For a general overview of the Chinese Dynasties see:
An earlier case study that traced the evolution of transborder sovereignty over the course of China’s longest lasting dynasty, the Zhou Dynasty which lasted from roughly 1000 BC to 221 BC. Were we also noticed how it differed from the bartered sovereignty that emerged in Europe, showed us a highly structured feudalism, a territorially bound state that struggled to develop a bureaucracy to govern it, and a nation rich in tradition before a state could grow powerful enough to govern it. During the course of the Zhou Dynasty we see a shift from transborder sovereignty to absolute sovereignty with the Warring States Period representing a transitional phase to imperial China.
Also, in the Western imagination, China's history has been inextricably linked to the notion of "empire." But in fact, more than a millennium of Chinese history passed before anything resembling an empire ever existed. For centuries, six separate states battled for military supremacy, until in 221 B.C. the Qin dynasty defeated the last of its rivals and unified the country. Military conquest is only part of the imperial story, however.
The Qin dynasty
The defining characteristics of the Chinese empire-and, indeed, of all, empires-were its large scale and the diversity of its peoples. While all of China's inhabitants have retroactively become "Chinese" today, this term is anachronistic for the pre-imperial period. The peoples of that time would have been known as the Qin, Qi, Chu, or by the name of one of the other Warring States, or as the inhabitants of a particular region (for example, the people "within the mountain passes"). The Qin's conquests united these groups politically in the third century B.C., but distinct regional cultures and "temperaments" survived. Such regional variations were not an inconvenient fact of life but, rather, became essential to an empire that justified itself by making just this kind of hierarchical distinction-between the universal, superior culture of the imperial center and the limited, particular cultures of regions and localities. This fundamental distinction manifested itself in political service, religion, literature, and many other aspects of Chinese life. And following the Qin, the Han empire would come.The most important change brought about by the Qin conquest however, was the universal use of a single non-alphabetic script. By standardizing written communication among groups that did not speak mutually intelligible tongues, this innovation bound together all the regions of the empire and allowed the establishment of a state-sanctioned literary canon. Thus Keith Buchanan explained that "The real history of China is not so much the history of the rise and fall of great dynasties as the history of the gradual occupation of the Chinese earth by untold generations of farming folk." 1
In later periods even areas that did not become part of modern China-Korea, Japan, and Vietnam-shared significant elements of culture through their use of a common written script. Eventually, a common literary culture linked all those engaged in, or aspiring to, state service. In later centuries literacy would permeate lower levels of society, through Chinese theater, popular fiction, and simplified manuals of instruction.
In the centuries following the Qin conquest, the gradual demilitarization of both peasant and urban populations and the delegation of military service to marginal elements of society reversed an earlier trend among the competing states which had extended military service throughout the peasantry. In 31. A.D. universal military service was formally abolished, not to reappear until after the end of the last empire in 1911. In place of a mobilized peasantry, military service was provided by non-Chinese tribesmen, who were particularly skilled in the forms of warfare used at the frontier, and by convicts or other violent elements of the population, who were transported from the interior to the major zones of military action at the outskirts of the empire. This demilitarization of the interior blocked the establishment of local powers that could challenge the empire, but also led to a recurrent pattern in which alien peoples conquered and ruled China.
Finally, "empire" as it developed in early China depended on the emergence of a new social elite-great families throughout the realm who combined landlordism and trade with political office-holding. Those families dominated local society through their wealth, which they invested primarily in land, and their ability to mobilize large numbers of kin and dependents. In the classical period, law and custom divided inherited property among sons, and therefore landed wealth was subject to constant dispersal. Even large estates (although no estates in this period were large by Western standards) devolved into a multitude of small plots within a few generations. In order to reproduce their wealth over time, families were obliged to find sources of income outside agriculture. Trade and money lending were vital occupations among the gentry, but the greatest source of wealth was imperial office-holding.
Like all of Chinese history, also the geography of the early empires is a tale of the country's many distinct regions. The state created by the Qin dynasty was not the modern China familiar from our maps. The western third of contemporary China (modern Xinjiang and Tibet) was an alien world unknown to the Qin and the early Han. Modern Inner Mongolia and Manchuria also lay outside their frontiers, as did the southwestern regions of modern Yunnan and Guizhou. While the modern southeast quadrant (Fujian, Guangdong, and Guangxi) was militarily occupied, it also remained outside the Chinese cultural sphere. The China of the early imperial period, and of much of its later history, consisted of the drainage basins of the Yellow River and the Yangzi. This area comprised all of the land that was flat enough and wet enough to be suitable for agriculture, and thus defined the historical limits of the Chinese heartland.
