Lecture 5: China from the Ancient World to the First Empire, 2205 BC - 221 BC

This week we take leave of the Mediterranean world and shift our attention to China and the Pacific. Many of the themes that we have pursued thus far will be important in this new world. Like the civilizations in the Mediterranean, China had its own imperial traditions. It built its empire through war, commerce, and the expansion of political control. The Chinese invaded their neighbors and were invaded by them. They traded with places far and wide, sending caravans to the West and sailing ships all around the Pacific to trade in luxury goods. China was, perhaps, the first technological society, as it produced ceramics and cast-iron products that far outstripped anything produced anywhere in the world until the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, although China engaged in extensive trade, it was also built on agriculture, as were all the previous empires that we have considered. China developed widespread and intrusive systems of domination that controlled rural labor. State income was based on expropriating an agricultural surplus from the peasant world. And where its political system did not predominate, China also wielded tremendous cultural influence. For centuries Chinese was the language of literature, science, and government in the East, as other powers borrowed heavily from China to construct their own intellectual and political systems. Korea and Japan, for instance, owe a great debt to Chinese thought. So when we consider China, we should remember that if we take an eastern view, China appears even more influential in its sphere than all the previous empires we have studied were in theirs.
Before we get into the details we need to step back for a moment and consider China from a broad perspective. China covers more than 6 million square miles and has over 1 billion people. Within its borders languages from five different families are spoken, the Altaic, which includes Turkish and Mongolian languages, Sino-Tibetan, Mon-Khmer, Malayo-Polynesian, and Korean-Japanese. And then there are millions of Chinese that live outside China’s borders in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam—all there for so long that they are, in effect, just as indigenous as the ethnic groups we associate with these countries. Thus, China and the regions surrounding it were products of a constant mixing of peoples whose movements were both peaceful and warlike. Yet even this picture is not complex enough. Within the Chinese language realm itself there is also great linguistic and cultural diversity. China’s various Chinese speakers speak a variety of what we call dialects, but very often these dialects are no closer to each other than, say, French is to Italian. Moreover the cultures that come with these various languages have different origins and characteristics, as some come from mountain dwellers, others from people of the plains, still others from agricultural regions and cities. China is, therefore, a bewildering mix of peoples, languages, regions, and cultures, and now we will need to consider the complex tale that lies behind it.
We will begin with pre-historic China. The record of human activity in this area goes back anywhere between 200,000 and 500,000 years ago, as both Homo erectus and Homo sapiens lived in this region. Somewhere between 12,000 and 2,000 BC peoples of Mongoloid appearance settled in this area. These settlers produced at least three different cultures. The Quinglian’gang culture flourished along the lower Yangzi. The Yangshao culture appeared along the middle Yellow River. And the Longshan culture appeared in northern China. These societies were based largely on the cultivation of millet, though the people also kept pigs and dogs. These cultures also developed advanced pottery techniques. The most famous example of this early pottery is from the early culture of Longshan.
Pre-historic China emerges slowly from the mists of the past with the arrival of proto-historic empires around 2000 BC. I say proto-historic, because although there is archeological evidence to support what are, in effect, the great myths of China’s origins, we cannot be sure about the names and dates. Nonetheless, as we consider China’s historical origins we need to take note of a basic structure of Chinese historiography: China’s past is organized according to dynasties. This can be a problem, since constructing the past through political leaders can obscure bigger themes that reach across dynastic boundaries. Nonetheless, China’s dynasties provide convenient markers for the passage of time, and for that reason I will organize this lecture and the next one in accord with them. Chinese proto-history begins with a series of mythic kings, each of whom is said to have invented a particular skill that was important to the Chinese. At the end of the list of mythic kings comes China’s first dynasty, the Xia. Supposedly founded in 2205 BC by a man named Yu, this dynasty was based on the Yellow river. Archeological evidence indicates that a kingdom existed there between about 2200 and 1750 BC. Based on the pottery that archeologists have discovered, this society came from the Longshan culture. Its capital was Erlitou in Henan, where archeologists have found palace-like buildings, tombs, and a host of bronze vessels. This is the first sign of what will become a great Chinese art, bronze working.
