“China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795” ed. Evelyn S. Rawski & Jessica Rawson (Part 2)

I’m now into the “pretty pictures” section of this book – the photographs of the items that were in the exhibition. Obviously I can’t put those in a blog post, but each section is introduced with a short essay and I discuss the first four of those below.

“Images of Imperial Grandeur” Jan Stuart

This short essay introduces the pictures of the official imperial portraits and court clothes of the type worn in the images. The formal portraits are all of a type: the subject is sitting on a throne facing forwards, dressed in elaborate yellow & blue court clothes with a red hat, there are no background objects. The faces are painted realistically but the expression is always serene. I think they look more like icons of monarchy rather than pictures of people, if that makes sense.

Stuart explains that these formal portraits were not for public viewing, they were only seen by the elite and were an important part of rituals both while the subject was alive and afterwards as part of ancestor worship. Apparently until the 20th Century it was actually a crime for a commoner to own an image of a former or current ruler. I’m not sure from the essay if that was just these formal portraits or if it was all images.

The history of these types of portraits goes back as far as the Han Dynasty (post), but the Song Dynasty (post) is when the style and ritual usage was fully developed. There are aesthetic differences thereafter but they’re relatively minor. At first portraits were only used in Buddhist & Daoist rituals but gradually during the Song Dynasty they came to be used in Confucian rituals as well. The initial reluctance for using them was down to a fear that inevitable imperfections in the portrait might redirect the ritual to the wrong person.

“Qing Dynasty Court Painting” Nie Chongzheng

This essay talks about the formal court paintings which recorded events and decorated the palaces & temples that the emperors used. It’s a little confused in that first it says that there wasn’t much difference in subject matter between the Qing & the Ming Dynasty paintings of this type, and then goes on to explain how it was different in the Qing Dynasty. Presumably what Chongzheng meant is that the details are different but the broad categories are the same? It doesn’t read like that though. The major difference in subject matter is that the Qing paintings have fewer historical themes and more emphasis on current events. Chongzheng suggests this is due to the conquering origins of the dynasty – the historical figures & events are not Qing history, so they preferred to emphasise stuff that was them.

There were changes in the status of court painters during the Qianlong Emperor’s reign – they gained titles that reflected a higher position in the court. The style of the paintings also changed, and incorporated European stylistic elements. As well as Chinese court painters there were several European court painters (mostly Jesuits). This brought vanishing point perspective to landscapes and more realism to portraits. Oil painting techniques were also brought to China by these Europeans, although not many oil paintings have survived from this era of the Chinese court. Another innovation in this era was informal portraits of the Emperors & their families, as well as the formal portraits discussed in the previous essay.

One problem with seeing these paintings in a book rather than in the flesh is that they are reproduced in quite a small size. So you get a sense of the whole scene but the details are lost. But they do reproduce some bits in a larger size, so you get a little bit of a feel for it. Some of these paintings are enormous and must’ve taken a lot of time to produce. Picking one at random to give the dimensions – “The Kangxi Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll Eleven: Nanjing to Jinshan” is a silk handscroll that is 67.8cm tall and 2612cm long. It tells a story, you see the fleet sailing along the coast, then a procession on horseback going to a palace in the mountains. From the detail section they show in the book you can see each boat has a complement of courtiers & sailors and the decoration on the boats is all shown, from the long-ish section that’s reproduced in a small size (about half the scroll I think) you can see there are tens of boats, with hundreds of tiny figures on the boats & on land. The landscape & sea are also painted in (not quite realistic) detail.

“Ritual” Patricia Berger and Yuan Hongqi

The Qing Dynasty continued the state rituals of the Chinese state as a legitimisation of their rule. This essay divides the rituals into two sorts. The first of these is the sacrifices to Heaven, agriculture & silk. There was a calendar of such events through the year, and these rituals had to be carried out precisely, using ritual equipment of the right form and all the proper obeisances. These were pretty strenuous – apparently towards the end of his reign the Qianlong Emperor delegated his ritual responsibilities to his sons because he was no longer sure he was physically capable of getting the ritual right.

The second sort of ritual was the sacrifices to the ancestors of the Qing Emperors. These followed the tradition established by the Zhou Dynasty (post), and came in three sorts – shi xiang (seasonal offerings), gao ji (declaration offerings) & jian xin (offerings of fresh seasonal produce). They all involved ritual offerings of food and drink in ceremonial vessels whose shapes were based on bronzes from the Shang Dynasty era even if now they were more often made in porcelain or lacquer.

This section of the book has pictures of several of the ritual vessels. There are also ritual clothes, bells and a court painting showing a ritual taking place.

“Religion” Patricia Berger

The previous essay was about the Confucian rituals, which aren’t really religious per se tho given it includes a belief in Heaven that strikes me as a very technical distinction. But this essay is about religions that regard themselves as religions.

Berger starts off by discussing the Manchu shamanistic faith, which was in some senses invented during the period of the three Emperors covered in this book. Prior to the 1630s the Manchus were not a united people, and in the early years of the Qing origin myths and a Manchu cultural identity was developed, of which shamanism was a part. The shamanistic rituals developed formed part of the ritual calendar from 1644 onwards, and were eventually codified by the Qianlong Emperor.

The Qing Emperors also amalgamated other religion’s rituals into their observances. Berger says that this was seen as a means of controlling their newly conquered territories via their own cultural practices. (Although she doesn’t state it, this must surely be why they embraced the Chinese Confucian rituals as well.) So as well as Confucian rituals of the state, Manchu shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism, the Qing Emperors also promoted other religions including Daoism, Islam & Christianity.

Tibetan Buddhism had particular support. Berger sets out the political path towards this status, including the Great Fifth Dalai Lama recognising the Qing Emperors as boddhisvattas destined to rule over a unified China, Tibet & Mongolian empire (you can see why this would appeal …). But she also notes that the Kangxi Emperor & the Qianlong Emperor seem to’ve been personally inclined towards Buddhism.

Most of the art in this section of the book is Buddhist, and interestingly it doesn’t look “chinese” to my (uneducated) eyes. It looks more Indian, which would make a certain amount of sense.

“China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795” ed. Evelyn S. Rawski & Jessica Rawson (Part 1)

This is the catalogue for an exhibition of the same name that ran at the Royal Academy of Arts in London from November 2005 to April 2006. I didn’t go to see it myself, but I’ve borrowed the book from my Dad who did. A lot of the book (as befits an exhibition catalogue) is full of pictures of the objects that were displayed. It starts with three general essays, then each section of objects has some introductory text. It also has a map of China, and of the Forbidden Palace. And a chronology which covers both the major events in China of this period and puts them in context with the rest of the world. So far I’ve read the general essays, so that’s what this post is about. The first essay is about the history of the period & is the one I was most interested in. The second is about the imperial art collection, and the third (and least interesting to me) is about the architecture of the palaces of these Emperors.

The Three Emperors of the title of the book are the Kangxi Emperor, the Yongzheng Emperor and the Qianlong Emperor who were the 2nd to 4th Emperors of the Manchu Qing Dynasty. This was the last Dynasty to rule Imperial China, and they held power from 1644 through to 1911. These three Emperors are the high point of Qing China. Previous post about this era of Chinese history: 7th part of “China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed”.

Orientation Dates:

  • 1649: Charles I beheaded.
  • 1688: Glorious Revolution (i.e. William & Mary take the throne of Britain).
  • 1714: George I took the throne of Britain.
  • 1720: South Sea Bubble (post).
  • c. 1760: Industrial Revolution begins in Britain.
  • 1776: US independence declared.

“The ‘Prosperous Age’: China in the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Reigns” Evelyn S. Rawski

This essay covers the history of the period, and also looks at the way it has been discussed and summarised by historians both inside and outside modern China. Rawski starts by reminding the reader that the Qing dynasty were outsiders who conquered China, and that they regarded themselves as different from their Han Chinese subjects in China Proper (which is the name used for the area that the Ming Dynasty ruled over). They created a writing system for their Manchu language, and this was an official state language alongside Chinese. They regarded their subjects as divided into Han Chinese civilians and Bannermen (and citizens of the non-China Proper regions), and there were different political institutions involved in ruling over the two sorts of people. The people of China Proper were still ruled via the Ming bureaucracy, but the inner councils of the Emperors were derived from the Bannermen and the conquest elite. Intermarriage between the two groups of citizens was forbidden.

The Kangxi Emperor was the second Qing Emperor – he took the throne at 7 years old in 1662 after the death of his father the Shunzhi Emperor. Even though the Qing had been ruling China since 1644 the conquest wasn’t finished, so Rawski says that the main thrust of the Kangxi Emperor’s long reign was finishing the conquest and consolidating Qing power. Consolidation was required because a lot of Ming commanders & officials surrendered once the Ming dynasty was toppled, and so the Qing actually gained territory rather faster than they could assimilate it. The last of the Ming claimants to the throne was executed in 1662, the same year as Kangxi took the throne, but a loyalist rebellion lead by the Zheng family persisted until 1683. The Zheng family were maritime traders who had built a vast trading empire. Although nominally on the side of the Ming they were pretty much acting in their own interests, rather than under the control of a Ming claimant. Luckily for the Zheng, the Qing initially lacked a navy and anyway were more interested in land conquests. Also during this period there was a rebellion by three Han Chinese generals, who had been given control over parts of south & southwest China after joining the Manchu side early in the conquest. Attempts by the Kangxi Emperor to take back control of these regions sparked the rebellion which was eventually put down in 1681.

As well as finishing the conquest and putting down rebellions the Kangxi Emperor used political means to consolidate his power over both his Han Chinese subjects and his Bannermen subjects. For the first the Kangxi Emperor acted as a proper Confucian Emperor should. He kept the bureaucratic structure that the Ming Dynasty had used (including the examinations), and he participated in the Confucian rituals of the court. He was fluent in Chinese (unlike his father) which I thought it was interesting. After the Norman Conquest, for instance, French was the language of the English court for a couple of hundred years and there’s no sign that the monarchs learnt English. But the second generation of the Qing Dynasty have made a point of learning the language of their new country and demonstrating their fluency with it. Maybe it’s got something to do with the relative prestige of the conquered country? I mean the Qing probably conquered China because they wanted to be specifically Emperors of China rather than it being just somewhere conveniently nearby. Or maybe it was the easiest way to consolidate his rule over China Proper – by being just as “Chinese” as the last Dynasty? Relevant to this exhibition in particular is that part of being a “proper” Chinese Emperor was patronage of the arts.

