Thursday, January 31, 2019

The state and empire of Ch'in - Political and social background

Here it need only be said that the most important single source is Ssu-Ma Ch'ien's monumental Sbih-chi or Historical records, covering all of Chinese history from legendary times to around roo B.C. Its fifth and sixth chapters provide a chronicle of events in the Ch'in state and empire from beginning to end and are the normal sources for what is narrated here unless otherwise specified. In addition, the Shib-chi contains other chapters of chronicle, monograph, and biography that are likewise important for Ch'in. Many, but not all of these, are included in the partial French translation of the Shih-chi by Edouard Chavannes, Les Memoires historiques de Se-ma Ts'ien.

The limitations of the Sbih-chi and other literary sources for the study of Ch'in history are touched upon, which also refers to the increasing importance of archeology for the historian of ancient China. Preeminent among the several archeological discoveries which the appendix enumerates is the group of Ch'in legal texts recovered from a single tomb in 1975. These will be referred to frequently.


As a preliminary to any meaningful survey of Ch'in history before 221, it is necessary to understand in broad terms the political and social conditions that obtained during the Chou dynasty (trad. 1122-256 B.C.). Particularly important are the many varieties of changes that convulsed the Chinese world during the last two or three centuries of that epoch.

When the house of Chou overthrew the Shang dynasty (probably somewhere near the year 1025 rather than at the traditional date of 1122), the new rulers allocated the conquered lands as fiefs to members or close allies of their own family, descendants of the former Shang rulers, and certain local potentates who were allowed to keep their previous holdings. In this way the Chinese world became divided into a multitude of political entities; some 170 are believed to have existed during the Chou subperiod known as the Spring and Autumn period (722—481). Most of these, of course, was extremely small, and they, in turn, were internally fragmented by subdivision into estates given to relatives or officials of each ruling house. In the course of time many principalities were destroyed or greatly reduced in size by constant warfare, so that by the advent of the next Chou
subperiod, appropriately known as that of the Warring States (403-2 21), only seven major states remained.4 This number included Ch'in in the far western extremity of the Chinese oikoumene, but not the house of Chou itself. The latter had lost most of the political power it once exercised when in 770 it was forced by a barbarian attack to abandon its western capital near modern Sian (in Shensi) and to reestablish itself, much shrunken in size and significance, at its secondary eastern capital near the modern Loyang (Honan).

Both non-Marxist and Marxist historians have been exercised over the appropriate use of the term feudalism. Non-Marxists have debated whether it is the appropriate word to characterize the sociopolitical conditions of Chou China and if so whether it applies to all or only some of its approximately eight centuries. In the opinion of this writer, parallels with European feudalism are sufficiently close to justify the use of the term during the first four or five centuries of the Chou period. Thereafter, however, it must be applied in an increasingly restricted sense to describe only the vestiges of feudal conditions persisting in varying degrees within the major principalities. These, by the beginning of the Warring States period, had become completely independent nation-states.

For Marxist historians, the major problem is that of periodization. The transition from slavery to feudalism (in the Marxist sense) is taken for granted, the only question is when. To this, the answer has been less than unanimous. Chinese Marxists, after earlier fluctuations, seemed to reach general agreement in the 1970s that the transition took place during or just prior to the final two and a half centuries of the Chou. Following Mao Tse-tung's death in 1976, however, there were discreet indications of renewed interest
in the question of periodization, suggesting the possibility that this topic might again be opened to scholarly debate. Meanwhile, Soviet historians remained less ready to commit themselves, and when they did, tended to place the transition considerably later than did Chinese scholars-perhaps as late as the third century A.D. (the end of the Han empire).

What is important at this point is to gain a bird's-eye view of the major changes of the last two or three centuries of the Chou period. The nine suggested categories that follow are overlapping to some extent and are not necessarily presented in order of importance.

Technological changes

Current archeological opinion dates the beginnings of the use of iron in China not later than the seventh or, at the most, the sixth century B.C. On the literary side, the earliest reference is that in the Tso Chuan history,7 which under the year 513 records that penal laws were inscribed on a set of iron tripod vessels in the state of Chin. Weapons, agricultural implements, and vessels, all made of iron, have been recovered from tombs of Warring States times, and it is quite possible that a developing iron technology was one factor in the increase in agricultural production believed by many scholars to have taken place during these centuries. Other factors would have been the growing use of irrigation and draining techniques and of fertilizer, and especially the bringing of large new land areas under cultivation.

