Chapter 4. About societal governance and societal evolution
22.214.171.124. The Chinese empire
I mentioned in “126.96.36.199. The transition from tribes to empires. A. What is an empire?” that the word “empire” is a European construct and that the understanding of the concept in the European acceptance is not adapted to all contexts. But more to the point; the way Europeans have defined the concept around the exercise of power has no place in the Chinese context and more particularly in its early phase of unification and centralization
The fact is that we nevertheless do not readily dispose of another concept to categorize this process of unification and centralization that leads to institutions reproducing over the generations. It is during this process that roots and conceptual forms are being laid in the foundations of civilizational houses; so our understanding of this moment in the history of a civilization is particularly important if we want possibly understand its future path toward the present. That’s why I want to take the time to clarify my use of the word empire. I could eventually have used another word to characterize how the Chinese civilization formed but this would only have shed some more fog over the whole process. The word empire is indeed being used universally nowadays in its habitual Eurocentrist acceptance of power projection. I will use it in a different acceptance and will document how its determinant factors evolve in China.
In “What is an empire?” I mention its generally accepted determinant characters as follows:
- a territory
- a dynastic rule
- use of writing
- a hegemonic worldview
- the emperor is presented as the earthly representative of the gods or the spirits
- public institutions and urban concentrations in cities
- social inequality and class-based society
- specialized occupational groups
- diverted surpluses finance monumental works
- imposition of standards
In what follows I’ll indicate how, in the formation of the Chinese civilization, this list is fluctuating from one stage of its development to the next. The fact that there is such a fluctuation along the Chinese path to unification and centralization is the reason of my unease with the concept empire.
A. Before empire: the neolithic revolution
This period extends from 10,000 to 3,000BC. It leads from tribal societal organization to early city organization within cultural areas of affinity that is a pre-configuration of the later political unification under dynasties of kings and emperors.
A 1. agriculture began sometime around 10,000 -9000 BC
After the tribes finally occupied all the territory available between ocean and mountains agriculture emerged sometimes after 10,000BC in the Yellow and Yangtze River valleys and their rich alluvial plains. As a result the population on the territory representing today’s China multiplied rapidly between 9,000-10,000Bc to 3,000BC. Unfortunately population figures vary so much, from one analyst to the next, that their figures are meaningless. Some estimate that by the year 3,000BC China had a population of 2 million (McEvedy, Colin and Richard Jones’s "Atlas of World Population History ”) while others give estimates as high as 10-15 million (Population Pressure and Growth of Chinese Primitive Agriculture WANG, Jiange. Fudan University, Shanghai). Agriculture involved the cultivation of millet and rice and the domestication of dogs, pigs, and chickens.
McEvedy, Colin and Richard Jones’s "Atlas of World Population History ” estimates that 50% of the people settled down in villages between 10,000 and 3000. (1) While such a figure is guesswork it nevertheless suggests huge economic and social transformations.
The origin of agriculture in China dates from 9-10,000BC. This has been documented by various researchers and more particularly in a paper titled “Early millet use in northern China”.
A2. the agriculture revolution fosters societal changes
In “188.8.131.52. The tribal societal context. B. Chinese continuity to empire. Tribes, Agricultures, villages” I explained how, when the territory was fully occupied by tribes, the population had attained its “tribal peak” and agriculture set in as a necessity to accommodate an increasing population. “Villages were taking a lot less space to feed a same quantity of people than did tribal wandering and the adoption of agriculture helped to grow the population after the territory was saturated ”.
The Neolithic revolution (agriculture) brought about a population explosion and villages multiplied rapidly:
- a small number of neolithic villages have been discovered dating c. 10000-8000 BC
- hundreds of villages have been discovered dating 7500-6000 BC
- thousands of villages have been discovered dating c. 6000-3000 BC
In that last phase most of these villages were small groupings of family clans regrouping some 40-100 or more dwellings. Most of them were still not protected by a wall and a moat.
The practice of crafts is seen booming which is confirmed by archaeological discoveries that document the development of pottery, stone carving, ivory carving, jewelry, etc... The Yangshao culture is also where the earliest bronze object was found; a knife dating to about 3000 B.C. Similar techniques are emerging like pottery, jewelry, architecture, farming, etc..., as well as visual signs that suggest a path to written language. Such techniques and visual signs appear to have been shared by groups of villages into areas of cultural affinity:
- Nanzhuangtou culture. 9500–9000 BC. Near Lake Baiyangdian, Hebei (excavation site at Nanzhuangtou)
- Peiligang culture . 7000-5000 BC. Yiluo river valley in Henan Province (excavation site at Jiahu)
- Cishan culture. 6500–5000 BC). northern China, on the eastern foothills of the Taihang Mountains
- Dadiwan culture. 6000–5400. eastern area of Gansu and Shaanxi
- Yangshao culture. 5000–3000. Gansu, Shaanxi, Henan, Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Qinghai, and Hubei (excavation sites at Jiangzhai, Bampo, etc…). This was one of the most influential of such cultures and it determined future developments in Dawenko and Longshan cultures.
- Hongshan culture. 4700-2900 BC. Inner Mongolia to Liaoning and Hebei. Recent studies inform about “...a case of desertification mainly triggered by changes in the hydrological and geomorphological system, associated with climate change” that ”...suggests the Chinese civilization may be rooted in the marginal areas in the north, rather than in the middle reaches of the Yellow River”. The very sophisticated Hongshan culture collapsed and its populations migrated...
- Dawenkou culture. 4100-2600 BC. primarily in Shandong, but also appeared in Anhui, Henan and Jiangsu. Dawenkou borrows much from the Yangshao culture and will expand in the Longshan culture.
- Majiayao culture. 3100–2000 BC upper Yellow River region in Gansu and Qinghai provinces. (excavation site at Majiayao)
- Longshan culture. 3000-2000 BC. Longshan, Shandong Province (Taosi). This culture evolved into a more mature culture that pre-figured the 3 first dyansties of Xia, Shang and Zhou.