For the second half of his consolidation the Kangxi Emperor strengthened his control over the banner lords. Previously the leaders of each banner were pretty close to autonomous and were also involved in deliberating state decisions. Helped by some dismal performances during the putting down of rebellions in the early part of the Kangxi Emperor’s reign he took control of who the commanders of the troops were. And the administration of the banners was gradually bureaucratised and taken away from the traditional leaders – who were still princes, just with less actual influence.

One thing the Kangxi Emperor didn’t do well was organising the succession. The Ming had a rule that the eldest son of the Empress was the heir, but the Qing didn’t have this tradition. Their ancestors had permitted brothers to inherit as well as sons, but by the time of the conquest of China it was always a son that inherited. However they still had a tradition that it was the most worthy son that would inherit. The Kangxi Emperor first decided to follow the Ming custom, but then disinherited his eldest son, then re-inherited him, then dis-inherited him again and refused to name an heir until on his deathbed. At that point he is said to have named his fourth son, but there were rumours that this was fabricated. As a result the Yongzheng Emperor (this fourth son) instituted the (slightly odd to my eyes) practice of secretly designating an heir in a sealed casket which was hidden until after his death. This both made sure that the wishes of the deceased Emperor were known (and known to be true, due to the sealing) but no-one knew while he was alive so there would be less court intrigue.

The Yongzheng Emperor ruled for 12 years, and there’s only about 2/3 of a page of this 18 page essay devoted to him. The theme of his reign was reforming the fiscal administration of the state and finishing off the subjugation of the banner lords to the throne.

The Yongzheng Emperor was succeeded by the Qianlong Emperor in 1736, and he ruled for the next 60 years. Apparently traditional Chinese historians divide his reign into to three – roughly categorisable as good, OK, bad. And then after that it’s downhill all the way to the inevitable end of Imperial China. The Qianlong Emperor would see it differently – he was proud of his Ten Great Victories and that the territory he ruled stretched further than that of the Ming Dynasty (and further than the People’s Republic of China). He saw himself as ruling over 5 distinct peoples (Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, Uighurs and Chinese), only linked because he ruled them. His government had systems in place to balance the powers of the bureaucracy & the powers of the bannermen. China during this time was part of a lucrative intra-Asian trade network, and exports to Europe tilted the net balance of that trade in China’s favour.

Chinese society during the period was influenced by outside cultures as well as traditional Chinese ways. There were many Jesuits at court, and they were involved in introducing European science to the Qing and in negotiating treaties on behalf of the Qing with Russia. Russians too lived in Beijing, providing another avenue for cultural & commercial exchange. There was also increased social mobility, and apparently the literati worried about the rise of the nouveaux-riches. Contracts became the general way to organise your affairs (as opposed to institutions like hereditary slavery), and consumption of material culture including books increased. In the bits of the Qing Empire that weren’t China proper the Qianlong Emperor & his predecessors tried to promote their separate cultural traditions, but that doesn’t seem to’ve had particular success. Rawski discusses how the Manchu language influenced Chinese, and vice versa.

Traditional Chinese histories point to the last few decades of the Qianlong Emperor’s reign as the beginning of “dynastic decline” and cast the rebellions that were put down around this time in that light. But Rawski thinks that this is misplaced – instead of a rotten centre all the rebellions and unrest occurs at the edges of the Empire. So it’s the bits where the authority of the state is starting to run thin due to distance, not a breakdown of the state itself. And it was also a reaction to the attempts to extend state authority over those areas.

More recent Chinese histories of the era see it as the high point of China’s Imperial history, but also judge it ultimately as a failure. They compare it to the Industrial Revolution that kicks off in Europe around this time and see that as a missed opportunity that China should’ve seized. But outside China historians see the period differently. Rawski discusses the analysis of André Gunder Frank (a historian I assume …) who sees China as having been part of a global economy since the 1500s. And a core part of this economy until 1800 – metal flowed into China and goods flowed out. I got a little lost towards the end of this section, but I think the take home message was that Britain industrialising whilst China (and other countries) did not was not because of some difference in their history but was dependent on some specific circumstance in Britain at that time. Because of the global economy of the time China and other parts of Asia were as highly developed as Britain.

“The Qianlong Emperor as Art Patron and the Formation of the Collections of the Palace Museum, Beijing” Gerald Holzwarth

What was once the Forbidden City is now the Palace Museum, and it houses over a million items 80% of which were previous held by the Qing court. Holzwarth divides these into four groups according to their original function. The first group is things that were collected as works of art both ancient and newly created at the time. These were catalogued and kept boxed up – only taken out to be looked at or shown off, they weren’t exhibited as a matter of course. These include paintings, calligraphy, bronzes, jades etc. The second group is propaganda and was displayed on the palace walls – these were also works of art by our modern standards but the purpose at the time was the political message. The third group is the ritual and religious objects, for the Confucian state rituals as well as Buddhist & Daoist objects. And the fourth group consists of the clothing & accessories of the court, including things like the Emperor’s writing instruments & other everyday objects.

Holzwarth then discusses the first group, and the Qing Dynasty & the Qianlong Emperor’s role in developing the collection. The basis of the collection was the Ming Dynasty collection, and that was part of a continuous tradition of collecting going back 1600 years. The forerunners of this collection go back as far as the Shang Dynasty (post) c. 1500BC.

The Kangxi Emperor’s main legacy was to set up imperial workshops to create more art works for the collection. He was also a keen calligrapher, and wrote poetic inscriptions on pictures from the Imperial Collection. I’m the sort of person who hates the thought of writing in books, so this tradition of writing inscriptions on paintings fills me with horror. The Kangxi Emperor wasn’t much of an art historian, and relied on an expert who was a collector himself … and so the expert kept the best for his own collection and gave the Emperor the cheap ones or the fakes. His collection did later get amalgamated into the Imperial Collection by the Qianlong Emperor.

The Yongzheng Emperor gets about a paragraph in this essay – he was the best calligrapher of the three.

And then we move on to the Qianlong Emperor, whose influence on the collection is the subject of the bulk of the essay. Holzwarth calls him the last of the great imperial art collectors, and unlike his grandfather he was an expert in his own right. He inspected the new works of art while they were still being drafted, and he inspected the ancient ones and gave them his seal of approval. Literally – he had various collection seals, and marking a collected painting (or other artwork) with one’s seal was a traditional thing for collectors to do. This tradition actually grew out of authenticating written documents by putting imperial seals over the seams where pieces of writing were pasted together to form a hand scroll. He also wrote inscriptions on paintings, not just poems but also on some paintings he wrote notes on the experience of enjoying them. And he also wrote art-historical essays on some paintings, discussing who had painted them and correcting any misattributions. He did take care to consider the aesthetics of the painting when adding his inscriptions, but it still feels so alien to my attitude towards art.

As well as general collecting the Qianlong Emperor was consciously trying to create a canon of approved art. And as part of this aim he instituted cataloguing projects. Eventually these catalogues stretched to about 22,500 pages and covered over 5000 paintings and several thousand works of calligraphy. The best quality ones had highly detailed entries – including a list of all inscriptions and seals on the work. Other artifacts were also catalogued, with explanatory notes where appropriate.

The end of this essay harks back to the end of the first essay. Holzwarth notes that while the Kangxi Emperor was interested in European sciences, the Qianlong Emperor concentrated on renewing classical Chinese cultural heritage. So at a point where science & industrialisation was taking off in Europe, in China the man who set the cultural fashions was interested in the preservation & the equalling of the arts of the past.

“Imperial Architecture of the Qing: Palaces and Retreats” Frances Wood

The bulk of this essay describes the layout and building materials of the Forbidden City. The Qing inherited this from the Ming. Although there was some (unknown amount of) destruction during the events at the end of the Ming Dynasty, it was clearly still intact enough for the Shunzhi Emperor, his regents and government to move in immediately in 1644. They didn’t really alter the plan of the various buildings, even tho they did alter the use of some of them and tastes in interior decoration changed. Because it was mostly constructed of timber there were frequent serious fires, the essay describes how the library buildings were protected to some extent by pools of water in front of them & ornamental rockerys both of which acted as fire breaks.

Although the Forbidden City was the official main residence and the ceremonial seat of government the three Emperors spent several months of each year either on the move or in their summer palaces. These were generally north of Beijing closer to or in the ancestral Manchu territory, with countryside around them where the Emperors & their court could hunt and hold archery & horse-riding contests.

“China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed” John Makeham (Part 7)

Late Imperial China: The Ming and Qing Dynasties

This last chapter of the book covers about 550 years from the start of the Ming Dynasty in 1368 through to the overthrow of the last Qing Emperor in 1911 (plus a coda about the rest of his life up to his death in 1967).

Orientation Dates: Battle of Agincourt was in 1415. The printing press was invented in Europe around 1440, and Caxton brought it to England in 1476 (post). Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, also Rodrigo Borgia became Pope (post) in this year. Henry VIII ruled from 1509-1547. Martin Luther nailed his treatise to the church door in 1517. Elizabeth I ruled from 1558 to 1603, the Spanish Armada was in 1588. Union of the Crowns in 1603 when James VI & I comes to the throne of England, Act of Union creating Great Britain in 1707. Charles I beheaded in 1649. Glorious Revolution in 1688. South Sea Bubble in 1720 (post). US independence declared in 1776. War between UK & US in 1812 (post). Victoria ruled from 1837 to 1901.

The Ming Dynasty

The Ming Dynasty were the last Chinese Emperors of China, and their era was a reaction against the foreign rule of the Mongol Yuan immediately before them. The founder of the dynasty was a peasant (Zhu Yuanzhang) who became the leader of one of the insurgent groups during the civil wars at the end of the Yuan Dynasty period. He was only the second peasant to become Emperor, which he did in 1368 – the first was the founder of the Han Dynasty, which must’ve seemed like a nice omen to the people of the time (if they knew that). He was pretty conservative, and authoritarian, and he concentrated on promoting orthodox Confucian values. His successor in 1398 was his grandson – his oldest son had predeceased him, so the succession passed to his son’s son. However all Yuanzhang’s sons had been given territories around the Empire and command of armies, and unsurprisingly when the new Emperor started to reduce his uncles’ power bases this lead to rebellion and the senior of these uncles overthrew him to become the Emperor Yongle ruling from 1402 to 1424. And that’s pretty much the last of the individual Emperors of the Ming Dynasty that the book mentions – others might be mentioned in passing but the rest of this section is devoted more to the themes of the era. Which leaves about 200 years worth of nameless Emperors until the fall of the Ming in 1644.

