Classical Chinese Civilization
Chronology Of Classical Chinese Dynasties
Hsia Kingdom (Legendary) 1994-1523 B.C.
Shang Dynasty 1523-1028 B.C.
Chou (Zhou) Dynasty 1027-221 B.C.
Chi’in (Qin) Dynasty 221-202 B.C.
Han Dynasty 202 B.C.–220 A.D.
Three Kingdoms 220 A.D.–265 A.D.
Six Dynasties 265 A.D.–589 A.D.
The history of Ancient China runs parallel to that of the rest of the Classical world system. Early hominids arrived in the region by 800000 BP; Paleolithic habitation has been recorded by 50000 BP; and numerous Neolithic settlements are on record by 8000 BC.
Great plain of northern
south, much like southern
the west, the agricultural plains of
early history of
SIDEBAR: ORACLE BONES
Day Gui Si divined:
Ke inquired: no ill fortune during the Xun (the 10 day week)?
The king prognosticated and said: there will be bad fortune. There will be trouble that will be inflicted, arriving 3 times.
5 days later, trouble was indeed inflicted from the west. Zhi Mu stated that Tu Fang reached the eastern border region and inflicted casualties on 2 towns. Gong Fang also came to graze in our fields in the western border region.
This archaic script employed a combination of characters that was both pictographic and logographic, that is, symbols used to designate actual spoken sounds. By the late Bronze Age some 2000 characters were in use. This script gradually evolved to form the foundation of modern Chinese writing. Aspects of the proto-Chinese script appear to have emerged from the process of prognostication itself as well as from the belief that oracular activities enabled the king (and others) to communicate with deceased ancestors.
urban settlement patterns in the West, in Bronze Age China settlements were
organized according to urban clusters, elite
enclosures (fortified precincts) surrounded by a scattering of workshops and
artisan villages. The remains of the enclosures demonstrated that they were
constructed typically of pounded earth through the use of wood framing. At the
excavated remains of the Shang capital at
Chinese textual tradition maintains that the Xia dynasty was deposed by the
Shang family (1523-1028 BC). For the Shang we are much better informed, not
only by surviving historical texts, but by the recovery of more than 100,000
inscribed oracle bones at the capital of
three of the dynasties Xia, Shang, and Zhou succeeded one another without
evidence of cultural interruption or external interference. Each dynasty most
probably overthrew its predecessor by military means, something historically
confirmed in the case of the Zhou. Having ejected the Shang, the Zhou (1027 to
221 B.C., headquartered in
The power and legitimacy of the Zhou were weakened gradually by their inability to confront mounting raids by Turkic and Mongolian marauders from the north. Roving bands of horse-mounted warriors repeatedly pillaged and plundered the settlements of exposed feudal states. The burden of incessant warfare forced the Zhou emperors to impose higher demands on their vassals for military manpower and supplies, even as their legitimacy waned. In 771 BC an alliance of overburdened feudal lords attacked the Zhou emperor at his capital, sacking the city and killing the king. One prince of the realm managed to escape eastward to Loyang to reconstitute the dynasty, hereafter known as the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. However, the Eastern Zhou lacked substantial territory from which to rebuild their empire and were obliged to accept status as token figureheads. In essence, the kings of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty remained sanctified overlords whose primary role was to perform the imperial sacrifices to insure the necessary equilibrium between heaven and earth. This left the former vassal states free to develop on their own initiative, typically at the expense of neighboring states. Internecine warfare became the order of the day. During this era known as the Spring and Autumn period (771-481 BC) as well as during the subsequent, significantly more violent era of the Warring States (480-222 BC), a number of diametrically opposed phenomena occurred. Power bases became solidified at the regional level as the number of existing states was gradually reduced by civil wars from approximately 1000 in 1026 BC to 100 in 771, from 100 to 14 by 480 BC, and from 14 to 1 by 226 BC. Despite the rising threshold of violence, the population of the surviving states actually grew in size not only through the incorporation of neighboring territories but also through the intensification of agricultural production and the expansion of territory into non-Chinese lands to the north, south and west. Along the northern hills of the Yellow River, for example, local dynasts employed various strategies such as tax exemptions, land sales, and land allotments to settle colonists in forests and grazing lands previously occupied by non-Chinese nomads. This process disrupted the equilibrium of neighboring nomad society while expanding the base of agricultural terrain through land clearance. Recent scholars have observed that the expansion of Chinese territory into nomad territories actually compelled neighboring pastoralists to forge larger, stronger confederacies whose growth progressed at roughly the same pace as that of Chinese state formation. By the time of the Ch’in dynasty (226-202 BC), these amalgamated confederacies were dominated by the emperor (shanyu) and supreme council of the Hsiung Nu (Huns). As Hsiung Nu raiding along the borders of the Chinese states accelerated, the exposed principalities responded by constructing extensive perimeters of earthen barriers along the newly claimed frontiers. These defenses would eventually develop into the Great Wall of the Ch’in and Han dynasties. The chief purpose of the walls was to reduce points of access of mounted bands of Hsiung Nu warriors to more defensible areas and thereby restrict their mobility, limit reinforcements, and prohibit random escape. Along the western highlands of the Yellow River, Hunnic elements defeated by Chinese rulers were frequently settled inside the walls by Chinese warlords to complement their armies with skilled cavalry contingents. This furnished polities such as the Ch’in of Shensi with a decided tactical advantage throughout Chinese history, even as it lent them dubious reputations as semi-barbarous states. The historical record demonstrates that non-Chinese pastoralists quickly assimilated mainstream culture to become indistinguishable from native Chinese.
