The Rise and Spread of Civilization in India and China,
 c. 2500 BC-AD 535

Introduction and Overview: Early Indian Civilization

1) The third of the great river valley civilizations developed along the Indus River in present-day Pakistan.  It flourished from about 2400 BC to about 1500 BC.  2) Shortly before its collapse, Indo-European or Aryan invaders entered the Indian sub-continent.  3) Over the course of the following centuries, these two civilizations blended and evolved, forming Indian civilization.  4) During this period, two great religious traditions — Hinduism and Buddhism — had their origins and then spread outwards.  5) Rise of Maurya and Gupta Empires.  6) Establishment of fundamental patterns of Indian civilization.

Indus Valley Civilization

Evidence of human habitation of the Indian subcontinent, that huge triangular peninsula that is home to modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka, goes back to the Paleolithic period.  1) Its topography has three main features: the Himalayas, which are the world's tallest mountains; the northern planes, which includes the valleys of the Indus and the Ganges; and the Deccan, or southern plateau, with a climate that alternates between long dry spells and the monsoons.  2) Patterns of life during the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods were similar to those found elsewhere.  3) The Urban Revolution began about 2400 BC on the flood plain of the Indus River and its tributaries and cities like Harappa [=huh-RUP-uh]and Mohenjo-Daro were built.

View of Mohenjo-Daro towards the Great Bath.

Unfortunately little is known about this civilization, often called Harappan, partly because it disappeared about 1700 BC for reasons unknown and because its language remains undeciphered; its existence was revealed only in the midst of the 19th century (your text says the 1920s), and excavations have been limited.  Surviving evidence indicates a sophisticated civilization.  Cities like Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro (=the "City of the Dead") had populations of some 35,000, they were laid out according to grid system.  Inhabitants lived in windowless baked brick houses built around a central courtyard. These cities also had a citadel, where the public and religious buildings were located, large pools for ritual bathing, granaries for the storage of food, and a complex system of covered drains and sewers.  The latter rivaled the engineering skill of the Romans some 2,000 years later.

Street in Mohenjo-Daro with Covered Drain.

Little is known about Harappan political life.  Scholars suggest that the government was theocratic and that a conservative priesthood governed; the grid plan of their cities and other details suggest an authoritarian government.  In any case, change was not valued, and once Harappan civilization developed it did not progress.  Economic life was based on agriculture (wheat and barley), herding, and trade.  Harappans also wove cotton, worked metal, and made pots on the wheel. Surviving arts are few.  Stone and bronze statues were made, as were toys and small figures.  Stamp seals show humans and animals like the humped bull of India, probably those believed to be divine.

Scholars can only speculate on the causes of the decline of Harappan civilization.  Some argue either floods or a change in course of the Indus or both were responsible.  Others suggest it was destroyed by invading Aryans who roamed across the upper Indus about 1800 BC, though the civilization of the Aryans shows little borrowing from the Harappan.

Vedic Aryan Civilization, 1700-500 BC)

Sources:  1) Vedic Aryan civilization was a rural not an urban civilization and few material remains from it are extant; hence little in the form of archeological evidence; 2) no written documents that record this invasion.  3) In their absence:  the Vedas, a collective term for the ancient wisdom preserved in texts about rituals, priests, and speculations about the nature of the human and divine worlds and transmitted orally.  The earliest Vedas date from as early as 1700 BC, and the most important collection are the 1,028 Sanscrit hymns called the Rig Veda.

Character of the Aryan invasion:  The Aryans were semi-nomadic warriors who may have entered India about 1800 BC from modern-day Afghanistan by crossing passes in the Hindu Kush.  They settled in the Punjab and the Indus Valley.   With them came a new language, a new form of social organization, new military techniques, and new religious ideas and rituals.  According to the Vedas, centuries of warfare followed as the Aryans established themselves and then expanded, ultimately occupying the entire Indian sub-continent, thus providing the basis for modern Indian civilization.  The invading Aryans also mixed with Indus and other peoples living on the subcontinent and assimilated elements of earlier cultures.

Political and social order:  The Vedic Aryans were originally a nomadic and non-urban people, so it is hardly surprising that their basic political and social order was based on the patriarchical family and the grouping of related families into kin groups and tribes.  Early in the development of the social structure, there were probably only two Aryan social classes, nobles and commoners, and the Dasas, the original inhabitants. Over a long period of evolution, however, a more complex and rigid fourfold class or caste system (Varna) developed, and it was more or less in place by the 7th century BC:

  the Brahman (priestly) class
  the Kshatriya [=kuh-SHA-tree-yuhz] (warrior/noble) class
  the Vaishya [=VYSH-huhx] (commoner/herdsmen/tradesman) class
  the Shudra [SHOO-drah] (peasant/servant) class.

