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Chinese Dynasties: From Qin Through Tang Essay


Constants and transformations from Qin through Tang


The use of bone inscriptions to make prophecies was common in the early Qin period. Some of the outcomes appeared to be true, and others failed to give actual results that would match the diviners’ interpretation. In the prediction of rainfall, the bone inscriptions showed that it rained in that month several times as predicted (Mair, Steinhardt, and Goldin 9). In predicting Lady Hao’s giving birth to a son, the diviners did not predict correctly (Mair, Steinhardt, and Goldin 10). The misinterpretations and inaccuracies of predictions led to the sage of sages. The sages believed in reasoning, planning, and human action to determine outcomes.

The “Confucian Teachings” became popular during the Qin period. They criticized rituals as man-made patterns and spirits as human delusions (“Confucian Teachings” 18). Xunzi argued that divination did not present heavenly desires and prophecies did not become a reality (“Confucian Teachings” 18). The Confucian disciples focused on teaching about humanity, which dictated to be truthful, generous, and kind. (“Confucian Teachings” 19).

One of the main themes that emerged in the Confucian principles was filial piety. People were expected to take care of their parents in their old age and when they were in need. One was expected to be kind to his brothers and sisters, as well as to everyone else in the world (“Confucian Teachings” 21). The honoring of rulers was one of the requirements of filial piety. According to Confucius’s reply to Fan Zhi (“Confucian Teachings” 18), the teachings of filial piety encouraged the honoring of the dead and following in their path. Filial piety was one of the principles considered necessary for political and cultural orderliness. Xunzi claimed that “blessings result when you respond to Heaven by creating order” (“Confucian Teachings” 24). When people fail to plan or to respond in a timely manner, it leads to misfortune and suffering.

The culture of poems is strengthened during the Tang period as it was in the Daoism period. It is seen in the story of Zhang-Wu when he speaks with the spirit of Wang’s daughter-in-law (Owen 530). It is also visible in Wang Wei’s poem of the Tang period (Mair 340).

One of the changes in writing books occurred when authors moved from philosophical works during the Qin period and autobiographies during the Han dynasty to dominate in fairy tales of the Tang period. In the Tang period, the two stories in the “Two Tales of Keeping Faith” ( 522 and 531) show that being faithful in love was a valued virtue in that period. In Zhang-Wu’s and Ren’s story, faithfulness and love were rewarded. In the Han Dynasty, there are more autobiographies written than in the previous periods (Dien 495). The political turmoil that emerged in the Tang period also led to writing autobiographies, such as the one by Mr. Yan (Dien 531). The early Qin period was mainly characterized by philosophical works. Another culture that was maintained in the period was borrowing books and reading for leisure.

In the Han dynasty (141-87 B.C), filial piety was prescribed in detail for every group of people that dwelt in the empire (“The Classic of Filial Piety” 65-66). Filial piety remained in the Han Dynasty till the end of the Qin period. It was almost changed by Buddhism, which required people to neglect their worldly duties in search of divination. Han Yu rejected the corruption of filial piety that was brought about by Buddhism (Foster 360). He wanted people to revert to the way described by the sages, which positioned filial piety at the top of all humane principles.

During the early Qin Dynasty and the Han Dynasty, the Chinese never worshipped any key figure. However, there were human sacrifices, animal sacrifices, and the honoring of ancestors during the period of diviners (Mair, Steinhardt, and Goldin 11). The period that followed was influenced by Confucians, and rituals were only maintained to honor the dead and harmless cultures. Human and animal sacrifices were not mentioned after Confucianism in the Qin period. In Confucianism, people recognized the sages as models of how heaven wanted people to behave. In the Tang period, the king was criticized by Han Yu for worshipping the Buddha’s relics (Xiong 357). It was against the culture of the Qin and Han dynasties. The bodies of the dead were supposed to be chastised by shamans before a king could come into contact with them (Xiong 357). The kings during the Tang period acted against their tradition by honoring Buddhism.


