This post is very long. It covers the full span of the full history of China all the way from 2070 BCE from the beginning of the Xia Dynasty up until the ravages of the 20th century. After being in China, I developed a passion for its history and have been working on this since. If you are interested in the History of China, you can read it. It not, feel free to skip this 8,600 word piece of writing.
China today is a bustling country that is making the curve back to a global superpower. Throughout the great history of this amazing land, there have been triumphs and tragedies, births and deaths, all mingled together for thousands of years. But there is a tale behind that modern China, a China that is millennia old and a story that goes back so far that we almost don’t have any records of it. Being in China, we had to learn about one of the most captivating, enchanting, and most influential histories that our Earth has to tell.
China began like all groups on the planet. A divided hunter gatherer nation split between tribes that we don’t know the names of. There are only stories of this time, legends and myths telling of the time before China’s first dynasty: The Xia. These tribes would have lived in the Yellow River plain, on the banks of the Yellow River in central China. This river was essential to the beginning of the great power that changed the world. All four of the great prehistoric civilizations of our world started on the banks of rivers. The Nile, The Euphrates, The Indus, and The Yellow River. These four rivers nourished the beginning of sophistication as we know it. But as this great Chinese river was also the source and beginning of society in the East, it was also the cause of destruction. The Yellow River has killed millions with its great floods, even as recently as the 19th century. There was one famous flood, around 2100 BCE that has a great story attached to it. It goes like this. There once was a leader named Yu. One day, the great river flooded and killed many with the rising water. Yu went to stop the flood. He did not rest for 13 years until he returned home triumphant, having stopped the great flood. And so he became King Yu The Great, the first emperor and founder of the Xia Dynasty. His Dynasty lasted from 2070-1600 BCE, until Jie, the 17th emperor of the dynasty, rose to power. He was a corrupt ruler, a tyrant and opressor who brought about the fall of the Xia Dynasty, which was supplanted by the next dynasty in China’s History: the Shang.
The interesting thing about the Xia was that there is no actual proof that they existed. They most likely did, but perhaps the stories that have been told were fantasized by storytellers or a later dynasty. There is a chance that they were entirely mythical. When most people think about the first dynasty of China, they envision the Shang. Not the Xia, because there isn’t authentic proof. They weren’t mentioned in old Chinese texts or on the dragon bones of the Shang. The earliest records of them are actually from speeches by leaders in the Zhou Dynasty, the dynasty that succeeded the Shang. There is speculation that the story of the Xia originated just for the Zhou to give context and flavor to the story of their dynasty. The Zhou explained how they replaced the Shang, just as the Shang had supplanted the Xia. They possibly could have invented an entire dynasty just for that. But the story of the Xia is only a tiny piece in the grand story of China.
The next dynasty in the history of China are known as the Shang. Since it is really hard to tell so far back if there really was a Xia dynasty, they are considered to be the first in a long line of Chinese dynasties. They lived from 1600-1046 BCE, emerging directly after the Xia fell. The Shang resided in Central-Eastern China. Their capital was Anyang. The Shang are famous because they came up with a fully developed primitive form of Chinese writing with thousands and thousands of characters. Out of this form of writing came the modern script for Chinese today, with somewhat fewer thousands of characters. And for me it is hard to imagine the Shang writing. All those years ago, so many characters, their massive script held an important connection to the past, to the ancestors.
The Shang used bones from animals to practice a form of divination that spoke to their past, that communicated with their ancestors. The divination would go like this: They took a bone or shell and drilled heated holes into one side of the piece. On the other, strange cracks then appeared. The Shang would then translate the cracks into their script to read the replies of the ancestors to their questions. In the 1930s a devoted scholar by the name of Dong Zuobin studied these bones with a huge amount of devotion. And he found a lot of information about the Shang Dynasty including facts about their calendars, rulers, and rituals. The Shang had a characteristic that has lived in China for as long as can be remembered, and that practically defines modern China. Respect for the ancestors. Today there is a city named Shangqiu, which means ruins of the Shang. In the time of the Shang, it was called Shang, or place where the ancestors were worshipped. And it is still called Shangqiu, even to this day. The emperor would go there to worship the ancestors, as explained in the title of the city. So far back, the people of China were still linked to their ancestors. State and ancestors were one and the same.
The Shang believed that the will of heaven or the judgment of the ancestors was told in the stars. And to really understand how to run China, they first had to interpret the stars. The stars were powers from heaven. The stars, or the will of the ancestors, revealed the ancestors’ judgment on their rule. The Mandate of Heaven, or a ruler’s right or merit to rule, was decided by the ancestors.
And when Di Xin, the last emperor of the Shang dynasty rose to power, heaven spoke. Di Xin was horrible, like a villain from a fairytale. He was wicked and when anybody disagreed with him, he had them put to death. Heaven spoke in a star configuration that happens once every 516 years. How it happens that this constellation rose when Di Xin did, heaven commanding that he must be overthrown, could have been a coincidence. But the people of China didn’t think so. Soon after heaven’s order, all of Di Xin’s allies turned on him and brought their armies upon his palace. And so ended the Shang dynasty.
