UPDATED 2000 December 5 

 History > China > Song dynasty (960-1276 C.E.)

Song Timeline

'five dynasties' (907-960 CE)  
Northern Song dynasty (960-1126)  
Southern Song dynasty (1127-1276)  

Non-Chinese Rule in North

Liao dynasty (907-1125)
    Western Liao (1125-1220)

Jin dynasty (1115-1234)


History of the Northern Song dynasty

Zhao Kuangyin served as a general under a successor regime of the “Later Tang,” the “Later Zhou.”  In 960 he overthrew the boy ruler of the “Later Zhou” and proceeded to reunify China.

Zhao Kuangyin was the fourth change of rule in 24 years in his part of China and he realized the threat his own military posed.  He called the generals who supported him to the capital and persuaded them to retire with generous pensions.  He then structured his government so that military officials were subordinate to civilian ones rather than equal as in the Tang.  Military governors were replaced with civil officials.

Zhao Kuangyin took over the middle Yangzi in 963, Sichuan in 965, Ghangdong in 971, and Anhui, Jiangxi, and Hunan in 975.  After his death in 976, his younger brother succeeded in conquering Jiangsu and Zhejiang in 978 and Shanxi in 979.

After unification, the Song regularized the varying currencies in use by establishing a standard for copper coins and then issuing coins in much larger quantities than had the Tang.  The government issued bronze coins as the official currency, but they continuously lowered the copper content throughout the Song so that

The second Song emperor failed to recapture the area around Beijing from the powerful Khitan nomadic state Liao despite two campaigns.  From then on Song rulers had to pay silver and cloth to Liao each year.  Tribute payments would continue with different northern peoples.  In addition to the Khitans in the northeast, the Song dynasty was never able to recover land in the northwest that had been part of the Tang dynasty.  The Tanguts consolidated power in this region and the Xia state was declared officially in 1038.

During the Song, civil service examinations became the primary means of recruiting officials, and the practice of appointing officials who had not taken the examinations died out.  The shift to recruitment by open examinations did not mean that officials came from all social levels; only the wealthiest of families could afford the extensive preparation required by the examinations.  On the other hand, clans could cross social levels and some clans could pick out their most promising children and support them from about age 4 in devoting their time to studying for the open examinations.  However, for clans with close ties to the bureaucracy, male kin of officeholders received easier closed examinations with pass rates often close to 50% instead of about 1%.  These wealthy bureaucrats sometimes formed charitable estates for assisting their relatives, whom they were often distant from geographically and socially.  Prominent families married other prominent families and their sons succeeded each other in the highest positions of state.

Before the court and in letters to each other, Sima Guang argued that the government should cut unnecessary expenses to lower taxes while Wang Anshi claimed that there was plenty of potential wealth if the government knew how to generate it.  Explained Sima Guang: “rich resources […] for the government must have been extracted from the people.”  This causes people to rebel and sink into banditry.  Wang Anshi countered by saying that the gifts to officials were less than in the past; Sima Guang responded that those had been truly great officials.

During Emperor Shenzong’s reign (1068-1085) factional disagreement split the members of this bureaucratic elite into two groups.  Fiscal pressure had become intense, for despite the high annual indemnity charges to the northern powers the government also supported a 1.25 million man army, which took 83% of the government's annual cash income.  The historicists, led by Sima Guang, advocated incremental reforms; the classicists, led by Wang Anshi, advocated radical changes to restore the legendary age of the sage kings.  Sima Guang believed that maintaining a dynasty required regular upkeep of ritual and law; he wrote a history of China up to the end of the ‘five dynasties’ period called The Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government.  Wang Anshi argued that officals had lost the ‘Dao’ of creating wealth; as chief councilor (equivalent to prime minister) under a supportive Emperor Shenzong he created a national school system to teach his interpretation of the classics.  For generations after this, historicists appointed only other historicists and classicists appointed only classicists.

