The Chinese Empire was the historical time when China was ruled by an emperor. This period extended from the year 221 a. C. until 1912 d. C., with small interruptions due to civil wars or divisions of its territory in various kingdoms.
During the centuries that China was organized as an empire, eleven dynasties ruled. The first was the Qin dynasty, founded by the first emperor, while the last was the Qing dynasty. Although most were of Chinese origin, there were also some that came from other countries, such as the Yuan, from Mongolia.
The emperor had absolute powers in a highly hierarchical society. The administrative system was changing over time, until the so-called Chinese imperial examination system was implemented, which can be considered as a precedent of the current tests to access the civil service.
The vast expanse of China meant, and still does, that there were many different ethnicities, languages and traditions. Agriculture was the main economic activity, although with the passing of the centuries trade became increasingly important. In this area, the Silk Road, which linked Asia with Europe, stood out.
Origin and historical division
According to Chinese mythology, their culture appeared 5,000 years ago, with the Yellow Emperor, Huang Di. For centuries, China had been divided into small kingdoms, until Qin Shi Huang struggled to unify those states during the Warring States period.
Origin of the Chinese Empire
The kingdom of Qin, a northwestern state, had begun during the 4th century BC. C. a series of administrative and military reforms. With the weakening of the Zhou dynasty, which then controlled a fairly large territory, the Qin were conquering different states until they became the dominant kingdom two centuries later.
The king of Qin proclaimed himself Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of his dynasty in 221 BC. Precisely, the name of China comes from the name of this dynasty.
With the collaboration of a legalistic minister, Li Si, the emperor was administratively centralizing the different feudal states that he had conquered. Likewise, he also tried to unify them culturally.
The period called the early empire began with the aforementioned unification of China at the hands of Qin Shi Huang, in 221 BC. The first emperor thus ended five centuries of feudal wars in the east of present-day China.
Although the Qin dynasty ruled for a short time, the reforms introduced were essential to consolidate the empire. Qin Shi Huang abolished feudalism and established an absolute monarchy. Together with his prime minister, Li Si, he divided his territory into 36 provinces.
Another important measure to consolidate the empire was the construction of communication networks between cities. In the same way, the government unified the code of laws and the writing, in addition to standardizing units of all kinds. It was then that the engineering work of the Great Wall began.
The Qin dynasty was defeated in 206 BC. C., the year in which the four centuries of rule of the Han dynasty began. These made Confucianism the ideology of the State.
The early empire stage ended in AD 220. C., when the imperial territory was divided during the period of the Three Kingdoms and, later, during a phase of disunity called the Six Dynasties.
China lived through four hundred years of almost continuous civil war until the Sui dynasty prevailed over its rivals in 589.
The reunification of China by the Sui dynasty, in 589 AD. C., was the beginning of the Middle Empire period. The new rulers changed the system of election of their officials and promoted a great plan of public works, among which the Grand Canal stood out.
On the other hand, this dynasty also replaced the state structure and implemented a system called Three Departments and Six Ministries. This remained practically unchanged until 1911.
The Sui were overthrown by the Tang Dynasty, which held power for three centuries, until 907. After that year, China went through a very turbulent decades, known as the Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms. Northern peoples took advantage of the country’s disunity to form the Northern Dynasties.
In 960 AD. C., the Song dynasty managed to reunify almost all the central territory of China. This new government was characterized by economic, cultural and technological advances, as well as by the appearance of Neo-Confucianism.
The period of rule of the Song dynasty lasted until the conquest of China by the Mongol Empire in 1279.
The last period was the late empire, which spanned from 1368 to 1912. Its beginning came when the Mongols lost their power in China and ended with the country’s conversion into a republic. The ruling dynasties were the Ming and the Qing, although some authors also add the Yuan.
The end of this stage was due to Chinese defeats against foreign powers. The British triumph in the Opium Wars caused great instability and the Qing were forced to carry out reforms.
