What is a dynasty?

Theodoric

Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
2,814
#13
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.
It depends on succession laws, your definition only applies to agnatic succession laws. Not all succession laws of the title. Some are cognatic, which would mean there isn’t a change in dynasty. Also, England’s tudor dynasty didn’t change with Queen Elizabeth, and the House of Windsor won’t change with Charles. Egyptian dynasties, which are some of the earliest in recorded history, similarly aren’t counted as different based on female heads.
 
Sep 2012
1,102
Taiwan
#14
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.
My question is how arbitrary is this notion of an unbroken line? That the historical people of China believed in this progression is something we must respect and bear in mind, but how far should it define how we examine dynasties now? And who decided on this unbroken line? What about the people excluded from it? I'm sure the emperors of these excluded states still thought themselves emperors, thought their state a dynasty, whose people may have believed it possessed the Mandate and by all accounts carried on exactly as any other dynasty might have. Yet because a group of courtiers and officials got together centuries later and struck it off the list, we shouldn't consider it a dynasty? I find it particularly interesting in modern terms, as China is retroactively trying to incorporate peripheral states and peoples back into the patchwork of Chinese history. Then we get a weird situation, where non-Chinese states traditionally excluded from the original grand narrative - often objects of derision and attack themselves - have to be reappraised, renegotiated and by all accounts artificially Sinicised after the fact.

At least two consecutive rulers from the same family.
I see this argument sometimes and it is a dictionary definition of the term. But lets say there are two states, both last for 50 years and are equal in all aspects apart from that the first has two rulers that rule for 25 years each, and the second has one ruler who rules for the whole 50 years. Literally nothing else besides the number of rulers changes, yet one is a dynasty and one isn't? I understand why that definition might fit for Rome or Byzantium or the Holy Roman Empire, but it doesn't gel very well with China, where the term seems to encapsulate so much more.

I think what OP meant wasn't the general definition of dynasty, but how dynasty is defined in Chinese historiographical sense.
Indeed so. Always interesting to see the comparison with the rest of the world though I suppose and how the term is understood elsewhere.
 
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Haakbus

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
3,749
United States
#15
My question is how arbitrary is this notion of an unbroken line? That the historical people of China believed in this progression is something we must respect and bear in mind, but how far should it define how we examine dynasties now? And who decided on this unbroken line? What about the people excluded from it? I'm sure the emperors of these excluded states still thought themselves emperors, thought their state a dynasty, whose people may have believed it possessed the Mandate and by all accounts carried on exactly as any other dynasty might have. Yet because a group of courtiers and officials got together centuries later and struck it off the list, we shouldn't consider it a dynasty? I find it particularly interesting in modern terms, as China is retroactively trying to incorporate peripheral states and peoples back into the patchwork of Chinese history. Then we get a weird situation, where non-Chinese states traditionally excluded from the original grand narrative - often objects of derision and attack themselves - have to be reappraised, renegotiated and by all accounts artificially Sinicised after the fact.



I see this argument sometimes and it is a dictionary definition of the term. But lets say there are two states, both last for 50 years and are equal in all aspects apart from that the first has two rulers that rule for 25 years each, and the second has one ruler who rules for the whole 50 years. Literally nothing else besides the number of rulers changes, yet one is a dynasty and one isn't? I understand why that definition might fit for Rome or Byzantium or the Holy Roman Empire, but it doesn't gel very well with China, where the term seems to encapsulate so much more.



Indeed so. Always interesting to see the comparison with the rest of the world though I suppose and how the term is understood elsewhere.
Perceived (real or not) relatedness is often pretty whimsical and in some cases based on what is expedient at the time. For example the Shilla royal family claiming decent from Jin Midi to gain the favor of the Chinese. Obviously identity is an important part of a culture, but I personally prefer to "rise above" how people felt at the time and make tangible comparisons between societies based on measurable culture, in particular language.
 
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Naomasa298

Forum Staff
Apr 2010
34,479
T'Republic of Yorkshire
#16
In Japan, an adopted son is considered a legitimate continuation of a family.

