Three dynastic cycles – the Zhou, the Qin, and the Han – covered many centuries of classical China. The dynastic patterns begun in classical Chinese history lasted until the early part of the twentieth century. A family of kings, called a “dynasty,” began ruling China with great vigor, developing solid political institutions, and encouraging active economies. Each dynasty over time grew weaker, tax revenues declined, and social divisions occurred as the population outstripped available resources. In addition, internal rebellions and sometimes invasions from the outside contributed to each dynasty’s decline. As the ruling dynasty began to falter, usually another one arose form the family of a successful general, invader, or peasant and the pattern started anew.
The Zhou dynasty (1029 – 258 B.C.E.) expanded the territorial boundaries of China by seizing the Yangtze River valley. The territory from the Yangtze to the Huang is often called the “Middle Kingdom,” blessed with rich cropland. They promoted Mandarin as the standard language. The Zhou did not establish a strong central government but ruled instead through alliances with regional princes and noble families. This led to vulnerabilities that plagued the Zhou: the regional princes solidified their power and disregarded the central government. When the Zhou began to fail, philosophers sought to explain the political confusion. One of these, Confucius, became one of the most important thinkers in Chinese history. His orderly social and political philosophy became an important doctrine of the Qin and Han dynasties. The next dynasty, the Qin, (221 – 202 B.C.E.) was begun by the brutal but effective emperor Shi Huangdi. He consolidated his power, built the Great Wall, conducted a census, standardized weights and measures, and extended the borders of his realm to Hong Kong and northern Vietnam. Upon his death, massive revolts broke out and by 202 B.C.E., the Han dynasty (202 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.) was established. The Han rulers lessened the brutality of the Qin but maintained its centralized rule. Early Han leaders, like Wu Ti, expanded Chinese territory and set up formal training, based on Confucian philosophy, for bureaucrats. During a long decline, the Han faced invasions and eventually fell to outside forces, especially the Huns. By the sixth century C.E., the Han too collapsed, but not before they had established distinctive political and cultural values that lasted into the twentieth century.
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Throughout the Qin and Han periods, the Chinese state bureaucracy expanded its powers significantly. By the end of the Han dynasty, China had roughly 130,000 bureaucrats all trained by the government to carry out the emperor’s policies. Tax collections and annual mandatory labor services ensured the central government held sole power over almost every person in the Middle Kingdom, something no other large government accomplished until the twentieth century.
Religion and Culture
Like many civilizations, china did not produce a unitary belief system. Confucianism and Daoism were tow of the major systems that competed for the loyalties of various Chinese communities during the years of the classical period. Kung Fuzi (Confucius) lived from roughly 551 to 478 B.C.E. He was not a religious leader but rather saw himself as a defender of Chinese tradition and espoused a secular system of ethics. Personal virtue, he believed, would lead to solid political institutions. Both rulers and the ruled should act with respect, humility, and self-control. Classical China also produced a more religious philosophy called Daoism, which embraced harmony in nature. According to this movement, politics, learning, and the general conditions in this world were of little importance. Over time, individuals embraced aspects of both philosophies and also Buddhism.
Chinese art then was largely decorative, stressing detail and craftsmanship. Artistic styles often reflected the geometric qualities of the symbols of Chinese writing. The practical application of science superseded learning for learning’s sake. Chinese astronomers developed accurate calendars. Scholars studied the mathematics of music. This practical focus contrasted with the more abstract approach to science applied by the Greeks.
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Economy and Society
As in many societies, there were large gaps between Chin’s upper class (about 2 percent of the population) and the peasant farmers. Officially there were three main social groups in classical China. The landowning aristocracy and the bureaucrats formed the top group. Far below them were the laboring peasants and urban artisans. At the bottom of society were the “mean people,” those who performed unskilled labor. Trade became increasingly important, particularly in the Han period. Technology is where the classical Chinese clearly excelled. Many developments of this era were centuries ahead of the rest of the world. Tight-knit family structures were similar to those in other civilizations, except that parents wielded much higher levels of authority over their children. Women were subordinate to men but had clearly defined roles in the family and in larger society.
In Depth: Women in Patriarchal Societies
Agricultural societies were usually patriarchal and as they developed the status of women generally deteriorated. Marriages were arranged for women by their parents and husbands had authority over their wives and children. Later, law codes ensured basic protections but also featured limits to and inferiority of women. There were of course, exceptions. The Egyptians had powerful queens and Jewish law traced descendence from mothers. Patriarchy responded to economic and legal conditions in agricultural civilizations and often deepened over time. In many societies, women held power through religious functions and had authority over daughters-in-law and unmarried daughters.
How Chinese Civilization Fits Together
China’s politics and culture were, to them, two sides of the same coin, especially after the Confucian bureaucracy developed, emphasizing order and stability. Classical Chinese technology, religion, philosophy, and political structure evolved with little outside contact. Political stability aided economic growth and the government took a direct role in agricultural and economic growth. Science forced on practical applications of technology that fostered economic development. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese saw their political and social lives as a whole. There was divergence, however, such as in the differing philosophies of Confucianism, Daoism, and eventually Buddhism. Despite these and other divisions, the synthesis of Chinese life accounts for the durability of Chinese values and for its general invulnerability to outside influence. Classical India was just as vital a civilization but didn’t weave its institutions into society as fully and produced a more disparate outcome.
Global Connections: Classical China and the World
Chinese civilization was the longest lasting in world history and one of the most creative and influential. They created the best-run bureaucracy and a whole range of technologies, and they were the source of the world’s largest trade network, the Silk Roads. Silk Road networks provided the framework for later global trading patterns.