Ancient China: Qin and Han dynasty – the first unification of China

Chinese culture and its century-spanning history are a major draw for many people interested in China, not just TEFL or ESL China teachers. After starting to work in China, I became interested in its history and philosophy. There is so much to discover. It still amazes me that events and texts from the early Chinese era, more than 2,000 years ago, preceded so many things compared with the West. Some of the ancient texts from Confucius or Zhuangzi (one of the founders of Daoism), read very modern indeed. So, I take our ‘teach English in China blog’ as an opportunity to write about things I find fascinating. This blog post talks about ancient China: Qin and Han dynasty – the period between 221 BCE and 220 AD.

The main source for this post is the second part of the ChinaX series from Harvard University: China’s First Empires and the Rise of Buddhism. It is an amazing MOOC series which gives you Harvard University experience for free.

The first-ever unification of China under one dynasty: The QinTEFL China

The warring states period between 475 and 221BCE, is an era in China characterized by war between different states but also a time of reforms not just in statecraft and military but also in philosophy (Wikipedia). In the 3rd century BCE only 7 states are left fighting with the Zhou king only as the nominal hegemon over a feudal system of independent states.

At the end of the warring states period in China, an unlikely state will emerge as victorious and unify China for the first time in its history: The Western Qin dynasty. It conquers all of the warring states one by one through a new form of a political system: A centralized bureaucratic system which proves advantageous to the old feudal system from the Zhou dynasty and its successors. Especially in mobilizing the population. The reformed Qin dynasty will not be a confederation of feudal aristocratic state but a centralized bureaucratic government. It sent its officials from the central court across the country to levy taxes, advises the army and so on. Though the Qin dynasty and the first unified empire proves to be short-lived, it leaves a lasting legacy for China up to the present day. Even the modern-day European name ‘China’ originates from the name ‘Qin’ (Wikipedia).

You can “blame” the Qin for inventing centralized bureaucracy

Teach English in China

The first Chinese emperor Qin Si Huangdi is not just famous as the first emperor of a unified China but also as a rigorous suppressor of opposition. Disputing texts and books were burned and scholars buried alive.

The rise to power of the Western Qin starts with Shang Yang reforming the state around 350BCE, followed by an expansion southwards. The first states which are conquered are the (at that time non-Chinese) states Ba and Shu in the Sichuan basin (where today TeachDiscoverChina helps teachers to discover China). In 256BCE, the last and weak king of Zhou surrenders his royal domain and therewith ending 800 years of the Zhou dynasty. Between 231 and 221BCE Qin conquers the remaining six states (Han, Zhao, Chu, Wei, Yan, and Qi) and ends the warring states period and unifies China for the first time (but not the last time).

221BCE the ruler of Qin declared himself the ruler of all under heaven, in Chinese ‘Tianxia’. In all conquered territory, the feudal system of the Zhou dynasty was replaced by a centralized bureaucracy, including a unified currency, weights, measures and also for the first time a unified script/writing. The Qin emperor built roads and canals with identical measures for roads and canals, mainly to continue his conquests towards the North and the South.

Mobilizing people proofs decisive (not just for conquests)

The unification of China against the remaining feudal states was made possible by reforming the Qin state, especially mobilizing the population with farmers, soldiers, and officials as the 3 main sources of power. A centralized and highly mobile state will prove no match against the comparably slow feudal states. The novel way of organizing the state was geared solely for conquests. In order to rise in ranks, you had to serve in the army and you had to serve well. Everything was tightly controlled and from a modern point of view, the Qin empire was not a fun place to be.TEFL teacher

Luxury was not allowed and only small rewards for any accomplishment were given. Family planning was controlled. If your household had more than 2 male members, you would have had to pay double. Neighbors were held responsible when their neighbors did not pay their taxes and/or committed something illegal. Law was enforced almost impartial with a famous story making its rounds: One of the sons of a lord made wine from grain (which was a crime punishable by execution). But, as the heir apparent, he avoided death and only his tutor gets executed. Which I’m sure, our TEFL China teachers wouldn’t be in favor of.