Nature of the caste system

1) hereditary and mixing across class boundaries was discouraged or banned (i.e. marriage or the social custom of drinking from the same cup)
2) characteristic employment
3) complex rules regarding food, water, touching and ritual purity
4) each caste had its dharma [=DAR-muh], or code of appropriate moral conduct

Only the first three participated fully in Aryan social, political, and religious life.  This fourfold class system had a lasting influence on the development of the later caste system with its some 3,000 hereditary castes.  There was also a large under-class of outcasts, the Untouchables who lived on the fringe of society and did jobs others found unworthy, such as serving as butchers or handling dead bodies.

Vedic Religion

Vedic religion was polytheistic and controlled by the priests who served the traditional military aristocracy.  Aryans gods were associated with the forms of nature.  Important deities include Dyaus Pitar, the father-god; Prithivi Matar, the mother-goddess of earth; Indra, the god of war and storm; Mitra, the moral god of faithfulness and loyalty;  the powerful Varuna, the god who guarded the cosmic order (the law of nature and the universal moral law or truth); Rudra, the awesome mountain god; Agni, the god of fire; and Soma, the god of the hallucinogenic soma plant and drink.  The main religious rite was sacrifice and requests for the good things of life; soma was also drunk to intensify the religious experience.  Over time, the sacrificial rituals performed out-of-doors became more and more complex.  The priest, as custodians of the rituals and the sacred words, became powerful and influential.


Results from a blending over time of the religious beliefs of the Indus Valley peoples and the Aryan invaders.  It is best thought of not as a single religion but as a family of related religions.

Religious Texts:

the Vedas, collections of hymns, prayers, explanations of religious rituals, and wisdom statements.

the later Upanishads [=oo-PAHN-i-shadz] (composed, ca. 8th-6th centuries BC), which are commentaries on the hymns of the Vedas and explanations of Vedic beliefs.  In them are found fundamental speculations about right and wrong, the universal order of the universe, and human destiny.

Two great epic poems, the Mahabharata [=muh-hah-BUR-uh-tuh] (composed ca. 400 BC-AD 400) and the Ramayana [=rah-MAH-yah-nuh].  The former, called the Great War, tells of a civil war near Delhi.  Its last eighteen chapters are the Bhagavad-Gita, or "Song of the Blessed Lord," and they assert that the performance of moral duty according to one's responsibilities is the highest form of fulfillment in life.  The  Ramayana tells of two royal figures, Prince Rama — an avatara or human incarnation of the god Vishnu — and his wife Princess Sita.  They embody the virtues and ideals of Indian manhood and womanhood; Rama is a strong hero and Sita is a devoted wife.

Lord Rama.

Nature of Hinduism:

1) Brahman = a fundamental divine essence of world spirit that penetrates everything in the world.  This spirit resides within every living thing and everything is a part of the world spirit;

2) Atman = the self, describes the essence of an individual; Atman partakes of the divine essence;

3) Maya = this world, the world of the senses, the world of pain and suffering, and it is an illusion.

The goal of a Hindu is thus to return to Brahman and be reintegrated with the world spirit.  The process of return involves a long process of purification, and a series of reincarnations (samsara); the soul, hence, does not die with the body, it just enters another body, perhaps of a human being or some other form or creature.

Important within the idea of reincarnation are the concepts of Dharma and Karma.  Dharma refers to the fulfillment of an individual's appropriate moral duty in this lifetime (based on his/her caste) so that the soul can avoid punishment in the next life.  Karma [=deeds] is the sum total of the good and bad acts of the individual's previous lives.  Good karma, in the Hindu belief system, assures rebirth into a higher caste and higher life; bad karma means rebirth into the body of a person of a lower caste or insects.  All creatures and things on the earth have souls, so all life must be respected.  The final goal of this series of reincarnations is reunification with Brahman, the Great World Soul.

Hindus assert their religion is monotheistic, even though they honor a number of gods, including Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva [=SHEE-vuh] the Destroyer.  Hindus claim these various gods are all manifestations of the oneness of the universe.  Hindu religious practices vary from place to place, but they frequently include yoga, physical and mental discipline to harmonize body and soul, and ritual bathing.

Brahma the Creator.


Founder:  Siddhartha Gautama [=GAW-tuh-muh] (c. 563-483 BC), a northern Indian aristocrat who was troubled by questions concerning the meaning of life and the existence of suffering and death in the world.  In his late twenties, Gautama then abandoned his wife and family and a cloistered life of luxury and set out to seek answers to his questions using the traditional Hindu methods of self-denial and meditation.  His quest lasted six years and involved philosophic meditation and the most extreme forms of asceticism, or bodily self denial.  Then while seated under a sacred fig tree, he had a moment of illumination in which he understood the reasons behind human suffering and a means to overcome them.  At this moment, he became Buddha, or "the Enlightened One."  Having achieved this state of enlightenment, Buddha then became an itinerant teacher in the north of India.  Within a brief period of time, he had a large body of converts.

