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Useful Notes / Dynasties from Shang to Qing

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"Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han. Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han. Sui, Tang, Song. Sui, Tang, Song. Yuan, Ming, Qing, Republic. Yuan, Ming, Qing, Republic. Mao Zedong. Mao Zedong."
— To the tune of "Frère Jacques"/"Brother John"/"Where is Thumbkin"

"It is said that the empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been."
Luo Guanzhong, the opening line of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and a succinct summary of the concept that History Repeatsnote 

The Empire.

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 Sun Yat-sen. 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.

The Zhou Dynasty cemented much of Chinese culture that later periods adhered to. It originated as a unified kingdom, but was divided into a number of dependencies. These dependencies later became de-facto independent kingdoms during the Spring & Autumn period, and while Zhou rulers were nominal overlords of these dependencies, their positions were largely In Name Only, not unlike the Japanese Emperors after the 10th century. These various kingdoms were eventually reunified by the State of Qin, ushering the Qin Dynasty that set the model of how China is governed for more than two thousand years.

A massive bureaucracy was used by every dynasty to manage the empire, for both administrative and military purposes. Before the Qin Dynasty, bureaucracies of various Chinese states were reserved only for members of the nobility, with commoners filling lower-rank positions. This begin to change in the State of Qin, and later, the Qin Dynasty, where commoners (of the Qin) had greater opportunities to participate in political decision-making. During the Han era, local examinations were conducted to select potential bureaucrats not limited to members of the nobility. Though these examinations differed from region to region, with the Emperor himself occasionally hosting examinations in the capital. This process was streamlined from the Sui Dynasty onwards, which became the nationalized Imperial Examination that was offered to nearly anyone who is literate. The test can cover a wide array of subjects, including Confucian classics, military strategy, engineering, an assortment of practical applications and so on. This was a major force for retaining stability within the society, to ensure anyone willing had an opportunity to participate in government affairs and attain high office. In addition, the Imperial Examinations ensured the writing system remain unified across the country, even as various spoken languages rose and fell. This system was certainly ahead of its time, and many nationwide examinations across the globe today follow a similar vein. However, occasional criticisms are leveled against this system in the modern era due to the perception of it partially contributing to China's ignominy during the so-called 'Century of Humiliation' that started after the Industrial Revolution. The reason for this being that the Imperial Examinations introduced a level of social mobility and stability the Chinese people saw no need to deter from, and thus unnecessary to drastically alter the way Chinese government operated. If a dynasty performed poorly in its waning years, it was often attributed to bad management and/or corrupt officials, not because the fundamentals of governance may be out-of-date. Thus after more than two thousand years since the Han Dynasty, the Chinese suddenly found themselves dragging their feet trying to retain China's sovereignty against encroaching Western Powers and cope with new world realities when rules of the game had changed dramatically.

A common misconception is the belief that Chinese Emperors were absolute monarchies and held absolute power. This is incorrect. Traditionally, even the most accomplished Chinese Emperors faced a bureaucracy that countered Imperial power on numerous fronts, forming a system of checks and balances. A good Emperor was open to criticisms, and critique against the government was tolerated to a considerable degree. This trend also extended to the Imperial Examinations, where answers often contained what intellectuals thought of the Emperor and the Imperial Bureaucracy at the time. This gradually changed during the Yuan Dynasty, when the central government became more authoritarian, and critique against the government became more subtle.

Another common misconception is the usage of the term 'peasant' when discussing China-related topics. There was no peasant class in ancient China, neither was there serfdom similar to that of Medieval Europe. In China, there was the 'commoner' (百姓 baixing; lit. hundred surnames) class, who engaged in agricultural work, mercantile activities, attain higher education, engage in examinations for political office, own property and other activities that are usually not associated with Medieval peasantry. The closest equivalent to the Chinese 'commoner' class were the Roman plebeians, and even then, social mobility amongst Chinese commoners enjoyed progressively higher flexibility post-Han Dynasty.

"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).

Alternative Title(s): Imperial China