The Song and Yuan Dynasties: Cultural Collision and Fusion and Socioeconomic Advances

Cao Dawei & Sun Yanjing. China’s History. Singapore: Cengage Learning, 2011.

Confrontations between the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties, and the Liao, Xixia, and Jin Dynasties

The later period of Emperor Xuanzong’s reign was marked by political corruption and weakened power and control. Eunuchs seized power in the court, and warlords held control over local areas. The empire was rocked by sweeping peasant uprisings at the end of the Tang Dynasty and was put to an end by warlords in 907. In the next fifty years, the Yellow River Valley was under the reign of the Later Liang (907-923), the Later Tang (923-936), the Later Jin (936-947), the Later Han (947-950), and the Later Zhou (951-960), collectively called the Five Dynasties. The period from 960 to 1368 saw three historical stages: the Northern Song confronting the Liao and the Xixia, the Southern Song confronting the Jin, and unification by the Yuan Dynasty.

In 960, General Zhao Kuangyin initiated a mutiny and overturned the Later Zhou to establish the Song Dynasty in Bianjing (today’s Kaifeng, Henan), called the Northern Song period. The Northern Song successfully quelled the various rebellions and reunited the central plains and spacious southern areas.

Having learned what happened when key ministers usurped power and warlords revolted, the Northern Song applied a series of measures to “deprive them of their power, control their finance and grain, and reorganize their forces.”

In the central government, the prime minister’s power was divided into three independent sections to enhance the emperor’s control. Tongpan (magistrates) were established in local counties to supervise local governors. On the military front, the right to lead and the right to dispatch were separated. The imperial guard troop was regularly changed, but the leader did not shift with the troop. The central government also selected the elite of local troops to enter the imperial guard troop to defend the capital and weaken local units.

All tax income was submitted to the central government except a small percentage for local expenses. These measures to reinforce central power and control were helpful in maintaining unity and stability and promoting economic development. However, some over-corrective actions resulted in redundancies, low efficiency, enormous expenditure, underperforming military direction, poor effectiveness in battle, and other negative effects.

In 916, the Khitan chieftain Yelü Abaoji, who lived in the desert and northeastern regions, came to the throne and built the Liao regime in Shangjing (today’s Lindong Town, Balin Left Banner, Inner Mongolia). The Khitans, who mainly lived as nomads, fishing and hunting, gradually learned farming and settlement-building, and invented characters based on Chinese character components. The Khitan nobles constantly looted southward and forced the Later Jin to cede Youzhou, Jizhou, and fourteen other prefectures, then occupied the North China Plain.

In 1004, about 200,000 Liao soldiers attacked the Northern Song and approached Tanzhou from the north side of the Yellow River near the capital, Bianjing. Prime Minister Kou Zhun advised Emperor Zhenzong to lead the army himself. The Emperor-led Song army had high morale and defeated the Liao troops. Emperor Zhenzong accepted the peace negotiation under an advantageous condition and signed the Chanyuan Agreement. Under the agreement, the Song would give Liao 100,000 taels of silver and 200,000 bolts of thin silk each year, the Liao would withdraw their army to the boundary, and both parties would become brother countries. Although the Chanyuan Agreement, a product of the balance of power of Song and Liao, further increased the Northern Song people’s burden, a roughly century-long peace was achieved after the agreement. Both parties continued to trade, resulting in a flourishing economy and cultural development.

In the early Northern Song Dynasty, the nomadic Dangxiang ethnic group gradually sprang up in the northwestern region. In 1038, Dangxiang Chieftain Yuanhao of the Xixia ascended the throne in Xingqing (today’s Yinchuan, Ningxia). The Xixia often invaded the Northern Song and frequently won. However, the battles destroyed their normal mutual trade. The Northern Song’s firm defense caused grain shortages and the financial collapse of the Xixia. In 1044, Yuanhao offered a peace agreement to the Northern Song. Both parties agreed that Yuanhao would cancel the title of emperor and submit to the Northern Song. The Northern Song gave silver, silk, and tea to Xixia as “annual payment” and reopened border trade. From then on, Song and Xia maintained a generally peaceful trade relationship.

