This video is brought to you by Squarespace. More on that later. The Empire, long divided must unite – long united, must divide. Thus, it has ever been. So opens the famous Chinese tale “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, or to put it another way, China is whole again! Then it broke again! And that’s honestly pretty accurate. The story of China is a very long, often winding and all too frequently shattered enterprise – but it is DAMN interesting. So, to find out what’s causing this three thousand year long dance of unifying and fragmenting, let’s do some history. To start, every civilization needs water in some form or another. Egypt has the Nile, Mesopotamia has the Tigris and Euphrates, and China has the Yellow River. The earliest records of centralized civilization in China point to the Yellow River Basin as the cradle of that civilization, but written records only tell part of the story, and in China especially there’s a pretty shocking gap between what our sources tell us and what we found archaeologically in the past century all across the country. So, for instance, the Yangtze River to the South was once regarded as a later development during the Chinese Bronze Age but nope! There was all kinds of separate stuff going on down there before we ever see significant textual evidence for it. So, back to the Yellow River. From what we know, Civilization got properly going during the reign of the five semi-divine and almost certainly legendary Emperors. The last one, Emperor Yu, founded the – also likely mythical – Xia dynasty in the 22nd century BC. And real quick on the subject of names – despite two Chinese speaking friends very generously coaching my pronunciation, I am still sure to fail so: blanket apology. Skipping ahead to sturdier footing, we have the definitely real Shang dynasty, who ruled from the Yellow River Basin during the Chinese Bronze Age. But even here we found boatloads of evidence for distinct cultures with regionally unique bronze work, implying fairly independent societies across China There’s also a decent chance that the Shang and later Zhou dynasties overlapped. I recognize that this is all a bit too hazy, but I hope that you can see why this might be a very contentious issue and we’re still discovering new things all the time! So even more so than usual: general disclaimer that academics are currently spilling rivers of ink debating some of what I’ll cover in this series. And speaking of writing, err, things, our first glimpse of the written Chinese language comes from the Shang Bronze Age. Where Oracles enscribed turtle shells and bones with predictions, before hocking them into a fire, to see how they cracked and which statements were verified. The writing, though obviously SUPER old is still recognizably Chinese. And the quality implies that the script had been around even before that. Plus, the hefty collection of turtle shells We’ve dug up indicates that this was a regular, if not daily procedure, and this tells us two important things: for 1) the Shang rulers believed themselves to have an IN with the gods, and 2) While artwork and bronze work weren’t unique to the Shang, writing at this level of sophistication likely was. This sets the stage for an entire history of power lying with those who have divine favor, and those who can most effectively employ writing to convey that. Our written sources tell us that the last Shang Emperor became tyrannical and King Wu overthrew him to found the Zhou dynasty. Which went on to rule for another 800 years. And this brings us to one of the most central concepts in Chinese history: The Mandate of Heaven. The basic idea is that if you rule justly, Heaven will smile upon you and grant you dominion over China, But if you behave wickedly, as the last Shang Emperor did, you’ve forfeited your power and someone more noble than you is going to claim it. So, just watch out for that happening all the time for the next 3,000 years… Anyway that Zhou dynasty starts to consolidate our mental image of classical China with unique knife and Spade coinage, walls, bureaucratic government and a lot of soon-to-be very famous literature. Unfortunately for the Zhou, their strong start wouldn’t last forever and China’s longest Dynasty would spend half a millenium fending off assailants from all sides after caving in on itself in the 770s BC. So I mean, yeah. The Zhou were around for another 500 years, but come on look at it. barely even exists – it’s tiny. The split between the strong and cohesive western Zhou and that tiny Eastern Zhou as they were known, also marks the start of a lot of wars over the next few centuries. The spring and autumn annals (a historical text describing the 8th to early 5th centuries [BC]) also gives us the name for the Spring and Autumn period. And all things considered, it wasn’t too bad. What started with about 150 independent kingdoms, dukedoms, and city states, gradually glomped each other to narrow that number down to 30 or so. And then to 7 by the end. The Spring and Autumn period was a pretty slow burn, but definitely heated up as the remaining territories became bigger and wealthier. Still, you couldn’t just deathball your way into an empire. So strategy became a crucial weapon. And that’s where the art of war comes in. Sun Tzu’s famous work of military philosophy makes clear, that the first weapon in any generals arsenal is stratagem. All the better to break your opponent without even lifting a spear if you can avoid it. Sun Tsu knew that lengthy campaigns were a disaster waiting to happen – so clever politics and tricky tactics often won the day. Machiavelli would be very proud. So, with all this high-level political, military, stateger-y going on, these states would sure do well