Northern Song Dynasty

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The Northern Song (北宋; 4 February 960 - 20 March 1127) is an era during the Song Dynasty. It came to an end when its capital city, the city of Kaifeng, was conquered by enemies from the north. Later, the provisional capital of the Northern Song Dynasty was founded in Ying Tian Fu (present-day Shangqiu of Henan). Historically, the Song Dynasty include both the Northern and the Southern Song. It is named "Northern" to distinguish from the "Southern", which resided mainly in Southern China.[1] Emperor Taizu of Song elaborated a mutiny and usurped the throne of the Later Zhou (the last in a succession of five dynasties), which marked the beginning of the Dynasty. In 1127, its capital city Kaifeng fell into the hand of the state of Jin, during which time the ruling Emperor Qinzong and his family all fell captive in an event known as the Jingkang Incident. The Northern Song came to its end the next year. It was ruled by nine emperors, and lasted for 127 years.

The ruled area of the Northern Song extended to the southeastern coast. Its Northern Border with the Liao state was the Hai River, Ba Zhou city, Hebei province, and Yanmen Pass, Shanxi (Jin) province, an essential pass of the Great wall. Its reign reached northwest to the Hengshan Mountain in Shaanxi (Shan/Qin), the east of Gansu province, and the Huangshui River of Qinghai, all the way to the border with the state of Liao. In the west, it shared the boundary line of Min Mountains and Dadu River (Sichuan) with Tibet and Dali Kingdom. It was also adjacent with Vietnam across Guangxi province. Still, the Northern Song Dynasty had been the smallest in terms of land area among all the united empires that were established on the vast Central Plains. As was recorded by Taiping Huanyu Ji, the population of the Northern Song Dynasty exploded from 32,500,000 in 980 C.E. to 100,001,200 in 1110 C.E..


The founding[edit]

Zhao Kuang Yin, the first emperor (Taizu) of The Northern Song

Taizu, the first emperor of Song, Zhao Kuang Yin was a professional soldier. He was a Lifeguard in charge of the troops in front of the emperor's palace in the Later Zhou. Zhao had become an essential military figure during the reign of emperor Shizong owing to his outstanding military exploits. After Shizong died, the young Gongdi emperor ascended the throne. Zhao later seized power through the Chenqiao Mutiny, and established the Song. He adopted an authoritarian centralized system to uproot the potential dictatorship and autocracy of senior officials, which had long been a threat ever since the mid-Tang Dynasty, and to solidify the authoritarian central government, a contributing factor to the stability and growth of the feudal social economy. On the other hand, the redundant bureaucracy and unnecessary official posts led to a terrible decline in efficiency and subsequently financial difficulties.

In the field of military, the Northern Song expanded troops, weakened the military power of generals by separating the power to different persons, and shortened their service term at one official post so that they would not have the chance to accumulate that much power before it threatened the central. The constant change of the general, however, resulted in the decline of fighting capacity of the soldiers, and the Northern Song troops had suffered repeated defeats against minority groups like the Liao and Western Xia. The frontier defense thus became empty and feeble, which was detrimental to national security. Overall, the authoritarian centralized system had to some extents contributed to the unification and stability of the feudal state, preventing the local separatism and peasant revolts from happening, but it also foreshadowed the deepening impoverished and enfeebled from the mid Northern Song.

During the spring festival in 960, Zhao's partisan fellows made up false intelligence that the Liao state was to invade. The prime minister (in feudal China) then immediately commanded Zhao to go to the frontier to defend. On the third day of the first lunar month, Zhao arrived at Chenqiao, and was draped with the imperial yellow robe by his supporters (a ritual of admitting someone as the emperor, kind of like coronation) that night. The officials of the later Zhou deemed it as irreversible and did nothing but accepted the reality. The Gondi of later Zhou was forced to leave the throne, and Zhao subsequently became the Taizu of the Song dynasty.

