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Eunuchs in Ancient China › Origins

Ancient Civilizations

Author: Mark Cartwright

Eunuchs were powerful political players in ancient Chinese government. Originating as trusted slaves in the royal household they were ambitious to use their favoured position to gain political power. Advising the emperor from within the palace and blocking the access of officials to their ruler, the eunuchs were eventually able to acquire noble titles themselves, form a bureaucracy to rival the state's and even select and remove emperors of their choosing. Their influence on government would result in the falling of dynasties and last right up to the 17th century CE.


Eunuchs, or 'non-men' as they could be known, first appeared in the royal courts of ancient pre-imperial Chinese states where they were employed as servants in the inner chambers of the palace. They were more or less slaves and were usually acquired as children from border territories, especially those to the south. Castrated and brought to serve the royal household, they had no real means of altering their lives. Eunuchs were regarded as the most trustworthy of servants because they could neither seduce women of the household or father children which might form a dynasty to rival that of the sitting emperor's.

Chinese Eunuchs

A eunuch's duties, therefore, included exclusively serving the women of the royal palace. Any other males were forbidden from staying overnight in the palace, and any person who entered unauthorised faced the death penalty. Eunuchs acted as fetchers and carriers, bodyguards, nurses, and essentially performed the roles of valets, butlers, maids, and cooks combined. Despite their privileged position, the general public's view of eunuchs was extremely negative as they were regarded as the lowest class of all servants.
In contrast to the confidence put in them by rulers, their physical deformity, disdain from the ruling class and the general stigma attached to them made eunuchs more likely to seek to exploit their privileged position and gain political influence within the court. The eunuchs would not be content with the life of a simple slave for very long. Often aligning themselves with the powerful Buddhist monasteries, they advised, spied, and intrigued in equal measure in order to acquire the top positions in the state apparatus.
Eunuchs, with their special access to the Inner Court ( Neiting ), where no ordinary officials were permitted, could be especially prominent when the ruler was not yet an adult and they fully exploited the possibility of not only filtering out communications from ministers to the emperor and vice versa but also appointments so that very often ministers simply could not gain an audience with their ruler. Eunuchs ingratiated themselves with the emperor and were perhaps more compliant than high-minded and more principled scholar-officials which made the emperor more likely to follow their advice.
Another point in the eunuchs' favour was that they had known their emperor perhaps for all his life and that they were the only males the ruler ever met until adulthood. In addition, the emperor knew that the eunuchs did not have a power base or loyalties outside the court, unlike the politicians.


Very often the eunuchs encouraged and made worse political factions, which damaged the unity of the government. Eunuchs are charged with playing a major part in the fall of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). During the 2nd century CE, in particular, a succession of weak emperors were easily manipulated by the eunuchs at court. In 124 CE they even put their own child candidate on the imperial throne. They gained more imperial favour and further entrenched their position in 159 CE by helping Emperor Huan settle a family succession dispute. In gratitude, the emperor awarded a noble title to five leading eunuchs.

East Asia in the year 1 CE

The eunuchs' even greater power ultimately resulted in government officials and students banding together and staging protests in 166 and 168-169 CE. The eunuchs would not be put off so lightly though and they instigated a wave of purges which saw many of those involved in the protests imprisoned and 100 executed. The luckier officials, students, and intellectuals who had spoken out against eunuch power were merely excluded from ever holding public office. In 189 CE events took an even more brutal turn. The eunuchs murdered the 'Grand General' He Jin after it was discovered he had plotted to assemble an army to himself purge the eunuchs. The general's followers exacted immediate revenge by killing all the eunuchs in the palace. With this power vacuum there then ensued a civil war for control of the empire, with the result that the Han fell and the Wei dynasty was established in 220 CE.


In the troubled final years of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) the eunuchs once again played a prominent role, this time in the downfall of emperors. Following rebellions in the provinces by renegade military commanders, the imperial court was eager to strengthen its position and so created a new palace army in the mid-8th century CE. The eunuchs were put in charge of this new force and soon began to create problems of their own for the emperor. Just as in previous eras, eunuchs manipulated the court, created divisions amongst the government officials, and by the 9th century CE, even began to enthrone and murder emperors. One emperor authorised an official purge of the eunuchs in 835 CE to try and claw back some power but before the plan could be executed the eunuchs wiped out over 1,000 of the conspirators and anyone else they remotely suspected of trying to usurp their power. As a shocking demonstration to any future conspirators, three chancellors along with their families were publicly executed in one of the marketplaces of the capital, Chang'an.


During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) eunuchs were often made military commanders. One such figure was Tong Guan (1054-1126 CE) who was Emperor Huizong's most important general. He won famous victories in the north-west border regions in his youth, quashed the Fang La rebellion in Zhejiang province and continued to loyally serve his emperor into his seventies. Guan was also honoured with an official biography where it is recorded he was a painter of some talent. The biography, which appears in the Song History, displays the typical disdain and prejudice that eunuchs suffered even if they were such talented individuals as Guan:
It was his nature to be cunning and fawning. From being an attendant in the side-apartments of the palace, because he was skilled at manipulating the weighty as well as the trivial intentions of people, he was able by means of first serving in order to later command. (in Di Cosmo, 208)
Another famous eunuch was Zheng He (1371-1433 CE) who made seven voyages to the Indian Ocean for Emperor Chengzu.One of He's fleets was composed of 317 ships, including 62 'treasure ships' full of gifts for foreign rulers and over 30,000 men.On his various travels, He followed Arab trading routes and stopped off at such far-flung places as Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, and East Africa. He then returned to China and wowed the court with his exotic captures such as giraffes, lions, and fabulous gems.