In the middle and later Northern Song Dynasty, the Jurchen ethnic group that fished and hunted in the Heilongjiang River Valley steadily rose up in arms against the oppression of the Liao. In 1115, the Wanyan Tribe’s Chieftain Aguda came to the throne and set up the Jin regime in Huining (today’s A’cheng in Heilongjiang). After exterminating the Liao in 1125, Jin initiated an invasive war against the Northern Song and captured Bianjing the next year. In 1127, Emperors Huizong and Qinzong were captured, marking the end of the Northern Song.

In 1127, Zhao Gao ascended to the throne and relocated the capital to Lin’an (today’s Hangzhou, Zhejiang), known as the Southern Song. Under the leadership of Yue Fei and other famous generals, the military and civilian forces of the Southern Song bravely fought against invasion by the Jin troops and won major victories. But, vilified by those officials advocating surrender, Yue Fei was executed by Emperor Gaozong Zhao Gou under a fabricated charge. In 1141, the Song and Jin inked an agreement, stating that the Southern Song emperor would submit to the Jin, cede the region north of the Huaihe River, and pay silver and silk as annual tributes to the Jin.

Pursuant to this agreement, the Southern Song occupied a mere corner on the southern bank of the Yangtze River, a result of the Song—Jin confrontation in the south and north, respectively.

The northern ethnic groups absorbed the culture of the central plains during their expansion. The Liao, Xixia, and Jin dynasties successively imitated the political system of the central plain dynasties, rewarded land reclamation, and moved Han people northward, resulting in further economic exchange and ethnic amalgamation.

In 947, Liao Dynasty troops captured Kaifeng and met with strong opposition on their way back to the north after plundering local properties. Emperor Taizong of the Liao Dynasty drew two major lessons from the war—the futility of “indulging troops in plundering the city” and “robbing people of their private properties.” He further shifted his policies to “governing areas based on local customs” and implemented the policy of “dividing officials into two parts, with one part governing the Khitans based on the state systems and the other governing the Han Chinese people based on the Han systems.” In the regime of Emperor Shengzong, the two different systems adopted in the north and south were gradually integrated into one, with the Han Chinese system widely applied in the central plains. Encouraged by such measures as awarding farm cattle to the poor and exempting those that reclaimed barren land from tax and duties, the vast expanses of the northern border areas were developed during this period.

In the middle of the 10th century, Liaohai in northeastern China saw a thriving phenomenon described as “hundreds of thousands of registered households and “thousands of miles of reclaimed fields.” Meanwhile, great advances were taking place in iron-smelting, silk-weaving, porcelain-making, wood block printing, and other handicraft sectors.

The Xixia in northwestern China implemented two systems, namely the Han Chinese system and the Dangxiang system, for its official positions, and imitated the official selection process via imperial examinations. The rulers of Xixia attached great importance to the culture of the central plains. Xixia characters were based on Han characters, classic books of the central plains were translated and printed by movable type printing techniques, and coins with the Chinese characters “Tian Shou Tong Bao” were cast. With regard to production, Xixia’s handicraft sectors, such as iron-smelting, printing, porcelain, and wool textiles, were in leading positions. Printing works with Xixia characters that have been preserved until today are the world’s earliest known movable type printing work. With advanced vertical bellows, Xixia ironworks could produce extremely sharp weapons, reputed as the “No. 1 in the world.” With regard to agriculture, the farming techniques of the central plains were adopted in an all-around way, and irrigation systems were built in river bends and in the Hexi Corridor areas, making great contributions to the development of the northeastern regions.

After eliminating the Liao and Northern Song dynasties and occupied areas north of the Huaihe River, the Jin Dynasty implemented a series of reforms in order to better manage the highly developed farming areas. Wanyan Liang, King Hailing of the Jin Dynasty, who was familiar with Chinese characters and loved reading Chinese books, often discussed political affairs with Confucian scholars. In 1153, he moved the capital from Shangjing Huining (present-day Harbin) to Yanjing (present-day Beijing), a city with vast expanses of fertile land, full of energetic and civilized citizens. By imitating the Liao and Northern Song dynasties, the king implemented all-around reforms of official systems in 1156, which restricted the hereditary privileges of the Jurchen nobles and established a new regime characterized by centralized administration.

