Cultural Impact of Qing Dynasty

Silk ceremonial military uniform
Collection of the British Museum

Like the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the Qing Dynasty was one of the few periods in Chinese history when China proper was ruled by a non-native ethnic group. The Qing emperors were all Manchu people, who were descended from the Jurchens and hailed from the northeastern region of Manchuria. However, unlike the Mongolians, the Manchu made more of an attempt to assimilate with Han Chinese culture rather than try to subjugate it. This tactic appeared to work in their favour, as their dynasty lasted for an impressive 268 years, while the Yuan collapsed after just 97. 

However, during the first few years of the Qing Dynasty, the Manchu would often use the discrepancies between their culture and that of the Han Chinese to test the loyalty of their subjects. The most famous example of this was the controversial July 1645 edict or the “haircutting order”, implemented by the regent Dorgon. This order dictated that all Han Chinese men must shave the front of their heads and comb the remaining hair into a Manchu hairstyle known as the queue, which was essentially one long, thin braid that ran down the centre of the head. 

The punishment for disobeying the edict was simple: “To keep the hair, you lose the head; to keep your head, you cut the hair”. However, this order was in direct violation of traditional Confucian values, which held that “a person’s body and hair, being gifts from one’s parents, are not to be damaged”. During the previous Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Han Chinese men would adhere to this principle strictly and never cut their hair, instead winding it into a top-knot on their head. 

The situation became so serious that widespread uprisings spread throughout cities, and hundreds of thousands of people were massacred. You could almost say things got a little hairy! The punishment may have seemed severe, but it wasn’t simply about stylistic differences between the Han Chinese and the Manchu. Dorgon felt that this edict would help to weed out any Han Chinese individuals who weren’t supportive of Manchu rule. 

Though it may have sounded restrictive, the early Qing Dynasty was actually a period of great social mobility. There was a widespread belief that, with hard work and the right education, even a peasant boy could one day become an excellent scholar. While passing the imperial examinations and becoming a government official was still considered to be the highest achievement, many members of the literati chose deliberately to avoid an official career and instead devoted their lives to scholarship, painting, poetry, and other arts. 

It was during this time that literature blossomed and great works were commissioned, such as the Siku Quanshu or “Complete Library of the Four Treasuries”, an invaluable anthology of over 3,400 books. Other texts, including Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber and Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, became emblematic works of Chinese fiction. Market towns and cities boasted a wide range of written materials, from religious pamphlets and short-story collections to joke-books and almanacs. 

However, Qing scholars became increasingly concerned about the rise of the merchant class, who were able to take advantage of the money economy and mimic the upper class way of life. The Qing court was similarly troubled by what they saw as a degeneration of traditional values, so from the 16th century onwards they worked with the scholarly elite to publish special morality books. These texts not only extolled traditional virtuous behaviour, but also tied it to concrete rewards such as educational success, the achievement of a high official position, and a wife who would bear many sons. It was at this point that the concept of the perfect chaste wife first appeared; a feminine role that was reinforced with memorial arches and shrines to honourable widows.  

New types of social organisations also emerged during the Qing Dynasty, such as the concept of the “Native Place”. These associations were spread across the country, were dedicated to one particular place, and catered to scholars, merchants, and immigrants from that area specifically. They represented a place where people could gather, meet fellow natives, receive financial aid, and store goods. In certain areas, this social institution started to evolve into something much darker. Special initiation rituals, secret lore, and an elaborate origin myth bound fellow members together in an infamous organisation known as the Triad fraternities. Appearing first in the province of Guangdong, the Triads swiftly expanded to the rest of southern China and remain one of the most powerful criminal organisations in Asia.  

Merchants Guild Hall for businessmen from Shanxi Province in Zhangye, Gansu province

Yet the “native place” organisation also had a lighter side! In many places, they were connected by the worship of a deity, around which the local people formed a sort of territorial religious cult. While many people turned to these local deities for comfort, others found the White Lotus faith more appealing. The White Lotus originated from the Pure Land sect of Buddhism that emerged during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and was heavily focused on a belief in Maitreya[1], the legendary “future Buddha” that will supposedly achieve complete enlightenment and act as a savior to the people. During the Yuan Dynasty, it gradually evolved into a secret political movement that tried to overthrow the Yuan regime by claiming numerous times that Maitreya had shown up to save them. 

During the Ming Dynasty, it incorporated a deity from the Luodao sect of Chinese folk religion known as the Eternal Venerable Mother, who they believed would send Maitreya to Earth one day. Although it was officially banned under the Qing, it continued to operate in the shadows and formed a political resistance similar to that of the Yuan Dynasty, only with many more factions. Its main aim was to overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming Dynasty. Many people, particularly impoverished peasants, found solace in the faith’s image of an Eternal Mother who would gather up all her children at the millennium and form one family. The movement frequently led to spectacular and vicious uprisings, most notable of which was the eponymous White Lotus Rebellion (1796-1804). 

Alongside the White Lotus, Christianity was also swiftly taking hold towards the end of the Qing Dynasty. During the 1800s, Evangelical and Protestant missionaries flocked to China and managed to convert tens of thousands of Chinese citizens. The key difference between these missionaries and the earlier Catholic missionaries was that they lived among the people, set up numerous schools and hospitals, and concentrated on helping the common people rather than gaining influence in the imperial court.   

That being said, China’s peasants had another outlet besides faith through which they could absorb culture. Wealthy traveling merchants would often sponsor drama troupes from their hometowns to tour with them, which helped to spread regional styles of drama to different localities. Drama formed a bridge between language and literature, providing illiterate peasants with a sort of “living classroom” where they could learn about Chinese history by watching plays. In other words, it was their equivalent of a blockbuster movie!

Note:

[1]  Maitreya: In the Buddhist tradition, Maitreya is a bodhisattva who will appear on Earth sometime in the future and achieve complete enlightenment. He will be the successor to the present Buddha, Gautama Buddha, and is thus regarded as a sort of future Buddha.

The Later Qing

After the shameful defeat of Qing forces during the Second Opium War (1857-1860), the Qing Dynasty’s prestige was at an all-time low. The Emperor had been forced to sign a series of unequal treaties, which granted several foreign countries extraterritoriality, control of five ports, and numerous other privileges. With “foreign barbarians” repeatedly imposing their demands on China, an anti-foreign movement swiftly spread across the country. This movement was coupled with anti-government sentiment, as many people believed that the Qing had failed to adequately protect the country from foreign powers. 

Amid social unrest and worsening famine, the atmosphere was ripe for rebellion. It was at this point that a man named Hong Xiuquan came to the fore. Having been influenced by Christianity, Hong claimed that he often had visions of God and believed he was the brother of Jesus Christ. In 1851, he established the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom and sparked a vicious uprising known as the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). His rejection of traditional Chinese culture attracted large numbers of followers, who had become jaded with the Qing Dynasty’s staunch observance to tradition. His vision of an egalitarian society sustained by a communal treasury also appealed to China’s impoverished peasants. 

In 1853, the Taiping army scored a major victory when they captured the city of Nanjing. However, as the old saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely! Soon they were plagued by internal feuds and corruption, which would eventually lead to their undoing. During its fourteen-year long campaign, the Taiping Rebellion resulted in the deaths of an estimated 20 to 70 million people, making it one of the bloodiest conflicts in world history.

It also prompted revolts by Muslim, Miao, and other minority peoples throughout China, most notable of which were the Dungan Revolt (1862-1877) in the northwest, the Nian Rebellion (1851-1868) in the north, and the Panthay Rebellion (1856-1873) in Yunnan province. This series of rebellions crippled China’s economy, as vast tracts of farmland were destroyed, millions of lives were lost, and the imperial treasury was drained to support the Qing army in their fight against the rebels. 

Meanwhile, a cunning concubine was clawing her way up the political ladder. Empress Dowager Cixi had entered the imperial palace during the 1850s as a consort to the Xianfeng Emperor. When her five-year-old son ascended the throne as the Tongzhi Emperor in 1861, she virtually took control of the Qing court. She wielded such political influence that, when the emperor died in 1875, she was able to place her pliable nephew, the Guangxu Emperor, on the throne. Thus her stranglehold on the administration continued throughout his reign.

