The Gaochang Ruins were once the site of an ancient oasis city built on the northern edge of the unforgiving Taklamakan Desert. They are located at the foot of the Flaming Mountains, about 46 kilometres (29 mi) southeast of Turpan, and have miraculously survived for over 2,000 years. They were incorporated into the Silk Road UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014 and, thanks to renovations and preservation projects, have since enjoyed a much deserved facelift! Though they may not be in as good a condition as the Jiaohe Ruins, which are about 40 kilometres (25 mi) to their west, they still maintain a certain inimitable charm.
The city was built during the 1st century BC and was ruled by the Cheshi (Jushi) Kingdom, until they surrendered control of the area to the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) around about 50 BC. It played a focal role as one of the main trade hubs and oasis towns along the Silk Road, making it a prized asset that the Han court was keen to protect. It became the capital of the Gaochang Kingdom (531-640) during the 6th century but returned to Chinese control in 640, when it was conquered by Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). However, this would prove to be short-lived as the Tang court was forced to withdraw its military forces from the area in 755. Like a property in Central London, Gaochang’s prime location meant it was incredibly valuable and hotly contested!
By 803, the Uyghur ethnic group had taken control of the city and it became part of the Kingdom of Qocho (856-1335). In 1209 this kingdom came under the suzerainty of Genghis Khan and eventually became part of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), but was seized by a rival Mongolian kingdom known as the Chatagai Khanate from 1275 to 1318. When the Yuan Dynasty eventually collapsed, the trade route that ran through Gaochang was disrupted and war broke out between the Mongolians and the Uyghurs. This warfare greatly damaged the city and this, coupled with the disruption of trade, led to the city being gradually abandoned.
Although the city was left in bad shape, much of the additional destruction happened long after it was deserted. Initially Muslims from outlying areas destroyed many of the Buddhist frescos within the city that depicted human or animal forms, believing them to be blasphemous. Then, over a period of time, local farmers took wall paintings from the temples and soil from the walls of the earthen buildings, as they made good fertiliser. So remember, if you happen to sample any of the locally grown vegetables, you’re quite literally enjoying the taste of Gaochang!
It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the archaeological value of the region was discovered, and soon archaeologists from across the globe flocked to the area to marvel at the ruins. Many of the relics excavated in Gaochang are now scattered throughout museums in London, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and other far-flung cities, but many more still remain within the city’s dilapidated walls.
In its heyday, the city boasted an impressive population of approximately 30,000 people and was undoubtedly one of the livelier towns along the Silk Road. Its colossal earthen walls once towered in at over 11 metres (38 ft.) in height and it was separated into three parts: the outer city, the inner city, and the palace city. The inner city was protected by a secondary inner wall, which has since vanished, but large portions of the outer wall still remain. The palace city at Gaochang’s northernmost point was once arguably its most magnificent edifice, but now contains only the massive cornerstones of the ruined imperial palace.
On top of being a centre for trade, it was once an important religious site and, during the Tang Dynasty, it became one of the foremost Buddhist cities. In 630, while on his pilgrimage to India, the renowned monk Xuanzang even gave lectures there. At one time, the city was host to numerous monasteries, including a Confucian college and a Nestorian church, and over 3,000 monks made a home within its walls. Nowadays all that remains of this illustrious heritage are the ruins of two major temples in the southern part of the outer city. The temple in the southwest still has remnants of a gate, a courtyard, a sermon hall, a sutra depository, and the monks’ living quarters, while the temple in the southeast only consists of a tower and a series of well-preserved murals.
Mummies recovered from the Astana Tombs, just 4 kilometres to the north of the ruins, were discovered to be of both Caucasian and Mongolian descent, which suggests that Gaochang may have been one of the oldest multi-ethnic and multi-religious cities in China. Murals in the nearby Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves also depict both Central Asian and Chinese monks. So who knows, you might recognise your great-great-great-great-great-grandfather in one of the frescos!
1. Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.
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 (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.
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.
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.
 This is often referred to as the Jurchen Jin Dynasty to avoid confusion with dynasties of the same name.
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.
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.
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 (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.
 This is often referred to as the Jurchen Jin Dynasty to avoid confusion with dynasties of the same name.
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.
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.
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 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!
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.
 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.
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
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.
Towards the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), much of China’s territory was controlled by powerful military governors known as jiedushi. When the Tang government found itself greatly weakened after the brutal Huang Chao Rebellion (874-884), one such military man named Zhu Wen decided to take matters into his own hands. Zhu had become a jiedushi by betraying Huang Chao and helping the Tang Dynasty. As the old saying goes, a leopard never changes his spots! In 907, he forced the reigning Emperor Ai to abdicate and took his place, establishing the Later Liang Dynasty (907–923) and officially putting an end to the Tang Dynasty.
