The Major Dynasties of China: Part 2

By Christie Hoerneman

The 2008 Summer Olympics were held in Beijing, the capital of China. While China has been in the news recently and people are aware of some current events occurring in the country, not many realize that China has a long and complicated history full of changing dynasties. To mark the 2008 Beijing Olympics, this second article of two will introduce people to the dynasties that mark the last 729 years of Chinese civilization.

Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)

For almost one hundred years after the Song Dynasty, China was ruled by Mongolians. The conquest of China in 1279 was made possible by Genghis Khan's expansion of the Mongolian empire. Genghis was able to conquer from Korea on the east coast of Asia all the way to the Caspian Sea during the time he was great khan from 1206 until his death in 1227. Genghis was able to conquer such a vast area by uniting and militarizing the Mongol and Turkic tribes while ignoring the traditional tribal affiliations. The reorganized military's greatest strength was that it could endure many hardships while on a campaign and move over vast stretches of land at great speeds. Once Genghis passed away, his third son Ogödei took control of Mongolia and began his campaign into Northern China. It was not until Kublai, Genghis' grandson, that the conquest of the Song was completed. Kublai, who reigned form 1260-1290, ruled a prefecture in the area around Beijing before being named Khan.

In 1264, Kublai transferred the capital from Karakorum in Mongolia to Beijing (then named Dadu), gave his dynasty a Chinese name—Yuan—and established Chinese court rituals. In 1268, Kublai, on the advice of a former Chinese commander, began to prepare for an invasion south of the Yangtze River. Kublai's defeat of the Song dynasty was completed in 1279 when the last of the loyalists were defeated in a naval battle and the last Song prince drowned. Unlike many conquering armies, the Mongols did not force the Chinese to adopt their ways. They allowed the Chinese to read and write books, and the average Chinese were allowed to worship the gods of their choice. While the Mongolian leaders did not force their culture on the Chinese, life was not always easy for ordinary Chinese. Many Chinese suffered under high taxation rates and had their land taken away so Mongolians could settle in China. In addition, some Chinese were forced into serfdom or slavery and sent into parts of China far from their home.

Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

The Ming Dynasty was founded by a poor peasant, Zhu Yuanzhang, better known by his imperial name, Taizu. He was the first commoner to become emperor in 1,500 years and was one of the most influential individuals in Chinese history. In 1352, Taizu joined a rebel group where he rose quickly in the ranks and took command of the troops in 1355. Thirteen years after being named the commander of the rebel troops, Taizu invaded and gained control of Beijing and declared the Ming Dynasty and set the new capital at Nanjing. With complete control of China, Taizu used his power to lighten the burden of the government on the poor by ordering a full registration of the population and land in order to distribute taxes more evenly over the population. He also gave land to army families, which numbered around two million, so they could be self-sustaining. While Taizu showed a compassion for the poor, he was not as sympathetic towards the commercial and scholarly elites. He imposed heavy taxes on families living in the Southeast forcing many of the wealthy families to move to Nanjing in order to escape the high taxation rates. Many of the reforms that Taizu made caused many difficulties later in the Ming Dynasty, and major restructuring was needed to correct the problems.

The Ming Dynasty saw literature and popular culture flourish with the expansion of the publishing industry. Some of China's greatest classical pieces were written and widely distributed during this time. Included in these classics is The Peony Pavilion, which is a story of a young woman who dreams of and falls in love with a scholar. Her longing for him eventually leads to her death, but before she dies, she buries a portrait of herself in the garden. The young scholar from her dream finds the portrait of her and falls in love with the girl. They meet again in one of his dreams, and his love eventually brings her back to life. Another piece of classical literature from the Ming Dynasty is The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which takes place during the turbulent end of the Han Dynasty and the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period. It tells the story of the marital adventures of rivals vying for power.

During the beginning of the dynasty, China employed a tribute system whereby it received goods in return for aiding loyal states. Europe did not play much of a role in these early years. However, during the latter part of the dynasty, Europeans began their great exploration of the world. These explorers opened up new markets for Chinese goods, such as porcelain and silk. Increased outside contact also meant that new crops, such as peanuts, sweet potatoes, and maize, were introduced into China allowing for population growth. Along with new goods came new ideas. Western philosophies and ideas, including Christianity, were introduced into China by explorers and missionaries.

Qing Dynasty (1644-1912)

The Qing Dynasty once more saw foreign rule of China. The Manchus were able to take control of Northern China and declare the Qing Dynasty with the help of Mongolians and Ming generals, who defected with their armies in 1644 after the Emperor committed suicide in Beijing. Then in 1662, the Manchus defeated the last of the Ming allowing for full control of China. The Qing Dynasty saw the expansion of China into a vast multi-ethnic country that, for the most part, has not changed. Taiwan, Chinese Central Asia, Mongolia, and Tibet were all absorbed into China during the Qing Dynasty.

