Early Imperial China: 221 B.C.-A.D. 589

The History of China. Editor: David Curtis Wright. 2nd edition. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

Unification and Longevity: Qin and Han, 221 B.C.-A.D. 220

China during the Eastern Zhou period was chaotic and divided. Ultimately, a rival state named Qin (pronounced “cheen”) prevailed militarily over all other states and unified China under its rule in 221 B.C. The Qin then imposed its name on the rest of China, and it is from “Qin” that we get our term “China” in English and also the various pronunciations of “China” in many other European languages.

Several factors contributed to the Qin victory. Geography played an important role; the Qin was relatively isolated in western China from the rest of the states. The Qin was a rugged, semifrontier region located in the very fertile valley of the Wei River, a tributary of the Yellow. The Qin’s natural geography made it easy to defend but very difficult to capture, which also worked to the Qin’s advantage. Because most of the great battles during the Eastern Zhou were fought in other areas of China, the Qin escaped with its economy and polity relatively unscathed.

The Qin government was also an aggressive recruiter of administrative and military talent. The Qin early on saw the value of Legalists and the political ideology they espoused and promoted, and the Qin more than any other state in China actively recruited them into government service. Legalist advisors helped the Qin transform itself from a feudal government to a highly centralized, unitary state. The Qin stripped feudal lords of their land and allowed common peasants to use it. This may seem like a positive and progressive step for the Qin to take, but the Qin, of course, did not do it for completely altruistic reasons. Like the feudal governments it was dismantling, the Qin government financed itself largely through agricultural taxation. What distinguished the Qin from feudal governments was that the Qin wanted all of the tax revenue from agriculture and was unwilling to share a portion of it with any feudal hierarchy.

Legalist advisors reduced all formerly feudal regional and local governments to levels of the central government. The Qin largely abolished the system of hereditary nobility because it considered it a potential threat, and in its place it instituted an administrative system staffed by people who had proven their fitness for leadership by their tangible accomplishments. Commoners who proved themselves competent in civilian or military spheres were promoted and rewarded; incompetent aristocrats in military or civilian leadership were dismissed from their posts and deprived of their salaries. What mattered to the Qin was individual merit, not family background or bloodline. In other words, the Qin transformed itself from an aristocracy to a meritocracy. To protect this new centralized meritocracy from challenges from within, the Qin accepted the Legalists’ advice and instituted a system of mutual surveillance and responsibility on the local level. It also handsomely rewarded informers.

One of the Qin emperors, known to history as Qin Shihuang, was destined to emerge victorious against all other states and unify China under an imperial system. Upon his success in 221 B.C. he imposed new standards of uniformity on the Chinese. First of all, he standardized ideology by making Legalism the Qin’s guiding thought and outlawing all other schools of thought. His adamantly anti-intellectual state regarded Taoists and Confucians as subversive. In 213 B.C. he had most non-Legalist books burned, and the next year he buried alive more than 400 intellectuals who would not recant their beliefs in non-Legalist thought. He also imposed on China the Chinese script and the Qin’s standards for coinage, weights, measures, and even the axle lengths of carts. An enormously ambitious program of construction projects also fit into his plans for China, as did a huge palace complex for himself and a large network of roadways to many parts of China. For these projects he pressed hundreds of thousands of laborers into work and brutally killed or tortured those who resisted performing their assigned duties.

Qin Shihuang was, in short, a great emperor who accomplished the unification of China, but he was enormously brutal and despotic. A tyrant and a megalomaniac, he took upon himself the title of huangdi, a title composed of two Chinese characters that together mean something like “magnificent ruler” or perhaps even “magnificent god.” (The chief deity in the Shang pantheon was called “Di,” which is the same character in the compound huangdi.) For better or worse, all subsequent emperors in Chinese history were called by this title, but none of them equaled his record of ruthless despotism and brutality. Many Chinese today have a love-hate attitude toward Qin Shihuang. Almost all applaud him for unifying China, for imposing standards of uniformity (in areas other than ideology), and for constructing, with the help of Legalist advisors, the basic model for governmental administration that China would follow for more than 2,000 years into the future. Against these accomplishments and contributions, the vast majority of Chinese weigh the negatives of his reign: despotism, anti-intellectualism, and cruelty.

The Great Wall of China: Mostly Myth

Almost every discussion of Qin Shihuang’s reign includes the one accomplishment that seems to typify both the positive and negative aspects of his reign: the Great Wall of China. According to the typical account, Qin Shihuang completed earlier Zhou wall construction projects by connecting them all up to form the Great Wall, which he built to protect China from the savage and warlike Xiongnu or “Huns” on China’s northern border. He may even have punished laborers who did not work hard enough on the project by executing them and having their bodies buried within the Great Wall. When finished, this Great Wall supposedly extended all the way across China, effectively dividing the Chinese civilization on the south from the world of the barbarians, or pastoral nomadic peoples, of the northern steppe lands. There it remained until the present in one state of repair or another, periodically undergoing renovation projects. Today it stands as monumental and artifactual testament to the industry of the Chinese people and the despotic, boundless ambition of Qin Shihuang. It is such a magnificent structure that it is the only man-made object on the earth that can be seen from orbit or, by some accounts, the moon.

