The Song Dynasty


Dark ages are often times of chaos but they can be more creative, they can be times of change, when the old systems break down and new systems emerge in new directions. The period between the Tang and the Song dynasties appears to have been one such time of change. It has been called the ‘Chinese Renaissance’, ushering in a new form of Chinese society which to some extent remained to the end of the 19th century.

This ‘renaissance’ is one of those ages like the 1st century BC in Rome when politics and economics diverged: the politics went all wrong, but the underlying economy flourished. In China the age falls into three parts:   it really begins in the middle of the Tang dynasty with the An Lushang rebellion from 755 – 763. We have already looked for the nominal causes of this when the sixty year-old emperor fell for a twenty year-old girl who led him astray. An Lushang, one of the leading generals built up a huge army and then rebelled, and even tried to establish a rival dynasty, but it took six years for the Tang dynasty to prevail. However the cost was high for they only prevailed by aligning themselves with other powerful generals with their own private armies who established fiefdoms in the north. The rule of the centralised bureaucracy broke down and eventually even the equal field system had to be abandoned.

The rigidness of the old regime was replaced by what was in effect a more flexible form of rule. The Tang dynasty staggered on nominally for a further 150 years, but eventually in 907 it came to an end. It was followed by an era known as the Five Dynasties which ruled one after another from 907-960.

Song dynasty established

Emperor Taizu

The Emperor Taizu (960 – 966) the first emperor of the Song Dynasty. He rose to power as a skilful general, but ruled wisely.

However in 960 the emperor Taizu succeeded in unifying the whole country and establishing the Song dynasty. From every point of view, apart from the political point of view, the Song dynasty represented the height of Chinese civilisation: culture flourished, industry flourished, civilisation flourished. The first emperor Taizu (960-976) vowed not to put anyone to death for disagreeing with him, and recommended that his successors do the same. There were no really bad emperors in the century that followed, there were no scheming empresses, and no eunuchs managed to inveigle their way to positions of power. However they were not very good soldiers and pressure from the barbarians to the north was continuous: for much of the Song dynasty the area around Beijing to the north lay in barbarian hands.

Part of the trouble was that the barbarian tribes, part Turkic, part Mongol were getting better organised: being essentially pastoralists, they did not understand fixed agriculture, they were intrinsically difficult to organise. Nevertheless they were getting their act together and by constantly conquering the Chinese they learnt to absorb many of their ideas of organisation: in 100 years’ time we will have Genghis Khan sweeping down and capturing the whole Chinese empire.


Southern Song map

China in the Southern Song. The northern part of the country, including the capital Kaifeng, had fallen to the Jin.

Eventually halfway through the Song dynasty the barbarians captured the whole of the north, including Kaifeng the capital which lay more-or-less in the middle of China. The Song set up a new capital at Hangzhou, 200 miles south west of Shanghai and the terminus of the Grand canal, and the Southern Song continued for a century and a half from 1127-1279 when they eventually succumbed to Khubilai Khan.

Politics continued to evolve in the Song dynasty, when the Song re-established the traditional bureaucracy.   The most interesting episode came with the attempted reforms of Wang Anshi (1021-1086). Wang Anshi has been called a proto-socialist, a definition which in the broadest sense is illuminating, though in detail it is all wrong. Wang Anshi was in fact a Confucian, and he believed that it was the duty of the state to look after the lower classes, and this meant controlling the economy for their benefit. He converted the corvée (labour service) to money taxes (which I always claim to be one of the principal benefits of Romanisation in Roman Britain, being one of the principle benefits of the money economy).   He arranged for government loans to peasants to tide them over the growing season. He changed the basis for land tax assessment. But his reforms proved controversial and one gets the impression that he was rather tactless, and ultimately his reforms failed, – though they did leave behind them a legacy of public orphanages and public hospitals.

A similar reform took place in Confucianism, whose revival forms one of the bases of the Song success. Indeed the scholar Zhu Xi (1130-1200) produced a revised version of Confucianism bringing ideas from Daoism and Buddhism, now generally called Neo-Confucianism. Although his ideas were rejected in his lifetime, after his death they were accepted and became the basis for the scholarly exam system for the next 500 years.

Song Jiinci Ladies

These coloured clay sculptures are in the Jinci temple near Taiyuan. These maidservants represent palace life in the Song dynasty.

However, if politically this was an age of disruption and indeed failure, yet in many other aspects, it is one of the most glorious episodes in Chinese history. Perhaps surprisingly, it was an age of great population growth: Patricia Ebrey estimates that the population of China doubled in this period going from around 50 million in 750 to around 100 million in 1100. This was accompanied by a geographical shift. This was the age when southern China, the area around the Yangtze River filled up and flourished, partly due to immigration from families fleeing from the north, but it was also due to rice cultivation. Rice does not really grow along the Yellow River in the north, but the more fertile wetlands around the Yangtze are ideal for rice cultivation. During this period, new strains of rice and irrigation processes were introduced which enabled two crops a year to be grown, which in turn supported a huge population increase.

Life in towns also changed. In the Tang dynasty, Chang An, the capital was the biggest city in the world with a million inhabitants, but it was rigidly divided up into wards, which were walled around and locked at night with no houses opening out onto the main streets. By the Song dynasty this had all broken down and shops and houses lined the main streets. The famous painting of the Spring Festival at the new capital Kaifeng, a great scroll 10 inches high and 17 feet long, well illustrates the new freedom.