Although the government had attempted to embrace western technology and even established a ministry of foreign affairs known as the Zongli Yamen, the anti-foreign sentiment that pervaded after the Taiping Rebellion was palpable. Animosity was directed mainly towards Christianity, which was believed to have been responsible for the revolt. These tensions culminated in the Tianjin Massacre of 1870, during which a French consul, 2 officials, 10 nuns, and 2 priests were murdered.

The Old Summer Palace or Yuanmingyuan

At the time, dedicated officials such as Zeng Guofan managed to pacify the French government, but it seems the French never quite forgot about what happened in Tianjin. In 1858, France started expanding its control of Indochina and by 1883 it had full control of all territories leading right up to China’s southern border. In 1884, French forces suddenly attacked a Chinese fleet stationed at Fuzhou, which marked the beginning of the Sino-French War (1884-1885).  Although China initially won some significant victories against the French, the Japanese threatened to enter the war and the Qing government decided to end the affair with negotiations. The Emperor was forced to sign another unequal treaty, the Treaty of Tientsin, which acknowledged France’s control of Vietnam, a territory that China had long held suzerainty over. Yet it seemed Japan also had its eye on one of China’s vassal states!

For many years, Japan had attempted to establish a connection with Korea. In 1876, these efforts culminated in the Treaty of Kanghwa, which forced Korea to open up trade with Japan. China was deeply concerned about Japan’s involvement in Korea, but it didn’t reach boiling point until the Donghak Rebellion (1894-1895). In June of 1894, the reigning king of Korea, Gojong, requested that the Qing government aid him in suppressing the revolt. In response, they sent the military general Yuan Shikai with a dispatch of 28,000 troops. 

The Japanese felt that this move was tantamount to betrayal, as the Qing government had failed to inform them of their decision to send troops. They countered by sending 8,000 of their own troops to Korea. When Japan suggested to China that they work together to reform Korea’s government, the Qing refused. It seemed that a clash between these two titans was inevitable. On August 1st of the same year, the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) officially began. 

The war turned out to be a watershed moment in East Asian history. With its modernised fleets, advanced artillery, and Western martial tactics, the Japanese military outranked the Chinese on land and sea. The defeat dealt a humiliating blow to the Qing Dynasty, which was forced to acknowledge the failings in its military institutions. This finally led to the establishment of the New Army, which was trained in westernised drills, tactics, and weaponry, and was led by Yuan Shikai. 

At the end of the war, the Qing government signed a peace treaty that granted Japan control of Taiwan and the Liaodong Peninsula. Russia, Germany, and France forced Japan to change the treaty and relinquish the peninsula. However, it seems sometimes you can’t depend on the kindness of strangers! In exchange for their intervention, they began to press China with demands for more foreign concessions. Following suit, Britain and Japan also started laying claims to various territories. In short, China was being carved up faster than a turkey on Christmas! 

In reaction to this crisis, the Guangxu Emperor initiated the Hundred Days of Reform. Over a period of one hundred days, he executed a series of edicts to reorganise the administration, and gave positions of substantial influence to more radical advisers, such as Kang Youwei. Tragically this movement produced no practical results, and many of the reforms were overturned by Empress Dowager Cixi.  Meanwhile, China’s citizens reacted quite differently to the impending crisis! 

From 1896 to 1898, a vicious anti-foreign uprising took place in Shandong province, in response to the constant encroachment of German forces. It was staged by a band of people known as the Yihequan or “Righteous and Harmonious Fists”, who believed that they were invulnerable to harm thanks to the practise of a mysterious boxing art. For this reason, they are often referred to as the Boxers. 

Much like previous revolts, the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) was characterised by a particularly anti-Christian sentiment. What started as bands of roaming bandits killing Chinese Christians and foreign missionaries swiftly escalated into the widespread destruction of churches, railways, and anything of foreign origin. While the Qing court did not condone the Boxers’ actions, they did nothing to stop them. In many ways, they took great satisfaction in seeing the humiliation of the many foreign powers who had subjugated them. By May of 1900, Cixi was secretly supporting the Boxers. After hearing a false report that claimed the foreign powers had demanded she return power to the Emperor, Cixi openly declared war on them.

This move backfired horribly, as foreign troops seized Beijing in August, forcing Cixi and the Emperor to flee to Xi’an. However, the Anglo-German Agreement was signed in October and consented to by Britain, Germany, the United States, Russia, and Japan. This agreement stipulated that, to preserve commercial interests, China should no longer have its territory divided any further by foreign powers. In return, China was forced to pay indemnity, establish permanent foreign guards in Beijing, and dismantle any forts between Beijing and the sea. That being said, to add insult to injury, foreign troops had already seized most places in Hebei province, and the northeast of China had been entirely occupied by Russian forces. By this point, the Qing court had virtually lost all control over the country. 

The Early Qing

Towards the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), widespread famine, disease, and poverty prompted many of China’s citizens to riot. Meanwhile, in the northeastern region of Manchuria, an ambitious Jurchen leader named Nurhaci had been amassing power. By 1621, he already controlled the region surrounding Shanhai Pass, a pivotal location along the Great Wall. When his son Hong Taiji took over in 1635, he formally changed the name of his people from the Jurchens to the Manchu. In the following year, Hong established the Qing Dynasty and encouraged discontented Han Chinese people to defect. Many of them joined his military force, which was known as the Eight Banners[1]. Over time, this military system would grow to become the main organizational and social framework of the Qing Dynasty. 

The situation reached a critical point in 1644, when a rebel leader named Li Zicheng captured the imperial capital of Beijing and the last Ming emperor committed suicide, thus marking the end of the Ming Dynasty. Li then sent an army to confront the Ming commander Wu Sangui, who was stationed at Shanhai Pass. With Li’s troops on their way and the Manchu army at his back, Wu had to think fast! Since he had served on the Great Wall for so long, he had become familiar with his northern enemies, the Manchu. In the end, he decided to choose the devil he knew! Wu formed an alliance with the Manchu and allowed them through the gates of Shanhai Pass. In the same year, they conquered Beijing from Li and Hong Taiji’s son took the throne as the Shunzhi Emperor. 

At the time of his ascension, Shunzhi was only five years old and relied heavily on the help of his uncle, Dorgon. Instead of sacking Beijing, Dorgon insisted that it also be made the Qing capital and reappointed many of the old Ming officials into government positions. His expert political manoeuvring helped to quickly stabilise the regime and meant the Qing could conquer the rest of China much faster. Unfortunately, Dorgon died during a hunting expedition in 1650, and Shunzhi was suddenly left to rule the country alone. His reign appeared to be promising, but tragedy was waiting just around the corner! 

In 1661, at the age of 24, his life was cut short when he unexpectedly died from smallpox. He was succeeded by his third son, who was named the Kangxi Emperor. Kangxi took the throne at the age of 7 and didn’t pass away until he was 68, making him the longest-reigning emperor in Chinese history, after having served for a staggering 61 years! He became known as one of the Qing Dynasty’s most competent rulers. During his reign, the dynasty reached its zenith in terms of cultural, economic, and military accomplishment. 

This period of prosperity lasted through the reigns of his son, the Yongzheng Emperor, and his grandson, the Qianlong Emperor. However, as the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end! Qianlong was particularly famous for his patronage of the arts and funded the Siku Quanshu or “Complete Library of the Four Treasuries”, an invaluable anthology of over 3,400 books. Unfortunately, he also squandered enormous sums of money on a series of military expeditions known as the Ten Great Campaigns, which increased Qing control in Central Asia but nearly bankrupted the imperial treasury in the process. 

The Qianlong Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll Four: The Confluence of the Huai and Yellow Rivers 
in MET, New York

Under his reign, the population rose to an impressive 400 million but, since he had fixed the taxes at a low rate, an economic crash was inevitable. Available farmland became scarce, and soon peasants were forced to farm increasingly smaller and over-worked plots. Court factionalism intensified and an imperial favourite named Heshen, now regarded as one of the most corrupt political figures in Chinese history, became dangerously powerful. 

