China was the most advanced place in the world. recognized this when he got to China in the
late 13th century after traveling through much of Asia. In what is
now Europe, this was the period now referred to as the “high” Middle
Ages, which fostered the Crusades and witnessed the rise of
Venice, the mercantile center that was Marco Polo’s home.
A painted by a Chinese artist
in the 12th century provides us with a look at society and urban life
in China during this time.
During the Song (Sung) Dynasty (960-1276), technology was highly advanced in fields as diverse as agriculture, iron-working, and printing. Indeed, scholars today talk of a Song economic revolution.
The population grew rapidly during this time, and more and more people lived in cities. The Song system of government was also advanced for its time. The upper-levels of the government were staffed by highly educated scholar-officials selected through competitive written examinations.
Yet, despite its political and economic strengths, Central to its engagement with the outside world were efforts to maintain peace with its powerful northern neighbors and extend its trading networks.
“Between ... 960 and ... 1127, China
passed through a phase of economic growth that was unprecedented
in earlier Chinese history, perhaps in world history up to
this time. It depended on a combination of commercialization,
urbanization, and industrialization that has led some authorities
to compare this period in Chinese history with the development
of early modern Europe six centuries later.”
In Cross-Cultural Trade in World
Cambridge University Press, 2008), 109; as quoted in
David Northrup, “Globalization
and the Great Convergence: Rethinking World History in the
Long Term,” Journal of World History 16,
no. 3 (2005): 258.
Many ways of living and acting that Westerners now see as most thoroughly “Chinese,” or even characteristically East Asian, did not appear before the Song.
The Chinese, we know, are eaters and drinkers; but most
Chinese in the Tang and before ate wheat and millet and drank wine, in that respect
looking perhaps more “Western” than “Eastern”; rice and tea
became dominant food and drink in the Song.
China’s , we know, is huge, and tends to “explode”; its
first explosion occurred in the Song.
The Chinese, we know, are “Confucians”; but the kind of that served as government orthodoxy throughout late-imperial times was a Song
Chinese , we may know, bound their feet; but they did not bind them until
Even the with its
turned-up corners is by origin a Song Chinese roof. (1)
See Robert Hymes, “Song China, 960-1279,” in Asia
in Western and World History, edited by Ainslie T. Embree and Carol Gluck
(Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), 337.