In 961 and 969, during banquets, and while drunken (or pretended to be) Zhao threatened the generals for twice not to rebel against the Song just like he himself had done against the later Zhou, and deprived them of the power they used to have by assigning them to merely nominal positions while appointing civil officials as commanders in troops, to centralize the military power. The Northern Song dynasty was thus free from local military separatists, but at the same time the local resources were limited. It all led to its defeats in battles against the northern tribes.[2]

The national policy of the Northern Song Dynasty is principled on its "emphasis on the scholars and less on the military"(重文轻武). This has its advantages and disadvantages for the Song Dynasty; the advantage being stability would be brought upon the political and economic environments of the early Northern Song Dynasty, especially when there are no scourges such as eunuch's messing around or local governors seizing land. Even though most Song emperors performed mediocrely, the country remained prosperous and stable. The disadvantage, however, was that the Northern Song Dynasty had suffered military defeats successively. Alongside the Southern Song Dynasty, the 300 years of the Song Dynasty's history gravitated towards its military defeats and retreats.

Another task Song Taizu faced was to unify his country. After discussing with Zhao Puxue, Zhao Kuangyin decided to unify the whole country starting with south then to north. Zhao Kuangyin first resorted to a counterfeit plan to destroy Nanping and Wuping. He also annihilated the three kingdoms, Shu, Nanhan, and Nantang. Taizu wholeheartedly wished for successful unification, and also set up a warehouse to save money and silk, hoping it would help redeem the sixteen states of Yanyun from the Liao in the future. In August of the 9th year of Kaibao (976), Taizu went northward again. However, Taizu passed away abruptly on October 19th, so his brother Zhao Guangyi immediately took the throne. It was rumored that Guangyi had murdered his elder brother to usurp the throne. The task for unifying the North and the South was temporarily suspended as Zhao Guangyi ascended the throne as Song Taizong.

After Emperor Taizong stabilized his rule, he continued the task of reunification. Chen Hongjin and self titled King Wuyue, Qian Hongling who seized the two provinces of Zhang and Quan in Fujian surrendered in 978, then the Northern Han was obliterated in 979. In May of the 4th year of Taiping Xingguo (979), Taizong disregarded his ministers' objections and took advantage of the demise of Northern Han to start a northern expedition from Taiyuan. At first, Yizhou and Zhuozhou were reclaimed. Taizong was complacent and ordered an attack on Yanjing, which resulted in a disastrous defeat in the Sorghum River outside Youzhou(now outside Xizhimen in Beijing). After this defeat, the Song Dynasty's military strategy turned passive. In the third year of Yongxi (986 years), Taizong headed north again, resulting in another defeat. The famous general Yang Ye was also killed in this battle. Later, Sichuan broke out with Wang Xiaobo and Li Shunmin's coups, leading to a shift in importance of Taizong's administration from focusing on external affairs to internal ones.

Taizong was a vassal and elegant man who liked poetry and literature. His government attached great importance to cultural undertakings, with the Dynasty highly stressing the people's education. Taizong also liked calligraphy, and was able to write in six types of fonts: Cao, Li, Xing, Zhuan, Bafen, and Feibai, and preferred Feibai over the rest. The characters on the ingots of the Song's currency were also the works of Taizong.

Song Taizu had a mature son, so his brother's ascension was quite suspicious, with folks claiming that Zhao Kuangyin was murdered by Zhao Guangyi. In order to ensure the legitimacy of the regime, Zhao Guangyi presented the will of his mother Empress Du, which is named the "Will of the Golden Cabinet"(金櫃之盟)(or 匱). This originated when Empress Du called Zhao Pu into the palace to record her last words, in which she ordered that after Zhao Kuangyin's death, the throne would first pass to Guangyi, then Guangmei (later renamed Tingmei), before De Zhao, Zhao Kuangyin's eldest son. This testament was hidden in a golden cabinet, explaining its name's origin. Although there was such a statement in the will, Taizong imposed the death penalty on his father's sons, Dezhao and Defang, then demoted Tingmei to Fangzhou. Two years later, Tingmei died in exile. Taizong's eldest son, Yuan Zuo, was also dismissed from prince to peasant because of his sympathy for Ting Mei. Another son, Yuan Xi, died to unknown causes. Ultimately, Xiang Prince Yuan Kan was established as the heir and renamed Heng. In the third year of Zhidao (997), after Taizong died, Queen Li and Eunuch Wang Jien attempted to establish Yuanzuo as the emperor. Fortunately, Prime Minister Lu Duan properly handled the situation, helping Zhao Heng to succeed the throne, and the Song Dynasty began to enter its prime.