Zhu controlled much of northern China, but some parts of Shaanxi, Hebei, and Shanxi province remained in the hands of rival kingdoms, as did all of southern China. In time, a tenuous relationship developed between Zhu Wen and Li Keyong, the leader of an ethnic group known as the Shatuo Turks. Li controlled Shanxi province under the State of Jin and, when he passed away, he was succeeded by his son, Li Cunxu. In 923, Li Cunxu was able to conquer the Later Liang and established the second of the five dynasties, known as the Later Tang (923–36). Like a game of musical chairs, China’s northern territory would find itself passed from one dynasty to the next!
Although the Later Tang emperors were ethnically Shatuo, they were highly Sinicized. They chose the name “Tang” in an attempt to legitimise themselves as the rightful restorers of the Tang Dynasty, as they shared the same last name as the Tang royal family. In a bold move, Li Keyong established friendly ties with the Khitan people, who were also an ethnic group hailing from the northern steppe. It was this powerful alliance that figured greatly in the success of the Later Tang Dynasty.
However, the Later Tang only lasted a brief thirteen years, predominantly due to the fact that relations between them and the Khitans quickly soured. When Li Cunxu was killed during a rebellion in 926, he was succeeded by Li Keyong’s adopted son, Li Siyuan. It was from this point onwards that internal struggles, coupled with the aggravation of the Khitans, began to cripple the dynasty. In 936, Li Siyuan’s son-in-law, Shi Jingtang, allied with the Khitans and overthrew the Later Tang, establishing the Later Jin Dynasty (936–947) in its stead.
By this time, the Later Tang Empire had grown considerably since it overtook the Later Liang. This meant that the Later Jin not only controlled the Later Liang’s northern territories, but also inherited modern-day Shanxi province, Shaanxi province, and the area surrounding the city of Beijing. The only major northern territory outside of their reach was a region known as the Sixteen Prefectures, which covered the present-day municipalities of Beijing and Tianjin and the provinces of Hebei and northern Shanxi. This crucial region was under the sway of the Liao Dynasty (916–1125), which was ruled by the mighty Khitans.
As time went on, it became increasingly more obvious that the Later Jin Dynasty was simply a puppet to the Liao Dynasty. The derision that the Later Jin faced as a result of this proved too much for Shi Jingtang’s successor, Shi Chonggui, who decided to openly defy the Liao and prove his dynasty’s independence. His plan backfired horribly, as the Liao invaded his territory in 946 and completely destroyed the Later Jin Dynasty. Talk about swift punishment! However, the Khitans were embroiled in a succession crisis when their emperor unexpectedly died almost immediately after his victory over the Later Jin. This created a power vacuum, as the Later Jin no longer existed but the Liao Dynasty was in no position to effectively annex their territory.
This set the scene for a military governor named Liu Zhiyuan to seize the Later Jin Empire and establish the Later Han Dynasty (947–951). It would be the shortest lived of the Five Dynasties, and among one of the shortest regimes in Chinese history! This was in part due to the fact that Liu Zhiyuan died just one year after founding the dynasty, and was succeeded by his teenage son. In 951, a military man named Guo Wei staged a coup, overthrew the Later Han, and established the Later Zhou Dynasty (951–960). However, the Later Han royal family were not going to be beaten that easily! They returned to their original stronghold of Shanxi province and founded the Kingdom of Northern Han (951–979), which came to be known as one of the Ten Kingdoms.
Meanwhile, Guo Wei proved to be an able, organised, and energetic leader who championed many reforms designed to help the lower classes. His unfortunate and untimely death in 954 was a serious blow to the dynasty. He was succeeded by his adopted son Guo Rong, who also proved to be a capable ruler and military strategist. Unfortunately, much like his father, he fell ill during a military campaign and suddenly died in 959. His seven-year-old son was placed on the throne, marking the decline of the dynasty. Not long thereafter, Zhao Kuangyin usurped the throne and declared himself Emperor Taizu of the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
Like a relay team, each of the Five Dynasties had gone one step further towards unifying the country. The changes that had taken place during this period heralded the end of aristocratic power, ushering in a new bureaucratic era that would permanently transform the political landscape. However, it was the Song Dynasty that finally put an end to the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period by reuniting northern and southern China. The Song Empire, though smaller than the preceding Tang Empire, provided a welcome stability that China’s citizens had not enjoyed for over 50 years.
