China Pt I. The rise and fall of the Middle Kingdom

By Rachel Bui

Published on: 25/09/2019
Edited by: Denis Leonov

At Asian Pioneers, we are always experimenting with new concepts and storytelling approaches. This series on Asia will be updated as further information, ideas and feedback land in our inbox. This initiative is an effort to build a shared understanding and to promote dialogue about Asia.

In this part of the Asia series, we reflect on the history of imperial China and the key cultural influences and institutions that inspire and give rise to modern China. We hope that readers will gain a better understanding of China and its complexity, the legacy of persistent institutions, cultural values and ethos, accumulated over thousands of years to form the Chinese civilization. While we try to provide as much insight on each era, we will focus more attention on the later dynasties as they are more relevant to the understanding of the Chinese identity, as well as the core institutions that are now part of China society.

The creation of Imperial China.

The middle kingdom of China is a vast and complex nation with over 5000 years of history; it is also the oldest surviving civilization in history. Chinese civilization dated back to the Xia dynasty (c. 2070-1600 BC). The official name of China originated from this tribal group of Han people called the Huaxia who lived along the Yellow River. Zhonghua — Zhong comes from Zhongguo (‘middle kingdom’) and Hua (which means ‘beauty’ in Chinese) from Huaxia.

Until the founding of Modern China, at least fifteen dominant dynasties ruled this ancient land  over its long and turbulent history. China was also home to Confucius, a philosopher who lived during the Zhou dynasty. His ideas on morality influenced the values and thinking in East Asia today. 

The beginning of China can be traced back to the ruling of the Zhou dynasty (c.1046-256 BC), which was the longest ruling dynasty in China through a feudal system. In order to maintain stability for many centuries, the Zhou emperors invented concepts and technologies such as the Mandate of Heaven and the written script. These innovations became important in the communication of values that tied Chinese society together. Not much is known of the Zhou empire as records were not well kept and written scripts were of limited supply during those times. The decentralization of power from Zhou imperial control to local dukes and marquesses led regional lords to take full autonomy of their fiefdoms. The warring of feudal states between different warlords and the imperial government would become a recurring pattern throughout China’s history.

The Spring and Autumn period (c. 722-476 BC) in China’s history was the transition period from the weakening of the Zhou’s reign to the Warring States period. The era was dominated by four feudal states governed by elite landing holding families — the Qin, Jin, Qi and Chu — and hundreds of smaller states also claimed independence as the Zhou empire gradually lost territories and control to regional fiefdoms over the centuries. Power struggles and internal conflicts between the elite families during this period were widespread and pervasive with the state of Jin partitioned further into the states of Han, Zhao and Wei, marking the end of the Spring and Autumn era. The dominant states were able to consolidate power after seizing the smaller city states, triggering a bloody era in the early history of China. 

The Warring States era (c. 476-221 BC) was turbulent and violent, lasting for about 250 years between the seven states: Qin, Qi, Chu, Han, Yan, Zhao, and Wei. An identity began to form within each of the states as a common set of values and thoughts was important to ensure stability, loyalty and patriotism. It was also helpful in providing motivation for military consolidation, innovation in warfare, and to establish a bureaucratic administrative system. Chinese cultural and intellectual movements thrived during this period, which led to the Hundred Schools of Thought. Taoism, Mohism, Confucianism and Legalism rose to prominence. Some of the best ancient Chinese philosophers such as Lao Tzu, Mencius, Mozi, Han Fei and Zhuang Zhou were from this period. This period introduced many warfare innovations such as iron and cavalry. Classic Chinese military strategies such as Sun Tzu’s Art of War were also written during the Warring States period. 

China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang eventually conquered all the warring states and merged them into one imperial empire. The Qin dynasty (c. 221-201 BC) lasted only under two decades, but it led to a profound change in China that still exists to this day. Qin, known for being a dictator and a tyrant, employed legalism to slowly conquer state after state, replacing them with a centralized, bureaucratic government. His military was known to be practical and ruthless in warfare yet, he was able to recruit very able men and was open to military innovation. 

After conquering and unifying China, Qin Shi Huang introduced reforms to standardize the different monetary, measurement, military and writing systems of the feudal states into one central system to increase efficiency, trade and commerce across the empire. In order to achieve this, books were burned and scholar persecuted. He also enlisted hundreds of thousands of peasants and convicts to build parts of the northern Great Wall of China in order to block out barbarians. The Qin dynasty became the first Chinese empire to introduce a homogeneous economic system and culture, which future Chinese dynasties continued to build upon. The Qin empire did not last long, and rebellions soon broke out, leading to the founding of the Han’s dynasty.

We are the Han people.

The Han dynasty (c. 202 BC – 220 AD) ruled for over 400 years. Majority of the current Chinese population identified themselves as Han Chinese. Liu Bang, also known as Emperor Gaozu of Han, founded the dynasty. The Han reign brought prosperity to China and was known to be a golden age. The famous Silk Road trade network was established during this era.

Although Chinese officials were chosen based on the recommendations of aristocrats, Emperor Wen of Han formally introduced the civil examination system to help classify recommended candidates. He also officially adopted the use of Confucius text in the examination system. Both Emperor Wen and his son, Emperor Jing preferred a thrift approach to governing, with minimal state interference. Taxes were low during their reigns.

