New perspectives on China’s long history of reunifications

Gary Feinman and Shandong University archaeology students walk the Qi wall above a modern reservoir. Image: Linda M. Nicholas

Gary Feinman and Shandong University archaeology students walk the Qi wall above a modern reservoir. Image: Linda M. Nicholas

Why humans cooperate in large social groupings is a key question for contemporary research. Thus, the repeated historical renegotiation of China’s continent-scale political consolidations remains a scholarly focus after more than a generation of attention.

Although the Chinese Neolithic (ca. 8000–1900 BC) was culturally diverse, the subsequent Bronze Age (ca. 1900–221 BC) was characterised by increasing political consolidation, expansion, and heightened interaction, culminating in an era of a smaller number of warring states. During the third century BC, the Qin Dynasty first politically unified much of what is now China, and rapidly instituted a series of infrastructural investments and other unifying measures, many of which were maintained during the subsequent Han Dynasty.

A group of researchers examine this historical sequence at both the national and macroscale, in their paper which is published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.

Two millennia ago, Rome and the Han dominated their respective regions,” said Gary M. Feinman, MacArthur Curator of Anthropology at The Field Museum. “While the two were roughly equal in their spatial extents at their peaks, the bounds of the Roman Empire were never historically reconstituted. In contrast, Chinese regions were reintegrated perpetually into one political unit. Why is that?”

Feinman and his colleagues question the widely advanced perspective that China’s reunifications were simply due to the periodic threats from nomadic peoples to its north. While this view is not entirely discounted, the authors argue that the persistent reunifications were in part the consequence of social and economic actions that were taken during the Bronze and Iron Ages prior, during, and just after China’s first unification under the Qin emperor.


The study used two distinct sets of data: first, the authors drew on documents that mostly pertain to the macro-scale.

Beginning with the aristocratic Shang rule in the second millennium B.C., the authors cite advanced urban developments, high-intensity metal production and early writing as a few of the cultural practices of the region that were later adopted by the Zhou, who were the first to consolidate a large part of central China. Writings by Confucius during this time period typify a shift in leadership and governance from aristocratic forms to more explicit moral codes and defined social expectations for all.

Eventually, centralised authority largely broke down, leaving 5-10 formerly vassal states to vie for control during the Warring States era (453-221 B.C.). One of these local polities, the Qin state, began an episode of conquest that culminated in China’s political unification. Changes set in motion during these times underpinned a national identity and the course of subsequent Chinese history.

Great Wall of China. Image: M. Struckmeier

Great Wall of China. Image: M. Struckmeier

For example, numerous roads were built, river transport was improved, and efforts were made to connect the walls that had been built at the northern limits of three of the warring states. Once linked, they became China’s Great Wall.

Following a short period of Qin rule, dynastic power shifted to the Han, who maintained many of the unifying initiatives of the Qin. Ultimately the Han Dynasty produced political, social and ideological foundations for empire that have endured for more than a millennium.

Archaeological settlement pattern study

The team also analysed the results of an 18-year systematic archaeological settlement pattern study that they implemented in a small region on the coast of the Shandong Province.

China’s first great wall, the Great Wall of the Qi state, was built east-to-west across much of what is today Shandong Province,” said Feinman. “It defined the southern limits of the Qi polity, which was the last of the warring states to be engulfed by the Qin armies before unification. We were able to follow the easternmost extension of the Qi wall for 50 kilometres as it ran across the northern limits of our study region. Based on our survey, the political border that the wall demarcated in the Warring States period likely had been a kind of boundary for more than 1,500 years.”

Eventually, the wall was breached and the Qin defeated the Qi state, resulting in China’s first episode of unification. “Our perspective draws on data from the early history of China through its first episode of unification to offer an alternative perspective as to why China has reunified several times subsequently at a more or less comparable scale,” said Feinman.

The study concludes that the globally unmatched tendency for China to be politically unified so repeatedly was in large part the consequence of social constructions; of a mixture of political ideals, institutional structures and relations, unified communication technologies, commerce networks, and collective traditions and memories negotiated and adopted during the Shang, Zhou, Qin, and Han eras.