Understanding Imperial China: Dynasties, Life, and Culture

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
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Broad Description of Imperial China I chose this course because I had almost no knowledge of Chinese history. This course is a great introduction to the culture of China, including history, religion, the arts, economy and technology. Professor Wilson is a good lecturer who weaves many elements together. A given lecture might focus on a specific topic or period but he constantly makes references to other periods and explains how changes took place. The visual aids that he uses are well-chosen and effectively supplement his lectures. I recommend this course to anyone wanting to acquire an introduction to China.
Date published: 2019-03-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Important course! I knew almost nothing about China I expected a dry catagoration of the dynestys Instead this opened my mind to the life of the Chinese people through the centuries I leave with a much better appreciation for the Chinese people including their influence on Europeans recommend video version especially for the maps
Date published: 2019-02-10
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Understanding Imperial China: Dynasties, Life, and Culture
Course Trailer
Opium, Trade, and War in Imperial China
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....

31 min
The First Emperor's Terra-cotta Warriors
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....

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

30 min
Amazing Ban Clan: Historian, Soldier, Woman
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....

31 min
China's Buddhist Monks and Daoist Recluses
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....

32 min
Cosmopolitan Chang'an: Tang Dynasty Capital
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....

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

31 min
Triumph and Tragedy in Tang Poetry
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....

30 min
Life and Times of Song Dynasty Literati
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....

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
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.


Harvard University


U.S. Naval War College

About Andrew R. Wilson

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.

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