The China of the Song (宋)

The song dynasty begins in 960 CE, and follows decades of political chaos. After the fall of the previous Tang dynasty in 907 following a coup, a period of instability sets in, known as the Five Dynasty period in North China, and the Ten Kingdoms period. in South China. China was then divided and in the midst of civil war, each of the factions trying to recreate the Empire and take the lead.

The Commander-in-Chief of the armies of the late Zhou Dynasty (one of the Ten Kingdoms of South China), Commander Zhao Hongyin, leads an uprising and deposes the previous emperor before taking the name of Emperor Taizu , and to found the Song dynasty. From the start of his reign in 960 until his death 16 years later, he conquered all the other kingdoms except the Northern Han, unifying China again under one authority. Thus began the Northern Song dynasty.

Northern Song

The capital of the Song dynasty is established in the North East of China, in Kaifeng. From Emperor Taizu, reforms were launched in terms of administration. Major mapping projects and works on communication routes are being undertaken. A precise map of each large city and province has been drawn: these are the first atlases. The main reform, however, is to establish a general competition for the recruitment of imperial officials. This has the result of drastically reducing the proportion of civil servants recruited thanks to their birth, transforming, more or less, the imperial administration into a meritocratic system. By improving the recruitment of civil servants, the Empire acquired a truly efficient administration. Throughout the dynasty, this policy will continue.

The idea of ​​this competition system was to promote social mobility and equality between competitors. The success is ultimately rather mixed. If the administrative competition did make it possible to select the most suitable, they were often drawn from the elite of the literate, since they had access to a much better education than the citizen of the average Empire.

On the other hand, if the administration was reformed in depth, this was not the case with the legal system, which remained almost identical to that used by the Tang dynasty, that is to say based on the principles resulting from Confucian philosophy. The judge was the only judge to decide on the guilt of an accused and the appropriate sentence. The position of magistrate was considered an honor, and the judge himself was supposed to be an example for these contemporaries.

In terms of foreign policy, the Song dynasty represented the first central power in China for more than half a century, and consequently had to re-establish diplomatic relations with its neighbors. The envoys of the Song emperors recreated diplomatic relations with India, the khans of Central Asia, with the kingdoms of Indonesia, and as far as Egypt. While China's relations with the rest of the world were on the whole rather peaceful and trade-centric, relations with its direct neighbors were constantly on the brink of war. On the northern border, the Liao and Xia dynasties occupied part of the territory considered to be an integral part of China. While the Song had undertaken major reforms, their military might was reduced, and Liao troops were able to ravage northern China until 1005 with impunity after repelling an attempted conquest. At the beginning of the 11th century, the Song armies failed to conquer the Xia territories, but the internal divisions of the Song staff ultimately cost them the campaign. Between 1075 and 1077, the Song went to war with their neighbors to the south, the Ly, who ruled what is now Vietnam, over a border dispute. This war was particularly bloody, and above all unnecessary since it resulted in a return to the status quo that prevailed before the outbreak of hostilities.

The Song, who had succeeded in the feat of reuniting China and taking the lead, while beginning to reform the society that had remained unchanged since the Tang era, were on the other hand incapable of effectively defending their borders.

So when the Jurchens, an internal minority in the Liao kingdom, rebelled to form the Jin Dynasty, the Song gave them significant military support to finally get rid of their cumbersome neighbor to the north in 1125. The Jurchens, however, noted the shortcomings of the Song armies, and seized the opportunity to expand their territory, launching two successive campaigns against the Song in 1125 and 1127, the second leading to "The Humiliation of Jingkang", where the Jurchens captured the emperor, his heir and the majority of the imperial court. The self-proclaimed Emperor Gaozong led the remnants of the Song Dynasty south of the Yangtze, and established the Southern Song Dynasty in Lin'an (Hangzhou).

Southern Song

Having lost control over the militarily shattered North China, the Song had to find new ways to support their economy, and to defend themselves against the incessant attacks of the Jin on their northern border.

And, for the first time in Chinese history, the Song Emperors sought a solution outside their borders. Just five years after Jingkang's humiliation, the first Imperial Navy was created. High seas ports, lighthouses, warehouses and shipyards ... all of this was created with a speed of which only a centralized power was capable. The Imperial Navy helped support and protect trade routes with Japan and Korea, the Southeast Asian Kingdoms, India and the Arabian Peninsula. Military innovations, such as the use of gunpowder and the first paddlewheel ships, enabled the Song to defeat the Jin navy, even fighting 1 against 20, at the battles of Canshi and Tangdao, in 1161. La Imperial Navy then numbered 3000 men. Fifty years later, it numbered some 50,000.

