Offense, Defense and the Politics of War: The Case of China’s Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.)

Zhicao Fang, Johns Hopkins University

Existing literature on war and state underplays the effects of a state’s position in particular wars, i.e. whether it is on the offense or defense. Using within-case comparison, this paper utilizes the case of Song regime (960-1279 A.D.) to highlight linkage of external-internal connection, i.e. how external position of state in war (offense/defense) shapes internal political tensions by stimulating changes in regime legitimacy as well as political tension over the issue of controlling the military. The paper divides Song history into three stages according to the states’ position (offense or defense) in external wars: 960-1005 A.D. when Song was primarily on the offense in an attempt to “reunite” the empire; 1005-1127 A.D., when Song shifted from offense to defense and was burdened by hefty financial costs of defensive wars; and 1127-1279 A.D., when Song’s survival was severely threatened by the emerging Mongolian empire and the dynasty was primarily on the defense. During the period of offensive wars, legitimacy based on territorial reunification and demands for swift victories allowed Song emperors to control the military through emperors’ maneuver of charismatic political power. As Song gradually shifted from offense to defense, centralization of power, institutionalization of military and diminishing urgency of legitimation through war allowed civilian officials to take control of the military. While the need for constant border alert swelled the scale of military, its effectiveness nevertheless declined amid the burden of mobilization, financing, and control. Civilian-military tension and financial problems stimulated several rounds of reform efforts, which however were frustrated amid sever political in-fighting. Finally, in the survival crisis and defensive period, the tension between military and civilian officials was beyond reconciliation. Military power, after the initial stage of defense and counter-attack, was largely sidelined in state politics, and declining military capacity led to Song’s demise under Mongolian invasion.

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 Presented in Session 14. Violence, Contention, and Warfare