Understanding Imperial China: Dynasties, Life, and Culture

Course No. 3822
Professor Andrew R. Wilson, Ph.D.
U.S. Naval War College
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Course No. 3822
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Discover the vital farming communities of the Yellow River watershed.
  • numbers Delve into the aristocratic society of the Tang Dynasty and the particular social and political meaning given to poetry within this world.
  • numbers Learn about the origins of Chinese Buddhism, the monastic life in China, and the historic travels of the Buddhist monk Faxian.
  • numbers Learn about military culture, weaponry, and lifestyle under 14th century warlord Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming Dynasty.

Course Overview

With an astonishing 5,000 years of history, China is one of the world’s great civilizations, as well as a burgeoning superpower on the world stage. For a major portion of its existence—until as recently as the early 20th century—China was an empire, one of the greatest and most powerful the world has ever known.

It was during this long and diverse imperial era that the iconic features of Chinese civilization came into being: its art, architecture, literature, philosophy, spiritual traditions, social and bureaucratic structures, technological innovations, and more.

A knowledge of China’s imperial past is essential for any understanding of its present, as today’s China is linked in numerous ways to the remarkable culture of its empire. But a standard historical approach—looking at political, social, or economic events from a distance—is apt to leave us on the outside of China’s imperial experience, one of the most richly fascinating and revealing chapters in the story of civilization.

Here, then, is a brilliant and riveting alternate look at history, and a course unlike any other you’ll find on China. Understanding Imperial China: Dynasties, Life, and Culture takes you to the heart of life during China’s imperial dynasties, revealing the empire’s historical unfolding through the lives of individual people of all walks of life, spanning the centuries from the empire’s founding in 221 BCE to its dissolution in 1912. The inspired and detailed presentation of Professor Andrew R. Wilson of the U.S. Naval War College is vivid cultural history at its most compelling and insightful.

Journey to One of History’s Greatest Empires

In 24 extraordinary lectures, you’ll explore numerous vital facets of life in imperial China, such as these:

  • Visit the Qin imperial necropolis in 211 BCE, where an army of masons, painters, and potters labored to assemble the 7,000 terra-cotta warriors, promising emperor Qinshi Huangdi martial dominance in the afterlife.
  • Observe how a Chinese daughter became a guixiu or cultivated young lady, from mastering graceful behavior and household skills to the painful rite of foot binding— witness her marriage arrangements, wedding festivities, and her duties as wife.
  • Grasp the deeply integral role and meaning of poetry in the Tang Dynasty; see how poetry of distinct genres such as court poetry, nature poetry, and occasional poetry was employed in specific social settings—even including verses scribbled on the flesh of courtesans.
  • Travel to Xanadu, the bejeweled imperial seat of Kublai Khan, and witness the multiculturalism of the Mongol rulers of China through the eyes of Marco Polo, the missionary Giovanni de Montecorvino, and other Western observers.

Understanding Imperial China: Dynasties, Life, and Culture shows you how life was actually lived in the world-shaping times of China’s empire. Across the span of the course, you’ll discover what daily existence was like for government bureaucrats, scholars, and women of the court, as well as for soldiers, merchants, craftspeople, and even for concubines, eunuchs, and imperial cooks. Drawing on decades of dedicated research, Professor Wilson uncovers how these people and many others lived, what they ate, and what their activities and concerns were—their world and their worldview—all set against the backdrop of the richness, the diversity, the genius, and the splendor of imperial China.

Through these intimate glimpses of individual lives—across the great dynastic eras of the Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing—you’ll gain an inside look at China’s empire, how its traditions developed, and how the Chinese civilization we know came to be.

Look Deeply into Chinese Dynastic Life

In these enthralling lectures, Professor Wilson introduces you to a stunning range of subject matter, revealing all strata of life and society within imperial China. Among core aspects of imperial life, you’ll delve into:

  • Opulent Lifestyles of the Han Nobility: Through stunning tomb artifacts, visualize the sumptuous mansion and social existence of Xin Zhui, prominent Han noblewoman. Take account of her family’s luxurious household, silk garments, lavish banquets, and entertainments, as well as their concern for learning and scholarship during the empire’s first golden age.
  • Life on the Imperial Grand Canal: Discover the ingenious engineering, the lore, and the vast historical role of the Grand Canal, as it linked and integrated the empire economically, culturally, and politically. Witness the operation of the canal by bargemen, merchants, shipping brokers, customs agents, and others, and learn how the fortunes of the canal reflected those of the empire itself.
  • The Celebrated Song Literati: Take the measure of the cultured class of gentlemen-scholars known as literati. Follow the careers, writings, and societal roles of two exemplars of this tradition: Su Shi, public servant, poet, painter, raconteur, and style setter; and Zhu Xi, educator, moral philosopher and Neo-Confucian innovator.
  • The Empire’s Peasant Heartland: Within two lectures on rural life, investigate agriculture in the empire and the daily lives of peasants—their work and gender roles, family composition, homes, diet, and clothing. Learn also how rural workers cultivated and harvested rice, grew and processed tea, and produced China’s iconic silk.
  • Sophisticated Living under the Ming: In the 16th century, grasp how flourishing trade in luxury goods and the import of New World silver gave rise to a remarkable era of high living—seen in the appearance of dinner parties; palatial restaurants; high fashion; pleasure travel; how-to guides for cooking, painting, and other leisure activities; commercial sex; and more.
  • Imperial GastronomyThe Qing Emperor’s Kitchens: At emperor Qianlong’s spectacular summer retreat, observe the massive apparatus of the Imperial Buttery as it prepares a luxuriant banquet. See how imperial menus reflected the social rank of diners, and how an epic feast in 1793 served as the setting for a Sino-British diplomatic encounter.

