Ancient China Vs Imperial China

What’s the difference?

There is a difference between these two terms. And I’ll be showing you the reason. And it irks me when people just decide to lump these two together without actually having any real idea just how different they are.

The difference between Imperial China and Ancient China is the fact that Imperial China takes place after the unification of China which is the Qin Dynasty and any dynasty following it.

Ancient China is before such a unification which mainly just three dynasties, Xia, Shang and Zhou. And yet many people often lump them together. It isn’t the same thing.

Ancient China can be considered the Middle Ages. Where feudal warlords were the norm, and they inherited and passed on land to their descendants. Imperial China was more towards the modern definition of a state, where the Emperor owned all land and would never grant it to anyone other than their own family. Even as later on, even their own family no longer needed to personally govern it. It was purely by Ministers.

Although later dynasties would have more success at the centralization of power. The Ming and the Qing didn’t grant fiefs to their imperial princes, those titles were more similar to Dukedoms granted today. The princes were also effectively pensioners to the throne. Similar to the funding the British Royal family gets every year.

Their job was to simply ensure that the Royal family never ran out of heirs. Which is surprising given their Emperors take multiple wives. But it has been important since there were childless Emperors despite such laws. The actual governance is instead in the hands of the officials. And they report directly to the Emperor.

What about the early years of Imperial China?

The Han dynasty did a mix of these two systems to ensure that the Empire remained governable in the early days. As few people really would have taken such a groundbreaking idea of having someone govern it but not the ruler of the place.

That is a major distinction. Ancient China is more like a medieval kingdom, while Imperial China is akin to a modern state. Or rather close to it in the late imperial age. The early Imperial Era was like what you would see in kingdoms during the Renaissance. The Qing Dynasty is more of autocratic government. But that’s for another day.

But using Ancient China to cover anything from the Han and even the Qin dynasty is rather a misconception. China had become a strong nation even before France was formed. As such, if you’re writing your works set in the Han dynasty and the dynasties that followed that, please use Imperial China.

The Qin dynasty was more to the middle of these two purely for the fact that it introduced the idea of provinces instead of fiefs and didn’t successfully turn China into a nation-state. Although the idea would be adopted by the later dynasties.

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