The reign of Jing’s son, Emperor Wu marked another high point in the Han’s empire, resulting in a further expansion of China into the northern regions close to modern day Russia and Korea, doubling the Han’s empire at the time. He endorsed Confucian as China’s national philosophy, reduced elite corruption, eliminated tax burdens such as tolls and recruited talented commoners into his administration. The salt and iron industries were nationalized into state monopolies. Contacts with Europe increased during Wu’s rule. 

Han emperors following Emperor Wu were more modest and less effective at governing except for  the diligent Emperor Xuan. This led to internal conflicts and the rise of factions within the imperial court to gain control of power over time. The Han dynasty was interrupted by a brief coup from Wang Mang, nephew of Emperor Yuan’s wife who established the Xin dynasty. His reign separated the Western Han and later Eastern Han period, which was reclaimed by Emperor Guangxu, also known as Liu Xiu. His successors, Emperor Ming and Zhang were able rulers who cared about commoners and recruited officials with integrity into the court. Their administrations enabled a long period of prosperity and stability in China, similar to the Wen-Jing era under Western Han.

Chinese science and technology thrived remarkably during the Han’s golden reign. Paper, negative numbers, hydraulic-powered armillary sphere and the seismometer were invented during this period. Mathematical inventions during this period include solving problems with square roots, cube roots and matrix methods. The Han also invented the use of decimal fraction and Gaussian elimination to solve linear equations. Emperor Jing endorsed the Tao Te Ching as a Chinese classic while Emperor Wu was more invested in alchemy to fulfil his quest of becoming immortal. As a result, Taoist alchemists played an accidental role in the early development of explosives and gunpowder.

As with all long-reigned empires, by the end of the first century, the Han Dynasty began to weaken as a result of constant power struggles within the imperial court. An agrarian crisis coupled with natural disasters and poor fiscal tax policy to build infrastructure for the Silk Road led to rebellions such as the Yellow Turban Rebellion, and the gradual division of states by regional warlords. Consequently, this brings us to one of the most famous periods in China’s history — the Three Kingdoms.

War, peace and infrastructure.

The Three Kingdoms period (c. 220-280 AD) was a period in China history full of military intrigued but also full of bloodshed between the states of Cao Wei, Shu Han and Eastern Wu. Made famous by a Chinese literature novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms written by Luo Guanzhong, the era was known for brilliant political strategy and military tactics than its economic governance. It was estimated that about 40 million people died during this period due to war, disease and famine. 

This period was famous for its warlords and military strategists such as Cao Cao, Liu Bei, Sun Quan, Sima Yi, Guan Yu, Zhuge Liang, Dong Zhuo and Lu Bu.  While the period did not see much economic innovation, technological inventions did thrive during the 60 years of civil war with the invention of the wooden ox and improvements in the crossbow. The period ended due to the gradual decline of power held by the descendants of Cao Cao, Liu Bei and Sun Quan, the rulers of the three kingdoms. The eventual unification of China once again by Sima Yi’s grandson led to the beginning of the Jin dynasty.

The Jin dynasty (c. 266-420 AD) lasted for over 150 years. It was only able to unite China until the early 300s where the empire gradually weakened due to the uprising of the Five barbarians, which led to Jin’s loss of control of Northern China. A smaller Jin dynasty remained until about 420 AD. Taoism and Buddhism thrived during this period due to political instability and the disintegration of China once again into another longer period known as the Northern and Southern Dynasties (c. 420-589 AD). The entire period saw a significant Chinese population, about one out of six people, relocated from northern China to Southern China. The Northern and Southern Dynasties period ended when Yang Jian, a Han Chinese, overthrew the Emperor of Northern Zhou to become Emperor Wen of Sui.  

The Sui dynasty (c. 581-619 AD), was shortlived, only lasting for close to 40 years. After Emperor Wen’s death, his son took over as Emperor Yang of Sui and reformed the Chinese education system, bringing back Confucian education and developed the first Chinese civil service examination system to train bureaucrats. The jinshi degree was created during the Sui era, emphasising poetry and literature. The degree requires critical and creative thinking instead of rote memorization of the Chinese classics. Emperor Yang also started ambitious construction projects such as the Great Wall of China and the Grand Canal, linking Chang’an to Hangzhou and Beijing in order to ship grains and carry troops and military logistics. Expansionary wars with Annam and Goguryeo (part of modern Vietnam and Korea) were also undertaken but ended up as failures.

Due to the ambitious constructions and military campaigns, the heavy tax burden and labor conscription by the imperial court led to revolts and the dynasty’s downfall. Nevertheless, much was achieved during the short-lived dynasty with the spread of Buddhism throughout the empire and centralized reforms introduced such as the equal-field system to improve agricultural productivity and institutional reforms such as the Three Departments and Six Ministries system, as well as standardisation of coinage. Much of the reforms were adopted by the Tang dynasty, heralding in another era of prosperity in China’s history.

The golden period of Tang. 

The Tang dynasty (c. 618-907 AD) was a golden age period in China history that lasted for almost 300 years, slightly less than the Han’s rule. The founding emperor Li Yuan of Tang was a first cousin to the Yang Emperor of Sui who leveraged the failed war in Goguryeo to take the throne with the help of his daughter. Princess Pingyang organized and led her own army full of women, which played a critical role in the success of the campaign. Unfortunately, Li Yuan was usurped by his son, Emperor Taizong of Tang. Taizong turned out to be a well-respected leader who could utilize talent effectively, bringing in a prosperous age for China. 

