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8.2: Song Dynasty (960 CE to 1279 CE)

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    The Song Dynasty, which lasted from 960 to 1279 CE, was a significant period in the history of China. It was a time of political, economic, and cultural transformation, marked by significant territorial divisions. Geographically, China was divided into two areas: the Northern Song, which ruled over most of Eastern China, and the Southern Song, which was responsible for the region south of the Yangtze River. During this time, the population of China experienced a significant boom, particularly in urban areas. The urban population grew rapidly, and cities like Kaifeng, Hangzhou, and Guangzhou became major centers of trade, industry, and culture. The expansion of the industrial sector was a key factor in this growth, and the Song Dynasty was known for its advanced technology and innovative manufacturing practices.

    The Silk Road and the shipping trade were crucial components of the Song Dynasty's (8.2.1) thriving economy. Trade with neighboring countries and regions, such as Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, and India, flourished. The Dynasty's military presence was also robust, and it included a powerful navy. The Song military tactics were innovative and revolutionary, as they incorporated gunpowder, which was a new and exciting approach to warfare. Overall, the Song Dynasty was a time of significant growth, development, and innovation in China's history. Its legacy can still be felt today in many ways, from its art and literature to its technological advancements and military tactics.

    Map of Eastern ChinaFigure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Song Dynasty Map (KanguoleCC BY-SA 3.0) 

    The Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) stands out as a remarkable period in Chinese history, renowned for its significant advancements in art, culture, and technology. One of its most notable legacies was its art, which remains a pinnacle of aesthetic achievement marked by diversity, innovation, and enduring influence. The art of the Song Dynasty spanned a wide range of themes and styles that reflected the era's societal values, philosophical underpinnings, and technological achievements. Landscape painting emerged as a dominant genre, embodying the Daoist respect for nature and the pursuit of inner harmony. Artists such as Zhang Zefuan and Emperor Huizong embodied the "Northern Song" style, which was characterized by grand landscapes and meticulous attention to detail.

    During the Song Dynasty, there was a noticeable shift towards more intricate and refined forms of art. One of the most notable examples was the "Mi Fu" style of calligraphy and ink-wash painting. Mi Fu's use of "splashed ink" was groundbreaking, as it disrupted conventional norms and gave his works an air of spontaneity and vibrancy. Additionally, the dynasty was renowned for its exceptional ceramic pieces, with celadon wares being highly prized for their intricate artistry and delicate glazes.

    The emergence of technological advancements, including the invention of movable type printing, played a pivotal role in fostering the dissemination of artistic knowledge and cultivating a thriving culture of artistic exchange. The widespread adoption of woodblock printing enabled the mass production of illustrated texts, providing artists with a larger platform to showcase their talents and ideas. The influence of Song Dynasty art reverberates beyond its historical period, inspiring future artistic traditions and generations of artists globally. Its emphasis on capturing the fleeting beauty of nature, expressive brushwork, and profound spirituality still resonates in contemporary artistic practices. The integration of art with literature, philosophy, and technology bears witness to the interconnectedness of human creativity and innovation. From the meticulous landscapes of the Northern Song masters to the dynamic calligraphy of the Southern Song literati, Song Dynasty art stands as a testament to the timeless power of artistic expression to transcend cultural and temporal boundaries

    A Moving Masterpiece

    The original Qing Ming Shang He Tu (清明上河图) painting showcased the best of life in the Song Dynasty — one of the golden ages of China.



    During the Song Dynasty, landscape painting flourished as an esteemed art form. Artists of that time found inspiration in the mountains, capturing their views in breathtaking paintings. These artworks often showcased majestic peaks, intricate trees, and small figures nestled within the scenes. For instance, Su Han Chen's "Playing Children" (8.2.2) beautifully portrays a slender mountain projecting through the center, with the tree and children perfectly proportionate to each other.

