Song Dynasty: Art & Religion

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Song dynasty was a major era in Chinese history. In this lesson, we are going to examine some artistic and religious changes that occurred and see what impact they had on Chinese society.

The Song Dynasty

What is traditional Chinese culture? Chinese civilization traces its roots back millennia, which means that China has seen a lot of culture. So, which parts of this history make up what we now see as the most important parts of China's heritage? One era that had tremendous impact on Chinese civilization was the Song dynasty, an era from 960-1279 when China was unified under a strong imperial family. We can further divide this era into the Northern Song (960-1127) and Southern Song (1127-1279), based on the location of the capital city and other changes. Song China was a place of prosperity and growth, where culture thrived and set many precedents still seen as traditions in China to this day.

Art in Song China

The emperors of the Song dynasty prided themselves on their intellectual sophistication. Combined with an era of wealth and relative peace, this encouraged a culture of artistic devotion. The emperors themselves were trained in the arts and saw it as their civic duty to patronize the arts as affluently as possible. Other wealthy members of society emulated this attitude, and the arts flourished.

Ink Painting

While many forms of art grew under the Song dynasty, two in particular merit attention. First is ink painting, specifically of natural scenes and landscapes. The Song dynasty had reunified China after a period of chaos, and scholars headed into the mountains to reconnect with the purity and honesty of nature. The result was a wave of landscape paintings created with washed ink on silk. These paintings were austere and tranquil, and they spoke to the introspective intellectual and spiritual calm of the Song dynasty. Landscape paintings were often styled as metaphors for Chinese society, in which a tall and solid mountain guarded over villages, as the emperor stood over China. Major artists from this era include Li Cheng (c. 919-967) and Fan Kuan (c. 960-1030), as well as Zhang Zeduan (c. 1085-1145), who captured scenes of urban life in the capital city of the Northern Song, Beijing.

Ink painting by Fan Kuan


Painting was the hallmark art form of the Northern Song, and while it remained popular in the Southern Song other arts were just as popular. Pottery was a major form of decorative arts in this era, with Chinese kilns developing new techniques and styles. The soft green and blue glazed forms of Chinese pottery were especially notable styles, as were forms defined by the translucent porcelain specific to the Southern Song.

Song-era ceramic

Religion in the Song Dynasty

Religion has always held an interesting place in Chinese society, where the concepts of philosophy and religion are often interchangeable. In the Song dynasty, the rise in artistic and intellectual cultures of China was accompanied with new ideas about religion, which found new impacts in society.


Confucianism may be one of the most famous philosophical doctrines to come out of China, and while it's not really a religion it did play a major part in moral society. Confucianism itself is millennia old, but this ancient ideology was revitalized in the Song as neo-Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism put the rules of Confucianism that dictated family, social, and class relationships into practice. Government positions were based on merit and civil service examinations, not wealth or family name, and society was re-evaluated in terms of moral, reciprocal relationships between people.


While neo-Confucianism helped promote a moral and structured society, the Chinese religion of Daoism provided a framework for understanding the spiritual world. Daoism describes existence in terms of spiritual energy and promotes health and happiness through achieving harmony with those energies. As a religion largely focused on physical health, Daoism flirts with the line between religion and science. In the intellectual culture of the Song, Daoism flourished thanks to medical studies and advancements made by Chinese doctors who combined medicinal remedies with spiritual approaches to promote ultimate harmony within their patients.

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