Bling and Explosions: China & the Song Dynasty

Hello everyone, and sorry to have been a bit absent as of late. As many of you probably know I am desperately trying to finish my PhD so I don’t get a lot of time to write about anything other than Vikings, women, and fashion…yeah. However, I have been playing a lot of Total War: 3 Kingdoms, and as these things usually come about, my love for eastern cultures has resurfaced again. So, I decided to bring you something about one of the most fascinating periods of Chinese history: the Song Dynasty. Yes, I could be writing about epic China and Cao Cao and the Battle of the red Cliff instead, but that would be expected and therefore, boring. So, instead today we are going to talk about money and guns…:D

Why these two things? Well, because these were arguably some of the most important developments that the song contributed towards not just Chinese history, but the entire world. The Song succeeded in centralising power in China after a relatively turbulent period known as the 5 Dynasties and 10 kingdoms era. This was a series of upheavals and conflicts that followed the Tang dynasty which had primarily managed to keep Chinese civilization going thanks to their military prowess. This did not avoid their fall, though. So, after usurping power like any Asian drama would teach you was the norm in these parts of the world, The Song decided that invest their efforts in bureaucracy rather than the military. That said though, the Southern Song did make considerable improvement to their naval assets which gave them a solid backbone to stand against the Jin at the north. Their key pieces for this strategy were the paddle-wheel boats which became a quintessential part of their navy.

However, like I was saying, what really allowed the Song dynasty to excel was their economic development and scientific advancements. There are masses to talk about regarding this topic so I will attempt to give you a brief summary. The Song were arguably some of the most prosperous people in the medieval world. They had abundant trade thanks to their connections through the Yangze river which was well invested into joint stock companies that saw prosperity over this period. Kaifeng, the Northern song capital was a bustling city with merchants and artisans organised in guilds. According to Gang Deng Maritime trade, with its new naval developments did much for the growth of China allowing new connections that were not spoiled by the tartars and the Mongols such as south east Asia as well as east Africa. The iron industry was booming in this period too which was a greatly demanded resource, particularly with regards to the military. However, Rongxing Guo argues that one of the reasons behind the prosperity of the Song during the 11th century is due to the fact that there was a great shift in the government structure, removing regional military officials and replacing them with civilian scholars, which in return gave a lot of power back to the emperor. With this power and the influx of trade, the economy reached such stakes that the amount of minted copper skyrocketed to around 6 billion coins in 1085, which lead to the development of paper printed money. So, it is thanks to the Song Jiaozi as it was called that we use bank notes nowadays.

With all this money, opportunities came for the Song to develop other aspects of the society that perhaps have been a little neglected in previous times. What the Song decided to take away from their military output against the war tribes chipping at their frontiers, they decided to invest in technology to overcome their enemies. Alongside with the revolution that were the movable type printing innovations (not just for the sake of money) two other great technological advances came from the Song to change the world: the compass and firearms. Dieter Kuhn advises that, although the compass was perhaps not that revolutionary for the Chinese themselves, it had a huge impact in European societies and would eventually lead to the golden age of Western navigation and sea exploration. Gunpowder had been invented in China in the 9th century, but its application to the military had not been fully explored until he Song dynasty. The manuscript of 1044 known as Wujing Zongyao lists one of the first formulas for the use of gunpowder in the form of bombs for to be used as part of siege equipment. There were many other weapons that were developed during this time period, amongst which the flamethrower is one of my favourites. The Song repurpose the technology of Greek fire with a double piston hose gun to make this new weapon that became super useful and deadly.  But gunpowder was not the only thing that allowed the Song to have an advantage over their adversaries. The improvements done overall to their society stimulated learning and great engineering developments came from this particularly in terms of siege equipment. In the list of inventions that gave the Song this military prowess, Andrade includes the long-range catapults, new artillery crossbows and rapid-fire cartridges

But of course, this does not mean the world around the Song was not changing. They were partially forced to improve their military tactics due to the constant development of their warlike neighbours, particularly the Mongols and the states of Liao, Jin and XI Xia with which they had contested territories. So, when considering the success, at least I these terms, of this dynasty, one must not forget that the Far East was almost always in constant movement and that although the period of the Song is somewhat quieter in comparison to their predecessors, part of the reason behind this was because of the stalemate of forces between them and their rivals. This pushed for new methods, new techniques, and thus the Chinese states flourished to heights that the Europeans would not experience for a few hundred years.

This is my brief intro to the Song and their great history. If you are curious about the couple of sources I mention above, the details are below. Asian history is fascinated and seriously neglected in the west, so, if this inspires curiously, go to the library and get on with some learning 😉

Andrade – The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History

Guo – An Introduction to the Chinese Economy: The Driving Forces Behind Modern Day

Kuhn – The Age of Confucian Rule: The Song Transformation of China


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s