To paraphrase the words of author Douglas Adams, “China is old. Really old. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly old it is.” The Middle Kingdom, as any local will proudly tell you, has a history stretching back more than 5,000 years (more like 3,500 if you only count the stuff that’s not completely shrouded in legend and has a verifiable historical record, but still). Indeed, China can claim to have the oldest surviving cultural tradition of any society on earth and the pull of history is felt more strongly in China than almost any other country in the world. But despite (or perhaps because of) its rich complexity and fascinating depth, Chinese history tends to get neglected in American school curricula in favor of more Western-centric lesson plans. Students may be familiar with the standard factoids about China’s four great inventions and may be able to rattle off the name of a dynasty or two, but in general, the grasp that many Westerners have on Chinese history is sketchy at best. The purpose of this series of articles is to give a very, very brief overview of thousands of years of China’s history on a dynasty-by-dynasty basis and to give the reader an appreciation for the historical roots of this ancient culture.
The origins of what we would today call Chinese civilization have their beginnings on the banks of Yellow River in about 3000 BC. During the late Neolithic Period, a series of settlements which later archaeologists have called the Longshan Culture sprang up along North China’s fertile plains. Longshan people were skilled artisans, working extensively with jade and other stones and producing high quality black “eggshell” pottery which was often used in burial rituals and for other ceremonial purposes. Basic agriculture was also practiced during the Longshan period. Several different types of crops were cultivated with specialized tools and evidence suggests that goats, pigs, and dogs had already been domesticated in North China. During this stage of civilization development, small, self-contained villages predominated with no Longshan culture site having more than 5,000 or so inhabitants. By the end of the 3rd millennium BC, Longshan Culture had entered a period of decline, possibly brought on by changing climatic conditions and soon ceased to exist.
By the early second millennium, a new cultural force had emerged from the remnants of Longshan Culture. The Erlitou Culture, as this successor polity was known, showed signs of cultural continuity with Longshan, but saw several important developments which increased the size, power, and social sophistication of the civilization of the North China Plain. For instance, the advent of bronze tools allowed for increased agricultural yields and more pronounced social stratification. Additionally, the capital of the Erlitou Culture was many times larger than any previous settlement in the region boasting a population of more than 20,000 and featured evidence of conscious city planning such as a grid of streets and a prominently positioned palace indicating the power and wealth of the city’s rulers. During the Erlitou period, cultural development such as bronze art saw significant advancement and archaeological evidence suggests that bronze workshops my have been established and controlled by Erlitou’s ruling elite for official purposes. For all these reasons, many archaeologists have marked as the Erlitou period as the historical moment when Chinese culture was born. Likewise, many experts (especially those within China) have associated Erlitou with the semi-mythical Xia dynasty described in later accounts, but because writing had not yet been developed in the Erlitou period, we do not know what the city’s inhabitants called themselves and the Erlitou-Xia link remains contentious.
By about 1600 BC, the Shang had succeeded the Erlitou culture as the dominant power in the Yellow River Valley. The Shang are also the first historical Chinese dynasty supported by clear archaeological evidence, with many aspects of later records having been corroborated by material findings at Shang-era archaeological sites. Continuing in the centralizing and expansionist tradition of Erlitou, expanding their reach throughout central China as far south as the Yangzi river and as far east as the coast of today’s Shandong province. The growth of the state was undoubtedly aided by the major innovation of the Shang-era: Chinese writing. The advent of the written word allowed the elites of the Shang state to keep records, transmit orders over long distances, and allocate resources more efficiently than ever before. Writing also helped to solidify early China’s religious and cultural traditions by establishing a supposed direct line of communication between Shang kings and their gods. Today, much of our knowledge about the Shang dynasty comes from “oracle bones”, turtle shells and animal scapulae which were inscribed with characters and heated to produce cracks which were then interpreted by priests. The writing used in this method of divination forms the earliest basis of the characters that are still in use in China today and which form one of the pillars of Chinese civilization.
By the end of the 2nd millennium BC, the power of the Shang was challenged militarily by a group of rival clans collectively known as the Zhou. This conflicted ended with the defeat and displacement of the final king of Shang by king Wu of Zhou. To legitimize his power, King Wu and his allies developed what would eventually become one of the most important concepts in Chinese political philosophy: the Mandate of Heaven. The doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven states that while a ruler is just and capable, he will enjoy supernatural favor in the form of good harvests and general peace across their realm. By contrast, unjust or incompetent rulers run the risk of having their heavenly mandate revoked, clearing the way for a more morally upright group to take control of the state. Over the course of China’s history, the Mandate of Heaven was invoked again and again to justify the seizure of power from the existing order and the establishment of a new dynasty. Under the Zhou, a system of feudalism emerged reminiscent of the European middle ages. Serfs were bound to land owned by various nobles, all of whom were ultimately accountable to the king and social stratification become more pronounced than in previous eras. In terms of technology, metallurgy became more advanced and iron began to replace bronze for use in tools and weapons. The late Zhou period also saw the birth of new philosophies and morality systems including Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism, all of which would have a major impact on China’s intellectual development. By about 500 BC, the authority of the Zhou kings had declined substantially, and regional lords began ruling autonomously and competing for power. This long period of civil conflict is known as the Warring States Period and signaled the beginning of the end for the Zhou dynasty.
