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.


The Five Dynasties

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.

‘Eight Men’s Spring Tour ‘, from the Later Liang.

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[1] (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.



[1] 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.

The Qing 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[1].

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.

Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Museum in Nanjing

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.


[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.

The Ming Dynasty


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 Cultural Impact of Yuan Dynasty

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.

The mural of Guangshene Temple, which was built during the Yuan Dynasty. Now the mural is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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[1] and animistic[2] 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.

The first Chinese painting owned by the British Museum, by the Yuan painter Xie Chufang

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.


[1]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.

[2]Animism: The belief that all non-human entities, including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects, possess a spiritual essence or soul.

The Cultural Impact of Song Dynasty

In many ways, the Song Dynasty was an era of great change and reformation in Chinese history. The spread of affordable literature gave rise to an elite class of scholars from a variety of social backgrounds; the burgeoning trade economy meant that financial prosperity was widespread; and leisure activities gradually became a pastime enjoyed by more than just the privileged few. In terms of science and technology, the Song Dynasty saw advancements that would have a drastic effect not only China, but also the rest of the world.

The Movable Type Printing

Towards the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the development of woodblock printing meant that thousands of books could be quickly, easily, and cheaply produced. During the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127), this process was further enhanced when a Chinese inventor named Bi Sheng created movable type printing. While laboriously hand-written copies of texts were extortionately expensive, printed copies could be mass-produced and were affordable to a wider range of social classes. China’s citizens from all walks of life began consuming literature voraciously and the country’s literacy drastically increased.

Thus a wider range of people were capable of receiving a decent education, which in turn led to greater social mobility. Droves of scholars became well-versed in Classical studies, philosophy, politics, and Classical poetry; the basic foundations of the imperial examinations. The Song heralded the rise of the scholarly elite, who would eventually come to rival and replace the aristocracy in matters of government. Literary works also became more diversified and specialised. Textbooks on a myriad of subjects, from history and archaeology to law and even forensic medicine, were written and published to supply the growing demand.

However, the spread of education brought with it new troubles. The prosperity of the Song Dynasty led to a population boom and this, coupled with the country’s improved literacy, meant that the supply of scholars far outweighed the demand. The imperial government could only accommodate around 20,000 active officials at any given time and soon there were scores of talented young men with no hope of gaining an official position. In an unlikely twist, the solution came not from the future, but from the past. This time it was out with the new and in with the old!

A philosopher named Zhu Xi revived interest in Confucianism and began incorporating Buddhist ideals and Taoist terminology into his thinking. The result was the School of Universal Principles, which was arguably the most influential branch of Neo-Confucianism in Chinese history. This philosophy advocated the belief that the main goal of education was moral self-development, not success in the imperial examinations. Neo-Confucian academies sprang up across the country, accommodating the surplus of scholars who had failed to attain official positions. By the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279), these philosophers had garnered so much prestige that they were able to wield substantial political influence.

The Neo-Confucianism has influenced the culture of Huizhou Region for hundreds of years.

Although Zhu Xi’s school of Neo-Confucianism was initially persecuted and banned by the imperial government, it would eventually be used as part of their political agenda. It seems that, even in ancient China, politicians were notoriously hypocritical! In 1237, the growing Mongol Empire (1206–1368) announced that, like China, it too was a Confucian state. Since it already occupied a large portion of China’s northern territory, the Mongol Empire represented a considerable military and cultural threat to the Song Dynasty. It was then that the imperial court finally acknowledged Zhu Xi’s School of Universal Principles, establishing it as the state orthodoxy and claiming that all other branches of Confucianism were false. In short, it delegitimised whatever Confucianism the Mongolians chose to follow.

