Part I – A Formative Age: Prehistory 780,000 BCE – Zhou Dynasty 1046-221 BCE

Introduction – Emerging Great Themes of Dynastic History

The China that we see today had its origins in Prehistory. The remains of one of our earliest human ancestors, Peking Man, were found near the Zhoukoudian cave system located about 50 km southwest of Beijing. As early as 780,000 BCE, cave dwellers lived in China. Beginning in approximately 8000 BCE, people in north and central China began domesticating animals and growing food, especially millet, in the Yellow River valley of the north and rice in the Yangtze River valley to the south. A warming climate aided agricultural innovation. The surplus food production allowed more populous and complex societies to evolve. By 5000 to 4000 BCE Neolithic settlements were scattered throughout China. By 2000 BCE these village settlements saw people begin to specialize in different kinds of productive occupations. Agricultural production supported a growing non-agricultural population including artisans producing non-agricultural goods, administrators who collected taxes and set rules and regulations for society, and soldiers who defended and expanded the territory under the government’s control. Dating approximately from 2200-1600 BCE the Xia Dynasty was China’s first dynasty, although its existence has yet to be corroborated by archaeological evidence. The Shang (1600-1046 BCE) and the (Zhou 1046-221 BCE) saw the great themes of Chinese civilization begin to develop with the mastering of large scale mining and bronze casting, the development of writing, and the creation of a bureaucratic infrastructure to manage the expanding state. Religious and philosophical paradigms began to be formed, around which society could be structured and the world understood.

Peking Man

Over 4000 years of history, China has shown great continuity of values and purpose. There were times when it fractured into many smaller states, yet each of these states maintained many of the core political, social and religious power systems which came to define the Chinese civilization. Many factors contributed to China’s cultural continuity despite its periods of political disunity. One key factor was China’s formidable geography. Mountains, deserts and oceans formed real barriers between China and the rest of the world. For much of China’s history, its main threat came from the nomadic people who lived in the north. China built, and rebuilt the Great Wall, a 4000 mile barrier, along its northern border to stop invasions by these horse-riding “barbarians”. China’s cultural continuity was also facilitated by a common written language that allowed people throughout the empire to communicate, despite their many different dialects that were often mutually unintelligible. The ability to correspond in written form throughout China enabled governmental edicts to be communicated territory-wide, reinforcing the effectiveness of a strong, centralized, governmental bureaucracy. It also allowed the dissemination of philosophical, religious and cultural thought. From early on, China created a considerable body of literature, much of which was concerned with how people lived and behaved. This literature helped build a commonality of values throughout China. The Chinese invention of book printing helped spread these values further, as did its emphasis on education as a way to reach the highest levels of society.

These edicts also ordered the building of unprecedented engineering works – the Great Wall and the Grand Canal to name but two – that also brought the country together. China’s basic religion of ancestor worship also proved to be a strongly unifying. This ancient religion stressed the duty of sons to care for parents before and after death. By 550 BCE, Confucius expanded this pattern of obligation to include loyalty to the Emperor and the state.

780,000-2200 BCE

Even before there was Chinese civilization, there was primitive human life in what came to be China. Early human occupation of the area began over 1.7 million years ago. In the 1920s, near the Chinese village of Zhoukoudian, Peking Man was discovered. This early human lived in the area’s caves from roughly 780,000 to 600,000 BCE. Peking Man hunted and cooked animals, used sharpened stone tools, and had an intelligence level somewhere between that of apes and modern man. By 10,000-8000 BCE, in early north and central China, the Chinese people began farming and domesticating animals. By 3000 BCE, the Chinese had developed painted pottery, made relatively sophisticated tools and created decorative objects of Jade. By 2000-1500 BCE, Chinese settlements produced enough food to support artisans, soldiers and administrators who collected taxes and governed society.

Xia Dynasty: Approximately 2200-1600 BCE

China’s earliest cultural heroes from this time were called the three Sage-Kings – Yao, Shun and Yu – who were known for their morality and commitment to the wellbeing of their subjects. This theme of Chinese rulers who are both virtuous and committed to their people’s welfare runs throughout Chinese history. The Chinese believed humans could constantly improve themselves. From early on, Chinese leaders placed great value on education, and on choosing rulers and governing bureaucrats based on their capabilities, not just based on their connections. Yao, for instance, passed his throne onto Shun, rather than his own son, because Shun was most devoted to the people’s interests. Shun in turn chose an engineer, Yu, who began developing techniques to control river flooding. Yu, however, did pass his rule to his son, creating what is believed to be the first of the Chinese dynasties, the Xia. The Xia is the first dynasty to be described in ancient records including the Records of the Grand Historian and the Bamboo Annals, although scholars still debate whether the dynasty actually existed.

Shang Dynasty 1600 BCE-1046 BCE – Character Writing, Engineering and An Optimistic Outlook

Tradition has it that the moral superiority of King Tang, the first Shang Dynasty ruler, enabled him to overpower the last Xia ruler Jie, known for his atrocities, neglect and incompetence. This lifecycle of the Xia Dynasty – from the estimable founder through a series of often unexceptional rulers to the corrupt and ineffectual tyrant – became a pattern of subsequent dynastic cycles.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the early Shang Dynasty was quick to develop a political hierarchy and a complex economic and social system. Shang cities, for instance, were large and protected by massive walls up to 40 m wide and 10 m high, the largest of which are estimated to have required an investment of some 13 million labor days. The Shang leadership seemed adroit at mobilizing thousands of conscripts for such mass projects which also included military campaigns, the construction of tombs for deceased kings, and the clearing of new lands. Much attention was given to the efficient maintenance of these human resources, especially improving agriculture efficiency. This ability to mobilize large labor pools to achieve state objectives became a hallmark of Chinese dynasties from the Shang onwards.

Oracle Bone

The Shang territory was ordered in system of towns and villages ruled by the king’s relatives. Land near the Shang capital (Yan, present day Qufu, also the birthplace of Confucius) was entrusted to the king’s immediate clan. More distant areas were ruled by descendants of former Kings, and by allies of the royal lineage. Maintaining these alliances required effective diplomacy. Diplomatic tools included marriage, economic and military strength – some Shang armies numbered over 10,000 soldiers – diplomatic visits, Shang respect for the deities and ancestors of the other lineages, and employment of alien dignitaries in the Shang court. Allied courts paid tribute to the Shang by sending animals and prisoners of war, which were often sacrificed to placate ancestors.

“Oracle bones” – chicken bones and turtle shells – dating from the Shang time, record the first examples of Chinese character writing. These bones were used by rulers to consult ancestral spirits. The Chinese believed that the afterlife reflected the hierarchy of life on earth, and they saw their own dead ancestors organized in a pyramid of power with more distant ancestors being more powerful than those recently deceased. At the top of the Pyramid was the “Lord on High”, whom they believed to be the mightiest spirit of all. Shang rulers believed that many natural and political phenomena, from drought to foreign invasions, were the result of divine powers. Yet the Chinese were not fatalistic; instead, optimistically believing that relations with deities were manageable and that malevolent deities could be controlled by enlisting the help of royal ancestors. To ensure ancestral support, elaborate burial tombs were constructed and, after burial, communication with the dead was made through regular sacrifices. Over time, Shang religious activity became more ritualized. For instance, communication with ancestors occurred on specific days, which was enabled by the invention of calendar keeping.

The Zhou Dynasty 1046 BCE-221 BCE – Legalism, Confucianism, Daoism and the Mandate of Heaven

Around 1045 BCE, the Zhou conquered the Shang. Exactly what caused the Shang to lose their hegemony is not clear. The diminished dependency of Oracle bone divination’s over time means that their inscriptions became less informative. What seems clear is that the Shang state decreased in size in the 11th century BCE. Allies and dependencies of the Shang whose names frequently occur in earlier inscriptions disappear from those of the last 50 years of Shang rule. Additionally, the last ruler of the Shang appeared to be a cruel tyrant who putatively engaged in such acts as dismembering one of his aides and pickling another, enjoying orgies, and generally neglecting state affairs.

The Zhou worshipped Heaven, a benevolent force that helps right triumph in human matters. The Zhou conquerors argued that the last Shang kings were corrupt and irresponsible and that Heaven therefore granted the Zhou the right to rule in their place. Thus was created the “Mandate of Heaven”, the idea that Heaven bestows on an honorable and noble leader the right to rule, an idea that was to remain prevalent throughout Chinese dynastic rule.

The Zhou consolidated rule by weakening what was left of Shang dynastic power. Shang elites were relocated close to the center of power and Zhou settlements were established in strategic places throughout its territory. The Zhou slowly discarded the Shang custom of large-scale human sacrifices. Oracle bone divination gave way to prophecy based on an ancient text called the Book of Changes, which argued that ethical behavior brought favorable outcomes while immoral behavior jeopardized dynastic rule. In 770 BCE, the Zhou lost control over regional polities and the capital was conquered by two former Zhou vassals. The surviving court retreated to establish a new capital several hundred miles to the east. Thus 1045-770 BCE is called the Western Zhou period, while 770 BCE-256 BCE is the Eastern Zhou.

Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

In the 8th century BCE, Zhou power became fragmented in the Spring and Autumn period (770 BCE-453 BCE), named after the influential Spring and Autumn annals, and the Warring States period (453 BCE – 221 BCE). In the Spring and Autumn period hundreds of states eventually arose, each submissive to Zhou kings in name only. Yet despite this political fragmentation, much cultural uniformity was preserved as nobles maintained the practice of Zhou ritual culture. Eventually, during the Warring States period, these smaller polities were gradually consolidated into seven larger powers, including the Qin in the West. These seven larger powers expanded aggressively, ultimately conquering territory that, if conglomerated, began to anticipate the eventual borders of the Chinese nation. These states centralized control over their territory, discouraging autonomous political units which were viewed to be the cause of the constant warfare. Large numbers of commoners were rallied to build walls, dams, dikes and irrigation canals, meaningfully raising the yields of millet, wheat, soybean and rice crops which allowed these states to support large standing armies. Rulers increasingly recruited commanders based on skill and organizational abilities rather than on birth. This began China’s emphasis on creating an intellectual elite to help rulers maintain their hegemony, and introduced the idea of social mobility based on meritocracy.

During the Spring and Autumn period, in what became known as the “Period of a Hundred Schools of Thought” (famously recalled by Mao Zedong during his “Hundred Flowers” campaign), China considered many aspects of how society should be governed and how people should behave as it searched for an end to constant combat. An important school of thought during this time was the Legalists who argued that hegemony was achieved through the creation of severe laws with harsh punishments under the theory that harsh punishment deterred undesirable behavior. They supported the promotion of soldiers and officials on the basis of ability not just relationships and blood, and believed that rulers should pursue the goal of a powerful universal state. The Art of War, attributed to Sunzi (frequently written as Sun Tzu), was written during this time and is still studied today both in China and across the world.



Competing with this view were the ideas developed by Confucius. Born in 551 BCE, Confucius argued that the welfare of the people was more important than the privileges of the ruling class. Confucius also believed that officials should be chosen on the basis of ability not birth. Although he was agnostic about spirits, Confucius nevertheless believed that it was important to express respect and gratitude for dead forefathers. He thought the wisdom of the ancients should be studied so their insight could be passed on to future generations. He believed in the idealistic vision of benevolent rule, and thought that all people have the capacity for kindness. Yet he thought that this goodness needed to be nurtured through education, ritual, and the imitation of righteous role models. These role models included the example of parents, teachers and the great moral leaders of the past. He believed in social hierarchy and that sons were to be obedient to fathers as fathers should be obedient to their rulers. He also believed that scholars should study poetry, music and history to broaden their minds, a tradition that was to become entrenched within the Chinese dynastic civil service. While Confucius is, arguably, the most influential Chinese philosopher that has ever lived, it was not until after his death that his ideas gained wide acceptance and became entrenched in Chinese culture. Later followers of Confucius such as Mengzi (often referred to in the West as Mencius) and Xunzi thought those that worked with thought should rule over those who toiled with their hands, yet these rulers were obliged to be moral and just. Rulers received the Mandate of Heaven when they cared for their people; those who exploited their subjects lost the Mandate and failed. Xunzi also argued that events like droughts, floods or hurricanes were part of the natural world, not divine retribution for poor rule. A ruler lost the Mandate of Heaven not because a hurricane occurred, but because the ruler failed to respond to it compassionately and effectively.

Daoism also developed during this time and spoke in more philosophical terms about the nature of life and state. Dao means “the way”, and is a metaphysical construct that considers the totality of the universe and its laws of nature, trying to understand within that whatever is unchanging and everlasting. It seeks harmony with this natural, unchanging force in order to create a harmonious and stable society.

The Past in the Present – Historical Themes in Today’s China

Ancestor worship continues in China today

Confucianism, with its teachings of respect and loyalty for one’s parents, husbands and rulers created a tight knit society where one’s own individual desires were often subjugated to those in more favorable hierarchical positions. China’s worship of its ancestors extended this respect for, and deference to, its elders into the afterlife. The emphasis on education as a means of political advancement meant that the leaders of China shared a common culture as they all studied the same body of literature in order to pass their examinations. The spread of these cultural values to all parts of China was facilitated in part by China’s early creation of character writing. It also allowed the edicts of the government to be communicated throughout China, even though China had (and still has) many diverse spoken dialects.

From early on, the Chinese government was able to mobilize large numbers of its populace to execute works for the public good including the building of irrigation and dyke systems and the construction of city walls. They also conscripted large armies to defend Imperial territory. The Chinese have generally been an optimistic people who believed that their efforts had a direct impact on the outcome of events. For example, instead of attributing a devastating river flood to the wrath of a mercurial God, they instead recognized its natural causes and then set about engineering solutions, often on a grand scale.

Yet, while the political, social and cultural systems characteristic of Chinese civilization became firmly established, who should govern this civilization was periodically put into question. Specifically, there was often tension between the rule of the dynastic court and regional power centers. These regional power centers generally did not want to change the nature of Chinese society; instead, they wanted to take the rule of this society for themselves.

Many of these themes are still prevalent in China today. China is still ruled by a centralized, bureaucratic, authoritarian government. Education is still given the highest importance; success in university entrance exams allows those from even the humblest backgrounds to have the promise of future upward mobility, though, as with other modern societies, those already with power and wealth have a structural advantage. Before China’s market opening in 1978, communist ideology absolutely subjugated individual aspiration to the good of society as a whole. While the creation of the largely-capitalist economic system has now allowed for more individual aspiration (at least in economic terms), it has also undermined the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) justification for rule. The CCP has countered this in part by promoting nationalism, which among other things, celebrates the prestige of its 4000-year-old history, including its Confucian tradition, something that had previously been played down during the Mao years. This Confucian revival can be seen, for instance, in China’s building of Confucian centers around the world to promote the teaching of Chinese language and culture.

China still has an amazing capacity to mobilize its populace for the benefit of the public good, as evidenced by the current, unprecedentedly rapid building of infrastructure including roads, railways, hydro-electrical and other power systems. The Chinese are still optimistic in their ability to solve nature’s challenges and, thus, optimistic about their ability to control their future destiny. For instance, their hugely ambitious South-North Water Diversion Project will divert at least six trillion gallons of water each year from the Yangtze River to satisfy the water needs of the North China Plain and its 440 million people, thus tackling a growing water crisis in northern China.

Tensions between Beijing and provincial powers remain today, reflecting the struggles of bygone eras between the center and the regions. As China has transitioned from a communist to a largely-capitalist economic system, some regional areas and municipalities have grown in power and importance, posing a challenge for the regime in maintaining its absolute control.

What Happened Next?

The development of cultural norms, based around Confucian ideals, and the establishment of centralized governmental systems in order to pacify the restive regions continued after the Zhou, with the successes of first the Qin and then the Han. Similarly, the tendency for grand projects also manifested itself with the first creation of a ‘Great Wall’ on China’s northern frontier and the development of the Grand Canal. The story continues in A Classic, Bureaucratic Empire.



Part II – Creation of a Classic, Bureaucratic Empire: Qin Dynasty, 221 – 206 BCE – Han Dynasty, 206 BCE – 220 CE



The end of the Zhou Dynasty, with its decline into the Warring States Period, was a chaotic and violent time. Seven states vied for power across the empire. This government fragmentation ended with the victory of the Qin, resulting in a brief, but hugely important, period of unity for the Chinese. The Qin empire bears much resemblance to the China that we see today and its first emperor, Qin Shihuang, is credited with instigating construction of the Great Wall and the Grand Canal. The successive dynasty, the Han, continued the fight with nomadic peoples from the northern frontiers and established crucial trade links through the famous Silk Road. It also underwent a crucial intellectual battle between Confucianists and Legalists that helped to define what we consider to be Chinese culture today.

 Qin Dynasty 221-206 BCE – Unification, Legalism, Bureaucracy, The Great Wall

The period before the establishment of the Qin Dynasty was a time of political fragmentation. By 403 BCE, seven major states were all vying for power within what would eventually become known as China (the name China originated from an early Romanization of Qin which was written ‘Chin’.) The Qin state originated on the western edge of developed China. Unlike with other powers within China, this meant that the Qin state was not boxed-in on all sides by competing fiefdoms. This allowed it to expand its territory more easily, incorporating an increasingly large population under its jurisdiction. It was also more open to social, political and cultural innovations, and readily used talented men from other states. 

