III. The Postclassical Period, 500–1500 > E. East Asia, to 1527 > 2. China, 960–1521 > b. Political, Social, and Cultural Patterns
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
b. Political, Social, and Cultural Patterns
The Tang-Song transition in Chinese government was marked by two seemingly contradictory trends, rising absolutism in the imperial institution and growing, institutionalized meritocracy through regularization of the civil service examination system. In earlier eras, the emperor had ruled on behalf of a collegial body of aristocrats, among whom his family might not even have been the highest ranking. With the disappearance of the aristocracy, the Song needed able men to staff its bureaucracy, and it turned to the male population at large. Thus status in the civil service became a function of knowledge, acquired through long hours of rigorous study of the Confucian canon. Concomitant with the centralizing trend in imperial authority was the trend to consolidate as much power as possible in fewer and fewer hands directly answerable to the emperor.  1
In military affairs, the Song seems to have learned an important lesson from the experience of the Tang and earlier states. Centralization of authority in all military matters served to eliminate regional military power. Civil authority came to gain control over the military. With this trend came a sharp decline in the prestige of military careers.  2
Local society in the Song, below the level of centrally appointed local officials, remained largely in the hands of local leaders. All the normal functions of government—taxation, jurisprudence, social order, and the like—were the responsibility of local elites. Even as the population grew, though, the number of local political units—counties and prefectures—remained roughly the same; they were simply much more heavily populated. In addition there was rapid commercialization and urbanization as Song cities grew and new ones came into existence. After the Jurchens conquered the north, the Southern Song's population was roughly 60 million. Approximately 2 million people lived within the walls of the Southern Song capital of Hangzhou, which Marco Polo (1254–1324) visited and described shortly after the fall of the Song.  3
Printing, invented earlier, developed rapidly in the Song into a vibrant industry. The entire Buddhist canon, or Tripitaka (Three Baskets), was printed (972–83), a collection of 1521 texts on 130,000 pages, and it was reprinted many times thereafter.  4
Chinese agriculture from the late Tang through the Northern Song underwent a major transformation. As a larger percentage of the population moved into the south, the production of rice rapidly grew in importance. It required new kinds of irrigation techniques and intensive labor. Introduced from Champa in Southeast Asia was a strain of rice that ripened more quickly and thus enabled Chinese farmers to plant a second crop after their rice was harvested. In some areas, three crops could be grown and harvested in one season.  5
The world of thought in the Song period witnessed the decline of Buddhism and the rise of Neo-Confucianism. This occurred in tandem with the wide extension and regularization of the examination system, the education that was necessary to pass the exams, and the explosion in printing. Following the model of the Buddhist Tripitaka, the Daozang, a Daoist Tripitaka, was published (1019). The major Buddhist sects that remained vital after the Song were the Pure Land and Chan sects, the latter splitting into a number of subdivisions of its own.  6
Neo-Confucianism, although datable to trends in the late Tang, took off as a movement in the Northern Song. It was an attempt to go back to the original sources of Chinese tradition, before the coming of Buddhism, to create a Chinese tradition with answers to the metaphysical and cosmic questions that until then only Buddhism and Daoism had been able to answer. It reinterpreted many of the texts thought to date from the Zhou period in new ways that could present secular counterparts to a range of ideas to which Buddhism appealed. It was closely tied to state service through its great stress on education and on making officials as sagacious as possible.  7