Qingming by Zhang Zeduanb Along_the_River_7-119-3

(Here is  the scroll, courtesy of  Wikipedia. It is  a  big file, and may take sometime to download. It appears as a very thin line;  click on it to bring it up, click again to  enlarge it,  then scroll along the whole length to see the whole city. But it is well worth doing, because this is one of the most famous of all Chinese paintings, and one of the most accessible to our modern European taste. This is a 17th century copy, in full colour)


Underlying the changes, an industrial revolution was taking place. Iron making increased enormously: the north was denuded of its forests in order to make charcoal, so coke was introduced to replace the charcoal to save the forests. Gun powder was invented, though at first it was used to make exploding grenades fired from conventional catapults: it took 200 years for them to realise that if you placed gunpowder down a tube, it made a very efficient propellant – if you could make a tube strong enough to hold the explosion. Not that these advances (if that is the right word) helped the Chinese army for long. The barbarians were always capturing the technicians who would always barter their knowledge for their lives. Indeed in another 200 years, knowledge of gun powder even reached the west, but whereas in the west the advent of gun powder brought about a profound social change by replacing the armoured knight with the democratic foot soldier, in China the huge armies remained the same. Printing was introduced too, not indeed by moveable type, but by carving wood blocks; but once a wood block was carved 100 pages of paper (another invention) could be produced.

Jinci iron statue Song 1099

This iron statue is one of four in the Jinci temple near Taiyuan. These statues demonstrate the mastery of iron casting in the Song dynasty.

The production of silk was hugely increased by mechanisation, while pottery, (the archaeologists favourite) reached new heights with the splendid light green wares making a welcome relief from the garish products of the Tang era. Bigger ships were introduced to transport the increased trade, and the compass was invented. Joseph Needham, the great Cambridge scholar and Marxist enthusiast, wrote a multi-volume encyclopaedia on Science and Civilization in China, proving that the Chinese invented everything first (I had the honour of dining with him in 1960, when he visited Oxford as the guest-lecturer of the Oxford Archaeology Society). Other crops were also commercialised including tea, oranges, bamboo, hemp, and by the late Song, cotton.

The increase in commerce was helped by a great increase in the use of money. Well down into the Tang, bolts of cloth especially silk were used as currency – you paid your taxes with a roll of silk. However in the later Tang, money took over everywhere, and indeed the production of money hugely increased and at one time during the Song, the central government was minting over 800 million coins a year. These coins were all in copper except in the south-west where iron was used. Gold is not found in China, and silver was rare, and when it was used, it was used as bullion and weighed out in ounces. But this meant that huge numbers of coins, all linked together on a ‘string’ of a hundred coins, were used for transactions, and they became very heavy to carry around, so, paper money came into use, aiding by the new discovery of printing. This began in the form of Certificates of Deposit issued by individual merchants or guilds, but by 1023 it was taken over by the central government. With paper money there is of course always the danger of inflation and mild inflation no doubt helped the industrial revolution. But it was not until the Ming dynasty that inflation really took off and paper money was abandoned. During the Song, China came to a large extent to be a money economy: but due to the strength of the bureaucracy, the freedom given by a money economy did not spill over into the political sphere.

Jinci  Holy Mothers P778

The Hall of the Holy Mothers, in the Jinci temple near Taiyuan. It was built between 1023 and 1032: note the dragons (see below) climbing up the pillars.

It is difficult to analyse the reasons for all this activity, particularly since one suspects that some at least of the reasons were the loosening up of the Chinese bureaucracy, and the introduction of greater freedom and greater opportunities for private enterprise. And these reasons cut right across Chinese beliefs and philosophy, and it is hard for the Chinese to admit that the advances may have come when bureaucracy failed. The late Tang saw in effect a considerable withdrawal of the state from the management of the economy and this continued into the chaos of the Five Dynasties period. Military power devolved to the local level and economic power followed, as the rulers of the regional states found that the best way to expand their tax base was to promote trade. The advent of the Song meant the re-imposition of the bureaucratic state: but the benefits of the commercial enterprise continued.

Jinci temple dragons 112

The carved wooden dragons climbing up the pillars of the Jinci temple.

From my point of view, studying barbarism and civilisation, this is a very interesting period indeed, when China took many of the steps towards a market economy. I always look at the three criteria of civilisation: markets, democracy, and freedom. China went a long way to getting a flourishing market economy, but the other two prongs – democracy and freedom did not get a look in. The Chinese people no doubt flourished in this period, perhaps due to the success of the market economy, but democracy and freedom? Not within a mile!

The Song dynasty and its predecessors form one of the most fascinating periods in the whole of Chinese civilisation. It was bubbling over with new ideas and with the exhilaration of an industrial revolution, but at the same time it produced some wonderful artistic achievements – the paintings and the pottery which we can appreciate directly and the poetry that we can only appreciate in translation. But the barbarians to the north were growing in strength and it is to Genghis Khan and the succeeding Yuan dynasty that we must now turn.


On to the Ming Dynasty


Created 18th April 2015