Log In Start studying!

Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free
|
|

Imperial China

Imperial China

Gunpowder, papermaking, great walls, and terracotta armies; just about every aspect of Chinese history before the 20th century was the history of Imperial China. Predating the Roman Empire by a thousand years, the dynasties of Imperial China shaped the very outlook of our modern world, filling the years with an impressive and complex history of isolationism, expansion, commerce, stability, corruption, and tradition. Born from tales of myth, Imperial China tells an authentic history of the people of East Asia.

Imperial China Definition

But what does Imperial China mean? Imperial refers to empire, and medieval empires required two ingredients:

  • A singular central authority rules a large area of land and/or disparate states.

  • Continued growth and expansion to sustain the empire.

Yet that definition is still not entirely satisfactory in representing the colorful history of Imperial China. Continuing with our definition of Imperial China, we must add:

  • Dynastical rule (established during Shang Dynasty) is described as familial succession in which a son inherits power from his Emperor's father.

  • The Mandate of Heaven (created in the Zhou Dynasty) prescribed a divine right to rule and the consequences of weak emperorship.

  • Incredible inventions include papermaking (created in Han Dynasty) and gunpowder (discovered in Tang Dynasty).

  • Trends of northern invasion and political corruption, and instability led to rebellion.

  • Brief periods of instability and war between dynastic reigns.

  • A focus on Han Chinese ethnic culture.

  • Underlying beliefs in Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism within culture and politics.

  • The all-encompassing Dynastic Cycle is a generic model depicting the rise and fall of the Imperial Chinese dynasties (depicted below).

Imperial China Timeline

Imperial China is at least 3,500 years old. The timeline below provides a brief progression of major dynasties and other periods in Imperial Chinese history:

  • 2100--1600 BC: Xia Dynasty*

  • 1600--1046 BC: Shang Dynasty

  • 1046--256 BC: Zhou Dynasty

  • 770--475 BC: Spring and Autumn Period

  • 475--221 BC: Warring States Period

  • 221--206 BC: Qin Dynasty

  • 206 BC--220 CE: Han Dynasty

  • 220--265 CE: Three Kingdoms Period

  • 581--618 CE: Sui Dynasty

  • 618--907 CE: Tang Dynasty

  • 907--960 CE: Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period

  • 960--1279 CE: Song Dynasty

  • 1271--1368 CE: Yuan Dynasty

  • 1368--1644 CE: Ming Dynasty

  • 1644--1912 CE: Qing Dynasty

First Dynasty of Imperial China

If Chinese history is a cycle, it has to begin somewhere, right? Well, even historians debate when Imperial China was established. Early Chinese history and some historical evidence point to the existence of the ancient Xia Dynasty, but other historians argue that the Zhou Dynasty claimed themselves as the descendants of the mythical Xia Dynasty to solidify their rule when overthrowing the Shang Dynasty. Debatably, either the Xia or Shang were the first dynasties in China, introducing familial succession, relative political stability, and writing systems.

Imperial China Map

To represent the history of Imperial China in map form would require hundreds of maps. Focusing on the Medieval Era, we'll examine three maps: the Northern Song Dynasty, the Yuan Dynasty, and the Ming Dynasty.

Geographically, Imperial China was located in East Asia, accessing the Chinese seas to the east and south, giving way to the Pacific Ocean. To China's northeast was Korea, and to the east was Japan. Mongolia lies in the northwest, Tibet to the west, and Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, etc.) to the South. Trade with the west was either conducted overland along the Silk Road or by sea through Indonesia and into the Indian Ocean.

The map below depicts the Song Dynasty and its neighbors during the early Northern Song Period. The Jin Dynasty would rise in the 12th century, taking the north and dividing China in two. Starting in the early 13th century, the Mongols under Genghis Khan began invading China and would conquer it entirely by 1279.

Imperial China Song Dynasty Map Study SmarterFig. 2- Map depicting the Northern Song Dynasty.

The map below depicts the Yuan Dynasty, established by the Mongols under Kublai Khan. China was its largest under the Yuan Dynasty, which lasted until 1368, when an opposing rebel faction under Zhu Yuanzhang established the Ming Dynasty.

Imperial China Yuan Dynasty Map Study SmarterFig. 3- Map depicting the Yuan Dynasty.

Lastly, the map below details the Ming Dynasty, the latest and last Medieval dynasty in Imperial China. From 1368 to 1644, the Ming Emperors ruled over China, either driving it towards prosperity and growth or continued strife.

Imperial China Ming Dynasty Map Study SmarterFig. 4- Map depicting the Ming Dynasty.

