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Medicine's Role in Empire Building during the Song Dynasty


The objective of this paper is to inform the audience about how medicine was a crucial part of empire building during the Song Dynasty. Similar to countries of today that rely on medicine, the Song Dynasty used medicine to set their empire apart with more advanced ideas and technology. This paper summarizes that the study of anatomy and medicine during the Song Dynasty in China led to new medical treatments, improved sanitation, new ruling techniques, and improved disease prevention. This research aims to answer the essential question of how medicine during the Song Dynasty contributed to Chinese society and the building of the Song’s complex and powerful empire.


The Song Dynasty founded one of the largest and most powerful empires during the Middle Ages. Within ten years of ruling China, the Song made great advances in printing, math, and medical techniques. The Song Dynasty also hoped to enhance living conditions by learning more about anatomy and curing disease. Although medicine was not commonly developed during the Middle Ages, the Song Dynasty’s mastery of medicine strengthened their knowledge of human anatomy, changed the government’s priorities, and enhanced sanitation. Medicine contributed to the Song Dynasty’s ability to build a complex and vast empire.

The study of anatomy was essential to the rise of the Song Dynasty. First, the mass production of medical books increased knowledge of medicine among all demographics and resulted in new treatment options for citizens. Several doctors used China’s new printing technology to distribute material on the structure of humans. In fact, a doctor named Xu Shiwei formed graphic illustrations of 36 types of the human pulse based on the earlier works of Zhang Zhongjing. One of Xu Shiwei’s most well-known books, Song Edition of the Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders, was used to educate physicians for centuries (Cohen. “Traditional Chinese Medicine during the Song Dynasty”). China’s printing technology encouraged medical professionals to spread their ideas. Medical books allowed the Chinese to spread common knowledge about treating sickness. However, the books became of high value to neighboring countries. China traded their medical ideas and received new cultural ideas and resources in return. These book collections further led to research in contagious diseases and acute heat complexes. China created a man-made smallpox vaccine that was used throughout the empire and was exported to other countries. During the time of the bubonic plague, the Song Dynasty’s advanced knowledge of medicine contributed to their empire’s relatively low death rates compared to their European counterparts. (Jin-Huai. “Historical Timeline of Chinese Medicine). Chinese books led to discoveries that helped people live longer and provided other empires with life-saving vaccines.

In addition, the development of prescriptions after medical books further fought sickness and disease. During the Northern Song Dynasty, doctors began using books to keep records of patient history. This was the beginning of prescriptions and the tracking of disease through families. For example, The Evolution Of Chinese Medicine: Northern Song Dynasty states that doctors combined the doctrines of classical medicine with modern drug therapy. The Chinese pharmacies were among the first in the world to sell both simple and pre-prepared prescriptions (104). Pharmaceutical records forever changed the way patients obtained medications. Travelers from Europe were amazed by the development of prescriptions and inspired to carry these ideas back home. Rather than create their own formulas, many European doctors traded the Chinese slaves and resources for prescription powders. Medical technology supported innovation and contributed to the economy in China. The Chinese created demand for products only they could provide. This led to more sea trade and new resources from Europe. The Song used records to regulate drug usage, prevent sickness, and reduce accidental overdoses. For example, prescriptions were written with special markers for each patient.

("The Song Dynasty").

This image illustrates a prescription used to treat smallpox. The red stamps show the doctor’s approval, and the writing on the left details the dosage. This system was beneficial for citizens and kept medical records organized. In fact, government officials mimicked these record keeping techniques to record trade inventory and rice growth. The study of anatomy led to the development of prescriptions and influenced trade.

A new emphasis on medicine during the Song Dynasty led to government reform. First, the government introduced commoners to medical practices in order to gain favor among citizens and make them feel protected from disease outbreaks. Historian Asaf Moshe Goldschmidt stated that the Song government sought to promote medical knowledge and technology that was believed to explain pathology and treatment of epidemics such as the bubonic plague (72). Prior to the Song Dynasty, the government would provide economic relief to respond to epidemic outbreaks. However, officials began to rely on medicine to ensure peace and prevent attacks against traders who brought disease to China. The Song imperial government wanted to spread knowledge and awareness that traditionally was only shared within family lineages (Elman 31). The government used medical books to gain favor among their subjects and promote safety throughout their empire. In addition, emperors used medical cures to prove they were worthy of ruling China. To prove they were worthy, emperors hoped to face disease and overcome it.

