A Brief History Of China
The Asian Way Of Life: CHINA
Author: Robert Guisepi
China: The Formative Centuries
The formative period of Chinese history - the era of the Shang and Chou
dynasties, before China was unified politically - was, like the early history
of India before its unification by the Mauryan Dynasty, a time during which
most of China's cultural tradition arose. As in India, this tradition has
lasted into the present century.
Chinese civilization arose and developed in a vast area, one-third larger
than the United States if such dependencies as Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, and
Tibet are included. For centuries China was almost completely isolated from
the other centers of civilization by mountains, deserts, and seas. This
isolation helps explain the great originality of China's culture.
China proper is a vast watershed drained by three river systems that rise
close together on the high Tibetan plateau and flow eastward to the Pacific.
Three mountain systems also rise in the west, diminishing in altitude as they
slope eastward between the river systems. The Yellow River (Huang Ho),
traditionally known as "China's Sorrow" because of the misery caused by its
periodic flooding, traverses the North China plain. In this area, the original
homeland of Chinese culture, the climate is like that of western Europe. The
Yangtze River and its valley forms the second river system. South of this
valley lie the subtropical lands of South China, the home of ancient cultures
that were destroyed or transformed by Chinese expansion from the north. Here
the shorter rivers and valleys converging on present-day Canton formed the
third major river system.
This pattern of mountain ranges and river systems has, throughout China's
history, created problems of political unity. At the same time, the great
river valleys facilitated the spread of a homogeneous culture over a greater
land area than any other civilization in the world.
The discovery of Peking man in 1927 made it evident that ancient
humanlike creatures with an early Paleolithic culture had dwelled in China.
Certain physical characteristics of Peking man are thought to be distinctive
marks of the Mongoloid branch of the human race. Skulls of modern humans (Homo
sapiens) have also been found.
Until recently, archaeologists believed that the earliest Neolithic
farming villages (the Yang Shao culture) appeared in the Yellow River valley
about 4500 B.C. Now a series of newly discovered sites has pushed back the
Neolithic Age in China to 6500 B.C. The evidence indicates that China's
Neolithic culture, which cultivated millet and domesticated the pig,
originated independently from that in the Near East.
The people of China's last Neolithic culture, called Lung Shan, lived in
walled towns and produced a wheel-made black pottery. Their culture spread
widely in North China. Most scholars believe that this Neolithic culture
immediately preceded the Shang period, when civilization emerged in China
about 1700 B.C. Others now believe that the Hsia Dynasty, considered - like
the Shang had been - to be purely legendary, actually existed and flourished
for some three centuries before it was conquered by the Shang.
The Shang Dynasty: China Enters History
With the establishment of Shang rule over most of North China and the
appearance of the first written texts, China completed the transition from
Neolithic culture to civilization. Shang originally was the name of a nomadic
tribe whose vigorous leaders succeeded in establishing themselves as the
overlords of other tribal leaders in North China. The Shang capital, a walled
city to which the tribal leaders came to pay tribute, changed frequently; the
last capital was at modern Anyang.
The Shang people developed bronze metallurgy and carried it to heights
hardly surpassed in world history. Bronze was used to cast elaborate
ceremonial and drinking vessels (the Shang leaders were notorious for their
drinking bouts) and weapons, all intricately decorated with both incised and
[See Bronze Vessel: Bronze vessels, such as this one from the early tenth
century B.C., were designed to contain water, wine, meat, or grain used during
the sacrificial rites in which the Shang and Chou prayed to the memory of
their ancestors. Animals were a major motif of ritual bronzes. Courtesy of the
Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institutuion, Washington, DC]
The Shang people also developed a distinctive writing system employing
nearly 5000 characters, some of which are still in use today. These characters
represent individual words rather than sounds and consist of pictographs,
recognizable as pictures of observable objects, and ideographs representing
Most Shang writing is found on thousands of "oracle bones," fragments of
animal bones and tortoise shells on which were inscribed questions put to the
gods and ancestral spirits, which were thought to continue a close
relationship with their living descendants as members of the family group. The
diviner would ask such questions as "Will the king's child be a son?" and "If
we raise an army of 3000 men to drive X away from Y, will we succeed?" The
shell or bone would then be heated and the resulting cracks would be
interpreted as an answer to the question.
Shang China was ruled by hereditary kings who were also priests acting as
intermediaries between the people and the spirit world. Their power was not
absolute, being constantly limited by an aristocratic "Council of the Great
and Small." The oracle bones reveal that the kings often appealed to the
ancestral spirits in order to overcome the opposition of the council.
Shang kings and nobles lived in imposing buildings, went to battle in
horse-drawn chariots resembling those of Homer's Greece, and were buried in
sumptuous tombs together with their chariots, still-living servants and war
captives. Warfare was frequent, and the chariot, a new military weapon,
facilitated the spread of Shang power through North China. The power of the
kings and nobles rested on their ownership of the land, their monopoly of
bronze metallurgy, their possession of expensive war chariots, and the kings'
Unlike the common people, the kings and nobles had recorded ancestors and
belonged to a clan. They were the descendants in the male line from a common
ancestor to whom they rendered worship and who was usually a god or a hero,
but sometimes a fish, an animal, or a bird. The chief deity, called God on
High, was the ancestor of the king's own clan. There were regular animal
sacrifices and libations of a beerlike liquor were poured on the ground. The
object was to win the aid or avoid the displeasure of the spirits.
Magic was employed to maintain the balance of nature, which was thought
to function through the interaction of two opposed but complementary forces
called yang and yin. Yang was associated with the sun and all things male,
strong, warm, and active. Yin was associated with the moon and all things
female, dark, cold, weak, and passive. In later ages, Chinese philosophers -
all male - would employ these concepts to work out the behavior pattern of
obedience and passivity that was expected of women.
The common people were peasants who belonged to no clans and apparently
worshiped no ancestors. Their gods were the elementary spirits of nature, such
as rivers, mountains, earth, wind, rain, and heavenly bodies. Peasants were
virtual serfs, owning no land but working plots periodically assigned to them
by royal and noble landowners. They collectively cultivated the fields
retained by their lords.
Farming methods were primitive, not having advanced beyond the Neolithic
level. Bronze was used for weapons, not tools or implements, and the peasants
continued to reap wheat and millet with stone sickles and till their allotted
fields with wooden plows.
The Chou Dynasty: The Feudal Age
Around 1122 B.C., the leader of the Chou tribe overthrew the Shang ruler,
who, it was claimed, had failed to rule fairly and benevolently. The Chou
leader announced that Heaven (Tien) had given him a mandate to replace the
Shang. This was more than a rationalization of the seizure of power. It
introduced a new aspect of Chinese thought: the cosmos is ruled by an
impersonal and all-powerful Heaven, which sits in judgment over the human
ruler, who is the intermediary between Heaven's commands and human fate.
The Chou was a western frontier tribe that had maintained its martial
spirit and fighting ability. Its conquest of the Shang can be compared with
Macedonia's unification of Greece. The other Chinese tribes switched their
loyalty to the Chou leader, who went on to establish a dynasty that lasted for
more than 800 years (1122-256 B.C.), the longest in Chinese history.
Comprising most of North China, the large Chou domain made the
establishment of a unified state impossible. Consequently, the Chou kings set
up a feudal system of government by delegating local authority to relatives
and noble magnates. These vassal lords, whose power was hereditary, recognized
the over-lordship of the Chou kings and supplied them with military aid.
The early Chou kings were vigorous leaders who were able to retain the
allegiance of their vassals (when necessary, by their superior military power)
and fend off attacks from barbarians on the frontiers. In time, however, weak
kings succeeded to the throne, and the power and independence of their vassals
increased. By the eighth century B.C., the vassals no longer went to the Chou
capital for investiture by the Son of Heaven, as the Chou king called himself.
The remnants of Chou royal power disappeared completely in 771 B.C., when
an alliance of dissident vassals and barbarians destroyed the capital and
killed the king. Part of the royal family managed to escape eastward to
Lo-yang, however, where the dynasty survived for another five centuries doing
little more than performing state religious rituals as the Son of Heaven.
Seven of the stronger feudal princes gradually conquered their weaker
neighbors. In the process they assumed the title wang ("king"), formerly used
only by the Chou ruler, and began to extinguish the feudal rights of their own
vassals and establish centralized administrations. Warfare among these
emerging centralized states was incessant, particularly during the two
centuries known as the Period of Warring States (c. 450-221 B.C.). By 221
B.C., the ruler of the Ch'in, the most advanced of the seven warring states,
had conquered all his rivals and established a unified empire with himself as
Chou Economy And Society
Despite its political instability, the Chou period is unrivaled by any
later period in Chinese history for its material and cultural progress. These
developments led the Chinese to distinguish between their own high
civilization and the nomadic ways of the "barbarian dogs" beyond their
frontiers. A sense of the superiority of their own civilization became a
lasting characteristic of the Chinese.
During the sixth century B.C., iron was introduced and mass producing
cast iron objects from molds came into general use by the end of the Chou
period. (The first successful attempts at casting iron were not made in Europe
until the end of the Middle Ages.)