Because the Qin did not enter the feudal domain of the Zhou Dynasty until the reign of Xiang (777-766 BCE), several centuries after the more established states, and because of its North Western location, the Qin was viewed by the other fiefdoms as a less civilized and more barbaric state. Xiao of the Qin (361-337 BCE) was determined to change this image and increase the Qin’s standing in the world. Influenced by the thoughts of Shang Yang, a Legalist reformer, (350-338 BCE) Xiao implemented a largely Legalist style of rule in his domain. Realized Legalist doctrines included promoting by merit as opposed to by noble birth, and the creation of a strict set of laws which applied to all people equally. Written on stone, these laws were sent to all parts of his kingdom. He allowed peasants to buy and sell land, and implemented widespread irrigation projects which resulted in increased agricultural production. This production was taxed fairly to encourage further agricultural development. The resulting wealth gave the Qin the food and economic resources necessary to launch military offensives. By 256 BCE, the Qin conquered the state of Zhou, bringing the Zhou Dynasty to an end. By 221 BCE, the Qin had conquered all seven Warring States, marking out for the first time the beginning of the geographic scope that would become of Chinese nation.

Standardized antique Chinese print characters


The Qin leader Zheng, and his chief minister Li Si, led the final Qin charge to vanquish the competing fiefdoms and unify China. Since no previous royal titles – such as King or Duke – were sufficient to describe the scope of the Qin leader’s enormous power, a new title was devised: Huangdi, meaning ‘august god’, a term that invoked the image of the Yellow Emperor, a legendary Chinese sovereign and cultural hero presented in Chinese mythology whose name had the same pronunciation in Chinese. China’s first emperor was better known by his full title of Qin Shihuang. He followed Li Si’s advice not to make his sons and relatives the kings of the various conquered territories, but to staff them with military and administrative professionals. The Qin leaders then forced 120,000 of the most wealthy and powerful aristocratic families of all the conquered states to move to the Qin capital of Xianyang, just outside modern-day Xi’an, where they were far from their power bases and could be easily watched. Qin Shihuang also had the nobles’ weapons melted down and recast into two large bells and 12 enormous statues which were then placed on his palace grounds. 

Imperial handcart

The government was centralized, and the entire Qin kingdom was divided into 36 large administrative units, each of which was further divided into several counties. Each was governed by a civil officer, a military officer and an official inspector who independently reported to the central government. All people in the Empire were graded into a system of 20 non-hereditary ranks where individuals could better their status, essentially go up in rank, with accompanying rights to land, titles, tax remissions and slaves, through military accomplishment and meeting or exceeding agricultural production quotas. The Qin also had the novel idea of organizing families in groups of five or ten. Each family group was responsible for the behavior of all its members so that, if any group member committed a crime, all were held responsible, thus engaging the entire population in policing.

Early on, the Qin administrators realized that maintaining Qin supremacy required a strict husbanding of its human, military, and natural resources. In order to achieve effective accounting, weights and measures, the axle lengths of chariots and carts, and Chinese character writing styles were standardized. Retaining local forms of currency, weights and measures, or writing scripts was made an act of treason and the Qin currency was introduced nationally. Infrastructure projects were a key facet of the dynasty and 4250 miles of roads were built throughout the empire. The Grand Canal was begun, built by thousands upon thousands of conscripted laborers. Conscripted laborers also connected many parts of earlier state walls which extended along almost 4000 miles of the northern border of the empire. This extended wall was eventually to become known as the Great Wall of China. 

The Qin bibiliocaust burnt historical Chinese Manuscripts

The Chief Minister Li Si contended that as Qin Shihuang had unified all of China, he had also formed a single source of authority. Dissenting opinions based on classical scholarship were thus a threat to his authority. To prevent this threat, Li Si recommended the infamous Qin bibliocaust, where Qin Shihuang decreed that all historical records, apart from those of the Qin, be burned, along with all copies of the Book of Odes (the earliest existing Chinese collection of poems and songs) and the Book of Documents (a compilation of documentary records of the ancient history of China.) Books concerning forestry, medicine, or divination were exempt. Anyone caught even discussing such books risked execution. Similarly, anyone who disparaged the present by citing ancient precedents also chanced execution, together with all family members. Scholars today believe that the bibliocaust was not as devastating as first thought and many imperial libraries endured intact. Scholars also tended to memorize texts such as the Book of Odes so that textual versions could be constituted from memory and, in the next dynasty, Emperor Wu initiated an empire wide recovery of the ancient texts. In addition to burning books, the emperor also encouraged the eradication of many local traditions of all varieties. Qin Shihuang’s successes resulted in large part from his efforts to manage the detail of government himself. For instance, he set quotas as to the weight of documents he would read each day, not stopping until he completed the paperwork. The disadvantage of his prodigious work effort was that the institutions he had created to concentrate power in the hands of the monarch made the government’s strength and stability dependent upon the authority and character of the occupant of the throne.

Terracotta warriors

Qin Shihuang died unexpectedly in 210 BCE. Having quarreled with his eldest son, the succession to Emperor was not clearly delineated. The eunuch Zhao Gao encouraged a younger, favorite son Hu Hai to usurp his brother for the throne. In order to prevent challenges to his rule, Hu Hai instituted a reign of terror in which he took the already legalist excesses of his father’s reign to new heights. These included a zero tolerance for criticism, severe laws and punishments, and the ruthless mobilization of laborers for construction projects. Historians have argued that the people would have accepted Hu Hai if he had made even moderate attempts to reform his father’s excesses. Instead, he implemented a harsh rule, multiplying laws and the severity of punishments, increasing taxes and executing chief ministers of state, imperial princes and palace attendants. 

The hungry, indicted and exploited became so numerous that the rebellion of one man was enough to cause the entire nation to join him. The first revolt began in 209 BCE. By 206 BCE, the Qin dynasty ended with the suicide of the Second Emperor and the break-up of the Qin Dynasty. Qin Shihuang built a lavish tomb with more than 8000 life-sized terracotta warriors and 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses. The Xi’an tomb was discovered in the 1970s by peasants digging a well and it has since become a UNESCO heritage site and one of China’s premier tourist attractions. Archaeological excavations at the tomb have shown that the Qin dynasty had continued the Zhou expertise in advanced metal casting technology, especially in metallurgy. Bronze swords were made with a high tin content, resulting in blades of significant sharpness and hardness. The blast furnace technology used to make this high-quality bronze was not employed in Europe for another thousand years.

Han Dynasty 206 BCE-220 CE – Confucianism, the Mandarinate, and Northern Nomadic Barbarians

When the First Emperor of the Qin died in 211 BCE, Qin Dynastic rule rapidly disintegrated. Liu Bang, already head of the Han State in 206 BCE, declared himself the Emperor of the Han dynasty in 202 BCE. The Han is the name of the dominant ethnic Chinese group who form around 92% of the present-day population. Liu Bang was one of only two known emperors of China to come from a peasant background, defeating Xiang Yu, a brilliant aristocratic general. When Liu Bang died in 195 BCE, Empress Lu, the mother of the first heir to the throne, managed to control the court until her death in 180 BCE. Despite ruthless ambition, she proved a competent ruler. She realized that the average peasant needed time to regroup after the civil war, so she fashioned government policies that encouraged people to work on the land. Food and clothing became plentiful again. She also successfully defended the frontier from nomadic invasion. Despite these achievements, Empress Lu was cited by Confucian historians as an example of what happens when women get close to power. Confucians felt that a woman’s place was in the home, obedient and subservient to the male household members.

Northern nomads plagued China for centuries

Attack from nomadic people of Central Asia provided a constant challenge for the Han Dynasty, especially in its early years. The Xiongnu nomads led successful raids within China despite the presence of the Great Wall. Although the Wall covered large parts of China’s northern border, it was never fully connected. The nomads were superior to the Chinese on horseback, especially when shooting, thus making themselves formidable adversaries. The Han Dynasty tried to avoid war by sending the Xiongnu nomads lavish gifts such as gold, grain, and Han brides, which proved to be an expensive and relatively short-term fix. This threat of invasion from the nomad tribes of the north was a constant theme throughout much of Chinese dynastic history. The Chinese tried many strategies to solve the barbarian problem including military domination, bribery, diplomatic relations, intermarriage, and the construction of the Great Wall. None was wholly effective.

In 145 BCE Han Wudi became Emperor and ruled over China for more than 50 years. He improved the army, adopting many of the noamds’ horsemanship and archery techniques, and he increased the dynasty’s stock of horses. In 134 BCE, Han Wudi struck against the Xiongnu nomads, driving them far into central Asia. In the areas that he secured, trade flourished over a whole network of routes that collectively became known as the Silk Road. The Han Dynasty also got access to some of the central Asian grasslands which allowed it to support enough horses to maintain military advantage. Otherwise, China’s geography south of the Mongolian grasslands – dry deserts, steep mountains, cultivated river valleys – provided little open range necessary for the large scale raising of horses.

Wheelbarrows were first invented in China

With the nomadic problem temporarily resolved, Han Wudi worked to improve the administration of his dynasty. Many Chinese dynasties were debilitated by power struggles between the Empress Dowager (the title given to the Emperor’s mother) and family, Confucian bureaucratic officials, military commanders, and court eunuchs; the Han proved no exception. Han Wudi thus worked to curtail the power of his in-laws, Confucian scholar advisers, and eunuchs. He also created central government run monopolies on the production of salt, iron, copper, bronze, and alcohol, which significantly increased state revenues depleted by the nomadic wars. The greater wealth of the dynasty partly contributed to the proliferation of Chinese inventions during this time, including standardized weapons with replaceable parts, the earliest known use of the crank, calipers so precise that they could measure distance with precision to one thousandth of an inch, sophisticated bellows which delivered pressurized air in controlled quantities to heat fires used for metal working, crop experimentation to raise agricultural productivity, the wheelbarrow and rudimentary scientific medicine.


Although Legalist in many ways, Emperor Han Wudi established Confucianism as state doctrine. As a peasant, Liu Bang had received little education.  Initially, he had little tolerance for Confucian scholars who underscored the importance of ancient history, institutions, and rituals. Yet, once he became Emperor, Han Wudi began to appreciate the utility of Confucian learning. In the early days of his court, stories are told of how many of his soldier-officials became involved in brawls within the palace walls; one was even caught hacking away at a wooden palace pillar with his sword. His advisors, steeped in Confucian traditions, established simplified court rituals which created an expectation of decorum within the court, and gave dignity and honor to his role of emperor.

 Mandarinate – China’s Imperial Examinations and China’s Civil Service System

China’s invention of paper aided the spread of education in Imperial China

Emperor Han Wudi’s advisors argued that one of the reasons that the Qin dynasty had failed was because it had emphasized military conquest, strict laws, and a system of rewards and punishments – Legalist practices – at the expense of creating a moral and civil society. The Emperor’s advisors argued that foundation of the Han State’s morality should be the wisdom of the ancients, and that those schooled in ancient and historical wisdom should run the Han state’s bureaucracy. The Han Dynasty thus put into effect the Chinese public civil service known as the mandarinate, arguably one of the most enduring and successful instruments of administration mankind has ever created. 

Acceptance into the mandarinate was dependent on passing official examinations based on the Confucian classics. These classics promoted an optimistic view of humanity. They argued that man, with the right instruction and example, was capable of constant improvement and high moral righteousness. The Han Dynasty became a leading sponsor of Chinese art, scholarship and values. The court also put into effect complex Confucian rites and rituals which had initially been introduced to tame the soldier-officials. The repetition of these rituals tried to capture the idea of an ordered, harmonious universe which continued unchanged forever. The Han emphasis on promotion by education and merit created a relatively flexible society. For example, the Confucians scholars looked down on trade, deeming that it did not adequately incorporate true moral values. Nevertheless, merchants were often able to use their acquired wealth to assure that their sons received the tutoring necessary to pass the classical scholar exams of the government officials. In this way, a merchant family could rise on the achievements of its sons. This emphasis on education was facilitated by the invention of paper in 100 CE.

 Chinese Historical Records

The Historical Records of Sima Qian was written during the Han Dynasty and deeply shaped the way in which the Chinese perceived their past and thus themselves. An epic work in 130 chapters, The Historical Records explains history from many perspectives: a chronological narrative of political events; informative accounts of key institutions; and biographies of important individuals. The Historical Records set the prototype for the government-sponsored histories compiled by later dynasties. The composites style-with political narratives, treatises and biographies- became standard. By writing so well and so much, Sima Qian significantly influenced Chinese thinking on everything from government to the best conduct of individuals. For instance, in telling biographies, Sima Qian selected incidents in an individual’s life that showed consistency of a person’s character and how well the person performed a role, rather than turning points in personal development.

Patriarchal Society       

Quote from Ban Zhao’s Precept for my Daughters

Chinese dynastic society was to remain patriarchal throughout the ages. The subordinated position of women was supported by Confucian beliefs which argued that a woman’s rightful place was within the home. On occasion, however, some women rose to power and influence. The most famous female scholar in all Chinese history, Ban Zhao, lived in the Han Dynasty. Ban wrote many poems, helped her brother finish a history of the Han Dynasty, and authored Precepts for my Daughters, an instruction booklet for women that has remained well known to this day. The importance placed on filial piety also meant that emperors were often obliged to consider their mothers’ wishes, even after adulthood, giving the Empress Dowager the opportunity to exert considerable influence at Court. The Han Dynasty saw China’s population expand to approximately 60 million people, the equivalent of the Roman Empire at its height. This population lived within a wide-ranging market economy. Trade between regions was one factor which unified China into an integrated whole. Yet, much of this wealth remained concentrated in the hands of the scholar-officials, most of whom came from the old feudal families. The average Han peasant was still desperately poor.

 The Past in the Present – Themes of Early Chinese History in the Modern Age

As China moved from the Warring States period into the Qin Dynasty, many of the broad themes of Dynastic China were clearly emerging. One such pattern was the alternating fragmentation and unification of the empire, where imperial control of China was periodically disrupted by the rise of regional powers which led to China being shattered into smaller competing states. Yet these fragmented states remained remarkably cohesive culturally, organizing themselves around fundamental beliefs that formed the essence of Chinese civilization. A key belief was that the family was the basis of Chinese society, and the state was an extension of the family. Ancestor worship and the wisdom of the past were to serve as a guide to the present and to the future. Meritocracy also emerged as a strong theme. Increasingly, bureaucratic officials and military leaders were promoted based on skill rather than birth right. Education to achieve opportunity became an ethos of Chinese society, creating a certain social mobility. Religion was gradually becoming bureaucratized and ritualized.

Imperial Examination Hall, Yunnan University

Early on, great attention was paid to agricultural productivity. The Chinese bureaucracy mobilized its masses to construct irrigation and land clearing projects. This created a feedback loop, where increased agricultural productivity led to a rise in population, requiring further engineering and agricultural innovation to maintain China’s swelling numbers of people. China’s constant battle to feed its population has echoes in the struggles of the twentieth century, while the relative size of its population in comparison with global totals also has stark parallels. 

By the end of the Han Dynasty, the themes of Chinese civilization were becoming increasingly engrained, and Confucianism became firmly established as the guiding state doctrine. The Emperor’s wishes were carried out by a bureaucratic government staffed by the best-educated scholars whose places were achieved by examinations in ancient Chinese wisdom. These exams created notable social mobility and reinforced the optimistic belief of humans’ capacity for constant self-improvement through self-cultivation. Today, educational achievement remains an important avenue of social mobility. Competition for university and other academic places is brutal. In 2018, for instance, approximately 9.75 million students took the Chinese National College Entrance Examination, and about 81% were accepted.In recognition of the importance of these exams, construction sites across the country were ordered to suspend works to create a peaceful environment for the exam-taking students.

The Great Wall of China

A belief in human ingenuity and its ability to positively impact the physical world and to solve problems continued as a core Chinese tenet. This is exemplified by its extraordinary engineering feats such as the construction of large parts of the Great Wall of China and digging of the Grand Canal which required the mass mobilization of conscripted labor. The educated started to see that natural laws resulted from “scientifically-explained” physical forces, not just caused by the whims of divine power. Human ingenuity was able to solve problems such as river flooding and irrigation resulting in high agricultural productivity which in turn allowed for the expansion of the population. This ingenuity also led to much technological development. Today, China continues the tradition of using engineering to solve its developmental problems. China has been laying down infrastructure at a breakneck rate as well as undertaking monumental ventures such as the South-North Water Transfer Project.  The South-North Water Transfer Project is diverting water from the Yangtze River to the Yellow River in order to solve the North’s water shortage challenges. At an estimated current cost of $79 billion, the aqueduct is one of the largest and most expensive engineering projects ever undertaken. 

Many Legalist themes continued throughout the Han Dynasty, including the promotion of soldier-officials based on merit as opposed to noble birth, the institution of a strict rule of law, a focus on agricultural production in order to maintain a large military structure, a fair taxation of production in order to maximize agricultural yield and the standardization of everything from axle sizes to weights. Each of these measures was employed in order to improve economic productivity which could then be marshalled to increase the power of the state. Today, the Chinese leadership still believes that authoritarian political control is the best way to create prosperity and stability for its 1.3 billion citizens. The Qin collectivization of families who were then responsible for self-policing, and the Qin effort to establish itself as the source of intellectual authority foreshadowed efforts of the Communist era.

