Banner: Condensed China

[ Introduction | The Origins of Chinese Civilization | The Early Empire | The Second Empire
The Birth of Modern China | Bibliography ]

Xia (c. 2200 - c. 1750 BC)

Not much is known about this first Chinese dynasty -- in fact, it until fairly recently, most historians thought that it was a myth. But the archeological record has proven them wrong, for the most part. What little is known indicates that the Xia had descended from a wide-spread Yellow River valley Neolithic culture known as the Longshan culture, famous for their black-lacquered pottery. Even though no known examples of Xia-era writing survive, they almost certainly had a writing system that was a precursor of the Shang dynasty's "oracle bones."

Shang (c. 1750 - c. 1040 BC)

There are three things to know about the Shang: one, they were the most advanced bronze-working civilization in the world; two, Shang remains provide the earliest and most complete record of Chinese writing (there are a few Neolithic pots that have a few characters scratched on them; however, a few characters do not a complete writing system make), scratched out on the shoulder blades of pigs for oracular purposes; and three, they were quite possibly the most blood-thirsty pre-modern civilization. They liked human sacrifice -- a lot. If a king died, then more than one hundred slaves would join him in the grave. Some of them would be beheaded first. Some of them were just thrown in still alive. Later dynasties replaced the humans with terra-cotta figures, resulting in things like the underground army. They also did things like human sacrifice for building consecrations and other ceremonial events. The Shang had a very odd system of succession: instead of a patrilineal system where power was passed from father to son, the kingship passed from elder brother to younger brother, and when there were no more brothers, then to the oldest maternal nephew.

Western Zhou (c. 1100 - 771 BC)

Most scholars think that the Zhou were much more "Chinese" than the Shang. For one, they used a father-to-son succession system. Also, they weren't too keen on human sacrifice. However, they weren't as good at working bronze as the Shang. Still, it would be centuries before the West was able to cast bronze as well as the Zhou. Some, though not all, scholars believe that the Xia, the Shang, and the Zhou actually were three different cultures that emerged more or less at the same time in different areas of the Yellow River valley. And the historical record supports this view -- the Shang were conquered from outside by the Zhou, as the Xia had been conquered from the outside by the Shang.

The Zhou actually didn't rule all of what was then China. China was then made up of a number of quasi-independent principalities. However, the Zhou were the most powerful principality and played the role of hegemon in the area. They were located in the middle of the principalities, giving rise to what the Chinese call their country -- the Middle Kingdom. The Zhou were able to maintain peace and stability through the hegemon system for a few hundred years; then in 771 BC, the capital was sacked by barbarians from the west.

Eastern Zhou (771 - 256 BC)

Spring & Autumn Period (722 - 481 BC)

Warring States Period (403 - 221 BC)

After the capital was sacked by barbarians from the west, the Zhou moved east, thus neatly dividing the Zhou dynasty into eastern and western periods. As might be expected, the power of the Zhou declined somewhat. The so-called Spring & Autumn period, named after a book (The Spring and Autumn Annals) that provides a history of period saw a proliferation of new ideas and philosophies. The three most important, from a historical standpoint, were Daoism, Confucianism, and Legalism.

Daoism is a can be a very frustrating philosophy to study. It is based on study of the Dao, literally translated, "the Way." For starters, the oldest great book of Daoism, the Dao de Jing, The Way and Virtue, was allegedly written by a man named Lao-zi. However, we don't know 1) if Lao-zi was his real name, 2) if Lao-zi ever actually existed, and 3) if the book is even the work of one author. Then there are the texts themselves. The first line of the Dao de Jing can be translated as "The Way that can be walked is not the enduring and unchanging Way." It can also be translated as "The Way that can be known is not the true Way," as well as several other translations that, while all having the same general paradoxical meaning, are all different. It is also full of other cryptic and paradoxical sayings, like "The more the sage expends for others, the more does he possess of his own; the more he gives to others, the more does he have himself." Daoists loved this kind of stuff; the story about the man dreaming he was a butterfly, then waking up and wondering if he was a man or a butterfly dreaming about being a man is classic Daoism. Daoism profoundly influenced the later development of Cha'an (also known as Zen) Buddhism.

Confucius, who lived about five hundred years before Christ, basically believed that moral men make good rulers and that virtue is one of the most important properties that an official can have. He also believed that virtue can be attained by following the proper way of behaving, and thus placed a great deal of stress on proper. Most of what is considered 'Confucianism' was actually written down by a disciple named Mencius, who also believed that all men were basically good. Confucius also codified the status of the ruler in Chinese political thought; the Emperor was the Son of Heaven (while Heaven in a Western context is a place, Heaven in the Chinese context is a divine/natural force) and had the Mandate of Heaven to rule.

Legalism derived from the teachings of another one of Confucius' disciples, a man named Xun-zi. Xun-zi believed that, for the most part, man would look out for himself first and was therefore basically evil (remember, this is more than two thousand years before Adam Smith argued that self-interest is what makes markets work and is therefore good). Consequently, the Legalists designed a series of draconian laws that would make a nation easier to control. The fundamental aim of both Confucianism and Legalism was the re-unification of a then divided China, but they took difference approaches. Confucianism depended on virtue and natural order; Legalism used a iron fist. Legalism has been called "super-Machiavellian;" this is not unwarranted, as it called for the suppression of dissent by the burning of books and burying dissidents alive (maltreatment of the opposition is nothing new in China; because the system starts with the idea that the Emperor is the Son of Heaven and has the Mandate of Heaven to rule, there is no such thing as legitimate dissent and thus no concept of "loyal opposition"). Legalism advocated techniques such as maintaining an active secret police, encouraging neighbors to inform on each other, and the creation of a general atmosphere of fear. In fact, many of the same tactics that the Legalists approved of were later employed by Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.

The politics of the Warring States period were much the same as those of the Spring & Autumn period; the major difference was that while in the earlier period, armies were small and battles lasted only a day, much like in pre-Napoleonic wars, the later period featured what modern strategists would call "totalwar." Massive armies (half a million per army was not an uncommon figure), long battles, sieges, were all common features of the Warring States battlefield.

[ Introduction | The Origins of Chinese Civilization | The Early Empire | The Second Empire
The Birth of Modern China | Bibliography ]

These pages were written and are maintained by Paul Frankenstein
Paul's Home Page