From the early 15th century CE the eunuchs set up their own mini-bureaucracy at court where they could ferret away paperwork and filter out the input of government ministers in state affairs. It even included a secret service branch which could investigate corruption or identify suspects who might plot against the status quo and imprison, beat, and torture them if necessary in the prison the eunuchs had created for that purpose. At the end of the century, this eunuch-led apparatus had grown spectacularly to 12,000 employees, making it the equal of the official state bureaucracy. By the latter stages of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE) there were some 70,000 eunuchs, and they had established almost complete domination of the imperial court. During that period four infamous dictators - Wang Zhen, Wang Zhi, Liu Jin, and Wei Zhongxian - were all eunuchs.
The power they held and the political intrigues they often stirred up resulted in the eunuchs becoming infamous, and they were especially unpopular with Confucianist scholars. Huang Zongxi, the Ming dynasty Neo-Confucianist thinker here sums up the general view of eunuchs in Chinese history: "Everyone has known for thousands of years that eunuchs are like poison and wild beasts" (in Dillon, 93).

Ancient China › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Joshua J. Mark

China is a country in East Asia whose culture is considered the oldest, still extant, in the world. The name `China' comes from the Sanskrit Cina (derived from the name of the Chinese Qin Dynasty, pronounced `Chin') which was translated as `Cin' by the Persians and seems to have become popularized through trade along the Silk Road from China to the rest of the world.The Romans and the Greeks knew the country as `Seres', “the land where silk comes from”. The name `China' does not appear in print in the west until 1516 CE in Barbosa's journals narrating his travels in the east (though the Europeans had long known of China through trade via the Silk Road). Marco Polo, the famous explorer who familiarized China to Europe in the 13th century CE, referred to the land as `Cathay'. In Mandarin Chinese, the country is known as `Zhongguo” meaning `central state' or `middle empire '.


Well before the advent of recognizable civilization in the region, the land was occupied by hominids. Peking Man, a skull fossil discovered in 1927 CE near Beijing, lived in the area between 700,000 to 200,000 years ago and Yuanmou Man, whose remains were found in Yuanmou in 1965 CE, inhabited the land 1.7 million years ago. Evidence uncovered with these finds shows that these early inhabitants knew how to fashion stone tools and use fire. While it is commonly accepted that human beings originated in Africa and then migrated to other points around the globe, China's paleoanthropologists “support the theory of `regional evolution' of the origin of man” ( which claims an independent basis for the birth of mankind. “The Shu Ape, a primate weighing only 100 to 150 grams and being similar to a mouse in size, lived [in China] in the Middle Eocene Epoch 4.5 to 4 million years ago. Its discovery posed a great challenge to the theory of African origin of the human race” ( This challenge is considered plausible due to genetic links between the Shu Ape fossil and both advanced and lower primates, standing, then, as a `missing link' in the evolutionary process. However one interprets this data (the Chinese conclusions have been disputed by the international community), the solid evidence provided by other finds substantiates a very ancient lineage of hominids and human beings in China and a high level of sophistication in early culture. One example of this is Banpo Village, near Xi'an, discovered in 1953 CE. Banpo is a Neolithic village which was inhabited between 4500 and 3750 BCE and comprises 45 houses with floors sunk into the ground for greater stability. A trench encircling the village provided both protection from attack and drainage while man-made caves dug underground were used to store food. The design of the village, and the artifacts discovered there (such as pottery and tools), argue for a very advanced culture at the time it was constructed.
It has generally been accepted that the Chinese `Cradle of Civilization' is the Yellow River Valley which gave rise to villages sometime around 5000 BCE. While this has been disputed, and arguments have been made for a more wide-spread development of communities, there is no doubt that the Henan province, in the Yellow River Valley, was the site of many early villages and farming communities. In 2001 CE, archaeologists uncovered two skeletons “buried in a collapsed house, which was covered with a thick layer of silt deposits from the Yellow River. In the layer of deposits, archaeologists found more than 20 skeletons, an altar, a square, pottery, and stone and jade utensils” ( This site was only one of many prehistoric villages in the area.


