Early Chinese Dynasties

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 02.23.2018
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

1 – The Mythical Period

1.1 – Introduction

1.1.1 – Overview

Early prehistoric China is called the “Mythical Period.” It encompassed the legends of Pangu, and the rule of the Three Sovereigns, and the Five Emperors. The period ended when the last Emperor, Shun, left his throne to Yu the Great, and the Xia Dynasty began.

1.1.2 – History as Told by Archaeological Evidence

Pangu: Portrait of Pangu, the creator of the universe according to Chinese mythology. This portrait is from Sancai Tuhui, a Chinese encyclopedia published in 1609, during the Ming Dynasty.

As in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus River valley, civilization in China developed around a great river. The Yellow River and the Huai and Yangtze Rivers, created fertile land, ripe for experimentation with agriculture. By around 4000 BCE, villages began to appear in these areas. The Neolithic Chinese cultivated a number of crops; the most important was a grain called millet. They also domesticated animals, such as pigs, dogs, and chickens. Silk production, through the domestication of silkworms, also likely began in this early period.

These villages influenced each other more and more over time, and by 2000 BCE a unified Chinese culture began to develop. There is also evidence of urbanism and the use of early writing d this time. These phenomena took place in China about 1000 years later than in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus River valley.

1.1.3 – History as Told by Chinese Legend

Chinese mythology tells a different story of the beginning of civilization. It holds that the universe was created by Pangu, the first living being. After his death, Pangu’s left eye became the sun and his right eye became the moon. The Three Sovereigns and the Five Emperors, a series of legendary sage emperors and heroes, helped create man. These legendary rulers taught the ancient Chinese to speak, use fire, build houses, farm, and make clothing. Fuxi and his wife, Nüwa, were credited with introducing domesticated animals and creating the basic social structure of family life. Shennong was a divine farmer who gave the people knowledge of agriculture.

The existence of these emperors occurred before written Chinese history, and so the dates of reign are uncertain. The Five Emperors began with Huangdi, or the Yellow Emperor, whose reign is believed to be from 2698-2599 BCE. He was considered the founding ancestor of the Han Chinese ethnic group, and is credited with the invention of Chinese characters, silk, and traditional Chinese medicine.

The Yellow Emperor, or Huangdi.: Portrait of the first of the Five Emperors, who was considered the original ancestor for Han Chinese.

Next came Zhuanxu, who was credited with the invention of the Chinese calendar and the introduction of religion and astrology. Little is known about Emperor Ku’s reign, believed to be from 2412-2343 BCE. Emperor Yao, whose reign was from 2317-2234 BCE, was credited with being a role model in dignity and diligence to future emperors, and was the inventor of the game “weiqi” (also known as “Go”). The last was Emperor Shun, whose reign was from 2233-2205 BCE, was known for his devotion. He left his throne to Yu the Great, who founded the Xia dynasty, and instituted the practice of passing rulership to a son. While these events are mythological, at their root there may be ancient memories of very early kings and rulers who emerged among the prehistoric Chinese, similar to the tales of Gilgamesh in Mesopotamia.

1.2 – The Xia Dynasty

The final part of the Mythical Period was under the rule of the legendary Xia Dynasty, which may have been mythological. After the final ruler became corrupt, he was overthrown by Cheng Tang, who founded the Shang Dynasty.

1.2.1 – Sima Qian’s Historical Records

Depiction of Yu the Great: This hanging scroll shows Yu the Great, as imagined by Song Dynasty painter Ma Lin.

The earliest comprehensive history of China is the Historical Records, written by Sima Qian, a renowned Chinese historiographer of the 2nd century BCE. This history begins around 3600 BCE, with an account of the Five Emperors. According to this history, the last of the great Five Emperors, Emperor Shun, left his throne to Yu the Great, who founded China’s First Dynasty, the Xia Dynasty. Yu supposedly began the practice of inherited rule (passing power from father to son), a model that was perpetuated in the later Shang and Zhou dynasties.

Sima Qian’s Historical Records:The first page of Sima Qian’s Historical Records.

According to mythology, Yu’s descendants ruled China for nearly 500 years, until the last Xia king became corrupt and cruel. This led to his overthrow in c. 1760 BCE by Cheng Tang, who founded a new dynasty, the Shang Dynasty, in the Huang River Valley.

1.2.2 – Debates Over the Existence of the Xia Dynasty

There is much debate among scholars about how much of this mythology is true. Many argue that the Zhou Dynasty, which ruled China much later, invented the idea of the Xia Dynasty to support their claim that China could only be, and had always been, ruled by one ruler. The Zhou created the idea of the “Mandate of Heaven,” which stated that there could be only one legitimate ruler of China at any given time. If he was a good ruler, he would have the support of heaven; if he was despotic, he would be overthrown. The various small states that had comprised Neolithic and Bronze Age China contradicted this version of history. Some people argue, therefore, that the Zhou may have created the idea of an ancient Xia Dynasty to support the idea that China always had one ruler.

Nonetheless, the Xia Dynasty may not be a complete fabrication; recent archaeological evidence may support its existence. (For a long time it was believed that the later Shang Dynasty may also have been purely mythological, until archaeology proved that it was real.) Archaeologists have discovered an advanced Bronze Age culture in China. Its capital, Erlitou, was a huge city around 2000 BCE. This may in fact be the people referred to in Chinese mythology as the Xia. It is believed that the Xia may have created a primitive writing system, though no evidence of this has been found. However, evidence does suggest that the Xia developed agricultural methods and experienced considerable prosperity. However, lack of irrigation and flood protection made the region prone to frequent floods and other natural disasters.

2 – The Shang Dynasty

2.1 – Introduction

The Shang Dynasty existed in the Yellow River Valley during the second millennium BCE. It built huge cities, monopolized bronze, and developed writing, until it was overthrown by the Zhou.

2.1.1 – Overview

The Shang Dynasty (also called the Yin Dynasty) succeeded the Xia Dynasty, and was followed by the Zhou Dynasty. It was located in the Yellow River valley during the second millennium BCE.

Map of Shang Dynasty: This map shows the location of the Shang Dynasty in the Yellow River valley.

Jie, the last king of the Xia Dynasty (the first Chinese dynasty), was overthrown c. 1760 BCE by Cheng Tang. It is estimated the Shang ruled from either 1766-1122 or 1556-1046 BCE.

While scholars still debate whether the Xia Dynasty actually existed, there is little doubt  that the Shang Dynasty existed. The Shang Dynasty is, therefore, generally considered China’s first historical dynasty.

