The Formative Age: Beginnings to Third Century BCE

In the 1920s, at a village called Zhoukoudian, twenty-seven miles southwest of Beijing, a team of Chinese and Swedish archeologists ignored the occasional gunfire of warlord armies competing for control of north China and patiently excavated a cave at a place the peasants called “Chicken Bone Hill” because of the many small bones in the hill’s red clay soil. Their work was amply rewarded with one of the richest discoveries (beginning with a single tooth in 1921) of the remains of one of our earliest human ancestors, known to the world as Peking Man. These early human ancestors occupied the cave at Zhoukoudian from roughly 400,000 years ago up until 200,000 years ago. About five feet tall, Peking Man (and Woman) hunted and cooked wild animals, used sharpened stone tools, and had a brain capacity about halfway between that of great apes and modern human beings. Peking Man’s primitive existence, half a million years ago, is a vivid reminder to us that human civilization has taken a very long time to develop.

Somewhere between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago, people in what today is north and central China began to develop settled agriculture, paralleling similar developments in Mesopotamia and parts of Africa and South America. Through domesticating animals and growing their own food, especially millet (a dry land cereal grain) in the middle Yellow River valley of the north and rice (which requires wet fields) in the Yangzi River valley to the south, people began to evolve more populous and complex societies. The climate during this era was warmer and moister than it is today, which no doubt contributed in helping people first discover the miracle of growing their own food.

By 5000 to 4000 bce, a number of Neolithic settlements were scattered throughout what we call China today. Two of the best documented of these, from around 3000 bce, are known as the Yangshao, or painted pottery culture, in the northwest and the Longshan, or black pottery culture, which developed at about the same time and extended from the northeast down the coast all the way to today’s Vietnam. The Longshan people made beautiful tools and ceremonial objects of jade, a very hard mineral that can only be shaped with abrasive use of sand and metal drills requiring a great deal of time and energy. Because of its hardness and its lustrous green beauty, jade has been seen as a precious stone in China from the late Neolithic up to the present day.

Out of these Neolithic cultures organized in villages there eventually arose, between 2000 and 1500 bce, more highly developed societies in which people specialized in different kinds of productive occupations. Farmers produced enough food to support a non-agricultural population that included artisans who produced non-agricultural goods, administrators who collected taxes and set rules and regulations for society, and soldiers who defended or expanded the territory under the government’s control.

In contrast to many other societies, the early Chinese accepted the world and human existence as facts of life that needed no supernatural explanation or divine creator. They assumed the world was a friendly place, and they credited advancements in civilization to human beings, not to gods or divinities. This optimistic humanism became one of the distinctive aspects of Chinese thought and culture up to modern times. It stands in sharp contrast to the ancient Greek fascination with tragedies, to the jealous tribal God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and to the elaborate metaphysical speculations of Indian mystics.

Among the most important cultural heroes in China’s earliest historical records were three “sage-kings,” Yao, Shun, and Yu, who were known particularly for their virtue and their loving concern for the welfare of their subjects. Yao passed his throne on to Shun rather than his own son because Shun was clearly superior to all others in his devotion to the public welfare. Shun, in turn, chose as his successor an engineer, Yu, who tamed the floods of China’s major rivers. In this early conception of the state, rulers were seen as analogous to parents, and the state was seen as the family writ large. Having established prosperity by taming China’s rivers, Yu passed on his political authority to his own son, thus beginning what came to be known in the historical record as the Xia dynasty, traditionally dated 2200-1750 bce. Around 1750, the Xia was overtaken by rulers of the Shang, which remained in power for about seven hundred years.

There probably was some regional power around 2000 bce known as the Xia, but it has not yet been verified by the archeological record. In the 1930s, archeologists proved the historicity of the Shang dynasty by discovering its capital through an unlikely coincidence. During a malaria epidemic in 1899, drugstores in and around Beijing did a lively business selling “dragon bones,” believed to cure the illness when ground up and served in a soup. One day a scholar of ancient Chinese culture was stunned to see on one of these dragon bones a very early form of Chinese writing. His discovery eventually led archeologists to begin excavations at Anyang, a source of these bones in the north central province of Henan. There they uncovered the tombs of the last thirteen kings of the Shang dynasty.

