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Liu Song

"Liu Song" redirects here. For the snooker player, see Liu Song (snooker player). For the table tennis player, see Liu Song (table tennis).
"Song Dynasty (420-479)" redirects here. It is not to be confused with the Song Dynasty.

Liu Song Dynasty colored in gray, covering majority of Southern China.
Capital Jiankang
Government Monarchy
 -  420-422 Emperor Wu of Liu Song
 -  424-453 Emperor Wen of Liu Song
 -  453-464 Emperor Xiaowu of Liu Song
 -  465-472 Emperor Ming of Liu Song
 -  473-477 Emperor Houfei of Liu Song
 -  477-479 Emperor Shun of Liu Song
 -  Established 7 July 420[1] 420
 -  Disestablished 31 May 478[2] 479
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The Liu Song Dynasty (simplified Chinese: 刘宋朝; traditional Chinese: 劉宋朝; pinyin: Liú Sòng Cháo; Wade-Giles: Liu Sung Ch'ao), also known as Former Song Dynasty (前宋) (420-479 CE), was first of the four Southern Dynasties in China, succeeding the Eastern Jin Dynasty and followed by the Southern Qi Dynasty.

The dynasty was founded by Liu Yu 劉裕 (363–422), whose surname together with "Song" forms the most commonly used name for the dynasty, the Liu Song 劉宋. This appellation is used to distinguish it from a later dynasty of the same name, the Song Dynasty 宋 (960–1279), which is much more famous and significant. The Liu Song is also at times referred to as the "Southern Song Dynasty" (南宋), as it is one of the Southern Dynasties period, i.e., one of those with its capital at Jiankang (modern Nanjing). However, the later Song Dynasty, after 1127, when it moved its capital south to Lin'an (modern Hangzhou, Zhejiang), is most commonly referred to as "Southern Song Dynasty" (南宋). Thus, for the shorter dynasty which is the subject of this article, "Liu Song" has become the term preferred in most contexts.

The Liu Song was a time when there was much internal turmoil. A number of emperors were incompetent and/or tyrannical, which at least partially led to many military revolts. These rulers include Liu Shao, Emperor Xiaowu, Emperor Qianfei, Emperor Ming, and Emperor Houfei. Emperor Ming was especially vicious, murdering a large number of his brothers, nephews, and other male relatives — many of them children. Such internal instability eventually led to the dynasty's destruction. However, its founder Emperor Wu was considered one of the greatest generals during the Southern and Northern Dynasties period, and the reign of its third emperor, Emperor Wen, is known for its political stability and capable administration, not only of its emperor but its strong and honest officials. This is known as the Reign of Yuanjia (425–453) and one of the relative golden ages for the Southern Dynasties.


Rise of Liu Yu

Originally a peasant of modest origins, Liu Yu joined the army at a young age and soon distinguished himself in the army and was quickly promoted to the command of an army, the Beifu corps. Liu Yu was instrumental in fighting the rebel Huan Xuan. After Huan Xuan's fall, Liu Yu gained control of the Jin dynasty.[3]

Campaigns of Liu Yu

Regarded as one of the best generals of the Northern and Southern dynasties, Liu Yu started off by reclaiming much of the territory the Chinese had lost during the Sixteen Kingdoms era. He started off his career by conquering Southern Yan, which bordered Jin to the north and had adopted a policy of aggression and kidnapping citizens from the Jin. By spring of 410, he had captured the southern Yan capital at Guanggu, ending Southern Yan.[3]

Afterwards, he campaigned against western Shu in modern Sichuan. Using a brilliant military manoeuver mentioned in the Art of War, Liu Yu instructed his generals to attack the capital of Shu by the Min River rather than the short route by the Fu river. Surprising the Shu forces, he quickly captured Chengdu and re-annexed that area back into Jin.[3]

Following the death of the Later Qin Emperor Yao Xin, Liu Yu attacked the state of Later Qin, which controlled the valuable lands of Guanzhong, lands which had once housed the capital of the Qin, Han and Jin dynasties before the barbarian uprisings. After defeating the Later Qin army in several battles, as well as an army of Northern Wei troops which had crossed to assist the Later Qin, Liu Yu recaptured the vital cities of Chang'an and Luoyang, the former capitals of the Jin Empire. It is recorded that he engaged the Wei army by the use of spears launched by crossbows, panicking the Wei cavalry and allowing him to score a decisive victory.[3]

After this success, it seemed that Jin would exterminate the remaining barbarian states in the north and reunify China. However, fortunes began to change for the Jin forces. Liu Mengzhi died and in order to secure his power, Liu Yu left for Jiankang (present-day Nanjing), abandoning the management of the North to his general Wang Zhen'e. After his departure, the state of Xia attacked Guanzhong and reoccupied it, and the loss of these lands prescribed Jin's frontier at the Yellow River. However, Jin retained its former eastern capital, Luoyang, as well as most of the Chinese heartland.[3]

