Ancient China

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Ancient China

The Yellow River Culture

The Yellow River Valley

As in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and along the Indus River, Chinese civilization began within a major river valley. Modern China itself is a huge geographical expanse. Around 4000 BC, this huge area contained an infinite amount of ethnic groups and languages. The course of Chinese history, however, is in part dominated by a single ethnic group and language. This history, in which a vast area of infinite ethnic groups became, over time, a more or less single culture, began in the Yellow River Valley.

The Yellow River is the northernmost of the major Chinese rivers. Directly to the south is the Yangtze River; south of the Yangtze is the West River; south of the West River is the Red River much of which passes through modern-day Vietnam. Sometime around 4000 BC, when the area was much more temperate and forested, populations around the southern bend of the Yellow River began agriculture. They sowed millet, but sometime later, the Chinese began cultivating rice to the south, near the Huai River. These were a Neolithic, tribal people who used stone tools. We know also that they domesticated animals very early on, but they still continued as a hunter society as well. Remains of game animals are almost as common as domestic animals in these villages. We know almost nothing about them for they left no records, and the life-blood of a people does not flow in the archaeological garbage they leave behind. We believe that tribal warfare was common and that they may have had some form of ancestor worship, but these are mere guesses.

Three Cultural Heroes

In the Chinese version of history, however, history begins with three semi-mystical and legendary individuals who taught the Chinese the arts of civilization around 2800-2600 BC: Fu Hsi, the inventor of writing, hunting, trapping, and fishing; Shen Nung, the inventor of agriculture and mercantilism, and the Yellow Emperor (around 2700 BC), who invented government and Taoist philosophy (compare this history with the Hebrew version of the founding of civilization and its arts in Genesis, Chapter 3). While Western historians dismiss these Three Cultural Heroes as legend, they were regarded as historical fact for most of Chinese history.

The Sage Kings

The Chinese believed that the Three Cultural Heroes were followed by the Three Sage Kings, Yao (around 2350 BC), Shun (around 2250 BC), and Yu (rule began in 2205 BC). These Sage Kings ruled with perfect wisdom, clarity, and virtue. In the Chinese model of history, human events follow discernible cycles in which times of great virtue and wisdom are followed by times of decadence and decline. Still, Chinese historians believed the Sage Kings rule as the most virtuous time in Chinese history.

The Hsia Dynasty, 2205-1766

According to the Chinese historians, the last of the sage kings, Yu, founded a dynasty of kings, the Hsia. The Hsia began with virtue and wisdom, and ended with the rule of Chieh, who was decadent and cruel. In 1766 BC, after four hundred years of rule, the Hsia dynasty was overthrown by T'ang, who began a new dynasty, the Shang.

There is, however, absolutely no evidence, archaeological or otherwise, that supports this account of the early civilization in China; this lack of evidence has led historians to relegate the entire account, from the Cultural Heroes to the Hsia dynasty, to the realm of mythology. Two things, however, should be kept in mind. In the strictest sense, history is not about facts, it is about cultural memory , which means that what a culture believes its history to be is as or more important than the "facts" in terms of the lived experience of that culture. Second, the Shang dynasty that the Chinese claimed followed the Hsia, was also believed to be mythological until archaeological evidence appeared in the 1920's. We may yet find a Chinese civilization equivalent to the Shang in even earlier strata of Chinese time.
The Shang Dynasty, 1766-1050 BC

In history according to the Chinese, the Shang dynasty began when T'ang, a man of great virtue and wisdom, overthrew the decadent emperor Chieh, the last of the Hsia dynasty. Like the previous dynasty, the Shang eventually declined and ended with the ignominious rule of the last Shang king, Chou; he was overthrown by King Wen and his son Wu who began the third dynasty of China, the Chou.

