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Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD)

In the year 960 AD, the Five Dynasties Period came to an end, when the military generals Zhao Kuangyin and his younger brother Zhao Kuangyi of the Later Zhou dynasty, the 5th and last of the 5 dynasty states that had succeeded one another after the fall of the Tang dynasty, used their army's strength to overthrow their emperor, the young boy emperor Gong (then 7 years old). Zhao Kuangyin proclaimed the Song dynasty (960 AD - 1279 AD), which he ruled as its first emperor Taizu.
Emperor Gong of Later Zhou
Emperor Gong of Later Zhou

Emperor Taizu, founder of the Song dynasty
Emperor Taizu, founder of the Song dynasty. By Xuanwudadi at zh.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

The Song dynasty is divided into two distinct periods, the Northern Song and the Southern Song period. The Northern Song period (960 AD - 1127 AD) came first, since Emperor Taizu established his capital in the northern city of Bianjing (nowadays Kaifeng in Henan province).

During the next roughly two decades, the Song state launched a series of military campaigns against the smaller kingdoms that remained from the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. Through these military campaigns and intimidation tactics, most of China had been reunited by 976 AD under Song rule, the year when the founding Song emperor Taizu died.

His younger brother Zhao Kuangyi followed him then on the throne as the Song dynasty's second emperor Taizong. Under his leadership, the last renegade state - the Northern Han kingdom - was defeated and its territory incorporated in 979 AD as well. Emperor Taizong immediately afterwards attempted to regain the Sixteen Prefectures from the Khitan Liao dynasty in the north.

The Sixteen Prefectures, an agriculturally rich and densely populated area (by Chinese people), had been ceded to the Liao dynasty in 938 AD by the Later Jin dynasty, the 3rd of the five successive dynasties during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period. The Song army enjoyed some initial successes in this attempt, but was eventually beaten back and forced to retreat.

Emperor Taizong of Song
Emperor Taizong of Song. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sixteen Prefectures in yellow
the small yellow area in this map shows the Sixteen Prefectures. By 陋室 at zh.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
The territory of the Song empire was substantially smaller than that of the Tang empire at its height and was comprised mainly of the agricultural heartland of China (with a population of about 100 million people). The subsequent Song emperors never managed to bring the former parts of the Tang empire in the North, Northeast, South and especially Northwest back under Chinese control.

After the Song dynasty had stabilized its power, it launched a major military campaign in 1004 AD with the aim of trying to recapture the prosperous Sixteen Prefectures from the Liao dynasty state, its northern neighbour. However, the Song army was defeated by the Khitan forces and the Song dynasty was forced to sign a humiliating treaty with the Liao dynasty, which stipulated the annual payment of subsidies (that were mostly paid in silver, silk and cotton cloth) to the Khitan emperors.

Another thorn in the side of the Song dynasty were the troublesome Tangut people, descendents of the Tuoba Turks, who had founded the Tuoba Wei dynasty (see Six Dynasties section) in the 4th century AD. They resisted further territorial expansion of the Song state in the Northwest (territory that they had won near the end of the Tang dynasty) even before they officially founded their own independent state, the Western Xia dynasty, in 1038 AD.

map of the Northern Song dynasty state
Map of the Song dynasty state during the Northern Song period in 1111 AD. The green areas north of the Song territory show the Western Xia (Xi Xia) dynasty and Liao dynasty states. By LiDaobing Yu Ninjie [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Besides trying to expand their territory militarily, the Song rulers also took measures to stabilize and legitimize their hold on power (and to prevent the threat of losing their new empire again through military action by local military leaders, just like they had seized power for themselves) by establishing a stable civilian bureaucratic government, that relegated military power to a secondary role in the empire. However, they faced a problem that no previous dynasty had to deal with.

city gate of the Northern Song capital Bianjing
city gate of the Northern Song capital Bianjing. detail of the famous painting "Along the River during the Qingming Festival". Zhang Zeduan [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Whereas previous civilian governments had recruited the educated sons (in the Confucian political tradition) of great aristocratic families into government, that possible course of action was not available anymore. The aristocratic elite had been nearly wiped out during the period of constant warfare and rebellions since the mid 9th century. Not only had many people and entire families of this formerly privileged class been killed, many documents that documented their land titles or genealogical records had been destroyed as well. Many documents of importance for the former aristocratic class, such as the genealogical registry of the great aristocratic families, had been lost during the preceding decades of warfare.

