The Song dynasty and four great inventions
At TeachDiscoverChina, we not only find English teachers the best places to teach English in China but we also explore Chinese history, culture, and technology as well as other interesting snippets of living in China. In our series Ancient China, we discover the awesome history of Chinese dynasties. In the last episode, we talked about the Tang dynasty, unifying China after a period of discord and war. We will see a similar pattern emerge when we talk about the Song dynasty. An important difference between Western and Chinese is that history in the Western view is mostly seen (nowadays) as a progression of time from a certain point of time (e.g. birth of Christ) and a cumulation of technology and knowledge. This episode is based on the MOOC of Harvard University: China X – Literati China: Examinations, Neo-Confucianism, and Later Imperial China.
The Chinese view, on the other hand, focusses much more on union and disunion of China as a country. You also have to bear in mind that the Chinese dynasties and their emperor defined the time people lived in (probably similar to Roman emperors BCE). And there were quite a few periods with competing dynasties at the same time and hence competing times! The other characteristic, of how Chinese (historians) define time and history, is foreign invasion. Interestingly enough, once China settles on a unified Chinese entity, foreign invasions will be the important events shaping China’s history. Up till the Song dynasty, barbarians, foreigners or other ethnics, were merely not yet Chinese and once conquered, would simply become part of China. Of course, this is by no means a complete description of the Chinese definition of history but for sure both, union and foreign invasion, are pivotal aspects to understand China.
The Song dynasty – explosive innovations and inventions
During the Song dynasty, we can see some of the fundamental patterns of modern or later imperial China to appear: aspects of a modern economy, commercial life, new ways of political organization and different thinking of the role of government.
It is a time of transition from a purely state-led and centralized economy to a more commercialized economy with private capitalists gaining importance. Governments start to shift their tax revenue away from purely land (rent) based on other sources such as taxing commercial activities. The state will be no longer the sole owner of all the land but private (farmers) are allowed to own land and cumulate wealth.
In the time of the Song, a new way to recruit officials into government positions will be established – an examination system that allows bringing the best of all people into government. It is a fairer, more equal way to choose administrative bureaucrats, compared at least to pick only family members of only an established elite (e.g. the great clans). This examination system has sometimes been described as ‘examination hell’. Today’s Gaokao (Wikipedia) has its roots in exactly that examination system of the Song. If you are a TEFL China teacher, your students probably have mentioned the ‘gaokao’ and we are pretty sure, you wouldn’t be too pleased if that system would be introduced in the education system at home.
This period is also a time of pivotal innovations and technological advances. The four great inventions (Wikipedia), how they are known in China, are gunpowder, compass, paper, and printing. Once those Chinese inventions reach the West, they will ignite the modern era.
An Lushan and Huang Chao – the end of the Tang
The last unified Chinese empire, the Tang dynasty, will be brought to near collapse with the An Lushan rebellion in 755 – 763. Although the rebellion will be eventually defeated, it started the long decline of the Tang. In order to deal with the rebellion, the empire has to pull back from its Northern and other borders, frontier armies and their foreign-led generals gain local influence. As a consequence, the central government lost control over important areas of food supplies and tax revenues. The empire adapts which will also lead to fundamental changes of the social-political and economic order as well as a regional shift away from the North to other regions in China, esp. the South-East.
The next major revolt the Song has to face is the Huang Chao rebellion in 880. Including ransacked capital of Chang’an and fleeing emperor (to Chengdu btw). And although also Huang Chao will be defeated, it will be the end for the Tang, which officially comes in 907. China will again descent into political fragmentation, which is known in China as the period of 5 dynasties and 10 kingdoms. One of the ramifications Huang Chao brings about is that it will also be the end of the old political system and its elites, the great clans, and usher in a different political order. As a side note, conspiracies theories are nothing new: Huang Chao is believed to have survived his death and decapitation (as proof) and following his escape, lived a life as a Buddhist monk. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huang_Chao
5 dynasties and 10 kingdoms
The five Northern dynasties (Later Liang, Tang, Jin, Han, and Zhou) will eventually conquer the South but it will also see a new threat in the establishment of new states at their Northern borders with the Khitans, Turgats as well as Korea (which neither Tang nor Song can conquer). For the South, it will be the first time in history, that the region will maintain and establish states, known at that time as the 10 kingdoms.
The Northern dynasty, which will conquer the South and the Northcentral plains, is known as the Song dynasty. And although it succeeds in unifying China, the territory will be far smaller than compared to the Tang dynasty. It also fails to dominate the new states of the Khitans and the Tanguts and has to settle for peace treaties and paying them off.
