by ProfDave, ©2022
(Apr. 7, 2022) — Good morning, ladies and gentlemen! I could hardly sleep last night for excitement! Today we are learning about Chinese history! China seems far away to us Westerners – and very alien, too. Sources can’t even agree on how to spell the names. But if this is going to be a world civilization’s course, China is by far the largest and one of the oldest societies we have. China is huge! Globally speaking, it must be a great place because so many of us live there!
We don’t know much about China, but we have to start somewhere. The best place to start is with Dynasties. China has been, for the most part, a centralized Empire under long term dynasties interrupted by periods of chaos and disintegration – long or short. The first four were more than 400 years each, the Sui were only 37 years, the Yuan 100, and the rest were around 300. By comparison, the USA “Washington Dynasty,” has been about 250. Some say we are due for a change. There are more than twelve, but here is the list more or less as found in most general texts.
Xia c. 2000 – 1570 BC
Shang c 1570 – 1045 BC
Zhou 1045-221 BC
Qin 221-206 BC
Han 202 BC – 221 AD
Three Kingdoms 221-581
Sui 581 – 618
Song 960 – 1279
Yuan (Mongol) 1279-1368
Qing (Manchu) 1644-1911
The first four were handled earlier. You read about the Han last week, but we will review. The later Ming and Qing will have to wait till next module. Let’s see if we can pick out some distinctive aspects and some common features of the six or seven periods between the “Common Era” and “Modern” times.
Han China, 202 BC – 221 AD, was roughly contemporary and comparable with Pax Romana – the triumph of the Republic and early Empire. Looking at it from a distance, it seems more homogeneous, but how little do we know. During these four centuries, Confucianism became the official worldview, but there was plenty of room for local deities, spirits and Daoism. Buddhism was just beginning to trickle in over the Silk Road (Duiker 157). The Confucian elite had great respect for scholars and teachers, but artisans and merchants were not allowed full rights to hold office. Society was highly patriarchal, with women being pretty much confined to domestic affairs, obedient to fathers and husbands (Han Dynasty).
Han government softened the harsh legalism of the Qin Dynasty but maintained the same three- part administration: civil, military, and censorate. The Censors watched over the behavior of the other two branches. All three were represented on the Grand Council that advised the emperor. The major innovation of the period was a form of civil service examination required for officeholders in 165 BC. From the first, the examination required thorough instruction in the Confucian classics. Office was open to merit, but to a special kind of merit, soon dependent on a special kind of education (Duiker 151-153). At its height, the Empire extended south into Vietnam and east as far as the Caspian Sea (modern Turkmenistan).
Han China was primarily agricultural. The introduction of the iron plow greatly increased food production, but a tripling of population ate most of it. The state promoted a free peasantry to maximize taxes and keep the aristocracy in check. At one point there were 60 million Chinese – more than Europeans – but as the regime disintegrated, numbers declined. There were some cities, including Chang’an, the capital, that rivaled Rome in scale and prosperity. Commerce grew, though merchandising was not socially approved. Most trade was internal, but caravans carried silk, China’s miracle fiber, to India and to Rome. China’s ships were the best in the world (Duiker 154- 156).
The reign of the emperor Wudi (141-86 BC) was particularly productive of poetry, philosophy and history. Compared with Rome, China was far in advance in the development of paper, sundials, water clocks, astronomical instruments and even a seismograph, in 132 AD (Han Dynasty).
The Dynasty of the Three Kingdoms (220-589) was a long period of disunion as a result of weak and dissolute emperors. Wang Mang staged a revolution in 9AD, attempting to found a new dynasty and enact drastic land reform, but it failed. The Eastern Han revived the Empire for a time, establishing a new capital in Luo Yang (Henan), but were overthrown by General Ts’ao in 220, leading to 400 years of disorder (Duiker 158).
