36: Confucianism on the rise

China Page

The rise of the imperial bureaucracy

As the Han Empire grew, there were an increasing number of provinces with an escalating population under imperial control. The need for administrators increased dramatically. Emperor Wu expanded the recruitment system by establishing an imperial college for training these administrators.

Why the Chou classics?

The teachers of the college were experts in one of the aforementioned Chinese Classics. The number of students enrolled in the first year 124 BCE was only 50. By the end of the Former Han in 9 CE, there were up to 3000 students. By the end of Later Han in 220 ACE, the enrollment was up to 30,000. The rise in the number of students indicated the importance of the government exams in determining political potential.1

How did the Chinese Classics sneak in as the primary course of study for the future Chinese administrators? Why not scientific and practical courses on agriculture, metallurgy, and medicine? Why the emphasis only on texts that were up to 500 years old? How did this make one qualified for government?

The answers to these questions are associated with the rise of Confucianism. After an initial flirting with Taoist thinking, the Han dynasty embraced Confucianism as the state religion. This alignment makes pragmatic sense. As a philosophy, Confucianism dealt with statecraft. In contrast, Taoism had a more mystical and less practical orientation. In fact, certain evidence indicates that there was a power struggle between Taoists and Confucians during the Han. To support their cause, Confucians added commentary to the I Ching to indicate their political perspective. The competing Taoists tended to be more oriented towards the spirit world of shamans.

Further, Confucians, as a whole, belonged to the ju, the educated military aristocracy, generally of the shih class. After the short reign of the First Emperor, they emerged from hiding to exert control, once again, on the expanded Chinese Empire.

Tung Chung-shu (179->104 BCE)

The writings of Tung Chung-shu were a major contributor to the rise of Confucianism.

 “Confucianism was revived as a philosophical force by the scholar Tung Chung-shu, who so impressed Emperor Wu that he pronounced Confucianism the ideological basis of the state, declared only professed Confucians to be eligible for state office, and made Confucianism the curriculum of the national university.”2

What was it about the writings that so impressed Emperor Wu?

Yin-Yang & Confucianism

Most importantly Tung Chung-shu incorporated the yin-yang theory of the I Ching into Confucianism in a patriarchal way that also pleased the state. In his famous ‘theory of correspondences’, he postulated that man, society and nature were connected in an intimate way. Heaven, Emperor, boss, father, and man were on the yang side; while Earth, peasants, mother, woman were on the yin side.

Further the king connected the important triad of Heaven, humans, and Earth. This is illustrated by the ideogram for king, wang, which shows a single vertical line connecting three horizontal lines. The philosophy espoused by the Confucian Tung Chung-shu was that the ‘natural’ order of things was patriarchal in nature. Man was on top and the entire universe revolved around the ruler. This philosophy pleased Emperor Wu of the Former Han dynasty. As a result, he made Confucianism the state religion in 136 BCE.

Endorses classic Confucian virtues

Tung Chung-shu endorsed the classical virtues propounded by Confucius and his early disciples, including filial piety, loyalty, rectitude, courtesy and compassion. In the section on Confucius, we explored the virtues of jen, i.e. compassion, and yi, i.e. rectitude. Tung even harmonized the teachings of Mencius and Hsün-tzu, by insisting that while humans were naturally good (ala Mencius) that they needed to be molded by disciplined training and practice to develop this goodness (as per Hsün-tzu).3

This also tends to be the underlying perspective of the western justice system. While man is naturally good, he is tempted and needs to be restrained by laws so that he doesn’t stray down the wrong path.

Interpreter of Confucius for his age

Weaving a contemporary fabric

Tung Chung-shu believed that he was the interpreter of Confucius for his own time. To understand this Chinese concept, let us start with the Chinese word for classic, ching, as in I Ching and the Tao Te Ching. The word ching is related to the warp, i.e. the vertical threads in woven cloth. According to this metaphor, this primary vertical weave needs to be given temporal context by a contemporary horizontal weave, i.e. the weft. The current horizontal ‘threads’ are woven across the classic vertical threads to complete the fabric for each individual time period.

