A Brief History Of China 

The Asian Way Of Life:  CHINA

Author: Robert Guisepi

Date:   1998 



China: The Formative Centuries


     The formative period of Chinese history - the era of the Shang and Chou

dynasties, before China was unified politically - was, like the early history

of India before its unification by the Mauryan Dynasty, a time during which

most of China's cultural tradition arose. As in India, this tradition has

lasted into the present century.




The Land


     Chinese civilization arose and developed in a vast area, one-third larger

than the United States if such dependencies as Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, and

Tibet are included. For centuries China was almost completely isolated from

the other centers of civilization by mountains, deserts, and seas. This

isolation helps explain the great originality of China's culture.


     China proper is a vast watershed drained by three river systems that rise

close together on the high Tibetan plateau and flow eastward to the Pacific.

Three mountain systems also rise in the west, diminishing in altitude as they

slope eastward between the river systems. The Yellow River (Huang Ho),

traditionally known as "China's Sorrow" because of the misery caused by its

periodic flooding, traverses the North China plain. In this area, the original

homeland of Chinese culture, the climate is like that of western Europe. The

Yangtze River and its valley forms the second river system. South of this

valley lie the subtropical lands of South China, the home of ancient cultures

that were destroyed or transformed by Chinese expansion from the north. Here

the shorter rivers and valleys converging on present-day Canton formed the

third major river system.


     This pattern of mountain ranges and river systems has, throughout China's

history, created problems of political unity. At the same time, the great

river valleys facilitated the spread of a homogeneous culture over a greater

land area than any other civilization in the world.


China's Prehistory


     The discovery of Peking man in 1927 made it evident that ancient

humanlike creatures with an early Paleolithic culture had dwelled in China.

Certain physical characteristics of Peking man are thought to be distinctive

marks of the Mongoloid branch of the human race. Skulls of modern humans (Homo

sapiens) have also been found.


     Until recently, archaeologists believed that the earliest Neolithic

farming villages (the Yang Shao culture) appeared in the Yellow River valley

about 4500 B.C. Now a series of newly discovered sites has pushed back the

Neolithic Age in China to 6500 B.C. The evidence indicates that China's

Neolithic culture, which cultivated millet and domesticated the pig,

originated independently from that in the Near East.


     The people of China's last Neolithic culture, called Lung Shan, lived in

walled towns and produced a wheel-made black pottery. Their culture spread

widely in North China. Most scholars believe that this Neolithic culture

immediately preceded the Shang period, when civilization emerged in China

about 1700 B.C. Others now believe that the Hsia Dynasty, considered - like

the Shang had been - to be purely legendary, actually existed and flourished

for some three centuries before it was conquered by the Shang.


The Shang Dynasty: China Enters History


     With the establishment of Shang rule over most of North China and the

appearance of the first written texts, China completed the transition from

Neolithic culture to civilization. Shang originally was the name of a nomadic

tribe whose vigorous leaders succeeded in establishing themselves as the

overlords of other tribal leaders in North China. The Shang capital, a walled

city to which the tribal leaders came to pay tribute, changed frequently; the

last capital was at modern Anyang.


     The Shang people developed bronze metallurgy and carried it to heights

hardly surpassed in world history. Bronze was used to cast elaborate

ceremonial and drinking vessels (the Shang leaders were notorious for their

drinking bouts) and weapons, all intricately decorated with both incised and

high-relief designs.


[See Bronze Vessel: Bronze vessels, such as this one from the early tenth

century B.C., were designed to contain water, wine, meat, or grain used during

the sacrificial rites in which the Shang and Chou prayed to the memory of

their ancestors. Animals were a major motif of ritual bronzes. Courtesy of the

Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institutuion, Washington, DC]


     The Shang people also developed a distinctive writing system employing

nearly 5000 characters, some of which are still in use today. These characters

represent individual words rather than sounds and consist of pictographs,

recognizable as pictures of observable objects, and ideographs representing



     Most Shang writing is found on thousands of "oracle bones," fragments of

animal bones and tortoise shells on which were inscribed questions put to the

gods and ancestral spirits, which were thought to continue a close

relationship with their living descendants as members of the family group. The

diviner would ask such questions as "Will the king's child be a son?" and "If

we raise an army of 3000 men to drive X away from Y, will we succeed?" The

shell or bone would then be heated and the resulting cracks would be

interpreted as an answer to the question.


     Shang China was ruled by hereditary kings who were also priests acting as

intermediaries between the people and the spirit world. Their power was not

absolute, being constantly limited by an aristocratic "Council of the Great

and Small." The oracle bones reveal that the kings often appealed to the

ancestral spirits in order to overcome the opposition of the council.


     Shang kings and nobles lived in imposing buildings, went to battle in

horse-drawn chariots resembling those of Homer's Greece, and were buried in

sumptuous tombs together with their chariots, still-living servants and war

captives. Warfare was frequent, and the chariot, a new military weapon,

facilitated the spread of Shang power through North China. The power of the

kings and nobles rested on their ownership of the land, their monopoly of

bronze metallurgy, their possession of expensive war chariots, and the kings'

religious functions.


     Unlike the common people, the kings and nobles had recorded ancestors and

belonged to a clan. They were the descendants in the male line from a common

ancestor to whom they rendered worship and who was usually a god or a hero,

but sometimes a fish, an animal, or a bird. The chief deity, called God on

High, was the ancestor of the king's own clan. There were regular animal

sacrifices and libations of a beerlike liquor were poured on the ground. The

object was to win the aid or avoid the displeasure of the spirits.


     Magic was employed to maintain the balance of nature, which was thought

to function through the interaction of two opposed but complementary forces

called yang and yin. Yang was associated with the sun and all things male,

strong, warm, and active. Yin was associated with the moon and all things

female, dark, cold, weak, and passive. In later ages, Chinese philosophers -

all male - would employ these concepts to work out the behavior pattern of

obedience and passivity that was expected of women.


     The common people were peasants who belonged to no clans and apparently

worshiped no ancestors. Their gods were the elementary spirits of nature, such

as rivers, mountains, earth, wind, rain, and heavenly bodies. Peasants were

virtual serfs, owning no land but working plots periodically assigned to them

by royal and noble landowners. They collectively cultivated the fields

retained by their lords.


     Farming methods were primitive, not having advanced beyond the Neolithic

level. Bronze was used for weapons, not tools or implements, and the peasants

continued to reap wheat and millet with stone sickles and till their allotted

fields with wooden plows.


The Chou Dynasty: The Feudal Age


     Around 1122 B.C., the leader of the Chou tribe overthrew the Shang ruler,

who, it was claimed, had failed to rule fairly and benevolently. The Chou

leader announced that Heaven (Tien) had given him a mandate to replace the

Shang. This was more than a rationalization of the seizure of power. It

introduced a new aspect of Chinese thought: the cosmos is ruled by an

impersonal and all-powerful Heaven, which sits in judgment over the human

ruler, who is the intermediary between Heaven's commands and human fate.


     The Chou was a western frontier tribe that had maintained its martial

spirit and fighting ability. Its conquest of the Shang can be compared with

Macedonia's unification of Greece. The other Chinese tribes switched their

loyalty to the Chou leader, who went on to establish a dynasty that lasted for

more than 800 years (1122-256 B.C.), the longest in Chinese history.


     Comprising most of North China, the large Chou domain made the

establishment of a unified state impossible. Consequently, the Chou kings set

up a feudal system of government by delegating local authority to relatives

and noble magnates. These vassal lords, whose power was hereditary, recognized

the over-lordship of the Chou kings and supplied them with military aid.


     The early Chou kings were vigorous leaders who were able to retain the

allegiance of their vassals (when necessary, by their superior military power)

and fend off attacks from barbarians on the frontiers. In time, however, weak

kings succeeded to the throne, and the power and independence of their vassals

increased. By the eighth century B.C., the vassals no longer went to the Chou

capital for investiture by the Son of Heaven, as the Chou king called himself.


     The remnants of Chou royal power disappeared completely in 771 B.C., when

an alliance of dissident vassals and barbarians destroyed the capital and

killed the king. Part of the royal family managed to escape eastward to

Lo-yang, however, where the dynasty survived for another five centuries doing

little more than performing state religious rituals as the Son of Heaven.

Seven of the stronger feudal princes gradually conquered their weaker

neighbors. In the process they assumed the title wang ("king"), formerly used

only by the Chou ruler, and began to extinguish the feudal rights of their own

vassals and establish centralized administrations. Warfare among these

emerging centralized states was incessant, particularly during the two

centuries known as the Period of Warring States (c. 450-221 B.C.). By 221

B.C., the ruler of the Ch'in, the most advanced of the seven warring states,

had conquered all his rivals and established a unified empire with himself as

absolute ruler.


Chou Economy And Society


     Despite its political instability, the Chou period is unrivaled by any

later period in Chinese history for its material and cultural progress. These

developments led the Chinese to distinguish between their own high

civilization and the nomadic ways of the "barbarian dogs" beyond their

frontiers. A sense of the superiority of their own civilization became a

lasting characteristic of the Chinese.


     During the sixth century B.C., iron was introduced and mass producing

cast iron objects from molds came into general use by the end of the Chou

period. (The first successful attempts at casting iron were not made in Europe

until the end of the Middle Ages.)


