Monday, November 29, 2010

China: Enduring empire

It's hard to avoid superlatives when describing China. The country's landmass is enormous, covering roughly 9.6m sq km, with a huge population of some 1.3 billion people. Having recently overtaken Japan as the world's second largest economy, it is well on the way to cementing a dominant position on the global markets. Yet one key fact to understand about China is that these developments are seen as nothing new, but a return to the old order of things. During the Tang dynasty (AD618-907) a census from the year 750 revealed a population of one million within the walls of the capital city, Chang'an, making it the largest city in the world at the time. And it was not just its size that was spectacular. The Chinese capital was probably the most powerful economic centre in the ancient world, attracting traders from the west who travelled along the Silk Road to buy and sell. There were Arabs, Persians and Sogdian traders from Samarkand, whose spiritual needs were served by mosques and Zoroastrian temples in the cosmopolitan city.

The First Emperor

The Chinese pride themselves on having the longest continuous civilisation in the world, although the massive state we know today took time to develop. From isolated Neolithic settlements scattered across the landmass, the great bronze age cultures of the Shang (c1500–c1050BC) and Zhou (c1050–221BC) developed in the north along the Yellow River. As Zhou polity fell apart, the northern part of China was divided between smaller states, many of which built defensive walls, precursors of the Great Wall. In 221BC, the First Emperor conquered all the other states and established his rule over a unified state stretching from the north of Beijing down to the northern border of the Guangdong province and from the far western Sichuan area to the eastern seaboard. This was most of the China we know today – in fact the name "China" derives from the First Emperor's home state of Qin (pronounced "Chin") on the Wei river.

The First Emperor quickly established an administration to maintain control of this vast landmass. Armed with legal handbooks, texts inscribed on narrow slips of bamboo, tied together and rolled up like tiny bamboo blinds, his officials established a system of law: they set out official standards for weights and measures that were checked rigorously – swindling offences were punished with sentences of hard labour on imperial walls and roads – and they conducted forensic investigations into suspicious deaths. A standardised coinage was also introduced: a new form of a circular coin with a square hole in the middle, which was used for more than 2,000 years until 1911. Even now the shape forms a major decorative emblem in ceramics and textiles.

In China, the First Emperor's rule is traditionally remembered as that of an unnecessarily harsh tyrant (contrasting with the "good guys" from the Han dynasty). Yet the First Emperor also managed to set up a relatively modern, forward-looking legal system that lasted 2,000 years, whereby trained administrators were sent out all over the country to govern by statute. What was right and what was wrong was now no longer subject to the whim of erratic autocrats, but out there for everyone to see. If you stole a sheep, you knew the consequences. China's legal system was described by Jesuit missionaries in the 18th century and admired by Enlightenment thinkers who saw it as a great improvement on rule by hereditary aristocrats.

Furthermore, a legal code was promoted that included a concession about legal responsibility. Unlike in Europe, though, it was not based on a person's age. In China even today, on the doors of buses and beside ticket offices in stations and at tourist sites, there is a metre-high mark, indicating that those under a metre in height can enter or travel for free.

Read more on the website.

Wood, Frances. 2010. "China: Enduring empire". Guardian Series: Guides to the ancient world. Posted: November 11, 2010. Available online:

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