During the subsequent two thousand years the leaders of the Chinese state would all be referred to as “emperors” and the country itself referred to as an “empire.” Yet since one dynasty continuously was replaced by another, there is little continuity in Chinese history and the struggles for political power resulted in both revolutions and prolonged wars. Much of the time competing dynasties ruled separate parts of the country, and several of the dynasties were not Chinese at all but Mongol, Manchu or something else. Despite this political diversity, there is a striking continuity when it comes to cultural values and presuppositions. Most emperors embraced Confucian ideals and were active participants in the various rituals which Chinese culture prescribed – including ancestor worship and offerings to Heaven at various times of the day, month and year. The emperors saw themselves as “Sons of Heaven” who ruled by virtue of a heavenly mandate. In addition, a large and rule-bound bureaucracy helped to provide a sense of continuity from one dynasty to the next. For our purposes, there is no reason to discuss every dynasty, but we can briefly discuss the most important ones, with a focus on relations between China and the rest of the world.
The rulers of the Han dynasty, 206 BCE–220 CE, were far more successful than the Qin when it comes to maintaining themselves in power, and the dynasty lasted for well over four hundred years. While the First Emperor may have established many of the imperial institutions, it was during the Han dynasty that the same institutions were consolidated and developed. The Han state developed a proper bureaucracy run by a professional class of administrators whose salaries were paid for by taxes on key commodities. In a sharp break with the cynical doctrines of the Qin, Confucianism was made into the official philosophy of the state and all administrators were supposed to read the Confucian classics and to serve the people with virtue and benevolence. The emperor was placed at the head of the administrative system, but in practice his power was always constrained by court conferences where his advisers made decisions by consensus. The Han state took charge of society and organized economic activities, including the building of roads and canals, and large state monopolies were established for the production and sale of salt, iron and liquor. The coins minted by the Han helped expand trade and they made it possible to pay taxes in cash rather than in kind. Han era coins, with their distinctive square holes at the center through which they could be strung together, were to remain the standard means of payment until the Tang dynasty. Not surprisingly, the Chinese still refer to themselves as hanren, “Han people,” and to their language as hanwen, “Han language.”
Speaking of trade, it was during Han that the caravan routes first were developed which connected China with Central Asia, with India, and the world beyond. Although the Roman empire and Han dynasty China had no direct contacts with each other, the goods traded along these routes did, such as Chinese silk which became a fashionable item among Roman elites and Roman glassware which ended up in China. The “Silk Road” is often used as a term for this trading network although the word itself is a nineteenth-century invention by a German scholar – besides, many more items than silk were traded here and there was never only just one road. The caravan routes brought foreign goods to China but also people and ideas, such as Buddhism which spread to China from India during the Han dynasty. But Central Asia was also the site of military engagements. The Han state was continuously harassed by a confederation of nomadic peoples known as the Xiongnu, and during emperor Han Wudi, 141-87 BCE, a large army was assembled to fight them. All male subjects were conscripted and all soldiers underwent one year of military training. Eventually the Chinese prevailed over the Xiongnu, but the people of the steppe would continue to threaten China throughout its history. [Read more: The Xiongnu Confederacy]
The Tang dynasty, 618—907 CE, is perhaps best remembered today for its cultural achievements. It was during Tang that arts like calligraphy and landscape painting first were developed, and when writers like Li Bai and Du Fu composed the poems which all subsequent generations of Chinese schoolchildren have been made to recite. Economically the country was thriving. China-wide markets in lands, labor and natural resources were developed, and many technical innovations took place, including paper-making and woodblock printing; there was extensive mining and manufacturing of cast iron and even steel, and trade was brisk along the caravan routes. Well-fed and prosperous, China’s population grew quickly, counting perhaps some 50 million people. The Tang capital, Xi’an, was probably the largest city in the world at the time. It was during Tang that the system of entrance examinations was conclusively established. In order to get a job as a government official you were required to pass a demanding test on Confucian philosophy and on the classics of Chinese literature. Since the imperial bureaucracy was the main road to social and economic success, the country’s elite effectively came to be selected through examinations. It was no longer enough to come from an aristocratic family or to have money.
