“”No victory of arms, or tyranny of alien finance, can long suppress a nation so rich in resources and vitality. The invader will lose funds or patience before the loins of China will lose virility; within a century China will have absorbed and civilized her conquerors...
|—Will and Ariel Durant, The Story of Civilization, 1935.|
|Tomorrow is a mystery,|
but yesterday is
|Secrets of times gone by|
Imperial China refers to the period of more than two millennia during which China was ruled by emperors. This period ran from roughly 221 BCE to 1912 CE, beginning with the establishment of the Qin dynasty and ending with the fall of the Qing dynasty.
There were some major running ideas and philosophies which held China together through this era. Perhaps the most important was the "Mandate of Heaven", the concept that Chinese Emperors ruled with the favor of the gods and that if the Chinese Emperor became cruel or incompetent, the gods could withdraw this favor and cause the dynasty's collapse. This concept became one of the main engines behind the Dynastic Cycle, a pattern which persisted throughout the entire Imperial Chinese period. In short, a new dynasty would arise from a period of anarchy and civil war to stabilize China, and it would then experience its golden age before eventually stagnating and collapsing. Then a new dynasty would arise, and the cycle would begin all over again.
Chinese culture at this time was also heavily influenced by Confucianism, a philosophy which placed great value on harmonious relationships and social stability. Confucianism played a great role in ensuring that the Chinese people remained loyal to the emperor for long periods of time. Chinese culture also emphasized the importance of art and literature, and these flourished during this long period.
Emperors ruled as absolute monarchs, but there were some curious factors limiting their power. For instance, an emperor's authority was not exactly unquestionable. Although it was unacceptable to directly disobey the emperor, Chinese society could in general perceive that the emperor had lost the Mandate of Heaven if the emperor began to behave poorly or even just suffer some misfortunes. Rebellions and coups could then follow. Unlike in Imperial Japan, this meant that ruling houses could change, which is why China experienced so many different dynasties. The shifting nature of the Mandate of Heaven also allowed for some very unorthodox dynasties to emerge and claim legitimacy. The Han and Ming dynasties, for instance, were founded by peasants. The Yuan and Qing dynasties were founded by foreign invaders. Nonetheless, some emperors were relatively benevolent while others were brutal tyrants.
Although stable enough to persist for millennia, the Imperial Chinese period came to an end for a variety of reasons, many of which had to do with the introduction of foreign ideas and values like democracy, communism, and Christianity. However, the influence of the Imperial period can still be seen in the modern People's Republic of China, as seen through the importance it places on social stability and the fact that the communist regime came to power in a manner similar to that predicted by the Dynastic Cycle.
Mandate of Heaven
The Mandate of Heaven actually predates Imperial China, dating all the way back to the Zhou dynasty of approximately 1046-256 BCE. There are generally considered to have been four principles to the Mandate:
- Heaven grants the emperor the right to rule
- Since there is only one Heaven, there can only be one emperor at any given time
- The emperor's virtue determines his right to rule
- No one dynasty has a permanent right to rule
As a result of this idea, the Chinese people could observe and determine that the Emperor had lost the Mandate for any number of reasons. Common signs interpreted as a loss of the Mandate included peasant uprisings, foreign invasions, drought, famine, floods, and earthquakes. If victorious over the emperor, warlords, peasant leaders, or foreign invaders could proclaim that the defeated dynasty had lost the Mandate and that they had gained it. This meant that it was relatively simple for a new dynasty to consolidate its rule and claim legitimacy. This is why the Zhou dynasty started the concept in the first place; they used it to justify their overthrow of the Shang dynasty. Basically, Heaven had decided that the old emperor was unfit to rule, and so he had to be put down like Old Yeller. This happened numerous times, leading to the Dynastic Cycle.
The Dynastic Cycle
“”The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.
|—Quote from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the Four Classical Novels.|
The Dynastic Cycle wasn't a concept which existed back then; it is instead the name given to a pattern noticed by modern historians. Although a very simplified model, the extraordinary thing is that the Dynastic Cycle actually fits all of China's dynasties. Some of them may have progressed through the stages at different rates, but they all progressed through the stages.
The Dynastic Cycle can be roughly described as the following general chain of events:
- China begins in a state of anarchy and war, usually because the old regime had collapsed for some reason.
- A powerful warlord eventually emerges from the violence and manages to conquer most or all of (or at least large swaths of) China.
- The warlord declares that he's united China and claims that he has been blessed with the Mandate of Heaven. He founds a new dynasty.
- Under the new dynasty, China flourishes and goes through a period of peace and prosperity.
- The dynasty stagnates and starts to run into problems of over-extension and corruption.
- A series of disasters hit, which the dynasty is unable to deal with due to the aforementioned factors.
- The people decide that the dynasty has lost the Mandate of Heaven.
- The dynasty is overthrown, by either internal revolts, a coup, or by foreign invasion.
- China enters a period of anarchy and civil war.
So it goes.
