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Song Dynasty 960 - 1279

Song dynasty China Song dynasty
Power and Prosperity during the Tang dynasty

Power and Prosperity during the Tang dynasty


When the dynasties of China are brought to mind, the Han, Tang and Ming are generally considered the greatest. During the Tang China was undoubtedly the only world super-power with huge cities and great achievements. Tang poetry is considered the finest. Influence of China spread far to the west reaching the Aral Sea and Pakistan.

The Song dynasty is divided into Northern and Southern periods. This reflects the incursion of tribes from the north, causing the empire to contract south of the Yangzi and the capital to move from Kaifeng to Hangzhou.

Despite the loss of the extensive lands to the west the Song dynasty represented another blossoming of prosperity and cultural endeavor. The founder of the dynasty, Zhao Kuangyin (aka Taizu), took the best parts of the existing administrative system and ditched others; for example it was no longer a capital offense to disagree with the Emperor. He came to power apparently reluctantly, being pushed forward by military commanders as their leader in a move reminiscent of the ascension of Roman Emperor Claudius . He reduced the power of provincial governors and disbanded the army that had brought him to power. By his death in 976 he ruled most of southern China except for Fujian and Zhejiang with very little armed conflict. To remove the usual instability brought about by reigns of child Emperors the throne passed to his brother not his son. During the dynasty, the population rose to over 100 million; great cities with over one million people were founded and others extended. The capital Kaifeng became even more populous than the former Tang capital of Chang'an. Painting; calligraphy and philosophy achieved new levels of sophistication; and the Emperors themselves became skilled in these arts. At this time industry, commerce and agriculture in China were far in advance of the rest of the World. Blast furnaces produced quality iron; gunpowder started to be used in weaponry; water mills powered textile mills.With forests already heavily depleted coal starts to be used as fuel. Paper money, controlled by the state, was printed for the first time. Song porcelain remains the most highly prized of ceramics of all time. Five able Southern Song emperors ruled the empire wisely. The nation no longer saw itself as purely agrarian, it was developing new technologies and commercial activities.

Chinese proverb


Héng xíng bà dào [heng xing ba dao]
across walk bully road
Walking sidewise to block the way
Being deliberately obstructive

Rise of Confucian doctrine

Confucian doctrine displaced the dominance of Buddhism in the Tang dynasty at the Imperial court. Song dynasty rulers succeeded in living closer to the Confucian ideals than any other dynasty. The philosopher Zhu Xi re-invigorated the Confucian canon with a more consistent interpretation of the ancient texts. The 'Neo-Confucian' philosophy extended Confucian thinking into areas away from ethics into such things as cosmology and metaphysics. The state bureaucracy grew in size and complexity and the Imperial examination system was perfected with many poorer students able to become high ranking officials based purely on scholastic merit. Literature blossomed, with great poets such as Su Shi producing classic poems. In the sciences, achievements included the invention of matrix algebra and the discovery of magnetism.

banquet, Song dynasty
An Elegant Party (detail), an outdoor painting of a small Chinese banquet hosted by the emperor for scholar-officials from the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Although painted in the Song period, it is most likely a reproduction of an earlier Tang Dynasty (618-907) work of art. The painting is attributed to Emperor Huizong of Song (r. 1100?1125 AD). Image by PericlesofAthens available under a Creative Commons license .
960 Emperor Taizu became ruler; 976 Emperor Taizu no longer ruler
999 Bao Zheng born at Hefei Anhui; 1021 Wang Anshi born
1037 Su Shi born
1062 Bao Zheng died
1086 Wang Anshi died; 1101 Su Shi died
1115 Jin dynasty began; 1119 Use of magnetic compass
1154 Paper money in use ; 1161 Use of gunpowder ; 1162 Genghis Khan born
1215 Kublai Khan born; 1227 Genghis Khan died; 1234 Jin dynasty ended
1254 Marco Polo born; 1260 Kublai Khan became ruler
Song dynasty key dates

Loss of the North

Teacup media audio podcast by Laszlo Montgomery.
The Southern Song Dynasty
Laszlo podcast

