This page would have been labeled Imperial China, but that title was already taken. This page contains the basic outlines of Chinese history prior to the founding of the Republic of China under Yuan Shikai. See the relevant article for the rise of the Guomindang, the Civil Wars, and the Second Sino-Japanese War. Much of this comes courtesy of Wikipedia, though we've quite a few (mostly amateur, but some professional) Sinologists among us.
Much like many other regions, Chinese history is commonly divided into 'dynastic' periods corresponding to the strongest Empire present at the time. Generally speaking, each 'dynasty' denotes a period when a multi-national Empire dominated the region for a bit - and among the educated elite they eventually succeeded in creating an alternative pan-Chinese national identity (that began to catch on among normal people during the long nights of The Second Sino-Japanese War).note The rise and fall of each empire generally meant a lot of crime, debt, death, natural disasters, and general suffering. Between a Dynasty's rise and fall were often times of relative prosperity and stability.
Also much like many other regions, the Chinese definition of "barbarian" changed throughout the centuries as the area being considered as part of "China" increased, e.g. during the Eastern Zhou period, the states of Chu and Qin were considered semi-barbaric due to their locations at the then-southern and western boundaries respectively, but today their territories (in Hubei and Hunan for Chu, in Shaanxi for Qin) are part of the heart of China.
A massive bureaucracy was used by many Empires to administer their territories, most of these being selected by competitive examinations from the Sui onwards. Most focused heavily on knowledge of the Confucian classics. This was a major force for keeping the writing system unified across the country, even as various spoken languages rose and fell.
"Officially", the histories of the various eras (up to Ming) are covered by what is termed the "24 Histories" (二十四史, Èrshísì Shǐ). They are considered authoritative by Chinese historians, although they have not escaped scrutiny by both Chinese and foreign scholars, particularly in modern times. Be that as it may, out of the 24, the first four ("Records of the Grand Historian" (史記/史记, Shǐjì), "Book of Han" (漢書/汉书, Hànshū), "Book of Later Han" (後漢書/后汉书, Hòu Hànshū), and "Records of the Three Kingdoms" (三國志/三国志, Sānguózhì) were highly regarded by ancient Chinese scholars. Part of it may be due to the fact that these four works were not sanctioned officially by the state, but compiled as a sideline by their author(s).
A brother of the last king of Shang was later given a piece of land named "Song", and thus his descendants became dukes of Song during the Zhou Dynasty.
Of the 24 Histories, "Records of the Grand Historian" (史記/史记, Shǐjì) covers this period. Modern historians (particularly Western ones, but some Chinese as well) used to believe this dynasty was semi-legendary at best until the discovery and decipherment of the oracle bones; the king list developed based on the bones so closely matched the Shǐjì that the historicity of the Shang was quickly accepted.
- Di Xin, King Zhou of Shang (1075 BC - 1046 BC): the fact that his death year is on this folder's title and that he is known as "the crupper king" should tell you something. Despite a promising early reign, his immoral behaviors in later years earned him the place as a proverbial terrible ruler.
Depictions in fiction
- Age of Empires features the Shang as a playable faction.
- First non-tutorial campaign in Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom is dedicated to Shang dynasty.
- Fengshen Yanyi: A work detailing the final days of the Shang dynasty, in which the corrupt and lecherous King Zhou of Shang was eventually overthrown by the virtuous King Wu of Zhou. In the war, a great many generals, Taoist and Buddhist immortals, and heroes of all sorts were slain and promoted to deities, hence the name of the story.
- Jiang Xia: The beginning of the movie shows the downfall of the Shang dynasty as the gods wage a war against demons led by the nine-tailed demon-fox Daji (妲己), who had seduced King Zhou and turned him into an immoral tyrant before killing him.
- Ne Zha
According to tradition, the foundations of the Zhou state were laid by King Wen; his son King Wu then defeated the Shang and established the Zhou Dynasty. Both kings were regarded as "sage kings" by later Confucians. While not a king himself, Duke Dan (the younger son of King Wen and thus brother of King Wu) was also regarded as a sagely ruler due to his regency when his nephew King Cheng was a minor. Dan is also a Chinese culture hero credited with writing the "I Ching" and the "Book of Poetry", establishing the "Rites of Zhou", and creating the yǎyuè (雅樂/雅乐, lit. "elegant music") of Chinese classical music. The concept of the "Son of Heaven" (天子, Tiānzǐ) appeared during this dynasty. One reason for Confucius's respect towards Duke Dan was that Duke Dan's descendants became the dukes of Lu (Confucius was a native of the state of Lu, although his ancestor was originally from the state of Song.). This era began with government official positions being hereditary in nature; by the middle part of the Warring States, almost every state had abolished this nature, although the replacement system differed from state to state. The state of Qin awarded positions based on merit earned during battles (essentially the number of heads submitted for counting); this ruthless system encouraged the demonisation of the Qin army as "armies of tigers and wolves" (虎狼之師/虎狼之师, hǔ láng zhī shī).
In 771 BC, the capital moved from Haojing (also known as Zongzhou, near present-day Xi'an) to Chengzhou (near present-day Luoyang), which demarcates the Western and Eastern periods. According to tradition, this was due to the incompetence of King You, which allowed a vassal, the Marquess of Shen, and his allies to invade Haojing.
The Eastern period is further subdivided into 2 periods:
- Spring And Autumn Period (722 BC - 481 BC): The period's name derives from the Spring and Autumn Annals, a chronicle of the state of Lu between 722 and 479 BC. The supremacy of the central Zhou government goes into terminal decline. Being the golden age of Chinese philosophy (the so-called "Hundred Schools of Thought"), the period gave us Confucius (traditionally attributed as the author of the Annals mentioned above), allegedly Laozi (founder of Taoism), Sunzi (author of The Art of War), and many other thinkers. A turbulent period when 148 regional rulers (many connected to the royal family) and their petty dukedoms (mostly city-states) contested with one another for influence and hegemony.
- Warring States Period (403 BC - 221 BC): The feudal system broke down entirely and, as the name indicates, the seven strongest states went into constant war. Eventually, the state of Qin united the land in 221 B.C. and a new dynasty began. Many historians believe that Laozi really lived at this time if he existed at all. Zhuangzi definitely did. The period started when the state of Jin was carved up between three families, who later formed the states of Han, Zhao and Wei. States pro and against Qin made alliances known as the horizontal and vertical alliances (合縱連橫/合纵连横, hé zòng lián héng) with the School of Diplomacy dominating the stage. In 256 B.C., the last king of Zhou was deposed by the state of Qin. Legalism saw its development during this period; thinkers of the school include Shang Yang, Han Fei and Li Si.
Of the 24 Histories, Shǐjì covers the Zhou era. Other sources include Zuǒ Zhuàn (左傳/左传, "The Zuo Tradition" or "The Commentary of (Master) Zuo"), and Zhànguó Cè (戰國策/战国策, "Strategies of the Warring States" or "Annals of the Warring States").
- Ji Chang, King Wen of Zhou (1075 BC 1046 BC): the Civilizing King. Actually not a king and only posthumously named so by his son. He is praised a lot in the ''Classic of Poetry as a model ruler.
- Ji Gongnienote , King You of Zhou (795 BC 771 BC): Legends say that he repeatedly sent false alarms to his vassals just to make his queen laugh. When actual enemies came, the vassals ignored him and thus the capital was sacked. This disaster prompted the Eastern Zhou period and the steady decline of Zhou authority.
