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Cultural Splendor of the Song Dynasty (Ⅵ)

By Xu Jijun| ezhejiang.gov.cn| Updated: December 28, 2022 L M S

"In its 300 years of history, Song was not as expansive as the Han and Tang dynasties in terms of territory, but it cultivated more talents than them," observed Xu Youzhen (1407-1472), a Ming (1368-1644) statesman and poet. "In terms of talents and in various respects of culture, the Song dynasty is much superior to the Han, Tang dynasties before it, and the Yuan and Ming dynasties that came after," said Wang Guowei (1877-1927), a preeminent modern historian and scholar, who agreed with the assessment.

Whether in literature, historiography, painting, calligraphy, music, dance, drama, philosophy, science and technology, and myriad other fields, the Song dynasty (960-1279) reached unprecedented heights, with each area boasting quite a number of outstanding figures and bringing far-reaching and significant influence to the development of Chinese culture.

"For the Europeans," wrote Zheng Zhenduo (1898-1958), a renowned scholar on Chinese literature, in his book An Illustrated History of Chinese History, "the Middle Ages were Dark Ages, but for the Chinese, the Middle Ages were an era of splendor." In fact, both the number of writers and the number of literary works in the Song period far exceeded those of the Tang (618-907), one of the greatest dynasties throughout Chinese history. Literary schools proliferated, literary societies mushroomed, and literary criticisms and theories thrived.

First sung by ordinary folks, Ci or Ci poetry, also known as lyric poetry or lyric songs, is a genre of Chinese verse with unequal length that was originally set to music. Following the classical Chinese poetry, Ci poetry was developed in the Tang dynasty. But it wasn't until the Song dynasty that it became the predominant literary form. In Quansongci (Complete Song Ci Poems), a total of 1,494 Ci poets and 21,055 Ci poems were documented. These Ci poems were not only innovative in form, but rich in content and fresh in style. During this period, two distinct and contrasting styles of Ci poetry were developed - the Wanyue School (delicate restraint) and the Haofang School (heroic abandon). Of the Wanyue School, Liu Yong (987-1053), Yan Shu (991-1055), Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072) and Li Qingzhao (1084-1155), among others, are some of the best-known poets, while Xin Qiji (1140-1207), Lu You (1125-1210) and Yue Fei (1103-1142) are among the most highly acclaimed of Haofang poets. Today, when Ci poetry is spoken of, the appellation "Song Ci" is commonly used, which testifies to its peak in the Song dynasty.

On the other hand, poetry in general, after reaching its zenith in the Tang dynasty, still witnessed significant progress in the Song era. With 72 volumes, the Quansongshi (Complete Song Poems), which was complied by the Center for Ancient Chinese Classics and Archives of Peking University over a dozen years, contains the works of 9,000 poets, about four times of the number of poets recorded in Quantangshi (Complete Tang Poems), and has a word count of 40 million, 12 times that of Quantangshi. Indeed, poets such as Lu You and Yang Wanli (1127-1206) left behind more than 10,000 poems, an unprecedented figure. In terms of genres, literary styles and artistic value, many find it difficult to choose between Song poems, which are considered more philosophical, and Tang poems.   

Song literati also played an important part in the Classical Prose Movement, a movement in the late Tang and Song that called for clarity and precision in prose writing rather than following the rigid pianwen or parallel prose style that had been popular since the Han dynasty. Of the Eight Great Prose Masters of the Tang and Song who were the principal proponents of the movement, six were from the Song dynasty, namely Ouyang Xiu, Wang Anshi (1021-1086), Su Xun (1009-1066), Su Shi (1037-1101), Su Zhe (1039-1112) and Zeng Gong (1019-1083). To build build the Tang chuanqi, fictional short stories in classical Chinese, authors during the Song developed huaben, stories or novellas written in the vernacular language, which laid a solid foundation for the flourishing of such classics as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Outlaws of the Marsh, and the Journey to the West in the Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties.

"Song's historiographical operation is among the most developed of the Chinese feudal societies," said Deng Guangming (1907-1998), a leading Chinese historian on the Song dynasty. One of the major features is a more comprehensive official historiographical system. A complete set of official agencies was established and a large number of prominent historians, including Sima Guang (1019-1086) and Ouyang Xiu, emerged. They were innovative not only in theories—recording history in as objective a manner as possible became the norm among the Song historians, but also in practice. One of the most popular books today, Zizhi Tongjian (or Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Governance), compiled by Sima Guang, was the first general history reference book written in a chronological order. Studies of local history or local gazetteers advanced significantly as well during the Song dysnasty, when an exhaustive system of rules and guidelines took shape, which encompassed an encyclopedic range of subject matters and were followed by later dynasties.

The Song dynasty excelled in other areas, too. It marked the golden age of Chinese painting. Various records put the number of "famous Song painters" at around 1,000, and they came from all walks of life: emperors and princes, prostitutes and servants, Buddhist and Taoist monks, and many others. Different types of paintings, including landscape painting, figure painting, genre painting, flower and bird painting, were all popular, each as celebrated as the other. Although calligraphy in Song pales in comparison to its literature and painting, it is still believed to "have carved a niche of its own, developed a charm of its own and attained some accomplishments of its own." Four masters of calligraphy of the Song dynasty, namely Su Shi, Huang Tingjian (1045-1105), Mi Fu (1051-1107), Cai Xiang (1012-1067) and Zhao Ji (1082-1135), Emperor Huizong of Song, are among the most acclaimed Chinese calligraphers of all time.

In music, dancing, opera and even acrobatics, unique achievements have been made during the Song dynasty. The focus of music and dancing shifted from the imperial court and temples to the general public. It greatly facilitated the development of not only folk music and folk dancing, but also opera, which relied heavily on music and dancing. Indeed, Nanxi (literally "southern theater"), the earliest form of Chinese opera, was born in Zhejiang's Wenzhou area during the early Southern Song period.