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China’s next canonical dynasty after the Tang dates its point of origin to 960, when a Northern Chinese warlord named Zhao Kuangyin proclaimed himself Emperor Taizu (“Grand Progenitor”). Over the following few decades, he and his son made good on the claim by gradually taking control of most of Inner China. The task proved surprisingly easy once a degree of momentum was achieved, for the people were already tired of chaos, and no one wished for a repeat of the long centuries of division that had followed the collapse of the Han dynasty. The new dynasty smoothed its path to power by ingratiating itself with the Confucian officials in the various regions, promising them that its rule would be just and moderate, very much guided by the precepts laid down by their sage. By thus enlisting the support of the most well-respected men in the local governments, the emperors were able to make their conquest of Inner China a virtually bloodless affair.

Unlike many another despot, these ones actually made good on their promises once their empire was secured. Confucian doctrine became once more the settled law of the land, and the examination system for the civil service was re-instituted, with a redoubled emphasis on learning the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism backwards and forwards. The new dynasty became known as the Song, after the pre-imperial Chinese state in whose territory Emperor Taizu had been born. Its capital became the city of Kaifeng, in the modern-day Henan province.

Song China in 1111, when it was at its largest. (Mozzan)

China prospered under its new rulers over the course of the eleventh century especially, embarking on an age of wealth, unity, and cultural achievement that very nearly matched the heights scaled by the early Tang dynasty. China’s economy grew to three times the size of all of Europe’s, as the land underwent something close to a full-blown industrial revolution; iron production during the eleventh century reached a level Europe wouldn’t match for another 700 years. Among countless other applications, the iron was used in huge textile mills that were among the world’s first factories that we might recognize as such today; they lacked only steam power to make them the equal of the factories of the Western Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. All that iron also continued to make agriculture ever more efficient, able to support larger and larger populations.

Southern Inner China benefited especially in this respect. Previously an almost literal backwater, its fetid landscapes of river, swamp, and forest were transformed into terraced rice paddies in many places, as the socioeconomic pattern of the Inner China that we know today — the North serving as the seat of government and the South the seat of the economy — began to take shape in earnest. Song China as a whole outpaced even the Muslim empires, which were enjoying a golden age of their own, to become simply the richest, most advanced, most orderly society to be found anywhere in the world.

The one area in which the Song empire failed to rival its predecessor the Tang was in its territorial extent; the Song emperors’ zone of control never extended beyond Inner China. Two other empires, each formidable in its own right, prevented them from extending their rule northward onto the steppes as the Tang had once done.

A society of former steppe nomads known as the Khitan owned the region we now know as Manchuria, as well as a small part of Northern Inner China itself, including the city of Xijin, on the same site as the modern Chinese capital of Beijing. The Khitan adopted many Chinese customs, including an economy based on sedentary farming (this Manchuria allowed, making it unique among the regions bordering on Inner China), a healthy respect for Confucius, and a written language that borrowed heavily from written Chinese. Eventually, they even gave themselves an emperor who styled himself a Son of Heaven; the resulting dynasty was known as the Liao. This Liao dynasty built walls as well, to protect itself from the peoples who still roamed the steppes beyond its borders.

Much the same story holds true for a steppe people known as the Tangut, who settled just west of the Liao dynasty. Their land was less suited for agriculture than that of the Liao, but it straddled the Silk Road to the Muslim and Christian worlds — and, far more importantly, to India. As a result, the Tangut did very well as middlemen.

A Tangut leader named Weiming Yuanho decided to declare himself an emperor and Son of Heaven in 1038, taking the dynastic name of Western Xia in homage to the Xia dynasty of China’s distant past. The letter that he sent to the Song emperor to announce his decision is written with a faux-humility worthy of Confucius himself. It provides a fascinating record of the delicate, co-dependent dance of tribute that went on for so many centuries between the empires of Inner China and their neighbors, as well as demonstrating the ongoing importance of Chinese soft power even when its military was not up to the task of conquest. Everyone, it seems, wanted to be culturally Chinese, even if they didn’t wish to be under the direct sway of the current Chinese emperor.

