Pre-Imperial China: 1122-221 B.C.

The History of China. Editor: David Curtis Wright. 2nd edition. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

Feudal Unity: Western Zhou

Early Chinese historical records, written mostly by a historian in the second century B.C., tell us that the last years of the Shang were full of tyranny and misery. The last Shang king in particular was a megalomaniac who exploited his subjects in outrageous ways, forcing them to work and fight in battles to the breaking point. Things got so bad that eventually a western region of the Shang named Zhou began planning and launching the unthinkable: armed uprising. In the years leading up to the uprising, Zhou was led by King Wen (wen means “cultured” or “lettered”), one of ancient China’s major cultural heroes. The people of Zhou were culturally and linguistically Chinese, although there is some evidence that they had once allied themselves with a “barbarian” or nonagricultural, proto-Tibetan people called Qiang (which literally means “goats”).

King Wen led his people in armed rebellion against tyranny, but he did not live long enough to see the Shang completely overthrown. Zhou victory over Shang was achieved by King Wu (wu means “martial” or “military”), King Wen’s son. King Wu made his own capital city in Zhou and then launched an all-out attack against Shang around 1122 B.C. As he approached the Shang’s capital city, he was greeted by throngs of Shang slaves who were eager to be liberated from Shang servitude. They joined King Wu’s armies gladly and attacked the Shang capital city with him. The result was an overwhelming defeat for the Shang, and the last Shang king committed suicide. The triumphant King Wu then returned to his own region of Zhou, and his new dynasty eventually ruled over all Chinese civilization.

The Zhou knew that its revolution against Shang would be controversial, even shocking, to many people. The Shang had ruled and practiced its ancestral cult for so many centuries that many Chinese could not imagine a world without it. After all, if the Shang royal house were overthrown, how would people understand the cosmos? The religious idea that the Shang house alone was entitled to communicate with the supernatural order probably made them willing to put up with tyranny for as long as they did. The Zhou rulers formulated a justification or explanation for their actions called the Mandate of Heaven. The mandate theory, which was simple and basic in its essential elements, held that the high god Di was disgusted with late Shang tyranny and oppression. Di could tolerate the Shang no longer and looked around China for a righteous ruler, eventually deciding on the good King Wen, upon whom he bestowed his “mandate” or approval.

Thus there was a change in the supernatural order’s approval of the ruling regime. This was a new and revolutionary concept; it meant that no government could ever claim the right to eternal rule. “Heaven,” a Zhou term for the supernatural order, would approve and sustain a government only as long as it ruled righteously and did not oppress its people. If and when a government turned into a tyranny, the mandate would be withdrawn and the Chinese people would be justified in rising up and overthrowing it. After the Zhou’s conquest of the Shang there were, in fact, about a dozen major changes of dynasty until the entire dynastic system was overthrown in A.D. 1911.

The theory of the Mandate of Heaven eventually held that Heaven would indicate its displeasure with the ruling government through a series of abnormal events in nature: floods, famines, droughts, earthquakes, and so on. For this reason, throughout most of their history, the Chinese people have been keenly interested in natural disasters and what they might portend for the future of the current government. Even astronomy could indicate that the time was right to rebel. When King Wen’s astronomers observed an alignment of five planets, they considered it a portent approving his plans for an uprising.

There was an important and subtle shift in religious attitude here. In taking careful note of the position and alignment of planets, King Wen was paying attention to the cosmos or nature and the way it functions. He was looking more to the world of nature for guidance than to any god. The word the Zhou Chinese used for nature and its functions (on earth as well as in the skies) was “Heaven.” He and many Zhou Chinese seem to have concluded that the world of the dead and the gods was not exclusively worthy of human attention. Heaven itself had its own standards and ways of communicating with people, and perhaps they could understand Heaven as much by observing it as by offering prayers and sacrifices to the gods and ancestors. A more rational contemplation and observation of Heaven became increasingly popular during the Zhou, and it marked a step away from the more directly “religious” approach of the Shang Chinese. In fact, Zhou kings called themselves “Sons of Heaven” because they believed they were doing the will of Heaven and conforming to its standards. (The term “emperor” [huangdi] did not come into widespread use until the third century B.C.)

While this more rational approach to understanding the cosmos overshadowed the cult of the dead, it never eclipsed it. It would be quite a mistake to conclude that the Chinese discarded ancestral veneration after the Shang. They did not, and veneration of the ancestors is a Chinese religious custom that continues right up to the present, especially in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The cult of the dead lost some of its supreme central importance to the Chinese people and government but was never fully forgotten.

King Wu eventually set up a new government in China. His government was a feudalism, meaning that it had a central headquarters and capital city but divided up China into semi-independent regions called guo, or “states,” which were ruled over by noblemen, or members of the Zhou royal family. (The Zhou instituted a system of five ranks for these noblemen.)

What happened to the old Shang royal family? King Wu did not completely exterminate it but allowed it to continue offering sacrifices to its ancestors. These rituals, however, were now private family functions and no longer held significance for the central government. The Shang royal family was not satisfied with this arrangement, and after King Wu died it rebelled against the Zhou. Because King Wu’s son and successor was much too young to deal with this rebellion, King Wu’s brother, known to history as the Duke of Zhou, was assigned as a regent or temporary ruler to act on behalf of the young king. The Duke of Zhou is another of ancient China’s greatest cultural heroes, and Confucius (born hundreds of years after these events) greatly admired him. After quelling the Shang rebellion, many people expected the Duke of Zhou to assume power himself. It is, after all, rare for people to relinquish power once they have gained it. The good duke, however, willingly stepped down as soon as King Wu’s successor was old enough to rule on his own, and thereafter lectured him on how to govern effectively. For this action the Duke of Zhou is remembered in Chinese history as a paragon of public virtue and selflessness.

Disintegration: Eastern Zhou

As with the fall of the Roman Empire, the fall of the Zhou seems to have resulted from a combination of internal decay and external aggression. Internally, many of the feudal lords had begun to disregard the directives of the Zhou kings during the 800s B.C. Internal division and weakness likely made the Zhou a tempting target for all of the “barbarians” who lived out on the outskirts of the Central States of the Zhou.