The Jin also encouraged the Jurchens to move southward to the central plains, promoting their move into the land tenancy system. The Jin Dynasty also printed money and molded cooper and silver coins to advance handicrafts and commerce. Meanwhile, the Jurchens were encouraged to marry the Han Chinese people. According to the History of Jin, during the two decades following the capital move, the Jurchens gradually changed their former customs and practiced those of Han people in daily life, in music, and in many other aspects. Even the descendants of royal families “had practiced Han customs since their childhood” as they knew little about their own Jurchen culture.

Through decades of confrontation, collision, and communication, the ethnic groups and cultures of north and south further blended on the basis of the culture of the central plains.

Social Reforms and the Highly Developed Civilization of the Song Dynasty

By implementing a series of measures designed to intensify their centralized regimes, the Northern and Southern Song dynasties ended the divisions caused by the Five Dynasties after the Tang Dynasty, and moved forward to achieve reunification and stability. In the meantime, troops and people in the central plains bravely fought against attacks from northern nomadic ethnic groups, offering a relatively peaceful environment for the southern areas that saw fast social and economic growth.

The Song Dynasty carried on the reforms of the Sui and Tang, pushing forward profound changes in society. The Song “didn’t curb land mergers” and allowed the free sale of land. In the mid-Northern Song Dynasty, most land was privately owned by middle and small landlords. Agriculture and handicraft sectors saw the emergence of contractual relationships. Tenant peasants and craftsmen were formally registered by the state.

The land tenancy system and yeoman economy formed the mainstay of the national economy, and private handicraft workshops enjoyed rapid growth. In 1027, Emperor Renzong explicitly ordered that tenant peasants should move freely after tenancy contracts ended, and that landowners couldn’t arbitrarily block their way. Later on, it was further stipulated that landlords couldn’t use the tenant peasants’ families as servants, and that when a tenant peasant died, “his wife who gets remarried is allowed to do so and his daughter can marry anybody she likes.”

Most handicraft workshops also employed craftsmen, paying wages based on contracts, leaving craftsmen relatively free.

The adoption of land tenancy and employment systems were landmark reforms that resulted in high enthusiasm among the working people and greatly boosted social and economic growth.

The population at the end of the Northern Song Dynasty increased to 100 million, providing vast numbers of people for the workforce. Large-scale reclamation of terraces and low-lying fields resulted in more farmland—twice the area before. New types of farm equipment, such as plowshares with steel blades and seedling horses for paddy rice planting, were widely used for intensive farming. Champa paddy rice, a superior breed from Vietnam, was introduced and popularized, greatly increasing grain output. In the Southern Song Dynasty, the proverb—“When the area around Dongting Lake has a good harvest, the entire country has enough food”—spread across the country, showing that the national economic center had shift ed from the Yellow River basin to the Yangtze River basin.

The Song Dynasty saw huge progress in its handicraft sector and boasted the largest coal yield in the world. The 500-meter laneway of one coal mine in Hebi, Henan, could accommodate hundreds of miners. Dating to the late Northern Song Dynasty, its facilities for lighting, ventilation, drainage, and mining techniques were close to modern levels. The production of smelted metals such as iron and copper reached the highest level in the world at the time, in both quality and quantity. During the reign of Emperor Shenzong of the Northern Song Dynasty, up to 100,000 copper-smelting craftsmen worked around Qianshan, Xinzhou, alone. The iron output of the Song Dynasty, roughly estimated, equaled the combined output of all the European countries in the 18th century. At the end of the Southern Song Dynasty, coke was used in iron smelting.