All of this makes tantalizing copy for travel brochures and grist for the publishing mills that endlessly crank out glossy, coffee-table picture books about China. There is, however, one major problem with this standard and sensationalized description of the Great Wall: it is wrong in its entirety. Historian Arthur Waldron has exploded hoary legends and proven conclusively that much of what we once thought we knew about the Great Wall is pure myth. First of all, the Great Wall of China is not ancient but was built during the Ming dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644). Many traditionally minded historians of China have long maintained that although the Great Wall as it stands today was last renovated during the Ming, the site of the wall itself goes all the way back to Qin Shihuang’s day. Waldron, however, has shown that there is only the flimsiest of evidence to support this notion. Earlier Chinese dynasties, including the Zhou and the Qin, did in fact build walls, but the locations of these walls were scattered throughout many areas of northern China and never constituted the one continuous and fixed wall that Chinese and foreigners recognized as the Great Wall. He points out that Marco Polo, whose travels during the thirteenth century A.D. often took him through areas where the Great Wall supposedly existed, never even mentioned it. Waldron maintains that the Great Wall was built for the first time during the Ming and did not exist in any form before that dynasty. Of course, this is not to say that the Great Wall is not magnificent. It is, as anyone who has traveled to it and stared along its length knows firsthand. All Waldron maintains is that the wall is not ancient. Qin Shihuang had nothing to do with its construction.

Another myth concerns the Great Wall’s supposed visibility from outer space, either in orbit or on the moon; however, no astronaut has ever claimed to see the Great Wall, either from orbit or from the moon. Waldron verified this by reviewing all NASA voice transcripts for the Apollo and space shuttle flights. (The wall is visible with satellite magnification and imagery, of course, but it is completely invisible to the naked eye.) One of Waldron’s earlier articles on the Great Wall even quotes a NASA scientist to the effect that seeing the Great Wall from the moon with the naked eye would be like seeing a Popsicle stick with the naked eye from a height of about 350 kilometers (approximately 217 miles)! He has established that the myth of the wall’s visibility from the moon predates manned space flight. Included in his book is a Ripley’s Believe It or Not cartoon from the 1930s that advances just such a claim.

The Death and Burial of Qin Shihuang

After conquering China and unifying it under his rule, Qin Shihuang began to look for a new challenge. His cruel policies led to many attempts on his life, and in this he found his next challenge: his own mortality. He wanted to live forever, and he became obsessed with discovering an elixir of immortality—some chemical or medicinal compound that would halt or perhaps even somewhat reverse the aging process in his body. He seems to have hit upon mercury, of all things, as a possible candidate for this elixir. Ironically, he died in middle age, possibly as the result of ingesting too much mercury. (Bodily decay does in fact slow down in persons who have died from mercury poisoning, and this observation may have been responsible for his fascination with mercury as a possible elixir of immortality.)

Qin Shihuang was buried in a magnificent tomb complex that thousands of workers had been constructing for him for many years. Sima Qian, a great historian who lived during the Han dynasty, describes the tomb itself as a huge model of the cosmos that contained a domed roof with the constellations painted on it and even a geographical model of China on the floor, complete with rivers of mercury representing China’s Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. His casket was supposedly placed floating on an artificial sea of mercury. When the tomb was finished, the workers were killed by sealing them inside the tomb so they would not divulge the magnificence of what they had been working on, and the entrances to the tomb were booby-trapped with crossbows.

Modern archaeologists have located the tomb and have inserted probes deep into it. These probes reveal that there is indeed a high concentration of mercury in the tomb, more than 100 times the naturally occurring rate. Sima Qian’s accounts have been verified archaeo-logically before, and many scholars expect that archaeologists one day will discover a tomb largely matching his description of it.

The exact location of the tomb has not always been precisely known. In fact, it was not discovered until the early 1970s, when a team of Chinese peasants drilling a well accidentally drilled into a portion of the tomb’s outer complex, which contained a large contingent of exquisitely made life-sized terra-cotta soldiers. (Terra-cotta is fired but unglazed clay.) Subsequent digs have revealed thousands of such terra-cotta soldiers arrayed in military formations as if to guard the tomb itself, which looks at first glance like a small hill but is in fact a huge, man-made mound. Many of the formations of terra-cotta soldiers and terra-cotta horses are now on public display near Xi’an in Shaanxi province. Because some of them were spoiled by exposure to oxygen and sunlight, later excavations made better efforts to preserve them. The Chinese today are in no hurry to excavate the gigantic tomb at the center of the burial complex. They know where it is, and when the time is right and the funding is in place, they will excavate it.

The Fall of the Qin

The Qin was undone and overthrown because of the very Legalist ideology that had helped establish it in the first place. In retrospect, it seems that the main contribution of Legalism and the Qin state that applied it was the unification of China and the creation of a structural model for future dynastic governments. Legalism as an ideology was later abandoned during the Han dynasty.

Two great rebel alliances emerged, and by 206 the Qin was deposed and its capital city sacked. China was well rid of a harsh dynasty and totalitarian government. By 210 B.C., the Qin’s subjects had been pushed to the limits of their endurance. There followed a four-year civil war between the two rebel alliances, one under the leadership of Xiang Yu, an aristocrat from one of the powerful states before the Qin unification, and Liu Bang, a coarse and unrefined commoner who had risen to military leadership by dint of his native intelligence, resourcefulness, and widespread popular appeal. Liu Bang was originally under Xiang Yu’s command but broke away from him because he disagreed with Xiang Yu’s military tactics and found him to be unnecessarily cruel and vengeful toward the Qin. The two commanders eventually came into conflict, and in 202 B.C. a dramatic and decisive clash, celebrated ever since in Chinese literature, ended with Liu Bang’s triumph and Xiang Yu’s suicide.

The Rise of Han

In 202 B.C. Liu Bang became the founding emperor of the Han dynasty, a regime that endured until A.D. 220 with one brief interruption, which occurred during the life of Christ. Liu Bang was one of only two commoners in Chinese history ever to found a major dynasty. (Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming dynasty in A.D. 1368, was the only other.) He had the common touch and exuded the common man’s sense of decency and fair play, and for this the Chinese have loved him ever since.

