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Far East Kingdoms

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Dynastic China

Modern China has not always existed in its present form since its first appearance as a state. In fact it has rarely been as large in terms of territory as it is today. At several times in its long history the country has fragmented into two or more warring kingdoms. In its early days there were many smaller independent states that were often at war with one another for domination, sometimes for several centuries. This was often followed by relatively short spells of unification under a single strong conqueror, followed again by a return to fragmentation. It was a long, slow climb towards the relatively unified state of the two millennia AD.

China's origins were long seen as being focussed along the Yellow River. Several of the early mythical or semi-historical dynasties of Ancient China were based in territory in this region, with these early confederate kingdoms having being regarded as having laid down the basis of later Chinese unity. That unity only really came with the Qin dynasty, once the old order had been swept away by the Warring States period.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from The Cambridge History of Ancient China - From the Origins of Civilization to 221 BC, Michael Loewe & Edward L Shaughnessy (1999).)

A Qin iron age sword

Ch'in / Qin Dynasty (End of the Iron Age / Early Imperial Period China)
221 - 207/6 BC

The kingdom of Qin (pronounced 'chin') was the westernmost of the seven kingdoms of the 'Warring States' period, forming a wide north-south barrier to the barbarian lands beyond. The kingdom had initially been created by the Zhou to serve as a shield against the wild nomad tribes of the west. Emperor P'ing of the Eastern Zhou raised the Qin to the position of feudal lords in thanks for their unwavering support during the sacking of the empire's previous capital, giving birth to the duchy of Qin. During the break-up of the Zhou empire, Qin proclaimed itself a kingdom along with many of its peers and opponents.

In his time as the sixth independent king of Qin, Wang Chng was its most feared leader. He was regarded as a common threat by all of the other kingdoms. His ruthless drive to unite China saw him conquer the others one by one (there are numerous tales of assassins sent to kill him, one of which is depicted in the Chinese feature film, Hero / Ying Xiong.). He produced a contemporary super-army, a strongly regimented force with mass-produced bronze weapons that was expertly led. China had seen nothing like it. Following his conquest of the last of his enemies in 221 BC he forged a single, reunified Chinese kingdom and adopted the throne name of Qin Shihuang ('first emperor').

The newly reunified Chinese kingdom was a different beast to its ancient counterpart. Before this period, Chinese unity seemed largely to be in the form of a confederacy. One dynasty may have dominated, but it clearly didn't rule unanimously or without opposition. The various regions still formed what almost amounted to semi-independent kingdoms, and they still fought one another. Qin Shihuang set up a new, integrated imperial system of administration and controls which did much more to create a single state than could ever be matched before the Warring States period. Unfortunately the drive towards a strong centralist government also resulted in a degree of repression. Free thought tended to be discouraged, especially where it provided a voice of opposition to the Qin. The dynasty proved to be the shortest-lasting in Chinese history, but it laid the foundations of a system which would remain in place until the twentieth century.

Feature'Qin' was the name that was adopted by outsiders to describe this new state, as contacts towards the west became more prevalent. It was documented in Sanskrit as 'Čina' (pronounced cheena), which was adopted by Portuguese explorers as 'China'. When medieval Italians borrowed the written form from Portuguese, they pronounced it as keena, with a hard 'k' because that's how the Italian language at the time saw a 'ch'. This was why, in some Central European languages such as Hungarian - which borrowed it from Italian - China is known as Kina with a 'k'. However, modern Italian then corrected it and now also uses 'Cina' (cheena). (See feature link for more detail.)

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Zoltan Szilard, from the BBC series, The Story of China, by Michael Wood, first broadcast between 21 January and 25 February 2016, from Transnationalism in Ancient and Medieval Societies: The Role of Cross-Border Trade and Travel, Michael C Howard (McFarland Publishing, 2012), and from A Short History of China and Southeast Asia: Tribute, Trade and Influence, Martin Stuart-Fox (Allen & Unwin, 2003).)

221 - 210 BC

Shi Huangdi / Shih-huang-ti / Qin Shihuang

Formerly Wang Chng of Qin. Reunified China.

