The classical period, 1000 b c. e. – 500 c e.: Uniting large regions

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THE CLASSICAL PERIOD, 1000 b.c.e. – 500 c.e.:

In the classical period, China, India, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East, East Africa, and Mesoamerica all saw the development of large regional civilizations, and, in some cases, massive empires. These civilizations had not only the greatest concentrations of people, but also influenced areas outside their control. Classical civilizations also had important relationships with nomadic groups, mostly from central Asia, who traded with them and periodically attempted invasion. For the most part, little contact existed between the regions, but for some, trade forged links, and sometimes served to further an exchange of ideas. Syncretism, the combination of cultural elements such as an Indian sculpture of Buddha clothed in Greek fashion, was often a result of this exchange. Syncretism was not the most common feature of the classical period, but its occurrence hinted at what would be developed more fully later. The establishment of distinctive cultural and institutional patterns was a key legacy of this period.

Big Concepts. The formation of the classical societies involved two striking features. First was the emergence and standardization (within each society) of key cultural and religious traditions and second, in the political realm, was the development of state and empires—again, with each society producing some characteristic political forms within this category. Finally, as the period’s third overarching feature, the contacts that did develop among different regions spurred trade and, to some degree, communication. All three of these features would affect world history long after the classical period had itself ended.
Triggers for Change. Despite the lack of a clear transition, the classical civilizations that began to emerge about 1000 B.C.E. were measurably different from their river valley predecessors. While they built on earlier achievements, they grew noticeably larger in their geographic, cultural, and economic reach. What allowed this greater reach was military conquest, made possible by the introduction of iron tools and weapons, beginning around 1500 B.C.E. As larger empires developed, leaders worked to tie their territories together both commercially and culturally. New trade links emerged, sometimes aided by new infrastructure such as canals (China) or postal service (Persia). Religion and philosophy were formalized and disseminated as part of training a cohesive elite. Each of the classical societies ultimately declined, some collapsed altogether, Though these developments did not happen at exactly the same time, together they brought the classical period to a close by 500 C.E.
The Big Changes. Each of the classical civilizations had its own social structure, religion, political system, system of science, and styles of art. Comparisons of these differences, which have continued to the present day, form a vital part of studying the classical period. To take one example: in the late 20th century the Chinese government proved reasonably effective in mandating drastic changes in birth rates. The Indian government tried and failed to enforce similar regulations. One significant factor in explaining the difference is the extent to which these populations considered it the legitimate business of government to regulate personal life. The differences in attitude can be traced back to the classical period. All of the civilizations that marked this period have proved to have lasting influence. Moreover, each area developed a common culture, especially in ideology. Conquest was also a commonality. Each of these civilizations had an impact on surrounding peoples, India had the largest commercial reach. Even more widely, nomadic peoples were often attracted toward centers of civilization as immigrants, soldiers, or invaders. Some nomadic peoples facilitated trade between civilizations. Finally, in each area, the achievements of civilizations inspired awe, at the time and later. Great developments in philosophy, politics, and art in classical civilizations provided the foundations for subsequent civilizations.
Continuity. Although technology was a factor in change, particularly iron, the era was not marked by widespread innovation. In the rural world in particular, continuity was more common than change. Patriarchy remained the norm, now integrated into new cultural systems. In general, some of the hallmarks of the earlier civilizations—money and law codes for instance—were carried forward and further developed.
Impact on Daily Life: Old Age. A respect for the aged was common to all of the great cultural regions. It was seen as a sign of good habits and wisdom. Furthermore, in groups where literacy was not common, the elderly could be a vital source of information and cultural memory. Respect for the elderly was a sign of good manners in all the classical societies. Confucianism in China placed special value on veneration of elders. The Mediterranean culture, that of Classical Greece, Rome, and Hebrews, showed greater ambivalence.
Trends and Societies. Initial chapters in this section describe developments in each of the major areas, starting with China in chapter 2. Chapter 3 concerns India, before turning back to the Mediterranean for the history of Greece and Rome in chapter 4. Chapter 5 returns to the main classical centers, dealing with patterns of decline and concurrent religious innovations, including the rise of Christianity.


Classical Civilization: China
Chapter Outline Summary


Kung Fuzi (Confucius)

late Zhou era, 500s b.c.e.

Quest to become advisor to the ideal ruler

Among many wandering scholars

Attracted disciples

Analects, collected sayings

Political, social philosophy foundational for China through the ages

Idealized strong rulers, centralized administration, educated elite

responsible for well-being of subjects

Ethical, not religious, system encompassing duties, manners for family

as well as state

Art, music, calligraphy

Chapter Focus

Conditions for rise of Confucianism

Teachings of Legalism, Daoism, Buddhism

Fluctuations in thought with various dynasties and political systems

Persistence of Confucianism in 20th century

Influence throughout Asia from Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere

Aspects of Confucianism captivated major thinkers in Europe and United States

I. Establishment of Political Order

Break down of dynastic control between 8th and 3rd centuries B.C.E.

