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Introduction to the Chin Dynasty
The first official historical emperor of China was Shih Huang-Ti who
unified China in 221 B.C.E. by destroying the Zhou Dynasty and many
independent feudal states into which China had been split for about 500
years. His state is called the Ch’in or Qin Dynasty, which established a
centralized empire, something not seen in the West for another 1000 years
when first England and then France formed monarchies. While Shi Huang-Ti
failed to establish a long-lasting dynasty, his fifteen year imperial system
initiated the political structure of China almost uninterrupted for the next
2000 years. The Chin Dynasty’s impact on later Chinese history is
immeasurable. During his reign armies were marching day and night to
carve out his greatly expanded empire. The Middle Kingdom stretched from
the foothills of the Mongolian Plateau to the Yangtze River Basin. A satirical
couplet described the emperor as a “Man with a prominent nose, large eyes
with the chest of a bird of prey, the face of a jackal, and the heart of a tiger
or a wolf.” He ruled using legalism as his modus operandi. It was said that
he lived in constant fear of assassination, moving from place to place. Only
a handful of eunuchs knew where he was. Is this not shades of the world
Policies and Accomplishments of the Chin Emperor
Many administrative measures were taken to reinforce his centralized
control. A detailed census of the whole empire was taken, recording the
number of households, heads of families, their names, ages, birthplaces.
This census listed sixty million people. Not until twelve centuries later would
the first census be taken in the West; the Doomsday Book as it is called in
1087 in England under King William the Conqueror, who several decades
earlier had invaded and won his “Holy War” prize. As a consequence of this
Chinese census, the ruler could now levy poll taxes, corvee, and military
service. The written Chinese language was simplified and made uniform
over the whole country, although many dialects were still spoken. The next
steps were standardizing the weights, measures and coinage. This new
round coin with a square hole became the means of exchange for the next
2000 years plus. Roads were constructed to the far-reaches of the empire,
and standard dimensions were imposed for axles, and all chariots and carts.
This common gauge made it possible to traverse over the wheel ruts (like in
American when the covered wagons went West over the same ruts,) which
greatly increased trade. Relying on his beliefs in legalism, Huang-Ti burned
the books from the past, including Confucius’ ideas. Allowing men to give
opinions based on the past he thought would ruin his legalistic state, and
private learning was prohibited as well. Death penalties were given to
anyone citing classical works. We have illustrations to show that scholars
quoting Confucius were buried alive. He did allow reference books on
medicine, divination, and agriculture to be excluded from his ban book
Great Wall of China
To protect against the barbarian Huns of the North, he launched one of
the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by man. Protection from these
barbarian nomads had preoccupied Chinese rulers for many centuries, and
many small barrier walls had been erected by various feudal states during
the Zhou Period. This Chin emperor decided to connect all these separate
walls into a single massive fortification that stretched almost 1800 miles. (It
is said that the government conscripted through the corvee process one
million men to build this wall.
Many legends were told about the sacrifices
of the people mobilized to build the wall. One of the most famous is about
Meng Jiangnu whose husband was conscripted to work on the wall. During
the years of separation she longed for her husband’s return. Finally, she set
out to search for him. When she arrived at the eastern end, she learned
that her husband was dead, and that his remains were buried beneath the
wall. She wept such poignant copious tears that the Great Wall fell apart in
compassion where she stood and exposed the bones of her beloved
husband. A temple was built in her memory, and still stands at
The wall you see today mainly dates from the Ming Dynasty 14-17th centuries or 1600 years later.
Burial Site of the Chin Emperor
In 1974 archaeologists found an impressive site with 7000 life-size
terra cotta soldiers equipped with real weapons and chariots, and terra cotta
horses. This was the monumental burial for the Chin Emperor. No two of
the soldiers are alike, and they seem to be copied from live models. Since
the entire site including his actual burial tomb has not been excavated yet,
more surprises may surface. According to scholars, the construction of the
first emperor’s mausoleum took thirty-six years and engaged 700,000
artisans. Also recreated in this subterranean chamber was his entire court,
complete with palace buildings, and representations of the major mountains
and rivers, using mercury for the liquid. Armed mechanical crossbows were
strategically placed inside the tumulus to deter grave robbers. Numerous
artisans were buried alive inside the tomb because they knew too much.
Some 2200 years later this awesome site inspires and warns of the power of
government and man.
The Han Dynasty
Following the Chin emperor’s death, there was a struggle for the
throne. Getting the “Mandate from Heaven”, the winner established the Han
Dynasty in 206 B.C.E. and lasted until 220 C.E.). It appears that the Han
Dynasty came to power on the wave of peasant revolts, so the first
emperors took steps to improve the life of the common Chinese people.