The Zhou Dynasty followed the Shang, living from 1066-256 BCE. Each of the dynasties grew bigger than the last. The Zhou were the largest state that China had ever had up to that day. And they fulfilled the Mandate of Heaven. China had learned its lesson from Di Xin. And because of that, the Zhou prospered.
But China is like a puzzle, being broken apart and then put together again with the same pieces over and over again. And the puzzle of the Zhou broke apart. The Middle Land descended into war, seven states and leaders all warring against one another for dominance of China. These clans fought from 475-221 BCE. They were as follows: the Qin, Han, Jin, Wei, Zhao, Qi, Chu, and Yan. It was during this time of chaos that a great symbolic figure of China was born. He altered the way the Chinese thought and still think today. His name was Confucius. It is quite a story how such an amazing person emerged out of a not-so-great time in history. But he still taught rulers and people how to be virtuous. He still contributed to society. Read my other post: Great Philosophies to learn about Confucius.
But only one of the states could triumph. And the man who secured China sure did triumph. His name was Qin Shi Huangdi.
Qin Shi Huangdi became the first empire of a whole China in 221 BCE. He “resolved to base Chinese society not, as heretofore, upon custom and local autonomy, but upon explicit law and a powerful centralized government.” He burned many Confucian books and killed many Confucian scholars, as to not have his rule compared to and judged by the rule over China of the past. He maintained order with swift and deadly punishments, hoping to create an eternally peaceful world free of war.
There is an interesting view on the Qin’s conquest of China. The Qin were almost three times the size of the Zhou. They stretched China’s known borders to farther than the Shang could have ever imagined. After the Qin, the dynasties ruled over a much more whole China, a rule that might not have come to be without the Qin. So possibly the fear and force that was the mortar for the Qin was actually quite necessary for the grandeur of China.
And the Qin began the building of a world wonder that is known by people across all the seven seas today: The Great Wall of China. An absolutely massive wall, both long and high, very effective to keep out the “barbarians” that the people of China saw in the tribes of Mongolia and Siberia.
But as vital as the Qin could have been, they were also practically the shortest-lived dynasty. Only a mere three years after the death of the first Qin emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, the puzzle pieces of China shifted. In 206 BCE, a rebel peasant named Liu Bang founded the next dynasty in the history of China: the Han.
The Han were the second imperial dynasty, and the first balanced one. During the Han, the world became more and more connected, one big storybook instead of ten. China’s history mingled with that of Europe. Under the Han in 130 BCE, the great Silk Road, an amazing path that went through Central Asia on the ground, and across the Indian Ocean on the seas, was founded. The Han first reached out to the West, exchanging customs and culture. When the Silk Road was founded, the Romans were only on the rise in the West. China was ahead in the world. After the Han, the next major dynasties would improve and expand this trade.
“The Han were like the Roman Empire of the East.”
But the splendor and the Golden Age of the Han was doomed to end. In 189 CE, a time of a series of very young emperors began. During the last years of the Han, the young emperors would have to rely on others such as elder relatives and eunuchs to help them rule. In fact, most of the power of the state didn’t even lie with the emperor anymore. And all the young emperors’ counselors were bent on taking the throne and ruling China. The government was corrupted. Soon after, the period of the Three Kingdoms would begin.
“The Three Kingdoms formed when the Han royal house declined. The Han royal house declined when the eunuchs abused the sovereign and officials subverted the government.”
The people didn’t like this corrupt arrangement. Around this time, Zhang Jiao and his brothers Zhang Liang and Zhang Bao were leading the Yellow Turban rebellion, one of the biggest in all of Chinese history. Now the number of followers participating in the Yellow Turban Rebellion rivaled that of the Han army. Massive groups of people would parade through the streets. I could imagine that the crowds would stretch as far as the eye could see.
“The firmament has perished, the Yellow Sky will soon rise; in this year of jiazi, let there be prosperity in the world!”
-Yellow Turban Rebellion motto
It took 21 years for the rebellion to finally be suppressed.
But the Yellow Turban Rebellion did succeed in tossing China into turmoil. The end of the Han Dynasty was marked by a time of 31 years, during which Emperor Xian ruled over a divided China. The Yellow Turban Rebellion began before China became divided, and was suppressed by the Han while China was divided.
China still technically belonged to the Han, but not for long. For a brief time China was split into many groups, all believing that they were right or that they should rule China. After almost two decades of fighting, three of those groups came to each control a third of China. The map was a lot more simple. But the great Han Dynasty had ended.
Civil War broke out. The state of Wei controlled Northern China. The state of Shu occupied South-Eastern China. And Wu stood strong in South-Western China. Of all three, Wei by far had the largest military force. And they strongly believed they were the rightful rulers of China.
