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. China was connected to other early civilizations by a dispersed chain of pastoral peoples that transmitted ideas, material goods, and technologies across the vast steppes of Eurasia. The Chinese probably acquired some technologies, such as iron smelting and horse riding from without. Others, such as grain and rice production, bronze manufacture, the horse harness and stirrups, appear to be native inventions and done better and earlier in many respects than they were in the “West.” Although the sinuous link of interconnectivity furnished by pastoral peoples played an important and sustained role in the development of Chinese civilization, the fact remains that Chinese society emerged largely in isolation. No armies from distant urban societies ever invaded China. On several occasions, however, armies of the Han empire invaded central Asia. One, commanded by the Han general Pan Chao in 97 AD, penetrated as far as Iran. This indicates that China was aware of the importance of the land route (the “Silk Road”) across the continents and worked to control it. In other respects, China remained predominantly a land based society with few neighboring maritime trading partners. Those populations that did exist in neighboring waters, Japan, Taiwan, and Indochina, were essentially “satellite” cultures that developed in response to Chinese expansion and largely assimilated urban culture from China. Apart from the threat posed by nomads to the north (the Hsiung Nu or the Huns), China remained an entity to itself. Unlike urban forms of development in the West, Chinese society, its governmental system, its material culture, its architectural forms, and its written language all emerged early in the Bronze Age. These forms changed gradually, evolved at their own pace, and sustained themselves for millennia. Consistency is possibly the defining term for Chinese civilization – the core of its culture evolved on the Yellow River by 1500 BC and expanded and evolved slowly and incrementally to become the dominant culture of an extensive region.



The Great plain of northern China extends more than 300,000 sq. kms. The overall region of Classical China embraced coastal lowlands, piedmont tablelands, and highland prairies and mountains extending approximately 5640 miles north – south and 3170 miles east -west. In such an extensive land mass wide variations in climate and environment are to be expected.  The heartland was bounded by the Huanghe (Yellow) River in the north and the Yangtze in the south. To the north lay the steppes and desert lands of Mongolia, to the west, mountain ranges and piedmont plateaus descend to the river valleys from the distant Himalayas. To the south the environment turns subtropical and in antiquity was covered in dense rain forest. Between China and the Indian Ocean (southwest) lay numerous impenetrable ridges, the result of repeated folding of the crust of the Asian continent after collision with the Indian subcontinent. To the east the shoreline of China was extensive (ca. 2300 miles), with several deep water ports such as Canton along the southern shore and landmasses such as Korea, Japan, and Taiwan within easy reach. As noted above urban culture in these regions developed to some degree in reaction to Chinese expansion; their cultures, however unique, had less impact in the opposite direction. Chinese riverine settlements, originating in the lower valley of the Yellow River, developed in relative isolation. Along the Yellow River the climate is continental: hot and dry in summer, cold with snow and frost in the winter. Dry air masses predominate and the success of agricultural activities depends heavily on the amount of rainfall in a given season. The river was navigable far upstream and as a transportation route it was enhanced by the construction of large canals and neighboring road networks. Grain and millet were produced successfully in the deep loess soil and remained the staple food products in the north not only for most Chinese cities but also for the pastoralists who lived in the highland steppe region beyond the river basin. These depended inordinately on the Chinese for food stuffs and finished goods. Further south, with the Yangtze River marking the approximate border, the climate turns warm and humid. Along the Yangtze and further south at the Red River (the Xi Jiang), rice technology was harnessed by Neolithic farmers. The native region of wet rice agriculture appears to have extended from modern day Bangladesh to Vietnam and arrived in China probably as a result of transmission. In the south at Hemudu rice farming has been confirmed by 5000 BC. Rice production entailed multi step procedures requiring abundant water and human labor energy. The plants were ordinarily grown for their first month in seed beds, while subsidiary crops were raised and harvested in dry fields. The fields were then irrigated, fertilized, and plowed in preparation for the transplanting of rice seedlings. Diligent human labor was required to transplant, weed, and water the seedlings. The construction of dikes and dams along the banks of the Yangtze River were necessary to store and control the water necessary to irrigate the rice paddies. Once the crop was ripe the field was drained and harvested. With limited farmland and considerable human labor wet rice agriculture could yield typically two and in some areas three crops per year, or potentially eight times the amount of food produced on a similar sized plot of land devoted to wheat or millet. Rice farming was able to sustain very large populations per square kilometer, plus the high labor requirements of rice production all but required dense settlement. No one community could marshal the necessary labor and resources to perform and maintain so involved an agricultural system. Living in close proximity to family and neighbors, the early farmers of China grew accustomed to a collective life in which the group tended to dominate the individual. The traditional family system was highly successful at preparing the Chinese to accept status distinctions at other levels of society and remained the basis of social organization throughout Chinese history. The sociologist Max Weber even characterized China as a familialistic state.  Political authority inevitably gravitated to those who could organize and control multiple communities and maintain the food supply.  Eventually population rise reduced the amount of land available for pasture and with it the potential for livestock production. Today in China 90% of the arable land is cultivated for crops with only 2% devoted to pasture. Classical China appears to have experienced recurring shortages in livestock and metals.


