1.1A Chinese Governing Traditions

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Governance

Learning Objective 1A

Explain the systems of government employed by Chinese dynasties and how they developed over time.

Historical Development 1

Chinese governments continued a long tradition of Chinese governing systems from previous periods in history.

Historical Development 2

Song dynasty China innovated upon existing Chinese governing institutions.

Historical Development 3

Chinese governments maintained relations with many foreign powers through the Chinese tribute system.

The Song dynasty used governing systems adopted from earlier Chinese dynasties. They improved upon some earlier systems, such as the Imperial Examination system. The most important force in Chinese dynasties was Confucianism.

China managed its relationships with other civilizations through a tribute system.

Main idea: China managed its relationships with other civilizations through a tribute system.

Contents

The Song dynasty adopted governing systems from previous Chinese dynasties

Main idea

The Song dynasty used governing systems adopted from earlier Chinese dynasties. They improved upon some earlier systems, such as the Imperial Examination system. The most important force in Chinese dynasties was Confucianism.

China is one of the world’s oldest civilizations. It has been a dominant force in Asia for thousands of years. The Song dynasty ruled China from 960 to 1279. The Song adopted and used governing systems from earlier Chinese dynasties.

Dynastic Rule

For most of Chinese history, their governments were dynastic. Upon the death of an emperor, power within dynasties would pass to another male family member, usually one of the current ruler’s sons. Between c. 1000 and c. 1450, three different dynasties ruled China: The Song dynasty (960-1279), the Yuan dynasty (1271-1369), and the Ming dynasty (1369-1644).

Connection to the Divine

Chinese rulers referred to themselves as Sons of Heaven. Emperors claimed their leadership was divine, and God wanted them to rule over the Chinese people. They called this holding the Mandate of Heaven. Chinese emperors believed that if they led with the good of the ordinary people in mind, their dynasty would retain Heaven’s Mandate and remain on the throne. Should their rule become unjust, God would remove their mandate to rule, leading to the dynasty’s overthrow and the establishment of a new dynasty.

Historical trend

Claiming that a ruler’s power flowed from god, not the people, was common across early civilizations. In Europe, this was called the divine right of kings.

Confucian Governance

Every society has belief systems. These belief systems shape governing systems. Confucianism was China’s primary belief system and shaped the government in several ways:

  • Confucianism placed great emphasis on rulers being just and working for the benefit of their people to create a harmonious society—the concepts of the mandate of heaven and the dynastic cycle reflect these ideas.
  • Confucian scholars, known as scholar-officials, ran the Chinese bureaucracy (government). These elite individuals dedicated many years to studying ancient Confucian texts.
  • Becoming a scholar-official and getting a job in the Chinese government required passing an examination. The exam evaluated test takers’ knowledge of Confucian ideas (see below).

Bureaucratic Governance

China was one of the world’s earliest bureaucratic governments. The Chinese emperor oversaw an organized and complex government system built around ministries (departments) that managed the work of the Chinese state for the emperor. The government bureaucracy allowed the emperor to complete large tasks, such as building public infrastructures like roads and canals, that smaller governments would not have accomplished.

Departments within the Song bureaucracy included:

  • finance
  • the army
  • justice/law
  • public works (infrastructure like roads and canals).
Key term (bureaucracy)

The systems that leaders create to manage the day-to-day work of government. The people who work in government bureaucracies (bureaucrats) cannot make laws—they implement the laws made by the ruling group.

Meritocracy and the imperial examination system

The Song dynasty was a meritocracy. In theory, this meant that government jobs only went to those qualified to have them instead of supporters of influential people. The Song relied on the imperial examination system (keju) to decide who was qualified to work in the government bureaucracy. Under the Song, the number of government jobs one could get after passing the exam increased. The imperial exam

  • Tested knowledge of Chinese classics, especially Confucianism
  • Allowed those who passed to become a Confucian scholar-official
  • Was challenging to pass and required years of study (one percent pass rate)
  • Remained the main route into Chinese government employment until the Chinese dynasty system collapsed in the early 20th century.

China's relationships with its neighbors

Main idea

China managed its relationships with other civilizations through a tribute system.

China was a significant political influence on its Asian neighbors.

The tribute system

Chinese emperors managed their relationships with non-Chinese peoples through the tribute system. This system required foreigners that wanted to have diplomatic relations and trading rights within China to perform a ritual that acknowledged Chinese superiority by

  • Paying financial tribute (money)
  • Providing gifts to the Chinese emperor and state
  • Meeting the emperor and bowing at his feet to show respect.

China also paid tribute to others: China also had many powerful neighbors to which China paid tribute. These payments allowed Chinese merchants to travel safely through neighboring territories and served as a bribe not to attack Chinese territory. Often the Chinese sent more in tribute than they received, especially to powerful nomadic tribes along their northern and western borders (see below).

Nomadic peoples along China's border

Various powerful nomadic groups lived along China’s northern and western borders. China’s had complex relationships with these groups. While China demanded that nomadic groups submit to the authority of the Chinese emperor and join China’s tribute system, these nomadic clans were powerful and could not only protect themselves against China but could inflict significant damage within Chinese territory:  

  • Earlier Chinese dynasties constructed the Great Wall of China to protect Northern China from nomadic raiders.
  • In 1279, the nomadic Mongols conquered the Song dynasty. For the next one hundred years, China remained under Mongol control.
  • The semi-nomadic Manchu from China’s Northeast conquered China and started the Qing dynasty in 1636.