As I said, one of the themes was the focus on making China “properly” Chinese again, after the century of Yuan rule. Part of this was an emphasis on codifying the rules, bureaucracy and social hierarchy of the country. The first Ming Emperor wrote the Great Ming Code (amongst many other pieces of legislation) which was a penal code specifying how the five traditional punishments should be applied to specific transgressions. He also commanded that this code could never be changed (because he felt he’d got it right and that social change could only be bad) – the book doesn’t say if it did stay the same through the whole 300 years of the Ming era. The bureaucracy was extremely organised, with officials categorised into ranks and types. They became officials via the traditional examination system, which during the Ming Dynasty became more & more constricted in curriculum and stylised in form. Scholars were the elite, and this was the only way to move upward in society, so any family that could afford to educate a son for the exams would do so.

During the Ming Dynasty the capital of China was moved to Beijing where it remains. This was started during Yongle’s reign and took forty years to accomplish. Surprisingly for a dynasty that was emphasising how they were not the Yuan it was built to the blueprint of the Yuan city that had been near there before. The Forbidden City is the name of the Ming Imperial Palace complex that was built in Beijing at this time. As well as being the residence of the Emperor it and its architecture had symbolic importance, and it held ritual altars. It was also the place where officials met with the Emperor and where the official business of government took place. The Forbidden City was built to be impressive, and to awe the officials and foreign dignitaries that came to have audiences with the Emperor.

The Emperor Yuanzhang was not keen on foreign adventures – he re-conquered China and that was it. He tried to encourage his successors to keep to these ways, but the Emperor Yongle had different policies. He sent out several fleets under the command of Zheng He in the early 1400s to visit foreign countries – they definitely went to India, and at least one reached the East African coast visiting cities in both modern Somalia & modern Kenya. An aside in this book next to a picture of Chinese map says that there are claims that one of Admiral Zheng He’s fleets reached the Americas & this map (which does show a recognisable looking American coastline) is thought to prove it. But it says this in such a way as to make it clear the author of this bit doesn’t believe it for a second 😉 I’ve read a book previously about this (“1421: The Year China Discovered the World” Gavin Menzies) and even though I read it a long time ago I’m sure Menzies sounded convincing when he talked about the fleet finding the Americas. These fleets carried gifts for the rulers of the places they went to – the purpose wasn’t trade but tribute between countries.

Yongle also lead several major military campaigns into Mongolia – he died in battle during the fifth of these in 1424 and subsequent Emperors were not as interested in the world outside China as he had been. Although having said that, some Emperors did try & lead campaigns into Mongolia that weren’t successful – the book mentions an Emperor Yingzong who got captured by the Mongolians in 1449, so the officials in Beijing put his brother on the throne rather than ransom him. It says the Mongolians gave him back unharmed, which first seems a bit odd (wouldn’t they kill him if no ransom was forthcoming to teach the Chinese a lesson?) and secondly what would the Chinese do about having two “legitimate” Emperors? Sadly the book doesn’t say.

Trade with foreign nations during this period was mostly by sea – the collapse of the Mongolian empire had destroyed the safety of the overland trading routes. Officially the Ming Dynasty prevented or controlled trade, but in actual fact it went on semi-officially or unofficially in the seas to the south of the country. This unofficial trade was significant in the Chinese economy bring lots of silver into the country from the New World via the Europeans. There was also a lot of piracy – both by Chinese ships and by international ships (the Chinese mostly blamed the Japanese but there were a lot of countries involved including growing numbers of Western ones). In terms of cultural exchange the book only really talks about the Jesuit presence in China at this time – which seems to’ve both been significant and also not to’ve ultimately gone down well with the Pope. The Jesuits on the ground, so’s to speak, tailored their message to the culture they were in which lead to the Emperor removing Christianity from the list of “ruinous religions” that people weren’t supposed to follow. But it also lead the Pope to condemn the “Chinese Rites” and to ban the sorts of accommodations that the Jesuits had made (which decision wasn’t reversed until the 20th Century).

The Dynasty came to an end in tragedy, sparked by growing unrest and failed reforms of the tax system. The population of the country was growing, and the regime’s desire to change nothing from a vision of a golden age of a rural Confucian past wasn’t dealing well with the realities of the country. Finally a rebel army took Beijing and the Emperor Chongzhen first killed his concubines in a drunken rage and then hung himself the following morning. The Manchu Qing Dynasty were the eventual victors in this period of unrest.

The Qing Dynasty

I feel this should be subtitled “Finally the Jurchen Get Their Chance” 😉 To recap – the Jurchen were a group of northern tribes who conquered northern China during the time of the Song Dynasty (post) and ruled it as the Jin Dynasty. They didn’t manage to conquer southern China before the Mongols swept in and conquered them. In the late 1500s the Jurchen people were reunified under Nurchai a man whose father and grandfather were killed during a massacre of a Jurchen village carried out by the Ming army. In 1618 Nurchai (ruling as Khan of the state of Jin) declared war on Ming China. His son Hongtaiji succeeded him as Khan in 1626 and continued the military expansion. After 10 years he changed the name of the dynasty to Qing, and coined the term Manchu to describe the inhabitants of the Qing state at that time (primarily Jurchens but also the inhabitants of the northern territories they had conquered, including some Chinese).

In 1644 the Qing took Beijing a year after Hongtaiji’s death, and his son Shunzhi was the new Emperor of China. It took a while before all of southern China was under Qing rule, but eventually the Qing ruled over a much larger territory than Ming China had covered. Shunzhi was a child Emperor under his mother’s regency (she was a descendent of a brother of Genghis Khan and the book refers to her as “strong-minded”). Shunzi died young, and his second son Kangxi inherited the throne at the age of 15.

Kangxi ruled for 61 years from 1662 to 1722 and it is he that consolidated the rule of the Qing over China. He successfully put down a rebellion by rulers of the southern parts of China (who had been prominent under the Ming Dynasty but initially surrendered to the Qing before rebelling later). He also annexed Taiwan, which was a Ming loyalist stronghold at the time. And he expanded the empire in the north & northwest to a point where it touched on to Russian territory. There were some skirmishes, but matters were resolved with the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689 which determined the border between the two empires. The book has an interesting aside here – this is apparently the first & last time imperial China signed a treaty with a foreign power as an equal. I suspect some mythologising of this as a tipping point for the beginning of the end for China (the subsequent treaties with Western powers had China as very firmly the junior & beaten down partner), even though previous treaties weren’t always imbalanced in China’s favour.

Kangxi was succeeded by his fourth son amidst rumours that his will had been forged so that Yongzheng could “steal the throne” from his brother. Yongzheng ruled for 13 years, and turned out to be a hard-working and competent Emperor. He in turn was succeeded by his 25 year old son, Qianlong, who had been a favourite of his grandfather Kangxi’s. This lead to Qianlong taking an oath that as an act of filial piety if he ruled for 60 years he would abdicate so as not to reign longer than the great Kangxi. At his age, in 1736, it must’ve seemed like an empty promise – something fine sounding that wouldn’t matter in the long run. However he lived to 89 years old, and had to abdicate in 1795 so as to fulfil his vow. And then the book strongly implies he back-seat drove the first four years of his son’s reign.

The golden age of the Qing was the first century or so of their dynasty, and even by the last couple of decades of Qianlong’s reign the empire had begun to go into decline. Partly this was a consequence of a booming population, and the difficulties in feeding them. And the efforts of the Qing regime to alleviate the problems only served to make them worse. To try & grow more food new farming techniques & crops were encouraged. Chinese people were encouraged to migrate from China proper into the new western territories. Both of these served to increase the population boom, and the migration in particular caused environmental & political problems up to the present day.

Qianlong was the emperor that the British met with their first diplomatic mission, when he was 83 and nearing the end of his reign. There was somewhat of a culture clash – King George III offered trading rights & an exchange of ambassadors, Qianlong magnanimously allowed the diplomats to present tributary gifts to him on his birthday. There wasn’t an immediate reaction to this by the British because they were otherwise engaged (in the Napoleonic Wars), but they didn’t forget about China’s refusal to deal with them as equals.

Trade with European countries was a very important part of the Chinese economy & was also tightly controlled. At first the Kangxi Emperor permitted trade in four cities but later it was restricted to Canton, and the Europeans weren’t allowed to trade direct with Chinese customers but instead thre were government intermediaries. The major export to Britain was tea, which China had a monopoly on, and it was paid for in silver. The trade deficit meant that Britain was running out of silver to pay with, and so here we get to the British-behaving-badly part of the story (and this is also where the whole thing gets quite complex, hopefully I’m not about to grossly misrepresent it!). The East India Company started to sell opium to the Chinese to reduce the deficit, and actually swung the balance the other way – now the British were importing so much opium that silver was leaving the Chinese economy. For that reason & because of the effects of increasing numbers of Chinese becoming opium addicts the Chinese confiscated & destroyed the British stock of opium in China in 1839. And so the British declared war on China for this insult, defeating the Chinese in 1842 and forcing them to sign the Treaty of Nanking. This was the first in a series of “unequal treaties” where the Chinese gave up controls over their trade and paid reparations to the victors. There was another war not long after where France (and to a lesser extent the US and Russia) also got involved, ending in the Treaty of Tianjin where more European countries got trade rights in China and China ceded land to the British & to Russia.

The Chinese empire was by now in a sorry state after defeats & humiliations. In the second half of the 19th Century various rebellions broke out – the most significant was the Taiping Rebellion. At first the Europeans were on the side of the rebels because they were to some extent Christians (very unorthodox ones tho). But later when the Taiping opposition to opium became more problematic the Westerners backed up the Qing government. Forcing more concessions from them afterwards.

From the 1860s to the 1890s the Qing regime attempted to both Westernise & strengthen their political & military power. But it proceeded too slowly to have much effect (the Chinese lost wars to the French over Vietnam and the Japanese over Korea during this period). And too fast for the conservative forces in the regime, including the Dowager Empress who engineered a coup in 1898. During this period as well the various Western powers were dividing up China between them into spheres of influence, although China never quite became a colony of any of them. The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 started as a reaction to both the deteriorating power of the Qing government and as a response to the increasing foreign power in the country. But then the rebels were manipulated into supporting the Qing against the foreigners, and were invited into Beijing to join with the Qing army – the Dowager Empress declared war on all the Western nations simultaneously. Whilst that displays great chutzpah, it doesn’t seem to me to display great amounts of sense – and an allied force of about 20,000 troops entered Beijing and defeated the Qing troops & rebels killing about 50,000 Chinese in the process. The imperial court fled, and the Boxer Protocol was enforced which gave the Western nations yet more access and control over China. And really that was the beginning of the very end for imperial China.