For my part, I, your servant, have managed to create a humble script for writing the Tangut language. I have also altered the great Han official dress, unified the five musical tones, and reduced the ritual bow from nine prostrations to three. Now that the dress regulations have been completed, the script put into effect, the rites and music made manifest, the vessels and implements prepared, the Tibetans, Tatars, Changye, and Uyghurs have all recognized my sovereignty. Not satisfied with the title of king, these vassals insist that I be titled emperor. Converging without end until the mountains rang with their assembly, humbly they begged for a united land with one border, a “country of 10,000 chariots.” I repeatedly declined, but the assembled crowd kept pressing, until I had no choice in the matter. Therefore on the eleventh day of the tenth month, an altar was erected and I was enthroned as Shizu, Originator of Literature, Rooted in Might, Giver of Law, Founder of Ritual, Humane and Filial Emperor. My country is called Great Xia, and the reign era is called “Heaven-Conferred Rites, Law, and Protracted Blessings.”

I humbly look to Your Majesty the emperor, in your profound wisdom and perfection, whose benevolence extends to all things, to permit me to be invested as the “ruler facing south” in this western land. As the fish come and the birds go, so will be transmitted the sounds of our neighboring states; as the earth is old and Heaven spacious, so long will I subdue disturbances along the border. In utmost sincerity I beseech you, humbly awaiting the imperial affirmation.

With such reformed barbarians guarding their northern borders, the Song emperors had less need than their predecessors to concern themselves with foreign policy. This became the other obvious difference between Tang and Song China: whereas the former had looked exuberantly outward during its best years, the latter was an insular society more typical of Chinese history, convinced that it could create more than enough splendor at home to satisfy its populace. The Khitan and Tangut served Song China, in other words, as another form of Great Wall.

For those safely ensconced in the bosom of Inner China, the early Song era in particular had much to recommend it. During the whole of the eleventh century, Song China’s Confucian order was significantly disturbed on only one occasion. In 1067, a new emperor named Shenzong took the throne, and elevated to power alongside him a reform-minded bureaucrat named Wang Anshi.

Like Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty, Wang Anshi attempted to remake China into a socialist society. “The state,” he said, “should take the entire management of commerce, industry, and agriculture into its own hands, with a view to securing the working classes and preventing them from being ground into the dust by the rich.” He abolished traditional systems of indentured service; forgave many private debts; lent peasants public funds for planting their own crops; gave free seed and land to the destitute; instituted wage and price controls and a public pension for the aged. He nationalized many markets, and attempted to wean the educational system and system of examinations off of their reliance on rote memorization of the Four Books and Five Classics. One chronicle tells how “even the pupils at village schools threw away their textbooks of rhetoric and began to study primers of history, geography, and political economy.”

But for better or for worse, the new direction lasted for only a handful of years. The Confucian scholar officials attacked Wang Anshi at every turn, accusing him of foolishness, impiety, and much worse. The debate between progressives and conservatives echoes similar ones that have taken place in countless other times and places. “You charge me with having served in office for a long time without succeeding in helping the emperor bring real benefit to the people,” said a frustrated Wang Anshi to his enemies. “For this I must accept responsibility. But your argument that what we need today is a policy of doing nothing at all and merely preserving the old ways is something I cannot accept.” In the end, though, Emperor Shenzong lost heart and removed Wang Anshi from his position. He went off to seek solace in poetry, as ousted Chinese officials have been doing for time immemorial.

Meanwhile orthodox Confucianism emerged from this brief-lived challenge to its authority stronger than ever. A gradual but pivotal shift was already taking place in Confucianism: thanks to a new school of philosophers who have become known as the Neoconfucianists, it was crossing the blurry line that separates secular philosophy from religion. Like the Neoplatonists of late Western antiquity, who grafted onto the much older philosophy of Plato and others a mysticism that owed much to Christianity, the Neoconfucianists incorporated their sage into China’s age-old traditions of ancestor worship. Borrowing freely as well from Taoism and even Buddhism, they created a system of metaphysics to join their system of social and political philosophy, elevating Confucius to the status of prophet or veritable divinity in the process. Ordinary homes began to sport shrines for praying directly to him, and, just as in Medieval Europe alleged artifacts from the lives of Jesus Christ and the early saints fetched enormous sums, a thriving trade sprang up in China in Confucian memorabilia. Every spot where the great man might have laid his head became a potential tourist trap, and his birthplace in the town of Xingyuan became the Confucian equivalent to the Muslim Mecca.

