The Story of Man Part 6



CARROLL & GRAF                       2007



Chapter 11: The Making of China

  • The sense of superiority displayed by the Greeks and Romans had its mirror image in China, where people looked out at the world and saw only barbarians.
  • The Silk Road became a conduit, not just for textiles from the east, but for wool, silver and gold from the west, and for the transfer of ideas in both directions.
  • Just as the Agricultural Revolution in China occurred later than that in the Fertile Crescent, so did the rise of towns and cities. When they did arise it was a result of the introduction of large-scale irrigation.
  • To exploit its potential to the full, a new kind of farming had to be invented. The staple crop of the region, rice, had hitherto been grown either dry, on rain-watered uplands, or in the shallow man-made pools called paddies.
  • From about 500 BC, a new method of rice farming was developed, using varieties that thrived in deep-water paddies.
  • War continued to be a matter pf personal combat between aristocratic charioteers, but as new iron weapons were invented, the balance of advantage swung in favour of armies of disciplined foot soldiers, as it had around the Mediterranean
  • From 481 BC to 221 BC, in what is known as the Warring States, war was a permanent feature of Chinese life. At the beginning of this period, 17 more or less equally matched states were competing for mastery.
  • By 318 BC, their number had been reduced to seven, when Quin embarked upon a campaign of conquest, which ended in 221 BC.
  • The country did not long remain unified, and its history for the next 2000 years would be a story of break-up, followed by chaos, followed by reunification.

A central element in the sense of historical continuity was supplied by the teachings of a great philosopher who was born in 551 BC, and who died, at the age of 73, at the outset of the Warring States period. His name was K’ung Fu-Tzu, or, as he is known to people outside China, Confucius. He may have been the child of impoverished nobility; he certainly grew up poor. Inspired by his widowed mother, he became an indefatigable learner and a brilliant teacher. In his forties and early fifties he was a successful career politician, but finding his rather strait-laced attitudes unwelcome in official circles, he went into voluntary exile for 12 years, devoting himself to the education of a band of disciples. At the age of 67, he returned home to teach, and to put his political and social theories into written form.

  • The driving principle of his thought was the search for what was good in the traditions and practices of the past, in order that they might be enshrined in guidelines for action in the present.
  • His main concern was the right ordering of society, and the qualities required of those who aspired to govern it.
  • He insisted that only those who had been appropriately educated were fit to exercise authority over their fellow men.
  • It was a proposition that would later form the basis of one of the most enduring features of Chinese society: the mandarin class of career civil servants, selected by competitive examination and responsible directly to the emperor, rather than serving the interests of a local aristocracy.
  • The system of administration by highly educated career civil servants had enormous strength, but contained its own weaknesses and the inevitable consequence was a ‘play safe’ attitude that not only dominated public administration, but infected thinking about life in general.
  • By the time the country was united in 221 BC, the tide of innovation was in full flow and the country experienced an Industrial Revolution not unlike that experienced by England in the 18th century. Some of the inventions brought into use at this time would not be introduced into Europe for another 1000 years.
  • There was a parallel revolution in agricultural practice. As early as 85 BC, the Chinese were using multi-row drill ploughs, with seed hoppers that automatically fed the seed to rows as they were drilled, something that would not appear in Europe until the 18th century.
  • In the 5th century BC, the Chinese increased the working capacity of their horses by devising the collar harness that is still used on working horses today.
  • This period saw, too, the invention of paper manufacture, with consequences for the entire world.
  • Some of the industrial activities undertaken in China at this time are breathtaking. By the first century BC, the Chinese were able to sink foot-wide boreholes, lined with bamboo tubing, to depths of nearly 5000 feet.
  • These advances in industry and agriculture both contributed to, and were driven by, a population explosion. Between AD 1 and 2 the imperial government conducted a census that revealed a population of 60 million, which equaled that of the entire Roman empire.
  • For the mass of the peasantry, living close to subsistence, the increase in numbers was not matched by a corresponding improvement in the standard of living.
  • The disaffection of an oppressed peasantry was not the only problem that China’s rulers had to contend with. There was also the ever-present threat from enemies beyond their frontiers.

One of the first acts of the Quin Emperor Shih Huang Ti, in 221 BC, had been to disarm the empire – apart from his own personal army – and to melt the confiscated weapons down for bells and statues. Having thus neutered any potential internal opposition, he turned his attention to the external threat, and ordered the construction of a ‘Long Wall’. This was the precursor of what non-Chinese know today as the Great Wall of China, or as it has been called, ‘the longest cemetery in the world’ (from the number of people who died during its construction). Completed in 214 BC, it was both a chain of watch-towers looking out across the steppes whence an attack might come, and a statement to outsiders of where the new empire’s boundaries lay.

With each new dynasty, the Confucian system of public administration would resume more or less unchanged. And Confucian theory had a formula to explain what had happened. A successful uprising was, by definition, proof that the previous emperor had ceased to govern his people in a proper way, and had therefore lost the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ that gave him his right to rule. The subsequent establishment of a new dynasty was evidence that the new emperor had received the Mandate of Heaven. This is an elusive concept, but one that has exercised a hold on the Chinese imagination for 2000 years and still has force today. It is intimately connected with a view of history that sees human events as a series of repeated cycles of prosperity, moral decline, dynastic collapse, chaos and dynastic renewal, leading to prosperity once again.

  • Confucianism is not a religion, in the sense that Christianity or Islam are. Confucius had no time for superstition, and the ethical system he espoused had no supernatural element.
  • It contained no heaven or hell, and, strictly speaking, it required no priesthood. But in practice the more senior Confucian officials gradually assumed responsibility for the performance of rituals dedicated to traditional gods.
  • As well as organizing water supplies when the rains failed, it became part of a city magistrate’s duty to lead prayers for rain. This religious role supplied a further strengthening of the power of the mandarin class, and a further enhancement of their status.
  • Of all the religions that would later offer the peoples of China the consolations that Confucianism could not, the first, and the most important, was Buddhism.
  • In a striking parallel with the experience of Christianity in the Roman empire, this imported religion would later survive periods of persecution to become the faith of choice, not only of a downtrodden peasantry, but of a significant proportion of the upper classes, whose pious donations financed the building, and swelled the coffers, of the monasteries and nunneries.
  • The huge increase in population – from a mere 20 million in 400 BC to more than 60 million in the year 100 – was reflected in the increase of large towns, in the populations of those towns, and in the amount of travel between them.
  • The consequence was a series of devastating epidemics as a succession of new viruses and bacteria found their way into urban concentrations of people without acquired immunities.
  • In 312, according to official records, only two in a hundred taxpayers in Shensi province survived.
  • By the fifth century the population of China, which in the year 100 had exceeded 60 million, was less than half that figure.
  • Some of this was attributable to war and famine, but much more was due to pestilence.
  • In China, as elsewhere, the domestication of animals and the invention of urban living had turned out to have another, much darker side.


Chapter 12: The World in 500

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