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Chinese Imperial Dynasties

The Qin Dynasty was the first to unify China, setting the stage for the Han Dynasty's golden age. After a period of fragmentation, the Sui Dynasty reunified the country, leading to another golden age under the Tang and Song Dynasties. The Mongols established the Yuan Dynasty, which was eventually replaced by the Ming Dynasty. The final imperial dynasty, the Qing, was overthrown in the early 20th century.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] In other videos we talk about some of the truly ancient Chinese dynasties, the Shang Dynasty, the Zhou Dynasty, and as we get to the end of the Zhou Dynasty, China falls into chaos in the Warring States Period, which is a really tough time for China. But the silver lining is it's also the time that you have all these schools of thought, the Hundred Schools of Thought, of which Confucianism and Daoism and Legalism and all of these other schools of thought begin to emerge. But what we're really going to focus on in this video is the beginning of truly imperial China under the Qin Dynasty from which China gets its name. So here we are in the third century B.C.E. and you have your first true emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, and the dynasty that he sets up is known as the Qin Dynasty which will be shortly lived but it's known as the first dynasty to truly unify China. This is where we believe the word China actually comes from, from the Qin Dynasty. The dynasty is known for its fairly harsh, centralized rule motivated over the foundation on legalism. In terms of relics that we have from that period, you might have heard of the Terra Cotta Army which was buried along with Qin Shi Huang's grave. Now the Qin Dynasty is most known for ending the Warring States Period and unifying China, and really laying the foundation for the Golden Age of China that will happen in the Han Dynasty. The Han Dynasty lasts from roughly 200 B.C.E. to a little after 200 C.E. And in my head I think of it as bit of a contemporary as the Roman Empire. The 200 years of the Western Han Dynasty correspond roughly to the Roman Republic, and as we get to the Eastern Han Dynasty, that corresponds to really the heyday of the Roman Empire. And it's also a golden age of China, a time where science and the arts, and especially Confucianism begins to really take hold in China, becomes officially part of the civil service, part of the bureaucracy. The Han Dynasty was so successful at unifying China culturally and linguistically, that today, 92% of Chinese identify themselves as ethnically Han. So sometimes you'll hear the word Han referring to the Han Dynasty, and sometimes it will be referring to the Han ethnic group, which really derives from the notion of the unification under the Han Dynasty. Now the Han Dynasty, as we see here, ends at the beginning of the third century in the Common Era, and then China gets fragmented again, and it gets split into multiple dynasties. This roughly 360 years that I don't have marked on my timeline, it's not that nothing was happening in China, in fact, a lot was, but China was not unified. To get a sense of that, here is China during the Three Kingdoms Period in the third century, shortly after the fall of the Han Dynasty. You see the Jin Dynasty depicted here in the fourth century, still part of what's often known as the Six Dynasties Period, this roughly 360 years of a fragmented China. And then you see this North and South Dynasty Period here in the sixth century. And eventually, China is reunified, and that happens under the Sui. It is unified under Emperor Wen of Sui for whom the dynasty is known, and similar to the Qin, what the Sui are most known for is taking this chaotic period and finally unifying China. And the Sui are ethnically Han, and they lay the foundation for another golden age of China under the Tang and the Sung Dynasties. The Tang Dynasty depicted here, it rivals the Han as a golden age of China. It's a time where the arts, the sciences really come about. One interesting thing about this Six Dynasties Period that we talk about, which is a chaotic time, it is a time that Buddhism starts to come into China from central Asia, originally from India, and by the Sui and the Tang, it really takes hold. Now one of the most important innovations that comes from Tang China is the notion of block printing. What you see depicted here is one of the first books ever printed, the Diamond Sutra, during the Tang Dynasty. Now, after the Tang falls in 907, you have, on a historical time scale, a relatively brief period of chaos again. About 50, I guess exactly 53 years where you get this Five Dynasties and 10 Kingdoms Period, but then China gets reunified under the Song Dynasty. And the Song Dynasty is able to, on some level, pick up where the Tang Dynasty left off. One thing that happens as we get into the late Tang Dynasty, is that there's push-back against Buddhism that we talk about in other videos, and you see Neo-Confucianism begin to take hold and it really takes hold under the Song Dynasty that we talk about in other videos. The Song Dynasty is also known as a time of really putting a lot of energy into the civil service and the bureaucracy, and it really being very meritocratic, based on some of these Neo-Confucian ideals. It's also a time of significant technological innovation. The compass, which has use as early as the Han Dynasty, but it really gets into its fairly evolved or modern form, especially for maritime use, during the Song Dynasty. The notion of a Chinese junk boat also gets into its evolved form during the Song Dynasty. Some of the really far-reaching innovations from this Dynasty include building on the Tang use of block printing, but thinking about movable type, which makes printing far more practical. And maybe the biggest single innovation that changed the world, for better or worse, was the use of gunpowder, which there's some use in the late Tang, but it really starts to get perfected during the Song Dynasty. The Song Dynasty is eventually overthrown in the 13th century by the Mongols. They are able to establish the Yuan Dynasty with Kublai Khan being the first emperor of it, grandson of Genghis, or Jen-gees Khan. They are eventually overthrown in the 14th century by the Ming Dynasty. The Ming Dynasty is once again ethnically Han, and some of the most famous attractions that are associated with China today really came about from the Ming Dynasty. This is the Forbidden Palace, the imperial residence during the Ming and Qing Dynasties in Beijing. This is the Great Wall of China. And even though the history of the Great Wall of China goes a good ways back, even to the Zhou and Warring States Periods, much of what you now see as the Great Wall, a lot of this brick work, was built during the Ming Dynasty. And then the last true Dynasty of China is the Qing. The Qing Dynasty is again, to some degree, foreign rule. It's ruled by the Manchus who come from Manchuria, which is this region right over here, and they're eventually able to overwhelm the Ming Dynasty, and ruled China all the way until the early 20th century when the Republic of China is able to overthrow them.