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Keith Tse

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Historical cycles

In contrast to Western history, Chinese dynastic history consists of a series of dynasties where typically each dynasty is created by an unprecedented hero with outstanding qualities and ultimately destroyed by a spoilt rogue who cannot hold the empire together, which not only neatly symbolises the rise and fall of human fortune but also exemplifies the traditional wisdom that heroes are born from poverty whose struggling makes them who they are while vagabonds are usually spoilt brats nurtured in privilege, comfort and complacence. Furthermore, with the multitude and diversity of ethnic minorities in China, this cycle of rise and fall characterises the historical trajectories of several prominent ethnic groups, which may also be argued to apply to several western empires, namely the ancient Roman Empire which pillared Western civilisation for hundreds of years until its demise in 475 AD, or the Medieval Frankish kingdoms established by Charlemagne, both of which mark glories long past, especially in relation to their modern counterparts which are still important players in world politics but hardly the centre of international attention, despite several spectacular attempts to revive and elevate them (e.g. Napoleon I in France, Mussolini in Fascist Italy and Hitler in Nazi Germany). In the words of the great ancient Greek historian Herodotus, ‘cities that used to be big are now small and those that are now big used to be small .’ (Histories 1.5). This cannot be more true, coming from one of the wisest sage in Greek history.

In the second millenium AD, China went through a series of big dynastic changes which fundamentally changed the shape of the country. The Tang (唐) dynasty (7th-10th century AD) marked a period of unprecedented economic and social prosperity which gave rise to a boom in the major ethnicity, Han (漢). Thereafter, countless conflicts with other ethnic groups caused great upheaval and even dynastic changes where the Han lost their territories to other, more militant, ethnic groups. The Song (宋) dynasty in the Medieval Period (11th-13th century AD) re-established the dominian of Han, as the royal Zhao (趙) family whose forefathers spearheaded by the one and only martial artist Zhao Kangyin (趙康胤) quelled all the other ethnic groups and took control of the mainland. The ensuing Song dynasty, however, was marred by incessant tension with the ethnic groups of the north, namely the Liao (遼) dynasty ruled by the Qidan (契丹) tribes, the Jin (金) dynasty consisting of the Nuzhen (女真) ethnos who were to play an indispensable role at a later stage (more on this below), and the Mongolians (蒙古) who entered a golden era with the birth and rise of their greatest leader of all time, Genghis Khan (成吉思汗). In the struggle with the southern Han ethnicity, there were major tussles even among themselves: Liao was destroyed by Jin who went on to dominate the north of China and was later conquered by the Mongolians led by Genghis Khan. The Mongols, in addition to their Western conquests over Eurasia and Eastern Europe, turned their attention to the south and eventually conquered it, which led to the first non-Han dynasty in Chinese history, Yuan (元). This Mongolian dynasty lasted only one century (13th-14th century AD), as the Han resistance proved to be effective and the Han ethnicity re-established its dominion of the mainland with the founding of the Ming (明) dynasty (14th-17th century AD). This was a spectacular comeback led by the unique and infamous Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋) whose Macchiavellian political tactics consisted of many strokes of genius. Ming was not to last, however, as the problems surrounding their Han ancestors during the Song dynasty persisted, and this time their main foe in the north turned out to be the Nuzhen descendants of the vanquished Jin dynasty five centuries before who also made a remarkable comeback and eventually defeated the then weak Ming government in the 17th century AD. The Qing (清) dynasty, the second non-Han dynasty in Chinese history, was to be the last dynasty, as it disintegrated along with all the dynastic ideals in the XinHai revolution (辛亥革命) in 1911, after which China entered its modern era which continues to evolve till the present day.

These various dynastic transfers show clearly some fascinating trends in the rise and fall of the Han and other ethnic groups. Military prowess is a prerequisite for success, and it is even truly amazing how certain ethnic groups managed to come back stronger after being totally vanquished (the Han in the Ming dynasty, the Manchurians in the Qing dynasty). History proves that success is the consequence of failure, if and only if one takes it the right way.

#success #paradox #history #china #chinesehistory #military

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