Post-classical history

Chapter Eight


The New Song

Between 1141 and 1165, the Song adjust to exile, while the Jin struggle to rule an empire

IN THE TWENTY YEARS since the Shaoxing Treaty, Emperor Gaozong of the Song had gained little power: no additional lands, no towns recaptured from the Jin, no treaties made with other countries. His court, now established at Lin’an, was vexed by problems that could not be solved.*

For one, his older brother Song Qinzong, taken captive in 1127 and deported to the north, was still alive and in Jin hands. His existence meant that Song Gaozong’s authority could easily be emptied of power; the Jin could always play their trump card, send Song Qinzong back home and fatally disrupt the Song chain of command.

In addition, the court was divided about what to do next. Many of Song Gaozong’s advisors agitated for an all-out assault on the north; others recommended peace and prudence; most were heavily critical of the actions taken by the Song emperors, Gaozong’s own predecessors, just before the loss of Kaifeng.

Song Gaozong found a path through this complicated landscape by prioritizing one thing above all else: the security and stability of the imperial court. He refused to provoke the Jin. He was conservative, and he was conciliatory, and he was careful; and as a result, he lived to the unlikely age of eighty.

But his policies changed the Song. The new world of the Southern Song was one in which they did not fight, but philosophized; painted and wrote poetry, rather than agitating; traded, rather than fought; looked inward, rather than outward towards the rest of the world. The Southern Song flourished without victory.1

The inward focus produced a boom inside the Song borders. Markets and fairs grew up in the countryside. Paper money, used for the first time a century before, circulated widely. Satin weave, with its smooth surface, was manufactured in cities to the south; in fact, the name satin is a French corruption of the word zaituni, used by merchants from Baghdad as the name of Quanzhou, the Southern Song city where satin manufacturing was centered. Farming grew more systematic, as Song intellectuals bent their attention to ways of increasing crops; Chen Fu’s Agricultural Treatise, completed around 1149, laid out astonishingly effective rules for land utilization, crop rotation, and systematic fertilization. The Emperor Gaozong rebuilt a series of official kilns for firing the lovely celadon porcelain of the Song, on the outskirts of Lin’an; they were duplicates of the official kilns at Kaifeng, now lost.2

Painting and poetry flourished at the court of Gaozong, in part because Gaozong banned, in 1144, the writing of any private, non-state-sponsored histories of the past. This was intended to cut off criticism over the way his dynasty had handled the Jin invasion, but it halted only criticism written in prose. Painting and poetry soon became the safest, and clearest, way to dissent.3

“The good sword under the recluse’s pillow / Clangs faintly all night long,” wrote Lu Yu, who hoped to see the Song invade and reclaim the north:

It longs to serve in distant expeditions,

I fetch wine and pour a libation to the sword:

A great treasure should remain obscure;

There are those who know your worth,

When the time comes they will use you.

You have have ample scope in your scabbard,

Why voice your complaints?4

Landscapes were safe to paint. And so blossoming plums, once the symbol of spring and new hopes, came to symbolize the southern willingness to go into exile, the misfortune and melancholy of the displaced.

Philosophers coped with the loss of the north in another way; instead of protesting, they searched for a new kind of peace with the status quo.

Traditional Confucianism had directed its followers towards the orderly performance of duties and rituals as the path to virtue: “It is by the rules of propriety that the character is established,” Confucius himself was reported to have said. Confucian academies taught the rules of order, the duties of each man in his place and station, the importance of ceremony. They had long been used to train and prepare state officials, and as a tool for statecraft, Confucianism had never progressed very far in tackling more abstract ideas.*


8.1 Ink Plum Blossoms, by Wang Yansou of the Song dynasty.
Credit: © Smithsonian, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Now the philosopher Zhu Xi began to transform Confucianism from a tool of the impotent state into a philosophy for every man. He brought to Confucianism a consideration of ultimate reality; he taught and spoke of the relationship between the essence of material things (the li) and their physical existence (the qi). Li in itself does not have form that can be touched; qi gives shape to li, but at the same time obscures it. The essence, the li, of every human being is essentially good; that goodness shines through when the qi is refined, polished, brought to the place where it is transparent. And that polishing and refinement is achieved not by faithful service to the government but through private contemplation and individual education: in Zhu Xi’s own phrases, “quiet sitting” and “pursuing inquiry and study.”5

