Understanding Imperial China: Dynasties, Life, and Culture

Take an inside look at life in China's splendorous empire, through the eyes of poets, courtiers, emperors, scholars, travelers, and courtesans.
Understanding Imperial China: Dynasties, Life, and Culture is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 61.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Heaven's Mandate (Tianming) in Imperial China My bottom line is that this offering, along with "From Yao to Mao: 5000 years of Chinese History", are an extraordinary pair. I would recommend both, perhaps the "Yao to Mao" first, as was my experience. I have Chinese in-laws, and decided to find out what the traditional culture was like. The timeline that "Yao to Mao" presents is a great framework, especially the first 2500 years, which is not covered by "Imperial China". "Understanding Imperial China" presents cross-dynasty problems and credits, including: * the brutality of the "Terra Cotta Warriors" first Qin dynasty * the opium trade, and culture, over many millennium * the sex trade, over many millennium, not only legal but condoned and socially supported * the "Pax Mongolia" and how it was achieved (and the benefits) * female foot- binding subjugation of women, beginning in the Ming dynasty and the "neo- Confucians" * standardizing benefits and deep problems of state controlled civil service exams * economic innovations, and gaffes and misunderstanding, including the Ming silver standard depression * the benefits of global commercialization, and how that can be corrupted by social, religious, and governmental issues * the Chinese version of witch hunts, usually targeting Buddhists, especially during the beginning Qing dynasty * the saying "every Chinese wears a Confucian cap, a Daoist robe, and Buddhist sandals" is discussed as a Tang dynasty promotion that has lasted. My bottom line is that Wilson is a great resource from the standpoint of the Naval War College (military, logistics, battles), and Harvard (social mores and literature), and commercial and economic history. My strong positive recommendation is reserved by deep caveats, including: * no coverage at all of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties before the Qin empire. Look to "Yao to Mao" for this in depth. * "every Chinese wears a Confucian cap, a Daoist robe, and Buddhist sandals" is discussed, but not as a lynchpin or with depth. * the Buddhist and Dao presentation in Chapter 5. Bodhidharma and the Chen/Zen Buddhists are not mentioned, instead deferring to Faxian Mahayana orthodoxy. The self- actualization and physical well- being aspects that the Chinese Zen Buddhist zeitgeist inspired and promoted are totally bypassed. The Chinese "Buddhist sandals" deserve much better explanation, because Western interest goes far deeper than tea ceremonies. * the consideration of technics and civilization. A major issue for Wilson's and Hammond's offerings is the lack of explanation of the extreme difference of Mandarin and other non- phonetic eastern languages, and how it limits understanding of western mathematics and engineering especially from the 13th century on. Imperial Chinese seems to have undervalued scientific, mathematical, and engineering science not only because of tradition and Song community complacency (as Wilson suggests), but because Mandarin (though beautiful) is a daunting expression vehicle for Western mathematics and science concepts. Accordingly, Confucian exams were primarily for prose that was ill- suited for any technical Renaissance, and I'd have hoped Wilson would have had this discussion on his agenda. My summary is that Wilson clearly loves his subject, and has beneficial lectures that unify understanding of the Chinese mindset as the Imperial empires formed it. But yes, I would have hoped for even more.
Date published: 2021-06-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from This course is focused on Chinese culture. Now we need a course focused on Chinese art.
Date published: 2021-03-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Supplement If you are looking for a comprehensive chronological history of China, this is probably the wrong course for you. A good text or some of the Great Courses other titles about China are a better pick. That said, Dr. Wilson presents an engaging and interesting lecture series more topical in nature rather than being a primer. It is an excellent supplement to other historic accounts about China. The lectures are interesting and very well presented.
Date published: 2021-01-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A fine survey of 2000+ years of Chinese history As a history graduate student with an interest in modern China (including one of my lifelong friends who now lives there teaching English), I wanted to fill in the large gap my studies had left with regard to East Asia. Dr. Wilson's course was exactly what I was looking for, helping to provide context and distinguish one period of Chinese imperial history from another. He paints an image of life and culture under each different dynasty with impressive artistry. While not specifically a telling of Chinese history, it certainly helped me to put the history I've read about into context. Excited to catch up on Wilson's other courses on strategy as well.
Date published: 2020-12-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Everyday life in the empire First of all, let me say that I am in no way, shape or form anything that could be remotely considered a learned person when it comes to China. I found this series to be a wonderful micro view of China, its past empire, & its people. I also took Richard Baum's outstanding course "The Rise and Fall of China" – I consider Wilson's course to be the perfect complement to it. These two courses are bookends. Whereas Baum gives the large macro view of the Chinese empire, Wilson does an outstanding job of presenting pretty much the daily lives of the typical Chinese person in the street: the nuts & bolts of what made the empire function, if you will. Wilson has an excellent style of delivery: moderate rate of speech, very clear enunciation, no verbal fumbling or fillers (which I detest), detailed explanations where & when necessary, good chronology with no jumping around between time periods. I personally found no particular bias to Wilson's material or presentation; others may not agree with that. While I will not be writing a doctoral thesis using this course, it did greatly help me to more fully appreciate & understand many of the interlocking pieces that constitute China's history as well as the foundations—reasons, if you will—for China's attitudes toward other countries today. I highly recommend this course, along with Baum's, for anyone wishing to learn & understand how China came to be what it is today.
Date published: 2020-11-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing lecture I got interested in Imperial China after watching umpteen Historical Period dramas on TV. This course was exactly what I was looking for to get an in-depth knowledge of China during its various dynasties. I thought the course would just talk about the emperors but Prof. Wilson's course gave me a lot of added information on the culture and economy of that time as well. I wish there were more courses like this. The only negative feedback is that the Professor seemed to stumble on some words. Why can't the video be edited before being published? I also wish he had shown more photos.
Date published: 2020-10-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A fascinating in-depth course! I have always been interested in the history of China, and was delighted to discover this gem of a course. The lecturer's passion for his subject shines through. I've learned so much about the life and culture of the early Chinese. Brilliant course!
Date published: 2020-08-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Understanding Imperial China I am watching this lecture series on GreatCoursesPlus on my laptop. The professor is knowledgeable and communicates well. I enjoy how he shows China’s connection with its dynasties and other communities. He also explores the various cultural and religious trends among its people. I have since used the app on my phone to listen to the lectures while driving to and from work. I truly appreciate the intellectual content found on this website. It is a gift to us all.
Date published: 2020-07-25
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A knowledge of China's majestic empire is essential for any understanding of its present. In this course, you'll discover what daily life was like for government bureaucrats, for scholars, for women of the court, for soldiers, merchants, craftspeople, emperors, concubines, poets, farmers, and many others-all set against the backdrop of the richness, the diversity, the genius, and the splendor of imperial China.


