An Overview of Prehistoric to Medieval China

Along the River during the Qingming Festival, detail of the original version showing wooden bridge, by Zhang Zeduan (12th century) / Wikimedia Commons

The development of Chinese culture as it is still known today, via the Hundred Schools of Thought, pre-Imperialism and the formation of a unified China.

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Public Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


A very well preserved Homo erectus skull excavated in China / IVPP, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Creative Commons

During the long Paleolithic period, bands of predatory hunter-gatherers lived in what is now China. Homo erectus, an extinct species closely related to modern humans, or Homo sapiens, appeared in China more than one million years ago. Anthropologists disagree about whether Homo erectus is the direct ancestor of Homo sapiens or merely related through a mutual ancestor. In either case, modern humans may have first appeared in China as far back as 200,000 years ago.

Beginning in about 10,000 BCE, humans in China began developing agriculture, possibly influenced by developments in Southeast Asia. By 5000 BCE there were Neolithic village settlements in several regions of China. On the fine, wind-blown loess soils of the north and northwest, the primary crop was millet, while villages along the lower Yangtze River in Central China were centered on rice production in paddy fields, supplemented by fish and aquatic plants. Humans in both regions had domesticated pigs, dogs, and cattle, and by 3000 BCE sheep had become important in the north and water buffalo in the south.

Over the course of the 5th to 3rd millennia BCE, many distinct, regional Neolithic cultures emerged. In the northwest, for instance, people made red pottery vessels decorated in black pigment with designs such as spirals, sawtooth lines, and zoomorphic (animal-like) stick figures. During the same period, Neolithic cultures in the east produced pottery that was rarely painted but had distinctive shapes, such as three-legged, deep-bodied tripods. Archaeologists have uncovered numerous jade ornaments, blades, and ritual objects in several eastern sites, but jade is rare in western ones.

In many areas, stamped-earth fortified walls came to be built around settlements, suggesting not only increased contact between settlements but also increased conflict. Later Chinese civilization probably evolved from the interaction of many distinct Neolithic cultures, which over time came to share more in the way of material culture and social and cultural practices. For example, many burial practices, including the use of coffins and ramped chambers, spread way beyond their place of origin.

Ancient Bronze Age

King Yu (禹) as imagined by Song Dynasty painter Ma Lin (12th-13th century) / National Palace Museum (Tapei), Wikimedia Commons

Ancient Chinese historians knew nothing of their Neolithic forebears, whose existence was discovered by 20th-century archaeologists. Traditionally, the Chinese traced their history through many dynasties to a series of legendary rulers, like the Yellow Lord (Huang Di), who invented the key features of civilization- agriculture, the family, silk, boats, carts, bows and arrows, and the calendar. The last of these kings was Yu, and when he died the people chose his son to lead them, thus establishing the principle of hereditary, dynastic rule. Yüan’s descendants created the Xia dynasty (ca. 2205 BCE- 1570 BCE), which was said to have lasted for 14 generations before declining and being superseded by the Shang dynasty.

The Xia dynasty may correspond to the first phases of the transition to the Bronze Age. Between 2000 BCE and 1600 BCE a more complex Bronze Age civilization emerged out of the diverse Neolithic cultures in northern China. This civilization was marked by writing, metalwork, domestication of horses, a class system, and a stable political and religious hierarchy. Although Bronze Age civilizations developed earlier in Southwest Asia, China seems to have developed both its writing system and its bronze technology with relatively little stimulus from outside. However, other elements of early Chinese civilization, such as the spoke-wheeled horse chariot, apparently reached China indirectly from places to the west.

No written documents survive to link the earliest Bronze Age sites unambiguously to Xia. With the Shang dynasty, however, the historical and archaeological records begin to coincide. Chinese accounts of the Shang rulers match inscriptions on animal bones and tortoise shells found in the 20th century at the city of Anyang in the valley of the Huang He (Yellow River).

