Timeline of World History: Year by Year from Prehistory to Present Day






The Middle Ages

5th - 15th century


China after the Han Dynasty



For more than 300 years after the fall of the Han dynasty, China was divided into rival kingdoms. Then the Tang dynasty ushered in a cultural blossoming in the seventh century. Following half a century of turmoil and division, the Song dynasty began to unify the country once again in 960, although it remained militarily weak. The Songs eventually had to make way for the Chins and withdraw to the south. Here too, however, a cultural golden age began that lasted until the conquest of the Mongols in 1279.


The Tang Dynasty

Several centuries of unrest were brought to an end by the Tang dynasty. Chinese culture and territorial expansion both reached high points.


Following the fall of the Han dynasty in the third century, numerous wars took place between three rival kingdoms. Nomads from out of the steppes north of the Great Wall repeatedly attacked, until they were eventually able to bring the north under their control; China then remained divided into north and south until the sixth century.

Numerous factions competed for control in the north until the 2 Wei dynasty was able to bring them under its control in 439.

During its brief reign, the Sui dynasty was able to restore the unity of China to a certain extent from 589 to 618, but was defeated in a war against the peoples of southern Manchuria and northern Korea.

The uprising led by the later ruler 1 Li Yuan, resulting primarily from domestic policies, prepared the way for the Tang dynasty from 618 to 907.

The Tangs stabilized China from their capital Ch'ang-an (present-day Xi'an) at the eastern end of the 3 Silk Road.

2 Armor-plated and saddled horse
from Wei dynasty, fifth-sixth cntury


1 Li Yuan, founder of the Tang
dynasty, drawing 19th century

3 The view of the citadel near Turfan,
built to protect the Silk Road




5 Civil servant,
statue, 7th-8th с

The rulers were not afraid to allow broad tolerance in culture and religion, as the central government was solidly organized with well-trained 5 civil servants and efficient regulations and laws.

Trade relations by land and sea flourished, and conquests as well as international agreements secured the Tang dynasty's influence all the way into central and southern Asia. In the eighth century, however, China was forced to accept the expansion of the Tibetan Tu-fan kingdom, which conquered Tang territories.
Domestically, the Tang dynasty failed through its own success. The growth in population brought on by the booming economy destroyed the financial foundation of the state.

Emperor 4 Xuanzong, who tried to make reforms, was weakened by court intrigues that culminated in 755 in a revolt of the governor and general An Lushan.

A civil war began, ending eight years later at a cost of millions of lives. The weaknesses of the state led to internal repression.

Persecution of the 7 Buddhists, during which thousands of monasteries and temples were destroyed, began in 845.

Regional govenors began to function more independently, until Zhu Wen deposed the emperor, ushering in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period.


4 Emperor Xuanzong flees in 755 from the
revolt of An Lushan, painting, 8th с

7 Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara,
the personification of compassion, marble, 8th с


Tang dynasty

Tang dynasty, Wade-Giles romanization T’ang, (618–907 ce), Chinese dynasty that succeeded the short-lived Sui dynasty (581–618), developed a successful form of government and administration on the Sui model, and stimulated a cultural and artistic flowering that amounted to a golden age. The Tang dynasty—like most—rose in duplicity and murder, and it subsided into a kind of anarchy. But at its apex, in the early 8th century, the splendour of its arts and its cultural milieu made it a model for the world.

Founding of the dynastyThe first Tang emperor, Li Yuan, known by his temple name, Gaozu, began as a contender for the rule of the Sui, of which he had been an official. He overcame various rivals and rebels, and by 621 he controlled China’s eastern plain; in 624 he added most of the rest of North and South China, although some rebels remained in the North throughout the dynasty. He directed many complex military operations in his tenure and established the basic institutions of the Tang state. He emulated the first Sui emperor in establishing a highly competent bureaucracy, and he adopted the same pattern of local administration.

Because the state was bankrupt, the administration was kept small, simple, and cheap. The land-distribution system of the Sui was adopted to give every taxable male a plot and to minimize the number of large estates, and Li Yuan also took on the Sui system of taxation. He created mints and established a copper coinage that lasted throughout the dynasty. He recodified the laws with stated penalties for specific acts and provided for their review every 20 years.

Taizong and his successorsThe second Tang emperor, Li Shimin, known by the temple name Taizong, succeeded to the throne in 626 by murdering two brothers and forcing the abdication of his father, but he became one of the greatest emperors China has known. He adjusted the balance of the court aristocracy to equalize regional influences and expanded both the Sui use of examinations in literature and culture for hiring civil servants and the Sui system of high-quality schools at the capital. He further enshrined the classics and published a standard edition. He defeated his eastern Turkish enemies and spread disunity among those in the west, expanding China farther westward than ever before.

