A core Course of General Education An outline of the Traditional Chinese Culture 中国传统文化概览 Shandong University Contents


Culture in the Qin Dynasty and the Han Dynasty



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Culture in the Qin Dynasty and the Han Dynasty

At its peak period in ancient historical development, the Qin-Han periods witnessed significant achievements in many fields, during which the unitary multinational feudal empire was founded. In 221 B.C., the State Qin united China, thus establishing the first centralized feudal autocratic dynasty in Chinese history. The Han Dynasty followed the same system as the Qin Dynasty. The unitary multinational regime achieved further development and strengthening in the Han Dynasty. During the Qin-Han period, unprecedented achievements were made in economic development. The cultural development embraced an upsurge period.

The foundation of a unitary multinational country accelerated the birth of the unitary national spiritual culture. At the beginning of the Qin Dynasty, the ruler established a uniform national culture. In the domain of ideology and culture, the First Emperor ordered that the written language and behaviors had to be standardized, to pursue cultural unification by means of a powerful administrative force. In the spiritual culture the Legalist School was revered and the system of court academician was initiated, with a view of uniting the Legalist ideology, classical Taoist thinking and Confucianism. Due to the intolerance on the part of Legalist thought, the First Emperor ordered that books be burned and Confucian scholars be buried alive. The unification in the realm of spiritual culture turned out to be a failure. Intense cultural antinomy and conflict was one of the most important reasons for the rapid collapse of the Qin regime.

In the newly established Han Dynasty, with the broken economy due to the chaos caused by the war, the classical Taoist thought, i.e. proposing to govern by doing nothing that is against nature, was venerated. On the succession of Emperor Wudi of the Western Han Dynasty, by right of peace and prosperity during the reign of Emperors Wendi and Jingdi, he planned to realize his ambitious dream. Taoism was in contradiction with this trend, while Confucianism, by encouraging active enterprise, won favor. Emperor Wudi paid supreme tribute to Confucianism while banning all other schools of thought. The reconstructed Confucianism of the Han Dynasty overcame the restrictions and the conservatism of the pre-Qin dynasties and been the dominant ideology in the field of politics and academics. Adopting Confucianism as the official philosophy was a key measure in founding the unitary national culture. Ever since then, Confucianism has been the orthodox thought in ancient China, exerting a far-reaching influence up to the present time. Its values have become the spirit of the traditional culture.

In the Han Dynasty the native religion called Taoism came into being. In the Eastern Han Dynasty, the combination of the teachings of Huangdi and Laozi, and Fangxian sect formed Taiping sect and Wudoumi sect, the latter being the predecessor of Tianshi sect. The influence of Confucianism was mainly on the official, academic and refined level whereas that of Taoism was in the mundane society. The Confucianism and Taoism, one being refined and the other being popular, one belonging to the supreme orthodox and the other relegated to the lower stratum, echoed each other at a distance. Both persistently played an educational role in the traditional society, having great effect on the shaping of national character.

The Qin-Han was an important period during which various cultures within the country integrated and the Chinese culture mingled with the foreign ones. The first Emperor of the Qin Dynasty united China, making the communion and fusion between various nationalities and regions possible. After the foundation of the Western Han Dynasty, especially in the Reign of Emperor Wudi, the domestic cultural integration was boosted with the expansion of the territory. What is known as the Han culture along the Yellow River and the Yangtze River valleys mixed together with the cultures of southwestern Yi, southern Guangdong, Fujian, western Qiang and eastern Hu, adding new vitality to the robust national culture. In the Eastern Han Dynasty, the northern nomadic culture also blended into this big family. As a result, the culture of the Han ethnicity was the principal part, and the cultures of other ethnic groups and regions were incorporated.

At the same time, the cultural exchange between China and foreign countries was also developing. Before the Qin-Han dynasties, the exchanges were mainly sporadic and nongovernmental. It was Emperor Wudi who ushered in an epoch in Chinese and Western cultural exchanges. He sent the ambassador Zhang Qian to the western regions to form a coalition with the states there. Zhang Qian went through misery and hardships to accomplish this historic mission. He explored the way to the west and in this way opened the trade route between China and the west, i.e. the Silk Road. Sima Qian visualized this feat as blazing the path into the west regions. The advancing Chinese culture made for the west through the Central Asia and Western Asia; meanwhile Western culture also made in-roads into China. The most influential event was the influx of Buddhism from India during the Western Han and the Eastern Han dynasties. The absorption of foreign cultures was instrumental in advancing Chinese cultural development.

The prosperity of the Chinese culture in the Qin-Han dynasties was closely associated with the development of science and technology. The Han Dynasty saw the invention of papermaking technology, which created outstanding conditions for cultural transmission. Zhoubi Suanjing was a classic work on astronomy and mathematics written in the Western Han Dynasty. Nine Chapters on Mathematical Art summarized the important achievements in this field during the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period. These two books proved that Chinese mathematics was in the lead in the world. In the medical field, there appeared classics in traditional Chinese medical science: Classic of Internal Medicine and Febrile and Other Diseases, which lay the theoretical foundation for the Chinese traditional medicine. Zhang Heng invented an armillary sphere (celestial globe) and invented the world’s first seismograph, enhancing science and technology in ancient China to a fairly high level.






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