An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Song Dynasty 宋 (960-1279)

Northern Song 北宋 (960-1126)

Southern Song 南宋 (1127-1279)

The Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279) was one of the great dynasties ruling over China. Although the Song only ruled over a relatively small area compared to the Han 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), the Tang 唐 (618-907) or the Qing 清 (1644-1911) dynasties, their age is seen as a time of economic, cultural and social prosperity and often coined the Chinese "renaissance". This term refers mainly to two aspects, namely the large amount of technical inventions made and perfected during the Song period, like gunpowder, the compass, and book-printing, and to the "recovery" of what was defined as a Chinese culture, after many centuries of "barbarian" influence mainly by the nomad tribes of the steppes. There is nothing like a new definition of man's position in the world, like it was created in the European Renaissance, yet society transformed from one with clear layers of "aristocracy" (eminent families) and "commoners" to a bureaucratic society headed by a highly autocratic emperor and in which everyone had the chance to raise to an exalted position.

The Song period was on the one hand a time of consolidation for Chinese culture, in which Confucianism was reconfirmed in its eminent position as a cultural doctrine, and Buddhism and Daoism were acknowledged as state-sponsored religions. On the other hand, the introduction of the state examinations with their theoretical equal rights for everyone to access to official career, went hand in glove with a primacy of the civilian realm over that of military affairs. This constellation caused a political weakness in contrast to the "barbarian" states of the Tanguts and the Kitans, later the Jurchens, in the north and northwest. The more belligerent societies in the empires of Western Xia 西夏 (1038-1227), the Liao 遼 (907-1125) and Jin 金 (1115-1234), forced the payment of tributes upon Song China, and the Chinese had to accept that they were not any more superiors in a cultural way. In 1179 the Jurchens even conquered northern China, and the court of the Song, later called Northern Song (Beisong 北宋, 960-1126) had to flee the capital Kaifeng 開封 (modern Kaifeng, Henan), and settled down in Hangzhou 杭州 (then known as Lin'an 臨安), Zhejiang, as the Southern Song (Nansong 南宋, 1127-1279).

The military weakness of the Song was not just due to the prominence of the civilian bureaucracy per se, but an intended result of the dynastic founders' decision to curtail the power of the generals after more than a century of warlordism. They introduced standing armies which were permanently underfunded and whose troops were not well trained. The Song administration began transforming labour duty as part of the tax obligation, into paid service. This required a monetized economy, and the Song period was in fact most productive in the realm of copper coins which provided the flourishing markets of the capitals and the cities in the lower Yangtze Region with money. In Sichuan, the first forms of bills of exchange appeared in the private market.

The Song bureaucracy was enormously complex and administered a large empire with novel methods, often by commissionaries sent out from the capital. The local administration of the empire in prefectures (fu 府, zhou 州) and districts (xian 縣) found its shape during the Song period. In the central government, the highest position was filled by powerful and influential Counsellors-in-chief. Backed by court factions, the Counsellors effected reforms, like Wang Anshi 王安石, or counter-reforms, like Sima Guang 司馬光. Yet all of the players in the "age of reform" under the emperors Shenzong 宋神宗 (r. 1068-1085) and Zhezong 宋哲宗 (r. 1085-1100) had the intention to cut expenditure and increase the revenues of the Song state.

The reforms in the financial field were parallel to reforms in the system of thought. Inspired by the intricate metaphysical teachings of Buddhism and Daoism, Confucian scholars reinterpreted the tenets of Confucianism, and created the "teaching of the universal principle" (lixue 理學) and the "teachings of the mind" (xinxue 心學), both subsumed in the West under the keyword "Neo-Confucianism". The most influential of these new philosophers were the brothers Cheng Yi 程頤 and Cheng Hao 程顥, as well as Zhu Xi 朱熹.

The end of the Northern Song came under the politically indifferent rule of Emperor Huizong 宋徽宗 (r. 1100-1125), a great calligrapher and art patron, and his corrupt Counsellor Cai Jing 蔡京. While east China was devastated by the hordes of the peasant rebel Fang La 方臘, the Jurchens conquered the Liao empire and then invaded the Song capital Kaifeng. After the flight to the southeast, the court was divided into parties, the one advocating a reconquest of the north, and the other suggesting to keep peace with the Jin empire of the Jurchens. Groups of local resistance against the Jurchen invaders were seen as heroes and entered the realm of novels like the romance Shuihuzhuan 水滸傳. Another Southern Song "patriot", Yue Fei 岳飛, is still venerated like a god.

Even if it is often said that the Song were militarily weak, they resisted for decades the assaults of the Mongols. Both sides fought with the most up-to-date military technology, with rockets, paddle-wheel boats, and bombs. Yet also in other fields, like agriculture and craftsmanship, numerous inventions boosted some proto-industrial branches of the economy, for instance, porcelain and printing. The latter technique contributed to the explosion of literary publications. These not only included commentaries on the Confucian Classics and older texts, but products of a quite new genre, namely the so-called "brush-note" essays (biji 筆記). The combination of learning, research, writing, and official career, brought to life a new type of personality, namely the scholar-official.

This chapter of the encyclopaedia gives an overview of the political history of the Song period, the geography of the empire and its surroundings, provides a list of its rulers, describes the administration and political structure of the empire, and gives insight into the religion and beliefs of the time, as well as the fine arts, the economy, literature and philosophy, and the history of technology and inventions.