One of the most remarkable women in Chinese history, Wu Zhao (known by Wuhou, her posthumous name), intrigued her way into the role of empress during the reign of the Gaozong emperor (649–683). She took up residence in Luoyang (the eastern capital) and ruthlessly aggrandized her role by inflating the bureaucracy during Gaozong’s illness. Despite her excesses, she maintained a steady grip on the government until she was in her 80s, when she was forced to abdicate.

The dynasty reached the peak of its wealth and power during the early 8th century, which was a golden age for its arts. The aristocracy, scattered, murdered, and incarcerated under the empress Wuhou, was restored and oversaw an era of reform. In the second half of the 8th century, however, rebellion broke out in the northeast and spread rapidly, forcing the emperor Xuanzong to flee west to Sichuan. Although the rebellion was finally suppressed, in its wake came a period of provincial separation and later rebellion. By 818 the emperor Xianzong had restored the authority of the empire throughout most of the country. In the second half of the 9th century, the government grew weaker, and rebellions recurred; the dynasty declined until 907, when it collapsed into a scattering of independent kingdoms that withstood unification for more than 50 years.

Tang culture
The years of the Tang were brilliant times for the arts and culture. Major imperial ceremonies saw a revival and elaboration of the ancient orchestras and companies of courtly dancers. The musicians played on bells, stone chimes, flutes, zithers, and drums. China in this period was hospitable to foreign ideas, as Arabian and Persian seamen roved its ports and “western” music and dance found their way into China from Central Asia. In the taverns of the western capital at Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), western songs and dances were performed to the accompaniment of western musicians on strange instruments. Exotic troupes of dancing girls became the subject of paintings and reproduction in clay figurines. The Pear Garden at the palace was reserved for training musicians and dancers. Foreign music became a third category of music, in addition to court and common music. Before the end of the dynasty there were 10 musical categories, several of them foreign. Although no orchestral scores survive, the music for several solo pieces has been found. Late Tang paintings show imperial entertainments with ensembles of strings, winds, and percussion, and choreographic plans for bands and dancers have also been preserved.

Poetry was the greatest glory of the period. All the verse forms of the past were used and refined, and new ones developed. Regulated verse (lüshi) and an abbreviated, truncated verse (jueju) were introduced and became widely popular. Nearly 50,000 works by some 2,000 Tang poets have been preserved. Prose stylists were concerned with lyrical expression and rhetorical devices for artistic effect.

Heroic sculpture of Buddhas was a feature of the middle Tang; and, although no works of this size and period survive in China, several do in Japan, which was profoundly influenced by the administration, arts, culture, and religion of the Tang dynasty.

Painting played a major role in the culture of the era, and painters were important court figures. One of the Tang ministers of state, Yan Liben, is far better known as a painter than as a statesman. The greatest master of figure painting of the dynasty was Wu Daozi, who did 300 wall paintings in temples at Luoyang and Chang’an. A painter of horses was a great favourite in an era when military steeds were a matter of life and death and when court ladies played a form of polo. Landscape painting was dominated by Wang Wei, who was also an official at the court in the western capital. A new freedom with brushwork developed to provide a wider range of effects of texture and tone. Chan, or Zen, Buddhist painters brought still further freedom with the brush to religious painting.

Pottery made huge strides after the sterility of the Six Dynasties period. Finishes in white porcelain, three-colour pottery and figurines, stoneware with a rich black glaze, and a type of celadon all were developed by Tang potters; and, in keeping with the general interest in things foreign, their wares were often in foreign shapes and followed foreign motifs. Great volumes of tomb figurines were produced. Metalwork and jewelry of the period included much silver. Ritual objects included foreign shapes among the traditional Chinese forms. Silver and gold vessels were no longer cast but “raised” into bowl shape by hammering thin sheets; such vessels for drinking were double thicknesses soldered together with an insulating layer of air between them. Decorated bronze mirrors were also popular.

Encyclopaedia Britannica




Li Yuan

Gaozu, Wade-Giles romanization Kao-tsu, personal name (xingming) Li Yuan (born 566, Chang’an [now Xi’an, Shaanxi province], China—died 635, Chang’an), temple name (miaohao) of the founder and first emperor (618–626) of the Tang dynasty (618–907).