 Please note that the Liao Dynasty changed its name periodically throughout its reign. Between the years of 916 to 974 and 983 to 1066 it was known as the Khitan Dynasty, but from 974 to 983 and from 1066 onwards it was the Liao Dynasty.
At the start of the 17th century, major economic crises, political corruption, and natural disasters sounded the death knell for the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). A climactic phenomenon known as the Little Ice Age shortened the growing season, decimated crops, and triggered large-scale flooding, while new trade restrictions in Spain and Japan caused the country to lose its main supply of silver and inflation rates meant that peasants could no longer afford to pay their taxes. The widespread loss of life was catastrophic and, in response, rebellions sprang up across the country.
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 the following year, Hong announced the founding of the Qing Dynasty, which implied he already had ambitions to be Emperor. Little did he know that he’d just established the last imperial dynasty in Chinese history. During this time, many Han Chinese people defected to the Qing and joined their military force, known as the Eight Banners.
In 1644, a rebel leader named Li Zicheng captured the imperial capital of Beijing and the last Ming emperor tragically hung himself on a tree outside of the Forbidden City. Li then sent an army to confront the Ming commander Wu Sangui, who was stationed at Shanhai Pass. Wu soon found himself sandwiched between Li’s army and that of the Manchu’s. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place! In a desperate attempt to defeat Li, Wu allied with the Manchu people and allowed them through the gates. They went on to conquer Beijing from Li, but seized the imperial throne in the process! Hong Taiji’s son formally took control of China as the Shunzhi Emperor.
However, it wasn’t until 1683 that the Manchu were finally able to quash the last of the Ming loyalists, Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga), at his stronghold in Taiwan. This was accomplished under the reign of the Kangxi Emperor, who was the longest-reigning emperor in Chinese history, after serving for a staggering 61 years! He proved to be one of the most adept rulers of the Qing Dynasty, and his actions ushered in an era of prosperity that would last until the end of his grandson the Qianlong Emperor’s reign.
Qianlong’s rule started out promisingly enough. His Ten Great Campaigns extending Qing territory into Central Asia and the population rose to an impressive 400 million but, since he had fixed the taxes at a low rate, an economic crash was inevitable. As time went on, the imperial court became progressively more corrupt. The ruling elite remained set in their traditional ways and refused to adapt to a modernising world. While European countries embraced industrial advancements, China remained trapped in a bubble of antiquity. Although in the beginning they had largely been at the forefront of the world market economy, by the 1820s and 1830s rising opium imports ushered in a period of economic depression.
When the First Opium War (1839–1842) took place between China and the United Kingdom, the Qing Empire was technologically so far behind that they were easily defeated. This allowed European powers to enforce the hugely unequal Treaty of Nanking, which granted several foreign countries free trade, extraterritoriality, and control over certain treaty ports. It was at this point that Hong Kong fell under British control, a situation that would last until 1997! The humiliation that the Qing suffered at the hands of foreign powers, coupled with widespread famine and natural disasters, eventually led to a series of brutal revolts. The worst of these was the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864), during which an estimated 20 to 70 million people died. It still ranks as one of the bloodiest conflicts in world history.
Although during the 1860s there was a brief revival of support for the Qing rulers during the Self-Strengthening Movement, these hopes were quickly dashed during the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), when the Qing lost its influence over Korea and its possession of Taiwan. While the Guangxu Emperor tried to improve the political situation with the ambitious Hundred Days’ Reform in 1898, these were swiftly reverted by a ruthless and powerful figure known as Empress Dowager Cixi. She may not have been the official ruler, but she had controlled the imperial court from behind the scenes since 1861.
Eventually, the significant influence that foreign powers exerted over China proved too much and a violently anti-foreign movement known as the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) began. Their followers burned down Christian churches, slaughtered Christian missionaries, and wreaked havoc on foreign communities. While the Qing court didn’t openly support the rebellion, Empress Dowager Cixi secretly enjoyed watching her foreign rivals suffer and did nothing to stop it. When the Eight-Nation Alliance invaded China to stop the rebellion without prior warning or consent, Cixi declared war on them.
The war was an unmitigated disaster and, after a crushing defeat, the imperial court was forced to flee to Xi’an. In 1901, the Emperor was made to sign the Boxer Protocol, which allowed foreign troops to be stationed in Beijing and necessitated that huge sums of money be paid to the Eight Nations as compensation for the war. Meanwhile, along with other revolutionaries, a man named Sun Yat-sen was campaigning to transform the Qing Empire into a modern, republican nation. In 1908, the Guangxu Emperor died suddenly from arsenic poisoning and Empress Dowager Cixi passed away just a day later.