Tang dynasty China exercised a strong cultural influence over all East Asian countries with which it came into contact. This was for example the time when Japan, Korea and Vietnam came to adopt a Chinese-style writing system and when Confucian philosophy and Chinese arts spread far and wide. During Tang it was very fashionable to be Chinese. At the same time, the Tang dynasty was wide open to the rest of the world, with goods, fashions and ideas entering China along the caravan routes. Through renewed contacts with India, Buddhism was further developed and indigenous Chinese sects such as Chan — what the Japanese were to call “Zen” — were established. While China was fashionable abroad, foreigners were fashionable in China. Chinese people dressed in foreign clothing and Chinese men married women from Central Asia. The Tang dynasty was a cosmopolitan empire where people from all over the world would mingle – Persian and Jewish traders, Arabic scholars and travelers, conjurers from Syria and acrobats from Bactria.
The Song dynasty, 960—1279 CE, was another period of economic prosperity and cultural flourishing, and a number of important technological inventions were made in this period too, including gunpowder and the compass. Making creative use of the invention of paper-making technology, the Song were the first to issue bank notes, and paper money helped spur trade. This was also when large manufacturing industries were established which produced consumer items for a market which included all of China. The Song dynasty was socially dynamic. Poor people could rise in the world and rich people could become richer still, and often members of the new affluent middle-class would established themselves as patrons of the arts. Scholars and connoisseurs of culture would gather in gardens and private retreats to view works of art or to recite poetry and drink tea, and there were lively, if more plebeian, entertainment quarters in all major cities. During the Song dynasty, literacy increased, books became readily available, and the study of the sciences, mathematics and philosophy made great strides.
In military terms, however, the Song emperors were far less successful. Like all Chinese dynasties they were menaced by tribes attacking them from the north, in this case above all by the Jürchen, a people from whom the Manchus would later claim their descent. In 1127 CE, the Jürchen captured the Song capital of Kaifeng and forced the emperor to retire. In an audacious move, the Song elite relocated their capital to the southern city of Hangzhou, just west of present-day Shanghai. Although they had lost much of their territory, and the defeat was humiliating, the economy continued to prosper. In fact, China’s population doubled in size during Song, above all since farming greatly expanded and since new species of rice were employed. The Song strengthened their navy and built ships that could travel to Southeast Asia and trade with the islands of what today is Indonesia. They strengthened their army too, and began using gunpowder as a weapon. Yet the military setbacks would continue. The Song dynasty came to a final end in 1279 when the Mongols under Kublai Khan overran Hangzhou, deposed the emperor and established a new dynasty, the Yuan, 1271-1368 CE.
Despite their spectacular success as conquerors, the Yuan dynasty lasted less than one hundred years and in 1368 the Mongols were replaced by the Ming, a dynasty led by Chinese people, that was to last until 1644. The Ming dynasty is another of the economically prosperous and culturally flourishing periods of Chinese history. The economic success was premised on trade in a domestic network which effectively linked every location in China with every other. There was now a mass market for consumer goods such as fabrics and food stuffs, as well as for prestige items such as porcelain and furniture. Since many of these items were produced in large series, many objects from the Ming period, such as vases and tea cups, are still with us today. In Hangzhou and in the neighboring city of Suzhou, rich merchants competed ferociously with each other in establishing and extending their gardens. The garden became a fashionable setting for social and cultural life. Meanwhile the Chinese state returned to its Confucian roots after the Mongol hiatus. [Read more: 1587, a Year of No Significance] The state examinations were reinstated and administrators were once again selected in terms of their knowledge of the Confucian classics. Yet the Confucianism which now was in fashion was a far more philosophically sophisticated version than previously. Neo-Confucianism, as the teaching has come to be known, was not content to provide aphorisms to guide statesmen but insisted on holding forth on matters of metaphysics.
