Central Themes and Key Points
The Early Chinese Empire: The Qin and the Han
  • The Qin (221- 206 BCE) and subsequent Han (202 BCE- 220 CE) dynasties unify China and establish a centralized empire, which endures and evolves down through 20th century. The imperial structure draws on elements of both Legalist and Confucian thought. (Note: the Western word for “China” probably comes from the Romanized spelling of Qin, which is pronounced and also spelled “Ch’in,” while the Chinese refer to themselves as “the people of Han.”)
  • The Chinese empire is founded when the state of Qin unites the other Chinese states in 221 BCE and establishes a centralized system of government; Qin Shi Huangdi (Ch’in Shih Huang-ti), or the First Emperor of Qin, rules for a very short time (221-206 BCE) but lays the foundation for China’s imperial structure and begins construction of the Great Wall for defense to the north. At his death, an army of life-sized terra cotta warriors is buried near his tomb. (These terra cotta warriors were first discovered in 1974 and have been the subject of exhibitions, magazine articles, and books since that time.)
  • The Qin follows the Legalist proposals for state order and establishes a centralized bureaucracy and a finely detailed law code with specified punishments for each crime.
  • The Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE) follows the short-lived Qin and rules China for 300 years. The Han greatly expands the Chinese empire. The Han dynasty retains the centralized bureaucracy and unified political system of the Qin but adopts and grafts upon this the Confucian view that government should be run by educated, ethical men.

The Emergence of “Confucianism” in the Han Period
[This section is excerpted from faculty consultant Stephen F. Teiser’s essay in Living in the Chinese Cosmos]

  • Under the Han, the codification of Confucian texts takes place. “Through the interpretation of the scholar Dong Zhongshu, who lived during the Han dynasty from around 179-104 BCE, Confucianism became strongly linked to the cosmic framework of traditional Chinese thought, as the Confucian ideals of ritual and social hierarchy came to be elaborated in terms of cosmic principles such as yin and yang.”
  • It was only with the founding of the Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE) that Confucianism became “Confucianism,” that the ideas associated with Kong Qiu’s name received state support and were disseminated generally throughout upper-class society. The creation of Confucianism was neither simple nor sudden, as the following three examples will make clear.
      • The Classical Texts. In the year 136 BCE the classical writings touted by Confucian scholars were made the foundation of the official system of education and scholarship, to the exclusion of titles supported by other philosophers. The five classics (or five scriptures, wujing) were the Classic of Poetry (Shijing), Classic of History (Shujing), Classic of Changes (Yijing), Record of Rites (Liji), and Chronicles of the Spring and Autumn Period (Chunqiu) with the Zuo Commentary (Zuozhuan), most of which had existed prior to the time of Kong Qiu. Although Kong Qiu was commonly believed to have written or edited some of the five classics, his own statements (collected in the Analects [Lunyu]) and the writings of his closest followers were not yet admitted into the canon.
      • State Sponsorship. Kong Qiu’s name was implicated more directly in the second example of the Confucian system, the state-sponsored cult that erected temples in his honor throughout the empire and that provided monetary support for turning his ancestral home into a national shrine. Members of the literate elite visited such temples, paying formalized respect and enacting rituals in front of spirit tablets of the master and his disciples.
      • Dong Zhongshu’s Cosmological Framework. The third example is the corpus of writing left by the scholar Dong Zhongshu (ca. 179-104 BCE), who was instrumental in promoting Confucian ideas and books in official circles. Dong was recognized by the government as the leading spokesman for the scholarly elite. His theories provided an overarching cosmological framework for Kong Qiu’s ideals, sometimes adding ideas unknown in Kong Qiu’s time, sometimes making more explicit or providing a particular interpretation of what was already stated in Kong Qiu’s work.
        • Dong drew heavily on concepts of earlier thinkers — few of whom were self-avowed Confucians — to explain the workings of the cosmos. He used the concepts of yin and yang to explain how change followed a knowable pattern, and he elaborated on the role of the ruler as one who connected the realms of Heaven, Earth, and humans. The social hierarchy implicit in Kong Qiu’s ideal world was coterminous, thought Dong, with a division of all natural relationships into a superior and inferior member. Dong’s theories proved determinative for the political culture of Confucianism during the Han and later dynasties.
  • What in all of the examples above, we need to ask, was Confucian? Or, more precisely, what kind of thing is the “Confucianism” in each of these examples? In the case of the five classics, “Confucianism” amounts to a set of books that were mostly written before Kong Qiu lived but that later tradition associates with his name. It is a curriculum instituted by the emperor for use in the most prestigious institutions of learning. In the case of the state cult, “Confucianism” is a complex ritual apparatus, an empire-wide network of shrines patronized by government authorities. It depends upon the ability of the government to maintain religious institutions throughout the empire and upon the willingness of state officials to engage regularly in worship. In the case of the work of Dong Zhongshu, “Confucianism” is a conceptual scheme, a fluid synthesis of some of Kong Qiu’s ideals and the various cosmologies popular well after Kong Qiu lived. Rather than being an updating of something universally acknowledged as Kong Qiu’s philosophy, it is a conscious systematizing, under the symbol of Kong Qiu, of ideas current in the Han dynasty.

The Han Empire and the Roman Empire

  • The Han Empire and the Roman Empire exist simultaneously at opposite ends of the Eurasian continent. The Chinese and Roman empires trade through intermediates on the overland route through Central Asia, the “Silk Road.” Chinese silk was an especially prized commodity in Rome, as silk production (sericulture) was known only to the Chinese. (This is the first of three major periods of Silk Road trade.)
  • After the Han dynasty disintegrates in the 3rd century, China experiences a 300-year period of political fragmentation; nomadic tribes dominate northern China while a series of Chinese dynasties succeed one another in the south. It is during this period that Buddhism is introduced into China from India, following trade routes.

Timeline of Chinese History

It may be useful at this point to review a timeline of Chinese history and dynasties, noting the patterns evident in the Han and that recur over the course of Chinese history:

  • The cycle of long periods of political unity (the Han, Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties each govern for 250-300 years) are interspersed by periods of political disunity, with multiple competing centers of power;
  • Note the pattern of territorial pressure and incursions from China’s north by nomadic groups, who are attracted by the wealth of the settled, agricultural civilization of China. The most illustrative examples are those of the Mongols, who conquer China and establish the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 CE), and of the Manchus, who again conquer China and establish the last dynasty, the Qing, that rules for 300 years (1644-1911 CE). Each of these invaders rules through the Chinese bureaucracy, leading to the expression that China “sinicizes its conquerors.”
  • Just as China may “sinicize” or absorb its conquerors, China itself is composed of and enriched by the integration of many different peoples and cultures with which it interacts throughout its history and which form part of China today. See in particular the Tang dynasty.
  • Note the patterns of cultural continuity: the evolution of the bureaucratic structure — the civil service examination system, the scholar-gentry who sit for exams and staff the civil administration; the refinement of the Confucian classics as the basis of education and elite selection; the growth of commercial activity and the development of a unified and sophisticated marketing system over the vast, economically diverse area of China; the tendency toward political unification and reunification.
  • Note the pattern of dynastic formation, ascendance, and decline, which is often referred to as the “dynastic cycle.” The last years of many dynasties were marked by inefficient administration and corruption, which, when compounded by natural calamities such as flood or droughts, led to social unrest among the population. Movements and rebellions incorporating popular religious ideas took place in the last years of the Han, Yuan, and Qing dynasties, while political rebellions brought down the Tang and Ming dynasties. (This is when the Chinese often say a dynasty has lost the “Mandate of Heaven.”)
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