Humanities 210 MIC/WIC- Cora Agatucci
Cultures & Literatures of Asia

China Timeline 2:
Qin and Han Dynasties
& "Time of Troubles"
(3rd c. BCE - CE 7th c.)

Asian Timelines Table of Contents Literary & Cultural History
Learn more about selected Chinese topics by clicking the links embedded in these timelines.
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The timeline pages are under construction and probably always will be...

QIN EMPIRE 221-206/202 BCE

233 BCE: Early Great Wall of China (image), linking an older series of earthen fortifications, was completed by Shih Huangdi (Qin warrior and strongman who became "first emperor"): one of the world’s greatest public works was built (and later rebuilt) with an oppressively high cost to China’s peasantry. (The Great Wall--and see another photo--was brought to the form we know it today under the later Ming Dynasty between 1403 and 1435. Mongol attacks of 1438-49 forced a Chinese withdrawal to the south and made necessary the construction of second lines of defense, the "inner Great Wall," nei chang cheng, built 1436-49.)

The disciplined, ambitious Qin military, with more iron weapons than their enemies and a strong, ruthless leader, finally re-unified China. Shih Huangdi (image) declared himself first Emperor ("huang-di") of China (a new title), evoking tianming (the Mandate of Heaven) to establish the Qin (or Ch'in) Empire (221-206/202 BCE). Shih Huangdi unified China, ruled by centralized bureaucracy, and demanded Legalist philosophy that served a strong centralized state and his dream of absolute control. The Qin Emperor also improved communications and public works, and instituted a unified currency. (See Archeological Excavations at Qin tomb site, and Lines of Soldier Statues at tomb of the "First Emperor" at Xian.)

Image of the burning of classics and burying of the scholars, by order of Qui Shi Huangdi, who considered the historical records and political philosophies of the Zhou classical age to be a threat to the new Qin empire. In 213 BCE, at the instigation of his Legalist advisor Li Si (Li Ssu, d. 208 BCE.), the Qin emperor launched a literary inquisition and persecution of scholars. All except technically useful books were to be destroyed, and unsupportive scholars were banished or executed. According to later Han histories, several hundred scholars were buried alive. Qin policies hastened the end of China's golden age of philosophy, and contributed to the large gulf between pre-Qin and post-Qin thought.


Western (or Early) Han Dynasty 206 - 8 BCE

Western (or Earlier) Han Dynasty (map) was established (see image of the Liu Bang, or Liu Pang, founder of the Han Dynasty), beginning a creative and influential 4 centuries, the "Classical" Han period. Han emperors—especially under the long reign of Emperor Wu (140-87 BCE) consolidated Chinese civilization, supported by a strong agrarian base, exploiting the peasantry to support Chinese cities and elites. Confucian philosophy, stressing proper behavior and loyalty to the Emperor, reigned with a deep veneration for tradition and ancestors. The state Confucianism of the Han was nevertheless a highly eclectic Confucianism containing cosmological beliefs attempting to correlate the human, natural, and supernatural spheres and emphasizing the yinyang principle, the five elements, portents, and numerology. Dong Zhongshu, who lived around 179-104 B.C., became an advisor to the emperor and was instrumental in achieving official recognition for Confucianism. Thereafter the Confucian class of scholars became increasingly important in the bureaucratic administration of the empire. Political unity was assumed natural and desirable under the rule of the emperor, supported by civil administration of professional bureaucracy shi scholar-bureaucrats educated in difficult writing system. Chinese arts and literature rise to a new dominance. The Han perfected this administrative model begun by Qin Shi Huangdi, an effective solution to the tremendous management problems of governing the largest country in the world (see map of Han era China), collecting taxes, keeping the peace, etc. The first Chinese universities were established to support a strong tradition of political philosophy, and social values of harmony, self-restraint, and decorum. The Han emperors also encouraged technological advances (e.g., horse collar, water mill) and artistic experimentation. See Gilt bronze lamp of Changhsin Palace (Western Han 206 B.C. - 24 A.D.) See also a bronze peacock from the Western Han era, probably made by the culturally advanced minority people of Dian, whose kingdom in the area of today's Yunnan province was conquered by the Han in 109 BCE.
88 BCE Beginning of Han decline


Early Han Orature & Literature

Early writing imitated forms of "good" speech, with special pleasure in dialogue and oratory that played with sound, rhyme, rhythmic parallel phrases, and analogies to support an argument. A popular genre of the Han elite was the fu (trans. "poetic expression"), long rhymed descriptions with rich vocabulary declaimed in court.

