The Chou, 1050-256 BC


The Chou, 1050-256 BC

   When the Chou usurped the throne from the Shang dynasty, China itself was split into several states. The Shang, in fact, only had power over a relatively small region in the Yellow River area. The Chou occupied an area to the west of the Shang kingdom, but when the Chou kings overthrew the Shang, the Chou kingdom became incredibly large.

   According to Chinese history, the Shang dynasty had degenerated morally; the last of the Shang kings, Chou, was totally corrupt. The Chou usurpers, on the other hand, King Wen and his son, King Wu, were virtuous and followed the moral ways of heaven. What we do know from Shang records, is that the Chou were largely regarded as barbarians by the Shang. In the archaeological record, they seem to be a stone-age people occupying the area around the city of Sian on the Wei River. We also know that the Shang dynasty was severely weakened in its constant warfare with peoples to the north who encroached on Shang territory. The Chou took advantage of this weakness in 1050 to overthrow the Shang.China Atlas

Chou Dynasty Map


   The Chou, however, seem to have adopted Shang life and Shang government, so that there was really no difference between the two dynasties. As under the Shang, government was largely in the hands of city-states; since the territory greatly expanded after the Chou invasion, the number of city-states under the king probably numbered around two hundred to two hundred and fifty. The Chou adopted the agriculture of the Shang as well as Shang writing.

   The Chou, however, governed somewhat differently. Although the basic political unit was the city-state, the Chou appointed their own kinsmen, or the kinsmen of their mosted trusted allies, to rule over the various city-states. The Chou had learned from their own successful usurpation of Shang power: much of the Chou success was due primarily to their winning-over of disaffected city-states against the Shang. The Chou also established two capitals, one their traditional capital in the west, and a second one in the east at Loyang on the Yellow River.

The Mandate of Heaven

   The Chou also had to contend with the validity of their rule. In order to convince their subject peoples, especially the nobles, of the legitimacy of their power, the Chou invented a new system of authority which they called t'ien ming, or "the Mandate of Heaven." This concept is still an integral aspect of Chinese theories of authority. The Chou defined the kingship as an intermediary position between heaven and earth; the Chinese character for emperor or lord, "ti," demonstrates this eloquently. The ideograph consists of three horizontal lines joined by a vertical line. This represents the connection between heaven (at the top) and the earth (at the bottom). This relationship is mediated by the lord or emperor (the center horizontal line). Heaven ("t'ien") desires that humans be provided for in all their needs, and the emperor, according to the idea of "t'ien ming" is appointed by heaven to see to the welfare of the people. This is the "Decree" or "Mandate" of heaven. If the emperor or king, having fallen into selfishness and corruption, fails to see to the welfare of the people, heaven withdraws its mandate and invests it on another. The only way to know that the mandate has passed is the overthrow of the king or emperor; if usurpation succeeds, then the mandate has passed to another, but if it fails, then the mandate still resides with the king.China Glossary

T'ien Ming


   The Mandate of Heaven is probably the most critical social and political concept in Chinese culture. It explains historical change, but also provides a profound moral theory of government that is based on the selfless dedication of the ruler to the benefit of the general population. The concept also recreates the Chinese concept of Heaven, which was derived from the earlier concept of a "Lord on High," or "Shang-Ti," into a force that regulates the moral universe. It is this moral aspect of Heaven and the "Mandate of Heaven," which was to affect the general tendency of Chinese culture and philosophy to focus on moral and social issues—more so than any other ancient culture.

The Eastern Chou

   Around 771 BC, northern barbarians overran the western Chou and conquered their capital city. The Chou king was killed, but his son, the heir to the throne, fled to Loyang and established his government there. This begins the period of the Eastern Chou, which was to last until its overthrow by the Ch'in in 256 BC; in Chinese history, this period is called "the Spring and Autumn period" (771-401 BC) and the "Warring States Period" (401-256 BC). This era of the Eastern Chou would also see the most energetic flowering of Chinese thought and culture in Chinese history. For it is during the reign of the Eastern Chou that the greatest philosophers established the rudiments of Chinese philosophy, ethics, political theory, and culture.

