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). 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 on. 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.
Preceded by the only vaguely known (and semi-legendary) Xia Dynasty (c. 2100 BC - 1600 BC) and the legendary 3 Sovereigns and 5 Emperors. A relatively small state centered on the Yellow River valley, this was a Bronze Age culture mostly known today for the workmanship of its artifacts (including many exquisite items in cast bronze) and its position in the development of Chinese culture. And also oracle bones. Lots of oracle bones.
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.
Depictions in fiction:
- 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.
- Age of Empires features the Shang as a playable faction.
Surname of kings of the dynasty is "Ji". Perhaps better remembered for events and people at the beginning and towards the end of the period and their influence on later Chinese culture than for anything the dynasty actually did. Generally characterised as feudal since the Zhou kings were nominally rulers of a pretty large territory, but only directly ruled a relatively small royal domain, which everything else farmed out to de facto independent feudal dukes. 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 yayue of Chinese classical music. The concept of the "Son of Heaven" (tian zi) 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.).
On 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 imperial 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. 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.
Depictions in fiction
Only two emperors, but the first one was Qin Shi Huangdi and that one was really enough for at least two dynasties in any lesser country. Among other things, he unified the country (perhaps a quarter to a third the size of modern China) in a swift 9 year campaign; built the Great Wall of China (later rebuilt by the Ming); created that famous Terracotta Army as part of his burial complex; and standardized the laws, coinage, and writing system. He 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.
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. (The Chinese themselves mostly call the country Zhongguo, meaning central country, although it has other names).
Depictions in fiction
The big one. So famous that the dominant ethnic group in China still refers itself as Han Chinese. So big that the Chinese most commonly call their language(s) Hanyu (meaning "Han Speech") and the most widely used system of romanizing Chinese is called Hanyu Pinyin. So big that the Chinese word for "Chinese characters" is "hanzi"(漢字), literally "Han characters", and was exported to other cultures as the Japanese word "kanji", Korean "hanja", and Vietnamese "Hán tự". You have one guess which part of their writing system it refers to.note
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, 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, Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian), was regarded as a literary and historical masterpiece, and Sima Qian himself became known as the Grand Historian.
The Han Empire coexisted with the 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 glassmaking 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 (the Persian Empire had been conquered by Alexander of Macedon and the Mauryan Empire was the first pan-Indian empire in history) 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 has stuck.
The Han also gave imperial China her first empress and empress dowager, Lv Zhi. note Lv 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" (Guang Wu being his posthumous name). 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.
Depictions in fiction
Wei, Shu, Wu. Wei is often referred to as Cao Wei after its founder Cao Pi, son of Cao Cao; Shu was founded by Liu Bei, a kinsman of the Han emperors and called itself Shu Han as successors to the Han; Wu was also called Eastern Wu or Dong Wu after its location to the east. Very famous period, the setting of a major Chinese novel (well, one very famous one and presumably others), many Chinese operas, movies, TV series, and all those games from Koei.
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 on, China was divided among feuding warlords before the three kingdoms around 220. Wei conquered Shu in 263 and the period ended with the overthrow of Wei by the Jin dynasty (265) and the subsequent conquest of Wu (280).
Depictions in fiction
Jin Dynasty (Western period 265-316, Eastern period 317-420) Founded by the Sima family, descendants of the Wei strategist Sima Yi, who was himself a descendant of Sima Ang, a warlord during the Chu-Han Contention era after the end of the Qin Dynasty. note Famous for its Deadly Decadent Court and incompetent line of emperors. The Jin dynasty underwent a civil war called the War of the Eight Princes in which eight rival Jin princes hired foreign nomads as mercenaries in the civil war. As they all defeated each other and wiped each other out, the power vacuum in northern China led to a wholesale evacuation from northern China, leading to the establishment of the Eastern Jin. The power vacuum left by the Jin was filled by sixteen kingdoms (304-439).
Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589) A period of civil war and division, marked also by artistic and cultural developments, including the maturation of Chinese Buddhism and the development of the pagoda. Due to the constant warring in northern China, southern China was heavily colonized by the Han Chinese and developed.
States which were historically important due to their links with the Sui-Tang dynasties were the Northern Wei, 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).