From these small villages and farming communities grew centralized government; the first of which was the prehistoric Xia Dynasty (c. 2070-1600 BCE). The Xia Dynasty was considered, for many years, more myth than fact until excavations in the 1960's and 1970's CE uncovered sites which argued strongly for its existence. Bronze works and tombs clearly point to an evolutionary period of development between disparate Stone Age villages and a recognizable cohesive civilization. The dynasty was founded by Yu the Great who worked relentlessly for thirteen years to control the flooding of the Yellow River which routinely destroyed the farmer's crops. He was so focused on his work that it was said he did not return home once in all those years, even though he seems to have passed by his house on at least three occasions, and this dedication inspired others to follow him. After he had controlled the flooding, Yu conquered the Sanmiao tribes and was named successor (by the then-ruler, Shun), reigning until his death. Yu established the hereditary system of succession and, so, the concept of dynasty which has become most familiar. The ruling class and the elite lived in urban clusters while the peasant population, which supported their lifestyle, remained largely agrarian, living in rural areas. Yu's son, Qi, ruled after him and power remained in the hands of the family until the last Xia ruler, Jie, was overthrown by Tang who established the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE).
Tang was from the kingdom of Shang. The dates popularly assigned to him (1675-1646 BCE) do not in any way correspond to the known events in which he took part and must be considered erroneous. What is known is that he was the ruler, or at least a very important personage, in the kingdom of Shang who, around 1600 BCE, led a revolt against Jie and defeated his forces at the Battle of Mingtiao. The extravagance of the Xia court, and the resultant burden on the populace, is thought to have led to this uprising. Tang then assumed leadership of the land, lowered taxes, suspended the grandiose building projects begun by Jie (which were draining the kingdoms of resources) and ruled with such wisdom and efficiency that art and culture were allowed to flourish. Writing developed under the Shang Dynasty as well as bronze metallurgy, architecture, and religion.
Prior to the Shang, the people worshipped many gods with one supreme god, Shangti, as head of the pantheon (the same pattern found in other cultures). Shangti was considered `the great ancestor' who presided over victory in war, agriculture, the weather, and good government. Because he was so remote and so busy, however, the people seem to have required more immediate intercessors for their needs and so the practice of ancestor worship began. When someone died, it was thought, they attained divine powers and could be called upon for assistance in times of need (similar to the Roman belief in the Parentes ). This practice led to highly sophisticated rituals dedicated to appeasing the spirits of the ancestors which eventually included ornate burials in grand tombs filled with all one would need to enjoy a comfortable afterlife. The king, in addition to his secular duties, served as chief officiate and mediator between the living and the dead and his rule was considered ordained by divine law. Although the famous Mandate of Heaven was developed by the later Zhou Dynasty, the idea of linking a just ruler with divine will has its roots in the beliefs fostered by the Shang.

Bronze Zhou Cooking Vessel


Around the year 1046 BCE, King Wu, of the province of Zhou, rebelled against King Zhou of Shang and defeated his forces at the Battle of Muye, establishing the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046- 256 BCE). 1046-771 BCE marks the Western Zhou Period while 771-226 BCE marks the Eastern Zhou Period. The Mandate of Heaven was invoked by the Duke of Zhou, King Wu's younger brother, to legitimize the revolt as he felt the Shang were no longer acting in the interests of the people. The Mandate of Heaven was thus defined as the gods' blessing on a just ruler and rule by divine mandate. When the government no longer served the will of the gods, that government would be overthrown. Further, it was stipulated that there could be only one legitimate ruler of China and that his rule should be legitimized by his proper conduct as a steward of the lands entrusted him by heaven. Rule could be passed from father to son but only if the child possessed the necessary virtue to rule. This mandate would later be often manipulated by various rulers entrusting succession to unworthy progeny.
Under the Zhou, culture flourished and civilization spread. Writing was codified and iron metallurgy became increasingly sophisticated. The greatest and best known Chinese philosophers and poets, Confucius, Mencius, Mo Ti (Mot Zu), Lao-Tzu, Tao Chien, and the military strategist Sun-Tzu (if he existed as depicted), all come from the Zhou period in China and the time of the Hundred Schools of Thought. The chariot, which was introduced to the land under the Shang, became more fully developed by the Zhou. It should be noted that these periods and dynasties did not begin nor end as neatly as they seem to in history books and the Zhou Dynasty shared many qualities with the Shang (including language and religion). While historians find it necessary, for clarity's sake, to break events into periods, the Zhou Dynasty remained extant through the following recognized periods known as The Spring and Autumn Period and The Warring States Period.


During the Spring and Autumn Period (772-476 BCE and so called from the Spring and Autumn Annals, the official chronicle of the state at the time and an early source mentioning General Sun-Tzu), the Zhou government became decentralized in their move to the new capital at Luoyang, marking the end of the `Western Zhou' period and the beginning of `Eastern Zhou'. This is the period most noted for advances in philosophy, poetry, and the arts and saw the rise of Confucian, Taoist, and Mohist thought. At the same time, however, the different states were breaking away from central rule by Luoyang and proclaiming themselves sovereign. This, then, led to the so-called Warring States Period (476-221 BCE) in which seven states fought with each other for control. The seven states were Chu, Han, Qi, Qin, Wei, Yan, and Zhao all of whom considered themselves sovereign but none of whom felt confident in claiming the Mandate of Heaven still held by the Zhou of Luoyang. All seven of the states used the same tactics and observed the same rules of conduct in battle and so none could gain the advantage over the others. This situation was exploited by the pacifist philosopher Mo Ti, a skilled engineer, who made it his mission to provide each state with equal knowledge of fortifications and siege ladders in hopes of neutralizing any one state's advantage and so ending the war. His efforts were unsuccessful however and, between 262 and 260 BCE, the state of Qin gained supremacy over Zhao, finally defeating them at The Battle of Changping.
A Qin statesman by the name of Shang Yang (died 338 BCE), a great believer in efficiency and law, had re-cast the Qin understanding of warfare to focus on victory at any cost. Whether Sun-Tzu or Shang Yang is to be credited with reformation of military protocol and strategy in China depends on one's acceptance of Sun-Tzu's historicity. Whether Sun-Tzu existed as people claim, however, it is very probable that Shang Yang was acquainted with the famous work, The Art of War, which bears Sun-Tzu's name as author. Prior to these reforms, warfare was considered a nobleman's game of skill with very set rules dictated by courtesy and the perceived will of heaven. One did not attack the weak or the unprepared and one was expected to delay engagement until an opponent had mobilized and formed ranks on the field. Shang advocated total war in pursuit of victory and counselled taking the enemies' forces by whatever means lay at hand. Shang's principles were known in Qin, and made use of at Changping (where over 450,000 captured Zhao soldiers were executed after the battle) giving the Qin the advantage they had been waiting for. Still, they did not make further effective use of these tactics until the rise of Ying Zheng, King of Qin. Utilizing Shang's directives, and with an army of considerable size utilizing chariots and iron weapons, Ying Zheng emerged from the Warring States conflict supreme in 221 BCE, subduing and unifying the other six states under his rule and proclaiming himself Shi Huangdi -`First Emperor' - of China.