221 BC

FeatureThe 'Warring States' period comes to an end as the Qin conquer the last remaining rival kingdoms and unify the Yellow Plain, and therefore ancient China. Having created the first empire of all China, King Wang Chng of Qin adopts the throne name of Emperor Qin Shihuang. He dispossesses many of the old aristocracies and creates a huge captive labour force so that he can begin construction of the Great Wall to keep out the barbarians and ensure peace for his unitary state. He also creates a standardised coinage system and bureaucracy, a simplified Chinese script, and a terracotta army to safeguard him in the afterlife. Even the name of his kingdom is used forevermore by outsiders - Ch'in (in its older form - Qin in modern Chinese translations) becoming China to the outside world - although the Chinese themselves use a different name for their state.

Around 220 BC, Greco-Bactrians may be responsible for expeditions that reach as far as Kashgar and Urumqi in Chinese Turkestan, establishing the first known contacts between China and the West. The name Daxia appears in Chinese records from around this time to designate a mythical kingdom in the west, possibly referring to Bactria itself.

The Qin Dynasty terracotta army
Emperor Qin Shihuang created the 'Terracotta Army' to accompany him on his trip onto the afterlife and, according to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, archaeologists suspect that an unexcavated tomb could contain a replica of the entire city of Xi'an, which the warriors also guard

Even more remarkably, recent examinations of the terracotta army have established a startling new concept - the terracotta army may be the product of western art forms and technology. An entire terracotta army plus imperial court are manufactured using five workshops and a form of human representation in sculpture that has never before been seen in China. Archaeologists today continue the process of discovering new pits and even a fan of roads leading out from the emperor's burial mound, one of which, heading west, may be a sort of proto-Silk Road along which Greek craftsmen may be travelling.

221 - 214 BC

Over the course of five military campaigns, Qin Shihuang largely manages to subdue the Yue tribes and kingdoms of the coastal south. During the chaos of the 'Warring States' period they have gained control of much of Sichuan, but the steamy jungles of the south and Yue skills at guerrilla warfare make their conquest a tough and brutal process. Over 100,000 Qin men are lost in the first attempt, but the building of a supply canal for the second campaign ensures steady progress thereafter. The Qin army even reaches as far south as Hanoi during one expedition.

210s BC

Chinese records detail four waves of violence between the Greater Yuezhi and the Xiongnu around this period in time. Generally referred to as wars, they are typical struggles for dominance by competing tribal groups, many of whom are also often the target of Qin campaigns as attempts are made to civilise the west. Now in a position to right some of their perceived wrongs against the Greater Yuezhi, the Xiongnu launch an unexpected attack on them under the leadership of Touman. The outcome of the attack is not recorded but it seems to result in little more than some dented pride.

210 - 207 BC

The great Qin Shihuang dies. His weak second son is placed on the throne by two imperial advisers as they attempt to control the throne through him. Unfortunately they squabble between themselves, with one being executed by the other who goes on to convince the emperor to commit suicide due to his own failings. By now the empire is in a state of rebellion against the Qin.

Map of Qin China 221-209 BC
In 221 BC the Qin controlled the entire former imperial territories of the north, plus the recently-incorporated Shu and Ba, but expansion beckoned to the north (a little, largely constrained by the construction of the Great Wall - shown here as a general border rather than specifying all of its different construction phases and locations) and to the south, where several campaigns between 221-209 BC greatly increased the empire (click on map to view full sized)

210 - 207 BC

Erh- shih-huang-ti / Er Shi

Puppet ruler. Second son. Committed suicide.

207/6 BC

Ziying

Nephew. Executed.

207 - 202 BC

The rebellion against Er Shi soon crystallises into the Qin/Han War. In the imperial palace, Er Shi is succeeded by his nephew, Ziying, who immediately executes the surviving imperial adviser. His rebellious subjects have already declared themselves independent of his control but he is so inept in handling the situation that he is defeated in battle. Surrendering, he is executed. The state now survives under the joint leadership of generals Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. In 202 BC Liu Bang defeats his former ally and creates the Han dynasty.