“Dragon bones” were in fact the flat undersides of turtle shells and the shoulder blades of cattle. The ancient writing on them came from the practice of divination or the consultation of ancestral spirits by the rulers of the Shang dynasty. Shang diviners first drilled a hole into the bone and posed a yes-or-no question to an ancestral spirit. When they inserted a red-hot bronze rod into the drilled hole, the intense heat made cracks in the bone. The diviners (Shang kings and their shamanlike advisors) then interpreted the configuration of the cracks to answer the question. Artisans then carved on the cracked bone the date, the name of the diviner, the spirit consulted, the question, and the answer provided. In this curious way, “dragon bone soup,” whether it cured malaria or not, led scholars to discover Shang oracle bones, providing a unique window on early Bronze Age China.

Anyang, it turned out, was the Shang capital at the height of its power (around 1300-1000 bce). In 1950, an earlier Shang capital, with similar archaeological findings, was discovered in Zhengzhou, directly south of Anyang. Today we have more than 100,000 oracle bones from Shang sites, and scholars have deciphered roughly 2,000 characters (also called ideograms), or about half of the known total. These are the earliest known examples of Chinese writing. In addition to oracle bones, the Shang also produced large numbers of bronze vessels of remarkable artistic quality that were used in sacrifices to the dead.

Bronze technology marks the birth of Chinese civilization. An alloy of copper and tin with a small amount of lead, bronze requires first the location, mining, and refining of the appropriate metal ores, followed by the smelting of the three metals in exact proportions at very high temperatures (over 1,000 degrees Centigrade). In contrast to the Mesopotamians, who produced small quantities of forged or hammered bronze perhaps five centuries before China, Shang bronze makers mined abundant deposits of copper and tin ores to cast molten bronze in huge quantities and in highly sophisticated designs.

Bronze technology was a hallmark of both the Shang and (its successor) the Zhou societies, and some vessels were inscribed with information about their sacrificial purposes. The technology involved a complex sequence of carving a negative model of the outside of the vessel, putting it, in several pieces, around a clay core (which outlined the inner surface of the vessel), and then pouring hot molten bronze between the inner core and the outer piece molds. Once the molten bronze cooled, the piece molds were removed, and the result was a bright, luminous vessel that was then smoothed and polished. Many items were made of bronze, including hair ornaments, weapons such as daggers and spears, and horse harness fittings, but the most common early bronze objects were sacrificial vessels (for wine and food) used to pay one’s respects to the noble deceased ancestors of the Shang (and Zhou) kings, or to commemorate military victories or the appointment and installation of vassals and officials of the royal family.

Bronze Age China And the Warring States 1500 to 221 BCE

The most lavish tomb findings from Anyang to date are from the tomb of Lady Hao (Fu Hao), one of sixty-four consorts (or wives) of the Shang king Wu Ding (reign ca. 1215-1190 bce). Whereas most other Shang tombs were at least partially looted long before

This bronze zun, or ritual wine vessel, in the shape of two rams is from the thirteenth or twelfth century BCE.

This bronze zun, or ritual wine vessel, in the shape of two rams is from the thirteenth or twelfth century BCE. Such cast bronze vessels, used by royal families primarily in sacrifices to ancestral spirits, required the large-scale mining of copper, tin, and lead, smelting the ores at 1000 degrees centigrade, and the design of complex negative molds in clay. The Trustees of The British Museum, British Museum, London, Great Britain / Art Resource, NY

This Shang oracle bone inscription explains that the diviner asked if Lady Hao’s childbearing would be good if it came on a certain day.

This Shang oracle bone inscription explains that the diviner asked if Lady Hao’s childbearing would be good if it came on a certain day. The result, also recorded on the bone, was that her childbearing, in the end, “was not good,” as she gave birth to a girl. From the collections of the Institute of History and Philology at the Academia Sinica, Republic of China

the twentieth century, Lady Hao’s tomb, though smaller than many, was discovered completely intact in 1976, yielding 3 ivory carvings, 468 bronzes (weighing about 3,500 pounds and requiring 11 tons of ore to produce), 500 bone hairpins, 590 jade objects (from sources far beyond Shang control), and nearly 7,000 cowry shells (from the sea coast), which were used as money. From oracle bone and bronze inscriptions, we know that Lady Hao was King Wu Ding’s favorite consort and that she led Shang troops into battle and performed oracle bone divinations herself.

Shang bronzes and oracle bones reveal the Shang as a very hierarchical society in which some were slaves and servants at the bottom, many were illiterate farmers, menial laborers and craftsmen, and a few were privileged aristocrats who lived and died amid great wealth and splendor. The elite in this society paid careful attention to the care of dead ancestors, on the assumption that kings who were powerful in life were even more powerful in death. Thus, survivors filled the graves with bronze sacrificial vessels, and kings were accompanied in death by their servants, slaves, mistresses, and animals such as pigs and dogs, all sacrificed to join them in their large and lavish tombs. Most of the human victims buried in Shang tombs were military captives. When Shang military officers in horse-driven chariots led a few thousand foot soldiers into battles with hostile neighbors, they often returned with captives who then became slaves or were killed and buried with high-ranking members of the Shang nobility. Some royal tombs contain chariots and horses that were also sacrificed to accompany the deceased.