Unlike the early accounts of history by the Chinese, there is archaeological evidence of the Shang, who built their cities in northern China around the eastern parts of the Yellow River. For this reason they are called the Yellow River civilization. They were a bronze age people; bronze-working seems to have entered China around 2000 BC (about one thousand years after its invention in Mesopotamia). They also left us a large number of written records. Most of these records are "oracle bones," which were used to divine the future. The question to the oracle would be written on the bone, and then its answer, and then the real outcomes. So a typical oracle bone would read, "Will the king have a son?" (Question) "Yes" (Answer) "This came to pass" (Outcome). These bones, however, contain the names of the kings of the dynasties and prove that the Chinese accounts of Shang history, which were once believed to be myth by Western historians, are incredibly precise.

The Shang ruled in city-states which were, in turn, ruled over by a capital city. This capital was never fixed; as power shifted, individual city-states would become the capital. The king seems to have served many of the same functions that kings served in other cultures: he was a kind of head priest, the leader of the military aristocracy, and in charge of the economy. Warfare was very common among the Shang cities. At times the cities would battle one another, but on the whole warfare was directed at the non-urbanized populations in northern China.


The singular aspect of Shang civilization is their invention of writing. Almost all the written records of the Shang have disappeared, for the court records were kept on strips of bamboo. However, inscriptions on bronze and on the oracle bones still survive so we have specimens of the very first Chinese writings. The writing system was originally pictographic, that is, words were represented by pictures that fairly closely resembled the meaning of the word. The picture for "sun," for instance, looked much like the sun. This pictographic writing eventually developed into the more complex ideographic writing that we are more familiar with. Chinese writing is one of the only contemporary writing systems that still prominently bears traces of its pictographic origins.


The Shang worshipped a figure they called "Shang Ti," or "Lord on High." This supreme god ruled over lesser gods of the sun, the moon, the wind, the rain, and other natural forces and places. Shang-Ti also regulated human affairs as well as ruling over the material universe. This dual function would, in the Chou dynasty, be attributed to a more abstract figure, "t'ien," or "Heaven." The Shang also believed that their ancestors dwelled in heaven after their death and continued to show an interest in their familiy and descendants. The obligations within the family included, therefore, the ancestors. Failing in one's duties to the ancestors could bring all sorts of disaster on a family. All of these divine and semi-divine figures, from Shang-Ti to a family's ancestors, were sacrificed to. However, we know little of the nature or the frequency of these sacrifices. We do know, however, that in the Chou dynasty only the king could sacrifice to Shang-Ti; it is highly likely that Shang-Ti was the "local god" of the Shang kings who was subsequently elevated in order to elevate the Shang themselves. The one disturbing fact of Shang sacrifice is that it certainly involved humans; slaves and prisoners of war were often sacrificed by the hundreds when a king died. Lesser numbers were sacrificed at the founding of a palace or temple.

The Chou, 1050-256 BC

When the Chou usurped the throne from the Shang dynasty, China itself was split into several states. The Shang, in fact, only had power over a relatively small region in the Yellow River area. The Chou occupied an area to the west of the Shang kingdom, but when the Chou kings overthrew the Shang, the Chou kingdom became incredibly large.

According to Chinese history, the Shang dynasty had degenerated morally; the last of the Shang kings, Chou, was totally corrupt. The Chou usurpers, on the other hand, King Wen and his son, King Wu, were virtuous and followed the moral ways of heaven. What we do know from Shang records, is that the Chou were largely regarded as barbarians by the Shang. In the archaeological record, they seem to be a stone-age people occupying the area around the city of Sian on the Wei River. We also know that the Shang dynasty was severely weakened in its constant warfare with peoples to the north who encroached on Shang territory. The Chou took advantage of this weakness in 1050 to overthrow the Shang.

The Chou, however, seem to have adopted Shang life and Shang government, so that there was really no difference between the two dynasties. As under the Shang, government was largely in the hands of city-states; since the territory greatly expanded after the Chou invasion, the number of city-states under the king probably numbered around two hundred to two hundred and fifty. The Chou adopted the agriculture of the Shang as well as Shang writing.

