An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Song Dynasty - Political System

Mar 19, 2016 © Ulrich Theobald

A political system balancing between military and civil officials

The experience of the late Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) that regional military leaders had too much power in their hands to be effectively controlled by the central government, led to a thoroughly new system of a parallel instalment of civilian (wenguan 文官) and military officials (wuguan 武官) that were to mutually control each other. The terms and titles of the Song period administration are very confusing and not very easy to reconstruct. But basic lines of the governmental system - dating from the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) - were still in work. All in all, the Song system was more autocratic than the Tang system because more power was in the hands of the emperor himself, or in those of persons acting on the emperor's behalf, like the strong Counsellors-in-chief (zaixiang 宰相).
Under the Song administration, prefectures (zhou 州) and districts (xian 縣) were directly controled by the central government, prefects (zhizhou 知州) were transferred every three years to another unit and were controlled by controllers-general (tongpan 通判) that were allowed to report to the capital without knowledge of the prefect; the prefectural revenues were immediately sent to the capital by a transport commissioner (zhuanyunshi 轉運使) from the transport bureau (caosi 曹司); penal law was exerted by the central government; and - the most important innovation step - elite soldiers were garrisoned around the capital where they served as model (bingyang 兵樣) for the troops in the province. A great part of the army consisted of militia (mubing 募兵) that were professionals rather than conscripted peasants (yibing 役兵). The recruitment of landless peasants into the militia should weaken their potential for rebellions and social uprisings. Around half of the army was garrisoned around the capital, thus creating a kind of balance that enabled the emperor to suppress rebellions either in the capital or in the provinces. Generals were transferred regularly to another post in order to prevent them from binding ties with their officers and troops. The imperial army (jinjun 禁軍) that had been divided into two units (ersi 二司), the palace command (dianqian shiweisi 殿前侍衛司) and the metropolitan command (shiwei qinjun mabusi 侍衛親軍馬步司) was now divided into three divisions (sanya 三衙 or sanwei 三衛) under three marshals (sanshuai 三帥): the palace command, the metropolitan cavaly command, and the metropolitan infantry command. These units had a command authority, but not fielding authority which lay with the Bureau of Military Affairs (shumiyuan 樞密院). Both authorities at one time could only be exerted by the emperor. The intention was to create a stable situation within the empire itself; but on the other side defense against foreign invaders was neglected in a dangerous grade.
The whole centralized administration was therewith constructed in a kind of radiation spider web, with every aspect of government concentrating in the imperial court. Even the central government was restructured in a way that should disenable a single unit or person to accumulate too much power. It was especially the position of the Counsellor-in-chief (zaixiang) that was weakened. The Grand Counsellor should only possess the control of civil matters, and he had to share his tasks with a Vice Grand Counsellor (canzhi zhengshi 參知政事). All military matters were controled by the bureau of military affairs (shumiyuan), while the important financial and household matters became the exclusive task of the three departments of the state financial commission (sansi 三司): the Census Bureau (hubusi 戶部司), Tax Bureau (duzhisi 度支司), and Salt and Iron Monopoly Bureau (yantiesi 鹽鐵司). This autocratic character of the Song governmental structure was even deepened by the enhanced importance of the Censorate (yushitai 御史臺) and the Remonstrance Bureau (jianyuan 諫院), units that should control the work of the state officials. The structure of the officials was a threefold parallel, consisting of vain ranks (guan 官), vain titles (zhi 職) and temporary ordinances (chaiqian 差遣). While the former to were only designations, the real tasks were undertaken by temporary ordinanced officials, that means that if somebody was designated minister of war, there was in fact somebody else fulfilling this task, while the minister could have a very different job. The consequence of this power-division was a blown-up state apparatus that swallowed large sums from the state treasury. Official recruitment was now undertaken solely by state examinations and election by the emperor himself in the case of high offials. During earlier times it had been use to promote officials only upon recommendation as classicists (mingjing 明經) from other offials.
Inside the state, the autocratic government of Song should make it impossible for generals to challenge the power of the emperor. Thus, the Song state was a highly civil-lead governmental system. Equally, the Song emperors refused to spend too much effort in war campaigns against the northern intruders. It was obviously more advantageous to pacify the border tribes and the empires in the north (see Liao, Jin and Western Xia) in the north with tributary presents instead of fighting against them. Internal and external peace with a prosperous economy was more worth even in the eyes of Song time philosophers who renewed Confucian thought.