- The Five Hegemons: "Vassals" who, at different times during the Spring and Autumn period, managed to consolidate power and coax other lords into an alliance. Their attitude toward the Zhou kings varied among loyalty, defiance, lip service and thinly-veiled ambition. The dominance of their state usually didn't outlive them for long.
Depictions in fiction
Physical legacies of the Qin include The Great Wall of China (rebuilt by the Ming, now a tourist attraction), the Terracotta Army (as part of his burial complex, now a museum), and the Dujiangyan irrigation system (which even to this day still doing what it was supposed to do).note
Qin Shi Huangdi is also known for being rather authoritarian, especially in his later years. Being a fan of the harsh legalist philosophy of jurisprudence, many of his more bloody actions (especially those against the Confucians, who later came to power and wrote all the history books) sealed his legacy as THE tyrant of China. Qin Shi Huang's successor was not nearly as capable and the dynasty soon ended when the third ruler (who styled himself as "king") was killed by Xiang Yu. One general, Wei Man, defected to Gojoseon in north-western Korea and later usurped power from its king.
The Qin dynasty created a model that the later dynasties followed. Their influence was such that the name the West still uses for the country—China—is derived from the word Qin, which was originally rendered into western languages as Chin.note
Of the "24 Histories", Shǐjì covers the Qin era. This is also the last dynasty which Shǐjì covers in its entirety.
- Qin Shi Huangdi (259 BC 210 BC): "The First Emperor of Qin", famous for reasons stated above. He coined the Chinese word of "Emperor" and intended to live on by that name. His dynasty ended shortly, however, thus the "of Qin" part.
Depictions in fiction
The Han Dynasty was founded by Liu Bang, a Boisterous Bruiser of humble birth from what is now Xuzhou in Jiangsu Province. He was a good politician, so likable that bartenders gave him free booze because people would buy more drinks just to hang around him longer. He fought his way to the throne in the turmoil after the fall of the Qin, and although he was a bit crude and uncouth, he knew how power worked and could take advice, even criticism, and so developed policies that helped his line rule all China almost uninterrupted for 400 years. His main rival during the post-Qin turmoil was Xiang Yu, and the years of their struggle were commonly known as the "Chu-Han Contention" (楚漢爭霸/楚汉争霸, 206-202 B.C.)
Confucianism became solidly entrenched as the official philosophy (during Emperor Wu's reign).note This was also the time when many Chinese inventions came forward: paper (a must for bureaucrats), advances in metallurgy (mostly in casting iron and producing steel), and other stuff. Noteworthy emperors during this era are Emperors Wen and Jing (father and son ushered in what was arguably imperial China's first golden age, "The Reign of Wen & Jing") and Emperor Wu (Jing's son, who sent men to explore the Silk Road and warred with the Xiongnu).note The first attempt to record Chinese history from the era of the legendary 3 Sovereigns and 5 Emperors to the then present-day was undertaken by Sima Tan, but it was his son Sima Qian who completed the task. The resulting work, Shǐjì ("Records of the Grand Historian"), was regarded as a literary and historical masterpiece (regarded as the pinnacle of the "24 Histories"), and Sima Qian himself became known as the Grand Historian.
The Han Empire coexisted with the Roman, Parthian (Persian), and Mauryan (north Indian) empires and together these four countries ruled over more than 70% of the entire world's population. There was much trade contact between the four, both directly and via intermediaries—the Romans had to pass laws restricting the silk trade because Rome's gold reserves were being emptied by its ravenous demand for Chinese silk. The Han Chinese for their part did rather like Roman glassware, particularly glass beads (sophisticated glass-making was as unknown in China as silk was in Rome), but never enough to seriously affect monetary policy. There is some debate about whether Roman and Chinese soldiers ever met in combat—there have been claims that the Persians captured some Roman soldiers, then moved them to their other frontier and paid them to fight for them, where they then fought Han troops in the area of modern Afghanistan. For their part, the Han respected the Romans' greater relative longevity (Rome was already the premier power in the Italian Peninsula when Alexander of Macedon conquered the Achaemenid Empire, and they held the whole Western Mediterranean plus Greece and Asia Minor by the time the Parthians had knocked out the Seleucids; as for the Mauryans, they were the first pan-Indian empire in history, and existed basically only because Alexander had come knocking) and regarded them as something of a western version of China, terming their realm as Daqin ("Great Qin"; the Qin and Roman Empires had also been contemporaries) and this name stuck.
The Han also gave imperial China her first Empress and living Empress Dowager, Lü Zhi.note Lü Zhi proved to be an ambitious woman, and dominated court politics from her husband Liu Bang's death to her own, a period of about 15 years.note Emperor Wu himself faced pressure from his grandmother, Grand Empress Dowager Dou, during the first years of his reign.
The Han Dynasty was briefly overthrown by Wang Mang (nephew of the last Grand Empress Dowager of the Western Han, Wang Zhengjun, and had already been ruling as regent of three different child Emperors for several years) in 9 AD, but his self-proclaimed Xin Dynasty lasted only 14 years before he was killed in a peasant rebellion and the Han Dynasty was restored 2 years after Wang's death.note As the restored Han Dynasty moved its capital to the east from Chang'an to Luoyang, historians divide it into the Western Han (prior to Wang's usurpation) and Eastern Han (after restoration) periods.note
The Eastern Han was founded by Liu Xiu (descended from Emperor Jing), who crowned himself emperor in 25 C.E. His reign was known as the "Restoration of Guang Wu".note His son and grandson continued his good governance, ushering in a golden age known as the "Rule of Ming & Zhang". However, Emperor Zhang died relatively young (in his early 30s), a curse which was to linger in the dynasty ever since. This allowed eunuchs and relatives of the imperial harem to interfere in state politics (as Emperors ascend the throne as either children or teenagers), causing governance to decay and eventually the dynasty to collapse. This could be seen as someone's idea of a bad joke, as Emperor Guangwu was the one who set the rule that male attendants in the harem had to be all eunuchs.
Of the "24 Histories", Shǐjì covers the early Han era, almost until the end of the reign of Emperor Wu.note The "Book of Han" (漢書/汉书, Hànshū), attributed to Ban Gu, covered mostly the Western Han, while the "Book of Later Han" (後漢書/后汉书, Hòu Hànshū), attributed to Fan Ye, covered the Eastern Han.
- Liu Bang, Emperor Gaozu of Han (256 BCE 195 BCE): Came from a peasant family, contended against Xiang Yu for domination of China, and after victory disposed of his most talented generals. Despite a hefty dose of Han propaganda, Xiang Yu still tends to be the more popular character for some reason.
- Liu Che, Emperor Wu of Han (157 BC 87 BC): Continued the golden age since his grandfather's peaceful reign with expansionism, conquering what is now parts of Korea and Vietnam. He elevated Confucianism as the official doctrine while practicing pragmatic policies similar to Legalist teachings. Often gets compared to Qin Shi Huangdi for his military achievements, strict use of rewards and punishments as well as attempts to gain immortality in his final years. The copper coin he introduced in 118 BCE, the wuzhu cash, was legal tender in China for more than 7 centuries; it was replaced by the Kaiyuan Tongbao coin during the early Tang era.
- Wang Mang (45 BC 23 AD): Usurped the throne from the Han and enacted radical reforms which prove socialism is Older Than Feudalism: land redistribution, income tax, state monopoly of key commodities. He was also the first ruler anywhere on Earth who's recorded to have abolished slavery. The upper class turned against him in no time, and his arrogance towards northern nomads didn't help. Ended in utter failure and the restoration of the Han, he became the stock figure for usurpers and the fate that befalls them.
