Historical Kunming Part 3: Chinese dynasties

So…  my intent for this week’s post on the history of Kunming was to talk about the dawn of Kunming: the start of its transformation from one of a group of Bronze Age villages on the shores of Lake Dian into a genuine city, the capital of a rebel general cut off from his homeland.

But as I got deeper and deeper into this story, it became more and more clear that I was telling a story with no anchors, cast adrift in a series of names and places, kingdoms and dynasties, that would mean nothing to someone who had not already studied at least some Chinese history.   So before I tell the story of the dawn of Kunming, I would like to give you the basic framework by which the Chinese themselves account their history: the tale of dynasties.

But before simply listing them out, it is worth asking: what exactly makes a dynasty anyway.  Unlike periods of British or Egyptian history (amongst others) that use the same term, a Chinese dynasty does not imply rule by a single family of rulers.  Instead, it is related to a uniquely Chinese concept:  天命  (Tiānmìng), referred to in English as The Mandate of Heaven.  So what exactly is The Mandate of Heaven?  How does it work?

When we are taught western history, we learn that the medieval basis for royal legitimacy was founded on a notion called the Divine Right of Kings.  This asserts that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving his right to rule directly from the will of God. The king is thus not subject to the will of his people, the aristocracy, or any other estate of the realm.  Over time, and influenced by the downfall of a number of tyrants in bloody civil wars, a new basis for legitimacy emerged in the west: the consent of the governed. (Most notably espoused by John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government).

The Mandate of Heaven is far older than either of the western bases for political legitimacy, and incorporates elements of both.  Similar to the Divine Right of Kings, the Mandate of Heaven asserts that heaven (天 – Tiān) blesses the authority of a just ruler, and gives to him the authority to govern.     But in other ways, the Mandate of Heaven more closely resembles Locke: If a ruler becomes despotic or tyrannical, Heaven withdraws its mandate and that ruler is overthrown.  Therefore, the successful overthrow of a ruler is viewed as an indication that the ruler has lost the Mandate of Heaven, and provides a ready (if post-hoc) justification for people to rise up against a ruler who treats his subjects poorly.

A Chinese dynasty, then, is a period of time in which the Mandate of Heaven was successfully held by a single group, clan, or in two cases, foreign powers.  I have made below a list of the generally acknowledged ones, with one key disclaimer:  The changeover from one dynasty to another was never a planned, orderly thing, and usually happened over a period of several years or even decades.  Thus, you are guaranteed to find disagreement about almost every one of the dates I give here. I make no claim that the ones I give here are authoritative or even a prevailing view, but they do give a good basic idea of when these things happened.

So with no further ado, here for your reference is a mildly annotated list of the main Chinese dynasties.  As the purpose of this timeline is to give context rather than comprehensive taxonomy, there are other smaller dynasties between these that I have omitted.





2070 BC

1600 BC

Since its beginnings predate the establishment of written history in China, the Xia dynasty’s origins can only be speculated at from archaeological findings, and from Shang dynasty records.

1600 BC

1029 BC

Began when Cheng Tang overthrew the last Xia ruler, Jie, at the Battle of Mingtao.

1029 BC

476 BC

Divided into Eastern and Western dynasties, the traditional form of Chinese writing first appeared during this period.
Warring States Period

475 BC

221 BC

A period of civil war, in which no one group held the Mandate of Heaven.  The famous military treatise by General Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”, was written during this period.

221 BC

206 BC

Despite being short (only 2 rulers), the Qin dynasty had a profound impact on Chinese history.  The Qin is the first Imperial dynasty; its founder Qin Shihuang was the first emperor of China, and also started the building of the Great Wall.

206 BC


Considered to be a golden age of Chinese civilization.  The main ethnic majority in China still call themselves Han, and the Chinese written language is still called Han Characters.
Six Dynasties Period



Another period of civil war between dynasties. The great Chinese literary classic, The Three Kingdoms, was written about this period.  Due to the pervasive influence of this Ming-era romantic novel, there are many books, movies, poems, and other works of art set during this period.



Like the Qin dynasty, Sui rule was ruthless and tyrannical, and in similar fashion it quickly lost the Mandate of Heaven.



Another golden age of culture and learning.  The system of imperial examinations for government positions, largely in place to this day, was established at this time.



