The Middle Kingdom Of Ancient China

In 481 B.C. the lord Szu-ma Niu was driven by rival barons from his fief, one of the many walled towns of northern China, and he set forth on a long journey to the south in search of a new land-holding. His destination was the state known as Wu near the mouth of the great Yangtze – a region he considered hardly civilized.

Szu-ma Niu differed from the other numerous feudal barons of his age only in the later distinction of one of his teachers-a sage now known as Confucius. Through Szu-ma Niu’s eyes we may glimpse the China of 2,500 years ago, as it appeared to an upper-class observer of the time.

 Sovereign Fu Hsi

The sovereign Fu Hsi, a legendary figure of the Third Millennium 8.C., is revered as one of China’s first wise men. He is depicted here as the inventor of the eight symbols used in divination, which he is said to have discovered by studying the markings on the shell of a tortoise.

To him the centre of the world was a cluster of little city-states in the flood plain of the Yellow River and its adjoining foothills. He did not call this homeland “China”; that alien name was still to be invented. If someone had asked Szu-ma Niu who he was-to identify his proud but troubled people in the Central Plain-he probably would have asserted with confidence that he and his fellows were the Hua people and would have spoken of his homeland as central Hua to show his sense of ethnic and cultural identity. In another situation he might have emphasized his geographic location by calling himself a man of the Middle Kingdom. According to Hua belief, the centre of the habitable world; or if politics and recent history had been on his mind he would have proclaimed himself a man of the Chou Dynasty. But most likely he would have preferred to give his local identity, calling himself a native of Sung, his little city-state.

Szu-ma Niu’s homeland was not very different from the northern China of today. If he had halted his chariot on a hillside for a last look at it, he would have seen a dry, dusty plain that extended far beyond the horizon to the north, and through it weaving a wide, sluggish river, heavy with yellow silt from distant mountains. The yellow dust had blown out of Mongolia for thousands of years to cover the land to a depth of many yards. Subject to constant erosion by the winds, and by the little remnant of rain brought up from the South China Sea in the summer season, the farmlands were frequently flooded by the great river when it choked with silt. These were the two great facts of Szu-ma Niu’s world: the dust and the river. He thought of them as “Yellow Earth” and “Yellow River.”

Surveying his homeland, Szu-ma Niu would have seen a few residual patches of forest on the plain. The depletion of the ancient oak woodlands for material for houses, furniture and fires had been great. But there was still enough forest cover in the watershed of the Yellow River to provide food and shelter for many native animals. There were deer aplenty for the arrows of the hunter, and the familiar songs of Szu-ma Niu’s childhood made much of the beautifully colored wild ducks on the river margins and the bush warblers that sang sweetly among the lilacs and spireas. The dwindling forest also protected larger and more fearful animals. Elephants and rhinoceroses could still be found occasionally in the highlands of the southern frontier. They too were part of the world of Szu-ma Niu. Venerable books told him that the huge beasts had once overrun the land, along with other unimaginable monsters, until they were driven away by the good and valiant kings of old.

Everywhere in the lowlands Szu-ma Niu would have observed fields of millet and barley, traversed by slow oxcarts on dusty roads and spotted with houses of mud, wood and thatch. At intervals stood strongholds of the kind he himself had governed, surrounded by massive earthen walls.

The civilization that Szu-ma Niu took for granted in the Fifth Century B.C. had deep roots in the Sterne Age; over a thousand years before. His remote unknown ancestors, the first farmers of China, had valued jade, just as he did, and had used tripod caldrons of earthenware designed exactly like the bronze ones he often saw on the altars of the gods. But Szu-ma Niu had only the haziest notions of that prehistoric era and its primitive culture. He was better informed about those who had ruled the Yellow River plain from 1500 to 1000 B.C., more than 500 years before his time.

They were the kings of Shang, rulers of a primordial agricultural nation with a rich religious and ceremonial life. Today they are famous for the handsomely designed ritual vessels, skilfully cast in bronze and engraved with sacred symbolic figures that were used in elaborate dramas honouring royal ancestors and fertility gods. Szu-ma Niu’s vision of that remote age-of chariot-borne bowmen, great royal hunts, wise astrologers and monarchs seated in pillared halls-was undoubtedly colored by fanciful traditions. To him, the early kings of Shang, whose names he had memorized as a child, were men of divine virtue, worthy of almost religious veneration. Theirs had been an era comparable in spirit to the heroic age celebrated by Homer in the West.

