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The Song dynasty is divided into two halves. The “Northern Song” dynasty (969-1127) ruled most of China; the “Southern Song” dynasty (1127-1279) ruled only southern China.
The rise of the Song
In 960 China had been divided amongst numerous different states for more than fifty years, ever since the fall of the great Tang empire in 907. In northern China, a succession of five short-lived dynasties had been in power, hence this period of division is known as the ”Five Dynasties”.
The last of these dynasties, the Northern Zhou, came to power in 951. In 960, however, the second emperor of the dynasty unexpectedly died, leaving a 7 year old child to mount the throne. This event left the state effectively leaderless in dangerous times. The Northern Zhou army, fearful of the consequences of the power vacuum that was now in prospect, apparently demanded that its most prominent general, Zhao Kuangyin, take the throne. He therefore did so, taking the throne name Taizu, and founded the Song dynasty.
Consolidation of power
Taizu then set about consolidating his hold on northern China. He did this by inducing potential rivals – generals and provincial governors – to renounce their offices voluntarily in exchange for generous pensions; by keeping the best forces in his army under his direct command and concentrating them around his capital, Kaifeng; and by appointing civilian officials who had been recruited to the civil service by the examination system to all positions of responsibility, including overall direction of military matters.
Taizu thus created a government structure which concentrated as much power as possible at the centre. He abolished regional governorships, making prefects report directly to himself. He insisted on central government appointing all officials down to the county magistrate level. He expanded the examinations so that the majority of officials were recruited in this way. This meant that, from top to bottom, officials were recruited and promoted on merit rather than on personal connections. This reduced the danger of factions building up around powerful individuals and threatening the emperor.
Reunification of China
Whilst centralizing power in his own hands, Taizu was reuniting China under his rule. He did this by picking off the other states one by one, in turn isolating them diplomatically before invading them with overwhelming power. He treated defeated rulers generously, granting them generous pensions.
When he died, in 976, Taizu bequeathed the throne to his brother, who reigned as the emperor Taizong. Taizong continued his policies. Furthermore, these two rulers set an example to later emperors of the dynasty of listening carefully for the advice of ministers and senior officials, and keeping imperial women and palace eunuchs well away from political decision-making. This helped the Song dynasty to be freerer from political instability than any other major Chinese dynasty.
The one great failure of the reigns of Taizu and Taizong was their inability to bring the northern frontier regions back under Chinese rule. These would continue to be occupied by two independent kingdoms, the Liao and Western Xia, ruled by non-Chinese dynasties. These two states, the Liao in particular, would be a continuing threat to Song security. Indeed, the Song empire had to pay tribute to these two kingdoms in order to keep the peace.
Despite these set-backs, the Song dynasty’s position on the throne of China remained solid. Throughout the late 10th century and the 11th century, Song China experienced a long period of political stability and economic expansion. Heavy taxes were required to meet the expenses of the large military establishment, which was needed to maintain the security of the empire in the face of the threats from the Liao and Western Xia states, and this taxation fell most severely on the peasantry, whose lives were consequently hard and precarious. Many fell into a state of serfdom on large estates. Although peasant unrest did occur at times, however, conditions were never harsh enough to bring about the kind of huge rebellions which preceded the fall of all other major dynasties.
The Song court was free from the worst kind of instability at court which undermined the effectiveness of the Han, Tang and Ming regimes, but factionalism certainly existed, played out between senior officials and their supporters. These became more virulent as time went by, and although they never stooped to the vicious violence witnessed in other periods in Chinese history, they did have a baneful influence on policy-making. This was particularly true in the field of relations with other powers, particularly in relation to the Liao state of northern China. Bitter debates took place between senior officials as to whether to adopt an aggressive policy toward this powerful state, or to continue the defensive stance that the Song regime had mostly taken since the early days of the dynasty.
The Song disaster
Following a defeat at the hands of the Liao in 1004, the Song were forced to pay them a heavy annual tribute to keep the peace. This was an enduring source of humiliation to the Song regime, and in any case, despite the tribute the Liao menace continued.