The rising emphasis on mounted warfare created equally high demand for war horses. Horses achieved nearly mythical status in Chinese lore. Horse trading and horse breeding became crucial to Chinese military expansion; particularly in demand were imported horses from the far western steppes of Central Asia that were known to be larger, stronger, and allegedly sweated blood. To combat the tactical advantage of cavalry, meanwhile, rival polities abandoned obsolete forms of aristocratic chariot warfare in favor of large formations of infantry armed with powerful crossbows (another Chinese invention), increasingly mobilized from local peasantry. The need to furnish large armies with armor and weaponry placed heightened demand on mining and metallurgy, particularly in the eastern states where iron ore was accessible by sea from mountainous regions to the south. Once introduced Chinese iron smelting achieved higher levels of proficiency than it did in the West. By inventing technologies such as hand-pumped bellows and charcoal produced from coal, the Chinese were able to achieve the high firing temperatures necessary to produce carbonized steel. The deadly combination of Hunnic cavalry formations and heavily armed mass infantry inevitably revolutionized Chinese warfare and made the outcome of feudal confrontations irreversible.
political and social instability that accompanied the ineffectual leadership of
the Zhou thus set in motion a number of changes. As accelerated warfare
displaced local dynasties and their hierarchies, leadership cadres abandoned
the old ways of feudal society in favor of new forms of employment. Scholars
and former officials with skills acquired through service with unsuccessful
feudal states migrated through
Classical Chinese Philosophies
According to tradition Confucius or Kung Fu Tzu
(551-479 BC) was precisely one such example of a displaced learned official.
Raised and educated in the feudal state of Lu (modern
Confucius’ teachings furnished a code for the newly emerging Chinese “gentry-based” ruling class. Much like Buddhism, Confucius did not challenge the essentials of the traditional Chinese religious world view, but offered instead instruction for the conduct of mortal life on earth. In many ways he was a traditionalist, committed to Shang era beliefs in the ancestor cult and the Mandate of Heaven. He insisted, however, that the heavenly god T’ien should not be regarded so much as the arbitrary king of the heavens as he should the embodiment of a universal system of order and legality, the so-called principle of tao. Humans needed likewise to conduct their earthly affairs in accordance with Tao. To insure the safety of the Chinese people, for example, the emperor needed faithfully to observe the established ceremonies and to offer prescribed sacrifices in accordance with the law. Lesser individuals likewise needed to conduct their lives in such a way that harmony was preserved between the cosmic order and human society. This harmony presupposed the subordination of the individual to the community according to clearly defined principles of rank. In Confucian philosophy everyone in society had a defined place in the social order that was referenced by its superiority and/or subservience to related members of society. The status of each individual carried with it an obligation to maintain the social fabric through proper behavior. According to this philosophy rank was ordered according to Five Confucian relationships:
Ř Ruler to Subject
Ř Husband to Wife
Ř Parent to Child
Ř Older Sibling to Younger Sibling
Ř Friend to Friend
The five relations displayed two fundamental assumptions about Chinese social relations, namely, that no two persons were equal and that inequality was expressed according to three basic criteria, age, gender, and social rank. At the core of Confucianism stood the individual. “It is man that can make Tao great,” Confucius observed. Although Confucius taught numerous virtues, his cardinal virtue was jen, which is variously translated as humanity, love, or human kindness. To Confucius, jen was simply jen, another word for the individual. It defined the very essence of the virtuous person. Significantly the Chinese character for the word consisted of two parts, one representing the individual and the other human relations or society. The ideal virtue, therefore, involved both the perfect individual and the perfect society. This was the goal not only of Confucianism but of all Chinese philosophy.