     The ox-drawn iron-tipped plow, together with the use of manure and the

growth of large-scale irrigation and water-control projects, led to great

population growth based on increased agricultural yields. Canals were

constructed to facilitate moving commodities over long distances. Commerce and

wealth grew rapidly, and a merchant and artisan class emerged. Brightly

colored shells, bolts of silk, and ingots of precious metals were the media of

exchange; by the end of the Chou period small round copper coins with square

holes were being minted. Chopsticks and finely lacquered objects, today

universally considered as symbols of Chinese and East Asian culture, were also

in use by the end of the period.


     Class divisions and consciousness became highly developed under Chou

feudalism and have remained until modern times. The king and the aristocracy

were sharply separated from the mass of the people on the basis of land

ownership and family descent.


     The core units of aristocratic society were the elementary family, the

extended family, and the clan, held together by patriarchal authority and

ancestor worship. Marriages were formally arranged unions between families.

Among the peasants, however, marriage took place after a woman became pregnant

following the Spring Festival at which boys and girls, beginning at age

fifteen, sang and danced naked.


     The customs of the nobles can be compared in a general way to those of

Europe's feudal nobility. Underlying the society was a complex code of

chivalry, called li, practiced in both war and peace. It symbolized the ideal

of the noble warrior, and men devoted years to its mastery.


     The art of horseback riding, developed among the nomads of central Asia,

greatly influenced late Chou China. In response to the threat of mounted

nomads, rulers of the Warring States period began constructing defensive

walls, later joined together to become the Great Wall of China. Inside China

itself, chariots were largely replaced by swifter and more mobile cavalry

troops wearing tunics and trousers adopted from the nomads.


     The peasant masses, still attached serflike to their villages, worked as

tenants of noble land-holders, paying one tenth of their crop as rent. Despite

increased agricultural production, resulting from large-scale irrigation and

the ox-drawn iron-tipped plow, the peasants had difficulty eking out an

existence. Many were forced into debt slavery. A major problem in the Chinese

economy, evident by late Chou times, has been that the majority of farmers

have worked fields so small that they could not produce a crop surplus to tide

them over periods of scarcity.


The Rise Of Philosophical Schools


     By the fifth century B.C., the increasing warfare among the feudal lords

and Warring States had destroyed the stability that had characterized Chinese

society under the Shang and early Chou dynasties. Educated Chinese had become

aware of the great disparity between the traditions inherited from their

ancestors and the conditions in which they themselves lived. The result was

the birth of a social consciousness that focused on the study of humanity and

the problems of society. Some scholars have noted the parallel between the

flourishing intellectual life of China in the fifth century B.C. and Greek

philosophy and Indian religious thought at the same time. It has been

suggested that these three great centers of world civilization stimulated and

influenced each other. However, little or no historical evidence exists to

support such an assertion. The birth of social consciousness in China,

isolated from the other centers of civilization, can best be understood in

terms of internal developments rather than external influences.


Confucianism: Rational Humanism


     The first, most famous, and certainly most influential Chinese

philosopher and teacher was K'ung-fu-tzu ("Master K'ung, the Sage," 551-479

B.C.), known in the West as Confucius after Jesuit missionaries to China in

the seventeenth century latinized his name.


     Later Confucianists attributed to the master the role of composing or

editing the Five Confucian Classics (two books of history and one book each on

poetry, divination, and ceremonies), which were in large part a product of the

early Chou period. But the only work that can be accurately attributed to

Confucius is the Analects ("Selected Sayings"), a collection of his responses

to his disciples' questions.


     Confucius, who belonged to the lower aristocracy, was more or less a

contemporary of the Buddha in India, Zoroaster in Persia, and the early

philosophers of Greece. Like the Buddha and Zoroaster, Confucius lived in a

troubled time - an age of political and social turmoil - and his prime

concern, like theirs, was the improvement of society. To achieve this goal,

Confucius did not look to the gods and spirits for assistance; he accepted the

existence of Heaven (T'ien) and spirits, but he insisted it was more important

"to know the essential duties of man living in a society of men." "We don't

know yet how to serve men," he said, "how can we know about serving the

spirits?" And, "We don't yet know about life, how can we know about death?" He

advised a ruler to "respect the ghosts and spirits but keep them at a

distance" and "devote yourself to the proper demands of the people."


     Confucius believed that the improvement of society was the responsibility

of the ruler and that the quality of government depended on the ruler's moral

character: "The way (Tao) of learning to be great consists in shining with the

illustrious power of moral personality, in making a new people, in abiding in

the highest goodness." Confucius' definition of the Way as "moral personality"

and "the highest goodness" was in decided contrast to the old premoral Way in

which gods and spirits, propitiated by offerings and ritual, regulated human

life for good or ill. Above all, Confucius' new Way meant a concern for the

rights of others, the adherence to a Golden Rule:


     Tzu-king [a disciple] asked saying, "Is there any single saying

     that one can act upon all day and every day?" The Master said,

     "Perhaps the saying about consideration: 'Never do to others what

     you would not like them to do to you.'" ^4


[Footnote 4: Quoted in Jack Finegan, The Archeology of World Religions

(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952), p. 351]


     Although Confucius called himself "a transmitter and not a creator," his

redefinition of Tao was a radical innovation. He was, in effect, putting new

wine into old bottles. He did the same thing with two other key terms, li and

chun-tzu. Li, meaning "honorable behavior," was the chivalric code of the

constantly fighting chun-tzu, the hereditary feudal "noblemen" of the Chou

period. As refined and reinterpreted by Confucius, li came to embody such

ethical virtues as righteousness and love for one's fellow humans. The

chun-tzu, under the influence of the new definition of li, became "noble men,"

or "gentlemen," whose social origins were not important. As Confucius said,

"The noble man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what is

profitable." Confucius' teachings have had a greater and longer-lasting

influence on China, and much of East Asia, than those of any other



Taoism: Intuitive Mysticism


     A second philosophical reaction to the troubled life of the late Chou

period was the teaching of Lao-tzu ("Old Master"), a semi-legendary figure who

was believed to have been a contemporary of Confucius. As with Confucius, the

key term in Lao-tzu's teaching is Tao, from which his philosophy derives its

name. But while Confucius defined Tao as a rational standard of ethics in

human affairs, Lao-tzu gave it a metaphysical meaning - the course of nature,

the natural and inevitable order of the universe.


     The goal of Taoism, like Confucianism, is a happy life. Lao-tzu believed

that this goal could be achieved by living a life in conformity with nature,

retiring from the chaos and evils of contemporary Warring States society and

shunning human institutions and opinions as unnatural and artificial "outside

things." Thus at the heart of Taoist thought is the concept of wu-wei, or

"nonaction" - a manner of living which, like nature itself, is nonassertive

and spontaneous. Lao-tzu pointed out that in nature all things work silently;

they fulfill their function and, after they reach their bloom, they return to

their origins. Unlike Confucius' ideal gentleman, who is constantly involved

in society in order to better it, Lao-tzu's sage is a private person, an

egocentric individualist.


     Taoism is a revolt not only against society but also against the

intellect's limitations. Intuition, not reason, is the source of true

knowledge; and books, Taoists said, are "the dregs and refuse of the

ancients." One of the most famous Taoist philosophers, Chuang-tzu (fourth

century B.C.), who made fun of Confucians as tiresome busy-bodies, even

questioned the reality of the world of the senses. He said that he once

dreamed that he was a butterfly, "flying about enjoying itself." When he

awakened he was confused: "I do not know whether I was Chuang-tzu dreaming

that I was a butterfly, or whether now I am a butterfly dreaming that I am



     Similar anecdotes and allegories abound in Taoist literature, as in all

mystical teachings that deal with subjects that are difficult to put into

words. (As the Taoists put it, "The one who knows does not speak, and the one

who speaks does not know.") But Taoist mysticism is more philosophical than

religious. Unlike Upanishadic philosophy or Christian mysticism, it does not

aim to extinguish the personality through the union with the Absolute or God.

Rather, its aim is to teach how one can obtain happiness in this world by

living a simple life in harmony with nature.


     Confucianism and Taoism became the two major molds that shaped Chinese

thought and civilization. Although these rival schools frequently sniped at

one another, they never became mutually exclusive outlooks on life. Taoist

intuition complemented Confucian rationalism; during the centuries to come,

Chinese were often Confucianists in their social relations and Taoists in

their private life.


     Taoism, with its individual freedom and mystical union with nature, would

in time have a deep impact on Chinese poetry and art.


Mencius' Contribution To Confucianism


     The man whose work was largely responsible for the emergence of

Confucianism as the most widely accepted philosophy in China was Mencius, or

Meng-tzu (372-289 B.C.). Born a century after the death of Confucius, Mencius

added important new dimensions to Confucian thought in two areashuman nature

and government.


     Although Confucius had only implied that human nature is good, Mencius

emphatically insisted that all people are innately good and tend to seek the

good just as water tends to run downhill. But unless people strive to preserve

and develop their innate goodness, which is the source of righteous conduct,

it can be corrupted by the bad practices and ideas existing in the

environment. Mencius taught that the opposite of righteous conduct is

selfishness, and he attacked the extreme individualism of the Taoists as a

form of selfishness. He held that "all men are brothers," and he would have

agreed with a later Confucian writer who summed up in one sentence the

teaching of a famous Taoist: "He would not pluck so much as a hair out of his

head for the benefit of his fellows."