For this period, during the late Roman Empire, China disintegrated into a varying number of warring states. Not only politically, but culturally China lost its unity (Hooker). Buddhism came first in the second century in translation as a form of Taoism. Some believed that Buddha was a disciple of Lao Tzu. Even Taoism was fractured by the emergence of a folk Neo-Taoism: a pantheistic moral path to salvation, with shamans, priests, and something like churches. It taught that all human acts would be rewarded or punished in the afterlife. Religion was becoming more individualistic and mystical, with a loss of the social conscience and work ethic of Confucianism.
Some restoration was brought by the Northern Wei kingdom adopting Chinese language and culture 384 to 534, but not until the half-Turkish General, Sui Wen-ti took over in 589 was unity restored. (Hooker)
The Sui Dynasty (589-618) didn’t last very long, but it reunited China. Yang Chien was actually the first Sui Emperor. He was a military servant who seized the throne of the Northern Chou in 581 and gradually conquered China. His main contribution was the re-establishment of religion. Confucianism was the official world view of the Empire, but Taoism and Buddhism were included, especially under Yang Jian.
The Great Wall was repaired – at great cost of human life – and the Grand Canal between the Yellow and the Yantze was begun. However, a series of defeats by Manchurian and Korean enemies left the door open for revolt.
The Tang (618-907) began with Gaozu, a Sui official, fighting his way to the top among a number of rebels and contenders. By 624 he controlled most of China, although resistance remained in the North throughout the dynasty. The Tang retained or revived the bureaucratic system of the Sui and Han. Civil service examinations emphasized literature and Confucian classics. The state was bankrupt, but by austerity and the use of copper coinage it survived.
The peak of Tang wealth and power was in the early 8th century – another golden age of the arts. Old forms of poetry were revived, and new ones developed. More than 2000 authors and 50,000 works have been preserved. Painters were important court figures, like Wu Daozi whose 300 wall paintings adorned temples in Luoyang and Chang’an. Horses, court ladies, and landscapes were favorite subjects. The period is also known for Buddhist influence and religious art.
Song Dynasty (960-1279), also called Sung, was established with a coup by Taizu, an inspector general. He used skillful persuasion to set up potential rivals and powerful nobles with ceremonial offices and honors, while keeping military power in his own hands. He followed Confucian principles in reestablishing sound administration as well as in his own personal life. Indeed the Song Dynasty could be considered the triumph of Confucianism.
The early, northern, or Bei Song maintained a united China while extending control into the “Ten Kingdoms” of the agriculturally rich south. There was trouble in the north, however, as the Juchen invaded and established a Jin dynasty there. The Song retreated southward and were reestablished as the Nan Song (southern Song) in 1127 by Gaozong, with his capital at Lin’an (modern Hangzhou).
The Song period was one of great achievement in many areas. Commerce developed trade guilds and paper currency. Several cities of over a million persons grew up along the waterways and the southern coast. Gunpowder came into use. Confucian classics were printed – yes printed – using methods unknown in the west. Both state and private schools were organized to prepare graduates for the civil service examinations.
The philosophers Zhu Xi put Neo-Confucianism on a coherent basis, “repossessing the Way of Confucius” in the formation of character (Song Dynasty). It seems to us that he amalgamated it with Buddhism! The world was divided between the material and the transcendent, or Supreme Ultimate. Humans lived in both worlds but should seek “essential identity” with the Ultimate by self-cultivation. Another variation was called School of the Mind that sought to transcend the material by self-understanding (Duiker298-300).
As Neo-Confucianism became more like Buddhism, Buddhism became more Chinese – hence more popular. Four different directions emerged: the mind training path, emphasizing monks and monasteries, such as the Chan (Chinese for Zen); the popular devotion path, such as the Pure Land sect for ordinary Chinese; the path of mysticism and magic, such as Tantrism; and revolutionary movements of savior Buddha’s, such as the White Lotus (Duiker 297-298).
