China has had a glorious 5000 years of civilization. However, not all Chinese today are aware of the historical truth of their country. Under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), history education in the Mainland is a set of Marxist theories on its views, leading the Chinese to draw the wrong conclusion that Chinese history is nothing other than a set of peasant rebellions.
The CCP argues that feudal or imperial dynasties characterized ancient China. The noble and wealthy class (e.g., royal family members, officials, landowners, etc.) oppressed the poor peasants, forcing the latter to rebel and revolt. The CCP argues that this process is the main driving force in the historical development of China, which justifies the legitimacy of the communist regime because the Chinese Communist Party considers itself the representative of impoverished peasants and industrial workers.
With many years of historical research, Professor Zhang Tianliang considers this “the biggest lie in the history of the CCP’s education.” His point of view is based on the historical documents he has analyzed and then gradually clarified his understanding.
The CCP emphasizes class struggle, thus propagating ‘peasant rebellion’
The Chinese Communist Party believes that traitors and groups such as Chen Sheng and Wu Guang, the Yellow Turban, Huang Chao, Li Zicheng, and Zhu Yuanzhang… are the mainstays in history.
Meanwhile, Chinese history students like “to watch flowers while riding on horseback for many important events.” For example, in the Spring and Autumn Warring States period, hundreds of schools of thought appeared.” Emperor Wu explored the Chinese national consciousness form in the Han Dynasty; Buddhism developed during the Sui–Tang period; and in the Ming Dynasty appeared, the “Studies of Supreme Conscience” (心學 – xīn xué) proposed by Wang Yangming, etc. These are significant events in Chinese history yet ignored by the CCP’s history education.
China’s history education creates the impression that peasant rebellion and class struggle … are the drivers of historical development. One class is oppressed too severely and then overthrows another, thus changing the dynasty. However, this conclusion is far from reality.
The Chinese Communist Party propagates struggle, so it always wants to create an impression that class conflicts are very intense; for example, farmers were very much oppressed. But a closer look at China’s history shows that every dynastic change was not due to peasant rebellion—such a thing never happened.
1. Three first dynasties: Xia – Shang – Zhou
(a) Three main culture systems of ancient China
The first dynasty of China is Xia. At that time, Chinese culture was divided into three major regions. The first is the region of Henan, Hebei, Shanxi of China today, belonging to the Central Plains area (Zhōngyuán – 中原) and to the Huaxia (華夏) culture.
Next, the eastern side at that time (the Shandong region) belonged to another ethnic group, called Yi, representing another cultural branch.
And in the South, i.e., Hubei, Hunan belongs to Chu culture. So, in fact, there were three major cultural systems.
(b) From Xia Dynasty to Shang Dynasty
A nation is a cultural concept. Because of different cultures, there are also military conflicts between ethnic groups. For example, it is said that the three dynasties of Xia, Shang, and Zhou are all Chinese and all of the Huaxia ethnic group, but in fact, this is not the case.
The geographical location of the Xia dynasty was roughly the land south of Shanxi, north of Henan, south of Hebei, and west of Shandong. Thus it belongs to the Huaxia ethnic group.
The Huaxia people constantly faced threats from the Yi people from the east (also called ‘Dongyi’ or ‘Shang’ tribe). In “Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji)–Basic Annals of Xia,” Sima Qian showed that not long after the Xia Dynasty was established there, Taikang became the highest ruler of the Xia Dynasty. So it came to pass that Houyi, the chief of the Dongyi group, destroyed the Xia. Thus the history of the Xia Dynasty was interrupted because Houyi captured this land.
Later, after several decades, Shaokang of the Xia clan defeated the Dongyi tribe. This is historically known as the “Shaokang renaissance” period, which re-established the domination of the Xia tribe over this area.
Finally, the Dongyi clan, also called the Shang, managed to destroy the Xia Dynasty. Shang destroying Xia is a state/ethnic group destroying another state/ethnic group. This is nothing like what the CCP propagates—that slave owners oppressed slaves, making their lives so unbearable that they overthrew the dynasty.