In 1908 the Emperor and the Dowager Empress both died, and 2 year old Puyi became Emperor. In 1911 the Xinhai revolution succeeded and declared the establishment of the Republic of China. Puyi’s uncle’s widow abdicated on his behalf. The rest of his life seems rather sad – at first he was Emperor still but only inside the Forbidden City. Later he fled to Manchuria and ruled there, propped up by the Japanese. After the Second World War he spent a while in prison, then lived much like an ordinary citizen in China until his death in 1967.

The Book in General

So I’ve got to the end of the book! My thoughts overall are that I’ve learnt a lot, but it’s far from being the best quality book I’ve read. Quite a lot of typos and errors of that sort, at least one point where there’s a sentence that never gets finished because when you turn the page you’re into a new section. It also could’ve done with a firmer editorial hand in terms of content – it’s written by a team of about 20 authors who are listed in the front of the book, but there isn’t any indication who wrote what bit. And it doesn’t always feel like anyone came along afterwards to make sure the separate sections worked in the context of the whole book. For instance in this last chapter there were three explanations of the line of succession between the first three Ming Emperors in three successive sections. Or in the previous chapter there was a bit where first the book discussed at length the ways that Song China traded with and had cultural exchange with the rest of the world, followed a page later by a statement that Song China was isolated from the rest of the world.

The book also could do with more or better maps – several times I had to look up a map in another book to figure out what this one was talking about. And at various times the name of an Emperor or other figure would be mentioned and put in context by a reference to someone else – who wasn’t mentioned before or after that one time. I felt a book that’s presenting itself as an entry-level book on a subject should take a bit more care to be self-sufficient.

However, having said all that I do now have a much better grasp of the sweep of Chinese history and that was the point of reading the book 🙂

And finally, this is the first book I’ve done this “write an essay on each chapter” series of blog posts for. It’s definitely slowed me down in reading it but I think it’s done so in a good way – effectively I’ve read each chapter twice, once to read it and once skimming through while I write it up. I also remember far more of the start of the book than I otherwise would’ve. So as experiments go, I think this was a success 🙂

The posts have possibly got a bit long, however – I’m not sure if I maybe need to split things up more (I can write multiple posts about a chapter even if I read the chapter in one go) or work on writing more concisely. Or maybe just stick with whatever length of post I end up with. Something to think about.

Next up will be a selection of fiction because I’ve got too many books out of the library at the moment, then on to another book about China that I’ve borrowed from my Dad (and it covers the three Qing Emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong which works out nicely for following this book).

“China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed” John Makeham (Part 6)

Great Changes: The Tang-Song Transition (Second Half)

This is the second half of the chapter on the Tang & Song dynasties & it covers the Song Dynasty and the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty. The time period covered is from 960AD through to approximately 1370AD.

Orientation Dates: Mostly English history for these, plus the dates of some of the Crusades. 1066AD is the Battle of Hastings. First Crusade was 1095AD to 1099AD. “The Anarchy” was between 1135AD & 1155AD (post). Third Crusade (Richard Lionheart & Saladin) was 1187AD to 1192AD. Gerald of Wales lived at the end of the 12th Century (post). Fourth Crusade (and sack of Constantinople) was 1202AD to 1204AD. Magna Carta was signed by King John in 1215AD. Edward I conquered Wales between 1277AD & 1283AD. Hundred Years War started in 1337AD. Black Death arrived in England in 1348AD.

The Northern Song

Like many of the Chinese ruling dynasties the Song Dynasty is split into two parts – first the Northern Song, then the Southern Song. The Northern Song started by re-unifying most of the country, all but the most northern parts of what had been China under the Tang Dynasty. Unfortunately the book didn’t give me a map of this, so I had to resort to looking it up in another book. They (again like the immediately preceding dynasties) tried to change the military focus of the culture – during the reigns of the first two Emperors of this dynasty (about 40 years from 960AD to 997AD) the military was overhauled and put under the control of civilian officials at the top level. The Emperors also made the civil bureaucracy more important by presiding as the final examiners who appointed all the bureaucrats. This lead to problems later in the dynasty – by the end of the mid-Northern Song period (around 1085AD) the elite regarded themselves as co-rulers of the empire and bureaucratic factionalism weakened the power of the dynasty.

The threats from the north of China (see below) meant that despite backing away from military rule the Northern Song had to maintain a large army. This in turn meant that higher taxes were necessary to pay the military expenses (and to pay tribute to the northern peoples), and there were attempts to reform the tax system to make it more efficient. These reforms seem to have been poorly implemented and as they often went against Chinese tradition (for instance by trying to employ specialised bureaucrats rather than follow the Confucian ideal of generalists) they ultimately failed which wasn’t good for the long term prospects for the dynasty.

Despite all this the Northern Song dynasty was a time of economic growth, and of a cultural renaissance. The economic growth partly came from properly integrating the south of the country into the economy for the first time – farming with new crop varieties that grew well there, and by improving the Sui canal system to integrate the nearer south with the northern heartlands. Maritime trade was also a growth area, and was particularly important as the country was now cut off from the Silk Road due to losing their more western provinces. The increased maritime trade lead to better ship building, and better maps – which could be up to the standards of the 19th Century maps of the Western world. Some southern cities had large colonies of foreign merchants within them – from places such as India, Arabia and Persia. The book says that this was a time almost of an industrial revolution, again comparing to 19th Century in the West (in this case saying that coal production was on similar levels to 19th Century Britain).

And shortly after discussing the trade with outsiders the book says “China looked inward during the Song Dynasty, and so remained isolated from the rest of the world”. Which doesn’t seem to add up, to me. This is used to lead into discussing the art of the Song period – which was more focussed on realistic depictions of nature than was previously the case, although increased realism doesn’t mean that there weren’t also symbolic constraints on how you depicted things. This time period was also the time when Neo-Confucianism flourished.

The Khitan (Liao) and Jurchen (Jin)

So the Northern Song never managed to whole re-unify what had been Tang China. During this time (960AD through to 1125AD) the people in the north were ruled by the Khitan – who were a northern tribal group of pastoral nomads. They conquered some of the Chinese settlements in the north and became increasingly Sinified in their rule over them – although the majority of their society stayed nomadic. The rulers even took a dynastic name, the Liao dynasty, and attempted to conquer Song China. This failed, but the resulting peace treaty in 1005AD involved the Song paying the Liao tribute.

In 1125 the Liao rule of northern China was supplanted by a new wave of nomadic tribesmen from the north. These were the Jurchen, who first conquered the Liao and then before they were even finished doing that they started to invade Song China. In 1127 they succeeded in taking the Northern Song capital and pushing the Song rulers back into southern China – this was the end of the Northern Song and the start of the Southern Song.

The Jurchen rulers took the dynastic name Jin and ruled over the northern part of China for a bit over a hundred years, until the Mongols displaced them in 1234. At first they were the rulers of the territory via the same officials who had ruled the districts under the Liao or Song administrations. But the Jin encouraged the Jurchen people to move into their new territory, and gradually came to directly rule the region. Over time they became more Sinified – partly as a deliberate act of policy by the ruling Jin designed to reduce the importance of the traditional Jurchen elite. This was then reversed by later Jin Emperors, and the various competing reforms reduced the military power of the Jurchen people. The book makes it clear that this was another large & prosperous empire, on a par with the Southern Song – they were trading partners despite occasional conflict and neither could defeat the other.

The Southern Song

As so often with this book, a map would’ve helped at this point. The Southern Song was a period when Chinese power was confined to the south of the country. The retreat, and loss of power, did nothing to stop the factionalism within the court. One minister, Han Tuozhou, even went so far as to start a war with the Jin, to discredit his opponents in the “peace” faction. This didn’t work out well for him – the Jin demanded his head (literally). And despite the fact that treating a minister like this was unprecedented for Song China they did indeed send his head off in a box, as requested.

During this era Confucianism was again reinvented to suit the current time. Neo-Confuciansim of the Northern Song period was forward looking & encouraged people to think for themselves. But during the Southern Song period a philosopher called Zhu Xi reinterpreted Confucianism with an emphasis on the authority of the teacher, and the authority of the old texts. Effectively doing what you were told became more important than thinking about what you were doing. During this time the exams for civil servants became the only way to become a part of the government (in contrast to previous eras when they were one path of many). And they became a test of moral orthodoxy as much as a test of talent.

The Mongol Yuan Dynasty

The Mongol tribes were united in 1206AD by Temujin – better known as Genghis Khan, the Great Khan. The Mongol armies then swept across large parts of Eurasia bringing them under Mongol control. This continued even after Temujin’s death in 1227AD and included the Jin territory in the north of China who were finally conquered in 1234AD. During the last part of their resistance they appealed to the Southern Song for help, but were refused. The inevitable conquest of the Southern Song was then delayed by internal Mongol politics, but completed in 1279AD by Kublai Khan’s forces. China was now fully re-unified for the first time in several hundred years – under the first Emperor of the new Yuan Dynasty, Kublai Khan.

The book concentrated on Kublai Khan and his dynasty in China, but also pointed out that he wasn’t just an Emperor of China. In fact a lot of his regime was tangential to China, he was trying to re-unify the Mongols and maintained a presence in Mongolia, Turkistan & Mongol Iran. And he was also keen on trying to conquer the other territories around China – like Korea, Japan, Burma & Java. To his Chinese subjects he was never anything other than a foreigner, as with his successors. And ultimately the Yuan efforts to conquer and control more territory weakened their rule in China.

Mongol ruled China was more religiously & cultural diverse than previous regimes had been. The Mongol elite brought other customs to the Chinese court, and patronised different religions to their Chinese predecessors. Tibetan Buddhism was one of these that rose to greater prominence during Kublai Khan’s reign. Art and literature were influenced by styles from other parts of Mongol ruled territory, and in turn Chinese styles influenced other parts of the world. During this time period blue & white porcelain became the first international art craze, prized across a large part of Eurasia, including parts of the West. Other cultural exchanges included the sciences – medicine & astronomy for instance – and even food. I was particularly struck by an aside about the food – when we go to eat at Mizu in town we often have gyoza as a side dish. These apparently derive from a Russian dish – piroshky – which entered Chinese culture during the Yuan dynasty period. I’d always thought of them as oriental. Trade occurred across the whole of Mongol territory, and beyond, which boosted the Chinese economy. Trade in the Jin and Southern Song territories had been mostly internal or between the two empires, so this greater market for their goods (and to buy goods from) revitalised the economy.

