The Song Dynasty

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Song Dynasty

The end of the Tang era ushered in a period of political disunity known in northern China as the era of the Five Dynasties (Liang, Tang, Zhin, Han, and Zhou) and in southern China as the era of Ten Kingdoms. China was not reunited under one government until AD 960, when general Zhao Kuang-yin founded the Song dynasty. He became its first emperor, ruling under the title Emperor Taizu until his death in 976.

Song China was geographically much smaller than Tang China, due to losses in the west. The Song faced continual military threats from the north, which caused them to withdraw to a more secure location farther south, establishing their capital in the coastal city of Hangzhou. The Central Asian states of Jin and Liao, ruled respectively by the Juchen and the Khitan, invaded northern China again and again; by 1127, the Juchen had overrun northern China. Khi- tan troops repeatedly attacked the Korean kingdom of Koryo; in 1011, they succeeded in establishing military rule. Within a decade, however, the Koreans rallied and decimated the Khitan armies.

The Chinese had invented paper in the second century AD and printing under the Tang dynasty. By the Song era, they had become probably the world’s first culture to use paper currency. They were also printing books seven hundred years before the West acquired the technology; books were in great demand among the elite because of the intensive study required before taking the civil service exam. However, printed books did not result in near-universal literacy, as would happen in Europe. First, the Chinese language was written in characters, not in an alphabet of individual letters; this presented special problems for printing, because while Western alphabets generally have twenty-five or thirty letters, there are thousands of Chinese characters. Second, these special printing requirements meant that books remained expensive, out of the reach of the great mass of Chinese people. Books in the West, on the other hand, would remain affordable even by those who had small incomes.

Around AD 850, the Chinese invented gunpowder—another innovation that would not reach the West for centuries to come. However, the Chinese used gunpowder for fireworks and to exorcise demons in religious ceremonies; for whatever reason, they did not put it to military use. China had a history of military conquest and expansion, so guns would certainly have been useful. The traditional Chinese resistance to new practices and new ways of thinking may be the reason they did not develop guns.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

East Asian and American Civilization Practice Test

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