Liu Bang is remembered for understanding the importance of relying on competent and educated men for advice and expertise in government and for ameliorating some of the harshest Qin excesses. As a commoner, Liu Bang had considerable instinctive sympathy for the ordinary peasant and took measures to relieve his plight. He reduced the agricultural tax rate from over one-half the crop to one-fifteenth and also reduced the number of capital offenses. General peace and prosperity characterized his reign and the reigns of his immediate successors, and the Chinese people were finally able to rest after centuries of turmoil and suffering. China’s population exploded between 200 and 150 B.C., and the economy grew by leaps and bounds. A brief domestic revolt broke out in 154 B.C., but it was quickly quelled. These were quiet and content decades.

It is possible to give Liu Bang too much credit for the positive aspects of his reign. After all, he never faced the monumental task of unifying China; the Qin, for all of its totalitarian excesses, had accomplished that. He could well afford to reduce the tax rates because he never had to fund the enormous armies necessary for achieving national unity. Neither did he have to break the power of the feudal ruling class and invent an effective governmental structure and administrative framework; credit for those belongs, once again, to the Qin. The Han was built upon Qin foundations and took much of the credit, and very little of the blame, for what the Qin had accomplished. In retrospect it is quite apparent that the Qin’s contributions to China were unity and imperial order. Once this had been accomplished, the dynasty had outlived its usefulness and was ready to be overthrown by a fundamentally different regime. Whereas the Qin was Legalist in its ideology, the Han eventually proclaimed its Confucian orientation. The ideological difference showed up in the different policies pursued by the two dynasties.

Things began to shift from quiescent to active and rambunctious again upon the succession of the Han emperor Wudi in 147 B.C. Wudi, whose reign title means “martial emperor,” seems to have concluded, by the middle of the second century B.C., that the Chinese people had rested and prospered for long enough and that it was time to shake things up a bit. Wudi, the greatest Han emperor, was also surely one of the most important emperors in Chinese history. A strong-willed ruler with passionately held opinions, he aggressively pursued his program for increasing China’s greatness. Internally, he wanted to break the power of the merchants who were amassing huge fortunes. Fearing that the merchants’ enormous wealth might eventually lead to subversive political ambition, he forbade them to purchase land and took other steps to stop their participation in land speculation and landlordism. He established exclusive government rights to the production and distribution of essential commodities such as salt and iron. His official government monopolies over salt and iron enabled him to sell these commodities at artificially high prices, thus driving salt and iron merchants out of business and guaranteeing the government a steady stream of tax revenue. Wudi also launched a very aggressive campaign against the Xiongnu who lived along China’s northern borders in the steppes and constantly attacked China for material advantage. His warfare against them led to the expansion of China’s borders and to the eventual submission of the Xiongnu, although not during his lifetime. Wudi also ruled during a time of great cultural efflorescence. He was the emperor who made Confucian thought China’s official state ideology, and during his reign he sought to foster Confucian education for government employees. The great Chinese historian Sima Qian wrote the first comprehensive history of China during this time.

Han power declined after the death of Wudi, and his successors were mostly mediocre men who lacked vision and the instinct to govern effectively. By the time of Christ, landlordism was rearing its ugly head once again, with wealthy merchants buying up huge tracts of land and charging the peasantry exploitive rents. These huge rents meant that the government had to charge less in taxes, and as government revenue dried up, social chaos ensued. Some became convinced that the Liu family’s mandate to rule Han China had finally evaporated, and in A.D. 9 an ambitious and fanatical Confucian literal-ist named Wang Mang usurped the Han throne and sought to remake China into the literal image of Confucius’s vision of the early Zhou period. Wang named his regime the Xin dynasty (“xin” means “new” or “renewal”). In his efforts to make China all over again, he bungled badly, and his attempts to mimic early Zhou feudal institutions only made a bad situation worse. Wang Mang, China’s Oliver Cromwell, also created many new problems for China, not the worst of which was a huge wave of internal rebellion. Even nature itself did not cooperate with him: the Yellow River broke through its dikes. Rebellion against his regime had emerged by A.D. 18, and by A.D. 23 he and his government had been overthrown.

A descendant of the Han royal family reestablished the dynasty in A.D. 25, but this time the capital was farther to the east in Loyang, instead of Chang’an, where it had been located during the first half of Han rule. Thus the restored Han dynasty is sometimes called “Later Han” or “Eastern Han.” The founders of the late Han virtually played back early Han history, wrestling with greedy merchants and once again subduing the Xiongnu. A long twilight period of Han rule endured until the second century A.D., when landlordism and foreign depredations once again took their toll on Han prestige and power. Incompetent emperors did not help the situation, and by 175 there was widespread rebellion. The dynasty finally fell in 220, and from this time until 589, China experienced chaos and internal division. Indeed, the period of division endured for more than 350 years, longer than the entire national history of the United States. Unlike the Roman Empire, however, China finally pulled itself together again, and it has almost always been unified ever since.

Confucianism as the State Ideology

During the earliest years of the Han, almost all government officials were aristocrats from old-money families. Liu Bang realized the limits of his education and knew he would need bright, educated men in his government. Such men flocked into his government on the basis of glowing letters of recommendation from prominent scholars and officials who attested to their intelligence, industry, and moral reputations.

After a few decades, the Han government was overwhelmed by thousands of such letters praising their candidates to the skies. In 165 B.C. a Han emperor decided that he would administer examinations to assess these candidates’ cultural knowledge and their acquaintance with Confucian doctrine—he had taken the first step toward establishing the civil service examination system for aspiring government employees.