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In order to find suitable talented individuals to staff government positions, the Song rulers decided to use the long established practice of holding imperial examinations as the predominant way of recruitment. These examinations had been secondary in importance until then and were only held occasionally during the Tang dynasty.

Song Dynasty governmental seal
Song Dynasty governmental seal made of copper. Remarks on its surfaces indicate the date and the office. By Buhuzu (Own work by uploader, part of private collection)(Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

During the existence of the previous aristocratic order, most candidates had entered into government service through personal recommendation or the Yin privilege (the Shadow privilege). Members of the aristocratic elite and people who already worked for the government could recommend individuals, whom they thought suitable for government service. Government officials could also extend the privilege of government service to people in their "shadow", for example sons and even grandsons (according to Confucian ideology, no women were allowed to work in government service).

These ways to enter into government service continued to exist, but only minor positions could be obtained in this way from then on.

Nearly all truly influential government positions, whether in provincial administration or in the 6 imperial ministries, were from then on filled by individuals, who had passed the imperial exams. This recruitment system continued to function in this way until the end of the imperial order in the 20th century.

Palace Examination at Kaifeng, Song Dynasty
Palace Examination at Kaifeng, Song Dynasty. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The imperial exams tested their takers' knowledge of historical texts, classical literature and Confucian writings. Test takers further had to recite texts from memory, compose original works of poetry and prove their aptitude to write in elegant literary style. They also had to prove their ability to apply their learned knowledge to deal with problems in government and administration.

At first, the imperial exams were organised on 2 different levels, locally and by the central imperial government. Later, a third provincial level was added in between. These 3 different exams were held in succession every 3 years (first locally, then at the provincial level and finally the imperial level at the capital).

Statistically on average, only about 10 percent of the test takers passed the exam successfully. For example in an average year, about 300.000 individuals would attempt to pass the exam at the local level. Possibly hundreds of thousands more individuals nationwide had tried to prepare for this first exam, but hadn't been able to pass a preliminary test, that was meant to weed out insufficiently educated individuals before the first local imperial exams. Of the ones that were admitted to the first exam, about 30.000 would make it to the next provincial level the following year. Yet another year later, the best 3.000 of those would try to pass the highest level at the capital. The best 300 would then be recruited into high government positions.
Imperial Civil Service Examination during the Song Dynasty
Imperial Civil Service Examination during the Song Dynasty, Contemporary illustration (11th century). public domain in the United States

Even individuals who didn't pass the entry level test were nevertheless regarded as educated gentlemen in their local communities, simply by finding the time and devotion and financial resources to devote their lives to study. Even though theoretically eligible, few sons of artisans or peasants even attempted to prepare for these exams. The lives of most of these common families were still centered upon the generation of wealth for their survival.

Interestingly, merchants and their sons and grandsons (who could have afforded the costly exam preparations) were strictly banned from taking the imperial exams. Their class was not well regarded in Chinese society, since they didn't create any value of their own, but enriched themselves by trading the products that other people had created.

merchant stalls along the road
Merchant stalls along the road. Close-up detail of the famous Song dynasty painting by Zhang Zeduan "Along the River during Qingming Festival". By Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A few other groups of society were excluded as well, most notably women (whose role in society was further constrained by legal changes in their disfavour and the emerging custom of foot binding), but also actors and people who worked with leather and those in contact with dead bodies.

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Formerly, only members of the professional administrative elite were considered part of the shi class, that consisted almost exclusively of individuals of aristocratic descent (and membership of the aristocracy was hereditary). The shi class now became a kind of elite literati class with a shared literate culture to which all people were thought to belong, who had prepared for and taken the imperial examinations (even individuals who hadn't passed them).

detail of Song dynasty painting-An Elegant Party
detail of painting "An Elegant Party" attributed to Emperor Huizong of Song (r. 1100–1125 AD), showing a small Chinese banquet hosted by the emperor for scholar-officials. By PericlesofAthens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In theory, almost every man (with the above mentioned exceptions) could attain the elite status of being regarded as an educated gentleman (belonging to the shi class) by virtue of taking the imperial examinations. Altogether, it is estimated that between 5 and 6 percent of the Chinese population (including the families of these educated gentlemen) belonged to this educated elite.

