THE STUDY OF EASTERN LITERATURES
poem # 242 from the Book of Songs (pp. 785-86), the speaker celebrates
the ascendancy of the Chou Dynasty (ca. 1120 B. C.), suggesting that
the dissolute behavior of the Shang-Yin rulers gradually deprived them
of the Mandate of Heaven and transferred legitimacy to Chou. Though
Chou had been a vassal border state and somewhat less culturally refined
than Shang, early Chou monarchs viewed themselves not as alien conquerors
but as divinely ordained inheritors and propagators of Shang civilization,
which they had emulated since long before the conquest. The Chou thus
presented themselves and the Shang as sprung from the same cultural
rootstock, suggesting that both dynastic lines were legitimate descendants
of the mythical Sage-Kings who had ruled in antiquity.
resolutely, the first three Chou rulers consolidated their domain by
parceling out about seventy strategic fiefs to family, clan members,
and political allies. Even the Shang, since they too once had been granted
Heaven's Mandate to rule, were awarded an important state (Sung), wherein
they continued to practice their ancestral rites. Through this pervasive
and powerful network, the Chou court successfully imposed its language,
rituals, political institutions, and the common cultural heritage of
Shang and Chou throughout its domain.
nearly four hundred years, the Chou kings held military superiority,
but all during that time, many vassal states were increasing in size
and power. Locked in frequent wars with one another, they added to their
holdings by defeating and annexing smaller neighbors. Thus, by 771 B.
C., the state army of Royal Chou was so diminished that it easily fell
before barbarian invaders, who sacked the capital city and murdered
the king. When the capital was relocated farther to the east in the
next year, the new King's military presence was insignificant.
awhile, peace was intermittently preserved by a coalition of the most
powerful vassal lords, who honored the Chou king in spirit and ceremony,
but otherwise did as they pleased. By the fourth century, Royal Chou
was pretty much at the mercy of seven of its alleged vassals. Large,
powerful, and virtually autonomous, these states embarked upon a final,
bitter bloodletting, in which one lord after another took the title
of king. Eventually, in 256 B. C., Ch'in (another semi-barbarian border
state) deposed the reigning Chou monarch and annexed what remained of
his royal domain. Within the next thirty years, the country was pacified,
and, in 221 B. C., unified under the "First Emperor" of Ch'in
yet, despite Chou's position of attenuated authority during these chaotic
centuries, the symbolic importance of the dynasty did not lessen until
its very end. In fact, as Fredrick Mote says, in Intellectual Foundations
of China, "the Chou court continued to exercise a nominal hegemony
for five hundred years more; its power derived from a mystique of legitimacy
that the founding Chou figures had carefully established and that Chou
civilization nurtured and enhanced" (p. 11).
the foregoing might suggest to the perceptive reader, one familiar with
the Chou which Confucius reveres, is the tremendous distance separating
what we might call "legendary Chou" from the dynasty that
actually existed. In the people's memory, early Chou was enshrined as
a Golden Age when the Empire was united under the Emperor, and all the
descendants of his vassals remained faithful to their lord. And yet,
as we have seen, from rather early in its history, the Chou Dynasty
was marked by the slow erosion of central power and the growth of more
than a score of rival states. As rivalries waxed, successful diplomacy
waned, and the Era of Warring States (ca. 464-221 B. C.) brought incessant
warfare, misery, and death. Looking back to better times, the people
surely felt, as the ghost of King Hamlet tells his son, "Oh, .
. . what a falling-off was there" (Hamlet, I, V, l. 47).
just this discrepancy--between the goodness that had been, and the evil
that was now--stimulated a truly golden age of thought in Chou's twilight
years. Indeed, during this chaotic era, a time Karl Jaspers labels the
"Axial Period" (in his The Origin and Goal of History), thinkers
were developing written history, philosophy, and sophisticated ethical
arguments--ideas that have molded all subsequent Chinese history.