The arts and literature were encouraged. The greatest painters and poets were at court. Tall six and eight sided pagodas with curved eaves were built of brick and wood – and many survive to this day. Pottery reached new heights of excellence. Music also flourished, and musical events occupy considerable space in literature during the period. Literature returned to classical simplicity (Song Dynasty).
Mongol or Yuan Dynasty 1279-1368. Until the 13th century, the Mongols had been horse-people scattered across the arid steppes of central Asia in extended family clans. They worshipped a sky god who ruled over lesser nature gods, like many nomadic herdsmen. During the annual migrations, tribes might elect chiefs. One of these, Timuchin (c. 1160-1227), gradually unified several tribes and was elected in 1206 as “Universal Ruler,” or Genghis Khan.
Genghis Khan, a great military innovator, assembled the most effective cavalry the world had yet seen. Consummate horsemen, the Mongols could cover vast distances at amazing speed, fight and shoot arrows at full gallop, and could be controlled on the battle field by mere hand signals. Genghis was also very effective in the use of terror. Towns that resisted were obliterated. The news spread. Wise people surrendered on sight. By Genghis death, Beijing had been taken, and by 1241 northern China (Jin or Chin dynasty) (Hooker). After a decade of uneasy coexistence, war broke out with the Nan Song Empire. It ended with a great naval battle near Guangzhou (Canton) in 1279 (Song Dynasty).
Kublai Khan (1260-94), grandson or Genghis, moved his capital to Beijing and established himself as a Chinese Emperor – the Yuan dynasty. Attempts to conquer Japan in 1274 and 1281 failed badly, but the Mongol Empire became geographically the largest in history: from Poland to Siberia, Moscow to Arabia to Vietnam. It was separated into four Khanates: the Kipchak (or Golden Horde – Russia), Ilkhanate (Persia & middle east), Chagatai (western Asia), and the Great Khanate (Mongolia & China).
The Mongols began their rule, as Hooker writes, “pretty much as bandits,” extracting as much wealth as they could without regard for long-term prosperity. But they inherited, and gradually learned to appreciate, the traditional administrative structures and theories of China. Theirs was a centralized regime, centered on the Forbidden City – a Mongol sanctuary that symbolized aloofness from Chinese culture. They never learned the Chinese language but worked through interpreters throughout the period!
The Mongols favored a Tibetan form of Buddhism, and instituted examinations on Buddhist scriptures as a qualification for military exemption. This conflicted with the dominant Ch’an (Meditation) Buddhism which emphasized masters, rather than written texts. They were forced to write their doctrines down in the Kung-an. Early Mongol skepticism towards Confucianism led to a surge of Neo-Confucian teachings. The civil service examinations of 1315 were entirely Neo-Confucian, the new state philosophy for centuries. The court of Kublai Kahn invited all sorts of religious debate, including Christian, Muslim, and Hindu, but foreign influence did not extend much beyond Mongol officialdom. His most famous visitor, and sometime courtier (1275-1291), was the Italian adventurer, Marco Polo (Hooker).
Ming Dynasty 1369-1644. After about a century of stubbornly foreign domination, a combination of peasant discontent, bad policy, and natural disaster led to the Mongol downfall. Too much paper money was printed, leading to ten-fold inflation. Agriculture was in shambles, irrigation was neglected, the Yellow River flooded, and when hundreds of thousands of peasants were conscripted to repair the damage, insurrection broke out.
The new Emperor, Hongwu, built a strong army and broke down the neo-feudal land systems which had grown up under the Yuan. Great estates were confiscated and rented out by the government to peasants. Private slavery was forbidden, and self-supporting independent peasantry was encouraged. On the other hand, private trade was banned, and smuggling became big business. Coinage was shifted from coinage to paper, for most of the silver came from Japan – legally or illegally. While Hongwu himself did not trust the Confucians, later Ming Emperors restored the Confucian scholar-gentry and the traditional administrative structure. An exception was the use of thousands of uneducated eunuchs to staff the vast imperial household. Some grew to be very powerful in influence – and not always for good.
