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Ancient civilizations › Historical places, and their characters

Chimu Civilization › Origins

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 14 April 2015
Chimu Gold Rattle (Daderot)
The Chimú civilization, otherwise called the kingdom of Chimor, flourished on the northern coast of Peru between the 12th and 15th centuries CE. With their capital at Chan Chan the Chimu were the largest and most prosperous culture in the Late Intermediate Period and forged the second largest empire in the history of the ancient Andes. Their architecture, approach to regional governance, and art would also go on to influence their more famous successors, the Incas.


The traditional founding ruler of the Chimú was Taycanamo who was considered to have been born from a golden egg and then arrived from the sea. Other notable rulers include Guacricaur, who expanded into the Moche, Santa, and Zaña valleys.Eventually the Chimú extended their territory even further south and in 1375 CE, under the rulership of Nancinpinco, conquered the Lambayeque (Sicán) culture absorbing some of their cultural practices and artistic ideas. The La Leche Valley was also brought under Chimú control so that, at its height during the reign of Minchançaman in c. 1400 CE, the area of Chimú influence stretched 1300 km along the coast of northern Peru.


The initial prosperity of the Chimú was largely due to their agricultural skills as they built an extensive irrigation system using canals. Later, their successful military campaigns and policy of extracting tribute ensured that they became the dominant regional power. Chan Chan came to be the capital of other administrative centres, such as at Farfán, Manchan, El Milagro, Quebrado Katuay, and the fortress site of Paramonga. This domination came to an end with the rise of the Incas who, led by Tupac Yupanqui, captured the 11th known Chimú ruler Minchançaman in c. 1470 CE. Thereafter, the Chimú became a vassal state in the Inca Empire, and their king was kept permanent prisoner at Cuzco to ensure compliance to the new order. The Incas also assimilated certain aspects of Chimú culture, such as rulers inheriting the title but not the property of their predecessors, the policy of allowing conquered rulers a certain autonomy, the idea to have compounds of foreign artists working for the state, and certain features of Chimú art. The Incas also kept written records of the Chimú culture and through these we have, albeit sparse, information regarding their rulers and principal gods. The latter include the creator god Ai Apaec, the sea god Ni, and, perhaps the most important deity in the Chimú pantheon, the moon goddess Si.
Chimu Textile

Chimu Textile


The capital city of the Chimú was Chan Chan (known as Chimor to its original inhabitants) which, built at the mouth of the Rió Moche, covered some 20 square kilometres and had a population of up to 40,000 at its peak. The city became the hub of a vast trade and tribute network, and no fewer than 26,000 craftsmen and women resided there, often forcibly removed from conquered cities to mass produce high quality goods in a wide range of precious materials.
Chimú architecture is characterised by monumental adobe brick buildings. Ten royal palaces or compounds were constructed over the centuries in a rectangular layout, each with 10-metre high double exterior walls, labyrinthine interiors, and with only a single entrance. Of special note are the U-shaped audience rooms which controlled access to the store rooms. The walls of the compounds, built to restrict access by commoners, were decorated on the inside with bold relief designs, typically repeated geometric shapes, animals, and sea life, especially fish. The cut patterns may have been in imitation of those from textile wallhangings. Similar adobe compounds were built at other Chimú sites, for example, nine at Manchan and six at Farfán.
Functional structures within each compound include administrative and storage buildings and burial platforms accessed by ramps which contained mummified leaders. Over time the newer palaces became larger - the biggest covers an area of 220,000 square metres - and more space was dedicated to storage, indicative of the Chimú's policy of extracting tribute from conquered territories. Chan Chan also expanded in general with more residences for administrators and artisans, the latter living in modest dwellings of wattle-and-daub with steep roofs and a single hearth. The city also had an extensive irrigation system which combined canals, shallow reservoirs, and wells.
Chimu Spondylus Shell Necklace

