History Files



An Introduction to China

Compiled by Peter Kessler, 1 April 1999

The progression from Neolithic settlement to imperial dynasties in China was far from smooth and was also not consistently upwards and onwards. China's origins were long seen as being focussed along the Yellow River. Several of the early mythical or semi-historical dynasties were based in territory in this region, and these were regarded to have laid down the basis of later Chinese unity.

As far as dating goes, it can be rather complicated. There is no single agreed chronology for the early periods. The 'Chinese Historical Era' short count estimates a start date of 2637 BC (AD 1998 + 2637 = 4635 Anno Sinarum). The 'Chinese Historical Era' long count estimates a start of 2852 BC (AD 1998 + 2852 = 4850 Anno Sinarum). The long count is used in the lists here, with short count dates sometimes included in the introductions.


Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC)

The Shang, a splendid Bronze Age civilisation, mark the true beginning of Chinese history, emerging just as India was falling into its own dark age period (1500-800 BC) following the flowering of the Indus valley culture.

The system of writing we see developing in the Shang already displays most of the characteristics of Chinese characters and was destined to be the only ancient system of ideographic writing to survive into modern usage, both in China and Japan.

However, Shang writing is known mainly from oracle bones. There is no surviving literature or documents from the period. Data such as the list of Shang kings or the excavation of Shang royal tombs therefore leaves us pretty much in the dark about historical events, although this is not much different from what is often the case with contemporary Egypt or Mesopotamia.

The sophistication of Shang culture, on the other hand, may be inspected directly in the magnificent bronzes that are featured in many of the world's museums.

The brass Jian Gougian sword was made during the Shang dynasty period, and was found by archaeologists in the twentieth century, apparently still sharp and free of decay


Sui Dynasty (AD 590-617)

Besides reuniting the country, the Sui are particularly famous for the building of the Grand Canal. This took essentially the entire duration of the dynasty, and aroused great resentment from the severity of the forced labour.

More than three million workers were impressed, and anyone caught evading service was executed. Defeats by Turkic tribes - most especially the rising force of the Göktürks - then precipitated rebellion.


Sung / Song (Southern) Dynasty (AD 1127-1279)

The Southern Sung is inevitably remembered mainly as the victim of Mongol conquest. It is noteworthy, however, that the Sung gave the Mongols the hardest time of any of their ultimate conquests.

The final campaign by Qubilai Khan took twelve long years, when most people were lucky if they could resist the Mongols for twelve weeks. One explanation of this is that the Mongols were definitely out of their preferred element. A saying in China is that 'in the north, you go by horse; in the south, you go by boat'.

The Mongols undoubtedly were more comfortable with horses than with boats. The southern terrain posed a challenge that the Mongols could not meet with their accustomed mounted tactics.

The Sung state was also more formidably organised than many opponents of the Mongols. The Sung had resources unavailable to the Russians or the Khwarazm shahs. But the price of resistance to the Mongols was, of course, death. On one account, Qubilai Khan, in the course of his conquest and rule over China, killed 'more than 18,470,000 Chinese' (RJ Rummel, Death by Government, Transaction Publishers, 1995, p51).

This puts him in the same league, at least, as Adolf Hitler. So many Chinese died during the tenure of the Mongol Yuan dynasty that several ancient surnames, such as Ou-yang, simply disappeared.


Yuan (Mongolian) Dynasty (AD 1279-1368)

There are some problems with reconciling the Mongolian dates and names (The Mongols, David Morgan, Basil Blackwell, 1986, and The New Islamic Dynasties, Clifford Edmund Bosworth, Edinburgh University Press, 1996) with the Chinese list of Yuan emperors (Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary, Harvard University Press, 1972, p.1175).


Ming (Bright) Dynasty (AD 1368-1644)

The Ming emperors, mainly the Yung-Lo emperor, Ch'eng Tsu, sent Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He), a Moslem eunuch who started out as a prisoner-of-war slave, on seven great naval expeditions into the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433. Chinese historians report that the largest ships, the baochuan or 'treasure ships', were thirteen metres long (four hundred and forty feet).

However, most of the records of the expeditions were destroyed, and the reported dimensions are unrealistic (eg. a beam of 54.86 metres (180 feet), which sounds more like a bathtub than a sailing vessel).

Bruce Swanson (Eighth Voyage of the Dragon, Naval Institute Press, 1982, p.33) reports that a modern surviving Chinese junk of five masts, the Jiangsu trader, was 51.8 metres long (170 feet). Since baochuan were reported to have up to nine masts, if this is accurate and the number of masts is proportional to the length, we might extrapolate ships of 93.3 metres in length (306 feet).

This is comparable to the length of some nineteenth century clipper ships: The Great Republic of 1853, the largest ship of its time, was ninety-nine metres long (325 feet). Although this is larger, by half again, than Swanson wants to allow, there have since been some archaeological discoveries of ship fittings that seem consistent with the larger sizes.

Emperor Ch'eng Tsu's era name is Yongle - 'Perpetual Happiness' - which is a sure sign of a tyrant to be avoided. Having removed his nephew, he ruthlessly purged his enemies amid rumours that he was in fact an illegitimate son of the late Hongwu emperor. Those who refused to sign a statement confirming his legitimacy were executed along with their families. One steadfast old minister was executed along with all family members to the tenth degree of separation.



Manchu Ch'ing / Qin (Clear) Dynasty (AD 1644-1911)

The Manchurian conquest of China was a deeply humiliating experience for the Chinese. The Manchu, indeed, made things harder for themselves, as foreign rulers, with their decree that Chinese men would have to adopt Manchu costume (including the infamous 'queue').

This provoked violent Chinese popular resistance and helped the 'Southern Ming' princes rally forces against the Manchus for almost two decades.

However, it is noteworthy that subsequent Chinese governments, both nationalist and communist, regarded all Manchurian conquests as 'intrinsic' parts of China.

Thanks to this, Tibet, which had been conquered both by the Mongols and the Manchus, and was again independent after the fall of the Ch'ing in 1911, is claimed as an 'intrinsic' part of China even though it had never actually been ruled by the Chinese until the communist invasion of 1950. Culturally, Tibet is a sub-Indian rather than a sub-Chinese civilisation.



Text copyright © P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.