Yet the effects of these and other technological improvements should not be overrated. Iron still remained relatively rare throughout the Warring States period, and what there was of it was frequently cast, not forged, and hence relatively soft and brittle. Many implements continued to be made of bronze, stone, wood, or shell. Furthermore, some vital aspects of the improved agricultural technology are extraordinarily difficult to measure and date. Thus there is great controversy as to when animal-drawn ploughs began to replace a much more primitive but apparently long-persisting hoe cultivation. On the basis of exceedingly slender evidence, the beginnings of the traction plough in China are variously ascribed by Chinese scholars to around 400, to an age one or two centuries earlier, or even to pre-Chou
times. The earliest unequivocal reference in literature-one, however, which points to a considerable period of earlier development-is datable only to the Han dynasty (around 90 or 85 B.C.)

Demographic changes

The improvement in agriculture was probably accompanied by a growth of population, despite the simultaneous intensification of warfare. During the Warring States period cities seem to have increased significantly in number, size, and complexity of the plan. One of several indications is the considerable length of several of their walls, as revealed by archeology. Yet here again the evidence is scattered and quite inadequate to provide anything approaching specific population figures. The one exception, a literary statement
which suggests a population of 350,000 for one of the state capitals, is rhetorical and cannot be seriously considered, despite the use that has been made of it by some scholars.

Military changes

The overwhelming impression given by the Warring States sources is that of intensifying warfare. At first sight, therefore, the statistical information prepared by Cho-yun Hsu appear surprising: According to this, the 259-year span of 722-464 witnessed only 38 years without war, whereas the 242-year span of 463-222 had no less than 89 such years.9 In this case, however, the subjective impression is more meaningful than the statistical
measurement, for the latter obscures the fact that the wars of the Spring and Autumn period, while more frequent and involving more states simultaneously than those of the Warring States, were also much smaller, shorter, and less intense.

Warfare during the earlier period was dominated by chariot-riding aristocrats who fought one another according to rules of chivalry and for whom prestige and "face" meant more than practical gain. The later wars were dominated by professional generals who fought grimly to acquire territory and resources for whatever state employed them. The role of war chariots (always hard to maneuver in irregular terrain) diminished greatly, while that of massed infantry correspondingly increased. From the horseback-riding pastoral peoples of Inner Asia, the Chinese learned, at the end of the fourth century (specifically in the state of Chao in 307), how to use mounted archers as an important supplement to infantry. Probably around the same period the Chinese also invented the crossbow, which remained a major weapon throughout much of Chinese history. Other advances in military technology included those connected with the defending and attacking of walled cities.

On the quantitative side, a problem of credibility arises in connection with the sizes of armies reported for the latter years of the Warring States. A similar problem occurs in connection with the large battle casualty figures. 

Political changes

The nobles who had been allocated territories by the house of Chou at the beginning of that dynasty became the founders of hereditary ruling houses which in the course of time increasingly separated themselves from the Chou rulers. Especially after the forced shift of Chou from west to east in 770, its rulers came to be disregarded and even virtually forgotten by their one-time vassals. Hence the final destruction of Chou by Ch'in in 256 no longer carried much political significance. Well before that time, the principalities previously subject to Chou leadership had evolved into separate nation-states sharing, in varying degrees, a common language and culture, but maintaining military and customs barriers between one another, and ever ready to intrigue orally, to make war or peace.

Meanwhile, within several of the individual states themselves, increasing centralization of political power was taking place at the expense of subordinate hereditary landholders and officials. The major procedure for doing so was the organizing of land into new administrative units known as commanderies (chiiri) and counties (hsien). Such units were administered, respectively, by governors and magistrates who were usually appointed and paid by the central state government, to which they were responsible; their positions were also usually not hereditary. Initially, this system was probably instituted to govern land either newly colonized or newly captured from another state. Gradually, however, it probably came to be applied to the lands of the internal fiefholders, whose power and wealth was thereby circumscribed.

The county, which is the earlier of the two units, is first mentioned in Ch'in in 688. However, there are reasons for questioning this date and believing that such administrative entities may really have originated in the southern state of Ch'u, where the county is definitely mentioned in 598 and may conceivably have existed considerably earlier. The commandery came a good deal later, its earliest mention being in the state of Wei around 400. The military origin of the commandery-its uses for bringing newly acquired borderland under central state control is much more evident than that of the county, which is a fair number of cases appears to have been left in the hands of hereditary local administrators. At first, the commandery may have been regarded as less important than the county because of its location on the frontiers; but if so, this condition was soon reversed. The county came to form a level of administration subordinate to the commandery. By the final Chou century, a single commandery might be subdivided into anywhere from one to two dozen counties. The significance of the commandery/county system for the Ch'in empire and later history will be discussed below.