Taxes were cut, harsh laws of the Chin Dynasty removed, people who had
sold themselves as slaves were freed, and soldiers were told to go back to
their farms. With the ban on books lifted too, scholars began to restore
Confucian classics. Teachings of Confucius and his followers became the
official word of the state. A system was started in which anyone who
wanted to be involved in the government had to pass a series of tests on
Confucian Classics. From the Han period up to almost the present day, this
was the most important way to get ahead in China; to do well on these civil
service examinations. Only sons of wealthy and noble families were allowed
to take these exams during the Han Dynasty. Those successful on the tests,
became the new ruling group in China, and were called the Mandarins by the
Attacks of the Huns did not stop when the Han took over, and these
long and costly wars took their toll on Chinese society. Large numbers of
peasants needed to be drafted once again, farmland was not cared for,
people were starving in times of flood and drought, and taxes went to pay
for wars. Peasants lost their land for not paying their taxes, and then the
landlords grew in power and wealth. This led to infighting between them
and the emperor. Consequently, the peasants formed secret societies to
plot against their landlords. This pattern of war, landlords growing richer,
and peasants getting poorer, repeated itself century after century. It was
widespread revolt that finally brought down the Han Dynasty in 221 C.E.
Under the Han rulers China more than doubled in size geographically.
At its peak the Han Dynasty equaled the Roman Empire in brilliance and
military power. To this day, native Chinese call themselves Han people,
sons of Han, as well as sons of the Yellow Emperor. This was done to
distinguish themselves from the minority groups of barbarian descent.
majority of the Chinese population in these early dynasties was farmers.
Peasants held varying amounts of land, but few produced more than they
needed. Only some were able to sell their surplus. Many peasants had little
or no land of their own, and were forced to labor for wealthy landlords,
paying him dues, just like in Medieval Feudal Europe. Slaves were another
group of people who could be bought and sold, and even killed by their
owners. A name for slaves in Chinese literally meant animal people. A
proclamation surviving from this time classified runaway servants with stray
cattle. Slaves also worked on public works projects.
Family and Marriage Customs of the Ancient Chinese and the Plight
of Girls and Women
Family and marriage customs of these Ancient Chinese people are
intriguing, and many are doleful. As the family was patriarchal and
extended, the eldest male was the decider over the two to three generations
in residence. According to an old Chinese proverb: “the most beautiful and
talented daughter is not as desirable as a deformed son.” Preference for
boys was so open that in upper-class families the cherished son was
occasionally given a girl’s name during his childhood in the belief that the
evil spirits would think the child was a girl, less valuable, and would pass
him by. Birth of a male heir was considered a matter of utmost urgency,
and was sought by every possible magical, medical and spiritual means. The
birth of a daughter was greeted with considerably less enthusiasm.
Marriages, especially among the elite, were arranged by parents. The bride
was brought to the home of her in-laws, and she was on probation for three
months. Her main duty was to produce a son. There is considerable
evidence however those women from powerful scholar/gentry households
enjoyed more freedom and status in the Han Dynasty era than in later
Chinese History. While political positions were reserved for males, women
could sometimes exert powerful influence from behind the throne. Although
Confucian scholars down through the centuries held the view that women
were unfit for politics.2 “A woman with a long tongue is a stepping-stone to
disorder. Disorder does not come down from heaven. It is produced by
women. Those from [whom] come no lessons, no instruction, are women
and eunuchs.”
Peasant girls and women suffered even more prejudice than upperclass women. Peasant fathers, who were unwilling or unable to support a
girl, sometimes drowned the newborn. This practice of infanticide, though
probably never very common, increased during times of economic hardship.
This is the same as John Calvin’s views in Reformation Europe.
Girls were often placed as a cook, musician, or concubine in the home of a
wealthy person. Sometimes while still quite young, a girl might be
purchased by a farsighted individual who wanted her for a future daughterin-law. Any girl who did not dutifully serve her parents and grandparents
was to receive 100 strokes of the Pan-Tse (bamboo stick). If she was
insulting toward them she was strangled, and if she wounded them she was
tortured and then cut up into pieces. No matter what her circumstances, a
woman could look forward to a life of subjugation under her father and
eldest brother in her childhood, and under her husband and his mother after
her marriage, and then to her own sons upon her husband’s death. Her only
opportunity for self-assertion came through her sons’ marriages when she
became a mother-in-law. Once married a Chinese young maiden was known
by only two surnames, her husband’s and her father’s. She had no first
name. Only husbands could obtain divorces, not wives. Grounds for divorce
were the following: if the wife was barren, if she had an illness which
provoked disgust such as leprosy, had a chronic illness, if she was neglectful
of her father-in-law, talked too much, spread malicious gossip, committed
adultery, or was jealous when her husband took another wife or a concubine
and brought them to the home to live.
Religious Beliefs and Practices of the Ancient Chinese
Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, while based in China during the late 19th and early 20th century, clearly relates all
these thousands of years’ negative of treatment of females.
