Scholar-Official Class Flowers Under Song Dynasty

During the Song Dynasty, neo-Confucianism rose to a place of prominence in Chinese society and dominated Chinese intellectual life for the next eight centuries.

Summary of Event

By the middle of the eighth century, the Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907) began to fall victim to bureaucratic corruption and military weakness. Years of governmental inefficiency and the decline of the equal-field system led to widespread peasant unrest. A series of devastating rebellions weakened the dynasty’s ability to maintain a peaceful and prosperous environment. [kw]Scholar-Official Class Flowers Under Song Dynasty[Scholar Official] (960-1279)
[kw]Song Dynasty, Scholar-Official Class Flowers Under (960-1279)
[kw]Official Class Flowers Under Song Dynasty, Scholar- (960-1279)
Song Dynasty
Scholar-officials[scholar officials]
China;960-1279: Scholar-Official Class Flowers Under Song Dynasty[1250]
Cultural and intellectual history;960-1279: Scholar-Official Class Flowers Under Song Dynasty[1250]
Zhao Kuangyin
Zhu Xi

The Tang Dynasty also faced a renewed threat from its nomadic neighbors to the north. Over time, the entire northern part of the empire deteriorated into a series of regional kingdoms, and the last Tang emperor resigned in 907. China then drifted into a half century of political chaos, known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (China) , in which feudal warlords fought among themselves in bloody wars of conquest.

In 960, a young army officer, Zhao Kuangyin Zhao Kuangyin , became the first emperor of the Song Dynasty (Sung; 969-1279), ruling as Taizu (T’ai-tsu). He was able to claim the mandate of heaven (heavenly authorization of rule) when his men overwhelmingly proclaimed him emperor. Their loyalty was based on his exceptional honesty and leadership ability. His strong character enabled him to convince his political rivals to accept his power, and he set in motion a series of reforms that would return China to a place of prominence in East Asia.

Taizu instituted a series of governmental reforms that increased the power of the emperor and made him a truly autocratic ruler. He accomplished this by creating a bureaucracy that was totally under his control. Different sections of the bureaucracy were given similar duties to perform. This duplication created competition among the different agencies, which allowed Taizu to play one group against another. This not only increased efficiency but it also prevented any group from becoming strong enough to challenge the power of the emperor.

Taizu also took advantage of the preceding half century of chaos to weaken the aristocracy. During the years of decentralized rule after the fall of the Tang Dynasty, much of the land controlled by the aristocracy had been confiscated by regional warlords. This reduced their wealth and drove the noble class into large metropolitan areas with the intent of obtaining a position in the government. The new emperor controlled these nobles through the allocation of jobs in his bureaucracy. Taizu also opened the civil service examination Examinations, Chinese civil service system to a large segment of Chinese society; this action had three long-lasting effects on Chinese society. First, it established a system of permanent competition for the aristocracy, which enhanced the emperor’s power over them. Second, the reforms created a large pool of candidates; thus, only the best and the brightest of Chinese society were appointed to important bureaucratic posts. Third, this open examination system created a vibrant, energized society in which men knew they had the chance to be socially upwardly mobile. For the first time in Chinese history, talent accounted for more than accident of birth. This energy of accomplishment would infuse Chinese society with a power that did not exist in any other major civilization at this time in history.

The most significant aspect of the Song Dynasty was the development of a new philosophical system known as neo-Confucianism Neo-Confucianism[NeoConfucianism] . This philosophy was the result of a synthesis of basic Confucian principles and the cosmic metaphysical concepts of Buddhism. From the fall of the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.) through Buddhism’s apex during the Tang Dynasty, the religion provided a powerful alternative to traditional Chinese belief systems. By the time of the Song Dynasty, a new class of intellectuals, driven by a nationalistic and ethnocentric vision of past and future greatness, rejected Buddhism Buddhism;China as a debilitating foreign influence. China’s new intellectual elite believed the strength of the Song Dynasty should be based on the traditions found in the Confucian system.