Early Chinese writing did not come down to us as an author wrote it, since oral materials changed over generations of transmission and written materials were frequently changed in recopying with little concern for a "definitive text" as the author had originally composed it. During the Han period, however, the variant texts of the Confucian Classics were consolidated and led to the ideal of a stable literary text that should not be altered.

This notion of text was enabled by improvements in the "technology" of Chinese writing. Silk scrolls were increasingly used for writing, replacing the less expensive but less durable and heavier bundles of bamboo strips formerly used. (While paper was developed in the 1st century CE, it wasn’t widely used for writing until later.) Script was standardized and easier to write; thus, reading became the rule rather than the exception, and written scrolls could be transported across China. Thus, writing, reading, and learning became more portable and accessible.


8-25 Wang Mang Interregnum or Xin ("New") or Hsin Kingdom

Eastern (or Later) Han Dynasty CE 23 – ca. 220

Eastern (or Later) Han Dynasty restored Han rule and resumed "Classical" Han Age: the consolidation of Chinese civilization continued. Pride in Han traditions and accomplishments prompted dominant groups of later ethnic Chinese to call themselves "sons of Han." Technological advances (war, shipbuilding, mining, manufacturing) continued during the Han era, as did reliance on and expansion of professional shi bureaucracy, the initiation of civil service exams and "classical" education; and developments in Chinese textiles, ceramics, and other inventions would spur global technological revolutions. See image of Zhang Heng (or Chang Heng, CE 78-139), a brilliant mathematician, astronomer, and geographer of the Eastern Han, who is credited with inventing the first seismograph.

Invention of paper (CE 1st century): see woodcut of a preparatory stage of traditional paper making in China, cooking bamboo stems in a mixture of water and lime. Recent evidence suggests that a paper-like substance was in use in China by the 2nd or 1st centuries BCE. By CE 3rd and 4th centuries AD., the use of paper was widespread in China, and its gradual spread westward had begun.
Invention of porcelain (CE 2
nd century)

Han Confucian Classics & Historiography

Under the Han rulers, the scholars (shih bureaucrats) were incorporated into the state bureaucracy. Confucianism and the imperial system became inseparable. Appointments to all important official positions were based on formal education and mastery of the Confucian Classics. This practice continued with few interruptions until the 20th century, and the polished and highly stylized writings of the "classics" set the standards for the orthodox literary tradition for 2000 years. Therefore, increasingly importance was placed on reconciling variant texts and interpretations of the Confucian Classics. (See also Ban Zhao Pan Chao, Lessons for A Woman: The Views of A Female Confucian.)

Standardized writing system and more accessible writing technology during the Han Dynasty strengthened the Chinese sense of continuity. Writing, reading, and thus classical learning were keys to upward social/political mobility, but they were still difficult to access and master, except by a relatively small educated elite. Poetic expression was an important means to demonstrate education and talent by young men seeking appointment in the central government. This use of literary skill became fully institutionalized later in the examination system of CE 7th century.

The Chinese have developed a strong sense of their real and mythological origins and have kept voluminous records since very early times. It is largely as a result of these records that knowledge concerning the ancient past, not only of China but also of its neighbors, has survived.

The dominant pattern of Chinese historiography, as we know it today, was established when Sima Qian completed Records of the Grand Historian, a project begun by his father Sima Tan. The structure Sima used was emulated by Chinese dynastic historians to follow: rather than prioritizing strict chronology, each chapter covered a different topic (e.g., first, emperors and kings; second, literature; third, philosophy; etc.).

Chinese history, until the twentieth century, was written mostly by members of the ruling scholar-official class and was meant to provide the ruler with precedents to guide or justify his policies. These accounts focused on dynastic politics and colorful court histories and included developments among the commoners only as backdrops. The historians described a Chinese political pattern of dynasties, one following another in a cycle of ascent, achievement, decay, and rebirth under a new family.

