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China > Culture and festivals > The Dynastic Age (part 2)

China History : The Dynastic Age (part 2) 


Song Dynasty (960-1279) 


In spite of a 50-year hiatus from unified rule known as the Five Dynasties (907-960), advances made during the Tang had laid the way for economic development. When Zhao Kuangyin (Emperor Taizu) reunited the country and founded the Song dynasty in 960, things quickly picked up from where the Tang had left off.


Commerce flourished from the capital at Kaifeng and the great cities grew larger, while new ones sprung up all over the south. Agricultural and industrial success opened the doors for artistic developments and the Song is remembered as a time of great poetry, pottery and landscape painting – Su Dongpo, one of China’s greatest poets, lived during the Song.


But art doesn’t maintain empires and, in spite of the invention of gunpowder and the magnetic compass, the Song’s failure to achieve military dominance resulted in the loss of their capital in 1126 to the Jurchen, a sinicized Manchurian tribe which founded its own dynasty, the Jin (1115-1234). Forced to re-locate to Hangzhou and burdened by humiliating and considerable indemnity payments to their new neighbors, the dynasty became known as the Southern Song (1126-1279). They blossomed culturally, but failed politically and militarily. 


The Song dynasty certainly isn’t known for its military leadership but Yue Fei (1103-42), a young man who was instrumental in subduing rebel bands after the Song were forced south to Hangzhou, emerged as a great hero from this time. He campaigned against the Jurchen in the north but his efforts were nullified by a settlement that made the Southern Song vassals of the Jurchen Jin dynasty. Yue Fei was executed as a supposed traitor, but his determined patriotism won him a place in the hearts of the Chinese people; 20 years later he was recognized as a national hero and reburied in a grand tomb in Hangzhou. 


Military heroes like Yue Fei were in the minority though, and the Song’s preoccupation with the arts contributed to their demise. While the Song is remembered as one of China’s great dynasties, it never exerted the military dominance over East Asia that had been achieved under the Han and Tang and it was under constant threat of attack from the north. Even after losing Kaifeng and northern China to the Jurchen, the Song still paid little heed to the dangers of outside invasion.


Rise of the Mongols. The Mongols, united under the forceful leadership of Genghis Khan at the start of the 13th century, had become increasingly powerful and penetrated deep into Chinese territory, taking Beijing in 1215. In 1279 Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson, founded the Yuan dynasty. 


Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) 


Kublai Khan

The military might of Genghis Khan’s marauding Mongolian tribes enabled him to seize control of a vast swathe of land from China to Europe. By the latter part of the 13th century this subsumed the northern Jurchen Jin dynasty and then the Southern Song, making China just another Mongol outpost with Genghis’ grandson, Kublai Khan, at its head.


 The Mongols’ nomadic traditions were ill-suited to static urban control and they soon adopted the Chinese style of rule, establishing their capital, Dadu, on the site of modern Beijing. Chinese influences were welcomed and rejected to differing extents under the various Yuan leaders, but ultimately the conquerors were changed more than the conquered.

However, the Mongol tradition of elected leaders was harder to erase and ran contrary to the Chinese concept of dynastic succession. This remained a problem throughout the Yuan dynasty – each time an emperor died there was an ensuing power struggle.

Kublai Khan 

Nevertheless the Yuan was not without its accomplishments and trade across Mongolian Central Asia boomed, bringing a wealth of goods, influences and outside expertise to China


Social Division & Downfall. The lavish court lifestyle of the Yuan, as described by Marco Polo during his purported stay, didn’t sit well with nomadic traditions and gradually eroded the military might of the Mongols. Fierce resistance and typhoons contributed to military failure in Japan, while little more success was met in the unfamiliar terrain of Southeast Asia. 


The reasons for the downfall of the Yuan dynasty are debatable and are manifold, but Kublai Khan’s division of subjects into four racial groups certainly did little to endear him to the Chinese majority. Mongols were at the top of the ladder, followed by Central Asians and Westerners; next came the Han Chinese and, on the bottom rung, the southern Chinese. Within this structure, Muslims were granted special privileges and, in the Buddhist world, Tibetans held the key posts.


This alienated and angered the Chinese population. Secret Buddhist societies, like the White Lotus and Red Turbans, emerged and plotted insurrection, which was met with oppression at the hands of Kublai’s inept successors, but this only led to more sustained resistance. Finally a full-scale uprising under the monk turned rebel leader, Zhu Yuanzhang, usurped the throne from the child emperor in 1368 and instilled the Ming dynasty.

Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) 


Zhu Yuanzhang took the imperial name Hongwu, established his capital at Nanjing (Southern Capital) and gave the new dynasty its name, Ming meaning brightness. The Ming certainly ruled with far more power than their Mongol predecessors and succeeded in restoring the country to centralized control after a century of foreign rule.


While exerting less cultural influence than either the Han or the Tang, the Ming lasted some three centuries and during this long rule the Forbidden City was built after Yongle, the second emperor, relocated the capital to Beijing.


Major improvements were made to the Great Wall and the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen produced the distinctive fine white and blue pottery for which the Ming dynasty is still famous today. Novels also found a place in Ming libraries and classics, such as The Outlaws of the Marsh and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, were written in vernacular language, which made them accessible to a wider audience.


Zheng He 


The Ming dynasty was, for the most part, an inwardlooking period that saw ties severed with many old trading partners and thus decreased the amount of contact China had with other countries. But in the early 15th century this was not yet the case and the emperor Yongle ordered enormous fleets to explore the oceans in search of knowledge and trade. Commanded by the Muslim eunuch admiral, Zheng He, the armadas that set sail from Nanjing were, by far, the biggest the world had ever seen, both in the number of ships and vessel size.


Zheng He

The largest baochuan (treasure ships) were over 400 feet long, dwarfing all that had come before. In his seven great voyages, Zheng He sailed as far as the west coast of Africa, and established trading links in Malacca (in modern day Malaysia) and on India’s Malabar Coast.


But, shortly after Zheng He set sail on his final voyage, the Forbidden City was struck by lightning, which was seen as a sign of the gods’ displeasure and almost all records of Zheng’s grand journeys were destroyed.

It is only in the past few years that these ventures have surfaced again and recent research suggests that it was the imperial fleet under Zheng He that paved the way for the likes of Vasco de Gama and Magellan. 

Giraffe brought back from Africa by Zheng He


Close of the Ming. The later Ming years produced a string of weak rulers and, as before, power fell into the manipulative hands of court officials and eunuchs who bickered and squabbled but did little to support the country. By the start of the 17th century the country’s frontier defenses had fallen apart and a series of peasant uprisings further weakened the Ming power base. In 1644 rebel forces under Shaanxi-born Li Zicheng stormed the capital and the last Ming emperor fled to Jingshan Park, just behind the Forbidden City, where he ended his own life and, with it, the Ming dynasty. 


Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) 


The Manchu descendants of the northeastern Jurchen Jin dynasty saw their chance and moved in, ejecting Li Zicheng and claiming the capital as their own, although it took another few decades before the whole country was under the control of the newly-formed Qing (meaning Clear) dynasty. 


The Qing immediately imposed their Manchu culture onto the Chinese, obliging men to wear traditional pigtails and making their native tongue the official language. While Ming officials were maintained in some ranks to appease the Chinese, the top posts were reserved for those of Manchu stock.


But, as with every culture that had come before and tried to absorb China into its own mold, the Manchus were quickly assimilated into Chinese culture.  By the late Qing, its emperors were so cast in the Confucian model that anti-Manchu sentiment had almost ceased to be an issue. 


A Golden Age 


The early years of the Qing dynasty saw some of China’s most proficient leaders and the reigns of Kangxi 

(1661-1722), Yongzheng (1723-35) and Qianlong (1736-95) are remembered as a golden age. 


During the 18th century the Qing doubled China’s territorial size. Kangxi quashed rebellions and the empire was expanded to include Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal and parts of Central Asia. Kangxi was a patron of the arts and his reign also saw the construction of the Lama Temple in Beijing and the Mountain Retreat in Chengde, whose northerly temples were added to by Qianlong. Yongzheng and Qianlong’s stable periods of rule and continued expansion promoted growth in industry and commerce, while the peasantry was appeased with tax reforms and flood control measures.  


This was China’s last age as a great imperial empire and, at the start of the 19th century, the unified country stood as one of the most wealthy and powerful nations in the world. 


Foreign Encroachment & the Opium Wars 


Western interest in the fabulously wealthy but militarily weak Middle Kingdom grew as more and more merchants made their way to China’s shores hoping for a slice of the action.

The British East India Company was keen to stake its claim and in 1793 Lord Macartney, George III’s envoy, was given an audience with Emperor Qianlong in Chengde, but his refusal to kowtow was a sign of things
to come.
first Opium War

                                                                                       Scene from the first Opium War

The Qing did not see the need for Western goods or influences and were not prepared to sign any kind of trading agreements with their perceived subordinates.