(c) From Shang Dynasty to Zhou Dynasty
Likewise, Zhou destroying Shang is also the concept of one state destroying another.
The Shang belongs to the Dongyi culture, while the Zhou Dynasty has the Xia culture.
There were many “states” (small regions) around the Shang, equivalent to the Shang having many minor vassals in many directions. The leaders of these vassal states were called ‘fang bo’ (方伯: leader of one geographical area/direction).
The leader of the Zhou clan at that time was Jichang, the Marquis of West direction (Xi Bo Hou). Gradually the Zhou clan became more and more powerful. At that time, there was an intermarriage relationship between Zhou and Shang (i.e., alliance through marriage), making the Zhou clan even larger.
Later, when the Shang state made an expedition to Huai Shui, the main army of the Shang was deployed to Shandong and Jiangsu to fight. The Zhou state took the opportunity to defeat the Shang. This is the Muye battle well known in history.
Therefore, Zhou’s destruction of Shang was not a struggle created by the slave owners oppressing slaves, but rather a state destroying another state or a clan killing another clan.
2. From Qin to the Han Dynasty
After the Zhou Dynasty came the Qin Dynasty. Qin defeating Zhou is obviously a country against a country. Because it was during the Warring States period, the territory of the Zhou Dynasty became very small and was later destroyed by Qin.
It is a misunderstanding to say the destruction of Qin was due to “class struggle,” or the rebellion of Chen Sheng and Wu Guang caused the Qin state to perish. It is indeed not the case.
In reality, Qin was not destroyed by Han. Although it is often said that after the Qin Dynasty came the Han Dynasty, in fact, between Qin and Han, there was a very short temporary Dynasty, which was the Chu.
(a) Chu state destroyed Qin Dynasty
The CCP propagates that Chen Sheng–Wu Guang rebelled and destroyed the Qin Dynasty, but in fact, the time Chen Sheng–Wu Guang rebelled was very short, no more than half a year. It started in July 209 BC (i.e., the first year of the Qin Dynasty) and ended in November or December of the same year, when Chen Sheng–Wu Guang was utterly annihilated.
In the end, the only people left to destroy Qin were Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. They were all natives of Chu.
Those who rebelled at the time, such as Chen Sheng, Wu Guang, Liu Bang, Xiang Yu, and including Xiao He, Cao Can, Guan Ying, Fan Kuai, Zhou Bo, etc., all came from the Chu state.
Chu state had been a vast country during the Warring States period, which was related initially to Qin, but since Qin unified the whole of China, the people of Chu always refused to obey and still wanted to rebel.
This is why in the “Records of the Grand Historian” (Shiji), Sima Qian used a “Basic Annal” (běnjì 本紀) to record Xiang Yu (the emperor of the Chu state). We know that “Basic Annals” are dedicated to dynasties or emperors. Sima Qian used the standard of “Basic Annal” to record Xiang Yu’s history, which is to say: in Sima Qian’s eyes, he recognized Xiang Yu’s status as the founder of a country.
Because “Records of the Grand Historian” is composed of stories about historical characters, the chronological order is sometimes quite ambiguous. Therefore, Grand Historian Sima Qian specially made “Tables” (biǎo 表), showing what happened at what time. Correspondingly, the Han–Chu War period, including Chen Sheng–Wu Guang’s rebellion, is recorded in a “Table” called “Qin-Chu Period Monthly Table,” detailing each month what happened between Qin and Chu.
Why didn’t Sima Qian call it “Qin-Han Period Monthly Table”? It was because Sima Qian admitted that there was a government called Chu at that time.
(b) The perdition of the Han Dynasty
After Chinese history entered the Han Dynasty, every time a dynasty perished, it was almost always a model of a “powerful minister usurping the throne” or one state destroying another, absolutely not due to “peasant rebellion.”