Although Gaozu claimed to be of Chinese descent, his family was intermarried with nomadic tribes of North China. As an official of the Sui dynasty (581–618), Li Yuan was expected to suppress peasant revolts and prevent incursions of Turkish nomads into North China. With the Sui dynasty about to disintegrate, Li Yuan—urged on by Li Shimin (later the emperor Taizong), his ambitious second son—rose in rebellion in 617. Aided by Turkish allies, Li Yuan captured the capital at Chang’an. The next year, he proclaimed the Tang dynasty. Thereafter, he worked to reform taxation and coinage, while Li Shimin finished eliminating rival claimants to the throne. In 626 Li Yuan abdicated to Li Shimin, who had meanwhile destroyed his rival brothers.

Encyclopaedia Britannica





Xuanzong, Wade-Giles romanization Hsüan-tsung, personal name (xingming) Li Longji, posthumous name (shi) Minghuang (born 685, Luoyang, China—died 762, Chang’an [now Xi’an, Shaanxi province]), temple name (miaohao) of the seventh emperor of the Tang dynasty (618–907) of China, which during his reign (712–756) achieved its greatest prosperity and power.

Li Longji was the third son of the Ruizong emperor, who was himself a son of the empress Wuhou. Li Longji was born during a period when actual power was entirely in the hands of Wuhou, although his father was nominal emperor. Enfeoffed as prince of Chu in 687, Li Longji was reenfeoffed as prince of Linzi in 693 after Wuhou’s usurpation of the throne under her own name in 690. Toward the end of her reign he was appointed to several ceremonial posts at court, which gave him influence over the imperial guards and palace armies.

In the course of the complicated succession struggles that followed the death of the empress in 705, Li Longji’s father, the Ruizong emperor, was restored to the throne in 710. As a result of Li’s key role in this coup, he was appointed heir apparent.

In 712 the ineffectual Ruizong abdicated in favour of his son (who took the temple name Xuanzong), but, at the urging of Ruizong’s ambitious sister (the princess Taiping), he remained “Supreme Emperor,” a sort of regent with control over appointments to high offices, which were filled with the princess’s supporters.

In 713 the Xuanzong emperor won a brief power struggle between himself and the princess Taiping; she committed suicide, Xuanzong then assumed full authority as emperor, and his father retired into seclusion.

Xuanzong’s reign began well. He carried out a sweeping reform of the bureaucracy, which had become vastly inflated by great numbers of nominal and supernumerary officials, many of whom had been appointed by patronage or by the open purchase of their posts. Under Xuanzong, the purchase of office was restricted and the authority of the throne, the efficient functioning of the bureaucracy, and the finances of the state were largely restored. Moreover, the canal system, upon which the capital at Chang’an (now Xi’an) relied and which had fallen into decay while the Wuhou empress resided in Luoyang, was restored to action. Successful campaigns were waged against the Tibetans, the Turks, and the Khitans (Chinese: Qidan).

During this early stage of the Xuanzong emperor’s reign, which lasted until about 721, he successfully maintained a balance of power and influence between the competing factions of the examination-recruited ministers who had served the Wuhou empress, the members of the imperial clan, and the palace officials and members of the families of the imperial consorts.

But a period of wide-ranging reforms in administration began in 720, and the whole structure of central government was changed in such a way as to concentrate more and more authority in the hands of the chief ministers. At the same time there was a marked resurgence of the influence of the old aristocracy at court, and the period 721–737 was one of continuous political tension between the aristocrats and the examination-recruited professional bureaucrats. The aristocratic faction managed to increase its influence in the bureaucracy during the implementation of a series of sweeping financial reforms that were initially successful. The population was effectively reregistered, bringing vast numbers of taxpayers onto the rolls and a sharp increase in revenue; the coinage was improved, and the transportation system was reformed so effectively that the emperor no longer had to move the court between Chang’an and Luoyang periodically to avoid famine. The empire’s revenues increased, enabling the emperor to establish along the northern frontiers an ever-growing permanent military establishment (by the end of his reign numbering some 600,000 men), without overburdening the population.

The political influence of the aristocracy’s financial experts grew even greater in the latter part of Xuanzong’s reign, and after 737, Li Linfu, chief representative of the aristocratic interest, became virtual dictator and the aristocratic party was firmly entrenched in power. From about 740 onward the emperor’s actual control of affairs began to decline. The reforms, which theretofore had mostly been necessary for greater administrative efficiency, now tended more and more to destroy the balance of political power. The chief ministers formally acquired unprecedented power and prestige as heads of the government. The financial experts, too, devoted more and more of their attention to purely exploitative measures designed to pay for court extravagance and the emperor’s increasingly expensive personal needs.

Moreover, after 737, the vast regional commands established earlier in the reign to control the northern border had begun to develop widespread powers in other fields and to acquire territorial authority. By the late 740s some of these generals had grown immensely powerful and began to intervene in court politics. Most important of them was Li Linfu’s protégé An Lushan, who controlled the northeast and had an army of 180,000 troops. The central government had no standing armies under its own command to rival the forces of these military governors.