Taizong was very capable in identifying and using talent, emphasising that he is not envious of others’ strengths and instead embrace them while overlooking weakness. By being frank with his advisors, Taizong was able to grasp a much better picture of his empire. He was a successful manager as he respected everyone’s differences and allocated them to the right roles and responsibilities. He also didn’t discriminate against foreigners, who brought innovation into the Tang empire from the West and treated the barbarians well, who would otherwise rebelled against him.

Taizong promised to do three things when he became emperor: learn from the success and failure of previous dynasties, seek virtuous advisors to help him govern the country and expel wicked men from the imperial court. He established the Department of State Affairs to execute and look after his six ministries which include finance, defence, justice, civil personnel, public works and external affairs.

The first half of the Tang dynasty was relatively stable due to the excellent management of Emperor Taizong and was deemed as a period of progress until the rise of the An Lushan rebellion. During this period, it is estimated that the Chinese population rose to 80 million people, thus enabling the empire to build armies and to keep barbarians out. China was able to maintain enough nomadic power to dominate inner Asia and to enable activities along the Silk Road to boost trade. Buddhism became a dominant religion during the Tang dynasty.  

The Tang dynasty was briefly interrupted by Wu Zetian (c. 690-715 AD), a former concubine of Emperor Taizong who later became the wife of Emperor Gaozong. Following his death, she deposed her two sons, Emperor Zhongzong and Ruizong of Tang to become China’s first and only female emperor. Unlike previous Tang emperors, the Wu Empress was more sympathetic towards regional China and implemented progressive, expansionary policies that were beneficial to the Chinese farmer population instead of Chinese aristocrats. She reformed the imperial examination system, opened it up to women and recruited anyone with talent to the court, as well as implemented an anonymous testing practice. Unfortunately, her military expeditions against the Tibetans and Khitan were failures. Emperor Xuanzong later helped to dethrone Wu and became the longest-serving emperor during the Tang Dynasty. 

Xuanzong’s reign led to the second half of the Tang’s golden age with low inflation while keeping a modest lifestyle in the imperial court. Xuanzong, having learned from his great grandfather Taizong, had talented advisors. The Xuanzong administration implemented responsible monetary and tax policies, shifting away from grain to cash tax and monopolise coinage and salt under the government’s control. The Tang Code was also developed at this time, and it became the Tang’s government rule of law. It was extremely influential and was adopted by later Chinese dynasties. 

Being an aristocrat during the Tang period holds enormous power as they were the elite educated class. Emperor Xuanzong founded the Hanlin Academy, where admitted scholars with a jinshi degree performed secretarial and literary tasks for the imperial court including interpreting Chinese classics. These classics were materials of the civil service examination system that scholars must memorized. Under the Tang administration, participation in the examination was only for aristocrats as artisans or merchant families were excluded. Though officials working in the imperial court do not have territorial power, cronyism still occurred via family ties.

The arts flourished during the Tang era. Chinese poetry thrived since being skilled in poetry was required for the examination system. Poets like Li Bai and Du Fu were present during this period. Books and short fiction were also very popular. The imperial court started compiling the history of previous dynasties during this period. The Tang dynasty placed a heavy emphasis on education due to the values held by Emperor Taizong. Schools were built in every country and province. It is estimated that 19,000 schools were built in Tang China.

Through the silk trade, the Tangs gained new technologies and cultural practices from Europe, the Middle East and other parts of Asia. China adopted new Western behavioural practices, such as the use of stools and chairs instead of sitting on mats. The Grand Canal facilitated transportation, and the Tang administration managed about 32,000 km of postal service by horse and boat. 

Gaining access to Tibet was crucial during the Tang dynasty due to its path along the Silk Road, as well as its grazed lands for raising horses — both factors were strategically important to facilitate trade. Maritime expeditions also occurred during the Tang dynasty. The Chinese travelled across the Indian Ocean to India, Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Middle East and parts of Africa to export a large number of goods.

Tea became sophisticated during the Tang dynasty. Taoists pursued alchemy to find the elixir of immortality, and even though they failed, they managed to discover new alloys, porcelain and dyes. Woodblock printing was also invented, making the written word available to a broad audience. It was not fully replaced until the introduction of Gutenberg’s printing press. Innovations in clockwork and timekeeping also occurred during this period.

Xianzong was the last ambitious emperor of the Tang dynasty. His successors were more interested in leisure than governance, choosing to hand power and responsibilities to eunuchs and allowing military governors in regional China to gain more autonomy over time. The long and prosperous Tang empire eventually weakened and was followed by more than fifty years of disunity in China known as the Five Dynasties (Northern China) and Ten Kingdoms (Southern China).

Another divisive China with some progress.

The period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (c. 907-960 AD) was divisive for China, a reminder of previous warring eras repeating itself throughout China’s history. The era began with the collapse of the Tang dynasty and ended when the Song Dynasty was able to suppress all the smaller states.  

The five dynasties, starting with later Tang, then Jin, Han, Northern Han and Zhou were absorbed by each subsequent dynasty that follows it until the Zhou dynasty conquered the entire Northern region of China.  In contrast, Southern China was ruled by ten autonomous kingdoms all at the same time. This period was short-lived but still brought about some innovative developments such as white ceramics. In the arts, ink paintings were popular. The paintings often represent Chinese landscape such as mountains, giving a sense of calm and serenity during the chaotic time of rivalry. 

For the next three hundred years after the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, China would be ruled under four dynasties: Song, Liao, Jin and Western Xia (c. 960 – 1279 AD). Emperor Taizu of Song conquered the remaining territories belonging to the Han and Tang dynasties, marking the Northern Song dynasty.  The Song dynasty is one of the most prosperous economies during this period. China’s population doubled as a result of innovation in rice cultivation. 