Historians have often speculated as to why this transmutation of philosophy into religion — one made all the more ironic by the fact that Confucius himself had so explicitly disavowed having any important spiritual insights to offer — should have occurred at this specific juncture. Some rather ungenerous sorts have attributed it to a simple jealousy of Taoism and Buddhism, both of which offered a personal peace and comfort that the social strictures of Confucianism did not. In truth, though, it was probably inevitable that a figure who was showered with as much praise and adoration as Confucius was would eventually be elevated to effective godhood.

A text called The Book of Rewards and Punishments, written during the early Song dynasty and widely read until the twilight of imperial China, is a sign of the changing times, being a synthesis of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and perhaps even a hint of the Abrahamic religions which were reaching China in highly diffused form from the West. The text is anachronistically attributed to Laozi, the founder of Taoism, but its moral postulates derive from Confucius, even as its sanguine faith in karmic judgment derives from Buddhism and its promise of immortality for the good and just can’t help but remind the Western reader of Christianity and Islam.

There are hundreds and hundreds of occasions for transgressions, large and small. People who want to achieve immortality must first of all avoid these occasions. They must recognize the path of righteousness and enter upon it; they must recognize the way of evil and stay clear of it. They do not tread the byways of depravity, nor do they poke into the private affairs of others. They accumulate virtue and gain merit and have compassion for all living things. They exhibit loyalty to their ruler, filial obedience to their parents, true friendship to their older brothers. By conducting themselves with propriety, they influence others. They take pity on orphans and are kindly toward widows; they venerate the elderly and are warm-hearted toward the young. They will not permit themselves to do any harm to an insect, a plant, or a tree. They consider it proper to feel sorry when others suffer misfortune and to rejoice when others enjoy good fortune, to aid those in need and to assist those in danger. They look upon the achievements of others as if they were their own achievements, and they regard the failures of others as if they were their own failures. They do not dwell on the shortcomings of others, nor do they brag about their own strong points. They put a stop to what is evil and praise what is good. They give much and seek little. They accept honors only with misgivings. They show favor to people without seeking anything in return. When they share things with others, they do not regret it later.

They are called good people and everyone reveres them. The Way of Heaven protects them from harm. Happiness and good fortune follow them everywhere; the depravities of the world keep their distance from them. The spirits watch over them; whatever they undertake results in success. Thus, they can hope to become immortal. Individuals who desire to achieve heavenly immortality should establish in themselves the 1300 good qualities, and those who aim for earthly immortality should establish within themselves the 300 good qualities.

Despite or because of the newly metaphysical orientation of the empire’s governing philosophy, practical arts and crafts flourished in Song China. In fact, the eleventh century was arguably the absolute high point of Chinese invention, as China enjoyed the status of the most technologically advanced society anywhere in the world as well as the richest and most populous. A new use was found for woodblock printing: the creation of the first paper currency to see widespread use anywhere in the world. Soon after, printing itself was revolutionized, thanks to the invention of movable type.

In contrast to woodblock printing, which demands that a skilled craftsman meticulously carve from scratch a wood relief of each page to be printed, moveable-type printing employs reliefs of individual glyphs; these constitute the “type” which gives it its name. The pieces of type are reusable; they can be rearranged again and again inside a frame to create new pages. The technique is ironically more efficient when used with an alphabetic language like those found in the West. Such a language can get by with as a few as 75 or so individual pieces of type, while an iconographic language like Chinese requires thousands of pieces to represent all of its glyphs. Nevertheless, movable type was invented in China first, four centuries before Johannes Gutenberg did the same in Europe.

While the original inventor of woodblock printing in China will forever remain anonymous, we do have the name of the man who first invented movable type: Bi Sheng, who accomplished the feat around 1045. He used type made from fired clay rather than the metal pieces Gutenberg would later employ, but their techniques were otherwise very similar. (Although clay was obviously not as durable as metal, one advantage it offered was the possibility of carving new pieces of type on the spot when a new or rare glyph was necessary — a useful possibility indeed when working with a language with as many characters as Chinese.) Then again, it so happens that the world’s first metal movable type was also Chinese. Made from tin, it arrived late in the Song dynasty or early in the next one — i.e., still well before Gutenberg.

This decorative text from 1103, its characters arranged in the shape of the Buddha, was printed using movable type. (三猎)

In addition to this perfecting of the second Great Invention of printing, the third and fourth of the Four Great Inventions also appeared during the Song dynasty.

