Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Historical travel > Imperial China
The empires in Chinese history were some of Asia's greatest civilisations. Although civilisations in China have existed since the 3rd millennium BCE, the Empire was finally united in 221 BCE and fell with the revolution in 1911.
The borders of the empire varied greatly over time and Chinese influence has always extended well beyond those borders. This influence can be seen in many aspects of culture, perhaps most obviously in the fact that Japanese can still be written in characters based on the Chinese ones, and both Vietnamese and Korean used to be written mostly in Chinese characters. Social etiquette in Vietnam, Korea and Japan continues to be strongly influenced by Confucianism, and their traditional architecture, particularly of Buddhist temples and the residences of the nobility, bear a distinct resemblance to that of China.
In addition to areas that were directly ruled as part of the empire, there were a number of tributary states. At various times these included Vietnam, Korea, Burma, Tibet, Okinawa, Manchuria, Mongolia, Malacca, areas that are now part of the Chinese state as Ningxia, Gansu, Qinghai, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, and a large chunk of what is now the Russian Far East.
Formally, all these states recognized the Son of Heaven (Chinese emperor) as their overlord, but this form covered a range of relationships. In some cases it was merely a formality, while in others a Chinese legate to the tributary court had a great deal of influence, and in some the local ruler was a puppet. In still others it was mainly a way for the Emperor to save face while bribing a powerful neighbor not to attack; the outside ruler would come to court, formally submit and pay tribute, then go home laden with outrageously rich gifts.
An important concept in Chinese historiography was the Mandate of Heaven (天命; tiānmìng) bestowed upon emperors. Emperors who lost power have in hindsight been said to have lost the Mandate of Heaven, because of tyranny, incompetence, or corruption.
The last dynasty to rule the empire, the Qing, fell in 1911 to the Republic of China, also known as Nationalist China. The following decades were marked by warlord conflict, the Chinese Civil War, the Pacific War against Japan, and the Long March, which led to the foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, which has ruled the Chinese mainland since then. See Chinese Revolutions for this period.
Dynasties and capitals
China was an empire from at least 1700 BCE until 1911 CE, and the names of various ruling dynasties, rather than dates, are often used to refer to time periods, much as people in the west might refer to "Elizabethan England" or "pre-Columbian Mexico". The great golden ages of Chinese civilisation were the Han (206 BCE to 200CE) and Tang (618-907) dynasties.
Many cites have served as the capital of China, or of various smaller states in periods when China was divided. Beijing and Nanjing mean northern capital and southern capital respectively; each has been the capital several times, and so has Xi'an.
- Legend has it that the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors (三皇五帝 sān huáng wǔ dì), who were mythical God-like kings, ruled China from about 2852 BCE to 2205 BCE.
- The Liangzhu Culture were the last Neolithic (Stone Age) culture in the region around Lake Tai, 3400-2250 BCE. They were quite advanced for the era with irrigation and some cities.
- The Xia Dynasty (夏朝 Xià cháo) is said to have ruled the Yellow River valley area from about 2100 BCE to 1600 BCE, though some experts consider this more legend than history. Excavations at Erlitou in western Henan show that, at the very least, an early Bronze Age civilization had already developed by that period. Some experts contend that Erlitou was the Xia capital, but that claim is disputed. Luoyang is the nearest modern city and there is a fine museum, in the suburban area that was once Erlitou, dedicated to Erlitou artifacts.
- The Shang Dynasty (商朝 Shāng cháo), 1700-1027 BCE, are the first dynasty for which there is solid historical evidence. They ruled only the Yellow River valley and had their capital near Anyang in Henan. Written Chinese characters began to develop during this time, as evidenced by court records carved on turtle and cattle bones.
- The Zhou Dynasty (周朝 Zhōu cháo), 1027-256 BCE, had their first capital at Hao near modern Xi'an. After a military defeat in 771 BCE, they continued as the Eastern Zhou with capital Luoyang. The Zhou were the longest-lasting dynasty in Chinese history (about 800 years), and the first to expand the empire south into the Yangtze River valley and the region around Lake Tai. The Zhou adopted a decentralized system of government, in which many feudal lords were given a high degree of autonomy in governing their respective areas, which included the right to raise their own armies, though the king was recognised as first among equals and given tributes by the feudal lords in exchange for these privileges.