For such a reason, the classics, ching, must be continually reinterpreted for each age. New life must be regularly infused into the old classics by contemporary interpretations. The thrust was not to understand what the old writings meant in their original context, except to the extent that it enables understanding the meaning of the classics in the modern context.

I Ching as an example

As an example, the song-poems of the Hexagrams of the I Ching were written during the early Chou dynasty. These classic song-poems were considered the vertical weave, the ching. They needed a contemporary context to have relevance to the Han. This horizontal weave was supplied by Confucian commentators of the day. The Confucian commentaries along with the Chou song-poems became the classic, the ching, for future generations. In turn, these commentaries needed their own contemporary reinterpretation.

Establishing a Han context for Confucius

Similarly Tung Chung-shu felt his role was to bring Confucianism into the context of the Han. This he did by relating filial piety to the Han imperial structure by equating the Emperor with the father of the Empire. Further he incorporated the yin yang theory of the I Ching into the patriarchal imperial world of the Han. He did not care about the feudal clan-oriented context of the Spring and Autumn Era. He was not concerned about the egalitarian fertility cultures, which might have spawned the original equality of yin and yang. He only cared about matching the I Ching and Confucius to the patriarchal imperial context of the Han.

Work’s purpose to give modern context to Chinese thought

In similar fashion, the author of this work hopes to bring ancient Chinese thought into a modern context. It is, of course, important to maintain the integrity of the vertical weave of Confucianism and Taoism. However for the author, it is equally important to give these philosophies a contemporary context. Understanding the Chinese context of these classic ideas is only important to the extent that they enable the understanding of the modern context. The historian attempts to understand what the Han peoples really believed about the Tao Te Ching. The sage cares about the historical context only to the extent that a modern meaning can be invoked that will provide a tool for personal transformation.

Past context secondary to modern context

Rather than focusing upon the inherently patriarchal orientation of the ju class to which Confucius and the Confucians belonged; rather than focusing upon the quest for physical immortality of the Taoists; rather than focusing upon the uniquely Chinese aspects of the I Ching, yin-yang, or 5-phase theories; rather than focusing upon any of these past contexts, this author chooses to focus on how these philosophies and theories translate into meaning in a twenty-first century context, with its egalitarianism, psychology, and scientific background.

Transformation primary, history secondary

On a basic level, the preceding paragraphs represent a disclaimer for the historical gaps, distortions, and gross generalizations in the current work. On a deeper level, they identify the true intent of the author. Education is not the real thrust, although it is a tool. Illumination and personal transformation are the real goals. If the Reader is only educated, then this work is but partially successful. However, if any of these metaphors and philosophies, Chinese or personal, can in any way assist the process of personal transformation, then the work is a success.

Confucian advantage

While Tung Chung-shu’s imperial interpretations of Confucius and the I Ching were key to Emperor Wu’s approval, the Confucians had some key advantages.

Confucians experts on royal ritual and ceremony

First, the Confucians, the ju class, had always been experts in royal ritual and ceremony. To validate the new Han dynasty, they devised ceremonies and rituals to reinforce the royal prestige. They presumably based these ceremonies upon Chinese classics of the early Chou period, almost 1000 years old. According to modern scholarship, the Confucians probably fabricated these documents during the Han.

Also the philosophy of Confucius, the historical personage, stressed ritual and ceremony as an essential social glue. These royal ceremonies increased royal prestige, furthered social stability, and were also based upon the philosophy of Confucius himself. A win-win situation for the imperial government, if not for women or the peasantry.

Ju class literate

Second, and probably more importantly, the ju class had always been the literate class, specialists in both calligraphy and numbers. As the literate class, they were also the educated class. Because of the complexity of Chinese ideograms, only a fraction of a percent of the population was even able to read. The farmers, 90% of the population, had no need or time to read. This was still the situation in the first half of the 20th century in China.