The Chou, however, governed somewhat differently. Although the basic political unit was the city-state, the Chou appointed their own kinsmen, or the kinsmen of their mosted trusted allies, to rule over the various city-states. The Chou had learned from their own successful usurpation of Shang power: much of the Chou success was due primarily to their winning-over of disaffected city-states against the Shang. The Chou also established two capitals, one their traditional capital in the west, and a second one in the east at Loyang on the Yellow River.

The Mandate of Heaven

The Chou also had to contend with the validity of their rule. In order to convince their subject peoples, especially the nobles, of the legitimacy of their power, the Chou invented a new system of authority which they called t'ien ming, or "the Mandate of Heaven." This concept is still an integral aspect of Chinese theories of authority. The Chou defined the kingship as an intermediary position between heaven and earth; the Chinese character for emperor or lord, "ti," demonstrates this eloquently. The ideograph consists of three horizontal lines joined by a vertical line. This represents the connection between heaven (at the top) and the earth (at the bottom). This relationship is mediated by the lord or emperor (the center horizontal line). Heaven ("t'ien") desires that humans be provided for in all their needs, and the emperor, according to the idea of "t'ien ming" is appointed by heaven to see to the welfare of the people. This is the "Decree" or "Mandate" of heaven. If the emperor or king, having fallen into selfishness and corruption, fails to see to the welfare of the people, heaven withdraws its mandate and invests it on another. The only way to know that the mandate has passed is the overthrow of the king or emperor; if usurpation succeeds, then the mandate has passed to another, but if it fails, then the mandate still resides with the king.

The Mandate of Heaven is probably the most critical social and political concept in Chinese culture. It explains historical change, but also provides a profound moral theory of government that is based on the selfless dedication of the ruler to the benefit of the general population. The concept also recreates the Chinese concept of Heaven, which was derived from the earlier concept of a "Lord on High," or "Shang-Ti," into a force that regulates the moral universe. It is this moral aspect of Heaven and the "Mandate of Heaven," which was to affect the general tendency of Chinese culture and philosophy to focus on moral and social issues—more so than any other ancient culture.

The Eastern Chou

Around 771 BC, northern barbarians overran the western Chou and conquered their capital city. The Chou king was killed, but his son, the heir to the throne, fled to Loyang and established his government there. This begins the period of the Eastern Chou, which was to last until its overthrow by the Ch'in in 256 BC; in Chinese history, this period is called "the Spring and Autumn period" (771-401 BC) and the "Warring States Period" (401-256 BC). This era of the Eastern Chou would also see the most energetic flowering of Chinese thought and culture in Chinese history. For it is during the reign of the Eastern Chou that the greatest philosophers established the rudiments of Chinese philosophy, ethics, political theory, and culture.

In the Spring and Autumn period (771-401 BC), China largely consisted of a group of minimally powerful kingdoms; the Chou themselves never regained enough military or political power to reconquer the west or even to maintain much control over the city-states they ruled over. Because of the instability of these kingdoms, and because of the encroachments on their territories by barbarian tribes to the south, the smaller territories entered into alliances with one another and agreed to have certain territorial lords rule over them as "hegemons." So the Spring and Autumn period was one of great uncertainty and danger, in which territory shifted back and forth, invasions were frequent, and alliances formed and dissolved with astonishing rapidity.

The One Hundred Schools

In the latter years of the Chou, from the close of the Spring and Autumn period all the way to the unification of China under the Ch'in in 256 BC, Chinese thought entered its most creatively productive period. All the major schools of Chinese thought were laid out in this incredible period of Chinese culture; the Chinese historians refer to this cultural flowering as "The Period of The One Hundred Schools" (551-233 BC). The most important figure in this period is Kung Fu Tzu, or Confucius, who lived in the middle of the sixth century BC. He established a rigorously ethical philosophy that eschewed speculative thinking on metaphysics. His goal was to reform government so that it could better take care of the welfare of the people.