We reach firmer territory with the next great dynasty, the Shang. The traditional dates for this dynasty are 1766 to 1122 BC. The Shang overlapped in time with the Xia and had a series of capitals, the most important of which were in Zhengzhou and Anyang. Archeological evidence indicates that Anyang flourished between 1300 and 1050 BC. The Zhengzhou capital had a beaten earth wall that was four miles long. Shang society was socially stratified, with rulers at the top and most of the population at the bottom. The rulers stood at the ritual and political centers of society. Responsible for making the proper sacrifices and performing the necessary ceremonies, rulers were also the administrative center of government. The rulers surrounded themselves with special officials that managed the realm and relied on a rural aristocracy for defense. The aristocracy was a warrior class whose members trained regularly to fight external enemies. This aristocracy derived its income from lands bequeathed to them by the emperor. Peasants produced mostly millet, and the aristocrats took the surplus wealth to buy their equipment, which was very expensive.
Most of our information on the Shang comes from a remarkable source, the remnants of ancient divination practices. The Shang practiced both scapulimancy and plastromancy. Scapulimancy is the use of animal shoulder blades to see the future. Plastromancy is the use of turtle shells for the same purpose. The Shang inscribed questions or statements on the bones or shells and then applied a heated bronze instrument to make the bones crack. The resulting pattern was then interpreted as a response from the divine realm. Historians have found and transcribed more than fifteen thousand of these bones, providing a remarkable picture of the concerns people had in this ancient world. There would be many more, except for a long medical practice of grinding up these bones and taking the powders as some kind of medicine. The bones were called “Dragon Bones,” and it was believed that they had great healing powers. It was not until the late nineteenth century that these bones were recognized for what they truly were. The Shang also produced a remarkable quantity of complicated bronze vessels whose quality far exceeds anything that was being produced in the Mediterranean world at the same time. There is a great argument over the origins of metallurgy, but it was probably invented independently in both the east and the west.
Early Shang religion was polytheistic. There were many deities in the world, most of whom were dead royal ancestors. Others were worldly spirits. The ancestral dead were not gods in the sense that westerners understand it, but lived in a separate divine world. The Shang believed in an afterlife, though it was not the moral realm that we have seen among peoples in the Mediterranean. The practice of divination may have been an attempt to talk to these royal spirits.
Traditionally, the Shang period ended with the rise of the third great Chinese dynasty, the Zhou. The Zhou’s reign is long and complicated, running from 1122 until 256 BC. This long period is divided into two parts that of the Western Zhou (1122 – 771 BC) and the Eastern Zhou (771-221 BC). This latter period is also divided into two parts the Spring and Autumn Period (771-481 BC) and the Warring States Period (403-221 BC). The Zhou emerged as a powerful state well before the Shang finally fell. They had migrated into an area near the Shang and adopted many of their methods. This is an important theme for much of Chinese history, as the methods of any given dynasty were always borrowed and spread to other peoples— and not always to the benefit of the ethnic Chinese. The Zhou were probably a Chinese-speaking people, but other non-Chinese peoples would often follow the same pattern.
The Zhou’s first two kings were King Wen and King Wu. King Wen died around 1043 BC and this succession was an important moment in Chinese history, since King Wu was Wen’s son. Until that moment the succession had always gone through brothers, but with Wu the principle was established that power should pass to succeeding generations. Wu’s son Zherg, a minor, succeeded Wu, in turn. This opened the door for another prince, the Duke of Zhou, who took control of the government and instituted a policy of expansion that became a model for all subsequent dynasties. Zhou used diplomacy and war to expand the Zhou’s influence across most of northern China. This process had important long-term implications for Chinese history, as the Zhou had to rely on the local nobility to manage their empire. Initially, the Zhou used kinship relations to keep the nobility under control. A good example of this control is King Yi (897-873 BC), who had a certain Duke Ai boiled to death for a perceived insult. Nonetheless, by the end of the ninth century the king’s authority had declined significantly, so that the local aristocracies set up independent states, which fragmented the Zhou’s power.
