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China’s Historical Experience in the Early Imperial Period Essay

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Updated: Oct 12th, 2020


The Chinese civilization since antiquity was ruled by a succession of dynasties and warring states until the rise of the Imperial Qin dynasty in 221 BCE that unified China under one Emperor. The early Chinese imperial period from the Qin dynasty to the end of the Tang dynasty in 907 CE was interspersed with several dynasties as also smaller states that caused great upheaval in the lives of the Chinese people. Yet, despite strife, China’s historical experience in the early imperial period covering around 1000 years from the Qin dynasty to the Tang dynasty was a continuum inhomogeneity and consistency amidst diversity and change. This paper focuses on the above thesis with special reference to culture, politics, and economics.


Culture informs and defines a group of people and is often the start point for all forms of organized behavior in a nation or a state. Since ancient times, Chinese culture has centered on the concept of respect for elders and ancestors predating the teachings of Confucius to the records of the Shang Dynasty (12th century BCE). The Oracle bone inscriptions of the Shang period describe inscriptions as to how the Shang kings used to consult the oracle on dreaming about their ancestors and carried out sacrifices to pacify them (Mair, Steinhardt, and Goldin 10). Ancestor worship was further developed during the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE), where worship of ancestors and seeking their blessings coalesced into the concept of ‘Mandate of Heaven’ (De Bary and Bloom 28), which was construed as a divine right to rule. Culture thus gave rise to a comprehensive political philosophy that over 1000 years slowly transformed into a political system. When the Zhou dynasty disintegrated into a period of warring states, Confucius (551-479 BCE) arrived on the stage with his rendition of the ‘Zhou way’ giving rise to a rational religion, a way of life and a complete system which the Chinese people could follow. By the time the Qin dynasty (221 BCE – 206 BCE) was established, Confucianism was the dominant philosophy ingrained in Chinese culture.

Despite, the dominance of Confucianism, Chinese intellectuals did not rest their spirit of inquiry and along with the rational religion of Confucianism emerged Daoism (Taoism). The eminent Daoist texts of Laozi and Zhuangzi wrote around the third century BCE (Ebrey 27) offer a sharp contrast to the earthy rational logic of Confucianism. Daoism gained popularity and its two schools of thought, the Naturalists and the Legalists soon began being debated amongst the populace.

The insatiable intellectual yearnings of Chinese scholars allowed imports from outside into the country. Buddhism was one such addition that arrived in China about the 1st century CE. Many ancient Buddhist texts were translated from Sanskrit to Chinese in the 10th century CE. The story of “Mahamaudgalyayana Rescuing His Mother from the Underworld” (Mair) expounded on the Buddhist concept of Karma or the law of cause and effect and how good deeds and abstinence from human needs can rescue people from a never-ending cycle of birth and death. One of the central tenets of Confucianism, Filial piety required the sons to take care of their parents, families and the continuation of the family line was an important aspect. In contrast, the Buddhist concept of celibacy was a complete anathema as also the Buddhist practice of shaving their heads that ran counter to main Confucian beliefs that “Our body, limbs, hair, and skin are all received from our fathers and mothers, We dare not injure them” (De Bary and Bloom 423). Despite the obvious contradictions between Buddhism and Confucianism, Buddhism became popular in China by 100 CE in the Han period. The syncretistic nature of the Chinese society is amply brought out in the text, The Family Instructions of Mr. Yan (531-59 CE) in which the author states that “I have honored the teachings of the Duke of Zhou and Confucius but also conjoined this with complying with the talk of Laozi and Sakya” (Dien 497).

