Home Chinese Culture China History The Song Dynasty — Medieval China

The Song Dynasty — Medieval China

The Song Dynasty(960–1279) was a period of technological advance and prosperity, preceded by the fractured Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (906–960), and succeeded by the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368).

It coexisted with the Liao Dynasty (907–1125) in the northeast, and the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227) in the northwest. When the second Jin Dynasty(1115–1234) supplanted the Liao, they drove the Song south, dividing the dynasty into the Northern Song (960–1127) and the Southern Song (1127–1279) eras.

Two Equal-Length Eras

The Song Dynasty era is divided almost equally into two time periods called the Northern Song (960–1127) and the Southern Song (1127–1279) eras.

The Northern Song Empire was smaller than the Tang Empire. It didn't control an area of Central Asia that was controlled by the Tang Empire. The Southern Song Empire controlled only about 60 percent of the land area of the Northern Song Empire since the Song clan lost control of the area north of the Huai River.

The Origin of the Song Empire (906–960)

At the end of the the Tang Empire in 906 AD, the territory was divided among kingdoms or was conquered by invaders. The time was a period of war and turmoil, and it lasted for about 53 years.

Large sections in the west and north were taken over by other empires or by nomadic tribes, and in the east, there were 8 small kingdoms in 923.

In the year 960, a general in one of the kingdoms called Northern Zhou named Zhao Kuangyin rebelled against his king and the court officials and started his own dynasty.

This general was called Emperor Taizu, and during his lifetime, he went on to defeat most of the kingdoms around him and so established the Song Empire.

The Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127)

shanxi shaanxi gansu guildhallShanxi Shaanxi Gansu Guildhall in Kaifeng

Emperor Taizu began reigning in the year 960. His capital was in Kaifeng. During his 16 years of rule, he instituted successful policies and won his wars of expansion.

He is known as one who set the policy that most of the governing officials should be Confucian literati who passed the imperial exam. This stabilized the process of dynastic succession by ensuring that empire's administrative staff could carry on their duties when the emperor died. This policy helped to ensure that the officials were very intelligent, literate, and loyal to the government.

Scientific Academies: He also created academies that allowed a great deal of freedom of discussion and thought. These academies proved successful in later years in nurturing world leading scientists for their times. 

The officials were also known for achievement in literature and the arts. Their high level of education helped them formulate policies for trade with other countries and introducing new weapons such as rockets and mortars.

Wars of the Northern Song Dynasty

The Liao Empire in the northeast was a military threat, and the Song court wanted to regain the land of the Western Xia in the northeast. The empire also conflicted with the Viets in the southeast. In various campaigns against these three countries, the Northern Song Dynasty usually lost.

For about 150 years, the result of the Song wars was stalemate. They couldn't conquer their neighbors, but they didn't lose significant territory to them. So they kept their territorial integrity until 1127.

War Against the Western Xia

The Tanguts had a small kingdom called Western Xia in the northwest that controlled access to the strategic Gansu Corridor that was an important link in the Silk Road trade route. The Tangut tribe was a part of the Tang Empire, but they became a kingdom when the Tang Empire disintegrated.

As the Song Empire expanded in the late 900s, they resisted them. The Song Dynasty thought that if they could gain that territory, they could perhaps reestablish the lucrative Silk Road trade that benefited the Han and Tang Dynasties.

The Song Dynasty managed to win several military victories over the Tanguts in the early 11th century. Then a leading scientist and scientific writer named Shen Kuo (10311095) who wrote a scientific book called The Dream Pool Essays lead an army against them. This expedition was a disaster, and the Tanguts regained territory they had earlier lost.

War Against the Viets

The Song court wanted to annex the Viet territory. The Ly Dynasty behaved as vassals, but the Song court thought that the country was weak enough to conquer.

In response, the Ly Dynasty sent an army of perhaps 100,000 to Nanning and soundly defeated three Song armies.

From 1075 to 1077, the Ly Dynasty in Vietnam fought them. This war ended in a stalemate also. Captives and captured land were mutually exchanged.

War Against the Liao Empire

The Liao Empire was an aggressive enemy in the northeast. They forced the Northern Song Dynasty to give some tribute in 1005. The Northern Song Dynasty sought to defeat the Liao. They allied themselves with the Jurchens and started a war that ended in their disaster.

The combined armies defeated the Liao Empire, but then the Jurchens turned against the Song Empire and captured Kaifeng that was the Song capital city. They captured the emperor and much of the ruling clan in 1129.

A member of the emperor's clan became the new emperor, and he established a new capital at Hangzhou. The Jurchens made Kaifeng their capital and founded the Jin Empire.

Kaifeng Tours: Two Song era pagodas called Iron Pagoda and Pota Pagoda can be visited in Kaifeng along with other ancient sites.

Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279)

xitang water townHangzhou Xitang Water Town

Song Dynasty clan members set up a capital in Hangzhou that was then a wealthy trading city. Song rulers retained their domain south of the Huai River along with most of the population. They also retained big southern merchant cities, and a new period of prosperity began.

