Early Yunnan History Dynasties Kuomintang
Republic of China Communist China China Today

Early Chinese History

After Kublai Khan's Mongols conquered the Kingdom of Nanchao, the history of Yunnan became part of overall Chinese history.

In order to understand Yunnan's history as part of Chinese history in general, it is necessary to look at Chinese history right from the beginning.

The Chinese claim that their history started with the Xia Dynasty over a period of roughly 500 years, from 2200 to 1700 BC . It was followed by the Shang Dynasty 1700 to 1100 BC. However, there are no written records, and few archaeological finds, verifying largely mythological claims about these two dynasties.

Much more detail is known about the third Chinese Dynasty, named Zhou, lasting until 221 BC. The Zhou Dynasty gave birth to the two most important Chinese philosophies / religions, Confucianism and TaoismConfucius lived from 551 to 479 BC, and he set the standards for Chinese social life at least until 1911 when the last Chinese emperor was toppled, and some argue, Confucius' teachings are the most important factor in the Chinese social order until today, despite mainland China being a communist state since 1949.

The founder of Taoism was the Chinese monk Laozi. While Confucianism isn't a religion in the way that it would deal with God or gods, and not even with the supernatural, Taoism is much concerned with mystical affairs.

While the Zhou Dynasty had been split into various regional centers, all the Chinese were, for the first time, united under the Qin Dynasty. The Qin Dynasty, however, lasted only for 14 years, the reign of emperor Qin Shihuang. While Qin Shihuang is on the record as a particularly cruel ruler, he is also credited with introducing an administrative system which remained in place for more than 2000 years. Principle features of this administrative system are a strong central rule and a system of provinces, governed by administrators appointed by the center. Even communist China still follows this model.

After Qin Shihuang's death, his son Liu became emperor. However, emperor Liuwas not a capable leader, and soon, an army, commanded by the commoner Liu Bang, marched into the imperial capital and toppled the Qin Dynasty.

Liu Bang declared himself the new emperor and thus founded the Han Dynasty. Liu Bang's offspring had more talent hanging onto power, and the Han Dynasty lasted for more than 400 years, from 206 BC to 220 AD. The Han Dynasty was never as strictly organized as the Qin Dynasty, and furthermore, it fell prone to corruption and general tendencies of disintegration. Consequently, after the last Han emperor abdicated in 220 AD, China first divided into three independent kingdoms, the Wei, the Wu, and Shu Han. The Three Kingdoms Period lasted until 589 AD. It wasn't really a period of just three kingdoms but an era of internal turmoil, with many short-lived dynasties and shifting centers of power.

China became united again, and ruled by a single dynasty, when the Western Wei general Sui conquered much of Southern China, but did so, not for the glory of his Western Wei Dynasty but to establish himself as the new emperor of China.

The Sui Dynasty lasted only until 618 AD but had a profound impact on the development of the Chinese society. Among the major achievements of the Sui Dynasty were a legal reform and the construction of the Grand Canal, providing a north-south waterway through China, while all major rivers flow in east-west direction.

No success at all, however, were the Sui Dynasty's three military excursions into the Korean peninsula, undertaken during the reign of Sui's son, Yangdi. When Yangdi's army was defeated for the third time, the emperor was assassinated by one of his advisors. Yangdi's general Li Yuan, based at the border garrison of Taiyuan, took the opportunity to grab the throne for himself, establishing the Tang Dynasty.

The Tang Dynasty lasted from 618 AD until 907 AD and is widely regarded as one of the most glorious times in Chinese history. Early during the Tang Dynasty, the Chinese administrative system was further developed. The provinces, governed by centrally appointed administrators, were further divided into some 300 prefectures and 1500 counties.

The later Tang Dynasty saw an exceptional blossoming of culture, arts, science and religion, as well as a previously unknown internationalization of China, with foreign merchants bringing in not only goods for trade but also new schools of thought.

Politically, however, the Tang Dynasty declined. In the west, Tibetan armies ransacked Tang garrisons, and in Yunnan, the Thai kingdom of Nanchao attempted expansion into Sichuan. With Tang Dynasty's political and military power eroded, the Chinese heartland became more and more ruled by bandit groups. Finally, in 907 AD, outlaws under the leadership of Huang Zhao stormed the Tang Dynasty's capital and thus brought it to an end.

