An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Song-Period Economy

Mar 19, 2016 © Ulrich Theobald

The Song period was a highlight of economical development in China.
Agriculture as the basis of the national economy of China experienced considerable improvements during the centuries of the Song period. Although the Song rulers were in steady military conflict with their northern neighbours, the civilian kind of rule that determined the Song politics from the begin, created a stable environment in which the population increased steadily. The 8.6 million households (hu 戶) of the early 11th century increased to 10.8 million households a century later, with about 100 million people, and at the begin of the 13th century to 12.6 million households. When the Jurchen 女真 conquered northern China, many peasants fled to the south and resumed their agricultural business in the south, a region that was naturally more favored to agriculture than northern China. This demographic pressure lead to a shortage in arable fields (kentian 墾田), and every inch of soil in mountainous regions had to be opened for agriculture. In very steep hills, the famous terrace fields (titian 梯田) were created. Furthermore, agrarian tools and irrigation technique improved substantially. Irron harrows (pa, ba 耙), hay cutters (zha 鍘), and sickles (lian 鐮) were forged with improved standards, and water wheels (longgu fanche 龍骨翻車) driven by human or animal power were common throughout Song China. See more technological aspects of Song agriculture. The regulation of water supply of wet fields (weitian or yutian 圩田) ensured the regularity of harvest. It was the task of the state to provide water canals from the rivers to the fields.
Within the united empire, the spread of particular field crops was actively promoted by the government. Millet, wheat and beans were imported from the northern regions south the the Yangtze River, and rice was cultivated in the north where possible. From Inner Asia, water melons became a popular fruit in northern China, and from the kingdom of Champa in modern Vietnam, an unpretending kind of rice was introduced in southern China. Improved techniques of ploughing, fertilizing and weeding lead to a substantial increase in agricultural output, especially in the lower Yangtze region, where at least two harvests could be obtained within a year. For the second harvest, peasants often cultivated winter wheat - whose use in the shape of noodles was prevalent among the fugitives from the north.
Already during the Tang period 唐, but much more during Song, peasants started to specialize on the production of a single crop, like tea (cha 茶), vegetables (cai 菜), lacquer (qi 漆), medical herbs (yao 藥), flowers (hua 花), fruits (guo 果) or sugar cane (ganzhe 甘蔗). Of special interest for the state were the households producing tea and silk (si 絲; from mulberry trees, sang 桑) or hemp (ma 麻) because these were obliged to sell their crops to the state who had a monopol on the processing of tea and fabrics. A third raw material for textile fabrics was cotton (mian 棉) that came from southwestern China and was first cultivated only in the southern regions but soon spread to the southeast and into Sichuan.
The difference between northern China and the south became more and more evident. Large parts of the north were not fertile, and people left these areas fallow - not only because of the danger of military campaigns between the Song empire and the Liao 遼, Jin 金 and Western Xia 西夏 empires. Contrary to the north, the lower Yangtze area and the Chengdu Plain 成都平原 in Sichuan were the most fertile regions of China. The less populated regions of the mountaineous areas of the south and southwest were economically still backward, but fertile.
Song Dynasty handicrafts and industrial manufactury (shougongye 手工業) had acheived a high niveau. Shipbuilding (zaochuanye 造船業) was necessary to provide the Northern Song capital Kaifeng 開封 (modern Kaifeng/Henan) with agricultural products from the south that were transported along the Imperial Canal (Dayunhe 大運河) from Hangzhou 杭州 (modern Hangzhou/Zhejiang) to the north. But also along the Yangtze River ships were necessary, and in the coastal region of Fujian 福建 ocean-going ships of high quality were produced. In the war with the northern neighbours, battle ships of the Song were impressive vessels, among these we even find paddle ships (chechuan 車船).
