China: an Old Giant Trapped in a Loop

China is familiar to westerners , but also unknown— the sleeping giant has awoken and has been appearing in thousands of headlines. Some say that it is the enemy of the western world, some say that its rise benefits the global economy—despite what has been said about it, the public may generally gain an impression that it is a historical powerbase. Nevertheless, half of its history reads like a stuck record—there is no substantial changes throughout centuries. More precisely China is indeed a country which has a rich history and extraordinary culture, but its impressive intellectual evolution all but came to an abrupt halt two thousand years ago, and only started to develop again in the 19th century. To examine how it all began, we have to go back to 4000 years ago—the emergence of the Xia dynasty (the first dynasty in China). 

Since the Xia dynasty, China has experienced the rise and fall of several dynasties, including the Shang and the Zhou. The Zhou dynasty established a system where the King divided the land between his relatives, namely zhuhou, then these relatives passed on their fiefs to their descendants. Within their own fiefs, these zhuhou were able to take control over military power, governmental power and legislative power. Nevertheless, the King still had power over them. After centuries of prosperity, this great empire suffered from turmoil in which the King (You of Zhou) was killed. Consequently, the rest of the Zhou nobles withdrew from the original capital to the east—the old capital of Chengzhou. Starting from this point, the Zhou dynasty entered the start of the Eastern Zhou period (770 -256 BC), leading to the Spring and Summer Period and the Warring States Period—centuries of chaos and casualties, but also the greatest and brightest period of Chinese Philosophy.

Ever since the Zhou nobles moved to the East, the King no longer had power over those regional rulers. As a result, those regional rules started to disobey the orders from the central government and attack each other. The period from then on can be further divided into the Spring and Summer period (722 -481 BC), and the Warring States period (475-221 BC). Noticeably, the last King of Zhou Dynasty was killed amidst the Warring States Period, which is the end of the Zhou Dynasty.More broadly, during the Warring States Period, the conflicts between states reached their peak, with only around 7 states left, compared to hundreds of states during the Spring and Summer Period.  ultimately led to the rise of Qin Dynasty (221-206BC) who conquered the rest of its competitors. 

King Wen of Zhou, painted during the Ming Dynasty. (Credit)

It is doubtless true  that these periods were dark ages—millions were killed, and the collapse of states becamea  daily occurrence. Nevertheless, the greatest intellectual movement occurred  asa wide range of Chinese schools of thoughts emerged. It is these ideologies which shaped the core values of the Chinese, it is the greatest leap of Chinese philosophy, it is, you might say, the enlightenment age of China—without these ideologies, China would be longer be China. It is so unique due to the diversity of the different schools of thought, such as Taoism, Confucianism, Legalism, Mohism, Yangism, etc. Though they all differ, they are the reflection of humanity of the world, and through learning from each other, new ideologies arise and bring out a better interpretation of the world. Unfortunately, there was a great leap and then nothing — for  the next two thousand years, Chinese adapted the same ideology, which shaped the historical cycle of China, molded the values of Chinese—but no significant breakthroughs came about since then. 

To clarify, I am not suggesting that ever since so no changes in China have taken place, many have: the improvement in technology, the emergence of different types of poems, the new scholars in Confucianism are several examples. I am trying to justify is that in the root of Chinese core values, the same ideology has dominated the whole country, it controls their minds and their wills which bind them into a united collective, which is why the following history of China is merely a cycle until the Opium War. As such, there are no leaps in terms of intellectual movement on a large scale—it is trapped at that point. 

It all began after the downfall of the Qin dynasty where the Han dynasty took over. Emperor Wu of Han, one of the greatest Emperors in Chinese history, decided to enact the ideas  of Dong Zhong Shu on Confucianism as the basis of the state’s political philosophy. The ideas of Confucianism are rtoo sophisticated to be examined in this essay, but in general, it rests on the basis that humans are fundamentally good, and individuals should aim to become “jun zi”, a respectable gentleman who acts according to proper conduct. To achieve this, there are multiple concepts that have been discussed, in particular, the five Constants “Wuchang”, including humaneness “ren”, justice “yi”, propriety” li”, wisdom “zhi” and trustworthiness “xin”. Through practicing these values, Confucianism believes that individuals will be able to become better people—children will treat their parents well, neighbors helping others, and people respecting elders. These morality and ethics then build up from the individual level to the relationship with other individuals, ultimately forming a peaceful society, and then finally, it is applied in political aspect—in the blueprint of Confucianism, the Emperor himself must be a “jun zi” who is a morally respectable person first, ensuring that the one who has power also conforms to this set of ethics value. Then, he will rule its people in a humane way, creating a benevolent utopia. Yet, if the Emperor was found to be morally unworthy, the people should subvert him and bring peace to the collective. From one perspective, it can be argued that what Confucianism tried to do is to establish a certain set of values among all individuals. If they successfully make the individuals treat it as their core values, it shapes their actions and thoughts which will ideally lead to a peaceful society as all individuals believe the same set of rules, even the rulers conform to them, thereby creating a humane world. What is so special about it is that Confucianism despises using strict law but instead, using “li” to promote and implement their ideas across the country. “Li’ itself is but a set of actions, it is only vital if other values are moderated into it such as ren”. While practicing these actions, these regulated norms will always remind people about its core and why they are doing what they are doing, hencereinforcing the idea of “ren” in their mind and strengthening the control over the people. To do so, they always promote it through education and music. After generations, they will ideally develop a mainstream ideology where all people conform to it.

Whether we agree with it or not, it is no doubt a challenge to create a peaceful society. However, Dong Zhon Shu ended up turning these ideals to his own ends, becoming a tyrant. He added the idea of divine rights of Kings to Confucianism, suggesting that the emperor appears to rule due to the order of God, it was his rightful place which significantly strengthened monarchical power—but remember that this idea does not come from  Confucianism, according to which people can always overthrow an emperor if he is morally underqualified. Furthermore, he suggested that no other ideologies should be promoted but his Confucianism; for example, one must study Confucianism in order to be a civil officer. Yet, the price was that this ideology would remain dominant as other ideologies would be marginalsied, hindering the intellectual development of China. The emperor was obviously pleased with this outcome in which his people remained gentle and respectful to each other whilestrengthening his power and maintaining his dictatorship. He even further introduced the idea of legalism into it—  for those who failed to conform, strict punishment and laws would be used. Hitherto, a distorted political philosophy emerged which only served the goal of the emperor,, and with it brought about the demise of other ideologies. In the following years, the worship and fear of the emperor have become the greatest goals of the people. A subject follows the emperor till the very end, even if he is obviously a terrible ruler who would but destroy the country. The result was a dearth of  intellectual development as the general public became lambs who only learned to fear and worship their emperor. 

After the fall of the Han dynasty, we can see lots of dynasties—Jin dynasty, Tang dynasty, Ming dynasty—all of them rise at the very beginning, then fall after hundreds of years when the people can no longer withstand the emperors. Since the King has all the power, so long as the King lacks intelligence, the situation rapidly deteriorates. And yet, no one would have ever thought of ending this loop—all of the people would only fight against these tyrants when they could not stand the mess caused by the rulers, then return the power to the new King and start a new cycle, but no individuals will come up with a new intellectual movement, suggesting we may have to forfeit monarchy, or at least weaken the power of the emperor. This only starts to change with the outbreak of the Opium War, where the modern western society defeats the aging Chinese Monarchy, indicating that China needs to awake from its own prison.

Tsz Hin Lok (Marco)

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