About 1000 B.C. the Shang nation had been overrun by the warlike Chou people from the west. The new masters of the Middle Kingdom were quickly assimilated into the old agricultural theocracy of Shang; the royal hunts continued, bronze clad knights still rode their chariots and human victims were still sacrificed at royal graves. In time, however, the authority of the Chou kings declined, perhaps as a result of their custom of granting huge fiefs to royal sons and brothers and an age of feudal separatism set in. By the Fifth Century B.C. the Chou ruler was little more than a figurehead, clothed in rich ceremonial robes, performing archaic rituals in his holy city of Loyang, quite divested of political power. The realm was divided among petty city-states that came and went like the seasons. Szu-ma Niu himself had been involved in an unsuccessful insurrection, and his present journey was the result.

 Ritual vessel

A Ritual Vessel, this three-legged caldron is decorated with a monster mask often found on bronzes of the Shang period. The mask’s highly stylized design-silhouetted here against a green background-includes two dragons facing each other in profile.

The very name Szu-ma Niu is symbolic of the age of unrest and change in which its bearer lived; this was a period not only of political but also of technological revolution. His surname Szu-ma meant “Master of the Horse,” indicating a dignity that had become virtually hereditary in the baronial family to which he belonged. His given name, Niu, meant “Ox.” He also had other names, as was the custom in those times among men of good breeding. These extra names were usually suggested by the original given name. The fact that Szu-ma Niu’s added names were Keng (“Tillage”) and Li (“Plow”) reveals a significant development: the age of the ox-drawn plow had arrived.

Coupled with the substitution of animal traction for human labour came another remarkable new invention-cast iron. While the knights and barons who ruled the land continued to wear the bronze helmets of another age and to wield bronze swords in battle, ordinary farmers were coming more and more to depend on iron tools to perform the daily labour that produced food for the kingdom. But although more crops were being grown and more people were digging and planting in the Chinese loam, times did not seem to be getting better. In this age of aristocratic bronze and peasant iron, old institutions were decaying, old allegiances were dissolving and few men felt confident that the accepted order of things would be tomorrow as it was today.

This atmosphere of personal anxiety and political conflict, of moral disturbance and intellectual ferment, was to produce an era that would be known as China’s classical age, when her greatest heroes and wisest philosophers walked the earth. One of the latter was a man named K’ung Chiu. Szu-ma Niu was a disciple of K’ung Chiu, and many of his contemporaries admired the teacher as one of the wisest of those who travelled from one baronial hall to the other, offering advice on correct behaviour and enlightened political practice; they probably did not regard him as more than that. But K’ung Chiu’s reputation as a sage was to be greatly enhanced after his death and he was ultimately to be venerated as a god. We know him as Confucius.

Doubtless Szu-ma Niu endured some agony of spirit as he left his friends in the north to take up his life among the unknown strangers of the south-east. To him, as a Hua man, the Middle Kingdom was a beacon of civilization to the benighted heathen who inhabited the shadowy realms of both the north and the south. The peoples of the far north -the herders of sheep, horses and camels on the grassy steppes, as well as the hunters of gazelle and elk on the forest margin-were to become the ancestors of the Turks, Manchus and Mongols who later would be feared as raiders and looters. But in those days the northern frontier was fairly stable, and defensive walls, built by the northernmost city-states, usually kept the mounted warriors out of the good lands of millet and wine. Eventually these walls would be joined together to make the Great Wall of China, but the unified central government needed for that immense task of engineering did not exist in Szu-ma Nius day.

To men of Szu-ma Niu’s class, the menacing nomads were hardly human. They called the most dangerous of them “dog people,” classifying them among the wild beasts. They also applied that label to their non-Chinese southern neighbors – the Man people (also called Miao, Mao, Min and Mang) who probably spoke tongues related to Thai, or to Burmese and Tibetan.