Northern wars against Liu and Xia[edit]

After Taizong's death, Zhao Heng ascended as Emperor Song Zhenzong. He pursued Taizong's Huang Lao policies and ruled with inaction. Ever since the Northern Expedition of Yongxi, the Liao often robbed and looted the Song at its borders. By the first year of Jingde, these hostilities had evolved into a large-scale invasion. The prime minister Kou Zhun led the resistance. Zhenzong headed to the battlefield in person and greatly boosted the morale of the Song army. The Song and the Liao entered a deadlock in the city of Tanzhou. Coincidentally, the general Liao general Xiao Tieling was shot down by the crossbow of the Song army, greatly defeating the morale of the Liao army, vanquishing the Liao's chances in coming out victorious. Hopeless, they seeked to reconcile with the Northern Song Dynasty. After several negotiations, the two countries agreed to a peace treaty. The main content of the peace treaty was as follows: Song would pay 20 million silks and 100,000 silvers tribute to Liao annually, and the treaty was historically named "The Treaty of Chanyuan".

Emperor Song Zhenzong Zhao Heng

Afterwards, Kou Zhun gradually fell out of Zhenzong's favor and was eventually dismissed. Wang Chinro, an eminent minister who was good at ingratiating, knew that Zhenzong hoped to enkindle an atmosphere of peace and harmony, and so advocated Zhenzong to Feng Shan. He also colluded with another prime minister, Wang Dan, to fabricate "auspicious" facades all over the nation. As a result, Zhenzong had Feng Shan a total of three times in the first year of Dazhongxiang Fu, and Wang Chiru had became Zhenzong's most trusted ministers.

Zhenzong and Queen Liu had no children. On one occasion, Zhenzong visited Li, a maid of Liu Concubine, and she gave birth to a son (Zhao Shouyi) in the third year of Yu Dazhong Xiangfu, who later became Renzong. Liu and another concubine, Yang raised the child. In the Mid-Autumn Festival of the second year of Tianxi, Zhenzong officially entitled Zhao as the heir and renamed him Zhao Zhen. In February 20, the first year of Qianxing, Zhenzong passed away. Crown Prince Zhao Zhen took the throne, and Queen Liu became the Queen Dowager ruling before Renzong became an adult. From then on began the sixteen years of Empress Liu's domination of the government.

At the beginning of Renzong's rule, Renzong was not able to carry out his ambitions as he was always under the shadow of Liu's. Although Emperor Renzong's queen was from the Cao family, he had always been particularly fond of Concubine Zhang. But as Zhang came from a lowly background, she could never be queen. Zhang passed away on the eighth day of the first lunar month in the sixth year of Huangyou, and Renzong treated her funeral as if she was the queen, and even bestowed her the title Queen Wencheng. The result was unprecedented in history, with a living and a dead queen.

The nation was relatively strong in the rule of Renzong with a prosperous economy, forming the peak of the Northern Song Dynasty. However, there were two major problems that had to be faced at the time: the expansion of the imperial court and the scaling number of soldiers, causing financial issues. At the same time, tributes and gifts were often needed to appease the Northern tribes, exhausting the nation's wealth.