These barbarian peoples weakened the Zhou, and at the beginning of the eighth century B.C. they successfully attacked and sacked the Zhou’s capital city. The Zhou government had to flee far to the east and set up another capital city, from which it ruled over a territory smaller than the original Zhou. This defeat marks the distinction between the early Zhou, sometimes called the “Western Zhou,” and the later, weakened Zhou, which is known to history as the “Eastern Zhou.”

The Eastern Zhou was only a shadow of the Western Zhou. During the Eastern Zhou the power and authority of the Zhou king was drastically reduced, so much so that he eventually became little more than a figurehead. The feudal domains supposedly under his control became more or less independent states and were often at war with one another, and feudal lords more often than not gave him nothing but lip service. The fighting between the states eventually became so bad that the Zhou fell in the third century B.C. One of the many states, the Qin, eventually prevailed against all the others and unified China (the area once occupied by the Zhou’s Central States) in 221 B.C.


The Eastern Zhou was a time of chaos and moral decline. Accompanying the fighting between states was a decline in public order. Some young people no longer respected their elders, and crime was on the rise. Even the feudal lords who contributed to this disintegration usually claimed to be doing so for the eventual good and reunification of China. They and their commanding generals probably thought they held the key to making China orderly again, but inevitably there were also people who believed that the key to reunification and recovering the past glories of the early Zhou lay not in fighting, but in a moral or philosophical regeneration. Confucius was one of many who thought of ways to reform China. Because his particular school of thought prevailed over all the others and was made China’s official state ideology in the second century B.C., he is well known worldwide. During the Eastern Zhou, China was so full of philosophers and thinkers who thought they knew how to right all of China’s wrongs that the Chinese have called long segments of the Eastern Zhou the “Hundred Schools” period. This general period lasted from the sixth through fourth centuries B.C.

Confucius was confident he had the correct answer. There is nothing mysterious or mythical about Confucius; he was born in the state of Lu, in what is now the province of Shandong, around 551 B.C. to a minor aristocratic family. As a child he was precocious and bookish, and like many of his contemporaries he began to idealize the past as the world around him was crumbling. He imagined that the early days of the Western Zhou were the lost golden age and should be recovered. As a young man he was so confident that he knew the secret of the early Zhou’s success that he began seeking employment with any government that would listen to him and apply his ideas. Confucius eventually had a midlife crisis and abandoned his search for government employment, but he did not forsake his ideals. Instead, he began gathering pupils who listened to his ideas and explored their implications with him. Confucius’s hope was that a few of his star pupils might eventually obtain government jobs and apply his ideas for the good of China. He remained an idealist throughout his life.

Like many idealists, Confucius was frustrated with the world around him. He wanted to change the world, to bridge the gap between what is and what ought to be. Current society was not as it should be, and in his imagination early Zhou society was largely perfect. Certain qualities in the early Zhou had been lost, and the entire thrust of his teachings was toward their recovery. He spoke mainly of two things: li and ren.

Li means “ritual” or “ceremony” and, in a broader or more extended sense, “propriety.” Confucius believed that careful attention to the ceremony or ritual of major life events (such as marriages and funerals) was enormously important. If the conventions and functions of these rituals were performed attentively and properly, he argued, their performers eventually would be trained to abide by the broader conventions of public morality Ritual performance was an important key to ethical behavior and social order. Just as a ritual occasion has certain positions and functions for its performers, so a moral society had expectations of its members, and fastidious attention to the former would lead to moral regeneration in the latter. In other words, ritual performances were microcosms of society and the world; they were miniaturized training grounds for living and functioning in the world and bettering it. If one performed ritual often enough that one could do it effortlessly, almost as second nature, an ethical and moral life would also become second nature in one’s life in society.

Confucius, then, emphasized ritual. He believed that ritual had something important to teach people and that this had been well understood during the early Zhou. Somehow this vision or understanding had been lost and now had to be recovered. In order to grasp the essential importance of ritual, another quality was necessary, and this he called ren. The basic meaning of ren is something like “benevolence” or “humaneness” or “consummate humanity.” Confucius regarded ren as an inward quality, a state of mind or heart that would enable people to understand completely the importance of ritual performance and apply it in their lives in society. He understood this inward quality as encompassing kindness, compassion, mercy, humanity, and perhaps many of the other virtuous, qualities we today tend to identify in good, kindhearted people. For Confucius ren was more than simple niceness or sentimentality. It was a profound wisdom that would produce understanding of ritual and also become the fundamental wellspring of the other virtues he often regarded highly: loyalty, uprightness, frugality, and filial piety, or loving respect for one’s parents.

Without this ren, ritual performance could be largely pointless or meaningless. People could, after all, go through the motions of ritual or ceremony but not have their hearts in it, and they might even laugh at it or find it pompous. The overall thrust of Confucius’s teachings concerned ren and its importance in ritual and ultimately in society. Ren, and li closely associated with it, were the keys to restoring order in China. But for all the importance he attached to it, Confucius never really defined ren. Perhaps this was because he believed that ultimately it was beyond words. Boiling ren down to a conceptual definition has been left to Western scholars. According to Harvard’s Benjamin Schwartz, it “embraces all the social virtues and the capacity to perform the li in the proper spirit” and is the “capacity to make the individual act well in all the encounters of social life” (Schwartz 1985, 75-76).

Furthermore, Confucius did not tell his disciples how to get ren. He dwelled on its importance and sometimes linked it with li, but he never assigned a specific cause-and-effect relationship between the two. At one point in the Analects (an incomplete record of Confucius’s discussions with his disciples), he indicates that proper performance of li will lead to ren, but in other places he seems to say that ren is necessary in the first instance for li to teach its performers what they need to know about their roles in society. Confucius may well have viewed li and ren as so interrelated, so much the parts of an organic whole, that any attempt to divide or define them or assign causal priority to one over the other might have seemed artificial or contrived. Any man who thoroughly grasped the interrelationship between the two and knew their importance for social and political order he called a junzi, which has been translated variously as “gentleman” or “princeling” or “evolved man.” His ultimate aim was to have many junzi in the world who would transform it and recover the lost golden age of the early Zhou.