The very, very interesting thing is how well the current communist regime of China fits the Dynastic Cycle even though it decries monarchy and dynasties (but not authoritarianism). The communist regime came to power because a great warlord named Mao Zedong led his followers to victory during a period of anarchy and disunity called the Chinese Civil War. The Communist Party had a difficult time consolidating its hold due to internal problems, but they eventually restored peace and order and turned China into the economic powerhouse we all know today. However, China's government is now struggling against widening economic inequality, urban-rural alienation, and frontier problems like Hong Kong and Xinjiang. China's central and regional governments are also unhealthily corrupt, impacting foreign business opportunities and causing financial losses. In other words, China's ancient problems are starting to impact the current regime as well. Whether (or when) the Communist Party completes the cycle is left to be seen.
Created by philosopher Confucius (Kǒng Fūzǐ) during the ancient Zhou dynasty, Confucianism is a set of values governing how a person should conduct their personal and public lives, especially their relationships. It also deals with how a ruler should behave towards their subjects. This ideology stresses the need for good and benevolent rulers, believing that rulers should lead by example rather than coercion.
Confucianism only became dominant during the Han dynasty, but it rose to shape Chinese life thereafter. It outlined five key relationships which defined everyone's life: ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, older sibling and younger sibling, and elder friends and junior friends. According to the philosophy, a ruler should be wise and the subject should be obedient. A father should be kind, and a son should be obedient. A husband should be loving, and a wife should be obedient. The older sibling should be gentle, and the younger sibling should be respectful. The elder friend should be considerate, and the younger friend should be respectful. A number of things should stand out to you. Firstly, all of these relationships involve a superior and a subordinate. Secondly, the subordinate is almost always expected to be obedient to the superior, but that superior is expected to do well by the subordinate.
The end result of Confucianism's adoption by Chinese society and government was that the Chinese people were constantly trained to be subservient to their perceived social superiors. Confucianism also resulted in a general societal stagnation, as its social expectations became more rigid. Women likely suffered most, as they were expected to be entirely subordinate to the male sex and were considered to never be as wise as men.
Qin dynasty (221–207 BCE)
“”Qin is a man of scant mercy who has the heart of a wolf. When he is in difficulty he readily humbles himself before others, but when he has got his way, then he thinks nothing of eating others alive.
|—Sima Qian, China's first great historian.|
The Qin founded the first great Chinese empire which would become the model for Chinese history for the next two-thousand years. The Qin dynasty arose during the Warring States Period which had set in after the collapse of the Zhou dynasty around 475-ish BCE. The Qin were originally the rulers of one of those small warring states, but they ruthlessly centralized power and built a trained army. One of the greatest advantages they possessed was their complete disregard for the usual conventions of battle, instead favoring an "all's fair" approach. The Qin also had superior technology and resources, and with these advantages they proceeded to start gobbling up their neighbors.
Finally, the young king Ying Zheng managed to conquer much of what was then considered China (despite taking the throne at the tender age of nine), and he declared himself Qin Shi Huang, meaning "First Emperor of Qin." His government was relentlessly authoritarian, only to be expected from a regime borne out of war. Qin abolished territorial feudal power, forced all aristocratic families to live with him in the capital city Xianyang, and divided the country into districts under military rule. Whenever he captured nobles or military leaders from other Chinese states, he would have them castrated and turned into slaves. Qin authorities used terror as a means of suppression by publicly killing anyone who stepped out of line. Even those who remained obedient could suffer. People considered to be of little use to the overall empire were forced into slavery to work on the various construction projects that the empire began.
Qin Shi Huang was and is also infamous for his Stalin-esque paranoia. As Professor Xun Zhou of Hong Kong University said, He was paranoid. He was constantly in fear of how he could control this vast new territory with so many cultures and so many different groups of people." His murderous authoritarian tendencies were especially focused on the scholars of China, who he believed were undermining his rule by referring back to China's history and traditions before the Qin came into the picture. In order to bury criticism and history, he ordered over 400 scholars arrested and then buried alive. Scholarship was then suppressed and literacy forbidden for most of the Chinese populace because Qin Shi Huang believed that illiterate and uneducated people were easier to control.
However, the Qin dynasty did make some important improvements to China. One of its ministers standardized the logographic writing system across all of China, creating a style of calligraphy which became the basis of modern Mandarin Chinese. The emperor also enforced universal units of measurement and a single currency over all of China, and he embarked upon major infrastructure projects to bind his realm together.
His brutal reign and the means by which he gained power meant that Qin Shi Huang faced numerous assassination attempts. By the end of his life, he had become paranoid and fearful of death. The emperor began a quest for immortality which even included an official search for a supposed elixir or potion that would grant his wish. When this quest proceeded to (predictably) go nowhere, Qin instead decided to do what most autocrats do in the event of their impending mortality: build a kick-ass tomb. Hence the construction of thousands of life-sized clay soldiers and horses which are now known as the Terracotta Army. In the end, Qin Shi Huang's quest for immortality probably killed him. In his final months he started taking pills that one of his alchemists promised would make him immortal; it turns out that they were mercury.[note 1] Oops.
Qin Shi Huang had never appointed a successor, apparently (and stupidly) assuming that he would live forever. The emperor's ministers feared that they would lose their positions if the oldest son and heir of the old emperor took power, so they tricked him into committing suicide and placed feckless Qin Er Shi on the throne. While the government was busy dealing with this silliness, peasants and even military leaders were revolting against Qin rule. Various states started breaking away.
