The Collapse of the Han Dynasty and 350 Years of Disunity

Episode 20: The Age of Disunity

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

According to Benjamin, the last decades of the Han Dynasty were characterized by corruption and infighting between the three groups of competing elites: the emperor’s eunuchs, the hereditary nobility and the Confucian bureaucrats. Simultaneously there was also substantial peasant unrest, most notably the Yellow Turban Rebellion (184-205 AD). Ultimately the empire was overrun by militarized nomads, just as Rome was.

After the last Han emperor was deposed in 220 AD, power fell into the hands of regional governments and warlords. Cao Cao, one of the most powerful, is best known for settling landless peasants on state forms. After employing Xiongu horse archers as mercenaries, he also resettled them in Shanxi province in northern China.

Several warlords attempted to reunify China, only to be thwarted by their rivals. In 220 AD Cao Cao’s son Cao Pi unsuccessfully attempted to reunify China as the Wei Dynasty.

Significant historical periods include

  • 230 – 280 AD – Three Kingdoms period, with the rival Wei kingdom in the North, Shu kingdom in the West and Wu kingdom in the East.
  • 265 AD – the Jin Dynasty captures the Wei kingdom, ruling until 420 AD. They very briefly rule the other two kingdoms as well, but the fleeting Jin Empire collapses due to a conflict with their own civil service.
  • 281 – 305 AD – brutal civil war involving all of China.
  • 311 AD – Xiongnu nomads take advantage of continuing civil unrest, to sack the former capitol of the Eastern Han Dynasty at Luoyang. In 316, they sacked Changan.
  • 304 – 437 AD – era of the 16 kingdoms, characterized by o one of continual war with Xiongu nomads.
  • 420 – 589 AD – Period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties, featuring significant in southern China, previously isolated from the major dynasties.
  • 439 – 534 AD – Shaanxi settlers from Manchuria adopt Han culture and re-established the Wei Dynasty in northern China.
  • 581 AD – militarily superior Sui Dynasty finally reunifies China. The first Sui emperor Wendi, also China’s first Buddhist emperor,* eliminates many of the cruel punishments enacted under the Legalist dynasties.** His son Yangdi builds the Grand Canal linking the Yellow and Yangtze River.

*Buddhism first reached China during the first century AD. During the Age of Disunity, many Chinese Buddhists  temples and monasteries and made pilgrimages to India. Chinese Buddhists periodically experienced vicious attacks by Confucian elites. The celibacy practiced by Buddhist monks was viewed as “unfilial” (under Confucianism, one has a duty to parents and ancestors to produce an heir).

**Legalism was a school of political philosophy that competed with Confucianism and Daoism during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). See China: Ancient Civlization Born in Isolation

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

The Role of the Kushan Empire in the First Silk Road

Episode 18 – Lost Kushan Empire

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin

Film Review

The Kushan, originally descended from Yuezhi nomads,* were the great Silk Road facilitators. Their empire extended from Uzbekistan in the north to Central India and from the Iranian Plateau to the Tarim Basin** in the East.  By the early first century AD, the Han Empire had also expanded to incorporate much of Central Asia as tributary states. This brought them into direct contact with the Kushan, who eventually controlled all the east-west and north-south Silk Road trade routes.

Because the Kushan had no literature of their own, most of their history is reconstructed from historical accounts and their coins. Imprinted with a distinctive Bactrian script employing Sanskrit grammar and Greek letters, the latter frequently commemorated royal lines of succession, foreign conquest. and various religious icons of their subjects.

Major achievements if the Kushan Empire included creating a new dating system and subsidizing numerous schools of sculpture (based on Greco-Roman and Persian sculpture), which would have a major influence on all all Asian art. The Kushan are credited with creating the first sculptural likeness of the Buddha.

Major patrons of Buddhism, they also called the first world conference on Buddhism to consolidate Buddhist doctrine, which the Kushan government translated into Sanskrit for wide dissemination.

