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Comparison of the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties Essay

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Updated: Dec 22nd, 2021


The Song Dynasty was an empire that ruled China for more than three centuries. The dynasty that ruled between 960 and 1279 was characterized by a period of economic prosperity for the whole of China. The dynasty came into authority immediately after the reign of the Five Dynasties. Once the Song Dynasty fell from power, the Yuan Dynasty took over the reins of power. The Song Dynasty is famed to be the first world government to use paper money as a medium of trade.

This was also the first government in the history of the world to form a fully pledged army based in the sea. The Song Dynasty is also famed to be the first kingdom to invent the use of gunpowder during the war. This invention made the dynasty produce one of the most formidable armies that have ever existed in the history of the world. This was also the first dynasty to use a compass that could show real directions. (Brook 15)

The reign of the Song Dynasty was divided into two periods. These were the Northern and Southern Song dynasties. The capital city of the Northern Song dynasty was based in Bianjing. This was a northern city, which had a lot of influence on the community. During the reign of the Northern Song, the dynasty wielded a lot of influence in the whole of China. The Northern Song Dynasty lasted between 970-1127. This was almost half the period that the Song Dynasty was in reign.

For all those who were living in the kingdom during this time, it was a period characterized by economic prosperity. On the other hand, the Southern Song Dynasty refers to the reign of the Song Dynasty after they had lost control of the Northern side of their territory to their foes. This happened after the Jin Dynasty attacked and chased the Song from their inhabitance in the Northern side of China. On its part, the Northern Song lasted from 1127-1279. This period marked the last half of the Song Dynasty’s reign. During this period, the Song council of elders shifted their operations from Bianjing to the Southern city of Lin’an. This, later on, became modern-day Hangzhou. (Brook 16)

Although the Song Dynasty had lost control of one part of its territory, it remained a force to reckon with in China. The Southern part that they had been forced to retreat to carried the largest part of the Chinese population. In total, this area carried almost 60 percent of the country’s population. Most of the Southern land was also aberrantly fertile and therefore the dynasty was able to carry on with agriculture. Since the Southern side was bordered by the sea, the dynasty was able to strengthen its naval base. This enabled the dynasty to defend itself from outside attacks. (Kruger 236)

To defend itself from further attacks from the Jin Dynasty, the Song Dynasty that was by now based on the southern side formed a strong military army to defend its borders. By 1234, the Mongol Empire had managed to rout Jin from the Northern side that they had earlier on managed to wrestle from the Song Dynasty. Relation between the Song and Mongol Empires remained sour with each seeking to displace the other. This came true in 1279 when the Mongol Empire under Kublai Khan managed to defeat the Song Dynasty. This defeat brought to an end the reign of the Song Dynasty that had managed to last for more than three decades. This was also something that saw the unification of China for the first time in many years. (Bai 100)

Comparison between Northern Song and Southern Song

Although the Northern and Southern Song was ruled by the same leaders, many differences emerged during this period. One of these differences was in the area of agriculture. After the Jurchen had forced the Song dynasty to flee to the Southern side of China, many people decided to go along with their former administration. Most of these were the ordinary people who had mastered the art of agriculture in the Northern side. One thing that the Song Dynasty was committed to being the agricultural sector. The Song administration had come up with modern farming methods something that had greatly improved agriculture in the region. (Kruger 237)

Upon crossing to the Southern side of China, these peasant farmers picked up their old trade of farming. Naturally, the southern side of China was more fertile than the Northern side and therefore these farmers were able to take their farming to a higher level. Since more than half of the population had crossed over to the Southern side, there arose a shortage of farming land. This forced the government to let the farmers till all the land that was available for farming.

