The power and splendor of the Chinese Empire was not a constant across the reigns of successive dynasties. It was a political work in progress, as each dynasty faced new challenges in a changing world. Chinese historian Edward McCord reveals that contrary to the popular image of China as a timeless and unchanging empire, dynastic leaders built on the achievements of their predecessors to make their own contributions to improving governance and strengthening territorial security.
9:30 to 10:45 a.m. Building Ideological and Administrative Foundations
In creating the first united empire, the ruthless First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty set a pattern for bureaucratic rule that would be followed by all following dynasties. Only the establishment of Confucianism as a state philosophy by the succeeding Han Dynasty, though, provided a stable ideological basis for this form of government.
11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Assuring Security and Projecting Power
In the face of threatening steppe nomad confederations, the Han Dynasty created diplomatic and military policies that future dynasties would use to both secure their Central Asian borders and establish China’s status as the as the dominant power of East Asia.
12:15 to 1:30 p.m. Lunch (Participants provide their own.)
1:30 to 2:45 p.m. Creating a Meritocracy of Education and Culture
Though early rulers struggled to staff their bureaucracies with capable officials, the Sui, Tang, and Song Dynasties perfected the world’s first civil service examinations based on objective criteria. In the process, education and cultural accomplishment became the main determinants of political power and social status.
3 to 4:15 p.m. Consolidating a Truly Multi-ethnic Empire
Precisely because they were alien invaders, the Manchu founders of the Qing Dynasty brought a special sensitivity to ethnic differences that helped them extend the borders of their empire. As it grew to cover more territory and more people than any previous dynasty, the boundaries of the multi-ethnic China we know today emerged.
McCord is an associate professor of history and international affairs and director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at The George Washington University.
Explore a timeline on the Freer Sackler Galleries’ site that provides an overview of all of China’s dynasties and displays a characteristic object from each.
Witness ancient traditions and modern life on tour—Classic China and Tibet.
Visit the Smithsonian Journeys page to see more