In AD 960, a former soldier named Zhao Khuangyin rebelled and declared himself the ruler of the new Northern Song Dynasty. This dynasty’s rule ended 319 years later after the fall of the Southern Song. This chaotic yet prosperous period in China’s history appeared in the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History between AD 960 and 1279.
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Reunification Under Emperor Taizu of Song
In his youth, the first Song emperor Zhao Khuangyin (Taizu of Song) worked as a mounted archer in the service of the military governor Guo Wei of the Later Han Dynasty. He became a prominent palace guard after he helped Guo Wei dissolve the Later Han and create the Later Zhou Dynasty (951-960). When Emperor Guo Wei (Taizu) died, Zhao Kuangyin worked for his successor, the Emperor Shizong. He distinguished himself in the Later Zhou court after he and his troop defeated the combined Liao and Northern Han armies. He was promoted to a military governor in 960 during the reign of the empress dowager of the Later Zhou. However, her unpopularity with the military led the troops to rebel against her rule and declare Zhao Khuangyin as the emperor instead.
The court had no choice but to depose the Empress and proclaim Zhao Khuangyin as Emperor when he reached the Later Zhou capital of Kaifeng. Zhao Khuangyin declared himself the emperor of the new Song Dynasty, and he adopted the name Taizu of Song after he dissolved the Later Zhou Dynasty. He was brilliant on the battlefield, but he had something special that other military leaders lacked: political savvy.
Emperor Taizu strengthened his rule by propagating the belief that his proclamation as the emperor had been prophesied since his childhood. In a bid to curb the power of military commanders, he compelled them to retire in return for the grant of the best lands in the countryside. By doing so, Emperor Taizu removed the threat of rebellions led by the powerful military commanders during his reign. It allowed him to focus on conquering the neighboring states with a reformed military behind him.
The Song Dynasty Under Emperor Taizong
Emperor Taizu conquered three of the weaker states to his south during his reign but failed to take the other three plus the stronger Northern Han kingdom. He died in 976 and the unfinished task of conquering the remaining states fell to his younger brother, Song Taizong, who acceded the throne in 979. The second Song emperor conquered the Northern Han in the same year and showed his shrewdness when he asked the Northern Han ruler to abdicate in return for his safety and the security of his estate. With the collapse of the Northern Han, it was up to the Song and the Khitan Liao Dynasty to master the greater part of China.
The Liao was just as formidable as their southern neighbor, but the Khitan troops routed the Song army led by Taizong in the Battle of the Gaoliang River in 979. The defeat endangered his position as emperor. It did not help that rumors of him poisoning his older brother and usurping the throne from the rightful heir circulated in the imperial court. For many of his subjects, Taizong had lost the Mandate of Heaven. He was perfectly aware of his vulnerability to deposition.
When the emperor returned to Kaifeng, he decided to tie up loose ends and get rid of other claimants to the throne once and for all. Taizong summoned one of the princes to his presence and made it clear that he would not be able to leave the palace alive, so the prince went into another room and killed himself. The other claimants to the throne died over the years. The rumors that he had a hand in their deaths also circulated in the court.
In 986, he launched another campaign against the Liao. However, this second attempt was also a dismal failure. He knew that this second defeat could undo his position. He was able to hold onto the throne when he curbed the powers of the high-ranking military officers and relied heavily on the well-educated bureaucrats in his court who were promoted through the civil service exams. In return for their loyalty, the Emperor rewarded these bureaucrats with promotions and relied on them for the rest of his reign.
The Song’s Unexpected Prosperity
Before his death in 997, Emperor Taizong had named his third son, Zhengzong, as the next emperor of the Song dynasty. This son was elevated to the role of his father’s successor because Taizong felt that he was not a great threat to him. However, his passive nature was not particularly useful for the empire when the Liao conducted devastating raids on China’s northern frontier. By 1005, Zhengzong was forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty (Treaty of Chanyuan) which made the Liao not only their equals but turned the Song into a tributary state to the Khitans.
This peace treaty was an embarrassment to Zhengzong and just like his father; it put his position as China’s emperor in danger. The absence of war was strangely beneficial to the Song in the long run, and Zhengzong occupied himself with managing his increasingly prosperous empire. China became wealthier during Zhengzong and his son Renzong’s reign while the money they saved went to infrastructure and education instead of the soldiers’ salaries during wartime. Education was prioritized, and Chinese inventions such as wood block printing made the mass production of books and paper money possible during the golden age of the Song dynasty.