Administrative changes

In Ch'in and several contemporary principalities, the political changes just noted were accompanied by an evolution toward more sophisticated institutions and organs of central government. There were a growing professionalization and specialization in the holding of office-in short, a trend toward that bureaucratic form of administration which was to become the most distinctive aspect of the imperial Chinese state.

One significant development was the adoption of various quantitative procedures, such as the maintenance of population and taxation registers, statistics on crop returns, and the like. The use of these techniques in Ch'in will be referred to repeatedly below.

Another important institutional innovation was the introduction of written, codified law. Such law increasingly came to replace the traditional and largely unwritten, but tacitly accepted, rules of customary behavior known as li (a word varyingly rendered as "traditional mores," "rules of polite behavior," "ceremonial practices," etc.). The first really clear-cut instance was the inscribing of books of punishments (Hsing Shu) on a set of bronze tripod vessels in the state of Cheng in 536. Similar steps were taken in this and other states in 513, 301, and later; in Ch'in, the major steps in legal codification took place under Duke Hsiao and his adviser Shang Yang, in the middle of the fourth century.

As the term Hsing Shu suggests, the laws were primarily penal in nature. They were not promulgated in all states, nor were they always applied equally to all sectors of the population. Together with other administrative changes, however, their advent was important in the gradually quickening movement toward the creation of the imperial bureaucratic state. The statesmen and thinkers who advocated changes in this direction became known in later times as the School of Legalists, and the wholehearted adoption of such ideas and techniques by Ch'in was undoubtedly a major the reason why it was able to move from state to empire."

Changes in agrarian relationships

During the early Chou centuries, the peasants who constituted the overwhelming the bulk of the population was apparently attached as dependents to the land cultivated by them, in family units, for their overlord. Such a system of land tenure, an idealized form of which was described as the good field (cbing fieri) system, almost surely existed, though modern scholars have questioned almost every aspect of its operation. In reality, it could hardly have confirmed with the rigidly geometrical pattern ascribed to it by Mencius (ca. 372-ca. 289) and other writers of late Chou and Han. According to the idealized accounts of these men, each large square of land, known as a well (cbing), was subdivided in checkerboard fashion into nine lesser land plots, of which eight were individually cultivated by eight occupying families for their own needs. The ninth and central plot was cultivated communally by all eight families to provide the usufruct for the overlord.

The good field system has been the subject of a good deal of sentimentalizing by much later writers looking back nostalgically at the imagined virtues of communal living in an earlier and simpler age. As the system actually functioned, however, it probably provided little incentive to the cultivators to increase their output above required minimum needs, aside from pressures exerted by the bailiff of the overlord. On the other hand, the overlord had certain obligations to feed, clothe, and otherwise protect his dependents, as well as their families.

Beginning in 594 in the state of Lu, however, new systems of taxation are recorded as having been instituted in several states. Though the entries are brief and enigmatic, it would seem, generally speaking, that the new taxes consisted essentially of payments made in kind by the peasants in place of the former personal labor service. In some instances, these payments may have gone directly to the central state government instead of to the immediate overlord, thus resulting in a gradual dissolution of the traditional relationship between overlord and dependent. Probably the dissolution was hastened by the growing amounts of former wasteland brought under cultivation in each state, which lay outside the traditional system of enfeoffed domains.

It has been argued that the new freedom of the peasants as semi-independent cultivators may have encouraged them to work harder, thus contributing to the increase in agricultural output postulated for the late Chou period. But the new freedom also forced the peasants to become wholly responsible for their own needs, without the protection formerly provided

by the overlords. By the last century of Chou, the buying and selling of land had become widespread; the result was the acquisition of large amounts of land by the wealthy, while the peasants were often reduced once more to tenancy or to hiring themselves out as farm laborers. If anything, the disparity between rich and poor may have increased rather than diminished from late Chou times through Ch'in and so into Han. However, the paucity and obscurity of the sources often make such generalizations little more than guesswork.
Changes in power relationships.

It should not be supposed that those who in late Chou times exercised political power or bought land for themselves were necessarily descendants of the aristocratic families that had ruled principalities or held estates in the early Chou period. On the contrary, the dynamics of change led to an increasing degree of social mobility among the top political strata. Many of the old noble families declined or disappeared and were replaced by persons of obscure origin who were not directly connected by birth to the top families.