Zhu Xi Zhu Xi was the leading proponent of neo-Confucianism, and his teachings would help create a philosophy that would dominate Chinese society until the end of the nineteenth century. Zhu Xi, like important Confucians before him, sought to develop a system of behavior that would curtail the suffering caused by the perpetual rise and fall of China’s empires. This “dynastic cycle” of growth, maturity, decline, and fall had dominated Chinese history since the Zhou Dynasty (Chou; 1066-256 b.c.e.). Neo-Confucians believed that emperors lost their right to rule because dynasties failed to solve the problem of bureaucratic corruption, which over time inflicted pain and suffering on the Chinese people. Philosophy;China

The Zhu Xi model was centered on the traditional Confucian principle that society and the cosmos were a wholly integrated, harmonious system. This principle stated that the laws of nature and proper ethical principles both emanated from the mind of heaven. Zhu Xi believed this linkage between humanity and heaven allowed society to discover these proper cosmic principles through the use of reason. This knowledge could then be used to create a harmonious, well-functioning society in which peace and prosperity would reign. Zhu Xi also believed that this important knowledge could be found in such classical Confucian texts as Chunqiu (fifth century b.c.e.; The Ch’un Ts’ew with the Tso Chuen, 1872; commonly known as Spring and Autumn Annals) and Lunyu (late sixth-early fifth centuries b.c.e.; The Analects, 1861) Analects, The (Confucius) . He further believed that the writings of the Confucian scholar Menicius were an important source for neo-Confucian scholars. Zhu Xi especially embraced Mencius’s belief that people were basically good and had an inherent propensity toward ethical behavior.

Zhu Xi understood that if the neo-Confucian system were to be successful, its teachings would have to permeate all levels of Chinese society and be applied to every aspect of life. Personal morality had to be continually cultivated; thus, every aspect of Chinese society, from the family to the most powerful government bureaucracy, had to be based on these principles.

The first tenet was that every Chinese citizen would be born into a family that acted as an incubator for Chinese civil society. Next, the patriarchical hierarchy of the family was to mirror the power pyramid of the Song Dynasty. Thus, children grew up inculcated with a deep respect for rank based on age and gender. The father was the emperor of the family and, as such, was to be respected without question. Older male siblings mirrored the power of the emperor’s civil servants; respect was based on their rank and accomplishments within the family structure. Women Women;China were regarded as second-class citizens and would remain marginalized in Chinese society for the next eight hundred years. Finally, the best and the brightest of the male children would be educated to prepare to take a series of national exams that would determine whether they would gain entrance into the national university system.

In addition, Zhu Xi helped establish a national educational system that would train future candidates for the Chinese civil service. The curriculum of these Confucian academies was based on the traditional classical texts and the most recent commentaries by neo-Confucian scholars. Even though the primary focus of this educational system was to train candidates for the civil service tests, scholars such as Zhu Xi believed that the system would ultimately fail if it focused only on exam preparation. He understood that any successful government needs virtuous as well as intelligent men in positions of power. To be successful, every generation of bureaucrats had to accept the premise that they had to place personal power and accomplishment second to the well-being of the nation. In the past, it was the narcissistic pursuit of power by highly skilled, intelligent men that had led eventually to the corruption, decline, and fall of dynasties.

Neo-Confucianism had an important impact on Song military policy. The basic Confucian belief in nonaggressive behavior, along with its traditional ethnocentric, isolationist stance, forced the Song Dynasty to make fundamental and drastic changes in its military establishment. The aggressive and expansionist military establishment of the Tang Dynasty was replaced with a neo-Confucian, antimilitary elite that downplayed the importance of the armed services. As the military became weaker, China adopted an appeasement policy for dealing with its aggressive neighbors, especially with the nomadic tribes to its north. The Song Dynasty used a series of very generous economic agreements to appease its potential adversaries. By the end of the Song Dynasty, the Chinese military had been transformed into an ineffective fighting force.


During the Song Dynasty, the neo-Confucian philosophy weakened the cultural energy of Chinese civilization. Its conservative stance, which questioned any change, prevented Chinese intellectuals from implementing the reforms needed to ensure the future of the dynasty. The systematic weakening of the empire’s military establishment by neo-Confucian bureaucrats eventually allowed the Mongols to conquer China.

Further Reading

  • Bol, Peter K. This Culture of Ours: Intellectual Transitions in Tang and Song China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992. An excellent overview of Tang and Song intellectual history. Index and bibliography.
  • Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. The best single-volume account of Chinese cultural history. Maps, index, and bibliography.
  • Graff, David A. Medieval Chinese Warfare, 300-900. New York: Routledge Press, 2002. An excellent overview of medieval Chinese military history. Maps, index, bibliography.
  • Graff, David A., and Robin Higham. A Military History of China. Cambridge, England: Westview Press, 2002. The best survey of Chinese military history on the market. Maps, index, and bibliography.