China’s Dynastic Cycle: The More Things Change… (2023)

The millennium between the Han and Song dynasties was a tumultuous time for the people of ancient China. Constant war, avaricious aristocracy, hostile neighbors, and fractured states made it very difficult to reunite the country. While a great deal changed in the millennium between the Han and Song dynasties, I believe China would have developed along a similar pattern regardless. China continued to repeat the established dynastic cycle since most elements of Chinese civilization were built on what already existed by the end of the Han period. The key elements of Chinese civilization were already present and served as a foundation for most of the changes seen in this period. The dynastic cycle was powered by human greed; China would unite under a strong ruler and centralized government, weak emperors would be taken advantage of by corrupt officials and land owners, thus weakening the central government until the dynasty collapsed and plunged the country into chaos. Within the dynastic cycle, the foundation elements of what constitutes Chinese civilization were built upon and changed as each dynasty tried to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors.

By the beginning of the Han dynasty, Confucianism was already a well-established philosophical school of thought. The followers of Confucius had almost three hundred years after his death to compile his teachings, study them, and spread them throughout the land. Dominant from the beginning, it was adopted by the Han as the official cult of the state, and it should come as no surprise that Confucianism pervaded nearly every aspect of Chinese life by the time of the Song Dynasty.(2) This can be directly attributed to some of the founding pillars of the philosophical school, “Other crucial elements of Confucius’s worldview include the role of ritual as a blueprint for social harmony, the obligation of self-cultivation, filial piety and respect for one’s superiors, and the importance of moral education in government” (Goldin 45).(1) Using ritual as a blueprint for social harmony was instrumental for the long-term survival of his teachings, as humans are creatures of habit and often find comfort and security in repeated schedules and ritual practices. An obligation of self-cultivation and an emphasis on moral education mean that those who follow his teachings are less likely to do harm to their fellows, and therefore more likely to spread his tenants through discourse. Filial piety and respect for one’s superiors go hand in hand. Deference for those of higher rank in the familial or social order made Confucianism very appealing to the kings and lords of ancient China, creating cultural barriers to keep the masses passive in an ordinarily violent age. Mencius, Xun Zi, Han Yu, Zhu Xi, and many other scholars of ancient China built on the philosophies first laid down by Confucius, and by the time of the Song had developed into what has been called neo-Confucianism.(1)

Much like Confucianism, Daoism was already a well-established philosophy by the beginning of the Han dynasty.(2) Its origins are approximated to have been first founded around the same time as Confucianism and acted as a more humorous antithetic point of view. Where Confucianism focused on broad topics like governing and social culture, Daoism focused more on the individual and a person’s acceptance of life.(2) The philosophy of non-action may seem counterintuitive at first glance, however it gave people comfort and a rationale for accepting what is beyond one’s power to control. Indeed, it is the flexibility of Daoism that made it so durable as a school of thought; its worshipers had no restrictions or aversions to incorporating new beliefs, thus making it a highly adaptable practice. It began without a canon text, its message spread by word of mouth, making its message easily accessible to everyone from the poorest peasant to the emperor himself.(2) Daoism’s core adaptability makes it no surprise that this school of thought survived well beyond the later Song dynasty.

(Video) All China's dynasties explained in 7 minutes (5,000 years of Chinese history)

