In 1125, when the Jurchen, a seminomadic people from northeast Asia, invaded Song China and captured the capital at Bianliang (modern Kaifeng), founding their own Jin dynasty in the north, the Song court reestablished itself in the south in Hangzhou, where it continued to rule for another 150 years as the Southern Song dynasty.
Southern Song society was characterized by the pursuit of a highly aestheticized way of life, and paintings of the period often focus on evanescent pleasures and the transience of beauty. Images evoke poetic ideas that appeal to the senses or capture the fleeting qualities of a moment in time. One particularly important source of inspiration for Southern Song artists was the natural beauty of Hangzhou and its environs, especially West Lake, a famed scenic spot ringed with lush mountains and dotted with palaces, private gardens, and Buddhist temples.
The Southern Song Imperial Painting Academy continued the stylistic direction and high technical standards established by Emperor Huizong in the early twelfth century. Often executed in the intimate oval fan or album-leaf format, academic paintings—and the imperially inscribed poems that sometimes accompany them—reveal an increasingly narrow, concentrated vision and a commitment to the exact rendering of an object. The cultivation of a tranquil and detached mind free of material entanglements was a common concern of Song Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi (1130–1200): the “investigation of things [leading to] the extension of knowledge.”
The decorative arts also reached the height of elegance and technical perfection during the Southern Song. Like painting, the plastic arts responded to two different aesthetics—that of the imperial court and that of popular culture. Supreme among the decorative arts of the Song period are ceramics, which many connoisseurs consider the highest artistic achievement of the Chinese potter.
Department of Asian Art. “Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ssong/hd_ssong.htm (October 2001)