In the 12th century, a faction came to power at the Song court which decided once and all to deal with this situation by making an alliance with the Jurchen, a tribal group to the north east of China. The Jurchen crushed the Liao with some (not very effective) Song assistance (1114-1116) and founded a kingdom in their place. However, the Jurchen, not satisfied with this slice of northern China, and by now aware of Song military ineffectiveness, soon decided on the conquest of the whole of China. They invaded southwards and captured Kaifeng, the Song capital, in 1126. The reigning emperor plus his entire court was carted off into captivity.
A Song prince who had fled to the south proclaimed himself emperor and Chinese forces rallied round him. Ten years of war between Song and Jurchen forces followed. The Jurchen, whose warfare was geared to the broad grasslands to the north of China, were unable to fight affectively in the watery world of the Yangtze region. This helped the Song forces to fend them off, and they were able to keep the Jurchen north of the Yangtze valley.
The Southern Song
The Song dynasty ruled southern China between 1126 and 1279, and is called the “Southern Song” dynasty by Chinese historians. This distinguishes them from the earlier Song emperors who ruled the whole of China, and who are called the “Northern Song”. The Southern Song ruled their reduced empire from their capital at Hangzhou.
Under Southern Song rule, southern China continuing to flourish, and the period was one of continued economic expansion. All the trends which had been apparent under the early (or “Northern”) Song continued: the commercialization of the economy, the expansion of maritime trade, and the growing urbanization of society.
Court politics was characterised by vigorous factionalism, as it had at the Northern Song court. Debates revolved mainly around the issue of whether or not to launch a war of reconquest of northern China. Throughout its rule, the Southern Song maintained a huge army, and the heavy coast of this, plus extravagance at court, led to persistent budget deficits, especially in the later part of the period.
The Jurchen, or Jin, dynasty of northern China also presided over a period of internal peace and prosperity. Good relations mostly prevailed between the “barbarian” rulers and the Chinese population. The Jin administration was staffed mostly by Chinese officials, and its structures were based on Chinese practices.
The Fall of the Song dynasty
The Mongols were a tough, nomadic horse-riding people of central Asia, who up to 1206 were divided amongst different waring tribes. In that year they came under the united rule of Genghis Khan.
Over the period 1215 to 1236 the Mongols conquered northern China. By 1227 the Mongols had destroyed the Western Xia state. By 1236 the Jin state had followed it into oblivion. The Mongol armies continued east to attack and conquer Korea.
North China suffered terribly during the Mongol conquest, with its destruction of cities and ravaging of countryside; and Mongol rule brought harsh taxation with it. The Southern Song empire of southern China was spared for a further generation. In fact, it had rejoiced at the fall of the two northern kingdoms, particularly the Jin state, its traditional enemy. It was only a matter of time, however, before the Mongols would again turn their attention to southern China. Genghis Khans’ grandson, Kublai Khan (Great Khan of the Mongol empire 1260 to 1294), carried out the conquest of the region. This was completed by 1279, in the face of heroic resistance from Song forces. The last Song emperor, a 7 year old child, died in the arms of a faithful official as they leapt from a cliff top to avoid capture by Mongol troops.
The Song dynasty would later be thought of by Chinese historians as time of good government.
The families of imperial wives and concubines were prohibited from holding high office at court, and the palace eunuchs were also prevented from gaining too much influence.
One important change had taken place at the very heart of government, which was that the old cabinet-style of government of the early Tang had now gone. The emperors’ dealings with their ministers was now much more formal, with ministers standing in the presence of their sovereign, from whom they were separated socially by an unbridgeable gap. This had come about largely because the old northern aristocracy, from whom the Sui and Tang dynasties had sprung, had now vanished, and that easy familiarity which earlier emperors had had with their senior officials, most of whom were drawn from the same class, had gone with it. The emperor now stood alone and aloof.