When Qianlong’s son, the Jiaqing Emperor, took the throne in 1796, he was handed a significantly weaker empire than the one his father had received. During the first year of his reign, a violent revolt known as the White Lotus Rebellion broke out and continued for eight long years, until 1804. Meanwhile, the European empires were gradually expanding across the world, and their economies were becoming increasingly dependent on maritime trade. The Canton System, which restricted maritime trade to the city of Guangzhou and gave monopoly trading rights to Chinese merchants, was beginning to cause tension between China and other foreign powers.   

The issue was further compounded by the fact that China’s economy was reasonably self-sufficient. Since China had no need to import goods, Britain and France were forced to use their increasingly limited supply of silver to purchase much-desired Chinese goods such as silk, tea, and porcelain. However, Britain finally hit upon a very addictive solution! One thing the Chinese craved, and in large quantities, was opium. In response to growing Chinese demand, the British East India Company expanded its production of opium in Bengal. 

When the Daoguang Emperor succeeded his father Jiaqing in 1820, he became deeply concerned about the outflow of silver spent on opium and the damage that opium smoking was inflicting on his subjects. He ordered his official Lin Zexu to end the opium trade and, in 1839, Lin confiscated large quantities of British opium without compensation. In the following year, Britain responded by sending a military expedition to China, which led to the First Opium War (1839-1842).

While the Qing Dynasty had remained set in their traditional ways, the British government had embraced technological advancement. The Qing navy, composed entirely of wooden sailing junks, was easily outmanoeuvred by the modern ships of the British Royal Navy. British soldiers, who wielded advanced artillery, outgunned Qing forces on the ground. In 1842, the Qing court was forced to surrender, which dealt a humiliating blow to the once proud regime.

Daoguang was made to sign the Treaty of Nanking, which dictated that China must pay war reparations, open up five treaty ports (Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai) to foreign trade, and grant Britain control of Hong Kong. In 1844, this unequal treaty was followed by the Treaty of Wanghia with the United States and the Treaty of Whampoa with France, both of which granted a myriad of privileges to the foreign nations. 

Although these treaties helped to ease the tension between China and its foreign neighbours, it by no means solved the problem. Guangzhou was declared open to foreigners in 1843, but the British faced extreme opposition from the native Cantonese. This anti-foreign movement swept across the province of Guangdong, and in turn prompted a strong anti-government sentiment amongst the people, as they believed the Qing court had failed to keep the “foreign barbarians” out of the country.

This strained environment finally culminated in the Arrow incident. In 1856, Guangzhou police seized a British-registered ship called the Arrow and charged its crew with piracy and smuggling, which prompted the British government to send a fleet to Guangzhou. France also sent military forces in support of its ally. Towards the end of 1857, Anglo-French forces occupied Guangzhou and the Second Opium War (1857-1860) officially began. 

In 1860, allied forces invaded Beijing and the reigning Xianfeng Emperor was forced to flee. By the end of that year, the Qing had suffered another humiliating defeat and the Emperor had to sign additional unequal treaties, which allowed foreign diplomats to live in Beijing and granted Christian missionaries the freedom to evangelise their faith. After conceding so much to foreign powers, the prestige of the Qing Dynasty was at an all-time low. 

Note:

[1]  The Eight Banners: When the Qing Dynasty first began, the Eight Banners was simply a military system that was used to unite and mobilise the Manchu people. Only Manchu people could be part of the Eight Banners, but the Mongolian Eight Banners was formed for Mongolians and likewise the Han Eight Banners for Han Chinese people. Over time, it evolved from a military system into the basic organisational framework that came to define Manchu and Qing society.

Political Reforms of Song Dynasty

In terms of political reformation, the Song Dynasty was arguably one of the most revolutionary in Chinese history. Before the establishment of the Song, political conflicts and territorial disputes had been resolved largely through warfare. Anyone who wished to establish a dynasty had to command substantial military power, and usually accomplished their aims by usurping the throne of another dynasty. Zhao Kuangyin was no different, as he was an army general working under the Later Zhou Dynasty (951–960) who eventually seized power during a military coup. However, after ascending the throne as Emperor Taizu of the Song Dynasty, Zhao Kuangyin changed his tactics. It seems a leopard really can change his spots after all!

Rather than using his military prowess to vanquish his enemies, Taizu was a master of political manoeuvring and advocated diplomacy when it came to relations with other kingdoms. He offered rival military generals honorary titles, cushy government jobs, and generous pensions in exchange for their allegiance, ensuring that he would never have to face them in battle. Never before had an emperor utilised such an unusual strategy in Chinese history. Yet it seemed that, with Taizu’s astute intellect, he had judged the situation well. After the chaos of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907-960), the population had long become weary of war, and Taizu’s humane administration appealed to them. The Song Dynasty swiftly rose in prestige and by 979 China was unified under the rule of the Song Emperor Taizong.

One of Taizu’s other major political reforms was the increased importance he placed on the imperial examinations as a method for selecting government officials. Although these examinations had existed since the Sui Dynasty (581-618), they had rarely been used to any great effect and officials were often chosen based on their military rank, social status, or family connections. Taizu utilised the imperial examinations as a way to select officials based on their own merit and skill. 

Thanks to the development of woodblock printing, literature was widely available and cheap, meaning a broader range of people from different social backgrounds were able to receive an education and qualify to take part in the examinations. This led to the diversification of the administrative system, as scholar-officials from the middle and lower classes soon found themselves at the higher levels of policy making. Over time, this process transformed the imperial government from an aristocratic entity into a bureaucratic one.

Another major change to the administration came in the form of opinion officials. These were academicians whose sole responsibility was to check up on all administrative branches and give impartial advice to the emperor based on information they had found. This meant it was much harder for high ranking members of the bureaucracy, such as the chief councillor and the military commissioner, to manipulate or influence the emperor’s decision making. Like a network of spies, the emperor used these opinion officials to keep tabs on his many-faceted administration.

However, the establishment of this bureaucracy came to affect society in a number of other unique ways. The prosperity of the Song Dynasty led to a sudden, enormous growth in the population. Since the imperial government only accommodated about 20,000 active officials at any given time, the supply of young scholars soon far outweighed the demand. This resulted in a surplus of intellectuals who were essentially free agents. Many of them were examination candidates, examination degree-holders who had not yet been assigned an official post, local tutors, or retired officials. 

While the devil may make use of idle hands, in this case it seems that these scholars had other plans! These learned men would often become involved in local affairs and sponsored necessary facilities in their local communities. Local magistrates often relied on the cooperation and support of these local gentry, who played a significant role in regulating local commerce and performing necessary duties in the community. 

In many ways, the Song Dynasty was a ground-breaking time in Chinese history. It represented the point at which the imperial examinations became a serious and indispensible way of stocking the government with the finest talent the empire had to offer. This set the standard for future dynasties, and these examinations would become the main method for selecting officials well into the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). While the military and the aristocracy had reigned supreme over the dynasties before it, the Song Dynasty marked the point in Chinese history where diplomacy and bureaucracy began to play a key role in the country’s politics.    

Cultural Impact of Ming Dynasty

Journey to the West

Considering how strict and dictatorial the Ming Dynasty was, it would seem surprising that any creative expression would be possible in such an oppressive environment. Yet it was during this time that three of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature were penned: Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and The Water Margin. To this day, these historic works are highly revered and have exerted considerable influence on modern Chinese culture.

While the scholarly elite were educated enough to fully comprehend and appreciate Classical Chinese, the Ming Dynasty saw the rise of a large audience with a rudimentary but functional education, who were eager to devour any literary works written in vernacular Chinese. Although this type of colloquial fiction had been popular since the Tang Dynasty (618-907), it didn’t fully blossom until the Ming. It was during this time that some of the true masterpieces of popular fiction were created. Superlative theatrical works, such as The Peony Pavilion, also enjoyed great popularity.

