The (First) Rise of Classical China

Two classical dynasties set up China to be a relatively unified and stable powerhouse for the next 2,000 years.

The Warring states period

After the fall of the Zhou dynasty, (which we didn’t talk about at all because I know nothing about them, don’t worry about) there was a period of chaos in China known as the Warring States Period. It was a period when different states warred. Yep. This is why they pay me the big bucks.

The most important thing to come out of this period is a variety of ideas about how to stop the chaos. Three main philosophies emerged all with different opinions about how to respond to political chaos – I’m going to go through each of them because 1. they are all incredibly important to Chinese culture forever and 2. it seems like more than a few people out there might be looking for different strategies for coping with political chaos. Just saying.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert in eastern philosophy so I’m sorry in advance if I get something wrong. It’s really confusing to a lot of people from the west – we’re used to much more cut and dry religions: good and evil, heaven and hell, that sort of thing. I’m not going to get into all the intricacies of eastern philosophy, but just give you the gist as it relates to politics and world history.


The first philosophy is Daoism. They’re advice? Just stay out of politics completely. These are your friends who skip past the news because it’s “too much” but then spend three hours taking Buzzfeed quizzes about which Disney prince was the hottest – you don’t need a quiz to tell you it’s Aladdin.

Daoists believe in humility and religious piety. They want you to just accept that there are things about the world that you can’t change and focus instead on your own betterment. The Dao means “the way” and is essentially the meaning of life that can only be understood by living your life according to the way. If you’re confused then welcome to the club. In grad school I had a Chinese history professor who tried to explain it this way: “The Dao is the way. If you have to ask what it is, then you do not know it.” to which I responded, Right. I don’t know what The Dao is, so I’m asking you. And then he replied, “You can’t know it if you have to ask.” It’s like the Who’s on first of Chinese philosophy.

But for our purposes, Daoism doesn’t have a big impact on rulers and empires because, by definition, they want you to stay out of it. So leaders in China never have too big of an issue with Daoists because they don’t pose any threat to their power.


Confucians, on the other hand, have a very different approach. Confucius believed that the only way to prevent the chaos of the warring states period was to install leaders who had been thoroughly educated in ethics and morality. Confucius envisioned a massive bureaucracy made up of scholars that would run the government. To enter the government even at the lowest level you would have to pass a rigorous exam on Confucian values.

These Confucian values were things like filial piety – or honoring your father. Basically, Confucius believed that everyone has a place in society and that peace would come if everyone just knew their place and stayed there. You could find out your place by understanding the Five Basic Relationships of 1) ruler to ruled 2) father to son 3) husband to wife 4) older brother to younger brother and 5) friend to friend.

The second person in each of these pairs is supposed to subordinate themselves to the former. So if everyone submits themselves to the ruler, then things will be OK (remember – this is assuming the ruler is a Confucian scholar and acts ethically). This system is highly restrictive but it does work to bring order to a chaotic China eventually. But it won’t actually get adopted as the governing philosophy until almost 700 years after Confucius’s death.


Finally, there were other philosophers who thought that Daoists and Confucians were too soft. They believed that the only way to establish order was through an autocracy where the ruler had complete power over the people. Essentially, where Confucians believe that people are inherently good and just need to be taught, these philosophers believed people were bad and would always make bad decisions if they are left alone. And This is Legalism.

Strict laws and punishments are the only thing that will keep people in line. To be clear, Confucians also believed in laws – but ultimately, they believed the best motivation for people to act good was to educate them and use, essentially, peer pressure through the Five Basic Relationships.

The basic question is which motivates you to do the right thing – respect or fear? Confucians believed that a ruler who is respected will maintain order while Legalists believe that fear is the ultimate motivator for humans. Needless to say, Legalists are not nearly as popular but they get stuff done.

the qin dynasty

This is where a guy named Shi Huangdi enters the story. He is easily THE most important person in Chinese history until, possibly, Mao Zedong. And his legacy is similarly muddled at best.

Shi Huangdi emerged from the Warring States Period victorious and established the Qin Dynasty. China gets its name from this dynasty – Qin – and Shi Huangdi becomes the first emperor of China. He sets up systems that are going to unite China for the next 2,000 years and yet his dynasty only lasts 15 years. FIFTEEN YEARS. Keep that in mind as we talk about all the things he was able to get done. Dictatorships are bad for a lot of reasons but you can’t argue that they’re inefficient.