Mass mobilization of its population to achieve often unparalleled engineering feats remains a Chinese competitive advantage. In the late 1990s, the Chinese government instituted a massive $1.2 trillion public works program to build new bridges, roads, dams, railways, power plants, port facilities and airports all around the country; currently no other country devotes as many resources to infrastructure, and a fifth of all construction in China depends on public works projects. The only thing comparable to China’s infrastructure creation today is the building of the US highway system in the 1950s. China still relies as much on muscle and sweat as machinery to complete its big jobs and this muscle and sweat continues to achieve often impressive results. For instance, a 30 mile stretch of road through rough mountainous terrain between Chengdu and Guanxian, was achieved in a week with the help of 200,000 laborers. Similarly, when a sandstorm buried 350 miles of train track, thousands of laborers had the track cleared in two days. In the closing weeks before the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government employed more than 10,000 people in 1000 boats to clear 600 sq km of algae bloom that threatened to disrupt the Olympic sailing events in the port city of Qingdao.


From a climatic point of view, it is also interesting to note that the Han Dynasty likely profited from what is known as the Roman climatic optimum. The Roman climatic optimum lasted from approximately 200 BCE to CE 150. During this time, the climate was relatively warm, wet and stable. In agricultural societies, these favorable weather conditions helped to increase GDP which in turn helped the dynasty to flourish.

What Happened Next?

The collapse of the Han Dynasty led to centuries of division and conflict with numerous competing centers of power. Yet this time also saw the adoption of Buddhism and continued cultural development in various art forms. This was followed by the successful, but brief, unification of China under the Sui Dynasty in the sixth century. The story continues in The Age of Division.


Part III – The Age of Division: 220 CE – end of Sui Dynasty 618 CE


Sui Dynasty sandstone Bodhisattva

The approximately 400 years between the Age of Division and the end of the Sui Dynasty, saw many familiar themes dominate. China endured fluctuating periods of fragmentation and reunification. Confucianism continued to permeate the fabric of Chinese society with its emphasis of filial piety and ancestor worship, and with a value system that allowed for the creation of a strong central government. The Northern Nomads were frequently problematic, and diplomatic and military solutions were constantly being considered. Agricultural productivity remained important not only to feed the population, but also to fill government tax coffers and to create enough surplus food to maintain the military. Sustaining a strong military was always a double-edged sword. Powerful generals in frontier regions often developed significant regional power which was then used as a springboard for a national campaign. The ability for China to stay unified ultimately became significantly effected by the creation of a national, homogeneous culture which taught universal values, such as loyalty, duty, compassion and morality.

New themes also emerged during this period: the introduction of Buddhism, land reform, the extensive colonization and population of Southern China, the beginning of the legal reform and the growing development of poetry. These challenges were often most successfully met when approaching these problems through a shared way of thinking. This shared way of thinking, or common culture, came to define what it meant to be Chinese. In other words, whether a nomad was considered Chinese was dependent not upon his racial origin or the territory into which he was born, but on how well he had assimilated into Chinese thinking, culture, language and customs. Chinese culture acted as a significant unifying force within Chinese society as it gave all regions of China the same principles around which to rally.

From a climatic point of view, tree ring data suggest that the Central Asian climate went through three periods of severe drought – in 360, 460 and 550 CE – each of which would have likely affected Chinese stability. When nomads in central Asia could no longer live off the land there, they migrated. Those migrating east and south would have increased instability in North China as they attacked weaknesses on the border and moved into northern farming lands in order to access the food and water needed to support their herds. From 400 to 570 CE, China suffered from an extended period of dry desertification, forcing farmers to migrate further south. The year 535/536 CE was particularly challenging. It is believed that a volcanic eruption or series of volcanic eruptions filled the atmosphere with ash and other debris, significantly diminishing sunlight and shepherding in a global volcanic winter. Chinese historical records suggest that temperatures were so cold that crops failed resulting in food shortages, famines, disease, population migration and unrest from which continued to affect China negatively for several decades thereafter. 

The Age of Division 220-589 CE – Southern Migration, Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism

The Han Dynasty began to disintegrate as the independence of wealthy families increased. Many refused to serve what they regarded as a corrupt imperial center. Eventually, the Han Dynasty fragmented and three rival states – the Sui, Wu, and Wei – took its place. This period is known in Chinese as Sanguo (Three Kingdoms) and their rivalry was immortalized in one of China’s greatest novels, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Yet, try as they did, none of these warlord families was able to conquer all of China. In particular, the north was shattered by continuous fighting between shifting nomadic and northern Chinese groups. Many nomads intermarried and integrated into Chinese society, while Han Chinese began to adopt certain nomadic customs and foods.

Rice paddies, Yunnan Province

Constant fighting in the north caused 2 million people to flee south, abandoning the land of the northern frontier. Many resettled in the Yangtze River valley. This migration transformed the Yangtze valley and southern China into one of the most densely populated and prosperous regions of the country. Much of the south’s prosperity was driven by silk production, the trade of which continued to thrive during the Age of Division. The Yangtze River valley’s climate proved ideal for growing the mulberry bushes on which silkworm feed, as well as for the cultivation of tea and rice. Tea brought many health benefits to the population, not least because of its boiled water which killed water-borne germs. Similarly, rice proved to be an ideal food crop. It tasted good, was highly digestible and when consumed with soy products, offered excellent nutrition. When milled, it stored well. It was easy and cheap to cook, the only cereal that can simply be boiled without becoming mush. But perhaps most significantly, rice almost always yielded more calories per unit of land than other crops, important in a country with limited arable land. In good climates, two or even three crops could be grown in the same field.

Despite the disruption of the Age of Division, scholars and artists flourished, with notable achievements in areas such as astronomy, mathematics, pottery, philosophy and literature. Incidents from history, for instance, presented themes of courage and loyalty that lent themselves to the creation of epic romance and fantasies which were then transformed into plays and operas. Poetry also emerged as an important cultural phenomenon, a role it would continue to play throughout the spread of Chinese History.

Laozi, founder of the Daoism

Daoism (sometimes referred to as Taoism) also became more popular during this time. A belief began to develop that the three spheres – Heaven, Earth and Man – were interconnected by way of a primal substance, called qi (or chi) which made up all things, and that all things within the universe had developed in accordance with the patterns of nature which were the quintessential expressions of The Dao or The Way. If human beings worked harmoniously with these natural cycles, they were most likely to maximize the potential for various forms of well-being such as health, good fortune and fertility. For example, The Dao asserted that state executions should be conducted during the killing seasons of autumn and winter when nature brings an end to the life of plants.

In the face of constant warfare, Chinese again began to extensively debate the correct behavior of man in relationship to family and state. An environment of alienation and personal extravagance pervaded elite circles where Confucian ideals lost much of their hold. Many eschewed court life with its vicious cliques. A search for unaffectedness and spontaneity led to an outpouring of self-expression, especially in poetry. Chinese, with its tones and its plentiful rhymes, is well-suited to verse. The Chinese script, especially Classical Chinese, is equally advantageous to poetry writing because it creates visual associations in ways that purely phonetic scripts do not. Poetry became China’s most important literary form. From the Han time onward there was a strong link between poetry and emotion. Similarly, especially by Tang times, calligraphy came to be recognized as a fine art. The force, balance and movement of the character strokes were believed to indicate the calligrapher’s moral and psychological makeup as well as his momentary emotions. Calligraphy came to be considered so indicative of character that, in Tang times, it was used as a criterion for assigning posts in the civil service.

Among the most gifted poets, writers and musicians of the third century was a group of poets later immortalized as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. The Seven Sages argued that previous unquestioning compliance to Confucianism was, in part, to blame for the fall of the Han Dynasty. Daoist in philosophy, the Seven Sages discussed philosophy and art under a bamboo grove to escape the corruption and oppression of the court.

WLA_vanda_The_Seven_Sages_of_the_Bamboo_Grove - wiki

The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, embroidery on blue silk


Buddhism, arriving in China from India during this time, gained quick acceptance in many parts of the country. Intellectually, Buddhism felt harmonious with many Daoist ideas, which was understandable since Daoist terms were employed by early translators to express Buddhist ideas. Buddhism also provided a new focus during a time when it was difficult to have much faith in civil government. It spoke to questions of suffering and death with a frankness that did not exist in native Chinese traditions, advancing a fully expounded vision of the afterlife and of the prospect of salvation. To many, its morality, including the sanction against the taking of life seemed to follow compassion to its logical end. That Buddhist monasteries became exempt from taxation was more controversial; as was monks’ vows of celibacy, since these vows contradicted the filial obligation to provide parents with grandchildren. On the latter point, Buddhists argued that it was the ultimate expression of filial piety to free parents from suffering by performing pious acts in their name. Buddhists believed that this would help ensure that those so honored would be born into a better life in their next reincarnation.

Carved buddhas at the Yungang Caves, Shanxi

In a practical sense, particularly in the south, Buddhist monasteries provided food to poor peasants, built inns for travelers and developed rudimentary lending houses where poor people could leave items of value in exchange for loans for seeds and other needs. The coming of Buddhism also led to an increase in fiction writing as Buddhist teachers discovered that stories made effective teaching tools. In north China, the nomadic tribes competing for control of the Yellow River Valley embraced Buddhism because it gave them a civilized religion of their own. The Northern Wei emperors, from 425-494, funded the carving of thousands of Buddhist statues in cliffs and caves at a place called Yungang, which is now a UNESCO site and can still be visited today. Buddhism also brought to China new ideas about medicine and architecture. The Age of Division also saw much writing on the subject of botany as well as inventions as diverse as tofu, the wheelbarrow and the repeating crossbow.

 Sui Dynasty 581-618

Funerary sculpture of a soldier, Sui Dynasty

In 486 the Northern Wei began to institute reforms which significantly increased the effectiveness, and economic power of its state. The most important of these reforms was the creation of the “equal field system” in which the state owned the land, but gave most families lifetime-control over 40 mu (approximately 6.6 acres), ensuring that as much land as possible was occupied by taxpaying farmers. The equal field system helped diminish the power of local Chinese land holders. It increased the government’s tax revenue and raised agricultural productivity. Another important reform was the creation of a divisional militia, i.e. volunteer farmer-soldiers who served in rotation in armies at the capital or on the frontiers. Kitting out soldiers had become expensive because cavalrymen needed both armor to protect both men and horses from powerful crossbows. The cost of this army was minimized by allowing soldiers to farm when not called upon for training or for campaigns.

In 581 CE, Sui Wendi, born Yang Jian, gained control of what is now called Sichuan and the northeast of China in 577 CE. With an army of 500,000 men, and using a combination of naval and land attacks, Sui Wendi eventually conquered the South in 589 CE, reunifying China under the Sui Dynasty. Creating a unified dynasty was difficult because during the Age of Division, the north and south of China had developed in different cultural ways.

Both north and south had conserved Confucian tradition as the basis for their societies. In the north, however, the preservation of Confucian learning took the form of family ethics and rituals. Government service opportunities remained varied and strong, and such service offered standing, power, and contact to elite families from other parts of the country. Many northern elites spent large portions of their careers in the provinces, as they rose from junior posting to commanded forces. Often educated, the real-world experience of these high-ranking Chinese elites made them a real advantage for the northern rulers working to create strong states.

With government salaries guaranteed, and with no northern border which needed defending from militarily skilled, nomadic tribesmen, the South focused their Confucianism on developing the arts. Witty conversation, alcohol and poetry were commonplace in the southern court, as was analyses of the essential features of literary, artistic and philosophical works. Calligraphy and painting developed with the increased interest in individual expression. A Daoist interest in mountains as places of nature and as a mythological home for immortals led to the beginning of landscape painting. Xie He, an early sixth century painter, helped to articulate the qualities on which subsequent landscape painting would be judged. These attributes included the quality of being imbued with vital force and the strength, harmony and adeptness of the brushstroke. The articulation and the nature of these attributes imbued painting and calligraphy with an intellectual content that was not present in the decorative arts of ceramics, lacquer ware or textiles.

Northerners viewed southern artistic sensibilities as effete, while southerners viewed themselves as the true protectors of Chinese civilization and regarded many of the nomadic-influenced customs of the north to be uncouth and barbaric. This was particularly true of the more forward manner of women in their society. The north justified its claims to the status of Son of Heaven and successor to the Han Dynasty by emphasizing its geography. It controlled the region of historic imperial capitals, the land where all the places sacred and memorable in Chinese history were located. The northern court assiduously preserved the ritual tradition of the Zhou and the Han. The southern court could not claim geographical centrality. Instead, it pointed to the indisputably Chinese lineage of its rulers and elaborated a succession theory where the Han imperial seal passed to the Wei, to the Jin, and then to the Southern Song as the legitimate Sons of Heaven.

1687 Latin translation of the Life and Works of Confucius

Yet, when China re-unified in 589 CE, the two different strands of its development were able to cross-fertilize each other. Yang Jian took the title of Wendi, “the cultured Emperor”, to show to the empire that he understood the importance for China of cultural as well as territorial integration. Wendi employed capable officials who justified his efforts in Confucian, Buddhist and Daoist terms. Engaging men who held deep Confucian values of loyalty to the ruler and duty to the people helped concentrate imperial power. To identify Confucians, the Sui reintroduced written examinations, testing knowledge of Confucian classics. The examinations also helped to standardize thought and to diminish the differences between the north-western, north-eastern and southern elites.


Under the Sui dynastic reign, the equal field system was introduced throughout the empire. By establishing uniform and low taxes on grain, cloth and labor services, the Sui were able to double the number of registered households for tax purposes within a few years of taking power. The Sui dynasty also introduced The Kaihuang Code, which attempted to bring order and leniency to the legal systems of the previous ages. It supported all of China’s major religions, particularly Buddhism. Court control over provincial administration was a critical issue to the newly formed court. To consolidate its control, the Sui reduced the number of prefectures and counties, and forbade officials from serving in their home prefecture or serving more than one tour in any county. These policies were designed to curtail the power of locally entrenched families and to keep scholar-officials from allying with them.

Millions of laborers were conscripted to rebuild the Great Wall and lengthen the Grand Canal between Hangzhou and Beijing. The Grand Canal eventually reached 1200 miles in length, 40 paces in width, and of sufficient depth to accommodate boats carrying 800 tons. The Grand Canal facilitated the flow of taxes paid in grain from the south to the imperial capital in the north. This Sui northern capital was situated in  situated in Chang’an, close to modern day Xian.

Chinese Culturalism and Historical Themes in Today’s China

Shaolin Monastery

By the end of the Sui Dynasty, China had undergone periods of fragmentation and reunification, yet this instability increasingly did not threaten the overall cultural cohesiveness of the Chinese nation. The foundation of this cultural cohesiveness was Confucianism. Buddhism and Daoism also influenced Chinese thinking, as did the militaristic values of the Legalist thinkers. These values, which formed the cultural heritage of Chinese civilization, were shared through government examinations (although these were intermittently discontinued). Instituting empire-wide exams meant that the ruling elite all learned from the same body of work whose knowledge then trickled down to the general population. These cultural traditions were reinforced through the continued collection and sharing of historical writings and the literature of China’s past. They were also bolstered through the development of new art forms such as Chinese opera.

This cultural tradition underpinned the Chinese people’s self-understanding and shaped its foreign policy until its increasingly difficult encounters with the Western world during the 1800s. The Chinese distinguished themselves from non-Chinese in large part by their adoption of the norms, values and customs of their cultural tradition, as opposed to defining themselves strictly by race or by being a people originating from any specific geographical territory.

Another dynastic theme seen in China today is the resurgence of Buddhism after its decades of suppression under the Communists. The return of Buddhism is most visible in the Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces and in the large cities. Tibetan areas of China remain overwhelmingly Buddhist, particularly among the native population. Many previously destroyed monasteries throughout China are being rebuilt, a notable example being the Shaolin monastery, although some of this reconstruction is also motivated by tourism. Although accurate numbers are still difficult to come by, it is estimated that there were approximately 244 million Buddhist in China 2012. There is also an increase in the publication of Buddhist literature of all kinds, both by the monasteries themselves and by independent presses.

Farmer working her plot, Yunnan Province

Land reform has certainly been a persistent theme in China’s modern history. The 1950s Communist redistribution of land from wealthy landholders to peasant farmers was remarkably like the Equal Field System that was first introduced during the Sui dynasty. China’s further redistribution of land after the failure of the collectivized commune system reflected the recognition that agricultural productivity was highest when peasants were farming for themselves as opposed farming for wealthy landholders or for the Communist state. Today, land distribution issues are often controversial as China’s massive infrastructure projects have forced million people from their homes, often without adequate compensation.


The migration of Chinese into the south of the country began a development that would eventually turn the southeast region of China, especially from the Tang and Song Dynasties onward, into one of China’s strongest economic regions. It remains so today. Guangdong province, for instance, in China’s southeast, is currently the most populous province in China and, since 1989, its GDP has been the highest of all provincial regions. In 2019, Guangdong GDP exceeded 9 trillion yuan or $1.3 trillion dollars which was approximately the size of Australia’s entire GDP. 

What Happened Next?