Short-lived, long-lasting legacy

The first unified Chinese empire under the Qin didn’t last very long. Shortly after the death of the emperor, the Qin empire collapses after only 15 years. The leading theory for its sudden demise is that it expanded its central control over the conquered territory too quickly and once it hit problems, the old feudal autocracy led the rebellion against the central court. The end for the time being the old feudal system proved once again superior in China.

But the Qin not just gave modern China its name and showed that central bureaucracy as an alternative to control over the empire, it is also responsible for two of the most remarkable sites on the globe. During the expansion of the Qin empire, a first inner Asian empire emerged as a close enemy of China. The unified nomadic tribes of the northern steppes, called ‘Xiongnu’ threatened the Qin empire that led to the start of the construction of the Great Wall of China (‘Changcheng’). The other legacy is the Terracotta Army in Xi’an. Although the first emperor was not meant to die, as he did search for an elixir for immortality, he eventually did. The huge Terracotta army, or the tomb for the Qin emperor, symbolizes heaven and earth and also shows some of the reasons of his success – Technology and social mobilization as it is by no means an easy feat to erect such an enormous burial ground or the Great Wall of China.

Han dynasty and how to make centralized power workChinese history - Han

The Qin were the first to introduce central bureaucracy as an alternative to the old feudal system of the Zhou but just for a blink of an eye in Chinese history. Only later, the Han dynasty, made the new model work during their 400 years of power. It proved that a balance of power between central vs regional, feudal vs bureaucracy, civil vs military and the recruitment of officials through hereditary vs merit could be made to work as a model for state control. Simply speaking, they invented modern politics, only a few thousand years before anyone in the Western world would even think about it.

The early (Western) Han was a compromise between the old feudal and the new centralized system, which needed a fine balance between feudal princes and the central court. Over time the emperor Wu (‘Wudi’) 141 to 87BCE shifts the power from the feudal lords to his own central court to guide an aggressive expansion, resulting in the largest territory of the Han dynasty.

In order to fund his campaigns without raising taxes, he minted a large number of coins, established state monopolies over major industries and levied commercial taxes on private businesses.

Western and Eastern Han (with a bit of Xin in the middle)

The powerful minister Wang Mang brings the first Han empire to a close in 9CE when he usurped the throne and erected the very short-lived Xin dynasty. Wang Mang’s aim is to establish an ideal Zhou state according to Confucian texts and ideals but utterly fails.

After the collapse of the Xin dynasty, a royal family, loyal to the Western Han emperor, founded the Eastern Han dynasty with the capital in Luoyang.

With the final end of the Han dynasty (Western and Eastern), China descends once again slowly into chaos, starting with the medieval 3 Kingdoms: Wei, Shu, and Wu. The war between those 3 kingdoms, raiding northern tribes and foreign invasion will fragment China even further into a period of 16 kingdoms where tribal groups dominate politics, society, and economy. This whole period is characterized by war between the Northern tribes and the Southern “Han-Chinese”.

It provides the backdrop of savage northern tribes who are better in waging wars than containing power vs the Han ideal of a unified and strong China, which is impregnable to foreign powers. Southern aristocratic families, fleeing from the North will make the idealized Han their identity and with it maintain civic Chinese traditions. That idea/ideal of a powerful and united China by the Han will prove powerful up until today’s China.

Confucianism as a state ideology

During the Han dynasty, Confucianism is getting established as a state ideology and Confucian texts becoming the core for educating officials. Culture is thriving with calligraphy, literature, painting, philosophy/religion and so forth (all of them are in parts the search for immortality but this is another story). Also, Buddhism is making its mark in China as an import from Central Asia and India. And although a foreign idea to China, contradicting Confucian ideas and opposition from officials and governments, Buddhism becomes part of the Chinese landscape (e.g. the Giant Buddha in Leishan) and first state religion.

Interested in teaching English in China and learn first hand about China’s history: Get in touch!

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