Chimu Spondylus Shell Necklace


Influenced by the Wari and Moche civilizations, the Chimú would continue and expand upon artistic themes which have become staple features of Andean art ever since. Chimú pottery is characterised by mould-made blackware and redware with sculpted decoration which is given a highly polished finish. The most common shape is double-spouted bulbous jars. Textiles have natural colours, the most precious with exotic feather decoration where plumes are sown in rows onto a cotton backing and dyed to create designs. Popular motifs include open-armed figures wearing headdresses - probably representing the ruling class - and double-headed 'rainbow' snakes. Textiles could also be decorated with precious metal additions and one tunic survives with 7,000 small gold squares individually sewn onto the fabric.
Carved and inlaid spondylus shells, acquired from Ecuador, were another popular medium for Chimú art with diamond-shape inlays creating striking jewellery pieces. Precious goods could also be made using gold, silver, and imported amber and emeralds from Colombia. Many examples of wooden sculptures have been recovered from two pyramid structures outside Chan Chan (Huaca el Dragón and Huaca Tacaynamo). Most such figures represent members of funerary processions.
Finally, it is interesting to note that Chimú rulers were themselves collectors of art from other cultures and their palaces were full of niches in which objects and statues were placed for display. Chan Chan artists themselves had such a reputation that the Incas forcibly relocated thousands of them, along with their finest pieces, to their capital at Cuzco which was also an effective method to control precious goods production and so limit the resources to fund rebellion.

Chinese Emperor › Origins

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 21 September 2017
Emperor Wen of Wei (Yan Li-pen)
The emperors of ancient China had tremendous power and responsibility. Called the 'Son of Heaven', he (and once she) was given a divine right to rule over all people but was expected to promote their best interest and not his own. An absolute monarch, although in practice dependent on an inner circle of advisors, the mystique of the emperor was enhanced by his invisibility to ordinary people, secluded as he often was in the imperial palace. To gain a personal audience with the emperor, even if he still remained hidden behind a screen while he sat on his golden dragon throne, was the highest of honours.Perhaps no other ancient ruler was ever as remote or as revered as the Emperor of China.


The rulers of the Western Zhou dynasty were the first to take the traditional Chinese worship of ancestors a step further and carry the title 'Son of Heaven' ( Tianzi ). King Wen of the Zhou, c. 1050 BCE, claimed he, and, as it conveniently tuned out, all of his successors too, had been given the right to rule by the gods (either Heaven or Sky). This was nothing less than a Mandate of Heaven or Tianming, that is, an unchallengeable right to govern. Not actually divine but, rather, ruling on behalf of the gods on earth, the role also carried the great responsibility to take decisions for the good of the people. If he did not rule well, then China would suffer terrible disasters such as floods and droughts and he would lose the right to govern. This was also a useful explanation as to why ruling dynasties changed over the centuries: they had lost the blessing of heaven through misrule. As one popular saying goes, recorded by Hsun Tzu:
The prince is the boat, the common people are the water. The water can support the boat or the water can capsize the boat. (Ebrey, 8)
The ruler must, therefore, at all times be guided by the principle of benevolence or jen. He is both the mother and father of the people. For this reason, the magistrates who governed the regions in his name were popularly called 'mother-father officials'.Rulers may have blatantly ignored the moral side of things but, nevertheless, the Mandate of Heaven idea continued to be used as a useful legitimising argument for rule by emperors and even foreign conquerors of emperors right up to the 19th century CE. Few emperors could afford to ignore completely the collective moral and historical expectation of his people.
Shi Huangti

Shi Huangti

Thus, in ancient China, the ruler was considered the head of the royal family, the nobility, the state, the judiciary, and religious hierarchy. Naturally, when he died he went to heaven and served the gods there. Such exalted attachments ensured that all rulers of China were treated with great reverence and awe by any person fortunate enough to ever come in physical contact with them. Even for the highest-ranking government officials, getting through to the Inner Court and actually meeting the emperor - and few ever did - the experience was as close as they would get to divinity during their time on earth.


The first ruler to take the title of emperor proper was Shi Huangdi (259-210 BCE), founder of the Qin dynasty. Indeed, his very name was an honorary title meaning 'First Emperor'. In an extravagant and ultimately pretty successful attempt at some sort of immortality, the emperor ordered a huge tomb be built for him which was guarded by the Terracotta Army, an 8,000-strong army of life-like warriors complete with chariots and horses as well as many boxed live animals and a number of human victims for good measure.


Thereafter, all rulers took on the title of emperor and the institution, surviving several changes of dynasties, only ended in the 1911 CE revolution which established the Chinese Republic. The last emperor was Aisin Gioro Puyi of the Qing dynasty who reigned while still a child for a mere three years.


