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The Zhou dynasty: c.1100 - 256 BC

In about 1050 BC (the date is disputed among scholars by several decades in either direction), a new power is established in China. This is the Zhou dynasty, deriving from a frontier kingdom between civilization and marauding tribes, westward of An-yang, up towards the mountains. After forming a confederation of other neighbouring states, the Zhou overwhelm the Shang rulers. The new capital is at Ch'ang-an (now known as Xi'an), close to the Wei river.

From here the Zhou control the entire area of central China, from the Huang Ho to the Yangtze. They do so through a network of numerous subordinate kingdoms, in a system akin to feudalism.

In 771 BC the Zhou are driven east from Xi'an, by a combination of barbarian tribes and some of their own dependent kingdoms. They re-establish themselves at Loyang, where they remain the nominal rulers of China (known as the Eastern Zhou) until 256 BC. During this long period their status is largely ceremonial and religious. Their main role is to continue the sacrifices to their royal ancestors - from whom the rulers of most of the other rival kingdoms also claim descent.

In the 8th century there are hundreds of small kingdoms in central China. By the end of the 5th there are only seven. Tension and constant warfare give the period its character.

Confucius and Confucianism: from the 6th century BC

A lasting result of these troubled centuries is the adoption of the ideas of K'ung Fu Tzu, known to the west as Confucius. Like other spiritual leaders of this same period (Zoroaster, Mahavira, Gautama Buddha), Confucius is essentially a teacher. As with them, his ideas are spread by his disciples. But Confucius teaches more worldly principles than his great contemporaries.

The unrest of his times prompts him to define a pattern of correct behaviour. The purpose is to achieve a just and peaceful society, but the necessary first step is within each individual. Confucius lays constant emphasis on two forms of harmony. Music is good because it suggests a harmonious state of mind. Ritual is good because it defines a harmonious society.

The Confucian ideals are deeply conservative, based on an unchanging pattern of respect upwards, to those higher in rank (older members of a family, senior members of a community), which brings with it a corresponding obligation downwards. The pattern is extended outside this immediate world, with the highest respect accorded to the dead - in the form of ancestor worship.

This concept of mutual obligation shares something with feudalism, but it gives less honour to military prowess. It is more like a utopian bureaucracy, with responsible Confucians on hand at every level to oil the machinery of state.

Confucius runs a school in his later years, proclaiming it open to talent regardless of wealth. His young graduates, more intellectually agile than their contemporaries, are much in demand as advisers in the competing kingdoms of China. So the master's ideas are spread at a practical level, and his disciples begin as they will continue - as civil servants. Known in China as scholar officials, they acquire the name 'mandarin' in western languages from a Portuguese corruption of a Sanskrit word.

The idea of a career open to talent becomes a basic characteristic of Chinese society. By the 2nd century BC China's famous examination system has been adopted, launching the world's first meritocracy (see Chinese examinations).

Daoism: from the 4th century BC

Confucianism is so practical a creed that it can scarcely be called a religion. It is ill-equipped to satisfy the human need for something more mysterious. China provides this in the form of Daoism.

Laozi, the supposed founder of Daoism, is traditionally believed to have been an older contemporary of Confucius. It is more likely that he is an entirely mythical figure. The small book which he is supposed to have written dates from no earlier than the 4th century BC. It is an anthology of short passages, collected under the title Daodejing. Immensely influential over the centuries, it is the basis for China's alternative religion.

Daodejing means 'The Way and its Power'. The way is the way of nature, and the power is that of the man who gives up ambition and surrenders his whole being to nature. How this is achieved is a subtle mystery. But the Daodejing suggests that the Way of water (the humblest and most irresistible of substances) is something which a wise man should imitate.

In the late 20th century, an era of ecology and New Age philosophies, the 'alternative' quality of Daoism has given it considerable appeal in the west. In Chinese history it is indeed alternative, but in a different sense. In the lives of educated Chinese, Daoism has literally alternated with Confucianism.

