China is the oldest surviving civilization whose literary tradition stretches over more than three thousand years. Its earliest literature set patterns and posed questions for thousands of years to come and gave its civilization a sense of continuity and unity. China went through many changes and has hosted many languages. China was an idea tied to cultural values and the power of the written word. The people could resist change through cultural values, institutions, and writing and thus become “Chinese.” There is belief in cultural and political unity.
Beginnings: Early Sage Rulers
There was contact between sections, but they developed independently. In the second millennium B.C. a lineage of sage rulers laid the foundations for Chinese civilization. One can research an entire list of early rulers and what each contributed. Encapsulated in this lineage of legendary rulers are fundamental values of Chinese civilization: the importance of writing and divination; an economy based on intensive agriculture and silk production; a political philosophy of virtue that emphasizes fixed social roles; and practices of self-cultivation and herbal medicine.
Earliest Dynasties, China During the Bronze Age and the Beginning of Writing
China’s Bronze Age began around 2000 B.C. They used bronze for molding weapons, spoke-wheel chariots and bronze vessels used in ceremonies. The second dynasty was the Shang from 1500-1045 B.C. They had a complex state system, large settlements, and, most important, a common writing system. Writing was part of ritual practices that guided political decision-making and harmonized the relation between human beings and the world of unpredictable spiritual forces in the cosmos. The Chinese venerated their dead ancestors and various gods.
The Zhou Conquest and the “Mandate of Heaven”
Around 1045 B.C. the Zhou people overthrew the Shang. The Zhou claimed a higher moral ground. After the Zhou conquest, the claim to power in China depended on the claim to virtuous rule, which in large measure meant holding to the statutes and models of the earliest sage rulers and the virtuous early Zhou kings.
The Decline of the Eastern Zhou and the Age of China’s Philosophical Masters
In 771 B.C. the king was killed. The Eastern Zhou Period was one of the most formative periods in Chinese history. There was interstate diplomacy, new military technology, and a new class of advisers and strategists. The Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.) was characterized by coercive drafts, raw power politics and strategic deception. The crossbow was invented. Confucius formulated visions of how to live and govern well in a corrupt world. “A hundred schools of thought bloomed.” Chinese call the texts written by masters or compiled by their disciples “Masters Literature.” Masters Literature flourished from the time of Confucius through the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 C.E.) during which there was a broad spectrum of opinions on fundamental questions. The most prominent schools were the Confucians, the Mohists (named after their master, Mozi), the Daoists, the Logicians, the Legalists, and the Yin-Yang Masters, each advocating its own programs, adopting different styles of argument, and engaging the rival camps in polemical disputes. Confucianism and Daoism became the intellectual and religious backbone of traditional China, joined later by Buddhism. There are differences between the Confucians and the Daoists. Confucius, the first and most exemplary master whose sayings are preserved in The Analects, believed that a return to the values of the virtuous early Zhou kings, a respect for social hierarchies, self-cultivation through proper ritual behavior, and the study of ancient texts, could bring order. The most radical opponents of Confucius and his followers were thinkers who advocated passivity and following of the natural “way,” or dao. The Daoists had a deep mistrust of human-made things: conscious effort, artifice, and words. Laozi, a collection of poems and the foundational text of Daoism, proposed passivity as a means of ultimately prevailing over one’s opponents and gaining spiritual and political control. By contrast, many passages in Zhuangzi, the second most important Daoist text of Masters Literature, renounce any claim to societal influence and celebrate the joy of an unharmed life devoted to reflecting on the workings of the mind and on the relativity of perception and values.
Foundations of Imperial China: The Qin and the Han
The state of Qin, which had a reputation for ruthlessness and untrustworthiness, but whose armies were well disciplined and well supplied, destroyed the Zhou royal domain in 256 B.C. and conquered the last of the independent states in 221 B.C.: one of the most important dates in Chinese history. Conscious of the historical moment’s weight, the king of Qin conferred the title “First Emperor of Qin” upon himself to mark the novelty of his achievement. Although the Quin was a short-lived dynasty, many of its measures—designed to create a new type of state with a strong centralized bureaucracy—were adopted and adapted by the rulers of the subsequent Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 C.E.). With the Qin unification, China was finally an empire. Imperial China, with its upheavals, dynastic shifts, and momentous changes, would last another 2, 100 years—until the Republican Revolution of 1911. The kings of Qin reduced the power of the old nobility and based governance on a direct connection between ruler and bureaucrats controlled by the strict rule of written law codes and policies that were adopted by the new empire. The “Qin Burning of the Books,” of 213 B.C. was one of the most traumatic events in Chinese history. Liu Bang became the first emperor of the Han Dynasty; a Dynasty that lasted more than four hundred years. The Han was the crucial phase of imperial consolidation that set patterns for future Chinese dynasties. The most influential Han ruler was Emperor Wu. He was the first emperor to privilege Confucian scholars and teach the so-called Five Classics: the Classic of Changes, Classic of Documents, Classic of Poetry, Spring and Autumn Annals and the Record of Rites. During Emperor Wu’s reign, the first comprehensive history of China was written. These first 1,500 years of Chinese history, from the Shang Dynasty to the end of the Han Dynasty, saw the emergence of enduring political institutions and ideologies, of moral standards and social manners. The literature produced during this period encapsulates these values and formative patterns and is still the canonical foundation of Chinese civilization.