After the importance of the imperial examinations was raised during the early 11th century, they very quickly became the center of the cultural life of educated gentlemen, which would remain so until the early 20th century. The 11th century became a period of great intellectual ferment, when the class of the literati began to question and search for its proper role in government, society and culture.

scholars collating classic texts
Song dynasty painting by Yen Li-pen of scholars collating classic texts. Attributed to Yen Li-pen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

After having passed the first level of the imperial exams, an individual would suddenly find himself in a leadership position at the local level. The power and influence that could be obtained by passing the highest imperial level was enormously greater. The few individuals who attained this highest level of scholarly achievement by passing the imperial level exam were henceforth regarded as jinshi ("presented gentlemen" or "presented scholar").

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Taking the exams had several practical advantages too. After qualifying to sit for the first exam (by passing the preliminary test) and for as long as one was involved in exam taking or preparation, one was exempt from corporal punishment (even for serious crimes) and corvée labour (a tax that people were conscripted to pay with labour) that ordinary people had to perform in addition to their payment of taxes (that were usually paid in grain).

Most exam takers probably dreamt of an influential role in government, but even the individuals who didn't pass the first local exam could still benefit from their scholarly efforts by finding employment as teachers at private academies (that proliferated), private tutors at the homes of the wealthy or secretaries/clerks (privately or for the government).

Yuelu Academy of Classical Learning
Building of the Yuelu Academy of Classical Learning in Changsha, Hunan province that was founded in 976 AD during the early Song dynasty. By Lectern (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The examination culture also began to shape public discourse through the intellectual debates that it triggered. Based on the analysis of the central themes of surviving documents of these intellectual exchanges among the educated gentlemen of the literati class during the Song dynasty, we can now in retrospect classify 3 groups of these scholarly gentlemen (even though no such divisions existed during the Song dynasty).

The first group - Wenren ("literary gentlemen") - saw the vast Chinese literary textual tradition (historic texts, Confucian classics, poems and prose etc.) as a repository of knowledge and values that could be drawn upon to inspire, educate or influence one's way of thinking. In the tradition of Confucian scholars, these wenren sought to find and follow the dao (the right way) to accumulate the qualities and values that a good gentleman should possess. They sought to cultivate the gentlemanly and proper way of writing as a microcosm of a properly ordered world.

Contemporary Drawing of Ouyang Xiu
Contemporary Drawing of Ouyang Xiu. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Contemporary Painting of Su Shi
Contemporary Painting of Su Shi. public domain in the United States

Out of the group of wenren, two famous examples are Ouyang Xiu (1007 AD - 1072 AD) and Su Shi (1037 AD - 1101 AD) a.k.a. Su Dongpo, who got acquainted with each other through the system of imperial examinations. In fact, Ouyang Xiu was the chief official for the highest level of the imperial examinations in the capital in the year 1059 AD. As an imperial examiner, Ouyang Xiu preferred the clear and straightforward Guwen style of prose that Su Shi practiced in his essays. Unsurprisingly then, Su Shi passed the exam with very high marks to earn his jinshi degree. Su Shi had assimilated his learned literary knowledge to such a degree, that his writing flowed naturally in the Guwen style without having to copy stylistic elements from Guwen role models like Han Yu.

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The 2nd group of scholarly gentlemen - jingshi ("ordering the world", commonly translated as statecraft thinkers) - was also strongly influenced by the literary culture wen, but had the more practical goal of using this accumulated literary knowledge to find solutions to current problems of government, administration and political affairs. Two famous representatives of this line of thinking were Sima Guang (1019 AD - 1086 AD) and Wang Anshi (1021 AD - 1086 AD).