The end of the Sui allowed for the establishment of the Tang Dynasty, considered by many Chinese to be the height of their civilization. After three centuries of cultural development that included the revival of Confucianism, the Tang was replaced by the Song, a relatively weak dynasty that succumbed to foreign invasion.


Part IV – The Silk Road – Cosmopolitan and Confucian Revival: Tang Dynasty 618 – 907 CE & Song Dynasty 960 – 1279 CE


Camels were often used to move goods through the deserts of the Silk Road

As the Tang Dynasty strengthened after the fall of the Sui Dynasty in 618 CE, it confronted what was becoming a familiar set of challenges for all Chinese emperors wishing to consolidate control over a unified China. These challenges included managing the power struggles of court where eunuchs, concubines, official-scholars, and royal family members all jockeyed for power and control. In addition, they had to keep tax coffers filled through high agricultural productivity and maintain a strong military in order to defend northern borders while preventing that same military from challenging imperial authority. Added to all of this was the threat of regional power growth, the execution of large public works for the benefit of the entire Chinese society, and the maintenance of moral cultural authority in order to earn the loyalty of its subjects. As ever, it was a tall order. 

The underpinning of this moral cultural authority was increasingly challenged during the Tang and Song Dynasties as the Chinese encountered greater cultural diversity than they had in previous eras. Specifically, the Tang court was one of the most cosmopolitan courts in all of China’s history. During the Tang Dynasty, the Silk Road flourished and sea trade with Southeast Asia developed as more and more Chinese migrated south. The influence of Buddhism continued to grow, causing in turn a revival of Daoist thought and study. In 1127 CE, the Song Dynasty in the north was ultimately overrun by nomadic tribes, causing the Chinese courts to flee south. Yet, despite all of these international influences, China continually returned to the values of its ancient Confucian culture as the best way to create a homogeneous, unified, prosperous and stable society.

Tang Dynasty 618-907 – Reform

Expensive and failed military campaigns against the northern part of what is now Korea led to excessive tax increases which eventually caused revolt against the Sui Dynasty. Li Yuan, a major military Sui commander, eventually turned against the Sui and conquering the country for himself. He founded the Tang Dynasty in 618. It took until 624 for all of China to come under his rule. Once reunification had been achieved, Li Yuan demobilized his armies, preventing the rise of powerful regional generals that, much as he had done, might lay claim to the throne. Powerful southern families were forced to move north and the Sui’s “rule of avoidance” was implemented, so that no official could serve in his home district. The first Tang emperor continued the equal field system, ensuring that land was allocated equally to adult male taxpayers based on an annual census.

Buddhist monk practicing in China today

One of Li Yuan’s more controversial policies was his attempt to limit the power of the Buddhist and Daoist centers which were formerly beyond the reach of imperial tax collection. Exemption from taxation enabled the monasteries to establish huge landholdings and large numbers of tenant farmers. From Li Yuan’s point of view, these great religious estates transcended political boundaries, threatened the new regime, and represented a potentially significant tax base which could be used to restore depleted imperial coffers. By mid-626, the Emperor ordered that only one Daoist and three Buddhist monasteries were permitted in the capital and only one of each faith in each prefecture. This was a spectacular restriction given that it was estimated that within the capital and surrounding areas alone were over 120 Buddhist and 12 Taoist monasteries. Yet the order was never fully enacted. Li Yuan was deposed by his second son, Tang Taizong, who reversed his father’s order.

Building on the civil and military achievements of his father, Tang Taizong embarked on a program of civil reform tempered by Confucian principles. He also launched military campaigns which succeeded in expanding the territorial boundaries of the empire. At the heart of the civil reform was the expansion of the Sui’s legal reform. The result was the creation of a far-reaching legal code, the oldest surviving code in China today. The Tang code persisted as the foundation of Chinese legal practice until the 14th century. It also served as model legal codes for Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

The Tang Dynasty – Innovation

By Lautam17 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Replica of an ancient Chinese mechanical clock

The Tang Dynasty was also highly innovative, especially in the fields of gunpowder, mechanical clocks and the use of water power. Tang scholars devoted much time to systematizing knowledge and historical texts. The civil service examinations were reinstated. Book printing was developed; the world’s oldest existing printed book is a copy of the Buddhist text the Diamond Sutra dated 868. The scroll format for long text began to be superseded by flat books with folded pages, a format much more convenient for storage. The invention of printed books revolutionized the imperial communication of ideas and continued to facilitate the creation of a homogeneous Chinese culture, as printed books enabled Chinese norms and expectations to be even more widely dispersed throughout the population.

The Tang Dynasty – The Silk Road


The Silk Road thrived under the Tang Dynasty. As the camels and caravans traversed west and east, traders brought many foreign ideas and goods into China. This international exposure made the Tang court one of the most cosmopolitan in China’s history. Buddhism also flourished under the Tang. The Dynasty generously supported Buddhist monasteries and commissioned further Buddhist sculptures. The renowned Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, made a 17-year trip to India to bring back to China Buddhist scriptures and teaching. His work provided the Chinese with a deeper understanding of the religion and the differences of the different Buddhists schools. His journey was later recounted in the famous Chinese fiction work Journey to the West.

Due in part to the Tang’s nomadic influences, women were given a relatively high status during the Tang Dynasty. One of China’s most powerful women, Empress Wu, ascended the dynastic throne in 690 as emperor, the only female in China to formally take the title Emperor. She ruled until 705.

Tang Poetry and Art

Tang-era poet Du Fu

Poetry became increasingly important in the Tang era. It was viewed as the most authentic and revealing way to articulate feelings and thoughts. Poems were recited at banquets, used to court women, recorded people’s daily activities, and described historic events or scenes of natural beauty. The Complete Poems of the Tang Dynasty contains over 48,000 poems written by 2200 Tang poets. Three Hundred Tang Poems contains samples from all the great Tang poets, including two of China’s greatest poets Li Bo and Du Fu. In fact, many Chinese consider the Tang to be the height of their civilization, particularly culturally. Tang-era costume dramas are frequently shown on Chinese TV. China towns in the West are often referred to by Chinese people as Tangren Jie meaning “Tang people’s street”.

What life was like for the subjects of the Tang who lived far from the imperial capital has been revealed, in part, by a large number of documents found in a cave temple at Dunhuang, in the northwest of China where the Silk Road starts to cross the desert. These documents showed that Tang imperial policies, such as the equal field system, were established even in the far reaches of its empire. The documents also revealed that the state exerted at least some control over local markets, as fragments of official price lists showed that authorities established prices for three qualities of a wide range of goods traded in government-supervised markets, including foodstuffs and textiles. Primary books found with the documents showed that Confucian social ethics primers were used even in schools run by Buddhist monasteries.

Northern Song Dynasty 960-1127 – Northern Rebellion, Regionalism and Reunification

PericlesofAthens at en.wikipedia [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Emperor fleeing the rebellion of An Lushan 755

After 760, weather throughout the China was turning colder and drier, ending the temperate period that brought helped contribute to the affluence to the early Tang Dynasty. For the next almost 100 years, harvests declined as did the flow into rivers from glaciers. These drier conditions also affected the steppe grasslands causing unrest along the border. Changing weather conditions along with other factors meant that, by 763, the Tang Court started losing control over its empire. Despite imperial safeguards, in 755 a Chinese general, An Lushan, was able to amass 160,000 troops along China’s northern frontier, and then march on the capital. The Tang government never fully recovered from this rebellion and, after eight years of fighting, was forced to negotiate for peace. The government abandoned the equal field system, instead giving each region tax quotas, allowing them to raise these quotas with great leeway. Government withdrawal from control of land ownership facilitated the growth of large, commanding states. Eventually, these states became so powerful that the country again fragmented. Yet the Tang’s retreat from regional markets, as they lost control over the country, had the unintended consequence of stimulating economic trade. A new economic network of markets and towns began to emerge alongside the official state hierarchy of administrative centers.

Period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms

The fifty years between the Tang and Song dynasties is called the ‘Period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms’ because of the five fleeting regimes in the North and the 10 minor kingdoms competing for power in the South. Interestingly, the period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms was marked by renewed militarism. Indeed, in order to gain advantage and build large, loyal armies, some generals shared his family name with his soldiers. This practice allowed military generals to build up an elite army of adopted sons whose kinship was not given by birth, but was earned through sharing the hardship in achieving a common goal.

China Reunified – Founding of the Song Dynasty

By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Song Taizu founder of the Song Dynasty

China was finally reunified in 960 CE under General Zhao Kuangyin who founded the Song Dynasty under the title Song Taizu. One of Song Taizu’s first steps as leader was to demilitarize China and to recreate a central bureaucratic state organized along strict Confucian ideals where classical scholarship was more highly valued then military expertise. Many new Confucian thinkers, such as the Du You (732-812) and Han Yu (768-824) revitalized Confucian thought. Du You wrote a 5000 page, 200 chapter history of Chinese institutions, Tongdian. Du You argued that corrupt rulers, heavy taxes and frequent labor service drove the people to seek the protection of local strongmen and approved of Sui efforts to make tax burdens equitable and reasonable. Han Yu saw China’s problems in much more cultural terms and argued that a rejuvenation of Confucian learning would bolster the state, by revitalizing values consistent with its subjects’ obedience to the Emperor, and by reminding the ruling classes of their obligation to their citizens. Han Yu felt Buddhism was a barbarian cult and should be eradicated, as it encouraged Chinese citizens to divert from their duty to the Emperor in order to pursue Buddhist observance. Nevertheless, this renewed emphasis on classical scholarship eventually created vulnerability on the northern borders, as book learning was once again emphasized over military skills. Passing civil service examinations was difficult and required years of intense study and preparation, leaving little time for the practice of military arts. The invention of printing during the Tang Dynasty, and its profusion during the Song Dynasty, made books available to more families, increasing the competition for government appointments, but also creating a vulnerability to invasion through the prioritizing of academic abilities over military power.

One of Taizu’s biggest achievements was to disband the regional armies that had plagued the Tang. After Taizu had consolidated control, he encouraged commanders to retire on generous pensions and gradually replaced provincial military governors with civil officials. To avert the rise of new regional strongmen, the Emperor eventually put the whole army under civilian control and ensured that his officers were regularly rotated. Despite this military reorganization and because the Song deemphasize the importance of the military, the Song was constantly challenged by northern nomads. By 1004, a northern nomadic tribe, the Khitans, managed to occupy much of the Yellow River Valley, forcing the Song to sign a peace treaty with the nomads as equals. In exchange for retreating from the lands surrounding the Yellow River Valley, the nomads extorted huge annual payments from the Chinese in silk and silver, which placed enormous pressure on imperial resources.

The creation of the Song Dynasty was accompanied by more favorable climatic conditions. From 960 to 1250, China enjoyed a stronger and wetter monsoon which meant in turn greater agricultural productivity. However, while China was enjoying a return to normal rain levels, tree ring data indicates that the North Mongolian steppes lands underwent significant periods of reduced rainfall extending between 900-1064, 1115-39, and 1180-90. These periods of diminished rainfall resulted in an increase in nomadic incursions into China. 

Weaknesses of the Song Imperial Governments

Despite its efforts at military reform, and its ample supply of worthy emperors and statesmen, the Song Dynasty faced two main weaknesses. The arrival of printing allowed bureaucratic regulation to multiply, so that governing and reforming the government became increasingly cumbersome. For example, rules about the use of one imperial ritual hall filled 1200 volumes. Court struggles also hindered effective rule. Disputes among officials seeking to influence the Emperor often escalated; each party lined up allies, and focused their energies on devising ways to oust their opponents. Eunuchs, concubines, and members of the emperor’s extended family constantly vied for power and advantage, often at the expense of what was best for the country.

Song’s Flourishing Economy

By Monaneko (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Song Dynasty coin

Despite these challenges, the Northern Song economy flourished. In 742 China’s population was approximately 50 million; by 1100, it had reached almost 100 million people. Its food supply steadily increased and denser settlement patterns aided commercialization. The need to transport the growing quantity and range of Chinese products fueled inland waterways and coastal shipping industries, providing employment for shipbuilders and sailors. As trade increased, so did the demand for money. By 997, the Song government was minting 800 million coins a year, two and a half times the largest output during the Tang. This need for currency eventually led to the development of paper money, which originated as trading receipts from deposit shops where traders had safeguarded money or goods. By the 1120s, the Song government took control of the deposit shop system, issuing the world’s first government-backed paper money. On the whole, the Song proved capable of managing the new paper currency, avoiding over-printing which would have resulted in high inflation.

The Southern Song Dynasty 1127-1279 – Cultural Conservatism and Foot Binding

By William Henry Flower (Fashion in Deformity) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Drawing of a bound foot with broken arch and bent under toes

By 1127, the northern nomadic Jurchen established a coalition of tribes under the leader Aguda and conquered northern China. The Song imperial court was forced to flee south. The Southern court – known as the Southern Song Dynasty – in reaction to the northern nomadic invasion became less open to foreign ideas and was more sensitive to issues of Chinese cultural identity. Under the Southern Song Dynasty, women were returned to a more subordinate role compared to the freedoms that they enjoyed as a result of the nomadic influences of the Tang court. In particular, foot binding became popular. This excruciating procedure involved tightly binding the feet of very young girls to prevent them from growing normally. The resulting 3 ½ to 4 inch long feet were considered to augment a woman’s beauty and make her movements more feminine and dainty. As for binding grew in popularity and became the new norm, parents were eager to make their daughters more attractive in order to guarantee good marriages and social status. They thus subjected their daughters to years of debilitating pain and impaired mobility. Female literacy also rose during the Southern Song Dynasty as daughters were educated in order to better to educate their sons.

Expanding Southern Song Economy

By User:PericlesofAthens [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Song Dynasty red lacquer tray with gold engraving

The Southern Song Dynasty enjoyed significant agricultural productivity. This was partly due to increased acreage under cultivation and partly due to new strains of rice that allowed for two and sometimes three crops to be harvested per year. Additionally, cash crops such as tea and sugar expanded both interregional and international trade. The Song also ran the largest iron smelting industry in the world, its output being used for the manufacture of items such as weapons, coins, farm implements and nails. Traditional Southern Song industries such as silk, lacquer and ceramics reached high levels of technical sophistication. Growth in agriculture, cash crops, trade and industrial output led to the growth of cities and market towns. 

The invention of the printing press also helped fuel economic growth and served to tie the distant regions of China more closely together, China’s northern occupation notwithstanding. Printing also contributed to the spread and standardization of ideas and practices. Handbooks on agriculture, childbirth, pharmacy, divination and Daoist rituals all became more widely available.

The Song’s invention of the compass helped the expansion of long-distance trade between China, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. The compass is considered one of China’s four greatest inventions and was symbolically acknowledged during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics along with paper, the printing press and gunpowder. Sea trade from China’s southeast coast to India introduced many spices into the Chinese diet, including pepper, cloves and saffron, and generated additional economic growth. 

Southern Song Art

Dong Yuan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Song Dynasty landscape painting

Landscape painting reached its height under the Southern Song Dynasty. Executed with ink and brushes and often accented with colored washes, these paintings illustrated the beauty, harmony and magnificence of the natural world, highlighting forests and mountains amid streams and valleys. Human beings were absent or were barely visible from these landscape paintings in order to emphasize how humans were but a small part of the larger harmony of nature. Often these paintings were inscribed with exquisite language and calligraphy which became a key part of the painting itself. Mountains, long seen as sacred places by the Chinese, were key landscape subjects.

The Past in the Present – Historical Themes in Today’s China

Scene from Journey to the West, Summer Palace, Beijing

The Tang Dynasty remains a source of pride among Chinese today, viewed as the high point in Chinese civilizational development and responsible for the invention of one of China’s four great inventions, block printing. Some of the most popular television series in China today are set in the Tang Dynasty era and Journey to the West is one of the most enduring stories in China’s history, with myriad adaptations on stage and screen.

Just as it was difficult for the elite of the Tang and Song dynasties, today maintaining control over China’s provinces as the Chinese economy expands remains a key challenge for Chinese leaders. As China has transformed from a communist to a largely-capitalist economy, it has ceded much control to its regional centers. This growth in regional provincial power has manifested in many ways, the most important of which may be the challenges Beijing has encountered when trying to force national legislation at the local level. An improving but still insufficient legal system and lack of press freedoms has meant that it has sometimes been tricky for Beijing to exert its authority, especially over more wealthy areas. Growing inequality as a result of its rapid economic expansion has also caused regional dissatisfaction, as poor regions see already-wealthier regions get even richer, while they struggle to feed, employ, and educate their populations.

By James Ricalton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Women with bound feet, Beijing 1900

The appropriate role of women in Chinese society has continued to be debated through modern times. As the West began to demonstrate its technological, military and economic dominance from the mid-1800s onwards, China looked at the role of women in society as symbolic of its larger problems. Indeed, the statement that “Women hold up half the sky” was proclaimed by Mao Zedong to communicate that women were a resource that should be deployed outside the homes and into the agricultural, industrial and professional fields instead of being closeted away as they were from the Song Dynasty onwards. 

What Happened Next?

After being driven south by the northern frontier nomadic peoples, the Song were eventually defeated by a Mongol army led by Kublai Khan, grandson of the great Genghis Khan. Kublai established the first non-Han Chinese led dynasty, the Yuan. He also expanded Chinese territory to include Tibet and what is now Xinjiang, giving the Yuan Dynasty borders very close to the China we see today. The story continues in The Mongol Empire.