Confucius sincerely believed in the superiority of antiquity over the present. He harked back to the lost golden age rather than looking forward to a new age on earth. He refused to think of himself as an innovator. He insisted all of his life that his purpose was not to introduce anything new into Chinese society, but to restore what was good about antiquity. Confucius was ultimately a practical, this-worldly philosopher. His program for reforming China probably impressed many people as impractical, and indeed it may have been, but his ultimate concerns were with the here-and-now rather than the there-and-then. He wanted to restore order and morality to China more than he wanted to speculate about the world’s creation or the disposition of the gods or what happens to us when we die. His answer to queries about these topics are classic. When asked about death, Confucius replied, “Never having understood life, how can we know about death?” He had no taste for discussing supernatural or paranormal phenomena; the Analects record that “the Master did not speak of strange phenomena, feats of strength, chaos, or gods.” Spirits and gods may have existed; in fact, there is some evidence that he may have been a theist. More important for him than the question of the existence or nonexistence of the spirits and gods was the question of what to do with them: “Pay your respect to the spirits and gods but keep them at a distance.” What good did it serve to speculate at length about them or to be preoccupied with them? There were enough pressing concerns in this life to occupy all of a person’s time.

Although Confucius was not religious in the sense that he set aside questions about the divine and the afterlife, he did have a reverence for Heaven that seems to border on something approaching the fervor of religious devotion. For him, Heaven was not as much the abode of a divine being or immortal souls as it was the embodiment of nature or the cosmos. For him, Heaven or nature displayed the order, rhythm, and predictability that he wanted to replicate in the social order. Heaven was trying to speak with us and had something to teach us if we could just hear it. We as human beings should observe and learn the well-ordered regularity and constancy of Heaven and be impressed by it—we had only to see how the seasons come and go in an orderly manner, how the seasons change in order, how the agricultural cycle begins and ends every year, and so on.

Mencius (c. 380-289 B.C.)

Confucius had many successors or continuators, not all of whom were distinguished. Eventually two thinkers, born well after his death, emerged as representing two distinct strands or varieties of Confucian thought: Mencius and Xunzi.

Among Mencius’s interests was the question of the nature of man. Was man naturally and innately predisposed to good or bad behavior? Mencius insisted that man is innately good and that he becomes bad as he loses track of his innate goodness. This innate goodness he equated with Confucius’s ren and argued that every human being possesses ren at birth, but many lose track of it as they grow older and confront the pressing exigencies of life. But there are certain focused or critical moments when our innately good nature can make itself powerfully known. To illustrate his point, he asked his listeners to imagine a baby crawling up to the mouth of a well and teetering on the brink, about to fall in. Do we feel something when we imagine this? Of course we do: we are horrified at the possibility of the baby falling in and would do everything within our power to save it. These spontaneous feelings show that the seeds of ren are still inherently within us even though long obscured. To recover and cultivate this sense of ren, we simply have to discover and be true to our authentic selves. One might call Mencius a ren philosopher.

Xunzi (c. 300-237 B.C.)

Xunzi disagreed with this position. He was acquainted with Mencius’s thoughts on the nature of man and rejected them. He argued that man was innately bad and that the Confucian virtue of ren was obtainable not through discovery of the authentic self, but through the defeat of the authentic self by means of strictures and conventions of rightness. These restrictions he equated with li and argued that li is a necessary prescription to help man overcome his innately bad nature. So ren came not through spontaneous self-discovery but through repeated performance of, and submission to, li. One might call Xunzi a li philosopher.

Ultimately the vast majority of Chinese concluded that Mencius was right about this question and that Xunzi was wrong. Nevertheless, Xunzi was and still is respected for wrestling with this most vexing and pressing philosophical question.


Not everyone accepted Confucius’s ideas. In fact, some Chinese adamantly rejected them. The Taoists, in particular, regarded much of Confucianism as suffocating and restrictive. Taoists were free-spirited souls who saw in nature itself, rather than in any ritual or inward human quality, the ultimate curative powers for political and social ills. Taoists often used the term tao (pronounced “dow” or “dau”) in speaking or writing about their ideas. The primary meaning of tao is “way,” while some of its secondary meanings include “path” or “road.” As a verb, it can mean “to walk” or, interestingly enough, “to talk.”

Taoism is a fairly diverse school of thought in Chinese intellectual history, but its most important and authoritative work is the Tao-te ching. (Daode Jing is the spelling system now preferred in mainland China; the title means “The Text on the Power of the Tao” or, as Arthur Waley has translated it, “The Classic of the Way and Its Power.”) A small gem of a book written a few centuries B.C., it delivers its ideas in a terse and epigrammatic but utterly profound style. (The best translations are not wordy but preserve and reflect the compactness and tremendous expressiveness of the original.) The relative simplicity of the book’s language can be deceptive because it makes a few words go a long way and because some of its passages are amenable to more than one interpretation. The Tao-te ching is easy to read but hard to understand.

The historical origins of the Tao-te ching are somewhat murky. The traditional account attributes its authorship to a philosopher with the title of Lao-tzu (Laozi in the spelling system currently preferred in mainland China), which means something like “old master” or “venerable philosopher.” According to this account, Lao-tzu (whose surname was Li) worked as an archivist for the Zhou government sometime during Eastern Zhou times. As he grew older he concluded that China had lost its way, and upon his retirement from public life he determined to leave China forever and depart for the great white north to live in the uncivilized natural grandeur of Central Asia. As he rode out to the final frontier pass, a guardsman begged him to stay a while and write down his wisdom for the benefit of future generations. This he did, according to the account, and the result is the text of the Tao-te ching as we have it today.

Modern textual critics question this account and instead attribute the authorship of the Tao-te chingto several philosophers whose wise and pithy sayings were eventually assembled into a compendium or anthology that was later named Tao-te ching. Regardless of its authorship, it is the beauty and appeal of the book itself that concern us here. The Tao-te ching is, next only to the Bible, the most translated book in the world. This is at least in part because its simple, expressive language and mysterious, paradoxical images are quite appealing and engaging to many people. The book is conventionally divided into two main sections; the former contains some of the more mysterious or paradoxical passages, and the latter details its indictments of the chaotic present and its vision of a perfect society. One famous paradox concerns the ability of water, the softest known substance in nature, to wear down and erode rock, nature’s hardest substance:

The softest [substance] under Heaven
Gallops like a horse right on through the hardest [substance] under Heaven
Only nothingness penetrates spacelessness
Therefore I know the benefit of non-action
And the instructional value of not speaking.
The benefit of non-action:
Nothing else under Heaven can equal it!