The demise of the Kushan Empire was triggered by an invasion by the new Sasssanian Empire in Persia, destroying their capitol and palaces. However the Gupta Empire, which reunified India in the 4th century AD retained many Kushan influences.

*Long time rivals of the Xiongu nomads, who forced the Yuezhi to migrate to the Central Steppes and resettle in Bactria in 130 BC (ten years prior to their visit from Han Dynasty envoy Zhang Xian).

**Aka the Taklamakan Desert

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

Great Ideas of the Zhou: Daoism

Taoism or Daoism How is a man to

Episode 8: Great Ideas of the Zhou: Daoism

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

Lao Zhou, believed to be the founder of Daosim, was a contemporary of Confucius and they may have met. However some scholars believe Daoism resulted from the combined efforts of several different scholars.

In many ways Daoism, which favors individualism, is directly contrary to Confucianism, which favors collective action. While Confucians emphasized the preservation of culture and order, Daoists focused on the nature of human life itself in the context of nature. Viewing government, law and education as “artificial devices,” they taught only withdrawal from life and non-action could resolve negative social conditions. In general, the Daoists were pessimistic about humanity’s ability to create a constructive political system, viewing all social (human) harmonies as contradictory to nature. Instead they emphasized the need for people to understand their place in the universe (thus more easily accepting death).

At the same time, according to Benjamin, different scholars interpret Daoism in different ways. Some see it as a political movement (like Confucianism), some as a quasi-religious movement based on meditation and some as a philosophical approach to understanding reality.

In general, most Confucians accepted the philosophical, but not the religious, aspects of Daosim. Generally compatible with Buddhist doctrine, Daoism has become extremely popular in Southeast Asia and the West. Throughout history, many Chinese officials practiced Confucianism by day and Daoism in their private lives.

Benjamin identifies the Daodejing and the Zhuangnzi as the foundational texts of Daoism. The enigmatic nature of the former seems designed to tap into the subconscious mind and has led to numerous contradictory interpretations of its meaning.

According to the Daodejing, it’s impossible to identify or quantify the Dao (translated as “The Way” or the material force or energy of everything). The attempt by human beings to name things trivializes them. Like Buddhism, the Daodejing advises people to stop striving and live as simply as possible.

The Zhuangnzi was purportedly written by Zhunagnzi (369 -286 BC), though the writing style suggests it had multiple authors. It consists of dialogues, essays, epigrams and parodies of the teachings of Confucius and his disciples. It emphasizes that only the Dao is unchanging and everything else is impermanent and must be kept in perspective. It asserts that only relative truth, happiness and knowledge is possible.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

Revival of the Silk Road Under Kublai Khan

Episode 30: Pax Mongolica and Cultural Exchange

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

Following Kublai Khan’s conquest of China, the Mongols imposed a Pax Mongolica* across the steppes, which ended centuries-long warring between nomad tribes. The resulting peace led to a revival of the Silk Road and renewed prosperity of both states and nomads involved in the Silk Road trade. It also resulted in unprecedented cultural exchange. Exchanges between Persia and China about geography and map-making enabled both kingdoms to produce maps that were far better than those Columbus used to explore the New World. The Persians also shared their knowledge of medicine (from Hindu sources) with China, as well as citrus and grape cultivation. While the Chinese shared their knowledge of tea, black pepper and cinnamon with the Muslim world.

Under Kublai Khan, the Mongols built great cities and set up lavish courts in many of the regions they conquered. He used captive Muslims and Christians to administer cities in northern China and captive Chinese to administer the Ilkhanate Empire (comprising modern-day Iran and parts of Azerbaijan and Turkey).

Most of the Golden Horde (northwestern sector of Mongol Empire – see Mongol Invasion of China) converted to Islam in the 13th century. Although the Ilkhanate abandoned Sunni Islam for Shi’a Sufism, Buddhism was also an important religion there until the empire collapsed in 1335.

Kublai Khan’s conversion to Buddhism (although he was equally tolerant of Daoism and Islam) resulted in its spread across the eastern steppes. The Uighurs, however, abandoned Buddhism for Islam. Most of Transoxiana also became Muslim.