While the Song Dynasty was an era largely characterised by peace, it still dabbled in matters of war! Advancements in weapons technology were made thanks to the development of gunpowder, which resulted in early forms of the flamethrower, the explosive grenade, the firearm, the cannon, and the land mine. These powerful weapons gave the Song military an edge in battle, enabling them to compensate for their small armies and allowing them to defend against much larger ones. Alongside this weaponry, manufacturing of all kinds made headway during the Song thanks to new devices, better processing techniques, and individual expertise. In particular, Song porcelain attained international fame and is still renowned as one of the finest types of Chinese porcelain.

Trade in goods such as porcelain was booming and the Song rapidly transformed into an advanced money economy. For the first time in world history, printed paper money was produced and used nationally as legal tender. Vigorous overseas and domestic trade catapulted the Song Dynasty into immense wealth, making it one of the medieval world’s most affluent and advanced empires. Chinese cities like Kaifeng and Hangzhou boasted populations of well over a million people, making them some of the largest in the world at the time.

Teahouses, wine shops, and exquisite restaurants catered to China’s wealthy elite and pleasure became the order of the day. Theatres and public areas would provide daily performances of acrobatics, jugglers, wrestlers, sword swallowers, snake charmers, fireworks, gambling, puppet shows, storytellers, and singing girls. Social clubs of innumerable varieties, from art collectors’ clubs to exotic food clubs, became an integral part of life. In short, the Song Dynasty was a time of technological advancement, educational enlightenment, and delightful decadence!


The Song Dynasty


During the chaotic Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907-960), China was fractured into five consecutive dynasties in the north and ten separate kingdoms in the south and west. When the Later Zhou Dynasty (951–960) took control of the country’s northern territories, it had grand dreams of uniting the empire, much like its predecessors. Little did the Later Zhou emperors know that theirs would be the last of the Five Dynasties. The regime enjoyed reasonable success, until the sudden death of Emperor Shizong led to a seven-year-old boy taking the throne in his stead. The atmosphere was ripe for usurpation and a militarist named Zhao Kuangyin wasn’t about to pass up this valuable opportunity.

In 960, Zhao seized the throne during a coup d’état and established himself as Emperor Taizu of the Song Dynasty. Although he may have started his career as a military strategist, Taizu’s real talent lay in the fine art of political manoeuvring. Rather than facing powerful generals in battle, he persuaded them to yield their territories in exchange for honorary titles, cushy government jobs, and generous pensions. This was an un-heard of political strategy in Chinese history, but it worked to Taizu’s advantage. Thanks to this policy of diplomacy, by 979 the Song Dynasty had annexed all of the Ten Kingdoms and united China under its rule. Firm proof that the carrot will always win over the stick!

However, the Song’s limited use of military force would prove to be both its blessing and its curse. The Liao Dynasty (916–1125), which was led by a nomadic group known as the Khitans, loomed ominously on the Song’s northern frontiers and presented a significant threat to the empire. When the opportunity arose to form an alliance with the powerful Jurchen people and potentially destroy the Liao, the Song seized upon it without a second thought. With the Liao thus disposed of, the Jurchen imperials annexed their empire and established the Jin Dynasty[1] (1115–1234).

Since the Jurchens had done most of the fighting, they swiftly became disgruntled with the Song and accused them of not doing their fair share. In a bold move, they denied the Song many of the victory spoils that they had promised during the alliance. This represented the beginning of the long and harrowing Jin-Song Wars (1125–1234). With such a formidable enemy at their gates, the Song were eventually forced to abandon their northern territory and retreated south, establishing their capital at Lin’an (modern-day Hangzhou). This rift in the timeline has led to historians dividing the dynasty into two distinct periods: the Northern Song (960–1127), when the capital was held in the northern city of Bianjing (modern-day Kaifeng); and the Southern Song (1127–1279), when they lost the northern territories to the Jurchens and were driven south.

Although the Song Dynasty had lost control of a valuable region, it continued to prosper thanks to the thriving economy in the south. It wasn’t until the Mongolians overtook the Jin Dynasty in 1234 that the Song imperials finally met their match. In 1271, Kublai Khan, the fifth Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, established himself as Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). After two decades of sporadic warfare, he was finally able to conquer the Song Dynasty in 1279. In a bizarre twist of fate, it was a non-Chinese people that finally succeeded in uniting China’s territories.

