Chinese cities of the Song period became some of the largest in the world, owing to technological advances and an agricultural revolution. Kaifeng, which served as the capital and seat of government during the Northern Song (960–1127), had some half a million residents in 1021, with another half-million living in the city’s nine designated suburbs.
Hangzhou, the capital during the Southern Song (1127–1279), had more than 400,000 inhabitants during the late 12th century, primarily due to its trading position at the southern terminus of the Grand Canal, known as the lower Yangzi’s “grain basket.”
One of the fundamental changes in Chinese society from the Tang to the Song dynasty was the transformation of the scholarly elite, which included the scholar-officials and all those who held examination degrees or were candidates of the civil service examinations. The Song scholar-officials and examination candidates were better educated, less aristocratic in their habits, and more numerous than in the Tang period.
The wealthy families living on the estates of these scholar-officials – as well as rich merchants, princes, and nobles—often maintained a massive entourage of employed servants, technical staffs, and personal favorites. They hired personal artisans such as jewellers, sculptors, and embroiderers, while servants cleaned house, shopped for goods, attended to kitchen duties, and prepared furnishings for banquets, weddings, and funerals.
Rich families also hosted literary men such as secretaries, copyists, and hired tutors to educate their sons. They were also the patrons of musicians, painters, poets, chess players, and storytellers.
The entertainment quarters of Kaifeng, Hangzhou, and other cities featured amusements including snake charmers, sword swallowers, fortunetellers, acrobats, puppeteers, actors, storytellers, tea houses and restaurants, and brokers offering young women who could serve as hired maids, concubines, singing girls, or prostitutes.
During the Northern Song dynasty, the government gradually reestablished an official school system after it was heavily damaged during the preceding Five Dynasties period. Government-established schools soon eclipsed the role of private academies by the mid-11th century.
The Chinese philosophy of Confucius (551–479 BC) and the hierarchical social order his disciples adhered to had become embedded into mainstream Chinese culture since the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141–87 BC). During the Song dynasty, the entire Chinese society was theoretically modelled upon this familial social order of superiors and inferiors.
Women of the Song period are typically seen as well educated and interested in expressing themselves through poetry, yet more reserved, and respectful.
Despite advances in relative social freedoms and legal rights, women were still expected to attend to the duties of the home. Along with child-rearing, women were responsible for spinning yarn, weaving cloth, sewing clothing, and cooking meals.
In many ways, life for peasants in the countryside during the Song dynasty was similar to those living in previous dynasties. The people spent their days ploughing and planting in the fields, tending to their families, selling crops and goods at local markets, visiting local temples, and arranging ceremonies such as marriages. Cases of banditry, which local officials were forced to combat, occurred constantly in the countryside.
The economic prosperity of the Song period prompted many families to provide their daughters with larger dowries in order to attract the wealthiest sons-in-law to provide a stable life of economic security for their daughters.
Ancient Chinese Daoism, ancestor worship, and foreign-originated Buddhism were the most prominent religious practices in the Song period. Chinese folk religion continued as a tradition in China, drawing upon aspects of both ancient Chinese mythology and ancestor worship.
Much like the multicultural and metropolitan atmosphere of the earlier Tang capital at Chang’an, the Song capitals at Kaifeng and Hangzhou were home to an array of traveling foreigners and ethnic minorities. There was a great amount of contact with the outside world. Trade and tribute embassies from Egypt, Yemen, India, Korea, the Kara-Khanid Khanate of Central Asia and elsewhere came to Song China in order to bolster trade relations, while the Chinese sent embassies abroad to encourage foreign trade.
edited by staff