In Buddhism we can see the greatest change in the millennia between the Han and Song dynasties. Having originated in India, the teachings of the Bodhisattva were just beginning to make their way into Han China by way of the central Asian merchants travelling along northern silk road and by the last century of the Han dynasty had established itself in several places across China.(2) Buddhism, much like Daoism, held no restrictions to any one class or social status. Persecution by conservative traditionalists for its foreign origins failed to stop its spread throughout China and beyond into Korea and Japan.(1) By the time of the Song dynasty, Buddhism was well-established and rivaled Daoism for the second most common religion found in China. In the intervening centuries “…Buddhism had already made a number of enduring contributions to Chinese civilization, most prominently the doctrine of karma and rebirth, the practice of venerating icons, scriptures, and relics, and a vastly expanded pantheon. Just as striking was the Buddhist introduction to China of monasticism” (Kieschnick 547).(3) Introducing monasticism to China flew in the face of the Confucian elements of filial piety and the “family first” mindset, which is likely a reason for Buddhism’s growth in the intervening millennia, as is gave both men and women a way out of familial responsibilities without marrying into a different one. Aggression on the part of Confucian scholars was widely accepted, and China could have turned out differently if an overzealous government had followed the suggestions of neo-Confucian scholars, like Han Yu, who argued to “Turn these Buddhists and Daoist into commoners, burn their books, and turn their residences into huts, Illuminate the way of the Former Kings by teaching it” (362).(1) I say “could” because Buddhism could have been wiped out in China if Confucian scholars had viewed it as a threat from the beginning.

Legalism, as another philosophical school, had a lot of negative connotations surrounding it due to its official adoption by the short-live and reputedly cruel Qin dynasty.(1,2) While anything labeled with the term was derided and criticized, there were many elements of the philosophy that persisted. In its early stages, Legalism opposed Confucianism, as the legalist scholars believed that many Confucian values and rituals actually weakened the state.(2) At its core, Legalism supported a peaceful and united China, extensive and uniform laws, and monopolies on essential goods; all stemming from a strong central government that used its power to control the populace and mitigate their worst flaws.(2) These core beliefs waxed and waned in societal prominence as the centuries went on, but there was enough overlap with Confucianism to keep these points present in Chinese society from before the Han to after the fall of the Song. By far the best example of both Legalism’s survival and its blending with Confucianism rests in the civil service exams. Established by the Han in 192 BCE, it remained an institution of Chinese governance until well after the Song dynasty had fallen to dust.(2) John Chaffee describes the blending of these philosophies in the exam as “Philosophically and culturally, the Sung examination system was a curiously un-Confucian hybrid of Confucianism. It was an imperial creation and therefore reflected imperial interests which…tended to be Legalist” (47).(4) The same could be said about the civil service exams in any dynastic period, the test consisted predominantly of Confucian philosophy and law from the exam’s inception onward. This institution ensured the survival of legalist philosophies through the millennia.

The legalist idea of a centralized, united China was realized during the Qin dynasty and cemented during the centuries of Han rule.(2) After the fall of the Han, every dynasty after tried to do the same without much success until the Sui and Tang dynasties. The Tang’s rise and fall mirrored that of the earlier Zhou and Han, with unity being achieved by a short-lived and aggressive prior reign that gave each dynasty the ability to unite the fractures states.(2) The repetition of this pattern with variation gives credence to the old phrase coined by Jean-Baptiste Karr — “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Whether these specific dynasties or others had risen in their places, all would have sought to unite all of China under their control. In our textbook, Rossabi concisely describes “The two earlier periods of division lasted for centuries, but the fragmentation after the Tang endured for only about fifty years. Perhaps China had become simply too large to be decentralized for so long. Chaos and turbulence could not be tolerated over the vast expanse of territory that had now become part of the Middle Kingdom” (173–176).(2) As stated above, the cycle of unity and chaos did not drastically change in the intervening millennia between the Han and Song. It was only during the Song dynasty that this changed with the decision for the Song to disregard the previous dynasty’s aggressive expansionist policies and instead grow slowly and methodically in their “lesser empire” approach.