Early Han (Western) Dynasty (China)
(207) 202 BC - AD 25

The hated Qin did not long survive the death of their great leader, Qin Shihuang, in 210 BC. Subjugated states almost immediately rebelled - from 207 BC, which accounts for the Han dynasty's first start date shown above in parenthesis. Under the leadership of Xiang Yu and Liu Bang, they pursued a four year war to overthrow the Qin and reunite a China that had again been fractured by conflict. Shortly after the campaign began to remove the Qin from power, they also managed to capture the Korean kingdom of Chosen from the Qin (in 206 BC). Having put paid to the Qin, Xiang Yu as the senior rebel leader parcelled out territory, assigning the remote and poor Bashu region to Liu Bang. Within a year he had broken out of his assigned borders and the civil war referred to as the Chu-Han Contention had begun. Liu Bang achieved final success in 202 BC by defeating Xiang Yu at the Battle of Gaixia. He became the first emperor of the Han dynasty under the throne name of Gaozu (shown as Kao Tsu in older translations).

The claim of Liu Bang's magical birth to a dragon which mated with his mother created an enduring legacy for Chinese culture. It would be impossible to picture a Chinese new year celebration without a dragon dance, thought to bring good luck to people. He and his Han successors also provided a popular dynastic name that the Chinese have ever since continued to use to refer to their country as a whole - Han. Once his enemies had been defeated, Liu Bang set about ensuring that the Qin achievement of creating a unified China was not lost. He reunited the central states and also conquered outlying states that may only have been under nominal control beforehand. Relatives of his were handed posts as rulers of the remaining semi-autonomous states or kingdoms, but their tendency towards self-government would lead to open conflict in 154 BC.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from Indo-Scythian Studies being Khotanese Texts, Volume VII, H W Bailey (Cambridge University Press, 1985), from The Cambridge History of China: Volume I: the Ch'in and Han Empires, 221 BC-AD 220, Denis Twitchett & Michael Loewe (Cambridge University Press, 1986), and from External Links: Listverse, and Silk Road Seattle, Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington, and Ancient Chinese farmers sowed literal seeds of change in south-east Asia (Science News).)

207 - 195 BC

Liu Bang / Kao Tsu / Gaozu

Han General Liu Bang, co-ruler (207-202 BC) & emperor (202 BC).

207 - 202 BC

Xiang Yu

Rebel commander of China. Killed by Liu Bang.

203 BC

The Book of Han mentions the Yuezhi prior to their major migrations of the second century BC. Populations continue to occupy the Tarim Basin, commonly known as the Lesser Yuezhi. They have also spread into the sweeping grasslands closer to the border of the Chinese kingdom. The book states: 'The Great Yuezhi were a nomadic horde. They moved about following their cattle, and had the same customs as those of the Xiongnu. As their soldiers numbered more than a hundred thousand, they were strong and despised the Xiongnu. In the past, they lived in the region between Dunhuang and Qilian'.

However, during this period the Xiongnu have gained the upper hand. In several large-scale encounters, especially in 203 BC, circa 176 BC, and circa 166 BC, the Greater Yuezhi are completely routed. They are forced to launch a long-distance migration which sees them evacuate the Gansu region in what is now western China and head towards the Kazakh Steppe where they encounter the Sakas.

Map of Early Han (Western) China c.200 BC
The Han conquest of Qin China had to wait until the great Qin emperor himself was dead and it still took a year of fighting to destroy the Qin armies. Then the victors spent four more years and a civil war deciding that the Han would command the succeeding dynasty and reunite the fractured state (click on map to view full sized)

200 BC

Fresh from their victory over the hated Yuezhi, the powerful Xiongnu defeat the invading Han forces at the Battle of Baideng. Emperor Gaozu's attempt to subjugate these pastoral nomads has failed dramatically after the Xiongnu had rallied behind Modu Shanyu to surround and besiege the emperor's forces. The emperor is forced to negotiate for peace, agreeing equality between the respective parties and a joint border along the Great Wall.

195 BC

With the death of Emperor Gaozu, his powerful wife, known as Empress L, remains a very effective and controlling figure over the next three emperors, wielding even more power than she had while supporting her husband's reconquest and pacification of several unstable regions of the empire.

195 - 180 BC

Empress L Zhi

First official 'Empress of China' and empress dowager. Died.

195 - 188 BC

Liu Ying / Hui Ti

Son. Dominated by Empress L. Died of an illness.

194 BC

Korean Old Chosen selects this moment to rebel against Chinese rule. The weakness of Liu Ying (Emperor Hui) in the face of his mother's domination has quickly become apparent. The Koreans regain their independence in the form of Wiman Chosen.

188 - 184 BC

Liu Gong / Qianshao

Son. Dominated by Empress L. Imprisoned and murdered.