Archeology on a systematic scale is relatively new in China. Only by the end of the eighties were research institutes starting to receive the necessary funds for the systematic excavation of sites and since then 6,000 to 7,000 Neolithic sites have been discovered. The cultures I mention here above are the most significant ones among a multitude. Over time local areas of similar cultural affinities eventually regrouped with neighboring areas and formed larger areas with similar cultural affinities. Between 4000-3000BC two clusters became dominant: the Yangshao culture and the Dawenkou culture. In the third Millennial BC both morphed into the Longshan culture.
A significant differentiation in the size of late phase Yangshao settlements, as well as in housing models and funerary objects, indicates that a social stratification had taken root inside the villages and between villages. In the Yi-Luo River valley, for example, Yangshao sites range from less than one hectare to about 75 hectares. (2)
The social differentiation within villages observed in Late Yangshao culture accelerated tremendously during the Longshan culture in the Middle and lower Yellow river. “... what makes archaeological cultures of the Longshan era particularly significant is that several of them exhibit traits typical of the later Shang-Zhou civilization, such as the use of hangtu (rammed earth) for the construction of city walls and platforms in public buildings, of pyro-scapulimancy in divination, of jade objects for ritual purposes, such as the hi and the cong, and of very fine wheel-made and hard-fired pottery in standardized shapes” (3) .
These different cultures evolved a process of unification and centralization, from within that, from with out, was accompanied by the development of cooperative (trade) and competitive relations (wars) between the villages. By its late phase the Yangshao culture assisted at the emergence of some towns with moats that acted as the ritual center for several neighboring settlements of the same cultural affinity.
A3. belief and knowledge remain unchanged
The animist men of knowledge remain in charge of knowledge formation in the tribes and also in the new villages and their animistic worldview remains largely unchanged. Eventual changes in the acquired knowledge relate to newly acquired add-ons that are stacked on top of the knowledge base transmitted orally from the past through secret apprenticeship.
In “It’s all about the men of knowledge” I explained that the men of knowledge regularly retreated from their tribes. That practice continued unabated and as I explained in “Chain of causality towards a process of governance”: “The retreats of the men of knowledge from their tribes started a process that has been feeding upon itself, totally out of their consciousness, and this process has gradually come to modulate the play between the Individual-societal polarities which is what creates the reality of the human species”.
These retreats were secret. This was how the men of knowledge kept their distance from their fellow tribesmen and villagers. The regrouping of cultural areas of affinity must have found its roots in the socializing between the men of knowledge during their retreats. But as they were secret nothing, or very little, is known about them. The best we can do is to rely on archaeological excavations and then from the observed changes appearing in their discoveries we can try to intuit the mechanisms that were driving the observed changes.
Now the socio-economic differentiation that is being observed in Late-Yangshao culture establishes a hierarchy within the villages. But what is the link between that hierarchy and the men of knowledge and their retreats? Since the men of knowledge remain a constitutive part of the power elite, after the establishment of power dynasties, they must have played a decisive role in early village stratification. And since the kings and emperors, from Xia to Shang to Zhou, are remembered as sages we have to assume that they were at the top of the hierarchy among men of knowledge. Being at the top of the hierarchy among the men of knowledge is what conferred them the function of king or emperors. So political power must necessarily have emerged out of the formation of a knowledge hierarchy.
How has this knowledge hierarchy formed? This is a question that historians, archaeologists, anthropologists and others are not addressing. But it seems to me that relying solely on archeology finds will limit out understanding of China’s societal evolution to the outward signs of the exercise of power. What we need is an understanding of the transformation of knowledge into power.
A4. second stage of Chinese unification = early symbolism
“During this phase symbolism was still searching for itself. In other words the narrative was not firmly established. It was in the forming and so the symbolism of unity was almost certainly attached to the spirits in the minds of the sages. In other words the sages were thought of as spirits who were helping people to gain some pragmatic knowledge to enhance their daily lives. Written language was in its stammering phase and was searching for itself. This period was characterized by the multiplication of visual signs on rock (petroglyphs), on ceramics, on textiles (?). But the most salient trait of this era is that the meaning of the visual signs was still searching for the acceptance of all “.
People who specialize in the study of the formation of written language finally come to term with the fact that the Chinese written language does not date from the appearance of texts on oracles bones in the Shang dynasty. The texts on these oracle bones were indeed the form taken by the written language in the specific context of the Shang. But that specific form did not emerge as per a Shang miracle. What I mean to say is that the specific form of the Chinese written language in the Shang context was no more than one particular moment in the long formation process of the writing. Many Shang ideograms are seen in productions of far earlier times which simply means that they are no Shang discoveries but discoveries of earlier times that have affirmed a following that had become indisputable by Shang time.
A5. Characters of empire at this stage of development
- a territory (villages spread in areas of common culture)
- a hegemonic worldview (animism+)
- early sovereign: the sages were thought of as spirits who were helping people. They did not act as sovereigns but were more like symbols of cultural unity within the realm of a given culture.
- written language: visual signs multiply but are still searching for the acceptance of all
B. Early-empire: knowledge and sages
The Late Yangshao area of shared culture was the dominant culture in the 4th millennium BC till the Longshan culture succeeded it sometime after 3,000BC. Late Yangshao culture covered the territory of the middle and lower Yellow river.
B1. Transition from late Neolithic to confederate states
Paola Dematte (3) has shown that archaeological cultures of the Longshan era exhibit traits typical of the later Xia-Shang-Zhou “imperial dynasties”. So it would not be wrong to deduce from this fact that the Longshan culture, that is gradually being uncovered by archaeological excavations, corresponds to the legendary history described in the ancient books about the 3 Sovereigns and the 5 emperors. This indicates that we have to approach the “pre-history ” of China by relying on archaeological excavations which then have to be related to the ancient texts to try to amplify the meaning which emerges from the archaeological discoveries. Simply rejecting the ancient texts because one thinks that they are not reliable is a grave mistake as the nineteen-twenties discovery of the Shang dynasty last capital attested.
