Chinese Civilizations: Chinese Political History

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This booklet helps students to learn about the history of China, its civilizations, political history, geographical locations, religion, dynasties, rulers, their inventions, and contributions to mankind.
The Chinese people developed a dynamic and rich civilization at the eastern end of
Eurasia. Geographically and politically united by Emperor Huang Di in the 200’s
BC, China’s civilization has alternated between times of political centralization
with rule from a capital city and times of fragmentation when local warlords
dominated. Confucianism, a belief system which supported centralized political
power, a professional bureaucracy, and a hierarchy of social relationships has
remained influential in China for 2500 years. With a dense population from early
times (50 million by 750 AD), the Chinese have achieved high levels of
productivity and exported many sought-after goods such as iron, porcelain, and
silk. With a common language, paper to print it on, and a varied and distinctive
cuisine, the people have been rightfully proud of their cohesive and distinctive
culture. They have traditionally viewed themselves as living in “The Middle
Kingdom” - that is, the center of the known world, but have sometimes seen
neighbors and outsiders as "barbarians" from whom they demanded tribute.
Eastern China is a vast watershed drained by 2 large river systems which rise on
the Tibetan plateau and Kunlun Mountains and flow eastward to the Pacific. The
Yellow river traverses the north China plain. The Yangtze and its valley lie to the
south. Smaller rivers and valleys converge on present-day Canton. The climate in
the south is semi-tropical and monsoon-drenched.
China has been protected by the Gobi Desert in the north, the Tibetan plateau, and
Pamir and Himalaya mountains in the west, the jungles of Southeast Asia in the
South, and the Pacific Ocean in the east.
From the Shang Dynasty in 1700 BC to the Ching (Qing) Dynasty (1644-1912
AD) there were 24 dynasties. When the Ching Dynasty fell in 1912 AD, China
established a republic.
What were the main dynasties, what were their principal achievements, and
how did these dynasties affect people's lives?
SHANG DYNASTY (1700-1000 BC) - 700 Years
2. Shang rule began about 1700 BC in the Yellow River Valley. A confederation of
clans, each headed by a nobleman, acknowledged the Shang dynasty's king. An
ancient chronicler complained that “the big affairs of state consist of sacrifice and
soldiery.” The aristocratic classes’ major occupation was warfare. Armies of as
many as 13,000 men wore mass-produced uniforms and used mass-produced
weapons. Combat was carried on by means of two-horse chariots, a custom which
may have been adopted from peoples of neighboring regions. (Archeologists have
found corpses of Indo-Europeans living in western China who may have brought
two-horse chariots with them. Spoked chariot wheels buried in graves in Ukraine
date back to 2,000 BC proving that the expertise for bronze chariots far predates
the Shang dynasty.)
The Shang king ruled with his own army and bureaucracy from the capital city of
Anyang. These kings believed in the existence of supernatural forces that would
help them in their endeavors. Excavations have yielded thousands of oracle bones
which were bones of oxen and chickens poked with hot sticks so lines would
appear and fortunes could be told. The Chinese had a clear belief in an afterlife.
Hundreds of slaves, prisoners of war, and attendants who had served the king
would be buried with him in rituals of human sacrifice. The people who were
sacrificed would accompany the King on the journey to the next world. These
rituals were part of the belief in venerating ancestors. A modern-day practice of
burning replicas of objects to bring good luck to the departed on their journey to
the next world continues to this day.
Social classes were evident in the Shang era with kings and warrior aristocrats
owning land, peasants obliged to farm the land, a small number of merchants and
artisans, and slaves taken prisoner in battle. The Shang period is distinguished for
two high arts: bronze vessels made by artisans who had mastered the art of bronze
casting and a pictographic writing system made by scribes who refined this system.
CHOU (ZHOU) DYNASTY (1000-221 BC) - 800 years
Western Chou leaders defeated the Shang thus beginning an 800-year
rule. The King’s land was in the middle surrounded by terrain occupied by his
appointed vassals. The vassals eventually ascended and became so strong, they
forced the relocation of the capital to Lo-Yang and formation of Eastern Chou rule.
According to The Rites of Chou, an ancient document on statecraft, rulers of the
Chou dynasty asserted they possessed a "Mandate of Heaven" to rule. (Heaven was
viewed as an impersonal law of nature rather than an anthropomorphic deity). This
3. meant the ruler governed with the approval of the heavens - a theory similar to the
western concept of the divine right of kings. The divine right of kings was, in fact,
a belief prevalent in all ancient civilizations. The mandate from heaven could be
taken away, however, if the ruler became corrupt and unjust. The people would
have the "right of revolt" against an evil ruler. Because this mandate gave the
people the right to revolt, it can be considered an early form of democracy. It
means the ruler’s power was limited.