During the following half century, local warlords fought against each other for dominance over territory, as well as extended political power. Though one would believe a country with a rich and long history would have an elaborate system of legitimization of political power, this matter has actually always been quite simple in China.

In medieval Europe, political power had to be legitimized by elaborate rules of descent, often also by an appointment through the religious hierarchy. To justly claim a throne, one had to be a heir to it. Otherwise, history would judge a ruler as usurper.

In China, as in many other Asian countries, legitimization of political power largely rested in holding it. A farmer, even a bandit, could assemble an army, conquer a capital, install himself as king or emperor, and expect his subjects to accept the fait accompli without discussing whether the new king or emperor had a just claim to sit on the throne.

In traditional Chinese thinking, if a new ruler succeeds to stay in power, this alone already proves that he has a so-called Mandate of Heaven to be the new emperor. If a ruler, or a dynasty, for that matter, is toppled, this proves that a ruler did not have a Mandate of Heaven, or that a dynasty's Mandate of Heaven has run out.

While the Chinese system sounds practical, one of the consequences has always been, that a large pool of individuals have always wanted to give it a try. As generals never had to worry whether the Chinese populace would accept them as legitimate rulers once they were in power, Chinese history is full of examples of generals toppling kings and emperors. Leaders of popular rebellions, too, were often not contented with fighting against social injustice but were, if their rebellions were successful, also tempted to aim for permanent political power, and to establish their own dynasties. Even foreign invaders could take over the Chinese court and establish themselves as emperors. Two of the major Chinese dynasties were not ethnically Chinese, the Mongol Yuan Dynasty and the Manchu Qing Dynasty.

After the demise of the Tang Dynasty in 907 AD, regional rulers, disloyal generals, high palace officials, and even leaders of bandit groups were engaged in more or less constant wars against each other.

In 959Zhao Kuangyin, the leader of the palace guards of a regional dynasty, grabed power from a 7-year-old head of state. In the following years, Zhao Kuangyin conquered regional kingdom after regional kingdom, and finally succeeded in uniting practically all of China under his rule. The resulting Song Dynasty is usually dated from the time, Zhao Kuangyin usurped power from his child king, 959 AD. It lasted until 1279, when Kublai Khan established the Yuan Dynasty.

The Song Dynasty brought to China what has been referred to as a "commercial revolution". One of the reasons has been the introduction of paper money, greatly facilitating trade. Cities grew enormously, to a larger size than what existed anywhere in Europe at the same time. The "commercial revolution" also extended to the countryside where new agricultural techniques were introduced.

Unlike most of the former Chinese dynasties, the Song Dynasty didn't die because it would have been sick inside but rather was killed by external forces over which it had no influence. The external forces were Mongol hordes, a scourge in most of Asia and Eastern Europe. The Mongols had been united in 1206 by Genghis Khan, and since then had been terrorizing neighboring nations. Genghis Khan had taken Beijing (then NOT the capital of China) in 1215 but his attention has then been diverted to other parts of his vast empire, a fact that gave the Song Dynasty a stay of execution for a few decades. It was Genghis Khan's grandson, Kublai Khan, who finally conquered all of China by 1279, including the Yunnan Thai kingdom of Nanchao. Though Kublai Khan's conquest of China was only accomplished in 1279, the Yuan Dynasty founded by Kublai Khan is commonly dated 1271 to 1368.

Under Kublai Khan the Chinese empire extended as far west as Moscow and Baghdad, too large an area to rule for an extended period of time without modern means of communication.

The Mongols restructured the administration of China by militarizing it. While before the Mongol onslaught, extremely well educated Mandarins had been the pillars of the Chinese administration, they were, under the Mongols, replaced by people who had risen through military ranks.