The Song is rarely listed by ancient historians alongside the Han (206 BC–220 AD) and Tang (618-907 AD) dynasties as one of China’s golden ages, but this does the dynasty a great disservice and undercuts the huge cultural impact that this period in history had on the country. Throughout the 10th and 11th centuries, China was so prosperous under the Song government’s rule that the population doubled in size, making it the richest, most skilled, and most populous country on earth at the time!

It was also the first time in world history when the government of any country issued banknotes or paper money nationally; it was the first time a Chinese government would establish a permanent standing navy; it saw the first known use of gunpowder; and it was a Song scholar who first discerned true north using a compass. The invention of moveable-type printing during the 11th century and the expansion of woodblock printing meant that literature became cheaper and more widespread, leading to the dissemination of knowledge amongst the masses.

This in turn led to a wider variety of people from a broader spectrum of social backgrounds becoming qualified to take the imperial examinations. Although these examinations had been used to select government officials since the Sui Dynasty (581-618), they weren’t use to great effect until the Song. It was these officials, who were selected based on merit rather than social background, that eventually led to the imperial government become a bureaucratic rather than an aristocratic entity. Meanwhile, highly educated philosophers such as Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi reinvigorated the practice of Confucianism, infused it with Buddhist ideals, and laid the foundations for Neo-Confucianism. From technological advancement to cultural enlightenment, the Song Dynasty was undoubtedly one of the most formative periods in Chinese history.


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

The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period


As the Tang Dynasty (618-907) began to lose its grip on its political empire, it granted increasing powers to a group of military governors known as jiedushi. These officials governed expansive regions and commanded large armies, making them formidable forces in the Tang government. The Tang Dynasty’s death knell came in the form of a rebellion led by a warlord named Huang Chao, which lasted for ten long years! This rebellion virtually crippled the imperial court and, in the ensuing chaos, the jiedushi took control of their respective regions, effectively gaining complete autonomy from the Tang.

Huang Chao was eventually betrayed by a salt smuggler named Zhu Wen, who was granted the title of jiedushi by the Tang Dynasty for his help. Like a true snake in the grass, Zhu Wen deposed the reigning Emperor Ai in 907 and took the throne for himself, establishing the Later Liang Dynasty (907–923) and officially putting an end to the Tang Dynasty. However, Zhu only controlled a small portion of China’s territory at the time. The other jiedushi, seizing the opportunity, declared their independence and ushered in an era of instability known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period.

From then on, five short-lived dynasties would successively take control of northern China, while the south and the west were under the sway of ten separate kingdoms that, in many instances, ran concurrently. This period of political disunity was markedly brief, lasting only 53 years before the Song Dynasty (960-1279) was founded in 960. However, many of the regimes that took control during this time would have a profound impact on the cultures of the regions they commanded. In particular, the Kingdom of Wuyue (907-978), which ruled over present-day Zhejiang province, Shanghai, and large parts of Jiangsu province, would have a lasting effect on the culture of this coastal region.

The major political developments that took place during this period had largely started during the Tang Dynasty and would not come to fruition until the Song Dynasty. In short, the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period was more of a transitory era than anything else. It represented the disintegration of the traditional governmental structure and the decline of the aristocratic clans. Although this period was plagued by warfare and disruption, it propelled the underlying changes that were transforming China into a new political entity.

The last of the Five Dynasties, known as the Later Zhou (951–960), enjoyed reasonable success until the sudden death of Emperor Shizong led to a seven-year-old boy taking the throne. At that age, he was barely ready to ride a bicycle, let alone rule an entire kingdom! In short, the atmosphere was ripe for usurpation. In 960, a militarist named Zhao Kuangyin seized the throne and established himself as Emperor Taizu of the Song Dynasty. However, rather than employing militarism, Taizu was a master of political manoeuvring.