Thanks to improvements in Silk Road security, it now became possible for European Christians to send envoys to Muslim courts for the first time, while Chinese porcelain became widely traded across the Muslim world. There was a simultaneous expansion in sea routes connecting Europe.

China shared their knowledge of block printing (invented under the Song Dynasty) with the Ilkhans, who used it to produce paper money. Under Kublai Khan’s Yuan Dynasty, gunpowder technology (discovered under the Han Dynasty) also spread across the steppes and into Europe.

This would be the first major eastern technology to take hold in Europe, leading the English to invent the cannon in the mid-14th century and hand held small arms in the 17th century. It was thanks to these technologies that they conquered the world over the next two centuries.

*Russian historians refer to the Pax Mongolica as the Mongol Yoke, owing to the massive slaughter of civilians during their conquest of the Russian principalities. 500,000 total were either killed or died of exposure and starvation (after the Mongols destroyed their homes and crops).

**Harl briefly discusses the Venetian explorer Marco Polo who traveled to China via the Silk Road in 1271 and served 23 years in Kublai Khan’s court. Because there are no references to the explorer in Chinese sources, Harl believes he likely served as a minor civil servant and exaggerated his role in his writings. His book The Travels of Marco Polo inspired Columbus’s voyage to the new world.

The film can be viewed with a library card on Kanopy.

How the Silk Road Propagated Buddhism, Other Major Religions and Written Language

Creeds – Part 07 | Sanctorum.US

Episode 9: Buddhism, Manichaeism and Christianity

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

According to Harl, Buddhism was the most successful region between the 4th and 6th century AD, largely due to its promotion by Kushan* rulers. Buddhism’s founder Siddartha Gautama lived during the 5th-6th century on the India-Nepal border. Harl believes his rejection of the Hindu caste system is an important reason for its popularity, especially as the Kushan elite derived from a subordinate caste.

Buddhism was also really popular with wealthy Silk Road merchants, who helped build Buddhist monasteries along the Silk Road. At the time, Buddhism interpreted wealth as a manifestation of positive karma and success in the world to come.

Buddhism would remain the predominant religion in regions adjacent to the Silk Road until the late Middle Ages, when it was replaced by Islam.

By the third century AD, two main versions of Buddhism had evolved. Mayahana Buddhism remained the larger sect. Theravada Buddhism, which became prevalent in Thailand and Sri Lanka, emphasized translation of Sanskrit Buddhist texts into vernacular languages spoken by ordinary people.

Manichaeism was also an important Silk Road religion. Mani (born 216 AD in Mesopotamia) was crucified by the Persian shah for heresy against Zoroastrianism. Manichaeism, which shares many of the same beliefs as Buddhism, was also well received by the steppes nomads.

Christianity, specifically Nestorian Christianity, was the third most successful religion along the Silk Road.

Nestorius, the archbishop of Constantinople between 429-431 AD, taught that Mary gave birth to a human baby, that the Christ logos only entered Jesus later in childhood. He also preached that plural marriages were acceptable to God. After Nestorian beliefs were banned by the the 431 AD Ecumenical Council, his followers left the Roman Empire and moved to Persian-controlled Mesopotamia to preserve their faith. Their monks became renowned for performing healings, and nomad mothers frequently tattooed their babies’ foreheads with a cross to protect them against plague.

Religious monks who traveled the Silk Road were also important for bringing written language to steppes nomads. This facilitated the creation of political confederacies, as well as establishing stronger links with settled areas.

*See How the Kushan Empire Spread Buddhism Along the Silk Road

Film can be viewed free with a library card at Kanopy.

How the Kushan Empire Spread Buddhism Via the Silk Road

Episode 6: Kushans, Sacae and the Silk Road

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

In this lecture Harl describes how the Tocharians, under pressure from the Xiongnu (who were under pressure from China) pushed the Sacae to migrate west and south.

