Great Ideas of the Zhou: Confuscianism

Episode 7: Great Ideas of the Zhou: Confucianism

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

The last 500 years of civil war under the Zhou Dynasty gave rise to more than 100 schools of philosophy as scholars searched for ways to end war. The three most important were Confucianism, Legalism and Daoism. According to Benjamin, the first millennium BC was one of extreme unrest in all civilized societies. He feels it’s no coincidence that most of humanity’s religious and philosophical foundations (including the Hebrew scriptures, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and the philosophy of Socrates) were laid down during this period (which some historians refer to as the Axial Age*).

Confucius (551 – 479 BC) spent most of his life visiting the courts of warring Chinese states seeking a job (as political advisor). To support himself, he accepted a number of disciples. Following his death, his disciples published his teachings in a book (The Analects). His philosophical teachings stressed the importance of ethical leadership and moral authority in rulers and the acceptance of one’s role in society. He taught that the primary obligation of all leaders was to dedicate themselves to the people they served and that they should be selected  based on knowledge and morality, rather than family background.

Confucius prescribed study five books as a prerequisite for wise and moral rule: the I-Ching (see The Mandate of Heaven and the Right to Overthrow Morally Unfit Rulers/), the Book of Odes, the Book of Rites and the Spring and Autumn Annals. These would serve as the basic texts of eastern philosophy for 2,500 years.

Confucianism identifies four important qualities of an effective government official:

  1. Benevolence and a deep understanding of the plight of humanity.
  2. Wisdom and courage.
  3. Sense of propriety and respect for superiors
  4. Filial piety – respect for parents and commitment to look after them in old age and after death.

*The ‘Axial Age’ (500–300 BCE) refers to the period during which most of the main religious and spiritual traditions emerged in Eurasian societies.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

China: Ancient Civilization Born in Isolation

Episode 14 China: Born in Isolation

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

In this lecture, Benjamin mainly focuses on the early Chinese civilizations arising in the rich alluvial flood plains of the Yellow River. As in the Indus Valley civilization, their immense success related in large part to the formidable barrier the Himalayan mountains presented to invading nomads.

Archeological evidence suggests that by 7000 BC Yellow River valley inhabitants had domesticated millet. By 5000 BC they were living in villages and growing millet, mung beans and hemp (for clothes) and keeping domesticated pigs, cattle, sheep and ducks. They were also producing beautiful painted pottery and bone tools.

By 3000 BC (under the Xia Dynasty),  they had domesticated silk worms, built walled cities, invented potters wheels, and produced bronze tools and carved jade ornaments for their ruling elite.

The Shang dynasty ruled in the Yellow River Valley from 1600 -1045 BC. The first Chinese cities appeared during this period, along with the first written language. Peasants, who served as tenant farmers on the large landholdings of the wealthy, could be conscripted by the king into the military. Enemy captured in war were kept as slaves and were sacrificed during royal funerals. Believing they passed to another realm after death, people worshiped ancestors in the hope of winning their protection.

The Shang kings used their powerful military to conquer cities outside the Yellow River Valley for tribute and slaves. However the Shang Dynasty was no match for the Zhou dynasty, which defeated them militarily in 1045 BC. The latter ruled for 800 years, employing a decentralized structure allowing local kings to rule their own city-states, provided they supply tribute and soldiers to the Zhou king.

During the 9th century BC, regional armies gained access to iron and rebelled against the Zhou dynasty. Five hundred years of continual unrest gave rise to the major Chinese philosophies, as scholars sought ways to end war and establish more ethical governance.

  • Confucius (551-479 BC) taught that people should be able to obtain social status through education and ethical living, as well as through heredity. He supported social hierarchy and disapproved of profit-seeking.
  • Daoism, which appeared during the 4th century BC, taught that human beings could achieve fulfillment by better understanding their own nature and living as simply as possible.
  • Legalism, which appeared around 400 BC, was a school of political philosophyadopted during the Qin dynasty. It promoted strict laws with harsh collective punishment and taught that education, philosophy and commerce were useless professions.

The improved governance and military strength resulting from a legalistic approach enabled the Qin dynasty to reunite Yellow River city-states. Despite its short reign (221 – 206 BC, however, it laid a military and administrative foundation for both the Han dynasty and the Chinese imperial system, which lasted until 1912 AD.

The film can be viewed free on Kanopy