Emperors usually inherited their position unless they were the founder of a dynasty of their own and had seized power through force. Typically, the eldest male son inherited his father's title, but there were cases when an emperor selected another of his children if he deemed him more suitable for rule. This situation led to ill-feeling and rivalry between siblings, and there were often deaths and disappearances as a result. If an emperor died before his chosen heir was an adult, then the young emperor was advised by high-ranking officials, particularly amongst the eunuchs who dominated life at court for centuries. Sometimes even new adult emperors had to contend with powerful officials or relatives who knew better the intricacies of court politics and sought to further their own ambitions rather than those of the state. Deaths, suicides, and forced abdications were not unknown amongst the long line of China's emperors. These cases were, fortunately, the exceptions and there remained throughout the centuries a strong reverence for any person who was selected by birth or circumstance to be emperor, as the historian R. Dawson here explains:
Once a new sovereign had emerged, the aura of the supernatural which surrounded him and the sense of divine endorsement of the office confirmed the emperor's position…Seated on a dragon throne, the Son of Heaven was too sacred an object to be gazed on by mortal eyes, so a screen must intervene. (10-11)

Qin Dynasty Edict on a Bronze Plaque


Chinese emperors had no constitution that set out their powers and those of their government. The emperor was the supreme executive, the highest legislative authority and last source of appeal, and the supreme commander of the military. The emperor could direct government policy, introduce new law codes and taxes, make appointments, give favours, privileges, and titles, dish out punishments, and award pardons. He could also overrule any official or existing law, even if a consideration of precedence was required. Some emperors involved themselves more than others in the day-to-day rule of the state but there was a general tendency to leave practical matters to professional politicians carefully selected for the purpose. The emperor was widely seen as a paternal figure and moral pilot to the ship of state, as this extract from a Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) text illustrates:
He who is the ruler of men takes non-action as his Way and makes impartiality his treasure. He sits upon the throne of non-action and rides upon the perfection of his officials. His feet do not move but his ministers lead him forward; his mouth utters no word but his chamberlains give him words of support; his mind does not concern itself with problems but his ministers put into effect the appropriate action. Thus nobody sees him act and yet he achieves his success. This is how the ruler imitates the ways of Heaven. (in Dawson, 7)
The emperor was expected to support the principles of Confucianism on which many areas of government were based, but he himself could take his pick from any of the current religions such as Buddhism and Taoism for his own personal beliefs.Officially, he performed the most important religious rituals in the calendar which included sacrifices at sacred mountain and river sites. The emperor was also responsible for the regular sacrifices which honoured his imperial ancestors and for the ceremonial first ploughing each agricultural year. The most important ritual, which was performed until the 20th century CE, was the offering of an unblemished bullock at the winter solstice, killed in honour of Heaven.
Another expectation on the emperor was to act as a patron of education. Consequently, many emperors visited the state universities and established new schools during their reign. The emperor had himself benefitted from a rigorous education in the Confucian Classics and history, and his role as father of the people necessitated he encourage literacy and learning across China.
Despite his absolute power, the emperor still could not do all that he wished. Such was the size of the state and its bureaucracy that he was reliant on advisors to keep him abreast of affairs and loyal supporters to carry out his policies within the framework of traditional government. He, therefore, was advised and assisted by senior politicians who might carry titles such as Chancellor, Chief Minister, Grand Commandant, Grand Councillor or Imperial Secretary, depending on the period. As the historian R. Dawson here summarises,
Even the most autocratic emperor was inevitably restricted by traditions, conventions, and precedents, and by the pressures of relatives as well as by the need to rely on well-informed ministers. Although on occasion emperors could behave with sudden harshness, their right to act in an arbitrary manner served as a threat which was rarely put into practice. (15)
For this reason, the emperors organised regular court conferences to debate budget, legal and military policy where senior officials were invited to air their opinions and decisions could be taken based on the views of the majority. Government, therefore, largely proceeded along the principle of consensus; indeed, the ancient Chinese word for 'govern' ( t'ing ) also means 'to listen'. As the apparatus of government grew larger and more sophisticated, the appointment of senior officials was still made by the emperor but done so from a shortlist recommended by his advisors. Communications were also heavily filtered through various departments before they made their way to the emperor's eyes. Consequently, the power of the senior politicians to sway decision-making in their own favour or towards their own interests grew over time. Further, the emperor's policies were also circumscribed by those of his predecessors, especially the founder of the dynasty who was viewed as being particularly favoured by Heaven. This was a catch to being the instrument of the divine. If all rulers were thus mandated, then their policies had to be considered and respected.