In the Qin dynasty, the Daoist Teachings overtook divination in influencing politics and those in authority. In the early Qin and the Han Dynasty, the Confucians were despised for having no proper method of leading a good life because most of them were poor. The general secretary who had gained power after the death of Emperor Wu refused to accept Daoist Teachings as presented by the opposition (“State Control of Commerce and Industry” 363). Emperor Wu also advocated for Confucianism, despite practicing the Legalists system of governance (“State Control of Commerce and Industry” 359). The Confucians struggled without success to alter the practices after his death.

The Ebrey derived from Xunzi’s teaching on human nature. Xunzi argued that human nature is to love profit and to act kindly only when people are watching (“Confucian Teachings” 25). The advisors believed that bad conduct is the nature of human beings. It had to be restrained by harsh laws. The matter of using advisors started in the Qin Dynasty and remained unchanged in the other dynasties. The Confucius teachings expected the king to listen and consider other people’s views. Confucius ridiculed that “I get no pleasure from being a ruler, other than no one contradicts what I say” (“Confucian Teachings” 22). Mencius told King Xuan of Qin that he had to expect honest guidance from advisors if he strayed from what was right (“Confucian Teachings” 23). Diviners were used in the Shang Dynasty, Confucians in early Qin and early Han dynasties, and Legalists in Han and Tang.

The rejection of Qin’s harsh laws led Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty (r. 141-87 B.C.) to strongly advocate for Confucians to hold government offices. The emperor purported to have followed Confucius’s teachings (“Heaven, Earth, and Man” 57). He claimed that only Confucians should become public officials because of their high moral character.

His intention to start state Universities failed to yield expected results when his government brought corruption into the Han Dynasty. He sold government positions to raise funds to maintain his extensive empire at the expense of the Chinese people (“State Control of Commerce and Industry” 359). He created monopolies that made the government behave like a private businessman characterized by the love for profit. Emperor Wu’s actions were different from his ideals of practicing Daoist Teachings. People in authority became corrupt, and the masses became poor.

The happenings of the Han Dynasty during Emperor Wu’s reign led people to reconsider the Daoist Teachings. Wang Mang tried to bring reforms to stop corruption and public outcry in the high levels of poverty. One of his reforms was the equal-land redistribution policy (“State Control of Commerce and Industry” 363). The early Qin period began with equal land allocation for all families. Later, there were the Qin and Han that brought great inequality in the distribution of land and wealth. Wang Mang implemented reforms that transformed the empire back to equal land and equal tax policies.


The rulers in Shang Dynasty used diviners to prophesy about rainfall, which is an indication that agriculture was the main economic activity (Mair, Steinhardt and Goldin 9). Agriculture remained the main economic activity in the Qin Dynasty. In the Han Dynasty, people were criticized for abandoning primary production and focusing on trade. The government engaged in the trade of iron, salt, and liquor (“State Control of Commerce and Industry” 359). Starvation was a likely outcome in case there was a slight change in the rainy seasons.

The laws regarding debt and stealing were very severe towards the end of the Qin Dynasty, which may be an indication that crimes were common during the Qin period (“Penal Servitude in Qin Law” 51). The laws developed in the Legalist period showed a concern that trade had started developing in the Qin Dynasty. In the Han Dynasty, trade became the focus of the government and the people. Laws were necessary to regulate business. There were government monopolies developed in the Han Dynasty, which were protected by-laws (“State Control of Commerce and Industry” 359). The teachings of the Han period advocated for an equal opportunity for all to engage in trade. It was the norm of the kingdoms that preceded them (“State Control of Commerce and Industry” 362).