Under the Shang Dynasty, a unified sense of Chinese culture emerged. This culture would continue to thrive and evolve, and many modern Chinese still see the Shang culture as China’s dominant culture. Under the Shang Dynasty, the Chinese built huge cities with strong social class divisions, expanded irrigation systems, monopolized the use of bronze, and developed a system of writing. Shang kings were believed to fulfill sacred, not political, purposes. Instead, a council of chosen advisers administered various aspects of the government. The border territories of Shang rule were led by chieftains, who gained the right to govern through connections with royalty.

The Shang Dynasty was overthrown in 1046 BCE by the Zhou, a subject people living in the western part of the kingdom.

2.1.2 – Archaeological Evidence

The Shang Dynasty is the oldest Chinese dynasty supported by archaeological finds. These have included 11 major Yin royal tombs and building sites of palaces and rituals, as well as weapons and remains of human and animal sacrifices, and artifacts, including bronze, jade, stone, bone, and ceramic.

The oldest surviving form of Chinese writing is inscriptions of divination records on the bones or shells of animals—so-called oracle bones. However, the writing on the oracle bones shows evidence of complex development, indicating that written language had existed for a long time. In fact, modern scholars are able to read it because the language was very similar to the modern Chinese writing system.

Archaeologists have also found ancient cities that correspond with the Shang Dynasty. When Cheng Tang overthrew the last king of the Xia Dynasty, he supposedly founded a new capital for his dynasty at a town called Shang, near modern-day Zhengzhou. Archaeological remains of this town may have been found—it seems to have functioned as a sacred capital, where the most sacred temples and religious objects were housed. This city also had palaces, workshops, and city walls.

Anyang, in modern-day Henan, is another important (but slightly later) Shang city that has been excavated. This site yielded large numbers of oracle bones that describe the travels of eleven named kings. The names and timeframes of these kings match traditional lists of Shang kings. Anyang was a huge city, with an extensive cemetery of thousands of graves and 11 large tombs—evidence of the city’s labor force, which may have belonged to the 11 Shang kings.

2.2 – Society Under the Shang Dynasty

2.2.1 – Introduction

The Shang Dynasty was located in the Yellow River valley in China during the second millennium BCE. It was a society that followed a class system of land-owners, soldiers, bronze workers, and peasants.

The Shang Dynasty (also called the Yin Dynasty) succeeded the Xia Dynasty, and was followed by the Zhou Dynasty. It was located in the Yellow River valley during the second millennium BCE. It featured a stratified social system made up of aristocrats, soldiers, artisans and craftsmen, and peasants.

2.2.2 – The Aristocracy and the Military

Bronze battle-axe: A bronze battle-axe dated to the Shang Dynasty.

The aristocracy were centered around Anyang, the Shang capital, and conducted governmental affairs for the surrounding areas. Regional territories farther from the capital were also controlled by the wealthy.

The Shang military were next in social status, and who were respected and honored for their skill. There were two subdivisions of the military: the infantry (foot soldiers) and the chariot warriors. The latter were noted for their great skill in warfare and hunting. Archaeological evidence has supported the use of horses and other cavalry during the late Shang period, c. 1250 BCE.

2.2.3 – Artisans and Craftsmen

Houmuwu Ding: The “Houmuwu Ding” is the heaviest piece of bronze work found in China so far.

Artisans and craftsmen comprised the middle class of Shang society. Their largest contribution was their work with bronze, which the Chinese developed as early as 1500 BCE. Their work with bronze was a very important aspect of society. Bronze weapons and pottery were commonly made, but the most prominent creations included ritual vessels and treasures, many of which were discovered via archaeological findings in the 1920s and 1930s. Shang aristocrats and the royalty were likely buried with large numbers of bronze valuables, particularly wine vessels and other ornate structures.

2.2.4 – Peasants

At the bottom of the social ladder were the peasants, the poorest of Chinese citizens. They comprised the majority of the population, and were limited to farming and selling crops for profit. Archaeological findings have shown that masses of peasants were buried with aristocrats, leading some scholars to believe that they were the equivalent of slaves. However, other scholars have countered that they may have been similar to serfs. Peasants were governed directly by local aristocrats.

2.3 – Shang Religion

2.3.1 – Introduction

Shangdi: One depiction of Shangdi, the Supreme Being who ruled over humanity and nature. 

Shang religion was characterized by a combination of animism, shamanism, spiritual control of the world, divination, and respect and worship of dead ancestors, including through sacrifice. Different gods represented natural and mythological symbols, such as the moon, sun, wind, rain, dragon, and phoenix. Peasants prayed to these gods for bountiful harvests. Festivals to celebrate gods were also common. In particular, the Shang kings, who considered themselves divine rulers, consulted the great god Shangdi (the “Supreme Being” who ruled over humanity and nature) for advice and wisdom. The Shang believed that the ancestors could also confer good fortune, so they would also consult ancestors through oracle bones in order to seek approval for any major decision, and to learn about future success in harvesting, hunting, or battle.

2.3.2 – Oracle Bones and Divination

Oracle Bone: This oracle bone from the Shang Dynasty dates to the reign of King Wu Ding.

The oldest surviving form of Chinese writing is inscriptions of divination records on the bones or shells of animals—so-called oracle bones. Oracle bones were pieces of bone or turtle shell used by the ancient Chinese, especially Chinese kings, in attempts to predict the future. The ancient kings would inscribe their name and the date on the bone along with a question. They would then heat the bone until it cracked, and then interpret the shape of the crack, which was believed to provide an answer to their question.

Questions were carved into oracle bones, such as, “Will we win the upcoming battle?”, or “How many soldiers should we commit to the battle?” The bones reveal a great deal about what was important to Shang society. Many of the oracle bones ask questions about war, harvests, and childbirth.

2.3.3 – The Afterlife

The Burial Pit at the Tomb of Lady Fu Hao: This tomb is located in the ruins of the ancient Shang Dynasty capital, Yin.

It appears that there was belief in the afterlife during the Shang Dynasty. Archaeologists have found Shang tombs surrounded by the skulls and bodies of human sacrifices. Some of these contain jade, which was seen to protect against decay and give immortality. Archaeologists believed that Shang tombs were very similar to those found in the Egyptian pyramids, in that they buried servants with them. Chinese archaeologists theorize that the Shang, like the ancient Egyptians, believed their servants would continue to serve them in the afterlife, so aristocrats’ servants would be killed and buried with them when they died. Another interpretation is that these were enemy warriors captured in battle.