Confucius the ideal citizen was the superior individual, or the chun-tzu, literally, the son of a ruler. Until the
era of the Warring States, the chun-tzu was
plainly an aristocrat; however, to Confucius the superior individual achieved jen not through blood lines but through moral excellence.
Such a person was wise, benevolent, and courageous; he was motivated by
righteousness instead of by profit. He studied the Way, Tao, and loved
humanity. Confucianism thus emphasized a code of human behavior. He left
unanswered the question whether by nature humans were inherently good. "By
nature humans are alike," he said, "but through practice they become
different." Confucius proposed that China be governed by a new class of
“virtuous men,” enlightened individuals who selflessly devoted their energies
to the maintenance of the social order and the welfare of the people.
Self-perfection, family harmony, social order, and world peace could all be
attained so long as balance and harmony were achieved between the individual
and society. Only in such a state could Tao, the moral law of the universe
rooted in the Mandate of Heaven, prevail. As Confucius insisted, “Without
knowing the Mandate of Heaven one could not become a superior man.”
Confucianism therefore summed up both the complaints and the aspirations of the
emerging “gentry” class that would govern Han-era China. The new elite that
replaced the feudal aristocracies of the Warring States were educated in
Confucian schools and knew the requirements of literacy, courtesy, and refined
behavior. Around 100 BC officials working under the imperial Han dynasty
initiated a system of state examinations to recruit future officials like
themselves from students educated in the Five Chinese Classics. While in
practice state officials tended to be recruited from within the gentry class
itself, in theory Han dynasty officialdom became accessible to any educated,
respectful, well bred citizen. The consequence of the Confucian system of
regularized education and examination was to produce a
sustained, educated elite to govern over the uneducated agricultural
masses. These leaders tended to be “generalists” rather than specialists,
“gentlemen,” rather than “professionals.” There is no denying, however, that
when extended across the breadth of the Chinese society, this system enabled
the ruling class to withstand crises and political and social turmoil by
replenishing and reconstituting itself time and again with talented leadership
cadres. The kings of the Han Dynasty likewise embraced Confucianism because it
provided them with theoretical justification for their own authority and served
as a useful means to maintain order. Confucian notions of “enlightenment,” of
devotion to public service, and of proactive participation in and maintenance
of the social order bore obvious similarities to Stoicism in the Greco-Roman
In the same manner that Epicureanism challenged Stoic philosophy in the West, Taoism framed a popular response to Confucianism in China. According to tradition Taoism was articulated by an elder contemporary of Confucius, named Lao-Tzu (now dated c. 350 BC), but in accordance with the tenets of the philosophy itself, it evolved and matured anonymously through the work of numerous intellectuals, simply known as the “masters.” Like Epicureanism Taoism expressed a sense of futility in so far as the efforts of humankind to improve the natural order were concerned. Even though Taoists denounced conventional morality, they cherished love, wisdom, peace, and harmony no less than the Confucianists. Unlike Confucianism, however, their Tao was not the Way of humans but the Way of nature. According to Lao-Tzu, Tao was the standard of all things to which all humans must conform. Tao was eternal, absolute, and existed beyond space and time; in its operation it was spontaneous, everywhere, constant and unceasing, always in transformation, progressively proceeding through cycles before finally returning to its root. At the core of this philosophy was the duality of opposites, Yin and Yang, male and female, light and darkness, Being and Nonbeing, revolving in a state of perpetual dynamic. According to Lao Tzu, all things carried the Yin and embraced the Yang. Through the blending of their opposite material forces Yin and Yang achieved harmony. The Yin-Yang ideal dictated that in marriage there should be the harmony of the male and the female; in landscape painting that of mountain and water; and in spiritual life, that of humanity and wisdom. It was futile for humans to attempt to oppose nature, to improve it, or to overcome it. Much like the Epicureans, the principal objective of the Taoist was to become a sage, or a person of “sageliness within and kingliness without.” Also like Epicureanism, Taoist “sageliness” demanded withdrawal from society and the abandonment of political ambition for a life devoted to the contemplation of Tao. This was more than a metaphysical argument; passivity, frugality, and simplicity were the necessary prerequisites of enlightened behavior. It was only through the realization that everything pursued its own independent course and yet came around to form one harmonious whole that happiness and freedom could be attained.
