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5-08-2015, 22:28

Imperial Government

Much of what we know about ancient Chinese government dates to the imperial era. In imperial China, an emperor ruled the whole land. China’s imperial era began when Qin emperor Qin Shihuangdi gave himself the title of emperor. Emperors continued ruling China until 1911.

Ancient China’s imperial government was based on legalism. Legalism meant the government was firmly in control and the government’s prosperity trumped the individual welfare of the common people. Those who tried to defy the government faced severe punishment.


The emperor was the head of ancient China, but he appointed many people to his court to help him rule. The court members worked directly for the emperor and served his advisers in religious, military, and economic matters. Members of the royal family, eunuchs, bureaucrats, and scholars were all part of an emperor’s court.

Eunuchs were male court officials who had been mutilated so they could no longer produce children. Because eunuchs could not have heirs, the emperors believed there was no chance a eunuch would try to overthrow the government. However, many eunuchs wielded power in the court.

Other eunuchs did jobs that ranged from cleaning the kitchens to serving as guards.

Scholars and bureaucrats also played an important role in imperial courts, particularly after the Qin dynasty. They were given places of authority and honor. If a son in an ancient Chinese family showed promise for learning and scholarship, that family would sacrifice everything so he could study, write essays and poetry, and hopefully become a court scholar or bureaucrat.

The Han dynasty implemented a civil service exam. Those who wanted to serve in government positions would be appointed based on their knowledge of literature. Emperors wanted to draw the best talent into the government. Then the emperor’s advisers could provide guidance based on their intellect alone, not based on their family loyalties.


Men dominated much of ancient Chinese government. Boys were highly valued in ancient Chinese societies. Poor families who could not afford to raise many children sometimes resorted to killing baby girls. However, even in this male-dominated society, some women found ways to gain power. An empress dowager, the mother of an emperor, could temporarily be in charge if the emperor was a child or unable to rule for some other reason. Empress Wu Zhao was one of those empress dowagers; however, she took her role
Empress Wu Zhao

Empress Wu Zhao ruled ancient China from 690 to 705 CE. She was the only woman in ancient Chinese history to be truly in charge. She started by working her way up through the ranks. She became a concubine to Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty at age 14. After the emperor’s death, she became a concubine to his heir, the new emperor, Gaozong. The emperor’s wife, Empress Wang, did not have any children. However, Wu Zhao had several sons with the emperor. Wu Zhao encouraged the idea that one of them should be Gaozong’s heir. She managed to demote Empress Wang. When the emperor had a stroke, Wu Zhao gained more power in his court.

In line to be the next emperor, Empress Wu Zhao’s son was pushed out of the way by his own mother, and Empress Wu Zhao came to power in 690 CE. She accomplished many things in her rule, including military success, decreased taxation, and religious changes. She placed Buddhism over Taoism as the official religion. Scholarship and the arts flourished during her reign. a step further by declaring herself fully in charge, eventually becoming emperor.

Some women gained power by marrying or becoming the concubines of successful men. Many Chinese emperors had thousands of concubines. Rulers found security in fathering children with concubines, ensuring their reign would continue after their death through one of their many heirs. Concubines also found they could gain power in their roles. Because they were so close to the emperor, they sometimes influenced his decisions.


Trading contributed to the economic success of ancient China during the Imperial era. Qin Shihuangdi’s standardized measurement system helped make trade between different regions of China easier. Foods, such as fish, cattle, and salt, in addition to goods, including silk and iron, crisscrossed the empire.

The Chinese also traded with other civilizations using the Silk Road, which was established during the Han dynasty. The Silk Road was a set of multiple trade routes spanning 4,000 miles (6,400 km).1

Silk Culture

Silk production began in ancient China in the 2000s BCE. It became an important part of Chinese culture. The Chinese kept the silk-making process a secret for more than 2,000 years. Creating silk cloth was more than weaving silk threads. Silk making was extremely complex, and women did nearly all of the work. Silk comes from a fiber produced by silkworms, which eat the leaves of mulberry trees. The temperature and humidity must be kept even for the silkworm to survive. Eventually, the silkworms

spin cocoons made of silk threads. To get the threads off, the ancient silk makers boiled the silkworms and then unrolled the silk strands from the cocoons.

It took nearly 2,000 silkworms to make one pound (0.45 kg) of silk.2 After unrolling the cocoons, silk makers twisted the silk strands together and dyed them different colors. Then they wove the strands to make cloth.


Silk was more than just a good to be traded. Chinese people wrote on silk before the invention of paper. They also sometimes used silk as currency from the Zhou dynasty through the Tang dynasty. In addition to silk, shells served as ancient Chinese currency.

Coins were introduced just before the Warring States period. The first coins were made of bronze; later, coins came in iron. This type of currency was used until the early 1900s CE.

Paper banknotes first appeared in the 800s CE. Early paper banknotes, called “flying money,” were written for different amounts.3

The Grand Canal

China had two big rivers, the Huang and the Yangtze, because the military could more easily transport which served as major waterways for transportation. troops and supplies along the waterways.

Connecting these rivers to each other allowed the Workers dug the first canals during the Qin

Chinese to link different parts of the empire. In dynasty. Sui dynasty workers completed the

the north, farmers grew wheat, and in the south, Grand Canal project between 605 and 609 CE,

they grew rice. Canals provided a way to exchange linking the Huang and Yangtze Rivers. In all, the

goods between the two regions. The canals also canal ran more than 1,200 miles (1,900 km).