The Song Dynasty in China | Asia for Educators

China in 1000 CE

The Most Advanced Society in the World

The Song Confucian Revival



There was a vigorous revival of Confucianism in the Song period. Confucian teachings were central to the civil service examination system, the identity of the scholar-official class, the family system, and political discourse.

Confucianism had naturally changed over the centuries since the time of Confucius (ca. 500 BCE). Confucius’s own teachings, recorded by his followers in the Analects, were still a central element, as were the texts that came to be called the Confucian classics, which included early poetry, historical records, moral and ritual injunctions, and a divination manual. But the issues stressed by Confucian teachers changed as Confucianism became closely associated with the state from about 100 BCE on, and as it had to face competition from Buddhism, from the second century CE onward. Confucian teachers responded to the challenge of Buddhist metaphysics by developing their own account of the natural and human world.

With roots in the late Tang dynasty, the Confucian revival flourished in the Northern and Southern Song periods and continued in the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties that followed. The revived Confucianism of the Song period (often called Neo-Confucianism) emphasized self-cultivation as a path not only to self-fulfillment but to the formation of a virtuous and harmonious society and state.

The revival of Confucianism in Song times was accomplished by teachers and scholar-officials who gave Confucian teachings new relevance. Scholar-officials of the Song such as Fan Zhongyan (989-1052) and Sima Guang (1019-1086) provided compelling examples of the man who put service to the state above his personal interest.

The Southern Song philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200) is known for his synthesis of Neo-Confucian philosophy. Zhu Xi wrote commentaries to the Four Books of the Confucian tradition, which he extolled as central to the education of scholars. Zhu Xi was also active in the theory and practice of education and in the compiling of a practical manual of family ritual.


The Centrality of the Family in Confucian Teaching

In Confucian teaching, the family is the most basic unit of society. Everyone should respect and obey his or her parents and put the interests of the family before personal interests. This attitude of “filial piety” extended also to ancestors. It was considered essential that everyone marry, so that family lines would continue and male heirs make offerings of food and drink to their deceased ancestors.



Detail from The Classic of Filial Piety, ca. 1085, Northern Song dynasty (960-1127)
Li Gonglin (ca. 1041-1106); handscroll; ink on silk © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“The Classic of Filial Piety, a text composed between 350 and 200 B.C., teaches a simple but all-embracing lesson: beginning humbly at home, filial piety not only ensures success in a man’s life but also brings peace and harmony to the world at large. During the Song dynasty, the text became one of the thirteen classics of the Neo-Confucian canon and remained a cornerstone of traditional Chinese moral teaching until modern times. ...”

More about this painting at the Metropolitan Museum website

Read the full text of the Classic of Filial Piety (Xiao Jing) in Chinese and in English


Images of Women and Children

Children at Play in an Autumnal Garden (detail)
Sung dynasty (960-1279), Su Han-ch’en (fl. mid-12th c.)
Hanging scroll; ink and light colors on silk
© National Palace Museum, Taipei

Palace Ladies Bathing and Dressing Children (detail)
Song dynasty, 12th-13th century
© Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art

The Status of Women

Girls left their families when they married. So long as they gave birth to sons, they would eventually gain a respected place in their family of marriage, and would be treated as ancestors by their sons and sons’ sons. Mothers and grandmothers had important and respected places in their families.

The Song is often seen as a time when the status of women declined. Compared to Tang times, women were less active in politics and less commonly seen on the streets. Song Confucian teachers argued against widows remarrying, and footbinding began in Song times. On the other hand, women’s rights to property were relatively secure in Song times, and older women were often very powerful within their families.

Li Qingzhao (1084-ca. 1151) is a famous Chinese poet who wrote during the Song. She wrote poetry in a new form that had become popular at the time, with irregular lines that were inspired by musical lyrics.

• Read Li Qingzhao’s poem To “Southern Song.”



Children were highly valued in the Chinese family system. They were what made possible the continuation of the family. Although they were expected to learn to be filial, they were also indulged. Toy peddlers like the one in the scroll were sometimes depicted by painters surrounded by excited children.


For Further Reading

• “Concerns for the Family Head,” from Family and Property in Sung China: Yuan Ts’ai’s Precepts for Social Life, translated by Patricia Buckley Ebrey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 267-72, 280-84, 313-21.


More about Domestic Life during the Song Dynasty

A Visual Sourcebook for Chinese Civilization: Painting as a Social Record: Private Life [Patricia Ebrey, University of Washington]
Examines “paintings portraying people in the private sphere of family and friends. In many cases, the artists’ sensitive treatment of personality and character, as well as careful attention to, say, the material distinctions between fine, elegant robes and the coarse textures of peasants’ everyday clothing, gives useful data about how social class and status were expressed visually and the dynamics of social interactions.” With discussion questions.


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