Confucianism and Taoism became countervailing philosophical schools as China emerged into empire. They survived from an era of “One Hundred Schools of Thought,” in part because their proponents successfully incorporated the tenets of competing philosophies over time. Taoism enjoyed many attributes in common with Buddhism, particularly its doctrine of renunciation of the material world. This opened the way for the transmission of that particular world view to China. Taoism’s oppositional character to the formalistic, increasingly aloof culture of Confucianism also made it increasingly popular with the masses. By the time of the later Han Dynasty (AD 9-202), Taoism absorbed aspects of popular mysticism, shamanism, and witchcraft. Alchemy and medicine became Taoist stock in trade, along with promises of immortality and rebirth. By the close of the Classical era the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove were ridiculed as drunkards and eccentrics. According to a contemporary source, the Seven Sages “all revered and exalted the entities of Non-Being and Non-Action and disregarded the rites and law. They drank wine to excess and disdained the affairs of this world.” One sage, Liu Ling used to declare that to a drunken man the “affairs of the world appear as so much duckweed in a river.” Notoriously he rode about the capital city in a small cart drawn by a deer, accompanied by a servant bearing a large pot of wine. However, these critics failed to recognize that through their eccentric, drunken behavior the Taoists were expressing a deliberate protest against the formality, ritualism, and elitism employed by Confucian scholars to distance themselves from everyday society.
Legalism, the third major intellectual development of the era of the Warring States, was not strictly a philosophic school at all. In fact, this school of thought rejected all philosophic disputation, Confucian or Taoist, as futile and baneful to the interests of the state. To philosophers such as Hsun Tzu (Xunzi, c. 250 BC), humans were inherently evil, corrupt, rebellious, disorderly, and undisciplined. The job of the king and his officials was to steer the flawed masses to correct behavior through the use of codified law, main force, and examples of severe punishment. Like Confucianism Legalism emerged with unemployed upper class elements who peddled their knowledge and political experience to competing Chinese warlords toward the end of the Era of the Warring States. However, the Legalists abandoned faith in the moral tenets of Confucianism and made their peace with the new social order. Legalists insisted on the exclusive authority of the ruler and his ministers. The power of the emperor was restricted only by his responsibility toward s heaven. The ruler should have little to do with the day to day affairs of government. His job was to perform the numerous, complicated rituals that maintained the Mandate with Heaven. This also meant that he had to follow and enforce basic rules of morality to prevent the repeal of his mandate as might be indicated by ominous oracular signs. The king’s chancellery represented the engine of the imperial will; its purpose was to draft measures to propel the Chinese people on its course. Progressively codified into law, these strictures were applied equally to elements at all levels of society. By 200 AD the Han Dynasty penal code grew to 26,272 paragraphs in 960 volumes. Beneath the court administrators everyone else was viewed as a commoner. The people’s primary duty was to live and work for the ruler and to obey without question the orders emanating from his chancellery. Infused by Legalism, the ministries of Ch’in and Han Dynasty China exerted absolute control over their subjects. In the proper hands, this totalitarian authority could achieve massive public undertakings and galvanize the Chinese state to withstand crises; in the wrong hands it amounted to raw, arbitrary tyranny. Not surprisingly, legalism was first adopted by the rulers of the western principality of Ch’in, where non-Chinese influences were pronounced. It left its most profound impact in the historical record of beheadings, the ultimate punishment impose not only on murderers and thieves, but on ministers, generals, and even chancellors accused of malfeasance and treason against the realm. Beheadings form a recurring backdrop to the narrative of the Han Dynasty, leading one to believe that the dispensation of capital punishment was swift, capricious, and arbitrary. No one in Chinese society was so lofty as to assume that he could escape the penalty of death for capital crimes. Even China’s greatest historian, Ssu-ma Ch’ien, (Sima Qian, ca. 100 BC) was forced to submit to the penalty of castration when accused of deceiving the throne. The argument used to justify this phenomenon reasoned that the Han emperors were bound by the law code of the legalists every bit as much as their subjects. As the adopted sons of heaven, the emperors were obliged to follow and to enforce basic rules of morality; failure to punish malefactors could result in the withdrawal of heaven’s mandate. As the representatives of heavenly justice, therefore, the emperors had a religious obligation to inflict severe punishments on criminals and thereby prevent the disruption of the harmony between heaven and humankind. As one Legalist commented, “Anciently the Sage Kings knew that man’s nature was evil, partial, bent on evil, corrupt, rebellious, disorderly, and without good government. Hence they established the authority of the king to govern man; they set forth clearly the Li (ritual or code of morality) and justice to reform him; they established laws and government to rule him; they made punishments severe to warn him, and so they caused the whole country to come to a state of good government and prosperity.” Therein lay one of the inherent contradictions of Chinese society. Imperial China became a state based on the rule of moral authority; it came to value learning above birth or wealth; it administered an empire with a bureaucracy composed of dedicated, highly educated officials. On the other hand, it imposed a legal system that employed fear as its primary deterrent, one that exacted punishments of cruel and barbarous severity. Confucian ideals of justice and benevolence may have been prominent in the theory of government, but it was absent in its legal tribunals.