Party leader Li Yuanhao announced himself the emperor in the third year of Daqing (1038) and established Xixia, causing several years of war between Song and Xia. Song was defeated numerous times. Renzong appointed Fan Zhongyan, Lu Yijian, Fu Bi, Bao Zheng, Han Qi and other talented ministers to implement the Qingli New Code, which achieved excellent results. The Dynasty had entered its most prosperous stage, but some conservative figures accused the reformist officials of ganging up. Since Renzong had always hated cronyism, these reformist officials were later demoted to provincial officials. This marked the end of the brief execution Qingli New Code. On the frontier, Renzong appointed general Di Qing first to annihilate the rebellion of Southern Non Chicco then the provocation of Xixia.

After Renzong's passed away, Song Yingzong, Zhao Shu succeeded him. He was the grandson of Zhao Yuanfen, the brother of Zhenzong, and was established as crown prince in the seventh year of Jiayou. Emperor Yingzong was frail, with Queen Cao handling all state affairs at first. Yingzong only began ruling after May of the first year of Zhiping. Half a month after he reagained authority, a dispute broke out and lasted for 18 months. The cause of the incident was that Prime Minister Han Qi initiated a discussion on the status of Inzong's biological father. As a result, the government was divided into two factions; one faction believed that Yingzong's biological father, Monarch Pu, should be called Huang Bo(皇伯), the king's uncle, and the other faction believed that he should be called Huang Kao(皇伯). In the end, the empress dowager decided to call him Huang Kao, and only then did the argument subside. In general, Yingzong was still a propitious monarch. He continued to appoint talented former courtiers, also daring to unearth new talents. Yingzong also focused on the compilation of books; the creation of "Zizhi Tongjian" had been initiated by Yingzong.

New Policies[edit]

After Yingzong's death, his eldest son Shenzong ascended the throne. As he began his reign, he noticed the many malpractices that had arisen from the rules formulated in the early stages of the Song Dynasty, causing people's quality of lives to decline, and how Liao and Xia were ready to invade a weakened Song. Shenzong therefore was determined to reform, enabling Wang Anshi, a well-known reformist minister, to carry out political reforms, and appointed him as a politician. The new laws promoted by Wang Anshi included collective responsibility, the Green Sprouts program, exemption from military services, a trade management system, Baojia system, war horse breeding program, a new tax system and so on. However, the conservative party led by Sima Guang was strongly against the implementation of the new law. Coupled with the continuous occurrence of natural disasters in the country, Shenzong's determination to implement the reform had been shaken. In the seventh year of Xining, a drought occurred in North China, and an official named Zheng Xia presented an illustration of the suffering peasants to Shenzong. This shocked Shenzong and he ordered the suspension of all 18 laws from the reform the following day. Although these policies were restored soon, Shenzong had already begun to distrust Wang Anshi. In April of the seventh year of Xining, Wang Anshi was dismissed for the first time and sent out to Zhijiang Ningfu. Later, Lu Huiqing, a reformist official, acted recklessly, causing Wang Anshi to be reinstated in the capital, though still frustrated by the conservative party. In June of the ninth year of Xining, Wang Anshi's eldest son died. Wang Anshi took the opportunity to retire, so Shenzong dismissed Wang Anshi from his position again in October. After that, Wang Anshi did not engage in any stately affairs.

Wang Anshi

Although the opinions on Xining's New Policies were controversial, there was no doubt that Wang Anshi's intended effects from its implementation were never accomplished. Although the implementation of the new laws greatly increased the country's revenue and area of land cultivated, it also increased the burden on civilians. The military reforms were only a palliative effort, ultimately resulting in no advances in the military’s effectiveness. Coupled with Wang Anshi's impatience, Wang Anshi hastily implemented the reforms, not allowing the necessary longer period of time for society to benefit the fruits of the New Policies. Moreover, after the new law had been implemented for a while, the differences between the clauses and the effect of the reform continued increasing, and some measures originally benefiting the people began to disturb them instead. Improper implementation of the new law was also a reason for its loss of support. Among the reformers, Lu Huiqing, Zeng Bu, Li Ding, and Cai Jing were quite contentious characters, some of them even being regarded as villains. For this reform, historian Huang Renyu commented on this reform: "As early as nine hundred years before us, China attempted to manipulate the state by means of fiscal policies. Its scope and depth have not been seen elsewhere in the world at the time. However, modern finance is an omnipresent and omnipotent organizational force. Its rule included everything, and it does not allow any other competitors to rival it."

