History - Silk Road Stories

History of China

With thousands of years of continuous history, China is one of the world’s most ancient cultures. As reported by Will Durrant in his history “Nobody knows the origin of the Chinese people and the age of their culture”.

The study of the history of China and of the Chinese culture during antiquity, but also during modern years, is distinguished based on the dynasties, which for four millennia succeeded each other.

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«In the beginning was the myth»

Originally the first created being Pangu, a being with supernatural powers, managed to create the world. Before the universe was created, there was only the shapeless chaos, which was formed to a Cosmic Egg.

Pangu takes his first form therein, where the reverse concepts of Yin and Yang counterbalance each other, for example, light-darkness, fire-water, good-evil. For 18.000 years, Pangu divides Yin from Yang, thus creating Earth and Sky.

To keep them apart, he stood among them himself and with all his power, he was pushing the Earth away from the Sky every day more and more. When he finally died his breath became the wind and clouds, his voice the lightning, his blood veins the rivers, his flesh the land, his hair the bushes and trees, his bones the minerals, his sweat the rain and finally the insects that were stuck on his body became humans.

The first kings according to Chinese mythology reigned for 18.000 years and worked hard to make Pangu’s parasites humans.

The beginning of Chinese Writing

About 7.000 BC, the Chinese work as millet farmers, promoting the Neolithic civilization of Peiligang, traced mainly at the Yi-Luo river basin, near the Yellow river, today’s Henan province, at Jiahu, which is one of the most famous archaeological sites.

To the West, at Damaidi in Ningxia province, 3.172 cliff carvings have been discovered, featuring 8.453 individual characters such as the sun, moon, gods and scenes of hunting or grazing. These pictographs are considered to be the earliest confirmed characters of Chinese writing, i.e. they are code characters like Homer’s “baleful tokens”.

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  • Xia Dynasty 2070 – 1600 BC
  • The Shang Dynasty 1600-1046 BC
  • The Zhou Dynasty 1046-256 BC
  • Qin Dynasty 246 -206 BC
  • Han Dynasty 206 BC-220 AD
  • The split of the unified empire 220-265 AD
  • Jin Dynasty 265-420 AD
  • The Six Dynasties period 420-589 AD
  • Sui Dynasty 561-618 AD
  • Tang Dynasty 618 – 907 AD
  • Song Dynasty 960 – 1279 AD
  • Yuan Dynasty 1271 – 1368 AD
  • Ming Dynasty 1368-1644 AD
  • Qing Dynasty 1644-1911 AD
  • The Last Emperor
  • Leterature
Xia Dynasty 2070 – 1600 BC

Pursuant to the traditional Chinese historiography, it is the first dynasty in Chinese history. Legendary Yu establishes the Xia Dynasty by succeeding in stopping the floods of Yellow river and unite people from different tribes.

Archaeological existence of Xia is still doubtful. But due to the bronze and ceramic archaeological findings of Erlitou culture at the Yellow river banks and the excavation of the ancient city in Yanshi, it is considered that the mythical Xia dynasty is real.

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The Shang Dynasty 1600-1046 BC

The Shang is the earliest dynasty in traditional Chinese history, the existence of which is supported by archaeological evidence. Excavation at the Ruins of Yin, near modern-day Anyang, uncovered eleven major royal tombs and the foundations of palaces and ritual sites, containing weapons of war and remains from both animal and human sacrifices.

Tens of thousands of bronze, jade, stone, bone, and ceramic artefacts have been also found in these excavations. The archaeological findings correspond to the Erligang culture, whose productions of particular bronze and gold objects circulated beyond their cultural hinterland, also to the other ancient kingdoms of present-day China. Particularly well-known are the famous Oracle Bones, where divinations about seasons, political controversy, war, were written on ox scapula or turtle plastron.

Thus, the identification of the archaeological findings, which are characterized as Erlitou culture, with the ancient historical Shang dynasty, seems to be valid.

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The Zhou Dynasty 1046-256 BC

The Zhou dynasty is the longest in Chinese history. However their dominance lasted till 771 BC; hence the period from 1041 to 771 BC is called “Period of the Western Zhou”. It is believed that during this period the production of bronze objects is culminated and the writing evolves to a form similar to that of today’s Chinese writing.