The ox-drawn iron-tipped plow, together with the use of manure and the
growth of large-scale irrigation and water-control projects, led to great
population growth based on increased agricultural yields. Canals were
constructed to facilitate moving commodities over long distances. Commerce and
wealth grew rapidly, and a merchant and artisan class emerged. Brightly
colored shells, bolts of silk, and ingots of precious metals were the media of
exchange; by the end of the Chou period small round copper coins with square
holes were being minted. Chopsticks and finely lacquered objects, today
universally considered as symbols of Chinese and East Asian culture, were also
in use by the end of the period.
Class divisions and consciousness became highly developed under Chou
feudalism and have remained until modern times. The king and the aristocracy
were sharply separated from the mass of the people on the basis of land
ownership and family descent.
The core units of aristocratic society were the elementary family, the
extended family, and the clan, held together by patriarchal authority and
ancestor worship. Marriages were formally arranged unions between families.
Among the peasants, however, marriage took place after a woman became pregnant
following the Spring Festival at which boys and girls, beginning at age
fifteen, sang and danced naked.
The customs of the nobles can be compared in a general way to those of
Europe's feudal nobility. Underlying the society was a complex code of
chivalry, called li, practiced in both war and peace. It symbolized the ideal
of the noble warrior, and men devoted years to its mastery.
The art of horseback riding, developed among the nomads of central Asia,
greatly influenced late Chou China. In response to the threat of mounted
nomads, rulers of the Warring States period began constructing defensive
walls, later joined together to become the Great Wall of China. Inside China
itself, chariots were largely replaced by swifter and more mobile cavalry
troops wearing tunics and trousers adopted from the nomads.
The peasant masses, still attached serflike to their villages, worked as
tenants of noble land-holders, paying one tenth of their crop as rent. Despite
increased agricultural production, resulting from large-scale irrigation and
the ox-drawn iron-tipped plow, the peasants had difficulty eking out an
existence. Many were forced into debt slavery. A major problem in the Chinese
economy, evident by late Chou times, has been that the majority of farmers
have worked fields so small that they could not produce a crop surplus to tide
them over periods of scarcity.
The Rise Of Philosophical Schools
By the fifth century B.C., the increasing warfare among the feudal lords
and Warring States had destroyed the stability that had characterized Chinese
society under the Shang and early Chou dynasties. Educated Chinese had become
aware of the great disparity between the traditions inherited from their
ancestors and the conditions in which they themselves lived. The result was
the birth of a social consciousness that focused on the study of humanity and
the problems of society. Some scholars have noted the parallel between the
flourishing intellectual life of China in the fifth century B.C. and Greek
philosophy and Indian religious thought at the same time. It has been
suggested that these three great centers of world civilization stimulated and
influenced each other. However, little or no historical evidence exists to
support such an assertion. The birth of social consciousness in China,
isolated from the other centers of civilization, can best be understood in
terms of internal developments rather than external influences.
Confucianism: Rational Humanism
The first, most famous, and certainly most influential Chinese
philosopher and teacher was K'ung-fu-tzu ("Master K'ung, the Sage," 551-479
B.C.), known in the West as Confucius after Jesuit missionaries to China in
the seventeenth century latinized his name.
Later Confucianists attributed to the master the role of composing or
editing the Five Confucian Classics (two books of history and one book each on
poetry, divination, and ceremonies), which were in large part a product of the
early Chou period. But the only work that can be accurately attributed to
Confucius is the Analects ("Selected Sayings"), a collection of his responses
to his disciples' questions.
Confucius, who belonged to the lower aristocracy, was more or less a
contemporary of the Buddha in India, Zoroaster in Persia, and the early
philosophers of Greece. Like the Buddha and Zoroaster, Confucius lived in a
troubled time - an age of political and social turmoil - and his prime
concern, like theirs, was the improvement of society. To achieve this goal,
Confucius did not look to the gods and spirits for assistance; he accepted the
existence of Heaven (T'ien) and spirits, but he insisted it was more important
"to know the essential duties of man living in a society of men." "We don't
know yet how to serve men," he said, "how can we know about serving the
spirits?" And, "We don't yet know about life, how can we know about death?" He
advised a ruler to "respect the ghosts and spirits but keep them at a
distance" and "devote yourself to the proper demands of the people."
Confucius believed that the improvement of society was the responsibility
of the ruler and that the quality of government depended on the ruler's moral
character: "The way (Tao) of learning to be great consists in shining with the
illustrious power of moral personality, in making a new people, in abiding in
the highest goodness." Confucius' definition of the Way as "moral personality"
and "the highest goodness" was in decided contrast to the old premoral Way in
which gods and spirits, propitiated by offerings and ritual, regulated human
life for good or ill. Above all, Confucius' new Way meant a concern for the
rights of others, the adherence to a Golden Rule:
Tzu-king [a disciple] asked saying, "Is there any single saying
that one can act upon all day and every day?" The Master said,
"Perhaps the saying about consideration: 'Never do to others what
you would not like them to do to you.'" ^4
[Footnote 4: Quoted in Jack Finegan, The Archeology of World Religions
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952), p. 351]
Although Confucius called himself "a transmitter and not a creator," his
redefinition of Tao was a radical innovation. He was, in effect, putting new
wine into old bottles. He did the same thing with two other key terms, li and
chun-tzu. Li, meaning "honorable behavior," was the chivalric code of the
constantly fighting chun-tzu, the hereditary feudal "noblemen" of the Chou
period. As refined and reinterpreted by Confucius, li came to embody such
ethical virtues as righteousness and love for one's fellow humans. The
chun-tzu, under the influence of the new definition of li, became "noble men,"
or "gentlemen," whose social origins were not important. As Confucius said,
"The noble man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what is
profitable." Confucius' teachings have had a greater and longer-lasting
influence on China, and much of East Asia, than those of any other
Taoism: Intuitive Mysticism
A second philosophical reaction to the troubled life of the late Chou
period was the teaching of Lao-tzu ("Old Master"), a semi-legendary figure who
was believed to have been a contemporary of Confucius. As with Confucius, the
key term in Lao-tzu's teaching is Tao, from which his philosophy derives its
name. But while Confucius defined Tao as a rational standard of ethics in
human affairs, Lao-tzu gave it a metaphysical meaning - the course of nature,
the natural and inevitable order of the universe.
The goal of Taoism, like Confucianism, is a happy life. Lao-tzu believed
that this goal could be achieved by living a life in conformity with nature,
retiring from the chaos and evils of contemporary Warring States society and
shunning human institutions and opinions as unnatural and artificial "outside
things." Thus at the heart of Taoist thought is the concept of wu-wei, or
"nonaction" - a manner of living which, like nature itself, is nonassertive
and spontaneous. Lao-tzu pointed out that in nature all things work silently;
they fulfill their function and, after they reach their bloom, they return to
their origins. Unlike Confucius' ideal gentleman, who is constantly involved
in society in order to better it, Lao-tzu's sage is a private person, an
Taoism is a revolt not only against society but also against the
intellect's limitations. Intuition, not reason, is the source of true
knowledge; and books, Taoists said, are "the dregs and refuse of the
ancients." One of the most famous Taoist philosophers, Chuang-tzu (fourth
century B.C.), who made fun of Confucians as tiresome busy-bodies, even
questioned the reality of the world of the senses. He said that he once
dreamed that he was a butterfly, "flying about enjoying itself." When he
awakened he was confused: "I do not know whether I was Chuang-tzu dreaming
that I was a butterfly, or whether now I am a butterfly dreaming that I am
Similar anecdotes and allegories abound in Taoist literature, as in all
mystical teachings that deal with subjects that are difficult to put into
words. (As the Taoists put it, "The one who knows does not speak, and the one
who speaks does not know.") But Taoist mysticism is more philosophical than
religious. Unlike Upanishadic philosophy or Christian mysticism, it does not
aim to extinguish the personality through the union with the Absolute or God.
Rather, its aim is to teach how one can obtain happiness in this world by
living a simple life in harmony with nature.
Confucianism and Taoism became the two major molds that shaped Chinese
thought and civilization. Although these rival schools frequently sniped at
one another, they never became mutually exclusive outlooks on life. Taoist
intuition complemented Confucian rationalism; during the centuries to come,
Chinese were often Confucianists in their social relations and Taoists in
their private life.
Taoism, with its individual freedom and mystical union with nature, would
in time have a deep impact on Chinese poetry and art.
Mencius' Contribution To Confucianism
The man whose work was largely responsible for the emergence of
Confucianism as the most widely accepted philosophy in China was Mencius, or
Meng-tzu (372-289 B.C.). Born a century after the death of Confucius, Mencius
added important new dimensions to Confucian thought in two areashuman nature
Although Confucius had only implied that human nature is good, Mencius
emphatically insisted that all people are innately good and tend to seek the
good just as water tends to run downhill. But unless people strive to preserve
and develop their innate goodness, which is the source of righteous conduct,
it can be corrupted by the bad practices and ideas existing in the
environment. Mencius taught that the opposite of righteous conduct is
selfishness, and he attacked the extreme individualism of the Taoists as a
form of selfishness. He held that "all men are brothers," and he would have
agreed with a later Confucian writer who summed up in one sentence the
teaching of a famous Taoist: "He would not pluck so much as a hair out of his
head for the benefit of his fellows."