intellectual awakening seems a response to the breakdown of the Chou--a
moral and political order which had claimed to be guided by Heaven's
authority. And each thinker--whether Confucian, Legalist, or Taoist--asks
the same question: "Where is The Way?", the way to re-order
the state and conduct a meaningful personal life. And, as A. C. Graham
says, despite differing answers to this question, most of the competing
schools looked backwards--"from present disruption towards an empire
and culture that flourished in the immediate past." Behind their
theories, most thinkers of the period share "the purpose of attracting
rulers to a project for recovering the lost and longed-for political
and social cohesion" (Disputers of the Tao, p. 4).
was one of those thinkers who looked to the past for answers, and his
great reverence for antiquity seems to have been shaped early. In fact,
intense respect for Chou civilization characterized his homeland, Lu--a
small state created in northeastern China as Chou solidarity was dissolving
into the Era of Warring States. Lu had originated as the ducal fief
of Chou Kung (Tan, the Duke of Chou, died ca. 1094 B. C.), younger brother
of the Dynasty's founder (King Wu).
to tradition, the Duke assumed imperial power during the minority of
his nephew Ch'eng, the heir-apparent. During his regency, the Duke suppressed
rebellions against the rightful successor, used his position to establish
new institutions that promoted stabilty, and regularized the government
before returning authority to his brother's son (probably the last great
Duke's most important contribution seems to have been the clan inheritance
system, which regulated imperial succession and created familial solidarity
within the Chou dynasty. In this plan, the kingship passed to the principal
wife's eldest son. Younger sons and sons of concubines founded their
own noble houses and were granted feudal domains by the ruler. Such
lords thus enjoyed a dual relationship with the king--a political bond
(as a feudal vassal), and a familial connection (as blood relative and
head of a branch of the royal clan). So, political allegiance was grounded
on, and stabilized by, family ties, by an elaborate system of mutual
dependence that initially created great social solidarity. Resting on
a shared belief in the authority of the heaven-mandated ruler, reinforced
and connected by a matrix of efficacious religious observance, family
loyalty, and feudal obligations, the early Chou ruled not through legal
constraint or oppression, but through the suasive force of their superior
virtue, the natural force of the loving duties that bind families together.
the Duke of Chou's example, Confucius elaborated a social ethic, a political
vision, and a scholarly tradition--all based on familial relationships
and the rituals that sustained them. Such rituals created harmony; indeed,
they mirrored the harmony of the universe and were thus indispensible
for the proper order of society. This system stretched back through
the Chou, he believed, included the best of the Shang and Hsia dynasties,
and had begun with the legendary sage-kings Yao and Shun, who shaped
a civilized world by their righteous moral example and enlightened rule.
Confucius hoped to rediscover this tradition, thereby bringing about
two effects: (1) reanimating the vitiated rituals that once had helped
create and sustain the Golden Age; and, (2) reordering his own chaotic
world by returning it to rectitude.
Confucius views himself not as the founder of a belief system, but as
a preserver or conservator of institutions (family, school. village,
state, kingdom) that for centuries had fostered political stability
and social order. In this regard, he says, "I transmit but do not
innovate; I am truthful in what I say and devoted to antiquity"
(Analects, VII, 1.).
yet, Confucius is not exactly truthful here, for he emphasizes only
some of the old ideals of aristocratic conduct. For one thing, he rejects
the idea that nobility (gentility) is a matter of heredity. For him,
the "superior man" is formed by education and marked by his
conduct. Thus, men of lowly birth, with natural aptitude and the right
education, can become "gentlemen," or chun-tzu--"superior
men" who give evidence of having achieved a personal excellence
of ethical and intellectual training.
marks of such gentility are goodness (jen), wisdom (chih), and courage
(yung). Practicing jen, the superior man expresses concern for the well-being
of others and possesses a humane understanding of their lives' conditions.
While chih implies the importance of possessing both native intelligence
and knowledge of the world, the concept also includes the ability to
decide on the correct action in each situation and then perform it,
even though it might be difficult and/or unpopular. (Obviously, courage
[yung] comes in here as well.
addition, these virtues require that we moderate both external actions
and internal emotions, that we know and honor traditional rites and
manners (because they promote harmony), that we keep our promises, honor
our superiors, treat inferiors kindly, and stay away from those who
do not follow such practices.