History of China

The History of China is without parallel in world history. The huge country’s development as one of the greatest of all civilizations; the cataclysmic events that marked the rise and fall of its dynasties; the steady evolution of its cultural life, belief systems and public institutions – these and other features mark it out from the histories of all other regions in the world.

This might sound an obvious thing to say – all civilizations are unique. But its combination of longevity, continuity, sophistication and impact on the rest of the world, places Chinese civilization in a league of its own.

This article covers the history of China from ancient times up to the early 20th century. It is, in effect, a survey of Chinese history and civilization under the long succession of imperial dynasties. Another article deals with China’s modern history from the time the vast country became a republic, in 1912.



In terms of longevity, the only rival it has is India’s, the other civilization that dates back to ancient times which is still flourishing today. And indeed, the Indus civilization pre-dated the rise of literate, urban civilization in China by about a thousand years. However, it later vanished, and cultures in the Indian subcontinent remained at a much simpler level of complexity for some thousand years or more (the Vedic age).

The one that arose in the Ganges Valley in the middle of the first millennium, although it may have had some influences from its Indus Valley predecessor, was really a quite different civilization. By then, China’s was already a thousand years old.


The most striking contrast between China’s civilization and that of the West in particular is the former’s continuity. Institutions and cultural practices which can be traced back to ancient times – bureaucracy, Confucianism, ancestor worship and so on – had an unbroken history right up to the early 20th century China.

It is tempting to think of this as showing a lack of dynamism and creativity. Anyone who is familiar with Chinese art will have no truck with the idea that there has been a deficit in creativity in China over the centuries, and those who know its history will appreciate the dynamism it has displayed. During the revolutionary transition in Chinese society and economy from late Tang through Song times, China was almost certainly the most dynamic place on earth.


In terms of sophistication, no civilization has produced so much literature, and within that, so much good literature, as China has.

This is partly the result of the fact that printing was invented so much earlier than in the rest of the world, and so made the publication of books much easier for much longer. But that in itself points to another element in its sophistication – it’s inventiveness. And this is turn is largely the fruit of the fact that from an early date China has had a large, highly educated and leisured class which has taken an interest in, and written about, issues of practical (as well as philosophical) concern in a rational way.


Westerners think of theirs’ as by far the most impactful civilization on the planet. And of course it is hard to argue with that. However, it is only for the past 500 years that this has been so; before that, Europe was a backwater.

By then, Chinese civilization had had a direct – and huge – impact on a vast area of East and South-East Asia. Where would Korea, Japan and Vietnam be without Chinese antecedents?

It has also has an indirect, but decisive, influence on the whole of the Eurasian continent. Where would the West have been without paper? Gunpowder? The compass? The humble wheelbarrow? And there are good reasons to think that the invention of printing in China had an indirect bearing on its appearance in Europe.

China’s influence, moreover, has continued: beautiful porcelain inspired the rise of industrial ceramics in the West, and the example of a rationally-organized state had a huge impact on European Enlightenment thinking about government.


Timeline of Chinese History

1766 BCE: traditional date for the founding of the first historic dynasty in China, the Shang dynasty

1122 BCE: Western Zhou dynasty founded after the overthrow of the last Shang king

771 BCE: Eastern Zhou dynasty period begins after the sack of the Western Zhou capital; the first phase is traditionally divided into two: the Spring and Autumn (771-481 BC) and the Warring States (481-221 BC) periods

551-479 BCE: Confucius, China’s preeminent philosopher, lives

221 BCE: the First Emperor, Qin Shih Huang, completes the conquest of all other Chinese states

202 BCE: the Han dynasty founded, after several years of chaos following the fall of the Qin

220 CE: the fall of the Han dynasty is a convenient marker for the end point of the ancient period of Chinese history; it ushers in a period of weakness and disunity for China

589: reunification of China under the Sui dynasty

618: the establishment of the Tang dynasty, which presides over a period of social and economic progress and cultural achievement

755-63: the An Lushan rebellion wrecks the stability of the Tang empire

907: the fall of the Tang dynasty inaugurates a period of division and barbarian rule in China

960: the reunification of most of China under the Song dynasty

1127: the Song dynasty is expelled from northern China by the Jurchen people and establish their base in southern China (the Southern Song dynasty)

1279: the conquest of all China is completed by the Mongols (who rule China as the Yuan dynasty)

1368: the Mongols are expelled from China and the native Chinese Ming dynasty begins its rule

1644: the leaders of the Manchu people from present-day Manchuria found the Qing dynasty

1790: the Qing dynasty brings imperial China to its greatest extent

1839-52; Qing forces are heavily defeated by the British in the First Opium War, which marks a step change in Western interference in China

1850-64: the massive Taiping rebellion brings destruction to much of China and gravely weakens the Qing state

1912: the last imperial dynasty of China, the Qing, is deposed and a republic is declared

1949: the Communist Party takes control of China


The Geography of Chinese History

World history has seen the rise and fall of many civilizations. Very few – some would say none – can compare, for endurance, sophistication and world-wide influence, with the civilization which developed in China some four thousand years ago and has continued in being ever since.

A vast country

China is a vast country, with a huge range of terrains and climates within it. As well as the country’s sheer size, geographical features such as mountain ranges, deserts and coastlands have all helped shape Chinese civilization and history.

Above all, the great river systems of China, notably the Yellow River to the north and the Yangtze to the south, have given Chinese civilization its distinctive character.

Location within World Geography

One of the most important geographical factors that has shaped China is its distance from other major centers of civilization in the Eastern Hemisphere. Whereas the Middle East, Europe and the Indian subcontinent are close enough to have been deeply influenced by close and continuous contact with each other, for China such contacts have been distant and intermittent.

This was particularly so in ancient times, when its civilization was taking shape. Even later, for long periods the Chinese have been left, more or less, to work out their own destiny in isolation from other parts of the world.

A self-contained world

Chinese civilization is more self-contained than the civilizations further west. To take one important example, while the most commonly used writing systems in the Middle East, Europe and South Asia all derive from a common Middle Eastern ancestor dated to around 1500 BCE, the Chinese have an entirely different form of writing.

China’s geography – a brief survey

China is bounded in the east and south by the sea. To the north are the vast grasslands and hostile deserts of central Asia.

To the west are some of the highest mountain ranges on earth, along with the great high plateaux of Tibet.

Great rivers

These western ranges are the source of two of the greatest rivers in the world, the Yellow River to the north and the Yangtze River to the south.

Interior mountains…. 

These then flow eastwards through China to the sea. Much of western and central China is covered by high, often inaccessible mountains and isolated plateaux.

The two great rivers and their tributaries carve their way eastward through these broken landscapes before debouching into expansive coastal plains.

….and coastal plains

These cover the eastern portion of China, with the northern part, the North China Plain, being the larger.

It is in these plains where the vast majority of the people of China have lived, from early times onwards.

The South

One more part of Chine needs to be mentioned: the south. This is cut off from the rest of the country by a chain of mountains which curl round the southern coastal regions and separating them from the Yangtze region to the north.

Another river, the Xi, flows into the sea in the south. It is smaller than the other two but still a major waterway, and like them has its source in the western mountains before heading south. Its fertile delta region has been one of the key economic centers of China in the past millennium.

Much of the rest of southern China is hilly and isolated. Communications with the north have been easier by sea than inland over the hills.

The Yellow River region

Chinese civilization first developed in the Yellow River region of north-central China, in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE.

Dry but fertile

The climate here is dry, with enough rainfall for growing crops falling only in a few months of summer. Winters here are typically dry and very cold.

What makes this region so favorable to agriculture, and therefore to early civilization, is that much of the land – both the inland hills and the North China Plain – is covered by loess soil.

This very fine earth has blown in from the highlands of central Asia over thousands of years. When dry it is sandy and unproductive, but when well-watered it makes one of the most fertile soils in the world.

“China’s Sorrow”

Both the hills of the interior and the coastal plain have their own challenges to farmers. The loess hills need terracing, which is back-breaking work requiring the labour of lots of people working communally. The flat North China Plain is low-lying and prone to flooding.

Not for nothing is the Yellow River known as “China’s Sorrow”. Throughout history, regular floods – such as those which have occurred at the end of several dynasties, and in the 1940s, have caused loss of life in a massive scale, sometimes numbering in the millions.

Water management

For a large and dense population to live on the North China Plain, a high level of water management is required. Embankments along the riversides act as flood defenses, while irrigation canals distribute the river water for hundreds of miles across the plain to make the crops grow abundantly.

In ancient times, the main crop in northern China was millet, a nutritious food still grown in many parts of the world as a major crop. In later centuries wheat came to predominate.

The Yellow River region is regarded as the Cradle of Chinese Civilization. In the ancient period of China’s history it was here where the heart of the Chinese world lay, and it was from here that Chinese civilization spread out into adjacent areas, including the Yangtze region.

