The Story of China

Type :

By Michael Wood

It's good never to forget that we are a violent species that has only relatively recently 'risen' to our humanist ideals: (p 44)

Everywhere at Anyang there was evidence of human sacrifice, piles of skulls and rows of 'beheading acrifices' often taken from subject peoples and from enemies defeated in war. Such captives the oracle bones described as being offered to the spirits of the deceased Shang kings: 'Offering to Da Ding, Da Jia, and Zu Yi, 100 cups of wine, 100 Qiang prisoners, 300 cattle, 300 sheep and 300 pigs'. The animals would be eaten, their bones recycled in bone workshops, while the humans were disposed of in earth pits specially prepared in one part of the royal site. More than 2000 such pits containing human skeletons have been found around the royal tombs at Anyang. But we should not think the early Chinese were uniquely curel in such practices. Human sacrifice is part of many early civilisations and can be found in pre-dynastic Egypt, the Royal Tombs at Ur, Bronze Age Crete, and of course the Central American and Inca civilisations. Ritual killing of human being sis part of the human story, and the priest and the executioner have gone hand in hand for much of history, indeed long after the formal end of human sacrifice as such. To understand ourselves, to see the ways in which humanity has evolved, it is something we need to see as part of the evolution of civilisation, the long, slow Ascent of Man, if such it is.

Chapter 3, The Madate of Heavan


Attempts to answer the question of why throughout history the Chinese are more unified than the West. (p71-2)

In the West, the inheritors of Roman law and Germanic custom came to believe that the government of men is always flawed, unless limited by a strong legal system. They gradually developed the idea that states should be ruled with the informed consent of the governed. This is a major divergence, even by the time of the Song dynasty, when in England, for example, the law was already something the king should obey. Governing a state the save of medieval England with a few million, as opposed to 100 million in China, of course required a different attitude to freedom. Still, failure to establish the rule of law would remain one of the most intractable problems in the Chinese political tradition until the end of the empire. Since then, it would be partially addressed under the Republic, trampled by Mao, revived in the 1980s, but has stalled since the early 2000s.


What is the Axial Age?

Writing in 1949, in the bitter aftermath of the Second World Ware, when total conflict and the Holocaust had cast a deep shadow over the achievements of Western civilisation, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers made a great claim for the age of Confucius. This was a crucial moment in the history of humanity, an 'Axial Age', he said, when 'the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently in China, India, Persia, Judea and Greece; and these are the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today'.

Confucius lived from 551BC to 479 BC, between the Spring and Autumn period when the Zhou's power started to wain (~600BC to 500BC) and the Warring States period (450BC to 221BC).

A bit further down, Wood writes

So was this extraordinary simultaneity mere coincidence? In the mid-first millennium BCE, across Eurasia, there were certain common experiances in material culture, societies in transition from Bronze to Iron Age culture that developed powerful monarchies and large-scale cities. Mercantile classes appear and with them writing becomes more widespread, for the first time out of the hands of religious and political elites. Ways of thinking about the world arise that feel different from anything that had gone before. These key figures all lived within a handful of generations, between the 550s and the fourth century BCE. Some, like Confucius, the Buddha and some of the great pre-Socratics, may even have been alive at the same time.

What we can say, then, is this: that Confusius and his disciples lived in a period of history when the great Bronze Age civilisations had gone. In their place were competting Iron Age city-states, in Archaic Greece, the Ganges valley and the Warring States of China. All of them show the beginning sof social diversification, and in all there were thinkers of genius. There were the philosophers and scientists in Ionia: Heraclitus, Pythagoras and Anaxagoras. The Buddha's contemporaries include Jains, Ajivikas, sceptics, rationalists and atomists. All of them question the nature of the mind and the physical universe. In China, too, this period known as the Age of Philosophers, the 'Hundred Schools of Thought', with Daoists, Mohists and Confucius' followers such as Mencius. Among them, as in Greece and India, there were many different views about humanity and the cosmos. The parallels perhaps are only general. It would be stretching things to suggest the political concerns of Confucius had much in common with the Buddha's dispoutes about karma with other religious groups and in the Ganges plain. The key point is that their preoccupations are about human beings and their place in the cosmos.

Chapter 4, The First Emperor and the Unification of China

The rist of the Qin empire has been justly called 'one of the greatest epics in human history'. [...] Over the past few years a series of sensational archaeological and textual discoveries have given us totally new insights into their brilliant and violent world.