Meanwhile Xuanzong had withdrawn more and more. Always a great patron of the arts—he had founded imperial music academies to provide court musicians and had patronized poets, painters, and writers—he now became deeply involved in the study of Daoism, from whose founder the Tang royal house claimed to be descended.

He also began to suffer from family problems, chiefly because he had fallen under the influence of at least two of his many consorts. The first was Wu Huifei, who had great influence from the early 720s until her death in 737; she played a part in the rise of Li Linfu and eventually became involved in unsuccessful plots to make her own eldest son heir to the throne in place of one of the imperial princes. The eventual heir apparent, however, was another prince (the future Suzong emperor), who was opposed to Li Linfu.

The emperor also came under the influence of another favourite, the consort Yang Guifei. During the later years of his reign, the Xuanzong emperor became completely infatuated with her and heaped honours on members of her family. One of these relatives, her cousin Yang Guozhong, rose rapidly to rival even Li Linfu in power and, on the latter’s death in 752, replaced him as the dominant chief minister.

There had already been some tensions between Yang Guozhong and An Lushan. With the removal of his patron at court, and the increasing hostility of Yang Guozhong, An Lushan began building up his provincial power base in readiness for armed confrontation. This began at the end of 755. An Lushan’s forces swiftly struck into the northeastern provinces, and, by the summer of 756, they were approaching Chang’an. Xuanzong, accompanied only by a few troops and a small group of relatives and courtiers, fled to take refuge in Sichuan province, the power base of the Yang clan. They had reached Mawei when the soldiers mutinied, killed Yang Guozhong, and forced Xuanzong to have Yang Guifei killed.

Shortly afterward, the heir apparent, who had fled separately to Lingwu, west of the capital, proclaimed himself emperor. Xuanzong, who heard of this only some time after it had occurred, acquiesced and abdicated formally in his favour. He lived in retirement until his death in 762.

Although Xuanzong’s reign ended in political disaster and personal tragedy, it was a period of internal stability, good government, and prosperity, an era of confidence during which real progress was made in every field. The sudden end of this period not only changed the political system completely but it was also a dramatic, traumatic experience for the people of the time. In the next decade the confident pride of Xuanzong’s age was replaced by self-questioning, by withdrawal from public affairs, and by a new spirit of social and political criticism.

Encyclopaedia Britannica


Chinese 6 literature and the arts experienced a golden age.


6 House of the poet Du Fu near Chengdu
in the province Sichuan



Du Fu

Du Fu, Wade-Giles romanization Tu Fu, also called Du Gongbu or Du Shaoling, courtesy name (zi) Zimei (b. 712, Gongxian, Henan province, China—d. 770, on a riverboat between Danzhou [now Changsha] and Yueyang, Hunan province), Chinese poet, considered by many literary critics to be the greatest of all time.

Born into a scholarly family, Du Fu received a traditional Confucian education but failed in the imperial examinations of 735. As a result, he spent much of his youth traveling. During his travels he won renown as a poet and met other poets of the period, including the great Li Bai. After a brief flirtation with Daoism while traveling with Li Bai, Du Fu returned to the capital and to the conventional Confucianism of his youth. He never again met Li Bai, despite his strong admiration for his older, freewheeling contemporary.

During the 740s Du Fu was a well-regarded member of a group of high officials, even though he was without money and official position himself and failed a second time in an imperial examination. He married, probably in 741. Between 751 and 755 he tried to attract imperial attention by submitting a succession of literary products that were couched in a language of ornamental flattery, a device that eventually resulted in a nominal position at court. In 755 during An Lushan’s rebellion, Du Fu experienced extreme personal hardships. He escaped, however, and in 757 joined the exiled court, being given the position of censor. His memoranda to the emperor do not appear to have been particularly welcome; he was eventually relieved of his post and endured another period of poverty and hunger. Wandering about until the mid-760s, he briefly served a local warlord, a position that enabled him to acquire some land and to become a gentleman farmer, but in 768 he again started traveling aimlessly toward the south. Popular legend attributes his death (on a riverboat on the Xiang River) to overindulgence in food and wine after a 10-day fast.

Du Fu’s early poetry celebrated the beauty of the natural world and bemoaned the passage of time. He soon began to write bitingly of war—as in “Bingqu xing” (“The Ballad of the Army Carts” ), a poem about conscription—and with hidden satire—as in “Liren xing” (“The Beautiful Woman” ), which speaks of the conspicuous luxury of the court. As he matured, and especially during the tumultuous period of 755 to 759, his verse began to sound a note of profound compassion for humanity caught in the grip of senseless war.