The Yangtze Valley region

To the south, with its warm, wet climate, the Yangtze valley was the first area in the world where rice was grown, sometime before 5000 BC. From this region rice cultivation spread across central and southern China and down into south-east Asia. In due course it also spread northeast into Korea and Japan.

Like the Yellow River, however, the Yangtze region poses difficulties to farmers. The Yangtze is less prone to flooding than is the Yellow River, but not by much. Very destructive floods do from time to time occur here.

Paddy fields

On a more prosaic level, growing rice crops requires a huge amount of labour. In wet-rice cultivation (for which the wet and warm climate of the region is ideal), the crops are raised in fields flooded with water (“paddy fields”). This calls for constant maintenance of irrigation channels and ponds.

All this hard work has its reward in bountiful crop yields. Rice is one of the most nutritious plants on earth – three or four times as nutritious as wheat. This means that, other things being equal, a much larger number of people can be supported from the same area of land with a rice crop than with a wheat crop.

The shift south: from the Yellow River to the Yangtze

Unsurprisingly, therefore, one of the great themes of Chinese history has been the gradual shift of China’s center of gravity, away from millet- and wheat-growing regions of the north to the rice-bowl of the south.

From the late ancient period there was a constant trickle of farmers from north to south. From time to time, moreover, such as during the barbarian invasions of the 4th century CE, turbulence in the north sent great waves of Chinese peasants into the Yangtze region.

These migrations were accompanied by widespread investment in making the land suitable for agriculture: clearing forests, terracing hillsides, draining lakes and marshes, laying out paddy fields, and digging irrigation channels and ponds.

The land gradually became extremely productive for crop-growing, and little by little the Yangtze became as densely populated as – and even more so than – northern China.

The shift south: from the Yangtze to the Far South

This expansion southward of the Chinese population did not stop with the Yangtze region. As this filled up, farmers then moved on into the coastal region in the far south.

We have already noted that the delta region of the Xi river has become a key economic region for China. This is the result of a process beginning in the later first millennium CE, and has been boosted by the region’s strategic role as a gateway to the maritime trade of South East Asia, India and the West.

Later still, the wild southwest of China, Yunnan, began to receive settlers.

Today, the southern half of China, comprising the Yangtze region, the southern coastal regions and the southwest, is home to more than two-thirds of the huge country’s population.


In the mountainous areas away from the great river plains, forests and swamplands originally covered much of the landscape. Wherever suitable, through dint of hard work and ingenuity, these areas have been turned into intensively farmed land and settled from well-settled regions. In more isolated and inaccessible terrain, however, indigenous peoples have been left to continue their own economies and ways of life.

The Steppes

To the north and northwest of the Yellow River region are the wide plains of central Asia. Here, the harsh deserts and dry grasslands are unsuitable for the kind of intensive agriculture practiced in the rest of China. Indeed in many areas they are unsuitable for growing crops of any kind, and the inhabitants’ traditional economy has been based on pastoralism.

This landscape has therefore not been able to support a large population. The people’s nomadic lifestyle has however made them inured to dangers and hardships, and forged them into fearsome warriors. Throughout China’s history, starting early in the ancient period, the Chinese have faced recurrent threats from this quarter.

Farming was possible in central Asia only in scattered oases. From an early date, these hosted settlements which were in contact with one another, in a chain of local exchanges covering thousands of miles across Asia. In this way they linked China in the east to the Middle East in the west.

The Silk Road

Over the course of China’s history, important influences have come to China from this direction. Modern scholars believe that skills in working with metals, and in particular, making bronze objects, came to China from the Middle East. Later, the chariot followed. Much later, these tenuous links would blossom into a major international trade route called the Silk Road.

Along it, luxury goods were exchanged between East and West, and new ideas and techniques spread. Buddhism, which was to make a huge impact on Chinese civilization, came from India along the Silk Road, and paper-making, firearms and perhaps printing, travelled the other way, from China to the West.


The History of China

Most of the history of Chinese civilization, including the ancient period, has traditionally been divided into dynasties.

A dynasty is a line of kings or emperors from a single family, following each other on the throne from generation to generation (see here for more on dynasties in the Chinese context).

Since late ancient times, China has much of the time been united under single emperors. At other times, several competing dynasties have divided the country between them.

It is only the ones who have ruled the entire country, however, which have been accorded true legitimacy by Chinese historians.

Ancient China

After c. 4000 BCE, Stone Age farming cultures became increasingly sophisticated, and in the early 2nd millennium BCE had given rise to the first literate, urban society in China, under the first of its historic dynasties, the Shang dynasty.

By the end of this period, the foundations of Chinese civilization had been put in place: a belief-system which included Heaven, the Dao, Yin and Yang, veneration of ancestors, and divination practices such as Feng-shui. Material culture included irrigation-based agriculture, flood defenses, walled towns, metalwork in bronze, silk production and the Chinese script.

The Zhou period

The Shang dynasty was succeeded by the Zhou dynasty. This long line of kings presided over a period of enormous change. By its end all the basic elements of Chinese civilization had been laid down, including  a bureaucratic style of government and a philosophical world view dominated by Confucianism but also influenced by other schools of thought, notably Daoism and Legalism.

The early imperial period

The Qin dynasty emerged as the first unifiers of ancient China, but was soon followed by the long-lasting Han dynasty. To this day the Chinese call themselves the Han, in recognition of the unity and identity which this dynasty gave the nation.

During Han times, there finally emerged that Confucian bureaucratic state which united all the people of China under a single regime. It was this form which would (with some significant interruptions) give the giant country its strength and durability over the next two thousand years or more.

Division and weakness

The fall of the Han in the 220s CE was followed by several centuries of division and barbarian invasion. Northern China bore the brunt of this, being ruled by several foreign dynasties, usually more than one at the same time. The south remained more or less united, but being still comparatively undeveloped at this stage, it was unable to reimpose unity on the north.

The Middle Dynasties

The Sui and early Tang dynasties

China was eventually reunited by the Sui dynasty, in 589. Like the Qin, however, this only lasted a short time before being succeeded by a much more durable dynasty, the Tang.

The early Tang dynasty (618-753) marked one of the high points of Chinese history. Vigorous rulers were able to conquer deep into central Asia, and internally their rule was one of stability, prosperity and cultural achievement.

In the 750s, however, the massive An Lushan rebellion shattered the power of the Tang dynasty. Though it was eventually put down, Tang emperors were never again able to reestablish their firm hold on the country. The regime limped on into the start of the 10th century, when it was replaced by a number of regional kingdoms. The north and west of the country again fell to barbarian rule.

Economic and technological advances

Despite the political upheavals, the period from the late Tang through Song (see below) was one of great advance.

In the economy, agriculture, commerce and industry all made major strides, and the Chinese economy became the most advanced in the world at that time. Technological breakthroughs came with the development of printing, porcelain, the compass, navigation charts, and gunpowder weaponry. In government, the examination system became the main basis for recruiting civil servants, and that distinctive Chinese figure, the scholar-official, now took center stage.

The Song dynasty

This second period of disunity was much shorter than the first, and was brought to an end by the rise of the Song dynasty (960-1279), though the north and west continued to be in barbarian hands.

The Southern Song dynasty

In 1127 a northern barbarian dynasty inflicted a great defeat on the Song and confined them to southern China. This left China divided again. The Southern Song (as later historians called the emperors of this period) continued to preside over economic expansion and social progress, however.

The Yuan dynasty

In the following century, a new power came to the fore. This was a central Asian people known as the Mongols. Under their charismatic leader, Genghis Khan, and his successors, they conquered far and wide across Asia and Europe. By 1237 they had conquered northern China, and by 1279 they had added southern China. The huge country was thus united again, but under foreign rule.

Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan, moved his capital to China, and although he was theoretically the Great Khan of the entire Mongol empire, he focussed his attentions almost exclusively on China and ruled as a Chinese emperor. His dynasty in known in Chinese historiography the Yuan dynasty.

The other regions of the vast Mongol empire little by little drifted out of the control of Kublai’s weak successors, and the declining quality of their rule led to massive revolts in China and neighboring lands. Finally, in 1368, the Mongol court was driven out of China, back into central Asia.

The Late Imperial Period

The Ming  dynasty

The leader of the revolt against the Mongols founded the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). This dynasty is noted for some spectacular achievements. In the early 15th century a dramatic series of voyages took Chinese fleets as far as the African coast. The awe-inspiring complex of imperial palaces known today as the Forbidden City in Beijing were largely completed under the Ming, as was the amazing defensive system known as the Great Wall of China (though building on earlier defenses going back to the 4th century BC).

Under the Ming, China experienced a large measure of tranquility, but the dynasty came to a violent end in the mid-17th century when a people from across the frontier breached the empire’s defenses and drove the Ming court from power. This people were the Manchu, and the dynasty which they established was called the Qing.

The Qing dynasty

The Manchu Qing emperors took a generation to gain firm control over China, but once they had done so they took the Chinese empire to new heights of grandeur and power. During the late 17th century, and throughout most of the 18th century, three remarkable Qing emperors sat on the Chinese throne in succession. They imposed a new level of efficiency on the government of China, and annexed vast regions of inner Asia, including Tibet, to the empire. By the late 18th century imperial China was at its zenith.