     The second area in which Mencius elaborated on Confucius' teaching was

political theory. Mencius distinguished between good kings, who ruled

benevolently, and the rulers of his day (the Period of Warring States), who

governed by naked force and spread violence and disorder. Because good rulers

are guided by ethical standards, he said, they will behave benevolently toward

the people and provide for their well-being. Unlike Confucius, who did not

question the right of hereditary kings to rule, Mencius said that the people

have a right to rebel against bad rulers and even kill them if necessary,

because they have lost the Mandate of Heaven.


     As we have seen, this concept has been used by the Chou to justify their

revolt against the Shang. On that occasion, the concept had had a religious

meaning, being connected with the worship of Heaven, who supported the ruler

as the Son of Heaven. Mencius, however, secularized and humanized the Mandate

of Heaven by equating it with the people: "Heaven hears as the people hear;

Heaven sees as the people see." By redefining the concept in this way, Mencius

made the welfare of the people the ultimate standard for judging government.

Indeed, he even told rulers to their faces that the people were more important

than they were.


     Modern commentators, both Chinese and Western, have viewed Mencius'

definition of the Mandate of Heaven as an early form of democratic thought.

Mencius did believe that all people were morally equal and that the ruler

needed the consent of the people, but he was clearly the advocate of

benevolent monarchy rather than popular democracy.




     Another body of thought emerged in the fourth and third centuries B.C.

and came to be called the School of Law, or Legalism. It had no single

founder, as did Confucianism and Taoism, nor was it ever a school in the sense

of a teacher leading disciples. What it did have in common with Confucianism

and Taoism was the desire to establish stability in an age of turmoil.


     The Legalists emphasized the importance of harsh and inflexible law as

the only means of achieving an orderly and prosperous society. They believed

that human nature was basically bad and that people acted virtuously only when

forced to do so. Therefore, they argued for an elaborate system of laws

defining fixed penalties for each offense, with no exceptions for rank, class,

or circumstances. Judges were not to use their own conscience in estimating

the gravity of the crime and arbitrarily deciding on the punishment. Their

task was solely to define the crime correctly; the punishment was provided

automatically by the code of law. This procedure is still a characteristic of

Chinese law.


     Since the enforcement of law required a strong state, the immediate goal

of the Legalists was to enhance the power of the ruler at the expense of other

elements, particularly the nobility. Their ultimate goal was the creation of a

centralized state strong enough to unify all China and end the chaos of the

Warring States period. The unification of China in 221 B.C. was largely the

result of putting Legalist ideas of government into practice.


China: The First Empire


     Some 1500 years after the founding of the Shang Dynasty around 1700 B.C.,

China was unified. The first centralized Chinese empire was the proud

achievement of two dynasties, the Ch'in and the Han. The Ch'in Dynasty

collapsed soon after the death of its founder, but the Han lasted or more than

four centuries. Together the two dynasties transformed China, but the changes

were the culmination of earlier developments.


Rise Of Legalist Ch'in


     Throughout the two centuries of the Warring States period (c. 450-221

B.C.) there was the hope that a king would emerge who would unite China and

inaugurate a great new age of peace and stability. While the Confucians

believed that such a king would accomplish the task by means of his

outstanding moral virtue, the Legalists substituted overwhelming might as the

essential element of effective government. The political philosophy of the

Legalists, who liked to sum up and justify their doctrine in two words - "It

works" - triumphed, and no state became more adept at practicing that

pragmatic philosophy than the Chin.


     The Ch'in's rise to preeminence began in 352 B.C., when its ruler

selected Lord Shang, a man imbued with Legalist principles, to be chief

minister. Recognizing that the growth of Ch'in's power depended on a more

efficient and centralized bureaucratic structure than could exist under

feudalism, Lord Shang undermined the old hereditary nobility by creating a new

aristocracy based on military merit. He also introduced a universal draft

beginning at approximately age fifteen. As a result, chariot and cavalry

warfare, in which the nobility head played the leading role, was replaced in

importance by masses of peasant infantry equipped with swords and crossbows.


     Economically, Lord Shang further weakened the old landowning nobility by

abolishing the peasants' attachment to the land and granting them ownership of

the plots they tilled. Thereafter the liberated peasants paid taxes directly

to the state, thereby increasing its wealth and power. These reforms made

Ch'in the most powerful of the Warring States. It soon began to extend the

area of its political and social innovations.


Ch'in Unites China


     In the middle of the third century B.C., a hundred years after Lord

Shang, another Legalist prime minister helped the king of Ch'in prepare and

carry out the conquest of the other Warring States that ended the Chou Dynasty

in 256 B.C. and united China by 221 B.C. The king then declared himself the

"First August Supreme Ruler" (Shih Huang-ti) of China, or "First Emperor," as

his new title is usually translated. He also enlarged China - a name derived

from the word Ch'in - by conquests in the south as far as the South China Sea.


     The First Emperor gathered the old nobility - some 120,000 families,

according to tradition - near the capital, where they could be closely

watched. To further forestall rebellion, he ordered the entire civilian

population to surrender its weapons to the state. A single harsh legal code,

which replaced all local laws, was so detailed in its provisions that it was

said to have been like "a fishing net through which even the smallest fish

cannot slip out." The entire realm, which extended into South China and

Vietnam, was divided into forty-eight provinces, administrative units drawn to

obliterate traditional feudal units and to facilitate direct rule by the

emperor's centrally controlled civil and military appointees. To destroy the

source of the aristocracy's power and to permit the emperor's agents to tax

every farmer's harvest, private ownership of land by peasants, promoted a

century earlier in the state of Ch'in by Lord Shang, was decreed for all of

China. Thus the Ch'in empire reflected the emerging social forces at work in

China - the peasants freed from serfdom, the merchants eager to increase their

wealth within a larger political area, and the new military and administrative

upper class.


     The most spectacular of the First Emperor's many public works was

repairing remnants of walls built earlier by the northern Warring States and

joining them into the Great Wall, extending from the sea into Central Asia for

a distance of over 1400 miles. Constructed by forced labor, it was said that

"every stone cost a human life." The wall was both a line of defense against

the barbarians who habitually raided into China and a symbol of the

distinction between China's agricultural society and the nomadic tribes of

Central Asia. It remains today one of the greatest monuments to engineering

skill in the preindustrial age and one of the wonders of the world. It is said

to be the only man-made structure on earth that can be seen from the moon.


     The First Emperor tried to enforce intellectual conformity and make the

Ch'in Legalist system appear to be the only natural political order. He

suppressed all other schools of thought - especially the Confucians who

idealized Chou feudalism by stressing the obedience of sons to their fathers,

of nobles to the lord, and of lords to the king. To break the hold of the

past, the emperor put into effect a Legalist proposal requiring all privately

owned books reflecting past traditions to be burned and "all those who raise

their voice against the present government in the name of antiquity [to] be

beheaded together with their families."


     The First Emperor constructed a huge mound tomb for himself and, nearby,

three large pits filled with the life-sized terra cotta figures of his

imperial guard. Over half a million laborers were employed at the site. The

mausoleum has not been excavated, but the partial excavation of the pits

revealed an estimated 7000 soldiers. Strangely, each head is a personal

portrait - no two faces are alike.


     When the First Emperor died in 210 B.C. while on one of his frequent

tours of inspection, he was succeeded by an inept son who was unable to

control the rivalry among his father's chief aides. Ch'in policies had

alienated not only the intellectuals and the old nobility but also the

peasants, who were subjected to ruinous taxation and forced labor. Rebel

armies rose in every province of the empire, some led by peasants, others by

aristocrats. Anarchy followed, and by 206 B.C. the Ch'in Dynasty, which the

First Emperor had claimed would endure for "ten thousand generations," had

completely disappeared. But the Chinese Empire itself, which Ch'in created,

would last for more than 2000 years, the longest-lived political institution

in world history.


     At issue in the fighting that continued for another four years was not

only the question of succession to the throne but also the form of government.

The peasant and aristocratic leaders, first allied against Ch'in, became

engaged in a furious and ruthless civil war. The aristocrats sought to restore

the oligarchic feudalism of pre-Ch'in times. Their opponents, whose main

leader was Liu Pang, a peasant who had become a Ch'in general, desired a

centralized state. In this contest between the old order and the new, the new

was the victor.


The Han Dynasty: The Empire Consolidated


     In 202 B.C., the year that the Romans defeated the Carthaginians at the

battle of Zama, the peasant Liu Pang defeated his aristocratic rival and

established the Han Dynasty. Named after the Han River, a tributary of the

Yangtze, the new dynasty had its capital at Chang-an. It lasted for more than

400 years and is traditionally divided into two parts: the Earlier Han, from

202 B.C. to A.D. 8, and the Later Han, from A.D. 23 to A.D. 220, with its

capital at Lo-yang. In time and importance, the Han corresponded to the late

Roman Republic and early Roman Empire; ethnic Chinese still call themselves

"Men of Han."


     The empire and power sought by Liu Pang and his successors were those of

the Ch'in, but they succeeded where the Ch'in had failed because they were

tactful and gradual in their approach. Liu Pang reestablished for a time some

of the vassal kingdoms and feudal states in regions distant from the capital.