While the Shang was only one of several advanced societies in the Yellow and Yangzi River valleys with enough agricultural surpluses to support an elite ruling class and artisans who crafted sophisticated weapons and ceremonial bronze and jade artifacts, only the Shang produced Chinese writing. Written Chinese is both a powerful and efficient means of communication. Because spoken Chinese has only about 400 distinct syllables (in contrast to about 1,200 in English), many Chinese words are homophones that sound alike but have distinct meanings. Written Chinese allows for these homophones by creating a unique character for every word. Characters are not just arbitrary lines; some are pictographs, such as mu for tree, or nu for woman (derived from the archaic pictograph suggesting a kneeling figure,).There are also ideographs suggesting concepts such as one two three up and down .

And many Chinese characters are made up of compound components such as  a woman and child, meaning good, or  a woman under a roof, meaning peace. In addition, many characters have a phonetic component that indicates pronunciation and another component, called the radical, that signifies meaning. The following characters are each pronounced ma and include the component which means horse. Adding a mouth radical  creates the particle which has a function similar to that of a question mark at the end of a sentence; with a woman radical , it becomes the character for mother ; and a jade radical  makes the character for a kind of quartz .

Because this written language is so powerfully symbolic, it is adaptable enough to accommodate spoken dialects that are mutually unintelligible, even to accommodate different languages altogether. Native speakers from south China, for example, pronounced Chinese characters so differently from northerners that the two typically could not communicate in their spoken dialects, but they both wrote and read the same characters, so they could communicate easily in writing. Thus, written Chinese, rooted in the Shang dynasty, has been a powerful unifying force throughout the long political history of China, helping to unite north and south, east and west, in one political system. Eventually, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam all adopted Chinese characters into their written language, even though their spoken languages were completely unrelated to spoken Chinese.

Shang rulers were deeply concerned with ancestor worship, another custom with a very long history in China. The kings and their divination specialists or advisors conceived the afterlife as a mirror image of the hierarchical society they had organized in this life, and they saw their own dead ancestors as ranked in a hierarchy of power after death, with more distant ancestors being more powerful. Shang kings and diviners appealed to a “Lord on High” (Shangdi) whom they saw as the most powerful spirit of all, able to control rain, thunder, wind, and to harm or protect the Shang state and society. They addressed oracle bone inquiries and made frequent sacrifices to deceased ancestral spirits, the only intermediaries who could communicate directly with the Lord on High. The deceased ancestors depended on the living for respect, wealth, food, and drink, and in return for these the deceased conferred blessings on their living descendants. These rituals sometimes took dramatic form, as a young person would channel the spirit of an ancestor, drink much sacrificial wine (millet ale), eat lavish food, and thus inspired, report directly to the living from the world of the dead.

The Shang ruling house controlled several walled city-states with its own troops and ruled a much larger area indirectly through its allied vassals and soldiers. These allies recognized Shang power as supreme and were allowed to administer their own territory while supplying the Shang center with annual tribute payments in goods, crops, or military aid. The extent of Shang political power is not entirely clear, but archaeological finds have demonstrated that sophisticated bronze technology was spread far and wide across much of what we know as China today. An elegant six-foot high bronze statue of a man contemporaneous with the Shang was discovered in 1986 in Sichuan (near Chengdu), far beyond any direct Shang influence. This site in Sichuan contains jades, extraordinary bronze masks, and axes of many kinds, all just as sophisticated as anything found at Anyang, but without any evidence of writing.

Shang contacts with other cultures ranged far beyond the Yellow River valley. Hundreds of preserved corpses or mummies of an identifiably Caucasian people were recently discovered in the Takla Makan Desert of Xinjiang Province in China’s far west. These tall people (men up to six feet tall) with round eyes, large noses, light skin, and light (including blond and red) hair date from 2000 to 500 bce and clearly indicate that Caucasian people lived in Central Asia even before the Shang dynasty. The graves of these mummies, well preserved in the dry desert air of the Tarim Basin, contain plaid textiles resembling those of Celtic Europe. These people, unknown to the modern world even twenty years ago, seem to have ridden horses and used horse-drawn chariots.

