Neil Faulkner examines China’s imperial history, where for two millennia political revolution did not lead to social transformation, but simply to the replacement of one dynasty by another.


The construction of the Ch’in Empire, the first in Chinese history, had been a revolutionary act.

The Bronze Age Shang Dynasty (1523-1027 BCE) had ruled only in the Yellow River region of north-west China. The Iron Age Chou Dynasty (1027-221 BCE) had never ruled an effectively centralised empire. In the Warring States Period (403-221 BCE), any semblance of unity had been lost as nine or ten separate states struggled for power.

It was the achievement of the King of Ch’in, Shih Huang-ti, one of history’s greatest and most savage conquerors, to impose real national unity on the Chinese for the first time. The dynasty he founded did not long survive his death in 210 BCE; but the empire, under one dynasty or another, was repeatedly reconstructed.

In India, empire was exceptional, and division into rival polities the norm. In China, the opposite was true. Why was this?

Both India and China were mixed feudal-tributary systems, but the balance was different. In India, the imperial state was weak relative to local rulers, landowners, and merchants; consequently, it collapsed easily under pressure. The Mauryan (c. 320-180 BCE), Gupta (c. 320-550 CE), and Mughal (1526-1707 CE) Empires were imperial interludes separated by long periods of ‘warring states’.

In Chinese history, it is the succession of imperial dynasties that dominates the sequence: Han (206 BCE-220 CE), Sui (581-618 CE), T’ang (618-907 CE), Sung (960-1126 CE), Yuan (1279-1368 CE), Ming (1368-1644 CE), and Manchu (1644-1912 CE).

In the 2,000 years before 1800, India was united for only a quarter of the time, but China for three quarters. This was a decisive difference.

Rice paddiesIn China, the central imperial state was a much more ruthless, powerful, and successful exploiter. This had three consequences. First, more secure, it was less militaristic. Second, with a large share of the available surplus and only modest military needs, it could invest in public works to raise productivity and increase the tax-base further. And third, its power unchecked by other social forces, it tended to become over-exploitative.

China is blessed with numerous navigable rivers. These were linked by massive canals to create a network of waterways of 50,000 miles. This opened up China to both internal and overseas trade, giving merchants easy access to a vast market. This in turn stimulated both agricultural and industrial production.

Shipbuilding took off, helped by a host of technical innovations, and the Chinese were able to produce ships large enough to carry 1,000 people. Iron production in the 11th century CE was greater than that of Britain in the 18th. China possessed gunpowder 240 years before the Europeans, printed books 500 years before, and porcelain 700 years before.

Medieval China spawned mega-cities. The Sung Dynasty capital of K’ai-feng enclosed an area 12 times the size of contemporary Paris. The city of Hang-chou housed between one and half and five million people at a time when the population of London was well below 100,000.

Towns could be huge, but they did not evolve into independent centres of power: they remained dominated by central state officials. The T’ang Dynasty capital of Chang’an was the economic and cultural centre of the empire. It was a great trading city of a million people. But it was overshadowed by its imperial palace and government offices, and its hundred or so walled residential wards, laid out in a grid-iron of rectangular blocks, were locked at night.

Merchants did not seek power as a class. Their ambition was for individual advancement through education for their sons and admission to the exclusive class of mandarins (literate state officials).

T'ang Dynasty emperorMandarins, in turn, aspired to ownership of country-estates. The social ideal of the Chinese elite was the gentry-official, not the merchant-bourgeois. This is a measure of the central imperial state’s dominance over society.

The ideological supremacy of Legalism and Confucianism also testifies to the power of the state. Legalism argued that the smooth functioning of the state was the basis of the general good, and that state officials were therefore its embodiment.

For many, this was too crude. What guarantee was there that administrators would not be corrupt and incompetent? Confucius (c. 551-479 BCE) was the son of a nobleman who became a leading official and philosopher of the state of Lu in the Warring States Period. He taught respect for tradition and the social order, but stressed the importance of honesty, conscientiousness, and self-control.

Chinese philosophy did spawn more radical alternatives. Taoism advocated withdrawal from a world tainted by the excesses of greed, violence, and luxury. Harmony and contentment depended on keeping opposing forces (yin and yang) in balance.

Buddhism eventually made more converts in China than in India. To subordinate social classes it offered richer spiritual succour than the desiccated ideologies of self-satisfied state officials.

China, of course, was far from harmonious. The life of peasants was one of endless drudgery in the grain fields of northern China or the rice paddies of the central plain. State officials and local landlords took up to half the produce. The margin of safety was close to zero. A bad harvest meant famine for millions.

A Chinese medieval walled cityThe Great Wall, the thousands of miles of canals, the imperial palaces, the great walled cities: all depended on state exploitation of the peasantry. Since the exploited lacked organisation, their voices went unheard, and bitterness accumulated in the dark depths of the Chinese countryside.

Chinese history is punctuated by a succession of gigantic peasant revolts. The Ch’in, the Han, the T’ang, the Yuan, the Ming, and the Manchu Dynasties were all brought down by popular revolt.

Revolts were frequent, and most were unsuccessful. When a dynasty fell, it did so as part of a wider crisis, sometimes involving foreign invaders, always involving active opposition by groups of officials, landowners, or merchants. But it was peasant revolt that provided the main destructive force.

Destructive – but not constructive. The peasants, driven to desperation by poverty and bullying, could form an army to overthrow the tax-collectors. But they would then disperse to their villages. As a class, scattered across the length and breadth of the countryside, focused on family and farm, largely ignorant of, and isolated from, the wider world, they could not create an alternative state in their own image.

The limit of peasant ambition was to replace a ‘bad’ emperor with a ‘good’ one. And in the absence of an urban class – a bourgeoisie, an intelligentsia, or a proletariat – able to provide revolutionary leadership, peasant revolt could go no further.

Political revolution did not lead to social transformation, merely to the replacement of one dynasty by another. To change was to clone. For two millennia, Chinese history was a revolving door.

This it remained until contact with another world subjected it to a series of shocks sufficient to bring down the entire imperial system. But this did not happen until the 20th century CE.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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