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Chinese history for dilettantes

Updated on March 27, 2011

a book of stories about the origins of Chinese idioms

The title of the book could be translated as "idioms explained".  The caption to the left of the title, "can influence children for life".
The title of the book could be translated as "idioms explained". The caption to the left of the title, "can influence children for life".

Chinese history in a nutshell

Every culture has its popular history. America has its cowboys and Indians, George Washington chopping his cherry tree. Brittian has its round heads and calviliers. Growing up, I did not learn much of China's popular history, because we focus on our own traditions. I have since gleaned some knowledge from short stories that explain idiomatic phrases (成语故事),language lessons discussing historical topics, and movies.

Back when Britons were still painting themselves blue and hanging people in baskets, China was composed of many small states that were almost constantly at war. The first emperor stabalized this situation in 221BC by conquering the five other kingdoms that made up China, at that time. He is the guy who built the Great Wall and populated his tomb with terracotta warriors. In the movie "Hero", Jet Li decides not to assassinate him after going to a lot of trouble to setup the opportunity to do so. I think that movie makes a very strong nationalistic statement, but subtly enough that I doubt most westerners notice.

The passing of the first emperor (秦始皇) lead to another period of chaos as two rivals struggled to be his successor. The guy who won was sly and the one who lost heroic. Their struggle is a frequent topic for Chinese opera. In the movie "Farewell my Concubine" , the two male leads play the guy who lost and his mistress. (guys play women in Chinese opera) The play is about the hero's demise. His mistress cuts her own throat with a sword to relieve him of worry in his final battle, but there is a lot of singing before this happens.

Not too long after, China entered the three kingdoms period; another period of division in China, but one that was very productive in terms of heroic deeds and historical personalities. The movie "Red Cliff" is about one of the important battles that took place in this period.

In more than a thousand years since the three kingdoms, Chinese dynastys have come and gone. Many lasted a couple hundred years, but the transitions were often tumultuous. In periods of stability the common people prospered. In periods of transition there was much suffering. In the last hundred years there was such a period of transition. During this time foreign armies took advantage of China's weakened state to molest and plunder China.

Chinese civilization is, to date, mankind's most enduring civilization. Some western civilizations have earlier inceptions, but they collapsed and were replaced by other civilizations, later. Throughout much of the last two thousand years China has had the most advanced culture in the world and the largest economy. Perhaps, it is now on a trajectory to regain its preeminence.

The Ching and Ming dynasties are the most recent. The Tang is not far removed from the Ming dynasty. The others, I have yet to develop much sense for what order they occurred in, but the beginning of the Ming dynasty will take you back to Chaucer's time; as long as English has existed as a language you and I could understand, sort of.


The transition of power between the Ming and Ching dynastys still has a legacy in popular culture. Power moved from the South to the North, and many Kung Fu movies have a theme of a martial arts association is secretly loyal to the Ming dynasty and is beset by Qing dynasty oppressors. Movies about Hong Kong triads often include scenes where the triad members swear alliagence to eachother and the Ming dynasty.

My impression is that the Qing dynasty was more conservative and inward looking than the Ming dynasty was. Afterall they made the great Chinese navigator, Zheng He (郑和), destroy his fleet.

The Tang dynasty is known for its poets and appreciation of rotund women, also the only female emperor in Chinese history, Wu Zetian (武则天)。

I did not grow up Chinese. So, I can't be sure that the historical narrative I have gleaned is one that most Chinese people would agree with. However, it is the impression I have formed, based on stories I have read and movies I have seen.




a music video glamorizing Wu Zetian China's only female emporer

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