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Asian Business Environments: the Dynastic Cycles Essay

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Updated: Jun 24th, 2020


Chinese history of great transformation took place between three dynastic cycles, which are the Zhou, the Qin and the Han; this in turn came to cover major events of Classical China. It is believed that the dynastic pattern or system of administration started to function during the classical Chinese history that persisted for a long time until early 20th century (Stearns, 2006). With dynastic rule, the major characteristic was that a family that constituted kings was referred to as, ‘dynasty’ and once it assumed power it exercised authority with enormous vigor, establishing solid political institutions and acting as the main motivation that spurred active and functional economies (Adas, et al, 2010).

During their functional period, each dynasty was characteristically seen to grow weak, amount of tax revenues reduced and numerous social divisions were rampant as population continued to geometrically increase while the available resources remained constant or increased arithmetically. Furthermore, the dynasties witnessed internal rebellions coupled with frequent external attacks which all combined to contribute to the fall of the dynasty (Grasso, Corrin and Kort 2004).

Once one dynasty seemed to be dysfunctional and faulty in carrying out the duties, generally another would arise from a family of a successful general, invader or peasant, and as consequence, the pattern would start again (Mote 2003). Therefore, understanding the history of dynastic cycle of China, which became responsible of centralized power, military and economic expansion and subsequently decline in chaos, this research paper will explore to what extend does recent understanding of economic and social institutions and dynamic change account for the recurrent pattern of the rise and fall of dynasties.

The three dynasties-Zhou, Qin and Han

The first dynasty was the Zhou, which reigned between 1029 to 258 B.C.E., and the dynasty was responsible to the expansion of China’s territories most significantly by invading and capturing the Yangzi River Valley (Stearns, 2006). The expanded region from the Yangzi all the way to Huanghe generally is known as “Middle Kingdom” and has fertile grounds that support crop growing.

During the reign of this dynasty, Mandarin was promoted as the main and standard language of communication while at the same time, the dynasty had weak central government. However, in exercising power, the kings relied on alliances with various regional princes and noble families (Adas, et al, 2010). Due to exercise of weak powers, the dynasty became susceptible motivating the regional princes to consolidate their respective powers and largely disregarded the central government.

The next dynasty was the Qin, which exercised power between 221 to 202 B.C.E under the emperor of China (Anonymous, 2010). The first emperor of this dynasty was Shi Huangdi, described as brutal but effective ruler. Indeed, he made other notable achievements such as “consolidation of central government powers, building of the Great Wall, conducting of census, development of standardized weights and measures and extension of the borders of his realm to Hong Kong and northern Vietnam (Wensheng 2008, par.2). When the emperor died there were major revolts that culminated into the fall and demise of the Qin dynasty (Tin-bor-Hui, 2005).

The last dynasty is that of Han, which became established and operational between the years 202 B.C.E. to 220 C.E. The rulers of this dynasty divorced greatly from using brutality that characterized the Qin dynasty but, in large measure, maintained and fostered its centralized rule aspects and elements. During its reign, Han dynasty witnessed the extension of Chinese region and established formal and recognized training institutions that were largely built and based on Confucian philosophy specifically for the bureaucrats. For example, Han dynasty capitalized on the advice of the Confucian Mengzi, which argued that, “when the personal life is cultivated, the family will be regulated, the state will be in order, and when the state is in order, there will be peace throughout the land” (Lockard 2007, p.130).

These particular aspects show how the pattern of mixing legalism with Confucianism, power with ethics came to reflect and define the Chinese political system for the next two thousand years (Lockard 2007). When the period of decline presented itself to the Han dynasty, external invasions characterized forces that fought and destabilized the dynasty which eventually collapsed and was seized by the external forces. Upon collapsing specifically in the 6th century C.E, the dynasty had positively contributed to the creation of distinctive political and cultural values that became firmly rooted in the Chinese society up to today (Stearns, 2006).

Characteristics of traditional China

Dynasty evolved to characterize China’s society, where the peasants of this region occupied the Yellow River valley, which is regarded as cradle of Chinese culture. Basically, these peasants practiced a rudimentary system of burn and clear agriculture (Elvin 1973). There existed village communities that performed their duties collectively and in most cases, they would occupy a region, clear it, and plant crops at the farm for some time before moving to a new region (Elvin, 1973).