They might help explain how the chariot came to China, as it appears in the Shang archeological record suddenly in its fully developed form around 1200 bce. China’s first wheeled vehicle, the chariot, was introduced to the Shang polity from the Caucasus where it was developed several centuries earlier. Domesticated horses probably came to the Shang from the Mongolian steppe, and the military use of the chariot required skilled artisans to build the chariot, and skilled horse trainers and charioteers who were probably non-Chinese originally. The chariot provided military leaders and archers with unprecedented speed and mobility.

Around 1045 bce, a former Shang vassal from the west, the Zhou people, invaded and conquered the Shang capital. The Zhou worshiped tian, or Heaven (literally the sky) which refers not to a particular place but to the whole cosmos as a benevolent force that helps right prevail in human affairs. Portraying the last Shang kings as oppressive, immoral, and irresponsible, Zhou scribes argued that Heaven therefore blessed the Zhou conquest and bestowed on Zhou leaders the right to take over Shang territories and rule in their place. This was the origin of the Mandate of Heaven (tianming), the notion that Heaven aids a virtuous ruler and grants him the right to rule over his people, a concept still popular in Chinese political culture today.

There is far more written documentation on the Zhou period than on any earlier era. Zhou texts credit three men in particular with the military and political success of the early Zhou state: King Wen, King Wu, and the Duke of Zhou. They praise King Wen (the Cultured King) for his blueprint for the Zhou conquest and for creating the Zhou ideal of the compassionate ruler concerned for the people’s welfare. They laud King Wu (the Martial King) for presiding over the defeat of the Shang forces and establishing Zhou power in the Yellow River valley. And they praise the Duke of Zhou, the brother of King Wu, for taking over as regent for his young nephew, King Cheng, when King Wu died prematurely. While the Duke of Zhou was suppressing several rebellions against Zhou rule, he spelled out for the first time the idea of the

Mandate of Heaven, and he acted only in the interests of King Wu and his son, and never tried to seize power for himself. More than any other official, the Duke of Zhou was the special model of heroic government service later held up by Confucius and his followers.

While the Zhou texts described the Shang as a large state ruling “all under Heaven,” so as to claim similar status for the early Zhou, it is clear that both the Shang and Zhou were actually regional powers among a variety of competitors. We might call them “soft states,” with permeable boundaries and loose alliances with many different peoples, and with alliances based more on gifts and ritual exchanges than on taxes or formal lines of authority. Yet, whatever the degree of idealization in early Zhou sources, their very abundance and the reverence surrounding them have assured that the cultural values associated with Kings Wen and Wu and the Duke of Zhou were central to the ideals that came to dominate Chinese political culture for more than 2,000 years.

In many aspects of culture and technology, the Zhou had already assimilated much from the Shang by the time of the conquest, including the use of chariot warfare, writing, and bronze. Like the Shang, the Zhou rulers presided over a sharply hierarchical society, and established a decentralized political system in which regional overlords and vassals (usually relatives by blood or marriage) ruled outer territories on behalf of the Zhou kings and received Zhou protection in return for regular contributions of crops, money, and soldiers to the Zhou court.

In some ways, the Zhou made significant advances over the Shang. Human and animal sacrifices gradually disappeared, and written texts in the Zhou became much longer and more sophisticated than any surviving writing from the Shang. Consultation of oracle bones gave way to a more sophisticated system of divination based on an ancient text called the Book of Changes (I Ching or Yijing). As with the tortoise shell diviners, one approached the Book of Changes with a question already in mind. This type of divination incorporated a whole philosophy of change in human affairs and in the cosmos, assuming that change is inevitable in all situations of life, that change occurs according to unchanging principles, and that human beings have freedom to act, but only within the constraints of particular given situations and contexts. The Book of Changes is not simply about maximizing one’s power, wealth, or influence; it urges ethical behavior in every situation on the assumption that moral behavior brings good results and immoral behavior will only hurt others and oneself. The Chinese have long seen the work as one of the most profound in their tradition.

While most of our documentation from the Zhou reflects the life of the elite, some poetry in the Book of Songs, a revered collection of 305 Zhou poems, illustrates the hopes and fears of the common people as well as the concerns of the court. This folk song, for example, reflects youthful love in conflict with parental authority, a theme that runs through much of Chinese literature.

I beg of you, Zhongzi,

Do not climb into our homestead,

Do not break the willows we have planted.

Not that I mind about the willows,

But I am afraid of my father and mother.

Zhongzi I dearly love;

But of what my father and mother say Indeed I am afraid.