Emperor Wudi took another important step toward this system by proclaiming Confucianism the official state ideology and by founding a national university where candidates could study for government service. Wudi inherited the earlier Han emperors’ strong distaste for the Qin and its Legalist ideology and greatly preferred the moral teachings of Confucius. Thus, the ideological legacy of this strong-willed emperor endured for 2,000 years, until the last imperial dynasty was overthrown in 1911. But even today, at the dawn of the new millennium, aspects of Confucian thought (namely submission to governmental authority) are still emphasized in the People’s Republic of China.

Sima Qian, China’s greatest historian, produced his great work Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) during Wudi’s reign. A Confucian himself, Sima Qian attended to his writing with tenacious dedication, and Wudi was probably a major cause of this dedication. During one of Wudi’s campaigns against the Xiongnu, a Han general was defeated and captured. Wudi insulted his reputation and otherwise belittled his record. Sima Qian had the temerity on this occasion to disagree with Wudi publicly and come to the captured general’s moral defense. Wudi was so enraged that he presented Sima Qian with two possible punishments: death or castration. Sima Qian reluctantly chose castration and was thus deprived of the opportunity to produce male offspring to carry on his name. This situation greatly distressed Sima, and he channeled his paternal instincts into his historical writing. He decided that, if he could not have human progeny, his bequest to posterity would be his book of history. The end result was a magnificent history of China from earliest times to his own day. In this work, Sima Qian set forth the facts in a straightforward and fairly objective manner. He held and expressed his own strongly held opinions on Confucian morality and other many historical issues, but he was careful to designate these as such and to separate them from the formal historical record. Much of what we know of China’s pre-imperial history comes straight from the pen of Sima Qian, and his book became a model or template for much of subsequent historical writing in China. The man Wudi had meant to disgrace and perhaps even destroy was to become China’s model historian for two millennia.

The Xiongnu

As China was unifying itself under the Qin, a great and powerful foe was also emerging in the steppe lands on China’s northern borders: the Xiongnu, or the Huns. The Xiongnu were pastoral nomads. They were pastoral because they domesticated animals and relied on milk and meat products for their diet, and they were nomadic because they moved from place to place in search of naturally occurring grass pasturage. They were skilled equestrians who rode horses while herding their animals (mostly sheep). A highly mobile people, they rejected permanent abodes and elected instead to live in collapsible and portable felt tents traditionally called yurts. They occasionally hunted wild animals to supplement their food supply. Because they were good equestrians and skilled riders, they were able to apply their know-how militarily, and they became formidable mounted warriors who could shoot arrows accurately even while riding at a fast gallop.

The Xiongnu and other groups of pastoral nomads who came after them very often were at war with China. For 2,000 years there was intermittent warfare between the agricultural world of China and the pastoral nomadic world of the grass steppe lands north of China, an area we today call Mongolia. The pastoral nomads were by far and away the Chinese dynasties’ greatest foreign policy headache; in fact, for the last thousand years of imperial Chinese history, from about 960 to 1911, these pastoral nomadic peoples conquered and ruled over parts of China, and sometimes all of China, more than 70 percent of the time.

Historians are not content to look at the long and hostile history between China and the pastoral nomads and leave it unexplained. Traditional Chinese historians have usually understood this pattern of conflict to be evidence that the pastoral nomads were barbarians and less than fully human; thus, their depredations and greediness might be understandable. Descriptions of them by Chinese historians were often hostile and uncomplimentary, as in this passage written about the Xiongnu by Sima Qian:

They move about in search of water and pasture and have no walled cities or fixed dwellings, nor do they engage in any kind of agriculture. Their lands, however, are divided into regions under the control of various leaders. They have no writing, and even promises and agreements are only verbal. The little boys start out by learning to ride sheep and shoot birds and rats with a bow and arrow, and when they get a little older they shoot foxes and hares, which are used for food. Thus all the young men are able to use a bow and act as armed cavalry in time of war. It is their custom to herd their flocks in times of peace and make their living by hunting, but in periods of crisis they take up arms and go off on plundering and marauding expeditions. This seems to be their inborn nature. For long-range weapons they use bows and arrows, and swords and spears at close range. If the battle is going well for them they will advance, but if not, they will retreat, for they do not consider it a disgrace to run away. Their only concern is self-advantage, and they know nothing of propriety or righteousness. (Watson 1993, 129)

More than a millennium later, the Song dynasty (906-1279) Neo-Confucian literatus Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072) launched into a stronger debate against the pastoral nomadic “barbarians” who continued to threaten China’s security in his own day. In particular he deplored the Han dynasty’s (202 B.C.-A.D. 220) diplomatic practice of marrying princesses off to barbarian leaders, particularly the Xiongnu, in attempts to secure harmonious relationships with them. (Ouyang Xiu’s argument along these lines is somewhat surprising, since the Han dynasty fairly quickly gave up this intermarriage system and replaced it with the tributary system, which was far more favorable to Han China symbolically.)