Informal cabinet meetings presided over by the emperor, as had occurred under the great Tang emperors, were now a thing of the past. Instead the Song emperors delegated more of the running of government to powerful chief ministers. The other ministers came to report to them on a daily basis, and he controlled what matters came before the emperor for his consideration. The Song dynasty is noted for its highly capable chief ministers who ran the government, men who had been recruited to the civil service through educational achievement and had risen through its ranks by merit, in the process acquiring long experience of government.
In Southern Song times, after the first emperor, Gaozong (reigned 1127 to 1162), a succession of mostly weak emperors occupied the throne. The reins of government therefore remained with strong chief ministers, as in earlier Song times.
Recruitment and promotion of officials
The Song dynasty expanded the exam system to recruit more “scholar-officials” of the gentry class than ever before. The old landowning aristocracy of north China had gone, leaving the way clear for men recruited through the tough examination system to dominated government.
The Song developed the examination-based recruitment system. This was the time when those who had passed the imperial examinations and gained degrees became the majority of officials (there were still some who qualified for official careers automatically, as sons of senior civil servants). The degree holders were the most respected members of the civil service, and predominated in the highest offices.
The government ensured that the examinations had a wide pool of candidates to draw on by encouraging the establishment of state-supported schools in the prefectures. Promising sons from poorer families could now be prepared for the exams. Also, the Song instituted preliminary exams at the prefectural level, the passing of which qualified a person to attend the central examinations in the capital. Candidates no longer needed sponsorship by a prefect. This reduced the opportunities for favouritism by these officials, and made it easier for candidates who were less well connected with existing official to have access to a good career. Thousands of candidates, still mostly from gentry backgrounds, produced about 200 degree holders a year.
The examinations narrowed in scope under the Song, a reflection of the renewed interest in Confucianism in these years (see below). No longer were there questions of current affairs and practical government, as there had been under the Sui and Tang.
The ratio of degree holders to the general population was 1: 500,000, which helps to explain the respect in which they were held by the population at large. It was in Song times that the examination system came to be regarded as playing a key role in legitimating government in the eyes of the people, who knew that (1) they were being governed by men who merited their authority by their education and ability, and (2) that even people from poorer backgrounds – maybe even themselves or their children – had a chance of attaining power and status under this system. Though most officials came from the landowning gentry, there were plenty of examples of such men.
Given the late Tang experience with over-powerful regional governors, it is no surprise that the early Song did away with this tier of administration altogether. The more than 300 prefects reported directly to central government.] Just as in Han and Tang times, however, this was an unworkable situation – there were simply too many prefects to be supervised properly from the centre. It was inevitable that co-ordinating officials should be dispatched to the provinces sooner or later, but when this did occur, the senior regional officials had specifically defined roles (fiscal, judicial, transport, military affairs and so on), with their regional responsibilities overlapping geographically with one another, so that no one official had responsibility for all government matters within one particular area.
The number of more local provincial officials – county magistrates and prefects – remained at roughly the same level as in Tang times (over 1000 and 300 respectively). As the population more than doubled under the Song, this meant that people saw less and less of the representatives of central government. Local administration fell increasingly to the local gentry, who fulfilled this role on an irregular, mostly unpaid basis as a matter of public duty.
A reforming minister
One of the most famous political episodes under the Song was when a chief minister, Wang Anshi (in power 1069-1085), attempted to introduce a raft of measures which would alleviate the harsh conditions under which the mass of peasants lived: more equitable taxation, government loans at low interest, the fixing of prices to ensure farmers received a fair price for their produce, and so on. However, some of these measures were unworkable in practice, some did not achieve what they set out to achieve, and others were simply too radical for the more conservative officials. Wang’s opponents eventually had him ousted from official and undoing much of his program.
On the whole the Song state adopted a laissez-faire approach to social welfare. At a time when landlordism was expanding again, and economic conditions were pressurizing many peasants to sell their plots to their wealthier neighbours, they stood by and let market forces take their course. On the other hand, they did re-instate the traditional policy of “ever normal” granaries. Also, and very importantly, the government printed manuals on new techniques in agriculture and industrial processes, and employed people to distribute them around the country. This policy is credited with contributing significantly to the economic progress for which the Song era is known.
