The Human Story – Imperial China: A 2,000 Year History

You may be wondering how we are just now, at the ninth installment of the series, discussing Ancient China. Weren’t they one of the earliest civilisations? Well, yes but this article will span thousands of years of Chinese history, philosophy and social development.

As an added bonus for your patience and sticking with us up to now we will delve a little deeper into the history of Ancient China than we have done in previous articles.

Let’s go!

China was one of, if not, the first modern state and by that we mean that it had a centralised government with a core of bureaucrats (or Mandarins) who would execute the wishes of the government of the day. This form of civil service lasted in pretty much the same form from roughly 200 BCE to 1912 CE and provided one of the major outlets for social mobility in Chinese society. It would also later serve as the model for the civil service systems developed in other Asian and western countries.

We’re off to a great start: how Ancient China influenced modern western liberal democracies (I’m sure the irony will not be lost on some of you). But where can we go from here?

The Dynastic Tale

The Ancient Chinese were among the first people to write and record their history. In fact, one of the Confucian Classics is called Shujing (Classic of History). This is great news for us as we can see the things that these pioneering Chinese historians recorded as happening, but it is also problematic due to the way that the narrative is told.

Chinese history is, rather conveniently, divided into periods (much like the history of that other super long-lasting civilisation, Ancient Egypt). Most of these periods are named after the dynasties who ruled at the time (but some of the more chaotic periods, as you will see, are not). So long as the family (or dynasty) keeps producing emperors and these emperors keep on ruling then the dynasty continues. However, these dynasties did not last forever and always fell after the emperor was overthrown, usually in the wake of rebellion or war.

Let’s have a quick look at the different periods and the dynasties throughout Ancient China:

  • Xia (2070 – 1600 BCE) Most likely fictional
  • Shang (1600 – 1046 BCE) First dynasty with archaeological evidence
  • Zhou (1046 – 256 BCE) Longest reigning dynasty in Chinese history – although chaotic period
    • Spring & Autumn Period (771 – 476 BCE) Zhou authority over vassal states waning
    • Warring States Period (475 – 221 BCE) Basically a massive civil war that lasted centuries
  • Qin (221 – 206 BCE) Shortest dynasty but hugely influential as first dynasty of Imperial China
  • Han (206 BCE – 220 CE) Widely regarded as a Golden Age for China
  • Three Kingdoms Period (220 – 280 CE) No single dynasty ruled over all of China
  • Jin (266 – 420 CE) Chaotic period – empire split into two, like Rome, with west and east
  • Northern & Southern Dynasties (420 – 589 CE) Political chaos and civil war
  • Sui (581 – 618 CE) Unified north and south and sinocised formerly nomadic tribes
  • Tang (618 – 907 CE) Regarded as a Golden Age of cosmopolitan culture
  • Five Dynasties & Ten Kingdoms Period (907 – 960 CE) Name says it all really
  • Song (960 – 1279 CE) First government in global history to issue paper banknotes
  • Yuan (1279 – 1368 CE) The Mongol dynasty, founded by Genghis khan’s grandson Kublai Khan
  • Ming (1368 – 1644) Famous for vases
  • Qing (1644 – 1912 CE) Final Imperial dynasty with fourth largest empire in history

Palace.jpg

So that is a brief summary of what happened throughout Chinese history until the early twentieth century, but the interesting part is why it happened and especially why people writing about it at the time said that it happened.

(Drum roll)

The Mandate of Heaven

The concept of the Mandate of Heaven was first used to support the rule of the kings of the Zhou dynasty way back around 3,000 years ago. Modern scholars believe that it was invented in order to get rid of the Shang dynasty. Before the Zhou, early Chinese society had no concept of heaven, but the Zhou did (they called it Tian) and they wanted to portray the idea of heaven as eternal, so they ascribed the idea of the Mandate of Heaven back to a time before the Shang. This explained why the Shang were able to conquer the Xia. To put it quite simply, the Xia kings had lost the Mandate of Heaven.