Eventually, two dominant powers emerged, the Chu state led by the wealthy noble Xiang Yu, and the Han state led by the former peasant rebel Liu Bang. While Xiang Yu hailed from an ancient noble family, Liu Bang was born in an obscure rural fishing village before becoming a local official and eventually leading an uprising. The two rebel leaders were initially allied to one another against the Qin, but they turned against each other after meeting at a banquet and trying to "Red Wedding" each other. Liu Bang eventually won out after years of brutal civil war, and he became the founder of the Han dynasty.
Han dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE)
“”The two most far-sighted and influential political figures in the history of mankind are Caesar, who founded the Roman Empire, and Liu Bang, who founded the Han Empire.
|—Alfred Toynbee, British historian.|
The Han dynasty is considered to be one of China's great golden ages. During this period, China went through a prolonged period of economic and territorial growth. There was also a cultural growth and development of the arts. So influential was this period of Chinese history that the dominant Chinese ethnicity is now referred to as "Hànrén" (汉人) or "Han Chinese". The dynasty was founded by peasant rebel Liu Bang, later known as the Gaozu Emperor, who rose up against the brutality of Qin Shi Huang and the ineptitude of the Qin emperor's successor.
As mentioned above, the Han dynasty made Confucianism the official state philosophy of the empire. The Han ended the Qin's practice of suppressing literacy, and they instead encouraged writing and reading. Mathematics also advanced greatly during this time, with one of the first great mathematical texts, The Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art, being composed over several generations. One of the most lasting advances made by the Han was their adoption of the Mandarin system. During the reign of Emperor Han Wudi, the government established a state university to train and test officials in the techniques of Confucian government.
Han Wudi also launched a series of imperialist military expeditions to expand China's borders. His armies invaded what is now Mongolia around 133 BCE, then invaded Korea in 128 BCE, and then invaded Vietnam. Most of these regions ended up annexed or made into protectorates. Perhaps the most important consequence of these wars was the establishment of the Silk Road. While adventuring around what are now the "-stan" countries, Chinese generals met a bunch of strange foreigners and realized that those strange foreigners would quite like to buy Chinese goods and sell to Chinese markets. The Han saw
dollar signs sycees and created history's most famous trading route, which led from China all the way to the Mediterranean. In fact, you'll notice that the Chinese dynasties depicted on the maps after this one all have a sort of "tail" stretching to the west. That's because of the Silk Road; the Gansu region links China to the rest of the world by winding between two impassably mountainous regions. China always wanted to directly own Gansu to ensure that its trade routes stayed open and under its control.
Inevitably, the Han dynasty entered its own decline phase. China's economy had gone into the toilet since Wudi had drained the state coffers with his wars, and rich-poor divides were becoming a serious problem. Claiming that the Han had lost the Mandate of Heaven, warlord Wang Mang overthrew the Han and established the short-lived Xin dynasty (9 – 23 CE). Wang implemented some weirdly socialist policies, nationalizing land and distributing it to peasants and abolishing slavery. As rich people tend to when socialist revolutionaries come into power, the merchants and nobles rose up against Wang's government. They broke into his palace then beheaded and dismembered him.
The Han actually managed to temporarily cheat death by returning to power. China's prosperity temporarily returned, but the end still came once more. The imperial court grew increasingly corrupt, and taxes started to rise for stupid reasons. A Taoist cult led by Zhang Jue declared that the Han had lost the Mandate of Heaven, and they assembled an army of rebels who distinguished themselves by wearing yellow scarves wrapped around their heads. Thus began the Yellow Turban Rebellion in 184 CE. Zhang was an influential leader, like you'd expect from a cult, and he spread a messianic message by claiming to be a magic doctor and predicting a new age of "Great Peace". In other words, he was nuts, but the dude managed to assemble an army of 360,000 people. The rebels were eventually defeated, but the fatally weakened Han empire was unable to defend itself from a subsequent series of greedy warlords who fractured China once again into a number of warring states.
Interlude: The Three Kingdoms (220 – 280 CE)
“”The clever bird chooses the branch whereon to perch; the wise servant selects the master to serve.
|—Quote from the Romance of Three Kingdoms.|
With the Han dynasty murdered and bloodily dismembered, control of China was eventually divided roughly evenly between the states of Wei, Shu, and Wu. Each state, despite being called a "Kingdom" here, was actually headed by an emperor who claimed supremacy over the other two. You should not be surprised that this caused conflict between them.
Although largely insignificant in terms of lasting cultural, technological, or administrative advances, the Three Kingdoms period is still remembered in Chinese culture today. This is because the period, due to the great amount of conflict and civil war it saw, was romanticized in later Chinese literature beginning during the Sung dynasty. Most influential of these works was the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, whose characters were apparently vivid enough to warrant canonization and actual worship in some places.
Jin dynasty (266 – 420 CE)
In 266 CE, the Jin dynasty overthrew the Wei state and managed to unite China once more under their rule. Unfortunately for them, the Jin dynasty struggled to maintain its hold over China due to internal problems. From the beginning, the Jin state was hampered by corruption, and a census conducted at the formation of the empire showed that China's population had decreased sharply during the period of disunification (by as much as forty million if the census figures were accurate). The death of the first Jin emperor in 290 CE sparked a succession crisis that spiraled into the devastating War of the Eight Princes, leaving the Jin empire in ruins.