Part V – The Mongol Empire: Yuan Dynasty 1279 – 1368


By Riddleone (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the Mongol Empire

The Yuan marked the only time that China was entirely conquered by the Mongols. Increasingly, by the end of the Song Dynasty, when the Chinese refused to trade on what the Mongols felt were acceptable terms, the herders resorted to raids to get what they wanted. Eventually, what the Mongols wanted was all of China. The Mongols used Chinese traditions to consolidate their rule over the Chinese people. Yet the Mongols also kept many Mongol customs and were influenced by the traditions of the distant parts of its wide-reaching Empire which, at its zenith, controlled not only China but also large parts of the Middle East, Russia, and Eastern Europe. This international reach contributed to making the Yuan one of China’s most international courts. The Mongols brought China renewed access to the Silk Road. Chinese exports of tea, silk and porcelain soared. These items were to remain China’s preeminent foreign currency generators throughout the Yuan dynasty. Chinese technologies such as paper printing, gunpowder and the compass spread to the distant reaches of the world over the Silk Road trade routes, influencing development trajectories in places as far-away as Europe.

Before the Yuan  – Conquest of Northern China by the Tribal Dynasties of the Liao and Jin 907-1234

Over the course of four centuries, parts of China were increasingly conquered by nomads who each formed their own dynasties – the Khitan’s Liao Dynasty, (907-1125), the Jurchen’s Jin Dynasty (1125-1234), climaxing with the Mongol’s Yuan Dynasty (1234-1368) which eventually encompassed all of China when the Southern Song finally capitulated to the Mongol conquest in 1276.

By Rashid al-Din [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mongol soldiers training for battle

Despite the strong tribal affiliations of the various peoples of the steppe, the social organization of these nomads was remarkably similar. Patrilineal, the nomad families lived in clans which would merge into tribes with tribal chiefs selected for their military skill. All men were trained as potential warriors, learning to ride and shoot at a young age. Clans and tribes regularly preyed on each other, seizing cattle, horses, and women. Captives became slaves or servants. The alternative to fighting was to form alliances. At times, a strong tribal leader would build large coalitions. However, while the building of these alliances may have been initiated by one or a few chiefs, they were not, nevertheless, autocratic; major decisions were collectively reached at assemblies of military leaders. Loyalty and duty held the alliances together, as did the spoils of war campaigns. Yet such campaigns could not be indefinitely sustained and, within a generation or two, alliances often broke down and allied tribes would again return to combat.

During the time leading to the formation of the Yuan Dynasty, the changing border zone between the steppe and China-proper was a large, fluid frontier settled by both nomads and ethnic Chinese where differences of ethnicity and ways of life between the two were not always clear-cut. Frontier non-Chinese might remain as herdsman, or they might become farmers or soldiers in Chinese military units, while the ethnic Chinese continued farming, engaged in forced government service, or served in the military, much as they had in the past. Some non-Chinese viewed themselves as part of their ethnic tribe, while others acknowledged the Chinese government and assimilated into the Chinese population.

The nomads’ ultimate success in conquering and ruling China derived in part from the skills and experience they acquired co-habituating with the Han Chinese in these frontier areas. The Khitan, for example, adopted hereditary succession on the Chinese model so that son would succeed father. They also adopted many governing institutions from Chinese practices. Ultimately, the reigning elite of the Khitan became culturally ambidextrous, adroit in both Khitan and Chinese ways. Nevertheless, they remained distinct from the Chinese population, predominantly preserving their tribal customs.

Khitans hunting with eagles

The Khitans were eventually brought down by the Jurchens, a tribal people originating in the mountains of eastern Manchuria whose descendants would later found the Qing Dynasty. The Jurchens’ military success derived in part from their use of Chinese experts in military siege warfare. Like the Khitans before them, the Jurchens found that Chinese political institutions were effective not only at ruling the Chinese majority, but also at controlling their own nobles. Unlike the Khitans, the Jurchens were quick to adopt Chinese language, dress, and rituals. Nevertheless, by the 1100s, there was a growing backlash from some Jurchen elite against the Jurchen’s increasing adoption of Chinese ways. In 1161, for instance, Jurchen military commanders executed the Jin emperor and then implemented efforts to revitalize the Jurchen heritage, including the use of Jurchen as a written language, the translation of Confucian classics into Jurchen, civil service examinations testing mastery of Jurchen and punishment of those Jurchens practicing Chinese customs. Despite these efforts, sinification of the Jurchens continued. By the end of the Jin dynasty, most Jurchens spoke Chinese, wore Chinese clothes, had adopted Chinese-style surnames and had married with the local population.

 Yuan Dynasty 1279-1368  – International Dynastic Court, Silk Road, Western Contact and Marco Polo

While the Jin Dynasty had successfully managed to conquer and rule Northern China, they never fully managed to pacify the Mongolian steppe. This was to prove their downfall. When a drop in the mean annual temperature reduced the supply of steppe grass for grazing animals, the Mongol leader Genghis Khan solved his people’s subsistence crisis by attacking the Jurchens.

Ghengis Khan

Coronation of Ghengis Khan

Ghengis’ career as the Great Khan, or Mongolian overlord, began in 1206 when he was selected by a Mongolian assembly of military leaders. Genghis proceeded to organize Mongolian society into one of the most effective military machines the world has ever known. He built his army on diverse units of 1,000 horsemen whose members included varied tribal affiliations. He also created an elite bodyguard of 10,000 sons and brothers of commanders, which served directly under him. To minimize internal strife under his command, he created simple but draconian laws; robbery, for instance, was punished by death. Despite being illiterate, in order to communicate his orders more effectively, he also started to employ the Uyghur script to write the Mongol language.

Capable of enduring extreme privation, and travelling at astonishing speeds, his Mongols were superb warriors. Most of his soldiers travelled with several ponies and all were expected to shoot accurately at full gallop. Using terror effectively, Ghengis’ troops looted resisting cities. Genghis Khan was said to have declared that there is no greater joy than slaughtering one’s enemies, taking their horses and cattle and raping their women. Cities that did not resist were left untouched. Those that resisted were devastated. When the Mongol armies first swept across the North China plain in 1212-1213, for instance, Ghengis’ armies left 90 cities in rubble. When Ghengis captured Zhongdu (roughly present day Beijing) in 1215, it was said to have burned for more than a month.

Kublai Khan

Kublai Khan

By 1226, Ghengis was close to defeating the Jin in Northern China when he unexpectedly died. As a result, the Mongols halted their advancement to select a new Khan, as all Khans needed to be decided by assembly. In 1234, the Mongols finally defeated the Jin and took control of northern China. By 1253, the Mongols began to advance on the south. This military assault was led by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai, among others. The Song raised large armies to fight the Mongols and employed the best available military technology, including simple handguns, rockets and flamethrowers. Both sides had sophisticated military catapults which hurled incendiaries and other loads. Nevertheless, the Song’s lack of horses proved a major disadvantage. Without a large cavalry force to face its enormously mobile enemies, Song defenders were largely restricted to positional warfare, fighting behind enormous fortressed walls. These were easily isolated. For a time, such fortresses blocked Mongol access to parts of the Song-held interior. Yet, by 1279, Kublai Khan had conquered all of southern China. In total, the Mongols numbered no more than 1.5 million. Their ultimate success derived in part by their willingness to incorporate other ethnic groups into their armies and government. In their efforts to conquer the Jurchens, for instance, the Mongols recruited both the Khitan and Chinese. Regardless of their ethnic group, those who served the Mongols faithfully were repaid with both wealth and position.

Having conquered China, Kublai Khan proclaimed himself the Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty and the rightful recipient of the Mandate of Heaven. Kublai Khan formed a court that practiced both Mongol and Chinese traditions. He employed Confucian ministers, created a Chinese style government, adopted a dynastic calendar and chose the name Yuan from The Book of Changes, the classical work esteemed by the Chinese. Nevertheless, Kublai and his court, like the Khitans before them, purposely avoided many Chinese social and political practices. The Mongol elite conducted their business in Mongolian and passed their summers in Mongolia. Mongols were discouraged from marrying Chinese, and Kublai himself took only Mongol women into the palace. Some Mongol princes erected their tents in the palace grounds as opposed to sleeping in palace accommodation. Mongols also continued to choose the rulers by competition, which was often bloody.

Kublai encouraged the creation of an international Chinese court culture where officials spoke Mongolian, Persian and Turkic dialects as well as Chinese. He also encouraged the creation of a highly international official cuisine, which reflected influences from the regions throughout the extended Mongolian empire. In terms of religion, Kublai Khan preferred native religious practices focused on shamanism, rain–making, and fertility magic, but he also showed royal patronage and support to the Chinese Daoists and Buddhist missionaries from Tibet. In particular, Tibetan Buddhism grew rapidly during the Yuan Dynasty.

Begtse, Protector of Mongolian Buddhism

The ethnic hierarchy of the Yuan’s diverse society was particularly complex. The Mongols enjoyed the most advantage, followed by the allies of the Mongols from areas outside China such as the Uyghurs and Tibetans. Former subjects of the Jin such as the Jurchens, sinified Khitans, and the Jin Chinese had second position. At the bottom of the social hierarchy were the former subjects of the Song. Each of the ethnic groups experienced different methods of taxation, judicial process and appointments to office. The Chinese from the North, for instance, were taxed in ways that reflected Jin practices, whereas the Chinese in the south were taxed in accordance with Song precedents. Each ethnic group was also judged and sentenced according to its own legal traditions. The Chinese, for instance, were the only ethnic group to be tattooed if convicted of theft.

Other ethnic divisions reflected the Mongols efforts to maintain dominance over the Chinese majority. The Chinese were not allowed to own weapons or to gather in public. It was also illegal for them to trade in bamboo, as it was used to make bows and arrows. If a Mongol murdered a Chinese, he was usually freed by paying a fine. If a Chinese murdered a Mongol, however, he was subject to severe penalties, usually execution.

Chinese Traditions to rule Chinese People

Yuan-era Temple of Mencius, Confucius most important follower

Although it would not have been the first choice of the Chinese to be ruled by ‘barbarians’, Confucianism argued that being a Barbarian was not in itself a barrier to receiving the Mandate of Heaven. The Chinese belief in their own superiority emanated not so much from a sense of ethnic supremacy, but from one of cultural pre-eminence. If the barbarians adopted Chinese ways – Confucian values, ancestor worship, Chinese civil bureaucracy and Chinese clothes and customs – they could become superior just like the ethnic Han Chinese.

However, neither the Khitans nor the Mongols became fully sinified. The Mongols were able to finesse this to some extent because ancestor worship stated that one’s obligations to one’s forebears meant that it would be a violation a filial piety if a sinified barbarian’s ancestors were not accorded the greatest respect. Worshipping with respect often meant that the barbarians needed to preserve and to worship in a manner that was consistent with their ancestral traditions. The Confucian obligation of loyalty to one’s ruler also tended to foster obedience to the barbarian emperors.

Nevertheless, many Han Chinese scholar-elites engaged in a desperate struggle to save Chinese civilization from what they viewed as the corrupting forces of their barbarian rulers. The Mongols’ policies favoring other ethnic groups over the Chinese further aroused Chinese ethnic consciousness and hostility. Yet, while the concept of a Chinese ethnic identity was undoubtedly developed and explored during this time, these explorations were still far from the equivalent of modern nationalism. Loyalty to one’s ruler remained, to many, the higher virtue.

Trade and the Silk Road

By Immanuel Giel (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Dunhuang, Gansu Province, once a major stop on the Silk Road

The initial Mongol conquest of China devastated much of the Song economy. Warfare reduced the population and brought disease, including the bubonic plague. Rice production fell significantly, and continuous warfare drained the state’s resources. Yet, once the Mongols had finally consolidated control over China, international trade expanded, and the economy thrived. The Silk Road, which had been closed to the Southern Song dynasty when they lost northern China to the Jin, was re-opened, despite periodic interruptions due to civil war between the remaining northern nomadic peoples. Within China, tea, rice and other foodstuffs moved in significant quantities throughout the empire. International trade was dominated by demand for Chinese textiles, tea and porcelain. Trade in the South China Sea continued to thrive. This trade was dominated by Muslims living within China as well as the Han Chinese. Europeans began exchanging goods with China during this time, especially those traders emanating from the great Italian trading city of Genoa.

Westerners Come to China – Marco Polo

By Captmjc (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Marco Polo statue in Hangzhou, China

Western contact with China brought more than just trade. Scientific and technological developments were swapped, as were innovations in medicine. Chinese inventions such as printing, gunpowder and the compass also spread abroad during this time. Chinese geographical knowledge expanded. Accordingly, the Mongols created some of the world’s finest and most accurate maps of the time. The Mongol map Guang Yu Tu, “Extended Map of the Earth”, included remarkable detail of East Asia, extensive information on Africa, including its correct shape, and maps of Europe, including many of its most important cities.

Increasingly, Western clerics and important trading families began visiting China. Although the facts of Marco Polo’s visit to China are still hotly debated, there is evidence to suggest that Marco Polo spent 17 years in Kublai’s China from 1275-1292. Whatever the actual extent of Polo’s exposure to China, he later wrote about his (fictional or non-fictional) travels in a book which became very popular in the West. It also served as an important contribution to Western understanding of China for centuries to come.

The Art of the Yuan Dynasty

Vase, Yuan Dynasty

The art of the Yuan Dynasty blended Chinese and other traditions. Porcelain production thrived during this era, with cobalt blue, the official color of the imperial court, dominating porcelain design. This porcelain became widely sought after as far away as Europe. In fact, its trade represented the first international art craze. Another significant cultural development in Mongol times was secular literature. Vernacular drama thrived – being written in the vernacular made it accessible to the illiterate – and some 167 Yuan plays survive today. Vernacular fiction also became increasingly popular, made available to a wide range of people through cheap printed editions. Yuan opera – four or five act dramatic operas – were also developed. They used mime, song, dance, and acrobatics to tell stories of love, war and politics.

Kublai Khan’s Death

Kublai Khan ruled China for 23 years. The 30 years following his death in 1294 marked the high points of Mongol rule in China. During this time, the Mongol government continued to be effective, and the Mongols had few enemies. This situation changed as conflict between members of the Mongol ruling elite, and a series of unimpressive emperors limited the Mongols’ ability to effectively rule. Climate change also worked against the dynasty. Between 1295-97, 1324-30 and 1342-45 China’s climate deteriorated drastically. Professor Brook of the University of British Columbia identified these three periods as part of what he called the Nine Sloughs, where climatic factors combined over several years in a sustained way to have catastrophic effects on the population. Globally, temperatures fell precipitously from 1270 onward as the Medieval Warm Period ended and the Little Ice Age began to extend its icy grip. Additionally, within China itself, during a famine in 1286, approximately 25% of China’s grain was lost at sea during its transport from southern China to northern China. The sea route was being used as the Grand Canal had fallen into disrepair. Additionally, in 1295, there was significant flooding along the Yangtze River. In 1296, both the Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers broke through their levees causing disastrous flooding along their banks. In 1297, the Dynasty was plagued by locusts. In 1303, China suffered severe earthquakes centered around Shanxi, resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands and leaving many more homeless. These and other negative climatic events compromised the ability of the ruling Yuan Dynastic elite to maintain control and equilibrium throughout the Empire. They also caused people to consider whether they were an indication that the Yuan Dynasty had lost the Mandate of Heaven.

Southern China, always a bastion of Chinese conservatism and the protector of Chinese cultural values, began to engage in passive resistance against the Mongols. Many Han elite refused to serve within the Mongol government, depriving it of much-needed cadres. Stoking the fires of popular resistance was the ubiquitous corruption that is common in all waning dynasties. Mongol favoritism of Tibetan Buddhists over Confucians also aggravated ethnic tensions. By the 1340s, bandits began to seize Southern Chinese towns and to form alliances with local elite to raise private armies. Eventually, sporadic rebellions gained enough momentum to precipitate the end of Mongol rule over China.  

Dynastic Themes Present in China Today

Battle between Mongols and Chinese

The centrality of Confucianism to the Song Dynasty helped to sustain its rule in China-proper but served to leave it vulnerable to attack from the north. The disregard for military training at the expense of book learning may have been considered virtuous by Chinese elites, but a focus on scholarship resulted in a weak nation. This left China vulnerable to military defeat from a significantly smaller, but ultimately stronger military power. Though in present day China it can be argued that this is no longer a concern – China’s current relative military position cannot be compared with that of the Song’s – a similar error of judgment did occur during the Qing Dynasty, when it was assumed that the British could not be superior to the great Middle Kingdom. This misjudgment led to a series of costly military defeats. 

Yet, despite the failings of Confucianism as a ruling ideology from the point of view of military preparedness, the success of the Yuan in subjugating the Chinese lay in the acknowledgement of Confucianism’s cultural value. This return to Confucianism as a cultural norm would also be echoed in the Qing Dynasty when another foreign race, the Manchus, conquered China and proceeded to rule the Dynasty for over three centuries.