With the weak child emperor Puyi installed on the throne, the revolutionaries saw their opportunity for change. By 1911, local uprisings escalated into the pivotal Xinhai Revolution and, on February 12th 1912, the last emperor of China abdicated in favour of Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Republic of China. After over 2,000 years, imperial rule in China finally came to an end.
 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.
Towards the end of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), ethnic discrimination against the Han Chinese, factionalism in the imperial court, over-taxation of the people, and large scale floods along the Yellow River prompted widespread discontent throughout China. Many viewed the numerous natural disasters that plagued the empire as a sign that the Yuan emperors had lost the Mandate of Heaven, or the divine right to rule. With the country’s agriculture in ruins and the economy on the brink of collapse, peasants soon resorted to rebellion.
Of these roving bandit groups, the most powerful were 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. After being orphaned at a young age, Zhu spent much of his early life 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 1368, he marched his forces towards the Yuan capital of Dadu (modern-day Beijing).
With the leader of the Red Turbans recently deceased, Zhu’s power was virtually uncontested. Once he had conquered Dadu, he officially announced his intention to liberate the whole of China from the Mongolians’ grasp. He thereby established the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and took the regal name of the Hongwu or “Vastly Martial” Emperor. Meanwhile, the Yuan remnants fled back to Mongolia and established the Northern Yuan Dynasty (1368–1635). By the end of Zhu’s 30-year reign in 1398, the Ming Empire stretched across the entirety of modern China proper. Although fortune appeared to favour the Hongwu Emperor, his dynasty was to be the last in China ruled by the Han Chinese.
At the start of his reign, the emperor worked tirelessly to improve his empire’s military strength, rid the imperial court of corruption, and educate his chosen heir in the art of governance. To this end, he created self-sufficient rural communities of soldiers who were able to support themselves during peacetime, thus minimising the costs of a standing army. He also famously diminished the power of the court eunuchs, who he believed to be responsible for much of the corruption in the imperial government. While many of his ventures succeeded, arguably the most important, that which regarded his successor, failed spectacularly.
The Jianwen Emperor, Hongwu’s grandson, ruled for just four short years before being overthrown by his uncle, the Yongle Emperor, in 1402. This marked a turning point in the Ming Dynasty, as the Yongle Emperor reversed many of his father’s political reforms, moved the imperial capital from Nanjing to Beijing, restored the Grand Canal to its former glory, and began construction on a new imperial palace that would eventually be known as the Forbidden City. He even allowed eunuchs into positions of significant political influence, such as Zheng He, who led seven costly voyages of exploration as far as the eastern coasts of Africa.
While the Yongle Emperor’s reign ushered in an era of peace, it was not to last. In 1449, the reigning Zhengtong Emperor was captured by the Oirat people in a situation that came to be known as the Tumu Crisis. Although he was eventually freed and restored to power, the increasing threat of invasion from the Oirats led to the restoration and fortification of the Great Wall. Large sections of the Great Wall as we see them today are the result of these efforts. Yet this colossal defence simply wasn’t enough to save the Ming Empire.
At the beginning of the 17th century, a climactic phenomenon known as the Little Ice Age caused widespread crop failure and floods, while an infectious plague tore through the population in 1642. New trade reforms in Japan and Spain cut off the supply of silver to China, which was at that time necessary for farmers to pay their taxes. Much like the Yuan Dynasty, the combined effect of famine, disease, and the burden of taxation led to large scale rebellions. With the empire severely weakened, the northern Manchu people saw their opportunity and began marching their troops towards the Great Wall.
In a desperate attempt to stave off invasion, the imperial court sent a renowned military general named Wu Sangui to engage with the Manchu army. Unfortunately, while Wu Sangui was traveling to the Great Wall, a rebel leader named Li Zicheng took control of the imperial capital in 1644, and, as a result, the last Ming emperor tragically hung himself on a tree outside of the Forbidden City. Surrounded by enemies on all sides, Wu Sangui was faced with a devastating dilemma. In the end, he made the controversial choice to ally himself with the Manchu people.
When he opened the gates of the Great Wall and allowed them to enter, the Manchu conquered Beijing from Li Zicheng and the Shunzhi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) formally took control of China. However, Ming remnants continued to hold large parts of China long after 1644. It wasn’t until 1683 that the Qing Dynasty was finally able to eliminate the last stronghold of Ming loyalism, which was in Taiwan.
