Cultural Splendor of the Song Dynasty (II)
The Song Dynasty (960-1279) promoted Confucianism and worshipped Buddhist and Taoist gods. Ideologically, the empire emphasized the juxtaposition of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism with Confucianism playing the central role. This special policy brought fundamental changes to traditional Confucianism. Scholars in the Song Dynasty no longer confined themselves to classics of Confucianism and studied works of other ancient thought schools and even works concerning medical diagnosis and pharmacy. As scholars broadened their perspectives, they began to seek answers to questions concerning manufacturing and agriculture. Scholars of the Song eventually attained an encyclopedic range of knowledge. The cultural diversity and multiplicity of the Song Dynasty gave birth to the idealist philosophy, a new branch of Confucianism, which is still highly influential today.
The relatively liberal atmosphere of the Song Dynasty gave scholars rooms to explore a great range of subjects and topics. They dared to speak, think and explore. Zhang Zai (1020-1077), a philosopher of the Northern Song, is best remembered for his mission statement that was embraced by all the scholars of his time and in subsequent centuries: "To identify the essence of Heaven and Earth, to build a good life for the populace, to carry on past sages' endangered scholarship, and to open up eternal peace."
It was in the Song Dynasty that over 100 schools of Confucianism emerged and flourished across the country, injecting dynamism into academic circles and bringing prosperity to studies. Scholars from this era questioned the ancient classics, debated vigorously, and respected different schools. They learned from each other to make their own systems sound, solid and complete. The Warring States Period (475-221 BC) was defined by its flourishing academic scene. It was during this time that the four renowned scholars Zhu Xi, Zhang Shi, Lyu Zuqian, and Lu Jiuyuan emerged.
The Idealist Philosophy this quartet created and promoted is characterized by theoretical depth, systematic soundness, content profundity, and conceptual clarification. Their thoughts had a profound impact on the scholars in the following Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644), and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. It is said that the scholars of the Song Dynasty contributed to the rise of Wang Yangming and his followers in the Ming and the East Zhejiang School in the Qing.
Liu Zijian, a scholar in these modern times, points out that Chinese culture in the eight hundred years that followed the end of the Southern Song was shaped by the legacy of this period. In fact, this legacy continues to shape China's culture today.
The Tang Dynasty (618-907) witnessed the flourishing of trade and cultural exchanges between China and the neighboring countries and regions. What was known as the Porcelain Road started from China and reached Africa via the Indian Ocean. In the Song Dynasty, the Maritime Silk Road branched out and reached more than 60 countries and regions, forty more than in the previous centuries. Large quantities of porcelain, tea, silk and books made in China reached the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean Sea, and the coast of East Africa through this route.
Dongjing (present-day Kaifeng in central China's Henan Province), the capital of the Northern Song, and Lin'an (present-day Hangzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang Province), the capital of the Southern Song, were the world's biggest metropolises respectively, and their fashion, cuisine, languages and entertainment were influenced by other countries around the world.
As international exchanges boomed, Confucianism in China gave birth to nationalized variations of Confucianism in Japan, Korea Peninsula and Vietnam, forming a sphere of Confucianism in East Asia. Chinese culture then spread to these Eastern Asian countries in the form of cuisine, literature, art, science and technology.
This article was originally published in Cultural Dialogue, a Hangzhou-based bilingual magazine. Reproduced with permission (with slight modification).