During this period, bronze is replaced by iron in the manufacture of weapons, a state monopoly is created also for iron and salt, a strong currency is also created and civilization flourishes in general. The first rules of law were published, Fengjian, a decentralized system of administration and holding of titles of nobility, was developed, the state reached a high level of organization, by the construction of watering and hydraulic engineering projects.

Also ethics, morals and philosophy in general are developed. There have been many schools in ancient China. We indicatively mention Laozi, who founds Taoism, Mozi, who founds Mohism and Shang Yang and Han Fei who found Legalism. The years 551-478 BC Confucius appears in China, who preaches the return to the traditional customs, something that refers to Hesiod’s theory.

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Qin Dynasty 246 -206 BC

It is the first Imperial dynasty of China.
The Qin dynasty brought together all the provinces into a unified state and the first emperor and founder who rose to the throne was named Qin Shi Huang-Ti (the first emperor of the dynasty).

China probably took its name from this dynasty (Chin – China). He founded a new capital near Xianyang, today’s Xian. He increased the borders of the State and, in order to protect them, he constructed the Great Wall of China. The most important project, however, constructed during his reign, was his tomb with the Terracotta Army.

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Han Dynasty 206 BC-220 AD

The Han Dynasty was founded by revolutionary leader Liu Bang, known posthumously as Emperor Gaozu. After ascending to the throne, Chang set Chang’an as the new capital. Lasting for more than four centuries, the Han Dynasty period is considered as a golden age in China’s history.

Till this day, China’s sovereign ethnic group refers to itself as “Han people”. The monetary economy, established by Zhou, has flourished. The nationalization of salt mines and iron production has created economic growth.

Science and technology have made huge leaps forward, with the production of paper, the naval helm, the use of negative numbers in mathematics -1 -2 etc, the advances in astronomy, the invention of the first seismograph and much more!

An important event of this period is China’s contact with the Greek world and Greek culture via the Silk Road. Chinese products arrive up to the Mediterranean coasts and products made in Greece are imported to China. In addition to money or other valuable items however, the Chinese have taken during this ear many cultural elements from the Greeks. In 220 AD the Han Dynasty collapses

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The split of the unified empire 220-265 AD

After the fall of the Han Dynasty, China is split into 3 states. Wei to the north, Shu, to the southwest, at today’s Sichuan, and Wu, at the south-east coast. The three states were each led by an emperor who claimed the succession of the Han Empire. Conflicts between them were unavoidable, and the division of the empire continues at a steady pace.

This period of the Chinese history is one of the bloodiest ones. Nevertheless, there has also been a period of progress in technology and science. The most famous among them is the South-pointing Chariots. Further, this short period, is also one of the most romantic of Chinese history, with many well-known and popular operas, as well as the well-known literary work of Ming Dynasty Luo Guanzhong “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”.

Buddhism is gaining ground against Confucianism and European missionaries begin to promote the spread of Christianity.

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Jin Dynasty 265-420 AD

After Jin conquers the Wu, the Empire reunites.
The Jin Dynasty was founded by Sima Yan. The capital is at Luoyang or at Chang’an (modern Xi’an). Subsequently, the capital moved to Jiankang (modern Nanjing).

There are two time periods in the history of the dynasty. The “Western Jin” and the “Eastern Jin”. The dynasty is well known for the quality of its greenish celadon porcelain wares.

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The Six Dynasties period 420-589 AD

There was a period where civil wars and political chaos dominated; but also a period of progress in art, culture and technology and, as well, the further expansion of Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism.

We note that during these two centuries approximately, there have been 9 different dynasties, 5 in the North and 4 in the South. Despite this split of Chinese tribes and kingdoms, there is a great rise in the strength and importance of the Silk Road. The migration from tribes to the north and west of China has been an important part of the cultural development of Medieval China.

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Sui Dynasty 561-618 AD

This dynasty was short-lived, but important to the restoration of the united China, which is ruled by the Han Chinese. The capital is at Chang’an (Xi’an) and subsequently at Luoyang.

The emperors made various reforms in the economy to reduce inequality, such as the reintroduction of a single standardized currency and the promotion of Buddhism throughout the empire.

It is noted that among the biggest achievements of Sui is the opening of the “Grand Canal”, linking the western capital of Chang’an with the easternmost at Luoyang, as well as that they extended the Great Wall of China.