- Overlapping the Eastern Zhou were the Spring and Autumn Period (春秋时代 chūnqiū shídài), 771 to 403 BCE and the Warring States Period (战国时代 zhànguó shídài), 475-221 BCE. Famous Chinese philosophers like Confucius and Laozi (also spelt Lao-Tzu) lived during the Spring and Autumn Period and most scholars date Sun Tzu's Art of War to that period as well. Mencius, perhaps the second most famous Confucian thinker after Confucius himself, lived during the Warring States period. Although the Zhou King continued to be the nominal ruler of all of China during most of this period, in practice it was a period of political turmoil with power being divided among the various feudal lords, who often fought wars among themselves to expand their own influence. The Zhou Dynasty would de jure cease to exist in 256 BCE after being overthrown by the state of Qin.
- The Qin Dynasty (秦朝 Qín cháo), 221-206 BCE was established when King Ying Zheng of Qin defeated the six other feudal states, and became the first ruler to unite an area anything like all of China. The empire thus united, Ying Zheng took a new title: Qin Shi Huangdi - the First August Emperor of Qin. The Qin were the first to introduce a centralized system of government for all of China, with a standardised system of weights and measures, writing and currency, and also the first to expand the Chinese civilization further south into what is today Fujian and Guangdong. Qin Shi Huangdi was notoriously tyrannical, known for his draconian punishments for even the most minor crimes, and for working his subjects to death in order to build the Great Wall of China and his massive tomb. Their capital was at Xianyang, near modern Xi'an, and the "terracotta army" which is now a great tourist attraction was built for Qin Shi Huangdi's tomb. The English word "China," and the word "Chin" in languages of India, probably comes from their name.
- The Han Dynasty (汉朝 Hàn cháo), 206 BCE-220 CE, had its first capital at Chang'an (near modern day Xi'an), and after a brief interruption by the short-lived Xin Dynasty, was restored as the Eastern Han with its capital at Luoyang. This was the period of the first Silk Road trade and also the period when paper was invented. Chinese still use Han as the name of their largest ethnic group and Chinese characters are still called "hànzì" (汉字) in Chinese, with similar cognates in Korean and Japanese. The Han is considered by most Chinese to be the first golden age in Chinese civilisation. Emperor Wu, the seventh emperor of the dynasty, is known for pacifying the Xiongnu, a confederation of nomadic tribes who inherited the Eurasian Steppes. Under his rule, the empire's boundaries were extended west to what is today Xinjiang, as well as into what is today North Korea and Northern Vietnam. His tomb, the Maoling Mausoleum, is the largest of the Han imperial tombs, and while the burial chamber itself has not been excavated, the surrounding complex can be visited. The Yangling Mausoseum, the tomb of Emperor Jing, the fifth emperor, is known for the large number of miniature terracotta figurines that have been excavated.
- The fall of the Han Dynasty saw China split into the three states of Wèi (魏), Shǔ (蜀) and Wú (吴), known collectively as the Three Kingdoms (三国 sān guó). Despite lasting for only about 60 years, it is a greatly romanticized period of Chinese history. The capitals of the three states were at Luoyang, Chengdu and Nanjing.
- The Jin Dynasty (晋朝 Jìn cháo), briefly re-unified China from 280-317. Though they continued to exist until 420, they only controlled a small area for most of the period. During the unified period, the capital was at Luoyang and later Chang'an.
- From 317-581, China was divided. Capitals of various important states included Luoyang, Nanjing and Suzhou.
- The short-lived Sui Dynasty (隋朝 Suí cháo), 581-618, managed to re-unify China. It had its capital at Chang'an. The dynasty instituted the imperial examination system, which attempted to select officials by ability rather than family background, and embarked on major public works projects including the Grand Canal but was bankrupted through massive military campaigns in Korea.
