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The Commercial Revolution in Sung China

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

China has undergone a lot of change over its lengthy history, but that change was rarely so impactful as to be called a revolution. In this lesson, we'll explore Sung China's commercial revolution and see how this changed China.

Sung China

China has a long, long history. The nation went through kingdoms and empires, revolutions and war, and also periods of innovation and invention. One of those periods of innovation was the Sung Dynasty, sometimes called the Song Dynasty, which lasted from 960-1279 CE.

During this 300-year period, the Chinese developed paper money, the north-pointing compass, and gunpowder. But even with all of this, perhaps their greatest achievements were found in their economy. Under the Sung Dynasty, China became one of the wealthiest, most educated, and most highly-populated places on Earth at that time.

In fact, the Chinese economy boomed and changed in such dramatic ways that history remembers it as the commercial revolution. China would never be the same.

Economic Changes

So, what changed? Why did Sung China have this commercial revolution? Well, there were a couple of important things that led to this shift in the economy.

First was China's system of agriculture. Right before the start of the dynasty, Chinese peasant farmers gained the right to buy and sell their own land for the first time. Under the Sung, these same farmers were given the option to pay their taxes in money, not in grain. The result was an agricultural economy based on standardized systems of money, giving farmers the ability to develop profits and increase their land and amount of crops they grew.

As are result, wealth flowed through Chinese society, and while peasants would certainly never have as much as an emperor, they did have enough to live on and to purchase items from other people. The increase in crops also made the population healthier, which is one reason the population boomed so substantially.

Standardized coins help the Song economy flourish
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The other major change under the Sung was the systematic standardization of money. By minting copper and silver coins, and later paper money that held consistent values, the economy was able to flourish.

All-in-all, China was doing well and all of this wealth flowing through society changed how people lived. Rather than just produce enough for themselves to eat, farmers could grow extra to make a nice profit. They could then buy high-quality items like furniture, which increased the demand for furniture makers. With the availability of food, some people could focus all of their energies on making furniture and didn't have to farm. They could move to the cities, creating a major trend of urbanization.

For the first time China became a largely urbanized nation. The largest cities had almost 400,000 households, ten times as many as London at that time. The end result? China developed its first national economy, in which the entire kingdom was connected through a single market of production and trade.

Cities grew in size and importance under the Sung Dynasty
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International Commerce

In this new urbanized, economically-thriving China, an entire class of people arose whose jobs were simply to handle trade. These merchants bought and sold items all across China, and pretty soon started looking beyond their own borders.

Under the Sung Dynasty, China became actively involved in international trade. Chinese products were being sold as far away as Africa and the Middle East, and Chinese merchants controlled the most lucrative ports and trade routes in the world.

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