Map of the Qin Empire


Shi Huangdi thus established the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) which is also known as the Imperial Era in China. He ordered the destruction of the walled fortifications which had separated the different states and commissioned the building of a great wall along the northern border of his kingdom. Though little remains today of Shi Huangdi's original wall, The Great Wall of China was begun under his rule.
It stretched for over 5,000 kilometres (3,000 miles) across hill and plain, from the boundaries of Korea in the east to the troublesome Ordos Desert in the west. It was an enormous logistical undertaking, though for much of its course it incorporated lengths of earlier walls built by the separate Chinese kingdoms to defend their northern frontiers in the fourth and third centuries. (Scarre and Fagan, 382).
Shi Huangdi also strengthened the infrastructure through road building which helped to increase trade through ease of travel.
Five trunk roads led from the imperial capital at Xianyang, each provided with police forces and posting stations.Most of these roads were of rammed-earth construction and were 15 metres (50 feet) wide. The longest ran southwest over 7,500 kilometres (4,500 miles) to the frontier region of Yunnan. So precipitous was the countryside that sections of the road had to be built out from vertical cliff faces on projecting timber galleries.(Scarre and Fagan, 382).
Shi Huangdi also expanded the boundaries of his empire, built the Grand Canal in the south, redistributed land and, initially, was a fair and just ruler.
While he made great strides in building projects and military campaigns, his rule became increasingly characterized by a heavy hand in domestic policy. Claiming the Mandate from Heaven, he suppressed all philosophies save the Legalism which had been developed by Shang Yang and, heeding the counsel of his chief advisor, Li Siu, he ordered the destruction of any history or philosophy books which did not correspond to Legalism, his family line, the state of Qin, or himself.
Since books were then written on strips of bamboo fastened with swivel pins, and a volume might be of some weight, the scholars who sought to evade the order were put to many difficulties. A number of them were detected; tradition says that many of them were sent to labor on the Great Wall, and that four hundred and sixty were put to death. Nevertheless some of the literati memorized the complete works of Confucius and passed them on by word of mouth to equal memories. (Durant, 697).
This act, along with Shi Huangdi's suppression of general freedoms, including freedom of speech, made him progressively more unpopular.
The ancestor worship of the past, and the land of the dead, began to interest the emperor more than his realm of the living and Shi Huangti became increasingly engrossed in what this other world consisted of and how he might avoid traveling there. He seems to have developed an obsession with death, became increasingly paranoid regarding his personal safety, and ardently sought after immortality. His desire to provide for himself an afterlife commensurate with his present one led him to commission a palace built for his tomb and an army of over 8,000 terracotta warriors created to serve him in eternity. This ceramic army, buried with him, also included terracotta chariots, cavalry, a commander in chief, and assorted birds and animals. He is said to have died while on a quest for an elixir of immortality and Li Siu, hoping to gain control of the government, kept his death a secret until he could alter his will to name his pliable son, Hu-Hai, as heir. This plan proved untenable, however, as the young prince showed himself to be quite unstable, executing many, and initiating a widespread rebellion in the land. Shortly after Shi Huangdi' s death, the Qin Dynasty quickly collapsed through the intrigue and ineptitude of people like Hu-Hai, Li Siu, and another advisor, Zhao Gao, and the Han Dynasty began with the accession of Liu-Bang.


With the fall of the Qin Dynasty, China was plunged into chaos. Two generals emerged among the forces which rebelled against the Qin, Prince Liu-Bang of Hanzhong and King Xiang-Yu of the state of Chu, who fought for control of the government. Xiang-Yu, who had proven himself the most formidable opponent of the Qin, awarded Liu-Bang the title of `King of the Han' in recognition of Liu-Bang's decisive defeat of the Qin forces in the final battle. The two former allies quickly became antagonists, however, in the power struggle known as the Chu-Han contention until Xiang-Yu negotiated the Treaty of Hong Canal and brought a temporary peace. Xiang-Yu suggested dividing China under the rule of the Chu in the east and the Han in the west but Liu-Bang wanted a united China under Han rule and, breaking the treaty, resumed hostilities. At the Battle of Gaixia in 202 BCE, Liu-Bang's great general, Han-Xin, trapped and defeated the forces of Chu under Xiang-Yu and Liu-Bang was proclaimed emperor (known to posterity as Emperor Gaozu of Han). Xiang-Yu committed suicide but his family was allowed to live and even serve in government positions. Liu-Bang treated all of his former adversaries with respect and united the land under his rule. He pushed back the nomadic Xiongnu tribes, who had been making incursions into China, and made peace with the other states which had risen in rebellion against the failing Qin Dynasty. The Han Dynasty (which derives its name from Liu-Bang's home in Hanzhong province) would rule China, with a brief interruption, for the next 400 years, from 202 BCE to 220 CE.

