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Ancient China

The Dawn of Civilization

History and Legend


Chinese history, as well as the development of Chinese religious thought, is an amalgamation of both fact and legend, subject to various interpretations The first rudiments of Chinese civilization begin approximately five thousand years ago although early settlements date to the eighth millennium BC The national identity of the Chinese people is given over to the legendary three sovereigns or Sage Emperors who symbolically represent the defining characteristics of the Chinese civilization: the interaction between nomadic and agricultural peoples; the importance of the family unit to Chinese life; and the development of an unique system of writing Fu Xi the ox tamer, who domesticated animals and introduced the beginning of family life to the people Shen Nong the divine farmer, who taught the people agriculture Huang Di the Yellow Emperor, who developed a system of writing and introduced the bow and arrow to the people

Chinese Neolithic Communities


Modern archaeologists uncovered the remains of two distinct Neolithic period societies that established agricultural settlements along the fertile valley of the Yellow River (in Chinese - Huang Ho); the Yangshao and the Longshan ( known by their distinctive pottery, painted and black, respectively) Similar communities have also been found along the Yangtze River valley and are known to have produced rice instead of the small grain crops (millet, barley, wheat) grown by the northern settlements Archaeology has demonstrated that these agricultural settlements developed spontaneously in several areas (typically, fertile river valleys) rather than radiating out from a core settlement Settlement patterns indicate that civilization spread from nuclear communities in the Yellow and Yangtze river valleys to low-land areas of eastern and central China and gradually grew into sophisticated and complex societies that gave rise to empires, albeit based upon both land and water hydraulic despotisms

Geography
Only 12% of modern day China is arable (food-producing) vs. 23% of the US. Much of Chinas topography consists of mountains and deserts that ring its northern and western borders. These frontiers have often been a barrier that served to isolate the Chinese from their agrarian neighbors to the south or provide a haven for nomadic tribes which have plagued the Chinese through out their history Mongols of the Gobi Desert, IndoEuropeans of Central Asia, and the Turks of the Tibetan Plateau

The Shang Dynasty


Both legend and history coincide with the recent archaeological confirmation of the existence of the Xia dynasty (2205 -1766 BC) which was founded more than 4000 years ago. Emperor Yu, founder and legendary ruler of the Xia dynasty is credited with introducing both irrigation and drainage systems to control the periodic flooding and promote agriculture in the northern China plains

Eventually corruption and the loss of the mandate of heaven resulted in the rise of a new dynasty, that of the warrior Shang (1766 1045 BC)

Who were the Shang?


According to Ralph Sawyer, an expert on ancient China, the Shang dynasty was a theocratic state whose power arose initially from, and continued to depend upon, the military skills of the nobility, in conjunction with its religious beliefs and institutions.

Shang society was divided into four classes: ruling families (family name tsu); royal clan members who served as officials and nobility (various family names chen, yi, pu); commoners who were primarily serfs and artisans; and, slaves who worked on public projects, served as domestic servants or were victims of ritual sacrifice.

Shang Socio-Political Structure


The Shang empire was centrally ruled by a king, who governed from a capital city, over an extensive network of individual cities in turn governed by the nobility and owing allegiance to the king. Shang City, the legendary capital of the Shang was uncovered by archaeologists in 1997

The ruling class and the nobility provided the military leadership as well as the socio-political structure for the Shang. They were well educated and cultured, living in well-organized walled cities marked by massive complex buildings, temples and palaces. The commoners, in contrast, lived in semiearthen huts, farmed or practiced various specialized crafts (pottery making, bronze casting, textile weaving) and were required to provide conscript labor for public works and to mobilize to assist in military campaigns
Women of the ruling class and nobility often enjoyed the same privileges as men; they governed cities, led military forces and were well-educated (i.e., Fu Hao, whose were excavated tomb revealed an amazing assortment of artifacts) The Shang were a polytheistic society whose pantheon of gods were inextricably linked to the genesis and the legitimacy of the state. Ti, the god on high, was superior to all other gods, granting a bountiful harvest and victory in war. Only the king and his family members could intercede with Ti on behalf of the people. The Shang performed ritual sacrifice, including human, and performed divination using a variety of oracle bones (ox shoulder blades, chicken bones, and the plastron and carapace of turtles). These oracle bone artifacts provide an extensive written record of the period

The Zhou Dynasty


Chinas longest lasting dynasty (1045 256 BC), the Zhou, come to power following a decisive military victory over the Shang at Mu-yeh after many years of secret preparations, gradually expanding their political power base through alliances, submission of smaller states, and the subjugation of other peoples and clans in western China. It is quite possible that the Zhou (or Chou) were descendants of the Hsia (or Xia). This ends the political and moral corruption of the last Shang emperors

