Philosophy and Empire in Ancient China

Published: 2021-09-11 06:25:12
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Category: China, Philosophy, Empire, Confucianism, Confucius

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The late Zhou period of, also known as the Age of a Hundred Schools of thought, was a turbulent era in Chinese history. Although these schools all contended against each other, they had the same basic goal. To unify China. The three most influential schools of thought that existed were Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism. Although ultimately it was legalist principles and methods that ended the Period of the Warring states, through the eyes of the Confucian thinkers, Qin Shihuandi's legalist policies may have been a harsh and overtly utilitarian way of unifying China.
Confucianism is a school of thought that developed from one mans want for a more "moral way " of ruling. Kong Qiu, as he was named before history posthumously named him Kong Fuzi which was later "Latinized into Confucius, was born into an "aristocratic but impoverished family ". His experience with rituals of his native state of Lu in Northwestern China, led him to embark upon a "14 year period of wandering with his students ". Confucius traveled to various small courts attempted to convince their leaders to adopt his philosophies of life and government. He hoped his ideas would return China to a "state of harmony and justice ".
Confucius later returned to his home and remained teaching, believing himself a failure, until his death in 479. In actuality he was far from a failure. His ideas spread throughout the kingdom and played a profound role in shaping Chinese civilization. We must remember that the School of a Hundred thoughts took place during the Period of the Warring states. This was a particularly turbulent period of history where philosophers were trying to come up with anything they could to bring peace and confident rule to China. Many thinkers, such as Confucius, looked to the past to provide examples of for improvement.