As their system of governance and administration, these communities operated under local lords whom as a result of their services of administration the people were required to pay part of their harvest as tax (Elvin 1973). Further these local lords owned states of lands which contrasted with the peasants’ collectivities and they used slave labor to work on the estates.

Starting from the seventh century BC, China started to realize permanent land possession as contrasted to the earlier temporal clearances. And in 594 BC taxing of land started to take place while farming practices continued to improve. Working on the land in earlier communal structures was abolished and agriculture started to benefit from numerous science innovations that were taking place.

Social unrest and rebellions also characterized old China and this was due to the fact that people specifically the peasant saw the ruling elite to be involved in interfering with daily lives. The ruling elite imposed high taxes on people and frequently this ruling elites demanded the peasants to provide military or labor services when need arose (Lockard 2007; Restall 2000). With time the peasants became tired of these and what followed was occasional unrest.

Explaining China’s development trap: potential for the rise and fall of dynasty

Succinct evidence exists that shows that rise and fall of dynasties was associated with economic factors taking place in the dynasties (Lockard 2007). What characterized most new dynasties was their tendency to promote security and prosperity; in turn these factors stimulated the growth of population which in turn became a source for extra revenue in form of taxes for the new dynasties (Lockard 2007). As the dynasties experienced flourishing economies the ruling elite became squanderers of both human and financial resources which they largely used in wars of expansion and luxury palaces, courts and tombs (Lockard 2007).

In order to firmly take grip of this prosperity and continue their squandering acts the rulers initiated imperial system of government but in general, the overspending and misuse of resources led to their decline (Lockard, 2007). Furthermore, wasteful expenditure resulted into financial difficulties and military stagnation since the government became unable to fund and sustain a large army to defend the country. In another development, the Qing dynasty experienced a mixture of rise and fall of financial sector, for instance, banks blossomed in the 19th century enabling free flow of money; however, the recession crisis in the US led the same banks to crumble as fast as they had risen (Wong, 2009).

The results were the exposure and vulnerability of the country to foreign forces. Faced with desperation and need to fund its activities the government increased taxes that would be channeled to funding government deficit, an event that led into many poorer peasants to sell their lands to commercial landlords who eventually could evade taxes through their wealth and influence. Left with no any other economic alternative to rely upon the peasants started joining the bandits that were fighting the government with aim to restructure the land policy (Schrecker, 2004).

It has been documented that China’s rural economy went through a long slumber specifically during the Ming and Qin dynasties (Little, 1990, p.1). During these periods, the techniques used for production were very poor and production only functioned to a level that equaled the pace of population growth (Little, 1990). The only form of growth that took place was largely as a result of accelerated cultivation and not rising productivity.

As such several theories exist today that describe and explain this pattern of long-term stagnation especially with regard to Chinese rural economy. Mark Elvin developed ‘high-level equilibrium trap’ theory, Kang Chao on his part developed the ‘demographic trap’ theory, while Victor Lippit concentrated on analyzing the rural property relations theory which tried to identify the biggest existing obstacles to the development especially during the pre-twentieth century period in the agriculture economy (Little 1990,p.2).

Elvin’s theory puts more emphasis on the role exhaustion of traditional agricultural technologies contributed to stagnation of developments despite population increasing at a fast rate. On the other part, Lippit’s theory establishes its argument in the fact that rural elites participated or are the main players for stagnation of rural developments when they failed to reinvest back in the agricultural economy which was the main economy of the peasant society. These theories have come to form solid basis upon which China’s economy and its subsequent role in dynastic cycles is established, and much more, they are generally categorized into two wide theories of technological and distributional theories of economic change (Little, 1990).

Technological theories postulate that China experienced economic stagnation and dysfunctional as a result of scarcity in key natural resources and subsequent geometric population growth which in turn contributed to the rampant spread of poverty, low economic surpluses and general-wide state of inability to put into use modern and sophisticated production technologies (Little, 1990). On other hand, distributional theories hold that the old “Chinese economy generated substantial surpluses that could have funded economic development, but that the elite classes used those surpluses in unproductive way” (Little, 1990).

