SONG DYNASTY (A.D.960-1279)

SONG DYNASTY (960-1279)

Emperor Taizong

The Song (Sung) Dynasty began a half century after the Tang dynasty ended when the first Song leader, Zhao Kuangyin, grabbed power from a seven-year-old ruler in A.D. 960. The Songs ruled an empire rich in silk, jade and porcelain. They printed books and sent trading ships to India and Java. Fertile lands around the Yangtze and Pearl and other rivers fed 50 million people. But ultimately the Song Dynasty was overwhelmed by invasions. It is generally divided into the Northern Song (960-1126) and the Southern Song (1127-1279) dynasties. The division was caused by the forced abandonment of north China in 1127 by the Song court, which could not push back the nomadic invaders. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

Civil wars and rebellion in the late Tang led to a period of partition under the Five Dynasties (906–60) which was followed by the Northern and Southern Song (Sung) dynasties. After the fall of the Tang, China entered a period of anarchy known to historians as "Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms." Then in 960, troops loyal to Zhao Kuangyin (Chao K'uang-yin), who declared the Song Dynasty and ruled as Emperor Taizu from 960 to 976). According to the :Middle Ages Reference Library: Like the Tang before them, the Song reformed the government to create a stronger, more efficient bureaucracy, but they were not expansionists. Instead, the first two Song emperors consolidated the empire's holdings, allowing Tibet, Mongolia, Vietnam, and other areas to break away. They tried to defeat the only remaining dynasty from the "Five Dynasties" period, the Liao (Khitans) of Mongolia, but in 1005 gave up and agreed to pay them tribute. The cost of this tribute, along with other problems, affected the economy, so the powerful minister Wang Anshi (1021–1086) put in place economic reforms. These freed the peasantry from many burdens, but also gave the government huge power over the economy. The Song system, an elaborate Confucian bureaucracy in which advancement was based on merit rather than social standing, proved to be one of the most efficient governments the world has ever known. [Source: Middle Ages Reference Library, Gale Group, Inc., 2001]

During the Song dynasty there were significant increases in population, urbanization and commercialization and advancements in technology. With this came increased wealth and the production of a variety of artistic objects and luxury goods. Rulers, nobleman and scholar-bureaucrats all patronized the arts. There was great deal of travel and movement, allowing an exchange and proliferation of products, ideas and styles. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In 1000, 1100, 1200, and 1300, China was the most advanced place in the world. Marco Polo (1254-1324) recognized this when he got to China in the late 13th century after traveling through much of Asia. For several centuries the Chinese economy had grown spectacularly. During the Song (Sung) Dynasty (960-1276), technology was highly advanced in fields as diverse as agriculture, iron-working, and printing. Indeed, scholars today talk of a Song economic revolution. In what is now Europe, this was the period now referred to as the “high” Middle Ages, which fostered the Crusades and witnessed the rise of Venice, the mercantile center that was Marco Polo’s home. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“Between 750 and 1100, China’s population doubled, money supply grew tenfold, paper money came into use, and trade and industry grew rapidly. There was no single cause of this great transformation. Advances in technology helped, especially in agricultural technology, and each advance helped foster others. The population grew rapidly during this time, and more and more people lived in cities. The Song system of government was also advanced for its time. The upper-levels of the government were staffed by highly educated scholar-officials selected through competitive written examinations. Yet, despite its political and economic strengths, Song China was not able to dominate its neighbors militarily. Central to its engagement with the outside world were efforts to maintain peace with its powerful northern neighbors and extend its trading networks.

Good Websites and Sources Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; ; Chinese Text Project Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization

Song Dynasty: the Beginning of Chinese Modern Age?

Song grain mill

Why the Song Dynasty Is So Significant? Many ways of living and acting that Westerners now see as most thoroughly “Chinese,” or even characteristically East Asian, did not appear before the Song. 1) The Chinese, we know, are rice eaters and tea drinkers; but most Chinese in the Tang and before ate wheat and millet and drank wine, in that respect looking perhaps more “Western” than “Eastern”; rice and tea became dominant food and drink in the Song. 2) China’s population, we know, is huge, and tends to “explode”; its first explosion occurred in the Song. 3) The Chinese, we know, are “Confucians”; but the kind of Confucianism that served as government orthodoxy throughout late-imperial times was a Song reinvention. 4) Chinese women, we may know, bound their feet; but they did not bind them until the Song. 5) Even the “Chinese” roof with its turned-up corners is by origin a Song Chinese roof.