Imperialism in China

Imperial China was ruled by many different dynasties, each building upon similar historical traditions. Early Chinese history, from the Zhou Dynasty to the Han Dynasty, tells the tale of imperial expansionism within East Asia. During the Han Dynasty, Confucianism became the official state religion, and the Silk Road was established across Eurasia, globalizing the ancient world. The Qin Dynasty (221--206 BC) before it, though short-lived, was infamous for beginning the Great Wall, constructing the Terracotta Army, and the origins of true Chinese authoritarian emperorship.

Through conquest and commerce, Imperial China was expanding its boundaries. But the Han Dynasty fell, continuing the Dynastic Cycle of rising dynasties and periods of instability. From 220 CE to 581 CE, China was divided, waiting to be united again.

Medieval Imperial China

The Sui Dynasty (581--618 CE) was the first Medieval Imperial Chinese Dynasty. The Tang Dynasty succeeded it, notable for the discovery of gunpowder, the Battle of Talas against the Abbasid Caliphate, which introduced papermaking to the west, and the only woman emperor in Chinese history, Wu Zetian.

Imperial China Great Wall of China Study SmarterFig. 5- The Great Wall of China.

The Song Dynasty (960--1279 CE) came to define Medieval China through its enforcement of Confucianism-based civil service examinations, the introduction of paper money, the booming population and economy, and rampant political corruption. Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism flourished as religions and philosophies shaping Imperial China's social and political structures.

Civil Service Examination:

Imperial examinations were based on Confucian principles, Chinese history, and writing to determine one's candidacy for appointment to government service.

The Yuan Dynasty (1279--1368 CE) saw a brief century of foreign Mongol rule in China. Conquering the north, the court of Kublai Khan willingly undertook sinicization to become accepted by the Chinese people. Under Kublai Khan's reign, China became it's most globalized to date, deeply connected with the west and surrounding regions of the east.

The Yuan Dynasty also conducted China's most significant efforts in militaristic imperial expansionism. Kublai Khan sent hundreds of thousands of Mongol, Chinese, and Korean soldiers to war in two invasions of Japan, an invasion of Indonesia, and multiple invasions of Southeast Asia. Each amphibious conquest ended in disaster.

The Ming Dynasty (1368--1644 CE), the last Han Chinese dynasty, attempted to cast away its Mongol influences and reestablish traditional Chinese prosperity. Its founder, the Hongwu Emperor, called for the completion of the Great Wall and closed China's open borders from trade, isolating the country. His successor, the Yongle Emperor, oversaw one of Imperial China's most impressive acts of globalization through Ming admiral Zheng He's seven voyages.

Effects of Imperialism in China

For every imperialistic effort of Dynastical China, other rising forces were waiting to match its might. From the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty to the Manchurians who established the Qing Dynasty in 1644 to the Europeans, imperialism was as much a force against China as it was for the country. The Qing Dynasty was China's last dynasty, ending the reign of the Han Chinese dynasties in East Asia. The Qing Dynasty's history culminated in the Opium Wars, 19th-century conflicts against intrusive European powers.

Imperial China Opium Wars Study SmarterFig. 6- Art depicting the Opium Wars in China.

Eventually, the weakened state of Imperial China could not last in the 20th century. The technological and colonial might of the European powers had outpaced the east while the Qing diminished, leading to its eventual collapse in 1912. China was reborn as a republic, only subjugated to further imperialistic pressures from foreign powers, such as the Japanese, in the World Wars.

Imperial China Collapses

Imperial China collapsed at the beginning of the 20th century after over 3,500 years of non-consecutive reign in East Asia. The Dynastic Cycle ended with the Xinhai Revolution, establishing the Republic of China and later the People's Republic of China in 1949. Between the rise and fall of dynasties within Imperial China is a tale of ancestral tradition wracked by political instability and beautiful cultural advancements in poetry, art, and calligraphy juxtaposing vicious wars and rebellions.

Imperial China - Key takeaways

  • Imperial China hosted many dynasties across at least 3,500 years, from the ancient and mythical Xia Dynasty to the Manchurian-ruled Qing Dynasty.
  • Dynasties in Imperial China shared some similarities, such as deep roots in Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist values, the Mandate of Heaven, northern invasions, internal rebellion, and technological development, among other similarities.
  • The Dynastic Cycle model describes the history of Imperial China as periods of new rising dynasties, dynastical stagnation, and rebellion repeated across history.
  • Most notable of the Imperial Chinese Dynasties during the Medieval Period were the Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, and Ming Dynasties. Each attempted to validate its rule by drawing from Chinese tradition.