to have a smart person or two on hand. And a latter portion of the Spring and Autumn period saw rise in the power and influence of educated aristocracy. One such scholarly gentleman was a guy who saw no greater purpose in life than serving as a government bureaucrat. No, but like, seriously! Career prospects were way different back then. So anyway, this guy travelled around China for 13 years accomplishing not much of anything the career of this Kong Qui looks like a complete failure at face value, because it kind of was. But fast forward a few hundred years, and his assorted teachings come to us through arguably the most foundational work of Chinese philosophy, The Analects of Confucius Look at that, pulled a sneaky on ya. In a world dominated by conflict and political duplicity between competing States Confucius taught the value of gentlemanly virtue and adherence to cultural norms of conduct and respect yet a very particular view of the past is holding valuable instruction for his largely wayward times and you can argue the subtext here is “Hey guys, if any of you want the Mandate of Heaven you better *get your damn act together*”, but he was also simply teaching everyday people how to cope with stuff being all crazy and invadedy all the time keep a routine, be a good person those ideas come up a lot throughout world history. Confucius was far from the only active philosopher as the famed hundred schools of thought were writing philosophy like there was no tomorrow. Because sometimes there wasn’t. Some other thinkers to note are Mencius, who elaborated on Confucian thought half a century later and codified much of Confucian philosophy for later use and also very much counter to all of this, was Lao Tzu who was cited as the philosopher behinds Taoism and the author of the Dao de Jing, though there is some debate on that one too. I could easily keep going on Confucianism and Daoism for another 30 minutes but suffice to say, the hardest times can produce the wisest works, and oh boy where time starting to get hard. The Spring and Autumn period gave way to the proverbial winter that was the Warring States period when things got much grimmer on the combat front as the remaining powers in China became fiercer in their bid to be the last one standing. Perhaps no surprise considering the few remaining kingdoms gained considerable wealth and power along with their territory the dwindling number of states also coincided with much stronger centralized governments as only the states that could recruit, equip, and mobilize large armies could survive in the first place. And speaking of states that were good at, um. Warring. Blue, you’re really killing with the transitions today aren’t ya. The Qin Kingdom became fiercely legalistic and ruthlessly expansionist in the late 4th and 3rd centuries BC For one, those guys loved their crossbows and I honestly can’t blame them. because crossbows are dope, but more alarmingly they had a clear take-no-prisoners policy and that applied to civilians as well. So their armies pushed east and conquered the remaining kingdoms, unifying China, under the Qin banner in 221, and granting their king the title of ShiHuangDi, first emperor. Given the brutality of their methods you may wonder if they deserve the Mandate of Heaven after all, and heaven seems to have wondered the same, as the Qin Dynasty collapsed a few short years after the death of ShiHuangDi. Still, the Qin are a landmark moment for the birth of a true Chinese Empire and the name China itself comes from the Qin Dynasty. Kind of. The etymology actually goes through about five other languages *before* we get China, but point stands. Short as his dynasty was, ShiHuangDi made some important innovations to literally pave the way for centuries of future Chinese empires. In addition to editing and standardizing the Chinese written language, the Qin engaged in fantastically huge building and infrastructure projects from walls and roads to insane royal structures. Some descriptions of Qin architecture have been mocked as overly fanciful, but after we discovered the Terracotta Army in the 1970s, everybody stopped laughing real fast. A couple of years after the Emperor died from what the doctor promised was an elixir of immortality but in all likelihood was a one-way ticket to mercury poisoning, the Empire was up in full revolt against the Qin. Out of a fierce but mercifully brief civil war, arose the Han Dynasty under Lubang, ruling over most of China by 202 BC. During the 400 year long and largely peaceful reign of the Han Confucianism emerged as a state philosophy after the Qin won on a book-burning spree Woops! Yeah, that happened. Anyway, the Han retained a firmly legalistic framework but they weren’t draconian about it. Instead, they focused on actually being a good Empire, by expanding the bureaucracy. This period also saw the introduction of circular coinage, paper and silk production, early hydraulics and cool astronomy. Plus, more Taoism. You can never have enough Taoism. The Han also had to with trouble in the form of an invasion by the Huns Yep, those are the ones. In the process of dealing with the XiongNu, as they were also called, the Han armies pushed west into Central Asia and found a number of other civilizations. Among them were the Bactrian, said to have a talent for horse riding. A sophisticated culture and splendid cities these Bactrian were in fact the farthest East successors to the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great. What?? Yeah! The King and Generals Channel has a fantastic two-part series on this so I’ll actually just point you to him. But the short of it is that the Han wanted some of these heavenly horses from the Bactrians to help fight the XiongNu and after an