Fine girls from the imperial clan were married in yurts, and good palace men were consigned to the desert. Sir, offering men, girls, and local products as tribute is the conduct of vassals and servants!… Arrivals from the desolate zones are announced, but there should be no talk of [eminent Chinese] going there…. What are we to make of the Son of Heaven, in his dignity, entering into alliance with the Xiongnu as “brothers”? of the emperor’s daughter, designated as such, being tamed as a shrew along with barbarian hags? of steamy mothers embracing their sons and [eminent Chinese] following their filthy customs? The difference between China and the barbarians is our distinction between father and son, man and woman. For the pleasant and seductive beauty [of these Chinese women] to be destroyed and curtailed among the alien brood—this is foul disgrace in the extreme! But none of the Han rulers or ministers were ashamed of it. (Wright 2002, 382)

The same condescending attitude about pastoral nomads is found in the works of European historians writing about the Huns after the fifth century A.D., when elements of the Xiongnu had migrated westward into Hungary, emerged as the Huns of Attila, and threatened the security of the late Roman Empire. Some Chinese today still share these attitudes about the Huns, Turks, and Mongols, who harried and threatened their civilization. Traditionally, a significant number of pre-modern historians in China argued that the moral and cultural influence of Chinese civilization would eventually subdue and assimilate the pastoral nomad and his animal-like way of life.

For the last century or so, European and modern Chinese historians have been attempting to find alternate explanations for the Sino-nomadic conflict. (“Sino” simply means Chinese.) Some scholars have suggested that famine or drought might have been a cause for the fighting: when there was little rainfall on the steppe, the pastoral nomads’ animals had little grass to eat and became thin and unable to give much milk. The pastoral nomads then had little to eat and were driven by desperation to attack China and other civilized societies for the food they needed. There may be something to this theory, but it cannot be proven or disproven. Others have argued that power relationships determined whether the pastoral nomads attacked or not: when China was strong, the nomads stayed away, and when China was weak, the pastoral nomads were attracted to it like vultures and took what they wanted. This theory is not credible, however, because just the opposite seems to have been true during much of imperial Chinese history; often when China was strong and internally unified, a powerful nomadic empire emerged on its northern borders.

Still other historians and anthropologists have sought to explain Sino-nomadic warfare in ecological terms. That is, they have examined the differing ecologies and economies of pastoral nomadic and civilized, agricultural societies and have concluded that an agricultural economy is much more complex and productive than a pastoral nomadic economy. Certain commodities desired or needed by pastoral nomads can be produced only by civilized societies. When pastoral nomads feel a need or desire for these commodities, they attack. Three scholars have argued along these lines, but with different points of emphasis: Sechin Jagchid, a native of Inner Mongolia; Thomas Bar field, an American anthropologist; and A. M. Khazanov, a Russian anthropologist who emigrated to the United States in the 1980s. Jagchid argues that the pastoral nomads attacked China only when the Chinese refused, for whatever reason, to trade with them in the commodities they desperately needed: metals, textiles, and grain. Barfield’s perspective is that the attacks were made mainly for luxury items (not subsistence commodities, as in Jagchid’s theory), which were used to finance nomadic empires. Khazanov argues that the nomads simply did whatever they estimated was the easiest: trading or raiding.

The Xiongnu rose to power at about the same time the Qin unified China. After establishing his dynasty, Liu Bang launched an attack on the Xiongnu that turned out disastrously for him; he was badly defeated and barely escaped with his life. For centuries after this, the Han Chinese feared and respected the Xiongnu. Liu Bang decided that the Xiongnu were there to stay, so he and the Xiongnu established a framework called the “intermarriage system” for diplomatic relations between the two states. This system entailed four basic elements:

  1. Annual payments of silk, wine, and foodstuffs from Han to Xiongnu
  2. Granting the shanyu (the leader of the Xiongnu) an imperial Han princess to wife
  3. Equality between Han and Xiongnu
  4. Defined borders between Han and Xiongnu

Border markets were also established between the two states, but not as formal elements in the intermarriage system. According to Barfield, wine and silk were luxury items and the payment of them to the Xiongnu substantiates his thesis; Jagchid, on the other hand, considers that the presence of border markets and the payments of food to the Xiongnu are favorable to his theoretical perspective.

The intermarriage system of diplomacy is sometimes laconically called the “brides and bribes” policy. Of course, it viewed women, in this case princesses, as mere chattel or pawns for exchange with the great pastoral nomadic empires in Mongolia. Chinese literature is full of melancholy poetry about the sad lots of imperial princesses who left their homelands forever and lived out dreary, lonely lives in the bland, cold felt tents of their barbarian husbands.

The intermarriage policy worked well until the reign of Wudi. Wudi was fed up with the system and, as part of his general program of territorial expansion and military assertion, sought to replace it with a system implying a much more subordinate role for the Xiongnu vis-a-vis the Han: the so-called “tributary system.” In 133 B.C. he abolished the intermarriage system altogether and broke off diplomatic relations with the Xiongnu. He then launched a war against the Xiongnu that endured for almost half a century and nearly bankrupted the Han treasury. His military strategy against the Xiongnu had four main objectives:

  1. Reoccupying all areas once occupied by the Qin
  2. Establishing an entente with the enemies of the Xiongnu
  3. Expanding far into Central Asia and controlling the Turkic oasis states there, thus depriving the Xiongnu of their control over them and the protection fees they charged
  4. Launching military raids into Mongolia to weaken and divide the Xiongnu

These policies did not work immediately, and the Han realized that defeating the Xiongnu would be no easy matter. When attacked, the Xiongnu often simply packed up and moved, and Wudi’s troops exhausted themselves chasing them and were frustrated by their failure to engage the enemy in combat. Wudi also learned that he did not actually have to engage the Xiongnu in combat to weaken them; springtime raids into the steppes of Mongolia kept the Xiongnu on the move and weakened their animals, which had endured wintertime shortages of fodder. A stalemate was in the making, and in spite of some minor victories the Han achieved in 119 and 102, an uneasy detente between the states had developed by 90 B.C.