Peasant discontent was mollified by lessened demands for taxes and forced

labor. But the master stroke of the Han emperors was to enlist the support of

the Confucian intellectuals. They provided the empire with an ideology that

would last until recent times. The Chins' extreme Legalistic ideology of harsh

punishment and terror had not worked.


     The Han emperors recognized that an educated bureaucracy was necessary

for governing so vast an empire. The ban on the Confucian classics and other

Chou literature was lifted, and the way was open for a revival of the

intellectual life that had been suppressed under the Chin.


     In accord with Legalist principles, now tempered by Confucian insistence

on the ethical basis of government, the Han emperors established

administrative organs staffed by a salaried bureaucracy to rule their empire.

Talented men were chosen for government service through an examination system

based on the Confucian classics, and they were promoted by merit.


     The examinations were theoretically open to all Chinese except merchants.

(The Han inherited both the Confucian bias against trade as an unvirtuous

striving for profit and the Legalist suspicion of merchants who put their own

interests ahead of those of the state and society.) The bureaucrats were drawn

from the landlord class because wealth was needed to obtain the education

needed to pass the examinations. Consequently, the earlier division of Chinese

society between aristocrats and peasants was transformed into a division

between peasants and landowner-bureaucrats. The latter are also called

scholar-gentry, a term first used in the eighteenth century by the British.

They saw a parallel with the gentry who dominated the countryside and

administration of their own country.


Wu Ti And The Pax Sinica


     After sixty years of consolidation, the Han Empire reached its greatest

extent and development during the long reign of Wu Ti ("Martial Emperor"), who

ruled from 141 to 87 B.C. To accomplish his goal of territorial expansion, he

raised the peasants' taxes but not those of the great landowners, who remained

virtually exempt from taxation. In addition, he increased the amount of labor

and military service the peasants were forced to contribute to the state.


     The Martial Emperor justified his expansionist policies in terms of

self-defense against Mongolian nomads, the Hsiung-nu, known to the West later

as the Huns. Their attacks had caused the First Emperor to complete the Great

Wall to obstruct their raiding cavalry. To outflank the nomads in the west, Wu

Ti extended the Great Wall and annexed a large corridor extending through the

Tarim River basin of Central Asia to the Pamir Mountains close to Bactria.

This corridor has ever since remained a part of China.


     Wu Ti failed in an attempt to form an alliance with the Scythians in

Bactria, but his envoy's report of the interest shown in Chinese silks by the

peoples of the area was the beginning of a commercial exchange between China

and the West. This trade brought great profits to wealthy merchant families.


     Wu Ti also outflanked the Hsiung-nu in the east by the conquest of

southern Manchuria and northern Korea. In addition, he completed the conquest

of South China, begun by the Ch'in, and added North Vietnam to the Chinese

Empire. All the conquered lands experienced considerable Chinese emigration.

Thus at a time when the armies of the Roman Republic were laying the

foundations of the Pax Romana in the West, the Martial Emperor was

establishing a Pax Sinica ("Chinese Peace") in the East.


Han Decline


     Wu Ti's conquests led to a fiscal crisis. As costs increased, taxes

increased, and the peasants' burdens led to revolt. The end result was that

the central government had to rely more and more on local military commanders

and great landowners for control of the population, giving them great power

and prestige at its own expense. This cycle of decline after an initial period

of increasing prosperity and power has been the pattern of all Chinese

dynasties. During the Han this "dynastic cycle," as Western historians of

China call it, led to a succession of mediocre rulers after Wu Ti's death and

a temporary usur ation of the throne (A.D. 9-23), which divided the Earlier

from the Later Han.


     The usurper, Wang Mang, united Confucian humanitarianism with Legalist

practice. Like his contemporary in the West, the Roman Emperor Augustus, his

goal was the rejuvenation of society. By Wang Mang's day the number of large

tax-free estates had greatly increased while the number of tax-paying peasant

holdings had declined. This was a by product of the private landownership

that, under the Ch'in, had replaced the old communal use of the land. Rich

officials and merchants were able to acquire the lands of small

peasant-owners, who became tenants paying exorbitant rents. The conflict of

landlordship and tenancy, along with the concentration of power of great

families, became a major problem in Chinese history.


     More and more peasants fell behind in their rents and were forced to sell

themselves or their children into debt slavery. To remedy this situation and

increase the government's tax income, Wang Mang decreed that the land was the

property of the nation and should be portioned out to peasant families, who

would pay taxes on their allotments.


     Wang Mang sought to solve the long-standing problem of inflation, which

had greatly increased since Wu Ti first began debasing the coinage when he

found himself in financial difficulties, by setting maximum prices on basic

commodities. He also sought to stabilize prices by instituting "leveling" -

the government bought surplus commodities when prices fell and sold them when

scarcity caused prices to rise. (In 1938, a chance reading of Wang Mang's

"leveling" proposal inspired the "ever-normal granary" program of President

Roosevelt's New Deal. ^5)


[Footnote 5: Wm. Theodore de Bary, East Asian Civilizations: A Dialogue in

Five Stages (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 19]


     Wang Mang's remarkable reform program failed, however; officials bungled

the difficult administrative task, and the powerful landowners rebelled

against the ruler who proposed to confiscate their land. Although Wang Mang

rescinded his reforms, he was killed by the rebels in A.D. 23.


     The Later Han Dynasty never reached the heights of its predecessor.

Warlords who were members of the rich landowner class seized more and more

power, and widespread peasant rebellions (one band was led by "Mother Lu," a

woman skilled in witchcraft) sapped the state's resources. Surviving in name

only during its last thirty years, the Han Dynasty ended in A.D. 220, when the

throne was usurped by the son of a famous warlord. Three and a half centuries

of disunity and turbulence followed - the longest in China's long history and

often called China's "Middle Ages" - as it did in Europe after the fall of the

Roman Empire. But China eventually succeeded where Europe failed: in A.D. 589

China once again was united by the Sui Dynasty (see ch. 8). With minor

exceptions, it has remained united to this day.


Han Scholarship, Art And Technology


     Politically and culturally, the relation of the Han to the Chou

paralleled that of ancient Rome to Greece. Politically, the disunity of Greece

and the Chou was followed by the imperial unity and administrative genius of

the Romans and the Han. Culturally, just as the Romans owed a great debt to

the Greeks, so did the Han to the Chou. Furthermore, Greek and Chou

intellectual creativity was not matched by the Romans and the Han.


     Scholarship flourished under the Han, but it was mainly concerned with

collecting and interpreting the classics of Chinese thought produced in the

Chou period. As the basis of education for prospective bureaucrats, Wu Ti

established an imperial university in 124 B.C.; a century later it had 3000

students. The Han scholars venerated Confucius as the ideal wise man, and

Confucianism became the official philosophy of the state. Great respect for

learning, together with the system of civil service examinations based on the

Five Confucian Classics, became fundamental characteristics of Chinese



     Han scholars started another scholarly tradition with their historical

writings. Their antiquarian interest in researching the past produced a

comprehensive history of China, the Historical Records (Shih chi). This

voluminous work of 130 chapters has been highly praised, in part for its

inclusion of a vast amount of information, beginning with the legendary past,

but even more for its freedom from superstition and careful weighing of

evidence. In the Later Han, a scholar wrote the History of the (Earlier) Han,

and thereafter it was customary for each dynasty to write the official history

of its immediate predecessor. The Chinese believed that the successes and

failures of the past provided guidance for one's own time and the future. As

stated in the Historical Records, "Events of the past, if not forgotten, are

teachings about the future."


     Archaeological investigation was used as an aid to the writing of

history. One scholar anticipated modern archaeologists by more than a thousand

years in classifying human history by "ages": "stone" (Old Stone Age), "jade"

(New Stone Age), "bronze," and "the present age" when "weapons are made of

iron." ^6


[Footnote 6: Kwang-chih Chang, The Archaeology of Ancient China, 4th ed. (New

Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 5]


     Another monument to Han scholarship was the world's first dictionary,

Shuo Wen (Words Explained), produced during Wu Ti's reign. It listed the

meaning and pronunciation of more than 9000 Chinese characters.


     In contrast to Han scholarship, Han art was clearly creative. The largely

decorative art of the past, which served a religious purpose, was replaced by

a realistic pictorial art portraying ordinary life. The result was the first

great Chinese flowering of sculpture, both in relief and in the round.


     Some of the finer examples of this realistic secular art are the

sculptured models of the tall and spirited horses that Wu Ti imported from

Bactria. The Han greatly admired these proud "celestial" and "blood-sweating"

horses from the West, and their artists brilliantly captured their high



     During the Han period, China surpassed the level of technological

development in the rest of the world. Notable inventions included a primitive

seismograph capable of indicating earthquakes several hundred miles away; the

use of water power to grind grain and to operate a piston bellows for iron

smelting; the horse collar, which greatly increased the pulling power of

horses; paper made from cloth rags, which replaced cumbersome bamboo strips

and expensive silk cloth as writing material; and the humble but extremely

useful wheelbarrow. By the end of the first century B.C., the Han Chinese had

recognized sunspots and accurately determined the length of the calendar year.


