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Imperial China, The Song Dynasty (960-1279)

Emperor Taizu, Zhao Kuangyin, Wang Anshi, Song prince, commercial revolution

In 960 Zhao Kuangyin founded the Song dynasty. Zhao, who ruled as Emperor Taizu, established his capital in the north at Kaifeng, and thus the first period of the Song Dynasty is known as the Northern Song. The early Song emperors concentrated on strengthening the central government. To overcome the separatist threat posed by generals with their own armies, the Song severely limited the power of the military in the provinces and subordinated the entire military to the civil government. In time, civil bureaucrats came to dominate every aspect of Song government and society. The Song expanded the civil service examination system to provide a constant flow of talent into civil service positions.

Meanwhile, the Song economy benefited from a commercial revolution that had begun during the mid-Tang. Agricultural advances and technological improvements in industry created unprecedented growth. Increased rice cultivation in the Yangtze Valley fostered a population shift southward. As part of a general shift toward applying more time, labor, and fertilizer to smaller pieces of land, peasants adjusted their work patterns to grow two or three crops annually on the same field. Increased agricultural yield supported an ever-larger population, which grew to exceed 100 million during the Song period. In the major cities, a distinctly urban lifestyle evolved. Numerous amenities, including a great variety of food, entertainment, and luxury goods, were available to city residents. The division of labor reached a very high level, with many workers engaged in highly specialized enterprises.

Military weakness, however, proved to be a chronic problem, and the Song never regained all the territory held by the Tang. After repeated failure to defeat the Liao dynasty of the Khitans in the northeast, the Song signed a treaty with them in 1004, ceding permanently the area the Liao occupied along China’s northern border and agreeing to pay an annual subsidy. After a prolonged struggle with Xixia, a Tangut state to the northwest, in 1044 the Song again purchased peace by promising to make annual payments.

By the mid-11th century the Song government had serious financial problems, largely because military expenses consumed half of its revenues. In 1070 Emperor Shenzong appointed Wang Anshi as his chief counselor. Wang proposed a series of sweeping reforms designed to increase government income, reduce expenditure, and strengthen the military. Realizing that government income was ultimately linked to the prosperity of peasant taxpayers, Wang instituted measures such as low-cost loans to help the peasants.

In the early 12th century the Jurchens to the northeast rose against the Liao dynasty. The Song saw this as an opportunity to regain the territory held by the Liao and entered into an alliance with the Jurchens. After defeating the Liao, however, the Jurchens turned on the Song and marched into North China, taking Kaifeng and capturing the emperor in 1126. This marked the end of the Northern Song period. In 1127, however, a Song prince who had fled the invasion restored the Song dynasty in the south at Hangzhou. Despite the precarious military situation, the Southern Song period (1127-1279) was one of prosperity and creativity.

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