Despite important continuities in imperial practices and bureaucratic structures, the spatial organization of Chinese government and society evolved in significant ways over the course of the two millenniums of the imperial period (221 bce–1911 ce). Different dynasties were structured in very different ways, some controlling only the agricultural zone of “China Proper,” or portions thereof, and some establishing distinct administrations to exert authority over the jungles, mountains, deserts, and steppe lands on the peripheral exterior. Successive regimes turned to a range of strategies to maintain order in the interior, collect tax revenue, and supply both the enormous population inhabiting the capital and the armies defending the frontiers. In addition, by the beginning of the 2nd millennium ce, there was a noticeable trend toward greater economic and cultural integration across China’s vast territory. A range of factors explain this trend, including the intensification of marketing networks following a medieval commercial revolution, a “localist turn” that spurred a decentralization of the imperial elite, and changes in how policymakers envisioned the nature of their state.
Emperors were the symbolic and administrative pivot of the Chinese empire ever since its establishment in 221 bce. They were arguably the most powerful human beings on earth. Their nominal authority was limitless, and it encompassed the administrative, military, economic, social, religious, and intellectual spheres to mention only a few. Moreover, the emperors’ semi-sacral status added superhuman dimensions to the imperial position. And yet, only very few emperors were able to impose their will in full. The combination of limitless institutional authority and limited personal power is the major paradox of China’s emperorship. The contradiction between the emperor’s nominal omnipotence and his limited ability to impose his personal will on his subjects was imbued into the imperial institution from its very inception. Chinese thinkers of pre-imperial age (pre-221 bce) sought peace and stability in their realm and came to the conclusion that these are attainable only under the omnipotent universal sovereign. Yet being aware of the dangers of the ruler’s potential mediocrity, these thinkers tried to create a system in which the ruler reigns but not rules, and the effective power rests with the ministers of proven intellectual and moral abilities. Although the system they envisioned never worked perfectly and allowed periodic recurrences of the emperors’ abuse of power, overall their goal was achieved. The imperial literati were more often than not able to moderate the emperor’s whims and create a viable mode of rule in which the hereditary monarchy at the top was maintained by the meritocratic bureaucracy below. Despite persistent tensions, the system was flexible enough to ensure the empire’s exceptional political durability.