(Goldschmidt 81).

Generally, emperors who overcame several diseases ruled for longer. Subjects became more loyal to emperors who could provide stability in times of unrest. When emperors realized this was a way to legitimize their power, they began pouring government resources into curing disease. To further support this, Historian Asaf Moshe Goldschmidt explained that the Mandate of Heaven motivated emperors to develop the field of medicine because protecting their subjects from disease further proved their competence as a leader (83). By finding cures and vaccines for diseases, emperors gained support among disease-ridden citizens. An emperor could also convince civilians that he had the right to rule from a divine source if he saved his people from sickness. Government officials relied on medicine to stay in power and promote peace.

As medicine progressed, the Chinese hoped to increase sanitation and prevent disease. They wanted to protect themselves from disease by detoxifying their cities. Zhang Zi-He is credited for presenting the idea that toxins cause illness, rather than only internal imbalances (Cohen. “Traditional Chinese Medicine during the Song Dynasty”). Once the Song government discovered more about how diseases spread, they attempted to monitor toxins coming in and out of Chinese cities and trading ports. Trade over land routes slowed during the Song Dynasty, partially because doctors realized they could prevent disease outbreaks if they did not let foreigners travel into China. Many traders coming through urban centers in China were required to stay near the harbors. To further increase sanitation, Arabian style hospitals were established in China (Jin-Huai. “Historical Timeline of Chinese Medicine”). Arabian style hospitals consisted of operating rooms, herbal remedies, record keepers, and a pharmacy. In addition, these hospitals were open to all ill people regardless of financial status. These hospitals provided one central location for all demographics to receive treatment. Rather than offer unsanitary treatment on the streets, China began locating all medical practices in one building for everyone to have access to.

Secondly, the desire to stay healthy and have clean cities resulted in more practical city planning. The esteemed History professor Hang Lin wrote that Emperor Renzong focused his attention to the increasingly cluttered capital city where urban dwellers pleaded for wide roadways, cleaner infrastructure, and separate waterways for sewage and drinking water (“From Closed Capital to Open Metropolis: Transformation of the Capital City in Tang and Song China, ca 700-1100). Urban planners and construction teams began designing alleyways and trash dumps for large cities. This prevented airborne toxins from reaching residential areas and increased sanitation in the city. In the Chinese book Kao Gong Ji, a subject of the Song government depicted images of what the ideal capital looked like.

(Hang Lin. “From Closed Capital to Open Metropolis: Transformation of the Capital City in Tang and Song China, ca700-1100).

Chinese civilians began to have higher standards for sanitation, which changed the way cities were built. Rather than clustering all the buildings together, builders divided residential properties, government buildings, local businesses, trading harbors, and farming villages into separate areas. This intricate planning exemplifies the Song government's effort to keep citizens safe from disease by cleaning and organizing their cities. The Chinese rulers and people strived to prevent disease by increasing sanitation and planning their cities.

The study of medicine became important to the Song emperors and citizens. Without the medical technology that was developed, much of China would have died of disease outbreaks.

The Song Dynasty’s advanced medical practices strengthened their knowledge of human anatomy, changed the government’s priorities, and enhanced sanitation. Chinese medicine also helped neighboring empires who were trying to overcome epidemics. The innovation in medicine during the Song Dynasty was relied on for centuries and is still valued today.

BY: Kenedy Quandt

Works Cited:

  1. Cohen, Leslie. “Traditional Chinese Medicine during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 C.E.).” Decoded Past, 4 Mar. 2014,

  2. Elman, Benjamin A. Antiquarianism, Language, and Medical Philology: from Early Modern to Modern Sino-Japanese Medical Discourses. Brill, 2015.

  3. Goldschmidt, Asaf Moshe. The Evolution of Chinese Medicine: Northern Song Dynasty, 960-1127. Routledge, 2011.

  4. Jin-Huai, Wang. “Historical Timeline of Chinese Medicine.” Association For Traditional Studies, Apr. 2013,

  5. Unknown. “The Song Dynasty.” Theory of Yin and Yang, Beijing Digital Museum of TCM, 24 Aug. 2009,

  6. Lin, Hang. “From Closed Capital to Open Metropolis: Transformation of Capital City in Tang and Song China, Ca. 700-1100.” From Closed Capital to Open Metropolis: Transformation of Capital City in Tang and Song China, Ca. 700-1100, 2015,

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