Popular Taoism And Buddhism


     By the time the First Emperor united China at the end of the third

century B.C., a decadent or popular form of Taoism had emerged. Popular Taoism

was a religion of spirits and magic that provided the spiritual comfort not

found in either philosophical Taoism or Confucianism. Its goals were long life

and personal immortality. These goals were to be achieved not so much as a

reward for ethical conduct but through magical charms and spells and imbibing

an "elixir of immortality." The search for such an elixir, which was thought

to contain the vital forces of nature, led to an emphasis on diet and

ultimately to the culinary art for which the Chinese are famous.


     Popular Taoism also became a vehicle for the expression of peasant

discontent. In A.D. 184, the Yellow Turbans (one of the earliest of many such

uprisings throughout China's history) led a widespread peasant revolt inspired

by Taoist followers of a now-deified Lao-tzu. Over 300,000 rebels destroyed

much of China and greatly contributed to the anarchy that fatally weakened the

Later Han Dynasty.


     Buddhism, which appeared in China during the first century A.D., provided

another answer to the need for religious assurance. It was brought to China by

missionaries and traders through Central Asia. About A.D. 184 a Buddhist

missionary established a center for the translation of Buddhist writings into

Chinese at the Later Han capital. However, relatively few Chinese were

attracted to the religion during this period. Buddhism's great attraction of

converts and influence on Chinese culture came after the fall of the Han

Dynasty, when renewed social turmoil made its emphasis on otherworldly

salvation appealing to the great majority of Chinese.


Chinese Continuity: T'ang And Sung


     In contrast with India or medieval Europe, China achieved both political

and cultural continuity between the sixth and thirteenth centuries. Political

unity was attained briefly under the Sui dynasty (589-618), consolidated under

the T'ang (618-906), and maintained percariously in the south under the Sung

(960-1279). Despite periods of internal disruption, this political structure,

recreated from Han precedents, survived repeated invasions and civil wars. Its

stability resulted from a common written language; an ancient family

structure, guided by mature and conservative-minded matriarchs; an enduring

Confucian tradition; and a Chinese elite of hereditary nobles and

scholar-bureaucrats, who shared power while subtly contending for dominance.

Their efforts promoted a flowering of Chinese culture during the expansionary

T'ang period, when China was the largest state in the world, and during the

ensuing economic prosperity of the Sung.


Before The T'ang Dynasty


     Following the fall of the Han Empire in 220, China suffered three

centuries of disorder and division. Various nomadic peoples, mainly Huns

(Hsiung-nu) and Turks (Yueh-chih), pillaged northern China, setting up petty

states. Because these were administered mostly by Chinese, they gradually

absorbed Chinese culture. Central and southern China, escaped these intrusions

and experienced relative prosperity and an expanding population, resulting

from an influx of northern emigres and an increasingly productive rice

cultivation. The growing economy supported a series of political regimes at

Nanking, all maintaining classical traditions and the notion of a united state

under a "Son of Heaven."


     During turbulent times in the fourth century, as the old Confucian ideal

of a balanced social order appeared less realistic, Buddhism had spread

rapidly in China. Its promise of salvation, particularly to common people, its

special compassionate appeal to women, its offer to meek men of monastic

security in troubled times, and its long incubation within Chinese culture,

all ensured its popularity. Although challenged by native Taoism (which

adopted many of its ideas), scorned by some Confucian intellectuals, and

periodically persecuted by rulers jealous of its strength, Buddhism ultimately

won adherents among all of its critics, especially among the barbarian

monarchs of the north, including the Sui emperors. Most of them patronized

Buddhism by building splendid temples and generously endowing monasteries.


     The two Sui monarchs, tempered in the rough frontier wars of the north,

reconquered all of China, thus ending nearly four centuries of localized

confusion. They established an imperial military force and a land-based

militia, centralized the administration, and revived a civil service recruited

through an examination system. They also started building a canal, a

forerunner of the later famous Grand Canal, to link the rice-growing Yangtse

basin with northern China. Their unpredictable cruelty, oppression and

conscription of labor for the canal, led to a rebellion that ended the

dynasty; nevertheless, the Sui emperors deserve much credit for later T'ang



Political Developments Under The Rising T'ang Dynasty, 618-756


     During the early T'ang period to 756, China attained a new pinnacle of

glory. The first three emperors subjugated Turkish Central Asia, made Tibet a

dependency, and conquered Annam (North Vietnam). This era of growth and

grandeur was marked by the extraordinary reign of the able Empress Wu, a

concubine of the second and third emperors, who controlled the government for

twenty years after the latter's death, torturing and executing her political

opponents but also consolidating the T'ang Dynasty. In the process, she

greatly weakened the old aristocracy by favoring Buddhism and strengthening

the examination system for civil servants. Moreover, she decisively defeated

the northern Koreans, making Korea a loyal vassal state. Largely because she

was a woman and a usurper, she found little favor with some Chinese historians

and politicians, who emphasized her vices, particularly her many favorites and

lovers. Her overthrow in 712 ended an era of contention and ushered in a new

age of cultural development in the long reign of Emperior Hsuan-tsung



     T'ang rulers perfected a highly centralized government, utilizing a

complex bureaucracy organized in specialized councils, boards, and ministries,

all responsible directly to the emperor. Local government functioned under

fifteen provincial governors, aided by subordinates down to the district

level. Military commanders supervised tribute collections in semi-autonomous

conquered territories. Office-holders throughout the Empire were, by the

eighth century, usually degree-holders from government schools and

universities, who had qualified by passing the regularly scheduled

examinations. These scholar-bureaucrats were steeped in Confucian conservatism

but were more efficient than the remaining minority of aristocratic hereditary

officials. One notable T'ang institution was a nationalized land register,

designed to check the growth of large estates, guarantee land to peasants, and

relate their land tenure to both their taxes and their militia service. Until

well into the eighth century, when abuses began to show, the system worked to

merge the interests of state and people.


T'ang Economy And Society


     The T'ang economy was carefully regulated. The government maintained

monopolies on salt, liquor, and tea and used licensing in an attempt to

discourage undesirable enterprises. In operating its monopolies, it issued

receipts that circulated among merchants. These receipts were antecedents of

the paper money that came into use under the Sung. The state also built roads

and canals to facilitate commerce. Perhaps the most functional of these

projects was the magnificent Grand Canal, stretching some 650 miles between

Hangchow and Tientsin. Other typical government enterprises included post

houses and restaurants for official travelers, as well as public granaries for

insurance against famine.


     Economic productivity, both agricultural and industrial, rose steadily

during the early T'ang period. The introduction of tea and wet rice from Annam

turned the Yangtse area into a vast irrigated food bank and the economic base

for T'ang power. More food and rising population brought increasing

manufactures. Chinese techniques in the newly discovered craft of

paper-making, along with iron-casting, porcelain production, and silk

processing, improved tremendously and spread west through the Middle East.


     Foreign trade and influence increased significantly under the T'ang

emperors in a development that would continue through the Sung era. Chinese

control in Central Asia reopened the old overland silk route; but as

porcelains became the most profitable exports and could not be easily

transported by caravan, they swelled the volume of sea trade through southeast

Asia. Most of this trade left from southern ports, particularly from Canton,

where more than 100,000 aliens - Hindus, Persians, Arabs, and Malays - handled

the goods. Foreign merchants were equally visible at Ch'ang-an, the T'ang

capital and eastern terminus of the silk route.


     Although largely state-controlled and aristocratic, T'ang society was

more dynamic and flexible than those of the past. It was particularly

responsive to new foreign stimuli, which it eagerly absorbed. A strongly

pervasive Buddhism, a rising population, and steady urbanization fostered this

open-mindedness. Many city populations exceeded 100,000; four cities had more

than a million people; and one of these - the capital of Ch'ang-an - was the

largest city in the world. Commercial prosperity naturally benefitted the

merchants, but they were still considered socially inferior; merchants often

used their wealth to educate their sons for the civil service examination,

thus promoting the rising class of scholar-bureaucrats. The latter, as they

acquired land, gained status and power at the expense of the old aristocratic

families. Conditions among artisans and the expanding mass of peasants

improved somewhat, but life remained hard and sometimes unpredictably



     In the early T'ang era, women had been considered equal enough socially

to play polo with the men. By the eighth century, however, T'ang legal codes

had imposed severe punishments for wifely disobedience or infidelity to

husbands. New laws also limited womens' rights to divorce, inheritance of

property, and remarriage as widows. Women were still active in the arts and

literature but were excluded from civil examinations for public service.

Although some wielded influence and power at royal courts, many were confined

to harems, a practice without precedent in Chinese traditions and probably

borrowed from Islam in the late T'ang era. These obvious regressions were only

partially balanced by the continued high status and authority of older women

within the families.


T'ang Literature And Scholarship


     A fresh flowering of literature occurred during the early T'ang period.

It followed naturally from a dynamic society, but it was also greatly

furthered by the development of paper-making and the invention in about 600 of

block printing in China, whence the technique soon spread to Korea and Japan.

Movable type, which would later revolutionize Europe, was little used in East

Asia during this period, because all writing was done in word characters.

Still, printing helped meet a growing demand for the religious and educational

materials generated by Buddhism and the examination system.


     T'ang scholarship is best remembered for historical writing. Chinese of

this period firmly believed that lessons from the past could be guides to the

future. As an early T'ang emperor remarked, "by using a mirror of brass, you

may ... adjust your cap; by using antiquity as a mirror you may ... foresee

the rise and fall of empires." ^1 History itself came under investigation

during this era, for example in The Understanding of History, a work which

stressed the need for analysis and evaluation in the narration of events.