It could be assumed that the Song’s principles of merit and gradual improvements have a significant influence on China’s culture even to this day. Under the Qingli reforms led by Fan Zhongyan, efforts to improve administrative efficiency, strengthen local governance and defence were outlined under the ten-point memorial. The Song dynasty also retained the civil service examination system originally created by the Sui but made it more inclusive by focusing on skill and merit instead of aristocracy under the Tang. Many women were educated during this period. 

Under Emperor Shenzong of Song, state corruption and negligence were addressed under a set of reforms called “The New Policies”, built upon the ideas of the less successful Qingli reforms. The new reforms were led by the reformer Wang Anshi, who believed in a more interventionist government. According to Wang, “The state should take the entire management of commerce, industry, and agriculture into its own hands, with a view to succouring the working classes and preventing them from being ground into the dust by the rich.” Reforms include changes to land tax, the establishment of government monopolies and improving the postal system. Local military innovations include creating a system to breed military horses and creating efficient manufacturing of weapons and military training process. Government administration was studied and perfected during this era, and the standards for civil service examination were also higher. 

There was a strong emphasis under the Song empire of developing talent focusing on engineering and science instead of the humanities during the Tang. Civil service examination was more competitive and included testing knowledge of the law, military affairs, medicine and mathematics under different tracks while the Confucius text-based imperial examination remained the highest level of prestige and would put the scholar as a member of the Chinese intellectual elite.

During the Song dynasty (c. 960-1279 AD), Emperor Taizu invested in scientific and technological innovations. As a result, philosophy, mathematics and engineering also flourished. The Song government was the first to issue paper money nationally, establish a permanent standing navy, use gunpowder, movable type printing and discover true north using a compass. The I Ching was also developed during the Song era. Engineers such as Zhang Sixun built the astronomical clock tower. 

Shen Kuo, a polymath scientist, general and statesman was an influential figure during the Song dynasty. Shen was a brilliant astronomer and considered to be the most interesting figure in the entire Chinese scientific history. Unfortunately, his planetary motion research with his student Wei Pu was too early for its time. Shen gradually lost support and funding for his scientific endeavours and was forced to retire early from the Song court. 

Only four centuries later, another pair of scientists — Tycho Brahe and his disciple, Johannes Kepler — would continue Shen’s work on planetary motion. Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion would inspire Isaac Newton to discover the laws of calculus, leading to the scientific enlightenment that sparked the Western industrial revolution. We could only speculate had Shen been supported to carry out his scientific work, the history of China and the world over the second millennia would be remarkably different.

The growth of population and cities soon led to decentralization and the withdrawal of the Song imperial government from direct economic management. Lower class officials held more significant roles in local administration while appointed officials ruled provincial governments. Over time, the Jurchen managed to rebel against the Liao and formed the Jin dynasty to become the new ruler of China.

Southern Song dynasty still managed to contribute to shipbuilding and harbour projects along the Huai River. Chinese pagodas and enormous bridges were also built.  Boisterous overseas and domestic trading occurred along the Grand Canal, and Yangtze River, which led to investments in joint-stock companies in ships. Overall, the Song dynasty reached another height in China’s rich history of innovation and prosperity, however, the declining empire was no match for a new challenger coming from the Northern border. Genghis Khan and his descendants would later establish the Yuan dynasty and would build the largest empire in history.  

The Liao dynasty (c. 907-1125 AD) ruled over present-day Mongolia, Manchuria, Northern China, Russian Far East and Northeastern Korea. About three million khitans and Han Chinese lived during the Liao’s rule. Abaoji of the Khitans and his successors ruled the Liao empire until the Jurchen Jin took over. 

The Jin dynasty (c. 1115-1234 AD) took over the Liao dynasty in Northern China and waged war with the Song dynasty over a hundred years until the Mongols invaded them. The Jurchen chief, Aguda found the dynasty through an alliance with the Northern Song dynasty.  The Southern Song allied with the Mongols and Ogedei Khan, son of Genghis Khan eventually captured China from the Jin dynasty.

The Western Xia (c. 1038 – 1227) is a Tangut empire from the Tibet-Qinghai region, made significant achievements in the arts and architecture and had effective military organization integrating calvary, chariots, archery, and artillery. They often allied with the Uyghurs to oppose the Tang. It eventually became a vassal state of the Jin after the decline of Liao but then later betrayed the Jin by aligning with the Mongols, establishing the Yuan dynasty.

The rise of Khan.

The Yuan dynasty (c. 1271-1368 AD) was found by Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan. Kublai was given control of China proper while Mongke Khan maintained control of the rest of the Mongols empire outside of China. The Mongols had been waging wars across Eurasia since the start of the 13th century under the leadership of Genghis Khan. His empire is still considered to be the greatest conquered by landmass in history.

Under Kublai Khan’s rule, the Yuan dynasty continued with using paper money established by the Song dynasty. Salt and iron monopolies were also still owned by the State. The imperial secretariat and local governance structures from the Song dynasty were kept, but the civil service examination was abandoned. The Yuan administrations took structural elements that might be useful to them, most of thee elements came from the Tang and Song dynasties that came before it.

The Yuan empire divided China into four classes, with Han Chinese being the lowest, though the Chinese advisors in the imperial government were still influential in Kublai’s court. Kublai Khan listened to Chinese advisers such as Liu Bingzhong and Yao Shu and promoted commerce, science and culture. The main political issue for the administration is to balance the Mongolian patrimonial feudalism and traditional Chinese autocratic and bureaucratic system.

