While the West usually inherited the patriotism, valor, and interest of their parents or relatives from generations before joining the military, the other half of the world had quite a different approach. As the pattern of generational aspiration passed on for generations and is still quite prevalent today, leading an army, particularly in imperial-led countries, was imperative to keep tight-grip control of a nation and its people.
One good example of examing the rise and fall of military dynasties is the rise and fall of Imperial China. Scanning through its historical accounts, one could easily identify the recurring trends that made the country skyrocket into its golden era before crumbling down into nothing but a thing in the past. For centuries, the powerful families managed to pass on thrones from one generation to another before members of the royalties would end up betraying each other because of an uncontrollable thirst for power, ineptitude, or being too young and too impressionable to lead an army and a nation.
While China had established dozens of dynasties with significant contributions to its history and evolution, one of the most well-known and consequential periods was the Han Empire dynasty.
The Rise of the Han Empire
The Han Dynasty, the contemporaries of the Roman Empire, held the longest empire to rule over unified China between 202 BC and 220 AD. Some historians would even go on and say it was the country’s “golden era” as economic, cultural, and scientific accomplishments flourished and thrived during this period, contributing to the formation of Chinese identity. Its rule was briefly interrupted due to civil unrest and rebellion before being re-established by a different branch of the same family, and from then on, the dynasty would continue to expand thanks to its massive exportation of silk over what would become known as the Silk Road and its control over the two largest rivers in the country.
Even before the Han Dynasty rose to power, Imperial China had this pattern of corruption, betrayal, uprising, and warring before a new ruler, a new set of dynasties would take over the throne… before the cycle would be repeated. And despite its economic wealth and prosperity, the Han Dynasty would not be an exception to this vicious pattern. The family had strong ruling Emperors, each decisively leading the nation and its military forces. While it was successful in fending off the country from foreign conquerors, its downfall would ultimately be caused by a bureaucratic administrative class of units gradually infiltrating and taking over power by manipulation—usually placing the youngest, most impressionable member of the imperial family on the throne. In addition to a severe famine that plagued the entire nation, the Han Dynasty’s seemingly impenetrable regime began to crack.
By 184 AD, peasant rebellions were getting out of hand, and with an inept young Emperor and his one-track mind advisers, the conflict was left for regional warlords to handle. However, the uprising would go on for two more decades before an influential warlord, Dong Zhuo, rose to the occasion and suppressed all the remaining insurgents in the North.
One Dynasty Falls, Three More Rises
Chaos would spiral when the young Emperor died because of a suspected assassination, and Dong Zhuo exploited the mess to assert himself in the palace. He got hold of the deceased Emperor’s youngest nephew and placed him on the throne to become his puppet while the abdicated older heir was poisoned. As threats from other powerful warlords loom closer to the capital, the new grandmaster of the Han Empire burned down the palace and moved to a more secure location. He ruled for three years with an iron fist and blood on his hands, which earned him enemies over time, including some of his men who would end up assassinating him.
With Dong Zhuo gone, the Han Empire plunged deeper, with people pitied against each other for supremacy while the young Emperor remained to act as a puppet to those who would eventually rise as dominant warlords until a man named Cao Cao took hold of him. The new grand master of the Emperor tried to unify China by consolidating the northern provinces under his rule and attempted to invade the south, only to face the combined army of Liu Bei and Sun Quan at the Battle of the Red Cliffs in 208 AD. Cao Cao would be defeated, and his ambition to rebuild the Han Dynasty would never be realized, at least throughout his lifetime.
After Cao Cao died in 208 AD, his son inherited the northern region and declared himself Emperor, ending the 400 years Han Dynasty and establishing the state of (CAO) WEI. Upon hearing the news, Red Cliff veteran Lui Bei also self-appointed himself as Emperor in the southwestern region—state of (SHU) HAN—with many ineffective Han loyalists rallying to his cause. The final Kingdom to rise was the state of (DONG) WU, located in the southeastern region, whose self-proclaimed Emperor, Sun Quan, was also a former Red Cliff warrior. He initially wanted to declare himself as an independent King but eventually joined the Emperor club nine years after establishing the first Kingdom.
These three military kingdoms would continue to fight for dominance for years only to end up in a stalemate until 263 AD when Han—the least populated among the three Kingdom—successfully fend themselves against a major attack from Wu, only to later surrender to Wei shortly after due to exhaustion. Three years later, in 266 AD, the Cao Wei dynasty was overrun by a military coup and ended up being replaced by the JIN dynasty of generals, facing a similar fate as how the generation before them overthrew the Hans.
It would take another fourteen years for the Jin dynasty to conquer the remaining Eastern Wu, effectively ending the three-kingdom period and reuniting China once more. The unification, however, would be relatively short-lived, as the Jin dynasty would soon fall into the same fate as the dynasties that came before—weakened by corruption, political turmoil, and other internal conflicts. Eventually, the pressure of the invading Mongols succumbed in the North, subsequently taken over by the Sixteen kingdoms, while the south fell into the hands of the Liu Song dynasty.
The Dissolution of Dynasties
The Qing Empire would become the last imperial dynasty, ruling from 1644 to 1911/12, when the territories of China reached their greatest extent. It would maintain relatively stable control over the nation. However, external forces would begin penetrating the country. Unable to fend off Western powers, the last known Chinese Emperor, Puyi—who took over the throne at the mere age of TWO—would eventually abdicate from his throne in favor of a republican government ending the rule of dynasties and beginning a new era of power.
To cut the story short, the downfall is usually caused by three reasons: 1) loyal warriors betraying their masters out of lust for power; 2) people tired of the BS of their rulers’ revolt; or 3) young, orphaned emperors who were unfortunately trapped with elder, power-hungry advisers that will manipulate the heck out of them to gain power and most of the time end up being assassinated—or a combination of the three, before repeating the cycle all over again.
One of the most notable military dynasties still thriving today is the Kim dynasty, which ruled entire North Korea for three generations since its founding father, Kim Il-sung, established himself as the first Premier (another term for Prime Minister) and eventually as the Supreme Leader from 1948 to 1994 before his son Kim Jong-il succeeded him shortly after his death. Kim Jong-il led the country from 1994 to 2011 before passing the power down to his own son, Kim Jong-un, the current North Korean tyrant. Rumors of a potential fourth-generation successor began making rounds last year when Kim Jong-un unveiled his daughter Kim Ju Ae while overseeing an intercontinental ballistic missile launch in November. The pair were photographed hand-in-hand as they walked past a huge Hwasong-17 missile loaded on a launch truck, and in another photo, them watching the deadly weapon soaring.
And, like other dynasties before it, Kim’s rule in Pyongyang will most likely fall… it’s just a matter of when and how. On whether an external force will put an end to it? Or will the current generation’s successor do so?