The Song Dynasty in China

Statues guard Song Dynasty tombs in Henan
Statues guard Song Dynasty tombs in Henan Province, China. Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo via Getty Images

The Song Dynasty in China ruled from 960 to 1279, but that time period is almost evenly divided between the Northern Song (960 - 1127) and the Southern Song (1127 - 1279) eras.  The break occurred because the Song Empire lost control of northern China to the Jin Dynasty, an ethnic Jurchen kingdom from what is now Manchuria.  The Jin-Song Wars would continue from 1125 to 1234, and only ended when the Mongols conquered the Jin.

Soon, in 1279, the Southern Song would also fall to the might of the Mongols under Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan.  Kublai would establish the next great Chinese dynasty, the Yuan, in 1279.

Northern Song:

The Northern Song dynasty ruled from the city of Bianjing (now called Kaifeng) in east central Henan Province.  It controlled most of the area that comprises China today, until the Jin ousted it from its northern heartland.  Under Song rule, China was the richest and most populous country in the world.  

Chinese civil and artistic life flourished during the Song period.  Earlier inventions like woodblock printing became widely used, leading to the refinement of the world's first moveable-type printing.  Neo-Confucianism revised and updated the ideas of Confucius to meet contemporary needs.  The civil service exam system, which helped promote able scholars from all backgrounds into government jobs, was reinstituted and strengthened during Song rule.

 Given the constant threat from the Jin, Mongols, Khitans, Tanguts, and other nomadic groups, the Song Chinese also invented a number of new military uses for that Tang era invention, gunpowder.

The first Northern Song Emperor, Taizu, hired cartographers to map each province and city in his realm, and then gathered the maps into the first known atlas.

 He and his successors established trade and diplomatic relations with such far-flung places as the Srivijaya Empire, the Karakhanate, the Fatimid Caliphate based in Cairo, and Chola India.  

This innovative and cultured existence was interrupted in 1127, when the armies of the Jin Dynasty captured Kaifeng, and seized the Emperor Qinzong, the retired emperor Huizong, and most of their court.  Those Song courtiers and relatives who escaped fled south, and regrouped in the southern city of Lin'an (now Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province).  Their new emperor was Gaozong, the ninth son of the captive Emperor Huizong.

Southern Song:

Song culture proved amazingly resilient despite this sudden displacement south of the Yangtze River.  The Song emperors decided to focus on becoming a maritime power, sponsoring massive harbor building and shipbuilding projects all along the coast.  These ships represented Song interests not only in the China Seas, but as far afield as the Indian Ocean.  The Song combined their newly invented gunpowder weapons with expert shipbuilding, and produced China's first standing navy.  It was a truly formidable force, defeating much larger Jin forces in battle on more than one occasion.

 By the end of its tenure, the Southern Song had more than 50,000 fighting marines at its disposal.

After the Mongols crushed the Jin Dynasty in 1234, the Southern Song moved to recapture the ancient imperial capitals at Kaifeng, Luoyang, and Chang'an.  Their former allies, the Mongols, viewed this as an act of rebellion, and set out to crush the Southern Song.  The initial Mongol assault was interruped, however, by the sudden death of Great Khan Mongke in 1259.  A protracted succession struggle ensued among the Mongols, which was finally won by Kublai Khan.  He would fight the Southern Song for some time, finally overcoming them in 1269.  In 1271, Kublai Khan declared the new Yuan Dynasty to rule over all of China.  The last members of the Song imperial family surrendered only in 1276, however.

Legacy of the Song:

Although the Song Dynasty was not one of the longest-ruling Chinese dynasties, it left a profound impact on China as we know it today.  Before the Song era, most Chinese people lived on a diet of wheat and barley.  They drank millet wine.  Those staples of Chinese life, rice and tea, became common only in the Song period.

Likewise, customs such as women binding their feet became popular during the Song reign.  Signature Chinese architectural styles such as the up-turned corners on tiled roofs also began during this time period.  Finally, the combination of Confucian ideas with Buddhism that characterized much of Chinese philosophy and governance for centuries afterward originated with the Song.