Further south, much like southern India, malarial forest became a natural barrier to the expansion of urban settlement. Populations remained tribal and dispersed. The density of the rain forests along the coast of Southeast Asia and the vast and remote expanse of this shoreline appears to have obstructed maritime travel between India and China during the Classical era (a voyage from Canton on the Red River to the mouth of the Ganges was at least 4000 miles). Given the limited progress of shipwreck archaeology in this region, the extent of ancient maritime travel in Southeast Asia remains unknown.  Roman coins have been found as far east as Vietnam and southern China, and during the Han dynasty the port of Canton reportedly fostered a mercantile population of foreigners, including Indians, Arabs, and Egyptians. Explicit Chinese textual references to sea voyages between India and China remain few prior to the 5th century AD, when they begin to rise in frequency. Possibly by this date the isolated populations along these coasts had grown sufficiently urban to furnish nodes along a crucial maritime trunk route. This will be discussed in the following chapter.


To the west, the agricultural plains of China narrow and rise through gaps into upland valleys enclosed by mountains. One region, Shensi (Shaanxi), “the land within the two passes,” played a recurring role in Classical Chinese warfare and state formation, most probably because its proximity to pastoral populations to the north and west enabled its leaders to recruit intimidating manpower. Beyond this region one passed into the vast desert steppes of Mongolia to the north or the equally arid highland basin of the Tarim or Taklmakan Desert to the west. In this broad oval basin ringed by high mountain ranges (approximately 600 miles across), snow melt from the mountains furnished the potential for a dozen isolated oases settlements along the base of the mountains. These oases communities, with populations recorded by Chinese officials ranging from 3000 to 70000 inhabitants, served as important trading nodes for Chinese communication with the West. Difficult passes through the Pamir Mountains, reportedly enhanced by the construction of wooden suspension bridges, enabled caravan traders and migrants to cross the Pamir Mts. to the opposite steppes of Sogdiana and Bactria, and from there across Afghanistan (Gandhara) to India, Iran, and the extremely distant Mediterranean world.

Chinese State Formation

The early history of China remains shrouded in legend. According to Chinese mythology, the deity, Pangu, created the universe and placed upon earth a dynasty of sage-emperors who taught the Chinese to communicate, feed, cloth, and build shelter for themselves. These legendary emperors are known as the Xia or Hsia dynasty; they ruled from roughly 2,000 B.C. to 1,600 B.C.  Archaeological investigation at the late Neolithic / early Bronze Age site of Longshan indicates that by the time of this dynasty, several crucial cultural attributes of later Classical Chinese society had emerged.  Prestige goods included jade instruments (imported from western mountains and believed to have life extending properties), lacquered ceramics, ritual vessels, first of ceramic, then of bronze, and silk textile produced from the cocoons of caterpillars that thrived on the leaves of native mulberry trees. High firing pottery kilns led to a superior form of bronze casting by 2000 BC as well as to the development of porcelain or enameled ceramic wares. Although the quality of Chinese fired bronze was vastly superior to the metals produced contemporaneously in the West, cultural isolation meant that bronze continued in use as the principle technology for tools and weapons until the era of the Warring States (480 BC). Also at Longshan oracular responses were obtained from the fired bones of sacrificial animals. Diviners attending the kings would apply heated metal to the shoulder blades of sacrificed cattle (as well as to tortoise shells) to obtain oracular messages from the gods. The omens would then be inscribed in proto-Chinese characters directly on the remains. The recording of oracular responses appears to have occurred as early as 2500 BC, with evidence of a fully developed script by 2000. A sample oracle records marauding attacks by nomads from the western steppes.