The Shang Dynasty (ca. 1570 BCE- 1045 BCE)

Tomb of Lady Fu Hao, Yinxu, Henan, China / Photo by Chris Gyford, Wikimedia Commons

Archaeological remains provide many details about Shang civilization. A king was the religious and political head of the society. He ruled through dynastic alliances; divination (his subjects believed that he alone could predict the future by interpreting cracks in animal bones); and royal journeys, hunts, and military campaigns that took him to outlying areas. The Shang were often at war with neighboring peoples and moved their capital several times. Shang kings could mobilize large armies for warfare and huge numbers of workers to construct defensive walls and elaborate tombs.

The Shang directly controlled only the central part of China proper, extending over much of modern Henan, Hubei, Shandong, Anhui, Shanxi, and Hebei provinces. However, Shang influence extended beyond the state’s borders, and Shang art motifs are often found in artifacts from more-distant regions.

The Shang king’s rule was based equally on religious and military power. He played a priestly role in the worship of his ancestors and the high god Di. The king made animal sacrifices and communicated with his ancestors by interpreting the cracks on heated cattle bones or tortoise shells that had been prepared by professional diviners. Royal ancestors were viewed as able to intervene with Di, send curses, produce dreams, and assist the king in battle. Kings were buried with ritual vessels, weapons, jades, and numerous servants and sacrificial victims, suggesting that the Shang believed in some form of afterlife.

The Shang used bronze more for purposes of ritual than war. Although some weapons were made of bronze, the great bulk of the surviving Shang bronze objects are cups, goblets, steamers, and cauldrons, presumably made for use in sacrificial rituals. They were beautifully formed in a great variety of shapes and sizes and decorated with images of wild animals. As many as 200 of these bronze vessels might be buried in a single royal grave. The bronze industry required centralized coordination of a large labor force to mine, refine, and transport copper, tin, and lead ores, as well as to produce and transport charcoal. It also required technically skilled artisans to make clay models, construct ceramic molds, and assemble and finish vessels, the largest which weighed as much as 800 kg (1,800 lb).

The writing system used by the Shang is the direct ancestor of the modern Chinese writing system, with symbols or characters for each word. This writing system would evolve over time, but it never became a purely phonetic system like the Roman alphabet, which uses symbols (letters) to represent specific sounds. Thus mastering the written language required learning to recognize and write several thousand characters, making literacy a highly specialized skill requiring many years to master fully.

The Zhou Dynasty (ca. 1045 BCE- 256 BCE)

Silk painting depicting a man riding a dragon, painting on silk, dated to 5th-3rd century BC, from Zidanku Tomb no. 1 in Changsha, Hunan Province / Wikimedia Commons

In the 11th century BCE a frontier state called Zhou rose against and defeated the Shang dynasty. The Zhou dynasty is traditionally divided into two periods: the Western Zhou (ca. 1045 BCE- 771 BCE), when the capital was near modern Xiân in the west, and the Eastern Zhou (770 BCE- 256 BCE), when the capital was moved further east to modern Luoyang.  The Easter Zhou is divided into two sub- periods: The Spring and Autumn Period (770 BCE- 403 BCE) and the Warring States Period (403 BCE- 221 BCE), which are collectively referred to as ‘China’s Golden Age’.

Like the Shang kings, the Zhou kings sacrificed to their ancestors, but they also sacrificed to Heaven (Tian). The Shu jing (Book of History), one of the earliest transmitted texts, describes the Zhou’s version of their history. It assumes a close relationship between Heaven and the king, called the Son of Heaven, explaining that Heaven gives the king a mandate to rule only as long as he does so in the interest of the people. Because the last Shang king had been decadent and cruel, Heaven withdrew the Mandate of Heaven (Tian Ming) from him and entrusted it to the virtuous Zhou kings. The Shu jing praises the first three Zhou rulers: King Wen (the Cultured King) expanded the Zhou domain; his son, King Wu (the Martial King), conquered the Shang; and King Wu’s brother, Zhou Gong (often referred to as Duke of Zhou), consolidated the conquest and served as loyal regent for Wu’s heir.