Du Fu’s paramount position in the history of Chinese literature rests on his superb classicism. He was highly erudite, and his intimate acquaintance with the literary tradition of the past was equaled only by his complete ease in handling the rules of prosody. His dense, compressed language makes use of all the connotative overtones of a phrase and of all the intonational potentials of the individual word, qualities that no translation can ever reveal. He was an expert in all poetic genres current in his day, but his mastery was at its height in the lüshi, or “regulated verse,” which he refined to a point of glowing intensity.

Encyclopaedia Britannica





The Song Dynasty

The Song dynasty was able to stabilize the country until China was conquered by the Mongols.


A further revolt in 880 broke the power of the Tang dynasty over China.

The country fell apart into minor regimes from 907 to 960, while the Mongolian 12 Liao dynasty built up a strong empire in the north between 907 and 1125.

8 Chao K'uang, the first emperor of the Song dynasty, acceded to the Chinese throne in 960.

Over the next 20 years, the Songs captured vast areas of China and ruled the empire from their 10 capital Kaifeng.

12 Death mask from Liao dynasty
times, bronze, tenth-twelfth century

8 The first Song emperor, Chao K'uang

10 Boat traffic in Kaifeng, painting on silk, ca.1100

Like the Tangs, the Songs organized their  power centrally: department ministries controlled corresponding areas of responsibility and the military was placed under civilian officials. In 1004 the Song dynasty, after several uncessful wars, was forced to secure peace with the Liao through tribute payments and the cession of territories they had previously annexed in the north.

The country prospered culturally and economically in this period until a crisis began around 1050. The population grew faster than the state could assimilate it, and the tax revenues soon could not cover the state's expenditures, particularly for protecting the northern borders. During the reign of Shen Tsung (Chao Hsu) in the eleventh century, comprehensive reforms were carried out, including a land reform in favor of the farmers, who then paid taxes according to their income. The Songs, together with the Chin dynasty that ruled in Manchuria from 1115 to 1234, defeated the Liao, but they were then forced to the south by the Chins, and in 1126, also lost Kaifeng. This ended the empire of the Northern Song and began the era of the Southern Song, who resided in Hangzhou from 1135. There the Songs once again flourished.

Many technological innovations—including book printing with movable type, gunpowder, and 11 porcelain—were introduced. Academies trained landscape painters, Neo-Confucian-ism became the new state philosophy, and the philosopher Chu Hsi created the new Chinese language.

11 Three urns with figurative decoration,
ceramics, 12th-13th century

Like many other dynasties, the Songs were forced to give way to the 9 Mongols coming out of the northern steppes.
Genghis Khan had already conquered the Chin empire and its capital Beijing by 1215. in 1279, Kublai Khan also incorporated the Songs into the Mongolian world empire.

9 Mongols storming a Chinese fortress,
Indian miniature, 16th century


Liao dynasty

Liao dynasty, Wade-Giles romanization Liao, (907–1125), in Chinese history, dynasty formed by the nomadic Khitan (Chinese: Qidan) tribes in much of what now constitutes the provinces of the Northeast region (Manchuria) and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China. Adopting the Chinese dynastic name of Liao, the Khitan created a dual government to rule their conquests. The southern government, which ruled the Chinese parts of the empire, was modeled on the administration of the Tang dynasty (618–907), which the Khitan had helped destroy. The northern government, which was set up on a tribal basis, ruled over the nomads of the Inner Asian steppes. Traditionally, the start of the Liao period is given as 907, the last year of the Tang, but Chinese historians often place it at 916, when Yelü Yi (or Abaoji) formally established himself as emperor.

Afraid that their use of Chinese advisers and administrative techniques would blur their own ethnic identity, the Khitan made a conscious effort to retain their own tribal rites, food, and clothing and refused to use the Chinese language, devising a writing system for their own language instead.

After the establishment of the Song dynasty (960–1279) in China proper, the Liao carried on a border war with the Song for control of North China. The war was eventually settled in 1004, when the Song agreed to pay an annual tribute to the Liao. The Liao dynasty, which continued many of the cultural practices of the Song, was destroyed in 1125 by the Juchen (Chinese: Nüzhen, or Ruzhen) tribes, who had formerly been subjects of the Khitan and who rose in rebellion against them with the aid of the Song. The Juchen went on to defeat the Song and, as the Jin dynasty (1115–1234), establish rule over North China. The Jin adopted most of the Liao governmental system.