Yellow and Yangzi river basins, north China plain

Multiple states, nomadic raids and settling, assimilation

By 221 B.C.E., warrior, Shi Huangdi, unified territory under Qin dynasty

A tyrant, died in 210 B.C.E.; son less capable

Two peasants lead revolt, topple Qin in 207 B.C.E.

Rise of Han dynasty, Han lasts for 400 years

Consolidated and extended Chinese civilization

Largest, most effective bureaucracy in pre-industrial world

Civil service exams, professional administration

Effective creation of Chinese identity: “sons of Han”

Identity sustaining during periods of war, invasion, internal conflict

Han dynasty collapsed in 3rd century C.E.

A. Cultural Traditions

China first great classical society

Isolation: growth with only limited invasions, development of unique


Shang collapse; able to build on their advances, especially technologically

Shang and Zhou intellectual heritage

Basic harmony of nature

Every yin has its opposite yang, example: male/female, hot/cold, etc.

Individual expectation to relate to that nature, not an outsider to it

Worldview intrinsic, unifying force to diverse Chinese philosophies

Government, philosophy, economy, family, individual intended to blend as whole

II. Patterns in Classical China

China has clearest link with its past

Pattern set in motion from classical period

Dynasties: families of kings

Initiate rule of family with strong institutions and economy

Followed by weaker leaders, tax revenue loss, increase in social divisions

Internal rebellions, sometimes invasions, hasten decline

New family dynasty emerges from a general, invader, or peasant rebel

Chinese cyclical conception of history contrasted with Western linear conception

A. The Zhou dynasty

Three dynasties of Classical period: Zhou, Qin, Han

Zhou (1029 to 258 B.C.E.), flourished until about 700 B.C.E.

Feudal practices: system of vassalage for land tenure, revenue, military service

Period of decline: regional lords more powerful, invasions

Zhou contributions

Extended territory into Yangzi area, became core “Middle Kingdom”

Diversified agriculture, wheat and rice; promoted population growth

Promoted centralized authority, claimed Shang origins

Lasting concept of legitimacy

Imperial authority “Mandate of Heaven”

Emperors “Sons of Heaven”

Banned human sacrifice

Mandarin: common cultural currency across dialects, languages

Late 6th and early 5th centuries B.C.E.: period of turmoil as well as cultural creativity

Rise of Confucianism and other lasting cultural beliefs

Between 402 and 201 B.C.E., period known as “Era of the Warring States”

B. Qin Dynasty

Shi Huangdi “the tiger; ” regional lord deposed the last of the Zhou

Consolidated China in 35 years; unification by 221 b.c.e.

Resistance crushed, warriors disarmed

Upper classes forced to live in capital Xianyang

Regional provinces, emperor appointed bureaucratic oversight

Great Wall

3000 miles protecting north border

Wide enough for chariots

Largest construction in history

Forced labor conscripted by bureaucracy from peasantry

National census to calculate tax revenue and labor service

Common writing, coinage, weights and measures

Promoted new manufactures like silk; new irrigation projects

Attacked possible subversives, burned books, killed

Died in 210 B.C.E., massive peasant revolts erupted

Peasant leader established Han dynasty in 207 B.C.E.

C. The Han Dynasty

400 years, until 220 C.E.

Rounded out basic political and intellectual structure

Maintained Qin centralization, reduced brutality

Expanded territory: Korea, Indochina, central Asia

Direct contact with India, Parthian Empire in Middle East

Parthians conduit for trade with Roman Empire

Established peace and prosperity

Improved bureaucracy, formal training, Confucian emphasis

Promoted Confucian culture, built shrines to Confucius

Cultural supplement to government action

Declined after first 200 years; central control weakened; Huns invaded, took over

Between 220 and 589 C.E., chaos before restoration of order

Political and cultural structures from classical period endured

III. Political Institutions

Qin and Han: strong, distinctive government

Qin: stressed central authority

Han: stressed powers of bureaucracy

Political structure explains how such a vast territory could be ruled

After classical period, framework streamlined, but never fundamentally altered

Key elements of Chinese political structure:

Strong local units, family ties, ancestor worship for wealthy land-owners

Ancestor worship less frequent among common folk, village ties important

Landed nobles provided courts of justice and military organization

Qin and Han additions:

Attack on local warrior-landlords

Single law code

Centralized tax authority

Appointment of regional governors answerable to emperor

Regional governors appointed officials of smaller regions

Imperial ministries: finance, military, justice, etc.