2.3.4 – The Lunar Calendar

The Shang also established a lunar calendar that was used to predict and record events, such as harvests, births, and deaths (of rulers and peasants alike). The system assumed a 29-day month that began and ended with each new moon; twelve lunar months comprised one lunar year. Priests and astronomers were trained to recalculate the lunar year and add enough days so that each year lasted 365 days. Because the calendar was used to time both crop planting and the harvest, the king had to employ skilled astronomers to predict dates (and successes) of annual harvests; this would help him maintain support from the people.

2.4 – Advancements Under the Shang

During the Shang Dynasty, bronze casting became more sophisticated. Military technology also advanced as horses were domesticated and chariots came into existence.

2.4.1 – Shang Bronze Technology

The Shang ruled China during its Bronze Age; perhaps the most important technology at the time was bronze casting. The Shang cast bronze objects by creating molds out of clay, carving a design into the clay, and then pouring molten bronze into the mold. They allowed the bronze to cool and then broke the clay off, revealing a completed bronze object.

Shang Dynasty Bronze: This bronze ding vessel dates to the Shang Dynasty.

The upper classes had the most access to bronze, and they used it for ceremonial objects, and to make offerings to ancestors. Bronze objects were also buried in the tombs of Shang elite. The Shang government used bronze for military weapons, such as swords and spearheads. These weapons gave them a distinct advantage over their enemies.

2.4.2 – Shang Military Technology

Shang Dynasty Bronze Battle Axe: This bronze axe is an example of Shang bronze work. 

The chariot was military technology that allowed the Shang to excel at war. Under the Shang, the Chinese domesticated the horse. Horses of that time were still too small to ride, but the Chinese gradually developed the chariot, which harnessed the horse’s power. The chariot was a devastating weapon in battle, and it also allowed Shang soldiers to move vast distances at great speeds. A chariot burial site at Anyang (modern-day Henan) dates to the rule of King Wu Ding of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1200 BCE). Oracle bone inscriptions show that the Shang used chariots as mobile command vehicles and in royal hunts. Members of the royal household were often buried with a chariot, horses and a charioteer.

These military technologies were important, because the Shang were constantly at war. A significant number of Shang oracle bones were concerned with battle. The Shang armies expanded the borders of the kingdom and captured precious resources and prisoners of war, who could be enslaved or used as human sacrifice. The oracle bones also show deep concern over the “barbarians” living outside the empire, who were a constant threat to the safety and stability of the kingdom; the military had to be constantly ready to fight them.

3 – The Zhou Dynasty

3.1 – The Mandate of Heaven

The Zhou Dynasty overthrew the Shang Dynasty, and used the Mandate of Heaven as justification.

3.1.1 – The Fall of the Shang

Map of Zhou Dynasty: This map shows the location of the ancient Zhou Dynasty. 

In 1046 BCE, the Zhou, a subject people living in the western part of the kingdom, overthrew the Shang Dynasty at the Battle of Muye. This was a battle between Shang and Zhou clans, over the Shang’s expansion. They largely had the support of the Chinese people: Di Xin (the final king of the Shang Dynasty) had become cruel, spent state money on drinking and gambling, and ignored the state. The Zhou established authority by forging alliances with regional nobles, and founded their new dynasty with its capital at Fenghao (near present-day Xi’an, in western China).

3.1.2 – The Mandate

Under the Zhou Dynasty, China moved away from worship of Shangdi (“Celestial Lord”) in favor of worship of Tian (“heaven”), and they created the Mandate of Heaven. According to this idea, there could be only one legitimate ruler of China at a time, and this ruler reigned as the “Son of Heaven” with the approval of the gods. If a king ruled unfairly he could lose this approval, which would result in his downfall. Overthrow, natural disasters, and famine were taken as a sign that the ruler had lost the Mandate of Heaven.

The Chinese Character for “Tian”: The Chinese character for “Tian,” meaning “heaven,” in (from left to right) Bronze script, Seal script, Oracle script, and modern simplified.

The Mandate of Heaven did not require a ruler to be of noble birth, and had no time limitations. Instead, rulers were expected to be good and just in order to keep the Mandate. The Zhou claimed that their rule was justified by the Mandate of Heaven. In other words, the Zhou believed that the Shang kings had become immoral with their excessive drinking, luxuriant living, and cruelty, and so had lost their mandate. The gods’ blessing was given instead to the new ruler under the Zhou Dynasty, which would rule China for the next 800 years.

The need for the Zhou to create a history of a unified China is also why some scholars think the Xia Dynasty may have been an invention of the Zhou. The Zhou needed to erase the various small states of prehistoric China from history, and replace them with the monocratic Xia Dynasty in order for their Mandate of Heaven to seem valid (i.e., to support the claim that there always would be, and always had been, only one ruler of China).

The Zhou ruled until 256 BCE, when the state of Qin captured Chengzhou. However, the Mandate of Heaven philosophy carried on throughout ancient China.

3.2 – Society Under the Zhou Dynasty

Under the initial period of the Zhou Dynasty (called the Western Zhou period), a number of innovations were made, rulers were legitimized under the Mandate of Heaven, a feudal system developed, and new forms of irrigation allowed the population to expand.

The first period of Zhou rule, during which the Zhou held undisputed power over China, is known as the Western Zhou period. This period ended when the capital was moved eastward. A number of important innovations took place during this period: the Zhou moved away from worship of Shangdi, the supreme god under the Shang, in favor of Tian (“heaven”); they legitimized rulers, through the Mandate of Heaven (divine right to rule);  they moved to a feudal system; developed Chinese philosophy; and made new advances in irrigation that allowed more intensive farming and made it possible for the lands of China to sustain larger populations.

China created a substantial amount of literature during the Zhou Dynasty. These include The Book of History and The Book of Diviners, which was used by fortune tellers. Books dedicated to songs and ceremonial rites were also created. While many of these writings have been destroyed over time, their lasting impression on history is evidence of the strength of Zhou culture.

Like other river valley civilizations of the time, the people under the Zhou Dynasty followed patriarchal roles. Men chose which children would be educated and whom their daughters were married. The household usually consisted of the head male, his wife, his sons and unmarried daughters.

The feudal system in China was structurally similar to ones that followed, such as pre-imperial Macedon, Europe, and Japan. At the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty’s rule, the Duke of Zhou, a regent to the king, held a lot of power, and the king rewarded the loyalty of nobles and generals with large pieces of land. Delegating regional control in this way allowed the Zhou to maintain control over a massive land area. Under this feudal (fengjian) system, land could be passed down within families, or broken up further and granted to more people.

Most importantly, the peasants who farmed the land were controlled by the feudal system. Slavery had been common during the Shang Dynasty, but this decreased and finally disappeared under the Zhou Dynasty, as social status became more fluid and transitory.