The mystique of the emperor which came from his Mandate from Heaven and the difficulty in ever getting a glimpse of him was only raised by such conventions as bowing to his portrait. Even officials given a promotion in the provinces gratefully kotowed in the direction of the far distant palace at the capital. To guarantee the emperor's seclusion, anyone who was incautious enough to enter the palace without permission was given the death sentence for their troubles.
The emperor's birthday was celebrated like no other religious festival, and his imperial robes carried designs of the dragon, the most prestigious creature in Chinese mythology. He was further distinguished from everyone else by wearing particular shaped hats and clothes that only he had the right to wear. Clothing, drapery, vessels, and furniture of brilliant yellow and specific patterns came to be associated with the imperial person. Naturally, he travelled in his own custom-built carriages which flew his own special banners and travelled on roads kept for his own exclusive use. His path was meticulously cleared of onlookers prior to his passing, too. Even language indicated the emperor's singularity, as he was referred to by his own unique first-person pronoun and it was forbidden to write or speak his personal name. In death, the massive tombs of the deceased rulers with their accompanying buildings and treasures was another strong and lasting reminder of the power and prestige of China's emperors.

Ancient Korean & Japanese Relations › Origins

Ancient Civilizations

by Mark Cartwright
published on 25 November 2016
Ancient East Asia was dominated by the three states known today as China, Japan, and Korea. These kingdoms traded raw materials and high-quality manufactured goods, exchanged cultural ideas and practices, and fought each other in equal measure throughout the centuries. The complex chain of successive kingdoms in all three states has created a rich web of events that historians have sometimes found difficult to disentangle; a situation not helped by modern nationalist claims and ideals superimposed on antiquity from all three parties. As the historian Kim Won-Yong put it, "Korea acted as a cultural bridge between China and Japan" (Portal, 20). Historians continue to discuss whether that bridge was one-way or two-way traffic and, if the former, which direction, but suffice to say that there was such a bridge, and its consequences in art, politics, and history in both countries still resonate today.
Map of East Asia

Map of East Asia


It is likely that there was contact between the Japanese islands and the Korean peninsula in the Neolithic period (6,000-1,000 BCE), especially considering the lower sea-level at that time and so closer geographical proximity of the two land masses.However, the first recorded ties between Japan, specifically the island of Kyushu, which the Koreans called Wae (and the Chinese Wa), occurred in the period known as the Proto- Three Kingdoms period between the 1st and 3rd centuries CE. The fragmented territories in the south of the peninsula were not yet centralised states, but international relations were developed by the Chinese commanderies which occupied the north of Korea at this time, especially Lelang. Envoys and tribute were sent by the Wa, now a confederation of small states in southern and western Japan, the most important of which was Yamato.These missions are recorded in 57, 107, 238, and 248 CE.


From the 4th century CE onwards Korea came to be dominated by the three kingdoms of Baekje ( Paekche ), Goguryeo ( Koguryo ) and Silla, with a fourth entity, less centralised, the Gaya ( Kaya ) confederation. Of these, relations were particularly close between Gaya and Japan. Scholars continue to debate which more influenced the other, and the issue is often coloured by nationalistic bias so that some historians claim that Gaya was a Japanese colony while others propose that horse-riders from the Eurasian steppe came to Japan via Gaya and introduced the burial tumulus to that culture. Evidence is lacking either way, although most scholars agree that the Gaya was the more advanced culture, and recent finds of iron horse armour, notably from the 5th-century CE tomb at Pokchon-dong, suggest that the Gaya did master the use of that animal.
Three Kingdoms of Korea

Three Kingdoms of Korea

From the Japanese side, the occupation of Korea in the 20th century CE sought historical justification from an interpretation of the Nihon shogi. Here in this text, dating to the 8th century CE, it is stated that between 369 and 562 CE parts of southern Korea were Japanese colonies. However, many historians discount the source as unreliable on such early history and, in any case, believe it to have been misinterpreted in order to suit nationalistic bias as Japan at this time did not have the technology, resources, or centralised government necessary to conquer foreign territories. Perhaps the complex relationship between the two states in this murky period of history is best summarised as follows by the historian MJ Seth:
The Wa of western Japan may have lived on both sides of the Korean straits, and they appeared to have close links with the Kaya. It is even possible that the Wa and Kaya were the same ethnic group. The fact that the Japanese and Korean political evolution followed similar patterns is too striking to be coincidental. (32)
More certain than the precise political history is that iron was the most important Gaya export to Japan. Gaya potters likely passed on the innovation of high-fired grey stoneware ( dojil ) to Japan too, where the famous sueki (or sue ) stoneware would be produced as a result. Gaya also exported manufactured iron goods such as agricultural tools, swords, riveted body armour, helmets, and arrowheads. Another successful export was the gayageum ( kayagum ), a zither with 12 silk strings thought to have been invented by King Kasil in the 6th century CE, which would be taken up by musicians in Japan and which remains a potent symbol of Korean culture even today.
The kingdom of Baekje also established trade and cultural ties with Japan during the Asuka Period (538-710 CE). Baekje culture was exported, especially via teachers, scholars, and artists, who also spread there elements of Chinese culture. Thus with traders and settlers from Baekje and Gaya came rice cultivation, wheel-thrown pottery, systems of social ranking, law codes and government, the classic texts of Confucand has the oldest wooden buildings in Japanius and the Altaic language of northeast Asia. Baekje monks may have spread Chinese writing to Japan in 405 CE and Buddhism in 538 CE. In addition, elements of Baekje architectural design can be seen in many surviving wooden buildings (eg the Horyuji temple in Nara ) and in horizontal tomb chambers in Japan as a great number of Baekje craftsmen went there when Wa Japan was an ally.
Gaya Iron Helmet

