Song Dynasty (960-1279): Commercial Revolution

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Song Dynasty (960-1279): Commercial Revolution



Economic Expansion. While the Song dynasty (960-1279) was characterized by financial problems and military weakness, it also experienced an economic expansion so great that it was referred to as the “commercial revolution” by scholars. The economic upturn was chiefly propelled by improved agricultural technologies; the use of the abacus, gunpowder, and new printing techniques; the growth of domestic and foreign trade; and the development of a money economy.

Technological Development. A great increase in agricultural productivity occurred during the Song era. In southern China the double cropping of rice was made possible by the introduction of a new strain of rice, which matured more quickly than local plants, from Champa in southern Vietnam. Several major water-control projects were undertaken that significantly improved the irrigation of rice paddy fields. In addition, more commercialized crops were introduced into farming. For instance, the growth of tea plants on the hillsides and the cultivation of cotton not only contributed to the income of growers but also diversified the agricultural resources of the country.

Other Advances. Meanwhile, other technological developments took place during the Song dynasty. Traditional techniques in silk weaving, porcelain making, and lacquer production were further developed. By the later Song dynasty the Chinese began to use the abacus, which became the primary calculating device for East Asian people until the twentieth century. Chinese scholars also learned how to use gunpowder in explosives, which was especially important in mining practices. Among all the technological developments, printing was the most signifi-cant advance. Printing technology evolved from an earlier technique of stone rubbing, which produced a block print with white characters on a black background by adhering a moist sheet to the stone and rubbing the surface with lamp soot. By the eleventh century the Chinese had learned to arrange movable carved characters on a woodblock, thus inventing the technique whose principles are still applicable to modern printing technology.


The city of Kaifeng (K’ai-feng), Henan Province, served as the capital of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1125). Kaifeng’s importance as a trade center grew rapidly. The following is a description of activi-ties there:

K’ai-feng was the marketplace for its immediate population, for places in the market area of which it was the center, and for more distant places in North or South China or foreign countries. Beyond the things produced or made in K’ai-feng or its satellite cities, it consumed or exported (sometimes after processing) many products or commodities from elsewhere. The first Sung emperors had fostered the textile industries, resettling workers from Szechwan and the Yangtze delta. The iron and steel industries of the K’ai-feng market area for the first time replaced small-scale and more or less seasonal operations with highly organized enterprises dependent on more sophisticated techniques, great investments in equipment, and large numbers of workers. The industries were developed both by the government and by private iron masters with extensive capital resources. K’ai-feng workshops of many kinds, of course, produced articles of luxury for the imperial family, high officials, and wealthy businessmen or other residents, and such special products naturally figured in the export trade. Tea from the south was an important item for re-export.

Source: E. A. Kracke Jr., “Sung K’ai-feng: Pragmatic Metropolis and Formalistic Capital,” in Crisis and Prosperity in Sung China, edited by John Winthrop Haeger (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1975), pp. 51-52.

Domestic Trade. Historically, Chinese governments of the various dynasties despised merchants and instituted government restrictions on commercial activities. This contempt and restraint on commercialism, however, was broken during the late Tang and Song periods. Private marketplaces sprawled far beyond the traditional government markets. Various specialized urban shops lined the main streets and tempted undecided buyers and pedestrians who crowded the busy avenues. The development of private trade advanced to such a degree that merchants were

divided into two categories: wholesalers and retailers. The zuogu (large wholesalers or brokers) accumulated vast quantities of farm produce and manufactured goods in their warehouses for later sale to retailers, who ranged from xingshang zoufan (petty traveling peddlers) and local shop owners to large-scale proprietors with networks of branch shops in different cities. The specialization of private trade and the increase in the volume of exchange caused hang (trade guilds), organizations of traders who set prices and protected their members from competition, to become necessary. The most important guilds included merchants who sold such basic commodities as salt, grain, tea, or silk.

Growth of Foreign Trade. In addition to domestic barter, foreign trade during the Song period experienced tremendous growth. Trade with the outside world was first conducted overland, starting as early as the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), when the Chinese started trading with merchants from Central Asia, West Asia, and the Mediterranean region. Merchants traveled across the Silk Road, a series of routes that ran from Kazakhstan to Chang’an, across the Sinkiang and Gobi deserts. Neighboring tribal states to the north and northwest had long cultivated a taste for such products as silk and tea, and there was a steady demand for Chinese goods. Continuous failures of military operations against the Liao, Xi Xia, and Jin made the Song lose land and millions of people to their nomadic neighbors. These expatriates further increased the demand for Chinese commodities. Commercial trade and profit made it possible for the Song government to pay huge appeasements to their enemies and to buy horses from the steppe for the defense of China against the “barbarians.”

