China’s historical cycle of rise and fall

By ZHENG RENZHAO / 12-30-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Ming Xiaoling, the mausoleum of the founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), is located at Nanjing, a city that served as the capital of six dynasties or regional kingdoms in imperial China. Photo: CFP

Rulers in ancient China all realized the problem of the dynastic cycle, and actively explored a way to learn from the lessons of predecessors and to maintain a lengthy peaceful reign.

People of the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE) invented the term “Yin Jian” (Shang’s lessons), implying that the Shang (c. 16th–11th century BCE) should have taken warning from its predecessor, the Xia Dynasty (c. 21st–16th century BCE). After Zhou, as a small vassal state, overthrew the rule of the vast Shang, the Zhou rulers were also deeply shocked by the Shang’s downfall and emphasized the importance of “Yin Jian.” According to the Confucian classic Shangshu, Duke Zhao, a high-ranking official of the early Zhou Dynasty, suggested Zhou rulers “by all means survey the dynasties of Xia and Yin [Shang Dynasty]” (trans. James Legge). 
During the Spring and Autumn (770–476 BCE) and Warring States (475–221 BCE) periods, upon witnessing the decline of the Zhou Dynasty and the vassal states that waxed and waned, ideologists were increasingly aware of the existence of a cycle in which each dynasty rose to a peak, then declined, and was finally replaced by a new one. According to The Analects, [when asked whether the state of things ten generations hence could be foretold], Confucius said: “We know in what ways the Yin [Shang] modified ritual [li] when they followed upon the Xia. We know in what ways the Zhou modified ritual when they followed upon the Yin. And hence we can foretell what the successors of Zhou will be like, even supposing they do not appear till a hundred generations from now” (trans. Arthur Waley). Although what Confucius spoke of was li [originally denoting court rites performed to sustain social and cosmic order, but then interpreted by Confucius as formal social roles and institutions that the ancients abstracted from cosmic models to order communal life], he clearly outlined the historical succession of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties, as well as the inevitable trend that the Zhou would be replaced by a new dynasty. He even inferred that this trend would continue for a hundred generations.
The ancient Chinese raised the question of “why.” Six Strategies [an ancient military treatise] records that King Wen of Zhou, founder of the Zhou Dynasty, asked Jiang Ziya, a Zhou minister: “The world is dazzling. It is sometimes rich, sometimes poor, sometimes stable, and sometimes in chaos. How does it come to be thus? Is it because of the moral qualities of the rulers? Or is it just because of the natural changes of the Mandate of Heaven [an ancient belief that the monarch was favored by Heaven to rule over China, which was the basis for the legitimacy of political authority]?” (trans. Nie Songlai) 
Rulers of later dynasties also asked almost the same question: Why did the previous dynasty fall, and how did my dynasty emerge victorious? For example, Emperor Gaozu of Han, the founder of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), asked Lu Jia, one of his counselors, to figure out why the Qin (221–207 BCE) failed to rule the country and how the Han achieved power. He also asked Lu to find out the reasons for the success and failure of previous dynasties. Tang Huiyao [an institutional history of the Tang Dynasty (618–907)] records that every time Emperor Taizong of Tang arrived at a place that was significant to previous dynasty’s rise and fall, he would ask his subordinates why these dynasties came to an end, and took warning from their failures. Emperor Taizong of Song, the second emperor of the Song Dynasty (960–1279), recruited officials and scholars of the former dynasty and asked them the same question as Emperor Taizong of Tang did. Some Song Dynasty military generals, who surrendered themselves to the Yuan army, were also questioned by Kublai, founder of the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), about the reason for the collapse of the Song. 
There are many historical records like this, and the core of these questions is nothing more than how to avoid falling into the “same old trap” that the former dynasties had stepped into. 
Reasons for dynastic cycle
When a new dynasty was founded, it usually made a political summary of the rise and fall of the previous dynasty, and there were many discussions at court and even among common people. The ancients summed up reasons for the decline of dynasties, roughly as follows:
The first one, is that state governance was not based on benevolence and rulers had no care for common people. The ancient Chinese believed that the change of dynasties was the result of the shift of the Mandate of Heaven. However, according to Shangshu, [when he marched to the Mengjin ford and met with more than 800 dukes in 1048 BCE before overthrowing the Shang Dynasty], King Wu of Zhou declared: “Heaven sees as my people see; Heaven hears as my people hear,” and “what the people desire, Heaven will be found to give effect to” (trans. James Legge). Therefore, it is the will of the people that determines the rise and fall of a dynasty. This idea was also supported by other ancient classics, such as the ancient political and philosophical text Guanzi—“Policies can be carried out if they are in accordance with the will of the people; policies will be annulled if they are against the will of the people” (trans. Zhai Jiangyue).
