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Summarize the major reasons for the continuity of Chinese civilization through the 19th century

Horse Sculpture from Han Dynasty
Horse Sculpture from Han Dynasty

Topics on the Page

A. The role of Kinship and Confucianism in maintaining order and hierarchy
  • See the bottom of the page for further information on:
    • Beliefs of Confucius
    • Values of Confucianism
    • Du Fu, poet
B. The political order established by the various dynasties that ruled China

C. The role of civil servants/scholars in maintaining a stable political and economic order
  • Empress Dowager Cixi
  • Li Shizhen
  • Women in Chinese history


Map_of_China.pngSee also, World History Key Concept 4.2

Asia for Educators from Columbia University has resources for China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and South Asia by historical time period
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  • Go to NEA.3 for geography information on China and neighboring countries
external image Paleovegetation_map_of_china_6000BP.PNG
    • Go to WHII.13 for Chinese history in the 19th and 20th centuries.
      • Visit WHI.24 for information about the Chinese economy in the 19th and 20th centuries.
        • WHI.26 for information about China's relationship with Japan.
          • WHI.27 for China's relationship with Korea.

Ancient China from the British Museum with sections on geography, arts and crafts, time and writing.

A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization from the University of Washington. Includes a visual timeline as well as information on geography, religion, technology, paintings, homes, and other aspects of material culture and family life in China.

primary_sources.PNGA website with access to primary documents about Ancient China from Fordham University.

external image Red_apple.jpgInventions and Technology of the Ancient Chinese

See also Best of History Websites: China

Focus Question 1: How did Confucianism play a role in maintaining order in the Chinese civilization?

external image Black_Confucian_symbol.PNG
  • For Teachers: This website provides primary source readings on Confucian thought each with discussion questions. Read about Confucius as a teacher, on filial piety, humanness, government, and religious life.

primary_sources.PNGWhile Confucius never wrote down his philosophy, his disciples compiled his teachings after his death and preserved them in the Analects. Click here for the complete Analects of Confucius divided into four parts.

While the Old Texts of Confucianism was understood as the correct texts, which were the basis for all of the civil service exams, Kang Youwei, a brilliant scholar taught that the New Texts were actually the true meaning of Confucianism, and in order to understand what was truly meant, one must read the New Texts.

Focus Question 2: What was the political order established by the various dynasties that ruled China?

Tang Dynasty
Tang Dynasty

A. Dynasties
      • Xia 2100-1800 BCE- Yu was successful in stopping the flooding and increased the produce from farming (since the floods usually destroy the crops).
        • Because of this the Xia tribe’s influence strengthened, and Yu became the leader of the surrounding tribes.
      • Shang 1700-1027 BCE
      • Western Zhou 1027-771 BCE
      • Eastern Zhou 770-221 BCE
      • Qin Dynasty:221-207 BCE
        • United country under centralized legal government; silenced political opposition; unified legal code.
      • Western Han 206 BC-9 CE
      • Eastern Han 25-220 CE
      • Three Kingdoms 220-265 CE
      • Western Chin 265-316 CE
      • Eastern Chin 317-420 CE
      • Southern and Northern Dynasties 420-588 CE
      • Sui Dynasty (589)
        • Unified country after years of political division.
      • Tang 618-907 CE
      • Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907-960)
        • Tang & Song Dynasties battled for political control.
      • Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) Continued Confucian way of government.
        • Developed “Eight Banners”—groups of men to maintain their own language and style of dress; opposed Chinese life. Lost power in 19th century; starting with First Opium War with Britain.
timeline2_rus.svg.pngView this timeline of Chinese Dynasties and learn about their accomplishments
  • Click here to view a Chinese Dynasty Guide from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
    • Click here for excellent material on the history of the Mongols from the website Mongols in World History provided by Columbia University
      • Click here for "2000 Years of Chinese History! The Mandate of Heaven and Confucius" by Crash Courses.
external image Red_apple.jpgClick here for a fun Sporcle Quiz on the Chinese Dynasties

Quill_and_ink.png(Click here for a short biography of Qin Shui Huang (259-210 BCE), the first emperor of China.

Beijing and the Earliest Planning Document in History. The Guardian

Rotating_globe-small.gifScientific Inventions of the Song Dynasty
  • Mechanical Clock
  • Block Printing
  • Porcelain
  • Drought-resistant type of rice
  • movable typing

Song Dynasty Rocketry: The Untold Story

B. China as a World Power
Beginning the 8th century, China carried on a global sea trade throughout Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Here is a quote about the trade from "Bringing Up the Past" by David DeVoss from Smithsonian, July 2007 (p 84):
  • "Boats laden with ivory, myrrh and metal from the Abbassid caliphate in Baghdad took on Persian pearls, alum, and cumin along the Strait of Hormuz before sailing out of the Persian Gulf, down India's Malabar Coast and across the Indian Ocean to the Buddhist kingdom of Srivijava, on Sumatra's eastern shore. Srivijava's port of Palembang was the most bustling of its day, a center for merchants dealing pepper from Borneo, cloves, nutmeg and mace from the Molucca Islands, and eventually sandalwood from Timor. Many of these goods were bound for China."