Written Chinese universal to empire

Furthermore, the Chinese written language was ideally suited to administer the multi-cultural polyglot included in China’s expanding geography. Remember that the ideograms are not phonetic and instead represent a concept. Thus any language with a similar or more primitive conceptual base could be easily sinofied, i.e. by translating its words into Chinese ideograms. This would not effect the pronunciation of the words. Thus literate officials could communicate with government administrators in letters when they couldn’t even understand each other’s language. Similarly as scientists of every culture understand the same equations, regardless of the local language.

Literate Chinese, an insurmountable advantage

For these reasons, literate Chinese had a major and insurmountable advantage over the illiterate in terms of government position. No matter which province they came from, scholar-administrators could communicate with officials from any other province in writing. Illiterate administrators would be paralyzed when it came to communication over the large distances that the Chinese Empire encompassed. Not being literate in Han China would be akin to not having a computer in the modern business world.

The shih born to rule

One last feature of the literate shih, i.e. the ju, was that they and their ancestors had administered and ruled the Chinese states for centuries. They were trained to rule, while the peasantry had been raised to farm. In the brief period of Ch’in rule, less than 20 years, when the government attempted to extinguish the aristocracy, these family proclivities for leadership would have persisted. We are not suggesting that the ability to rule and administer is inherited as much as we are suggesting that these abilities are culturally transmitted along family lines through training.

First Emperor had to employ shih as administrators

Indeed it is probable that the First Emperor employed the pliant shih, i.e. those not advocating revolt, to administer his huge empire. As with every large operation, the administrators provide a vital continuity through the myriad changes of leadership. While the First Emperor disrupted the feudal system with its hereditary privileges, it is likely that his administrators were chosen from the shih class primarily because of their literacy combined with the attendant need for universality in communication throughout the far-flung Chinese Empire.

Inevitable rise of the ju of the shih class

While Tung Chung-shu’s patriarchal reinterpretation of Confucius played a big role in the ascendancy of Confucianism, it could easily be argued that it was inevitable that the literate Confucians, the ju of the shih class, would ascend to important government positions, simply because of the universality of the Chinese written language. Recall that written Chinese had just been purified of its regional variations by the First Emperor and so was even more universal than before.

Government friendly philosophy of Confucius

Let us add to these advantages the politically active philosophy of Confucius himself. Writing and working in the Spring and Autumn Era, Confucius never advocated the overthrow of the aristocracy. He only wanted to improve the workings of government, not change its form. Further he focused great attention upon the importance of the ruler. As such, his philosophy was perfectly suited to the Imperial military aristocracy of the Han dynasty.

Confucian Classics

Classics dominate for 2000 years

With all of these subsidiary tendencies in mind, after the founding of the university, a curriculum was quickly set up based upon what have become called the Confucian classics.

“In 124 BCE a national university was founded corresponding to the classics. Soon the classics became the required texts in all education, and eventually government officials were selected through an examination on them. Confucianism had achieved supremacy. By virtue of this supremacy, Confucianism dominated Chinese ethics, education, government and certain aspects of religion for about 2,000 years.”4

We will see that the ideas of Confucius are only a small part of the Confucian classics and that his ideas were of secondary importance to the ju agenda.

Ju determine that merit is base upon knowledge of the classics

While Confucius’ idea of merit determining leadership had become the norm during the Ch’in, the Confucians stepped in during the Han to determine what merit was. They determined that merit was based upon one’s ability to assimilate Chinese culture via the Confucian Classics. What was the ju-advocated classical education upon which both the exams and hence leadership was based? What were the implications?

Cultural education includes Confucius

Proceeding a little deeper, the Ju school had always stressed a classical and cultural education, mainly for the nobility. Confucius had extended this education to the populace. When the ju achieved ascendancy under the Han, they still stressed a cultural education in addition to ceremonial education. Because of the prestige of Tung Chung-shu and his reverence for Confucius, this cultural education included his teachings.

Leadership based on merit superior social technology

His teachings included the notion that leadership should be based in merit rather than heredity. This aspect of Confucius had already been implemented by the Ch’in and was merely continued by the Han. The implementation of these social reforms had less to do with being fair, and more to do with efficiency. Merit-based leadership was and is a superior political technology.