Harl believes the Sacae were present on the central steppes from the beginning of the Iron Age (900-600 BC) and likely domesticated the Bactrian camel used on the Silk Road. The Sacae had a close trading relationship with both Sogdiana**  and Bactria (with its dense settled cities) in Transoxiana. The latter was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 BC. Alexander’s successors set up a Greek kingdom in Bactria that issued Greek coins and relied on trade with Sacae nomads for its prosperity.

In 145 BC the Sacae began migrating from the central steppes into Transoxiana, sacking cities and torching fields as far east as the Greek cities Alexander the Great founded in India.

The Tocharian-speaking Kushans are discussed at length in India’s ancient Buddhist texts. We know a little about their emperors from the coins they issued and the Rabatak Inscription erected by the Kushan emperor Kanishka (127-147 AD). In addition to likenesses of their emperors, Kushan coins feature a variety of Greek, Hindu and ancient Persian gods.

The Kushan, largely responsible for extending the Silk Road into India, eventually conquered and controlled the Indus Valley and the western part of the Tarim Basin. Their construction of Indus Valley cities and Buddhist monasteries led to the translation of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into vernacular languages. This, in turn, led to the spread of Buddhism along the Silk Road into Central Asia.

The Kushan are also well known for their art, which is a composite of Greek and Indian styles. Although they were tolerant of all religions, the Kushan were great patrons of Buddhism and the first to produce images of Buddha in human form.

*The Yeuctzi, a nomad tribe just north of China, maintained a cavalry of 100,000 – 200,000 mounted archers. It was this tribe the Han dynasty sought to ally with in their battles with the Xiongu.

**Sogdiana was an ancient Iranian civilization in present-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan known for both cultivated farmlands and Silk Road caravan cities.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

The Prehistory of India

Pin on Re

Episode 13 South Asian Civilizations and Beliefs

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

Benjamin begins this lecture around 1500 BC, when Indo-Aryans from northern Asia invaded the Indus Valley civilization. They battled with indigenous Dravidians for 500 years. Eventually they abandoned their nomadic way of life for a sedentary lifestyle, assuming control of most of India as a new ruling elite.

The Rig Veda, a sacred text of the Hindu religion, comes out of this period. From 1000 BC on, the population of India was divided into four varas (Sanskrit for color):*

  • Brahmans – priests
  • Kshartryas – nobles and warriors
  • Varshyas – artisans and merchants (ie commoners)
  • Sidras – serfs

“Untouchables,” the fifth vara was added later. “Untouchables” performed unclean work and touched dead animals (tanners and butchers).

In the 7th century BC, a radical Brahman sect emerged that embraced mysticism, yogic meditation and reincarnations. They recorded their teachings in the Upanishads. Jainism and Buddhism emerged about a century later.

Jainism, which teaches that all living beings (including plants and insects) have a soul and forbids any form of violence. The Jains rejected caste systems and lived extremely ascetic lives.

Buddhism, founded by Siddhārtha Gautama during the 6th century BE, also rejected caste systems but were less ascetic than the Jaines. Initially more a philosophy than a religion, Buddhism teaches that renouncing desire and rampant ambition is the only way to end human suffering. Because Siddhārtha and his disciples taught in local dialects, rather than Sanskrit, his teachings quickly spread throughout India, China, Japan, Korea and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Eventually the entire Indus Valley was broken up into city-states, with each having its own maharaja (king).  Villages surrounding the city-states were self governing with elected village committees.

Women had virtually no rights. They could only be in public with a male protector and were were forbidden to participate in religious life (except as nuns). After 500 BC, widows were expected to practice Suti (ie leaping into their husband’s funeral pyre).

Between 522 and 486 BC, the Persians expanded their empire into the Indus Valley and occupied much of modern day Pakistan.

Alexander the Great liberated the Indus Valley when he conquered Persia. Once Alexander withdrew (322 BC), Chandragupta Maurya united most northern India city-states into a single state. The Mauryan empire engaged in irrigation agriculture, manufacturing, road construction, timber harvesting, cattle breeding and inter-indregional trade.