    Under the patronage of the court and emperor, a group of artists emerged who championed nature as the primary purpose of painting, reflecting an ordered state. As the middle class grew, so did the demand for art, resulting in the emergence of celebrated artists. Toward the end of the Song Dynasty, painters became disillusioned with rigid conventions and began exploring more personal expressions, including calligraphy. An anonymous artist of the wall scroll (8.2.3) skillfully balanced a tree proportionate to the central figure with the addition of calligraphy. 

    painting of two children playing a came in the forest
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Playing Children (Public Domain)
    scroll painting of a man sitting on the ground under a tree
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Wall Scroll (Public Domain)

    Mi Fu

    Mi Fu (米芾, 1051–1107) was a talented artist who was from the city of Taiyuan in the Shanxi province. Growing up in the imperial precincts, he had the unique opportunity to interact with members of the imperial family due to his mother's role as a wet nurse to Emperor Yingzong (who reigned from 1063 to 1067). Even as a young boy, Mi's talent for calligraphy was evident. While he wasn't particularly fond of the structured lessons required for those seeking a future in government service, he excelled in his ability to grasp complex ideas, compose original poetry, and create stunning works of art through painting and calligraphy.

    Mi Fu enjoyed a varied career in government, often holding different positions throughout his life. He began his career as a reviser of books in the imperial library before moving on to serve in three different posts outside the capital of Kaifeng, in Henan Province. In 1103, he earned his doctorate in philosophy and was briefly appointed as the military governor of Wuwei, located in the province of Anhui. Mi Fu later returned to the capital in 1104, where he became a professor of painting and calligraphy. After serving as a secretary to the Board of Rites, he was appointed as the military governor of Huaiyang in Jiangsu Province. Mi Fu was a firm believer in preserving historic styles while adding his own touch of creativity to them. He valued spontaneity and self-expression, avoiding anything that appeared artificial or excessively sentimental. He maintained an impeccable standard of cleanliness, favored clothing from ancient Chinese dynasties, and had a fondness for acquiring unusual rocks and ink stones. 

    Mountains and Pines in Spring (8.2.4) is a breathtaking piece of split canvas artwork that features a stunning combination of calligraphy and serene ink-wash technique. The artwork is divided into two distinct halves, with the top half showcasing the intricate and elegant art of calligraphy, while the bottom half features a tranquil ink wash of mountains and pine trees. The parchment paper backdrop is a perfect complement to the black ink, and red colored stamps along each side complement the black ink washes that are used in the artwork, creating a harmonious balance of colors that is pleasing to the eye. The artist's skillful use of black ink with subtle hints of green creates a stunning contrast between the trees and the mountains, giving the artwork a beautiful and realistic appearance. Mi's art evolved over time to a minimalist approach, with a focus on ink-washed calligraphy (8.2.5) and red stamps. By simplifying his work, he has been able to create pieces that convey a powerful message with just a few strokes of the brush. The use of red stamps adds a pop of color and a sense of intentionality to the otherwise monochromatic pieces. 

    scroll painting of misty mountains
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Mountains and Pines in Spring (Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper, 35 x 44.1 cm) (Public Domai)
    black Chinese characters
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Calligraphy (ReijiYamashinaCC BY-SA 3.0)
    The Art of Chinese Calligraphy

    Join Rongde Zhang, Senior Vice President and Head of Sales of the Classical Chinese Paintings department, as he discusses the scripts, exuberant rhythm and brushstrokes of Chinese calligraphy. Learn more about the nine characters that constitute Su Dongpo's Gong Fu Tie Calligraphy -- a highly acclaimed, museum-quality work featured in our upcoming Asia Week sale, Fine Classical Chinese Paintings & Calligraphy.


    Emperor Huizong

    Huizong (1082 – 1135), the final Northern Song emperor, exercised effective rule from 1101-25 before being captured and exiled along with his successor. He was an calligrapher, and painter who specialized in painting birds and floral still life. Huizong was so deeply devoted to the arts that he surrounded himself with court artists from the Academy of Painting and assumed an active role in overseeing their work, resulting in the neglect of state affairs.

