Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) 

— Wealthy Empire with Tragic Encounters 

18 Emperors — 319  Years

Part of the Painting (Qingming Shang He Tu) Along the River During the Qingming Festival (528.7 cm × 24.8 cm)
Genre Painting of the Capital City (Bianjing or Kaifeng) of the Song Dynasty by Artist Zhang Zeduan (1085 — 1145) — The Palace Museum

Facts about the Song Dynasty


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


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


   After Emperor Zhao Ji and Zhao Huan were captured and then their northern territory was lost, Emperor Zhao Gou reestablished the Southern Song in the south, with a much smaller territory. 


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

4  Besides Kingdom Song, other regimes were co-existing in Chinese land: Liao, Jin, Xixia, Tubo, Dali, etc.

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

5 Song Empire was widely believed as the most advanced and wealthy kingdom in the world at that time. 

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

7  Small Business Incubator and paper currency appeared in Song.


    So did the first commercial advertisement, about steel needles. 

8  The tabloids produced by private business appeared and were quite popular.

9 Song Empire earned a great deal of money from shipbuilding industry and international trade.

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

10  Public transportations, like the paid carriage, were widely used in big cities.  

11 The earliest professional fire brigades appeared and 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. 

12 Catering became a professional business in many big cities; management of guests, providing of various foods and fragrance, 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 — Taipei Palace Museum

13 As a big, rich empire, the Song had the smallest royal palace in history. 

    Song’s two capital cities were not planned in advance, therefore, there’s not much spaces for the royals to built a huge palace like other previous dynasties. 

    In the meanwhile, nearby habitants refused to move, and officials of Song strongly disagreed the royals spending money on unnecessary constructions. 

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

14 The government gave money and food to poverty mother, to support them raising up their children. Poverty elders and sick ones were supported by the government too.

15 Hospitals that were specifically for treatment of travelers in sick had been established in big cities.

16  Erroneous judgement of death penalty would get severe punishment; the judge who made wrong sentence would get fired or imprisoned, even face the death penalty too. 

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

17 The first emperor of the Song Dynasty 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 the exams. 

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


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


20  Military generals' power was purposely restrained during this dynasty. 

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

21 The Song Dynasty had the most numbers of emperors who abdicated their thrones.

22  Many emperors of the Song Dynasty, no matter if they were excellent monarchs or not, were extraordinary artists. 

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

Part of Painting Thousands Miles of Mountains and Rivers (Qian Li Jiang Shan Tu) (1191.5 cm × 51.5 cm).

By  one of Emperor Zhao Ji’s Student, the Artist Wang Ximeng (1096 — 1119) — The Palace Museum

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


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

26  Sumo, even female sumo was quite popular in the Song Dynasty. 

27 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. 


28 Prostitutes had hierarchies, based on where they were working for and their talents. Official ones were usually very beautiful, talented artists, such as Li Shishi.


   The government of Song published laws to forbid officers to sleep with those prostitutes, male or female. 

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

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

   Song Dynasty had invented and applied many very advanced technologies in weapons, included firelock and huge 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. 

Huge Crossbow, Gunpowder, and Firelock of the Song Dynasty

Brief History of the Song Dynasty


Establishing of the Song Dynasty and Seizing Power from Generals 

Zhao Kuangyin was a brave general with excellent martial art skills.


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

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

Then he removed military power from other generals and set the tradition of restraining the general’s power in the Song Dynasty, which was aimed at preventing strong warlords that had been a major threat in the late Tang Dynasty

Jade Dragon of the Song Dynasty — 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 largely expanded the territory. He brought civilians stable and wealthy lives and unified most of the nation. 

Unexpectedly, however, Emperor Zhao Kuangyin passed away out of a sudden, 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 quite a good sovereign.


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


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

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

Flourishing of the Song Dynasty and Signing of the Peace Treaty


This was Zhao Heng, also honored as the Emperor Zhenzong of Song.


When nomadic Kingdom Liao was invading 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 peace treaty, in which Song would pay a small amount of money to Liao, and they start the frontier trade. 

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


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

Artistic Emperors Ended the Empire Song in the Incident of Jingkang

Until Zhao Ji, also respected as Emperor Huizong of Song, ascended to the throne, Empire Song encountered a big turning point.

Emperor Zhao Ji was one of the most excellent artists in the history of China; his painting, calligraphy, and poems 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 wrong decisions. 

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

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

The Song Empire 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 was 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 enslave, from the honorable princesses to civilians. Princess Duofu and her tragic encounter was a common example. 

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

Reestablishment of the Song Dynasty in the South


However, a prince, also the ninth son of Emperor Zhao Ji, was in another city when this incident happened. 

As the only royal prince left, he organized all of the Song’s armies, escaped to the south, and reestablished the Song Dynasty in city Hangzhou. 

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

The 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" — Changzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The Forgotten Vengeance and Development of Economy 

An extraordinary marshal Yue Fei was the most glorious hope of Song, 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 in peace, and their economy kept progressing. 

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


He spent a happy, long, and luxurious retired life since then. 

Part of Exquisite Embroidery Clothes of the Southern Song Dynasty — 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 his best to recover the lost territory.


But he had long been restrained by his retired, adopt 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 was led by Genghis Khan was growing. 

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

However, since the year 1235, Genghis Khan started to invade the Song Empire. 

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

Tragic Ending of the Song Dynasty 

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

In the year 1273, after City Xiangyang was defeated, the Song Empire 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 last 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 Dynasty.

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

Systems of the Song Dynasty




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


Political System:


Three Departments & Six Ministries 


Three Departments that were independent of each other and report 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 was 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 — Shaowu Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Official Selection System: 


Imperial Examination, which 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 paid a certain amount of money or fabrics in summer, and farmland products in autumn; the numbers of tax that one should pay differed, based on the production situations and quality of the farmlands.

  • Labor services in Song Dynasty were mainly to deal with floods or constructions.


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, the Chinese Characters Carved on were Wrote 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 — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Scientific Development

  • Invention and wide application of the Movable Type Printing, by Bi Sheng. 

  • Invention and application of the earliest Paper Currency in the world. 

Paper Currency (Jiao Zi) of the Song Dynasty

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

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

  • 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

Exquisite Artifacts of the Song Dynasty

Photo by Museum Photographer Dongmaiying

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