In 770 bce the Zhou capital of Hao was conquered by two former Zhou vassals, who in alliance with several tribal peoples rebelled and killed the Zhou king. Those of his courtiers who escaped the city reestablished a new Zhou capital city near today’s Luoyang, several hundred miles to the east. Thus, we call the period from 1045 to 770 bce the Western Zhou period, when Zhou rule was supreme through much of north China. The period from 770 to 256 bce we know as the Eastern Zhou, which is further subdivided into the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period, named after two histories of the era. The Spring and Autumn Annals and its detailed commentary, The Zuozhuan (The Zuo Tradition), report the declining effectiveness of Zhou rule during these years, as former Zhou vassals in outlying areas became more and more independent. Similarly, The Intrigues of the Warring States, a collection of (often fictionalized) anecdotes, describes interstate conflict and competition from 403 to 221 bce, giving that period the apt name of the Warring States, when the Zhou court held power only in a tiny enclave surrounded by larger states including Chu to the south, Wei to the north, and Qin to the west. The Zhou realm was finally extinguished entirely by the powerful Qin in 256 bce.

During the turmoil of the Warring States period, independent states mobilized large numbers of commoners to build walls, dams, dikes, and irrigation canals and by these means to increase agricultural productivity dramatically (growing millet, wheat, soybeans, and rice) in order to support standing armies of up to several hundred thousand. Iron gradually came into general use, permitting the development of more lethal weapons, and eventually (by the third century bce) rulers began drafting thousands of able-bodied peasants as foot soldiers who replaced the old Shang and early Zhou forms of warfare led by aristocrats in chariots. Old chivalrous codes of warfare, in which one state would not attack another during a period of mourning, or until its enemy had troops in place, gave way to a much more ruthless style of battle with no holds barred. In the chilling opening words of the ancient classic The Art of War attributed to Sunzi (which probably dates from the mid-fourth century bce and is still read today in military academies and business schools), “Warfare is the greatest affair of the state, the basis of life and death, the Way (Dao) to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed.”

As local lords became increasingly independent and Zhou kings lost their aura of authority and power, more states began to use laws and contractual agreements (instead of marriage and kinship alliances) to keep peace and order, and a multistate system gradually emerged. With ever greater investments in warfare, rulers began to recruit soldiers and officials on the basis of their skill and organizational abilities rather than their noble birth. In the intense competition for resources and military power, many rulers and officials gradually lost faith in the old religious beliefs of the Shang and early Zhou. It became increasingly clear that a state’s capacity to mobilize armed, disciplined, and well-fed warriors determined the outcome of battles far more than any ancestral spirits.

There were at least 148 small states in the eighth century bce, but by about 400 bce only seven major states remained, along with several small ones that managed to survive by allying with powerful neighbors or playing their larger neighbors against each other. During this time, every state sought out the best political and military advice it could find, and everyone understood that the surviving states were engaged in a lethal competition for control of ever larger areas.

In the Chinese Warring States environment of change, uncertainty, and increasing insecurity, a variety of Chinese thinkers traveled among the competing states and debated the central questions of the day: What is most important in life? What makes a human being? How should humans live in families and communities? What is the cause of social, political, and military strife and unrest? How should human society be organized? Who has political authority and why? And perhaps most important, at least for many kings or would-be kings, how can I conquer the world? In striving to answer these and other questions, the thinkers of the late Zhou period presided over one of the most creative eras in all of Chinese history, commonly known as the period of the Hundred Schools of Thought.

By far the most successful and influential school of thought during the Warring States period was the Legalist School (fajia). Legalist doctrines were developed in several different states over several centuries, and Legalists both guided and responded to many of the technological and organizational innovations of the period. In the ambitious western state of Qin, rulers abolished serfdom (where peasants were bound to the land and owned by a lord) and assigned land directly to peasant families, whom they taxed, taking a percentage of their crops. They drafted peasants as soldiers; promoted soldiers and officials on the basis of merit rather than birth; and enacted strict laws with harsh punishments on the theory that the harsher the punishment, the less it would have to be used. The Legalist rulers of Qin organized their entire state toward agricultural production, increasing trade, and the mobilization of all economic resources in the service of war.

Born in 551 bce, Kongzi, whom we know as Confucius, deplored these changes and called upon rulers to return to the beliefs and practices of the early Zhou. Confucius reflected some of the changing attitudes of the day as well, such as the growing emphasis on competence rather than birth in choosing officials. He was essentially a private teacher and accepted students from all social backgrounds. Agnostic about the existence of ghosts and spirits, he saw religious rituals and ancestral sacrifices as needed by the living, to express respect and gratitude for their dead forefathers. He made no claims to have any supernatural powers and modestly said that he only loved to study the wisdom of the ancients so that he could pass on the best of his civilization’s heritage to future generations. He also had a sense of humor, remarking at one point, “The fact remains that I have never seen a man who loved virtue as much as sex.”