Trade expanded during the Chou dynasty’s rule, and new technologies included
production of cast iron, use of the iron-tipped plow, and irrigation of larger farms.
As happened in other eras of history in other places, agricultural improvements
brought an increase in population. Chinese population was estimated to be about
20 million by 200 BC. This led to a boom in commerce, manufacturing, and trade.
Seashells were used as the first money (they were also used as currency in many
other parts of the world). Round metal coins with a hole in the middle were also
used as currency by some merchants, but the average person still relied on a system
of barter and paid for taxes, rents, and salaries with grain.
During most of this period, although a dynasty was officially in power, China was
essentially a feudal state with over 100 independent domains headed by nobles
living on their own tracts of land. The abundance of wars between these nobles
caused it to be called a time of "warring states," In reaction to these wars, three
Chinese scholars searched for answers as to how they could create a society in
which people could get along with each other. This led to the birth of
Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism. Confucius established Confucianism; Lao
Tzu, established Taoism, and Han Fei Tzu established Legalism. A wide-ranging
debate followed, a debate called the “hundred schools” on the nature of human
nature, society, and the universe.
Severe conflicts between the Mongols and the Chinese broke out. The northern
warriors on horseback posed a serious threat and Chinese nobles who lived in this
area began to build walls to keep them out.
CHIN (QIN) DYNASTY (221-202 BC) - 20 years
Toward the end of the Chou Dynasty the authority of the King was increasingly
challenged. An ambitious young soldier in the principality of Chin, Huang Di,
emerged from mountains in the west, subdued rivals, and eventually took over
4. Described by Han dynasty historian, Sima Qian, as having “the chest of a bird of
prey, the voice of a jackal, and the heart of a tiger,” Huang Di united the first
empire imposing central authority on all regions. He ruled using the philosophy of
Legalism implementing tough, authoritarian control and strict punishments. He
abolished feudalism and set up a centralized bureaucracy which administered 36
districts each with a military and civilian governor. He standardized weights and
measures, coinage, and writing, and built roads, canals, elaborate palaces and the
Great Wall of China (1500 miles long, 25 feet high).
His rule was so authoritarian that dissidents were executed, books were burned,
heavy taxes were levied, and people were forced to work for the state. He
reportedly killed 460 scholars because they couldn't find the secret of immortality.
He forced 700,000 men to labor on his tomb discovered in the 1970's and currently
a major tourist attraction. It contains over 7,000 life-size clay soldiers.
Another incident, which also shows how despotic his rule was, occurred when a
meteor fell on China. He executed everyone living near it because he thought it
was a sign of the division of the Empire.
Hunag Di’s advisor, Li Si, oversaw the Draconian centralization of power during
the Chin Dynasty. He advocated destroying anything that would stand in the way
of absolute power including getting rid of clans and burning books.
Although Huang Di was brutally authoritarian, his ideals of unity, order, and
centralized authority, once achieved, were never forgotten in Chinese civilization.
HAN DYNASTY (202 BC-220 AD) - 400 years
In the aftermath of Huang Di’s reign, court intrigue, peasant rebellion, and rival
warlords tore his empire apart. From the Great Wall in the north to the typhoon
swept south, China was tumbled into chaos once more. But, unlike in India when
the Mauraya’s succumbed and the people experienced hundreds of years of chaos,
the disorder in China lasted only 20 years. A new dynasty, the Hans, took up the
task of unification and became one of the most admired houses in Chinese history.
This Classical Era dynasty saw a revival of Confucian teachings at the same time
as Hinduism flourished again in India and Christianity took root in Europe. In a
widespread phenomenon people in the Classical era sought to deepen their spiritual
5. Han Emperors used the concept of the Mandate of Heaven to build a powerful,
centralized monarchy. The scholar-civil servant system with exams on Confucian
principles allowed successful candidates to enter into this elite group. The system
favored candidates from wealthy families who could afford tutors for their
The life story of the founder of the Han Dynasty is a favorite of the Chinese. Liu
Bang (later given an exhaulted title Han Gaozu) was a strong, capable peasant, a
former bandit turned rebel general, who founded the Dynasty. He unified China in
an enlightened way reminiscent of Asoka and Augustus. Ruling from the capital
city of Chang’an (modern Xian), he presided over a golden age. His widow,
Empress Lu, ruled after him and they named the river which flows through his
birthplace the Han River.