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “If we want to characterize the "Modern Times" by one concept, we would have to call this epoch the time of the emergence of a middle class, and it will be remembered that the growth of the middle class in Europe was also the decisive change between the Middle Ages and Modern Times in Europe. The parallelism should, however, not be overdone. The gentry continued to play a role in China during the Modern Times, much more than the aristocracy did in Europe. The middle class did not ever really get into power during the whole period. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Individuals, especially family heads, gained more freedom in "Modern Times". Not only the period of transition, but also the following period was a time of much greater social mobility than existed in the Middle Ages. By various legal and/or illegal means people could move up into positions of power and wealth: we know of many merchants who succeeded in being allowed to enter the state examinations and thus got access to jobs in the administration. Large, influential gentry families in the capital protected sons from less important families and thus gave them a chance to move into the gentry. Thus, these families built up a clientele of lesser gentry families which assisted them and upon the loyalty of which they could count. The gentry can from now on be divided into two parts. First, there was a "big gentry" which consisted of much fewer families than in earlier times and which directed the policy in the capital; and secondly, there was a "small gentry" which was operating mainly in the provincial cities, directing local affairs and bound by ties of loyalty to big gentry families. Gentry cliques now extended into the provinces and it often became possible to identify a clique with a geographical area, which, however, usually did not indicate particularistic tendencies.

“Individual freedom did not show itself only in greater social mobility. The restrictions which, for instance, had made the craftsmen and artisans almost into serfs, were gradually lifted. From the early sixteenth century on, craftsmen were free and no more subject to forced labour services for the state. Most craftsmen in this epoch still had their shops in one lane or street and lived above their shops, as they had done in the earlier period. But from now on, they began to organize in guilds of an essentially religious character, as similar guilds in other parts of Asia at the same time also did. They provided welfare services for their members, made some attempts towards standardization of products and prices, imposed taxes upon their members, kept their streets clean and tried to regulate salaries. Apprentices were initiated in a kind of semi-religious ceremony, and often meetings took place in temples. No guild, however, connected people of the same craft living in different cities. Thus, they did not achieve political power. Furthermore, each trade had its own guild; in Peking in the nineteenth century there existed over 420 different guilds. Thus, guilds failed to achieve political influence even within individual cities.

“Probably at the same time, regional associations, the so-called "hui-kuan" originated. Such associations united people from one city or one area who lived in another city. People of different trades, but mainly businessmen, came together under elected chiefs and councillors. Sometimes, such regional associations could function as pressure groups, especially as they were usually financially stronger than the guilds. They often owned city property or farm land. Not all merchants, however, were so organized. Although merchants remained under humiliating restrictions as to the colour and material of their dress and the prohibition to ride a horse, they could more often circumvent such restrictions and in general had much more freedom in this epoch.

Northern and Southern Song Dynasties

The Song Dynasty was split in the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties in 1127 when horsemen from the north called the Jurchen (ancestors to the Manchu) imprisoned the Emperor and captured the Song capital of Bianjing. The Great Wall was supposed to keep horsemen like the Jurchen out of China. It was breached partly because the horsemen simply went around it and the Chinese government wasted its military budget on an inefficient and unskilled Chinese fighting force rather than hiring horsemen mercenaries who fought using the same tactics as the Mongols. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The Song Dynasty, like the Zhou and the Han, is a dynasty whose history is split in two. The dates of the dynasty are 960-1279, but in 1127, an invasion of North China by a nomad people called the Jurchens forced the Song court to flee to the South, and from that year to the dynasty’s end, China was divided in two, with the Jurchens presiding over North China from their capital near modern Beijing, and the Chinese Song court based in the city of Hangzhou, near the Yangzi River delta. The two eras of the Song are distinguished in the historical records by being assigned the names “Northern Song” and “Southern Song.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University ]

Song Dynasty Rulers

Northern Song (960–1127) Rulers: Taizu (960–76); Taizong (976–97); Zhenzong (998–1022); Renzong (1023–63); Yingzong (1064–67); Shenzong); Zhezong (1086–1100); Huizong (1101–25); Qinzong (1126–27).