The Ch'in Dynasty (221-202 B.C.) rose from one of the many competing feudal
dynasties of the Warring States era. Situated in the western Shensi (Shaanxi), “ the land between the two passes,” Ch’in was more
practicably defensible than its rival states in the east; it was also more
heavily exposed to nomadic influences. Early leaders of the state recruited Hsiung Nu cavalry contingents and mobilized the entire
peasantry into the army. Ch’in Shih Huangdi ('first emperor'), the ruler from
which the dynasty receives its name, was able to establish dominance by force
of arms and after conquering all surviving feudal principalities assumed the
“supreme ruler.” Formerly used exclusively to refer to legendary, semi-divine
heroes, Ch’in’s assumption of this title furnishes one of several indicators of
his megalomania. Another survives in the form of his burial memorial, a massive
tumulus surrounded on all sides by interred formations of more than 7500
life size terracotta statues of warriors. Arranged in battle
formation the statues were apparently intended to guard him in the afterlife
and were crafted and erected at considerable public cost. Remarkably, the face
of each terracotta warrior is unique, indicating that artists sketched
representative members (if not each and every member) of his army before
molding the statues. Ch’in’s terracotta army, perhaps only a fraction of which
has thus far been revealed, ranks today among the archaeological wonders of the
world. Everything else about Ch’in suggests that he was cruel and ruthless
tyrant, determined to exploit the full laboring potential of the Chinese
population in pursuit of his grandiose scheme for world domination. By relying
on brute force and cold administrative efficiency, Ch’in successfully transformed China from a cluster of squabbling feudal
states into a unified bureaucratic empire. Although Ch’in’s dynasty did
not survive his death, it left an enduring legacy to
noted above, Ch’in’s regent had been a
successful if ordinary merchant, and he otherwise surrounded himself with
foreign generals of nomadic background and revolutionary ministers and
officials of legalistic mindset. These in turn conferred patronage on equally
minded recruits from the displaced educated elements of the Warring States. A
great military organizer, Ch’in successfully crushed the remaining feudal
states of his generation and eradicated their leadership by forcibly evacuating
the defeated noble families to his capital, Hsien Yang (Xianyang)
in Shensi (Shaanxi). Allegedly some 120,000 families of the aristocracy were
In place of the feudal aristocracy the Ch’in’s administration dispatched military officers to the defeated eastern states to rule them as conquered terrain. Now devoid of aristocratic leadership, the tax-burdened rural peasantry rose repeatedly in rebellion and had to be forcibly suppressed. Once effectively in control, Ch’in’s ministers devised a uniform system of administration that divided the newly assembled realm into provinces, with the provinces themselves divided further into prefectures. Newly conquered non-Chinese territories were similarly organized into commanderies with military governors. This enabled officials dispatched from the central administration to monitor activities all the way to the “grass roots” level. Ultimately, the Ch’in Dynasty adopted a system similar to that of the Achaemenid Dynasty of Persia, with civil and military governors assigned to overlapping fiscal and military jurisdictions in the same provinces, and with the affairs of each subject to the scrutiny of a third comptroller dispatched by the emperor himself. The balance of power achieved between these three officials prevented any one of them from organizing a powerbase capable of threatening central authority. The usefulness of this system of “checks and balances” was recognized by the Han and later dynasties who perpetuated its use. Having more or less secured control of the countryside and its resources, the Ch’in administration next set to work on massive public works programs, ostensibly in the interest of Chinese society as a whole. As noted above, in 214 BC Ch’in’s administration set to work rebuilding the system of the fortification walls that had previously been constructed piecemeal by various warring states in the north. When finished the refurbished and reorganized 5,000-kilometer-long Great Wall extended all the way from Manchuria in the east to Tun Huang in the west. [In its present state, the Great Wall was rebuilt under the Ming dynasty between 1368 to 1644 AD.] This last mentioned garrison town served as the military headquarters of the general assigned to the “Protectorate of the Western Regions” and guarded the passes that led to the Tarim Basin. The construction of the Great Wall not only combated the rising nomad threat to the north, it also positioned Chinese military forces to investigate, and if necessary to conquer distant trading centers to the west. Hundreds of thousands of laborers and convicted criminals were forcibly conscripted and dispatched to the remote and dangerous “Western Regions” to build and defend these walls. Folk ballads that were still sung in modern times record the lament of everyday people forcibly separated from their village homes and families, never to return. Other public works closer to home, such as the dredging of new canals on the great rivers, the design of connecting road networks, the construction of new administrative centers in the prefectures, and not least, the building of the tomb and palace of Ch’in himself in Hsien Yang, were likewise initiated as laboring projects for the regime’s mounting population of “criminals.” Arguably a military genius, the emperor’s innate megalomania left him increasingly vulnerable to magic and superstition. His palace was constructed according to various astronomical and magical principles; his tomb was laid out in accordance with the cosmological map of the universe. He ceaselessly indulged magicians who promised him means to immortality. Convinced by reports of the existence of a distant overseas island where the inhabitants were immortal, he commissioned a naval expedition to set sail in search of it (like the thousands of laborers dispatched to the Great Wall, these sailors never returned).