Instead of destroying powerful generals in battle, he persuaded them to give up their territories in exchange for honorary titles, cushy government jobs, and generous pensions. Alliances were further strengthened by marrying members of the royal family to members of leading military families. This was an un-heard of political strategy in Chinese history, yet it worked to great effect. It seems that, in this case, the carrot firmly won over the stick! However, it wasn’t until 979 that the Song was finally able to annex the last of the ten kingdoms, known as the Northern Han (951–979). The country was thus reunited, but a constant threat loomed large on China’s northern frontiers. The powerful Liao Dynasty (907–1125), led by a nomadic group known as the Khitans, represented a significant threat. Peace may have been restored and the empire may have been reunified, but war was still on the horizon.


[1] Please note that some historians argue the real endpoint of this period to be 979, as this was the year when the Song Dynasty finally conquered the last of the Ten Kingdoms.

The Later Tang

In 690, Empress Wu Zetian briefly put an end to the Tang Dynasty and established her own short-lived Zhou Dynasty (690-705). However, after just 15 years, Emperor Zhongzong was able to overthrow her and re-establish the Tang Dynasty. The imperial officials breathed a sigh of relief, believing that their lady troubles were finally over. How wrong they were! Although Wu Zetian was the only woman in Chinese history to ever openly rule China, plenty of women after her would continue to exert control over the throne. This included Emperor Zhongzong’s wife, Empress Wei, whose regime of corruption crippled the imperial court.

When Zhongzong finally died in 710, it was even rumoured that she had poisoned him! Yet, in a bizarre twist of fate, her attempts to establish herself as ruler were thwarted by Empress Wu Zetian’s formidable daughter, Princess Taiping. After all, the ambitious apple doesn’t fall far from the tree! Thanks to her help, Li Longji was able to restore his father, Emperor Ruizong, to the throne. However, just two years later, Ruizong yielded the throne to Li, who became the venerable Emperor Xuanzong.

The territory of Tang Dynasty during Xuanzong’s reign

Xuanzong’s 44-year reign would later come to be recognised as the apex of the Tang Dynasty, which was no mean feat when you consider that the Tang lasted for nearly 300 years! During his reign, the tax system was reorganised, the canal network was restored to its former glory, and cultural integration between the north and the south was expedited. Xuanzong was celebrated as a progressive and benevolent ruler, who ushered in an era of wealth and prosperity.

However, his authority was frequently challenged by a formidable foreign enemy. From 714 onwards, the Tibetans continually invaded China’s northwest, and Xuanzong was forced to establish a number of strategic military provinces along the northern borders. Each of these garrisons was under the command of an appointed military governor, who controlled large stretches of territory and enormous numbers of troops.

Xuanzong’s reliance on his advisers and military governors would prove to be both his strength and his weakness. From 737 onwards, he rested almost all of his confidence in his long-serving chancellor Li Linfu and, as time went on, he withdrew from political affairs to enjoy the pleasures of the palace. In 745, he became deeply infatuated with a concubine named Yang Guifei and, thanks to her influence, her brother Yang Guozhong rose to become Li’s major political rival. On Li’s death in 752, Yang dominated the imperial court unchallenged, although he lacked Li’s political ability and experience.

Meanwhile, during the 740s, a general of Göktürk[1] and Sogdian origin named An Lushan became military governor of three northeastern garrisons. He had risen to power largely thanks to the patronage of Li Linfu and, when Li passed away, he became the staunch rival of Yang Guozhong. As Yang developed a stranglehold on the imperial court, An continued to build up his military forces. During the 750s, a number of martial defeats against foreign invaders meant that the Tang Empire was severely weakened.

The An Lushan Rebellion

Taking full advantage of the unstable political climate, An Lushan launched a vicious rebellion in 755. By 757, he had captured the imperial capital of Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an) and Xuanzong was forced to flee. Not long thereafter, the crown prince usurped the throne as Emperor Suzong. Although An Lushan was murdered by one of his men in that same year, the brutal An Lushan Rebellion lasted for another 6 years! It was perpetuated first by An’s son, then by his trusted general Shi Siming, and finally by Shi’s son, Shi Chaoyi. Talk about a family affair!

