History Online - Ancient China

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Ancient China

The Beginning of the World

A Chinese Legend

In the beginning, the world was a lovely place. A brilliant sun provided warmth and light by day, and the silvery moon illuminated the night. Endless varieties of animals lived in the tree-covered mountains and lush valleys. Gods, Goddesses, giants, and monsters also inhabited the earth. Nuwa (pronounced NOO-WAH) the Creator was the most important of the Goddesses. She was a lovely creature with the face, upper body, arms, and hands of a human. Her lower body was in the shape of a powerful dragon. Her husband Fuxi (pronounced FOO-SHEE) was similarly formed, and the two were deeply in love.

However, Nuwa was unhappy because she lacked a circle of friends. Fuxi noticed her sadness and asked, "What is the matter, Nuwa? The earth is a beautiful place, but you seem to find no joy here. Can I do anything to help you, dear wife?"
"Oh, Fuxi, you are a wonderful companion, but I am so lonely without good friends. The giants are really stupid fellows, and I cannot stand to look at the grotesque monsters. What's more, I have nothing in common with the other Gods and Goddesses."
"Dear, I cannot deny the truth of what you say," responded Fuxi. "I, too, find that I am lonesome for good friends. Let me make a suggestion. Why don't you travel around the earth? Perhaps you will find other beings with whom you can be friends."

Nuwa accepted her husband's advice and began her journey. Everywhere she traveled, she saw the beauty and richness of the world. But she found no creatures with whom she could be friends.
Finally she arrived at a raging river in northern China called the Yellow River. There she had an inspiration. "Perhaps I could create a friend of my own! Someone like myself!" she said excitedly. She scooped a large handful of clay from the banks of the river. Carefully, she molded it into a creature like herself.
"I will give you a face just like mine," she told the clay.
"You will have eyes, a nose, a mouth, and ears. My arms and hands are quite useful, so you shall have those too."
Nuwa then reached the lower portion of the body. "I don't think my dragon tail is very practical," she said. "I'll give you legs so that you can walk."
After she had sculpted several clay figures, she breathed into their nostrils. At this, the creatures sprang to life. They danced joyfully around Nuwa. One newly created human happily cried: "You are our mother! We shall honor and respect you for all time! Thank you for creating us!"
"How wonderful it is to have your friendship, my children!" Nuwa exclaimed. "I shall make more of you!" Nuwa began to make more humans by hand. She took extraordinary care with each one, carefully molding the head, face, arms, body, and legs.
One of her new children noticed how hard she was working. "Mother, you look tired. Making us by hand is exhausting you."

"Yes," Nuwa responded wearily, "I must find an easier way to create people." Then she had an idea. She walked to the banks of the river. There, she rolled a piece of rope on the ground until it was completely coated with mud. She then whirled the rope above her head. As drops of mud fell onto the ground, they instantly became men and women.
Later, it was said that those whom Nuwa made by hand were the rich and lucky people of the world. Those whom she made by spinning the rope were the poor and unfortunate.
Nuwa looked at all the humans she had created. She knew that each would grow old and some day die. How could she keep the earth populated with people? "I will teach you the ways of marriage," she told the men and women around her. "Then you will be able to create your own sons and daughters." That is how humans began to populate the earth according to the ancient Chinese.

The Dynasties

Xia (c. 2200 - c. 1750 BC)

Not much is known about this first Chinese dynasty -- in fact, it until fairly recently, most historians thought that it was a myth. But the archeological record has proven them wrong, for the most part. What little is known indicates that the Xia had descended from a wide-spread Yellow River valley Neolithic culture known as the Longshan culture, famous for their black-lacquered pottery. Even though no known examples of Xia-era writing survive, they almost certainly had a writing system that was a precursor of the Shang dynasty's "oracle bones."