Another philosopher, Lao Tzu also sought to reform government, but his was a less hard-headed philosophy. He is credited with being the founder of Taoism, which was a much more passive and metaphysical approach to the ethical universe. As in Confucianism, its central tenet is living according to the Way (Tao) of Heaven; Confucianism, however, construed the Way of Heaven as involving an active moral life; Lao Tzu on the other hand advised non-interference and non-striving. While there may not actually have been a real person called Lao Tzu, the second founder of Taoism, Chuang Tzu, certainly did exist. He taught largely the same philosophy. The two, however, did not believe that the Tao could be spoken of in language; therefore their writing is paradoxical and often impenetrable. The third major school of the period was founded by Mo Tzu, who also sought to reform government so that it guaranteed the welfare of the people. He, however, believed that the root cause of human misery was "selective love," and so he preached a "universal love." By that he did not mean some 1960's emotionalism; rather, he believed that humans should regard their obligations to other humans as universal. Normally, we believe that we owe our close relations a level of courtesy and help that we would not ordinarily afford to perfect strangers. Mo Tzu believed that we owe all humans the same obligations we owe to our closest relations. If we all observe those obligations, such things as warfare and starvation would disappear. Finally, the last of the major schools were the Legalists. In reality an off-shoot of Confucianism, the Legalists believed that humans were basically evil and selfish. The best form of government, that is, the government that best contributed to the welfare of the people, would be one that strictly held humankind's base instincts in check. This government would be ruled by strict and harsh laws; punishment would be severe and swift. This belief in rule by law is why this school is called "Legalist." None of these schools of thought, which all had government reform as their target, ever influenced the Chou government. The first government to adopt any of these theories of government was the Ch'in who adopted Legalism. The result was brutal, but the Ch'in Legalist inventions became absolutely central to later Chinese governments.

The Warring States Period

This less than delicate balance fell into chaos in the century and a half that concluded Chou rule. Alliances proved volatile and eventually fell apart as large states began to actively invade and swallow up the less powerful states. By the beginning of the fourth century, only eight or nine very large states remained. All of the conflict of the Warring States period resulted from the search to see who would control all of China.

China was on the path to a single, unified state, a single empire. The population of China had grown precipitously during the Spring and Autumn periods; the working of iron and its effects on agricultural production had greatly increased the population (in the fourth century BC, China was the most populated region in the world—there is no point in history where that has not been true.) Warfare had become a large-scale affair in the Spring and Autumn period; no longer were armies small and led by an aristocracy. They were huge, conscript armies led by professional soldiers. A professional government class was growing, a nobility that referred to itself by the name, "chün tzu," or "superior man." All of this was driving China inexorably into a unified state. The forgers of that state would be the Ch'in, a ruthless and daring people on the farthest western reaches of China.

Chinese Philosophy

Pre-Confucian China and the Five Classics

At the heart of Chinese thought stand the five great classics, the traditional, time-honored works that define and originate Chinese culture and history. Chinese history, as the Chinese narrate it, blazes into existence with the great, partly divine heroes who teach the early Chinese all the arts of civilization: writing, law, architecture, art, and so on. These blatantly mythical figures are followed by three great sage kings, Yao, Shun, and Yü; the latter stands as the foundation of the first ruling dynasty in China, the Hsia. During the various cycles of dynastic change, from the Hsia to the Shang to the Chou, the Five Classics, or the Confucian Classics (even though they are not written by Confucius), were written down, or supposedly written down. These Five Classics constituted the program of learning for anyone in the upper classes, the ruling classes, or the educated classes. The Classics not only recorded early Chinese history infallibly, they also completely contained all the ethics and wisdom of China.

Out of early divination practices from the Shang Dynasty comes the first classic, or what is traditionally considered the first classic, the I ching , or The Book of Changes . Divination utilized stalks of milfoil laid out on the ground; the I ching is a manual on reading the various diagrams resulting from laying out these stalks. The most important aspect of the work are the "wings," a set of additional texts that explain the metaphysical aspects of these diagrams. Although traditionally regarded as the work of Confucius, these wings were probably written down in the Han period. The I ching throughout Chinese history has been regarded as the fullest description of the metaphysical structure and dynamics of the universe.