Ch’in most fit because they rewarded merit

The Ch’in dominated the rest because they didn’t tolerate incompetence and rewarded merit. Those cultures that tolerated incompetence and held onto hereditary privilege in spite of performance were not as politically fit. They perished in battle against the more organized Ch’in. As population pressures grew, those cultures that adapted to the new political conditions were able to compete, while those that held onto the past perished. The strict discipline of the military Ch’in and the need for real performance propelled them to the pinnacle of Chinese politics. The humanitarianism of Confucius might have inspired the Ch’in, but the merit system had practical benefits, which bore immediate fruit.

Han continue to reward merit

As inheritors of the Ch’in administrative system, the Han continued to reward merit. The political technology of merit-based leadership proved to be an incredibly powerful aspect of imperial Chinese culture for thousands of years. This technology only reached the west with the advent of democratic processes a centuries ago and has proved to be a powerful tool for us as well.

Written during the Chou edited by the Han

There were 13 Confucian classics that were the basis of the Chinese education and the content of the state tests. Most were originally written during the Chou dynasty, although some are given attributions of up to 1000 years earlier. Because of the book burnings of the Ch’in dynasty, most of these classics have been rewritten and edited by scholars of the Han dynasty.5 This Han rewrite gave the classic works a more modern context, while reinforcing Imperial policy.

Ching means classic

As mentioned, the Chinese word ching means classic. Hence we can speak of Ju ching, Buddhist ching, or Taoist ching. We have already spoken about the Taoist ching, the Tao te Ching. It is a very important Chinese concept. In the present context, we are examining the Ju ching. What were the Confucian classics, the Ju ching?

13 Ju Ching: Western Chou writings and fabrications, 1 to 6

Initially there were nine Ju ching. By the 1200s this had been expanded to 13. To get their flavor, we will enumerate them. The first, the I Ching, Classic of Changes, is a book of divination, which we have examined. The second, the ‘Document classic’ contains speeches and documents from the Chou dynasty. The third, the ‘Poetry classic’ contains poetry and songs from the Chou. These are all fairly historical, written during the Western Chou.

The fourth is called ‘Chou ritual classic’; the fifth, ‘Classic of Etiquette’; the sixth, ‘Classic of Rites’. These last three are presented as historical works associated with the way the early Chou dynasty worked. Scholars believe that the last three classics were instead Han fabrications. They were designed to create new rituals for the Han that had the prestige of the early Chou behind them.

Eastern Chou classics, 7 to 13

The seventh, the ‘Spring and Autumn Annals’, is also about the historical Chou around where Confucius lived on a year-to-year basis between 722-481 BCE. In addition to dry facts, this work also contains assimilation and analysis in a commentary. The eighth and ninth contain more commentary upon the ‘Spring and Autumn Annals’.

The tenth, the Analects, are the sayings of Confucius collected by first and second-generation disciples of Confucius. This is the single most important source of knowledge about historical Confucius. Like Socrates and Jesus, Confucius wrote very little. His personal impact was so great, however, that his followers wrote down his sayings.

The eleventh, the ‘Classic of Filial Piety’, is a treatise exalting filial piety as the highest virtue. This was written a few hundred years after Confucius. The twelfth was the ‘Classic Dictionary’. The thirteenth was the conversations of Mencius, a follower of Confucius, written by his disciples.6

Chinese Classics all from the Chou

The point of the enumeration is to show the nature of the Ju Ching. There is extensive history, but it is only Chou dynasty history. There is ritual, poetry, and documents, which are also Chou. There is the philosophy of Confucius and Mencius. There is even Chou divination. But there is no science, no analysis, and not even any history after the Chou. The Ju Ching are totally backwards looking. We can see why the Chinese culture fixated upon the philosophies of the Chou.

