In terms of political reformation, the Song Dynasty was arguably one of the most revolutionary in Chinese history. Before the establishment of the Song, political conflicts and territorial disputes had been resolved largely through warfare. Anyone who wished to establish a dynasty had to command substantial military power, and usually accomplished their aims by usurping the throne of another dynasty. Zhao Kuangyin was no different, as he was an army general working under the Later Zhou Dynasty (951–960) who eventually seized power during a military coup. However, after ascending the throne as Emperor Taizu of the Song Dynasty, Zhao Kuangyin changed his tactics. It seems a leopard really can change his spots after all!
Rather than using his military prowess to vanquish his enemies, Taizu was a master of political manoeuvring and advocated diplomacy when it came to relations with other kingdoms. He offered rival military generals honorary titles, cushy government jobs, and generous pensions in exchange for their allegiance, ensuring that he would never have to face them in battle. Never before had an emperor utilised such an unusual strategy in Chinese history. Yet it seemed that, with Taizu’s astute intellect, he had judged the situation well. After the chaos of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907-960), the population had long become weary of war, and Taizu’s humane administration appealed to them. The Song Dynasty swiftly rose in prestige and by 979 China was unified under the rule of the Song Emperor Taizong.
One of Taizu’s other major political reforms was the increased importance he placed on the imperial examinations as a method for selecting government officials. Although these examinations had existed since the Sui Dynasty (581-618), they had rarely been used to any great effect and officials were often chosen based on their military rank, social status, or family connections. Taizu utilised the imperial examinations as a way to select officials based on their own merit and skill.
Thanks to the development of woodblock printing, literature was widely available and cheap, meaning a broader range of people from different social backgrounds were able to receive an education and qualify to take part in the examinations. This led to the diversification of the administrative system, as scholar-officials from the middle and lower classes soon found themselves at the higher levels of policy making. Over time, this process transformed the imperial government from an aristocratic entity into a bureaucratic one.
Another major change to the administration came in the form of opinion officials. These were academicians whose sole responsibility was to check up on all administrative branches and give impartial advice to the emperor based on information they had found. This meant it was much harder for high ranking members of the bureaucracy, such as the chief councillor and the military commissioner, to manipulate or influence the emperor’s decision making. Like a network of spies, the emperor used these opinion officials to keep tabs on his many-faceted administration.
However, the establishment of this bureaucracy came to affect society in a number of other unique ways. The prosperity of the Song Dynasty led to a sudden, enormous growth in the population. Since the imperial government only accommodated about 20,000 active officials at any given time, the supply of young scholars soon far outweighed the demand. This resulted in a surplus of intellectuals who were essentially free agents. Many of them were examination candidates, examination degree-holders who had not yet been assigned an official post, local tutors, or retired officials.
While the devil may make use of idle hands, in this case it seems that these scholars had other plans! These learned men would often become involved in local affairs and sponsored necessary facilities in their local communities. Local magistrates often relied on the cooperation and support of these local gentry, who played a significant role in regulating local commerce and performing necessary duties in the community.
In many ways, the Song Dynasty was a ground-breaking time in Chinese history. It represented the point at which the imperial examinations became a serious and indispensible way of stocking the government with the finest talent the empire had to offer. This set the standard for future dynasties, and these examinations would become the main method for selecting officials well into the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). While the military and the aristocracy had reigned supreme over the dynasties before it, the Song Dynasty marked the point in Chinese history where diplomacy and bureaucracy began to play a key role in the country’s politics.