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 *]

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. <|>

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.

Websites and Resources

Good Websites and Sources on the Song Dynasty: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; ; BCPS ; Good Websites and Sources on the Tang Dynasty: Wikipedia ; Google Book: China’s Golden Age: Everday Life in the Tang Dynasty by Charles Benn; Empress Wu ; Good Websites and Sources on Tang Culture: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Tang Poems enter Tang Poems in the search; Tang Horses China Vista

Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University; 2) Chinese Text Project ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization ; 4) Ancient China Life ; 5) Ancient China for School Kids ; Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland ; 2) WWW VL: History China ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) e-book ; Links in this Website: Main China Page (Click History)

Books: 1) Cambridge History of China Vol. 5 Part One and Part Two (Cambridge University Press); 2) Benn, Charles, “Daily Life in Traditional China: The Tang Dynasty,” Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002; 3) Schafer, Edward H. “The Golden Peaches of Samarkan,” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963; 4) The Culture and Civilization of China, a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link:

Song Dynasty Rulers and the Split Into Northern and Southern 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 /+/ ]

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.

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. [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.’” /+/

20080216-first song emperor ch pg.gif
Zhao Kuangyin, the first Song emperor

Founding of the Song Dynasty

Dr. Eno wrote: “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 /+/ ]

“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." \^/

Song Dynasty Bureaucracy and Military

11th century rocket arrows

The founders of the Song dynasty built an effective centralized bureaucracy staffed with civilian scholar-officials. Regional military governors and their supporters were replaced by centrally appointed officials. This system of civilian rule led to a greater concentration of power in the emperor and his palace bureaucracy than had been achieved in the previous dynasties. The northern Song dynasty emphasized "orderly and virtuous governance, achieved largely through efficient bureaucracy staffed by mandarins who passed the rigorous state examinations...the revival of Confucian teaching gave a particularly strong moral flavor to the dynasty."

Song rule featured a bureaucratic ruling class that derived its legitimacy from philosophical orthodoxy and an economy that involved an increasingly active free peasantry interacting with large urban commercial, manufacturing and administrative centers. As was true with the dynasties the Song Dynasty was essentially ruled by an elite bureaucracy chosen through competitive examinations on classic Confucian texts. Some 20,000 mandarins were responsible for governing an empire with more than 100 million people. Progress was hampered somewhat by strong central control. Fearing loss of authority, the bureaucracies reigned in the power of merchants with strict regulations.

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.

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.” /+/

Northern Rivals: 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.

Liao Empire

Khitan Horsemen

The Liao dynasty ruled an empire uniting the nomadic Khitan people of northern China from A.D. 907 to 1125. Archeological sites associated with the empire, which include two capitals, are located mostly in Inner Mongolia. Jake Hooker wrote in Archaeology magazine, “The Liao Empire was once considered a minor state on the fringes of Chinese civilization. Chinese-language sources depicted the Khitan as barbarians; Western scholars, who hadn't seen much material evidence other than Liao pagodas, regarded the dynasty as esoteric. But discoveries in Inner Mongolia over the past three decades have prompted scholars to reconsider these views, and Liao society is now recognized as a sophisticated blend of Khitan and Chinese traditions. [Source:“Dynasty of Nomads” by Jake Hooker, Archaeology magazine, Volume 60 Number 6, November/December 2007 *-*]

“In 2003, archaeologists found a woman buried in a Liao-era tomb with a headdress similar to those worn by modern shamans. Before recent archaeological work, Liao history could only be reconstructed from Chinese-language sources. The Liao dynastic history describes the outlines of Liao culture in terms that Chinese historians could fathom--the economy, the government bureaucracy, the size and force of the cavalry, the number of vassal states. Other Chinese chronicles gave sketches of life and customs in Liao society, but they did not anticipate the profound impact that Liao innovations would have on China. *-*

Jurchen warriors

“Scholars agree Liao rulers adapted Chinese customs and traditions over time. They governed the sedentary Chinese population with a civil bureaucracy modeled on the earlier Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907): they wore Chinese dress on ceremonial occasions, built Chinese-style temples and pagodas that surpassed those built by Chinese empires, and adopted the dragon as a sacred emblem. Yet the Liao also followed the traditions of their nomadic culture. They continued to practice shamanism, and on the day of the winter solstice, they slaughtered a white sheep, a white horse, and a white goose. The Liao worshiped the mountains, the sun, and the moon, as well as the Buddha. *-*

