Ask-a-Chinese: Things You Don’t Know About the Dynasties; #8 Will Shock You!

When watching movies and shows that feature vampires, like True Blood or even Twilight, there is often a nagging thought in my head: they are still written by humans. In my opinion, immortal beings who literally lived through centuries of human history, must have very different perspectives on “love triangles” or “political struggles”. And mere mortal human writers mostly do not capture that essence.

The same logic applies when discussing the cultural differences between West and East, or specifically, China. After all, this is a country/society that, despite frequent dynasties changes, still stick with the central imperial value system for thousands of years. It was kinda amazing that for millennia, the idea of democracy seemed to have never even popped up – or at least as far as I know. I’ll have to dig deeper about this.

Anyway, today, let’s take a look at the dynasties in Chinese history through a buzzfeed lens. If you are curious why I chose this topic… well, there is no particular reason. Why do you ask?

  1. The Origin Myth (tale) of Chinese People.

There is a phrase that the Chinese often used to refer to themselves: “The Descendants of Yan & Huang” (炎黄子孙). Yan & Huang are two ancient emperors in mythical legends. They were said to be enemies at first and fought hard against each other. Eventually Emperor Huang prevailed, and unified with Yan’s faction. Their people subsequently became the ancestors of the whole country. Of course, these are tales that have been passed along before written languages were invented, so most of these lores are unverifiable.

  1. The First Dynasties of the Land: Xia (夏 2070 BC – 1600 BC), Shang (商 1600 BC – 1046 BC) and Zhou (周 1046 BC – 771 BC, 770 BC – 221 BC).

The information I’m using is based upon the generally recognized Chinese records, some of which might be disputed in Western academic circles. Nevertheless, these are ancient, ancient history that some inaccuracies are inevitable. The 4 dynasties above (Zhou is split into Western and Eastern) are primal societies that have recorded history, but did not quite count as a country. The Zhou dynasties are particularly chaotic that it was really made up of 5-7 warring “nations”. The chaos became a battling ground not just for armies, but also for the legendary scholars and philosophers, such as Confucius, Menfucius, Laozi, Mozi and more. Looking back, it was incredible how these people born thousands years ago could impact numerous people’s lives throughout history.

  1. The First Dynasty that United the Land: Qin (秦 221 BC – 206 BC)


The Qin Dynasty did not last long, but it was the first one that officially ended the chaos and “unified” the land (as much as it could in the context of history). Qin Shi Huang (lit: the emperor that started Qin) was the leader of one of those nations at the end of Eastern Zhou. With power and luck, he conquered the others one by one and established the first “China”. Unfortunately, the dynasty did not survive his son, and soon came to an end after a series of “peasant uprisings”. One of the most prominent uprisings was led by Chen Sheng and Wu Guang (陈胜,吴广), who had a famous fighting call: “Are Lords and Kings truly determined at birth? (王侯将相,宁有种乎)”. Comes to think of it, that might be the most blatant declaration of equality in our history, which is kinda sad. Also, to be clear, they only said it because they wanted to be Kings too. So… yeah.

  1. The Longest Dynasty: Han (汉 202 BC – 9 AD & 25 AD – 220 AD)

Chen and Wu did not succeed though. At the end of Qin, the definitive battle for glory happened between two larger-than-life historical figures: Xiang Yu (项羽) and Liu Bang (刘邦).  Despite winning the rivalry and established the Han Dynasty, Liu Bang is somehow often described as a “weasel”, soft but intelligent; while Xiang Yu is often depicted as a tragic hero: strong, bold, brave, but ultimately came up short. Fun fact: Xiang Yu is the main character of the namesake Chinese opera heavily featured in Farewell, My Concubine (1993), one of the best contemporary Chinese films.

Putting aside a 17-year interruption by a usurper, the Han (Western and Eastern) dynasties lasted over 400 years, earning the title of the longest dynasty in Chinese history. The others that came closest, including Tang, Ming, Qing (唐,明,清), each only has around 200 years in the book. One of the ever-lasting impact of this dynasty is that, the majority ethnicity of the Chinese population today, is Han.

  1. The Female Emperor: Empress Wu Zetian, reign: 690 – 705 AD

Born 624 AD, Wu Zetian (武则天) of Tang Dynasty is the only “legitimate” Female Emperor in Chinese history. She was a concubine of the second Emperor of Tang, and later became the queen of his son. She worked her way slowly to the center of power, and eventually won the Game of Thrones at age 67. Technically, she ordered the name of the dynasty to be changed to Wu Zhou (武周), but modern history still consider her as part of Tang because her reign fit in the dynasty really well. She died at age 82, and became one of the most commonly portrayed historical characters in Chinese pop culture.

There are a handful of other women who had never officially clenched the title, but were still at the top of the food chain much like Cersei Lannister before Tommen’s death. The most famous one might be Empress Dowager Cixi of Qing, who had to suffer the consequence of the inevitable death of an aging era, but was also responsible for accelerating the process.

  1. The Dynasty that Controls the Most Land: Yuan (元 1271 – 1368)

The Yuan Dynasty is part of the Mongol Empire, which is better-known in the West. While the Empire was started by Genghis Khan, the Yuan Dynasty itself is only established by his great-grandson Kublai. At the time, the Empire has split into Yuan and three other khanates. So while Kublai technically holds the title of the Great Khan, it was only a nominal position.

Because of the complexity, there are some arguments about whether to recognize them as part of Chinese history. For what it’s worth, Kublai and his Yuan Dynasty officially announced themselves as the “successor” of the Han, Tang and Song and other Chinese eras. Of course, the part where they expanded all the way into Europe, has much less things to do with the Kublai clan. For comparison, the yellow region on the left is Qin, while the green one on the right is Yuan.


  1. The Last Dynasty of Imperial China: Qing (清 1636 – 1912)

Founded in 1636, and ruling China since 1644, the last dynasty in Imperial China had to experience the suffering as the fast developing western world barged in and wrecked all the Confucius illusion of harmony and order. As a matter of fact, Qing dynasty might be the only one that had never had an overtly incompetent or violent monarch throughout its entire run. Yet, the relentless tide of history was not kind to these mediocre rulers. If they were in a different time, Qing might have ruled a couple more hundred years.

Puyi, the subject of The Last Emperor, was forced to abdicate on February 12th, 1912. He was later reinstalled briefly a couple times, including becoming the Emperor of Manchukuo, a colony established by Japan in 1934.

  1. Final notes

The Imperials China might have been a thing in the past, but it is part of the Chinese cultural DNA, and it is never going to change. That is why we had Yuan Shikai, and Mao – at least that is my opinion.

Recently, a piece of old article circa 2013 has resurfaced. It was an oral recount from a secretary at a high level CCP meeting in the early 1980s. He described overhearing two senior party officials having a conversation.

One said: ”We need a system, a power to resist another Cultural Revolution.” The other one responded: “That’s why we need a sound legal system, to prevent all kinds of illegal activities. CR was a severe mistake, and we cannot allow it to happen again.” The first one asked: “The problem is, what if there is another ‘strongman’ like Chairman Mao? If he insists, what then? It is too difficult to resist.” The second one said: “That is why, from now on, we must insist that the Party must operate within the confinement of the Constitution and laws. This is a principle of utmost importance.”

The second person was Peng Zhen, the leading advocate for establishing a functional legal system in modern China, and one of the 8 most powerful senior party officials during Deng Xiaoping’s reign.

As for the first person, he was also a Party powerhouse. His name? Xi Zhongxuan.

If that family name (the first one) looks familiar to you… yeah, you guessed it. He is the father.