This period was marked by significant advances in both gunpowder and rice cultivation, but not enough so to withstand the invading Mongols.
Yuan (Mongolian)



China was conquered by Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan. But despite their military prowess, the Mongolians were largely assimilated by Chinese culture and civilization.  Marco Polo’s sojourn in China happens during this time.



Chu Yuan-chang removed the Mongols from the throne, undertook great infrastructure projects, and started projecting Chinese power abroad.  The Great Wall reached its current form, and the Treasure Fleet made contact with European colonial powers.
Qing (Manchurian)



Ming generals invite the Manchurians into China to help end a civil war; after doing so, they take China for themselves and rule for almost 300 years.  But as with the Mongols, the Manchurians quickly assimilated Chinese culture, and the basic form of local  government and civil service was as in earlier dynasties.
Republic of China



Though not a monarchy, the Republic is held by many to be a dynasty in that it enjoyed the Mandate of Heaven for longer that either the Qin or Sui dynasties.
People’s Republic of China



As with many dynasties before it, the Republic collapsed through corruption and misrule, and the Mandate of Heaven passed to its current holders, the Chinese Communist Party.

Sources: Most of this comes from memory; the dates are from Wikipedia.

Food of Yunnan 2: 宜良烤鴨 – Yiliang Roast Duck

Under the old British Colonial system for spelling Chinese words with roman characters, called the Wade-Giles system, the capital of China,  北京  (literally “northern capital”) was called Peking.  In 1958 the Chinese government published their own official romanization scheme, called Pinyin.  In Pinyin,  北京  romanizes to Beijing, and after the US normalized relations with China in 1979, Pinyin became the international standard and English publications around the world started calling the Chinese capital Beijing instead of Peking.

But though the capital is now referred to universally as Beijing, the old usage of Peking still survives in a few places.  One is in the name of China’s top university, which is still referred to as Peking University – don’t ask why; a good friend of the family got her degree there and even she doesn’t know.  Another such linguistic remnant is that culinary marvel: Peking Duck.  Most of you will at some point have eaten or at least heard of it: a whole duck, slow-roasted for over 24 hours in a special oven through a special and involved process (see the Wikipedia article), served with thin pancakes, green onions, and hoisin sauce.

Peking duck has been around a long time – the first known mention of it was in a cookbook published in the year 1330.  And in 1901, during the closing years of the Qing dynasty, a Yunnanese restauranteur named Zhang Wen went to Beijing to study cookery there, most notably the art of preparing Peking Duck.  When he returned to his home town of Yiliang, he opened a restaurant called Zhibin Garden at the local train station.  But restauranteur Zhang was not content to merely reproduce the Beijing Duck of the capital; he wanted to localize it and make it something unique to the region.

Zhang used a mud oven instead of a brick oven, honey instead of malt syrup for the glaze, and most distinctively pine branches and needles instead of the Gaoliang hardwood normally used for Peking duck.  The end result is now called Yiliang Duck and has become a Yunnanese speciality.  One I certainly intend to try when we arrive.


History of Yiliang Duck: China Daily and welcomechinese.com
Photos: Yunnan Tourism Administration and the Ming’s Footprints travel blog


Meeting the team!

Well, the project has become that much more real.  This week, I got the chance to meet the other members of my China deployment team, otherwise known as Team China 18, for the first time.  It was strange — from everything I heard and read about the IBM Corporate Service Corps, I went into this teleconference already expecting everyone to be articulate, passionate, and as excited about this endeavor as I am.  But knowing it and feeling it first hand, even over the phone, are entirely different, and I have to say I was really impressed by the people I will soon be working with.

As our first group assignment, we had put together slide pack to introduce ourselves, both to our prospective clients and to one another.  To share this slide pack with you, I have created a permanent page on the blog — see About Team China 18 in the menu bar above.  Head on over and meet the team!  You’ll be hearing a lot more about them, and with any luck you may be hearing from them directly, in the weeks and months to come.

Caroline’s questions…

The highly successful blogger Ruth Dela Cruz, herself an IBM Corporate Service Corps alumna, gave me advice early on that to hold people’s interest I needed to season my writing liberally with photos and graphics,  and since following her advice my readership has jumped up substantially. This post, however, will have to be an all-text post, so my apologies to Ruth and the rest of you….