Early Success

Foreign trade was a Southern Song priority, and the government constructed merchant ships and improved harbor facilities. Quanzhou, Guangzhou, and Xiamen were big seaports, and great wealth flowed through them.

Song Empire merchant ships sailed as far as India and Arabia. This trade allowed the Southern Song Empire to continue to be prosperous although they had lost a lot of land.

The government built a navy to protect the merchant shipping. Paddle-wheel ships were built that were faster than regular boats in the rivers. They carried gunpowder bombs that could blow up enemy boats.

They defeated attacks of the Jin Empire partly because they had a better navy than did the Jin. The wide Yangtze River was a natural defensive boundary that they controlled.

The Second Great Military Disaster

genghis khan mausoleumGenghis Khan Mausoleum

The Song dynastic clan suffered their second great defeat after allying with the Mongol Empire to attack the Jin Empire. This was probably a great strategic mistake, and their mistake was similar to allying with the Jurchens to attack the Liao Empire. The Mongols conquered the Song Empire in this way.

The Mongols followed the policy set by Genghis Khan to conquer the whole world. In their attempts to invade the whole region, the Mongols attacked both the Jin Empire and the Western Xia.

Then the Southern Song allied with the Mongols to attack the Jin Empire. Their joint attack was successful, but this success left the Mongols with only the Song Empire to conquer next. When the Song reclaimed the old cities of Kaifeng and Beijing, the Mongols under Kublai Khan attacked them.

After about two decades of warfare, the Song capital was taken in 1276, and after three more years of fighting with remnants of the dynastic court, the empire ended in 1279. The Yuan Empire took its place.

The Song Dynasty were defeated first by the Jin Empire and then by the Mongols. Each time they allied with another people in an aggressive campaign against a powerful neighbor, they were attacked and defeated by those they allied with.

Philosophy, Religion, and Political Science

The Song Empire was technologically and scientifically advanced, engaged heavily in trade, and lasted about 300 years, so they set a course for the culture of the whole region of East Asia.

What made the cultural propagation fluid from dynasty to dynasty was that Chinese empires had a common written language for 2,000 years. No matter what their spoken language was, most educated people in all eras from the Han Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 needed to be able to read the ancient texts that date from the end of the Zhou Dynasty (1045–255 BC) era and also write in a form of that written language.

By requiring the candidates for official positions to pass exams testing their knowledge of the Neo-Confucian texts, the court ensured that their officials were exceptionally intelligent and could communicate in this very difficult literary language.

They wanted to ensure that the officials understood a common political philosophy that emphasized submission to the emperor and one's superiors and following and maintaining the traditionally defined roles of life. This was an advantage in keeping unity under the court and ensuring that the empire ran smoothly.

Almost all the bureaucratic officials in the Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty needed to know the Neo-Confucian Classics in depth. Those who did the best on the exams memorized the entire texts. The Neo-Confucian Classics were the Four Books and Five Classics (四書五經) that contained the political and religious philosophy of Confucius and others.

These nine books were compiled and codified in the Song era. The Five Classics were thought to have been penned by Confucius, and the Four Books were thought to contain Confucian School-related material but were compiled during the Song era.

The Five Classics and Four Books were written in the written Classical Language. The Five Classics include: The Book of Changes, The Classic of Poetry, The Record of Rites that was a recreation of the original Classic of Rites of Confucius that was lost in the Qin book purge, The Classic of History, and The Spring and Autumn Annals that was mainly a historical record of Confucius' native state of Lu.

The Four Books include: The Analects of Confucius that is a book of pithy sayings attributed to Confucius and recorded by his disciples; Mencius that is a collection of political dialogues attributed to Mencius; The Doctrine of the Mean; and The Great Learning that is a book about education, self-cultivation and the Dao.

For foreigners who want a taste of this Confucian philosophy, reading the Analects of Confucius is a good introduction since the statements are usually simple and like common sense.

Political Science

This government system had advantages and disadvantages. The bureaucrats all studied the same works on social behavior and philosophy, and this promoted unity and the normalization of behavior throughout the empire and during the times of dynastic change.

The scholar-bureaucrats had a common base of understanding, and they passed on these political and philosophical ideals to the people under them so that the whole empire might have a common philosophy of life.

A disadvantage of this system was that innovative reform and political criticism could be restricted easily by rulers. Innovation and personal freedom was stifled.


During the Song Dynasty era, the religions of Daoism and Buddhism became less popular among the ruling class than in previous eras. Neo-Confucian thought became their dominant philosophy of life.

Neo-Confucianism was the religious belief and political philosophy espoused by most of the bureaucrats until the end of the Qing Era (1912) except during the Yuan Dynasty era.

Achievements in Science

Song era scientists and inventors advanced scientific knowledge remarkably quickly compared to those of other dynastic eras. However, unlike their influence in culture, much of the Song scientific advances were lost in later dynasties.

The Song era and the Han era were the two dynastic eras of most rapid scientific and technical progress. Chinese scientists advanced the state of their knowledge about the geography of the empire, astronomy, and mechanical engineering and other subjects.