Southern Song (1127–1279) Rulers: Gaozong (1127–62); Xiaozong (1163–89); Guangzong (1190–94); Ningzong (1195–1224); Lizong (1225–64); Duzong (1265–74); Gongti (1275–76); Duanzong (1276–78); (Di Bing) (1278–79).

Zhao Kuanggyin (Taizu, 960-976) cemented his power by forcing troublesome generals to retire and replacing military provincial governors with civil functionaries. Other Song rulers included Kuanggyin, a cruel leader who ordered habitual gamblers to have their hands cut off, a measure historians noted that “was very effective for quite some time." Yue Fei is a famous Song Dynasty general who was betrayed and died tragically.

Zhao Ji ( Huizong, 1082-1135, ruled 1100–1125), was negligent in his duties as emperor during his 25-year reign, but prized for his talents in art and calligraphy. He was especially good at painting flowers and birds, and landscapes as well. His calligraphy was known as shou jin shu, unique in a slim, hard-as-metal style. Under Emperor Huizong imperial patronage and the ruler's direct involvement in establishing artistic direction reached a zenith. While maintaining that the fundamental purpose of painting was to be true to nature, Huizong sought to enrich its content through the inclusion of poetic resonance and references to antique styles. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms

Five Dynasties and the Rise of Nomad Empire

Dr. Eno wrote: “During the decades following the fall of the Tang, control of China was deeply fragmented. In North China, five successive ruling houses, which were little more than warlord military powers, controlled most of the Yellow River valley region, while in the South, a different array of ten states existed during the period (which is therefore sometimes called the period of “five dynasties and ten kingdoms”). Of the five dynasties in the North, three were controlled by non-Chinese rulers, leaders of different Turkic tribal groups that had harried the northwest regions of China during the Tang, and that benefited from the fall of that dynasty. The strength of the Tang had been such that it had reestablished the great territorial reach of the Han government, an empire stretching north and west in the face of the vibrant tribal cultures of the northern steppe. The disintegration of the Tang made way for these nomadic peoples to coalesce in political alliances that rivaled Chinese states in effective strength. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“During the Five Dynasties era, with no central political force in China to hinder the growth of these configurations at the edge of “Han Chinese” territories, the stage was set for nomadic groups to flourish politically to a degree that had not been seen since the time of the Xiongnu threats to the early Han Dynasty state. Under these circumstances, the first of a series of great nomad empires emerged. This was the empire of the Liao, a dynastic house ruled by leading clans of a tribe knows as the Khitans (Qidan in Chinese). For the next several centuries, the Liao and sophisticated successor states – the Jin state of the Jurchens of Manchuria and the great Mongol empire – pressed China from the north and west with such ferocity that no Chinese government could approach the strength and extent of the Tang. /+/

“Towards the close of the Five Dynasties, the Khitan tribes became so powerful that they wrested from Chinese control significant areas south of the old Great Wall line – including the territory of present-day Beijing. When China was at last reunified in 960 under the Song Dynasty, the pressure of the Liao presence confined the new government to an area substantially smaller than that of the Tang. In the twelfth century, the Khitans were overthrown by a fresh expansion from the north: the Jurchen empire, led by a people from eastern Manchuria. The Jurchens established their own dynasty, the Jin, which was so powerful that it overran the northern half of China proper, including the Yellow River Valley, forcing the Song to cede its entire northern region. A century and a half later, the Jurchens were in turn routed by the explosive expansion of the Mongol empire, which extinguished the Song and founded, in China, the Yuan Dynasty. /+/

“Although the Mongol empire withdrew from China after only about one hundred years, and a Han Chinese period of rule – the Ming Dynasty – ensued, China was once more conquered by a nomadic: the Manchus (ethnically identical with the Jurchens), who ruled China from 1644 until the twentieth century. /+/

