Ancient Chinese Culture Case Study

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Ancient Chinese Culture Case Study



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Under the Han, the first population censuses began being taken. These tell us that the population of the Chinese empire at the beginning of the first century CE i. About years later the figure had dropped somewhat, to 50 millions. This was as a result of the upheavals linked to the Wang Mang episode of 9 to 23 CE; but also perhaps to the declining well-being of the common people under the late Han dynasty. This was the situation at the end of the ancient period; in Medieval China and into modern times, the Chinese people have been continuing to expand, firstly completing the settlement of the Yangtze basin, then the southern provinces, and finally the south west and the north, in Manchuria.

According to the traditional Confucian view, society is made up of four classes: government officials, farmers, artisans and merchants. This scheme exalts public officials as shepherds of the flock; it esteems farmers as the economic basis for the whole of society; and recognizes artisans as being of some use; but it denigrates merchants as being greedy, parasites on the rest of society, making themselves rich by making others poor. The view of society reflected Confucian ideals much more than it did social realities at any time in Chinese history. However, it does express a basic truth — that Ancient China was like all ancient societies a hierarchical society. It contained different social groups, with differing levels of wealth and influence.

The roles of these different groups — their composition and relative position in relation to one another — was always changing. Shang dynasty society was dominated by an hereditary warrior aristocracy, and the same was true under the early Zhou dynasty. Its economic power was based on fief-holding : the highest nobility were regional lords controlling large chunks of territory, and answering to them were lesser lords holding smaller territories.

All these fiefs were farmed by serfs — peasants tied to their lands, who had to provide their lord tribute in kind as well as with labor and military service. As this class emerges into the light of history, it was organized into clans — groups of families tracing their descent back to a common ancestor. This was especially the case with the lesser lords, for whom, in the tumultuous conditions of the day, these clans constituted a sort of self-help group, offering protection and support to its individual families. As time went by some clans became more and more prominent, and in the Spring and Autumn period traditionally BCE they became a threat to the power of the regional princes who themselves had reduced the Zhou king to a cipher.

This situation was highly destabilizing and could not last. Wars between the regional lords led to some subduing others to form states. At the same time, bitter civil wars within these expanding states eliminated many of the most powerful clans. To consolidate their positions, the regional princes — now effectively rulers of independent states — began gathering the reins of power more firmly into their own hands. They brought their armies more directly under their own control and created bureaucracies answerable to themselves to administer their states.

It was in these institutions that power now resided, and to staff them the princes turned, not to the aristocrats, but to members of the gentry class. Such men had lower status and less wealth than the nobles but more education and greater loyalty. The gentry class originated in Shang and early Zhou times as groups of warriors who made up the personal retinues of the lords. Thus they remained until the Spring and Autumn period, when the princes of the expanding states into which China was now divided looked to them to officer their new armies and staff their new bureaucracies. The princes rewarded these servants with estates — not nearly as large of the fiefs of the old aristocracy but able to sustain a gentleman and his family in a suitable lifestyle — and the gentry became a landed class.

Some members of this group rose to high office, as army commanders and ministers. The gentry class thus emerged as the most influential class in Chinese society. Men of this class looked to educational achievement rather than feats of arms as their badge of honor, and fixed their ambition on a career in government instead of military service. An official career in Han times was for the most part open only to members of the gentry class, which, although much larger than the old aristocracy had been, still remained a very small group within the wider society of ancient China.

Members of this group, being landowners, albeit mostly on a modest scale, had enough wealth to pay private tutors to prepare their sons for a career in government. Already by the dawn of the imperial age, that quintessential figure, the scholar-official , could be discerned, that would remain a continuing presence in Chinese history through to the 20th century.

At the beginning of the Han dynasty, few aristocrats, or indeed wealthy landowners of any sort, had survived the tumultuous times which went before. However, under the Han, senior public officials, including ministers, governors and commanders, received good salaries, which were presumably sometimes supplemented by generous presents from the emperor or from people wanting a favor. They could become very wealthy, as could a few merchants , particularly wholesale grain traders and those in the iron and salt industries. The safest way for these new super-rich groups to invest wealth was by buying land, and over time a new class of big landowners began emerged.

