China has contributed much to civilization: paper, the bell, the fishing reel, gunpowder, the compass, the bulkhead, playing cards, the oil well, woodblock printing, silk, the list of Chinese inventions goes on endlessly. China has also given civilization great religions (Confucianism, Taoism, Faism, Yi Bimoism, and others) and great philosophies (mohism, legalism, naturalism, neo-taoism and so forth). Chinese authors such as Shi Nai’an and Wu Cheng’an, artists such as Han Gan and Ma Yuan, composers such as Wei Liangfu and Cai Yan enriched civilization beyond measure. Moreover, China introduced the concepts of slavery, monogamy, espionage, subversion, propaganda, urbanization, lingchi (“death by a thousand cuts”), and more.
The so-called Warring States period (c. 475 BC to 221 BC) saw ancient China composed of seven kingdoms – Qi, Qin, Zhao, Yan, Han, Chu and Wei – at odds with each other … seriously at odds as they fought incessantly. Eventually, the king of the Qin, Ying Zheng, managed the task of unifying China, conquering the last enemy (Qi) and thus proclaiming himself Qin Shi Huang (loosely, “first emperor of Qin”). During his glorious reign, besides burning books and burying alive scholars who disagreed with him – for the Warring States period had given rise to the Hundred Schools of Thought, a distressing collection of liberal philosophies and free thinking – the Qin undertook an extensive road- and canal-building program and even began construction of the Great Wall of China to keep the barbarians out (as it turned out, a futile effort). Although he sought mightily for the fabled elixir of immortality, Ying Zheng didn’t find it – obviously – and he died in 210 BC. He was interred in a massive mausoleum near Chang’an, built by 700 thousand “unpaid laborers” and guarded by the famed Terracotta Army. The Qin Empire lasted only a few years longer.
In 207 BC Liu Bang, a peasant rebel and born troublemaker, aided by the ambitious Chu warlord Xiang Yu, toppled Qin Shi Huang’s inept successor from the throne and established – after doing away with his ally – the Han dynasty. Interrupted only briefly by the Xin dynasty, the Han ruled over an age of linguistic consolidation, cultural experimentation, political expression, economic prosperity, exploration and expansion, and technological innovation. It was a good time, made even better when Emperor Wu shattered the Xiangnu Federation in the steppes and redefined China’s traditional borders. Han traders ventured as far afield as the Parthian Empire and India; Roman manufactured glassware has been found in Han ruins. The Han emperors also scattered agricultural communes of ex-soldiers across the western expanses, so anchoring their end of the Silk Road.
The rise of the commander Cao Cao meant the decline of the Han emperor. In 208 AD Cao Cao abolished the Three Excellencies, the emperor’s top advisors, and took for himself the post of Chancellor. In 215, Cao Cao forced the emperor Xian to divorce his empress and take Cao’s daughter as wife. With prognostications and heavenly signs indicating that the Han had lost the tianming (“Mandate of Heaven”), Xian abdicated his throne in December 220 in favor of Cao Cao’s son, Cao Pi. Pi proclaimed the Wei dynasty … and unified China promptly fell apart.
For 60 years following the Yellow Turban Rebellion – imaginatively labelled the “Three Kingdoms Period” by sinologists – three kingdoms were contenders to rebuild the centralized empire of the Qin and the Han. The three – the states of Wei, Shu and Wu – never quite managed the task; it was left to the Jin to accomplish. Sima Yan forced Cao Huan to cede him the throne of Wei. Following brilliant campaigns, the Wei overran Shu (263 AD) and Wu (279 AD). But the Jin dynasty was seriously weakened by the family squabbles of the imperial princes, and soon enough lost control of the northern and western provinces (henceforth the empire was known simply known as the Eastern Jin), leading to the period labelled the Sixteen Kingdoms (again named by those clever sinologists), which lasted until 439.
Despite some consolidation – brought about by rivers of blood – it was not until 589 that the whole of China was together again under one ruler, the short-lived Sui dynasty. It was followed by the Tang dynasty, which managed to stay on the throne of a unified (more-or-less) China until 907 AD. The Tang was much like the Han administration, emphasizing trade and diplomacy, bringing stability and prosperity. Thus it was that religion and culture flourished. The Grand Canal project begun by the Sui was completed, the Silk Road reopened, and the legal code revised; among other steps, the latter effort expanded the property rights of women and instituted competitive imperial examinations for bureaucrats, along several other innovations. Taxes were standardized based on rank, and the first Chinese census undertaken so everyone paid. Brilliant poets such as Li Bai and Du Fu celebrated the age, setting high standards for Chinese literature for centuries.