That war ended in 306 CE, and it very quickly gave way to another war staring in 317 CE, the Uprising of the Five Barbarians. Five non-Han tribes residing in what is now Mongolia, long having chafed against Chinese rule, revolted for independence. These were the Xiongnu, Jie, Qiang and Di initially, and they were later joined by the Xianbei. The Uprising of the Five Barbarians resulted in the temporary overthrow of the Jin dynasty; Jin loyalists and huge numbers of Han refugees fled south to establish a rump state and the tribes created a number of, wait for it, warring states. Southern China's population and economy grew massively as a result of this, a fact still reflected by the region's population density.
Despite the troubled times the Jin dynasty endured, China did see some important cultural advancements. Artisans started making early forms of porcelain pottery, which China would be famed for later in history. Conflict between Confucians and Taoists also created the right religious landscape for Buddhism to begin making serious inroads into China. Local authorities sponsored Buddhist temples across southern China.
The Jin dynasty, troubled as it was, collapsed due to even more infighting over succession as a wave of assassinations eliminated the imperial dynasty and passed the throne to the regent Liu Yu. The regent-turned-emperor, who you won't be surprised to learn had a major hand in these assassinations, declared himself the founder of a new dynasty: the Liu Song. Sadly for Liu Yu and his new empire, things weren't gonna pan out.
Interlude: North and South (420 – 589 CE)
The North and South period is when the United States fought the secessionist Confederate States in the bloody American Civil War.
The Jin dynasty didn't just fall apart. It fell apart so damn hard that China remained disunited for more than a century. The southern half of the Chinese region was ruled by a rapid succession of dynasties, the Liu Song, Southern Qi, Liang and finally Chen. All of these regimes were ruled by Han Chinese and were based out of the city now called Nanjing, and all of these dynasties were founded by generals who launched military coups against the previous emperor.
The northern part of the Chinese region, meanwhile, was ruled by a succession of ethnically Xianbei dynasties after the Xianbei had won out over the other "barbarians". The first of these dynasties, the Wei, had their emperors begin a cultural assimilation project to force their own Xianbei people to adopt Han Chinese mannerisms and standards. That ably demonstrates another pattern in Chinese history. Sure, China would get invaded by outsiders every now and then, but the outsiders usually found themselves lost in a massive sea of the populous Han Chinese and left with no choice but to become Han Chinese themselves.
The most notable development during this period was the rapid spread of Buddhism throughout the Chinese region, which managed to happen despite the prolonged division. In the north, the foreign dynasties adopted Buddhism and used the goal of spreading it as an excuse to impose harsh authoritarianism on the civilian population. In the south, Confucian intellectuals at first resisted but then studied Buddhist teachings, allowing for an eventual tolerance towards the new religion. Towards the end of the North and South period, the two sides of the country warred less and less frequently, and cultural connectedness grew. Immigrants from other parts of Asia settled in China and helped further spread Buddhism among the Chinese people. China's political stability and openness to outside influences during the latter part of the North and South period helped pave the way for China's great golden age which would come during the Tang dynasty.
Sui dynasty (581 – 618 CE)
Like the Qin dynasty before it, the Sui dynasty was a short-lived government that managed to create the necessary environment for a more successful successor. It was founded by ethnic Han Chinese minister Yang Jian when he launched a palace coup against the Northern Zhou dynasty and ordered 59 members of the royal family murdered (a pretty brutal start). Jian, taking the name Emperor Wen, amassed a huge army and fleet and managed to invade and conquer the unprepared Southern Chen dynasty inside of three months, finally reuniting China under one banner.
Emperor Wen built on the glorious founding of his new dynasty by making great improvements to the overall Chinese region. First, he simplified and standardized the broken code of laws which had helped keep China so divided, also making laws fairer and more lenient. He then reestablished the Han-era government institutions and rituals, started conducting a census, and simplified tax laws.
Finally, he ordered numerous construction projects which sadly inflicted a harsh forced-labor regime on millions of people that left an incalculable number of corpses behind. Among these construction projects was the Great Canal, which still exists today, and an intense renovation of the Great Wall of China. These construction projects cost an enormous amount of money, bankrupting the empire and plunging it into an economic disaster. However, the Grand Canal proved to be a smart way to move goods and troops between the north and south, and added to the Tang dynasty's strength and prosperity. Linking the north to the south proved even more important when the Sui dynasty managed to integrate the Sinicized barbarians of northern China, returning the empire's borders to where they had been prior to the Uprising of the Five Barbarians.
The Sui dynasty also had ambitions towards their neighbors, and they launched multiple wars of imperialist conquest. These expeditions ended in disaster. First, the Sui tried to invade Vietnam. The war initially went well due to the Sui's superior military, but Chinese troops soon started dropping like flies due to diseases like malaria. Vietnam does seem to be quite good at defeating massive foreign invasions. The Sui dusted themselves off from that humiliation and then decided to try their hand at invading Korea. Chinese troops tried and failed three times to attack Korea due to weather and superior enemy defensive tactics, and the third time the emperor himself was defeated in the field. These losses destroyed the prestige of the Sui emperors.