Contemporary painting of Sima Guang
Contemporary painting of Sima Guang. By Annonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Contemporary painting of Wang Anshi
Contemporary painting of Wang Anshi. public domain in the United States

When Wang Anshi was the chief minister of the imperial government at the Northern Song capital of Bianjing (nowadays Kaifeng in Henan province) during the late 1060's and early 1070's, he launched a major reform program that was named "The New Policies". As a manifestation of his belief that the state should actively intervene in society as an agent for the good, "The New Policies" included the establishment of state-sponsored schools (where the boys from every social class could study) and fair agricultural loans to farmers.

Northern Song dynasty coin
Coin of Chong Ning Tongbao, dated 1102-1106 during the Northern Song dynasty. The calligraphy is "Slender Gold style" of Emperor Huizong of Song. By Inhorw (private collection) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Previously, it had been private moneylenders or wealthy landowning families that had provided these loans and many farmers were stuck in a situation of dependency to these creditors. Sima Guang was openly against these policies (he had resigned from government service into temporary retirement at Luoyang when Wang Anshi had been appointed chief minister) and did his best to dismantle them again when he took over the position of chief minister in the late 1070's.

In his opinion, the state shouldn't intervene in society and leave it up to the people, who had emerged as the natural leaders of society, to deal with these affairs.

This position was kind of self-serving, since it was precisely the class of the literati (that Sima Guang belonged to) that had emerged as the new privileged (and leading) class of society. The class of the shi usually owned vast areas of land and could therefore spare its sons from farm work to let them study and hopefully obtain a government position later on. These conflicting interests of the shi as both agents of government (that are supposed to ameliorate problems of society) and powerful landowners (that benefit from the current system) are highlighted by comparing Wang Anshi's and Sima Guang's vastly different positions.

Furthermore, there was an emerging group of literati, especially in the northern areas of the Song empire, that based their moral values upon their understanding of the natural underlying patterns and principles of the universe instead of relying on wen - the literary repository of knowledge.

the philosopher Cheng Hao
the philosopher Cheng Hao. By Anonymous [FAL], via Wikimedia Commons
the philosopher Zhang Zai
the philosopher Zhang Zai

This group of thinkers saw the concept of li - patterns or principles that occur in nature - as a more suitable moral inspiration to solve the problems of society, than the humanly constructed (and therefore potentially incomplete and/or flawed) concept of wen. They believed (just like Confucian thinkers) that there is a naturally occurring proper order and proper way (dao) that should guide one's moral values and actions. Famous examples of this group of thinkers are Shao Yong (1011 AD - 1077 AD), Zhang Zai (1020 AD - 1077 AD) and the brothers Cheng Yi (1033 AD - 1107 AD) and Cheng Hao (1032 AD - 1085 AD).

the philosopher Cheng Yi
the philosopher Cheng Yi, illustration from a book published in 1743 by Shangguan Zhou. public domain in the United States
the philosopher Shao Yong
the philosopher Shao Yong, illustration from a book published in 1743 by Shangguan Zhou. public domain in the United States

The preoccupation of scholarly gentlemen with finding the right way also led to a change in artistic expression during this period. This elite, whose members were often employed as officials in the imperial administration, also saw the artistic fields of literature, poetry, calligraphy and painting as a part of the realm of the educated gentleman. Especially the art of painting underwent profound changes during the late 10th and early 11th century.

Previously until the Tang dynasty, paintings were meant to illustrate and narrate the stories that were a part of the literary cultural tradition wen. These paintings also often contained some kind of moral judgement, but the art of painting as a whole was clearly subordinate in importance to the literary culture wen.

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During the early part of the Song dynasty (the Northern Song), the painting of natural scenes and landscapes supplanted the narrative and illustrative paintings of earlier periods in importance and popularity. The landscape painters of the Northern Song dynasty carefully observed their surrounding natural environment in order to be able to derive an understanding of the natural patterns and order of things - li - from it. Understanding this natural order, in which people played just a small subordinate role, was seen as a prerequisite to finding the right way to build a well - ordered society.

The Northern Song painters showed the subordinate role of people within the vastness of nature in monumental landscape paintings, that were usually dominated by gargantuan mountain and rock formations in the background. A misty middle ground then transitioned to a more detailed foreground with paths leading through nature, trodden by seemingly minuscule people on the way to and from places of habitation. Fan Kuan's monumental landscape painting "Travellers among Mountains and Streams" can be seen as a prime example for this trend.

