Song-Mongol War (1234-1279)

Song-Mongol War (1234-1279)

The Song-Mongol struggle lasted remarkably for decades with the Mongol invasion of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) and their defense during the medieval age. In 1125, the northern Jin dynasty (11151234 ), the Jurchens, began to attack the Song dynasty (960-1279), and the Song emperor lost the war in 1127. When the Jurchens captured the Song emperor in the north, the anti-Jin Chinese supported the emperor’s brother to move the throne to the south. Historically, the Song dynasty is divided into the Northern Song dynasty from 960 to 1127 and Southern Song dynasty from 1127 to 1279.

The Southern Song was a dynasty in exile to some extent, having been pushed out of the north by the Jurchens. The Southern Song never entirely gave up hope of recapturing their former territory and reestablishing the first Song Empire of Taizu (T’ai-tsu) (960-976). Indeed, on the occasions that they felt capable of launching assaults against the Jin dynasty into the north, they did so, despite the disappointing results. This dream of reconquest, whether or not it was widely felt among the aristocracy, was largely academic without a strong army and strong military leaders to organize successful campaigns. Thus the defensive posture often seen as typifying the Southern Song was forced on them by circumstances, a military strategy that allowed their dynasty to be preserved despite the limited military resources at their disposal.

In 1211, the Mongols attacked the Jin dynasty, which controlled north China, including the Hebei (Hopei) and Shandong (Shantung) Provinces. In the 1220s, the Mongols negotiated with the Southern Song to attack the Jin together, with the Mongols attacking from the north, and the Song invading from the south. The Mongols promised to return the territories south of the Yellow River (Huanghe) back to the Song after their victory. In 1234, the Jin dynasty was defeated by a joint attack of the Mongols and Southern Song.

When the Southern Song army tried to return to north China in 1234, they were attacked by the Mongol army. The SongMongol War began. The Southern Song army failed to recover the northern territories, and the Mongols occupied northern China. The Southern Song army withdrew back to the south for several reasons. Since the Southern Song had a completely defensive mindset, they did not frequently engage in offensive campaigns. Although it also took what might be considered extreme steps to prevent the rise of powerful military leaders, they did put into place fairly effective offensive measures.

In 1251, the Mongol army launched new offensive campaigns against the Southern Song dynasty in three directions from the north. The Southern Song army built fortified defense works around cities and on hills to defend the south effectively, which should not be too surprising, given the precarious nature of such a comprehensive defensive system. The prime merit of such a course was that an effective defensive posture amplified the force of the military. Given the edge provided by mountain fortresses and controlled waterways, the Song military forces did not need to be nearly as strong as those of the invaders. The Mongol armies withdrew to the north in 1258-1259.

In 1260, Kublai Khan (Khubilai Khan) (1215-1294) became the Mongol leader. In 1271, he was proclaimed the emperor of Yuan, formally establishing the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). The Yuan capital was moved to Dadu (Beijing or Peking) in 1272.In 1275, the Mongol army launched a new offensive campaign against the Southern Song dynasty. In 1276, the Mongols took over Linan, the capital city of the Southern Song dynasty. The Song generals continued their resistance across the country.

The Song army may have been able to effectively defend for a long period of time, but when removed from that environment, it was a weak force indeed. Thus, when their defensive structures could be broken through or bypassed in strength, the Southern Song military was not nearly as capable as the Mongol forces and had no effective way to repel them. An important characteristic of the Southern Song military policy thus became evident. While it may have effectively enacted a defensive strategy for many years-a defensive strategy that did not call for highly skilled and powerful military leaders but rather could be overseen largely by the civilian government-it inherently lacked the strength to wage open warfare without a defensive framework.

Eventually, the defensive strategies of the Southern Song were not enough to keep the Mongol invaders out, and the regime fell in 1279. The Southern Song strategy was thus self-defeating in the long run, for it institutionalized a weak army, preferring to rely on relatively static defenses. The obvious weakness was revealed when Kublai broke through those defenses and conquered the Southern Song. The Yuan dynasty took over China under the Mongols in 1279-1368.

Dr. Xiaobing Li

See also: Genghis Khan; Kublai Khan; Mongols; Mongols, Cavalry of; Song Dynasty; Song, Fortified Cities; Yuan Dynasty; Yancheng, Battle of; Yue Fei.


Graff, David A. Medieval Chinese Warfare, 300-900. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Lorge, Peter. War, Politics and Society in Early Modern China, 900-1795. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Mote, Frederick W. Imperial China, 9001800. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Robinson, DavidM. Empire’s Twilight: Northeast Asia under the Mongols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Rossabi, Morris. Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.