Ju Ching, key to success

The bright young people, mainly men, would study the Ju Ching in order to rise above their station. The content of the Ju Ching was secondary to the political potentials. It is similar in the United States with our college entrance exams, i.e. the SAT and ACT tests. The content of these tests is inconsequential. They do not test for creativity or originality. But the tests are a key part of the entrance process. Hence students study how to take the SAT, not for knowledge or understanding, but for practical considerations only. With generations upon generations of youth studying the Ju Ching in order to achieve upward mobility, with generations upon generations of youth having these backwards looking ching as the standard for political success, Chinese thought eventually became rigid.

Ju Ching still dominant in early 20th century Ching dynasty

Still under the Mogul empire of the 1900s, the Ju Ching with their attendant exams continued to be the norm in China. It had worked for a thousands years in China, why not a few more. However with the introduction of Western technology, the forward-looking Chinese realized that the Ju style education needed to be reformed. This was the reaction to Confucianism that motivated both the pseudo-democratic China of the early 20th century as well as communist China of the last half of the 20th century. Culturally motivated by scholasticism and hard work, the Chinese have easily shifted course and are now the dominant ethnic population in many graduate departments, especially the technical ones.

Confucius did not originate the Ju Ching

Although his sayings are contained in the Ju Ching, Confucius did not originate them nor advocate their study. He did advocate study of culture as a way of brain exercise. He also advocated a scientific method. But it was the Ju school of the Han dynasty that rigidified the Chinese administration and the state exams in the study of their ching. Luckily Confucius’ egalitarianism was contained in their ching. This first transformed the Chinese hereditary based society. Second, it encouraged education. Finally, it gave the tools to suddenly give up the Ju Ching in favor of modern techniques of science and scholarship. Confucius’ teachings transcended the ju class of which he was a part.

Why the Chinese Classics were selected

Why were these particular books chosen as Chinese Classics?

Northern Chinese, longest literary tradition

The Northern Chinese of the Yellow River had the longest written tradition dating back to the Shang of the 2nd millennium. The succeeding Chou dynasty furthered this literary tradition by accumulating documents and song-poems as well as writing their own Book of Changes. During the long Chou dynasty, these books had always been treasured and considered informal classics. It was somewhat inevitable that they be included in the early Chinese curriculum.

Magnetism of Tung Chung-shu furthers Confucian writings

While the ascendancy of the literate aristocracy, i.e. the ju of the shih class, was relatively inevitable, it was probably through the personal magnetism of Tung Chung-shu that the concepts of Confucius and his follower Mencius became included in the educational curriculum of these early Chinese administrators.

Nothing rebellious to be included

Conscious that the training of these youths was the first step towards a government position, it was inevitable that only those philosophies that were politically safe and inspired respect for the imperial government would be propagated. Any literature that encouraged rebellion or lack of respect for government would not be included. This could be a possible reason why neither the Chuang Tzu nor the Lao Tzu were included in the classic Chinese curriculum. These Taoist texts emphasized personal responsibility rather than government service.

Chinese culture and the Ju school

While the ju were aristocratic at heart, they were also worshippers of Chinese culture. While Confucius extended their philosophy to the masses, he also retained the ju emphasis upon culture. The manifestation of Confucius’ ideas turned China into a more egalitarian society with leadership based upon talent. The ju focus upon Chinese culture bound all of China under a common cultural roof. While studying for political power, the bright Chinese peasants would be studying Chinese culture simultaneously. The melding influence of this combination shouldn’t be underestimated.

While both Europe and the Middle East encompass much less territory and smaller populations, they have still not united under a common government or a common culture. The Chinese with almost a third of the people on the planet have been connected in a common culture and government almost continuously since the Han dynasty 2000 years ago. Foreign invaders have been assimilated into the Chinese culture at least twice, the Mongols and the Manchus. Although China was feudalized again at the beginning of the 20th century, it once again united under one government. This homogenization of Chinese culture must in part be attributed to the state exams, which simultaneously introduced the student to Chinese culture and gave him the potential for upward mobility.