- Liu Xiu, Emperor Guangwu of Han (15 BC - 57 AD): Restored the Han to power after Wang Mang's usurpation. Notable for not killing any of his generals once the war was over, and generally considered a wise ruler who knew when to be merciful, but showing no hesitation for violence when it was necessary. He was also a rare example of a Chinese ruler who didn't employ strategists, because he had that role covered himself.
- Liu Xie, Emperor Xian of Han (181 AD - 234 AD): Last emperor of the Eastern Han. Best known for being a puppet of Cao Cao and later for being a minor character in Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Depictions in fiction
- Han campaign in Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom follows the dynasty from its rise till the 150s AD.
- Parts of Romance of the Three Kingdoms are about the fall of the Eastern Han.
- Secret of the Three Kingdoms is set during the Eastern Han and is a fictionalised account of Liu Xie's reign.
- Singing All Along dramatizes Liu Xiu's rise to power.
- Wang De Sheng Yan is about Liu Bang, his rise to power and the final time of his reign.
Came about due to the collapse of the power of the Han emperors. Some date the beginning of the period to the Yellow Turban Rebellion of 184AD. From 190AD onwards, China was divided among feuding warlords before the Three Kingdoms around 220-222. Wei conquered Shu in 263 and the period ended with the overthrow of Wei by the Jìn dynasty (266) and the subsequent conquest of Wu (280).
Of the "24 Histories", "Records of the Three Kingdoms" (三國志/三国志, Sānguózhì), by Chen Shou, covers this era. Records was later supplemented by annotations from Pei Songzhi. For more information, refer to the page Three Kingdoms Shu, Wei, Wu.
Depictions in fiction
Of the "24 Histories", the "Book of Jin" (晉書/晋书, Jìnshū) covered the history of the dynasty.
- Sima Zhong, Emperor Hui of Jin (259 AD - 307 AD): an intellectually disabled ruler. His reign was marred by civil war (as described above).
Depictions in fiction
In the North, states which were historically important due to their links with the Sui-Tang dynasties were the Northern Wei (which unified the northern kingdoms), Western Wei (which split from Northern Wei; the western and eastern partitions of the former Northern Wei fought each other as rivals) and Northern Zhou (successor of Western Wei, which assimilated Eastern Wei's successor, Northern Qi). Meanwhile, the South kept deteriorating from the military coups that started new, short-lived dynasties and eventually got conquered by the Sui.
Due to the various kingdoms, a total of 7 "books" covered the most important 7 kingdoms of this period.
- "Book of Song" (宋書/宋书, Sòngshū) covered the history of the Liu-Song dynasty. Note that the text dealing with the later Zhao-Song dynasty was named "History of Song" (宋史, Sòngshǐ).
- "Book of Southern Qi" (南齊書/南齐书, Nánqíshū) covered the history of the Southern Qi.
- "Book of Liang" (梁書/梁书, Liángshū) covered the history of (Southern) Liang.
- "Book of Chen"(陳書/陈书, Chénshū) covered the history of the (Southern) Chen.
- "Book of Wei" (魏書/魏书, Wèishū) covered the histories of Northern and Eastern Wei.
- "Book of Northern Qi" (北齊書/北齐书, Běiqíshū) covered the history of the Northern Qi.
- "Book of Zhou" (周書/"周书", Zhōushū) covered the histories of Western Wei and Northern Zhou.
Notable monarchs and royals
- Tuoba/Yuan Hong, Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei (467 499): Of the nomadic Xianbei origin, he adopted Han culture, changed his own family name to Yuan* and commanded his people to do the same, resulting in Chinese surnames that are still in use to this day.
- Gao Chang Gong, Prince of Lan Ling (circa 541 - 573): A prince and high-ranking general of the Northern Qi dynasty. Famous for being both one of the best generals in Chinese history and one of the most beautiful men in China during his lifetime.
Depictions in fiction:
- The Legend of Dugu (overlapping with the Sui Dynasty below)
- Mulan: Rise of a Warrior
- Nirvana in Fire
- Prince of Lan Ling is a fictionalised account of Gao Chang Gong's life.
- The Prince of Lan Ling The General Who Was Too Beautiful (蘭陵王（らんりょうおう）美しすぎる武将), a 2018 Takarazuka Revue musical about Gao Chang Gong.
- The Princess Wei Young
- The Song of Glory
Father and son still managed to keep truly massive dissent at bay thanks to their industriousness and Type-A Control Freak tendencies until these very traits did Emperor Yang in when he tried to conquer one of the Korean kingdoms. While figures are still uncertain, this was a truly massive and costly endeavour for the entire Empire that was meant as a grandiose display of Sui Imperial power. Which meant that when it unceremoniously bogged down against a vastly smaller enemy thanks to dogged Korean resistance and the main Obstructive Bureaucrat being the Son of Heaven himself, it was a catastrophe. After a few rounds of trying, the costs broke the back of the Sui and the dynasty dissolved in rebellion and assassinations after only two generations. The succeeding Tang Dynasty happily reaped the benefits of the Sui's costly infrastructure projects, and they were quite aware of that.
In term of statecraft, the Sui codified the imperial examination, which defined Chinese meritocracy for more than a thousand years afterwards.
Of the "24 Histories", the "Book of Sui" (隋書/隋书, Suíshū) covered the history of this era.
Depictions in fiction
Tang represented an exceptionally cosmopolitan period of Chinese civilization. Merchants, missionaries, and other visitors came from all over the known world and resided in its capital Chang'an (now called Xi'an), at the time the largest city in the world. The Imperial family was itself part-foreign; the second Tang Emperor, Taizong (and thus all subsequent Tang rulers) was of partial Turkic ancestry on his mother's side.note Taizong was also part-foreign in the male line as well; his paternal grandmother Lady Dugu being the daughter of Dugu Xin, another largely-Sinicized Xianbei.note At any rate, the steppe peoples of the northwest—by then led by Turkic tribes—proclaimed Taizong their Tengri Kaghan (Heavenly Emperor/Chieftain).
The first Christians in China came during this period, ironically, in the form of Monophysites fleeing persecution from the Christian Roman Empire who deemed them heretical, as were the first Jews, Muslims, and Zoroastrians in China. The last crown prince of Sassanid Persia, Peroz III, also took refuge in China after his country was overrun by the Rashidun Caliphate. The famed Shaolin Temple was also established during this period, by a (presumed) Greco-Indian monk called Buddhabadra. With so many people from faraway places settling down in China, this was an era where blond Chinese may not have been an uncommon sight. Unfortunately for all the Chinese cosmopolitans, there was a huge backlash towards all things foreign after the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763; more details below). Towards the end of the dynasty, so-called "anti-Buddhist" campaign was launched by Emperor Wuzong in mid-9th century, culminating in an edict in 845 banning all "foreign religions" at the pain of death, targeting not only Buddhism, which has already been part of Chinese fabric for many centuries, but also relative newcomers like Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Islam. In 986, a Christian monk reported, "Christianity is extinct in China; the native Christians have perished in one way or another; the church has been destroyed and there is only one Christian left in the land."