When the western Han empire disintegrated due to conflicts between lords, the
Eastern Han emerged about 25 AD. They established trade routes out from Canton
and exported silk to as far away as the Roman Empire. Paper was invented by
Ts’ai Lun in 105 AD. Internal struggles caused a popular rebellion by the Yellow
Turbans and the last Han emperor was forced to resign in 220 AD.
NEXT 400 YEARS (220-580 AD)
Although political fragmentation and civil war befell China, this turmoil was not
accompanied by moral decay. On the contrary, Buddhism was introduced in China
and people's beliefs turned toward the promise of earthly and heavenly salvation.
People also found emotional satisfaction in Taoism (a religion which emphasized
living in harmony with nature) and turned away from strict Confucianism. Local
culture was enriched by these belief systems.
One of the most significant developments during this time was the creation of a
system of martial arts called Kung Fu. Buddhist monks at Shao Lin monastery in
the forest near Luoyang, the capital city of Henan Province, refined a system of
self-defense and meditation. It helped people achieve a balance between intellect,
body, and emotion. Later Japanese who visited Shao Lin adopted this system
which came to be called Zen Buddhism in Japan.
Buddhists and Taoists later evolved variations of Kung Fu with different
philosophies and techniques. These differences became the source of competition
and rivalries as time went on. From time to time, Buddhist and Taoist groups also
revolted against foreigners living in China.
6. SUI DYNASTY (580-618 AD) – 38 Years
General Yang Chien rose to power and reunited China under Emperor Weng, the
first emperor of the Sui dynasty. Emperor Weng reduced taxes by taking a careful
census which placed many more people previously omitted on the tax register,
lightened military service requirements, and abolished extreme punishments in the
penal code.
Under the second Sui emperor, Yang Ti, a written exam system for choosing
government officials was updated and introduced in 606. This system was still
being used in the 20th century. The Grand Canal utilizing the labor of 2 million
workers was built linking 3 rivers, Yellow, Yangtze, and Huai. Yang Ti undertook
a series of disastrous wars against neighboring states and subsequent peasant
uprisings led to social and economic disorder. Yang Ti was assassinated when the
army turned against him. One of the successful army officers, Li Shih Min
installed his father as emperor founding the Tang Dynasty.
TANG DYNASTY (618-907) - 300 Years
After installing his father, Li Yuan, in power for ten years and further eliminating
rivals, Li Shih-Min assumed the throne. He acquired an emperor’s name, Tang
Tsai Tsung. With a capital at Chang-an, the Tang Dynasty secured China’s borders
placing military districts along frontier areas, introduced agrarian and judicial
reforms, built canals, and improved communications. It is perhaps most famous for
the flowering of the arts particularly lyric poetry. This dynasty implemented the
"equal lands" policy distributing land to peasants; they also subdued northern
steppe nomads and controlled Tibet. They demanded tribute from Koreans,
Japanese, and Vietnamese and then extended the benefit of cultural and tech-
nological achievements to them.
The Chinese look back with fondness at Tang Tai Zong, the Grand Ancestor of the
Tang, who reunified China. His concubine Wu Zetian ruled after him as one of the
few females to rule China. Although under Confucian beliefs having a woman rule
would be like “a hen crowing like a rooster at daybreak”, Wu Zetian tried to
elevate tried to elevate the status of women. She commissioned scholars to write
the biographies of women and appointed women to high government positions.
She said the ideal ruler would rule like the mother of a family. She fostered
Buddhism which in turn influenced sculpture, painting, and literature. She reduced
the military, was fair to peasants, and lowered taxes.
7. By the 800’s AD internal uprisings and invasions weakened China. Warlords vied
for land and power. Court intrigue and official corruption caused decadence and
finally northern nomads overthrew Tang rule.
SUNG DYNASTY (960-1279 AD) - 300 years
The Sung dynasty brought another Golden Age to China's history. It saw
improved administration, civil service exams, and the scholar-civil service system
bringing professionalism. By the time of the Sung Dynasty
China's technological achievements were second to none with paper,
advanced printing techniques, gunpowder, porcelain, compass, ships'
rudders and sea anchors among the numerous inventions of these
resourceful people.