The Zhou located their capital near present day Xian and, after the defeat of the Shang, they established an eastern capital near the modern city of Luoyang to administer the recently captured territories. This action established the precedent in China for eastern and western capitals that would last for two thousand years
Essentially, the Zhou kept many of the political institutions initiated by the Shang, but developed and bureaucracy which grew in size and complexity

Socio-Political Structure of the Zhou


The bureaucracy of the Zhou included several ministerial positions to supervise: rites, education, law, and public works. The king appointed a hereditary aristocracy to govern the many principalities of the empire and theoretically, these local leaders were subordinated to the king The Rites of Zhou one of the worlds oldest surviving documents on statecraft introduced some innovations by Zhou kings. The Zhou king acted as a representative of Heaven (the Chinese concept as an impersonal law of nature rather than an anthropomorphic deity) to maintain order and balance, i.e., the Mandate of Heaven or tien ming The king was selected to rule because of his virtue and talent He was expected to rule with compassion and efficiency It was his duty to propitiate the gods in order to protect the people fro natural calamities and bad harvest If he ruled badly, then, theoretically, he could be overthrown

The Six Secret Teachings


Three famous individuals historically have been associated with the Zhou ascent and conquest over the Shang
King Wen who ruled for decades, nurtured the states power, implemented strong economic policies to foster the peoples welfare, and fashioned a reputation for virtue King Wu who succeeded Wen, continued the Zhous preparations by forming their alliances, subjugating their potential enemies, and creating a strong military which conducted the campaign against the Shang Tai Kung whose historical authenticity is often questioned, is considered in Chinese history to be the first general and progenitor of strategic thought. The Six Secret Teachings, one of the Seven Military Classics, is said to contain Tai Kungs political and military instructions to Kings Wen and Wu for: preserving state control, attaining national prosperity, and waging psychological warfare. It is an important discourse on Chinese military strategy and tactics of the period

The Zhou: Economy and Society


In general, the Zhou rulers continued the rigid manorial land practices of the Shang lords in which the king made land grants to secure the favor and allegiance of the lords; the peasants worked the lands owned by their lords, but unlike under the rule of the Shang, they also had land which they worked for themselves a practice known as the well field system Local lords directly controlled the trade and manufacturing processes which were conducted by merchants and artisans who resided within the walled cities ruled by the lords. The merchants and artisans were forbidden to operate independently and were often considered to be like property and could be bought and sold by the local lord. Slaves constituted an yet indeterminate part of part the commercial life of the local communities performing menial labor and working on public works projects. The Zhou began several large-scale irrigation projects from the 6th - 3rd C. BCE to control the Min River (a tributary of the Yangtze R.) Completed in the early Qin dynasty, the irrigation system is still in use today. These projects helped to stimulate food production. By the mid-6th C the iron plow had been introduced, which permitted deep-plowing for the first time. Other innovations included: use of natural fertilizers, the collar harness, crop management techniques. Wet rice production was introduced by the lateZhou period, replacing other grain crops Plentiful food harvests contributed to a rise in population, increased commerce and manufacturing. Chinese silk became a commodity of international trade reaching the western world of Greece along the silk road

Intra-regional trade under the Shang was typically conducted by barter exchange although the Shang instituted a limited form of money, cowry shells This continued under the Zhou, but as manufacturing and commerce continued to grow and international trade developed the traditional barter exchange became insufficient for effective trade and the Zhou moved more to a money economy. They continued the use of cowry shells for a limited time, but eventually produced iron coins with a square hole in the center to allow coins to be tied or bundled together. Other forms of iron, such as, iron blades would also be acceptable forms of monetary transaction.

Development of Chinese Philosophy


The Hundred Schools of Ancient Philosophy as with other hydraulic cultures, the Chinese attempted to understand the nature of the cosmos and the human role within. The Zhou began a wide-ranging debate over the nature of human beings, society and the universe that culminated at the end of the Zhou era with the hundred schools The Shang came to believe in in the existence of one transcendent god, Ti, who presided over all forces of nature. The Zhou concept of religion evolved to a more impersonal concept of Heaven, Tien. One of the earliest ideas to emerge was the concept that the universe was divided between to opposing forces, yin (the moon) and yang (the sun). This concept contributed greatly to Chinese fatalism as humans could not change or interfere with these great cosmic forces. Attempts to understand these forces of nature divination - resulted in the publication of Yi Ching or the Book of Changes

Confucius (or Kung Fu-tzu a.k.a. Master Kung, 551 479 B.C.) a philosopher who not only attempted to explain metaphysical realities in rational terms, but also introduced a system of political and social ethics Confucius believed that each person had their own Dao or the way and it was their duty to follow their path or choose to ignore it at their own peril. This applied to the emperor to rule justly or risk loss of the Mandate of Heaven. In many respects, this doctrine is very similar to the concept of dharma in India and played a similar role in society and governmental affairs. Concepts of the Dao Duty each person had the responsibility to subordinate their own interests and aspirations for the benefit of the family and community Humanity involves a sense of compassion and empathy for others; Do not do unto others what you do not wish done unto you.

