The Song Dynasty is divided into two distinct periods; the Northern Song (AD960 - 1127), whose capital was the northern city of Bianjing (now Kaifeng), controlling most of Inner China and the Southern Song (AD1127 - 1279), whose capital moved to Lin'An (now Hangzhou) as the court was to forced to retreat to the south of the Yangtze River after losing control of northern China to the Jin Dynasty.

Zhao Kuangyin, Emperor Taizu founded the Northern Song Dynasty in AD960 and his first successful mission was to abolish military coups through the establishment of a loyal professional army consisting of commanders under strict control of the central government. The Hundred Families Surnames, a classic Chinese text composed of common surnames in ancient China was also published.

Hundred Families Surnames


During the Northern Song period, control over the military and the implementation of a system close to meritocracy brought stability which allowed the country to enjoy prosperity with the expansion of industry, commerce and agriculture. This led to the development of new cities as centers of administration, trade, commerce and industry. The reform period lasted until 1086, after which the dynasty slipped into decline due to differences between the ruling fractions and peasant rebellions.

Map of Northern Song territory

Map of Southern Song territory


One significant point to note was that the Liao, Western Xia and Jin Dynasties coexisted with the Song Dynasty. Hence, the Song Empire had to constantly defend its borders against invasions. Unlike the previous major Tang Dynasty, the Song never attained a universal empire. As Northern Song weakened militarily, the military skills of its rivals improved. In 1126, the Jin army captured Kaifeng and sent Emperor Qinzong and his father, the retired Emperor Emeritus Huizong into exile in what was known as the Humiliation of Jingkang, effectively ending the Northern Song Dynasty.

(left - right): Emperors Huizong and Qinzong


The same year Emperors Qinzong and Huizong were captured, one of Emperor Huizong's sons, who later became Emperor Gaozong, escaped to the south and re-established the Song court in Lin'An under his reign where the Song dynasty continued to rule for another 150 years.

However, the emergence of the Mongols in the north pitted three powers - Mongols, Western Xia and Jin constantly against each other (Liao was toppled in 1125). Eventually, Southern Song met with a precarious situation. In order to continue their defense against the Jin, who was forcing their way in, unwisely decided to unite with the Mongols. This proved to be fatal as after conquering Jin, the Mongols decided Southern Song was next. Defenseless against Mongol attack, Southern Song eventually fell in 1279.

Paper money and Su Song Clock Tower

Bi Sheng movable type


Generally, the Song Dynasty was characterized by many firsts; it was the first government in world history to issue bank notes and the first Chinese government to establish a permanent standing navy. The Bi Sheng movable type printing, recorded in Shen Kuo's Dreams Pool Essays was invented and it was the first semblance of printing ever known. The Su Song Clock Tower, a water-driven astronomical clock tower that was the most advance astronomical instrument was constructed. This dynasty also saw the first use of explosives in battle.

AD1005: Shanyuan Treaty

The conclusion of the Shanyuan Treaty was the pivotal point in the relationship between Northern Song and the Liao Dynasties. The Liao people were of the Qidan nomadic origin and the signing of the treaty forced the Song Empire, who considered themselves as the only natural heir to political dominance in the Central Kingdom, to recognize the legitimacy of Liao.

After many years of constant fighting, Song and Liao negotiated a peaceful relationship achieved through this treaty. As a result the nature of the relationship changed from one of political rivalry to a fraternal relationship. For the first time in Chinese history, there were two Sons of Heavens recognized legitimately by each other.

This peaceful relationship ended in 1125, when the Song Empire broke the treaty by inviting the Jurchen (from the Jin Dynasty) to attack Liao, leading to the dynasty's demise.

AD1069: Wang Anshi's Reforms of New Policies

Wang An Shi was a Chinese poet, economist, statesmen and chancellor of the Northern Song Dynasty who attempted controversial major socio-economic reforms. He believed that the state was responsible for providing its citizens the essentials for a decent standard of living. Working for the interests of the commoners as he believed that the foundation of the state rests on their well-being, in 1069, he introduced his reform policy containing 3 main components; state finance and trade, defense and social order and lastly, education and improving governance.

Some of his reforms include giving agricultural loans to farmers during planting seasons, which were to be repaid at harvest, to limit speculation and eliminate private monopolies, commodity prices were fixed and wages were regulated. Pension plans were also set up for the aged and unemployed. Military reform centered on a new institution of organized households which ensured collective responsibility in society and was used to strengthen local defense. The state examination was also revamped to emphasize on more practical knowledge such as including tests in law, military affairs and medicine, as he sought to break the barrier between clerical and official careers, improving their supervision to prevent connections from being used for personal gain.

However, there was deep-seated resistance to the education reforms as it hurts the bureaucrats under the old system. Other imperial scholar-officials such as Su Dongpo bitterly opposed these reforms as they went against the old traditions of the moral fundamentals of the Two Emperors that would prevent Song from experiencing the prosperity and peace of the ancients. His circumstances were made even worse by the debts incurred from the seasonal agricultural loans granted under Wang Anshi's reforms. Eventually, Wang Anshi was removed from power and imprisoned in 1075.

AD1135 - 1141: Yue Fei battles the Jins

Yue Fei is a famous historic and heroic figure who lived during the Southern Song Dynasty. He was a patriotic general who helped to defend Southern Song against the Jin invaders. His untimely death, a result of the betrayal by his enemies, remains a legendary tragedy.

Yue Fei's last campaign against the Jin was a sweeping victory but his attempt to push northward and recover all lost territory was opposed by the minister Qinhui who headed an appeasement party within the capital. Emperor Gaozong accepted Qinhui's proposal of making peace with the invaders and ordered Yue Fei to return.

Legend has it that Yue Fei received twelve Gold Plates from the emperor ordering him to return to the capital Lin'An within a day, hence, he had no choice but to comply with the request. However, upon his return, Qinhui accused him of treason. Despite pleading innocence, Emperor Gaozong ordered his unjustified death.

The legendary tragedy of Yue Fei turned into a subject matter of literature, with the novel Legend of Yue Fei. Till today, Yue Fei is loved and estemmed by the Chinese and his patriotism has eonstituted the thos of the Chinese nation.