Confucianism and Daoism are like two sides of the same Chinese coin. They are opposite and complementary. They represent town and country, the practical and the spiritual, the rational and the romantic. A Chinese official is a Confucian while he goes about the business of government; if he loses his job, he will retire to the country as a Daoist; but a new offer of employment may rapidly restore his Confucianism.

The same natural cycle of opposites is reflected in the Chinese theory of Yin and yang, which also becomes formulated during the long Zhou dynasty.

Legalism: from the 4th century BC

Although the Zhou dynasty is the cradle of the two most lasting schools of Chinese thought, Confucianism and Daoism, it is brought to an end by a more brutal philosophy usually described as Legalism. Expressed in a work of the 4th century BC, the Book of Lord Shang, it responds to the lawlessness of the age by demanding more teeth for the law. A strict system of rewards and punishments is to be imposed upon society. But the ratio is to be one reward to every nine punishments.

Punishment produces force, force produces strength, strength produces awe, awe produces virtue. Virtue has its origin in punishments', proclaims the Book of Lord Shang.It is read with attention by the ruler of the Qin.

The Qin dynasty: 221 - 206 BC

By the 4th century BC the numerous Zhou kingdoms have been reduced, by warfare and conquest, to just seven. The most vigorous of these is the Qin kingdom, occupying the Wei valley. This region, as when the Zhou were here centuries earlier, is a buffer state between the civlized China of the plains and the barbaric tribal regions in the mountains.

The Qin have learnt from their tribal neighbours how to fight from the saddle, instead of in the cumbersome war chariots used by the Zhou kingdoms. And Legalism gives them a healthy disregard for the Confucian pretensions of the more sophisticated kingdoms. In particular they are unimpressed by the claims to preeminence of the feeble state of Zhou.

In 256 the Qin overrun Zhou, bringing to an abrupt end a dynasty which has lasted on paper more than 800 years. In the following decades they conquer and annexe each of the other five kingdoms. The last is subdued in 221 BC.

The whole of central China is now for the first time under a single unified control, in effect creating a Chinese empire. The Qin ruler who has achieved it gives himself an appropriate new title, Shi Huangdi, the 'first sovereign emperor'. His Qin kingdom (pronounced 'chin') provides the name which most of the world has used ever since for this whole region of the earth - China.

Shi Huangdi rapidly sets in place a dictatorship of uniformity, based on terror. Much use is made of a scale of five standard punishments - branding on the forehead, cutting off the nose, cutting off the feet, castration and death.

The only approved commodities in this empire are items of practical use. These do not include books or Confucians. In 213 BC it is ordered that all books (except those on medicine, agriculture and divination) are to be burnt (see Bamboo books). A year later it is reported that 460 Confucian scholars have been executed.

The collapse of the first empire: 210-206 BC

Like other megalomaniacs, Shi Huangdi predicts that his empire will last almost to eternity. 11,000 generations is his claim. In the event it lasts less than one generation - from 221 to 206 BC.

When the emperor dies, in 210, the arrangement of his tomb reflects both his paranoia and his power. In his determination that no thief shall discover and desecrate his resting place, the workmen who construct it are buried with him - or so Chinese tradition has always maintained, adding that the tomb has crossbows permanently cocked to impale any intruder. When the tomb is eventually discovered, in 1975, it reveals an even more amazing secret - the famous Terracotta army of Xi'an.

Turmoil follows the death of the Qin emperor. During it his chief minister, Li Ssu, receives his own dose of Legalist medicine.

His downfall is engineered by a palace eunuch, who arranges for him to suffer each of the first four punishments in turn and then, without nose, feet or genitals, to be flogged and cut in two at the waist.

A series of peasant rebellions, resulting from the brutality of the regime, accompanies the rapid collapse of the Qin dynasty. From the chaos there emerges the first undeniably great Chinese dynasty, the Han.

But the centralizing effort of the Qin ruler does bequeath some lasting benefits to China. The Chinese will never again forget a political ideal deriving from this time - that the natural condition of their great and isolated land mass is to be a single entity. A practical token of this ideal is left by the Qin emperor in the form of the Great Wall of China - a boundary which securely defines the nation on the only side where nature does not already do so by mountain, jungle or sea.

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