The third of them has been more of a mixed blessing to humanity than have paper and printing. Ironically given its later application, it was actually Chinese doctors who invented gunpowder after centuries of experimentation with saltpeter (known to scientists as potassium nitrate), sulfur, and carbon, its three principal ingredients. Already by the Tang dynasty, they had discovered the dangers of mixing the three together; at least one text describes how a doctor/alchemist burned down his house and was left badly scarred in the face and hands by a particularly ill-advised experiment. Still, it appears not to have been until the Song dynasty that the Chinese began manufacturing gunpowder in earnest.

A longstanding belief, still widely held in the West and East alike, has it that the Chinese used gunpowder only for fireworks, never even thought to apply it to warfare until the bloody-minded Europeans came along and stole the invention. Strictly speaking, this is not true, but it does have a grain of truth. The Chinese were the first people to create fireworks, and delighted in them enormously. The capital city of Kaifeng hosted a sprawling factory complex which turned out all manner of pyrotechnics in huge quantities, to be sold all over China and the world around it. They filled the skies with color and smoke on festival evenings, and many theater productions used them for special effects.

That said, gunpowder’s military potential wasn’t completely lost on the Chinese. Another factory in the capital made “fireballs” — essentially primitive hand grenades — and “fire arrows” that could fly over longer distances and hit with far more impact than ordinary ones. These would lead to various cannons and even hand-carried guns by the thirteenth century. Yet such weapons were never used as extensively by the Chinese as one might expect. They were blunt instruments by any standard, almost as dangerous to those who wielded them as they were to those on their receiving end, and were more suited for creating terror and indiscriminate destruction than they were for the chess-like style of warfare that had been favored by the Chinese military establishment since the time of Sun Tzu. And then, China as a whole was never an intrinsically militaristic society. So, it would indeed be left largely to the West to refine Chinese cannons and guns into the precision killing machines we are familiar with today. Whether this fact speaks to the moral superiority of the Chinese or simply to a failure of vision is fated to remain in the eye of the beholder. But certainly one could wish that other civilizations had suffered from a similar failure of vision, if such it be.

Thankfully, the compass — the last of the Four Great Inventions — has a less checkered historical record. By the Song dynasty, the Chinese had been experimenting with lodestones — naturally occurring magnets — for just as long as they had been experimenting with the core ingredients of gunpowder. Lodestones’ tendency to pull in one direction, and to pull other things toward them, made them natural fodder for mystics. A text from Han Fei, the Legalist philosopher who played such a crucial role in the founding of the Qin dynasty during the third century BC, has sometimes been interpreted as proof that the Chinese already had the compass at that early date.

In infringing upon his king, a courtier has to get close from far off, much in the same way as one walks, so as to make the king lose his bearings. It would be dangerous for the king to remain ignorant of the change in directions. Therefore, the late older king set up a south-indicating instrument to make them right.

Even many Chinese historians acknowledge, however, that this passage probably has nothing to do with the compass or any other concrete technology, that it should be read strictly as a metaphor.

It is more likely that, after being applied to oracular divination, geomancy, and the like for many centuries, the abiding Chinese interest in magnetism yielded a practical compass for the first time during the early Song dynasty. It definitely didn’t happen any later than this era; a Chinese text from 1117 explains how “ships’ pilots are acquainted with the configuration of the coasts. At night they steer by the stars, and in the daytime by the sun. In dark weather, they look at the south-pointing needle.” Here there is no question about whether the author is speaking metaphorically.

The Chinese are very proud of their Four Great Inventions, and are quick to attack anyone who attempts to deny them the credit they feel is their due for them. But in this case at least, their hubris is more than justified. The collective importance of paper, printing, gunpowder, and the compass to world history can hardly be overstated. For example, the European Renaissance and the Age of Exploration that followed it would have been unthinkable without all four. “Printing, gunpowder, and the compass,” wrote no less prominent a Renaissance man than Sir Francis Bacon in the early seventeenth century, “though small [in] number, and not [chronologically] remote in invention, have changed the face of things and the condition of the world; the first in literature, the second in war, the third in navigation. And hence have flowed infinite mutations in the state of things, so that no empire, sect, or star seems to have had a stronger influence over human affairs than those mechanical works.”

Two and a half of the Four Great Inventions were far from the sum total of Song China’s technological achievement. Porcelain was refined into a truly sublime art during this time, such that even the Chinese of later eras would look back on this one with awe. The stuff seemed to be everywhere, taking every conceivable decorative and practical shape, from plates to hat racks, vases to ewers, chessboards to candlesticks.