Encyclopaedia Britannica




Song dynasty

Song dynasty, Wade-Giles romanization Sung, (960–1279), Chinese dynasty that ruled the country during one of its most brilliant cultural epochs. It is commonly divided into Bei (Northern) and Nan (Southern) Song periods, as the dynasty ruled only in South China after 1127.

The Bei Song was founded by Zhao Kuangyin, the military inspector general of the Hou (Later) Zhou dynasty (last of the Five Dynasties), who usurped control of the empire in a coup. Thereafter, he used his mastery of diplomatic maneuvering to persuade powerful potential rivals to exchange their power for honours and sinecures, and he proceeded to become an admirable emperor (known as Taizu, his temple name). He set the nation on a course of sound administration by instituting a competent and pragmatic civil service; he followed Confucian principles, lived modestly, and took the country’s finest military units under his personal command. Before his death he had begun an expansion into the small Ten Kingdoms of southern China.

Taizu’s successors maintained an uneasy peace with the menacing Liao kingdom of the Khitan to the north. Over time, the quality of the bureaucracy deteriorated, and when the Juchen (Chinese: Nüzhen, or Ruzhen)—tribes from the North who overthrew the Liao—burst into the northern Song state, it was easy prey. The Juchen took over the North and established a dynasty with a Chinese name, the Jin. But they were unable to take those regions of Song territory south of the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang).

In the South, the climate and the beautiful surroundings were the setting for the Nan Song dynasty established (1127) by the emperor Gaozong. He chose a capital he called Lin’an (present-day Hangzhou) and set about maintaining defenses against the hostile North and restoring imperial authority in the hinterland. Gaozong was a conscious admirer and emulator of the highly successful approach of the Han dynasty to the management of civil service, and the empire’s bureaucrats long functioned well. In due course, however, the dynasty began to decline. But the eventual fall of the Song dynasty was neither sudden nor a collapse upon itself such as had ended several of its predecessors. The Mongols, under Genghis Khan, began their move on China with an assault on the Jin state in the North in 1211. After their eventual success in the North and several decades of uneasy coexistence with the Song, the Mongols—under Genghis Khan’s grandsons—advanced on the Song forces in 1250. The Song forces fought on until 1276, when their capital fell. The dynasty finally ended in 1279 with the destruction of the Song fleet near Guangzhou (Canton).

During the Song period, commerce developed to an unprecedented extent; trade guilds were organized, paper currency came into increasing use, and several cities with populations of more than 1,000,000 flourished along the principal waterways and the southeast coast. Widespread printing of the Confucian Classics and the use of movable type, beginning in the 11th century, brought literature and learning to the people. Flourishing private academies and state schools graduated increasing numbers of competitors for the civil service examinations. The administration developed a comprehensive welfare policy that made this one of the most humane periods in Chinese history. In the works of the 12th-century philosophers Zhu Xi and Lu Jiuyuan, Neo-Confucianism was systematized into a coherent doctrine.

The Song dynasty is particularly noted for the great artistic achievements that it encouraged and, in part, subsidized. The Bei Song dynasty at Bianjing had begun a renewal of Buddhism and of literature and the arts. The greatest poets and painters in the empire were in attendance at court. The last of the Northern Song emperors was himself perhaps the most noteworthy artist and art collector in the country. His capital at Kaifeng was a city of beauty, abounding in palaces, temples, and tall pagodas when, in 1126, the Juchen burned it. The architecture of the Song era was noted for its tall structures; the highest pagoda at Bianjing was 360 feet (110 metres). Song architects curved the eave line of roofs upward at the corners. Pagodas, six- or eight-sided and built of brick or wood, still survive from the period.

The sculpture of the Song period continued to emphasize representations of the Buddha, and in that genre there were no substantive improvements over the work of Song sculptors in succeeding dynasties. Landscape painting was one of the outstanding arts of the Bei Song, and its most noted figures were Fan Kuan and Li Cheng. In the Nan Song many great painters served at the Hanlin Academy, becoming noted for brush effects, miniatures, and, under Chan (Zen) influence, paintings of Buddhist deities, animals, and birds.

In the decorative arts the Song dynasty marked a high point in Chinese pottery. Song wares are noted for their simplicity of shape and the purity of colour and tone of their glazes. From the Bei Song came Ding, Ru, Zhun, Cizhou, northern celadon, and brown and black glazed wares; from the Nan Song came Jingdezhen whiteware, Jizhou wares, celadons, and the black pottery of Fujian. Pottery produced at the Guan kilns, near the Nan Song capital, was the finest of an enormous number of celadons of the dynasty.

The tendency of Song jade carvers to adopt old lines and techniques makes difficult the accurate dating of jades that may be from the Song, and it has been similarly difficult to place Song lacquerware.