In a passage reminiscent of Ecclesiastes 12:12, the Tao-te ching urges that running about in pursuit of knowledge is ultimately futile and useless:

Go not out your door,
And you can know all under Heaven;
Look not out your window,
And you can see the tao of Heaven.
The farther you leave [in pursuit of knowledge],
The slighter your knowledge will be.
Therefore, the sage
Travels not, yet knows
Sees not, yet understands
Acts not, yet accomplishes.

What is the point of all this? These paradoxes and observations are interesting and compelling in and of themselves, but there is a larger purpose behind them, an epistemological purpose. (Epistemology refers to the study of knowledge and how it is obtained, or simpler yet, it is the study of how we know what we know.) The intent was not simply to delight and perplex readers, but to convince them that another way of learning was available to them: they could get in touch with their feelings and apply them to understanding the tao. There were real limits to what their intellects alone could comprehend; if they applied only their intellects in their observations of the world, they would eventually come up against these types of paradoxes. The larger point of these passages was perhaps to point out that a deeper, more profound type of knowledge and understanding was available, one that involved the heart and intuition and feeling. It was precisely this type of intuitive approach that would enable one to grasp the tao in its fullest and most profound sense. The tao was somewhat mysterious and was not to be understood simply through intellectual means because it was much greater than our finite powers of reasoning. We must grasp the entire meaning of the tao with our feelings and our hearts, rather than just with our minds. Intuition rather than intellection was the most important key to comprehending the tao of the universe. The tao was to be taken directly into the heart or soul and appreciated there rather than being dissected and analyzed in the intellect. Ultimately, there was a real and practical purpose for introducing this new epistemology; if people could learn to learn this way, their fuller understanding of the tao would change their lives. That would lead to a reordering of society and governance, and, in turn, lead to the peace and tranquility craved by the Eastern Zhou Chinese. There was plan and purpose in the seeming madness and mystery of the Tao-te ching.

Once people understood the tao they would not talk or write much about it, because they would know that it was beyond words. They would, nevertheless, be able to act well and within the guidelines of the tao, which held the key to ordering the world. Thus, a Taoist would not rob or kill or destroy not because there were man-made regulations against such behavior, but simply because he would feel or know intuitively that such actions were against the dictates of the tao. For Taoists, man-made laws and standards of behavior were undesirable because they obscured or overlooked the tao. In fact, the appearance of such laws and the moral and ethical teachings that inevitably accompanied them were indications that the tao had already been lost. Taoists believed that humankind had once understood the tao and had lived in accordance with it, but had taken a wrong turn somewhere in the course of history and lost track of it. Their hearts no longer felt the tao, so they were left to their own intellectual devices, which produced the chaos deplored by Taoists. Taoists longed to return to the golden age of simplicity and harmony with nature and its tao.

What was this Taoist golden age? It was a time in human experience right after people had discovered agriculture and lived in small, isolated agricultural settlements. People lived in contentment with primitive forms of agricultural technology and their unadorned homes. Because they were simple and rustic and therefore in intuitive touch with the tao, they were content with their lives and took no thought of doing unnatural things like building large cities or raising huge armies. Their countries (guo) were no larger than villages.

Just when and why did things go wrong? We might blame one thing: ambition. Ambitious leaders lost track of the tao and this agrarian simplicity and began to imagine how grand it would be if these small villages and their populations could be gathered into greater geopolitical units. Transportation and communication networks soon brought people into greater numbers that were, for Taoists, unnatural and contrary to the tao. As this trend continued, towns and cities appeared, with their attendant needs for walled defenses, standing armies, marketplaces, continuous food sources from the countryside, and, perhaps most horrifying for a Taoist, man-made laws and ethical teachings.

The Taoists, then, had a problem with nothing less than civilization itself. For them, life in the cities, along with all of the artificiality and obtuseness of intuition it implied, was the beginning of the end. Humankind could never live in peace until it got back in touch with the tao and returned to unadorned simplicity. As people were unnaturally combined into progressively larger units, they began paying more attention to each other than to the tao. As a result the tao was gradually abandoned, and in its place appeared Confucian moral teachings. For Taoists, any serious discussion of Confucian virtues and ethical conventions was prima facie evidence that humankind had already lost its “way,” or thetao. The way back to order and tranquility was not a matter of adhering to these virtues, but of abandoning them:

Sever “sageness,” forsake “wisdom,”
And the people shall benefit an hundredfold.
Sever “ren,” forsake “justice,”
And the people shall again be filial and compassionate.
Sever cunning, forsake profit,
And there shall be no brigands or thieves.
[But as mere] words, these three [measures] are insufficient;
Hence there are more instructions:
Show plain white silk,
Embrace the uncarved block,
Lessen selfishness,
Bereave the appetites.

The Tao-te ching delivers one of its most stinging indictments of Confucian thought and moral virtues in the following passage:

After the great tao was abandoned
There was “ren” and “justice.”
After “wisdom” appeared,
There was enormous pretension.
After the six human relationships fell into disharmony,
There was “filial piety” and “compassion.”
After the nation slid into turmoil and chaos,
There were “loyal ministers.”

For Taoists, the “sage” or wise ruler clearly foresees this tragic state of moral affairs as a terrifying possibility and seeks to avoid it. For the most part he can do this simply by doing nothing: he follows the Taoist path of nonaction, which politically means blunting his ambitions and remaining content. Because he actually does little if anything, his population is unaware or only vaguely aware of his very existence:

The greatest ruler
Is unknown to his people.
The next best, the people love and honor,
The next they dread,
And the next they revile.

