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Empress Wu - a Chinese woman with a fancy hat on - Chinese government

Chinese government: Empress Wu of the T’ang Dynasty

The first emperors of China

During the Stone Age, people in China lived in small villages and had big men in charge, and then chieftains. But by the time of the Shang Dynasty, about 1800 BC, China was united into an empire.

What is an empire?
Lots more ancient China articles

Chinese government was led by an emperor or empress who ruled over many smaller kings. Under these kings were a bunch of less powerful lords, and these lords ruled individual farmers. The lords collected taxes from the farmers.

Read more about taxes

The lords passed some taxes along to the kings, who passed some along to the emperor.

Examinations to pick good judges

Under the Qin dynasty, about 200 BC, the emperors managed to get a lot more power and control of the government. Instead of letting local kings run local government, Qin sent out governors and judges that he had chosen himself. These governors were loyal to China and not to the local king.

What was happening in the 200s BC?

During the Han Dynasty, the emperors started to use examinations to choose the smartest men to be their governors and judges (they lost out on a lot of good governors by refusing to pick smart women though). A lot of boys started to go to school, so they could do well on the examinations and get into political power.

Schools in China
The Han Dynasty

Religious persecution

Asian boy wearing a long black robe with wide sleeves and red trim

Looking for a Halloween costume? Go as a Chinese emperor! Or click for other amazing costume ideas.

By the time of the Sui Dynasty, about 600 AD, the emperors ordered systematic census-keeping – written records – so that they would know how much taxes everybody should pay, and it would be more fair. They used those taxes to pay soldiers to fight wars, and to dig big canals for transportation and irrigation.

The T’ang Dynasty emperors kept on doing the examinations and the census, but they also worked to promote trade as the Silk Road of Central Asia became more important.

More about Silk Road trade in China

These Chinese emperors fought more wars, and made China much bigger than before. Near the end of the T’ang Dynasty, the emperor Wuzong persecuted Buddhists and Manichaeans for their religion – but really because all the new conquered people made the old Chinese people nervous.

More about Buddhism in China
What’s a Manichaean?

Mongols bring new ideas

Under the Song Dynasty the government examinations became more and more important. But with the collapse of the Song Dynasty the Mongols invaded China from the north and Kublai Khan set up his own government. He put his own people – Arabs and Mongols and Jews and Christians – into power as governors and judges instead of Chinese people. They were loyal to him. Kublai Khan brought a lot of new ideas to China. For example, he used tax policy and laws to encourage Chinese farmers to grow cotton for clothing instead of hemp.

More about cotton in medieval China
The history of hemp

When the Mongol Empire collapsed in the 1300s because of the plague, the Ming Dynasty brought back the old Chinese government examinations. But many Muslims continued to work in the Ming government too.


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Learn by doing: Chinese terracotta army
Chinese schools

History of China

Bibliography and further reading about ancient Chinese government:

What were schools like in ancient China?
What did Confucius say about government?
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