By the 1920s some scholars began to question the historicity of the Xia and Shang Dynasties. “At Beijing University, two new schools of ancient Chinese studies emerged simultaneously. One was devoted to the deciphering of the bones of Xiaotun - who knew what their writings recorded? The other was devoted to the debunking of the legendary past, including the existence of the Shang. Scholars worked on both these projects simultaneously, without awareness of the contradiction” (4).
Archeological discoveries in the nineteen-twenties, in the present day village of Xiaotun in the Anyang area of Henan near the borders of Hebei and Shanxi, led to the supply of a great quantity of dragon bones that ended permanently all speculation that the Shang Dynasty was a fictional construct. “In 1917, WANG Guowei deciphered the oracle bone inscriptions of the names of the Shang kings and constructed a complete Shang genealogy. This closely matched that in the Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian confirming the historical authenticity of the legendary Shang dynasty ” (5). In 1928 archaeologists started to dig the site of Yin Xu located closely to Anyang City. It is the last capital city of the late Shang dynasty (1300 to 1046 BC).
Today some historians are fighting the same kind of battle a propos the Xia dynasty as if they were aping the battle a propos the Shang dynasty that their predecessors at Beijing university fought and lost. This simply proves that archeology comes first to locate eventual historical sites. Ancient texts have to find confirmation in archaeological excavations but then they act like amplifiers of the meaning that emerges from these excavations.
After these preliminary remarks let’s come back to the Longshan culture. In the present state of archaeological finds what do we know?
B2. Urban characteristics
The picture of Longshan culture that archaeological excavations are drawing is one of – urban centers controlling the territory around them, – a bureaucracy managing the power of the sovereign over the territory, – some form of book recording implying some form of written language, – grandiose architectural attributes of power and its worldview, – specialized crafts on the side of the cities, etc...
“So far, about 30 cities with massive defensive hangtu walls dating to the Longshan era have been identified. Several others are under excavation, and new ones are being identified with regular frequency. ...What is most relevant is that all appear to be arranged in significant regional clusters.
Unwalled Longshan-era settlement sites have also been discovered, such as Baiying (Tangyin, Henan), but they are generally smaller in size and simpler, thus indicating that the walled enclosure reflected a degree of regional importance. ...Within Longshan city walls a variety of structures were discovered, the most impressive of which are the large hangtu platforms used as foundations for what appear to be religious monuments or aristocratic dwellings. ...Beyond residential or religious units, within Longshan cities, or immediately outside, are pottery workshops, bronze foundries, and water wells ” (3).
The population was growing rapidly and some villages developed into towns and some of these towns then grew into large city-states protected by walls and outside moats that gave them all the characteristics of city-states that were imposing a status of vassality on the neighboring villages thereby shaping areas of economic and political unity through the exercise of political power. “Longshan-era cultures share several traits. Each shows comparable evidence of complex social organization, class stratification, an increasingly urban landscape, specialized crafts and technologies (such as copper and bronze metallurgy, jade carving, standardized pottery production, and textile-particularly silk-manufacturing), as well as competitive and/or cooperative interaction. Within some of these areas there are also indications that some form of graphic record keeping, in the form of writing, may have existed ” (3).
What all this implies is that Longshan city states developed specialized activities at the center like:
- a sovereign
- a managing bureaucracy,
- a split of the traditional activities of the men of knowledge along the lines of specialized trades: –abstract thinking by the sages, – health practitioners, – divining the future, – treating matters relating to death and the communication with the dead, etc…,
Such activities imply financing by taking a portion of the activities of outsiders: or by levying taxes or by taking a portion of their productions (agricultural products, crafts productions,…) for the use of those at the center.
B3. The advent of power
The area of Longshan culture very definitely marks the advent of political power. But this does not imply that the men of knowledge had lost their centrality. By all accounts the sovereigns were sages that were chosen among the men of knowledge. But what was the criteria of selection and who made the selection?
We have seen earlier how some tribal men of knowledge were possessed by “split spirits” who steered them along the path to universal consciousness. As I stated earlier universal consciousness is an animist concept that was in use among tribal men of knowledge prior to the agricultural revolution. Those men of knowledge who attained universal consciousness were then considered sages by their peers and consulted by them for their wisdom. I Have shown in, “06. From Modernity to After-Modernity. The axioms of civilizations (1)”, how this practice was hindered or interrupted in the power context that followed the agricultural revolution in the TriContinent-Area. In China this practice continued unabated along the 7,000 years of the neolithic revolution. How this practice evolved from there on to the Longshan culture is unknown.
The thing we know is that the sages among the men of knowledge were the ones becoming kings or emperors. But did their selection still operate as earlier or did brute fighting force and cunning take central stage? This is something that remains a mystery. In other words were the sovereigns in the Longshan culture foremost fighting soldiers or were they sages who occasionally took up arms? Psychology could give us some clues. If brute force had been the sole criteria by which power was attributed, as was the case in the TriContinent-Area, one might have expected Chinese leaders to be fighting brutes but the picture that emanates from the ancient texts instead suggests very thoughtful leaders who were primarily preoccupied with knowledge. The account I gave about the transition from tribes to empires and about the concepts founding the Chinese civilization don’t leave any margin for doubt that the Chinese early sovereigns were sages who first and foremost were thinkers. Now nothing bars thinkers to be handy and so they could also eventually have been good fighters. This answer still does not answer the question I rhetorically asked here above.