Relations with the rest of the world were rather more complicated than during the Mongols. The Yuan dynasty had had its fellow khanates as its most important neighbors, and although relations with them often were strained, they were usually not hostile. The Mongols also had a very favorable view of trade and they had done a lot to strengthen the network of trading routes and to incorporate the Chinese sections of it with the Central Asian. The Ming, by contrast, had no similar convictions. There was little understanding among the Confucian elite of the value of commercial activities and they viewed foreigners with suspicion. Yet paradoxically, Ming China was also the time when Zheng He, 1371–1433 CE, set out on his remarkable exploits. On no fewer than seven separate occasions this eunuch in the emperor’s employ, brought thousands of vessels with tens of thousands of sailors on journeys of exploration and trade which took them to the Spice Islands and Malacca, India and the Indian Ocean, the Arabic peninsula and even to the east coast of Africa. [Read more: A giraffe in Beijing] Yet soon after Zheng He returned from these journeys all foreign travel was banned and all ocean-going ships destroyed. While Zheng He was a courtier, he was not a Confucian, and the Confucian scholars, in their wisdom, decided that foreign contacts on this scale were too disruptive. Although the policy on foreign trade would continue to fluctuate in response to power-struggles at the court, China increasingly turned in towards itself. Not coincidentally perhaps, extensive work on the structures known as the “Great Wall of China” took place at this time. [Read more: The Great Wall does not exist] When a new breed of foreigners – first the Portuguese and the Spanish, later the Dutch – began to appear on Chinese shores, the Chinese would trade with them and this is how American silver and crops such as potatoes, corn and chillies first were introduced. Yet this trade was restricted to a few ports in the south of the country, to certain parts of the year, and it was heavily controlled by the Ming state and by the local guild of merchants.
The Qing dynasty, 1644-1912 CE, which replaced the Ming was the last imperial dynasty. It was established by the Manchu tribes which overran Beijing in 1644 and the rest of the country in subsequent decades. In contrast to the Mongols, the Qing emperors adopted many institutions from their predecessors such as the bureaucracy and the entrance examinations, and also many customs, such as the elaborate rituals which the emperors were required to perform. Yet the Qing were at the same time intensely proud of their Manchu heritage. Manchu princes were taught how to ride a horse and shoot arrows, and at the imperial court in Beijing visitors were often treated to displays of equestrian arts or, in the winter, to skating competitions – skating being the Manchu’s national sport. The Qing rulers were Confucians in the ceremonial sense of all emperors, but they were also great patrons of Buddhist temples, especially of the form of Buddhism practiced in Tibet.
Two of the Qing emperors had particularly long and successful reigns. Emperor Kangxi ruled for 61 years, between 1661 and 1722, and his grandson, Emperor Qianlong, ruled for just as long, from 1735 to 1796 – when he abdicated as a gesture of filial piety in order not to end up ruling longer than his grandfather. These hundred plus years was a time of military expansion, when Taiwan was incorporated into the empire, together with vast areas to the north and the west of the country, including much of Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang. The Chinese made wars, if less successfully, in Vietnam and Burma too, and stopped the Russians from advancing southward from Siberia. Even if the state treasury suffered as a result of these campaigns, the economy of the country as a whole was thriving. Both Kangxi and Qianlong were patrons of scholarship and the arts and they consciously sought to ingratiate themselves with the Confucian elite. Kangxi’s name is associated with a great character dictionary which helped standardize the Chinese language, and on Qianlong’s orders a great anthology of all Chinese books was compiled – containing some 3,450 works in 36,000 volumes. Qianlong was also a prolific if not very talented writer in his own right, with over 40,000 poems to his name.
Yet the Qing policies on foreign trade closely mirrored those of the Ming. During Qing too there were prohibitions and control, and unusually for a tribe with its origin on the steppes of central Asia, the Manchus sought to restrict trade and to keep foreigners out. The response which Emperor Qianlong gave to the British ambassador’s request in 1792 that China open up its borders to British-made goods has often been quoted. “As your Ambassador can see for himself,” said Qianlong, “we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.” The British, however, did not give up as easily and returned again and again with similar demands, and eventually the diplomats were accompanied by gunships and soldiers. After having lost two wars – the First Opium War, 1839-42, and the Second Opium War, 1856-1860 – China was too powerless to defend itself. Meanwhile, the Taiping Rebellion, 1850-1854 – one of the bloodiest popular uprisings in history, in which some twenty million people died – weakened the country. In the second part of the nineteenth-century the imperial regime tried to reform itself and the country, but the reforms were resisted by conservative groups and they never gained traction. There were renewed incursions by the Europeans, by the United States and Japan, and eventually another domestic uprising would disposed of the entire imperial structure. A republic was declared on January 1, 1912, and the last emperor, Puyi, who was only 5 years old at the time, was forced to abdicate.