The Song Dynasty

After the dissolution of the central government's control of the Tang Empire, the tenth century CE in China was marked by increased political instability. Almost as soon as one military commander seized control, his rule would be undercut by infighting and coup d'etats. This pattern repeated frequently in the five northern and ten southern kingdoms into which the Tang empire had dissolved. In 960, when the general Zhao Kuangyin seized control of Bian (modern Kaifeng), he appeared to be just another warlord making a bid for power. Yet the manner in which Zhao, known to history by his reign name Emperor Taizu (ruled 960-976), managed to consolidate power demonstrated that he was a masterful politician and strategist as well as a brilliant military commander.

Taizu's rise to the throne was as much a public relations campaign as it was a military one. Influential allies helped mold public opinion, creating the impression that Taizu had been unwillingly thrust into the position of leadership, and that popular demand left him no option but to take the throne. Then, to preempt any further possible coups on the part of these same allies, Taizu offered them large prosperous estates, hereditary titles and generous pensions in exchange for their retirement from their respective martial offices. Taizu then replaced these career military men with civil servants, so that the ranks of commanders, generals and other high-ranking military positions were filled by bureaucrats totally inexperienced with military service. Furthermore, the holders of these posts were frequently rotated, so no single commander was given the opportunity to develop an independent power base from which to launch a revolt. Once his new cabinet was established, Taizu engaged in a reunification plan composed of a mixture of warfare and diplomacy, often winning over rivals with extremely generous rewards for defection, and thus avoiding battle altogether. Using this strategy, the reunification of China was complete by 978 with surprisingly little loss of life and destruction of property.

After Taizu's death in 976, his brother took the throne as Emperor Taizong. Taizong made it a high priority to win back territories in northern China now controlled by the Liao dynasty, founded by the once-nomadic Khitan. Taizong's failed campaign against the Khitan generated disastrous results, since the Khitan attacked in reprisal, coming within a few days march of the Song capital. After this demonstration of the limitations of their own military strength, the Song court came to rely a policy of appeasement, inaugurating a tribute system in which massive annual payments were offered to the Khitan, promised for perpetuity, in return for peace. The same policy would later be used to pacify the Jurchen (founders of the Jin dynasty, 1115-1234 CE), the Tanguts and Mongols. A healthy economy made such policies of appeasement practical, and the stable political environment that resulted initially led to even more thriving domestic and international trade, higher agricultural yields, and a number of impressive technological advances.

Yet for the most part, international trade bloomed and prospered during the Song period. Trade unions and professional guilds were formed, systems of banking were developed, and paper money was used throughout the empire. In terms of arts, the Song dynasty was a golden age of sorts for both painting and ceramics, and in many ways the creation of porcelain reached its apex (both technically and aesthetically) in the practice of Song-era ceramicists. Song ceramics were a voluble commodity throughout Asia, and improvements in ocean navigation (including the invention of a south-pointing compass) expanded their market to include Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. In fact, Song-era ceramic shards have been found as far away as the east coast of Africa, and though it is possible that these goods were transported by middle-men, this fact demonstrates the breadth of the international sea-trade networks in which Song tradesmen participated. Other Song-era technological developments include the use of steel in agricultural tools, chains for suspension bridges, drill bits for sinking wells, and steel arrow heads capable of penetrating conventional armor. Gunpowder was also regularly used in warfare, as well as in mining.1

Yet at the same time, Song China relied less on overland trade from the Silk Road, and the resulting decrease in contact with Central and Western Asian countries (and through them, India and the Middle East). This is not to say they did not value the cultural and intellectual achievements of the lands to the west; for example, Emperor Taizu appointed an astronomer, Ma Yize (910?-1005), whose job was to observe and interpret the heavens using methods developed in the Islamic world (Ma Yize traced his ancestory to an area near modern northeastern Yemen)2 . Direct exposure to nations and cultures to the west, however, was at a low-point during the Song period, a phenomenon which generated stronger feelings of geographical and cultural isolation from the rest of continental Asia. This may also have led to an increase in ethnocentrism, which may also explain the decline in interest in Buddhism (a foreign faith) as a state-sponsored religion, though it still flourished as a popular religion. In fact, it was during the Song period that a number of Buddhist deities were transformed on the popular level into more distinctly Chinese manifestations. The male bodhisattva Avalokitesvara turned into the distinctly matronly Guanyin, and Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, became the hemp-garbed, laughing, large-bellied Milofo.

The Song court's policy of appeasement worked well for a while, yet it proved to be short-sighted one. It failed the Song on two occasions, each time with dramatic results. The first occasion was in 1127, when the Jurchen seized the northern capital and forced the Song court to relocate to south China. The second time was in 1279, when the Mongols, deciding they preferred to rule Song territory themselves rather than simply extort its riches, attacked the Song and absorbed southern China into their already immense empire.

- John D. Szostak

(1) From the website "The Song Dynasty in China."

(2) From Colloquium on Information Science: HKUST Library Series no. 6 - 6 June 2002