But the Tang Empire was struck by a century of natural disasters; floods on the Yellow River and along the Grand Canal followed by widespread droughts brought devastating famine and economic collapse. Agricultural production fell by half, and as usual desperate people turned elsewhere for leadership. Beset by endless rebellions, in 907 the former salt smuggler risen to military governor, Zhu Wen, deposed the last huangdi (emperor) of the Tang. Thus was ushered in the period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (the label pretty much says it all) which ended around 960 AD. In the next four centuries, five dynasties would rule reunified (again) China: the Song, Liao, Jin (again), Western Xia and Yuan (established by Kublai Khan after the Mongols slipped past that Great Wall). Each contributed its own technological discoveries, philosophical insights and social advances to the tapestry of civilization. But it is the Ming dynasty that captures the imagination.
Throughout the core of China, there was significant resentment to Mongol rule, exacerbated during the 1340s by famine and plague and marked by numerous peasant rebellions. Obviously, the tianming had been withdrawn from Kublai’s descendants. The poor-peasant-turned-rebel-leader Zhu Yuanzhang (known today as the Emperor Hongwu) proclaimed himself emperor of the Ming in 1368 after capturing the capital known today as Beijing. He’d come a long way; according to legend Zhu was the youngest of seven or eight brothers, several of whom were sold to raise money for the starving family. After the Yellow River flooded out his village and plague killed all his remaining family, he took shelter in a Buddhist monastery, which was destroyed by a Mongol army retaliating against Zoroastrian rebels. Thus, Zhu came to join the rebel movement himself, rising to its leadership by the age of 30. Vengeance begat vengeance.
The Ming dynasty ushered in a glittering age for China. Once secure on the throne Tatzu (an alliterative name for a complex person) instituted a number of policy initiatives. Among the first, a move to limit the advancement and influence of eunuchs in the imperial court, where several had enjoyed great power under previous dynasties (perhaps some of the empire’s later woes could be blamed on their return to influence – establishing a virtual parallel administration). In the social order, four classes were recognized, each with its own rights and obligations: gentry, farmers, artisans and merchants. Later Ming emperors granted ever more benefits to the merchant class, viewing their efforts as generating wealth and taxes for the empire. Besides fighting off the Mongol threat again, wars with Korea and Japan used up a lot of that wealth. And then a cycle of natural disasters struck yet again. By 1640, masses of peasants – starving, unable to pay their taxes, and unafraid of the oft-defeated imperial army – were in rebellion. When it was all sorted out, the Qing (or Manchu) dynasty ruled.
And it did so fairly effectively until the Europeans started making waves. Although the Polos and other occasional visiting traders and adventurers had made their way through China’s back door, the Portuguese arrived by sea in the guise of Jorge Alvares in 1513. Soon enough they had conned the Ming emperor into granting them a trading “enclave” in Macau, with the first governor there taking up his duties in 1557. Meanwhile, under the Qing the economy and government – which wisely tended to avoid foreign adventures – were stable. A high level of literacy, a publishing industry supported by the government, growing cities, and a pervasive Confucian emphasis on peaceful exploration of the inner self, all contributed to an explosion of creativity in the arts and philosophies. Traditional arts and crafts such as calligraphy, painting, poetry, drama and culinary styles underwent a resurgence.
But those annoying outsiders continued to meddle. By the early 19th Century, Imperial China found itself vulnerable to European, Meiji Japanese and Russian imperialism. With vastly superior naval forces, better armaments, superior communications and tactics honed in fighting each other, the colonial powers sought to dictate to the Qing government, dominate China’s trade, and generally do whatever they liked. In 1842 China was defeated in the First Opium War by Great Britain and forced to sign the infamous Nanking Treaty, the first of many “unequal treaties.” A series of such trade treaties ruined the Chinese economy by 1900. Japan, which had quickly modernized and joined the colonial fray, forced China to recognize its rule in Korea and Taiwan. While the Qing remained nominal rulers, the European powers, including Russia, divvied the entire country up into exclusive “spheres of influence.” The United States, meanwhile, unilaterally declared an “Open Door” policy in China.
It was all too much. In 1899 the populist Yihetuan (“Militia United in Righteousness”) launched the Boxer Rebellion in an effort to return China to its own devices. Unfortunately, they lost. In the crushing peace treaty of 1901, the “Eight Nations” (those who had been attacked by the Boxers) forced the execution of all in the Qing government who had supported the Boxers, provided for the stationing of foreign troops in the capital, and imposed an indemnity greater than the annual national tax revenue. The nation plunged into growing civil disorder; in response the Dowager Empress Cixi called for reform proposals from the provincial governors. Although wide-sweeping and innovative, even if successfully adopted, it was too late. In November 1908 the emperor died suddenly (likely from arsenic poisoning), followed the next day by Cixi. In the wake of insurrections and rebellions, in 1912 the new Dowager Empress Longyu convinced the child-emperor Puyi to abdicate, bringing over two millennia of imperial rule in China to an end. And China descended into another period of contending, bloody-minded warlords.