The Buddha.

Character of Buddhism:

Buddha accepted much of traditional Hinduism, including the premise that the progress of the soul towards salvation depends on the sort of life a person leads and that good is rewarded and evil punished.

He also taught the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path to Nirvana.  The Four Noble Truths are:  1) Sorrow and suffering must be endured by all; 2) suffering and sorrow result from the greedy desire for pleasure and possessions which people cannot have; 3) escape from such suffering and sorrow is achieved by giving up such desires and by reaching a state of mind of "not wanting;" and 4) reaching a state of enlightenment and perfect peace called nirvana by following the Middle Way (the avoidance of worldly pleasure and extreme asceticism), or the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path is a series of guides to correct behavior and thought.  The Path consists of:  right views, or insight into the nature of life; right intentions; right speech (avoiding lying and gossip); right action (being honest and avoiding crime); right living (the avoidance of harm to others); right effort (the prevention of evil); right mindfulness (the awareness of one's self); and right concentration to direct the mind in meditation.

Buddhism is thus an ethical and humanistic religion.  It has a code of conduct, and it is egalitarian in the sense that it open to people of all castes; it is also individualistic.  It does not emphasize the performance of ceremonial rituals; there are no deities; and one could attain enlightenment within one lifetime and thus escape the cycle of reincarnation.  During his lifetime, the Buddha and his followers spread his message widely, establishing Buddhist communities and monasteries.  These soon became important pilgrimage sites, centers of learning, and shelters for the sick and aged.

Differences over beliefs and practices produced a split within Buddhism about 100 BC, and a number of different schools of Buddhist thought developed.  One of the two most important is Hinayana [=HEE-nuh-yahn-uh] or Theravada [=thehr-uh-VAH-duh], the more traditional of the two schools, and it viewed Buddha as a teacher who had presented a set of guidelines for life.  This "southern Buddhism" eventually spread into Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia.  The second school, the Mahayana [=MAH-huh-yahn-uh], considered Buddha as a god and savior.  Adherents of this "northern Buddhism," which spread to Afghanistan, central Asia, China, Korea, and Japan, turned it into a formal religion, complete with priests, temples, statues, creeds, and rituals.  One of its central concepts was the replacement of Nirvana as the highest goal with that of the enlightened status of a self-less bodhisattva, a "Buddha-to-be," who would help others attain Nirvana.

Within India itself, Buddhism had a curious history.  In the third century BC, King Ashoka made it the state religion.  But, the Brahmans opposed it, for Buddhism, by abandoning elaborate rituals and by opening salvation to all without outside assistance, threatened their position.  Over time, many Buddhist teachings and attitudes were incorporated into Hinduism, and Buddhism more or less disappeared as a separate faith.

 The Indian Sub-continent
 (1st-6th Centuries)
Western Indian (5th-4th centuries BC)

Persian influence:  Persians expanded eastward; built great cities and cultural centers; these help Persian civilization and culture spread into the India sub-continent.

Alexander the Great and the Macedonians:  Alexander reached the Indus early in the 4th century, but soon had to withdraw; nevertheless, the Greeks brought Hellenic culture with them and established cities; these too had a last influence on the Indian sub-continent, particular with with regard to art and architecture.

Maurya Empire (322-185 BC)

Chandragupta Maurya [=chuhn-druh-GOOPH-tuh MAWR-yah] began in 322 BC establishing a great empire in northern India and the lands abandoned by Alexander the Great.

Map of the Mauryan Empire.

1) the  Mauryan Empire included all of present-day northern India and much of modern Afghanistan.
2) As an emperor holding supreme power, Chandragupta established a strong central government, governed with the aid of  paid officials, and defended his kingdom with an army of 600,000-700,000 men.  Some argue that he learned the arts of war and government from Alexander's Macedonians.
3) established a capital of Pataliputra was located at the confluence of the Ganges and the Son rivers, and it was described by contemporary observers as having long wooden walls, towers, gates, and a moat.  Within were grand palaces and other buildings.
4) According to legend, Chandragupta retired from the throne after ruling for twenty-four years, passed it to his son, and became a monk and starved himself to death.

His grandson, Asoka [=ah-SHOH-kuh], came to the throne about 270 BC.

1)  Almost immediately, he launched a campaign to capture the south of India.  Eventually, his empire included Afghanistan as well as northern and central India.
2)  Laws and pronoucements were carved on massive stone pillars.  Asoka proclaimed:  "I consider that my duty is the good of the whole country."  Or:  "There is no better work than promoting the welfare of the whole world.  Whatever may be my great deeds, I have done them in order to discharge my debt to all beings." (Sixth Major Rock Edict; from Penguin Encyclopedia, 187).

Lion Capital of Sarnath (Ashokan).