Song porcelain (PericlesOfAthens)

Song cities were buzzing hives of commerce and industry, as captured by the poet Lu You:

The great ship, tall towered, far off no bigger than a bean,
Matted sails: clouds that hang beyond the embankment;
Lines and hawsers: their thunder echoes from high town walls,
Rumble rumble of carts to haul the priceless cargo;
Heaps, hordes to dazzle the market — men race with the news.

In singing-girl towers to play at dice, a million on one throw;
By flag-flown pavilions calling for wine, 10,000 a cask;
The mayor? The governor? We don’t know their names,
Now I know that merchants are the happiest of men.

Such was the happy lot of many Song men. But what of the women? Were they happy as well?

“What of the women?” is a question you readers may have asked yourselves before, for I’ve largely if not entirely avoided the prickly subject of gender relations in China prior to this point. It behooves no one to condemn any society of the past too stridently on the topic; the vast majority of all the human civilizations that have ever existed have been intensely patriarchal, and attempting to assign to them degrees of misogyny accomplishes little. Still, the subject remains as impossible to avoid in the context of Chinese history as in that of its modern-day sociology. For, as I write these words, the modern nation of China is facing a demographic crisis: men outnumber women by a significant margin, thanks to an only recently abandoned policy of allowing just one child per family and many families’ determination that said one child should be a boy. Alas, the abortions and infanticide that resulted are something of a constant in Chinese history. All down through the millennia, the drowning of female babies was commonplace, because male children were considered to have more economic and social utility, being able to do more work in less time in the fields and bringing money into the family when they married rather than taking it out with them in the form of a dowry.

In virtually all of the pre-twentieth-century philosophical and literary traditions of China, women are not so much actively scorned as completely ignored, considered to be self-evidently irrelevant to the intellectual life of the culture. This thoughtless dismissal of an entire gender is in its way more chilling than more overt sorts of misogyny. When the lives of women are addressed at all, it usually comes as a belittling admonition.

Such attitudes impacted female lives in all sorts of deleterious ways. Girls who were allowed to survive beyond infancy learned quickly what their worth was in comparison to their brothers. Often they were made to feel like little more than guests in their family homes, to be offloaded onto husbands as soon as possible. And once they arrived in their husbands’ homes, they could expect to be terrorized by their mothers-in-law, the queens of the typical multi-generational Chinese household, who were themselves enjoying a taste of authority for the first time in their lives and were resolved to savor it to the utmost.

During the Song dynasty, the plight of Chinese women was made yet worse by foot binding, an abhorrent practice destined to remain a staple of Chinese culture until well into the twentieth century. Of all the forms of suffering which men have inflicted upon women throughout history, foot binding strikes me as among the most egregious.

Its roots can actually be traced back to the late Tang Dynasty, when dancing girls with small feet were already highly prized by the males of the imperial court. Those tiny, delicate feet, glimpsed through a beaded curtain, tip-toeing through a waft of incense across a floor strewn with golden lilies, carried a powerful erotic charge. Inevitably, pretty girls who were not blessed with small, perfectly shaped feet were encouraged to rectify the situation. At first the remedy was “bow shoes,” which were designed to mold the foot in their image and were more than tortuous enough for the girl who wore them.

But in time the even more brutal intervention of foot binding supplanted the bow shoes. It generally took place when a girl was between the ages of five and seven. Her feet were bent back at an unnatural angle and wrapped as tightly as could be managed in many layers of cloth, which served to break the bones of the instep and curl the toes under them. The pain was agonizing, and it could be expected to last for months, until a girl’s mutilated feet grew mostly numb. Ideally, her feet would be as little as three inches (7.5 centimeters) long when she reached adulthood. Such a woman walked — and danced, of course — with a swaying, shimmying gate which men found well-nigh irresistible. It was even claimed that foot binding made sex more pleasurable for the man because it tightened the vagina by some mysterious metaphysical mechanism.

The result of foot binding. (For. Arfo)

Since she couldn’t possibly walk any distance, the woman whose feet had been bound was unable to venture beyond the home; this was considered another advantage of the practice. Such women became the equivalent of potted plants, purely decorative objects for the house.