The Duke of Zhou: Portrait of the Duke of Zhou in Sancai Tuhui, a Chinese encyclopedia published in 1609 during the Ming Dynasty.

When the Duke of Zhou stepped down, China was united and at peace, leading to years of prosperity. But this only lasted for about seventy-five years. Over time, the central power of the Zhou Dynasty slowly weakened, and the lords of the fiefs originally bestowed by the Zhou came to equal the kings in wealth and influence. They began to actively compete with them for power, and the fiefs gained independence as individual states.

Finally, in 711 BCE, one rebellious noble, the Marquess of Shen, joined forces with invading barbarians, the Quanrong, to defeat the King You. No one came to the king’s defense, and he was killed. The Zhou capital was sacked by the barbarians, and with this the Western Zhou period ended.

3.3 – Art Under the Zhou Dynasty

Under the Zhou Dynasty, many art forms expanded and became more detailed, including bronze, bronze inscriptions, painting, and lacquerware.

3.3.1 – Bronze, Ceramics, and Jade

Chinese script cast onto bronzeware, such as bells and cauldrons, carried over from the Shang Dynasty into the Zhou; it showed continued changes in style over time, and by region. Under the Zhou, expansion of this form of writing continued, with the inclusion of patrons and ancestors.

Example of Bronze Inscription: This example of bronze inscription was cast on the Song ding, ca. 800 BCE. The text records the appointment of a man named Song (颂) as supervisor of the storehouses in Chengzhou, and is repeated on at least 3 tripod pots (鼎 dǐng), 5 tureens (簋 guǐ) and their lids, and 2 vases (壺 hú) and their lids.

Other improvements to bronze objects under the Eastern Zhou included greater attention to detail and aesthetics. The casting process itself was improved by a new technique, called the lost wax method of production.

Example of Western Zhou Bronze: A Chinese bronze “gui” ritual vessel on a pedestal, used as a container for grain. From the Western Zhou Dynasty, dated c. 1000 BC. The written inscription of 11 ancient Chinese characters on the bronze vessel states its use and ownership by Zhou royalty.

Ceramic and Jade art continued from the Shang Dynasty, and was improved and refined, especially during the Warring States Period.

3.3.2 – Paintings

Example of Silk Painting: This example of silk painting shows a man riding a dragon, and has been dated to the 5th-3rd century BCE.

Very few paintings from the Zhou have survived, however written descriptions of the works have remained. Representations of the real world, in the form of paintings of figures, portraits, and historical scenes, were common during the time. This was a new development. Painting was also done on pottery, tomb walls, and on silk.

3.3.3 – Lacquerware

Example of Lacquerware: These are Chinese Western Han (202 BC – 9 CE) era lacquerwares and lacquer tray unearthed from the 2nd-century-BCE Han Tomb No.1 at Mawangdui, Changsha, China in 1972.

Lacquerware was a technique through which objects were decoratively covered by a wood finish and cured to a hard, durable finish. The lacquer itself might also be inlaid or carved. The Zhou continued and developed lacquer work done in the Shang Dynasty. During the Eastern Zhou period, a large quantity of lacquerware began to be produced.

3.4 – The Easter Zhou Period

The Eastern Zhou period was divided into two halves. In the Spring and Autumn period, power became decentralized as nobles vied for power. In the Warring States period, strong states fought each other in large-scale war. During the period, there were substantial intellectual and military developments.

3.4.1 – The End of the Western Zhou Period

The first period of Zhou rule, which lasted from 1046-771 BCE and was referred to as the Western Zhou period, was characterized mostly by unified, peaceful rule. The lords under feudalism gained increasing power, and ultimately the Zhou King You was assassinated, and the capital, Haojing, was sacked in 770 BCE. The capital was quickly moved east to Chengzhou, near modern-day Luoyang, and the Zhou abandoned the western regions. Thus, the assassination marked the end of the Western Zhou period and the beginning of the Eastern Zhou period.

3.4.2 – The Spring and Autumn Period of Easter Zhou

The first part of the Eastern Zhou period is known as the Spring and Autumn period, named after the Spring and Autumn Annals, a text that narrated events on a year-by-year basis, and marked the beginning of China’s deliberately recorded history. This period lasted from about 771-476 BCE. During this time, power became increasingly decentralized as regional feudal lords began to absorb smaller powers and vie for hegemony. The monarchy continued to lose power, and the people were nearly always at war.

The period from 685-591 BCE was called The Five Hegemons, and featured, in order, the Hegemony of Qi, Song, Jin, Qin, and Chu. By the end of 5th century BCE, the feudal system was consolidated into seven prominent and powerful states—Han, Wei, Zhao, Yue, Chu, Qi, and Qin—and China entered the Warring States period, when each state vied for complete control.

3.4.3 – The Warring States Period

A Map of the Warring States of China: This map shows the Warring States late in the period. Qin has expanded southwest, Chu north and Zhao northwest.

This period, in the second half of the Eastern Zhou, lasted from about 475-221 BCE, when China was united under the Qin Dynasty. The partition of the Jin state created seven major warring states. After a series of wars among these powerful states, King Zhao of Qin defeated King Nan of Zhou and conquered West Zhou in 256 BCE; his grandson, King Zhuangxiang of Qin, conquered East Zhou, bringing the Zhou Dynasty to an end.

3.4.4 – Developments During the Eastern Zhou

While the chariot remained in use, there was a shift during the period to infantry, possibly because of the invention of the crossbow. This meant that war became larger scale, as peasants were drafted to take the place of nobility as soldiers and needed complex logistical support. The aristocracy’s importance dwindled as the king’s became stronger, and strong central bureaucracies took hold. The Art of War, attributed to Sun Tzu, was written during this time; it remains a very influential book about strategy.

A sophisticated form of commercial arithmetic was in place during the period, as shown by a bundle of bamboo slips showing two digit decimal multiplication.

Bamboo Slips Showing Arithmetic: These bamboo slips show a sophisticated two digit decimal multiplication table.

A history of the Spring and Autumn Period, called the Zuo Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals, was published during this time.

Iron Sword from the Warring States Period: This iron sword is an example of the metal work done during this period. 

Developments in iron work replaced bronze as the dominant metal used in warfare. Trade became increasingly important among states within China. Large-scale works, including the Dujiangyan Irrigation System and the Zhengguo Canal, were completed and increased agricultural production.

3.5 – The Warring States Period

3.5.1 – Introduction

The Warring States period saw technological and philosophical development, and the emergence of the Qin Dynasty.

Over the course of the Spring and Autumn period, regional feudal lords consolidated and absorbed smaller powers; by 476 BCE, seven prominent states were left, all led by individual kings. The second part of the Eastern Zhou period is known as the Warring States period; during this time these few remaining states battled each other for total power.

