The Song dynasty lasted over 300 years, from 960 to 1279. Their history is divided into two periods of Northern and Southern Song. The Song period was one of China’s most peaceful and prosperous eras. However, the Song government was corrupt and weak.
The Song Dynasty or Sung Dynasty was a period in which the Chinese government was very weak. In the beginning, General Chao K’uang-yin, also known as Sung T’ai Tsu, was forced to become emperor in order to unify China. Sung T’ai Tsu created a national army under his direct control.
He and only he had control of the military. Once he had passed away his less competent successors were unable to keep the military under control, the military increasingly lost prestige. The weakening of China’s military coincided with the rise of strong nomadic nations on the borders.
During the same time of the military’s loss of prestige, the civil service rose in dignity. This was an examination system that had been restored in Sui and T’ang and was further elaborated and regularized. Selection examinations were held every three years at the district, provincial, and metropolitan levels.
Only 200 out of thousands of applicants were granted the Jinshi degree. This was the highest degree and appointed on government posts. From this time on, civil servants became China’s most envied elite, replacing the hereditary nobles and landlords.
The Song dynasty only extended over to the parts of earlier Chinese empires. The Khitans controlled the northeastern territories and the His Hsia controlled the northwestern territories. The Song emperors were unable to recover these lands so they were forced to make peace with the Khitans and the Hsi Hsia. They gave massive amounts of payments to the barbarians, under these peace terms; it depleted the state treasury and cause heavy payments on taxpaying peasants.
About 100 years after the Songs first started ruling over China, their government started to go through a major decline. Officials that held important government positions were corrupt. Wealthy merchants that became rich from foreign trade found ways to avoid paying taxes. The peasants began to rebel when heavy taxes were placed on them.
The Song Dynasty had a lot of problems, in 1069 Emperor Shen Tsung appointed Wang An-shi as chief minister. Wang was a scholar who studied earlier Chinese governments. Wang noticed the corrupt government and made huge reforms in the government. His reforms were based on the text of ‘Rites of Chou’. Wang tried to get honest, intelligent officials by improving the university system. He made civil examinations more practical and reformed the merit system to reduce corruption among government officials.
Wang helped the government’s financial problems by establishing a graduated income tax. This meant the wealthy people were required to pay a greater percentage of their income than poorer people paid. This new tax method reduced the burden on the peasants and increased the government’s revenues. The extra money created from the taxing was used to pay government workers, which abolished forced labor.
Many of his new laws were revivals of earlier policies, many officials and landlords opposed his reforms. So when the emperor and Wang died, which happen to be within a year of each other the laws were withdrawn. For the next several decades, until the fall of Northern Song in 1126, the reformers and anti-reformers took turns in power, this, in turn, created havoc and turmoil in the government.
The Song tried to regain the territory that they had lost to the Khitans by becoming allies with a new powerful Juchens from Manchuria. Once the Juchens defeated the Khitans, they turned on the Song and occupied the capital of Kaifeng. The Juchens established the Chin dynasty. They took the emperor and his son prisoner, along with 3,000 others, and ordered them to be held in Manchuria.
With the emperor and his son prisoners, another son fled south and settles in 1127 at Hangzhou. He resumed the Song rule as the emperor Kao Tsung. The Song retained control south of the Huai River, where they ruled for another one and half-centuries.
While the Song upper class, which included the nobles and imperial courts, indulged themselves in art and luxurious living in the urban center, the latest nomad empire arose in the north. The formidable Mongol armies, conquerors of Eurasia as far west as easter Europe and of Korea in the east, descended on Southern Song. This was the end of the Song dynasty, which ended with the start of the Mongol dynasty.
The weakness of the Song dynasty brought its downfall. Its neighboring barbarians were becoming stronger while the Song was becoming weaker. The Song dynasty had a few holes in it that lead to its weakness and corruption. Even though the Song era was one of China’s most peaceful and prosperous periods, it could have lasted even longer if it had a stronger government.