Following his return to Jiankang, Liu Yu ended the rule of the Jin and became emperor himself in 420, establishing the Liu Song dynasty. He died in 422, and was succeeded by the incompetent Shaodi, who was quickly removed. His eventual successor would be his third son, Wendi.[3]

Reign of Emperor Wen

Under Emperor Wen, the Liu Song economy prospered in the rule of Yuanjia(Chinese:元嘉之治), a famed period of precious prosperity in the 400 years of conflict between the Han and Tang dynasties. The emperor's diligence caused the Liu Song to prosper. However, the emperor's martial abilities were not equal to his father, and his inability to crush the remaining barbarian states allowed Northern Wei to complete the unification of the North, to the detriment of Liu Song. Afterwards, Northern Wei would remain a grave and permanent threat to the Liu Song.[3]

Emperor Wen continued the campaigns of his father; nevertheless, he was unsuccessful. In 422, the first year of his reign, he lost three commandries to the Wei. Under the able general Dao Yanzhi, however, Liu Song recovered the four cities of Luoyang, Hulao, Huatai and Qiao'ao south of the Yellow River. However, the emperor's unwillingness to advance past this line caused the destruction of the empire's ally, Xia, by the Wei. The emperor was to repeat this mistake as several barbarian states who had offered to ally with Liu Song against Wei were declined, eventually leading to Wei's unification of the North in 439, to the detriment of the Chinese.[3]

Towards the later part of his reign, Emperor Wen was less than able. He wrongfully executed the general Tan Daoji, who had hiherito commanded the Song armies, and took charge himself. The empire's decline was shown in 450, where the emperor attempted to destroy the Northern Wei himself, and launched a massive invasion. Although initially successful, the campaign turned into a disaster. The Wei lured the Liu Song to cross the Yellow River, and then flanked them, destroying the Eastern army. As the Liu Song armies retreated, the provinces south of the Yellow River were devastated by the Wei army. Only Huatai, a fortified city, held out against the Wei. However, the economic damage was immense. The barbarian troops laid waste to the provinces they had temporarily occupied, as described by Sima Guang:

The Wei forces laid South Yan, Xu, North Yan, Yu, Qing, and Ji Provinces to waste. The Song deaths and injuries were innumerable. When Wei forces encountered Song young men, the forces quickly beheaded them or cut them in half. The infants were pierced through with spears, and the spears were then shaken so that the infants would scream as they were spun, for entertainment. The commanderies and counties that Wei forces went through were burned and slaughtered, and not even grass was left. When sparrows returned in the spring, they could not find houses to build nest on, so they had to do so in forests. Wei soldiers and horses also suffered casualties of more than half, and the Xianbei people were all complaining.

Sima Guang also pointed out the cause of Liu Song's disaster:

Every time Emperor Wen sent generals out on battles, he required them to follow the complete battle plans that he had drafted, and even the dates for battles needed approval from the emperor. Therefore, the generals all hesitated and could not make independent decisions. Further, the non-regular troops that he conscripted were not trained, and they rushed to advance when they were victorious and scattered when they were defeated. These were the two reasons why he failed, and from this point on, the state was in recession, and the Reign of Yuanjia was in decline.

Another historian, Shen Yue, pointed out Emperor Wen was said to model his command on the great general Emperor Guangwu of Han, but he lacked the latter's command abilities.[4]

Emperor Wen made another attempt to destroy Northern Wei in 452, but failed again. On returning to the capital, he was assassinated by the heir apparent, Liu Shao.[3]

Reign of Emperor Xiaowu and Qianfei

Liu Shao's assaination of his father raised indignation across the empire, as it disobeyed one of Confucianism's fundamental principles, that of filial piety. Quickly, his brother Liu Jun rose against him, defeated him, and beheaded him. Once Liu Shao was killed. Liu Jun ascended to the throne and became Emperor Xiaowu. However, he was regarded as immoral and committed incest with his cousins and sisters, and reputed to have even done so with his mother. Nevertheless, his reign was a relatively peaceful one.

Following his death in 464, Liu Jun passed his throne to his son, Liu Ziye, who was generally regarded as a tyrant. He disrespected his father and was suspicious of his uncles, putting several of them to death. He continued the incestous streak of his father, adopting several of his aunts and cousins as concubines. He was reputed to have ordered all of the princesses to come to his palace and have sexual intercourse with him. When one of his aunts refused, he executed her three sons. He also put to death a lady-in-waiting who bore a resemblance to a woman who cursed him in a dream. Eventually, one of his uncles could not bear it, rose up, and assassinated him.[3]

Civil war and loss of Northern Commanderies

The man who assassinated Qianfei quickly became emperor himself and decleared himself emperor Ming. He ordered Liu Ziye's brother Liu Zishang and sister Liu Chuyu, who were reputed to have participated in the late emperor's sexual immorality and tyrannical governance, to commit suicide. However, his claim to the throne was not accepted by Liu Zixun, one of his nephews, who then rose against him.

The civil war at first was a great success for Liu Zixun, who quickly overran nearly the entire empire. However, he moved too slowly. Emperor Ming quickly sent an army westward, captured Kuaiji, a vital food supply. Another of his generals captured Qianxi and cut off Liu Zixun's supplies. Starving, his troops collapsed and Liu Zixun was killed, aged just 10.

