Dynasties and All That

It will occur to the reader that I have been talking about dynasties and this and that without giving any clear background on them.  The time has come to clarify.


In case you don’t know, a dynasty is a period where all the kings, princes, or emperors descend from one ancestor, usually through the male line, or are in one family.

Xia.  This dynasty, which ruled from 2070 to 1600 B.C. in the Hwanghe valley, is semi-mythical, though the excavations at Erlitou may provide eventually proof of its historic existence.  Contemporary with the Bronze Age (e.g., the Biblical Patriarchs).

Shang, sometimes called Yin (1600 to 1046 B.C.), thought by some to be semi-mythical too, until the excavations at Anyang starting in 1898.  Contemporary with the decline of the Bronze Age in the West (e.g., the Trojan War, the Sea Peoples, the Exodus, and the era of the Judges).

Western Zhou.  1046 to 771 B.C.  Based in the Wei Valley near modern Xi’an.  Contemporary with the Archaic Age of Greece, including Homer, David and Solomon, and Elisha and Elijah.

In 771 B.C. rebels and barbarians overran the Wei Valley and the kings fled to near Luoyang, Henan, and become the Eastern Zhou from 771 to 256 B.C.  During this time China became like Europe’s later Holy Roman Empire between 1555 and 1806; a nominal entity populated by a large number of independent states.  The first part of this, through the time of Confucius and his disciples, came to be called the Spring and Autumn period; the later part, the Warring States period, which ended with Qin Shi Huangdi’s conquest of the last free state in 221 B.C.

The Qin Dynasty.  Qin was a state in the Wei Valley, highly militarized like later Prussia; it had already eliminated the nominally imperial state of Zhou by the time Ying Zheng came to the throne in 247 B.C.  After he conquered the last independent Chinese state in 221, he declared himself Qin Shi Huangdi, the ‘First Emperor’.  He standardized the script, which had begun to differentiate in the various states; standardized the currency; occupied the hitherto Vietnamese area around Guangzhou in the south; linked together some of the various defensive walls on the northern border to form the predecessor to the Great Wall [today’s Great Wall is mostly the work of the Ming era, 1600 years later]; horrified intellectuals by burning most of the old books he could get his hands on and instead of Confucianism imposed a political philosophy called Legalism that said that people could only be kept in line by harsh rewards and punishments.  When he realized he could not live forever, he created the famous Terra Cotta Warriors for his giant tomb site [at least that’s better than burying real soldiers and servants and concubines with him like they had done earlier!  I don’t think there have ever been any Terra Cotta Concubines].  Within three years of his death anger had led to revolution, and the Terra Cotta Warriors were smashed; there was a fight between the party that wanted to restore the old Eastern Zhou type feudal order and those who wanted to continue the empire, but on more Confucian principles; the latter won, and set up The Han Dynasty (207 B.C. to 220 A.D.) with one break about the time of Christ when a usurper named Wang Mang took over for one generation.  Contemporary with the later Roman Republic and Empire.

The first period of disunity (220 to 581) when China dissolved again into a varying number of states, was not a ‘dark age’ like that Europe experienced from 500 to 800.

In 581 China was reunified again under the short-lived Sui dynasty, which lasted until 618 and was succeeded by the Tang (618-907), corresponding to the Dark Ages and Carolingian Renaissance in Europe.  This was a fairly cosmopolitan period; the Silk Road was open, and the great planned city of Chang’an [now Xi’an] had Zoroastrian, Manichean, and Church of the East Christian shrines.  Later Tang emperors turned against these foreign religions, including Buddhism, which had come in from the west during the later Han; Buddhism survived and the others disappeared.

Another shorter period of division (907-960) was followed by the Northern Song dynasty (960-112), contemporary with Europe’s ‘Romanesque’ period, a time of less military prowess but of technological advances like printing, the compass, the seismograph, paper money, and fairly advanced industrial processes. This was also the time when the triad of non-exclusive religions, Mahayana, Taoism, and Confucianism, settled into shape.  In 1127 northern non-Chinese from Manchuria broke through the wall and overran the Huanghe valley; the heir of the Song fled south to Hangzhou, and the so called Southern Song was a time of division but nevertheless of continued flourishing.  The area north of a line halfway between the Huanghe and the Yangtze was held by dynasties of non-Chinese origin; the Jin [Gold] in the center, Liao in Manchuria, and Xixia in and around what is now Gansu.

