By Andrea Berutti
China has one of the longest and oldest running histories in the world. The first known dynasty began in 2205 B.C. This was the Hsia dynasty, though scholars are split on whether this dynasty actually existed or if it was just a myth.1 From this dynasty many followed. China has a long imperial past, that moved from a feudal type state to a centralized bureaucratic style of government and a system in which the transfer of power from one ruler to the next was relatively peaceful. China went from a feudal type state to a unified nation. The Mandate of Heaven made it possible for one family to take over the kingdom from another. Throughout China’s history there have been many imperial families that have held power. The first few dynasties were the Shang, Chou, Qin, and Han. Each of these dynasties had an impact on China and has left a lasting impression even today.
China has one of the longest running histories in the history of the world. The Shang dynasty began in 1766 B.C. and lasted for six hundred forty four years.2 The Shang dynasty was when the first written history in China began. Along with the written history there was also archaeological evidence.3 The Shang dynasty was beset with strong religious beliefs. It was believed that the
king could communicate to his ancestors and that the ancestors could communicate with god (Ti or sometimes referred to as Shang-Ti). Therefore the ancestors needed to be kept happy and given sacrifices. Offerings to the ancestors are thought to be provisions for them to live off of. These sacrifices and offerings were thought to keep all parts of the descendant’s life “strong and fortunate.” The Shang belief in filial piety showed that it was accepted that the power was passed down through the generations. This idea of transition of power creates a link between the Shang’s religious beliefs and bureaucratic ideals in later dynasties. The Shang dynasty was known for its well-developed writing system, bronze casting and beginning of ancestor worship4 Their bronze work, which included rulers, weapons, vessels and ritual crafts, was unsurpassed at the time. The Shang had twenty-eight rules and was highly stratified. The king ruled through military strength and through his own merit. The authoritative ruling tradition of the Chinese can be traced back to the Shang. 5
The end of the Shang dynasty and the beginning of the Chou was 1040 B.C. The Chou period had two distinct periods: The Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States Period. The Chou dynasty lasted for seven hundred and eighty four years.
It was said that the Chou dynasty was more humanistic than the past dynasty. The name of the Chou dynasty was from the name of the state that overthrew the
Shang dynasty. The Chou was the longest dynasty in the history of China. The idea of heaven was developed by the Chou. This idea of heaven was quickly followed by the idea of morality. The Chou society was considered feudal; the king divided up the kingdom and placed lords in charge of them. These lords got to run their fief as they liked, but they owed their loyalty to the king and had to pay him taxes. The country was broken up into fiefs and each fief was
given a ruler who was loyal to the king. Though feudal the political control was linked more to family ties then on the feudal bonds.6 Moving China into the Iron Age from the Bronze Age was another of Chou’s great accomplishments.7 This was also the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy. The Confucian ethical worldview is still present in China today.
The Warring states period lasted from 481 to 221 B.C. This was a time of great political turbulence. It was a time to rid the country of the feudalism
that had decayed. Economic and social changes took place at this time as well. The pattern of Chinese thinking even changed. Many waterways and canals were built that helped to water the crops and increase the food supply.8 Many sections of the Great Wall were built, later to be connected by the first emperor, of the Qin dynasty.9 Roads for military and commercial purposes were built; this helped to develop communication throughout the country.10 During this period many great things were accomplished. Though this was a tumultuous time it changed Chinese thought and brought about many changes.
The Qin Dynasty began in 221 B.C. The Qin dynasty was only fifteen years long. This made the Qin the shortest dynasty in Chinese History.11 China’s imperial unification was in 221 B.C.12 The unification rid the country of the fiefs established by the Chou. Under the united empire there were harsh laws.