The second Classic is The Book of History ; or Shu ching , which is a set of documents (speeches, laws, etc.) from the Hsia to the Chou dynasties. In China, this book is regarded as a relatively infallible collection of documents; in the West, the book is considered mainly a collection from the middle or late Chou period and so relatively unreliable as a source for the earlier dynasties. Confucius, according to tradition, had a hand in this book as well, assembling, editing, and commenting on the documents. The Book of History has served throughout Chinese history as a repository of political wisdom, as the source book of exemplary models of government.

The Classic traditionally ascribed the third position is the Shih ching , the Book of Odes ; this book is a collection of three hundred poems from the Chou dynasty. Confucius, again, is traditionally regarded as the editor and compiler of the book.

Fourth comes the Ritual , which is actually several books on philosophy, rituals, and even table manners. The most important of these books is the Li chi , or The Book of Rites , which catalogs the many rituals that make up ancient Chinese life.

Finally comes the Ch'un ch'iu , or The Spring and Autumn Annals , a history of a single Chinese province from about 700 to 500 B.C. Confucius, again, lived in this province and supposedly assembled these annals himself.

What were the salient features of early Chinese thought? First, the Chinese believed that heaven, t'ien , governed the world in its entirety, including human affairs; in fact, heaven was especially and scrupulously attentive to all things human, especially government. As a result of this interest, heaven frequently intervened in governmental affairs: when a dynasty grew corrupt, heaven intervened and overthrew that dynasty and replaced it with a new one. This concept was called the "mandate of heaven," t'ien ming ; rulers were put in place by heaven and could continue to rule as long as they did so with justice and wisdom. When they ceased to rule in the best interests of their subjects, the mandate of heaven required that they be overthrown by someone else. Finally, the ancient Chinese believed that their ancestors continued to live among them and so needed to be consulted, prayed to, appeased, and placated.


More than any other human being on the face of the earth, Confucius laid down a pattern of thinking followed by more people for more generations than one can even conceive. No matter what religion, no matter what form of government, the Chinese (and most other East Asian civilizations) and their way of thinking can in some way be shown to have Confucian elements about them. But Confucius was no religious leader nor did he claim any special divine status (nor was any divine status claimed for him). He was, in fact, a relatively ordinary person; his family was from the lesser aristocracy that had fallen on extremely hard times when he was born in 551 B.C. in the province of Lu. He was born into the family of K'ung and was given the name Ch'iu; in later life he was called "Master Kung": K'ung Fu-tzu, from which the Latin form, Confucius, is derived. He began a startlingly successful early political career as a young man, rising quickly in the administrative ranks, but fell out of favor fast. Although his intense personal goal was to restore peace and orderliness to the province, he found himself dismissed from government early on. He never returned to public life. Instead he turned to teaching, hoping that he could change the world by changing its leaders at a young age. We have many accounts of his teaching and all his students praise his natural talent for brilliant teaching. These students recorded these teachings and this is what comes down to us as the Analects. The Confucian method characterizes just about all Chinese learning down to the present day; its fundamental tenet is the unwavering belief in the perfectibility of human beings through learning.

Confucius had one overwhelming message: if we are to achieve a state of orderliness and peace, we need to return to traditional values of virtue. These values are based entirely on one concept: jen , which is best translated as "humaneness," but can also mean "humanity," "benevolence," "goodness," or "virtue." This humaneness is a relatively strange concept to Western eyes, because it is not primarily a practicable virtue. Rather, the job of the "gentleman," ch'ün tzu , was to concentrate on the highest concepts of behavior even when this is impractical or foolish. Like his contemporaries, Confucius believed that the human order in some way reflected the divine order, or the patterns of heaven. More than anything, for Confucius the ancients understood the order and hierarchy of heaven and earth; as a result, Confucius established the Chinese past as an infallible model for the present.

