The Song Dynasty: China’s  Philosophically Diverse Dynasty

The Song dynasty (960–1279) began in 960 and lasted until 1279. The dynasty was founded by Emperor Taizu and ended the chaotic Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period.

The Song dynasty is divided into two distinct periods – the Northern Song and the Southern Song. During the Northern Song period (960–1127), the capital was in the northern city of Bianjing (now known as Kaifeng). The Southern Song period (1127–1279) refers to the period after the Song lost control of its northern territories to the Jurchen-led Jin dynasty. The Song court retreated south of the Yangtze River and established its capital at Lin’an (now known as Hangzhou). In 1234, the northern Jin dynasty was overthrown by the Mongols who were gradually taking control over most of northern China. The relationship between the Mongols in the north and the Song in the south was tense. The Mongols, led by Kublai Khan, established the Yuan dynasty in 1271 and in 1279 conquered the south by defeating the Southern Song at the Battle of Yamen. This victory reunited China under Yuan rule.

The Song dynasty is considered a high point of Chinese scientific invention, including the revolutionary development of gunpowder-based weaponry. However, it was also a period of political turmoil at the royal court, and was characterized by numerous hostile border conflicts including disputes in the south with Vietnam, and numerous territorial battles in the north.

Key Facts

  • Dynasty dates: 960 – 1279.
  • Preceding dynasty: Later Zhou, 951 – 960.
  • Subsequent dynasty: Yuan (1279 – 1368)
  • First Song emperor: Taizu, reigning from 960 to 976.
  • Total number of Song emperors: 18 (Northern Song – 9, Southern Song – 9).
  • Longest Song emperor reign: Renzong (41 years, reigning from 1022 – 1063). During the first part of his reign, Empress Dowager Liu ruled as regent.
  • Final Emperor: Bing, reigning from 1278 to 1279.

The Founding of the Song Dynasty and Its First Emperor – Taizu

The Later Zhou dynasty was the final of the Five Dynasties that ruled northern China after the fall of the Tang dynasty in 907. Emperor Taizu (960–976) initiated the Song dynasty after overthrowing the last Zhou emperor in 960. At the beginning of the dynasty, Emperor Taizu was determined to reunify a divided China. The Song forces initially focused on the south, defeating the Southern Han in 971, and advancing across the Yangtze River to defeat the Southern Tang, in 974. By 978 the south was under Song rule. The Song military forces then turned to the north and were able to quickly capture the Northern Han lands in 979. However, further territorial expansion in the north and northwest proved challenging for the Song, and attempts to take the Sixteen Prefectures failed.

Having reunified large parts of China, Emperor Taizu began to focus on internal affairs. He developed an effective centralized government administration run by civilian scholars-officials, reducing the power of military leaders, and consolidating the emperor’s powers.

Emperor Taizu also used cartography to help him better understand and rule the Song territories across the provinces and municipalities. In 971, he employed Lu Duosun to update and recreate the maps of the world. As part of this mammoth task, Lu Duosun traveled throughout the Song territory, and beyond, to gather data and information. It took until 1010 to complete the work. More detailed mapwork instructed by Yuan Hsieh (the Director General of Government Grain Stores) helped the Song government in a wide variety of matters, including tax collection. Each village (pao) was ordered to develop detailed maps showing details such as fields, rivers, mountains, roads, etc. These village maps were consolidated into larger district and regional maps. 

Emperor Taizu also had a strong interest in a range of science and technology topics, including astronomy, and appointed Ma Yize, an Arab Muslim, as his chief astronomer.

Emperor Taizu also took a keen interest in foreign affairs and made great efforts to connect the Song dynasty with other empires, including the Korean kingdom of Goryeo, the Roman Empire, and the Byzantine Empire.