References

  1. Figure 2, China during the Northern Song Dynasty, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/69/China_-_Song_Dynasty-en.svg, by Mozzan, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Mozzan, Licensed by CC-BY-SA-3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:China_-_Song_Dynasty-en.svg.
  2. Figure 3, China during the Yuan Dynasty, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d3/Yuan_Provinces.png, by SY, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Seasonsinthesun, Licensed by CC-BY-SA-4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yuan_Provinces.png.
  3. Figure 4, China during the Ming Dynasty, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/ba/Ming_Empire_cca_1580_%28en%29.svg, by Michal Klajban, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Podzemnik, Licensed by CC-BY-SA-3.0-CZ, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ming_Empire_cca_1580_(en).svg.

Frequently Asked Questions about Imperial China

Imperial China was debatably founded in 2100 BC by the possibly-mythical, possibly-factual Xia Dynasty. If not the Xia, then Imperial China was founded around 1600 BC by the Shang Dynasty. 

 

Imperial China refers to the 3,500 years of discontinuous dynastical rule within in the land of China in East Asia.

The first dynasty of Imperial China is debatably the Xia Dynasty, a possibly-mythical, possibly-factual dynasty that may have ruled from 2100 to 1600 BC. If the Xia Dynasty did not exist, then the Shang Dynasty of 1600-1046 BC was the first ruling Imperial Dynasty in China. 

Imperial China ended in 1912 when the Qing Dynasty fell due to internal rebellion. The Republic of China was formed in its stead, ending the Dynastic Cycle of Imperial China. 

Imperial China ended in 1912 when the Xinhai Revolution debased the weakened Qing Dynasty, establishing the Republic of China. 

Final Imperial China Quiz

Question

Define Sinicization

Show answer

Answer

Sinicization, at its core, is the process of strengthening Han Chinese culture within and without mainland China; non-Han Chinese people become exposed to and adopt Han Chinese culture, including moral values, language, education systems, philosophy, religion, technology, diet, etc. 

Show question

Question

Sinicization promotes the spread of ___ Chinese culture. 

Show answer

Answer

Han 

Show question

Question

Define Han Chinese

Show answer

Answer

A term used to describe the majority ethnic group of China deriving their history and cultural identity from the ancient agricultural Huaxia people of mainland China.

Show question

Question

Sinicization can be best viewed as a process of ____.

Show answer

Answer

Imperialism 

Show question

Question

True or False: Han Chinese is the largest ethnic group in modern-day China. 

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

Which of the following Chinese dynasties better promoted outward sinicization? 

Show answer

Answer

Yuan Dynasty 

Show question

Question

True or False: Yuan Dynasty ruler Kublai Khan, the grandson of the famous Genghis Khan, was responsible for a decline in sinicization within China. 

Show answer

Answer

False 

Show question

Question

Which of the following was not a dominant religion among the Medieval Han Chinese people? 

Show answer

Answer

Christianity 

Show question

Question

Was sinicization successful in Vietnam? 

Show answer

Answer

Not really. The Vietnamese successfully resisted Chinese invasion, but Chinese technology, agricultural techniques, and Buddhism did make their way into Vietnam. 

Show question

Question

How were Islamic peoples in China treated by the Yuan Dynasty? 

Show answer

Answer

Islamic peoples in Yuan Dynasty China became well integrated with Han Chinese culture, customs, and politics. 

Show question

Question

Define Humanism

Show answer

Answer

Philosophy focused on the individual within society, emphasizing the individual need to live ethical lives in pursuit of moral good. 

Show question

Question

Define Filial Piety

Show answer

Answer

The virtue of respecting and caring for one's parents.

Show question

Question

Which of the following was NOT a text that preserved the teachings of Confucius? 

Show answer

Answer

The Book of Five Rings 

Show question

Question

Confucianism found competition with which other religion in China during the Classical Period? 

Show answer

Answer

Daoism 

Show question

Question

Can Confucianism be considered a religion? 

Show answer

Answer

Yes. Its foundations are rooted in traditional Chinese spiritual beliefs. 

Show question

Question

What is the modern popular name of the Confucian belief: "treat others how you wish to be treated". 

Show answer

Answer

The Golden Rule 

Show question

Question

What did most Chinese people call Confucianism? 

Show answer

Answer

Ruism 

Show question

Question

Why did Confucius stress the importance of the family structure in regards to the structure of the state?

Show answer

Answer

He considered the structure of the family to be akin to the structure of the state: patriarchy with a ruler (father) leading his subjects (children). 

