When was the Song Dynasty? - Song Dynasty China
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Song Dynasty China

elaborate drawing of complicated buildings
Water-driven grain mill (Song Dynasty)
from the Ch'ingming Shang He Tu

April 2017 - The first part of the Song Dynasty is called the Northern Song. In 960 AD, one of the generals of the declining T'ang Dynasty managed to reunify China under his control. This general's name was Chao K'uang-yin, but once he became emperor he renamed himself Song T'ai Tsu. The old Han Dynasty examinations became more and more important to Chinese government, and from the Song Dynasty on, these examinations were really the only way to get political power in China. Song T'ai Tsu was a Buddhist, who sent 150 Buddhist monks from China to India to be educated there, and opened many new universities and schools in China.

Song T'ai Tsu was a strong emperor who kept the army firmly under his control, but after Song T'ai Tsu died, his successors did not do as well, and China's defenses became weak. The Song Dynasty never controlled as large an empire as the T'ang had. In 1004 AD, the Song made peace with the Khitan in the north-east, and in 1044 they made peace with the Western Hsia in the north-west. The emperors had to pay heaps of gold to these people every year in order to keep them from attacking China (You could call that tribute, or you could call it taxes).

Whatever you call it, paying gold to the Khitan meant that poor people had to pay high taxes, and everyone was unhappy. Some people wanted to keep making the payments anyway, and other people thought it would be better to try to fight the northern invaders off. These two groups kept fighting with each other. First one would get into power and then the other.

seated chinese man in long robes
Emperor Gaozong of Song, ca. 1130 AD

Then about 1110 AD, the Song emperor made an alliance with the Jurchen of Manchuria to fight the Khitan and get them out of China. It worked great! But once the Khitan were out, in 1115, the Jurchens took over the Song capital of Kaifeng. The Jurchens took the emperor and his son prisoner.

The second part of the Song Dynasty is called the Southern Song. Another son of the Song emperor ran away to southern China and in 1126 he started a new Song Dynasty with its capital at Hangzhou. He took the name Gaozong. Gaozong and his successors were not very strong militarily, and could not take back northern China from the Jurchen. But they did develop thriving trade. Because the Jurchen had cut off their traditional route along the Silk Road, traders began sailing to Southeast Asia and to India to get pepper and cinnamon and sugar, and to sell silk and tea. Paper money helped to create growth in the economy. Iron-workers started to burn coal for fuel.

In the 1230s, the Song Dynasty made an alliance with the Mongols to get rid of the Jurchen. Again, the plan worked, but the Mongols took over northern China instead. In 1279 AD the Mongols came even further south and killed the last of the Song emperors.

Kublai Khan and the Mongols rule China as the Yuan Dynasty

Bibliography and further reading about the Song Dynasty in China:

Eyewitness: Ancient China, by Arthur Cotterell, Alan Hills, and Geoff Brightling (2000). , with lots of excellent pictures.

Daily Life in China, on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276, by Jacques Gernet (1962).

The Inner Quarters: Marriage and the Lives of Chinese Women in the Sung Period, by Patricia Buckley Ebrey (1993).

Kublai Khan and the Mongols in China
Ancient China


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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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