The Early Empires

Qin Shihuangdi



Guang Wudi

Qin Dynasty (also called Ch'in, which is where the name Chinese comes from): 221 B.C. - 207 B.C.
This dynasty lasted only a very short time, but it brought an end to the feaudal system and began to pull together China as a united country. The First Great Wall was built (out of four existing walls, and with the use of forced labour) and standardised money and measurement systems were introduced. But many contributions from this period are lost to us because the Qin king confiscated and burned books written by dissenting Confucian scholars.
The Ch'in Dynasty is the one which gave its name to China. The first Ch'in emperor, in 221 B.C. was Ch'in Shih Huang Ti, who was the king of a smaller state, but eventually forced all the other states to accept his rule too, making him the emperor of all China. To show his worth, he constructed big palaces where very elaborate court ceremonies were held in his capital city of Xianyang. And, to prove that China was united, Ch'in introduced standard writing and measuring systems.

Ch'in distrusted the other kings he had conquered and to keep them from revolting against him, he made them leave their homes and come live in the capital city with him to assist him. Ch'in also got together a huge army to surpress revolutions. And when he didn't need it for revolts, he kept the army busy defending the empire and making it bigger and bigger. Soon China reached from Mongolia in the north to Vietnam in the south. The biggest danger to China was the people who lived in Mongolia and Siberia, who often tried to invade China. A lot of the kings in northern China had already built walls along their kingdoms to keep out these invaders. Ch'in ordered his army to join up all these little walls to make the Great Wall of China. The wall ended up being 1,500 miles long (2400 kilometers)!

Art in the Chin Dynasty: The Chin Dynasty didn't last long enough (only 15 years) for any special style of art to develop. Mostly even experts can't tell Chin Dynasty art from the Han Dynasty that came next.


But archaeologists have excavated the tomb of one of the Chin Dynasty emperors, so we know that the stuff in that tomb comes from the Chin Dynasty. This tomb has a huge army of clay soldiers, who were supposed to protect the dead emperor. You can see that the abstract designs and animals of the Chou Dynasty have changed, and now art is becoming much more representational.

Western Han Dynasty : (200 B.C. – A.D. 9)
Two of the greatest Chinese inventions – porcelain and paper – date from this time. This Dynasty belongs to the Classical Age, and life improved greatly for the common man because of the increased demand for silk and the creation of the major trade route, The Silk Road. People were paid for their work, and public schools opened for boys. The Chinese people began to share a common culture, and even today the Chinese call themselves Han people (and not Chinese, which is what outsiders have called them since Ch'in, or Qin, times). Buddhism was also introduced during Han times.

Kao Tsu (Liu Pang) did not greatly alter the system Ch’in set up when he established the Han Dynasty in 202 BC. He still got the kings and their families to live in his capital city, and he still sent out governors and judges whom he could trust. But Kao Tsu didn't kill or exile the scholars, instead, he recruited them to be the governors and judges because he knew they would make fair, wise decisions. (Although no woman could be a governor or judge, no matter how smart they were.)

Kao Tsu did allow some areas to have their own rulers, if the rulers were truly loyal to him. This earlier part of the Han Dynasty is called the Western Han, because Kao Tsu's capital was in Western China, at Chang'an.

Kao Tsu's wife was the Empress Lu. When Kao Tsu died, Lu tried to take over power for herself, and she succeeded in controlling Chinese politics for some time, even though it was very difficult for women to get political power at this time.

In 141 BC, Wu Ti became emperor. Wu Ti was called the Martial Emperor, because he led many campaigns against the Huns (the Chinese called the Huns the Hsiung-Nu). At this time, the Huns were living north and west of China, and constantly trying to invade from both sides. Wu was able to set up a safe and peaceful trade route for sending Chinese silk and other things across Central Asia to West Asia, Egypt and the Roman Empire in exchange for Roman gold.

Wu Ti also set up the first university in China, in 124 BC. Young men (and only men) were selected on the basis of being very intelligent and diligent; if selected, they had all their education was paid for by the government. At first the university had only fifty students, but it quickly expanded. Students at the school mainly studied Confucian philosophy, which Wu also made the official state philosophy. It now became more difficult to become governors and judges; candidates had to pass a very difficult examination.

In 111 BC, Wu Ti invaded northern Vietnam, and made it part of the Han empire. And in 108 BC, he invaded northern Korea and took it over.

Wu Ti died in 87 BC.

Eastern Han : A.D. 25 - 220
After a brief interuption during the Xin period, also called the Wang Mang interregnum from A.D. 9 – 24, Han rule was restored for nearly another 200 years. The rulers, however, failed to keep pace with an ever more complex political situation and corruption was rife. Both factors helped bring about the downfall of the Han empire.

In 9 AD, there was a short break in Han Dynasty control of China. A man named Wang Mang, who was a nephew of the current Han empress, took the throne from the emperor and called his new dynasty the Hsin Dynasty. Wang Mang got into power by doing a Robin Hood act – promising to take a power and land from the rich and give it to the poor, but this proved hard to do. The powerful people weren’t letting go that easily.
Soon Wang Mang had nothing but enemies: the rich people hated him because he tried to take what was theirs, and the poor people hated him because he didn't make good on his promises.
In 17 AD the poor people in Shandong rebelled. They painted their faces red (so they were called the Red Eyebrows) and attacked Wang Mang. Wang Mang's army was defeated, and Wang Mang himself was killed, in 23 AD.

After the revolution, in 25 AD, a Han Dynasty emperor took control of China again. His name was Kuang Wu Ti. Kuang Wu Ti died in 57 AD.
Because the Han were so strong, they were able to fight off the Huns to their north and west. Because of this, the Huns travelled west to Europe, where they helped bring about the fall of the Roman Empire hundreds of years later.
In 73 AD, a great general, Pan Ch'ao, went with an army of 70,000 men all the way across Asia to explore and was gone for 28 years. On his return, he was able to tell the emperor all about the Roman Empire.

In the last years of the Han Dynasty, the emperors were less powerful and were unable to stop fighting between the different parts of the government and between the government and the rural poor. The empresses' bodyguards and welathy landowners both tried to control the government and were constantly in battle for power. In 184 AD and 190 AD the poor people rebelled. The leaders of these rebellions ended up killing more than 2,000 of the bodyguards and destroying the capital city. By 207 AD, the general Ts'ao Ts'ao had managed to gain control of northern China for himself. When Ts'ao Ts'ao died in 220 AD, his son decided to remove the last Han emperor and to take the rule himself in northern China. Other generals followed suit, taking over other parts of China, so China was divided into three kingdoms, the Wei, Shu Han, and Wu.

Art in the Han Dynasty: There were two big changes in art in the Han Dynasty which occurred at roughly the same time, in the first century AD, about the time of Jesus in West Asia or Caligula in Europe.

The first big change was that many people in China converted to a new religion, Buddhism, which had originated in India. The Indian religious men who told Chinese people about Buddhism also showed Chinese artists Buddhist art. Many Chinese artists began to draw pictures of the Buddha and his holy followers, the boddhisatvas, and to carve sculptures of them. The style of these Buddhist paintings and sculptures was similar to Indian art styles.

The other major change was that Chinese scientists invented paper. In addition to painting on silk as they had previously done in centuries past, Chinese artists began to use paper. While art on paper flourished, artists seemed to lose interest in the bronze sacrificial pieces that had appeared in the Shang Dynasty. They were still being made, but in the same way without any innovations or much apparent enthusiasm. Clay, however, was a more inspiring material – many lively clay figures of both animals and people were created during the Han Dynasty.

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