Despite the Yuan Dynasty originating from the conquering of the Chinese by a barbarian force, Kublai Khan is considered in China to have been Chinese. That he was Mongolian is no barrier to his recognition as a Chinese Emperor, as Mongolians are seen as one of China’s official 56 ethnic groups. Furthermore, the shape of the Yuan Dynasty is extremely close to territory of the modern day People’s Republic of China and this is often cited by Chinese scholars and government officials as historical evidence that Tibet is an inalienable part of China. Whether or not this is an acceptable argument depends to some extent on whether one accepts the Yuan Dynasty as a Chinese Dynasty or if, as some argue, it should be considered a foreign occupation of Chinese lands.

What Happened Next?

The demise of the Mongol empire in China was concluded when Zhu Yuanzhang, a peasant-born military leader, drove the remnants of the Yuan back into the Mongolian grasslands. An autocratic regime followed. During the Ming Dynasty the Chinese ventured across the seas and discovered far off lands but elected not to engage in the kind of colonization favored by the European powers. Instead, eventually the Ming Dynasty turned in on itself, ushering in a period of isolation from international influence. The story continues in Exploration, Consolidation, Isolation.


Part VI – Exploration, Consolidation, Isolation: Ming Dynasty 1368 – 1644


Zhu Yuanzhang founder of the Ming Dynasty

By the mid-1300s, local rebellions had broken out in large parts of Yuan China. Into this increasingly unstable China, the Ming Dynasty founder Zhu Yuanzhang, better known by his temple name Taizu, was born into a poor peasant family. Taizu was familiar with poverty through firsthand experience. His parents regularly moved to look for work or to avoid rent collectors. They were forced to give away several of their children because they could not afford to raise them. When Taizu was sixteen in 1344, the Yellow River flooded, causing famine and disease which took the lives of both his parents. At first, he sought refuge in a Buddhist monastery. When the Buddhist temple was destroyed by the Yuan military, Taizu joined a rebel group which fought against the Yuan rule. Taizu rose rapidly to military commander, and eventually recaptured Shangdu, the Yuan capital, located close to today’s Beijing. He drove the Mongols back into the northern grasslands in 1368, founding the Ming dynasty. He became the second peasant in all of Chinese history to become emperor.

The First Ming Emperor Taizu 1368-1398

Conservative Confucian Revival, Imperial Consolidation and the Ming Code

Ming-era drawing of Confucius and his students

On founding the Ming dynasty, Taizu proclaimed the Mandate of Heaven for himself. Taizu was shrewd, hard-working and ruthless. Influence by Daoist notions of heavenly autocrats, Taizu endeavored to exalt the role of Emperor. He wished to create a dynasty where subjects obeyed their superiors, and where those who committed crimes were promptly punished. He called for a conservative restoration of Confucian order. He denounced the Mongols for their failure to respect Chinese moral standards, both in their familial relations and in their political practices. In particular, he condemned the Mongol marriage institution by which a widow was passed to other members of the husband’s family. Taizu was also against the constant succession struggles that marked Mongol power. He outlawed the many unorthodox cults that had thrived during the end of the Yuan Dynasty, instead encouraging Confucian social hierarchy, particularly filial piety and undivided loyalty to the emperor. At the same time, however, the Ming Dynasty held possessively the new frontiers which the Mongols had conquered.

Taizu was committed to seeing that the people of China should not have to experience the poverty of his family and worked sympathetically to improve the plight of the poor. He collected villages into self-regulating units of 110 households and made village elders responsible for tax collection and records, as the first step toward allocating service and tax liabilities more fairly. He cut government expenses wherever he could in order to reduce tax burdens further. The two million strong army, for instance, was made largely self-supporting by allocating land to soldiers’ families to farm. Taizu also established local schools so that the sons of commoners could learn to read and write. His work was advanced by decades of relatively climate weather. 

His peasant background made him wary of official scholars. Taizu passed legislation that centralized political control, creating a significant expansion of imperial power at the expense of civil officialdom. He imposed high tax rates on the rich and forced thousands of wealthy families from the Southeast to settle elsewhere, especially in the capital. In order to repopulate areas devastated by warfare, famine and disease, Taizu ordered great numbers of Chinese people to relocate from the south to the north. He was ruthless to those subordinate officials he distrusted, executing over 100,000 people during his 30-year rule. Unable to have confidence in any Prime Minister, Taizu dealt directly with officials on matters large and small. Like the first Emperor of the Qin, Taizu worked through huge piles of paperwork daily.

Ming-era painting of rice farming

By the early 1400s, some 200,000 soldier-farmers brought an additional 350,000 acres under the plow. In the frontier areas, the Ming government followed a policy of dual administration. Places with large Han populations were governed by nationwide Ming law codes and tax regulations. In places where native tribes were clearly in control, the Ming identified tribal rulers as hereditary chieftains. The tribal chiefs were expected to maintain order and were required to help the Ming if nearby tribes were problematic and were to send tribute in return for which the tribal chief would receive significant gifts in exchange.

Despite the mutual benefits of this system to both local chiefs and the Ming government, violent conflict between settlers and indigenous populations was not uncommon.

An enduring Ming achievement was the Great Ming Code known as the Da Ming Lu of 1397. The code had 460 articles organized by sections on personnel, revenue, rites, military affairs, penal affairs and public works. The code was conceived to maintain an idealized social hierarchy, so the punishments were most severe for those who transgressed their superiors. Wishing to consolidate social stability, it was legislated that the code never be altered. The code underpinned a Ming government that at the time was the largest and most rationally organized administrative system in the world. The government was divided into parallel military and civil hierarchies, where civil officials were recruited through the traditional examination system, and military officials were recruited through a combination of examinations and heredity.

Taizu’s new dynasty faced two major challenges. Its capital on the Yangtze River was far from the northern border where potential rivals essentially had a free hand. The court’s many imperial princes could also prove a threat to the throne as, for some, their hunger for power was greater than their loyalty to the emperor. Taizu’s solution was to legislate that only the oldest son, the heir apparent, was allowed to stay in the capital, with the rest being sent to frontier regions where they participated in defense and oversaw the military commanders on the emperor’s behalf. Yet, when the heir apparent died before becoming emperor, the ensuing struggle for power led to civil war. Zhu Di, a senior surviving uncle, eventually won the throne and took the reigning name Yongle – meaning Eternal Happiness.

Ming Emperor Zhu Di – The Yongle Emperor

Forbidden City, Grand Canal, Zheng He’s Naval Voyages and Consolidation Inward

By calflier001 [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Forbidden City, Beijing

Yongle consolidated power quickly under a Confucian hierarchy. He abolished military escorts for imperial princes and moved the capital to Beijing in order to be closer to the restive north. Yongle oversaw the building of the Forbidden City, the home of all Chinese emperors until the end of China’s dynasties in 1911 and still one of China’s most iconic structures. To supply Beijing with grain, the Grand Canal was brought up over western Shandong through a series of fifteen locks, a significant engineering accomplishment. A flotilla of 15,000 boats worked by 160,000 soldiers oversaw the transport of goods from south to north and north to south. In places, these loaded barges were pulled by men attached to ropes. 

In order to bolster his legitimacy domestically, and to enhance China’s standing internationally by demonstrating China’s wealth and power overseas, Yongle created what was the largest naval fleet in the world. Under a Chinese Muslim, Admiral Zheng He, Yongle sent his fleet on seven expeditions between 1405-1433, ranging as far away as Arabia and Africa, and perhaps even as far away as North and South America (exactly how far the fleet went remains a matter of historical debate). The world today may have been a very different place if Yongle used his fleet to conquer and control foreign territory, as the Europeans did 200 years later, instead of using it to create diplomatic engagement and exchange.

Grand Canal

Yongle also personally led five military campaigns into Mongolia where he was eventually killed. After his death, Ming power was never again projected into Mongolia, and the Ming defense policy against the northern “barbarians” shifted instead to a reliance on static walls, fortifications and outposts. For example, the Great Wall was significantly rebuilt and extended during this period and many of the most famous sections that still exist today were constructed during this time.


Yongle’s diplomatic sea voyages were discontinued due to expense and due to a general closing inward of court policy. Instead, the Ming consolidated its foreign relations around the tributary system where vassal states recognized Chinese superiority and where China recognized paternalistic obligations to come to the aid of loyal vassal states. The Ming made good on these paternal obligations, sometimes at considerable cost. In 1407, for instance, the Ming sent military assistance to Vietnam to bolster the collapsing Tran Dynasty. Faced with a rapidly deteriorating situation, the Ming tried to annex the territory outright, but was forced to retreat due to widespread armed resistance.

By AlexHe34 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Ming-era Commentaries of the Analects of Confucius

This was a crucial period in China’s history, where China chose isolation almost precisely at the point where Europeans were beginning their outward expansion. This isolation was compounded by the fact that the Ming examinations were noteworthy for their narrowness, testing above all knowledge of the four books – Analects, Mencius, Doctrine of the Mean and the Great Learning- as interpreted by the Song scholar Zhu Xi. After 1487, examination essays were required to be written in a fixed eight-part format known as the “eight leg” essay style. This meant, at a time of rapidly expanding international knowledge and technological development, the leaders of China were educated in a very narrow band of knowledge which poorly prepared them for a rapidly changing world.

Nevertheless, the examinations continued to provide Chinese citizens with real opportunity for advancement. In order to ensure that the richest areas of the country did not monopolize the civil service, provincial quotas were instituted. As importantly, the Ming added a lower tier to the degree system, thus greatly expanding the numbers of degree holders. By the 16th century, there were over 100,000 government students, about one out of every 3-400 adult males. These men dressed in demarcated caps and sashes, were freed from labor service and were sometimes given incomes. Their titles distinguish them as community leaders and enabled them better access to jobs if their needs so required.

The Ming Dynasty after Yongle

Foreign Trade, Growing Population, European Missionaries, Court Struggles and Financial Stress

After Yongle died, foreign trade slowly continued to grow. China’s population more than doubled during the Ming dynasty, from between 60-80 million to between 150-200 million. Small market towns emerged all over the country. Regional specialization rose as villages benefited from the availability of cheap water transport to engage in cash cropping. By the 17th century, the Yangtze River Delta area had become the center for cotton and silk production, coastal Fujian specialized in tobacco and sugarcane, and Jiangxi was known for its porcelain manufacturing. This market-driven economic activity occurred despite a continued Confucian suspicion of profit and governmental disregard of economic growth beyond the state’s narrow objectives.

By User:Vmenkov (Own work (own photo)) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Peanuts, first introduced to China during the Ming Dynasty, are still farmed in China today

More land in southwest China also came under cultivation. By the 1500s, new crops from the Americas – tobacco, corn, peanuts, tomatoes, sweet red peppers, potatoes and sweet potatoes – were introduced into China. These agricultural products proved to be well suited to the hilly soil that had not previously been farmed. The lower Yangtze Valley once again became one of the most prosperous areas of China, particularly as Spanish silver from the Americas flooded into the country in exchange for silk, porcelain and tea. From the late 1500s onwards, Chinese merchants migrated throughout South East Asia forming flourishing minority communities.

This international sea trade was, at times, hampered by both Japanese and Chinese piracy. By the mid-1500s, European traders also became more influential in China’s trade system. By 1557, the Portuguese had established a permanent trading post on Macao. The Spanish took possession of the Philippines in the 1570s, and a large Sino-Spanish trade was established in Manila. By 1622, the Dutch had established a base on the island of Taiwan from which they raided the Chinese coast and looted Chinese ships. The English and Japanese also stepped up their own efforts to expand their maritime trade.

Jesuit Missionary in China

The development of European trade and piracy in the region also brought with them European missionaries intent on converting the Chinese to Christianity. This was particularly true of the Catholic Jesuits. As part of their missionary, the Jesuits engaged in an exchange of knowledge with the Chinese court. The Jesuits sought an understanding of the history, geography, languages and literatures of the East, while seeking to spread Christianity and the best of European culture. China benefitted from learning about advances in Western science and technology.

By making parallels between the Chinese worship of one Supreme Being which the Chinese called the King of Heaven, Catholic Jesuits argued that the Chinese could continue their own rites and rituals, particularly ancestor worship, while converting to Christianity. Their efforts at conversion might have significantly succeeded if a series of Papal Bulls issued from 1704-1742 did not condemn Chinese Rites and forbid any further accommodation of Chinese tradition. Nevertheless by 1700, there were an estimated 200,000 Christians within China.

By the beginning of the 1600s, the fabric of the Ming dynasty was beginning to fray. Age-old infighting between scholar-officials and eunuchs once again increasingly paralyzed the court. In 1625 for instant, the eunuch Wei Zhongxian gained significant influence. He had thousands of scholar-officials jailed, tortured and killed. Greater urbanization, increased literacy, and an expanding publishing industry created greater social mobility. It also fueled a dynamic which both questioned and undermined existing neo-Confucian orthodoxies. A rapid rise in population also put stress on the social fabric. Perhaps most problematically, the Ming court was locked into the idea of preserving a golden age of agrarian, Confucian simplicity in a world that was beginning to change rapidly around them.

Compounding these issues was the fact that the Ming Dynasty was becoming increasingly bankrupt by the turn of the seventeenth century. Ming government expenses increased as its population and as its bureaucracy became less efficient. Additionally, maintaining the imperial clan was increasingly ruinous. In 1619, for example, 23,000 clansmen were given incomes. Military campaigns were also a huge drain. Between 1592-1598, China launched a massive campaign into Korea in order to defend it against a Japanese invasion, eventually costing the treasury 26,000,000 ounces of silver.

Eunuchs living in the Forbidden City were castrated

These fiscal problems were aggravated by the collapse of silver flows into the country. In 1639, the Japanese refused to let traders from Macau into Nagasaki, eliminating a large source of silver for China. A few months later, Sino-Spanish tensions interrupted the inflow of silver from trade with the Philippines. The interruption of the silver trade caused rapid deflation within the economy, leading to the hording of the silver that remained. This in turn led to the stockpiling of grain, creating artificial famines. Tax defaults became extensive as did peasant riots. In such difficult conditions, the Ming government failed to successfully collect its usual taxes, much less the additional revenue required to put down peasant rebellions and to address famine.

In 1642 a group of rebels cut the dikes of the Yellow River, killing several hundred thousand people by the ensuing flood and by the subsequent famine and disease. China’s population dropped by tens of millions during these decades. The rebels’ leader, Li Zicheng, eventually managed to capture Beijing, and in face of this defeat, the last Ming emperor hanged himself. 

In order to combat the rebellion, the Ming military commander, Wu Sangui, requested the assistance of a formidable army of Manchu nomadic troops to help him reclaim Beijing. The Manchus were descendents of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty rulers who had captured North China during the Song Dynasty. Instead of retreating with the wealth they had been promised after having restored stability to Beijing, the Manchus claimed the Mandate of Heaven for themselves and proclaimed the creation of Qing Dynasty.

Dynastic Themes present in China Today

China’s north remained a continual preoccupation for Chinese leaders of the Ming dynasties. There was a constant need to protect China from Mongol and other nomadic incursions. One result of this was the resettlement of the imperial capital to Beijing, where the Forbidden City was constructed. Today, the Forbidden City is a UNESCO heritage site, and one of the most visited attractions in China. It is a powerful symbol of the importance of China’s dynastic past and the entrance gate, Tian’anmen, was the site from which Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

By kenner116 (IMG_2334) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Prestigious Peking University

Another echo of Ming culture that can be seen in today’s China is the quota system that was introduced to ensure a wide range of candidates from geographically diverse parts of China would compete in the civil service examinations. Today, the top universities in China reserve places for students from each locale (and in many instances from specific schools) in order to promote equality of opportunity. Just as in Ming times, this can be a double-edged sword. While quotas certainly allow students from less developed areas of China the opportunity to win a place at one of the country’s most prestigious universities, in some cases it prevents students from more remote provinces from winning places because there are not enough quota places for the students demanding them.

While the second Ming emperor, Yongle, involved China in international expeditions, both in Mongolia and through extensive naval expeditions, subsequent emperors retreated within China’s borders, focusing instead on the propagation of the traditions of their ancestors. This point in China’s history proved to be pivotal as the Chinese lost a valuable opportunity to learn about the wider world and its threats. When the Chinese finally came face-to-face with global powers, they eventually succumbed to the greater firepower of the Europeans. That the Chinese had invented gunpowder centuries before the Europeans began to use it provides a stark illustration of their failure to use their early advances to prepare themselves for the world ahead.

However, there is another side to this story of apparent missed opportunity. The rise of China today has caused much concern in a rapidly changing economic and political world. Much debate has been given to China’s ultimate intentions. China’s expansionist territorial ambitions in the Islands in the East and South China Seas have raised much concern. That said, in Africa for example, China enjoys much credibility with former Western colonies, by promoting the narrative that, although it reached Africa with the largest naval force in the world of the 1400s, it never tried to conquer African land or enslave its people.

The Ming Court focused on preserving the past

As it was during the Ming dynasty, China’s engagement in the world today will be largely driven by economic concerns. It wishes to acquire resources and technology from abroad and to find markets for its products. Otherwise, one of its most important foreign policy principles – that no country should engage in the internal affairs of another country – reflects China’s overwhelming desire that its domestic affairs remain the preserve of Beijing alone; at least to some extent, this in turn acts as a restraint on China’s ability to interfere with the sovereignty of other nations.

What Happened Next?

