Song Dynasty Art
Characteristics of Northern/Southern Song Arts & Culture.

Pin it

Early Spring (1072)
Hanging scroll, ink on silk.
By Guo Xi.
National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Song Dynasty Art (960-1279)
History, Types and Characteristics


Effect of Neo-Confucianism on Song Painting

Additional Resources

For earlier Chinese cultures, see:

- Neolithic art in China (7500-2000 BCE)
- Shang Dynasty art (1600-1050 BCE)
- Zhou Dynasty art (1050-221 BCE)
- Qin Dynasty art (221-206 BCE)
- Han Dynasty art (206 BCE - 220 CE)
- Arts of the Six Dynasties Period (220-618 CE)
- Sui Dynasty art (589-618)

Solitary Temple amid Clearing Peaks
(c.960) Hanging scroll, ink on silk.
By Li Cheng.
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

For dates of early cultures,
see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.
For later dates and chronology,
see: History of Art Timeline.
For movements and periods,
see: History of Art.


The contribution to Chinese art of the Songs ranks alongside that of the earlier era of Tang Dynasty art (618-906), itself a high point in the culture of medieval China. The Song Dynasty is divided into two quite distinct periods: the Northern Song (Bei Song) (960-1127), based in Bianjing (present-day Kaifeng), which controlled most of inner China; and the Southern Song (Nan Song) (1127-1279), based at Lin'an (present-day Hangzhou). During the latter, the Song ceded control of the Yellow river (the traditional birthplace of Chinese civilization) plus the rest of northern China to the Jin Dynasty (Jinn or Jurchen Dynasty), the Tartar ancestors of the Manchus who ruled during the era of Qing Dynasty art (1644-1911). During the Song Dynasty, the Chinese population doubled to roughly 200 million due to expanded rice cultivation in central and southern China: several cities along the main waterways and the southeast coast boasted more than 1 million inhabitants. Patronage of numous types of art flourished - several Song Emperors prided themselves on their skill at ink and wash painting - not least because the wealthier classes became avid collectors of works of art and antiquities, as exemplified by the activities of the poet and statesman Su Shi (1037–1101). Chinese painting and calligraphy were the most prestigious arts, but jade carving as well as black and red Chinese lacquerware also flourished. (The Bei Song period is most famous for its painting, the Nan Song for its decorative work.) The sciences also proliferated during the Song, while under the Northern Song's renewal of Buddhism, the philosophy of Confucianism was combined with Daoism and Buddhist asceticism to produce Neo-Confucianism. Meanwhile, the invention of movable type during the 1040s greatly facilitated the production and circulation of manuscripts and texts. Like Tang woodblock printing (see also: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints), this had an important impact on literacy and thus on educational opportunities for the less well-off. As a result, Chinese society during the Songs was characterized by a significant shift away from rule by hereditary aristocrats to government by scholar-officials selected by competitive examination. After the Songs came the era of Yuan Dynasty art (1271-1368) under the Mongol leader Kublai Khan. For the influence of Song and Yuan culture on Korea, see: Korean Art (from 3000 BCE). For more about the arts and crafts of Asia, please see: Asian Art (from 38,000 BCE).



Most of all, the Northern Song is famous for landscape painting, one of the most beautiful expressions of Chinese culture. In an attempt to escape the turmoil and upheaval that occurred at the end of the Tang dynasty (618–906), a number of tenth-century painters retreated into the mountains where they found, in nature, the moral equilibrium for which they had searched in vain in the human world. In these visionary landscape pictures, they depicted the great mountain - which towered above everything else - as a ruler watching over his subjects: an idealized theme taken up by later Song court painters, who transformed it into an emblem of a well ordered state.

An important expression of Song unification after the violent Five Dynasties period (907–60) was the emergence of a distinctive style of court painting practiced by graduates of the Imperial Painting Academy, many of whom went on to serve the needs of the imperial court. Later, the differing artistic strands embodied by these court painters came together to form a single harmonious type of academic art that - while different to Western "naturalism" - came close to a naturalistic portrayal of the physical world and the exact rendering of an object.

