Human Rights in Ancient China

The biggest hindrance of the West and the rest of the world in understanding China is the perceived lack of human rights tradition in China. China is an old civilization and a civilization cannot continue to prosper and grow if this most fundamental issue is never addressed. The Zhou dynasty is probably the most formative in that it is during that period that the modern Chinese language, culture and core belief are formed.

It is during this period that the most influential philosophies of China is formed. The schools of thought from Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism and the many less well known school such as Moism all prospered during this period. The modern Chinese written language was not only proliferated during these period but another important aspect of it, the Chinese idiom (cheng yu成语) made its grand appearance during the Zhou dynasty. The idiom is very important due to the fact that it reflect not only the history but also the cultural aspect of ancient Chinese. It is very interesting to note that the vast majority of the idiom formed are political in nature. [1]

The Zhou dynasty is the third Chinese dynasty after the Xia and Shang. The Zhou king is also considered as the son of heaven. He ruled not because of rank and privilege but rather he has the mandate of heaven. In essence the king’s role is because he provide stability and protection to people. The political structure of the Zhou dynasty consist of many feudal states run by dukes, lords, barons etc (Chinese titles being: 公候伯子男) The modern name for China, Zhong Guo (中国) known erroneously as middle kingdom actually first appeared during this period. The territory directly under the rule of the Zhou king is called Zhong Guo. The word Guo may represent a kingdom or country under modern usage but at that time, Guo means the state ruled by the various lords. In the state itself, the state is divided in jia (家), run by a minor noble called Da Fu(大夫). The social structure at that time consists of the Zhou King running his own territory, followed by feudal states run by the Dukes, Lords, Barons. The majority of the population consisted of commoners engaging in farming, trade or commerce. The lowest rank consists of serfs tied to their feudal lords and the various slaves owned by the nobles or rich.

The pivotal moment of the Zhou dynasty came during the reign of King Zhou You (周幽王). It is recorded that King You married a new consort named Pao Xi (褒姒). Although very beautiful, the new lady has rarely smiled while in the palace. The king eventually gave a reward for anyone who can make his new consort smiled. A minister suggested that the beacon tower might do the trick. At this time the Zhou kingdom was protected by a series of beacon tower that goes all the way from the border region to the other vassal states. If an invasion happened at the border, the beacon towers would be lit one by one until all the vassal states would see the flame and smoke signal.

King You took Pao Xi to the Li Shan station and lit the beacon tower. One by one the various dukes, lords, and barons would assembled their armies and rushed to the capital to protect their king. Unfortunately, what greeted them would be the king and his favourite consort laughing at the rescuers. The various lords were humiliated by being made to look like fools. On 771 BC, the Zhou state was invaded by nomadic tribes and as expected the various lords did not come to the rescue even after the beacon towers were lit. Thus what historian called western Zhou dynasty which lasted from 1046 BC to 771 BC ended. This event would give rise to a common Chinese saying “The king does not joke around.” 君无戏言

After realizing there is a invasion, the lords eventually come to the capital and drove out the invaders. They put a son of King You on the throne and moved the capital from Hao Jing (modern day Shanxi Xian) to Shen (modern day Henan Yangshi). However, the prestige of the Zhou court has been lost, a large track of Zhou land was occupied by the invaders.

The new Zhou dynasty (called Eastern Zhou by historians) would set the stage for the beginning of the tumulus Spring Autumn and Warring States period. At the beginning of the Eastern Zhou period, more than 140 feudal states existed. The Zhou king was not only weakened politically, but militarily and economically as well. As a result, the Zhou court no longer exercised even loose control over its vassal states. The stronger state would annex the smaller state in a series of conflicts that would spread all over the kingdom. The first half of the Eastern Zhou (called Spring Autumn) would be characterized by constant warfare and further development of technology. Ultimately, the most important development would be that of the various schools of thoughts which seek to end the unending warfare between the states. Strategy development would also be another hall mark of the Zhou period. Books on warfare and strategy would also prospered.

The Spring Autumn period get its name from Confucius compiling of a book of the same name which record the history of the period. A Western Han dynasty historian named Liu Xiang wrote a book name “Warring States Strategy” and this is how the latter period got name. It is no coincidence that all the schools of thought focus on practical matter that try to bring forth a political solution to end the chaos. Various states would vied to become the most influential state know as “hegemon”(Ba霸). The reason would always be similar, an enlightened and ambitious ruler would come to the throne and through reform and hard work he would be able to strengthened his home state. However, none of them leave a long lasting impact because the reform did not alter the core of the social, political structure of the respective state. The various Zhou states practiced traditional feudal hereditary system. The most powerful position would be inherited by the sons of the nobles only.