Not talking about Emperors, but you can certainly see this in the families than run large conglomerates as well as the historical daimyo families - I think these can be legitimately described as a dynasty.
 

Aupmanyav

Ad Honorem
Jun 2014
5,572
New Delhi, India
#17
That is true for India too, an adopted son (or daughter) enjoys all rights as a biological son or daughter, legally too, 'Dharmaputra' or 'putri'.
 
Sep 2012
1,102
Taiwan
#18
Today I came across an example of this issue, in the recent A.W. Mellon lectures given this year by the art historian Wu Hung. Here he introduces, by necessity, a chronological narrative of Chinese dynasties, which he marks in two separate phases: the pre-Imperial and the Imperial. The pre-Imperial are ruled by kinship groups, whilst the Imperial dynasties are ruled by a hereditary line wherein the head is the Son of Heaven. He explains that whist the progression is relatively neat, it is marked by periods of division, where smaller regional states competed with each other.



This is an example of one of the approaches I outlined originally, that excludes peripheral foreign states, such as the W. Xia, Liao and Jin (although we could certainly argue the Jin at least was not peripheral). It also contains an interesting dating, wherein he marks the Six Dynasties as beginning in 220. This is a particularly interesting point, as it means he favours the Cao Wei over the Eastern Wu as being the first of the Six Dynasties. It is also a political point, as firstly it reinforces dynasticity as a product of Chinese legitimacy, as opposed to geography, and secondly it excludes the non-Han states encapsulated within the term Northern and Southern Dynasties Furthermore, it highlights one of the key contradictions in our method of outlining Chinese history. He marks here the difference between the established, unified dynasties that ruled over all of China, and the periods of division. This throws up an age old problem that I've always been fascinated in: what about the W. Jin? The W. Jin did unify China, before the north fell and it became the E. Jin. We see a very similar state of affairs in the N. and S. Song. The Song however gets its name listed, with no mention of its split, whilst the Jin is absorbed into the Six Dynasties. Which tells us that perhaps unification and legitimacy are not so important as time: that because the W. Jin only unified China for around 30 years, it 'doesn't count', or that such technicalities can be swept under the rug in order to present a more fluid, if essentially more erroneous narrative. Furthermore, there are issues with other datings. The dating of Sui is given by the date of its unification (589), as opposed to its founding (581). This is the same for the Qing, and the reverse for the Ming, wherein the date of its ending is 1644, as opposed to 1662; this again obscures the geographical angle, as in 1644 the Qing didn't actually control that much of China. However, this is not the case for the Song, wherein the date of establishment (960), is given over the date of unification (979).

Many of these are traditional dates and these are often the dates and terms we use to communicate Chinese history. But they are inherently politicised and compromised. I think that given the confusing nature of Chinese history, compromise is necessary to talk about the grand narrative of Chinese history, but my question is, are we making the right ones? When we talk about dynasties and we include some dynasties over others, we are making a choice, but I'm not sure we really understand that choice sometimes, or its implications.
 
Mar 2012
4,404
#19
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.
I don't believe there is any dynasty in Chinese history which claimed only "Han-ruled" states are Zhongguo. For one, the concept of Han as an ethnic marker seems to have only been used by non-native regimes on the natives that they ruled; the practice began with Northern Wei, but by Tang times, Han is pretty much a synonym to geographic Zhongguo, not an ethnonym. The Liao-Jin reintroduced the term to refer to native Chinese under their rule. It's not until the Ming dynasty, that the Chinese themselves even used Han as an ethnic identity to refer to themselves. There isn't any dynastic record or writings I am aware of which claimed that regimes such as the Xianbei Northern Zhou, or the Shatuo Later Jin and Later Tang as not Zhongguo or not Hua.
 