Foreign relations and state-building
The slow but ultimate end of the Tang comes 907. After the following period of the Northern 5 dynasties and Southern 10 kingdoms, the Song rise to power starts around 960 and till the successful unification of China will take around 20 years.
Song’s territory in 1050 is far smaller than its predecessor the Tang in 750. It is also faced with a new threat at its Northern borders. Not just marauding barbarians but fully fletched states. The Liao dynasty of the Khitans and the (Xi)Xia dynasty of the Tanguts. Those states will not just defy Chinese submission but it also occupies territory with a Chinese speaking population. Of course, the Song tried to get it back by force but failed to beat both the Liao and Xia and had to settle for peace treaties and hence recognizing the states as somewhat equal. This despite Song’s large standing armies, superior technology and a wealthier, more established economy.
Although smaller in territory, the population in the Song dynasty was almost as double as it was in the Tang dynasty with up to 100M people. The growth in population was by far not equally distributed within the empire. The South of China had a far higher growth rate and population than the North. People were fleeing from the war in the North to the South and multiple regional centers were established in the South. All of them competed for resources, military power, culture and trade with the big central capital in the North (Chang’an and Luoyang).
Stronger growth in the South meant also a greater proportion of national wealth and growing representation in government and administration. The South was more productive, had more income, more food and due to rivers and canals, cheaper transportation costs than the North.
Southern Chinese had also different priorities than the North. While the North was more concerned with border defense, the South was focused on trade and investment. At that time it was still too expensive for Southern farmers to feed the Northern armies.
Hence the style of government was also different. The North had a more central style of government with maximum taxation of its people to pay for the defense and the remaining surplus distributed to officials. The South had a more commercial style with the importance of private capital. Two completely different ways of socio-political order within one empire.
Commerce and urbanization
The old Tang system had one, purposeful built, great city – Chang’an or Luoyang – which depended on tax revenues and were located outside the great Northern plains. Kaifeng, the capital of the Song, was an old commercial city, located in the center of the North China plain. With places such as Suzhou, Yangzhou or Hangzhou in the South-East as well as in the West with Chengdu, there were other great cities as well.
Song’s government had learned how to tax commercial activities. For the first time, one-half of its tax revenues came from commercial taxes and no longer only based on land income. The Song state was a more commercial state than the Tang, including more money and coins as well as the introduction of the first paper-based currency.
Taxes were no longer based on a person but on property. It was also collected twice a year. Properties were taxes based on productivity with wealthier estates responsible for more obligations. Land was no longer distributed by the government but determined by the market, in which people could acquire more land, which also meant an increase in inequality. It was more of a market economy where the economic hierarchy had separated from the state hierarchy. It was no longer a command economy as in the Tang dynasty.
With the Song, a new elite is emerging as well. The old, great clans from the Tang had disappeared and made place for scholar-officials with a great emphasis on education. The recruitment of government officials was based on an examination system that allowed more and fairer competition to bring the best people into government.
New technologies such as printing also changed the culture of the elite. More people had become literate, more people participated and different styles came into fashion which all led to a more ideological culture.
Role of government
A political debate between scholars looking back at antiquity and more conservative scholars ensued of how to define the new role of government. The faction looking back at antiquity argued that the government should strive to improve the life of the whole of the society, similar to the sage kings and cultural heroes from the past (Ancient China history – origin story). Society itself was a rather fluid system with changing structures. Opposing scholars saw the role of government more as a zero-sum game with a solid structure of society.
The new role of government was to organize society and the question of how to organize it best. We can see here the emergence of two different approaches. One with a stronger state, where a growing government controls the market/economy and the other one with a small state and a more laissez fair attitude.
Neo-Confucianism as state ideology/religion
Neo-Confucianism took shape in opposition to Buddhism and Daoism, which have strongly influenced Confucian thinking and teaching. As an ideology or philosophy, Neo-Confucianists, gain more influence in government as a rationalistic and humanistic school of thoughts.
Opposing the Buddhist idea, that reality does not really exist as it’s merely a product of one’s mind, Neo-Confucianists, believed that reality does exist and could be understood by humankind. The individual is able to understand the principle of nature and shape society accordingly. Not just the emperor as son of heaven or high officials as part of the government but through learning everyone can bring harmony to the society (Wikipedia).
Though a worldly and rational philosophy, Neo-Confucianism, had also an internalist aspect. By learning, the individual is able to become a sage and hence responsible for society.
Learning and education are pivotal for Neo-Confucianists, among other policies, they establish the first private schools and training centers as well as teach a certain way of learning in which discourse between teacher and student is important not rodent learning.
So, that was part 4 of our blog series – Ancient China: The Song dynasty – let us know what you think in the comment section!
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