This is the time period when Marco Polo visited China. If he existed and actually visited China, that is. This book is firmly on the side of him being legit, but I’m sure we listened to an In Our Time on Marco Polo (which I don’t appear to’ve written up, must’ve been a while ago). And the experts on that programme were more inclined to think that he might’ve been a useful fiction to make a description of China more readable. Anyway, if he went, it’s Kublai Khan’s court he went to. And if he didn’t go, someone still described (reasonably accurately, it seems) the court & land. There are other Western visitors to the Mongol court described – some of them in both Chinese & Western records, for instance a papal envoy called John of Marignolli. The papacy sent quite a few envoys, and missionaries, to China and other Mongol states at this time. This was the time of the Crusades, and they were hoping for allies against the Islamic countries.

The Yuan ruled China for about a century – Kublai Khan was the most successful Emperor and after him and his immediate successor there were a series of short-lived Emperors. The Mongol state discriminated against the descendent of the Southern Song region in particular, and Mongol citizens had more rights under the law than Chinese. Eventually after those short-lived, weak and ineffectual Emperors there was increasing rebellion in the south (called “banditry” by the regime but more political than that word implies). And the Yuan Dynasty came to an end in 1368AD.

Tangents to follow up on: Mongols, and the whole history of that northern region – it’s interesting how the history of China seems to involve a lot of “barbarians” sweeping in from the north & conquering or re-uniting China.

“China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed” John Makeham (Part 5)

Great Changes: The Tang-Song Transition (First Half)

From one extreme to the other – this chapter of my book is so long I’ve actually split it into two and this post is about the first half. This covers the Sui and Tang dynasties of China (and the immediate aftermath of the Tang), and about 400 years from 581AD to 960AD.

Orientation Dates: The first Archbishop of Canterbury took office in 597AD. Offa was king of Mercia (one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain) form 757AD to 796AD. The first recorded Viking attack on England was in 793AD. Charlemagne (the first Holy Roman Emperor) lived from 742AD to 814AD. Alfred the Great ruled Wessex (another Anglo-Saxon kingdom) from 871AD to 899AD. Aethelstan (grandson of Alfred the Great) was the first king of the whole of England, and he died in 939AD.

So around the time that the various Anglo Saxon kingdoms were dealing with the Vikings (and with each other), and that the Holy Roman Empire was being established in Europe, the Chinese were enjoying a period of (mostly) unity and a cultural golden age.

The Sui Dynasty

The Sui Dynasty consists of only two emperors – the first unified China again after the fragmentation of the previous centuries, and the second (his son) allowed it to disintegrate again until he was usurped by the first emperor of the Tang Dynasty.

Sui Wendi took the throne of the Northern Zhou Dynasty in 581AD, and immediately began to fulfil his ambition of re-unifying China. In 589AD he succeeded with this by deposing the last ruler of the Eastern Jin Dynasty in the south. His second son Yang Guang was involved in this victory and became the top administrator of the southern part of the re-unified country. He wasn’t the heir apparent, but in 604AD he became the Emperor Sui Yangdi after his father died in suspicious circumstances. He ruled until 618AD when a palace coup amid widespread uprisings lead to his death & the end of the Sui Dynasty.

Wendi founded his capital city of Chang’an to the southwest of the previous capital city in the region – for feng shui reasons. These principles also underlay the layout of the city, where the temples and other ritual buildings were, where the palaces were, where the residential districts were etc. Chang’an was the capital city throughout most of the next 400 years. Not to be outdone Yangdi founded his own capital city further to the east of China called Luoyang – this was a secondary capital during most of the period.

During the Sui Dynasty a lot of authority was centralised, to reduce the risk of rebellion by outlying provinces. Yangdi continued his father’s domestic policy in this respect, but was a lot less frugal and engaged in lavish programmes of public works. These relied on corvée labour (which was a part of the tax system that Wendi had set up), and the abuse of this is part of what lead to the collapse of the Sui dynasty. As well as his new capital one of the big building projects that Yangdi embarked on was the Grand Canal of China. This was a network of four canals that stretched 1,465 miles, linking the north & south of the country (towards the eastern coast).

Wendi’s foreign policy and military campaigns were fairly single minded – focussed on unifying China, he mostly made sure that the Turkic Qaghanates to the north & north-east of China couldn’t interfere with his plan. One exception to this was Wendi’s attempted conquest of Koguryô (which is in modern day Korea). Wendi failed & Yangdi launched three campaigns to try & achieve this goal but also failed. The first of these (in 612) involved an army of 1.13 million men – the population of China at the time was 46 million. The scale of these armies added to the forced labour for the building works took a toll on the economy of the country (and on the society) and is another part of what lead to Yangdi’s downfall. The Tang eventually succeeded in conquering Koguryô.

The Tang Dynasty

The first emperor of the Tang dynasty had been a garrison commander under Sui Yangdi, controlling a region of northern China within striking distance of both Chang’an and Luoyang. When Yangdi’s rule started to falter Li Yuan and his two sons captured Chang’an. At first Li Yuan was content to be the power behind the throne – deposing Yangdi and putting his young grandson on the throne as a puppet ruler. But shortly afterwards he took power himself and ruled as Emperor Gaozu, the first of the Tang Dynasty. He had to fight several campaigns to re-unify a disintegrating China, which he succeeded in doing in 624AD.

The biggest difference between the Sui Dynasty policies & Emperor Gaozu’s policies were the way he handled the army. As he’d come to the throne by exploiting the power his army post gave him he took steps to make sure this wouldn’t happen again. He split up the existing 12 armies into over 600 smaller units of 800-1200 soldiers, who were under central command and whose postings were frequently rotated. This prevented personal loyalties to generals or areas building up.

Tang Dynasty Jug
Tang Dynasty Pot

Other than that Gaozu generally continued the policies of the Sui – including basing his new legal and administrative codes on the Sui code, and continuing their Equal Fields system of land distribution. This was a form of centralised control over land ownership (and so limited the size of estates that could be built up). The basic idea was that an annual census was taken, and then land allocated equally to each male taxpayer – a complicated system for a pre-modern society, but despite the doubts of many historians documents have been found showing that it did happen.

Gaozu’s reign ended after he attempted to restrict the power of the Buddhist & Daoist clerics – after ordering a severe reduction in the number of monasteries permitted in the capital he was briskly deposed by his second son, Li Shimin, probably with the support of the Buddhist clergy. Li Shimin is better known as Tang Taizong, and his 23 year reign was known as “Excellent Governance of True Vision” and was a golden age for the Tang Dynasty. Because he’d come to power by violence he was keen to show that he valued Confucian ethics, and founded schools and colleges as well as strengthening the examination system for appointing members of the bureaucracy. But he also had a martial side and conquered various of the Turkish peoples – as well as styling himself in the traditional Confucian fashion as Son of Heaven he also was called the Heavenly Khan. During his reign China was extended out along the Silk Road to the west, the map shows Chinese territory sticking out like a finger to modern-day Kyrgyzstan. But he too failed to conquer Koguryô.

After Taizong’s death in 649AD one of his younger sons (Gaozong) succeeded him, but he was often unwell during his reign. He’d taken one of Taizong’s minor concubines into his own harem and after she’d borne him some sons he elevated her to the status of Empress Wu. She played an active role in government due to his illness, and after the heir apparent died in 676 Gaozong even offered to abdicate to Wu. She refused the offer, but it seems she regretted that fairly quickly after his death in 683. Their son who inherited (Emperor Zhongzong) turned out to be “inept and frivolous” so she deposed him in 684, putting his brother (Emperor Ruizong) on the throne with herself acting as regent. Eventually in 690 she declared herself Emperor – the first and only female Chinese Emperor. From what the book says she doesn’t seem a particularly nice woman, but then if she had been nice she wouldn’t’ve got to be Emperor. She does seem to’ve been an effective ruler, both domestically and in foreign relations & military affairs. She was keen to promote Buddhism over Confucianism, which is probably due to the fact that Confucianism regards women as having a place and that place is definitely not in charge. She was eventually forced to retire by a palace coup in 705 at the age of 80, and died soon after.

After Wu retired her deposed sons took the throne again (sequentially, not simultaneously), so her dynasty didn’t outlast herself and the Tang resumed. Her grandson Tang Xuanzong’s reign was for its first 3 decades one of the two high points of the Tang dynasty – referred to as the “Splendid Age of Original Opening”. And after that he presided over the beginning of the end for the Tang. He forgot the lessons of the start of the Tang dynasty & allowed permanent military commanders to be garrisoned at critical places on the frontier. And these commanders weren’t necessarily Chinese themselves, often they were descended from the Turkic & other tribes that they were now in charge of subduing. The Emperor also became somewhat detached from the realities of his empire – distracted in particular by one of his concubines, Yang Guifei. These circumstances combined to let one of the generals, An Lushan, gain enough power to successfully rebel in 755AD. This is the period that Guy Gavriel Kay’s book “Under Heaven” was based on (I read it a while ago for calico_reaction‘s book club). Oddly for a book that I was a bit ambivalent about at the time it keeps coming back to mind – maybe I should get it back out of the library again some time.

The Tang dynasty did recover (mostly) from the rebellion, but they were not as powerful as they had been before. They lost control over various parts of their territory – such as the Silk Road oases which were conquered by the Tibetans (who actually got as far as Chang’an and sacked it in 763AD). The Equal-Fields system collapsed, and regional landlords became more powerful. Military commanders in the outlying regions also became more autonomous. A lot of the rural poor were dispossessed of their land and livelihood, so banditry became more common. Bandits even sacked the secondary capital of Luoyang in 880AD. The dynasty finally collapsed completely in 907AD.

One of the significant cultural developments during the Tang period was the invention of printing. The first known printed text from China is dated to 868AD – a copy of a Buddhist scripture called the Diamond Sutra. This was discovered in 1907 and remains the oldest known printed book. Judging by the quality of the printing this wasn’t a new technology, so the Chinese must’ve developed printing sometime before this.