MONGOL RULE (1275-1368) - 93 Years
Genghis Khan's armies first swept down and conquered N. China in 1215 AD;
by 1279 his grandson Kublai Khan overpowered the Sung Dynasty and
occupied all of China. Kublai Khan moved the capitol to Peking, named
his dynasty Yuan, and continued to conquer new lands such as part of
Vietnam. In ruling China, the Mongols retained Chinese administration
but made sure Mongols and hired foreigners held the highest
positions. Because they conquered nearly all of Eurasia, trade flourished, and
China experienced economic prosperity, stability, and unity. Marco Polo wrote
glowingly of the court at Peking. The Mongols finally fell due to bankruptcy,
corruption at the court, and instability brought about by a famine in the 1340's.
MING DYNASTY (1368-1644) – 276 YEARS
Under the Ming Emperor YongLe (Yung Lo) who came to power in 1402, the
Chinese made 7 voyages to the Great Western Sea (the Indian Ocean).
Commanded by Admiral Zheng He, a Moslem eunuch at the Ming court, these 317
ships were large - 400’ long, 160' wide and carried in all 28,000 men. By contrast
Columbus’ ships were smaller, about 100' in length and he had only 120 men.
A Chinese voyage lasted 2 years. The 4th voyage reached the Persian
Gulf, the 7th went to Mecca and over to Kenya where the Chinese
presented lavish gifts to local rulers. Journals kept by the Chinese show
8. their great interest in dress, food, language, landscape, and marriage
ceremonies of the native peoples where they traveled. These voyages
were undertaken to show power, they were "tribute missions" for
establishing diplomatic ties and trade. They also searched for
medicinal herbs and spices. By the 4th voyage Zheng He was bringing
back to China envoys of 30 states to pay homage to the Chinese
emperor. He also brought back a giraffe and zebra considered good luck.
These voyages were abruptly halted and never resumed. Zheng He died
on the last voyage and was buried at sea. By 1525 it was an offense to
build an ocean-going ship and in 1525 an edict ordered the destruction
of all ocean-going vessels. The voyages had no religious aims, but in
1409 a plaque placed in Ceylon honored Buddha, Allah and Vishnu
written in Chinese, Persian and Tamil.
In conclusion, that were the main political characteristics of Chinese
• Pervasiveness of authoritarian rule and hierarchy.
• Pattern of decentralized domains ruled by lords alternating with centralized
rule by an emperor in a capital city.
• Political centralization made legitimate by the theory that the Emperor had
the Mandate of Heaven to rule;
• A scholar-civil servant class who took a rigorous exam which tested, among
other things, knowledge of Confucian classics;
• A system of relationships established by Confucianism where the nation was
pictured as a family with the father, or Emperor, at its head. Social harmony
meant centralized rule with a strong father-figure at the top.
The Situation for Women in China
The tradition of male superiority in China was part of Confucian belief, and it
continued from ancient times to the 20th century. The eldest male in the family
ruled as an autocrat. Women were expected to be devoted to parents in their
youth and to husbands and husband's families thereafter. Fidelity, chastity, and
modesty were ideal feminine qualities. A woman's family provided a dowry to
her husband's family when they married. Female infanticide was common in
times of famine.
In 960 AD during the Sung Dynasty the practice of footbinding
9. began. A young girl's arches were broken at the age of 6 in a ritualized ceremony.
Her feet were soaked in a solution which softened the bones before breaking
the arch. Then her feet were bandaged so that when they healed they couldn't grow
to normal size; they remained tiny, about 3 inches long. This meant a
woman would have an odd, stilted walk and a minced gait which men found
In addition to footbinding, another sign of double standards could be seen with
emperor’s possessing concubines, sometimes hundreds of them.
What were the main beliefs of Confucianism and why were these beliefs so
successful in China?
Confucius was a reformer born in China at a time of civil war, the “warring states
period”. Because conditions he saw in his lifetime were so distressing to him, he
tried to seek ways people could live together without violent conflict. He felt
society should be structured, orderly, and stable. He reasoned there had to be a
clearly defined code of behavior which established how each person should
behave. Each person must understand his or her situation and obligations toward
Confucius formulated 5 sacred relationships in society: wife must obey husband,
children obey parents, younger children obey older children, all the people obey
the Emperor, and friend be loyal to friend. These relationships weren't simply
social relationships - they were sacred, moral relationships. Absolute obedience
was common because it was thought whoever does not obey isn't human.
Moral conduct also extended to neighbors and other people. People were
supposed to avoid friction by being sensitive to other people's feelings and
never causing others to lose face. Courtesy was valued more than any other
virtue. In business relations haste was to be avoided and compromise was
valued. Chinese were taught to put on a good face even if someone in the
family had died. This was to avoid bothering others with negative emotions.