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.


Unlike 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 Anyang, for example, the walls of the rectangular enclosure were some 10m tall, 20m thick, and 7000m in circumference. Archaeologists estimate that these would have required an estimated 10000 workers 18 years to complete. Inside the enclosures monumental platforms of pounded earth displayed post holes indicating the former existence of timber constructed structures with likely gabled roofs of daub and wattle or thatch. The monumental precincts contained both residential "palaces" and ritual complexes. From the time of the earliest urban settlements, accordingly, Chinese elites appear to have distanced themselves from the common people by dwelling within fortified precincts. By the time of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1027 BC) more than 1000 of such nucleated settlements existed along the lower reaches of the Yellow River, with many specifically named by oracle bones. The settlement pattern of Longshan culture points to the existence of neighboring warring elites, each struggling to maintain its position or to gain ascendancy over its rivals. The archaeological record also indicates that ritual vessels, first made of ceramic then of copper and bronze, were important emblems of elite status.


The 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 Anyang (Nanyang). The king, who spent most of his energy fighting nomads and invaders from the north, ruled from his capital as the religious and secular head of society. Excavation has revealed the remains of a multi-stepped pounded earth platform that served as an altar where the king would perform sacrifices to the heavenly deity, T’ien. As ruler of China the king served as the sole mediator between that this deity and the inhabitants of the realm. Ritual vessels, as noted above, demonstrate the pivotal place of ancestor cult in Shang society. Chinese aristocrats believed that the spirits of deceased relatives embarked on a long and tortuous journey into the heavens with no guarantee of success. Those who arrived at the ultimate destination were allowed to sit at the court of T’ien, also personified as Shang Ti, “The Supreme Ancestor.” It was the duty of Chinese descendants, particularly the eldest male of a given family, to assist these spirits in their journey by feeding them through ritual sacrifices so that they could attain their place in the heavens and assist their descendants on earth. Not only the canonical ritual vessels but even the pictographic forms of early Chinese characters are believed to have been fashioned from this world view. At the top of this society stood the Shang king, who functioned as the head of a patrimonial state that was more theocratic than secular in its political responsibilities. The king was not merely the earthly sovereign but the deputy of T’ien or Shang Ti, recognized by the heavens (through oracular responses) as an adopted son entrusted by the Mandate of Heaven to rule over earth. By practicing the ancestor cult the Shang rulers legitimized their authority; they not only utilized the Altar of Heaven but they also controlled the production of prestige goods such as bronze ritual vessels, jade ornaments, and silk and distributed these to vassal kings as rewards.


All 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 Shensi near Si’an) undertook a number of political and symbolic measures to insure their authority over rival noble states. By means of force they organized a “feudal network” of vassal states using sons and relatives to preside over some fifty odd conquered principalities. Each local “king” had to swear allegiance to the Zhou emperor before being dispatched to govern an assigned territory. In addition, whole communities descended from common lineage groups were dispatched with the vassal kings to serve as Zhou garrison forces over the local populations. Perhaps as many as 1800 such feudatory states were established in this manner. To assuage religious concerns about the legitimacy of their rise to power, the Zhou proclaimed that the Shang through corruption and incompetence had lost the confidence of the sky god T’ien and could no longer guarantee the safety of the Chinese people. The Shang’s spiritual fall from grace thus enabled the Zhou to assume this responsibility. By doing so they introduced the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, that is, that the support of T’ien could be conferred on any family that was morally worthy of the task and that royal power in China was transferable under the proper religious circumstances. Diviners educated in the necessary rituals would guide the kings through their sacrifices at the Altar of Heaven and monitor the resulting omens. A clustering of bad omens might very well indicate that a given king’s mandate had expired. This development not only placed inordinate emphasis on ritual procedures among the ruling class but it also introduced the concept of royal accountability to a higher moral authority. In essence, the religious rationalization for the Zhou’s rise to ascendancy initiated a set of moral criteria for the assumption of power itself. Throughout Classical Chinese history, once the official hierarchy responsible for formulating public opinion became convinced that a dynasty had lost its moral ascendancy, there was little that could save it.


