In 960, General Zhao Kuangyin had the throne thrust upon him by mutinous officers. He allowed the Later Zhou family to retire peacefully and established the Song Dynasty. Coins were the main basis of the Song monetary system. Cloth had reverted to the status of a commodity. Aided by the exploitation of new copper mines, cash were produced on a large scale. By the Yuanfeng period (1078–85), casting from 17 different mints produced over five million strings a year of bronze coins. Most mints produced 200,000 strings a year; the largest was named Shao Zhou and located in Guangdong, where there was a large copper mine. It produced 800,000 strings a year. In 1019, the coinage alloy was set at copper 64%, lead 27%, tin 9%. This shows a reduction of nearly 20% in copper content compared with the Tang dynasty Kai Yuan coin.
With so much official coinage available, private coining was generally not a serious problem. Song coins were used over much of Asia, especially inKorea, Japan, Annam, and Indonesia. Hoards of Song coins are often found in these countries.
A wide variety of ordinary cash coin types was produced. The inscription was nearly always changed when the period title was changed. Seal, li, regular, running, and "grass" styles of writing were all used at various times. Many inscriptions were written by the ruling Emperor, which has resulted in some of the most admired and analysed calligraphy to be found on cash coins. In addition, inscriptions could use yuan bao (Chinese: 元寶; pinyin:yuánbǎo) or tong bao (Chinese: 通寶; pinyin: tōng bǎo), increasing the number of variations possible. Large coins which used zhong bao (Chinese:重寶; pinyin: zhòng bǎo) were also issued in a variety of sizes and nominal denominations, usually devalued soon after issue.
A feature of Northern Song coinage is the sets of dui qian (Chinese: 對錢; pinyin: duì qián; literally: "Matched Coins"). This means the simultaneous use of two or three different calligraphic styles on coins of the same period title which are otherwise identical in size of hole, width of rim, thickness, size and position of the characters and alloy. One can assume that these congruences arose from the workmanship of the different mints, but no attributions have yet been proposed.
From the beginning of the dynasty, iron coins were extensively used in present day Sichuan and Shaanxi where copper was not readily available. Between 976 and 984, a total of 100,000 strings of iron coins was produced in Fujian as well. In 993, for paying the land tax one iron coin was equal to one bronze, for the salary of clerks and soldiers one bronze equalled five iron coins, but in trade ten iron coins were needed for one bronze coin. In 1005, four mints in Sichuan produced over 500,000 strings of iron coins a year. This declined to 210,000 strings by the beginning of the Qingli period (1041). At this time, the mints were ordered to cast 3 million strings of iron cash to meet military expenses in Shaanxi. However, by 1056, casting was down to 100,000 strings a year, and in 1059 minting was halted for 10 years in Jiazhou and Qiongzhou, leaving only Xingzhou producing 30,000 strings a year.
During the Xining period (from 1068), minting was increased, and by the Yuanfeng period (from 1078) it was reported that there were nine iron coin mints, three in Sichuan and six in Shaanxi, producing over a million strings a year. Thereafter, output declined gradually.