Shangshu records that the first king of the Shang Dynasty accused the last ruler of the Xia that “the king of Xia in every way exhausted the strength of his people, and exercised oppression in the cities of Xia. His multitudes are becoming entirely indifferent [to his service], and feel no bond of union [to him].” Similarly, King Wu of Zhou accused the last ruler of Shang of [employing and trusting vagabonds], and “making them great officers and high nobles, so that they can tyrannize over the people, and exercise their villainies in the cities of Shang” (all translated by James Legge). In his essay “The Faults of Qin,” the Han Dynasty statesman Jia Yi explained Qin’s collapse as a result of its ruler’s ruthless pursuit of power. 
Emperor Taizong of Tang and his court officials had endless discussions about dynastic ups and downs. Emperor Taizong believed that one of the important reasons for the relatively short rule of the Sui Dynasty (581–618) was that Yang Guang [the second and also the last ruler of the Sui] committed to many large construction projects [that took countless lives of laborers] for his own pleasure, which finally left the populace in revolt. Emperor Taizong said that he personally saw how Yang Guang ruled the country and regarded this as a deterrent.
The second reason for the downfall of dynasties, lies in the extravagant lives of the upper class and corrupt politicians. After the Song conquered the Later Shu Kingdom [in present-day Sichuan Province], Emperor Taizu of Song was shocked when he saw the Shu ruler’s urinal, which was decorated with seven types of jewels. He [broke this urinal into pieces and] said that with a ruler like this, the collapse of the Later Shu was inevitable. The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) also blamed the fall of the Yuan on the extravagance of the ruling class. In order to maintain a luxurious lifestyle, almost the entire system of the Yuan court became corrupt. At the end of the Yuan era, official positions were sold for money and the Yuan administrative system was ruined.
The third rationale was that court discipline and administrative rules were neglected and ceased to be binding, which caused rulers to lose authority. In historical texts, the late years of a dynasty were often associated with lax attitudes to orders and laws. As the ruling class decayed and a series of effective systems fell into obsolescence, the national governance was hard to maintain. 
During the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220), palace eunuchs and various consort clans of the imperial family involved themselves in court politics, competing for power. During the late Tang period, the control of fanzhen [strategic settlement of troops in locations along the empire’s border areas] devolved from central authority into the hands of local leaders, who at times became powerful enough to threaten the imperial court. These phenomena were in essence the weakening of the emperor’s authority, which contributed to wars, chaos, and the disintegration of the empire. 
Dorgon, a regent of the early Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), commented on the downfall of the Ming Dynasty that the late Ming officials banded together in rival political factions, among which the loyal and honest were framed while people without merit were employed. Such chaos at court finally led to disasters and contributed to the breakdown of the Ming Empire. Factional strife was also a major cause of political instability in ancient times. It would cause ruptures within court that seriously impeded its effectiveness, leading to the break-up or collapse of the dynasty.
Ancient dynasties unable to escape dynastic cycle 
The ancient Chinese had been exploring ways to jump out of the dynastic cycle, including prodding monarchs into action to prevent the state from declining. However, for thousands of years, people had been generally pessimistic on the question of whether or not they could break out of the cycle. 
Early in the Western Zhou Dynasty, the Duke of Zhou said that the Zhou should learn from the Shang’s failure, but he found it impossible to predict whether the Zhou would enjoy a long reign.
Liu Xiang, a Han Dynasty scholar, clearly noted that dynasties could not avoid decline, because no matter how great the pioneers of each dynasty were, there were always black sheep appearing in their later generations. Liu’s statement was widely spread in later ages, and many emperors agreed with his opinion, including Emperor Taizong of Tang. Emperor Taizong of Tang pointed out that although the rulers at the beginning of a dynasty were able to remain vigilant and clear-headed, their successors always rested on their laurels, which eventually led to the collapse of the dynasty.
Ma Zhou, a chancellor at the Tang court, put forward something representative—although rulers saw the decline of the previous dynasty, they did not really draw lessons from it, and were unable to examine their own problems. As a result, the successors laughed at their predecessors, and then were laughed at by their successors, a cycle which repeated infinitely. 
It can be seen that the ancient Chinese generally did not believe that the dynastic cycle could be broken, except Qin Shi Huang, the founder of the Qin Dynasty and creator of the first unified Chinese empire. He believed that the reign of the Qin Empire would last forever. However, the Qin collapsed during his son’s reign.
The reason why all the dynasties in China’s history could not break the cycle of rise and fall is because they neither allowed the people to supervise state governance, nor could they perform self-reform.
Zheng Renzhao is a research fellow from the Institute of History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.