“Thus the latter phases of traditional China’s political history are dominated by the presence of strong non-Chinese governments, either bordering China and hemming it in to the north and west, or ruling China directly as occupiers. In terms of the history of the Song, during the earlier phase, known as the Northern Song, the pressure of the Khitan Liao state on the northern steppe restricted the geographical scale of the dynasty’s reach. During the latter phase, the even stronger pressure of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty in the north split China Proper in two, with the Song government, known as the Southern Song, in a position closer to a government in exile from its cultural homeland than that of an imperial state.’” /+/

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Zhao Kuangyin, the first Song emperor

Founding of the Song Dynasty

In 960, a general of the Later Zhou, the last of the five northern dynasties, mutinied against his government and led his army in a series of conquests that ultimately resulted in the reunification of China. This general, Zhao Kuangyin, became the founder of the Song Dynasty. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The founder of the Song dynasty, Zhao Kuangyin, came of a Chinese military family living to the south of Peking. He advanced from general to emperor, and so differed in no way from the emperors who had preceded him. But his dynasty did not disappear as quickly as the others; for this there were several reasons. To begin with, there was the simple fact that he remained alive longer than the other founders of dynasties, and so was able to place his rule on a firmer foundation. But in addition to this he followed a new course, which in certain ways smoothed matters for him and for his successors, in foreign policy. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“This Song dynasty, as Zhao Kuangyin named it, no longer turned against the northern peoples, particularly the Khitan, but against the south. This was not exactly an heroic policy: the north of China remained in the hands of the Khitan. There were frequent clashes, but no real effort was made to destroy the Khitan, whose dynasty was now called "Liao". The second emperor of the Song was actually heavily defeated several times by the Khitan. But they, for their part, made no attempt to conquer the whole of China, especially since the task would have become more and more burdensome the farther south the Song expanded. And very soon there were other reasons why the Khitan should refrain from turning their whole strength against the Chinese.

Dr. Eno wrote: ““As noted above, while the Song is considered one of China’s great eras, the Song state never matched the Han or Tang in terms of military strength and the expanse of empire the imperial house controlled. In establishing a reunified China, the Song founders recognized that the Khitan Liao empire represented too great a military threat to overcome. They settled for a compromise solution, focusing on establishing a flourishing state within the confines of the heartland of China, giving up those regions of the Han and Tang empires that lay deep in Central Asia or on the northern steppe. While many of these territories came under the control of the Khitans, who established their own, non-Chinese Liao Dynasty in the north, much of the Central Asian corridor came under the control of a different people, Tanguts, who established a state known as Xixia, or Western Xia, in that region. /+/

The Liao Dynasty endured almost to the end of the Northern Song era as a strong force on China’s borders; ultimately, the Khitan Liao was toppled by the Jurchens, who conquered the Liao in 1125, on their way to occupying all of North China. From the start, then, the Song state differed from its great predecessors in its lack of expansionist ambitions, and its focus on the development of a civil state whose success could be sustained. /+/

Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127)

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The Song dynasty (960–1279) was culturally the most brilliant era in later imperial Chinese history. A time of great social and economic change, the period in large measure shaped the intellectual and political climate of China down to the twentieth century. The first half of this era, when the capital was located at Bianliang (modern Kaifeng), is known as the Northern Song period. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“The early Northern Song dynasty witnessed the flowering of one of the supreme artistic expressions of Chinese civilization: monumental landscape painting. Retreating to the mountains to escape the turmoil and destruction that occurred at the end of the Tang dynasty (618–906), tenth-century recluse-painters discovered in nature the moral order that they had found lacking in the human world. In their visionary landscapes, the great mountain, towering above the lesser mountains, trees, and men, was like "a ruler among his subjects, a master among servants." Later, Song court painters transformed these idealized images of nature into emblems of a perfectly ordered state. \^/