What is incumbent on individual people is to determine the right pattern to live and govern by; this can be achieved by studying the sage-kings and their mode of life and government and by following rituals scrupulously, for the pattern of heaven is most explicitly inscribed on the various rituals, li , prescribed for the conduct of everyday life. Neglecting ritual, or doing rituals incorrectly, demonstrated a moral anarchy or disorder of the most egregious kind. These heavenly patterns were also inscribed in the patterns of music and dance, yüeh , so that order in this life could be attained by understanding and practicing the order of traditional and solemn music and dance. Music and dance are talked about constantly in the Confucian writings. Why? Because traditional music and dance perfectly embody the humaneness and wisdom of their composers, who understood perfectly the order of the world and heaven; one can create within oneself this wisdom by properly performing this music and dance.


One cannot discuss Confucianism without at least mentioning the man the Chinese call "The Second Sage," Meng Tzu, or, in Latinized form, Mencius (372-289 B.C.) Mencius, like Confucius and Mo Tzu before him, concerned himself entirely with political theory and political practice; he spent his life bouncing from one feudal court to another trying to find some ruler who would follow his teachings. Like Confucius and Mo Tzu before him, he was largely unsuccessful in his endeavor. In fact, China had degenerated precipitously in Mencius's time: individual states were preying on and conquering others and the rulers of the time had no patience for what they considered prattling about the ancients and their ways. Also, rival schools, especially the Moist schools (see "Mo Tzu" below), were putting up a good fight as far as bending the ears of rulers are concerned.

As a Confucian, Mencius based his entire system of thought on the concept of jen : "humaneness," "humanity," "benevolence," etc. To this basic doctrine he added the concept of i : "righteousness," or "duty." What does this mean? Mencius believed that the "humaneness" or "benevolence" that you show to individuals should in some way be influenced by the type of personal relationship you have to that person. One displayed jen to a person based on that person's position (as well as your own) and the obligations you owe to that person, so that you owe more jen to your immediate family than you do, say, to the Prime Minister of Canada. I , then, means that we have obligations to people that arise from social relations and social organization, not because there is some divine law mandating these obligations.

Mencius several times throughout Chinese history has been regarded as a potentially "dangerous" author, leading at times to outright banning of his book. This is because Mencius developed a very early form of what was to be called in modern times the "social contract." Mencius, like Confucius, believed that rulers were divinely placed in order to guarantee peace and order among the people they rule. Unlike Confucius, Mencius believed that if a ruler failed to bring peace and order about, then the people could be absolved of all loyalty to that ruler and could, if they felt strongly enough about the matter, revolt.


We begin our short discussion of Taoism with the following warning: as all the Taoist writers tell us, it is in the nature of the Tao that it cannot be spoken of. Talking about Taoism in a clear and rational way is, in fact, not to talk about Taoism.

That aside, Taoism is, along with Confucianism, the most important strain of Chinese thought through the ages. It is almost entirely different from Confucianism, but not contradictory. It ranges over entirely different concerns, so that it is common for individuals, philosophers, Chinese novels or films, etc., to be both Confucianist and Taoist. The Taoist has no concern for affairs of the state, for mundane or quotidian matters of administration, or for elaborate ritual; rather Taoism encourages avoiding public duty in order to search for a vision of the transcendental world of the spirit.

Taoism is based on the idea that behind all material things and all the change in the world lies one fundamental, universal principle: the Way or Tao. This principle gives rise to all existence and governs everything, all change and all life. Behind the bewildering multiplicity and contradictions of the world lies a single unity, the Tao. The purpose of human life, then, is to live life according to the Tao, which requires passivity, calm, non-striving (wu wei ), humility, and lack of planning, for to plan is to go against the Tao. The text of Lao Tzu is primarily concerned with portraying a model of human life lived by the Tao; later writers will stress more mystical and magical aspects. But Lao Tzu was, like Confucius, Mo Tzu, and Mencius, also concerned with the nature of government; he believed unquestioningly in the idea that a government could also exist in accordance with the Tao. What would such a government look like? It would not wage war, it would not be complex, it would not interfere in people's lives, it would not wallow in luxury and wealth, and, ideally, it would be inactive, serving mainly as a guide rather than as a governor. There were people who tried to translate Lao Tzu into real political action during the Han dynasty; these were, as you might imagine, spectacular failures.