Show question

Question

Which of the following is the Chinese word and character for "humaneness"? 

Show answer

Answer

Ren (仁)

Show question

Question

What was Confucius's main occupation during his life? 

Show answer

Answer

A traveling political advisor and teacher 

Show question

Question

What is the Dao?

Show answer

Answer

Dao translates to ," the way," or "the path."

Show question

Question

What is the leading principle in Daoism?

Show answer

Answer

Yielding to nature's order and inaction are the keys to spiritual enlightenment.

Show question

Question

What is the name for providing spellings that show how to pronounce a foreign language term, NOT meaning?

Show answer

Answer

Transliterate

Show question

Question

Who was the founder of Daoism?

Show answer

Answer

Lao-Tzu, family name Li-Er.

Show question

Question

How does Daoism differ from Confucianism or Buddhism?

Show answer

Answer

Rituals and seeking enlightenment are the opposite of practicing Daoism.

Show question

Question

Did Lao-Tzu write the foundational texts for Daoism, the Tao Te Ching?

Show answer

Answer

Yes, but historians have argued it was a collaborative effort written after his death.

Show question

Question

How does Daoism approach morality?

Show answer

Answer

Lao-Tzu clearly stated that morality is only present when goodness has left. Ie, if someone is thinking about morality, they have already lost inner goodness.

Show question

Question

What did Confucius say to his students when he returned from seeing Lao-Tzu?

Show answer

Answer

Confucius was silent for 3 days, and then said he could not give advice to a spiritual dragon.

Show question

Question

Is the meeting between Confucius and Lao-Tzu a true histoical event?

Show answer

Answer

It is believed to be true, but some historians disagree due to the lack of details about Lao-Tzu's life. 

Show question

Question

When was the Song Dynasty?

Show answer

Answer

960-1279 CE

Show question

Question

True or False: The Song Dynasty is known for being a very stable period, allowing for economic, cultural, and artistic growth. 


Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

True or false: The phrase commercial revolution describes an increase in commerce, development of a money economy, technological development, and the development of trade.

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

Which of the following led to the Song Dynasty's economic success?

Show answer

Answer

agricultural development 

Show question

Question

Which of the following events led to the Song Dynasty's commercial revolution? 

Show answer

Answer

development of the compass

Show question

Question

How did the Song Dynasty's commercial revolution impact China?

Show answer

Answer

population growth

Show question

Question

Which of the following is true about the development of trade? 

Show answer

Answer

Private trade expanded, as did the development of marketplaces and trade towns.

Show question

Question

True or false: The phrase money economy describes a point when people stop relying on bartering when exchanging goods.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Which are true regarding the Song Dynasty's agricultural development? 

Show answer

Answer

 New advances in agriculture meant that there were increases in food production

Show question

Question

Which of the following were true regarding the Song dynasty? 

Show answer

Answer

The Song dynasty emerged after the Tang dynasty collapsed in the early part of the tenth century

Show question

Question

A civil _____ ____ is a test one must take to get a job in the civil service

Show answer

Answer

service exam

Show question

Question

_____ _____ describes the 

administrative section of a government

 

Show answer

Answer

civil service

Show question

Question

True or false: In ancient and imperial China, civil service exams were given to young men and women so they could become part of the government bureaucracy.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

True or false: Civil service exams were only given to young men and women in the highest social class.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

True or false: Civil service exams were given to young men of all economic backgrounds, giving men of all social classes an opportunity to join the government. 

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Which of the following are true of civil service exams? 

Show answer

Answer

They have been in place for thousands of years.

Show question

Question

Which of the following are true about civil service exams under the Han Dynasty?

Show answer

Answer

Civil service exams began under the Han Dynasty. 

Show question

Question

Which of the following are true about civil service exams under the Song Dynasty?

Show answer

Answer

The civil service exam was modified to meet the high demand for testing opportunities.

Show question

Question

Which of the following are true about civil service exams under the Ming Dynasty?

Show answer

Answer

The Ming dynasty established a quota system that was based on geography instead of ethnicity. 

Show question

Question

Which of the following are true about civil service exam system? 

Show answer

Answer

The imperial civil service exam had multiple levels and was known for being difficult to pass. 

Show question

Question

True or false: The Song Dynasty was a time of growth and prosperity for men and women. 

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

60%

of the users don't pass the Imperial China quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

Get FREE ACCESS to all of our study material, tailor-made!

Over 10 million students from across the world are already learning smarter.

Get Started for Free
Illustration