The Ju, Confucius and the I Ching

Let us briefly look at what happened to the first classic, the I Ching, the ‘Classic of Changes’, during the Han. Remember that the I Ching probably began as a divination tool, based upon the 64 combinations of two trigrams. According to tradition, song-poems for these hexagrams and their individual lines were first written at the transition between the Shang and Chou dynasties by Wên Wang and the Duke of Chou. The I Ching, one of the foundations of yin-yang theory, informed both Confucius and Taoism. According to traditional attribution, Confucius wrote a commentary on it during his lifetime.

The I Ching of the Ju

While the I Ching was probably not written as early as tradition claims, it still preceded Confucius. The I Ching was probably written in the early Chou, while the commentary was probably written in the 3rd or 2nd century BCE7, a few hundred years after Confucius died, by someone from the Ju school. This allows Confucians to claim the I Ching as their own. Confucian interpretation of the I Ching focuses upon the positive strong masculine yang and the negative weak feminine yin. The ju interpretation of the I Ching focuses upon traditional male/female roles. Perhaps Tung Chung-shu, the famous Confucian of the 2nd century, wrote the commentary or at least influenced the interpretation. It was he that incorporated the yin-yang theory into Confucianism in a patriarchal way. Remember his famous theory of correspondences connected Heaven, king, man, and fathers as ‘natural’ leaders. This sexist role-oriented commentary identifies the Ju school as worshippers of the patriarchy.

Yin-Yang theory Chinese, not Taoist or Confucian

However yin-yang is not inherently sexist. The yin and yang are polar opposites. They balance one another rather than one dominating the other. As such, yin-yang theory is instead an inherently egalitarian system, even though the Confucians interpreted it in a patriarchal fashion.

Classic of Rituals, the Li-ching, regarding Women

In similar fashion, the Han dynasty employed the fabricated, fourth Chinese classic, the Classic of Rituals, the Li-ching, to propagate their patriarchal views. Every other Chinese classic was most likely written during the Chou dynasty. Although attributed to the Duke of Chou, one of the first rulers of the Chou dynasty, the Li-ching was probably written during the Han. Later it was broken into three classics. One dealt with proper social behavior towards government; another with interpersonal behavior of the aristocracy, and the last with ritual behavior. One very influential ritual behavior was directed towards women.

‘Thrice Following’

It was called ‘Thrice Following’. According to this etiquette, women were to first obey their fathers, then obey their husband, and finally to obey their sons. Thus a ‘good’ woman always had a family master that was clearly delineated by social forms. These forms were purportedly set up during the early Chou, over a thousand years before the Han. Further these forms, these rites and rituals, supposedly according to the great Confucius, were what had made China great. Hence the reasoning went, ‘Be a good woman and obey your three men. This will be good for Chinese culture, as a whole. If you don’t, it will undermine the very foundations of our patriarchal society. This would be very bad, especially for us patriarchs.’

Chinese culture still very sexist

This etiquette was very influential in Chinese culture and society all the way up until the Communist Chinese government of the mid-20th century. While the Red Chinese government is trying to reeducate their people, old traditions die hard. As we begin the 3rd millennium of the Common Era, Chinese women are still supposed to be subservient to men and speak quietly. Hence Chinese culture, for all its strengths, is still one of the more sexist cultures in the world partially because of the rule of ‘Thrice Following’ introduced during the Han.

Orthopraxy vs. Orthodoxy

The emphasis upon ritual by the Ju School and subsequently in Chinese culture has led to an interesting phenomenon. In the West, what the individual believes is of utmost importance while what he does is secondary. We place a high value on orthodoxy. In the Catholic Church, no matter what horrendous things you’ve done, if you confess on your deathbed and convert to Catholicism, if necessary, you are saved. Still in evangelical Christianity, prevalent in the United States, one must only acknowledge that Jesus is the son of God in order to be saved. One’s behavior tends to be secondary to belief. Even in a court of law or in the earlier witch trials, confession and repentance, was of utmost importance, and would mitigate the consequences. Conversely if the criminal did not repent, then his sentence would be more severe. Again behavior assumes a secondary role to belief or intent.

