Chinese civilization reached maturity under a long succession of emperors. At times China was united and strong, at times weak and divided, but throughout more than two thousand years one of the greatest civilizations in world history developed in complexity and sophistication.
During the epoch of Imperial China, a long succession of emperors ruled China. These emperors belonged to a series of different dynasties: at times a single dynasty ruled the entire country, and more; at other times China was divided between several contending dynasties. Sometimes the dynasties were of native Chinese origin, and sometimes of foreign descent. The whole period lasted from the foundation of the Qin dynasty, in 221 BC, to the fall of the Qing dynasty, in AD 1912, and so constitutes by far the longest period in Chinese history.
This period followed that era of Ancient China known as the Warring States. In it, various Chinese states struggled for dominance until at last one of them, the Qin, had annexed the rest. The Qin established the first of the imperil dynasties of China.
The first imperial dynasties: Qin and Han
The Qin ruled China with great severity as they forced the different regions, each with their own cultures and traditions, into a single mould. This soon provoked widespread rebellion, and by 206 BC the dynasty had fallen. Some years of chaos followed, but very quickly a new dynasty, the Han, emerged to take control over the country.
The Han dynasty was one of the most formative periods for China: to this day the Chinese call themselves the Han, in recognition of the unity and identity which this dynasty brought their nation. During four almost uninterrupted centuries of rule the Han so firmly established the idea of China as a single state that it has remained the ideal - and for more than half the time, the reality - ever after. The Han built on Qin foundations to develop the great political institution which was to knit the giant country together together. This was the civil service. The Han also established Confucianism - an ideology superbly suited to giving civil servants a strong public spiritedness - as the animating principle behind it.
The fall of the Han in the 220s AD was followed by several centuries of division and barbarian invasion. Northern China bore the brunt of this, being ruled by several foreign dynasties, usually more than one at the same time. The south remained more or less united, but being still comparatively undeveloped at this stage (though the period witnessed mass migration of northerners southwards) was unable to reimpose unity on the north.
The middle imperial dynasties: Sui and Tang
China was eventually reunited by the Sui dynasty, in 589. In some ways this dynasty played a similar role to that of the Qin, almost 800 years before, in that it imposed a harsh rule over the country and paid the price by provoking multiple rebellions which brought the dynasty down. However, a new dynasty, the Tang, was quickly able to establish itself on the ruins of the Sui, bringing all China again under one rule.
The early Tang period (618-753) marked one of the high points of Chinese history. The Tang were able to conquer deep into central Asia, and internally their rule was one of stability, prosperity and cultural achievement, especially in literature. During the preceding period of disunity Buddhism had made huge inroads into all levels of Chinese society, and Confucianism had lost its monopoly on the thought life of the ruling class. This process reached its apogee under the Tang.
In the 750s a shattering event interrupted the smooth-flowing history of the Tang dynasty. A massive rebellion led by a frontier general called An Lushan drove the Tang court from its capital; and though it was able to return some eight years later (763) it was never again able to reestablish its firm hold on the country. Weakness at the centre allowed corruption to grow in the provinces, which in turn led to renewed invasion from outside and massive rebellions within. At the start of the 10th century the Tang dynasty was replaced by a number of regional kingdoms; and the north of the country again fell to barbarian rule.
The Song dynasty
This second period of disunity was much shorter than the first, and was brought to an end by the coming to power of the Song dynasty (960-1279): though the far north and west continued to be in barbarian hands.
The Song period was one of great economic advance. The southern half of China had become much more populated and developed under the Tang, and this had stimulated the maritime trade routes to South East Asia and beyond. Thriving commercial cities arose at this time, which had internal commercial activity also expanded greatly. Porcelain manufacture emerged as an important industry, and technological breakthroughs in printing and navigation occurred.
This was also a time when Confucianism regained its place at the heart of the Chinese imperial ideology. A series of thinkers in the late Tang and during the Song had reinterpreted Confucian thought to take in Buddhist spiritual and cosmological ideas, and thus enriched, Confucianism gained a new vitality.
In 1127 the Song dynasty suffered a major reverse when a northern barbarian dynasty inflicted a great defeat on them and confined the Song dynasty (henceforth known as the Southern Song) to southern China. This left China divided again, but the Southern Song continued to preside over economic expansion and social progress.
The Mongol dynasty
In the following century, a new power came to the fore. This was the Mongols, a central Asian people who, under their charismatic leader Genghis Khan and his successors, conquered far and wide across Asia and Europe. By 1237 they had conquered northern China, and by 1279 they had added southern China. The huge country was thus united again, but under a foreign dynasty.
Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan, moved his capital to China, and although theoretically the Great Khan of the entire Mongol empire, focussed his attentions on China and ruled as a Chinese emperor. Little by little the other regions of the vast empire drifted out of the control of Kublai’s successors; and the declining quality of their rule led to massive revolts in China and neighbouring lands. Finally, in 1368, the Mongol court was driven out of China, back into central Asia.
The Ming dynasty
The leader of the revolt against the Mongols founded the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). This dynasty is noted for some spectacular achievements. In the early 15th century a dramatic series of voyages took Chinese fleets as far as the African coast. The complex of imperial palaces known today as the Forbidden City in Beijing was largely completed under the Ming, as was defensive system known as the Great Wall of China (though building on earlier defences going back to the 4th century BC).
Under the Ming China experienced a large measure of tranquility, but the dynasty came to a violent end in the mid-17th century when a people from across the frontier (close relatives of the Mongols) breached the empire’s defences and drove the Ming court from power. This people were the Manchu, and the dynasty which they established was called the Qing.
The Qing (Manchu) dynasty
The Qing emperors took a generation to firmly establish their power over China, but once they had done so they took the Chinese empire to new heights of grandeur and power. During the late 17th century, and throughout most of the 18th century, three remarkable Qing emperors sat on the Chinese throne in succession. They imposed a new level of efficiency on the government of China, and annexed vast regions of inner Asia, including Tibet, to the empire. By the late 18th century imperial China was at its zenith.
The 19th century saw precipitate decline. Western merchants clamoured to be let into the massive Chinese market, and they smuggled in the opium drug on an industrial scale. Chinese society was swept by an epidemic of debilitating drug use. Western governments supported their merchants with military power, and seized coastal ports such as Hong Kong for their own use, and negotiated access to many other cities throughout the Chinese empire. Humiliating as these set-backs were, they had nothing like the impact on Chinese society that a series of huge rebellions had. The most famous of these as the Taiping rebellion (1850-64), in which 20 millions people are estimated to have lost their lives.
The Qing dynasty was greatly weakened by these episodes, and it gradually lost the loyalty of the Chinese people. Attempts to modernise the Chinese army and navy were shown to be inadequate in repeated defeats at the hands of European and Japanese forces, and efforts to industrialise the economy and government were too little and too late. The Manchu emperors were seen as unable or unwilling to protect the interests of the Chinese people, and were increasingly viewed as alien rulers. Finally, in 1912, the commander-in-chief of the Chinese army removed the last of the Qing emperors (a child of 6) from his throne, and proclaimed a republic.