You won the world from horseback, but can you rule it from horseback?— Minister to Liu Pang, founder of the Han dynasty
The early period of the Zhou dynasty, known as "Spring and Autumn" (722-481 B.C.), saw relative stability and the growth of trade, towns, and a middle class of merchants and artisans. However, this prosperity contained the seeds of the Zhou’s decline, since it gave local princes in the provinces the resources to do three things. First, they built canals which themselves had three effects. For one thing, they further increased trade, thus giving the princes more tolls and taxes. They also improved transportation of grain, allowing them to feed their cities, armies, and bureaucrats better. And finally, they led to the cultivation of new lands that the princes could claim for themselves. Together, these effects gave the princes more wealth and power that they could use to develop more canals and so on.
Secondly, princes and local nobles started appointing their own agents to collect taxes instead of doing it indirectly through local village leaders, as had been the custom. Finally, the princes started arming peasants and using them in their armies alongside the traditional feudal levies supplied by their vassals. This especially reduced the distinction between the Zhou emperors and their princely subjects in the provinces.
Together, these developments gave the princes more control over their own local nobles and establish more tightly centralized states. This in turn led to increased warfare between the princes who now had much greater resources for waging war than before. With larger armies using peasant levies as well as noble warriors, the intensity of fighting increased and the old courtesies of warfare and diplomacy that had governed relations between princes and nobles disappeared. The resulting chaos, known as the age of "Warring States" (481-221 B.C.E.), generated a good deal of intellectual ferment that provided the background for such philosophers as Confucius concerned about the decay of values.
By the third century B.C.E., seven major warlord states had emerged. Among these was the Qin Dynasty in the north, which built up a powerful state through sweeping internal reforms and the creation of a powerful army using horse archers modeled after those used by their nomadic enemies. By 221 B.C.E., the Qin ruler, Shih Huang Ti, had replaced the last Zhou emperor, and ruled all of China. In fact, his title, Shih Huang Ti, meant first universal emperor, while his dynasty's name (also spelled Ch'in) came to represent all of the people of the Middle Kingdom which we today still call China.
Shih Huang Ti was a harsh, but efficient ruler who brought China under a single autocratic rule. He lowered taxes and restored canals and irrigation systems. He also redistributed land to the peasants in an attempt to break up the nobles' power. Along these lines he broke up China's old provinces and loyalties and created new ones ruled by non-hereditary governors who could not build their power up in one place over several generations. Shih Huang Ti also created a unified law code, tax system, coinage, and system of weights and measures so that government and commerce could proceed smoothly.
The Qin emperor had numerous building programs, among which were roads and canals to promote trade as well as the swift movement of armies, a huge capital at Hsien Yang where all the most powerful families of the realm were required to move, and a fabulous tomb guarded by 6000 larger than life terra-cotta soldiers in full battle order armed with bronze weapons, chariots, and terra-cotta horses.
However, the most famous and far-reaching of Shih Huang Ti's building projects was the Great Wall built to contain the nomadic horsemen from the north. In fact, previous generations of warlords had built several local walls to protect their realms from the nomads and each other. Shih Huang Ti, in a mere seven years, connected them into one continuous defensive system 25 feet high, 15 feet thick, and stretching some 1850 miles through mountains and deserts. The cost in human lives was staggering, as thousands died from exposure to the elements, hunger, and exhaustion, causing Chinese peasants to call the Great Wall "China's longest cemetery."
Manning the entire wall was beyond the means of even the Chinese. However, it was built more against the nomads' horses than the nomads themselves. As long as the wall was kept in repair and the intermittent forts and towers were manned, the nomads would be held at bay by two factors. First, they lacked siege engines for attacking manned forts. Second, they would not scale the unmanned sections, since that would involve leaving their horses behind. Only when the wall was in disrepair and unmanned during times of weak government and turmoil, could the nomads could break (or bribe their way) into China. Otherwise the Great Wall served its purpose as succeeding Chinese dynasties would repair, modify, and expand it as the real and symbolic boundary between civilization and the nomads.
Shih Huang Ti's reforms may have unified China into one empire and people, but of the heavy burden in taxes and labor needed to support his building projects made him very unpopular. Another source of resentment was the emperor’s refusal to tolerate any dissenting ideas, especially those of the Confucianists who preferred the traditional feudal structure of government to his more impersonal bureaucracy. Therefore, he ordered the burning of all works of philosophy that in any way contradicted his policies. He even had some 460 dissenting scholars executed, supposedly by burying them alive. Although some scholars tried to entrust these works to memory so they could be written down later, there were certainly mistakes in the recopying, and there is no telling how much was lost. This purge also deprived the emperor of good advisors and poisoned the atmosphere at court, making it difficult to create sound policies. Therefore, his death in 210 B.C.E. triggered a number of revolts and civil wars that led to the rapid fall of the Qin Dynasty and the rise of the Han Dynasty.