Caroline Ashworth is a good friend of the family who has been following this blog since I started it.  Yesterday on Facebook she sent me the following post:

I don’t understand why your assignment location is so far away and others as well.

Do IBM consider local need or the environment in which those selected to participate in this programme live and work?  The realities of each individual’s daily need?

What about philanthropy?

Is this project an act of philanthropy? Or do the destinations selected pose viable for future IBM revenue?

Sorry but I have been reading your blogs and am not sure I have captured the essence of purpose of all this.

Not to say that I haven’t found you blogs very interesting though.

It feels like they set the criteria for selection so high that as an outsider it looks like and internal award ceremony for the Victoria Cross.

What are the proposed outcomes of it and objectives?

Just trying to understand it better that’s all.

Caroline runs a local organization called Bringing Communities Together,  which develops and delivers short tailor made learning programs, activities and events that benefit families and the wider community. So she is no stranger to community support work , and she raises some good questions and some fair challenges. I’d like to respond to them here.  Many of these questions are connected, and I see three main themes here:

  • What is the goal? Is the IBM Corporate Service Corps philanthropy or strategic investment?
  • How does IBM decide which communities to invest in?  I also think there is an implied challenge here: why isn’t IBM investing locally instead of to the far-flung corners of the world?
  • Within each community, how does it decide which businesses/schools/organizations to work with?
  • Why does IBM set the barriers of participation so high?

What is the goal? Is the IBM Corporate Service Corps philanthropy or strategic investment?

IBM is a public corporation, owned by its individual shareholders.  These are people like you and me.  In fact they are you and me.  I own IBM stock, and any of you around the world whose retirement savings are invested in any major mutual fund are also likely to be part owners of IBM.  We invest money in IBM, and IBM agrees to do their best to give us a return on our investment, either through dividends or appreciation in the stock price.  If an IBM officer or employee takes our money and uses it for another purpose (e.g. sending the kids to university, taking a holiday in Tahiti, or remodeling a backyard tennis court), there is a word for that: embezzlement.  Which is just a fancy word for theft.  Even if this embezzler is a higher-minded individual and uses the money to start a center for the homeless instead of lining their duck pond, the principle is still the same (see my post Corporate Philanthropy: A Walk on the Dark Side for more on this topic)

The only defensible way that a publicly held corporation can engage in any kind of philanthropy is by clearly demonstrating that doing so will have a direct impact on the return to its shareholders.  This return does not have to be monetary: the highly successful initiative to get institutional investors to divest stock of any company doing business with the apartheid regime of South Africa is a great example of this.  But nevertheless, a company’s philanthropic investments have to be clearly tied to either principles or objectives that shareholders approve of.

So the answer to this first question is that the IBM Corporate Service Corps is philanthropic in that it gives away free services that IBM can and does otherwise charge for, to communities and organizations that could otherwise perform them.  But the CSC is by no means a random act of kindness; it is a strategic investment that IBM hopes to benefit directly from in several ways:

  • By targeting communities and organizations that have the potential to grow into paying IBM clients, and directly helping them succeed in that growth
  • To contribute directly to IBM’s good reputation and brand awareness, both of which are clear differentiators from its main competitors
  • To enhance the global effectiveness of its employees by giving them hands-on experience in radically different cultures and operating models

How does IBM decide which communities to invest in?  I also think there is an implied challenge here: why isn’t IBM investing locally instead of to the far-flung corners of the world?

Let me answer the challenge first, because it is an important one.  IBM does act locally.  Corporate responsibility is a good example of the non-monetary returns that many of today’s shareholders demand on their investments.  IBM invests heavily in local concerns, particularly in the areas of education and the environment.  In fact, with specific regard to you and your organization Caroline, there is a program called On-Demand Community that lets me directly nominate individual community organizations for small grants in exchange for a commitment of volunteer service; let’s talk about how I might be able to do something for Bringing Communities Together next year.