Gaya Iron Helmet

That relations went beyond mere trade is evidenced by the joint Baekche-Gaya-Wa attack on Silla in 400 CE which was rebuffed by an army sent by the Goguryeo king Gwanggaeto the Great. In 660 CE, once again Baekje appealed (albeit unsuccessfully) for Wa military assistance in meeting a combined Silla and Tang dynasty army. Baekje was conquered, but rebel forces held out and managed to persuade their Japanese ally to send over a 30,000 man army. This was wiped out by a joint Silla- Tang naval force on the Paekchon (modern Kum) River, though, and Baekje's fate was sealed.


The Goguryeo kingdom likewise traded with ancient Japan and artists and scholars are known to have resided for a time at Yamato. Evidence of cultural exchange is most obviously seen in the tomb paintings for which the kingdom is celebrated today and the similar works in the c. 700 CE Fujinoki tomb in Ikaruga. It is probable that emigrants fleeing the collapsed Goguryeo kingdom following its demise at the hands of Silla took this and other cultural practices to Japan, just as their counterparts from Baekje did.


When the Unified Silla kingdom took control of the whole of the Korean peninsula from 668 CE relations were maintained with southern Japan, especially in the Nara and Heian periods. Trade relations and peaceful terms were in Japan's interest if they were to access the lucrative Chinese market unimpeded. Once again, though, open hostilities were never far away, as in 733 CE when Japan sent a fleet to attack Silla territory and again in 746 CE, this time with a 300-ship fleet. The following decades saw more regional stability and embassies were exchanged between the two governments. Trade was increased by the great Silla warlord Chang Pogo (d. 846 CE) and the kingdom even had a permanent administrative presence at Dazaifu in Kyushu, western Japan, where the Japanese employed a team of Silla translators. This was despite the fact that Silla pirates continued to harass Japanese coastal traders throughout the 9th century CE.



When the Goryeo (Koryo) kingdom replaced Silla as the overlord of Korea from the early 10th century CE, trade relations continued and Japanese goods were imported, especially swords, mercury, tangerines, pearls, and paper folding fans.Goryeo exported in return grain, paper, ink, ginseng, straw mats, and books. Goryeo Buddhist monks travelled to Japan and left there evidence of their artistic and architectural skills. In 1231 CE the Mongols led by Ogedei Khan invaded Korea in the first of six attacks over the following decades. Finally, when peace was made in 1258 CE, the price for the Koreans was an obligation to provide ships and materials for the (failed) Mongol invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281 CE.


Relations between Korea and Japan alternated between friendly trade partnerships and outright hostilities over the following centuries. Piracy became a major problem with large fleets transporting invading parties who pillaged deep into Korean territory. This led to King Taejong of the Joseon (Choson) kingdom attacking the Japanese pirate base on Tsushima Island in 1419 CE. Although this action did not eradicate the pirates ( waegu ) completely, it did allow for a trade deal to be agreed upon with Japan, the Treaty of Gyehae, drawn up in 1443 CE.
In the late 16th century CE many Korean potters and artists were forcibly taken to Japan following Toyotomi Hideyoshi's invasion of the Korean peninsula in a conflict sometimes referred to as the 'Pottery Wars' but more commonly as the Imjin Wars (1592-8 CE). These artists, already admired for the white porcelain they had been producing in great quantities, would have a significant influence on Japanese Satsuma ware. Korea was ravaged by the invasion, and many cultural sites and artworks were either destroyed or spirited away to Japan. Worse was to follow with the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5 CE, fought on Korean soil, and full Japanese occupation of the peninsula until the end of World War II.
This article was made possible with generous support from the British Korean Society.


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