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Reflections 2013
Series 22
November 30
China VI: Four Chinese Dynasties: Qin, Tang, Ming, Qing


Four Chinese Dynasties   Western history has its dynasties. We've all heard of the Tudors, Romanovs, Bourbons, Hapsburgs, and more. But Western history isn't usually classified by dynasties. We use terms like Renaissance, Enlightenment, Middle Ages, but then more accurately work by centuries, talking about 12C art or 17C expansionism.


I'm not a sinologist—although if I keep it up, I could be in danger of ending up being one—but it always seemed to me I've heard a lot about dynasties in China and how the various historical eras are classified by the dynastic groups that were in power. Still, I had no idea which dynasties corresponded to which Western periods, or even which centuries. If you twisted my arm, I think I could have come up with one name, the Ming Dynasty, and that's because of that mysterious term "Ming vase", an object valuable enough that if you discovered one hidden in an antique shop, it's much better financially than discovering a Tiffany lamp. But just when the Ming Dynasty existed I had nary a clue.


That was my state of knowledge before Hong Kong. Then, I was so entranced by the modern Nan Lian Garden (by the way: Nan Lian = South-Lotus, or Southern Lotus) which was built in the style of the Tang Dynasty that all of a sudden I had two dynasties in my basket. But I didn't know what centuries that one existed, either. So it seemed appropriate to dig into a little sinology and find out just a superficial bit about Chinese dynasties, which of course means about Chinese history. On the assumption that most readers (probably not all) are similarly clueless, ye shall learn with me, but it is NOT my intention to go deeply into any one era.


The list I find of Chinese dynasties shows 24 of them, ending in 1911. They lead up to the declaration of the Republic of China in 1912 which lasted until the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and the subsequent declaration of the People's Republic of China on the Mainland and Nationalist China on Taiwan, which is the present status.


The very earliest of these 24 dynasties began close to five millennia ago (!!!) in 2852 BCE (Before the Common Era; = BC). I've given a perfunctory look through the list, and it seems to me that four dynasties are worth talking about for our simplified purposes, two older ones, plus the two most recent ones, but these two most recent ones cover much of modern history, since together they ran for almost 5 ½ centuries up to the republic.


Qin Dynasty   The first dynasty we'll mention is the Qin, and since it's now spelled with that Demon Q, let's turn to Wade and Giles who wrote that aspirated sound as CH', so that it's the Ch'in Dynasty. I don't see that anyone numbers the 24 dynasties in numerical order, but I will for our purposes. The Qin was the 5th Dynasty, which lasted only 15 years, the second shortest, during the 3C BCE, specifically from 221 to 206 BCE. To compare it to the West, in 218 BCE the Second Punic War began, which included Hannibal crossing the Alps to invade Rome. This was over a century before Julius Caesar reigned, which was in the 1C BCE.


An obvious reason to include the Qin in our short summary is that it was the first imperial dynasty. There had been a total of seven Warring States (GER: Streitende Reiche; FR: Royaumes Combattants) across what is now North China, and Qin Shi Huang, the king of the State of Qin, unified the six other states under his rule and declared himself the first Emperor of China in 221 BCE. It was the first centralized state in Chinese history. He actually did call himself the First Emperor, and his reign began over two millennia of imperial rule, until 1911.


This map shows the Warring States (Map by Philg88) as of c 260 BCE, which had been in turmoil for two centuries starting c 475 BEC until the State of Qin on the left unified them in 221 BCE. There are several points of interest here. Notice how the heart of China began at the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers. Notice the fortifications both to the north and between the warring states (there were even more walls than this). Notice that the capital of Qin, both before and after unification, was Xianyang, which, until it was destroyed, was on the north side of the Wei River, opposite present-day Xi'an.


I have Good News about this First Emperor and I have Bad News. It's because of the Good News that we're even talking about this dynasty, so I'll start with that. Just keep in mind that all the Good will be sorely tainted by the Bad.


● The First Emperor is responsible for the earliest form of what we call today the Great Wall of China, since he wanted to further fortify his northern border against the Mongols and others. There were already smaller walls (Map by Like tears in rain) left over from the individual states of the Warring States Period, walls which he joined and strengthened. This map shows more of those walls than the previous one, and the heavier dots indicate some of the Qin Dynasty improvements. We'll talk a lot more about the Wall when our narrative reaches there, but it was later expanded and rebuilt multiple times by later dynasties, so not much of the earliest walls remains. Still, the First Emperor is credited with the concept of one long wall.


