What is a dynasty?

Sep 2012
1,102
Taiwan
#1
Sometimes in the study of history, the most pertinent questions seem to be the simplest, and indeed the ones we often take for granted and neglect to answer. It has been intriguing for me over the past ten years or so to engage with Chinese history and see the multitude of different opinions on what constitutes a dynasty. Yet when I actually press people for an answer on why they consider one regime to be a dynasty over another, the reasons I get are often vague and ill-thought out.

There is a very traditional sequence of Chinese dynasties that we tend to go by: Xia, Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han, Three Kingdoms, Northern and Southern Dynasties, Sui, Tang, Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, Song, W. Xia, Liao, Jin, Yuan, Ming, Qing. But this isn't always ascribed to. Some people discount the Xia, Shang and Zhou and say that they're not actual dynasties, others discount the W. Xia, Liao, Jin for being peripheral and foreign, others still discount the Yuan and Qing for being foreign. And then we lump some dynasties together, such as the Northern and Southern Dynasties. Some polities we consider as kingdoms, like the Sixteen Kingdoms, and others we don't include at all; the Western Liao and Northern Yuan seem to be ignored, perhaps on account of their not being in China, despite existing for many generations. And then we have micro dynasties like the Northern Liao or Eastern Xia or the Shun which we ignore, and interregnum regimes like the Xin and Zhou (Wu Zetian) which often get swept under the rug. There are so many factors that seem to influence people's opinions, from ethnicity, to location, to length, to territory, to language and law and the Mandate of Heaven, but it strikes me that there is no one definitive definition - at least not one that I have ever come across.

So my question is, how do you define a dynasty? I am always reminded of an old debate here on the crusades, where a fine fellow called Dreamweaver introduced a historiography of the crusades and how different people considered crusades in different ways: traditionalists who saw crusades as being Papal endorsed expeditions to the Holy Land, pluralists who considered them to be Papal endorsed expeditions anywhere, generalists who considered any religious expedition etc (or something along those lines, my memory is hazy!). The point being, I think historians of China - professional and lay alike - can often be found in similar camps with regards to what constitutes a dynasty.

I have my own views, although I'm still not terribly good at articulating them. I am largely inclined to consider anything that walks like a dynasty and talks like a dynasty to be a dynasty, regardless of the emperor's ethnicity, how many generations or years it lasted, or where abouts in the world it was located. So I would give just as much legitimacy to the Northern Liao as I would to the Han, and would consider them equal in terms of fulfilling my albeit largely ineffable criteria. Although plenty of people disagree with this view, which is what I find so interesting.

Any thoughts?
 

Haakbus

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
3,750
United States
#2
Sometimes in the study of history, the most pertinent questions seem to be the simplest, and indeed the ones we often take for granted and neglect to answer. It has been intriguing for me over the past ten years or so to engage with Chinese history and see the multitude of different opinions on what constitutes a dynasty. Yet when I actually press people for an answer on why they consider one regime to be a dynasty over another, the reasons I get are often vague and ill-thought out.

There is a very traditional sequence of Chinese dynasties that we tend to go by: Xia, Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han, Three Kingdoms, Northern and Southern Dynasties, Sui, Tang, Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, Song, W. Xia, Liao, Jin, Yuan, Ming, Qing. But this isn't always ascribed to. Some people discount the Xia, Shang and Zhou and say that they're not actual dynasties, others discount the W. Xia, Liao, Jin for being peripheral and foreign, others still discount the Yuan and Qing for being foreign. And then we lump some dynasties together, such as the Northern and Southern Dynasties. Some polities we consider as kingdoms, like the Sixteen Kingdoms, and others we don't include at all; the Western Liao and Northern Yuan seem to be ignored, perhaps on account of their not being in China, despite existing for many generations. And then we have micro dynasties like the Northern Liao or Eastern Xia or the Shun which we ignore, and interregnum regimes like the Xin and Zhou (Wu Zetian) which often get swept under the rug. There are so many factors that seem to influence people's opinions, from ethnicity, to location, to length, to territory, to language and law and the Mandate of Heaven, but it strikes me that there is no one definitive definition - at least not one that I have ever come across.

So my question is, how do you define a dynasty? I am always reminded of an old debate here on the crusades, where a fine fellow called Dreamweaver introduced a historiography of the crusades and how different people considered crusades in different ways: traditionalists who saw crusades as being Papal endorsed expeditions to the Holy Land, pluralists who considered them to be Papal endorsed expeditions anywhere, generalists who considered any religious expedition etc (or something along those lines, my memory is hazy!). The point being, I think historians of China - professional and lay alike - can often be found in similar camps with regards to what constitutes a dynasty.

I have my own views, although I'm still not terribly good at articulating them. I am largely inclined to consider anything that walks like a dynasty and talks like a dynasty to be a dynasty, regardless of the emperor's ethnicity, how many generations or years it lasted, or where abouts in the world it was located. So I would give just as much legitimacy to the Northern Liao as I would to the Han, and would consider them equal in terms of fulfilling my albeit largely ineffable criteria. Although plenty of people disagree with this view, which is what I find so interesting.

Any thoughts?
I think part of it is trying to determine an unbroken line from Xia or Shang until the present day. Thus they may include some non-Sinitic states and also not include others as long as there's another more important dynasty that forms that "link" in the chain. Sometimes this line may be split into two contemporary ones.

