Differences Between the Song & Tang Dynasties

The Song dynasty is remembered for its many cultural achievements.
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The Tang dynasty ruled China from 618 to 907 and the Song dynasty from 960 to 1279. Chinese poetry, painting, calligraphy and other art forms all achieved great heights during the reign of these dynasties, but in many ways the two eras were very different. The Tang was a militarily powerful empire focused on Central Asia, while the Song was a relatively weak nation based in southern China.

1 Tang and Song

At the height of its power, the Tang dynasty claimed authority over one out of every four people on the planet. Two million people lived in the Tang capitol of Chang'an, including immigrants from virtually every nation along the famous Silk Road that linked trading routes across Europe and Asia. However, Tang authority began to fade during the reign of the emperor Xuanzong, who was overthrown by rebels in 755. Muslim forces pushed the Tang out of Central Asia, and what was left of the dynasty fell in 907. The Song dynasty succeeded in reuniting China a few decades later in 960, but lost northern China to the Jurchen nomads in 1126. The Song held on to southern China until the Mongol conquest in 1279.

2 Power Differences

Although historians consider both the Tang and the Song to be Chinese dynasties, the two empires did not rule exactly the same territory. The Tang capitol was in the western part of the country, and Tang politics and trade were both oriented toward Central Asia. The Tang ruled much of what is now China but also dominated Mongolia, Manchuria, Tibet and part of Siberia, with influence in Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia. Song power was centered on the southeastern part of the country. The dynasty ruled only part of what is now China, and it was seen by other nations as being culturally influential but not militarily powerful.

3 Civil and Military

The traditional Chinese proverb "zhongwen qingwu" means "emphasize the civil, de-emphasize the military." From the first Song emperor Taizu onward, the Song favored the Confucian intellectuals who ran the huge Chinese civil service and gave as little power to the military as possible. By following this policy, the Song emperors hoped to escape the fate of the Tang rulers such as Xuanzong who had been overthrown by their own generals. This policy contributed to the Song's military weakness, which led to the loss of northern China and eventual conquest by the Mongols. Both the Tang and the Song were known for poetry, art and other cultural expressions, but the Tang emphasized both the civil and the military while the Song clearly favored the civil.

4 Poetry and Painting

The Tang dynasty was the golden age of classical Chinese poetry, while the Song was a high point of Chinese painting. Two of the most famous poets in Chinese history, Li Bo and Du Fu, both lived in Tang China. Famous Song painters such as Li Tang and Fan Kuan created large landscape paintings that focused on mountain ranges and flowing water. Many of the defining techniques of Chinese landscape painting were created or developed by the artists of the Song.

5 Confucianism and Other Beliefs

The Tang empire was home to many different religions including Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Nestorian Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism. The Tang emperors tolerated or encouraged this mix of different belief systems. In contrast, the Song policy to "emphasize the civil" made the Confucian scholars so dominant that any non-Confucian ideas were regarded with distrust. The Chinese form of Buddhism, which had been an active and growing religion under the Tang, became mixed with Confucian and Taoist beliefs in Chinese popular religion.

Scott Thompson has been writing professionally since 1990, beginning with the "Pequawket Valley News." He is the author of nine published books on topics such as history, martial arts, poetry and fantasy fiction. His work has also appeared in "Talebones" magazine and the "Strange Pleasures" anthology.