Fan Kuan's Travellers among Mountains and Streams
Fan Kuan's Travellers among Mountains and Streams. Fan Kuan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Natural landscape paintings were not the only type of paintings that enjoyed considerable popularity during this period. Bird and flower paintings as well as the painting of palace scenes (depicting the daily life at court) were popular as well.

Emperor Huizong's Pigeon on a peach branch
"Pigeon on a peach branch" by Emperor Huizong. Northern Song Dynasty, 1108 or 1109 AD. By Emperor Huizong [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Many of the paintings that were created during the Northern Song period were commissioned by the emperor and/or imperial court. The educated people of this privileged group used these paintings to decorate their homes, offices etc. When visiting historic sights in China, you will see many paintings of this kind (especially landscape, flower and bird paintings) hanging on the walls of these old mansions, pavilions etc.

The Song dynasty didn't fight any major wars against their northern neighbour, the Liao dynasty, after their defeat in 1004 AD. And so it was mostly due to the Liao state's internal failures, that its power began to wane during the late 11th and early 12th century.

The Khitan rulers of the Liao dynasty had over time adopted the luxurious lifestyle of the wealthy Chinese. That had led to an increasing alienation and tension between the Khitan rulers and ordinary Khitan people, most of which continued their traditional frugal semi-nomadic lifestyle.

Rest Stop for the Khan
Rest Stop for the Khan. part of a Liao dynasty painting. ca. 10th century. By 五代遼朝的胡壤 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Furthermore, the revenue of the Khitan state had begun to decline. The largest part of its revenue had come from the wealthy Sixteen Prefectures. Large parts of the land within the Sixteen Prefectures had been granted along with a tax-exempt status to loyal followers by the Khitan emperor. When the Chinese population of the Sixteen Prefectures started to revolt during the late 11th and the beginning of the12th century, these financial problems resulted in the Khitan rulers inability to pay their military forces.

Emperor Taizu of Jin, Wanyan Aguda
the Jurchen Jin dynasty's 1st Emperor Taizu (Wanyan Aguda). See page for author [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Unwilling to launch further military attacks of their own against the Khitan, the Chinese Song empire formed an alliance with the Jurchen people in 1121 AD. The Jurchen people, who lived north of the Khitan's Liao state, were the ancestors of the Manchu people, who much later founded the Qing dynasty. The various tribes of the Jurchen people had been united by the chieftain Wanyan Aguda and had afterwards launched a successful rebellion against the Khitan. In 1115 AD, Wanyan Aguda (a.k.a. Emperor Taizu of Jin) had already founded the Jin dynasty. Just when the Jurchen started to launch military campaigns against the Khitan in the 1120's, the Chinese Song empire simultaneously stopped the payment of subsidies to the Khitan in an effort to weaken them further.

By the mid 1120's, the aggressive Jurchen had defeated the weakened Khitan and were in firm control of their former territory. However, a sizable group of the Khitan had managed to flee just before the Jurchen conquest. This remaining force of the Khitan founded the Western Liao state (1124 AD - 1218 AD), also known as the Kara-Khitan Khanate, in Central Asia.

After defeating the Khitan, the Jurchen reneged on their earlier promise to return the Sixteen Prefectures to the Song state. Subsequent negotiations to solve this issue failed and the Jurchen continued their military campaigns further South into Song territory. Vast areas of North China, including the agriculturally wealthy North China Plain fell under Jurchen control.

Emperor Qinzong of Song
Emperor Qinzong of Song. By 歷史專家 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Emperor Huizong of Song
Emperor Huizong of Song. By Hardouin at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Kaifeng (then called Bianjing), the imperial capital of the Northern Song empire, was besieged twice (first in 1126 AD and again the year after) and the Song emperor Qinzong, his father - the previous Song emperor Huizong - and the majority of the members of the imperial court were captured and carried back North in captivity, never to return. However, a small contingent of members of the Song imperial court managed to flee to the South and thereby evade captivity.