The Capitals

The first Song emperor established four cities as capitals:

Eastern Capital Dongjing 東京 Bianliang 汴梁, Bianjing 汴京 Kaifeng 開封 (Kaifeng fu 開封府) modern Kaifeng 開封, Henan
Western Capital Xijing 西京 Henan 河南 (Henan fu 河南府), Luoyang 洛陽 modern Luoyang 洛陽, Henan
Southern Capital Nanjing 南京 Yingtian 應天 (Yingtian fu 應天府) modern Shangqiu 商邱, Henan
Northern Capital Beijing 北京 Daming 大名 (Daming fu 大名府) modern Daming 大名, Hebei
When the Jurchens conquered northern China in 1127 and ended the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126), the capital was shifted to Lin'an fu 臨安府 (modern Hangzhou 杭州, Zhejiang) as capital of the Southern Song 南宋 (1127-1279). The four capitals system was given up. The non-Chinese empires of the Liao, Jin and Western Xia, and also the Korean empire of Bohai 渤海 (Parhae), imitated the multiple-capital system of the Northern Song.

The central government

The Grand Counsellors or Chancellors or Prime Ministers (zaixiang 宰相) were the highest officials of the Chinese state. The respective three departments (sansheng 三省) of the administrative system of the Tang empire, the Chancellery (menxiasheng 門下省), the Palace Secretariat (zhongshusheng 中書省) and the Department of State Affairs (shangshusheng 尚書省) were not really used in this form until the reform of the 1080s but were more a conglomerate of bureaus and directorates under the administration of the counsellors. Work in these bureaus was done by academicians from the old Hanlin Academy (hanlin xueshiyuan 翰林學士院). The power of the Counsellors was restricted by the independent existence of a threefold State Finance Commission (sansi 三司) responsible for salt and iron state monopoly, tax and census, and an autonomous Bureau of Military Affairs (shumiyuan 樞密院). But these two bureaus did not exist during the whole time of Song dynasty, and they were even guided by the chancellors themselves in times when these were in possession of great power. A special institution of Chinese governmental system was, during all periods and dynasties, the Censorate (yushitai 御史臺) that was installed to control the work of all officials on state and local administration level. During the 1080s, the old Six Ministries (liubu 六部: for personnel libu 吏部, revenue hubu 戶部, rites libu 禮部, war bingbu 兵部, justice xingbu 刑部 and public work gongbu 工部) were reinstalled, along with the Nine Courts (jiusi 九寺) that mainly administered the imperial sacrifices and ritual state affairs, and the directorates (jian 監) that were in charge of state business and education.

Territorial administration

Territorial administration of Song was somewhat different from Tang administration in terms and procurement, having the prefecture (zhou 州) as highest unit, with the prefect (cishi 刺史) as a head. The smaller unit was the district (xian 縣), headed by magistrates (ling 令). Several central prefectures and the capital prefectures were called fu 府 "superior prefecture" instead of zhou, military prefectures at the borders and in critical areas were called jun 軍, and the few industrial prefectures (most of them found in the region of modern Sichuan) had the designation jian 監. To control the prefects, their directives had to be countersigned by a prefectural supervisor (jianzhou 監州), and there were coordinating officials (jiansi 監司) that controlled several prefectures together in a unit called circuit (lu 路), sharing their responsibilities in military affairs, fiscal affairs, judicial affairs and supply affairs, to make it impossible that one man could have a grip on a whole region. Nevertheless there were several cases during the Southern Song period that pacification commissioners (anfushi 安撫使, xuanfushi 宣撫使) were able to control large circuits.