The main thing Shi Huangdi does is use Legalist ideas to unite China. He standardizes EVERYTHING – the written language, currency, the legal system, weights and measurements. He even proclaims that all roads have to be the same width to match his standard length for cart axles so that trade could be more efficient since you wouldn’t have to keep switching carts or going off the road. This guy was Type A to the max and I love it.

He also begins the all important infrastructure project of the Great Wall. This structure will (mostly) keep out nomadic invaders from the north for 1000 years until the Mongols – who basically do everything that no one else was able to do up until that point. But we’ll get to them later.

problems in the qin dynasty

So why did the Qin Dynasty not last? Well, 300,000 peasants and convicts were sent to the north to build the wall and a lot of them died. Sometimes when they died, their bodies would be put into the wall to save a few bricks. So there’s that.

He also felt threatened by Confucian scholars who opposed his rule. He tried to purge other traditional ideas by burning books and killing scholars.

From the beginning of his rule, Shi Huangdi was obsessed with death – specifically, avoiding it. He sent some Daoist alchemist with 1,000 people out to travel China looking for the elixir of life. They never returned and legend says that they found Japan instead and settled there.1 He tried ingesting a lot of different substances that he hoped would give him eternal life, including jade and molten gold.1 A lot of these substances were toxic and its probably the reason he died. Ah, irony.

Shi Huangdi was buried in a massive underground tomb filled with thousands of terracotta soldiers, chariots, and horses. It’s believed that his tomb also had rivers of mercury, another substance believed to be the elixir of life.

shi huangdi’s legacy

But even though these terrible things happened, you have to keep in mind the way that history is written. Shi Huangdi was so busy setting up China that he didn’t get the chance to write a lot of his own version of events. And he was overthrown before he could get to it. So his successors, the Han Dynasty, which was governed by Confucian scholars, got to tell us about the Qin Dynasty. And they were slightly miffed about the whole “burying scholars alive” episode and so they were less than nice when they wrote about Shi Huangdi’s legacy.

Good or bad, Shi Huangdi was important. And China owes a lot to what he did in unifying the country. Whereas India is going to have loooong stretches of essentially anarchy between empires, China is stable and relatively unified even during periods of dynastic change. And I think a lot of that is because of Shi Huangdi.

the han dynasty

Besides the Qin, the other dynasty that has contributed the most to China’s identity is its successor the Han Dynasty. After overthrowing the Qin, they instituted Confucianism as its governing philosophy. It’s important to note that they kept most of what Shi Huangdi did – including a lot of his strict laws. But they basically put Confucianism on top of these Legalist institutions to provide a nicer justification for their rule. So people were supposed to do the right thing because of ethics, but just in case they didn’t, there were still pretty strict punishments.

The Han Dynasty is considered a Golden Age in Chinese history – the classical era is littered with Golden Ages (the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Gupta, and now the Han). While the Qin only lasted 15 years, the Han last for 400 years

They created an imperial university to teach Confucianism – by the year 2 C.E. there were 30,000 students there studying Confucius’s writing. This provided a steady pool of educated applicants to work in the government’s administration, which provided stability even during times of chaos at the top.

The han court

For example, after the death of the first Han emperor, his wife Empress Lu Zhi tried to take control by murdering a few of his sons (by other women). She also murdered and mutilated the Emperor’s preferred mistress – who also happened to be HER MOTHER. What?! She dumped her mom’s body into a toilet and left it there to show off to visitors.2 Whoa. Eventually she was killed but these types of inter-family power struggles happened constantly during the dynasty. But Confucianism provided a philosophical thread that kept China united.

The emperor’s court was typically administered by a scholarly class of men who served close to the leader. In order to keep them from becoming a threat to the dynastic succession, they were eunuchs – so it was a pretty big price to pay for influence. One of the emperor’s eunuchs is credited with inventing paper around 100 C.E.2 It’s like that Seinfeld episode where George stops having sex and all of a sudden gets really smart. Who knew 90s sitcoms were so steeped in classical Chinese history?

interaction with other classical empires

It was during the Han Dynasty that the Silk Road gets firmly established – originally to begin trading with Afghanistan, which was controlled by one of the descendants of Alexander’s generals. Eventually it stretched all the way to Rome and it establishes China, and India, as destinations for luxury goods like silk, paper, and spices.

The Han Dynasty existed at the same time as the Roman Empire. For example, the Confucian university gets established around the same time Augustus becomes emperor. The Han Dynasty fall 200 years before Rome but it’s no coincidence that their fall coincides with the end of the Pax Romana and the beginning of their decline. So if all of these empires were so great, then let’s take a look at what had to happen to cause them to fall…