Kuora: The greatness that could have been for the Song Dynasty

This week’s column comes from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora on February 8, 2018.

Could the Song Dynasty have been the greatest one in China’s history if there was no invasion from the North?

I think the Song already counts among the greatest of Chinese dynasties even with the invasion(s) — the Qidan presence in the 10th and 11th centuries, the Nüzhen in the 12th, the Tangut Xixia until they were extinguished by the Mongols, and of course the one that ended Song: the Mongols in the 13th.

While it may have been militarily rather weak, I think this was a feature, and not a bug. The ascendancy of civilian over military rule was one of the things that made Song so great. Zhao Kuangyin’s great achievement, really, was to break the power of militarists who, from the time of the An-Shi Rebellion in mid-Tang, had been the scourge of the realm and had kept it divided for over 50 years after the final demise of Tang.

The Song was a fantastic time for scholarship, and is well known for the revival of Confucianism — what is now called “Neo-Confucianism” — and its revitalization as a moral force and blueprint for state institutions. It was also a time of tremendous economic growth, owing in part to agricultural advances but as much if not more to relatively enlightened policies that opened certain industries to competition; and a time of significant financial innovation, when the “flying money” developed first in Tang came into much wider use, and certificates or receipts of deposit were used in lieu of bulky, unwieldy coin. Technological advances could fill a book – indeed, have filled books. The arts and letter also flourished in Song.

Little doubt remains that had its nomadic neighbors left it alone, the Song would have stood out as the paramount Chinese dynasty.

Kuora is a weekly column.