Confucius also set forth views on how the Emperor and government officials
should behave. The Emperor was seen as the father of the society and should
govern by moral example with benevolence, humanity, and respect for others. The
Chinese believed the Emperor ruled with a Mandate from Heaven, and because of
this important role he should have wisdom and fatherly care for all his subjects.
The Emperor lived and reigned in the capital city where all forces of nature were in
10. harmony. The Chinese considered the capital city the heart of the universe and the
center of their country called the Middle Kingdom.
Many members of the Chinese elite took Confucianism seriously and tried to
cultivate proper behavior in themselves. They respected patience, compromise,
and moderation. They worked hard to emulate role models, sages, and superior
men. Because they were judged by their behavior, they felt responsible and could
not lose face.
What other beliefs did the Chinese people espouse besides Confucianism?
This was a belief system also founded around 500 BC as a response to the chaos in
China at that time. Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, taught people could learn to
live together by following the ways of Nature. If people studied nature closely
and observed her ways, they could then try to live spontaneously and naturally
within Nature. They thought they should bend like a stalk of bamboo before the
Taoists believed there was a balance in nature evident in the continual inter-
action of elemental powers - light/dark, winter/summer, good/evil. Taoists
thought life energy lay in the continual interaction these forces. The concept
of yin/yang was an elaborate explanation of these forces. The Chinese didn't
see these forces as opposite, but rather complimentary.
Taoists believed in all sorts of potions to be used as aphrodisiacs, tranquilizers,
and longevity potions. This was an elaborate system of cures and beliefs
about healing. They ground rhino horns or bear gall bladders into powders and put
them into their drinks for potency and stamina.
Taoist beliefs led to an emphasis on food for enjoyment and good health.
This emphasis led to the culinary art for which the Chinese are famous. The
thousands of dishes full of herbs and spices, cooked energy efficiently with great
skill, have delighted generations of people all over the world.
This philosophy, also created around 500 BC by Han Fei Tzu as a response to
the chaos in China at the time, was a belief that the country had to have a
11. lot of power in the central government to establish strict laws, strict
punishments, and suppress the rebellious. They favored an authoritarian
state which had enough power to maintain unity, stability and order. They
believed all the people should submit to authority and considered political
dissent a high crime.
Folk Religion
The Chinese also have many popular spirits which they value. These are:
The Jade emperor, princess of colored clowns, the God of the 5th Hell. They
pray to these gods for good health, longevity and happiness. They light
candles, visit shrines, make pilgrimages, and honor these gods with many
Buddhism came from India into China about 400 AD. Merchants along the
trade routes sold Buddhist statues and amulets and the Chinese became
very interested in adopting Buddhist beliefs. Buddhism introduced
monasteries and convents, meditation, yoga, and belief in a cycle of
reincarnations until united with Nirvana, the universal soul.
What were the patterns of Chinese trade with peoples of other cultures?
It is known that trade began as early as the Shang dynasty because sea shells from
the south China coast and the Malay peninsula have been found in tombs.
The Chinese transported goods across the Silk Road in a relay trade conducted by
middlemen who bought and resold goods in a series of short stages without going
too far from home. Goods moved through the rugged Kunlun Shan and Tian Shan,
mountains and through deserts like the Takla Makan and Gobi. Merchants sold
silk lacquer ware, ironware, and spices and the Europeans sold woolen and linen
textiles, coral, pearls, statuettes, amber, glass and precious gems. Han China and
the Roman Empire were two of the most commercially active empires in the
ancient world. The Parthians in-between took a large share as middlemen in the
trade. They exported fruit, rare birds, and ostrich eggs.
The Mongols to the north of China were steppe nomads who often plundered
China. This forced the Chinese to spend a lot of money and effort protecting their
northern border. During the Han dynasty the Chinese began to pay the Mongols to
12. prevent them from invading. If the nomads invaded anyway, as was often the case,
then the Chinese would fight them. If the Chinese won, they would demand
payment from the Mongols. Thus arose a system of 2-way payments back and
forth – a kind of marketless trade across the frontier. This lasted until the 1800's
What were China's main inventions and contributions to humankind?
Silk, tea, porcelain, paper, printing processes, gunpowder, mariner's compass,
playing cards, dominoes, dice, kites, shadow puppets, wall paper, folding
umbrella, lacquerware.
Duiker, William and Spielvogel, Jackson, The Essential World History,
Wadsworth, 2008
Esler, Anthony, The Human Venture, Prentice Hall, 2005
Fairbank, John, China: Tradition and Transformation, Harvard University Press,