F. THE CLASSICAL CIVILIZATIONS: INDIA AND CHINA
Your AP World History Exam will likely focus on four empires in India and China that existed from around 300 B.C.E. to around 550 C.E. These four empires are the Maurya and Gupta in India, and the Qin and Han in China. Keep in mind that to fully understand these four empires, you will also need to review some of the major belief systems discussed in Section IV of this chapter.
1. The Mauryan Empire in India (321 to approximately 180 B.C.E.)
Around 330 B.C.E., Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire and continued into India (more on this in a few pages). During this time, the Aryan culture and belief systems continued to spread throughout India. Then, around 321 B.C.E., a new empire arose in India, one that would come to be the largest in that country to date. Spanning from the Indus River Valley eastward through the Ganges River Valley and southward through the Deccan Plateau, the Mauryan Empire was founded by Chandragupta Maurya, who unified the smaller Aryan kingdoms into a civilization. But it would be his grandson, Ashoka Maurya, who would take the empire to its greatest heights.
A major reason that the Mauryan Empire became so powerful and wealthy was trade. Indian merchants traded silk, cotton, and elephants (among hundreds of other items) to Mesopotamia and the eastern Roman Empire. Another reason was its powerful military. Interestingly, it was its military strength that eventually caused a dramatic change in the empire. Stricken with disgust and filled with remorse for a very violent and bloody victory his forces claimed over the Kalinga in southeast India, Ashoka converted to Buddhism. For the rest of his reign, Ashoka preached nonviolence and moderation. (As you’ll learn in Section IV of this chapter, during the previous century, Buddhism had recently taken root in this otherwise Hindu region.)
Ashoka is also known for his Rock and Pillar Edicts, which were carved on—you guessed it—rocks and pillars throughout the empire. These edicts reminded Mauryans to live generous and righteous lives. Following Ashoka’s conversion and commitment to Buddhism, the religion spread beyond India into many parts of Southeast Asia.
2. The Gupta Dynasty in India (320–550 C.E.)
After Ashoka’s death in 232 B.C.E., the Mauryan Empire began to decline rapidly, primarily due to economic problems and pressure from attacks in the northeast. But between 375 and 415 C.E., it experienced a revival under Chandra Gupta II, known as Chandra Gupta the Great. The Gupta Empire was more decentralized and smaller than its predecessor, but it is often referred to as a golden age because it enjoyed relative peace and saw significant advances in the arts and sciences. For example, Gupta mathematicians developed the concepts of pi and of zero. They also devised a decimal system that used the numerals 1 through 9 (which were diffused to the Arabs and became known as Arabic numerals).
By the time of the Gupta Dynasty, Hinduism had again become the dominant religion in India. Hinduism reinforced the caste system, meaning that Indian social structures were very rigid. Though the empire as a whole was enjoying an era of peace, prosperity, and artistic endeavors, women were increasingly losing their rights. Totally under the control of men, Indian women lost the right to own or inherit property, and could not participate in sacred rituals or study religion. And stemming from an increasingly urban society that placed a growing importance on the inheritance of property, child marriage (involving girls as young as six or seven) also became the norm during this era. The Gupta Dynasty collapsed under pressure from the White Huns in 550 C.E.
3. The Qin Dynasty in China (221 to around 209 B.C.E.)
Unlike the Zhou Dynasty that preceded it, the Qin Dynasty was extremely short. Though it lasted little longer than a decade, it was significant enough to earn a spot in this AP review book 2,200 years later.
The story of the Qin Dynasty is similar to all the other civilizations we’ve reviewed, in that it developed a strong economy based on agriculture; it organized a powerful army equipped with iron weapons; and it conquered the surrounding territories and unified the region under a single emperor. Same story, new time and place. So how did it earn its spot here?
The Qin Dynasty is the empire that connected separate fortification walls that eventually became the Great Wall of China. That fact is more than just an interesting piece of trivia; it tells us that the empire was incredibly well organized, centralized, and territorial. Qin Shihuangdi, also known as Qin Shi Huang, was the dynasty’s first emperor, and he recentralized various feudal kingdoms that had split apart at the end of the Zhou Dynasty; standardized all the laws, currencies, weights, measures, and systems of writing; and refused to tolerate any dissent whatsoever. If dissent occurred in a book, he had it burned; if dissent occurred in the mind of a scholar, he had the scholar killed.
Given that introduction, it should come as no surprise to you that Qin China was patriarchal. What might surprise you, however, is that the dominant belief system of the Qin rulers was Legalism. (You can review Legalism and the other belief systems in Section IV of this chapter.)
Although the emperor believed the Qin Dynasty would last forever, it fell only one year after his death, at the hands of the peasants, who resented the Qin Dynasty’s heavy-handedness. The new dynasty that took its place lasted for more than 400 years.
4. The Han Dynasty in China (around 200 B.C.E. to 460s C.E.)
During the Han Dynasty, the Xiongnu, a large nomadic group from northern Asia who may have been Huns, invaded territories extending from China to Eastern Europe. But the Huns were much more successful in Europe than they were in China, largely due to the skills of Wu Ti, often called the Warrior Emperor, who greatly enlarged the Han Empire to central Asia. Trade thrived along the Silk Road to the Mediterranean; more significantly, along this same route, Buddhism spread. As usual, the trade routes carried far more than luxury items; they carried culture.
One of the most significant developments that took place during the Han Dynasty was the civil service system based on the teachings of Confucius. The Han believed that those involved in government should be highly educated and excellent communicators. To ensure strong candidates, the Han developed a civil service examination, a very difficult test lasting for several days. Though, ostensibly, the exam was open to everyone, generally only the wealthy could afford to prepare for it. The consequence was a government bureaucracy that was highly skilled and that contributed to stability in the system of government for centuries.
Also during this time, the Chinese invented paper, highly accurate sundials, and calendars, as well as making important strides in navigation, such as the invention of the rudder and of the compass. And, like all the other major civilizations, they continued to broaden their use of metals.