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 Turkmen Role in the Rise of China’s Tang Dynasty

The empire during the reign of Wu Zetian, circa 700

Episode 15: The Turks: Turkmen Khagans and Tang Emperors

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

Harl begins this lecture by describing internal changes in China following the 220 AD collapse of the  Han dynasty collapse, and a mass population shift from the Yellow to the Yangtze River. Owing to better rainfall and more fertile soil, southern China provided better opportunities for cultivating rice and silk.

Simultaneously mainly Turkish speaking nomads migrated into northern China, carving out a new federation around the Yellow River. Prioritizing control of the Silk Road trade, these nomads garrisoned the Jade Gate and took the dynastic name of the former Wei kingdom (220-226 AD). They were great sponsors of Buddhism and helped it spread throughout China.

In 581 AD the Sui Dynasty reunified China, to be usurped in 618 AD by the Tang Dynasty. Under the latter, China was as large as it had ever been, relying on the Turkish Wei rulers to run northern China. Continuing the corvée* system of military construction initiated by the Han Dynasty, the formed required all males to engage in one year of construction for the emperor or one year of military service (followed by one year of garrison duty), Twenty percent of the Tang armies were nomadic cavalry and horse archers.

In 630 AD, the Tang emperor invaded the Eastern Gökturk Khanate and recruited prisoners they captured into the army. Through this process, they brought the entire Tarim Basin under Chinese control for the first time (see How the Arrival of the Turks Transformed the Steppes ).

In 660 AD, the Tang army conquered the Western Gökturk Khanate, bringing it under Chinese control.

The Tang Empire invested heavily to stimulate development (mainly stock raising) in the Tarim Basin. They resettled native Chinese settlers to better oversee the Silk Road caravan cities and cast bronze coins to pay the Chinese garrisons that maintained order.

They also invested heavily in restoring Chinese border walls and canal building to move rice, silk and troops. The Grand Canal, stretching over 1400 miles between the Yellow and Yangtze River, was constructed during this period.

In 755-763 AD, there was a massive uprising against the heavy taxes imposed to pay for all this, led by a Gökturk (Uighur) general named An Loushan. The Tang emperor eventually put down the rebellion but lost control of the Tarim Basin to Tibet.

In 907 AD the Tang Dynasty collapsed, fragmenting into smaller kingdoms run by warlords.

*Corvée is a form of unpaid, forced labor (usually for a government ruler), which is intermittent in nature and which lasts limited periods of time.

The Dark Ages: When Barbarians and Peasant Farmers Took Back Power

The Dark Ages Are Upon Us : Imperator

Episode 22: Chaos and Consolidation

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

In this fascinating lecture, Benjamin traces the reconfiguration of Eurasia following the collapse of the Rome and the Han empire in China. The period 400 – 1000 AD is commonly referred to as the Dark Ages, owing to the break-up of Western Europe into smaller kingdoms and city-states. This seems to be based on the traditional view that large totalitarian empires run by ruthless dictators are preferable to smaller city-states, largely because the latter are at greater risk of being overthrown by the peasant farmers who generate state wealth.

  • China – Between the 3rd and 7th century AD (following the collapse of the Han Dynasty in 200 AD), 37 separate dynasties attempted to rule different areas of China. During the 6th century AD, the Sui dynasty unified northern and southern China via construction of the Grand Canal linking the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. This paved the way for the Tang dynasty. The the wealthiest, most powerful and most urbanized* empire to that point in history, it would conquer Vietnam and much of Tibet and Central Asia.
  • Japan – adopted Buddhism and Chinese administrative systems in the 3rd Century BC, but independent regions controlled by powerful Samurai would not be unified under a single emperor until 1000 AD.
  • India – the Kushan empire controlling Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and northern India collapsed in the 3rd century AD to be replaced by the Gupta network of regional rulers. During this period, Aryabhata (476-550) discovered the rotation of the Earth and first calculated the length of the solar year, and Varahamira invented the concept of zero.
  • Iran – the Parthian and Kushan empire was replaced by the Sassanian empire (251-651 AD), which promoted a resurgence of Zororastrianism and traded with the Byzantine Empire and the Chinese.
  • Western Europe – (following the collapse of Rome) broke up into six independent kingdoms governed by the Franks and Burgundians (in northern France), the Alemanni (in Germany), the Ostrogoths (in the Balkans) and the Odoaccerdom (Italy) and Visigoth kingdoms (Spain and southwest France). Many former Roman cities were taken over by peasant farmers and converted to pasture and market gardens.** There was a brief effort to unify Western Europe (as the Holy Roman consecrated by the Pope) effort under Charlemagne in 800 AD, but following Charlemagne’s death, reverted to warring kingdoms governed by local kings.
  • Western Asia – the eastern Roman empire (consisting of modern day Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Macedonia) continued under centralized  Byzantine rule from Constantinople.

The political dynamics of this era were complicated by a number of significant invasions:

  • Muslim: the rise of Islam in the 6th century AD, leading to the Muslim conquest of much of central Asia, North Africa and the Iberian peninsula.
  • Barbarians: the invasion of formerly Roman Britain by Picts, Scots and Anglo-Saxons.
  • Vikings: the invasion of Britain, northern Europe***and Russia**** by Vikings.

*By the 10th century AD, 2 million people lived in Chang’an and 1 million in Hangzhou.

**In the 7th century AD Rome had a population of 25,000, down from a population of one million in 150 AD.

***Normandy in France was settled by Vikings.

****Vikings controlled most of Ukraine and Russia via the trading networks they established. Kievan Russ, the first Russian state, was created by Viking elites who controlled these networks.

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