However, Emperor Ming grew arrogant and refused to grant a pardon to those who had supported Liu Ziye. This action was extremely detrimental to Liu Song and its successors, as the governors of the northern commandries, fearing their lives, surrendered to Wei rather than face execution at Jiankang. This resulted in the loss of the Chinese heartland and the most fertile and cultivated lands at that time. This loss would eventually lead to the destruction of the southern regime, and resulted in North China languishing under a barbarian yoke for another 150 years. Although Emperor Ming attempted to recover them, his attempts were defeated.

Emperor Ming's later reign was extremely brutal. Suspicious of his nephews, he had them all executed. Afraid of usurpation from rival members of the royal family, he executed thousands of members of the royal family, which was greatly weakened. Upon his death, his son had to be assisted by the general Xiao Daocheng, as nearly all of Emperor Ming's brothers and nephews had been killed.[5]

Fall of Liu Song

The successor to the emperor Ming, emperor Houfei, was resentful of the control Xiao Daocheng had over him and announced openly several times he would kill him. Fearful of his demise, Xiao had him assassinated and placed Emperor Shun on his throne. In 479, Xiao took the throne himself and declared himself Emperor of Qi, ending Liu Song. The ex-emperor Shun and his clan were soon put to the sword.

Literature and culture

Despite, and certainly to some extent because of, this bloodbath, the Liu Song produced much great poetry (shi 詩) and other poetic genres, notably the rhapsody, fu 賦. The imperial house sponsored many literary works, and many wrote themselves. The court of Emperor Wen was especially active in literary circles, with Liu supporting the compilation of a large collection of short prose anecdotes, A New Account of the Tales of the World (Shishuo Xinyu). The "Three Giants of Yuanjia," Bao Zhao 鮑照 (d.466), Xie Lingyun 謝霊運 (385–433), and Yan Yanzhi 顏延之 (384–456) are perhaps the most famous poets of the Song, each of them being credited as the originators of the three major literary trends to follow.

Scientists and astronomers were also active during periods of relative peace. Buddhism also began to be better understood and more widely practised at this time, and some officials such as Xie Lingyun, were Buddhists.

Liu Song sculptors must have created a number of spirit way ensembles, generally characteristic of the Six Dynasties era, for the tombs of the dynasty's emperors and other dignitaries. However, according to a survey of the extant Six Dynasties' sculpture in the Nanjing and Danyang areas, only one of the extant Six Dynasties' tomb sculptural groups has been securely identified as belonging to the Liu Song: the Chuning Tomb of the first emperor of the dynasty. Two qilin statues of this tomb survive in the appropriately named Qilin Town in Nanjing's suburban Jiangning District.[6]


Zu Chongzhi, a famed astronomer, lived during the Liu Song period. He was famous for devising 7 digits on pi and a variety of other astronomical theories.

Table of Successions

Sovereigns of Liu Song Dynasty (420–479)
Posthumous Name Temple Name Family name and given names Period of Reigns Era names and their according range of years
Chinese convention: (Liu) or (Nan) Song + posthumous name +"di". "Song Wudi was also referred to as Liu Yu.
Wu, ch. 武, py. wǔ Gaozu, 高祖 Liu Yu, ch. 劉裕 py. liú yù 420–422 Yongchu (永初 yǒng chū) 420–422
Shao, ch. 少, py. shaò Liu Yifu|劉義符 liú yì fú 423–424 Jingping (景平 jǐng píng) 423–424
Wen, ch. 文, py. wén Taizu 太祖 or Zhongzong 中宗 Liu Yilong|劉義隆 liú yì lóng 424–453 Yuanjia (元嘉 yuán jiā) 424–453
Yuanxiong, 元凶 Liu Shao|劉劭 liú shào 453 Taichu (太初 taì chū) 453
Xiaowu, ch.孝武, py. xiaò wǔ Shizu 世祖 Liu Jun|劉駿 liú jùn 453–464 Xiaojian (孝建 xiaō jiàn) 454–456
Daming (大明 dà míng) 457–464
(Qian) Fei, ch. (前)廢, py. qián feì Liu Ziye|劉子業 liú zǐ yè 465 Yongguang (永光 yǒng guāng) 465
Jinghe (景和 jǐng hé) 465
Ming, ch. 明, py. míng Taizong 太宗 Liu Yu|劉彧 liú yù 465[7]–472 Taishi (泰始 taì shǐ) 465–471
Taiyu (泰豫 taì yù) 472
{Hou} Fei, ch. (後)廢, py. (hoù) feì or Cangwu Wang ch. 蒼梧王, py. cāng wú wáng Liu Yu|劉昱 liú yù 473–477 Yuanhui (元徽 yuán huī) 473–477
Shun, ch. 順, py. shùn Liu Zhun|劉準 liú zhǔn 477–479 Shengming (昇明 shēng míng) 477–479

See also




External links

  • History of China: A good collection of information on Chinese history
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