The Song Dynasty ruled China from 960, when China, fractured during the period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, was reunited, until 1279, when it fell to Mongol invasions, marking the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty.
The Song Dynasty was a period of considerable commercial, technological, and cultural/artistic developments. It is divided into the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), when the capital was at Kaifeng (then known as Baijing), and the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), when the capital was at Hangzhou (then known as Lin'an), following the loss of the northern half of the country to Jurchen forces whose polity in the north was termed the Jin Dynasty. Some scholars have identified Song Dynasty foreign relations, especially interactions with nomadic peoples to the north, including the Jurchen invasions, as sparking a solidification of "Chinese" identity, and of the conception of outsiders as "barbarians." The Tang Dynasty (618-907) which had come before is known, by contrast, for its lively intercultural interactions.
China's population reached 120 million in this period, supported by new developments in agricultural techniques and technology. Developments in metalworking allowed for the creation of stronger plows, which brought more land into cultivation; piston-driven bellows which drove furnaces for iron smelting were of a size unsurpassed anywhere in the world until the 19th century. New strains of rice which ripened more quickly, allowing for a shorter growing season, were introduced from Champa and their use spread quickly. The population then declined in the Yuan Dynasty, however, not exceeding 100 million again until the Ming Dynasty.
The Song Dynasty also saw the development of numerous major technologies, including gunpowder, porcelain, and the first use of the compass - used for centuries for feng shui purposes - for maritime navigation. It was also during the Song Dynasty that footbinding, which had originated among courtesans in the Tang Dynasty, became widespread throughout Chinese society.
The dramatic expansion of urban spaces & urban life (restaurants, teahouses, etc.), woodblock publishing, and other developments have led many scholars to characterize the Song Dynasty as "Early Modern China," paralleling similar developments in early modern Europe (late 15th-18th centuries?), and Edo period Japan. Others, noting the dramatic difference between Tang and Song, identify the Song as the beginning of the Late Imperial era, though both are problematic, since "early modern China" or "Late Imperial China" would then have to include roughly 900 years of history, from the height of the Song c. 1000 CE until the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Thus, a different periodization scheme is called for; some simply call the Song part of the "Middle Period" of Chinese history.
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms
- Robert Tignor, Benjamin Elman, et al, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, vol B, Fourth Edition, W.W. Norton & Co (2014), 376-380.
- Lloyd Eastman, Family, Fields, and Ancestors: Constancy and Change in China's Social and Economic History, 1550-1949, Oxford University Press (1988), 3-4, 7.
- Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire, New York: W.W. Norton & Company (2000), 261.