The Zhou were fairly specific in how the Xia had lost the Mandate. The seventeenth Xia king, Jie, was a particularly nasty and immoral ruler who, at the behest of his favourite concubine, ordered a lake of wine to be created so they could sail upon it whilst an orgy of drunken men and women bathed. It was said that three thousand men were ordered to drink the lake dry with Jie and the concubine laughing when they all drowned. Other stories of Jie’s cruelty involve very detailed dietary requirements and riding upon one of his minister’s backs as if he were a horse. All the stories involve death.

This was not the behaviour expected of a ruler and therefore heaven saw fit to intervene and strip the Xia of the Mandate to rule and allowed the Shang to take power. But, of course, the Shang, too, lost their Mandate. Why? Interestingly, much of the actions of the final sovereign of Shang mirrored those of Xia Jie. In order to please his concubine, he too ordered the construction of a lake made of wine with naked men and women chasing one another around it. It was also reported that he strung the nearby forests with human meat. Obviously, this is far from acceptable moral behaviour for a ruler and the Shang lost the Mandate of Heaven. Much of this may be hugely exaggerated or may not have happened at all, but it does explain why the Mandate of Heaven passed to the Zhou.

Basically, the fact that one dynasty falling and being replaced by another in a cycle that lasted over 3,000 years can be explained by Divine Intervention based on whether one ruler behaves in a proper and moral manner. It’s very much an after the fact examination that has the virtue of being impossible to disprove as well as explaining some very messy political history. More importantly, though, is that it reinforces the vision of moral behaviour that is the foundation of Confucianism, which we will get to momentarily. Before we do though, let’s see an example of the Mandate of Heaven in action.

The Qin dynasty only lasted for 15 years but it was also one of the most important dynasties. It was so important, in fact, that it gave its name to the country: Qin-a. The great accomplishment of the Qin was that it re-unified China under a single emperor for the first time in 500 years, ending the Warring States Period. As one can imagine, this omelette required quite a few eggs to be broken and the great Qin emperor, Qin Shi Huang and his descendants acquired a reputation for brutality which was justified but probably exaggerated so that the successor dynasty, the Han, would seem more legitimate in the eyes of heaven.

When recounting the fall of the Qin, the historians focused on how a eunuch and the prime minister turned a Qin emperor into a puppet and tricked him into committing suicide. So, the Mandate of Heaven turned away from this suicidal puppet emperor which set up a lovely contrast with the early Han emperors, such as Wen who came to power in 180 BCE and ruled benevolently, avoiding extravagance in personal behaviour and ruled according to Confucian principles. By behaving like a wise Confucian was how Wen maintained the Mandate of Heaven, according to the ancient Chinese way of observing history.

Confucius and his Teachings

So just who was this Confucius guy anyway?

Confucius was a minor official who lived between 551 and 479 BCE during the Spring and Autumn Period who developed a philosophical and political system that he hoped would lead to a more stable state and society. He spent a great deal of his time attempting to persuade the powerful lords to embrace his system. Unfortunately for Confucius, none ever did. He did, however, get the last laugh as his ideas would later be adopted as the backbone for Chinese governance, the economy and Chinese society as a whole.

Confucious.jpg


Unarguably one of the most influential thinkers of history, Confucius was conservative and argued that the key to bringing about a strong and powerful state was to look to the past, particularly the sage emperors (who were morally upright mythical kings of pre-Xia China). By following their moral behaviour, Confucius reckoned, the ruling emperor could bring order to China.

Confucius’ idea of moral uprightness essentially boils down to a person knowing his or her place in a series of hierarchical relationships and acting accordingly. Everyone lives their life in relationship to others and is either the other’s superior or inferior.

