Song - the most overrated Chinese dynasty?

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Song - the most overrated Chinese dynasty?

Unread postby WeiWenDi » Fri Oct 19, 2012 4:27 pm

For some reason I still cannot fathom, the Song Dynasty still commands an astonishing amount of respect amongst China scholars, and indeed among Chinese people themselves. I recently got into a discussion with (whom I assume to be) a Chinese nationalist who rejected out of hand any notion that there was any culture more advanced than the Song Dynasty.

And here I was thinking: are we talking about the same Song Dynasty here?

The same dynasty which popularised the vicious, barbaric practice of foot-binding?

The same dynasty whose vaunted official bureaucratic culture was rife with nepotism and intrigue?

The same dynasty which all but encouraged official corruption at every single level, and whose efforts to combat it were legendary in their half-heartedness and ineptitude (with the possible exception of Wang Anshi and his Xinfa reforms)?

The same dynasty whose legendary materialism, commercialism and decadence were railed against by virtually all of the Confucian philosophers associated with it?

The same dynasty which managed to screw up the lives of peasants so badly that it produced Song Jiang (China's version of Robin Hood)?

The same dynasty which managed to lose half of its territory to the Jurchens, before falling with practically zero resistance to the Mongols? Reeeeeal inspirational, that.

I mean, claiming that the Song Dynasty was great because of the cultural achievements of its critics (like Song Jiang, Wang Anshi, Zhu Xi and the rest of the neo-Confucians who railed against the norms of the time) seems to me the historical equivalent of claiming that the reign of King John in England deserves to be called great because the Magna Carta was signed then, or that Margaret Thatcher deserves to be called great because her administration caused Judas Priest to write 'Breaking the Law' or Iron Maiden to write 'Killers'. And the whole foot-binding thing is kind of a deal-breaker for me, particularly after the footloose, fancy-free, healthy-sized, outspoken and quite frankly tomboyish ladies preferred by the Tang Dynasty (a true mark of cultural superiority, IMHO).

So, Song Dynasty: overrated dynasty? Or the most overrated dynasty?
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Re: Song - the most overrated Chinese dynasty?

Unread postby Lady Wu » Sat Oct 20, 2012 5:32 am

The Tang emperors weren't really Chinese. ;)

I think you are focusing a bit too much on the negatives. Yes, bureaucratic culture sucked and the dynasty was probably the weakest (in terms of military and administrative efficiency) among the major dynasties. The scholars and politicians were mostly a self-serving, hypocritical bunch. And foot-binding, yes.

But in terms of artistic, economic, and technological achievements, the Song really holds its own compared with any dynasty. And I mean, the Zizhi Tongjian was a Song work. And they invented movable type. And they had great mathematicians like Jia Xian and Yang Hui. Etc.
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Re: Song - the most overrated Chinese dynasty?

Unread postby WeiWenDi » Sat Oct 20, 2012 3:16 pm

Lady Wu wrote:The Tang emperors weren't really Chinese. ;)


Touché, Madame Wu.

Lady Wu wrote:I think you are focusing a bit too much on the negatives. Yes, bureaucratic culture sucked and the dynasty was probably the weakest (in terms of military and administrative efficiency) among the major dynasties. The scholars and politicians were mostly a self-serving, hypocritical bunch. And foot-binding, yes.

But in terms of artistic, economic, and technological achievements, the Song really holds its own compared with any dynasty. And I mean, the Zizhi Tongjian was a Song work. And they invented movable type. And they had great mathematicians like Jia Xian and Yang Hui. Etc.


I think I would have had more respect for Sima Guang and the ZZTJ if they were considered merely as works of history. The problem is that they were basically long editorials meant to keep the Song Emperor from taking reasonable steps (within Confucian terms) to fix his country's own problems. Conversely, the more I read about Wang Anshi, the more I respect and admire the man, who was motivated by a purely Mencian desire to keep the officials honest and to keep the common people from starving to death in the fields, and who was undermined in his efforts not by honest critique but by the very court intrigue and corruption he set out to fight.

Sima Guang represents, in spite of his formidable skill as an historian, a few of the worst qualities in Song-era neo-Confucianism, in particular: his hidebound rigidity, his concern for rote learning over skilful application of moral principles (remember what Confucius said about this: 「誦詩三百,授之以政,不達;使於四方,不能專對;雖多,亦奚以為?」 Analects 13:5), and (on a related note) his reversal of the classical priorities of Confucius from 仁義禮 to 禮義仁. On the other hand, Wang Anshi is very unfairly maligned by subsequent Confucian historians given the diligence with which he pursued his reforms, and the way in which those reforms attempted to capture the spirit of Confucian principles (reorganisation of the military from the lowest administrative level reflecting the familism and 'subsidiarity principle' articulated in the 《大學》, a thoroughly Mencian distrust of private monopolies and commercialism, and a quite frankly Catholic concern for just wages and fair lending practices).

Anyway, off on a tangent again. Where was I?

Ah, yes, the achievements of the Song Dynasty.