The second area in which Mencius elaborated on Confucius' teaching was
political theory. Mencius distinguished between good kings, who ruled
benevolently, and the rulers of his day (the Period of Warring States), who
governed by naked force and spread violence and disorder. Because good rulers
are guided by ethical standards, he said, they will behave benevolently toward
the people and provide for their well-being. Unlike Confucius, who did not
question the right of hereditary kings to rule, Mencius said that the people
have a right to rebel against bad rulers and even kill them if necessary,
because they have lost the Mandate of Heaven.
As we have seen, this concept has been used by the Chou to justify their
revolt against the Shang. On that occasion, the concept had had a religious
meaning, being connected with the worship of Heaven, who supported the ruler
as the Son of Heaven. Mencius, however, secularized and humanized the Mandate
of Heaven by equating it with the people: "Heaven hears as the people hear;
Heaven sees as the people see." By redefining the concept in this way, Mencius
made the welfare of the people the ultimate standard for judging government.
Indeed, he even told rulers to their faces that the people were more important
than they were.
Modern commentators, both Chinese and Western, have viewed Mencius'
definition of the Mandate of Heaven as an early form of democratic thought.
Mencius did believe that all people were morally equal and that the ruler
needed the consent of the people, but he was clearly the advocate of
benevolent monarchy rather than popular democracy.
Another body of thought emerged in the fourth and third centuries B.C.
and came to be called the School of Law, or Legalism. It had no single
founder, as did Confucianism and Taoism, nor was it ever a school in the sense
of a teacher leading disciples. What it did have in common with Confucianism
and Taoism was the desire to establish stability in an age of turmoil.
The Legalists emphasized the importance of harsh and inflexible law as
the only means of achieving an orderly and prosperous society. They believed
that human nature was basically bad and that people acted virtuously only when
forced to do so. Therefore, they argued for an elaborate system of laws
defining fixed penalties for each offense, with no exceptions for rank, class,
or circumstances. Judges were not to use their own conscience in estimating
the gravity of the crime and arbitrarily deciding on the punishment. Their
task was solely to define the crime correctly; the punishment was provided
automatically by the code of law. This procedure is still a characteristic of
Since the enforcement of law required a strong state, the immediate goal
of the Legalists was to enhance the power of the ruler at the expense of other
elements, particularly the nobility. Their ultimate goal was the creation of a
centralized state strong enough to unify all China and end the chaos of the
Warring States period. The unification of China in 221 B.C. was largely the
result of putting Legalist ideas of government into practice.
China: The First Empire
Some 1500 years after the founding of the Shang Dynasty around 1700 B.C.,
China was unified. The first centralized Chinese empire was the proud
achievement of two dynasties, the Ch'in and the Han. The Ch'in Dynasty
collapsed soon after the death of its founder, but the Han lasted or more than
four centuries. Together the two dynasties transformed China, but the changes
were the culmination of earlier developments.
Rise Of Legalist Ch'in
Throughout the two centuries of the Warring States period (c. 450-221
B.C.) there was the hope that a king would emerge who would unite China and
inaugurate a great new age of peace and stability. While the Confucians
believed that such a king would accomplish the task by means of his
outstanding moral virtue, the Legalists substituted overwhelming might as the
essential element of effective government. The political philosophy of the
Legalists, who liked to sum up and justify their doctrine in two words - "It
works" - triumphed, and no state became more adept at practicing that
pragmatic philosophy than the Chin.
The Ch'in's rise to preeminence began in 352 B.C., when its ruler
selected Lord Shang, a man imbued with Legalist principles, to be chief
minister. Recognizing that the growth of Ch'in's power depended on a more
efficient and centralized bureaucratic structure than could exist under
feudalism, Lord Shang undermined the old hereditary nobility by creating a new
aristocracy based on military merit. He also introduced a universal draft
beginning at approximately age fifteen. As a result, chariot and cavalry
warfare, in which the nobility head played the leading role, was replaced in
importance by masses of peasant infantry equipped with swords and crossbows.
Economically, Lord Shang further weakened the old landowning nobility by
abolishing the peasants' attachment to the land and granting them ownership of
the plots they tilled. Thereafter the liberated peasants paid taxes directly
to the state, thereby increasing its wealth and power. These reforms made
Ch'in the most powerful of the Warring States. It soon began to extend the
area of its political and social innovations.
Ch'in Unites China
In the middle of the third century B.C., a hundred years after Lord
Shang, another Legalist prime minister helped the king of Ch'in prepare and
carry out the conquest of the other Warring States that ended the Chou Dynasty
in 256 B.C. and united China by 221 B.C. The king then declared himself the
"First August Supreme Ruler" (Shih Huang-ti) of China, or "First Emperor," as
his new title is usually translated. He also enlarged China - a name derived
from the word Ch'in - by conquests in the south as far as the South China Sea.
The First Emperor gathered the old nobility - some 120,000 families,
according to tradition - near the capital, where they could be closely
watched. To further forestall rebellion, he ordered the entire civilian
population to surrender its weapons to the state. A single harsh legal code,
which replaced all local laws, was so detailed in its provisions that it was
said to have been like "a fishing net through which even the smallest fish
cannot slip out." The entire realm, which extended into South China and
Vietnam, was divided into forty-eight provinces, administrative units drawn to
obliterate traditional feudal units and to facilitate direct rule by the
emperor's centrally controlled civil and military appointees. To destroy the
source of the aristocracy's power and to permit the emperor's agents to tax
every farmer's harvest, private ownership of land by peasants, promoted a
century earlier in the state of Ch'in by Lord Shang, was decreed for all of
China. Thus the Ch'in empire reflected the emerging social forces at work in
China - the peasants freed from serfdom, the merchants eager to increase their
wealth within a larger political area, and the new military and administrative
The most spectacular of the First Emperor's many public works was
repairing remnants of walls built earlier by the northern Warring States and
joining them into the Great Wall, extending from the sea into Central Asia for
a distance of over 1400 miles. Constructed by forced labor, it was said that
"every stone cost a human life." The wall was both a line of defense against
the barbarians who habitually raided into China and a symbol of the
distinction between China's agricultural society and the nomadic tribes of
Central Asia. It remains today one of the greatest monuments to engineering
skill in the preindustrial age and one of the wonders of the world. It is said
to be the only man-made structure on earth that can be seen from the moon.
The First Emperor tried to enforce intellectual conformity and make the
Ch'in Legalist system appear to be the only natural political order. He
suppressed all other schools of thought - especially the Confucians who
idealized Chou feudalism by stressing the obedience of sons to their fathers,
of nobles to the lord, and of lords to the king. To break the hold of the
past, the emperor put into effect a Legalist proposal requiring all privately
owned books reflecting past traditions to be burned and "all those who raise
their voice against the present government in the name of antiquity [to] be
beheaded together with their families."
The First Emperor constructed a huge mound tomb for himself and, nearby,
three large pits filled with the life-sized terra cotta figures of his
imperial guard. Over half a million laborers were employed at the site. The
mausoleum has not been excavated, but the partial excavation of the pits
revealed an estimated 7000 soldiers. Strangely, each head is a personal
portrait - no two faces are alike.
When the First Emperor died in 210 B.C. while on one of his frequent
tours of inspection, he was succeeded by an inept son who was unable to
control the rivalry among his father's chief aides. Ch'in policies had
alienated not only the intellectuals and the old nobility but also the
peasants, who were subjected to ruinous taxation and forced labor. Rebel
armies rose in every province of the empire, some led by peasants, others by
aristocrats. Anarchy followed, and by 206 B.C. the Ch'in Dynasty, which the
First Emperor had claimed would endure for "ten thousand generations," had
completely disappeared. But the Chinese Empire itself, which Ch'in created,
would last for more than 2000 years, the longest-lived political institution
in world history.
At issue in the fighting that continued for another four years was not
only the question of succession to the throne but also the form of government.
The peasant and aristocratic leaders, first allied against Ch'in, became
engaged in a furious and ruthless civil war. The aristocrats sought to restore
the oligarchic feudalism of pre-Ch'in times. Their opponents, whose main
leader was Liu Pang, a peasant who had become a Ch'in general, desired a
centralized state. In this contest between the old order and the new, the new
was the victor.
The Han Dynasty: The Empire Consolidated
In 202 B.C., the year that the Romans defeated the Carthaginians at the
battle of Zama, the peasant Liu Pang defeated his aristocratic rival and
established the Han Dynasty. Named after the Han River, a tributary of the
Yangtze, the new dynasty had its capital at Chang-an. It lasted for more than
400 years and is traditionally divided into two parts: the Earlier Han, from
202 B.C. to A.D. 8, and the Later Han, from A.D. 23 to A.D. 220, with its
capital at Lo-yang. In time and importance, the Han corresponded to the late
Roman Republic and early Roman Empire; ethnic Chinese still call themselves
"Men of Han."
The empire and power sought by Liu Pang and his successors were those of
the Ch'in, but they succeeded where the Ch'in had failed because they were
tactful and gradual in their approach. Liu Pang reestablished for a time some
of the vassal kingdoms and feudal states in regions distant from the capital.