By the end of the Zhou Dynasty, basic religious patterns were evident.
The state was to perform sacrifices to the Gods, chiefly ones of Heaven and
Earth. This continued until the beginning of the twentieth century. The
Altar of Heaven with the temples and the square altar of Earth still stand in
Beijing today. Signifying the water god, the Dragon in Chinese religion and
culture represented strength and fertile beneficence of rain. It was not the
maiden-eating one of Western mythology. Early on the dragon became the
emblem of the Emperor or son of Heaven. His throne was the dragon
throne. No one else was entitled to use the dragon symbol.
The extended Chinese family’s duty was to worship their ancestors
with sacrifices. The Chinese believed that a human had two souls, the Po,
which was the animal or life soul, and the Hun, which was the spiritual or
personality soul, similar to the Ba and Ka for the ancient Egyptians. Both
souls became separated from the body at death, but they could be kept alive
by sacrifices upon which they fed. While the life soul (Po) gradually decayed
as the body decayed after death, the spiritual or personality soul (Hun)
survived as long as it was remembered, and received sacrifices from the
living. This Hun or spiritual soul had numerous powers. It could respond to
questions and requests, and even could postpone death of its descendants.
It also was capable of doing harm.
If the Po or life soul was neglected, it
could become a demon and haunt the living. These demons or ghosts as
they were often referred to were serious threats to the Chinese people. Male
descendants were necessary to perform sacrifices to prevent dire
consequences. The downfall of a kingdom or dynasty was described in
histories of China using the phrase “sacrifices were interrupted.” Because of
ancestor worship in China, great attention was paid to the funeral and
mourning rituals. Neglect of mourning rites for parents was the most
serious offense. Up to three years for mourning was followed in many
stages of Chinese history with some degree of withdrawal from public life.
Wearing coarse garments was also practiced. This was why the final resting
place of the deceased was extremely important and of great consequence for
the descendants. The seismograph was invented by the Chinese to detect
earthquakes so that your departed relatives would not be on a fault line.
Initially the peasants did not practice ancestor worship. By the Han
period, however, they worshipped their deceased relatives. Peasants also
worshipped local deities of the earth and fertility. One of the Chinese
creators was Nu Wa, a goddess who had the body of a snake, or in another
version mated with her brother to produce the Chinese people. Shamans of
both genders communicated with the spirit world. Very early in Chinese
History this shamanistic practice was eliminated from the religious practices
of the upper class. One of the festivals for the peasants shows one of their
rituals. A beautiful young maiden was chosen from a village, fattened up for
a year, and then placed on a raft in the Yellow River. She became the
symbolic “Bride of the River,” to enjoy or suffer her fate.
Chinese trade and the Silk Road
China has been famous for thousands of years regarding its export
trade. It was the Han emperors that opened the trade routes to the West,
with the introduction of the “Silk Road.” Until these times there was
practically no contact between China and the Western regions. Now Chinese
caravans went to India, Persia, and the Mediterranean countries. Foreign
interest for silk was greater than China’s interests in anything the West had
to offer with the exception of Arabian Horses. After the opening of the Silk
Road references to China began to appear in Western literature. Chinese
silk eventually reached the Roman Empire, where it was so highly prized by
Roman ladies that the demand for it was said to have caused a drain of gold
and silver. The spice trade was established too. Through China’s contact
with Southeast Asia, tea was introduced. At first it was a medicinal
beverage, but later it was popular for all purposes. Tea was often boiled
with rice, ginger, salt, onion, orange peel and milk. When the practice of
drinking tea by itself developed, it later became ritualized.
Scientific, Medical, and Technological Advances of the Ancient
During these ancient times in China, they cleverly introduced and
invented scientific and technological advances. Papermaking, after its early
invention, spread from China to Japan, Korea, India, and Arabia, 1000 years
before it was introduced in Europe. Under the Han, the first dictionaries and
general history of China were written. Chang Heng, 78-139 C.E. became a
famous astronomer, mathematician, poet, and inventor. His invention of the
seismograph, of which we have early renditions, insured his place in history.
Surviving loved ones could now know where a region in China was rocked by
earthquakes, and not bury their dead in this place. Another astonishing
invention that acted in tandem with the Chinese reverence for their
ancestors was acupuncture. It is thought this method of treating a variety
of illnesses goes back to the third century B.C.E. and by the Han times it
was perfected. All sorts of illnesses could be cured with acupuncture:
asthma, ulcers, arthritis, and poor eyesight. The Chinese believed that a
life-force flows through the body along definite paths. When the flow is
blocked or when the forces of Yin and Yang are out of balance in the body,
then acupuncture needles were used to restore good health.
students in Ancient China tested their acupuncture skills on bronze models.
Acupuncture is used today in lieu of anesthetics to perform major surgeries
with little or no pain.