08 September 2015

#History of World Civilization, Day Eight


Describe the geography of China. How did the physical features of the land and waters in China influence the development of the culture?

Modern China is massive, covering some 3.7 million square miles, spanning five time zones (although the communist Chinese government mandates the use of one), with a diverse landscape of jungle, mountains, desert, and fertile river valleys. However, the dynasties and kingdoms that rose and fell in Ancient China covered much less territory than the modern communist nation. Still, its ancient footprint was surrounded by natural barriers that were difficult to traverse, allowing its civilization to develop from within rather than being heavily influenced by foreign cultures and massive migrations.

China is dominated by three primary rivers: the Yellow, the Yangtze, and the Hsi (or Xi). The Yellow River valley is particularly fertile, but prone to devastating floods (the floods of 1332-1333 AD killed an estimated seven million people). The intentional destruction of dikes, levees, and canals to flood rival lands was a common military tactic during the Period of the Warring States.

Agriculture, as in other parts of the world, developed first in the fertile valleys of these great rivers beginning in the mid-eighth millennium BC, creating pockets of population growth and cities. Although water is available in abundance, China does not possess the large, flat, arable lands found in western Asia, Egypt, and Africa, making planting and harvesting more difficult and labor intensive. Rice in particular often requires extensive earthworks and precise systems of levees and irrigation controls to create terraces of flat, floodable plots (no more than a 2” change in elevation between levees). Farming on any reasonable scale in China requires a sizable workforce. Distance, terrain, and competing ambitions made unification of large geographic areas difficult, and China’s history is a patchwork of great and lesser dynasties, feudal kingdoms, and violent conflict. Bordering deserts, lofty mountain ranges, and the Pacific Ocean largely shielded China from massive invasions, and limited trade and interaction with other cultures, creating a distinct Chinese culture, unique to the ancient world, with family and gender roles being its dominant characteristics.

China’s geographic isolation also largely prevented the incursion of outside religions. Neolithic ancestor worship and traditional folk religions were the nearly exclusive spiritual traditions of China for thousands of years until the formal development of Taoism in the fourth and third centuries BC. Despite the frequency of natural disasters associated with the great rivers (flooding and dramatic, unpredictable course changes), Chinese religion did not include the worship of the same types of pagan gods of nature found in Mesopotamia and the Near East. Confucianism was perhaps the most influential belief system aside from ancestor veneration, but is more of a secular ethical and moral code than a spiritual framework. Around the second century BC, during the Han Dynasty, Buddhism began to make inroads into China from India in the west, but it was heavily influenced by existing Chinese philosophy, creating a somewhat uniquely Chinese Buddhism. Christianity and Islam were relative latecomers in Chinese history, not arriving to any noticeable extent until the seventh century AD.

What was the "mandate of heaven" and how was it used to justify any seizure of the Chinese throne?

The “mandate of heaven” was a concept first employed by the Zhou Dynasty to justify the overthrow of the Shang Dynasty. Ancient Chinese believed that a wise and benevolent –but impersonal- “heaven” watched over mankind and periodically bestowed the mantle of leadership on a deserving individual (the Son of Heaven), one who would rule with wisdom and prudence in the best interests of his subjects. If he (and like almost everywhere else, China developed a patriarchal society) failed in his duties, ruling greedily or foolishly, this divine favor might be withdrawn, and the mantle bestowed upon a new leader. The people may recognize that the mandate has been (or should be) passed to another, more worthy man, and overthrow the disgraced ruler. Ruling wisely is sort of a vague standard, and can be taken to mean, “Not ruling like I would,” so it was easy for an ambitious man to claim to have received a divine revelation to overthrow the existing regime. If the newly bestowed man could gather sufficient forces to his side, he could create a self-fulfilling prophecy, claiming that his success was proof of his mandate. The mandate is somewhat similar to the “divine right of kings,” notably asserted by James I of England in the 17th century AD. However, English kings claimed that no earthly authority had the right to determine that the mantle had been passed, and any attempt to depose the king was considered sacrilegious and treasonous, at least by the king.

Describe the different social orders that developed during the first three dynasties.

Social order was distinct and family-oriented in Ancient China. At the top, of course, was the Emperor, followed by the most prominent members of his family. These were the rulers, the highest, most wealthy, most revered members of society. Next most prestigious were the families allied with the Emperor, often owners of immense estates and elaborate family compounds. Constant warfare created opportunities for military leaders to gain powerful and respected positions, so there was an elite class of professional warriors. The tremendous wealth of these classes made it possible for skilled artisans, craftsmen, and metallurgists to live comfortably on the patronage and voracious consumption of these societal elites, constituting a thriving middle class.

Far below these respectable classes was the great mass of the population; the nongfu (ordinary farmers), common laborers, and military fodder. They lived Spartan lives in primitive housing little better than was that of their Neolithic ancestors, working as sharecroppers for wealthy landowners, perhaps being given a small piece of land to work for themselves, though they were never given ownership. Work was divided according to gender roles, with women working primarily indoors and performing tasks like weaving, while men farmed, hunted, and fished to supplement the family’s food supply. Little removed on the scale from these poor souls were slaves, who were often captured soldiers and tribesmen from military conquests. They performed the backbreaking, manual labor, and worked on massive building projects that required a large workforce.

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