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The Zhou Dynasty, Confucius, and China’s Philosophic Traditions

Zhou Dynasty (c. 1050-256 BCE)

  • The Zhou dynasty (c.1050-256 BCE) conquers and succeeds the Shang; later generations seek to reclaim and preserve the idealized peace of the early Zhou (or Western Zhou) period.
  • The Zhou is divided into the Western Zhou (c.1050-771 BCE), when the capital was near Xian, and the Eastern Zhou (770-221 BCE), when the capital was moved eastward to Luoyang.
  • The political system of the Western Zhou was characterized by the establishment of the numerous regional states mainly in East China. This served to stabilize the Western Zhou state, in the first place, but it also planted the seed for the future interstate conflict that took over China after the fall of the Western Zhou capital.
  • The establishment of numerous regional states during the Western Zhou was a process by which a unified elite culture spread all over North China, marked first of all by the casting of inscriptions on bronze vessels, many of which are historically highly important.
  • The Eastern Zhou period was one of political fragmentation with the power of the Zhou in decline; it is divided by historians into two sub-periods knows as the Spring and Autumn Period (770-c.480 BCE), named after an historical chronicle kept during the period, and the Warring States Period (c.480-221 BCE). Confucius was alive at the end of the Spring and Autumn Period and argued for a restoration of the social and political order of the earlier Western Zhou period.
  • Essential components of Chinese civilization that are evident in the Zhou period include the Chinese notion of the ruler as the “Son of Heaven” who rules with the Mandate of Heaven. The Zhou introduced the concept of “Tian” or Heaven, as a supernatural power and deified physical presence. (Tian or Heaven, as the ultimate physical power, is more powerful than the “Shangdi,” or god on high, which the Shang and then the Zhou understood as a deity from which they claimed their ethnic origins.)
  • The Book of Songs, reputedly compiled by Confucius, is a collection of odes from the Zhou period that tells us about the life of the people. (It is also referred to as the Book of Poetry or Book of Odes.)

China at the Time of Confucius

  • After the displacement of the Western Zhou (c.1050-771) and the movement of the Zhou capital eastward, China was divided into a number of small states competing for power (771-221 BCE). Many philosophic schools of thought emerged during this period of political and social turmoil, a period known as that of the “100 Schools of Thought.” Several of these philosophic schools have had lasting impact on Chinese civilization and political order, among them, Confucianism, Legalism, and Daoism. Leading philosophers in the early history of each school, and the texts associated with them, include:
      • Confucianism
        - Confucius (c. 551-479 BCE) Analects
        - Mencius (371-289 BCE) Mencius
        - Xun Zi (Hsun Tzu) (298-238) Xunzi
      • Legalism
        - Han Fei Zi (Han Fei Tzu) (d. 233) Han Feizi
        - Li Si (Li Ssu) (d. 208) who became the Prime Minister of Qin
      • Daoism (Taoism)
        - Lao Zi (Lao Tzu) “Old Master” (c. 500) Daodejing, also known as Laozi
        - Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu) (c. 369-286) Zhuangzi
      • Other schools of thought mentioned from this period are those of Mozi (5th c. BCE), whose philosophy is often called that of “universal love,” and the School of Yin and Yang and the Five Agents.

Confucian Thought

  • Confucius (551-479 BCE) emphasizes moral cultivation of individuals, service to the state, and leadership by ethical, educated men.
  • Confucian thought builds on the fundamental Chinese world view of this time (that there is a universal order and it is moral, that men must find, preserve, and promote this order and rulers rule with the “Mandate of Heaven” to preserve it). In keeping with the values of universal order, Confucius propagates this world view and stresses the values of 1) filial piety, or respect of children for their parents (family and hierarchy); 2) humanity and 3) the importance of ritual — state rituals and family rituals — for preserving universal order.
  • Confucius believes that man is primarily a social being in a set of relationships and that men must educate and cultivate themselves so that their behavior will be consonant with the moral order and they will be able to serve the state as moral leaders.

The “Axial Age” of Philosophy and Religion Worldwide

  • Confucius lived during a period which the German philosopher Karl Jaspers has called the "Axial Age," the period between 800-200 BCE which Jaspers said turned on a historical axis of the year 500 BCE when the world’s major religious and thought systems emerged. Figures who lived between 800-200 BCE include:
      • Israel: Isaiah, 770-700 BCE, followed by the “Age of the Prophets,” 650-600 BCE
      • Greece: Socrates, 469-399 BCE; Plato, 427-347 BCE; Aristotle, 384-322 BCE
      • Iran: Zoroaster, ca. 600 BCE
      • India: Buddha, 563-483 BCE, and the Upanishad texts written ca. 550 BCE
      • China: Confucius, 551-479 BCE; and Laozi, 606-530 BCE
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