GENESIS     history

Civilization and Religion in China

Science News (April 24, 2015) writes that hunter-gatherers "formed permanent settlements between 10,500 and 10,000 years ago." That was on the North China Plain along the great Huang He (Yellow River). They continued to hunt deer and other game and to fish and gather food. And, after hundreds of years, a farming lifestyle developed. They grew millet, and they raised dogs, pigs and chickens.

Legend describes the first dynasty of kings in the North China Plain as that of the Xia family, said to have ruled from around 2070 to 1600 BCE. They were overthrown by warriors that came out of the Wei River Valley, in the west, and this conquest brought to power a family dynasty called the Shang – the first dynasty in what today is China for which there is historical evidence.

There was reason for the warrior society to conquer rather than just raid. There was reward in conquest that had not existed when nomadic societies confronted other hunter-gatherer societies. Conquest previously would have been a burden. Now conquest produced was a stable source of wealth.

The Shang Dynasty is described as having ruled for a little more than 500 years. They had chariots with an archer, a driver and sometimes a man with a spear. The Shang built an empire in much the same way as other conquerors: by leaving behind a garrison force to police local people, by turning a dominant local figure into a subservient ally and a collector of taxes for the conqueror.

The Shang Dynasty had canals built for irrigating crops. Shang civilization imported goods. Shang merchants traded in salt, iron, copper, tin, lead and antimony. And, as early as the 1300s BCE, a bronze casting industry developed.

Conquest changed religion away from the informality of primal religion. The Shang emperor was chief priest. There was still the view of nature being moved by numerous gods, called kuei-shen – a word also meaning ghost or spirit. Priests led sacrifices to their gods. These were attempts at bribery, done with the belief that the gods might exercise magic for them.

The frequency of floods and other calamities led the people to believe that some gods were good and others demonic. They believed in an evil god who led travelers astray and devoured people. Shang emperors told their subjects that heaven was where the ancestors of Shang emperors dwelled, elevating themselves as worth of rule.

Society had become divided between aristocrats and common people. Aristocrats were concerned with their status and boasted about their ancestral roots. They kept records of their family tree. Common people, on the other hand, had no surnames and no pedigree, and they did not participate in ancestor worship. Aristocrats believed that their ancestors lived at the court of the gods and had powers to help guide and assist their living descendants.They saw their ancestors as needing nourishment, and at grave sites they offered them food and wine – a ritual that males alone were allowed to perform. When an aristocrat wanted a special favor from an ancestor, he might supplement the offerings by sacrificing an animal. If an emperor wanted a special favor from the gods he might have a human sacrificed.

Despite the efforts of emperors, eventually a loss of favor with the gods appeared evident. It would be said that the last Shang emperor (1075 to 1046), had lost the "Mandate from Heaven."  A neighboring pastoral people in the west allied with others against the Shang emperor, Zhouxin, while he was occupied by rebellions that had broken out among people that Shang monarchs before him had conquered. The Zhou saw the troubles of the Shang emperor as an opportunity to extend their power, and in 1045 the Zhou overpowered Zhouxin at the battle of Mu-ye and had him beheaded.

The Zhou Dynasty was born, and the Zhou borrowed from Shang culture. They claimed that all lands belonged to heaven, that they were the sons of heaven and, therefore, other peoples were their subjects. Aristocratic people on the North China Plain continued their attempt to appease the gods with gifts and animal sacrifices. The sacrificing of humans diminished from what it had been under the Shang emperors, but Zhou emperors had their wives or friends join them in the grave. And each year a young woman was offered as a bride to the river god.

The Zhou Dynasty lost control of its empire in 771 BCE. A family squabble had led the queen and her father to ally themselves with a neighboring tribe, and that overran the Zhou capital – Xianyang – and killed the Zhou emperor. The queen's son took power in a new capital – Luoyang – and local rulers recognized only their own power. Local rulers raided, warred with each other and made alliances. For some of them war was a sport – better than a good hunt. What was to be called China's Warring States period, roughly around 480 BCE, had begun.

Local rulers imitated the Zhou emperors by having scholars at their court: men who conduct sacrifices, funerals and to taught the ruler's children. Among the scholars was a man named Kongfuzi, to be Latinized to Confucius (551 – 479 BCE). Confucius believed in authoritarianism and social hierarchy. He blamed the ills of his day on leaders neglecting the rituals of the now powerless Zhou emperors. He would like to have seen a return to the good ol' days when a Zhou emperor ruled over all of what had been their empire.

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Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.