● The First Emperor had a lavish mausoleum built to the northeast of what is today Xi'an. Records have always indicated the site of the huge city-sized mausoleum, which followed the plan of his capital, Xianyang, facing east under a huge funerary mound, but for reasons that will be explained when we get to Xi'an, huge and lavish as it may be, it has not yet been excavated. But what was discovered by accident in 1974 even further to its east (further from Xi'an), "guarding" and "protecting" the emperor from attack from that direction, is the world-famous Terracotta Army. Given that discovery, how magnificent must the tomb be?


● We think of the extensive system of Roman roads in Europe, but Qin Shi Huang built a massive national road system in China as well, in a similar era. He put together huge armies to extend his empire. 100,000 men went to the north and 500,000 went to the south. He was not successful in the north, and any gains made were rarely held for long. But in the south, he was very successful in conquering new territory. This map shows the Qin Dynasty in c 210 BCE (Map by Yeu Ninje), which is at about the 2/3 point of its tenure (221-206). Note that it didn't expand much beyond the Great Wall in the north, but in spots reached South China. Note the imperial roads emanating from Xianyang, including one all the way to Nanhai in the South. Nanhai today is part of metropolitan Guangzhou. Can you interpret its name? Nanhai is South-Sea, and is a reversal of the syllables of the island province of Hainan, so it's also a reference to the South (China) Sea.

 It strikes me how China over time expanded south and west, but never got very far north. Apparently that allowed a vacuum to exist over time which allowed Russia to expand across Eurasia in more recent centuries, so that, in my interpretation, Europe now reaches the Pacific.

But all these huge undertakings, especially in such a short period of time, required enormous amounts of manpower and resources, as well as repressive measures on the people. This led to the burning of Xianyang in 206 BCE and the fall of the Qin Dynasty. Four years later, in 202, the leader of the next dynasty built a new city on the other side of the river, which was at that time named Chang'an, and is today called Xi'an. This map of the Wei River basin shows the locations of both Xianyang and Xi'an across the river (Map by Kmusser).


Now with all those accomplishments, what's not to like? Well, where to start? All the above was accomplished at the expense of numerous lives. For instance, he conscripted huge number of peasants to work with captured soldiers on building the wall, and they were cut off from their families, often for life. The working conditions were horrible, and many died on the job, and they were unceremoniously thrown into the packed earth that was being used to fill the wall. I understand that if workers tried to escape they were then buried alive in the wall. For that reason, the Great Wall is also referred to as the longest cemetery on earth. I don't have similar information on the construction of the mausoleum, or even the highways, but given the reprehensible character of Qin Shi Huang, only the worst can be assumed.


It gets worse. At one point he came to the decision that, if he was the First Emperor, all history should start with him. Therefore, he ordered that all historic records of past events and past philosophy be destroyed in order to purge all records of previous dynasties. He outlawed and burned many books, which at the time consisted of bamboo strips bound together. Since scholars would have been knowledgeable about history, he had hundreds of them buried alive as well. This caused the historical loss of many philosophical theories, including the "Hundred Schools of Thought", which had developed in the previous 5 ½ centuries in an era of great cultural and intellectual expansion, and has been called the Golden Age of Chinese Philosophy. The destruction, burnings, and burials happened during the last years of the emperor's life, between 213 and 210 BC.


Qin Shi Huang preceded by a few centuries Caligula and Nero who were in the 1C CE, but his megalomania brings them to mind, with an additional touch of Hitler. Fortunately, it was his character that led to his undoing and death. There had been three assassination attempts, which made him paranoid. That, as well as his being the First Emperor and the "beginning of all history" made him obsessed with immortality. He kept on seeking magic elixirs so he could live forever, and as it turns out, he died on a trip to the eastern end of the empire, two months' travel from the capital, trying to get such an elixir of life from Daoist magicians. Reportedly, he ingested mercury pills which poisoned him. He was 49.


