How powerful was ancient China?




Matt Riggsby, MA Archaeology, Boston University

It varied a lot. For chunks of antiquity and into the early modern period it was the most populous, most technologically advanced, and wealthiest country on Earth, except when it wasn’t. Early China (say, the Han dynasty) was reasonably comparable to the Roman empire in terms of reach, wealth, population (in the general vicinity of 60 million), and technology. After the Han collapsed in 220 AD, China fragmented into a variety of successor states, much as Rome did not long thereafter. At that point, it’s hard to speak of “China” as such until the Sui reunified the country in the 580s. At that point, China resumed its place as the most powerful country in the world (the population topped 100 million by the 12th century) until they were taken over by the Mongols and incorporated into Ghengis Khan’s empire. That only lasted a few generations until the Chinese reasserted themselves with the Ming dynasty, who were in turn displaced by the Qing. During all of this, they were either the most powerful nation in the world or part of the most powerful nation, but around the seventeenth or eighteenth century, things changed. Chinese technology fell behind, and the power of smaller but more technologically advanced nations eclipsed it. By the nineteenth century, China was entirely subjugated to a loose alliance of smaller nations on the other side of the planet.


While China was certainly powerful, it was also subject to certain limitations. A large part of its power was based on being large and being able to mobilize the surplus of large numbers of people. Its technological advantages, while real, weren’t leaps and bounds ahead of other regions. Better stuff was available, but that ultimately didn’t make the kinds of order-of-magnitudes differences between, say, the use of water power in 18th century Europe vs. 18th century China. China’s military capabilities were also underdeveloped; the order-loving Confucians who governed China didn’t like soldiers and were delighted to spend millions on tribute instead of pennies on defense. Its broad borders meant that it faced multiple potential threats which often sapped its strength, and China exhibited the same kinds of chronic weakness against steppe-living horse archer-heavy armies which plagued other settled societies. China could muster a bigger army than anyone they’d be likely to fight, but might have to fight on multiple fronts. Likewise, their naval capabilities, both militarily and in terms of merchant shipping, were underdeveloped for its size, particularly in the Ming and Qing dynasties.



Patrik Sakai

Ancient China was probably the most powerful civlization on earth they had gears for mechanics way before probably any other civilization, and they were ahead in all forms of technology. Gunpowder agricultural technology paper water mines giant ships that they reached America with before colombus.



Choi Wonseok, Korean Canadian living in the US, ROK Army Released Reserve

As a student of history, I will just state this fact from the Book of Sui.


Between 598 - 614AD, the Sui dynasty launched a series of campaigns against the Koreanic kingdom of Koguryo (‘Koreanic’ is a historical syntax term by the way. If you don’t know what that is, just ignore).


Including, supply trains, reinforcements, laborers, and camp followers, 1,100,000 Chinese were involved in the campaigns.


This is the largest military campaign in human history until World War I.



Chen Yankai, Inner Asia History Lover

If one likes China, he’ll take every big battle the Chinese won in the history. If someone hates China, he’ll just write what he can write to slander China. My answer is only for men who are rational and at a neutral place.


You can point out ANY wrong points in my answer. Thanks.


China as a country lasting for more than 3000 years, of course, have some fallings and risings. It’s not so simple to say whether it was powerful.


Now, I’ll start writing something about its lucky/good days.

Lucky days:



No. 1: 133BC—91 AD

Han dynasty won the hundreds of years’ war between Xiongnu and Han.

No. 1: 公元前133年至公元91年


Though suffering the great loss at the Battle of Baideng and admitting the Xiongnu Empire as the dominant power and being a tributary to it for more than 60 years, the Han Empire never forgot that insult. They were peasants, farmers and businessmen. Yet, they built a powerful cavalry that had the ability to defeat the Xiongnu deep in the heart of their own homeland—the great steppe of Mongolia.


The whole process is quite complicated. The Han Empire actually developed to the West in order to counter Xiongnu in two directions. I’m not going to write that process in a detailed way. Here I will only take three important battles:


a.Battle of Mobei, 119 BC.(Note: before that, Han and Xiongnu had already fought several large battles, mainly on the borders and in the western regions)


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