In the long run, however, the biggest loser turned out to be the Xiongnu. The constant Han raids eventually took their toll, and Xiongnu tribesmen were restless for the material benefits they had enjoyed from China during the era of the intermarriage system. Xiongnu weakness tempted their enemies and led to attacks by non-Xiongnu pastoral nomads. Civil war among the Xiongnu themselves was the last straw, and by 54 B.C., after the death of Wudi, a majority of Xiongnu were indicating their willingness to submit to the Han.

It had taken the Xiongnu several decades to come to this point because they greatly feared one thing: the tributary system that Wudi had insisted the Han would impose on them if and when they decided to submit to Han over lordship. It had three provisions:

  1. The Xiongnu, far from receiving a Han princess given in marriage to their shanyu, would be required to send a hostage from their imperial family to the Han.
  2. The Xiongnu would be required to perform rituals of submission to the Han emperor.
  3. The Xiongnu would periodically be required to pay tribute to the Han.

For decades the Xiongnu resisted these provisions because they thought they would entail genuine submission and vassalage to the Han. But once the Xiongnu had accepted them, they were startled and delighted to find that these provisions ultimately were mere gestures of submission and did not require any real subjection to China. They were also overjoyed and astonished to learn that, in exchange for these ritual gestures, the Chinese rewarded them quite handsomely in material goods, out of all proportion with the value of the measly items they presented as “tribute” to the Han emperor. Once they had seen through the system, they were quite willing to embrace it. It was all a sham, and the Xiongnu were soon figuring out ways to take advantage of the system. They actually pressured the Han to allow them to come more frequently to perform the rituals of submission and offer their local goods to the Han emperor as tribute.

Even though some Chinese might have known that they were essentially paying for flattery from the Xiongnu, they continued to support the tributary system. As a result, China’s relations with the Xiongnu were largely peaceful until A.D. 9, when Wang Mang usurped the Han throne and tried to restore Zhou-style political feudalism. Wang Mang actually tried to make the tributary system entail real (as opposed to ritual or symbolic) submission to China. The Xiongnu balked at this, of course, and soon began to attack China once again. By the end of Wang Mang’s reign in A.D. 23, the Xiongnu were once again feeling powerful enough to demand the restoration of the old intermarriage system, but the restored or Eastern Han would hear of none of this. As it turned out, by A.D. 40 the Xiongnu were once again divided against themselves in a civil war, and roughly the southern half of the Xiongnu chose to submit to Han China rather than to the northern Xiongnu.

Around A.D. 100, an allied force of Han Chinese, Xiongnu, and other pastoral nomadic warriors attacked and defeated the northern Xiongnu. After this, most of the northern Xiongnu also submitted to China, but a minority flfled northward and westward “to parts unknown,” according to later Han historical documents. These Xiongnu may have migrated across the Eurasian landmass to emerge, 300 years later, as the Huns under Attila, who menaced the Roman Empire. (The phonetic similarity between “Xiongnu” and “Hun” seems to substantiate this equation of the Xiongnu with the Huns known to the later Roman Empire, as also does recent archaeological and documentary evidence. This Xiongnu/Hun equation is, however, still somewhat controversial and is not unanimously accepted in scholarly circles.)

The Fall of Han and the Period of Division, A.D. 220-589

Toward the end of the Eastern Han, the old problems came back to haunt China. Landlordism was once again on the rise, the northern barbarians or pastoral nomads were making hostile movements, tax revenues were down, and regionalism was up. A major uprising called the Yellow Turban Rebellion, which broke out in A.D. 186, nearly succeeded in overthrowing the Han. It was quelled only after a coalition of generals was given almost total discretion and the military power to fight it. After the rebellion was put down, these generals, unwilling to give up military power after they had tasted it, became warlords or regional military strongmen who did whatever they pleased with little regard for what the dynasty thought of their actions. The Han was never the same again, but it limped on until a general accepted the abdication of the last Han emperor in A.D. 220. Thereafter China fell into a period of division and chaos that lasted for more than 350 years. China did, however, finally succeed in reunifying itself again in the 580s.

The first part of the Period of Division is known as the Three Kingdoms period. Three states succeeded the Han and pretended to be working for the eventual reunification of China. This period is highly romanticized in Chinese history, and stories of the alliances, betrayals, and battles between the three states have long been stock themes in Chinese literature. A popular historical novel about this period, called the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, is one of China’s all-time favorite literary works, and even trained historians are sometimes confused between the historical records about the period and the episodes immortalized in the novel.

Brief and tenuous unity was achieved in A.D. 280 by a state called Western Jin, which tried once again to restore feudalism to China. Like Wang Mang’s attempt, this ended in utter failure, and the Jin government lost half its territory to Xiongnu invaders. The Jin government then had to flee from Loyang, its original capital, to Nanjing (Nanking), where it lingered on for a few more decades before being overthrown. Thereafter China was divided along north-south lines, with a series of short-lived native Chinese dynasties in the south with Nanjing as their capital, and an even more abysmal succession of barbarian dynasties in the north. China was a deeply divided and chaotic nation during this time, and the people of northern and southern China began to wonder if their once-great civilization would ever be unified again. Northern and southern Chinese began to develop cultural differences and to develop prejudices toward one another, some of which still exist today.

Life was hard in China during this period. National unity was lost, and the transportation and communication infrastructure of Han times fell into ruins. Money largely went out of circulation and the economy reverted to barter. (Transition from a monetarized economy to a barter system frequently entails a drastic drop in standard of living.) During this period, pastoral nomadic peoples first swept down into China and ruled directly over portions of it. During the Han, the Xiongnu seldom if ever took territory away from China and ruled over it themselves; the Xiongnu and the pastoral nomads of their day were not sophisticated enough to learn the art and science of efficiently governing a sedentary society. During the Period of Division, however, some pastoral nomads learned the Chinese civilizational arts and began competently governing Chinese territories they had conquered. Thus a pattern of “conquest dynasties” developed during this period, and such dynasties were to be very influential and important in the last thousand years of imperial Chinese history.