The success of the Manchus in crushing the remnants of the Ming Dynasty led to the establishment of China’s second non-Han Chinese led dynasty, the Qing. Though it survived over two and a half centuries, it proved to be the last in China’s long dynastic history. A series of military defeats by foreign powers and concomitant internal rebellions precipitated the 1911 revolution that brought about China’s First Republic.


Part VII – China’s Last Dynasty: Qing Dynasty 1644 – 1911


British flax-mill factory industrail revolution Leeds c 1800 - wiki

The Industrial Revolution caused Europeans to seek out raw materials and new markets

As China entered into the Qing Dynasty, the last of its long dynastic line, it became increasingly challenged by a desire to reaffirm traditional Confucian values while at the same time facing the pressures of a rapidly changing world. As the Manchus conquerors consolidated their minority rule over the country, they reaffirmed Chinese Confucian tradition in order to gain acceptance from the wider Han population. This desire to reassert traditional values was consistent with the desires of the Han Chinese themselves. Many Han Chinese believed that a lapse in Confucian values had been a key cause of the large-scale peasant revolt at the end of the Ming, and the reason why the Han Chinese once again lost the Mandate of Heaven to foreign barbarian invaders. Yet, as China tried fervently to recement historical traditions idealizing a harmonious, everlasting agrarian, hierarchical, patriarchal society, the world around them was quickly changing.

Driving this change was the Industrial Revolution in Europe. The Industrial Revolution caused European powers to become more assertive in their quest for increased international trade. From China, these powers desired porcelain, lacquer ware, silk and tea. While China was willing to engage in limited one-way trade, there was nothing from Europe that China wanted. Eventually, Europeans became impatient with the Qing’s imposed trade restrictions and with their growing trade deficit with China. Taking advantage of their military and technological superiority, the West increasingly forced China to engage in international trade on its terms, much to the significant harm of the country. This Western pressure, along with the challenges of managing significant population growth between the 1700s and the 1900s, eventually brought down the Qing Dynasty and ended dynastic history in China.

The first two Qing Emperors – Kangxi and Yongzheng

The Manchus, Chinese Traditions to rule the Chinese People, Tibet and Contact with Western Barbarians

17th Century painting of Manchu people hunting

Unlike other tribes living outside the Great Wall, the Manchus were not nomadic people. This meant that the Manchus had well-established military and administrative machinery that they could efficiently deploy throughout the country. Where the Chinese people capitulated peacefully to Manchu power, Chinese life and culture continued in peace and prosperity. Where the Chinese resisted Manchu rule, their populations were looted, raped and killed. After years of rebel peasant riots, many scholar-officials welcomed the stability of the Manchus. The one act of subservience required of the Chinese by the Manchus was to adopt the ‘queue’, the Manchu hairstyle in which the front part of the male head was shaved and the remaining hair was worn in a long braid in the back. While a seemingly insignificant gesture, the required shaved head and long braid was a constant reminder of Han subjugation to the Manchus. It took until 1681 before the last remnants of Ming loyalist resistance to Manchu rule were eradicated.

Qing-era silk production image shows workers with Manchu queue hair style

The Kangxi Emperor of the Manchus took control of the government in 1669 and held the throne for 60 years. He was considered to be one of the most effective emperors to ever rule China. As the Manchus made up less than 2% of China’s entire population, the trick for Kangxi was to consolidate his rule in a way that won the hearts and minds of the Chinese people. To this effect, Kangxi recruited committed Chinese officials to the bureaucracy and continued the traditional examination system. Hard-working, and a good judge of character, Kangxi valued and rewarded honesty. Chinese officials who refused to serve the Qing were honored as long as they did not engage in active resistance to his rule. In order to show his respect for Chinese culture, he commissioned the history of the Ming Dynasty, giving those reluctant to serve the Qing directly a way of being involved at court. Similarly, he patronized Chinese art, philosophy and poetry, and commissioned everything from the Kangxi Dictionary of Chinese to the Complete Poems of the Tang Dynasty. He also instigated effective tax reform in 1712, replenishing the state treasury and creating a more egalitarian tax system.

Kangxi was a conqueror and an effective military leader. As such he successfully extended the Chinese empire northward and westward, creating borders with Korea and Russia which remain largely in place today. He occupied Tibet and led successful campaigns against the Mongols in Central Asia. Armed with cannons and other modern weapons, Kangxi was able to dominate the steppe nomads who were still armed with only bows and arrows. This military technological advantage effectively ended the millennia of military challenges by the northern barbarians, as the nomads were never again able to gain military superiority.

Painting of the Kangxi Emperor

As a ruler of a now multi-ethnic empire, Kangxi favored Tibetan Buddhism at home, while forming marriage alliances with Mongol princes and ensuring that his court demonstrated moral leadership in terms of Confucian values. Thus, through his political skill, sensitivity to his empire’s diverse cultures and his genuine dedication to Confucian values, Kangxi was able to transform Han resentment of the Manchus into acceptance and loyalty. Areas such as Tibet and the largely Muslim areas of central Asia were ruled lightly. The local population was permitted to maintain their own religious leaders, to keep their own dietary rules and to not wear the queue.

The Kangxi Emperor was also open to Western learning brought by the Christian Jesuits, who were welcomed at the Qing court. In particular, he was intrigued by their theories of astronomy, calendar calculations, mathematics, geography and military technology. Initially, Kangxi had a relaxed attitude toward Christianity and permitted churches to be built in the capital and provinces. The Jesuits were successful in converting many Chinese to Christianity by drawing parallels between Chinese and Christian traditions. However, when Pope Clement I ruled that Chinese folk religion and Confucian rites conflicted with Christian teaching, Kangxi banned Christian missions in China, although he kept the Jesuits at court, largely in secular functions.

St. Sophia Church, Qingdao China

Kangxi was succeeded by Yongzheng in 1736, followed by his son Qianlong. During the 13 years of his reign, Yongzheng undertook a comprehensive reform of the state tax system, enabling Qing fiscal policy to deliver a reliable revenue stream at the local and national levels. The historical system concentrated entirely on providing adequate funds for the central state. The administration of regional government expenses were left entirely up to regional officials which often created much opportunity for corruption. The new system gave local officials an understanding of the funds available to them so that they did not have to personally extract revenue from their populace in order to maintain roads or to carry out granary construction. Additionally, Yongzheng ruthlessly tried to rid his empire of widespread government corruption. Without Yongzheng’s tax reforms and his improvements to the bureaucracy, the prosperity of Qianlong’s reign would not have been possible.

Emperor Qianlong

Painting of Emperor Qianlong riding

Qianlong was emperor for 60 years. He abdicated one year short of his grandfather’s record 61-year reign in a gesture of filial piety, although he continued to retain significant power until his death four years later. Qianlong effectively creating the borders of today’s China by consolidating Qing rule in Tibet, and extending Qing control further west into Mongol regions of Chinese Turkestan – today’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Like his grandfather before him, Qianlong presented different images to the varied ethnic groups within his empire. To the Tibetans, for example, he established himself as the reincarnation of Manjusri, one of the most important bodhisattvas of Tibetan Buddhism. To the Han Chinese, he was a scholar and patron of Chinese learning and art. For instance, Qianlong worked hard to preserve Chinese cultural heritage by creating an enormous art collection of jade, ancient bronzes, seals, paintings, calligraphy and ceramics. Additionally, two of China’s greatest novels were written during the 1700s: Unofficial History of the Scholars and The Dream of the Red Chamber

More importantly, Qianlong commissioned the Complete Works of the Four Treasures.  The anthology was to contain a copy of every significant work ever published in Chinese. Begun in 1772, the Four Treasures took 20 years to finish, and is considered one of the largest single publishing projects in Chinese history. The anthology covered the major categories of traditional Chinese knowledge: classics, history, philosophy, and literature. A total of 13,254 books were collected throughout the empire, and thousands of scholars were engaged in the endeavor. Over four million pages were recorded by thousands of copyists. Even to this day, the Four Treasures remains a valuable resource for academics. Just as importantly, from the Manchu perspective, the Four Treasures enabled the Emperor to carry out a countrywide campaign of censorship that lasted from 1772-1788. All books gathered were examined. Any that held sensitive or offensive anti-Manchu sentiments were delivered to the court. Even books chosen for inclusion in the Four Treasures went through censorship, sometimes having parts rewritten or passages deleted. Problematic scholar-officials could be charged with sedition or other crimes by using, as proof, poems or articles selected from the body of work they had provided to the Emperor from their own libraries.

More Assertive Foreign Powers

China was largely ignorant of European expansion and the accompanying slave trade throughout the 15th to 18th centuries. At the beginning of the 19th century, however, China began to increasingly feel the European presence. Specifically, as British demand for tea, silk and porcelain continued to grow, the British became ever more insistent on expanded trade relations with the Chinese.

Macao during Qing Dynasty

The Portuguese were the first to establish a permanent trading post with China in 1557 in Macao. In 1684, Kangxi allowed four cities, including Canton (Guangzhou), to do business with foreign traders. By 1757, the emperor had scaled those four cities back to just Canton. Additionally, he limited trading to the winter months. He also insisted European traders reside in special quarters along the banks of the Pearl River outside Canton’s city walls. These quarters were known as the thirteen factories, with factory being used to mean a trading house. The thirteen factories remained the principal center for Western trade until the First Opium War in 1839.

Europeans, especially the British, developed a taste for tea. As tea imports rose, the British became frustrated with Sino-British trade for two reasons. Firstly, the British began running a significant trade deficit with China. Secondly, the East India Company increasingly balked at the trade limitations imposed by the Canton system. The East India Company thus petitioned the British government to send a diplomatic mission to China to negotiate better terms of trade. This mission was dispatched in 1793 and led by Lord Macartney. From the British perspective, this mission was unsuccessful. All British requests were refused by the Chinese including greater access to Chinese markets and the deployment of a British ambassador to Peking. Distracted by revolution in continental Europe, Britain did not respond to China’s rebuff until the French threat had been resolved.

Caricature of Lord McCartney before the Chinese emperor

The Chinese had no desire to engage in active international trade. Furthermore, at the end of the 18th century, China still believed itself to be the world’s dominant power. With the exception of the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, which determined the border between the Russian and Chinese empires, China had never engaged in equal diplomatic relations with any foreign country and saw no need to begin with Britain.

To some extent, the poor results of the diplomatic effort were also caused by cultural misunderstanding. Lord Macartney refused to kowtow to the Emperor as was the tributary’s custom, upsetting court protocol. Additionally, the carefully chosen presents by the British that were to be given to the Emperor on the occasion of his birthday were dismissed as worthless despite representing the latest in European scientific achievements and craftsmanship. While it is purported that the Emperor secretly treasured the gifts, court officials regarded them as worthless baubles. Moreover, tributary states were to present the Emperor with token gifts. In turn, the Emperor was to present the tributary states with more valuable presents.

Evidence of Dynastic Decline by the End of the 1700s

By the end of the 18th century, signs of dynastic decline were evident. A surge in population put enormous pressure on food production. China became increasingly dependent on sweet potato and maize crops that could grow on drier, less fertile soil. Multiple harvesting, particularly in the rice-growing south, became more commonplace. Yet more effective use of land and new crops alone were not sufficient enough to cope with the rising population. The government thus supported a policy of internal migration, shifting people from densely inhabited lands to remote areas such as Xinjiang.

Han migration into Xinjiang led to deforestation and increased desertification

Having Han Chinese peasants emigrate to basically non-agricultural land such as Xinjiang altered the nature of the local economy and the local way of life. Deforestation and over-cultivation of grasslands for agriculture significantly damaged the already fragile environment, increased the process of the desertification in Northwest China and deepened the problem of water scarcity. Han relocation also had serious political and social consequences, as local populations were forced to compete with Han Chinese for land and other resources.

Compounding the complications of the surging population was a tax harvest that did not keep pace with the increase in the number of Chinese people. Aggravating the insufficient tax harvest was a spectacular case of embezzlement. One of Qianlong’s favorite bodyguards, Heshen, embezzled millions of ounces of silver from the treasury. Heshen was arrested the day after Qianlong died. His stolen wealth was said to have equaled half the value of the entire treasury. This theft and the inadequate tax collection, combined with continuous military expeditions, financially crippled the Dynasty by the beginning of the 19th century. Additionally, by the end of the 1700s, China was again plagued by peasant revolt under the same White Lotus banner that had harassed the Mings.

The Qing in the 19th Century – the First Opium War

Opium den during the Qing Dynasty

As soon as the British had overcome the Napoleonic threat, it once again turned its attention to its growing trade deficit with China caused by its large imports of tea, silk, porcelain and lacquer ware. The East India Company petitioned King George III to dispatch a second delegation to China to negotiate improved trade terms, but China again resisted British exigencies. Britain’s solution to this impasse was to export to China opium grown on its plantations in India. When smoked, opium proved highly addictive, relieving boredom along with physical and mental pain. By the mid-1820s, the success of the British strategy was apparent as its trade deficit turned to surplus. By the 1830s, approximately nine million taels (a tael equals 38 grams) of silver were flowing out of China annually and it was importing up to 13,000 chests of opium, enough to sustain the addiction of about 2 million Chinese. The British skirted Chinese laws forbidding opium trade by exporting the drug into China through smuggling networks.

In 1839, the trade commissioner Lin Zexu determined to suppress the opium trade. Lin arrested 350 Western traders and confined them into their warehouses until all their opium inventory was given to his officials. Ultimately, Lin destroyed more than 20,000 chests. The British retaliated by sending an armada of warships to fight the Chinese. Outclassed by Western military technology, the Chinese were soundly defeated.

The Unequal Treaties and Extraterritoriality

Having no choice but to surrender, the Chinese signed the Treaty of Nanjing which forced China to pay an accumulated $21 million dollars of war reparations, to cede control of the island of Hong Kong to Britain in perpetuity, to open four new coastal cities to British trade, and to treat Britain as an equal country in diplomatic negotiations. In a supplementary treaty, China was made to fix its tariff rates on its trade with Western countries at 5%, to exclude Westerners from prosecution under Chinese law under (what was to be termed extraterritoriality), and to allow Britain to also have any new privilege gained from China by other foreign powers under a Most Favored Nation clause. The opium trade continued unhindered.

The Signing of the Treaty of Nanjing

In Chinese eyes, Britain’s actions were a case of the morally repugnant imposing its will on those in China trying to do the right thing. This moral dimension to the war made it more politically and psychologically difficult for the Chinese to adopt any aspects of Western civilization, even when it became increasingly obvious that without western technology, China would never regain control of its country.

Second Opium War or the Arrow War

Between 1858 and 1860, a Second Opium War broke out when Chinese officials boarded the Hong Kong-registered boat The Arrow and arrested twelve Chinese suspected of smuggling. The British demanded their release, arguing that the Chinese vessel was registered in Hong Kong and was thus protected under the Treaty of Nanjing. The Qing government insisted the Chinese sailors were pirate smugglers and refused to release them. In retaliation, the British, requesting the help of the French, Russians and Americans, readied for war. While the United States and Russia supported Britain, they did not go as far as sending military aid. The French, however, joined forces with the British.

Chinese officers tear down the British flag on the Arrow

The British and French launched the Second Opium War by capturing Canton, modern day Guangzhou. They maintained control of the city for four years. They subsequently invaded Beijing, burning the Emperor’s Summer Palace and imposing further so-called “unequal treaties” on the Qing. The 1860 Treaty of Tianjin stipulated the opening of a total of fourteen treaty ports to Western trade, ceding further land in Kowloon to the British, indemnities of eight million taels of silver to France and Britain, the right of Western diplomats to reside permanently in Beijing and the freedom of religious institutions to be established in China. After 1860, Westerners assumed control of the complete administration of China’s taxes on trade and commerce, making the Qing Empire in effect a semi-colony of the West. At the same time, Russia forced China to revise the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, which gave Russia the right to establish a port on the Pacific coast. Russia founded the city of Vladivostok in 1860. The Russians also insisted that the Qing sign the Supplementary Convention of Peking in which Russia gained a further 4000 square miles of land from China.

The Nian, Panthay, Muslim and Taiping Rebellion

Compounding Qing dynastic troubles were further internal rebellions. Taxes were paid by peasants in copper, which had a fixed exchange rate with silver. As China began exporting growing quantities of silver to pay for its opium imports, the exchange rate between the copper of the peasants and the silver of the tax collector rose, making it increasingly difficult for the peasants to pay their taxes. This rising tax burden, coupled with famine, population pressure, scarcity of resources, and government corruption sparked a series of rebellions throughout China. 

The Nian Rebellion (1853-1868) was initially ignited by the bursting of the Yellow River’s banks in 1853 and 1855, causing widespread flooding and loss of life. Because of its reduced finances, the Qing court was unable to respond to the disaster with sufficient financial and human aid. The Panthay Rebellion (1856-1873) began in Yunnan province as a result of fighting between Han Chinese migrants and the native Hui (Chinese Muslims) over access to mining resources. The Muslim Rebellion (1862 -1877) erupted in the Xinjiang, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces over continued minority resistance to Han Chinese territorial infringement.