Ca. 220 Last Han emperor deposed.

Time of Troubles & New Religions
(CE 220 – 589)

220-280 Three Kingdoms Period
Hsiung-nu (Huns) challenged many classical civilizations in the 3rd century, including the Chinese. The Han split into 3 kingdoms, declined, and could not maintain unity. This divisive period reinforced the desirability of re-instituting the Chinese ideal of having "one Emperor over China, like one sun in the sky." The Han moved south as foreign "barbarians" moved into the north.

[One of China’s later great Ming era novels, Luo Guanzhong
circa 1300-1400), or The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (trans.C. H. Brewitt-Taylor and ed. Snow N. Snow), is about this period. [See
Outlines of Early Chinese History, by Li Ung Bing, Ed. Joseph Whiteside (Soochow University)and Snow N. Snow; and The Beginning Song of the novel.)]

2nd –3rd centuries Taoism (or Daoism), rooted in ancient beliefs, emerged as China's first popular religion, with public ceremonies, priesthood, monasteries, huge pantheon of deities and saints, though fragmented into 100s of sects. Even beneath state Confucianism of the Han era lay a complex world of popular religions and cults of esoteric knowledge, giving rise to Daoist-inspired peasant rebellion.
280 - 560/589 Era of Six Dynasties and "Time of Troubles": increased peasant revolts spurred by Daoists within, and nomadic invasions in north China from without intensified political divisions and reverses to civilization, creating much destruction and human suffering. (See Map: China in the 6th century.)
Ca. 300- 700 Buddhism was firmly established in China, first appearing in CE 1st century of the Han era, along the trading routes of the The Silk Road, through Central Asia, as a religion of foreign merchants. Buddhism's slow penetration of Chinese society was accelerated in the atmosphere of psychological, philosophical, and spiritual dislocation attending the breakup of the Han. From the early 4th century, upper-class Chinese turned to Buddhism in large numbers, in part attracted by its superficial resemblance to Daoism. Buddhist missionaries from Central Asia won converts widely, and Buddhist sects proliferated during an era of great Buddhist influence. By the late 5th century, Buddhism was widely accepted across all social classes, and received as well the lavish patronage of successive non-Chinese rulers of north China. From China, Buddhism would spread into Tibet, Southeast Asia, Korea, and Japan. (See The Spread of Buddhism Outside of India, Australian National Univ.)
Buddhism "was an offspring of Brahmanism, the earlier faith of the Hindus....In course of time the old faith reached such a stage of decay that reformer[s] were required to remind the believers of its essential truths. "Of these reformers the greatest was Prince Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha...[or the Enlightened One], whose reforms were of such a radical nature as virtually to found a new religion. Yet he did not quarrel with the old, but merely interpreted it anew, and gave it a more practical character. Buddha was born about the middle of the sixth century BC. He was a member of a royal house, but left his home, his wife, and newly born child to find religious peace and the way to salvation. He sought truth from the Brahmans in vain, and spent seven years in religious meditation. Finally he learned the truth he had been seeking. It was summed up in the two ideas of self-culture and universal love.

"About 522 BC he proclaimed his creed at Benares.... he taught that every act in this life bears its fruit in the next. Every soul passes through successive lives, or reincarnations, and its condition during one life is the result of what it has done in a previous state. The aim of life is the attainment of Nirvana---a sinless state of existence, which requires constant self-culture. Four truths were especially taught: first, that all life is suffering; second, that this suffering is caused by the desire to live; third, that the suffering ceases with the cessation of this desire; fourth, that this salvation can be found by following the path of duty. A very high morality was preached, including the duties of chastity, patience, mercy, fortitude, and kindness to all entities." (Colby's "Outlines of General History.")

"After his death...his disciples carried the faith through India, and thence it spread to the northwest and to the southeast of that country. About...377 [BCE], there was a division among the Buddhists; the Northern branch had their center in Kashmir, while the Southern section made Ceylon their headquarters. It was the Northern creed that was introduced by Emperor Ming into China." From Outlines of Early Chinese History, by Li Ung Bing (eds. Joseph Whiteside, Soochow Univ. and Snow N. Snow).