[Footnote 1: Quoted in H. H. Gowen and H. W. Hall, An Outline History of China

(New York, D. Appleton and Co., 1926), p. 117.]


     Writers produced works of all types, but poetry was the accepted medium,

composed and repeated by emperors, scholars, singing courtesans, and common

people in the marketplaces. T'ang poetry was marked by ironic humor, deep

sensitivity to human feeling, concern for social justice, and a

near-worshipful love of nature. Three of the most famous among some 3000

recognized poets of the era were Po Chu, Tu Fu, and Li Po. The last, perhaps

the greatest of them all, was an admitted lover of pleasure, but he could

pinpoint life's mysteries, as in the following poetic expression of Taoist



               Chuang Tzu in a dream

                    became a butterfly,

               And the butterfly became

                    Chuang Tzu at waking.

               Which was the real - the

                    butterfly or the man? ^2


[Footnote 2: The Works of Li Po, trans. by Shigeyoshi Obata (New York: E. P.

Dutton, 1950), no. 71.]


T'ang Sculpture And Painting


     The T'ang literary revival was paralleled by movements in painting and

sculpture. The plastic arts, dealing with both religious and secular subjects,

became a major medium for the first time in China. Small tomb statues depicted

both Chinese and foreign life with human realism, verve, and diversity.

Religious statuary, even in Buddhist shrines, showed a strong humanistic

emphasis, often juxtaposed with the naive sublimity of Buddhas carved in the

Gandara (Greek Hellenistic) style of northwest India. Similar themes were

developed in T'ang painting, but the traditional preoccupation with nature

prevailed in both northern and southern landscape schools. The most famous

T'ang painter was Wu Tao-tzu, whose landscapes and religious scenes were

produced at the court of the Emperor Ming Huang in the early eighth century.


T'ang Decline


     After the middle of the eighth century, T'ang China began to decline. A

warning came in 751, when Arabs reconquered the Tarim basin. Meanwhile, as the

fiscal system weakened under attack from various vested interests, military

governors took over control of outlying provinces. One of them, a former

favorite named An Lu-shan, marched on Ch'ang-an in 755. The aged Emperor

Hsuan-tsung, while fleeing the capital, was forced by his troops to approve

the execution of his favorite concubine, who had dominated his court and

weakened his dynasty. According to legend, he died of sorrow less than a month



     The rebellion was put down after seven years, but the disruption was so

extensive that the late T'ang emperors never recovered their former power.

Following a breakdown of the old land registration system, revenues declined

and peasants rebelled against rising taxes. The government alienated more

people by seizing Buddhist property and persecuting all foreign religions. At

the capital, weak emperors lost their authority to eunuchs who had originally

been only harem servants. Finally, in 907, a military commander killed all the

eunuchs and deposed the last T'ang emperor.


     Even as the T'ang dynasty was ending, it prepared the way for the Sung.

South China, under T'ang rule, had developed a strong economy that could not

be contained within the rigid T'ang system. The T'ang collapse permitted a

commercial expansion that in turn generated much of the Sung's remarkable

cultural achievement.


Political Developments During The Sung Era, 960-1279


     For nearly a half century after the fall of the T'ang dynasty, China

experienced political division, at times approaching anarchy. During the

period of the Five Dynasties in the north and the Ten Kingdoms in the south,

barbarian attacks continued to alternate with internal conflicts among

contending warlords. A military leader of the northern Chou staged a palace

coup and founded the Sung line in 960. He and his successor reunited the

country, although certain frontier provinces and the tributary areas held by

T'ang rulers were never regained.


     Although they were northerners, early Sung emperors abandoned their

military traditions in deference to the powerful landed magnates of the south,

upon whom the state depended for economic support. Instead of using officials

personally committed to the emperor, the Sung rulers relied upon the civil

service, recruited through an examination system that largely favored the

scholarly elite. Without an effective military, and plagued with internal

bureaucratic dissension, Sung ministers tried first to defend the steppe

frontiers by diplomacy. When that failed, they temporarily avoided invasion of

the empire by paying tribute in silver and silk to neighboring barbarian

kingdoms, such as the Khitan.


     In addition to external threats, Sung rulers faced serious internal

problems. A booming economy encouraged an individualism that affected all

classes. The cost of foreign tribute, in addition to losses resulting from tax

evasion by the wealthy, brought rising deficits as well as peasant unrest. To

meet this crisis, the emperor called upon an eminent statesman, Wang An-shih

(1081-1086). Wang sponsored a program which enforced state-controlled interest

rates on agricultural loans, fixed commodity prices, provided unemployment

benefits, established old age pensions, and reformed the examination system by

stressing practical rather than literary knowledge. These measures brought

some improvements but evoked fanatic opposition from scholars, bureaucrats,

and moneylenders. In the next generation, most of the reforms were rescinded.


     Sung efforts to govern a united China came to an inglorious end early in

the twelfth century. A nomadic people from Manchuria, the Jurchen, having

established the Chin dynasty in north China, soon destroyed the Khitan regime

and took the northern Sung capital in K'ai-feng. The Sung court fled in panic

to Nanking and later established a capital at Hangchow. After a decade of

indecisive war, a treaty in 1141 concluded a humiliating and uneasy peace with

the Chin. For more than another century the southern Sung state survived,

almost completely cut off by land from the north and west, but still capable

of great commercial and cultural advances.


Economic And Social Conditions During The Sung Period


     Although militarily weak, the Sung state was the economic nucleus for

most of east Asia. Its water control projects and intensive agriculture

doubled rice production within a century after 1050, while industry increased

rapidly, pouring out the finest silk, lacquer wares, and porcelains for home

and foreign markets. Sung economic advances were furthered by such technical

innovations as water clocks, paddle-boats, explosive projectile weapons,

seagoing junks, the stern-post rudder, and the mariner's compass. The

resulting rise in productivity forced commerce out of government control, at

the same time encouraging banks to depend upon paper currency. Foreign trade,

formerly dominated by aliens, was taken up by Chinese, who established

commercial colonies throughout East Asia.


     Such profound and rapid change brought tensions to Sung society. Along

with rising material affluence came urban expansion. The Chinese population

swelled from 60 to 115 million, an increase of more than twice the world

average. For all classes, life presented a unique contrast between confidence

and anxiety. Relatively safe from nomad attack behind southern water barriers,

most people were more concerned than in the past with their personal freedom,

amusement, and advancement. The new affluence also brought cruel competition

and undermined the old family values and moral obligations to the state. Such

influences, however, did little to affect the class structure. Merchants, no

matter how wealthy, could not replace the dominant scholar-bureaucrats, who

continued to prosper as landowners. Admittedly, many of these were from

middle-class families, financially able to educate their sons for the civil

service examinations.


     Social changes in the Sung era were especially difficult for women.

Rising economic growth and competition helped erode Buddhist compassion and

encouraged a revival of the Confucian doctrine of male dominance, particularly

among the elite. For some lower-class women, commercial development brought

new freedoms and opportunities to work, even conduct business, outside the

home. In contrast, upper-class Sung women were now more restricted than in the

past. Usually betrothed by their fathers, they lived in near servile status

within their husbands' families, producing children and providing social

decoration. The binding of little girls' feet, as preparation for this sterile

adult life, became common practice under the Sung, as did female infanticide,

restrictions on the remarriage of widows, and harsh legal penalties including

death for violating the accepted code of prescribed wifely conduct.


Sung Philosophy, Literature, And Art


     A rapidly changing social scene and the political debate over Wang

An-shih's reforms led to philosophical dissension during the Sung era. Most

reformers claimed that their proposals were based upon Confucian principles,

but they were nevertheless strongly opposed by the majority of Confucian

scholars, who were part of the established bureaucracy. Although Buddhist and

Taoist spokesmen supported few standard arguments in the debate, their general

opposition to government gave them many opportunities to increase the

confusion. Thus the fragile compromise between Buddhism and Confucianism,

achieved during the T'ang period, was placed under severe strain. Ultimately,

these problems were resolved by a new compromise known as Neo-Confucianism,

which was to become the intellectual foundation for Chinese thought until the

twentieth century.


     Chu Hsi (1129-1200), founder of the new philosophic school, was a

brilliant scholar and respected commentator on the Confucian classics. His

teaching sought to reconcile the mystical popular faiths of Buddhism and

Taoism with Confucian practicality. Like his near contemporary in Europe, St.

Thomas Aquinas, Chu Hsi synthesized faith and reason; but unlike Aquinas,

Chu's highest priority was disciplined reason. He believed that people are

neither naturally good nor bad, but are inclined either way by experience and

education. The universe, according to Chu, is a self-generating and

self-regulating order, to which humans may adjust rationally. Faith and

custom, however, are necessary supports for reason and proper training.


     Chu Hsi contended that self-cultivation required the extension of

knowledge, best achieved by the "investigation of things." As a consequence,

Neo-Confucianism was accompanied by significant advances in experimental and

applied sciences. Chinese doctors, during the period, introduced innoculation

against smallpox. Their education and hospital facilities far surpassed

anything in the West. In addition, there were notable achievements in

astronomy, chemistry, zoology, botany, and cartography. Sung algebra was also

the most advanced in the world.