Western Zhou (1045 BCE- 771 BCE)

Fittings in the form of tigers, Baoji, Shaanxi province, Middle Western Zhou dynasty / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Shi jing (Book of Poetry) offers another glimpse of life in early Zhou China. Its 305 poems include odes celebrating the exploits of the early Zhou rulers, hymns for sacrificial ceremonies, and folk songs. The folk songs are about ordinary people in everyday situations, such as working in fields, spinning and weaving, marching on campaigns, and longing for lovers.

In these books, which became classics of the Confucian tradition, the Western Zhou dynasty is described as an age when people honored family relationships and stressed social status distinctions. The early Zhou rulers did not attempt to exercise direct control over the entire region they conquered. Instead, they secured their position by selecting loyal supporters and relatives to rule walled towns and the surrounding territories. Each of these local rulers, or vassals, was generally able to pass his position on to a son, so that in time the domain became a hereditary vassal state. Within each state, there were noble houses holding hereditary titles. The rulers of the states and the members of the nobility were linked both to one another and to their ancestors by bonds of obligation based on kinship. Below the nobility were the officers (shi) and the peasants, both of which were also hereditary statuses. The relationship between each level and its superiors was conceived as a moral one. Peasants served their superiors, and their superiors looked after the peasants’ welfare. Social interaction at the upper levels was governed by li, a set of complex rules of social etiquette and personal conduct. Those who practiced li were considered civilized; those who did not, such as those outside the Zhou realm, were considered barbarians.

The Zhou kings maintained control over their vassals for more than two centuries, but as the generations passed, the ties of kinship and vassalage weakened.

Eastern Zhou (770 BCE- 256 BCE)

Dragon pendant component Eastern Zhou dynasty, 5th century BCE / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In 770 BCE several of the states rebelled and joined with non-Chinese forces to drive the Zhou from their capital. The Zhou established a new capital to the east at Chengzhou (near present-day Luoyang), where they were safer from barbarian attack, but the Eastern Zhou kings no longer exercised much political or military authority over the vassal states. In the Eastern Zhou period, real power lay with the larger states, although the Zhou kings continued as nominal overlords, partly because they were recognized as custodians of the Mandate of Heaven, but also because no single feudal state was strong enough to dominate the others.

Spring and Autumn Period (770 BCE- 403 BCE)

The Eastern Zhou period witnessed various social and economic advances. The use of iron-tipped, ox-drawn plows and improved irrigation techniques produced higher agricultural yields. This in turn supported a steady population increase. Other economic advances included the circulation of coins for money, the beginning of private ownership of land, and the growth of cities. Military technology also advanced. The Zhou developed the crossbow and methods of siege warfare, and adopted cavalry warfare from nomads to the north. Social changes were just as important, particularly the breakdown of old class barriers and the development of conscripted infantry armies.

The Hundred Schools of Thought

Birth places of notable Chinese philosophers from Hundred Schools of Thought in Zhou Dynasty / Image by SY, Wikimedia Commons

To maintain and increase power, state rulers sought the advice of teachers and strategists. This fueled intellectual activity and debate, and intense reappraisal of traditions. Though this time in Chinese history was marked by disunity and civil strife, an unprecedented era of cultural prosperity- the “golden age” of China flourished.

The atmosphere of reform and new ideas was attributed to the struggle for survival among warring regional lords who competed in building strong and loyal armies and in increasing economic production to ensure a broader base for tax collection. To effect these economic, military, and cultural developments, the regional lords needed ever-increasing numbers of skilled, literate officials and teachers, the recruitment of whom was based on merit. Also during this time, commerce was stimulated through the introduction of coinage and technological improvements. Iron came into general use, making possible not only the forging of weapons of war but also the manufacture of farm implements. Public works on a grand scale, such as flood control, irrigation projects, and canal digging, were executed. Enormous walls were built around cities and along the broad stretches of the northern frontier.

So many different philosophies developed during the late Spring and Autumn and early Warring States periods that the era is often known as the time when the One Hundred Schools of Thought contended. 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 one half millennia. Many of the 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.