In 208 CE, Wei’s massive army led by the warlord Cao Cao marched South with the goal of swiftly uniting China. Shu and Wu saw this attack coming, and their leaders Liu Bei and Sun Quan formed an alliance to combat the threat that advanced from the North. But even with their combined forces, their army only numbered 50,000, compared to Cao Cao’s 200,000.
Later that year, Cao Cao’s forces met with those of the Southern states at a decisive location for a key battle: Red Cliffs. But with amazing battle strategy and the fact that Cao Cao and his troops were not adapted to the climate of Southern China, the forces of the South were able to burn most of Cao Cao’s fleet and send his army running for the hills.
Wei would not get the chance for such a strike again. Those three dominating forces went on to expand and fully wipe out the other groups to the West. Wei, Shu, and Wu were locked in a stalemate. In 220 CE, the period of the Three Kingdoms officially began. Over the years, each of the three leaders lost and won land from each other. Then finally, in 264 CE, after years of fighting to no avail, Shu was ground down and finally fell to Wei. The leaders of the North must have been delighted. After decades of nothing following a humiliating defeat, they were truly on their way to unifying China.
In 266 CE, the Sima family forced the Cao to abdicate, but quickly finished their work. They invaded the Shu to the Southeast, proclaiming themselves as the Jin Dynasty. In 280 CE, China was united under the frail Jin Dynasty, and they ruled in that state of frailty up until 420 CE.
The period of the Three Kingdoms was one of the bloodiest in all of China. Tens of millions died in war. The population decreased by nearly 70%. I’m quite sure China was very happy to be finally in a state of peace.
The Jin were short lived and did not exert much influence on China. Half way through their rule, the state was being destroyed from the inside because of political turmoil, corruption, and internal conflicts. And they were falling from the outside as well. In the north, on the barren Eastern Eurasian Steppe, a massive confederation of nomadic tribesmen named the Xiongnu were ready to attack China. They took the capital, Luoyang, and thanks to them and many uprisings and rebellions, the Jin were pushed back to the south. They had great plans to reconquer the north, but were delayed each time by the death of some military leader or other setback. Many, many “commanderies of immigrants” had to be made for the thousands of people fleeing from the chaos in the north.
The Jin ended in 420 CE, still as a frail dynasty, never reaching a height of prosperity or splendor. Emerging from their shattered ashes were other kingdoms, in the North and the South, vying for rule over China.
Though in that time of vying for power and conquering lands, the arts flourished. The complexity of almost all Chinese art reached amazing new heights, and especially in the South. The dynasties of the South were richer, founding schools and institutions of all kinds of learning. Literature was vibrant in the South, the words flowing across the pages like a great river of thought, passing from mind to mind. And in the rich stability of the South, Buddhist and Taoist mentors taught new things.
It shocks me how in such a time, one of China’s most unpeaceful, there were still beautiful parts of the land, still great imaginations forging new ideas that pushed the Middle Kingdom to be great. Technological advancements undreamt-of by the West at the time, calligraphy flowing in new ways, and paintings and tapestries decorated and designed in beautiful new patterns. And then China would unite again, the puzzle pieces reforming in a new configuration: The Sui.
The Sui brought many things that China needed. Unification, mostly. In 581 CE, the North of China was united under Emperor Wen of the Sui. It was so important that China was finally united. After over a lifetime of war, in 588 CE, the Sui amassed an army of over half a million and prepared to face the dynasties of the South on the Yangtze river. The South was no match. The Sui had united China. Halfway through China’s time of newfound unification, a golden age of prosperity began. Buddhism was widespread. The population skyrocketed. Perhaps The Sui’s greatest accomplishment was beginning the Grand Canal. Their capital, Chang’an (modern day Xi’an), was the center of many things because of the canal. It was the world’s oldest artificial river, one that had only just begun. In the future the Tang dynasty up-sized the canal, making it even greater than before.
The Sui also tried to add more to the Qin’s Great Wall. But the economical strain was too much, and to do so would mean to have to bring many workers from all over China. And then after losing a war against a Korean kingdom, the situation only got worse. They were becoming poor, and they had to be fighting wars in Korea as well as Vietnam. And then in 618 CE, only 37 years after the beginning of the Sui by unifying Northern China, the Sui were gone.
Succeeding the Sui were a very famous, influential, and well known dynasty: the Tang. Fortunately, there was no period of great and tragic wars in between the Sui and the Tang. The year the Sui fell, the Tang arose. The year was 618 CE.
The people of the Tang lived in a time of boundless possibilities. The population once again skyrocketed. The Silk Road, first founded in 130 BCE by the Han, became an even more important route upon which the East and West could exchange incredible ideas, goods, and foods. The Silk Road made China global. The Tang brought an age of even more spectacular international connection. And best of all, they had a broadened openness to other cultures.
As I think about it, it would have been just unbelievable and such an amazing thing for the emperor of the Byzantine Empire to speak with the emperor of China, and Byzantine ambassadors to come face to face with the great emperor of the Tang Dynasty.
