The Chinese Empire The Great Unification: The Ch’in, 256-206 bc

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The Chinese Empire

The Great Unification: The Ch’in, 256-206 BC

The Ch'in

Ancient China had always been a collection of more or less independent states in the north of China. The Shang and the Chou dominated the political landscape as the most powerful of those states, but they did not exercise uniform rule over neighboring regions. When the Chou began to weaken around 500 BC, these independent states began to war among themselves over territory and influence. So chaotic was this period, that the Chinese refer to it as The Warring States period, and it did not end until the whole of north China was unified under a single empire, the Ch'in dynasty.

In Chinese history, the Ch'in are the great, evil dynasty, but Western historians often stand in awe of the Ch'in. They were repressive, autocratic, and frequently cruel, but they were also brilliant political theorists and reformers who historically brought about one of the most energetic periods of Chinese government. Their story, however, is a very brief one. For from the time the Ch'in unified China in 221 BC, to the time of their fall fifteen years later in 206 BC, not even a generation had passed. For all that, so great was their accomplishment that our name for China is derived from the Ch'in.

The Ch'in were a small state in the western reaches of the Wei River. As with all states during the Warring States period, the Ch'in pursued an aggressive policy of territorial expansion. The Ch'in, however, had one great advantage: they had adopted a new style of government based on the principles of the Legalists. Ultimately based on Confucianism, Legalism held that human beings were fundamentally base and selfish and had to be strictly controlled through laws. These laws were effective only if punishments were severe and certain, so the Ch'in kingdom was frighteningly autocratic. But Legalist philosophy also demanded a strong central government, a strong military, a tightly controlled economy, and the strict regimentation of the citizens of the state. As a result, the Ch'in kingdom grew powerful and wealthy in a very short time.

Ch’in shih-huang-ti

We traditionally date the start of the Ch'in dynasty to 256 BC, although the unification of China did not occur until 221 BC. By 256 BC, the Ch'in had become the most powerful state in China, and in 246 BC, the kingdom fell to a thirteen year old boy, Ch'eng. As a young man, he surrounded himself with brilliant Legalist ministers. His most powerful and trusted advisor was Li Ssu, one of the foundational theorists of Legalism. Under their advice, in 232 BC, King Ch'eng, at the age of twenty-seven, began a vigorous campaign to unify and centralize all the northern kingdoms. The surrounding kingdoms were no match for the wealth and military power of the Ch'in, and by 221 BC, Ch'eng conquered all of the northern kingdoms.

He assumed the title, Ch'in shih-huang-ti, or "The First Exalted Emperor of the Ch'in." Under his guidance, and the advice of Li Ssu, Ch'in shih-huang-ti created the form of government which served as the model for all future Chinese dynasties. First, the government was centralized around the emperor and his ministers. In order to facilitate that centralization, the Ch'in replaced the old, feudal system in which territory was controlled by more or less independent nobility with a strong, hierarchical bureaucracy. All the members of this bureaucracy, as well as the ministers of the state, would be appointed by the central government. In order to break the power of the aristocracy, he confiscated their lands and distributed them to the peasants. To facilitate the taxation process, government taxes were taken directly from the peasants rather than passing through the hands of the aristocracy.

In order to cement the centralization of government, Ch'in shih-huang-ti embarked on an ambitious campaign of standardizing money and weights and measures. The Ch'in emperor also put the most severe of Legalist doctrines into practice as well. The laws of the unified empire were strict and harsh, particularly if you were in government. The penalty for any corruption at all among government servants was death. The Legalists also believed in centralization of thinking, fearful that any non-Legalist ways of thinking could lead to disruption and revolution. So all the other schools of philosophy were outlawed, especially Confucianism, and their books were burned and their teachers were executed. The Ch'in were also hard on commerce. Seeing it as a form of infection or parisitism, the Ch'in severely restricted trade and mercantilism, taxed the merchants heavily, and executed merchants for the most trivial offenses.

The Ch'in, however, set their eyes on more than the administration of the northern territories. They turned south and steadily conquered the southern regions of China all the way to the Red River in north Vietnam. Their greatest enemy, however, was to the north. Called the Hsiung Nu, these nomadic, Hunnish people, had been making constant incursions into the northern territories all during the Chou period. The peoples north of China had originally developed as hunters and fishers, but when the region began to dry out and the forests receded, they turned to keeping flocks. As a result they learned horsemanship and began to wander nomadically; they also began to fight among themselves. This constant fighting made them highly skilled at fighting on horseback, and when they began to wander into the northern states of China, they made extremely formidable opponents for the infantry-focussed northern states. In response to these incursions, the northern kingdoms all during the Chou period built walls and fortifications along their northern borders. The Ch'in began a massive project of joining many of these walls and fortifications. Although the Ch'in did not build the "Great Wall" as historians used to claim (the Great Wall was built during the Ming dynasty), this fortification and building project during the Ch'in period was in itself truly amazing.