3) He had, however, been sickened by the slaughter, leading him to adopt Buddhism and renounce violence.  He then helped Buddhism spread throughout India, and he sent missionaries to spread the faith throughout Asia and the Middle East.  His great historical legacies then were the dissemination of Buddhism and the creation of the idea of an Indian empire.

The Sanchi Stupa (3rd century BC).

Following the death of Asoka in 232 BCE, the Mauryan Empire began to crumble.  The last Maurya ruler was assassinated in 185 BCE, and northern India fell into the hands of foreign rulers.

Fragmentation and Disorder (2nd century BC - AD 4th century)

1) Numerous invaders poured in, the most important coming from Central Asia and the Middle East.
2) Although they failed to establish lasting kingdoms or empire, they linked India with distant lands, thus stimulating the development of trade and the interchange of culture.
3) Buddhism spread outwards, while elements of Greek, Persian, and Asian cultures were brought in.  Even the Christian religion arrived, if any old legend can be believed, in the first century AD.
4) There was also considerable contact with the Roman Empire, mainly trade in spices, cloth, and luxury items.
Gupta Empire (AD 320-6th century)

The Guptas came to power in AD 320.  Over time, they came to rule much of India north of the Deccan Plain.

Map of the Gupta Empire.

1) The Guptas favored Hinduism, because it stressed the gods.  Buddhism accordingly declined in India, while Hinduism, now somewhat influenced by Buddhism, became the dominant religion, a status it holds today.
2) Renewed emphasis was also placed on the caste system.
3) Over all, the Gupta rulers provided a period of peace, prosperity, and culture flowering during the fourth and fifth centuries AD.  Because of achievements in the arts, literature, and philosophy, this period is called India's Classical Age.  Literature was written in Sanskrit, the Indian literary language.  One important work was the Panchatantra [=pahn-chah-TAN-trah], a collection of 87 moralistic fables which spread over the Middle East and ultimately reached Europe.
4) Near the middle of the sixth century AD, attacks on the Gupta Empire by the Huns severely weakened it.  The central government declined, and power passed to local lords.  Northern India became a patchwork of small states and kingdoms, much as was Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Conclusion: Basic Pattern of Indian Civilization:

This account of the period between the sixth century BCE and the sixth century AD illustrates the fundamental pattern of Indian history.

1) Brief periods of political unity, such as the reigns of the three Mauryan emperors
2) Long periods of fragmentation and disunity.
3) Hence, for much of India's history, unity has come from culture rather than politics.  There is greater loyalty to the social order and the caste system than to any one political institution.  Culture is accordingly both a unifying and a divisive force.

Early Chinese Civilization

Chinese civilization may be the oldest continuous one in world history, and it has a number of enduring characteristics.

1)  The uniqueness and distinctiveness of Chinese civilization is due at least in part to geography.  It is location at the eastern end of Eurasia and is bounded by mountains, deserts, and steppes.  To the north is Siberia, and to the east is the Pacific Ocean.


2)  Further characteristic of Chinese civilization has been its ability to have less civilized invaders who then absorbed Chinese culture and the language rather than the other way around, as was frequently the case in India.

3)  Also important was the secular nature of Chinese civilization; it never produced a priestly class that had an important political role.

4)  In addition, Chinese culture stresses the social rather than the individual life of human beings, thus emphasizing, as we will see in our discussion of Confucianism, the importance of relations between members of a family or between subject and king.

5)  Finally, again as we shall see, the Chinese invented (thousands of years before other nations) a unique and stabilizing institution—a civil service recruited by means of public competitive examinations—that lasted into the twentieth century.

Hence, unlike the discontinuities and fragmentation of Indian civilization, Chinese civilization is characterized by cultural as well as political cohesion and continuity.

Neolithic China:  Early neolithic agricultural villages appeared in China’s Yellow River Valley about 4,000BC.  Others developed along other rivers like the Huai and the Yangtze.  The earliest crop was millet, followed by millet, rice, wheat, cabbage, and soybeans, among others.  Early Chinese also domesticated animals, made pots for the storage of grain and liquids, and owned weapons.  Little is known about religious beliefs or practices, although it is thought that ancestor worship was important.  The Urban Revolution (with the invention of civilizations similar to those in the Indus, Tigris-Euphrates, and Nile valleys) may have occurred about 2,000 BC, but the details are sketchy, largely because extensive archeological excavations have not been undertaken.

Early Chinese history is traditionally divided into three dynasties:

1)  the Hsia [=SHEE-uh] (ca. 2205-1766 BC);
2)  the Shang (ca. 1766-1050BC);
3)  the Chou (ca. 1050-256BC).

Until the 20th century, most historians assumed the first two were mythical, but the discovery of Shang cities has forced a re-evaluation and the suggestion the Hsia may also be real; its legendary founder is named Yu the Great.  Nonetheless, little is known about it, except for legends describing the cruelty of the Hsia princes.