Confucianism teaches that there are five key relationships:

  1. Ruler to Ruled
  2. Father to Son
  3. Husband to Wife
  4. Elder Brother to Younger Brother
  5. Friend to Friend

The key to understanding Confucius is through his ideas of the Father to Son relationship which includes filial piety: a son treating his father with reverent respect. The father is supposed to earn this respect by caring for the son and educating him. This does not mean that the son has the right to disrespect a neglectful father. Ideally, both act accordingly and harmoniously and the goal is for both to become superior men or “Junzi”. If all men strive to be Junzi, society will benefit.

How to be a Junzi

For a man to become Junzi he must know how to behave properly. How does one learn how to behave properly? You look to the historical antecedents, of course. Particularly the sage emperors who ruled over a period of great peace. The study of history is important to the Junzi and by doing so he will discover all the great things that the sage emperors discovered and invented. For example, the sage emperors helped introduce the use of fire, taught people how to build houses and invented agriculture. These incredible accomplishments do not stop with these men: they extend to the women of their lives too. The wife of one of the emperors is credited with the invention of silk culture: a very important part of the Ancient Chinese economy.

DragonAs well as the study of history, the Junzi is expected to be well versed in poetry and painting in order to truly appreciate the beauty around him.

The Junzi must adhere to the ideas of Ren and Li. Both concepts are incredibly complex but let’s have a stab at explaining them shall we. Ren usually translates as Propriety, meaning the understanding of and practising proper behaviour in every possible situation which of course depends upon who you are interacting with (see the Five Relationships above).

Li translates as Ritual and refers to the rituals associated with Chinese religions, most of which involve the veneration of one’s ancestors. And this brings us back, full circle, to the fundamental problem of how early Chinese scholars wrote their history.

Completing the Circle

Traditional Chinese historians were all trained in the Confucian Classics which emphasised the idea that good emperors behaved like good Confucians. In order to maintain the Mandate of Heaven, the emperor had to refrain from riding their ministers around like horses and stringing human flesh from trees (seems pretty obvious, really, when you think about it). In this way of thinking, the political success of the whole dynasty ultimately rests upon the shoulders of one man and his actions.

The Mandate of Heaven acts as an incredibly flexible explanation for historical causation. It explains why dynasties often fell simultaneously with the coming of terrible weather, floods or peasant revolts. If the emperor had been behaving in the correct manner then surely none of that horrible stuff, upsetting every day society, would have occurred?

Well, not exactly.

As many modern historians have pointed out, the negative effects of floods and peasant revolts often lead to a change in the leadership. However, to take the moral aspect out of Chinese history is to diminish the importance of Confucian scholars because these same scholars can tell you that one of the best ways to learn how to be a good emperor and thereby maintain the Mandate of Heaven is to read the Confucian Classics which were written by – that’s right, you’ve guessed it – Confucian scholars.

In short, the complex circularity of Chinese history is mirrored by the complex circularity of the relationship between those who write it and those who make it. This is something to think about, no matter whose history you are reading. As Winston Churchill is often mistakenly thought to have said, ‘History is written by the victors’ and there is no greater victor in Chinese culture than Confucius. He really did have the last laugh.

The Rest is History

Bonus Round – Noteworthy Chinese Emperors

As promised at the start of the post, here is a little extra for making it this far with us. A country with over 3,000 years of history has obviously had a lot of rulers and we will have a quick look at some of the more prominent imperial rulers of China.

Qin_Shi_Huang_statue

Qin Shi Huang (259 – 210 BCE) was the first emperor of a united China and the founder of the short-lived Qin Dynasty. Defeating the other six Warring States, Qin founded the empire of Qin, unifying, for the first time, all of China under one powerful ruler.

After the unification, the Emperor began to unify Chinese writing, measuring standards and coinage across the empire, facilitating exchanges between the different peoples living there. He also undertook mammoth projects, including expanding and improving the Great Wall to strengthen the empire’s northern border and the Terracotta Army, which was built to defend their emperor in the afterlife.

Wu of Han (156 – 87 BCE) was the seventh emperor of the Han Dynasty and cited as a pioneer of the nation due to the vast territorial expansion that occurred during his reign. He is best remembered for the strong and centralised Confucian state that he organised: if Qin Shi Huang was the emperor who territorially unified China then Wu of Han was the emperor who ideologically unified China.