In the Roman Empire, it was cheaper to ship grain or wine all the way from one end of the Mediterranean Sea to the other than to transport it just a hundred miles overland by wagon. Regions without water links were not integrated in the Mediterranean economy. The same was true of China. Prior to the construction of railroads in the nineteenth century, carrying grain more than a hundred miles by pack animal cost more than producing the grain itself. Except for luxury goods such as spices, silks, or gems, where small amounts produced large profits, hauling goods overland was prohibitively expensive. And a lack of good natural harbors in north China made trade up and down the coast uneconomical. Consequently, almost all bulk trade relied on inland waterways. But even this mode of transportation had its limitations. Both of the major rivers-the Yellow River and the Yangzi-flowed from west to east, with no navigable water links between them. No natural intersecting lines of transport moved north and south. Over time, as the bottom of the channel gradually rose, the river overflowed its banks. Dikes were built ever higher to prevent flooding, and in some places the river started to flow above the surrounding countryside. Today, in a stretch of about 1,100 miles, the Yellow River moles along yards above the plain. But dikes do not control silting, and floods continued to occur on an ever larger scale. On more than 1,500 occasions during the history of imperial China the Yellow River burst its dikes, destroying farmland, killing villagers, and earning its description as "China's sorrow." But under the Qin and Han empires, the Yellow River was the core of Chinese civilization, home to around 90 percent of the population. It was separated by mountains and hills into a northwestern region (modern Gansu and northern Shaanxi), the central loess highlands (modern Shaanxi, Shanxi, and Western Henan), and the alluvial floodplain (modern Henan, southern Hebei, Shandong, northern Anhui, and northern Jiangsu). The Yangzi drainage basin, still a frontier region in this period, was also naturally divided into three regions: the mountain-ringed Min River basin (modern Sichuan), the middle Yangzi (Hubei, Hunan, and Jiangxi), and the lower Yangzi (Zhejiang, southern Anhui, and Jiangsu).
The Qin state's conquests of its neighbors and the unified empire that emerged were built on a foundation of reforms that Shang Yang, a minister from the state of Wey, carried out in the years following 359 B.C. His radical, thoroughgoing transformations of Qin military and civil life grew out of practices that were first pioneered in Qi and in Jin and its successors. Internecine wars among the Zhou nobility following the monarchy's loss of power and the eastward shift of the capital in 770 B.C. had put pressure on Qi and Jin to increase the size of their armies. Gradually these states extended military service from the nobility and its followers to the entire population of the capital, and then on to certain segments of the rural population. Under Shang Yang's adaptation of these practices, Qin peasants who served in the army were rewarded with land that their individual households could hold and work and on which they paid taxes. But there were severe punishments as well as rewards.
When the fall of his last rival left the king of Qin master of the civilized world, he and his court were fully aware of the unprecedented nature of their achievement. As one courtier remarked, they had surpassed the greatest feats of the legendary sages of antiquity. And now they would set about enacting visionary programs designed to institutionalize a new era in human history, the era of total unity.
Yet, the Qin dynasty collapsed within two decades because it did not change enough. Despite its proclamations of making a new start in a world utterly transformed, the Qin carried forward the fundamental institutions of the Warring State era, seeking to rule a unified realm with the techniques they had used to conquer it. The Qin's grandiose visions of transformation failed to confront the extensive changes that the end of permanent warfare had brought about. It fell to the Han, who took over the realm after the Qin dynasty's defeat, to carry out the major institutional programs and cultural innovations that gave form to the vision of world empire.
Although more than nine-tenths of the population worked on the land during the Qin and Han empires, little was written about peasants. Elites preferred the color and excitement of cities and the allure of power at court. Bound to the soil, rural life smacked of the brutish and vulgar. However, Shen Nong, the so-called Divine Farmer, figured in the Han pantheon. Credited with the invention of agriculture, he was the patron sage of a Warring States tradition that insisted all men should grow their own food. An early Han philosophical compendium Master of Huainan (Huainanzi) quotes him as a law-giver: "Therefore the law of Shen Nong says, 'If in the prime of life a man does not plow, someone in the world will go hungry. If in the prime of life a woman does not weave, someone in the world will be cold.' Therefore he himself plowed with his own hands, and his wife herself wove, to set an example to the world."2
Some writers adapted this doctrine to support the Qin regime, which was dependent on rural households' productivity and suspicious of merchants' wealth, and it was carried forward into the Han. Farming was even incorporated into a rarely performed ritual in which Han emperors initiated the agricultural season with three pushes of a plow in a special field. Major officials then took a turn, in order to show through simulated labor the court's interest in agriculture. The empress did her part by engaging in ceremonial weaving for the feast of the first (silk farming) sericulturist.
The limits of the Qin empire roughly defined the enduring borders of the Chinese people and their culture. Although the empire was sometimes extended into the northern steppes, Central Asia, southern Manchuria, Korea, and continental southeast Asia, these expansions were generally brief. The peoples of these regions remained beyond Chinese control until the final, non-Chinese Qing dynasty. The people surrounding China can be divided into two groups. To the north and west lay nomadic societies that lived on grasslands and formed states radically different from the Chinese model. Except for the oasis city-states of Central Asia, these regions would remain outside the Chinese cultural sphere. By contrast, the watery regions of the south and southeast, as well as the highland plateaus of the southwest, were progressively settled by Chinese emigrants. There, and in the northeast, sedentary agrarian states would gradually adopt Chinese forms of writing and state organization, but these developments had scarcely begun during the early imperial dynasties.
1. Buchanan, Transformation of the Chinese Earth, pp. 5-6. Worster, Rivers of Empire, 1970, ch. 2, "The Flow of Power in History."
2. Huainanzi (The Master of Huainan). In Xin bian zhu zi ji cheng (New Compilation of the Comprehensive Collection of the Various Masters), Vol. 7. Taipei: Shijie, 1974.