Chinese and Indian History
Dr. C. George Boeree
Around 1500 bc, we see the rise of the semi-mythological Shang
dynasty. This was a feudal kingdom that dominated the Yellow
River basin, and established a number of small cities, most of which
were in what is now Henan province. It is during the Shang
dynasty that Chinese symbolic writing was developed by the dynasty
In about 1000 bc, we see a new dynasty - called the western Chou -
centered in Loyang, also in what is now the Henan province. It
consisted of many smaller feudal kingdoms with allegiance to a "head
king" or emperor. Much of their cohesiveness was due to the
constant need to defend themselves against the surrounding barbarians.
The eastern Chou dynasty began in 770 bc. This period was marked
not only by constant warfare with the barbarians, but considerable
warfare amongst the various parts of China as well. Culturally,
peasants became more valued in this period (due to their importance in
warfare), and the merchant class became more important. It is
this period that saw the introduction of money.
During this dynasty, some of the most significant philosophers made
their appearance. Confucius (551 to 479 bc) introduced a
philosophy that combined ethics with religious traditions, a philosophy
that would dominate Chinese political structure until the 20th century.
At about the same time, we also see Laotze introducing a more
sophisticated version of traditional nature worship called Taoism, in
one of the greatest books ever written, the Tao te Ching. While
Confucianism would be the formal philosophy of the high court, Taoism
would eventually profoundly influence the Buddhism introduced later.
From 403 to 221 bc, China was split into a number of warring
states. In 221 bc, the Ch'in dynasty established its rule.
Ch'in was a border state to the west of the previous centers of Chinese
civilization, and we get the name China from their dynasty. The
Ch'in established a highly centralized state, along the same lines as
the Roman Empire, and standardized measurements, weights, and
money. It was also during this time that construction of the
Great Wall began, in an effort to keep out the Huns -- the same people
that would threaten Rome not too much later.
From 206 bc to 9 ad, we see the western Han dynasty. Han was a
kingdom just south of the Chou kingdom, again in what is now
Henan. The Han dynasty defeated the Huns in approximately 100 bc
(sending them on their way towards Europe) and expanded their territory
to the west. They also established the famous Silk Roads -
routes to the Middle East used for trade with Persia, Rome, and India.
From 25 to 220 ad, the eastern Han dynasty took over, and oversaw a
great flowering of their civilization. Trade with Rome and
others in silk and porcelain was booming. Paper was invented
about 100 ad, and Buddhism began to make inroads from northwestern
India and Greek kingdom of Bactria (part of what is now Afghanistan),
on the Silk Roads.
From 220, we have the period of three kingdoms, followed by a period
where China was divided into seperate northern and southern
empires. The north was invaded by a combination of Huns and
Turkish tribes, while the south went through a series of dynastic
changes. In 379 ad Mahayana Buddhism became the official religion
(living in harmony with Confucianism and blending with Taoism),
China was reunified in 581 under the Sui dynasty, whose policies were
taken over in 617 by the T'ang dynasty. Notable during this
period, the written exam system of civil service became established in
606 ad. This system would continue until the communists took over
in 1951. The T'ang dynasty lasted until 907.
The 900's was a period of rapid dynastic turnover, and we see a
reversal of the fortunes of the Buddhists, who were actively
persecuted. In 960, the northern Sung dynasty provided stability,
although only by paying tribute to the Mongols. The southern Sung
took over from 1127 until 1279, still paying tribute to the Mongols,
but overseeing a second renaissance of culture and economics.
During this period, the Chinese language was codified by Chu Hsi (1131
- 1200), literature, painting, and porcelain flourished, and both
printing and gunpowder were invented.
In 1196, Genghis Khan became the supreme ruler of the Mongols and their
Turkish and Tartar allies, and proceeded to lead them into China,
taking Beijing in 1215. At the same time, he sent his troops west
as far as Poland and Hungary. When he died in 1227, his empire
was split into several smaller units ruled by his various sons.
The Mongols would continue to rule the steppes well into the 1400's,
Ivan III finally liberating Moscow in 1480!
Marco Polo, a Venetian adventurer, visited China during this period,
and brought back stories of wealth that would make Chinese goods nearly
as sought after as they had been during the Roman Empire. Sadly,
in 1325, China suffered from one of it's greatest famines, which killed
8 million out of its 45 million population.
In 1368, the Mongols were driven out of China, and the Ming dynasty
begins. It had a strong contralized government founded on solid
Confucian principles. The capital was moved to Beijing in 1421,
where it would remain until the present day. The Great Wall was
extended to 2450 km (about 1500 miles).
The Ming dynasty oversaw another renaissance, with novels, maps, great
architecture, porcelain, and a new medical technique we call
acupuncture. On the other hand, they didn't want too much to do
with the world beyond the empire: European trade was limited to
the Portuguese colony of Macao.
From 1644 all the way to 1911, China was again ruled by "barbarians,"
this time the Manchu from the northeast of China. The Manchus,
being of limited numbers, were anxious to use the existing structures
of Chinese bureaucracy and blended themselves with the native
population as much as possible. In fact, they saw the greatest
population growth in history and expanded the empire to its present
extent. At first, they encouraged trade with the Europeans, but
later would close the empire to foreign trade. As we know, the
Europeans are rarely detered when such a vast market looms on the
horizon, and the colonial empires - especially the British - would
chip away at the glory that had been China.
