Chinese History

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jun. 10, 2021

China's mythological history begins with three demigods who, firstly, created the Chinese people and who then passed the mantle on to the first mythological human ruler, the Yellow Emperor, but first after having, together with the latter, taught the Chinese people the basic skills they would need to know in order to survive, skills such as hunting, fishing, agriculture, how to sew clothes – out of silk, no less, which probably explains why the lesser-endowed neighbors to the Chinese people referred to the Chinese as "the beautifully clad people" – how to cook with fire, etc.

Slavery Dynasties

After the Yellow Emperor got the ball rolling came first the Xia (BCE ca. 2000-1500) Dynasty, then the Shang (BCE 1700-1027) Dynasty, which dynasties, combined, lasted for almost a thousand years, and of which we know precious little, except that they practiced slavery and performed ritual sacrifices on humans, though not on their own "beautifully clad" members, but on captured members of the more shabbily clad neighboring tribes (someone had to appease the angry gods, no?). The reason why we know little, either of the people or their rulers from these early dynasties, is that it was only ("only"?! – this was a remarkable achievement!) toward the end of the Shang Dynasty that the Chinese people began to use writing to express ideas (as opposed to jotting down the number of pigs, dogs, and cattle, etc., in one's possession).

But we do know that the rulers of the second part of the Zhou (BCE 1027-221) Dynasty, the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty (the first part was the Western Zhou Dynasty, of course), had large families and that all of these princes began to demand part of the action, as it were, so the emperor would invest the princes – including his nephews – with principalities that they could rule over in the name of the emperor. However, this decentralization of power only weakened the empire such that by the time of the second half, as it were, of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty – the so-called Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period – the princes had become aggressively hegemonic, desirous of capturing each other's holdings, a state of affairs that eventually degenerated into open warfare, whereas the first "half" of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, a rather tranquil period, relatively speaking, is referred to by historians as the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) Period.

Note that Confucius (BCE 551-479), who lived during the tranquil first half of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, vehemently opposed slavery though he didn't manage to convince the emperor to abolish it. However, Confucius did manage to convince the emperor to replace the inefficient hereditary headman system with a system that would become the standard throughout most of China's Imperial history, namely, the system of Imperial examinations, whereby civil servants were appointed on the basis of merit rather than on the basis of hereditary right, which not only improved the Chinese civil service, it gave true meaning to the very concept of civil service, i.e., correctly placing the emphasis on the word "service".

Real historical writing, as we would recognize it today – or as the Greek historian Herodotus (BCE ca.484-425) might have recognized it – began first in the subsequent dynasty, the Han (BCE 206 – CE 220) Dynasty. There we meet people who are largely like us, that is, people who love and hate – fortunately, not in equal measure! – and who are greedy and stingy or magnanimous and generous, i.e., people who are far from perfect, or about like present-day people.

Fedual Dynasties

The Han Dynasty eventually began to fall apart due to corruption that ultimately stemmed from self-preoccupation: the rulers lavished money and food and drink – and concubines (extra "wives", or conjugal partners) in the thousands sometimes – on themselves, neglecting the people. This would become a common pattern throughout China's dynastic history; it was as if, after a given number of years in power, a dynasty would fall victim to corruption, becoming increasingly weaker as the state's apparatus degenerated, about like, but not quite as bad as, Nero's Rome (which – however degenerate – paled in comparison to the truly degenerate nature of Caligula's Rome!). As the empire became increasingly vulnerable, a challenger would inevitably depose the emperor.

This was legitimately possible because the person of the Chinese emperor was not seen as divine, it was the office of the Chinese emperor that was considered divine, or, to put it slightly differently, the emperor enjoyed the Mandate of Heaven as long as he made himself worthy of it. Thus, the Mandate of Heaven was conditional upon the emperor being a good ruler to his people, therefore a mechanism was in place (call this the social contract between the ruler and the ruled) that empowered a challenger to overthrow a "bad" emperor. But of course, being sinful mortals as we are, i.e., being subject to ambition and greed, some usurpers would overthrow a perfectly good emperor, but justified it, fait accompli, claiming that the deposed emperor had violated his Mandate of Heaven, therefore forfeited that mandate. It was probably not wise to argue with the new emperor on this point!

All of this well-organized, highly industrious, civilized human toil represented untold wealth in the covetous eyes of primitive nomadic tribes living next door, so soon the Chinese empire was besieged by raiding hordes of bandits who would pillage and rape the Chinese people, then flee back from whence they came, though, in time, they would seize territory, subjugate the locals, and then try to seize yet more territory. This is why, beginning with the increasingly wealthy and well-organized Han Dynasty – which dynasty, by the way, expanded its territory in like manner, albeit, not for the sake of pillaging, plundering, and raping, but simply in order to assimilate neighboring tribes into the large, and growing, Han Chinese "tribe" – the Great Wall was needed, i.e., in order to protect the Han Chinese people from the "barbaric" (by Han Chinese standards) nomadic Turkic invaders.

The most illustrious Chinese dynasties were, perhaps arguably (there is only a rather loose consensus on this point, at least as regards all of the dynasties worthy of that designation): the Zhou Dynasty, the Han Dynasty (their main claim to fame was their ability to expand the empire), the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty, and the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty.

Best and Worst Periods

If one were to choose a single of these as the very best, it would most likely be the Tang Dynasty, though it would be a bit like comparing green peas to green apples, size-wise and wealth-wise, since both the Ming and Qing Dynasties, thanks to the expansion and consolidation of the empire that was begun already during the Mongol Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty, were vast, wealthy empires that produced some of the most exquisite household goods (eg., porcelain and furniture) the world has ever seen – and may ever see since labor-intensive craftsmanship of this quality has long since ceased to exist, which is why Chinese antique items from these periods fetch astronomical sums at the auction houses of Christie's and Sotheby's.

But all good things come to an end, as the saying goes, and so came Imperial China to an end in 1911, supplanted by the Republic of China (1912-49) that was beset by warlord-ism, meaning that it was a rather weak central government that could not impose its rule upon all parts of the empire, a state of affairs that only increased the level of frustration among the Chinese people and perhaps hastened the arrival of the Communist Revolution (1926-49), especially after the Bolsheviks had established themselves in Moscow in 1917, which revolution ultimately led to WWI in Europe.

The rest is history, as they say – or modern history, as we would say – which is a discussion we shall leave for another occasion.

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