Index of Native Herbs

Yet Ming literature wasn’t solely confined to the realms of the spectacular and the fantastical! In many ways, Ming literati were some of the most prolific when it came to creating and preserving works of sober scholarship. Great private libraries were founded, such as the famed Tianyige Collection of the Fan family, and huge anthologies of rare books were published in order to save them from extinction. Scholars produced stunning illustrated encyclopaedias on topics innumerable; from the Bencao Gangmu or “Index of Native Herbs”, which listed over 1,800 herbal remedies and their applications, to the Wubeizhi or “Treatise on Military Preparedness”, a comprehensive guide on weaponry, fortifications, and military strategies.

However, arguably the most influential Ming scholar was a man named Wang Yangming. Wang was a philosopher whose teachings were based on those of Zhu Xi, the founder of Neo-Confucianism, and his concept of the “extension of knowledge”. According to this concept, people should thoroughly investigate all things in order to garner knowledge. This included reading and classical studies on society and human relations, but also incorporated the study of nature and natural phenomena.

Wang, however, chose to go against the main principles of Zhu Xi’s philosophy by arguing that anyone could gain an understanding of universal concepts simply by carefully and rationally investigating things and events. In a bold move, he thus claimed that anyone, regardless of social standing or education, could become as wise as venerated masters like Confucius and Mencius. According to his theory, a peasant who had a great deal of experience and intelligence would therefore be wiser than an official who had memorised the Classics but had no practical experience of the real world.

Other officials frequently tried to diminish Wang’s influence by sending him off to deal with military affairs and rebellions far away from the capital, but he amassed a substantial following regardless and renewed the peoples’ interest in Taoism and Buddhism. Perhaps most significantly, he caused people to question the Confucian social hierarchy and debate whether certain professions, such as the scholar, should really rank above others, like the farmer.

Some of Wang Yangming’s disciples, such as the salt-mine worker Wang Gen and the scholar Li Zhi, would frequently give lectures that disseminated his philosophies. Wang Gen advocated that commoners pursue academics in order to better their everyday lives, while Li Zhi radically contended that women were the intellectual equals of men and should be offered the same education. Their “dangerous ideas” eventually landed them in prison, but it was not long before China’s civilians began embracing them.

While writers and philosophers were striking out in bold new directions, artists and artisans weren’t far behind. The Ming Dynasty has long been esteemed for the diversity and quality of its crafted wares, particularly with reference to cloisonné and porcelain. The most famous of these is the iconic blue-and-white porcelain, which was a hot commodity in Europe at the time. When it came to painting, the style of the time was greatly influenced by the Four Masters of the Wu School: Shen Zhou, Qiu Ying, Tang Yin, and Wen Zhengming. They were the most highly esteemed artists of their age, and their work prompted a movement away from the academic, instead placing emphasis on individualistic self-expression and technical excellence.

Yet perhaps the greatest cultural influence on the Ming Dynasty came in the form of foreign traders. Foreign envoys were originally permitted to buy and sell private goods at official, supervised marketplaces, which were located both in the capital and in certain coastal cities. The Ming government was infamously strict when it came to foreign trade and eventually banned private trade between foreigners and native Chinese, even going so far as to close all of the maritime trading ports except Guangzhou during the 16th century. However, merchants weren’t about to let that stop them. After all, money is the great motivator!

In 1514, Portuguese traders began illegally smuggling goods in and out of China, much to the Ming court’s discontent. They were so persistent in their activities that by 1557 they had taken control of present-day Macau and were even trading regularly at Guangzhou. Once the Portuguese had found their way in, the Spanish and the Dutch soon followed suit. By 1637, even the English had begun illegally trading with China. Silk, porcelain, thoroughbred horses, and Chinese tea flowed out of the country, while silver and precious spices were brought in. However, the Ming imperials still regarded much of this activity as piracy, and it severely hampered their opinion of Europeans.

This made life particularly difficult for the Christian missionaries who had travelled from Europe to China. It was only when Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit who spoke fluent Chinese and was well-acquainted with Confucian principles, arrived in 1583 that the reputation of European foreigners began to change. By the time of his death in 1610, a handful of Chinese officials had converted to Christianity, and Jesuit communities could be found throughout central and southern China. In fact, he was held in such high regard that the Emperor even allowed his remains to be buried in Beijing and eventually other missionaries would be buried in the same spot, which came to be known as the Zhalan Cemetery. It was these Jesuits who produced a number of books in Chinese about European science and theology. Although their effect was quite limited, European technology and ideas were beginning to take hold in China towards the end of the Ming Dynasty.

The Early Yuan

Towards the end of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the imperial court was forced south by the formidable Jurchen people, who incorporated China’s northern territories into their Jin Dynasty [1](1115–1234). For over 100 years, China was split virtually down the middle, with the Jin Dynasty ruling the north and the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279) reigning over the south. Yet the Jurchens were nothing compared to the foes that the Song imperials would soon face. Little did they know that a forbidding figure, the likes of which the world had never seen, was amassing power on the northern borders.

Genghis Khan

In 1206, Genghis Khan united the Mongol and Turkic tribes of the northern steppes, earning him the title of “Great Khan”. With hordes of experienced soldiers at his back, he set out on a conquest that would soon become legendary. His lifetime achievement, the Mongol Empire (1206–1368), would come to be known as the largest contiguous land empire in history. In 1214, he stormed the Jin Dynasty and conquered several of their major cities.

Under the reign of his third son, Ögedei Khan, the Jin Dynasty and the Tangut-led Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227) were finally annexed. With the north of China conquered, the Mongolians soon turned their gaze south. When Möngke Khan took the throne in 1251, he granted his brother Kublai control over Mongol-held territories in China. In 1259, Möngke suddenly died without a named successor. Soon, a civil war broke out between Kublai and his brother Ariq Böke over who was the rightful heir to the throne.

Before the civil war, the Mongol administration had struggled with governing the sedentary population of northern China. They were nomadic, and were unfamiliar with the practices of the Khitan, Jurchen, and Han Chinese people who occupied their new territory. They attempted to synthesise their Mongolian military administration with that of traditional Chinese bureaucracy, but this re-feudalisation was something that northern China’s citizens bitterly resisted. In short, China was being ruled much like a colony for the Mongolians and their allies, which caused civil unrest among the native people.

Kublai depended on the knowledge and resourcefulness of his Han Chinese subjects, so he modelled his bureaucracy on that of traditional Chinese dynasties in order to earn their respect. In the end, this was the edge he needed to defeat his brother in battle. By this time, the three western khanates (the Golden Horde, Chagatai Khanate, and Ilkhanate) only acknowledged Kublai as Great Khan nominally, but he was about to gain yet another prestigious title. In 1271, after a series of successful military campaigns in Sichuan province and the Yangtze River Basin, he proclaimed himself Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty.

On the advice of his Han Chinese counsellors, Kublai centralised the bureaucracy, expanded the circulation of paper money, and restored the main administrative structure of previous Chinese dynasties. After a series of southern military campaigns, Mongolian forces defeated the Song loyalists in 1279 and the last Song Emperor committed suicide. This officially brought an end to the Song Dynasty, and marked the point where the Yuan Dynasty re-united northern and southern China.

However, numerous wars and construction projects had drained the Mongol treasury, and Kublai faced significant financial difficulties. Corruption and scandal within the Mongol court meant that any efforts to raise and collect tax revenues were often thwarted. On top of this, the talented Han Chinese scholar-officials, who had served under the Song Dynasty, were often relegated to minor positions in government. This was primarily due to the establishment of the Four Class System.

The ruins of the Yuan Capital City, in Beijing.

After the fall of the Song Dynasty, Kublai Khan implemented a social caste system where all of his citizens were separated into four categories. The first class contained solely those of Mongolian ethnicity; the second class or semuren were associates of the Mongolians, such as the Turks or the Middle Eastern Muslims; the third class or hanren was made up of inhabitants from northern China who had been subjects of the conquered Jin and Western Xia dynasties; and the fourth class or nanren consisted of any former subjects of the Southern Song Dynasty. The term “social class” may be misleading, as these groups denoted degrees of privilege rather than wealth or social influence. For example, there were desperately poor members of the first class, and exorbitantly rich members of the fourth class. People were placed in these classes based on how early their empires had surrendered to the Mongolians, hence why the Southern Song ranked at the bottom.