The “dog” epithet was believed to derive from an ancient myth that was known to the Hua people and that was later accepted by the southern “Dog Men” themselves. The old tale told that all of the Man people were descended from a wonderful dog, P’an-hu. Long ago, according to the tale, a king offered his daughter in marriage to the hero who would bring him the head of his enemy, a mighty warrior. One of his own dogs carried out the dangerous mission successfully and the reluctant monarch was obliged to yield his daughter to the triumphant dog, which carried her off to a new home in a cave in the far south. There, the legend says, she bore him a dozen sons and daughters and from these half-human hybrids sprang all the non-Chinese races of the South. In medieval times, centuries after Szu-ma Niu’s lifetime, some of the southern aborigines continued to offer sacrifices to their great canine ancestor. He is still remembered by the modern Miao peoples, and is especially revered by the Man tribes of northern Vietnam.

The haughty minds of the early Hua men also envisaged the savage rice cultivators of the sub-tropical valleys as reptilian, slithering nastily on the dark southern frontier. A book already old in Szu-ma Niu’s time characterized the inhabitants of the central Yangtze basin:

How they writhed, the man in Ching,

Playing the rival to our great domain!

 The ancient attitude was reflected in other ways. In Hua writing, many of the characters representing the names of these outlanders incorporated the figure of a reptile; still other graphs depicted them as apelike. By the Fifth Century B.C, ancient practices, such as headhunting and human sacrifice, were becoming less respectable among the Hua people and it was convenient to attribute them exclusively to the Man people-mere submen, caricatures of the Hua Chinese.

Looking ahead to his new southern home, Szu-ma Niu may well have shuddered. But distasteful as was the prospect of a career among men whose veneer of culture was still very thin, the track he took was to be followed by many generations of Chinese, who would gradually come to accept the Wu region as part of their territorial heritage.

It was a richly diversified landscape into which Szu-ma Niu rode, very different from the monotonous yellow plains of the old country. Tiny hornless deer fled shyly through streamside bamboo groves, and sweet-singing bulbuls fluttered among the white magnolias and purple paulownias. The traveller could imagine the almost legendary alligators that bellowed in the tepid lakes ahead of him. If he went all the way to the great Yangtze he might even rejoice in the antics of black porpoises and river dolphins. Strangely and fearfully attractive to him, this youthful land would become a realm of romance for his descendants, the home of rainbow goddesses, ecstatic priestesses and lotus-gathering girls. Still later, it would become the great mother of gardens, nourishing the arts of poetry and painting alike.

The 200 years following the journey of Szu-ma Niu were bitter years for his homeland. The struggle among the city-states became intensified between the Fifth and the Third Centuries B.C. and the smaller ones were swallowed up by the larger.

But the Chinese world was expanding out of the Yellow River basin toward the south-conquering, absorbing or eliminating-in any case, ultimately dominating the peoples it encountered. It was inevitable that these barbarians should become Hua men. There was little visible physical difference between them and the new arrivals. To become a Chinese, it was only necessary that a Man tribesman learn to speak the Chinese language, write the Chinese script and accept the rule of the Chinese King, along with the social and moral doctrines that prevailed in the Middle Kingdom. The only handicap would be that some northerners might still regard him as a second-class Chinese; true respectability required birth in the Middle Kingdom itself.

 ancient China

The people of early china lived in five broad areas. The Hua people inhabited the north central region, on the Yellow River plain. North of them lived fierce nomads, with whom the Hua were constantly warring. The Hua settled the Yangtze basin in the Classical Age (600 B.C. to 200 A.D.), living among the Man people, whom they introduced to civilization. After the fall of the Han Empire, many Hua went into the “New South” and “Dangerous South,” in spite of their fear of the “barbarous” Man natives.

 The Hua men had to acknowledge that the new, savage lands they were appropriating provided many useful things. From the natives of the rich south they obtained stones and metals, handsome pearls and feathers for the ceremonies of their courts and temples, and bamboo and rhinoceros hides for the arrows and breastplates of their aristocratic fighting men. The despised Man people even knew arts and skills that might profit the proper masters of the world. The Middle Kingdom was rich in such basic goods as cereals, salt, silk and hemp textiles and all sorts of lacquered utensils and furniture. Still, in the past it had also imported things from the strange men on all its frontiers. The inhabitants of the great northern forests beyond the control of the King, had sent gemstones and deer bones and sinews for bows. It was not difficult for the Hua men to admit that the best arms and armour, or the materials for them, had to be obtained from unlettered aliens. But it was less easy for them to acknowledge, or even to realize, that they borrowed ideas from foreigners. Yet in fact they did.

