Song/Liao/Jin Dynasties 907–1279

Selections from the Collection

Five Dynasties (907–960) and Ten Kingdoms (907–979)

The next fifty years after the fall of the Tang dynasty in 907 saw northern China ruled by five short–lived military regimes based in the Yellow River Valley. This period is known as the Five Dynasties, which included the Later Liang (907–923), Later Tang (923–936), Later Jin (936–946), Later Han (946–950), and Later Zhou (951– 960). At the same time, ten more stable regimes, mostly centered in the south, vied for control. These Ten Kingdoms included the Wu (902–937), Former Shu (907–925), Later Shu (934–965), Min (907–946), Jingnan (907–963), Wuyue (907–978), Chu (927–956), Southern Tang (937–975), Southern Han (907–946), and Northern Han (951–979).

Traditional views hold that continual warfare ravaged the Five Dynasties in North China, resulting in flooding and famine. During this same period, the Khitan/Liao empire (907–1125) occupied territories along China's northern border including parts of Henan and Shanxi provinces, adding to martial tensions. On the other hand, the Ten Kingdoms, with the exception of the Northern Han (based in parts of Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Hebei provinces), were all found in the south of China. Their greater stability attracted large numbers of immigrants from the Central Plains, who brought with them artistic and literary skills, along with scholarly and scientific knowledge.

During this period advancements were made in printing and the arts. The first woodblock printing of a complete set of the Confucian Classics was produced by Feng Tao (882–954) from 932 to 953. Many legendary painters worked in this era, but few surviving works can be verified as being by their hands. Landscape masters included Dong Yuan (d. 962), Li Cheng (919–967), and Jing Hao (act. ca. 870–ca. 930). The latter is also believed to be the author of Notes on the Method for the Brush (Bi fa ji), an influential treatise on landscape painting. Xu Xi (d. before 975) and Huang Quan (903–968) excelled in bird and flower painting, and would later be set against each other as representatives rival painting styles.

Ceramic production centers continued to operate during this period of political turmoil and military conflict. In many ways the wares of this period can be seen as a transition between the Tang and Song dynasties. White wares, probably from the Ding prefecture kilns in Hebei province, were more finely potted than Tang examples, but did not yet exhibit the ivory-white glaze found in the Song.

Song Dynasty 960–1279

The collapse of the Tang dynasty in 907 set the stage for the swift rise and fall of a series of Five Dynasties (907–960) in the north. Zhao Kuangyin, a general of the Later Zhou, was compelled by his troops to become emperor, and finally succeeded in reunifying China in 960. Reigning as the Taizu emperor (r. 960–76), he established the capital of the Northern Song (960–1127) dynasty in Kaifeng, Henan province. This initial period of the dynasty was followed by the Southern Song (1127–1279) when the capital was relocated south to Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.

In order to prevent the rise of strong military leaders who might challenge the throne, Taizu sought to shift the bureaucratic balance in favor of civil rather than military officials. This policy changed the landscape of Chinese society as it heralded the elevated position the scholar-official (shi) class, which would be maintained until the end of dynastic China. The shi class depended on the civil examination system, which was further developed during the Song. The numbers of examinees swelled as the dynasty continued. This growth was aided in part by the booming printing industry that allowed for the mass production and dissemination of various classics and treatises, upon which the exams were based.

As the ranks of the civil bureaucracy grew, so too did increasing factionalism among officials. The boiling point was reached during the reign of the Shenzong emperor (r. 1067–85) when a series of reforms was introduced by the influential official Wang Anshi (1021–1086). Wang’s proposals angered many of his contemporaries, such as the poet-artist Su Shi (1037–1101) and the historian Sima Guang (1019–1086). Both denounced the reforms as non-Confucian. As the two sides became entrenched in their positions, many capable officials fell victim to court purges, with paralyzing effects on the government.

The Huizong emperor (r. 1100–26) is remembered for his strong patronage of the arts, and his ignoble capture when northern China was subsumed under the Jurchen Jin dynasty in 1126. The Song dynasty was hastily and shakily reorganized in the south with the capital at Lin'an (present-day Hangzhou) by Huizong’s sixth son, Gaozong (r. 1127–62). The loss of the north, traditionally considered China’s heartland, became an oft-noted sentiment during the Southern Song (1127–1279). It threads through paintings and poetry of the period, some of which leaned heavily on tropes concerning longing and homesickness. In this atmosphere a new school of Confucianism flourished. Known as Neo-Confucianism, this school promoted a return to the basics of Confucian teachings through refining one's inner self.