    Huizong, the eighth emperor of the Song dynasty, was renowned for his artistic talents and is regarded as the most gifted of his imperial line. Finches and Bamboo, a masterpiece of flower-and-bird painting, exemplifies the refined realism that was taught at Huizong's academy. Whether he was painting from life or illustrating a poem, the emperor placed greater value on capturing the essence of the subject than on producing a literal representation. In this particular work, the finches are meticulously depicted, imbued with the vibrancy of their real-life counterparts. The birds' eyes were given a final touch of realism with the addition of drops of lacquer.

    Emperor Huizong has been a subject of mixed opinions among Chinese historians. While his artistic accomplishments were widely recognized and celebrated, his reign was marred by poor leadership and a tendency to let his advisors take the reins, ultimately contributing to the decline of his empire. Huizong was a devoted follower of Taoism and famously prohibited Buddhism, earning his place in history as one of three Chinese emperors to do so. As a patron of the arts, he sponsored many talented artists in his court and his impressive imperial painting collection boasts over 6,000 known works.[1]

    Pigeon on a Peach Branch, (8.2.6) showcases an ink drawing on paper that is presented in a captivating asymmetrical format. The branch gracefully stretches in from the left side of the piece, perfectly capturing the moment the pigeon lands on it. Delicate white peach flowers symbolize the start of springtime, while the bird itself is depicted in a realistic style, complete with a stunning wash of blues, greens, blacks, reds, and whites. To complete the asymmetrical composition, a striking red stamp and elegant black calligraphy adorn the right side. Women preparing Silk (8.2.7) showcases four women working together harmoniously to create silk fabric. At the heart of the painting lies a box where the women are diligently laboring. Each of them wields long poles and is dressed in unique hues, but they all sport similar hairstyles - black tresses bundled up with pink bands and silver clips. Despite the neutral brown backdrop, the painting.

    a blue bird on a tree limb
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Pigeon on a Peach Branch (Public Domain)
    four women making silk clothFigure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Women preparing Silk (Chinese silk painting) (Public Domain)

    Listening to the Qin (8.2.8) painting depicts a group of dignitaries and aristocrats engrossed in a performance of the Qin zither. The artist has adeptly captured the musical technique of using silence to overpower sound, with the zither's melody serving as the central theme. The background is understated, featuring lush pine trees and swaying bamboo that lends a refined ambiance to the scene. A fragrant incense burner sits on the table, its smoke delicately curling upward, while an ancient tripod rests on eccentric rockery, surrounded by exotic flowers. The graceful sound of the instrument adds the perfect finishing touch to this captivating tableau. The artwork showcases a four-line poem by Cai Jing, a prominent councilor in the Northern Song dynasty. In the top right corner of the piece, the title Listening to a Zither is elegantly displayed in slender gold calligraphy (shoujin) using three characters (Tingqin tu).[2] These characters were hand-inscribed by Huizong, the final emperor of the Northern Song. The painting's composition is simple yet striking, featuring bold lines and vibrant colors that bring the characters to life. The figures are portrayed realistically, capturing their postures and appearances, while the trees, stones, and other objects are depicted in a refined and graceful manner without any stiffness. 

    A beautiful painting Cranes 1112 (8.2.9) captures a remarkable occurrence in the capital city of Kaifeng, twenty cranes soaring through the bright blue sky, surrounded by rolling clouds above the ornate roof tiles and city gates below. The cranes are symbolic creatures that represent longevity and immortality. The painting exemplifies the perfect balance between nature and humanity, portraying the cranes as a symbol of good fortune emerging from the clouds over the capital's stunning architecture. An inscription and poem to the left of the painting further emphasize this harmonious relationship. The artwork, inscription, and poem together are known as Auspicious Cranes and suggest that the emperor possessed the "Mandate of Heaven," or the divine right to rule (tīanmìng 天命), which was believed to be bestowed upon all emperors.[3] Despite his reputation as an ineffective ruler, Huizong sought to counter this reality by highlighting the auspiciousness of the event. Cranes 1112 is depicted on a handscroll that unfurls from right to left, showcasing a historical document with pictorial stylized elements. The cranes are symbols that evoke long life and immortality.