3.5.2 – Conflict Among the Seven States

The king by now was powerless, and the rulers of the seven independent states began to refer to themselves as kings as well. These major Chinese states were in constant competition. Since none of the states wanted any one rival to become too powerful, if one state became too strong, the others would join forces against it, so no state achieved dominance. This led to nearly 250 years of inconclusive warfare that became larger and larger in scale. It was also at this point that there first emerged the concept of a Chinese emperor who would rule over all the various kings, though the first Chinese emperors did not rule until China was unified under the later Qin Dynasty. The crossbow was invented, and its low cost and easy use (as compared to the expensive chariot) resulted in the increased conscription of peasants as expandable infantry.

3.5.3 – Technological and Philosophical Development

The Iron Age had reached China by 600 CE, but it was during this period that the age spread and took root in China: by the time of the Warring States Period, China saw a widespread adoption of iron tools and weapons that were significantly stronger than their bronze counterparts.

This period also saw the further development of the philosophical movements that originated in the Hundred Schools of Thought of the Spring and Autumn period. Mencius further developed Confucian philosophy, expanding upon its doctrines and asserting the innate goodness of the individual and the importance of destiny. Daoism, Legalism, and Mohism became more developed. Archaic writing also gave way to a far more recognizable form of Chinese script.

3.5.4 – Cultural, Economic, and Social Development

Two fundamental Chinese social characteristics had become apparent by this time: l) the concept of the patrilineal family as the basic unit in society, with high importance placed on blood relations, and 2) the concept of natural social differentiation into classes, each regarded in terms of their contributions to society.

Large-scale projects, like the Dujiangyan Irrigation System and the Zhengguo Canal, were carried out. Sophisticated arithmetic was carried out, including two digit decimal multiplication.

The Zuo Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals was a literary achievement. In other literary works, sayings of philosophers of the period were recorded in the Analects and the Art of War.

3.5.5 – The Rise of the Qin State and Resolution of the Warring States Period

Though the military rivalries and alliances in the Warring States period were complex and constantly in flux, over time the Qin state, under the leadership of King Zheng, emerged as the most powerful. The Qin were particularly strongly rooted in Legalist philosophy, which advocated the importance of the state at the expense of the individual. They were also known for being ruthless and ignoring etiquette and protocol of war in order to win at all costs. In particular, Shang Yang, adviser to Zheng, enacted laws to force subjects of the kingdom to act in ways that helped the state; he forced them to marry early, have many children, and produce certain quotas of food. Ultimately, in 221 BCE, the Qin state conquered the others and established the Qin Dynasty.

3.6 – Chinese Philosophy

Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism, and Mohism all began during the Zhou Dynasty in the 6th century BCE, and had very strong influences on Chinese civilization.

3.6.1 – Confucianism

Confucius, who lived during the 6th century BCE, was one of the foremost Chinese philosophers. He looked back on the Western  Zhou period, with its strong centralized state, as an ideal. He was pragmatic and sought to reform the existing government, encouraging a system of mutual duty between superiors and inferiors. Confucius stressed tradition and believed that an individual should strive to be virtuous and respectful, and to fit into his or her place in society. After his death in 479 BCE, his students wrote down his ethical and moral teachings in the Lun-yü, or Analects.

The Analects of Confucius: The ethical and moral teachings of Confucius were written down by his students in this document.

Being a good and virtuous human in every ordinary situation was the goal of Confucianism. This virtue was called “jen,” and humans were seen as perfectible and basically good creatures. Ceremonies and rituals based on the Five Classics, especially the I Ching, were strongly instituted. Some ethical concepts included Yì (the moral disposition to do good), Lǐ (ritual norms for everyday life) and Zhì (the ability to see what is right in the behavior of others).

Confucianism remained prevalent in China from the Han Dynasty in 202 BCE to the end of dynastic rule in 1911. It was reformulated during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) as Neo-Confucianism, and became the basis of imperial exams.

3.6.2 – Daoism

Another important philosopher in this period was Lao-tzu (also called Laozi), who founded Daoism (also called Taoism) during the same period as Confucianism. Lao-tzu is a legendary figure—it is uncertain if he actually existed. According to myth, Lao-tzu was born around 604 BCE as an old man. As he left his home to live a life of solitude, he was asked by the city gatekeeper to write down his thoughts. He did so in a book called Tao Te Ching, and was never seen again.

Lao-Tzu: A depiction of Lao-Tzu, the founder of Daoism.

Daoism advocated that the individual should follow a mysterious force, called The Way (dao), of the universe and act in accordance with nature. Daoism stressed the oneness of all things, and was strictly individualistic, as opposed to Confucianism, which advocated acting as society expected.

Daoism as a religion arose over time, and involved the worship of gods and ancestors, the cultivation of “chi” energy, a system of morals, and the use of alchemy to achieve immortality. It is still practice today.

3.6.3 – Legalism

Depiction of Shang Yang: Shang Yang was a Legalist reformer under the Qin.

Although Confucianism and Daoism are the Chinese philosophies that have endured most to this day, even more important to this early period was a lesser-known philosophy called Legalism. This held that humans are inherently bad and need to be kept in line by a strong state. According to Legalism, the state was far more important than the individual. While Legalism held that laws should be clear and public and that everyone should be subject to them, it also contended that rulers had supreme power and must use stealth and secrecy to remain in power. Legalists also believed that society must strive to dominate other societies.

Legalists could be divided into three types. The first was concerned with shi, or the investment of the position of ruler with power (rather than the person) and the necessity of obtaining facts to rule well. The second was concerned with fa, or laws, regulations, and standards. This meant all were equal under the ruler, and the state was run by law, not a ruler. The third was the concept of shu, or tactics to keep the state safe. Legalism was generally in competition with Confucianism, which advocated a just and reciprocal relationship between the state and its subjects.

3.6.4 – Mohism

Mohism emerged around the same time as the other philosophies discussed here, under the philosopher Mozi (c. 470-391 BCE). The most well-known concept under Mohism was “impartial care,” also known as “universal love.” This meant that people should care equally about other people, regardless of their true relationship to that person. This opposed the ideas of Confucianism, which said that love should be greater for close relationships. Mohism also stressed the ideas of self-restraint, reflection and authenticity.

Depiction of Mozi: The Chinese philosopher who began Mohism is shown here.

Mohism also stated that all people should be equal in their material benefit and in their protection from harm. Society could be improved by having it function like an organism, with a uniform moral compass. Those who were qualified should receive jobs, and thus the ruler would be surrounded by people of talent and skill. An unrighteous ruler would result in seven disasters for the state, including neglect of military defense, repression, illusions about strength, distrust, famine, and more.