Orthopraxy most important

In China this is reversed. What someone believes is not as important as what they do. Behavior is valued higher than belief. Orthopraxy, i.e. common behavior, is considered very important in China. With the diversity of religious expression in China, from the mystical other worldly Buddhists, the intellectual Confucians, to the shamanistic Taoists, belief was considered secondary to behavior. Perhaps the Ju emphasis upon ceremony led to this orthopraxy. Perhaps common ritual behavior only accentuated a Chinese tendency that was already there.  Orthopraxy tends to be more important than orthodoxy, i.e. common beliefs, in China.

Communist China founded upon orthopraxy

However, due to the cultural plurality of the United States, the emphasis on orthodoxy is passing out. On the other hand, in China, orthopraxy has led to the formation of the extremely patriarchal Communist government, where behavior must conform to the dictates of the state.

The influence of Confucius on China

Confucius’ influence was enormous upon Chinese culture. During his lifetime and shortly after, his impact was not very significant. His individual students became administrators and presumably employed his concepts in their job. But individuals do not make a society as big as China. Almost three centuries after his death the Ch’in dictatorship united China under the philosophy of legalism, an offshoot of Confucianism. The Ch’in abolished the aristocracy and began selecting administrators based upon merit. Pure Confucius. They also attempted to destroy the past, definitely anti-Confucianism, and burned all the books. Hence the Ch’in manifested Confucius’ political ideas, while rejecting the cultural concepts of Confucianism.

The Han dynasty and state exams

The Han dynasty took advantage of the unification of China already achieved by the Ch’in. However, they extended their influence for four centuries, exceeding the 14 years that the Ch’in ruled. One factor that led to their long reign was that they embraced Confucius’ ideas of state government that had been originated during the Ch’in. During the Chou governments. leadership was primarily on a hereditary basis and thereby subject to the whims of genetic fate, as all hereditary governments are. As mentioned earlier, the Han dynasty introduced state exams in order to screen out those with exceptional ability for the purpose of administering the state. The state exams, which were employed to select the Chinese imperial bureaucracy for 2000 years, were the Han extension of the Ch’in appointments based upon merit. In addition, the state exams extended the possibility of government service to all classes, not just the ruling class.

“In theory and very largely in practice the administration was controlled by ministers; and these ministers were selected, for the most part, not for their ancestry but for their personal qualities so that a man of very humble origin could and sometimes did rise to wield the paramount power over the entire Chinese empire.”

This system was so efficient that it allowed China to become a permanent empire. Each invader simply adopted the administration that was already in place. In this fashion, they were able to maintain control over the huge population and geography.

Unique style of government

This governmental system was unique in world history. It was not a democracy. It was not a monarchy in the European or Middle Eastern sense. It was not a dictatorship. Basically the success of the system was founded on the choosing of administrators through exam rather than through royal patronage. This system brought people from all classes of society into government leadership. This minimized corruption and inefficiency, while promoting participation. The populace was not able to vote upon leaders or upon any decision. However if a talented student studied hard enough, he might be able to assume a position of authority through his personal talents. This must have provided a huge incentive and sense of belonging to all classes of society.

Upward mobility possible through education

While the exams were stacked for the aristocracy and the scholarly class, as they always are, there was at least the potential to succeed for someone of exceptional talent. Additionally while the exams were biased, at least they weeded out the aristocratic dead wood that was to plague European administration over a thousand years later. In the United States, the university exams are race and gender biased, but generally one can’t buy a law degree or a doctorate. Although the wealthy has the deck stacked for their families, the individuals must still take advantage and cultivate their personal talents. Also there are ways available that the exceptional from poor families might still succeed. China’s administration was chosen in a similar way.

Universal education, a flop

The teachings of Confucius included the concept of universal education. In theory, anyone could compete in the national exams. However in practice, only the children of the aristocracy had the training needed to even take the tests. The agrarian peasantry as a whole didn’t have the time or money to afford the education needed to compete in written exams. It wasn’t until the Communist revolution of the 2nd half of the 20th century that universal education became a reality in China. Up to this point, the Chinese administrators were primarily chosen from the upper classes, not the peasantry.

