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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
The long perspective
Zhou and Qin
Intermediate times
     The Song empire
     Northern Song
     Southern Song
     Paper money in China
     Chinese publishing
     Skills of a Chinese gentleman
     Pottery of the Song dynasty
     A tower clock in China
     The Chinese junk

To be completed

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The Song empire: 960-1279

The rapid succession of the Five Dynasties is brought to an end by a warlord who wins power in960. He establishes the sixth in the sequence on a more firm footing, as the Song dynasty. He does so by reducing the power of regional commanders (keeping the best regiments under his own command at the centre) and by giving greater authority to the civilian administration.

As a result this is the heyday of the Confucians. Ever since the Han dynasty, scholar officials have supposedly been selected by merit in the civil-service exams (see Chinese examinations). But heredity and corruption have often frustrated this intention, reserving the jade insignia of office for the families of the powerful rather than the talented.


Now, under the Song emperors, the search for talent becomes rigorous. As an early Song ruler puts it, 'bosoms clothed in coarse fabrics may carry qualities of jade', and he is determined that such bosoms shall not 'remain unknown'.

The result is a China weaker in military terms than its predecessors but of greater sophistication. The territory controlled by the Song emperors is gradually reduced under pressure from less civilized intruders, particularly from the north. But enough remains to be the basis of a strong economy and a rich urban culture.


Northern Song:960-1127

For the first half of the dynasty, known as Northern Song, the capital is at Kaifeng - an important centre where the Grand Canal joins the Yellow River. The city includes 16 square miles within its walls and has an estimated population of more than a million people. It is not the only one of its kind. By the end of the dynasty Soozhou, Hangzhou and Canton (already the port for foreign merchants) are all of this size.

In these great cities the Chinese enjoy the fruits of trade (now carried in exceptionally large merchant ships, and often negotiated in paper money), the benefits of technology (such as printing) and the aesthetic delights of pottery, painting and poetry.


These pleasures are interrupted from time to time by the demands of the Khitan, a tribe from eastern Mongolia who have settled in north China and have established their own version of a Chinese dynasty (the Liao, 907-1125). The Khitan are the first to make a capital city in what is now Beijing. They are such troublesome neighbours that the Song regularly make large payments to them (of silk, grain, copper and silver) in return for peace.

A more drastic interruption occurs when another aggressive group from the northern steppes, the Jurchen, overwhelm the Liao dynasty in 1125. Two years later they capture the Song capital, Kaifeng, and carry off the Song emperor and 3000 of his court. But even this disaster proves only a dislocation.


Southern Song: 1127-1279

A prince of the imperial family, avoiding capture at Kaifeng, establishes a new administration at the other end of the Grand Canal, at Hangzhou. Here the Southern Song continue for another 150 years, in territory reduced to a mere fraction of the China of the T'ang empire.

But civilized Chinese life thrives in the exceptionally beautiful city of Hangzhou, at the heart of China's richest agricultural region - the rice fields of the south. It will continue to thrive until the arrival of another intruder, of a different calibre from all previous northern barbarians. Though not Chinese, he becomes emperor of China. He is perhaps the only emperor in Chinese history whose name is widely known - Kublai Khan.


Paper money in China: 10th - 15th century

Paper money is first experimented with in China in about910, during the Five Dynasties period. It is a familiar currency by the end of the century under the Song dynasty. Another three centuries later it is one of the things about China which most astonishes Marco Polo (see Bank notes in China).

He describes in great detail how the notes are authenticated, and then unwittingly touches on the danger lurking within the delightful freedom to print money. He says that the emperor of China makes so many notes each year that he could buy the whole treasure of the world, 'though it costs him nothing'. By the early 15th century inflation has become such a problem that paper currency is abolished in the Ming empire.


Chinese publishing: 10th - 11th century

Printing from wood blocks, as in the Diamond Sutra, is a laborious process. Yet the Chinese printers work wonders. In the 10th and 11th centuries all the Confucian classics are published for the use of scholar officials, together with huge numbers of Buddhist and Daoist works (amounting to around 5000 scrolls of each) and the complete Standard Histories since the time of Sima Qian.

The carving of so many characters in reverse on wood blocks is an enormous investment of labour, but the task is unavoidable until the introduction of movable type. This innovation, once again, seems to have been pioneered in China but achieved in Korea.


Chinese arts: in the Song dynasty

In the heyday of classical Chinese culture, a civilized gentleman - meaning a Confucian official - should be adept in three different artistic fields. When he settles down before a fresh sheet of paper and dips his brush in the ink (ground from a block of pigment by a servant), no one can be certain whether he is about to pen an impromptu poem, paint a quick impression of a romantic landscape or fashion some traditional phrase in exquisite Chinese characters.

