Historical Kunming Part 3: Chinese dynasties

So…  my intent for this week’s post on the history of Kunming was to talk about the dawn of Kunming: the start of its transformation from one of a group of Bronze Age villages on the shores of Lake Dian into a genuine city, the capital of a rebel general cut off from his homeland.

But as I got deeper and deeper into this story, it became more and more clear that I was telling a story with no anchors, cast adrift in a series of names and places, kingdoms and dynasties, that would mean nothing to someone who had not already studied at least some Chinese history.   So before I tell the story of the dawn of Kunming, I would like to give you the basic framework by which the Chinese themselves account their history: the tale of dynasties.

But before simply listing them out, it is worth asking: what exactly makes a dynasty anyway.  Unlike periods of British or Egyptian history (amongst others) that use the same term, a Chinese dynasty does not imply rule by a single family of rulers.  Instead, it is related to a uniquely Chinese concept:  天命  (Tiānmìng), referred to in English as The Mandate of Heaven.  So what exactly is The Mandate of Heaven?  How does it work?

When we are taught western history, we learn that the medieval basis for royal legitimacy was founded on a notion called the Divine Right of Kings.  This asserts that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving his right to rule directly from the will of God. The king is thus not subject to the will of his people, the aristocracy, or any other estate of the realm.  Over time, and influenced by the downfall of a number of tyrants in bloody civil wars, a new basis for legitimacy emerged in the west: the consent of the governed. (Most notably espoused by John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government).

The Mandate of Heaven is far older than either of the western bases for political legitimacy, and incorporates elements of both.  Similar to the Divine Right of Kings, the Mandate of Heaven asserts that heaven (天 – Tiān) blesses the authority of a just ruler, and gives to him the authority to govern.     But in other ways, the Mandate of Heaven more closely resembles Locke: If a ruler becomes despotic or tyrannical, Heaven withdraws its mandate and that ruler is overthrown.  Therefore, the successful overthrow of a ruler is viewed as an indication that the ruler has lost the Mandate of Heaven, and provides a ready (if post-hoc) justification for people to rise up against a ruler who treats his subjects poorly.

A Chinese dynasty, then, is a period of time in which the Mandate of Heaven was successfully held by a single group, clan, or in two cases, foreign powers.  I have made below a list of the generally acknowledged ones, with one key disclaimer:  The changeover from one dynasty to another was never a planned, orderly thing, and usually happened over a period of several years or even decades.  Thus, you are guaranteed to find disagreement about almost every one of the dates I give here. I make no claim that the ones I give here are authoritative or even a prevailing view, but they do give a good basic idea of when these things happened.

So with no further ado, here for your reference is a mildly annotated list of the main Chinese dynasties.  As the purpose of this timeline is to give context rather than comprehensive taxonomy, there are other smaller dynasties between these that I have omitted.

Dynasty

Started

Ended

Notes
Xia

2070 BC

1600 BC

Since its beginnings predate the establishment of written history in China, the Xia dynasty’s origins can only be speculated at from archaeological findings, and from Shang dynasty records.
Shang

1600 BC

1029 BC

Began when Cheng Tang overthrew the last Xia ruler, Jie, at the Battle of Mingtao.
Zhou

1029 BC

476 BC

Divided into Eastern and Western dynasties, the traditional form of Chinese writing first appeared during this period.
Warring States Period

475 BC

221 BC

A period of civil war, in which no one group held the Mandate of Heaven.  The famous military treatise by General Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”, was written during this period.
Qin

221 BC

206 BC

Despite being short (only 2 rulers), the Qin dynasty had a profound impact on Chinese history.  The Qin is the first Imperial dynasty; its founder Qin Shihuang was the first emperor of China, and also started the building of the Great Wall.
Han

206 BC

220

Considered to be a golden age of Chinese civilization.  The main ethnic majority in China still call themselves Han, and the Chinese written language is still called Han Characters.
Six Dynasties Period

220

589

Another period of civil war between dynasties. The great Chinese literary classic, The Three Kingdoms, was written about this period.  Due to the pervasive influence of this Ming-era romantic novel, there are many books, movies, poems, and other works of art set during this period.
Sui

581

618

Like the Qin dynasty, Sui rule was ruthless and tyrannical, and in similar fashion it quickly lost the Mandate of Heaven.
Tang

618

907

Another golden age of culture and learning.  The system of imperial examinations for government positions, largely in place to this day, was established at this time.
Song

960

1279

This period was marked by significant advances in both gunpowder and rice cultivation, but not enough so to withstand the invading Mongols.
Yuan (Mongolian)

1279

1368

China was conquered by Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan. But despite their military prowess, the Mongolians were largely assimilated by Chinese culture and civilization.  Marco Polo’s sojourn in China happens during this time.
Ming

1368

1644

Chu Yuan-chang removed the Mongols from the throne, undertook great infrastructure projects, and started projecting Chinese power abroad.  The Great Wall reached its current form, and the Treasure Fleet made contact with European colonial powers.
Qing (Manchurian)

1644

1912

Ming generals invite the Manchurians into China to help end a civil war; after doing so, they take China for themselves and rule for almost 300 years.  But as with the Mongols, the Manchurians quickly assimilated Chinese culture, and the basic form of local  government and civil service was as in earlier dynasties.
Republic of China

1912

1949

Though not a monarchy, the Republic is held by many to be a dynasty in that it enjoyed the Mandate of Heaven for longer that either the Qin or Sui dynasties.
People’s Republic of China

1949

Present

As with many dynasties before it, the Republic collapsed through corruption and misrule, and the Mandate of Heaven passed to its current holders, the Chinese Communist Party.

Sources: Most of this comes from memory; the dates are from Wikipedia.

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2 thoughts on “Historical Kunming Part 3: Chinese dynasties

  1. Pingback: Historical Kunming Part 4: The Dawn of Kunming | FigBash Steps Out

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