SETTING THE STAGE The Zhou Dynasty lasted for at least eight centuries, from approximately 1027 to
256 B.C. For the first 300 years of their long reign, the Zhou kings controlled a large empire, including both eastern and western lands. Local rulers reported to the king, who had the ultimate power. By the latter years of the Zhou Dynasty, the lords of dependent territories began to think of themselves as independent kings. Their almost constant conflict, which is known as “the warring states period,” led to the decline of the Zhou Dynasty.
Confucius and the Social Order
Toward the end of the Zhou Dynasty, China moved away from its ancient values of social order, harmony, and respect for authority. Chinese scholars and philosophers developed different solutions to restore these values.
Confucius Urges Harmony China’s most influential scholar was Confucius (kuhn•FYOO•shuhs). Born in
551 B.C., Confucius lived in a time when the Zhou Dynasty was in decline. He led a scholarly life, studying and teaching history, music, and moral character. Confucius was born at a time of crisis and violence in China. He had a deep desire to restore the order and moral living of earlier times to his society. Confucius believed that social order, harmony, and good government could be restored in China if society were organized around five basic relationships. These were the relationships between:
5) friend and friend
A code of proper conduct regulated each of these relationships. For example, rulers should practice kindness and virtuous living. In return, subjects should be loyal and law-abiding. Three of Confucius’s five relationships were based upon the family. Confucius stressed that children should practice filial piety, or respect for their parents and ancestors. Filial piety, according to Confucius, meant devoting oneself to one’s parents during their lifetime. It also required honoring their memory after death through the performance of certain rituals.
Confucius spent the remainder of his life teaching. His students later collected his words in a book called the Analects. A disciple named Mencius (MEHN•shee•uhs) also spread Confucius’s ideas.
Confucian Ideas About GovernmentConfucius said that education could transform a humbly born person into a gentleman. In saying this, he laid the groundwork for the creation of a bureaucracy, a trained civil service, or those who run the government. According to Confucius, a gentleman had four virtues: “In his private conduct he was courteous, in serving his master he was punctilious [precise], in providing for the needs of the people he gave them even more than their due; in exacting service from the people, he was just.” Education became critically important to career advancement in the bureaucracy.
Confucianism was never a religion, but it was an ethical system, a system based on accepted principles of right and wrong. It became the foundation for Chinese government and social order. In addition, the ideas of Confucius spread beyond China and influenced civilizations throughout East Asia.
Other Ethical Systems
In addition to Confucius, other Chinese scholars and philosophers developed ethical systems with very different philosophies. Some stressed the importance of nature, others, the power of government.
Taoists Seek Harmony For a Chinese thinker named Laozi (low•dzuh), who may have lived during the sixth century B.C., only the natural order was important. The natural order involves relations among all living things. His book Dao De Jing (The Way of Virtue) expressed Laozi’s belief. He said that a universal force called the Tao (dow), meaning “the Way,” guides all things. Of all the creatures of nature, according to Laozi, only humans fail to follow the Tao. They argue about questions of right and wrong, good manners or bad. According to Laozi, such arguments are pointless. In the following, he explains the wisdom of the Tao:
P R I M A RY SOU R C E
The Tao never does anything,
yet through it all things are done.
If powerful men and women
could center themselves in it,
the whole world would be transformed
by itself, in its natural rhythms.
People would be content
with their simple, everyday lives, in harmony, and free of desire.
When there is no desire,
all things are at peace.
LAOZI,Dao De Jing, Passage 37
The philosophy of Laozi came to be known as Taoism (Daoism). Its search for knowledge and understanding of nature led Taoism’s followers to pursue scientific studies. Taoists made many important contributions to the sciences of alchemy, astronomy, and medicine.
Legalists Urge Harsh RuleIn sharp contrast to the followers of Confucius and Laozi was a group of practical political thinkers called the Legalists. They believed that a highly efficient and powerful government was the key to restoring order in society. They got their name from their belief that government should use the law to end civil disorder and restore harmony.
The Legalists taught that a ruler should provide rich rewards for people who carried out their duties well. Likewise, the disobedient should be harshly punished. In practice, the Legalists stressed punishment more than rewards. For example, anyone caught outside his own village without a travel permit should have his ears or nose chopped off.
The Legalists believed in controlling ideas as well as actions. They suggested that a ruler burn all writings that might encourage people to criticize government. After all, it was for the prince to govern and the people to obey. Eventually, Legalist ideas gained favor with a prince of a new dynasty that replaced the Zhou. That powerful ruler soon brought order to China.
The Qin Dynasty Unifies China
In the third century B.C., the Qin Dynasty (chin) replaced the Zhou Dynasty. It emerged from the western state of Qin. The ruler who founded the Qin Dynasty employed Legalist ideas to subdue the warring states and unify his country.
A New Emperor Takes Control In 221 B.C., after ruling for over 20 years, the Qin ruler assumed the name Shi Huangdi (shihr hwahng•dee), which means “First Emperor.” The new emperor had begun his reign by halting the internal battles that had sapped China’s strength. Next he turned his attention to defeating invaders and crushing resistance within China to his rule. Shi Huangdi’s armies attacked the invaders north of the Huang He and south as far as what is now Vietnam. His victories doubled China’s size. Shi Huangdi was determined to unify China. Shi Huangdi acted decisively to crush political opposition at home. To destroy the power of rival warlords, he introduced a policy called “strengthening the trunk and weakening the branches.” He commanded all the noble families to live in the capital city under his suspicious gaze. This policy, according to tradition, uprooted 120,000 noble families. Seizing their land, the emperor carved China into 36 administrative districts. He sent Qin officials to control them.
To prevent criticism, Shi Huangdi and his prime minister, the Legalist philosopher Li Su, murdered hundreds of Confucian scholars. They also ordered “useless” books burned. These books were the works of Confucian thinkers and poets who disagreed with the Legalists. Practical books about medicine and farming, however, were spared. Through measures such as these, Shi Huangdi established an autocracy—a government that has unlimited power and uses it in an arbitrary manner.
A Program of Centralization Shi Huangdi’s sweeping program of centralization included the building of highway network of more than 4,000 miles. Also, he set the same standards throughout China for writing, law, currency, and weights and measures. Under Shi Huangdi’s rule, irrigation projects increased farm production. Trade blossomed, thanks to the new road system. Trade pushed a new class of merchants into prominence. Despite these social advances, harsh taxes and repressive government made the Qin regime unpopular. Shi Huangdi had unified China at the expense of human freedom.
Great Wall of China Scholars hated Shi Huangdi for his book burning. Poor people hated him because they were forced to work on the building of a huge defensive wall. Earlier, Zhou rulers had erected smaller walls to discourage attacks by northern nomads. Shi Huangdi determined to close the gaps and extend the wall almost the length of the empire’s border. Enemies would have to gallop halfway to Tibet to get around it. The Great Wall of China arose on the backs of hundreds of thousands of peasants. The wall builders worked neither for wages nor for love of empire. They faced a terrible choice: work on the wall or die. Many of the laborers worked on the wall and died anyway, victims of the crushing labor or the harsh winter weather.
The Fall of the Qin The Qin Dynasty lasted only a short time. Though fully as cruel as his father, Shi Huangdi’s son proved less able. Peasants rebelled just three years after the second Qin emperor took office. By 202 B.C., the harsh Qin Dynasty gave way to the Han Dynasty, one of the longest in Chinese history. While the Chinese explored the best ways to govern, ancient Greece also was experimenting with different forms of government, as you will read in Chapter 5.