That event marks the end of the Northern Song and the beginning of the Southern Song dynasty (1127 AD - 1279 AD). Zhao Gou, another younger son of the previous Song emperor Huizong, was then put on the imperial throne of the Song. He reigned as Emperor Gaozong of the Southern Song dynasty until 1162 AD. At first, the remainder of the Song imperial court had to flee from one temporary capital in the south to another by the advancing Jurchen army.

Eventually, the Song army managed to regain its strength by mobilizing new recruits in the South of China and the advance of the Jurchen army was stopped.

Emperor Gaozong of the Song Dynasty
Emperor Gaozong of the Song Dynasty. By Lnzun at zh.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

The Chinese Southern Song dynasty and the Jin dynasty of the Jurchen people henceforth coexisted with the line of demarcation halfway between the Yellow River in the North and the Yangtze River in the South. The seaside city of Lin'an (nowadays Hangzhou in Zhejiang province) became the new capital of the Southern Song dynasty since Bianjing (nowadays Kaifeng in Henan province) remained in the hands of the Jurchen. The Chinese referred to Lin'an as a temporary capital in the hope of eventually being able to regain control of the North.

Southern Song dynasty map 1142 AD
Map of China during the Southern Song dynasty in 1142 AD. By Yu Ninjie (uploaded on Commons by LiDaobing) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The loss of the Northern territories to non-Chinese invaders influenced the field of art as well. Landscape paintings of the Southern Song period usually depict the large mountains in the background in a less detailed and more minimalist way. Through this change in style, the artists could express their sense of loss over losing a part of the Chinese homeland in a symbolic way (with the mountains in the top, "northern" part of the painting representing the lost lands of the north).

Southern Song landscape painting
Southern Song hanging scroll landscape painting. By Association of Cultural Properties [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

illustration of general Yue Fei
illustration of general Yue Fei in a book that was published in 1921. public domain in the United States

In 1140 AD, a promising attempt to regain the North by the military general Yue Fei of the Southern Song dynasty was halted by Emperor Gaozong's order to return to the Song capital. Yue Fei was betrayed and executed in 1142 AD, but his reputation among the people grew to that of a patriotic hero.

The Yue Fei Temple Travel Information for the Yue Fei Temple in Hangzhou, that was built in his honor (original construction in 1221 AD and reconstructed several times since), is nowadays a popular tourist attraction in Hangzhou (the Southern Song capital) and is located near the shore of Hangzhou's West Lake, one of the most popular tourist sites of China.

No other attempt to regain the North was made by the Southern Song, even though it remained the official political goal of the Song rulers.

Just like the Khitan people before them, the Jurchen people also used a system of dual administration in their territories. They were greatly outnumbered by the Chinese and it is estimated that there were only about 1 million Jurchen people within the 60 million or so population of the Jin dynasty state. Therefore it is not surprising that the Jin dynasty became more and more Chinese within a generation or two, just like the Tuoba Wei dynasty centuries earlier. Many of the previously semi-nomadic Jurchen people who moved South from their ancestral homelands blended into the mainstream of society fairly quickly by adopting Chinese lifestyles and settling down as landowners.

The Southern Song dynasty holds a special place in Chinese history, because it developed economic and social characteristics that had never before existed in China. Its population was considerably larger than that of its northern neighbour, the Jin dynasty state. About 60 percent of the entire Chinese population lived in the Southern Song state at that time.

Longjing tea planting area near Hangzhou
Tea bushes for the famous Longjing tea (Dragon Well Tea). The Dragon Well, after which the tea is named, is located near the village of Longjing, a short bus ride away from the famous West Lake in Hangzhou (Zhejiang province). The tea was named Longjing tea during the Song dynasty. By Kuebi = Armin Kübelbeck (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Jingdezhen porcelain funerary figurine made in the Song dynasty
Jingdezhen porcelain funerary figurine made in the Song dynasty. By Vassil (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Whereas the economy of the northern Jin dynasty state remained agrarian based, the economy of the Southern Song state underwent significant changes, most notably a period of local economic specialization. Certain cities and even entire areas began to specialize in the production of certain products and commodities. In this way, certain agricultural areas in Zhejiang and Hunan specialized in the production of tea, for which they are famous even in present times.