Moreover, in order to fuel the defense of the Empire, the Song confiscated some of the elite's lands, as financing. This movement led to a drastic increase in tax evasion, with the families of landowners using their administrative connections to avoid paying their taxes. The situation at the end of the 11th century was completely new. Little by little, we could distinguish a number of families of large landowners, having also placed some of their sons in the administration. These families formed a new elite. In addition, the competition system created during the Northern Song was restricted to a certain number of dignitaries. As a result, given the rapid growth of the population, the number of civil servants in the imperial administration is no longer sufficient. In the end, the state became less and less involved in local affairs. For example, more and more schools were financed by private funds. Funds from the families of owners mentioned above, strengthening their influence.

At the end of the 12th century, a certain equilibrium was reached. Relations with the Jin were more or less stabilized, and the internal affairs of the Empire remained under control. In the early years of the 13th century, the end of the Song Dynasty would appear. Between 1205 and 1209, the main opponents of the Song, the Jin, were victims of a raid led by the Mongol armies, led by Genghis Khan. In 1211, they were definitively crushed, and submitted to the Khan, forced to pay tribute. When they moved their capital from Beijing to Kaifeng, the Mongols saw a rebellion there, and the Jin were wiped off the map. At the same time, the Mongols subdued the Western Xia and Korea. Part of the Mongolian forces carried out sporadic raids on the southern bank of the Yangtze, starting in 1259, but in 1265, a decisive victory in Sichuan gave the advantage to the Mongols. After the capture of Xiangyang, and the defeat in 1275 of 130,000 Chinese soldiers, the Mongols encountered no more obstacles in their conquest. The Yuan dynasty, founded in 1271 by Kubilai Khan, eventually defeated the last resistance of the Song at the Battle of the Pearl River (in southern China) in 1279. The largest parts of the imperial family were committed suicide, and the Mongols became the new masters of the Middle Empire.

Arts and culture

The Song dynasty marks a real revolution in the artistic field. Painting, Literature, Ceramics, Opera, ... in all fields, new methods and practices are shaking up the Chinese artistic landscape.

Painting, in the first place, sees the appearance of the Shanshui style (literally: mountains and rivers), and the proliferation of landscape paintings. The influence of Taoism, according to which man is only a tiny part of a much larger universe, no doubt partly explains this craze for landscapes. We find the same type of representations decorating lacquered wooden objects dating from this period, as well as on bronze and jade engravings, sculptures, and even frescoes and bas reliefs. The most classic scene represented, with some variations, high mountains lost in the fog in the background, and rivers and waterfalls flowing to the foreground. From the Northern Song Dynasty to the Southern Song Dynasty, representations changed, focusing more and more on details, like a bird on a branch, for example ... Several great artists were admitted to the imperial court , the most famous of them being Zhang Zhuedang (1085-1145), who painted the scroll titled Along the River during the Qingming Festival.

In terms of literature, the Song dynasty saw the birth of the works of famous poets such as Su Shi (1037-1101), Mi Fu (1051-1107), and the first Chinese poet, Li Qingzhao (1084-1151). The most popular form of Song poetry was the ci form, developed under the Tang. In addition to the popularity of poetic art, Song literature also includes impressive works of history, such as the Zizhi Tongjian Universal History, completed in 1184, and comprising more than 3 million characters in 294 volumes. The “New Book of Tang” (1060) and the “Four Books of Song” (throughout the 10th century) were also important works. Finally, many scientific writings emerged under the Song, whose control over China rested among other things on a technological advance, among others the “Dream Basin Essays” by Shen Kuo, a work covering many fields, from from art to military strategy through anthropology and archeology. Among them, many agronomy books, in particular the “Cha Lu”, on the cultivation of tea, or the “Zhu Zi Cang Fa”, on the management of seeds. Countless atlases and works of geography were also produced, on the orders of successive emperors who saw in it a means of better defending their kingdom.