Foot binding may very well have already begun during the Tang, but it was during the Song dynasty that it really took root, spreading from the aristocratic classes into China’s bustling urban middle classes. Because a woman whose feet had been bound was also useless for most forms of manual labor, the practice became a perverse sort of status symbol among social strivers, a way for families to advertise that they were above such concerns. Women of the working and peasant classes were fortunate enough to largely escape the torture, although the price they paid for doing so was backbreaking toil. But most fortunate of all were the “barbarian” women of the Liao and Western Xia dynasties and other steppe societies, who were never subjected to foot binding. Many of the Neoconfucianist philosophers made a point of this distinction, explaining how it separated the “civilized” Chinese from the less refined peoples to be found outside the Middle Kingdom, who were still barbarians at heart, whatever other Chinese trappings they might have chosen to adopt. Nowadays we might be tempted to choose precisely the opposite formulation.

Again, though, Westerners must be careful of casting stones too rambunctiously, given that they too live in glass houses. Not too long ago, young women in the West were being crammed into whale-bone corsets with almost equal brutality. (“When lacing the new stays, the young lady should lie face downwards on her bedroom floor, and her mother should place her foot in the small of her daughter’s back in order to obtain good purchase,” reads a British fashion journal from 1824. “There should then be no difficulty in making the stays meet.”)

And then too, as we cast our glance over Chinese gender relations as a whole, we should continue to remember that the pedantic strictures of the Confucianists never encompassed the entirety of the Chinese experience of life. Certainly there must have been husbands and wives who developed loving, mutually supportive relationships — perhaps even something akin to a marriage of equals, in private at least — in spite of a social doctrine that was not engineered to produce such things.

Here as in so many areas of Chinese culture, Taoism and Buddhism give a voice to those aspects of the life of the soul about which Confucianism is largely silent. Allow me to demonstrate with one of my favorite pieces of Chinese poetry. Dating from the Tang dynasty or just before, the anonymous poem “A Woman’s Hundred Years” stems from the Buddhist rather than the Confucian mindset. If it is not entirely free of stereotype and objectification, its bittersweet lines do reveal an empathy and compassion for the female experience that is absent from the sanctioned texts of Chinese officialdom.

At ten, she is like a flowering branch in the rain,
She is slender, delicate, and full of grace.
Her parents are themselves as young as the rising moon,
And do not allow her past the red curtain without a reason.

At twenty, receiving the hairpin, she is a spring bud.
Her parents arrange her betrothal; the matter’s well done.
A fragrant carriage comes at evening to carry her to her lord.
Like Xioshi and his wife, at dawn they depart with the clouds.

At thirty, perfect as a pearl, full of the beauty of youth,
At her window, by the gauze curtain, she makes up in front of the mirror.
With her singing companions, in the waterlily season,
She rows a boat and plucks the blue flowers.

At forty, she is mistress of a prosperous home and makes plans.
Three sons and five daughters give her some trouble.
With her lute not far away, she toils always at her loom,
Her only fear that the sun will set too soon.

At fifty, afraid of her husband’s dislike,
She strains to please him with every charm,
Trying to remember the many tricks she has learned since the age of sixteen.
No longer is she afraid of mothers- and sisters-in-law.

At sixty, face wrinkled and hair like silk thread,
She walks unsteadily and speaks little.
Distressed that her sons can find no brides,
Grieved that her daughters have departed for their husbands’ homes.

At seventy, frail and thin, but not knowing what to do about it,
She is no longer able to learn the Buddhist Law even if she tries.
In the morning a light breeze,
Makes her joints crack like clanging gongs.

At eighty, eyes blinded and ears half deaf,
When she goes out she cannot tell north from east.
Dreaming always of departed loves,
Who persuade her to chase away the dying breeze.

At ninety, the glow fades like spent lightning.
Human affairs are no longer her concern.
Lying on a pillow, solitary on her high bed,
She resembles the dying leaves that fall in autumn.

At a hundred, like a cliff crumbling in the wind,
For her body it is the moment to become dust.
Children and grandchildren will perform sacrifices to her spirit,
And clear moonlight will forever illumine her patch of earth.

As we’ve begun to learn by now by dint of repeated example, Chinese dynasties tended to follow a life cycle similar to that of the maiden above — that of a splendid but all too short morning and noon, followed by a longer, slower afternoon and evening. The Song dynasty has an unusually sharp line of demarcation between its flow and its ebb.

