Chapter 3 Summary
This chapter focuses on the conditions that gave rise to Confucianism as well as the teachings of rival philosophical systems, such as Legalism, Daoism, and Buddhism. When political stabilization was restored in the 3rd century B.C.E. with the Qin dynasty, Confucianism was eclipsed by more authoritarian alternatives. However, with the emergence of the Han dynasty in 207 B.C.E., Confucian ideals came to provide the philosophical underpinnings of both the Chinese state and society. Despite periods in which its influence waxed and waned, it has persisted as a major cultural force to this day. Confucianism has also exerted pervasive influence on other societies throughout Asia, from Japan and Korea through central Asia and southward into present-day Vietnam. China’s Confucian ideals, scholar-gentry bureaucracy, technological advancements, and prosperous agrarian state captivated major thinkers in Europe and the United States—from Jesuit missionaries to Thomas Jefferson.
Patterns in Classical China. Of all the civilizations of today, China has the clearest link with its past. Already set in motion during the classical period, China followed a dynastic pattern. A king and his family would rule through an initially vigorous period of flourishing in which strong political and cultural institutions and economic growth would bring well-being to China’s subjects, followed by a period of decline in which tax revenues would decrease, social divisions
would increase, and, eventually, internal rebellion or foreign invasions would cause a new dynasty to take hold. This pattern induced a cyclical view of history.
The Zhou Dynasty. There were three dynasties of the classical period: the Zhou, Qin, and Han. The Zhou flourished until about 700 B.C.E.; it was then beset by a declining political infrastructure and frequent invasions by nomadic peoples from border regions. During its stronger period, the Zhou did not establish a powerful central government, ruling instead according to a feudal system of alliances between lords and vassals who obtained land tenure in exchange for tribute and military service. As with feudal practices anywhere, the king’s government was vulnerable to the power of regional lords. The Zhou contributed to the development of China by extending its territory into the Yangzi area, thereby introducing a more diversified and plentiful agricultural base, promoting population growth and a distinctly Chinese identity in the Middle Kingdom. The Zhou contributed to the cultural identity of China by establishing a shared Mandarin language, a common currency, more restrained religious practices, and the idea of legitimate political authority—the Mandate of Heaven. The increased cultural unity experienced during the Zhou period inspired the development of a philosophical and ethical heritage that would persist, despite a 200-year period, between 402 and 201 B.C.E., aptly known as the Era of the Warring States.
The Qin Dynasty. Qin Shi Huangdi, one of the many competing rivals striving to supplant the Zhou, consolidated China in 35 years under his rule by 221 B.C.E. He crushed resistance, destroying regional fortresses and the weapons of local warriors. Formerly independent states were replaced by provinces ruled by bureaucrats. Surviving aristocrats and rich merchants had to live in the capital, Xianyang. Shi Huangdi pursued construction projects like canals, roadways, and a 3000-mile defensive barrier against nomadic invaders—the Great Wall—with forcibly recruited peasants. Shi Huangdi’s harsh policies created opposition. He conscripted, killed, taxed, and burned books. The massive building projects stimulated a peasant-led rebellion that ended the dynasty in 207 B.C.E. Despite its short rule, the Qin marked a watershed in Chinese history. Shi Huangdi unified China, ruling through a strong centralized bureaucracy. The power of the feudal aristocracy ended. The building of roads and canals, the shelter of the Great Wall, the standardized script and unified coinage, weights, and measures all helped to hold the territory together. A sound foundation was ready for the succeeding Han dynasty.
