Early China (1500-221 BCE) and the recurring pattern of Chinese history

September 24, 2012 11:35 am
With harmony at home there will be order in the nation.  With order in the nation there will be peace in the world. — Confucius

The geographic factor

Far to the east of the civilizations developing in Egypt and Mesopotamia another great hydraulic civilization, China, was evolving.  As with Egypt and Mesopotamia, geography heavily influenced the development of Chinese civilization.  For one thing, the eastward flow of the rivers from the mountains in the west also meant that China’s most fertile land was in the coastal lowlands in the east.  Even today, 80% of China’s population lives in the eastern third of the country.  Throughout its history, this factor has given China a vast concentrated reservoir of human resources to draw upon for its wealth and power.
Secondly, China is largely isolated from the rest of the world by rain forests to the south, some of the highest mountains in the world to the west, the Pacific Ocean to the east, and vast grasslands (steppe) and deserts to the north.  Direct contact with other civilizations would be rare, although occasional influences have passed back and forth between China and the rest of the world with profound effects.  For the most part, however, China evolved largely in isolation and saw itself as the “Middle Kingdom”, both unique and superior to other cultures.  This attitude would create difficulties, especially in the modern era when growing contact with the outside world forced China to deal with different cultures.
Another dominant feature of China’s geography has been its rivers, in particular the Huang He (Yellow), Yangtze, and Xi Jiang.  The Yellow River valley in the north was particularly important as the birthplace of Chinese civilization, because its irregular rainfall and devastating floods forced the Chinese to organize massive irrigation and flood control projects.  Such organization required a strict hierarchy of authority, which influenced subsequent Chinese history.

The Shang Dynasty (c.1500-1028 B.C.E.)

By 1500 B.C.E., China’s geography helped lead to one of history’s early hydraulic civilizations in the Yellow River Valley under the Shang, the first of the dynasties into which Chinese history is traditionally divided.  The Shang and various local nobles who ruled in their name combined both government and priestly functions.  As a result, no distinct or elaborate class of priests emerged in China as happened in other early civilizations such as Mesopotamia and Egypt.
China saw several technical developments during the Shang period in the way of silk textiles, carving in ivory and jade, and especially bronze technology.  Bronze artifacts from the Shang period are some of the finest examples of metalworking found in any Bronze Age culture.  Among those artifacts were bronze arms and armor which, along with the horse drawn chariot, gave Shang armies an edge over their enemies and allowed the expansion of Chinese civilization.
Another advance during this time was writing.  Chinese writing was and remains ideographic, being based on pictures rather than sounds.  Such a script required many more symbols to memorize, making it harder to read and seriously restricting the number of literate people.  However, ideographic writing had one benefit.  Since it was not based on the sounds of any particular language, it was readily adaptable to different dialects of Chinese and even non-Chinese languages in East Asia such as Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese.  As a result, Chinese culture spread and became the predominant cultural influence across East Asia.

The pattern of Chinese history

A basic recurring pattern has repeated itself throughout Chinese history. A new dynasty would take over and revive Chinese civilization in two ways.  First, it would restore the army, the Great Wall, government and bureaucracy.  It would also lower taxes, redistribute land to the peasants, and rebuild the irrigation and flood control systems.  Together, these would create a strong and prosperous society until lazy emperors took over and neglected their duties, allowing corrupt officials, high taxes, powerful nobles who took the peasants’ lands, and the decay of the army and Great Wall.  This would lead to peasant revolts from within and raids and invasions from without that together would weaken the government, causing more corruption, high taxes, military decay, and powerful nobles oppressing the peasants.  Eventually, a new dynasty would seize power and start the cycle over again.
One concept combining religion and politics that was central to this process and China’s political thinking was the Mandate of Heaven.  This said that a ruling dynasty had the mandate or approval of Heaven to rule as long as there was peace and prosperity.  However, natural and man-made disasters were signs that the dynasty was not doing its job and that the mandate had been withdrawn and passed to a new dynasty.  Thus the Mandate of Heaven was a double-edged sword, justifying the power and rule of a successful dynasty on the one hand, but also justifying revolution when things went wrong.