As we have seen in our previous discussions, it is an iron law of history that the fragmentation of political power always happens at exactly the same moment as hostile peoples arrive at a given empire’s borders. In 771 BC, a people called the Rong attacked the Zhou, forcing them to move their capital to a city further east called Louyang. Thus, we enter the time of the “Eastern Zhou,” whose reign is divided into “Spring” and “Autumn” periods. The move to a new capital was, of course, a sign of weakness, and many more kingdoms appeared in the absence of a strong central authority. Indeed, at one point, some 170 states existed within the former empire. This number was whittled down, during the next three centuries, until by 403 only seven states were left.
With this begins the Period of the Warring States. Here we need to take note, however, of something important: the distinction between the two periods is completely artificial. There was no difference in the amount of wars between the two periods. Recognizing this fact will allow us to consider some broader themes in Chinese history. First, we will consider the most important warring states. They were as follows: The Qi, a powerful kingdom centered in Shandong. One of its kings, Guan Zhong, made a fundamental change in military organization during the seventh century. Whereas, until that time only the aristocracy had been involved in war, Guan Zhong made military service obligatory for all. Thus, appeared for the first time in history a large military establishment that was based on the foot soldier. This would not occur in Europe until the end of the Middle Ages. Another kingdom, the Jin was located in Shanxi. The Jin also pursued similar military reforms as result of having to fighting a new enemy the Di. The Di were a mountain people who repeatedly swooped down on the plains before retreating into the mountains for protection. The problem for the Ji was that their chariots were no good in the mountains. So they, too, developed an infantry that was based on the peasant farmer. In the south of China was the kingdom of Chu, which straddled the middle of the Yangzi. The northern Chinese considered this kingdom to be semi-barbarous at best. To the west was a kingdom called the Qin—the name is pronounced “Chin”—a dynamic reforming state that will be the center of the rest of our story. Ironically the Qin was considered to be a non-Chinese kingdom by the northern powers. This is ironic, of course, since the Qin gave their name to China.
The Period of the Warring States was, of course, full of wars. Historians have calculated that China enjoyed only 38 years of peace during this time. In 651, during the previous period, there was an attempt to avert war, as one leader, Duke Huan of Qi, hosted a conference of feudal lords that worked out a power-sharing arrangement among the feudal lords. The balance did not last, dooming China to generations of war across both periods. The Warring States Period is particularly important for us, however, because we can see the end of important social and economic changes. At the start of the Spring and Autumn Period the political elite comprised the king, feudal lords, and hereditary ministers, with all the members of the elite bound together by duties and kinship relations. The rise of war during the seventh century began to change that, however, as traditional connections broke under the increased stress. Governments became more centralized, and specific administrative units appeared. Along with this change came the appearance of a new kind of man shi, often translated as gentleman. The shi was a state bureaucrat. Well educated and loyal to the state, the shi soon eclipsed the nobility in importance through their acquisition of bureaucratic positions.
The change in state organization was rooted in new forms of warfare. New battle tactics appeared, as did new and expensive weapons, with the crossbow, the iron sword, and battle armor changing the ways that people killed each other. Moreover, with the development of large infantry armies a centralized state authority had to eclipse traditional aristocratic control, because someone had to organize all these people and pay for everything. Moreover, from the middle of the sixth century on huge armies appeared in the field, with some allegedly reaching 600,000 men. If this were true, then it would be 2300 years before Europe could produce forces of a similar size, for it was not until the Napoleonic wars that so many people could be led into the field.
The increasing size of Chinese armies is our signal to take note of some broad-based economic, social, and political changes. During the Eastern Zhou period all aspects of life underwent radical change. In agriculture the use of fertilizer spread, extensive irrigation networks were constructed, and cast iron tools appeared. Just for comparison, fertilizer would not used extensively in Europe until after 1750. With more food came a rise in commerce and commercial towns. Thus, more walled towns began to appear. With that came occupational specialization and the spread of money. Ancient China developed the first money economy, as coins and even paper money entered into widespread use. Thanks to its political problems, China was in a real ferment in just about every field of endeavor.
The political instability and the great economic changes also led to a great intellectual ferment whose main products many of you will surely have heard of. The most famous of China’s great intellectuals in this period is, of course, Kong Fuzi, or in his latinized name Confucius (551-479). Confucius was emblematic of the rising group of shi. From the northern state of Lu, he became an expert on ceremony, genealogy, and ancient lore before entering into state service. He was eventually forced into exile over his politics and traveled around China gathering a host of followers who took down his every word. The records were later compiled into a text we call the Analects. Confucius believed that he lived in troubled times. Looking back to the ancient Chinese world, he believed that the past had been better because better kings ruled it. People back then were educated and cultivated, which helped them to understand what a good policy was. Confucius injected into Chinese culture a tremendous respect for both tradition and book learning, which remained common themes in Chines culture until the empire’s official end in 1911.