“An important outgrowth of Song political unification after the war-torn Five Dynasties period (907–60) was the creation of a distinctive style of court painting under the auspices of the Imperial Painting Academy. Painters from all parts of the empire were recruited to serve the needs of the court. Over time, the varied traditions represented by this diverse group of artists were welded together into a harmonious Song academic manner that valued a naturalistic, closely descriptive portrayal of the physical world. Under Emperor Huizong (r. 1100–25), himself an accomplished painter and calligrapher, imperial patronage and the ruler's direct involvement in establishing artistic direction reached a zenith. While maintaining that the fundamental purpose of painting was to be true to nature, Huizong sought to enrich its content through the inclusion of poetic resonance and references to antique styles. \^/

“The momentous political shift during the early Song—from a society ruled by a hereditary aristocratic order to a society governed by a central bureaucracy of scholar-officials chosen through the civil-service examination—also had a major impact on the arts. As a ruling elite, these Neo-Confucian scholars regarded public service as their principal calling, but factional strife sometimes forced them to retire from political engagement, during which time they often pursued artistic interests. Dissatisfied with the rigidity and oversophistication of early Northern Song calligraphy, eleventh-century scholars sought to revive the natural, spontaneous qualities of more archaic models. The literati also applied their new critical standards to painting. Rejecting the highly realistic descriptive style followed by the professional painters of the Imperial Painting Academy, they also departed from the official view that art must serve the state. Instead, the amateur scholar-artist pursued painting and calligraphy for his own amusement as a forum of personal expression." \^/

Northern Song Dynasty and Southern China

11th century rocket arrows

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “As we said, the Song turned at once against the states in the south. Some of the many small southern states had made substantial economic and cultural advance, but militarily they were not strong. Zhao Kuangyin (named as emperor T'ai Tsu) attacked them in succession. Most of them fell very quickly and without any heavy fighting, especially since the Song dealt mildly with the defeated rulers and their following. The gentry and the merchants in these small states could not but realize the advantages of a widened and well-ordered economic field, and they were therefore entirely in favour of the annexation of their country so soon as it proved to be tolerable. And the Song empire could only endure and gain strength if it had control of the regions along the Yangtze and around Canton, with their great economic resources. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

The process of absorbing the small states in the south continued until 980. Before it was ended, the Song tried to extend their influence in the south beyond the Chinese border, and secured a sort of protectorate over parts of Annam (973). This sphere of influence was politically insignificant and not directly of any economic importance; but it fulfilled for the Song the same functions which colonial territories fulfilled for Europeans, serving as a field of operation for the commercial class, who imported raw materials from it—mainly, it is true, luxury articles such as special sorts of wood, perfumes, ivory, and so on—and exported Chinese manufactures. As the power of the empire grew, this zone of influence extended as far as Indonesia: the process had begun in the Tang period. The trade with the south had not the deleterious effects of the trade with Central Asia. There was no sale of refined metals, and none of fabrics, as the natives produced their own textiles which sufficed for their needs. And the export of porcelain brought no economic injury to China, but the reverse.

Expansion of Commerce under the Northern Song

Dr. Eno wrote: “The Song founders established their court at a city that had not previously served as a dynastic capital. The city of Kaifeng lay in China’s midlands, just south of the Yellow River. The decision to take Kaifeng as a base rather than the Tang capital of Chang’an reflected a change in the circumstances and goals of the dynasty. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]


“Chang’an had been considered ideal by the Tang because of its status as the terminus of the “Silk Route,” the channel of foreign trade through Central Asia, and because of its strong military defensibility. The new Song government was far less interested in these advantages. Kaifeng was better suited to Song goals because it had become a terminus of the Grand Canal – its connection by canal with the southern urban center of Hangzhou made it a focus of "internal" commerce. The Song aspired to focus on building the wealth and social cohesion of the heartland regions of China, and a capital located at Kaifeng was ideal for these purposes. /+/

“For almost 1000 years, since the disastrous Yellow River floods of the early first century, the population of China had been gradually shifting from the fertile but dry lands of the North towards the South, a region characterized by a warm, moist climate and by a multitude of naturally navigable waterways. This shift accelerated during the peaceful years of the early Song, as farmers sought to open new lands in the South on which to grow rice, which was becoming increasingly popular throughout China, and also to produce other crops that Northerners would find exotic and attractive, such as tea. /+/