Shen Kuo

Shen Kuo (1031–1095) wrote scientific treatises about his research and about various fields that show advanced knowledge. He was a court official as well as a general. Though he failed in his campaign against the Western Xia, he was very successful as a scientist.

Shen Kuo's Dream Pool Essays of 1088 was a voluminous scientific composition that can be said to contain the forefront of knowledge in his time of astronomy, magnetism and other fields. He is said to have discovered the concepts of true north and magnetic declination towards the North Pole. However, he didn't discover the compass. It is known that lodestone compasses were used in the Han era. But he was the first to describe the magnetic needle compass's declination. This knowledge predates European discovery.

Movable Type Printing

Shen Kuo (1031–1095) also wrote about how a contemporary printer manufactured and used movable type. However, he didn't write that the printer was the inventor of this technique.

In his Dream Pool Essays of 1088, Shen Kuo said that the printer made thin ceramic characters himself. Then he arranged these on a block. He said that the method wasn't useful for printing just a few sheets of text, but for a hundreds of sheets the method was fast and economical.

Movable type printing wasn't as important an innovation for the region as it was in Europe. Chinese written language used tens of thousands of characters. It was tedious to make so many characters, and it was often easier just to carve wooden blocks to print with. The wood block printing technique is said to have been invented during the preceding Tang Dynasty. Since European alphabets used only a few dozen letters, movable type printing was much more economical. European literacy and culture advanced rapidly.


The Song inventors were especially good at concocting varieties of gunpowder to use for different purposes. The varieties of gunpowder and gunpowder products were very important inventions.

A weak form of gunpowder was known during the preceding Tang Dynasty, but there may be no mention of its use in weaponry until the Song Dynasty. But during the Song Dynasty, a variety of kinds of gunpowder were invented for use in rockets, guns, chemical warfare weapons, and bombs.

Gunpowder became powerful enough to make dangerous weapons. Zeng Gongliang and Yang Weide wrote a treatise called Wujing Zongyao in 1044 that described several formulas for making powerful blasting powder with a large percentage of nitrate.

At the end of the Song Dynasty in 1277, the Song army used landmines against the Mongols. When the Mongols captured China, they used the landmines and various kinds of gunpowder weapons in their attacks on other countries.

Instruments and Gadgets

Some of this advanced ancient knowledge wasn't known or wasn't utilized in later dynasties. In later eras, gadgets such as complex mechanical clocks or mechanical odometer machines perhaps weren't as appreciated.

Perhaps when dynasties changed and new empires began, the scientists who were generally servants of the imperial courts left or fled and their scientific texts in the imperial courts were lost or left unused.

In the empires, the powerful imperial court set the course of scientific research in their domains. In the top down hierarchies, rulers had control of what the scholars did, where they lived, and what funding they received. If they didn't understand or value an invention or a science, they didn't support it and the knowledge was lost.

Economy and Society

The Song Empire experienced unprecedented economic growth and industrial advance. They built some of the biggest cities in the world. During the era of relative prosperity and peace, commerce, urbanization, and industrialization advanced.

Overall, the economy prospered. Rice cultivation in the south and trade flourished enough to support a doubling of the population.

Based on census counts taken during the Western Han Dynasty and the Tang Dynasty, it is thought that the population of both of the empires was about 50 million or 60 million. If these figures are valid, it means the regional population didn't grow after 800 years.

The various wars, famines, and disasters kept killing off population growth until the Song era. Scholars think that the population in the region first exceeded 100 million during the Song era.

During the Song era, people learned how to live in some of the world's largest urban centers such as Kaifeng and Hangzhou. These cities didn't have walls around them for protection and were more like modern cities.

Trade and Industry

International trade was very important, and large commercial cities such as Hangzhou grew so large and rich that they astounded Marco Polo when he saw them. He thought Hangzhou was the grandest and most beautiful city in the world.

Based in the big merchant cities, private trading companies sent large merchant ships to Arabia, India and other regions to trade Chinese tea, silk and manufactured products.

Iron foundries were established in various places, and they produced as much as 200 million pounds of iron a year for weapons and tools. Some economists say the Song era was a time of technological and economic revolution.


During the Tang era and before, the empires mainly cultivated wheat and millet. The earlier empires had developed around the Yellow River in the north. But the latter empires expanded southwards, and people migrated to the south where rice is cultivated.

During the Song era, most of the people lived in the south where they used improved techniques of rice cultivation. Rice became the major food crop, and this enabled the population to explode.

For the urban elite, food was plentiful. According to Marco Polo, the people in the largest city in the Song Empire ate surprisingly large quantities of fresh meat and fish. Marco Polo thought that the big coastal merchant cities were richer than European cities.

Cultural Mores

During the Song era, patterns of behavior developed that became the characteristic of later people. One of these was the painful and destructive tradition of foot binding.

Higher class and richer people began binding the feet of girls. They essentially crippled their girls for life. It was thought that this made them more submissive and signified their family's status.

The custom of foot binding spread to the lower classes and even to peasants although it rendered the girls less productive. By the Qing era, the majority of women except those of ethnic minorities had bound feet. It was thought that the small feet were more beautiful.

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