The History Of China, as documented in ancient writings, dates back some 3,300 years. Modern archaeological studies provide evidence of still more ancient origins in a culture that flourished between 2500 and 2000 B.C. in what is now central China and the lower Huang He ( or Yellow River) Valley of north China. Centuries of migration, amalgamation, and development brought about a distinctive system of writing, philosophy, art, and political organization that came to be recognizable as Chinese civilization. What makes the civilization unique in world history is its continuity through over 4,000 years to the present century. Recently, the Chinese have begun to rediscover their past, beginning with the excavation of the Tomb of the first Emperor to unify China and the discovery of his Terracotta army.
Of the consistent traits identified by independent historians, a salient one has been the capacity of the Chinese to absorb the people of surrounding areas into their own civilization. Their success can be attributed to the superiority of their ideographic written language, their technology, and their political institutions; the refinement of their artistic and intellectual creativity; and the sheer weight of their numbers. The process of assimilation continued over the centuries through conquest and colonization until what is now known as China Proper was brought under unified rule. The Chinese also left an enduring mark on people beyond their borders, especially the Koreans, Japanese, and Vietnamese.
Chinese civilization, as described in mythology, begins with Pangu , the creator of the universe, and a succession of legendary sage-emperors and culture heroes (among them are Huang Di , Yao, and Shun) who taught the ancient Chinese to communicate and to find sustenance, clothing, and shelter.
The first prehistoric dynasty is said to be Xia , from about the twenty-first to the sixteenth century B.C. Until scientific excavations were made at early bronze-age sites at Anyang , Henan Province, in 1928, it was difficult to separate myth from reality in regard to the Xia. But since then, and especially in the 1960s and 1970s, archaeologists have uncovered urban sites, bronze implements, and tombs that point to the existence of Xia civilization in the same locations cited in ancient Chinese historical texts. At minimum, the Xia period marked an evolutionary stage between the late neolithic cultures and the typical Chinese urban civilization of the Shang dynasty.
Thousands of archaeological finds in the Huang He, Henan Valley –the apparent cradle of Chinese civilization–provide evidence about the Shang () dynasty, which endured roughly from 1700 to 1027 B.C. The Shang dynasty (also called the Yin) dynasty in its later stages is believed to have been founded by a rebel leader who overthrew the last Xia ruler. Its civilization was based on agriculture, augmented by hunting and animal husbandry. Two important events of the period were the development of a writing system, as revealed in archaic Chinese inscriptions found on tortoise shells and flat cattle bones (commonly called oracle bones or ), and the use of bronze metallurgy. A number of ceremonial bronze vessels with inscriptions date from the Shang period; the workmanship on the bronzes attests to a high level of civilization.
A line of hereditary Shang kings ruled over much of northern China, and Shang troops fought frequent wars with neighboring settlements and nomadic herdsmen from the inner Asian steppes. The capitals, one of which was at the site of the modern city of Anyang, were centers of glittering court life. Court rituals to propitiate spirits and to honor sacred ancestors were highly developed. In addition to his secular position, the king was the head of the ancestor- and spirit-worship cult. Evidence from the royal tombs indicates that royal personages were buried with articles of value, presumably for use in the afterlife. Perhaps for the same reason, hundreds of commoners, who may have been slaves, were buried alive with the royal corpse.
Created 2,200 years ago as an imperial guard to serve the emperor in his afterlife, these thousands of life-size warrior and horse figures equipped with chariots and bronze weapons, bear witness to the military might of the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.), and give the world a rare peek into the distant past.
Discovered in 1974 and opened to the public in 1979, this ancient site is now one of the greatest tourist attractions in the world. The Underground Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang The discovery of the Terracotta army buried near the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first unifier of China, is regarded as one of the most spectacular archaeological finds of the 20th century. Created 2,200 years ago as an imperial guard to serve the emperor in his afterlife, these thousands of life-size warrior and horse figures equipped with chariots and bronze weapons, bear witness to the military might of the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.), and give the world a rare peek into the distant past. Discovered in 1974 and opened to the public in 1979, this ancient site is now one of the greatest tourist attractions in the world. The Mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang and the Excavation of the Terracotta Warrior and Horse Figure Pits.
The mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of the Qin dynasty, is located in imposing surroundings five kilometers to the east of Lintong County in ShanXi Province, with Lishan Mountain to its south and the Wei River to its north. It is surrounded by orchards of fragrant apricot trees. The underground palace, built more than 2,000 years ago, has not yet been excavated. But judging from the results of test drilling and excavations, the mausoleum and the accompanying burial grounds occupy an area of 56 square kilometers. The mausoleum with its outer and inner walls surrounding the tomb mound was built with an eastward orientation, and covers and area of two square kilometers. The tomb mound itself, shaped like and inverted bowl, towers 76 meters over the southern section of the inner wall. It is said that the tomb was originally surrounded by huge stone animals, but to date these have not been found. In the neighborhood of Xiyang Village, I. 5 kilometers east of the mausoleum are the pits containing the Terracotta warrior and horse figures. So far four such pits have been discovered. Pit No. 1 contains mainly infantrymen along with a number of charioteers. Pit No. 2 contains cavalrymen and armored kneeling archers. In Pit No. 3, the presence of commanding officers, their aides and bodyguards suggests that this was presumably the command headquarters. No warrior or horse figures were found in Pit No. 4. perhaps a rebellious peasant army approaching Xianyang, the Qin capital, forced the construction of the mausoleum to a halt.
The Zhou dynasty had its capital at Hao, near the city of Xi’an, or Chang’an, as it was known in its heyday in the imperial period. Sharing the language and culture of the Shang, the early Zhou rulers, through conquest and colonization, gradually sinicized, that is, extended Shang culture through much of China Proper north of the Chang Jiang ( or Yangtze River). The Zhou dynasty lasted longer than any other, from 1027 to 221 B.C. It was philosophers of this period who first enunciated the doctrine of the “mandate of heaven” (tianming or ), the notion that the ruler (the “son of heaven” or ) governed by divine right but that his dethronement would prove that he had lost the mandate. The doctrine explained and justified the demise of the two earlier dynasties and at the same time supported the legitimacy of present and future rulers.
The term feudal has often been applied to the Zhou period because the Zhou’s early decentralized rule invites comparison with medieval rule in Europe. At most, however, the early Zhou system was proto-feudal (), being a more sophisticated version of earlier tribal organization, in which effective control depended more on familial ties than on feudal legal bonds. Whatever feudal elements there may have been decreased as time went on. The Zhou amalgam of city-states became progressively centralized and established increasingly impersonal political and economic institutions. These developments, which probably occurred in the latter Zhou period, were manifested in greater central control over local governments and a more routinized agricultural taxation.
In 771 B.C. the Zhou court was sacked, and its king was killed by invading barbarians who were allied with rebel lords. The capital was moved eastward to Luoyang in present-day Henan Province. Because of this shift, historians divide the Zhou era into Western Zhou (1027-771 B.C.) and Eastern Zhou (770-221 B.C.). With the royal line broken, the power of the Zhou court gradually diminished; the fragmentation of the kingdom accelerated. Eastern Zhou divides into two sub periods. The first, from 770 to 476 B.C., is called the Spring and Autumn Period, after a famous historical chronicle of the time; the second is known as the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.).
(Qin in Wade-Giles romanization is Ch’in, from which the English China probably derived.) Once the king of Qin consolidated his power, he took the title Shi Huangdi ( First Emperor), a formulation previously reserved for deities and the mythological sage-emperors, and imposed Qin’s centralized, nonhereditary bureaucratic system on his new empire. In subjugating the six other major states of Eastern Zhou, the Qin kings had relied heavily on Legalist scholar-advisers. Centralization, achieved by ruthless methods, was focused on standardizing legal codes and bureaucratic procedures, the forms of writing and coinage, and the pattern of thought and scholarship. To silence criticism of imperial rule, the kings banished or put to death many dissenting Confucian scholars and confiscated and burned their books (). Qin aggrandizement was aided by frequent military expeditions pushing forward the frontiers in the north and south.
To fend off barbarian intrusion, the fortification walls built by the various warring states were connected to make a 5,000-kilometer-long great wall. What is commonly referred to as the Great Wall is actually four great walls rebuilt or extended during the Western Han, Sui, Jin, and Ming periods, rather than a single, continuous wall. At its extremities, the Great Wall reaches from northeastern Heilongjiang Province to northwestern Gansu. A number of public works projects were also undertaken to consolidate and strengthen imperial rule. These activities required enormous levies of manpower and resources, not to mention repressive measures. Revolts broke out as soon as the first Qin emperor died in 210 B.C. His dynasty was extinguished less than twenty years after its triumph. The imperial system initiated during the Qin dynasty, however, set a pattern that was developed over the next two millennia.
After a short civil war, a new dynasty, called Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), emerged with its capital at Chang’an. The new empire retained much of the Qin administrative structure but retreated a bit from centralized rule by establishing vassal principalities in some areas for the sake of political convenience. The Han rulers modified some of the harsher aspects of the previous dynasty; Confucian ideals of government, out of favor during the Qin period, were adopted as the creed of the Han empire, and Confucian scholars gained prominent status as the core of the civil service. A civil service examination system also was initiated. Intellectual, literary, and artistic endeavors revived and flourished. The Han period produced China’s most famous historian, Sima Qian ( 145-87 B.C.?), whose Shiji ( Historical Records) provides a detailed chronicle from the time of a legendary Xia emperor to that of the Han emperor Wu Di ( 141-87 B.C.). Technological advances also marked this period. Two of the great Chinese inventions, paper and porcelain, date from Han times.