“In the South, crops could be grown year round, and Major North-South canals fostered a lively inter-regional trade that heated China’s economy to levels unseen before in the world. The South became particularly wealthy. Farming populations began to grow at spectacular rates, and enormously wealthy merchant families began to purchase large tracts of land, rent them out to peasant tenants, collect high rents, and use their wealth to gather together in increasingly large urban centers, where the upper classes lived in remarkable luxury. The growth of some of the largest Chinese cities, such as Guangzhou (Canton) and Nanjing, dates from this period.” /+/

Song Dynasty Military

The Song dynasty was supported by a powerful army with hundreds of thousands of professional soldiers supported by imperial taxes and a large iron and steel industry. The first lines of Song defenses were fortified garrisons, armed by men with crossbows.The most powerful weapon was a sophisticated crossbow with a trigger device capable of accommodating great tension and shooting arrows that penetrated leather armor. Even weak soldiers with little skill could shoot arrows with great accuracy. Song soldiers used gunpowder in a limited capacity in "fire arrows" and bomblike devises. The Song army was ultimately defeated by the Mongols because the emperors didn't trust their own generals and divided the army which was outmaneuvered and overrun more easily than a more concentrated force.

The generals by whose aid the empire had been created were put on pension, or transferred to civil employment, as quickly as possible. The army was demobilized, and this measure was bound up with the settlement of peasants in the regions which war had depopulated, or on new land. Soon after this the revenue noticeably increased. Above all, the army was placed directly under the central administration, and the system of military governors was thus brought to an end. The soldiers became mercenaries of the state, whereas in the past there had been conscription. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

In 975 the army had numbered only 378,000, and its cost had not been insupportable. Although the numbers increased greatly, reaching 912,000 in 1017 and 1,259,000 in 1045, this implied no increase in military strength; for men who had once been soldiers remained with the army even when they were too old for service. Moreover, the soldiers grew more and more exacting; when detachments were transferred to another region, for instance, the soldiers would not carry their baggage; an army of porters had to be assembled. The soldiers also refused to go to regions remote from their homes until they were given extra pay. Such allowances gradually became customary, and so the military expenditure grew by leaps and bounds without any corresponding increase in the striking power of the army.

The Song government was unable to meet the whole costs of the army and its administration out of taxation revenue. Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: The attempt was made to cover the expenditure by coining fresh money. In connection with the increase in commercial capital described above, and the consequent beginning of an industry, China's metal production had greatly increased. In 1050 thirteen times as much silver, eight times as much copper, and fourteen times as much iron was produced as in 800. Thus the circulation of the copper currency was increased. The cost of minting, however, amounted in China to about 75 per cent and often over 100 per cent of the value of the money coined. In addition to this, the metal was produced in the south, while the capital was in the north. The coin had therefore to be carried a long distance to reach the capital and to be sent on to the soldiers in the north. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“To meet the increasing expenditure, an unexampled quantity of new money was put into circulation. The state budget increased from 22,200,000 in A.D. 1000 to 150,800,000 in 1021. The Khitan state coined a great deal of silver, and some of the tribute was paid to it in silver. The greatly increased production of silver led to its being put into circulation in China itself. And this provided a new field of speculation, through the variations in the rates for silver and for copper. Speculation was also possible with the deposit certificates, which were issued in quantities by the state from the beginning of the eleventh century, and to which the first true paper money was soon added. The paper money and the certificates were redeemable at a definite date, but at a reduction of at least 3 per cent of their value; this, too, yielded a certain revenue to the state.

Northern Rivals of the Song: Liao, Jin, Xi Xia, and the Mongols

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Song dynasty (960-1279) was weaker than its predecessor, the Tang, and ruled over a smaller territory. To the north and northwest, the Song faced strong alien regimes: the Khitan Liao dynasty (907-1125) and the Tangut Xixia (990-1227). These regimes posed a constant military threat, which the Song defused by making payments of silk and other goods to both the Xixia and the Liao according to negotiated agreements. Still, the burden of maintaining troops for the defense of the empire was significant and caused serious financial problems for the imperial government (the cost of the payments to the Xixia and the Liao was small by comparison). [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Even though China was the economic powerhouse of East Asia, with by far the largest population, it was not militarily dominant and had to adjust to a multi-state context. In this period when the horse was a major weapon of war, the grasslands north of China offered greater military advantage than China’s industrial prowess. During the Song period, three non-Chinese groups formed states that controlled the grasslands to the north of the Song, where the colder, drier climate favored animal husbandry over crop agriculture. Over the course of four centuries, these Inner Asian states gained more territory occupied primarily by Chinese. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer ]

