A Quick and Dirty History of Pre-Imperial China

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Confucius sez...

"Many centuries before the First Emperor defeated all his enemies and conquered the world, China as we now know it was no unified entity, but a number of tribes all fighting for dominance.

Or in other words: it was all just a bunch of thugs squabbling over land and power. Politics as usual!

Legend has it that the XIA tribe was first to rule, preceded only by the mythical Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, but no physical evidence of their civilization remains. There is some proof (both etymological and archaeological) to suggest that at this point society was matriarchal or at least matrilineal, but who can say for sure? The period is largely defined by stories of the hero and legendary Xia founder Yu the Great's struggles in stemming an epic flood: after his father's failed attempts at building dams and blockades, Yu united the tribes, set to work building canals, and diverted the waters into the sea. Basically, he was the most badass engineer of all time. Much cooler than that one guy who hid himself away in an ark, if I may say so. ;-)

'Written' Chinese history starts with the rise of the SHANG sometime between 1800-1500 BCE (the estimates vary, but what does a few hundred years matter?). You probably know them as the weirdos who used oracle bones for divination. Their society was extremely stratified; they owned slaves and practiced human sacrifice, and the capital at Yin, the center of the most glorious years of their reign, was said to be quite opulent. One of the more interesting characters of note during this time was the warrior-priestess Fu Hao (who was, in fact, real). I bet she was a babe!

Then in about 1046 BCE, the ZHOU thugs (I say this with utmost respect) defeated the Shang thugs, laid claim to the mandate of heaven (in order to oust the priest-kings of the Shang), raised their Head Thug as Son of Heaven, and took over, all the while trashing the Shang as evil baby eaters. (Actually, as decadent, morally corrupt rulers. Same thing.) That said, the Shang civilization coexisted along the Zhou dynasty for quite a while as vassal states, and the Zhou actually co-opted various aspects of Shang culture while they were at it. Damn good propagandists they were, the Zhou.

The land in the time of Zhou was splintered into many different territories, each ruled by feudal lords who were often but not always related (distantly or otherwise) to the Zhou king, and who paid tribute to the central court. Who better to maintain your authority for you than family, after all? In theory, anyway. As time dragged on, the Zhou king and his court began to lose power due to various factors, both external and internal. Eventually in 771 BCE one of the kings was killed and the capital sacked thanks to the usual court drama. The remaining nobles set up a new king and moved the capital east (thus ending what is now referred to as the Western Zhou Period), but the royal family never quite recovered, leaving a vacancy of power. And so the feudal lords began to do what they do best: feud. Some of them even proclaimed themselves kings in their own right!

Confused? Imagine the USA (nice place, by the way, I like the palm trees). Now imagine that its citizens consider themselves not Americans, but Californians, Texans, New Yorkers, etc.; that all fifty states are constantly at odds with one another; that the concept of borders is relatively fluid, as some states get absorbed into more powerful states while others break away to form their own independent territories; and the governors of the biggest states possess more power than the president, who is little more than a figurehead. Then you will have an idea of the chaotic political landscape of the time!

Indeed, by the time I was born, about 200 years after the capital moved east, there were at least thirteen major states vying for power, not counting the dozens of minor states that were constantly bursting in and out of existence. The loyalty of the people of each state was not to the Zhou king, as was right and proper, but to their respective lords (though sometimes said lords would proclaim their own 'loyalty' to the Son of Heaven as an excuse to bolster their own legitimacy and oust political opponents). No matter their allegiance, however, they did all loosely identify themselves as members of the Central States. Everybody else was a barbarian. Though some were less barbarian than others.

At any rate, the first half of the Eastern Zhou is popularly known as the Spring and Autumn Period (dates most commonly given as 770-476/453/403 BCE, depending on which historical event one chooses to mark the transition with), after the historical annals of the time, which recorded the major events of each year. (Why were they not called Summer and Winter Annals? Don't ask me, I think summer is groovy!) The most famous of these texts (in fact, the only one that survives) is the Spring and Autumn Annals of Lu, which I may or may not have personally compiled. Or edited.

(Meanwhile, my [possibly imaginary] bro Sun Tzu was off in the south [maybe] penning his treatise, The Art of War.)

After I died (I do not mean to make it seem as if my death was of great importance in the grand scheme of things, but merely to mark the passage of time) the conflicts between the various lords continued into the aptly named Warring States Period (476/453/403-221 BCE). Sad business, really. Though all that warfare did bring about some good, at least: the Hundred Schools of Thought followed in my footsteps, arguing and pontificating on just about every possible thing under the sun.

But all this intellectual and cultural flowering didn't last long. As soon as the First Emperor, the baddest thug of them all, came onto the scene, he beat and/or threatened everyone into submission, abolished all regional identity, killed a bunch of scholars, burned all the books he didn't approve of, became a paranoid immortality-obsessed bastard after surviving a series of assassination attempts, and built his famous mausoleum... Oh, and standardized writing, currency, and units of measurement; revolutionized the legal and governmental system; and brought peace at last to the land after centuries of near-constant bloodshed. It was all very 'my way or the highway,' but as much as I hate to admit it, I can't deny that it was quite effective; the repercussions of his actions resonate to this day.

Meanwhile, the people of the destroyed states clung on to the last remnants of their identity and culture by taking on the names of their former states as surnames. Some of the more powerful states, like Chu, never did forgive the First Emperor. Which eventually led to further interregional conflicts after the collapse of the First Emperor's Qin Dynasty (221-207 BCE) a mere fourteen years after its establishment. For example, the Chu-Han contention (206-202 BCE), and still later, the turmoil surrounding the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 CE, sometimes extended to 184-280 CE, and perhaps more accurately considered the "Three Empires Period"), which was eventually fictionalized in the 14th century novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, also known as 'The War of the Hot Video Game Dudes'....

But that's a different story altogether."