The Chinese emperors were quite open to allowing new ideas and new forms of faith entering their domain. The successor Jin (265-420 CE) and Sui (581-618 CE) dynasties too allowed the growth of Buddhism, though, during the Jin period, Daoism gained political recognition (De Bary and Bloom 394). During the Tang dynasty, Buddhism gained immense popularity and the Tang rulers allowed the establishment of Buddhist monasteries and worship of Buddhist relics (Xiong and Cunrui 355). The growing esteem and acceptance of Buddhist thought in China led to a pushback that was spearheaded by Chinese intellectuals. Han Yu (768 to 824 CE) started Confucian revival known as Neo-Confucianism to stem the prevalence of Buddhism that had been imbibed in the courts of the Tang emperors (Xiong and Cunrui 359). Thus, a review of Chinese cultural trends across a millennium starting from the Qin dynasty until the Tang dynasty shows that while the diversity of thought was allowed to flourish, the basic consistency in adhering to respect of elders and Confucius thought remained dominant. This cultural aspect informed Chinese political thought and was used by the rulers to build a political system.


Since antiquity, the Chinese people had always been ruled by a warlord, king, or an Emperor. The rulers of provinces and rich landlords paid a tribute to the Emperor, who in turn allowed them the independence to administer their lands as deemed fit. The ruler ruled with the help of an inner circle of ministers following a strict protocol (Ebrey 21). Competing with Confucius thought was the Legalist approach of Daoism as revealed in the Book of Shang (4th century BCE), where the emphasis was on the need for effective institutional structures for governance and not just Confucian moral values of the King. The thought, “A sage does not stick to ancient laws if he can strengthen his state by changing” (Ebrey 33) typifies the pragmatic Daoist approach. Writings of Han Feizi (3rd century BCE), show a realist approach towards control of the inner circle of advisors and ministers by the king. Placing undue trust in ministers can cause the downfall of the king as the ministers may exploit the king’s trust for their gain. Hence it becomes incumbent on the ruler to know “techniques of control” (Ebrey 34) and “concentrate on laws rather than on moral influence” (Ebrey 36) to ensure their survival as also proper governance of his kingdom.

In this struggle for political relevance, Confucian rational thoughts gained popularity leading to a political system based on strict adherence to rituals, protocols, and laws and was adopted by the Qin dynasty. The preceding Zhou dynasty was based on the rule of the empire by the royal clan. The Qin dynasty continued the same practice but towards the latter half replaced the concept of relatives with non-relatives going strictly by Confucian ideals of heeding the advice of wise people (Ebrey 113). Politics of the Qin period revolved around the machinations of the ministers and advisors at the center and such was the case with the Qin dynasty which faced rebellions and collapsed after just 15 years reign.

The successor Han dynasty avoided harsh policies of the Qin dynasty but continued to be guided by Confucian thoughts in political governance and administration. The Han reversed the Qin policy of emplacing non-relatives in high positions with their relatives (Ebrey 113). While high offices were given to members of the royal clan, the selection of officials was based on field level recommendations wherein the periphery had a stake in government offices at the center (Swartz, Campany and Lu 90). “Who else but a king could take the central place among Heaven, earth, and man and connect them all?” (Ebrey 58). This thought by thinkers like Dong Zhongshu (179-104 BCE) skillfully built up the legitimacy of the Emperor to divinity and was wholeheartedly adopted by the political system for its obvious benefits. The Han dynasty, however, too succumbed to the infirmities of the inner quarters consisting of a small group of ministers, advisors, couriers, and eunuchs. In the latter half of the Han period, eunuchs who served as servants to the empress soon learned to control her and stage coups (Ebrey 84). In the system of governance, the staffing processes of the central bureaucracy were further concentrated in the hands of the center (Swartz, Campany, and Lu 90). As a result, the reforms of decentralization that served the Han emperors so well were discarded.

