Chapter 2 – The Imperial Dynasties. – Part I
The Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC)
The imperial era began, therefore, with the Qin Dynasty. Historians often refer to the 2,132 year period from the beginning of the Qin Dynasty to the end of Qing Dynasty (1911) as Imperial China.
Though the unified reign of the Qin Emperor lasted only 12 years, he managed to subjugate great parts of what constitutes the core of the Han Chinese homeland and to unite them under a tight central government seated at Xianyang (close to modern Xi’an). The doctrine that guided the Qin emphasised strict adherence to a legal code and the absolute power of the emperor.
This philosophy, while effective for expanding the empire in a military fashion, proved unworkable for governing it in peacetime. The Qin Emperor presided over the brutal silencing of political opposition, including the event known as the burning of books and burying of scholars in which he ruthlessly executed many hundreds of academics and intellectuals who may have posed a threat to his perceived wisdom and authority. A tactic that would be chillingly recycled many centuries later.
The vast Terracotta Army was created during Qin’s lifetime to accompany him in the afterlife. This Dynasty was also responsible for the first section of what would become the Great Wall with the section built to the East of Xi’an to keep back the remaining enemy between them and the coast in the East, and which was augmented and enhanced during the much later Ming Dynasty. Other major contributions of the Qin include the concept of a centralised government, the unification of the legal code, the development of written language, measurement, and currency. Even axle lengths for carts were made uniform to ensure a viable trading system throughout the empire.
Terracotta Army at Xi’an
The Han Dynasty(206 BC – 220 AD )
The Han Dynasty emerged, with its founder Liu Bang proclaimed emperor. It was the first dynasty to embrace the philosophy of Confucianism. Under the Han Dynasty, China made great advances in many areas of the arts and sciences. Emperor Wu consolidated and extended the Chinese empire North by pushing back the Xiongnu (Huns) into the steppes of modern Inner Mongolia and wresting from them the modern areas of Gansu, Ningxia and Qinghai. This enabled the first opening of trading connections between China and the West, along the Silk Road.
Han Dynasty general Ban Chao expanded his conquests across the Pamirs to the shores of the Caspian Sea. The first of several Roman embassies to China is recorded in Chinese sources, coming from the sea route in AD 166, and another in AD 284.
The Xin Dynasty (AD 9)
Over time, land acquisitions by elite families gradually drained the tax base. In AD 9, the usurper Wang Mang founded the short-lived Xin (“New”) Dynasty and started an extensive program of land and other economic reforms. These programs, however, were never supported by the landholding families, because they favoured the peasants. The instability brought about chaos and uprisings. Emperor Guangwu reinstated the Han Dynasty with the support of landholding and merchant families at Luoyang, east of Xi’an. This new era would be termed the Eastern Han Dynasty.
Han power then declined again amidst land acquisitions, invasions, and feuding between consort clans and eunuchs. The Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out in AD 184, ushering in another era of warlords. In the ensuing turmoil, three states tried to gain predominance in the period of The Three Kingdoms.
The Wei and Jin Period (AD 265 – 420)
After Cao Cao reunified the north in 208, his son proclaimed the Wei dynasty in 220. Soon, Wei’s rivals Shu and Wu proclaimed their independence, leading China into the Three Kingdoms Period. This period was characterised by a gradual decentralisation of the state that had existed during the Qin and Han dynasties, and an increase in the power of great families. Although the Three Kingdoms were reunified by the Jin Dynasty in 280, this structure was essentially the same until the Wu Hu uprising.
The Wu Hu Period (AD 304 – 439)
Taking advantage of civil war in the Jin Dynasty, the contemporary non-Han Chinese (Wu Hu) ethnic groups controlled much of the country in the early 4th century and provoked large-scale Han Chinese migrations to south of the Yangtze River. In 303 the Di people rebelled and later captured Chengdu, establishing the state of Cheng Han. Under Liu Yuan, the Xiongnu rebelled near today’s Linfen County and established the state of Han Zhao. Liu Yuan’s successor Liu Cong captured and executed the last two Western Jin emperors.
Sixteen of the kingdoms were short-lived non-Chinese dynasties that came to rule the whole or parts of northern China in the 4th and 5th centuries. Many ethnic groups were involved, including ancestors of the Turks, Mongols, and Tibetans. Most of these nomadic peoples had, to some extent, been “Sinicised” long before their ascent to power, in fact some of them – notably the Qiang and the Xiongnu, had already been allowed to live in the frontier regions within the Great Wall since late Han times.
Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 420 – 589)
Signaled by the collapse of East Jin Dynasty in 420, China entered the era of the Southern and Northern Dynasties. The Han people survived various military attacks from the nomadic tribes of the north, such as the Xianbei, and their civilization continued to thrive.
In southern China, fierce debates about whether Buddhism should be allowed to exist were held frequently by the royal court and nobles. Finally, near the end of the Southern and Northern Dynasties era, both Buddhist and Taoist followers compromised and became more tolerant of each other. In 589, Sui annexed the last Southern Dynasty, Chen, through military force, and put an end to the era.
The Sui Dynasty (AD 589 – 618)
The Sui managed to reunite the country in 589 after nearly four centuries of political fragmentation, and played a role more important than its length of existence would suggest. Like the Qin, however, the Sui overused their resources and collapsed.