As for the textile sector, cotton-spinning production rose during the Southern Song Dynasty, with the appearance of new types of tools, such as spinning wheels, catapults, and weaving machines. Silk weaving was characterized by more colorful patterns and more diversified categories. The black and white porcelains produced in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi, were sold both at home and abroad, and led to the source of the word China, which literally means “the country of porcelains.”

The Song Dynasty boasted an unprecedented prosperous commodity economy. Commercial activities went beyond the restrictions imposed during the Tang Dynasty, such as designated places and times for transactions. A large number of commodity distribution centers emerged around cities and major traffic routes in rural areas, leading to the formation of bazaars and towns of different sizes. In the Northern Song Dynasty, a commercial tax was levied in towns under the county level, resulting in dense commercial tax networks that made the tax a major source of government revenue.

In the early 11th century, Sichuan saw the presence of the world’s earliest paper currency, Jiaozi, which was designed to facilitate commercial transactions. In the Southern Song Dynasty, Huizi and other types of paper currencies were widely circulated. Credit transactions with written deadlines and pledged by the rich emerged, as did other commercial means of payment, such as Zhiku for mortgages, Didian for storage and negotiation, and Bianqianwu, an officially-operated financial organization for exchange.

A needle shop in Ji’nan, Shandong, designed its signpost like this: on the upper side was its name, “Ji’nan Liujia Needle Shop.” In the middle stood a white rabbit accompanied by the words “recognizing the white rabbit in front of the shop as the symbol” down both sides. On the lower part was the advertisement: “needles made of superior steel bars are thin and easy to use. Anyone who buys the needles in large quantities for wholesale will enjoy special offers”—proof of the presence of trademarks and advertisements in the Song Dynasty, and the formation of a business mode that combined raw material procurement, processing, and wholesale trade.

According to historical records, the “transactions of gold, silver, and silk” in Bianjing of the Northern Song Dynasty took place in a lane in the southern part, where “buildings were spectacular and shops were spacious,” and “every deal involved an amazing sum of money”—clearly resembling today’s financial streets. The city of Bianjing saw densely-distributed shops in more than 400 sectors, including jewelry shops and high-grade gold and silver shops, and large markets for rice, vegetables, meat, fish, fruit, cloth, scarves, folding fans, belts, combs, needles, and ironware. Morning and night fairs operated along the streets.

The Song Dynasty also boasted an extremely advanced ship-making sector and ocean navigation techniques. Large ships capable of carrying tens of thousands of dan of grains were equipped with sealed cofferdams and drew deep with their pointed bottoms. Compasses were adopted for navigation, making trips both safe and speedy. Encouraged by the government, foreign trade developed quickly. Trading ships traveled to the West Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, and Persian Gulf, maintaining trade links with more than fifty countries and regions.

In addition, superintendents of merchant shipping were posted at important ports for administration. Special residential areas were built up for foreign merchants. Foreign markets and foreign language schools were also allowed. Arabian merchants were permitted to build mosques and public cemeteries. In the Southern Song Dynasty, Quanzhou became the world’s largest international trade port. The combined foreign trade tax collected by the superintendents of merchant shipping in Quanzhou and Guangzhou came to as much as 2,000,000 strings of copper coins, making up a big part of the government’s revenue.

With the surge in economic development and social progress, social structure and social life in the Song Dynasty experienced profound changes. The Song Dynasty saw the final withdrawal of scholar-bureaucrats from the historical stage. Commoner-landlords who became officials through imperial examinations took major positions and constituted the backbone of the royal ruling group, which resulted in a free and rational political atmosphere.

According to historical records, Emperor Shenzong of the Song Dynasty once wanted to kill an official guilty of a crime, but was stopped by his ministers by citing the “domestic disciplines.” The emperor then changed his mind and decided to send the official into exile, to which the ministers responded by saying, “it is better to die when living is a disgrace.” Emperor Shenzong sighed, saying, “It’s hard to do even one thing that could make him feel good.” The ministers said, “He might as well not do such kind of pleasant things.”

