Chinese Dynasties and Why They’re Crucial to Understanding China


If one were to ask most observers of the current Chinese economic phenomenon who consider themselves knowledgeable on anything China-related to say a thing or two about its history, the overwhelming majority would limit themselves to mentioning a few popular facts about the People’s Republic of China. Perhaps a handful would also have a thing or two to say about the Republic of China.

However, isn’t that a bit shortsighted?

In light of the fact that the People’s Republic of China barely turns 100 in 2049 and the Republic of China only appeared in 1912, let’s just say you’d be leaving a lot on the table by not digging deeper. As such, it makes sense to at least briefly refer to the (many) Chinese dynasties because, believe it or not, they help provide some much-needed context when it comes to matters that pertain to modern-day China.

When it comes to the let’s call it “prehistoric” dimension of China’s history (China prior to 1600 BC), there isn’t much to say due to the fact that we do not have historic records at our disposal and would have to mostly rely on quasi-mythical elements. While the Xia Dynasty was most likely the first Chinese dynasty, as of circa 2070 BC and up until 1600 BC, we don’t actually know (in a verifiable manner) much about it and will limit ourselves to merely mentioning it.

As far as ancient China is concerned, however, things start getting interesting, with two dynasties in the spotlight:

  1. The Shang Dynasty (from approximately 1600 BC to 1046 BC), the first one for which we actually have historical records, a dynasty most likely responsible for the very first Chinese writing form (oracle bones) and which was situated between the Yangtze river and Yellow river
  2. The Zhou Dynasty (from 1045 to 221 BC), with a temporal track record almost 300 years greater than the Shang Dynasty, with the king controlling a relatively small territory but receiving so-called tribute payments from various feudal states. Up until 770 BC, one can consider the rule of this dynasty relatively peaceful but as of that point, an authority loss occurred. During the rule of the Zhou Dynasty, two culture-defining philosophies emerged, Confucianism and Daoism

Moving on to imperial China, we’re looking at quite a few dynasties over a period of 2133 years or in other words, from 221 BC up until the emergence of the Republic of China back in 1912:

  1. The remarkably short lived Qin Dynasty, with Qin Shi Huang being the first person who claimed the title of emperor after uniting China, establishing laws and setting standards when it comes to aspects such as units of measurement. However, due to excessive centralization and its “iron fist” leadership manner, the dynasty was quite unpopular and despite the previously-mentioned achievements as well as projects such as the famous Terracotta Army and Great Wall, it was ultimately overthrown after just 15 years
  2. The Han Dynasty, the longest-lasting one out of all imperial China dynasties (from 206 BC up until 220 AD), famous on two main fronts. On the one hand, for its major trade-related achievements, specifically connecting China to Europe as well as of course Central Asia through the Silk Road, a Silk Road which can be considered the foundation of the Belt and Road Initiative of today’s China. On the other hand, an efficient meritocracy-based bureaucratic system was implemented by the Han dynasty, one that represented a benchmark for future generations and enabled China to survive despite occasional military defeats. In other words, to manage a territory as vast as that of China, the invaders themselves had to bow to the efficiency of the Han-based bureaucratic system
  3. Unfortunately, China’s so-called Dark Ages followed as of 220, when the Han Dynasty declined and up until 581. Initially, China was fractured (the so-called Three Kingdoms Period). It was then united by the Jin Dynasty but the balance of the entire entity was frail, leading to yet another fracture as of 420 AD. This period is, however, important for its share of reasons, for example the emergence of various religions, most notably Buddhism
  4. Things started changing after the Sui Dynasty once again reunited China as of 581 AD. Its short rule up until 618 AD was quite fruitful, with the Great Wall being rebuilt as well as other meaningful infrastructure projects being implemented, for example the Grand Canal
  5. The Tang Dynasty followed, with a significantly longer rule, from the year 618 up until 907. This was considered a prosperous time for China, with the Tang Dynasty adopting and building on top of projects started by the Sui Dynasty and on the artistic front, a case can be made that a let’s call it Chinese Enlightenment took place
  6. From 907 up until 960, there was yet another period of fragmentation, which came to an end once the Song Dynasty was established in 960, a dynasty which ruled up until 1279. It was a complex period because on the one hand, the Song Dynasty’s control over the empire was less robust than that of the Tang Dynasty but on the other hand, technological advancements (most notably the so-called “four great inventions” which were paper, the compass, gunpowder and printing technology) brought about increased prosperity and trade
  7. What followed from 1279 up until 1378 was the period in which China fell under Mongol rule, with the Yuan Dynasty representing the very first Chinese dynasty one can consider foreign-led. However, despite major turbulence, technological developments and contact with foreign civilizations (Marco Polo’s writings being relevant in this respect) continued
  8. The Ming Dynasty, the final ethnic Chinese dynasty, took over as of 1368 and ruled until 1644, with this era being one of significant Chinese prosperity. In light of the First Industrial Revolution not emerging yet and without its productivity boost, European nations were no match as an economic force to China, with its huge population
  9. That, unfortunately for China, changed during the reign of the final imperial dynasty, the Qing Dynasty (which was in power up until 1912). Throughout their rule, China went through a humiliating period during which it was essentially forced to trade with various countries at gunpoint after losing the Opium Wars. Why? Simply put, China’s population was no longer a dominant enough force after the First Industrial Revolution gave European powers a dramatic productivity boost. As such, China found itself technologically inferior and was ultimately forced to make concession after concession to European powers but also to the Japanese and Russians

As complex as China’s history undoubtedly is, ignoring the context it provides represents a potentially fatal flaw in any analysis. To this day, influences from various dynasties manifest themselves in one way or another throughout China and while the information put forth in this article will not represent the dominant variable in a complex economic analysis equation, it is without a doubt remarkably significant as well as… let’s be honest, fascinating.

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