184 - 180 BC

Liu Yi / Liu Hou / Liu Hong / Houshao

Brother. Dominated by Empress L. Deposed and executed.

180 - 179 BC

When Empress L Zhi falls ill and dies the imperial court suddenly realises that it is free of her iron control. The empress' L clan are surprised and slaughtered to remove them from the scene, and then the puppet Emperor Houshao is deposed. Liu Heng is invited from his principality of Dai to take the throne as Emperor Wn. Houshao is later executed.

179 - 156 BC

Liu Heng / Wn Ti

Son of Liu Bang. Brought stability to the empire.

c.165 BC

The Greater Yuezhi evacuation of their lands on the borders of the Chinese kingdom continues, turning from a trickle into a flood. Their westwards migration triggers a slow domino effect of barbarian movement in Central Asia as they probably follow the route through the Dzungarian Basin and the Dzungarian Gate to penetrate the Kazakh Steppe beyond. This will see them enter the Saka-controlled plains to the north-east of Ferghana.

Map of the Yuezhi lands and exodus route
The Greater Yuezhi were defeated and forced out of the Gansu region by the Xiongnu, and their migratory route into Central Asia is pretty easy to deduct from the fact that they chose to try and settle in the Lli river valley below Lake Balkhash (click on map to view full sized)

156 - 140 BC

Liu Qi / Ching Ti / Jing

Son. Followed a non-interventionalist policy.

c.155 BC

The Sakas (as the Amyrgians) are displaced from Ferghana by the Greater Yuezhi. This is an event that is connected with the migration of the Greater Yuezhi across Da Yuan (the Chinese term for Ferghana), following another defeat, this time by an alliance of the Wusun and the Xiongnu. The Greater Yuezhi are forced to move again, also forcing other barbarian tribes in front of their advance to move.

These mass migrations of the second century BC are confused and somewhat lacking in Greek and Chinese sources because the territory concerned is beyond any detailed understanding of theirs. Whatever the reason, the Saka king transfers his headquarters to the south, across the Hanging Passage that leads to Jibin. This is part of a southwards trend for the Sakas, and by approximately the mid-first century BC, Saka kings appear in India.

154 BC

The emperor has been attempting to increase the centralisation of government to the detriment of the remaining semi-autonomous kingdoms. The growing dispute now flares up into the Rebellion of the Seven States (or Revolt of the Seven Kingdoms). Of two other kingdoms, the ruler of one changes his mind and resists the rebels and the other is placed under house arrest by his own guards. Three others refuse to join the rebellion, which is defeated within about three months. The influence and power of these kingdoms is gradually reduced by successive emperors, increasing the reach and power of the single unified state.

140 - 87 BC

Liu Che / Wu Di / Wu Ti

Son. Aged about 15 at accession.

126 BC

The Chinese envoy, Chang-kien or Zhang Qian, visits the newly-established Greater Yuezhi capital of Kian-she in Ta-Hsia (otherwise shown as Daxia to the Chinese, and better known as Bactria-Tokharistan to western writers) and the rich and fertile country of the Bukhara region of Sogdiana. His mission is to obtain help for the Chinese emperor against the Xiongnu, but the Greater Yuezhi leader - the son of the dead leader of about 166 BC - refuses the request. Kian-she can reasonably be equated with Lan-shih or Lanshi, but the question of whether this is the Bactrian capital of Bactra (modern Balkh) seems to be much more controversial. It does seem to be likely though, despite scholarly objections.

c.115 BC

Around this time, an embassy from Emperor Wu Di reaches the court of the Parthian ruler, Mithradates II. The two rulers reach an agreement on the opening of the trade route which is later known as the 'Silk Road'. This route suffers somewhat from decay, especially in Sogdiana of the first to third centuries AD, but soon becomes a major trading route after that.

111 BC

In response to the loss of an expeditionary force, Emperor Wu Di sends a much larger force, around 100,000 men, into the kingdom of Nam Viet which sweeps into the capital, Panyu. The ruler of Nam Viet, Duong Vuong, is captured and executed and his kingdom is incorporated into the Chinese empire.

109 BC

The Han conquer the southern kingdom of Dian following a series of military campaigns and expeditions (in what is now the mountainous Yunnan region of China). On the southern borders of Ba and Shu, Dian is incorporated into the empire, greatly expanding it towards the south-west.