The Sino-Japanese War, which ended in 1895, meant that China lost control of the Korean peninsula and Taiwan, which increased the unrest of the population. In this context, the republican forces of Sun Yat-sen unleashed the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, which brought about the end of the Chinese Empire.
The size of the Chinese Empire was varying depending on the historical epoch. In some of them, it only covered parts of present-day China, while in others it included Mongolia, Japan, parts of Russia or the Korean peninsula.
Chinese culture developed along the two great rivers of the country: the Yellow, to the north; and the Yangtze, to the south.
Over time, the different imperial dynasties expanded the territory to an area of almost 11.5 million km², even greater than today’s China.
Characteristics of the Chinese Empire
Chinese culture is one of the oldest in the world and having written sources about its history for thousands of years has allowed us to know it in depth.
The Chinese Empire presented a great linguistic and cultural variety, since it was formed through the unification of different kingdoms.
From very early on, its leaders tried to unify the culture, an aspect in which the doctrines of Confucianism and Taoism were very important.
Chinese society has always been very attached to the practice of agriculture. As in other aspects, this activity was carried out according to the teachings of Confucius, a philosopher who lived between the 5th and 6th centuries BC. C.
On the other hand, its structure was highly hierarchical, with four large social strata. At the top was the emperor and his court, followed by state officials and landowners.
The military were also among the privileged classes of society, especially those of high rank.
The peasants were the base of the social pyramid and owed obedience to the landowners. Below them were only the slaves.
One of the most important characteristics of Chinese imperial architecture was the distribution of spaces in rectangular units that were joined to form a whole. The result was the construction of temples with a spectacular and dynamic exterior image, as was the case with pagodas.
The most used materials were adobe and wood. The latter was used for beams and pillars, while adobe was used for walls.
Among the most spectacular constructions built during the Chinese Empire are the Forbidden City in Beijing and the Great Wall.
Chinese art was not only limited to architecture, but also had a great development in ceramics, painting or sculpture. According to experts, although there were differences according to the reigning dynasty, its evolution was more orderly and uniform than in Europe.
Some types of art, such as porcelain, origami or watercolor, were born in China and later spread throughout the rest of the world.
Writing and literature
As noted, the oldest written Chinese records date from 5,000 years ago. Related to this, the Chinese developed calligraphy almost as a folk art. Its form of writing is based on a system of pictograms and ideograms with which complete concepts are formed.
Literature, for its part, also played an important role in the Chinese Empire. Poetry, for example, was written in the 11th century BC. C. in pieces of wood or bamboo. Woodcut allowed the Chinese to create a kind of printing press some 600 years after it was invented in Europe. They were also the ones who invented paper.
Form of government
The form of government during this long historical stage was the empire. This came when Qin shi Huang imposed a system of absolute monarchy after abolishing feudalism. Advised by his prime minister, Li Si, he divided the territory into 36 provinces, each ruled by three governors.
The rule of the Qin dynasty was based on a system called the Three Lords and Nine Ministers. The first were three senior officials, while the second body was made up of the most important ministers of the central government.
Chinese Imperial Exam
As early as 606, the Sui dynasty introduced the imperial examination system in the country, which continued until 1905. This system consisted of tests to choose the most valid among the candidates for officials.
Passing the exam and occupying one of the civil service positions was the fastest way to move up the social ladder, so it became a goal for the more educated classes.
Three departments and six ministries
On the other hand, the Sui dynasty also changed the state structure to that of the Three Departments and Six Ministries, in force almost unchanged until 1911.
The three departments that made up the system were the Secretariat, a political body that proposed reforms and imperial decrees; the Chancellery, which functioned as a council that verified that the laws did not go against the situation of the Empire; and the Department of State Affairs, in charge of applying the approved decrees.
At the head of these departments was the emperor, to whom their directors were accountable.
The written documents of the time have revealed the ruling dynasties during the early days of the Chinese Empire.
The Qing dynasty
Although his reign was very brief, between 221 a. C. to 206 a. C., this dynasty was the creator of the empire when it unified the various states existing until then.