Emperor Wu dispatched an envoy to Central Asia to seek an alliance against the Xiongnu, a powerful tribe in northern China who posed a formidable threat to the Han. The attempted alliance was a failure, but an unintended consequence of the embassy was the establishment of the Silk Road which served as a route for cultural and economic exchange between the east and the west.

Wen of Sui (541 – 604 CE) was the founder of the Sui Dynasty and unified the country after it had undergone serious splits over hundreds of years, sparing the people from the suffering of war. During his reign Wen began construction of the Grand Canal, connecting the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. At 1,794 kilometres long, this Grand Canal of China is still the longest man made waterway in the world.

Wen also introduced a new system to choose government officials, the imperial examination (the first standardised test) which was the forerunner for the modern examination, providing anxious students with panic attacks since 587 CE. Wen made good use of this new calibre of government official and opened a great period of prosperity not seen since the Han Dynasty. It was said that there was enough food in storage to last for 50 years during his reign.

Tang Taizong (599 – 649 CE) was the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty and is often regarded as the wisest Chinese Emperor due to his full consideration of his subjects, particularly the peasants. The Sui Dynasty had fell due to peasant uprisings and Taizong realised that the peasant masses could provide a dangerous opposition unless treated favourably by the government. Tang Taizong amended the land dividing system which greatly lifted the taxation burden of peasants as well as implemented policies to boost the development of the economy and society.

Under Emperor Taizong, China’s prosperity and openness brought more frequent economic and cultural contacts between the Tang and foreign countries. A great deal of China’s silk, porcelain, tea and paper were sold abroad, and huge numbers of Chinese left the Tang Empire to visit the world. Tang Taizong’s twenty-three-year reign brought the most prominent era of peace and prosperity in Ancient China’s history and the Tang Empire emerged as the most powerful in the world at the time.

Wu Zeitan (624 – 705 CE) was the only female empress in Chinese history to ascend to the throne and ruled her empire for over half a century. Although Confucian beliefs at the time were against a woman ruler and very much in favour of a patriarchal state, Wu Zeitan smashed down the barriers and seized power for herself.

Before Empress Wu, who had been Emperor Tang Taizong’s concubine, became the empress regnant, she had been heavily involved in political affairs when her husband, Tang Taizong’s son Tang Gaozong, had reigned for over thirty years. Zeitan had exiled, murdered (yes, you read that right) and manipulated enough of her children in order to gain the throne for herself and was officially crowned Empress in 690 CE.

During her reign, Wu Zeitan reinforced centralisation and attached great importance to agricultural development. She launched a campaign to elevate the position of women to challenge Confucian beliefs and encouraged talented people to take up posts within her government. In spite of the deadly ambition and ruthless rise and reign of this woman, Empress Wu proved to be a competent ruler and throughout her reign the country prospered.

Kangxi (1654 – 1722) was the second emperor of the Qing Dynasty and the longest reigning emperor in the history of China, ruling for 61 years. During his early reign, Kangxi cracked down on the rebellious plot of one of the ministers appointed to assist him in governing the country when he ascended to the throne at the age of eight. He later suppressed the Revolt of the Three Feudatories, forced the Kingdom of Tungning in Taiwan and assorted Mongol rebels in the north to submit to Qing rule, and blocked Tsarist Russian expansion at the Amur River.

Emperor Kangxi’s reign brought about long-term stability and relative wealth after years of war and chaos. He initiated a period of prosperity known as “High Qing” which lasted for several generations after his death. His court also compiled the Kangxi Dictionary in 1710 which became the standard Chinese dictionary for the 18th and 19th centuries.

Now we have seen some of the great men and women of Chinese history, next week we will be turning our attention back west to visit the life and times of another great man. A man who by the age of thirty had conquered most of the known world and then wept for there was nothing left to conquer. I am, of course, talking about Alexander the Great.

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great

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