There were also many great public works that were done during this time. These harsh laws and the toil of the people ended the Qin dynasty in fifteen years.13
Many died at the public works. The rulers were ruthless when it came to getting done what was nessisary. The Qin spread their administrative system over the
entire country.14 Military control was seen as the easiest and quickest way to bring the entire country under control. With this control Prince Cheng forced all of the nobles to move to the capital and got rid of all of the fiefs that were left.15 The name China comes from this period, (Qin is pronounced CHIN). The Qin also connected the various pieces of the Great Wall to make one wall that was over five thousand kilometers long. This wall was to keep the northern barbarians out. The Qin also built many roads, (more then four thousand miles),16 as well as waterways and canals, here there were (over twelve hundred miles) built throughout the empire.17 The Qin also standardized writing, weights and measures, as well as cart widths for the roads that were built.18 Along with these public works the first emperor of Qin had his tomb built with many thousands of terra cotta soldiers to protect his tomb when he died; this tomb was discovered in the 1970’s.19 The emperor also encouraged the people to move south, but he did not want the farmers to abandon their crops in the north, since he wanted to
strengthen the nomadic area of the country. Schools were also beginning to reopen throughout the kingdom; the emperor encouraged these schools. Once there were signs of weakness many rebellions soon began throughout the kingdom.20
From the Chou and Qin dynasties the idea of the Mandate of Heaven developed. The “Heavenly Mandate,” sometimes also translated to the Mandate of god,21 stated that it was Heaven’s will that new dynasties be created if the previous ruler was no longer worthy. This philosophy was first seen in the Chou dynasty. It was used to legitimize the Chou overthrowing the Shang Empire. 22 The Duke of Chou was given credit for the mandate.23 “Unpitying Heaven” the Duke of Chou told his brother “sent down ruin on Shang. Shang lost its mandate to rule, which our house of Chou has received.”24 The king had a direct link to the Heavens.25 Only the Chou ruler was allowed to use the word king, T’ien-tzu, meaning “The Son of Heaven”. This also implied the king’s religious purpose and
role.26 No one was to rule except the one with the “Mandate of Heaven”.27 During the Han dynasty Gaodi’s rise to power was used in later times to illustrate
the “Mandate of Heaven.”28 To further show the connection between the king and the Heavens was the Chinese symbol for the word king. The symbol is three horizontal lines representing heaven, man and earth, connected with a vertical line.29 “When a king receives the Mandate, without limit is the grace thereof, but also without limit is the anxiety of it.”30
The Han dynasty followed the Qin. This dynasty began in 206 B.C. and was four hundred and twenty six years long.31 The Han reunified the country after the end of the tumultuous Qin dynasty. This was a peaceful period for the Chinese people. Keeping the Qin style of centralized government, the Han created a larger power base than the Qin had. The Han established a stable bureaucratic centralized government for the first time in Chinese history. The Han Empire was divided into two periods, Eastern Han and Western Han.32 The Han Empire was
seen as ideal and left a legacy that is still felt today.33 There was a Confucian saying “An Empire can be conquered on horseback, but not governed from a horse.” This was to emphasize the ideal that in the long run a good government
depended on consent, not force.34 The Han Dynasty was known for its westward expansion of the country and the use of the “Silk Road” to connect Central Asia to Rome.35 Confucianism had become the official state religion during the Han Period. Confucian Classics were rewritten to memorialize the Confucian Scholars.36 This was also the time in which Buddhism was introduced into China from India.37 The great inventions during the Han dynasty were paper and porcelain.38 The majority population in China is known as “Han,” which comes from the time in the Han period that flourished. With the centralization of the government came an increase in population and an increase in wealth throughout the country.39
The Chinese system of beurocracy lasted for the next two millennia, until the end of the Ch’ing dynasty.40 There were several rules that were in place
by the Chou period. These included: the Chinese people should be ruled under the Son of Heaven and his control should be centralized; rulers should have wise minister advisers to give them advice so that they can rule well; the government
exists to provide peace and order. In war the main goal was victory. The government should give a high priority to its people and be humane and paternalistic. The government’s view should see all and the emperor was considered responsible for all that happened under heaven.41 These rules were followed thought imperial China. These rules were meant to protect the people and when they were no longer true, or the dynasty became corrupt, then another dynasty would come in and take over the corrupted dynasty until they too became corrupt and lost their mandate. This cycle continued for thousands and thousands of years.
China has one of the longest and oldest running histories in the world. The first known dynasty began in 2205 B.C. this was the Hsia dynasty, scholars are split on whether or not this dynasty actually existed or if Hsia is just a myth.42
From this dynasty many followed. China has a long imperial past, that throughout it’s past established a centralized bureaucratic style of government and a system in which the transfer of power from one ruler to the next was usually peaceful. China went from a feudal type state to a unified nation. The Mandate of Heaven
made it possible for one family to take over the kingdom from another. Throughout China’s history there have been many imperial families that have held
power. The first few dynasties were the Shang, Chou, Qin, and Han. Each of these dynasties had an impact on China then and has left a lasting impression even today.
De Berry, Theodore, Sources of Chinese Tradition, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Hibbert, Christopher. The Emperors of China. Chicago: Stonehenge Press. 1981
Huang, Ray. China a Macro History. New York: An East Gate Book. 1997
Hucker, Charles. China’s Imperial Past. Stanford: Stanford University Perss. 1975
Keightley, David. The Religious Commitment: Shang Theology and the Genesis of Chinese Political Culture. 1978
Puladan, Ann. Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors. New York: Thames and Hudson. 1998.
Rodzinski, Witold. The Walled Kingdom. New York: The Free Press., 1984
Ropp, Paul. Heritage of China. Los Angeles: University of California, 1990
Soled, Debra. China a Nation in Transition. Washington D.C.: Condressional Press. 1995
Yap, Yong and Cotterell, Arthur. The Early Civilization of China. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 1975