While the Mongol ruling class soon adopted all major elements of Chinese culture and became virtually indistinguishable from their Chinese subjects, a difference was made politically: all ethnic Mongols were exempted from paying taxes while the Chinese were taxed all the more heavily. This injustice, rather than the fact that the ruling dynasty was ethnically foreign, was probably the main reason why the Yuan Dynasty lasted for less than 100 years. The double tax system could be felt in every part of the country. Who actually was emperor, was of little interest to the average commoner. Actually, there are a number of Chinese proverbs implying that "the emperor is far away".

While it is a Chinese, originally Taoist, concept that a lasting dynasty can only be established if it has a "Mandate of Heaven", it was, and is, equally believed that when a particular dynasty's mandate has run out, it will succumb to a rebellion or a palace revolt. In Chinese traditional thinking, heaven withdraws a dynasty's mandate but the actual removal of an emperor is left to humans. The effect of this Taoist political philosophy is simple and practical: everybody may try his luck with a rebellion if he so wishes. If the rebellion fails, well, then those who made an attempt obviously did not have a "Mandate of Heaven" and were usually executed. If, however, a rebellion succeeded, this was taken as proof that a Mandate of Heaven actually existed. The point solely lay in succeeding. Everybody could become emperor so long as he could muster sufficient muscle.

Indeed, Chinese history is riddled with rebellions, most of which, of course, did not succeed in establishing a new dynasty on an all-Chinese, imperial level. Nevertheless, rebel groups have often ruled a limited area for up to a few decades, usually for as long as a charismatic leader was at the helm.

Often, successful leaders were ruthless to the extreme, purging potential competition within their own ranks without shedding tears, and disposing of enemies they got hold of in the most efficient way, by having them killed.

Practically all founders of new Chinese dynasties, whether they were peasants or bandits, disloyal generals or administrators, displayed a higher level of cruelty, and a higher level of disregard for their subjects' lives, than their heirs. And often, the final emperors of dynasties have been quite lenient, and rather been interested in the arts, or their concubines, than in oppressing their subjects.

These mechanisms of Chinese history have been evident until the most recent times. Mao Zedong has probably been influenced as much by reading, and taking to heart, Chinese history, as he has been by reading MarxEngels and Lenin. He likened himself to a founder of a new Chinese dynasty, as indeed, he was. Mao Zedong may have believed that the ruthlessness he displayed during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and his repeated purges of the Communist Party, were necessary not so much for ideological reasons but rather to stabilize the new dynasty, rule by himself, and later, the Communist Party. The economic failure of the Great Leap Forward, therefore, seemingly didn't matter much to him.

Parallels between the Communist revolution and Mao Zedong's ascend to power on the one side, and the founding of previous Chinese dynasties on the other side, are more numerous than one may first want to believe.

The whole concept of a rebellion by the lowest classes of society is more ingrained in Chinese social thinking than it is in European thinking. There are few incidents in European history in which a peasant rebellion, or even an outlaw rebellion, was the foundation of a lasting new dynasty. In such cases, in Europe, there had always been a lack of legitimacy, and after an historically short interlude, the old powers were restored.

In Chinese history, they never come back. Dynasties that have been disposed of were so for good. Leaders of lower-class rebellions could establish themselves as new emperors, and for as long as a dynasty remained in power, there newer was a legitimacy problem.

And there is another parallel between the Communist Revolution of the 20th century and peasant rebellions of earlier periods of time. They often followed a rather utopian ideology.

It was such a peasant rebellion in the middle of the 14th century that defeated the Yuan Dynasty. Leader of the rebellion was Zhu Yuanzhang, who had been an orphan adopted into a Buddhist temple before becoming a leader of a number of rebel groups which he united. He terminated the Yuan Dynasty in 1368 and made himself the new emperor, thus founding the Ming Dynasty.

When declaring himself emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang changed his name to Hongwu. Twice during his reign, he conducted extensive purges, especially among the educated. More than 10,000 men of high learning and their family members were executed.

In the early years of the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese system of double capitals was established, with Beijing in the north and Nanjing in the south. Actually, Beijing, literally translated, means nothing else but "Northern Capital", and Nanjing "Southern Capital"Jing being the Mandarin word for "capital", Bei for "north", and Nan for "south".

Excursions & tours in China

Asian Trails Travel Sites

Asia Tourist Information and Travel Guides: