What can Chinese history tell us about China today?
Key Point: China has a long, proud history going back thousands of years.
Chinese civilization is one of the world’s oldest continuous civilizations. Indeed, unlike Western, Islamic, and Indian civilizations, China has managed to remain politically unified for much of its history.
Contrary to the common perception of China being historically isolated and weak, many Chinese dynasties were very powerful and have had a profound impact on global history. Yes, it is true that during the Ming Dynasty, China ships conducted multiple voyages of exploration (1405-1433) before abruptly stopping. But this hardly dented the enormous economic and political influence China wielded for most of its history in East, Southeast, and Central Asia. Although the people of these regions pursued their own interests as best as they could, China was always the major power to be dealt with.
Nonetheless, not all Chinese dynasties were created, and these three stood above the rest.
The Han Dynasty
The Han Dynasty ruled China for a solid four centuries, from 206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E. Although the preceding Qin Dynasty unified China, it was the Han Dynasty that kept it together and developed the institutions that characterized most of Chinese history since.
The Han Dynasty was able to maintain its bureaucracy and military through a more efficient and thorough system of taxation than many contemporary empires. Additionally, to gain increased revenue, the Han created monopolies on iron and salt. The salt monopoly has been a traditional source of revenue for Chinese states since, one that apparently lasted until 2014.
The Han’s large coffers allowed it to expand China’s boundaries outwards from its traditional heartland in the Yellow River valley toward what is today southern China. Southern China would prove to be very important to China in the future since it can support a large population through the rice crop. Thanks in part to southern China’s wealth, China’s sociopolitical development was usually greater than its neighbors, allowing China to easily incorporate or defeat them.
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