Confucius hoped to convince rulers to adopt his idealistic vision of benevolent rule based on early Zhou rituals and reverence for ancestors. He argued that the most basic human quality is our capacity to empathize with each other, a quality suggested by the virtue ofren, variously translated as humanity, benevolence, kindness, or reciprocity. All people have the capacity for kindness, he asserted, but it needs to be nurtured and encouraged through education, ritual, and the emulation of virtuous models (including one’s parents, teachers, and great moral leaders of the past). He wisely noted that people learn most not from reading books but from watching and emulating those around them. And he argued that in the proper hierarchical society, those in the lower positions learn how to behave from those above them. Thus, the most important quality for a king to have was virtue so that his subjects would naturally be inspired to serve him loyally and virtuously. Like Jesus five hundred years later, Confucius believed that virtue was powerful and contagious, but in the war-torn era of his time, he had difficulty persuading any ruler to implement his teachings. He never rose very high in any government and died in 479 bce, feeling himself a failure.

More than a century after Confucius, Mengzi, known to the West as Mencius, expanded on the optimistic idealism of Confucius by proclaiming unequivocally that human nature was good and that morality and ritual were more effective than any amount of brute force in motivating people to behave properly. Mencius was more of a storyteller than Confucius, and his collected sayings helped to popularize the values of Confucius through clever dialogues, colorful anecdotes, and short parables. To demonstrate the goodness of human nature, he argued that any person, upon seeing a child about to fall into a well, would automatically respond by trying to save the child, not through any ulterior motive but simply because humans naturally hate to see a child suffer. Mencius was more influential in his own time than Confucius had been, and he served as an advisor to two major states. He justified the steep social hierarchies of the day by saying it was right and just that those who work with their heads rule over those who work with their hands. Yet he also admonished kings and princes that the common people were more important than their leaders.

He interpreted the Mandate of Heaven as the natural working out of politics in which rulers who care for the people consequently win their support, whereas those who offend the people or exploit them will lose their support and fail. The Mandate of Heaven gives a king the right to rule, but, he reminded kings, quoting an earlier text, “Heaven sees with the eyes of its people. Heaven hears with the ears of its people.” The king’s first duty is to attend to the welfare of the people. Mencius’s unfettered idealism helped keep the Confucian tradition alive even as it continued to lose ground to the Legalist trends of the Warring States period.

In contrast to the idealistic Mencius, Xunzi, a slightly later follower of Confucius, actually served as a government administrator. He accepted many of the changes of the Warring States period and tried to make the ideals of Confucius relevant to the times. In contrast to the short declarations of Confucius and the dialogues and parables of Mencius, Xunzi wrote full-blown essays on self-improvement, government regulations, military affairs, rites and rituals, music, human nature, and Heaven. Xunzi understood how much the state was changing in his own time, and he embraced the development of a complex bureaucracy of officials promoted and demoted on the basis of their job performance. He had seen enough of Warring States behavior to argue, against Mencius, that human nature is evil, in that people are inherently selfish. But Xunzi rightly regarded himself as a follower of Confucius. While recognizing the necessity and power of law and state authority enforced with a highly organized bureaucracy, Xunzi also saw Confucian rituals and early Zhou texts as effective guides to proper human behavior. He argued, as Confucius and Mencius had, that filial piety, one’s love and respect for one’s parents, was the most fundamental foundation for all other moral teachings and behavior.

At the forefront of the secular and rationalistic tendencies of his own time (at least among the elite), Xunzi gave a completely naturalistic interpretation of nature and its workings. When there were droughts, floods, or hurricanes, these were just the natural arbitrary workings of nature in Xunzi’s view, not the supernatural intervention of Heaven or any divine being. The true omen or portent that signified the loss of the Mandate of Heaven was not a natural disaster but the state’s failed response to it. Thus, while Xunzi accepted the large bureaucratic state based on the rule of law, he also argued forcefully that such a state could be guided most humanely and most effectively by the values of Confucius and Mencius.