From the Tang and Song dynasties forward, the country implemented a policy of sharing profits between government and business. With this policy, the troublesome operation of government-run businesses and franchises was contracted to businessmen, and part of the franchised business profits were shared. There were franchise certificates for government-monopolized products, such as salt and tea.

The participation of the businessmen improved efficiency and total profit. The actual income of the government from its share of franchised product revenues greatly increased. Many businessmen, especially those dealing in salt, cooperated with the government and got wealthy while serving the country, enjoying a respectable position. The Song Dynasty removed the restrictions that prevented descendants of those engaged in industrial and commercial business from being promoted to official status. Some rich businessmen married into royal families and those of court officials. Every time the results of the imperial examination for officials were released, the rich would hurry to select the successful candidates to be their sons-in-law, called “catching sons-in-law upon release of the candidates list.”

The yeomen and semi-yeomen of the Song Dynasty accounted for more than 50 percent of the total population, tenant peasants 35 percent. Both tenant peasants and craftsmen held the status of civilians.

Economic growth and the rise of cities in the Song Dynasty led to an increase in the urban population. Non-peasant urban residents constituted the citizen class, which was dominated by businessmen, scholars, and intellectuals of the upper class, craftsmen in various fields, as well as mountebanks, fortune-tellers, street artists, and coolies. In the city of Bianjing, as depicted in Along the River During the Qingming Festival, a well-known painting of the Song Dynasty, the people are from all walks of life—carpenters, blacksmiths, silversmiths, pottery makers, barrel makers, painters, grass shoe weavers, fan makers, and mirror makers, as well as those selling oil, salt, paper, porridge, cakes, spices, and drugs. Jostling each other in the crowd and working hard for their own businesses, they present a vivid and energetic picture of urban life.

An overwhelming majority of the population in the Song Dynasty lived in rural areas. Most villagers could maintain their daily life and enjoyed a better life than before. They watched opera, listened to story-tellers, and had fun during their leisure time, greatly enriching their lives.

A thriving commodity economy and the growth of the citizen class gave rise to a booming citizen culture. Restaurants, hotels, and teahouses were widespread, the larger ones boasting a daily guest number of up to 1,000.

Recreational places in the cities, called “washe,” hosted operas, acrobatics, history-telling, story-telling, sword-dancing, and other popular programs all night long, making it hard for passersby and spectators to tear themselves away. These thriving recreational places best demonstrate the tastes of the citizens and the vitality of ordinary life at that time.

The profound changes in the production relations and social structure during the Song Dynasty took social civilization to a higher level. Meanwhile, many fresh concepts emerged, a sign of an evolving trend toward modern society.

Yuan Empire Expanded the Unified Multi-ethnic Country

At the end of the 12th century, the Mongol ethnic group, previously under the rule of the Liao and Jin dynasties, grew stronger. In 1206, Temujin unified the Mongolian Plateau and established the state of Mongolia. He took the title of Genghis Khan. Expeditions led by him and his successors led to a rapid conquering of vast areas across Eurasia, bringing severe tribulations to the people.

While the Mongolian Empire straddled Europe and Asia, it was actually an unstable political and military union that lacked a common economic base and comprehensive laws and codes. In 1271, Kublai Khan changed the dynastic title to Yuan and set up the capital in Yanjing in order to move the sovereign center toward the central plains. In 1276, Yuan Dynasty troops captured Lin’an, announcing the end of the Southern Song. In 1279, Yuan unified the whole country.

Kublai, Emperor Shizu of the Yuan Dynasty, was entrusted to rule over the Han settlements in the South Desert in his early years, where he was deeply affected by the culture of the central plains. After ascending the throne, Kublai issued orders that “the state shall put its people first; people shall put food and clothes first; and food and clothes shall rely on agriculture and sericulture.” He also opposed massacring the inhabitants of a captured city or making them servants, and forbade Mongolian nobles to arbitrarily take peasants’ land and barren farming land to use as pastures. That way, the “bustling city wasn’t affected by the war and remained as prosperous as before” when the troops of Yuan attacked Lin’an, the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty.