A. Strong Bureaucracy

End of Han period: 130,000 bureaucrats, 0.2 percent of population

Emperor Wu Ti instigated civil service exams

Chinese literature, law: scholar-bureaucratic tradition

Established schools: most candidates from upper classes, not all

Bureaucracy functioned as check on arbitrary imperial authority

Bureaucracy continued into 20th century, outlasted the empire itself

B. Role of the State

Military: no consistent development by Han period as China not expansionist

Judicial: local authorities managed crime and legal disputes

Intellectual life: research in astronomy, maintaining historical record

Primary keeper of Chinese beliefs: Confucian philosophy, values

Economy: direction over production of iron and salt

Standard currency, weights, measures encouraged trade throughout empire

Public works: canals, irrigation systems

Grain, rice storage to control supply, prices; manage unrest or bad harvests

Individual affect: taxes, period of labor service, code of law, threat of punishment

Invaders like Huns could topple dynasty but devise a better system of government

IV. Religion and Culture

Belief system linked with political structure

Upper-class values:

Good life on earth

Obedience to state

Little speculation about God

Tolerant of beliefs if no contradictions with political loyalties

Zhou rulers believed in god/gods but no attention to nature of a deity

Primary belief in harmony between earth/heaven and harmonious earthly life

Rituals to unify society, avoid individual excess

Upper classes engaged in exercises, archery; venerated ancestors

Chopsticks invented to encourage polite habits, tea introduced

Emergence of philosophies to reduce conflict, inform lasting Chinese culture

A. Confucianism

Confucius (Kong Fuzi) means “Kung the philosopher”

Lived approximately from 551 to 478 B.C.E.

Life of travel, teaching, preaching political virtue and good government

Believed in divine order but did not speculate about it, not a religious leader

Dominant values of Chinese civilization secular system of ethics not religious


Respect social superiors, including fathers, husbands as leaders of family

Moderate behavior

Veneration for custom, ritual, tradition

Leaders at all levels should seek wisdom

With virtuous leadership, sound political life should follow

Sayings captured in Analects

Han dynasty revived Confucian order, learning, teaching, ethics, literature

Confucianism premised on individual responsibility for behavior

Personally restraint, proper socialization, respect for family, compassion

Leaders expected to be paragons of virtue

Education central


Moral rectitude, humility, kindness, eager to learn

True happiness in doing good for all

B. Legalism

Alternative during Qin and early Han periods

Disdain for Confucianism

Valued pragmatism, authoritarianism, force

Believed humans to be evil by nature, requiring restraint an discipline

Proper state: military rule, people labor, educated discourse or courtesy frivolous

Never popular, did attach to Confucianism, justifying strong-arm tactics

Proved adaptability, integration of Chinese belief systems

Confucianism never single belief in China

Most appealing for upper class with time to spend on learning, manners

Broader adoption oriented to taste for ritual and manners

Peasants gravitated to polytheistic beliefs, honoring conciliatory spirits

Gradual integration of spiritual beliefs with Confucian values

C. Daoism

More religious philosophy, arose around same time as Confucianism

Appealed to upper class interested in spirituality

Accepted Chinese understanding of harmony, added sense of nature’s mystery

Introduced durable division in Chinese religious, philosophical culture

Daoism furthered by Laozi in 5th century B.C.E., never widely exported

Stressed nature contains divine impulse that directs all life

Retreat from society

Contemplate the life force: Dao, “the way of nature”

Daoist ethics, harmony with nature:

Humility, frugality

Political activity and learning irrelevant

General condition of the world not important

Following Han collapse:

Daoism also Buddhism from India, guaranteed no religious unity in China

Daoism politically compatible with Confucianism

D. Literature, Art, Science


Five Classics (begun in early Zhou period, edited during time of Confucius)

Historical treatises, speeches, political materials

Discussion of etiquette and ceremonies

Classic of Songs: 300 poems on love, joy, politics, family life

Literary tradition: mastery, elaboration, recitation of Five Classics

Basis of civil service exam


Decorative: detail, craftsmanship, precision, geometry

Calligraphy and carving: bronze, pottery, jade, ivory, silk screens

Architecture: a few palaces and the Great Wall

Lack of unifying religion discouraged monumental structures


Emphasis on practicality, predictability

Accurate calendar based on 365.5 days developed by 444 B.C.E.

Calculated movement of Saturn, Jupiter; sunspots; 1500 years before Europe

Improvements in instrumentation, example: kind of seismograph

Medicine: precise anatomical knowledge, principles of hygiene


How things work, example: music and advances in acoustics

V. Economy and Society

Divide: literate, landholder gentry (2%) and masses of subsistence peasants

Peasants: dues, service to lords; Depended on intense mutual cooperation

Property: village or extended family, not individual in Southern rice region

“Mean” people: unskilled labor like rough transport, low status

Social status: inherited by generation; talented peasants access to education, rise

A. The Confucian Social System

Three main social groups

Top, landowning aristocrats, educated bureaucrats (mandarins)

Next, laboring masses: peasants, urban artisans (on estates or independent)

Bottom, unskilled (performers included here) required to wear green scarves

Household slaves existed, but their numbers were few, no slaves for production

B. Trade and Technology

Trade increasingly important in Zhou and Han dynasties

Luxuries: silks, jewelry, leather-goods, furniture

Food exchange between wheat and rice growing regions

Merchant class arose, copper coins, trade with India; but trade not focal point

Confucian emphasis on learning and political service;

Technology advancements

Improved agricultural implements:

Ox-drawn plows introduced around 300 B.C.E.