The Zhou Dynasty (1028-256 B.C.E.)

The Shang Dynasty prospered until weak rulers allowed the realm to fragment into various warlord states.  Eventually, this situation enticed nomadic tribes from the North-west to come in.  One of these tribes, the Zhou, eventually assumed power as the next dynasty to rule China.
By 700 B.C.E., the Zhou had succumbed to the temptation of the softer cities in the East and gone into decline.  Powerful warlords carved out their own principalities while giving the Zhou emperors only nominal allegiance.  Naturally, these warlords turned on each other with increasing ferocity in a period known as the age of “the Warring States” (481-221 B.C.E.).  However, despite this turmoil, Chinese civilization continued to spread and advance thanks to several innovations.  First of all, the use of gold and copper coins replacing such things as shells and rolls of silk as the primary mediums of exchange made trade much easier and put more wealth into circulation.  Secondly, the use of oxen to draw plows and the introduction of iron farm implements enabled Chinese peasants to clear more land, produce more food, and raise China’s population and wealth dramatically.

Confucianism and Taoism

Still, this was a turbulent period which sparked a good deal of intellectual ferment, leading to two very different philosophies that together would become essential parts of Chinese culture: Confucianism and Taoism.
Kung Fu-tzu (known to the West as Confucius) was born in 551 B.C.E.  He started his career as a government official, but later became a traveling teacher who attracted many students.  He saw the key to China’s stability in a strict observance of rituals and traditions.  Among these rituals was ancestor worship, which had been an integral part of Chinese religion for centuries.  However, Confucianism was not a religion, but rather a systematic philosophy for maintaining peace and harmony in this world.  (Confucius himself said that he knew too little about this world to even begin worrying about the next.  That would have to take care of itself in due time.)  Central to Confucius’ philosophy was a strict hierarchy of relationships, the five most important being those between ruler and ruled, father and son, husband and wife, older and younger brother, and friend and friend.  As long as the proper conduct and respect took place in these relationships, overall harmony would prevail.  As Confucius saw it, a harmonious society rested firmly on a harmonious family structure.  Confucius also advocated a civil service that got its positions through merit (in particular education and knowledge of the classics) rather than through birth or personal connections.  Although not too popular in his own day, Confucius’ ideas later had a profound impact on Chinese government and society that carry on to the present day.
Lao-tze (600’s B.C.E.) founded the other great Chinese philosophy of the day, Taoism, which differed from Confucianism much as night differs from day.  Whereas Confucianism provided a very strict framework for dealing with civilized society, Lao-tze advocated escape from that society and a return to our natural state through contemplation of the Tao (the Way), the cosmic principle through which the harmony of the universe was maintained.  He saw everything in nature and the universe as being balanced between two complementary forces: the active male Yang (“sunlit”) and the passive female Yin (“shaded”).  Rather than seeing one as superior to the other, Lao-tze saw a truly healthy and harmonious person or society as being perfectly balanced between the active Yang and passive Yin.  An example of this is the Chinese martial art, Tai Chi, which strives to use an opponent’s own strength and force to knock him off balance.  Lao-tze saw disease, floods, famines and wars as the result of an imbalance in nature, often caused by human actions.  By the same token, any attempts to conform to strict government or personal codes of discipline were artificial and deformed human nature.  Taoist ideas would strongly influence Chinese art, especially landscape painting, medicine with its idea of keeping a body in balance, and even Sun-tzu’s Art of War that advocated dexterity and balance in conformity with nature rather than merely the use of brute force.
As different as Confucianism and Taoism were, they each had a profound impact on Chinese culture.  Later, with the addition of Buddhism, the three philosophies would be known as the Three Doctrines.  However, rather than competing with one another, each philosophy would fulfill a particular need in China’s culture. Together they would give it a balance that would make it uniquely Chinese.

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