A Research Outline of the Tang–Song Social Transformation

by Lin Wenxun (Author)
©2024 Monographs XIV, 382 Pages


This book examines social transformation during the Tang-Song period by focusing on the emergence and development of the "society of moneyed elite" in ancient China. Specifically, the author tries to shed light on three important theoretical questions. First, how to understand social change from the perspective economic history; second, how to construct scientifically-informed causal explanations of historical processes and events; and third, how to remedy the shortcomings of previous studies that emphasize the contrasts between the two dynasties while overlooking the continuity between them.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction: History of Commodity Economy from the Perspective of Historical Philosophy
  • 1. General Thesis Tang-Song Social Transformation: An Economic Historical Interpretation
  • The Periodisation of Tang-Song History and a New Approach to the Tang-Song Studies
  • Commodity Economy and the Tang-Song Social Transformation
  • 2. Trade and Commerce and Transformations in Economic and Class Relations
  • Land Tenure System Reform of the Tang and Song Dynasties and Its Effects
  • The Rise of Moneyed Power and Social Transformation during the Tang and Song Dynasties
  • The Rise of the Moneyed Elite during the Tang and Song Dynasties and Its Historical Significance
  • Commodity Economy and Peasant Warfare in Northern and Southern Song Dynasties
  • 3. Commodity Economy, Policy Adjustments and Institutional Reforms
  • Commodity Economy and Changes in State Finances of the Tang and Song Dynasties
  • Commodity Economy and Reform of the State Monopoly System in the Tang and Song Dynasties
  • Commodity Economy and Changes in the Song Ethnic Policies
  • 4. Evolution of Commodity Economy, Philosophy and Value Systems
  • “Righteousness versus Profit” Debate: The Great Intellectual Emancipation in the Song Dynasty
  • “Discourse on Safeguarding the Rich”: A New Economic Thought Characteristic of its Age
  • Conclusion
  • The Formation and Historical Standing of the Ancient Chinese “Society of Moneyed Elite”
  • Bibliography



This book synthesizes my years of research on the so-called “Tang-Song social transformation” (唐宋社会变革) and “society of moneyed elite” (富民社会) in ancient China to examine the social changes that took place in the Tang and Song dynasties. The ancient Chinese “society of moneyed elite” theory provides a conceptual frame of reference for the research to uncover the underlying connections between commodity economy and social transformation at this stage of Chinese history.

In line with this approach, my investigation is driven by three overarching considerations. Firstly, it tries to study the Tang-Song social transformation from the perspective of commodity economy, situating the inquiry in the framework of economic history and raising it to the realm of historical philosophy. In retrospect, society in the Tang-Song era seemed to have undergone a series of transformative changes, including the rise of moneyed power, the emergence of the moneyed elite and reform in the land tenure system. The discovery prompted me to expand my research scope beyond economic relation to include social relations, institutions and policies as well as intellectual and cultural trends. In so doing, a larger picture began to surface. I realised that not only the Tang and Song, but also the subsequent Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, were invariably dominated by the so-called “moneyed elite”. Consequently, my investigation of the Tang-Song social transformation, informed by the history of commodity economy, was founded on the examination of the “society of moneyed elite”.

Secondly, this study seeks to unravel the underlying dynamics behind historical events for a scientific and convincing explanation of the Tang-Song social transformation. Existing scholarship, which has approached the topic from political, economic, military, intellectual and cultural angels, and even ranged from literature, arts to relations with ethnic minorities, suffices to demonstrate that the transformation did cover all aspects of society in the Tang-Song period. Though a couple of experts maintain that the changes of Chinese society were minor and negligible, the transformation theory has drawn wider recognition among Chinese and international scholars. However, if we look at these studies more closely, it becomes evident that the cause and context of the Tang-Song transformation remain poorly explored. In other words, previous studies are more descriptive than analytic. By building a theoretical framework for the Tang-Song social transformation, we aim to get at the root cause of this epoch-changing process.

