Introduction to the Economic History of China

By E. Stuart Kirby | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VIII
THE FIRST UNIFICATION OF CHINA: ITS POLITICAL AND SOCIAL BACKGROUND

The Ch'in ( 255-209 B.C.) and Han ( 206 B.C.-A.D. 220) were the first periods of political unification in China. From the political point of view, they may be taken to represent the starting-point in the story of China, the Nation--an entity, an individuality. They set the pattern of self-centredness, in respect especially of foreign relations; they gave an introvert character to the national psychology, which may or may not be peculiar to China among all the nations, but certainly took a special and lasting form there.

It is still far from clear whether that self-centredness, or collective egotism--expressed in the very name of the country, as the 'Middle Kingdom' (Chung Kuo)--is a basic feature in the national character, or just a form of words, a conventional expression. Politically, at least, some such outlook was strongly imparted in the periods now in question, and strongly retained ever since.

The appearances are that few if any countries had, historically, their first unification in so sudden and thorough a form as did China under the Ch'in. This (and the reign of Wang Mang, A.D. 9-23) were indeed totalitarianism, of a kind or degree fully comparable to those occurring in Europe some nineteen centuries later. However, the long period of the Former and Later Han, which followed, must have done far more to fix the lasting outlook of the Empire. The Han, besides consolidating the internal unity of China, developed the country's external relations, to the point of asserting the predominance of China as a relatively isolated, brilliantly cultured nation-state, surrounded by comparatively barbarous peoples on a merely tribal level with whom its contacts were partial and irregular. The same characteristics (of brilliance, suzerainty and centrality) were equally pronounced in the T'ang period (seventh to tenth centuries). The Sung, the Ming and the Manchus, with diminishing success, strove later to revive these attributes.

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