Painting and Calligraphy

The art of painting thrived at the beginning of the Song more so than at any earlier period. At the front of this burst of creativity were artists eager to engage with nature in ways that had never been attempted before. The monumental landscapes by Li Cheng (919–967), Guo Xi (ca. 1000–ca. 1090), Fan Kuan (act. ca. 990–1030), and Li Tang (ca. 1070s–1150s) glorified mountains and streams, downplaying the human role in nature, and experimenting with different types of brush strokes and compositional devices. Ideas about space and depth were of particular interest to these artists.

Other painting genres blossomed during the Song, such as architectural rendering, narrative scenes, and depictions of flora and fauna. One the most famous handscrolls of the period combined many of these types. Painted by Zhang Zeduan (act. early 12th century), the surviving section of Going up the River on Qingming Day (Beijing Palace Museum) is a tour de force representation of the bustling city of Kaifeng and its environs on a festival day. The painting details daily activities including travel, trade, eating at teahouses, shopping, and even loitering, within an urban setting with buildings, walls, and bridges rendered in a ruled-line (jiehua) technique.

The dynastic shift to the South did not greatly affect painting styles, as a conscious attempt was made to preserve and continue Northern Song forms. However, a certain introspective attitude is visible. The paintings of the Ma family, the most notable being Ma Yuan (act. ca. 1190–1225) and Ma Lin (act. ca. 1180–after 1256), epitomize this sentiment. Their compositions often have a strong sense of the diagonal, with elements concentrated in one corner. Ma family paintings also frequently leave large portions of their paintings devoid of major compositional elements, implying great, unknown spaces in the misty distance.

Calligraphy during the Song was a dynamic mixture of the traditional—the Wang Xizhi (303–361) and Yan Zhenqing (709–785) manners—and individual styles. One of the great calligraphers of the period was Huang Tingjian (1045–1105) whose Scroll for Zhang Datong (Princeton University Art Museum) demonstrates an individualistic flair incorporating large characters with long wavering strokes and short quick ones. A contemporary of Huang’s was Mi Fu (1052–1107), another famed calligrapher and painter. His work Three Letters (Princeton University Art Museum) reveals his idiosyncratic running-script style, which ranged from a stable elegance to a more frenetic cursive style.


Major advances in ceramic technology took place in the Song. Kiln construction continued to evolve to be as efficient as possible, allowing more and more pieces to be fired at the same time. Decorative patterns were sometimes applied using molds, which also shortened production time. Glaze usage was refined so that coatings were even and color gradations were more predictable.

Five great wares are usually associated with the Song:

1. Ru ware with an opaque blue-gray glaze was produced from about 1107 to 1125 in Baofeng county, Henan province, for the Northern Song court. Surviving examples are rare, with less than one hundred known pieces in the world.
2. Guan ware (literally “official ware”) was made during the Southern Song in an attempt to replicate northern wares, such as Ru ware. The glaze was applied in several layers that induced crackling as the layers cooled at different rates after firing. The result was a network of delicate glaze cracks that came to have aesthetic appeal. (Ru ware is sometimes considered to be the first crackle ware, but the effect may at first have been unintended.) The color of Guan glazes ranged from brownish gray to gray and light blue.
3. Ding ware was produced at kilns in Ding prefecture, Hebei province. The kilns are best known for high-fired porcelaneous, thin-potted, white wares with clear or ivory colored glazes, but were also fired with black, russet, green, purple, or red glazes. In the late Tang and Five Dynasties period, these wares have a whiter appearance, and pieces carved with the character “official” (guan) are thought to have been made for the imperial court. In the Song the classic ivory glazes appear. The clay bodies were often wheel-turned over a hump mold and decorated afterwards. Early wares were decorated with incised patterns that included flora, waterfowl, and fish. In the twelfth century, molds were used to form the decorative patterns. Many vessel shapes imitated metalwork, and some “persimmon,” or russet- glazed, wares had gilt surface designs to imitate the appearance of lacquer wares. In the eleventh century, a technique was developed whereby bowls and dishes were fired upside down on stepped saggars. This prevented warping; after firing the unglazed rims were often wrapped in copper or other precious metals.
4. Jun ware has a thick, opaque glaze that can be colored iron-oxide blue, lavender, or green. Later examples were sometimes decorated with splashes of copper–oxide red or purple. Produced in Henan province, some Jun ware was made during the Song, but most surviving examples date from the Jin, Yuan, and early Ming periods.
5. Ge ware features a gray glaze punctuated with distinctive crackling. Although this ware is traditionally connected with the Song, it may actually date to the Yuan or Ming dynasties. Ge may have been made in kilns located in Zhejiang or Jiangxi provinces, and was reproduced in the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries at the Jingdezhen kilns.

