Chapter 6 The Growth of Asian Civilizations 500 b.c.–a.d. 550

Section 3 Classical China

When nomadic invaders stormed the Zhou capital in 771 b.c., the power of the kings came to an end. Although the Zhou kings moved the capital eastward to Luoyang,[73] real power passed into the hands of mighty feudal lords. For the next five hundred years, China entered a period of great turbulence, as hundreds of warlords fought each other for territorial control. During this time of turmoil, major political and social ideas developed that would serve as a firm foundation for future Chinese civilization.

The Classical Age

As the power of the Zhou rulers steadily declined, feudal lords who had once been loyal to the kings began building their own power in the walled cities of their estates.[74] The kings became little more than figureheads with religious functions, but no political or military power.[75]

The Spring and Autumn period. After the fall of the Western Zhou dynasty[76] China entered what became known as the Spring and Autumn period, named after official state records of the same name.[77] At the beginning of this period, around 722 B.C., about 200 independent states competed against each other for territory.[78] As the intensity of warfare gradually increased, some states sought diplomatic solutions to their conflicts.[79] They held frequent negotiations and conferences, signed treaties, and formed alliances. Some states arranged marriages between their royal families to strengthen their bonds, while others chose to hold hostages to ensure a stable political situation.[80]

            Gradually, however, the fighting became more ruthless and diplomacy failed, as feuding states expanded and came into closer contact with each other. Strong lords subdued weaker ones, thereby growing ever more powerful. As chariot warfare died out, new, deadlier techniques of warfare were developed. Armies swelled with large numbers of peasant soldiers armed with iron weapons.[81] Eventually cavalry and mounted archers were introduced, adding to the destructiveness of war.[82]

The Era of Warring States. In 403 B.C., as Chinese leaders abandoned diplomacy and turned to brute conquest, the so-called Era of the Warring States began.[83]  Over the next several hundred years, powerful states destroyed or absorbed weaker ones and the number of states in China declined sharply. At the beginning of the 400s b.c., seven major states—among them Qin, Chu, Han, Wei, and Zhao—had emerged as the leading powers in China, battling each other for dominance. By the end of this period, the state of Qin emerged victorious over the others.

            As the Chinese states grew stronger, they also became more centralized—largely to support bigger, more powerful armies. Bureaucracies staffed by appointed officials replaced the old system of government by hereditary nobles. The need to support larger, centralized states also brought economic changes. New crops, tools, and irrigation techniques helped expand agricultural production. Trade increased, and cities grew larger and more prosperous.

The Era of a Hundred Schools. The Classical Age was the most creative period for Chinese philosophy. In response to the insecurity and near-constant warfare, Chinese thinkers looked for ways to restore harmony in society. This period of philosophical development is also known as the Era of a Hundred Schools, because so many divergent approaches to philosophy emerged.

            At the root of these philosophies was an ancient Chinese idea that everything in the world results from a balancing of complementary forces, called yin and yang. Yin was associated with darkness, weakness, and passivity, while yang is characterized by brightness, strength, and activity.[84] Many people believed that when yin and yang were in balance, peace and prosperity would reign. For example, when opposing forces in nature, such as rain and drought, are in balance, the people prosper; when they are out of balance floods or drought cause people to suffer. 


The most influential philosopher in Chinese history, and the one who best embodied the search for balance and harmony in Chinese life, was Kongzi, or Confucius. Living from 551 b.c. to 479 b.c.,[85] Confucius advocated a code of conduct that he believed would promote order in a turbulent Chinese society.

            [BIO]Born to an aristocratic family that had fallen on hard times, Confucius was raised in humble circumstances. He aspired to political office, and as a young man he wandered from state to state in search of an official post.[86]  Failing to find work as a politician, Confucius became a teacher. He soon gained many followers among the sons of families hoping to get jobs in the growing bureaucracies of the Chinese kingdoms.

            In his teachings, Confucius emphasized the need for a system of ethics and values that would restore social harmony and political stability in China. Confucius believed that in an earlier age, all people knew their proper places in society and fulfilled their duties accordingly. He believed that the best way to solve China's current problems was to return to that imagined golden age. He advocated respect for traditional culture and strong adherence to the principal of order.[87]

            In time, Confucius's teachings were written down in The Analects,[88] a work that formed the basis for Confucianism, a philosophy that continues to influence Chinese thought today. Generally conservative, Confucianism stressed the importance of the family, of respect for one's elders, and of reverence for the past.