Examination system and official recruitment

The Song state was oriented towards civil administration, and it was therefore important to recruit a sufficient number of competent scholars that would fulfill their duties in the vast bureaucratic structure throughout the empire. The state just needed a huge number of officials, and the better the education of these scholars was, the better would the fulfilment of their duties be. The Song state was looking for the best men among each different social group of China's population, and it was important to attract every worthy person. Assembling so much people necessitated a reform of the recruitment system through examinations (keju 科舉) that were open to everyone and were objective and fair enough to allow equal access for everybody to the ladder of official career, unlike the traditional recruitment by recommendation (gongju 貢舉).
Besides the normal qualification (changke 常科) of metropolitan graduate (jinshi 進士 "presented scholar"), general graduate (zhuke 諸科 or jiuke 九科 in nine ranks, including the mingjing 明經 "classicist") and military selectee (wuju 武舉) there was irregular qualification (teke 特科) of specialist graduate (zhike 制科) and minor graduate (tongzike 童子科). The normal graduates were examinated by the central government after sequential examinations from the basic level, irregular graduates were recommended (hence called gongju 貢舉 "promoted by merit") by older officials and appointed by the emperor after a special examination. At the beginning of the Song period, examinations were held once a year, later only once every three years. The first step of climbing the ladder of graduation was the prefectural examination (zhoushi 州試), the second step was the "department" or metropolitan examination (shengshi 省試), the last step was the palace examination (dianshi 殿試) that was introduced in 973. Palace graduates were ranked in three (sanjia 三甲), later five grades.
A first step of the Song government was to restore Confucius temples (Kongmiao 孔廟, Wenxuanwang miao 文宣王廟) throughout the country that had been devastated during the last decades. With the reintroduction of the state examinations (keju 科舉) the content of the examinated curriculum was broadened to include more knowledge about the nine Confucian Classics, besides poetry and prose. Every school on the district level had to be equipped with copies of Kong Yingda's 孔穎達 Wujing zhengyi 五經正義 "Correct Meaning of the Five Classics", Jiujing yishu 九經義疏 "Extended Meanings of the Nine Classics", or even the actualized version by Xing Bing 邢昺 et al., Shisanjing zhengyi 十三經正義 "Correct Meaning of the Thirteen Classics". A further way was paved in the direction of real objective examinations that prevented members of influential families to obtain an easy degree automatically was to permit everybody the access to examinations. Corruption was eliminated by a set of measures that should make it impossible for wealthy or powerful families to influence the examiner: concealing candidate's names by pasting a slip of paper over it (mifeng 彌封), coyping the text to prevent recognizing somebody by his calligraphy (tenglu 謄錄), disclosure from the public (suoyuan 鎖院) and separation of candidates in cells (bieshi 別試).
All over the country books were collected and stored in state libraries. Many of these text were reprinted and sent to other libraries as copies. The invention of bookprinting and it technical refinement substantially contributed to the spread of knowledge, literacy and education. Not only the state, but also private people like Qian Weiyan 錢惟演, Zhao Anren 趙安仁 or Song Shou 宋綬 and Song Min 宋敏 father and son, collected books and published catalogs of their huge libraries that often contained books missing in the state libraries. The state often sponsored private libraries and private academies by granting tracts of land.
A very important factor in the landscape of Song period education were the private academies (shuyuan 書院). As the name indicates, these institutions first were pure libraries that later became research institutes and then academies that took over educational tasks especially in the late Tang and Five Dynasties periods when the government was not able to prepare enough funds for education at the local level. The same problem accounts for the Song period when military expenditures did not leave enough space for educational funds. There were eight important private academies during the Northern Song: White Deer Cave Academy 白鹿洞書院 on Mt. Lushan 廬山, Jiangxi, the Yuelu Academy 岳麓書院 near Changsha 長沙, Hubei, the Suiyang 睢陽書院 or Yingtianfu Academy 應天府書院 in Shangqiu 商丘, Henan, the Songyang Academy 嵩陽書院 in Dengfeng 登封, Henan, the Shigu "Mt. Stone Drum" Academy 石鼓書院 near Hengyang 衡陽, Hunan, the Maoshan Academy 茅山書院 near Jiangning 江寧, Zhejiang, the Hualin Academy 華林書院 in Fengxin 奉新,Jiangxi and the Leitang Academy 雷塘書院 in Anyi 安義, Jiangxi. Owners and methodological orientation of these private academies were of course quite different. Especially under the Southern Song, when different schools of Neo-Confucianism contended for primacy, whole clusters of academies were adherent to one single interpretor, like Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200) or Lu Jiuyuan 陸九淵. It was exactly under the influence of these philosphers that private academies experienced a real boom. Neo-Confucianism stressed education and private study of important Confucian texts and their interpretations, and for this purpose it was necessary to have access to an excellent library. Additionally, libraries and private schools were an important means to transfer and propagate the writings of a particular school or a particular writer. An aspect that cannot be forgotten here is the creation of scholarly communities within private academies, communities that adhered to their own rituals and standards and could provide a family-like area of security in a politically unstable time, especially around the end of the Southern Song.