The policy of “attaching great importance to agriculture and sericulture” marked a significant turning point in the national policies of the Mongolian Empire, accelerating the transformation of a nomadic economy into a farming civilization. The court successively set up organizations and legal systems, and attached great importance to the popularization of advanced science and technologies, which proved fruitful. The Department of Agriculture was set up at the central level to take charge of nationwide agricultural and sericultural affairs. Such criteria as “growing households,” “increasing reclaimed fields,” and “affordable tax and duties” were adopted as benchmarks of performance appraisal.

Many local governments commissioned paintings of farming and weaving, making “their officials acquainted with basic knowledge when they passed by the pictures.” Encouraging and keeping a sharp focus on farming then became the fashion of the time. Kublai further ordered the Department of Agriculture to compile the Essentials of Agriculture and Sericulture, based on agricultural books of past and present. The book was circulated nationwide and some 10,000 copies were printed in 1332.

While abolishing some backward Mongolian systems like “integration of army and civilians,” “dividing and sharing land among people,” and hereditary official positions at prefecture and county levels, Kublai imitated the systems of former Tang, Song, Liao, and Jin dynasties, “establishing officials in charge of different affairs” to stabilize political situations and appease the public.

He established three major systems, namely Zhongxingsheng (administration), Shumiyuan (military affairs), and Yushitai (supervisory body), at the central level, and Xuanzhengyuan was set up to manage religious affairs and Tibet. In addition, Xingsheng was established as the local branch of the Zhongxingsheng, which was administrated by officials directly dispatched by the central government. In some remote areas inhabited by ethnic groups, Xuanweisi was set up for administration. To timely convey political orders and strengthen rule over local areas, Tongzhengyuan and posthouse systems were established nationwide, delivering top-to-bottom and bottom-to-top files and documents and offering traveling emissaries and officials daily necessities and traffic tools. All played a big role in consolidating the reunification.

To maintain the privileges of Mongolian nobles, the Yuan Dynasty classified people of different ethnic groups into four categories, namely Mongolians, Semu people, Han people, and South people, a sign of the dynasty’s racial discrimination. On the other hand, the reunification of the Yuan Dynasty facilitated communication and exchange among people from all ethnic groups, resulting in the gradual amalgamation of the Khitan and Jurchen people, who moved southward to the central plains. Many Persian and Arabian Muslims immigrated to China and mixed with the Han and Mongolian people, shaping a new community known as the Hui ethnic group.

The Yuan Dynasty accomplished a much wider unification based on the civilization of the central plains. With vast territories, the empire expanded from areas north of the Yinshan Mountain in the north, to islands in South China Sea in the south, and stretched from present-day Sakhalin Island in the northeast to areas including Xinjiang and Central Asia in the northwest. Yuan officially included Tibet in the Chinese reign, and set up an executive secretariat in Yunnan and a patrol inspection administration in Penghu under the jurisdiction of Jinjiang County, Fujian, to administrate Penghu and Liuqiu (present-day Taiwan). The effort intensified Yuan’s jurisdiction over and exploration in these areas. The Semu people, including the ethnic groups in Xinjiang, became part of the top ruling class of the Yuan Dynasty, increasing contact between the central plains and Xinjiang areas.

Following the historical retrogression caused by the dynastic change, the Yuan Dynasty witnessed rapid economic recovery and further consolidation of the unified multi-ethnic country. The period also saw smooth domestic and inbound—outbound traffic via both land and sea routes, as well as frequent Sino-foreign exchanges. Such cities as Dadu (present-day Beijing), Hangzhou, and Quanzhou were much more prosperous than in previous eras. Rabban Sawma, a Turkic monk, was once sent to Europe from Dadu. He established ties with the Roman Church and wrote what he saw and heard in Europe, the first Chinese records of this nature.

Marco Polo, an Italian businessman, arrived in Dadu in 1275 through the Silk Road and stayed in China for seventeen years, where he was once appointed by Kublai as an official of the Yuan Dynasty. His book, The Travels of Marco Polo, described many aspects of Chinese life, its bustling cities, social situations, folk customs, religious beliefs, and unique products, creating a sensation in European society.

