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Song Dynasty — Wealthy Empire with Highly Respected Scholars

Part of the Painting (Qingming Shang He Tu) Along the River During the Qingming Festival of the Song Dynasty
Part of the Painting (Qingming Shang He Tu) Along the River During the Qingming Festival by Artist Zhang Zeduan of the Song Dynasty
Part of the Genre Painting of the Capital City (Bianjing or Kaifeng) of the Song Dynasty by Artist Zhang Zeduan

Along the River During the Qingming Festival or Qingming Shang He Tu, Genre Painting of the Capital City (Bianjing or Kaifeng) of the Song Dynasty by Artist Zhang Zeduan (1085 — 1145) — The Palace Museum

Song Dynasty

What Is Song Dynasty?


Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) was an extremely wealthy empire in ancient China, with a thriving culture, business, science, technology, and literature, and an era when scholars were highly respected and the emperor and generals' power were purposely restrained.


Song was divided into two periods, the Northern Song (960 — 1127) and the Southern Song (1127 — 1279). 


Northern Song ended after the Incident of Jingkang in 1127 when emperors Zhao Ji and Zhao Huan were captured and lost vast territory. 


Emperor Zhao Gou reestablished the Southern Song in the south in the same year, with a much smaller territory. 


Song Dynasty lasted for 319 years and was ruled by 18 emperors.

Dragon Shaped Golden Pendant of the Song Dynasty

Dragon Shaped Golden Pendant of Song — Anhui Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)


Facts About the Song Dynasty


  • Founder and the first emperor of Song, Zhao Kuangyin was a master of martial art; he snatched the throne from his young emperor and established Song.  


  • Song Dynasty had the smallest territory as a unified, wealthy empire in the Middle Kingdom. 

Besides Song, other regimes co-existing in Chinese land during this period, including Liao, Jin, Western Xia, Tubo, Dali, etc.

Ceremonial Jade Weapon (Gu Duo) of the Kingdom Liao

Ceremonial Jade Weapon (Gu Duo) of the Kingdom Liao — Aohan Prehistory Museum in Inner Mongolia (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • Song Dynasty was known to be the most advanced and wealthy kingdom in the world at that time. 

  • The Song was the first dynasty whose population surpassed 100 million in Chinese history.

  • Small Business Incubators and paper currency appeared in Song.


So did the first commercial advertisement about steel needles. 

  • The tabloids produced by private businesses appeared and were quite popular.

  • Song earned a great deal of money from the shipbuilding industry and international trade through Maritime Silk Road.

Recovery Model of Unearthed Civil Use Trade Ship of the Song Dynasty

Recovery Model of Unearthed Civil Use Trade Ship of Song — National Museum of China 

  • Public transportation, like the paid carriage, was widely used in big cities.  

  • The earliest professional fire brigades appeared and were widely applied in big cities; they had adequate numbers of observation towers to watch and report the fire 24/7.


Firefighters who delayed or postponed the rescue would get punished.

  • Catering became a professional business in many big cities; management of guests, providing various foods and fragrances, decoration, and cleaning were all specialized. 

Part of Painting (Wen Hui Tu) by Emperor Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135) of the Song Dynasty, Presenting the Feast of Intelligent Scholars

Part of Painting (Wen Hui Tu) by Emperor Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135), Presenting the Feast of Intelligent Scholars — Taipei Palace Museum

  • As a big, prosperous empire, the Song had the smallest royal palace in history. 

  • Song's two capital cities were not planned in advance; therefore, there were not many spaces for the royals to build a huge palace, like in previous dynasties. 

Meanwhile, nearby inhabitants refused to move, and officials of Song strongly disagreed with the royals spending money on unnecessary constructions. 

Therefore, even though some emperors tried to extend the palace, they never made it. 

  • The Song's government gave money and food to poverty mothers to support them in raising their children. Poverty elders and sick ones were supported by the government too.

  • Hospitals to treat sick travelers had been established in big cities.

  • The erroneous judgment of the death penalty would get severe punishment; the judge who made the wrong sentence would get fired or imprisoned and even face the death penalty. 

Unearthed Glass Crossguard (Jian Ge) of the Song Dynasty

Glass Crossguard (Jian Ge) of Song — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • The first emperor of the Song, Zhao Kuangyin, invented the system that seals everyone's name and transcribes their essays using standard scripts in the Imperial Examinations.


Since then, cheating has become almost impossible in exams. 

