The Song Dynasty had two distinct reigns; the Northern Song from 960 CE – 1127 CE, who controlled most of the inner part of China, and the Southern Song in 1127 CE – 1279 CE ruling in the southern regions. During the total Song Dynasty, the population doubled to over 100 million. Extensive waterways built to support widespread rice cultivation, the government granted land to peasants to farm rice, increasing production and wealth of the general population.
The Song Dynasty was the most powerful government in Asia and exceptionally innovative. They created the first movable type press –before Europe, constructed a unique canal lock system to move boats upstream, built large construction projects, defined the use of negative coefficients in mathematics, charted the stars, and invented the astronomical clock tower, catapulting trebuchets and the revolutionary gun powder.
The arts and sciences flourished under the Song Dynasty, and even the emperors honed their skills in ink and wash painting (6.56). Art was not just the purview of the ruling class as a broader population became wealthier; people collected art and supported artists. Painting and calligraphy were the most valued forms of art, along with lacquerware and jade carving.
The famous art of the Northern Song was a beautiful and delicate landscape painting. During the previous repressive dynasty, artists fled to the mountains where the majestic mountains inspired artists to paint nature, and the theme of high mountains became a focal point for landscape paintings. The most famous landscape artists included Fan Kuan and Li Cheng, who masterfully pointed on silk the Luxuriant Forest among Distant Peaks (6.57).
Guo Xi, whose masterpiece Early Spring (6.58), based Shan Shui (mountain-water), was considered a Northern Song master. His son recalled how Guo Xi prepared himself to paint, stating, “…he would seat himself at a clean table, by a bright window, burning incense to the right and left. He would choose the finest brushes, the most exquisite ink; wash his hands, and clean the ink-stone, as though he were expecting a visitor of rank. He waited until his mind was calm and undisturbed and then began.”
Calligraphy, a highly venerated art, was practiced everywhere in the Song Dynasty as educated men and women were expected to be proficient in the art, a required competency reflective of their social status. The purity of each brushstroke was an important feature; the motion of creating the marks led to a concentrated rhythm as the ink was applied to the silk or paper. Paper made from rice, mulberry, bamboo, or hemp was famous for artists to use. ink, brush, paper and inkstone were essential tools of the calligrapher. Ink was made from soot with binders added, strained, and mixed with water on an inkstone before applying with the brush is dipped into the ink (6.59).
The invention of movable type printing in 990 CE changed the Song and future dynasties forever. Documents created by woodblock printing was very common in China, however, movable type allowed authors and artists to print thousands of documents (6.60) and pictures in a short amount of time compared to hand printing each copy. The impact on Song Dynasty education was extensive, most of the population and children in schools had easy access to information and reading material. The printing press allowed the Song Dynasty to become the first civilization to print money on paper.
Pottery was exquisite and encompassed well-developed artistic processes with a high standard of superiority for multiple styles of ceramics. Northern Song invented Ru ware (6.61), a type of pottery glaze with its subtle blue-grey and green glazes applied thickly to crackle. Ru ware was very rare and valuable, generally made for the ruling class and manufactured only in specific kilns in the north. Other types of pottery include those made with northern celadon (6.62), brown and black glazed objects, Fujian black pottery, Jingdezhen white-ware (6.63), and the translucent porcelain.
The Song Dynasty was a powerful nation of about 100 million people and were the richest, most skilled and populous country on the planet. While Europe was in the throes of the dark ages, China was bustling with innovation, invention, and creativity, the most success dynasty of the period.