The Song Dynasty — Medieval China

dragon pavilionDragon pavilion.

The Song Dynasty (960–1279) was a period of technological advances 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.

Quick Facts to Learn About the Song Dynasty

  • The Song Dynasty included two equal-length eras: the Northern Song and the Southern Song.
  • The Song empire enjoyed unprecedented economic growth.
  • The Song empire was technologically and scientifically advanced.
  • The cruel custom of foot-binding for women became popular during the Song era.
  • The Song empire proved to be the most difficult for the Mongols to defeat.

Song's Economy and Society

Modern-day HangzhouModern-day Hangzhou.

The Song empire experienced unprecedented economic growth and industrial advance. Scholars think that the population in the region first exceeded 100 million during the Song era.

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.

They built some of the biggest cities in the world, such as Kaifeng and Hangzhou. These cities didn't have walls around them for protection and were more like modern cities.

Song's Inventions

Song era scientists and inventors advanced scientific knowledge remarkably quickly compared to those of other dynastic eras.

Movable Type Printing

The wood block printing technique is said to have been invented during the preceding Tang Dynasty. Chinese written language used tens of thousands of characters. It was tedious to make so many characters.

The innovation of movable type printing became a fast and economical method for printing. It also advanced the literacy and culture's development.


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

At the end of the Song Dynasty in 1277, the Song army used landmines against the Mongols.

Song's Religions and Philosophy


During the Song Dynasty, 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 Dynasty (1644–1912) except during the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368).

Song's Origin

At the end of the Tang Dynasty (618–907), the territory was divided among kingdoms or was conquered by invaders. There were eight small kingdoms in 923.

In the year 960, a general named Zhao Kuangyin from one of the kingdoms called Northern Zhou rebelled against his king and the court officials, and established a new dynasty—Song.

Zhao Kuangyin proclaimed himself Emperor Taizu and continued to defeat most of the surrounding kingdoms, increasing the institutional buildup.

The Northern Song Period (960–1127)

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.

Emperor Taizu (Ruled 960–976)

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

Expanded Territory

In the beginning of the Song era, the land under rule only covered the areas of the Yellow River and the Huai River. In the north, there were the Northern Han and Khitan kingdoms; in the west, there was the Later Shu Kingdom; in the south, there were the Southern Tang, Wuyue, Jingnan, and Southern Han kingdoms.

Emperor Taizu adopted his chancellor Zhao Pu's idea that the whole conquest should be carried out in order of difficulty.

Valued Literati

Emperor Taizu valued Confucian literati throughou this life. After he took the throne, civil officers were sent to thousands of local, county, and state positions to displace the military officers.

By doing so, the situation of local warlords possessing too much power and rebelling frequently during the later period of the Tang Dynasty had been changed.

Chinese calligraphyChinese calligraphy.

Keju Examination

Emperor Taizu set the policy that most of the governing officials should be Confucian literati who passed the imperial exam, which was known as the Keju examination in ancient China.

Thanks to this policy, many ordinary people became officials by studying hard. This policy helped to ensure that the officials were very intelligent and loyal to the government.

Emperor Taizong (Ruled 976–997)

In 976, Emperor Taizu died suddenly and his younger brother, Zhao Kuangyi, took the throne. He later changed his name to Zhao Guangyi and named himself Emperor Taizong.

Unified the Country

In 979, Emperor Taizong sent a general to besiege the capital of the Northern Han and then led the troops personally before conquering the Northern Han completely. This campaign eventually ended the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period.

Developed Religion

In 980, Emperor Taizong set up a sutra translation institution in Dongjing (modern-day Kaifeng) and continued the Buddhist text translation work, which had been interrupted from 811.

During his reign, he also constructed many Buddhist temples.

Wars with the Other Ethnic Tribes

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 either. Therefore,they kept their territory integrity until 1127.

War Against the Western Xia

Silk RoadSilk Road.

Western Xia was a small kingdom in the northwest that controlled access to the strategic Gansu Corridor.

The Song Dynasty thought that if they could regain the land of the Western Xia, they could perhaps reestablish the lucrative Silk Road trade that benefited the Han and Tang dynasties.

But this expedition was a disaster for the Song empire, and the Western Xia 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 about 100,000 soldiers to Nanning and soundly defeated three Song armies.

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

War Against the Liao Empire

The Liao empire in the northeast was an aggressive military threat to the Song empire. In 1004, the Song Dynasty managed to win several military victories over the Liao, and then the Liao sought peace.

The two parties signed a peace treaty, which was known as the Chanyuan Treaty.

Jurchens' Counterattack

The Northern Song Dynasty sought to defeat the Liao. They allied themselves with the Jurchens and started a war that ended in disaster for them.

The combined armies defeated the Liao empire, but then the Jurchens turned against the Song empire and captured Kaifeng, the Song capital city. They captured Emperor Hui (ruled 1100–1125) and Emperor Qin (ruled 1125–1127) as well as much of the ruling clan in 1127, which was known as the Jingkang Incident.

Hangzhou toursXitang near Hangzhou was a Song era water town.

The Southern Song Era (1127–1279)

After the Jingkang Incident, the Song Dynasty clan memberswho were left set up a capital in Hangzhou. The Southern Song era began.

Foreign Trade

The early period of the Southern Song was a time of prosperity.

Foreign trade was a 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 land.

Song Dynasty facts

Navy Construction

The government built a navy to protect the merchant shipping industry. 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 from the Jin empire partly because they had a better navy than the Jin did. The wide Yangtze River was a natural defensive boundary that they controlled.

Mongol's Counterattack

In 1232, 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.

The Fall of the Song

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 began.

Hangzhou Hangzhou Tour.

Song Dynasty Sights and Tours

  • Hangzhou tours: The former Southern Song capital has Song-era ruins and tombs.
  • Kaifeng Tours: The Northern Song capital was known for it's grand architecture. Two Song era pagodas called Iron Pagoda and Pota Pagoda can be visited along with other ancient sites.

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