The Han Dynasty. The Han era, a time of great creativity and innovation lasting for 400 years, emerged from the disorder following the collapse of the Qin. A peasant leader became its first ruler in 202 B.C.E. Continuing Qin practices, the Han created a more centralized administration, weakening the position of landholding aristocrats, and granting greater authority to appointed officials. Unlike the Qin, the Han practiced a more humane approach to governance. In the first years, the Han enlarged their empire and strengthened their borders, extending Chinese rule to Korea, Indochina, and central Asia. They made contact with India and the Parthian Empire in the Middle East, through which they established trade with the Roman Empire. The first 200 years of Han rule was a period of extraordinary peace and prosperity promoted by an effective, formally trained bureaucracy built on the foundation of Confucian principles. The Han suffered from weakened centralized control and Hun invasions for nearly two centuries until, in 220 C.E., the Huns took over entirely. Between 220 and 589 C.E. China was in a state of chaos. However, well before the collapse of the Han dynasty, China had established distinctive political structures and cultural values of unusual clarity, capable, as it turned out, of surviving three centuries of confusion.
Political Institutions. The Qin and Han dynasties of classical China established a remarkably unique and successful kind of government. The Qin stressed central authority, whereas the Han expanded the powers of the bureaucracy. More than any other factor, it was the structure of this government that explained how such a vast territory could be effectively ruled. This structure would change after the classical period; however, it never required a fundamental overhaul. The political framework that emerged contained several sustaining elements. Strong local units never disappeared, nor did tightly knit patriarchal family networks. Among the upper classes, these were reinforced by ancestor worship; among villagers, the village leaders helped regulate local property and planting issues. Regional leaders always remained important to provide courts of justice and organize military troops. The Qin and Han refined local practices by bringing them under imperial authority. They unified China under one law and one tax system. Governorships became appointed positions answerable to the king; the governors, in turn, appointed lesser officials who also served at the pleasure of the central authority. Finance, military, justice, and other ministries, rounded-out the political structure.
Strong Bureaucracy. By the end of the Han period, China had about 130,000 bureaucrats, representing 0.2 percent of the population. The emperor Wu Ti established examinations and schools from which to cull the most able bureaucrats. While most candidates for the exams came from the upper classes, talented individuals from the lower ranks of society were occasionally recruited. The system of training a confident and independent class of civil servants provided China with a highly capable government that could also function as a check on the arbitrary whims of the emperor. It was no accident that the Chinese bureaucracy survived into the 20th century, outliving the empire itself. China’s strong culture of respect for learning and proper social and familial relationships further integrated China’s politics into a lasting Chinese way of life.
Role of the State. Government traditions established during the classical period included an impressive list of state functions. Militarily, China produced some enduring examples in the art of war, but by the Han period, China did not depend on steady expansion or military operations. Crime and legal disputes fell largely to the domain of local government authorities. The government sponsored China’s intellectual life, organizing research in astronomy and managing the historical record. Under the Han rulers, the government played a major role in promoting Confucian philosophy as an official statement of Chinese values and encouraging the worship of Confucius himself. The government developed a durable mission as the keeper of Chinese beliefs. The economy also fell to government authority. It actively organized the production of iron and salt. Its standardization of currency and measures facilitated trade throughout the empire, as did expanding communications and distribution channels and agricultural production through public works like canals and irrigation. Han rulers even tried to control the supply and price of grains to ameliorate hard times and the unrest that goes with it. From the individual’s point of view, the central government did not direct daily life, however, the law was strictly enforced, taxes had to be paid, and peasants were required to perform an annual duty in labor. The power of the government and the authority it commanded in the eyes of most ordinary Chinese people help explain why its structure survived decline, invasion, and even rebellion for so many centuries. The Huns might topple a dynasty, but they could not devise a better system of government.
Religion and Culture. The Chinese way of looking at the world, as this belief system developed during the classical period, was closely linked to a distinct political structure. Upper-class cultural values emphasized the good life on earth and the virtues of obedience to the state, more than
speculations about God and heaven. The Chinese tolerated different beliefs and even combined and adapted them as long as they did not contradict basic political loyalties. Rulers in the Zhou period emphasized maintaining a proper balance between earth and heaven, including rituals and ceremonies that reinforced self-restraint, politeness, and veneration of elders. Amid the long collapse of the Zhou dynasty, many thinkers and religious prophets began to challenge Chinese traditions. From this ferment came a long-lasting cultural tradition that would inform Chinese life through the ages that followed.