In 9 AD, however, a chief minister called Wang Mang seized the throne, and attempted to put the clock back by championing the poor peasants at the expense of the landowning elite. This aroused such opposition that in 23 CE he was killed, and after a period of widespread disturbance the Han dynasty was restored the throne. The emperors of the later Han dynasty or Eastern Han , as it was traditionally called owed their throne to the support of this new landed class. As a result, government policies now favored this group.

Landed estates grew unchecked and many peasants lost their land to become tenant farmers or serfs. The rich, in short, got richer and the poor got poorer. High posts at court and in the bureaucracy increasingly went to members of this super-elite, and they ensured that the interests of the great landowners were well served. This class held its dominance in Chinese politics and society for many centuries — through the long period of division which followed the fall of the Han dynasty and well into the period of unification under the Sui and Tang dynasties.

The flip side of the rise of this new aristocracy was the decline of the peasantry, which was a direct cause of the downfall of the Han dynasty. Under the Shang , most of the population were peasants farming small plots of land. Since this land was controlled by aristocrats, the peasants had to give part of their crops as tribute and were required to follow their lord to war, or to work on a project which he wanted carrying out, such as digging a canal, building a dam or constructing a palace.

The peasants continued in this condition of hereditary serfdom under the early Zhou. In this, settlers in new frontier communities would lay out a field pattern which gave each family a portion of land, with every ninth field being allocated to the local lord. The peasants would farm this on his behalf. The name derives from the fact that these portions of land would be clustered round a spring or a well, thus all being within easy reach of fresh water.

In this system, when a group of peasant families according to the later ideal, eight in number were settled in an area of land by a local lord, each was allotted a plot to farm. This system, idealized in later times, probably formed an organizing structure in many rural areas, particularly where a farming colony had been set up in frontier territory as we have noted, the early Zhou period was a time of rapid expansion. In any event, as late as the 6th century BCE most peasants were serfs, tied to the lands they farmed. From that time onwards, however, more and more of them cast off their bondage to become free farmers.

In the intense competition between the states into which China had become fragmented, the princes felt the need to maximize their tax base. In the mid-fourth century BCE, they therefore converted the feudal obligations of the peasants on these lands into obligations to the state — in other words, to pay tribute and render military and labor services to the prince rather than to a local lord. The princes also freed the peasants from their ancestral bondage to their plots, giving them the right to buy and sell land. They thus gave the peasants an incentive to work hard to develop their farms and invest in the new iron tools which were coming into use, so that, eventually, they could grow more food and pay more taxes.

Moreover, it would naturally be the most hard-working and successful peasants who would buy out the less efficient ones, thus further increasing the productivity of the land and the taxes flowing therefrom. This process was undoubtedly helped along by the fact that the aristocratic clans were busy eliminating themselves in vicious civil wars of the time, so that more and more land ended up in the hands of the princes. There was of course a downside to this development.

Some of the freehold farmers prospered , but others did not. Whilst the former were able to increase their holdings, and even become small landlords, the latter had to sell even the small plots they had and become tenants. This was intended to alleviate the suffering of the people during famines. The Later Han government increasingly served the interests of the great landowners. Landed estates grew unchecked and many peasants lost their land to become tenant farmers. Moreover, the complex and costly operations which in the early and middle Han had been undertaken on a regular basis, such as maintaining the large-scale irrigation systems on which much agriculture depended, keeping the dykes in good order and dredging rivers, began to fail.

Flooding occurred more often. According to the traditional Chinese view, the town dwellers — artisans and merchants — were the least favored of the four classes. In reality, these classes were usually better off than the peasants, and during the long Zhou period, as the economy expanded, the merchants especially flourished. Towns and cities could be found in China as far back as the Shang dynasty , if not before. Here, a class of highly skilled craft workers produced luxury goods — amongst them some of the most beautiful bronze vessels ever produced — for the kings and their courts.