Under the Southern Song, the structure and character of central and local government remained very much as they had been under the Northern Song.
Foreign policy and defence
In Song times, civilians came to predominate over military men in terms of status and power. Although there was a military version of the examination system, it were not deemed nearly so rigorous, and did not have nearly the same prestige, as the civil service one. Moreover, it was civil servants who had the opportunity to reach the very top of the tree, not army officers: even the most senior generals answered to high civilian officials, not directly to the emperor (as had been the case in previous dynasties). This would mean that the Chinese ruling classes developed an ethos wherein army officers were not held in high regard, which of course meant that the brightest and best avoided this path in life.
The Song empire was surrounded on its northern and western sides by powerful and hostile neighbours, and was therefore compelled to maintain a huge army, at enormous expense. It remained fully manned and equipped at all times.
Given the trouble that powerful frontier generals had caused the Tang dynasty, the Song naturally concentrated the bulk of their forces around the capital, under several different commanders who reported directly to the emperor and his ministers.
The overall direction of military affairs was in the hands of ministers who had an entirely civilian career behind them. This reflects the fact that, in Song times, civilian and military careers had become entirely separate, which had not been the case earlier in Chinese history. The army was now officered by long-term professional soldiers, and the lower ranks of ordinary soldiers were also filled by full-time professionals.
The actual military record of the Song army was patchy. The Song dynasty was far less successful than the Tang had been in their dealings with foreign peoples. They not only failed to reconquer the Khitan (the Liao kingdom) for China, but, following a defeat in 1004, the Song were forced to pay the Khitan a heavy annual tribute to keep the peace. However, the Song army performed very capably on several key occasions, and kept the Khitan threat more or less at bay throughout the 11th and early 12th centuries. Song forces also fought with fierce heroism against the Mongol conquerors in the 1270s.
A distinctive feature of later, or Southern, Song warfare was the emphasis on naval warfare, particularly in the Yangtze river system. In operations against the Jurchen navy in 1161, the Song fleets deployed fast paddle-wheeled warships armed with catapults which fired gunpowder bombs – the first recorded use of gunpowder in warfare. These new weapons won them two famous battles in that year. Other military innovations were bazooka-like weapons made from bamboo for firing explosives, and iron-clad carts.
The absence of any strong powers in central Asia and Tibet was certainly a help to the Song. The main threat to Northern Song security came from the Liao state of northern China, and to a lesser extent the Western Xia state of northwestern China. Both these states were ruled by non-Chinese dynasties, and the fact that the Song were forced to accept equality of status with them was a major source of humiliation to the Chinese. Nevertheless, peace was the normal condition between the Song and these states, albeit a state of affairs maintained only by payments of heavy tribute.
The Jin state of northern China
The Jurchen were a tribal group from a region to the north east of China which lies in today’s Manchuria and Inner Mongolia. In the 1120s they conquered the Liao state of northern frontier region of China, and then drove the Song dynasty to the south. They founded the Jin dynasty state.
Jurchen tribesmen were settled in garrisons throughout the realm as farmer-soldiers to bolster the regime. The Chinese population were legally discriminated against in many ways by the Jin regime, and the Jin regime initially followed the example of Khitan by establishing a dual government, one for the Jurchen and one for the Chinese. However, good relations prevailed between the two ethnic groups on the whole.
The Jurchen had been long-standing allies of the Song empire, and were therefore familiar with Chinese ways. Many Jurchen had a deep respect for Chinese culture, and were serious students of Chinese literature and philosophy. The Jin soon abandoned the dual system of administration in favour of a single system based entirely along Chinese line. This included an examination system for the recruitment of civil service officials, to which many Jurchen aristocrats submitted themselves.
In the south, other states occupied territory which had traditionally been under Chinese rule. Nanzhao, in southwestern China, was very much still in existence, though now experiencing instability and decline; it was no longer the aggressive kingdom it had once been. The northern Vietnamese state of Annam had also become independent from China during the “Five Dynasty” period (934) and, despite one brief attempt, the Song empire was unable to bring it back under Chinese rule.