   In the Spring and Autumn period (771-401 BC), China largely consisted of a group of minimally powerful kingdoms; the Chou themselves never regained enough military or political power to reconquer the west or even to maintain much control over the city-states they ruled over. Because of the instability of these kingdoms, and because of the encroachments on their territories by barbarian tribes to the south, the smaller territories entered into alliances with one another and agreed to have certain territorial lords rule over them as "hegemons." So the Spring and Autumn period was one of great uncertainty and danger, in which territory shifted back and forth, invasions were frequent, and alliances formed and dissolved with astonishing rapidity.

The One Hundred Schools

   In the latter years of the Chou, from the close of the Spring and Autumn period all the way to the unification of China under the Ch'in in 256 BC, Chinese thought entered its most creatively productive period. All the major schools of Chinese thought were laid out in this incredible period of Chinese culture; the Chinese historians refer to this cultural flowering as "The Period of The One Hundred Schools" (551-233 BC). The most important figure in this period is Kung Fu Tzu, or Confucius, who lived in the middle of the sixth century BC. He established a rigorously ethical philosophy that eschewed speculative thinking on metaphysics. His goal was to reform government so that it could better take care of the welfare of the people. Another philosopher, Lao Tzu also sought to reform government, but his was a less hard-headed philosophy. He is credited with being the founder of Taoism, which was a much more passive and metaphysical approach to the ethical universe. As in Confucianism, its central tenet is living according to the Way (Tao) of Heaven; Confucianism, however, construed the Way of Heaven as involving an active moral life; Lao Tzu on the other hand advised non-interference and non-striving. While there may not actually have been a real person called Lao Tzu, the second founder of Taoism, Chuang Tzu, certainly did exist. He taught largely the same philosophy. The two, however, did not believe that the Tao could be spoken of in language; therefore their writing is paradoxical and often impenetrable. The third major school of the period was founded by Mo Tzu, who also sought to reform government so that it guaranteed the welfare of the people. He, however, believed that the root cause of human misery was "selective love," and so he preached a "universal love." By that he did not mean some 1960's emotionalism; rather, he believed that humans should regard their obligations to other humans as universal. Normally, we believe that we owe our close relations a level of courtesy and help that we would not ordinarily afford to perfect strangers. Mo Tzu believed that we owe all humans the same obligations we owe to our closest relations. If we all observe those obligations, such things as warfare and starvation would disappear. Finally, the last of the major schools were the Legalists. In reality an off-shoot of Confucianism, the Legalists believed that humans were basically evil and selfish. The best form of government, that is, the government that best contributed to the welfare of the people, would be one that strictly held humankind's base instincts in check. This government would be ruled by strict and harsh laws; punishment would be severe and swift. This belief in rule by law is why this school is called "Legalist." None of these schools of thought, which all had government reform as their target, ever influenced the Chou government. The first government to adopt any of these theories of government was the Ch'in who adopted Legalism. The result was brutal, but the Ch'in Legalist inventions became absolutely central to later Chinese governments.Chinese Philosophy

Confucius
The Legalists
Lao Tzu
Mencius
Mo Tzu


The Warring States Period

   This less than delicate balance fell into chaos in the century and a half that concluded Chou rule. Alliances proved volatile and eventually fell apart as large states began to actively invade and swallow up the less powerful states. By the beginning of the fourth century, only eight or nine very large states remained. All of the conflict of the Warring States period resulted from the search to see who would control all of China.

   China was on the path to a single, unified state, a single empire. The population of China had grown precipitously during the Spring and Autumn periods; the working of iron and its effects on agricultural production had greatly increased the population (in the fourth century BC, China was the most populated region in the world—there is no point in history where that has not been true.) Warfare had become a large-scale affair in the Spring and Autumn period; no longer were armies small and led by an aristocracy. They were huge, conscript armies led by professional soldiers. A professional government class was growing, a nobility that referred to itself by the name, "chün tzu," or "superior man." All of this was driving China inexorably into a unified state. The forgers of that state would be the Ch'in, a ruthless and daring people on the farthest western reaches of China.

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-5-96