The Han dynasty, after which the members of the ethnic majority in China, the “people of Han,” are named, was notable also for its military prowess. The empire expanded westward as far as the rim of the Tarim Basin (in modern Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region), making possible relatively secure caravan traffic across Central Asia to Antioch, Baghdad, and Alexandria. The paths of caravan traffic are often called the “silk route” because the route was used to export Chinese silk to the Roman Empire. Chinese armies also invaded and annexed parts of northern Vietnam and northern Korea toward the end of the second century B.C. Han control of peripheral regions was generally insecure, however. To ensure peace with non-Chinese local powers, the Han court developed a mutually beneficial “tributary system”. Non-Chinese states were allowed to remain autonomous in exchange for symbolic acceptance of Han over-lordship. Tributary ties were confirmed and strengthened through intermarriages at the ruling level and periodic exchanges of gifts and goods.
After 200 years, Han rule was interrupted briefly (in A.D. 9-24 by Wang Mang or , a reformer), and then restored for another 200 years. The Han rulers, however, were unable to adjust to what centralization had wrought: a growing population, increasing wealth and resultant financial difficulties and rivalries, and ever-more complex political institutions. Riddled with the corruption characteristic of the dynastic cycle, by A.D. 220 the Han empire collapsed.
The collapse of the Han dynasty was followed by nearly four centuries of rule by warlords. The age of civil wars and disunity began with the era of the Three Kingdoms (Wei, Shu, and Wu, which had overlapping reigns during the period A.D. 220-80). In later times, fiction and drama greatly romanticized the reputed chivalry of this period. Unity was restored briefly in the early years of the Jin dynasty (A.D. 265-420), but the Jin could not long contain the invasions of the nomadic peoples. In A.D. 317 the Jin court was forced to flee from Luoyang and reestablished itself at Nanjing to the south. The transfer of the capital coincided with China’s political fragmentation into a succession of dynasties that was to last from A.D. 304 to 589. During this period the process of sinicization accelerated among the non-Chinese arrivals in the north and among the aboriginal tribesmen in the south. This process was also accompanied by the increasing popularity of Buddhism (introduced into China in the first century A.D.) in both north and south China. Despite the political disunity of the times, there were notable technological advances. The invention of gunpowder (at that time for use only in fireworks) and the wheelbarrow is believed to date from the sixth or seventh century. Advances in medicine, astronomy, and cartography are also noted by historians.
In the middle of the Tang Dynasty many well-known writers and poets began story writing. Their stories incorporate a wide range of subject matter and themes, reflecting various aspects of human nature, human relations and social life. In form they are not short notes or anecdotes like the tales produced before them, but well-structured stories with interesting plots and vivid characters, often several thousand words in length. Among them are many tales whose main characters are gods, ghosts, or foxes.
CH’ENG-HUANG: God of moats and walls. Every village and town had its own Ch’eng-Huang, most often a local dignitary or important person who had died and been promoted to godhood. His divine status was revealed in dreams, though the gods made the actual decision. Ch’eng-Huang not only protects the community from attack but sees to it that the King of the Dead does not take any soul from his jurisdiction without proper authority. Ch’eng-Huang also exposes evil-doers in the community itself, usually through dreams. His assistants are Mr. Ba Lao-ye and Mr. Hei Lao-ye — Mr. Daywatchman and Mr. Nightwatchman.
CHU JUNG: God of fire. Chu Jung punishes those who break the laws of heaven.
KUAN TI: God of war. The Great Judge who protects the people from injustice and evil spirits. A red-faced god dressed always in green. An oracle. Kuan Ti was an actual historical figure, a general of the Han dynasty renowned for his skill as a warrior and his justness as a ruler. There were more than 1600 temples dedicated to Kuan Ti.
KWAN YIN: Goddess of mercy and compassion. A lady dressed in white seated on a lotus and holding an infant. Murdered by her father, she recited the holy books when she arrived in Hell, and the ruler of the underworld could not make the dead souls suffer. The disgruntled god sent her back to the world of the living, where Kwan Yin attained great spiritual insight and was rewarded with immortality by the Buddha. A popular goddess, Kwan Yin’s temple at the Mount of the Wondrous Peak was ever filled with a throng of pilgrims shaking rattles and setting off firecrackers to get her attention.
LEI KUNG: God of thunder. Lei Kung has the head of a bird, wings, claws and blue skin, and his chariot is drawn by six boys. Lei Kung makes thunder with his hammer, and his wife makes lightning with her mirrors. Lei Kung chases away evil spirits and punishes criminals whose crimes have gone undetected.
P’AN-CHIN-LIEN: Goddess of prostitutes. As a mortal, she was a widow who was much too liberal and inventive with her favors, and her father-in-law killed her. In death her more professional associates honored her and eventually became the goddess of whores.
