Chinese civilization is one of the world’s oldest continuous civilizations. Indeed, unlike Western, Islamic, and Indian civilizations, China has managed to remain politically unified for much of its history.
Contrary to the common perception of China being historically isolated and weak, many Chinese dynasties were very powerful and have had a profound impact on global history. Yes, it is true that during the Ming Dynasty, China ships conducted multiple voyages of exploration (1405-1433) before abruptly stopping. But this hardly dented the enormous economic and political influence China wielded for most of its history in East, Southeast, and Central Asia. Although the people of these regions pursued their own interests as best as they could, China was always the major power to be dealt with.
Nonetheless, not all Chinese dynasties were created, and these three stood above the rest.
The Han Dynasty
The Han Dynasty ruled China for a solid four centuries, from 206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E. Although the preceding Qin Dynasty unified China, it was the Han Dynasty that kept it together and developed the institutions that characterized most of Chinese history since.
The Han Dynasty was able to maintain its bureaucracy and military through a more efficient and thorough system of taxation than many contemporary empires. Additionally, to gain increased revenue, the Han created monopolies on iron and salt. The salt monopoly has been a traditional source of revenue for Chinese states since, one that apparently lasted until 2014.
The Han’s large coffers allowed it to expand China’s boundaries outwards from its traditional heartland in the Yellow River valley toward what is today southern China. Southern China would prove to be very important to China in the future since it can support a large population through the rice crop. Thanks in part to southern China’s wealth, China’s sociopolitical development was usually greater than its neighbors, allowing China to easily incorporate or defeat them.
One exception to this, however, was China’s perennial problem— namely, nomads to its north. During the Han, these were the Xiongnu. Constant harassment and raids by these nomads necessitated the first construction of the Great Wall during the Qin Dynasty. During the Han, China attempted to outflank its enemies, which led to an expedition westward into today’s Xinjiang and Central Asia.
This process is generally thought to have informed China for the first time of other civilizations, a shocking development for a people who until then believed themselves to be the only state society. Indeed, during this time China became aware of the civilizations of India, the Bactrians, the Sogdians, the Persians, and many more, This event is thought to have stimulated the development of trade routes that would later be called the Silk Road.
To control trade routes and outflank their enemies, Chinese forces occupied much of Xinjiang for many decades, allowing them to project their influence deep to the west. Buddhism also entered China through this route at this time.
After the Han Dynasty collapsed due to civil war, China entered a period of disunity until being reunited by the Sui Dynasty, which was subsequently succeeded by the Tang Dynasty, which ruled China from 618-907 C.E. The Tang Dynasty was one of China’s most cosmopolitan and urbane dynasties, opening China up to a period of foreign influences. The Tang Dynasty was also likely China’s largest and most powerful dynasty in history and is considered the golden age of imperial China.
The population base of the Tang Dynasty was estimated to have been around 80 million people, enabling it to completely dominate its neighbors. During this time, China continued to expand northeast and south, incorporating much of Manchuria and Vietnam. It was also during this period that many other state societies developed under Chinese influence, including Korea, Japan, and Tibet. This period thus saw the establishment of the tributary state system to a greater extent than under the Han. Although they did not rule Tibet, the Tang were the first Chinese dynasty to exert influence over the previously foreboding plateau to the southeast.
The Tang military was successful because it had learned to fight like the steppe nomads in many ways. The Tang were crazy about horses, which had previously been relatively rare in China, and imported and breed many different breeds, negating the main advantage of the nomads to their north. The Tang also promoted and used talented Central Asian generals (a decision which would later come back to haunt them).
The Tang’s grip on Xinjiang was firm during this time (the region had slipped from Chinese rule after the Han) and garrisons were established in the “Western Region,” an area that was expanding rapidly to dominate all of Central Asia up to the border of the Persian Empire. Until the Arabs defeated the Chinese in the Battle of Talas (751), it looked as though Central Asia’s future was with China. Numerous states near this region such as Kabul and Kashmir became direct tributaries to China. The Chinese also intervened in the affairs of their steppe neighbors and even in the northern heartland of India.
The Tang Dynasty never recovered from the An Lushan Rebellion, when An Lushan, a Tang general of Central Asian origin, revolted and named himself emperor. Up to half of the empire’s population is said to have perished in the resulting fighting, famines, and diseases in what has been called one of history’s largest man-made disasters.
The Tang Dynasty managed to limp on due to support from Tibetan and Turkish soldiers but eventually collapsed.
The dynasties that followed the Tang’s collapse were all very weak. It wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) hundreds of years later that another dynasty rule over the Chinese heartland without major threats or issues. However, the Ming is considered to be one of the worst Chinese dynasties, as China suffered a period of intellectual, political, and economic sterility under its rule.
The Ming were followed by the Qing, China’s last and one of its greatest dynasties, ruling from 1644 to 1911. This may seem puzzling since the Qing are often blamed for allowing the Chinese system to collapse and for the country to be humiliated by the West. These things did happen during Qing but it doesn’t diminish from their achievements. Indeed, China today maintains borders far beyond its traditional heartland, losing comparatively little territory compared to other empires and their modern successor states (like Turkey and Iran) and this feat can be attributed to the policies and conquests of the Qing.
The Qing Dynasty was actually not Chinese in origin. They were Manchus who after establishing a state in Manchuria, were let into China through the Great Wall by a dissident Ming general. They then proceeded to conquer or co-opt the rest of the country. Unlike the Mongols, the Qing established a lasting Chinese-style state. The introduction of new crops from the Americas also helped China’s population grow to around 400 million.
The Qing were the first Chinese state to effectively control regions like Tibet, Xinjiang, Manchuria, and Mongolia, peripheral regions that were inhabited by people that had always harassed China. They were able to do this because of their dual nature as both a Chinese imperial bureaucratic state able to draw on agrarian revenue, and as the leaders of a large northern tribal confederacy that was able to assimilate Mongol tribes into their system. Gunpowder also aided the Qing’s cause, allowing them to negate the power of the steppe tribes.
The Qing’s masterful diplomacy was also part of its success. For example, the Qing ably played Russia and Great Britain off one another during the Great Game. Neither of those two powers wanted the other to gain more territory in Central Asia and were thus happy to led China keep most of its extensive empire as a buffer. Chinese influence also increased in Southeast Asia and Himalayan Asia to a greater degree than before during the Qing Empire, as many states like Myanmar, Nepal, Chitral Valley (in Pakistan today), and Siam became part of the Chinese system.
The Qing could have done better at focusing on threats from the sea—first the West, and then Japan. On the whole, however, the Qing managed to lay the basis of China’s continued control into the modern era of the resources of much of inner Asia, the Chinese equivalent of America’s wild west.
Image: Flickr/Stuck in Customs