The ancient books picture the early sovereigns, during what modern historians have dubbed the area of the Longshan culture, as being attributed their functions through some form of designation. The function was indeed not transmitted hereditarilly to the next kin in line. So it must have been attributed by designation. The texts mention that emperor Huang Di took over from emperor Yan Di after defeating him in fight and emperor Shun had been so impressed by Yu's engineering work and diligence that he passed the throne to him. Emperor Yu is said to have founded what would be called the Xia dynasty that is considered China's first dynasty.
Whatever the mode of designating, of a new sovereign, might have been during the Longshan culture the fact is that dynastic lines start when the Longshan culture fades.
B4. Characters of empire during the Longshan culture
- a hegemonic worldview (animism+)
- a territory and subjects (see map here above)
- social inequality and class-based society
- public institutions and urban concentrations in cities
- use of writing
- specialized occupational groups
- diverted surpluses finance monumental works
C. Middle-Empire: power-knowledge dynasties
I do not plan to enter in the particular history of the 3 first Chinese imperial dynasties, the Xia, the Shang and the Zhou. My aim here is to follow the path that establishes power in China and how the Chinese notion of power eventually distinguishes itself from the Western model.
C1. A new look at the determinant factors of empire.
As we have seen earlier the empire gives a structuring of power that has internalized mechanisms ensuring its reproduction over the generations. In my personal reading of societal reality the worldview, that glues the citizens in sharing a common view about what reality is all about, is the prime imperial characteristic. Without a shared worldview there is no way to reach societal cohesion which is the condition to ensure reproduction. China never had a problem on that front. It accepted, without any after-thought, the inheritance of a view that had grown organically over tens of thousands of years from the observation of the rhythms of nature by the animist men of knowledge. The TriContinent-Area discarded that inheritance. This is what explains the perception of the otherworldliness of the Chinese civilization by the civilizations of the TriContinent-Area and their geographic derivatives like Christian Europe and its own geographic derivations.
A shared worldview is assuredly not sufficient for empire and civilization to arise. The worldview is kind of the architectural plan that all who participate in the building process agree to execute. The first thing needed to construct a building is a piece of land. The same goes for a society. An empire is people living over a given territory.
The other factors relate to the building process itself starting with the structuring of the building team or in more political parlance its governance. Empire is the societal structure that historically gave rise to civilizations. It has been observed throughout history that such a societal structure needs a transfer mechanism of the power of governance in order to replace the leader, at the top of the power pyramid, once he passes away. Different models of transfer mechanisms are theoretically possible, and have sometimes been put in use, but it has been observed that only one model was successful over the long haul. China is the best example of a society that successfully reproduced over the long haul and what ensured its success is its dynastic system. As a rule, sometimes broken, dynasties transfer power to the next kin in line.
The Chinese view the following 3 factors as Tian Xia or “all under heaven”:
These 3 are like the foundations of the imperial house.
Other factors relating to the building process are also necessary but are less structural than the 3 here above. They are like the methods and building materials used in the construction of the walls and roof:
- the emperor is presented as the earthly representative of the gods or the spirits. In animist China he represented the authority conferred to him by the spirits’ world.
- use of writing to communicate orders to the citizens.
- public institutions to manage the machinery of power and urban concentrations in cities to guarantee the presence of a specialized work-force.
- imposition of standards to guarantee a consistent framework of reference throughout the whole society.
- diverted surpluses to finance monumental works. All empires and large societies have undertaken large works that act as symbols of their power and also give them an opportunity to work as a national team.
Big construction works eventually result in having consequences. The same goes for societies and empires that have been observed to foster:
- specialized occupational groups: bureaucrats, scholars, health practitioners, divinators, craftsmen,...
- social inequality and class-based society: power breeds inequality and individualism in the minds of those who hold its levers and these ideas are then spreading further through society at large. Inequality and the division in social classes is kind of a side-effect or a malady. Paradoxically this malady in its mild stage is injecting some dynamism that takes the form of competition between the societal actors. But when the malady worsens the whole society is diseased and ends up being a corpse waiting to be buried. That’s how societies collapse.
C2. Xia, Shang and Zhou
The Xia dynasty introduced a new power transmission system. In the Earlier period power was transmitted by one king abdicating in favor of a follower of his choosing.
Having been impressed by how one of his subjects was successfully harnessing the regular flooding of the Yellow river, and by the same token increasing agricultural output, emperor Shan designated him as his follower on the throne.
The ancient books indicate that before Shan’s beneficiary Yu died, instead of passing the throne to the most capable candidate, he designate his own son to succeed him. This signaled the end of the abdication system and its transformation into an Hereditary system that launched the Chinese power dynasties. The Shang oracle bones confirmed that the power transmission system had indeed morphed into an hereditary system but do not give an answer as to how and when that system changed.
Seen from the optics of the ancient books the historical period of the 3 sovereigns and 5 emperors fades with emperor Shan and its successor the Xia dynasty thrives.
Seen from the optics of archeology the excavation of sites with large palaces in Yanshi and later in Erlitou suggest the existence of a powerful kingdom or empire. The tombs excavated in these urban sites contained bronze implements indicating that a technological breakthrough had been reached in the field of materials. Erlitou had vast production capacities of ritual bronze vessels and amongst the finds were the earliest recovered dings. These discoveries point to a new cultural stage that has been called the Erlitou culture. It points to an urban society that had reached early bronze technology and flourished between 1900 to 1500 BC.