Confucianism. Confucius, Kong Fuzi (which means Kung the philosopher), lived from roughly 551 to 478 B.C.E. His life was devoted to teaching, and he traveled through many parts of China preaching his ideas of political virtue and good government. He was a social philosopher concerned with the need to reestablish order and harmony in China; he thought that if people were taught self-restraint, respect for wisdom, and appreciation for a natural social hierarchy and its attending obligations, solid political life would follow: people should honor the emperor, family members should honor fathers, and so on. These natural leaders in turn ought to exemplify the specific leadership qualities of moral rectitude, kindness, and humility. Such men would understand that their personal happiness only lies in the common good; they would gain their wisdom through an education emphasizing ethics and literature and, in principle, they could be from any social class. With such men, said Confucius, China would be peaceful, its social struggles over.
Legalism. Legalism developed in the Qin and early Han years as a pragmatic alternative to Confucian ethics and courtesy. Anti-intellectual, and convinced of humanity’s evil nature, Legalists sought strict adherence to law, often by force. In a proper state, the army ruled and people labored; there would be no time for frivolities like discourses concerning the Confucian gentleman. Although Legalism never captured the widespread approval that Confucianism did, it, too, entered the political traditions of China, where a Confucian veneer was often combined with strong-arm tactics. Confucianism, strictly speaking, was largely the practice of the upper classes that had the time and inclination to concentrate on education and proper decorum. Even then, Confucian inattention to spiritual matters deprived it of a larger following. Confucianism permeated the Chinese way of life nonetheless. As occurred with Legalism, Confucian beliefs adapted well to other beliefs and practices, the bureaucracy promoted its ethics, and its elements of ritual and self-control were consistent with the polytheistic village life of most of China’s inhabitants.
Daoism. Daoism arose at roughly the same time as Confucianism, during the waning centuries of the Zhou dynasty. Daoism first appealed to many in the upper classes, who had an interest in a more elaborate spirituality. Daoism embraced traditional Chinese beliefs in nature’s harmony and added a sense of nature’s mystery. As a spiritual alternative to Confucianism, Daoism produced a durable division in China’s religious and philosophical culture. This new religion was furthered by Laozi, who stressed that nature contains a divine impulse that directs all life. True human understanding comes in withdrawing from the world and contemplating this life force, or “Dao.” Daoist harmony with nature was best achieved through humility and frugal living. According to this movement, political activity and learning were irrelevant to a good life, and general conditions in the world were of little importance. Daoism’s spread can be attributed to the facility with which its mysteries and ceremonies complimented Confucian ethics. No threat to the political order, the Chinese government from the later Han dynasty onward was able to persuade Daoist priests to include expressions of loyalty to the emperor in their temple services.
Literature, Art, and Science. Confucianism blended easily with the high values of literature and art among the upper classes. In literature, a set of Five Classics provided an important tradition. They were used, among other things, as a basis for civil service examinations. The works included historical treatises, speeches, other political materials; a discussion of etiquette and ceremonies; and in the Classic of Songs, over 300 poems. The Chinese literary tradition developed on the basis of mastering these early works, plus Confucian writing. From the classical period onward, the ability to learn and recite poetry became the mark of an educated Chinese.
Art was largely decorative and geometric. Calligraphy was a highly praised form. Chinese artists painted, worked in bronze and pottery, carved jade and ivory, and wove silk screens. Classical China did not produce monumental buildings, aside from the awe-inspiring Great Wall and some imperial palaces and tombs, in part because of the absence of a single religion.
