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.

Dynasty

Started

Ended

Notes
Xia

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.
Shang

1600 BC

1029 BC

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

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.
Qin

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.
Han

206 BC

220

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

220

589

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.
Sui

581

618

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

618

907

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.
Song

960

1279

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

1279

1368

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.
Ming

1368

1644

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)

1644

1912

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

1912

1949

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

1949

Present

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.

Historical Kunming Part 1: Kunming and Yunnan as seen through the eyes of Marco Polo

Most places in the world are steeped in history, and that history often defines the culture of its inhabitants.  Nowhere is this more true than China, and the canonical history of civilization that we receive as  westerners is almost completely silent about one of civilization’s most dominant cultures, a heritage that far outdates ours in enlightenment and sophistication.  Every western traveler to China I have ever spoken with (myself included) is at some point daunted by a sense of how much of the story we have missed.

To ensure that my team and I miss slightly less of the story this time, I will be trying to learn a little of the history of Kunming, and of Yunnan province.  And as an interloping westerner, it seems fitting that I start with the story of the most famous interloping westerner of all, Marco Polo.

Marco Polo was a Venetian merchant who in 1272 at age 17, went with his father and uncle on what was supposed to be a 2-3 year trade mission to China.  He ended up serving in the court of Kublai Khan, and stayed in the Mongol dynasty for almost 20 years.  His eventual return was badly timed; he arrived in the midst of a civil war in 1292 and was imprisoned for a further seven years.  His loss was our gain; having nothing better to do, he narrated the story of his travels to a fellow prisoner, a French romance author named Rustichello.  Upon their release in 1299, Rustichello published those narratives, and while the original manuscript is lost, various translations of the original survive to this day.

In Renaissance Italy it was considered right and proper to boast of one’s accomplishments; failing to do so was interpreted as a sign of weakness and subservience.  And while Marco Polo himself is portrayed to be a man of utter pragmatism, Rustichello was a romance writer by trade and unabashedly used the tools of his trade to their greatest effect when telling the tale of Marco’s travels.  For both of these reasons, the truth of some of the stories in this book must be taken with a healthy degree of skepticism. There can be no doubt that Marco and his father and uncle did go the places they claimed to have gone; their accounts of these places and the events that took place during their visit rings true with contemporary Chinese accounts of the same events.  On the other hand, there is no evidence whatsoever to support the central role in these events or the high position in the Mongol court that Marco assigns to himself.  In fact there is almost no mention of Polo’s twenty-year sojourn at all in Chinese historical records, only the scantiest hints of indirect evidence.  Certainly a foreigner so highly placed as Polo claimed to be would not have escaped the notice of otherwise inexorable Chinese scholars.

Where Polo’s account really shines though, is in his descriptions of the places and people he visits.  Unlike his biographer Rustichello, there is not the slightest flight of fancy in his worldview.  He notices those things that a merchant would deem important.  What items of value a region produces. Which roads are safe.  The abundance (or lack) of grain or livestock.  The quality of their horses.  Their religion and system of government.   And above all, health and temperament of the people.

So here then with equal mix of fascination and skepticism, is Polo’s account of Yunnan and Kunming, as he encountered them in around in the year 1282 AD.

On the farther side of the river Brius  lies Kara-jang, a province of such size and wealth that it contains no less than seven kingdoms (Kara-jang was the Turkish name for Yunnan, and Brius for the Kin-sha-kiang, one of the sources of the Yangtze).  It lies towards the west; its king is the Great Khan’s son, whose name is Essen-Temur, a very great king and rich and powerful.  He rules his land well and justly, for he is a wise and upright man.

After leaving the river, the traveller continues westwards for five days, through a country with numerous cities and towns which breeds excellent horses.  The people live by rearing animals and tilling the soil.  They speak a language of their own, which is very difficult to understand.  At the end of the five days one reaches the capital of the kingdom, which is called Yachi (Kunming), a large and splendid city.  Here there are traders and craftsmen in plenty.  The inhabitants are of several sorts: there are some who worship Mahomet (this is how Polo refers to Moslems), idolaters (Buddhists), and a few Nestorian Christians.  Both wheat and rice are plentiful; but wheat bread is not eaten here because in this province it is unwholesome.  The natives eat rice, and also make it into a drink with spices, which is very fine and clear and makes a man drunk like wine.

For money they use white cowries, the sea-shells that we use to make necklaces for dogs:  80 cowries are equivalent to 1 saggio of silver, which is worth 2 Venetian groats, and 8 saggi of fine silver may be taken to equal 1 of fine gold.  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.  The men here do not mind if one touches another’s wife, so long as it is with her consent.

Before leaving this kingdom let me tell you something which I had forgotten.  There is a lake here, some 100 miles in circumference, in which there is a vast quantity of fish, the best in the world.  They are of great size and of all kinds.  The natives eat flesh raw — poultry, mutton, beef, and buffalo meat  The poorer sort go to the shambles and take the raw liver as soon as it is drawn from the beasts; they then chop it small, put it in garlic sauce, and eat it there and then.  And they do likewise with every other kind of flesh.  The gentry also eat their meat raw; but they have it minced very small, put in garlic sauce flavored with spices and then eat it as readily as we eat cooked meat.

Let me tell you further that this province produces a sturdy breed of horses, which are exported when young for sale in India.  And you must know that it is the custom to remove two or three joints of the tail-bone, so that the horse cannot flick the rider with its tail or swish it when galloping; for it is reckoned unsightly for a horse to gallop with swishing tail. The horsemen here ride with long stirrups after the French fashion. Long, that is, in contrast to the short stirrups favored by the Tartars and most other races who go in for archery, since they use their stirrups for standing upright when they shoot.

So there it is,  an excerpt from the first notes of Kunming made by a western visitor to China.  To go deeper into Kunming’s history, we need to do what we as historians should have done from the start: listen to the Chinese themselves.  Next week, I shall attempt to do just so.