Along with the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, the Ming Dynasty left behind an illustrious legacy as a period characterised by social stability and prominent international stature. The expansion of European trade during the 16th century led to the introduction of new crops and products in China, including the chilli peppers that would become integral to Sichuan-style cuisine. Ming-style porcelain became a hot commodity in Europe, with the famous blue-and-white porcelain enjoying the highest esteem. At its height, the Ming Empire was so powerful that it received tribute from as far away as Japan, Java, Sumatra, Sri Lanka, South India, and the East African coast. As the penultimate dynasty before the abolishment of imperial rule, the Ming exerted considerable influence over the China we see today.
The Yuan Dynasty was perhaps one of the most culturally intriguing periods in Chinese history, as it was the first time that the country had come under foreign rule. While the Han Chinese had traditionally depended on Confucian principles and bureaucracy, the new Mongolian rulers advocated an authoritarian, feudal military administration. It was an era of cultural discrepancies, where China’s native ethnic groups frequently locked horns with their non-Chinese rulers. However, in many ways the Mongolians were an open-minded people, and many of the reforms they made during this period helped to facilitate positive cultural change.
They did not try to impose their own folk religion on their subjects, which gave comparative freedom to the plethora of religions that existed throughout China. In particular, the three major religions of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism began to interact in new and interesting ways. No longer were they mutually exclusive, as many members of the literati advocated the philosophical and intellectual amalgamation of the three schools. However, the abandonment of the traditional Confucian imperial examinations during the early Yuan Dynasty proved to be a devastating blow to the religion.
Kublai Khan, the founder of the Yuan Dynasty, favoured the Tibetan branch of Buddhism above all others and established it as the state religion. While the intellectuality and elegant aestheticism of the Chinese Chan (Zen) sect of Buddhism did not appeal to the Mongolians, they were fascinated by the magical practices and profound symbolism of Tibetan Buddhism. In many ways, it resembled their own shamanistic and animistic faith.
Other foreign religions, such as Islam and Christianity, also found a strong foothold in the country during this time. Numerous Muslims from Central Asia, who were sent to live and work in China by the Mongol imperials, introduced Middle Eastern cartography, astronomy, medicine, and clothing into the country. They also successfully popularised crops such as carrots, turnips, eggplants, melons, granulated sugar, and cotton.
In fact, the sheer magnitude of the Mongol Empire and the unprecedented levels of international trade that took place during the Yuan Dynasty meant that, for the first time, China was firmly connected to continents as far-reaching as Europe. Kublai Khan regularly welcomed foreign visitors to the imperial court, the most notable of which was the Venetian merchant Marco Polo. His description of his trip in The Travels of Marco Polo became the most influential European account of Yuan China in history. His writings would later inspire other would-be adventurers, such as Christopher Columbus, to sail to the Far East in search of its legendary wealth.
Yet arguably the greatest cultural achievement during the Yuan Dynasty was the development of literature in the vernacular language. Literature in previous dynasties had been dominated by the Han Chinese scholarly elite, who insisted that all written works follow rigid forms and discuss certain approved ideologies. This all changed during the Yuan Dynasty, since the Han Chinese rarely held positions of official authority and therefore no longer wielded the kind of influence they had once boasted.
Novels and stories began to be written for the amusement of a wide-reading public, rather than simply for the intellectual enjoyment of a privileged and educated few. In particular, dramatic literature reached its peak and the Yuan Dynasty is commonly regarded as the classical age for operatic arias. The clientele for this sort of colloquial literature tended to be among the merchant and artisan classes, resulting in the emergence of a sort of bourgeoisie.
Art also experienced a somewhat drastic evolution thanks to the paintings of Zhao Mengfu and his contemporary Qian Xuan. Rather than continuing the tradition of Song Dynasty (960-1279) painters, their style borrowed a variety of features from a wide range of past traditions. Abandoning the naturalism of the Song style, their paintings had a deliberate awkwardness and were highly stylised.
Oftentimes they were designed to conceal personal and political motives. They were meant solely for the enjoyment of the educated elite, who were the only ones capable of identifying their stylistic references or unpacking the subtle allusions to their real subject matter. Zhao’s innovative approach eventually became the inspiration for the landscape painters Huang Gongwang, Wu Zhen, Ni Zan, and Wang Meng, who are nowadays known as the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty. The styles of these four masters would eventually become the most influential of all painting forms in later Chinese history.
Shamanism: The practice of attempting to reach altered states of consciousness in order to communicate with the spirit world and channel energy from it into the real world. This can only be done by specialist practitioners known as shaman.
Animism: The belief that all non-human entities, including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects, possess a spiritual essence or soul.