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.

Silk Roads – In the Footsteps of the Nomads

Episode 14: Silk Roads – In the Footsteps of the Nomads

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin

Film Review

Benjamin begins this lecture by outlining the significant “revolutions” (ie leaps) in the progress of human beings towards “modernity”:

  • 50,000 years ago – Upper Paleolithic Revolution produced technologies enabling humans to survive the Ice Age, eg tools and weapons to hunt large mammals, cave art and symbolic language.
  • 11,000 years ago – Agricultural Revolution.
  • 5,000 BC – Urban Revolution (first cities and states

Benjamin views the development of the Silk Road trading network in the 2nd century BC (linking all of Afro-Eurasia with the Roman and Han Empires ) the fourth major human “revolution.”

He believes the first Silk Road paths probably used the same paths early hominids used to migrate from Africa to Asia. He credits their development into a major trading network to two main factors: 1) the presence of four stable empires (Roman, Han, Kushan, Parthian and Roman) across the Middle East and Asia and 2) the Secondary Products Revolution on the Steppes.

The latter he attributes to the discovery by steppes nomads that domesticated animals could provide a number of secondary products (eg milk, fur, transportation and load bearing) that improved human beings’ quality of life. On the steppes, this discovery led to nomadic pastoral herding and the eventual colonization (by nomads) of all the deserts and steppes of Africa and Eurasia.

Benjamin goes on to describe in some detail the “lifeways” of the Xiongnu nomads to the north of China. In addition to pastoral nomadism and booty raids on the Chinese, the Xiongnu also engaged in rug weaving, leather making and the forging of bronze, gold and iron tools and artwork. A small segment of Xiongu also engaged in farming in fortified settlements in Noin-Ula (modern day Mongolia) and Ivolga (on the Russian steppes).

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

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.