Song Dynasty China: The First Industrial Revolution?

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The Industrial Revolution marked one of the most significant turning points in history. Beginning in mid-18th century Britain and spreading to Europe and North America, it saw the mass mechanisation of manufacturing processes, accompanied by rapid developments in the production of iron and chemicals. The result was a vast increase in production output, economic growth and population size, further fuelling the ascendancy of Western powers still visible to this day.

Five factors are usually identified for why the revolution took place when and where it did: the British Agricultural Revolution between the 17th and 19th century which provided surplus food and labour; a stable political system and the move to a capitalist economy; abundant access to raw materials, particularly coal and iron; advanced civil infrastructure (canals, roads and ports); and new technologies like the steam engine.

These factors may seem applicable only to a developed Western society two hundred years ago, yet almost seven centuries before Britain began to industrialise, the Song dynasty in China (960-1279) had already fulfilled many of these conditions. It came incredibly close to achieving full-scale industrialisation in the medieval period, almost altering the course of history as we know it.

The Song dynasty was founded by Emperor Taizu (AD 927 – 976), who reunited China following the fall of the Tang dynasty and the chaotic ‘Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms’ period. In the era known as the ‘Northern Song’, his successors ruled from the imperial capital at Kaifeng, before relocating to Hangzhou in 1127 after the north was conquered by Jurchens (an ethnic group hailing from Manchuria). The period of ‘Southern Song’ persisted until its conquest by the Mongols in 1279.

Under Song rule, China experienced a sustained increase in agricultural production. The imperial government granted ownership to any farmer who could successfully cultivate barren land, increasing China’s arable land to 48 million hectares – a figure not matched by any subsequent imperial dynasty. These land reforms were supported by major irrigation projects implemented under the leadership of Chancellor Wang Anshi (1026-1086), bringing water to over 2.4 million hectares of land. The irrigation schemes were enabled by technological advancements, with water wheels used to harness the energy of rivers to pump water into fields. Watermills and windmills also began to be used to grind grain. Other developments included new steel ploughs, which buried rocks and weeds more effectively in barren land. Higher-yield crops were imported from abroad, such as paddy seeds from Korea and Southeast Asia, while cash-crops such as tea and sugar were grown for the first time.

The sum total of these improvements was a massive excess of food and manpower. It is estimated that, during the Song dynasty, agricultural output was around 1650 pounds of grain per hectare – 50% higher than in the Tang dynasty. As a result, between the 10th and 11th centuries, the population more than doubled from 50 to 125 million people, meaning that more labour was available for non-agricultural roles in manufacturing.

The Song administration was in many ways far ahead of its time. It continued the ancient meritocratic tradition of holding civil service exams for prestigious government positions, though what differentiated Song China from its predecessors was the shift towards an early form of capitalism. The Song dynasty moved away from the Tang dynasty’s command economy, where many key industries were government monopolies. Instead, except for notable examples such as gunpowder and tea, which remained under state control, the Song largely allowed free markets to supply goods and services. This supported the growth of a wealthy mercantile, almost proto-capitalist, class. The development of the first joint-stock companies, enabling people to buy shares in a company without being burdened by the day-to-day management, further fuelled this trend. The printing-press, an invention of the Tang Dynasty, was used to create the world’s first paper currency, the jiaozi. The Song government quickly granted itself a monopoly to issue the currency, and despite recurrent inflationary issues, paper money eventually facilitated greater trade, easier tax collection and more efficient banking.

Song China’s proto-industrialisation was further fuelled by its abundant supply of raw materials. This included a native species of silkworm (Bombyx mori) for sericulture and textiles, porcelain clay for pottery, iron ore for the metal industry, coal for furnaces and pyrite for gunpowder. These raw materials were transported by means of an advanced transport infrastructure, whose backbone was the Grand Canal. The canal was begun by the Sui and Tang Dynasties, but the Song renovated and expanded the network to connect the port of Hangzhou to the imperial capital at Kaifeng. The invention of the canal lock by Song engineer Qiao Weiyue also greatly increased the volume of traffic it handled, as boats could now change elevation without leaving the water.

China’s agricultural surplus, proto-capitalism, raw material wealth and transport infrastructure meant that it was able to take advantage of industrial innovations. Chiefly, these took place in the iron and steel industry. The blast furnace was invented in the 1st century BC during the Han dynasty, heating iron ore with charcoal or coke at high temperatures to produce pig iron, which could then be processed into wrought/cast iron or steel. In the Song dynasty, the use of blast furnaces proliferated rapidly as the government allowed private enterprises to enter the business instead of maintaining an imperial monopoly. The rising demand for charcoal caused massive deforestation, resulting in coal, and its derivative coke, being used for the first time. The Song also pioneered the use of water wheels, instead of manpower, to blow the bellows which blasted air into the furnace.

A water-powered blast furnace in 14th century China.

As a result of these developments, iron production rose sixfold during the Northern Song period, reaching an estimated 140,000 tons per year. This was far in excess of what Britain achieved in the early stages of its Industrial Revolution: over the course of the 11th century China achieved a 250% increase in iron output, while Britain achieved a 26% increase in the 18th. Iron and steel were used for a wide range of purposes, from weapons to farming equipment such as ploughs. They were also used to manufacture industrial tools such as trip-hammers (hammers powered by water wheels) that could shape metal products or pound agricultural goods like grain.

Water-powered trip-hammers in 17th century China.

Song China also saw the first industrial-scale production of gunpowder. This involved roasting pyrite or iron sulphide to extract sulphur, which is then used to make explosive. The city of Linfen alone was recorded to have produced 200 tons of gunpowder in a single year. The imperial government kept a strict monopoly on its production, outlawing its export. Porcelain, on the other hand, overtook silk as China’s main export during this time, as massive factories including the ‘Five Great Kilns’ boosted the production of pottery. Song porcelainware became highly prized in countries such as Japan, with the imperial government establishing China’s first standing navy to protect overseas trade.

Thus, China’s economy reached an unprecedented level of strength under the Song dynasty. In modern US dollars, it is estimated that GDP per capita rose from $450 in AD 960 to $600 in AD 1280. China made up around a third of the world’s population and GDP, but the Song never made it to full industrialisation. Arguably its agricultural improvements had failed to go far enough, with the vast majority of the population still involved in farming. And finally, while embracing some elements of the free-market, China’s government remained highly centralised and overbearing. Historians such as Mark Elvin have argued that Song China was caught in a high-level ‘equilibrium trap’: because of its immense population, existing production methods were cost-efficient enough to prevent further innovation and mechanisation.

Despite its extraordinary prosperity, Chinese history largely reflects on the Song as a weak dynasty for losing the north to the Jurchens before being conquered entirely by the Mongols. Under the succeeding dynasties, much of the progress the Song achieved was wiped away: government monopolies were reinstated, and China began to close itself off from international trade. Nevertheless, although much of what it achieved was short-lived, the Song serves to remind us how history sometimes hangs in the balance. The West was by no means destined to industrialise first, and if it had not, history would look radically different today.

Edwards, R., 2013. Redefining Industrial Revolution: Song China and England. Society for Economic Dynamics.

Mark, E., 1973. The pattern of the Chinese past: a social and economic interpretation. Stanford University Press.

Ebrey, P., 2006. China: a cultural, social, and political history. Houghton Mifflin.

Lin, J., 1995. The Needham Puzzle: Why the Industrial Revolution Did Not Originate in China. Economic Development and Cultural Change.