The Five Dynasties

The immediate aftermath of the Tang dynasty was a fifty year period of disunity & relative chaos. China disintegrated again into multiple independent regions – this period is thus called the Five Dynasties & Ten Kingdoms. In the north of the country this was the final outcome of the increasing militarisation of the area from before the An Lushan rebellion, and five different dynasties ruled various bits at various times. And in the south civilian rule continued, but the land was fragmented into ten separate kingdoms. The country was then re-united by the Song dynasty & 960AD – and that’s where the second half of this chapter of the book will start.

Tangents to follow up on: The Empress Wu. Tibetan history – clearly a key player in the silk road region in the late 9th Century. The history of the Silk Road itself. Mongolia/the Turks. And Korean history.

“China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed” John Makeham (Part 4)

Partition and Conflict: The Period of Division

This is a short chapter, just 18 pages, and probably I should’ve read it right after the last one & done a post about the two together. But then again, it covers another 400 years from about 200AD through to about 600AD. And about half a thousand different names and kingdoms (some exaggeration for effect here 😉 ). So it was a bit confusing.

Orientation dates: Diocletian became Emperor of Rome in 284AD. Constantine became Emperor in 306AD, and called the Council of Nicea in 325AD. The Visigoths sacked Rome in 410AD. The Anglo-Saxons migrate into (or invade) Britain over the period between 400AD and 600AD. The Merovingians ruled Francia from 481AD through to 687AD. Muhammed was born around 570AD and Islam was founded in 610AD.

So this 400 year period is actually the equivalent of one of the Ancient Egyptian Intermediate Periods – the country is divided, and ruled over by different kings or emperors in different bits. But there is still a high degree of cultural continuity within the area as a whole and across the time period. I admit I was a bit surprised by the length of this period between unified Chinas – I’d somehow assumed that once it was unified back in 221BC the core pretty much stayed that way except for brief periods thereafter.

I found the writing for this section quite confusing, and even as I’m flicking back over it to write this post I’m sometimes struggling to figure out quite who did what when & what the country afterwards (or before) was called.

The Three Kingdoms

The beginning of the end for the Han was in 189AD when a civil war broke out that would eventually lead to the division of the Empire into three parts (the “Three Kingdoms”). A general called Dong Zhuo entered the capital city, Luoyang, and took charge of the two sons of the recently deceased Emperor. Instead of supporting the new Emperor (the elder son) he replaced him with the younger son who “ruled” for 30 years under the thumb of Dong Zhou and later Cao Cao & his offspring. This line eventually took the title Emperor around 220AD. The kingdom they ruled over was in the north of China and called Wei.

In the south of China there ended up two kingdoms – which I think derive from the “loyal rebels” who originally supported the new Emperor of the Han Dynasty back in 189AD. But I’m not quite sure. In the south east was the kingdom of Wu, ruled over by Shu Quan & descendants (who didn’t claim to be Emperors until 229AD). And in the south west (including modern Sichuan) was the kingdom of Shu Han ruled over by Liu Bei and descendants (Emperors shortly after 220AD) – these guys claimed descent from the Former Han so I think were trying to set themselves up as more legitimate than the others.

This period of Chinese history is apparently often represented in art and storytelling – particularly famous is “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” which is a novel by Luo Guanzhong, written around the 14th Century. The book also makes the point that the period in question was culturally rich and splendid, including a poet (Cao Zhi, son of Cao Cao) who is still recognised as one of China’s greatest poets.

The Two Jin Dynasties

Next there was a brief period of unity before it all dissolved into chaos again. Sima Yi murdered Cao Shuang in 249AD and took over the kingdom of Wei. His grandson succeeded in conquering Shu Han in 266AD and set himself up as the Emperor of a new Dynasty – the Jin. He conquered the Wu in 280AD and all looked set for a newly unified China to continue in serenity.

Unfortunately his son & heir was mentally incompetant (that’s exactly what the book said – no details as to what they meant though) and when he came to the throne in 290AD the whole thing started to collapse. Infighting between consort families eventually lead to the War of the Eight Princes and the Jin Dynasty lost control of the north of China in 316AD. That’s the end of the Western Jin.

The Eastern Jin keep control of the south of China for another hundred years. It didn’t sound like it was a particularly peaceful or settled period – lots of refugees from the north causing friction with local warlords. And eventually the Jin ruler actually hands over power to the start of the Liu Song Dynasty out of a feeling that the Mandate of Heaven has passed from the Jin.

As an aside – I’m wondering if the naming of Dynasties as Western then Eastern is linked in Chinese somehow to Former/Later or Early/Late. Linguistically I mean. This particular pair seem to have no connection to a west->east movement of power (unlike, say, the Zhou much earlier whose capital did shift over time).

Chicken Headed Ewers
This is the time of the chicken headed ewers!

The Sixteen Kingdoms

While the Eastern Jin were ruling the south the north was split into several different kingdoms which rose & fell during the 4th & 5th Centuries. To add to any confusion one might have about this period of Chinese history they have also mostly taken names from earlier Chinese kingdoms of the Warring States period – like Zhao or Qin. A way of legitimising themselves, perhaps? Which might be particularly important for these kingdoms because they were mostly ruled by members of the Five Barbarian Peoples – who were descended from the peoples to the north of China.

These peoples were not actually barbarians, the word is just the epithet used by the Chinese to describe the non-Chinese (and therefore perceived as uncivilised) that neighboured them. And despite this period sometimes being called “The Barbarian Invasions” they mostly didn’t invade either. They’d often been co-inhabiting the northern region of the empire alongside the “native” Chinese, and becoming assimilated into their culture. The exception is one of the last of the groups to appear on the scene – these are the Särbi, and they were nomadic herders who are the ancestors of the Mongols. A branch of these (the Tagbatch) would eventually re-unite northern China around the end of the 4th Century.

The Southern and Northern Dynasties

We’re now entering the last hundred years of this period between unified Chinas. In the south between 420AD & 581AD there are a series of short-lived dynasties starting with the Liu Song who were handed power by the last of the Jin. Each seems to come to power in a military coup then not long out-last their founder. In the north the Tagbatch rule the whole area for quite some time first from a northern city called Pingcheng, then moving south. Then a civil war breaks out around 525AD – this war destroys the capital city Luoyang. Eventually the Sui dynasty rise up from the Wei valley area and re-unite northern China before setting their sights on the conquest of the south.

Again the book makes the point that despite the political turmoil this is a time of growth and cultural achievement. New maritime traderoutes between the Eastern Jin in the south of China & Japan, South-East Asia and India lead to great economic growth and the rise of what might be called the middle class (my phrasing, not the book’s) – wealthy merchants and tradespeople, who didn’t have the political power or social status of the aristocrats but certainly were a large part of keeping the country solvent. Poetry became cemented as one of the central parts of Chinese culture during this time – this is when it became expected that an upper class gentleman would be able to write poetry as a matter of course. Mentioned in passing a couple of times was that Buddhism and Daoism started to spread to a degree to rival Confucianism, I’d’ve liked more discussion of this but perhaps it will be revisited later in the book.

Tangents to follow up on: The various peoples to the north of China who form the Sixteen Kingdoms, what their history is before & after this time.

Whew. I’ve ended up writing quite a lot about what was covered so briskly in the book. But on the plus side, I think I’ve got it put into some order in my head now, which is after all the purpose of writing an essay about it 🙂

“China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed” John Makeham (Part 3)

Unification and Expansion: The First Chinese Empires

This chapter of the book covers the Qin Dynasty & the two halves of the Han Dynasty, who ruled China between 221BC and 220AD. The Qin Emperor was the first ruler to unite China under the rule of a central authority rather than the feudal states of previous dynasties. The Han emerged initially as the result of a peasant uprising against the second Qin Emperor, and subsequently ruled over China for about 400 years.

Orientation dates: We’re moving out of the time where I try to cross-reference with Egypt, and more into the Roman Empire. The last Egyptian date is the famous Cleopatra, who ruled 69BC to 30BC. For the Romans – the Second Punic War (Hannibal, elephants, etc) happened between 218BC & 202BC, roughly speaking matching the start of the earlier Han Dynasty. Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44BC. Britain (well, bits of) became part of the Roman Empire in 43AD. Hadrian ruled the Roman Empire from 117AD to 138AD, starting to build Hadrian’s Wall in 122AD. The Emperor Diocletian ruled from 284AD, so just outside the Han period.

The Qin Dynasty

Before the Qin Emperor was the Warring States period – China divided into 7 different kingdoms who fought amongst themselves, but still had a fair degree of continuity of culture. The Qin state was one of these kingdoms, and it had been a latish addition to the Zhou dynasty’s territory. Being on the edge of the country it had expansion prospects that central states didn’t, so ended up with a higher population and thus a bigger army than the other states. They’d also lucked out in having a series of rulers that were both long-lived and competent. So over the period of 256BC to 221BC they conquered the other six kingdoms. And the First Emperor ruled the whole of China for the next 11 years until his death.

The way the Qin empire was different from the previous unified states was that it was centralised and not feudal. The pre-existing kingdoms were dismantled and the land divided up into commandaries ruled by centrally appointed bureaucrats. Culture, laws, currency & weights were all standardised across the Empire – by dictat rather than by natural change. There was also a lot of forced labour, doing public works projects like roads & irrigation. And the first incarnation of the Great Wall of China was built during this period using conscript labour. The book had a whole section on the Great Wall which was interesting – I hadn’t realised that until modern times the Great Wall was a symbol of oppression and ultimate uselessness (because it didn’t actually keep the nomads out for long). I was aware (though only found out recently, via listening to an In Our Time programme) that the Great Wall that we can see today isn’t the original, the first incarnation would’ve been earth ramparts rather than stone walls.

The overall impression I got from the book was that lots of good and useful stuff happened during this decade, that would shape the future of united China. But it was achieved via a lot of oppression & cruelty, so it’s not a surprise that the First Emperor’s dynasty didn’t long outlast him. He died in 210BC, probably from taking mercury pills that were supposed to make him live forever (which is the sort of detail that feels like it should be in a fairytale as The Moral). His tomb was described in the ancient texts & is supposed to be spectacular & to include a scale model of the world complete with rivers of mercury. The only bit that’s been excavated is the Terracotta Army, the rest is waiting until the archaeologists are sure they won’t damage anything. But the tales of mercury rivers might well be accurate – apparently the soil in the region contains higher levels of mercury than other places nearby.