     Sung aesthetic expression was more secular and less introspective than

during the earlier era of Buddhist influence. This encouraged versatility; as

during the later European Renaissance, the universal man - public servant,

scholar, poet, or painter - was the ideal. Ironically, the most famous Chinese

poetess, Li Ch'ing-chao (b. 1181), whose work was enthusiastically promoted by

her scholar-husband, wrote her uniquely personal verse during the southern

Sung period. Generally, however, Sung poetry did not match the growing quality

of novels and drama. Historical and philosophical works reflected the main

literary interests of the time, but the traditional love of nature was still

displayed in landscape painting, which reached a peak under the Sung. Artists

gave more attention to detail and were therefore more precisely naturalistic

than T'ang painters, although the latter were often more imaginative.


Spreading Chinese Influence Abroad


     Although not overly impressed by foreign culture, the Sung Chinese

exerted much more influence upon the outside world than did their T'ang

predecessors. Sung maritime trade affected all of East Asia, particularly the

coastal regions to the south, where Chinese merchants were emigrant culture

carriers. Sung technology exerted a long-range impact upon India, the Middle

East, and even Europe. From China, Europe acquired metal horseshoes, the

padded horse collar, and the wheelbarrow. Chinese cartographic knowledge,

along with the compass and the stern-post rudder, helped prepare Europe's age

of expansion. Later, gunpowder and movable type arrived in Europe via Asian



The Mongol Impact


     In the latter half of the thirteenth century, a rapidly rising Mongol

Empire significantly altered the course of history. East Asia, India, the

Middle East, and even Europe felt either the direct impact or indirect

shockwaves from Mongol invasions. To the Middle East, the Mongols brought

long-range disaster; India suffered but survived to produce another imperial

age a century later. China, as in the past, ultimately assimilated its

invaders without seriously interrupting the course of its development. Yet

despite such serious disruptions, the Mongol era dramatically illustrated the

importance of newly emerging civilizations in bringing peoples closer



The Role Of The Central Asian Nomads


     The Mongols were part of an old and developing tradition. Just prior to

their conquests, they had been steppe nomads, ranging widely and pitching

their black felt tents wherever they could find pasturage for their animals,

like similar peoples who had terrorized settled Eurasian populations since the

fourth century B.C.


     Mongol society on the steppe fostered a strange mixture of values,

combining the fierce ruthlessness and brutality of fighting men with a crude

democratic equality. Males, particularly the ruling Khans, held almost

unlimited authority. Polygamy was common among the warriors, although marital

fidelity was equally enforced among men and women. Wives sometimes rode and

fought beside their men, but usually confined their activities to domestic

affairs. In addition to caring for children, women milked the mares and made

all clothing. They were also responsible for many tasks required by their

nomad life, such as breaking camp, loading the ox-wagons, and driving animals

on the march. This division of labor was obviously uneven, but within its

context, women were honored and afforded a rough approximation of social



     As was true of their predecessors, the Mongols held military advantages

in their superior cavalry tactics and mobility. Their disadvantages were their

relatively few numbers, plus their dependence upon the administrative skills

of their subjects. This situation, however, changed steadily as civilization

spread on the Central Asian steppes after the sixth century. Even the Mongols

were by then quite familiar with new urban influences.


     The Turks, who had figured in Eurasian history for a thousand years

before the emergence of the Mongols, were even more aware that times were

changing. Originating in the Altai mountains, near the Orkhon River north of

Tibet, the Turks began attacking northwest China in the third century and

continued to be mentioned in Chinese annals as the Yueh-chih, a special branch

of the Hsiung-nu frontier barbarians. As some Turks began living in cities in

500, they were noted for their skills as iron workers. According to the

Chinese, Turks produced the first written language among Central Asian peoples

in the sixth century, although the earliest known Turkish records date from

two hundred years later. By that time, the Turks had produced their first

steppe empire.


     Between the sixth and eighth centuries, Turkish and Chinese regimes

competed for control of the steppes. With Chinese support, the first Turkish

empire (552-583) extended its dominion over most of Central Asia. Internal

dissension caused it to split briefly into eastern and western Khanates,

followed by Chinese conquest under the early T'ang emperors. Later, as the

T'ang regime weakened, a second Turkish empire dominated the steppes

(684-734), only likewise to succomb to internal weaknesses. Although

maintaining many old tribal institutions, these states had central

bureaucracies and appointed provincial officials, as did many petty Turkish

monarchies in border areas.


     During and after their imperial experiments, the Turks absorbed and

disseminated much of the culture of the more advanced neighboring areas.

Trade, religion, and warfare facilitated the process. Eastern Turks borrowed

early from China, adopting Buddhism and converting their western kinsmen in

distant Ferghana. After the eighth century, when the rising Caliphate brought

Islam to the steppes, the combined pressures of population increases and

Muslim fanaticism led the Turks on to complete conquests in the Middle East

and India. Such incursions, which were still occurring in the fifteenth

century, usually brought short-range disaster to occupied regions; but they

spread civilization in Central Asia.


     For more than five centuries before the Mongol conquests, this process

had been growing in intensity. Westward and to the north of the Chinese

frontiers, a series of large states, partially urbanized but still containing

large nomad populations, rose and fell. The two best known were the Uighur

Empire of the ninth century and the Tangut state which succeeded it. Both of

these regimes prospered on the overland trade with China, which continued to

grow. For all Central Asians - Turks, Uighurs, Tanguts, Tibetans, Mongols, and

a host of others - trade was one of many stimuli that turned their attention

toward the outside world in the thirteenth century.


Formation Of The Mongol Empire


     At the opening of the thirteenth century, slightly more than a million

Mongols began their whirlwind conquests and empire-building. Within less than

a century, they had subdued most populations from the Pacific to the Danube,

terrorized the rest, and established the Pax Tatarica, which permitted more

trade and travel across Eurasia than the world would see until the seventeenth

century. This was the largest empire ever known, comparable in geographic area

only with the current Soviet Union. Like all steppe empires, however, it was

extended so far beyond its native human resources that it began to weaken even

as it was being formed and extended.


     Mongol successes against such great odds resulted largely from the

leadership of a guiding genius who launched his people into history. The son

of a minor Mongol chief, he was born in 1162 and named Temujin, or "man of

iron." When Temujin's father was killed by enemies, the young warrior was

forced into a lonely exile on the steppe, where he nursed his desire for

vengeance though barely managing to survive. Using cunning, courage,

brutality, and patience, he gathered followers, persevering through tribal

wars and confederacies. Ultimately, a convocation of all the tribes in 1206

recognized him as "Genghis Khan," unquestioned leader of the Mongols.


     During the first stage of empire building, to 1241, the Mongols

concentrated on the steppe and its less developed border areas. Genghis Khan

subdued the barbarian kingdoms north of the Chinese wall, destroyed the

western Muslim states on the steppes, and occupied eastern Russia. After his

assassination in 1227, his son conquered the semibarbarian Chin state in

northern China and extended Mongol control in Russia beyond Kiev.


     In their second phase of conquest the Mongols extended their domain to

include old civilized areas. They gained dominance over eastern Tibet (1252),

Korea (1258), and Sung China (1274-1279). Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis and

conqueror of the southern Sung, also seized major areas in Burma, Annam, and

Cambodia. Meanwhile, Mongol armies in the Middle East, led by Hulagu Khan,

were toppling nearly every Muslim state in Persia, Mesopotamia, and Syria. The

Mongol tide was finally arrested by an Egyptian army in Palestine (1260), by

the failure of Kublai's naval attacks against Japan (1281) and Java (1293),

and by contention among Mongol rulers of the far-flung territories.


     Because they were so few in number, the Mongols relied upon terror to

control conquered peoples. They routinely resorted to mass torture, killing,

destruction, and resettlement of whole populations. In Baghdad, for example,

Hulagu Khan executed 800,000 men, women, and children, sparing only a few

skilled craftsmen. By destroying the irrigation system, the Mongols almost

permanently ruined Mesopotamian agriculture. Even under more benign Mongol

rule, China's population dropped from 100 million to less than 70 million

during the period.


The Mongol Political Structure


     The ultimate base of authority in the sprawling Mongol territories was a

cavalry force of 130,000. Small contingents of this superbly armed and

disciplined body were usually sufficient in areas already demoralized by

terrorism. Communications were maintained by the famous Mongol couriers and

thousands of post stations, which radiated in all directions from the imperial

capital at Karakorum. Under watchful Mongol military commanders, local rulers

or officials collected tribute, maintained routine services, and enforced

native law, unless it violated Mongol custom or the Khan's decrees.


     By the mid-thirteenth century, this military foundation was supporting a

central bureaucracy of Turkish, Tibetan, and Chinese officials, in various

ministries, such as justice, treasury, and military affairs. An examination

system provided recruits for the expanding civil service, and young Mongols

trained for the examinations at an imperial academy. Under this central

government, the empire was divided into four parts: the Grand Khanate (Central

Asia and North China), and three sub-Khanates of Asia, Persia, and Russia.


China Under The Mongols


     During the reign of Kublai Khan (1260-1294), China briefly gained new

significance in the Mongol system. Although Kublai successfully maintained his

titular authority over the sub-Khanates, he moved his capital from Karakorum

to Peking; proclaimed himself the founder of the Yuan dynasty, ruled a unified

China; and turned attention primarily to his Chinese territories. This strain

on Mongol unity led directly to imperial decline after Kublai's time.