The Tang was briefly interrupted by the Zhou Dynasty of Wu Zetian, China's only female Emperor, from 690-705. Even after her reign, the Tang had no shortage of intriguing women who held massive influence on the empire, most infamous after Wu herself being Yang Guifei, one of China's Four Ancient Beauties and held to be one of the causes of the An Lushan Rebellion that nearly brought the dynasty to its knees.note
The An Lushan Rebellion arguably changed world history as it pulled Chinese knowledge of foreign lands to a halt all the way until the early modern era, when the Qing was forced open by various powers.note
Interestingly, several Roman(or 'Byzantine', as we call them in retrospect) Emperors humoured the Tang Empire's pretensions to dominion over the world by sending them largely-nominal tribute, which in one case constituted a 'startlingly invigorating' medicinal tincture formulated by Constantinople's finest alchemists. This was the first recorded use of opium in China.
Of the "24 Histories", two were dedicated to this era: the "Old Book of Tang" (舊唐書/旧唐书, Jiù Tángshū) and the "New Book of Tang" (新唐書/新唐书, Xīn Tángshū).
Depictions in fiction
- The Assassin
- Bridge of Birds
- Detective Dee
- The second half of the Sui-Tang campaign in Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom covers only flashpoints of the Tang rule.
- The Empress of China
- House of Flying Daggers
- Journey to the West and adaptations thereof
- Judge Dee
- The Longest Day in Chang'an
- Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven is set in a fictionalized version of Tang China during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong.
- White Snake (2019)
- Young Sherlock
One particularly important consequence of this relatively short age of strife was that the strategic area known as the Sixteen Prefectures of Yan and Yun (燕雲十六州/燕云十六州) was ceded to the Khitan nomads in exchange for a military alliance. How important, you ask? Well, the Sixteen Prefectures contained the part of The Great Wall that stood between the Central Plain and the northern nomads. This area was also an important source of war horses and fine cavalry men that were instrumental in military conquest. (Ever wondered why the unification of Imperial China tended to go from North to South?)note This decision screwed the Song dynasty over the next three centuries.note
Another important consequence of this era was that Vietnam broke free of Chinese domination for the last time, and would never again become a Chinese colony, even as subsequent Vietnamese regimes pay tribute to Chinese Emperors (or not).
Of the "24 Histories", two were dedicated to the Five Dynasties: the "Old History of the Five Dynasties" (舊五代史/旧五代史, Jiù Wǔdàishǐ) and the "New History of the Five Dynasties" (新五代史, Xīn Wǔdàishǐ).
Depictions in fiction
- Age of Empires II's Battles of the Forgotten included the Battle of Langshan Jiang (狼山江; Wolf Mountain River), which took place during this era. The Definitive Edition replaced this battle with the Battle of Lake Poyang; see below under Ming's folder.
- The Glamorous Imperial Concubine
- The Great Emperor in Song Dynasty depicts the life of Song Taizu Zhao Kuangyin; the first few episodes of the series is set during this era.
The Song was the first government to issue paper money. It did not work out as well as they hoped; again, contending dynasties, war, and then conquest by the Mongols. This was a time when China had reached such a level of economic development that it had its own 'industrious' revolution (a flourishing of consumer-culture and economic specialization without steam-engines being invented, which has happened quite a few times in human history); yearly steel output in Song China would not be equaled anywhere in the world until the mid-19th century. The forges of the Song Empire (population c. 100 million) produced more steel than Great Britain in the entire 19th century (population 10 million or less), and Song engineers and artisans mastered the construction and efficient use of charcoal-forges and water-powered looms, producing metalwork and textiles in massive quantities—making them affordable to even the poorest peasant.
While China prospered economically and culturally, it was also weak and divided politically and militarily. From the beginning, Song faced two rival empires founded by non-Han peoples on the borderlands of China that extended into historical Chinese territory. In the north, straddling Eastern Mongolia, Western Manchuria, and Northern China was the empire of Liao (遼/辽)note , established by the nomadic Khitan people from Eastern Mongolia (from whose name the word "Cathay", one of several names for China in English, as well as "Khitay", the Russian word for China, are derived), whose main capital was at modern-day Inner Mongolia.note In the west, there was the empire of Western Xia (西夏), established by the Tangut people, who may have been related to Tibetans, which extended into the Gansu region of Western China. Rulers of these states declared themselves emperors, equal to the Song Emperor, and engaged in constant warfare against both each other as well as against the Song. In the south, the kingdom of Dai Viet, having consolidated its independence after the Tang dynasty fell, proved to be a nasty "tributary" which managed to win both wars against the Song. To add to the military weakness, the Song empire adopted a policy of civilian officials being superior to military officers, and having said civilian officials control military deployments. As a reason, the quality of Song generals and other military officers declined rapidly as the years went by.
In 1115, a fourth empire arose in the form of the Jīn (金)note , founded by the Jurchen people in Central Manchuria.note To avoid confusion with the Jìn Dynasty (晉朝/晋朝) founded by the Sima family at the end of the Three Kingdoms period (see above), the chronologically more recent Jīn (金) will henceforth be referred to as the "Jurchen Jin" or the "Nǚzhēn" (女真, the Chinese name for the Jurchen people) in this article.
In spite of an existing peace treaty with the Liao, the Song would break said treaty and allied with the Jurchen Jin against the Liao in 1120 that would lead to the destruction of the latter. (The surviving Khitan nobility fled westward and established another kingdom known as either Western Liao or Kara Khitay in modern Xinjiang.) However, the Song and the Jurchen Jin never quite trusted each other and their relations broke down altogether when a Nǚzhēn governor defected to Song after the war and Song seized the border territory under his control. Jurchen Jin decided to solve the Song problem once and for all by launching a full scale invasion in 1125. Its forces captured the Song capital Kaifeng in 1127 and took the Song Emperor Qinzong prisoner (as well as the former Emperor Huizong, who had abdicated in favour of his eldest son, when the Jurchens began their invasion). The former Emperors of Song would live out their days in the Jurchen heartland of Manchuria, with humiliating titles of "Marquess of Muddled Virtue" and "Marquess Twice Muddled". Jurchen Jin also conquered the Song territory north of the Huai River, forcing its remnants, now under the leadership of Gaozong, a younger half-brother of Qinzong, to move their capital from Kaifeng to Hangzhou. (The Song Dynasty based in Kaifeng is called the Northern Song, while the one with Hangzhou as the capital is called the Southern Song.)
The period was known as a cultural powerhouse, taking the cues established by the Tang to new heights. Poetry, painting and pottery flourished. The famed Chinese bureaucracy and its exams were codified. Mechanical printing was invented.
During this period, the Song imperial army was equipped with incendiary weapons, multiple-rocket-launcher-systems, gun-artillery, and explosive grenades, which made gave their armed forces the most complicated (and expensive) weaponry of their time. Yet, the Song were increasingly cash-strapped and hard-pressed to defend themselves against the Liao, the Western Xia, Jurchen Jin, and eventually, the Mongols.note
The first real over-production crisis of humanity may have occurred during this time, or at least that's how the imperial bureaucracy chose to see the issue—the Song court actually issued ordinances (which were mostly ignored, of course) to stop tinkering with some of these experimental production-methods.
In the 1200s, the Song Dynasty found itself in a familiar situation with the Mongols rising in the North. Facing a common foe, this time the Jurchen Jin, the Song Dynasty would conclude an alliance with the Mongols in 1233, which led to the destruction of the Jurchen Jin one year later. Again, this was accomplished despite an existing peace treaty between the Song and the Jurchen Jin. A year after the demise of Jin, the Song launched an invasion to capture the old capital of Kaifeng, now held by Mongol forces. The invasion was repealed, but also sparked the Mongol-Song war that lasted for almost half-century. The Song Dynasty would outlast multiple Mongol Khans and killed one in the process, Mongke Khan, who was either killed by a shot from crossbow or smashed by catapult fire.