Trade was promoted through protection of the postal system developed by the Mongols. Investment in infrastructure such as extending the Grand Canal from South to North and providing loans for traders to finance trade caravans and issuing paper money instead of coins also boosted trading activities. Astronomer Guo Shoujing was responsible for many public projects during the Yuan’s reign. Road, water and granaries infrastructure were restructured and improved. 

The vast empire conquered by the Mongols during this period brought peace to China. This enabled the spread of technologies, commodities and cultural exchange between China and the West. Foreigners were welcomed by Kublai and served under his administration, including Marco Polo, an Italian merchant and explorer who travelled to China along the Silk Road. The development of drama and introduction of the novel were significant cultural achievements during the Yuan era. 

Private printing flourished because the Yuan administration invested in printing centres, local schools and agencies were funded to print book across China. The Yuan moved away from woodblock printing to bronze plates. A key reason for the interest in printing innovation was due to the printing of paper money. The Jiaochao banknotes were created during the Jin dynasty though it became a dominant monetary medium during the Yuan. As with all paper money, Jiaochao suffered from hyperinflation due to overprinting by the Imperial Mint. These notes were initially backed by silk but failed due to the public’s lack of trust and soon converted to the silver standard.  

The Mongols were very tolerant of religions and promoted Confucian values by building academies. This led to great diversity in lifestyle, scientific and technological knowledge and innovation in areas such as cartography, astronomy, mathematics in polynomial algebra, medicine, clothing and diet. Musical instruments were introduced in Chinese theatre for the first time during this period. Chinese ceramics experienced extraordinary innovation and growth during the Yuan dynasty and were often exported to the West and the Islamic world. 

As a result of ambitious construction projects and multiple failed war campaigns against Annam and Champa (now modern Vietnam), financial problems soon arise due to weak fiscal and budget management. Corruption plagued efforts to collect tax. Similar to previous dynasties, after Kublai’s death, his successors engaged in bitter rivalries and was not interested in governance. The final years of the Yuan dynasty occurred during a period of famine resulting from natural disasters, leading the bitter Chinese to struggle for independence once again. The Red Turban Rebellion enabled the Han Chinese to claim back sovereignty, resulting in a prosperous period under the Ming empire. This period was made famous in Louis Cha’s historical fiction, The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber.

 The Ming renaissance.

The Ming dynasty (c. 1368-1644 AD), which ruled for almost 300 years, is often compared to the Tang dynasty in terms of progress and impact on China’s development. Zhu Yuanzhang was initially a monk who joined the Red Turban Rebellion. Under his leadership, they eventually captured the city of Nanjing and Zhu claimed himself as the founding emperor Hongwu.  Emperor Hongwu adopted many Yuan era military tactics, as well as the military system from the Tang dynasty.

The Ming dynasty invested in state infrastructure such as the construction of the Great Nanjing Walls to keep invaders out. With the experience of many dynasties before him, especially from records of the Tang, Hongwu created a governance structure that helped his sons to maintain regional stability through a set of published dynastic instructions. He also invested heavily in building an army that exceeded one million soldiers and had the largest navy dockyard in the world at the time. The Ming administration sought inspiration from the old Tang legal code to draft its new Confucian law code, the Da Ming Lu 

The Ming dynasty formally brought back the civil service examination system after it was abandoned during the Yuan dynasty to staff its bureaucracy, requiring scholars to master the “Four Books” required since the 12th century. The Ming government further professionalises the system with ranks and salary based on the difficulty of the exams taken, the jinshi title to those who passed palace examination, rewarding them with a high-level position. The Ming dynasty had six administrative bodies: Personnel, Revenue, Rites, War, Justice and Public Works. During the reigns of different emperors, these bodies would report to the Grand Secretariat, which contains members from the Hanlin Academy, who assist the emperor. 

While the examination is open to everyone, it becomes more competitive and the time required to study and prepare for the civil examination naturally excludes families with limited means. Most participants are from the landholding class, rarely do merchants family end up in the imperial court. To the Ming’s credit, the administration did include provincial quotas when drafting officials so that the aristocrat class does not override the system. Due to earlier printing investments by the Song and Yuan dynasties, Confucian classics required for the civil examination also become affordable, helping to spread knowledge to less affluent households. Thoughtful policy reforms and technological progress allow ordinary Chinese scholars an opportunity to improve their social mobility.

The nature of Chinese bureaucratic processes that exists today was inspired by past innovations and  legacies from the Sui, Song and Ming administrations, iterated over centuries. A Ming bureaucrat could only have a nine-year tenure. Officials were graded on their performance every three years by senior officials. Superior leads to a promotion, adequate means staying in the same rank while a poor grade was demoted. Unethical extreme cases will lead to dismissal and even punishments.

After Hongwu’s death, his son Zhu Di staged a coup and took the throne to become the Yongle emperor. Yongle moved the capital to Beijing and employed thousands of workers to build the Forbidden Palace. This period marks another golden era in Chinese history under Ming’s rule. Emperor Yongle had a grand ambition to transform China into a great sovereign state. He asked Zheng He, a famous eunuch adventurer to become an ambassador and led diplomatic missions to other foreign lands, as far as Arabia and eastern coasts of Africa. Yongle spread Chinese culture through printing and invested in the military to expand China’s borders towards modern-day Vietnam until the Vietnamese Le Dynasty claimed back sovereignty. The minority Oirat invasions also led the Mings to use forced labour to fortify the Great Wall. Yongle inspired many modern Chinese leaders and reformers.