Andrew R. Wilson
Andrew R. Wilson

Who are our masters of war? Paradoxically some of the great works of theory come not from the victors, but from the vanquished. The lessons of failure are often far more powerful, more enduring.


U.S. Naval War College

Dr. Andrew R. Wilson is Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College in Newport, RI. He received a B.A. in East Asian Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and earned his Ph.D. in History and East Asian Languages from Harvard University. An award-winning professor and an expert in both military history and strategic theory, Professor Wilson has lectured on Asian military history, the classics of strategic theory, Chinese military modernization, and Sun Tzu's The Art of War, among other topics. Prior to joining the Naval War College, he taught Chinese history at Wellesley College and at Harvard University. Additionally, he has been invited to speak at numerous military colleges and universities in the United States. Professor Wilson is the author of numerous articles on Chinese military history, Chinese sea power, and Sun Tzu's The Art of War. His books include Ambition and Identity: Chinese Merchant-Elites in Colonial Manila, 1885-1916; The Chinese in the Caribbean; China's Future Nuclear Submarine Force; and War, Virtual War and Society. He has lectured on strategic theory and international security in nearly two dozen countries and six continents, and he has contributed to the curriculum of military colleges all over the world. The views expressed in this course are those of the professor and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

By This Professor

Understanding Imperial China: Dynasties, Life, and Culture


Opium, Trade, and War in Imperial China

01: Opium, Trade, and War in Imperial China

Begin by examining a pervasive symbol of late imperial China: opium. Learn about the history of opium use, the ritual of opium smoking, and the luxurious opium culture of the Chinese elite. Note how opium became inextricably linked with imperial culture, society, and economics. Chart the role of the British opium trade, the Opium Wars, and Chinese measures to eradicate the drug....

31 min
The First Emperor's Terra-cotta Warriors

02: The First Emperor's Terra-cotta Warriors

Uncover the story behind the famous terra-cotta warriors, one of China's most celebrated archaeological treasures. Travel into daily life in the Qin Dynasty, China's first empire; encounter the emperor Qinshi Huangdi, builder of the warriors, and observe his highly bureaucratic and technocratic regime. Explore the site of the terra-cotta army, and how the extraordinary clay figures were made....

31 min
China's Early Golden Age: The Han Dynasty

03: China's Early Golden Age: The Han Dynasty

Enter the lives of the Han nobility-China's second imperial dynasty-through their tombs, whose fabulous artifacts bear witness to their lavish lifestyle, diet, and concern for learning. Take account of the Han golden age, during which essential imperial institutions were established and Han territories were expanded. Also take note of the rise of a new and powerful scholarly elite....