The fall of the Han Empire led to the creation of three main kingdoms of Wei, Shu, and Wu. The three kingdoms essentially followed the same Confucian principles that had guided the Han dynasty through a varying degree of centralized control. The following Jin dynasty too continued along with Confucian principles. However, the ensuing civil war at the end of the Jin era in 420 CE brought major upheaval in China. For a brief period, the Sui dynasty stabilized China from 581 to 618 CE (Swartz, Campany, and Lu 1-6) but it was the Tang dynasty that provided significant stability to the Chinese empire (Ebrey 112). The appointment of relatives to run the empire yet again became central to Tang political system (Ebrey 112). The Tang Code was decreed in 653 CE to govern all aspects of administration imbibing Confucianism (Ebrey 117). Thus it can be ascertained that in terms of politics, the Chinese system was remarkably consistent. A monarchial system principally based on Confucian thought endured through the ages from the Qin dynasty to the Tang dynasty. The political system in turn shaped Chinese economic policies.


China during the early imperial period was mainly a feudal agrarian society in which feudal lords controlled rivers, lakes, hills, and forests. (De Bary and Bloom 358). The Qin dynasty following Confucian philosophy codified all economic activity into strict laws, taxes, and penalties. The pursuance of an exploitative economic model led to a reduction in overall prosperity and economic ruin of traders and farmers that ultimately led to rebellions. The successor Han dynasty relaxed the policies of the Qin. The Han dynasty expanded the geographical extent of the Chinese empire, built roads, canals, and populated newly conquered lands with their people. The new conquests brought “goods and luxuries such as horses, camels, furs, rugs, precious stones, exotic fruits, and so on” (De Bary and Bloom 360) into the empire.

At the same, it also brought the Chinese people in confrontation with new adversaries necessitating vast expenditure on raising a strong army forcing a return to centralization and government control. Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty accelerated this process by crushing individual traders and “setting up government monopolies in iron, salt, liquor and coinage of money, as well as offices to engage in government trading” (De Bary and Bloom 359). In doing so, he destroyed the monopoly of feudal lords and the nobility as well as traders leading to an economic downturn and downfall of the Han dynasty. The succeeding Tang dynasty introduced fair trading practices to prevent price-fixing and profiteering by unscrupulous merchants. The Tang code was comprehensive in its range of applicability to administration and economics (Hansen 191) except for taxing traders, who unlike farmers had no fixed income and could fudge they’re earning leading to overall revenue shortfalls (Hansen 195).

In conclusion, it can be reiterated that ancestor worship, a cultural norm from the Shang dynasty gave rise to a cogent political concept of ‘Mandate from Heaven’ during the Zhou dynasty. This mandate was codified into a comprehensive rational religion of Confucianism. In the same period, Daoism also flourished and the influx of Buddhism further added richness to Chinese culture, political philosophy, and economics. While the system of governance changed, the adherence to hereditary monarchies continued throughout the millennium. It can be emphatically stated that China’s historical experience in the early imperial period from the Qin dynasty to the Tang dynasty was a continuum inhomogeneity and consistency amidst diversity and change.

Works Cited

De Bary, Theodore WM and Irene Bloom. Sources of Chinese Tradition. Columbia University Press, 1999.

Dien, Albert. “The Family Instructions of Mr Yan.” Early Mediveal China: A Source Book, edited by Swartz, Wendy, et al. Columbia University Press, 2014, pp.494-510.

Ebrey, Patricia B. Chinese Civilization: A Source Book. Free Press, 1993.

Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1800. 2nd ed. Norton, 2015.

Mair, Victor H. “Mahamaudgalyayana Rescuing His Mother from the Underworld.” Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature. Columbia University Press, 2000, pp. 607-642.

Mair, Victor H, et al. “Shang Dynasty Oracle-Bone Inscriptions.” Hawaii Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture, edited by Mair, Victor H, et al. University of Hawaii, 2005, pp.8-12.

Swartz, Wendy, et al. Early Mediveal China: A Source Book. Columbia University Press, 2014.

Xiong and Victor Cunrui. “A Memorial on the Relic of the Buddha.” Hawaii Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture, edited by Mair, Victor H, et al. University of Hawaii, 2005, pp.355-358.

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