    painting of four men under a treeFigure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Listening to the Qin (Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, 147.2 x 51.3 cm) (Public Domain)
    white cranes flying above a house
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Cranes 1112  (handscroll, ink and color on silk, 51 x 138.2 cm)(Public Domain)

    Zhang Zefuan

    Zhang Zeduan is renowned as a skilled painter from Shandong province, who lived during the early 12th century. He was a member of the Hanlin Academy and primarily focused on creating intricate depictions of buildings, boats, carriages, and bridges. One of Zhang’s most celebrated works is the handscroll, Along During the Qingming Festival, which currently resides at the Gugong museum in Beijing. It showcases vibrant scenes of the bustling capital of the Northern Song dynasty, just prior to the city being overtaken by the Jin army in 1126.

    Along the River During the Qingming Festival (12.2.10) painting is a breathtaking panoramic view of daily life during the Song period. The artwork exquisitely captures the celebratory atmosphere and bustling street life of the Qingming Festival in the capital city of Bianjing, now known as Kaifeng in Henan. This remarkable piece of art is showcased in the handscroll format and features a diverse array of lifestyles from various social classes, including the wealthy and the impoverished. It provides a vivid display of economic activities in both rural and urban areas, while also highlighting the period's fashion and architectural styles. The painting is an exceptional artistic masterpiece that has been highly regarded and revered over time. As a result, artists of subsequent dynasties have produced numerous re-interpretive replicas of this celebrated artwork.

    This remarkable silk painting measures 35.6 centimeters in height and an impressive 1,152.8 centimeters in length. It is divided into five major sections, each depicting a different scene. The first section showcases serene rustic scenery, followed by a section that focuses on Rainbow Bridge and its crowded market scene, which represents the painting's climax. The third section depicts bustling activity near the city gate, while the fourth progresses from the Pine and Bamboo Hall to a large wooden bridge with scenery on both sides of the river. The final section portrays the stunning Golden Brightness (Jinming) Lake.

    large scroll of a city festival
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Along the River During the Qingming Festival (Public Domain)
    The Qingming Festival

    The Qingming Festival is held one hundred and four days after the winter solstice, and is known as the ‘pure bright festival’, ‘tomb-sweeping day’ and ‘ancestors day’. For over 2,500 years, this festival has been a day for Chinese people to visit the tombs of their ancestors to care for and clean them, which can involve literally or figuratively sweeping them.


    Ma Yaun

    Ma Yuan (1195-1224) was a Chinese court painter during the Southern Song dynasty. He earned the nickname "One Corner Ma" due to his proclivity for focusing his paintings in a single corner. Ma Yuan's work is characterized by his unique style, which involved a combination of ink and color washes to create subtle and nuanced effects. Ma Yuan's artistry was deeply influenced by the philosophy of Taoism, which emphasized the harmony and unity of nature. He created successful paintings by capturing the essence of the subject rather than simply replicating its appearance. His unique style featured landscapes, figures, and animals, and he was particularly skilled at capturing the beauty and tranquility of nature.

    Snowflake (12.2.11) depicts a majestic pine tree that stands tall and proud amidst a tranquil, snow-covered landscape. In the distance, a striking mountaintop pavilion provides a stunning backdrop. In the foreground, a horseback rider and their attendant are making their way across a bridge, with the latter trying to stay warm. The artist's signature, Ma Yuan, can be found at the bottom of the painting, and although the brushwork may suggest otherwise, the style remains true to the Ming dynasty. The texture of the mountains and boulders, as well as the "axe-cut" brushstrokes used to render the tree branches, are all hallmarks of Ma Yuan's style. The painting creates a chilly yet enchanting wintry atmosphere that transports the viewer to another world.