There were two huge cities in China boasting populations many times the size of an average European city: Chang’an and Yangzhou. The great city of Chang’an was laid out in an organized and strict fashion, but rich in pavilions, gardens, temples, and fancy, sometimes royal palaces. But Yangzhou was the heart of commercialism in China. The Sui had begun the Grand Canal, setting the Tang on a path that would make them connected very well with India, the Middle East, and the West. The Tang upsized the Grand Canal to a size never dreamed of before. Thousands of ships would sail through the waters each day going to the Levant, Arabia, India, or down the coast of East Africa.
Barges full of silk, tea, and many other goods of all types would be all over the place now. China was the dead opposite of isolated. Central Asia and India were very connected. Islam was accepted in China. Mosques and temples were built. Buddhism was now one of the three great Chinese philosophies alongside Taoism and Confucianism.
The streets of Chang’an had fruits, vegetables, and exotic recipes from Central Asia and Afghanistan. It would be a truly amazing shock to experience the change that China went through. In your childhood, you would see people of Chinese backgrounds eating Chinese food. When you would become older, merchants from all over the world would greet you on the streets.
But China did not just change with food, goods, and religions. The Tang changed what it meant to be Chinese. Today, China is a home to people of all religions and all ethnic backgrounds. The Tang started that. China adopted customs that people passed on to their children. And so the children grew up with a different view of the world than they normally would have.
And even though Tang was as prosperous as could be, it fell apart like most dynasties, plagued by rebellions and outside forces. The canal flooded and pirates sailed the China Sea. They were just overstretched. They were trying to suppress rebellions at the same time that they were fighting in Korea, Vietnam, and even in the Middle East with the rising Islamic Caliphates. To me, it almost seemed like a dramatic change in the Tang. Fifty years earlier, they welcomed the spread of Islam and its believers. Now they were fighting wars against the people they had once welcomed and shared stories with.
“Last year we were fighting out to the North beyond the Great Wall, and this year we’re fighting far out in the West on the Kashgar river. We’ve washed our blades in the streams of Parthia, and grazed our horses amid the snows of Tian Shan. But the beacon fires are always burning. The marching and fighting never stops, nor does the dying. You should know that the sword is a cursed thing that the wise man uses only if he must.”
-Li Bai, Tang poet
And in this busy time, they lost contact with the West. It must have felt like the Tang were opening their doors to new people to exchange customs, only to be too busy that they had to regretfully close those doors. Sadly, it was only in the 1800s that China would once again meet with Europe and the rest of the world. The Tang withdrew their forces from the West in 766 CE, marking a time of very little outward connection for over a thousand years.
Meanwhile, a great rebellion fueled by revenge came crashing down from the North, led by the brutal warlord An Lushan. The current emperor at the time was not a good one, as is the case with all the last emperors of the dynasties, and he was too caught up in his personal love life to care that tens of millions of people were displaced or slaughtered. An Lushan crushed the golden international age of the Tang, and left the puzzle pieces shattered with broken spirits of never being put back together again. The Mandate of Heaven was lost.
After the official fall of the Tang in 907 CE, China was as divided as it could be. About ten “dynasties” were scattered about, each just trying in every possible way to dominate their neighbors. Many groups, some with names after old dynasties like “Qin” or “Later Zhou”, were getting almost nowhere in this bloody period of conflict. But then, as always, one of the dynasties rises over the others to unite China in a golden age of prosperity. This time, it was the Song.
The Song were founded out of the Later Zhou, in the Northeast part of China. All of China had their eyes on the Song as in a matter of about 20 years all the people then lived under the Song, the next great dynasty in the history of China.
The great peace and prosperity of the Song began in the city of Bianjing (modern day Kaifeng). The lifestyle was more vibrant than any other dynasty, certainly more vibrant than the Tang. Under the Tang there were strict curfews, such as you had to be back in your ward by 600 beats from the Drum Tower. Not in the Song. In the Song, people were allowed to wander the streets long after dark, enjoying fast food and shopping for silk and other items.
The Song was an era of administrative sophistication, of one of the most advanced economies in the world. Food, housing, education, science, everything improved. In the West, history is seen as the start and end of different empires and civilizations. In China, the Song were only the latest in the history of one civilization, a great and mighty civilization that has gone through many a period of peace and disorder.
Bianjing was a new amazing capital, coming with a new amazing dynasty.
“A million people thronged the streets. There were restaurants as far as the eye could see. Everywhere there was music in the air.”
“What we would give to see that age again.”
To imagine, a city built for the people, bursting with joyous life, 400 years before the European Renaissance. It was an unimaginable feat that the Shang or Qin would only fantasize of in their dreams. It was truly a time of peace.
A relative paradise, where people could learn, read, shop, and eat to their hearts’ content. My worries would just melt away. great astronomers, mathematicians, and scientists would add new inventions to Bianjing each year. Women’s rights, huge universities, cookbooks, literacy, civil and social value: all were amplified to great heights under the Song. It must have been an almost perfect time. And amazingly, more than a third of the world’s population lived under such splendorous conditions.