These discoveries were made in the same locations cited in ancient Chinese historical texts regarding the Xia dynasty and carbon dating indicate that the site at Erlitou dated to about 1700 BC which is right in the middle of the Xia dynasty of the books. Knowing this it always amazes me to read snarky commentary like the following one “but there is no firm evidence, such as writing, to substantiate such a linkage” (6). The kind of undertone, of many Western commentaries in the same vein as this one, unveils what is behind the mask of their authors. It’s something I already have pointed out several times earlier but that warrants some repetition. Behind this imbecile snarkiness awkwardly hides an ideological a-priori that can’t be pronounced due to the ritual of political correctness. It is the same ideological a-priori that was in vogue along the entire span of the so called Western discoveries. Europe had to be the center of the world is it not? So other cultures had to be belittled. The American indigenous population was characterized as non human which whitewashed in the minds of whitemen their killings of “Indians”. Africa was primitive and had no history so whitemen felt in their right to kidnap black folks and send them like cattle to the Americas to serve as slaves of other whitemen. China is a more difficult basket case. Its nation has the longest history among all nations on earth. Many of the most ancient books are Chinese and its technology has been witnessed to benefit the whole world. In other words it is more difficult to picture a Western superiority over China. But snarkiness remains. Consciousness is the fact of being able to look at oneself in the mirror. It seems that snarky people did not grow so far as to be able to look at themselves in a mirror...
Having said that it makes no doubt that the Xia dynasty, or the Erlitou culture, marked an evolutionary stage between the late Longshan culture and the typical Chinese urban civilization of the Shang dynasty that was unveiled by archaeological excavations along the 20th century.
In his “Records of the Grand Historian”, or Shiji, Sima Qian gives a list of the rulers of Xia. But unlike his list of Shang sovereigns, which is closely matched by inscriptions on oracle bones from that period, his records of Xia rulers have not yet been confirmed by archaeological excavations nor by later Shang dynasty oracle bones.
By any account, archeology or ancient books, what transpires is that “...between 2500 and 1500 BC, the Central Plains area saw major developments in both agricultural regimes and craft production. At the same time, the rammed earth walls, large scale structures and a possibly astronomically related feature at Taosi all dating from the Longshan period, as well as the palace-temple structures and complex bronze-casting at Erlitou, display the material correlates of increasing concentrations of productive force and the diverse ends to which they were put” (6).
The Xia-Shang-Zhou Dynasties occupied the Yellow River valley. This is why this area is often called the birthplace of the Chinese civilization. But they were 3 dynasties of one specific area of cultural affinity among different other cultural areas. Recently discovered archaeological sites far away from the Yellow River show indeed the existence of other cultures different from the Xia-Shang-Zhou. Could these cultures have influenced each other? These cultures were not estranged from one another. Archaeological excavations prove that they traded among themselves and they also are witnesses that the Shang written language is the most ancient to have been discovered as of today. But that does not prove that other cultures had no script. Only time and excavations of new sites will tell and paint a clearer picture of the evolution of the written language in China.
Scholars have shown that the Shang script contained all the principles of the modern Chinese writing system used today. In fact few changes occurred since it was first developed 3,500 years ago. This shows that:
- even if there were other written languages at the time in other cultural areas of affinity the Shang dynasty was definitively among the actors that shaped the cultural form of the Chinese nation.
- the only possibility for the Shang written language to have been so advanced was that it was the culmination of a long process of formation which in all probability must have originated earlier over a span of hundreds or even thousands of years. Future excavations should be able to illustrate the different steps of that evolutionary path.
The Shang were finally overthrown by the Zhou conquerors who claimed to overthrow them because the last Shang king was no longer righteous and became a burden on his people. In substance the Zhou said that the dispossessed Shang had forfeited the "Mandate of Heaven" by his misrule. The Shang downfall became a cautionary tale about power excesses and the risk to lose the “Mandate of Heaven” which gave the moral right to the population to dismiss a non righteous holder of power. And so the Zhou overthrow of the Shang became a lightning rod that future men of knowledge would refer to in order to justify their moral conceptions about power that they envisioned was at the service of the Chinese nation.
The reign of the Zhou themselves confirmed that power was still of a federal type, for, very rapidly the local kingdoms within the federation grappled with the center over who had the authority. And by the end of its term the Zhou dynasty was just existing in name. All the power was in the hands of the Qin and its competitors Yan, Zhao, Qi, Chu, Han and Wei. Finally Qin terminated its conquest in 211BC.
“The Zhou Dynasty was never a wholly unified empire. It extended its power over the eastern plain by granting authority to members of the royal family and in some cases to favored adherents, who established walled forts supported by garrison troops among the original habitants of the east. In some cases, local chiefs were accepted as Zhou supporters. Hence, there came into existence a network of city-states on the plain, from which military and political control spread over the surrounding farming villages. Any local leader who challenged the Zhou order was quickly punished by the army and the regional delegates were closely watched.
Even though the Zhou system was indeed feudal, it had many differences from medieval Europe. The most important difference was that the rulling class was mainly unified by kinship ties. Family relations were arranged by marriage where no kinship links existed. In this way, the local lords were expected to accept the authority of the king as the head of a large family. For three centuries after the Zhou conquered the Shang, Zhou rulers maintained order in North China and expanded their territories.
As time went on, the kinship ties loosened and the local rulers became less identified with the Zhou king and more with their allocated territories. This tendency was very strong in larger peripheral states. By the 9th century BCE, regional leaders started to ignore their duties to the Zhou court and also fought among themselves. The declining order in the realm encouraged non-Chinese on all sides to penetrate the borders.
Finally, King Xuan (r. 827-782 BCE) fought many defensive wars against non-Chinese in the north during most of his reign. In 771 BCE, his son, King You, was killed during a barbarian invasion in Haojing, the capital city, which was overrun and sacked by a group of northeners. The royal heir and some of the court members who managed to survive the disaster decided that Haojing was too vulnerable to assaults from the frontier, so they abandoned the city and the eastern auxiliary capital at Luoyang became the new royal capital.
This was the major turning point in the Zhou Dynasty, which marks the end of the Western Zhou period.
During the Western Zhou period, goods circulated mostly through tribute and gift rather than trade, cities were noble fortresses, artisans were an hereditary caste of serfs attached to states or courts, and ministers and court members were chosen based on birth rather than talent. Battles between regional leaders were relatively short and, for the nobles, restrained by a code of chivalry.