After Wang Anshi was dismissed, Shenzong continued reforming; this was known as "Yuanfeng Reforms." Although the reform of Yuanfeng was also called "Xinfeng New Policies" alongside Xining Reform, the reform efforts could not measure up to those in the Xining Reform. With an increasing national military force, Shenzong shifted his focus to the Northern tribes, determined to destroy Xixia. In the fifth years of Xining, Shenzong began to march westward in Xiaxia in May, and won great victories, boosting his confidence. In April of the fourth year of Yuanfeng, a coup occured within Xixia, and Shenzong took this opportunity to strike Xixia again. However, the expedition ended up as a fiasco. Shenzong couldn't bear it and therefore became bedridden. At the beginning of the first month of the eighth year of Yuanfeng, Shenzong named his sixtg son Zhao Mai as the heir. Although the new law promulgated by Shenzong was briefly abolished by his mother Empress Dowager Gao, it soon was restored, its execution continuing even to the Southern Song Dynasty.

After the death of Shenzong, the Empress Dowager Gao controlled the politics, strictly restraining Zhao Xu who had just assumed the throne as Zhezong. The Empress Dowager patronized the conservative party head, Sima Guang, and diminished Zhezong. This initiated a serious clash between the conservatives and the reformists, which was later known as the Yuanyou Conflicts. After Zhezong seized back authority, he denounced the conservative party and backed the reformist party, continuing employing the reforms.

Song Jiang, Fang La Civil Commotion[edit]

Zhezong did not leave any heirs so his brother Zhao Ji ascended the throne as Song Huizong after he passed away. Huizong was only interested in seeking enjoyment and had no interest in governing. In the beginning, the Empress Dowager helped rule the government, and tried to reharmonize the conservative and reformist party. This ended in absolute failure with the Empress Dowager's death. Huizong loved calligraphy, painting and horse riding since childhood. Huizong's reign was dissipated as he liked to visit the Qinglou. According to what the scholars said, he demanded massive construction projects like the Wansui Mountain built in the northeast corner of Kaifeng, which was then renamed Genyue. Genyue covered land with a radius more than ten miles, and had multiple sanctuaries like Hisbiscus Pond, "Furongchi"(芙蓉池) and Gentle Creek, "Cixi"(慈溪). It also housed pavilions, exotic birds and animals. Huizong also established the Yingfeng Bureau in Suzhou to plunder for peculiar gems, stones and minerals in the southeast, causing much social unrest.

In the first year of Xuanhe (1119), Song Jiang gathered thirty-six people and started commotions in Shandong and Hebei. He was later recruited as an official to resume peace. In the second year of Xuanhe (1120), the leader of the Manichaeism Fang La led the public to start a commotion in Qixian Village of She County (some said that the incident took place in Bangyuandong, Wannian Township, Chun'an). They later captured Hangzhou, and established a regime across the four provinces, six states and fifty-two counties of Zhejiang, Anhui, and Jiangxi, but was suppressed by the Song General Han Shizhong the following year.

Jingkang Incident[edit]

Song Huizong was a brilliant artist but a poor ruler.