Then, in 1271, after decades of bloody wars against the Southern Song, Kublai Khan declared the new Yuan Dynasty, but it would not be until 1280 when the Song Dynasty was finally defeated.
Out of the "24 Histories", three were dedicated to the three most important dynasties:
- "History of Song" (宋史, Sòngshǐ), covering the history of the Zhao-Song dynasty.
- "History of Liao" (遼史/辽史, Liáoshǐ), covering the history of the Liao dynasty.
- "History of Jin" (金史, Jīnshǐ), covering the history of the Jurchen Jin dynasty.
- Shulü Ping (述律平; 879953): Empress of Liao Taizu, and regent to her son Liao Taizong. After Emperor Taizu's death in 926, she served as empress dowager to her own death in 953. She was directly involved in two imperial successions and is credited with changing expectations of widows in Khitan society. She famously chopped off her right hand to be buried together with her husband during his funeral.
- Xiao Yanyan (蕭燕燕; 9531009): Empress of Liao Jingzong, and regent to her son Liao Shengzong. She's portrayed as an antagonist in many Generals of the Yang Family adaptations. Historically, Song troops attacked Liao in 986, but they were pushed back and later defeated in 989. She was known for her great skills in civil administration and retained great influence until her death.
- Emperor Huizong of Song (1082 - 1131): Great poet, talented musician, renowned painter, innovative calligrapher, had Emperor Huizong been born in another age or to another family, he would have likely been remembered as a Gentleman and a Scholar or The Philosopher King, but he was an Emperor with Horrible Judge of Character, no military skill and terrible foreign strategy resulting in the fall of the Northern Song Dynasty.
Depictions in fiction
- China in various works depicting the life of Genghis Khan is of this period, mostly of Western Xia and Jīn empires.
- Liao and Western Xia rulers are playable in Crusader Kings II. Artisic License was applied to have the Wanyan clan appear as vassals of the Liao.
- Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom merges Song and Jurchen Jin dynasties into a single campaign. It also ends with the Jurchen Jin winning against Mongol invasion at Zhongdu and China being divided between them and Southern Song.
- The Four and all the other adaptations of The Four Great Constables
- The Great Wall
- Several of Jin Yong's novels were set during this period. In chronological order of when the books take place:
- Justice Bao
- The Legend of Xiao Chuo is about the aforementioned Xiao Yan Yan ("Chuo" is her given name, or míng, while Yanyan is her courtesy name, or zì).
- Guy Gavriel Kay's River of Stars is set in a fictionalized Song China during the reign of Emperor Huizong.
- The Story of Minglan is set in Northern Song.
- The Three Heroes and Five Gallants
- Water Margin, which took place during Emperor Huizong's reign.
This was the court of "Cathay" visited by Marco Polo. Beijing (then Dadu, 'Great Capital') became the capital of an empire enlarged by Kublai Khan's conquests to include Korea, Burma and Vietnam as well as China and Mongolia, though invasions of Japan and Java were disastrous failures. In terms of literature, drama was flourishing and the beginnings of the traditional Chinese novel are already discernible. Mongols did not trust the ethnic Han much and preferred to bring in their bureaucrats from the parts West, mostly Central Asians, Arabs, and Persiansnote —although, the Mongol rulers in Russia and Persia apparently preferred to bring in Chinese administrators to rule their territories.
Even as the Yuan Empire collapsed into a morass of feuding states, and even after Zhu Yuanzhang's state conquered them and founded the Ming, the House of Genghis Khan continued to style itself as the ruling dynasty of the Yuan Empire (or Northern Yuan) and claimed to be the legitimate rulers of all China. Stories persist that, as they abandoned China, Mongols took with them the Imperial Seal of Qin Shi Huangdi, carved from the legendary stone called He Shi Bi (和氏璧, "the Jade Disc of Mr. He), that had been kept by the "legitimate" Chinese emperors until then. It was not, however, among the Chinese imperial treasures captured by the Ming when its forces sacked Karakorum, the new Mongolian capital, in 1370 and its whereabouts are unknown since then.note The Mongol khans nevertheless maintained the claim as true rulers of all China until the early 17th century when they surrendered to the Manchus, who, of course, would become masters of all China as the Qing Dynasty as described below.
Of the "24 Histories", "History of Yuan" (元史, Yuánshǐ) covers this era.
Depictions in fiction
- The King Loves: Although made and set in Korea, the main character's mother is a Yuan princess and a descendant of Genghis Khan. The Yuan dynasty is frequently mentioned, and at the end of the series, the main character leaves Goryeo and moves to Yuan.
- Kubla Khan
- Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre
- Various adaptations of The Travels of Marco Polo
The mid-Yangtze was one of the most hotly-contested regions in all of China, as it was relatively populous and thus wealthy, and one of the hardest to hold because it was vulnerable to attacks from the lower and upper Yangtze, and from the north China plain. The kingdoms which had originally held these lands basically tore themselves apart through the strain of fighting, allowing several highly unorthodox figures to rise to the top of society. Among these was Zhu Yuanzhang, an illiterate peasant and brilliant commander from present-day Anhui Province who soon became a warlord in his own right. Through good strategic choices, including the forging of two key alliances (most notably the warlord Zhang Shicheng of Fujian and the lower Yangtze), and an excellent understanding of the operational and tactical levels of warfare, Zhu eventually conquered the entire Yangtze despite starting from virtually nothing and both his major allies (based in the upper and lower-Yangtze, respectively) turning on him once they'd divided up the entire Yangtze between the three of them. After he secured the entire Yangtze, Zhu spent several years building up his powerbase before declaring the foundation of the Ming Dynasty and crowning himself the Hongwu (洪武, 'eminently martial') Emperor. He then conquered the entire north China plain and after that the Pearl River region.
Zhu Yuanzhang was many things: born a poor peasant, he would emerge as one of China's foremost warlords. With brutal cunning, he managed to get the upper hand over his rivals, seized the throne, and with increasing age, became more and more paranoid and murderous. That's at least Rags to Royalty and Despotism Justifies the Means rolled into one. Zhu Yuanzhang was also significant in Chinese political history for abolishing the post of Grand Chancellor (丞相, Chéngxiàng; or 宰相, Zǎixiàng), a post which has existed in the Chinese imperial system in various forms ever since the Qin era.note The Ming is the first Chinese Empire we have anything more than very basic documentation for, with about 10,000 government documents remaining from the period—not enough for a detailed picture of government activity, but enough for a reasonably accurate outline. The minor cultural stuff (plays, songs, opera, etc.) wasn't so lucky and a lot was destroyed during the PRC's Cultural Revolution, leading to an ongoing hunt through overseas archives and collections for surviving copies.
Internationally, the Ming were best-known for being a gigantanormous Space-Filling Empire which ruled over about a third of the entire world's population and was ridiculously rich and cultured by the standards of the day. These days, they are certainly most famous for the porcelain which they exported in such prodigious amounts (see Priceless Ming Vase) and for building most of the current Great Wall. Emperor Yongle also sent the eunuch admiral Zheng He, a Yunnanese Muslim descended from Sèmù (色目) servants of the Yuan Dynasty, to explore the western seas as far as Sultanate of Zanzibar in modern-day Tanzania. He did so with a fleet larger than all the world's navies of the time combined—which was then mothballed because it was a huge money-sink and the whole project had only brought in minimal returns in the form of slightly increased trade. No amount of cultural posturing or diplomacy could change the fundamental nature of Chinese trade with the outside world, which was always going to be very limited—spices grew domestically or just a thousand kilometres to the south, furs were brought in overland from Siberia, and both cheap and high-quality/luxury manufactured goods were all produced domestically (the impoverished and geographically disadvantaged Europeans, on the other hand, had to traverse many [tens of] thousands of kilometres of open ocean to buy all of these things).
