The shape of Chinese history

March 16 2014

The “Far Eastern Civilization”, according to Toynbee’s scheme, emerged before AD 500, during a post-Han interregnum, out of a disintegrating “Sinic” civilisation. It began to break down in the late ninth century, at the end of the Tang (618-907). Its Time of Troubles was followed by successive universal states founded by barbarians: the Mongol or Yuan (1280-1351) and Qing (1644-1912) empires, with a Chinese restoration under the Ming (1368-1644).

The “Sinic” civilisation had originated in the Yellow River basin c 1500 BC (Shang, Western Zhou, Eastern Zhou). Its Time of Troubles was the period of the Warring States, which produced Confucius and Lao-tse. The universal states which followed were the Ts’in (Qin) (221-207 BC) and Han (206 BC-AD 220) empires. Under the Han, Mahayana Buddhism arrived from India.

Sinologists scorned the two-civilisation idea and Toynbee’s forcing of Chinese history into his Hellenic model of civilisations. See Wayne Altree, Toynbee’s Treatment of Chinese History in MF Ashley Montagu, editor, Toynbee and History, Critical Essays and Reviews, Boston, Porter Sargent, 1956.

Neo-Confucianism, incidentally, was an attempt, starting under the Tang, to reinterpret Confucius in the light of the Mahayana and at the same time to rid Confucianism of superstitious and mystical elements of Taoism and Buddhism that had influenced it during and after the Han.

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