During the Period of Division, two foreign cultural influences began percolating into China: pastoral nomadic and Buddhistic. Buddhism, from India, was from a unique and manifestly non-Chinese civilization, and the northern barbarian dynasties were run by pastoral nomads, who were different in language, culture, and ecology. Some Chinese feared that these twin cultural influences would dilute or completely overwhelm Chinese civilization, but it never happened. When China was reunified in the 580s, it emerged with its civilization intact. Buddhism and the material culture of the barbarians (musical instruments, chairs, and cuisine) added to the fabric of Chinese culture but did not fundamentally alter it. China was still China after the long and bitter nightmare of the Period of Division had ended.

Buddhism Comes to China

Buddhism first gained a foothold in China during the Period of Division. It came in not directly from India but from Central Asian Buddhist kingdoms that had converted to Buddhism a few centuries earlier. (Some of these kingdoms had originally been founded by the generals of Alexander the Great, and later their populations converted to Buddhism, thus combining Buddhist religion with Greek culture.) The religion had been known in China since Han times, but it never flourished during that dynasty. This is probably because the basic message of Buddhism, that life is suffering, did not resonate with the Han Chinese. Life was fairly good in Han China, and the majority of Chinese seem to have had little if any desire to alleviate the pain of life with a palliative religion.

Buddhism can be summarized in terms of its “Four Noble Truths.” In India, during the sixth century B.C., the Buddha taught four truths:

  1. Life is suffering. In life everyone experiences pain and sorrow. We all get sick and eventually die.
  2. Suffering is caused by desire.
  3. Desire can be eliminated.
  4. Desire can be eliminated through the Eightfold Path, a set of eight instructions for minimizing desires and the suffering they create.

Once a person truly succeeds in eliminating all desire, he will have achieved nirvana, a state difficult to define but which connotes a state of desireless, and therefore painless, bliss.

One variety of the religion called Mahayana Buddhism taught that because strictly abiding by the Eightfold Path was an extremely difficult or even almost impossible thing to do, merciful beings called boddhisatvas who had achieved nirvana themselves had, at the time of their deaths and on the brink of stepping into eternal nirvana, stepped back and turned their compassion and attention to the mortal, suffering world. By having come this close to eternal nirvana and then temporarily backing away from it for the sake of the world, they had accrued to themselves an inexhaustible fund of merit that could be imputed to all people who turned to them in faith and supplication.

Mahayana Buddhism was, then, a type of savior religion, and it appealed deeply to the Chinese of the Period of Division. Life in China at this time was rough and entailed much suffering. Buddhism had great appeal in both northern and southern China, among the elite and commoners alike. The rulers of the barbarian conquest dynasties in northern China found the religion attractive precisely because it was not Chinese and because it had come from another great and ancient civilization. But the elite of the native Chinese dynasties in southern China also found Buddhism acceptable because of its art, its more advanced teachings, and its message of possible surcease from suffering. Commoners in both northern and southern China accepted Buddhism because of its message and the beautiful and colorful art the Buddhist missionaries used to explain the fundamentals of the religion. By the 500s, China had been thoroughly converted to Buddhism.

Some Chinese Buddhists were so interested in the religion that they became monks and traveled all the way to India, the land of Buddhism’s origins. There some of them even mastered the extremely difficult Sanskrit language in which Buddhist sutras (religious writings) were written and translated them into Chinese. Eventually, Buddhism in China took its own peculiar doctrinal turns. The Chan (“Zen” in Japanese) school of the religion became the most well known of these.

During the first wave of Buddhism’s entry into China, the Buddhist missionaries and early Chinese converts used Taoist terminology to translate Buddhist terms. This, however, led to conceptual confusion and created misunderstandings. Most Buddhists in China eventually decided to transliterate, rather than translate, Buddhist terms in their full foreignness. That is, they decided not to translate the terms at all, but more or less to spell them out exactly as they sounded in Sanskrit. Many Buddhist terms thus had a very foreign ring to Chinese ears, but this actually added to their mystery and reinforced the point that they were indeed different from Taoist ideas and concepts.

Buddhism fit nicely into the Confucianist-Taoist duo and transformed it into a religious and philosophical trio. The Chinese during this time concluded that Confucianism was applicable to governmental affairs, while Buddhism and Taoism pertained more to an individual’s private, inner religious life. But Confucianism during this time seemed somewhat irrelevant because there was no effective central government in China that could seek to apply it. Buddhism and Taoism gave people much more solace and comfort in their lives, and most Chinese, and even many Chinese emperors, more or less preferred them over Confucianism. The Period of Division and the Sui and Tang dynasties that followed it were the heyday of Buddhism in Chinese history. Toward the late 800s and the end of the Tang dynasty, there was finally something of an intellectual rebellion against Buddhism among many of China’s intellectuals.

Technological Innovations

China saw a staggering number of technological innovations during the Han dynasty and even during the chaotic Period of Division that followed it. The Chinese were the first people in the world to harness the power of rushing water in streams and rivers, and they did so 1,200 years before the Europeans. In A.D. 31 a regional government official invented a waterwheel that transmitted power from a running stream to the large bellows (devices that blow air) of an iron-casting operation. The forced air from the bellows was used to heat up the temperature of charcoal fires until they were hot enough to melt iron. This was, of course, an important innovation in Chinese metallurgy.

