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Song Dynasty: Military Weakness and Industrial Strength

Which Chinese dynasty was the weakest (in terms of military)? It's certainly not a hard question. Would it be the Han Dynasty that nearly fell to the XIongnu? Would it be the Qin Dynasty that had reigned for only fifteen years? Would it be the Sui that had lasted for only 37 years? Perhaps it's the Ming, since they quickly fell to the Shun rebels and Manchus.

No, it is none of the above. Rather, there was another dynasty called the Song Dynasty. Although it is renowned for being the weakest Chinese dynasty, it remained the most prosperous.

It wasn't that they became post-World War II Germany or Japan, who purposely defund their militaries to allow for more economic growth. Rather, the Song poured tons and tons of gold and silver into making sure that their military was up-to-date and ready-to-fight. They bred horses (ineffectively), produced gunpowder, and raised up armies.

Military Weakness

Why do I say that they have the worst military of all the Chinese dynasties? They were the first to have gunpowder and fire lances, after all. Surely their military would be better than the Tang or Han, both of which didn't use gunpowder...?

Unfortunately, no. The Song Dynasty's military was flawed from the get-go. When I say that their military was flawed, I don't mean that their equipment was flawed or the generals were flawed. The command structure itself was flawed.

After the military had been a big part of the Tang dynasty's collapse, the Song had treaded with caution. The founder of the Song himself had been a military man who had rebelled against his ruler. As a result, the Song often attempted to restrict the powers of the military.

While this doesn't sound bad, it was much worse than it seems. In order to control the military, bureaucrats were often placed in charge of the army. The Song did have generals, but the bureaucrats were often the supervisors (and made the decision themselves). A magistrate from Quanzhou, Fujian who specialized in providing criminal justice, for example, could be placed in charge of a Shaanxi army about to charge against the Khitans. Not surprisingly, he would make a few (maybe not just a few) mistakes.

That's wasn't the only mistake they made with the military. Take the famous southern Song general Yue Fei who led Chinese forces against the Jurchen Jin. He was more successful than the rest of the Song generals.

Stone Lake, a collection of Fan Chengda's poetry, says:


"Yue Fei...repelled the enemy assaults in 1133 and 1134, until in 1135 the now confident Song army was in a position to recover all of north China from the Jin dynasty ... [In 1140,] Yue Fei initiated a general counterattack against the Jin armies, defeating one enemy after another until he set up camp within range of the Northern Song dynasty's old capital city, Kaifeng, in preparation for the final assault against the enemy. Yet in the same year Qin [Hui] ordered Yue Fei to abandon his campaign, and in 1141 Yue Fei was summoned back to the Southern Song capital. It is believed that the emperor then ordered Yue Fei to be hanged."
Yes, that's right. As soon as the military started being successful, the Song emperor went and executed the general responsible. As dumb as that sounds, it's true. They were worried that the military was going to gain back some power from these victories. As a result, the Song dynasty was stuck in a tributary relationship with the Jurchen Jin - though instead of 'foreign barbarians' bowing to China, it was China who was bowing to the northern barbarians.

 By the time the Mongols re-unified under Genghis Khan, the Song had been losing ground to the Jin. Desperate to free themselves from the disastrous tributary relationship with the Jin, the Song immediately latched onto the Mongols as a potential ally. The two nations would divide the Jin between themselves, the Song thought.

They clearly hadn't learned from the mistakes of the past. The Song had previously allied with the Jin to fight against the Khitan Liao (the Jin had been former vassals of the Liao, though they rose up against the Liao). They had agreed to split the Liao between themselves - the Song finally getting Beijing back, while the Jin would take the northern parts of the Liao.

The Song were inept and couldn't take the Liao land - so the Jin took it instead. The Song promised to give tribute to the Jin in return for the land, and the Jin returned the land - but the Song reneged on their deal. Furious, the Jin conquered northern China - and the rest, they say, is history. The Song were forced to flee to their new capital of Hangzhou.

The Mongols refused to stop after taking over the Jin. They would continue continue to advance further and further, beginning the hardest part yet - taking over the southern Song. This particular Mongol campaign is renowned for having taken up more military resources, military troops, and military effort than any other campaign (including the conquests of Central Asia, Persia, or Russia). In the end, the Song military began to try and redeem itself - though they failed halfway.

Industrial Strength

Despite all this talk about the Song's military weaknesses, that wasn't all there was to them. After all, they needed some sort of compensation for their inept military. And they definitely got that compensation. Song China was the most industrialized nation on Earth for its time - and it would retain that title for another 600 years, until Britain managed to claim that title.

The Song Dynasty created the movable type and gunpowder, great achievements for their time. They created the first windmill, introduced the first paper-printed money, and-wait until you hear this...

Shen Kuo, famous Song court astronomer and scientist, was the one to discover the Bessemer Process (albeit not as refined of a process, but... whatever). Su Song created a hydraulic-powered astronomical clock tower. They refined the odometer. They had created a proto-flying shuttle loom. They were mere inches from the glory of industrialization... yet they failed.

Finally, we should talk about one of the issues the Song dynasty was torn apart by.

Wang Anshi

The name doesn't sound awe-inspiring, does it? And if you read my article about An Lushan, the name seems like it belongs to one of the rebels who tore apart the Tang Dynasty (especially with my foreshadowing).

I suppose you could call Wang a 'rebel'. To be more honest, Wang Anshi was a proto-socialist reformer.
  • He advocated for militias in order to stop any invading force.
  • He sought to provide farmers with seasonal loans to allow them to purchase materials like seeds.
  • He attempted to suppress corruption.
  • He expanded the civil service examinations.
  • He increased currency circulation.
  • He broke up private monopolies.
From a modern perspective, Wang was probably doing pretty good stuff for the Song dynasty. Unfortunately, not everybody saw things that way. The Song court evolved to have a Conservative Faction and a Reformist Faction. The Reformists supported Wang Anshi's reforms, and the Conservatives opposed it.

With the death of Wang's patron, Emperor Shenzong, Wang was chased out by Empress Dowager Gao and later died. With the death of the Conservative Empress Dowager Gao, the new Emperor Zhezong supported the Reformist Faction.

This led to bitter infighting among the members of the Song imperial court and began a deadlock similar to what we see today in the American Congress. It was near impossible for policies to get past the ministers.

Overall, the Song Dynasty is my favorite dynasty of all. For all their military and political flaws, they still advanced greatly culturally and economically.

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