Emperor Huizong (1101-1125) who was more interested in art than armies, presided over the loss of Northern China to the northern Jin dynasty. The early Song emperors had tried but failed to subdue the Qidan kingdom to the north. Attack came from the Western Xia (or XiXia) in the north-west ; the Qidan Khitan WG (Liao dynasty) and the Jin (Jurchen) nomadic peoples of Manchuria. They took control of the open border regions in the north. The Qidan had been a regional power based in Liaoning from 936-1125 before being defeated by an alliance between Song and Jin peoples. The alliance proved disastrous as the Jin then overran the Song capital Kaifeng (then known as Bianjing or Dongjing) and captured Huizong and the imperial family. The remnants of the Song administration fled south to continue as the Southern Song dynasty with capital at Lin'an (now called Hangzhou). The name Lin'an means ‘Temporary Peace’, and also Xingzai ‘Temporary residence’ reflect the desire to recapture northern China. The Southern Song remained a peaceful and prosperous culture exploiting the rich agricultural land of the Yangzi valley. Many northerners moved south, and the present day Hakka people of Guangdong and Guangxi are believed to be descended from them. The importance of the sea for trade, now that access to the Silk Road was blocked, led to advances in ship-building, producing ships up to 300 feet [91 meters] long with up to 1,000 oarsmen. This was made possible by the technology that Arab sea traders brought with them. A trade triangle developed between China, India and Indonesia with spice as the most valuable cargo. A Jewish community set up in Kaifeng, emphasizes the open nature of Song society. The inventions of the magnetic compass proved invaluable for navigating long sea journeys, a secret zealously protected by the Chinese. The compass also enabled accurate land maps to be drawn up. Envoys were sent out to foreign lands and reports of their travels were published in China; as by this time China was printing extensively on paper. Indeed printing not only provided a wide range of books for scholars but also manuals on agriculture and technology for ordinary people. Availability of printed books led to surge in learning.

examinations, Song dynasty
Palace Examination at Kaifeng, Song Dynasty, China.
Image available under a Creative Commons license

Wang Anshi 1021 - 1086

Wang Anshi
Wang Anshi available under a Creative Commons License

The accomplished and scholarly statesman, Wang Anshi introduced controversial reforms in the Northern Song dynasty. He is remembered as the second greatest reformer only surpassed by his namesake Wang Mang of the Han dynasty a thousand years before. The military campaigns of Emperor Renzong against the Western Xia and Khitan kingdoms proved extremely costly; as well as paying for an army, a peace treaty placed crippling financial reparations on Song dynasty China. He came to prominence following a peasant revolt in 993. Simply increasing the tax rate did not yield extra revenue, instead it drove people into bankruptcy and off the land.

The Chinese Emperor

The Chinese Emperor


The institution of Emperor, as head of the Chinese family of people, lasted for thousands of years and to some extent lives on in the Presidency. In China there has been great respect for the Emperor/President who in turn is expected to rule wisely with the best interests of his subjects in mind. To early European visitors to China the structure was considered close to the ideal form of society.

Wang Anshi, although broadly loyal to Confucian thought, introduced wide ranging reforms ‘The New Policies’ to re-balance the system by moving the tax burden from the poor to the rich aiming to ultimately raise more tax - a strategy only recently rediscovered in modern economies. He started the detailed accounting of state expenditure and used this to attack all forms of state waste and inefficiency. He also introduced price regulation and cheap credit for peasants and poor merchants. In other reforms he built provincial granaries to guarantee distributed food supply; state orphanages and hospitals to augment that provided by religious institutions. To make taxation fairer, all land was assessed into five grades according to fertility and taxed accordingly. In education he widened the scope of the Imperial examinations to science and engineering and suppressed corruption in the appointments system so candidates were judged by merit not family or wealth. For better defense he introduced taxes to replace conscription for national service (construction of public works and military service) and in justice he made family groups punishable for the deeds of their members. To build an effective cavalry he ruled that every family in northern provinces must keep a horse. Such a radical program of reform was obstinately resisted by the rich and powerful. His reforms were never fully implemented because they were blocked by the land-owners who would be disadvantaged. In essense they strengthened the central administration over private enterprise. The reforms were too ambitious for a country that lacked the necessary administrative structures to properly implement them. Over the years Wang Anshi and his faction damaged the overall efficiency of government by continual contention with his ‘conservative’ rivals. A sequence of Emperors backed one side and then the other, dragging on the dispute for years. As his opponents ultimately won out, he and his policies are unfairly recorded by historians. Some historians see the re-distribution of tax as an early form of ‘socialism’ but this is not really the case, his aim was to raise more tax and improve state efficiency rather than a motivation to ease the life of poor peasants.

Wang Anshi is universally regarded as an arrogant man, disdainful of others, and it was his attitude as much as his policies that alienated his opponents. His followers did manage to keep his new policies in place until 1100CE at the time of the decline of the Northern Song dynasty but the internal conflicts relating to Wang's policies were widely blamed for the loss to the Liao and Xixia kingdoms in 1115CE.