Taoism is frequently called in China, "The Teachings of the Yellow Emperor and Lao Tzu," or "The Teachings of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu." Now, Chuang Tzu (369-286 B.C.) was a real person; his teachings come down to us in a short collection of his sayings. The Yellow Emperor is entirely mythical. This Lao Tzu, however, we know nothing about; we cannot say with certainty if he existed and when; on the other hand, we cannot say with certainty that he did not exist. All we know is that we have a very short book, the Lao Tzu (or Tao te ching), whose author is supposed to be Lao Tzu. The book is hard to read (as is Chuang Tzu), for one of the underlying principles of Taoism is that it can not be talked about. Hence, Lao Tzu uses non-discursive writing techniques: contradiction, paradox, mysticism, and metaphor.

Mao Tzu

Mo Tzu (470-391 B.C.) is a curious figure among the early giants of Chinese thought. Unlike most of the other names he is associated with (Confucius, Lao Tzu, Mencius, Chuang Tzu, etc.), Mo Tzu, born Mo Ti, seems to have been of low birth, possibly the son of a slave. He was a thoroughgoing eccentric, as famous for his dress and manners as his thought. His direct legacy, Moism, died out fairly quickly; in spite of this, his thought is enormously influential for all Chinese thought to follow. He despised Confucians with a passion, regarding them as uptight, egotistical, pretentious, upper class, and characterized by a mindless devotion to empty rituals. Despite this animosity, Mo Tzu shared with Confucius an overwhelming concern with government; his life was literally spent moving from feudal court to feudal court trying to talk some ruler or other into living by his philosophical teachings.

Unlike Confucius, Mo Tzu did not shy away from talking about religion and heaven. At the heart of his thinking was the belief that all human beings were fundamentally equal in the eyes of heaven; differences between human beings, such as status, wealth, or position, were artificial and man-made distinctions. The equality of humans before heaven mandated an overriding ethical principle for people to live by: universal love, to love every human being equally. This is not some crazy sixties mush; love for Mo Tzu was a practical thing, closely related to Confucius's jen. To love people was to take care of them, to feed them when hungry, to clothe them when naked, to house them when they are homeless. Universal love also meant avoiding any activity that might hurt another person, such as war or profiteering; universal love also meant avoiding any activity that did not directly take care of someone—for this reason, Mo Tzu rejected all the music and rituals that the Confucians were so fond of. This moral obligation to take care of fellow human beings applied to all human beings; you are responsible not only for your family and your friends, you are equally responsible for people you don't even know, such as the homeless in Spokane. If you take care of only a few people that you are intimately related to, you are practicing partial love more than universal love. It is partial love that is responsible for all the calamities that human beings suffer:

"Humane men are concerned about providing benefits to the world and eliminating its calamities. . . . When we come to ask about the causes of the calamities (war, poverty, etc.) that people suffer, from what do these calamities arise? Do they arise from people loving others and benefiting others? Certainly not. We should say that they arise from people hating and injuring others. If we should classify one by one all those who hate and injure others, will we find that they are partial or universal in their love? Certainly, we'll find them partial in their love. Therefore, partial love is the cause of all the human calamities in the world. Partial love is wrong."

Universal love confers "righteousness" on a person; "righteousness" for Mo Tzu is merely living one's life in accordance with heaven, which after all regards all humans as equal: "One who obeys the will of heaven will practice universal love; one who disobeys the will of heaven will practice partial love." When people live their lives in accordance with heaven, the world is ordered and peaceful; when they don't live their lives in accordance with heaven, the world becomes disorder, violent, and chaotic.