During the early twelfth century, the Liao dynasty to Song China’s northeast was conquered by a steppe people called the Jurchen. In 1115, these Jurchen declared a dynasty of their own, the Jin, in honor of the dynasty of the same name that had tried and failed to unite Inner China during the era of division. These latest Jin intended to succeed where their namesakes had failed; in 1125, they launched a full-on invasion of Northern Inner China. They found their neighbors utterly unprepared for the onslaught, and made short work of their armies. By the beginning of 1127, they had captured the current Song emperor himself. Frantic gifts of money, art, jewelry, gold, and women availed the remnants of the Song government nothing. The captive Song emperor was forced to kneel before his Jin counterpart and declare him the new emperor of all of China.

But, surprisingly, that humiliation did not mark the end of the Song dynasty. One of the Song emperor’s sons was still at large. He now took refuge behind the barrier of the Qinling Mountains, setting up what he hoped would be his temporary capital in the city of Lin’an, which is known today as Hangzhou. As always, the natural landscape of Southern Inner China proved a more effective protection than any number of human-made walls. The Jin armies, built for cavalry battles on open plains, were vastly less effective in mountains, swamps, and forests. And yet the Song armies were equally unable to accomplish their goal of reconquering Northern Inner China. A bloody stalemate eventually gave way to a wary peace, founded on a bifurcated Inner China.

Song China in 1142, after the Jin occupied most of the North and the capital was moved south. (Mozzan)

The next 130 years constitutes another of the great anomalies in Chinese history, as a Chinese dynasty governed for once from the South rather than the North, for the very straightforward reason that the North was in the hands of foreign invaders. Luckily, Southern Inner China had come a long way in recent decades, and was more than capable of hosting a vibrant society all on its own. Lin’an grew into almost as rich and exciting a city as Song Kaifeng had been, with a population that may have exceeded 1 million. Its markets, workshops, wine bars, restaurants, tea houses, monuments, stadiums, clubs, gardens, pleasure boats, boutiques, warehouses, brothels, and schools made it a city almost without peer anywhere in the world; perhaps only the splendors of the Muslim metropolis of Baghdad could begin to rival it on the world stage.

Yet the Song Chinese themselves remained keenly conscious of the reduced circumstances of their empire. They never ceased to consider Lin’an merely their temporary capital, never ceased to pine for the other half of that territory they regarded as Chinese by divine will. The poetry of the period is filled with laments for the land “where music had been played, [that] now smells of goats and sheep.”

Before the barbarians could be exterminated,
My hair turned gray.
My tears are useless.
I never expected that in this life,
My heart would remain at Mount Tian,
while my body would grow old in this region of rivers and lakes.

Despite all their pining, the Song emperors would never succeed in reuniting Inner China under their rule. Instead reunification, when it came, would be thanks to another people of the steppes, the most famous — some might say infamous — of them all. Chinese history was about to take an unexpected turn, Chinese soft power put to the test as never before.

(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

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5 Comments for "Chapter 10: The Song Dynasty (960 – 1260)"

  • morg

    There’s a “Xai” for Xia in there.

    The line “my body would grow old in this region of rivers and lakes” has layers: “jianghu” or “rivers and lakes” brings in connotations of the struggle for self-actualization in a chaotic, visceral space away from home and beyond the reach of law and government. It’s been a popular setting going back to Tang-era legends; Han usage had additional connotations of seclusion and retirement.

    Also interesting to consider how “government in the north, economic powerhouse in the south” worked out for the US much later on.

    Reply
    • Jimmy Maher

      Thanks!

      I’m not sure I understand the comparison with the United States. The North has had the stronger economy throughout most of the country’s history, while the capital was deliberately placed right between the two regions. The economic center of gravity began to shift somewhat in the late 1970s or early 1980s, what with the explosive growth of Southern cities like Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, etc., but I would guess that, if one were to compare the two regions as a whole on the basis of GDP per capita or the like, the North would still come out well ahead.

      Reply
      • morg

        I was thinking of the early planter/slavery economy of the South. I don’t actually know how the GDP numbers work out, but as I understand it up until the American civil war a big part of the northern economy was dealing in southern trade goods like cotton or tobacco, with mutual tensions arising therefrom beyond the question of abolition.

        Reply
  • Will Moczarski

    We don’t we know their names,
    -> I reckon this should be “We don’t even know their names”.

    Such a woman walked — and danced, of course — with a swaying, shimmying gate
    -> Maybe I’m unaware of this meaning of “gate”. Should this be “grace”?

    Reply
    • Jimmy Maher

      The word I was looking for was “gait.” Thanks!

      Reply

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