Mar 2012
4,404
#20
Today I came across an example of this issue, in the recent A.W. Mellon lectures given this year by the art historian Wu Hung. Here he introduces, by necessity, a chronological narrative of Chinese dynasties, which he marks in two separate phases: the pre-Imperial and the Imperial. The pre-Imperial are ruled by kinship groups, whilst the Imperial dynasties are ruled by a hereditary line wherein the head is the Son of Heaven. He explains that whist the progression is relatively neat, it is marked by periods of division, where smaller regional states competed with each other.



This is an example of one of the approaches I outlined originally, that excludes peripheral foreign states, such as the W. Xia, Liao and Jin (although we could certainly argue the Jin at least was not peripheral). It also contains an interesting dating, wherein he marks the Six Dynasties as beginning in 220. This is a particularly interesting point, as it means he favours the Cao Wei over the Eastern Wu as being the first of the Six Dynasties. It is also a political point, as firstly it reinforces dynasticity as a product of Chinese legitimacy, as opposed to geography, and secondly it excludes the non-Han states encapsulated within the term Northern and Southern Dynasties Furthermore, it highlights one of the key contradictions in our method of outlining Chinese history. He marks here the difference between the established, unified dynasties that ruled over all of China, and the periods of division. This throws up an age old problem that I've always been fascinated in: what about the W. Jin? The W. Jin did unify China, before the north fell and it became the E. Jin. We see a very similar state of affairs in the N. and S. Song. The Song however gets its name listed, with no mention of its split, whilst the Jin is absorbed into the Six Dynasties. Which tells us that perhaps unification and legitimacy are not so important as time: that because the W. Jin only unified China for around 30 years, it 'doesn't count', or that such technicalities can be swept under the rug in order to present a more fluid, if essentially more erroneous narrative. Furthermore, there are issues with other datings. The dating of Sui is given by the date of its unification (589), as opposed to its founding (581). This is the same for the Qing, and the reverse for the Ming, wherein the date of its ending is 1644, as opposed to 1662; this again obscures the geographical angle, as in 1644 the Qing didn't actually control that much of China. However, this is not the case for the Song, wherein the date of establishment (960), is given over the date of unification (979).

Many of these are traditional dates and these are often the dates and terms we use to communicate Chinese history. But they are inherently politicised and compromised. I think that given the confusing nature of Chinese history, compromise is necessary to talk about the grand narrative of Chinese history, but my question is, are we making the right ones? When we talk about dynasties and we include some dynasties over others, we are making a choice, but I'm not sure we really understand that choice sometimes, or its implications.
This is a modern classification, I haven't come across any ancient historian who considers Western Jin to belong to a "long period of disunity" which encompasses the three kingdoms as well. The Jin lacked stability but it is still clearly a unified and legitimate regime which received the mandate of heaven. As short as its period of unity was, it was still longer than the Qin dynasty, and if we include the rebellion of the 8 kings, its also longer than the Sui.

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.
We need to distinguish what ancient Confucian historiography considered legitimate, with what modern ethnic nationalist historiography might consider legitimate. There are very different lines of thoughts involved here. Even these two categories have nuances. There are geographical determinists from the northern dynasties and Yuan era who considers any dynasty which ruled the Central Plains as legitimate, this would make the Dong Wu, Southern dynasties and Southern Song the peripheral dynasties (and yes even foreign, as the southern dynasties ruled the barbarian lands). Then there is the idea that the legitimate dynasty is only legitimate by inheriting it from the previous legitimate dynasty. This view is held by Qing dynasty rulers such as Qianlong:
夫正统者,继前统受新命也。东晋以后,宋、齐、梁、陈虽江左偏安,而所承者晋之正统,其时若拓跋魏氏地大势强,北齐、北周继之,亦较南朝为甚,而中华正统不得不属之宋、齐、梁、陈者,其所承之统正也。

This means that dynasties like Shu Han, Southern dynasties, and Southern Song are more legitimate than Cao Wei, Northern dynasties, and Jurchen Jin. It has nothing to do with ethnic categories however, as Qianlong thought that the Yuan and Qing are fully legitimate dynasties as there are no opposition against them at all.
 
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