Founding of the Song Dynasty Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The founding of the Song Dynasty ushered in a period in which the economy expanded rapidly, literature flourished and reached unprecedented numbers of readers, and landscape painting, architecture, pottery, sculpture, and music reached some of the highest artistic levels in Chinese history under the emperors’s patronage.

Summary of Event

By the beginning of the tenth century, China was divided into numerous kingdoms. During the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (China) period (907-960), emperors of five different dynasties held power in one of the largest kingdoms, which had a capital at Kaifeng. In 951, General Guo Wei Guo Wei (Kuo Wei) established the last of these short-lived dynasties, which is known as the Later Zhou Dynasty Later Zhou Dynasty (Chou; 951-960). Guo Wei managed to unify most of northern China and began to expand southward. Zhao Kuangyin Zhao Kuangyin , a military inspector general for the Later Zhou Dynasty, seized power after Guo Wei’s death. Zhao took the imperial name Taizu (T’ai-tsu) and gave his dynasty the name “Song” after a district he had governed in the province of Henan. [kw]Founding of the Song Dynasty (960) [kw]Song Dynasty, Founding of the (960) Song Dynasty China;960: Founding of the Song Dynasty[1230] Cultural and intellectual history;960: Founding of the Song Dynasty[1230] Government and politics;960: Founding of the Song Dynasty[1230] Zhao Kuangyin

The first Song emperor was an able diplomat and administrator as well as a successful military man. He used gifts of honors and position to persuade many of his rivals to become his followers. He established a competent civil service with a firm basis in Confucian philosophy. He took the administration of territory away from the army and placed his lands under the supervision of civilian officials.

The expansion of the land under the control of the dynasty owed as much to its efficient civilian administration as to its military successes. Two southern kingdoms agreed to submit to the Song as a result of diplomatic negotiations. Several other kingdoms surrendered after brief military struggles.

Although the Song enjoyed a series of successes in unifying much of China, they continued to be threatened from the north by a Manchurian tribe known as the Khitans Khitans . The Khitans had pushed southward from Manchuria and occupied part of the province of Hebei, on the Chinese side of the Great Wall. In 979, the second Song emperor, Taizong Taizong (Song emperor) (T’ai-tsung; r. 976-997), attempted to retake part of Hebei and suffered defeat at the hands of the Khitans. For the rest of the dynasty’s reign, the Song were constantly on the defensive against fierce northern neighbors.





Under the first two Song emperors, the dynasty developed a workable, highly centralized governmental system. At the core of this system, the emperor chaired a council of state consisting of five to nine members that made general policy decisions. The central government beneath the council of state was divided into three departments. The first of these dealt with matters of the economy and was known as the “three services” because it was composed of three mutually independent bureaucracies: the service of state monopolies, the budget service, and the population service. The second department was military and controlled the armies. The third, known as the secretariat, administered justice and handled recruitment for government offices and promotions.

Historians regard the civil service as the greatest governmental accomplishment of the Song. A civil service system consisting of officials recruited through competitive examinations Examinations, Chinese civil service;Song Dynasty had taken shape under the emperors of the Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907), but the Song period saw the highest development of this system. From the end of the tenth century through the eleventh century, the Chinese government created three levels of testing that could recruit civil servants from around the empire. Tests were held in local districts known as prefectures, in the capital under the administration of the secretariat, and in the palace in the presence of the emperor. Each prefecture set up public and private schools to prepare men for the tests. The “mandarins,” the learned civil servants who had earned their positions through examination, had more control over state affairs during the Song period than at any other time in Chinese history.

Wang Anshi Wang Anshi , who came from a family of prosperous farmers in Jiangxi, may have been the most outstanding Song civil servant. After he rose through a variety of posts to the council of state, Wang attempted to reform the laws to improve management of the national income and to strengthen military defenses. He also tried to give practical subjects, such as geography, economics, and law, a greater place in the civil service examinations. Wang’s opponents forced his resignation in 1076, however, and most of his reforms were reversed.

One of the departments of the Chinese state, the department of the “three services,” was chiefly concerned with matters of finance and the economy. The reign of the Song Dynasty was a time of rapid commercial development. Traders organized trade guilds, and the use of paper money encouraged business activities. Trade;China

Agricultural expansion fueled this economic progress. Progress in rice cultivation in the Yangtze Basin and in southern China produced a surplus of food that enabled a growing proportion of the population to engage in trade and in industries such as mining, textiles, and ceramics. The merchant class of China’s cities grew in size and wealth.

Each region of China became known for its own special product. Sichuan and Zhejiang were famous for the paper they produced. Changdu and Hangzhou were noted for their printed books. Fujian produced cane sugar. Several towns in Henan were known for ceramics. Southern Hebei produced iron.

The unification of China made possible trade among all these regions, making a variety of goods available throughout the empire. Ships and boats traveled along China’s immense inland network of rivers and waterways. Vessels carrying merchandise made their way up and down the coast. Travel by sea;China





The expansion of waterborne trade made China a maritime power. The high-seas junk, a big sailing ship, was probably developed during the Song era. Song junks made voyages to Southeast Asian and the Indian Ocean, and books about voyages during this period contained information even about faraway Europe.

