Throughout most of Chinese history the biggest threat to the established dynasties came from the northern nomads. The Song dynasty was particularly unlucky in that respect, having to face three waves of nomad invasions - the Tangut, the Jurchen and finally the Mongols, having initially come to power in the aftermath of attacks by the Kitan. The first two attacks saw the Song lose ground in the north, but hold on to an Empire in the south of China, and they were even able to resist the Mongols for several years before eventually falling to them.
These wars took place at a time when China was by far the most advanced civilisation in existence. The Song war machine was a curious mix of the advanced and the inept, with state sponsored weapons factories producing a wide range of gun powder weapons, crossbows, artillery and warships but at the same time suffering from a dangerous divide between the military and civilian leaderships and with an army that was often smaller and weaker than the official figures suggested. Even so the armies involved in these wars dwarf any armies found in Western Europe in this period, with hundreds of thousands of men involved on each side, fleets of thousands of warships and vast amounts of artillery involved.
This was a complex period. The Song emerged from the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period which followed the collapse of the Tang dynasty. The Song were slowly pushed south and became dangerously obsessed with regaining their lost lands. When the Mongols appeared China was split in three - the Southern Song ruled on the Yangzi River, the Jin Dynasty (founded by the Jurchen) ruled in the north, with an empire that spread from the Yellow River to Beijing and into Manchuria and the smaller Xi Xia empire (ruled by the Tangut) was based on the upper reaches of the Yellow River. The Mongols were able to deal with each of these smaller Empires in turn, with the longest and hardest battles coming against the Song. The problems caused by Mongol inheritance rules meant that the Song had a brief respite every time the Khan of Khan died, but eventually the gifted Qubilai took over, and under his rule the Mongols finally completed the conquest of southern China. He founded the Yuan Dynasty, but this lasted for less than a century before it collapsed.
Waterson does an excellent job of guiding us through this prolonged and complex period of warfare, focusing on the key personalities as well as the main campaigns and the differing military establishments. He avoids getting bogged down in detailed descriptions of many battles or sieges, although the six year long siege of the twin cities of Xiangyang and Fancheng get the prominence they deserve, as does the final naval battle that seals the fate of the main Song Dynasty. This allows the main narrative to flow better, and gives us a clearer picture of the overall sweep of events in this dramatic period.
1 - Heaven Inverted: China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasions
2 - Bystanders to Destruction: The Mongol Reduction of Northern China
3 - All Under Heaven: Song's Long War Begins
4 - Feeding the Beast: Song Resistance on the Yangzi and Huai and the End of the Mongol World Empire
5 - Rumours of War: Court Politics and the War of Attrition
6 - A Chinese Civil War? The Fall of Fancheng and Xiangyang
7 - Horses of Heaven's Wide Plain: The Loss of Hangzhou and the Flight of the Song Court
8 - Child Emperors and Suicides: The End of the Song Dynasty
9 - The Phoenix and the Dragon: The Ghosts of the Song and the Fall of the Yuan
Author: James Waterson