Ultimately, and once again similarly to the Qin, the Sui dynasty rapidly destroyed itself due to its harshness and brutality as well as the extravagance of its state spending and foreign interventions. Peasant revolts broke out due to increased taxes and forced labor, and the second (and last) Sui emperor was assassinated by his own adviser. Turkic khagans along China's northern borders also joined in the festivities in an attempt to throw off the imperial yoke.
Amid these troubles, Li Yuan, the high profile governor of Shanxi province, placed the Sui emperor's young son on the throne as a puppet ruler, but rather quickly decided to kick the poor kid aside and rule himself. He established the Tang dynasty and began the process of putting down the rebels.
Tang dynasty (618 – 907 CE)
“”Most Chinese regard the Tang dynasty (618–907) as the high point of Imperial China, both politically and culturally. The empire reached its greatest size prior to the Manchu Qing dynasty, becoming the center of an East Asian world linked by religion, script, and many economic and political institutions. Moreover, Tang writers produce the finest poetry in China's great lyric tradition.
|—Mark Edward Lewis, British historian.|
The Tang dynasty represented another golden age in the history of China with significant developments in art, literature, and technology. Founded by Li Yuan (later called Tang Gaozu) after he usurped the Sui dynasty, the Tang regime rapidly eliminated the various rebel groups which had taken over the countryside in the wake of the Sui regime's decline. The Chinese state was bankrupt at the time, so the Tang dynasty had to modify the existing bureaucracy to eliminate waste and keep things simple.
Like the Han, the Tang had one emperor who was significantly more important than most of the others. For the Han it was Han Wudi, and for the Tang it was Tang Taizong. The second-oldest son of the first Tang emperor, Gaozu, Taizong came to power by murdering his two brothers and using that gruesome fact to threaten his father into abdicating. With that kind of backstory, you'd think Taizong was an evil motherfucker, and to be fair he quite likely was. However, Taizong became quite possibly one of the most revered emperor in all of Chinese history. The Taizong emperor maintained the frugal style of government left behind by his father, but he also set up a public education system and established medical schools all over China. Taizong also made religious tolerance official state policy, and Taoists, Confucians, Buddhists, Christians, and even Zoroastrians were able to practice their faiths without fear of government reprisal. The emperor even embraced other ethnicities and elevated them to high imperial offices. Finally, Taizong built China's first real professional army and used it to conquer much of what is now called the Xinjiang province.
Another important figure in Chinese history enters the story at this point. Taizong personally selected fourteen year-old girl Wu Zhao to be his concubine; that sounds really goddamn bad, but Chinese concubines did housework as well and Wu Zhao's tasks were limited to laundry duty. Whew. However, Wu was a pretty smart girl, and she impressed the emperor by discussing complex political and historical issues with him. She also wooed the emperor's son into falling in love with her. Emperor Taizong then died, being remembered as a man who reigned fairly and listened to the advice of his subordinates.
Taizong's son Gaozong then took the throne and married his love Wu Zhao. When Gaozong died, Wu Zhao seized the throne for herself, proclaiming herself Emperess Wu Zetian. She was the first and only woman to rule China as empress in her own right. According to ancient Chinese historians, Wu was a ruthless woman, ruling as the power behind Gaozong's throne and eliminating her political rivals, potentially even arranging for the murder of her own daughter(!). However, it is quite possible that these accounts were either fabricated or exaggerated due to the sexism of Chinese culture at the time, as her rule certainly threatened China's traditional patriarchal social order. Remember the five key relationships of Confucianism? Thus, these claims had to be reevaluated in the light of what is now known of Chinese history. Today, Wu Zetian is looked upon more kindly by modern historians as a good ruler who improved education, made important land reforms, and curbed the worst excesses of the Chinese aristocracy. Wu Zetian also continued China's expansion into Xinjiang. The next important emperor after her was Xuanzong, who increased China's trade with the outside world, patronized the arts, constructed temples, built roads, subsidized industry, and abolished conscription and the death penalty.
During the Tang dynasty, Chinese artisans made significant steps forward in technology. These included the world's first clock mechanism, gunpowder, gas stoves, and primitive agricultural machines. Quality of life for everyone in China improved dramatically. Farmers started widely using irrigation systems to grow crops in regions that were fertile but dry, and merchants strengthened trade relations with nearby states and further entrenched the Silk Road as an economic powerhouse in Asia. Chinese doctors were also the first to discover that diabetes was correlated with heightened sugar levels in the urine, and they started using thyroid glands from sheep and pigs to treat goiters (something Europeans didn't start figuring out until the early 1800s).
However, the Tang dynasty also began to enter its unavoidable period of decline around the end of Xuanzong's reign. The Tang state became embroiled in a series of forever conflicts near modern-day Afghanistan and in Yunnan which cost it many thousands of good soldiers and drained it of money. Things got unimaginably worse when disgruntled general An Lushan turned his army against the Tang dynasty and started a nearly decade-long civil war that killed millions and left China in ruins. The Tang dynasty eventually won the war, but it was catastrophically weakened.