Confucius failed to achieve the attain the position in life to which he aspired and his own teachings were never published in his lifetime, however, he was a revolutionary thinker in his day arguing for social justice and government open to all men rather than the hereditary elite. His philosophies contributed greatly to the eventual dissolution of Chinas feudal system.

One of Confucius disciples later published his teachings in a work entitled the Analects and yet his ideas were sufficiently vague so as to have a broad interpretation by future philosophers i.e., Mencius (370 290 BCE) emphasized the humanism of Confucian teachings Confucians believe that when men do evil their actions destroy the harmony o f the world. Humans, therefore, bring about the disturbances from which they suffered, whether natural (eclipses, earthquakes, floods) or of human origin (revolutions, public disasters, famines). In contrast, neo-Confucians or legalists believe that man lacks moral value, that only the state is capable of preserving order and harmony and that man is motivated by the fear of harsh punishment and not the potential reward for doing good. Because man is essentially corrupt and public officials can not be trusted to carry out their duties in a fair and balanced way, only a strong central leader could create and maintain a lawful society

The Way of the Dao (or is it Tao?)


Daoism, founded by Lao Tzu or the Old Master, is a popular alternative to Confucianism. Understanding Daoism is often difficult as the only text that describes the philosophy is the Dao De Jing (The Way of the Dao), an enigmatic book whose translation and interpretation has baffled scholars for centuries Daoists are often juxtaposed to Confucianism, believing that inaction (or wu wei) is often the best course of action just allow nature to take its course an idea that is contrary to the strict construction of Confucianism

Daoists often expressed themselves via graphic arts depicting naturalist scenes waterfalls, mountains, and clouds, underscoring the fragility and insignificance of man
Popular Daoism provided a loose framework for the spiritualistic and animistic beliefs of the people. Practitioners devised various mind- and body-training exercises in an effort to achieve power, sexual prowess, and long life Neither Confucianism or Daoism successfully displaced populist beliefs in ancestor worship or age-old superstitions that have been in existence since before the founding of the Shang dynasty

The Chinese Empire: the Qin and the Han


During the final two centuries of the Zhou dynasty, powerful local lords challenged the authority of the central government throughout what was known as the Spring and Autumn Period (722 481BC). Among these were Qu (Chu) in the central Yangtze valley, Wu in the fertile Yangtze delta region, and the Yue (Yueh) along the southeastern coast. Although the Zhou rulers were able to hold these competing factions in check for some period, the intense rivalries erupted into a civil war giving rise to the historical period of the Warring States (403 221 BC). This period is noted for its many innovations and radical new directions in philosophy; government administration; military organization, training, strategy, and tactics; and, the establishment of economic policies to stimulate the states material wealth. The introduction of iron weapons forced a dramatic change in both military organization, enhancing the role of both infantry and cavalry in warfare. The most well-known military writer of the day is Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War. Constant warfare displaced populations Liberalized land use policies attracted newcomers to certain regions Iron farm implements improved agricultural production Trade and commerce increased and the merchant class rose in influence

A Brief History of the Qin (Chin)


The Qin dynasty (221 206 B.C.E.), under the rule of Qin Shi Huangdi (Chin Shih Huang Ti), gradually subdued their main rivals through conquest or diplomatic maneuvering and established the first truly unified government in Chinese history.

Qin Shi Huangdi prohibited all of the philosophical doctrines that developed during the Zhou dynasty with the exception of legalism (a.k.a. neo-Confucianism). Those that disobeyed were punished, sometimes executed and books espousing ideas contrary to the ruling orthodoxy were burned The Qin established a highly centralized bureaucracy divided into three primary ministries: a civil authority, a military authority, and a censorate whose inspectors surveyed the efficiency of officials throughout the system. This system lasted until 1911 AD.
Below the central government there were two levels of administration: provinces and counties. Unlike the Zhou, these local leaders were appointed and dismissed from service by the emperor these were not hereditary appointments! A merit system was used and appointments made on the basis of official recommendation. A strict penal code often called for death for those convicted of malfeasance.

Qin Shi Huangdi had a passion for centralization and exerted power in many ways:
He unified the system of weights and measure ensuring fairer trade and commerce practices He standardized the monetary system and written forms of Chinese characters He ordered the construction of an extensive system of road networks extending throughout the empire He reduced the power of the landed aristocracy by dividing their estates among the peasants who were no taxed directly by the state. By these means of redistribution of land he eliminated potential rivals and expanded the tax base for the state. He required members of the aristocracy to live in the capital city of Xianyang where their activities could be closely monitored by the court

The central apparatus of the Qin empire was the army, warfare continued on an unprecedented scale to extend the limits of the empire, which reached as far south as the Red River Valley in modern day Vietnam.

