The Birth of Modern China | Bibliography ]
Sui (589 - 618)
The most important thing to know about this dynasty is that it was very short (by dynastic standards) and that it did a pretty good job of re-unifying China. Because it had a northern power base, it was part barbarian, as was the Tang. Despite the fact that the royal houses of Sui and succeeding Tang were not entirely Han Chinese, both of these dynasties are considered to be Chinese, as opposed to the Mongols and Manchus later on.
Tang (618 - 907)
The Tang are considered to be one of the great dynasties of Chinese history; many historians rank them right behind the Han. They extended the boundaries of China through Siberia in the North, Korea in the east, and were in what is now Vietnam in the South. They even extended a corridor of control along the Silk Road well into modern-day Afghanistan.
There are two interesting historical things about the Tang. The first is the Empress Wu, the only woman ever to actually bear the title 'Emperor' (or, in her case, Empress).The second was the An Lushan Rebellion, which marked the beginning of the end for the Tang.
The Empress Wu was not a nice person. She makes Catherine the Great look like an angel of mercy. While Empress Wu was still a concubine in the imperial Tang household, she deposed of a rival by murdering her own son, and then claiming her rival did it. In her own vicious, ruthless, scheming way, she was absolutely brilliant. Had Machiavelli known of her, he probably would have written "The Princess."
The An Lushan Rebellion had its roots in the behavior of one of the great emperors of Chinese history, Xuanzong. Until he fell in love with a young concubine named Yang Guifei, he had been a great ruler, and had brought the Tang to its height of prosperity and grandeur. He was so infatuated with Yang that the administration of the government soon fell into decay, which was not made any better by the fact that Yang took advantage of her power to stuff high administrative positions with her corrupt cronies. She also took under her wing a general named An Lushan, who quickly accumulated power.
An Lushan eventually decided that he would make a pretty good emperor, and launched his rebellion. The civil war lasted for eight years, and was, for the years 755-763, pretty destructive. The emperor was forced to flee the capital, and on the way, the palace guard, blaming Yang Guifei for all the problems that had beset the dynasty (to be fair, it wasn't all her fault; there were forces of political economy at work that were pretty much beyond anybody's control), strangled her and threw her corpse in a ditch. There is a legend that what actually happened was that the emperor had procured a peasant look-alike who was actually the one killed, but as far as I know, that is only fiction. Anyway, the rebellion pretty much shattered centralized Tang control, and for the remaining 150 years of the dynasty, the country slowly disintegrated.
Northern Song (960 - 1125)
Southern Song (1127 - 1279)
The Song (pronounced Soong) dynasty ranks up there with the Tang and the Han as one of the great dynasties. Fifty years after the official end of the Tang, an imperial army re-unified China and established the Song dynasty. A time of remarkable advances in technology, culture, and economics, the Song, despite its political failures, basically set the stage for the rest of the imperial era. The most important development during the Song was that agricultural technology, aided by the importation of a fast-growing Vietnamese strain of rice and the invention of the printing press, developed to the point where the food-supply system was so efficient that, for the most part, there was no need to develop it further. There was enough food for everyone, more or less, the system worked, and it became self-sustaining. Because it worked, there was no incentive to improve it; the system thus remained basically unchanged from the Song up until the twentieth century. In fact, many rice farmers in the Chinese interior and in less-developed regions of south-east Asia are, for the most part, still using Song-era farming techniques.
The efficiency of the system not only made it economically self-sustaining, but also re-enforced the existing social structure. Consequently, society and economics were largely static from the Song until the collapse of the dynastic system in the twentieth century.
This is important because one of the factors behind the Industrial Revolution in Europe was that they didn't have enough people to work the fields. There was an incentive to create better technology in Europe; there was no need in China. China actually had a surplus of human labor.
While the Song was a time of great advances, politically and militarily, the Song was a failure. The northern half of China was conquered by barbarians, forcing the dynasty to abandon a northern capital in the early 1100's. Then a hundred and fifty years later, the Mongols, fresh from conquering everything between Manchuria and Austria, invaded and occupied China.
Yuan (Mongol) (1279 - 1368)
While time of Mongol rule is called a dynasty, it was in fact a government of occupation. While the Mongols did use existing governmental structures for the duration, the language they used was Mongol, and many of the officials they used were non-Chinese. Mongols, Uighurs from central Asia, some Arabs and even an Italian named Marco Polo all served as officials for the Mongol government. One of the more significant accomplishments of the Mongol tenure was the preservation of China as we know it in that China wasn't turned into pastureland for the Mongolian ponies which not only was common Mongolian practice for territories they'd overrun but had actually been advocated by some of the conquering generals.
The Yuan dynasty also featured the famous Khubilai Khan, who, among other things, extended the Grand Canal. While in many ways, the Yuan was a disaster, the reluctance of the Mongols to hire educated Chinese for governmental posts resulted in a remarkable cultural flowering; for example, Beijing Opera was invented during the Yuan. On the other hand, attempts to analyze the failure of the Song in keeping barbarians out China led to the rise and dominance of Neo-Confucianism, a notoriously conservative(if not outright reactionary) brand of Confucianism that had originally developed during the Song.
Ming (1368 - 1644)
Then came the Ming. The Ming rulers distinguished themselves by being fatter, lazier, crazier, and nastier than the average Imperial family. After the first Ming Emperor discovered that his prime minister was plotting against him, not only was the prime minister beheaded, but his entire family and anyone even remotely connected with him. Eventually, about 40,000 (no, that is not a misprint) people were executed in connection with this case alone. They were also virulent Neo-Confucianists.
In the early 1400s, a sailor named Zheng He (with a fleet of some 300-plus ships)sailed as far west as Mogadishu and Jiddah, and he may (or may not) have gotten to Madagascar. This is nearly 100 years before Columbus had the idea of trying to sail to Asia the long way around. But once the sailors came back, the trips were never followed up on. Conservative scholars at court failed to see the importance of them. For the first time in history, China was turning inwards, clinging to an incorrect interpretation of an outmoded philosophy.
To give the Ming their due, however, they did do some positive things. Among other things, they moved the capital to Beijing, fortified the Great Wall (the massive masonry structure that you see in all the pictures and postcards is, with some recent, Communist-era repair, an all-Ming construction), built the Forbidden City, and gave Macao to the Portuguese.
The Birth of Modern China | Bibliography ]