Chinese people who study history often say that the Yellow Turban rebellion caused the perdition of the Eastern Han Dynasty. But in fact, the uprising by the Yellow Turban army was extinguished very quickly. The real doom of the Han Dynasty was because Cao Cao’s son—Cao Pi, overthrew the Han Dynasty. This is the model of a “powerful minister usurping the throne.” At that time, Cao Pi was the King of Wei, as he had overthrown the Emperor of Han.
3. Wei-Jin-North and South dynasties
The Wei-Jin-North and South dynasties period was essentially a divisive era in China’s history when different states existed in other geographical areas in China. This period began in 220, when Cao Pi usurped the throne of the Han Emperor, and ended in 589, when Yang Jian, Emperor of the Sui Dynasty, unified China.
(a) The destruction of the Han Dynasty and Western Jin Dynasty
After the King of Wei state—Cao Pi, usurped the Emperor of the Han Dynasty, history entered the Three Kingdoms period.
At the end of the Three Kingdoms period, Sima Yan of the Sima clan took over the national government of the Wei state and established the Western Jin Dynasty. So, from the Three Kingdoms period to the Western Jin Dynasty, it was also according to the model of a “powerful minister usurping the throne.”
Western Jin could only maintain a unified situation for a short period. At the time, northern China was characterized by “The Upheaval of the Five Barbarians” (Wǔ hú luàn huá–五胡亂華). This is again the model of a clan destroying another clan. In the war between ethnic groups, including the Xiongnu, Xianbei, Jie, Di, and Qiang, they fought back and forth with each other.
The perdition of the Western Jin Dynasty was caused by foreign invasion, which was the model of one country destroying another. First, a member of the Xiongnu nobility, Liu Yuan, founded the Han Zhao Dynasty. Then his sons Liu Cong and Liu Yi attacked the Western Jin capital Luoyang. History calls this period the “Yongjia Chaos.” Then the Western Jin Dynasty perished, again, neither because of peasant treason nor class struggle.
(b) Eastern Jin Dynasty
In 316, after Liu Yao destroyed the Western Jin Dynasty, Sima Rui moved to the South and established the Eastern Jin Dynasty. The two regions of the South and the North were once again divided.
Later, Eastern Jin had a great general, Liu Yu, who finally replaced Eastern Jin and established the Song Dynasty. This is also a model of a “powerful minister usurping the throne.”
The changes in national politics of the four southern countries, namely Song–Qi–Liang–Chen (under the Northern and Southern Dynasties period), all belonged to a kind of “powerful minister usurping the throne.”
Next, in the North, Northern Zhou destroying Northern Qi (under the Southern and Northern Dynasties period) also belonged to the model of a “powerful minister usurping the throne.”
4. Sui–Tang, Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms
(a) From Sui to Tang Dynasty
Later, Northern Zhou was replaced by the Sui Dynasty. Yang Jian, Emperor Wen of the Sui Dynasty, was the grandfather of the Northern Zhou Emperor. He was given the title of “King of Sui,” then he deposed the little Emperor and established the Sui Dynasty by himself. This is a typical model of a “powerful minister usurping the throne.”
Similarly, the Tang Dynasty replaced the Sui Dynasty in the same way. Li Yuan, the founding emperor of the Tang dynasty, and Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty were cousins. They had a common grandfather, Duguxin, the general in the Western Wei Dynasty. Li Yuan defended Taiyuan at that time, then replaced the Sui Dynasty. This is also a model of a “powerful minister usurping the throne.”
(b) Tang Dynasty perished but not because of Huang Chao’s rebellion
History learners in China often think that Huang Chao rebelled and caused the Tang Dynasty to perish. But, at that time, Huang Chao did not establish a unified dynasty. Instead, he just formed a government of pirates, plundering everywhere they went, and the locality he occupied was tiny. Huang Chao only stayed in Chang’an for 2-3 years. After that, he killed a lot of people during many battles.
At that time, Emperor Zhaozong of the Tang Dynasty was still in power. Zhu Wen caused the real perdition of the Tang Dynasty—history calls this period “Zhu Wen usurped Tang.” Zhu Wen was a Jiedushi (节度使, a title for regional military governors), so this was also a model of a “powerful minister usurping the throne.”
