Ancient China history – Cultural heroes and sage kings
There are many good reasons to teach English in China: The very generous salary and overall package for ESL teachers (see our Job Board), the incredible economic power and development of China in the last decades – and to be part of it, to develop your career, get the extra bit of CV experience, to learn the language (try our friends of InstantMandarin) and so on. Many people always have been fascinated by ancient China history and culture, which is incredibly awesome.
This post is the first part of a series about Chinese dynasties (from a rather Western point of view), where we from TeachDiscoverChina want to introduce some of the cornerstones of this fascinating history, which draws so many people to China to discover more. The post is based on the MOOC from Harvard University, the ChinaX series, which consists of 10 modules from the beginning of Chinese history up to the present day, which I absolutely recommend to anyone interested not just in Chinese history but also to understand today’s China both in action and politics. Once you learn about the past of the country, you can also better understand the present.
The area known today as China is inhabited at least for more than 1M years, since the early stone age. Archaeological proof has been discovered from this time, such as stone tools and the ‘Peking Man’ (homo Erectus). The modern homo sapiens has been around for around 100,000 years. The common scientific view is that both the archaic and modern homo has made its way to Asia from Africa. Though there exists a multi-regional theory for the expansion of humankind as well.
With the invention of agriculture, around 10,000 years ago, the first evidence for human communities/cultures in China emerges. Examples are the Yangshao-, Longshan – or Hongshan culture, all of them with distinct cultural differences. Over the Neolithic era, social complexity is gradually increasing, as well as growing urbanization and interactions between different and coexisting cultures of early states, both in trade and warfare.
Based on ancient Chinese texts, cultural heroes and sage kings created these civilizations. Those stories of origin are distinctively different to Western (Greek, Biblical) African or other cultures around the globe. Those Chinese cultural heroes or sage kings such as Huangdi or the Yellow emperor, Fuxi, Shennong, Yao, Shun and Yu invented technologies and statecraft in order to organize society with the aim to harmonize society and improve the lives of the people
The sage kings and creation of civilization
Discovered ancient Chinese texts dated at 500BCE, but set at 2,000BCE, describe those early sage kings as human figures who strive to improve society and do not describe the creation of the world itself. Humankind, in an already existing world, is described in those texts, as not much different to animals. Only through the activities of those early kings and heroes they are being transformed into modern, civilized beings. The ruler created tools such as fishing nets, hoes, digs, and plant grains to give it to the people to improve their lives and give them an advantage over other animals struggling over food and space, and hence transforming humans from hunter-gatherers into fishermen and farmers.
The basic idea or message of the Chinese origin story is that civilization and its rulers exist to improve the lives of the people/humans to bring order and harmony to society and end struggles.
Chinese texts are full of different heroes but the ancient book of documents begins with emperor Yao, Shun and Yu.
Yao and the creation of agriculture
At around 2,400BCE, the first sage king called Yao, suddenly appears and invents the calendar based on the cycles of the sun and the moon and subsequentially creates the agricultural seasons. Basically, two calendars, the solar calendar, necessary for agriculture, and the lunar calendar, for counting the months. Yao makes those two calendars compatible. He also delegates his authority to other officials across the country and so creates a government. With his delegation/government he ‘harmonizes’ society, a term which is still used in today’s political language in China. Yao organizes the world according to the sun and moon as well as everything under heaven and earth. There is no intelligent design (e.g. a god), only the emperor looking at the world and modeling society accordingly.
Once Yao gets old, he is looking for a successor and importantly rejects the idea of passing the throne on to his son (which according to Yao itself is arrogant and quarrelsome)! After some search, Shun, a commoner will be appointed as successor. Shun has a nasty father, an evil stepmom and horrible stepbrothers (you could read ‘Cinderella’). Nonetheless, Shun sticks with his family and does not abandon them or runs away but harmonizes them. This is the reason why Yao picks Shun as his successor for the throne and also gives him his two daughters to be his wives.
The point of the story here is that it is more important to be a worthy ruler rather than coming from a powerful family and again the essential idea of harmony in a society.
Shun and the creation of the political system
Shun further builds a society based on Yao’s work. He is credited with the invention of rituals or ceremonies and creating ranks in order to organize people according to their clothing. His intention is to balance behavior and morals with punishment and laws. He defines punishments for every crime. The most severe execution, followed by exile, amputation, and beating. Noticeably there is no imprisonment, which is not part of the catalog till modern times.
You could say that after the first emperor Yao created agriculture as the basis for civilization, Shun, as his successor created the political system. Both with the aim of harmonizing society.
As Shun’s rule draws to a close due to old age, he is faced with serious trouble, which he can’t solve by himself – flooding of the land. To bring the floods under control, he calls a man called Yu. Due to his successful flood management, Yu will be announced as the new emperor.
Yu and the creation of the irrigation system
Yu travels and inspects the damage caused by the flood and creates canals to channel the rivers, moves land to dry and lets rivers flow into the sea. Yu is hence credited with the invention of the irrigation system and control of the land by humankind.
An interesting comparison here is a similar story told by the Bible, where a flood occurs to punish human society and God orders Noah to build a ship and wait until the flood is over. But in the Chinese story, humans are not passive and ordered to follow orders by a god but actively overcome nature by themselves– Emperor Yu moves mountains and rivers and hence saves humankind. This is also a metaphor of humankind conquering nature.
Yu will eventually break with the tradition of looking for the worthiest successor outside of his own family by choosing his son as his successor and so creates the first dynasty called ‘Xia’ (which eventually is overthrown by the Shang and then by the Zhou). Dynasty here is defined as the control over the political system by one family until that family is (violently) removed by another family. The implication of dynasties in that story is that it creates disharmony, invites all sorts of calamities by weakening the ruler/society.
Origin story and organization of society
The basic idea and ideal of the ancient China history – origin story is that the rule by the worthiest is better than rule by a dynasty or one family and the purpose of government should be to improve human society as a whole.
As mentioned at the beginning, the story is set at 2,000BCE but it is written at around 500BCE. In Chinese history, this is a period full of unrest and warfare, known as ‘the warring state period’. In which the latest king of Zhou is weak and hence fighting between splintered states for power breaks out. Which is a direct consequence of Yu’s decision of choosing his own son and not the worthiest person under heaven (the world)? This is contrary to the aim, set out by the origin stories of a unified, harmonious society, ruled by a worthy ruler, who truly cares about the welfare of the people (and not just his own family).
The warring states period is also the origin of Confucius and the ‘100 schools of thoughts’, which is an incredibly divers time of (political) philosophy. Chinese philosophers from that time precede modern ‘Western’ philosophers such as Kant, Hobbes, Descartes, etc by several thousands’ of years and include legalists (Han Feizi), hippies or back to the roots (Taoists), logicians (Mohists) and many more. Many of those ancient texts are available in English and they make an incredible modern read (considering they are more than 2,000 years old).
Interested in teaching English in China and learn first hand about China’s history: Get in touch!
Read all our TEFL China blog posts here