The Dawn of History
Over the centuries the Chinese developed a strong sense of their real and mythological origins. Since very early times they have kept voluminous records of their history and the development of their civilization. These records cover not only China but also many of its neighbors, and even mention places as far away as Arabia and Rome.
Ancient Chinese history was written mostly by members of the wealthy ruling class who provided their head of state with information to guide or justify his policies. These accounts usually focused on politics and colorful court histories that describe the Chinese pattern of ruling dynasties, one following another in a cycle of ascent, achievement, decay, and rebirth under a new family.
Another recurrent theme in Chinese history is that of the Chinese struggle against the threat posed to their safety and way of life by non-Chinese peoples on the margins of their territory. For centuries the Chinese struggled against the people of the north, until in the thirteenth century, the Mongols from the northern steppes conquered all China. This left the Chinese with an inherent fear of invasion from the north.
For centuries virtually all interaction with foreigners came from the less developed societies along China's land borders. This limited exposure shaped the Chinese view of the outside world. The Chinese saw their domain as the only self-sufficient center of the universe and derived from this image the traditional (and still used) Chinese name for their country 'Zhongguo,' literally, Middle Kingdom or Central Nation. China saw itself surrounded on all sides by barbaric people whose cultures were demonstrably inferior by Chinese standards.
The Ancient Dynasties
A line of hereditary Shang kings ruled over much of northern China, and Shang troops fought frequent wars with neighboring settlements and nomadic herdsmen from the inner Asian steppes. The capital cities, one of which is near the modern city of Anyang, were centers of glittering court life. Court rituals to propitiate spirits and to honor sacred ancestors were highly developed. In addition to his secular position, the king was the head of the Shang religion. This religion was based on ancestor and spirit worship. Evidence from the royal tombs indicates that royal personages were buried with articles of value, presumably for use in the afterlife. Perhaps for the same reason, hundreds of commoners, who may have been slaves, were buried alive with the royal corpse. The Shang Dynasty was overthrown by tribesmen from the West around 1030 BC giving rise to the Zhou Dynasty
The term feudal has often been applied to the Zhou period because the Zhou's early decentralized rule has been compared with medieval rule in Europe. At most, however, the early Zhou system was proto-feudal, being a more sophisticated version of earlier tribal organization, in which effective control depended more on familial ties than on feudal legal bonds. Whatever feudal elements there may have been, they decreased as time went on. Zhou rulers amalgamated many city-states and progressively established centralized and increasingly impersonal political and economic institutions. These developments, which occurred in the latter Zhou period, were manifested by greater central control over local governments and regulated agricultural taxation.
In 771 BC the Zhou court was sacked, and its king was killed by invading barbarians who were allied with rebel lords. The capital was moved eastward to Luoyang in present-day Henan Province. Because of this shift, historians divide the Zhou era into Western Zhou (1027-771 BC) and Eastern Zhou (770-221 BC). With the royal line broken, the power of the Zhou court gradually diminished and the fragmentation of the kingdom accelerated. Eastern Zhou divides into two sub periods. The first, from 770 to 476 B.C., is called the Spring and Autumn Period, after a famous historical chronicle of the time; the second is known as the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).
Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods
The Great Wall of China was started in the Zhou dynasty, somewhere around.400 BC to protect their kingdom against the nomadic tribes from the North and West. During the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods the Great Wall of China was considerable expanded. Building continued until c.1500 AD when it eventually reached a length of 2400 kilometers.
During this period a number of important technological inventions came into being, such as the horse collar (3rd Century BC), iron production (by 119 BC there were 46 state run iron foundries), and irrigation, leading to better harvests and cleaner water.
This period also saw many different philosophies developed. New thought was so abundant that the era is often known as that of the Hundred Schools of Thought. From the Hundred Schools of Thought came many of the great classical writings on which Chinese practices were to be based for the next two and a half millennia. Many of these thinkers were itinerant intellectuals who, besides teaching their disciples, were employed as advisers to one or another of the various state rulers on the methods of government, war, and diplomacy.
