The rise of the Song Dynasty was marked by the fall of the large Tang Empire in the year 906. Overall, the reign of the Song Dynasty rulers was marked by stability, advances in technological and industrial fields, as well as general prosperity.
In the year 960, emperor Taizu conquered the area of the fallen Tang Empire and began the Song Dynasty era. The Song Dynasty era is divided into two time periods of almost equal lengths referred to as the Northern Song era (960-1127) and the Southern Song era (1127-1279). Kaifeng was the capital of the northern Song Dynasty. However, when the Jin Empire conquered Kaifeng and the northeastern region, the Song Dynasty court relocated to Hangzhou. The Song Dynasty was able to rule over a relatively prosperous empire south of the Yangtze River, which lasted over 300 years.
The cultivation of rice and development of commerce were important aspects of the Song Dynasty economy. During its reign, the population of the Song Empire is believed to have doubled from 50 million to an estimated 100 million. And with increasing advances in science and technology, the Song Dynasty era developed costumes and established traditions and ways of living that were followed well into modern times.
All in all, the economy of the Song Dynasty was able to prosper. Cultivation of rice flourished in the south, which resulted in the doubling of the population. International trade was encouraged by Song Dynasty rulers, which led to the establishment of large commercial cities such as Hangzhou. Large merchant ships were sent by private trading companies to India, Arabia and other regions to trade in Chinese silk, tea and other manufactured products. As much as 200 million pounds of iron were produced each year for the creation of weapons and tools in iron foundries.
Certain cultural traditions originated during the Song era, which remained important until modern times. These included living in large urban environments, foot binding and eating rice. It was during this time that people learned how to live in the some of the world’s largest urban centers such as Hangzhou and Kaifeng. These cities were more like modern cities without walls around them to provide protection.
The richer people and higher class families began binding the feet of girls, which essentially crippled the girls for life. This was aimed at making the girls more submissive, as well as signifying the status of the family. Small feet were thought to be beautiful and the majority of women except those of ethnic minorities had their feet bound. The foot binding custom spread to the lower classes as well as among the peasants. However, this proved disastrous as it rendered girls less capable of carrying out labor on the farms.
During the era of the Song Empire, Neo-Confucianism took over from the religions of Daoism and Buddhism, thereby becoming popular among the ruling class and the dominant philosophy of life.
With their unprecedented economic growth and industrial advances, the Song Empire was able to build some of the largest cities in the world. This Dynasty enjoyed relative peace and stability, as well as advances in urbanization, commercialization and industrialization. Rice became a major food crop of this era due to advances in rice cultivation techniques, and there was plenty of food for the urban elite. People in the largest city consumed surprisingly large quantities of fresh fish and meat which gave visitors the impression that the Song Dynasty cities were richer than European cities.
The Song Dynasty left behind various cultural relics which can today be seen in Kaifeng and Hangzhou, which both served as capitals of the Northern Song Dynasty and Southern Song Dynasty respectively. Some of these historical relics include the Song Dynasty Town, the Tomb of Yuefei and Hefang Street.
Candidates for official positions were required to pass exams that tested their knowledge of the Neo-Confucian texts comprising Four Books and Five Classics, which were compiled and codified during the Song Era. This ensured that the officials were exceptionally intelligent and would be able to communicate in the rather difficult literary language. It was important that the officials understood the common political philosophy that emphasized submission to the emperor, one’s superiors as well as following and maintaining roles of life as defined by tradition. In this way, unity under the court was maintained and the empire continued to run smoothly.
During the Song Dynasty, inventors and scientists advanced scientific and technical knowledge remarkably fast in comparison to those of previous dynastic eras. These men of science advanced their knowledge about the Song Empire’s geography, mechanical engineering, astronomy and many other important subjects.
Shen Kuo (1031-1095)
Shen Kuo was a court official and general who wrote scientific treatises about his research in various fields of advanced knowledge. In his 1088 voluminous scientific composition titled Dream Pool Essays, Shen Kuo outlines theories that can be said to be at the forefront of knowledge in various fields such as magnetism and astronomy. He is believed to have discovered the concepts of the true north and the magnetic declination towards the North Pole. He was also the first to describe the declination of the magnetic needle compass, which predates discovery by European scientists.
Movable Type Printing
During the Song Dynasty, a contemporary printer manufactured and used movable type. The printer made the ceramic characters himself, arranged them on a block and used them to print hundreds of sheets of text in a quick and economical way. Movable type printing was however a more important innovation in Europe than it was in China.
One revolutionary contribution of the Song Dynasty was gunpowder weapons, explosives, as well as a variety of gunpowder invented for use in guns, rockets, bombs and chemical warfare weapons. By the end of the Song Dynasty in 1277, the Song army was using landmines to fight the attacking Mongols.
Rise and Decline
Rise and fall of the Northern Song Dynasty
In the year 960, emperor Taizu began his reign over the entire Song Empire region, establishing his capital at Kaifeng. One of the key reforms that he implemented was the staffing of administrative and court positions with scholars who passed the Imperial Examinations. The aim was to staff the governing bureaucracy with scholars who were thought to be more loyal to the court, than officials with their own domains or areas of rule. These officials were generally dependent on the courts for their position and pay. During this time of prosperity, commerce and rice production led to the rapid development of port cities, merchant cities, as well as a large urban population.
The Song Empire faced growing military threat from the Liao Empire in the northeastern region. Nevertheless, the Song rulers were determined to regain the land of the western Xia in the northeast. The empire also faced conflicts with the Viets in the southeast. In various campaigns against the Liao Empire, the Western Xia and the Viets, the Song Dynasty was normally defeated. Nevertheless, the Northern Song Empire enjoyed a long period of territorial integrity until 1127.
The end of the Northern Song Dynasty was marked by the attack of the Liao Empire along with the Jurchens who were vessels of the Liao Dynasty. Even after defeating the Liao Empire, the Jurchens attacked the Song Empire in 1129, captured its capital city at Kaifeng, along with the emperor and most of the ruling clan.
Rise and fall of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279)
Most people in the Song Dynasty era lived in the south of the Yangtze River where they used improved rice cultivation techniques that led to an explosion of the population. Population in the region is believed to have first exceeded 100 million during the Song Dynasty Period. The empire also had big southern merchant cities, improved harbor facilities, as well as ships constructed by the government.
Guangzhou, Quanzhou and Xiamen were all big seaports of the time and the government built a navy for the protection of merchant shipping. Merchant ships of the Song Empire would sail as far as Arabia and India during this period of increased prosperity in the Song Empire. The Song Dynasty was able to defeat the attacking Jin Empire with its better equipped navy operating from the wide Yangtze River, which provided a strategic natural defensive boundary.
Towards the end of their dynastic era, the Southern Song allied with the Mongols and unsuccessfully attacked the Jin Empire. Their joy at reclaiming the old cities of Beijing and Kaifeng was short-lived, as the Song Empire was attacked by Kublai Khan’s Mongol army. The Song Empire suffered constant defeats in the hands of those they allied with in an aggressive campaign against powerful neighbors - first defeated by the Jin Empire, and then by the Mongols. After about two decades of warfare, the Song Empire capital was taken over by the Mongols, thereby marking the end of this dynastic era.