19th century decline

The 19th century saw precipitate decline. Western merchants clamored to be let into the massive Chinese market, and they smuggled in the opium drug on an massive scale. Chinese society was swept by an epidemic of debilitating drug use.

Western governments supported their merchants with military power, inflicting humiliating defeats on the proud country in what are known as the Opium Wars. At the same time a series of huge rebellions tore China apart. The most terrible was the Taiping rebellion (1850-64), in which 20 millions people are estimated to have lost their lives.

The Qing dynasty was greatly weakened by these episodes, and it gradually lost the loyalty of the Chinese people. Attempts were made to modernize the Chinese army and navy, but were shown to be inadequate in repeated defeats at the hands of European and Japanese forces.

The Manchu emperors were widely seen as unable or unwilling to protect the interests of the Chinese people, and were increasingly viewed as alien rulers. Finally, in 1912, the commander-in-chief of the Chinese army removed the last of the Qing emperors (a child of 6) from his throne, and proclaimed a Republic.


The State in Imperial China

The Confucian bureaucratic state which presided over Chinese civilization for more than two thousand years of history first merged under the Han dynasties of Ancient China. Most of the governing institutions of imperial China came into being at that time, and are described in the article The State in Ancient China.

The Monarch

Throughout Chinese history, all states were ruled by monarchs. In early times (the Shang and early Zhou dynasties, approx. 1700 to 800 BCE), divinely sanctioned kings ruled a state covering only part of China proper. From the late 3rd century BCE, however, the norm for China was for the whole huge country to be ruled by single ruler, called an emperor.

Chinese history is traditionally divided into dynasties. Before examining the role of the monarch in the Chinese state, therefore, we shall look at the question, what is a dynasty?

What is a dynasty?

Many pre-modern states, from Ancient Egypt onwards, have been ruled by lines of monarchs belonging to a single royal family. These lines are known as dynasties.

The same was true for China throughout its long pre-modern history, but here the term dynasty takes on greater significance than just family relationships. Indeed, such is there significance that

This differs from the history of Ancient Egypt, for example. Modern scholars divide this country’s history into major periods such as the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom. In each of these, several dynasties rose and fell; the New Kingdom, for example, was ruled by the 18th, 19th and 20th dynasties.

Different regimes

In the Chinese context, by contrast, the concept of a dynasty refers to more than just a family. It is closer to the modern idea of a “regime”, in which leaders promote a particular approach to government and promote a particular view of themselves and their role.

We can see, for example, that the Qin and the Han dynasties had quite distinctive styles of government. The Qin regime followed legalist ideology; it was out to change the world, and was prepared to deal ruthlessly with anyone or anything that got in its way. The Han, on the other hand, adopted Confucian teachings as its guiding star. Whilst continuing many of the Qin institutions, the Han emperors sought to base their rule on popular support, or at least acquiescence.

Other dynasties had their own characteristic features. Looking at the way their central governments worked, for example, the Song emperors put a high degree of trusts in their ministers and officials, and chief ministers were extremely powerful figures in government. The Ming, on the other hand, exhibited a strong suspicion of ministers and officials of the outer court, and a corresponding reliance on eunuchs of the inner court. The great Qing emperors were their own chief ministers, noted for the hard work they put in in dealing with matters of state.

Individual monarchs were very much identified with their dynasties. If they ruled well, they enhanced the prestige – indeed, the legitimacy – of the dynasty in the eyes of the people. If they ruled badly, the dynasty was in danger of losing its legitimacy and its throne (see below).

The differences between imperial dynastic regimes must not be over-drawn, however. In  all of them the monarch was the fount of all authority, an absolute ruler whom all others must obey. Moreover, they were all served by the same civil service and the same army, whose evolutions can be traced as continual strands through the entire history of China.

The position of Emperor

One emperor over all

From the foundation of the Han dynasty, it was the normal situation for the whole, huge country to be united under a single emperor. When this was not the case and China was divided, the fragmented parts were weak and unstable, and warfare was common. When China was united, however, it was usually peaceful, powerful and prosperous – until decline set in and central authority weakened again.

In fact, though, from 202 BCE, China experienced much longer periods when it was united under a single emperor than fragmented under different rulers.

During these times, the millions-strong population of Imperial China was in a sense divided into just two: the emperor, standing alone, on the one hand, and everyone else, his subjects, on the other.

The entire state revolved around the emperor’s person. Even when (as happened frequently) he was a nonentity or an infant, his very impotence was an important fact of political life (see below).

Son of Heaven

In ancient China, as throughout the entire imperial period up to the 20th century, the ruler of the Chinese people was a divinely-sanctioned priest king who bore the title “Son of Heaven”. The term “Heaven” refers to the universe’s supreme but impersonal divine force.

This concept had many implications, which were the subject of an important strand of Chinese political thought, in ancient times and beyond.

The Mandate of Heaven

One of the most influential ideas which arose was the concept of the “Mandate of Heaven”. It was a doctrine which had its roots far back in Chinese history, but which owed its influence to its incorporation into Confucian teaching.

The doctrine held that the Son of Heaven’s underlying role was to maintain harmony between Heaven and mankind. That was his job, and no one else could do it. How could he do this? Firstly, by properly conducting the great annual sacrifice to Heaven; and secondly, by governing well, bringing order, justice and wellbeing to his people.

If he failed to do these things, the harmony of the Cosmos would be disturbed. Heaven would send floods, earthquakes, diseases and all manner of other natural disasters as warnings to bring humankind back into harmony with it. As for the ruler, he would cease to have Heaven’s blessing – his “mandate” to rule would be taken away from him and his dynasty.

An influential belief….

This doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven was to prove one of the most influential in Chinese history. On the one hand, it gave kings and emperors a sacred legitimacy. On the other, when the people were suffering from natural disasters, or even man-made disasters such as barbarian invasions or civil disorders, they knew who to blame. They were signs that the ruler had ceased to have the Mandate of Heaven.

If these signs persisted, the ruler would be seen to have lost his legitimacy. In these circumstances, revolt against his rule was not a sin against Heaven. It was an attempt to place a new ruler on the throne, one who enjoyed Heaven’s blessing and could restore the harmony of creation.

…with roots in practical government

The interesting thing is that this quasi-religious belief often had a strong correspondence with real-life situations. It is notable that the last days of great dynasties did indeed tend to be accompanied by natural disasters.

This is perhaps not such a coincidence as it may seem to Western eyes. As dynastic regimes became weak, corrupt and oppressive, which most of them did eventually (for reasons which can be traced ultimately to court politics), the management of the great irrigation and flood-defense systems became lax. The dykes holding back the floodwaters fell into disrepair. The rivers and canals were not dredged properly, so that silt built up in them, to form blockages. Water stacked up behind these would make the canals became dangerously overloaded; downstream, the canals ran low or dried up altogether.

Man-made natural disasters!

It took only one exceptionally wet spring (which happened on a regular basis) for a huge surge of water to break the flood barriers and sweep across hundreds of square miles of land. Millions of people would be drowned, millions more driven from their homes and farms.

Such a deluge could also destroy crops and cause widespread famine and disease.

Discontent with the regime would rise, and unrest spread. This load of misery was on top of the growing oppression that the people experienced at the hands of the officials at times of dynastic decline.

Under these circumstances it did not take much for millions of peasants to rise up against their ruler. The occurrence of such revolts has not been seen as an aberration by Chinese historians, but as an unhappy but essential part of the way politics works. These led directly or indirectly to the fall of most of the major dynasties in Chinese history – for example at the end of the Han, Tang, Ming and Qing dynasties.

Heeding the people

Successive imperial regimes were therefore careful to heed public opinion. Some Western scholars have seen an almost democratic element in this doctrine. The Chinese and their rulers widely accepted that “Heaven sees and hears as the people see and hear” – in other words, Heaven’s favor or disfavor manifests itself in public opinion.

If this is going too far, it is certainly the case that the doctrine shared common features with the Western Enlightenment idea of the Social Contract, first articulated in the 18th century, which says that, to be legitimate, governmental power must rest on the will of the people. The Chinese concept of the Mandate of Heaven anticipated this idea by more than two thousand years.

Pursuing good government

More practically so far as China is concerned, the concept of the Mandate of Heaven stimulated Chinese statesmen and thinkers to pay close attention to what constituted good government. No civilization has devoted as much thought to these matters as has China.

This is seen most clearly in the efforts of succeeding dynasties to recruit the most suitable men for government service, and to consider what their preparation for office should be. This led to the rise of that key figure in Chinese history, the scholar-official, one of the most remarkable types of government servant in human history.

One Emperor under Heaven

Another implication of the ruler being the Son of Heaven, less often noticed in the West but very clearly recognized in China, is the idea that there could only by one legitimate ruler at any one time.

The Son of Heaven represented mankind to Heaven, and Heaven to mankind: he stood alone between the two spheres; he had responsibility for All under Heaven.