  • Emperors would participate in the final round of the Imperial Examinations and decide the champion themselves. 


  • Song's civil officials selected from the Imperial Examination were the most highly respected and well-paid in the history of China. Officials of Song had approximately 113 holidays each year.

  • Neo-Confucianis, the dominant ideology of the successive dynasties, was formed in Southern Song by Zhu Xi

  • Military generals' power had been purposely restrained in the Song period. 

Unearthed Copper Writing Brush Holder (Bi Jia) of the Song Dynasty

Copper Writing Brush Holder (Bi Jia) of the Song — Zhuji Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • The Song Dynasty had the most emperors who abdicated their thrones.

  • Many emperors of Song, whether they were excellent monarchs or not, were extraordinary artists. 

  • A professional Painting Academy was built by Emperor Zhao Ji, who added painting to the Imperial Examination and made significant contributions to Chinese art history. 

Thousands of Miles of Mountains and Rivers or Qian Li Jiang Shan Tu, Painted by one of Emperor Zhao Ji’s Students the Artist Wang Ximeng (1096 — 1119) — The Palace Museum

  • The cooking method Fry appeared and became popular in this period. 


  • Ice Cream was first documented in a poem, by a famous poet named Yang Wanli.

  • Sumo, even female sumo, was quite popular in the Song era. 

  • Rich or talented men usually had concubines and lovers; they could sign contracts with those women (or those women’s families) to keep them only for a certain period. 


  • Prostitutes had hierarchies based on where they were working and their talents. Official ones were usually very beautiful, talented artists like Li Shishi.


The government of Song published laws to forbid officials from sleeping with those prostitutes, male or female. 

Unearthed Cyan Glaze Tea Cup with A Tray (Zhan Tuo)

Unearthed Cyan Glaze Tea Cup with A Tray (Zhan Tuo) — Southern Song Government Kiln Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • The Song was the only Chinese dynasty that was ended twice, both because of exterior invasion instead of internal rebellions or bad administrations.

Song people invented and applied many advanced weapons technologies, including firelocks, giant crossbows, etc.


But the confidentiality was loose, which made them disseminated to all the nearby regimes that later used those weapons to fight against Song. 

Part of Ceremonial Guard of Emperor Zhao Zhen in "Da Jia Lu Bu Tu Shu", Painted Around 1053 to 1065

Part of Ceremonial Guard of Emperor of Song in "Da Jia Lu Bu Tu Shu", Painted Around 1053 to 1065 — National Museum of China


Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the Song Dynasty


Establishing the Song Empire and Seizing Power from Generals 

Zhao Kuangyin was a brave general with excellent martial art skills in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907 — 979).


After his ambitious king departed and passed the throne to a seven-year-old kid, he started to plan a usurpation.

Several months of preparations later, in the year 960, Zhao Kuangyin took the throne from the young king, defeated those opponents, and named his new kingdoms Song. 

Then he removed military power from other generals and set the tradition of restraining the general’s influence in the Song Dynasty, which was aimed at preventing strong warlords that had been a significant threat in the late Tang Dynasty (618 — 907).

Jade Dragon of the Song Dynasty

Jade Dragon of Song — Tianjin Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Emperor Zhao Kuangyin’s Excellent Governance and Sudden Death

In the next decade, Zhao Kuangyin, also respected as Emperor Taizu of Song, governed his empire well and vastly expanded the territory. He brought civilians stable and wealthy lives and unified most of the Middle Kingdom. 

Unexpectedly, however, Emperor Zhao Kuangyin suddenly passed away after having dinner with his brother, who then became the next emperor. No one knew what exactly happened that night. 

But his brother, the new emperor Zhao Guangyi was not as good as he was at being sovereign.

Under his governance, Emperor Zhao Kuangyin’s sons all died at young ages, and Song’s army failed in many wars and encountered significant losses.


After he passed away, he gave the throne to his son. 

Unearthed Gold Cup Carved with Flower Patterns of the Song Dynasty

Gold Cup Carved with Flower Patterns of Song — Shanxi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The Flourishing of the Empire and Signing of the Peace Treaty


The third emperor of Song was Zhao Heng, also honored as the Emperor Zhenzong of Song.


When the nomadic Kingdom Liao invaded Song, Zhao Heng was forced by his determined prime minister to go to the battlefield.


