In 1000, 1100, 1200, and 1300, China was the most advanced place in the world. Marco Polo (1254-1324) 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 magnificent picture scroll painted by a Chinese artist in the 12th century provides us with a look at society and urban life in China during this time.
For several centuries the Chinese economy had grown spectacularly: “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.”
Why else is the Song Dynasty so significant?
Many ways of living and acting that are now seen as most “Chinese,” or even characteristically East Asian, did not appear before the Song.
Yet, despite its political and economic strengths, Song China was not able to dominate its neighbors militarily. Central to its engagement with the outside world were efforts to maintain peace with its powerful northern neighbors and extend its trading networks.