Travelers who like Chinese tea and plan to visit the former Song dynasty capital of Hangzhou are recommended to visit the Longjing village, which is a short bus ride away from Hangzhou's West Lake. The famous Longjing tea is still grown in this area and the Longjing Imperial Tea Garden makes for a pleasant day trip.Travel Information for the Longjing Imperial Tea Garden

The Jiangnan region along the lower reaches of the Yangtze River became famous for the production of cotton and silk and the city of Jingdezhen in nowadays Jiangxi province became an industrial center for the production of ceramics, which it still is today.

These products and many other local specialties were then sold all over China and some of them even in regions as far away as Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. However, to feed their growing population, these specialized economic regions had to henceforth import grain and other foods from other parts of the country.

The government of the Southern Song state tried to facilitate the growth of its commercial economy by greatly expanding the money supply of copper coins and silver. The Song coins were so widely accepted, that they were even commonly used in Korea and Japan. Paper currency was in circulation then as well and was only phased out after the end of the Southern Song dynasty.

Song Dynasty paper money
Song Dynasty paper money. public domain in the United States

Chinese wedding sedan chair
Chinese wedding sedan chair, probably from the later Qing dynasty. By Rolfmueller (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
This economic expansion greatly benefited the merchant class in China. Traditionally on the lowest rung of society according to the Confucian ideology, they quickly emerged as the new elite alongside the class of the literati, especially in the Jiangnan region. Instead of contenting themselves with a lower status in society, the mercantile elite adopted a lavish lifestyle, that became more and more similar to that of the landowning literati class. They built expansive mansions, wore fine garments and had themselves carried around in public in sedan chairs. Exempt from taking the imperial examinations themselves, they nevertheless aspired to the high status of the literati and became patrons of literature and the fine arts as well by buying books (and establishing libraries), paintings and calligraphic masterpieces.

Wealthy merchants participated in public service activities, often alongside members of the literati, and donated money to charities and/or Buddhist monasteries. The distinction between the town or city-based merchant and landowning literati class began to blur even further, when many wealthy merchants began to buy land and moved out of the towns or cities (that had made them rich).

The North - South division of China during the periods of the Jin and Southern Song dynasty had profound psychological implications as well. Whereas most previous members of the literati elite saw themselves as Chinese first and residents of a certain area second, the educated elite's psychological focus on national unity now became increasingly secondary to regional affiliations, particularly in literati families in the Southern Song state.

Song dynasty map of Bianjing
Song dynasty map of Bianjing. By 陈元靓 [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

That can be clearly seen in the way marriages were arranged between different literati families. Before the Jurchen invasion, the Song dynasty capital of Bianjing (nowadays Kaifeng in Henan province) had served as a kind of nationwide marriage market for literati families. Many literati families had maintained secondary residences there (government officials had to come to the imperial capital every 3 years for personal evaluation before reassignment) and often arranged marriages for their children (arranged marriages were the norm then!) during their extended visits with other literati families from all over the empire. During the Southern Song dynasty however, most marriages between literati families were arranged locally (often within the same local prefecture).

Model of Bianjing during the Song Dynasty
Model of Bianjing during the Song Dynasty. By 猫猫的日记本 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A further example for the predominantly local focus of the educated literati elite during the Southern Song dynasty was their increasing involvement in the affairs of their local society (e.g. the organisation of public works, local security, privately funded schools and academies).

The philosophical efforts by many thinkers during the Northern Song dynasty in the 11th century had continued and culminated during the Southern Song dynasty in the emergence of Neo-Confucianism (in China known as: Daoxue - the Learning of the Way, dao=way, xue=study or learning), which soon after became the dominant ideology of the Chinese empire.

the philosopher Zhu Xi
the philosopher Zhu Xi. public domain in the United States
The philosopher Zhu Xi (1130 AD - 1200 AD) was the leading figure in this development, in that he managed to create a coherent philosophy out of the many different ideas of the many cosmological thinkers during the Northern Song dynasty. His philosophy of Daoxue began to find major acceptance at the imperial level in the 1240's. Near the Song dynasty's end, it was already the dominant school of thought as the officially recognized version of Confucianism. The philosophy of Daoxue henceforth occupied a very prominent place in the intellectual (including the imperial examination system) and political culture of China's later imperial history.

