The Merchants and the Fall of Imperial China


In the nineteen century, following the Napoleonic Wars, the merchant elites of the City of London focused on colonial expansion reaching far flung corners of the world including one of the greatest civilisations in human history – the ancient empire of China. Records of the Grand Historian written by Sima Qian [Ssu-ma Chien], “the father of Chinese historiography”, provide that history of China began with their ancestor hero – Xuanyuan [Hsüan yoo-AHN] known as Huang Di, [hwahng dee], the Yellow Emperor. His date of birth - 2697 BCE - was calculated on the basis of Chinese accounts by the seventeen century Italian Jesuit missionary, Martino Martini, and coincides with the approximate time of the construction of the great pyramid in Giza in Egypt. Huangdi was born in the city of Qufu, in the Shandong [shahn-dawng] province of the East China region near the lower reaches of the Huang He [hwahng hoe], the Yellow River. He is credited with defeating “barbarians” in a great battle somewhere in what is now Shanxi [Shensi] province, in Northwest China region, winning the leadership of tribes throughout the Yellow River plain. Some traditions also credit him with the introduction of governmental institutions and the use of coined money. Huangdi’s wife was reputed to have discovered silk production and to have taught women how to breed silkworms and weave fabrics of silk. The inscription on the funerary stone dated 151 CE, stated that Huangdi “created and changed a great many things; he invented weapons and the wells and fields system; he devised upper and lower garments, and established palaces and houses.”153 Several cultures had developed in the region of the Yellow river in the north and the Yangzi delta in the centre of the country that became cradle of Chinese civilization. The Yangzi delta gave rise between 3400 and 2250 BCE to the so called Liangzhu culture which produced jade ritual artefacts and silk textiles, simple forms of writing, a pyramidal social structure and a political structure that might be re - garded as an early form of state.154 The Yellow river valley gave rise from about 3000 to 1900 BCE to the so called Longshan culture named after the nearby modern town of Longshan [Lung-shan] ("Dragon Mountain") in Shandong Province. Longshan settlements are found on the plains surrounding Shandong's mountainous area, including Mount Tai (1,545 m), and other several other peaks over 1000 m, but its influence extended far beyond this region. Farmers from the Longshan culture planted millet as the main crop, raised pigs, dogs, sheep and cattle and made great advancements in the area of tool making being noted for its highly polished black pottery. Small-scale production of silk by raising and domesticating the silkworm in early sericulture was also known.155

In the late Longshan period the river plains in China were home to thousands of walled cities each under its own ruler. The state rulers often waged wars against each other to conquer new territory to increase their workforce and thus increase their wealth and political status. The cities that joined under one ruler formed guo (state) and their amalgamation facilitated the fusion of the cultures laying foundation for the later development of Chinese civilization.156 With the passing of time, there came in the Yellow river valley three successive royal dynasties: Xia [Hsia] in the middle that reigned between 2000-1600 BCE, Shang in the east that reigned between 1600 – 1050 BCE and Zhou [tsóu] in the west that reigned between 1050-221 BCE. Little is known about the XIA [Hsia] dynasty. Accordingly to a legend, the founder of the dynasty, Yu the Great, tamed Yellow River flooding and earned a mandate to become the founding emperor of the Xia dynasty. The flood had most likely been a result of an earthquake that destroyed numerous cave dwellings in a Neolithic settlement called Lajia and caused the landslide creating a dam 200 meters high that choked off the mighty Yellow River for 6 to 9 months.157 Among the debris of the Lajia settlements, the archaeologist found the oldest preserved bowl of noodles, made from millet flour, which is dated about 2000 BCE.158 Erlitou culture, which developed in the middle Yellow River valley, near present-day Luoyang, in Henan province, between 1900 to 1500 BCE, is thought to be China's earliest state. It may have evolved from the matrix of Longshan culture and was associated with palace buildings and bronze smelting workshops. Thus it is no coincidence that the province of Henan becomes location to four of the Eight Great Ancient Capitals of China, Luoyang [Loyang] Anyang [ahn-yahng], Kaifeng [kahy-fuhng] and Zhengzhou [joeng-joh].

Around 1600 BCE, Xia were defeated by a neighbouring tribe called Shang which reigned for the next nearly six hundred years. They used the script that is recognisably Chinese today, engraving Chinese symbols on oracle bones, the animal bones or turtle plastrons, to be used in pyromantic divination.159 Vast majority of these oracle bones were found in the capital of the Shang dynasty - Anyang - in Henan Province. The writing has been used to record official transactions and produce historical documentation, and was monopolized by the royalty. Those with access to knowledge through ability to read became part of the ruling class. Henceforth, in China, the literacy, authority and royalty went hand in hand. In 1046, the Shang rulers were defeated by king Wu of Zhou from the valley of Wei, laying foundation for Zhou dynasty that would hold onto power for the next circa eight centuries. It was the reign of Zhou dynasty that brought into operation the concept of the rule by 'Heaven's Mandate' (tian ming). This concept arose out of the dynastic dispute that took place after the death of the founder of the dynasty, King Wu, in 1043 BCE, when Wu's eldest son, the future King Cheng, was deemed too young and regency council under the reign of Duke of Zhou, the brother of Wu, took the reign of the kingdom. This was resented by other royal brothers who joined forces with a disgruntled scion of the defeated Shang. Zhou royal forces claimed that the Shang were corrupt and that Heaven's mandate has passed from Shang to “the Zhou people”. They subsequently defeated the rebellion and divided most of the cradle of Chinese civilization that was North China into subordinate fiefs. The conglomeration of these feudal states situated in the middle and lower Yellow River region began to be called Zhongguo [dzung gwok] – MIDDLE KINGDOM. According to the first century historian, Banu Gu, first feudal social structure started to develop under Zhou dynasty dividing the society into four social groups: shi (gentry scholars), the nong (peasant farmers), the gong (artisans and craftsmen) and the lowest class - shang (merchants and traders).160 In 771 BCE, Zhou were driven out of the Wei River valley by nomadic tribes and fled to the eastern capital - Luoyang. This ended the period of 'Western Zhou', beginning the period of 'Eastern Zhou' dynasty. The royal authority over the various feudal states started to decline as the local rulers obtained regional autonomy, defying the king's court in Luoyang. The first half of the Eastern Zhou period - commonly known as the 'Spring and Autumn' period - suffered from political instability and moral crisis and was characterised by the rising power of scholars who roamed from state to state offering their services to the rulers. Among them was the greatest of Chinese philosophers – Confucius - whose philosophy was about to shape Chinese and East Asian identity, culture and civilization for many centuries to come.

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153 Anne Birrell, Chinese Mythology: An Introduction (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993), p. 48 »

154 Kwang-chih Chang, Pingfang Xu, Liancheng Lu, The Formation of Chinese Civilization: An Archaeological Perspective (Yale University Press, 2002), p. 112 »

155 John King Fairbank & Merle Goldman, China: A New History, Second Enlarged Edition (Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 33 »

156 Ibid., p. 142 »

157 Dennis Normile, 'Massive flood may have led to China's earliest empire', Science, 4 August 2016 »

158 Kate Ravilious, 'Chinese scientists uncover 4,000-year old bowl of noodles', The Guardian, 13 October 2005 »

159 John Keay, China: A History (London: HarperPress, 2009), p. 49 »

160 Anthony J. Barbieri-Low, Artisans in Early Imperial China (Seattle & London: University of Washington Press, 2007), p. 37 »