Lecture 16: China from the Qin to the Tang, 221 BC - AD 907

We ended last time with the Qin, and I want to begin this lecture by recapping what this dynasty meant for the greater history of China. The Qin inaugurated four major themes in Chinese history that run through the tenth century, which is when today’s lecture ends. First, with them begins the long-term interest in “legalism.” Although some Chinese would try to reinstate the older feudal system, the idea of a centralized and superior state was too strong to allow a permanent return. Second, the Qin began the process expansion, as mass migration and military conquest began making China into the enormous place that it is. Third, the Qin made the bureaucracy triumphant. From the Qin onward, no one could run the state without an army of trained bureaucrats. Finally, the Qin point our attention to the relentless march of Chinese culture toward dominance. By the tenth century, even those states that were not under direct Chinese control copied Chinese management methods and borrowed from Chinese culture. The Qin mark, thus, the appearance of a Chinese Pacific world.
The Qin dynasty was short-lived due to the perception that they were mismanaging the empire. Under the Qin taxes were high and the system of legal punishment was exceedingly harsh. Rebellions appeared after 210 BC. The first major rebellion against the Qin failed, but another uprising in 206 BC that was led by a man called Xian Yu led to the Qin’s downfall. Xian Yu was a northern aristocrat whom the Qin had offended with their program of centralization. He came from a military family and was, thus, able to lead an uprising against the ruling regime. In addition, Xian Lu received crucial support from a Chinese peasant named Liu Bang. Liu Bang was from Pei in the north, where he had proclaimed himself a feudal lord and formed an army. In 206, Liu Bang took the city of Xianyang and negotiated the surrender of the last Qin emperor. In this moment Liu displayed great moderation, in that he did not sack the city. When Xian Yu arrived, however, he did sack the city, and this act cemented Liu’s burgeoning reputation for moderation. In the ensuing years, Xian and Liu had a falling out, and during the resulting civil war Liu was able to enlist the aid of feudal lords who feared Xian’s extremism. In 202 BC, Liu defeated Xian and had him executed.
By Xian’s defeat Liu had already named himself King of Han. Now, however, he was the emperor of China and he took the name of Han for his dynasty. He was also posthumously given the title of Gaozu. In spite of the apparent changes, the significance of this period lies in its continuities. The reigns of Liu, his son, and grandson represent the victory of the Qin system. The Han followed the same basic policies that the Qin had cultivated, and they continued to emphasize the centralization of power—a trend in Chinese history that ran even deeper than the Qin. Between Liu’s death in 195 BC and that of his grandson in 141 BC, China’s imperial tradition was cemented.
Liu was aided in centralizing power by his basic pragmatism. Liu inherited the Qin’s commanderies, but also accepted the submission of local feudal lords, who were then allowed to manage their own realms. Then, very slowly, Liu deposed the feudal lords and replaced them with members of his own family. Moreover, Liu also rewarded his high-ranking officials and followed with a new title hou, or marquis. This title gave these people some local control over taxation, but it also fixed within the imperial system, since the title was meaningless without the centralized state. Liu continued the process of centralization by taking over the old Qin system under which three ministers and 9 sub-ministers ran the empire. The perpetuation of the bureaucratic system also represented the final victory of Confucianism in China. A peasant, Liu was no fan of scholars, but some advisers convinced him of Confucius’ virtues. Thus, by 196 BC, Liu’s government issued an edict that made Confucian values the foundation of all bureaucratic education. Liu also secured his power by securing China’s borders. After 209, he began battling with a people in the north called the Xiongnu, before finally buying them off with money and a Chinese princess. More importantly, however, it was Liu who began China’s serious expansion southward. This trend, in particular continued under his son Wendi (180-141).
Wendi’s reign was both prosperous and troubled. Chinese agriculture reached its mature form of organization during this period, as the Chinese refined their irrigation and fertilization techniques to a high level. As a result, some peasant areas became quite wealthy through farming. Prosperity, however, had a most paradoxical result. With more wealth came higher taxes, and even landlordism, in which peasants were essentially fleeced by local strongmen. The ensuing financial difficulties were then compounded by natural disasters, which forced many peasants to flee south. It is, thus, during Wendi’s reign that the Chinese people began to colonize regions further to the south.
Wendi’s son Wudi augmented this trend by also sending armies beyond China’s borders. In 129 BC, he attacked a people called the Xiongnu, though he could not defeat them in battle and succeeded only in pushing them back. In 128 BC, he sent an expedition to Korea, which was a failure. (He tried again in 108 BC and succeeded in battle, which led to the importation of a Chinese system of commanderies in Korea.) By 111 BC, Chinese armies had entered Guangzhou in the south, keeping pace with popular migration. Wudi is also important historically, because he continued the cultivation of Confucianism. Wudi had been trained by Confucians, and he developed a system of recruitment that accelerated Confucianism’s penetration of the state. Most important was the appearance of a system of nomination in 141 BC, in which bureaucrats recommended men of great ability and high character for recruitment into the state. In 136 BC, Wudi set up government posts for scholars who wanted to study the Confucian texts. In 124 BC, he also founded an imperial academy that trained new officials. The end result was that by 112 BC China had a cadre of civil servants who ran local governments, leaving the aristocrats out in the cold.