Metal processing (kuangyeye 礦冶業) has a long history in China. During Song, most furnaces (lu 爐) were fed with mineral coal (shitan 石炭) that was digged out from coal mines, some of them were provided with pumps abducting the water that rose up in the galleries. The use of mineral coal was an important factor for the quality of iron (tie 鐵). The output of quality iron was around 3.500 tons per year. Another important metal was copper and its respective alloys (tong 銅), for the casting of coins (qian 錢), and the output of coin metal was around 700 tons per year during Northern Song. See more technological aspects of Song mining and smelting.
Spinning, weaving (fangzhiye 紡織業) and dyeing (ranseye 染色業) were important economic activities. During the Song period, the south for the first time outnumbered the silk production of northern China. The most important areas producing silk were the Lower Yangtze region and the Sichuan basin 四川盆地. See more technological aspects of Song textile industry.
With the invention of printing with moveable types (huozi yinshua 活字印刷), the need for paper increased substantially, and paper production (zhaozhiye 造紙業) became a much more important industrial branch than ever before. See more technological aspects of Song printing.
Very famous outside China is porcelain (hence called "chinaware"; ciqi 瓷器) that achieved highest quality standards during Song. With improved firing techniques, porcelain became much cheaper, and more people could afford porcelain instead of earthenware or metal bowls, cups and plates. Porcelain became also an important trade good and even a kind of currency for overseas trade with Southeast Asia. One of the largest porcelain manufacturing towns was - and is still today Jingdezhen 景德鎮/Jiangxi. See more technological aspects of Song porcelain.
Salt production (zhiyanye 製鹽業) and merchandise was a monopol of the Chinese state and thus critically contributed to the tax income of the state. Growing need on the markets lead also to improvement in technology, like the saltwater lifting by bamboo tubes from deep salt wells (yanjing 鹽井) in Sichuan. See more technological aspects of Song salt production.
The state was highly engaged in economy and commerce. It did not only run its own factories and manufacturies (zuofang 作坊), but a high percentage of tax income was won by the intensive commerce of industrial and agrarian products. Like during the former dynasties, an important income source for the state were the state monopolies on salt, tea and alcohol. This widespread monetarian economy made it necessary to cast coins (coins in China were not minted) and to introduce paper money in the shape of bank bills. Bank bills (guanzi 貫子) were in use until the end of Yuan Dynasty.
Caused by the growing population, city walls (chengshi 城市) of the southern regions were often not large enough to contain all households. The cities were growing beyond their old borders, and downtowns (caoshi 草市) stretched in the areas around the old cities. Market rules valid for the markets (shi 市) within the city walls did not count for the outside markets, where merchandise developed to a very important economic branch. Shops in the towns were not restricted to reserved lanes or stalls (hang 行) but were allowed to be opened everywhere around the city. Small shops (shangpu 商舖), warehouses (didian 邸店), pawnshops (zhiku 質庫), taverns (jiulou 酒樓), foodstalls (shidian 食店) and even brothels characterized the landscape of a large Song city. In Kaifeng's Xiangguo Monastery 相國寺 a large market was organized every month five times (compare the account in Meng Yuanlao's 孟元老 Dongjing Menghualu 東京夢華錄 "The Dream of Hua in the Eastern Capital"). Night markets (yeshi 夜市), during early Tang still prohibited, and dawn markets (guishi 鬼市) became institutionalized. Many small towns (zhen 鎮) had much more economic importance than neighbouring administration centers, others later developed to large cities like Qinglongzhen 青龍鎮, the ancestor town of Shanghai 上海. The main markets in the large towns intensified the organisation in merchant guilds (shanghang 商行) that dominated and monopolized particular economic branches on the markets. Traders and craftsmen had to become member of the guilds that did not only control prices but also served as an instrument of the administration and the imperial court to restrict merchants and to control market prices.