Again, I would argue that the attitudes of all too many of the Song Dynasty's 'Great Men' you mention - such as Shen Kuo and Su Song - were very firmly countercultural, if not outright politically radical. Su Song chose to distance himself from court life even as he was granted high status within it. Shen Kuo made no attempt to hide or hedge about his support for Wang Anshi and his reforms. Though you did have dissidents amongst the Great Men of the preceding Tang Dynasty - Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan, for example - most of them were notably happy with the state of affairs in the Tang (Li Bai, Du Fu and Zhang Sui chief among them).
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Re: Song - the most overrated Chinese dynasty?

Unread postby Lady Wu » Sun Oct 21, 2012 12:12 am

The question is, is it necessary to determine the greatness of a historical period by its politics and prevailing attitudes?

I don't think any Chinese person would claim that Song is the most powerful and most representative of Chinese dynasties. I think most are embarrassed by its military impotence and corruption. None of the Song dynasty emperors is particularly popular (with the modern crowd anyway).

However, those men you labelled "countercultural" and "radical", whatever their motives or intentions were, have provided the Chinese people with all these things that are considered integral parts of the Chinese identity, if not cornerstones of Chinese culture. Plus, what was Europe doing in the 11th Century? (For you know Chinese "greatness" is often defined in comparison with the West.)
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Re: Song - the most overrated Chinese dynasty?

Unread postby WeiWenDi » Sun Oct 21, 2012 4:34 am

Lady Wu wrote:However, those men you labelled "countercultural" and "radical", whatever their motives or intentions were, have provided the Chinese people with all these things that are considered integral parts of the Chinese identity, if not cornerstones of Chinese culture. Plus, what was Europe doing in the 11th Century? (For you know Chinese "greatness" is often defined in comparison with the West.)


Unfortunately, all too many in Europe were doing many of the same things the Song were doing - kicking peasants off their land (or making wage slaves of them) for the sake of consolidating huge estates unaccountable to any government, and in the process creating huge waves of social bandits (hence the legend of Robin Hood) and a downtrodden and easily-exploitable urban underclass, to name just one example.

But other than that? The ideal of courtly love was taking root in Western Europe (and all the poetry that went with it), and the cultural production of the Byzantine Empire was absolutely flourishing (that is, until they started taking it from both ends in the Crusades). Once the Crusades were underway, moreover, Western Europe came into greater contact through Byzantium and the Islamic world with the ancient Greek philosophers, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, medicine, engineering. And, of course, the groundwork laid in the 11th and 12th centuries and the reopening of European thought to the ancient Greeks would go on to produce (in Italy in the 13th century) one of the single greatest philosophers of the post-Axial world, the Angelic Doctor St Thomas Aquinas - in whose favour (in spite of their many agreements) I would very readily bet against any and all of his neo-Confucian contemporaries.
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Re: Song - the most overrated Chinese dynasty?

Unread postby WeiWenDi » Wed Oct 31, 2012 1:39 pm

That said, yeah, I think I was being more than a bit unfair toward the Song. They did indeed produce a whole massive amount of cultural, technological, scientific and governmental achievements, even if they tended to be all of the above of what I mentioned.

And they did produce Wang Anshi (who completely kicked ass, both in his poetry and in his governance model), Zhu Xi, Shen Kuo et cetera - major props for that!
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Re: Song - the most overrated Chinese dynasty?

Unread postby Starscream » Fri Nov 09, 2012 12:22 pm

I think the three kingdoms is the most overrated period of Chinese history. Less than 100 years yet produced 12 KOEI historical simulation games, 6 dynasty warriors, dozens of drama adaptations, opera pieces and what not. :lol:

Song was definitely a controversial period in terms of what glory it brings to the modern Chinese people. During its time, literature and arts flourished. I am no expert in this field but from my visit to one of Shanghai's museums, I get the sense of the legacy the Song period poets, calligraphers and artists left behind. If you see some of the surviving pieces of calligraphy, you will truly be in awe with the highly unique artistic sense of the different artists.

Of course, Song had a nice collection of embarrassing emperors, 2 held captive by Jin when the capital fell and Song Gaozu, wasn't he the guy responsible somewhat for Yue Fei's death? Song also produced some really famous names in the gutter of Chinese history like Qin Hui, Cai Jing, Gao Qiu, etc. But rough times also create heroes, so we have Yang Yanzhao, Bao Zheng, Kou Zun, Pang Mei etc.

Just some general comments about Song dynasty above. Wish I have time to read up on it. :?
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Re: Song - the most overrated Chinese dynasty?

Unread postby agga » Fri Nov 09, 2012 10:50 pm

as far as government goes, i've understood the song to be a strange, failed experiment in comparison to what came before and after. but the strangeness seems to have allowed a flourishing of ideas that didn't repeat later on (or this is the impression that many chinese seem to have when i talk to them about song).

also, isn't a lot of the popular "respect" kind of derived from the tragic heroism associated with the song? they're kind of the shu-han of chinese macrohistory.

also:

WeiWenDi wrote:Shen Kuo and Su Song - were very firmly countercultural... Shen Kuo made no attempt to hide or hedge about his support for Wang Anshi and his reforms.


does anyone know of a collection, somewhere, of english translations of shen kuo?

ALSO, how was the tang dynasty "not really chinese"? too many historical ties to the xianbei?
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