Confucius was the most important thinker of this troubled period, but he was not the only one. Mozi (470-391) was one of Confucius’ harshest critics. Whereas, Confucius was interested in ritual and love of family, Mozi emphasized universal love of all. His criticism is similar to that of prophets we have seen in the Jewish tradition. He argued that society should provide for people’s basic needs and condemned the kind of consumption practiced by the shi. For example, Confucius held that music was central to the creation of a gentleman, but Mozi saw it as nothing more than a waste of resources.
Mozi’s way of thinking never became as popular as that of Confucius, but another system appeared around the same time that enjoyed more popularity. During the sixth century BC a system of thought known as Daoism appeared. The Dao, or path, was a metaphysical approach to life that guided human conduct through contemplation of the Dao itself. Finding the Dao came through the contemplation of nature, and it consisted of unifying oneself with nature’s greater, though often ineffable wisdom. The oldest Daoist text is believed to have been written by a man named Laozi, though historians now agree that he probably did not exist. The most important principle of this early work is wuwei. This is essentially the belief that rulers should not interfere in people’s daily lives. For a ruler to do so is to leave the Dao of good government.
The final thinker that we will consider today is Mengzi, or Mencius (372-289). Mencius was a Confucian, and he acted much as Confucius did, surrounding himself with disciples and seeking to teach the proper behavior of the gentleman. Mencius made three important additions to Confucianism. First, he saw man as a moral creature. Although Confucius was not an immoral philosopher, he did not stress the moral sense in the individual, emphasizing ritual and ancestor worship over individual decision-making. Second, he argued that the economic welfare of the people was the foundation of a good state. A happy peasantry brought political stability. To that end he advocated also the third point, which was extensive land reform. Mencius believed that ancient communal farming traditions brought wealth and, therefore, political stability. This is important, because it shows us just how much had changed by Mencius’ day; the old economic and political structures were gone, and China developed a corps of thinkers that sought to provide answers to new problems.
The end of the Warring States Period brings us to the end of ancient Chinese history and the beginning of the empire. The most important and dynamic of the warring states was, as I have mentioned, the Qin. The Qin were reformers and their most import reform came in 408 BC with a fundamental tax reform. In that year the Qin allowed the payment of the land tax in kind, rather than work. This allowed large sums of money and material to pour into the Qin’s coffers, which they then used to finance wars against their enemies, among them the Rong. In 403, the Qin also benefited from the partition of a powerful rival, the Jin, into three smaller kingdoms, the Han, the Zhao, and the Wei. In addition, the Qin also actively recruited talented people from outside their realm. For example, in 361 BC, the Qin recruited a man named Shang Yang, or Lord Shang, who became the first exponent of a political tradition that would become known as “legalism.” Legalism held, in effect, that there was no interest higher than that of the state and that the state should be organized along rational lines so that it could maximize its power. Under Shang, the Qin created the xian, the soon-to-be standard Chinese district that was run by a state official, rather than a local noble. This administrative reorganization also brought great economic benefits as the Qin territory was now a large free market, which increased economic activity and, not coincidentally, the Qin state’s power.
The Qin used their power to defeat and absorb all the neighboring kingdoms. In 256, they annexed the last part of the old Zhou kingdom and extinguished the dynasty. Subsequent reforms also appeared, making the state ever more centralized and efficient. By 221, the Qin had defeated all their enemies and their King Zhen assumed the title of Qin Shi Huangdi, which essentially means the First Emperor of Qin. For the first time, most of what is now China stood under the rule of one dynasty. This is an important moment, since from this point forward a single dynasty would be considered the norm for all of China. Although there would be periods of political division in subsequent years, these divisions were always considered abnormal. Thus, by 221, China had its first unified state and had founded an imperial tradition that guided Chinese politics and culture until its end in 1911. In the next lecture we will take this moment forward in time and consider the empire through about the year 950.