Also around 1500 bc, a group of people who called themselves
Aryans invaded the Indian subcontinent, and came to dominate most of
the original Dravidian people. The Aryans spoke a language
related to the western European languages, and came from the
Russian steppes. They brought with them what is known as the
Vedic religion, which would eventually result in a series of books
called the Vedas.
As the Aryans settled in, they developed the caste system. The
top two castes were composed entirely of Aryans: the Kshatryas or
warriors, and the Brahmins or priests. Below them were a mixed
group of peasants called the Vaishas, and the subject Dravidians,
called the Shudras. Below all of these were the various people of
the jungles, as well as the slaves of the original Dravidians, who
were called the Pariahs or outcastes. The hierarchical society
would last officially until the British rule, and continues informally
Around 500 bc, several people, in the process of searching for
enlightenment, would shake the caste system: First, there was
Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha. He preached a
stoic life style involving moral living and meditation that would
develop into the rich philosophy of Buddhism. The other was
Vardhamana, called Mahavira, and his follower Jina, who believed that
suffering was due to the mixing of spirit with base matter, which must
be separated from each other by means of fasting, asceticism, and
chastity. Their beliefs would become the religion called Jainism.
In the late 300's bc, the troops of Alexander the Great knocked at
India's door, and would remain a significant presence in Bactria, just
northwest of India. These Greeks would be the only westerners to
adopt Buddhism, and they would take part in introducing Buddhism into
China. At the other end of northern India, Chandragupta, king of
Maghada (where Buddha
preached), established the Maurya Empire, controlling most of northern
His grandson Ashoka (272 - 231 bc) is one of the most famous figures in
Indian history. After a particularly bloody battle, he swore off
killing and embraced Buddhism. Among other things, he established
laws based on Buddhism and recorded them on stone pillars and monuments
over northern India. He also sent missionaries as far west as
Egypt and Greece, whose effects on western thought are still
unknown. Unfortunately, his empire was divided among his
descendants after his death, and India again became a land of many
small feudal states.
The next major event comes around 50 ad, when Yüeh-chih (an
Indo-European people from western China called the Tocharians or
Kushans) invaded India from their base in Bactria. Later, in 320
and lasting until 535, the Gupta Empire would permit a cultural
renaissance, including a blossoming of poetry, drama, and other
literature. Beginning around 430 ad, the Huns would start
nibbling away at the
Gupta Empire until its collapse. This was followed by another
period of short-lived empires and smaller states.
From 700 ad on, we see a major change in the subcontinent. First,
Buddhism, the dominant religion of India, would be gradually driven out
by the Brahmin caste and its supporters, and replaced with a
revitalized, if very conservative, Hinduism. Second, the Moslems
would enter India from the west and slowly expand to rule over the
northern half of the subcontinent, all the way to Bengal (what is now
Bangladesh). In 1206, the Sultanate of Delhi was established, an
empire based on Moslem theocracy and military might.
Nevertheless, India prospered during this period, and greatly expanded
trade with the Near East. The Sultanate would last until 1526.
Despite Moslem rule, the caste system continued, now with Moslem rulers
at the top, and the native Indians were kept poor through harsh
taxation. The Moslems accepted Hindus as "people of the book"
(what they called Jews and Christians in the west, because they shared
the same Biblical traditions as the Moslems), as long as they kept to
their place in society. Buddhism, however, they found
threatening, and Buddhist monasteries, temples, and books were
destroyed. This has continued even to the present, as
demonstrated by the
destruction of ancient giant Buddhist statues in Afghanistan by tha
Taliban in 1998.
It was in 1498 that the Portuguese discovered the sea route to India,
circumventing the hostile Moslem empires inbetween, and established
the trading settlement that would become Calcutta. In the early
1500's they went on to colonize Goa, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Bombay
(now Mumbai), and other coastal
The Moguls -- led by Babar, descendant of the Khans -- invaded India
from their stronghold in Kabul (Afghanistan), and defeated the Sultan
of Delhi. By 1576, they would take over all of northern
India. The Moguls, although Moslem, were very tolerant of the
Hindus and even the Jesuits, and declared the Edict of Toleration in
1583. A number of syncretic sects developed during this
time, the most famous of which is Sikhism. The Sikhs were
founded by Nanak (1469 - 1538), who blended Islam and Hinduism and
other philosophies into a strong egalitarian religious culture, where
each man takes as his last name "lion" and each woman "princess."
To this day, the Sikhs provide the backbone of the Indian military.
The Arab Moslems and the Moguls, although outsiders, brought another
period of renaissance to India. They established libraries and
universities, contributed greatly to literature (including updates of
the great Indian religious texts), and founded a new style of Indian
architecture, exemplified by the great Taj Mahal.
In 1612, a new player entered the scene: The British took over
the Portuguese colonies. They would eventually rule all of India
and much more.
© Copyright 2004, C. George Boeree