Driven paranoid by the breadth of his unpopularity, Ch’in lived and worked in closely guarded secrecy. Knowledge of his everyday movements in the vast palaces at Hsien Yang was restricted to a handful of trusted eunuchs. When he died while journeying in the eastern provinces in 207 BC, the hundreds of soldiers and officials that attend his imperial cortege marched across the entire length of China to Hsien Yang completely unaware of his demise. His accompanying minister went so far as to place a cart of rotting fish directly behind the emperor’s wagon to throw people “off the scent.” Heavy handed tyranny, mounting requisitions, incessant warfare along the frontiers, and the brutal repression of a restive population eliminated any likelihood that his dynasty could survive. On the news of his death, the empire was wracked by uprisings in every quarter. The government endured a sequence of rebellions; six pretenders to the throne were eliminated in rapid succession. After several years of chaos the general Liu Chi successfully removed the nominal head of the Ch’in dynasty. Assuming the imperial name Kao Tsu, Liu Chi founded the Han dynasty (202 B.C. to 220 A.D) and successfully restored political stability in China.
The Han Dynasty (202 B.C. to 220 A.D)
The Han dynasty took its name from the river that flowed through the dynasty’s domains in Szechuan and southern Shensi. Its capital was located in Ch’ang An. Kao Tsu’s first task was to determine a way to reassemble the tattered state that the Ch’in had left behind. Kao Tsu had risen from the ranks as a military officer and had attained power by assembling around him a cadre of similarly rebellious warlords. To reward them for their support he assigned them territories as new artificially created feudal states. He also restored some of the ancient feudal kingdoms, though in much diminished size. This placated his two most difficult constituencies and convinced them to accept his authority. Once secured with the Mandate of Heaven as emperor, he made certain that succession to the imperial throne would remain restricted to members of his own family. In the countryside he maintained the the Ch’in governing system of provinces, commanderies, and prefectures and selected hand-picked officials to rule. Although posing as a traditionalist, Kao Tsu allowed this dual tiered governing system to pursue its natural course. Inevitably the smooth efficiency of the central administrative out paced the poorly organized, decentralized governments of the feudal states. Kao Tsu and his successors kept a tight reign on the feudal kings by summoning them repeatedly to court and by ordering them to be removed (and beheaded) at the slightest provocation. Even the generals who had helped Kao Tzu’s rise to power were summarily executed for real or alleged conspiracies. As the Han administration grew more confident of its authority, it imposed additional laws to weaken the dynasties of the feudal states. For example, a decree of 144 BC mandated that inheritance within feudal states must be divided equally among all sons of a feudal king. This guaranteed that vassal principalities would gradually diminish in size even as they multiplied in number. In the event that a feudal line failed to produce an heir, the kingdom was summarily absorbed into the Han provincial administration. Generation by generation, the feudal states dwindled in stature. When Kao Tsu first established the system some 143 feudal fiefs were recognized by the emperor; by the end of the Han dynasty some 241 feudal states existed on a much reduced scale. Typically their size was reduced to a radius of two or three communities. The provincial territories of the Han greatly eclipsed those of the surviving feudal houses.
place of the aristocracy, the Han turned to the leadership of Confucian
scholars recruited from the emerging gentry class.
Like the nobility the gentry class relied on lineage
groups to provide security in turbulent times. Gentry
clans relied on subordinate branches of the family to maintain control of
agricultural terrain at the local level. Members of the principal branch,
meanwhile, received the necessary education to pursue political affairs at the
capital. Rank within the family lines determined one’s place in the network,
just as education in the Chinese “Classics” determined one’s eligibility for
government service. Some gentry clans claimed descent
from ancient families, but this was no longer a prerequisite. Most gentry families were newly arisen from careers in
officialdom, trade, and warfare. All gentry families sustained themselves on
landed estates that they leased to tenants. Subordinate branches of the family
normally lived in countryside and supervise the agricultural work. In many
instances they served as tax collectors and thus extended the scrutiny of the
imperial bureaucracy over the local agricultural population. Subordinate
branches of the gentry clan combined resources to
assist the politicians of the senior branch with their official careers. The
politicians typically forged political marriages and engaged in political
combines at various levels of the bureaucracy to further their careers and to
obtain benefits that they shared with their wider families. If a family
politician fell out of favor at the court or was convicted or even executed for
an alleged crime, the entire lineage group would inevitably bear the impact.