Thirdly, the study tries to go beyond simple comparison and reconstruct the process by referring to first-hand descriptions by contemporary people who witnessed its unfolding. According to “Food and Commodities” in the History of the Song, “in military and agricultural policies, the Song followed the precedents set by the Tang.” This statement tells us that social changes during the Tang-Song period were minor in the beginning, and scaled up gradually over time. In this sense, study of this transformation should focus on the process: how factors conspired, how the momentum built up, and how contingency developed into reality. However, most previous studies are confined to making loose comparisons between the two dynasties and highlighting the differences. Despite their contributions to a better understanding of the transformation, these studies intentionally or inadvertently set the two dynasties one against another. In fact, the transformation was an accumulative process overriding dynastic division, and process, rather than cross-dynastic comparison, is the key to understanding it.


The Tang-Song social transformation was no doubt complex and multifaceted. A convincing analysis must cover the entire spectrum, including economy, class and social relations, political system as well as intellectual and cultural trends, to ensure theoretical soundness and avoid one-sidedness. Following the “Introduction” and “General Thesis” which explain the general research approach and argument, the book goes on to discuss how commodity economy set into motion a series of changes in economic and class relations, policies and institutions, as well as value orientations in the Tang-Song era. The purpose is to posit a multi-layered analysis of the Tang-Song social transformation through the lens of commodity economy. It must be noted that economic and class relations are given the highest importance and subject to the most detailed scrutiny.

As readers shall see, in dealing with the relationship between commodity economy and these diverse aspects, I concentrate on several chosen topics instead of making general statements. The choice of topics has something to do with my intellectual background and familiarity with certain areas, but the deeper motive is to draw attention to issues that have largely been out of the academic spotlight, and to dig deeper into the subject. For me, the rise of moneyed power or the moneyed elite, the land tenure reform, the “discourse on safeguarding the rich” and the formation of “society of moneyed elite” all merit closer inspection. Of course, whether and to what extent have I met my goal can only be judged by the readers.

In my opinion, a research of real value and interest must not only answer the existing questions, but ask new questions in the process. From the perspective of commodity economy and within the framework of historical philosophy, this book investigates the relationship between the pre-modern Chinese commodity economy and the Tang-Song social transformation, arguing that society of the Tang-Song era was one dominated by the moneyed elite, and that transformation during this period was a transition from the “society of despotic elite” between the Han and the Tang dynasties to a “society of moneyed elite”. Within the framework of “society of moneyed elite”, this book examines the changes in economic and class relations, adjustments of policies and institutions, as well as evolution of philosophical and value systems in the Tang-Song period, meanwhile propounding a new interpretation of the periodic development of traditional Chinese society. It believes that the changing nature and composition of the elite class is key to understanding the trajectory of premodern Chinese history, which transitioned from the “ctribal society” of the archaic Three Dynasties to the “society of despotic elite” between the Han and Tang dynasties, and then evolved from the “society of moneyed elite” lasting from the Tang-Song era down to the Ming-Qing period into the modern “society of citizens”. Sandwiched between “society of despotic elite” and “society of citizens”, the “society of moneyed elite” constituted an indispensable stage in Chinese history.

My basic thesis can be postulated as follows: (1) Commodity economy is a reliable indicator of social productivity: in premodern Chinese society, major development of commodity economy always brought about major social changes and gave impetus to social transition and progress. Further, owing to its polarising, fluid and open quality, commodity economy inevitably induced the dissolution of the old social relation and formation of the new. In the rejuvenescence process, with the old relation falling apart and the new order yet to be established, nothing but chaos reigned. This is no cause for concern and consternation, however, because what appeared as “chaos” was “change” in essence. Incidentally, “chaotic change” was a recurring motif throughout millennia of Chinese history. (2) From the standpoint of commodity economy, the “Tang-Song social transformation” was neither a transition from an early form of Chinese feudal society to the later one, nor a shift from the medieval period to the modern period, or from ancient to medieval times, but from the “society of despotic elite” between the Han and Tang to “society of moneyed elite” spanning the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. The “society of moneyed elite” was really an intermediary between the early medieval “society of despotic elite” and the modern “society of citizens”. During the Tang-Song period, commodity economy reached an unprecedented height, and dramatic changes took place in economic and class relations, institutions and policies as well as intellectual perspectives, etc. The mobile, populist and market-oriented features of this new stage started a structural change in the society which became markedly different from the previous one. (3) There was nothing radical or revolutionary in the changes that occurred in the Tang-Song period. The Tang-Song social transformation was in essence a restructuring of social relations and a redistribution of interests necessitated by the development of commodity economy. In the process, the rise of moneyed power or “moneyed elite” cast a long shadow on the subsequent ages until the early modern times. Therefore, a thorough understanding of the Tang-Song transformation is essential to a scientific, comprehensive and accurate perception of Chinese society since the Tang dynasty. This in turn illustrates how the study of the Tang-Song social transformation can lead to promising scholarly discussions.