The Fall of the Ch'in

Ch'in shih-huang-ti died in 210 BC at the age of forty-nine; the amazing thing about the empire he had founded is that it collapsed only four years after his death. While the Legalist government of Ch'in shih-huang-ti was ruthlessly efficient in its control over the state and the bureaucracy, that ruthlessness proved to be its undoing. The emperor, who had hoped to found a dynasty lasting over ten thousand years, had alienated many people, particularly the landed aristocracy. The building projects of the Ch'in demanded forced labor and heavy taxation; people all throughout the empire were on the verge of revolt. Finally, the Ch'in had created a government that virtually ran without the emperor, who remained aloof from day to day governing. Upon Ch'in shih-huang-ti's death, the two most powerful administrators, Li Ssu and Chao Kao, covered up his death and took over the government. They installed a puppet emperor, but for the most part all Chinese government rested in their hands. Both Li Ssu and Chao Kao ruthlessly enforced penalties on lower administrators; because of this, regional administrators kept secret the revolts and uprisings in their territories for fear of punishment. Eventually, Chao Kao eliminated Li Ssu, and the territorial uprisings became so severe that they could no longer be kept secret. By that point, it was too late, and the dynasty that was to last ten thousand years disappeared only four years after its founder died.
The Former Han, 202BC– 8AD

Although the Ch'in pretty much invented Chinese government, or at least the form that all subsequent dynasties would follow. And, standardized Chinese culture in very vital ways: standards, weights, measures, and most importantly, writing, in Chinese history it is the Han, the longest dynasty in Chinese history, that defines Chinese culture. The Chinese themselves frequently refer to themselves as the "people of the Han."

For all that, the Han were actually two dynasties, but since the second dynasty was founded by a relative of the first, they are considered a single dynasty. The dynasty itself was founded by a commoner, a fact that would be vitally important in twentieth century Chinese politics. Liu Pang was one of the rebel generals who fought the Ch'in; in the process of his rebellion, he gained control over the area around the Wei River, the traditional homeland of the Ch'in. After the fall of the Ch'in, China fell again into a series of territorial conflicts among various rebel generals and nobility. But in four short years, Liu Pang emerged supreme over all the territories. Taking the name, Han Kao Tsu, or "Exalted Emperor of Han," he built his capital at Chang'an and began the long process of reunifying China.

The official policy of the new Han government was to renounce Legalism and all the administrative policies of the Ch'in, who were hated throughout the land. The laws were made less harsh and punishments less severe, and the regimentation of the population, particularly conscripted labor, was softened. They also renounced the centralizing tendencies of the Ch'in, and divided the Chinese empire into small, somewhat independent, feudal domains under individual lords.

Centralization and State Confucianism

The reality, however, is that the Han government, though outwardly repudiating Legalism and Ch'in government, continued largely in the same vein. Although they divided Chinese government into several principalities, the government remained centralized under the control of a powerful and large bureaucracy that would eventually end even the illusion of independent principalities. That bureaucracy, however, changed dramatically under the Han rulers. The Han "Confucianized" the Legalist government of the Ch'in, eventually adopting Confucianism as the state philosophy. The first emperor of the Han, Kao Tsu, despised Confucius and philosophers in general; the later emperors would take to Confucianism as a lifeline. The essence of Confucianism is that government should be in the hands of moral people; the purpose of government is the welfare of the people. People, according to Confucius, are born good and can be taught all the moral virtues necessary for government. Since morality can be taught, it follows that only people who have been educated in morality should rule over others. At first, government officials were appointed on the recommendation of other government officials, but in 165 BC, the Han instituted the first examination. This examination primarily concerned Confucius, the Five Classics, and moral questions; admission into government service was possible only through this examination. The Chinese had invented something brand new: rule by merit.

Confucianism became the center of this new rule by merit, and the Confucian principle of "jen," or "benevolence, humanity," became the ideological center of Han government. At the capital in Ch'ang-an, a school was created specifically for teaching Confucian government. This school became the ideological center of the Later Han dynasty. The Han, however, combined Confucian philosophy with Legalist government structures, such as a regimented populace, standardization, and a centralized government. The combination of Confucianism and Legalism in practical governing during the Han is called State Confucianism.

