History of China

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960 Jan 1 - 1279

Song Dynasty

Kaifeng, Henan, China

The Song dynasty was an imperial dynasty of China that began in 960 and lasted until 1279. The dynasty was founded by Emperor Taizu of Song following his usurpation of the throne of the Later Zhou, ending the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. The Song often came into conflict with the contemporaneous Liao, Western Xia and Jin dynasties in northern China.


The dynasty is divided into two periods: Northern Song and Southern Song. During the Northern Song (Chinese: 北宋; 960–1127), the capital was in the northern city of Bianjing (now Kaifeng) and the dynasty controlled most of what is now Eastern China. The Southern Song (Chinese: 南宋; 1127–1279) refers to the period after the Song lost control of its northern half to the Jurchen-led Jin dynasty in the Jin–Song Wars. At that time, the Song court retreated south of the Yangtze and established its capital at Lin'an (now Hangzhou). Although the Song dynasty had lost control of the traditional Chinese heartlands around the Yellow River, the Southern Song Empire contained a large population and productive agricultural land, sustaining a robust economy. In 1234, the Jin dynasty was conquered by the Mongols, who took control of northern China, maintaining uneasy relations with the Southern Song.


Technology, science, philosophy, mathematics, and engineering flourished during the Song era. The Song dynasty was the first in world history to issue banknotes or true paper money and the first Chinese government to establish a permanent standing navy. This dynasty saw the first recorded chemical formula of gunpowder, the invention of gunpowder weapons such as fire arrows, bombs, and the fire lance. It also saw the first discernment of true north using a compass, first recorded description of the pound lock, and improved designs of astronomical clocks. Economically, the Song dynasty was unparalleled with a gross domestic product three times larger than that of Europe during the 12th century. China's population doubled in size between the 10th and 11th centuries. This growth was made possible by expanded rice cultivation, use of early-ripening rice from Southeast and South Asia, and production of widespread food surpluses. This dramatic increase of population fomented an economic revolution in pre-modern China.


The expansion of the population, growth of cities, and emergence of a national economy led to the gradual withdrawal of the central government from direct involvement in economic affairs. The lower gentry assumed a larger role in local administration and affairs. Social life during the Song was vibrant. Citizens gathered to view and trade precious artworks, the populace intermingled at public festivals and private clubs, and cities had lively entertainment quarters. The spread of literature and knowledge was enhanced by the rapid expansion of woodblock printing and the 11th-century invention of movable-type printing. Philosophers such as Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi reinvigorated Confucianism with new commentary, infused with Buddhist ideals, and emphasized a new organization of classic texts that established the doctrine of Neo-Confucianism. Although civil service examinations had existed since the Sui dynasty, they became much more prominent in the Song period. Officials gaining power through imperial examination led to a shift from a military-aristocratic elite to a scholar-bureaucratic elite.

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