Around 1217 Chingiz Khaan [usually spelled Genghis Khan in English] began to pick off the northern states. By 1234 the Jin dynasty was gone, and the whole of the north was part of the ‘Mongol Empire’.  His successor Kublai Khan proclaimed himself the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty in 1271, with his capital at Dadu or Khanbaliq, later Beijing; in 1279 he conquered all that was left of the Southern Song.  The Yuan Dynasty was not a dark age, because a lot of people who had been government officials refused to work for this ‘foreign’ dynasty and took to writing, poetry, and painting!  In 1368 a revolution overthrew this Yuan and established the Ming [Brilliant] Dynasty (1368-1644), at the same time as Europe’s Renaissance, Reformation, and Wars of Religion.  It was China’s last native dynasty.  It started out with a capital at the place renamed, and since called, Nanjing, Southern Capital; China was for a moment the world’s leading naval power when it sent huge naval expeditions as far as Africa between 1405 and 1433 under the famous Chinese Muslim eunuch admiral Zhenghe.  But the northern threat remained.  The emperors rebuilt the Great Wall as you see it now, and to be closer to the threat moved their capital to Dadu by 1421, which was then named Beijing!  In 1433 the last Zhenghe expedition returned, and a ban was put on further expeditions.  Ironically, in the following year Gil Eanes, one of Prince Henry the Navigator’s Portuguese explorers, successfully ran the barrier of Cape Boujdour in Western Sahara – which to that time had been thought the end of the world beyond which there were only sea monsters and maybe the edge of the earth – and within a few years the Portuguese stumbled on tropical Africa.  This seems to me to be the tipping point, when the Western world began its climb to dominance.

But all dynasties decline, and in 1644 the Manchus from the land called Manchuria [after them] broke through the wall and overran Beijing and most of the country, and established the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Ming loyalists held out on Taiwan [!!!] until 1683.  This Qing dynasty was strong enough to subdue Mongolia, Xinjiang, and even Tibet, putting a final end to the hordes of the steppes between themselves and the expanding Russian Empire [which had discovered the Pacific in 1639!] giving China nearly the boundaries it has today, but it had none of the cosmopolitan nature of the Tang a thousand years earlier, not believing that the rising Europeans who were appearing in the South China Sea had anything to offer in particular.  However, Emperor Qianlong (ruled 1735-96) built a palace complex called Yuanmingyuan on the west side of Beijing which included a cluster of supposedly European style buildings called the Xiyang Lou, designed by Jesuit architects!

The only trade port allowed in those days was Guangzhou, known to the West as Canton.  The Western world was eating up Chinese exports, but the Chinese wanted nothing.  Finally in the 1820s, the unscrupulous British figured out that opium from British India would be something the Chinese could get hooked on! Literally.  When the Chinese tried to stop this, they lost the First Opium War, and in 1842 had to concede to the British possession of Hong Kong Island [Mandarin, Xianggang Dao], concessions in five more treaty ports [the beginning of Shanghai as a city], and, most humiliating of all, foreigners in China were to be immune from Chinese courts and tried in the courts of foreign concessions!

In 1858-60 war broke out again, and the French and Russians got involved.  Beijing fell to the invaders, and the Yuanmingyuan and the Summer Palace were looted and wrecked!  Tianjin, 70 miles from Beijing, became another concession and treaty port, Britain annexed the Kowloon Peninsula [Mandarin, Jiulong] across from Hong Kong Island, and Russia received Khabarovsk and Vladivostok.  Christians were to be allowed to proselytize freely.  The Western armies then joined the Manchus in order to recapture Nanjing from the Taiping Rebellion in 1864.  Actually there had been at least three or four civil wars raging in China during this time!

In 1895 quickly modernizing Japan reached for a piece of the pie, and took Taiwan and Dairen on the coast of Manchuria, and forced China to renounce any authority over Korea.  This led to another wave of scrambling for concessions; the ‘Boxer Rebellion’ of 1900 was not against the Manchu government but against foreign intruders, and, perhaps understandably, Christians.  [How would you feel if you knew your faith could be propagated in America only because Russian and Chinese gunboats had forced it on America?]  It failed, and Beijing was sacked again.


Finally in 1911 a team of people from the south led by the vaguely Christian socialist Sun Zhongshan [known to us as Sun Yat-sen] pulled off a revolution.  But to get control of Beijing they had to make a deal with a northern general named Yuan Shikai and make him President of the new Republic.  Yuan hadn’t really bought into the spirit of the thing, however; at the end of 1915 he proclaimed himself the Emperor Hongxian! This was too much for most of the Chinese, and revolts broke out on every hand; Honxian abdicated as emperor and returned to the presidency, and conveniently dropped dead a few months later.  China dissolved into a number of ‘warlord states’ (1916-28).