In Han government, the emperor was the supreme ruler; all authority resided ultimately in the emperor. Below the emperor were court officials who all attained their position through merit; ideally, they exhibited the highest abilities in governing. Besides advising the emperor, their central role was to staff and run the bureaucracy which was the true authority. In addition, the Ch'in had instituted powerful roles for court eunuchs. These eunuchs almost always came from common families; as boys, they were castrated and were servants in the emperor's harem. Because of this, they had close friendships with the emperor's from their early boyhood, and often served as advisors to the emperor. At various times in Chinese history, these eunuchs were more powerful than the court officials.

Han Wu Ti

Perhaps the greatest and most powerful of the Han emperors was Han Wu Ti, who came to power in 141 BC at the age of sixteen and ruled for fifty four years, the second longest reign in Chinese history. Han Wu Ti is generally regarded as the strongest and most vigorous of the Chinese emperors. He greatly expanded China's borders south into Vietnam and north into Korea, and effectively stopped the raids of the Hsiung Nu by invading their territory south of the Gobi desert and settling Chinese colonists all through the area. He set up outposts and colonies all the way into the Tarim Basin, extending Chinese influence into central Asia. This presence in central Asia led to the creation of the Silk Road, a trade route that brought the Chinese civilization all the way to Rome.

Han Wu Ti presided over some of the most ambitious economic projects in the history of early China. The most significant was the joining of the Yellow River to the capital at Chang-an thus joining the two central commercial centers of China. In addition, Han Wu Ti established a network of "ever-level granaries," which were designed to store excess grain in order to prevent starvation in times of flood or drought.

The Fall of the Former Han

The Han depended on taxation in order to maintain their control over the territories, which had grown so large under Han Wu Ti. As the wealthy began to successfully avoid paying taxes, this heavy tax burden fell more and more on the merchant classes and the peasants. By 22 BC, the situation was so bad that revolts broke out all over the country.

In the fading years of the former Han dynasty, court officials turned to the Han regent, Wang Mang, who ruled in place of the infant emperor. They urged him to become emperor and restore order and when he finally accepted in 8 AD, it was too late. He undertook to reform the government under more strict Confucian principles, but he made several well-meaning but disastrous reforms. Among these reforms were land confiscations which took land from the wealthy and distributed them to the poor peasantry. In addition, a series of floods destroyed the irrigation system and widespread famine plagued China for years; the Hsiung Nu, emboldened by the chaos to the south, took over large parts of the northern Chinese territories. Finally, in 23 AD, a peasant secret society, the Red Eyebrows, which had begun a revolution five years earlier, captured the capital and executed Wang Mang. The Former Han dynasty officially ended when Wang Mang declared himself the emperor; his new dynasty, formed from inside the Han dynasty, had fallen into chaos. For two years, from 23 to 25 AD, China seethed in chaos and constant warfare.
The Later Han, 25-220AD

When Wang Mang tried to create a new dynasty, the Hsin ("New") dynasty, from within the Han dynasty, his central concern was addressing the severe inequities in wealth and property that had grown up between the classes in China. He would have succeeded had not his military been weak and had not nature, and the Hsiung Nu, conspired to create widespread starvation and dissatisfaction. When Wang Mang was executed in 23 AD by the peasant group, the Red Eyebrows, there were no strong candidates to assume the awful burden of taking over the massive Chinese imperial government. For two years, from 23 to 25 AD, various factions fought among themselves until, in 25 AD, a wealthy landowner led a rebel army and seized the government. Since he was related to the Han imperial house, he declared the Han dynasty restored.   

However, a pattern of history seems to have been set by the former Han. Beginning auspiciously with agrarian reforms, the former Han redistributed wealth and solved a rising agrarian crisis that had been building since the Chou period. Soon, however, the government grew weak and economic power shifted to wealthy landowners at the expense of the peasantry. The agrarian crisis caused by these inequities led to the rise of a peasant revolt, the Red Eyebrows, which overthrew the Han government. The same pattern would be repeated with astonishing precision in the later Han dynasty as well.

As in the Former Han, a strong centralized government was restored and powerful reforms were instituted in the early years of the Later Han; these reforms led to an astonishing recovery of a population that had been devastated by war and famine. As in the former Han, this period of creative reform and restoration was immediately followed by an aggressive military expansion. In 50 AD, the Later Han government allied itself with some Hsiung Nu tribes and, forty years later, marched across the Gobi desert and attacked the northern Hsiung Nu. So effective was this campaign that it provoked massive migrations of Hsiung Nu west into central Asia and north into Russia; these migrations eventually pushed the Hsiung Nu all the way to Europe and finally Rome: the "Huns." The military expansion of the Chinese empire would push the Chinese all the way to the Caspian Sea; this mind-boggling control of large parts of inner Asia created the greatest trade route in the ancient world: the Silk Road.

