Introduction to the Economic History of China

By E. Stuart Kirby | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XII
FROM HAN TO T'ANG: CHINESE SOCIETY IN THE THIRD TO THE SIXTH CENTURIES

The Han Empire produced a firm and lasting basis for the subsequent political and social development of China, in the form of what has been called 'the Gentry-State'. A class, supposedly independent and enlightened--chosen through the celebrated Examination System on the basis of scholastic selection alone, as a Civil Service into which anyone of ability might enter, whatever his social origin--was set up to fulfil the administrative functions.

This class degenerated into a condition of cliquishness and intrigue; and its members, individually or in groups and coteries, became variously involved or absorbed in the strife of vested interests (especially in landownership which was the main criterion of economic power) and in the rivalries of clans, families, localities and associations. At the same time, the life of the Court and the Metropolis degenerated into a condition of complete corruption, and came to be dominated by the Eunuchs. A third factor was the rise of the provincial generals, who became rulers of great areas and leaders of powerful armies, like the War Lords of modern times. There was still a fourth factor, which played perhaps a lesser part: namely, the rise of turbulent movements of resistance among the common people of the lower classes.

The popular movements in the last-mentioned category are clearly associated with the conditions of agrarian discontent. For expression they turned largely to Taoism. The philosophy of Lao Tze had become an organised religion, degenerating into a vulgar and superstitious cult of popular magic. Its priests and high priests, in whose ranks were found many political adventurers, were magicians or sorcerers (shamans). Their greatest effort was the rebellion of the Yellow Turbans (from A.D. 184). It was defeated, and the generals became the main factors in the situation; among them, the foremost was

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