Han period, collar improved for draft animals; centuries before others

Pulleys, winding gear to bring iron ore to surface

Iron tools




Remained dependent on agriculture

Higher productivity and population led to larger cities and manufacturing

Small-shop artisans, manual methods, increased output of textiles, tools, and porcelain

Interest in improved techniques

Artisans only a minority of the population

C. Gender and Family Life

Tight family organization

Solidified economic, social, political life

Importance of unity

Authority of husbands and fathers

Confucian saying: “there are no wrongdoing parents”

Law courts did not prosecute parents who injured or even killed a child

Law courts would punish a child who scolded or attacked a parent

Wives expected to be obedient to husbands

Little friction

Restraint a virtue

Harmony a virtue

Women subordinate but had own roles and potential influence

Power through sons or as mothers-in-law of younger women brought into home

Hierarchy of children for all social classes

Primogeniture (first born son inherits property and position)

Boys superior to girls

VI. How Chinese Civilization Fits Together

Politics and culture meshed well, especially after emergence of Confucian


Economic innovation not disruptive

Family structure closely linked to political and cultural goals

Technology, religion, philosophy, political structure evolved with little outside



Civilized island surrounded by barbarians; some trade with India, Middle East

Neither had need or desire to learn from others

No desire to teach others

Buddhism from India, during and after Han decline, notable exception

Chinese isolation and cultural pride theme across the ages

A. Social and Cultural Links to Politics

Unity not just a matter of government action

Bureaucracy trained corps with common ideals not just political tasks

Distinctive artistic styles, poetry, literary tradition contributed

Governance, ideals, beliefs, aesthetics linked

Link between politics and economy

Political stability over large fertile land aided economic growth

Economy aided by direct government role in agriculture and industry

Strong economy provided high tax revenue

Economics encouraged practical science

Social hierarchy, harmony, family obedience, respect reinforced political system

No sharp division between public/private, political/social; China a single whole

B. Complexities in Classical China

Endemic tensions and disparities

Confucianism and Daoism could cohere but also engendered mutual disdain

Confucianism and policing

Confucian belief in human goodness, importance of mutual respect, ceremony

Not always compatible with stern punishments used as general warning in society

Presumption of guilt, subject to torture before trial

Practiced alternating torture with benevolence to gain confessions

Represents to concurrent but not entirely compatible assumptions

Elites and the masses divided economically and culturally

Some sharing, especially with growth of Confucianism

Upper class concern for public welfare mitigating force

Recurrent, often violent, protest arose during difficult times

However, symbiosis of different aspects of Chinese civilization enduring

Contrasts with India, for example, a dynamic but more disparate society

Global Connections

A. Classical China and the World

Short Qin and 400-year Han dynasties established basics of Chinese civilization

Civilization lasted thousands of years, longest in history

One of the most creative and influential civilizations

Productivity of land and peasantry provided for:

One-fifth of total human population from 1st century B.C.E. to today

Flourishing cities

One of history’s largest, most creative elites

One of history’s largest, best run bureaucracies

Technological pioneers disseminated later across Eurasia and northern Africa

Compass, paper, watermills, porcelain

Expanded, diversified communications, productivity, art, elegance

Chinese merchants, central Asian nomads introduced inventions to world

Japan, Rome, Middle East, England

China directly involved in world trade patterns

Chinese silk valued elsewhere

Trade in silk and other luxuries generated network of roads: the Silk Road

Han dynasty actively pursued trade with west

Most trade carried by nomadic merchants

Spurred attention to sea routes over Indian Ocean

Huge influence over central Asia to the Pacific, 2000 years


Kung Fuzi. In the late 6th century B.C.E., Kung Fuzi applied for a position in the government of the kingdom of Lu, in northeast China. Unsuccessful, the scholar later known to the West as Confucius, took to the road to search for a ruler worthy of his service. In this period of the decline of the Zhou kingdom, numerous smaller states competed for dominance. He was joined by many wandering scholars of the shi (scholar gentry) including some who became his disciples. The sayings of Confucius were collected after his death in the early 5th century b.c.e., and became known as the Analects. His writings were influenced by the turbulent times he lived in, and advocated strong leadership and centralized power. His philosophy incorporated all aspects of life, including family relationships, etiquette, and ancestor worship. Confucius advocated rule by highly educated elite deemed responsible for the well-being of the subjects of the state. Confucianism also highlighted the importance of art, music, and elegant calligraphy in the cultivation of scholar-bureaucrats. Despite periods of turmoil, Confusianism provided an enduring foundation for Chinese thought and culture.
Chapter Summary.

This chapter focuses on the conditions that gave rise to Confucianism as well as the teachings of rival philosophical systems, such as Legalism, Daoism, and Buddhism. When political stabilization was restored in the 3rd century b.c.e. with the victories of Shi Huangdi of the Qin dynasty, Confucianism was eclipsed by more authoritarian alternatives. However, with the emergence of the Han dynasty in 207 b.c.e., Confucian ideals came to provide the philosophical underpinnings of both the Chinese state and society. Despite periods in which its influence waxed and waned, it has persisted as a major cultural force to this day. Confucianism has also exerted pervasive influence on other societies throughout Asia, from Japan and Korea through central Asia and southward into present-day Vietnam. China’s Confucian ideals, scholar-gentry bureaucracy, technological advancements, and prosperous agrarian state captivated major thinkers in Europe and the United States—from Jesuit missionaries to Thomas Jefferson.