The three skills, all expressed in the beauty of brush strokes, are closely linked. A 'soundless poem' is a conventional Chinese term for a picture. And a typical poem by the Song master Ou-yang Hsiu Sounds like a painting.


Poetry and painting in Song China (960-1279) are largely social activities, both in the creation and in the appreciation of the work. On a convivial occasion, with wine flowing, Confucians will compete with each other in writing or painting. In more sober vein, among connoisseurs, a collector will bring the scrolls from their boxes and will unroll them to be admired and discussed.

China's past is also now a theme for conoisseurs, in a fashion pioneered by Ou-yang Hsiu (and echoed centuries later in Italy during the Renaissance). Ou-yang Hsiu clambers 'on precarious cliffs and inaccessible gorges, in wild forests and abandoned tombs' to make rubbings which he publishes, in about 1000 portfolios, as his Collection of Ancient Inscriptions'.


Inevitably much of the painting done by enthusiastic amateurs is dull and conventional. This is particularly true during the reign of the emperor Hui Tsung. Himself a talented painter, of a carefully exact kind, he sets up an official academy of painting.

Those who want to get on at court are unlikely to disagree with the emperor on matters of artistic style. Others, opting out of the system, come under the influence of Chan or Zen Buddhism with its emphasis on freedom of expression. The Chan painters of the Song dynasty, using a few quick brushstrokes to capture a fleeting visual moment, provide one of the most brilliant interludes in the story of Chinese art.


Pottery of the Song dynasty: 10th - 13th century

Of the many arts which thrive in China at this time, Song ceramics are outstanding. The simple shapes of the pottery and porcelain of this dynasty, and the elegance of the glazes (usually monochrome), have set standards of refinement admired in subsequent centuries throughout the world.

Among the best known of these wares are the celadons, with their thick transparent green glazes, which are made at Longquan, near the southern Song capital of Hangzhou. Also influential are the black wares known as temmoku, popular with Buddhist monks for the tea ceremony and exported in large quantities for this purpose to Japan.


A tower clock in China: 1094

After six years' work, a Buddhist monk by the name of Su Song completes a great tower, some thirty feet high, which is designed to reveal the movement of the stars and the hours of the day. Figures pop out of doors and strike bells to signify the hours.

The power comes from a water wheel occupying the lower part of the tower. Su Song has designed a device which stops the water wheel except for a brief spell, once every quarter of an hour, when the weight of the water (accumulated in vessels on the rim) is sufficient to trip a mechanism. The wheel, lurching forward, drives the machinery of the tower to the next stationary point in a continuing cycle.


This device (which in Su Sung's tower must feel like a minor earthquake every time it slams the machinery into action) is an early example of an escapement - a concept essential to mechanical clockwork. In any form of clock based on machinery, power must be delivered to the mechanism in intermittent bursts which can be precisely regulated. The rationing of power is the function of the escapement. The real birth of mechanical clockwork awaits a reliable version, developed in Europe in the 13th century.

Meanwhile Su Sung's tower clock, ready for inspection by the emperor in 1094, is destroyed shortly afterwards by marauding barbarians from the north.


The Chinese junk: 12th century - 15th century

The design of the Chinese junk (a western word from the Malayan djong, meaning 'boat') is perfected during the later part of the Song dynasty, when the loss of the northern empire increases the importance of overseas trade. A merchant fleet, and a navy to defend it, become essential. The resulting junk is an ideal craft for the South China seas.

The region suffers violent typhoons, so a strong hull is essential. The Chinese achieve this by means of the bulkhead - a partition across the interior of the hull, and sometimes along its length as well. Bulkheads make the hull rigid and also provide watertight compartments - invaluable when a leak at sea needs repair.


The Chinese junk has other pioneering features later copied elsewhere. Traditionally built without a keel (allowing access to shallow waters), the junk is ill-equipped to sail a straight course until an important innovation of the Song period - the addition of the sternpost rudder. This is a large heavy board which can be lowered on a sternpost when the junk moves into deep water. Coming below the bottom of the boat, and capable of hinging on its post, it fulfils the function both of keel and rudder.

Until this time, throughout the world, the conventional method of steering a boat has been by means of a long oar projecting from the stern.


Another important innovation on the Chinese junk is multiple masts. Marco Polo describes sea-going junks as having four masts, with a further two which can be raised when required. Each mast has square-rigged sails. They concertina on themselves, when reefed, in the manner of a Venetian blind.

These ships are huge. Marco Polo claims that sixty private cabins for merchants can be built on the deck, and archaeological evidence suggests that by the 15th century a large merchant junk is about 450 feet from the bow to the high poop in the stern - six times the length of the contemporary Portuguese caravel. In 1973 the discovery of a junk of the 13th-century confirms much of what Marco Polo reports from the time of Kublai Khan.


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