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Sinhalese Chronicles Part 10 – The Chinese Factor | Ramanie de Zoysa | Gold Coast, Queensland

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Little by little, however, Zhou drove the barbarians back. Their fief gradually expanded in size to take its place amongst the many principalities of later Zhou-era China. Thus the state of Qin came into being. Like other states on the frontiers, it was regarded as semi-barbaric by the states of eastern China. While its rulers and people may have lacked culture and refinement, however, they were tough soldiers, and this would stand them in good stead in the future.

For a long time, Qin continued to expand its territory by conquering neighbouring barbarian tribes. It was only in the mid-4th century BC that it began to engage in wars with other Chinese states.

A very capable man called Shang Yang became chief minister of Qin sometime in the 350s BCE.

Shang Yang was a follower of the Legalist school of thought; and set about strengthening the Qin state through a series of sweeping reforms. These focused the state’s institutions towards military ends.

Shang Yang was an efficient bureaucrat, operating according to strict rules and regulations. He carried out economic measures to increase the wealth of the state, especially by large-scale irrigation projects which greatly expanded agricultural production.

He permitted a free market in land, and required peasants to pay taxes in crops or money rather than labour services.

Most famously of all, he introduced a law code based on legalist principles. This was based on the idea that punishments should be so severe that no one would dare to commit crimes. To make it even harsher, it enforced a system of collective responsibility, whereby the population was divided into units of 5-10 families each, with all members of a unit collectively responsible for the crimes of any individual within that unit.

These measures increased the strength that these reforms gave the state of Qin was soon apparent. Qin armies conquered large areas of neighbouring states to the north and south. These conquests in turn led to further increases in strength; the Qin government carried out the largest irrigation project that had ever been undertaken in China (and probably in the world) up to that point in its newly annexed southern territories, bringing much new land under cultivation.

The Qin state was by no means unique in carrying out such reforms. The southern state of Chu, for example, had also reformed its institutions to make itself more fit to war.

Chu began the Warring States period as by far the largest state in China, the one which all other states feared. It continued to expand during the period, and like Qin, it benefited from the reforms carried out by a famous Legalist minister.

For example, Chu was the first to divide its territory into districts governed by officials appointed by the king to act on his behalf. The purpose of this was to make the Chu central government’s control much more effective throughout all the localities of the land. This was the origin of the system of provincial administration which Qin adopted and later applied throughout China.

Starting in the 250s BC, one of these states, Qin, conquered all the others, one by one. The rulers of the Qin dynasty were thus the first in China’s history to rule a unified Chinese empire.

The Qin imposed a rigid centralization upon the vast country. Their empire lasted barely a generation, before it dissolved into anarchy. Out of this chaos a leader eventually emerges who founded the long-lasting Han dynasty.

A ruler, who takes the reign-name Gaozu, has adopted much the same centralised system of government as the Qin, but in a milder form. Taxes and labour services are less onerous than under his predecessors, and the laws less severe. He has thus successfully established his rule over the entire country, and the Han dynasty he founded will rule ancient China for 400 years.

The period of the Han dynasty formed the final phase of Ancient China. During it, key developments which had roots in previous dynasties – most notably the rise of the Confucian state – were consolidated. This allowed them to be passed down to future periods of China’s history and to become central features of Chinese civilization.

Considered in the perspective of world history, the Han dynasty ruled over one of the greatest empires of antiquity. In durability, population size, quality of government and level of cultural sophistication, it was at least the equal to any of other great states of the ancient world, including the Roman, Persian and Mauryan empires. Furthermore, it can boast a more direct influence on today’s world than any of the others. This is best illustrated in the fact that modern Chinese designate themselves “the Han” after this ancient dynasty, which was the first to truly knit them together into a unified and enduring nation.

The Han dynasty came to power in 202 BC, bringing an end to the chaos accompanying the fall of the Qin dynasty. The Han emperors ruled China for more than 400 years, except for a brief period between 9 and 23 CE, when a powerful minister, Wang Mang, seized the throne.

The long period of unity which the Han dynasty brought China gave the Chinese people a strong sense of themselves as a single nation (to this day they call themselves the “Han”). Moreover, during the Han period the Chinese civil service developed into an organisation which could govern an enormous country effectively, and weld it together into a single state. Connected with this, Confucianism became the ruling ideology of China under the Han, and remained so until the 20th century.

By the time of 300 BC- 200 BC the “Silk Road” had not yet commenced; no doubt we will meet those who took part in the silk route’s cultural, trade and social exchanges in our next meeting. We have, indeed, come a long way!

By – Ramanie de Zoysa – Gold Coast, Queensland

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