Establishment of Political Order. The Zhou dynasty’s ability to control its vassals broke down in the 8th century B.C.E. Internal conflicts left China vulnerable to outside invaders, and between the 8th and 3rd centuries B.C.E., nomadic peoples often raided farming areas of the north China plain. Some settled and assimilated, some captured existing states. The yearning for unity and an end to strife appeared to be answered by the warrior strongman Shi Huangdi. By 221 B.C.E., he vanquished all rivals and founded the Qin dynasty. His rule was harsh. His death in 210 B.C.E. was the signal for resistance. The revolt, led by two peasants, toppled the Qin in 207 B.C.E. and gave rise to the Han dynasty. Over a period of 400 years, the Han oversaw the consolidation of Chinese civilization, building institutions from which a distinct Chinese culture and identity would emerge and carry the Chinese people through times of war, conflict, and invasion. The sense of Chinese identity shaped in the classical period was reflected in later centuries by Chinese references to themselves as the “sons of Han.”

Cultural Traditions. China generated the first of the great classical societies. China’s relative geographic isolation spared it from frequent invasions, encouraged an intense, and distinctive, Chinese identity. The decline of the Shang did not result in as much internal chaos as with the Middle East of India. The Chinese could build more strongly on precedents, including technological advancements. The Shang and Zhou dynasties brought forward a unique worldview that would persist. Unlike the West, the Chinese tradition sees the world as a harmonious whole in which nature is held in balance. Every yin has its yang; male is complimented by its opposite, female. Hot finds its balance in cold, and so on. Chinese traditions about balance, Dao and yin/yang were intrinsic to diverse philosophies and religions established in the classical period. Despite great diversity, China emerged with an unusually well integrated system in which government, philosophy, economic incentives, the family, and the individual were intended to blend into a harmonious whole.

Patterns in Classical China. Of all the civilizations of today, China has the clearest link with its past. Already set in motion during the classical period, China followed a dynastic pattern. A king and his family would rule through an initially vigorous period of flourishing in which strong political and cultural institutions and economic growth would bring well-being to China’s subjects, followed by a period of decline in which tax revenues would decrease, social divisions would increase, and, eventually, internal rebellion or foreign invasions would cause a new dynasty to take hold. This pattern induced a cyclical view of history.

The Zhou Dynasty. There were three dynasties of the classical period: the Zhou, Qin, and Han. The Zhou flourished until about 700 B.C.E.; it was then beset by a declining political infrastructure and frequent invasions by nomadic peoples from border regions. During its stronger period, the Zhou did not establish a powerful central government, ruling instead according to a feudal system of alliances between lords and vassals who obtained land tenure in exchange for tribute and military service. As with feudal practices anywhere, the king’s government was vulnerable to the power of regional lords. The Zhou contributed to the development of China by extending its territory into the Yangzi area, thereby introducing a more diversified and plentiful agricultural base, promoting population growth and a distinctly Chinese identity in the Middle Kingdom. The Zhou contributed to the cultural identity of China by establishing a shared Mandarin language, a common currency, more restrained religious practices, and the idea of legitimate political authority—the Mandate of Heaven. The increased cultural unity experienced during the Zhou period inspired the development of a philosophical and ethical heritage that would persist, despite a 200-year period, between 402 and 201 B.C.E., aptly known as the Era of the Warring States.

The Qin Dynasty. Qin Shi Huangdi, one of the many competing rivals striving to supplant the Zhou, consolidated China in 35 years under his rule by 221 b.c.e. He crushed resistance, destroying regional fortresses and the weapons of local warriors. Formerly independent states were replaced by provinces ruled by bureaucrats. Surviving aristocrats and rich merchants had to live in the capital, Xianyang. Shi Huangdi pursued construction projects like canals, roadways, and a 3000 mile defensive barrier against nomadic invaders—the Great Wall—with forcibly recruited peasants. Shi Huangdi’s harsh policies created opposition. He conscripted, killed, taxed, and burned books. The massive building projects stimulated a peasant-led rebellion that ended the dynasty in 207 b.c.e. Despite its short rule, the Qin marked a watershed in Chinese history. Shi Huangdi unified China, ruling through a strong centralized bureaucracy. The power of the feudal aristocracy ended. The building of roads and canals, the shelter of the Great Wall, the standardized script and unified coinage, weights, and measures all helped to hold the territory together. A sound foundation was ready for the succeeding Han dynasty.