The other thing to remember is that IBM is a global company with a direct presence in 170 countries.  So in a very real sense, every CSC deployment is local.  My deployment in China, the teams currently deployed in Ghana and Kazakhstan, previous CSC deployments to dozens of other countries, all of these are backed by local IBM offices in those places.  Those local offices are led by local community members, and get the credit for bringing in teams of international

So why don’t the local offices mobilize local IBM employees to work directly in their own communities?  Surely that would be far cheaper, and it would allow those precious relationships to be built by the IBM’ers most directly placed to capitalize on them.  Well, I do not run the CSC, nor am I the one deciding its investment strategy, but I would speculate that this decision was taken for two reasons:

  • Distribution of skills.  IBM has many different product offerings: hardware, software, consulting, research, even advertising (I believe IBM Interactive is the fifth largest online advertising agency).  These capabilities are not evenly distributed across IBM offices around the world.  In my own specialty, CRM, such skills are decidedly localized.  The Corporate Service Corps provides an infrastructure for getting individual skill sets where they are needed the most.
  • Investment in cultural awareness and global capability.  IBM needs leaders who can design, deliver, and operate large, geographically distributed solutions.  By sending prospective leaders to areas far outside their normal operating environment, IBM is building this capability as directly as possible.

Within those communities, how does it decide which businesses/schools/organizations to work with? 

This sort of assessment is not within IBM’s core competency.  And while IBM has offices in most of the regions the CSC deploys into, these offices do not usually have the sort of logistics expertise to successfully manage the sort of large multinational deployments that the CSC requires.  So to help with this aspect of the operation, IBM partners with major NGO’s who do have their core competency in these areas.  The NGO that I will be working with in my deployment is called the Digital Opportunity Trust (see my previous blog post Meet the Digital Opportunity Trust for more about them).

Why does IBM set the barriers of participation so high?

Well, with regards to Caroline’s initial query, I think that obtaining a Victoria Cross is still quite a bit more difficult :-)  Let’s put some numbers to things here.  To be eligible for the CSC you have to have been within the top 25% of performers worldwide for at least two of the past three years.  IBM employs about 420,000 people, so if you assume most people’s performance ratings are relatively stable then there will be about 100,000 people each year that are potentially eligible to participate.  IBM has budgeted around $50M for the CSC as a whole, which allows for several hundred people to be deployed each year.  So the bar is not set impossibly high, but selection is still highly competitive.

How does IBM decide who to select? As I referred to above, IBM considers the Corporate Service Corps to be first and foremost a leadership program.  In this regard it has two aims:

  • To makes its leaders better prepared for true global operations
  • To retain those top performers and keep them from moving to IBM’s competitors

The first goal is hard to measure, since there is no effective way of comparing the results to a control group.  The second goal is much simpler to measure and the results speak for themselves…

Of the roughly 2,000 people who have successfully completed a CSC deployment since the program began in 2008, not a single one has left IBM.

A hint of what lies ahead… #teamchina18

Yesterday we received the first indication of what challenges lie ahead.  Digital Opportunity Trust, our NGO facilitator, sent us the following little tidbit of information

The following table presents several options for continued high impact CSC program opportunities in China building on the past successful CSC Program implementations of DOT with IBM in China during 2009 – 2011. The final scope of work will be decided upon discussion with local partners and stakeholders.

Supporting Local Industrial Cluster Development Helping local Hi-Tech industry cluster in guiding local private economy, especially SMEs engaged in ICT, service outsourcing, bio-tech and modern processing/manufacturing to move toward a good and healthy development Local Hi-Tech Industrial Parks
SMEs Transformation and Innovation Helping local government in building a smarter strategy in upgrading competitiveness and international business cooperation. Using IT technology in creating a worldwide network Local commercial bureau
Supporting Local NGO/Industrial Ass. Development Supporting Youth/Women  entrepreneurs development Youth League/Woman entrepreneurs association, etc.
Community Service Interacting with rural schools by involving IBM China’s ODC programs Education Organization, selecting 1-2 rural high schools

Many of you reading this are not familiar with what I do on a day-to-day basis, and might well read this and and think to yourself, “That doesn’t actually tell me anything about what he will actually be doing!”.

Some of you, however, have a deep working knowledge of my profession, in many cases greater than my own, while others of you will be colleagues who actually work with me on a day-to-day basis.  You will greet the above table with a knowing smile, and say to yourself, “That doesn’t actually tell me anything about what he will actually be doing!”.

Rest assured, this lack of specificity is not lost on me.  I’m certain this is because the DOT are still working with the targeted organizations to finalize the scope of our engagement, and are probably just now figuring out the team assignments.  In truth it makes sense for them to wait until these tasks are complete to share such details with us.

But that doesn’t make the waiting any easier :-)

First conference call with our team members is Thursday; am really looking forward to meeting them.