Theater under the Song had an ambiguous status. It was under the Northern Song, in Kaifeng, that the theater first became an industry in China. Four of the theaters installed in the capital had the capacity to accommodate several thousand people. The troops playing in the streets and in the markets were too numerous to count, and more than fifty fixed theaters were installed in the pleasure district of the city. The pieces were always recited in classical Chinese, and accompanied by music, sometimes by full orchestras. But at the same time, and although almost as literate as the members of the imperial administration, the actors were still seen as lower members of society, having a status close to that of prostitutes. But this did not affect the popularity of the theater troupes. Some were so successful that their members were said to get rich in one evening.

Religion and philosophy

The Song Dynasty is the scene of a major change in the history of Chinese philosophies, a change that will have an impact on the whole of Asia. At the start of the dynasty, Buddhism was in decline, as it was considered a "foreign" religion, and especially as being very abstract, as opposed to the Confucian classics and Taoism, which addressed practical issues such as administration. or family life, and which were "native" philosophies, born of Chinese thinkers.

Confuciasnim, or rather, Neo-Confucianism was being born. The texts of Confucius had once again become essential for the intellectual elite in the search for a solution to govern the Empire, and they did not fail, moreover, like Ouyang Xiu (1007 / -1072) to associate the implantation of Buddhism the decline of China (he calls Buddhism a "curse"). Led by Cheng Yi (1033-1107) and Zhu Xi (1130-1200), Neo-Confucianism wanted to purify Confucianism of its mystical aspects, move it away from religion and bring it closer to political philosophy. The success of the movement was dazzling, the commentary on the Four Books of Confucius by Zhu Xi, rejected during the latter's lifetime, became in 1241 one of the classics required to enter the imperial administration. In the decades that followed, Korea and Japan also adopted Neo-Confucian principles, both in education and administration.
However, Buddhism was not dead. Zen Buddhism also developed under the Song, the monk Wuzhun Shifan even being called to the court of Emperor Lizong to share the details of the Chan (Zen) doctrine.


The Song dynasty was a real revolution, mainly thanks to inventions and discoveries which totally revolutionized the time, both in military and civil matters.
First major invention: gunpowder. Or to be exact, the development of a large number of weapons employing powder, notably flamethrowers, mines, grenades, cannons. These inventions allowed the Song to repel multiple invasion attempts for more than three centuries. The Wujing Zongyao treaty was the first in the world to detail the manufacture and uses of gunpowder.

In civil matters, discoveries and inventions are innumerable. Shen Kuo was the first to develop a compass indicating north, making it easier to map and navigate. In addition, he also establishes a theory on climate changes over time, establishing the hypothesis of “cold” and “hot” times. His creations are not limited to that, with among other things the manufacture of clepsydra, an astrological telescope that allowed him to locate the polar star. In terms of mathematics, the Song Dynasty saw the introduction of zero into Chinese mathematics, opening the door to algebra. The surveyors of the time were mainly employed by the emperors to develop a more efficient mapping system, which took the form of the first Chinese maps with an accurate scale (1: 900,000). Another invention of the Song dynasty, the removable type press, which roughly corresponds to the press invented, or rather reinvented by Gutemberg. This invention dates from the 10th century in China, and played a major role in the dissemination of classical texts, and, coinciding with new methods of recruiting the administration, significantly increased social mobility. The press continued to be improved over the following dynasties. Finally, in addition to the compass invented by Shen Kuo, a lock system was developed during this dynasty, allowing ships to be brought into dry dock for repair. These two inventions gave the Chinese navy a considerable advance.

The invention of the compass, gunpowder and printing are often regarded as the three elements that in Europe led to the end of the Middle Ages and opened the door to the Renaissance, but it was in China that these inventions were performed for the first time. The Song Dynasty was a real revival in Chinese history, both socially and technologically. It was also the last truly Chinese dynasty before the Ming came to power. But ultimately, the aftermath of the fall of the Tang Dynasty also led to the loss of the Song, who to prevent the army from becoming a threat to imperial power, chose to keep it tightly under control, to the point that the army des Song did not succeed in avoiding conquest by the Mongols. However, the revolutions of the Song Dynasty will leave a legacy that the Ming Dynasite will use to overthrow the Mongol yoke and regain power for another three centuries.


History of China: From the Origins to the Present, by John Fairbank. Text, May 2013.

- The Chinese world: Volume 1, From the Bronze Age to the Middle Ages, by Jacques Gernet. Agora, 2006.

- The Chinese world: Volume 2, L'époque moderne Xe-XIXe siècle, by Jacques Gernet. Agora 2006.

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