Unification, Disunity, Unification, Disunity:
The History of China From 221 BC to 1271 AD

The Qin Dynasty

The rule of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC) was short but significant. After unifying China, Emperor Qin Shi Huang set up a centralized and bureaucratic state, with its capital near modern-day Xian, which would lay the foundations for the next 2000 years of imperial rule of China. He imposed a system of strict legalism (in opposition to the teachings of Confucius) and continued campaigning beyond the borders of what was then considered China. Qin Shi Huang also ordered the creation of roads and canals, better integrating the empire, and even an early version of the Great Wall of China, designed to keep out northern barbarians. Another great project was the Army of Terracotta Warriors, which were built to guard the Emperor’s tomb and are now one of the biggest tourist attractions in China.

Though a brutal and eccentric ruler, Qin Shi Huang achieved much before his death in 210 BC. However, he failed to properly designate a successor, and within three years of his passing the Qin Dynasty had fallen.

Significance: The Qin Dynasty laid the foundation for the next 2000 years of imperial rule over China. The Army of Terracotta Warriors at the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang are an essential sight for most visitors to China.

The Han Dynasty

It was a peasant by the name of Liu Bang that overthrew the Qin Dynasty and instituted the Han Dynasty. Something of a golden age in Chinese history, the Han Dynasty lasted some 400 years (206 BC – 220 AD), aside from a short, 14 year disruption about halfway through. During this period Confucianism was adopted as the state philosophy, the empire was expanded, agriculture and commerce flourished, paper was invented and the first journeys were made along the Silk Road.

Significance: During the Han Dynasty the various tribes of the empire began to think of themselves as being the same people. Consequently Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group in China, take their name from this dynasty.

The Three Kingdoms Period and the Sui Dynasty

But peace and unity was not to last. The Han Dynasty crumbled and it would be centuries before a strong, united China would reappear. Immediately following the Han Dynasty came the Three Kingdoms Period (220 – 280 AD). Though it might have been brief, this highly romanticized era is a focus of much literature and art, most notably the classic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Revered leaders and strategists such as Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang lived in this period: the Wuhou shrine in Chengdu pays tribute to them and is also supposed to be the final resting place of Liu Bei.

The following three hundred years saw a split between the north and south of China and a multitude of kingdoms vying for power. Warfare was constant and borders changed continually. But it was during this period that Buddhism began to pervade China, and a Chinese form of Buddhism emerged. In 589 AD China was reunited under the Sui Dynasty (581 – 618 AD). Much like the earlier Qin Dynasty, the Sui Dynasty is most notable for achieving Chinese unification, but their plans were a little too ambitious and the dynasty was quick to fall. Also like the Qin Dynasty, the Sui Dynasty paved the way for a new golden age in China under Tang Dynasty. The Grand Canal (an amazing engineering feat linking Beijing to Hangzhou) was constructed during this period.

Significance: Though tumultuous, this period (especially the Three Kingdoms) remains a great source of artistic inspiration. The recent Chinese blockbuster “Red Cliff” is based on events at the fall of the Han Dynasty and start of the Three Kindoms Period. It is also noteworthy as the time when Buddhism truly arrived in China.

The Tang Dynasty

The Tang Dynasty (618-907) was a golden age for China. The empire stretched further than it ever had previously and Chinese culture developed and flourished. Indeed, the Tang Dynasty is perhaps best known for the number of great poets, such as Du Fu, Li Bai and Bai Juyi, and artists who lived during it. The Tang Dynasty was the high-point for Chinese Buddhism, with the religion being adopted and promoted by the state until towards the end of the dynasty. Commerce also prospered with the newly built Grand Canal improving trade between north and south and traffic along the Silk Road increasing. At this time the capital of the empire, Chang’An (now Xi’An), is said to have been the most populous and most cosmopolitan city in the world. But continual rebellions and attacks by regional governors eventually took its toll and led to the downfall of this great era of Chinese history.

Significance: The Tang Dynasty is best known for the cultural relics it produced: both great literature and great works of art, especially Buddhist art. Chinese historical museums, especially the Shaanxi History Museum in Xian, are littered with beautiful pieces from the Tang Dynasty.

The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period and the Song Dynasty

In the same old pattern, a period of conflict and disunity followed the fall of the Tang Dynasty. The empire was at its most fractured during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907 – 960), before the Song Dynasty restored some form of unity to the country. However, rival powers remained in the north (Liao Dynasty) and in the west (Western Xia Dynasty). Then along came the Jurchens (forebears of the Manchu), who in 1127 took the Song capital of Kaifeng, forcing the Song to set up a new capital in Hangzhou. Fighting continued until a peace treaty was signed in 1141, ceding all of northern China to the Jurchen where the Jin Dynasty was established.

With peace more or less established, the Song Dynasty prospered. Great advances were made in science and technology with gunpowder weapons the most notable invention of the period. The Song also established China’s first navy. Culture and the arts were not neglected either with many great works produced during the period, which also saw a rebirth of Confucianism. But while life under the Song Dynasty was good, there were rumblings far to the north. The Mongols were making their move.

Significance: The advent of gunpowder weapons and the blossoming of Hangzhou as a center of culture and enlightenment were key features of this period. Song Dynasty architecture, particularly temples (some can still be seen), had a distinctive style.