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

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The Conquests of Genghis Khan


Episode 26: The Conquests of Genghis Khan

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

Within a few decades of taking power, Genghis Khan had assembled the largest eastern steppes confederation since the 2nd century BC.

In 1206 he reorganized the Mongol army based mainly on skill, rather than tribal affiliation as prior nomad leaders had done. He was especially skilled at moving troops and supplies long distances. For example, in 1218 he would move 35,000 men from the Mongolian capitol in the caravan city Karakarum to attack the Kara-Khitan Empire.*

In 1209 he invaded Xi Xia and took control of the Silk Road. To save themselves from obliteration, the kingdom signed a treaty agreeing to pay tribute and provide Chinese translators and engineers to develop the Mongols’ siege technology.

In 1211 he invaded the Jin Empire and took control of of their rich millet and wheat  and their manufacture of armaments and tools.

In 1218 he conquered Kara-Khitan, providing his first major challenge to the Muslim Empire. According to Harl, Arabs in Baghdad welcomed the conquest because they were fed up with Turkish rule. After capturing a few fit males captive as slave solders and shipping the prettiest women back to the steppes for his harem, he decimated the rest of the civilian population. Contemporaneous historical accounts refer to landscapes of bleached bones and pyramids of severed heads.

By 1220-21 all the lands of eastern Islam (Transoxiana, Persia and parts of Afghanistan and southern Russia) were under Mongol control.

Genghis Khan died in 1227, appointing his third son Ogidai as his successor.

*Consisting of Persia and Transoxiana (civilization located in lower Central Asia roughly corresponding to modern-day eastern Uzbekistan, western Tajikistan, parts of southern Kazakhstan, parts of Turkmenistan and southern Kyrgyzstan).

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

10th Century AD: Steppes Nomads Conquer Northern China

Episode 27: Manchurian Warlords and Song Emperors

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

In this lecture, Harl focuses on the steppes nomads who ruled northern China following the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in 907 AD (two centuries before the birth of Genghis Khan).

Harl focuses on three major tribes, the Khitans, the Jurchens and the Xi Xia.

The Khitans, who ruled northern China between 907 and 926, originated from the Manchurian forests prior to adopting a nomadic lifestyle. Calling themselves the Liao Dynasty, they conquered 16 Chinese provinces (including the densely-populated region around Beijing) and ruled as Chinese-style emperors. They simultaneously extended their authority over other nomadic tribes on the adjacent steppes while ruling an estimated 10-15 million Chinese subjects.

Over time, the Khitan emperors came into increasing conflict with the Song Empire ruling southern China. In 1005, they signed a treaty establishing a boundary between the Liao and Song Dynasties that required the Song emperor to pay them tribute.

The Liao Dynasty collapsed when the Jurchens, originating from the steppes north of Manchuria, formed an alliance with the Song Dynasty to attack the Khitans simultaneously from the Northeast and South. After renaming themselves the Jin Dynasty, the Jurchens penetrated a long way into southern China forcing the Song court to relocate further south and pay them tribute. By 1125, the Jin Dynasty ruled the Chinese heartland, a total of 30-40 million Chinese (one-third of the Chinese population).

The Khitans migrated west following their defeat by China and overran the Islamic Seljuk Turk Federation and all the caravan cities in Transoxiana. This ultimately led to to the collapse of the Seljuk-run Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, which once again came under Arab control.*

Although they only occupied a small region between the Khitan Federation and the Uighur** Federation in the Tarim Basin, the nomadic Xi XIa Federation was politically important because it controlled the Silk Road and (after adopting Chinese Script) served as an intermediary between the Khitans and the Song Dynasty.

*See The Multiethnic Origins of the Muslim Conqueset

**See 9th Century AD: Mass Migration of Uighur Turks to China Leads to Rise of Seljuk Turks on the Steppes

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