Shang (c. 1750 - c. 1040 BC)

There are three things to know about the Shang: one, they were the most advanced bronze-working civilization in the world; two, Shang remains provide the earliest and most complete record of Chinese writing (there are a few Neolithic pots that have a few characters scratched on them; however, a few characters do not a complete writing system make), scratched out on the shoulder blades of pigs for oracular purposes; and three, they were quite possibly the most blood-thirsty pre-modern civilization. They liked human sacrifice -- a lot. If a king died, then more than one hundred slaves would join him in the grave. Some of them would be beheaded first. Some of them were just thrown in still alive. Later dynasties replaced the humans with terra-cotta figures, resulting in things like the underground army. They also did things like human sacrifice for building consecrations and other ceremonial events. The Shang had a very odd system of succession: instead of a patrilineal system where power was passed from father to son, the kingship passed from elder brother to younger brother, and when there were no more brothers, then to the oldest maternal nephew.

Western Zhou (c. 1100 - 771 BC)

Most scholars think that the Zhou were much more "Chinese" than the Shang. For one, they used a father-to-son succession system. Also, they weren't too keen on human sacrifice. However, they weren't as good at working bronze as the Shang. Still, it would be centuries before the West was able to cast bronze as well as the Zhou. Some, though not all, scholars believe that the Xia, the Shang, and the Zhou actually were three different cultures that emerged more or less at the same time in different areas of the Yellow River valley. And the historical record supports this view -- the Shang were conquered from outside by the Zhou, as the Xia had been conquered from the outside by the Shang. The Zhou actually didn't rule all of what was then China. China was then made up of a number of quasi-independent principalities. However, the Zhou were the most powerful principality and played the role of hegemon in the area. They were located in the middle of the principalities, giving rise to what the Chinese call their country -- the Middle Kingdom. The Zhou were able to maintain peace and stability through the hegemon system for a few hundred years; then in 771 BC, the capital was sacked by barbarians from the west.

Eastern Zhou (771 - 256 BC)
Spring & Autumn Period (722 - 481 BC)
Warring States Period (403 - 221 BC)

After the capital was sacked by barbarians from the west, the Zhou moved east, thus neatly dividing the Zhou dynasty into eastern and western periods. As might be expected, the power of the Zhou declined somewhat. The so-called Spring & Autumn period, named after a book (The Spring and Autumn Annals) that provides a history of period saw a proliferation of new ideas and philosophies. The three most important, from a historical standpoint, were Daoism, Confucianism, and Legalism. Daoism is a can be a very frustrating philosophy to study. It is based on study of the Dao, literally translated, "the Way." For starters, the oldest great book of Daoism, the Dao de Jing, The Way and Virtue, was allegedly written by a man named Lao-zi. However, we don't know 1) if Lao-zi was his real name, 2) if Lao-zi ever actually existed, and 3) if the book is even the work of one author. Then there are the texts themselves. The first line of the Dao de Jing can be translated as "The Way that can be walked is not the enduring and unchanging Way." It can also be translated as "The Way that can be known is not the true Way," as well as several other translations that, while all having the same general paradoxical meaning, are all different. It is also full of other cryptic and paradoxical sayings, like "The more the sage expends for others, the more does he possess of his own; the more he gives to others, the more does he have himself." Daoists loved this kind of stuff; the story about the man dreaming he was a butterfly, then waking up and wondering if he was a man or a butterfly dreaming about being a man is classic Daoism. Daoism profoundly influenced the later development of Cha'an (also known as Zen) Buddhism.

