Apr 5, 2013

Ancient China and the "Mandate of Heaven"

Although civilization began in places such as Sumer thousands of years earlier than in China, no other place in the world can boast a continuous culture from Neolithic origins to modem times. China's imperial-bureaucratic system of government, established in the third century B.C., incorporated a merit-based civil service and remained unchanged in its essential characteristics until the 20th century.

Agriculture in China began some 8,000 years ago, with the cultivation of millet in northern areas and of rice in the Yangtze River valley. Neolithic cultures arose in several widely scattered areas, probably reflecting considerable ethno-linguistic diversity and making significant industrial progress in the form of ceramics and finely made tools. Silk production and jade carving, both unique to Chinese culture, arose during the fourth millennium B.C.

The Chinese Bronze Age began around 2000 B.C. The production of bronze weapons and ritual vessels accompanied increased urbanization, social stratification, hereditary kingship, and other markers of advancing civilization, leading to dynastic regimes ancestral to later Chinese culture. The "Three Dynasties" (Xia, ca. 1900-1555 B.C.; Shang, ca.1555-1046 B.C.; and Zhou, 1046-256 B.C.) gradually came to dominate the North China Plain, absorbing other early cultures in a process of political, military, and cultural expansion. During the 13th century B.C., the Shang dynasty's regional dominance was enhanced by the cultivation of wheat and the use of military chariots (with associated technologies of horse breeding and management), both imported from western Asia. Also during this period, the earliest known version of the written Chinese language was used for administrative and religious purposes.

After conquering the Shang dynasty in 1046 B.C., founders of the Zhou dynasty formulated the doctrine called the "Mandate of Heaven," claiming that the conquest of an old regime by a new one was inevitable because it was empowered by the moral force of Heaven itself. This became a key element of Chinese political thought thereafter. In the early centuries of its rule (1046-771 B.C., known as the Western Zhou dynasty, because its capital was located in the western part of the royal domain, near present-day Xi'an), the Zhou kings expanded the territory under their control by appointing noble families as rulers of subordinate states. The various states, however, increasingly took power into their own hands. With a forced shift of the capital eastward to Luoyang in 771 B.C., the Zhou regime (now the Eastern Zhou, 771-256 B.C.) remained formally in power but with greatly diminished authority. (The New York Times ‘Smarter by Sunday – 52 Weekends of Essential Knowledge for the Curious Mind’)