The Song Dynasty in China | Asia for Educators

China in 1000 CE

The Most Advanced Society in the World

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.

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.” (1)

  • 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.

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.

  • Rice and tea are historically important crops/staple foods in China; but most Chinese during the previous Tang dynasty and before ate wheat and millet and drank wine. Rice and tea became dominant food and drink in the Song.
  • China’s population is large, and tends to “explode” in certain periods; its first explosion occurred in the Song.
  • Many Chinese are “Confucians”; but the kind of Confucianism that served as government orthodoxy throughout late-imperial times was a Song reinvention.
  • Chinese women are known to have bound their feet; but they did not bind them until the Song.
  • Even the “Chinese” roof with its turned-up corners is by origin a Song Chinese roof. (2)

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.


(1)See Philip D. Curtin in Cross-Cultural Trade in World History (Cambridge: 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.

(2) 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.