The History of China – Early Dynastic, Qin and Han
Civilization in China grew quite separately from the rest of the world. In many ways, Chinese civilization was far more advanced than in Europe or Western Asia, who did not know what was happening in China.
The periods of Chinese history are named after dynasties of ruling families. One of the earliest was the Shang dynasty, which began at around 1650BC. Many of the key features of Chinese daily life evolved at this time, such as farming and ancestor worship.
The Shang Chinese also became very skilled at working in bronze and jade. They developed a form of writing which later became the written characters still used in China today.
China is a vast country, and the Shang dynasty controlled only northern China. The ruling priest-kings were supremely powerful. To the Chinese, they were god-like figures, who could communicate with their ancestors in heaven.
The Shang built many capital cities, and possibly moved them due to floods from China’s great rivers – they built the first at Erlitou, then founded the cities of Zhengzhou and Anyang. Archaeologists have found remains of wooden houses, a palace, storerooms and streets at Anyang. They also found a king’s grave which contained pottery, bronze and jade times, and nearly 4000 cowrie shells, which the Shang used for money. In the tomb were also the remains of 47 other people, most likely servants sacrificed when their ruler died.
In the 11th century BC, the Zhou dynasty, from north of Anyang, took over from the Shang. The Zhou rulers introduced coins into China and Zhou craftworkers discovered how to work iron, also inventing the crossbow.
The Zhou ruled for around 800 years, letting local lords look after their own areas. But the lords began to fight each other. The Zhou dynasty ended, and China entered what is known as the Warring States period.
1650 - 1027BC: Shang dynasty. China's first great Bronze Age civilization develops.
1027 - 256BC: Zhou dynasty. The kingdom is divided into many states and the kind rules through local lords.
481 - 221BC: Warring States period. Local noblemen clash in large-scale battles. China becomes weaker.
221BC: The first Qin emperor unifies China.
The ancient Chinese believed spirits controlled everything. They also worshiped their dead ancestors. Once teacher who influenced Chinese beliefs was Confucius (551 - 479BC). Another was Lao-Tze (b. 604BC), founder of Taoism (The Way). This teaches the need to be in harmony with earth, nature and the cosmos.
By the third century BC, war had torn China apart. Seven different states fought each other. For years, no state was strong enough to win a decisive victory and take control of China.
Then in 221BC, the armies of Qin defeated their enemies and brought the seven states together under their leader, Zheng. He took the title Qin Shi Huangdi, the First Sovereign Emperor of Qin.
The first emperor ruled for only 11 years, but the changes he made lasted much longer and helped later dynasties, such as the Han and Yuan, to rule effectively. His empire was so large and contained people of so many different backgrounds, that Zheng had to be ruthless to keep China united. Troops would execute anyone who disagreed with his politics. They would also burn books by writers who disagreed with the emperor.
Another way of making this huge country easier to govern was to create national systems that all people could use. The First Emperor ordered that everyone in China should use the same systems of weights, measurements and writing. He also began a programme of building roads and canals, so his officials and merchants could travel easily around the country.
The Xiongnu, a nomadic people from the north of China, were always threatening to invade. So the emperor built the Great Wall to keep out the invaders. He ordered his builders to join up many existing walls along China’s northern frontier.
Working on the wall was hazardous. For much of its length, the wall ran through mountains. It was exhausting work carrying stone and moving earth to create ramparts. Many workers died. Other people suffered because they had to pay high taxes for the wall.
Qin Shi Huangdi worked hard to keep his empire together. After his death, war caused the empire to break up for a while.
246BC: Zheng becomes rules of the kingdom of Qin.
230 - 222BC: A series of victories brings the armies of Qin control of most of the warring states.
221BC: Qin defeats the last of the warring states. Zheng becomes the First Emperor.
213BC: The First Emperor orders books by authors opposing his rule to be burned.
210BC: Qin Shi Huangdi died.
209 - 208BC: A peasant rebellion reduces the power of the Qin government.
207BC: Qin empire breaks up.
The period of the Chinese Han dynasty was a time of exciting change. Technology and industry improved, farming became more efficient, and Chinese merchants traded along routes that stretched right across the huge continent of Asia. The developments were so wide-reaching that even today, many Chinese people think of the Han period as the true beginning of China.
The Han emperors took over the government of the Qin dynasty. They organised China into a series of local provinces, each with its own commander. The Qin dynasty had ruled by force by the Han emperors found more peaceful ways of wielding their power. When Han ironworkers discovered how to increase the temperature of their furnaces, they were able to make a much wider range of better quality products. The emperors saw value of this and put all the iron foundries under state ownership. This gave them control of all the tools and weapons that were produced.
The emperors also tried to control trade, especially the rich trade in silk, which Chinese merchandise carried along the overland routes across central Asia. Neighbouring areas were only allowed to trade with China if they paid regular tribute to the emperor.
The Han emperors also set up a civil service to administer the empire. They created a huge number of officials who got their jobs by taking an examination. Candidates had to answer questions on the teaching of philosopher Confucius. This civil service, with its system of examinations, lasted some 2000 years – much longer than the Han dynasty itself.
The most important of all the changes that took place under the Han emperors were in technology. Paper and fine porcelain, or china, were both Han inventions. Scientists of the Han period even made the world’s first Seismograph for predicting earthquakes. They also invented a water clock, the wheelbarrow and the stern-post rudder, for better steering of boats at sea. At the same time, merchants brought many new materials into China, from wool and furs to glass and pearls. Peaceful and wealthy, Han China was probably the most advanced civilization if its time.
207BC: Gaozu overthrows the Qin dynasty. The Han dynasty rules from the city of Chang'an.
140-87BC: The reign of Han Wu Di. He defeats the northern nomads. The Han empire reaches its largest extent.
124BC: Competitive examinations for the civil service begin.
119BC: Iron industry nationalized.
AD25: Later Han period begins. The emperor moves the capital to Luoyang.
AD105: An official called Cai Lun develops the paper-making process.
AD220: Power struggles weaken the court and the Han empire collapses.