However, this system unfairly stipulated that the four classes receive different treatment when it came to political, legal, and military affairs. For example, although all classes of people could become court officials, the higher ranks were granted solely to Mongolians and semuren, with very few positions being held by members of the third and fourth classes. Mongolians and semuren were also tax-exempt, and were able to receive lighter punishments for any crimes they committed. This discrepancy in the treatment of different ethnic groups created internal instability that was only manageable under a strong ruler, such as Kublai Khan. As soon as a weak or incompetent ruler took the throne, disintegration and the decline of the dynasty was inevitable.

Tragically Kublai’s named heir, Zhenjin, passed away in 1285. When Kublai finally died in 1294, there was much internal struggle over who should succeed him. In the end, Zhenjin’s third son ascended the throne as Temür Khan. Although Temür managed to continue much of his grandfather’s good work, his lack of experience when it came to governance meant that corruption firmly took root in the Mongol court. By the time his successor Külüg Khan came to the throne, there were serious problems within the administration. This was only further aggravated when Külüg introduced a series of reforms that plunged the government into considerable financial difficulties. On Külüg’s death in 1311, the Yuan Empire was severely in debt and civil unrest was widespread.

 

[1] This is often referred to as the Jurchen Jin Dynasty to avoid confusion with dynasties of the same name.

The Northern Song

 (960–1127)

Like many rulers before him, Zhao Kuangyin began his political career under the service of others. He was a militarist working for the Later Zhou Dynasty (951–960), which controlled China’s northern territories during a chaotic era known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907-960). The country had been fractured into a number of warring regimes, with five dynasties ruling consecutively in the north and ten kingdoms dominating the south and west. When Emperor Shizong suddenly died, he was succeeded by a seven-year-old boy and the Later Zhou weakened further.

The imperial capital of Bianjing (modern-day Kaifeng)

In 960, Zhao decided to seize this valuable opportunity and usurped the throne, establishing himself as Emperor Taizu of the Song Dynasty. He was a staunch believer in Confucian ideals and, as such, he made the decision to live modestly, listen to his advisors carefully, and curb excessive taxation. News quickly spread of his benevolence and the Song Dynasty rose in prestige. Although he commanded a formidable army, he decided to employ diplomacy when it came to vanquishing his rivals. Rather than face weathered military generals in battle, he offered them honorary titles, cushy government jobs, and generous pensions in exchange for their allegiance. Never before had an emperor employed such a political strategy in Chinese history.

This expert political manoeuvring, coupled with well-planned military strategies, led Taizu to slowly but surely annex many of his rival kingdoms. During his reign, he also promoted the use of the imperial examinations to select officials based on skill and merit, rather than social standing or military position. This set the standard for the rest of the dynasty, and eventually resulted in the imperial government transforming from an aristocratic entity into a bureaucratic one.

On his untimely death in 976, he was succeeded by his younger brother, Emperor Taizong, who decided to finish what his sibling had started. After all, you’ve got to uphold your family values! Taizong turned his attention northward and conquered the last of the Ten Kingdoms, the Kingdom of Northern Han (951–979). Thus China was finally unified under Song rule. However, it seemed that Taizong allowed this victory to go to his head! During this time, the Song faced two major enemies on their borders: the Khitans of the Liao Dynasty (907–1125) in the northeast and the Tanguts of the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227) to the northwest.

Taizong embarked on a campaign to dominate the Liao and retrieve an area known as the Sixteen Prefectures, which belonged to the Liao but was traditionally considered part of China proper. His attempts culminated in a disastrous defeat in 986. After several more brutal clashes, his successor, Emperor Zhenzong, arranged the signing of the Chanyuan Treaty in 1005, which assured a peaceful co-existence between the two regimes on the proviso that the Song provide a yearly tribute to the Liao and recognise them as peers. Considering the economic prosperity of the Song, it was a small price to pay for security.

Chinese ceramics from the Jun Ware, one of the Five Great Kilns during the Song Dynasty

By this time, the bureaucracy had developed from a simplistic system into a well-oiled machine. The imperial examinations were well-regulated and led to the appointment of several excellent scholar-officials. It was these talented men who came to dominate the higher levels of policy-making in government. However, many members of this educated elite staunchly upheld Confucian ideals, and this frequently caused tension between them and the aristocracy. They were highly critical of palace impropriety, corruption, sluggishness, and social inequality within the realm. Long-standing officials from the north, who often had aristocratic family backgrounds, resolutely opposed these “newcomers”. However, it appeared that the complaints of the new officials were justified, as peace and prosperity within the regime gradually began to erode.

Small-scale rebellions broke out near the capital, and the Western Xia Dynasty suddenly renounced its vassal status, declaring its independence. Meanwhile, the Liao Dynasty threatened another invasion, which was only staved off when the Song increased its yearly tribute. On the surface, the system seemed stable, but it was rapidly deteriorating. Military expenditures and a costly, expanding bureaucracy meant that palace income no longer covered expenses. By the time Emperor Yingzong took the throne in 1063, the government was embroiled in a series of minor disputes that resulted in severe schisms.

But it seems the worst was yet to come! Yingzong’s successor, Emperor Shenzong, is often bemoaned for ending the Song’s golden age of effective governance. His response to the bureaucratic crisis was to make the scholar-poet Wang Anshi his chief councillor and bestow upon him inordinate political power. Wang’s reforms, known as the New Laws or New Policies, attempted to drastically change the established institution. The main aim was to streamline the administration, increase the empire’s fiscal intake, and improve the Song’s military strength. Wang was nothing if not ambitious!

To this end, he finally acknowledged the rapidly spreading money economy by prompting the state to increase the supply of currency, become involved in trading, and stabilise prices whenever and wherever it was deemed necessary. In this way, the imperial court was able to make a commercial profit. A number of other reforms, such as maintaining emergency granaries and employing a graduated tax system based on individual income, were designed to relieve the financial burden of China’s citizens. It seemed that, in many ways, Wang was on the right track to achieving his ideal.

However, this gigantic reform program required an energetic bureaucracy, one which Wang attempted to create with limited success. He promoted a nationwide school system; demoted or dismissed uncooperative officials; and provided strong incentives, such as promotions, for members of the administration who improved their performance. Although his intentions may have been for the greater good, Wang’s reform program was met with bitter opposition. His policies hurt the interests of several key social groups, including large landowners, powerful merchants, and moneylenders. The bulk of government officials, who came from these wealthy classes, were deliberately rebellious or openly attempted to sabotage his plans.

Both Shenzong and Wang failed to acknowledge the fact that the administrative system, which had become deeply entrenched by that time, simply couldn’t tolerate such radical change. Many of their reforms concentrated power at the top, expanded the government’s influence in society, and applied policies uniformly to a uniquely diverse empire. Many of Wang’s opponents argued against these reforms based on Confucian principles, claiming it was inappropriate for the state to pursue profits, assume inordinate political power, and excessively interfere in the lives of its people.

While Wang claimed the reforms would bring about social equality, stability, and an end to corruption, they ended up doing just the opposite. Unscrupulous officials were able to exploit the system to their advantage, factional strife within the court was at an all-time high, and the country’s population suffered intensely. The Song Dynasty, which was once famed for its “art of governance”, was slowly starting to unravel.

The situation became still more confused when Shenzong passed away. The reforms were repealed by the Empress Dowager, only to be swiftly re-established by Emperor Zhezong. When Zhezong’s heir, Emperor Huizong, took the throne, the situation only worsened. Although Huizong was a patron of the arts and a phenomenal artist himself, he was incredibly self-indulgent and irresponsible when it came to matters of state. His extravagant spending pushed the imperial treasury ever closer towards bankruptcy.

More serious still was Huizong’s carelessness when it came to foreign policy. He chose to disregard the treaty that the Song held with the Liao Dynasty and instead allied with the formidable Jurchen people, who sought to expand their empire. Eventually, they were able to conquer the Liao and established the Jin Dynasty[1] (1115–1234) in its stead. However, the Jurchens had done much of the fighting and accused the Song of not holding up their end of the deal. The alliance between them quickly soured and the Jin-Song Wars (1125–1234) began.