Domestically, the Ming were known for a fair bit more than all that, of course. Economically, the stability of their rule and lightness of their taxes allowed a lot of Smithian/pre-modern commercialisation and growth, which taken together with the tripling of the population (c. 80 to c. 250 million) gave the Ming more than twice the wealth of the Song (peak Song population was c. 120 million).note Politically, they were more famous for retaining the anti-aristocratic policies of the Yuan and the Civil Service system (including examinations) of the Song, which ensured that a centralised state (with only minimal recourse for nobles and aristocrats) in which the monarchy and its civil service played the most important roles would be around to stay. They also oversaw a huge flowering of culture, which was helped in large part by their unprecedented wealth and the expansion in literacy (with up to 10% of men and 1% of women — yes, women — being literate) and printing (to the point that there were literally books and pamphlets on every subject* , something that had never happened before). Prose was still not really regarded as a 'proper' artistic field in the Ming, but some pretty awesome novels were produced, including 3 of 4 novels commonly regarded as the best in imperial Chinese canon: Water Margin, Journey to the West and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. This period's dressing may remind people of Korea's due to Joseon Korea's inspiration by the Ming.
The Ming were contacted by the Portuguese and the Castilians when they first established trade posts across the East Indies in the 16th century, and later the Dutch when they seceded from the Habsburg Duchy of Burgundy (the modern-day Low Countries) and seized many Portuguese overseas possessions. Having run up a huge balance-of-trade deficit when buying Chinese luxury goods with hard currency, the Portuguese assented to a political union with Castile in 1580 so they could have tax-free access to Castilian silver imports (shipped over from modern-day Colombia and Mexico in what was then Castilian America). European ceramics- and clothes-making techniques were relatively crude because the region was so underpopulated and poor (much like northern China, Europe as a whole was too dry and cold for rice cultivation), meaning that Chinese goods were of incomparably higher quality than anything the region could produce domestically. Even Indian producers could not compete with Chinese ones at the higher end of the market, and so much silver flowed into China that late Ming suffered from severe inflationary pressure. The influx of silver from the Americas more than doubled the amount of silver in Europe in the 16th century and more than quadrupled it in the 17th, and silver coins minted in Castilian America became a de facto standard currency of the Ming Empire (as in Europe). From the Portuguese outposts also came a new wave of Christian missionaries to China, especially the Jesuits, who laid the foundation of modern Christianity in China and would contribute significantly to the court life of the later Qing Empire.
The war to defend Korea against Japan (late 16th century) involved large land and sea battles and sieges on a scale which exceeded that of the greatest (Ottoman-Habsburg wars, Thirty Years' War) in contemporary Europe, chewing through huge numbers of recruits and resulting in critical shortages of trained archers and suitable bow-wood. Accordingly, the Ming resorted to manufacturing and issuing firearms, which were still more expensive than bows but required far less training (weeks, versus years), to arm many of their troops. The naval battles and sieges also encouraged the manufacture and use of large artillery pieces. However, all previous and later military actions were on a vastly smaller scale and chiefly against steppe-nomads, in which bow-armed horse cavalry played the most important role, and siege cannon and muskets were an expensive liability. Accordingly, the Ming employed the Jesuits to buy up all the very latest European gunsmith manuals and bring select Ming gunsmiths up to speed on the latest, most efficient weapons designs (as tested on Europe's myriad battlefields) and test-firing procedures, which the Ming gunsmiths would otherwise have had to figure out for themselves. Given that by the 1620s gunpowder weapons were more than twice as expensive in the Ming than they were in western Europe (due to high long-term demand for them in war-torn western Europe, which eventually pushed per-unit prices down), design trial-and-error was a pretty expensive proposition. There were also no wars in which they could determine the battlefield-efficiency of such indigenous prototypes either.
Towards the end of the dynasty, the flourishing of culture was not mirrored politically; later imperial courts were plagued by corruption and the overbearing influences of eunuchs. Natural disasters, costly endeavours such as the intervention in Korea (the Imjin War) would strain imperial coffers. Ironically, it was not the Manchus who first brought an end to the dynasty: a peasant rebellion led by Li Zicheng marched into Beijing; during those tumultuous and tragic events, the last official Ming emperor (the Chongzhen Emperor) would be Driven to Suicide. Elsewhere, such as in Sichuan, warlords and other peasant leaders would take power, among them Zhang Xianzhong.
The last remnants (supposedly) loyal to the Ming dynasty, led by Zheng Chenggong (鄭成功, or if you must, Success Zheng), a some-time pirate also known as Koxinga to Westerners (from his Chinese title "Guoxingye", "Lord of the Imperial Surname"), established a de facto independent state on the island of Taiwan in 1661 after driving out the Dutch who had established an outpost there. This state, called the Kingdom of Tungning (東寧王國/东宁王国), lasted until 1683, when the Qing troops under Admiral Shi Lang, who had formerly served under Zheng but defected to the Manchus, conquered the island.
Of the "24 Histories", "History of Ming" (明史, Míngshǐ) covers this era.
Depictions in fiction
- Age of Empires II's Definitive Edition depicted the Battle of Lake Poyang, a crucial battle where Zhu Yuanzhang crushed his last major rival, Chen Youliang, in an epic naval battle; this was the last major battle of Zhu's rebellion prior to the rise of the Ming dynasty.
- Escape the Night: Season 4 Episode 4 features characters, including a fictional Emperor and his mother, from this dynasty as the Arc Villains.note
- Europa Universalis III & IV features the Ming, albeit at different stages. In particular, IV's earliest start date is before the Tumu Crisis.
- Flirting Scholar is a parody of a famous story about one of the "Four Masters of the Ming Dynasty", a time when scholarship flourished.
- Tai Chi Master
- Virtues of Harmony
The Manchus adapted themselves quickly to the Chinese style-governance, but with important restrictions on the majority Han based on traditional Manchurian ideas. The distinction between "Manchu" and "Han" were strictly defined and ruthlessly maintained but on the basis of cultural and social conventions, rather than ethnicity. Positions of privilege were reserved only for "Manchus" belonging to the "Eight Banners", supposedly made up of loyal members of the original Manchu tribes that founded the Qing Dynasty. In practice, so many Han people who contributed to the founding of the dynasty were enrolled among the banners that, by the time Qing had unified all China, a large majority of the bannermen may well have been Han by ethnicity rather than Manchu already. Nevertheless, the bannermen were required to rigorously observe Manchu customs, live in separate areas of the cities where they resided, and serve as soldiers in service of the dynasty, in return for the privileges and monetary subsidies they received. This dynasty persisted into the twentieth century, where it spectacularly collapsed and the seeds of modern China were born.
