China’s Imperial Dynasties

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Podcast Transcript

China has a long and rich history. For over 4,000 years, China, or at least parts of what we would recognize as China, was ruled by a series of dynasties. 

These dynasties shaped the history of China and represented distinct eras in Chinese history, characterized by their unique political, cultural, and social systems.

The transition from one dynasty to the other often resulted in wars, and chaos. 

Learn more about the dynasties of China on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

What I’m hoping to cover in this episode is a very broad overview of Chinese history, as seen through the various dynasties that ruled China. 

The subject of Chinese history could easily take up an entire lifetime of study. Within each dynasty, there were multiple rulers, each of whom was different and had separate personalities.

A dynasty was nothing more than a hereditary monarchy where rule was passed down, usually from father to son but sometimes to some other relative. 

Dynasties sort of serve as chapters for Chinese history. They are convenient ways of dividing historical periods from each other. 

A few other things to note. The historic borders of China are not the same as the modern borders of the People’s Republic of China. There is a lot of similarity, but during certain periods, it was larger and smaller than it is today.

The dates of the various dynasties do not match up perfectly. Sometimes, there is an overlap as one dynasty was growing in power at the expense of another, and sometimes, there is a gap between dynasties when China splintered into smaller states. 

Within dynasties, there were sometimes multiple rulers, with one claimant from the same family ruling in one region while another relative ruled some place else. In some of the very early dynasties, the ruler may have only controlled a relatively small area compared to contemporary China.

So, with those caveats, let’s get started by going way back into Chinese history to the Xia (Sha) Dynasty. 

If you look at lists of Chinese Dynasties, you will sometimes see the Xia listed and sometimes not. The reason is that historians aren’t even sure if it really existed. 

If it existed, it would have existed from approximately 2070 BC to 1600 BC. 

There are no contemporary records from the Xia Dynasty, and most of what we know comes from legends and mythology. Supposedly, the first emperor was Yu the Great, who is remembered for his efforts to control flooding. 

The next dynasty, which existed from 1600 BC to 1046 BC, was the Shang Dynasty.  The Shang Dynasty existed roughly at the same time the Assyrian Empire existed in Mesopotamia. 

We have plenty of evidence of the Shang Dynasty in the archeological record. It was during the Shang period that Chinese writing developed.  The Shang Dynasty was centered around the Yellow River valley. 

The Shang had developed a very rigid social hierarchy with a king at the top, followed by aristocrats, peasants, and slaves. They also developed a complex religious system based on ancestor worship.

It is also sometimes known as the Yin Dynasty, but it appears they referred to their own state as Shang.

The next dynasty was the Zhou Dynasty, which reigned from 1046 to 256 BC. The almost 800-year reign of the Zhou Dynasty makes it the longest-lasting dynasty in Chinese history. 

The Zhou was contemporary with much of Ancient Greece, Persia, Babylon, and the early years of the Roman Republic. 

The Zhou largely spoke the same language and adopted the same cultural practices as the Shang.

The Zhou Dynasty is known as the period when Confucianism and Taoism were developed. The concept of the Mandate of Heaven, which was used to justify the rule of Chinese leaders, was also developed during this period. It was originally created to justify taking control of the Shang Dynasty. 

The Zhou Dynasty consisted of a western period and an eastern period. The Western Period went from 1046 to 771 BC, and the Eastern Period lasted from 771 to 256 BC.

Towards the end of the dynasty, it began to fragment, and it ushered in a period known as the Warring States Period with seven warring kingdoms.

There is one word I haven’t used so far to describe any of these early dynasties. That word is empire. 

That is because these early dynasties were more kingdoms than empires. 

The first Chinese Empire and the first Chinese Emperor arose from the Warrior States Period.  The leader of the Qin Kingdom was Qin Shi Huang, the founder of the Qin Dynasty. 

Qin systematically conquered all of the warring states and unified them under his rule. Qin is where the word China is derived. 

The Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an were built by Qin. Qin began construction on the Great Wall of China and also removed all of the walls between the various states. 

He also adopted a new title. Previously, kings of regions used the title wang, which would be similar to the English word ‘king.’ He adopted the title huang-di, which we would translate as emperor. 

The story of Qin Shi Huang I will leave for another episode to explore it more fully because it is a fascinating story. 

The Qin Dynasty didn’t last very long. For all practical purposes, it was defined by a single ruler.

After Qin died, the empire fragmented, and eventually, two claimants vied for power. The one who came out on top was Liu Bang from the Kingdom of Han. 

He took the title of Huang-Di and established the Han Dynasty, which lasted from 206 BC to the year 220. The Han Dynasty was concurrent with the last years of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. 

The Han Dynasty is considered to be a golden age in Chinese history. Confucianism became the state religion during this period. 

Between the years 9 and 23, there was an interregnum when the Xin Dynasty ruled, but things reverted back to Han control, and the period is often not counted on the list of Chinese dynasties. 

The Han Dynasty saw the rise of the Silk Road trade and the expansion of their territorial claims into Central Asia. 

When the Han Dynasty fell, China saw itself drift into a period of disunity and warring states. In particular, there was a sixty-year period known as the Three Kingdoms Period. The Kingdoms of Wei, Shu, and Wu all vied for control.

This is actually one of the most celebrated periods of Chinese history, largely due to the classical book “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”  There have been many TV shows and movies set during this period, including one of my favorite Chinese films, a 2008 film by John Wu, The Red Cliffs, which tells the story of the Battle of the Red Cliffs, which took place in the last days of the Han Dynasty, just prior to the start of the Three Kingdoms Period.