Even the Song military was powerful, numbering about a million. But from the North, Jurchen invaders swept down like a powerful river, flooding and destroying homes until they reached Bianjing. And so a great siege began.
“An age of glory passed like a lightning flash. The troops of the Northern barbarians appeared as if they had dropped from heaven. Tartar horses paraded in front of your banqueting hall, and trampled pearls and emeralds into the fragrant dust. What a waste of time it was for great artists to carve your name into polished cliffs. The mandate of heaven passed from you, but you didn’t see. Times change and power passes. It is the pity of the world.”
-Li Qingzhao, Song poetess
In 1127 CE, the Song transformed into the Southern Song, millions of refugees fleeing to the South, where the Song, amazingly strong as ever, administered Lin’an (modern day Hangzhou) as the new capital of the Southern Song. The Song had retained the Song dream. China had long valued things like harmony, morality, and wisdom. As much as it had hurt to lose Bianjing, they built Lin’an in its glorious image. The Song were still the Song.
And they were even able to push back. Though only for an incredibly brief time, the Song reconquered the North. But this angered an enemy even greater than the Jurchen invaders: the Mongols. The Song had upset Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan. And that was a mistake and would be the end of their dynasty. First the massive Mongol hordes came crashing down upon the Jurchen invaders from the North, and then came down to the Song. The Song held their last stand at Lin’an, where their navy was defeated as the sky was filled with flaming arrows and boulders. And in 1279 CE, the Mongols had ended the Song dynasty.
Kublai Khan founded the next Chinese dynasty in 1271, which was bigger than any before it: the Yuan. Its borders stretched from Northern Burma past Mongolia to Southern Russia. And it stretched as far West as modern China. But being big wasn’t always the best or most powerful. Granted, the Yuan rule was cosmopolitan, and Marco Polo did think the “Empire of the Great Khan” was astounding, but it started to decline very soon after it had begun.
It was a lot of work ruling such a huge dynasty and taking of all the responsibilities that came with it. Kublai Khan proclaimed a new emperor, his heir, with the great task. But his heir died before he did. Soon he too fell ill and died. After Kublai Khan’s death in 1294 CE, Temür Khan, the next emperor, failed to be even half as great as Kublai Khan. Temür Khan corrupted the Yuan, and then Külüg Khan plunged the dynasty into an abyss of financial troubles. Two failed attacks on Japan weakened them, and then four more emperors, each one worse than the last, ended the dynasty in 1368 CE.
When I thought about the Mongols invading China, I imagined that China would have changed dramatically because of new cultures coming from the North. But in a kind of metaphorical way, China invaded the Mongols. The Yuan did not leave anything of significance in China. China didn’t become so much Mongol as Mongol became China. The Yuan army was even mostly composed of Song soldiers, another sign of how Mongolia almost gave itself over to China. It just shows me even with how powerful the Mongols were, they were still stopped by the Chinese culture. They didn’t even try to eradicate it.
And because the Mongols didn’t do any destroying of Chinese culture, China was able to continue on right after the Yuan in a period of new government. Thus began a new dynasty, The Bringer of Light, the Ming.
And the man who brought that light was none other than the poorest peasant in all of China, Zhu Yuanzhang. His parents had given him away, and he was left to fend for himself, rising in the ranks of peasant societies, beating others peasants in fights and winning victories against the government. He was a rebel. And he gave himself a fearsome title: Hongwu, meaning “above all mighty in war.”
If I were to give him three traits, they would be: ruthless, brutal, and genius. And with that genius part of him, he founded a glamorous and incredibly stable age of China. As he became increasingly more powerful and well known amidst the chaos of the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, he built his stronghold in the modern-day city of Nanjing, eventually beating everyone and everything that came at him.
Under the Hongwu emperor, Ming law was stable and secure. But is was also severe. Harsh punishments would befall those who disobeyed the new and powerful Ming law. And so the nation was kept in check.
But after the Hongwu emperor was gone, he would not be there to reinforce those rules. And so when he died in 1398 CE, there was a debate on who would be the next emperor. The Hongwu emperor had named his grandson to be the next emperor, but the boy’s uncle also wanted to rule. And so a fight broke out. Though unfortunately, and against the Mandate of Heaven, the boy’s uncle, or the Yongle emperor, as he was now known, ascended to the throne.
But this was against the previous emperor’s will and that of heaven, so the Yongle emperor had to rule with fear. A scholar named Fang Xiaoru bravely said he would rather die than write the proclamation that stated the emperor’s legitimacy to rule. And he was horribly punished.
The Yongle emperor established his capital in the growing city of Peking (modern day Beijing), the capital China identifies with today. And just like the past couple dynasties, you had to connect the Grand Canal to the capital. The grand canal was upsized to even greater heights. More ships sailed through its waters. And many more goods were transported.