“Nevertheless and despite the fact that men of very humble social status sometimes skyrocketed in to eminence, it must be kept in mind that the Han civil service was not what we would consider democratic. Recruitment required literacy, and literacy was almost necessarily restricted to those few whose families were wealthy enough to hire tutors and have access to books, which were available only in expensive handwork copies on wooden slats or silk. The system also required that one be recommended by local authorities who were certainly not likely to recommend anyone not of good breeding - that is, anyone outside the small circle of great families that dominated every area.”8

Transformation and influence of the ju

The First Emperor destroyed the feudal system dominated by the shih. However these same shih were chosen to run his Empire because they were literate. Thus while the feudal system had been destroyed, the same old families were by and large still in charge.

Han: slave culture aristocrat to officials and bureaucrats

While the continuity was not broken, there was a social transformation of the shih class. During the Chou, they were the slave-owning military aristocracy. During the Han they became wealthy administrators.

“The outlook on life of this new class [of officials and bureaucrats during the Han] was quite different from that of the former slave-owning aristocracy [during the Chou]. Instead of a fierce pride in noble lineage and a concern with warfare and ceremonial there was a typical petit bourgeois concern with material possessions and comforts of life.”9

Gulf between literati and craftsman

Because literacy was the main quality that differentiated the shih administrators from the rest, they held onto literacy as their badge. They began to look down on any occupation, which didn’t include literacy and knowledge of the Classics. In this context, the illiterate craftsman were always considered lower class.

“By the end of the [Han] dynasty there had come in to being a gulf between the intellectual aristocracy on the one hand and the unlettered craftsmen on the other which was to have profound influence on the character of later Chinese art.”10

In China architecture subordinate to painters

This same snobbery extended to architecture, which was built by illiterate craftsman.

“The Chinese have never thought of architecture as a major art form. They looked upon it as utilitarian activity undertaken by artisans who were not the social equals of painters and calligraphers and therefore could never produce anything of real importance.”11

While the literati, the ju, cultivated calligraphy for writing, writing was also associated intimately with painting. Thus the talents of the ju always included painting as well as writing. While painters were exalted, it was only because of the connection with writing. Indeed in later centuries, when painters became specialized, i.e. disassociated with calligraphy, the literati ju class looked down on them too.

Summary: China vs. Europe

While the literati of any culture have tended to look down on the unlettered peasantry, in China this snobbery reached greater heights. The literati of China were the ruling class and so looked down upon everyone else as social inferiors. The ruling class of Europe considered themselves the nobility and thus superior to the rest. However, the European nobility, frequently illiterate themselves, grouped the literati with architects, painters, musicians, and scientists. They wanted them to be part of their court but still considered them social inferiors although still giant steps above the agricultural peasantry.


In summary, the Ch’in were able to unite China as one great empire, at least in part, because their leadership was based upon ability rather than heredity factors. With this intent in mind, the government deliberately undermined the Chinese aristocracy and instead employed a centralized bureaucracy to administer the far-flung imperial domains. The Han dynasty followed the Ch’in example. In addition, they made Confucianism the state religion. Under the influence of the Confucians, i.e. the ju/the literate aristocracy, the Chinese government employed state exams that stressed a common Chinese culture to choose capable administrators. This system of choosing leaders created a sense of being Chinese, which has melded this great population into one empire that has lasted nearly continuously for 2000 years.


1 China to 1850, p. 73

2 China to 1850, p 69

3 China to 1850, p 69

4 EB, Confucianism 6-238a

5 EB: Chinese Classics, p566 a

6 EB: Chinese Classics, p566 c

7 EB: Chinese Classics, p566 c

8 China to 1850,  p. 65

9 Chinese Art,  MacKenzie, 1961 p.10

10 The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan p 70

11 Munsterberg, 1972 p96


Home    China Home Page    Chapters    Sections    Previous    Next    Comments