New articles on Ancient China

Just to let you know, I have just put a series of articles up about ancient China. The main article is entitled Ancient China (a nice original title, you’ll agree). Of all of the articles, though, this is the least finished. At the moment it contains a timeline, plus a brief review of ancient Chinese history, and that’s it. As soon as possible I want to put up sections on society and the economy, religion and thought, and art and architecture. However, I felt the need to put the unfinished version up first because it acts as a gateway to the other articles. These are on the individual dynasties of ancient China: the Shang, the Zhou (Western and Eastern Zhou), the Qin and finally the Han dynasty (Western Han and Eastern Han).

In preparing these articles, not for the first time have been I struck by what to me is one of the most fascinating episodes in world history – one almost completely overlooked in western histories. This is the foundation of the Han dynasty by Liu Bang, a man of peasant origins.

Liu Bang’s rise was powerfully aided by the fact that China fell into chaos after the fall of the Qin dynasty. But he had to contend with multifarious rivals, many of whom, being the descendants of old royal families, had distinct advantages over him. Then he had to consolidate his rule and that of his dynasty. Indeed, the establishment of the power of the Han dynasty on firm foundations is an amazing story in its own right. 

In these articles I could not do these dramatic episodes justice – partly because in order to do so I would have to go beyond the sources available to me, that is, those written in English. These all more or less take the line that, Liu Bang rose to power, it happened, nothing much remarkable in that, now let’s move on.  But I think it WAS remarkable: in my opinion by far the most likely outcome of the collapse of the Qin dynasty was that China would once again become a collection of regional kingdom rather than a united empire. Eventually such an empire might have emerged, but not for a long time. The Chinese people had given a very clear thumbs down to unified rule by rebelling so decisively against the Qin.

How then did they find themselves, within just a very few years, once again under unified rule? And then remain so for the next 400 years?I well know that it is unfashionable to ascribe great outcomes to great individuals, but I find it hard to escape the conclusion that Liu Bang really was a remarkable person. In my estimation he ranks alongside one of my favourite heroes, Augustus, the first Roman emperor, as one of a small handful of truly great figures in world history. 

By Peter Britton