Liao Dynasty 907–1125

The Khitan (Qidan) people were sedentary tribesmen who occupied the lands to the north of China. Probably descendents of the Xianbei people who ruled northern China during the fourth century, the Khitans slowly renounced their nomadic life and became an organized military threat to Chinese regimes. The Khitan/Liao dynasty was founded in 907 and lasted until 1125. In this respect, the Liao dominion was older and survived longer than the Northern Song. In military prowess, the Liao in the north was very much an equal to the Song in the south. Between 946 and 947 the Liao launched an attack on the Northern Song capital of Kaifeng and succeeded in holding the city for a short period. The Liao remained problematic for the Song dynasty and until 1005, when the Shanyuan Covenant was concluded. The terms of the treaty established formal boundaries and diplomatic equality between the two nations, and an annual Song tribute payment of silk and silver to the Liao.

As communication and interaction continued between the Song and Liao regimes, the Liao began to borrow certain elements of Chinese culture. They created a Khitan script based on Chinese characters and used Chinese methods of producing iron and managing agriculture. Occupying the far–northern region China, the Liao often employed Chinese artists and craftsmen, and in art and architecture retained many features from the Tang dynasty.

Many Liao paintings focus on their outdoor way of life and include images of equestrian lifestyles as well as images of courtly activities such as deer and swan hunts. Liao ceramics also rely heavily on Khitan material culture, as seen in several surviving vessels that mimic the shape of leather water bottles. Excavated Liao tombs feature lively wall paintings. An important group of Liao and Jin painted tomb and coffin panels in the Princeton University Art Museum portrays horses, boats, flowers, attendants, and figures preparing for and having a banquet.

The fall of the Liao was partially due to the shifting of attention away from military matters, which left them open to attack. The demise of the dynasty was hastened by a series of floods and droughts that further weakened the regime. Sensing vulnerability, the Song established an alliance with another northern tribal state, the Jurchen Jin state, to finally defeat the Liao.

Jin Dynasty 1115–1234

The Song government could hardly have expected their new northern friends, with whom they had collaborated to defeat the Liao, to turn on them with such ferocity and success. In 1126 the Jurchen ruler launched an attack on the Song capital of Kaifeng. He took the city and transported the last Northern Song ruler, Huizong, and most of the imperial family into the far northern heartland of the Jurchen tribe, and established the Jin dynasty in the northern portion of the former Song state. The Jin ruled over northern China for nearly a century, but in many ways Chinese life and culture continued unabated. In fact the Jurchens were patrons of Chinese painting, literature, and ceramics.

Throughout the Jin dynasty pressure continued to be exerted on the Southern Song court in Hangzhou, even though a peace treaty was signed in 1142. The eventual demise of the Jin came at the hands of yet another powerful northern people, the Mongols.

Further Readings

Susan Bush, "Five Paintings of Animal Subjects or Narrative Themes and Their Relevance to Chin Culture," in China under Jurchen Rule (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), pp. 183–215.

Wen C. Fong, Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, 8th–14th Century (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992).

Herbert Franke, and Denis Twitchett, eds., The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 6: Alien Regimes and Border States, 907–1368 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Marilyn Leidig Gridley, Chinese Buddhist Sculpture under the Liao (New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture and Aditya Prakashan, 1993).

Jing Hao, "Bi fa ji (Jing Hao, "Notes on the Method for the Brush"), translated and commentary by Stephen H. West, in Pauline Yu, Peter Bol, Stephen Owen, and Willard Peterson, eds., Ways with Words: Writing about Reading Texts from Early China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), pp. 202–13.

Rose Kerr, Song Dynasty Ceramics (London: Victoria and Albert Publications, 2004).

Cary Y. Liu, and Dora C. Y. Ching, eds., Arts for the Sung and Yüan: Ritual, Ethnicity, and Style in Painting (Princeton: The Art Museum, Princeton University, 1999).

Hsueh-man Shen ed., Gilded Splendor: Treasures of China's Liao Empire (907-1125) (New York: Asia Society, 2006). For the online exhibition, go to

Yutaka Mino, Ceramics in the Liao Dynasty, North and South of the Great Wall (New York: China Institute in America, 1973).

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Huang Tingjian
Scroll for Zhang Datong (Zeng Zhang Datong guwen ti ji)
China, Northern Song, 1100
Ink on paper
34.1 x 552.9 cm.
The John B. Elliott, Class of 1951, Collection