The principal figures in what became known as the Cheng-Zhu school of Neo-Confucianism were: Zhou Dunyi (1017–73), who worked extensively on explicating the “Supreme Ultimate” (from the Yijing), describing a “diagram” of it that linked man to nature and the cosmos; Shao Yong (1011–77) who studied the Yijing as well; Zhang Zai (1020–77), who is often seen as an early materialist because of his belief in the omnipresence in the universe of qi (ether, or material stuff); and the Cheng brothers, Cheng Hao (1032–85), who worked further in the field of metaphysics, and Cheng Yi (1033–1108), who was principally responsible for identifying four texts—Mencius, The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, and The Analects of Confucius—as the most essential and which became the basis of Neo-Confucian education thereafter. The final synthesis of the Cheng-Zhu system (also known as lixue, or the learning of principle) was the work of ZHU XI (1130–1200). Zhu was a great polymath who wrote on education, philosophy, the family, and the state, and commentaries on all the classics. The Four Books identified by Cheng Yi were later almost always published with Zhu's interlinear commentaries. Although Zhu was not overly successful in his lifetime and his work was subject to imperial ban shortly before his death, his posthumous influence would be unmatched from his time forward. His major work, Jinsi lu (Reflections on Things at Hand), was compiled in 1175–76 and was intended as a guide to Cheng-Zhu doctrines and the classics.  8
The principal opponent of the Cheng-Zhu school in the Song period was Lu Jiuyuan (1139–93), who argued that human nature was a function of one's mind or heart. Hence, the school he spawned was known as xinxue, or learning of the mind-and-heart. Zhu Xi had not denied the mind as much as Lu Jiuyuan did deny the importance of principle. Lu's school was developed much further by more influential and prolific scholars during the Ming dynasty.  9
Historical scholarship similarly made great advances in the Song era. The “rediscovery” of the ancient classical texts required extensive explanations and commentaries of those works. Ouyang Xiu (1007–72) was a prominent statesman and an advocate of composition in the ancient style of writing; he prepared the New History of the Tang Dynasty and was famed for his prose style. Sima Guang (1019–86), well known for his political opposition to Wang Anshi, spent 19 years compiling his comprehensive history of China from 404 B.C.E. into the first reign of the Song dynasty, the Zizhi tongjian (Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government), which was presented to the emperor in 1084. Other forms of historical writing also prospered in the Southern Song, among them local histories and gazetteers. Several major encyclopedias were also completed in the Song, including Wenxian tongkao, by Ma Duanlin (c. 1250–1325); Taiping yulan (983); Cefu yuangui (1013); and Yuhai, by Wang Yinglin (1223–96).  10
Poetry was produced in great quantity by Song writers, but not of a quality as great as that of the Tang. There were exceptions, like the poems of the great Su Shi, who was also a master calligrapher. Another exceptional poet was Lu You (1125–1209), an author of patriotic poetry.  11
Painting developed dramatically in the Song. Emperor Huizong, himself an able painter, was an active patron of the arts. He founded the Imperial Academy of Painting. The Northern Song was a golden age for landscape painting, with compositions of immense size and great detail rendered in monochrome and color on long rolls or broad panels of silk. Guo Xi (1020–90?) not only painted landscapes but also wrote on the theory of painting. Mi Fei, or Mi Fu (1051–1107), scarcely used lines in his work, building mountains and forests from graded accumulations of ink; he was also a master calligrapher, as was Huang Tingjian (1045–1105). All considered themselves “amateur” or “literati” painters rather than specialized artists. In the Southern Song, painters most often reproduced the misty landscapes of the Hangzhou area. Ma Yuan (1190–1224), Xia Gui (c. 1180–1230), and their school placed special emphasis on economy of line and the representation of mists and clouds. Religious painters continued to produce work as well; Chen Rong (c. 1235–55) ranks as China's greatest painter of dragons.  12
During the Song period, ceramics became objects of both art and everyday use in the household. Local areas became known for their pottery, usually in conjunction with state-sponsored kilns. Song ceramicists mastered the technique of high-fired glazes.  13
Although tea was cited as early as the 3rd century as a substitute for wine, tea drinking became prominent in the Northern Song.  14
Exactly when the principle of magnetic polarity, known to the Chinese at least from the 1st century C.E., was first employed in the invention of the mariner's compass with the floating needle has not been firmly established. However, Chinese ships were outfitted with them in the Song period. The compass is mentioned by Chinese writers in the 12th century. The volume of maritime commerce swelled greatly as Arabs in the 9th and 10th centuries entered into competition with Persians at Guangzhou (Canton) and Quanzhou, and later at Hangzhou as well.  15
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.