This meant that the king or emperor was ruler of the entire world – and that therefore there could be only one legitimate emperor. The natural state of China (and in theory the whole world) was to be ruled by a single government.

This idea acted as a powerful intellectual driver for brining China under unifying rule. It also governed the Chinese imperial governments’ attitude towards non-Chinese peoples, who they saw as being subordinate to the Son of Heaven.

The Court

The royal court was the residence of the monarch, and thus stood at the very heart of Chinese government. When not on campaign it was here that the king, and later the emperor, lived with his family and personal attendants. It was here that he met with his ministers to discuss affairs of state.

Huge palaces

The court was housed in the royal palace. Under the Han, this was a huge complex of buildings. Together with the grounds in which they were set, these took up an entire quarter of the empire’s capital, Chang’an, itself probably the largest city in the world at that time.

Inner and outer courts

The palace was divided into the private residential quarters for the emperor and his family, on the one hand, and on the other, the reception halls and offices where the ministers and officials of the central secretariat worked.

In later dynasties these two parts would be labelled the “Inner Court” and the “Outer Court”. This was a distinction that was real enough from the very outset of imperial rule, under the First Emperor, and one we shall apply to both the Qin and the Han periods.

The Inner Court

The Inner Court housed the ruler, his wives, his young children (until they were adults), his concubines and his personal attendants. From quite early times, these latter were all eunuchs, as no full males (i.e. those adult males who had not been castrated) were allowed to enter the private quarters of a ruler.

With their access to the many women of the harem, most Han emperors had numerous children. As these reached adulthood, sons were sent out from the palace to take up a position as kings of subordinate kingdoms within the empire. Daughters were married off to important families whom the emperor wished to favor, or to foreign kings and chieftains.

The inner court was all too often the seat of poisonous in-fighting. When an emperor was capable and hard-working, he could exercise control over those around him. When he was weak or a child, the environment at court could quickly become toxic. In these circumstances – all too often in China’s long history – courtiers and ministers competed for control of the emperor: those who dominated the emperor dominated the state.

With such a prize, the competition was always intense and often lethal, sometimes on a grand scale.

Factionalism at court

Court power-struggles could be between three groups of people – imperial wives, eunuchs and ministers. Each of these was more or less prominent in different dynasties.

The Han dynasty is notable for the in-fighting between imperial wives and their relatives. The late Tang emperors were puppets of their close attendants, the eunuchs. At the Song court, ministers and officials engaged in bitter power-struggles, The Ming court was at times literally paralyzed by conflict between eunuchs and ministers.


Special mention should be of eunuchs. Eunuchs served as the personal attendants of monarchs (and their harems), not only because they were not regarded as full males, as we have noted, but also because, being unable to have offsprings and therefore unable to found a dynasty, they were regarded as being less likely to aim for the throne and mount a coup against an emperor.

A third reason was that, having been brought to the palace at an early age, often arriving from the border regions of the empire, they had not been able to form alliances with groups of officials. Their entire life was bound up with the palace, where they lived isolated from the rest of the world. They were viewed with deep suspicion and hostility by the officials and ministers of the civil service.

One of the main reasons for this was that, unlike the officials of the outer court, they livd in the inner court and had opportunities to gain intimate access to the emperor himself. They therefore had unequalled opportunities to gain the ruler’s favor.

On repeated occasions throughout China’s long history, eunuchs gained such a hold over an emperor that they attained almost complete control over the state. In doing so they earned the bitter resentment of the ministers and officials of the user court..

The resulting tensions could destabilize a dynasty. This factor was partly responsible for the fall of the very first imperial dynasty of China, the short-lived Qin dynasty, when a powerful eunuch was able to bring about the condemnation, torture and execution of the capable chief minister. Eunuch power similarly played a major role in the weakening of the Han dynasty, the Tang dynasty, the Ming dynasty and the Qing dynasty.

The power dynamics at work in the royal court therefore had a deep impact on the quality of government, and in the final analysis, on whether a dynasty endured or perished.

The Civil Service

Beneath the emperor, the most important governing institution in imperial China was the civil service. This was responsible for keeping law and order, collecting taxes, maintaining irrigation systems and flood defenses, and a host of other tasks.

It was this astonishing organization which kept the huge country together for long periods of time, and which, when functioning properly, provided a higher standard of government than that of any other nation until the late 18th century.

The civil service emerged in ancient times, during the later Zhou dynasty, and came to maturity under the Han dynasty. It continued to evolve under later dynasties, being refined and expanded as the centuries went by. The structure of ministries and departments became more and more rational, to reflect the practical needs of administration better; and the balance between central and provincial government was fine-tuned.

The examination system

Above all, the famed examination system of imperial China was developed. This traced its roots back to Han times, fell out of use in the period of division, was reinstated by the Sui dynasty, was refined under the Tang dynasty, and reached its maturity under the Song dynasty. From then on, except briefly under the Mongols, the vast majority of officials were selected in this way.

From Song times, therefore, the scholar-official – the public servant who had earned his place through his academic prowess – dominated the civil service. His position as the government official par excellence was retained until almost the end of the imperial period, in the late 19th century. When Europeans first visited China they brought reports back home of these impressive officials, applying the term “mandarin” to them. Even today (in Britain, at any rate) we call an influential civil servant a “mandarin”.

What was tested?

The exams always tested knowledge of the Confucian classics, but under the Sui and Tang there were also questions on practical matters of administration and government. From Song times onwards, however, such questions disappeared and the exams concentrated exclusively on Confucian writings.

This has raised eyebrows amongst Western scholars, but at the very least the Confucian curriculum instilled in many members of the ruling class a strong ethos of public service, a large dose of humanity, an admirable work ethic, and a high level of academic rigor.

A revered institution

The examination system came to have a revered place in Chinese public life. Generation after generation, thousands of young men, mostly from gentry families and all highly educated, competed in the civil service exams. Only a few went on to achieve a public career, but even some success in the exams marked a man out as being a scholar and a gentlemen (which, in China, came to mean almost the same thing).


The system played a key role in the life of the nation. It gave imperial government a real legitimacy in the eyes of the people. They knew that (1) they were being governed by men who merited their authority by virtue of their education and ability; and (2) that even people from humble backgrounds – maybe even themselves or their children – had a chance of attaining power and status through this system. Though most officials came from the landowning gentry, there were plenty of examples of individuals who had risen from poor backgrounds to become high officials and ministers.

A shared heritage

There was another, less obvious, contribution that the examination contributed to Chinese civilization. Young men from all over China competed in them. To do so, they had to complete a demanding education based on Confucian values. Since most of them never went on to hold public office, they returned to their home towns and villages, and took the place which, in Europe, would have been taken by the local gentry and nobility. They were the leaders of their communities.

Thus, localities throughout the length and breadth of China were led by groups who shared the same culture and values, and were all part of the same “project” of running China. Wherever one travelled were the same type of people, who had imbibed the same literature, and valued the same broad styles of painting and calligraphy. They were formed in a conservative but humane tradition, which emphasized rationality and scholarship, and which inspired a desire to serve the common good.

The examination system did much to tie the enormous country together and give it its common and very distinctive civilization.

Provincial administration

Governing a huge country such as China poses huge challenges, and it is a testament to the quality of imperial Chinese officials that they succeeded for so long, and for so much of the time.

But they did not always do so. The correct balance between central and provincial government was hard to strike. If provincial officials were given too much power, they could challenge central government and the stability of the empire. Over-powerful governors were instrumental in the fall of the Han and Tang dynasties.

If, on the other hand, central government kept a high degree of control over provincial administration, it could be overwhelmed by the flood of comparatively trivial decision-making that came its way.

This dilemma is a reflection of the strategic issues to do with defending the borders as against protecting the core.

Finding the balance: first one way….

The first imperial regime, the Qin dynasty, divided their empire into forty or so provinces, each under administrators appointed by the emperor and his ministers. These provinces were in turn sub-divided into counties, under a county magistrates, also appointed from the center.

…then another…

This system was kept in place by the Han emperors. However, over time, sub-division of the provinces led to the empire being divided into more than a hundred of them. In later Han times special commissioners were therefore appointed to co-ordinate the administration of the governors.

As time went by these officials gained more and more power. They ended up as powerful governors-general, and had acquired control over official appointments within their territories. They had also, ominously, gained command over the troops stationed there.

In the successor states to the Han empire, provincial governors effectively became independent rulers, and a menace to their monarchs.

…then back again…

From the 5th century CE, however, the state rulers and their ministers began bringing the provinces back under their control. By the time China was reunified under the Sui dynasty, in the late 6th century, provinces had been abolished altogether. Local power was vested in the hands of hundreds of prefects, each in charge of a prefecture, a unit of local government much smaller than the former provinces had been.

These prefects were all appointees of the central government, as were their subordinates, the county magistrates.