The first emperor of that unified China was Shi Huang, who centralized power and divided the country into districts. In order for them to be well communicated, he ordered the construction of a network of roads, posts and canals throughout the empire.
Likewise, under his mandate a great wall was built to the north of the territory for defensive purposes.
This first ruler ordered the destruction of all existing books except those dealing with medicine, pharmacy and other matters that he considered useful.
The son and heir of the first emperor was a weak ruler who soon earned the animosity of the population. Liu Bang, a peasant leader, led a revolt that overthrew the monarch.
The dynasty that came to the throne was the Han, the longest of the entire imperial period (206 BC – 220 AD). In total, this dynasty consisted of 15 emperors.
The 400 years of Han rule marked the history of the country. Among other aspects, they extended the empire’s borders to the southern areas of present-day China.
The Han were also responsible for the beginning of trade with the West through the Silk Road. Another of his achievements was the invention of paper.
In this period, Confucianism was reestablished, as well as classical Chinese teachings that the Qin had rejected.
The fall of the Han dynasty caused China to enter a turbulent time that caused the disintegration of the empire. This situation lasted for three centuries, until in 581 d. C., the Sui dynasty managed to reunify the country.
The Sui dynasty reigned until 618 and was responsible for rebuilding and expanding the Great Wall and canals.
Among his main works he highlighted the Grand Canal, which linked the Huang He with the southern rivers. Thanks to this infrastructure, the transportation of rice and food from the south to the north improved.
In 618 d. C., a new dynasty, the Tang, acceded to the throne of the empire. Her stage in government lasted for almost 300 years, which became a true Golden Age for the country.
The capital at that time, Changan, became the largest city in the world, with more than a million inhabitants. From India came a new religion, Buddhism, which spread rapidly throughout the country. The Tang also promoted the arts, wood press printing, and poetry.
Borders continued to expand and trade on the Silk Road increased. The Chinese sent silk, porcelain and paper to Europe, while they received precious metals or wool.
In 868 a military rebellion broke out in the country. Thirteen years later, the rebels seized the capital and the governors of the various provinces proclaimed independence. The last emperor of the Tang dynasty was deposed in 907.
The Song dynasty came to power in 960, although divided into two different branches: the northern and the southern. Their monarchs stood out for their support of culture and science.
This stage lasted until the year 1279 and was marked by times of struggle that interrupted long periods of peace. It was then that the peoples of the steppes began to threaten the Chinese borders.
In 1206, Genghis Khan had founded the Mongol Empire after unifying the tribes of the region. He immediately organized a military campaign to extend his dominions.
Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai, conquered China in the 1970s of the 13th century and established the first foreign dynasty in the empire: the Yuan. One of his first decisions was to move the capital to Dadu, present-day Beijing.
The Mongol dynasty was in power between 1279 and 1368, a period marked by great technological development. Furthermore, trade continued to increase and it was then, for example, that the Venetian merchant Marco Polo came to China from Venice.
With the Yuan dynasty greatly weakened, the chieftain Zhu Yuanzhang led a rebellion that succeeded in overthrowing it in 1368. After his victory, he established himself in power and founded his own dynasty, the Ming (1368 – 1644).
His son, Shu Di, was the one who ordered the construction of the Forbidden City and made Beijing the official capital of the empire.
At that time, China was considered the most advanced country in the world. During the Ming dynasty there was a great cultural renaissance, the arts developed and porcelain reached its peak. Chinese merchants crossed the Indian Ocean and even reached the African continent.
On the other hand, the army was strengthened until it had a million troops. The country’s mines produced more than 100,000 tons of iron annually and the first books began to be marketed.
The last imperial dynasty was also of foreign origin. In this case, it was the Manchu of northeast China who came to power in 1644.
In this period, which lasted until 1911, two emperors stood out: Kangxi and Qianlong. Historians affirm that his mandates represented two stages of prosperity in all areas.
The Qing continued to increase the territory of the empire. Thus, they conquered Taiwan, Tibet and eastern Turkestan, thereby establishing the borders of the last stage of the empire.