There are times, however, when the Taoist sage must act in some ways. He must endeavor to keep vanity, greed, envy, and sophistry at bay for his population. He takes action only if his pristine utopia of loosely associated agricultural communities is threatened by ambitious nation-builders or teachers spreading dangerous, fallacious ideas:

Exalt not the wise,
And the people shall not contend.
Prize not rare objects,
And the people shall not steal.
See not desirable things,
And the people’s hearts shall not be disturbed.
Hence, in his government the sage
Empties their minds
And fills their bellies,
Weakens their ambitions
And strengthens their bones.
He ever makes the minds and hearts of his people
Devoid of knowledge and devoid of longings
So that the “wise ones” will not dare interfere.
In acting through nonaction,
There is nothing he does not govern well.

Lack of contentment leads to an unnatural striving for larger accomplishments and greater heights, and this the Taoists deplore. They also warn against the danger of overdoing things and striving for the utmost. They would not like all of the modern talk of “striving for excellence” or “reaching for the stars.” For them, this striving would smack of an anxiousness born of alienation from the tao. They would rather muddle along in mediocrity. Hold back a little, stay content, live long, be happy.

Preserving or recovering the Taoist paradise is, then, primarily a matter not of acting but of refraining from action. The wisest ruler refrains from doing too much. Doing too much is, after all, what ruined the Taoist agrarian paradise of small, scattered agricultural communities and combined them into larger, unnatural units.

Taoism is, then, a mystical and intuitive contemplation of the nature of the universe. Its essence is, however, quite applicable to practical, worldly affairs. As a political ideology, Taoism idealizes the era before the rise of civilization and its attendant problems. Taoists did, obviously, realize that civilization was here to stay and that there could probably be no literal return to the lost Taoist paradise and its atomized pattern of isolated agricultural settlements. It was still possible, however, to appreciate Taoism as stripped down to its essential points and to apply it in broad, analogical terms to everyday practical situations and problems. Thus, in the age of civilization, Taoism as a political philosophy became a laissez-faire ideology that embraced a minimalist, conservative approach in government, gently encouraged a renewed awareness of the nature of the universe, and anticipated the behavioral changes that would result from this awareness.

But Taoism was much more than just a political ideology and could be applied in many other directions. Throughout Chinese history Taoist thinkers have come up with seemingly endless applications of Taoist ideas. These applications have, for instance, included Taoist ways for interpersonal relations, artistic expression and military campaigns. In interpersonal relations, ideas extended from basic Taoist concepts encourage us not to be high-profile and confrontational. Have no enemies and you will have no conflicts. Avoid the temptation to assume powerful positions of leadership that will expose you to great vulnerabilities. Doing a little is better than doing a lot, especially when it comes to dealing with dangerous or potentially volatile situations.

As far as artistry is concerned, many Chinese have concluded that a Taoist awareness can foster and spur the creative impulses by setting the individual free. Once artists understand the tao, their artistic uniqueness or voice approach will take care of itself. The tao will help artists be their own best selves and realize their own best potentials and perspectives.

It may seem surprising that Taoist thinkers would apply their philosophy to military conflict. To be sure, the Tao-te-ching does not approve of military conflict, but more specifically it speaks of not glorying in military might and of avoiding conflict if at all possible. But if there is to be a fight, ideas extended from Taoism hold that the warrior should conserve as much of his energy as possible while at the same time sapping the enemy of theirs. He should assume a low profile in fighting and not launch massive frontal assaults on fortified enemy positions or engage in positional warfare. The classic Taoist style of combat is guerilla warfare. If you must fight, do not assemble huge armies with banners and drums and fanfare. In modern Western military terms, do not form large units such as brigades and divisions as your fundamental fighting unit, but rather form small fire teams of three or four men who come together only briefly for combat and then disperse quickly, thus making them more difficult targets for the enemy. Appear seemingly from out of nowhere and return to nowhere as soon as possible. Linger about the enemy’s flanks and do not assemble your forces; your enemy will then have no idea of your overall strength. Emerge from behind the scenes and hit the enemy hard, then quickly evaporate back into the woods. Continue this pattern for some time and you will gradually frustrate the enemy and rob him of his vitality and will to fight, while preserving your own. Do not fight the enemy on his own terms but on yours, which will likely be strange and aggravating to him. This style of warfare enabled the Americans to prevail against the British and the United Empire Loyalists in the American Revolution. (Ironically enough, it is also the strategy the Viet Cong used to defeat the Americans in Vietnam.)

Confucianism and Taoism

Confucians and Taoists had decidedly different views of the world; Taoist attitudes might smack of irresponsibility to Confucians, but Confucian moral teachings might strike Taoists as pretentious and foolishly off-center. Nevertheless, the great majority of Chinese came to see Taoism and Confucianism not as exclusive but as complementary. People could subscribe to Confucianism as a public, governmental ideology while embracing Taoism in their personal lives. Thus, after Confucian thought was made China’s official state ideology in the second century B.C., a busy and worried Confucian government bureaucrat could go home at night and be more of a Taoist. Taoism reminded him not to take worldly concerns too seriously and to relax every once in a while. Taoism helped him prepare for his pressing duties the next day. It lent balance and sanity to his life. Taoist ideas might not have been directly applicable to the task of governing in the age of civilization, but Taoism, which was much too appealing and compelling to disappear entirely, acted as a tonic, a corrective content to remain in the shadows and behind the scenes, where the tao belongs.

This Confucian-Taoist synthesis was not always a completely comfortable one, but it became part of Chinese culture and the Chinese consciousness. Most of China’s greatest emperors and dutiful government officials were essentially Confucianists at heart; most of the great poets and painters were, on balance, more Taoist. Thus, a cultured Confucian gentleman might not always be pleased with the antics of a free-spirited Taoist poet, but he would often tolerate them because the Taoist pole of his consciousness would gently remind him that great creative geniuses do not always completely subscribe to Confucian conventions of politeness and decorum.

