In 960, Zhao Kuangyin, a former military official, donned the "Dragon Robe," the symbol of imperial power and established the Northern Song dynasty. The second Northern Song emperor completed the reunification of the country when he destroyed the remaining opposition. The Song emperors, fully aware that the concentration of power among regional governors led to the downfall of the Tang dynasty, deliberately curbed the powers of the local officials.
Even though the officials had their powers curbed, their numbers increased and they soon became a severe financial burden. This led to a financial crisis that affected the ability of the dynasty to defend itself militarily. To solve this problem, the scholar bureaucrats of the Song dynasty launched a series of political reforms. The policies that were proposed by Fan Zhongyan and Wang Anshi are well known. They were wide ranging and for the era, considered very liberal.
One characteristic of the Northern Song dynasty was its emphasis on academia and its disdain for the military. The Northern Song developed a complicated administration system and a commodity based economy prospered. Due to the inconvenience of coins for such trade, the first Chinese paper currency, called jiaozi, was developed. Porcelain became a very important export and commerce flourished. The detailed painting The Riverside Scene in Pure Brightness gives an accurate reflection of bustling city life during this era.
The Jurchen tribe from northern China eventually defeated the Northern Song and established the Jin dynasty. The Song court fled to Hangzhou where they established the Southern Song dynasty, which only controlled south China. The regime was run by a powerful coterie of chancellors, often leading to political infighting. This weakened the dynasty until it was finally overtaken by the powerful Mongols from the north.
Throughout the 300-year reign of the Song, northern minorities had been a constant threat to its borders. The court was continuously at war or negotiating treaties with these northern groups to secure the Song frontier.
The Song dynasty saw its share of technological breakthroughs. A printer named Bi Sheng invented a method for movable type printing, which made printing far more convenient and accessible. A crude compass, which was first used during the Warring States period, saw continuous development and by the Northern Song would become the predecessor to the modern compass.