Han Dynasty Farm Model


The resultant peace initiated by Liu-Bang brought the stability necessary for culture to again thrive and grow. Trade with the west began during this time and arts and technology increased in sophistication. The Han are considered the first dynasty to write their history down but, as Shi Huangti destroyed so many of the written records of those who came before him, this claim is often disputed. There is no doubt, however, that great advances were made under the Han in every area of culture. The Yellow Emperor's Canon of Medicine, China's earliest written record on medicine was codified during the Han Dynasty.Gunpowder, which the Chinese had already invented, became more refined. Paper was invented at this time and writing became more sophisticated. Liu-Bang embraced Confucianism and made it the exclusive philosophy of the government, setting a pattern which would continue on to the present day. Even so, unlike Shi Huangti, he practised tolerance for all other philosophies and, as a result, literature and education flourished under his reign. He reduced taxes and disbanded his army who, nevertheless, rallied without delay when called upon.
After his death in 195 BCE, the crown prince Liu Ying succeeded him and continued his policies. These programmes maintained stability and culture enabling the greatest of the Han emperors, Wu Ti (also known as Han Wu the Great, 141- 87 BCE), to embark on his enterprises of expansion, public works, and cultural initiatives. He sent his emissary Zhang Qian to the west in 138 BCE which resulted in the official opening of the Silk Road in 130 BCE. Confucianism was further incorporated as the official doctrine of the government and Wu Ti established schools throughout the empire to foster literacy and teach Confucian precepts. He also reformed transportation, roads, and trade and decreed many other public projects, employing millions as state workers in these undertakings. After Wu Ti, his successors, more or less, maintained his vision for China and enjoyed equal success.
Increase in wealth led to the rise of large estates and general prosperity but, for the peasants who worked the land, life became increasingly difficult. In 9 CE, the acting regent, Wang Mang, usurped control of the government claiming the Mandate of Heaven for himself and declaring an end to the Han Dynasty. Wang Mang founded the Xin Dynasty (9-23 CE) on a platform of extensive land reform and redistribution of wealth. He initially had enormous support from the peasant population and was opposed by the landowners. His programmes, however, were poorly conceived and executed resulting in widespread unemployment and resentment. Uprisings, and extensive flooding of the Yellow River, further destabilized Wang Mang's rule and he was assassinated by an angry mob of the peasants on whose behalf he had ostensibly seized the government and initiated his reforms.


The rise of the Xin Dynasty ended the period known as Western Han and its demise led to the establishment of the Eastern Han period. Emperor Guang-Wu returned the lands to the wealthy estate owners and restored order in the land, maintaining the policies of the earlier Western Han rulers. Guang-Wu, in reclaiming lands lost under the Xin Dynasty, was forced to spend much of his time putting down rebellions and re-establishing Chinese rule in the regions of modern-day Korea and Vietnam.The Trung Sisters Rebellion of 39 CE, led by two sisters, required “ten odd thousands of men” (according to the official state record of Han) and four years to put down. Even so, the emperor consolidated his rule and even expanded his boundaries, providing stability which gave rise to an increase in trade and prosperity. By the time of the Emperor Zhang (75-88 CE), China was so prosperous that it was partners in trade with all the major nations of the day and continued in this way after his death.The Romans under Marcus Aurelius, in 166 CE, considered Chinese silk more precious than gold and paid China whatever price was asked.
Disputes between the landed gentry and the peasants, however, continued to cause problems for the government as exemplified in the Yellow Turban Rebellion and the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion (both in 184 CE). While the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion began as a religious conflict, it involved a large number of the peasant class at odds with the Confucian ideals of the government and the elite. The power of the government to control the people began to disintegrate until full-scale rebellion erupted. The rebel generals Cao Cao and Yuan-Shao then fought each other for control of the land with Cao Cao emerging victorious. Cao was then defeated at the Battle of Red Cliffs in 208 CE and China divided into three warring kingdoms: Cao Wei, Eastern Wu, and Shu Han.
The Han Dynasty was now a memory and other, shorter-lived dynasties (such as the Wei and Jin, the Wu Hu, and the Sui ) assumed control of the government and initiated their own platforms from roughly 208-618 CE. The Sui Dynasty (589-618 CE) finally succeeded in reuniting China in 589 CE. The importance of the Sui Dynasty is in its implementation of highly efficient bureaucracy which streamlined the operation of government and led to greater ease in maintaining the empire. Under the Emperor Wen, and then his son, Yang, the Grand Canal was constructed, the Great Wall was enlarged and portions rebuilt, the army was increased to the largest recorded in the world at that time, and coinage was standardized across the realm. Literature flourished and it is thought that the famous Legend of Hua Mulan, about a young girl who takes her father's place in the army, was composed, or at least set down, at this time (the Wei Dynasty has also been cited as the era of the poem's composition). Unfortunately, both Wen and Yang were not content with domestic stability and organized massive expeditions against the Korean peninsula. Wen had already bankrupted the treasury through his building projects and military campaigns and Yang followed his father's example and failed equally in his attempts at military conquest. Yang was assassinated in 618 BCE which then sparked the uprising of Li-Yuan who took control of the government and called himself Emperor Gao-Tzu of Tang.