The Chinese also built the first suspension bridge in the world, 1,800 years before such bridges were known in the West. (A suspension bridge is a structure that holds a roadway or walkway on ropes or cables.) The first mention in Chinese historical materials of such a bridge, which dates back to Han times in 25 B.C., describes a suspension bridge in the Himalayas. A Chinese Buddhist monk who traveled to India at the end of the fourth century A.D. mentions crossing it along his journey. This was likely a catenary bridge, which means that the planked pathway of the bridge followed the curved contours of the suspended rope and did not constitute a flat passage surface. True non-catenary suspension bridges were made possible by the Chinese when they invented iron-chain suspension techniques. The first such bridge in Europe was not built until the eighteenth century.

Everyone knows that the Chinese invented paper, but it was not the flimsy stuff pounded from wood fibers and shaped into thin sheets like the pages of this book. Paper is actually the substance left behind when any loose and finely pounded fibers are suspended in a container of solution, allowed to settle to the bottom in thin deposits, and then allowed to dry after the solution is drained away. For centuries, paper in Europe was made of linen and was exceptionally strong and enduring, as an inspection of a European book printed the 1600s and 1700s will reveal. (In fact, the pages of these books will outlast their covers and will still be around long after the highly acidic paper used in some early twentieth-century book publishing has literally crumbled and cracked into dust.) The oldest piece of paper in the world, found in China this century, dates back to the second or first century B.C. This paper, made of pounded hemp fibers, is thick and not very smooth. This crude but very strong paper apparently had uses other than as a medium for writing. In fact, early paper in China was so durable that it was sometimes used as clothing and even light body armor.

The oldest paper on which writing survives dates to A.D 110 of Han China and records the rebellion of a frontier tribe. After paper replaced silk and bamboo as the most common material on which to write, the bark of the mulberry tree became the most popular pounded fiber for making paper. But even this wood-fiber paper was so tough that it found use as clothing, curtains, and mosquito nets. The Chinese were also the first in the world to promote and practice the use of paper for reasons of personal hygiene. For centuries the Chinese carefully guarded the secret of papermaking, but eventually it spread to the Near East and still later to Europe. Today it is sometimes supposed that when Arab armies from the Abbasid Caliphate defeated Tang dynasty forces in the eighth century A.D. at the Talas River (near modern Uzbekistan), Chinese prisoners who knew the prized secret of papermaking shared it with their captors in Baghdad.

Stirrups are such commonplace devices today that it is difficult to imagine riding horses without them. Ironically, even though the Chinese were not a great horse-riding people, they were the first in the world to invent stirrups, in the third century A.D. Centuries before this, the great mounted warriors of Alexander the Great and the Romans rode their horses without them and were jostled about on horseback with no platform from which to stand up and stabilize their rides. These warriors had to hang on to the horse’s mane to steady themselves, and often they had trouble mounting their horses. Perhaps because they were not great horsemen themselves, the Chinese sought a remedy for these difficulties and eventually devised a very simple and effective one. Chinese stirrups, made of cast metal and thus quite durable, hung in suspension from the saddle and constituted a platform on which the rider could stand and steady himself. Being able to do this greatly increased the rider’s stability and enabled him to be much more accurate with a bow and arrow. Thus the stirrup, originally developed for peaceful purposes, quickly found military application and greatly increased the lethality of the mounted archer. Pastoral nomads were quick to note the utility of these simple devices and soon adopted them for their own use. Because the stirrups were made into solid shapes, they did not flex and thus bind the feet of the rider the way some early rope predecessors of the stirrup had done among certain pastoral nomadic tribes. The earliest mention of the stirrup we have in the Western world is the writings of a Byzantine emperor in the sixth century A.D. Thus, stirrups were apparently known and used in China for about 300 years before they became known to the West. The stirrup was probably transmitted to the West by the Avars, a warlike tribe of pastoral nomads who were also known to the Chinese.

The seismograph, an instrument for detecting earthquakes when no perceptible local earthquake activity is felt, is a Chinese invention. This supposedly modern instrument was actually invented by a scientist and mathematician, Zhang Heng, in the second century A.D. We have only documentary descriptions of it, but apparently Zhang’s instrument consisted of a metal urn on the outside of which several metal balls were held in the mouths of cast-metal dragons. Cast-metal frogs with open mouths waited below for the balls to fall, and when a certain ball fell into a frog’s mouth, it indicated the direction in which the earthquake occurred. This was important information for a Chinese government to know, since it could launch relief efforts quickly without having to wait for word to arrive from the affected province, a process that might take several days, depending on its distance from the capital city. This seismograph did not measure the intensities of quakes, but even as a direction finder it found use in China more than 1,400 years before it was known in Europe.

The Chinese invented hang gliding and parachuting. A Taoist alchemist of the fourth century A.D. experimented successfully with man-carrying tethered kites, and by the sixth century the Chinese emperor of a minor dynasty was compelling his prisoners and erstwhile enemies to jump from heights while mounted on tetherless kites. One such flight was so successful that its terrified passenger managed to fly for a distance of about two miles. As far as parachutes are concerned, every red-blooded schoolchild knows that Leonardo da Vinci recorded in his notes the concept of parachutes. The Chinese, however, went beyond conceptual sketches of parachutes and actually used them successfully as early as the second century B.C. The great Han historian Sima Qian records in his history a story of how a man fleeing from a pursuer jumped from a height using several large conical straw hats tied together to his body and landed on the ground safely. Another anecdote dating to the thirteenth century A.D. records how a robber jumped from a high tower in southern China with two large umbrellas in his hands and managed to land without injury. Parachutes were not used safely and effectively in Europe until the late 1700s.