In a letter to his contemporary historian Sima Guang he defended his record in these words “As for the abundance of resentment, this was expected. You cannot change customs in a single day.” and “Your argument that we need to do nothing but preserve the old ways is something I cannot accept.”

The reforms of Wang Anshi remain an important topic to this day, as they document how difficult it is to implement radical reforms however sensible they may seem, even in an autocratic state.

Battle of Yamen

The Battle of Yamen 19 Mar 1279 marked the end of the Southern Song dynasty. It was a naval battle between the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty who already controlled most of China. The remnants of the Song dynasty had fled from their capital Hangzhou three years previously. They decided their best hope of survival was to build a vast fleet so they could evade the Mongol land army. The fleet sailed from Quanzhou to Guangdong.

Yamen is situated near the Pearl River delta not far from Guangzhou and Macau. The Song fleet was attacked and defeated by a much smaller Yuan force. The Mongols cut off water and food supplies to the fleet and after seven days and several attacks may be as many as 100,000 Song Chinese lay dead. The Song fleet consisted mainly of the Emperor's court officials rather than military personnel. Emperor Huaizong drowned himself rather than face capture and so the dynasty came to an end after 319 years.

Jin Dynasty 1115 - 1234

The capture of Kaifeng led to the formation of the short-lived Northern Jin dynasty by the Khitan people from the north-east. As the Song dynasty made up of Han Chinese continued in the south it is not normally listed as a Chinese dynasty. While the Mongols were building their unstoppable force that grew out of Mongolia to the north, the Jin served as a buffer zone protecting the Song Empire to the south. Their Imperial capital was built at Zhongdu (now Beijing) (the first dynasty to do so), and they took to traditional Chinese ways honoring Confucius just as much as in Southern China. To foreign embassies there was little to distinguish the two Chinese Imperial courts at Zhongdu and Hangzhou. The Jin dynasty ended in an echo of the events that formed it. The Mongols allied themselves with the Song against the Jin in 1234. When the alliance triumphed and captured Kaifeng from the Jin it was the Mongols who turned on their former Song allies and eventually beat them. The Mongols under Genghis Khan took advantage of internal rebellions to establish a new unified empire that went onto eventually conquer much of the known world and the whole of China - the Yuan dynasty.

Xixia (Western Xia) Kingdom

The Western Xia kingdom 西 xī xià was founded by a tribe of Tangut people who retained strong links to the Tibetans and Mongolians. It was established in Ningxia 1038-1227 ruling over many Han Chinese settlers and controlling the strategic Silk Road. The Tangut tribe, called Dangxiang 党项 in China, had formed one of the small northern states in the Five Dynasties period and then grew to control parts of Gansu and Shaanxi.

Western Xia, tomb, Ningxia
西塔, August 2013. Two tombs of the Western Xia at Helan Shan, Ningxia. Image by Jayavarman available under a Creative Commons license .

Chinese chess

The Chinese game of chess is rather different to the version used in the West. The Chinese version is generally considered older and because of the lack of a 'queen' (a relatively recent addition) and the strange rules for the 'cannon' make it just as challenging a game.
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The kingdom retained a Tibetan script based on the Chinese model and used Confucian guided administration and education. Buddhism was the main religion. They had an effective army with well trained cavalry enabling them to resist conquest from the neighboring Song Chinese. Their stranglehold over the Silk route trade forced the Song look to the southern sea ports for new trade routes. In 984 the Western Xia mounted an expansionist campaign and formed an alliance with the Liao kingdom against the Song.

In 1038 the Xixia ruler Li Yuanhao declared himself Chinese Emperor with capital at Xongqingfu (now called Yinchuan, Ningxia) and broke off the alliance with Liao. They named themselves ‘Western Xia’ after the ancient Xia dynasty but are not listed as a Chinese dynasty. The Northern Song attempted to subjugate them but failed leading to the signing of an ignominious treaty with the Xixia in 1044. The Song were forced into massive military expenditure to hold them at bay. Internal feuds then weakened the Xixia kingdom that covered Ningxia; Shaanxi and Gansu. In 1205-6 the Mongols invaded, leveling cities and abducting people and stock. The Xixia sought an alliance with the Jin (successors of the Liao) against the Mongols but this proved ineffective. They were wiped out by the Mongols by 1227 and little evidence of their culture remains, even their language was lost for centuries. Historians estimate only 1% of the population survived the massacres that took place. Genghis Khan died during his campaign against them and it was his death that delayed the Mongol onslaught of the remaining portion of China that was still ruled by the Southern Song dynasty.

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Citation information for this page : Chinasage, 'Song Dynasty 960 - 1279', last updated 6 Dec 2016, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/dynastysong.htm.

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