The Han dynasty ran into trouble after Wudi’s death, since his heir was a minor. A series of usurpers fought for control over the heir, and the fights did not end until the accession of Wudi’s grandson Xuandi, who ruled from 74-49 BC. Xuandi brought a brief respite from the chaos of court intrigue, but deeper problems remained. First, the Han were beginning to have trouble collecting taxes, which left them with little money to pay for armies and to maintain their system of river dykes. In 30 BC, the neglect of the river system came back to haunt the Han, as the Yellow river burst the dykes and destroyed much of the agriculture in the area. The weakness that this displayed led, eventually, to an uprising. In 9 BC, Wang Mang ousted the Han and set up a new kingdom he called Xin. Wang reformed land holding and reintroduced the salt and iron monopolies as a way to increase imperial revenue. But even Wang’s reforms were not enough to keep him in power. The neglect of river defenses led the Yellow River not only to break through the dykes again, but this time also to shift its course to the south. You can imagine what a disaster this was for both the people lived along the river and for those who did not expect to be living along a river. The destruction was massive and led to more rebellions. One rebel leader Liu Xiu ousted Wang and restored the Han dynasty. He is known to historians as Guang Wudi.
Thus, began the Later, or Eastern Han Dynasty, which lasted from AD 25 to AD 220. This dynasty brought administrative continuity to China, as it adopted many traditional Han policies, especially the use of commanderies. The Eastern Han also continued the Han policy on imperial expansion, as the emperors attacked Vietnam, Mongolia, and reached into western territories. Nonetheless, an important change also appeared. During the reign of Mingdi (AD 57- AD 75), Guang Wudi’s son, the court eunuchs increased their power and essentially usurped control of court life. The power of the eunuchs became a central theme of Chinese history from then on. From AD 88 to AD 168, the court became increasingly factionalized, due to a succession of minors. This meant that the government was already weakened when more natural disasters struck. By AD 184, much of China was in rebellion, and after the emperor Lingdi died in AD 189, the Eastern Han dynasty was just a fiction. Officially, the fiction persisted until AD 220, when the last emperor was deposed.
With the fall of the Eastern Han, we enter another period of instability and division. From AD 220 to AD 280 three kingdoms vied for control in the north. The Kingdom of Wei was centered on the old city of Luoyang. To the southwest in modern Sichuan appeared the Shu Han, successors to the old Han state. In the south appeared the kingdom of Wu, which was only partly sinicized. In AD 263, the Wei absorbed the Shu Han and then the Wu, which led the foundation of the Western Jin. In AD 316, this unification also collapsed. What is important for our purposes is that this period of division led to the reestablishment of aristocratic power in the empire. This trend ran through the Sui and Tang periods. From the third century on an aristocracy of office holding appeared, as bureaucrats sought ways to guarantee the continued influence of their families. In 220, for example, the Wei introduced a nine-rank system, in which a state official graded each candidate for office according to his character. The rank assigned to the individual determined the point of entry into the state. Naturally, those with extensive aristocratic ties got higher ranks.
Another important trend was the return of the Xiongnu, who captured the old city of Luoyang, putting an end to Western Jin. They then claimed to have restored the Han. The Xiongnu are important, because they point our attention to a new trend, foreign dynasties. They were China’s first alien dynasty, though their dominance did not last long. They mark, however, an important moment, since Chinese history would be full of foreign dynasties. Moreover, the Xiongnu point our attention to an emerging split between the north and the south, a division that persisted for centuries, until the Sui unified China again in AD 589. This split is also important because it highlights a fundamental migratory trend. Right through the sixth century, massive numbers of Chinese migrated south, in effect depopulating the north. This made the south relatively stronger economically, but it also made it easier for foreign peoples to invade the north. I have already mentioned the Xiongnu. In AD 311, they established what is called the Earlier Zhou dynasty, which lasted until AD 320. Other peoples also arrived such as the Di and the Qiang, the latter having established a dynasty in AD 351 with its capital at Chang’an. A third major incursion came from the Toba, who were probably of Turkish origin. In AD 386, the Toba established the Northern Wei kingdom, which was based in the city of Pingcheng. The Toba are interesting because they were the first foreign dynasty to adopt Chines methods and culture after their invasion. This led to some problems later, as their kingdom split in two in AD 524. Too many Toba aristocrats resented sinicization and part of the old society split away from the increasingly Chinese one.
