Thursday, January 26, 2012

Early Imperial China I

I am in the thick of another place, another time: early imperial China. I am concentrating on the Zhou, Qin and Han dynasties, and very interesting they are too.

I started with a film called Confucius (551 - 479 BC) to give me a taste of the 'Spring and Autumn' era at the end of the Zhou Dynasty. It seemed windswept, cold and desperate. Reading about the philosopher's life in the Cambridge Illustrated History of China, the film seems true to life. Women were little seen except by the hearth or, once, dressed in red silk dancing in a troupe. Confucius was a teacher longing to give advice to the leaders of the many different states which were at war with each other just then. People should put others first, he thought, and should respect authority.

The film shows him wandering around the plains of China for most of his life before kings realised the wisdom of his words.

His disciples wrote down his words in a series of 'Analects' ('Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you,' was one of the things he said (which seems familiar)) and these were taught to subsequent generations. Mencius, for example, was taught by Confucius' grandson and asked King Hui of Liang (370-319 BC):

'Why must your majesty use the word 'profit'? All I am concerned with are the good and right. If your majesty says, 'How can I profit my state?' your officials will say, 'How can I profit my family?' and officers and common people will say, 'How can I profit myself?' Once superiors and inferiors are competing for profit the state will be in danger.'

Which seems especially pertinent today.

The Daoists, which were around at the same time, offered another philosophy which was more mystical and centred on the 'Way of Dao' or the source of all that exists. The Daoist works seem more poetic and open to interpretation. I suppose it could be summed up with the words of the Beatles: 'Let It Be.'

One of the source books, 'Laozi' seemed to recommend ignorance:

'A sage governs this way:
He empties people's minds and fills their bellies
He weakens their wills and strengthens their bones
Keep the people always without knowledge and without desires,
for then the clever will not dare act.
Engage in no action and order will prevail.'

However, Zhuangzi (369 - 286) seemed to give a more humorous interpretation, and I have downloaded his book of parodies and parables onto my Kindle.

The age that brought Confucius and Tao in China, also brought Buddha in India and Aristotle, Plato and Socrates in Greece. Maybe people had settled down long enough to think, or as the Cambridge Illustrated History puts it, ' began to stand back and look beyond'.

The west and the east are compared at the end of the chapter on the Qin and the Han Dynasties that came next. This is roughly synchronous to the Roman Empire and the two have something in common: they both built walls to keep out barbarians, they both sent out settlers and officials to administer and gather taxes from their colonies, educated the local land owners, and even the areas of the two empires were similar. However, there were differences too: the Chinese culture was crop-based, and there was much greater cultural cohesion due to the use of one common script.

The agrarian society is yet another reason for the decline in Chinese science in later years (which so fascinated Joseph Needham): commerce was held in contempt in ancient China, and merchants were heavily taxed. During the Han Dynasty the state also took over the distribution of grain, as well as the running of the iron foundries and salt works. All of these discouraged trade and industry: both of which drive the discovery of innovations in science and technology.

Other reasons (as I have discovered earlier in my reading) may have been the prestige of a career in the civil service (so gifted people were attracted to this rather than to a career in innovation), and the lack of an aristocracy (this meant there were no factions, hence little competition for power and so little internal fighting - which again precluded the necessity to innovate).

Having made notes on the first three chapters, I decided I wanted to learn a little more about The First Emperor, and so have moved onto the book I bought about three years ago when I went to see the Terracotta army in the British Museum with my mother. I have only read a couple of chapters but the text is proving to be as inspiring as the photographs.


Blogger Anne S said...

I've always been a bit of a fan of the Tao Te Ching and Confucius and thus the I Ching, which I have been consulting for years. Have you tried it? It uncannily gives very sound and accurate advice. The Wilhelm edition that I use references ancient Chinese history in the commentaries at the back.

Sun Jan 29, 01:34:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Your knowledge always surprises me, Anne! No, I'd not heard of the I Ching. I shall have to investigate; I have found that advice from thousands of years ago is sometimes surprisingly fresh and pertinent. I suppose it is eveidence that human nature is the same now as it has always been.

Sun Jan 29, 11:02:00 am  
Blogger Anne S said...

Using the I Ching is like seeking advice from an old sage. You develop a relationship with it the more you use it and become familiar with the meanings of the hexagrams. And it directs you, slowly but surely, to adopting a taoist attitude to life.

Mon Jan 30, 12:58:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Anne! I just had a look at an on-line site and see exactly what you mean.

Mon Jan 30, 09:17:00 am  
Blogger shinyoung lee said...

Oh! How I love to read book from and about China or Chinese people. I'm fascinated by them even when I was a kid.^^* Your books look so interesting.

Sun Nov 09, 01:31:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

They were indeed, Shinyoung! There's so much I love about China and Chinese literature. They both fascinate me.

Sun Nov 09, 11:54:00 am  

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