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Arts
Culture in the Sung period

Northern Sung (960-1126)Southern Sung (1126-1279)

The Sung period was noted for landscape painting, which in time came to be considered the highest form of classical art. The city-dwelling people of the Sung period romanticized nature. This romanticism, combined with a mystical, Taoist approach to nature and a Buddhist-inspired contemplative mood, was reflected in landscape paintings showing people dwarfed by nature.

In philosophy, the trend away from Buddhism and back to Confucianism, which had begun in the late T"ang, continued. Pure and simple restoration of the ancient teaching was impossible, however, because Confucianism had been challenged by Buddhism and Taoism. Confucianism needed to explain humanity and the universe as well as to regulate human relations within society. In the late T"ang and early Sung, several strands of Confucianism emerged. The great scholar Chu Hsi synthesized elements of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. This reconstituted philosophy became known as Neo-Confucianism, and it was the orthodox state doctrine until the end of the imperial system. Chu Hsi"s philosophy was one that stressed dualism, the goodness of human nature, and self-cultivation by education through the continuing "investigation of things."

The Sung scholars and historians also attempted to synthesize history. Ssu-ma Kuang made the first effort at producing a comprehensive history since Ssu-ma Ch"ien of the Han. In 294 chapters, he wrote a chronological account of the period from 403 BC to AD 959, which was abridged by Chu Hsi in the 12th century. Another first in Sung scholarship was the creation of encyclopedias. `Assembled Essentials on the T"ang", a collection completed in 961, became the example for the various types of encyclopedic literature that followed.

The Sung period is famous for porcelain with a celadon glaze, which was one of the most desired items in foreign trade (See Pottery and Porcelain). The development of gunpowder led to the invention of a type of hand grenade. In shipbuilding, the great seagoing junks were admired and imitated by Arab and Western sailors. By far the largest ships in the world at the time, they had watertight compartments and could carry up to 1,000 passengers.

The Sung cities. Oceanic and coastal trade was concentrated in large ports such as Canton, Hangzhou, and Chuanzhou (Marco Polo"s Zayton), where large foreign trading communities developed. Koreans dominated the trade with the eastern islands, while Persians and Arabs controlled commerce across the western seas. Along with commercial expansion came the urbanization, or increasing importance of cities, in Sung society. Hangzhou, the Southern Sung capital, had a population of more than 2 million. Commercialization and urbanization had a number of effects on Chinese society. People in the countryside faced the problems of absentee landlordism. Although many city residents enjoyed luxury, with a great variety of goods and services, poverty was widespread.

 
   
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