The Sung Dynasty and Neo-Confucianism


After the collapse of the Tang Empire China came under the control of the Sung dynasty which is characterized by Confucian revival, often referred to as Neo-Confucianism.

Following the decline of the Tang Dynasty, the Sung dynasty (960-1276AD) established itself over China. The Sung dynasty’s rule is divided into two parts: Northern Sung (960-1126AD) and Southern Sung (1127-1276AD). The northern Sung refers to the period when the Sung empire’s suzerainty stretched across China proper and the capital was situated in Kaifeng (near the Yellow River), while the southern Sung refers to the period when the Sung ruled the southern part of China (near the Yangzhi River) and the capital was shifted to Hangzhou.

The Sung rule was characterized by a decline in the status of the military leaders as an elite class, and the establishment of the scholarly educated-class as the new elite. This loss of status for the military elite was controlled by the imperial rulers in a bid to ensure that in the future military rebellions (like the Ann Lushan rebellion that brought down the Tang Empire) did not take place. Much of this decline in status of the military elite was also as a direct result of Confucian revival called Neo-Confucianism.

One reason for this revival was the constant threat of nomadic invaders from the north, such as the Tanguts, the Khitans, and the Jurchens. These invaders had often used Buddhism (a universalistic religion) to validate their rule over the ethnically Chinese. Thus, the more China became exposed to external influences, the more it began to look inward -at its own cultural practices and intellectual systems, such as Confucianism.

The Sung period was a time of intellectual ferment; scholars began to revisit and reinterpret Confucian texts. And the examination system (which was based on Confucian texts) for electing bureaucratic officials was streamlined. Now, in theory at least, people of any social class could attempt to take part in the civil services examination and become part of the Sung administrative setup. Since a considerable number of the officials were beginning to get elected this way, slowly but surely the literati became a powerful class within Chinese society.

This trend intensified during the Southern Sung period when the Sung dynasty was pushed into the south after they lost territory to the Jurchens of the Jin dynasty. The psychological impact of the loss of territory also contributed to the Confucian revival.

Coinciding with this shift to the south was the technological innovation in the production of rice as a result of which Chinese economy became firmly agrarian. This was much in line with Confucian thinking since Confucianism considered agriculture a noble profession, as opposed to business. Another technological innovation was the moveable type which allowed the wide-spread printing of Confucian texts. Increase in rice production in the fertile regions of the south impacted the local economies and led to an increase in population; meanwhile paper printing made Confucian texts and books widely available. With increasing prosperity and emphasis on Confucianism, the south established itself as the cultural center during the Southern Sung period.

The impact of Confucian revival was greatly felt on Chinese society, especially in the realm of gender relations. Women were expected to be subservient to men and it was during this time that the concept of man and woman as the complementary yang (masculine) and yin (feminine) was strengthened, and the practice of foot-binding became popular.

The Sung dynasty was finally overthrown by the Mongols under Khubilai Khan in the late 13th century, and China was ruled by the Mongolian Yuan dynasty for the next hundred years. However, the intellectual heirs of the Neo-Confucian movement of the Sung ensured that Chinese culture survived even under foreign rule.