Though they are largely considered the great Satans of Chinese history, the group of philosophers and administrators known as the Legalists represent a first in Chinese government: the application of a philosophical system to government. And despite their dismal failure and subsequent demonization throughout posterity, the philosophical and political innovations they practiced had a lasting effect on the nature of Chinese government.

The basic starting point for the early Confucianists (Confucius and Mencius) was that human beings were fundamentally good; every human was born with te , or "moral virtue." The third great Confucianist of antiquity, Hsün Tzu (fl. 298-238 B.C.), believed exactly the opposite, that all human beings were born fundamentally depraved, selfish, greedy, and lustful. However, this was not some dark and pessimistic view of humanity, for Hsün Tzu believed that humans could be made good through acculturation and education (which is the basic view of society in Europe and America from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries: humans are fundamentally base and vulgar but can be taught to be good and refined). His pupil, Han Fei Tzu, began from the same starting point, but determined that humans are made good by state laws. The only way to check human selfishness and depravity was to establish laws that bountifully rewarded actions that benefit others and the state and ruthlessly punish all actions that harmed others or the state. For Confucius, power was something to be wielded for the benefit of the people, but for Han Fei, the benefit of the people lay in the ruthless control of individual selfishness. Since even the emperor cannot be counted on to behave in the interests of the people, that is, since even the emperor can be selfish, it is necessary that the laws be supreme over even the emperor. Ideally, if the laws are written well enough and enforced aggressively, there is no need of individual leadership, for the laws alone are sufficient to govern a state.

When the Ch'in gained imperial power after decades of civil war, they adopted the ideas of the Legalists as their political theory. In practice, under legalists such as Li Ssu (d. 208 B.C.) and Chao Kao, the Legalism of the Ch'in dynasty (221-207) involved a uniform totalitarianism. People were conscripted to labor for long periods of time on state projects, such as irrigation projects or the series of defensive walls in northern China which we know as the Great Wall; all disagreement with the government was made a capital crime; all alternative ways of thinking, which the Legalists saw as encouraging the natural fractiousness of humanity, were banned. The policies eventually led to the downfall of the dynasty itself after only fourteen years in power. Local peoples began to revolt and the government did nothing about it, for local officials feared to bring these revolts to the attention of the authorities since the reports themselves might be construed as a criticism of the government and so result in their executions. The emperor's court did not discover these revolts until it was far too late, and the Ch'in and the policies they pursued were discredited for the rest of Chinese history.

But it is not so easy to dismiss Legalism as this short, anomalous, unpleasant period of totalitarianism in Chinese history, for the Legalists established ways of doing government that would profoundly influence later governments. First, they adopted Mo Tzu's ideas about utilitarianism; the only occupations that people should be engaged in should be occupations that materially benefited others, particularly agriculture. Most of the Ch'in laws were attempts to move people from useless activities, such as scholarship or philosophy, to useful ones. This utilitarianism would survive as a dynamic strain of Chinese political theory up to and including the Maoist revolution. Second, the Legalists invented what we call "rule of law," that is, the notion that the law is supreme over every individual, including individual rulers. The law should rule rather than individuals, who have authority only to administer the law. Third, the Legalists adopted Mo Tzu's ideas of uniform standardization of law and culture. In order to be effective, the law has to be uniformly applied; no-one is to be punished more or less severely because of their social standing. This notion of "equality before the law" would, with some changes, remain a central concept in theories of Chinese government. In their quest for uniform standards, the Ch'in undertook a project of standardizing Chinese culture: the writing system, the monetary system, weights and measures, the philosophical systems (which they mainly accomplished by destroying rival schools of thought). This standardization profoundly affected the coherence of Chinese culture and the centralization of government; the attempt to standardize Chinese thought would lead in the early Han dynasty (202 B.C.-9 A.D.) to the fusion of the rival schools into one system of thought, the so-called Han Synthesis.

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