…and again…

The Tang continued this system, but its drawbacks became apparent as the center became over-burdened by the administrative needs of the localities. Governors-general again began to be appointed; and again, as in Han times, they took on more and more powers. When the Tang dynasty finally expired, different governors simply declared their independence and turned their provinces into kingdoms.

As in post-Han times, the period of division after the fall of the Tang saw over-powerful provincial governors contribute to the instability of the times.

…until a balance was struck

It was the Song dynasty which came up with a workable solution to this dilemma.  They at first abolished all provincial governorships, but, as with previous dynasties, they found they had to replace them.

However, they did not appoint governor-generals with wide powers over one area. Instead they appointed several provincial-level officials with specialist responsibilities – military, judicial, administrative – over overlapping geographical jurisdictions. This meant that no single official was able to draw overwhelming power into his own hands.

This was basically the provincial system which endured, with tweaks, through to the late Qing 19th century.

Local administration

In earlier times local administration had been in the hands of the lowest rung of the civil service, the county magistrate (or his equivalent, depending on the dynasty). Except in times of disorder or weakness, these officials were all appointed by the central government.

From Song times onwards, this situation began to change. This was due to the fact that the number of county magistrates remained fairly steady throughout all later dynasties, from Song times onwards, while the population of China doubled, and then doubled again. As a result the number of inhabitants within an average county grew to several hundred thousand.

Many people in the villages and small towns of China could go years without encountering even the lowest officials of the imperial administration. Local affairs fell more and more into the hands of the local gentry, who fulfilled this duty on an ad-hoc, unpaid basis. The fact that these men came largely from the same social background and shared the same Confucian education as the officials, helped the two groups to work smoothly together.

Law and order

Law codes began to appear in China at least from 536 BC, and when the state of Qin unified China under its rule, it imposed its law code on the entire empire.

The general principles underlying the Qin code was that subjects should so fear punishment that they would be obedient subjects: for example, one of the death penalties specified was boiling alive.  All, of whatever class, were treated equally by the law. Similar crimes attracted similar punishments, whatever the circumstances. The law was applied rigidly and severely.

The Han emperors based their law code on the Qin’s, but made the law codes more humane. Even so, the code was very harsh indeed by modern standards. The death penalty could involve cutting in two at the waist. Lesser crimes were punishable by the amputation of nose or feet, or castration; hard labour in state service was common for more minor offenses.

Later law codes

All later law codes were based on previous ones, usually becoming less severe. The most famous of these was the Tang Code, the first Chinese law code for which we have a full copy.

The purpose of Chinese law was to make clear what subjects must avoid doing, and if they did do them, what punishments they would suffer. The prerogatives of the emperor and his officials were never defined, still less limited, as they were in Western law: the emperor and his officials were assumed to be all-powerful, and there was no room for citizens’ rights (apart from the assumed right for all subjects to live in an ordered society in which crime does not go unpunished).

Local justice

At the most local level, village authorities were expected to deal with minor cases of petty crimes themselves. Also, disputes between villagers were expected to be sorted out at this level; the official courts were concerned only with criminal law.

The most local level of criminal justice was administered by county magistrates; there was no system of courts separate from the civil service in China. Juries were unheard of – the magistrate sat as both judge and jury. He was also responsible for investigating crimes and bringing the miscreants to justice, for which he had a small staff of constables to assist him.

Those accused of crimes were often tortured as part of the interrogation process, and so were witnesses – and indeed, accusers were also liable to be tortured if the magistrate suspected a false accusation. Wealthy people could often have their punishments commuted to payment of a fine.


Local magistrates had small groups of armed men to help them keep order in their localities. For larger emergencies, such as attacks by brigands, local militia units were called out. These were made up of men from the locality who had had some military training and were led by members of the local gentry. In the larger towns, units of the regular army were called in to keep order when necessary, and were also used to fight against larger groups of brigands.

A continual problem

Brigandage was a cause for concern to the authorities throughout China’s history – and for good reason. The mountainous and forested terrain of much of the countryside gave good cover for brigands, and made combatting them difficult. Throughout China there were pockets of land from which brigands could operate and to which they could flee.

It was only under the most vigorous of regimes that they could be properly combatted, and then only for a period of time. When regimes became weak or corrupt (or both), the problem escalated and disorder spread throughout wide swathes of countryside. At moments of crisis for a dynasty, peasant rebellions coalesced around such groups of outlaws. The founders of two of China’s greatest dynasties, the Han and Ming, started out as brigand leaders.

The Army

The Chinese are not noted for being a military race. Westerners were struck by the fact that soldiers were despised by the scholar-officials who governed the empire, and the supervision of the army was, at the topmost level, in the hands of civilian officials.

Such a state of affairs was a comparatively recent development, however. Up to Tang dynasty times, the ruling elite, which had its roots as much in the nomadic warrior leaders of the steppes as in the landed elite of China, had a warrior mentality, and were trained from youth in military matters. It was really only under the Song dynasty that the Chinese ruling classes developed a specifically civilian character.

Military downgraded

This came about because the aristocracy had been eliminated in Tang times and just after. Given the trouble that had been caused by generals and their armies in the period of division after the Tang, the founders of the Song dynasty unsurprisingly put the military under civilian control.

To do this the Song made civilian and military careers entirely separate, so that the army was now officered by professional soldiers, recruited by a military version of the civil service examination system.

It was this development which caused an attitude of contempt for the military, characteristic of the Chinese elite world view, to set in.

Partly, this was because the very fact of the separation of careers allowed an exclusively civilian ethos to develop within the civil service. Just as important, though, was the Song policy, noted above, of placing military commanders very firmly under the control of civilians.

The overall direction of military affairs now lay with ministers who had an entirely civilian background. Even the most senior generals reported to high civilian officials, not directly to the emperor (as had been the case in previous dynasties). It was civilian officials who had the opportunity to reach the very top of the tree, not army officers.

This of course meant that the brightest young men avoided the military career path. The entry exams for the army officer corps came to be deemed not nearly so rigorous as the civil service exams, and did not have the same prestige. Army officers were not held in the same high regard as civil servants.

It was in Song times, therefore, that civilians came to predominate over military men in terms of status and power in the Chinese state system, and that the Chinese ruling class developed its distinctively civilian ethic.

This development was accentuated in future dynasties. Except for the Mongols, the later dynasties of China all kept the military in a subordinate position. Military service became hereditary; and indeed ranks within it became more or less hereditary as well. The quality of military personnel declined over time and they became a none-too-highly regarded element within society.

Different kinds of armies

Throughout its history the Chinese have experimented with different kinds of armies – armies of part-time peasant conscripts, armies of long-service professional soldiers, armies of non-Chinese tribal peoples from beyond the frontiers, and combinations of all these different kinds of troops.

They have also experimented with strong frontier garrisons, garrisons of farmer-soldiers distributed across the interior of the empire, or strong central filed armies located near the capital. All of these arrangements have had strengths and weaknesses.

In the early dynasties of ancient China, the Shang and Zhou, armies were built around chariot forces under the leadership by feudal nobles. In these, most of the fighting seems to have been left to aristocratic warriors who had been trained in warfare from their youth. The foot soldiers who accompanied the chariot warriors were peasant bondsmen of the feudal lords, and played a very subordinate role on the battlefield.


In the militia system, often resorted to in Chinese history, for example under the the Warring States, the Han and the Tang, all males were liable for military service. A militia, or conscript, army was therefore largely manned by such short-term soldiers.

Militia systems were not well suited to maintaining forces on distant frontiers. Still less were they good at supplying troops for long wars in foreign lands. They therefore tended to give way to systems based on full-time, long-service professionals.

Professional armies

The Han army began as a most militia army, but seen was re-constituted as an army of full-time, long service troops.

The Tang dynasty military system was a kind of half-way house, part-militia, part long-term service. It adapted the militia system they inherited from previous dynasties so that instead of all males being liable for short periods of military service, selected men were chosen to serve for long periods. These troops were stationed in garrisons scattered throughout China, and were sent on rotation to serve in the capital, or on the frontiers, or on campaign beyond the empire’s borders.

The armies of the Song, Ming and Qing dynasties were all composed of long-term professional troops. Also, the Song made the officer corps fully professional, for the the first time in Chinese history. The Ming and Qin dynasties followed their lead. Indeed, careers in the army, including the officer corps, became hereditary, turning soldiers into a distinct (and not very respected) element in Chinese society.

Non-Chinese armies

It was a feature of the declining years of dynasties that, as their internal administration weakened, they increasingly turned to non-Chinese tribesmen from beyond the frontiers for their defense. This development took place in the later stages of both the Han and Tang dynasties.

Using non-Chinese troops in this way was comparatively inexpensive, but it could be dangerous. Such “barbarian” soldiers, especially if under their own leaders, could easily become indistinguishable from invaders.

The major example of such armies being used was of course in times when non-Chinese dynasties ruled China, basing their military power on their own tribal forces. The Yuan dynasty, for example, distributed Mongol and other central Asian troops in garrisons around China, with land attached to them on which Chinese serfs toiled to grow food for them. The Manchu “bannermen” were also mostly of non-Chinese descent, and formed the elite core of the Qing army.