The Shang Dynasty (ca. 1766-1050):  The Hsia Dynasty was overthrown by members of the Shang family led by the perhaps mythical king T’ang, who according to early records was called upon by Heaven to oust the Hsia rulers.  Located near the Yellow River, Shang civilization centered on great city-states like the capital Anyang [=AHN-YAHNG], which was founded by P’an Keng in 1384 BC and consisted of a walled city surrounded by Neolithic agricultural villages.  Characteristics of Shang civilization:  1) Political, economic, social, and religious power belonged to the king, who with the nobility lived in the fortified cities.  2) Armies were composed of aristocrats who fought in horse-drawn chariots and foot soldiers; armies were around 4,000 troops and were equipped with bronze weapons.  3) The Shang had a complex system of writing (pictographs = picture of the item referred to; ideographs = two or more pictographs; logograph = pictograph or ideograph to provide meaning and a pronunciation key), and it has been preserved on bronzes and oracle bones, which contain the question asked (i.e. Which ancestor is causing the king’s ear to ache?), the answer, and the eventual outcome.

Shang Oracle Bone.

 4) Shang religion combined animism and ancestor worship.  They believed, for example, in the existence of a kindly and all-powerful dragon, who lived in the rivers and seas and who rise into the heavens.  They also had a supreme “Diety Above” who was served by a court of lesser natural gods.  The gods were not worshiped directly but through the intermediary of ancestors, and reverence for one’s parents and ancestors was of paramount importance.  Religion was associated with cosmology, and the movements of the planets and stars was recorded.  Important for an agricultural people was a calendar.  The Shang calendar had 30 day months and a 360 day years; extra days were added as needed to correct the calendar.  5)  The Shang were masters of bronze technology; it was used for weapons, armor, and ceremonial vessels.

Shang bronze wine jar.

 6)  As Shang society developed, a rigid stratification system was introduced.  At the top were the king, his court officials, and warriors; at the bottom were masses of artisans, agricultural workers, and slaves who did the needed manual labor like building city walls -- those of one city required the labor of 10,000 men for 18 years.  Evidence for the lowly status of those at the bottom is provided by Shang royal tombs; some were filled with the bodies of the king’s slaves and servants, all sacrificed to accompany their master for eternity; one royal tomb at Anyang contains the remains of fifty-two animals and seventy-nine humans.

The Chou Dynasty (ca. 1050-256 BC):  The third of the early Chinese dynasties, the Chou [=JOH] dynasty originated along the Wei River, a tributary of the Yellow River.  Its history is divided into two major periods, that of the Western (ca. 1050-771 BC) and that of the Eastern Chou (771-256 BC).  A less civilized but more warlike people, they conquered the neighboring Shang about 1050 BC, perhaps because they had tired of paying tribute, perhaps because of the wickedness of the last Shang king, one Chou Hsin.

Characteristics:  1) They then adopted and preserved the main features of Shang civilization, including their writing system, the practice of ancestor worship, divination by the reading of oracle bones, and the division of society into two major groups, peasants and an aristocratic warrior class.  2)  One innovation was the concept of the Mandate of Heaven—the approval of the gods to govern—, which gave the Chou kings political legitimacy and which justified the overthrow of the Shang Dynasty.  They claimed that the Shang had once had it, but that it had been withdrawn because of the wickedness of the last Shang king; it therefore passed to the Chou kings.  This basic idea survived into the 20th century.  3)  Government:  Because of the size of their lands, the Chou rulers set up a feudalistic system.  Trusted royal family members and military leaders were granted land in exchange for loyal and military service to the ruler and protection for the people living on the land.  Over time, some of these lords built city-states and grew very powerful , and they fought with each other or power, wealth, and land, and they weakened the role of the king.  The Western Chou state ended in 771 BC when it was overrun by barbarians.  Survivors escaped to Loyang on the Yellow River, where the Eastern Chou state was established, but Chou power had been broken and the authority of the central government declined.  There followed the Spring and Autumn period (722-481 BC) and the Warring States period (481-221 BC) during which a large number of city-states made alliances for self-defense and fought each other.  Over time, eight or nine of these city-states became more powerful and attempted to conquer the others.  The Mandate of Heaven, however, remained with powerless Chou rulers until they were replaced by the Ch’in Dynasty, who united China in 221 BC.  4)  Great intellectual flowering with the development of Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism, which we will discuss later.

The Ch’in Dynasty (221-202 BC):  The weak Chou Dynasty ended in 221 BCE and was replaced by the short-lived Ch’in, which ended the feudal period and created a great centralized empire.  Historians consider this an event equal in importance to the revolution in 1911 that ended the empire and the communist take-over in 1949.  The ambitious and ruthless Ch’in rulers attained power by using cavalry armed with bows and arrows and iron rather than bronze weapons, military techniques unfamiliar to the Chinese.  The Ch’in (source of the modern word Chinese) built Xianyang or Hsienyang [= SHEE-EN-YAHNG] on the Wei He River as their capital, and from there, they ruled an empire larger than that of any previous ruler.  Their first great emperor, Shi Huangdi, also expanded the empire to the south, reaching the delta of the Xi Jiang River.  In the few years of Ch’in rule, China was unified an empire for the first time and given a strong central government and a bureaucratic form of government that served as a model for Chinese political organization down to the twentieth centuries.