High-level equilibrium trap

Mark Elvin in 1973 postulated that old China became a victim of ‘high-level equilibrium trap’ whereby the entire economy became to be organized around small units of production in both agriculture and manufacturing sector (Little 1990). Production was carried out using traditional production techniques and one observable element with these techniques is that they had been adjusted for a long time to provide the greatest possible output for a given amount of scarce inputs (Restall 2000, par.1-4).

At the same time population was ‘bursting’ to the point that the use of traditional techniques only managed to satisfy the subsistence needs of the population. At this level a state of stable equilibrium had been achieved and any additional productivity enhancements could not be achieved easily without first initiating technological innovation and interesting there existed little social surplus that could be used to provide necessary finances which in turn could be used in the discovery and diffusion of new technologies (Little 1990).

Population trap

In 1986 Kang Chao provided a detailed investigation and analysis of Chinese agricultural stagnation to extent resembled Elvin’s analysis although he emphasized a lot on population dynamics (Little 1990). According to Chao the most evident and dominant characteristics of Chinese economic history that in part include: dominance of small producers, labor-intensive techniques of production and technological stagnation are or were as a result of an accelerated population increase that had taken place for around two thousands years and which had led to a consequent reduction in the land-man ratio.

What was evident was the fact that as labor increasingly became large in quantity and key resources especially land became scarce, most Chinese farmers and handcrafters were forced to adopt to new labor-intensive production techniques and discouraged to adopt efficient labor-saving innovations (Little 1990). As population of China continued to grow without checks, the resultant effect was a tendency for persistent fall in land-man ration and as fate would dictate this fundamental condition led to modification of the economic institutions and production techniques in Chinese agrarian society.

No-surplus trap

According to the views of Elvin and Chao, Chinese economic non-performance was as a result of large population and low labor productivity. When this combination takes place, the resultant effect is that there is largely no substantial surplus available to invest in agricultural modernization. This kind of trap also postulate that in rural China there were low levels of stratification but seen keenly there were significant stratification based on land and wealth.

The inequalities were largely based on a system of surplus extraction through activities such as rent, usury and taxation and in great measures the surplus-extraction system allowed landlords, moneylenders and the government to brutally confiscate most of rural surplus for their own use (Little 1990). Surplus-extraction institutions with success made the available surplus to be channeled to the government and to a small class of prominent and wealthy landowners, merchants, and officials.

Unproductive elites trap

According to Lippit, the Chinese agrarian society produced surpluses but it was the role of dysfunctional institutional arrangement, which was responsible to economic non-performance. The dysfunctional institutions effectively extracted the surplus from peasants and artisans with the help of the elite class (Farmer 1995). Numerous mechanisms of extraction were employed such as: rent, interest, taxation and corrupt tax practices and the aim just revolved around transferring surpluses from the immediate producer to a small elite class of the total produce (Little 1990). As largely resources or surpluses was controlled by this small elite class they became less concerned and involved in investing funds into modernization of agriculture.

State failure

Jones argues that the overall stagnation of economic in old China was as a result of failure by the state and persistent state’s behavior not to pay serious attention to economic issues in the country. The state became responsible to the peasant taxation a fact that limited and prohibited productive investment in numerous forms of agricultural techniques (Little 1990). Further the state is seen to have been responsible to the increasingly inability to ensure funds were available to support key developmental infrastructures.

Further the state’s role of facilitating discriminatory property rights resulted into dysfunctional of profitable investments as only few people were granted property rights at the expense of majority (Selden 1995). Therefore China’s retarded economic growth during dynastic periods can be attributed to factors such as population-resource ratio, factors to do with institutions guiding and governing the production process and the surplus-extraction system, and lastly factors to do with economic policies and administrative capacity of the state (Little, 1990).

The social understanding of the China’s dynastic cycles

Earlier understanding and traditional belief was that Chinese dynasties were associated with rise and fall to reflect, “The passing ‘Mandate of Heaven’ where a new dynasty was largely founded by a moral up-righteous founder” (Wakeman 1986). The conviction among many scholars was that emperors ruled on behalf of cosmic forces but only as long as they harbored the virtues of justice, benevolence and sincerity (China Review 2002). When the up-righteous founder assumes power and start getting submerged in total power the dynasty starts tolerating acts of corruption becoming morally dysfunctional and depraved.