    Walking On a Mountain Path in Spring (12.2.12) captures a tranquil landscape of wildflowers in the presence of a wise scholar. The peacefulness of the flowers is interrupted by the graceful flight of a golden oriole, adding a sense of motion to the piece. The swaying willow branches follow suit as the bird takes off. At the center of the painting, a young attendant carries a wrapped zither. The scholar appears lost in thought, pausing mid-stride to take in the natural beauty around him, as if composing a verse. The bird's flight and the movement of the branches lead the viewer's gaze to the imperial inscription located in the upper right corner, which is a poem by Emperor Ningzong that describes the dance of wildflowers when brushed by the sleeves of a secluded scholar. The calligraphy is both elegant and understated. Ma Yuan's signature is visible in the lower left corner. Overall, the painting embodies a harmonious blend of stillness and activity, culminating in a serene and poetic scene.

    a tall tree with mountains and a small house
    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): Snowscape (Public Domain)
    man walking under trees
    Figure \(\PageIndex{12}\): Walking on Path in Spring (Album leaf, ink and color on silk, 27.4 x 43.1 cm) (马远 c.1190 - 1279年 (Public Domain)


    The origins of paper can be traced back to the Han Dynasty in the 2nd century CE. Despite the increasing popularity of books, the process of manually writing everything still posed a significant challenge. In the Tang Dynasty, a solution was found in the form of woodblock printing. This method involved carving letters onto a board, applying ink, and then pressing the board onto a sheet of paper to create text. The Diamond Sutra (12.2.13), printed in 868 CE, is the oldest known book to have been printed using this method. Although the process was still time-consuming, it allowed for multiple copies of the same text to be produced more efficiently than by hand. However, the plates used for printing were difficult to correct and store, and were only useful if additional copies were required.

    black and white drawing of a seated man
    Figure \(\PageIndex{13}\): Diamond Sutra (Public Domain)

    During the 11th century Song Dynasty, Bi Sheng invented movable type, representing a significant breakthrough in the printing industry. This invention paved the way for mass production of books, thereby enabling the efficient dissemination of educational and governmental information. With thousands of copies of documents easily reproducible, the advancement of movable type had a profound impact on the world of printing, transforming it from a labor-intensive, time-consuming process to a streamlined, efficient one. The invention of movable type by Bi Sheng, therefore, played a crucial role in the development of modern printing technology and its use in disseminating information on a large scale. When Shen Kuo wrote about the invention of movable type by Bi Sheng he stated:

    “[Bi Sheng] took sticky clay and cut in it characters as thin as the edge of a coin. Each character formed, as it were, a single type. He baked them in the fire to make them hard. He had previously prepared an iron plate and he had covered his plate with a mixture of pine resin, wax, and paper ashes. When he wished to print, he took an iron frame and set it on the iron plate. In this he placed the types, set close together. When the frame was full, the whole made one solid block of type. He then placed it near the fire to warm it. When the paste [at the back] was slightly melted, he took a smooth board and pressed it over the surface, so that the block of type became as even as a whetstone. If one were to print only two or three copies, this method would be neither simple nor easy. But for printing hundreds or thousands of copies, it was marvelously quick. As a rule he kept two forms going. While the impression was being made from the one form, the type was being put in place on the other. When the printing of the one form was finished, the other was then ready. In this way the two forms alternated and the printing was done with great rapidity.”[4]

    The creation of books underwent a revolutionary change when movable type was invented. Instead of the laborious process of carving wood plates for each page, individual characters could be easily rearranged and stored in boxes. Bi Sheng experimented with wooden characters but found them to be inconsistent when soaked with ink due to the wood grain. Movable type allowed for characters to be quickly removed and reset for the next page, and multiple plates could be produced simultaneously and ready for printing. This groundbreaking innovation was instrumental in spreading knowledge across social classes, as it required a vast number of Chinese characters.