The Emperor Shi Huangdi.

The Ch'in Dynasty.

1)  Government:  Control over this vast territory was achieved by abolishing feudal fiefs, by ending the independence of the city-states, by disarming their armies, and by dividing the empire into military districts administered by governors appointed and responsible to the central government.  Here are the origins of the Chinese version of bureaucratic government.  2)  The Ch’in also standardized weights and measures, established a system of coinage.  3)  They made uniform the system of writing by introducing a standardized script.  This script could be read by educated Chinese, even if they spoke a local dialect.  4) Likewise, they replaced a patchwork quilt of local laws with a uniform system and imposed a single tax system.  The Ch’in legal system was based on the Philosophy of Legalism.  It stated that people were evil and selfish at heart and had therefore to be controlled by strict laws imposed by a powerful state and absolutist ruler.  5)  Aware that communication was key to governing an empire, the Ch’in built a national network of standardized highways.  Such measures, as we have seen in the case of the Persian Empire and as we will see in the case of the Roman, were necessary for the control of any empire.  6)  To protect their empire against invaders from the west, they began connecting existing walls in 214 BC to complete the massive Great Wall of China.  It extended from some 1500 miles from Gansu [=GAHN-SOO] to the sea; it was 25 feet high and 15 feet wide, with a road that permitted soldiers to move rapidly.  According to some reports, 1,000,000 workers died while working on the Great Wall.

Two images of the Great Wall of China.

 The government of Shi Huangdi was harsh, and he sought to control thought, by banning private ownership of books and by execution if necessary.  He tried but failed to eradicate traditional Chinese culture by burning all but texts on Legalism and utilitarian books, like works on medicine, divination, and agriculture.  He also earned the hatred of his people.  In addition, the tax burden on the peasants was extremely heavy.

Terra-cotta Soldiers from the Tomb of Shi Huangdi.

A Soldier and his Horse from the Tomb of Shi Huangdi.

Such discontent allowed Liu Bang [=LEE-OO BAHNG], a general who had risen from the peasantry, to overthrow the Ch’in in 207 BCE and found the Han Dynasty.  Despite it brief appearance on the stage of history, the Ch’in Dynasty created the foundations of the centralized Chinese empire that lasted until the early twentieth century.

The Chinese Dynastic Cycle:  The rapid rise and collapse of the Ch’in Dynasty illustrates some of the constant features of Chinese history.  1)  Rebellions by ambitious lords and discontent peasants were common, as were barbarian invasions and natural disasters.  These factors contributed to the creation of a regular pattern of rising and falling dynasties.  2)  The advent of a new dynasty usually inaugurated a period of optimism, peace, and prosperity.  Because the new ruler was believed to hold the Mandate of Heaven, people were supportive, and the government lavished money on public works projects, such as walls, canals, and roads.  3)  Soon, however, the quality of government declined, corrupt and greedy men began to hold office, more funds were needed for defense, taxes rose, infrastructure went unrepaired, and floods, invasions, and famine became common.  4)  When the quality of life had declined beyond the point of toleration, the peasants rebelled, asserting that the Mandate of Heaven had been withdrawn.  Local nobles took the opportunity to seize power and tax revenues declined.  5)  Eventually the old dynasty fell and was replaced by a new one.  Then the dynastic cycle started over.  Nonetheless, the greater continuity of Chinese civilization discussed in the introduction was maintained.

The Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220)

The emperors of the Han Dynasty established a centralized government, but wisely avoided many of the brutal excesses of the Ch’in, and their rule lasted from 202 BC to AD 220, roughly the time span of the Roman Empire.

The Han Dynasty.