As different as Taoism and Confucianism may seem at first and even second glances, they share several characteristics. First, both systems of thought seek ultimately to cure practical, this-worldly maladies. Both want to remedy the problems of the Eastern Zhou. Neither seeks to speculate on the origins of the world or humankind or to discuss at length humankind’s relations with the divine. Taoism, more mystical in its appreciation of the universe, dwells on the benefits for the here-and-now that this appreciation would bring. Second, both Confucianism and Taoism share the common conviction that humankind once lived as it should, with good governments and orderly societies. For Confucians, this lost golden age was during the early years of the Zhou; for Taoists, it occurred when humankind first began living agriculturally. Third, both Confucians and Taoists regard nature as having something important to teach humankind. Confucians, who label nature “Heaven,” are in awe of the orderliness and cyclical, predictable rhythms they observe in it. In nature, or Heaven, everything has its place and functions and behaves accordingly. Confucians strive to apply their intellects in analyzing and understanding this order with their minds, with the ultimate objective of replicating the order of Heaven in the social and political order. Taoists also revere nature and see much instructional value in it, but for them the tao of nature and the universe are much more accessible through humankind’s intuitive capacities than through their intellects. Finally, both Confucianism and Taoism make the individual the key focal point for beginning the reform of society and government. For Confucius, a society of individuals who possessed the quality of ren and knew the importance of li in its broader social applications would be an orderly and livable society. For Taoists, grasping the tao was an intensely individual process, and a society full of people who understood the tao would spontaneously right itself.


Legalism (sometimes also called Realism) was another school of thought in Eastern Zhou times, and in some important ways it was quite unique. In fact, it would probably be wrong to call Legalism a philosophy; it was more of a statecraft or realpolitik, a technique for keeping a ruler in power, his nation strong, and his population obedient and submissive. Legalism sought to accomplish these objectives through a simple recipe of rewards and punishments specified by laws. There was no abstract consideration of right and wrong; right was simply what the ruler wanted, and wrong was what he did not want. Legalism was a straightforward, anti-intellectual approach to governance. Legalists had very little patience for Confucian or Taoist ideas; for them, talk of li or ren or the tao was all mumbo jumbo and vain imagining. Legalists thought people were to be motivated not by any of these amorphous philosophical considerations, but by fear of punishment and longing for reward. Taking their cue from the Confucian philosopher Xunzi, Legalists insisted that humankind was stupid and predisposed toward evil. The followers of Xunzi soon parted company with Legalism when Legalists refused to believe in any possible perfectibility of human beings. (Xunzi taught that people could indeed overcome their innately evil natures and gain ren if they submitted to li and allowed it to change them.) Legalists insisted that people were unreformable and had to be constantly controlled through laws specifying punishments and rewards for every conceivable behavior.

Legalists heartily disagreed with Confucianists and Taoists who harked back to a lost golden age. For many Legalists, there never was a golden age in the first place. They were out to create an ideal society and state here and now, for the first time in history. Some Legalists argued that even if there had been a golden age in the past, it would be impossible to restore or replicate it now because the times had changed drastically; yesterday’s methods were incapable of solving today’s problems.

Legalist thinkers formulated their ideas over two or three centuries. Various Legalist ideas and governmental techniques were eventually synthesized by a Legalist named Han Fei, who died in 233 B.C. His book, Han Feizi (Master Han Fei), was a compendium of administrative technique, law, and criticisms of Confucianism, Taoism, and other minor schools of thought. The teachings of the book might well be characterized as ruthless and brutal. Han Fei spells out, among other things, his contention that the methods of the golden ages imagined by Confucians and Taoists were utterly inapplicable to the current situation. In his most famous passage, he uses a parable to illustrate his point:

If somebody in this present age should praise the ways of Yao and Shun … he would certainly be ridiculed by contemporary [Legalist] sages. Hence the sage does not seek to follow the ways of the ancients, nor does he regard precedents as the rule. He examines the circumstances of his own time and plans his course of action accordingly.

There was once a man of Sung who tilled his field. In the midst of his field stood the stump of a tree, and one day a hare, running at full speed, bumped into the stump, broke its neck, and died. Thereupon the man left his plow and kept watch at the stump, hoping that he would get another hare. But he never caught another hare, and was only ridiculed by the people of Sung. Now those who try to rule the people of the present age with the conduct of government of the early kings are all doing exactly the same thing as that fellow who kept watch by the stump. (de Bary et al. 1960, 130)

The Legalist ruler is not to be benevolent or loving or practice ren in dealing with his subjects because this will only spoil and ruin them; people are motivated to act only by threat of force and by laws specifying rewards and punishments. Li Si, another Legalist who continued in this vein, urged the application of extremely harsh punishments for intellectuals who would not conform to the wishes and programs of the state.

Legalism was, then, completely amoral and highly unphilosophical. It eventually became the official ideology of the state of Qin, which defeated all other states and unified China under its rule in 221 B.C. It assumed that people could not be taught but only compelled or enticed. Legalist law was not natural law; that is, it did not claim to be modeled after the world of nature. Nor was it divine law, because it did not pretend to derive of divine sources or dispensations. Unabashedly man-made, it made no references to unchanging standards of right and wrong. People were recruited into government service not on the basis of their moral qualities or broad learning but their proven administrative expertise. Officials who accomplished what the government wanted were promoted and rewarded; those who did not were demoted and punished.

If Legalism can be called the rule of law, it certainly was not a democracy. Laws came from the whims of the ruler, not from the consent of the governed or the expressed popular will. Legalists held a very dim view of their subjects; they could not trust a populace they regarded as stupid and self-serving to formulate their own laws. Taoists deplored this viewpoint because laws are in and of themselves indications that the government had lost its “way.” Confucian scholars also found Legalism particularly revolting because the laws often seemed coldly arbitrary and did not accommodate any moral or ethical considerations. They concluded that the rule of law was not nearly as good as government by benevolent men who understood li and possessed ren.

Minor Schools of Thought

Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism are commonly (and correctly) thought of as the most important of the Eastern Zhou schools of thought. There were, however, other schools as well, and the reasons the Chinese rejected them are interesting and illuminating.

Mo-ism, or the school of Mo Di (fl. 479-438 B.C.), was a manifestly religious system of thought. Confucianism, Taoism, and even Legal-ism had one thing in common: they were not very religious. Its major figure, Mo Di, is known in Chinese intellectual history as Mozi, or “Master Mo.” Mozi was a devoutly religious man who argued that the ills of the Eastern Zhou time came from not being religious enough. He argued forcefully that “ghosts and spirits” do exist and that human beings owe them acknowledgement and respect:

The people give themselves up to evil, violence, thievery, and rebellion, using weapons, knives, poison, fire, and water to assault innocent persons on the roads and byways and seize their carriages and horses, robes and furs, for their own benefit. All of these conditions come about for the same reason, and as a result the world is in disorder.