The Han Dynasty. The Han era, a time of great creativity and innovation lasting for 400 years, emerged from the disorder following the collapse of the Qin. A peasant leader became its first ruler in 202 b.c.e. Continuing Qin practices, the Han create a more centralized administration, weakening the position of landholding aristocrats, and granting greater authority to appointed officials. Unlike the Qin, the Han practiced a more humane approach to governance. In the first years, the Han enlarged their empire and strengthened its borders, extending Chinese rule to Korea, Indochina, and central Asia. They made contact with India and the Parthian Empire in the Middle East, through which they established trade with the Roman Empire. The first 200 years of Han rule was a period of extraordinary peace and prosperity promoted by an effective, formally trained bureaucracy built on the foundation of Confucian principles. The Han suffered from weakened centralized control and Hun invasions for nearly two centuries until, in 220 C.E., the Huns took over entirely. Between 220 and 589 C.E. China was in a state of chaos. However, well before the collapse of the Han dynasty, China had established distinctive political structures and cultural values of unusual clarity, capable, as it turned out, of surviving three centuries of confusion.

Political Institutions. The Qin and Han dynasties of classical China established a remarkably unique and successful kind of government. The Qin stressed central authority, whereas the Han expanded the powers of the bureaucracy. More than any other factor, it was the structure of this government that explained how such a vast territory could be effectively ruled. This structure would change after the classical period, however it never required a fundamental overhaul. The political framework that emerged contained several sustaining elements. Strong local units never disappeared nor did tightly knit patriarchal family networks. Among the upper classes, these were reinforced by ancestor worship; among villagers, the village leaders helped regulate local property and planting issues. Regional leaders always remained important to provide courts of justice and organize military troops. The Qin and Han refined local practices by bringing them under imperial authority. They unified China under one law and one tax system. Governorships became appointed positions answerable to the king; the governors, in turn, appointed lesser officials who also served at the pleasure of the central authority. Finance, military, justice, and other ministries, rounded-out the political structure.

Strong Bureaucracy. By the end of the Han period, China had about 130,000 bureaucrats, representing 0.2 percent of the population. The emperor Wu Ti established examinations and schools from which to cull the most able bureaucrats. While most candidates for the exams came from the upper classes, talented individuals from the lower ranks of society were occasionally recruited. The system of training a confident and independent class of civil servants provided China with a highly capable government that could also function as a check on the arbitrary whims of the emperor. It was no accident that the Chinese bureaucracy survived into the 20th century, outliving the empire itself. China’s strong culture of respect for learning and proper social and familial relationships further integrated China’s politics into a lasting Chinese way of life.

Role of the State. Government traditions established during the classical period included an impressive list of state functions. Militarily, China produced some enduring examples in the art of war, but by the Han period, China did not depend on steady expansion or military operations. Crime and legal disputes fell largely to the domain of local government authorities. The government sponsored China’s intellectual life, organizing research in astronomy and managing the historical record. Under the Han rulers, the government played a major role in promoting Confucian philosophy as an official statement of Chinese values and encouraging the worship of Confucius himself. The government developed a durable mission as the keeper of Chinese beliefs. The economy also fell to government authority. It actively organized the production of iron and salt. Its standardization of currency and measures facilitated trade throughout the empire, as did expanding communications and distribution channels and agricultural production through public works like canals and irrigation. Han rulers even tried to control the supply and price of grains to ameliorate hard times and the unrest that goes with it. From the individual’s point of view, the central government did not direct daily life, however, the law was strictly enforced, taxes had to be paid, and peasants were required to perform an annual duty in labor. The power of the government and the authority it commanded in the eyes of most ordinary Chinese people help explain why its structure survived decline, invasion, and even rebellion for so many centuries. The Huns might topple a dynasty, but they could not devise a better system of government.

Religion and Culture. The Chinese way of looking at the world, as this belief system developed during the classical period, was closely linked to a distinct political structure. Upper-class cultural values emphasized the good life on earth and the virtues of obedience to the state, more than speculations about God and heaven. The Chinese tolerated different beliefs and even combined and adapted them as long as they did not contradict basic political loyalties. Rulers in the Zhou period emphasized maintaining a proper balance between earth and heaven, including rituals and ceremonies that reinforced self-restraint, politeness, and veneration of elders. Amid the long collapse of the Zhou dynasty many thinkers and religious prophets began to challenge Chinese traditions. From this ferment came a long-lasting cultural tradition that would inform Chinese life through the ages that followed.

Confucianism. Confucius, Kong Fuzi (which means Kung the philosopher), lived from roughly 551 to 478 B.C.E. His life was devoted to teaching, and he traveled through many parts of China preaching his ideas of political virtue and good government. He was a social philosopher concerned with the need to reestablish order and harmony in China; he thought that if people were taught self-restraint, respect for wisdom, and appreciation for a natural social hierarchy and its attending obligations, solid political life would follow: people should honor the emperor, family members should honor fathers, and so on. These natural leaders in turn ought to exemplify the specific leadership qualities of moral rectitude, kindness, and humility. Such men would understand that their personal happiness only lies in the common good; they would gain their wisdom through an education emphasizing ethics and literature and, in principle, they could be from any social class. With such men, said Confucius, China would be peaceful, its social struggles over.