            Confucius believed that if his ideas were applied to politics, order would return to China. In his view, this could be accomplished in two ways. First, people should accept and carry out their given roles. "Let the ruler rule as he should and the minister be a minister as he should," he stated. "Let the father act as a father should and the son act as a son should."[89] In this way, Confucius claimed, society and government would function smoothly. His second point was that people, particularly rulers, should act virtuously. As he put it, 

“When a prince's personal conduct is correct, his government is effective without the issuing of orders. If his personal conduct is not correct, he may issue orders but they will not be followed.”[90]

            Confucius hoped to put his ideas into practice by becoming a top adviser to a ruler. His emphasis on ethics in government, however, did not appeal to most Chinese rulers, who were mainly interested in gaining and holding on to power. As a result, Confucius never received the official support he desired. During his lifetime, his efforts to influence the functioning of government had little impact.

            After Confucius's death, however, others carried on his teachings, and his reputation grew. Eventually his ideas would have great impact on Chinese life. He was even raised to the status of a god by some followers. Confucius was not a religious teacher, however, and Confucianism remained more of a practical philosophy than a religion.


Next to Confucianism, the most important Chinese philosophy during this period was  Daoism (dow-izm). In part, Daoism was a reaction against the social and moral conformity of Confucianism and against the power struggles of the Era of Warring States. Daoists emphasized the independence of each individual, whose sole task and importance was to fit into the great pattern of nature. The road, or the way, to fit into nature was the Dao.

            Daoists could not concretely define their beliefs, but only experience them: "The one who knows does not speak, and the one who speaks does not know."[91] Laozi, the founder of Daoism, is thought to have lived sometime around the 400s b.c. and is credited with writing the principal Daoist work, the Dao De Ching.

            Contradiction or paradox is characteristic of Daoism. The principle of wuwei (woo-way) or non-action, is central to Daoist thought:

“Do by not doing, act by non-action, taste the taste-less, regard small as great, much as little. . .


The hardest things in the world begin with what is easy; the greatest things in the world begin with what is minute.

Therefore the Saint never does anything great and so is able to achieve the great.”[92]

By non-action, Daoists did not mean complete inaction, but doing what comes naturally. Daoists believed that if left to itself, the universe proceeded along its own harmonious course.

            The Daoists believed that the desire for power or material wealth clouded people's minds to truth. Real knowledge and contentment, they said, came from self-contemplation:

“To understand others is to be wise,

But to understand one's self is to be illumined.

One who overcomes others is strong,

But he who overcomes himself is mighty.”[93]

            Eventually Daoism was turned into a religion, with its own temples and rituals, and became quite popular. But even as a philosophy it appealed to many Chinese. Artists in particular found inspiration in its emphasis on the contemplation of nature. Even many Confucians found Daoism appealing as a kind of release from the restrictiveness of Confucian moral codes. In that sense, Daoism and Confucianism complemented each other, much like yin and yang.


The third major philosophical school to emerge during the Classical Age was Legalism. Unlike the Confucians or Daoists, the Legalists did not favor a balanced approach to human conduct. Instead, they believed that strictly enforced laws, not ritual observances, would resolve the problems of political disunity and insecurity.[94]

            Legalists believed that the state would be best served by putting the king's interests first. Kings should vigorously enforce laws to preserve order in society, they believed.  In their view, people were by nature selfish and untrustworthy and could only be controlled through clearly defined rewards and punishments.[95] “The empire can be ruled only by utilizing human nature,” noted one Legalist philosopher:  

“Men have likes and dislikes; thus they can be controlled by means of rewards and punishments. . . . The ruler need only hold these handles [rewards and punishments] firmly, in order to maintain his supremacy. . . . These handles are the power of life and death. Force is the stuff that keeps the masses in subjection.”[96]

            Legalism, with its principle of rule by force, would become the official philosophy during the next Chinese dynasty, the Qin. Under this dynasty, China would be controlled by its first truly centralized, imperial state.


Section 3 Review

IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following:

Spring and Autumn period

Era of Warring States

Era of a Hundred Schools

yin and yang