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Zhou, Qin and Han Dynasties

Sal provides a historical overview of the Zhou, Qin, and Han dynasties in China.

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Video transcript

- [Narrator] What I'm gonna do in this video is give us an overview of the first significant dynasties in Ancient and Imperial China. Now, in a previous video, we talk about the Xia dynasty, which we're not sure whether it exists because we don't have a lot of historical documentation, but based on legend, it apparently emerged around 2100-2200 BCE, so we're talking about over 4000 years ago, and lasted until the emergence of the Shang dynasty in 1600 BCE. Now, the Shang dynasty you could view as the first real historical dynasty because we have artifacts, we have archeological evidence, we even have writing, the famous oracle bones of the Shang dynasty that were used to make decisions to prognosticate about the future. And what's interesting about this writing on these oracle bones that over 3000 years old is that modern Chinese script is actually evolved from this over 3000 year old writing. Also in that Shang dynasty, we see major bronze artifacts. And, once again, it's the first real historical evidence we see of a reasonably large geographic area being unified around the Yellow and the Yangtze River. Now, in that video on the Shang dynasty, we talk about how it eventually falls in 1046 BCE. And it falls to the Zhou dynasty. And the Zhou dynasty, they defeat the last Shang emperor, Di Xin at the Battle of Muye in 1046. And based on their view of things, or current historical accounts, Di Xin became a corrupt ruler. He was under the influence of his consort and the Zhous say, hey the reason why we were able to defeat them and overthrow them and establish a new dynasty is because of the Mandate of Heaven. The Mandate of Heaven is this idea that will be incorporated by the Zhou dynasty and then becomes part of Chinese culture and tradition for thousands of years after that. Heaven, in this sense, is not a place in the clouds that some might imagine in a Western tradition. It's really, you could view it as a guiding force of the universe. And it's this idea that if leaders become incapable, if they become correct, that this guidance force of the universe will throw them out and put more capable leaders in power. And so, King Wu of Zhou who defeats Di Xin at the Battle of Muye, he invokes this Mandate of Heaven and will continue to be invoked throughout the Zhou dynasty. Now, the Zhou dynasty is going to be a very long-lasting dynasty, but it is not centralized. It can be described as kind of a feudal system. There's multiple kingdoms who have allegiance to the Zhous and at multiple times they have difference degrees of autonomy and of power. Now, the Zhou dynasty is generally divided into the Western Zhou in the capitals in the West and the Eastern Zhou dynasty when the capital moves to the East. Now, the Eastern Zhou dynasty, this period right over here between 770 BCE and 476 BCE, often known as the Spring and Autumn periods, this is often referred to as a significant period of philosophical, a philosophical golden age in China. It was the time of Confucius. It was the time of Lao-Tzu, who comes up with the Tao or the core of the Tao philosophy. So, a lot of major philosophical upbringings of even modern China start to emerge in this time. Now, the latter half of the Eastern Zhou period, you have the Warring States period. And that's where you see these dotted lines. And the Zhou dynasty, which was already very decentralized, becomes even more fragmented. And China really doesn't get well unified again until 221 BCE. In 221 BCE, you have the emergence of the Qin dynasty. And even though the Qin dynasty is very short lived, it only lasts a few decades, it's significant in that it's the first really strong central dynasty. It's often referred to as the first imperial dynasty. As we mentioned about the Zhous, very decentralized, this feudal system. But the Qin dynasty, under Qin Shihuangdi or sometimes Qin Shihuang, he is a very strong ruler. He sets up this legalistic government, very strict legal codes. He really oppressed his opponents in significant ways, but the byproduct of that is he was able to really unify China. Now, other things that he did, the Great Wall of China, which didn't just get built by him, but there were already walls that were being erected throughout China at this time. He started to unify these walls and then break down the walls that were within his empire. And so, he's often credited as really starting the formation of what we now call the Great Wall of China, which kept being built and improved upon by later generations, later dynasties. The other thing that he's well-known for is establishing this centralized bureaucracy where the civil servants are able to earn their spots based on taking exams. This would last for several thousand years in China. Now, as I mentioned, the Qin dynasty would be short-lived, but then it would be followed by one of the most significant dynasties in Chinese history that really takes the work of the Qin, but makes it a little bit more moderate. And the Han dynasty is often referred to, by Chinese historians, as the Golden Age of China. It's a time where Confucian philosophy really becomes dominant. You have significant advances in math, science, and technology. This is an image of the nine chapters on the mathematical art, where ideas like Gaussian elimination and Cramer's Rule, things that wouldn't be explored in Europe for over a thousand years, are documented during Han China. You have the famous paper making emerge during Han China. And as you can see, it lasts for over 400 years. There's a brief period right over here where you have the Xin dynasty gets established, and that separates the Western Han from the Eastern Han, but this is a significant period of development of Chinese philosophy, Chinese writing, Chinese technology that lasts even until today. And to get an appreciation of the Confucian philosophy, remember Confucian lived over several hundred years before the Han dynasty, but this is when it really becomes the philosophy, or even you could think of the religion of China. I'll leave you with a few quotes from Confucius. And I'll do a whole video on him later on, but these are some of my favorite. "Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance." And this is a version of the Golden Rule. "Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire." And to put into context, these ideas of Confucius, the writing, the mathematics that was developed there, it was the civil service. These continue on for several thousand years. And this was during the time, you know, just to think about what else was going on in the world. This was at the time of the Roman Empire. And so, it is interesting that at the time of the Qin and then Han dynasties where you first have this real centralized empire, that was right around the time that Rome itself was also becoming centralized. And it's interesting to think about, what was it about that period of history where you have these two significant empires starting to really emerge? And they weren't completely isolated. There was actually interaction between the two.