Tang Dynasty Camel


The Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) is considered the `golden age' of Chinese civilization. Gao-Tzu prudently maintained, and improved upon, the bureaucracy initiated by the Sui Dynasty while dispensing with extravagant military operations and building projects. With minor modifications, the bureaucratic policies of the Tang Dynasty are still in use in Chinese government in the modern day. Despite his efficient rule, Gao-Tzu was deposed by his son, Li-Shimin, in 626 CE. Having assassinated his father, Li-Shimin then killed his brothers and others of the noble house and assumed the title Emperor Taizong. After the bloody coup, however, Taizong decreed that Buddhist temples be built at the sites of the battles and that the fallen should be memorialized. Continuing, and building upon, the concepts of ancestor worship and the Mandate of Heaven, Taizong claimed divine will in his actions and intimated that those he had killed now were his counsellors in the afterlife. As he proved to be a remarkably efficient ruler, as well as a skilled military strategist and warrior, his coup went unchallenged and he set about the task of governing his vast empire.
Taizong followed his father's precepts in keeping much of what was good from the Sui Dynasty and improving upon it. This can be seen especially in Taizong's legal code which drew heavily on Sui concepts but expanded them for specificity of crime and punishment. He ignored his father's model of foreign policy, however, and embarked on a series of successful military campaigns which extended and secured his empire and also served to spread his legal code and Chinese culture. Trade flourished within the empire and, along the Silk Road, with the West. Rome having now fallen, the Byzantine Empire became a prime buyer of Chinese silk. By the time of the rule of Emperor Xuanzong (712-756 CE) China was the largest, most populous, and most prosperous country in the world. Owing to the large population, armies of many thousands of men could be conscripted into service and military campaigns against Turkish nomads or domestic rebels were swift and successful. Art, technology, and science all flourished under the Tang Dynasty (although the high point in the sciences is considered to be the later Sung Dynasty of 960-1234 CE) and some of the most impressive pieces of Chinese sculpture and silver -work come from this period.


Still, the central government was not universally admired and regional uprisings were a regular concern. The most important of these was the An Shi Rebellion (also known as the An Lushan Rebellion) of 755 CE. General An Lushan, a favourite of the Imperial Court, recoiled against what he saw as excessive extravagance in government. With a force of over 100,000 troops, he rebelled and declared himself the new emperor by the precepts of the Mandate of Heaven. Although his revolt was put down by 763 CE, the underlying causes of the insurrection, and further military actions, continued to plague the government through 779 CE. The most apparent consequence of An Lushan's rebellion was a dramatic reduction in the population of China. It has been estimated that close to 36 million people died as a direct result of the rebellion, either in battle, in reprisals, or through disease and lack of resources. Trade suffered, taxes went uncollected, and the government, which had fled Chang'an when the revolt began, was ineffective in maintaining any kind of significant presence. The Tang Dynasty continued to suffer from domestic revolts and, after the Huang Chao Rebellion (874-884 CE) never recovered. The country broke apart into the period known as The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907-960 CE), with each regime claiming for itself legitimacy, until the rise of the Song Dynasty (aka Sung).
With the Song, China became stable once again and institutions, laws, and customs were further codified and integrated into the culture. Neo-Confucianism became the most popular philosophy of the country, influencing these laws and customs, and shaping the culture of China recognizable in the modern day. Still, in spite of advances in every area of civilization and culture, the age-old strife between wealthy landowners and the peasants who worked that land continued throughout the following centuries. Periodic peasant revolts were crushed as quickly as possible but no remedies for the people's grievances were ever offered and each military action continued to deal with the symptom of the problem instead of the problem itself. In 1949 CE, Mao Tse Tung led the people's revolution in China, toppling the government and instituting the People's Republic of China on the premise that, finally, everyone would be equally affluent.

Ancient Chinese Architecture › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

Walled compounds, raised pavilions, wooden columns and panelling, yellow glazed roof tiles, landscaped gardens, and a careful application of town planning and use of space are all notable features of the architecture of ancient China, with many of them still playing an important part in modern architecture across East Asia. Architects were influenced by ideas from Indiaand the Buddhism which originated there, but the buildings of ancient China remained remarkably constant in fundamental appearance over the centuries, inspiring much of the architecture of other neighbouring East Asian states, especially in ancient Japan and Korea. Unfortunately, few ancient Chinese buildings survive today, but reconstructions can be made based on clay models, descriptions in contemporary texts, and depictions in art such as wall paintings and engraved bronze vessels.


Chinese architecture remained remarkably constant throughout the history of the country. Beginning in the Yellow earth region, the same types of materials and structure were employed for centuries. Wood was always preferred rather than stone, and the roof material of choice was glazed ceramic tiles. The most typical building, at least for larger structures for the elite or public use such as temples, halls, and gate towers, was built on a raised platform made of compacted earth and faced with brick or stone. The earliest examples date to the Shang dynasty (c. 1600 - 1046 BCE) and as time goes on they become larger with more levels added to create an impressive stepped terrace. Examples of earth foundations at Erlitou sites, which date to between c. 1900 and c. 1550 BCE, range in size from 300 square metres to 9,600 square metres and often include underground ceramic sewage pipes.
The most common building type had regularly spaced timber posts which were strengthened by horizontal cross-beams. In order to better protect the building from earthquake damage, very few nails were used, and joins between wooden parts were made to interlock using mortises and tenons which gave a greater flexibility.Los postes de madera soportadas un techo de paja en la arquitectura anterior y luego una a dos aguas y tejado de tejas con las esquinas ligeramente curvada hacia el exterior y hacia arriba en las esquinas. Por la tercera cadera siglo CE y techos a dos aguas son comunes. No hay evidencia de la cúpula de la arquitectura china, innecesaria en todo caso con las estructuras de madera, aunque de piedra y ladrillo tumbas de varios períodos ¿Tiene arqueado las puertas y techos abovedados o en voladizo.

