Map of China (pic top left)
Dynastic Rise and Fall ( pic-below)
This theme of dynastic rise and fall resonates especially strongly in the Han, Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties. Many poets used allusions to patterns and events in past dynasties to comment on situations in their own times. Even today modern Chinese look back on their history as they attempt to make sense of their emerging nation today.
Aggression from Northern Aliens and Other Non-Han States
Relations, often antagonistic, between nomadic Turkic and Mongol peoples of the northern steppes and forests and the settled agriculturalists of the North China Plain go back far into antiquity. Among the northern invaders were the Xiongnu and Xianbei, who were followed in later centuries by the Qidan (Khitan), Jurched, Mongol, Turk, and Manchu (Manju) peoples. During periods of division, small states appeared and disappeared in northern China on the borders with the steppes. This was especially so between the Han and Tang dynasties. During this time many such states had Creole-cultures that combined steppe and sedentary cultures. Among these peoples were a group known as the Toba, whose descendants were among the founders of the great Tang dynasty.
Besides the northern steppes and northeastern forests, alien states existed at times in other border areas. Among these were the Tibetan empire in the west, the Nanzhao in the southwest, the Tangut (Xixia) empire of the northwest (in present-day Ningxia), and the Uygur kingdom farther to the north in Xinjiang. Many smaller kingdoms existed as well, including the little-known Parhae kingdom located in parts of present-day northeast China and North Korea.
Wang Zhaojun with pipa
Nomads on the northern steppe depended on trade with the agriculturalists for grain, cloth, metal tools, ceramics, and other items. In turn the agricultural peoples desired promises of peace from raiding parties, and demanded tribute in the form of horses, furs, gems, and other rarities from the steppe and forest nomads. In the course of diplomatic negotiations, Chinese states sometimes sent beautiful brides to far-off “barbarian” rulers on the steppe. One of the most famous was Wang Zhaojun of the Han dynasty, who lived many years among the Xiongnu. Her tomb mound lies near the city of Hohhot, Inner Mongolia.
In some cases, Chinese rulers attempted to play off rival groups of “barbarians” against each other; at other times, the border peoples created alliances to attack China. When the Mongols invaded China they had to defeat the Jin, who had already conquered the northern part of the Song dynasty, as well as the Xixia kingdom in the northwest.
The Great Wall near Beijing
At certain moments the nomadic peoples feared the strong Chinese armies, at other times the steppe people offered great enough challenges to the Chinese to stimulate the building of walls on the northern frontiers – culminating in the greatest “Star Wars” project of antiquity: the Great Wall. The wall, actually a series of smaller walls, reached its most advanced state during the Ming dynasty after the Mongols were driven from China.
Degree of Openness to the Outside
Due to its geographical location, China could limit contact with the outside world. Aside from the northern nomads (who were not a cultural threat to the Chinese), the deserts and mountains of the west and the oceans of the east allowed the Central Kingdom relative (and often peaceful) insulation from entities such as the Roman Empire, which was at its height during the Han dynasty. The Silk Road was a narrow thread across the northwest barrens that allowed a limited but steady flow of goods and ideas across Central Asia between the high cultures of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and India. During the Tang period, China was at its most open stance in antiquity. Elements from the cultures of the West, particularly India were welcomed and took root within China’s borders.