Overview: Imperial China Managing Landscapes
Patterns and Pasts
China—that is, something like the current geographical expanse we call China—has been united under seven dynasties. First was Qin, which, though short-lived, united the country and gave it its name. These dynasties lasted an average of around 250 years, but the range was vast: from 14 years for Qin to more than 400 for Han. The modal value was around 300. Also, Han (twice) and Tang (once) were interrupted by coups that transiently brought empresses or their proteges to power, followed by countercoups that restored the dynasty. Hans coups, successful countercoups, and 400-year reign are all very anomalous in world history and deserve more study than they have received.
Coups by one branch of the imperial family against another were occasional, with the victory of the Yongle Emperor of Ming in 1402 being the major one in terms of effecting major change. One rebellion—An Lushans— briefly toppled a dynasty but was quickly suppressed; the violent rebellion of the Three Feudatories almost brought down Qing, and later the Taipings and many other rebels came even closer in the 1800s, leading to a genuine reinvention of Qing in the Tongzhi Restoration of 1862. Averaging these deadly crises indicates that coups occurred about every 75 years, but this number ignores many lesser crises that were serious but not regime-threatening.
Again, the range is dramatic: from Qins 14 years to a full 242 years for Ming after Yongles coup.
Dynasties failed when they lost the Mandate of Heaven: that is, when they misgoverned so badly that ordinary environmental fluctuations turned into disasters, ordinary bandit activity grew into mass rebellions, inevitable but manageable corruption turned into free-for-all, and ineptness of a particular emperor or minister swelled into a court of incompetents.
Western textbooks are fond of treating the Mandate of Heaven as typical Oriental superstition and mysticism, but no Chinese histories seem to have labored under such illusions. Western studies of Chinese history have been seriously handicapped by the irrepressible tendency of Westerners to see the Chinese as lost in obscurantism. Not often do Westerners realize that the Mandate of Heaven might be a perfectly hard-headed concept, if extended a bit too far into religious realms.
Political theorists now often hold that governments depend on perceived legitimacy, which in turn depends on the government doing something remotely like its job. It also depends on the government manipulating symbols of legitimacy: the flag, the military parades, and such. Religion, be it worshiping at the altars of earth and heaven or swearing on the Bible, is always bent to the service of legitimizing rule—a very difficult rhetorical trick when the religion is Daoism or Christianity!
The Chinese tried to shore up their legitimacy by saying the emperor was divine; Western states used to speak similarly of the divine right of kings but have since come to speak of democracy and the peoples choice instead. At least in the contemporary United States, where corporate money has taken over politics, democracy has become as real as the divinity of Chinese emperors. Claiming divinity or free democracy serves the same function: shoring up legitimacy through dishonesty.
One might think of national politics as a pressure cooker. There is always steam building up in the form of power-hungry rebels waiting in the wings. They fail to achieve their goals as long as the government can keep the lid tight. The lid is "legitimacy" and some enforcement capacity. With those, even if the government is singularly inept, people stay loyal.
The seventy-five-year cycle of coups, however loosely approximated, reminds us of the ideas of the great fourteenth-century Tunisian social scientist Ibn Khaldun (1958). He postulated hundred-year cycles. A government would start with a band of brave, united individuals, typically "barbarians," or, as we would call them in modern jargon, semiperipheral marcher polities (E. Anderson and Chase-Dunn 2005). They were united by 'asabiyah: solidarity, loyalty, and mutual aid, created in battle and in tribal life and reinforced by successful looting and sharing of the loot. These persons would conquer the empire and run it well as long as they were united by asabiyah. The next generation would reach heights of power and glory but would begin to lose the 'asabiyah as power blocs began to emerge and compete, paying more attention to their own benefit than to that of the nation. The third generation would succumb to luxury and selfishness. In the meantime, population would grow and land would become scarce accordingly, causing more and more pressure on the regime. By the end of the third or fourth generation, people would be rebellious because of limited land and opportunities; selfish power blocs would dominate the government; and the rulers would be lost in luxury and selfishness, having lost most of their old tradition of solidarity.
This pattern fits perfectly with Chinese experience and traditional Chinese historical theory. Zhou, Qin, Yuan, and Qing were established by states that could be described (perhaps with some doubt in the early cases) as semi-peripheral marcher states. The major dynasties that held only north China but not the south—Wei, Liang, and Jin—were all semiperipheral marcher states when they conquered the north. The first emperors of Sui and Tang were generals from the northwest frontier and were both probably part Turkic, which puts them in a somewhat semiperipheral situation.
On the other hand, almost all the other regime changes were the result of coups by imperial or military leaders. Han, Sui, Tang, and Song were all started by leading generals. So were most of the short-lived dynasties and kingdoms of the periods of disunion. Two coups were staged by empresses, and two others were led by empress dowagers (Wang Mangs and the Tongzhi Restoration). The only genuine popular rebellion that toppled a dynasty was Zhu Yuangzhangs (Ming), and the only other one that came even close was the Taiping. So China suffered slow rotation at the top—it was nothing like the revolving-door coups of old-time Latin America, but still a form of change that produced little change.
Conspicuously absent from Chinese history are cases of government change that resulted from group rivalry. The West was constantly torn by religious wars, which ruined many a state, especially in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Such things were almost unheard of in China, though some major rebellions—from the Yellow Turbans to the Taipings— were millenarian. Meltdowns due to ethnic hate, as in Hitlers Germany and 1990s USSR and Yugoslavia, were also alien to Chinese tradition, though, again, not totally unknown; ethnic bias was certainly a factor in the fall of
Yuan and the fall of Qing. Ethnic rivalry, repression, displacement, and killing were routine in imperial times but never led to the sort of breakup that faced the USSR and Yugoslavia—if only because Chinas ethnic minorities were too few to be successful against the state. Instead, when China did collapse during interregnal periods, the cleavage was along regional lines. Warlords took over economic macroregions, as famously argued by G. William Skinner many years ago (1977, 2001).
It appears, but is far from certain, that the first rulers of Qin and Sui were so autocratic and yet so poor at consolidating a regime that their descendants lost control long before an Ibn Khaldun cycle could finish. Yuan lasted one Ibn Khaldun cycle. Tang had regular crises at Ibn Khaldun intervals: the Empress Wu "catastrophe," An Lushans rebellion, and Huang Chaos rebellion. Song faced something similar in duration if not in causation: the progressive losses to Liang, Jin, and finally the Mongols. Qing, similarly, was shaken by the rebellion of the Three Feudatories, the crazy last decades of the Qianlong emperor (from the "literary inquisition" to He Shens power grab), and the rebellions that climaxed in the Taiping devastation. Ming has been noted above.
This leaves only Han as truly anomalous and requiring explanation. At present I have none. Emperor Wens countercoup and consolidation in the second century ВСЕ seems to have been so brilliantly done that the empire lasted without too much damage. Wen managed the trick described by old-time Western historians as "the iron hand in the velvet glove"—or possibly the velvet hand in the iron glove. He and his successors consolidated autocratic rule based on Legalist principles but did so much for agriculture and the ordinary people, and propagated so many peaceful and beneficial ideas and ideologies, that they won respect such as few dynasties have enjoyed. Emperor Wu undid much of this, but the empire survived until Wang Mangs coup (9 CE). The restoration after that coup seems to have sobered everyone— disruption and violence were too obviously the result of trouble. Yet a succession of weak emperors in the second century CE should have brought down the dynasty, but as in late Ming, they did not. More research is needed to understand why.