Art and Culture During the Song Dynasty

The Song dynasty was a culturally-rich period of Chinese history with significant development in music and performing arts, painting and art, poetry and writing, and philosophy. Much of this was fuelled by high standards of education received by the court officials who had to pass a demanding and thorough examination process to achieve an appointment at court. Outside of the imperial court, culture became more widespread and appreciated by the wider Chinese population helped by widespread printing of reading material, growing literacy, and a growing and more popular art scene. People in the larger towns and cities enjoyed going to the theatre, restaurants flourished, encouraged by a growing interest in regional cuisines, and fashion and extravagant clothing were also on the rise.

Painting as an art gained prominence during the Song dynasty. Trends shifted as the dynasty moved from its Northern dynasty period to its Southern period, which was more influenced by the wider adoption of the Neo-Confucian ideology at the imperial court. The paintings of both the Northern and Southern Song periods were particularly beautiful. Ink was the predominant painting medium and the serene landscape paintings during the Northern Song period were intended to reflect an atmosphere of peace and order. Quite often a large landscape feature, such as a mountain, dominated the landscape painting as a symbol of a strong imperial ruler surveying his kingdom. During the Southern Song era, the Neo-Confucianism influence was apparent in the paintings showing smaller, personal scenes instead of vast landscapes.

Religion During the Song Dynasty

The Song Dynasty saw the rise of new religious movements, such as Neo-Confucianism, and the spread of existing ones, particularly Buddhism and Daoism.

Buddhism had been practised in China for many centuries prior to the Song dynasty, but during this dynasty, it became one of the most popular religions in the country. It allowed people to find meaning in their lives during a time of political and social upheaval, and Buddhism was more widely adopted by the ordinary population than Confucianism. This large section of the population gelled with Buddhism’s message of equality. Buddhism’s popularity was also enhanced because Buddhist monasteries and temples provided a place for people to mix and socialize.

The Chinese indigenous religion Daoism (Taoism) also flourished during the Song Dynasty. Daoism emphasizes affinity and harmony with nature and a simple style of living. Daoism became particularly popular during the reign of the Song Emperor Huizong, who reigned from 1100 to 1125 and who made an attempt to stamp out Buddhism. Huizong was responsible for the building of numerous Daoist temples and he appointed Daoist teachers to high court positions.

Whilst Confucianism had been the dominant philosophy in China for many centuries, it became particularly popular during the Song dynasty. Classical Confucianism is a philosophy that places value on marriage and the strength of the family unit, and is grounded on respect for parents and elders.

Neo-Confucianism was a more rational form of this philosophy that was brought in by the educated elite. Neo-Confucianism is based on the belief that human beings are innately good and are able to improve themselves through discipline and education, all of which leads to a more harmonious society. Neo-Confucianism disagreed with the metaphysical basis of Daoism and Buddhism, and this created conflicts between people following these different philosophies. Buddhism emphasized the importance of personal liberation from suffering and stressed the importance of its followers releasing themselves from worldly goods in order to achieve nirvana. Daoism was more focused on personal development and being a good example to others in society. It was these ‘tensions’ between the three main philosophies that contributed to a varied and lively cultural landscape during the Song dynasty. 

The Rise of the Mongols and the Fall of the Song Dynasty

In the early part of the 13th Century, the northern Jin (Jurchen) state came under repeated attacks from the Mongols. Genghis Khan began to launch major offensives from 1211. A peace settlement was negotiated between Jin and the Mongol forces in 1214 following Genghis Khan’s move to bring the Jin state under the effective control of the Mongols. However, when the Jin court decided to move from Beijing to Kaifeng, Genghis Khan saw this as an act of defiance and attacked and destroyed the old Jin capital at Beijing in 1215. Relations between the Mongols and Jin remained in conflict for many years, including a major attack in 1229 by Ögedei Khan, the son of Genghis Khan. The Jin capital at Kaifeng was captured in 1233 and the Jin dynasty subsequently fell to the Mongols in 1234.