Within a generation or two, however, the family would invariably rebound with a
new crop of educated politicians. As a result, gentry families remained
relatively secure in their wealth and status.
To recruit gentry scholars into the government, the Han rulers successfully promoted principles of Confucianism as tenets of the regime. Naturally they emphasized first and foremost the Confucian relationship of the subject’s obedience to the king. Implementation of the state examination process guaranteed a steady stream of Confucian Chun tzu or educated gentlemen into the cadres of the imperial bureaucracy. The Han kings surrounded themselves with an array of court officials, including three imperial counselors, nine ministers of state, eight generals, and scores of palace attendants. Following the Ch’in model, the secretariat of the court chancellor imposed inspectors throughout the ministries and various branches of the provincial administration to insure accountability at the periphery. The large distances from the court in Ch’ang An naturally restricted the ability of the central administration to control affairs in the provinces. Local officials in the commanderies, for example, enjoyed relatively wide latitude to govern on their own, though they could be summoned to the palace at the slightest hint of disloyalty. Similar distinctions emerged between civilian and military sectors of the government. Since statistics were crucial to central planning, officials at the local level worked diligently to collect and to transmit accurate information to their superiors. As a result surviving Chinese records furnish detailed, fairly reliable census figures, not only for the provinces of China but even for the non-Chinese people in distant protectorates. In 1 AD, for example, the census recorded 12,400,000 households and 57,000,000 inhabitants in the Han empire.
During times of war eight supreme generals were commissioned to mobilize the imperial army. These generals assumed authority over all forces furnished by the provinces, the feudal principalities, the foreign protectorates, and even the imperial palace guards. Throughout the era of the early Han Dynasty (202 BC - 6 AD) the main focus of the Chinese military establishment was the incessant confrontation with the Hsiung Nu empire to the north (estimated at 2 million in population). Considerable debate raged at the court regarding the most suitable policy for dealing with the Hsiung Nu. One faction argued for a policy of offensive operations that requiring the undertaking of extremely costly and dangerous campaigns in the remote and inhospitable regions of the Hsiung Nu. Another faction argued in favor of appeasement on the assumption that an effective combination of diplomatic engagement (including treaties and arranged marriages between Chinese Han princesses and the kings of the Hsiung Nu) and “gifts” (typically in the form of foodstuffs and tens of thousands of bolts of valuable silk) would gradually inure the leadership of the Hsiung Nu to the benefits of good relations with the Han, based in part on material dependency. Through the repeated employment of “gifts”, marriages, and treaties, however, it became increasingly clear to the Han administration that the shanyu and the ruling council of the Hsiung Nu exerted little genuine control over the Hunnic warlords on the periphery. Regardless of the wishes of their distant overlords, the local leaders of this segmentary society raided and plundered Chinese settlements along the frontiers without scruple. Inevitably, the tide turned in favor of the militaritsts and a succession of powerful generals were dispatched to the western and northern boundaries to confront the Hsiung Nu with force. After a series of difficult campaigns, several of which ended in disaster, the Han dynasty succeeded in breaking the unity of the Hsiung Nu confederacy in 51 BC and purchased itself a brief span of frontier security.