It was under the Ming that China set out on the biggest expedition ever, during which a huge fleet of huge vessels were dispatched across the known Ming world. They were called the treasure ships, the biggest wooden ships to ever sail the seas anywhere on Earth. Five hundred feet long and over 200 feet wide, their massive sails billowed day and night, pushing the huge ships across the roiling waves. The fleet was lead by admiral Zheng He. There were 60 of the huge ships, with almost 30,000 crew.
They used stern rudders, magnetic compasses, and watertight compartments, all Chinese inventions used as far back as the Tang Dynasty, to navigate their way across the great sea. Their goal was not war, but to project Chinese wealth and power across the world. The monstrous vessels went all over Southeast Asia, to Sri Lanka and India, as far East as the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, and even down the coast of East Africa. They went to every corner of the Indian ocean.
And with the great exploration came interesting finds, such as lions and giraffes. But as fun and interesting as it must have been to encounter new recipes and tame new beasts, the Chinese felt they were much better off spending their time focusing on China, and on important thoughts such as social values.
The Chinese were not ones to try to dominate the world, seeking new lands and cultures. Because to them, China was the world. I find it beautiful that even though the land of China has been invaded, divided, fought over, and plagued, the Chinese still come back to their traditions in their land. They did not see the point of conquering Africa, even though they easily could have, because it did not matter to them, as it was not China. The British, on the other hand, went out conquering and establishing colonies on every known continent they could get their hands on.
The Ming focused on protecting China by expanding and building much of the Great Wall we see today. They founded rich cities like Suzhou that soon became very popular for the goods that were produced there. Instead of breeding giraffes or lions, they manufactured silk, cotton, porcelain, and lacquer–things the Chinese knew how to make better than anyone else.
In 1582 CE, a man from the lands of the West came to China to begin an interesting exchange of lessons. His name was Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit who came to convert China to Christianity. I imagine it would be hard to convert a nation such as China that for almost two thousand years has been practicing its own religions, religions that don’t even believe in a god, to Christianity. Matteo Ricci did not succeed, but a respectable 80,000,000 (about 6%) Chinese today are Christians.
But Matteo Ricci’s interactions with China are more than just his preaching. His journal showed his fascination and interest in China. In it, he described the Ming as the “best governed state on Earth.” And China had continued to stand strong. When Ricci died, China had converted him, instead of Ricci converting China. It was the Mongols all over again.
“Though they have a well-equipped army and navy that could easily conquer the neighboring nations, neither the King nor his people ever think of waging wars of aggression. In this respect it seems to me that they are very different from the peoples of Europe who are forever disturbing their neighbors and entirely consumed with the idea of supreme domination.”
What immediately struck me as off was that he called the emperor of China a king. Even though this Italian stayed in China for 27 years, he still called the emperor a king as if they were in Europe and just one of many kingdoms. This shows how different East and West were and how difficult it was for one to truly understand the other.
But Ricci taught China about the West. He shared a map of the entire world, showing the Chinese the grand scheme of things. Western ideas challenged the Ming system of thought. It was the very beginning of the rise of the West and the fall of China.
The emperors after Ricci’s death were absorbed in their life, the life of the rich, keeping to the Forbidden City doing as they pleased. And it was only predictable that the dynasty would fall after a time of royalty like that. Epidemics, famines, rebellions, pirates, bandits, and many industries on strike ensued. It even seemed like Mother Nature was angry as well. The Yellow River flooded, trampling small towns and wrecking anything in its path.
And in the North, opportunity beckoned for the Manchu “dynasty” of the Qing. They saw the Ming’s troubles and decided that now was the time when the Manchus would successfully conquer China. And in 1644, the Manchus took Beijing, swiftly followed by the rest of the Ming Dynasty.
“As I think about the things that I did in the past, I write them all down to beg forgiveness. In life, everything has a payback. The rags I’m wearing now are payback for the fine furs and silks that I once had. The straw that I sleep on is a payback for the soft beds. The smoke in my eyes and the dung in my nostrils, payback for the voluptuous fragrances of the past. This sack on my shoulder, a payback to all those who used to carry me. For every kind of sin, there is a kind of retribution.”
“I was nearly 50 years old that year of 1645. My country was shattered and I had lost everything. Looking back it was as if my life under the Ming had been a dream.”
-Zhang Dai, Ming writer
It was a devastating invasion from the North, but at least it united China (again). And that unification would bring on the era of the last imperial dynasty of China: The Qing.
Under the Qing, the population tripled and the area of the dynasty doubled. In fact, it was the Qing who defined the borders of modern China. And under such a vast area, a vast kingdom of a great diverse multi-ethnnic culture thrived because of who founded it. The Manchus of the North established a great Chinese dynasty. It was rich in trade and business in cities like Yangzhou, the capital of commerce in the Tang Dynasty, and on the Silk Road.