Depictions in fiction:
Sui Dynasty (581-618)
Strong candidates for the coveted titles of "Most Obscure" and "Shortest Lived" Imperial Chinese dynasty, the Sui turned out to be meteoric in every sense of the word. It arose out of the anarchy following the Jin and the Southern and Northern period from the ashes of Northern Wei, a state that had been founded by the Mongolic Tuoba Xianbei people and had ruled the north for over 150 years. The Sui did this by dint of capable, energetic leadership that swept aside all competition. note They (well, it's more Yang Guang, the infamous Emperor Yang) engaged in some of the most ambitious and large-scale expeditions the Chinese had undertaken until that point and time. Of these undertakings, perhaps the most well known is the completion of the Grand Canal from Beijing (not the capital at this period) to Hangzhou, tying what is now South China together with the North. However, this came at a cost: Yang Guang was considered tyrannical and extravagant while his public works exacted heavy financial and blood tolls. note
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 to conquer one of the Korean kingdoms. While figures are still uncertain, this was a truly massive and costly endeavor 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.
Depictions in fiction
- In The Royal Diaries series, Lady of Chiao Kuo takes place during the Sui Dynasty.
- Heroes Of Sui And Tang
Considered a high point of Chinese culture. To this day, Chinatowns may be referred to as "Tang ren jie", or "Street of the Tang People". Some time in the 9th century, gunpowder is discovered in China. With over one million inhabitants, the Tang capital of Chang'an is the largest city in the world (London's population, in comparison, is at the time in the vicinity of 10,000, and Tokyo is a sleepy Japanese fishing village in a backwater province). Chinese civilization significantly influences Vietnam, Korea and Japan, and embassies come all the way from the Eastern Roman Empire. Actually expanded so far west that they clashed with The Caliphate. The Tang era is also notable for one of the most foremost achievements in Chinese literature: unrivalled poetry (Tang shi) by the likes of Li Bai, Du Fu, Wang Wei, etc... ok, just: Loads and Loads of Characters. As an interesting note, the founder of the Tang (Li Yuan) was Yang Guang's cousin; their mothers were sisters.
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 Turkics—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 Muslim 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 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 that "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
Interestingly, several Roman(/'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.
Depictions in fiction
Another period of unrest and war, brought on by the weakening of the Tang emperors and the redistribution of power to regional lords. The Five Dynasties formed and succeeded one another in the north, while the Ten Kingdoms were factions in the south.
As the chaos of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period wound down, most of China was unified by Zhao Kuangyin, a general of the Later Zhou Dynasty (one of the Five) who took power in a coup in 960 and declared himself the founding emperor of the Song Dynasty. However, Song's unification was never quite complete, as non-Han peoples on the borderlands of China also established their own empires that extended into historical Chinese territories. Song had to share Chinese history with these "alien" dynasties until the last and greatest of them, the Mongols, who established the Yuan Dynasty, wound up conquering the final remnants of the Song in 1279.
The Song were 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 specialisation 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, 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 capital was at modern day Beijing. In the west, there was the empire of Western Xia, 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 1115, a fourth empire arose in the form of the Jin (not to be confused with the Jin Dynasty founded by the Sima family at the end of the Three Kingdoms period), founded by the Jurchen people in Central Manchuria. (They would later re-emerge under a new name, the Manchus, and found the Qing Dynasty—see below). Facing a common enemy, the Song and the Jin concluded an alliance 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 Jin never quite trusted each other and their relations broke down altogether when a Jin governor defected to Song after the war and Song seized the border territory under his control. 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 favor 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." Jin also conquered the Song territory north of the Huai River, forcing its remnants, now under the leadership of Gaozong, the younger brother of Qinzong, to move their capital from Kaifeng to Hangzhou (The Song Dynasty based at Kaifeng is called the Northern Song, while that with Hangzhou as the capital is called the Southern Song).
The period was known as a cultural powerhouse, taking the cues established by the Tangs to new heights. Poetry, painting and pottery flourished. The famed Chinese bureaucracy and its exams was 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, the Jin, and eventually, the Mongols.
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. And then all these dynasties got run over by the Mongols which leads to.....
Depictions in fiction
- The Legend of the Condor Heroes
- Water Margin
- Guy Gavriel Kay's River of Stars is set in a fictionalized Song China during the reign of Emperor Huizong
- China in various works depicting the life of Genghis Khan is of this period, mostly of Western Xia and Jin empires.
