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Zhao Shichao on Pre-Qin politics and society

HUANG MINGLEI | 2020-11-18 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Zhao Shichao, born in 1946, is the deputy head of China pre-Qin History Society under Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He is known for his research on pre-Qin history. Photo: Huang Minglei

Zhao Shichao is a renowned Chinese historian specializing in pre-Qin history. His early research focused on the social and political systems of the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE) and early state governance. He then branched out to the intellectual and cultural history of the pre-Qin (Paleolithic–221 BCE) and the Han (206 BCE–220 CE) periods. In recent years, he re-explored and reinterpreted the origins of social hierarchy in ancient China, and the pre-Qin fu system, a system which designated labor or levied tributes. Zhao’s research received widespread accolades in the field of pre-Qin history. 
Western Zhou systems 
During the Western Zhou period (c. 1046–771 BCE), China was in the early state stage, and the family unit was the basic building block of society. The Western Zhou's political system and state governance methods were quite different from the leadership featuring centralized authority developed later in Chinese history. Building upon this historical context, Zhao discussed society during the Zhou period in his book Zhoudai Guoye Zhidu Yanjiu. Topics covered in the book range from how families broke away from a clan, how private ownership began to loosen the bonds of public ownership, to the transformation from an early state to a territory state. 
Zhao speculated that the state system of the Western Zhou was built upon the guo-ye relation. Guo refers to the regions under the direct control of the Zhou rulers and zhuhou (rulers of vassal states and fiefs), where the guoren (state people, literally), or people of the Zhou lineage and its alliance lived. Yeren (barbarians, literally) refers to the tribes conquered by the Zhou, living under the control of the guo. Because of underdeveloped productive forces, guo and ye labors were based on the patriarchal family as a unit, and private ownership was poorly developed. The Zhou Dynasty’s ruling class couldn't bypass the patriarchal family system to enslave the yeren directly. The Iron Age of the Warring State Period (475–221 BCE) made it possible for individuals to make a living without the support of kinship networks, and China saw frequent political reforms and wars. These led to the eventual collapse of the kinship system, and resulted in the yeren transitioning into farm work under the leadership of a centralized government. No longer qualified as ruling tribal members, the guoren's authority began to approximate the yeren's, who now lived on land given by the government. Meanwhile, the territory state subjected all people directly to its rule, which marked a change from the early state which ruled through patriarchal family systems. 
In regard to early state governance, Zhao believed that due to the underdeveloped commercial economy, rulers in China's early-state stage reaped the benefit of their laborers by owning them and tightly controlling their minds. This was typified by designated labor or tributes levied by rulers from the Shang (c. 1600–1046 BCE) through the Zhou dynasties. Practices like this were collectively called fu in oracle bone scripts and bronze inscriptions. Under the fu system, people were required to satisfy their rulers by paying tributes or designating labor. These forms depended on kinship distance, degree of obeisance, and the specialties of different groups. While serving their rulers, people of lower status were required to serve those of higher status. Therefore, the fu system distinguished individuals by their statuses. It became the earliest form of social hierarchy in ancient China. 
Intellectual and cultural history 
From intellectual vacuum to civilization, there is always a period of witchcraft. Zhao revealed how belief in magic influenced the thoughts, culture, life, and systems of the pre-Qin and Han periods. 
He first analyzed the historical conditions that contributed to the advent of baijia zhengming, or the Contention of A Hundred Schools of Thought, an expression of the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy during the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE) and the Warring States Period, when diverse philosophical systems thrived and a broad range of thoughts were discussed freely. According to Zhao, during this period of history, the classical despotism centered around the li-yue system, a system of rites and music laid down by the Zhou Dynasty to promote ethical and moral principles and to maintain social order. As the system began to break down while the new centralized authority was still on the way, it left space for scholars to write and teach their own fields of knowledge freely. This period ended with the rise of the centralized Qin and Han regimes and the subsequent purge of dissent while making Confucianism the orthodox state belief system. 
The schools of Confucianism and Legalism were the most influential among the Hundred Schools of Thought. Both schools were often employed by state rulers to advise on the establishment of a new centralized state. During an era fraught with chaos and bloody battles, most states adopted the teachings of Legalism to guide state governance and enhance their prosperity and martial prowess. The Legalists promoted government through a system of laws, applying military codes to common people, replacing benevolent rule with brutal rule, thus creating military despotism. 
After overthrowing the Qin, the Han rulers adopted li, a Confucian concept which internalized a code of civility and defined proper human conduct, in order to eliminate the side effects of Legalism. This highlighted the value of moral education. Punishments, one of the Legalist practices, persisted. The Legalist theories and li complemented each other. Combining Confucian li and Legalism worked well at that time, because it met the people's demands to return to a normal life. However, it attempted to solve the problems left over by the Qin through bringing in external forces to achieve an equilibrium, rather than through improving laws and regulations. Feudal China in its late stage saw the increasing negative effects of this move. 
Zhao Shichao conducted his research based on the methodology of historical materialism, which stipulates that the study of a period of history should be based on the knowledge of material conditions. Since the founding of the PRC in 1949, a number of bronze farm tools dated to the Shang and Zhou periods have been unearthed throughout the country. Many scholars asserted that bronze farm tools had been widely employed in agriculture during the Shang and Zhou dynasties, and then made an improper assessment of the social development of the Shang and Zhou. 
After further analysis, however, Zhao found that reserves of lead, tin, and copper, which are crucial to the production of bronzeware, were rare. Iron was much more common. Meanwhile, mining, transporting the raw materials, and bronzeware production, were all very difficult. Therefore, Zhao concluded that there was no possibility that the use of bronze farm tools was as widespread as the use of ironware. 
Moreover, affected by the belief that "Sacrifice and war are a matter of prime importance for a country," the Shang and Zhou ruling class prioritized investing the precious copper in the production of sacrificial items and weapons. The farm tools of that period were mainly made of wood, bones, stone, and shells. Zhao stressed that it was wrong to overestimate the development of productive forces and civilization of the Shang and Zhou periods based on the existence of just a few bronze farm tools. 
Huang Minglei is from the Institute for Western Frontier Region of China at Shaanxi Normal University.