At this inopportune moment, Huizong chose to abdicate and placed his unprepared son, Emperor Qinzong, on the throne. Corruption ran rife throughout the imperial court and the administration became increasingly ineffective, making the Song easy prey for the Jurchens. In 1127, they laid siege to the imperial capital of Bianjing (modern-day Kaifeng) and demanded extortionate ransoms from the imperial court.

When they became aware that local resources were nearly exhausted, the invaders changed their tactics. They captured Huizong, Qinzong, and much of the imperial family, exiled them to Manchuria, and took control of China’s northern territories. This put a tragic end to the Northern Song Dynasty, but it wasn’t about to go out without a fight! The Jurchens had failed to capture one of Huizong’s sons, who fled south to Lin’an (modern-day Hangzhou) and established the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279) under the title Emperor Gaozong.

 

[1] This is often referred to as the Jurchen Jin Dynasty to avoid confusion with dynasties of the same name.

Later Ming

Thanks to the Yongle Emperor’s efforts, the Ming Empire enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace, stability, and prosperity. Yet it seems you really can have too much of a good thing! Having inherited such a powerful empire, the later Ming emperors swiftly became complacent. Their most formidable enemy, the Mongolians, may have fractured into three antagonistic groups known as the Oirats, the Tatars, and the Urianghad tribes, but this didn’t mean they no longer represented a significant threat. In 1449, this era of peace came to an end when the Oirat leader Esen Tayisi launched an invasion into China.

The reigning Zhengtong Emperor, who was inexperienced in the art of governance, misguidedly heeded the advice of his chief eunuch Wang Zhen. Wang advised him to personally face the Oirats head on and so, leaving his half-brother Zhu Qiyu in charge as temporary regent, he embarked on his military campaign. On September 8th of the same year, Esen successfully ambushed Zhengtong’s army, captured him, and held him for ransom in a situation known as the Tumu Crisis.

However, Esen’s scheme was foiled when Zhu Qiyu assumed the throne as the Jingtai Emperor. When the Oirats attempted to besiege the imperial capital of Beijing, they were repelled thanks to the concerted efforts of the defence minister Yu Qian. Esen soon realised that the Zhengtong Emperor represented a useless bargaining chip and so released him back into China. Although he was initially held under house arrest, he eventually reclaimed the throne under the name of the Tianshun Emperor when his half-brother was overthrown during a coup in 1457. The Tianshun Emperor has since been celebrated as one of the most benevolent emperors of the Ming Dynasty, in particular for his abolishment of the regal tradition that saw concubines and palace maids buried alive or sealed in the imperial tomb after the death of the Emperor.

From 1449 onwards, the trauma of the Tumu Crisis prompted the Ming emperors to continually rebuild, repair, and fortify the Great Wall. Many sections of the wall that you see today are the result of these efforts. Yet a strong defence is nothing without strong leadership! Subsequent emperors failed to halt the corruption that threatened to cripple the imperial court, and this reached a peak during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor (r. 1521-1567).

Under the vigorous new leadership of Altan Khan, the Oirats had become a constant threat on the northern frontiers and even ransacked the suburbs of Beijing in 1550. At the same time, settlements along the southeastern coast were repeatedly raided and terrorised by Japanese pirates. Tragedy struck yet again in 1556, when the deadliest earthquake of all time took place in Shaanxi province, killing approximately 830,000 people. Rather than deal with these mounting problems, for 20 years the Jiajing Emperor withdrew from political affairs and left the country in the hands of an unpopular grand secretary named Yan Song.

It wasn’t until the late 1560s that coastal raiding was finally brought under control, and Altan Khan wasn’t formally dealt with until 1571. For the next decade, during the reign of the Longqing Emperor and the early years of the Wanli Emperor, the country enjoyed relative stability thanks to the work of an outstanding grand secretary named Zhang Juzheng. However, when Zhang tragically died in 1582, there was no one skilled enough to maintain the delicate balance of alliances that he had so effectively built up. Disagreements caused government officials to fracture into a number of opposing factions.

As time went on, the Wanli Emperor grew tired of the constant political squabbling in his court and preferred to secrete himself behind the walls of the Forbidden City. In a foolish move, Wanli granted excessive political powers to imperial eunuchs. They soon became the only intermediaries between officials and the emperor, and demanded hefty bribes for their services.

Meanwhile, Ming China continued to support the Koreans in the on-going Imjin War with the Japanese, which was proving to be a significant financial drain. This war, coupled with the extravagances of the Wanli Emperor and the military costs of defending the northern border, eventually bankrupted the central government. This fiscal and bureaucratic decline continued under the reign of the Taichang Emperor, who ruled for just one short month before suddenly passing away. Perhaps the stress proved to be too much for him!

In 1620, the Tianqi Emperor took the throne, but he was too young to effectively lead the fractured government. Unable to deal with political affairs, he granted almost totalitarian powers to his favourite eunuch, Wei Zhongxian, in 1624. By cruelly purging hundreds of officials and staffing the government with corrupt sycophants, Wei became one of the most notorious figures in Chinese history. So great was his arrogance that he even ordered the construction of temples dedicated to him throughout the Ming Empire!

With the court thus wracked by instability, it was in no place to deal with the calamities that lay on the horizon. When the Chongzhen Emperor took the throne in 1627, he had Wei immediately dismissed, but the damage had already been done. During his reign, a major economic crisis developed regarding China’s dependence on silver. Many of the country’s peasants paid taxes in silver, but sold their crops and conducted local trade in copper. During the 1630s, Spain cracked down on illegal smuggling of silver to China, and Japan shut down most of its foreign trade with Europe, meaning the country had lost two of its major suppliers in one fell swoop.

This caused a dramatic spike in the value of silver, which in turn forced the ratio of the value of copper to silver into steep decline. This spelled disaster for China’s peasants, as the copper they earned was no longer enough to buy the silver they needed to pay their taxes. Yet it seems the worse was still to come! During the early 17th century, a climactic phenomenon known as the Little Ice Age caused unusually cold and dry weather in the north of China. This in turn shortened the growing season, decimated crops, and caused large-scale flooding. By this point, the central government was so financially weak that it could not provide its people with aid.

The Jing Hill, where Chongzhen Emperor hung himself

Famine, poverty, and natural disasters led to widespread loss of life throughout China. As was typical during times of crisis, rebellions sprang up across the country. In 1644, a rebel leader named Li Zicheng captured the imperial capital of Beijing and the last Ming emperor, the Chongzhen Emperor, tragically hung himself on a tree outside of the Forbidden City. Meanwhile, in the northeastern region of Manchuria, an ambitious Jurchen leader named Nurhaci had been amassing power. By 1621, he already controlled the northeastern segment of the Ming Empire near the Great Wall’s Shanhai Pass.  In 1635, Nurhaci’s son Hong Taiji took over and changed the ethnic name of his people from the Jurchens to the Manchu.

In a desperate attempt to restore the dynasty, a Ming commander named Wu Sangui forged an alliance with the Manchu people and allowed them through the gates of Shanhai Pass in the hopes that they would defeat Li Zicheng. They did just that, but seized the imperial throne in the process! In 1644, Hong Taiji’s son formally took control of China as the Shunzhi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). However, it wasn’t until 1683 that the Manchu were finally able to quash the last of the Ming loyalists, Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga), who had formed a stronghold in Taiwan.

Early Ming

Widespread discontent and resentment became a hallmark of the final years of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), as the Han Chinese felt increasingly burdened by heavy taxes and ostracized by institutionalized ethnic discrimination against them. It wasn’t until large-scale flooding of the Yellow River, however, that these disillusioned masses finally had justification to openly revolt. According to Chinese tradition, natural disasters were a sign that the ruling emperors had lost the Mandate of Heaven, or the divine right to rule. The imperial court had become so fractured and chaotic that it was unable to quell the rising tide of disenfranchised peasants. On the verge of poverty and famine, these peasants were forced to form rebel bandit groups in order to survive.