Now we need to look to the process of re-unification. By the mid-sixth century China was divided into four political units, the Northern Zhou, the Northern Qi, the Liang on the Yangzi, and the Chen in the south. In AD 577, the Northern Zhou attacked the Qui, absorbing them. In AD 587, they overran the Liang, and in AD 589 the Chen. The Zhou’s leader was Yang Jian, and in 589 he founded the Sui dynasty, taking the name of Wendi. Jian’s reign lasted until 604, and he set up a new capital at Chang’an. Important for us is that, once again, Han practices became the model for good government. But Yang intensified Han forms of control, taking a personal interest in oversight over local officials and even traveling to local offices to audit the work himself. He also added what were to become two enduring techniques of Chinese statecraft. First, he instituted the “law of avoidance,” which held that officials were not allowed to work in their area of origin. Second, he added the principle of rotation, which forced local bureaucrats to move around from area to area, preventing anyone from developing a local power base. Also, in an extension of earlier trends, the examination system reached its mature form, providing the state with a regular supply of servants who met certain minimum standards. Wendi then reformed the tax system, the legal code, and the military. These changes all led Wendi to look outward. In AD 612, he attacked Korea, but the invasion was a disaster. He tried twice more in 613 and 614, but each was a disaster. These defeats combined with the after effects of another flood on the Yellow river to lead to Wendi’s downfall and murder, when Li Yuan seized the throne and founded the Tang dynasty.
By AD 624, Li Yuan conquered all of China. The Tang era is seen by historians as one of China’s highpoints. In nearly every endeavor, China reached its pinnacle. Unfortunately, we can’t go into art and literature of the period, which is where some of the most startling advances were made. What we want to concentrate on here is how the Tang continued the process of centralization that had begun with the Qin. Li Yuan’s son Li Shimin, known as the emperor Taizong, made great strides in organizing the bureaucracy by setting up a system of state schools. Now the state could recruit and train its future bureaucrats directly, thus assuring that all its future employees would have a certain stamp. Taizong also continued China’s belligerent foreign policy, attacking the Eastern Turks in Central Asia in AD 657 and the Koreans, once again in AD 645. The attacks on the Turks were important for extending Chinese influence into central Asia. From this point, Chinese culture becomes dominant in the region. The attack on Korea continued an old tradition, but this time with no greater success. Taizong died in 646, before he could plan the next attack.
The period of strength that began with Taizong came to an end, however, during the eighth century, as weak rulers and court intrigues dominated the government’s attention. This weakness came to an end, briefly, under Xuanzong (712-756), but his vigorous rule broke down in a new emerging conflict between the aristocracy and the traditional bureaucracy. The aristocracy won, essentially taking over the state recruitment system. By AD 755, massive rebellions broke out again in response to mismanagement. The great rebellion of An Lushan from AD 755-63 was the final signal that the Tang were in trouble. An Lushan was a general who rose up against the government, when it looked like he was going to lose at court. He ravaged much of China, before being assassinated in AD 757. His followers were finally defeated in AD 763. This rebellion was the beginning of the end for the Tang. This was mostly because the central response to the rebellion increased the use of force, and penalties became increasingly harsh as taxes went up. This weakened the government’s fiscal position, leading to clear dynastic decline by AD 820, as young princes ruled amidst court intrigue and general mismanagement. By the 860s another wave of rebellions broke out, the most serious of which occurred in AD 874, when rebel leaders captured Chang’an. Thus, by AD 907 Tang were weak and a rebel leader named Zhu Wen deposed the Tang and set up his own Liang dynasty. China now entered another period of disorder that would only come to an end in AD 960 with the establishment of the Song dynasty.
We cannot go any further here. However, before ending, we need to consider how the Tang period changed China’s relationship to the outer world. If the Qin and Han set processes in motion that unified China, the Tang exported the political results. By AD 907 China was surrounded by states that had adopted Chinese culture and accepted tributary status within the greater Chinese world. In the south China dominated a state called Nanzhou, which was set up to be a buffer against an aggressive Tibetan kingdom. Yet even in Tibet Chinese culture flourished, as the Tibetans adopted a centralized monarchy and turned to the Chinese version of Buddhism. In the northwest the Uighur, a Turkish people were defeated and forcibly settled in the north, as means for China to control the Asian steppe. Moreover, both Korea and Japan had completely adopted Chinese culture and practices by the end of the ninth century. All these powers had an incentive to do so. Adopting Chinese culture and accepting subservient status was a way of avoiding war and of gaining access to the most advanced culture in the world. By the end of ninth century, China was the leader in almost every aspect of culture, politics, and science that one could mention. This is the point when the great Chinese sphere of influence that I described last time really took shape. From this point on the eastern Pacific was a Chinese world. That basic fact still has not changed.