Further afield, whereas under the Tang dynasty the neighbouring countries had mostly adopted an attitude of respect, even subservience, to the huge empire, this was not the case under the Song. Countries like Korea and Japan had become much more self-confident and assertive since Tang times. Song China was just one amongst several states in eastern Asia, though by far the largest, and asserted no overall claim to superiority in the region.
As in Northern Song times, the Southern Song made no overt claims to superiority over their neighbours – indeed they themselves had tributary status in relation to the Jurchen state of northern China.
The Song era was known in later Chinese history as one of tremendous economic expansion. There were several reasons for this. Internal stability and peace which the Song regime gave to China allowed the economy to flourish, as it always did in China. It allowed long-term trends to come to fruition, such as the shift of the Chinese population from north to south which resulted in increased productivity in this well-watered rice-growing region. Also a series of technological advances, some with their roots in the Tang era, some occurring under the Song, had a major impact on the economy.
All these contributed the fundamental cause underlying this economic progress: more productive agriculture enabled a larger part of the population to live in towns and cities and engage in trade and industry.
The economic expansion of Song times rested largely upon the a huge increase in agricultural production. This led to major population growth: whereas at the end of the Tang period China’s population had stood at 50 or 60 million people, at end of the 11th century it was about 100 million.
A shift in population to the south of China had been going on since mid-Tang times, and here, rice was the staple crop. The growing of wet rice (i.e. in flooded paddy fields) was highly labour intensive, but the crop was extremely nutritious. The Song era saw new strains of rice introduced, notably Champa rice from what is today Vietnam. This was faster growing than the native variety, and more resistant to drought. Government sponsored research programs led to the selective breeding of newer strains which further reduced growing times, so that farmers could grow two crops per year.
New seeds, tools and techniques were disseminated by printed manuals and travelling agricultural experts in the pay of the government. These promoted the planting of wheat as a winter crop; the greater use of fertilizer (which was made easier by the rise of large towns, which produced “night soil” – human waste – on a massive scale, and turned the collection and distribution of this commodity into a major industry); sluice-gates, water pumps and other water-control devices; and techniques for the effective terracing of hills to retain good soil.
Commerce and industry
Most commerce was in the hands of private merchants, and this class expanded greatly in this period. Merchants flourished as never before, discarding many of the social constraints under which they had laboured in previous centuries to become respectable members of society. However, certain industries remained under tight government regulation: salt, tea, liquor, alum, and certain important spices and luxury goods; and of course the “ever-normal” granaries ensured that the distribution of staple crops was heavily influenced by government price controls. In the case of grains and salt, state intervention sought to ensure that key commodities were always available to people at a fair price; but a share in the profits from the regulated industries also provided the government with a large slice of its revenue.
The Song economy was highly monetized; probably more so than most European societies before the18th century. Interregional trade within China developed to an unprecedented level, and a national network of banks developed to cater for it. These undertook all the usual banking functions, including the acceptance of deposits, the making of loans, issuing notes, money exchange, and long-distance remittance of money. Weaknesses in Chinese civil law meant that banking houses tended to keep all key responsibilities within the family, and branch managers often had to have members of their own families living within the household of the bank owners as virtual hostages, to ensure their honesty.
Printed paper money, which had been gradually developing since the late Tang, was issued by the government on a large scale and was widely circulated. This was very convenient for long-distance commerce, but in time led to high levels of inflation.
The textile industry had always been a major industry in China – indeed, long before this time China was known as far as Europe as the source of that luxurious material, Silk. Despite the fact that knowledge of silk production had now reached Europe, Chinese silk, known fro its high quality, was still highly prized throughout the Eastern Hemisphere. Other cloths followed where silk led, as can be seen in the old English names for different cloths such as shantung, nankeen (from Nanjing) and Satin (from Zayton, the English name for the city of Quanzhou). These and other varieties where sold for export, but far more were sold within China itself. With grain, cloth formed the bulk of inter-regional trade.
