Song Political Reforms

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Song Political Reforms



Overview. Zhao Kuanyin, known as the Emperor Taizu, founded the Song dynasty (960-1279) by reunifying North China. By his death in 976 he had already laid down the foundations of one of the most famous dynasties in Chinese history, and all of China, apart from two independent kingdoms, had been under his control. The Northern Song dynasty (960-1125) had its capital in Kaifeng on the Grand Canal, a city more readily supplied from the South than Chang’an or Luoyang.

Fan Zhongyan. In the early Song era, scholars and officials advocated reforms to deal with the perceived problems. During the reign of the Renzong emperor (1023-1063), Fan Zhongyan proposed a ten-point program of reforms, including policies to improve the efficiency of the government, raise the standard of the examinations, increase agri-cultural yields, and reduce the demands on the people for labor service. Of these proposals, however, only some educational reforms were carried out, such as the creation of a national school system and the introduction of anonymity for examination candidates.


In the following memorial to the Emperor Renzong of the Song dynasty (960-1279), the eleventh-century reformer Wang Anshi expresses his political views:

Your servant observes that Your Majesty possesses the virtues of reverence and frugality, and is endowed with wisdom and sagacity. Rising early in the morning and retiring late in the evening, Your Majesty does not relax for even a single day. Neither music, beautiful women, dogs, horses, sightseeing, nor any of the other objects of pleasure distract or becloud your intelligence in the least.

Day by day the resources of the nation become more depleted and exhausted, while the moral tone and habits of life among the people daily deteriorate.

The cause of the distress is that we ignore the law* Now the government is strict in enforcing the law, and its statutes are complete to the last detail.

Source: Wang Anshi, Lin-ch’uan h$im~sheng wen-chi, in Sources of Chinese Tradition, edited by William Theodore de Baiy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960).

Ouyang Xiu. Another reformer was the eleventh-century writer Ouyang Xiu, who urged bringing Song society closer to the ideal Confucian society of the past. He even incited able men to establish a reform committee. He

understood that the organization of an opposition was unacceptable in politics but justified his suggestions on the grounds that his supporters would be men of principle while their opponents would be men motivated mainly by profit.

Wang Anshi. Wang Anshi was China’s most famous reformer in the eleventh century. Holding several official positions in the local governments, he presented to Emperor Renzong in 1058 a document known as the Ten Thousand Word Memorial. In it he expressed anxiety about the current situation of the Song empire and advocated a series of conventional Confucian measures to remedy the situation, in particular by putting more able officers in the state government. He made an important proposal that men be placed in positions for which they were qualified, an idea opposite to the Confucianism that an official should be a man of wide general learning. He also suggested that the emperor himself only oversee the government and support the reform. Emperor Renzong ignored Wang’s proposals, but when Emperor Shenzong (1068-1085) came to the throne, he appointed Wang his chief minister, a post he occupied until 1085.

New Laws. Wang began a reform program, known as the New Laws, affecting the economy and taxation, security and military affairs, and the administration. Identifying a shortage of revenue as one of the main weaknesses of the state, he suggested several important measures in which revenue might be increased. His measures were intended to help the ordinary people. Thereafter, the government offered farmers low-interest loans in order to enable them to escape the exploitation of moneylenders. Since many moneylenders were landlords, this policy was also meant to reduce the concentration of landholding and the evasion of taxation. Hating the extravagance of the rich landlords, Wang threatened to adopt a new policy to limit the manufacture and sale of luxury commodities. The military reforms were to reduce the cost of the imperial army. As a result, Wang renewed the baojia system, the age-old system of collective security. Groups of ten households were responsible for local security and for a supply of men to be trained as a militia. With regard to the administration reform, he intended to promote candi-dates of good character. His emphasis in the examination

was the exposition of the Confucian classics, rather than the exercise of literary skills. To achieve this end, Wang himself composed commentaries on the classics.

Conservative Reaction. Although Wang’s proposals fell within the Song tradition of pragmatic reform, conservative scholars began to attack him. The scholar Sima Guang resigned in protest against the reforms, claiming that the New Laws were to satisfy Wang’s own ambitions and to oppress the poor. Sima Guang’s attack on Wang Anshi seriously damaged the reformer’s reputation among Confucian scholars. In 1076 Wang was forced to leave the office, and several of the New Laws were abolished.

Revival. Ten years later, after the death of the Shenzong emperor, the new Zhezong emperor (1086-1101) appointed Cai Jing, Wang’s son-in-law, to office, and Cai Jing remained in power under the Huizong emperor (1101-1126). There was a partial revival of the reform program under Huizong, but it never recovered its former support.

Public Welfare. A public welfare system existed during the Song era. Using the charitable foundations created by the Buddhist monasteries in the seventh century as models, Song officials established orphanages, hospices, hospitals, dispensaries, public cemeteries, and reserve granaries.


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

Edward A. Kracke, Civil Service in Sung China: 960-1067 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953).

James T. C. Liu, China Turning Inward: Intellectual—Political Change in Early Twelfth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988).

Brian E. McKnight, Law and Order in Sung China (Cambridge: Cam-bridge University Press, 1992).