The expansionist mentality of the Han and the intervening dynasties ensured the repetition of the dynastic cycle. What the Han did, future dynasties tried to emulate and exceed, “…both the Sui and Tang dynasties, hoping to be heirs of the Han, devoted large amounts of time and resources to recovering lost Han territories. Expansion into north Vietnam, wars against the Turks, the occupation of the oasis kingdoms of Central Asia, and expeditions to restore former Han colonies in southern Manchuria and Korea were the result” (Lewis 145).(5) Lewis then goes on to talk about how the Sui emperor Yang’s obsession with matching the Han led to the downfall of his dynasty, and how emperor Taizong of the Tang nearly followed in his predecessor’s folly.(5) As can be seen, the dynasties between the Han and the Song followed a dynastic pattern of division, chaos, unity, aggressive expansion, overextension and division again. Use of massive armies to force the emperor’s will on “the barbarians” that were China’s neighbors to the north, west and south, often to detrimental cost and loss of life, happened in every dynasty from the Han to the Song. The Han viewed themselves as civilized and superior to their neighbors, and it was this contrast, especially with their nomadic northern neighbors, that provided rationale for the dynasties to force their dominance on their neighbors.(5) In the north, those same nomads gained control of northern China in the centuries after the fall of the Han, leading to a blending of culture that gave rise to neighboring countries with governments modeled after China itself. As China’s neighbors advanced and their cultures and technology evolved to borrow elements of Chinese culture, China’s assumed superiority disappeared in favor of the “China among equals” view that defined the Sui and Tang dynasties.(2) It seems likely that the progressive change from a “manifest destiny” to “China among equals” would have occurred as it did no matter what dynasties had risen and fallen between the Han and the Song. It is easier for a people to borrow from another culture and modify it to their needs than it is to create something new entirely, the best example of that being the spread of the Chinese written language to its neighbors.(2)

(Video) Medieval China: Crash Course History of Science #8

Chinese culture, at the same time, changed greatly and very little. The core elements maintained their integrity while the nuances changed over the course of the millennia between the Han and Song dynasties. These core elements that stuck around were what society was built on and all things necessary for it to function. To begin with, concepts like divination, ancestor worship, filial piety, and Heaven’s Mandate date back to well before the Han and remained inseparable from Chinese culture long after the Song.(1) Then there were the unifying measures introduced by the Qin that long outlived the dynasty. An extensive and impartial law code inspired by Qin legalist philosophies stuck around in various forms throughout history, not to mention things like standardizing weights, measures and coinage in order to more easily facilitate economic dealings, and the simplification of the written language that helped homogenize the Chinese cultural identity.(1,2) The Qin dynasty did not last long enough to reap the benefits of their drastic influence on Chinese culture, and instead laid the groundwork for what would become known as the “Han China” identity.(5) With all of these factors and more, as well as what is written above in regards to Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism and Legalism acting as the foundation for Chinese culture, much of what built on these elements changed greatly over time and could have turned out much differently. For starters, the civil service exams were an institution of imperial china, however the quality and content of the exams — beyond law, poetry, and Confucian literature — varied greatly depending on the dynasty and the events of the period, for example “…the wars of the tenth century had taken their toll upon both examinations and literati. The lack of standards was such that in one examination candidates were ordered to box each other, while in another, in 975, the lack of military prowess among 270 specially recommended chu-jen…so exasperated T’ai-tsu that he threatened to have them all conscripted into the army” (Chaffee 48).(4) So, while the most important elements of Chinese culture had been established and implemented by or during the Han period, the less significant aspects were constantly in the process of changing as China did.

Like many topics mentioned so far, the economic policies of the imperial government saw both great changes occur in some respects between the Han and Song dynasties, while some things changed very little. The most critical financial elements that maintained their presence in the interceding millennia were the concepts of taxes and government monopolies. The government cannot survive without an income, and though the tax laws and codes changed drastically throughout China’s history, the presence of taxes, once implemented, never went away.(2) The legalist concept of government monopolies, another institution of ancient China, were implemented by Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty.(2) Controlling the markets for iron, salt, and alcohol proved to be great sources of revenue, and limiting control of who could produce and mint copper coins, and when, helped to greatly stabilize the economy and enrich the state.(2) Post-Han China’s economic growth saw the greatest change during the Tang and Song dynasties in what Nicolas Tackett labelled “a commercial revolution.” In a short period of time a great many changes took hold: the invention of paper money, the institution of government credit facilities, a rise of non-agricultural occupations outside of cities, technology that made long distance trade both more viable and reliable, a loosening of anti-mercantile laws, and the first wide spread use of commercial taxes and licensing fees.(6) All of the above have had huge, long-lasting effects on the development of China during and after the Song dynasty. It was during this time that cultural views regarding merchants began shifting towards greater acceptance of their contributions to society and away from the repugnance and mistrust instilled into society by long held Legalist and Confucian beliefs.(7) Economically, the time between the Han and Song dynasties could have turned out much differently. While the foundation of Chinese economics would have changed little, if at all, the hypothetical dominance of other dynasties could have altered the course of history. Without certain inventions in this period, water-bound trade would not have improved, anti-mercantile laws could have remained traditionally restrictive, paper money may never have been conceived, along with a host of other issues that may have taken a different path. This would have been especially likely if a more traditionalist and expansionist dynasty had taken power and continued the dynastic cycle instead of the Song, who seemed to have learned from past mistakes.