The ceramics industry also flourished. At the high end, porcelain saw much technical improvement, and like Silk, became highly prized well beyond China’s borders; but also like silk, the vast majority of porcelain pieces were sold within China itself.
The iron and steel industries flourished under the Song, to equip the huge army with weapons and armour. The processing plants were often powered by coal, which became a major industry in Song times, Just like London in the 19th century, the Song capital Kaifeng was noted for having a pall of smog hanging over it.
The shift of the economic centre of gravity in China gave a huge stimulus to maritime trade to south east Asia and beyond. Up until now this had mostly been in the hands of Indian and Arab traders, but now Chinese merchants and sailors became active in it on a large scale. Better designed and constructed ocean-going ships helped – huge Chinese junks plied the seas off the coast of Asia. Chinese shipwrights introduced compartmentalisation into ship design, making their vessels far more seaworthy than before – centuries before this feature was introduced into western ships. Navigation techniques also advanced, and sometime under the Song the compass was introduced. Chinese sailors also had access to very high quality printed navigation charts. These gave Chinese merchants a competitive edge. Some ships sailed as far as India, and perhaps even the coast of East Africa. They traded cargoes of porcelain pieces and silks for spices and other luxury goods.
The trade with south east Asia flourished particularly at this time, and communities of Chinese merchants appearing in the trading ports of present-day Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaya.
Under the Southern Song
Under the Southern Song the south of China became the wealthiest and most populous part of the country. The Jurchen invasion of the north had led to another wave of migration from north to south, and shifted population levels decisively in favour of the southern part of the country, for the first time in history. The Southern Song empire had population of 60 million, whilst Jurchen-ruled northern China had about 40 million. The hitherto under-populated south coast regions of China were at last properly assimilated into the Chinese cultural world as it became fully settled by Chinese colonists.
This expansion of population intensified urbanization in the south. Commercial expansion also continued, especially the maritime trade with South East Asia. Agricultural innovation was maintained, with wet-rice farming techniques being perfected and becoming more and more intensified. Productivity improved still more. The economy became even more monetized than before, and its reliance on paper money deepened; inflation became a chronic fact of economic life.
Hangzhou was almost certainly the largest city in the world at that time, with a population estimated at some four millions. The famous European visitor, Marco Polo, who visited the city just after the Southern Song had been conquered by the Mongols, was astounded – after all, Hangzhou was larger than any western city would grow until the 20th century. and he described as not only being vast, but also very beautiful. Hardly surprisingly, his awe-struck description was met with general incredulity in Europe, where the largest cities of the time had populations of little more than 50,000.
The most affected by urban growth were the trading ports and industrial cities of southern China.
The period saw a much larger section of society working in non-agricultural pursuits and living in towns and cities. Towns and cities expanded, and many new ones appear. In the 11th century ten cities had a million or more inhabitants. In mid-Tang times only four cities had been as large.
The section of society which we today would call the middle classes flourished and grew. A host of merchants, well-off craftsmen and shopkeepers, junior government officials, industrial managers, teachers, doctors, Daost or Buddhist priests and a host of other professionals thronged the growing urban environments.
Amongst classes above the peasantry, education expanded dramatically. This development was made possible by the spread of printing, but it was also promoted by the prestige attached to an official career; ambitious males from gentry, business and farming backgrounds, studied assiduously, knowing that success in the exams offered real opportunities for status and wealth. Even promising boys from peasant families were able to gain an education at state-supported schools in many prefectures. All this meant that the middle and upper rungs of Chinese society were far more highly educated than those of all other regions of the world at this time – as would continue to be the case until the 19th century.
Not all the people benefitted from economic growth. In the countryside, the end of the equal-fields system under the late Tang had left peasants in freehold ownership of their own plots of land, but at the mercy of market forces. Given their slender resources and lack of reserves, many peasants were sooner or later forced to sell their land to richer neighbours, whose estates were growing. This was a trend which had been growing from the late Tang, and in Song times there were many large estates, worked by tenant farmers and semi-free peasants. The Song government took a hands-off approach to this situation, with the exception of the years of Wang Anshi’s ministry (see above).