The First Emperor was succeeded by one of his sons – not the one he might’ve preferred, but the one that was there when he died. He sounds incompetent, and was persuaded to start off his reign by striking fear into the hearts of the people. Which didn’t work out all that well for him as they promptly rebelled!

The Former Han Dynasty

(I don’t much like this nomenclature for this bit of the Han Dynasty, but it’s what the book uses – except in the Chronology appendix which calls them the Western Han Dynasty like I’d seen other places. “Former Han” just sounds to me like this is people who once were Han but now are not, rather than the first half of the Han.)

The very beginning of the rebellion against the Second Emperor was a group of men who were on their way to the northern frontier for garrison duty, but were unavoidably delayed by poor weather making the roads impassable. Given that the punishment for being late was death one of them, Chen She started a rebellion instead of going quietly to his death. He died after only 6 months, but the rebellion gathered force, and eventually there were two men in charge of it, Xiang Yu (a former general) and Liu Bang (a peasant). They were successful in over-throwing the Qin dynasty and re-uniting China, but fell out over who would rule what. Liu Bang won in the end, and came to the throne as the first emperor of the Han Dynasty in 202BC.

The book talks a bit about the reign of Liu Bang (as Emperor Gaozu), and I think it turns into hagiography at this point. But it does explain that a lot of the actual apparatus of the state was the same as under the Qin Emperor, there’s even been law books found from both the early Han period and the Qin period, which have been compared and are much the same in terms of what there are laws about. The differences are more about tone – the Han did away with a lot of the crueller punishments, and forced labour. They also were more respectful of Confucian scholars, and in fact set up the education system for both bureaucrats and the general population along Confucian principles. Which would get them better press from later historians (who tended to be Confucian educated scholars …). They even went back to the system of bureaucrat run commandaries for dividing up the country – having originally given out kingships to allies during the revolution over time these were taken back again (as they got more rebellious against the Han). In general, if the Shang was the era that set up a lot of the traditional material culture of China, the Qin & early Han Dynasty was where the state apparatus and culture was formed.

It wasn’t all sunshine & roses, though – after the death of the first Han Emperor his wife ruled as regent for his son, and after her death her relatives rose up to seize power. This appears to’ve been aristocratic infighting rather than popular revolt (and resolved in favour of the Emperor’s descendants rather than his wife’s relatives). Wives for Emperors were often chosen from families with few male relatives to avoid this sort of thing, and from more humble families (after all it’s not like the Emperor had any peers, everyone was more lowly). The end of the Western Han came in 9AD when a regent (and relative of the late Empress) took the throne himself, establishing the Xin dynasty. And if it had stayed aristocratic infighting then this might’ve been the next Dynasty to rule China. However environmental disaster, caused by the Yellow River changing course, lead to thousands of refugees and chaos in the country. This popular uprising eventually lead to the downfall of the Emperor, and relatives of the earlier Han Dynasty took over again in 25AD forming the Later Han (or Eastern Han) Dynasty.

The Later Han Dynasty

The book is laid out partly in chronological order & partly in themes, and while there’s a place for both I’m not sure the balance is always right. I mention this here because there’s not actually much about the chronology of the 200 years of the later Han Dynasty. What there is is part of the section on the power of eunuchs, rather than separated out into its own section.

One of the themes they cover is the status & role of women in the Han dynasty period – which is interestingly sometimes more progressive than you might expect but in other ways is just as depressingly sexist as expected. It was during this period that the traditional role of women in China as inferior to men was articulated & laid down – they were supposed to be tranquil, submissive, do all the proper women’s work about the house without complaint, to subordinate all their interests to their husband (or father). This was the Confucian ideal of womanhood, and it fits with the general hierarchical nature of Confucian ordering of the world. But high-born women were also frequently well educated – perhaps it was just to enable them to better help their husbands, but even so they got the education. And in the Emperor’s harem in particular they had status & influence on the issues of the state. Particularly during the later Han Dynasty when the Emperors spent more time in the harem where there were no men, only eunuchs & women. And there was equal pay for equally ranked women & men – the concubines apparently got ranked on the same scale as the male officials, with the most senior ones being at the same rank as the most senior men and receiving the same pay.

Another of the themes is technology and medicine. There were several advances in both agricultural & military technology over the period, primarily driven by better iron working technology and the abundance of iron ore in China. But in terms of military advances they also had good map making abilities, and some of the maps from the early Han Dynasty correspond well to modern maps. Which is pretty impressive if you think about the things that medieval European mapmakers drew and called “accurate” 😉 The biggest thing to happen during this period from a technological point of view was the development of better paper. Paper had possibly been made before (and used by lower class people because silk would be too expensive for them), but in 105AD one of the eunuchs in the service of the later Han Dynasty is credited with making high quality paper, fit for the court and bureaucracy to use.

The later Han Dynasty Emperors would spend most of their time in the harem, and so eunuchs gained more power because of their greater access to the Emperor. But being castrated was a disgrace, and so they weren’t held in high regard by the other officials & aristocrats. Which clearly leads to infighting and political manoeuvring between the eunuchs and the rest of the court. Towards the end of the Han Dynasty this got pretty nasty, with mass demonstrations or riots & murder. Eventually it led to the dis-unification of China & the start of the next period of Chinese history (and the end of this chapter!).

Tangents to follow up on: Mostly I’d like to know a bit more about the Qin and the very beginning of the Han Dynasty, some of the stuff in this book felt a little bit too much like repeating the stories that the traditional histories tell.

“China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed” John Makeham (Part 2)

The “Three Dynasties”: The Ancient Kingdoms

The first Chinese historian, Sima Qian, wrote a history of China around about 100BC and he starts with Five Emperors who’re pretty much considered these days to be mythical (although the book says there are attempts to tie them to particular Neolithic groups). After these Emperors he writes of three early Dynasties who ruled “all China” – the Xia, the Shang and the Zhou. These were also originally dismissed by Western Europeans as legends, but the Shang and the Zhou have left incontrovertible archaeological evidence for their existence – they had writing and so are historical. The Xia are less solidly identified but there is thought to be some truth to the account of them. These dynasties didn’t rule over as wide a territory as later China, and the Xia and the Shang probably didn’t directly rule over much territory outside their capitals.

The general model for the history of this whole period from the archaeology is that the Xia, Shang and Zhou all co-existed throughout the period in different areas and the different groups rose to prominence at different times. The Xia were (probably) in the central Yellow River basin, the Zhou in the Wei River valley in the west & the Shang from the eastern Yellow River region.

So this chapter covers the first three dynasties of China, the Xia (2100BC-1600BC), the Shang (1600BC-1046BC) and the Zhou and their aftermath (1046BC-221BC). For context here’s some dates of events in other parts of the world, starting with some Ancient Egyptian stuff coz that’s probably what I know best in the ancient world (tho I still needed to check the exact dates of them). Khufu (whose tomb is the Great Pyramid at Giza) pre-dates the Xia, he reigned from 2470BC to 2447BC. The Middle Kingdom era in Egypt is 2066BC-1650BC roughly concurrent with the Xia. The New Kingdom (1549BC-1044BC) is roughly concurrent with the Shang, and Tutankhamun (1343BC-1333BC) and Ramesses II (1279BC-1212BC) are in the middle of that. After that in Egypt it’s the bit that I think of as the complicated bit – but a point of reference is that Alexander the Great ruled Egypt 332BC-323BC. All of those Egyptian dates are taken from “The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” by Aidan Dodson & Dyan Hilton (which I had a note of for my post about shabtis from a while ago).

For the rest of the world (er, by this I mean the Mediterranean …) I’m just going to pull a few dates quickly out of wikipedia (and one thing writing these books up in more detail will hopefully help me do is not have to go to wikipedia for stuff like that – I now have orientation dates for China, for instance). The Minoan civilisation on Crete is approx 2200BC to 1450BC and Linear B script is written (by Mycenean Greeks on Crete) around 1700BC-1500BC. The collapse of several eastern Mediterranean civilisations known as the Bronze Age collapse occurs around 1200BC, and the “Greek Dark Ages” run from then until 750BC. Archaic Greece is the period from 800BC to 480BC (includes Pythagoras), and Classical Greece after that until 323BC. Classical Greece is effectively the bit with most of the names one knows – Plato, Aristotle etc – and it ends with Alexander. Rome is founded in the 8th Century BC (their origin myth states 753BC) – the Roman Republic (as opposed to the initial Roman Kingdom) is formed in 509BC. The first Punic War (Rome v. Carthage) begins in 264BC, so just within our time frame – the second Punic War (Rome v. Carthage round 2, the time of Hannibal) begins in 218BC so just outside this time.

The Xia

Whether or not the Xia as Sima Qian writes about them actually existed is in doubt – they didn’t have writing (or at least not any that’s been found) and so there’s nothing to definitively tie a particular Bronze Age culture to the Xia. There is a site in Erlitou, western Henan, that existed at the right time in the right sort of place so it is identified as the probable Xia. Which seems a little circular to me as evidence for the existence of a Xia dynasty (and the book does point this out – the two double-page spreads on the Xia seem to be dancing carefully around the need to acknowledge both that the Xia are an important part of Chinese cultural identity and the lack of concrete evidence for them). The most compelling bit of evidence that they present (in my eyes) is the bronze ceremonial vessels – 20 of them have been found, and they’re a lot simpler than the later Shang & Zhou ones but they have similarities & are more complex and sophisticated than the previous Neolithic bronzes that have been found.

The legend of the Xia ties into and probably creates the narrative paradigm that is used by later Chinese historians to describe the dynastic cycle of later dynasties. It starts with Yu who is all that is good & wise in a ruler and then ends with a terrible tyrant (Jie) who is all that is dreadful in a ruler and who is then overthrown by the start of the next dynasty. So the classical view of the dynastic cycle is “from growth to decline”. Yu is the hero who is credited with figuring out how to ameliorate the floods of the Yellow River by digging channels to divert the flow – and is probably almost entirely mythical. The next rulers seem more plausibly real people – with petty scheming and succession struggles as well as more benign stories. Jie is again probably mythical, and the books says the stories of his tyranny & replacement were probably a way for the Zhou dynasty to give a precedent for their own usurpation of the Shang.