Explore the Dazzling Spectrum of Imperial Culture

Throughout the course, Professor Wilson’s detailed knowledge of China’s empire makes this an endlessly intriguing and engrossing journey. Within the wealth of historical narratives covered, he demonstrates a flair for describing events from centuries past as if they’re unfolding in present time.

Join aspiring bureaucrats on the path to the harrowing civil service examinations. From the years of studious preparation to the heart-stopping ordeal of the exams, you witness the process that forged the jinshi, the “elevated men” who administered the empire. In another unique experience, enter the opium salons of the elite, where connoisseurs savor the drug in pipes fashioned of cloisonné, silver, or ivory.

Your travels within the empire include such memorable sights as the grand boulevards, splendorous palaces and imposing temples of Chang’an, the medieval world’s greatest city, and the Qingming Shanghetu, a 17-foot painted scroll that gloriously portrays Song Dynasty life. And you’ll meet unforgettable human beings, whose lives vividly reveal the world around them, such as Ban Zhao, Han-era woman of letters, poet, scholar, and teacher; Tao Yuanming, Daoist luminary and the empire’s first great poet; Zhu Yuanzhang, powerful warlord and founder of the Ming Dynasty; and Hong Xiuquan, visionary reformer and architect of the religiously-inspired Taiping Rebellion.

In Professor Wilson’s dynamic presentation, China’s great empire comes alive in all its brilliance, poignancy, and majesty. Enriched with extraordinary imagery—artworks, texts, photos, timelines, maps, and animations—Understanding Imperial China: Dynasties, Life, and Culture is your passport to this phenomenal, historic world.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    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. x
  • 2
    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. x
  • 3
    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. x
  • 4
    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. x
  • 5
    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. x
  • 6
    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. x
  • 7
    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. x
  • 8
    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. x
  • 9
    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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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 power. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x

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  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 288-page printed course guidebook
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What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 288-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos and illustrations
  • Suggested readings
  • Problems and solutions

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Your professor

Andrew R. Wilson

About Your Professor

Andrew R. Wilson, Ph.D.
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,...
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Understanding Imperial China: Dynasties, Life, and Culture is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 56.
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
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great overview. Enjoyed his historical perspective. Somewhat dry presentation but very informative.
Date published: 2020-06-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent in depth overview The title of this course is very appropriate. Andrew Wilson looks at so many aspects and from so many different perspectives while maintaining a coherent story. I love the detailed descriptive examples of historical figures and how they interacted with the machinery of the imperial government bureaucracy. The vivid descriptions of culture, poetry and philosophy, My interest was sparked by another Great Course about the Barbarians of the Steppes and especially the Mongol invasions. I can highly recommend this course as an extension to this course. It made clear to me how our western culture was influenced by china through Pax Mongolica and the Silk Road. It was a delight to learn about Chinese culture and how much further advanced it was compared to Europe during the Middle Ages.
Date published: 2020-05-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from a deeper look at imperial china this course is an interesting idea: a series of historical vignettes rather than a full narrative history. this would make it a “second year” course, and i do recommend having some general sense of the flow of chinese history before taking it. this isn’t absolutely necessary as we still get a bare bones outline as we go, but the course will just work better if you can already fit each vignette into its appropriate place in time. now as is always the case in a “sampler” course, because the subject matter leaps around from art to war and from hydrolics to dinner parties, the listener will inevitably find themselves more interested in some subjects than in others. for example, if you’re more interested in poetry than in how exactly a canal lock works, you might find your engagement with the course a bit uneven. nonetheless the professor covers all of his disparate subjects well, and the discussion of the grand canal turned out to be quite a bit more interesting than i expected. if you stick with topics you might not be as keen on therefore, you might be pleasantly surprised by what you learn. a particular highlight for me was the very first lecture on opium. the professor offers a surprisingly nuanced take on the subject which really opened my eyes (and which prompted a disclaimer from the navy at the end of every lecture asserting that they do not necessarily endorse the professor’s views). on the other hand, one subject that doesn’t get a lot of attention is religion. there’s only one lecture entirely devoted to religion, and otherwise it’s only mentioned when it ties in to something else, such as the taiping rebellion. i’ll admit that the vignette format did leave me feeling a little unsatisfied because i couldn’t help wondering about the parts we were skipping over. i guess i prefer a continuous narrative. but if you don’t mind hopping around, skipping this in order to delve into that, the course admirably succeeds at what it sets out to do. as for format, while a fair number of lectures would work perfectly well as audio only, there are lot of helpful maps that make the video worthwhile. more importantly, one lecture is entirely dedicated to a description of a huge song dynasty painting, and though they reproduce the painting in the guidebook, you would be at a significant disadvantage without the video here.
Date published: 2019-10-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent series on Imperial China I just came back from teaching in China for 4 years. I became aware while I was in China how little I knew about it. I wish I had seen this video series before I had left. This professor is awesome, and it was evident immediately that he knew what he was talking about (and that he was fluent in Chinese). How he condensed it into 24 lectures is magic, and it only whet my appetite for more. I really can't say enough good things about it!
Date published: 2019-04-19
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