Liu Pang, the founder of the Han Dynasty, found China worn out by civil strife and heavy taxes and also facing threats from the northern nomads. Liu Pang (also known as Kao Tsu) and his successors tackled each of these problems and laid the foundations for one of China's true golden ages. Although the Han reversed the more repressive aspects of the Qin dynasty, they also built upon many of their other policies. In that sense, the Qin and Han dynasties should be viewed together as forming the basis of Chinese imperial power and cultural influence in East Asia.
For one thing, the Han rulers reduced Shih Huang Ti’s more excessive demands by eliminating forced labor, lowering taxes, and restoring the Classics, although the accuracy of that restoration is still in dispute. However, they did uphold the Qin Dynasty’s more enlightened reforms, especially redistribution of land to the peasants, making them much more popular than the Qin and the foundations for one of the high points in Chinese history and civilization.
In government, the Han ended the Qin policy of using non-hereditary governors and reverted to the older practice of using royal family members instead. However, they continued and expanded the Qin use of professional bureaucrats to run the day-to-day machinery of government. This was the result of growing influence of Confucianism at court, since the Han dynasty saw its emphasis on ritual and tradition as a valuable justification and support for their rule. Therefore, it instituted the civil service exams that determined applicants' potential as bureaucrats by testing their knowledge of Confucian teachings, now the official state philosophy. Although modern civil service exams test supposedly more practical skills, such as math and reading, to choose bureaucrats, the idea of hiring government officials on the basis of ability rather than birth or personal connections traces its roots back to the Chinese civil service exams of the Han dynasty. Despite China's varying fortunes, the Chinese civil service was generally the best in the world until the 1800's.
The backbone of the Chinese bureaucracy was a class of scholars known as the civil gentry who would run Chinese government and administration until the early 1900's. Since gaining admission into this class depended on knowledge of Confucianism rather than birth or connections, many middle class families advanced their sons' fortunes in society by investing heavily in their education. Even after the demise of the civil service exam system, this emphasis on education has remained a powerful factor in East Asian societies, helping to account for their high literacy rates and rapid economic development in recent history.
Finally, there was the ever-present threat of the northern nomads. The Han emperors, here also continuing the work started by the Qin, maintained and expanded the Great Wall and a huge army to bring the nomads under control. Although Han armies met frequent defeats, their persistence did establish a semi-civilized buffer zone in the north.
However, especially in times of turmoil, semi-civilized nomads would often prove to be even more dangerous to China, since they combined both their own restless nomadic energies with knowledge of Chinese civilization in order to organize powerful states that could conquer China. But, as always, such invaders would eventually be absorbed by Chinese civilization. As the historian, Fernand Braudel put it, China let in such invaders and then shut the door behind them.
For nearly four centuries, Han reforms and rule provided a strong empire which expanded its political and cultural influence southward into the rice growing regions of Southeast Asia, northward into the nomadic regions, and northeastward into Korea and Manchuria. Internally, the Han provided a period of peace and prosperity that largely resembled the Roman Empire then flourishing at the opposite end of Eurasia. Science and technology flourished, making China the leading culture in those fields for centuries. The invention of paper (made from rags), the sundial, water clocks, and surgery using acupuncture were some of the main accomplishments of this period. New forms of literature, especially, history, poetry, and diaries, were developed.
Buddhism started gaining influence in China at this time despite initial resistance from the Confucianists and government. However it gained popularity and became the final part of the Three Doctrines of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Whereas the three religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam would compete, sometimes violently, for adherents, the Chinese were able to incorporate all of the Three Doctrines into their culture since they fulfilled various needs, Confucianism being a very practical and structured way to run one's daily life and career, Taoism being a more natural way to enjoy life outside of work, and Buddhism being a preparation for what lies beyond this life. As many Chinese saw it, one is Confucianist during the day at work, Taoist in the evening when relaxing, and Buddhist at night when going to bed.
Trade also prospered as never before, both within China and with other cultures. The most renowned example of this foreign trade was the fabled Silk Road that carried silk, furs, cinnamon, iron, and rhubarb westward across Central Asia through any number of middlemen and eventually to Rome. Silk was a luxury in Rome that was literally worth its weight in gold. In order to stretch it out, the Romans wove silk into a very loose gauze-like fabric that the Chinese would hardly have recognized. Interestingly enough, the Romans and Chinese did not meet face to face until 166 C.E. when a Roman envoy finally made it to China. Unfortunately, both civilizations were on the verge of their respective declines, and contact was lost soon afterwards.
As powerful and prosperous as Han China was, it had an inherent weakness, namely that it was based on a huge army and bureaucracy that put a tremendous strain on the economy. This had two main results. First of all, the peasants, who bore the brunt of the taxes, increasingly lost their lands to nobles whose power grew in opposition to the central government. This caused revolts both by oppressed peasants and power hungry nobles. Secondly, as the economy faltered under the strain of heavy taxes, nomadic raids stepped up, which hurt the economy even more, triggering more raids, and so on. Together, these raids and revolts weakened the Han Dynasty, forcing it to increase the army and taxes, and so on. Finally, in 220 C.E., the Han Dynasty fell, ushering in another period of turmoil.