Thursday, March 23, 2017

Gen Eds 10b: Ancient China

This is the second post in the Classical Civilizations" unit of my World History series.

This is part of my "General Education in a Nutshell" series. The series consists of ten subjects you might study in a general education or "liberal arts" core at a university or college. The first topic in the overall series was philosophy. So far in the world history section:
1. The first dynasties in China go back to the 2000s BC (the Xia Dynasty, 2070-1600BC), although our first written records only go back to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046BC). One of the four ancient cradles of civilization (India, China, Egypt, Mesopotamia), Chinese civilization originated along the Yellow River, just as Indian civilization arose along the Indus River. Ironically, the movement to a "civilization" is often marked by the beginning of slavery by the Xia Dynasty.

The "Zhou" Dynasty is usually considered the period of the birthplace of Chinese culture, although the dynasty only had widespread control from 1046-771BC. In the second half of their time, they only had limited power in the east (771-221BC). This was a period with a collection of clans that warred off and on with each other.

The first half of this "Eastern Zhou" time is called the "Spring and Autumn Period" (771-476BC), during which there were four major clans: Qin in the west, Jin in the center, Chu in the south, and Qi in the east. [1] Then a split in the Jin clan led to the "Warring States Period" from 476-221BC.

There is something fascinating about the 500s BC around the world. Human cultures everywhere seem to have made some sort of a jump. Buddhism rises in India. This is the time of Isaiah 40-66, the center point of monotheism in the Old Testament. In China, this is when Confucianism (Confucius' given name was Kong Qiu) and Taoism (founded by Lao Tzu) originated.

2. The "Warring States Period" was brutal, with as many as eight different "states" vying for power (Qin, Chu, Qi, Yan, Han, Wei, Yue, and Zhao). The power that would emerge as the first real unifier of China as an empire was the Qin Dynasty (221-206BC), and the name "China" is thought to come from "Qin." They used iron swords. The Art of War was written in the Warring States period by Sun Tzu.

The Qin Dynasty was strongly autocratic, and they created a highly bureaucratic and centralized state. Their approach to governance is known as "Legalism" and every dissenter to the central authority was put to death. The diverse "One Hundred Schools of Thought" from the Spring and Autumn Period was purged, with only the schools of thought the Qin Dynasty approved of allowed to survive. All other literature was destroyed.

It was the shortest dynasty of all.

Nevertheless, it was during the Qin moment of history that Chinese writing was standardized for the first time. The Great Wall, although a wall was started earlier, received its first substantial building during the Qi Dynasty. The well-known "Terracotta Army" is a massive collection of life-size model soldiers, chariots, horses, and such in battle array, celebrating the victory of the Qin armies. It is located in the tomb of the Qin Dynasty.

3. The Qin Dynasty only lasted 15 years until it was defeated by the Han clan, which set up the Western Han Dynasty (206BC-AD9). Han was less oppressive. While the population under Qin rule was decimated, it expanded during the Han period. The Han empire was the first long-standing empire in the region.

It was during the Han Dynasty that the Silk Road began to take shape, the trading route for silk between China and the Western world. Also, a Confusion Academy was set up to train bureaucrats for the empire. Some subordinate rulers were empowered on the edges of the empire.

Remnants of the Han rule continued until AD220, mostly in the east. During this time, the Silk Road brought Buddhism into China. The Han period ended with natural disasters and decimation by war.

4. At the end of the Han Dynasty, the area of China was divided into three kingdoms (AD220-80), after which the Jin Dynasty began (AD265-420). Another dynasty called the Sui dynasty (AD581-618) built the Grand Canal, while extending the Great Wall. It is interesting that their rule was so short. It seems like the dynasties that focused on building projects were shorter than those that focused on war.

5. Ancient Chinese history is full of war between clans and factions, back and forth, back and forth. The highly disciplined and usually authoritarian bureaucracy is another feature.

Next Week: History 10c. Ancient Egypt

  • Extreme authoritarianism is often short lived, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
  • Trade inevitably changes a culture because of the inevitable influences from the outside, but you change them too.
[1] Cf.

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