Eastern Zhou (770-256 BCE)
After the barbarian invasion drove the Zhou rulers eastwards, the state of Qin became responsible for guarding the western frontier and they gradually moved eastward and eventually occupied the original Zhou domains. Thus the Qin became a close ally to the Zhou and they also had marriage relations with the Zhou ruling class. The city states slowly emerged as powerful independent fiefs and the real Zhou power disintegrated. ” (7).
The decreasing power of the Zhou empire constituted a valid reason in the minds of the men of knowledge to question this state of affairs and as a result many schools of thought flourished that formalized what later will prove to be the thinking of the empire till its overthrow in 1911.
Among these schools a few dominated and remain influential to this very day. Everyone heard about Confucius and about Laotze the initiators of the 2 most famous ones. But a few others were also very influential: the legalist school that will be very influential under the Qin empire, the Ying-Yang school, the school of Mozi (Mohism), etc...
“The Zhou Dynasty came to an end during the Warring States period in 256 BCE, when the army of the state of Qin captured the city of Chengzhou and the last Zhou ruler, King Nan, was killed. The real power of Zhou was so small, that the end of the dynasty was hardly noted. The Zhou state was thus absorbed by the state of Qin. The supremacy of the states of Qin, Qi and Chu was so great that it seemed for a time that China would be divided in three, one section for each state. However, chaos and war prevailed and the battles continued until eventually the state of Qin conquered the other states and unified China once more in 221 BCE, the beginning of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE).”
C3. Characters of empire during Xia-Shang-Zhou
- a territory
- a dynastic rule
- a hegemonic worldview
- the emperor is presented as the earthly representative of the gods or the spirits
- use of writing
- public institutions and urban concentrations in cities
- social inequality and class-based society
- specialized occupational groups
- diverted surpluses finance monumental works
- imposition of standards
D. Late empire: power dynasties
The Qin government’s actions fashioned a new kind of empire: centralized and efficient. Among the most important policies Qin established were:
- the empire was built as Eurocentric eyes see an empire should be. This means as a centralized confederation where the center had total power over the periphery thus allowing the First Emperor to directly control all of his territories.
- introduction of new laws and practices that ended feudalism.
- a large bureaucracy: power was exercised by a hierarchy of officials at the service of the Emperor.
- Qin followed one school of thought; legalism or the teachings of Han Feizi. All other schools were forbidden and their books burned. The scholars who did not accept to convert to legalism were executed.
- all aspects of life were standardized, from measurements and language to more practical details.
- under this system, both the military and government thrived.
In Western parlance, under the application of these measures, Qin had established an empire and founded the Chinese civilization. Earlier systems of governance are considered primitive and pre-imperial. All Western historians do not share such an a-priori for sure but most unfortunately do. That’s why most of the presentations about the Chinese empire give its start with Qin totally ignoring what came earlier.
I personally find this position to be highly mis-leading. I hope to have shown that the history of China is far more complex than what such a short-cut entails.
E. The Republic
A national revolution terminated the imperial structure in 1911. What followed was anarchy and the Japanese occupation. Once the 2nd world war was terminated the communist party took the power out of the hands of the Kuomingtang which fled to Taiwan.
E1. the new environment of the economy world
From 1949 to the second part of the seventies the communist party experimented with economic reforms often with miserable results. After Mao’s death and the liquidation of the gang of 4 the Chinese leadership had to confront the new reality facing the world. China was on the verge of being swallowed into a new world order that would break the country and possibly leading to the demise of the Chinese nation.
The West under the leadership of the US was launching a new phase of its capitalistic development:
- globalization of the reach of capital
- investments in information technologies back home.
My personal thesis is that it was an expansion to the whole economy world of the successful US international promotion of the New York art school in order to beat the Soviet Union in the eyes of the world population. I’ll develop this thesis in chapter 5 about the arts.
These 2 approaches were conceived so that they would complement each other. Globalization needed new communication techniques to ensure the flow of information between the foreign offices of the multinational corporations and their home headquarters. So, starting in the seventies, big capital, and its made captive state institutions, pushed a flow of investments in the research and development of information technologies: computers to crunch data and programs to treat the data and transform it into information, the web to store and share the information, and more lately cell phones to circulate individual communications on a worldwide base.
In the meanwhile ad hoc international institutions were put in place to convert, the establishment of most countries around the world, to acquiesce and to promote globalization. Among the most preeminent of these organizations were the Trilateral Commission (see also) and the Bilderberg Meetings (see also). In parallel with these public relations interventionists new multilateral structures were on the drawing board that were meant to regulate the economy world in the interest of Western multinational corporations. This plan included the framing of the policies of the European Union by big corporations but its central target was the framing of world trade and world finance. Among the most preeminent are the World Trade Organization (see also) and the Bank for International Settlements (see also).
As a result of these new technologies the management of multinational corporations at headquarters had all the elements to control and direct the activities of its different companies spread all over the world.
This new environment was in the making since the beginning of the seventies. By the 2nd part of the seventies time was running out, for China, to find a parade to counter what was coming.
E2. The survival of the Chinese nation
Fortunately for China, by 1978, its leadership understood that the environment of the economy world was going to undergo drastic changes that would eventually threaten the survival of the Chinese nation:
If China did not open itself the flooding of the world by Western capital was indeed promising to marginalize it even more than it already was.
In the meantime the opening that Nixon’s America offered to the country was merely a ploy to force the flow of Western capital into China with the intention to make the country a captive of US multinational corporations.
What was to be done?
An hindsight view of the situation can only paint a far too easy picture of what must have been a real headache for the Chinese leadership at the time. Both of the 2 alternatives mentioned here above were losing propositions for the Chinese nation.
The plan of the Communist party under Deng was to surprise the world by a fast opening of the country to the outside world, on its own terms, with the hope to beat Western interventionism by becoming economically powerful before it was ready to intervene. This was the only remaining card available to China. But it was a gamble. Deng understood that the gamble could possibly conclude in failure but he also knew that this was the last card the government had in its hands.
