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


What Is Song Dynasty?


Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) was an extremely wealthy empire in ancient China, with prosperous 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 a large amount of 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 had been 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 were 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 widely believed as 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 transportations, like the paid carriage, were 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, rich empire, the Song had the smallest royal palace in history. 

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

In the 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, even face the death penalty too. 

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 became 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-Confucianism, the dominant ideology of the successive dynasties 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, no matter if 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 great 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, such as Li Shishi.


The government of Song published laws to forbid officials to sleep 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 the exterior invasion, instead of interior rebellions or bad administrations.

Song people invented and applied many very advanced technologies in weapons, including firelocks 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. 

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 usurp.

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 power in the Song Dynasty, which was aimed at preventing strong warlords that had been a major 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 largely expanded the territory. He brought civilians stable and wealthy lives and unified most of the Middle Kingdom. 

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 as good as him at being a sovereign.

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

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


The next monarch Emperor Zhao Zhen implemented some reforms and further 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 painting, calligraphy, and poetry were remarkable.