Much of the spiritual and imaginative part of Chinese civilization-much of what we now think of as typically Chinese-originated among the proto-Thai peoples of the south, the proto-Tibetan peoples of the west and the proto-Mongolian peoples of the north. The huge burial mounds of the early Chinese emperors apparently had their origin in the plains of Central Asia; the popular tales about fox-fairies that permeate Chinese literature probably began among the forest-dwelling hunters of Manchuria; the arts of cultivating rice and domesticating cattle were doubtless adopted from the despised races of the remote south; the Chinese reed organ came from the tropical jungles; the Chinese cult of Heaven shows affinities with one in the northern steppes.

Chinese culture, both material and spiritual, grew rich because the plains of the Yellow River valley became a crossroads used by many peoples, a centre of commerce and political negotiations and hence, a focus of every kind of custom and point of view.

In the middle of the Third Century B.C., political order was restored in the Middle Kingdom by the western city-state of Ch’in, whose rulers gradually extended their control over the eastern plains.

The Ch’in Empire proved to be short-lived; after the death of its first ruler Shih Huang Ti, it dissolved into another contest among ambitious barons. But before the end of the Third Century, the old Middle Kingdom and the warm Yangtze watershed were again united under the aegis of the famous empire of Han, the peer of Rome and the master of the Far East for the next four centuries.

The Han Dynasty emerged in 206 B.C. under the leadership of a commoner, Liu Pang, a military officer who rose from the ranks to seize power in the vacuum created by the collapse of the Ch’in Empire. As in the case of Han’s Western counterpart, the Roman Empire, successive leaders extended Han’s boundaries by military conquest. Their armies marched far into the endless haunted forests of the hot south below the Tropic of Cancer, and they established permanent colonies in Korea and Central Asia. Caravan routes leading westward to Persia and Rome were opened up, inaugurating a great period of international trade based on the universal demand for Chinese silk.

Heady and exhilarating though it was, the Han imperial power lacked theoretical and moral justification. That was supplied by the creation of an edition of ancient documents that solidified into dogma certain useful opinions of the wandering teachers of the Chou era, particularly the teachings of Confucius. These fragmentary “classics” became in Han times orthodox canon, the basis of accepted opinion on manners, morals and government. Writings of the old rival schools of thought that seemed not to represent the true views of Confucius and his followers were either censored or destroyed. Han scholars and scribes then set to work putting the acceptable books into a shape that conformed to the taste of their era; many were full of textual errors, relics of barbarism and almost forgotten mythology. A partly imaginary past was created out of the heritage from the Chou period, and the customs and traditions of the old world of barons and knights were thus adapted to a new society. From the respect for learning that resulted was to come, over the course of centuries, the identification of the scholar with the gentleman; from it was to come, also, the power of the huge scribal bureaucracy that dominated Chinese life and thought through the medieval era and into modern times. Scholarship became the tool of empire.

However, the newly compiled “Confucian Classics” and their Han editors did not escape criticism. Probably their severest critic was a man named Wang Chung, a scholar of the First Century A.O. Wang Ch’ung led a lonely life; he was too clever and critical for his own good. Born in a coastal town in the south country-a social disadvantage in itself-he took the northward road from the Yangtze valley to the late Han capital of Loyang in the old Middle Kingdom. He was an orphan, but he must have gone to Loyang under high auspices; he studied under Pan Ku, one of the best historians of the age. He was so poor that he could not afford to buy books, but had to read them where they were displayed for sale in the city’s shops. Fortunately he had a tenacious memory and soon became familiar with all doctrines and opinions, both past and present (or so he believed). When he returned to his home province he became a teacher of promising youths, after an attempt to hold an official post failed because his sharp mind and caustic tongue alienated others. But he understood his age as few men did and summed it up in a remarkable book, the Lun Heng (“Arguments Weighed”).