30 min
Amazing Ban Clan: Historian, Soldier, Woman

04: Amazing Ban Clan: Historian, Soldier, Woman

Three extraordinary siblings stand out in China's imperial history. Follow the lives of Han-era twin brothers Ban Gu and Ban Chao, and their remarkable sister Ban Zhao. Investigate Ban Gu's life of learning and his important writing on history and governmental policy. Note Ban Chao's illustrious military career and achievements, and Ban Zhao's significant impact as a scholar, teacher, and poet....

31 min
China's Buddhist Monks and Daoist Recluses

05: China's Buddhist Monks and Daoist Recluses

Buddhism and Daoism played integral roles in the culture of imperial China. Learn about the origins of Chinese Buddhism, the monastic life in China, and the historic travels of the Buddhist monk Faxian. Then study the emergence of Daoism and its traditions of metaphysical exploration and the rustic, natural life, as seen in the works of Tao Yuanming, imperial China's first great poet....

32 min
Cosmopolitan Chang'an: Tang Dynasty Capital

06: Cosmopolitan Chang'an: Tang Dynasty Capital

Travel to the golden age of Chang'an, the medieval world's most resplendent city. Uncover its structure, its grand boulevards, and its stunning palatial, official, and religious architecture. Investigate the city's diverse population and its districts, parks, and pleasure quarters. Visit Chang'an's iconic Eastern and Western markets, and take account of the factors in the city's ultimate undoing....

30 min
China's Grand Canal: Lifeline of an Empire

07: China's Grand Canal: Lifeline of an Empire

Track the historical significance and changing fortunes of the Grand Canal. Beginning in the Sui Dynasty, explore the evolution and engineering of the canal system and its vital role in imperial economics, politics, and culture. Learn about its maintenance and management, its varied personnel, and how the health of the canal directly mirrored the political health of the empire....

31 min
Triumph and Tragedy in Tang Poetry

08: Triumph and Tragedy in Tang Poetry

Delve into the aristocratic society of the Tang Dynasty and the particular social and political meaning given to poetry within this world. See how poetry of various genres was used within specific social contexts, in the example of court poet Wang Wei. Follow the fortunes of beloved Tang poets Li Bai and Du Fu, as they embodied the vogue and singular significance of poetry in Chinese culture....

30 min
Life and Times of Song Dynasty Literati

09: Life and Times of Song Dynasty Literati

In the Song Dynasty, classical literacy and the civil service examinations were the path to official position. Here, trace the lives of two celebrated literati who emerged from this system. First meet Su Shi, passionate public servant, fun-loving style setter, and man of letters. Contrast Su's life with that of Zhu Xi, probing moral philosopher and architect of Neo-Confucianism....

31 min
A Day's Journey Along the Qingming Scroll

10: A Day's Journey Along the Qingming Scroll

This lecture reveals life in the Song Dynasty by means of the Qingming Shanghetu, a renowned painted scroll of the early 12th century. Reading the 17-foot scroll sequentially, travel through its vivid imagery of people, animals, buildings, vehicles, and landscapes, as it depicts scenes of daily life and conveys the remarkable technological, cultural, and economic sophistication of the Song....

30 min
Peasant Life on the Yellow River

11: Peasant Life on the Yellow River

Discover the vital farming communities of the Yellow River watershed. Study the culture of farming and rural society, and delve into how peasants lived-their dwellings, clothing, diet, work and gender roles, and family structures. Take account of the hardships faced by peasants through taxation and corrupt local officialdom and of the natural and manmade disasters that plagued rural populations....

31 min
Rice, Silk, and Tea: South China's Peasants

12: Rice, Silk, and Tea: South China's Peasants

Learn about the process of wet-rice cultivation, as it shaped the daily lives of Southern peasants, from paddy preparation and irrigation to planting, weeding, and final harvesting. Then investigate tea growing and how peasants processed the leaves into different tea varieties. Finally, study Chinese silk production, taking note of the role of women in both the silk and tea industries....

30 min
Genghis Khan and the Rise of the Mongols

13: Genghis Khan and the Rise of the Mongols

Look deeply into the life of Temujin, who became the fearsome Genghis Khan. Investigate the steppe culture of the Northern tribal warriors who would conquer China and their nomadic lifestyle of herding and raiding. Trace Temujin's phenomenal rise to power as he gathered massive legions of tribal followers, founding the Mongol Empire. Explore social and political life among the Mongols....