- The Tang Dynasty (唐朝 Táng cháo), 618-907, had its capital at Chang'an. This was the golden age of Chinese poetry, Buddhism and statecraft, and saw the revival and expansion of the Silk Road. It saw the expansion of the imperial examination system, which eventually grew into the main method used to select court officials. The Tang is considered by most Chinese to be the second golden age in Chinese civilisation, and Chinatowns overseas are often known as "Street of the Tang People" (唐人街 Tángrén jiē) in Chinese. The Qianling Mausoleum in Xianyang, the best preserved of the Tang imperial tombs, is the tomb of Emperor Gaozong, the third emperor and his wife, Empress Wu Zetian, who would become the only woman to ever be crowned Emperor of China. China's oldest surviving wooden building, the Great Buddha Hall of Nanchan Temple in Mount Wutai, dates back to this period. Emperor Taizong, the second emperor of the dynasty, is known for being one of the most capable emperors to ever rule over China, and was a brilliant military commander who pacified the Eastern and Western Turks, establishing Chinese control once again over what is today Xinjiang, during which the empire also covered what is today Northern Vietnam. His tomb, the Zhaoling Mausoleum, is the largest royal mausoleum complex in the world by land area.
- China was then divided once again for about fifty years, during which it was under then control of several small short-lived states. The capitals of the various states included Fuzhou, Guangzhou, Yangzhou, Changsha and many others.
- The Song Dynasty (宋朝 Sòng cháo), 960-1279, again united most of China and had its capital at Kaifeng until it fell to the Jurchens. They then continued as the Southern Song with their capital initially in Nanjing, before later moving it to Hangzhou. Although militarily weak, the Song reached a level of commercial and economic development unmatched until the West's Industrial Revolution. Marco Polo, who was in Hangzhou a few years after the Mongol conquest, describes it as one of the richest and most beautiful cities on Earth.
- The Liao Dynasty (辽朝 Liáo cháo) were ethnic Khitans. They ruled over much of what is today Northeast China, Inner Mongolia, Mongolia and part of North Korea and the Russian Far East from 916–1125, during which they fought an inconclusive war with the Song, before eventually being defeated by the Jurchens. Their capital was at Shangjing, which was located in what is today Chifeng, Inner Mongolia.
- The Western Xia (西夏 Xī Xià) were ethnic Tanguts. They ruled over what is today Gansu, Ningxia and parts of Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, Qinghai, Xinjiang and Shaanxi from 1038–1227, and fought an inconclusive war with the Song before eventually being wiped out by the Mongols. Their capital was at Xingqing, which is today the city of Yinchuan.
- The Jin Dynasty (金朝 Jīn cháo) were Jurchens or Churchens, invaders from Manchuria. After defeating the Khitans, they proceeded to conquer all Song territory north of the Huai River, ruling over much of northern China from 1115-1243. They fought a series of inconclusive wars with the Southern Song, before eventually being defeated by the Mongols; their capital was Beijing.
- The Yuan Dynasty (元朝 Yuán cháo), 1279-1368, were Mongols who made China part of their great Mongol Empire. Genghis Khan defeated the Jurchens and Tanguts and took northern China; his grandson Kublai Khan defeated the Song and reunified China. They used the area that is now Beijing as their capital. Marco Polo visited it; he called it Canbulac, the Khan's camp.
- The Ming Dynasty (明朝 Míng cháo), 1368-1644, were Han (ethnic Chinese) who took power after a peasant revolt against the Mongols. They initially had Nanjing as their capital then moved the capital to Beijing. They built many of Beijing's famous buildings including the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. It was during this period that Admiral Zheng He set out on a voyage to distant lands, establishing the first Chinese contact with Malacca, and even reaching the eastern coast of Africa. Several of the most famous Chinese novels including "Journey to The West" (西游记 Xīyóujì), "Water Margin" (水浒传 shuǐhǔzhuàn) and "Romance of The Three Kingdoms" (三国演义 Sānguóyǎnyì) were written during this period.