There were thinkers fascinated by logical puzzles; utopians and hermits who argued for withdrawal from public life; agriculturists who argued that no one should eat who does not plough; military theorists who analyzed ways to deceive the enemy; and cosmologists who developed theories of the forces of nature, including the opposite and complementary forces of yin and yang. The three most influential schools of thought that evolved during this period were Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism.

The body of thought that had the most enduring effect on subsequent Chinese life was that of the School of Literati (ru), often called the Confucian school in the West. The written legacy of the School of Literati is embodied in the Confucian Classics, which were to become the basis for the order of traditional society. Kongfuzi, or Confucius as he is known in the West, lived from 551 BCE- 479 BCE. Also called Kong Zi, or Master Kong, Confucius was a teacher from the state of Lu (in present-day Shandong Province), revered tradition and 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.

The teaching Confucius. Portrait by Wu Daozi, 685–758, Tang Dynasty / Wikimedia Commons

Confucius exalted virtues such as filial piety (reverent respect and obedience toward parents and grandparents), humanity (an unselfish concern for the welfare of others), integrity, and a sense of duty. His ideal was the junzi(ruler’s son), which he redefined to mean gentleman; a man of moral cultivation was a superior man, rather than a man of noble birth. He repeatedly urged his students to aspire to be gentlemen who pursue integrity and duty, rather than petty men who pursue personal gain. Confucius’s teachings are known through the Lunyu (Analects), a collection of his conversations compiled by his followers after his death.

He encouraged his disciples to master historical records, music, poetry, and ritual. He tried in vain to gain high office, traveling from state to state with his disciples in search of a ruler who would employ him. Confucius talked repeatedly of his vision of a more perfect society in which rulers and subjects, nobles and commoners, parents and children, and men and women would wholeheartedly accept the parts assigned to them, devoting themselves to their responsibilities to others.

There were to be accretions to the corpus of Confucian thought, both immediately and over the millennia, and from within and outside the Confucian school. Interpretations made to suit or influence contemporary society made Confucianism dynamic while preserving a fundamental system of model behavior based on ancient texts. The eventual success of Confucian ideas owes much to Confucius’s followers in the two centuries after his death, particularly to Mencius and Xun Zi.

depicted in the album Half Portraits of the Great Sage and Virtuous Men of Old (至聖先賢半身像) / National Palace Museum, Wikimedia Commons

Mencius (372 BCE- 289 BCE), or Meng Zi, was a Confucian disciple who made major contributions to the humanism of Confucian thought. Mencius, like Confucius, traveled to various states, offering advice to their rulers. He expostulated the idea that a ruler who governed benevolently would earn the respect of the people and would unify the realm; 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.”

Mencius proposed concrete political and financial measures for easing tax burdens and otherwise improving the people’s lot. With his disciples and fellow philosophers, he discussed other issues in moral philosophy. Mencius declared that man was by nature good, arguing strongly, that everyone is born with the capacity to recognize what is right and act upon it.

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.

Portrait of Xunzi / Wikimedia Commons

Diametrically opposed to Mencius, for example, was the interpretation of Xun Zi (ca. 300 BCE-237 BCE), another Confucian follower. Xun Zi preached that man is innately selfish and evil and that goodness is attainable only through conduct befitting one’s status and education, that they learn to put moral principle above their own interests. He also argued that the best government is one based on authoritarian control, not ethical or moral persuasion.

Xun Zi stressed the importance of ritual to social and political life, but took a secular view of it. For instance, Xun Zi argued that the ruler should pray for rain during a drought because to do so is the traditional ritual, not because it moves Heaven to send rain. Xun Zi’s unsentimental and authoritarian inclinations were developed into the doctrine embodied in the School of Law (fa), or Legalism.