The Qing Dynasty saw the creation of one of the greatest works in Chinese fiction, Dream of the Red Chamber (also known as Dream of Red Mansions) by Chan Tsao. The novel, which was first published in 1791, tells the story of the wealthy Jia family and family politics, but it focuses primarily on three young cousins' lives. The novel portrays not only the wealthy Jia family, but through minor characters also represents people from all walks of life. It also depicted the ideal woman as being sensitive, elegant, and delicate.

During the Qing Dynasty, relations with Europe dramatically changed. During the late Ming/early Qing, Europeans wrote favorable accounts about China and conducted trade based on the wishes of the Chinese. However, once Great Britain became a major trade partner with China in the eighteenth century, China's relations with Europe began to dramatically change. The major turning point in relations with Europe came after the Opium War (1840-1842), which set a precedence of unfair trade agreements, including a most favored nation status for Great Britain. This meant that any trade agreements that were bestowed on other nations by China would automatically be granted to Great Britain.

People's Republic of China (1949-present)

The early 20th century saw the collapse of Imperial Chinese rule, Japanese occupation, and a struggle between political ideologies. The civil war between the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communists, led by Mao Zedong ended in 1949 with the victory of the Communists and the expulsion of the nationalists to Taiwan. The Communist Party renamed the country the People's Republic of China and set about making changes. Major campaigns to change China included collectivizing agriculture, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. The Great Leap Forward (late 1950s) was designed by Mao to turn China into a powerful and industrialized nation that would surpass Western countries in terms of industrial output. While the concentration on industrialization had some positive outcomes with the construction of vital projects, such as bridges and railroads, the Great Leap Forward was overall very destructive on the country, causing widespread famine.

The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was devised to reignite revolutionary feelings and purge the Communist Party. Students organized groups, named the Red Guards, in response to the call for revolutionary action. These groups emphasized loyalty to Mao, targeted individuals perceived as intellectuals or bourgeois, and campaigned against anything foreign. Also during the Cultural Revolution, many schools and universities were closed allowing students to focus their time in the Red Guards. Throughout the Cultural Revolution, educated urban youths were sent to the countryside for an undetermined amount of time for their "reeducation," which was meant to bring country and city youths and the educated and uneducated together. The youths, who were unused to the rural way of life, were typically given the more difficult tasks that no one else wanted.

With the passing of Mao in 1976, the Cultural Revolution officially came to an end. In 1978, Deng Xiopeng came to power and set about education and economic reforms, including taking apart the collective agricultural units. While Deng implemented much-needed reforms, his legacy is marred by the tragic events of Tiananmen Square, after which, he retired from political life. In recent years, China has become an economic powerhouse and with 1.3 million people, is viewed as a lucrative market for foreign companies. The summer Olympics in Beijing is a testament to how much of a world player China has been and will continue to become.

Now that you have some basic information on the last dynasties on China, check out these titles available at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library:

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
A fictional account of two young boys sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution for re-education. To help them pass the time in the countryside, they read forbidden Western classics in Chinese translation. They also meet a young seamstress whom they educate with the Western classics.

The Cambridge Illustrated History of China
Ebrey, a professor of History at the University of Washington, has provided a great resource on Chinese history that covers all aspects of China and its culture from prehistory to the present.

The Dynasties of China
Gascoigne has written a good book that provides compact, informative histories of the major dynasties of China.

The Peony Pavilion
The story of a young woman who dreams of and falls in love with a scholar. Her longing for him eventually leads to her death, but before she died, she buried a portrait of herself in the garden. The young scholar from her dream finds the portrait of her and falls in love with the girl. They meet again in one of his dreams, and his love eventually brings her back to life.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms
The novel, written during the Ming Dynasty, takes place during the turbulent end of the Han Dynasty and the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period. It tells the story of marital adventure of rivals vying for power.

Wild Swans
In this part memoir/part family history, Chang recounts her grandmother's life as a warlord's concubine, her mother's life in the early Communist party, and her own life growing up during the Cultural Revolution. Her work will bring 20th Century Chinese history alive!

Web Resources

Chinese Propaganda Posters
A look at propaganda posters encouraging the re-education program, which made educated city youths move to the countryside for an undetermined number of years.

History of China: Table of Contents
Provides a good overview of the major time periods of China.

The first of these two articles on Chinese dynasties can be found here.