Open trade with Europe brought chilli, corn and potatoes into to China, reducing famine and led to remarkable population growth in China. This abundance resulted in hyperinflation as the Ming continued to use the Jiaochao paper money system made dominant under the Yuan. The arts flourished more than ever, thanks to the innovation of printing and a more educated class than previous dynasties. Famous literature such as Water Margin, Journey to the West, Jin Ping Mei were all published during the Ming era. Paintings and ceramics were also in high demand. The dominant Chinese religions were tolerated, and foreign Jesuits were welcome. They brought a western mindset and ideas from Kepler and Galileo into China. Although the Song dynasty was very scientifically innovative, the Ming dynasty was less so and was very behind the West’s pace of scientific discovery at the time.

The Mings were ahead of their time in philosophy instead of science due to the focus on the Confucius thought. Wang Yangming, a government official in the Ming administration, was a Neo-Confucian scholar that developed the idea innate knowing — the ability to know the difference between good and evil at birth intuitively  — inspired Japanese thinkers such as Motoori Norinaga, who developed a school of thoughts that influenced the ethic of Japanese samurai, bushido. Indeed, his school of thought was popular in Japan during the late Meiji era, inspiring many Japanese reformers and revolutionaries in the late 19th century as well as Chinese political activists such as Chiang Kai Shek.

Wang Yangming’s disciples were progressives. They gave lectures to commoners about pursuing education to improve their lives and challenged the elevation and emphasis of the family in Chinese society. They pursued values promoted by the Song by treating women as the intellectual equals of men and should be given a better education. Wang could be considered to be an early disciple of Zen Buddhism, with ideas about rationality and how the mind shapes and give reason to the world.

Unfortunately, the slowdown in agricultural due to the Little Ice Age led to a decline in trading between the Japanese and Spanish, reducing the supply of silver into China in order for farmers to pay state tax. The lack of supply of silver increased its price, making it economically challenging for farmers. The Ming army eventually also became weak as they were unpaid and unfed. A mixture of famine, desertion of the military and further austerity measures by the Ming administration lead to the downfall of the Ming’s long-reigning empire. Natural disasters eventually led to the Ming dynasty complete collapsed and the Manchu Qing dynasty was formed from the Eight Banner armies. 

The last imperial emperor of Qing. 

The Qing dynasty (c. 1644-1911 AD) was the last dynasty of imperial China and ruled China for almost three hundred years. The Qing retained the Chinese Confucian values and the Ming’s bureaucratic system as well as the civil service examination so that the Han Chinese can work for the Manchu empire. The dynasty reached its heights during the reign of Emperor Qianlong  (1735-1796). China’s population reached 400 million during this period. However, taxes were fixed at a low rate which caused a fiscal crisis, and led to the downfall of imperial China. 

The Manchus was a tribal tribe in Northeastern China, which rise to prominence after co-operating with the Han Chinese Bannermen to overthrow the Ming dynasty. These Bannerman were rewarded with governor positions in regional China to help the Manchu Qing stabilise its rule in the early Qing’s reign. The Qing expanded its China empire over multiple generations, with emperor Kangxi completing the conquest of China proper in 1683, 40 years after the death of the Qing’s founding emperor Hong Taiji. Under Qianlong’s reign, the Qing dynasty further expanded into inner Asia. 

Similar to previous China dynasties, the Qing kept the Confucian values and the bureaucratic institutions under the Ming, including the six ministries overseeing finance, personnel, rites, military, punishments and public works. Unlike the Yuan, the Qing administration maintained the imperial civil service examination and used it to recruit talented Han Chinese to work for the imperial court. The most significant development in the Chinese economy during the Ming and Qing dynasties was its transition from a command to a market economy and the adoption of the silver standard away from the grain system, thereby facilitating trade with the West. The diplomatic tributary system existed under the Ming’s reign was kept. 

After the death of Hong Taiji, the founding emperor of the Qing’s dynasty, the regent prince Dorgon ruled on behalf of Hong Taiji’s son, emperor Shunzhi and implemented a series of policies including making Beijing the political capital of China and retaining Ming officials and bureaucratic system to help stabilise the Qing regime. Dorgon implemented the 1645 controversial haircutting order, a test of loyalty to the regime. To the Chinese, hair is important and treasured, and such policy is a humiliation to them. Han Chinese must shave their forehead similar to Manchu men, otherwise, face the death penalty. A famous  quote of the day was: “To keep the hair, you lose the head; to keep the head, you cut the hair.” 

Following the sudden death of Dorgon and Shunzhi, emperor Kangxi ruled China proper for 61 years, becoming the longest of all Chinese emperors in history. This period was known as the “High Qing” where China reached social, economic and military climax.  Emperor Kangxi’s army was much smaller than his predecessor and successors. Instead, he employed civil diplomacy with other vassal states and the Mongol, Tibetan and Uighur people. In order to maintain peaceful relationships with the Mongols, he allowed Genghis Khan’s descendant Ejei Khan to marry into the dynasty and bestow the title of a prince to him. He also welcomed Jesuit missionaries such as Johann Adam Schall von Bell and Antoine Thomas who held important positions in the imperial court and became advisors to the emperor. 