- The Qing Dynasty (清朝 Qīng cháo), 1616-1911, were Manchus, descendants of the Jurchens who previously established the Jin Dynasty. They were initially founded as the Later Jin with their capital in Mukden (modern-day Shenyang), and subsequently changed their name to Qing in 1636, before conquering China proper in 1644. Following the conquest of China, they moved their capital to Beijing, where they built the Summer Palace, Old Summer Palace (now in ruins) and Yonghe Temple. The famous Chinese novel, "Dream of the Red Chamber" (红楼梦 Hónglóumèng) was written during this period. The Chinese empire grew to its current geographical size largely during this period, incorporating the western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet.
- The Republic of China (中华民国 Zhōnghuá Mínguó), which ruled from 1911 to 1949, moved the capital back to Nanjing. Since retreating from the mainland in 1949, they have controlled Taiwan and a few small islands off the coast of Fujian. Taipei is their "temporary capital". During the Second World War, Chongqing was also a temporary capital.
- Beijing has been the capital of the People's Republic of China (中华人民共和国 Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó) since the Communist victory in the civil war in 1949.
The capitals of various dynasties or smaller states include:
- Anyang — last capital of the Shang Dynasty
- Beijing — the name translates as "northern capital"; the current capital of China, and capital during the Yuan and Qing dynasties, and most of the Ming.
- Nanjing — "southern capital"; capital during the early part of the Ming Dynasty, as well as during the Republic of China era.
- Xi'an — formerly known as Chang'an, capital during the Qin, Western Han and Tang dynasties
- Luoyang — capital of the Eastern Han dynasty
- Kaifeng — capital of the Northern Song dynasty
- Hangzhou — capital of the Southern Song dynasty
- Yinchuan — capital of the Western Xia
- Lhasa — capital of Tibet
Western powers and Japan looted many of China's finest artifacts over the course of several wars during the late Qing Dynasty and Republic of China era, and many of the emperors' finest treasures were brought to Taiwan by the Nationalists during the Chinese Civil War. Moreover, many artifacts that remained in China were later destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. All of this means that some of the greatest collections of ancient Chinese artifacts can be found in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, and in foreign museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the British Museum in London, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and Tokyo National Museum.
The Mongol Empire conquered China and many nearby areas in the 13th century and Kublai Khan became the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. His empire included several areas that had not previously been considered part of China, though some had been tributary states and all had felt Chinese influence:
- Mongolia itself, today split into the independent country Mongolia and the Chinese province Inner Mongolia
- The territory of Mongol allies the Uyghur, now known as Xinjiang
- The territory of the Western Xia, today's Ningxia and Gansu
- Manchuria and Tibet
Most of these are still part of the Chinese state, though other regions the Yuan Dynasty held are not.
Some Western writers use the term "China proper" to indicate the core Han Chinese regions of China, excluding tributary states or ethnic minority areas, but there is no consensus to the exact extent of this core.
The term "Eighteen Provinces" (一十八行省 Pinyin: Yīshíbā Xíngshěng, or 十八省 Shíbā Shěng) was used in Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) administration. The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) used fifteen administrative divisions, and the Qing adopted and modified their system. Both the Nationalists (1912-1949) and the Communists (1949-date) kept most of the Qing system and in general modern boundaries correspond to the older ones, though there have been some changes.
The 18 provinces in Qing times were:
- Fujian, which included Taiwan from 1683 to 1887, after which Taiwan was made a separate province.
- Gansu, including what is now the separate area of Ningxia
- Guangdong, including what is now the separate province of Hainan.
- Jiangsu, including what is now Shanghai municipality
- Sichuan, including what is now Chongqing municipality
- Zhili, a province that no longer exists; most of it became modern Hebei and the rest became the municipalities of Beijing and Tianjin
In the early 18th century the Qing re-arranged things along the southwestern border, absorbing parts of the former Tibetan Empire into their own. The Tibetan province of Amdo became the Qing Empire's 19th province, Qinghai, and chunks from the Tibetan province of Kham were added to Sichuan and Yunnan.
- Silk Road
- On the trail of Marco Polo
- Along the Yellow River
- Along the Yangtze River
- Along the Grand Canal
- Yunnan tourist trail
- Overland to Tibet
- Hong Kong to Kunming overland
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