Ebrey described that state has high chances of becoming poorer, despite having served in the government (“Ge Hong’s Autobiography” 91). He claimed that “my clothes do not protect me from the cold; my roof does not keep me from the rain” (“Ge Hong’s Autobiography” 92). He also indicated that China had already had trends in fashion and clothing. He claimed that “styles change quickly and frequently” (“Ge Hong’s Autobiography” 92). It shows that there was a group of those who were well-off and those who were poor. They were those who did not care about new fashions in clothing, such as himself. He was also raised in a poor family that made him unable to search for teachers (“Ge Hong’s Autobiography” 92). The autobiography shows that the political turmoil, which had started in the Han period, had made poverty a major concern. The same concerns for economic mobility across generations were raised by Mr. Yan, who lived during the Tang Dynasty (Dien 495). Old men were getting concerned that it had become very easy to be raised among nobles and to end up as a commoner.


I would emphasize the dynamic nature of the Chinese transformation. Culturally, they were less dynamic as they retained filial piety from Qin to Tang. It was corrupted during the worship of the Buddha. Politically, they have been very dynamic in tax laws, land laws, trade, and extending borders. Economically, they had also been dynamic, moving from dependence on agriculture to rely on non-agricultural products for business profit.

The extent to which China was a unified country


China showed the intent of unity in the early Qin period. According to Ebrey (“Penal Servitude in Qin Law” 51), China became united as a dynasty under the reign of Qin emperors. In the early period of the Qin Dynasty, there was political disunity and threats from non-Chinese communities that resided close to its borders. The discontentment that resulted from the Qin’s harsh laws led to disunity in the Han Dynasty after the death of Emperor Wu. In the Tang period, there was political disunity within its own ranks. Rebellion increased, similar to the period that saw the fall of the Qin Dynasty.

At the beginning of the Qin Dynasty and the end of the Han Dynasty, filial piety was considered a cornerstone of orderliness and contentment. People were expected to honor those with authority, as children would honor their parents (“Confucian Teachings” 21). Those in leadership positions were expected to rule with love, as parents to children. (“Confucian Teachings” 22). The teachings of the sages were always partially practiced. Early leaders of Qin ruled strictly by harsh laws. They expected subjects to fear them, as opposed to being loved by them (“Legalist Teachings” 34).

The Confucian Teachings (18) tried to encourage people to engage in business with integrity. It is similar to the ethical concerns of commerce in modern times. In the Qin Dynasty, Confucianism expected people to remain poor if the only viable way to riches is through corruption (“Confucian Teachings” 20). It is different from the occurrences that followed the Qin period. In the Han Dynasty, corruption was considered an easy way to acquire wealth and public office (“State Control of Commerce and Industry” 359). In the Tang Dynasty, the order was restored after the death of Emperor Wu. However, successful people were still discontent with intergenerational class mobility. People could easily move from nobles to commoners.

Confucianism influenced most of the dynasties from Qin to Tang. They started towards the end of the Qin period and were perfected in the Han dynasty (“Legalist Teachings” 32). The advisors to the king realized that neither Confucianism nor Daoism was effective in making everyone comply with what was right. Laws were needed to make everyone behave as if he were a gentleman (“Legalist Teachings” 36). Duke Xiao’s advisors held that criminals had to be restrained by-laws (“Legalist Teachings” 36). The period paved the way for the harsh laws towards the end of the Qin Dynasty. People were expected to work for several years for failing to pay small debts (“Penal Servitude in Qin Law” 53). Later, the masses rebelled against the harsh laws of the Qin Dynasty.

Intergenerational class mobility increased during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty. Rich people’s property was at risk. Rich people were worried that their children would not be able to inherit their wealth. It led to a period of writing autobiographies, most of which warned children to avoid a lofty position in the government (“Ge Hong’s Autobiography” 92). A high position in the government increased the chances of losing one’s property.

De Bary mentioned another factor that changed the political scene in China. Monks were exempted from bowing before the emperor (“The Coming of Buddhism to China” 426). Han Yu was banished from the Northern Kingdom as a result of speaking against Buddhism and the worshipping of relics (Foster 359). Buddhism met resistance from political leaders when it entered China. In the later periods of the Tang Dynasty, Buddhism had a strong influence on the authorities.