When the acts of immorality become uncontrollable, the dynasty looses the protection of gods and spirits and largely become a victim of natural disasters, rebellions and foreign attacks and subsequent invasions. As these destructive actions continue to affect the dynasty it reaches a point when the dynasty can no longer sustain the pressure and as a way to surrender it grows weak calling for its replacement by a new dynasty. In short, the claim on this view is that when an emperor misruled he greatly lost the Mandate of Heaven and rebellion was justified (Rozman, 1982, p.1).

Viewing and analyzing modern social revolution and change of power, the existence of a social conflict theory developed by Karl Marx offers a sound beginning. Karl Marx postulated a social conflict theory in which he expressed that people in society compete largely for the available scarce resources (Siegel and Welsh, 2008).

As competitions intensify, it becomes inevitable for the society to shield itself from conflict that in turn culminates into social changes in form of revolutions (Boss, Doherty and LaRossa, 2008). Marxist’s social conflict theory posits that society is characterized by class struggle, economic determinism and dialectical materialism (Boss, Doherty and LaRossa, 2008). Marx wrote in his early work, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’ that, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle” (cited in Boss, Doherty and LaRossa 2008, p.360).

Class in the words of Marx reflects the materialist view of human in which human actors are seen to produce themselves through work. To Marx, this process constitutes a transformative process in which collaboration of individual and the world are simultaneously and continually in the process of transforming itself (Boss, Doherty and LaRossa 2008). The conviction of Marx was that it is only when human history reaches the stage of communism that this process changes from one in which human participates but lacks control to a more mature stage where humans experience self-direction and conscious development(Boss, Doherty and LaRossa, 2008).

Marx describes his contented idea on historical materialism by observing that societies develop through a series of progressive states, starting with a primitive period, then followed by ancient, feudal and capitalist stage, then ending with communist stage or period which represents the final state of human social development (Boss, Doherty and LaRossa 2008; He, 2001, p.199).

Marx further advance the fact that each of these stages except the first and last one constitute an exploitative system involving workers and employers. Employers facilitate exploitation of the workers with sole aim of ‘extracting surplus value’ from the workers’ labor (Boss, Doherty and LaRossa, 2008). As each of these systems matures technologically, the workers being exploited come to realize their situation and common cause, through what Marx termed as ‘class consciousnesses’ and subsequently join forces (Boss, Doherty and LaRossa 2008; Goodman 2008).

As forces by workers become numerous in society, the larger society become subjected to transformation in form of revolutions and what follows is that the society ‘graduates’ to the next stage of history through the fundamental mechanisms of class struggle (Sharma 1990). Marx further observed that, “until that time that the class struggle is successful in overthrowing the present social order, however, the workers in each of the property-owning epochs are not only dominated and exploited but also psychologically traumatized” (Boss, Doherty and LaRossa, 2008, p.360).


Many theories have been advanced to the dynastic cycles of China and to social scientists both the economic and social factors have been investigated to demonstrate how they contributed to these dynastic cycles. More importantly the dynastic cycles can be associated with economic factors specifically the importance of tax and revenue. Generally, the military force, the government and its bureaucratic structure and public services relied heavily on revenue especially the tax collected from landholders (Hulsewe, Ban and Loewe, 1979).

But as dynasties continued to engage in wars it became evident that after the beginning of each dynasty large-scale and commercial land-ownership was demolished and most lands were left idle. The state took it upon itself to distribute land to the peasants but after some time wealth and influential people accumulated more land and evaded payment of taxes. The overall national resources and funds capacity decline, which in turn translated into military inactiveness and dormancy while at the same time, provision of services became a problem (Life Magazine, 1966).

As national military became weak, external attacks proliferated, and external invasion of dynasties became inevitable. On the other hand, failure to provide basic social services led to people to experience a lot of problems such as floods, and because peasants had lost their lands and unable to pay tax, they joined and cooperated with bandits and facilitated rebellions to the governments (Ferroa and Chan, 2002). At the end it can be seen that external invasions and threats coupled with internal and domestic protests resulted into fall of dynasties.

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