    Six Harmonies Pagoda

    Perched atop a hill overlooking the majestic Qiantang River and Xi Hu Lake in eastern China, stands the Six Harmonies Pagoda (12.2.14). This awe-inspiring structure was erected in the year 970 CE by the Northern Song Dynasty, utilizing a combination of brick and wood. The name "Liuhe" was bestowed upon it as a tribute to the six Buddhist harmonies that it symbolizes, representing the elements of heaven, earth, east, west, north, and south. According to legend, the pagoda was originally built as an offering to the six harmonies and to beseech divine intervention in taming the tumultuous tidal waves and floods of the Qiantang River. The pagoda's six floors, each adorned with intricate carvings and paintings, were designed to represent the six Buddhist harmonies, and it is said that the pagoda's powerful presence helped to calm the turbulent waters of the river, protecting the surrounding areas from flooding and destruction. Today, the Six Harmonies Pagoda stands as a testament to the ingenuity and architectural prowess of ancient China, and continues to attract visitors from all over the world, who come to marvel at its beauty and learn about its fascinating history and cultural significance.

    tall pagoda
    Figure \(\PageIndex{14}\): Six Harmonies Pagoda (dgriceCC BY-NC 2.0)
    decorated pillars and walls inside a pagoda
    Figure \(\PageIndex{15}\): Pagoda Hallway (puffin11ukCC BY-SA 2.0)

    The pagoda's rich history spans over a millennium, having undergone various renovations throughout the years. The current tower, standing tall at 59 meters, was modified in 1156 CE. While it appears to have 13 stories from the exterior, the interior reveals only seven, designed in an octagonal layout, symbolizing the Eightfold Path in Buddhist belief. The structure is divided into four parts, with a thick outer wall and an inner ring and hallway (12.2.5) forming the interior rooms, constructed using bricks from the earlier Song Dynasty. Remarkably, even in the twelfth century, recycling was a common practice.

    The noble eightfold path leads to the discovery of self-awakening...

    Between the outer and inner walls lie a series of winding stairs leading to small chambers and each floor. The ceilings of the seven rooms boast low relief carvings and are adorned with painted flowers, birds, animals, and other charming characters. The wall niches feature the Sutra of Forty-Two Sections, while the rooms themselves house more than 200 brick carvings of dancing animals, peacocks, parrots, lotuses, lions, and pomegranates, offering a sense of liveliness and motion. Additionally, a wooden pole gracefully extends from the outer wall corners to the eaves, where 104 iron bells are affixed to the structure. From the outside, the pagoda presents a captivating blend of dark and light shades, creating a picturesque landmark for visitors and providing a stunning view of the surrounding countryside and river.

    Six Harmonies Pagoda

    The Liuhe Tower, also known as the Six Harmonies Pagoda, situated on the banks of the Qiantang River. it is renowned for its magnificent views and historical significance. The tower was originally built during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) to serve as a lighthouse and navigational aid for ships traveling along the Qiantang River. The Liuhe Tower stands at a height of approximately 60 meters and is composed of seven stories. Each level is adorned with intricate architectural details, including beautifully carved stone reliefs, glazed tiles, and exquisite paintings. The tower's elegant and symmetrical design reflects the architectural style of ancient China. Visitors can climb to the top of the Liuhe Tower using a winding staircase and enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. From the tower's vantage point, one can marvel at the picturesque scenery of the Qiantang River, nearby mountains, and the bustling city of Hangzhou.

    Additional text/introduction.



    [1] Little, S. and Eichman, S. (2000). Taoism and the Arts of China. Chicago Art Institute.

    [2] Google Arts and Culture 

    [1] Dr. Kristen Loring Brennan, "Emperor Huizong, Auspicious Cranes, handscroll," in Smarthistory, December 28, 2021, 

    [4] Needham, J. (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 1: Paper and Printing. Cave Books, Ltd., 5(1), 201.