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  • Two Recently Published Histories on the Song Dynasty (960–1279)
  • James M. Hargett (bio)
Dieter Kuhn. The Age of Confucian Rule: The Song Transformation of China. Cambridge, MA, and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009. 356 pp. Hardcover $35.00, ISBN 978-0-674-03146-3.
Denis C. Twitchett and Paul Jakov Smith, editors. The Cambridge History of China, Volume 5, Part 1, The Sung Dynasty and Its Precursors, 907–1279. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xxii, 1095 pages. Hardcover $180.00, ISBN 978-0-521-81248-1.

The general or overall history of the Song (sometimes spelled “Sung”) dynasty (960–1279), as it is described in many modern sources, runs something like this: Externally, the Song was a weak dynasty because it failed to fend off its belligerent non-Chinese neighbors to the north and west (weak Chinese emperors, nefarious ministers, and misguided political factions are always blamed). This failure led to the occupation of north China in the 1120s by the Jin (or Jurchen), a warlike Tungusic people originally from Manchuria, and the later loss of all China to the Mongols in 1279. At the same time, however, these histories also relate that internally the Song was a glorious period in Chinese history that “emerged as the most advanced civilization on earth” (Kuhn, dust jacket) and, because of its numerous achievements, “heralded the dawn of modernity” (Kuhn, p. 1). The magnificent advancements of this era, we are told, touch upon virtually all aspects of Chinese culture and society. Just some of these remarkable advances include new developments in the arts (ci poetry, landscape painting, drama), philosophy (the rise and influence of Daoxue , or Neo-Confucianism), economy (fiscal reforms, use of paper money, ship building), urban history (the appearance of large cities and transportation networks driven by commerce), fine arts (pottery, ceramics), science and technology (the compass, gunpowder, moveable-type printing), and education (literacy, printed books, and a revamped civil service examination system). There is much more. Historians who write about these achievements, in their attempt to present a general picture or overall assessment of the dynasty, tend to rely on and repeat certain key words and concepts intended to suggest underlying themes or currents of the period. A favorite among these key words is “transformation.” That is to say, Chinese culture and society experienced fundamental changes between the tenth and thirteenth centuries that distinguish the Song in a major way from all that came before it and, at the same time, [End Page 293] established a model for all the dynasties that followed. Most prominent here, the historians argue, is the rise of a new class of scholar-officials (shidafu ) who came to power mainly because of merit (via the examination system) rather than aristocratic family connections. It was precisely the “rationalist” thinking and “inventiveness” (more key words) of these men that led to the development of moveable-type printing and other technical marvels of the Song period. Moreover, we are informed that this new class of scholar-officials embraced culture and peace (wen ) rather than aggression and war (wu ), and this helps to explain the military weakness of the dynasty and its inability to deal militarily with foreign threats along its borders. Overall, the Song is described as a rapidly changing world, to which its scholar-officials adapted, and in so doing initiated fundamental changes in all aspects of society that essentially defined “traditional China” and remained in place until the collapse of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Some modern scholars even argue that aspects of the Song dynasty transformation are still evident in Chinese government and society today.

As is perhaps the case with all general surveys of lengthy historical periods, there is some truth, a bit of distortion, and much exaggeration in this summary of the Song dynasty. Historians in ancient China, like their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere, often rewrote history to their liking, usually so it would accord with their own political and/or philosophical views, especially as that history relates to concerns and issues in their own contemporary society. The praise-and-blame approach to history, so common in traditional China, especially in the official, government-sponsored dynastic histories (guoshi...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9367
Print ISSN
1069-5834
Pages
pp. 293-304
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-06
Open Access
No
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