The importance of the eleventh century within Chinese history, and indeed within world history, has long been obvious to scholars who specialize in the study of the period. This was the period in which printing, previously used mostly for ephemera, began to be used for durable texts such as government compendia, philosophical commentaries, literary anthologies, histories, and encyclopedias. It was the period in which empire-wide examinations achieved central importance in the recruitment of imperial officials and in the social strategies of elite families. It was the period in which rice and tea became staples of the Chinese diet, in which porcelain and the pound lock were invented, in which the manufacture of wrought iron, steel, paper, and ink were perfected, in which gunpowder weapons prompted innovations in defense works, and in which improvements in shipbuilding and the invention of the mariner’s compass made the Song Empire dominant in maritime trade, from the Japanese archipelago to the Indian Ocean. Confucian philosophy, common religion, sculpture, and painting during the eleventh century assumed forms that would endure for the remaining centuries of imperial rule. Although historians disagree how to characterize the era inaugurated by the eleventh century—“late imperial,” “early modern,” “modern”—they agree that the eleventh century radically transformed political and social structures, economy and finance, and ways of seeing and thinking. The period warrants comparison to the Italian Quattrocento both by its general historical significance and by many of its particular developments, including the era’s claim to a new, privileged understanding of the texts of a classical antiquity.
Whereas, however, the specialized scholar, the undergraduate student, and the general reader can choose from dozens of comprehensive studies of the Italian Renaissance, there does not exist at present a concise history of eleventh-century China that conveys to non-specialists in Europe and the United States the importance and interest of the period. In The Chinese Renaissance I hope to convey the vibrancy of eleventh-century China by foregrounding the rapid developments and concrete achievements of the period—in engineering and finance, in urbanization and philosophy, in painting and medicine—that have long excited scholars of the period. I moreover hope to enhance the appeal of the book and at the same time to preserve the particularity of the period by staying close to the sources, paraphrasing and translating them, and borrowing their categories and metaphors.