The Middle Kingdom Rises
China – Xia to Qin to Han Dynasties – 2200 BC > 220 AD
If you stroll through the non-fiction section of any book store, it’s pretty clear that China is making a lot of people nervous. In 2012 alone, authors spewed out books titled Winner Take All, Is China Buying the World, China Versus the West, China Fast Forward, When China Rules the World, and Death by China.
The world is worried. Well, maybe not the world - maybe just Europe and the US. And who can blame them? For the past three centuries, the world was run by European powers. They had the most deadly weapons, the most innovative scientists and the most flourishing economies. All wealth flowed through Western hands and no one could imagine a day when a beast from the east would threaten their supremacy.
Fast forward to 2013. China has close to 1.4 billion people - almost a quarter of the planet’s population. They are a nuclear power, the greatest exporter of goods on earth (think Made in China) and they even talk of sending a man to Mars. China has jumped up the list of most productive countries in the world, currently sitting at #2 on the GDP list and quite possibly they will pass America by 2016.
And they show no signs of fading. For many this is hard to fathom. China? Where did they come from? Weren’t they just a generation ago every parent’s foolproof go-to country for stirring guilt around the dinner table? How many of us grew up with a mom who reminded us that “children were starving to death in China,” hoping that allusion might shame us into finishing our peas and carrots?
But today’s China isn’t your parents’ China. Gone are those 20th century decades of despair and suffering that culminated in Mao’s ill-concocted Great Leap Forward that caused almost 40 million peasant deaths. Those wretched years were merely a blip in China’s story, for China is a nation that over the course of human history has almost always been the most prosperous, most advanced region on the planet. Whether you checked in 2000 years ago, or 1500 years ago, or 1000 years ago or even 500 years ago, you’d almost immediately notice, like Marco Polo did in 1234, that China was “a civilization with which no other peoples could ever hope to compare.”
Most of this success can be attributed to the fact that since about 1000 BC, except for just a few periods of factional rule, China has been united under one central power. No other place on the planet can claim this degree of order for so long a time. Now compare China to Europe. Sure Europe’s a continent, but it’s also about the same size as China. And except for a couple hundred years where the Romans spread their empire from the boot of Italy to the isles of Britain, Europe has always been divided into dozens, if not hundreds, of individual kingdoms, each involved in a seemingly life or death struggle with their neighbors to maintain supremacy. Even today there are 44 independent countries in Europe. But there is only one China.
It is this uniformity that made advancement and progress possible. China’s history is told through the stories of dynasties. One potent family would rise, take over the state, unify the countryside and maintain order for generations. Inevitably, this family’s fortune would fade, their leaders would prove pathetic and the peasants’ lives would regress into misery and malnourishment. A new family would emerge, supplant the waning regime and launch a new age. Each family remained sovereign as long it maintained the “Mandate of Heaven,” in other words, as long as heaven favored the conduct of each ruler. Should rulers become corrupt, brutal, inept, gluttonous or neglectful of their people, heaven would remove its support, paving the way for peasant revolts and rivals to the throne.
In this manner, China has been ruled by a series of families – ten to be exact. A few years back, in a classroom far, far away, a clever World History teacher devised a little trick for his students to remember the Chinese dynasties – named appropriately “The Dynasty Song.” So if ever you want to impress your friends at holiday parties, just sing this little diddy to the tune of Frère Jacque (or “Where is Thumbkin?”), and you’ll have the dynasties memorized in no time. If you’re a bit shy about your singing chops, merely head to Youtube and type in “Chinese Dynasty Song” and you’re bound to find some group of kids who threw together a little video for some much-needed extra credit. And here’s the song:
Zhou (Joe), Qin (chin), Han
Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han
Sui (sway), Tang, Song
Sui, Tang, Song
Yuan, Ming, Qing (ching), Republic
Yuan, Ming, Qing, Republic
Not exactly the song you sang as a babykins with your mom before going sleepy, nigh-nigh, but oddly appealing lessthenone.
Let’s look at the first dynasty – the Xia (pronounced “see ah”) Dynasty. But wait a second, that little jingle above implied that the Shang was the first. Historians aren’t so sure. For centuries, historians just thought the Xia Dynasty was nothing more than a quaint little Chinese creation myth. It told the story of a man named Yu who saved the world from a terrible flood and then united the clans. Until about 1970, most legitimate historians dismissed this story as fable, but after a few archaeological digs unearthed tombs, cities and a ton of clay pots dating back to 2200 BC, it’s becoming more apparent that...