My favourite Chinese dynasties!

I recently had a very interesting conversation with a young woman from China. It was clear that she had a keen interest in, and considerable knowledge of, the history of her country. She took me by surprise by asking, “What is your favourite dynasty?”

Now, as a historian I should have said something like, “well, all dynasties have their weak points and their strong points, and it depends on the historical context, bla bla bla”.

But actually, I DO have my favourite dynasties, just as I have my favourite (and not so favourite) civilizations, countries, empires and so on.

My not-so-favourite Chinese dynasties…

I can quickly say what my less favourite ones are. The Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 CE) stands out – it was the period of the harsh Mongol occupation of China. Another unattractive dynasty was the Qin (221-206 BCE). It was if anything even harsher than the Yuan, but it had some immense achievements to its credit – no less than the first unification of China since early Zhou times (when the Chinese culture area was much smaller). It is possible that mild policies would not have worked in imposing unity across the huge country, with each part having its own dialects, customs and sense of its own identity.

Similarly, the Sui dynasty (589-618 CE) imposed unity on a fragmented China, but this seems to have been a much easier process than the earlier unification. Its founding emperor was certainly remarkably successful in achieving his goals, not only in imposing political unity but economic unity as well.

The Grand Canal today (Wikimedia commons)

The Grand Canal was constructed at his time, which helped to create a single huge market where previously there had been many. Trouble came for the Sui in the second emperor, whose megalomania lost the dynasty its throne.

…and my middle ranking Chinese dynasties…

The succeeding dynasty, the Tang (618-907), is often held up as one of the most glorious. It presided over one of those periods when the Chinese empire reached far into central Asia, and there were cultural achievements aplenty.  But the Tang regime needlessly allowed one of the most awful episodes in Chinese history to occur, the An Lushan rebellion (755-63), which gravely weakened the dynasty’s power and caused a huge amount of destruction in northern China.

Likewise the Ming dynasty period (1368-1644) is held up as a fortunate time when a native Chinese dynasty sat on the throne of China, preceded and followed by foreign dynasties. The dynasty certainly had some great achievements to its credit. Never having been to China (except Hong Kong), I’ve never seen the Forbidden City or the Great Wall, but I know people who have; they say that these are absolutely staggering monuments. Those photos of the Great Wall wending its way up and down steep mountain sides certainly bear these comments out.

The Great Wall as reconstructed under the Ming dynasty (Wikimedia Commons)

But in my opinion the Ming emperors were an underachieving lot, who allowed corruption to flourish and, eventually, a not-very-powerful group of tribesmen, the Manchu, to take over their empire. They also threw away China’s chance to establish a sea power that would have dwarfed anything the Europeans could have put together at that time (though this is probably an unfair criticism, not taking into account any context whatsoever).

…and my favourite Chinese dynasties!

The dynasty that followed, the Manchu, or Qing (1644-1911), is often seen as a time of stagnation and decay. I don’t agree with this assessment, at least for the late 17th century and most of the 18th century. This was the time when the Chinese empire was at its magnificent height, ruled in succession by three of the most remarkable rulers in world history. Modern Western scholars now think that the standard of living in China at this time was completely on a par with that of contemporary Europe. It was really only in the 19th century that the dynasty ran into trouble, the the face on an industrialising West.

A painting of a Qing victory in the Chinese conquest of central Asia (Wikimedia commons)

This brings me to my two top dynasties. In second place is the Song (including Southern Song – 960-1279 CE). The Song emperors, though often nonentities, presided over a regime which gave much of China mild and stable government (though there was plenty of factional competition at court), peace, and strong economic development. Their main shortcoming (and this was a major one) was in their inability to defeat the external forces that prevented them from uniting the whole of China, and which eventually swallowed them up altogether.

And finally, in top position, is the Han (202 BCE – 220 CE).

In fact, as in most dynasties, the majority of the Han emperors were fairly nondescript. Off hand, I can only recall the names of two: the founder, Gaozu (or Lui Bang, as he was called before he became emperor), and the ambitious Wudi. But the regime they presided over was enormously successful. For a few years in the middle of the period, a usurper, Wang Mang, sat on the throne, and the disorder which accompanied his fall did a large amount of damage; and the last decades of the dynasty were chaotic. For most of the four hundred-year Han period, however, the dynasty gave China peace and stability – priceless gifts for any country. And it also set the terms for all future Chinese dynasties – an efficient civil service whose officials were recruited and promoted on merit; a Confucian ideology, which, while it may have had its limitations, did encourage a conscientious and humane style of government; and national unity.

So, for what it’s worth, that’s my ranking of all the major dynasties in China. It’s great to be a historian, sitting inn his armchair calmly evaluating the quality of all those great dynasties, and totally ignoring the effort, blood, seat, tears, triumphs and tragedies which went into the achievements – and of course failures – of these imperial regimes. I wonder to what extent this chimes with the views of modern Chinese historians.

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Peter Britton