4 – The Qin Dynasty

4.1 – Introduction

The Qin Dynasty saw rich cultural and technological innovation, but brutal rule, and gave way to the Han Dynasty after only 15 years.

When the Qin state emerged victorious from the Warring States period in 221 BCE, the state’s leader, King Zheng, claimed the Mandate of Heaven and established the Qin Dynasty. He renamed himself Shi Huangdi (First Emperor), a far grander title than King, establishing the way in which China would be ruled for the next two millennia. Today he is known as Qin Shi Huang, meaning First Qin Emperor. He relied on brutal techniques and Legalist doctrine to consolidate and expand his power. The nobility were stripped of control and authority so that the independent and disloyal nobility that had plagued the Zhou would not pose a problem.

The Qin Dynasty was one of the shortest in all of Chinese history, lasting only about 15 years, but it was also one of the most important. With Qin Shi Huang’s standardization of society and unification of the states, for the first time in centuries, into the first Chinese empire, he enabled the Chinese to think of themselves as members of a single kingdom. This laid the foundation for the consolidation of the Chinese territories that we know today, and resulted in a very bureaucratic state with a large economy, capable of supporting an expanded military.

4.2 – Innovations of Emperor Shi Huangdi

The First Emperor divided China into provinces, with civil and military officials in a hierarchy of ranks. He built the Lingqu Canal, which joined the Yangtze River basin to the Canton area via the Li River. This canal helped send half a million Chinese troops to conquer the lands to the south.

Qin Shi Huang standardized writing, a crucial factor in the overcoming of cultural barriers between provinces, and unifying the empire. He also standardized systems of currency, weights, and measures, and conducted a census of his people. He established elaborate postal and irrigation systems, and built great highways.

The Great Wall of China: Sections of the Great Wall of China, from the part known as Jinshanling.

In contrast, in line with his attempt to impose Legalism, Qin Shi Huang strongly discouraged philosophy (particularly Confucianism) and history—he buried 460 Confucian scholars alive and burned many of their philosophical texts, as well as many historical texts that were not about the Qin state. This burning of books and execution of philosophers marked the end of the Hundred Schools of Thought. The philosophy of Mohism in particular was completely wiped out.

Finally, Qin Shi Huang began the building of the Great Wall of China, one of the greatest construction feats of all time, to protect the nation against barbarians. Seven hundred thousand forced laborers were used in building the wall, and thousands of them were crushed beneath the massive gray rocks. The wall was roughly 1,500 miles long, and wide enough for six horses to gallop abreast along the top. The nation’s first standing army, possibly consisting of millions, guarded the wall from northern invaders.

4.3 – The Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Army: A close-up of two soldiers in the terracotta army. Note how their faces differ from each other—each soldier was constructed to be unique.

Another of Qin Shi Huang’s most impressive building projects was the preparation he made for his own death. He had a massive tomb created for him on Mount Li, near modern-day Xi’an, and was buried there when he died. The tomb was filled with thousands and thousands of life-sized (or larger) terracotta soldiers meant to guard the emperor in his afterlife. This terracotta army was rediscovered in the twentieth century. Each soldier was carved with a different face, and those that were armed had real weapons.

4.4 – The Qin Dynasty

Qin Shi Huang was paranoid about his death, and because of this he was able to survive numerous assassination attempts. He became increasingly obsessed with immortality and employed many alchemists and sorcerers. Ironically, he ultimately died by poisoning in 210 BCE, when he drank an “immortality potion.”

The First Emperor’s brutal techniques and tyranny produced resistance among the people, especially the conscripted peasants and farmers whose labors built the empire. Upon the First Emperor’s death, China plunged into civil war, exacerbated by floods and droughts. In 207 BCE, Qin Shi Huang’s son was killed, and the dynasty collapsed entirely. Chaos reigned until 202 BCE, when Gaozu, a petty official, became a general and reunited China under the Han Dynasty.

5 – The Han Dynasty

5.1 – The Rise of of the Han Dynasty

The strong but benevolent Han Dynasty began a golden age of reform and expansion. The first period, called the Western Han, lasted until 9 CE.

5.1.1 – Formation of the Han Dynasty

By the time the Qin Dynasty collapsed in 207 BCE, eighteen separate kingdoms had declared their independence. The Han and Chu states emerged as the most powerful, but the Han state was the victor of the Chu-Han Contention, a four-year civil war. Gaozu, who had been born a peasant, founded the Han Dynasty in 202 BCE, reunifying China.

Emperor Gaozu of the Han Dynasty: Emperor Gaozu, formerly known as Liu Bang, founded the Han Dynasty.

The Han Dynasty would become one of the most important and long-lasting dynasties in all of Chinese history. It would rule China for over four hundred years, from 206 BCE-220 CE, and ushered in a golden age of peace, prosperity, and development. Today, both the majority ethnic group in China and Chinese script are called Han.

5.1.2 – Comparison of Han to Qin

In many ways, the Han carried on policies that began in the Qin. Provincial rule occurred in both, and the Han continued Legalist rule, although in much less stricter fashion. Confucianism was banned during the Qin, but resurrected during the Han. The Qin, with its focus on the power of the state, was not shaped by religion in the same way the Han was. The Han were considered with the afterlife, and worshipped their ancestors. Both had defined social classes, but in the Han, peasants were treated with greater respect and classes were based on occupations.

5.1.3 – The Western Han Period and Political Reform

At first the Han Dynasty established its capital at Chang’an, in western China. This Western Han period would last from 206 BCE to 9 CE, when the dynasty’s rule would be briefly interrupted by rebellion and the short-lived Xin Dynasty.

Throughout the Western Han period, the Han largely continued the governing policies of the Qin, continuing to expand the bureaucracy and encouraging a centralized state. There were, however, differences between the two dynasties, and it was perhaps these differences that allowed the Han to rule for so much longer than the Qin. The Han were more interested in the lives and well-being of their subjects, and they modified some of the harsher aspects of the earlier dynasty’s rule with Confucian ideals of government. Freedom of speech and writing was restored, and the more laissez-faire style of governing allowed harmony, prosperity, and population growth.

This period also saw the further development of the four-class hierarchy, called the “four occupations,” which gave aristocratic scholars the highest social status, followed by farmers, then craftsmen and artisans, and finally merchants.

The family during this time was patrilineal and featured a small number of nuclear family members. Arranged, monogamous marriages were the norm for most. Sons received equal shares of family property and were often sent away when married.

