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The Chinese Dynasties

The Shang dynasty (1766-1122 BC or 1523-1027 BC) is the earliest period of Chinese civilization for which reliable historical evidence exists. Before this, tradition states that the Chinese people originated in the Hwang Ho valley. The creator Pan-Ku was succeed by a series of heavenly and human sovereigns with the first hereditary dynasty, the Hsia, established in about 2000 BC and overthrown by the Shang. The Shang civilization was in the territory of the present provinces of Honan, Hupei, Shantung and part of Anhwei.

The Chou dynasty (1122 or 1027 - 256 BC). In about 1000 BC the king of Chou, a state on the northwestern edge of the Shang domain, overthrew the Shang monarch. The Chou ruled through their vassals who controlled walled towns and the surrounding countryside. This society had a feudal-like social structure with lords at the top, hereditary fighting men below them and peasants and slaves at the lowest level. Over time these vassal states became more and more autonomous. Religious practices also centered upon the worship of ancestors. In 771BC several of their states rebelled along with barbarian forces and forced the Chou to move their capital to Loyang, from where they remained over lords in name only for several centuries. This period of instability between the various states produced an intellectual response which would shape Chinese civilization for the next 2000 years. The most influential philosopher of the period was K'ung-fu-tzu or Confucius. Confucius belonged to the class of administrators and advisors which were needed to help the ruling aristocracy deal with problems in domestic administration and interstate relations. In essence Confucius' proposals called for a restoration of the political and social institutions of the early Chou. He believed the rulers of that period had worked to create an ideal society by the example of great personal virtue. He therefore attempted to create a class of virtuous gentlemen who could take over high positions of government and lead the people through personal example. The doctrines of Taoism were also set forth in this period. A third school of political thought which developed during the Period of the Warring States and had a lasting impact on Chinese civilization was legalism. Legalists advocated the establishment of a social order based on strict laws which would govern every aspect of human activity.

During the 4th century the state of Ch'in, a new state to the northwest, began to make reforms based on the legalist theories. These measures soon strengthened the state and by 221 BC the Ch'in had eliminated the power of the of the Chou. In that year the king of Ch'in proclaimed himself Shih Huang Ti, the first emperor of the Ch'in dynasty. The emperor centralized and unified the empire. Hereditary aristocracies were abolished and the provinces were governed by bureaucrats. Writing, weights and measures, and coinage was standardized. Private landholding was adopted. They expanded their territory and built the Great Wall. Taxation and forced labor were part of the source of resentment against Shih Huang Ti and the population rose in rebellion.

Out of the turbulence and warfare Liu Pang rose to proclaim himself emperor in 202 BC establishing the Han dynasty. The Han built upon the foundations laid by the Ch'in and modified the policies which were a source of discontent. The Han established Confucianism as the official ideology. The ideas of other philosophical schools were incorporated to elaborate the teachings of Confucius. Men were appointed on the basis of merit not birth and written examinations were adopted as a means of determining who is most qualified for a position. In the late 2nd century BC an imperial university was established to train bureaucrats in the five classics of the Confucian school. Under Emperor Han Wu Ti (141-87 BC), almost all of present day China came under imperial rule. The dynasty fell into a state of disorder, high taxes, over population, infant emperors. The great landholding families challenged the tax collecting authority of the empire and acquired a tax free status, leaving the peasants to bear the burden of taxation.

Hsin dynasty (8-23 AD) Wang Mang, an ambitious courtier deposed and infant emperor. He was killed and Han rule reestablished.

Later Han dynasty 23-220 AD. instability, rising power of the court eunuchs. War between eunuchs and bureaucrats. Break up of empire into 3 kingdoms.

China reunited under the Sui dynasty (589-618).

T'ang dynasty (618-907) founded by Li Yuan was a period of strength and brilliance. Civil service examinations refined and its basic form survived to the 20th century. Literary culture flourished. Confucianism revived. The dynasty collapsed with the dispersal of political and economic power and what followed was a period of disunion known as the Five Dynasties Period.

In 960 Chao K'uang-yin established the Sung dynasty which soon controlled all of China except northern regions held by the Mongol Liao dynasty. Government was once again centralized and literature and the arts flourished. Neo-Confucianism was synthesized in its final form by Chu Hsi (1130-1200). Military weakness the main defect. In the 1120's the Chin dynasty of northern Manchuria took northern China and the Sung retreated to the south. Under the Southern Sung, south China continued to develop rapidly. At the beginning of the 13th century the Mongols, united under Genghis Khan, conquered the Manchurian Chin dynasty and later, under Kublai Khan, conquered the Southern Sung.

Mongol rule. Kulai moved capital to site close to Peking and adopted much of the administrative machinery already in place. His successors were given the dynastic title Yuan and ruled from 1279 to 1368. Inflation, taxes, crop failures and resentment against Mongols led to rebellions. Chu Yuan-chang, a former Buddhist monk, gained control of the Yangtze valley in the 1360's. He later marched on Peking and seized the capital. The Mongols eventually withdrew. Chu founded the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Chinese civilization of the T'ang and Sung periods was restored. In the 15th century the Ming began to experience decline, imperial leadership deteriorated, the government became fractionalized, the treasury had been depleted by wars. In 1644 a rebellion, which began in Shensi as a result of the inability of the government to provide famine relief, reached Peking. The Ming military commander accepted Manchu aid in order to drive the rebels out of Peking, however, when this was accomplished the Manchus refused to leave and the Ming were forced to the south where they unsuccessfully tried to reestablish their regime.

The Manchu of Ch'ing dynasty (1644-1912). Under the Manchus the power of the Chinese empire reached the highest point of its 2000 year history and then collapsed as a result of internal decay and external pressure. The Manchu rulers absorbed Chinese culture and maintained the political organization of the Ming, making it more centralized. Territorial expansion. Population doubled. Commercial relations with the West were grudgingly accepted in the 18th century, but were carefully controlled. 19th century marked by rapid decay and increase of foreign pressure. The Opium war against the British resulted in trade concessions to the British and later the U.S. and France. The Arrow War of 1856-58, more disadvantageous treaties, the aftermath and ratification of these treaties, all permanently handicapped the Manchu dynasty. In the 1850's the empire was shaken by the Taiping Rebellion, a popular revolution of religious, social and economic origin. Manchus tried to restore Confucian government, turn to Chinese leaders in the provinces. These officials given unprecedented levels of authority, some had noteworthy success. Efforts of governors-general Tseng Kuo-fan, Li Hung-chang and Tso Tsung-t'ang, the Taiping and several other rebellions were put down. A program of modernization was incompatible with the objective of preserving Confucian government and efforts to strengthen the country were largely unsuccessful. In 1875 Western powers and Japan gain control of China's tributary states (Vietnam, Korea, Burma, etc). Imperial family split between the open minded Emperor Kuang Hsu and the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi.

Revolution established the Chinese Republic 1912-1949. At this time the Chinese Communist Party developed and gained strength. After extended confrontations between the Kuomintang and the Communists the present regime called the People's Republic of China was proclaimed on October 1 1949.


  1. ^ Swyrich, Archive materials

This page was last modified on 30 March 2011 at 07:37.

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