Now why do we have this state of affairs? It all comes about because people are in doubt as to whether ghosts and spirits exist or not, and do not realize that ghosts and spirits have the power to reward the worthy and punish the wicked. If we could only make all the people in the world believe that the ghosts and spirits have the power to reward the worthy and punish the wicked, then how could there be any disorder in the world? (Watson 1963, 94)

Although Mozi was not opposed to ritual per se, he deplored ritual extravagance and excess and often associated it with Confucianism. He also had a great reverence for Heaven and believed that it did intervene in human affairs. For him, however, Heaven was more personal than it was for the Confucians or Taoists. It was not a mere abstraction or operative principle of the universe. He also preached a teaching he called “universal love,” or love applied equally to all human beings without regard to hierarchy or familial relation. According to Mozi, people should love other people’s parents, families, and countries as much as their own. He argued at considerable length that if people really did love everyone equally, there would be no crime or aggression or campaigns against other states:

Great states attacking small ones, great families overthrowing small ones, the strong oppressing the weak, the many harrying the few, the cunning deceiving the stupid, the eminent lording it over the humble—these are harmful to the world …

When we inquire into the cause of these various harms, what do we find has produced them? Do they come about from loving others and trying to benefit them? Surely not! They come rather from hating others and trying to injure them. And when we set out to classify and describe those men who hate and injure others, shall we say that their actions are motivated by universality or partiality? Surely we must answer, by partiality, and it is this partiality in their dealings with one another that gives rise to all the great harms in the world. Therefore we know that partiality is wrong. (Watson 1963, 39)

The teaching of universal love shocked Confucianists, particularly Mencius, who constantly railed against it and upheld a strict social and familial hierarchy as essential to social stability and political order.

Mo-ism eventually failed in China, perhaps because the polemics of Mencius and Zhuangzi (Master Zhuang, a Taoist philosopher who explained Taoist teachings through wit, parody, and parable) against it were so effective. Mozi’s teachings were, according to Frederick W. Mote, “distinct from all others ever enunciated by any philosopher or teacher in Chinese history” (Mote 1971, 88). Perhaps this explains its demise in China: Mo-ism was simply too strange, too much at variance with Eastern Zhou experience and observation:

We must conclude that the most aberrant feature of Moism within the intellectual and cultural milieu of early China was its failure to accommodate to some basic psychological factors. It displayed no awareness of natural human feelings and their influence on the way societies work. In the ancient anti-Mo-ist critiques of most telling significance, Moism was “contrary to the hearts of all men,” as Chuangtzu [Zhuangzi] put it. (Mote 1971, 90)


Ancient China had a tight system of logic and finely distinguished analytical categories, but the Chinese of the Eastern Zhou were not impressed with it and dismissed it as trivial and unimportant. One school called the “Logicians” (sometimes also called “Dialecticians” or “Nominalists”) seem to have approximated Western standards of logic and hair-splitting on to logical distinctions.

By far the most famous passage from a Logician philosopher concerns definitions and conceptualizations. It comes from the Gongsun Longzi, a book written by the Logician Gongsun Long. Imagine Gongsun Long riding a horse and approaching a gate guarded by a gatekeeper. “Horses are not allowed beyond this gate,” the gatekeeper informs him. “This is not a horse but a white horse,” Gongsun Long replies and then rides brazenly through. The point? “Horseness,” “whiteness,” and “white horseness” are distinct and exclusive categories.

A: “Is it correct to say that a white horse is not a horse?”

B: “It is.”

A: “Why?”

B: “Because ‘horse’ denotes the form and ‘white’ denotes the color. What denotes the color does not denote the form. Therefore we say that a white horse is not a horse.”

A: “There being a horse, one cannot say that there is no horse. If one cannot say that there is no horse, then isn’t [it] a horse? Since there being a white horse means that there is a horse, why does being white make it not a horse?”

B: “Ask for a horse, and either a yellow or a black one may answer. Ask for a white horse, and neither the yellow horse nor the black one may answer. If a white horse were a horse, then what is asked in both cases would be the same. If what is asked is the same, then a white horse would be no different from a horse. If what is asked is no different, then why is it that yellow and black horses may yet answer in the one case but not in the other? Clearly the two cases are incompatible. Now the yellow horse and the black horse remain the same. And yet they answer to a horse but not to a white horse. Obviously a white horse is not a horse.” (Chan 1963, 235-36)

If the meticulous sophistry of this irritating passage tries the patience of the modern Western reader, he or she can imagine what the Eastern Zhou Chinese would have thought of it. To them it seemed the height of indulgence, irresponsibility, and frivolous extravagance. Here was the Eastern Zhou facing all manner of social, political, and military challenges, and all Gongsun Long and his ilk could do was discuss whether or not a white horse is a horse. What discernible relevance did this gobbledygook have to the task of righting the world? True philosophers should concern themselves with human affairs and not with vacuous pedantry. The Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi said of the Logicians and their contrived arguments that they might out-debate people but that they could never convince them that they “turned men’s minds and altered their ideas,” and that they “were able to subdue people’s tongues but not to win their hearts” (deBary 1960, 84). The Chinese had too much common sense and too many better things to do than spend their time on this kind of sophistry.

Technological Innovations

Pre-imperial China, and the Eastern Zhou era in particular, will probably always be best known for the rise and fall of its feudal political structure and its cultural and intellectual efflorescence. There were, however, several quite astounding technological and scientific innovations during this period, and interestingly and ironically enough, many of them date to the fourth century B.C., a time during the Eastern Zhou called the “Warring States” when warfare between states had reached its most intense level. Only during the past few decades have Western scholars begun to realize just how advanced pre-modern Chinese technology and science really were. (“Premodern China” refers to China before 1840 or so.) The late great British China specialist Joseph Needham and his team of researchers at Cambridge University worked on the history of Chinese technology and science since the 1950s. Together they produced a monumental, multivolume work entitled Science and Civilisation in China, a project that is still ongoing despite Needham’s recent death. In this continuing work, Needham and others have presented a bewildering array of overwhelming evidence showing that premodern China was quite advanced in engineering, agriculture, industry, medicine, warfare, transportation, mathematics, and the physical sciences. The results of their research prove conclusively that many inventions, discoveries, and innovations long thought to have been accomplished by Europeans actually originated in China several hundred years before they were known in the West. Throughout this book, we will be discussing Chinese “firsts” in scientific and technological innovations.