The Song period was a time of remarkable artistic, literary, and intellectual achievement. Dreamy, impressionistic landscape and nature painting on silk and paper became the period’s characteristic form of visual expression. Each painting was believed to be a microcosm, a self-contained representation of the whole of the natural world. In the later part of the Song era, known as the Southern Song (1127-1279), Chan (Zen) Buddhism inspired paintings of Buddhist deities and birds. Song sculpture was also primarily religious, concentrating on images of the Buddha. Art;Song Dynasty

The ceramics and related industries made possible the production of beautiful artifacts for everyday use. Porcelain ware became common in the homes of the well-to-do. The patronage of the emperor helped foster the art of architecture, so that the imperial capital at Kaifeng was filled with temples and multistoried pagodas built with brick and colorful tiles.

Woodblock printing Printing;China presses came into wide use, and the earliest full-length printed books in existence were produced during the Song Dynasty. The works of essayists and historians found a wider readership than ever before as a result of printing, and earlier literary works, such as the Confucian classics, were printed and widely distributed. The encyclopedia, a form of literature that came to occupy an important place in Chinese culture, first appeared during the dynasty.

The philosophers Philosophy;China Zhu Xi Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) and Lu Jiuyuan Lu Jiuyuan (Lu Chiu-yüan) developed neo-Confucianism into a coherent system during the twelfth century. Neo-Confucianism was based on the teachings of Confucius, which stressed the importance of hierarchical, obedient social relations, government by virtue, and an educated bureaucracy. Neo-Confucianism Neo-Confucianism[NeoConfucianism] , however, combined these teachings with elements of Buddhist and Daoist thinking.

Although the Song Dynasty was culturally brilliant, it was never militarily secure. A Manchurian people known as the Jurchen Jurchens were subordinate to the Khitans Khitans . The Jurchen allied themselves with the Song Chinese, however, and forced the Khitans into Central Asia. The alliance was an unfortunate one for the Song, however, because the Jurchen became an even greater threat. The Jurchen extended their power southward, and the Song court fled to the southern capital of Nanjing in 1127 and then established its capital in Hangzhou in 1132. Historians refer to the larger empire, which existed from 960 to 1126, as the Northern Song Northern Song Dynasty . The southern remnant, which survived until 1279, is known as the Southern Song Southern Song Dynasty .

Despite economic and military problems in the diminished Southern Song Dynasty, the bureaucracy continued to function, and cultural achievements did not cease. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, however, a new threat appeared in the north: the Mongols Mongols under Genghis Khan Genghis Khan . In 1211, the Mongols attacked the northern Chinese empire of the Jurchen, and by 1215, they had managed to conquer Beijing.

The Southern Song held the Mongols off for most of the thirteenth century. Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan Kublai Khan , invaded the Song regions in 1250. In 1279, Kublai Khan defeated the last Song emperor and established a Chinese-style Mongol dynasty, known as the Yuan Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) that ruled China for almost a century.


Under the Song emperors, China achieved a high degree of cultural unity that helped to hold the large empire together. Despite changes in dynasties, China maintained relative social stability from the Song era until the twentieth century. The civil service, restored and improved during the dynasty, remained a central part of Chinese governmental life for centuries. Neo-Confucian philosophy continued to be the empire’s official ideology.

The cultural and technical innovations of the period made China one of the world’s most advanced societies. Woodblock printing, for example, helped make books widely available in China centuries before Europe developed the printing of books. The contact the Chinese made with other societies through trade also helped enrich Chinese culture. The concept of zero, an essential aspect of mathematical thinking, was borrowed from India during the Song Dynasty.

The social stability and high cultural level attained during the Song Dynasty may eventually have worked against China. By the time Europeans became involved with China in the nineteenth century, the empire’s ancient institutions could not change quickly enough to adapt to new circumstances. The faith of Chinese officials in tradition and their belief that China was the center of world civilization may have made China vulnerable to European domination.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chaffee, John W. Branches of Heaven: A History of the Imperial Clan of Sung China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. An examination of the ruling class during the Song Dynasty. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ebrey, Patricia B. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Contains information on the Song Dynasty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization. Translated by J. R. Foster. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. A detailed introduction to the history of China. Part 5 is dedicated to the Song “renaissance.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jay, Jennifer W. A Change in Dynasties: Loyalties in Thirteenth Century China. Bellingham: Western Washington University Press, 1991. A study of Song Dynasty loyalists, Song government officials who resisted the Mongol conquest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Liu Shu-hsien. Understanding Confucian Philosophy Classical and Sung-Ming. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. A discussion of the development of Confucian thought from the viewpoint of a contemporary neo-Confucian. Contains a section on Zhu Xi.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murck, Alfreda. Poetry and Painting in Song China: The Subtle Art of Dissent. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Examines the poetry of Du Fu and Su Dongpo and the painting of Wang Hong, among others.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, J. A. G. A Concise History of China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. Provides an overview of the Song Dynasty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walton, Linda A. Academies and Society in Southern Sung China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999. A study of the academies active during the Sung Dynasty and their role in society.

Categories: History