The logistical support required by these desert and steppe operations point to another challenge to be overcome by the Han Dynasty, namely, overland transport. The Han showed remarkable flexibility modulating between the use of incentives to stimulate private economic initiative and direct intervention in the economy through the creation of imperial monopolies. Through the construction of interconnected networks of canals and roads the Han administration was able to transport grain produced as tribute in the eastern provinces all the way to the western capital of Ch’ang An and beyond. To encourage the necessary transport of supplies to the western war zones, the Han offered incentives such as official rank to those capable of arranging these activities. With the conquest of territories in the southwest around 100 BC, the emperor Wu Ti (141-86 BC) actually attempted the seemingly impossible task of constructing a road network across the rugged, densely forested terrain of Southeast Asia to India, embarking on the ancient equivalent of the modern “Burma Road.” The central administration likewise offered incentives to the poor as well as to criminals to encourage them to serve on the frontiers. When complaints arose about the manipulation of prices of the essential commodities of salt and iron, the government intervened to create state monopolies. Although many of these ventures proved costly, the projection of force westward, northward, and southward enabled Han dynasty to secure its borders and to achieve domestic tranquility, while at the same time methodically gathering reliable information about peoples beyond the imperial horizon. One particular diplomat, Chang Ch’ien, was sent by the emperor Wu Ti in 138 BC to negotiate an alliance with a break-away element of the Hsiung Nu known as the Yueh Chih. The Yueh Chih had been driven beyond the Pamir Mts. by their nomadic rivals but had successfully formed a new confederacy in Central Asia that included the Kushan conquerors of northern India. Chang Ch’ien pursued his diplomatic travels as far as the Indus and returned to the court at Ch’ang An in 133 BC with detailed information about the urban societies that existed in India, Iran, and beyond, not to mention the exotic prestige goods that these made available to China. Chang Ch’ien’s mission helped sway Han policy toward direct intervention in the western region and culminated in the conquest of the oases states of the Tarim Basin by the Chinese general Li Kuang-li. In 104 BC Li Kuang-li mounted an invasion of the lands beyond the Pamir Mts., marching his army across the Oxus River into Afghanistan. In 97 AD, Pan Chao, a commander of the Later or Eastern Han Dynasty, led a second Chinese army of 70,000 men across the Pamir Mountains. This army advanced unopposed all the way to the shores of the Caspian Sea. The significance of these Chinese expeditions to the formation of the ancient world system will be discussed in a later chapter. For now it suffices to note that reliable information about the outside world began to replace the exaggerated accounts of traders and travelers and placed the Han dynasty on more solid footing in its dealings with the outside world.
Collapse of the Han Empire
Dissensions among competing factions of gentry families in the government eventually exposed the Han Dynasty at its core through destructive power struggles. On the demise of a given Han emperor the family of his most powerful wife (the dowager empress) typically attempted to seize power either by choosing a successor or by replacing the members of the ruling family with those of the empress’s “consort” family in all important positions of state. For a span of 20 years during the Eastern Han Dynasty, one particular consort family, the Liang, generated no less than 6 princes, 3 empresses, 6 imperial concubines, 3 grand generals, and 57 ministers and provincial governors. After jockeying for position for decades, elements of the Wang family usurped the throne in 9 AD, setting in motion a violent civil war that raged between the Wang and collateral branches of the Han family until 25 AD. By the time that the Han successor, Kuang Wu Ti, restored order, his capital in Ch’ang An had been destroyed, forcing him to relocate eastward to Lo Yang in Honan to be closer to the agricultural heartland. Here the Eastern Han Dynasty managed to survive until 202 AD. Palace intrigue among the most powerful families continued to plague the regime, along with munities in the army, and widespread peasant rebellions such as the rebellion of the Red Eyebrows at the time of the Wang usurpation and that of the Yellow Turbans in 184 AD. The fury of these mass uprisings, typically led by charismatic commoners who claimed mystical and magical abilities, took years to overcome and left everyone in the government dismayed.
Distracted by such internal dissensions the Han administration lost its grip on the frontiers, as well as on the agricultural countryside in the provinces. Gradually, the cost of maintaining this massive land-based empire became too burdensome. The collapse of the Han Dynasty in 202 AD ushered in four centuries of civil war known as the Era of Disunity (220-588 AD). This era was characterized by repeated attempts of powerful warlords to re-consolidate China only to result in further chaos. Meanwhile, new confederacies of the Hsiung Nu and the Toba emerged as threats in the northwest and the northeast respectively. In the fourth century AD these peoples invaded the Chinese heartland in a decisive manner. They settled along the Yellow River as overlord populations, destroying settlements and driving many of the elite families of the gentry southward beyond the Yangtze River to reconstitute themselves in newly formed kingdoms. Through the development of a unified culture extended across a vast landmass, the Chinese managed to forge one of the great world empires of the Classical era, believed by some to have been the largest civilization of that time. After long periods of violence the Chinese were able to achieve a sustained period of stability that brought prosperous urban society to a wide population. Although Chinese society relied on absolute monarchy to achieve stability, its monarchy based its authority on religious and philosophical principles of a higher moral order reinforced by a legal code that was increasingly applicable to all citizens. This furnished an important deterrent against tyranny and encouraged the participation in the Han regime by wider elites. Most of all, the empire was governed by a broad class of property holding families, whose leadership was determined through processes of education and examination. The intellectual requirements of government rank insured an essential competency in the imperial administration and fostered a sense of dedication throughout the bureaucracy. With careful attention to detail and loyal adherence to the hierarchy the Chinese had managed to overcome difficulties of distance and topography to assemble a unified empire and to project force into distant regions. Despite its continental separation from the other urban civilizations to the west, Classical China made a significant contribution to the ancient world system.