"Before the introduction of Buddhism into China (AD 65) no religion in the true sense of the word was in existence among the ancients," according to Li Ung Bing. Confucianism less a religion than a system of morality. "No word for religion was known to the language; the notion of church or temple served by a priestly caste had not entered human's mind." (Parker's "Ancient China Simplified.") That the ancients had some knowledge of God, history abundantly attests. His worship, however, was one of the prerogatives of the reigning house or family; and, as "Son of Heaven, the king alone could offer sacrifice to the Highest Divinity on behalf of his nation. Lesser ranks worshipped lesser divinities, such as the elements of nature, mountains, and streams. The worship of the common people was confined to their own ancestors....what the ancients did in the way of worship was...the performance of prescribed rituals, such as that of sacrifices and prayers." From Outlines of Early Chinese History, by Li Ung Bing (eds. Joseph Whiteside, Soochow Univ. and Snow N. Snow).

From the 3rd to 7th centuries, in a time of great turmoil, many Chinese were attracted to clear doctrine of personal salvation, personal ethics, practices of meditation and prayer recitation. Sutras, the Buddhist scriptures, introduced the complexities of Indian philosophy, and large-scale translation projects stimulated new reflection on the Chinese language system. Buddhist monasteries were centers of learning, their hospitals and hostels took in the sick and homeless; and great Buddhist libraries, temples, monasteries were built. (See large statue of the Buddha from the Yungang (Yun-kang) rock temple at Datong in Shanxi province, CE 5th century, where some 1,200 niches were cut into rock cliffs and contain over 50,000 Buddhist statues.)

The Chinese adoption of Buddhism was their greatest foreign borrowing until modern times, this despite the fact that the religion directly contradicted and challenged a range of Chinese social and cultural norms. From almost the outset of its introduction, however, the Chinese reinterpreted and transformed Buddhism so that it more comfortably matched Chinese mentality and custom. Both popular religions, Chinese (Ch’an) Buddhism, highly organized, provided a model for Daoism; and interaction with Daoism infused Chinese Buddhism with indigenous reverence for ancestors, and preservation of family through ancestral lines.
See also The Religious World of Letterforms and scroll down to IMAGE D: "Perhaps Siddham (a variant of northern Brahmi from CE 5th/6th Century India) is the only script in which letterforms have been solely used for meditative purposes, through the visual symbolism of ritualistically written seed-syllables, as a part of the practice of esoteric Buddhism in China and Japan. `A', the seed character of Mahavairocana (Dainichi Nyorai) is the most important Siddham (meaning of the perfect) character. One look at the letter a, destroys evil passion; the efficacy of themmantra transforms this body into Buddha. For the purpose of meditation, the character is drawn large in either formal or soft style on a scroll and hung on a wall."


589-618 Sui Dynasty, with a northern power base and part "barbarian" rather than Han in descent (like the later Tang), conquered the south and reunited China, and began bureaucratic reconstruction and great public works, like the Grand Canal (ca 1904. photo)--1000+ miles linking the Yellow River and north China plains to Yangtze River basic and southern sea; 5 million forced laborers were enlisted to complete the canal.

China Timelines Introduction 
China Timeline 1: 
Early China (to 3rd c. BCE)
China Timeline 2: Qin & Han Dynasties & "Time of Troubles"
(3rd c. BCE - CE 7th c.) -
URL of this webpage:
China Timeline 3: Tang, Song, Yuan & Ming Dynasties (7th - 17th c.)
China Timeline 4: Qing Dynasty & Clashes with the West (1644-1911)
China Timeline 5: Republican & Communist China (20th c.) & China Timelines Sources

Asian Timelines: India China Japan
  were first prepared by Cora Agatucci, in 1998. 
They are slowly being updated in Winter 2001.  Please bear with me.

Other Online HUM 210 Course Resources:
HUM 210 Syllabus Course Plan Assignments Student Writing 
Asian Film Asian Links: India China Japan

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If you're interested in other world literatures and cultures, visit these course websites:
Hum 211 - Culture and Literature of Africa 
Eng 109 - Western World Literatures (late 18th-late 20th centuries)