Ritual sacrifices of animals and food were made to deities, spirits, and ancestors at temples and shrines. Each person was seen as having a two-part soul. The spirit-soul, which went to the afterlife paradise of immortals, called xian, and the body-soul, which remained in its earthly tomb.

Other innovations included the first use of negative numbers in mathematics, the recording of stars and comets, the armillary sphere, which represented star movements in three dimensions, the waterwheel, and other engineering feats.

5.1.4 – Emperor Wu

One of the most exalted Han emperors was Emperor Wu, who ruled from 141-87 BCE. He was responsible for a great number of innovations and political and military feats.

Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty: A portrait of Emperor Wu, one of the most influential rulers of the Han Dynasty.

Emperor Wu experimented with socialism, and made Confucianism the single official philosophy. The Confucian classics were reassembled and transcribed. The Confucian ideal of each person accepting his social position helped legitimize the state and made people more willing to accept its power. At the same time, these ideals encouraged the state to act justly toward its people. There was reciprocity too in the fact that the state was funded partly by land taxes (a portion of the harvest); this meant that the prosperity of the agricultural estates determined the prosperity of the Han government.

Emperor Wu also founded great government industries and transportation and delivery services, developed governmental control of profit, and imposed a 5% income tax. He created civil-service examinations to test potential government officials on their knowledge of the Confucian classics, so that bureaucrats would be chosen for their intelligence instead of their social connections. Emperor Wu also reformed the Chinese economy and nationalized the salt and iron industries, and he initiated reforms that made farming more efficient.

Through Emperor Wu’s southern and western conquests, the Han Dynasty made contact with the Indian cultural sphere. Emperor Wu repelled the invading barbarians (the Xiongnu, or Huns, a nomadic-pastoralist warrior people from the Eurasian steppe), and roughly doubled the size of the empire, claiming lands that included Korea, Manchuria, and even part of Turkistan. As China pushed its borders further, trade contacts were established with lands to the west, most notably via the Silk Road.

5.1.5 – Challenges During the Western Han Period

Nonetheless, the Han faced many challenges. Emperor Gaozu rewarded his supporters with grants of land, which started again the same problems that had brought down the Zhou Dynasty. Several rebellions broke out, the most serious of which was the Rebellion of the Seven States. Nonetheless, the Han emperors stamped out the rebellions and gradually reduced the power of the small kingdoms (though never abolished them completely).

Another major danger to the Han was the external threat of the barbarians, the most dangerous of whom were the Huns. However, the Han Dynasty was able to face these internal and external threats and survive because of the strong centralized state they had established.

5.2 – The Silk Road

The Silk Road was established by China’s Han Dynasty, and led to cultural integration across a vast area of Asia. It persisted until the fall of the Mongolian Empire in 1360 CE.

5.2.1 – Establishment of the Silk Road

Map of Silk Road: In this map of the Silk Road, red shows the land route and blue shows the maritime route.

Through southern and western conquests, the Han Dynasty of China (206 BCE-220 CE) made contact with the Indian cultural sphere. Emperor Wu repelled the invading barbarians (the Xiongnu, or Huns, a nomadic-pastoralist warrior people from the Eurasian steppe) and roughly doubled the size of the empire, claiming lands that included Korea, Manchuria, and even part of Turkistan. As China pushed its borders further, trade contacts were established with lands to the west, most notably via the Silk Road.

Example of Woven Silk Textile: This woven silk textile from the Western Han era was found at Tomb No. 1 at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan Province.

The Silk Road was a series of trade and cultural transmission routes that were central to cultural interaction between the West and East. Silk was certainly the major trade item from China, but many other goods were traded as well. These routes enabled strong trade relationships to develop with Persia, India, and the Roman Empire.

5.2.2 – Chinese Control of the Silk Road

This expanded western territory became particularly important because of the silk routes. By this century, the Chinese had become very active in the silk trade, though until the Hans provided sufficient protection, the Silk Road had not functioned well because of nomad pirates. Expansion by the Han took place around 114 BCE, led mainly by imperial envoy Zhang Qian. The Great Wall of China was expanded to provide extra protection.

The Tang Dynasty reopened the route in 639 CE, but then lost it to the Tibetans in 678 CE. Control of the Silk Road would shuttle between China and Tibet until 737 CE. This second Pax Sinica helped the Silk Road reach its golden age. China was open to foreign cultures, and its urban areas could be quite cosmopolitan. The Silk Road helped to integrate cultures, but also exposed tribal and pastoral societies to new developments, sometimes causing them to become skilled warriors.

5.2.3 – The Mongolian Empire and the Disintegration of the Silk Road

The Mongol Empire, and Pax Mongolica, strengthened and re-established the Silk Road between 1207 and 1360 CE. However, as the Mongol Empire disintegrated, so did the Silk Road. Gunpowder hastened the failing integration, and the Silk Road stopped being a shipping route for silk around 1453 CE. A lasting effect of this was to inspire Europeans to find alternate routes to Asia for trade, including Christopher Columbus ‘ famous overseas voyage in 1492.

5.3 – The Eastern Han Period

The Eastern Han period was a time of reunification and prosperity that also saw the perfection of paper and porcelain.

5.3.1 – Interruption by the Qin Dynasty

When the Western Han period ended in 9 CE, the regent to the prior emperor, Wang Mang, proclaimed his own new dynasty, the Xin Dynasty. He attempted a number of radical reforms, such as new forms of currency, a ban on slavery, and a return to old models of land distribution. A series of major floods on the Yellow River, however, displaced thousands of peasants, and caused massive unrest. A rebel army called the Chimei (“Red Eyebrows”) developed out of the peasantry, and they defeated Wang Mang’s armies and stormed the capital of Chang’an. They killed Wang Mang and put their own puppet ruler on the throne.

5.3.2 – The Eastern Han

A new Han emperor, Emperor Guangwu, took control and ruled from Luoyang, in eastern China; thus began the Eastern Han period, which lasted from 25-220 CE. He defeated the Chimei rebels, as well as rival warlords, to reunify China again under the Han Dynasty.

Emperor Guangwu: Emperor Guangwu ruled during the Eastern Han Dynasty.

Under Emperor Guangwu, the empire was strengthened considerably. Areas that had fallen away from Chinese control, such as Korea and Vietnam, were reconquered. The Hun Confederation, which had grown strong during China’s period of instability, was pacified.

Ceramic Candle Holder from the Eastern Han Dynasty: A ceramic candle holder from the Eastern Han Dynasty, with prancing animal figures.