- Justice Bao
- Demi Gods And Semi Devils
- The Legend of the Condor Heroes
While Mongols have been at war with various empires of China since the time of Genghis Khan himself and had already conquered much of China (including all of Western Xia and Jin), they did not establish a Chinese style dynasty until 1271 when Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, declared himself the Chinese emperor as well as the Great Khan of the Mongols. The dynasty name, meaning "the Origin," broke from the existing tradition in which dynasty names were derived from the historical regions where the dynasty rose from. Within 8 years of declaring himself emperor, Kublai unified all of China, with the Mongol forces finally conquering the last remnants of the Song at the Battle of Yamen in Guangdong, at the conclusion of which a Song general named Lu Xiufu jumped into the sea with the 8-year old boy emperor rather than face capture and possible execution. However, because of brewing conflicts among various descendants of Genghis Khan, he also wound up having to fight several of his Mongol cousins in Central Asia and Russia who disputed his claim as the Great Khan. As it were, even as Kublai's successors claimed emperorship of all under heaven as emperors of China, they would not be recognized as the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire by their cousins to the west.
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 Persians (who became known as "semuren," or "people with colored eyes" in Chinese; these people later intermarried with the Han locals but remained Muslim, giving rise to the Hui people)—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, 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 * . The Mongol khans nevertheless maintained the claim as true rulers of all China until 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.
Depictions in fiction
The Yuan Empire came apart at the seams in the early fourteenth century as regional autonomy and separatism rendered the central government at Dadu (later 'Beijing') increasingly cash-strapped and powerless. Despite several campaigns and measures to reverse this, including forming numerous coalitions with warlords still semi-loyal to the Yuan to take down non-loyal warlords, the area controlled by the central government (little more than the area around Dadu and Mongolia proper) was too weak and the warlords too selfish and fickle for the House of Ghenghis Khan to do anything but inexorably lose control over the country. This process started with the southernmost warlords along the Pearl River (Guangxi, Guangdong), whose geographical isolation (and therefore protection) led to them being the first to declare the restoration of the Song Empire/independence. For all intents and purposes, the Yuan Empire ceased to exist, and split into at least nine different countries.
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 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 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 ('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, ended up becoming more and more paranoid and murderous. That's at least Rags to Royalty and Despotism Justifies the Means rolled into one. 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. Also sent the eunuch admiral Zheng He, a Yunnanese Muslim descended from semuren 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 to 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 subjectnote , 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.
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 Columbia 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 a 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 would commit 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, 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, 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.
Depictions in fiction
This empire was founded by Manchus, a group of people coming from Manchuria (and who formerly called themselves the Jurchens—see Song Dynasty above.), to the northeast of China. For this reason, it is sometimes called the 'Manchu Dynasty'. Europe referred to the Manchus as 'Tartars' for much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which was basically a generic term for any nomadic people in the region of Siberia. Contemporary maps of Qing China distinguish between the core Han 'China proper' in the south and 'Chinese Tartary' in the north (as opposed to 'Russian Tartary' in Siberia and 'Independent Tartary' in the area of Kazakhstan, nomadic peoples not part of any big empire). More than 20 million government documents survive from the Qing, more than most Qing-contemporary European countries put together, but quite a few of these are 7-8 copies of the same thing. All of these, including the 800,000 held by Taiwan, are being digitised and should be available online by 2030 - making these exciting times for Qing Historians worldwide.
The Manchus adapted themselves quickly to the Chinese style-governance, but with important restrictions on the majority Han based on traditional Manchurian ideas. 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 Dongbei, 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, 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 (Wu Sangui would go on to be considered a traitor of historical proportions in China, since, after surrendering to Qing, he rose up in a revolt against his new master a couple of decades later after having been given the huge and rich province of Szechwan to govern. Since his betrayal(s) were supposedly motivated by love triangles, his story is also the fodder for Chinese novels and soap operas). And thus, after decades of brutal conquest and slaughter that saw the Qings 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 nianhao (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 weren'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 desparate 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), 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 and 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) 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 accept European control of a few dozen fishing villages and small towns on the major rivers and coasts, and that Europeans in China would be tried according to the laws of their home country. 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 resistence 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 Mandarinnote ).
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 nephewnote 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 '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 Yixian'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 Yixian'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,note 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 late in the dynasty people were cutting their queues off 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
- 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
- Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
- Towards The Republic
- The Warlords
- The Deer and the Cauldron
- A Deadly Secret