In music the Bei Song adopted a two-stringed fiddle from the northern tribes, and music was widely used for ceremonies, sacrifices, and other court events. Music attracted considerable attention in the dynasty’s enormous works of literature: the official history of the dynasty devoted 17 of its 496 chapters to musical events, and an encyclopaedia that appeared in 1267 has 10 of 200 chapters on the subject of music. Music drama flourished throughout the Song, and distinctly different styles evolved in the North and the South. The literature of the Song dynasty emphasized a return to old-time simplicity of expression in prose, and short tales called guwen were written in great volume. A school of oral storytelling in the vernacular arose, and conventional poetry enjoyed wide cultivation. Song poets achieved their greatest distinction, however, in the new genre of the ci, sung poems of joy and despair. These poems became the literary hallmark of the dynasty. For the diversity and richness of its cultural achievements, the Song dynasty is remembered as one of China’s greatest.

Encyclopaedia Britannica




Taizu (Chao K'uang)

Taizu, Wade-Giles romanization T’ai-tsu, personal name (xingming) Zhao Kuangyin (born 927, Luoyang, China—died Nov. 14, 976, Kaifeng), temple name (miaohao) of the Chinese emperor (reigned 960–976), military leader, and statesman who founded the Song dynasty (960–1279). He began the reunification of China, a project largely completed by his younger brother and successor, the Taizong emperor.

Early life and rise to power
Zhao Kuangyin (who posthumously received the dynastic temple name of Taizu, or “Grand Ancestor”) was the second son of a military officer, Zhao Hongyin. At the time of his birth, China was in chaos. The once-great Tang dynasty, fragmented by rebellions, had been extinguished by 907. Over the next several decades, in what became known as the Five Dynasties (Wudai) period, a succession of dynastic regimes—Chinese, part Chinese, or foreign—rose to prominence and fell in devastated North China. Meanwhile, the more prosperous south was divided among satraps who were independent in fact and sometimes in name, in what came to be called the Ten Kingdoms (Shiguo) period. The boy’s forebears had in three previous generations won a certain standing as military leaders under one or another of these claimants, and his father reached a post of high command before his death in 956. The wisdom and foresight of Zhao Kuangyin’s remarkable mother influenced his decisions even after her death in 961.

At about age 20 Zhao joined a leader whose adoptive father soon afterward established the Hou (Later) Zhou dynasty (951–960) at Kaifeng; Zhao’s patron succeeded to the throne in 954 and fought to extend his sway into South China and to eliminate a rival who, established to the north in Shanxi and supported by the Khitan (Chinese: Qidan) empire, laid claim to the rule of China. Through a series of daring and successful actions, Zhao quickly rose to the chief command of the Hou Zhou forces.

In 959 Zhao’s patron died and was followed on the throne by his son, a child. Shortly after the armies of the Khitan and their Chinese allies prepared a concerted invasion. Zhao marched northward to meet them. Discontent arose among Zhao’s troops, who in the crisis did not wish a child as ruler. When the army was encamped for the night at a bridge outside the capital, the officers awakened Zhao (who had drunk well before retiring), hailed him as emperor, robed him in imperial yellow, mounted him on horseback, and urged him to return and take over the government; the records, which are unverifiable on this point, imply that Zhao lacked forewarning of the coup. On the officers’ pledge of obedience and promise not to molest the existing imperial family and its councillors, the public buildings, and the homes of the people, Zhao complied. He named his dynasty the Song.

In rapid succession the dissident Chinese states now came under the new emperor’s control. By 976 all but the northern rival house were mastered, and its Khitan backers had seen more than one defeat. In that year the Song armies were mobilized against this last rival when the Taizu emperor died at the age of 49. Within three years his younger brother, who succeeded him as the Taizong emperor, completed the unification of China (except for a small area near Beijing that remained in Khitan hands).

Taizu’s policies and personality
The task of unification had not been easy, and in parts of China revolts of local autonomists further complicated it. Yet the Song founder had also turned his mind to ways of avoiding the dangers that had been fatal to the Tang and to encourage the success of his dynasty. The Taizu emperor’s policies no doubt owed much to his personality, a striking combination of qualities that inspired in his generation and later a multitude of anecdotes about him. Though some of these may include fictional elements, they convey the impression he made on his countrymen. A highly skilled archer and horseman in his youth, Zhao survived daredevil equestrian exploits unscathed. As emperor he said that destiny had given him the throne and would determine his life or death; man could not deflect it. Despite remonstrances of his advisers, he persisted in going about incognito to observe conditions among the people. He rejected indignantly the gift of a sword stick for protection in emergency. His tastes were simple; when shown the inlaid urinals captured from the former Sichuan princeling, he had them destroyed. He visited his ministers informally and frankly admitted to them his chagrin over his own errors. In his last year he declined the title of unifier and pacifier that was offered him.

