Chapter 10 Culture Power and Trade in the Era of Asian Hegemony, 220-1350.



India, more specifically, the Indus river valley, was home to one of the earliest civilizations in world history. Around 2000 BC, the complex societies of ancient Harappa and Mohenjodaro traded with the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians (also among the first civilizations in world history, also built along rivers: the Tigris and the Euphrates in Mesopotamia and the Nile in Egypt).

Around 1000 BC, the less sophisticated Aryans dominated the Indus valley region and beyond. (In the 19th and 20th centuries, the history of these ancient Indian Aryans would be distorted into an irrational racist mythology that said they were the foundation of a superior white race—see the websites from week 3 for details.) The Aryans developed the Vedas, a written collection hymns that helped to found India’s major religion, Hinduism, and India’s central social system, the caste system. Soon after the development of Hinduism, India developed two more important religions, Buddhism and Jainism.

Around the time that the great Han dynasty unified ancient China (200 BC) and the great Roman empire unified ancient Europe and the Mediterranean, the great Mauryan dynasty unified India politically for the first time, and Asoka was its greatest ruler.

In the 4th and 5th centuries (the 300s and 400s AD) India experienced an even greater golden age—known as India’s classical age—under the Gupta Dynasty. The Gupta state returned unity and stability to the vast regions of India torn apart by upheaval after the end of the reign of the Mauryan dynasty. Whereas Asoka had converted to Buddhism, the Guptas favored Hinduism. During this period Hinduism would became dominant over Buddhism (which was rapidly taking hold in China and other parts of Asia). The Gupta's stable government encouraged economic prosperity. Agricultural productivity increased, and India benefited from trade with Rome, Burma, and Cambodia.

Indians excelled in art, literature and, especially, science during the classical period of the Gupta Dynasty. India developed extremely advanced mathematics (including the concept of zero), medicine, and chemistry. They produced very fine textiles, exquisite temples, and great literature. The nomadic Huns would begin to weaken to the Gupta empire. However, it was the Arab Muslim invasions beginning in the 8th century (700s) that would have major impact on Indian culture as Islam would take a permanent hold.



After the end of the ancient Confucianist Han dynasty around 200 AD, invading Turks and Huns (both nomadic peoples) took over northern regions in China. During these difficult times, Confucian stability seemed distant, and Buddhism (developed in India) spread rapidly across China. Beginning in the 6th century (the 500s) there was a succession of strong dynasties (the Sui Dynasty, the T’ang Dynasty, and the Sung Dynasty) that united China, built on Han precendents, and maintained control and unity in the face of invasions and civil wars. China, unlike Europe or India, had continual, uninterrupted political and cultural unity from the 6th to the 13th centuries (500s-1200s).

The Sui Dynasty (589-618) reconquered all of China, re-established order, and laid the groundwork for the progress of the subsequent T’ang dynasty. The Sui built numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries.

The T’ang Dynasty 618-906 both expanded China’s reach (took central Asia, Tibet, North Vietnam, Korea) and perfected centralized government (complex and effective local bureaucracy, military supervised tribute collections, Confucianist scholar-elite). During the T’ang period, China was the largest state in the world.

Empress Wu was a remarkable leader who was instrumental in establishing the power of the T’ang dynasty. She annexed Korea, executed her opponents, and the ruled the T’ang state for twenty years. Like the Sui, she favored Buddhism.

China’s capitol at this time, Ch’ang-an, was the largest city in the world (population over one million). China was rapidly urbanizing during this time and developed several large, densely populated cities. Under the T’ang dynasty the Chinese developed paper making techniques (the Han invented paper making), invented block printing (for books), and further established the discipline of history (e.g. published the book The Understanding of History). Foreign trade increased and Chinese porcelain was especially prized throughout the world. Chinese poetry, painting, and sculpture flourished.

The Sung Dynasty (960-1279) was not able to restore the same military glory or power after Turks destroyed the T’ang Dynasty. However, China did experience massive economic and population growth under the Sung Dynasty. The T’ang dynasty had stimulated a flowering of Chinese culture which continued to be supported by the economic prosperity brought by the Sung Dynasty.


The Mongols

In the 1200s a great leader, Genghis Kahn, unified the Mongols, nomads who came from the steppes of central Asia. These 12th century nomads became the rulers of the largest imperial state of the 13th century. The Mongols used their military strength and warrier skills to their advantage as well as incorporated the local bureaucrats from the conquered area, accommodated a great diversity of culture and languages, maintained a well-trained cavalry, minted coins, issued paper money, and collected taxes. By 1350, the nomadic Mongols had created the largest empire in world history, dominating Eurasia from the Pacific Ocean to the Danube River (in eastern Europe). The period of Mongol domination in the 1300s and 1400s was a period of peace, trade, commerce, and travel throughout Eurasia—known as the Pax Mongolica.

Among the many regions that Mongols dominated (Tibet, Korea, Persia, Palestine, Syria*), China was ruledby the Mongol leader Kublai Kahn from 1260-1294 who founded the Yuan Dynasty. The Story of Marco Polo, one of the most popular books circulated (copied by hand) and later published (once the printing press was developed) in Europe, depicted the 24-year travels of a Venetian (Italian) merchant, Marco Polo, to the court of Kublai Khan in China. Historians debate how much of the story of Marco Polo is fact and how much is fiction. We do know that China at this time was an extremely sophisticated civilization of great cities with impressive architecture, bathhouses, and the Grand Canal for the transportation of goods. People wore silks and dined on abundant food with delicate chopsticks (elite Europeans had just begun to stop eating with their hands). The Chinese used paper money in their economy, coal for heating, and block printing for the mass production of books—all of which were unknown to Europe at the time. China was perhpas the most advanced civilization in the world at this time. Europe would not surpass China’s technological superiority until the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century.

The Mongols created a vast network of imperial cities throughout China and Persia, connected by trade routes that fostered a long-distance exchange of goods, ideas, and cultural patterns. They created a medieval "world system" in the era "before European hegemony." (see binder article by Janet Abu-Lughod and synopsis on website)

* In Persia, Palestine, and Syria, the Mongol ruler Hulegu defeated the Abbasids, ending the classical era of Islamic rule (see Islam study guide).