In fact, conditions under the Song favoured the further growth of large estates. Because they could afford the best education, men from landowning families tended to do well in the examinations. Though there were many cases of men from poorer economic groups having good careers in the civil service, the higher echelons of government were largely filled by those from the landowning gentry. These of course made sure that state policies did no harm to their landed interests.
Furthermore, the landowners could afford to introducing new crops and techniques, and to invest in water control and other measures to improve the land. They also had the education to read the manuals on agriculture improvement which circulated widely in Song times, and the capitalist frame of mind to experiment with new methods. These factors aided landowners develop their estates, which not only benefitted the wider economy but also themselves.
The same social trends evident under the Northern Song continued under the Southern Song. As in many dynamic market economies, inequalities between rich and poor increased. In the countryside especially, more and more peasants lost their plots to larger landowners, whose estates therefore continued to expand. However, this period also saw the urban middle classes become an even more substantial segment of the population. This is reflected in the rise of a colloquial culture fed by an expanding publication of works of popular fiction.
One development which began to spread under the Song, but which traced its origins back to the “Five Dynasties” period, was foot binding for women. This had started as a fad amongst upper class women who bound their feet in imitation of a famous imperial concubine and dancer. The idea of tiny feet being a mark of feminine beauty took hold, and women in wealthier families continued this practice until the 20th century.
As we have seen, Buddhism took a huge hit during the late Tang period. However, it remained a very popular religion in China, especially amongst the common people. Daiosm too continued life as a popular religion. Nor should it be thought that Buddhism suddenly lost its hold completely on the educated elite. Indeed, the greatest printing project of the Song era, and one of the greatest of Chinese history or in world history, was the publication of the complete set of Buddhist scriptures in more than a thousand volumes.
The Song period, however, is known above all for the re-emergence of Confucianism as the dominant belief system of the upper classes.
Under the early Song, a revised strand of Confucianism began to appear. Modern scholars give this strand the label “Neo-Confucianism”. It was the work of a series of thinkers, during this period above all Cheng Yi (1033-1107).
Ancient Confucianism had been a set of teachings on society and the individuals place within it. With the rise of Daoist and Buddhist thought in the 3rd century CE, people had turned to these for solace in troubled times, and for teaching about how to live the good life. Though continuing to act as the official state ideology, Confucianism had ceased to hold the hearts if educated Chinese.
The Neo-Confucianist thinkers borrowed metaphysical and cosmological elements from Buddhism and Daoism and, applying crucially distinctive twists to them, turned Confucianism into a system of belief which could exert a deep hold over both the hearts and minds of educated people.
Over against Daoism and Buddhism, the basic message of Neo-Confucianism was that human fulfilment is to be the found in this world, in social activity. By participation fully in society, and not be standing aloof from it (Daoism) or rejecting it (Buddhism), everyone has the potential to realize their potential and live a good life. This was very congenial to the scholar-official class, whose raison-d’etre was public service. So, Neo-Confucianists should devote themselves to social and political reform – making the world the best it can be – and to self-cultivation – making oneself as knowledgeable as one can be.
Social and political reform centred round reviving the family as the basis of society, and the state should be imbued with a strong sense of social welfare activism. Neo-Confucianist teachers enjoined their students to serve the exercise compassion for others through the practice of charity.
From being a rather dry set of scholarly doctrines, therefore, Confucianism was transformed into the dominant belief-system of the elite, in which a man’s place in the wide context of the natural world was worked out.
During Southern Song times, Neo-Confucianism strengthened its hold on the Chinese elite. Zhu Xi (1130-1200) was the most notable of many Neo-Confucian thinkers of the period.
Chinese cultural influences on its neighbours
This is not to say that Chinese civilization had ceased to exert a strong cultural influence throughout East Asia. Korean and Japanese scholars and monks still visited China frequently, and Chinese Buddhist monks still visited Korea and Japan. It was in Southern Song times that Zen Buddhism passed from China to Japan, where it would have a huge impact.