A rapid flight 35-40 years later and we see that the gamble has succeeded. China is, or is on the verge to be soon, the leading world economy and the window that Western interventionism could earlier have used to coerce China is now closing. In other words the Chinese nation has successfully ensured that it has an available path forward.
But this success comes at a price!
E3. Abandoning prudence is costly
The price to pay comes from the fact that China has had to abandon its traditional view of “the long history ” and its accompanying principle of prudence in decision making. As a consequence the country is now afflicted by a multitude of unknowns unknowns that could break the spirit of its nation. The survival could then possibly be seen as a Pyrrhic victory. According to Wikipedia a “Pyrrhic victory is a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat. Someone who wins a Pyrrhic victory has been victorious in some way. However, the heavy toll negates any sense of achievement or profit. Another term for this would be ‘hollow victory’ ”.
These unknowns emerge from the working of Modernity. The Western economic model was based on the looting of the rest of the world and this ensured the benefit of an out of bound consumerism to its citizens. It was long thought that such a consumerism would work forever. In the early phase of mass consumerism no more than 10% of the world population participated in the binge while the rest of the world had nothing. But what we observe is that, even with only 10% of the world population benefiting from such levels of consumerism, nature is saying no way.
The fact is that our world is finite but consumerism needs an infinite supply of resources. So now that China enters Modernity its citizens are tasting consumerism but they will be informed soon that it is not feasible to prolong the feast… Just today the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment announced that “Our recoverable oil reserves … will last for only 28 years. Russia’s oil production will inevitably start to decline by 2020. The share of hard to extract oil will grow, as traditional resources will start to deplete. This will also make the extraction more expensive” (8). This is just one indication that Modernity is on its way out.
The risks involved with a rapid entry into Modernity do not only concern resources. There are indeed many other risks and many of them are unknown unknown which means that we will only discover them when they start to hurt us. Among those risks that are well known:
- the environment: Chinese citizens know by now what this means and they are afraid for their kids who have been breathing utterly polluted air over the last 2 decades. There is also soil poisoning, water pollution with cancer villages and so on.
- the climate: Chinese people have barely been driving cars for a decade and a half and they learn now that the exhaust of their cars is emitting CO2 in the atmosphere which is responsible for the warming of the planet that… is melting the ice caps at the poles which is increasing see levels and threatening to flood many big cities where most of the investments in Modernity have been realized. Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou...?
- all materials used in industrial production are forecast to peak in the coming years when their production is going to decrease. What materials will we use then? The same goes for energy as the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment announced on March 17th 2016.
- I could go on like that with other examples but you got the picture I suppose.
So was it worth the risk for China, in 1980, to take the decision to open and reform? Absolutely. Not having taken that risk would by now have concluded with the country being controlled by Western interests. The risk that was taken has definitely paid off. Henceforward the West has no chance to control China; furthermore it is in free fall!
My presentation on societal governance tried to indicate that the forms of governance vary according to the particular context of societies. The same goes for models of societal governance as for knowledge formation. Both are emerging out of a given context and so their substance is given by their context. From this I concluded that trying to impose one model of governance, that originated in one particular context, onto a society in another and different context is fraught to end with tears.
Different contexts also appear to have shaped different axioms of civilization. The axioms of some civilizations have reproduced to this very day but some have been lost for ever. In my understanding to have a fruitful conversation between civilizations it is necessary to come to terms with their mode of formation and their axioms. But by all accounts we are seriously lacking such a knowledge. As a result the necessary dialog between civilizations is inexistent which bodes ill for their relations and renders the conversation about solutions to common problems particularly difficult.
In 4.7.1 I proposed an analytical platform to help understand the working of societies. From my personal application of that platform it appears that Modernity has pushed humanity on the brink of disaster. See posts 13 to 18 of book 1.
It is my contention that, as a species, we have reached a fork on our path to the future. Or we continue as usual and the outcome is guaranteed to be our extinction. Or we come to terms with the reality of the moment and we act decisively to ensure a livable future for our children but to do that we have to address two essential questions:
- consciousness about the differences between civilizations.
- the responsibility of humanity toward the principle of life.
4.8.1. Differences between civilizations
Approaching this subject requires a high level of consciousness about how the mind operates and how culture is feeding the mind. The mind is what procures consciousness and consciousness is what allows to get the knowledge to understand the differences between civilizations. As I have tried to show all along this presentation of “From Modernity to After-Modernity” to increase the levels of consciousness within societies we have urgently to come to terms with the following facts:
- first of all: we have to recognize that the individual citizens, of the societies within the territory of a given civilization, unconsciously share certain axioms among themselves out of which they will build a shared understanding of reality. In all civilizations the knowledge about those axioms has always been the domain of the men of knowledge who were feeding these axioms in the societal worldview. Modernity got rid of the men of knowledge and replaced them with scientists who are in charge of producing “knowings” that corporations use to extract profits. But during this substitution humanity forgot about the essential principle of prudence that balances the outcome of consciousness with what the systemic reality deems to be workable. As a consequence we have been unconsciously destroying our habitat and the habitat of most other life forms. From this I conclude that societies have urgently to find a way to re-instate the men of knowledge as their guide in order to act sustainably.
- secondly: we have to recognize that societal worldviews are gluing the minds of citizens around a shared vision about what reality is all about. In that sense worldviews are absolutely necessary to sustain societies. Worldviews increase the cohesion of societies which is indispensable to ensure their reproduction. But Modernity has fragmented societies and this fragmentation has reached the level of atomization in Late-Modernity and so societies have lost any trace of cohesion which is a sure sign that they are already engaged in the process of their collapse. Most just don’t see this but it has already driven the political decision makers and the societal establishment of all societies on earth into panic mode. Their remedy is everywhere the same: – manipulation of their citizens minds to make believe that everything is fine, – spying on citizens’ activities and thoughts to stop them from interfering with the decision making process, – and if stopping the citizens, from interfering in the decision making process, does not work remains the last tool of power which is repression in all its forms. This can eventually contain the lid of the kettle for some time but if the problems are structural and do not find satisfying solutions one day the kettle explodes...