The beginnings of the dynasty were actually quite dramatic: the Manchu started as a federation of Jurchen tribes in what is now known as Manchuria (or Dōngběi, "(the) Northeast" in Chinese). Under leaders such as Nurhaci and Huang Taiji, they would consolidate and strengthen their position, expanding their influence into Mongolia and Korea. After the last Mongol khan submitted to the Manchus, their imperial house became kin of Genghis Khan himself by marrying Mongol princesses. Following the fall of the Ming to Li Zicheng, former imperial general Wu Sangui, who guarded the pass of the Great Wall to Manchuria would defect to them, thus opening up their way into China proper.note And thus, after decades of brutal conquest and slaughter that saw the Qing conquer not only China proper but also Tibet, Xinjiang, Western Mongolia, and parts of modern Tadjikistan and Kirghizstan, late imperial China would enter another age of prosperity and cultural advancement, the High Qing. Its emperors were known by the niánhào (or era names, corresponding to an Emperor's reign) Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong respectively. After that (actually already under the later Qianlong years) things started to go down south...
The ultimate reason for the Qing Dynasty's eventual failure and collapse was its shoestring budget, which precluded it from fostering economic development or bureaucratic reform even when it pursued these things wholeheartedly (as in its final decade). The Qing never taxed more than 2% of the country's GDP; Britain had been taxing 8% of GDP as early as 1650, a figure which had only risen since then. The early Qing kept taxes so low because Confucius had espoused a doctrine of fiscal-economic liberalism which stressed minimal taxation and government intervention in the economy, which in practice had been marred by laws restricting commerce in the name of 'Confucian' morality until the Ming (under whom they'd been relaxed, a policy continued under the Qing). The late Qing wasn't able to raise taxes—even when they wanted to—because of the continued influence of that concept, administration inertia, and ever-growing local and regional autonomy. There are serious questions as to whether any government could've handled the gargantuan tasks the Qing faced, and they managed to survive a Civil War that by all accounts should have destroyed them and would probably have taken down most lesser Chinese empires. Tellingly, although the regions the rebels held in the 1850-64 Taiping Rebellion had just a fifth of the country's total wealth, they had used high taxes to effectively fight the entire rest of the country to a standstill.
Although its inability to mobilise its people's resources in the form of taxes was its greatest weakness, the second and most notable was its increasingly obsolescent and eventually obsolete military and military-industrial complex. This seriously damaged the Qing's prestige and caused many to believe that it had lost its legitimacy as a government, directly contributing to the revolution which ended it. The last Ming holdouts had been crushed by the 1680s. Since then, the Qing's military needs had never gotten so desperate that they needed to resort to producing muskets (to compensate for a lack of bowmen) and there had been zero need for siege or naval guns of any kind. But it wasn't just that India and Europe were swimming in guns when the Qing weren't; the Qing also lacked the gun-tactics that had been developed over the past three hundred years of European gunpowder-warfare. If there had been any straight-up matches between European and Qing military forces before this disadvantage had become catastrophically wide, perhaps the Qing would have realised the need to get to work churning out muskets. But there weren't; the Qing's massive population and wealth put off all would-be challengers from seriously considering taking them on until 1839. In the First Opium War, well-drilled British troops under the command of veterans of the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars (1790-1815) using tactics perfected during said wars took on poorly-trained Qing musketmen who hadn't fought a war in living memory. The result was a foregone conclusion.
The Qing's third great weakness (a well-developed but overwhelmingly agricultural economy) limited the tax-base available to the Qing government and increased the expense of developing a modern military-industrial complex - leaving even less money for economic development projects. This weakness was not apparent at first, since it was not seen as a weakness but rather regarded as the norm. In a world in which agriculture and people were the foundations of the economy and the source of virtually all its wealth (mining and manufacturing that didn't use agricultural products being very much in the minority), an empire with a third of the world's population and agricultural production all to itself had good grounds for calling itself the richest and most powerful on earth.
However, in the early 19th century, this began to change. Devices made from large quantities of high-quality steel and iron could harness the energy stored in coal to power pumps, ships, and even new types of overland vehicle—traction machines (tractors) and locomotives (trains). The Europeans' superior knowledge of chemistry had also born fruit for the first time, with the invention of new types of fertiliser that could be made from minerals. The practical upshot of this was that there was a whole new way to improve agricultural productivity: things mined from the earth. Like their German and Russian counterparts, Qing metalworkers, miners, and agronomists had very little knowledge of these processes. But unlike the Germans and Russians, the Qing didn't have the money (or the sense of paranoia and fear inspired by neighbours doing likewise and becoming so much richer and therefore stronger as a result) or the willingness to abandon Confucian-style Liberal Economics necessary for them to follow suit by creating state-owned technical colleges, universities, industrial enterprises, telegraph companies, and railways.
All this brings us back to the war of 1839: the so-called 'Opium War'. The highland poppy naturally occurred on the Indian side of the Himalayas, Cantonese traders first introduced southern Chinese consumers to Opium in the early-Ming era, marketing it as a pain-relief medicine and powerful aphrodisiac ('opium-smoking parlour' and 'brothel' quickly became synonymous). In the late Ming, tobacco was also purchased from Spanish traders operating in Manila. In both cases, the Chinese merchants quickly cottoned on that anyone who could farm poppies and tobacco domestically could make a killing, and so through a series of wise purchases and bribes the cultivation of both was well-established by the early Qing. Demand for opium and tobacco grew even faster than the population (which had almost doubled Ming levels to c. 400 million by 1850)note , making growing either full-time a viable alternative to other cash-crops like cotton, hemp, wheat, and rice—let alone subsistence-crops like millet, corn, and potatoes.
For all that Chinese tobacco and poppy breeds could satisfy the demands of the middle-classes (along with tea, these goods only became affordable for the poor in the mid-late 19th century), they just weren't as good as the originals, so high-quality opium and tobacco were imported throughout the Ming and Qing. Opium and tobacco were already being produced and shipped out of India and central America in vast amounts for export to other Indian regions, the Middle East, and Europe, so exporting some to China as well was really just a question of buying some and shipping it there. Given the constant stream of Chinese ships returning from Malaya to China with near-empty holds after delivering Chinese luxury-goods to the islands (where they would be carried to India by Indian Muslim traders), taking opium on the homeward journey was a great way of reducing their overheads. When the Portuguese and the Dutch East India Company started trying to get 'in' on East Asian trade in the 16th century, they too began carrying opium and this practice was later adopted by the British East India Company when it in turn finally gained the resources and political leeway to operate in this lucrative market.
However, the Qing had very much defined themselves (culturally) as an Empire of Sour Prudes who condemned the pleasure-loving and intellectual ways of the Ming. This took a turn for the extra-prudish when the use of opium actually became a problem in society rivalling that of alcoholism. Accordingly, in the late 1830s, the governor of Guangzhou county (run from Guangzhou city) Lin Zexu attempted to curb its use as part of a wider program of sobering up his constituency. In doing so, he made two mistakes: targeting foreign merchants, and refusing to compensate them for their losses. Given just how close the British East India Company's ties with the British government were, this was a mistake; even so the vote was close, with the resolution to declare war upon the Qing passing by less than 30 votes in a chamber (the House of Commons) with more than 600 representatives.