A late 19th century edition of the Hanfeizi by Hongwen Book Company / Photo by Huangdan2060, Wikimedia Commons

Legalism differed from both Confucianism and Daoism in its narrow focus on statecraft. The doctrine was formulated by Han Fei Zi (ca. 280 BCE- 233 BCE) and Li Si (d. 208 BCE), who reasoned that the extreme disorders of their day called for new and drastic measures. They argued that social order depended on effective systems of rewards and punishments, by rejecting the Confucian theory that strong government depended on the moral quality of the ruler and his officials and their success in winning over the people. To ensure his power, the ruler had to keep his officials in line with strict rules and regulations and his people obedient with predictably enforced laws.

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 BCE- CE 220), a system of governance came into existence that was to survive largely intact until the late 19th century.

A Qing Dynasty print showing Confucius presenting Gautama Buddha to the philosopher Lao-Tzu / Flickr, Creative Commons

The doctrines of Taoism (Daoism), the second great school of philosophy that emerged during the Warring States Period, also developed during the Zhou period and set forth in the Daodejing (Classic of the Way and Its Power), which is attributed traditionally to the legendary sage Lao Zi (ca. 579 BCE- 490 BCE), or Old Master, and in the compiled writings of Zhuangzi (369 BCE- 286 BCE). Both works share a disapproval of the unnatural and artificial. Whereas plants and animals act spontaneously in the ways appropriate to them, humans have separated themselves from the Way (Dao) by plotting and planning, analyzing and organizing. Both texts reject social conventions and call for an ecstatic surrender to the spontaneity of cosmic processes. At the political level, Daoism advocated a return to primitive agricultural communities, in which life could follow the most natural course. Government policy should be one of extreme noninterference, permitting the people to respond to nature spontaneously. The Zhuangzi is much longer than the Daodejing. A literary masterpiece, it is full of tall tales, parables, and fictional encounters between historical figures. Zhuangzi poked fun at people mired in everyday affairs and urged people to see death as part of the natural cosmic processes.

The focus of Taoism is the individual in nature rather than the individual in society. It 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 Dao of the universe. In many ways the opposite of rigid Confucian moralism, Taoism served many of its adherents as a complement to their ordered 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.

A page from the Mozi / Wikimedia Commons

Still another school of thought was based on the doctrine of Mo Zi (ca. 470 BCE- 391 BCE), 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 pacificism. 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 indelible impression on the Chinese mind.

Warring States Period (403 BCE- 221 BCE)

As the king’s political authority declined, the states on the periphery of the old heartland gained the most power because they had room to expand their territory. During the 7th and 6th centuries BCE, brief periods of stability were achieved through alliances among states, under the domination of the strongest member. By the late 5th century BCE, however, the system of alliances had proved untenable. The years from 403 BCE to 221 BCE became known as the Warring States Period because the conflicts were particularly frequent and deadly.In addition to warring with and sometimes absorbing other Zhou states, the peripheral states of Chao, Yen, Qin, and Chu expanded outward, extending Chinese culture into a larger area. The southern state of Chu, for example, expanded rapidly in the Yangtze Valley. Chu also defeated and absorbed at least 50 small states as it extended its reach north to the heartland of the Zhou territory and east to absorb the old states of Wu and Yue. By the 3rd century BCE, Chu was on the forefront of cultural innovation. It produced the greatest literary masterpieces of the late Zhou period, which were later collected in the Chu ci (Songs of the South). The Chu ci is an anthology of fantastical poems full of images of elusive deities and shamans who can fly through the spirit world.

The First Imperial Period (221 BCE- 220 CE)

A statue of Shi Huangdi (259-210 BCE, also known as Qin Shi Huang, Qin Shih Huandi, Shih Huan-ti and Shi Huangti) who was the first emperor of a unified China. / Photo by Dennis Jarvis, Flickr, Creative Commons