- third, in any given society, the citizens share a daily culture in the form of common ways of thinking and doing. Mutations appearing in daily culture eventually reproduce over the generations and make it in the worldview. See “culture, worldviews, civilizations”.
4.8.2. Humanity’s responsibility toward the principle of life
If we want to avoid the extinction of our species we have to come to terms with the devastation wrought about by Modernity. Notwithstanding the fact that this worldview is pathological it has spread to the four corners of the planet and is now a direct threat to life on earth. We are reaching a critical point and acting without any delay is imperative. The principle of knowledge has to be brought to the fore. Going forward knowledge has to trump power and to realize this we have to find a way to bring back the men of knowledge at the forefront of societies.
But successfully engaging such a turning of the paradigm of governance implies that we master the difference between relative and absolute consciousness. In “2.9.2. From relative to absolute consciousness” I wrote the following about relative knowledge: “Starting from the study of its localized basic constitutive parts, as science is doing, certainly projects some light on what is going on locally. But what is going on locally is merely the local manifestation of the actions of the whole as being expressed in matter, energy and eventually in consciousness. In other words these local manifestations are no more than the localized ripples and waves on the ocean of reality projected in time and space by the actions of the whole.”
And about absolute knowledge I wrote the following: “Pragmatism advises citizens to stay clear of absolute knowledge, for, it brings nothing meaningful in the management of their daily lives. Taoism is very clear on that subject. Absolute knowledge has always been the field of research by excellence of the men of knowledge and more particularly of the wisest among them; those who were considered their ultimate wisemen; their sages. So when societies lose their men of knowledge, their sages, they put themselves on a path to extinction”.
But realism tells us that it seems highly unlikely that Late-Modern societies are willingly going to transition to such a complexly refined program. Notwithstanding this lesson in realism those who feel like they could be the men of knowledge of After-Modernity should nevertheless strive to get a feel of what is absolute consciousness also called universal consciousness.
Life comes with responsibilities. The universe is not random. It is ordered and life is a part of that order. “The universe somehow does not care if a species goes extinct. It has the luxury of time. Species don't have that luxury. Extinction means the game of life is over. Other species arise and eventually conform to the path of the absolute and they survive. So life contains its code of conduct that imposes the conformity of the relative knowledge of a species to the absolute knowledge of the universe. That's the responsibility of a species.”
4.8.3. The responsibility of China in the present context
China is like the grand-mother of all civilizations and of all nations. Old age brings about some benefits. It distills the facts into abstractions and extracts the patterns that the facts leave on the lattices forming the span of time. Its axioms of civilization were derived from these patterns and its worldview adapted to the fluctuations and the ripples observed over the span of Milena.
The story of china’s societal evolution unfolds the pattern of animism and of the men of knowledge who acted in the service of their fellow tribesmen and later their fellow villagers and still later their fellow countrymen. To this very day, through order and through chaos and over Milena, the men of knowledge in China have played the leading role in shaping societal decisions.
The actions of the men of knowledge were also at the root of China’s concept of Tian Xia or “all under heaven”. In today’s context the meaning of the term goes something like “all humans on earth share the miseries inflicted upon them by Modernity ”. The miseries inflicted by Modernity on our whole species imply that the territory of After-Modernity is the whole world and solving humanity’s misery implies that we start thinking as citizens of the world and not any longer as citizens of nation-states.
If we juxtapose these elements we get the following:
- territory: “all humans on earth share the miseries inflicted upon them by Modernity ”
- sovereign: “through order and through chaos and over the Milena, the men of knowledge in China have played the leading role in shaping societal decisions ”
- worldview: “Old age brings about some benefits. It distills the facts into abstractions and extracts the patterns that the facts leave on the lattices forming the span of time. Its axioms of civilization were derived from these patterns and its worldview adapted to the fluctuations and the ripples observed over the span of Milena ”.
1. About dates:
1. Earliest agriculture: “The data from these studies extends the archaeobotanical record of millet exploitation to 11 cal kyBP in East Asia. The presence of the starch grains on processing tools is a strong indicator that millet seeds were ground into flour or meal using stone tools, then cooked in earthenware vessels as early as 10 cal kyBP.” in “Early millet use in northern China” (free PDF) by a team and edited by Bruce Smith, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
2. Earliest pottery: “According to critical examination of the earliest 14C dates associated with pottery, manufacture began in China at c. 13 700-13 300 BP, in Japan at c. 13 500 BP (and possibly as early as c. 13 800 BP), and in the Russian Far East at c. 13 300 BP. It is obvious that this was an almost simultaneous appearance of the new technology in different parts of East Asia, separated from each otherby several thousand kilometers.” in “Chronology of the earliest pottery in East Asia: progress and pitfalls” (free PDF) by Yaroslav V. Kuzmin
2. “The Chinese Neolithic: Trajectories to Early States” by Li Liu. Cambridge University Press. 2004. p.254.
3. “Longshan-Era Urbanism: The Role of Cities in Pre-dynastic China” by Paola Dematte (free PDF)
4. in “3.1. The Discovery of the Shang Dynasty” by Indiana University, – class text readings –Spring 2010 – R. Eno
5. in Wikipedia Yinxu
6. “Recent archaeometric research on ‘the origins of Chinese civilisation’ “. Yuan Jing & Rod Campbell (free PDF)
7. “Zhou Dynasty” by Cristian Violatti in “Ancient History Encyclopedia”.
8. “Running on empty: Russia has less than three decades of oil remaining” on Russia Television Online. 17 Mar, 2016.