The Lun Heng is today probably the single richest source of our knowledge of Chinese intellectual and religious life in the First Century A.D. But in Wang Chung’s time his work never became widely popular because he freely attacked fondly held beliefs, not even excepting the honored views of the Confucian scholars. All idols, both popular and academic, were his targets. He sought truth through experience, guided by reason, rejecting both ancient authority and the common testimony of mankind as guides to certainty. The sacred texts of the past, he thought, were seriously corrupted; the golden age they claimed to describe was mythical. He speaks about the difference between the true Hua men of Han times and the hordes of barbarians that surrounded them:

That which makes the several kinds of Hua men nobler than pagans and savages is their comprehension of documents about humane and responsible conduct and their understanding of the scholarship of ancient and modern times.

A century after the death of Wang Chung the first era of Chinese domination over the peoples of the East ended. In 220 A.D. the glory of Han collapsed in the contest for power between court factions and great landed families, in popular religious and revolutionary movements, and finally in a struggle among great provincial warlords. The classical world in whose beginnings Szu-ma Niu had taken part, and whose final years had been scrutinized by the poor provincial teacher Wang Chung, was giving way to a new age.

During the next 400 years, between the Third and the Seventh Centuries A.D., many ephemeral nations rose and fell on the sacred soil of China. The old Middle Kingdom shuddered as barbarian hordes from the north dashed through the streets of the old cities, riding their hardy ponies and waving their curved bows. For long periods, segments of the Yellow River valley were ruled by petty chieftains of diverse origins-some Tibetan, some Mongolian, and some Manchurian. The proud Hua people were compelled to accept the hateful role of a subject race, serving illiterate aliens who stank of butter, kumiss and other unthinkable substances.

Unwilling to serve such unpleasant masters, many members of the old northern aristocracy who survived the invasions fled southward. They retraced the long-vanished footprints of Szu-ma Niu into the pleasant land of Wu at the mouth of the Yangtze, and even farther south where short-lived dynasties ruled over a mixed Man-Hua population. Among the emigrant Chinese literati, especially the younger ones, the disasters that had shattered an ancient way of life produced disillusionment with established beliefs (Wang Chung would have been gratified), hope for a new faith-and universal bewilderment. Some of them became vagabonds, eccentrics or voluptuaries. Others became recluses, visionaries or subtle dialecticians. Altogether, they were a generation in ferment. But nervous and uncertain as it was, this new generation was producing a new China.

The very nature of their environment had much to do with this. The practical men among the emigrants were excited by the discovery of new herbs and trees, new mines and quarries. Followed by pioneer farmers, they began to strip the subtropical hillsides. Firewood was needed, and timber for buildings. The expanding bureaucracy needed unlimited supplies of carbon-black ink, taken from pine wood. Aromatic and medicinal barks were found in great abundance. Mercury and gold lay in wait under the soil, in amounts that must have dazzled the former inhabitants of the bare Yellow River valley. The rich wilderness was endless, and no one thought about its conservation.

Literate, sensitive men, whether urban sophisticates or forest hermits, were learning to take delight in their new surroundings. The feeling for nature – and the rich poetry and painting that ultimately sprang from it to become the glory of Chinese culture and attract the homage of the world – were nurtured in this era of expulsion, defeat and alienation.

Dynastic Chart of Ancient China

China’s History began about 1500 B.C., and during the following 2,400 years 10 major dynasties ruled the nation. On the chart at left the yellow bars indicate the tenure of each dynasty; the horizontal bands divide Chinese history into four major periods.

 The vacuum left by the collapse of the classical better insights into the peculiar qualities of their social and political order and the virtual annihilation of the old nature religions was gradually filled by two competing though mutually dependent systems of thought and belief. We know them today as Taoism and Buddhism.

Taoism first began to attract adherents from all levels of society toward the end of the Han era. Rejecting all rigid norms and accepted standards, the Taoists proclaimed the virtue of individuality, and decried all forms of compulsion, distortion and artificiality. They offered eternal life, not through striving, but through understanding of the secret processes of nature. Great numbers of hermits, revolutionaries and starving peasants were attracted by this prospect of salvation in the confused, unhappy times that followed the collapse of Han.