Much of what came to constitute China Proper was unified for the first time in 221 BCE In that year the western frontier state of Qin, the most aggressive of the Warring States, subjugated the last of its rival states. (Qin in Wade-Giles Romanization is Ch’in, from which the English China probably derived.) Once the king of Qin consolidated his power, he took the title Shi Huangdi (First Emperor), a formulation previously reserved for deities and the mythological sage-emperors, and imposed Qin’s centralized, nonhereditary bureaucratic system on his new empire. In subjugating the six other major states of Eastern Zhou, the Qin kings had relied heavily on Legalist scholar-advisers. Centralization, achieved by ruthless methods, was focused on standardizing legal codes and bureaucratic procedures, the forms of writing and coinage, and the pattern of thought and scholarship. 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 a 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 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 BCE. His dynasty was extinguished less than twenty years after its triumph. 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 Han (206 BCE- CE 220), emerged with its capital at Chang’an. The new empire retained much of the Qin administrative structure but retreated a bit 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 (ca. 145 BCE- 87 BCE), 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 BCE- 87 BCE). Technological advances also marked this period. Two of the great Chinese inventions, paper and porcelain, date from Han times.

The Han dynasty, after which the members of the ethnic majority in China, the “people of Han,” are named, was notable also for its military prowess. The empire expanded westward as far as the rim of the Tarim Basin (in modern Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region), making possible relatively secure caravan traffic across Central Asia to Antioch, Baghdad, and Alexandria. 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 2nd century BCE 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 overlordship. Tributary 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 (in 9 CE- 24 CE by Wang Mang, a reformer), and then 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 characteristic of the dynastic cycle, by 220 CE the Han empire collapsed.

Era of Disunity (220 CE- 589 CE)

Timeline of territorial changes during the Three Kingdoms period / Image by Quishufang, Wikimedia Commons

The collapse of the Han dynasty was followed by nearly four centuries of rule by warlords. The age of civil wars and disunity began with the era of the Three Kingdoms (Wei, Shu, and Wu, which had overlapping reigns during the period 220 CE- 80 CE). In later times, fiction and drama greatly romanticized the reputed chivalry of this period. Unity was restored briefly in the early years of the Jin dynasty (265 CE- 420 CE), but the Jin could not long contain the invasions of the nomadic peoples. In 317 CE, the Jin court was forced to flee from Luoyang and reestablished itself at Nanjing to the south. The transfer of the capital coincided with China’s political fragmentation into a succession of dynasties that was to last from 304 CE to 589 CE. During this period the process of sinicization accelerated among the non-Chinese arrivals in the north and among the aboriginal tribesmen in the south. This process was also accompanied by the increasing popularity of Buddhism (introduced into China in the 1st century CE) in both north and south China. Despite the political disunity of the times, there were notable technological advances. The invention of gunpowder (at that time for use only in fireworks) and the wheelbarrow is believed to date from the 6th or 7th century. Advances in medicine, astronomy, and cartography are also noted by historians.

Restoration of Empire (589 CE- 1279 CE)

China was reunified in 589 CE by the short-lived Sui dynasty (581 CE- 617 CE), which has often been compared to the earlier Qin dynasty in tenure and the ruthlessness of its accomplishments. The Sui dynasty’s early demise was attributed to the government’s tyrannical demands on the people, who bore the crushing burden of taxes and compulsory labor. These resources were overstrained in the completion of the Grand Canal–a monumental engineering feat–and in the undertaking of other construction projects, including the reconstruction of the Great Wall. Weakened by costly and disastrous military campaigns against Korea in the early seventh century, the dynasty disintegrated through a combination of popular revolts, disloyalty, and assassination.

Portrait painting of Emperor Yang of Sui, commissioned in 643 by Taizong, painted by Yan Liben (600–673) / Museum of Fine Arts, Wikimedia Commons

The Tang dynasty (618 CE- 907 CE), with its capital at Chang’an, is regarded by historians as a high point in Chinese civilization–equal, or even superior, to the Han period. Its territory, acquired through the military exploits of its early rulers, was greater than that of the Han. Stimulated by contact with India and the Middle East, the empire saw a flowering of creativity in many fields. Buddhism, originating in India around the time of Confucius, flourished during the Tang period, becoming thoroughly sinicized and a permanent part of Chinese traditional culture. Block printing was invented, making the written word available to vastly greater audiences. The Tang period was the golden age of literature and art. A government system supported by a large class of Confucian literati selected through civil service examinations was perfected under Tang rule. This competitive procedure was designed to draw the best talents into government. But perhaps an even greater consideration for the Tang rulers, aware that imperial dependence on powerful aristocratic families and warlords would have destabilizing consequences, was to create a body of career officials having no autonomous territorial or functional power base. As it turned out, these scholar-officials acquired status in their local communities, family ties, and shared values that connected them to the imperial court. From Tang times until the closing days of the Qing empire in 1911, scholar-officials functioned often as intermediaries between the grass-roots level and the government.

