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Cultural Splendor of the Song Dynasty (Ⅶ)

By Xu Jijun| ezhejiang.gov.cn| Updated: December 28, 2022 L M S

Throughout Chinese history, no other dynasty can be compared with the Song dynasty (960-1279) when it comes to people‘s wealth, leisure activities and entertainment. The quality of life during the Song was supposed to be among the highest. While the Tang dynasty (618-907) is generally seen as warlike, well-organized and disciplined, Song is considered more mercantile, and even hedonic and debauched. As Wang Dan (957-1017), a chancellor during the reign of Emperor Zhenzong (968-1022), proudly claimed, "People in the capital city worth millions are many, and those worth tens of thousands uncountable.“

Wares such as pottery and porcelain vases and mugs, as well as wine cups that the Tang people saw as resplendent were commonplace and usually found in ordinary Song people‘s homes. In his opus Mengxi Bitan, or The Dream Pool Essays, the Song scientist Shen Kuo (1031-1095) said half in earnest and half in jest, "The Tang people composed many poems on how plenty and rich their wares were, simply because they are too poor…Now, even street performers own these items.“

The Song sovereigns would undoubtedly endorse what Shen said. Zhao Kuangyin (927-976), the founding emperor of Song, publicly stated when he infamously "relieved the generals of their power at a feast“, "life is gone with just a spin of a wheel, and for those who aspire to be rich, they simply hope to accumulate more wealth for themselves and their posterities...“ He then bestowed rewards and riches worth generations on these generals, and asked them "to buy plenty of dancers, indulge in drinking every day and live happily until the end“.

It is true that Zhao Kuangyin‘s words were primarily intended as a political maneuver, but they also portended what was to come. Thanks to the much freer development of commerce and business, Song‘s economy was highly advanced. The upper classes in the Song period were invariably avid in their pursuit of pleasure, which later quickly spread through society. Even common people were "extravagant“ in their consumption. The French sinologist Jacques Gernet therefore concluded after extensive research on this period: "Thirteen-century China is striking for its modernism…In the spheres of social life, art, amusements, institutions and technology, China was incontestably the most advanced country of the time. She had every right to consider the rest of the world as peopled by mere barbarians.“

In Kaifeng, the capital of the Northern Song (960-1127), and Lin‘an (present-day Hangzhou), the capital of the Southern Song (1127-1279), two of the world‘s largest and richest cities at the time, the leisure and entertainment that local residents were engaging in were so varied, including among others food, tea ceremony, clothing, beauty, living, flower arrangement, incense, collection, sports, travel and games and toys, that they became magnets for neighboring countries and regions. Marco Polo (1254-1324), the Venetian merchant and explorer, famously proclaimed that the city of Hangzhou was "beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world“. He marveled that "the number and wealth of the merchants, and the amount of goods that passed through their hands, was so enormous that no man could form a just estimate thereof“.

The Song dynasty was among the most prosperous in food culture. During this period, the sources of food materials were further expanded, and food processing and production technology were further developed. In terms of cooking, remarkable progress had been made, particularly the rise of seafood and fish dishes and the tendency to treat dishes as arts. In fact, it was during the Song that prototypes of the so-called major cuisines of China emerged. Thanks to the collapse of the Fang-Shi (walled ward) System, physical barriers were virtually nonexistent for the catering industry. Restaurants, tea houses, eateries could be found everywhere in the city. Spending heavily on feasts was seemingly the trend.

The Song people cared as much about clothing and housing as about food. Hierarchies imposed through clothing styles, colors and accessories were rapidly broken as rich merchants binged on clothes that used to be reserved for aristocrats. The common people followed suit, putting them on publicly with no compunction. People spent even more on their houses. The rich and powerful, in particular, splurged on precious wood, ceramic tiles, rare paintings and antiques when building and decorating their mansions.

When material needs are satisfied, spiritual quests often follow, and this was illustrated in people‘s leisure activities and cultural pursuits during the Song dynasty. During thje Northern Song period, Washe, a special area for public entertainment, and Goulan, theatres in the form of fenced-off rings, could be found in every part of the capital city; there were 50 Goulan in Kaifeng, with some able to house up to 1,000 spectators. In Southern Song, as many as 23 Washe were found in the capital Lin‘an. Day and night, rain or shine, entertainment and performances would go on. Music, chess, calligraphy and painting — the so-called four arts of Chinese scholars — also flourished, and specialized markets for artworks, antiques and curios, flowers and pet animals (i.e. fish and birds), inkstones, ink brushes, papers and printed books, prospered.

The Song people also loved traveling. Every day, a large number of people and families, rich or poor, went traveling. Kaifeng and Lin‘an, the two capital cities, became the natural choices, and Jinming Lake (literally "Golden Bright Lake“) in Kaifeng and the West Lake in Lin‘an were the favorite destinations. One notable development was that women were recorded to live a much freer life, seeking fun on their own at night, drinking and gambling without restraints. 

In the final analysis, people in the Song dynasty enjoyed a much richer and diverse life in both the material and the spiritual spheres. Building on the previous dynasties and relying on its economic and commercial development, the whole society glowed with a spirit of openness, freedom, dynamism, serenity and uninhibition.