Ancient China

Huangdi

The Chinese people are proud of their long history.

According to legend, about 5,000 years ago, Huang Di—the Yellow Emperor—ruled part of the Yellow River valley. He and another leader, Yan Di, or the Fiery Emperor, made great contributions to the progress of civilization.

Huang Di is said to have invented the cart, the boat, clothes, script and medicine, and to have taught people how to turn the soil with a plow. Today, Chinese people all over the world regard Huang Di and Yan Di as their earliest ancestors, calling themselves "Yan-Huang's descendants".

Many, many years after them, the emperors Yao, Shun and Yu ruled China, one after another. Yu was popular and prestigious, for legend has it that he tamed the flooding rivers by channeling their waters into the sea. Upon his death, Yu was succeeded by his son, Qi, who founded the first dynasty in Chinese history called the Xia. This event marked the change from primitive society, where there was no family, private property, or class distinction, to a class society based on family and private property ownership.

The Xia, which lasted about 400 years, was overthrown by Shang, a state to the east. The Shang dynasty was to rule the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River for about 500 years before it was replaced by the Zhou dynasty.

It should be noted that Chinese history before the Shang dynasty, though recorded in several ancient classics, is mainly mythology-based. So far no material evidence has been discovered to prove that Huang Di, Yao, Sun, Yu and the Xia dynasty really existed. However, the existence of the Shang has been proven by the excavation of oracle bones and other archaeological evidence in Anyang County, Henan Province about a century ago.

The Shang rulers were superstitious. Before they made an important decision, they would ask their court diviner to discover whether or not the occasion was favorable. The diviner would then take an ox bone or a tortoise shell, drill a hole in it, and put it over a fire until cracks developed. Then he would study the cracks, from which he could foretell whether the action being considered would have good or bad results. Both the conclusion he drew from the cracks and the actual result of the action would be recorded in a few words on the bone or shell. In this way the Shang diviners wrote faithful accounts of many important events during their time.

Over the years, about 100,000 oracle bones have been discovered and collected in Anyang. This region was certainly one of the capitals, most likely the last, of the Shang, who moved the location of its capital city several times. Over 3,000 different words have been found on those bones, indicating that written Chinese was already highly developed more than 3,000 years ago.

The Shang ruled over a slave society. Slaves, most of whom had been captured in battles with other states or tribes, were forced to till the land and do the household work for their masters. What was even more tragic was that slaves might be killed as sacrifices to the gods or to their masters' ancestors, and might even be buried alive to accompany their master when he died.

During the 11th century B.C., probably in 1066, the Shang dynasty was conquered by Zhou, a state in the Wei River valley in the present-day Shaanxi Province. King Wen of Zhou, who had made his state strong, initially planned the conquest. A few years after his death, his son, King Wu, led an army in an attack on the Shang capital and quickly defeated the Shang troops. King Wu then became the first king of the new Zhou dynasty.

When King Wu died two years later, his son was still too young to rule the country, so for several years state affairs were directed by King Wu's younger brother, the Duke of Zhou. The political and social systems of the new dynasty were mainly designed by these three founders: King Wen, King Wu and the Duke of Zhou.

They established a feudal fief system. The whole country was divided into a number of areas, each of which was assigned to a member of the royal family, a noble related by marriage to the rulers, or to the chief of a small state that had been loyal to the Zhou. Not only the land but also the people themselves were often given to such a chosen ruler, subsequently becoming his and his descendants' property. This ruler would then subdivide his fief into several areas and give them to members of his family and their descendants. They, in turn, would divide and distribute their land and people to those under them. It is said that altogether there were ten classes in this system, with each class having to pay tribute and offer military and other services to the one above.

At the top of this social ladder was the king, the master of all, people and land alike. At the bottom was the serf, bound to the land. He had to work his lord's land before attending his own small field, and was not allowed to move out of his lord's fief. When there was a war, he had to go and fight. When his lord needed a woman, his wife or daughter might be taken away. In short, his lot was like that of a slave’s, but was a little better, for he had a small piece of land, a home and a family, and some tools.

The Zhou rulers used two means to maintain law and order: severe punishments to keep the serfs and common people obedient, and rites to adjust relations among the nobles. The rites were rules of behavior and conduct, regulations of ceremonies and social institutions. The basic principle was that only the rites, not the punishments, should apply to the nobles.

These systems and institutions suited the social conditions very well and the Zhou enjoyed peace and stability for about 300 years. Then in 771 BC, natural calamities, internal struggles within in the court, and attacks by border tribes brought Zhou rule to the brink of collapse. In the following year the capital had to be moved from Haojing in the west to Luoyi, now Luoyang, in the east. From then on the dynasty was called the Eastern Zhou, and the previous period—from 1066 to 771 BC—was called the Western Zhou.

The history of the Eastern Zhou was divided into two periods. The first 300 years, 770-476 BC, was called the Spring and Autumn Period, because all the important events of this period were recorded in a historical work called The Spring and Autumn Annals. The period from 475 to 221 BC was called the Warring States Period, because there were continual wars among the states. The dynasty was finally brought to an end in 256 BC, and 35 years later, in 221 BC, China was unified by the Qin dynasty.

During the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods, the king was the ruler and master of the country in name only. He was weak in every way and unable to control the nobles who had large fiefs. The area under his direct rule became smaller and smaller as a result of invasions by nobles who were no longer loyal to him. Powerful states often tried to occupy the land of weaker ones, and they fought each other to increase their influence. As wars went on, the number of states was reduced from over 1,000 during the Western Zhou to about 100 during the Spring and Autumn Period, and then to about 20 during the beginning of the Warring States Period.

There were great social changes too. The increasing use of iron tools helped to develop agriculture. Landowners came to realize that they could get more from their land if it was turned into plots and rented to their serfs, rather than using the old serf system. Gradually their "common field"--fields formerly tilled by their serfs without pay--became private fields leased out to their serfs for rent. Thus serf-owners became, in effect, landowners, and serfs became tenants, who showed greater interest in production and enjoyed greater independence and freedom than they had as serfs.

Along with the development of agriculture, handicrafts and commerce also grew, and there appeared a new merchant class. Many merchants were rich enough to visit and bribe princes and dukes.

Another group of people, scholars, also developed. They came from different classes. Before the Spring and Autumn Period, what learning there was had been monopolized by the nobles; only they alone could use the books and documents stored by the government, and other people could not share this right. The great political and social changes during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods broke the monopoly of learning by the nobles. Now, at all levels of society -- declining nobles, new landlords, free citizens, even poor people – anyone who made an effort to study could become a scholar. When rulers of states wanted wise advice that would help them to make their states rich and strong, they turned to scholars for such help and would often put them into important positions.

The Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods were thus a time of change, with states either expanding or being conquered. The old systems and institutions established in the Western Zhou were no longer observed. The rites and original social order were broken, old beliefs collapsed and new ideas spread. This turbulent situation urged scholars of the day to think of ways to bring about peace and stability, or to make the states rich and strong. Some of them went a step further to study fundamental principles of the universe and human life. Therefore these two periods, especially the Warring States Period, saw the rise of many different schools of philosophy. It was a period when, as people often say, a hundred schools of thought contended.

Revised June 13, 2011