The best landscape artists of the Song Dynasty include Fan Kuan (c.960-1030), and Li Cheng (919–967), responsible for the wonderful silk painting Solitary Temple amid Clearing Peaks (c.960, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art). Meanwhile, shan shui (mountain-water) landscape art was embodied by the likes of Guo Xi (c.1020-90), and his masterpiece Early Spring (1072, National Palace Museum, Taipei).

Other leading Chinese painters of the Song Dynasty included: Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145), the scholarly artist, whose masterpiece Life Along the River on the Eve of the Qing Ming Festival (c.1100, National Palace Museum, Beijing) provides an in-depth illustration of daily life in the capital city Bianjing. The work, a set of paintings on a silk handscroll, depicts the city's inhabitants during the festival. Its depictions are so vivid and comprehensive, that it is often called "the Chinese Mona Lisa". Other noted Song artists included: Yan Wengui (967-1044), Xu Daoning (c.970-1051), Su Shi (1036-1101), Li Gonglin/ Li Longmian (c.1049-1106), Li Tang (c.1050-1130), Mi Fu (1051-1107), Ma Hezhi (flourished c.1131-62), Ma Yuan (flourished 1190-1225), Liang Kai (early 13th century). See also: Pen and Ink Drawing.

The Song era also reportedly gave birth to the Chinese tradition of paper folding, known as "zhezhi" - better known in the West through the Japanese version called Origami , invented around 1600.

Effect of Neo-Confucianism on Song Painting

A notable difference exists between the painting of the Northern Song period (960–1127) and that of the Southern Song period (1127–1279). Bei Song art was shaped by the dominant political concern of bringing order to the world and, in the process, sorting out the major issues affecting society at large. Thus paintings typically depicted vast, sweeping landscapes. In contrast, the Nan Song concerned themselves primarily with reforming society from the bottom up and on a much smaller scale. Therefore, their paintings tended to feature smaller, more intimate scenes. This change in attitude derived largely from the growing influence of Neo-Confucianism. (Note: For the key principles underlying art in China, see: Traditional Chinese Art: Characteristics.)


If Song fine art is exemplified by painting, its decorative art is best illustrated by exquisite Chinese pottery, for which both the Northern and Southern Song dynasties are renowned. Bei Song ceramic art is especially rare and valuable, because most of the imperial kilns (including the famous Ru kiln) were located in the north, where they were destroyed or shut down after the Tartar invasion of 1127. As a result Ru-ware with its subtle green and blue-grey glazes has become the most precious of Chinese ceramics. Other valuable Northern Song pottery includes Ding, Zhun, Cizhou, northern celadon, and brown and black glazed objects. Nan Song pottery was (and is) equally revered, particularly for its Jingdezhen whiteware, Jizhou wares, and the celebrated black pottery of Fujian. Longquan celadon as well as celadon made at the Guan kilns, near Lin'an, were among the finest of their type. The Southern Song also witnessed the further development of glazed and translucent Chinese porcelain as well as enamelled celadon.

For more about the historical background to Song Dynasty culture, see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present).


The modest Song revival of Buddhism, since its repression under the late Tangs, precipitated a new phase of Chinese Buddhist Sculpture. This was plainly evidenced in the continued construction of monumental stone sculpture at the Dazu site in Sichuan province. Like the sculpture at Dazu, the temple at Mingshan in Anyue, Sichuan province, contains an extensive display of Song era Buddhist statues and other sculptures, which includes representations of Buddha, as well as Boddhisattvas and other deities dressed in lavish robes.


Song architecture was characterized by its tall buildings, such as the 360-foot (110-metre) pagoda in Bianjing, as well as the eaves of its roofs which Song architects curved upward at the corners. A number of six-sided or eight-sided brick or wood pagodas still survive from the Song era. It is the extreme scarcity of surviving structures dating back to ancient or medieval China that continues, quite unfairly, to minimize the importance of Chinese architects and designers from these times.

NOTE: For a fascinating comparison with SE Asian architecture of the Song period, see the sandstone reliefs as well as the statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas at the Angkor Wat Khmer Temple (1115-45) in Cambodia.

Later Chinese Dynasties

Traditional visual arts of later periods in Chinese history are typically divided as follows:

- Ming Dynasty art (1368-1644)
- Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)

For more about other Asian cultures, see: Japanese Art as well as: India, Painting & Sculpture.

• For more about celadon, Ru-ware and porcelain in medieval China, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.