His death in 210 was followed by revolutions and war, and ironically, further destruction of historical materials. In 206, his capital of Xianyang was sacked and burned, including the imperial library and official archives. This destroyed the official copies that had been retained of the banned books and documents, as well as the Qin records that weren't banned, but approved, resulting in a huge cultural loss to China and to human knowledge in general. Between 209 and 207 there were two ineffectual successors to the First Emperor, followed by the coming of the Han Dynasty in 206 BCE.


Ah, but wait. There is one more legacy of the Qin Dynasty, one that we're using even as we speak. It's believed that the name Qin (Ch'in) was brought back across Eurasia to Europe to become the ancestor of what is now the Western name for Zhongguo, China, which, as we've seen, appears also in variations such as Chine, Cina, Kina, Xina, and more. Again, Zhongguo is the endonym and China et al is the exonym. (However, there are also those scholars who believe that "Sina" developed in Sanskrit much earlier than the Qin Dynasty.) It's my opinion that it doesn't have to be either/or. Even if the Sanskrit word arrived first in Europe, then the Qin Dynasty would have reinforced the name, so any argument begins to take on a moot quality.


What I can say it that we're very lucky that pinyin spelling didn't exist a couple of millennia ago, otherwise we might be talking about Qina and the Qinese, the various Qinatowns abroad, eating off the fine qinaware, maybe even playing Qinese qeckers . . .


Tang Dynasty   The next dynasty that interested me was the Tang, the 14th Dynasty, which lasted a full 289 years, from 618 to 907 CE. In Western terms it was from the 7C to the 10C, very parallel to the Norse Expansion in Europe between the 8C and 11C, and to Charlemagne, who was crowned in 800.


To be honest, if I'd ever heard the name of this dynasty before it hadn't registered. What deeply impressed me was visiting the modern (2006) Nan Lian Garden in Hong Kong and learning it was built in the style of a Tang Dynasty classical garden. You'll recall that I went back a second day to see the garden in the sunshine. I'm glad the Nan Lian led me into further discovery of the Tang. It's apparently one of the most notable of dynasties, and was largely a period of progress and stability. It's considered a high point in Chinese civilization, a golden age of cosmopolitan culture, literature, and art. It's considered the greatest age for Chinese poetry—two of China's most famous poets and many famous painters belonged to this age. Scholars compiled a rich variety of historical literature, encyclopedias, and geographical works. At this time, Buddhism became a major influence in Chinese culture. Among many notable innovations during the Tang was the development of woodblock printing. You may recall that I'm particularly interested in printing, and described in 2005/17 how Gutenberg developed movable type from the woodblocks that had been common in Europe. While I didn't see woodblocks in China proper, we saw an extensive collection of them at Sera Monastery outside Lhasa, Tibet, which we'll discuss when we get there.


The Tang capital was still Chang'an from before, presently Xi'an, at the time the most populous city in the world, with two million inhabitants in the metropolitan area. I made it a point when in Xi'an to visit the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, which dates from the Tang Dynasty, and even purchased my ceramic pair of Imperial Chinese Guardian Lions, reproduced in the Tang style, at their giftshop (more later). We also drove by the Small Wild Goose Pagoda, another monument dating from the Tang.


And, yes, to come full circle, the Tang period was considered the first golden age of the classical Chinese garden. New gardens filled Chang'an, inspired by classical legends and poems. They had artificial mountains and ponds, with small viewing houses or pavilions. Plant cultivation was developed to an advanced level. Even ordinary homes had tiny gardens in their courtyards.


The Silk Road (2009/33) from China to the West was the most important early Eurasian trade route. Although it had been initially formulated earlier, in the Han Dynasty following the Qin, it was not continuously in service. It was reopened during the Tang in 639 during a military push west, but was lost to the Tibetans back and forth repeatedly later in the 7C, in the 8C and in the 9C. Throughout the Tang period, the Tibetan Empire repeatedly cut off China's direct access to the Silk road, and then China would regain the northwestern territory it had lost. These lands contained crucial grazing areas and pastures for raising horses that the Tang Dynasty desperately needed.


As we've said in the past, many call the Silk Road the Silk Routes, because the land route deviated at some points, but there was also a maritime route, which is the way Marco Polo went home. All Silk Route connections with the West allowed the Tang to export its wares, for instance, to the Middle East, where Chinese goods such as lacquerware, porcelain, and of course, silk, were in great demand. Also via these routes the Tang gained new technologies, customs, and goods. From the Middle East, India, Persia, and Central Asia, new concepts of fashion, in ceramics, in silverworking. It was via the Silk Road that China eventually adopted the concept of sitting on stools and chairs, since earlier they had sat on floor mats.