THE SHI-TIEN YEN-WANG: The Lords of Death, the ten rulers of the underworld. They dress alike in royal robes and only the wisest can tell them apart. Each ruler presides over one court of law. In the first court a soul is judged according to his sins in life and sentenced to one of the eight courts of punishment. Punishment is fitted to the offense. Misers are made to drink molten gold, liars’ tongues are cut out. In the second court are incompetent doctors and dishonest agents; in the third, forgers, liars, gossips, and corrupt government officials; in the fifth, murderers, sex offenders and atheists; in the sixth, the sacrilegious and blasphemers; in the eighth, those guilty of filial disrespect; in the ninth, arsonists and accident victims. In the tenth is the Wheel of Transmigration where souls are released to be reincarnated again after their punishment is completed. Before souls are released, they are given a brew of oblivion, which makes them forget their former lives.
TI-TSANG WANG: God of mercy. Wandering in the caverns of Hell, a lost soul might encounter a smiling monk whose path is illuminated by a shining pearl and whose staff is decorated with metal rings that chime like bells. This is Ti-Tsang Wang, who will do all he can to help the soul escape hell and even to put an end to his eternal round of death and rebirth. Long ago, Ti-Tsang Wang renounced Nirvana so that he could search the dark regions of Hell for souls to save from the kings of the ten hells. Once a priest of Brahma, he converted to Buddhism and himself became a Buddha with special authority over the souls of the dead.
T’SHAI-SHEN: God of wealth who presides over a vast bureaucracy with many minor deities under his authority. A majestic figure robed in exquisite silks. T’shai-Shen is quite a popular god; even atheists worship him.
TSAO WANG: God of the hearth. Every household has its own Tsao Wang. Every year the hearth god reports on the family to the Jade Emperor, and the family has good or bad luck during the coming year according to his report. The hearth god’s wife records every word spoken by every member of the family. A paper image represents the hearth god and his wife, and incense is burned to them daily. When the time came to make his report to the Jade Emperor, sweetmeats were placed in his mouth, the paper was burned, and firecrackers were lit to speed him on his way.
TU-TI: Local gods. Minor gods of towns, villages and even streets and households. Though far from the most important gods in the divine scheme, they were quite popular. Usually portrayed as kindly, respectable old men, they see to it that the domains under their protection run smoothly.
YENG-WANG-YEH: Lord Yama King – Greatest of the Lords of Death. Yeng-Wang-Yeh judges all souls newly arrived to the land of the dead and decides whether to send them to a special court for punishment or put them back on the Wheel of Transmigration.
THE PA HSIEN: The Eight Immortals of the Taoist tradition. Ordinary mortals who, through good works and good lives, were rewarded by the Queen Mother Wang by giving them the peaches of everlasting life to eat. They are:
TIEH-KUAI Li – of the Iron Crutch. A healer, Li sits as a beggar in the market place selling wondrous drugs, some of which can revive the dead.
CHUNG-LI CH’UAN – A smiling old men always beaming with joy, he was rewarded with immortality for his ascetic life in the mountains.
LAN TS’AI-HO – A young flute-player and wandering minstrel who carries a basket laden with fruit. His soul-searching songs caused a stork to snatch him away to the heavens.
LU TUNG-PIN – A hero of early Chinese literature. Renouncing riches and the world, he punished the wicked and rewarded the good, and slew dragons with a magic sword.
CHANG-KUO LAO – An aged hermit with miraculous abilities. Chang owned a donkey that could travel at incredible speed. The personification of the primordial vapor that is the source of all life.
HAN HSIANG-TZU – A scholar who chose to study magic rather than prepare for the civil service. When his uncle chastised him for studying magic, Han Hsiang-Tzu materialized two flowers with poems written on the leaves.
TS’AO KUO-CHIU – Ts’ao Kuo-Chiu tried to reform his brother, a corrupt emperor, by reminding him that the laws of heaven are inescapable.
HO HSIEN-KU – Immortal Maiden – A Cantonese girl who dreamed that she could become immortal by eating a powder made of mother-of-pearl. She appears only to men of great virtue.
In the Spring and Autumn Period, warfare increased exponentially. Zuo zhuan describes the wars and battles among the feudal lords during the period. Warfare continued to be stylized and ceremonial even as it grew more violent and decisive. The concept of military hegemony and his “way of force” came to dominate Chinese society.
Warfare became more intense, ruthless and much more decisive during the Warring States Period, in which great social and political change was accompanied by the end of the system of chariot warfare and the adoption of mass infantry armies. Cavalry was also introduced from the northern frontier, despite the cultural challenge it posed for robe-wearing Chinese men. Military strategy shifted toward an emphasis on deception, intelligence and stratagems as codified in Sun Tzu’s Art of War.