The last decades of the Tang dynasty were ones of stagnation. Once again, the people were becoming burdened under excessive taxation by a corrupt bureaucracy while the aristocracy lived in opulence. Rebellions began which the Tang government was unable to deal with. It was about time to put that dynasty down like a cancer-ridden dog, and the Huang Chao Rebellion did just that. Disgruntled over failing to pass the imperial examinations required to join the bureaucracy, Huang Chao assembled a group of supporters and led a war against the Tang dynasty which temporarily captured the Xi'an capital and permanently broke the Tang's rule over China.
Song dynasty (960 – 1234 CE)
After the downfall of the Tang empire, China went through the tumultuous Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. Much of northern China was ceded to the Liao state, which was comprised of Mongolian nomadic peoples called Khitans. Vietnam also finally broke free from centuries of Chinese domination at the Battle of Bạch Đằng in 938 CE. This period was brought to an end by the Song state, which reconquered most of China and ushered in a period of stability for the first time in more than half a century.
Song Taizu, the first of the Song emperors, quickly implemented a set of policies he hoped would prevent another period of anarchy and disunity. He reduced the power of military commanders and placed checks on their influence to protect the imperial court from coups, and he placed the civil service in charge of overseeing the military. Indeed, Taizu set about trying to create a much less militaristic state than China was used to, and it seemed to have paid off wonderfully.
Despite these good early steps, the Song still faced outside challenges. The Liao grew into an empire, and their cavalry skills were so superior to the Chinese that they were able to attack the Song dynasty at will and force the Chinese to pay heavy tribute in exchange for peace. A similar situation existed with the Xia state to the west. The Song also had to deal with the Neo-Confucianism movement, which emerged in a climate in which imperial authority was more questioned. Confucianism once again became the most prominent philosophy in China, to the point that the government modified its civil service examinations to focus on how well bureaucrats knew Confucius' writings.
China was once again able to advance during the mostly stable period of Song rule. Significant inventions included paddle-wheel ships, fiat currency, fixed compasses, lock gates for canals, and the movable-type printing press. The Song dynasty is also considered to be one of the high points for Chinese culture, especially with the advent of monumental landscape painting. Women, as in most eras in history, suffered during the Song dynasty. Foot-binding became popularized during this period as painfully and inhumanly tiny feet were seen as an outward show of a woman's virtue.
Eventually, the Song state encountered its most severe threat yet. The Jurchens, nomadic peoples who would eventually become the Manchus, formed their own state called Jin, and the Jin invaded China and seized the entire northern half of the region. This happened due to the Song's lack of emphasis on the military as well as the territorial losses China incurred during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. Luckily for the Song, they benefited from the fact that they still controlled the best part of China, the south, as well as from the economic boon of having numerous Hindu and Muslim traders and immigrants.
However, the worst threat of all appeared: Genghis Khan. At first, the Mongols were too busy disembowling the Jin and Liao, and then the Mongols were too busy terrorizing Europe. But China's turn still came. China wasn't worried, however, as they still considered the Mongols to be backwards subhuman barbarians. As British historian John Man explains, "For the Song, it would been absolutely inconceivable that the Mongols could take over the whole of China. It would have been like, I don't know, the Picts taking over the Roman Empire or the Sioux in North America taking over the whole of Canada and the United States - inconceivable. So when it actually happened, the shock was catastrophic." Genghis Khan's grandson Kublai swept through China's lands with their cavalry, and they ripped through China's fortresses with their siege skills. The Song was overthrown, and Kublai Khan declared himself Emperor of the Yuan dynasty.
Yuan dynasty (1271 – 1368 CE)
For the first time in its long history, China had been completely subjugated by a foreign power. The Yuan dynasty was, however, only a part of the vast but decentralized Mongol Empire. Over time, the Mongol conquests were divided over Khan's heirs, a practice which also caused the downfall of the empires of Timur Lenk and Charlemagne. The Mongol holdings were split into four pieces: the Yuan dynasty, the Central Asian Chagatai Khanate, the Golden Horde in Russia, and the Ilkhanate in the Middle East. Interestingly, despite the fact that the Mongols had risen to power through bloody and horrific conquest, their rule across Asia actually brought about a period of peace and trade called the "Pax Mongolica." Trade between the east and west exploded in volume due to the fact that the entire Silk Road had come under the control of one realm, and this is when Marco Polo made his famous journey to China. However, Pax Mongolica would eventually end due to the Black Death and the eventual disintegration of the Mongol realms.
In China and elsewhere, the Mongols settled down to become city people, and they adopted Chinese bureaucratic norms. The rule was hard on the Chinese people, however, as the arts were neglected and the Han Chinese faced systematic racist discrimination. Since the Mongols felt that they couldn't trust the Chinese, they relied on foreign immigrants to act as their enforcers, especially Muslim immigrants. The Mongols themselves eventually began converting away from their traditional shamanistic belief system to the Islamic religion. This system was eventually formalized by some Nazi-esque race laws. The law classified citizens into four ranks: Mongols first, then Turkic Muslims, then northern Chinese, and finally southern Chinese at the very bottom. Lower ranks paid higher taxes, and higher ranks received more lenient punishments from the legal system.