One supremely important innovation in pre-imperial China was the trace harness. This invention, which dates to the fourth century B.C., revolutionized agriculture. Prior to the advent of the trace harness, farm animals that pulled plows were harnessed around their necks and stomachs with something called a throat-and-girth harness. This was, of course, inefficient and cruel because it choked the poor beast when it pulled any significant burden. There is evidence that in the fourth century B.C., the Chinese began placing a yoke across the animal’s chest, from which traces or shafts connected it to a carriage. This simple and ingenious innovation placed the burden not on the neck of the animal but on the chest, which was much more able to withstand the strain of pulling loads. Astonishingly, this simple innovation was unknown in the ancient Middle East or the Roman Empire, and it did not emerge in medieval Europe until the eighth century A.D., about nine hundred years after it was first used in China.

By the sixth century B.C., at the very latest, the Chinese were using iron plows. Chinese designs of the plow included a remarkably efficient one that used a plowshare to cut the soil and a moldboard to turn the soil over as the plow was pulled forward. This type of plow, which was finally introduced into Europe during the seventeenth century, contributed greatly to the European agricultural revolution. By the third century B.C., the Chinese also understood the importance of planting crops in long, straight lines. Plants placed in straight lines usually do not interfere with each other’s growth and allow winds to pass through without causing extensive crop damage. Straight-line cropping was not widely practiced in Europe until well into the eighteenth century A.D.

Ancient Chinese medical knowledge was also advanced. By the second century B.C., at the very latest, Chinese medical practitioners had discovered that blood circulates throughout the body and understood fully that the heart pumped the blood. Chinese medical instructors actually constructed elaborate pumps and circulatory networks to use as teaching aids for their students. Today, many Westerners still believe that the circulation of the blood was discovered by William Harvey in the early seventeenth century A.D. This knowledge, which seems so very commonplace to us today, spread to Europe from the Arabs, who obtained it from China.

By the fourth century B.C. the Chinese were drilling for natural gas and using it as a heat source, thus preceding Western natural gas drilling efforts by about 2,300 years. Natural gas seems to have been discovered accidentally by workers who were drilling in the earth for brine, or water saturated with salt from salt deposits in the earth’s crust. When they found both brine and natural gas together, the ingenious and practical Chinese used the natural gas to boil vats of the brine, thus removing the water and leaving the salt behind. Some drilled wells yielded only natural gas, and the Chinese called these “fire wells.” Later innovations facilitated the transport of natural gas through bamboo pipelines and even the use of portable tanks to carry it.

The innovations and discoveries listed above had practical applications. It would be wrong to suggest that the Chinese were interested in mere technology and did not generate purely scientific insights. Something very close to Newton’s First Law of Motion was known to the Chinese by the fourth century B.C. Newton’s First Law states that “every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.” A Mo-ist book dating to the fourth or third century B.C. states, “The cessation of motion is due to the opposing force … if there is no opposing force … the motion will never stop. This is as true as that an ox is not a horse” (Temple 1986, 161). The Mo-ists, in fact, were quite scientific in their thought. Mo-ist writings also accurately and conceptually defined a circle as a body of points that are all equidistant from a centrally located point.

The ancient Chinese were also mathematically sophisticated. They used the decimal system as early as the fourteenth century B.C., during the Shang dynasty, an astonishing 2,300 years before the first known use of the decimal system in European mathematics. The Chinese were also the very first people in the world to use a place for zero in mathematical calculation. On Chinese counting boards, a blank space indicated the place for zero. The Chinese may not have invented the actual symbol for zero, but this is largely insignificant, given their knowledge of its importance and their use of a literally empty place holder to indicate it.

One invention Westerners have tended to credit to the Chinese is the compass. Both the Europeans and the Chinese seem to have made the first use of the compass in navigation during the twelfth century A.D., but the Europeans obtained the compass itself from China, where it had been known since the fourth century B.C. The compasses used in twelfth-century navigation involved the use of magnetized needles, but the earliest Chinese versions of the compass seem to have been spoons or other objects fashioned from naturally magnetic lodestone. The earliest mention of a simple lodestone compass occurs in a fourth-century B.C. Chinese source, but a more detailed description dates to the Han Fei-tzu, the third-century B.C. work on Legalism. The Chinese term for compass is “south-pointer” or “south-pointing needle” because the ancient Chinese thought of south, not north, as the cardinal direction.

The fourth century B.C. was the height of the Warring States period in Chinese history, so it should not be too surprising to find that the Chinese were busily creating new and more effective ways of killing each other. During this period, the Chinese were the first in the world to invent and use the crossbow on the battlefield. The crossbow incorporates a small, powerful bow onto a stock that is steadied against the body or shoulder and releases the bowstring with a mechanical trigger device. The trigger device was important because it enabled the shooter to hold the crossbow steady and devote his efforts to aiming the weapon, not struggling to keep the string drawn back with one of his hands. This generally gave the crossbow more accuracy than the conventional longbow. The earliest textual reference to the crossbow dates to the middle of the fourth century in the famous Art of Warby Sun-tzu (also spelled Sunzi). One of Sun-tzu’s descendants recorded the first known use of crossbows on the battlefield in 336 B.C. For more than two thousand years thereafter, the Chinese perfected the crossbow and it strategic use. It was finally eclipsed in the late nineteenth century by modern gunpowder weaponry. Despite the ancient Chinese efforts to prevent the export of the crossbow, it quickly spread around the world. The Chinese of the Warring States period of the Eastern Zhou were also the first in the world to use chemical and especially poison gas weapons on the battlefield. Mo-ist writings record the use of poison gas as a defensive measure against enemy troops who were digging tunnels into besieged cities. This was over two thousand years before mustard gas was used against entrenched positions in Europe during World War I. For centuries after this, Chinese militarists perfected ways of making and delivering tear gas and chemical bombs into the ranks of their enemies, especially after the Chinese invention of gunpowder in the ninth century A.D.