Like Macedonia of the ancient Greek states, the state of Qin was a relatively backward state that was located near the periphery of the Zhou dynasty. Due to its distance from the more technologically, economically and cultural advanced central plain states, Qin which was located far west was underdeveloped but had the advantage of not getting attention of the various states fighting for hegemony there.

In 361 BC, a new duke ascended to the Qin throne. He is known historically as Qin Duke Xiao (秦孝公), he was twenty one years old. The biggest geopolitical threat to the Qin state was Wei(魏) and Han(韩) state which border it. The state of Wei was the most powerful hegemon of the time and has took over large area of  land from Qin. To the richer and more powerful states, Qin was considered a less developed state and was treated almost with contempt by them. It was under this back drop that Duke Xiao seek ways to strengthen his home state.

During the Spring Autumn period, a phenomenon that took the upper class by storm is the emphasis on learning. Young nobles or better off commoners from each states were free to travel and learn from whatever school that took their fancy. As all states still technically considered themselves vassal under the Zhou court, even when war is raging between the two states, population from either states are still free to travel, trade or study. It is only in exceptional situation that interaction is stopped.

A man from the tiny state of Wei(卫) in Henan (not to be confused with the more powerful central plain state Wei 魏) was a student of the legalist school. Hearing that Duke Xiao was looking for capable administrators, he decided to try his luck there. Through several audiences with Duke Xiao, he managed to convince the young duke to implement  his legalist idea of running the state. In 356 BC, the man known historically as Shang Yang started his reform in the state of Qin.

His radical reform to the existing Qin law is as follows:

1. A new guilty by association law. Any family not exposing the wrong doing of another family is liable to be punished for the said crime. The person exposing the crime would be rewarded.

2. Abolishing of hereditary military position. Twenty new military pay grades were introduced. Any soldier killing the enemy would be promoted. A slave/serf killing an enemy would become a free person. All nobles wanting a military commission would need to prove themselves in battle first.

3. Expansion of farm production. Each family can only have one adult male. Whenever a son reached adulthood, he is supposed to start a new plot of farmland himself.

4. Setting up of county system. Instead of being run by the hereditary Da Fu, an official would be send by the duke’s court to administer the new farmland developed. The official would usually have a humble origin getting the position mostly on merit.

The first proposal although cruel, greatly reduced crime in the state. By introducing a pure merit base military, the Qin army gradually become the most effective of the various states which were still run by hereditary generals and officers. Rule two and four would greatly weakened the influence and power of the nobles within the states. As expected, Shang Yang and the duke himself would face strong opposition from the nobles. However, the duke realizing it would strengthen his own power, did not pay heeds to the nobles protest. And with the military now commanded by new officers the opposition can only orally protest.

The reform has immediate effect on the economy and military of the state. A second stage of the reform was introduced in 350 BC. The size of the existing measurement for land was enlarged. A standardized measurement system was to be apply to the whole state. The state would recognized the ownership of the new farmland started by new farmer. In reality, each new adult male serf of the noble would end up becoming new free farmer instead of remaining a serf to the noble. The military reform of freeing slaves who had perform military service also made them into land owner during peace time. To seal the deal, the state would recognize the land ownership of all newly cultivated land. Another positive side effect of the land reform law encourage oppressed serfs or landless peasants from neighbouring states to settle in Qin and start new farmland.

The whole state of Qin was organized into counties ruled by magistrate/officials sent by the central government. Although hereditary land and title still existed, the minor nobles’ power would be effectively broken. To integrate the state closer to the more advanced central plain states, the capital was moved to Xianyang.

Nevertheless, the court was still staffed by the nobles who view the reform with great negativity. Both the Qin duke and Shangyang faced stiff opposition from them but reform was ultimately pushed trough. To create credibility, the law was to be apply equally on a nobleman, commoner or slave. Eventually, the son of the duke himself was caught on the wrong side of the law. The son was spared but his teachers were severely punished instead. The court showed that it was serious in enforcing the law regardless of who violate them, putting to an end the different legal standard that was apply to the different social classes. The event gave a common Chinese saying “When a prince commit a crime, his punishment is the same as a commoner.” (王子犯法,与庶民同罪)

The reform carried out by the state of Qin was the most thorough ever under taken by any Chinese state during the Spring Autumn and Warring States period(or since the founding of the first Chinese dynasty Xia in 2070 BC). It put in motion the end of feudalism in ancient China. Feudalistic China ruled by a king and his vassals are eventually to be put to an end by the Qin state. The reform encompassed the political, economical, military and social. Politically, the power of the central government was strengthened. The traditional farming economy controlled by local nobles would be supplanted by free land owning farmers with protected property rights and military service obligation. The upper ranks of the military that was once the monopoly of nobles are now opened to commoners and even freed serf or slaves with ability. Socially, the rigid structure of nobles, commoners and slaves was blurred. The number of slaves were reduced to a negligible percentage of the population since it was in the interest of the government to maximize production. The hereditary position in the civil and military services would be supplemented by people of humble beginning with ability.