The infantry soldiers who came to dominate the battlefields of late Zhou times were armed with spears, swords and, from the 4th century BC, crossbows. This weapon was invented in the 5th century BC, and was a major step forward in a soldier’s destructive capabilities.

This selection of weapons did not change for more than a thousand years. Cavalry troops were armed with bows and arrows, and spears. In post-Han times they acquired stirrups, the first firm evidence for which is in a stone carving of the late 3rd /early 4th century in north-western China. This helped give them more stability on horseback and thus make their firing more controlled.

The Song army experimented with gunpowder weapons, the first in the world to do so. They developed a bazooka-like weapon made from bamboo for firing explosives. Another military innovation was an iron-clad cart, almost an early tank.

The Mongols developed the use of gunpowder by introducing small cannons, and in Ming times the Chinese army adopted firearms into their weaponry. Unlike in Europe, however, where numerous states were frequently at war with one another and sought military advantage through constant innovations in weaponry, the Ming and Qing forces did not benefit from improvements in gunpowder technology. This left them vulnerable to the superior armies deployed by European nations in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Naval warfare

Naval warfare in Chinese history almost always means river warfare. As such it has played a significant role, as early as the Warring States period of ancient China.

The major rivers of China provided excellent transport arteries, as well as formidable barriers to armies on the march, so controlling them was always a major objective for commanders. One of these river battles in ancient China, the Battle of the Red Cliffs in 208 CE, is a candidate for being the largest naval battle in history (at least by the number of ships involved). The vessels used seem to have been oared ships somewhat similar to the galleys – complete with rams and boarding ramps – being used in Mediterranean warfare at the same time.

Retaining command of the great Yangtze river system allowed the post-Han southern kingdom to keep the northern barbarians at bay in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE. It also enabled the Song dynasty to prevent the Jurchen from conquering the whole of China in the 12th century, and to keep the first Mongol attack on southern China from succeeding in the 13th century.

The Southern Song, indeed, were the first dynasty to establish the navy as a permanent force. They introduced important innovations such as the fast paddle-wheeled warship, and ship-based bamboo bazookas, able to throw gunpowder bombs.

Maritime warfare

Maritime warfare was certainly not unknown in Chinese history. The Ming Yongle emperor sent a series of huge naval expeditions, under the command of his admiral Zheng He, to the waters of South East Asia, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. These armadas included warships as well as large transports, and on at least one occasion (in Sri Lanka) the expeditions were involved in military operations, albeit on land.

This lang-range projection of Chinese naval power was a one-off, and in subsequent decades the Ming not only called a halt to these maritime expeditions but broke up the fleet and proved incapable of defending the coast of China against pirate attacks.

Strategic issues

The government of an enormous country like China always faced a strategic dilemma: do you concentrate your forces on the frontiers, or at the center?

If the former, you create a strong defense cordon around your territory, helping to prevent raids and invasions from beyond the frontiers. However, you create the danger of making frontier commanders very powerful, and therefore a threat to the political stability of the state. The moment you loose their loyalty, you’re in trouble.

If, on the other hand, you concentrate your forces at the center, you can keep a closer eye on your generals and minimize the threat from over-powerful frontier commanders; but you open the frontier regions to raiders. If, moreover, a major invasion develops from beyond the frontiers it will take your forces time to move forward and deal with it. By then the invasion could have caused a huge amount of destruction and have gathered a momentum difficult to stop.

The Han emperors tried to find a balance by stationing strong garrisons near the frontier but keeping large numbers of troops in and near the capital to guard the emperor and act as a strategic reserve. This worked for much of the time, but only because the threat from beyond the frontiers subsided early in the Han period and did not grow again until towards the end of the dynasty.

The Tang emperors faced more formidable foes in central Asia, and were forced to concentrate their forces along the frontiers there. It was this policy which led to the rise of the over-mighty generals who destroyed the power of the Tang central government.

Given the trouble that powerful frontier generals had caused the Tang dynasty, the Song emperors unsurprisingly concentrated the bulk of their forces around the capital, divided amongst several different commands. These commanders were placed firmly under the direction of civilian ministers. In this way the Song avoided trouble from frontier commanders; but notably, they were driven out of northern China in the 11th century by non-Chinese invaders from the north, and confined to the southern half of the country.

The Great Wall

From ancient times, the defense of China had never relied solely on military manpower. In the 5th and 4th centuries BC, the northern and western border states at most danger from raids by steppe nomads had begun to build long walls made of beaten earth to help keep these raids out. After the unification of China under the Qin, the new imperial regime merged these walls into a single system of defense.

These defensive walls were kept in good repair by the early Han, but fell into disrepair in later centuries. Learning the lesson from the misfortunes of the Song dynasty, the Ming dynasty resurrected the policy of building defensive walls, and in the 15th century rebuilt the Qin walls into the magnificent stone fortifications that can be seen today.

These have often been written off as an enormously expensive white elephant, particularly by Western historians. Nevertheless, the powerful Mongol tribes who threatened a reconquest of China in early Ming times were never able to mount a successful invasion after the Great Wall had been built; and while the Manchus were able to penetrate Ming defenses in the mid-17th century, they did so by going through the one gap in these defenses which the Ming had left. This suggests that the concept of the Great Wall was sound, and indeed was not taken quite far enough.


Economic and Social History of China

The Chinese economy and society in pre-modern times, like all economies which had advanced beyond the hunter-gatherer stage, was based on agriculture. Until the late 20th century, the great majority of China’s population lived in rural villages, farming the land for a living.

Farmers and farming

In ancient times, millet was the staple crop in northern China. Later, it was supplanted by wheat and barley. In the Yangtze basin and southern China, rice remained the main crop.

In both areas, public water management was crucial. Flood defenses and irrigation systems were the crucial to the efficient operation of agriculture and to the wellbeing of the people.

Life for farmers was hard. Not only did they have to undertake the myriad tasks of keeping themselves fed and clothed and sheltered, they were also regularly called upon to undertake communal labor such as repairing dykes, maintaining terraces and clearing irrigation channels.

The widespread misery reported by Western observers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, was by no means the usual condition through history. It was largely the consequence of the over-population of late Qing times, combined with the weakness of the Qing regime, which led to dykes falling into disrepair, rivers and canals not being drained, law and order deteriorating and mass uprisings against the government.

For most of Chinese history, land was reasonably plentiful and very productive, and despite the onerous rents or taxes that had to be paid, the majority of peasants were able to provide an adequate living for themselves. At times when they could not, the reigning dynasty faced their terrible wrath.

The farmers’ changing position in society

Their social and economic position of farmers has not been static.. In early times, under the Shang and early Zhou, they were serfs. From middle Zhou times more and more of them became free owners of their small farms.

Equal fields

In later Han times, as a new aristocracy emerged, many of the peasants again fell into serfdom. In the 5th century, however, the “equal-fields” system came in, which (in theory, at least, and apparently to a large degree in practice) ensured that the land was divided up at regular intervals to give every family enough land to live off.

The early Tang dynasty strove to ensure that peasants were free and generally content, but in the more troubled later Tang times the equal-fields system could not be maintained. Peasant were released forth supervision that this entailed, but were also without the protection of a string government. Peasants became the outright owners of their farms and market forces prevailed.

From then on, sometimes conditions favored landowners, for example under the Song, while at other times peasants have been better off. The times when peasants have benefitted most were when mass peasant rebellion, as at the end of the Yuan and Ming dynasties, led to the breaking up of landowners’ estates (often accompanied by the massacre of the owners and their families) and the distribution of the land to the peasants.

In the aftermath of both episodes, however, market forces re-asserted themselves. Many peasant families soon fell into debt, leading them to sell their lands to better-off neighbors. They then became tenants, sometimes on the large estates of great landowners, but probably more commonly on the small farms of better-off peasants.

They remained free, and thus liable to the traditional tax and labour obligations to the government.

Later imperial times

In later imperial times, the countryside throughout much of China was therefore largely a mix of tenant farmers and small peasant freeholders. Only in some small pockets did serfdom persist.

In the more economically advanced areas of China, peasant households were able to improve their position by undertaking extra work for industrialists from neighboring towns. This mainly involved spinning and weaving cloth, usually cotton or silk depending on the area.

In the 19th century, conditions for most peasants deteriorated, mainly (as we noted above) due to over-population of the later Qing period and the resulting tiny size of average farms. This was a major factor in the end of the Qing dynasty, and with it the age-old imperial system of government in China.  But this belongs in another essay.

Trade and industry in Imperial China

Trade and industry increased in China in ancient times. New crops, the spread of iron tools and new techniques in intensive farming led to population growth, the introduction of coinage facilitated trade, technological innovations such as the development of steel-making contributed to industrial expansion, and state intervention led to standardization in such things as weights and measures and road building.

Trade must have taken a massive hit in the chaos following the fall of the Han empire, however. Moreover, conditions probably did not become truly favorable for commerce and industry again until the reunification of China under the Sui dynasty.