While horses had always been part of Chinese culture—they were revered as a relative of the dragon--because of the Silk Road, horses gained significant military use, and became a significant symbol of prosperity and power. In this way, horses also had an impact on Tang art. The concept of burying horses in tombs had been practiced from early on. Even the Qin emperor, instead of burying actual horses, had hundreds of terracotta horses buried among the warriors. By the time of the Tang Dynasty, when the art of ceramics flourished, smaller pottery horses were buried in tombs, reflecting the Silk Road's influence on increased interest in horses and manufacturing ceramics. This is a Tang tri-color glazed figurine of a horse (Photo by Andrew Lih), and this is a magnificent example of a Tang yellow-glazed pottery horse (Photo by Editor at Large). Click to enlarge to examine the carefully sculpted saddle, the leather straps, and the ornamental pendants on the straps decorated with eight-petalled flowers and apricot leaves.


[In the interest of following up on Marco Polo, discussed in 2009/33 along with the Silk Road, but not particularly interested in going deeply into the Yuan Dynasty of that period, will we insert this comment parenthetically. While the Mongols had ruled territories all across what is now northern China for decades, it was only in 1271 that Kublai Khan officially proclaimed his Mongol Empire to be simultaneously the Yuan Dynasty of China. He then bore both the Mongolian title of Great Khan as well as the Chinese title of Emperor of China, reigning until his death in 1294. Marco Polo's 24 years in China were between 1271 and 1295, rather surprisingly parallel to Kublai Khan's tenure as Emperor. The Yuan was the first foreign dynasty to rule China, and it lasted under later Yuan emperors until 1368 as the 22nd dynasty, for a grand total of 97 years, at which point it was succeeded by the Ming Dynasty, as follows.]


Ming Dynasty   The Ming Dynasty, plus the one that followed, were the last two before the declaration of the Republic in 1911. That might sound trivial, but the two together lasted for almost 5 ½ centuries (544 years), so they cover half a millennium, or a good part of modern history.


The Ming Dynasty, the 23rd and next-to-last of all Chinese dynasties, by itself lasted 276 years from 1368 to 1644 (or 1662; after Beijing fell to the next dynasty, a Ming remnant survived 18 years longer in the south). In Western terms, figure the late 14C, all of the 15C and 16C, and half of the 17C, that is, the period covering the Renaissance into the Age of Exploration, including the early establishment of North American colonies.


The Ming was a period of orderly government and social stability. It was the last dynasty ruled by ethnic Han Chinese, as it was sandwiched in between the previous Mongolian Yuan Dynasty and the following one ruled by Manchus.


The first Ming Emperor reconstructed Nanjing and made it his capital in 1368. (He's the only Ming Emperor buried in Nanjing, and we saw his tomb.) Over 21 years and using 200,000 laborers, he built for it what was the longest city wall in the world at that time, some remaining portions of which we saw. In addition, in Xi'an, the existing wall I rode along the top of that completely encircles Xi'an is the 1370 Ming wall.


One of the seven Warring States that had been unified by the State of Qin was the State of Yan (Map by Philg88), whose capital had been the city it had conquered earlier called Ji. But then Ji was named Yan or Yanjing after the State (compared Beijing and Nanjing). In 1421, the third Ming emperor established this city as the capital, changed its name to Beijing, and constructed the Imperial City, at the center of which was the Forbidden City, and later the Outer City, all of which employed hundreds of thousands of workers. This construction included the Beijing city wall, now unfortunately almost completely lost. It was under the Ming that forced labor once again reconstructed and fortified the Great Wall (note on the map how close it is to Ji/Yan/Beijing), and the Great Wall one sees today in the area of Beijing is the Ming Wall, earlier versions having fallen into disrepair.


By the 16C, European trade in the Pearl River Delta, particularly Macau, brought new crops, plants, and animals into China, notably from the Americas. This included corn, potatoes, and the chili peppers that to this day make Sichuan cuisine spicy. This international trade created new demand for Chinese products. During the Ming there was a flourishing of literature, painting, poetry, music, and Chinese opera.