When Song and Liao were in a tie, they signed a treaty in which Song would pay a small amount of money to Liao, and they started the frontier trade. 

This pact brought the Song Dynasty peace for half a century.


The next monarch, Emperor Zhao Zhen, implemented some reforms and flourished the empire. Since then, the Song kept developing under the governance of successive diligent, capable sovereigns. 

Incident of Jingkang and the Ending of the Northern Song Dynasty

Until Zhao Ji, also respected as Emperor Huizong of Song, ascended to the throne.

Emperor Zhao Ji was one of the most excellent and accomplished artists in the history of China, whose paintings, calligraphy, and poetry were remarkable. 

Painting and Calligraphy Masterpieces of Zhao Ji the Emperor Huizong of Song

But Zhao Ji was a horrible monarch who spent most of his time pursuing art and having fun, while at other times, he made many terrible decisions regarding politics. 

In the north, a nomadic regime named Jin dramatically developed; they defeated and replaced the former Kingdom Liao and marched toward the capital city of Song. 

However, Emperor Zhao Ji immediately abdicated the throne to his son Zhao Huan and escaped to another city. 

The Song people won for the first time. However, a few months later, the Kingdom Jin invaded the capital city for the second time. 

Zhao Huan, the Emperor Qinzong of Song, proved himself another incapable, stupid sovereign. After his series of ridiculously foolish, crazy commands, the Song Empire ended unexpectedly.

This shameful event was named the Incident of Jingkang.


The Kingdom Jin captured the entire royal family of Song and large numbers of civilians and took them to the north. Countless women were humiliated and enslaved, from honorable princesses to civilians. Princess Duofu and her tragic encounter were a typical example. 

Unearthed Blue Glass Decorations (Die Sheng) of Southern Song Dynasty, Homophone of Wishing to Take Back the Two Captured Emperors and Lost Land

Unearthed Blue Glass Decorations (Die Sheng) of Southern Song, Homophone of Wishing to Take Back the Two Captured Emperors and Lost Land — Quzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Reestablishment of the Southern Song Dynasty


Meanwhile, a prince, also the ninth son of Emperor Zhao Ji, was in another city when the Incident of Jingkang happened. 

As the only royal prince not imprisoned, he organized all of the Song’s armies, escaped to the south of the Yangtze River, and reestablished Song in the city of Hangzhou.

The Incident of Jingkang took away so many things from the Song Empire, making vengeance the dream of many people.

Prince Zhao Gou, now the Emperor Gaozong of Song, also decided to try to take the lost land back after having been chased by Jin’s army for years. 

Perfume (Xiang Bing) Blended by Emperor Zhao Gou of the Southern Song Dynasty, Carved with CHaracters of "Recovery and Prosperity"

Perfume (Xiang Bing) Blended by Emperor Zhao Gou of the Southern Song, Carved with Characters of "Recovery and Prosperity" — Changzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Forgotten Vengeance and Development of Economy

An extraordinary marshal Yue Fei was the most glorious hope of the Song court, who kept winning and had recovered lots of cities in the north. 

But, somehow, Emperor Zhao Gou forced Yue Fei to give up those recovered cities and retreat to the south. Soon, Yue Fei was murdered by a treacherous minister named Qin Hui

Then, Emperor Zhao Gou and Qin Hui signed an unfair treaty with the Kingdom Jin.


Afterward, the smaller Song in the south started to live peacefully, and their economy kept progressing. 

Emperor Zhao Gou had no sons, so he selected and adopted a descendant of Emperor Zhao Kuangyin and abdicated the throne when he was 55.


Since then, he has had a happy, long, and luxurious retired life. 

Part of Exquisite Embroidery Clothes of the Southern Song Dynasty

Part of Exquisite Embroidery Clothes of the Southern Song — Fujian Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Completing of Long Overdue Revenge and Rising of A Stronger Enemy

This adoptive prince, also the next emperor Zhao Shen, was an ambitious and diligent monarch who tried to recover the lost territory.


But he had long been restrained by his retired adopted father Zhao Gou, many doves in the government, and incapable generals. 


Afterward, the emperors of Song never had the chance to finish the Northern Expedition because the newly raised Mongol Empire that Genghis Khan led was growing. 

In 1234, the Song court allied with Genghis Khan’s troops finally perished the Kingdom Jin and finished their vengeance. 

However, in 1235, Genghis Khan started invading the Song Empire. 