Confucius, who lived about five hundred years before Christ, basically believed that moral men make good rulers and that virtue is one of the most important properties that an official can have. He also believed that virtue can be attained by following the proper way of behaving, and thus placed a great deal of stress on proper. Most of what is considered 'Confucianism' was actually written down by a disciple named Mencius, who also believed that all men were basically good. Confucius also codified the status of the ruler in Chinese political thought; the Emperor was the Son of Heaven (while Heaven in a Western context is a place, Heaven in the Chinese context is a divine/natural force) and had the Mandate of Heaven to rule.
Legalism derived from the teachings of another one of Confucius' disciples, a man named Xun-zi. Xun-zi believed that, for the most part, man would look out for himself first and was therefore basically evil (remember, this is more than two thousand years before Adam Smith argued that self-interest is what makes markets work and is therefore good). Consequently, the Legalists designed a series of draconian laws that would make a nation easier to control. The fundamental aim of both Confucianism and Legalism was the re-unification of a then divided China, but they took difference approaches. Confucianism depended on virtue and natural order; Legalism used a iron fist. Legalism has been called "super-Machiavellian;" this is not unwarranted, as it called for the suppression of dissent by the burning of books and burying dissidents alive (maltreatment of the opposition is nothing new in China; because the system starts with the idea that the Emperor is the Son of Heaven and has the Mandate of Heaven to rule, there is no such thing as legitimate dissent and thus no concept of "loyal opposition"). Legalism advocated techniques such as maintaining an active secret police, encouraging neighbors to inform on each other, and the creation of a general atmosphere of fear. In fact, many of the same tactics that the Legalists approved of were later employed by Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.
The politics of the Warring States period were much the same as those of the Spring & Autumn period; the major difference was that while in the earlier period, armies were small and battles lasted only a day, much like in pre-Napoleonic wars, the later period featured what modern strategists would call "totalwar." Massive armies (half a million per army was not an uncommon figure), long battles, sieges, were all common features of the Warring States battlefield.

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.

Sui (589 - 618)

The most important thing to know about this dynasty is that it was very short (by dynastic standards) and that it did a pretty good job of re-unifying China. Because it had a northern power base, it was part barbarian, as was the Tang. Despite the fact that the royal houses of Sui and succeeding Tang were not entirely Han Chinese, both of these dynasties are considered to be Chinese, as opposed to the Mongols and Manchus later on.

Tang (618 - 907)

The Tang are considered to be one of the great dynasties of Chinese history; many historians rank them right behind the Han. They extended the boundaries of China through Siberia in the North, Korea in the east, and were in what is now Vietnam in the South. They even extended a corridor of control along the Silk Road well into modern-day Afghanistan.
There are two interesting historical things about the Tang. The first is the Empress Wu, the only woman ever to actually bear the title 'Emperor' (or, in her case, Empress).The second was the An Lushan Rebellion, which marked the beginning of the end for the Tang.
The Empress Wu was not a nice person. She makes Catherine the Great look like an angel of mercy. While Empress Wu was still a concubine in the imperial Tang household, she deposed of a rival by murdering her own son, and then claiming her rival did it. In her own vicious, ruthless, scheming way, she was absolutely brilliant. Had Machiavelli known of her, he probably would have written "The Princess."

The An Lushan Rebellion had its roots in the behavior of one of the great emperors of Chinese history, Xuanzong. Until he fell in love with a young concubine named Yang Guifei, he had been a great ruler, and had brought the Tang to its height of prosperity and grandeur. He was so infatuated with Yang that the administration of the government soon fell into decay, which was not made any better by the fact that Yang took advantage of her power to stuff high administrative positions with her corrupt cronies. She also took under her wing a general named An Lushan, who quickly accumulated power.
An Lushan eventually decided that he would make a pretty good emperor, and launched his rebellion. The civil war lasted for eight years, and was, for the years 755-763, pretty destructive. The emperor was forced to flee the capital, and on the way, the palace guard, blaming Yang Guifei for all the problems that had beset the dynasty (to be fair, it wasn't all her fault; there were forces of political economy at work that were pretty much beyond anybody's control), strangled her and threw her corpse in a ditch. There is a legend that what actually happened was that the emperor had procured a peasant look-alike who was actually the one killed, but as far as I know, that is only fiction. Anyway, the rebellion pretty much shattered centralized Tang control, and for the remaining 150 years of the dynasty, the country slowly disintegrated.