The East India Company wasn’t about to give up on such a lucrative opportunity and began to trade Indian-grown opium, rather than silver, in exchange for silk and tea. Addiction became rife and thus demand increased, which led to a futile attempt to ban the trade.


In 1840 the emperor ordered the destruction of 20,000 chests of opium under Lin Zexu, which provoked the First Opium War (1840-2).  Two years of bombardment later, the Chinese capitulated and were forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Nanjing, which included a substantial indemnity payment along with the opening up of new ports and the ceding of Hong Kong to Britain.


The Second Opium War (1856-60) brought more losses and underlined the fact that, technologically, China had some catching up to do. Further parcels of land were ceded to Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia and the US. Anti-Manchu feeling, long buried just beneath the surface, began to rise. 


The Taiping Uprising (1850-64) 


The insult of these treaties and their crippling indemnities spurred a number of popular rebellions, the most serious of which was the anti-Manchu Taiping Uprising. Founded by Hong Xiuquan, who believed he was the Son of God and brother of Jesus, this quasi-Christian cult acquired a million-strong army which captured much of the fertile Yangzi valley and established a capital at Nanjing. The uprising’s focus on equality has led many to view it as a precursor to communism, while its draconian laws and desire to obliterate all that had come before is comparable to the destructive might of the Cultural Revolution. The uprising was eventually quashed with European support in 1864, but it left millions dead and other revolts broke out, notably the Nien (1853-68). 


Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) 


Empress Dowager Cixi

It was during the Taiping Rebellion that the Empress Dowager Cixi rose to prominence.

Originally a concubine, Cixi managed to maneuver her way to the top and manipulate the ineffective emperors, ruling from behind the scenes between 1861 and 1908. Known as “the Old Buddha,” she bore a son to Emperor Xianfeng, who became Emperor Tongzhi and, after outliving him, she installed her nephew, Guangxu, as emperor.

After Guangxu’s involvement in the 100 Days Reform Movement in 1898, Cixi kept him under lock and key in the
Summer Palace while she ruled in his name.


The Empress Dowager proved to be a dominant, yet inept leader and, fearing loss of her power, she rejected all attempts at much-needed reform until it was too late. 

Her lack of judgment catalyzed the Qing’s downfall and her most crass misallocation of funds is still there to see today – the grand marble boat that sits in
Kunming Lake at Beijing’s Summer Palace was built using finances intended to bolster the navy! 

Empress Dowager Cixi in 1903 


The Boxer Rebellion (1899) 


Fifty years of foreign domination and civil unrest made for a mood that only needed harnessing in a popular rebellion to challenge the Qing dynasty. This came in the form of the Boxer (or Righteous Fists) Rebellion, led by a mystical group who claimed invulnerability through the righteousness of their cause and as a result of their breath-control exercises. Their aim was to overthrow the Qing dynasty and destroy foreign influence in China, causes that struck a chord with the masses.


 Although Cixi managed to quell the rebellion in 1899, she then tried to use the Boxers to her advantage to rid the country of foreigners.


In 1900 war was declared on all foreigners within China and the Boxers were set loose on the streets of Beijing. They killed the German and Japanese ministers, along with any other foreigners they could find, but the British and others were able to hold out until an allied support force arrived and routed the Boxers. 


The Fall of Dynastic China 


In the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion, Cixi and the emperor fled to Xi’an leaving her ministers to negotiate yet another humiliating peace settlement.  Although Cixi clung to the throne until her death in 1908, the dynastic age had passed and plans were afoot to build a new China, without emperors. Protests against a foreign-owned railway line provided the impetus for the final rebellion against dynastic China. The child emperor Puyi could offer no resistance and in 1911 the provisional Republic of China was founded in Nanjing under Dr. Sun Yatsen. 

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China history : a reference guide
China history : the dynastic age, part 1 (2100BC - 960 AD) - The Three Dynasties, Qin Dynasty, Han Dynasty, Three Kingdoms, Sui Dynasty, and Tang Dynasty
China history : the revolutionary years (1911 - 1976) - Dr. Sun Yatsen, Yuan Shikai, Chiang Kaishek, and Mao Zedong
China history : the reform era (1976 - present) - Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao

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China History (960 - 1911) : Song Dynasty, Yuan Dynasty, Ming Dynasty, Qing Dynasty, China travel guide