|Han Chinese Bronze Horse|
The last time we looked at China on World History, (see here), the Mandate of Heaven had been passed to Liu Bang who was made Emperor Gaozu and founded the Han Dynasty which would last until 220 CE. On this World History post we shall look at the Han Dynasty after Emperor Gaozou, through a period called the Six Dynasties until the rise of the short lived Sui Dynasty. Before we cover that we have to look at the Han Dynasty. The Han Dynasty was split into two main phases: early, (or Western), and later, (or Eastern), Han. Let's start with Liu Bang becoming Emperor Gaozou in 202 BCE.
Liu Bang had overthrown the very autocratic Qin, or Ch'in, Dynasty which has been viewed very negatively by Chinese historians. Largely this is because the Ch'in burnt books, and scholars, so present observers could not compare them to old dynasties. Liu Bang and the Han reversed this trend. This in turn made scholars right about Liu Bang very favorably. Some of the first eminent Chinese historians came about during the Han Dynasty using written sources which indicates that the Ch'in attempts to destroy documents was not as thorough as initially believed. Liu Bang also began a series of reforms which got the population on side, thus giving him a freer hand to deal with opposition. One of the major ones was abolishing agricultural slavery but domestic slavery was still allowed, (men who were castrated were also made into slaves). The Han Dynasty witnessed a period of central government which built on the effective bureaucracy of the Ch'in, just far less authoritarian, with a clear capital releasing laws centered around Chang'an. Despite the Han's condemnation of Ch'in authoritarianism the initial law code borrowed much from the Ch'in's law code. However, the Han were more lenient and the emperor ruled only the west directly from Chang'an with there being thirteen semi-autonomous kingdoms in the east, (Yan, Dai, Zhao, Qi, Liang, Chu, Huai, Wu, Nan and, Changsha). This helped the Han appear far less authoritarian than their predecessors.
The Han saw great expansion for China in government, technology and land. Pottery models have been found depicting a winnowing machine with a crank handle, seisometers have been found, bronze gears and, even water wheels. The Han Dynasty also saw central government directly controlling the economy. They continued to use the ban liang currency type from the Ch'in but it went through periods of privatization and nationalization. One of Liu Bang's reforms was making the coins privately minted instead of being minted by the government; something which his widow Emperess Dowager Lu Zhi reversed in 186 BCE. However, in 182 BCE she accidentally caused widespread inflation with her introduction of a lighter bronze coin. Emperor Wu in 120 BCE introduced the wuzhu coin which was eventually adopted by the Tang Dynasty centuries later as the main currency over the ban liang. During the Han Dynasty there was many wars of expansion, which as we saw with Rome was expensive, (please see here), but, unlike the Romans the Han managed to fund their wars. The Han nationalized the very profitable salt and iron industries so they could take a lot of profit from that. They also introduced heavy taxation, including the poll tax, which naturally upset many people so the Han had to introduce tax remissions or reduced taxes during poor harvests.
The Western Han period saw great military expansion. Starting with Emperor Wu-ti, ruling from 140-87 BCE, China started warring against the northern nomadic Hsuingnu, who would later attack the Romans as the Huns, and started conquering the north. Not only that but they conquered northern Korea, northern Vietnam, Hainan and, even as far east as Bactria. The Han did not skimp on defense either with the Great Wall of China seeing repairs and expansion during the Han Dynasty. Han expansion and elimination of the northern nomadic threat for some time allowed the creation of the Silk Road, (please see here), which saw the trade of Chinese silk with the Mediterranean. This proved to be such a profitable trade for the Han that they put in place the death penalty for anyone who gave out the secret of silk manufacture. There were even tentative relations opening with Rome when both empires were at their height. During the Western Han the population soared up to 57 million peoples with cities holding huge amounts of people which Europe wouldn't be able to match until the early modern period. Chang'an had a population of a quarter of a million people.
Hsin Dynasty and later Han
After a series of unpopular centralization, dynastic feuds, poor harvests and princes even murdering each other over board games in 9 CE a member of the royal family, Wang Mang, declared that the Mandate of Heaven had moved away from the Han. He declared the rise of a new dynasty called the Xia, or Hsin. To win support he started many reforms including nationalizing land to give to the poor and abolished slavery. He could have succeeded if not for a series of devastating floods which undermined his rule. The Han regained power in 23 CE, just fourteen years after Wang Mang took power, with power located in the east, hence why the later Han is also referred to as the Eastern Han. However, the Han never truly recovered the power it once had. Renewed warfare against the Hsuingnu and the Chiang of the northwest severely drained the economy. Dynastic rivalries flared up as poor harvests and high taxation alienated the population from the ruling elite. In 184 this flared up into the Yellow Turban Rebellion as laborers in the poorer north became extremely angry that southern landowners were making huge fortunes. The government was also seen as weak and, the floods and famines made it seem that the Han Dynasty no longer had the Mandate of Heaven. It took until 205 to suppress the rebellion but it would stay in Chinese memory with it becoming the opening for the Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. By 220 central power had been virtually given over to regional generals and the last Han emperor, Xian, abdicated.