“Chinese literati, living in some of the world's most cosmopolitan cities, did not understand these native customs, and sometimes their observations were insulting. One Chinese writer witnessed the preparation of the second Liao emperor Deguang's corpse after he died in battle, in A.D. 946. The intestines were removed and the body was filled with salt and fragrant herbs, then the arms and feet were wrapped in copper wire. The Chinese writer called the preserved remains "imperial dried meat." "It goes without saying that Chinese and Khitan were hostile to each other," Tala, the chief archeologist in China working at Khitan sites, says. "How can people who eat grass conquer we who eat grain? How can people who wear animal pelts compare to we who wear clothes?” *-*

As a result of the Treaty of Shanyuan in 1005, the Liao received an annual payment of a hundred thousand taels of silver and two hundred thousand bolts of silk from Song China. In 1042, the amount increased to two hundred taels of silver and three hundred thousand bolts of silk. A silver ingot from the Song dynasty, dated to the 11th or early 12th century and measuring 14.8-x-9 centimeters, was found in Dayingzi Rural Area, Linxi County, Inner Mongolia. “This silver ingot has an inscription engraved in Chinese on one side, part of which reads ‘forty-nine taels and seven,’ referring to the weight of the ingot. The ingot is most likely an example of the tribute items presented by the Song dynasty to the Liao empire. [Source: Cultural Relics Management Institute of Linxi County, Asia Society]

See Separate Article on the KHITANS ]

Northern Song Defeated by the Jurchen Jin

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In 1127 the Northern Song dynasty came to an end as the Jurchen Liao conquered northern China and drove the Song court south to the Yangzi valley. There, from the capital at Hangzhou, the Song court continued as the Southern Song (1127-1279) to rule southern China. The Southern Song empire was an economically and culturally vibrant place, but the defeat at the hands of non-Chinese Jurchen people and the loss of territory rankled. So did the fact that the court was simply not strong enough to recover the lost territory. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, <|>]

Yue Fei and students

Dr. Eno wrote: “The Jurchens had been a growing power in the region northeast of China for many years, a region that later came to be known as Manchuria. They were a Tungusic people, originally nomads of the northern steppe, and had for some time been competitors of the Khitan Liao Dynasty. Shortly before their invasion of China, the Jurchens extinguished the Liao and founded their own dynastic state, which they called the Jin, moving their capital close to present-day Beijing. Throughout the period of the Southern Song, the Jin Dynasty ruled North China effectively. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“When the Jurchen armies swept into China, the Song encountered the consequences of their general neglect of military preparedness in favor of concentration on civil governance. The government was forced to flee far south, eventually settling its capital in the city of Hangzhou, below the Yangzi delta, and a large mass of people followed their path, migrating from North to South China. This final major migration of people south capped the thousand-year trend to balance the populations of China’s two main agricultural regions. /+/

“The Jurchen invasion of Northern China in 1127 was recognized by Chinese as a disaster of the first magnitude. North China was the homeland of Chinese culture, and although the South had long since become an economic and cultural region on an equal level with the North, it was still conceived of by many people as the frontier, certainly not the appropriate base for a dynasty claiming to be the successor of the Han and Tang. However, in some respects, the division of China at this point created unique positive opportunities for development, and looking back, we can see that the potential existed for China to emerge from this split far stronger than it had ever been before. This did not happen, and, in fact, China from this point on seems to enter a long period of general economic and cultural stagnation, that centuries later made it vulnerable to the depredations of Western powers.” /+/

Yue Fei (1103-1142) and His Poem About the Bloody Loss to the Jin

“Yue Fei (1103-1142) was an officer in the Northern Song army. When the Song retreated south in the face of Jin attacks, Yue Fei opposed the retreat. He continued, however, to serve the emperor, rising to the rank of general and engaging in battles with the Jin and in suppression of peasant uprisings. Yue Fei experienced success in his campaigns against the Jin in 1140. The Southern Song Gaozong Emperor and his advisors, however, sought to make peace with the Jin — which involved returning the northern territories that Yue Fei had just recaptured in his campaigns. Yue Fei and his allies stood in the way of the peace negotiations. Accordingly, Yue Fei was ordered to withdraw — which he did, declaring that “the achievements of ten years have been dashed in a single day.” Yue Fei was arrested on charges of plotting rebellion (charges that his defenders insisted were trumped up) and executed in 1141.” <|>

“Yue Fei wrote the following poem as a song to be sung to the tune of “Full River Red.” The “Jingkang period” to which he refers is the last reign-period of the Northern Song — the period in which the Northern Song were defeated by the Jurchen Jin and retreated to the south:[Source: “ Poem to be Sung to the Tune of "Full River Red" by Yue Fei, 1103-1142, from “”Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”,” edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 169-170.

My hair bristles in my helmet. <|>
Standing by the balcony as the rain shower stops,
I look up to the sky and loudly let Heaven know,
The strength of my passions.
My accomplishments over thirty years are mere dust.
I traveled eight thousand li with the clouds and the moon,
Never taking time to rest,
For a young man’s hair grows white from despair.