“Start with an open mind,” the sage told a student who was struggling to find the truth, “then read one theory. Read one view before reading another. After you have read them again and again, what is right and wrong, useful and useless, will become apparent of itself.” Far to the west, Peter Abelard was making the same argument for dialectical inquiry: “No theory is so false,” he wrote, in the Collationes, “that it does not contain some element of truth; no dispute is so trivial that it does not possess something that can be learned.” Abelard’s argument was sired by Aristotle, born of an intellectual preoccupation; Zhu Xi’s, produced by more political factors. Neo-Confucianism was an adaptation of the state religion to a time when the state was frozen in place; and it spread throughout the Southern Song, becoming, perhaps, the dominant way in which the Song now understood the world.6

Meanwhile, the Jin were also adapting to their new condition. Jurchen tribal ways, best suited to wandering warriors, were less than useful in running a massive complicated state filled with conquered peoples and ancient cities. To keep their new empire together, the Jin modeled themselves, more and more, on the defeated enemy to the south.

In 1149, one of Akuta’s grandsons led a palace revolt against the reigning Jin emperor (an unpopular drunkard growing increasingly paranoid and vicious) and seized the throne for himself. The Jin chronicles refuse to grant him an imperial name; he remains known, simply, as Prince Hailing.

Hailing was a lover of Song culture: a student of the Song lyric poems known as ci, an aspiring poet himself, an enthusiastic tea drinker and chess player. As soon as power was in his hands, he abolished the old honorary titles still held by the heads of the Jurchen clans, and began the decadelong process of moving the capital of the Jin out of the far northern city of Shang-ching, centered in the old Jurchen homeland, down into the cradle of ancient China: to the old city of Yanjing, which he renamed Zhongdu, the “Central Capital.” He wrapped up the move by leveling the old Jurchen tribal headquarters in Shang-ching, wiping out the past.7

Remaking the Jin government in the image of the Song was not enough; he wanted not merely to be like the Song but to possess them. In 1159, with the move to Zhongdu almost complete, he began to prepare for a massive invasion: lining up half a million horses, drafting both Jurchen and Chinese into new regiments, assembling a fleet of barges to use as warships on the Yangtze. Anyone who criticized his plans, or questioned the wisdom of the invasion, was murdered.8

The invasion began in September of 1161 and was one-sided almost from the first battle. Hailing’s patched-together sea force was outmanned and outfought by the Song navy, with its fleet of small fast attack ships and massive (up to 360 feet in length), iron-hulled, paddle-wheel war galleys, propelled by the leg power of scores of Song seamen. The Song terrified the opposition by hurling “thunderclap bombs,” gunpowder and metal pellets encased in a paper and bamboo envelope, onto the Jin boats, where they exploded in a shower of projectiles and flame.9

After a particularly unsuccessful encounter on the Yangtze near Nanjing, in early December, Hailing withdrew to plan a new assault. But his sweeping changes, his brutal repression of dissenters, and his incompetence as an admiral were too much; his own generals murdered him, in camp, on December 15. His cousin Shizong took control of the Jin and immediately opened peace talks with the Song.10

But the invasion had strengthened the prowar faction at the Song court; and instead of making peace, Gaozong finally agreed to step down in favor of his adopted son Xiaozong. Xiaozong, then thirty-five, made reluctant preparations for war, and in 1163 the Song counterattack began. But as the Song divisions began to cross over into Jin territory, the new Jin ruler sent a hundred thousand men in response, and the Song were immediately driven back.

It was increasingly clear, even to the war-minded, that neither empire would make headway against the other. In 1165, the two emperors signed the Longxing Peace Accord, setting the border between the nations at the Huai river.11


8.1 The Song and Jin at Peace

The uneasy truce would last for decades; but regret lingered. “In death I know well enough all things end in emptiness,” wrote Lu Yu, on his deathbed,

still I grieve that I never saw the Nine Provinces made one.

On the day the king’s armies march north to take the heartland,

at the family sacrifice don’t forget to let your father know.12


* Lin’an was renamed Hangzhou after the Mongol invasion of 1276; many later accounts use this name for the Southern Song years as well.

* See Bauer, The History of the Ancient World, pp. 494–498.

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