Peasant discontent was mollified by lessened demands for taxes and forced
labor. But the master stroke of the Han emperors was to enlist the support of
the Confucian intellectuals. They provided the empire with an ideology that
would last until recent times. The Chins' extreme Legalistic ideology of harsh
punishment and terror had not worked.
The Han emperors recognized that an educated bureaucracy was necessary
for governing so vast an empire. The ban on the Confucian classics and other
Chou literature was lifted, and the way was open for a revival of the
intellectual life that had been suppressed under the Chin.
In accord with Legalist principles, now tempered by Confucian insistence
on the ethical basis of government, the Han emperors established
administrative organs staffed by a salaried bureaucracy to rule their empire.
Talented men were chosen for government service through an examination system
based on the Confucian classics, and they were promoted by merit.
The examinations were theoretically open to all Chinese except merchants.
(The Han inherited both the Confucian bias against trade as an unvirtuous
striving for profit and the Legalist suspicion of merchants who put their own
interests ahead of those of the state and society.) The bureaucrats were drawn
from the landlord class because wealth was needed to obtain the education
needed to pass the examinations. Consequently, the earlier division of Chinese
society between aristocrats and peasants was transformed into a division
between peasants and landowner-bureaucrats. The latter are also called
scholar-gentry, a term first used in the eighteenth century by the British.
They saw a parallel with the gentry who dominated the countryside and
administration of their own country.
Wu Ti And The Pax Sinica
After sixty years of consolidation, the Han Empire reached its greatest
extent and development during the long reign of Wu Ti ("Martial Emperor"), who
ruled from 141 to 87 B.C. To accomplish his goal of territorial expansion, he
raised the peasants' taxes but not those of the great landowners, who remained
virtually exempt from taxation. In addition, he increased the amount of labor
and military service the peasants were forced to contribute to the state.
The Martial Emperor justified his expansionist policies in terms of
self-defense against Mongolian nomads, the Hsiung-nu, known to the West later
as the Huns. Their attacks had caused the First Emperor to complete the Great
Wall to obstruct their raiding cavalry. To outflank the nomads in the west, Wu
Ti extended the Great Wall and annexed a large corridor extending through the
Tarim River basin of Central Asia to the Pamir Mountains close to Bactria.
This corridor has ever since remained a part of China.
Wu Ti failed in an attempt to form an alliance with the Scythians in
Bactria, but his envoy's report of the interest shown in Chinese silks by the
peoples of the area was the beginning of a commercial exchange between China
and the West. This trade brought great profits to wealthy merchant families.
Wu Ti also outflanked the Hsiung-nu in the east by the conquest of
southern Manchuria and northern Korea. In addition, he completed the conquest
of South China, begun by the Ch'in, and added North Vietnam to the Chinese
Empire. All the conquered lands experienced considerable Chinese emigration.
Thus at a time when the armies of the Roman Republic were laying the
foundations of the Pax Romana in the West, the Martial Emperor was
establishing a Pax Sinica ("Chinese Peace") in the East.
Wu Ti's conquests led to a fiscal crisis. As costs increased, taxes
increased, and the peasants' burdens led to revolt. The end result was that
the central government had to rely more and more on local military commanders
and great landowners for control of the population, giving them great power
and prestige at its own expense. This cycle of decline after an initial period
of increasing prosperity and power has been the pattern of all Chinese
dynasties. During the Han this "dynastic cycle," as Western historians of
China call it, led to a succession of mediocre rulers after Wu Ti's death and
a temporary usur ation of the throne (A.D. 9-23), which divided the Earlier
from the Later Han.
The usurper, Wang Mang, united Confucian humanitarianism with Legalist
practice. Like his contemporary in the West, the Roman Emperor Augustus, his
goal was the rejuvenation of society. By Wang Mang's day the number of large
tax-free estates had greatly increased while the number of tax-paying peasant
holdings had declined. This was a by product of the private landownership
that, under the Ch'in, had replaced the old communal use of the land. Rich
officials and merchants were able to acquire the lands of small
peasant-owners, who became tenants paying exorbitant rents. The conflict of
landlordship and tenancy, along with the concentration of power of great
families, became a major problem in Chinese history.
More and more peasants fell behind in their rents and were forced to sell
themselves or their children into debt slavery. To remedy this situation and
increase the government's tax income, Wang Mang decreed that the land was the
property of the nation and should be portioned out to peasant families, who
would pay taxes on their allotments.
Wang Mang sought to solve the long-standing problem of inflation, which
had greatly increased since Wu Ti first began debasing the coinage when he
found himself in financial difficulties, by setting maximum prices on basic
commodities. He also sought to stabilize prices by instituting "leveling" -
the government bought surplus commodities when prices fell and sold them when
scarcity caused prices to rise. (In 1938, a chance reading of Wang Mang's
"leveling" proposal inspired the "ever-normal granary" program of President
Roosevelt's New Deal. ^5)
[Footnote 5: Wm. Theodore de Bary, East Asian Civilizations: A Dialogue in
Five Stages (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 19]
Wang Mang's remarkable reform program failed, however; officials bungled
the difficult administrative task, and the powerful landowners rebelled
against the ruler who proposed to confiscate their land. Although Wang Mang
rescinded his reforms, he was killed by the rebels in A.D. 23.
The Later Han Dynasty never reached the heights of its predecessor.
Warlords who were members of the rich landowner class seized more and more
power, and widespread peasant rebellions (one band was led by "Mother Lu," a
woman skilled in witchcraft) sapped the state's resources. Surviving in name
only during its last thirty years, the Han Dynasty ended in A.D. 220, when the
throne was usurped by the son of a famous warlord. Three and a half centuries
of disunity and turbulence followed - the longest in China's long history and
often called China's "Middle Ages" - as it did in Europe after the fall of the
Roman Empire. But China eventually succeeded where Europe failed: in A.D. 589
China once again was united by the Sui Dynasty (see ch. 8). With minor
exceptions, it has remained united to this day.
Han Scholarship, Art And Technology
Politically and culturally, the relation of the Han to the Chou
paralleled that of ancient Rome to Greece. Politically, the disunity of Greece
and the Chou was followed by the imperial unity and administrative genius of
the Romans and the Han. Culturally, just as the Romans owed a great debt to
the Greeks, so did the Han to the Chou. Furthermore, Greek and Chou
intellectual creativity was not matched by the Romans and the Han.
Scholarship flourished under the Han, but it was mainly concerned with
collecting and interpreting the classics of Chinese thought produced in the
Chou period. As the basis of education for prospective bureaucrats, Wu Ti
established an imperial university in 124 B.C.; a century later it had 3000
students. The Han scholars venerated Confucius as the ideal wise man, and
Confucianism became the official philosophy of the state. Great respect for
learning, together with the system of civil service examinations based on the
Five Confucian Classics, became fundamental characteristics of Chinese
Han scholars started another scholarly tradition with their historical
writings. Their antiquarian interest in researching the past produced a
comprehensive history of China, the Historical Records (Shih chi). This
voluminous work of 130 chapters has been highly praised, in part for its
inclusion of a vast amount of information, beginning with the legendary past,
but even more for its freedom from superstition and careful weighing of
evidence. In the Later Han, a scholar wrote the History of the (Earlier) Han,
and thereafter it was customary for each dynasty to write the official history
of its immediate predecessor. The Chinese believed that the successes and
failures of the past provided guidance for one's own time and the future. As
stated in the Historical Records, "Events of the past, if not forgotten, are
teachings about the future."
Archaeological investigation was used as an aid to the writing of
history. One scholar anticipated modern archaeologists by more than a thousand
years in classifying human history by "ages": "stone" (Old Stone Age), "jade"
(New Stone Age), "bronze," and "the present age" when "weapons are made of
[Footnote 6: Kwang-chih Chang, The Archaeology of Ancient China, 4th ed. (New
Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 5]
Another monument to Han scholarship was the world's first dictionary,
Shuo Wen (Words Explained), produced during Wu Ti's reign. It listed the
meaning and pronunciation of more than 9000 Chinese characters.
In contrast to Han scholarship, Han art was clearly creative. The largely
decorative art of the past, which served a religious purpose, was replaced by
a realistic pictorial art portraying ordinary life. The result was the first
great Chinese flowering of sculpture, both in relief and in the round.
Some of the finer examples of this realistic secular art are the
sculptured models of the tall and spirited horses that Wu Ti imported from
Bactria. The Han greatly admired these proud "celestial" and "blood-sweating"
horses from the West, and their artists brilliantly captured their high
During the Han period, China surpassed the level of technological
development in the rest of the world. Notable inventions included a primitive
seismograph capable of indicating earthquakes several hundred miles away; the
use of water power to grind grain and to operate a piston bellows for iron
smelting; the horse collar, which greatly increased the pulling power of
horses; paper made from cloth rags, which replaced cumbersome bamboo strips
and expensive silk cloth as writing material; and the humble but extremely
useful wheelbarrow. By the end of the first century B.C., the Han Chinese had
recognized sunspots and accurately determined the length of the calendar year.