Northern Song (960 - 1125)
Southern Song (1127 - 1279)

The Song (pronounced Soong) dynasty ranks up there with the Tang and the Han as one of the great dynasties. Fifty years after the official end of the Tang, an imperial army re-unified China and established the Song dynasty. A time of remarkable advances in technology, culture, and economics, the Song, despite its political failures, basically set the stage for the rest of the imperial era. The most important development during the Song was that agricultural technology, aided by the importation of a fast-growing Vietnamese strain of rice and the invention of the printing press, developed to the point where the food-supply system was so efficient that, for the most part, there was no need to develop it further. There was enough food for everyone, more or less, the system worked, and it became self-sustaining. Because it worked, there was no incentive to improve it; the system thus remained basically unchanged from the Song up until the twentieth century. In fact, many rice farmers in the Chinese interior and in less-developed regions of south-east Asia are, for the most part, still using Song-era farming techniques.

The efficiency of the system not only made it economically self-sustaining, but also re-enforced the existing social structure. Consequently, society and economics were largely static from the Song until the collapse of the dynastic system in the twentieth century.
This is important because one of the factors behind the Industrial Revolution in Europe was that they didn't have enough people to work the fields. There was an incentive to create better technology in Europe; there was no need in China. China actually had a surplus of human labor.
While the Song was a time of great advances, politically and militarily, the Song was a failure. The northern half of China was conquered by barbarians, forcing the dynasty to abandon a northern capital in the early 1100's. Then a hundred and fifty years later, the Mongols, fresh from conquering everything between Manchuria and Austria, invaded and occupied China.

Yuan (Mongol) (1279 - 1368)

While time of Mongol rule is called a dynasty, it was in fact a government of occupation. While the Mongols did use existing governmental structures for the duration, the language they used was Mongol, and many of the officials they used were non-Chinese. Mongols, Uighurs from central Asia, some Arabs and even an Italian named Marco Polo all served as officials for the Mongol government. One of the more significant accomplishments of the Mongol tenure was the preservation of China as we know it in that China wasn't turned into pastureland for the Mongolian ponies which not only was common Mongolian practice for territories they'd overrun but had actually been advocated by some of the conquering generals.
The Yuan dynasty also featured the famous Khubilai Khan, who, among other things, extended the Grand Canal. While in many ways, the Yuan was a disaster, the reluctance of the Mongols to hire educated Chinese for governmental posts resulted in a remarkable cultural flowering; for example, Beijing Opera was invented during the Yuan. On the other hand, attempts to analyze the failure of the Song in keeping barbarians out China led to the rise and dominance of Neo-Confucianism, a notoriously conservative(if not outright reactionary) brand of Confucianism that had originally developed during the Song.

Ming (1368 - 1644)

Then came the Ming. The Ming rulers distinguished themselves by being fatter, lazier, crazier, and nastier than the average Imperial family. After the first Ming Emperor discovered that his prime minister was plotting against him, not only was the prime minister beheaded, but his entire family and anyone even remotely connected with him. Eventually, about 40,000 (no, that is not a misprint) people were executed in connection with this case alone. They were also virulent Neo-Confucianists. In the early 1400s, a sailor named Zheng He (with a fleet of some 300-plus ships)sailed as far west as Mogadishu and Jiddah, and he may (or may not) have gotten to Madagascar. This is nearly 100 years before Columbus had the idea of trying to sail to Asia the long way around. But once the sailors came back, the trips were never followed up on. Conservative scholars at court failed to see the importance of them. For the first time in history, China was turning inwards, clinging to an incorrect interpretation of an outmoded philosophy.
To give the Ming their due, however, they did do some positive things. Among other things, they moved the capital to Beijing, fortified the Great Wall (the massive masonry structure that you see in all the pictures and postcards is, with some recent, Communist-era repair, an all-Ming construction), built the Forbidden City, and gave Macao to the Portuguese.

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