The Taizu emperor was strict in holding his officials to account in important matters; his councillors held him in awe. On the other hand, he accepted minor faults or impertinences with a laugh. He was slow to entertain suspicion. He sometimes acted impetuously, and some have suggested, on rather limited evidence, that he indulged in wine to excess. On occasion, when severely provoked by a presumptuous official or subject, he was given to outbursts of violent rage. At such times, however, his temper cooled quickly, and he then softened penalties he had given in anger and even compensated the unfortunate culprit for abuses suffered.

Taizu was active by nature. Even as emperor he conducted military campaigns personally from time to time. Rather than simply approving governmental papers in finished form, as Tang emperors had done, he let his ministers submit rough drafts to him for preliminary criticism.

The functional arrangements of Taizu’s government reflected both his active disposition and his refusal to pretend infallibility. He continued the existing system by which three ministers were directly responsible to him for different aspects of administration (fiscal, military, and general), thus limiting the power of each. By generously granting them consideration and responsibility, however, he encouraged a certain balance between the functions of ruler and minister. The control of the central government over the local was also strengthened. Beginning in 963, the administration of the prefectures was cautiously but steadily transferred from the unruly military to civil officials. Court officials were sent to govern subprefectures. From 965 taxes were remitted directly to the national treasury. The first fiscal intendants—forerunners of the Song “circuit” system—were established to supervise local functionaries. To counter the military threat to the state’s integrity, Taizu transferred the best troops to the capital and on suitable opportunities induced the most powerful commanders to accept retirement.

Reform of the examination
The Taizu emperor’s policies were clearly directed toward the creation of a bureaucracy based on demonstrated abilities rather than birth or favour. This is evident in his steps to strengthen the examination system. By 963 he had forbidden court officials to recommend candidates and had forbidden graduates to consider examiners their patrons. He ordered reexaminations on the petition of a rejected candidate or on even a hint of favour in the selection of graduates. By 973 he had established the final examination in the imperial palace to verify the rankings and had ordered the list of successful competitors to be announced publicly. He began to award larger numbers of degrees.

A mildness and humanitarian tone pervade Taizu’s policies, which on the whole conform to the Confucian ethos. He extended clemency toward defeated opponents rather consistently. He showed concern for the adherents of the dynasty he displaced. His generals were repeatedly admonished to shun avoidable harm to the citizens of places they occupied and even to spare captured soldiers and leaders; among the latter was the poet-prince Li Yu. His own ministers who lost his favour were treated well. In his legal reforms, though he dealt more severely with corruption and irresponsibility of officials in several measures, he lightened the punishments for violations of the state controls over salt and wine and required a review of all capital sentences by the high court at the capital. His early measures also show a special concern with improving the economic lot of the poorer citizens and easing their burdens of taxation.

The legacy of Taizu
In his 16-year reign, the Taizu emperor laid the foundations for the essential political institutions of a remarkable epoch. The political order of his dynasty combined to a surpassing degree freedom of discussion, innovation in bureaucratic methods, internal reform, peace, and stability. This atmosphere undoubtedly facilitated the pioneering in economic techniques, scientific advances, and achievements in philosophy, art, and literature that distinguished the Song period.

When Taizu died, the construction of the new state was far from finished. The ensuing peace and prosperity would also bring new problems calling for new solutions. Of the succeeding emperors, none quite matched him in stature or in character. But Confucian ancestral piety reinforced the attraction of his proven policies. The traditions of his active concern in administration and of close association with the bureaucracy’s leaders persisted in greater or lesser degree among later Song rulers. Subsequent developments on the whole moved in directions indicated by Taizu. Their benefits were scarcely unadulterated; safeguards against the ambitions of military commanders, for example, perhaps hampered Song armies in meeting powerful foreign invaders. Still, the efforts of his successors to further popular welfare, to find and train the best talent for the civil service, and to defend the state’s stability and the unbroken rule of the dynasty for three centuries (though only in South China from 1127) no doubt owe much to Taizu’s concepts of statecraft.

E.A. Kracke, Jr.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



The Italian traveler Marco Polo visited the capital of the Southern Song dynasty in the 13th century.

The 12,000 bridges of the city, which is situated on a lagoon, reminded him of his hometown of Venice.
Hangzhou, he said, was "the most beautiful and magnificent city in the world."

Death mask from Liao dynasty times, bronze, tenth-twelfth century

View of the lagoon city, French book painting, ca. 1412