Popular Taoism And Buddhism
By the time the First Emperor united China at the end of the third
century B.C., a decadent or popular form of Taoism had emerged. Popular Taoism
was a religion of spirits and magic that provided the spiritual comfort not
found in either philosophical Taoism or Confucianism. Its goals were long life
and personal immortality. These goals were to be achieved not so much as a
reward for ethical conduct but through magical charms and spells and imbibing
an "elixir of immortality." The search for such an elixir, which was thought
to contain the vital forces of nature, led to an emphasis on diet and
ultimately to the culinary art for which the Chinese are famous.
Popular Taoism also became a vehicle for the expression of peasant
discontent. In A.D. 184, the Yellow Turbans (one of the earliest of many such
uprisings throughout China's history) led a widespread peasant revolt inspired
by Taoist followers of a now-deified Lao-tzu. Over 300,000 rebels destroyed
much of China and greatly contributed to the anarchy that fatally weakened the
Later Han Dynasty.
Buddhism, which appeared in China during the first century A.D., provided
another answer to the need for religious assurance. It was brought to China by
missionaries and traders through Central Asia. About A.D. 184 a Buddhist
missionary established a center for the translation of Buddhist writings into
Chinese at the Later Han capital. However, relatively few Chinese were
attracted to the religion during this period. Buddhism's great attraction of
converts and influence on Chinese culture came after the fall of the Han
Dynasty, when renewed social turmoil made its emphasis on otherworldly
salvation appealing to the great majority of Chinese.
Chinese Continuity: T'ang And Sung
In contrast with India or medieval Europe, China achieved both political
and cultural continuity between the sixth and thirteenth centuries. Political
unity was attained briefly under the Sui dynasty (589-618), consolidated under
the T'ang (618-906), and maintained percariously in the south under the Sung
(960-1279). Despite periods of internal disruption, this political structure,
recreated from Han precedents, survived repeated invasions and civil wars. Its
stability resulted from a common written language; an ancient family
structure, guided by mature and conservative-minded matriarchs; an enduring
Confucian tradition; and a Chinese elite of hereditary nobles and
scholar-bureaucrats, who shared power while subtly contending for dominance.
Their efforts promoted a flowering of Chinese culture during the expansionary
T'ang period, when China was the largest state in the world, and during the
ensuing economic prosperity of the Sung.
Before The T'ang Dynasty
Following the fall of the Han Empire in 220, China suffered three
centuries of disorder and division. Various nomadic peoples, mainly Huns
(Hsiung-nu) and Turks (Yueh-chih), pillaged northern China, setting up petty
states. Because these were administered mostly by Chinese, they gradually
absorbed Chinese culture. Central and southern China, escaped these intrusions
and experienced relative prosperity and an expanding population, resulting
from an influx of northern emigres and an increasingly productive rice
cultivation. The growing economy supported a series of political regimes at
Nanking, all maintaining classical traditions and the notion of a united state
under a "Son of Heaven."
During turbulent times in the fourth century, as the old Confucian ideal
of a balanced social order appeared less realistic, Buddhism had spread
rapidly in China. Its promise of salvation, particularly to common people, its
special compassionate appeal to women, its offer to meek men of monastic
security in troubled times, and its long incubation within Chinese culture,
all ensured its popularity. Although challenged by native Taoism (which
adopted many of its ideas), scorned by some Confucian intellectuals, and
periodically persecuted by rulers jealous of its strength, Buddhism ultimately
won adherents among all of its critics, especially among the barbarian
monarchs of the north, including the Sui emperors. Most of them patronized
Buddhism by building splendid temples and generously endowing monasteries.
The two Sui monarchs, tempered in the rough frontier wars of the north,
reconquered all of China, thus ending nearly four centuries of localized
confusion. They established an imperial military force and a land-based
militia, centralized the administration, and revived a civil service recruited
through an examination system. They also started building a canal, a
forerunner of the later famous Grand Canal, to link the rice-growing Yangtse
basin with northern China. Their unpredictable cruelty, oppression and
conscription of labor for the canal, led to a rebellion that ended the
dynasty; nevertheless, the Sui emperors deserve much credit for later T'ang
Political Developments Under The Rising T'ang Dynasty, 618-756
During the early T'ang period to 756, China attained a new pinnacle of
glory. The first three emperors subjugated Turkish Central Asia, made Tibet a
dependency, and conquered Annam (North Vietnam). This era of growth and
grandeur was marked by the extraordinary reign of the able Empress Wu, a
concubine of the second and third emperors, who controlled the government for
twenty years after the latter's death, torturing and executing her political
opponents but also consolidating the T'ang Dynasty. In the process, she
greatly weakened the old aristocracy by favoring Buddhism and strengthening
the examination system for civil servants. Moreover, she decisively defeated
the northern Koreans, making Korea a loyal vassal state. Largely because she
was a woman and a usurper, she found little favor with some Chinese historians
and politicians, who emphasized her vices, particularly her many favorites and
lovers. Her overthrow in 712 ended an era of contention and ushered in a new
age of cultural development in the long reign of Emperior Hsuan-tsung
T'ang rulers perfected a highly centralized government, utilizing a
complex bureaucracy organized in specialized councils, boards, and ministries,
all responsible directly to the emperor. Local government functioned under
fifteen provincial governors, aided by subordinates down to the district
level. Military commanders supervised tribute collections in semi-autonomous
conquered territories. Office-holders throughout the Empire were, by the
eighth century, usually degree-holders from government schools and
universities, who had qualified by passing the regularly scheduled
examinations. These scholar-bureaucrats were steeped in Confucian conservatism
but were more efficient than the remaining minority of aristocratic hereditary
officials. One notable T'ang institution was a nationalized land register,
designed to check the growth of large estates, guarantee land to peasants, and
relate their land tenure to both their taxes and their militia service. Until
well into the eighth century, when abuses began to show, the system worked to
merge the interests of state and people.
T'ang Economy And Society
The T'ang economy was carefully regulated. The government maintained
monopolies on salt, liquor, and tea and used licensing in an attempt to
discourage undesirable enterprises. In operating its monopolies, it issued
receipts that circulated among merchants. These receipts were antecedents of
the paper money that came into use under the Sung. The state also built roads
and canals to facilitate commerce. Perhaps the most functional of these
projects was the magnificent Grand Canal, stretching some 650 miles between
Hangchow and Tientsin. Other typical government enterprises included post
houses and restaurants for official travelers, as well as public granaries for
insurance against famine.
Economic productivity, both agricultural and industrial, rose steadily
during the early T'ang period. The introduction of tea and wet rice from Annam
turned the Yangtse area into a vast irrigated food bank and the economic base
for T'ang power. More food and rising population brought increasing
manufactures. Chinese techniques in the newly discovered craft of
paper-making, along with iron-casting, porcelain production, and silk
processing, improved tremendously and spread west through the Middle East.
Foreign trade and influence increased significantly under the T'ang
emperors in a development that would continue through the Sung era. Chinese
control in Central Asia reopened the old overland silk route; but as
porcelains became the most profitable exports and could not be easily
transported by caravan, they swelled the volume of sea trade through southeast
Asia. Most of this trade left from southern ports, particularly from Canton,
where more than 100,000 aliens - Hindus, Persians, Arabs, and Malays - handled
the goods. Foreign merchants were equally visible at Ch'ang-an, the T'ang
capital and eastern terminus of the silk route.
Although largely state-controlled and aristocratic, T'ang society was
more dynamic and flexible than those of the past. It was particularly
responsive to new foreign stimuli, which it eagerly absorbed. A strongly
pervasive Buddhism, a rising population, and steady urbanization fostered this
open-mindedness. Many city populations exceeded 100,000; four cities had more
than a million people; and one of these - the capital of Ch'ang-an - was the
largest city in the world. Commercial prosperity naturally benefitted the
merchants, but they were still considered socially inferior; merchants often
used their wealth to educate their sons for the civil service examination,
thus promoting the rising class of scholar-bureaucrats. The latter, as they
acquired land, gained status and power at the expense of the old aristocratic
families. Conditions among artisans and the expanding mass of peasants
improved somewhat, but life remained hard and sometimes unpredictably
In the early T'ang era, women had been considered equal enough socially
to play polo with the men. By the eighth century, however, T'ang legal codes
had imposed severe punishments for wifely disobedience or infidelity to
husbands. New laws also limited womens' rights to divorce, inheritance of
property, and remarriage as widows. Women were still active in the arts and
literature but were excluded from civil examinations for public service.
Although some wielded influence and power at royal courts, many were confined
to harems, a practice without precedent in Chinese traditions and probably
borrowed from Islam in the late T'ang era. These obvious regressions were only
partially balanced by the continued high status and authority of older women
within the families.
T'ang Literature And Scholarship
A fresh flowering of literature occurred during the early T'ang period.
It followed naturally from a dynamic society, but it was also greatly
furthered by the development of paper-making and the invention in about 600 of
block printing in China, whence the technique soon spread to Korea and Japan.
Movable type, which would later revolutionize Europe, was little used in East
Asia during this period, because all writing was done in word characters.
Still, printing helped meet a growing demand for the religious and educational
materials generated by Buddhism and the examination system.
T'ang scholarship is best remembered for historical writing. Chinese of
this period firmly believed that lessons from the past could be guides to the
future. As an early T'ang emperor remarked, "by using a mirror of brass, you
may ... adjust your cap; by using antiquity as a mirror you may ... foresee
the rise and fall of empires." ^1 History itself came under investigation
during this era, for example in The Understanding of History, a work which
stressed the need for analysis and evaluation in the narration of events.