The Yuan Mongols famously launched their attempt to invade Japan which narrowly failed due to a well-timed typhoon. Another problem arose when the Mongols discovered that the Chinese had been using paper currency. They were thrilled by the idea of a government-controlled currency, and they printed so much of it that, you guessed it, China's economy crashed due to hyperinflation. Economic problems combined with Mongol racism combined with later natural disasters convinced the Chinese people that the Yuan dynasty no longer had the Mandate of Heaven. In 1351, the Chinese rebelled in huge numbers, wearing headbands dyed the auspicious color red. The Red Turban Rebellion benefited from internal division inside the Yuan court, and they expanded mostly unchecked around China. The peasant rebels also fought with each other for a time, and a man named Zhu Yuanzhang came out on top. He led the rebels to victory, captured the Yuan capital at Beijing, and proclaimed himself the first emperor of the Ming dynasty.
Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE)
Founded by the peasant rebel who overthrew the Mongol Yuan regime, the Ming dynasty spent its early decades restoring prosperity to China. The early Ming emperors refocused their efforts at reviving the neglected and suppressed Chinese arts, leading to a cultural regeneration. Having grown up as a peasant, the first Ming emperor focused on helping China's poor. He paid them to build public works projects, redistributed land to them, and taxed the rich to support the poor. All in all, a pretty sweet guy.
Naturally, this benevolent period was a bit too good to last, and later emperors stepped away from the pro-peasant policies. The third Ming ruler, Emperor Yongle, then built himself a new palace in the capital city of Beijing which became known as the Forbidden City. It was called this because few people had the right to even enter the palace, and even the imperial family had only limited access to it. Yongle also sent Chinese admiral Zheng He with a massive fleet of ships to establish trading routes throughout Asia and Africa. Zheng He did not, however, discover America.
Around 1433 CE, however, the Ming dynasty abruptly stopped sending exploration and trade missions abroad, apparently concerned about the cost and political concerns. The vacuum left behind by the Ming was quickly filled with traders and imperialists from Europe. Although the Chinese looked upon the Europeans with contempt, they still allowed European merchants to expand their influence. In 1557, China agreed to lease Macau to Portugal.
Other foreign problems plagued the Ming. The Mongols led incessant attacks along the northern frontier leading the Ming to spend a huge amount of money strengthening the Great Wall of China, the Vietnamese again forced Chinese invaders out of their land, and Japanese pirates raided coastal cities. Japan made itself a problem again by invading Korea, which was under Ming protection, in 1592. Chinese intervention helped save Korea from Japanese rule, but many Korean civilians died during the conflict. This would not be the last time Japan would make an attempt on Korea. Meanwhile, Dutch and Spanish colonists began making inroads to Taiwan. Manchu tribes to the north also managed to unite themselves into a formidable kingdom.
The Ming dynasty was gradually weakened by internal divisions and having to spend money on foreign problems. The Ming also experienced a succession of weak and disconnected emperors who were more concerned with fucking around in the Forbidden City than actually leading their damn government. Economic problems set in, and a series of natural disasters convinced the peasants that the Ming had lost the Mandate of Heaven. Multiple rebellions broke out, and they managed to seize Beijing itself. The last Ming emperor hanged himself by a tree. The Manchu rulers had meanwhile been seizing large swathes of northern China, and they defeated the rebels in Beijing and declared themselves the leaders of the new Qing dynasty.
Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911 CE)
The Qing dynasty began with a decades-long war to subdue the southern regions of China, a devastating campaign that ruined the region's economy and killed as many as 25 million people. The Qing had come to power already in control of Mongolia; they then launched military invasions of Xinjiang and Tibet, and also occupied Taiwan. These successful conquests left them in charge of the second-largest Chinese empire in history.
Like the Mongols, the Manchus enforced a number of racist decrees in an attempt to get the Chinese to conform to their ways. The Qing stacked their court and government with ethnic Manchus and required that all people had to speak in the Manchu language for official business. There was also a ban on interracial marriage until the 18th Century, and a law that required Han Chinese to wear their hair in the Manchu queue style. Tens of thousands of people who resisted the demand were massacred. Most professions, especially government positions like bannermen and bureaucrats, were hereditary. Forced labor was also common, as the Manchu enslaved prisoners of war and persons could be sold by their families as slaves. Grassroots political movements were banned by the Qing, along with any form of opposition to the government.
Unrest at home was combined with increasing foreign threats, primarily from Europe. This eventually resulted in the so-called "Century of Humiliation", the period between 1840 and 1950 where China was repeatedly defeated in war and forced to cede territory to hostile foreign powers. The Qing had historically had a trade surplus against the European countries, as they could export luxury goods like tea, silk and porcelain while pre-industrial Europe didn't have much to give them in return besides silver. Thus, when the Macartney Embassy reached the emperor to try to get China to open more ports, have a British embassy in Beijing, and for the British to get an island off China's coast as a stopping point, the emperor refused, as China had nothing to gain from this offer. This caused the British to look for a way to break through China's trade surplus, and they found that with opium, which was dominantly traded by the British East India Company. This began to wreak havoc on the Chinese population and economy, and in 1839, Lin Tse-Hsu, an imperial commissioner, ordered all foreign vessels to hand over their opium so it could be destroyed.