Following the death of Chandragupta’s son Ashoka in 232 BC, the Mauryan empire began to decline. It collapsed in 185 BC, with northern and southern India breaking into separate regional city-states.

*After the Portuguese colonized India in the 16th century, the word “caste” was adopted from the Portuguese word “castas”)

The film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy

More History You Didn’t Learn in School: The Nazca Empire (100 BC) in Southern Peru

World History Part 3 – The Word and the Sword

BBC (2018)

Film Review

Part 3 traces the rise of the Quin dynasty in China, the Mauryan empire in India, the Roman empire, the Nazca empire in South America, and the first Islamic empire. It also traces the development of world religions that arose in reaction to the barbarous violence of empire building. In my mind the ghoulish reenactments of human sacrifice and the popular Roman spectacles of massacring Christians in the Coliseum significantly detract from the film.

The film starts by contrasting the rise of the Quin empire with that of the Mauryan empire in the 3rd century BC. After coming to power, the Mauryan emperor Ashokan embraced Buddhism, renouncing violence and issuing a universal of human rights. In addition to sending Buddhist missionaries across the known world from Vietnam to the Mediterranean, he abolished the slave trade and established schools and hospitals for the poor.

It goes on to cover the rise of the Roman empire, which owing to an alliance between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra in 48 BC made Egypt a Roman colony.

In this context, it traces the rise of Christianity, thanks to the missionary zeal of Saul of Tarsus (St Paul), who dedicated his life to spreading the Christian faith to non-Jews, and the Christians’ cult of martyrdom in the face of Roman persecution.

The Nazca Empire, which emerged in South America in 100 BC practiced human sacrifice to guarantee soil fertility and protect their civilization against natural disasters. The empire vanished owing to the inhabitants’ depletion of verango trees they relied on for fuel and food. Without tree roots to anchor it, fertile soil was washed away and the region became a desert.

The film ends with the rise of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century AD and the role of Bilal, a freed African slave, in uniting warring Arabian tribes in a religion that united belief in jihad with conquest. Within 120 years, Muslims controlled more territory than the Romans, extending from Central Asia to Spain.

The Hidden History of Money, Debt and Organized Religion

Debt the First 5,000 Years

David Graeber (2012)

In this presentation, anthropologist David Graeber talks about his 2012 book Debt: The First 5,000 Years

For me, the most interesting part of the talk is his discussion of the historical link between debt and the rise of the world’s major religions (Hinduism, Christianity, Confucianism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism) between 500 BC and 600 AD.

As Graeber describes it, all commerce was based on credit prior to the development of coinage around 500 BC. In all societies, coinage arose in conjunction with the onset of empire building – traveling armies had to be paid in hard currency rather than credit. The result, according to Graeber, was the simultaneous rise of military/coinage/slavery* empires in Greece, China and India.

According to Graeber, all the major religions arose around the same time – as a “peace movement” opposing militarism, materialism and slavery.

Around 400 AD, when the Roman and other empires collapsed, coinage vanished, along with the standing armies that necessitated its creation. During the Middle Ages, nearly all financial transactions were based on credit. Until 1493, when the “discovery” of the New World initiated a new cycle of empire building, accompanied by militarism, coinage and slavery.

I was also intrigued to learn that Adam Smith stole most of his thinking about free markets from medieval Islamic philosophers. The Islamic ban on usury enabled the Muslim world to operate pure free markets that were totally outside of government influence or control. Trying to operate an economy without such a ban (or a system of debt forgiveness like the Biblical practice of Jubilee) leads to inevitable economic chaos and ultimately collapse, even with government intervention.

People who like this talk will also really like a series Graeber recently produced for BBC4 radio entitled Promises, Promises: The History of Debt.  In it, Graeber explores  the link between Native American genocide and the harsh debt obligations imposed on the Conquistadors.  He also discusses the formation of the Bank of England in 1694, the role of paper money as circulating government debt and the insanity of striving for government surpluses.

* In ancient times, the primary mechanism by which people became enslaved was non-payment of debt.