And so, with that elusive Ming vase in mind, we for a second time come full circle when we discuss ceramics during the Ming. China had always been a leader in ceramics to the point where English uses "china" or "chinaware" to refer to fine porcelain. The Ming Dynasty saw extensive expansion and innovation in ceramic manufacture, including acceptance of forms from abroad. There were new designs and shapes, some inspired by Islamic metalwork, further use of color and painted design. The use of cobalt for the typical blue underglaze was perfected, as well kaolin to perfect white areas. Enameled decoration, such as on this porcelain "goldfish" covered jar (Photo by Vassil), reached a high point and was greatly prized.


It was not only decorative innovations, but also economic ones, such as the late Ming development of a market economy, where porcelain was exported around the world to an extent not seen before. Highly typical was the cobalt-and-kaolin blue-and-white ware (Photo by Louis le Grand) that is so easily recognizable. And here is, from many pictures available, the requisite example of an attractive Ming vase (Photo by Gary Lee Todd).


Qing Dynasty   The Qing Dynasty is also spelled today with that Demon Q; WG spelled it Ch'ing. The other problem is that its name is so similar to the Qin/Ch'in, so be careful not to confuse Qin and Qing. It was the 24th and last imperial dynasty of China and lasted 268 years from 1644 (in the south from 1662) to 1911, when it was replaced by the republic. In Western terms, that was the last half of the 17C, all of the 18C and 19C, up to the early 20C. This corresponds to the American and French Revolutions, the settlement of Australia, the Industrial Revolution, Napoleon. Significantly for China, this also corresponds to the period of expansion of the British, French, Russian, German, and Japanese empires, and the increasing influence of the United States. Regarding this, note the next posting on Concessions in China.


We've said that, while China expanded to the south and west, it never made significant inroads to the north. The obvious exception to this is Manchuria. This map shows the region that has historically been associated with Manchuria. The lightest pink is Outer Manchuria, which, since the 19C has been a part of Russia—the Transsiberian Railroad's destination is the city of Vladivostok. The balance, referred to as Inner Manchuria, consists of two areas. Lighter pink is the part of traditional Manchuria that is now within China, but is part of Inner Mongolia. It's the deep red, centered in Harbin that is part of China directly. This map shows the two parts of Manchuria lying within present Chinese borders (Map by Quintucket). The pink area is today attached to the long gray area to its left to form Inner Mongolia, or the Mongolia Autonomous Region, and the red, subdivided into three provinces, while still referred to outside China as Manchuria, is known in China as Dongbei. Look at that word carefully to see "east-north" and you'll understand that the Chinese know it as "the Northeast". (You'll also recall that the northernmost of the new HSR lines today is the Beijing-Harbin HSR line, going directly into this area.)


Manchuria was the homeland of several Siberian (actually, the so-called "Russian Far East") nomadic tribes, including the Manchu (whence "Manchuria"), who spoke a language in the Altaic family, distantly related to Mongolian. Over time, control of the region varied between different powers including that of the Han Dynasty (which directly followed the Qin) and of the Tang. The Ming solidified control over Manchuria in the early 1400's. But starting in the 1580's, Manchu tribes began to unify, and eventually took over most of Manchuria.


In 1644, the Manchus seized control of Beijing and established the Qing Dynasty in China. But two centuries later, as the Qing was weakening, it was forced in 1858 and 1860 to cede what is now called Outer Manchuria to Russia, with the result that we usually don't consider this Manchuria at all any more, only Inner Manchuria in China is referred to as Manchuria in the West. In any case, with these border changes, China lost access to the Sea of Japan, which lies on the far side of Korea, towards Japan.


Over time, the Qing Dynasty became highly integrated with Chinese culture. It reached its height during the 18C, but then corruption, rebellions, natural disasters, and war losses to Western powers weakened the Qing during the 19C resulting in the "Unequal Treaties" that granted Western powers the right to form "Concessions" in Chinese cities. The long-term result of this was the decline of the Qing and declaration of the Republic. Thus the last three dynasties before the Republic were the Mongolian Yuan, the Han Chinese Ming, and the Manchu Qing.


The next posting will discuss the Concessions in China granted to foreign powers by the Qing Dynasty, and specifically the nine Concessions in the city of Tianjin, southeast of Beijing. The posting after that will refer back to Manchuria above to see how the Concessions there led to war, and ultimately to World War Two.

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