By the middle of the 8th century CE, Tang power had ebbed. Domestic economic instability and military defeat in 751 by Arabs at Talas, in Central Asia, marked the beginning of five centuries of steady military decline for the Chinese empire. Misrule, court intrigues, economic exploitation, and popular rebellions weakened the empire, making it possible for northern invaders to terminate the dynasty in 907. The next half-century saw the fragmentation of China into five northern dynasties and ten southern kingdoms. But in 960 a new power, Song (960- 1279), reunified most of China Proper. The Song period divides into two phases: Northern Song (960- 1127) and Southern Song (1127- 1279). The division was caused by the forced abandonment of north China in 1127 by the Song court, which could not push back the nomadic invaders.

The founders of the Song dynasty built an effective centralized bureaucracy staffed with civilian scholar-officials. Regional military governors and their supporters were replaced by centrally appointed officials. This system of civilian rule led to a greater concentration of power in the emperor and his palace bureaucracy than had been achieved in the previous dynasties.

Emperor Taizu of Song (r. 960–976), a court portrait painting / National Palace Museum (Taipei), Wikimedia Commons

The Song dynasty is notable for the development of cities not only for administrative purposes but also as centers of trade, industry, and maritime commerce. The landed scholar-officials, sometimes collectively referred to as the gentry, lived in the provincial centers alongside the shopkeepers, artisans, and merchants. A new group of wealthy commoners–the mercantile class–arose as printing and education spread, private trade grew, and a market economy began to link the coastal provinces and the interior. Landholding and government employment were no longer the only means of gaining wealth and prestige.

Culturally, the Song refined many of the developments of the previous centuries. Included in these refinements were not only the Tang ideal of the universal man, who combined the qualities of scholar, poet, painter, and statesman, but also historical writings, painting, calligraphy, and hard-glazed porcelain. Song intellectuals sought answers to all philosophical and political questions in the Confucian Classics. This renewed interest in the Confucian ideals and society of ancient times coincided with the decline of Buddhism, which the Chinese regarded as foreign and offering few practical guidelines for the solution of political and other mundane problems.

The Song Neo-Confucian philosophers, finding a certain purity in the originality of the ancient classical texts, wrote commentaries on them. The most influential of these philosophers was Zhu Xi (1130- 1200), whose synthesis of Confucian thought and Buddhist, Taoist, and other ideas became the official imperial ideology from late Song times to the late 19th century. As incorporated into the examination system, Zhu Xi’s philosophy evolved into a rigid official creed, which stressed the one-sided obligations of obedience and compliance of subject to ruler, child to father, wife to husband, and younger brother to elder brother. The effect was to inhibit the societal development of pre-modern China, resulting both in many generations of political, social, and spiritual stability and in a slowness of cultural and institutional change up to the nineteenth century. Neo-Confucian doctrines also came to play the dominant role in the intellectual life of Korea, Vietnam, and Japan.

By the mid-thirteenth century, the Mongols had subjugated north China, Korea, and the Muslim kingdoms of Central Asia and had twice penetrated Europe. With the resources of his vast empire, Kublai Khan (1215- 1294), a grandson of Genghis Khan (ca. 1167- 1227) and the supreme leader of all Mongol tribes, began his drive against the Southern Song. Even before the extinction of the Song dynasty, Kublai Khan had established the first alien dynasty to rule all China- the Yüan (1279-1368).

Originally published by Richard R. Wertz at Exploring Chinese History under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.