Overseas Trade. During the Song period overland trade was supplemented by overseas efforts. Although trade by sea with India and the Middle East had existed since the late Han period, maritime trade grew rapidly during the Song era. Improvements in the technology of shipbuilding and navigation assisted overseas commercial activities. Chinese vessels now utilized sails, oars, and transverse water-tight bulkheads (to prevent ships from sinking). The Chinese also used the compass to help navigate their ships. With the development of oceanic commerce, the eastern and southeastern coasts of China became primary regions for international trade and foreign contacts, which significantly reduced the importance of the northwestern frontier. The latter region gradually sank to the status of a backward hinterland. A few large ports along the southern coast and on the lower Yangzi River were developed and the government established custom houses to collect duties. Chuanzhou, in particular, with its convenient access to the tea and porcelain-producing regions of China, emerged as the leading port city.

Nature of Foreign Trade. The development of maritime trade is a good indication of Chinese prosperity and demonstrates the leading role China played in the economic life of the world. China mostly exported manufactured goods; its silk fabrics and porcelain products were appreciated worldwide. Chinese books, prints, and art objects were in great demand in Korea and Japan. Chinese copper coins were shipped to the east and to southeastern Asian coun-tries. China in return mainly imported raw materials, such as horses and hides from Inner Asia, as well as spices, gems, ivory, and other luxury items from southern and southeastern Asia.

Foreign Traders. The trade with neighboring Korea and Japan was dominated by Korean merchants, while Iranians and Arabs controlled much of the trade with southern and western Asia. Foreign traders lived under their own customary laws, in designated quarters in the Chinese cities, a practice similar to the extraterritorial nature of modern times, but without its humiliating and insulting undertones to Chinese pride and sovereignty. Traders from west Asia, for instance, brought Islam with them and built mosques in their communities. These quarters served as home to thou-sands of foreigners in Guangzhou and Yanzhou, a major industrial and commercial center on the lower Yangzi.

Money Economy. During the late Tang and Song periods, China experienced a great expansion of its money economy. Chinese copper coins came into use as early as the eastern Zhou period (771 B.C.E.-256 B.C.E.), but only now did this currency play an indispensable role in government finances and in the daily lives of Chinese citizens. By the end of the first century of the Song dynasty, cash began to comprise a significant portion of imperial tax revenues, and the income from government monopolies and commercial taxes exceeded agricultural taxes. During the Southern Song era (1127-1279) the tax income in cash surpassed that of its grain and textile revenues. Previously, taxes were largely collected in the form of agricultural products. The wider use of money increased the demand for copper coinage. To ease the pressure on this currency, the Song government incorporated gold and silver into its monetary system. The most important advance, however, was the development of paper money. Since copper coins were too cumbersome and bulky for long-distance commercial transactions, various paper credits and monies were invented for such activities. One type of paper money, called “flying cash,” was used to pay for goods bought from distant regions and could be reimbursed at the Chinese capital. The development of a money economy during the Song period reached a level far ahead of the rest of the world.

Urban Centers. Commercial development of the Song period made the urbanization of China inevitable. By the twelfth century China had fifty-two large urban prefectures with more than one hundred thousand households each. In these urban centers culture was sophisticated and diversified, and life was exciting and luxurious. Amusement quarters dominated city life; one could indulge in the many liquor and tea stores, in restaurants featuring specialized cuisines, and in houses furnished with female entertainers and prostitutes. City dwellers could also be amused by puppet shows, acrobats, storytellers, jugglers, and other entertainments. As the highly diversified urban life glittered, its dark side also began to show at this time. Urban poverty and pauperism emerged. Private charitable organizations, sponsored by local notables, rose to take care of the misfortunate ones and thus became a tradition largely responsible for social welfare in China.


John K. Fairbank and others, East Asia: Tradition and Transformation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973).

Herbert Franke and Denis Twitchett, eds., The Cambridge History of China, volume 6, Alien Regimes and Border States, 907-1368 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

F. W. Mote, Imperial China, 900-1800 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Witold Rodzinski, A History of China, 2 volumes (Oxford &, New York: Pergamon, 1979-1983).

John Winthrop Haeger, ed., Crisis and Prosperity in Sung China (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1975).

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Song Dynasty (960-1279): Commercial Revolution

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