Ever wondered how China became such a powerful and influential civilisation? Scholars argue that China's involvement in other civilisations has contributed to its success since 500 BCE. In the past, China’s neighboring civilisations benefitted largely from its relations with China, where the spread of Chinese culture led to the progress and the organization of some Asian Civilisations. Such relations include trade, military forces and political relations. However, as much as there were benefits, there were also consequences. Trade via the Silk Road greatly benefitted the political, economical and social foundations in China during the classical era, where it served as both commercial and cross-cultural interactions. However, it resulted in health concerns and migration issues. Also, China’s military forces and political relations helped place China in an advantageous position in Asia, especially during the war with the three Korean Kingdoms. Despite that, it stirred social and political instability within the civilisation itself such as loss of resources and manpower. Therefore, we aim to discuss whether it was justified for China to get largely involved with other civilisations in ancient history.
In the era of the Qin Dynasty (221 - 206 BC), much political struggle and social disturbances were ongoing. Thus, we exert that it was justified for China to expand its territories from mainland China to the outskirts of its civilisation and beyond its geographical boundaries, in order to achieve a greater social good. This was part of their Chinese “pride”, where collective interests were glorified more than individual interests.
Initially, before the Qin Dynasty (221 - 206 BC), when Qin Shi Huang took over the power reign, China was in a state of mass chaos. Many foreigners were in the territory, which threatened the Chinese authority. Centralised authority had broken down, leaving many to vie for power and position in a period known as the Warring States period. This provides the context and justification for the conquest done by the Qin Dynasty in 221 - 206 BC.
How did Emperor Qin overcome this menace? Qin Shi Huang, emperor of the Qin Dynasty, began his series of conquest by first extending his power to the other six Warring States (Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao and Wei) to achieve a unified state of China in terms of political, security and a cumulative identity. New government policies were implemented according to the philosophy of legalism (which we have learnt in Class 14). Legalism acted on the concept of containing self-interests of its citizens. These included cutting ties between subalterns and aristocratic local lords, thus enhancing the authority of Qin Shi Huang while reducing the power of the local citizens. Loyalties of the Chinese citizens were also redirected from individual leaders to the central Qin state to restore the authority of Qin Shi Huang.
Moreover, Qin Shi Huang was revered as an individual with godlike powers, destined for immortality, as seen from the protection of his Terracotta army and high levels of mercury around his tomb. This increased the respect of people who viewed him as a representative of a god, also known as a mandate of Heaven (which we have all learnt in Class 13). A mandate of heaven dictated the ability of an emperor to rule, bestowing the ultimate power and authority upon them. This led many to trust in Emperor Qin as the Chinese believed that the Mandate of Heaven was bestowed upon him.
As such, military conquests, with a hidden political and social agenda, were essential to prevent the further breakdown of individual Chinese states and to oust many foreigners present in China. Furthermore, the Qin conquest did not simply end with individualised Chinese states but continued to be geared towards extended wars and conquests towards our modern-day Vietnam and Guangdong. The Qin Dynasty was thus continuously on a roll to gain more land and power, expanding their Chinese influence that they thought was superior to other nations.
All of us know that most of the products we use today have the label “Made in China” on them, and we wonder how this happened in the first place. We believe that this happened through trade since ancient history. One of China’s trade relations with other civilisations can be seen via the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty. "The Silk Road or Silk Route was an ancient network of trade routes that were for centuries central to cultural interaction through regions of the Asian continent connecting the East and West from China to the Mediterranean Sea." Trade took place between India and China, and they traded mostly silk and cotton. China imported high quantities of cotton from India, and it was in high demand in China because the “Burmese Buddhists, like Chinese Buddhists monks, were said to wear cotton cloth because of their Buddhist non-violent beliefs, which forbade them to use silkworms and thus injure living things.” (Dale, 2009) Due to the expanding places of worship, China also imported Buddhist artefacts from India. Following that, China also imported other commodities, other than cotton and Buddhist artefacts.
In the late Han Dynasty, (25 - 220 AD) when Indo-Chinese trade was stimulated by the Kushanas’ control of Indian and Central Asian territory, Indians sent coral, pearls and glass to China. Incense, Indian drugs and medical texts were also among the numerous items that India exported to China. Buddhism was found to be the main contributing factor in motivating trade of all kinds. This trade among India and China demonstrates China’s substantial amount of wealth. However, despite the benefits, this trade involvement also brought about consequences such as the outbreak of diseases.
Military expansion has always been one of the most important reasons for a country to justify involving itself in the affairs of another sovereign state. And Ancient China was no exception in the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE). The Tang Dynasty, at the height of its power, was known as the ‘Golden Age’ of China. With its flourishing economic trade with other civilisations came the desire to expand its territories. The brewing war between the three Korean kingdoms (57 BCE – 668 CE), Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla in the Korean Peninsula was the opening that China needed to get involved militarily beyond its borders. It was under Emperor Gaozong's reign, that the Tang empire began to form a military alliance with Queen Seondeok of Silla Kingdom (37BCE - 668CE), against the existing one between Goguryeo (37BCE - 668CE) and Baekje (18BCE - 660CE), leading to the Tang-Silla Alliance. The alliance was of mutual advantage to both China and Silla at that point in time.
It was justified for China to involve itself in the war of the three Korean kingdoms as winning the war would mean a successful conquest of both Goguryeo and Baekje for China, and consequently occupation of these territories with its allied country Silla. Goguryeo and Baekje were highly militaristic territories, as well as two of the greatest powers in East Asia. By conquering them, the military might of the Tang Dynasty would have substantially risen, besides increased manpower and resources. On Silla’s part, the alliance would mean the possibility of a ‘Unified Silla’ instead of three segregated Korean Kingdoms in the Korean Peninsula that were constantly at war with one another.
However, to a lesser extent, the Tang Empire’s involvement in the war was not justified in the long term as their control of these territories was weak and unstable. This is due to their fragile alliance with Silla and a shortage of supplies, which was previously provided by Silla for the war. Both sides have suffered considerable losses during the Tang-Silla war from 670 to 676 C.E. Thus, justification for the Tang Empire’s military involvement in other countries is dependent on whether one is viewing the outcome of this interference from a short term point of view or from a long term one.
The Tang Dynasty’s involvement in the Korean Peninsula war was justified by gaining an unprecedented foothold in foreign territories and their vassal states. This is significant because preceding dynasties of China had tried and failed to win against their Korean counterparts, leading to a monumental loss of manpower and expense, crippling the empire before the powerful Tang Dynasty was established.
So yes, China’s involvement with other civilisations has indeed benefitted China and the rest of the world. China progressed and developed rapidly after strengthening relations and trade with other civilisations by improving infrastructure and the economy. However, there were consequences with being too involved with China, where a setback on China’s economy can cause drastic effects on civilisations that rely heavily on China’s resources and economy. (Possibly why we are always up to date with the political and economic events in China till this day.) Despite the setbacks, China’s external relations have shifted the world, especially Asia, towards a more integrated and interconnected system with trade, politics and military, which contributed to the era of industrialization. What a powerful civilisation…
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