The humiliation of the Jingkang period,
Has not yet been wiped away.
The indignation I feel as a subject,
Has not yet been allayed.
Let me drive off in a chariot,
To destroy their base at Helan Mountain.
My ambition as a warrior,
Is to satisfy my hunger with the flesh of the barbarians,
Then, while enjoying a rest,
Slake my thirst with the blood of the tribesmen.
Give me the chance to try again,
To recover our mountains and rivers,
Then report to the emperor. <|>

Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279)

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “In 1125, when the Jurchen, a seminomadic people 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. [Source: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. \^/

“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 During the Southern Song

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.

If the Song Dynasty Was So Advanced Why Didn’t It Shape the Modern World

Dr. Eno wrote: “Commercial activity and the appearance of new methods of production and other technologies created the conditions favorable for speculative investment, and social historians find many of the institutions that are typically precursors of capitalist development: urban professional guilds, concentrations of wealth in socially mobile families, and liquid forms of currency. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Song grain mill

“These developments in commerce, science, and economic institutions during the Song have led scholars to question why China did not go on to make the intellectual and social breakthroughs that are associated with transformations to modernity in the Western world. If one were to take a snapshot of the world in the twelfth century, there seems no question that China would appear the only state capable of making those sorts of changes. Europe did not reach the levels of commerce and intellectual sophistication seen during the Southern Song period until centuries later. What held China back? It is often pointed out that this may be the wrong way to ask the question: the critical changes in culture and economics that led to the Enlightenment and scientific revolution in the West may not have followed any laws of social development, and real question should perhaps be what forces pushed Europe to develop as it did. Nevertheless, what is often called the Song “commercial revolution” is so pronounced, and the intellectual ferment surrounding it so dramatic, that, with or without reference to Europe, it is indeed disappointing to look a century or two ahead and find China having apparently regressed in both economic and scientific terms. /+/

“A number of candidates as causes for this deceleration of China’s social development have been proposed over the decades, and it is now generally acknowledged that it is very likely that no single cause decisively altered the direction China took. It has been pointed out that in Europe, modernization was enabled in part by weak and fragmented governments being unable to constrain experiment and initiative by individuals, while in China, the universal top.down pattern of governance was dedicated to a type of social control that left far less room for economic and intellectual entrepreneurship. A related contrast is that in Europe, modernization was focused in rapidly growing urban centers that were often administered solely on local initiative, outside the purview of established state structures, whereas in China, the strongest nodes of central government control were precisely urban centers – the rapid growth of an urban community in South China during the Song brought people under stricter government control than would have otherwise been the case. /+/

“But one component of China’s retreat from the brink of modernity is generally agreed to be related to abrupt changes that took place in the intellectual sphere. These changes are associated with the rise of an entirely new form of Confucian ideology, an approach that substantially rejects both the Cultural Confucianism of the conservative Northern Song establishment and the activist reform program of Wang Anshi’s followers. This new ideology is called Neo-Confucianism in the West, and its impact on China’s intellectual history was so dramatic that for centuries the term “Confucianism” itself was understood only in terms of this new approach, which was born amidst the factional struggles of the Northern Song, and first attracted a wide following after the invasions of 1127. We will discuss Neo-Confucianism further in a separate reading. /+/

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 Jurchen (ancestors to the Manchu) 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]

Mongol catapult

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. /+/

“The Mongols may have been the most dominant military phenomenon until the atomic bomb. Their army was composed entirely of cavalry, and training on the wild steppe had toughened both horsemen and horses to travel enormous distances at great speed. Warriors learned to sleep in the saddle and to tap their horses’ veins for blood when food was scarce. The tradition of Mongol warfare was raiding; the pattern was to appear seemingly from out of nowhere, attacking settlements, towns, and cities with terrific ruthlessness, as much intent upon terror as conquest and loot. In Europe, they were widely believed to be a scourge sent from God, and during the thirteenth century, their conquests there extended as far west as Hungary and Poland. In the Middle East they occupied the lands of modern Iran and Iraq, extending west through most of Turkey. The Southern Song military had been strengthened since the time of the Jurchen invasions, but it was not equipped to defend against the type of warfare launched by Mongol armies under Kublai. In 1279, the Song Dynasty fell to the invading armies in what was probably the bloodiest war ever witnessed on Chinese territory. Census figures that can provide the basis for population estimates for the period suggest that China’s population, which had burgeoned during the Song, was cut by as much as one.third, from about 120 million to 80 million, as a result of the Mongol incursions and the social chaos that followed them. Any analysis of why China did not follow the Song commercial revolution with the further development of modern institutions must take into account the devastating setback that was represented by the wars that brought an end to the Song. /+/

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 November 2016

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