There were many possibilities to obtain education without attending to a national school (guoxue 國學), like attending the private academies (sixue 私學), employing private teachers at home (jiaxue 家學), or studying in a temple (siyuanxue 寺院學, miaoxue 廟學), the imperial school (zongxue 宗學), a district school or a village school (xueshe 學舍, xiangshu 鄉塾). The heart of early Song scholarship was the Directorate of Education (guozijian 國子監 where renowned academicians (jijiu 祭酒 "wine sacrifiers") thought the meaning of classics and non-canon literature to the princes. The Directorate of Education was also one of the largest libraries and publishers of various writings. Nevertheless, it was only a school for members of the imperial clan and officials of the highest degree, not for the education of the average official. The great number of private, village and temple schools made it possible for people of humble origin (hanmen 寒門, hanjun 寒俊) with great diligence to achieve high positions within the state bureaucracy. But in such a confusion landscape of education it became necessary to issue standards for learning and education, which also meant a step to nationalisation of private or semi-private schools. By financing local schools the state claimed the right to take influence on the course of teaching and learning. Certain state-financed schools served as pattern for other education centers. At the end of the 1020es the scholar Fan Zhongyan 范仲淹 proposed a renewal and strengthening of the education system with practical advises that were implemented durign the Qingli reign 慶曆 (1041-1048). Every official had to attend a dictrict of prefectural school for a certain period of time, a State Academy was founded with prescribed rules of teaching and learning, modeled after existing private schools (Shi Jie 石介, Sun Fu 孫復, Hu Yuan 胡瑗) where anyone had access to. Finally, the examination system was standardized. Although this first standardization was disputed immediately, a second standard education system was implemented during the Xining 熙寧 (1068-1077) and Yuanfeng 元豐 (1078-1085) reigns, this time promoted by the famous reformer Wang Anshi 王安石. Wang Anshi reformed the stipend system of the State Academy by introducing three colleges according to the grade of knowledge the disciples had acquired (sanshefa 三舍法). To test knowledge, intermediary tests were introduced. An important part of the examinations should consist of the knowledge of three Confucian Classics. For Wang Anshi and his supporters, the foundation of schools for applied sciences was a further step for the intensification of practical knowledge. After Wang Anshi's reforms were annuled, a third high wave of educational politics resumed his proposals, lead by Cai Jing 蔡京 during the Chongning reign 崇寧 (1102-1106). The patterns of state-sponsored education as developed during the Northern Song period lasted more or less until the end of imperial China.
During the Southern Song period there were some changes in the content, but not in the structure of the education system of Song China. The most important change was the impact of Neo-Confucianism on Chinese learning that should dominate the interpretation of the Classics as well as the realm of philosophy and basic education for the next 900 years. There were slight changed within the second great state academy, the National University (taixue 太學), where the study and interpretation of Confucian Classics experienced a new weight. In the sphere of local schools, the foundation of district and prefectural schools intensifed, and at the same time the scholars and disciples attending to local school substantially increased during Southern Song. While the numer of private academies had increased, the state also provided a larger amount of funds for those district schools.
With the development of Neo-Confucianism as a universal philosophy and the standardisation of an education system basic education (mengxue 蒙學, qimeng 啓蒙 "enlightenment") raised to higher importance. The task of basic education was – besides learning to read and to write and to learn cultural basics – to gain access to the most important understandings of social behaviour and human nature. Textbooks of basic education therefore comprised texts of history (learning from examples of the past), encyclopaedias (boxue 博學), digest books as "family teachings" (jiaxue 家學 or jiaxun 家訓), and finally the Four Books (sishu 四書: Lunyu 論語, Mengzi 孟子, Daxue 大學, Zhongyong 中庸). Important and widespread basic compilations of primary teaching were compiled during the Song period: Sanzijing 三字經 "Three Characters Classic", Qianziwen 千字文 "One-Thousand-Characters Essay", and memorizing texts like Baijiaxing 百家姓 "The hundred family names". Practical learning was likewiseof great importance, like music, mathematics, medicine, military strategy, calligraphy and painting. The tradition of learning and studying was not interrupted after the collapse of Northern Song, on the contrary, the now smaller territory could invest more into scientific learning. Three of China's great inventions (compass, book printing with moveable types and gunpowder) were made during the Song period. Many scholarly books were written about many themes of science and technology: astronomy, mathematics, medicine and pharmacology, and even comprehensive treatises about any scientific theme like Shen Kua's 沈括 Mengxi bitan 夢溪筆談.