After the Tang Dynasty had fallen, China had lost much of the astonishing trade and connections they had with the West. That connection would not be fully restored until the 18th century. And the 18th century had arrived in the form of British sea vessels, a symbol of a new Western maritime power. The British would change the course of Chinese history forever.
But the British were not in China for invasion or war. They wanted in on the Chinese market. They wanted silk, porcelain, and above all, tea. But like Matteo Ricci, the British were fascinated by the civilization the Chinese had created.
“China is picturesque beyond comparison. The rice paddies, the fields of sugar cane, the tea plantations. The common people of China are patient and industrious, cheerful under the severest labor. Hardy and loquacious, they are by no means the sedate, tranquil people they’ve been represented.”
-Sir George McCartney, British Statesman
But the British had a problem. The Chinese and China as a whole was a self-reliant nation. They had no need at all for the petty trinkets from the tiny island off the coast of Europe.
“You, O king, live far away across many seas. Yet, driven by the humble desire to share in the blessings of our culture, you have sent a delegation, which respectfully submitted your letter. You assure us that it is veneration for our celestial ruling family that fills you with the desire to adopt our culture, and yet the difference between our customs and moral laws and your own is so profound that, were your envoy even capable of absorbing the basic principles of our culture, our customs and traditions could never grow in your soil. Were he the most diligent student, his efforts would still be in vain. Ruling over the vast world, I have but one end in view, and it is this: to govern to perfection and to fulfil the duties of the state. Rare and costly objects are of no interest to me. I have no use for your country’s goods. Our celestial Kingdom possesses all things in abundance and wants for nothing within its frontiers. Hence there is no need to bring in the wares of foreign barbarians to exchange for our own products. But since tea, silk, and porcelain, products of the Celestial Kingdom, are absolute necessities for the peoples of Europe and for you yourself, the limited trade hitherto permitted in my province of Canton will continue. Mindful of the distant loneliness of your island, separated from the world by desert wastes of sea, I pardon your understandable ignorance of the customs of the Celestial Kingdom. Tremble at my orders and obey.”
-Qinglong Emperor of Qing China, letter to King of Britain
The British searched for something–anything the Chinese would buy from them. And then in the late 1700s the British found something the Chinese would buy in vast quantities: opium. The British knew that they were selling China a poison, but if they did nothing, the British economy would literally face disaster. That is how much the British relied on the Chinese trade.
Opium was dangerous, and a threat to the social lives of many Chinese. And when the emperor found out that millions of Chinese were smoking opium, he vigorously made actions to stop the trade. In 1839 CE, China made opium illegal and either burned all the opium or dumped over one thousand tons of it into the sea.
The Chinese saw the opium trade as an act of aggression from the British. They asked the British why they did this and where on Earth their conscience was. And because of Chinese ethics, they could not understand how the British could do such a thing as sell other nations so much opium or anything like it.
The British needed a new plan. This plan came as attacks. The Chinese had sturdy fortresses built along the shores in case of something like this. But the range and firepower of the fortresses was surpassed by British cannons. Their highly mobile ships unloaded troops with muskets onto Chinese soil. And in a way, the British won. China had to pay the British all the money caused in military damage, just handing over unfair amounts of gold and silver.
China didn’t see it coming. And they flat out underestimated the British. And I can’t stop thinking about what if the Chinese never shared the secret of gunpowder with the West. The British would have swords in hand as they rushed up against the heavily gunned fortresses of China’s coast. British bows or catapults would fire at huge Chinese cannons in thick stone strongholds. The sharing of that secret was part of the undoing and the downfall of the great Chinese civilization. China was, for the first time, behind.
In the early 19th century, Western ideas were mingling with the ancient customs of China. The fortresses that the Chinese had used to blast at the British sea vessels were dark and uninhabited. It seemed like China had given up on defending itself from the foreigners. And the foreigners were coming into China by the thousands. The Chinese were forced to open up cities like Canton (modern-day Guangzhou) and Shanghai to European visitors. Many Westerners were living there permanently, born and raised in China, never having even been to Britain. In all this chaos, you would imagine that the Chinese had enough problems on their hands.
In the isolated mountains of the South, a dangerous rebellion brewed. A couple of years past, a young student named Hong was given a pamphlet preaching Christ. After seeing his name, Hong, meaning “flood,” in the story of Noah and the flood, he believed himself to be the Chinese son of God. He became absorbed by the Christian texts, reading them day after day. At the time, the Qing government was no longer great and was not taking care of its people. The Christian texts spoke to him. In them they told him to not tolerate the unjust rule of the Qing. So Hong began the Taiping Rebellion.
Isolated in the mountains, under a time of widespread poverty, Hong amassed tens of thousands of followers from all over the land. Many Chinese were very poor, and chaos and confusion reigned throughout the land, the Middle Kingdom torn between many mind-racking decisions. They could not focus their attention on anything. And when they were finally able to turn their eyes toward the Taiping Rebellion, it was too late. In 1853 CE, the “son of god” and his army captured Nanjing, one of the greatest cities under Qing China. And the Taiping Rebellion now had a very defensible position, with Nanjing’s tall walls protecting them. The Taiping established a system of classlessness into their new state in the South. Oppression and a restricted society was sturdy and strong. But the Chinese dynasties always had a way of putting down rebellions, even the ones that threatened all of the Celestial Kingdom. The worst war of the 19th century took place between the Qing and the Taiping.