While Legalists were steadily building up the lethal powers of the state and Confucians were urging the restoration of early Zhou idealism and the use of ritual in both families and governments, others were attacking both Legalists and Confucians from other angles. One group assembled around Mozi, a thinker who lived sometime between Confucius and Mencius and who argued that Confucians were wasteful in their emphasis on rituals, music, and ceremonies in honor of the dead. Mozi and his followers argued that rulers owed the people not elaborate ceremonies to awe them but the basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter. The school’s most original teaching was its call for “universal love,” in which every adult bore equal responsibility for every child. The Mohists also made interesting developments in logic and the study of optics and motion (in part for the purposes of defensive warfare), but they failed to inspire followers for more than a few generations, and their call for universal love seemed puzzling and impractical to most Chinese.

A more long-lasting challenge to the Confucian and Legalist visions of society came from a group of thinkers we now know as Daoists, or the School of the Dao. Dao (Tao in some translations) means literally the Way, and it was used by Confucians and others to mean the way one should live, or the way rulers should govern. For Sunzi it meant the way of warfare. However in two enigmatic early Chinese texts, the Daode-jing (or Tao Te Ching—The Classic of the Way and Its Power) and the Book of Zhuangzi, the concept ofdao has cosmic implications and includes such meanings as the first cause of all things, the totality of the universe, the laws of nature and all creation, and whatever is unchanging and everlasting. To make matters more complicated, the Daodejing begins with the admonition “The Way (Dao) that can be told is not the constant Way; The name that can be named is not the constant name.” So this Way is the mysterious source of all things that can’t be captured in words. Yet the Daodejing goes on to use 5,000 words to say a number of things about the Way in its eighty-one sections (some in poetic form and some in prose).

Attributed to the philosopher Laozi (who may or may not have existed), the Daodejing has long been beloved as a great work of literature by Chinese of every persuasion. In mystical poetry and cryptic prose, the author extols the Dao, harmony, and what is natural, and gives concrete advice on individual survival in a dangerous age and even military advice to would-be rulers.

The earliest known version of this work was found in 1993 in a tomb at Guodian, Hubei Province, dating from about 300 bce. This text, the Guodian Laozi, consisted of seventy-one bamboo slips in three bundles, which included material from thirty-one of the eighty-one sections in today’s Daodejing. Also in the tomb were more than six hundred other bamboo slips containing writings we would mostly associate with the Confucian school of thought, suggesting that the Confucian and Daoist schools of thought were not necessarily oppositional in their early evolution. The Guodian texts are quite representative of the overall gist of the later Daodejing, but not so explicitly anti-Confucian or anti-Mencian as later versions of the text. These findings lend credence to the view that theDaodejing was an anthology compiled by several anonymous hands over a century or more.

The general tone of the Daodejing is that rulers should not try to build a powerful state because the main principle of change in the universe is the reversal of opposites (unceasing alteration of yin and yang, as seen in the phases of the moon, the alteration of the seasons, and the endless cycles of human life and death). To become powerful is to guarantee one’s fall. To remain weak and inconspicuous is to increase one’s chances of survival. Nothing is softer or more yielding than water, or harder than rock, the author notes, but over time water erodes and triumphs over rock.

A second Daoist work, the Book of Zhuangzi, is a prose collection attributed to a philosopher of the same name (literally Master Zhuang, the polite name for Zhuang Zhou), who also may or may not have existed. The Book of Zhuangzi is the most original and inventive book in all of Chinese thought and literature. Full of satirical and whimsical flights of fancy, the philosopher Zhuangzi appears to challenge all assumptions of the Confucians and Legalists and all other schools of thought as well. Zhuangzi mocks with cynicism both the serious moral declarations of Confucian philosophers and the state-building strategies of the Legalists. One saying often attributed to Zhuangzi, probably erroneously but tellingly nevertheless, captures well his cynicism toward politics and still applies in surprising ways today: “This one steals a buckle and he is executed, that one steals a country and he becomes its ruler.”

According to the Book of Zhuangzi, all the philosophers of the Hundred Schools period were arguing over insignificant matters arbitrarily chosen to try to prove their cleverness, to gain favor with the powerful, or to win prestige in a shortsighted quest for fame and fortune. Zhuangzi told a story about a frog who lived in a well that he believed was the most beautiful and spacious place on earth. Yet when he invited the Giant Turtle of the Eastern Sea to join him, the turtle could not get even one foot into the frog’s small well. For Zhuangzi, all the Warring States philosophers were frogs in their own little wells. They did not realize that the universe was a vast and wonderful place, and that humans were just one tiny aspect of reality and not very consequential alongside the sun, moon, and stars. He attacked everyone’s values and arguments, but with such style, wit, and imagination that his book has been a favorite among educated Chinese down to the present day.

