Zhao Kuangyin founded the Song dynasty. He was a general, made emperor by his soldiers in 960 A.D. Unlike the generals before him who had declared themselves emperors of dynasties that soon failed, Zhao Kuangyin lived a long life. This allowed him to establish a more solid foundation for his successors. Another reason that his dynasty lasted longer was that he did not try to fight the Khitans to the north; rather he conquered the southern half of China. The southern kingdoms, while economically and culturally advanced, did not have strong militaries and were relatively easy to defeat. In order to maintain peace with the Khitans, the Song were forced to pay them annual tributes. These annual tributes were more cost effective than maintaining a military that could hold the Khitans back.
Great advances were made in the areas of technological invention, material production, political philosophy, government, and elite culture. The Song used gunpowder as a weapon in siege warfare, foreign trade expanded greatly, and the Chinese had the best ships in the world. Their ships contained as many as four decks, six masts, and a dozen sails. The ships were guided by a stern post rudder, while navigation was done through the use of charts and compasses. These ships could carry 500 men. European ships on the other hand used muscle power and an inefficient steering oar. Advances were also made in medicine, as the first autopsy was performed in about 1145 AD on the body of a Southern Chinese captive.
Education, and the examination system became central to the upper class. This rise in the popularity of education was due in part to advances made in printing and the greater availability of books. Examinations grew steadily in popularity throughout China; although, only enough were allowed to pass them as was needed to fill the administrative positions. This resulted in the education itself, and the attempted examination, gaining more importance socially than it had in the past.
Neo-Confucianism was developed during this time, especially during the Southern Song dynasty. Zhu Xi was one of the people who helped develop Neo-Confucianism. While not the only person to write about Confucianism, he was the one who combined others works with his and best organized the beliefs. He selected, from the ancient writings on Confucianism, the Four Books and also synthesized the writings of previous philosophers who had been active earlier during the Northern Song era. An important part of Neo-Confucianism is the attempt to "repossess the Way." Pursuit of the Way through disciplined self cultivation formed a person's character. This was important because it encouraged the nobles to live up to the Confucian ideals by being less selfish.
While poetry and painting gained importance, some poets began using the vernacular in their writings. In the past it had been very unusual to use phrases from everyday life. Painting reached new heights during this time. There were two main schools of painters. The first created decorative, yet realistic, paintings that show a great attention to detail. The second tried to paint inner realities, as they viewed painting to be an intimate personal expression. Near the end of the Song dynasty, the famous blue and white porcelain was created. The most common porcelain was the type known as Celadon.
While being one of the most technologically and culturally advanced people in the world at the time, the Song were not militarily powerful. Part of the reason for this may be because Confucianism held military in very low regard. Confucianism did not recognize the military as being part of the four official classes of occupations; therefore, the military consisted of either the poor, uneducated peasants, mercenaries or allies. Diplomacy was the favored form of dealing with enemies. This prolonged period of paying tribute to enemies, rather than being militarily strong enough to defeat them, left the Song susceptible to attack from others. This weakness allowed for two non-Chinese kingdoms to exist to the north of the Song. They were the Liao and the Western Xia. All three of these kingdoms favored diplomacy over military aggression. Thus by 1125 A.D., a group called the Jin were able to conquer the Liao and the Song, along with part of the territory of the Western Xia. A brother of the Song emperor fled south, and declared himself emperor. His dynasty is generally known as the Southern Song.
The Southern Song experienced a temporary return to peace, and culturally they too flourished. However, the power was mainly held by the nobles, and many emperors were forced, by the nobles, to abdicate. This period did not last long, as in 1210 A.D. the Mongols began to assault the Song, and in 1279, the Yuan, or Mongol empire began.
List of Emperors of the Song Dynasty
Northern Song Dynasty 960-1127
range of years
Southern Song Dynasty 1127-1279