Against the Western Xia Kingdom and the Great Jin Dynasty of the Jurchens
During the tumultuous twilight years of the Tang Dynasty, a group of Tibetan people called the Tanguts wrested the western frontier garrisons from the Tang soldiers and started to carve out a kingdom of their own called the Xi Xia or Western Xia. It flourished as a state during the eleventh century, and by 1038, the Emperor Li Yuanhao of the Western Xia felt that his kingdom had reached equal status to the Song. He wrote to Emperor Renzong and asked for the said recognition, but the emperor only ignored him. Renzong’s own father had bowed down to the “barbarian” Liao many years before. The emperor simply could not handle another humiliation from a people he considered as “barbarians.” The Song emperor’s refusal to acknowledge their equal status pushed the insulted Western Xia king to send his army to invade western China.
His troops carefully chipped away at China’s western territories during a six-year period until Song Renzong was forced to pay Li Yuanhao an annual tribute to get him to stop. The war against the Tanguts forced the Song to recognize that they had been lulled into a false sense of security during the years of peace with the Liao Dynasty. The emperor then decided to reform the Song army from the ground up. One of the best things that came out of this military reform initiated by the Song was the invention of gunpowder. Although it brought them humiliation, the peace that the Song bought from the Western Xia allowed them to train for the next war—this time, with another group of nomads from the north: the Jurchen.
The Jurchens were a Tungusic people that migrated from their homeland somewhere in the present-day region of Manchuria. They became a military threat to the Liao in the early eleventh century after the Wanyan tribe united opposing Jurchen tribes. In the early eleventh century, they started to build a state just like the neighboring Khitan Liao. Aguda (later named Emperor of Taizu of the Great Jin), the ambitious leader of the Wanyan tribe of the Jurchen, craved the recognition of the Song (just like the Western Xia king). He knew that the neighboring Liao was also a force to be reckoned with at that time. To this end, he sent a letter to the Liao emperor demanding to be recognized as his equal and enclosed was an equally outrageous tribute request.
Naturally, the Liao emperor refused to honor either the recognition Aguda wanted or the request for the annual tribute payment to the Jurchen. The rejection angered the Jurchen king, so he sent envoys to the Song emperor Huizong and offered him a military alliance against the Liao. The Jurchen also promised to return the Sixteen Prefectures wrested by the Liao from China back in the tenth century if the Song would agree to this alliance. The inexperienced Song emperor accepted the offer, and together, they attacked the Liao capital of Shangjing, deposed its emperor, and forced thousands of Khitans to flee west. By 1125, the Liao Dynasty had ended, and in its place was the powerful Great Jin Dynasty of the Jurchen people.
Huizong had overestimated the goodwill of the Jurchen. After the conquest of the Liao, they refused to return the Sixteen Prefectures Aguda promised to Huizong when he asked for the Song support. Instead, the Jin dynasty soldiers spilled out of their kingdom and attacked Kaifeng, the Song capital. They were so formidable that Huizong needed to fake a stroke just to escape from his responsibilities as military commander of his empire. The task of facing the Jurchen fell to his son, Qinzong, who had to be strong-armed by palace eunuchs so he would be proclaimed as his father’s successor.
When the Jurchen breached the city, they started to loot, kill, and rape the terrified inhabitants of the Song capital of Kaifeng. They later cornered both emperors in the imperial palace and took them north as captives. Many of the survivors of Kaifeng’s destruction fled south and tried to rebuild their fallen empire in Lin’an (modern Hangzhou). They named it Southern Song, but it did not reach the glory of the former Song Empire which was now in the hands of the Great Jin dynasty of the Jurchen.
Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. By China – Song Dynasty – cs.svg: User:Mozzanderivative work: Kanguole – China 11a.jpg: User:LiDaobingChina – Song Dynasty – cs.svg: User:Mozzan, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link 2014. Emperor Huizong. Harvard University Press.
Fairbank, John King, and Merle Goodman. China: A New History. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992.
Grousset, Rene. The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970.
Mote, Frederick W. Imperial China, 900-1800. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Ropp, Paul S. China in World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
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