Diversified Cultures in the Song and Yuan Dynasties

In the Song Dynasty, the previous monopoly of power by military officials was broken, and the national policy of “desisting from military activities and encouraging culture and education” was implemented. Against the backdrop of a thriving economy, the rise of the citizen class, and a relatively free political atmosphere, such fields as science and technology and ideology and culture took on a new look.

The period saw a complete education system with schools at different levels. Its institutes of higher learning included private academies besides Guozijian (the Imperial College) and Taixue (the highest seat of learning).

In 1308, Emperor Renzong of the Song Dynasty issued the order to establish schools in prefectures and counties nationwide. Meanwhile, private primary educational institutes and enlightening academies were widespread in both urban and rural areas. That elementary textbooks, such as The Chinese Family Names and The Thousand-Character Classic, were popularized in rural places, resulting in far higher levels of overall education and literacy than in any previous dynasty.

The scientific and technological achievements during the Song and Yuan dynasties were mainly reflected in the improvement in and wider application of printing techniques, the use of the compass and gunpowder, and the renovation in cotton-spinning techniques.

Bi Sheng, a commoner of the Northern Song Dynasty, invented movable type printing, the earliest of its kind in the world. The clay blocks he used could be disassembled and stored after typesetting and printing, and could be reused. The state of Xixia had movable wood type. Movable type printing was successively introduced into Korea, Japan, and the Arabian countries. The technique was further disseminated to Europe in the 13th century, and to Persia and Egypt through Xinjiang, thereby making a great contribution to world civilization.

The Song Dynasty saw extensive use of the compass in ocean navigation. Sailors fixed the magnetized steel needle on a compass with a carved-in mark to indicate north, making all-time navigation possible. In the Southern Song Dynasty, the compass was introduced to Europe through Arabia, laying a significant foundation for their global voyages and the discovery of the “New Continent.”

Gunpowder-making techniques were improved, and gunpowder was widely used in military wars. In the Northern Song Dynasty, Guangbei Gongchengzuo, a state-owned arm shop, successively invented combustible and explosive firearms, as well as “toxic smoke balls” and pipe-shaped guns used to shoot bullets. In the middle 13th century, gunpowder was introduced to Arabian countries and later to Europe, arousing a sensation in European society.

While talking about Europe prior to the presence of textile machines in the 18th century, in his book Das Capital, Marx said, “It isn’t easier to find a spinner who can spin two threads simultaneously than to find a double-headed man.”

But in the early 14th century, Huang Daopo, a working woman in the Yuan Dynasty, could spin three threads at the same time. Based on the principle of how a hemp spinner worked, she restructured the one-thread spinner powered by hand into a three-thread spinner powered by feet. Huang further created a set of systematic advanced techniques used in every aspect of textile-making, from cottonseed grinding to cotton fluffing and spinning, to crossing threads and color matching in cloth weaving, which led to fundamental changes in the cotton textile sector in the Songjiang area, enabling it to become an important part of the handicraft industry. In the Yuan Dynasty, cotton gradually replaced silk and hemp, becoming a widely adopted raw material for clothes.

Guo Shoujing, an astronomer in the Yuan Dynasty, invented a new type of armillary sphere, an equatorial torquetum, which was compact and easy to use. It was created 300 years earlier than similar devices were invented in Europe. Brush Talks from the Dream Brook, written by Shen Kuo of the Northern Song Dynasty, covers the latest achievements in a wide range of fields, including astronomy, geography, mathematics, chemistry, and medical science. It was “a milestone in the Chinese history of science.”

Chinese philosophy underwent great changes in the Song Dynasty. Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi of the Northern Song Dynasty and Zhu Xi of the Southern Song Dynasty abstracted the concepts of the three cardinal guides and five ethical norms of “law,” and set up the Neo-Confucianism, also known as “Cheng-Zhu Neo-Confucianism.” From the height of philosophy they argued for the validity of despotism and class differentiation between the monarchs and the subjects and between father and son. They insisted on deepening one’s experience of the pre-existing “law” on the basis of knowing by means of investigation of things to reach an understanding the law. Lu Jiuyuan, a scholar of the Southern Song Dynasty, proclaimed that “the universe is my mind and vice versa” and that one should conduct self-examination. His philosophy is called the School of Mind.

