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Song Dynasty


Duration: 960~1279 (The year 1127 divides the Song Dynasty into two halves: the Northern Song and the Southern Song, according to the relative locations of their capitals (Kaifeng and Hangzhou, respectively).)

Rise and Fall of Song Dynasty: from usurpation to conquest

The Song Dynasty was founded by Zhao Kuangyin, known posthumously by temple name as Emperor Taizu of Song (r. 960~976). Originally a senior military commander of Later Zhou Dynasty, Zhao Kuangyin staged a coup and took the throne in 960, putting an official end to the Period of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. Zhao Kuangyin and his brother Zhao Kuangyi (Emperor Taizong) went on waging wars against the then remaining regimes and reunified China in 982.

The Song Dynasty leaves later Chinese with the impression of being too militarily ineffective to defend itself, compared with other Chinese dynasties such as the Han and the Tang. Over its duration of more than three centuries, the Song was consistently plagued by threats from and border conflicts with its neighbours, primarily the nomadic regimes in the north. Initially, there were the Khitans under the Liao Dynasty. A peace treaty was signed at Chanyuan in 1005 following a full-scale aggression by the Khitans, prescribing that the Song provided large annual tributes to the Khitans. Large hostilities with the Khitans were thus avoided in the following hundred years. The Tanguts were another threat, who founded the Western Xia regime in today’s Ningxia and Gansu areas.

The Jurchens, a subject tribe within the Liao, rebelled and founded their own state – the Jin, who allied with the Song and finally toppled the Liao Dynasty by 1125. However, the Song’s military weakness and poor effectiveness was observed by the Jurchens, who soon launched an invasion into Song. In 1127, the Jurchens captured the Song capital Kaifeng and most of the royal clan including Song Emperors Qinzong and Huizong (then retired). This is known as the Humiliation of Jingkang (Jingkang is the name given to the reigning era of Emperor Huizong: 1126 and 1127). The remaining Song forces gathered around the self-proclaimed Emperor Gaozong, and went on to defend southern China (now mostly south of the Yangtze River). The capital was relocated to Lin’an (modern-day Hangzhou). This marked the beginning of the second half of Song Dynasty, known as Southern Song.


Song Dynasty, China Dynasties

Northern Song Dynasty

Song Dynasty, China Dynasties

Southern Song Dynasty, in 1300


In the first few decades that followed, the Southern Song was successful in holding back the Jurchens’ further invasions and, at some points, was even poised to launch aggressions to recover the lost territory in the north. The Mongols came to power in early 13th century. It formed an alliance with the Southern Song, and had conquered the Jin and the Western Xia first by 1241. The two decades from 1259 saw the Song fighting hard to check the Mongols’ advances. In 1279, the Song lost the last battle in the waters off the Pearl River Delta, and the last remaining ruler Emperor Huaizong committed suicide following the defeat.

Urban Social Life in Song Dynasty

The Song rulers designed the state in such manners as to prevent the army from threatening royal control – at the expense of military effectiveness in practice. Preferences were given to scholar-officials rather than generals. The officials were almost exclusively scholars drafted through the imperial civil service exams known as 科举考试 ke ju kao shi.

Though with a poorer record in the military aspect, the Song Dynasty is well liked as an age of economic prosperity that saw the rise of popular culture in urban social life. Population estimatedly exceeded 100 million by Northern Song Dynasty. The central government withdrew from heavily regulating the market economy. Commerce flourished, despite the traditional disdain for trade and the merchant class.

In the cities, walls or fences that used to divide the city into smaller living quarters with gates opening and closing at regular hours to curb night activities were dismantled. Curfews that were in place in previous dynasties were lifted, and night life prevailed in lively entertainment quarters with teahouses, restaurants, clubs, brothels, etc. Puppeteers, acrobats, sword swallowers, snake charmers, storytellers, singers and musicians entertained audiences in the street. Public folk festivals such as the Lantern Festival, the Qingming Festival, and Mid-Autumn Festival were enjoyed by the populace as good outing seasons. Performing arts became popular with both the elite and the general populace. Ci poetry, lyrics matching fixed popular melodies, became the representative literary genre of the Song Dynasty – all men of letters were involved in composing ci poetry. Both capitals, Kaifeng and Hangzhou, hosted vibrant urban culture with populations exceeding a million.

Song Dynasty, China Dynasties

A section from Along the River during Qingming Festival (清明上河图 qingming shanghe tu), illustrating the busling urban life in the Song capital Kaifeng.




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