The most important eunuch, and perhaps the most important Ming figure, was the Admiral Zheng He. Zheng conducted seven great naval expeditions, 1405-1433 – mostly under the emperor Yongle. The exact routes of his voyages are uncertain, but he cruised the coast of Africa, perhaps as far as the Cape of Good Hope, and is alleged to have discovered America in 1421. The whole affair represented the temporary triumph of commercial and religious lobbies over the Confucian elites. His first African voyage was the largest naval expedition ever assembled to that time: 28,000 men and 317 ships. Significantly, nothing came of these enormous efforts. Nothing was found that China needed, no tributary relations were established, and the Confucian civil service almost succeeded in expunging all official record! By the end of the century, imperial subjects were forbidden to build ocean-going vessels or leave the Empire! Remember this next week!
War continued with the Mongols in the north and with Japanese pirates. In 1368 the Ming undertook to modernize and reinforce – at great expense – the Great Wall to keep out northern horsemen. In the long run, it failed. The 15th century was especially marked by internal decline and court corruption. The Eunuchs are traditionally blamed, but the best of bureaucracies cannot maintain a command economy without competent direction from the top. Manchu invaders did the rest (Ming Dynasty).
Wrap up. What can we take away from these strange names and seemingly recurrent events? What are the themes of Chinese history from the Han to the Ming? First, the Chinese regard themselves as being the center of the world – and they have a right to do so. Chinese history is about the center – the Yellow and the Yangtze River valleys – and the periphery. Most of the story is in the center. Sometimes China is invaded from the north – that’s why they have built and rebuilt The Great Wall. Sometimes China pushes out to the west and to the south. China is so big and self-sufficient that, for most of history, foreign trade and cultural exchange has been relatively insignificant – by the silk road and by the sea. Their one weakness was silver coinage. China’s greatest opening came in the time of the Mongols, but the turning point came after the voyages of Zheng He, when the Ming turned inward.
Another story of center and periphery is the Chinese worldview. Confucianism stood at the center, with Daoism as the alternative and traditional gods and spirits as the background radiation under the Han. At the end of the Han period, and through the “Dynasty of the Three Kingdoms” Confucius was eclipsed by Lao Tze and Buddha. We see the worldview shift from the hard work, community interest, and “essentially rational order of the universe” of Confucianism to the essentially irrational and self-centered salvation of popular Daoism and Mahayana Buddhism (Duiker 275. See also 298-300). Then the Tang returned to classical foundations. Perhaps the Song Dynasty was the greatest age of Confucianism, as texts were published and circulated in an explosion of learning. Neo-Confucianism emerged at this time, dividing the world into material and “Supreme Ultimate” and setting the goal of human existence to transcend the material and become essentially one with the Ultimate within, by self-understanding (Duiker 299-399). The Yaun, a totally different people, ran roughshod over the Confucian establishment and experimented with other religions, yet, in the end, they meddled with the administrative system to their peril and under the Ming everything was restored in a Neo-Confucian synthesis – or was it?
Parallel to the story of Confucian philosophy and religion is the stability of the ubiquitous Chinese bureaucracy. This was periodically disrupted by Emperors who preferred Taoist or Buddhist influences, and by the intrigues of courtesans and eunuchs. Emperors and dynasties came and went, but the more or less Confucian civil service, supported by a fundamentally conservative examination system and a strong ethical tradition went on for two thousand years! To me, this explains more than anything else the remarkable length of Chinese regimes and the fundamental conservatism of Chinese society. The Chinese worldview looked backward to the classics. It saw the fundamental realities as fixed, ethical, and practical – or else intuitional, mystical, and other-worldly. Though technologically advanced, China did not seize the future but clung to the elegant past.
Duiker, William L. and Spielvogel, Jackson J. World History, 6th edn.,
Boston: Wadsworth, 2010.
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David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.