This dynasty collapses after a series of costly military disasters in their expeditions to Korea against Goguryeo, in 614. The dynasty lasted for 37 years, but heavy taxation and compulsory/forced work led the nations to revolutions and insurgents.

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Tang Dynasty 618 – 907 AD

The Tang dynasty, with Chang’an, modern Xi’an, as capital, and subsequently Luoyang, is generally considered as a golden age of the Chinese culture.

Based on its population, the dynasty was able to increase the professional soldiers and recruit hundreds of thousands of soldiers to support the defence against nomadic forces that dominated inner Asia.

They also wanted to protect lucrative trade routes along the Silk Road, however without diplomacy missing from their strategies. Yet, at the same time, they easily accepted foreign influences that arrived through trade transactions with its neighbours, mainly on arts, such as music. A flourishing of letters and arts is observed during these years.

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Song Dynasty 960 – 1279 AD

The Song Dynasty is founded by Emperor Taizu. It is the first government in the world to issue paper money and the first dynasty to have a permanent navy. During this era we have the discovery of the gunpowder, while the use of the compass helps to locate the North.

The capital is transferred to Lin’an (modern Hangzhou). The Song Dynasty had one of the most powerful and dynamic economies of the Medieval world. It is also the first to use movable type printing.

It was one of the longest-existing Chinese dynasties and ruled China for 319 years. It was overthrown in March 1279, following the defeat of Emperor Bing in a battle against the Mongols. This period ends from the historical scene with the appearance of the Mongols (1280-1368).

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Yuan Dynasty 1271 – 1368 AD

To the north of China there is the Asian region of Mongolia, which bred a number of front-line military leaders. A renowned one is Genghis Khan, who lived during the 13th century and died in 1227.

The Yuan dynasty is the domination of the Mongols and is founded by Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. Kublai Khan claimed the title of China emperor, the Grand Khan.

He and his successors occupied the entire China. Kublai Khan became the founder of the Mongol dynasty (1280).
However, these historical changes did not hinder the evolution of the Chinese culture and during this era there is flourishing everywhere.

At this time the influence of European visitors increases as well as the touristic interest, which over time precedes the commercial one. We see the famous Marco Polo reaching to China and spending many years at the service of Kublai Khan.

Upon his return to the West, he made China known to Europe by his narrations and descriptions. When however the Mongol dynasty collapsed, anarchy prevailed. The commercial roads were closed, especially those which connected China with Europe.

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Ming Dynasty 1368-1644 AD

The founder of this dynasty is a former Buddhist monk, Zhu Yuanzhang, who had fought the Mongols with greater fanaticism than any other Chinese leader. Ming were the ones who expelled Mongols from China and restored the unity of the State.

When he ascended the throne he got the name of Hongwu. Following his death, his fourth son, Emperor Yongle, created a powerful empire and made Beijing the capital of the state.

The Ming Dynasty is one of the most brilliant in China’s history, where order and law dominated. The Ming Dynasty was exercising an introversion policy and attempted to create an authoritarian society with a rigid and strictly fixed social class.

The Great Wall of China takes the form that it has this day. The import of money by foreign merchants brought back the liquidity to the hard-hit Chinese economy.

Qing Dynasty 1644-1911 AD

Manchus is an Asian race, something between Chinese and Mongols. They have more similarities with the latter. The Qing Dynasty or Manchus was established by the Jurchen Aisin Gioro clan of the Manchus nations, in the modern North-eastern China, also known as Manchuria.

It was the last imperial dynasty of China. During these years: China’s boundaries expanded to their largest extent, a number of European missionaries arrive to conquer China not only religiously but also financially.

Along with the missionary work, trade is developing, since Chinese products are in great demand in Europe, such as silk, cotton and tea. Thus, the two-way relationship between Chinese and European culture is greatly enhanced.

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The Last Emperor

Qing dynasty was overthrown after the Xinhai Revolution, when the Empress Dowager Longyu resigned on behalf of the last emperor, Pu Yi, on 12th February, 1912.

The last emperor of the Qing Dynasty ascended to the throne at the age of two. Three years later, the revolution, which would change the face of China by putting an end to the mighty Qing dynasty that ruled the vast country since 1644, began preparing.

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