China’s first formal treaty with a European power was the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk with Russia. The Qing wanted to claim back the land being encroached by Russians in Manchuria that was lost during their conquest of China while Russia made compromises to keep positive trading relationships with China. Emperor Kangxi employed the French missionary Jean-François Gerbillon to translate the Treaty into Latin, a common agreed language between Russia and China.

After Kangxi’s death, his son Yongzheng became emperor. Emperor Yongzheng turned out to be a skillful, early modern statesman. He established the Grand Council of advisors (imperial cabinet)  and improved the palace memorial system (palace briefings), where frank and detailed reports of the local economies were directly reported to the emperor. Yongzheng utilised people that he could trust to run his administration with qualities such as loyalty, fairness, sincerity and capability. He reversed privileges to officials offered under Emperor Kangxi including legal and tax privileges.

Yongzheng cracked down of unorthodox sects including Christianity which could threaten the regime and suppressed writings where it was deemed to have an anti-Manchu bias. He promoted Confucian orthodoxy instead. While both Kangxi and Yongzheng were initially receptive of foreign missionaries, they were only allowed to be active only in Beijing and Guangzhou. Yongzheng eventually prohibited Christian presence in China.

There was growing dissent amongst Chinese civilians when the financial crisis of the imperial court was at its worst. Yongzheng implemented tax reform, replacing the head tax with a property tax where the burden falls on the landowner elites. He then used the money to fund local infrastructure in canals, irrigation, orphanages, schools, roads and charity houses as well as issuing an imperial decree to emancipate slavery.  The construction of irrigation systems provide some relief to farmers, but he did not manage to control the problem during his reign, the progressive policies struggled under his son, the Qianlong Emperor.

China suffered from overpopulation during Emperor Qianlong’s reign despite civil wars and epidemics, which managed to slow down population growth. Unlike his father, Qianlong trust and favouritism in certain court officials such as Heshen and his cronies led to significant corruption in the Chinese society which did not help the economic situation at the time. Heshen was a Grand Councillor, and minister of the Imperial Household Department who appropriated funds at a grand scale — funds for canals and dams were extorted by corrupt officials working underneath him. The limited supply of rice due to flooding resulted in the increased costs of rice and famine among the growing Chinese population. The widespread nepotism and corruption during Qianlong’s reign was the decline of the Qing empire where sects such as the White Lotus Society eventually led rebellions against the Qing. The uprising in areas far away from the imperial court, such as Xinjiang, Mongolia and Tibet increased during difficult times. Qianlong personally led the military campaign to keep them under control.  

Outside of China, Western powers became stronger due to the industrial revolution and maritime trade. Europe was colonising land and territories across the Asia Pacific and Africa. Emperor Qianlong implemented the Canton system in 1756 where the British and Dutch were allowed to only trade in Canton. The British were importing a lot of tea, porcelain, spices and silk. Naturally, it wanted free trade with China and encouraged the Qianlong administration to open up the rest of the Mainland, but Emperor Qianlong told to Lord George McCartney, a representative of King George III, that China is self-sufficient and does not need anything from Britain. 

Britain finally found a good that it can export to offset the trade imbalance with China, opium, which it was producing at a mass scale in British India. Under Queen Victoria’s reign, the difference in trade priorities between China and Britain exacerbate and eventually led to the first opium war. In 1839, the grandson of Qianlong, Emperor Daoguang, ordered Lin Zexu, a competent Qin official with high moral standards  to halt the illegal opium trade over concerns regarding the silver outflow and the negative impact on opium on his population. Lin was a hardliner, after several failed attempts to trade with British opium merchants in exchange for other goods, he confiscated up to 1.2m kg of opium from British merchants. 

Hostilities between Britain and China soon started, and all trade was soon banned, and Britain invaded China. During the First Opium War, China was confronted for the first time that its military was not well matched to the British Royal Navy, which used modern tactics and advance muskets and artillery.  Its surrender in 1842 was the first of a series of humiliation in recent China history. The Treaty of Nanjing demanded that China open up various ports including Canton, Amoy, Fuzhou, Ningbo and Shanghai to the West and cede Hong Kong to Britain in 1842.

Such weakness of the military made the Qing empire vulnerable to rebellions and protest, starting with the Taiping Rebellion — the bloodiest civil war of all time took place from 1850-1864. It was estimated that up to 30 million people died, and China’s GDP sharply declined during this period while civilians were conscripted to join the armies to fight against the rebels. Britain sensed an opportunity to ask for more and renegotiated the Treaty of Nanjing, asking for commercial access to Chinese rivers and to create a British embassy in Beijing.

An incident in 1856 where Qing authorities boarded a British ship, the Arrow led to the Second Opium War. Once again, the Chinese traditionally trained military was no match for modern British weaponry, and Emperor Xianfeng agreed to the Treaty of Tientsin in 1858, granting British warships unlimited access to Chinese rivers and other humiliation clauses. Other local events involving foreigners exacerbated relationships with Western powers, and two years later, the Anglo-French forces marched into Beijing and looted the Old Summer Palace and burnt it to the ground.

The Qing government made some attempts to modernize its military during the Self-Strengthening Movement but inevitably failed as it did not have enough funding and political will to drastically reform its army and navy. Loyal Manchu officials rallied, and  Zuo Zongtang was able to suppress rebellions. During the Tongzhi Restoration, Qing officials rallied around the young Emperor Tongzhi, adopting Western military technology but maintain Confucian values. Zeng Guofan promoted younger officials such as his disciple, Li Hongzhang, who instituted the Self-Strengthening Movement by collaborating with European powers to bring about Westernization into China. 

Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang led the Yongying armies, which used modern weapons, financed by local provincial funding and only followed orders from the military commander in chief, in contrast to the existing Eight Banners and Green Standard armies under the Qing which was loyal to the emperor as funding came from the Qing administration.  As a result, the Qing lost its territories gradually as regional warlordism rose since military commanders were able to gain power from the imperial Qing by self-funding their armies from local landlords. The period of co-operation with Western powers ended with the Tientsin Massacre in 1870. 

Towards the end of the 19th century, China was also involved in the First Sino-Japanese War with Japan over the future of Korea. China’s loss to Japan was a watershed moment for the Middle Kingdom as Japan had been a closed, feudal society under the Tokugawa regime for over two hundred years. It was a self-aware moment for the Chinese empire after realising how rapid Japan industrialization and military force had been only after three decades of Meiji reforms. 

Japan, who allied with the West, wanted Korea to modernise and adopt an open free trade policy, similar to its experience under the Meiji restoration. China wanted to protect its interests as Korea had been its vassal state and prefer less Western inference in Korea. The Chinese side was led by General Yuan Shikai of the Beiyang Army, who eventually become the President of the Republic of China.  

After its defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War, a group of Chinese reformers backing the Qing government implemented the Hundred Day’s Reform to modernise and catch up with the West and Japan.  A series of reforms include abolishing the traditional civil service examination system focusing on Confucius texts and building a modern education system focusing on maths and science, establishing of Peking University which introduces the Western liberal arts university degree, applying principles of capitalism, modernising China’s military by adopting Western practices, enabling rapid industrialisation of China manufacturing and commerce. A bureau for railways and mines was also established as infrastructure was a key asset during wartime. Central bureaucracies and the tax system were simplified. Unfortunately, it was too late and was not successful.

In addition to the instability of the Qing administration due to major failed wars and foreign influence, droughts in Northern China led to the Boxer Rebellion, an anti-imperialist, anti-foreign and anti-Christian movement in China. Empress Dowager Cixi reluctantly supported the movement to counter the influence of the Eight-Nation Alliance. The decision by the Qing regime was triggered by an ultimatum from the Western powers asking for military affairs and revenue to  be surrendered to foreign control. The murders of foreign missionaries and siege on the Foreign Legation Quarter where diplomats and Chinese Christians sought refuge led the Western powers and Japan to invade Beijing without diplomatic notice and defeat the imperial army. Regional military governors such as Li Hongzhang at Canton, Yuan Shikai in Shandong, Zhang Zhidong at Wuhan and Liu Kunyi at Nanjing were neutral to other sides and avoided the conflict. Although both Yuan and Li co-operated with the West to suppress the Boxers.

The Qing court surrendered and signed the “Boxer Protocol” on 7 September 1901 to end the war between the Eight-Nation Alliance and China. It was fined 450 million taels of fine silver as war reparations to the Western powers, though the US diverted most of its reparations to finance the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program for Chinese students studying in America. Some of these students eventually come back to found Tsinghua University. 

The Wuchang Uprising in 1911 ultimately led to the downfall of the Qing administration. At the turn of the new century, Sun Yat-sen who was in Tokyo organising meet up with other Chinese revolutionaries, forming the group Tongmenhui. The Tongmenhui joined forces with groups such as the Literary Society and the Progressive Association in Wuhan. They managed to convince Li Yuanhong to establish a military government and was able to persuade other provinces to join forces. The Qing administration sought help from Yuan Shikai’s Beiyang Army. Sun Yat-sen, who was overseas at the time, returned to China to participate in the provisional president election and was elected, establishing a new central government in Nanjing and became its provisional head. Sun negotiated with Yuan and convinced him to pressure the Qing government to surrender and abdicate the throne, in return for a position as President of the Republic of China.  

The story of imperial China ended on 12 February when Empress Dowager Longyu finally issued an imperial edict on behalf of a young son, Emperor Puyi to abdicate the throne. The end of the Qing dynasty started another short stint of Chinese warlord era until the unification of China by the Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang in 1928 during the Northern Expedition. The Second Sino-Japanese War soon ensued between Japanese forces and the Kuomintang nationalist government, with Japan invading Manchukuo and installing Puyi as emperor in 1932. The Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo eventually fell to the Chinese Community Party with the help of Soviet involvement in 1945, leading to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

The lessons from imperial China over the millennia can be captured in the advice of Wei Zheng, an advisor of Emperor Taizong of Tang in the 7th century: “Since ancient times, rulers lost power because they had overlooked danger when living in peace, and forgotten the possibility of chaos when everything seemed in good order. Your Majesty is ruling a country that enjoys peace and prosperity, but you must still be cautious, as cautious as though you were treading on thin ice, so to speak. Then the good fortune of our country will last long.”

Perhaps such wisdom is why the China government has been slowed to implement major reforms over the last decade despite its economic success. Managing a large population over a large area of landmass is no easy task, as Western powers have realised at the end of the 20th century that it is best to cede control of China to local rulers who can govern the Chinese people. While much wisdom and principles can be learned from imperial China and past dynasties, the story of Modern China in the 20th century is more relevant in predicting China’s future. China finally abandoned its backward traditional past in the second half of the 20th century to adopt industrialisation and a scientific approach to government administration under the rule of a new leader, the Chinese Communist Party.

We will continue the Asia series with the story of Modern China in China Pt II: The Story of Modern China. Sign up to our newsletter to find out when it’s published. 

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