This book seeks to build a frame of reference of historical philosophy for an in-depth inquiry into the Tang-Song social transformation. Owing to my intellectual and theoretical limitations, however, when the book was close to completion, I felt no sense of relief, but apprehension about several flaws and imperfections.

First, in focusing on commodity economy in the analysis of the Tang-Song social transformation, this study risks neglect of other factors. In fact, social development and transformation is a complex, dynamic process. It is possible to be fixated on one point at the expense of a larger picture. In spite of this awareness, however, the defect is perhaps not entirely absent in my writing.

Second, it is rare among the scholars of Tang and Song history to achieve a synergistic understanding of the two dynasties. Those specialising in the Tang history usually deal with the Song as a mere extension of the Tang, and those of the Song tend to treat the Tang as but an early version of the Song. What is more, the High Tang is often not differentiated from the late Tang, or Northern Song from the Southern Song. Despite decades of research on the Tang and Song economic history, I myself, having dedicated more time and energy to the Song than to the Tang, is no less liable to making these mistakes.

Third, as a scholar on Tang-Song history, my speciality is in economic history. I know a thing or two about the political, military, intellectual and cultural realities of this period, but never managed to study them with thoroughness and dedication. To be frank, writing of this book made me increasingly conscious of the depth of my ignorance and inadequacy. I apologise should there be any omission or misplaced emphasis.

In recent years, the Tang-Song social transformation theory has drawn immense attention at home and abroad, as evidenced by the frequency of related symposiums and publications. To further explore this transformation, a theoretical framework is called for. To this end, I make bold to compile my explorations of and reflections since the 1990s into a single volume, in the hope of fostering worthier contributions. This book is far from perfect, and I welcome comments and criticism from experts and readers!

As we know, the Tang-Song social transformation remains a contentious issue. As Qi Xia points out: “Whether the socio-economic relations changed at the Tang-Song transition or not, and the content, scale and degree of these changes have drawn wide attention and puzzled many scholars” (Qi 2000). Undoubtably, such a weighty subject must be addressed from different perspectives in order to approach historical reality, and arguments built on any isolated point of view must be one-sided and untenable. That being said, we believe distinction should be made between the principal and secondary, the important and the less relevant factors, and this book singles out commodity economy as the principal factor. Meanwhile, it should be mentioned that due to the complexity of the subject, (1) This book is merely a starting point, rather than end-point, of the inquiry into the Tang-Song social transformation. Following the “Introduction”, the discussion is conducted in four parts before arriving at a tentative “Conclusion”. While this volume serves to provide an overview of this historic transformation, more works are sure to follow to complement this one. (2) For an in-depth and focused investigation, the discussion is organised around specific topics. Inevitably, there is some overlap in the citation of literature that might seem redundant. I beg the readers’ forgiveness for this shortcoming and will improve it in the coming works.


  • Qi Xia. “The Transformation of Socio-economic Relations during the Tang-Song Transition and Its Impact on Cultural and Intellectual Spheres.” Researches in Chinese Economic History, no. 1 (2000).