The most powerful of these was undoubtedly the Red Turbans, who were connected to a secret Buddhist society known as the White Lotus. In 1352, a pauper named Zhu Yuanzhang joined their ranks and swiftly rose to prominence after marrying the rebel commander’s foster daughter. After being orphaned at a young age, Zhu had spent much of his early years as a beggar before joining a Buddhist monastery. Yet it seems the gods had other plans for him!

In 1356, Zhu led rebel forces to capture the city of Nanjing and, in 1363, he overcame his arch rival Chen Youliang at the Battle of Lake Poyang, one of the largest naval battles in Chinese history. With an army of just 200,000 sailors, Zhu was able to overcome enemy forces that claimed to be over 650,000-strong! In 1367, the leader of the Red Turbans suspiciously died while a guest in Zhu’s home and, with no other obstacles in his way, Zhu easily took control of the group. By 1368, he had driven the Mongolians out of Shandong, Henan, and Shanxi provinces. With such glorious victories behind him, he marched his forces towards the Yuan capital of Dadu (modern-day Beijing).

Meanwhile, the Yuan remnants had fled back to Mongolia and established the Northern Yuan Dynasty (1368–1635). Zhu thereby officially established the Ming Dynasty and took the regal name of the Hongwu or “Vastly Martial” Emperor. Fierce military campaigning expanded his empire into Fujian, Hunan, Guangdong, and Guangxi. From 1369 to 1370, the regions of Shaanxi, Gansu, and Inner Mongolia were annexed. By the end of his 30-year reign in 1398, his territory stretched across the entirety of modern China proper.

One such military victory took place in a northeastern region known as Manchuria. A former Yuan official named Naghachu had been amassing power in the area and, rather than waiting for him to become a sizeable threat, the Ming sent a military campaign to defeat him in 1387. However, in those early days, the Ming court simply could not impose control over the Jurchen[1] people who occupied the region and instead forged an alliance with them. In an ironic twist of fate, it would be the descendants of these Jurchens, under the new moniker of the Manchu people, who would overthrow the Ming Dynasty.

With his empire firmly established and his imperial capital set in Nanjing, the Hongwu Emperor started to develop the governmental policies that would characterise his reign. In 1397, he completed a new Confucian law code and reorganised the military system so that large communities of soldiers were given farmland and were practically self-sufficient during peacetime. Both of these systems were based on those of the celebrated Tang Dynasty (618-907). He also famously diminished the power of the court eunuchs, who he believed to be responsible for much of the corruption in court.

Yet perhaps his most radical reform was the abolishment of the Chancellery. After having the Chancellor Hu Weiyong executed on suspicion of treason in 1380, the Hongwu Emperor decided to take on the role for himself and thus removed what had once been the most influential administrative body in the imperial government. He was a deeply paranoid man and even went so far as to set up a network of secret spies known as the Jinyiwei, who were drawn from his own palace guard. Throughout his rule, some 100,000 people were executed in a series of political purges. Although his attitude towards foreign peoples other than the Mongols was generally unaggressive, his treatment of his own officials bordered on brutality!

The Tomb of Hongwu Emperor Nanjing, Jiangsu Province

Towards the end of his reign, the Hongwu Emperor named his grandson Zhu Yunwen as his successor. On his death in 1398, Zhu Yunwen assumed the throne as the Jianwen Emperor. Yet not everyone was quite so pleased with Hongwu’s decision! The most militarily accomplished of his sons, Zhu Di, felt that he deserved the throne, and soon a fearsome political showdown erupted between him and Jianwen. After a vicious three-year-long civil war, the Jianwen Emperor’s brief reign was brought to a close. With his wife and mother tragically deceased, the Jianwen Emperor decided, in an act of abject devastation, to burn down the imperial palace, although his body was never found inside. To this day, no one knows exactly what happened to the Jianwen Emperor and his son.

Thus Zhu Di ascended the throne as the Yongle Emperor and began his reign with a violent purge of anyone connected to the Jianwen Emperor. He notoriously executed any scholar or official who had once allied themselves with or written about the Jianwen Emperor, and even punished those who contained books about the Jianwen Emperor in their homes. During this tumultuous period, a multitude of books were burned and many grand works of Chinese literature were lost forever.

The Yongle Emperor’s reign represented a major turning point in the dynasty, as he reversed many of his father’s policies and embarked on a much more aggressive foreign policy. In 1403, he moved the capital to Beijing and almost immediately began construction of a colossal imperial palace known as the Forbidden City. In the same year, he also famously commissioned the production of the Yongle Encyclopedia, which is widely considered to be the largest paper-based encyclopedia in the world!

From 1405 onwards, he entrusted his favourite eunuch, Zheng He, with a gigantic fleet of ships, which was dedicated wholly to international tributary missions. After seven costly voyages, Zheng He was able to demand tribute from rulers as far away as the East African coast. Historians estimate that, thanks to Yongle’s efforts, the Ming emperors may have exercised more far-reaching influence in East Asia than any other native rulers in China. His military prowess even led to the conquest and brief occupation of Vietnam, which lasted from 1407 to 1427.In an effort to expand domestic trade, Yongle rebuilt the Grand Canal so that transporting goods between the north and the south was much easier.

The Mongols, who remained the greatest threat to the Ming Empire, had since fractured into three antagonistic groups. These were the western Mongols or Oirats, the eastern Mongols or Tatars, and the Urianghad tribes of the Chengde region. Factional strife meant that the Oirats and the Tatars were internally weak and posed no real threat, while the Urianghad tribes had served under the Ming since the reign of the Hongwu Emperor. They were eventually granted political autonomy by the Yongle Emperor.

Over time, the complacency with which the Ming emperors regarded the Mongols caused them to withdraw their command posts beyond the Great Wall. Northeastern Manchuria slowly became more isolated from Ming influence and the Jurchen people started to amass power. On the death of the Yongle Emperor in 1424, the Ming court had all but ceased any substantial activities in the region.

Yongle’s reign ushered in a period of peace, stability, and prosperity for China. Foreign and domestic trade started to blossom, the country was at peace, and the international prestige that Yongle’s efforts had garnered meant that his successors no longer needed to pursue such an aggressive foreign policy. Yet, like so many dynasties before it, the Ming Dynasty was doomed to be undone by weak emperors and the corrupt officials who manipulated them.

[1] The Jurchens: The Jurchens or Jurcheds were a Tungusic people, an ethnic group that has been acknowledged as distinct from Turkic and Mongolian people. During the 12th century, they took control of northern China and established the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). By the 17th century, they were known as the Manchu people.

The Ten Kingdoms

Towards the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), military governors known as jiedushi began to accrue power outside of imperial rule. They controlled expansive regions and commanded large armies, making them very difficult for the imperial government to control. After the brutal Huang Chao Rebellion (874-884), the Tang Empire was virtually crippled and the jiedushi effectively became rulers of their respective territories. When one such jiedushi, named Zhu Wen, finally overthrew the Tang Dynasty in 907, China had already been divided up among a series of rival regimes. While five consecutive dynasties ruled over the north, the south and the west were fractured into a series of kingdoms that regularly ran concurrently.

Although a number of small kingdoms formed during this time, traditionally only ten major ones are listed. These were known as the Wu (902–937), the Southern Tang (937–976), the Jingnan (924–963), the Min (909–945), the Chu (927–951), the Former Shu (907–925), the Later Shu (934–965), the Northern Han (951–979), the Southern Han (917–971), and the Wuyue (907–978).

The Kingdom of Wu

The Kingdom of Wu controlled a south-central region known as Huainan, which included modern-day central and southern Anhui province, central and southern Jiangsu province, much of Jiangxi province, and eastern Hubei province. It was founded by a man named Yang Xingmi, who had been a volunteer soldier during the Tang Dynasty. Through cunning military strategies, he was eventually named Prince of Wu by the Tang court, although it wasn’t until his son Yang Wo took over that Wu was declared an independent sovereign state.