The body of thought that had the most enduring effect on subsequent Chinese life was that of the School of Literati, often called the Confucian School in the West. The written legacy of the School of Literati was embodied in the Confucian Classics, which were to become the basis for the order of traditional society. Confucius (551-479 BC), also called Kong Zi, or Master Kong, looked to the early days of Zhou rule for an ideal social and political order. He believed that the only way such a system could be made to work properly was for each person to act according to prescribed relationships. "Let the ruler be a ruler and the subject a subject," he said, but he added that to rule properly a king must be virtuous. To Confucius, the functions of government and social stratification were facts of life to be sustained by ethical values. His ideal was the junzi (ruler's son), which came to mean gentleman in the sense of a cultivated or superior man.
Mencius (372-289 BC), or Meng Zi, was a Confucian disciple who made major contributions to the humanism of Confucian thought. Mencius declared that man was by nature good. He expostulated the idea that a ruler could not govern without the people's tacit consent and that the penalty for unpopular, despotic rule was the loss of the "mandate of heaven." The effect of the combined work of Confucius, the codifier and interpreter of a system of relationships based on ethical behavior, and Mencius, the synthesizer and developer of applied Confucian thought, was to provide traditional Chinese society with a comprehensive framework on which to order virtually every aspect of life. Over the years that followed, there were additions to the main body of Confucian thought, both from within and outside the Confucian school. Interpretations were made to suit or influence contemporary society, and this made Confucianism dynamic, while preserving a fundamental system of model behavior based on ancient texts.
Completely opposed to Mencius, for example, was the interpretation of Xun Zi (ca. 300-237 BC), another Confucian follower. Xun Zi preached that man is innately selfish and evil and that goodness is attainable only through education and conduct befitting one's status. He also argued that the best government is one based on authoritarian control, not ethical or moral persuasion. Xun Zi's unsentimental and authoritarian inclinations were developed into the doctrine embodied in the School of Law, or Legalism. The doctrine was formulated by Han Fei Zi (233 BC) and Li Si (208 BC), who maintained that human nature was hopelessly selfish and therefore the only way to preserve the social order was to impose discipline from above and to enforce laws strictly. The Legalists exalted the state and sought its prosperity and martial prowess above the welfare of the common people. Legalism became the philosophic basis for the imperial form of government.
When the most practical and useful aspects of Confucianism and Legalism were synthesized in the Han period (206 BC-AD 220, paralleling the Nabataean Empire), a system of governance came into existence that was to survive largely intact until the late nineteenth century. Taoism, the second most important stream of Chinese thought, also developed during the Zhou period. Its formulation is attributed to the legendary sage Lao Zi (Old Master), said to predate Confucius, and Zhuang Zi (369-286 BC). The focus of Taoism was the individual in nature of society, rather than the individual in society. Taoism holds that the goal of life for each individual is to find one's own personal adjustment to the rhythm of the natural (and supernatural) world, to follow the Way (dao) of the Universe. In many ways, Taoism was the opposite of rigid Confucian moral teaching. It served many of its adherents as a complement to the daily order that Confucianism imposed on their daily lives. A scholar on duty as an official would usually follow Confucian teachings but at leisure or in retirement might seek harmony with nature, as a Taoist recluse.
Another strain of thought dating to the Warring States Period is the school of yin-yang and the five elements. The theories of this school attempted to explain the universe in terms of basic forces in nature, the complementary agents of yin (dark, cold, female, negative) and yang (light, hot, male, positive) and the five elements (water, fire, wood, metal, and earth). In later periods these theories came to have importance both in philosophy and in popular belief, and have impacted modern western New Age philosophies.
Still another school of thought was based on the doctrine of Mo Zi (470-391 BC), or Mo Di. Mo Zi believed that "all men are equal before God" and that mankind should follow heaven by practicing universal love. Advocating that all action must be utilitarian, Mo Zi condemned the Confucian emphasis on ritual and music. He regarded warfare as wasteful and advocated pacifism. Mo Zi also believed that unity of thought and action were necessary to achieve social goals. He maintained that the people should obey their leaders and that the leaders should follow the will of heaven.
Although Moism failed to establish itself as a major school of thought, its views are said to be "strongly echoed" in Legalist thought. In general, the teachings of Mo Zi left an permanent impression on the Chinese mind.