The Qing lost two naval wars (1839-42, 1860-62) sparked by trying to ban or heavily tax imported goods including opium due to their woefully obsolescent military. As a consequence, the Qing were forced to sign many "unequal treaties" (as the Chinese call them), meaning they had to accept European control of a few dozen fishing villages and small towns on the major rivers and coasts as trading ports (including, most notably, Hong Kong), and that Europeans in China would be tried according to the laws of their home country (extra-territorial rights). The latter measure was insisted upon partly because of cultural Values Dissonance including variable toleration of Christianity and Christian practices, but also because laws varied so incredibly widely between Qing districts and even counties; in the most extreme examples what was illegal upon pain of death in one village (e.g. alcohol, opium) could be perfectly legal in a village just ten miles away. The Qing were also forbidden from passing or enforcing pre-Ming-style sumptuary laws banning the consumption of any goods, and were asked to pay the debts the Europeans had run up fighting the wars. This would not have been a problem for a state which was willing and able to tax its people on anything more than a token level, but the burden of reparations constituted a pretty heavy millstone around the Qing's all-too-slender neck. There was insurmountable resistance at the local level against any moves towards greater taxation or centralisation of the bureaucracy. This forced the Qing to borrow money to pay the reparations... from European banks, which (because of the high rates at which Europeans had invested their savings in and generally trusted them, this being another development precipitated by Europe's endless series of wars) could offer much lower interest rates than Qing banks.
Around the middle of the 19th century, the Taiping Rebellion broke out in southern China, led by a decidedly unorthodox Christian convert claiming to be the brother of Christ named Hong Xiuquan. It lasted fourteen years, created a fair-sized state centered on Nanjing, caused the death of about 20-30 million people, and was finally put down with foreign aid. With its regular armies (based on the Banner system) in a state of near total disarray, the Chinese government (especially enterprising local officials) formed militias from local populations, armed them with foreign guns, and hired foreign instructors to train them. Numerous foreign "mercenaries" (in many cases, regular officers offered by foreign nations who decided that the survival of Qing government was preferable to chaos) were hired to lead Chinese armies, both of the national government and locally organized militias. The conflict was one of the largest civil wars of all time, dwarfingnote even the one going on across the Pacific (coincidentally, named the Taiping Yang, or Peaceful Ocean in Mandarin* ).
At the same time, the Nien Rebellion up north put additional pressure on the Qing regime and even threatened the capital. The two rebel leaders failed to cooperate, leading to their eventual defeat.
The Qing government attempted a program of reform to make China more Western and hopefully save it from further humiliation. It failed, partly because the reformers actively squabbled with each other instead of the foreigners, partly because even the reformers thought all China needed was a better military and the rest could stay the same, partly because the Empress was rumored to have taken the program's funds to build herself a boat made out of marble (and the Summer Palace in Beijing, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and finally because Chinese armies and fleets equipped with modern weapons but not properly trained in their use were soundly thrashed by the upstart Japanese who had modernized more thoroughly in the First Sino-Japanese War.
That Empress' name was Cixi (pronounced 'Tsih-shee'), and if there was ever a real life Dragon Lady, Cixi was it. Originally a concubine to the late Emperor Xianfeng, Cixi stayed in power as regent for 48 years, originally in non-romantic union with fellow Empress C'ian. This regency covered the 'rule' of multiple Emperors. One was her son, who resisted her iron grasp by refusing to study, sneaking out to brothels, and finally dying of smallpox without having had the courtesy to sire a son. Lacking a traditional heir, the two Empresses named Cixi's young nephew* as the new Emperor. While all this was distracting everyone, however, modernisation was definitely not happening.
Finally the new Guangxu Emperor reached his majority and started trying to get things moving on his own. With the assistance of a man named Kang Youwei, they came up with a plan to massively shake up the social structure of China. This is known as the Hundred Days Reform. However, a lot of people currently in power didn't particularly appreciate having their jobs cut out from under them. Also, there was a plot underfoot to trick the Emperor into signing away control of China to Japan. Kang Youwei, hoping to get more people on his side, appointed a man named Yuan Shikai as leader of his forces. Yuan Shikai proceeded to tell Cixi exactly what was going on. Kang Youwei ran to Hong Kong to escape Cixi, and Guangxu abdicated and was put under house arrest for the remainder of his (and her) life—when she apparently had him poisoned as she was dying to ensure he wouldn't outlive her. Harsh, Cixi. Harsh.
Second, the lower classes of China were very annoyed at the Western incursions, and one group of peasants got it into their heads that it was their destiny to save China by getting rid of all the Westerners. They also believed that they were Immune to Bullets. Despite this, this group, known fully as the Harmonious Society of Righteous Fists but more commonly as the 'Boxers', travelled across China attacking the foreign powers until they reached Beijing. There they besieged foreign buildings (primarily the embassies), opposed by the foreign-power armies called the League of 8. Cixi supported the Boxers; she even demanded that the Chinese armies come to Beijing to help them fight the foreigners. By this point, the armies were all like, "Suuure, right", and did virtually nothing to help out.
In 1901, the Boxer Protocol was signed, and Cixi finally started an actual reform program. Unfortunately, while the reforms were in more sweeping than the failed Hundred Days Reform had been, they still weren't enough to make much visible difference.
Thirdly, a man named Sun Yixian (you may know him as Sun Yat-sen or Sun Zhongshan) realised that China was still way behind, and that Cixi was taking China down a highway to Diyu, make no mistake. He summarily started to support revolutionary ideas to turn China into a parliamentary democracy. Many of these ideas grew in popularity, particularly amongst China's armies.
To make a now extremely long summary short, Cixi's program failed and Sun Yat-sen's revolution got underway just as the Qing were setting up a provisional parliament. The rebels were powerful; in the intervening years China's armies had been filled with Sun Yat-sen's ideas. Whatever the army wanted was going to stick, and the Qing knew it. Realising that Yuan Shikai had the support of at least some of the army, Prince Chun* , father of the last Emperor of China, asked him to lead the fight against the rebels. Yuan Shikai happily did so, on the proviso that he got to be the undisputed leader of the armed forces. Yuan then went to negotiations with the rebels and was persuaded to support the newly formed republic... so long as he got to be the undisputed leader of the country.
Yuan Shikai: 1, China: 0.
This is the dynasty most often seen in Chinese dramas and kung-fu movies, perhaps because documentation from the time is more readily available, particularly of small details a historian of earlier dynasties might omit, and there is photographic evidence of everything from clothing to buildings. The queue hairstyle (forehead shaved, with a long braided pigtail at the back) associated with the period was imposed by imperial edict at the beginning of the dynasty on pain of death, partly as a measure to mark the submission of the Han population. The fact that people were cutting their queues off late in the dynasty showed how ineffectual the Qing became.
It's worth mentioning though that while the decline of the Qing was quite spectacular, for 200 years they were pretty much the dominant power in Asia, and one of the most powerful nations in the world. Most of China's modern borders are based on the conquests under the Qing (including Tibet), and especially in its early period the Qing dynasty was characterized by expansion, discovery and reform. The Qing, it seems, will Never Live It Down.
More revisionist historians such as William T. Rowe do not see the Qing in such a negative light anymore, though; Chinese nationalist historiography (and that includes the Communists') has often painted things in the darkest colours, but such views are have become less useful with the benefit of hindsight and more research. In other words, even in the later years, the Qing were not actually doing that badly. With the intention of avoiding natter, the above account leaves out the ongoing economic and ecological problems which were of a completely internal nature, which were also crucial factors in the fall of that dynasty.
Depictions in fiction
- 55 Days at Peking
- Boxers & Saints
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
- A Deadly Secret
- The Deer and the Cauldron
- Dream of the Red Chamber
- Fearless (2006)
- Flowers Of Shanghai
- The Good Earth
- The Legend of Zhen Huan
- Moment in Peking
- Once Upon a Time in China
- Princess Returning Pearl
- Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat
- Scarlet Heart
- Story Of Yanxi Palace
- Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
- Towards The Republic
- The Warlords