Torres Puerta de Chang'an

Para distribuir el peso del techo sobre los postes de madera de soporte y permitir que el techo se extienda más allá del área del propio edificio, la dougongse creó que es un soporte de unirse a la parte superior del poste y de la viga de techo horizontal. Es probable que el diseño de los techos que se proyectaba más allá de las paredes del edificio - una característica típica de la arquitectura asiática - primero fue pensado para proteger las columnas de madera y sus bases contra el deterioro por exposición a la lluvia. En un deseo de crear espacio más claro en el interior del edificio, menos columnas fueron utilizados y la estructura del techo hace más compleja para difundir el peso aún más, una hazaña logrado mediante la combinación de soportes con vigas en voladizo y transversales en virtud de las vigas del techo. Mientras tanto, en el exterior, los edificios chinos utilizan colores brillantes con la pintura bermellón aplicado a columnas y balaustradas, amarillo de tejas vidriadas, y la pintura verde de piezas decorativas tales como los soportes debajo de los aleros.
Budistas templos siguieron la misma fórmula básica como se describió anteriormente. Aunque ninguno sobrevivido hasta hoy, los ejemplos pueden verse en el siglo séptimo CE Horyuji templo complejo y el Kofukuji compleja, tanto cerca de Naraen Japón, que fielmente copiado la arquitectura del templo en Chang'an, la Tang capital. La mayoría de los templos fueron construidos en una orientación de la brújula precisa y las estructuras situadas en una plataforma elevada de no menos de un metro de altura. Edificios subsidiarios estaban dispuestas simétricamente alrededor del edificio principal del templo que podría tener más de un piso, una rareza en la arquitectura china.
The most tangible evidence of influence on Chinese architecture from India is the pagoda building. Derived from the stupabuilding, Chinese architects made the pagoda structure much more grandiose and added many more stories, often up to twelve. However, the towers were for show only and the different stories were not meant for actual use, hence the reduction in size for each successive story and the absence of any access to them. The often added balustrades on each floor were only part of the illusion that each floor was accessible.
Pagodas fueron hechos de madera alrededor de una central de madera columna, y sólo más tarde fueron piedra y ladrillos utilizados, aunque la madera hizo una reaparición cuando se dio cuenta de una mayor altura era posible usar ese material. Es probable pagodas estaban cubiertos de enlucido de cal para imitar las estructuras de piedra que se copian de la India. La pagoda también proporcionó la idea de torres monumentales que marcan las tumbas. Estas son estructuras típicamente cuadrados, multi-storeyed menudo con ventanas en cada nivel, de nuevo para proporcionar la ilusión de accesibilidad y no tener ninguna función particular excepto para impresionar al espectador de una distancia. Un buen ejemplo es el del siglo octavo CE tumba la pagoda de Xuan Zang, en la provincia de Henan.

Pagoda, Templo Tianning

La arquitectura china fue, en lo principal, a continuación, notablemente constante. Uno de los pocos desarrollos era simplificar las vigas del techo para hacer la estructura más ligera y para aumentar la altura de los pilares de soporte para dar una más elegante proporción de altura frente a anchura. Tejados también se hicieron mucho más curvo en las esquinas. Otro cambio fue la eventual adición de azulejos decorativos y figuras como los dragones a los extremos y las crestas de techos. El peso adicional de estas adiciones de techo se realizó por un mejor diseño en soportes de techo y la agrupación de cuatro en una columna, empleando más vigas en voladizo y el uso de capiteles de columnas más amplios.


Urbanismo era de particular interés para los chinos y se ve mejor en sus dos capitales más veteranos de Luoyang y Chang'an. Allí los ciudades fueron diseñadas con amplias avenidas y calles más pequeñas secundarias que se cruzan en ángulos rectos para crear una alfombra de rectángulos precisos. Toda la zona, cerca de 8.000 hectáreas en el caso de las ciudades más grandes, estaba rodeado por una pared inclinada que podría ser de hasta 10 metros de altura. Puertas torres daban acceso a la ciudad, con Luoyang, por ejemplo, que tiene 12.
La ubicación de los edificios individuales a menudo se decide en función de la geografía circundante. Muchos edificios importantes y palacios reales fueron alineados en un eje norte-sur con la entrada principal orientada al sur. Si un edificio se compone de diferentes partes unidas por intervenir patios, todos ellos fueron alineados en el mismo eje uno detrás de otro. estructuras menos importantes fueron construidos en los lados este y oeste de los edificios principales.