Internal lines of communication, for the movement of troops and to supply their needs, were improved by the construction of a canal system that extended from the Yangtze River to Guangzhou (Canton) in the south.
Peasants, who now owned their lands for the first time in Chinese history, not only were being taxed directly by the state on those lands, they were being levied (drafted, if you will) for both military service in these wars of empire and for the vast construction projects, such as, the canal and the Great Wall, in the expansion and defense of the empire.

Is this Chinese Marxism?


The Qins desire to make every entity within reach a servant to the state extended to the merchant class whose new found freedoms and influence achieved during the Warring States Period came to an abrupt end under Qin Shi Huangdi

The emperor considered merchants to be parasites on society.


Private commercial activities were severely restricted and heavily taxed Vital manufactures were placed under government monopolies and included: mining, the distribution of salt, and wine-making

Han: The State of Confucius


The failure of the Qin state apparatus to achieve its primary goals of maximum efficiency and total security combined with the tremendous loss of life involved in warfare and public construction projects and the resentment of the weakened aristocracy resulted in the downfall of Qin Shi Huangdi. Following Qins death in 210 B.C.E., the empire that he ruthlessly created fractured as aspiring successors competed for hegemony and control. The Qin are defeated by the forces led by Liu Bang, a prince of the Han, in the 206 B.C.E. Battle of the Valley of Wei By 202 B.C.E., a new dynasty emerges, one that will be the most enduring in Chinese history an done that the Chinese people most closely align themselves with, even in modern times, calling themselves people of the Han.

Historically, Lui Bang, a commoner of peasant origin, assumes the title, Han Gaozu (Exalted Emperor of the Han) and establishes the Han dynasty (202 B.C.E. 221 C.E.). Han moves quickly to exert his authority over the empire and consolidate his control over a vast area.
He maintains the strong central political institutions established by the Qin, but gradually promotes the welfare of his subjects and moves away from the strict legalism of his predecessors.

He reverses the neo-Confucian ideology of the Qin and finds Confucian principles to be more suitable in guiding the direction of his empire

The Han maintained and improved upon the civil service system set up by the Zhou. Emperor Gaozu decreed local officials to recommend promising candidates for government service based on merit and not birth By 165 B.C.E., the government incorporated the first known civil service exam, based on Confucian principles, to be administered to candidates seeking official positions The Han established the first known academy to train candidates for government service, again based upon Confucian principles. The first candidates were from wealthy or aristocratic families and not the population-at-large. The Han dynasty had been dominated by the hereditary elite who thought to re-establish their influence

Economic policies of the Han began to limit the new found freedoms of the peasant classes and restore the influence of the hereditary elite. Commoners were limited to approximately one acre per person for individual farms, too small for subsistence, they were often forced to sell their properties and become tenant farmers to new larger landholders. As land became concentrated in the hands of fewer landowners, those landowners would hire private armies to bully free farmers into submission by forcing them to sell their lands and become tenant farmers once again

Merchants suffered as much under the Han as they did under the Zhou. The state controlled much of the trade and commerce, taxing private enterprise heavily. And yet, the Han dynasty was marked by unparalleled productivity and prosperity. The period witnessed dramatic growth in trade, both foreign and domestic. Chinese goods sold at markets as far away as India and the Mediterranean. Commerce was conducted by overland routes, such as the Silk Road, and also by sea from port cities such as Guangzhou. The state controlled weapons production, operated shipyards, granaries, and mines. The government establish foreign trade treaties, some of which was conducted for tribute or to maintain political alliances Advances were made in textile manufacturing, water mills, iron casting, and the development of both writing paper and shipbuilding, to include both the rudder for steering and foreand-aft rigging that allowed ships to sail into the wind

Decline and Fall


The fact that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely holds true for the Han as it does for all other political systems. Frivolous rulers bemused themselves with self indulgent pleasures of court life and extravagant expenditures of treasury resources, amassing huge estates, and forcing the individual free farmers into land tenancy In 9 CE, Wang Mang, a reformist official, seized power (ending what became called the Former Han Period), and declare a new Xin dynasty. He tried to confiscate the lands of the aristocracy and redistribute title among the peasantry. However, by 23 CE., Mang was killed in a coup detat. Some land reforms were instituted and taxes reduced. Food production of nutritious crops increased, including: rice, wheat, and soybean, along with newly introduced crops such as, alfalfa and grapes. Peasant unrest, official corruption, and ineffective government brought the Later Han period to a close and China would witness more than four hundred years of friction.