Legalism. Legalism developed in the Qin and early Han years as a pragmatic alternative to Confucian ethics and courtesy. Anti-intellectual, and convinced of humanity’s evil nature, Legalists sought strict adherence to law, often by force. In a proper state, the army ruled and people labored; there would be no time for frivolities like discourses concerning the Confucian gentleman. Although Legalism never captured the widespread approval that Confucianism did, it too entered the political traditions of China, where a Confucian veneer was often combined with strong-arm tactics. Confucianism, strictly speaking, was largely the practice of the upper classes that had the time and inclination to concentrate on education and proper decorum. Even then, Confucian inattention to spiritual matters deprived it of a larger following. Confucianism permeated the Chinese way of life nonetheless. As occurred with Legalism, Confucian beliefs adapted well to other beliefs and practices, the bureaucracy promoted its ethics, and its elements of ritual and self-control were consistent with the polytheistic village life of most of China’s inhabitants.

Daoism. Daoism arose at roughly the same time as Confucianism, during the waning centuries of the Zhou dynasty. Daoism first appealed to many in the upper classes, who had an interest in a more elaborate spirituality. Daoism embraced traditional Chinese beliefs in nature’s harmony and added a sense of nature’s mystery. As a spiritual alternative to Confucianism, Daoism produced a durable division in China’s religious and philosophical culture. This new religion was furthered by Laozi who stressed that nature contains a divine impulse that directs all life. True human understanding comes in withdrawing from the world and contemplating this life force or “Dao.” Daoist harmony with nature best resulted through humility and frugal living. According to this movement, political activity and learning were irrelevant to a good life, and general conditions in the world were of little importance. Daoism’s spread can be attributed to the facility with which its mysteries and ceremonies complimented Confucian ethics. No threat to the political order, the Chinese government from the later Han dynasty onward was able to persuade Daoist priests to include expressions of loyalty to the emperor in their temple services.

Literature, Art, and Science. Confucianism blended easily with the high value of literature and art among the upper classes. In literature, a set of Five Classics provided an important tradition. They were used, among other things, as a basis for civil service examinations. The works included historical treatises, speeches, other political materials; a discussion of etiquette and ceremonies; and in the Classic of Songs, over 300 poems. The Chinese literary tradition developed on the basis of mastering these early works, plus Confucian writing. From the classical period onward, the ability to learn and recite poetry became the mark of an educated Chinese.

Art was largely decorative and geometric. Calligraphy was a highly praised form. Chinese artists painted, worked in bronze and pottery, carved jade and ivory, and wove silk screens. Classical China did not produce monumental buildings, aside from the awe-inspiring Great Wall and some imperial palaces and tombs, in part because of the absence of a single religion.

Work in the sciences focused on practical applications. Chinese astronomers developed a 365.5-day calendar, calculated planetary movement, and observed sunspots 1500 years before Europeans. Chinese scientists improved instrumentation. Medical advances came as a result of precise anatomical knowledge and understanding of hygiene. In mathematics, the practical focus led to discoveries in acoustics and measurement standards.

Economy and Society. Although the most distinctive features of classical China centered on politics and culture, developments in the economy, social structure, and family life also shaped Chinese civilization and continued to have an impact on the empire’s history for a significant period of time. As with many agricultural societies, there was a considerable gap between the literate, land-holding classes—about 2 percent of the total population and the peasantry, who provided dues and service to these lords. The Chinese peasantry depended on intensive cooperation; property was characteristically owned and regulated by the village or the extended family, rather than by individuals. Beneath the peasantry, Chinese social structure included a group of “mean” people who performed unskilled jobs and suffered from the lowest possible status. In general, one inherited one’s social status although unusually talented individuals from a peasant background might be given access to an education and rise within the bureaucracy.

The Confucian Social System. Classical China consisted of three main social groups. The landowning aristocracy plus the educated bureaucrats, or mandarins, formed the top group. Next came the laboring masses: peasants and also urban artisans who manufactured goods. Finally, came the mean people, those without meaningful skills. Interestingly, performing artists were ranked in this group. The mean people were required to where identifying green scarves. Slaveholding was neither common nor economically significant.

Trade and Technology. Trade focused on luxury items such as silks, jewelry, leather goods, and furniture became increasingly important. There was also food exchange between the wheat- and rice growing regions. Copper coins began to circulate, which facilitated trade, with merchants even sponsoring commercial visits to India. However, the Confucian emphasis on learning and political service led to considerable scorn for lives devoted to moneymaking. The gap between the real importance and wealth of merchants and their officially low prestige was an enduring legacy in Confucian China. The Chinese were the most technologically innovative of all classical civilizations. Innovations included the introduction of the ox-drawn plow, a non-choking collar for draft animals, iron tools and lamps, paper, and watermills powering mills and workshops. Improved techniques appeared in mining, silk making, and ceramics. The advances led to a larger population and the growth of a mostly urban artisan and manufacturing class, aided by an interest in improving techniques.

Gender and Family Life. The family was seen as the center of an orderly, serene hierarchy, emphasizing the importance of unity and the power of husbands and fathers. Children were expected to be obedient to parents, wives to husbands, and female to male children. Chinese rules of inheritance, from the humblest peasant to the emperor himself, followed strict primogeniture, which meant that the oldest male child would inherit property and position alike. The family served as a training ground for the principles of authority and restraint that applied to the larger social and political world.