Despite periods of brilliance, the end of the Qing dynasty was dire for the country. Their confrontations with the Western powers and with Japan ended in defeat and the once all-powerful Chinese Empire was turned into a semi-colonial state.
During its long history, the Chinese Empire went through times of great commercial and financial splendor. These moments coincided with periods of peace and centralized management.
On the other hand, the economic situation was closely related to the fall of the different dynasties. Thus, when the yields from their agriculture were insufficient, the authorities and landowners saw their power weakened and had to face revolts that ended up overthrowing them.
Agriculture was the most important economic activity in the empire. The production was destined to supply all the needs of the population and the most common crops were rice, sugar cane, barley and wheat. Another fundamental activity was mining, since the territory was rich in iron, lead, copper and gold.
The first emperors, in addition, tried to unify the vast territory also in economic matters to boost trade. Among other measures, they minted coins and standardized the measurement of weights.
For centuries it was very common for the earth to be divided into square units. These, in turn, were divided into a triangle until 9 equal parts remained. The exterior plots were worked by the peasants and the rest was worked collectively and the obtained was delivered to the landowner.
As noted, the most common crops were barley, wheat, and rice. Thanks to the fertility of the land, the Chinese Empire obtained food for its population.
As technological development progressed, the Chinese incorporated new techniques, such as the iron plow or irrigation. Increased production allowed surpluses to be used for trade.
According to experts, the Chinese were the pioneers in using the concept of currency. At first, they used shells, but over time they began to exchange metallic objects that, to make it more comfortable, were reduced in size to resemble the coins that are known today.
During the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) the oldest paper money in the world, the Jiaozi, was created. With the development of the economy, trade and the demand for foreign currency, merchants needed a kind of currency that they could carry easily and the solution was that paper money.
Although it was not the only trade route in the Chinese Empire, the Silk Road was fundamental to its economy.
This route was more than 4,000 miles long and linked China with Europe. Food, gold, silver, spices and the product that gave it its name, silk, was transported through it, highly demanded in some European countries as a luxury object.
The religion during the Chinese Empire was polytheistic, animistic, and shamanic. Its roots were in Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. These three doctrines are not exclusive and the population followed the aspects of each one that most convinced them.
Some aspects that were common in that religion were the cult of the stars, the ancestors and the “eight immortals”, the eight primary deities.
This doctrine, created by Confucius, has more of philosophy than religion. Its doctrine is composed of a series of norms and moral principles to live in communion with the community.
Man, according to Confucius, does not have to be left alone with what he sees, but must dig deep to find the beauty that exists in everything that exists. In addition, it encourages that the experiences lived serve as teaching.
Taoism appeared as a philosophy that was inspired by the first religions that existed in China and that, in general, worshiped the ancestors and nature.
It is a religion without definite rules or ceremonies. For its creator, Lao Tzu, the human being should only follow the tao and let himself be carried away by the natural rhythm of things.
Although it came from India, Buddhism became the most widely followed religion in China after its arrival in the country about 2,000 years ago.
At that time an emperor of the Han dynasty was reigning who decided to send officials to India to collect Buddhist texts in order to study them. Over time, numerous temples of this religion were built throughout the country.
- Marino, Alejo. Old Chinese Empire (221 BC – 1912 AD). Retrieved from historiando.org
- Ruiz, Gonzalo. The dynasties of China. Obtained from sobrehistoria.com
- Ancient China. Economy of Ancient China. Obtained from chinaantigua.com
- History.com Editors. China: Timeline. Retrieved from history.com
- Mark, Joshua J. Ancient China. Retrieved from ancient.eu
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Qing dynasty. Retrieved from britannica.com
- National Geographic Society. Chinese Religions and Philosophies. Retrieved from nationalgeographic.org
- Pacific Asia Museum. Chinese Dynasties. Retrieved from pacificasiamuseum.usc.edu
- China Education Center. History of China. Retrieved from chinaeducenter.com