China: A Short Cultural History

By C. P. Fitzgerald; C. G. Seligman | Go to book overview

Chapter VI
THE FORMATION OF A CENTRALISED STATE

IN the long course of Chinese history there have only been two revolutions which have radically altered the political and social structure of the state. The first was the great revolution of 221 B.C., by which the feudal system of ancient China was utterly destroyed and a centralised monarchy formed in its stead: the second, the revolution of 1911, by which that ancient monarchy was overthrown, and the Chinese people, under the impact of cultural influences from the West, attempted to readjust their political and social conditions to the new age of international contacts.

The great revolution which began after the conquest of the last feudal kingdoms by the Ch'in state in 221 B.C., ended in the consolidation of the autocratic universal monarchy under Liu Pang, founder of the Han dynasty, in 202 B.C. To later ages the full significance of this great change was not always apparent. The glory of the Han dynasty under the successors of Liu Pang obscured the humble origin of the founder, and in the new society, where men of the people rose easily to the highest posts, the memory of the ancient feudal system grew dim. Nevertheless, the Ch'in-Han revolution was the most profound and far- reaching social upheaval in all Chinese history.

Shih Huang Ti, "The First Emperor" as the King of Ch'in styled himself after the conquest of all his rivals, was himself a prince of ancient lineage, claiming descent, like all the feudal lords, from the mythical hero Huang Ti. When he began his revolutionary reign China was still a feudal society, even if it was a feudal society in extremis. The rulers of the surviving kingdoms were aristocrats of divine ancestry. The nobility, members of a limited number of ancient clans, were the only class which had political power, the peasantry and merchants were rigorously excluded from all privileges and posts of authority, their sole duty to the state was to provide the man-power and the money for the interminable wars under which they suffered. When the consolidation of the Han dynasty at last gave enduring peace

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