From the chaos of the Warring States Period, the western state of Qin emerged as the last man standing, displacing the Zhou as China’s ruling dynasty in 221 BC. Under the leadership of the brilliant but ruthless warlord Qin Shi Huang and employing a draconian social order inspired by Legalist philosophy, the Qin dominated six rival states with overwhelming military force and incorporated them into China’s first empire. Qin Shi Huang’s rule was defined by his boundless ambition and megalomania. During he his reign, he undertook a campaign of standardization, bringing uniformity to China’s script, currency, measurements, and even the length between the wheels of carts. Qin Shi Huang also oversaw the construction of the first iteration of the Great Wall of China and the Grand Canal. Later Confucian historians would also make Qin Shi Huang out to be a tyrannical ruler who tolerated no dissent who imposed brutal punishments on his subjects, including burying his enemies alive, though modern historians have doubts about this possibly biased Confucian account. In his later years, Qin Shi Huang became obsessed with his own mortality and employed alchemists and explorers to help him discover the elixir of life. In an ironic twist of fate, the emperor died after ingesting a mercury pill purported to grant him immortality. Prior to his death, the emperor had ordered the construction of a colossal funerary complex furnished with everything he would need for the afterlife including thousands of life-sized solider statues to serve as his personal bodyguard. Today, these famous Terra Cotta warriors can still be seen in Xi’an. Although Qin Shi Huang’s son succeeded him to the throne after his death, the dynasty soon collapsed into another round of civil conflict and factional infighting. The Qin dynasty had ended more than 800 years of Zhou dynasty rule only to be meet its own downfall a mere 15 years later. However, the mark that Qin Shi Huang left on China was profound and indelible. For both his grand vision and his absolute authority, Qin Shi Huang has become known to the world as China’s first emperor and it is widely believed that the English word “China” comes from Qin.
Out of the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Qin dynasty, the rebel leader Liu Bang emerged as the dominant military and political leader in China after subjugating rival warlords. With no remaining contenders to challenge his authority, Liu Bang proclaimed the foundation of the Han dynasty in 206 BC and would become known to history as Emperor Gaozu of Han. After his ascension as emperor, Gaozu worked to consolidate his power, working to diminish the autonomy of regional powerholders and conducting campaigns of only limited success against the nomadic Xiongnu people to the west. After his reign, subsequent Han emperors would take the fight to the Xiongnu and their allies, ultimately pushing them away from the Chinese heartland and establishing Han control over frontier regions to the north and west. This expansion into Central Asia put China into greater diplomatic and commercial contact with other large and sophisticated civilizations including the Parthian Empire and Bactria. While there is no evidence of direct contact between the Han dynasty and the contemporaneous Roman Empire, the two polities seem to been aware of each other and exchanges of Roman and Chinese goods were conducted through intermediaries. At the same time, Han armies pushed south into what is today Yunnan province and northern Vietnam, greatly expanding the size of China’s imperial holdings. In conjunction with its campaigns of military conquest, Han emperors expanded the scope of imperial governance, conducting China’s first census and establishing several state monopolies over commodities such as salt, liquor, and iron among others. During the Han-era, state sponsorship of Confucian philosophy cemented its status as one of the pillars of Chinese civilization and laid the groundwork for the Imperial Confucianism that pervaded Chinese political philosophy until the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911. Han dynasty China also saw developmental leaps in science, astronomy, medicine, navigation, education, and art leading to the widely held consensus that the Han dynasty was one of the golden ages of Chinese civilization and a historical period during which Chinese cultural identity solidified and propagated beyond its early borders. Indeed, the association with between the Han dynasty and Chinese identity is so strong that in today’s China the term 汉人 hànrén (Han person) refers to anybody of Chinese ethnicity. As with the dynasties that preceded it, the power of the Han empire was gradually eroded by poor governance, internal dissention, and political infighting. In the next installment of this blog series, we will begin by exploring the dramatic and much romanticized Three Kingdoms Period which followed the final collapse of the Han dynasty in 220 AD.