Yang Guifei
Yang Guifei

When the rebellion was finally quashed in 763, the empire was practically in ruins. Yet, rather than punish the generals responsible for the rebellion, many of them were appointed as imperial governors instead. In this case, the punishment certainly didn’t fit the crime! The province of Hebei was divided up into four new provinces, which were each surrendered to these military governors or jiedushi, while Shandong province was settled by An Lushan’s former garrison troops.

Unsurprisingly, the central government held little influence within these provinces. The jiedushi wielded such political power that they were able to maintain their own armies, collect their own taxes, and choose their own heirs. These were privileges normally reserved only for the Emperor himself! By this point, the Tang Dynasty was firmly in decline.

Even in provinces that weren’t ruled by jiedushi, there were serious problems with provincial separatism. In northern China, many of the provinces were administered by military governments due to the constant threat of foreign invasions on the northern borders. In the south of China, high-ranking officials who had lost favour with the imperial court were frequently appointed as civil governors. In both instances, these provincial governments exercised a great deal of autonomy throughout the reigns of Emperor Suzong and his heir, Emperor Daizong.

Fortunately, Daizong was succeeded by Emperor Dezong, who proved to be a resilient and intelligent ruler. However, Dezong’s attempts to openly challenge the jiedushi ended in abject failure. From 781 to 786, a wave of revolts broke out throughout the northeast and caused widespread destruction on a similar scale to the An Lushan Rebellion. It only ended when the rebels fell out amongst themselves and had to disband, resulting in the situation essentially returning to what it had been before the rebellion! Thereafter, Dezong was far more cautious when it came to the jiedushi, although his reign was marked by steady progression in other areas of governance. In particular, his tax system remained the basis for the tax structure right up until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

On Dezong’s death in 805, the throne briefly passed to the ineffective Emperor Shunzong before he was replaced with Emperor Xianzong. Like Dezong, Xianzong proved to be a firm and efficient ruler. Thanks to a colossal palace army, he was able to crush a number of rebellions throughout the country and was eventually able to restore authority to the central government. That being said, a large part of Xianzong’s success had been thanks to the work of the palace eunuchs. During his reign, their role became increasingly more important not just as sources of information, but also as active political agents that were able to intervene in official affairs.

While Xianzong concentrated his efforts on his political enemies, he never suspected that it would be his allies who would prove to be his undoing. In 820, he was murdered by his eunuch attendants and replaced with his son, Emperor Muzong. From then onwards, the palace eunuchs exerted considerable influence over the country’s governance and civil unrest spread rapidly throughout the country.

The Fall of the Tang Dynasty

By the time Emperor Xizong took the throne in 873, the empire was on the brink of collapse. Severe droughts prompted a wave of peasant uprisings, the most serious of which was led by a man named Huang Chao. In 880, his forces marched north and took control of both Luoyang and Chang’an. While he was eventually forced to abandon Chang’an in 883, his rebellion left the Tang court virtually powerless. Bandit gangs wreaked havoc on the Chinese countryside, and the imperial court was besieged by powerful military leaders.

One of these was Zhu Wen, a salt smuggler who had served under Huang Chao but had betrayed him by allying with the Tang. In 907, he deposed the reigning Emperor Ai and took the throne for himself, establishing the Later Liang Dynasty (907–923). However, the Tang only controlled a small portion of China’s territory at the time, so Zhu Wen had plenty of other warlords to contend with. With the country thus fractured into a number of independent kingdoms, the Tang Dynasty officially ended and an era of great instability known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907-960) was ushered in.

[1] Göktürks: A now extinct nomadic group of people, sometimes known as the Türks or the Ashina/Açina Turks, who were of Turkic descent and came from medieval Inner Asia.