While Confucians lamented the decline of early Zhou ideals and early Zhou power and Daoists attacked Confucians and Legalists as self-righteous meddlers in people’s lives, the Legalists proceeded to promote the changes that would end the Warring States period. The book that synthesized a variety of Legalist teachings into one systematic doctrine was the Book of Han Feizi, a chilling set of calculations of raw power, traditionally attributed to Han Feizi (Master Han Fei), a prince of the small state of Han in the third century bce.

In contrast to most thinkers of the day who saw wisdom in the study of the past, Han Feizi argued that the past was dead, buried, and irrelevant to the needs of the present. Human nature is evil, he declared with confidence, and the only things that motivate people are promises of pleasure and threats of pain. Laws should govern everything, and there should be no exceptions. The ruler can trust no one, not even his wife and children, perhaps especially his wife and children, because they might have the most to gain by plotting against him. Rulers should be aloof, remain mysterious in the eyes of all people, and never let their own thoughts and feelings be known to others. Officials are mere tools of the ruler in the efficient organization of the state and the army, and they should be promoted and demoted solely on the basis of their effectiveness in carrying out their assigned duties. If an official failed in his duty or exceeded his duty, he should be punished equally in either case, because any “extraordinary service” was likely nothing more than a bald attempt to curry favor with the ruler.

In some ways, the Book of Han Feizi only summarized what was already happening in the Warring States period, but it spelled out more clearly than any other source how to organize a political, economic, and military machine devoted entirely to building the power of the state and its king. Its insights have proven remarkably prophetic (1,800 years before Machiavelli developed similar ideas in The Prince) in describing much of the functioning of the nation state in modern times.

In the dangerous era of the Warring States, political knowledge was both precious and dangerous, as illustrated by the historian Sima Qian, who told the following story. When Han Feizi visited the state of Qin, Prime Minister Li Si recognized his brilliance and had him imprisoned and forced him to drink poison, because he feared that if the King of Qin conferred with the Han prince, Li Si’s own position might be threatened. In the end, in Sima Qian’s view, Han Feizi’s sad fate demonstrated the same sad truths he preached. If power was all that mattered, it was to be expected that the most brilliant Legalist thinker of all time might be killed by a rival in the name and the game of power.

Although the Legalists triumphed in wiping out all rivals to the Qin state in 221 bce, their triumph resulted in a sophisticated imperial state system that ultimately ensured the survival of texts from most of the schools of thought in the Hundred Schools period. The rich ferment of ideas in the Warring States period was not as clearly divided into “schools” as later divisions between Confucians and Daoists and Legalists would suggest. For example, the writings found in Warring States tombs have consistently been eclectic, representing many strands of thought including Legalist, Daoist, and Confucian. The Confucian Xunzi once taught the Legalists Han Feizi and Li Si, and even strict Legalists accepted the importance of rituals to legitimize state power. The Daoists, who satirized power-seekers and attacked the reliance on words to convey truth, used highly erudite words to make their case precisely to the power-seekers of the elite.

China was not alone in experiencing unprecedented levels of change and uncertainty during the early Warring States period (roughly 600-400 bce). Great thinkers around the world responded to profound changes under way in their societies, including expanded trade in goods and ideas, the decline of earlier social and political structures, and the increasing reliance of states on iron weapons and standing armies. The writings of Confucian, Daoist, and Legalist thinkers and Mozi in China, the Hebrew prophets in Mesopotamia, the great Vedic scriptures of the Upanishads and the teachings of the Buddha and Mahavira (the founder of the Jain religion) in India, and Plato and Aristotle in Greece all subjected their societies’ common beliefs and customs to the cold scrutiny of reason and challenged political leaders to pay more attention to the welfare of the common people. Despite contrasts in their approaches and ideas, they respectively laid the intellectual foundations for great new empires in Persia, India, China, Greece, and Rome.

Compared with these other societies, early China seems striking in the following ways: the strong emphasis on the family as the basis of civilization; the tendency to see the state as an extension of the family; the desire and ability to build a large-scale centralized bureaucratic state; and the emphasis on ancestor worship and belief in the wisdom of the past as a guide to the present and future (though the Legalists dissented on this point). Perhaps the two most distinctive aspects setting early China apart from ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, and India were (1) the assumption, at least among the literate elite, that the world’s creation was simply given and self-perpetuating, not dependent on a divine power far above human beings, and (2) the tendency to see all things on Earth and in the cosmos as closely interrelated. In the Chinese view, the meaning of life could only be grasped by human beings through their own efforts and reflections on their own past.

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