Art and Literature of the Chinese Song Dynasty

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Anonymous painting of Cai Wenji and her Xiongnu husband (Zuoxianwang) dating from the Southern Song.

The Sung, or Song Dynasty, was the ruling government in China between 960 and 1279. Brilliant strides in landscape and portrait painting graced this period.

The Song Dynasty was the successor of the Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms Period in Chinese history. It was divided into two distinctive eras known as the Northern Song and the Southern Song. Each period was influential in major changes in the art and culture of the population.

Art of the Song Dynasty

The Song Dynasty, particularly in the Northern Song period, was a vibrant, exciting time for the arts and literature. There were many new developments in the art of landscape and portrait painting. The people of China had come through a long and dangerous war and much of the populace had retreated to the mountains. Here they found peace, and a sense of order in nature which they began to capture in large landscapes. In the cities a style of court painting became popular. Artists attending the Imperial Painting Academy served the needs of the court with portraits and landscapes. Emperor Huizong was an impressive artist and practiced the art of calligraphy.

Literature of the Song Dynasty

Just as the shift in visual art took place during this time so did the art of writing. The ci poetry form arose in these years because the nation was peaceful. More emphasis was put on literary and artistic talents than on great military action. Ci poetry was meant to be set to a melody and was composed to express inner emotions of love, grief, or quiet meditation. It was sung. with gentle feeling, in out of the way courtyards in modulated voices and enjoyed over a glass of wine.

Along with the poetry several huge tomes of literature emerged, such as the history text of the Zizhi Tonglian which took up a thousand volumes with several million written with Chinese characters. Travel literature came into vogue with the works of geographer Fan Chengda and Su Shi who wrote Record of Stone Bell Mountain. This was the first introduction of persuasive writing for philosophical purposes.

Inventions of the Song Dynasty

Social life was much prized during the Sung Dynasty with the elites of the kingdom gathering to trade art and celebrate with festivals and lively entertainment. Among the early inventions of this period was the movable type printing press and woodblock printing. Great strides were made in science, philosophy, engineering and other intellectual feats. Philosophers expounded on Confucianism and intermingled it with Buddhist teachings. Much of what is known of Neo-Confucianism was born in these centuries. A shift from the aristocrats to the bureaucrats became obvious. One impressive task during the reign of Emperor Taizu was detailed maps of all the area including the cities and provinces. He was instrumental in supporting the work of Zhang Sixun, an engineer that designed the astronomical clock tower.

Gifts to the World from the Song Dynasty

Literature, art, technology and an adjustment of social conscious were among the most treasured revelations of this time period. Culture and scholarly active abounded during a relative time of peace. The effect is still felt today, not only in China, but in the world at large.