Taiping Rebels chased by Manchus

The largest rebellion during this time, however, was the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). In 1850, a failed examination candidate from the Hakka minority group in South China, Hong Xiuquan, had visions during a nervous breakdown which convinced him that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Hong advocated surprisingly modern policies including the abolition of private property, the promotion of a classless society, the advancement of equality between men and women, the suppression of foot binding, and the eradication of opium use. He quickly amassed a dedicated army of peasant followers who, by 1854, had occupied Nanjing, which they proclaimed to be the capital of their new Heavenly Kingdom. By 1855, Hong was within 20 miles of Beijing. At first, Western missionaries were elated at the thought of a Chinese Christian uprising. Yet Hong’s unorthodox Christianity and his opposition to opium were eventually determined to be a threat to Western interests.

Amplifying the magnitude of these rebellions was the fact that many of the restive areas had many more males than females. This was because the traditional Chinese view that valued males over females had led to significant female infanticide. Female infanticide coupled with the Chinese tradition of polygamy meant that there were not enough marriageable women for the available men. This made these “bare branch” men more susceptible to the call of rebellion as they had no family or homestead to lose.

The Qing rallied the government Banner Forces (so named because of the particular flags under which they operated) to put down the rebellion, but by this point the Banner Forces were so ill-trained that they proved ineffective. The Qing Court then had no choice but to disperse power to regional Chinese officials who recruited their own armies from their own home districts. Allowing the amassing of regional armies had historically proved very dangerous to a dynasty’s longevity, and that the Qing court was forced into this strategy was good evidence of its weakness. An estimated 20-30 million died during the rebellion.


Westerners share technology with China to improve access to its markets

By the end of the 19th century, in the face of constant foreign incursions into its territory and infringements of its sovereignty, the Qing Dynasty began a program of self-strengthening. In many ways, the basic idea of this program was a modified version of the traditional yiyi zhiyi (“use barbarians to control barbarians“), although in this case it was more of an instance of using barbarian technology to defeat barbarians. Reformists argued that China should employ Western technology such as railroads, modern weaponry, steamships and telegraph lines in order to modernize China, while learning Western languages in order to gain access to Western technologies. Conservatives at the court argued that such policies would lead to the abandonment of traditional culture for modern barbarism. Reformists countered that China would maintain fundamentally Confucian and Chinese in culture, only using the Western technologies to arrest Western incursion into Chinese territory and Chinese sovereignty.

Yet despite reformists’ enthusiasm for change, few understood the rapidity with which Western science was developing improved technology or that up-to-date weapons alone would not be enough to defend China without modernized training and leadership. What was true was that knowledge of the West was gradually improving. Modern newspapers, with up-to-date coverage of world affairs, began to appear in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Information was also acquired through visits abroad. By 1880, China had embassies in London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Washington, Tokyo and St. Petersburg.

At the heart of the Chinese challenge was the fact that no Qing Emperor of the 19th century was very capable, although even an extremely able emperor would have struggled to meet the twin challenges of internal rebellion and external aggression. The lack of effectiveness of these emperors was compounded by the rise of Empress Dowager Cixi, who entered the Qing court as a low-ranking concubine. From 1860 to her death in 1908, she held more power and influence in Chinese politics than had any woman since the Tang Empress Wu. Modern Chinese historians have often blamed the Empress Dowager for promoting her own interests at the expense of the Chinese people. What is true is that she resisted all early self-strengthening reforms which risked undermining the power of the palace.

The Qing Dynasty population boom led to poverty as China struggled to employ and fed its 400 million people

Also, at the essence of Qing’s challenge was China’s huge population surge. In 1800, China had about 300 million people, compared with Russia’s 40 million, Japan’s 30 million, and Britain’s 11 million. From 1800 to 1850, China’s population increased to 400 million. The population explosion had repercussions for every aspect of Chinese life. Villages and towns grew closer, farms grew smaller, deforestation accelerated. Additionally, labor was in surplus, suppressing wages and escalating the competitiveness of everyday life. Until the end of the 18th century, steady population growth had largely been beneficial, as it fostered regional development and commercialization. Yet, by the dawn of the 19th century, the negative consequences of China’s population explosion were becoming more pronounced. Chinese surplus labor would work manually at industries that were now industrialized in Europe at such low rates that industrialized factories could not compete. This impeded China’s industrialization. Additionally, the rise in population exacerbated social tensions, as conflicts over water and other resources surged with population growth. As a result, disputes between ethnic groups, lineages or villages became common. Hard times also supported the practice of female infanticide. The shortage of marriageable women reduced the incentive for young men to stay near home and do what their elders told them. Those who left often joined roving gangs or immigrated to the cities to search for work as boatmen, porters, sedan chair carriers, and rickshaw pullers.

Millions of Chinese chose to emigrate from China completely, heading primarily to Southeast Asia, but also to the US and Europe. In Buddhist countries like Thailand and Vietnam, the Chinese often assimilated, intermarrying with the local population and adopting their language and customs. In Muslim countries and in the US, Chinese immigrants often chose or were forced to live independently from native populations. Those that did not assimilate often organized themselves into voluntary associations such as Triads, as local authorities preferred to let the Chinese govern themselves.

1885 War with France, the 1894-1895 War with Japan

Negotiating the Shimonoseki Treaty after the first Sino-Japanese War

The first sign that China’s reforms had not strengthened China sufficiently to repulse foreign aggression occurred in 1855, when France defeated China in war over Vietnam, a traditional tributary state. More humiliating, however, was Japan’s defeat of China in its battle for influence in Korea, another traditional Chinese tributary state. This defeat shocked both China and the West, as China had always viewed Japan as its inferior, and as Japan was a fraction of China’s size. The resulting Treaty of Shimonoseki forced China to cede Taiwan to Japan, to pay Japan 200 million taels of silver and to recognize the independence of Korea.

Fearing China’s imminent collapse, Western nations began pressuring China to grant them special trading, taxation, and other privileges in their own spheres of influence, while jockeying with other Western powers in order to extend their territorial reach. The US, preoccupied elsewhere, did not at first join the dash for concessions. In 1889, however, John Hay, America’s secretary of state, fearing the fragmentation of China, issued a series of Open Door Notes to Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, and Japan, calling on all foreign powers operating in China to allow free trade in all spheres of influence. Eventually, the European powers backed off, not because of Hay’s influence, but because they too feared the break-up of the country. Every country except Russia agreed to the Open Door Policy, although most had no intention of enforcing it.

100 Days of Reforms

Guangxu Emperor

The terms of the humiliating Treaty with Japan were made public at a time when thousands of provincial students were in Beijing to take the metropolitan examination. In December 1898, Kang Youwei, a Confucian scholar, gained an audience with the young Guangxu Emperor. Spurred by the scholar’s suggestions, in the space of 100 days, the Emperor issued a multitude of edicts designed to thoroughly modernize the country, including introducing Western subjects in Chinese education, eliminating thousands of sinecure positions, attacking government corruption and embarking on a rapid and intensive program of industrialization and Westernization. Sensing a threat to the conservative dominance at court, the Empress Dowager crushed the reform movement, and effectively imprisoned the Emperor within the Summer Palace. Kang Youwei fled to Japan, and six of his followers were executed. The court sank again into wider inaction, having preserved its own powerful interests.

The Boxer Rebellion

Execution of Boxers at the end of the Rebellion

Yet inaction would not remain an option for long. Formed initially in Shandong and adjacent areas in Henan and Hebei, a secret society of peasants and illiterate day laborers emerged. They called themselves the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists (known as the Boxers in the West), and eventually amassed thousands of followers. The Boxers practiced martial arts and chanted magic spells that they claimed made them impervious to physical pain and bullets. The Boxers believed that their hardship was caused in large part by foreign aggression. Spurred by the severe drought of the summer of 1898 their growing anger and frustration became directed at “foreign devils” who they determined to expel from China.

An obvious target was the Christian missionaries who had moved into many parts of the Chinese countryside by the end of the 19th century. While many missionaries provided the Chinese with social and medical services which brought real benefits to the population, the Boxers nevertheless linked Christianity with the arrival of the same foreigners who spread opium in Chinese society. Aggravating their sense of injustice was the fact that these missionaries lived in walled compounds, were protected by extraterritoriality, and enjoyed higher standards of living than the people to whom they preached.

Return of the Emperess Dowager in 1902

Initially, the Qing court felt obliged to crush the Boxer Rebellion. But by the summer of 1900, the court tried to use the Boxers, whose numbers had swollen to close to a half million, to drive foreigners out of China. An eight-nation invasion force made up of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Austria-Hungary, the US, and Japan responded by rapidly capturing Beijing. In 1901 China sued for peace, agreeing to pay 400 million ounces of silver in damages to the Western invasion force. By the time the rebellion was finally put down in September 1901, more than 70,000 Chinese people, including Chinese Catholics, Protestant missionaries, Chinese Protestants, Eastern Orthodox Christians and other ordinary Chinese were dead.

During the fighting, the Empress Dowager fled Beijing disguised as a nun. On her flight into the countryside, she was confronted for the first time with the reality of China’s poverty. After peace had been secured, she finally began to promote the same modernization for which she had imprisoned the Emperor. Specifically, an effort was made to create a Western-style army, armed with Western weapons and trained in Western methods. Another was to continue efforts to build a modern railway system. However, these endeavors were too little, too late.

Sun Yat-sen and the overthrow of Qing Dynasty

Sun Yat-sen

Ensnared in an international economic order stacked against latecomers, an order whose rules China had no ability to shape, many Chinese increasingly felt that the Qing Dynasty specifically, and dynastic rule generally, lacked the agility and versatility to successfully negotiate the changing world in which it found itself. In the Qing’s defense, the centralized bureaucratic monarchy, the patriarchal family, and the scholar-official elite, all of whom focused on creating stability through the replication of the agrarian past, were so deeply entrenched in Chinese culture that it took a century of bad news to weaken people’s belief that they represented the best organizational structure for Chinese society.

For the first time, many Chinese began to study abroad, primarily in Japan, but also in Western Europe and the United States. Many of these returned to campaign for the deposition of Qing rule. One of these was Sun Yat-sen (generally known in China as Sun Zhongshan, his name in Mandarin Chinese). A Christian, and trained as a medical doctor, Sun Yat-sen became increasingly involved in politics as he watched China flounder. In all, Sun Yat-sen led ten attempts to overthrow the government, each of which failed. However, his tireless efforts to promote revolutionary fervor within China were a catalyst which led to strengthening revolutionary sentiment throughout the country, including that among the officers and troops of the New Army.

When the Qing dynasty eventually fell, the end came serendipitously, and as a result of a relatively rapid series of events. In 1905, when the examination system was abolished as part of the stipulations imposed upon the Chinese after the Boxer Rebellion, a whole segment of society lost their reason for engaging with the government. In 1908 the Empress dowager died, leaving a three-year-old Imperial Prince on the throne, meaning China yet again had no effective emperor. Additionally, the newly constructed railways had been built using foreign funds and were in the hands of foreign companies. Public opinion advocated that these railways should be in Chinese hands. The Qing court attempted to nationalize the railways, alienating many small Chinese investors, while Western powers insisted that they would continue to build railways within their spheres of influence regardless of Chinese national policy. To many, the railroad management issues were just another example that the Qing dynasty lacked the means to deal with China’s worsening domestic and international situation.

Republic of China presidential election, 1911

Revolutionary discontent continued to build. In 1911, in the Chinese city of Wuchang, a group of revolutionaries loosely affiliated with Sun Yat-sen were secretly stockpiling ammunitions for a revolt, when one of the bombs exploded. Realizing that the police were certain to investigate, they declared war on the Qing state and quickly took control of the city. Word of this revolt rapidly spread, and many newly trained troops joined the rebels. Sun Yat-sen read about the rebellion in Denver, Colorado where he had been trying to raise money from overseas Chinese. The Qing Dynasty looked to the top military official in the Empire, Yuan Shikai, to suppress the rebellion. Instead, he effectively negotiated the end of the Qing dynasty.

Much to the relief of the revolutionaries, the Qing Dynasty was disposed without China breaking into civil war, and without the Western powers and Japan slicing up the country. For his role in overthrowing the dynasty, Sun Yat-sen agreed that Yuan Shikai could become the first president of the new Republic, which was proclaimed on February 12th, 1912. While the revolutionaries were united in their desire to dispose the Dynasty, they remained conflicted on the best way that the country should move forward. Sun Yat-sen and his followers organized a new party, the Guomindang (the Nationalist Party, frequently referred to as the Kuomintang or KMT) which they viewed to be a loyal opposition party designed to compete in electoral politics with the followers of Yuan Shikai. Other parties were formed as well, and Assembly elections were held in December 1912. Approximately 40 million men were eligible to vote – those who owned property, paid taxes and had an elementary school education – about 10% of the population. The Nationalists won approximately 43% of the vote, in an election that succeeded without major incident. Sun Yat-sen, head of the railroad development, was pleased with the outcome.

Yuan Shikai at center with army officers

Yuan Shikai was not. He disliked Nationalist criticisms of his policies and felt that their electoral success threatened his efforts to create a strong central government. In 1913, Song Jiaoren, the Nationalist campaign manager and a Prime Minister-hopeful, was assassinated, probably on the direction of Yuan Shikai. The Nationalist party responded to the murder by calling for Yuan Shikai’s resignation, and soon revolted. Yuan Shikai crushed the revolt, and Sun Yat-sen fled to Japan, once again in exile. Yuan Shikai supported a strong, modern, industrialized state, but he envisioned that this state would be ruled in dynastic fashion, with himself as Emperor. Yuan Shikai eventually died in 1916 of kidney failure, leaving both a power vacuum and no national consensus about how China should move forward politically. Yuan’s generals began to vie with each other for regional control and power. This began a period of warlordism in China, during which the country was once again fragmented.

Dynastic Themes Present in China Today

Themes of Qing history can be seen in evidence in China today. The first is a sense of Chinese culturalism and self-sufficiency. Until the fall of the Qing Dynasty, China had always felt that its rich cultural history was a sufficient source of inspiration from which to develop its foreign policies to deal with barbarians, to provide governmental and societal structure, to manage its economy and to stimulate its artistic achievement. While always convinced of its moral, economic, and technological superiority – which it indeed maintained for thousands of years – China never felt the need to impose its systems on countries outside its immediate sphere of influence.

Confucius Center opening at Khazar University, Azerbaijan

Today, China engages in the world primarily to promote its own economic development. It no longer makes any effort to promote communist revolution abroad (though it did at various stages of the Mao era) or any other value-based revolution arising from its hybrid capitalist-authoritarian society. While it is true that China is building, worldwide, an ever growing number of Confucian Centers designed to promote the learning of Mandarin and the understanding of Chinese culture, these centers are intended to serve China’s economic interests by creating a better understanding of China, as opposed to exposing a Chinese cultural perspective which it hopes will be adopted by local populations in the way that the US, for example, promotes democracy internationally.

The Chinese government today still considers the ‘Century of Humiliation’ (1839-1949) as an inflection point in the way that China engages in the international arena. Indeed, even today, many Chinese and Taiwanese history books still divide Chinese history into the pre- and post-Opium war worlds. From 1939 onwards, China was thrust into a world whose rules it did not understand and could not control. Consequently, during the 1839-1949 period, China was riven by peasant uprisings which were frequently fueled by or were partly in consequence to the growing Western presence in China, and by what was viewed as Qing acquiescence to foreign demands. Additionally, the Century of Humiliation led to the ultimate collapse of its millennia-old dynastic system and China’s loss of sovereignty over almost a third of its territory.

Animal personifications of Russia, England, Germany, Austria, Italy, France, Japan fighting over China – the dying dragon – while the US as eagle looks on

The Century of Humiliation today remains essential to the way that China interacts with the world. Both scholars and government officials in China still frequently characterize the international system as one dominated by a West and determined to block China’s rise. Under this view China always needs to be wary of Western intent so that it is never again outmaneuvered and subjugated. Other Chinese scholars feel that China’s progress within the Western built international framework has been so overwhelming that, far from being a tool to benefit exclusively the West and its allies, the current international system is reasonably fair and has very much played to China’s advantages. Other Chinese thinkers feel that China should now use its growing economic and political status to bend the international system to its advantage, so it reflects more of China’s values. Steps in this direction have been taken. In 2016, against the wishes of the United States, China launched its the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. China is also spearheading Belt and Road Initiative which, as conceived, will be the world’s most ambitious infrastructure investment effort. If successful, it will also significantly reshape the global balance of power. On some occasions, China has also begun to flout international law. A prime example is its taking control of and reclaiming land on disputed islands in the South China Sea, despite such actions having been ruled illegal by The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. 

The Century of Humiliation is also essential to China as it is a fundamental to its narrative in the development of Chinese nationalism that the Chinese Communist Party has cultivated since it has switched from a command to market economy. In Xi Jinping’s promotion of the Chinese Dream, the Chinese Communist Party has positioned itself the party who has exercise the Century of Humiliation as the authority that is re-establishing China as a great nation- if not the greatest nation –  in the international world order. This narrative helps to legitimize Communist Party rule when it is no longer communist, as it reminds the Chinese people that it was the Communists who pulled China from its lowest point, and is returning the country once again to its natural place of preeminence. Moreover, the Century of Humiliation is also a discourse used by the Communist Party to deflect foreign criticism of its policies. This discourse in effect argues that the West and Japan have always been full of schemes to harm China, and therefore their arguments and actions today still cannot be trusted.