32 min
The Mongols and Marco Polo in Xanadu

14: The Mongols and Marco Polo in Xanadu

The century-long era known as the Pax Mongolica was a time of extraordinary East-West trade and cross-cultural communication. Learn about this epoch through the remarkable journeys of Marco Polo and his family, the missionary Giovanni de Montecorvino, the Nestorian priest and diplomat Rabban Bar Sauma, and others, as they reveal the astonishing multiculturalism of the Mongol world....

30 min
Admiral Zheng He's Treasure Fleet

15: Admiral Zheng He's Treasure Fleet

Take to the seas with Ming-era Admiral Zheng He, whose travels on behalf of the emperor Yongle were the stuff of legend. Witness life aboard Zheng's huge treasure ships, nine-masted behemoths laden with luxury goods. Follow the commander's seven voyages, as he plied the Indian Ocean and ventured to points beyond to proclaim the glories of the Ming court and to enlarge its cultural and economic pow...

31 min
China's Bound Feet, Brides, and Widows

16: China's Bound Feet, Brides, and Widows

In exploring the experience of women in imperial China, learn about the customs surrounding traditional married life, such as the painful practice of foot binding, the process of betrothal and marriage arrangements, the wedding festivities, and the duties and lifestyle of a wife. Also investigate the social ideal of the chaste widow and its shadow, the luxurious world of courtesans....

32 min
Ming Dynasty Trade and Spanish Silver

17: Ming Dynasty Trade and Spanish Silver

Visit the teeming port of Manila, where the 16th century influx of Spanish silver made the city a vibrant hub of East-West exchange. Observe how the import of New World silver and crops to China sparked a remarkable period of prosperous living. Note the proliferation of restaurants, travel guides, fashion, leisure activities, commercial sex, and popular religion that characterized the era....

34 min
The Great Wall and Military Life in China

18: The Great Wall and Military Life in China

Delve into the lives of soldiers under the Ming, often incorrectly viewed as an un-martial dynasty. Learn about military culture, weaponry, and lifestyle under 14th century warlord Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming Dynasty. Contrast this military era with that of the 16th century, when commercialization and technology gave rise to both the Great Wall and to remarkably modern Ming armies....

32 min
Qing Dynasty: Soul Stealers and Sedition

19: Qing Dynasty: Soul Stealers and Sedition

Witness the national hysteria that ensued from accusations that masons and other undesirables were stealing human souls. Investigate the public fear of sorcery, and the emperor's fear of sedition, which fueled the turmoil. Follow Emperor Qianlong's handling of the crisis, as it reveals the workings of the Qing justice system and the emperor's deep engagement with the empire's moral well-being....

31 min
Emperor Qianlong Hosts a British Ambassador

20: Emperor Qianlong Hosts a British Ambassador

At the emperor's palatial summer residence in 1793, visit the imperial kitchens, as chefs and culinary workers from around the empire prepare a banquet of epic proportions. Learn about the staggering scale of the operation of the Imperial Buttery, which fed the emperor's household, and how a dazzling imperial feast served as the backdrop for a key diplomatic engagement....

31 min
The Taiping Rebellion and Its Cult Leader

21: The Taiping Rebellion and Its Cult Leader

The mid 19th century saw both foreign invasion and a revolt that sought to remake Chinese society. Follow the underlying social unrest in South China, and the rise of the charismatic leader Hong Xiuquan, who fomented a rebellion based in religious fanaticism. Observe the military prowess of the rebels, the massive size of the conflict, and how it unfolded as the bloodiest civil war in history....

32 min
China's Treaty Ports

22: China's Treaty Ports

Following the Opium War of 1842, a range of Chinese seaports were opened to foreign trade and foreign residence. Learn about the colorful history of these ports, how they became enmeshed in a global labor trade, and how they functioned as Euro-Asian hybrid cities. Grasp how the treaty ports were emblematic of a period of economic and political domination by foreigners....

31 min
Experiencing China's Civil Service Exams

23: Experiencing China's Civil Service Exams

For centuries, the imperial civil service exams selected candidates for important government positions. Trace the dramatic history of the examinations, which involved years of intensive study, a grueling testing ordeal, and life-changing benefits for the successful. Take account of the profound social and cultural significance of the exams and their role in the administration of the empire....

31 min
China's Last Dynasty: Fall of the Manchus

24: China's Last Dynasty: Fall of the Manchus

Finally, examine the factors that led to the dissolution of China's empire. Contrast the powerful military machine of the early Manchu dynasty with its degradation by the 19th century. Grasp how the three pillars of Manchu power-its military, its cultural/economic influence, and its subjects' loyalty-were systematically undermined, culminating in the abdication of the last emperor in 1912....

37 min