Sima Yan, the leader of the Jin, overthrew the kingdom of Wei and then preceded to defeat the Shu and Wu kingdoms to create the Jin Dynasty from 265 to 420.

This is one of the lesser-known dynasties because their unification was to be short-lived.

The Jin Empire became divided, which resulted in a period where China was divided between north and south from 420 to 589. 

It was eventually reunified under the Sui Dynasty. The Sui Dynasty was another short-lived dynasty that only ruled from 581 to 618. In addition to unifying northern and southern China, the Grand Canal was also built during this period. 

When the Sui Dynasty fell, Li Yuan, the Duke of Tang, assumed power and established the Tang Dynasty. 

The Tang Dynasty is largely considered to be the peak of ancient Chinese civilization. 

There was a brief 15-year interregnum where China’s only female emperor, Wu Zetiean, rose to power and attempted to establish her own dynasty, a story I’ve covered in a previous episode. 

During the Tang Dynasty, foreign trade flourished, and China saw many advancements in art, poetry, and technology. It was arguably the peak of Chinese poetry and literature, and it was during this period that Buddhism was introduced to China.

The Tang Dynasty lasted for almost 300 years, and when it fell, in part due to attacks from outside China, it was once again replaced with a period of disunity known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period.

The Five Dynasties were located in the North of China, and the Ten Kingdoms were in the South.

In the far north, where much of Mongolia is today, the Liao Dynasty was established from 916 to 1125. It was established by nomadic tribesmen who adopted Chinese customs and culture and is usually not on the list of Chinese Dynasties. 

The Song Dynasty was eventually able to unify most of China save for the far north and the Kingdom of Xi Xia in the far west. 

The Song reigned from 960 to 1279. Their period of rule corresponded with continued technical development, including many of the great inventions of China: paper, gunpowder, and the printing press. 

All of the Dynasties I’ve mentioned so far, for the most part, consisted of rulers who were ethnically Han Chinese. 

The fall of the Song Dynasty was due to the rise of an unstoppable force from the north, the Mongol Empire. 

The Mongols conquered all of China and established the Yuan Dynasty, an empire whose rulers were ethnically Mongol, not Chinese.

This was the Dynasty that ruled when Marco Polo visited China. 

Kublai Khan, the grandson of Ghegis Khan, established the Dynasty in 1271.  The Mongols ruled China for a little under a century until 1368. As with the rest of the Mongol Empire, it eventually fell apart due to infighting. 

After 100 years of Mongol Rule, China was once again unified under Han Chinese Rule. The new emperor was Taizu of Ming, also known as the Hongwu Emperor, who established the Ming Dynasty. 

The Ming ruled for over 300 years. It was during the Ming Dynasty that much of the Great Wall of China that exists today was built. Admiral Zheng He sailed to India, Persia, Arabia, and the east coast of Africa on his treasure ships. It was also the period that saw China turn inward and stop engaging with the outside world. A decision that would have enormous ramifications in the coming centuries. 

The Ming Dynasty lasted until the 17th century. For decades, there was conflict between the Ming and an upstart dynasty from Manchuria known as the Qing. 

There are multiple dates given for the end of the Ming and the rise of the Qing, but 1644 is usually given as the date when the Ming Dynasty ended and the Qing Dynasty began. However, there was fighting for another forty years. 

The Qing Dynasty was the last dynasty in Chinese history. They expanded the territory of China into Tibet, but they also had to deal with the problem of European traders who began showing up. 

The Europeans had little to trade that the Qing wanted, but the Chinese had a great deal that the Europeans wanted. 

In the 19th century, there was a series of lopsided deals that allowed Europeans to set up trading colonies on the periphery of China, as well as increase their influence over the country. 

A series of weak emperors and greater demand for Western-style democracy eventually resulted in the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. 

The last Chinese emperor and the last ruler of the Qing Dynasty was the Xuantong Emperor, also known as Puyi, who was dethroned at the age of 6. 

He was briefly returned to power for two weeks in 1917, and the Japanese established him as a puppet ruler for the state of Manchukuo which they controlled. 

He died in 1967 at the age of 61. 

The Qing Dynasty was replaced by the Republic of China, which existed from 1912 to 1949, and it was then replaced by a communist revolution that established the People’s Republic of China, which of course, still exists today. 

What I’ve covered in this episode is Chinese history when you zoom all the way out to maximum range. Within each of these dynasties are stories and battles and rulers and court intrigue that I couldn’t cover in this episode, and that I hope to do in future episodes. 

However, I wanted to give everyone an overview of the basic divisions of Chinese history as a reference point so I can refer to them in future episodes.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.

Today’s review comes from listener Uzair from Pakistan who sent me an email. They write:

Hi Gary, I don’t know if this is the right channel for the podcast reviews since I don’t have an Apple account and/or iPhone, etc.

I’m Uzair from Pakistan, and I’ve been listening to you for about 4 months, and guess what, I was recommended your show by “Curiosity Daily” which you are promoting these days. I’ve been listening to “Curiosity Daily” for more than 3 years, from the time of Cody Gough and Ashley Hamer as its hosts. Nate and Callie are doing a good job handling the podcast.

About your podcast, I absolutely enjoy your podcast. I can still recall your episode about earthquakes in Alaska, since I listen to you on way to my office while driving bike. Still that episode sticks in my mind. Keep up the good work.

Thanks, Uzair! Always glad to hear from listeners in Pakistan. Keep a lookout for future episodes that will deal with history of your region and of Pakistan itself. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.