As the first emperor, Liu Bang became Gao Zu (also Han Kao-tzu) [=KOW DZOO] and the capital Chang'an [=CHAHNG AHN], the present-day Xi’an [=SHEE AHN], was located in the Wei River Valley.  1)  Expansion:  Successive emperors, especially Wu Di [=WOO DEE] (ruled 140-87 BC], expanded the empire to the south into Indochina and to the north into Korea and Manchuria; campaigns were also launched against the Huns and into Central Asia.  The expeditions against the Huns were probably defensive in nature.  In AD 1, the population was probably about sixty million.  2)  Government and the Civil Service:  An empire the size of the Han required a bureaucracy of educated and dedicated civil servants, who were charged with the collection of revenue and defense against enemies foreign as well as domestic.  The Han emperors accordingly drew on the work of their Ch’in predecessors and established a competitive civil service system in the second century BC.  The idea originated with Confucius, who thought civil servants should be educated and virtuous, a sort of scholar-official.  The difficult entrance examinations, first given in 130 BC during the reign of the emperor Wu-ti, tested a candidate’s knowledge of the Chinese classics of law and literature; the regular examination system was established after AD 600.  In theory, anyone could take the examinations.  In practice, it was the sons of wealthy landowners who did so, for others could not afford the necessary education.  3)  Education and the University:  To prepare candidates for these examination, the Imperial University was founded in 124 BC, with a curriculum based upon the Chinese classics:  the I Ching (Book of Changes -- foretelling the future); the Shu Ching (Book of Documents -- documents relating to government and politics); the Shih Ching (Book of Odes -- songs on love, joy, etc); Ch'un Ch'iu (Spring and Autumn Annals -- history of the city state of Lu); the Li Chi (Book of Rites); the Chou Li (Book of Ceremonial Usage); and the I Li (Book of Ceremonies).  These examinations remained in place until the early twentieth century.  They ensured that the bureaucracy was recruited on the basis of merit, while also making sure that it was conservative and elitist.

4)  The reign of Wu Di (141-87 BC) was also notable for the opening of the famous Silk Road, which made trade possible between China and the Mediterranean world and the Roman world.

The Chinese Silk Road.

Caravans of camels carried silk, jade, and other goods from Chang’an to Antioch, a journey of 4,000 miles.  Also opened were sea routes around India.  Silk was particularly prized, since no other people knew how to raise silkworms and to weave cloth from the worm’s fibers. The caravans returned with glass and amber, as well as wool and linen cloth for the markets of Chang’an.  Its population reached 250,00, and it was filled with palaces and magnificent avenues, not to mention shops.  5)  Other cultural achievements of the Han Dynasty included paper making and the manufacture of porcelain, what we call “china”.

6)  But soon the wheel of the dynastic cycle turned down.  The central government weakened, revenues declined and taxes rose, the peasants rebelled, and political influence peddling sapped the civil service.  As the authority of the central government waned, warlords with private armies established themselves and further undermined the central government.  In AD 220, the Han Dynasty split into three kingdoms, and periods called the Age of the Three Kingdoms (AD 220-280), or the Age of Disunity (AD 280-589), ensued.  Nomadic tribes raided China, bringing constant warfare and great hardship.  In this regard, third-century China would resemble fifth-century Rome.  Nevertheless the achievements in thought, politics, and culture accomplished during the reign of the Han endured.

Chinese Thought: Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism

The Chou Dynasty (1050-256 BC), especially the Warring States period, witnessed remarkable creativity in Chinese intellectual life.  It is called the time of the Hundred Schools.  The political, social, and economic challenges confronting the Chinese state and Chinese society stimulated the production of new ideas and theories.  Some, like Sun Wu wrote about such matters as The Art of War.  But, the most noteworthy is Confucius; other school of thought are Daoism and Legalism.  These thinkers are the contemporaries as well as the intellectual equals of the Hebrew prophets, the Greek philosophers, and a number of religious teachers in India.

Confucius (ca 551-478 BC) is considered China’s greatest thinker and teacher, and his ideas have influenced Chinese beliefs and styles of living to the present time.


His numerous followers collected his ideas in a book called the Analects.  1)  Confucius was not a religious thinker, but a teacher, and he rarely concerned himself with questions concerning the gods, the soul, the meaning of life, or the afterlife.  “I stand in awe of the spirits,” he said, “but keep them at a distance.” (Penguin Encyclopedia, 295)  2) Rather, he was interested in the matter of civic morality, which deals with how people should live and behave in their daily relationships with others, and in good government.  Confucius was reported to have said:

They [the Taoists] dislike me because I want to reform society, but if we are not to live with our fellow men, with whom can we live?  We cannot live with animals.  If society was as it ought to be, I would not be seeking change.  (Penguin Encyclopedia, 295)
Despite his ambitions and his learning, he never held an important public office, perhaps because he would not flatter or intrigue.  This, however, did not stop him from advising others.  3)  According to Confucius, there are five fundamental social relationships:  ruler and subjects, father and son, husband and wife, older and younger brothers, members of a community.  Two observations about this list may be made.  Three of these five deal with the family, which Confucius considered of fundamental importance.  And, in the first four, the relationship is between superior, who is worthy of respect and obedience, and one who is inferior.  Additional key concepts include respect for one’s elders and for the past and one’s ancestors.  4)  Above all, Confucius argued, persons in a position of superiority were to set a good example of moral behavior.  Thus, just as a father was responsible for the good behavior of his children, so the ruler of state was responsible for the good behavior of his officials and subjects.

