Northern Song Dynasty

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  • Dates: 960-1127
  • Chinese: 北宋 (Bei-Song)

The Northern Song Dynasty, with its capital at Kaifeng (then called Baijing), united China around 960 following the fractured period known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. It was a period of particular cultural, economic, and technological flourishing for China, but ended with the loss of the northern half of the country to Jurchen invasion in 1127. At that time, the Court fled south, making its new capital at Hangzhou (then called Lin'an), marking the beginning of the Southern Song Dynasty. The move to Kaifeng represents part of a continued eastward shift in political centers, from Chang'an and Luoyang under the Tang Dynasty, to Kaifeng, each further east than the last.

The last emperor of the Northern Song, Emperor Huizong (r. 1101-1125), is known as a particular lover of the arts. He is famous for his distinctive "Slender Gold" style of calligraphy, and for several paintings which are easily among the most famous Chinese paintings today.

Auspicious Cranes, painting and calligraphy by Emperor Huizong, 1112.

Politics & Political Culture

The founder of the dynasty, Emperor Taizu, came to power as a leading general of the Later Zhou Dynasty, one of the states of the preceding Five Dynasties & Ten Kingdoms period. He secured his power by encouraging other generals to then retire to their estates; the Song Dynasty, though not without its political and military difficulties and economic vibrancy, might be said to have had a tone, or character, of relaxed contemplation and cultured enjoyment of life, that is, at least for the elites. Elite families focused less on amassing power with which to control or threaten the state, and were instead typified more by the amassing of wealth & prestige simply for more comfortable or luxurious lives and societal position, as local gentry and/or as office-holding upper gentry.[1]

Song Taizu further secured his power, and the peace and order of the new state, by separating military and civil official career tracks, and taking various steps to separate generals and soldiers from one another, and from local bases of power, in efforts to assure their loyalty to the center and to prevent rebellion.[1]


The Song court's revenues far exceeded those of any other major government in the world, at that time. More than half of the state's revenues were obtained through monopolies imposed on the production of rice wine, and key mineral resources such as salt, copper, and alum. Private commerce was quite active in a great variety of fields, ranging from iron mining and metallurgy to sericulture, textiles, tea, porcelain, paper, and sugar, and advances were made in the efficiency, quality, or other aspects of production of many of these goods. The Song coal and iron industries were the most advanced in the world at that time.[2] Gunpowder may have been invented in the Song; the earliest extant record of the formula dates to 1044.[3]

Government involvement in private enterprise consisted chiefly of actions taken to ensure the free flow of goods, and the prevention of monopolistic or cartel behaviors. Certain goods, such as iron, books, and bronze coin, believed to be of particular strategic importance, were forbidden from being exported; these flowed out of the country nevertheless, including in trade with Japan, in exchange for gold, sulfur, and timber, among other goods and commodities.[4]

By 1073, the Song government began requiring imperial subjects to pay their taxes in cash, rather than in kind (e.g. in grain, silk, or other products) as they had done previously. This forced peasants and commoners throughout the country to engage more fully into the market, spurring considerable commercial developments likely unimagined by the Confucian bureaucrats who initiated the policies.[5]

In the late 10th century, private merchants in western China began to issue their own private forms of bills of exchange, which customers could then exchange at agents in other regions for actual coinage, or for goods and services. These were replaced in 1024 by the government's establishment of an official system of paper money known as "flying cash," the first paper money in the world.

By the 1020s, the Song government was minting far more coinage than any previous dynasty. In the 1070s, it was producing nearly 6 billion coins per year, a process which required 9600 tons of copper each year. Over the course of the entire dynasty, Song mints produced some 260-300 billion coins. But even this volume of coinage could not fulfill the needs of the economy, and so paper money continued to play a large role.[6]

Maritime trade with Southeast Asia, India, and beyond was flourishing at this time. As early as the 9th century (prior to the beginning of the Song Dynasty), one Arab merchant wrote that more than half of the 200,000 residents of the southern Chinese port city of Guangzhou were Jewish, Arab, Persian, or Indian traders. The port of Quanzhou, likewise, supported a notable Tamil merchant community during the Song Dynasty. In earlier periods, Arab merchants took two or three years to make the round-trip journey from their homes to China, and back, due to patterns of the winds and currents; by the 10th century, however, many came to use ports in maritime Southeast Asia as stepping stones, allowing them to make the journey in a single year.[4]

Porcelain replaced silk as China's chief export in the 11th century, as India and Persia began to develop their own domestic silk production; meanwhile, however, China obtained new techniques in sugar refining and cotton production from India, marking the beginning of the development of these industries in China. In the 12th century, Chinese merchants first began in significant number to venture overseas themselves; most devoted their attentions to the so-called Spice Islands in and around the Moluccas and Indonesia, where rare (and therefore valuable) spices such as cloves and nutmeg could be found.[4]

During the 11th century, China produced perhaps as much as 125,000 tons of iron a year, more than twice the total output of Europe, using coke (refined coal) as fuel for piston-driven blast furnaces (blast furnaces driven by water-driven bellows would not be invented in Europe until after 1300). This iron production dropped off dramatically after the Jurchen invasion of 1127, however.[7]


Whisked or whipped tea came into fashion in the latter portion of the dynasty.[8]

Footbinding also first began to spread during the Northern Song Dynasty, gradually expanding over the course of succeeding centuries. The practice may have begun with dancers or other entertainers in the Tang Dynasty, who sought to make their feet appear smaller, and thus more elegant. It is not mentioned by any of the famous Tang Dynasty poets, however. By the 13th century, it was not uncommon for wives and daughters of officials to have their feet bound, and by the end of the Southern Song Dynasty (in 1279), the practice was firmly entrenched.[9]

Emperors of the Northern Song

  1. Emperor Taizu of Song (r. 960-976)
  2. Emperor Taizong of Song (r. 976-997)
  3. Emperor Zhengzong of Song (r. 997-1022)
  4. Emperor Renzong of Song (r. 1022-1063)
  5. Emperor Yingzong of Song (r. 1063-1067)
  6. Emperor Shenzong of Song (r. 1067-1085)
  7. Emperor Zhezong of Song (r. 1085-1100)
  8. Emperor Huizong (r. 1101-1125)
  9. Emperor Qinzong of Song (r. 1125-1127)


  1. 1.0 1.1 Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 190-191.
  2. Schirokauer, et al, 198.
  3. Schirokauer, et al, 202.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Bonnie Smith, et al. Crossroads and Cultures, vol. B, Bedford St. Martins (2012), 393.
  5. Walter McNeill, "The Changing Shape of World History," in Ross Dunn (ed.), The New World History, Bedford/St. Martin's (2000), 153.
  6. Crossroads and Cultures, 385.; Richard von Glahn, "The Ningbo-Hakata Merchant Network and the Reorientation of East Asian Maritime Trade, 1150-1350," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 74:2 (2014), 251.
  7. Crossroads and Cultures, 382.
  8. Gallery labels, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.
  9. Patricia Ebrey, The Inner Quarters: Marriage and the Lives of Chinese Women in the Sung Period, Univ of California Press (1993), 37-40.
Preceded by:
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms
Northern Song Dynasty
Succeeded by:
Southern Song Dynasty