Most of the upstarts probably came from that lower fringe of the aristocracy known as gentlemen (shih) — men of good birth but without titles of nobility, who served as warriors, officials, and supervisors in the state governments and noble households, or who lived on the land, which in some cases they may even have cultivated themselves. Cho-yun Hsu, on the basis of a statistical study of 516 persons politically active during the Spring and Autumn period and 713 persons likewise active during the Warring States period, finds that the percentage of persons of obscure origin more than doubled from the one period to the other: from 26 percent for the Spring and Autumn period to 5 5 percent for the age of the Warring States.

During the final century or so, the ranks of the social unknowns were further swollen by men of plebeian birth, such as merchants, whose wealth enabled them to acquire land and power. In these various ways, by the late Warring States period a new class of landlords and officeholders had already come into being - the direct ancestors of that class of scholar-gentry which was to continue as the dominant elite throughout Chinese imperial history.

Commercial and industrial changes

The late Chou period undoubtedly witnessed a considerable development of commerce and industry even though, as, in the case of so much else, there is no way of measuring what happened with any exactness. A significant indication is the appearance of various kinds of metal currency of fixed value in different states, especially during the fifth and fourth centuries. (The currency of Ch'in is said to have been first issued in the year 336.)

Such coinage obviously facilitated commercial transactions, even though certain commodities, such as grain and cloth, continued to be used as exchange media, especially for large transactions. Commercial development, of course, helped the growth of cities, and there was also a tendency toward specialization of industry according to locale. The names of some prominent merchants are recorded in the Shih chi and elsewhere, beginning with Tzu-Kung, a disciple of Confucius, and culminating with Lii Pu-Wei, chancellor of Ch'in shortly before the Ch'in unification. The great merchants did not deal with staples, which were bulky and perishable, and profitable only in times of shortage; rather, they concentrated on luxury goods or the products of hills and lakes. The government was not immediately concerned with these, as it was with the collection and distribution of staples.

Intellectual changes

Beginning with Confucius (551-479), the last three centuries of Chou saw the rise of systematic speculative thinking, mainly embodied in some half-dozen schools of thought, but also expressed by individual thinkers not readily classifiable under any school. These schools and thinkers probably originated chiefly from the emerging Shih class, and their discussions and writings inevitably focused on the political and social problems the dynamic changes of the age had made so urgent. In this chapter it will be convenient to use the names Confucian, Legalist, Taoist, etc., to designate these intellectual configurations, even though the Chou thinkers to whom such labels are commonly applied were probably much less aware of belonging to distinctly separate "schools" than the Han scholars by whom they were thus initially classified.

Among the many new intellectual trends (frequently found expressed in more than one "school"), only a very few can be listed here:
  1. A tendency to discard the old supernatural and mythological explanations of how the universe operates, and to interpret it instead in terms of nonanthropomorphic natural forces and tendencies (i.e., the Too or Way, the negative and positive principles known as yin and yang, the so-called Five Elements). 
  2. An emphasis upon the need, at least in theory, for the ruler's basic prerequisite of noble birth to be positively complemented by intellectual and moral qualifications making him worthy of the all-important task of rulership. 
  3. But, inasmuch as rulership is normally hereditary, a parallel emphasis on the training of an educated class of nonhereditary officials to serve as advisers to the ruler. This emphasis marks a sharp departure from the traditional view of officeholding as based solely on good birth, and at the same time points toward the civil service system of imperial China, with its recruitment of personnel based on competitive examinations. 
  4. Emphasis on the ideal of social harmony, albeit a harmony based on inequality. In other words, the emphasis is on the readiness of each individual to accept his particular place in a structured hierarchy and to perform to the best of his ability the social duties that pertain to that place. 
  5. Emphasis on a universalism consisting not only of political but also of ideological and cultural unity, and providing the indispensable basis for peace, good government, and social well-being. 
Hints of this last theme can be traced back to early Chou times, as expressed politically in the idea that under Heaven there can be only a single ruler. (It has, in fact, been a dominant motif throughout Chinese history.) During the late Chou period it constituted the intellectual counterpart of the political movement toward centralized power discussed under "Political Changes" above. Thus to the rulers, statesmen, and generals of the age, it supplied potent ideological justification for conducting the intensifying military struggles that finally led to the empire.

from the book of The.Cambridge.History.of.China

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