The Grand Canal

It was this dynasty which took probably the single biggest step forward in China’s pre-modern economic history. This was the construction of the Grand Canal.

This knit the huge country together economically by turning the inland waterways of China into a single transport system. Goods could now be shipped by river or canal from one region to any other within China proper. This was much less expensive than carrying them by land, and much less dangerous than transporting them by sea.

This was a major factor in the economic expansion which China experienced from Sui and Tang times through the the end of the Song period. The importance of the Grand Canal to this can be seen in the numerous new towns which sprang up along its course. The improved access to distant markets which the canal allowed stimulated commercial growth and industrial production in many regions.

This great waterway is still very much in use today.

Economic progress under the Song

The Song dynasty, in particular, was a time of great economic progress. Major improvements in agricultural productivity, the development of the porcelain and iron, steel and coal industries, and the development of the maritime trade to South East Asia, India and the West, all made the Chinese economy by far the most dynamic in the world at that time. Its impact on society was seen in the expansion of towns and cities across China and the growth of a large urban population. The middle classes, of merchants, traders, prosperous craft workers and business managers, came to prominence at this time. The contrast with backward Europe could not have been starker.

The Mongol conquest of northern China came as a huge social and economic shock, and resulted in a  catastrophic downturn. The later conquest of southern China, under the comparatively enlightened ruler Kublai Khan, had much less of an impact. After the upheavals caused by the conquests, Kublai Khan’s reign saw trade and industry in China revive to something like its previous levels. Kublai Khan himself promoted economic reconstruction in the country, repairing canals (including the Grand Canal) and resettling populations in northern China.

In the later imperial period, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, the main thrust of economic development was in the intensification of trade in the interior of China. The textile industry – especially silk and cotton – became much more widely dispersed. More and more of the countryside was brought into the market economy, and a host of local market towns appeared where only villages had existed before.

Each small town acted as the hub of a local market system embracing several villages. This enabled industrialists to put out work to rural workers, who were thus able to boost their incomes and create a demand for manufactured goods previously beyond their means – which of course further stimulated trade and production.


Metal coinage was used in China from ancient times. In late Tang times, paper money began to be introduced, and under the Song the spread of printing allowed this practice to expand enormously.

Unfortunately the use of paper currency led in time to high levels of inflation, and was abandoned in early Ming times. Ming and Qing coinage was based on silver, and the great abundance of this metal flowing in from the Americas (via the Spanish, based in the Philippines) stimulated the commercial expansion of this period.

International trade

International trade first gained prominence under the Han dynasty. By gaining control over the eastern steppes of central Asia, the Han enabled the “Silk Road”, that great trade route across Asia to the Middle East and Europe, to become established. At the same time, the conquest of south China opened up the maritime trade to South East Asia, and Canton began its long history as a center of international commerce.

International trade expanded under the Tang, and reached a peak under the Song,  This stimulated marked improvements in Chinese ship design and construction as well as navigation and seafaring, to the point where they may well have been the best in the world this time.

From Song times onwards, with periods of interruptions, major Chinese industries produced for export as well as for domestic markets. Silks and porcelains were exported in prodigious quantities.

Under the Mongols

International trade was probably the sector of the Chinese economy which benefitted most from Mongol rule. Trade along the Silk Road, now entirely under Mongol control, flourished. The maritime trade routes from the southern Chinese ports to South East Asia also continued to thrive under Mongol rule.

International trade under the Ming and Qing dynasties

The later dynasties, the Ming and Qing, discouraged international trade, restricting it to the southern ports – later, to Canton alone, where foreign merchants were strictly confined. Foreign trade nevertheless continued, and vast quantities of spices, textiles, ivory and above all silver bullion were brought into China in exchange for highly prized silks and porcelain. The small group of Chinese merchants who handled this trade, the Hongs of Canton, became the merchant-princes of their day.

Another form of international trade reached its peak in late imperial times. During this period the tribute system became established throughout East and South East Asia (with Japan the only country to stand aloof). This involved regular diplomatic missions from the tributary countries to the Chinese court. A central feature of these missions was the giving and receiving of gifts, which amounted to a form of trade. Also, accompanying the missions were large contingents of merchants, and much trading was carried on at the same time as the more refined diplomatic activity.

Merchants and craftsmen in Chinese society

Despite the fact that, according to the traditional Chinese view, artisans and merchants were the least favored of the four classes in society, these groups were usually better off than the peasants, often considerably so. In particular, merchants rose in wealth and status from late Zhou times, and some individuals became extremely rich and influential.

Merchants and manufacturers naturally benefitted from the expansion of trade which began in Sui and Tang times, and which lated until at least the 13th century. Under the Song, the urban middle classes become a substantial segment of the population, and wealthy merchants began to mingle on an almost equal basis with the gentry.

These developments became even more marked under the Ming and Qing dynasties. As market towns proliferated, landowners began to invest in local markets. Many left their country estates for the town, and mixed socially with the business community. In later imperial times many wealthy merchants became accepted members of the upper ranks of Chinese society.

The Population of China

Censuses were taken regularly from Han times onwards, so it is possible to track the population history of China in a way not possible in any other region of he world.

The Han empire at its height in the late first century BCE had about 60 million inhabitants. Due to the troubles which beset China in mid-Han times at the time of the  Wang Mang episode, and then again, in a much more prolonged way in the centuries after the fall of that empire, the population was probably not able to reach that level again until Song times.

Then, however, population growth took off. With internal peace, new crops and farming techniques, and a better transport network centered in the Grand Canal, the population doubled in 11th century to over 100 million.

The Mongol period brought another major reverse, down to 60 millions, but from the beginning of Ming times growth resumed, and never stopped. New crops from the Americas as well as new strains of rice, were particularly important in this process. By the end of the Ming dynasty it stood at perhaps 160 millions, and then more than doubled under the Qing dynasty to 450 millions.

The Spread of the Chinese people

Population growth was accompanied by the geographical expansion of the Chinese people. During the ancient period, up to the end of the Han dynasty, they spread out across northern China and down into the Yangtze region.

By the end of the Han dynasty, however, the great majority of the Chinese still lived in northern China. The Yangtze region, and still more the far south and southwest, remained under-populated frontier regions inhabited largely by non-Chinese peoples.

This population distribution changed dramatically over the coming millennium. Repeated bouts of turmoil in the north – rebellions, invasions, social and politics upheavals – triggered an ongoing mass migrations to the safer south.

The increase in population in the south, however, was not simply down to various waves of settlement from the north. Probably the major cause was the fact that rice is the staple crop here. This very nutritious plant created the conditions for strong population growth, and it is hardly surprising that southern China came to be the home for the majority of Chinese. From being around 10% of the population of China in Han times, in early Ming times the south had at least 75% of the population.

In Ming and Qing times there was a deliberate attempt to repopulate the north. By mid-Qing times the population of northern China had recovered to about a third of the total.


One other long-term demographic trend in Chinese history was the drift from the countryside to towns and cities.

The majority of the Chinese population remained farmers right up to the late 20th century, living in rural communities. Nevertheless, over the millennia towns and cities multiplied across China, and the proportion of the population living in them increased. From about 10% of the population in Han times, by mid-Qing times (mid- to late-18th century) the urban populations made up perhaps a quarter of the whole. This made it one of the most urbanized of all pre-industrial societies, on a par with mid-18th century England.

The Ruling Classes

The iconic personification of the Chinese ruling class was the scholar-official. However, this personage took centuries – millennia, even – to emerge in his full glory.

The rise of the gentry

The societies of early China, under the Shang and early Zhou dynasties, were dominated by an hereditary feudal aristocracy. Later, however, the position of this group declined, and a new social class emerged, that of the gentry – small landowners who provided rulers with their growing number of officials. By the time of the Qin and Han dynasties, a career in government was effectively open only to members of the gentry class.

A new aristocracy….

However, by mid-Han times a new class of great landowners was emerging, its members enriched by holding high office. This new super-elite became entrenched at the top of society and politics at the end of the Han dynasty and in the centuries that followed. It enhanced its position by intermarrying with the non-Chinese tribal nobilities which entered northern China in the third and fourth centuries CE.

The resulting aristocracy possessed a hybrid, drawing on its dual heritage. The Chinese one was literary, bureaucratic, largely (but by no means exclusively) civilian in character – a large part of their education lay in learning the Confucian Classics. The barbarian strain gave it a military quality, with boys learning to  shoot accurately, fight on horseback and endure hardship. It was this mingled culture that would produce the able leaders who founded the Sui and Tang dynasties, together with their generals.

…and a revived gentry

As central power increased again in China, the tables began to turn against this aristocracy. The first indication of this came with a measure to bring the peasantry back under the control of central government through the “equal-fields” system. This allocated a share of land to each family according to the size of the households, and as a by-product placed peasant families under the direct authority of the sates, rather than of feudal-style landowners. This did not seriously diminish the economic power of the great landowners, however, and under the Sui and early Tang dynasties, both of which were drawn from this class, they dominated the high offices of state.