Having ascended the throne at a very young age, Yang Wo relied on an official named Xu Wen, whose power he gradually came to resent. His suspicions turned out to be well-founded, as Wen and a colleague assassinated Wo in 908. After a falling out between the crafty pair eventually resulted in the colleague’s untimely death, Wen installed Yang Wo’s brother, Yang Longyan, as a puppet ruler. Wen was succeeded by his step-son, Xu Zhigao, on his death in 927, and this represented a turning point for the Wu regime. Zhigao deposed the reigning Yang Pu and adopted the surname “Li”, which had been that of the Tang royal family. To this end, he proclaimed the restoration of the Tang Dynasty and established the Kingdom of Southern Tang.

The Kingdom of Southern Tang

The last emperor of Southern Tang Li Yu is famous for his calligraphy.

By comparison to the other Ten Kingdoms, the Southern Tang would prove to be relatively stable and prosperous. When Li Bian’s son, Li Jing, took over in 943, he embarked on a campaign that would greatly expand his empire. In particular, his military intellect allowed him to take advantage of a revolt in the Kingdom of Min. When the Min appealed to the Southern Tang for help, Li Jing instead absorbed the rebellious territory into his own. It seemed that the Min had trusted the Southern Tang an inch and suddenly they were out by miles, of territory that is! By 945, the Southern Tang had completed its conquest of the Min and annexed all of its lands.

In a similar way, the Southern Tang was able to exploit internal strife within the Kingdom of Chu and eventually conquered it in 951, expanding their empire even further. However, tragedy struck when the Song Dynasty was founded in the north of China. After almost a year of fighting, the Southern Tang was defeated by the Song in 975 and their empire was formally seized in 976.

The Kingdom of Jingnan

That being said, the Southern Tang wasn’t the first to go. The Kingdom of Jingnan, which only covered two small districts on the Yangtze River and was the smallest of the southern kingdoms, suffered much the same fate. It was initially founded by a military governor named Gao Jichang, who had served under the Later Liang Dynasty (907–923) but declared independence when they were conquered by the Later Tang (923–36).

As a small and rather weak state, Jingnan was incredibly vulnerable to its powerful neighbours. It survived largely by maintaining crucial alliances with the dynasties that ruled northern China and its status as a central trading hub also helped to protect it from invasion. However, when the Song Dynasty’s armies invaded Jingnan territory in 963, they had neither the manpower nor the finances to defend themselves, and so promptly surrendered.

The Kingdom of Min

The Kingdoms of Min and Chu would not be so lucky, as they would find themselves brutally conquered long before the Song Dynasty was established. The Kingdom of Min, which was established in 909 by a military governor named Wang Shenzhi, covered a mountainous region in modern-day Fujian province and held its capital at Changle (modern-day Fuzhou). The territory it occupied was isolated and rugged, meaning it was one of the least economically prosperous of the Ten Kingdoms. However, they were also in an advantageous position to engage in maritime trade and this set the stage for Fujian province to become a vital trading port during future dynasties.

Tragedy struck in 943, when Wang Shenzhi faced a rebellion from one of his own sons, who took control of the kingdom’s northwestern territory and established the Kingdom of Yin. The Min court begged assistance from the nearby Kingdom of Southern Tang but, rather than helping them, the Southern Tang simply invaded the Kingdom of Yin and annexed its territory! Not long thereafter, the Kingdom of Min was absorbed entirely into the Southern Tang.

The Kingdom of Chu

The Kingdom of Chu was a close neighbour to the Min, controlling modern-day Hunan province and northeastern Guangxi. It was founded by a military governor named Ma Yin and, under his rule, Chu was a peaceful and prosperous state that became known for exporting horses, silk, and tea. However, Ma Yin’s death led to conflicts within the royal family that eventually proved to be the downfall of the kingdom. The Southern Tang, fresh from its conquest of the Min, immediately took advantage of this crisis and seized the kingdom in 951.

The Kingdoms of Former and Later Shu

Meanwhile, other kingdoms in western China were experiencing mixed luck. The Kingdom of Former Shu, which ruled over modern-day Sichuan province, southern Gansu province, and southern Shaanxi province, was established by a military governor named Wang Jian. When he passed away in 918, he was succeeded by his incompetent son, Wang Yan. In its weakened state, the kingdom was invaded by the Later Tang Dynasty and its territories were swiftly occupied.

However, unbeknownst to the Later Tang imperial court, one of their military governors was amassing power. His name was Meng Zhixiang and, in 930, he entered into open rebellion. Although the rebellion was successful, Meng decided to remain a vassal of the Later Tang until it was obvious that the dynasty was in decline. He finally declared independence in 934 under the Kingdom of Later Shu, but died less than a year later. His son, Meng Chang, ruled effectively for thirty years until the Later Shu was conquered by the Song Dynasty in 965.

The Kingdoms of Southern and Northern Han

Unlike the Former Shu and the Later Shu, which were named because they reigned over the region known as Shu, the Southern Han and the Northern Han were so-called because their rulers claimed descent from the royal Liu family of the venerable Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). The Kingdom of Southern Han held its capital in Guangzhou and controlled parts of modern-day Guangdong province, Guangxi, the island of Hainan, and Hanoi in Vietnam. It was established by a military officer named Liu Yin, although it didn’t officially claim independence until after Liu Yin’s death in 917, when his brother Liu Yan took the throne. It maintained steady leadership for over 60 years, until it was finally forced to submit to the Song Dynasty in 971.

It was the Kingdom of Northern Han that would truly prove to be the thorn in the Song Dynasty’s side. When the short-lived Later Han Dynasty (947–951) fell, the royal family fled back to their stronghold in Shanxi province and established the Northern Han in its stead. Its ruler, Liu Min, immediately restored the relationship that his family had once held with the mighty Khitan people, who founded the Liao Dynasty (916–1125). It was this alliance that would prove to be the Northern Han’s saving grace as, in spite of their small size, they were protected by an ally whose power equalled that of the Song Dynasty.

It was only after the Song Dynasty had annexed all of the other rival kingdoms that it finally turned its attention to the Northern Han. In the end, Song forces laid siege to its capital of Taiyuan and, after two long months, it finally surrendered. However, though the Northern Han may have been the last of the Ten Kingdoms to fall, it was by no means the most influential.

The Kingdom of Wuyue

The Kingdom of Wuyue, which survived throughout the entirety of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, was arguably the most significant regime of this turbulent era. It covered modern-day Zhejiang province and Shanghai Municipality, as well as the southern portion of Jiangsu province, and was founded by the Qian family. The name Wuyue was derived from a combination of Wu and Yue, which were ancient kingdoms that had ruled during the Spring and Autumn Period (c. 771-476 BC). However, while the Wuyue’s territory roughly covered that of the ancient Yue, it included very little of ancient Wu. This led to accusations by the Kingdom of Wu that the Wuyue had designs on their territory and the name became a source of tension between them. In short, it was a real case of naming and shaming!

Under its first king, Qian Liu, the Wuyue thrived economically and rapidly developed its own regional culture, one that survives to this day. This set a precedent for his descendants, which would be strictly followed by four succeeding kings. The kingdom’s coastal location meant that it was able to establish diplomatic relations with several other countries, including Japan, the Korean states of Later Baekje, Goryeo, and Silla, and the Khitan-led Liao Dynasty. Buddhism played a crucial role in these interactions, as Japanese, Korean, and Chinese monks would regularly and freely travel between the three countries.

It was only in 978, when the reigning King Qian Chu faced certain annihilation from the Song Dynasty’s troops, that he finally submitted and pledged his allegiance to the Song in order to spare his people from war. While Wuyue was absorbed into the Song Empire, Qian Chu nominally remained king until his death in 988. Many shrines dedicated to the Qian royal family were erected throughout the region as a testament to the positive impact of their rule, the most popular of which is the one near West Lake in Hangzhou.

In spite of being dominated by the Song, the Kingdom of Wuyue cemented the Wuyue region’s status as a cultural and economic centre in China for centuries to come. The cultural distinctiveness of the region is still palpable today, with locals speaking a dialect of Chinese known as Wu, which is unintelligible to Mandarin Chinese speakers. On top of this, the Kingdom of Wuyue left behind a physical legacy in the form of stunning Buddhist temples, towering pagodas, and complex canal systems.