The next dynasties of ancient China

In the last article the Shang and Zhou dynasties have been examined and now we will examine the next two dynasties in China’s spectacular history.


The Qin-dynasty rose to power between 328 and 308 B.C. but it was not until 221 B.C. that the Qin was able to establish their dominance in China. The first emperor of the united empire of China was emperor Zheng, who named himself Qin Shi Huangdi “First sovereign emperor of Qin”. He based his rule on legalism, this philosophy states that the power and authority of the state is more important than the well being of its citizens. Qin Shi Huangdi ruled his people with an iron fist, according to a very strict system of reward and harsh punishments. He introduced a system of prefects who were strictly controlled by a centralized bureaucracy. The first emperor also greatly improved the country’s infrastructure, this lead to the further rise of the empire. He added roads, dug canals and introduced a national system of set weights, measurements and writing that seriously increased trade. After the death of Qin Shi Huangdi in 210 B.C., despite his best efforts, his empire fell apart.

The single most impressive accomplishment of Qin Shi Huangdi is the construction of the Chinese wall. Many parts of the wall had already been built by the Zhou-dynasty in the 7th century B.C. and by vassal states in order to indicate their boundaries. Qin decided to connect the separate pieces of the wall because of the threat of nomadic Xiongnu tribes. He added 5750km to the wall and on top sign towers were added to be able to communicate on long distances. The wall was an important defensive mechanism but it also increased taxes drastically, and cost many people their lives.

Qin Shi Huangdi was buried in a large burial complex in Lintong in 210 B.C and with him an entire army, the now world famous Terracotta Army. No less than 8000 soldiers and horses were made from terracotta, all with their own facial expression and postures. This terracotta army was meant to show his strength and power when he arrived in the afterlife. To protect his tomb from robber, the tomb also contained many personal possessions and jewellery, he had automatic crossbows placed at the entrance.


After the death of Qin Shi Huangdi China fell into civil war for almost 4 years, until in 206 B.C. the Han-dynasty established its dominance in China. The early period of the western Han-dynasty was established by Liu Bang, who continued the unification process started by the Qin-dynasty. The first emperors of the Han returned to the feudal system but this was later corrected by Han Wu-ti, the first important Han emperor, who ruled from 140 – 87 B.C. During his rule the centralized government was enforced and the state had an important role in economics. Wu-ti was less harsh on his subjects and during his reign legalism became the ruling ideology which was later gradually replaced by Confucianism.

Later in his reign Wu-ti began expanding his empire and the south and west of China were taken. Also Korea, Vietnam and central Asia were colonized and he opened up trading routes with the west. Luoyang became the new capital. In the later period of the Han-dynasty competing aristocratic families fought each other which weakened the Han-dynasty. After more than 200 years the empire fell apart in 220 A.D.


Around 140 B.C. it was discovered that is was possible to reach the Kushan, an area north of India. The Kushan were a Chinese tribe who lived in central Asia and had adopted the Buddhist religion and Wu-Ti wanted to join this tribe in their fight against the Xiongnu. In 138 B.C. an expedition was sent lead by Zhang Qian to the Kushan region and on their return they brought goods with them, profits of the trading routes they had established on their way. In this way China opened trading routes with the already existing routes between Europe and central Asia. The goods were highly wanted, especially horses and glass, a new invention at this time. These routes became very important and Chinese goods were found even in Rome. The name Silk-route comes from the main exported good from china; silk. Silk was unknown in the western world until the opening of the silk-route and it became immensely popular, along with other Chinese goods such as ivory, tea, jade and furs.

The silk-road had an important role in connecting Asiatic empires and as a result Buddhism arrived in China in the first century A.D. Under the Wei emperors it became the dominant religion in the 4rd century A.D.  In the Han-dynasty ancestor worship was still important (this already started in the Shang-dynasty). Buddhism taught that people would reincarnate and would have to repent for their actions from their previous lives until their desire was quenched. Confucianism was not abandoned when Buddhism became the major religion in China but is was not mostly applied to the government apparatus. Those who worked for the government actually had to do an exam to prove that they were well acquainted with Confucius’ philosophy. 


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