Closely intertwined with governmental economic policies, China’s interactions with other nations changed just as drastically, if not more. During the time of the Han, and for most of the ensuing millennium afterwards, the majority of foreign trade occurred via the silk road into and out of northern China.(2) By the time of the Southern Song, trade on the silk road had tapered off, partly as a result of the rise in maritime trade.(2) While most of the millennium was dominated by expansionist policies, it was the Tang who shifted away from brute force and put greater emphasis on politicking when dealing with their neighbors. The ruling Tang family were of mixed blood, descended from marriage between Chinese and Turkish aristocratic bloodlines, which gave them unrivaled leverage in their dealings with their neighbors on the steppes, “This cultural familiarity allowed the formation of a Sino-Altaic (Turkic) system…Within this system, the Tang rulers were able to manipulate the fissures in the Turkic empire to their own advantage, draw the Turks and lesser tribes into a broader imperial system through patrimonial patron-client ties and diplomatic rituals, and draw Turkish allies into their armies” (Lewis 146).(5) The Tang dynasty’s reliance on foreign troops helped to reduce the cost of maintaining a standing army by paying off one neighbor to fight another. Unfortunately for the Tang, the rise of Islam in central Asia pushed their Turkish allies out of the silk road oases and into the east almost simultaneously with the defeat of two different Chinese armies by the Khitans and Nanzhao.(2) This resulted in two major changes in China: the An Lushan rebellion and the switch to a primarily maritime trade.(2,5) Had An Lushan not been assassinated by his own son, it seems quite likely that the Tang dynasty would have ended there. The switch to primarily shipping based international trade was inevitable. With the advancements in navigation and boat building, the ease and lower cost of ocean-based transportation compared to moving goods along the silk road, and the increased presence of foreign traders due to the previous two points, China would have become a primarily maritime trade economy whether An Lushan’s coup had succeeded or not.

The most definitive reasons that few significant elements of Chinese civilization developed in the millennium between the Han and Song dynasties can be traced back to humanity’s rapacious nature. Yet again, we can look to the civil service exams as an example. This institution was meant to find the best and brightest, no matter their station in life, to be recruited to work for the government.(2) The Han strongly supported Confucian teachings, and thus made his philosophies an integral part of the exams, which probably would have pleased him greatly, because “According to Confucius, a man succeeded because of his self-cultivation, merit, and virtue, not because of heredity or fate” (Rossabi 43).(2) Because Confucius also preached filial piety and the importance of family over strangers, people purposefully misinterpreted his words to benefit themselves, like the Confucian scholar Chang Tsai, who argued that, according to Confucian mores, the most right and proper way of government was to give preferential treatment to kin.(4) Chaffe goes on to say Chang’s view “…demonstrates that the examinations were vulnerable to Confucian attack. For in the impersonality of the examinations lay the danger of producing alienated and selfish men pursuing ‘hollow fame.’ Thus the vehicle of Confucian orthodoxy was open to the charge of making men un-Confucian” (Chaffee 48).(4) For those of Chang’s mindset, there were ways to give friends and kin an edge when competition became too strong, like restricting participants with candidacy qualifications, occupational prohibitions, residency requirements, and character qualifications — all of which were vulnerable to abuse and nepotism.(4) Another key example of crippling human greed is the aristocracy. During the Han dynasty, Confucian scholars like Dong Zhongshu warned Emperor Wu of the growing gulf between rich and poor. The emperor ignored their warnings and “Instead the owners of large estates would become increasingly powerful and would successfully seek to exclude their land from the tax rolls. Thus, the court’s fiscal problems remained and weighed down even harder on later reigns” (Rossabi 79).(2) Some emperors, like Wang Mang of the Han, Xuanzong of the Tang, and Wang Anshi of the Song, tried to fight the rampant corruption and reform the government, however they fought uphill battles, while outnumbered, and on treacherous ground — they were forced to rely on those same corrupt bureaucratic officials to put the reforms into effect, greatly weakening their impact.(2) Corruption and nepotism weakened the kingdoms and dynasties of imperial China, and this would have held true no matter how the country had developed.