Next came the period of “Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms,” which were basically all “powerful ministers usurping the throne.”
5. Song–Yuan–Ming–Qing Dynasties
(a) Song Dynasty
Next is the Song Dynasty. Zhao Kuangyin— the Song Dynasty founder, was also a powerful minister who ended the Later Zhou government. He was the Commander of the Forbidden Army, who replaced the little emperor of Later Zhou, then became emperor himself, establishing the Northern Song Dynasty.
Northern Song was destroyed by the Jin state, equivalent to an invasion by an alien race. And the perdition of the Southern Song was due to the Mongols: Kublai Khan of Mongolia destroyed the Southern Song and established the Yuan Dynasty. So this, again, is a country destroying another country, not a class struggle.
(b) Yuan Dynasty
It is said that the Yuan Dynasty ended due to peasant rebellion, but the reality is not quite so.
Zhu Yuanzhang, who finally overthrew the Yuan Dynasty, was not a farmer; he was a monk. After Zhu Yuanzhang carried out the unification of the South in 1368, he announced sending troops to the North. This Northern Expedition was not a class struggle. In fact, Zhu published the verse “Serving the Heaven and punishing the Yuan army.” This event carries the color of national consciousness and national liberation.
His slogan for the Northern Expedition was: “Expel the barbarians, restore China, establish principles and disciplines, save the people.” In other words, he called for national independence, that is, not to let the Mongols rule. So again, it cannot be said to be the result of class struggle.
(c) Qing Dynasty
After that, the Qing Dynasty destroyed the Ming Dynasty, which is certainly one state destroying another. Someone said: “Didn’t Li Zicheng destroy the Ming Dynasty at that time, wasn’t this peasant rebellion?”
But Li Zicheng, like Huang Chao in the past, did not occupy too large a territory. He was just attacking Beijing. After that, Wu Sangui surrendered to Dorgon, and the Manchus drove out Li Zicheng.
In fact, at that time, Southern China still had the Nanming government (“Nanming” literally means the Ming Dynasty in the South). Therefore, it cannot be said that the death of the Ming Dynasty was due to Li Zicheng. In fact, the Ming Dynasty was erased by the Qing Dynasty.
In the last years of the Qing Dynasty, the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 also had a color of national independence. That year, Sun Yat-sen borrowed the slogan of Zhu Yuanzhang, he said: “Expel the barbarians, restore China.”
Thus, looking at the dynastic changes in Chinese history, it can be seen that the impressions gained in Mainland history education such as “how acute is the class conflict, after that the peasants could not stand it, so they protested, which led to the change of the dynasty.” These are all incorrect judgments.
In ancient China, the income gap was not large
In China, a scholar named Qin Hui specializes in land research. He is a Professor in the Department of Human and Social Sciences of Tsinghua University. He computed the land distribution in ancient China using the concept of the Gini coefficient.
Conducting statistics based on the most primitive data available, Qin Hui found that in the traditional imperial society of ancient China, there was a reasonably equitable distribution of land.
According to his calculation, the Gini coefficient of China’s land distribution was roughly below 0.4. Therefore, a Gini coefficient below 0.4 indicates relatively equitable distribution.
To make it easy for us to imagine, suppose you have a considerable area of land, but you personally cannot afford to grow crops on that land. In that case, you hire people to grow crops. In other words, although you hold a lot of land, your income is not the total income of all the land. Meaning, that the Gini coefficient of income is slightly smaller (i.e., more equitable) than the Gini coefficient of land.
Therefore, in ancient China, the income gap was not significant. As a result, the class conflict was not as tense as the Chinese Communist Party claims.
The above arguments have clarified the biggest lie in the CCP’s historical education, namely, class struggle being the driving force of history’s development and the cause of dynastic changes.
Reference: “History of Chinese Civilisation” – series of lectures by Professor Zhang Tianliang on Land of Hope TV.