The Khitans (Liao dynasty, 907-1125), beginning in the 10th century, gained a strip of land that included modern Beijing. The Jurchens (Jin dynasty, 1115-1234), after defeating the Khitans in the early 12th century, went on to push Song out of North China. The Mongols (Yuan dynasty, 1279-1368), after defeating the Jurchen in the early 13th century, went on and fully defeated the Song to control all of China.

From the perspective of the Song, these three northern rivals had much in common. They all were master horsemen who were very hard for the Chinese to defeat in open battle. Their basic social structure was tribal, but they had adopted many elements of Chinese statecraft. Beginning in 1004, the Song made efforts to buy peace by agreeing to make annual payments of money and silk to them in exchange for their agreement not to invade.

The Khitan, Jurchen, and Mongol states all ruled over their Chinese subjects in ways that drew on Chinese traditions, making distinctions between Chinese subjects and other subjects (which included several different northern ethnic groups). All three non-Chinese states made concerted efforts to maintain their own ethnic identity and to keep themselves from being absorbed by the numerically much more numerous Chinese.

Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279)

In 1125, the Mongol-like Juchen from northeast Asia invaded Song China and captured the capital at Bianliang (modern Kaifeng), founding their own Jin dynasty in the north. The Song court reestablished itself in the south in Hangzhou, where it continued to rule for another 150 years as the Southern Song dynasty. During the Southern Song era, the population of lands under Chinese control reached 100 million, and their capital at Hangzhou became thriving metropolis of 1.5 million. According to the Middle Ages Reference Library: Cities spread throughout Song China, and Chinese culture flourished. It was a time of great painters, noted for subtle landscapes influenced by Zen Buddhism. Among these was the emperor Huizong, who formed the alliance with the Juchen and is known as a better artist than an administrator. This era also witnessed advances in distinctively Chinese arts such as porcelain-making and calligraphy, the art of lettering. [Source: Middle Ages Reference Library, Gale Group, Inc., 2001]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art:“Southern Song society was characterized by the pursuit of a highly aestheticized way of life, and paintings of the period often focus on evanescent pleasures and the transience of beauty. Images evoke poetic ideas that appeal to the senses or capture the fleeting qualities of a moment in time. One particularly important source of inspiration for Southern Song artists was the natural beauty of Hangzhou and its environs, especially West Lake, a famed scenic spot ringed with lush mountains and dotted with palaces, private gardens, and Buddhist temples. [Source:Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“The Southern Song Imperial Painting Academy continued the stylistic direction and high technical standards established by Emperor Huizong in the early twelfth century. Often executed in the intimate oval fan or album-leaf format, academic paintings—and the imperially inscribed poems that sometimes accompany them—reveal an increasingly narrow, concentrated vision and a commitment to the exact rendering of an object. The cultivation of a tranquil and detached mind free of material entanglements was a common concern of Song Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi (1130–1200): the "investigation of things [leading to] the extension of knowledge." \^/

“The decorative arts also reached the height of elegance and technical perfection during the Southern Song. Like painting, the plastic arts responded to two different aesthetics—that of the imperial court and that of popular culture. Supreme among the decorative arts of the Song period are ceramics, which many connoisseurs consider the highest artistic achievement of the Chinese potter." \^/

Southern Song Emperors and Empresses

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “After remnants of the Song court moved the south, Gaozong (Zhao Gou, 1107-1187), the first emperor of the Southern Song, actively searched for artists in an effort to reconstruct the court painting academy. He also strove to reassemble an imperial collection from the scattered works of painting and calligraphy, resulting in the quick rise and continued development of artistic activities in the Southern Song. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