(Video) Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order by Ray Dalio

The corruption and ambition of the aristocracy that kept imperial China in the dynastic cycle struggled against the work of reformist bureaucrats and emperors, with the aristocrats usually winning out by weight of numbers until their avarice caused the government to collapse. While a great deal changed in the millennium between the Han and Song dynasties, I believe China would have developed along a similar pattern regardless. China continued to repeat the established dynastic cycle since most elements of Chinese civilization were built on what already existed by the end of the Han period. The aristocratic bureaucrats and wealthy land owners struggled against change because they were dominant at that point, and great change could lead to the loss of their preeminent position in society. After the collapse of each dynasty, the large land owners fought among themselves until one gained dominance and declared himself emperor, raising a new generation of aristocracy from among the ranks of his allies and supporters. Each dynasty strove to do better than the last, learn from their mistakes, and try to break the cycle. Unfortunately, that had only just begun by the time of the Song.

…the more they stay the same.


1. Victor H. Mair, Nancy S. Steinhardt and Paul R. Goldin. Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005. Print.

(Video) ‎2,000 Years of Chinese History! The Mandate of Heaven and Confucius: World History #7

2. Morris Rossabi. A History of China. Blackwell Publishing, 2014. Print.

3. John Kieschnick. “Introduction.” Buddhist Monasticism. 545–574. Web. <Canvas>

4. John Chaffee. “For the Utmost Governance: Examinations in the early Sung.” 47–65. Web. <Canvas>.

5. Mark Lewis. “The Outer World.” China’s Cosmopolitan Empire. 2009. 145–178. Web. <Canvas>.

(Video) Crash Course History of the Dynasties of China

6. Nicolas Tackett. “A Tang-Song Turning Point.” A companion to Chinese History. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2016. 118–128. Web. <Canvas>.

7. Denis Twitchett. “Merchants, Trade and Government in Late T’ang.” Asia Major. 1968. 63–95. Web. <Canvas>.


1. How did Chinese Civilization begin? (Shang and Zhou dynasties) Bronze Age China history explained
2. Communists, Nationalists, and China's Revolutions: Crash Course World History #37
3. AP World History 1.6: China in the Shang & Zhou Dynasties
(Peter Welle)
4. China's Cycle of Dynasties: Dr. Jianxun Wang
(Abigail Adams)
5. Chinese History Made Easy: The Mandate of Heaven
(Austin In China)
6. The Qin Dynasty and the Han Dynasty
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Duncan Muller

Last Updated: 12/17/2022

Views: 6204

Rating: 4.9 / 5 (59 voted)

Reviews: 90% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Duncan Muller

Birthday: 1997-01-13

Address: Apt. 505 914 Phillip Crossroad, O'Konborough, NV 62411

Phone: +8555305800947

Job: Construction Agent

Hobby: Shopping, Table tennis, Snowboarding, Rafting, Motor sports, Homebrewing, Taxidermy

Introduction: My name is Duncan Muller, I am a enchanting, good, gentle, modern, tasty, nice, elegant person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.