Naturally, the United Kingdom didn't take kindly to this, and they attacked the Qing to force them to open up. The First Opium War resulted in an overwhelming British victory, which they used to secure all of the things requested by the Macartney Embassy, including an island to use as a stopping point: Hong Kong. The economic ruin this caused helped spark the Taiping Rebellion, the most devastating civil war in world history. The British attacked China again in the Second Opium War, seizing more trade concessions and opening the door for other Western powers to do the same. China then lost the Sino-French War in 1885, thus losing influence in Indochina to French colonial rule. Then they lost the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, losing influence over Korea, having to temporarily allow Japanese occupation of Manchuria, and being forced to cede Taiwan. Despite these long strings of defeats, the Qing repeatedly failed to reform and modernize. Empress Dowager Cixi, perhaps the most famous Qing ruler, was placed in power by conservatives who wanted to stop any attempts at modernization. The Qing thus lagged behind the rest of the world while Japan successfully modernized.
Cixi was succeeded by the child emperor Puyi, and the regency council failed to lead the nation. Events finally spiraled out of control in 1911 when disgruntled soldiers started a nationalist revolution which overthrew the Qing dynasty and created the Republic of China. The rebels were inspired by the democratic ideals of people like Sun Yat-Sen.
After the end
Yuan Shikai, the false emperor
Yuan Shikai was a modernizer and a militarist who was a major figure in the military during the Xinhai Revolution. In 1912, he became the first president of the newly-established Republic of China, and he quickly began to use his position to dismantle Chinese democracy and become a dictator. It was a pretty shitty thing to do, but Yuan was convinced that China needed a strong leader to deal with the threat of Japan. He was soon vindicated in this belief when Japan used its military activities in World War I to threaten China with the so-called "21 Demands", a blatant imperialist power-grab. Under military threat and with China still politically fragmented, Yuan still had no choice but to accept.
In 1915, Yuan decided to permanently solidify his power by convening a rubber-stamp assembly and having it declare him the new Chinese emperor. This was a political catastrophe. Now calling himself the "Hongxian Emperor", Yuan faced condemnation and scorn from people across China and the world. He had apparently and stupidly failed to predict that the same people who rose up against the Qing dynasty would rise up against him as well. Even his political supporters turned against him after the move.
Realizing that he had fucked up, Yuan quickly renounced his claim to the monarchy and said that he was just going to continue as president. Despite this reversal, the Chinese people maintained their determination to overthrow him. Rebels formed the "National Protection Army" and declared war on Yuan's government. Central authority in China collapsed, and the disastrous Warlord Era began, setting the stage for what was to become the Chinese Civil War. Yuan had managed to all-but single-handedly ruin the Chinese republican experiment. Nice going, fuckwad.
Aisin Gioro Puyi, the last emperor
“”The more fulsome, cliché-ridden chapters in From Emperor to Citizen, dealing with Puyi's prison experiences, and written at the height of the Mao personality cult, give the impression of well-learned, regurgitated lessons.
|—Edward Behr, Newsweek war journalist, 1987.|
Aisin Gioro Puyi (愛新覺羅 溥儀) was the child emperor of the Qing dynasty when the rebellion knocked him out of the throne in 1911. His story should have ended there, but it didn't. In 1917, during the Warlord Era, a Qing loyalist general took control of Beijing and made Puyi emperor again for just 12 days. That's not the interesting part. The interesting bit is that Puyi's story still didn't end there.
In 1925, Puyi was such an outcast among the republican Chinese that he moved north for safety. This placed him in a region controlled by the Empire of Japan, which was only too happy to play host to the former emperor of the Chinese, if only for political reasons. Puyi spent his time there getting angrier and angrier at the loss of his family throne, and the Japanese manipulated him into believing that they had his interests in mind. In 1934, Japan had Puyi crowned for a third time, now as the emperor of the puppet-state Manchukuo, which Japan had carved out of northern China. Puyi had become emperor three different times while under the control of three different groups of people.
As the "ruler" of Manchukuo, Puyi basically signed whatever the Japanese gave him and lived in luxury while getting to claim that he was wielding power that he didn't really have. His only purpose was to provide a veneer of legitimacy for Japanese rule in northern China, but he served that purpose well enough that the Japanese kept him around through World War II. In 1945, with the war effort going south, Puyi started to wonder if it would be wise to flee to Japan, but he was captured by the Soviet Union. They kept him in Siberia before handing him off to Mao Zedong in 1950.
Instead of shooting him, Mao had Puyi sent to a reeducation camp in the hopes that being able to "rehabilitate" a former emperor would make him cooler than Vladimir Lenin (who had very much not rehabilitated his ex-emperor). The crazy thing is that the reeducation worked. The guards had Puyi tour the sites of Japanese atrocities, like Unit 731 camps and mass graves, and state in no uncertain terms that said acts occurred with his complicity. Upon being reformed into a good communist, the authorities pardoned him and released him into greater Chinese society in 1959, where he became a gardener and a citizen until his death in 1967. Apart from his day job, Puyi also wrote the autobiographical From Emperor to Citizen with approval from Mao, spoke at events in favor of the Chinese Communist Party, and even worked as an editor for the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
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