The Northern Song dynasty had not managed to attain this level of farming before. During this period, farmers learned how to use irrigation in farming. This greatly improved their crop output since they could now practice farming throughout the year. To make things easier for the farmers, the government provided them with irrigation water. This was something that had not been possible in the Northern Song period. During this period, the use of agrarian tools was also invented. The agricultural tools that had previously been used were now made using new technology. This made work easier hence increasing production. (Bai 102)

Still, on the issue of agriculture, some crops could not be planted in the united empire. An example of this was rice. In Northern Song, it was possible to plant rice since the land was flat, which is a requirement for planting rice. This was not possible in Southern Song since the land is usually comprised of mountains. After the sour relations between the Song and the Jurchen in the Northern side, it became important to introduce a new kind of rice in Southern Song. This led to the introduction of a type of rice called “unpretending” that came from Vietnam. This breed of rice became very popular in the Southern Song. This was something that was not present in the Northern part. (Bai 103)

During the period of Northern Song, mining and smelting of metals were a common feature. The Northern part was full of mining ores that produced iron, steel, and gold. Upon smelting, government officials taxed the finished goods something that enabled them to get money for running the dynasty. The Jurchen occupied these areas when they attacked the song Dynasty in 1129. Gold was especially used by the Song Dynasty for trade with other countries. From the sale of gold products, the government was able to get money to expand the territory. All these minerals were lacking in Southern Song and the government had to look for an alternative source of revenue. (Kruger 240)

Due to an increase in agriculture in Southern Song, there was increased production of cotton. Since the government was not getting any tax from minerals that were present in Northern Song, they had to begin taxing agricultural products to get revenue. To encourage farmers to participate more in farming, the government manufactured spinning wheels to enable the production of large amounts of fabric. Since silk was desired by the rich and favored foreign trade, the government took over this business. The government employed people to work in the production plants that it had to build across the land. The large production of a large number of fabrics called for the need to come up with sophisticated spinning machines. This invention was also something that had hitherto not been practiced in Northern Song. (Bai 104)

Comparing the Northern Song and Southern Song, one would also find a big difference in how the people were living. While the people in Northern Song lived peacefully, the same was not true during Southern Song. After the Jurchen Dynasty had displaced the Song dynasty from the Northern side of China, both sides remained in constant enmity. The Liao, Jin, and Western Xia were constantly attacking the Southern Song. This was in contrast to the peace they had experienced in Northern Song.

Although this was the case, the area continued to experience economic growth due to the fertility of the southern side of China. Although there were areas that were still economically underdeveloped in Southern Song, these areas were still fertile and therefore were not in abject poverty. The opposite was true in Northern Song where the people had to rely on employment from the government. This self-dependence made the people in Southern Song experience a period of unprecedented economic growth. (Bai 105)

During the period of Northern Song, China was known for the art of shipbuilding. These ships were used to transport agricultural products from the Southern part of China to the Northern part. The ships were also used as a link between the Northern and Southern parts using the Imperial Canal. Once the Song Dynasty was defeated in the Northern frontier, there was no need to continue with the art of ship making in the Southern frontier.

This saw the art of ship making gradually disappearing from the Song Dynasty. Instead, the dynasty concentrated on the manufacture of warships during the period of Southern Song. This was a break from the dynasty’s tradition of manufacturing transport ships. During the Southern Song, there was also new technology applied in the manufacture of these ships. (Brook 30)

Another thing that differentiated the Northern Song from other dynasties existing back then was the unification of the land. During its reign, China was more united than at any other time in history. This was after Emperor Taizu conquered and brought to an end the reign of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, which had reigned before it. This had a well-built government that was able to withstand its enemies. Perhaps the biggest achievement of the dynasty was its policy to elect government officials based on merit. In this form of governance, one was not elected to a post owing to their allegiance to the party but rather by their achievements.

This made the government prosper since it had able people leading its operations. This criterion saw the invention of the first-ever known use of maps in the history of the world. Those charged with the creation of maps were able to draw a detailed map showing the Chinese boundaries. Due to this specialization, it was possible to come up with many inventions in different fields. This included fields like communication, astronomy, and science. Much literature was written on these subjects during this period. These came to be used by students in the respective fields in the later years. This was made possible after the art of typing had been invented. (Bai 111)

Although the criterion used in selecting government officials had its merits in Northern Song, the practice also had its shortcomings. At the start of the 11th century, a dispute arose that was threatening to rip the dynasty apart. This came about after some members of the cabinet disagreed with their fellow ministers on how the society was supposed to be handled. Some ministers felt that the power had to be placed in the hands of the people.