China sent iron, silk and manufactured goods in return. By the Song Dynasty (960), China began exporting huge amounts of ceramics (including the plates, cups and bowls made of glazed clay we now call "china").

The Opium Wars
The Opium Wars were the beginning of foreign powers gaining power in China.

rotating gif.gifZheng He and the Chinese Treasure Fleets

The Silk Road
The Silk Road

Multimedia.pngCrash Course!breaking down the Silk Road

Focus Question 3: What was the role of civil servants/scholars in maintaining a stable political and economic order?

  • Civil Servants were literate, educated individuals who made up the bulk of China's Bureaucracy. This Bureaucracy was run by people who did not necessarily have military or financial power. Thus, the institutions of government throughout China's history were maintained by people who did not have the financial or militaristic means of obtaining power. In other words, civilians ran the government's functions.
    • While family history, peerage, and money determined many of China's civil servants, starting in 605 AD the Imperial Examination system was established. This exam tested an individual's literacy, knowledge on the Analects of Confucius, mathematics, and other scholarly pursuits. Passing the examination would allow an individual, regardless of social status, to become a civil servant.
  • Civil servants were assigned to locations outside of their home district, in an effort to prevent corruption.
    • The purpose of this examination system, inspired by Confucian ideals, was to break up the monopoly of power held by feudal lords and already entrenched power. Unfortunately, as time passed the size and difficulty of the Imperial Examination grew. It became almost impossible for lower-class men to pass the examination, who could not afford the educational materials necessary to succeed.
  • Thus, the Imperial Examination allowed some mobility in society, while simultaneously producing a government run by educated, talented individuals.
    • Evidence of this can be seen throughout the Dynastic cycle. When invaders, typically from the North, captured China, they often adopted and re-enforced the bureaucracy.
  • Thus, the actual structure of the Chinese government remained unchanged throughout most of its recorded history. Dynasties did not make new nations, they acted within the bureaucracy already running the country.
Gif of the development of China
Gif of the development of China

Levels of Examination

  • County
  • District
  • Provincial
  • Imperial
Learn more about the examinations here.

primary_sources.PNG Civil Service in Ancient China

Li Shizhen (1518 -1593)

Quill_and_ink.pngLi Shizhen, Brief Life of a Pioneering Naturalist, Harvard Magazine

Multimedia.pngGo here for Li Shizhen 495th Birthday Google Doodle, YouTube

primary_sources.PNGBen Cao Gang Mu: Compendium of Materia Medica
  • Most comprehensive book ever written of traditional Chinese medicine
  • 52 volumes took 27 years to complete

Women in Chinese History

From 1861- 1908 Empress Dowager Cixi ruled China and the Qing Empire behind the scenes of her son Tongzhi, and then her nephew Guangxu. During this rule she was the most powerful person in China.
  • For more information on the Empress Dowager, click Here

Female_Rose.pngWu Zeitan is the only woman to rule China as emperor during the Tang Dynasty.

Empress Wu Zetian and the Spread of Buddhism from Influential Women of the Silk Road from the Women in World History Curriculum project.
Empress Wu Zetian
Empress Wu Zetian

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Western Views of Women in China from George Mason University uses primary source material in an inquiry-based lesson plan.

Lesson plan for Women and Confucianism

(Icon) Click here for an article from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville explaining the purpose of foot binding in Imperial China.

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TEST Question: Which aspect of Chinese society was most influenced by Confucianism?
a) patterns of land use and development
b) social hierarchies and familial relationships
c) patterns of urban and rural settlement
d) religious beliefs and practices


Further Background on Confucianism

The development of Confucianism is tied to the development of “Legalism,” a school of thought developed throughout China's early history.
  • The core tenant of Legalism is that people are fundamentally flawed creatures.
  • All humans, according to Legalism, disobey traditions, customs, and other “soft” means of maintaining an orderly society if the transgression somehow furthers his or her goals.
    • Thus, people need strict, monolithic laws and heavy control in order to produce a harmonious society.
  • During the Spring and Autumn period, when Confucius was alive, kingdoms slowly began to develop political systems centered around Legalism.
    • These governments were authoritarian, militaristic, and brutally effective at routing out dissent and rebellion amongst its citizens.
  • Thus, many schools of political, religious, and ethical thought began to arise as a direct response to the philosophy of Legalism.
    • One of these schools was Confucianism.
  • Master Kǒng Fūzǐ, known by his Latinized name “Confucius,” noticed that Legalism's harsh combination of military power and rigid law compromised many of the meanings behind these laws. For example, a poor person who stole a piece of bread to feed his family would be punished the same as a bandit acting maliciously.
  • Confucius created a system of culture and governance that would create an ordered, regulated society without the need for a heavy-handed form of law.