Likewise, in the small walled towns of the early Zhou artisans were mainly engaged in suppling the needs of the ruling class. From middle Zhou times c. The merchant class especially became more numerous, wealthier and more influential as a class. Both the Qin and Han regimes discriminated against the merchants, and from time to time levied arbitrary taxes on them. But of course a large nation such as China needs a thriving commercial sector so that goods can be distributed efficiently over longer or shorter distances. Peace and stability resulted in economic expansion , to the advantage of the urban classes. Some Han merchants became extremely wealthy indeed, especially those in the iron and salt industries, and wholesale grain merchants.

These men were much better off than all but the wealthiest of the gentry class. Slaves were not even mentioned as one of the four classes of traditional Chinese thought: they were not regarded as a members of society — they were possessions, like oxen and pigs. Under the Shang there existed a large class of slaves. This perhaps reflects the comparative under-population of northern China at this time, at least when compared to later periods of Chinese history. War captives and possibly criminals would have been put to work on public works projects, such as the construction of town walls, places, temples and flood-defenses, or in fields belonging to kings and aristocrats.

Here, they would have been working alongside peasants undertaking their period of forced labor, though probably suffering greater mistreatment. In Zhou times slavery became less prominent. Slavery would have been less important, and anyway, perhaps the Zhou were less inclined to enslave defeated people and instead benefit from the tribute their new subjects could yield them. This was quite unlike in Greek and Roman society, for example. They were mostly used in domestic service, and perhaps in mines and quarries and other workplaces with terrible conditions. In Shang and early Zhou times, the social groups in society — the aristocracy and their warrior-entourages, the traders and artisans, the peasants and slaves — were fixed hereditary classes; there was probably very little movement between them.

Linked to all the other changes in Chinese society from mid-Zhou times onwards, social classes became much more fluid. The aristocracy found their feudal privileges undermined, and their fiefs taken from them. A new office-holding class of landed gentry took their place, the backbone of the administrations of the territorial princes. Some members of this class rose very high in the service of the princes, gaining fame and wealth as ministers or army commanders. Some wholesale merchants also became extremely wealthy. As in all pre-industrial societies, the best way to invest wealth was to buy up land, and so these men, merchants, ministers and generals, were able to become big landowners.

Such was the turbulence of the later Zhou period and then the Qin period, however, that it is doubtful whether many of their descendants of they were able to hang on to their estates for many generations. Things were otherwise under the stable conditions of the long-lasting Han dynasty, however. The gentry class continued to fill the new imperial civil service, but again, in each generation, some reached the top of government, and were rewarded with magnificent salaries and gifts.

At the same time, despite official discrimination against them, some merchants were also able to acquire huge wealth. These top officials and super-rich merchants were able to establish big landowning families which would endure for centuries, becoming the nucleus for a new aristocracy which, by the end of the Han dynasty, completely dominated Chinese society. Those lower down the social scale could also experience social mobility. Under the Shang and early Zhou , peasants formed a hereditary class of serfs, tied to the lands they farmed.

From mid-Zhou times more and more of them ceased to be serfs, and became freehold farmers. Through luck or skill, some prospered and were able to buy out their less fortunate neighbors; small-scale landlordism emerged in rural society, with some families rising in a generation or two into the new gentry class. Many other peasants, on the other hand, had to sell their lands to richer neighbors and become tenant farmers, or even landless laborers. The traditional Chinese family was a large group of people who traced their ancestry back to a single male ancestor, with the family name and identity passing through its males, from father to sons.

Through the Zhou dynasty period the nuclear family of father, mother and children was apparently the basic social unit among commoners although different families within a village were often related to one another. Amongst the early Zhou aristocracy , however, groups of families tracing their descent from a common ancestor formed clans. These were of great importance, as the different families within a clan felt duty bound to support one another in ups and owns of political life. From the mid-Zhou period probably as politics became more and more turbulent the clans became more highly organized. Some clans became so powerful that they became a threat to the position of the prince.

In the destructive civil wars of the period, however, these great clans shattered their power. Many were eliminated altogether. Princes took steps to prevent their re-emergence, and the rulers of the state of Qin even discouraged the formation of extended families by doubling taxes on households with more than two adult sons living with their parents. This was a policy deliberately aimed at fragmenting society into nuclear families. In the place of clans, the Qin divided society up into mutual-support groups of five and ten nuclear families each, which were responsible to the authorities for the good behavior of all their members.

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