After ten years of reform the state of Qin was so greatly strengthened that the Zhou king conferred a new title on the duke of Qin. Even the state of Wei has to move its capital after several defeats at the hand of Qin’s army. Instead of copying the reform of the Qin, the other states got into an on and off alliance. At its peak the six other major states facing off against Qin would have a single prime minister to facilitate the alliance. Qin on the other hand would continue gaining strength and try to undermine the alliance.

It would be no surprise to any casual observer that Qin would eventually unified China in 221 BC. After the unification, the same political, economical, military and social reform would be carried on to all the conquered states. The unified Qin dynasty would be known to the world as China. It would have a single emperor, single written Chinese script, currency, measurement and roads. Nevertheless, despite its effectiveness, the unforgiving nature of the law struck fear into the heart of the people. On top of that the Qin over-expanded its investment in infrastructure, the most famous of which is the Great Wall of China which the unified Qin would linked together to form a defence line against the nomadic tribes. The Qin also greatly expanded the canals and road system which facilitate trade and transportation but exhausted the people who has to supply the labour.

So fifteen years after the unification, affected by a single succession crisis, the Qin dynasty would fall. The crack of the system did not put an end to a unified China. After a series of warfare among many contenders, a commoner by the name of Liu Bang would become the new emperor of the Han dynasty in 202 BC. Taking the lesson from the fall of the Qin, he would introduce a more lenient legal code characterize by great leeway on the part of the magistrate. During the Qin, even minor offence such as late completion of project or late delivery of provision would incur strict punishment. The reformed Qin legal code which emphasis rule of law above all else was supplemented by the Han legal code which emphasis human decision人治.

The completely centralized government system of the Qin would be modified into a semi-feudal system where brothers/sons/cousins of the emperor were put into feudal states all over the country. Thus a single mistake or an attack on the central government would not leave the country leaderless. However, this semi-feudal system would provide another problem of its own. From the Han dynasty until the Qing dynasty (last dynasty of China), the country would sometimes be plagued by the rebellion of the feudal lords and dukes.

Emperor Han Wu would make Confucianism the most important school of learning. It is interesting to note that despite the hierarchy nature of Confucianism, the most important teaching was that the people being the most important, followed by the society, the king being the least important part of a nation. (民为贵,社稷次之,君为轻) Thus the most important role  of the emperor is to serve the empire which consists of the people rather than the other way round. An emperor losing the mandate of heaven should be replaced by a more qualified person, a very advanced concept for any society of the time. It might appear that the dynastic succession concept first appeared during this period. In fact the term revolution (革命) first appeared around 1600 BC when the Shang dynasty replaced the Xia, so by the time of the Zhou dynasty, it is natural that the concept of revolution has again been expanded.

However, what makes China unique other than to have many commoners ascending to the thrones is the merit base civil service and military system which is open to all level of the society. A standardized civil examination system was introduced during the Shui(隋)Dynasty and would remain in place until the fall of the Qing dynasty. The social structure that was introduced during the Qin would also stayed more or less the same until the last dynasty. And contrary to most belief the concept of  people being the most important, followed by the society, the king being the least important (民为贵,社稷次之,君为轻) was required reading by all potential civil examination candidate. Likewise all Chinese emperors were drilled from birth to follow this teaching or face dethronement. Of course the execution of the concept vary with each dynasties and specifically with different emperors. A unique feature of Chinese society since the Qin is the rise of the mandarin class as the dominant force which would shape the course of the country. The emperor’s power would always be limited by this gentry class which consist mainly of commoners.

Nevertheless, since there is no universal education system, only the better off portion of the society would get an education and be literate. From the Qin until the Qing less than one tenth of the population would be literate and can effectively enforced their rights. This is where China started to fall behind society that promotes universal education system by the 16th century. And in dept study of Chinese history would yield the conclusion that it is the freeing of oppressed class that lead to further progress of China as a civilization.  However, the idealized concept of people being more important than the king/emperor as a whole cannot be effectively practised until both groups by birth have the same opportunity and privilege from birth. This is where modern China still fell short but is on the way of correcting it.


Hidden Harmonies China Blog

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