Economic unity was strong during the Qin period when they consulted diviners, and when they used Legalist Teachings. A few people became wealthier, and the majority became poorer towards the end of the Qin period. In the Han period, corruption caused disunity. Corruption led to increased intergenerational class mobility and discontent. The autobiographies in the Han and Tang dynasties were written in response to the concern of poverty. Rebellion increased as poverty and corruption intensified.

The Daoist period of the Qin Dynasty shows that people had a concern about equity. The passages from the “Laozi” stated that a sage governs by preventing the arousal of strong passions for profit. It stated in the poetic lines that “do not display what others won’t, and the people will not have their hearts confused, a sage governs this way” (“Daoist Teachings” 28). Daoism called for equity, and those who had more than the others from engaging in extravagant activities were encouraged by the excessive desire for profit. The same teaching appeared on the principles that guided the feudal lords. Confucius stated that the feudal lords should “exercise restraint and caution, they can have plenty without going overboard” (“The Classic of Filial Piety” 65). It was considered as the way to maintain high positions.

During the reign of Emperor Wu, in the Han Dynasty, government officials and merchants came to occupy large pieces of land at the expense of the majority (“State Control of Commerce and Industry” 363). It was altered by Wang Mang when he gained power in the ninth century C.E. Equal land ownership became the new policy to encourage equity during the period of the Yin Dynasty, which was before the Qin Dynasty (“State Control of Commerce and Industry” 363). His reforms were an effort to increase support from the masses and stop the continuous rebellion.

The issue of poverty also occurred in Ren’s story written during the Tang period. Zheng was a poor man, despite having wealthy relatives, such as Wei Yin (Owen 521). The same concern was raised by those who wrote autobiographies. They worried that children born among noble families were increasingly becoming commoners. Ren used her intelligence to help Zheng become a successful person (Owen, 524).

The reforms to restore equality were implemented by the northern states in the Tang Dynasty. They made an equal field allocation a government policy. Taxation was also equalized through individual taxation systems (“The Tang Legal Code” 116). There were strict laws to restrain people from cultivating more land than allocated to them by the government. It helped prevent corruption, discontent, and disunity.

In the Tang period, Buddhism was considered to slow down the economic activities in the dynasty. There were many people who had neglected their natural duties in search of divine intervention (Xiong 356). Buddhism was linked to possible scarcity and starvation in the future because it discouraged economic activities. Han Yu prescribed that the dynasty had to revert to the Way of the sages to restore life longevity, order, respect, and other moral values (Foster 362).


In the Qin period, about the 12th-century B.C.E, the people relied on oracles translated by diviners. They used bone inscriptions and smoke to make predictions. It was a common practice (Mair, Steinhardt, and Goldin 8). However, the people were cautious to ensure that the interpretations were not an occurrence of chance. They had to repeat the same procedure several times to ensure that the outcome of the interpretation remained the same. The king’s dream about his ancestors was repeated several times (Mair, Steinhardt, and Goldin 10). The inaccuracies associated with the method led to the age of the sages, which was led by Confucius and his disciples. The bone inscriptions and divination were a unifying factor in the early Qin period.

The culture of creating philosophical works had already set its root in the early Qin period. Philosophy was expressed in written and spoken words. During the period of Daoism that merged with Confucianism, poetry emerged as one of the popular arts. The “Laozi” expressed how to practice the Way through writing, which means seeking knowledge and understanding (“Daoist Teachings” 28). In the poem, as a result of writing, it is described that people will “find their food sweet, their clothes beautiful, their houses comfortable” (“Daoist Teachings” 29). This part of the “Laozi” is teaching on contentment. Poetry, philosophy, and autobiographies were some of the unifying factors through different periods from Qin to Tang.