external image Confucius.jpg

A. K'ung Fu Tzu, also known as Confucius (551-479 BCE).
Confucius believed the following about society and humanity:
  • Heaven has a set of prescribed rules on conduct, law, and ethics, known as the Mandate of Heaven.
    • In order for humanity to avoid disaster and ruin, it is essential for all humans to try and follow this mandate.
  • Humanity may or may not be flawed.
    • Regardless of a person's flaws, he or she must strive to become a better person.
    • In order to become a better person, one must contribute to society.
  • Anyone not involved in society is selfish and ultimately a danger to the social order.
  • Society should be thought of as a large family, with both government and non-government niches akin to members of said family.
  • In order for society to function properly all members of society, like members of the family, must fulfill his or her duty to the best of his or her ability.
  • In order for people to fulfill their duties effectively they must govern themselves righteously and loyally.
    • Like a family member assigned chores, a member of society must be content with his or her lot in life.
  • In order to be a righteous, loyal individual, one must serve those above themselves and help to guide those beneath themselves.
  • In order to serve or guide people, one must maintain good “relationships” between those above and below one's station.
    • In other words, if you are subservient to someone else you should listen and take in whatever lessons or guidance he or she offers you.
    • If you are in a superior position, then you should listen and understand the plight of those beneath you so as to produce the best results.
  • In order to maintain good relationships, one must follow the ethical principles outlined by Confucian teachings

While Confucius's philosophy did appeal to many intellectuals of the era, no powerful, land-holding nobility found his philosophy particularly compelling. Thus Confucius, considering himself a failure, destroyed most of his works near the end of his life. Only through his disciples did Confucianism survive.
  • Over one-hundred years after Confucius's death, a disciple named Mèng Zǐ (Mencius) compiled Confucian ethics from other disciple's accounts.
    • These Analects would serve as the cornerstone of the Han Dynasty's political, religious, and ethical philosophy.
  • This philosophy would continue to be the central organizational and political force of the Chinese Empire until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912.

Analects of Confucius, from the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, China
Analects of Confucius, from the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, China

B. Values of Confucianism

Confucian ethics, known as the Wuchang or “Five Constants,” are as follows:
  • Rén: Often translated as “humanness” or “goodness,” Ren is better understood as “altruism” or “empathy.” To Confucius, anyone interacting with another member of society should consider the needs of the other person. Thus, a servant should serve his or her master to the best of his or her ability, just as the master must serve and direct his or her servant with the same effort. A contemporary example of this is the “golden rule:” treat others the way you want to be treated.
  • : A somewhat nebulous term, Yi means “righteousness,” “justice,” or “goodness.” A better way to think of Yi is an internalization of Ren. As you try to do good by other people, it is important to apply that same goodness to yourself. If you believe in good actions, good things will happen. A contemporary example of Yi would be a personal set of strongly held ideals or ethics.
  • : Translated most often as “ritual,” Li is one of the more difficult concepts of Confucianism to understand. Often confused with religious ritual, Li does not refer to supernatural or religious rituals. Instead, Li can be best described as the rules of etiquette that govern society. Since a Confucian society relies on communication and good intention between its members, rather than written law, there must be an unwritten etiquette to govern these interactions. A contemporary example of Li is the idea of children being polite to their parents and siblings.
  • Xìn: “Integrity” or “Belief.” Whereas Legalism demands that a ruler use whatever sneaky, unethical, and malicious means to achieve dominance, Confucianism believes that a ruler's legitimacy should be as a result of oaths, loyalty, and benevolent actions. The idiom “you are only as good as your word” embodies Xin.
  • Zhì: “Knowledge” or “Intellect.” Confucius, as an intellectual, felt that intellectual pursuits were essential to shaping a positive society. As stated before, there are members of society who are “inferior” to there are those who are “superior.” Intellect and ability, according to Confucianism, should determine an individual's place in society. Even if an individual is not a leader, an individual should pursue knowledge in order to better himself.

These come together in the most important aspect of Confucianism: Filial Piety.
  • Filial Piety (Xiào): There are five key relationships in society, each of which composes a rung in a hierarchy in order to determine which relationships meant “more” than others:
    • Subject to Ruler
    • Father to Son
    • Husband to Wife
    • Elder Brother to Younger Brother
    • Friend to Friend

Filial Piety can be seen as a hierarchy of class determined by one's profession and role in the family. A Ruler's relationship with his subject is far more important than a father's to his son. However, it is considered improper to violate the order of these relationships. A son, for example, is always subservient to his father, regardless of the father's capacity, empathy, etc.

Du Fu/Tu Fu
external image Dufu.jpg
  • A Confucian poet during the 8th century in China during the Tang Dynasty.
    • Took the civil service exam twice and failed both times. He approached the Emperor directly and presented some of his literary accomplishments. He received a special test, and passed and was appointed a job. However, Du Fu continued to experience catastrophe in life - he was forced to move his family because of a famine brought on by flood in the region, and again due to chaos from the An Lushan rebellion.
      • His poems are historical and reflect his experiences. They reflect the virtues taught by Confucius.

For more information on Du Fu and his poetry, see the Poetry Foundation.

Works Cited:
  1. The History of China, http://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/history/
  2. Chinese Dynasties, http://library.thinkquest.org/12255/library/dynasty/dynasty.htm
  3. Confucianism, http://www.religioustolerance.org/confuciu.htm
  4. Timeline of Chinese Dynasties, http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/prehistory/china/timeline.html
  5. Asia for Educators
  6. http://plato.stanford.edu/ entries/confucius