|The Yellow Turban Rebellion from Romance of the Three Kingdoms|
Three Kingdoms and the Jin
With the collapse of the Han China was split into three kingdoms: the Wei in the north, the Wu in the south, and the Shu in the west. If anyone has watched or read Game of Thrones they would know that when new states emerge from a unified one during times of conflict they are instable. Just sixty years after the collapse of the Han the Three Kingdoms were gone. The three kingdoms would be beset by war, dynastic squabbles and internal discord which would be one of the bloodiest periods of Chinese history with the population dropping from 56,486,856 to 16,163,863 with the rise of the Jin. The first of the kingdoms, (a misnomer seen as an emperor ruled them), was the Shu who was conquered by the militarily powerful Wu in 263. Meanwhile, in Wei a powerful family called the Sima was trying to seize power and in 264 Sima Yan became emperor founding the Jin, or the Western Chin. He then began a series of wars against the Wu who was facing internal unrest. In 280 they succeeded and the Jin Dynasty began ruling a united China.
Jin rule started with reestablishing the Han model of agriculture helping the agricultural economy improve. With their laissez-faire and Taoism mix the economy improved but the Jin was not stable. Buddhism had become widespread and had started to challenge the traditional, semi-conservative Confucianism present in China, as well as Taoism. Making this even worse was political disruption among the ruling elite. This included a civil war from 291 until 301 called the War of the Eight Princes when a developmentally disabled emperor, Hui, inherited the throne and his mother, Empress Dowager Yang, tried to promote her Yang clan over the others. As eight princes went to war this allowed non-Chinese peoples to form their own kingdoms in China; either by invasion or rebellion. At one time there was at least sixteen kingdoms including ones ruled by the Hsiungnu, Hsienpei, Ti, Ch'iang and, Chieh. The Jin survived only in the east which was severely weakened by endemic tax evasion, constant invasions and a weak military. In the north the new non-Chinese kingdoms waged war against one another, like in 311 the Ch'ang-an was attacked by the Ti and in 316 the Hsiungnu sacked Lo-yang. Slowly the northern kingdoms were conquered by a new Wei kingdom who united the north in 386 while in the south in 420 the last Jin emperor was overthrown by the new Sung dynasty. It was followed by several weak dynasties, all overthrown by generals, which shall be covered now.
Northern and Southern Dynasties until the Tang
|North and South|
From 420 until 589 China was split into two: the Northern Hsienpei Wei dynasty and the southern Liu Song. None of the southern dynasties saw stability with each lasting between thirty to fifty years before being overthrown in a coup by a general. The Northern Wei was more secure but in 534 it split between the Northern Chi'i and Chou. The Chi'i failed to conquer the Chou but it remained far more weaker militarily, economically and smaller. In 577 the Chou finally conquered the Chi'i but the Chou dynasty was soon overthrown by a general called Yang Chien, who was partly-Chinese, who soon founded the Sui dynasty. Yang Chien wished to fully unify China and with the south weak from various coups, poor harvests and poor tax efficiency he managed to easily conquer the south. China was finally reunited. Yang's dynasty was short lived with his economy strained thanks to wars in Vietnam, expansion of the Great Wall and, war against the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo. His dynasty ended in 618 when Emperor Yang-ti was assassinated. The Tang took over forming a new dynasty which would leave China unified for another three hundred years.
Looking at China between 202 BCE and 618 CE we see a clear case for history repeating itself. When the Han started repeating the actions of the Qin with harsh taxes, increased centralization, and with dynastic arguments it sealed its own fate. What followed was a period of time similar to the Warring States period where China collapsed in on itself and the successor states forged an empire based on the military rather than administration. Looking at China we can also see why there was no resurgence of the Roman Empire, and we can see why Justinian and Charlemagne both were unable to recreate Roman power. The Sui and later Tang managed to rebuild an empire with the same administration, currency, religion, culture, and language as their subjects whereas Justinian and Charlemagne had to contend with different cultures, languages, government types, and currencies. While it could be argued that after the fall of the Western Roman Empire Europe never became united as it once was it took China just under four hundred years to reunify, although it would later splinter again. Next time on World History we will go to the Middle East to see how a religion managed to unify a region and eventually become the second largest religion today. We shall look at the origins of Islam.
Thank you for reading and these are the sources that I have used:
-The Penguin History of the World by John Roberts
-The Times Complete History of the World edited by Richard Overy
-History of the World edited by John Whitney Hall