A portrait of Emperor Gaozong, shows him “ wearing a black gauze cap with long horizontal slats and a crimson robe. With his gentle and refined scholarly appearance, his eyes seem to sparkle with life. This work was once severely damaged at some point in its history. When remounted in the Qing dynasty, the originally damaged background was removed and replaced with silk, to which coloring was washed in ink to match the rest. Although some difference appears in the colors, the originally coloring can fortunately still be seen in the surviving portion. \=/

The original surname of Ningzong's Empress Yang (1162-1233) is unknown, because she entered the court as a youth with her adoptive mother and served as an actress. Under the care and guidance of the emperor's mother, Grand Empress Wu, she was presented to Ningzong, thereafter rising quickly. Among court officials was one known as Yang Cishan, whom she took as her elder brother, which is why Yang also called herself "Yang Meizi" ("Younger Sister Yang"). Although Empress Yang was born of humble origins, she was able to become quite learned, being very gifted at poetry and painting. Her calligraphy style very similar to that of Emperor Ningzong, she often served as his writer. \=/

Science and Advances During the Southern Song

Advances that occurred during the Song dynasty included the first printed books, the first widespread use of paper currency and credit notes, the first school system, the development of gun powder, rapid development of the coal, steel and armaments industries, increased economic activity, and expansion of markets abroad. Shan-Yin, a Song princess, had a special bed made that could accommodate 30 men who all made love to her at the same time.

Dr. Eno wrote: “The need to harness the water energy of South China led to a series of inventions connected to irrigation and flood control. The military was refitted with weaponry that used a new technique for carbonizing iron: the invention of steel. Alongside the development of new financial institutions, Chinese mathematics made enormous strides, as did astronomical science – intellectual fields whose growth was facilitated by the possibility of mass produced books. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Advances that occurred during the Song dynasty included the first printed books, the first widespread use of paper currency and credit notes, the first school system, the development of gun powder, rapid development of the coal, steel and armaments industries, increased economic activity, and expansion of markets abroad. Shan-Yin, a Song princess, had a special bed made that could accommodate 30 men who all made love to her at the same time.

Under the Song dynasty iron production in 1078 was double that of England in the early industrial revolution in the late 18th century. Chinese ships had watertight compartments, pivoting sails and compasses. Large sailing ships had six masts, four decks and were capable of carrying a 1000 men. Chinese engineers developed the spinning jenny and the steam engine, two inventions that were key to England the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. Improvements in crop yields through innovations, improvements in techniques and intensification produced what has been described as the world's first green revolution.

Mongol Invasions and the End of the Song

The Song Dynasty was split in the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties in 1127 when horsemen from the north called the Juchen imprisoned the Emperor and captured the Song capital of Bianjing. The Jurchean were then conquered by another group of horsemen, the Mongols, in 1226. The Great Wall was supposed to keep horsemen like the Jurchen the Mongols out of China. It was breached partly because the horsemen simply went around it and the Chinese government wasted its military budget on an inefficient and unskilled Chinese fighting force rather than hiring horsemen mercenaries who fought using the same tactics as the Mongols. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Dr. Eno wrote: "During the last century of the Song Dynasty, forces were gathering on the northern Asian steppe that were to have dramatic world consequences, affecting the shape of Chinese history. This was the period when the Mongol people were brought together under the leadership of Genghis Khan (or Chinggis Khan,1165-1227) and his successors and launched lightning cavalry attacks on both East Asia and Eastern Europe, amassing for a brief time the most far flung empire that the world has ever seen. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“In 1226, the Mongol armies brought down the empire the Xixia state that had controlled the Central Asian corridor throughout the Song, and following this, they turned their attention to the Jurchen Jin Dynasty, exerting pressure from the north. To create a more secure military buffer, the Jin moved their capital from Beijing to the old Northern Song capital of Kaifeng, south of the Yellow River, but it was to no avail. In 1234, the Mongols brought an end to Jurchen rule in North China. /+/

“Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan (1215-94) became the leader of the Mongol forces in the east in 1260. He established a capital in Beijing, and determined to conquer all China and rule their as emperor. In 1271, he proclaimed the establishment of a new dynasty, the Yuan, and began a campaign of conquest, aiming south. /+/

See The Mongols and the Yuan Dynasty

Image Sources: Song Emperor, China Page website; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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