[Footnote 1: Quoted in H. H. Gowen and H. W. Hall, An Outline History of China
(New York, D. Appleton and Co., 1926), p. 117.]
Writers produced works of all types, but poetry was the accepted medium,
composed and repeated by emperors, scholars, singing courtesans, and common
people in the marketplaces. T'ang poetry was marked by ironic humor, deep
sensitivity to human feeling, concern for social justice, and a
near-worshipful love of nature. Three of the most famous among some 3000
recognized poets of the era were Po Chu, Tu Fu, and Li Po. The last, perhaps
the greatest of them all, was an admitted lover of pleasure, but he could
pinpoint life's mysteries, as in the following poetic expression of Taoist
Chuang Tzu in a dream
became a butterfly,
And the butterfly became
Chuang Tzu at waking.
Which was the real - the
butterfly or the man? ^2
[Footnote 2: The Works of Li Po, trans. by Shigeyoshi Obata (New York: E. P.
Dutton, 1950), no. 71.]
T'ang Sculpture And Painting
The T'ang literary revival was paralleled by movements in painting and
sculpture. The plastic arts, dealing with both religious and secular subjects,
became a major medium for the first time in China. Small tomb statues depicted
both Chinese and foreign life with human realism, verve, and diversity.
Religious statuary, even in Buddhist shrines, showed a strong humanistic
emphasis, often juxtaposed with the naive sublimity of Buddhas carved in the
Gandara (Greek Hellenistic) style of northwest India. Similar themes were
developed in T'ang painting, but the traditional preoccupation with nature
prevailed in both northern and southern landscape schools. The most famous
T'ang painter was Wu Tao-tzu, whose landscapes and religious scenes were
produced at the court of the Emperor Ming Huang in the early eighth century.
After the middle of the eighth century, T'ang China began to decline. A
warning came in 751, when Arabs reconquered the Tarim basin. Meanwhile, as the
fiscal system weakened under attack from various vested interests, military
governors took over control of outlying provinces. One of them, a former
favorite named An Lu-shan, marched on Ch'ang-an in 755. The aged Emperor
Hsuan-tsung, while fleeing the capital, was forced by his troops to approve
the execution of his favorite concubine, who had dominated his court and
weakened his dynasty. According to legend, he died of sorrow less than a month
The rebellion was put down after seven years, but the disruption was so
extensive that the late T'ang emperors never recovered their former power.
Following a breakdown of the old land registration system, revenues declined
and peasants rebelled against rising taxes. The government alienated more
people by seizing Buddhist property and persecuting all foreign religions. At
the capital, weak emperors lost their authority to eunuchs who had originally
been only harem servants. Finally, in 907, a military commander killed all the
eunuchs and deposed the last T'ang emperor.
Even as the T'ang dynasty was ending, it prepared the way for the Sung.
South China, under T'ang rule, had developed a strong economy that could not
be contained within the rigid T'ang system. The T'ang collapse permitted a
commercial expansion that in turn generated much of the Sung's remarkable
Political Developments During The Sung Era, 960-1279
For nearly a half century after the fall of the T'ang dynasty, China
experienced political division, at times approaching anarchy. During the
period of the Five Dynasties in the north and the Ten Kingdoms in the south,
barbarian attacks continued to alternate with internal conflicts among
contending warlords. A military leader of the northern Chou staged a palace
coup and founded the Sung line in 960. He and his successor reunited the
country, although certain frontier provinces and the tributary areas held by
T'ang rulers were never regained.
Although they were northerners, early Sung emperors abandoned their
military traditions in deference to the powerful landed magnates of the south,
upon whom the state depended for economic support. Instead of using officials
personally committed to the emperor, the Sung rulers relied upon the civil
service, recruited through an examination system that largely favored the
scholarly elite. Without an effective military, and plagued with internal
bureaucratic dissension, Sung ministers tried first to defend the steppe
frontiers by diplomacy. When that failed, they temporarily avoided invasion of
the empire by paying tribute in silver and silk to neighboring barbarian
kingdoms, such as the Khitan.
In addition to external threats, Sung rulers faced serious internal
problems. A booming economy encouraged an individualism that affected all
classes. The cost of foreign tribute, in addition to losses resulting from tax
evasion by the wealthy, brought rising deficits as well as peasant unrest. To
meet this crisis, the emperor called upon an eminent statesman, Wang An-shih
(1081-1086). Wang sponsored a program which enforced state-controlled interest
rates on agricultural loans, fixed commodity prices, provided unemployment
benefits, established old age pensions, and reformed the examination system by
stressing practical rather than literary knowledge. These measures brought
some improvements but evoked fanatic opposition from scholars, bureaucrats,
and moneylenders. In the next generation, most of the reforms were rescinded.
Sung efforts to govern a united China came to an inglorious end early in
the twelfth century. A nomadic people from Manchuria, the Jurchen, having
established the Chin dynasty in north China, soon destroyed the Khitan regime
and took the northern Sung capital in K'ai-feng. The Sung court fled in panic
to Nanking and later established a capital at Hangchow. After a decade of
indecisive war, a treaty in 1141 concluded a humiliating and uneasy peace with
the Chin. For more than another century the southern Sung state survived,
almost completely cut off by land from the north and west, but still capable
of great commercial and cultural advances.
Economic And Social Conditions During The Sung Period
Although militarily weak, the Sung state was the economic nucleus for
most of east Asia. Its water control projects and intensive agriculture
doubled rice production within a century after 1050, while industry increased
rapidly, pouring out the finest silk, lacquer wares, and porcelains for home
and foreign markets. Sung economic advances were furthered by such technical
innovations as water clocks, paddle-boats, explosive projectile weapons,
seagoing junks, the stern-post rudder, and the mariner's compass. The
resulting rise in productivity forced commerce out of government control, at
the same time encouraging banks to depend upon paper currency. Foreign trade,
formerly dominated by aliens, was taken up by Chinese, who established
commercial colonies throughout East Asia.
Such profound and rapid change brought tensions to Sung society. Along
with rising material affluence came urban expansion. The Chinese population
swelled from 60 to 115 million, an increase of more than twice the world
average. For all classes, life presented a unique contrast between confidence
and anxiety. Relatively safe from nomad attack behind southern water barriers,
most people were more concerned than in the past with their personal freedom,
amusement, and advancement. The new affluence also brought cruel competition
and undermined the old family values and moral obligations to the state. Such
influences, however, did little to affect the class structure. Merchants, no
matter how wealthy, could not replace the dominant scholar-bureaucrats, who
continued to prosper as landowners. Admittedly, many of these were from
middle-class families, financially able to educate their sons for the civil
Social changes in the Sung era were especially difficult for women.
Rising economic growth and competition helped erode Buddhist compassion and
encouraged a revival of the Confucian doctrine of male dominance, particularly
among the elite. For some lower-class women, commercial development brought
new freedoms and opportunities to work, even conduct business, outside the
home. In contrast, upper-class Sung women were now more restricted than in the
past. Usually betrothed by their fathers, they lived in near servile status
within their husbands' families, producing children and providing social
decoration. The binding of little girls' feet, as preparation for this sterile
adult life, became common practice under the Sung, as did female infanticide,
restrictions on the remarriage of widows, and harsh legal penalties including
death for violating the accepted code of prescribed wifely conduct.
Sung Philosophy, Literature, And Art
A rapidly changing social scene and the political debate over Wang
An-shih's reforms led to philosophical dissension during the Sung era. Most
reformers claimed that their proposals were based upon Confucian principles,
but they were nevertheless strongly opposed by the majority of Confucian
scholars, who were part of the established bureaucracy. Although Buddhist and
Taoist spokesmen supported few standard arguments in the debate, their general
opposition to government gave them many opportunities to increase the
confusion. Thus the fragile compromise between Buddhism and Confucianism,
achieved during the T'ang period, was placed under severe strain. Ultimately,
these problems were resolved by a new compromise known as Neo-Confucianism,
which was to become the intellectual foundation for Chinese thought until the
Chu Hsi (1129-1200), founder of the new philosophic school, was a
brilliant scholar and respected commentator on the Confucian classics. His
teaching sought to reconcile the mystical popular faiths of Buddhism and
Taoism with Confucian practicality. Like his near contemporary in Europe, St.
Thomas Aquinas, Chu Hsi synthesized faith and reason; but unlike Aquinas,
Chu's highest priority was disciplined reason. He believed that people are
neither naturally good nor bad, but are inclined either way by experience and
education. The universe, according to Chu, is a self-generating and
self-regulating order, to which humans may adjust rationally. Faith and
custom, however, are necessary supports for reason and proper training.
Chu Hsi contended that self-cultivation required the extension of
knowledge, best achieved by the "investigation of things." As a consequence,
Neo-Confucianism was accompanied by significant advances in experimental and
applied sciences. Chinese doctors, during the period, introduced innoculation
against smallpox. Their education and hospital facilities far surpassed
anything in the West. In addition, there were notable achievements in
astronomy, chemistry, zoology, botany, and cartography. Sung algebra was also
the most advanced in the world.