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.


The 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 China to offer their talents to more successful dynasts. By selling their services to competing warlords, displaced politicians and scholars abandoned time worn patterns of feudal behavior in favor of contractual arrangements. Those finding employment with new realms typically received payment in the form of the rents produced by whole communities of farmers who would be assigned to them. Ownership of wealth thus underwent significant transformation, even though it remained solidly based on control of the agricultural landscape. To succeed in this dynamic environment one needed to be educated, cunning, and even ruthless, but aristocratic descent was no longer a priority. One notorious adviser, Lu Pu-Wei, rose from humble beginnings as a merchant (possibly a horse trader) to became the chancellor to the Duke of Ch’in and regent to the eventual emperor, Ch’in Shih Huangdi. In an era of social upheaval and uncertainty when people questioned the legitimacy of traditional mores three major philosophies emerged that would dominate imperial Chinese ideology, Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism.


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 Shantung), Confucius acquired the reputation of a scholar and made a living teaching young aristocrats and assisting with the administration of noble estates. Although his social origins remain unknown. he possibly descended from a collateral or even an illegitimate line of a local noble family. In the strongly patriarchal and patrilinear system of Zhou-era China, Confucius lacked the necessary means of the nobility, in other words, but somehow managed to receive an education. After failing in numerous attempts to obtain political advancement at Lu, he abandoned his home state in search of opportunities elsewhere, accompanied by a few young men who were most probably the sons of destitute scholars like himself. Together they traveled from the realm of one feudal lord to another in search of employment. After a series of short term posts that inevitably ended in dismissal, Confucius abandoned his hopes of obtaining a career as a professional “courtier” and returned to Lu where he taught until his death. His teachings were heavily influenced by his origins (Lu was a stronghold of Shang traditionalism), his background as an aristocratic outsider, and his experience as an unsuccessful courtier in these highly disturbed times.


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.


For 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 World.


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 title, Huangdi, “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 China, including the name China itself (Chi'in = China).


As 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 transported to Shensi, permanently severing ties with their ancestral domains. All weapons were likewise surrendered on arrival at the capital and melted down into ingots. Once relocated to Hsien Yang the surviving nobles were compelled to serve as Ch’in’s personal courtiers, to appear regularly at court, and otherwise to pay homage to his greatness. This instant infusion of aristocratic inhabitants furnished the former barracks town of Hsien Yang with a wealthy population of consumers who in turn attracted craftsmen and merchants. In practically no time Ch’in and his ministers transformed Hsien Yang into a world capital. They also took the additional, highly unpopular step of ordering the collection and burning of all books, particularly the annals, poetry, and accumulated literature of rival noble houses. Only “non-political” books treating subjects such as medicine, divination, agriculture, aboriculture, and the like were spared conflagration. Most probably this act as well was intended to erase the memory of the ancient feudal nobility; it nonetheless provoked widespread opposition, with some 460 scholars reportedly being executed for attempting to conceal books. However much these decisions put an end to the feudal aristocracy, therefore, they also hastened the demise of the Ch’in dynasty itself. Apart from the Legalist element that worked to establish the newly imposed empire, the rest of the population of China remained firmly united in its hatred of the regime.


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.


In 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.  Han Dynasty China was dominated by an estimated 100 such families with many clans remaining politically active for centuries.  Given their landed wealth gentry families tended to produce numerous children (8-9 per family), many times more than the peasant families beneath them (2-3 per family). This insured that only elements from the gentry could compete for political office and essentially eliminated the possibility of upward mobility from the lower classes. Despite the “revolutionary” character of the gentry class, therefore, its effect on society was largely conservative. Their dependency on networks in the imperial government for political patronage and economic advancement gave the gentry a vested interest in preserving the status quo. Instead of noble versus commoner, class distinctions under the Han dynasty became decidedly that of the educated elites versus the ordinary masses.


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.