Technically a dynasty is a ruling line, typically hereditary. The use of the term dynasty in the East Asian context usually refers to the state or political establishment which usually bore distinct names from each other and were thought of as distinct. If I understand correctly the concept of the nation in the modern sense was very underdeveloped if present at all in premodern East Asia.
 
Last edited:
Oct 2012
3,315
Des Moines, Iowa
#3
The use of the term dynasty in the East Asian context usually refers to the state or political establishment which usually bore distinct names from each other and were thought of as distinct. If I understand correctly the concept of the nation in the modern sense was very underdeveloped if present at all in premodern East Asia.
The English word "state" can be quite ambiguous, since it is used to refer both to a territorial entity (as in "nation-state") as well as a temporary political establishment (as in "government" or "regime"). It is possible for a single "state" to have multiple governments or regimes, which may be wildly different from each other, without the "state" changing. For example, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 resulted in a regime change, but not in a change of state. The same state, called "Iran," continued to exist after the Islamic Revolution. In contrast, the Balkan civil wars of the 90s resulted in the disintegration of the Yugoslavian state, but not the Milosevic regime, which continued to exist until 2000 (although the regime no longer controlled lands formerly part of Yugoslavia).

I am not an expert in East Asian history, but from what I can tell there appears to be a similar distinction between "state" and "regime" in East Asia. The Chinese use the term zhongguo (Central State) to refer to the geographical political entity or "nation" that we now call "China." The various dynasties that ruled China like those of the Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing were different regimes that all ruled (or claimed to rule) the same state, i.e. zhongguo. Is this an accurate interpretation?
 

Haakbus

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
3,750
United States
#4
The English word "state" can be quite ambiguous, since it is used to refer both to a territorial entity (as in "nation-state") as well as a temporary political establishment (as in "government" or "regime"). It is possible for a single "state" to have multiple governments or regimes, which may be wildly different from each other, without the "state" changing. For example, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 resulted in a regime change, but not in a change of state. The same state, called "Iran," continued to exist after the Islamic Revolution. In contrast, the Balkan civil wars of the 90s resulted in the disintegration of the Yugoslavian state, but not the Milosevic regime, which continued to exist until 2000 (although the regime no longer controlled lands formerly part of Yugoslavia).

I am not an expert in East Asian history, but from what I can tell there appears to be a similar distinction between "state" and "regime" in East Asia. The Chinese use the term zhongguo (Central State) to refer to the geographical political entity or "nation" that we now call "China." The various dynasties that ruled China like those of the Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing were different regimes that all ruled (or claimed to rule) the same state, i.e. zhongguo. Is this an accurate interpretation?
Yeah that's true. I think I was using the term nation in the same sense as you're using state. The fine distinctions between specific terms becomes really complex since there's variation even within how people define them.

I've read the term zhongguo actually changed in definition over time. Han-ruled states typically used it to refer only to other Han-ruled states (which were all in the Central Plains area), but some non-Sinitic groups such as the Khitans used it in reference to their dynasty Liao. I believe the Qing redefined zhongguo to all places that their dynasty claimed sovereignty over. I haven't studied this a lot this is just from the relatively little I've read.
 

Theodoric

Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
2,820
#8
I consider a dynasty to be a house which rules over titles. A dynastic period to be a dynasty’s unbroken (or mostly unbroken, since temporary revolts shouldn’t count) rulership of a state. The Habsburgs are a good example of a dynasty who had many people owning many titles. While the dynastic period of the Habsburgs ended in 1806 (well, technically 1740), the Habsburg dynasty continues to this day.
 
Feb 2019
688
Serbia
#9
I consider a dynasty a rule of a single family in an unbroken male line. Habsburgs are an example, they were a dynasty until Maria Theresia, after which her descendants counted as the House of Habsburg-Lorraine. Another example is the House of Hannover, when Victoria died her son became ruler with a cadet branch forming named the House of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, now renamed to the House of Windsor. I also think that a ''dynasty'' is a family that rules in their own right or rules a fief. A mere title such as the Duke of Wellington (And its many subsidiary titles extending across different countries.) does not make its holders a dynasty as the title doesn't give them a country or a fief to actually rule like a king or a prince in the Holy Roman Empire would.
 
Likes: Futurist

Futurist

Ad Honoris
May 2014
19,944
SoCal
#10
I consider a dynasty a rule of a single family in an unbroken male line. Habsburgs are an example, they were a dynasty until Maria Theresia, after which her descendants counted as the House of Habsburg-Lorraine. Another example is the House of Hannover, when Victoria died her son became ruler with a cadet branch forming named the House of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, now renamed to the House of Windsor. I also think that a ''dynasty'' is a family that rules in their own right or rules a fief. A mere title such as the Duke of Wellington (And its many subsidiary titles extending across different countries.) does not make its holders a dynasty as the title doesn't give them a country or a fief to actually rule like a king or a prince in the Holy Roman Empire would.
Completely agreed with this entire analysis. Also, a dynasty can consist of multiple royal houses. For instance, the Capetians consisted of the direct Capetians, the Valois, the Bourbons, the Dreux, the Courtenays, et cetera.
 

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