The Shang

The Shang definitely existed – in the early 20th Century their oracle bones were discovered. These bones were used in divination rituals by the King, and the results of the divination were then written down on the bone. These provide a wealth of data about the later Shang (which is the period when they were used) because for a while the King didn’t make any major decisions without consulting the ancestors first. Sometimes even minor decisions were only taken after consultation. The oracle bones were in some ways astonishingly easy to decipher, in comparison to other ancient texts – this is because the writing system (and written language) used are directly related to modern Chinese script & languages. So a lot easier than getting ancient Egyptian and trying to figure it out. The oracle bones are used during the later Shang period, but towards the very end the range of questions narrows & the use of them starts to die out.

The Shang social/political structure was very much based around kinship & lineages – the King ruled because he was senior member of the senior lineage. Sub-regions of the kingdom were ruled by the next most senior branches of the lineage, sub-regions of these by junior branches of the sub-region’s ruling lineage etc etc. They also appear to have had a mechanism to make sure there was always a mature ruler – you get succession to a king’s brothers (down the line of seniority) until his son is old enough to rule. Which sounds fascinating because it feels like it shouldn’t work (why wouldn’t the brother want his own sons to inherit – the rules about seniority must’ve been very ingrained). The King wasn’t just senior in political terms, but also in religious terms. Every lineage could worship its own ancestors but as the King was head of the senior lineage his ancestors were the most important ones. The state wasn’t particularly cohesive, but it was bound together by this network of kinship & seniority.

They practiced human sacrifice – some victims buried in tombs, some in foundations of buildings, others in pits that seem to be just to bury victims. The book suggests this was in large part about defining the Shang as “the people” and outsiders (in particular Qiang tribes people who they warred against) as “others” who were fit only for decapitation. The tomb burials were also about providing the recently deceased with a proper retinue for their life after death – death wasn’t an end of a person, it was a relocation to the land of the ancestors, so important to send along all one would need. Ritual offerings of food & drink (and human sacrifices) were then used to communicate with the ancestor (as well as the oracle bones used only by the King). The book describes the religion as “increasingly bureaucratic” – the sorts of questions that could be asked were, over time, narrowed down to particular things. The rituals that could be performed were determined by the day of the week etc.

The Shang Dynasty ends with a tyrant, of course – called Zhouxin. Actual evidence from the time period is minimal, most of what’s known is later spin designed to make the Zhou look good initially. And in later periods designed to make their own rulers “not as bad as Zhouxin so not worthy of being overthrown” (which is an interesting way that the “current” time affects the writing of history). But the actual evidence is more that the state of the Shang had disintegrated – there are fewer alliances mentioned between the King & outer regions, for instance. So their power was fading and the Zhou rush in to fill the gap.

The Zhou

The whole rest of this period is lumped in as “the Zhou dynasty” but actually only the first bit of it fits into the concept of a dynasty as I’d normally think about it – the rest of the time it’s fractured into small states which war between themselves in various combinations. The Zhou seem to’ve started out as a polity on the fringes of the Shang ruled area, who took on the culture & religion of the Shang. When the Shang started to disintegrate they took advantage and overthrew the Shang. While their culture was mostly the same they stopped the large scale human sacrifice & stopped using oracle bones for divination. Another departure was that their religion had a supreme deity “Heaven” which legitimised the rulers not based on their lineage but based on their worthiness. This legitimised the overthrow of the last Shang King, but later when the rule of the Zhou was beginning to collapse it meant that the people expected a new morally upright leader to emerge and to overthrow the Zhou.

After about 300 years this Western Zhou regime collapsed (there is a tyrant “responsible” for it but it’s not that simple) and over the next five centuries various states occupied the Chinese territory. The first period is the “Spring and Autumn Period”, and there are two main superpowers with lots of smaller allied states – the Jin in the north & the Chu in the south. Even tho they warred and were different countries there was still continuity of culture across the aristocracy of all of what had been the Zhou lands. This period lasted for 300 years and then the Jin collapsed into smaller states, and this period of about 200 years is known as the Warring States Period. During this time the small states coalesced into 7 large states. These expanded to cover between them the whole of the territory that would become China.

The Warring States Period moved from the kinship based state apparatus & hierarchy to a bureaucratic one – the beginning of what we might think of as how the Chinese state works. There was more social mobility, as officials were appointed based more on merit than ancestry, and because they were paid in money rather than land the positions didn’t tend towards becoming hereditary as they had before. This diluted the aristocratic culture that had characterised the Spring and Autumn Period, but there were still cultural norms that were common across the seven states due to contact between them including officials moving to work in other states.

This period was one of the formative periods of what we now think of as typical Chinese culture – Confucius and Laozi (the founder of Daoism) were both products of the rich intellectual life of the era. There was a great emphasis on the practical in the philosophies of the time, because of the way this is a period of both collapse of the old order & rising of a new one. And the fragmented political situation also led to development of philosophies of warfare – Sun Tzu wrote his “Art of War” during this time, and the development of conscript armies changed the way wars were fought. The need for lots of peasant conscripts also meant that states encouraged people to breed (by taxing unmarried youths) and to encourage immigration.

It is also the time during which cities started to grow. Previously cities in China had been more religious and political centres but during this time they also became the sort of economic hubs that we expect when we think of a city, and had many more people living in them. The Iron Age began during the Spring and Autumn Period, but it was in the Warring States Period that it developed to its full – the book says that the Chinese were casting high quality iron tools a millennium and a half before the rest of the world. I guess that’s carefully chosen phrasing – obviously the Iron Age starts everywhere around this time, but these must’ve been a particular level of technique or craftsmanship that the Chinese reached at this time before anywhere else.

Coins began to be minted during this period, with each of the seven states having their own particular coins. Several states moved to collecting their taxes in coin rather than goods, which revolutionised the economy. And despite having different currencies for each state they did all recognise each other’s coins as valid – so another way that despite being fragmented there was still a common culture across the region.

Tangents to follow up: Not really any as such, but the Shang sound interesting to know more about … sometime when I’m done with several of the other books I have lined up I shall pick up a book on them.

“China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed” John Makeham (Part 1)

I’ve decided to write up notes on the non-fiction books I’m reading in chunks, coz frequently that’s how I read them – in sections, with fiction in between to clear the palate, so’s to speak 🙂

The book I’ve just started was a birthday present from my parents and is an overview of the history of China from pre-Homo sapiens right through to the last Emperor who died in 1967. So quite a lot of ground to cover there! It’s part of a Thames & Hudson series of books called Ancient Civilisations and is written with contributions from 17 people, but lists John Makeham as “Chief Consultant” so I’m putting him down as the author. It’s a big glossy book with lots of illustrations & the format (like the others in the series) is that within the chapters each double-page spread covers a particular topic.

Introducing China

The first chapter is a brief overview of China as a whole – 5 double-pages covering the geography, art and science associated with the region. And also the history of archaeology in China. Oddly there isn’t an overall map of China – I would’ve expected one in this section particularly when they were talking about the geography, I had to use google maps to let me figure out where they were talking about. The take home message about the geography is that China is big enough to have noticeably different climates in north & south, with different advantages & challenges for living in & feeding people. The three great rivers are also important (and I confess I didn’t previously know the name of the Pearl River, which is the southern one, although I knew the Yellow River (north) and Yangzi River (central) existed). For art & other cultural treasures of China they mention silk, porcelain, lacquer & paper in particular, all dating back startlingly far. In terms of agriculture I knew about rice (obviously), but I didn’t realise that in the north of China (particularly the Yellow River valley) the staple crop is millet. Until the Mongols took over (13th Century AD) China was the innovator for new scientific & technological advances – but once more global trading of ideas & devices took place the Chinese ideas helped to kick-start the European Renaissance which eventually led to Europe pulling ahead in innovation. It didn’t mention it here but I guess the Chinese also have to have become more hidebound as well.

Proto-archaeology, ie the sort of collection of antiquities equivalent to the sorts of things happening in the Enlightenment era in Europe started relatively early in China’s history – by the 7th Century AD. But it didn’t develop into any sort of science of archaeology that we’d recognise until the 19th & 20th Centuries.

Origins: Prehistoric China

They start with some discussion of Palaeolithic China – there were definitely hominids in China before Homo sapiens, Peking Man is a famous Homo erectus skeleton discovered near Beijing. And then there’s archaic modern humans – like Neanderthals (which it says are European only – I didn’t know that before), but not Neanderthals. And then after that we get fully modern humans. I thought the prevailing theory was that Homo sapiens was a different species to Homo erectus, and that the separateness of the Neanderthals was in doubt (ie Homo sapiens may’ve been able to interbreed with them). But this book is saying that it’s also possible that Homo erectus is the same species as us – and then modern humans evolved in multiple places with interbreeding between the populations – the evidence is in anatomical features in Homo erectus that’re different in different geographical areas and are similarly different in the Homo sapiens skeletons from these different areas.

The Neolithic is the period of pre-history where ancient peoples settled down, started to farm, started to make pottery. China’s one of the places that independently developed agriculture, and the Neolithic revolution happened in a different order here to that in the Middle East – something I didn’t know before. In the Middle East the sequence is settle down -> agriculture -> pottery. Whereas in China it was pottery -> agriculture -> settle down. I was astonished how much of the stuff that is quintessentially Chinese was developed during the Neolithic – high quality pottery, silkworms were domesticated & silk was made, jade was used for grave goods/ritual items, even dragon imagery. Agriculture was possibly developed twice – millet grown on dry land in the Yellow River valley and rice grown in wet paddy-fields in the Yangzi River valley. It was a slow process getting from nomadic hunter/gatherers without pottery to fully sedentary agrarian villages with pottery – starting around or before 10,000-11,000BC (there are pottery fragments dating to this time), and really only fully developed around 5000BC. I’ve got 6000BC in my head for agriculture being developed in the Middle East, so definitely sounds like the Chinese were starting the process a lot earlier. I know that one of the things shifting to agriculture for food production does is to free up some people’s time to spend on other things – dedicated artisans, and ruling elites, start to exist. This happens in China too – early Neolithic villages have houses that all look similar, and the graves of the people are all much the same. But later Neolithic villages have evidence of a hierarchy in their buildings, and in the grave goods of the people. The book says that some of the features distinguishing the houses are common through Chinese history – enclosures around the elite buildings, and significant buildings on platforms.

Writing is also starting to be developed by the end of this period, but it’s not clear if the systems seen are actually related to the writing system that later developed. What’s seen is seen on pots and stone objects, but there’s later textual evidence that perishable surfaces might’ve been used for writing (bundles of bamboo strips).

Tangents to follow up on: Homo sapiens evolution. Middle Eastern development of agriculture/Neolithic era technology. Conveniently I think I’ve got books in the queue already that deal with both of those 🙂