Sung aesthetic expression was more secular and less introspective than
during the earlier era of Buddhist influence. This encouraged versatility; as
during the later European Renaissance, the universal man - public servant,
scholar, poet, or painter - was the ideal. Ironically, the most famous Chinese
poetess, Li Ch'ing-chao (b. 1181), whose work was enthusiastically promoted by
her scholar-husband, wrote her uniquely personal verse during the southern
Sung period. Generally, however, Sung poetry did not match the growing quality
of novels and drama. Historical and philosophical works reflected the main
literary interests of the time, but the traditional love of nature was still
displayed in landscape painting, which reached a peak under the Sung. Artists
gave more attention to detail and were therefore more precisely naturalistic
than T'ang painters, although the latter were often more imaginative.
Spreading Chinese Influence Abroad
Although not overly impressed by foreign culture, the Sung Chinese
exerted much more influence upon the outside world than did their T'ang
predecessors. Sung maritime trade affected all of East Asia, particularly the
coastal regions to the south, where Chinese merchants were emigrant culture
carriers. Sung technology exerted a long-range impact upon India, the Middle
East, and even Europe. From China, Europe acquired metal horseshoes, the
padded horse collar, and the wheelbarrow. Chinese cartographic knowledge,
along with the compass and the stern-post rudder, helped prepare Europe's age
of expansion. Later, gunpowder and movable type arrived in Europe via Asian
The Mongol Impact
In the latter half of the thirteenth century, a rapidly rising Mongol
Empire significantly altered the course of history. East Asia, India, the
Middle East, and even Europe felt either the direct impact or indirect
shockwaves from Mongol invasions. To the Middle East, the Mongols brought
long-range disaster; India suffered but survived to produce another imperial
age a century later. China, as in the past, ultimately assimilated its
invaders without seriously interrupting the course of its development. Yet
despite such serious disruptions, the Mongol era dramatically illustrated the
importance of newly emerging civilizations in bringing peoples closer
The Role Of The Central Asian Nomads
The Mongols were part of an old and developing tradition. Just prior to
their conquests, they had been steppe nomads, ranging widely and pitching
their black felt tents wherever they could find pasturage for their animals,
like similar peoples who had terrorized settled Eurasian populations since the
fourth century B.C.
Mongol society on the steppe fostered a strange mixture of values,
combining the fierce ruthlessness and brutality of fighting men with a crude
democratic equality. Males, particularly the ruling Khans, held almost
unlimited authority. Polygamy was common among the warriors, although marital
fidelity was equally enforced among men and women. Wives sometimes rode and
fought beside their men, but usually confined their activities to domestic
affairs. In addition to caring for children, women milked the mares and made
all clothing. They were also responsible for many tasks required by their
nomad life, such as breaking camp, loading the ox-wagons, and driving animals
on the march. This division of labor was obviously uneven, but within its
context, women were honored and afforded a rough approximation of social
As was true of their predecessors, the Mongols held military advantages
in their superior cavalry tactics and mobility. Their disadvantages were their
relatively few numbers, plus their dependence upon the administrative skills
of their subjects. This situation, however, changed steadily as civilization
spread on the Central Asian steppes after the sixth century. Even the Mongols
were by then quite familiar with new urban influences.
The Turks, who had figured in Eurasian history for a thousand years
before the emergence of the Mongols, were even more aware that times were
changing. Originating in the Altai mountains, near the Orkhon River north of
Tibet, the Turks began attacking northwest China in the third century and
continued to be mentioned in Chinese annals as the Yueh-chih, a special branch
of the Hsiung-nu frontier barbarians. As some Turks began living in cities in
500, they were noted for their skills as iron workers. According to the
Chinese, Turks produced the first written language among Central Asian peoples
in the sixth century, although the earliest known Turkish records date from
two hundred years later. By that time, the Turks had produced their first
Between the sixth and eighth centuries, Turkish and Chinese regimes
competed for control of the steppes. With Chinese support, the first Turkish
empire (552-583) extended its dominion over most of Central Asia. Internal
dissension caused it to split briefly into eastern and western Khanates,
followed by Chinese conquest under the early T'ang emperors. Later, as the
T'ang regime weakened, a second Turkish empire dominated the steppes
(684-734), only likewise to succomb to internal weaknesses. Although
maintaining many old tribal institutions, these states had central
bureaucracies and appointed provincial officials, as did many petty Turkish
monarchies in border areas.
During and after their imperial experiments, the Turks absorbed and
disseminated much of the culture of the more advanced neighboring areas.
Trade, religion, and warfare facilitated the process. Eastern Turks borrowed
early from China, adopting Buddhism and converting their western kinsmen in
distant Ferghana. After the eighth century, when the rising Caliphate brought
Islam to the steppes, the combined pressures of population increases and
Muslim fanaticism led the Turks on to complete conquests in the Middle East
and India. Such incursions, which were still occurring in the fifteenth
century, usually brought short-range disaster to occupied regions; but they
spread civilization in Central Asia.
For more than five centuries before the Mongol conquests, this process
had been growing in intensity. Westward and to the north of the Chinese
frontiers, a series of large states, partially urbanized but still containing
large nomad populations, rose and fell. The two best known were the Uighur
Empire of the ninth century and the Tangut state which succeeded it. Both of
these regimes prospered on the overland trade with China, which continued to
grow. For all Central Asians - Turks, Uighurs, Tanguts, Tibetans, Mongols, and
a host of others - trade was one of many stimuli that turned their attention
toward the outside world in the thirteenth century.
Formation Of The Mongol Empire
At the opening of the thirteenth century, slightly more than a million
Mongols began their whirlwind conquests and empire-building. Within less than
a century, they had subdued most populations from the Pacific to the Danube,
terrorized the rest, and established the Pax Tatarica, which permitted more
trade and travel across Eurasia than the world would see until the seventeenth
century. This was the largest empire ever known, comparable in geographic area
only with the current Soviet Union. Like all steppe empires, however, it was
extended so far beyond its native human resources that it began to weaken even
as it was being formed and extended.
Mongol successes against such great odds resulted largely from the
leadership of a guiding genius who launched his people into history. The son
of a minor Mongol chief, he was born in 1162 and named Temujin, or "man of
iron." When Temujin's father was killed by enemies, the young warrior was
forced into a lonely exile on the steppe, where he nursed his desire for
vengeance though barely managing to survive. Using cunning, courage,
brutality, and patience, he gathered followers, persevering through tribal
wars and confederacies. Ultimately, a convocation of all the tribes in 1206
recognized him as "Genghis Khan," unquestioned leader of the Mongols.
During the first stage of empire building, to 1241, the Mongols
concentrated on the steppe and its less developed border areas. Genghis Khan
subdued the barbarian kingdoms north of the Chinese wall, destroyed the
western Muslim states on the steppes, and occupied eastern Russia. After his
assassination in 1227, his son conquered the semibarbarian Chin state in
northern China and extended Mongol control in Russia beyond Kiev.
In their second phase of conquest the Mongols extended their domain to
include old civilized areas. They gained dominance over eastern Tibet (1252),
Korea (1258), and Sung China (1274-1279). Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis and
conqueror of the southern Sung, also seized major areas in Burma, Annam, and
Cambodia. Meanwhile, Mongol armies in the Middle East, led by Hulagu Khan,
were toppling nearly every Muslim state in Persia, Mesopotamia, and Syria. The
Mongol tide was finally arrested by an Egyptian army in Palestine (1260), by
the failure of Kublai's naval attacks against Japan (1281) and Java (1293),
and by contention among Mongol rulers of the far-flung territories.
Because they were so few in number, the Mongols relied upon terror to
control conquered peoples. They routinely resorted to mass torture, killing,
destruction, and resettlement of whole populations. In Baghdad, for example,
Hulagu Khan executed 800,000 men, women, and children, sparing only a few
skilled craftsmen. By destroying the irrigation system, the Mongols almost
permanently ruined Mesopotamian agriculture. Even under more benign Mongol
rule, China's population dropped from 100 million to less than 70 million
during the period.
The Mongol Political Structure
The ultimate base of authority in the sprawling Mongol territories was a
cavalry force of 130,000. Small contingents of this superbly armed and
disciplined body were usually sufficient in areas already demoralized by
terrorism. Communications were maintained by the famous Mongol couriers and
thousands of post stations, which radiated in all directions from the imperial
capital at Karakorum. Under watchful Mongol military commanders, local rulers
or officials collected tribute, maintained routine services, and enforced
native law, unless it violated Mongol custom or the Khan's decrees.
By the mid-thirteenth century, this military foundation was supporting a
central bureaucracy of Turkish, Tibetan, and Chinese officials, in various
ministries, such as justice, treasury, and military affairs. An examination
system provided recruits for the expanding civil service, and young Mongols
trained for the examinations at an imperial academy. Under this central
government, the empire was divided into four parts: the Grand Khanate (Central
Asia and North China), and three sub-Khanates of Asia, Persia, and Russia.
China Under The Mongols
During the reign of Kublai Khan (1260-1294), China briefly gained new
significance in the Mongol system. Although Kublai successfully maintained his
titular authority over the sub-Khanates, he moved his capital from Karakorum
to Peking; proclaimed himself the founder of the Yuan dynasty, ruled a unified
China; and turned attention primarily to his Chinese territories. This strain
on Mongol unity led directly to imperial decline after Kublai's time.