The First Imperial Period 221 BC - 207 BC
To silence criticism of imperial rule, the kings banished or put to death many dissenting Confucian scholars and confiscated and burned their books. Qin aggrandizement was aided by frequent military expeditions pushing forward the frontiers in the north and south. To fend off barbarian intrusion, the fortification walls built by the various warring states were connected to make the 5,000- kilometer-long Great Wall. What is commonly referred to as the Great Wall is actually four great walls rebuilt or extended during the Western Han, Sui, Jin, and Ming periods, rather than a single, continuous wall. At its extremities, the Great Wall reaches from northeastern Heilongjiang Province to northwestern Gansu. A number of public works projects were also undertaken to consolidate and strengthen the new imperial rule. These activities required enormous levies of manpower and resources, not to mention repressive measures. Revolts broke out as soon as the first Qin emperor died in 210 BC. His dynasty ended less than twenty years after it began. The imperial system initiated during the Qin dynasty, however, set a pattern that was developed over the next two millennia.
After a short civil war, a new dynasty, called the Han Dynasty (206 BC- AD 220), emerged with its capital at Chang'an. This new empire retained much of the Qin administrative structure but it moved away from centralized rule by establishing vassal principalities in some areas for the sake of political convenience. The Han rulers modified some of the harsher aspects of the previous dynasty; Confucian ideals of government, out of favor during the Qin period, were adopted as the creed of the Han Empire, and Confucian scholars gained prominent status as the core of the civil service. A civil service examination system also was initiated. Intellectual, literary, and artistic endeavors revived and flourished. The Han period produced China's most famous historian, Sima Qian (145-87 BC), whose Shiji (Historical Records) provides a detailed chronicle from the time of a legendary Xia emperor to that of the Han emperor Wu Di(141-87 B.C.). Technological advances also marked this period. Many of the great Chinese inventions, paper and porcelain, ink, brushes, irrigation, water clocks, sundials, and seismographs all date from Han times.
The Han dynasty, after which the members of the ethnic majority in China, the "people of Han," are named, was also nated for its military prowess. The empire expanded westward as far as the rim of the Tarim Basin (in modern Xinjiang/Uyghur Autonomous Region), making relatively secure caravan traffic across Central Asia possible. This caravan route stretched across Asia to Antioch, Baghdad, and Rome. The paths of caravan traffic are often called the "silk route" because the route was used to export Chinese silk to the Roman Empire. Chinese armies also invaded and annexed parts of northern Vietnam and northern Korea toward the end of the second century BC. Han control of peripheral regions was generally insecure, however. To ensure peace with non-Chinese local powers, the Han court developed a mutually beneficial "tributary system." Non-Chinese states were allowed to remain autonomous in exchange for symbolic acceptance of Han lordship. Ties were confirmed and strengthened through intermarriages at the ruling level and periodic exchanges of gifts and goods.
After 200 years, Han rule was interrupted briefly (9-24 AD) by the rise of Wang Mang, a reformer, and then it was restored for another 200 years. The Han rulers, however, were unable to adjust to what centralization had wrought: a growing population, increasing wealth and resultant financial difficulties and rivalries, and ever-more complex political institutions. Riddled with the corruption the Han Empire collapsed around 220 AD.
During the Han Dynasty there were a number of notable advances such as the standardization of weights, measures, coinage, axle widths, as well as the simplification and standardization of written language across the empire.
During the Han dynasty, the first contact with the outside world was established. As a result, maritime activity increased, with Chinese junks trading as far away as Sri Lanka's northern port of Balk Bay. The Silk Road caravan routes were opened up and goods were exchanged with countries as remote as Greece. During this time Buddhism was also introduced from India.
The fall of the Han dynasty was brought about by corrupt Mandarins, who had been hand-picked in scholarly exams. They sided with landlords and oppressed the peasants, causing widespread revolt in 220 AD caused the fall of the dynasty.
220 AD - 618 AD
T'ang Dynasty 618 AD - 907 AD
Sung Dynasty 960 AD - 1223 AD
Ming dynasty 1368 AD
When Marco Polo arrived in Canton, in the late 1200's, the city known to Polo as Zaitun, was one of the world's greatest ports with more than 100,000 Arab traders living in the area. This was during the Ming Empire when contact was being remade between Europe and China. 200 years later the Chinese had built huge fleets of trading vessels to travel to the west.
While it is unclear if Nabataean merchants ever reached China, they certainly did trade with Chinese vessels, probably exchanging goods in Palk Bay, on the north tip of Sri Lanka. This trade was most likely one of the elements that helped the Han Dynasty rise to power.
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