Introduction: History of Commodity Economy from the Perspective of Historical Philosophy


To discover the law governing the development of human society and identify the rationale for the emancipation and development of mankind has been the starting point and final aim of the Marxist theory. Thinkers since Karl Marx have sought to uncover this law, and bequeathed us with a thorough exposition of the importance and status of commodity economy.

The shift from primitive communism to class society was momentous in human history. The concomitant emergence and development of family, private ownership and state were closely related to commodity economy, as Friedrich Engels points out in his study of the rise of the Athenian state: “As far back as written history goes, we find the land already divided up and privately owned, which is in accordance with the relatively advanced commodity production and the corresponding trade in commodities developed toward the end of the upper stage of barbarism” (Engels 2010). So how did commodity economy lead to the rise of the Athenian state? Engels goes on to argue that except for grain, the Athenians produced wine and oil and developed sea trade in the Aegean. “Through the sale and purchase of land and the progressive division of labour between agriculture and handicraft, trade, and shipping, it was inevitable that the members of the different gentes, phratries, and tribes very soon became intermixed.” Changes soon ensued.

The smooth functioning of the organs of the gentile constitution was thus thrown so much out of gear that even in the heroic age remedies had to be found. The constitution ascribed to Theseus was introduced. The principal change which it made was to set up a central authority in Athens – that is, part of the affairs hitherto administered by the tribes independently were declared common affairs and entrusted to the common council sitting in Athens. In taking this step, the Athenians went further than any native people of America had ever done: instead of neighbouring tribes forming a simple confederacy, they fused together into one single nation. Hence arose a common Athenian civil law which stood above the legal customs of the tribes and gentes. The Athenian citizen as such acquired definite rights and new protection in law even on territory which was not that of his tribe. The first step had been taken toward undermining the gentile constitution… (Engels 2010)

Thenceforward, division of labour and commodity economy flourished, while money and usury gained currency in the Athenian state.

From here the growing money economy penetrated like corrosive acid into the old traditional life of the rural communities founded on natural economy. The gentile constitution is absolutely irreconcilable with money economy; the ruin of the Attic small farmers coincided with the loosening of the old gentile bonds which embraced and protected them (Engels 2010).

What followed was the prevalence of money economy as well as the transaction and pledging of land, and even selling children into slavery. The opposition of rich and poor, of exploiters and the exploited, appeared. Engels emphasises:

Not so among the Greeks. The rise of private property in herds and articles of luxury led to exchange between individuals, to the transformation of products into commodities. And here lie the seeds of the whole subsequent upheaval. When the producers no longer directly consumed their product themselves, but let it pass out of their hands in the act of exchange, they lost control of it. They no longer knew what became of it; the possibility was there that one day it would be used against the producer to exploit and oppress him. For this reason no society can permanently retain the mastery of its own production and the control over the social effects of its process of production unless it abolishes exchange between individuals (Engels 2010).

In the immediate next passage, Engels again underscores the importance of money economy:

But the Athenians were soon to learn how rapidly the product asserts its mastery over the producer when once exchange between individuals has begun and products have been transformed into commodities. With the coming of commodity production, individuals began to cultivate the soil on their own account, which soon led to individual ownership of land. Money followed, the general commodity with which all others were exchangeable. But when men invented money, they did not think that they were again creating a new social power, the one general power before which the whole of society must bow. And it was this new power, suddenly sprung to life without knowledge or will of its creators, which now in all the brutality of its youth gave the Athenians the first taste of its might (Engels 2010).


XIV, 382
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2024 (February)
Social Transformation Land Tenure System Reform Tang-Song History
New York, Berlin, Bruxelles, Chennai, Lausanne, Oxford, 2024. XIV, 382 pp., 3 tables.

Biographical notes

Lin Wenxun (Author)

Lin Wenxun received his Ph.D. in history from Yunnan University. He is the author of many monographs, and has published more than 150 articles in academic journals. His research interests include the history of Tang and Song dynasties, the economic history of China, and the history of China’s rural society. Coining the concept of "the society of moneyed elite" is one of Lin’s major contributions to his field of research.


Title: A Research Outline of the Tang–Song Social Transformation