The past, especially the Zhou dynasty, was largely mythicized and believed to be a "Golden age of harmony and prosperity ". Confucius believed the Sage kings had it essentially right. A ruler should be like a father figure to his people and lead by example, not by fear. Confucius also drew upon other age-old Chinese virtues such as filial piety or xiao, a moral humanity or ren, and ritual courtesy or li. Confucian thought emphasizes the principle that humans are generally moral creatures and are "by fact, obliged to comport themselves humanely and with integrity.
While Confucianism preached preached a "doctrine of benevolent reform " based on the virtues of the past, Legalism contrarily emphasized a strict utilitarian regime. Leaders in legalist thought, realized that with the extreme disorder of their present day, new and drastic measures were necessary. For a governing body to succeed, it would depend on a effective system of rewards and punishments. To ensure his power, the ruler had to keep his officials in line with strict rules and regulations and his people obedient with predictably enforced laws.
Shang Yang, Han Feizi gathered that the base of a state's strength was its armed forces and its agriculture. They then tried to dissuade people from being merchants, scholars, philosophers, or artists because these careers did not "advance the interests of the state ". Legalist's imposed a strict regime with clearly and strictly defined laws and expectations. Failure to comply even to the most negligible of laws resulted in severe punishment. Legalist thought was that this fear of their leaders would inspire compliance with the laws that govern the state as a whole.
Although the harsh ideals of the legalist school of thought may have later been smoothed out by adopting certain Confucian ideas, they originated as vastly different systems. We can see the legalist polices that Sima Quian recorded in his expansive history of China as they were enforced by Qin Shihuandi. Confucians such as Mencius would have likely disagreed with this style of rule. There are many discrepancies we can see when comparing Sima Quian's writings and the Analects recorded by students of Confucius. Qin Shihuangdi had a tower built on Mount Langya with clear inscriptions for his people to live by.
One inscription reads " Great are the Emperor's achievements, men attend diligently to basic tasks, farming is encouraged, secondary pursuits discouraged. It is made clear that the "great emperor " wants to suppress his peoples desires to pursue anything but "basic tasks " that serve the greater good. This would sound preposterous for a Confucian thinker. How can the people build a better society if they are dissuaded from education? They may be forced to build walls or fight wars for the Emperor. Confucians did not believe in "governing with decrees and regulating with punishments ".
They believed that the "people will evade " their forced work and will have "no sense of shame ". They believed the better way to govern would be to lead by virtue and example. Whereas Qin Shihuangdi may promote a crooked aristocrat to oversee the building of walls, a Confucian would promote an "upright "citizen who was knowledgeable and educated. While the crooked man may punish insubordination with violence to scare others into working, the straight man would "preside over them with dignity, [and his people] will be reverent; if [he] is filial and loving.
His subordinates would want to work for a man who believes in them and they would encourage each to work harder through their respect for one another. "As for sageness and humanity, how dare i claim them? But to learn it insatiably and instruct others indefatigably-that much may be said of me, that is all"," humbly stated master Confucius. Humility also must have had a different meaning for Qin Shihuangdi as he was quoted "in his sagacity, benevolence and justice to have said: "I humbly propose that all records but those of Qin be burned.
If anyone who is not a court scholar dares to keep the ancient songs, historical records or writings or writings of the hundred schools, these should be confiscated and burned... Those who in conversation dare to quote the old songs and records, should be publicly executed, those who use old precedents to oppose the new order should have their families wiped out. This is a stark contrast to the Confucian beliefs that were composed of many older ideals. Confucians studied ancient texts such as the Book of Documents, and the Book of Songs. The ideals they upheld emphasized the importance of education which came in part from these ancient texts.
How was a man to educate himself and raise his family out of poverty without an education. As Confucius says "If he learns, he will not be benighted ", or ignorant of the rituals that make a virtuousin shi. In a legalist China, where "no evil or impropriety is allowed" and where "kinsman care for each other ", people who were often held to the principle of collective responsibility. All family members were expected to observe others closely, "forestall any illegal activity" and report it. Even if it was against their own family or community members.
If there were such people who knew "of such cases but [failed] to report them, [they] should be punished in the same way. This also is a far cry from the benevolent practice of xiao. In fact, it is fundamentally opposite of the superior teachings of Confucius. Whereas legalist theory believes that children who rebel against their wrongdoing parents will grow to be upstanding citizens, Master You states that "those who are not apt to defy their superiors, but are apt to stir up a rebellion simply do not exist. " Although this is only a theory, I would say that it should hold more water than Qin Shihuangdi's.
If the state practices "filial piety and brotherly obedience... [being] the roots of humanity... and the government conducts itself "with [a] virtue likened to the North Star " one could surmise that it would be a fairly pleasant society to live in. Also inscribed upon Qin Shihuangdi's stele was the phrase, "The common people know peace and have laid aside weapons and armor; kinsmen care for each other, there are no robbers and thieves: men delight in his rule. " A Confucian might believe this to be quite an exaggeration for to them there were no "common " people. Only people who should be treated how you yourself would like to be treated.
In a society of people who are more encouraged to cultivate their own knowledge, and attainment of skilled judgement there would be less of a need for strict rules and guidelines as the people should conduct themselves according to the virtues and morals they have attained through education. The utilitarian procedures of legalism were largely responsible for the general lack of education among the common people of China. As a opinionated Confucian scholar under the reign of Qin Shihuangdi, I would be one of the people getting together to "slander the laws " and practices set in place by my legalist ruler.
While might be able to agree that a legalist doctrine was responsible for building a unified state with a large-scale political organization that established a tradition of centralized imperial rule, i could speculate that China may have been a very different place had more Confucian values been implemented. As evidenced by the rule of Shang Yang, legalist politics were successful simply through the fear they instilled in the common people. While road work and agriculture was flourishing throughout the dynasty, so was unrest.
Shang Yang was quickly executed upon the death of his patron, his body mutilated and his family annihilated. In the case of Qin Shihaungdi, there were many who welcomed the stability his reign brought, yet still many outspoken scholars, philosophers and others who criticized his regime. As the First Emperor didn't want his people to be confused with the old teachings of scholars, he demanded that the books be burned and had hundreds of scholars executed. We may never know what China would be like had more of the Confucian teachings survived but i believe that their history might be a little bit less bloody.

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