The ‘official’ government was whoever was controlling Beijing, but Sun Yat-sen and his team controlled Guangzhou.  Sun died in 1925, and his successors, led by Jiang Jieshi [known to the West by his name in his native language, Chiang Kai-shek] began marching northward in 1927 to reunify the country.  They captured Nanjing, Shanghai, and Beijing; they established their capital in Nanjing and renamed Beijing Beiping (i.e., Northern Peace).  But at this time there was a falling out between the Nationalist and ‘Communist’ sides – the Communists holed up, at first, in the hill country south of the Yangtze, but in 1934-35 their position became untenable and they, over a year, did the ‘Long March’, a campaign that took them west, around the west side of Sichuan, and eventually to the area of Yan’an in northern Shaanxi, where they built the bases I have described in my other post.  Here Mao Zedong emerges into leadership, and figures such as Zhou Enlai and Zhu De appear.

It is to be noted that both the ‘Communist’ and Nationalist governments of China regard Sun Yat-sen as a founding father.

Another bigger problem then surfaced.  Japan had passed through a fairly liberal period in the late Meiji and the Taishoo eras (1912-1926), and Sun Yat-sen and some of his cohorts had actually gone there to study and raise support; but then Japan turned toward militarism.  In 1931 Japan occupied Manchuria and made it a client state.  In 1937 full-scale war broke out [it could be considered the actual beginning of World War II] and the Japanese moved to conquer all of China.  They overran Beijing and the seaports fairly quickly [see Rape of Nanjing in my earlier post] and controlled the Huanghe to just beyond Luoyang, and the Yangtze to Yichang, by mid 1938.  Then they bogged down into the three cornered war for Yan’an and Chongqing [where the Nanjing government had taken refuge] as there were still two separate governments vying for control of China.  Once Japan made war on Britain and the U.S. on December 8, 1941, the British and Americans began supplying the Chinese from India through Burma until the Japanese occupied northern Burma, then by an airlift over the Himalayas called the Hump.

In August 1945 Japan abruptly surrendered, and the areas they had occupied became a frontier of opportunity for both governments.  The cities were reoccupied by Jiang, while the farmers, the vast majority, tired of greedy landlords, tended to favor Mao’s side.  Soon the Chinese Civil War resumed.  The ‘Republic’ side maintained itself for a while, but President Truman, who had freely launched the Cold War on other fronts, finally concluded that the Republic was too corrupt to be worth a massive American rescue.  In January of 1949 Beiping and Tianjin fell to Communists; in April they breached the line of the Yangtze and captured Nanjing, the capital.  After this the situation deteriorated quickly.  On October 1, the Communists proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in Beiping, which was restored to its old name of Beijing.  The Republican government fled from Guangzhou to Chongqing to Chengdu, and then flew to Taibei, Taiwan.  [They had already managed to take many of the treasures of Chinese museums out to Taibei, where they can be seen in a museum there, I have been told.]

I will not go at great length into the disasters of the Great Leap Forward, in the late 1950s, which led to the death of a lot more people than the Japanese invasion, and the Cultural Revolution, in which the more sophisticated Zhou Enlai intervened to save much of the important cultural heritage of China from being destroyed.  However, after Khrushchev denounced Stalin in 1956, Mao was displeased that he had not been told; and in 1960 all the Soviet advisers and technicians were expelled, and the Chinese finished the Nanjing bridge themselves, as I have pointed out.  Mao, a crude man, distrusted Zhou, and when Zhou fell ill in 1976 may have conspired to withhold medical treatment from him; but Mao followed Zhou to the grave later that year.

After a power struggle the helm was taken by Deng Xiaoping, who declared, “To get rich is glorious,” and converted China into a sort of a capitalist-fascist state, still calling itself ‘Communist’.  He began to tilt away from Mao’s Legalist philosophy and to take a look again at discredited Confucianism.  He also began the notorious ‘one-child policy’, which has been eased but not eliminated in our time.  But in any case, China has been transformed; the people do not have much political freedom or freedom of expressions, but they have a lot of the consumer freedoms they care about; and they do not seem to demand the sexual ‘freedom’ which has become so important in the West.

When we went through Mao’s mausoleum [unlike Lenin’s you don’t have to go downstairs to see his body] people were still buying flowers and putting them nearby.  Why do they do this?  I think that they recognize that in many ways Mao was a bad guy, but the fact that he brought an end to the 110 years of humiliation [from the First Opium War to 1949] covers a multitude of sins in the eyes of the Chinese, for whom ‘face’ and ‘respect’ are very important things.  I compare [and I suspect so do many Chinese] Mao to Qin Shi Huang Di; however, I compare and Deng and his successors to the Han dynasty, which followed him and also turned from the Qin Legalism back to Confucianism.  But, in the intellectual community especially, many are now taking a serious look at Christianity!

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