As in the Former Han, however, economic power soon became concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy landowners. These wealthy landowners maintained their own private armies and kept the peasants on their lands at or below subsistence level. As in the Former Han, they also managed to avoid paying taxes, so the onus fell on the shoulders of merchants and the poor, many of whom could not even support themselves, let alone the government. Revolts began to break out in 184 AD spearheaded by secret, religious peasant groups. The Former Han fell at the hands of the peasant Red Eyebrows society; the Later Han perished under the weapons of the Yellow Turbans, a new-Taoist secret society based in eastern China. After decades of weak government, the Han dynasty fell in 220 AD; with it fell the Chinese Empire itself. The next three hundred years, the period of "The Three Kingdoms" and "The Six Dynasties," would see the vast Han empire fracture into separate, strong kingdoms.
The Han Syntheis

After the disastrous period of totalitarian government during the Ch'in dynasty (221-207 B. C.), the early Han dynasty (207 B.C.-9 A.D.) returned to older forms of imperial government. However, they adopted from the Ch'in the idea of an absolutely central government and spent most of their period in power trying to regain the same level of centrality that the Ch'in and the Legalists had so ruthlessly accomplished. This ideology of central government, along with the Legalists' attempts to standardize Chinese culture and Chinese philosophy, led thinkers of the Han to attempt to unify all the rival schools of Chinese thought and philosophy that had developed over the previous three hundred years. This unification of Chinese into a single coherent system is the most lasting legacy of the Han dynasty. Earlier, the Legalists attempted to standardize Chinese thought by burning the books of rival schools and by making it a capital crime to speak of Confucius, Lao Tzu, or Mo Tzu. The Han thinkers, who thoroughly despised the Legalists and their methods while adopting many of their goals, took a different approach. Rather than reject alternate ways of thinking, they took a syncretic approach and attempted to fuse all the rival schools of thought into a single system. This syncretic project of the early Han is known as the Han synthesis. In many ways it was similar to the larger project of unifying Chinese government.

The Han philosophers concentrated specifically on the Five Classics, attempting to derive from them, particularly the I ching , or Book of Changes, the principle of the workings of the universe, or Tao. This new theory of the universe they appended to the I ching ; this appendix explains the metaphysical workings of the entire universe. Once the overall workings of the universe were understood, then every form of thought could be directly related to each other by appealing to the basic principles of the universe.

The essentials of the Han synthesis are as follows: the universe is run by a single principle, the Tao, or Great Ultimate. This principle is divided into two opposite principles, or two principles which oppose one another in their actions, yin and yang. All the opposites one perceives in the universe can be reduced to one of the opposite forces. In general, these forces are distinguished by their role in producing creation and producing degeneration: yang is the force of creation and yin the force of completion and degeneration. The yin and yang are further differentiated into five material agents, or wu hsing , which both produce one another and overcome one another. All change in the universe can be explained by the workings of yin and yang and the progress of the five material agents as they either produce one another or overcome one another. This is, I need to stress, a universal explanatory principle. All phenomena can be understood using yin-yang and the five agents: the movements of the stars, the workings of the body, the nature of foods, the qualities of music, the ethical qualities of humans, the progress of time, the operations of government, and even the nature of historical change. All things follow this order so that all things can be related to one another in some way: one can use the stars to determine what kind of policy to pursue in government, for instance.

Since the Han thinkers had come up with a tool to explain historical and political events, the writing of history took off exponentially during the early Han and later. History became more than a repository of good and bad examples of government, as it had for the ancient Chinese, it became the working out of the yin-yang or five agents system as it applied to human affairs. This meant that the writing of history demanded accuracy, that the facts be laid out with great precision and indifference so that the workings of yin-yang could be followed precisely. The Han, then, developed a rigorously factual approach to history at a very early time in Chinese history. In government, the Han thinkers essentially adapted the Legalist attitude that human beings fundamentally behave badly, but they changed the doctrine significantly. The Han thinkers believed that people behaved in a depraved way because they had no choice; economic and social conditions forced them to behave badly. For at heart, all human beings desire only material well-being; in order to make people behave virtuously, the government should make it possible that the ends of virtue (the well-being of others) and the pursuit of individual well-being should be coterminous, that is, material benefits should accrue to virtuous acts (that's one-half of the Legalist formula). The emperor would bring this about through two means. First, the emperor and the government is responsible for setting up conditions in which people can derive material benefit from productive labor; the stress on productivity, of course, is derived from the Legalists and Mo Tzu. Second, the emperor can provide an example. It is the job of the emperor to care for the welfare of his people (Confucianism), yet at the same time, the Emperor should withdraw from active rule (Taoism). How did the Emperor rule then? By providing a living example of benevolence. This model of Chinese government would remain dominant well into the twentieth century.

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