How Chinese Civilization Fits Together. China’s politics and culture meshed readily, especially around the emergence of a Confucian bureaucracy. Economic innovation did not disrupt the emphasis on order and stability, and family structures were closely linked to political and cultural goals. Classical Chinese technology, religion, philosophy, and political structure evolved with very little outside contact. Proud of their culture and of its durability, the Chinese had neither the need nor the desire to learn from or conquer other societies. the theme of unusual isolation, developed during the formative period of Chinese civilization, was to prove persistent in later world history—in fact, it has not entirely disappeared to this day.

Social and Cultural Links to Politics. Chinese civilization was also noteworthy for the relative harmony among its systems of government, belief, economy, and social structure. The centralized government, gave the clearest unity and focus to Chinese society; Confucianism provided a vital supplement, making the bureaucracy a trained corps with some common ideals. An appreciation of distinctive artistic and literary tradition added to this common culture. Political stability over a large and fertile land aided economic growth, and the government took a direct role in encouraging both agriculture and industry. A strong economy, in turn, provided the government with vital tax revenues. Economic interests were also related to the pragmatic Chinese view of science, whose aim was to determine how nature worked. Finally, social and family structures meshed with the virtues of obedience and respect that were important to the larger political system. Not surprisingly, given the close links among the various facets of their civilization, the Chinese tended to think of their society as a whole; they did not see government and society as two separate entities.

Complexities in Classical China. A grasp of Chinese civilization as a whole, however, should not distract us from recognizing some endemic tensions and disparities. Though Confucianists and Daoists tolerated each other, they were also prone to mutual disdain. Chinese society showed tension between the Confucian belief in fundamental human goodness and a pragmatic belief in stern punishment, not only against criminals but also as warnings to the larger, potentially restless population. Elites and masses were divided by both economic interests and culture. Some shared the same values, particularly as Confucianism spread, however when overpopulation or some other factor tipped the scale, recurrent and often violent protest could be the result. Despite any divisions, the symbiosis among the various institutions and activities of many people in classical China helps account for the durability of Chinese values. The overall wholeness of Chinese society also helps account for its relative immunity to outside influence and for its creativity despite considerable isolation. Chinese wholeness, finally, provides an interesting contrast to India, the other great Asian civilization that developed in the classical period.

GLOBAL CONNECTIONS: Classical China and the World. The Qin and Han dynasties established the basic components of Chinese civilization. China emerged as one of the most creative, influential, and longest-lived world civilizations. Successful agrarian development has supported a large population, flourishing urban centers, and creative elites to this day. In the Classical period, the Chinese pioneered in the development of a whole range of basic technologies. Chinese merchants and central Asian nomads disseminated these inventions, consequently contributing to technological transformations in societies as diverse as those found in Japan, Rome, the Middle East, and England. Trade in silk and other luxury products generated a network of roads through central Asia known collectively as the Silk Road that brought China’s goods to India, the Middle East, and even the distant Mediterranean during the Roman Empire. Silk Road trade provided an initial framework on which global trading patterns would later elaborate. China’s role was greater still in the huge swath of territory from central Asia to the Pacific. Over much of central and east Asia, Chinese influence in political thought and organization, approaches to warfare, art and architecture, religion, and social norms was pervasive. For nearly 2000 years, China would serve as the “Middle Kingdom” for the diverse peoples of this vast area—the focus of their trade and the model for their often successful efforts to fashion their own variants of empire, prosperity, and sophisticated lifestyles.

Zhou: originally a vassal family of the Shang; possibly Turkic-speaking in origin; overthrew Shang and established 2nd Chinese dynasty (1122–256 b.c.e.)
Xianyang: capital of the Zhou dynasty.
Feudalism: social organization created by exchanging grants of land (fiefs) in return for formal oaths of allegiance and promises of loyal service; typical of Zhou dynasty.
Mandate of Heaven: the divine source of political legitimacy in China; established under Zhou to justify overthrow of Shang.
Qin: dynasty (221–207 b.c.e.) founded at the end of the Warring States period.
Shi Huangdi: first emperor of China; founder of Qin dynasty.
Warring States period: time of warfare between regional lords

following the decline of the Zhou dynasty in the 8th century b.c.e.

Confucius: major Chinese philosopher born in 6th century b.c.e.; sayings collected in Analects; philosophy based on the need for restoration of social order through the role of superior men.
Laozi: Chinese Daoist philosopher; taught that governments were of secondary importance and recommended retreat from society into nature.
Daoism: philosophy associated with Laozi; individual should seek alignment with Dao or cosmic force.
Legalists: Chinese school of political philosophy; stressed the need for the absolute power of the emperor enforced through strict application of laws.
Great Wall: Chinese defensive fortification built to keep out northern nomadic invaders; began during the reign of Shi Huangdi.
Han: dynasty succeeding the Qin ruled from 202 b.c.e. to 220 c.e.

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