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Cultural Splendor of the Song Dynasty

By Xu Jijun| China Daily| Updated: August 30, 2022 L M S

The Song Dynasty lasted more than 300 years from 960 to 1279 and experienced tremendous changes. Qian Mu (1895-1990), a philosopher, writer and renowned scholar of Chinese history, commented in An Outline of the National History that three important phenomena emerged during this period: academia and culture spread far and wide, politics were open to the public (intellectuals from grassroots were able to become prime ministers), and the class hierarchy was somewhat flexible.

Social, economic and cultural development during this dynasty was brilliant and unprecedented. The Song Dynasty was considered the most prosperous during China's feudal age and had not only impacted China profoundly but also left an indelible mark in the world.

The cultural splendor of the Song Dynasty stemmed from the rulers of the dynasty learning from the lessons arising from the fall of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and the chaos that defined the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907-960). These lessons compelled them to adopt a series of measures to build a highly centralized power structure.

The essential thought behind the state strategy was to minimize military power and promote culture and education in the hope of ruling the empire by culture. Zhao Kuangyin, the founding emperor of the Song, prioritized Confucianism and schools across the country as he believed that books were the best cure to political upheaval, and that scholars were the best promoters of culture. The emperor himself was an avid reader. Knowledge was no longer something exclusive to the nobles. Illiteracy was largely eradicated and books were made available to farmers, workers, merchants. The children of commoners receiving proper education was made the norm.

The rulers of the dynasty created a political system in which power was shared by the royals and scholars-turned officials. In this system, certain key positions must be occupied by scholars-turned officials and only successful candidates from the imperial examination system could be appointed prime ministers. The system opened doors to scholars from lower social strata, which eventually produced prime ministers such as Fan Zhongyan, Wang Anshi.

The founding emperor of the Song also set up a political directive for all following emperors to abide by: never kill scholar-bureaucrats and those who submit opinions in writing to the government.

In the early years of the dynasty, the empire experienced difficulties and faced challenges from the inside and the outside. Scholar-turned government officials held different values from their predecessors in previous dynasties as they cared little about fame and personal interests. Rather, they took it upon themselves to take care of the state and the people. The Song saw many passionate reformers and patriots. Whenever the empire faced danger, these scholars stepped up and did everything possible to defend the country. Indeed, the Song Dynasty was the period when the most scholar-bureaucrats died for the country. The heroic legends of the generals of the Song who fought the invaders from the north have been part of the traditional theater and story-telling repertoires over the past hundreds of years.