Lecture Eighteen

Economy and Society in Southern Song

Scope: After the loss of north China to the Jurchen in 1127, the Song court moved to the city of Hangzhou. The Southern Song survived until the Mongol conquest of the 1270s. During this century and a half, there was tremendous growth and development in China’s economy, with a significant expansion in domestic and international, particularly maritime, trade, and with important technological innovations that enhanced production in both agriculture and industry. The great ceramic center at Jingdezhen became one of the first true industrial cities in history, with massive production lines and warehouses. A merchant class began to expand and compete for social status with the more traditional literati elite, which was based on agricultural wealth. Consumer goods proliferated as networks of specialized production and long-distance trade created a more truly national market.


I. The Southern Song stabilized by the mid-1130s with a new capital at Hangzhou.

A. The Song now controlled about half the territory of China proper, with the border between Song and Jin running about midway between the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers.

1. Since at least the middle Tang, China’s center of population had been shifting to the south.

2. In the Southern Song period, about 60 percent of Chinese lived in Song territory.

3. The geography of the south, which featured more hills and valleys than the broad North China Plain, gave rise to greater local diversity in language dialects and cultural practices.

4. Local elites were stronger in the south and played greater roles in local society, with somewhat less of a focus on national, empire- wide affairs.

B. In conjunction with the growth of the examination culture and overall population growth, elite society evolved in several ways.

1. Literati families came to intermarry in much more local contexts than had previously been the case.

2. Local elites took on a number of quasi-governmental functions, such as infrastructure maintenance and public security.

3. Local private academies became important in the educational sphere.

II. Development of the commercial economy was rapid and generated new tensions in Chinese society.

A. The more fragmented geography of the south encouraged local specialization in production, and this, in turn, fostered the growth of long-distance trade.

1. In agriculture, some regions became the grain production centers, while others began to specialize in tea or in the supply of mulberry leaves for the silk industry.

2. Textile production, especially silk and cotton, began to be concentrated in the Jiangnan region, near the mouth of the Yangzi.

3. At the city of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, great imperial kilns were built, and this became one of the first true industrial cities in the world.

4. Tens of thousands of workers lived in Jingdezhen, where the ceramic factories ran around the clock and great warehouses served a network of distribution that covered the empire and extended overseas.

B. Song imperial policy encouraged not only the growth of Jingdezhen but economic development in general.

1. The state expanded coinage to increase the money supply and allowed Chinese coins to circulate across East Asia, becoming an international currency in Korea and Japan, as well.

2. The Song also experimented with the use of paper money and began to develop other instruments of exchange, not unlike the early development of banking in Flanders and northern Italy around the same time.

III. A class of wealthy merchants grew in size, generating new social stresses.

A. In the traditional Confucian social ideology, merchants were the bottom rank of society.

1. There was a four-rank hierarchy of social classes.

2. The literati, the shi, were at the top, because they managed the affairs of society through good government.

3. Peasant farmers came next, because they produced the food for everyone.

4. Artisans were next, because they made useful goods.

5. Merchants were at the bottom, because they did not produce anything themselves but merely made profits from the labors of others; in effect, they were social parasites.

B. Now, however, merchants were numerous enough and wealthy enough to compete with the literati for prestige.

1. Merchant families built elaborate mansions, wore fine clothes, collected books and art, and donated money to public charities.

2. Merchants and their sons and grandsons, however, remained barred from participation in the imperial examinations.

C. In the West, this kind of tension gave rise to the growth of bourgeois society, but not in China.

1. Although there were tensions and, at times, antagonisms between literati and merchant interests, there was also convergence.

2. Many literati families, especially in the wealthy Jiangnan region, became silent partners in commercial ventures, investing profits from their landholdings in pawnshops or textile production along with merchants.

3. Merchant families remained excluded from the examination system, but they could purchase honorary titles from the government and, thus, shared in a system of public prestige with the literati.

4. Merchant families also gained honors through patronage for religious or cultural activities in local communities.

5. The growth of the commercial economy and the social evolution it engendered were disrupted by the Mongol conquest.

6. Before we take up that story, however, we need to consider the full development of Daoxue Neo-Confucianism in the work of Zhu Xi, which we will examine in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Shiba Yoshinobu, Commerce and Society in Sung China.

Supplemental Reading:

Valerie Hansen, Changing Gods in Medieval China, 1127-1276.

Questions to Consider:

1. The Southern Song was geographically the smallest of the major Chinese dynasties, yet its influence through international trade was quite extensive. How might the economic changes taking place in the 12th and 13th centuries have affected the self-image of educated Chinese?

2. A corollary of the economic expansion of the Southern Song was greater ease of travel for more Chinese, which is reflected in the growth of travel writing. How might this be related to the changes in painting discussed in Lecture Sixteen?

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