Work in the sciences focused on practical applications. Chinese astronomers developed a 365.5-day calendar, calculated planetary movement, and observed sunspots 1500 years before Europeans. Chinese scientists improved instrumentation. Medical advances came as a result of precise anatomical knowledge and understanding of hygiene. In mathematics, the practical focus led to discoveries in acoustics and measurement standards.
Economy and Society. Although the most distinctive features of classical China centered on politics and culture, developments in the economy, social structure, and family life also shaped Chinese civilization and continued to have an impact on the empire’s history for a significant period of time. As with many agricultural societies, there was a considerable gap between the literate, land-holding classes—about 2 percent of the total population and the peasantry, who provided dues and service to these lords. The Chinese peasantry depended on intensive cooperation; property was characteristically owned and regulated by the village or the extended family, rather than by individuals. Beneath the peasantry, Chinese social structure included a group of “mean” people who performed unskilled jobs and suffered from the lowest possible status. In general, one inherited one’s social status although unusually talented individuals from a peasant background might be given access to an education and rise within the bureaucracy.
The Confucian Social System. Classical China consisted of three main social groups. The landowning aristocracy plus the educated bureaucrats, or mandarins, formed the top group. Next came the laboring masses: peasants and also urban artisans who manufactured goods. Finally, came the mean people, those without meaningful skills. Interestingly, performing artists were ranked in this group. The mean people were required to wear identifying green scarves. Slaveholding was neither common nor economically significant.
The Han Capital at Xi’an. The urban growth that had been one of the most notable social developments in the late Zhou era continued in the Han period. The new capital city at Xi’an took on the basic features of Chinese imperial cities from that time forward. Estimates of Xi’an’s population range from about 100,000, which probably count only people living within the walls, to 250,000, which included people living outside the walls and in neighboring villages.
Trade and Technology. Trade focused on luxury items such as silks, jewelry, leather goods, and furniture became increasingly important. There was also food exchange between the wheat- and rice growing regions. Copper coins began to circulate, which
facilitated trade, with merchants even sponsoring commercial visits to India. However, the Confucian emphasis on learning and political service led to considerable scorn for lives devoted to moneymaking. The gap between the real importance and wealth of merchants and their officially low prestige was an enduring legacy in Confucian China. The Chinese were the most technologically innovative of all classical civilizations. Innovations included the introduction of the ox-drawn plow, a non-choking collar for draft animals, iron tools and lamps, paper, and watermills powering mills and workshops. Improved techniques appeared in mining, silk making, and ceramics. The advances led to a larger population and the growth of a mostly urban artisan and manufacturing class, aided by an interest in improving techniques.
Gender and Family Life. The family was seen as the center of an orderly, serene hierarchy, emphasizing the importance of unity and the power of husbands and fathers. Children were expected to be obedient to parents, wives to husbands, and female to male children. Chinese rules of inheritance, from the humblest peasant to the emperor himself, followed strict primogeniture, which meant that the oldest male child would inherit property and position alike. The family served as a training ground for the principles of authority and restraint that applied to the larger social and political world.
A Distinctive Mixture. Classical Chinese technology, religion, philosophy, and political structure evolved with very little outside contact. Proud of their culture and its durability, the Chinese had neither the need nor the desire to learn from or conquer other societies. The theme of unusual isolation, developed during the formative period of Chinese civilization, was to prove persistent in later world history—in fact, it has not entirely disappeared to this day.
Social and Cultural Links to Politics. Chinese civilization was also noteworthy for the relative harmony among its systems of government, belief, economy, and social structure. Not surprisingly, given the close links among the various facets of their civilization, the Chinese tended to think of their society as a whole; they did not see government and society as two separate entities.
Complexities in Classical China. A grasp of Chinese civilization as a whole, however, should not distract us from recognizing some endemic tensions and disparities. Though Confucianists and Daoists tolerated each other, they were also prone to mutual disdain. Chinese society showed tension between the Confucian belief in fundamental human goodness and a pragmatic belief in stern punishment, not only against criminals but also as warnings to the larger, potentially restless population.