Early Chinese and Indian History

Dr. C. George Boeree

Early Chinese History

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 priests.

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 its 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 centralized 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.

Early Indian History

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 even today.

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 India.

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 all 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 ad 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 in between, 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 spots.

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