Chinese Empire – Definition, History Features, Dynasty & Fall

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Chinese Empire: Definition, Features & History (Qing Dynasty)

Date 221 a. C. – 1912
Location Eastern Asia
Capitals Beijing, Nanking, Luoyang, Chang’an, Kaifeng and Hangzhou
Languages Mandarin Chinese, Manchu, Mongolian, Tibetan, Uighur.
Form of Government Absolute Monarchy
Religion Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism
Currency Chinese Cash

What was the Chinese Empire? (History of China)

The Chinese Empire was an imperial state of East Asia that existed between the years 221 a. C. and 1912, a stage in the history of China in which the country was unified under the authority of an emperor.

It covers about 2,000 years of history, from the unification by the Qin dynasty to the fall of the Qing dynasty, with interruptions due to civil wars, foreign invasions or fragmentation of various states.

The Chinese Empire was the political expression of a millenary civilization, whose main creations were the compass, paper, silk, gunpowder, kites, the fan, calligraphy and acupuncture.

Location of the Chinese Empire

The heart of the Chinese Empire was located on the plains between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, on the shores of the East China Sea.

This empire reached its maximum territorial extension in 1765, under the rule of the Qing dynasty. At that time it encompassed the current territories of China, Taiwan and Mongolia.

Location map of the Chinese Empire.

Maximum territorial extension reached by the Chinese Empire in 1765, during the rule of the Qing dynasty.

Features of the Chinese Empire

The main characteristics of the Chinese Empire were the following:

  • Its first emperor was Qin Shi Huang, founder of the dynasty. In 221 a. C. this managed to subdue the last of the rival kingdoms and unify the country under his authority.
  • It went through 3 major stages of centralization of power, which historians call the Early Empire (221 BC-220 AD), the Middle Kingdom (589-1279) and the Late Empire (1368-1912). Between the first and second stages, a period of fragmentation of political power took place, during which several dynasties coexisted. Between the second and third stages of centralization, China was conquered by the Mongols.
  • The Chinese Empire was inhabited by different peoples, including Chinese, Manchu, Mongols, Tibetans, Uighurs, etc.
  • Its main language was Mandarin Chinese, which was reserved for officials, scholars, and intellectuals. The vast majority of the population was illiterate.
  • It had a centralized and hierarchical administration. On the other hand, it minted money and had a writing system based on ideograms.
  • It was divided into provinces, military governorates, and protectorates.
  • It had several capitals, including Beijing, Nanking, Luoyang, Hangzhou Chang’an, and Kaifeng.
  • Its currency was cash, of a circular type and with a square hole in the center. This hole allowed the coins, tied together by string, to create higher denominations.
  • It was protected by an extensive line of fortifications known as the Great Wall of China, which was built to stop the attacks of nomadic peoples from the northern steppes.

Panoramic view of the Great Wall of China in 1907

Panoramic view of the Great Wall of China in 1907. In the time of Qin Shi Huang, it was built with earth walls, during the following centuries the walls were replaced by stones.

Political and Social Organization of the Chinese Empire

1. Political Organization

The Chinese Empire had a centralized government under the system of an absolute monarchy concentrated in the figure of the emperor.

At first the officials were chosen by the emperor on the basis of aristocratic criteria; However, beginning in the 7th century, the Chinese imperial examination system was introduced, which consisted of a series of tests that served to select officials based on their knowledge and skills.

Following the patriarchal system of ancient China, only males were admitted.

These officials were in charge of collecting taxes and tributes, recruiting soldiers, keeping posts supplied for imperial messengers, keeping a record of official activities, and establishing relations with neighboring governments.

image of the Qianlong emperor

Emperor Qianlong (1735-1796) mounted on horseback in ceremonial armor. Painting of the Italian Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766). The Qianlong reign is regarded as a golden age of Chinese civilization and marked the rise of the Qing empire and dynasty.

2. Social Organization

Chinese society was made up of nobles, imperial officials, merchants, artisans, peasants, and slaves. Being a civil servant conferred many privileges, so the sons of noble families strove to enter the service of the imperial palace.

The families were patrilineal. The father was the supreme head of the house and arranged the marriage of his children, the women joining her husband’s clan. Having children was considered more important than having daughters, since the males were the ones who presided over the ancestor worship.

Dynasties of the Chinese Empire

The Chinese Empire was ruled by 9 dynasties, formed by series of emperors related to each other:

Dynasty Dates
Qin 221 – 206 a. C.
206 a. C. – 220 d. C.
Jin 265 – 420
Sui 581 – 618
Tang 618 – 907
Song 960 – 1279
Yuan 1279 – 1368
Ming 1368 – 1644
Qing 1644 – 1912

Economy of the Chinese Empire

The bases of the economy of the Chinese Empire were the metallurgy of the iron, the cattle ranch, the agriculture and the commerce.

The main crops were rice and tea. At first these products were produced for domestic consumption, but later they began to be exported to other Asian regions.

The main commercial route was the silk route, through which Persian, Arab, Indian and European merchants traveled.

The Chinese also excelled in the production of porcelain tableware and silk garments, from the rearing of silkworms.

Religious and Philosophical Beliefs of the Chinese Empire

The oldest religious beliefs were associated with rituals that favored the fertility of the fields and that worshiped the ancestors.

From the V centuryConfucianism and Taoism began to expand, philosophical-moral systems that were formed on the basis of a religiosity associated with polytheistic manifestations.

The creator of Confucianism was Confucius (551-479 BC), who spread an ethic based on equity, tolerance, altruism, respect for the elderly and fidelity to national tradition.

The founder of Taoism was Lao-tzu, who held that the contemplative life and the suppression of ambitions helped to prolong life and did not disturb the action of the Tao, a creative and ordering principle of the world.

Both doctrines coexisted until Confucianism was adopted as the official ideology of the Chinese state in the second century BC. C.

Finally, from the 1st century AD. Buddhism made its irruption, which little by little was gaining adherents in broad layers of society and which was sponsored by several emperors.

Fall of the Chinese Empire

The decline of the Chinese Empire began in the mid- nineteenth century, due to trade disputes with Great Britain. These conflicts gave rise to the First Opium War (1839-42) and the Second Opium War (1856-60), which concluded with the signing of treaties by which Great Britain achieved sovereignty over Hong Kong, in addition to commercial rights. and navigating the Chinese rivers.

At the end of the 19th century, the First Sino-Japanese War took place. The defeat against Japan in 1895 caused the Qing dynasty to be discredited and the emergence of revolutionary movements demanding the abolition of the monarchy.

This abolition took place on February 12, 1912, with the abdication of Puyi, the last Chinese emperor. From then on, China became a republic.

opium war image

Naval battle between Chinese war junks and British steamships, during the First Opium War Painting by British artist Edward Duncan (1843).

  • Ceinos, Pedro. Brief history of China. Madrid, Silex editions. 2006.
  • Gernet, Jacques. The Chinese world. Barcelona, ​​Criticism. 2007.
  • Lovell, Julia. The Great Wall: China against the world (1000 BC – 2000 AD). Barcelona, ​​Debate. 2007.
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