The teachings on contentment remained constant despite changes in dynasties and external forces. It only became less popular during the Legalists’ period, who believed that people could not be expected to act humanely and decently. They [people] were to be prohibited by law from acting indecently and inhumanely. According to “Legalist Teaching,” expecting rulers to act “through mutual love is expecting rulers to go further than parents” ( 35). Some showed that they prioritized their desires above those of their family. The teachings on contentment were never changed by Buddhism that had affected some of the earlier teachings on filial piety.

Buddhists were considered to have gone against the culture of filial piety by neglecting their bodies and shaving their hair. It was a dishonor to parents if one shaved his hair or neglected his body, according to the requirements of filial piety (“The Coming of Buddhism to China” 423). Buddhist reduced the influence of filial piety on people. Han Yu blamed the influence of Buddhism on the disorder and short-lived kings (Xiong 355).

In considering the dead, the early Qin period embraced spirits, as they used diviners. The Confucian period of Qin wanted people to stay away from spirits, even if they honored the dead. The Han period also shunned the spirits. In the Tang period, the Buddhists brought the Chinese closer to spirits again.

The Han period was also characterized by increased government demand to raise taxes to implement government projects. High taxes and penalties for offenses were one of the ways the emperor intended to raise funds to build roads and dykes in the extended empire (“State Control of Commerce and Industry” 359). Emperor Wu’s colonization of non-Chinese communities seemed to be a bad business for the Chinese. The government neglected its own people to maintain its reign on new boundaries. Dykes and roads on the Chinese side were neglected for a long period leading to floods and discontentment (“State Control of Commerce and Industry” 359).


Some of the internal forces that integrated China include the teachings of sages, the advisors to the kings, the rulers, government planning, laws, filial piety as a culture, and literature, among other things. Some of the internal factors that caused disunity included the corruption of government officials, laws considered harsh by the masses, poverty, crime, increased intergenerational class mobility, and unequal land. The external factors that brought disunity include Buddhism and invasion by non-Chinese communities. The external threat of invasion also united their war forces.

I would emphasize the unity of Chinese people in a period of political, cultural, and economic changes. They always changed together as a unified force. When they embraced an ideology, they put it into practice and assessed the outcome. They made shifts as a whole, not as separated groups.

Works Cited

de Bary, Wm. Theodore and Irene Bloom. “State Control of Commerce and Industry”. Sources of Chinese Tradition. 1993: 358-363. Print.

“The Coming of Buddhism to China”. Sources of Chinese Tradition. 1993: 420-432. Print.

Dien, Albert. “Custom and Society: The Family Instructions of Mr. Yan”. Early Medieval China: A Sourcebook. 2014: 494-510. Print.

Ebrey, Patricia Buckley “Confucian Teachings”. Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook. 1993: 17-26. Print.

“Daoist Teachings”. Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook. 1993: 27-31. Print.

“Ge Hong’s Autobiography”. Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook. 1993: 91-96. Print.

“Heaven, Earth, and Man”. Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook. 1993: 57-59. Print.

“Legalist Teachings”. Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook. 1993: 32-37. Print.

“Penal Servitude in Qin Law”. Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook. 1993: 51-53. Print.

“The Classic of Filial Piety”. Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook. 1993: 64-68. Print.

“The Tang Legal Code”. Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook. 1993: 116-119. Print.

Foster, Robert. “The Original Way.” Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture. 2005. Print.

Mair, Denis. “Tang Poems as Vehicles for Ideas”. Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture. 2005: 340-347. Print.

Mair, Victor, Nancy Steinhardt, and Paul Goldin. “Shang Dynasty Oracle – Bone Inscriptions”. Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture. 2005:8-12. Print.

Owen, Stephen. “Two Tales of Keeping Faith”. An Anthology of Chinese Literature. 1996: 518-531. Print.

Xiong, Victor Cunrui. “A Memorial on the Relic of the Buddha”. Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture. 2005: 355-358. Print.

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