Jingdechong Temple (景德崇聖殿) - the main hall of the temple of successive emperors in Beijing (北京) (Photo credit: Nie Ming/Fotoe)

A tremendous amount of historical materials are left from the long course of Chinese history, many of which are controversial. For example, was the vassal enfeoffment system doomed to chaos? Was Emperor Qinshihuang (秦始皇) an “Emperor of All Ages” or a despotic tyrant? How could Emperor Wu of Han (漢武帝) avoid the downfall of the dynasty despite him following in Emperor Qinshihuang’s footsteps? Who should bear the greatest responsibility for the decline of the Tang dynasty (唐代)? Training one’s critical thinking and analytical skills is of most crucial when studying history. Simply reciting the names, places, and orders of dynasties is not sufficient. Instead, we need to learn how to analyse historical issues. It is advisable not to parrot what has already been said but to generate new insights.

1. Was the vassal enfeoffment system doomed to chaos?

The answer is affirmative. The system endowed local vassals with powerful military strength, making them arrogant and difficult to control. This would eventually lead to chaos. The history of the Western Zhou (西周), Western Han (西漢), Western Jin (西晉), and Ming (明代) dynasties demonstrates the system was a source of chaos.


2. Was Emperor Qinshihuang an “Emperor of All Ages” or a despotic tyrant?

When it comes to Emperor Qinshihuang, people may consider him a despotic tyrant for his demerits, such as burning books and burying scholars, and enslaving people to build public works. However, his efforts to unify the nation, establish the System of Prefectures and Counties, and standardise the writing and measurement systems have long been overlooked. His demerits indeed exert a negative impact in a certain period while his merits have endured throughout history and benefited later generations. Therefore, it is necessary to comprehensively assess both Emperor Qinshihuang’s achievements and faults to make an objective evaluation of him.


3. Was Emperor Wu of Han’s governance approach the cause of the dictatorship of consort relatives during the Western and Eastern Han dynasties?

Emperor Wu of Han is known for his talents and bold strategies, but his mistake of allowing imperial relatives to interfere in government affairs is rarely spoken of. During the Western and Eastern Han dynasties, emperors tended to appoint relatives as their personal guards, a practice initiated by Emperor Wu. In a bid to consolidate his own power, Emperor Wu cultivated insider court to usurp the power of the outsider court. This disrupted the normal operation of the bureaucratic system and blazed a trail for imperial relatives to interfere in government affairs.


4. How could Emperor Wu of Han avoid the downfall of the dynasty despite him following Emperor Qinshihuang’s footsteps?

Similar to Emperor Qinshihuang, Emperor Wu was also an overly ambitious ruler. He launched military expeditions towards the surrounding areas and indulged in touring the country, which in essence was almost the same as Emperor Qinshihuang. Emperor Wu made many mistakes during his reign of more than 50 years, which nearly pushed the Han dynasty to the brink of collapse. However, he was able to adjust his ruling policies according to the circumstances and make timely corrections to his mistakes. He also introduced policies to reduce people’s tax and corvee to allow them to participate in the production. In this regard, he clearly outperformed Emperor Qinshihuang. Since the Han dynasty seized power from the Qin dynasty, the rulers of the Han always bore in mind the lessons of Qin’s collapse. This is also an important reason why Emperor Wu was able to avoid repeating the same mistakes.


5. Who should bear the greatest responsibility for the decline of the Tang dynasty?
Traditionally, historians often blame the country’s unrest on treacherous concubines and  officials. Although those like Li Linfu (李林甫) and Yang Guozhong (楊國忠), and the Imperial Consort Yang (楊貴妃, Yang Guifei) were triggers of the An Lushan Rebellion (安史之亂), Emperor Xuanzong should bear the greatest responsibility. In his early reign, Emperor Xuanzong made every effort to boost the development of the nation by recruiting competent talents and accepting admonishment with an open mind. Later, due to his intimacy with treacherous officials and indulgence in extravagance and pleasures, he turned from a wise ruler to a fatuous one. This finally caused the fall of the Kaiyuan Flourishing Age (開元盛世) that he himself had created.


6. Was Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后) the one to blame for the failure of the political reforms in the late Qing dynasty (清代)?      
During the reign of Empress Dowager Cixi, in response to the foreign invasions, the Qing imperial court launched the Self-Strengthening Movement (or Western Affairs Movement, 洋務運動), and the Hundred Days’ Reform (or Wuxu Reform, 百日維新), which both ended in failure. Empress Dowager Cixi should undoubtedly, bear the greatest responsibility. At that time, neither Emperor Tongzhi (同治) nor Emperor Guangxu (光緒) held real power.  Empress Dowager Cixi, the supreme ruler of China at that time, lacked the knowledge and vision to lead the country towards modernisation. She put her power and interests above all else. When her interests were undermined by the reforms, she would rather sacrifice the national interests to stifle the reforms.


7. Was Sun Yat-sen (孫中山) the main contributor to the success of the 1911 Revolution?         
Although Sun Yat-sen was abroad when the 1911 Revolution broke out and did not personally command the Wuchang Uprising (武昌起義), he was still the main contributor to the success of the Revolution. He was China’s first professional revolutionist and also the key figure in igniting the republican revolution in China. His Three Principles of the People (《三民主義》) inspired many to devote themselves to the revolution, contributing greatly to the 1911 Revolution’s success.


8. Was Yuan Shikai (袁世凱) a kleptocrat?

Yuan Shikai has long been regarded as a villain in modern Chinese history, and many history books often describe him as a kleptocrat. Despite this, Yuan’s contributions were substantial. He was the founder of China’s modern ground force and the first person to set up a modern military school in China. While serving as the Viceroy of Zhili (直隸總督), Yuan spared no effort in promoting autonomous governance and arranged universal suffrage among the grassroots. His claim to the throne was motivated partly by his desire for power and partly by an ambition to rebuild the political centralisation system to end the fragmented situation in China.


9. Why was the Kuomintang of China (KMT, 中國國民黨) defeated by the Chines Communist Party (CCP, 中國共產黨) during the Chinese Civil War?    
There are several reasons behind the KMT’s failure, with the most important one being corruption and autocracy, which made them lose the support and trust of the public. The CCP, however, held high the banner of democracy and carried out land reforms, thereby winning the people’s support. In addition, the People’s Liberation Army, who was guided by sound discipline, used appropriate strategies. These are the important factors that led to the CCP’s victory and the KMT’s failure.


10. Why did China carry out reform and open up?

Since the reform and opening-up in 1978, China has witnessed tremendous and profound changes. The reform that determined China’s destiny began with the liberation of the mind. After ten years of turmoil during the Cultural Revolution, China faced multiple leftover historical problems, as well as a confused population. Under the active advocation of Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) and Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), the discussion on the standard of truth broke through the ideological cage of the “Two Whatevers” (a dogmatic belief holding whatever Chairman Mao [毛澤東] said to be correct), which enabled the CCP to promote reform and opening up with a pragmatic approach. Ever since then, the CCP has repudiated the erroneous theory of “taking class struggle as the guiding principle”, and established the governing strategy of “taking economic development as the core task”.

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