Cheng-Zhu Neo-Confucianism emphasized the immutability of the three cardinal guides and five ethical norms to maintain the rule of despots and keep the people in line, which generated adverse influence. However, Neo-Confucianism does attach importance to will, moral integrity, moral character, self-discipline, and working hard, and emphasizes one’s social responsibility and historical mission, affirming the dignity of human beings.

Cheng-Zhu Neo-Confucianism built an exquisite, rigid theoretical system that became the mainstream of Confucianism, and had a far-reaching impact on China’s political life and cultural education.

In the Song Dynasty, the emerging Ci was the mainstream in Chinese literature. Ci, also known as “long and short sentences,” made it easy to express one’s ideas flexibly and could be sung to the accompaniment of music. As with the poetry of the Tang Dynasty, Ci poetry was another highlight in ancient Chinese literature. The works of both Su Shi and Xin Qiji were representative of the Heroic School of Ci poetry. Su Shi’s Ci poetry was open and vast in conception, and elegant and unconstrained in tone. The Ci poetry of Xin Qiji, who lived in the midst of chaos caused by war in the Southern Song Dynasty, was robust, impassioned, and also plaintive. In the Song Dynasty, the vibrant urban life gave rise to the Gracious School of Ci poetry as represented by Liu Yong. His poems, periphrastic and implicit, were so popular that there was a saying that “where there was a well, there were people singing Liu Yong’s Ci poems.”

Li Qingzhao, the most prominent female Ci poet of the Song Dynasty, wrote with a distinct style. In the early stage, her poems were happy and joyful, while in the later stage, after the collapse of the state and the bereavement of her husband, they conveyed feelings of homelessness and regrets.

Zaju opera of the Yuan Dynasty combines multiple performing modes to tell a complete story, including poetry and Ci poetry, music, dancing, role-playing, singing, and dialogue. A popular form of art, Zaju experienced unprecedented development in the period, showing that literature reflective of daily life could become popular. Guan Hanqing was the most famous of all playwrights in the Yuan Dynasty. His representative work, The Injustice Done to Dou E, lays bare the official corruption through the injustice done to Dou E, who, grief-stricken, cried out, “Earth! How can you be Earth since you can’t tell right from wrong? Heaven! How can you be Heaven since you mistake the good for the guilty?”

The Romance of the Western Chamber, written by Wang Shifu, another playwright of the Yuan Dynasty, tells the love story of Zhang Gong and Cui Yingying, conveying the common aspiration of young couples to seek for free love.

The rise of Neo-Confucianism made scholars pay more attention to self-cultivation. As for calligraphy, there were four great calligraphy artists in the Song Dynasty, namely Su Shi, Huang Tingjian, Mi Fu, and Cai Xiang. They admired the calligraphic style of the Wei and Jin Dynasties, stressed personality, ignored rules, and advocated working “with verve and without rules.” The landscape paintings of the time focused more on the impressionistic style and were expressive of temperament, verve, and spirit. Among the realistic paintings that showed ordinary life, Along the River During the Qingming Festival, by Zhang Zeduan of the Northern Song Dynasty, was the most famous of all. By adopting the “scattered dot” painting technique, the painter vividly reproduced, on a five-meter-long scroll of paper, the prosperous scenes of Bianjing along the Bianhe River at the end of the Northern Song Dynasty, making those who watch it feel as if they were “personally in the bustling crowds in the city of Bianjing.”

From the 10th to 13th centuries, Europe was oppressed by feudal land ownership. The serfs were humble in position, and ideology remained fettered by theological obscuration. In contrast, China witnessed three great inventions and their application, as well as a sharp rise in both the urban economy and overseas trade during the Song Dynasty, becoming a leader of the world at the time.