In mid- and late-Tang times, however, the aristocracy was destroyed in a series of civil wars and peasant rebellions. This paved the way for the rise of the gentry class again, members of small landowning families who entered the civil service career in droves as the imperial examination system expanded.

Thereafter until the end of imperial times, the famed “scholar-officials” – officials who had been successful in the public exams – dominated the civil service, which was the preeminent institution of government in China. They were drawn from a huge number of families – more than a hundred thousand – and their wealth was based on office-holding, landownership and, increasingly, commercial investments.

A meritocracy

No new hereditary landed aristocracy was able to emerge in later imperial times. The examination system was extremely competitive, and this prevented high office from becoming the preserve of a small group of families.

Whilst individuals within the gentry group could grow extremely wealthy by rising to powerful positions within the civil service, moreover, there was a strong tendency for the wealth thus gained to dissipate over the following two generations. A family’s estates became divided, and then subdivided, amongst a host of male descendants of the original founder, who in most cases had several wives and concubines to ensure an abundance of heirs. As a result, the Chinese office-holding elite was, to a remarkable extent, able to remain a meritocracy, albeit one that rested its claims of a rather narrow academic tradition.

Technological advances

The economic and official life of China has fostered major technological advances, with consequences for the world as a whole. The following are the most famous examples.

The manufacture of steel was developed in later Zhou times.

Paper was invented by an official in late Han times to cope with the rising amount of written documents being written and read by civil servants.

Wood block printing came into use in late Tang times, at least in part to meet the demand for text books for those studying for the official civil service examinations.

The compass was originally developed, again probably in late Tang times, by Daoist devotees to help them along buildings and graves properly.

Printed navigation charts were developed by Chinese sailors in Song times, as they voyaged further and further into unfamiliar seas.

Gunpowder was invented by a Daoist alchemist, in Tang times, for use as in fireworks. Later in Song times it began to be used as a weapon of war.

Paper money came into use in late Tang times, and spread into common use under the Song dynasty.

Porcelain gradually emerged in early Song times after centuries of trial and error in attempts to make the finest ceramics possible for the imperial court.

A list of other technical advances of less note but still great importance which were made include seed drills, wheelbarrows, stirrups, the horse collar, clock mechanics and canal locks.


The Family

The traditional Chinese family was a large group of people who traced their ancestry back to a single male ancestor, with the family name and identity passing through its males, from father to sons.

Veneration of Ancestors

For the Chinese, the family is of almost sacred significance, an attitude giving rise to, and reinforced by, the practice of ancestor veneration.

The existence of ancestor veneration is attested in the earliest texts from ancient China, the Shang dynasty oracles, and throughout China’s long history the rise and decline of “higher” religions and modes of thought – Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism and so on – never undermined the practice, which might with some justification be thought of as the basic sacred tradition of China.


Amongst the early Zhou aristocracy, groups of families tracing their descent from a common ancestor formed clans. These were of great importance, as the different families within a clan felt duty bound to support one another in ups and owns of political life.

Their power was largely destroyed in the conflicts of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, and by Han times clans had lost their political significance. The continued practice of ancestor veneration kept the idea of the clan alive, however, it became an important social unit again, and remained so throughout the rest of China’s pre-modern history. In later imperial times (Ming and Qing dynasties) clans became corporate organization to provide its members with welfare, education and group solidarity.


Women had a subordinate place in the Chinese family from ancient times, and it tended to decline further over time.

A trend which began to appear in China in late Tang times was that upper class women increasingly lived in isolation within their houses. A little later, under the Song, foot binding for women began to spread amounts the upper classes. Tiny feet became a mark of feminine beauty, and women in wealthier families continued this practice until the 20th century.


Culture in China: Thought, Literature and Art

By the time China emerged as a literate civilization, some of the key elements in later Chinese belief were already present: Di (Heaven), the Dao (“the Way”), ancestor veneration, fen-shut and other divination practices.

It was in mid- and late-Zhou times however, that a number of new schools of thought would emerge which profoundly shaped Chinese thought, notably Legalism, Daoism, Mohism and Confucianism.

Whereas the Qin dynasty promoted Legalist principles, the succeeding Han dynasty enshrined Confucianism as the official state ideology. It remained so until the end of imperial China in the early 20th century, but not without its ups and downs.

In late Han times and after, Buddhism, came to prominence, and reached the height of its influence in Sui and Tang times. The decline of Buddhism in late Tang times was followed by the resurgence of Confucianism, or at least a new version of it. A series of Confucian thinkers reformed the ancient philosophy to such a degree that modern scholars often label the reformed teachings “Neo-Confucianism”.

Under the Song dynasty, Neo-Confucianism became the dominant ideology of China, and more or less remained so until the end of the imperial period.


China has produced probably the largest body of literature of any civilization in the world.

A small number of works, dating to Zhou and Han times, had the status of “Classics“, and almost had the status which religious scriptures had in other cultures. They embodied the foundations of Confucian thought, and had a profound influence on Chinese civilization.

The standardization of the Chinese script under the Qin dynasty laid the groundwork for the rise of a uniform nation-wide literature in later centuries. While variations in spoken language meant that people from different parts of China could not understand each other, they could all read the same texts. This was reinforced by the fact that all members of the gentry class, from Han times onwards, were educated in the same Confucian curriculum, based on the “Classics”. They shared a common literary heritage.

Another feature of the history of Chinese literature is its continuity. In western Europe, only a thin, fragile thread of literary output runs through the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire. Chinese literature, however, was comparatively unaffected by the turmoils which accompanied the fall of dynasties.

None of this means that Chinese literature remained static and hide-bound. It was constantly drawing on a vast stock of oral tradition, from all parts of the huge country, and so was constantly refreshed by new strains of narrative and style.

The spread of printing under the Song dynasty greatly stimulated the production of books, and the literary output of the Chinese people burgeoned. Much of this was of course mediocre, but a huge amount was of very high quality indeed.


The history of Chinese poetry has been largely characterized by the development and interaction between two deep-rooted traditions, the one (Shih) written in a compact, spare style, the other (Fu) in longer, more ornate verses. Much of the history of Chinese poetry is the extraordinarily creative way in which these two contrasting styles with each other.

In Tang times, influences from central Asia, and perhaps the Middle East, enriched Chinese poetry, and the mid-Tang period is traditionally regarded as the moment when Chinese poetry reached its peak.

Under the Mongols a new wave of poetic influences came into China from central Asia, which gave Chinese poetry a renewed emphasis on expressing strong emotions.


Street entertainers – singers, dancers, jugglers, storytellers – had been popular in China since ancient times, but it was in the Song era that they began to evolved into musical dramas. Works of outstanding quality were soon being produced, for example The Romance of the West Chamber, composed in the early 13th century.

Prose Fiction

Ancient Chinese literature included a vast number of short, simple stories, often amusing or fantastical. These later became more realistic, and started to be written in everyday language.

In Ming and Qing times, this tradition began to produce the first novels, and it was not long before Chinese novelists were producing some of the greatest fictional works in world history.

Prose Non-fiction

The finest examples of Chinese non-fiction literature are found in the field of history. the bar was set high as early as the Han dynasty, when arguably China’s greatest historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-87 BCE), pioneering the production of dynastic chronicles. This became a major feature of Chinese historical writing ever after.

In later times, historical works covered more and more specialist subjects, such as on legal matters, public institutions, and different regions. Gazetteers (histories and geographies of particular localities and regions), were also very popular.



In China, sculpture was treated more as a craft than an art. It had not been important in ancient times, its most notable achievement being the large, clunky carved lions and other animals stationed along the roads to imperial tombs and palaces.

In the post-Han period, strong Buddhist – and therefore Indian – influences were felt. The outstanding works of the era were the huge Buddhist cave statues of northern China. In the later images, sensuous curves gave way to more formal lines – Chinese sensibilities asserted themselves.

This form of art reached a peak in Tang times, but declined thereafter, as the influence of Buddhism waned.


The queen of the arts was painting, which in China included calligraphy. This art form was the only one which could properly be practiced by members of the elite.

The canons of Chinese painting were laid down in the period after the fall of the Han. These included such elements as brushwork, revealing of the inner essence of a subject, and often in tension with this), faithfulness to reality.

Artists strove for a balance between realism and design, and as tastes changed so the balance shifted between these two elements.

Chinese painting never focussed on human portraiture to the extent that Western art has done. Instead, it reached its most sublime expression in the wonderful landscapes from late Tang times onwards.

Craft work

In ancient China, the Shang and Zhou periods were famous above all for bronze casting.

Later, such metalwork, together with pottery and sculpture, came to be viewed as craftwork. This was held in some contempt by the elite, but this did not stop craftsmanship reaching extremely high levels in a wide range of crafts, and above all in ceramics. Chinese porcelain was unmatched anywhere else in the world, and from Song times onwards, was highly sought after throughout South Asia, the Middle East and later Europe.