Southern Song Dynasty coin from the Jiaxi Period (1237-1240)The large cities in Song China (the Northern Song capital Kaifeng comprised almost half a million inhabitants or dwellers; other important trade cities were Jiankang 建康=modern Nanjing 南京/Jiangsu, Ezhou 鄂州=modern Wuhan 武漢/Hubei, Chengdu 成都/Sichuan, and Quanzhou 泉州/Fujian) were huge markets that supplied the whole population. The main currency (huobi 貨幣) was a coin (qian 錢) of copper alloy, iron, silver and gold only played a minor role. The annual output of copper coins was up to 5 million strings (guan 貫), corresponding to about 15.000 tons of metal, the annual output of Southern Song around 100.000 strings. Even these large amounts of issued copper coins did not satisfy the need of the expanding Song economy. Merchant guilds in Sichuan were worldwide the first to develop officially accepted letters of exchange (jiaozi 交子, qianyin 錢引, feiqian 飛錢) that were provided with the security of iron coins. During Southern Song four paper currencies were circulating: qianyin 錢引 bills of Sichuan, huizi 會子 bills of Hunan, jiaozi 交子 bills from Jiangsu, and the copper-covered huizi bills of Fujian. The circulating area was restriced, and the different bills had prescribed exchanging rates. During the 13th century the value of paper bills decreased dramatically because more bills were issued than covering copper or iron coins could be cast. The issuance of a new guanzi 關子 bill by Jia Sidao 賈似道 did not solve the problem but rather aggravated the inflation.
The withdrawal of the Song government to the south made it even more clear that the Yangtze valley has since long become the economical centre of China. The rice culture became more and more important in whole China. The owners of large land estates in the south dwelled in the cities, where trade with any kinds of good was blooming, and where a rich cultural life had developed. Landowners often dwelled in mansions within the modern cities, while their land estates were put into the hands of stewards that gave the land to tenant farmers.
Industry had made great improvements during the Song Dynasty and was an important income source for workers, and of course a tax source for the state. People worked in salines, coal and steel industries, in the factories for ceramics, paper, fabric, and in the printing industry. But also the agriculture became more industrial orientated, like the large plantations of tea, mulberry and lacquer trees. The new lively cities also required employees in every economical field.
During Song, when access to political offices was made possible to almost everyone that was able to accumulate the capital necessary for education, people in state offices possessed large land estates. But as quickly as these estates had been acquired, the second generation often lost these assets. Many state officials possessing wealth joined merchants to ensure or enrich their possessions, making it possible for merchants to acquire wealth themselves. There was no differentiation between an exclusive class of noblesse d'epée and merchants that had to seek their luck in making business like in Europe. The Chinese gentry was able to make business itself, and merchants were allowed to join the ranks of official gentry by passing state examinations. Some scholars say, this was one reason that capitalism in China did not develop as fast as in Europe.
In a flourishing economy, international trade was of great importance for the Song economy. With the empires of Liao, Jin, Western Xia, the Uighur states 回鶻, Dali 大理 and Tibet 吐蕃 official border markets (quechang 榷場) provided the respective states with foreign goods and the Song state with taxes from the import and export business. Of course, private trade or even smuggling was also a very common business. From the three northern states, Song China imported kettle (horses), leather, felt, weapons, salt, and exported tea, medicine (ginseng rencan 人參), foodstuffs, textiles (silk), lacquerware, books, incense, copper coins, porcelain and rare materials. A specialty of the Uighur states of the Tarim Basin 塔里木盆地 was jade. From the harbors of Guangzhou 廣州/Guangdong and Quanzhou 泉州/Fujian Chinese merchant ships traveled to Vietnam, Indonesia and even to the Arabian shores, from Mingzhou 明州 (modern Ningbo 寧波/Zhejiang) and Hangzhou 杭州 to Japan, from Dengzhou 登州 (modern Penglai 蓬萊/Shandong) and Mizhou 密州 (modern Qingdao 青島/Shandong) to Korea. Special state agents (shibosi 市舶司) organized the custom procedures in the southeastern ports and taxed the imported goods - taxes from the overseas trade became an important income source for the Song state treasure. Japanese products imported to Song China were sulfur, timber, quicksilver, goldsand, jewel daggers (baodao 寶刀), and fans.