These were mainly those who did not pay allegiance to the Emperor but were only interested in their career. The other school of thought belonged to those who even though chosen by merit were bent on remaining in power forever. This group rejected proposals by ministers who wanted the process of recruiting public officials to be free and fair something that would ensure that only competent people joined the public service. Those who felt that they should be given the chance to carry out this selection highly opposed the proposal. Such kind of cabinet wrangling was rarely witnessed during the Southern Song period. (Brook 40)

After Chancellor Fan Zhongyan was sacked for advocating the establishment of a people-oriented government, there arose other leaders who introduced legislation that was meant to muzzle the people further. Led by Wang Anshi, the leaders felt that the educational system was not right for the country. This saw the abolition of the education system something that saw the declining of educational standards in the country.

The government also came with legislation to tax the land owned by individuals something that incensed many people especially those with large tracts of land. The running of some businesses was also left as a prerogative of the government creating a monopoly that saw many people fall out of business. The worst mistake that the Northern Song government committed was supporting militias instead of strengthening the regular army. This weakened the country’s defense and made it susceptible to foreign attacks. These reforms brought wider cracks in the once strong dynasty and later on caused its downfall. This wrangling between cabinet members was unheard of in the period of Southern Song. (Brook 50)

Another thing that was characteristic of Northern Song was the diplomatic relations it maintained with its neighbors. The emperor elected envoys in almost all countries of the world. This increased trade between the dynasty and other countries of the world. The good relations between the country and its neighbors also ensured that the dynasty had peace within its borders. Instead of using war to settle disputes with his neighbors, Taizu used diplomacy as an alternative.

This was especially effective with the Liao Dynasty that was Song’s greatest enemy. In an event where diplomacy failed, the Northern Song reverted to the use of its military prowess to quell any rebellion. This created not only peace but also gained them respect from its neighbors. (Brook 70)

After the defeat of Northern Song by the Jin Dynasty, the remaining part fled to the South. With the help of the remaining army, they were able to regroup and bring life back to normal. Since the Southern Song knew that they had to defend their territory from any outside attacks, they decided to put much emphasis on their army. This army was able to defeat troops from the Jin Dynasty that were outnumbering it by far. The government also came up with massive projects meant to strengthen their harbor from outside interference. This kind of military awareness from the navy was not present in Northern Song. (Kruger 355)

Though there were many differences between the Northern and Southern Song periods, there are things that stood out between the two communities. One of these was its social organization. The dynasty enjoyed one of the most sophisticated administrative and multifaceted social organizations. In addition, this period saw the largest population growth ever witnessed in China’s history. During this period, China became famed for having one of the largest cities in the world. During the Northern and Southern Song Dynasty, the government had put in place schemes that were meant to take care of the poor in the society.

This included the building of retirement homes for the old, the establishment of public clinics, and set aside places where the poor could be buried upon their death. Throughout both periods, there was widespread communication that had been made possible by the establishment of the post office service. (Kruger 358)

During both the Northern and Southern periods, women were held in lower esteem than men were. This was following Confucius’s beliefs that were the main form of a religion embraced by the dynasty. Although this was the case, women were left to have a say in their homes and at their workplace for those who owned businesses. As time went by, the dynasty accepted the right of women to own and inherit property. (Kruger 358)

Another thing that was widely spread during both the Northern and Southern Song periods was the practice of religion. Religion was the main feature in people’s lives and many people were guided by it. There was also lots of literature written on the subject of religion. In both periods, Daoism, Buddhism, and the worship of spirits were widespread. During this period, there was a widespread migration of Buddhist Monks from India to China than any other period in history. There was also sprouting of other small religious groups in the country. In short, both the Northern and Southern Songs created room for the expansion of religion in China. During both periods, the rule of law and order was also widely practiced. This was also the period when forensic science was first used. (Kruger 370)


The Song Dynasty marked a period of great economic growth in China. During this period that lasted for more than three centuries, china was more united than ever. After the emperor was defeated on the Northern frontier by the Jin Dynasty, they regrouped and formed the Southern Song. These two periods had some great differences that were evident to anyone. The Southern Song especially was more successful due to the fertile agricultural land that was put to use. Despite the differences, some things remained the same in the two periods. These included things like agriculture, the freedom of worship among other many things.

Works Cited

Bai, Shouyi. An Outline History of China. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. 2002. 100-140. Print.

Brook, Timothy. The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China Berkeley: University of California Press. 1999. 15-85. Print.

Kruger, Rayne. All Under Heaven: A Complete History of China. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons. 2003. 236-375. Print.

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