Song Huizong ignored politics, and the government affairs were handed over to Cai Jing, head of the Six Thieves. Cai Jing encouraged polarization of parties by banning other party members and rejecting dissidents in the name of restoring law and justice. The day after Cai Jing took office, he issued an edict prohibiting the Yuanyou New Policy, which was later named the Yuanyou Liason. Virtuous ministers were ostracized from the political center. Huizong enjoyed grandiose feats, and so, when he saw Liao being attacked by Jin, quickly sent an ambassador to Jin in spring of the first year of Zhonghe. The two sides agreed to joint forces and attack Liao, Song being responsible for attacking Nanjing and Xijing. After Liao was defeated, the land of Yan Yun would be restored to Song. This was historically the "alliance conducted at sea". However, the Song army was defeated. The Jin Army looted the population of Yanjing and detained the three states, Ying, Ping and Luan. Although the Song's Cefan san state defender Zhang Jue and took back eleven out of the sixteen states of Youyun, in the seventh years of Xuanhe, the Jin attacked Song and soon occupied the three states and the states of Youyun, even reaching the capital of Song. Zhao Ji was so frightened he passed on his position to Qinzong, his son, and fled to Jiangnan. Qinzong was indecisive in the negotiations and was not persuasive at all. Later, in desperate circumstances, Li Gang was enabled to defend Dongjing. Although the defence was victorious, the Jin Dynasty did not give up and advanced south twice. In September of the first year of Jingkang, Taiyuan fell. In November, the Kaifeng city wall fell, and the Jin forced Qinzong to reconcile. On November 30th, Qin Zong was forced to go to the Jin's Camp to discuss the treatise, returning three days later. The Jin demanded a large amounts of precious stones, causing Qinzong to ransack away his belongings and property. Kaifeng City was besieged by the Jin Army, epidemic diseases seethed through the city, alongside the innumerable people dying of starvation. The Jin forced Qinzong to negotiate again, holding him captive, then attempted to extorted more wealth on the condition of his return, but the Song's wealth had already been emptied. The Jin never conquered Kaifeng's inner city, but Song General Fan Qiong delivered Huizong and members of the royal family to the Jin. On February 6, the second year of Jingkang, the two emperors of Huizhou and Qin were abolished by Jin Taizong and degraded to peasants.[3] After the Jin robbed almost all the royal treasures of the Northern Song Dynasty's Palace, a puppet regime, "Da Chu" was established, with Zhang Bangchang as the puppet emperor. Later, another puppet regime, Da Qi was established in 1130, with Liu Yu established as the emperor, which was known in history as "Liu Qi". The two emperors and their brothers were abducted by the Jin to the Five Kingdoms City, historically known as the "Jingkang Incidence". Only Qinzong's brother Kang Zhao Gou had been exempted this fate by being recruited abroad. Huizong was dubbed as Hunde Gong(muddle-headed duke)"昏德公", and Qinzong as Zhonghun Hou(fatuous lord)重昏候. In the end, both of them died in Jin.

Although Huizong did not have any political achievements, he has no doubt accomplished much in calligraphy and painting. Huizong's calligraphy and painting have an unparalleled position in the history of Chinese art, having created the Shoujin characters, and valuing the development of calligraphy and painting. The status of the Hanlin Academy of Painting and Calligraphy was greatly improved, and Zhang Zeduan, a famous painter and the author of the Qingming Shanghetu was promoted due to Huizong. Even his son Zhao Gou was influenced, later becoming an outstanding calligrapher.

Zhao Gou later reclaimed his position as emperor, establishing the Southern Song Dynasty, but compared to the Northern Song Dynasty, Hebei, Henan, and Shandong, had been lost, the territory greatly reduced.


  1. ^ 徐俊 (2000). 中国古代王朝和政权名号探源. Wuchang, Hubei: Central China Normal University Press. p. 250. ISBN 7-5622-2277-0.
  2. ^ 钱穆在《国史大纲》第六编《两宋之部》中说:“与秦、汉、隋、唐统一相随并来的,是中国的富强”,而宋朝“却始终摆脱不了贫弱的命运”。
  3. ^ 《宋史》:“金人以帝(按:宋徽宗、宋钦宗)及皇后、皇太子北归。凡法驾、卤簿,皇后以下车辂、卤簿,冠服、礼器、法物,大乐、教坊乐器,祭器、八宝、九鼎、圭璧,浑天仪、铜人、刻漏,古器、景灵宫供器,太清楼秘阁三馆书、天下州府图及官吏、内人、内侍、技艺、工匠、娼优,府库畜积,为之一空”