Concerned at the rise of the Mongols, and the continued desire to defeat the Jin dynasty, the Song had already formed a military alliance with the Mongols. Following the fall of the Jin dynasty in 1234, the Southern Song broke the military alliance with the Mongols, and went on to capture the three historical capital cities of Kaifeng, Luoyang, and Chang’an. These Song tactics enraged the Mongols and reignited their feud and warfare recommenced. Ögodei Khan went on a massive offensive, conquering most of Sichuan, and ransacking and capturing Chengdu where over 1 million people were slaughtered.

In 1259 the Mongols, under their fourth emperor Mongke Khan, attacked the southern area of Guangxi and a number of other provinces, including Shandong and Henan. Mongke Khan died in 1259 during an attack on Chongqing. His death initiated a Mongol succession crisis that ended with his younger brother, Kublai Khan, becoming the new Mongol leader.

Kublai Khan continued to fight the Southern Song into the autumn of 1259 gaining territory. By the winter of 1259, Kublai Khan had to suspend the war and travel north with the majority of his troops to deal with a civil war, effectively another Mongol succession crisis, this time between Kublai Khan and his younger brother Ariq Boke. In Kublai Khan’s absence, the Song resumed the conflict routing the small remaining Mongol army. In the spring of 1260, Kublai Khan sent envoys to try and negotiate with the Southern Song; this effort was not particularly successful. Distracted by the Mongol civil war, conflicts between the Song and Mongols were less intense during the period 1260 to 1264, but reignited in 1265 with a major battle in Sichuan province, where Kublai Khan achieved victory by seizing almost 150 Song naval ships.

To feed the war effort the Song government began to confiscate parts of estates owned by the rich landowners as part of a widespread land nationalization scheme. Not surprisingly this didn’t go down too well with the landowners and this hastened the collapse of the Song dynasty, particularly as the rich landowners seemed to be siding with the marauding Mongols.

At the same time there was increasing political opposition against the Song Chancellor, Jia Sidao. Jia sacked a number of government officials who objected to his reforms that attempted to limit corruption, replacing them with his own allies. Meanwhile, Kublai Khan was gaining favor with defectors from the Southern Song by granting land and he also released Song prisoners captured by the Mongols.

The siege of Xiangyang took place from 1268 to 1273. The city of Xiangyang was the last obstacle before the riches of the Yangtze River basin and was captured by Kublai Khan using naval forces to blockade and cut off the city. Further advances and victories allowed the Yuan to conquer nearly all of the Southern Song’s territory, including the capital at Hangzhou by 1276.

By this time the remnants of the Song court had fled to Fuzhou. The Empress Dowager Xie effectively surrendered to the Yuan, and the Song emperor at the time, Gong, was given the title ‘Duke of Ying’ by Kublai Khan, but was subsequently exiled to Tibet.

Hope of any final resistance by the Song relied on two young princes, Emperor Gong’s brothers. The older brother, who was only nine years old, was declared emperor in June 1276 in Fuzhou. The Song court sought safe refuges, firstly at Quanzhou, and then on Lantau Island (now part of Hong Kong). The older brother became ill and died in May 1278, aged ten, and was succeeded by his younger brother who became Emperor Bing, aged seven. In March 1279, the Song army was defeated by the Yuan army at the Battle of Yamen in the Pearl River Delta. Legend has it that the Song Prime Minister jumped from his sinking ship into the sea with the boy emperor in his arms, drowning both of them.

With the death of its last emperor, the Song dynasty was over. Kublai Khan then established the Yuan dynasty in its entirety, ruling over vast territories covering China, Mongolia, Manchuria, Tibet, and Korea.


The Song dynasty lasted for over 300 years. As seems to be the case with many Chinese dynastic periods it was characterized by conflict and war. But it can also be thought of as another ‘golden age’ alongside the Tang dynasty. 

The Song dynasty was culturally and philosophically diverse, welcoming new ideas and peoples into its vast territory. Song China also saw great development in the arts and culture, especially painting, performing arts, and literature.

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