     For most of our knowledge about China in this era, we are indebted to the

Venetian traveler Marco Polo. As a youth, he had accompanied his father and

uncle, Venetian merchants, eastward to Kublai's court, arriving there about

1275. Polo served the Khan seventeen years as a trusted administrator, before

returning home. His fabulous story, dictated to a fellow prisoner of war in

Genoa, reported the wondrous world of Cathay (China) - its canals, granaries,

social services, technology, and such strange customs as regular bathing.

Polo's contemporaries considered him to be a braggart and a colossal liar.


     Yuan China strongly resembled the picture presented under earlier

dynasties, with some exceptions. The country was governed mainly by

foreigners: Mongols at the top, other Central Asians on the next rung,

northern Chinese in lower positions, and southern Chinese almost completely

excluded from office. Kublai retained the traditional ministries and local

governmental structure. Generally, Mongol law prevailed, but the conquerors

were often influenced by Chinese legal precedents, as in the acceptance of

brutal punishments for loose women or those unfaithful to their husbands. Most

religions were tolerated unless they violated Mongol laws; for example, Muslim

rules for slaughtering animals and circumcising infants led to persecutions

under Kublai. According to Polo, the state insured against famine, kept order,

and provided care for the sick, the aged, and the orphaned. To the awed

Venetian, the Yuan state appeared fabulously wealthy, as indicated by the

Khan's 12,000 personal retainers, bedecked in silks, furs, fine feathers and

sparkling jewels. ^4


[Footnote 4: Marco Polo, Travels, (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1931), pp.

133-149, p. 30.]


     In its cultural preferences, the Yuan court reverted to Chinese

traditions. Taoism and Confucianism were subordinated at first to Buddhism but

both revived during Kublai's reign. Chinese drama remained popular although

influenced somewhat by Central Asian dance. Interest in drama encouraged the

development of classical Chinese opera, a combination of singing, dancing, and

acting, which reached maturity in the Yuan period. Some of the most

influential Chinese painters were also producing at this time, and the novel

emerged as a reflection of Chinese concerns. An example was the Romance of the

Three Kingdoms, a long and rambling tale, set in late Han times but written in

the fourteenth century.


Pax Tatarica: Relinking Of East And West


     During the century of the Mongol Peace, when much of Eurasia was unified

and pacified by Mongol armies, East and West were in closer communication than

ever before, even in Han and Roman times. Hosts of missionaries, traders, and

adventurers journeyed to and from Asia, Africa, and Europe, thus partially

preparing for the coming age of exploration.


     Even before the Polos, Christian missionaries had led the way eastward,

encouraged by hopes for Mongol conversion and alliance against the Muslims.

John of Piani Carpini, dispatched by the Council of Lyons with the pope's

blessing, visited Karakorum in 1245 but failed to convert the khan or enlist

him as a papal vassal. A few years later, a Flemish Franciscan, William of

Rubruck, met with similar results; but another Franciscan, John of Monte

Corvino, converted thousands between his arrival in Peking in 1289 and his

death in 1322. Meanwhile, Mongol religious toleration drew Near Eastern

Christians into Central Asia and Buddhists into the Middle East.


     In addition to the missionaries, swarms of other people, responding to

the Mongol interest in foreign knowledge and skills, moved continuously on the

travel routes. Between 1325 and 1354, Ibn Batuta, the famous Muslim

globetrotter from the Sudan, visited Constantinople, every Middle Eastern

Islamic state, India, Ceylon, Indonesia, and China. In Hangchow, he

encountered a man from Morocco whom he had met before in Delhi. Some travelers

went the opposite way. Rabban Sauma, a Nestorian monk from Central Asia,

traveled to Paris; and a Chinese Christian monk from Peking, while in Europe

as an envoy from the Persian khan to the pope, talked with the English and

French kings.


     Eurasian traders - Persians, Arabs, Greeks, and western Europeans - were

the most numerous and worldly wise of all travelers. They were enticed by

Mongol policies that lowered tolls in the commercial cities and provided

special protection for merchants' goods. A Florentine document published about

1340 described favorable conditions on the silk route as "perfectly safe

whether by day or night ... Whatever silver the merchants carry ... the lord

of Cathay takes from them ... and gives ... paper money ... in exchange ...

and with this money you can readily buy silk and whatever you desire to buy

and all the people of the country are bound to receive it." ^5


[Footnote 5: Quoted in G. F. Hudson, Europe and China (Boston: Beacon Press,

1931), p. 156.]


     Land trade between Europe and China, particularly in silk and spices,

increased rapidly in the fourteenth century. The main western terminals were

Nizhni Novgorod, east of Moscow, where the China caravans made contact with

merchants of the Hanseatic League; Tabriz, in northeast Persia, which served

as the eastern terminal for Constantinople; and the Syrian coastal cities,

where the caravans met Mediterranean ships, mostly from Venice.


     Expanding land trade along the old silk route did not diminish the

growing volume of sea commerce. Indeed the Mongol devastation of Middle

Eastern cities provided a quick stimulus, particularly to the spice trade,

which was redirected through the Red Sea and Egypt to Europe. Within a few

decades, however, the Egyptian monopoly drove prices up sharply, and the

European demand for cheaper spices helped revive overland trade. By now,

however, the southern sea route was thriving for other reasons. The Mongol

conquest of China had immediately opened opportunities to Japanese and Malayan

sea merchants, causing a modest commercial revolution. Later, after China

stabilized and became involved in the exchange, the volume of ocean trade

between northeast Asia and the Middle East surpassed that of Sung times.


The Mongol Legacy


     Although their conquests brought immediate - and in some cases, long-term

- havoc, Mongol control ultimately promoted stability. Their inexperience

forced the Mongols to encourage trade and borrow freely from civilized

peoples, while their commercial contacts spread knowledge of explosives,

printing, navigation, shipbuilding, and medicine to the West. In the Middle

East they furthered art, architecture, and historical writing, and to China

they brought Persian astronomy and ceramics, plus sorghum, a new food from

India. The Mongol era also saw great commercial and population growth in Japan

and Southeast Asia. Not least important was a new awareness of the wider

world, which the Mongols gave to a Europe poised for global exploration.


     This European gain, however was far outweighed by negative effects upon

Asia, best indicated by declining populations. Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan

lost about three million people before 1350, a drop of 30 percent. Significant

declines also occurred in Burma (10 percent), Korea (19 percent), and China

(30 percent). In territories formerly controlled by the Sung, the loss was

approximately 29 million, ^6 and this was accompanied by discrimination which

seriously depressed the native population. Chinese insecurities under Mongol

rule led directly to the narrow provincialism of the later Ming dynasty. For

the Middle East and most of Asia, the Mongol era produced formidable handicaps

in the upcoming period of European expansion.


[Footnote 6: Population estimates in this chapter were taken from Colin

McEvedy and Richard Jones, Atlas of World Population History (New York:

Penguin Books), p. 171.]


     While decisively affecting Eurasian history, the Mongols were incapable

of creating a lasting state. Indeed, their empire dissolved almost as fast as

it was formed, because the Mongols were divided by the diverse cultures they

absorbed. Thus Kublai's Mongols turned Buddhist, while those in the Middle

East and Russia became Muslims. In time, even the Mongol Muslims fought among

themselves. The Yuan regime declined rapidly after Kublai's death, as the

economy became more oppressive and the Mongol aristocracy weakened. A

nationalist rebellion, beginning in southern China, ultimately ended the

foreign dynasty. After the Chinese reconquered most of Mongolia and Manchuria,

many northern Mongols reverted to nomadism. Others, on the western steppes,

were absorbed into Turkish states.




     The centuries following the collapse of Rome in the West saw significant

cultural revivals in Asia. First India, then China, experienced golden ages,

when old political structures were restored and social systems revitalized, in

accordance with traditional values. The Gupta era brought a lasting synthesis

of Hindu thought, along with notable advances in painting, architecture,

literature, drama, medicine, and the physical sciences. China perfected its

administrative structure while further developing its characteristic Confucian

philosophy, poetry, landscape painting, and practical technology. Each

civilization served as a culture bank, preserving and extending knowledge when

much was being lost in the West.


     As time passed, cultural diffusion gained increasing momentum throughout

Eurasia. From both India and China, culture spread through migrations,

invasions, missionary activities, and trade to Southeast Asia, Japan, the

Asian steppes, and Europe. The result was a third wave in the civilizing

process. The first wave had washed over the Near East before 500 B.C.; the

second brought great empires in China, India, and the Mediterranean basin; the

third generated new fringe civilizations in Southeast Asia and Japan while

contributing largely to another in western Europe.


     Steppe nomads played an increasingly important role in this period of

Eurasian history. Many remained nomad warriors, attacking and pillaging the

high civilizations on their frontiers. Others adopted civilized ways -

shifting from herding to farming, living in cities as craftsmen or traders, or

becoming state administrators. This development was climaxed by the Mongols,

who greatly furthered contacts between East and West. Unfortunately for Asia,

they also fostered a turning inward, away from the outside world, particularly

in China. In doing this, the Mongol's inadvertently prepared for a modern

world dominated by the West.


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