What the Taiping brought about was nothing other than trouble and suffering. After retaking Nanjing in a hard struggle, China could put all of its attention on the Western powers that were growing in influence in China.
An increasingly Western China was taking shape. When the British arrived, the Chinese looked majestic compared to Europe. But now it was the Chinese who were wallowing in poverty, and the British that owned the big houses and mansions. It was like the chess board had been flipped, Britain playing in the position of China, and China playing in the position of Britain. And it was no longer just the British. France, Germany, Russia, and even Japan were living in China. They had all rudely barged their way in.
And then something happened that made the Chinese very angry. The Europeans demanded that a piece of Beijing the size of the Forbidden City was to be handed over to them. Each foreign power would be given a part of that piece. They would govern and administer it themselves. And so the Legation Quarter, as it was called, was instituted. This was outrageous. China certainly didn’t deserve any of what was happening.
The Boxer Rebellion rose up in 1899 CE, wanting a 20th century free of foreign influence. And they came right up to the foreigners themselves. The anti-foreign, anti-Christian peasant movement besieged the Legation Quarter for 55 days.
The dynasty was doomed, torn between two worlds, a huge responsibility to rest on someone’s shoulders. The very last emperor of China was a two-year-old boy, a symbol of the weakening state. In 1911 CE, the last dynasty of China came to an end.
A republic was formed in the place of the Qing. But in such a time, it was nearly impossible to lay down a good foundation for the future. And the situation only got worse. With the treaty of Versailles, Japan was unfairly given a part of China in the North, in Manchuria, from which the Japanese would launch a full scale invasion of China. The new republic didn’t have many choices, not thinking deep into their past and remembering the ancient traditions that had long held China intact. And so began the ravages of the 20th century.
After the Japanese began to invade China during WWII, no Chinese child knew a year of peace. Unspeakable horrors were committed against the Chinese in Nanjing. It was a time of unrest and destruction. A time of war. Dark war.
In 1893 CE, a very influential and famous figure of modern Chinese history was born: Mao Zedong. He was the leading member of the Communist Party in China. At the time of the war, he was above all a communist and a revolutionary. He led the Communist Party of China, and with the nationalist party led by Prime Minister Chiang Kai-Shek, they fought the Japanese out of China. It must have been an incredible unification of two different groups of people in the same land fighting for the same cause.
But with the surrender of the Japanese in 1945 CE, China had two opposing parties each believing that the future China should be modeled with their ideals. And so civil war broke out.
The nationalists were backed with the support of the USA. They also had the gunpower necessary to triumph. But the communists were backed by something that everyone in China wanted and could gather around and agree on. They held onto the vision of a united land with happy prospect of peace and prosperity for all Chinese. And so many people gathering around one idea can be a powerful thing. The communists eventually forced the Nationalists to flee to the island of Taiwan. For the time, China was reborn under communism and Mao Zedong’s propaganda. And in 1949 CE, with the birth of the People’s Republic of China, the people were desperately looking towards the future. After the Japanese invasion, WWII, and the Civil War, optimism was in the air for a fresh start.
But the new oppressive China was fueled and driven by populism. Mao was disappointed by the people’s devotion to the traditions of the past. He felt like he had to wipe out that past, help China start anew in a way like never before. In 1966 CE, even an old Mao in his 70s was still determined to help China start over. So he began the Cultural Revolution.
In the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, Mao attempted to wipe out the old traditions of a China he thought was behind them. Family artifacts, paintings of ancestors and calligraphy were destroyed. Mao died in 1976, obsessed with power and his own views of the future and of communism.
Mao’s memory is still vibrant today. Many people believe that he was great. That what he did was necessary for the future of China. The killing, the commanding, the destroying, the remaking, all sacrifices to create the great potential of China today. And because of what Mao started, China only got richer and richer, a headlong rush into the future.
I think Mao, or just about any historian at the time, would not have been able to guess what China would have looked like in the 21st century. Modern China nearly did the impossible, transforming their land into something someone 50 years ago would not have been able to see in the future of China. China is now a thriving if autocratic society.
The millennia-old history of China is the grand story of an incredible civilization, one that has lived through foreign occupation, floods, famines, and periods of horrible division. But it always found its center, coming together in the form of different dynasties, and through the ages and eras, it has retained a sense of belonging, a sense of deep morality that has unified the Chinese people for so long.
And that’s the 4,000 year old epic of Chinese civilization.
Below: The Great Wall of China, began by the Qin and Expanded by the Ming
Below: Latest Iteration of the Temple of Heaven, Honoring the Mandate of Heaven