Historical Kunming Part 2: Discourses on Salt and Iron

Historical Kunming Part 2: Discourses on Salt and Iron

Salt making in the time of Marco Polo

They also have brine wells, from which they make salt that is used for food by all the inhabitants of the country.  And I assure you that the king derives great profit from this salt.

So wrote Marco Polo when he visited Kunming in or near the year 1282 AD.  The king was a son of the emperor Kublai Kahn, grandson of Genghis Kahn and the founder of what the Chinese referred to as the Yuan Dynasty.  This Mongolian emperor, like the Chinese emperors both before and after him, enforced a complete monopoly on the manufacture and sale of salt throughout all of China.  And it was in Kunming that one of these salt production centers was established.

In reading about this monopoly,I came across an amazing connection between modern and ancient Chinese history, one that I will enjoy sharing with you…

Emperor Wu of Han

Our story begins around 110 BC, during the reign of Emperor Wu, seventh emperor of the Han Dynasty.  Emperor Wu was known for lavishing money on territorial expansion (which he was very good at), extravagant displays, and “advisors” aligned with his many superstitions. And in the time honored tradition of other despots, from Pharaoh Khufu to Louis XIV, Emperor Wu’s grandiose visions nearly bankrupted his empire.

But just as Louis XIV came to rely upon the genius of Colbert to save France from economic ruin, so too was Emperor Wu served by one of the period’s great economic thinkers: his agriculture minister Sang Hongyang.  It was minister Sang’s idea nationalize the production of salt and iron, selling back to the public at regulated prices. Though wildly unpopular, this monopolization was a huge financial success for the government, and bankrolled many further conquests, extravagances, and superstitions for the rest of Emperor Wu’s reign.

Regent Huo Guang

But when emperor Wu died, many people, particularly scholars in the provinces, argued for a return to the lasseiz-faire policies of previous Han emperors.  These people became something vaguely akin to a political party, and styled themselves the reformists.  Officials of the central government quite naturally argued that the central government should retain the monopoly; these officials styled themselves modernists.

The newly crowned Emperor Zhao was only 8 years old when Emperor Wu died, and China was ruled by a regent named Huo Guang.  Regent Huo had no desire to see this disagreement break out into civil war. So six years after the death of Emperor Wu, he ordered the reformists and the modernists to gather at court to hold a great debate that would resolve the issue.  That debate was known as the Discourse on Salt and Iron; its proceedings have survived to this day.

Agriculture Minister Sang Hongyang

A compromise was agreed.  Some monopolies, most notably that on liquor, were abolished.  But for the most part, the modernists (who were led in the debate by Sang Hongyang himself) were judged to have won the day, and the government got to keep its salt monopoly, though Sang himself would be executed a year later for involvement in a plot to have the regent killed.  And the salt monopoly has survived from that day until now.

Taken on its own, this story would be just a mildly interesting historical footnote, an insight into what official life was like two thousand years ago in the world’s oldest surviving civilization.

But let us fast forward now to 2009 and take a look at the actions of a certain government official Chen Guowei, Supervisor on the Enterprise Supervision Board of the State Asset Supervision and Administration Commission.  Supervisor Chen had proposed that the salt industry be liberalized and eventually privatized.  These reforms were supported by many Chinese businesses, but opposed by consumer groups, who feared instability, speculation-fueled price bubbles, and fears over quality control of iodization (for many Chinese, salt is their only nutritional source of iodine, a key nutrient).  And so in the spirit of long-deceased precursor in Chinese government, Supervisor Chen held a meeting on Salt Reform.

The arguments raised in that meeting have echoes over two thousand years long.


  • Most of the story of Emperor Wu, Regent Huo Guang, and Minister Sang Hongyang come from Wikipedia and linked Chinese history sites
  • The report on the 2009 salt reform meeting comes from East Asia Forum
  • And the Discourses on Salt and Iron themselves?  The ones written two thousand years ago?  Still available on Amazon :-)

IBM Differentiates Itself From the Pack. Something to share with the people we engage…

A great article today in the Technology section of the New York Times on how IBM is differentiating itself from the increasingly commoditized high tech industry.

I definitely recommend taking a look at this.


Look for a full post tonight, a continued exploration of the history of Yunnan.  Learn how little has changed between 87 BC and 2006 AD.