While Emperor Shenzang was alive – until 1085 – Wang Anshi’s policies were favored.  Sima Guang wrote a letter emphasizing the value the emperor put on Wang’s policies and the consequent importance of Wang changing his ways.  Wang Anshi wrote back: “In my view, I recieved my orders from the ruler, the policies were discussed in court, and executing them was delegated to the officials. […] To manage the nation’s finances cannot be called pursuing profit.  Putting an end to malicious slander cannot be called blocking criticism. […] You charge me with having served in office for a long time without succeeding in helping the emperor bring real benefit to the people.  For this I must accept responsibility.  But your argument that what we need today is a policy of doing nothing at all and merely preserving the old ways is something that I cannot accept.”

The real dispute was over the new money economy.  In 1023 the government took over the printing of money, which it had already started regulating, and extended the region of circulation beyond Sichuan to include all of north China.  Wang Anshi and his followers wanted the government to intervene in the economy to hasten economic development and thus get higher tax receipts.  He wanted to put all government employees on cash salaries instead of in kind pay, and he wanted officals to be rewarded for bringing in money.  Wang instituted the Green Sprouts program to loan grain to cultivators at no interest in order to allow peasants to escape the cycle that kept them in debt to the rich.  Officials almost immediately started charging high interest to bring huge revenue to the government.  Soon poor families were unable to repay their loans and the program began losing money.  The wealthy moneylenders and big landlords, who had been the most likely of those the program lent to to be able to pay loans back, continued to dominate the countryside as Green Sprouts collapsed and a new emperor retracted the policies in 1086.  The powerful families of the countryside also remained intact when another emperor reinstituted the classicist programs in 1101.

Wang Anshi was also deeply involved in the monetary policy of the government.  He believed that with the government in control of minting metal coins or printing paper money that most economic problems could be solved.  The cash reserve backing of paper money decreased over time and resulted in inflation, adding to the problem of minting bronze coins with less and less copper.

The mutual responsibility system

Another of Wang Anshi’s many policies was a renewed attempt at grouping people into units of five or ten households, and then group these units into larger ones, and so on, in order to organize people in ways that make them easier to rule.  The Song government continued to try to make the system work long after Wang Anshi’s death in 1086.  A notice posted by a magistrate of a county around the year 1200 tries to justify and explain the policy: “In ancient times people regarded an obligation toward a neighbor a significant matter. Our local units of today are actually derived from such ancient practices[…]  Recently the mutual responsibility system has been reactivated by the government. […] people have expressed suspicion about the system out of fear that it will mean obligatory labor […] the practice of the mutual responsibility system will be limited primarily to dealing with thefts and negligence.  For instance, if one family is robbed, it usually cannot catch the thief; whereas when the whole community is engaged in the search, the thief will have no place to hide.”  The magistrate went on to say that generally only one man per family will be required to enlist in the local militia, that every five days there will be a roll call, that usually it will not be necessary to control the region, and that he doesn’t understand why the citizens would be skeptical and apprehensive of the program, which is designed to protect them, not disturb them.

Socially, divorce and widow remarriage occurred more often in the twelfth century than in subsequent centuries, when both became looked down upon.  Women became increasingly viewed as members of their husband’s families.  Some later scholars would even deny that the great poet Li Qingzhao (1084-ca. 1151) divorced her second husband.

Book of Rewards and Punishments

This brief, eclectic tract incorporating Buddhist concepts of karma and salvation; Daoist views of retribution, immortality, and nature; and traditional Confucian values was perhaps the most popular of a number of moral and religious texts that became widely circulated with the invention of printing.  Impossibly attributed to Laozi, the Book of Rewards and Punishments maintained its popularity f rom the Song through the Qing dynasties:

“calamity and misfortune cannot gain entrance of their own into a person’s life; it is the individual alone who calls them in.  Good and evil are requited as automatically as shadow follows form.  In keeping with this principle, Heaven and earth have spirits who judge transgressions.  These spirits take into account the lightness or gravity of the evil deeds that human beings have committed and then deduct from those individuals’ life spans correspondingly.  After diminishing the culprit’s life expectancey, they reduce them to poverty and visit upon them innumerable calamities.  Everyone comes to hate them. […]  There are hundreds of occasions for transgressions, large and small.  People who want to achieve immortality must first of all avoid these occasions. […]  ”


Under the rule of Emperor Huizong, a fine painter, the Chinese greatly underestimated the strength of the Jurchen armies.  The Jurchen conquered all of north China by 1127.

continue to the history of the Southern Song