Plan de la calle Chang'an

La relación entre los edificios y entre habitaciones dentro de esos edificios también era importante para los chinos. Arquitectura podría ser utilizado para expresar las jerarquías sociales y políticas como el historiador ME Lewis explica aquí:
Desde los primeros tiempos, el poder político chino se articula en términos de la autoridad del interior sobre el exterior. Templos, palacios y casas en la antigua China y en toda su historia estaban amuralladas en el exterior, y los primeros edificios se encuentran después de entrar en la puerta fueron los más públicos donde los hombres llevan a cabo sus negocios. Aquí "internos", es decir, los miembros de una familia o el gobernante y su casa, recibirían las personas desde el exterior. Como visitante se dirigió hacia la parte de atrás, los edificios se hicieron más "interior" y privado, y el acceso a ellos se hicieron más restringido. En un complejo residencial, estos edificios serían las cámaras privadas de los hombres y mujeres de la casa. En un palacio imperial, estos edificios serían la vivienda del emperador, que en la dinastía Han se convirtió en el locus del atrio interior. (163)
Con respecto a los complejos de palacios imperiales de las dinastías sucesivas, el movimiento de exterior para cruzar involucrados interior una serie de patios intermedios, y en cada nuevo perímetro funcionarios se han reunido y examinados el visitante, con el derecho de acceso a convertirse en cada vez más limitado. Por lo tanto, no es por nada sería el palacio del emperador finalmente adquirir el nombre, la “Ciudad Prohibida”, con la consecuencia de que, "El poder y prestigio fueron marcados por la capacidad de moverse siempre hacia el interior del Santo de los Santos que fue la presencia imperial" (Lewis, 164). Las enormes e impresionantes palacios reales, entonces, dominaban la capital y se convirtió en un símbolo de la presencia aún invisibilidad del emperador chino.

La arquitectura doméstica

Las pequeñas viviendas particulares de los antiguos chinos se construyen generalmente de barro seco, piedras en bruto y madera. Las casas más antiguas son cuadrada, rectangular u ovalada. Tenían techos de paja (por ejemplo de paja o de haces de Reed) soportados por postes de madera, los huecos de los cimientos para que a menudo son todavía visibles. Casa restos excavados en el NeolíticoYangshao sitios del periodo 5000-3000 (BCE) indican casas fueron construidas con un nivel subterráneo. Casas en Banpo en Shaanxi fueron hundidos unos 60 o 70 cm por debajo de la superficie del suelo, pero los ejemplos en otro lugar (por ejemplo en Anyang) eran hasta tres metros bajo tierra. A menudo pueblos consisten en un conjunto de cinco viviendas construidas alrededor de un patio compartido. Algunas casas son bastante grandes, que mide 16 x 15 metros. Los interiores tienen una solera y superficies elevadas en camas, a veces el suelo estaba cubierto de arcilla blanca o amarilla, y muchos tienen pozos de almacenamiento. Casas en zonas propensas a las inundaciones, como la parte baja del río Yangtze, en la región fueron construidas sobre pilotes. casas levantadas de este tipo se representan en recipientes de bronce grabadas.
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Modelo dinastía Han Granja

Edificios posteriores tienen columnas que descansa sobre bases de piedra o de bronce que se fijan un poco por debajo del nivel del suelo, a menudo a través de una gravera llenas. Tenían sencilla terracota de baldosas, techos inclinados de tejas que tiene perforaciones o perillas para ayudarles a enclavamiento. Su diseño es posible reconstruir a partir de los modelos de arcilla de los edificios que quedaron comúnmente en tumbas de los Han dinastía (206 aC - 220 dC). Estos modelos son a menudo de edificios agrícolas modestas que se construyen en torno a un pequeño patio interior y, a veces con un compuesto adyacente a los animales.
Casas chinas privado en las ciudades imperial había habitaciones comunicadas VARIAS, con el edificio SCREENED de la calle por un alto muro.
There is evidence of alternatives to the common wood and dried mud-brick architecture. Wall spaces between wooden columns may in some cases have been filled with lacquered wood panels rather than mud. Such panels were carved and inlaid; surviving examples have been found at Xiaotun. Alternatively, Henan tombs during the 2nd and 1st century BCE were built of hollow clay bricks, as were fortification walls and watchtowers of the period, and it seems reasonable to suppose that the same material was employed in some domestic architecture, even if wood was preferred.
Private Chinese houses in imperial cities had several rooms all interconnecting with each other and the whole building screened from the street by a high wall. Heating was provided by underfloor pipes. Houses in more rural areas and warmer regions had rooms which opened directly onto the street or fields.


Chinese cave shrines usually consist of a single rectangular chamber cut deep into the rock face and many niches cut into the walls. The facade was approached by a stairway cut into the rock or made of wood, and many caves are connected to each other by walkways and verandahs.
The Longmen Grottoes (aka Longmen Caves) are perhaps the most famous group and consist of hundreds of mostly Buddhist shrines and sculptures created from the 5th century CE onwards. Located near the former capital Luoyang, the grottoes were carved, used, and extended by several Chinese dynasties, notably the Northern Wei and Tang. Carved out of the limestone cliffs which border the Luo River, the site boasts cave shrines, larger-than-life-size figure sculptures and countless inscriptions of eulogies and prayers. The figures carved into the rock face at Longmen can reach a height of over 17 metres and depict Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and demon guardian figures.
Another impressive group of shrines and Buddhist sculptures can be seen at the Yungang Caves near the modern city of Datong. Also created by the Northern Wei, the first group of the 53 caves at the site were carved from the sandstone cliffs even earlier than the Longmen Caves, sometime between 460 and 494 CE. The site boasts over 50,000 Buddhist images.


The most famous architectural achievement of the ancient Chinese is undoubtedly the Great Wall of China, largely built during the reign of Qin Emperor Shi Huangti in the closing decades of the 3rd century BCE. The wall incorporated many stretches of older defensive walls and was extended again during the Han dynasty using stone and bricks. Stretching some 5,000 kilometres from Gansu province in the east to the Liaodong peninsula (although not without breaks), it was designed to help protect China's northern frontier against invasion from nomadic steppe tribes. Square watchtowers were built into the wall at regular intervals, and fast communication between them was possible by chariot riders having enough space to ride along the top of the walls.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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