Simultaneously, another new faith appeared, this one coming to China from India. At first the toy of a few upper class eccentrics, Buddhism soon became popular. First the petty barbarian states of the north, then the discontented Chinese of the south felt the lure of a gospel of escape from suffering proclaimed in its simplest form long ago by Buddha, a contemporary of Confucius. With this faith it was possible for a man to escape the pain and anxiety inherent in the human condition, either by the self-achieved realization that all worldly experiences are illusory, or else by the power of spiritual beings to bring a believer out of the deadly chain of reincarnations in this harmful world into a place of eternal peace.

Along with Buddhism’s healing gospel and its hope of escape and eternal salvation came a whole new culture, to change the Chinese vision of man and the universe forever. It included great, complex paraphernalia of philosophy about the nature of human understanding and the character of the real but hidden world. It offered new and more rigorous disciplines of philology that gave the Chinese language and its history. It even spawned novel ideas and techniques in medicine and astronomy, already well-developed sciences in ancient China. And the believer’s need to renew his morals and understanding of the best sources led to the opening of new ways of communicating with the holy land of India, especially the sea routes over the great southern ocean, which were soon thronged with pious pilgrims.

A by-product of this era of contact with the outside world was the name China itself which caught on in the Indian and Persian lands where a name like “Middle Kingdom” would have had little meaning. “China” seems to be an altered form of the name of the Ch’in Empire. Long after the fall of that renowned nation, its name remained current in several forms as the popular name for the Middle Kingdom among the nations of South Asia. But a native of Ancient China would have encountered that name only in reading translations of the holy books from India. And even then he might have had to seek a learned pundit’s help to discover that the Chinese syllables Chin-tan represented “Chinastan” (i.e. “Chia-land”), a strange, foreign name of his own homeland.

Out of these centuries of ferment came the splendour of medieval civilization in the Far East, when China, finally known by that name, became the wonder of the world. The hallmarks of the house of T’ang, which ruled the reunified Middle Kingdom during the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Centuries A.O. were its prosperity, its freedom, its gaiety, its experimentation and its unique contributions to art, music, literature and gardening. It was an age of faith in which the old ways of thinking became thoroughly impregnated and altered by Buddhist beliefs and attitudes, just as early medieval Europe had been profoundly altered by Greek and Roman Christianity. It was a second imperial age, comparable to the age of Han, but much richer, more cosmopolitan and sophisticated. Finally, it was an age of security and confidence, supported by successful wars against such neighbours as the Korean peoples of the north, the Vietnamese peoples of the south and the Tibetans and Turks to the west. It was during this age that the T’ang Empire became the colossus of Asia.

In their conquests the Tang armies converted the monsoon coasts of the distant southern frontier, long claimed but little absorbed, into a truly Chinese land, safe for settlers and for the benevolent activities of the Confucian magistrates, propagators of Hua civilization. Even in medieval times these tangled forests and green shorelines-in our time thoroughly tamed, cleared and planted in rice, were only partly explored, and remained largely the haunts of aliens and infidels.

Still, it was greatly desired country. Here Persian merchant princes repaired their great seagoing vessels with the fine wood of the schima, a relative of the tough southern oaks. The hot hillsides were covered with endless stands of cinnamon and camphor trees, from which came supplies for the medicine chests of the north. Camellias and tea, which are intimately related, grew wild there, and were becoming widely appreciated. The halcyon kingfisher provided iridescent turquoise feathers for the headdresses of noble northern ladies; the dark patterning of rosewood attracted dealers in carpentry supplies, and the heavy scent of kanari lured the makers of incense for Buddhist temples.

The adventurous immigrant into the new tropical south of T’ang learned to eat bananas and tangerines and lichees, and made them familiar to his friends in the north; he learned to make furniture of the tangled liana vines of the forest, and brought back red and yellow hibiscus for his gardens. He seized green peacocks in their primeval roosts and sent their tail feathers north to become expensive fans, and he captured green turtles in the phosphorescent sea to make soup for royal banquets.

The vivid, vivacious and complex culture of T’ang-in which seemingly disparate and incompatible elements from many parts of the world and many levels of society were welded into glittering whole-represents the climax of a civilization that we now identify as “Chinese.” During the 12 centuries that separated Szu-ma Niu in his bronze fitted chariot from the silk-robed, jade-belted T’ang rulers of much of Asia, China had developed intellectual, technical and artistic resources that made it both the Greece and Rome of the Far East.


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