Even the famous Dao De Jing, written by Laozi around the sixth century BCE, saw the logical extension of the vision of unity as a correspondence between the political and metaphysical orders: 'The Dao is great, Heaven is great, Earth is Great, and the King is great. There are four greats in the state and the King is one of these.'


By the third century BCE, all agreed that unity of government was the precondition to implementing the principles of the Way, and hence the path to peace and the Great Unity. [...] In the end, as so often in history, change was brought about by war. China was united by the sword and by a ruling ideology very different from the Confucian ideal.

The key text that underwrote the unification is The Book of Lord Shang. Written by a Qin dynasty thinker of the fourth century BCE, it is one of the most remarkable books of the ancient world, East or West. It has been called the first totalitarian manifesto in history and a 'blatant assault on traditional culture and moral values'. [...] It has been praised in our own time, when totalitarian rule was justified as 'the first stage of socialism', a temporary phase on the path to a Marxist utopia.

On the invasion of the Qin. The following is a quote from the statesman Jia Yi, who came one generation after the Qin's short dynasty.

The Qin took over all within the seas and annexed the neighbouring states; he faced south and called himself emperor. Thus he nourished all within the four seas and the gentlemen of 'All UnderHeaven' docilely bowed before his wind. Why did this happen? I owuld reply that then, the world had been a long time without a ruler. The Zhou house had sunk into insignificance, the strong were lording it over the weak and the few over the many. Arms and armour were never set aside and the people were exhausted and impoverished. The masses hoped they would obtain peace and security and there was nobody who did not wholeheartedly look up in reverence. This was the moment to preserve authority and stabilise achievements and lay the foundations of lasting peace.

Perhaps this view helps explain the earlier quote which stated that the Chinese have always valued unity more than the West because they have a much larger, denser population. China is populous becaus it's physical geography is perfect for sustaining large populations.

Bringing order then was at the center of Qin propaganda, and popular support for the unification was a major factor and a justification fo the regime's ruthless severity.


Yet, given so many differences in regions, cultures and languages, why was the idea of China's unity so strong that it could be restored time and again? Indeed, the remarkable fact is not that at times it disintegrated, but that it always came back together. In Europe there were periods, under Charlemagne for example, when large parts of the continent were under a single ruler, but it always split apart again into nation states.

What was life like under Qin rule? (p 81)

In the past few years, enormous quantities of documents from local Qin centers of administration have come to light. [...] There are cases about banditry, rape, robbery and grave robbing, a sexual consent case and even petitions for retrial. For all the reported ferocity of the Qin legal system, here we get an insight into legal procedures and even the conduct of local magistrates. These magistrates interviewed witnesses, listed carefully to evidence and had graded punishments, where discretion and mercy could, in theory, play a part.

In practice, though, application of the law was severe. [... Example ...] Convicted of being soft on crime, indeed of being effectively a closet Confucian, Tui's sentence was to be 'shaved as a criminal and made a gatherer of fule'. (Higher up the list of Qin punishments were mutilations, cutting in half at the waist, beheading and 'slicing' - Death by a Thousand Cuts - a penalty only abolished in 1905.)

After the Han fell, there where 300 years of war between the Southern and Northern dynasties. Then Sui united China and introduced reforms, but was promptly replaced by the Tang.

Chapter 6, The Glory of the Tang

In the seventh century CE, the axis of China's history shifted as new elements came into Chinese civilization from other cultures, from the Near East, Persia and Central Asia, and from India. Japan, too, was now drawn into the Chinese orbit. The Tang dynasty created the largest Chinese empire before the eighteenth centure. Building on the administrative reforms of their Sui predecessors, they created a centralised empire, with a postal system and an extensive network of roads and canals, radiating from the capital to far westa nd the northeast. Their cultural achievements, in the arts, literature and history, were extraordinary; human and self-aware, full of empathy for the world and for people, their poetry is still regarded as China's greatest. The arrival of Buddhism was perhaps the most important and long-lasting of the foreign influences that came from the Tang opening up to the world. With Buddhism came trade, ideas, art and different conceptions of philosophy and spirituality, by sea and by land, but especially along the Silk Road from Central Asia and India. And there this part of the story begins with one of the most celebrated figures in the history of China, the monk Xuanzang.