For most of our knowledge about China in this era, we are indebted to the
Venetian traveler Marco Polo. As a youth, he had accompanied his father and
uncle, Venetian merchants, eastward to Kublai's court, arriving there about
1275. Polo served the Khan seventeen years as a trusted administrator, before
returning home. His fabulous story, dictated to a fellow prisoner of war in
Genoa, reported the wondrous world of Cathay (China) - its canals, granaries,
social services, technology, and such strange customs as regular bathing.
Polo's contemporaries considered him to be a braggart and a colossal liar.
Yuan China strongly resembled the picture presented under earlier
dynasties, with some exceptions. The country was governed mainly by
foreigners: Mongols at the top, other Central Asians on the next rung,
northern Chinese in lower positions, and southern Chinese almost completely
excluded from office. Kublai retained the traditional ministries and local
governmental structure. Generally, Mongol law prevailed, but the conquerors
were often influenced by Chinese legal precedents, as in the acceptance of
brutal punishments for loose women or those unfaithful to their husbands. Most
religions were tolerated unless they violated Mongol laws; for example, Muslim
rules for slaughtering animals and circumcising infants led to persecutions
under Kublai. According to Polo, the state insured against famine, kept order,
and provided care for the sick, the aged, and the orphaned. To the awed
Venetian, the Yuan state appeared fabulously wealthy, as indicated by the
Khan's 12,000 personal retainers, bedecked in silks, furs, fine feathers and
sparkling jewels. ^4
[Footnote 4: Marco Polo, Travels, (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1931), pp.
133-149, p. 30.]
In its cultural preferences, the Yuan court reverted to Chinese
traditions. Taoism and Confucianism were subordinated at first to Buddhism but
both revived during Kublai's reign. Chinese drama remained popular although
influenced somewhat by Central Asian dance. Interest in drama encouraged the
development of classical Chinese opera, a combination of singing, dancing, and
acting, which reached maturity in the Yuan period. Some of the most
influential Chinese painters were also producing at this time, and the novel
emerged as a reflection of Chinese concerns. An example was the Romance of the
Three Kingdoms, a long and rambling tale, set in late Han times but written in
the fourteenth century.
Pax Tatarica: Relinking Of East And West
During the century of the Mongol Peace, when much of Eurasia was unified
and pacified by Mongol armies, East and West were in closer communication than
ever before, even in Han and Roman times. Hosts of missionaries, traders, and
adventurers journeyed to and from Asia, Africa, and Europe, thus partially
preparing for the coming age of exploration.
Even before the Polos, Christian missionaries had led the way eastward,
encouraged by hopes for Mongol conversion and alliance against the Muslims.
John of Piani Carpini, dispatched by the Council of Lyons with the pope's
blessing, visited Karakorum in 1245 but failed to convert the khan or enlist
him as a papal vassal. A few years later, a Flemish Franciscan, William of
Rubruck, met with similar results; but another Franciscan, John of Monte
Corvino, converted thousands between his arrival in Peking in 1289 and his
death in 1322. Meanwhile, Mongol religious toleration drew Near Eastern
Christians into Central Asia and Buddhists into the Middle East.
In addition to the missionaries, swarms of other people, responding to
the Mongol interest in foreign knowledge and skills, moved continuously on the
travel routes. Between 1325 and 1354, Ibn Batuta, the famous Muslim
globetrotter from the Sudan, visited Constantinople, every Middle Eastern
Islamic state, India, Ceylon, Indonesia, and China. In Hangchow, he
encountered a man from Morocco whom he had met before in Delhi. Some travelers
went the opposite way. Rabban Sauma, a Nestorian monk from Central Asia,
traveled to Paris; and a Chinese Christian monk from Peking, while in Europe
as an envoy from the Persian khan to the pope, talked with the English and
Eurasian traders - Persians, Arabs, Greeks, and western Europeans - were
the most numerous and worldly wise of all travelers. They were enticed by
Mongol policies that lowered tolls in the commercial cities and provided
special protection for merchants' goods. A Florentine document published about
1340 described favorable conditions on the silk route as "perfectly safe
whether by day or night ... Whatever silver the merchants carry ... the lord
of Cathay takes from them ... and gives ... paper money ... in exchange ...
and with this money you can readily buy silk and whatever you desire to buy
and all the people of the country are bound to receive it." ^5
[Footnote 5: Quoted in G. F. Hudson, Europe and China (Boston: Beacon Press,
1931), p. 156.]
Land trade between Europe and China, particularly in silk and spices,
increased rapidly in the fourteenth century. The main western terminals were
Nizhni Novgorod, east of Moscow, where the China caravans made contact with
merchants of the Hanseatic League; Tabriz, in northeast Persia, which served
as the eastern terminal for Constantinople; and the Syrian coastal cities,
where the caravans met Mediterranean ships, mostly from Venice.
Expanding land trade along the old silk route did not diminish the
growing volume of sea commerce. Indeed the Mongol devastation of Middle
Eastern cities provided a quick stimulus, particularly to the spice trade,
which was redirected through the Red Sea and Egypt to Europe. Within a few
decades, however, the Egyptian monopoly drove prices up sharply, and the
European demand for cheaper spices helped revive overland trade. By now,
however, the southern sea route was thriving for other reasons. The Mongol
conquest of China had immediately opened opportunities to Japanese and Malayan
sea merchants, causing a modest commercial revolution. Later, after China
stabilized and became involved in the exchange, the volume of ocean trade
between northeast Asia and the Middle East surpassed that of Sung times.
The Mongol Legacy
Although their conquests brought immediate - and in some cases, long-term
- havoc, Mongol control ultimately promoted stability. Their inexperience
forced the Mongols to encourage trade and borrow freely from civilized
peoples, while their commercial contacts spread knowledge of explosives,
printing, navigation, shipbuilding, and medicine to the West. In the Middle
East they furthered art, architecture, and historical writing, and to China
they brought Persian astronomy and ceramics, plus sorghum, a new food from
India. The Mongol era also saw great commercial and population growth in Japan
and Southeast Asia. Not least important was a new awareness of the wider
world, which the Mongols gave to a Europe poised for global exploration.
This European gain, however was far outweighed by negative effects upon
Asia, best indicated by declining populations. Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan
lost about three million people before 1350, a drop of 30 percent. Significant
declines also occurred in Burma (10 percent), Korea (19 percent), and China
(30 percent). In territories formerly controlled by the Sung, the loss was
approximately 29 million, ^6 and this was accompanied by discrimination which
seriously depressed the native population. Chinese insecurities under Mongol
rule led directly to the narrow provincialism of the later Ming dynasty. For
the Middle East and most of Asia, the Mongol era produced formidable handicaps
in the upcoming period of European expansion.
[Footnote 6: Population estimates in this chapter were taken from Colin
McEvedy and Richard Jones, Atlas of World Population History (New York:
Penguin Books), p. 171.]
While decisively affecting Eurasian history, the Mongols were incapable
of creating a lasting state. Indeed, their empire dissolved almost as fast as
it was formed, because the Mongols were divided by the diverse cultures they
absorbed. Thus Kublai's Mongols turned Buddhist, while those in the Middle
East and Russia became Muslims. In time, even the Mongol Muslims fought among
themselves. The Yuan regime declined rapidly after Kublai's death, as the
economy became more oppressive and the Mongol aristocracy weakened. A
nationalist rebellion, beginning in southern China, ultimately ended the
foreign dynasty. After the Chinese reconquered most of Mongolia and Manchuria,
many northern Mongols reverted to nomadism. Others, on the western steppes,
were absorbed into Turkish states.
The centuries following the collapse of Rome in the West saw significant
cultural revivals in Asia. First India, then China, experienced golden ages,
when old political structures were restored and social systems revitalized, in
accordance with traditional values. The Gupta era brought a lasting synthesis
of Hindu thought, along with notable advances in painting, architecture,
literature, drama, medicine, and the physical sciences. China perfected its
administrative structure while further developing its characteristic Confucian
philosophy, poetry, landscape painting, and practical technology. Each
civilization served as a culture bank, preserving and extending knowledge when
much was being lost in the West.
As time passed, cultural diffusion gained increasing momentum throughout
Eurasia. From both India and China, culture spread through migrations,
invasions, missionary activities, and trade to Southeast Asia, Japan, the
Asian steppes, and Europe. The result was a third wave in the civilizing
process. The first wave had washed over the Near East before 500 B.C.; the
second brought great empires in China, India, and the Mediterranean basin; the
third generated new fringe civilizations in Southeast Asia and Japan while
contributing largely to another in western Europe.
Steppe nomads played an increasingly important role in this period of
Eurasian history. Many remained nomad warriors, attacking and pillaging the
high civilizations on their frontiers. Others adopted civilized ways -
shifting from herding to farming, living in cities as craftsmen or traders, or
becoming state administrators. This development was climaxed by the Mongols,
who greatly furthered contacts between East and West. Unfortunately for Asia,
they also fostered a turning inward, away from the outside world, particularly
in China. In doing this, the Mongol's inadvertently prepared for a modern
world dominated by the West.
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