China's3 Most Powerful Dynasties
China'smighty history continues to shape it...
Chinesecivilization is one of the world’s oldest continuous civilizations. Indeed, unlike Western, Islamic,and Indian civilizations, China has managed to remain politically unified formuch of its history.
Contraryto the common perception of China being historically isolated and weak, manyChinese dynasties were very powerful and have had a profound impact on globalhistory. Yes, it is true that during the Ming Dynasty, China ships conductedmultiple voyages of exploration beforeabruptly stopping. But this hardly dented the enormous economic and politicalinfluence China wielded for most of its history in East, Southeast, and CentralAsia. Although the people of these regions pursued their own interests asbest as they could, China was always the major power to be dealtwith.
Nonetheless,not all Chinese dynasties were created, and these three stood abovethe rest.
TheHan Dynasty ruled China for a solid four centuries, from 206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E.Although the preceding Qin Dynasty unified China, it was the Han Dynasty thatkept it together and developed the institutions that characterized most ofChinese history since.
TheHan Dynasty was able to maintain its bureaucracy and military through a moreefficient and thorough system of taxation than many contemporary empires.Additionally, to gain increased revenue, the Han created monopolies on iron andsalt. The salt monopoly has been a traditional source of revenue for Chinesestates since, one that apparently lasted until 2014.
TheHan’s largecoffers allowed it to expand China’s boundariesoutwards from its traditional heartland in the Yellow Rivervalley toward what is today southern China. Southern China would prove tobe very important to China in the future since it can support a largepopulation through the rice crop. Thanks in part to southern China’s wealth, China’s sociopolitical developmentwas usually greater than its neighbors, allowing China to easily incorporate ordefeat them.
Oneexception to this, however, was China’s perennial problem— namely, nomads to its north.During the Han, these were the Xiongnu. Constant harassment and raids by thesenomads necessitated the first construction of the Great Wall during the QinDynasty. During the Han, China attempted to outflank its enemies, which led toan expedition westward into today’s Xinjiang andCentral Asia.
This process is generally thought to have informed Chinafor the first time of other civilizations, a shocking development for a peoplewho until then believed themselves to be the only state society. Indeed, duringthis time China became aware of the civilizations of India, the Bactrians,the Sogdians, the Persians, and many more, This event isthought to have stimulated the development of trade routes that would later becalled the Silk Road.
Tocontrol trade routes and outflank their enemies, Chinese forces occupied muchof Xinjiang for many decades, allowing them to project their influence deep tothe west. Buddhism also entered China through this route at this time.
Afterthe Han Dynasty collapsed due to civil war, China entered a period of disunityuntil being reunited by the Sui Dynasty, which was subsequently succeeded bythe Tang Dynasty, which ruled China from 618-907 C.E. The Tang Dynasty was oneof China’smost cosmopolitan and urbane dynasties, opening China up to a period of foreigninfluences. The Tang Dynasty was also likely China’s largest and most powerful dynasty in history and is considered thegolden age of imperial China.
Thepopulation base of the Tang Dynasty was estimated to have been around 80million people, enabling it to completely dominate its neighbors. During thistime, China continued to expand northeast and south, incorporating much ofManchuria and Vietnam. It was also during this period that many other statesocieties developed under Chinese influence, including Korea, Japan, and Tibet.This period thus saw the establishment of thetributary state system to a greater extent than under the Han. Although theydid not rule Tibet, the Tangwere the first Chinese dynasty to exert influence over thepreviouslyforeboding plateau to the southeast.
TheTang military was successful because it had learned to fight like the steppenomads in many ways. The Tang were crazy about horses, which had previously been relativelyrare in China, and imported and breed many different breeds, negating the mainadvantage of the nomads to their north. The Tang also promoted and used talentedCentral Asian generals (a decision which would later come back to haunt them).
TheTang’sgrip on Xinjiang was firm during this time (the region had slipped from Chineserule after the Han) and garrisons were established in the “Western Region,” an area thatwas expanding rapidly to dominate all of Central Asia up to the border of thePersian Empire. Until the Arabs defeated the Chinese in the Battle of Talas(751), it looked as thoughCentral Asia’s future was with China. Numerous states near this region such asKabul and Kashmir became direct tributaries to China. The Chinese alsointervened in the affairs of their steppe neighbors and even in the northern heartland of India.
TheTang Dynasty never recovered from the An Lushan Rebellion, when An Lushan, a Tanggeneral of Central Asian origin, revolted and named himself emperor. Up to halfof the empire’s population is said to have perished in the resulting fighting,famines, and diseases in what has been called one of history’s largest man-made disasters.
TheTang Dynasty managed to limp on due to support from Tibetan and Turkishsoldiers but eventually collapsed.