While the river civilizations of the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia and Egypt were busy trading and warring against one another along the banks of the Hwang-Ho, Yangtze and the Hsi a united state was forged. From as early as c.1700 BCE an administration was founded which utilized writing, bureaucracy and a central government under an emperor which would last virtually unchanged until 1911 CE. It would last longer than both Ancient Egypt and the Western Roman Empire put together. Chinese history can be split into dynasties where people often start with the Xia (which may not have existed), followed by the Shang, then the Zhou, the Warring States Period and then the Qin. This post will deal mostly up to and including the Warring States but after the Qin came the Han, the Jin, a break in one central dynasty before the Tang took over, then the Song, the Yuan, the Ming, the Qing and finally a republic in 1911 (this is a major simplification).
Religion and the Mandate of Heaven
One idea that prevails through Chinese history is the idea of the Mandate of Heaven or tianming. Like the divine right of kings which European monarchs would later rule by Chinese emperors would rule by the grace of heaven (tian). However, if the emperor acted unbecoming and is not sufficiently virtuous then this mandate will be removed and whoever is deemed best to rule will gain the mandate. The first emperor of the Zhou dynasty, Zhou Wu, would establish the Mandate of Heaven into Chinese society. The last emperor of the Shang dynasty, Di Xin, was said to have built a extravagant pleasure garden for his favorite concubine at the expense of the people and had his uncle's heart plucked out which had lost him the mandate. Zhou scripts would later say that the Shang managed to overthrow the Xia because the Xia emperors took part in large orgies which caused them to be stripped of the mandate. We know this is not true as the Xia were largely fictional, only during the reign of the Zhou do these accounts appear and also the Xia from sources had no concept of tian. The Mandate of Heaven shows us though the importance of religion in ancient Chinese society. The emperor ruled by the bequest of tian but equally the emperor was expected to live and rule virtuously.
Chinese script is thought to have developed due to this link between religion and administration during the Shang dynasty. Oracles engraved lines on turtle shells or the shoulder bones on animals before heating them with a bronze pin. This would create cracks on the reverse side which the emperor would then consult. 5000 signs are known although not all of them can be read. What is important to note however is that each sign was monosyllabic and to structure a sentence they were placed in word order instead of inflection. Already the Shang managed to craft the earliest form of Chinese writing which would undergo refinement over the next thousand years. While the languages of the Harappan civilization, Babylon and Egypt would be lost for thousands of years the language of the Shang would live on.
Shang to Zhou to Warring States
|Shang dynasty wine vessel: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/shzh/hd_shzh.htm|
The Shang rose around 1600 BCE around the Yellow River from several archaeological sites including Zhengzhou, Shangcheng and Eligang. Like many Bronze Age societies most of what we know is unfortunately best estimations and heavily weighted towards the elites. Luckily through an efficient bureaucracy in the form of oracles we have a chronology of the Shang Emperors and later records would help paint a clearer picture. The Records of the Grand Historian would claim that during the first half of the Shang's rule the capital moved six times before settling in Yin around 1350 BCE. We know the Shang installed the Zhou family as Western Protectors and as the rule of the last Shang emperor grew more despotic Zhou Wu started a war. At the Battle of Muye, around 1046 BCE, the Zhou beat the Shang which caused the last Shang emperor to flee to his burning palace and commit suicide. The Zhou would be China's longest lasting dynasty surviving from 1046 until 256 BCE. The Zhou would start a system of expansion across the Yangtze river as well as implement a feudal system based on a system of Five Peers (duke, marquis, count, viscount and baron) with agriculture being a serf based system. This system would last for many centuries to come. Around the 8th century the decentralization of the Zhou government would turn out to be it's downfall as local leaders started to claim kingship on top of the kingdom being invaded by people from the northwest, the Qin. This is often referred to as the Spring and Autumn Period and would precipitate the Warring States Period (476-221 BCE). Here several major dynasties would war between one another about who should hold hegemony over China. There would still be a Zhou emperor until 256 BCE but the dynasty had lost all of the power it once had.
Confucianism and Taoism
Confucius is one of the best known philosophers of all time and he came about during the Warring States Period. He came from a shih family and was of the lesser nobility; most likely he acted as a minor official or minister of state. Confucius had several ideas about how the state should be ran and sought the various warring leaders to see if any of them would adopt his ideas; none did so he turned to meditation and teaching. His ideas were a reforming conservatism (words of Dr John Roberts) where he aimed to show his pupils the truth of the ancient ways (Tao), to find wisdom in the Sage Emperors (several mythological rulers that supposedly predated the Xia in northern China), emphasizing the value of good form and supporting five relations which bring order- for Confucius the greatest of these relations was that between the father and son. (A theme throughout history is how women were marginalized. The mother/daughter, father/daughter and mother/son relationship was never mentioned by Confucius). The son had to respect the father while the father had to act respectively to achieve moral superiority (junzi/ chun-tzu). Although the Warring State leaders ignored Confucius his pupils would enter the civil service and implement his teachings. The teachings would become the bedrock of Chinese administration up to and including today, so much so that the writings of Confucius, such as the Thirteen Classics, are now venerated.
A possible contemporary of Confucius was Laozi who was so influential that the Tang dynasty later claimed to be descended from him. Unlike Confucius we know very little about Laozi, we do not even know when he supposed to have lived, but his teachings we know much about. Like Confucius he taught about Tao but ran contrary to Confucianism. Instead of seeking the wisdom of the past and striving for moral superiority Laozi taught political quietism, that you must accept the good and bad parts of yourself, to be patient and gentle and that life is a cycle. These ideas expressed themselves in the form of Taoism, also called Daoism, and remains one of the main aspects of Chinese history. Many people today consult the I Ching to help guide their lives. Confucianism, Taoism and later Buddhism would form the 'three teachings' which shaped Chinese culture.
Reunification under the Qin and after
In 221 BCE Qin Shi Huang would conquer the warring states and reunify China. However keeping together a state which had been warring for many years meant that he had to rule through a mixture of decentralization and an iron fist. To forestall any criticism of his regime in 213 BCE he had all books destroyed, he didn't want his regime to be compared to past ones, and anyone who mentioned the old sources were publicly executed and their families wiped out. Only books on the Qin's history, divination and agriculture survived the purge. He had 460 scholars who spoke out against him buried alive and people found having illegal sources had their faces tattooed before being forced into hard labor on his wall. This wall would be finished under the Ming centuries later and is known world wide as being the Great Wall of China. As old age set in and three failed assassination attempts on him Qin sought an elixir of life. In 211 BCE he drank a concoction and died of mercury poisoning. His chief eunuch, Zhao Gao, and his prime minister, Li Si, maneuvered a pliable son onto the throne. Things spiraled out of control, including Zhao Gao getting the emperor to kill himself only to be executed by the new emperor, and Liu Bang of the Han dynasty took power in 202 BCE. Liu Bang would be venerated by scholars as he stopped the book burnings, reduced taxes, emphasized Confucianism and ruled less despotically. They said that the Mandate of Heaven had passed to Liu Bang and as Emperor Gaozu experienced a golden age.
Thank you for reading. The sources I have used are as follows:
-The Human Past edited by Chris Scarre
-The New Penguin History of the World by John Roberts
-One Bloody Thing After Another by Jacob Field
Next World History will be set in India around this time period about India, Jainism and Buddhism. Although the Qin dynasty was short lived it did have some lasting impacts (the word China derives from Qin) and one is pictured below which I shall leave you with.