5)  Confucius had many disciples who clarified and codified his thought.  One of the most important was Mencius (c. 372-c.289 BC).  He argued that human nature was originally good and therefore each person had the potential for acting morally in social settings.  In addition, he insisted that the state was a moral institution and that the ruler had to exemplify moral behavior and create a climate in which high moral standards were expected of all.  When such was the case, a golden age or peace and harmony resulted.  In the instance when a ruler did not exemplify moral behavior, then he had lost the Mandate of Heaven, and the people have the right to overthrow him.  Over the following centuries, other scholars transformed the teachings of Confucius into a school of though, Confucianism, which became China’s official ideology.  It stressed proper conduct, a virtuous life, and humanity, all of which can be learned from the study of history and the classics.


Taoism [=DOW-iz-um], the second most important Chinese philosophy and the complement to Confucianism, has been attributed to the possibly legendary Lao Tzu, the Old Philosopher, who may have lived is the sixth century BC.  1)  The central work of Taoism is the Tao Te Ching or The Way of Virtue, an enigmatic poem of about five thousand words.  According to Lao Tzu: “Those who know don’t tell, and those who tell don’t know.”  (Penguin Encyclopedia, 295)  Much of the teaching of the Taoist masters was done using fables or anecdotes.  2)  The word Tao itself means of the “Way” or the “Way of Nature,” and it is an incomprehensible and indescribable force that governs the universe and nature; it can only be sensed or felt.  According to Taoism, people should withdraw from acting in the world and contemplate nature and only then would they understand the Tao and live simply and in harmony with it.  “The wise man keeps to the deed that consists in taking no action and practices the teaching that uses no words.” (Penguin Encyclopedia, 295)  3)  People should abandon the pursuit of wealth, learning or political power and be, instead, quiet, thoughtful, and humble.  In the words of Lao Tzu, “He who overcomes others is strong; he who overcomes himself is mighty.”  4)  Taoism appealed to peasants because of its emphasis on nature, to artists and poets because it encouraged artistic expression as a way of understanding nature, and some Confucianists because it balanced the Confucian emphasis on politics.


Legalism was a Machiavellian school of political philosophy that began with the premise that people were by nature evil, selfish, and untrustworthy.  1)  Among its principal thinkers was Lord Shang and Han Fei.  2)  Thinkers of this school also argued that people were motived primarily by greed and fear.  3)  This being the case, it was then necessary to have a wealthy and powerful state with an absolute ruler who would control the unruly people with harsh laws and cruel punishments.  According to Han Fei: “If the laws are weak, so is the kingdom.” Or: “The ruler alone should possess the power, wielding it like lightning or like thunder.” (Penguin Encyclopedia, 294)  The emphasis on laws gave this school of thought its name.  4)  Not surprisingly, Legalism appealed to rulers and  pragmatic people who held public office and who confronted the day-to-day problems of administration.  5) Legalists also thought the primary ocupations for the people should be agriculture and war.  According to the Book of Lord Shang, written by Shang Yang (d. 338 BC): “A country that directed itself to these two ends [agriculture and war] would not have to wait long before it established hegemony or even complete mastery over all other states.”  6) Legalists also had little use for formal education, fearing that the study of history or the classics or philosophy would teach people to think and make them discontent and rebellious.  The cynical realism of the Legalists lacked the moral and spiritual qualities of Confucianism and Taoism.

Society and Culture during the Chou, Ch’in, and Han Dynasties

1) Family:  The family, not the individual, was the most important unity in ancient China.  Fundamental to Chinese society and culture was the Confician concept that the health of the family was the key to the welfare of the state.  Values associated with a healthy family life were reverence for members of the family, respect for age, and the acceptance of decisions made by those superior-were the same values that governed the state and shaped social and cultural life, including the economy, education, literature, and science.

One’s position in society depended on that of his family, not upon wealth of individual achievements.  Families were extended families, consisting of husband, wife, the sons and their families, and unmarried daughters, and they generally lived together.  Authority in the family belonged to the father, just as authority in the state belonged to the emperor.  Education was the responsibility of the family, not the state, and the more prosperous families hired tutors.  Educational opportunities were accordingly limited, and as late as 1900 some 95% of the population was illiterate.  Fathers arranged the marriages of children, controlled the amount of education any one child received, and usually chose careers for sons.  Women occupied a subordinate position, and they were unable to own property.  Once they had children, however, they gained status in the household.  Important within the Chinese family was ancestor worship.  Families kept careful genealogies, and shrines were erected for the worship of ancestors as links between the past, present, and future.

2)  Social Structure:  The basic elements of the Chinese social structure were recognized and named during the Warring States period.  First were the shih, the class made up of the lesser nobility, i.e. gentry, knights, and scholars; second came the nung, the peasant farmers; third were the kung, the artisans, and last were the shang, the merchant class.  The low status accorded merchants became a prevailing theme in Chinese history.

Text ©Robert W. Brown

This Page is Maintained by Robert W. Brown;
Last Update: 09.II.2005

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