Unearthed Carved Lacquerware Box of the Southern Song Dynasty

Carved Lacquerware Box of the Southern Song — Tokyo National Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Tragic Ending of the Song Dynasty

In the following decades, they kept fighting but were still in a tie. During this period, Kublai Khan established the Yuan Empire in the north. 

In 1273, after City Xiangyang was defeated, Song lost the most important military sites and started to shrink quickly. 

Six years later, the Song’s last emperor and his people came to a mountain near the South China Sea, where they encountered an intensive, heroic final battle but failed.


The last emperor of Song, a faithful minister, and around 800 royal family members jumped into the sea; the remaining 100 000 of the Song’s loyal ministers, soldiers, and civilians all sacrificed in the final battle or committed suicide. 

This was the End of the Song.

Sheng Mu Dian (Built in 1023 — 1032) of Jinci Temple, A Valuable Representative Architecture of the Song Dynasty — Taiyuan City, Shanxi Province

Sheng Mu Dian (Built in 1023 — 1032) of Jinci Temple, A Valuable Representative Architecture of Song — Taiyuan City, Shanxi Province


Political Structure and Social Systems of the Song Dynasty




37 million — 126 million — around 7500 (beginning — peak — ending)


Political System: Three Departments and Six Ministries 


Three Departments were independent of each other and reported to the emperor: 


  • Department of Imperial Secretariats: Draft and Publish Decrees

  • Department of Chancellors: Review of Decrees by Imperial Censors

  • Department of Imperial Affairs: Supreme State Administration that Executive Decrees


Subordinate to the Department of Imperial Affairs were the Six Ministries:


  • Ministry of Personnel: Appointment, Assessment, and Removal of Officers 

  • Ministry of Revenue: Household Registration, Finance, and Tax

  • Ministry of Rites: Ceremony and Education

  • Ministry of National Defense: Military Affairs 

  • Ministry of Justice: Law, Judiciary and Punishment

  • Ministry of Constructions: Design and Implementation of National Constructions 

Unearthed Fan of the Song Dynasty with Lacquer Handle

Fan of the Song with Lacquer Handle — Shaowu Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Official Selection System


Imperial Examination allows talented men to enter the ruling class based on their talents instead of class origin.


Civil and military officials were both selected through the system. 



People would pay a certain amount of money or fabric products in summer and farmland products in autumn; the number of taxes that one should pay differed based on the production situations and quality of the farmlands.

Labor Services in Song were mainly to deal with floods or construction.


  • People who performed the services would get paid.


  • One could also pay others to do the labor services, or pay a certain amount of money to be exempted.

Copper Currency of the Song Dynasty

Copper Currency of Song, the Chinese Characters Carved on were Written by Emperor Zhao Ji — National Museum of China

Military Service


Recruitment of Professional Soldiers.


In disastrous years with the bad harvest, the recruitment of famine refugees was an important source.


Land System


Private Ownership of Land.

Unearthed Jade Comb of the Southern Song Dynasty

Jade Comb of Southern Song — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)


Scientific Achievements of the Song Dynasty

  • Invention and broad application of Movable Type Printing by Bi Sheng. 

Movable Type Printing of the Song Dynasty Invented by Bi Sheng
  • Invention and application of the earliest Paper Money in the world. 

Paper Currency of the Song Dynasty

Paper Currency (Jiao Zi) of Song

  • Shui Yun Yi Xiang Tai (by Su Song): An astronomical instrument that can observe and demonstrate celestial phenomena, meterage, and tell time. 

The Astronomical Instrument Shui Yun Yi Xiang Tai Invented by Su Song of the Song Dynasty

The Advanced Astronomical Instrument Shui Yun Yi Xiang Tai (Built in 1086 —  1093) of Song

  • The Mathematical Treatise in Nine Sections (by Qin Jiushao): the peak of ancient Chinese math.


It demonstrates 81 mathematical problems, of which the Chinese Remainder Theorem and the Positive & Negative Prescription (Horner’s Method) was the most remarkable invention. 


  • Xi Yuan Ji Lu or Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified (by Song Ci): the first Forensic Medicine book in the world.


  • Wide utilization of the Keel Structure and the Nautical Compass in navigation. 

Odometer Cart "Ji Li Gu Che" of the Song Dynasty

Odometer Cart "Ji Li Gu Che" of Song


Exquisite Artifacts of the Song Dynasty

Photo by Museum Photographer Dongmaiying