Sung T'ai-tsu (927-976) was a Chinese emperor and the founder of the Sung dynasty, one of the great Chinese dynasties and a major period of transition in Chinese history.
In 755 the T'ang dynasty was dealt a stunning blow when An Lu-shan, a frontier general in command of a great army on the northeastern border of China, turned his forces against the dynasty. The rebel armies swept over the rich and heavily-populated North China Plain (modern Hopei, Honan, and Shantung provinces) and captured both T'ang capitals, Lo-yang and Ch'ang-an. The rebellion was finally quelled in 763, but its impact on the social and political fabric of China was felt long afterward. The old aristocracy of North China had fled before the rebel armies, abandoning their lands—the basis of their personal power.
A great part of the territory previously controlled by this regional aristocracy and by the T'ang central government came under the control of hardened military men, many of them former generals of An Lu-shan who continued to occupy conquered territory. The loyalty of these newly risen soldiers was doubtful at best. The T'ang still held their capital of Ch'ang-an in northwest China and tried gradually to reextend their power over the northeast. They had some successes but were never really able to reestablish a firm hold over that part of their former empire.
The court itself was filled with corruption, and imperial power fell into the hands of eunuchs. After the rebellion of Huang Ch'ao, China was even further militarized and politically fragmented. The once powerful T'ang dynasty existed in name only until its extinction in 907. The fall of the T'ang was followed by a period of political division known as the Five Dynasties (907-960), named for the five successive and short-lived regimes which ruled in North China during this period; in this same half century, South China was divided into a number of small states.
The ancestors of Sung T'ai-tsu ("Great Ancestor of the Sung, " a formal posthumous name for Chao K'uang-yin) lived in the chaotic age just described and served as officials in northeast China, the area hardest hit by the An Lu-shan rebellion and the region of greatest political and social instability. Chao K'uang-yin, who grew up during this troubled time, was the man who finally brought the era to an end.
Chao K'uang-yin was born in Chia-ma-ying, a military camp near Lo-yang, 20 years after the fall of the T'ang dynasty. His father, Chao Hung-yin, was a man of exceptional military ability who had attracted the attention of the Emperor of the Later T'ang dynasty (923-937) and had become a commander of the Emperor's private guard. He must have been an adroit and tenacious man, for he held this same trusted and privileged position under the rulers of several of the short-lived dynasties which followed the Later T'ang.
Chao K'uang-yin was the second son of Chao Hung-yin. He grew up in Lo-yang, which was the capital of the Later Chin (937-947), the second dynasty his father served. His father, who wanted to provide him with the kind of background which would qualify him later to hold civil office, hired a tutor to train the boy in the classical curriculum. But Chao had little taste for such studies. One story has it that when Chao and his fellow students left school at the end of the day, they would take crude weapons and play-act at fighting. They walked home in military formation, with Chao K'uang-yin playing the commander, and travelers on the road would have to step aside and let them pass. Another story indicates Chao's determination to make himself into a fighting man. Once, when he was still a boy, he decided to try to ride a fierce and untrained horse. The wild horse jumped onto a ramp of the city wall, bucked, and threw his young rider. The onlookers thought Chao was badly hurt, but the boy slowly picked himself up, caught the horse, and undaunted, climbed back on.
When he was 21 years old, Chao K'uang-yin made the decision to leave his family and set off on his own. His father was still commander of the palace troops, at that time under the Emperor of the Later Han dynasty (947-951), and it probably seemed that he would never have enough power to help his son get more than a minor military post. So Chao left his family, looking for a position under one of the numerous regimes in power elsewhere in China. For several years he traveled, first to the far northwest, then toward the south, but he had no success and his situation became desperate. Finally, it is said, he met a Buddhist monk who somehow recognized that he was an extraordinary man, gave him money, and told him to go back north, where he would surely find success.
Chao did return to North China, which was then in an extremely chaotic state, rife with danger and with opportunity. In the year he returned, 950, the ruling dynasty had to confront attacks in northeast China from one of China's foreign enemies, the Khitan. The Emperor sent one of his generals, Kuo Wei, to fight the Khitan. Chao K'uang-yin, returning north just at this time, responded to Kuo's call for support and joined his army.
After a brief campaign against the Khitan, Kuo turned his forces against the Emperor and soon overthrew the dynasty, replacing it in 951 with his own dynasty, the Later Chou. Chao K'uang-yin had distinguished himself in the fighting and was given an officer's position in the new emperor's private guard. Two years later, when he was about to be sent to a post some distance from the capital, Chao attracted the attention of the heir apparent, and, when the heir apparent became emperor the following year, Chao K'uang-yin was appointed commander of the palace army. Fighting continued throughout the 950s, and Chao was in much of it. He became increasingly powerful as he gained the loyalty of the troops under his personal command.
The second emperor of the Later Chou died in 959 and was succeeded by his 7-year-old son. In such difficult and unstable times, in which one regime followed another with great rapidity, there was little chance that the authority of this boy-emperor would be respected. In 959, two of the dynasty's enemies, the Khitan and a small state in the northeast called Northern Han, made an alliance against the Later Chou. Chao K'uang-yin was sent with an army to deal with this threat, but, like Kuo Wei before him, he soon turned his army against his own dynasty. It is said that it was only upon the urging of his own troops that he took this step. To those living at the time, this probably seemed no more than one more futile effort to establish peace and unity out of the prevailing chaos. But peace and unity were achieved, and the dynasty Chao K'uang-yin brought to power endured for more than 3 centuries.
The dynasty Chao K'uang-yin established was called the Sung, named, as was usual in China, after the personal fief held by the ruling family before they came to power. His capital was the great commercial city of K'ai-feng, which had become the economic hub of North China and eastern capital for several of the minor military regimes which followed the T'ang, but which only now became the principal capital of a major dynasty. Chao K'uang-yin reigned as emperor from 960 to 976. During those years the last areas outside central control were brought firmly within the imperial sway; Chao personally led several of the major campaigns of pacification. More importantly, in those early years of the dynasty the basic institutions—military, financial, legal—necessary for the administration of a great empire took shape.
During the Sung dynasty fundamental changes occurred in many aspects of Chinese life. Economically, China became increasingly urbanized, trade prospered, and the population grew rapidly, especially after the introduction in 1012 of a strain of early-ripening rice, which made possible two or three rice crops in a year. Culturally there were important developments in all of the arts, particularly in poetry, painting, and popular literature, the last greatly stimulated by the widespread use of printing and the rapid increase in literacy which date from Sung times. A change with the greatest social and political consequences was the great broadening of the group from which officials were selected: the old entrenched aristocracy, already quite literally on the run in the days when Chao K'uang-yin's ancestors were officials of the T'ang, was completely eclipsed, and it was succeeded by a new elite and a significantly strengthened monarchy.
The new elite was chosen by merit. Aspirants were required to go through a lengthy and exhaustive education which required a thorough exposure to the traditionalistic, conservative, and rigidly interpreted set of personal, social, and political norms embedded in the classical curriculum. It is a historical irony that the dynasty which established as the ruling elite of China a class of thoroughly educated, profoundly conservative, and austerely moralistic scholar-officials, a group typically hostile toward military men and their values, was established by a slightly educated army officer named Chao K'uang-yin, known to history as Sung T'ai-tsu.
There is very little information about Sung T'ai-tsu in English. A valuable but very detailed study of the complex events of the early 10th century in China is Wang Gungwu, The Structure of Power in North China during the Five Dynasties (1963). For a fine general account of the early Sung government the reader should consult E. A. Kracke, Jr., Civil Service in Early Sung China, 960-1067 (1953).