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Culture flourished under Southern Song rule

By Xu Jijun | 2016-03-24 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Pure and Remote Mountains and Streams is an important handscroll painted by Southern Song court painter Xia Gui. By inserting subtle details into the scene, Xia provided formless aspects of the sensory experience for the viewer to follow through the vast landscape, which is one of the most striking and sublime aspects of Southern Song painting.


The Song Dynasty (960-1279) was arguably the most splendid and sophisticated age for culture in ancient China. There was an unprecedented blossoming in literature, arts, philosophy, religion, science and social life.


Prosperity in various aspects
An important phase of Song culture, the Southern Song era (1127-1279) holds an indispensable place in China’s cultural history.

In literature, the period produced a number of writers and works and each contained distinctive characteristics. According to The Whole Collection of Ci in the Song Dynasty complied by Tang Guizhang, there were nearly 1,500 notable poets in the Song Dynasty who collectively authored a total of 21,000 ci poems. Southern Song poets composed three times as many ci poems as their Northern Song counterparts.

The Song Dynasty can also be seen as the peak of Chinese medieval painting. Painters and artists emerged from all sectors of society, ranging from members of noble clans to servants and monks. Also, the content revealed a deeper understanding of life and society, which can be seen in the large amount of works depicting social customs and historical events.

In addition, a theory of painting was formulated. The main themes of Song painting were further expanded to include landscapes, birds and flowers, and figures. Though the Southern Song inherited many elements from the Northern Song style of painting, the environment of the south soon transformed the landscape paintings of Southern Song artists. The monumental landscape style typical of the Northern Song period was replaced by a gentler and more intimate style more suited for the idyllic climate of the south.

Dancing also evolved significantly from the Northern Song era (960-1127) in terms of forms and choreography.

It is noteworthy that Chinese opera, or traditional theater, first achieved popularity during the Southern Song Dynasty. Wenzhou Zaju, the earliest mature form of Chinese opera, came into being in the early Southern Song era in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province. It is also known as Nanxi or Southern Opera and is a multiple-act form of play that tells a complicated story through singing, dialogue, acting and dance.

By the Song Dynasty, the use of gunpowder had become common. Weapons made with it included muskets and rockets. The Southern Song army used a kind of flamethrower that used gunpowder packed into bamboo tubes to create what may have been the earliest tube firearm.

The floating compass, a technique that minimized the effect of motion on the instrument, enabled the compass to be used in sea navigation for the first time. The invention of the compass promoted maritime undertakings, marking a milestone in China and the world’s navigational history.

Also, the emergence of large-scale shipbuilding during the Song Dynasty demonstrated that China’s technology in the field had surpassed all its contemporaries. The remnants of a ship made in 1221 reveal the comprehensive and systematic understanding of the structure, function and feature of ships possessed by people of that time.

During the reign of Renzong (1022-63) in the Northern Song Dynasty, Bi Sheng (c. 970-1051) invented movable-type printing, which ushered in a major revolution in the reproduction of written works. The Southern Song Dynasty further developed the technology and in 1193, Zhou Bida (1126-1204) published his Notes of The Jade Hall, the first book in history to be printed using movable type.

In the meantime, Qin Jiushao (1208-61) developed a method of solving simultaneous linear congruences in his masterpiece Mathematical Treatise in Nine Chapters. Song Ci (1186-1249), a forensic medical expert, finished a groundbreaking book titled Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified. The planisphere, China’s earliest and most complete star map, located today in Suzhou, was engraved on stone in 1247 by Wang Zhiyuan (1193-1257), based upon an earlier drawing by Huang Shang (1146-94). All these achievements gained the Southern Song Dynasty worldwide fame.

All in all, the fields of agronomy, mathematics, astronomy, geography, medicine, textile, ceramics, paper, wine, metallurgy and manufacturing reached a mature stage during the Southern Song Dynasty.


Favorable environment
The Southern Song culture carried on the legacy of the Northern Song Dynasty and further developed it, but it was undoubtedly more mature and prosperous than the previous era. The fact that it achieved unprecedented status within the whole historical period of Chinese feudal society is by no means an accident.

To start with, the Song emperors valued civil officials more than military commanders. During that period, Song rulers completed the imperial examination system and treated intellectuals with respect. Ordinary people, including farmers, craftsmen and businessmen, were eager to send their children to school or start homeschooling, to the extent that almost everyone learned to read some poems and doctrines, laying a foundation for fostering talents on a large scale and thus contributing greatly to the transmission and prosperity of culture.

The relocation of the Song court to Lin’an, present-day Hangzhou, facilitated North-South cultural exchange. After the former Song capital of Bianjing, now known as Kaifeng, was sacked by the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) in the Jingkang Incident of 1127, a large number of intellectuals who lived in Bianjing and Luoyang moved to the south with Emperor Gaozong (1127-62). There were also tens of thousands of talents in music, dance and literature as well as merchants, monks and Taoist priests that followed the imperial family south.

Not only did they bring advanced civilization and lifestyles to the local people, but also their ideas, literary and artistic talent, and knowledge of science and technology had a deep impact on the southern areas.

Another reason for the success of the dynasty was that the Song rulers adopted open policies. Prior to the Song Dynasty, China had trade relations with about 20 overseas countries mainly concentrated on the Indochina Peninsula and the islands of Indonesia. In the Southern Song era, more than 60 countries and regions were reported to have had interactions with China, ranging from today’s South China Sea, Indian Ocean all the way to the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean Sea and even the East African coast.

There is no doubt that cultural development and prosperity in the Southern Song Dynasty were closely related to the frequent exchanges at home and abroad. It is also safe to say that the advanced Southern Song culture had a huge influence on its overseas neighbors.


Impact on later generations
When examining the cultural achievements in the Yuan (1206-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1616-1911) dynasties, it is easy to spot the traces and marks of the Southern Song culture.

Neo-Confucianism is a form of Confucianism that was primarily developed during the Southern Song Dynasty. Represented by Zhu Xi (1130-1200), Zhang Shi (1133-80), Lü Zuqian (1137-81) and Lu Jiuyuan (1139-92), the philosophical school had a great impact on later generations.

Historical textual study developed in the Southern Song era also carried weight. By the time of the reigns of Emperor Qianlong (1736-95) and Jiaqing (1796-1820), the concept of “seeking truth from facts” was no longer confined within individual historians. Rather, it was a universal understanding.

Again, literature in the Southern Song Dynasty also significantly affected future generations. For example, the script in the Song Dynasty injected fresh vitality into the development of novels, ushering a booming era in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Moreover, Nanxi established a fine tradition further developed in the Yuan drama. Besides, music, dance, customs, religion, science and technology also display the legacy of the Southern Song Dynasty.


Xu Jijun is a research fellow from the Zhejiang Academy of Social Sciences.