Just like popular philosophies in previous times, Daoxue was concerned with creating a well-ordered world, populated with morally virtuous jun zi = gentlemen. It advocated a dual approach to achieve this goal. The study of wen (literary texts from the past) again played a prominent role with a clearly defined curriculum, but the observation of and interaction with li (natural patterns and principles) was seen as even more important as a base for deriving moral values.

Zhu Xi saw his philosophy of Daoxue as a return to the proper order of the ancient past, when the legendary (but probably mythological) emperors Yao and Shun had created their well-ordered world. He reminded his students, that the study of wen alone could never give them a full understanding of the wisdom and values of the ancient sages, but only serve as a useful approach to a full understanding, by studying how people in the past had understood these insights.

Song dynasty painting of the mythical Emperor Yao
the mythical Emperor Yao, as imagined by the Song Dynasty painter Ma Lin. Ma Lin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

He reminded his students, that the study of wen alone could never give them a full understanding of the wisdom and values of the ancient sages, but only serve as a useful approach to a full understanding, by studying how people in the past had understood these insights.

Han dynasty mural painting of the mythical Emperor Shun
mural painting from the Han dynasty of the mythical Emperor Shun. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Zhu Xi saw the ancient knowledge (of Confucianism and the ancient sages) obscured by the common practice of interpreting and commenting upon these texts. He therefore advocated for the direct study of these texts and specifically selected four classic texts as the basis for his educational program and philosophy. The following four texts were thought to contain all the relevant basic ideas and concepts of Daoxue. However, Zhu Xi's students were certainly allowed to expand their study through supplemental reading, if they so desired.

1. The Analects of Confucius - in which his students had written down their master's sayings posthumously (Confucius hadn't written any books by himself and had taught his wisdom orally.)
2. The Book of Mencius - in which the famous sage had interpreted and expanded the ideas of Confucius

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The 3rd and 4th book that Zhu Xi recommended were both a selection of chapters out of a larger text, the "Liji - The Record of Ritual Activity", which was a description of the ritual order of the early Zhou dynasty.

3. The Doctrine of the Mean
4. Daxue - The Great Learning - which refers to the ancient sage kings Yao and Shun and their desire to order the world properly around themselves. In its preface, it proclaims its goal of showing the right way - dao - of great learning in order to enable its students to become virtuous gentlemen, who act and behave properly in a virtuous world.

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According to Zhu Xi, the educated gentleman - jun zi - had a prominent role to play in the betterment of the world through his constant quest to self-cultivate his own moral virtues. However, Zhu Xi didn't regard this concern with moral self-cultivation as only the prerogative of the educated upper classes of society. In his opinion, all people from all social classes should be constantly concerned with their own self - cultivation, but the gentlemen should serve as a kind of role model in this process.

Zhu Xi thought, that this ongoing process of self - cultivation would purify one's qi (both known as a life energy and what gives things their material existence), which would enable people to observe and understand the underlying natural patterns and principles - li - more clearly. Therefore, people could then conduct themselves in the proper way - dao - that is in harmony with these natural patterns and principles.

Zhu Xi's process of self - cultivation consists of several steps which should be undertaken constantly and simultaneously.

1. The thorough investigation of things - gewu - helps people to gain new knowledge and with this new information, the thinking process becomes clearer.

2. With a clearer awareness and consciousness, people can then work on the cultivation of their own moral qualities.

3. People will become more virtuous and will have an easier time bringing order (of a higher quality) to their families.

4. A society of properly ordered families was thought to bring order to the state/country and properly ordered states/countries bring order to the world.

Song dynasty painting showing a Chinese scholar in a meadow
11th century Song dynasty painting showing a Chinese scholar in a meadow. An anonymous Chinese artist of the Song Dynasty period [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Southern Song dynasty's last decades were spent trying to resist the increasing threat of Mongol invasion.
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painting by Vasily Maksimov (1844-1911) - Mongols at the Walls of Vladimir. By Ghirlandajo at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

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