Song Dynasty: Definition, Achievements & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

China has a long history, but a few eras stand out for their dramatic role in Chinese history. In this lesson, we'll explore the Song Dynasty and see how it changed China.

The Song Dynasty

There is a common theme in music to compare life to a song. For people of ancient China, this was true in more ways than one. From 960 to 1279 CE, Imperial China was united under the powerful Song Dynasty, a series of hereditary imperial rulers.

The Song Dynasty (or Sung Dynasty) is widely regarded as one of the pinnacles of Chinese civilization, marked by artistic and political growth on an incredible scale. Even in China's lengthy and distinguished history, the Song Dynasty was pure music.


In the early 10th century, there was no such thing as China. The former unified empire of the Tang dissolved around 906 CE, and for the next 50 years China was divided between numerous rivaling kingdoms. We call this the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period of Chinese history.

One of these kingdoms was that of Northern Zhou. It was constantly at war, and through these battles the general Zhao Kuangyin became very popular. According to tradition, a prophet identified the Mandate of Heaven (the divine right to rule) as landing upon Zhao.

The generals of the army rallied to him and demanded that he claim his rightful place as their emperor. Zhao agreed and became the emperor of a new dynasty. He named it the Song Dynasty after the army he had controlled in the Song Prefecture, and took the name Emperor Taizu.

Emperor Taizu

Taizu managed to reunite nearly all of China under his empire and the Song Dynasty ruled China for the next three hundred years. The first half of this is referred to as the Northern Song period (960-1127).

After 1127, however, the empire was threatened by outside forces and moved its capital south, establishing the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). They thrived in this southern city for another century before the Mongol Empire, then under Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan) managed to defeat the Song emperors. The Mongols established their own dynasty, the Yuan, and incorporated China into their massive empire.

The Song Dynasty was one of the most prosperous and complex periods in Chinese history. Obviously, there's far too much for us to cover in one lesson, so for now let's just hit the major trends of this era.


One of the most distinctive features of the Song Dynasty was growth. Not only did Imperial China stretch its borders beyond their previous limits, but agricultural and industrial production flourished as well.

The Song embraced international trade, expanding their networks easily into the Indian Ocean and arguably even beyond that. Technological changes allowed for more efficient agricultural practices, which was important since the population of China doubled in this time period.

Some scholars claim that this is when China's population first hit 100 million. Major Song political and economic urban centers like Kaifeng and Hangzhou became some of the largest and most advanced cities in the world.

Political and Social Developments

Three centuries of peace and prosperity led to a number of changes in Chinese society, many of which would become hallmarks of traditional Chinese culture.

For one, this was the era in which rice and tea became the definitive staples of the Chinese diet. Before, millet and wine were the most widely consumed items.

Thanks to the establishment of a Song imperial painting academy, Chinese landscape murals were developed and elevated as a national art form. The traditional Chinese roof, with the upwards-curved edges and eaves, was also developed.

The arts flourished under the Song

Other major developments occurred in the realm of government. The Chinese philosophy of Confucianism has ancient roots in China, predating the Song by over a millennium, but up until this point it was rarely actually applied in politics. The Song built a government around Confucian principles, and required state officials to master the classic texts of Chinese philosophy.

The result would be one of the first merit-based government structures in the world, with government positions going to those most educated and qualified rather than simply the friends and family of the emperor.


Alongside the social and political developments of the Song Dynasty were some pretty stunning inventions as well. Not only did Song scholars discover the concept of true north, but they were also the first to discover the potential of gunpowder.

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