Emperor Guangwu was succeeded by Emperor Ming, followed by Emperor Zhang. The Rule of Ming and Zhang, as it is called, is remembered for being an era of prosperity. Taxes were reduced, Confucian ideals were encouraged, and the emperors appointed able administrators. It was also in this period that paper, one of China’s most important inventions, emerged. Though early forms of paper had existed for centuries, the process was now perfected. With paper, Chinese texts could circulate on a durable and relatively inexpensive medium, instead of on clay, silk, or bamboo. This allowed Chinese texts to become more readily available and encouraged learning. Another important innovation of this time was porcelain. Porcelain existed in previous forms for centuries, but was perfected in the Eastern Han period. The improvement of porcelain allowed for durable, high-quality, and attractive ceramic ware.

5.3.3 – The Fall of the Eastern Han

A series of rebellions, including the Yellow Turban and Five Pecks of Rice, began in 184 CE. Military generals appointed during these crises kept their militia forces intact even after defeating the rebels. General-in-Chief He Jin plotted to overthrow palace eunuchs. He was discovered and killed, however, in the end 2,000 eunuchs were also killed. A series of generals attempted to control the young emperor, culminating in three spheres of influence. Cao Cao ruled the north, Sun Quan ruled the south, and Liu Bei controlled the west. After Cao Cao’s death, his son Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian to give up his throne to him. This ended the Han Dynasty, and started a period of conflict between these three states, called Cao Wei, Eastern Wu and Shu Han.

5.4 – Invention of Paper

Paper was invented by Cai Lun during the Han Dynasty of ancient China. It was used for a variety of purposes, including wrapping and writing, and eventually spread throughout the world.

5.4.1 – Introduction

While the word “paper” is derived from papyrus, the early Egyptian thick writing sheets, it is made quite differently. While papyrus is made from the dried pith of the papyrus plant that has been woven, paper has been disintegrated and reformed.

Portrait of Cai Lun: This portrait of Cai Lun depicts the invention of paper.

During the Shang (1600-1050 BCE) and Zhou (1050-250 BCE) dynasties, bone, bamboo, and sometimes silk were used as writing tablets. Cai Lun (202 BCE-220 CE), a Chinese official working in the Imperial court during the Han Dynasty, is attributed with the invention of paper. However, earlier examples have been found, and he may have simply improved upon a known process. Legend states that he was inspired by the nests of paper wasps.

Chinese Hemp Wrapping Paper: These examples of Chinese hemp wrapping paper date from 100 BCE.

Cai Lun’s paper was made using mulberry and other bast fibers along with fishnets, old rags, and hemp waste. The bark of the Paper Mulberry and Sandalwood were often used and highly valued during the period. His basic process of creating felted sheets of fiber suspended in water, then draining the water and allowing the fibers to dry in a thin matted sheet is still followed today.

5.4.2 – Uses of Paper

The Oldest Paper Book: This is the oldest paper book, dating to 256 CE.

Paper was often used as a wrapping material. Paper used to wrap bronze mirrors has been dated to the reign of Emperor Wu in the 2nd century BCE. Paper was also used to wrap poisonous medicines. By the 3rd century CE, paper was commonly used for writing, and by 875 CE it was used as toilet paper. During the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), paper was folded and sewn into tea bags, and used to make paper cups and napkins. During the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE), the world’s first known paper money was produced, and often presented in special paper envelopes.

5.4.3 – Spread of Paper-Making to the Islamic World

After the Battle of Talas in 751 CE, during which the Chinese were defeated, two Chinese prisoners are believed to have leaked the secrets to making paper. A paper mill was soon established, and many refinements were made to the process.

5.5 – The Fall of the Han and the Three Kingdoms Period

5.5.1 – Introduction

As the Han Dynasty government weakened over time and ultimately collapsed, the empire fractured into the war-torn Three Kingdoms period.

After the death of Emperor Zhang (of the Eastern Han period’s Rule of Ming and Zhang) in 88 CE, corrupt officials increasingly gained control of the state, while family feuds tore the dynasty apart. As the power of the emperor weakened, military commanders acted more independently and tried to secure power for themselves.

5.5.2 – The Fall of the Han Dynasty

In 184 CE, two major Daoist rebellions—the Yellow Turban Rebellion and the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion—broke out. In order to fight these rebellions Emperor Ling gave military commanders control over their own provinces, but this gave way to a long power struggle. In 189 CE, Emperor Ling died and was succeeded by his 13 year old son, Liu Bian, known as Emperor Shao. Empress Dowager He was regent, and her older brother, General-in-Chief He Jin, became the most powerful official in the court. He Jin wanted to exterminate the Ten Attendants, a group of influential eunuch officials. He summoned General Dong Zhuo to march on the city. The plot was discovered by the eunuchs, and He Jin was killed. In response the Emperor ordered indiscriminate killing of the eunuchs. The survivors kidnapped the Emperor and fled, only to later commit suicide upon General Dong Zhuo’s arrival. The General would then replace Emperor Shao with the Prince of Cheniliu, known as Emperor Xian. Xian would be the last emperor of the Han Dynasty.

Portrait of Dong Zhuo: This portrait of Dong Zhuo dates from a Qing Dynasty edition of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Dong Zhuo was eventually assassinated and was succeeded by another warlord, Cao Cao, who wanted to reunite the Han Empire by defeating the rebellious warlords. He nearly succeeded but was defeated in 208 CE at the Battle of Red Cliffs, a memorable turning point in history. With this defeat, most of the hope that the Han Empire would be reunited disappeared. When Cao Cao died in 220 CE, Emperor Xian abdicated the throne, claiming that he had failed to keep the Mandate of Heaven. China splintered into three kingdoms ruled by warlords; this marks the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history.

5.5.3 – The Three Kingdoms Period

When the Han Dynasty collapsed in 220 CE, no one was powerful enough to reunify China under a single emperor. The result was the period of the Three Kingdoms, which lasted until 280 CE, when the Jin Dynasty took over. These three kingdoms, Wei, Shu, and Wu, battled for control in a long series of wars. This was one of the bloodiest times in Chinese history—according to census data, the population decreased from 50 million to 16 million—but it also has long been romanticized in East Asian cultures and remembered as a time of chivalry and honor. It has been celebrated and popularized in operas, folk stories, and novels, and in more recent times, films, television, and video games.

The Three Kingdoms: The Three Kingdoms in 262 CE after the fall of the Han dynasty

Technology advanced significantly during this period. Shu chancellor Zhuge Liang invented the wooden ox, suggested to be an early form of the wheelbarrow, and improved on the repeating crossbow. Wei mechanical engineer, Ma Jun, invented a hydraulic-powered, mechanical puppet theatre designed for his emperor. He also invented a new irrigation device, the south-pointing chariot, and a non-magnetic directional compass.

Originally published by Lumen Learning – Boundless World History under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.



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