Du Fu were influenced by Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, respectively, and many people could recite their poems from memory. Along the Silk Roads during this period, poetry spread along with China’s religious and philosophical traditions, first to Korea and from there to Japan. Neither area had a written script of its own yet, so admirers learned the poets’ works in Chinese.

Entrance into the Tang bureaucracy was based on passage of a merit-based exam administered every three years. This civil service exam, the first fully written such exam in history, had been developed from the Sui dynasty and tested sophisticated literary skills and knowledge of Confucian and Daoist classics. In theory it was open to all; in practice, however, until the late Tang period, women, the sons of merchants, and those who could not afford a classical education were excluded. Most laborers were also excluded because of their circumstances, as they could not take time away from their fields to study. In the end, people became government officials thanks to their literary achievements or the influence of their prestigious families.

Tang China also witnessed contradictory trends in personal behavior and relations between the sexes. In 665, Emperor Gaozong, infirm and sickly, handed power to his second wife, Wu Zetian. Following Gaozong’s death in 683, Wu ruled as empress dowager and regent for her son, though she held all the real power of the state. A devout Buddhist, she declared Buddhism the state religion, ordered scholars to write biographies of famous women, and in 690 took the extraordinary step of founding her own dynasty, the Wu Zhou (not to be confused with the much earlier Zhou dynasty). Three years later, Wu assumed the Buddhist title “Divine Empress Who Rules the Universe.” Although she was an intelligent and competent ruler, the founding of her own dynasty and the adoption of imperial titles felt to many like usurpation. Resistance soon followed, prompting her abdication and the restoration of the Tang dynasty.

Wu’s reign was remarkable in China’s male-dominated society. Still, the Tang Empire has been described as a “golden age” for women in China, perhaps because lingering contact with the nomadic peoples of the north and their relatively egalitarian society encouraged a somewhat similar view among the Chinese. As evidence of the increased prominence of women, historians also point to a flourishing culture of poetry written by courtesans, the careers of Empress Wu and her daughter-in-law Empress Wei, and the practice of using diplomatic marriages of Tang daughters to prominent foreign officials to forge political alliances. However, sumptuary laws dictated what women could and could not wear, elite men kept concubines, and the Tang legal system considered women property.

The Tang Empire reached its zenith in the early eighth century (Figure 12.13). By mid-century, however, internal and external challenges had set in motion the empire’s terminal decline. Externally, the Tang were defeated at the Battle of Talas River in 751. There, Tang forces were beaten by the combined Turkic and Arab armies of the Abbasid Caliphate, which was expanding the frontiers of the Islamic empire deep into central Asia after overthrowing the Umayyads. Internally, China faced revolts in Korea, Yunnan (in extreme southern China), and Manchuria, which distracted and weakened the state.

A map is shown with land highlighted in beige and water in the southwest and the east in blue. Along the north, these regions are labelled, from west to east: Western Gokturks, Eastern Gokturks, Uighur, Mongol tribes, and Khitan. Along the south, these regions are labelled, from west to east: Pyu, Chenla, and Champa. An area in the west is labelled Tibetan Empire. A round area on the east coast connected to a small round area in the west by a thin strip of land is highlighted orange and labelled “Tang dynasty.”
Figure 12.13 The Tang Dynasty. This map shows the extent of China’s Tang dynasty at its height in the eighth century. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Then, in 755, the Tang Empire was rocked by the massive An Lushan rebellion. Some 150,000 frontier troops led by the Tang commander An Lushan revolted against Emperor Xuanzong and the decadent court at Chang’an. It took eight years for the Tang to crush the rebellion, by the end of which China was both militarily and economically exhausted. The empire carried on in an enfeebled state, but over the ensuing decades, Chang’an ceded much military and civil authority to provincial warlords. In 906, following additional civil wars, the Tang dynasty collapsed, leading to a period of disunity until the Song rose to dominance in 960.

Order a print copy

As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.


This book may not be used in the training of large language models or otherwise be ingested into large language models or generative AI offerings without OpenStax's permission.

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book uses the Creative Commons Attribution License and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at
Citation information

© Mar 25, 2024 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License . The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.