Why were Chinese dynasties different in character from each other?

The last blog post I put up was about the the different dynasties of China, after having been asked the question, “what is your favourite dynasty?”.

While writing it I began to think of another question, which (you might have thought, given my long-standing interest in Chinese history) I should have thought of many years ago. This is: “Why were the dynasties so different from one another?”

In thinking about all the Chinese dynasties in one go, so to speak, I realised how very varied they were: they had completely different …what’s the word …culture? Feel?

All the same, all different

All the dynasties were autocratic; their emperors all resided in palaces, surrounded by hosts of courtiers; and they were all served by a large bureaucracy filled with highly educated officials. But within these parameters there were real differences. The early Tang court had an aristocratic tone and was a centre of courtly culture. The Song seem to have had a meritocratic atmosphere, with an almost “party politics” feel to the factional strife going on within it; the Ming court was the one where eunuchs gained their highest power, and the terror lay heavy in the air; the early Qing court seems to have had a serious, hard-working air. And so on.

Photo of Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Forbidden City – home to emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties (Free Software Foundation) 

What caused these differences? Obviously the historical context had a huge bearing – but why did the Qing produce such able, hard-working emperors who ruled China for a century and a half, while the Ming emperors were mostly mediocrities? And why did the Ming court descend to such cruelty, whereas the Song court was (in comparison) mild and humane?

Later in the dynasties, an air of depressing familiarity becomes apparent – the imperial courts are usually corrupt, violently factional, and presided over (if that’s the right phrase) by weak or child emperors – but not all were like that: the Song regime seems to have remained fairly competent until the end.

I if anything’s been written about this issue – does anyone know of any literature on the topic? It would be good to come up with some answers to these questions, because I think it might add some insight into the nature of politics in China, and other autocratic systems.

By Peter Britton