Banner: Condensed China

[ Introduction | The Origins of Chinese Civilization | The Early Empire | The Second Empire
The Birth of Modern China | Bibliography ]

Qin (221 - 206 BC)

In 221 BC, the first Emperor of China (so-called because all the previous dynastic heads only called themselves kings), Qin Shihuangdi, conquered the rest of China after a few hundred years of disunity. There are two major reasons why he won; the first is that he was a devout Legalist (so much so that he burnt all [at least what he thought were all] the books in the country) and did things like execute generals for showing up late for maneuvers (this was later to prove to be his downfall). The other reason is because the state of Qin had a lot of iron, and consequently, at the dawn of the iron age, had many more iron weapons than the other armies did. Qin Shihuangdi had a great many accomplishments, not the least of which was the linking together of many of the old packed-earth defensive walls of the old principalities into the Great Wall of China. This is not to say that he built the massive masonry construction that today is called the Great Wall of China; what is today called the Great Wall was actually built close to two thousand years later, during the Ming dynasty.

In the year 210 BC Qin Shihuangdi died. It wasn't long before the dynasty fell apart, helped in part by a revolution started by a soldier who, when faced with execution because he was going to be late delivering a group of new draftees (it had been very rainy and the roads had turned to mud), convinced his conscripts to rebel with him (they faced execution as well). And while they eventually were caught and duly executed, the revolution they started ended up destroying the old dynasty and set the stage for the Han.

Earlier Han (206 BC - AD 8)

Wang Mang Interregnum (AD 8 - 25)

Later Han (25 - 220)

The Han dynasty plays a very important role in Chinese history. For starters, they invented Chinese history as we know it today. Additionally, the overwhelmingly predominant ethnic group in China is called the Han; they are named after the dynasty. But, most importantly, they developed (actually, it was invented by Qin Shihuangdi, but perfected by the Han) the administrative model which every successive dynasty would copy, lock, stock, and barrel.

Why is the development of bureaucracy so important? Well, first of all, because ancient China was a big country. In 206 BC, when the Han dynasty was founded, China stretched from modern Shenyang (some 500 km north of Beijing) in the north to around Guilin in the south; from the Pacific in the east to well past Chongqing in the west. Until Russia laid claim to Far East Siberia, China was the largest country in the world. It was also the most populous (60 million people at the time), and still is (however, India will probably overtake China in terms of population some time early in the 21th century). This is a management issue of tremendous proportions. How are you going to do things like collect taxes, keep the peace, and basically run a government without bureaucracy? The Chinese bureaucratic system is based on the study of the Confucian Classics, which provide an ideological reference point for proper behavior (which was often ignored, but it worked well enough) and loyalty to the Emperor. By developing this system, the Han emperors were able to run China with a reasonable degree of efficiency.

During the reign of an emperor named Han Wudi lived a historian named Sima Qian. His most important contribution to Chinese history was that he wrote a book known as Records of the Grand Historian (actually, he claimed to just be completing a book that his father, Sima Tan, had started, but most of the book is Sima Qian's). Most history books are very linear: first you talk about the Greeks, then the Romans, then the Dark Ages, and so on. What Sima did was structure his book so that each chapter covered a different topic: one chapter was a political record of the kings and emperors; the next would cover literature; the third, philosophy, and so on. Every dynastic record that followed copied Sima's original. Actually, there is an English-language history of China that loosely follows this model; it's called China's Imperial Past, written by Charles O. Hucker.

Between AD 8 and 25, a man named Wang Mang ruled China. He had been part of the Han royal household; he himself, however, was a commoner and had no royal blood in his veins. He had been appointed emperor after a power struggle in the Han house. History is mixed on him. While he did seem to have some good, reform-oriented ideas (e.g. power back to the people), he really wasn't up to the task of ruling. After his death in AD 25, the Han royal family took back the reins of power, and set up the Later Han dynasty.

The later Han were able to keep it together for about 200 years; however, towards the end of their rule, they become more and more dissolute. More importantly, they were unable to deal with two factors: a population shift from the Yellow River in the north to the Yangzi in the south; and they simply could not control barbarian tribal raiders from the north, which were one reason why people were moving to the south. Eventually, in AD 220, the center had lost so much control to the provinces that it collapsed (a small rebellion in the north helped), plunging China into 350 years of chaos and disunity.

Three Kingdoms (220 - 265)

Dynasties of the North and South (317 - 589)

While there was a great deal of political activity occurring during this period, most of it, consisting as it was of various wars between different kingdoms (one of the great novels of China, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, is about this period), was not terribly important to the later development of China. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment was to reinforce in Chinese thought the importance of having "one Emperor over China, like one sun in the sky."

Socially, though, there were two important developments. The first was that the ethnic Han Chinese kept on moving south, while 'barbarians' moved into the north and assimilated themselves into Chinese society. The second development was Buddhism, which had had its start in India sometime in the 6th century BC, when the Buddha probably lived. It was introduced into China around the middle of the first century AD (probably about the same time that the early Christians were writing the Gospels), but really didn't catch on until the fall of the Han dynasty.

Buddhism competed strongly with Confucianism, and for a long time, pretty much eclipsed it as a major cultural force. For various reasons -- some political, some social -- it spread very quickly throughout China. It also changed somewhat from the Indian original, which, as far as I know, is not practiced anymore anywhere in the world. From China, Buddhism would spread into Tibet, Southeast Asia, Korea, and Japan.

Buddhism also merged somewhat with Daoism, particularly as a popular religion; and while the process may be compared to Christianity's appropriation of indigenous European beliefs and traditions, Daoism maintained its own identity and was not subsumed into popular Buddhism.

[ Introduction | The Origins of Chinese Civilization | The Early Empire | The Second Empire
The Birth of Modern China | Bibliography ]

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