Figurine created by the Dian kingdom
The Dian kingdom was focussed around the Dian Lake plateau of northern-central Yunnan, first emerging during the Spring and Autumn period during which the Middle Zhou ruled the northern Chinese empire

90s BC

The nomadic Yancai are recorded by Sima Qian, centred on the northern shore of the Aral Sea. Their territory lays to the north-west of the Kangju nomadic federation, to whom they hold some similarities in terms of customs.

86 - 73 BC

Liu Fuling / Chao Ti / Zhao

Son. Died without a surviving heir.

77 BC

The recent death of the king of Loulan on the Silk Road has seen the accession of his anti-Han son, Angui. With Angui following a policy of befriending the Xiongnu, Emperor Zhao now orders an imperial messenger to use trickery and a private meeting to murder Angui. A more Han-friendly successor is chosen by the royal court, but the event still triggers a sense of outrage amongst some modern scholars.

73 BC

Liu He / Yuanping

Former prince of Changyi. Appointed by a minister. Deposed.

73 - 48 BC

Liu Bingyi / Hsan Ti / Xuan

Great-grandson of Wu Di. A commoner by family punishment.

53 BC

Rome suffers one of the worst defeats in its history when Triumvir Crassus leads an army to annihilation against the Parthians at Carrhae (Harran). Subsequent legend says that a small band of Roman prisoners wander through the desert and are eventually rounded up by the Han military seventeen years later (36 BC).

First century Chinese historian Ban Gu later writes an account of a confrontation with a strange army of about a hundred men fighting in a 'fish-scale formation' unique to Roman forces. A comparison of ancient records by Homer Dubs at Oxford results in the claim that the lost legion escapes the Parthians and serves as mercenaries for the Huns for the next two decades before falling into Chinese hands.

48 - 32 BC

Yuan Ti

Son. Oversaw the start of Han decline.

36 BC

The Huns are defeated at the Battle of Zhizhi (in modern Kazakhstan) by Chinese troops of the Western Han. According to Homer Dubs at Oxford, a total of a hundred and forty-five of the Romans who had escaped captivity after the battle of Carrhae now fall into Chinese hands and are recruited to guard the newly created town of Liqian (pronounced lee-chen, in modern Gansu Province). They settle there, with the result that later generations of the town's inhabitants have green eyes, blonde hair and, it seems, a fondness for bullfighting. In 2005, DNA tests show that the Liqian villagers are fifty six percent Caucasian, although that's not proof of a direct link to a Roman legion.

Liqian
The town of Liqian may be the location in which Roman soldiers settled in the first century BC, but it so far remains unproven

32 - 6 BC

Ch'eng Ti / Cheng

Son. Died childless.

32 BC

Emperor Cheng's reign continues the disintegration of the Han empire. His maternal relatives, the Wang, slowly continue to increase their grip on power, something which had started under the preceding emperor. With corruption increasing, rebellions begin to break out across the empire. The Wang power-grab culminates in AD 1 with Wang Mang being appointed regent.

30 BC - AD 30

A second pulse of migration takes place between southern China and a swathe of territory which stretches between Burma and Vietnam. Farmers there inherit a genetic makeup that differs in some ways from that of the earlier Man Bac migrants who had left southern China around 2000 BC, but still closely resembles the DNA of present-day inhabitants of southern China.

6 BC - AD 1

Xin / Ai Ti

Nephew. Died of illness?

6 - 2 BC

Consort Fu

Dominated Ai Ti as 'Grand Empress Dowager'. Died.

AD 1 - 5

Jizi / P'ing Ti / Ping

Acceded aged 8. Poisoned?

AD 1 - 5

Wang Mang

Regent and the true power in the empire.

5 - 9

Liu Ying / Ju-tzu / Ruzi Ying

Cousin of Ping. An infant and figurehead.

5 - 9

Wang Mang

Remained regent and usurped the throne to found the Xin dynasty.

9

Having already controlled the throne for some years, Wang Mang has gradually murdered all opposition, even killing some of his own Wang relatives when they threaten his personal interests. Now he places the young Emperor Ruzi under house arrest and declares his own Xin dynasty. Ruzi is finally murdered during a rebellion at the end of Wang Mang's own reign.

China's dynasties continues here.