Website Review

The Song Dynasty in China

Columbia University

Set up under Columbia University’s Asia for Educators initiative, The Song Dynasty in China forms the first of four teaching modules that have been made available on the main site. By offering a concise introduction to China in 1000 CE, it leads neatly into the remaining modules, these covering issues such as the Mongols in world history (c.1000 to 1500 CE), the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912), and ideas of ‘modernity’ in both China and Europe (c.1500 to >2000). What makes this module particularly interesting is its usage of a 12th century picture scroll – the ‘Beijing Qingming scroll’ – as a means to explore various facets of Chinese life during this period.

Besides offering users a chance to view a high-resolution copy of the scroll (the little descriptions scattered throughout are a particularly nice touch), the module also provides information on 5 broad themes, these being: economic revolutions, technology, cities, Confucianism, and interactions with the outside world. Arranged into individual tabs at the top of the page, clicking each theme brings up a link tree of sub-themes such as Commercialization under Economic Revolution, or The Examination System under Confucianism.

While there is some variation to the amount and type of information on each sub-theme page, readers can expect at least a short, well-written write-up on the topic at hand, snippets from primary sources, and a number of interesting images that illustrate the topic. Given that an example of each sub-theme is also identifiable on the scroll itself, screenshots of the relevant scene on most pages help to reinforce the centrality of these areas to everyday life in the Song dynasty and leads to a more engaging way of presenting factual content – one where users are invited to examine visual representations from the period in question alongside written explanations. The bolding of keywords throughout each page, too, will undoubtedly be useful for users seeking to either make notes of the content, or quickly condense the main ideas for each section. In most cases, sub-theme pages also include links to additional resources such as books, websites, and videos. This is one of the site’s great strengths, as the focus on varied multimedia resources keeps things both engaging and accessible.

These themed explorations aside, the site hosts a Lesson Plans and Resources tab where educators can download teaching resources on the Qingming Scroll, the Song Dynasty, or Chinese handscrolls more broadly. It is worth noting that these plans are largely geared towards elementary and middle school students, though given the content available, it should be fairly easy to adapt and scale these up to high school level. In light of how most of the content on the site is fairly cursory, college instructors will likely find this site more useful for quick reviews of major Song dynasty developments, rather than as a central teaching resource.

On a more technical front, the website's simple approach to navigation makes it easy and straightforward to use. A static menu bar with clearly labelled tabs direct users to specific sub-themes, though it must be noted that some seemingly different sections link to the same page. Under the clickable sub-theme Rice Cultivation, for instance, there are also links to 'A Labor-Intensive Crop' and 'New Varieties of Rice'. Clicking on any of these 3 links lead to the same page, which makes for a slightly confusing situation since users will likely expect new content for each topic. This is particularly pertinent for sub-themes with multiple branches e.g. 13 under "neo-Confucianism"; Family. Further to that, some users might also find the layout of some pages a bit difficult to follow, as the content boxes can be slightly disjointed. These are, however, minor quibbles and do not take away from the academic value of the site.

Being easy to read, heavy on the visuals, and well-connected to other resources, this site is suited for school-level instructors seeking to provide their class with easily accessible information, as well as anyone else who would like a broad overview of what life was like during this period.

Reviewed by Joanna Lee, Monash University

How to Cite This Source

"The Song Dynasty in China," in in World History Commons, [accessed July 2, 2022]
Part of a Chinese picture scroll depicting a boat on a river and a bridge
“What makes this module particularly interesting is its usage of a 12th century picture scroll as a means to explore various facets of Chinese life during this period.”