unproductive round of haggling, they sent a giant army to the City of Taiwan aka Alexandria Eschate sacked it, took the heavenly horses and yoinked a large share of the territory in the Terran basin on their way back. It’s after pushing this far west and establishing contact with the various states of Central Asia, that the Han began trade relations that would carry goods all the way to the Mediterranean. Most famously, silk. This Silk Road became a backbone of the Han economy for the next few centuries and helped kick the Han Golden Age into high gear. And also, the Han defeated the XiongNu with the help of those heavenly horses though the historian Sumon Chen noted presciently that this was likely only the first round of a much much larger conflict. And on that subject Sumon Chen, the Han’s court historian produced one of the greatest works of history *period*. his ShiJi, aka records of the grand historian, compiled at the turn of the 1st century BC is a really big deal for China and for history Basically he wrote a 12 chapter narrative history from as far back as he could find up until his present day. He also included 30 histories about individual states and a further 70 standalone biographies. It is exceptionally thorough while remaining fairly flexible to read. Though in the process of writing his history Suma Chen may have committed some light treason by speaking a little too openly to the emperor about his opinions as a result he was cast out and castrated but he did get to finish his life’s work and history is all the richer for it. The following decade saw the Han rise to its greatest extent, stretching down along the eastern coast eastward towards Korea and westward into Shin Jung. The bureaucracy also grew during this period, becoming more efficient at acquiring and spending tax revenues broadly and locally, as well as employing mandatory conscription labor to build public works. Life was peaceful, culture was booming, resources were plentiful. It was a good time for everyone involved Of course, it’s usually after a long run of things going well, that politics tend to sour and the heads of state turned away from Confucianism to reprise the harsher tactics and expansionary world view of their Qin predecessors. You’ve seen this before and you’ll see it again someone’s Empire is about to get dunked on and a steady parade of terrible omens for half a century made it very clear that Heaven’s Mandate was about to scram-date. So one enterprising Confucian scholar named Wang Mang carried out a very peaceful usurpation of the throne with every intent to set things right, and start a new dynasty. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out great for him. He had some interesting reforms but he was paying too much attention to whether or not his bureaucrats had the right titles and ignoring how the Yellow River was constantly flooding. No surprise that he too, got the boot. After that it was a bit of a power scramble and against several odds, a member of the Han family reclaimed China moving the capital eastward from ChangAn to LuoYang to establish or re-establish the latter eastern Han Dynasty. The early decades of this Empire were spent recovering from the mess of the past century and with a lot of effort things were pretty solid for a while. Though the official histories pushed the final end of the Han as far forward as 220 AD, their empire kinda went back to a steady decline in the mid second century as the throne passed through a line of young or otherwise incompetent emperors whose regents did all of the governing for them. And honestly calling the Han an empire after the 180sAD is just an exercise in self delusion. Along those lines there’s a comical amount of succession crises and political intrigue shenanigans throughout the 100’s ad that go-a-ways to explain why no one was in a position to do anything when the Empire shattered apart of the turn of the century. However, it’s from this complete mess that we get the setting for the famous Chinese epic, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and I could keep going, But honestly, I’m done. I’m stopping here. Screw it, China’s broke again we’ll fix in the next damn video. Okay, I actually lied. I’m back. So, as you can see building an empire is hard. But you know what’s easy? Silky smooth transitions and building a website with today’s sponsor, Squarespace. If you have a project or business you want to promote online, a website is like your own personal Silk Road to the world. And Squarespace makes the whole process simple and affordable, especially if you start a free Squarespace trial at squarespace.com/overlysarcastic and use code overly sarcastic to get 10% off your first purchase. I personally have zero skill at coding, but Red and I were able to build a killer website for OSP without worrying about code, plugins, or updates. Seriously, we just kind of sat down thought “Hmmm, what should this thing look like, and then we whipped it right up!” Yeah, maybe I’m Incredibly biased, but I think it’s a pretty slick website. But still, nothing’s perfect, so we’d love to hear your thoughts on what you think we should add to our website in the future. To get started on your website though, though head over to squarespace.com/overlysarcastic, and use code Overly Sarcastic for 10% off. Thank you all for watching, and also thank you for putting up with my voice this time, it might have been a little bit more gravelly and batman-y. Because I have a bit of the cold, but anyway, thanks for watching, had a lot of fun putting this video together, definitely looking forward to going a little bit farther afield, then the typical Greece and Rome, but in any case thanks for watching so much and we’ll see you in the new year!