State formed with distinctive marks in ancient China

BY QIAN YAOPENG | 04-27-2023
Chinese Social Sciences Today

A visitor appreciates the bronze wine container known as the zun vessel of He dating to the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BCE), which records the first appearance of China’s two-character name “Zhongguo.” Photo: CFP

The state encapsulates civilized society. Any definition of the state represents an understanding about the evolution of political institutions in human society and their manifestations. In the contemporary era, forms of government and development paths vary from state to state. Any theory of state formation, based on limited materials, can hardly be considered a one-size-fits-all rule. In discussions about the origins and formation of states in ancient China, it is vital to take into account the features of their historical evolution, in order to figure out marks of state formation with Chinese characteristics. 

Identifying marks of state formation 

When talking about civilizational origins and state formation, it is necessary to not only identify signs for the formation of a state, but also to consider each sign’s applicability and feasibility. 

In a broad sense, the state is a social group which shares a common language, culture, race, bloodline, territory, government, or history. Among other elements, language, culture, race, and bloodline might be attributed to the concept of the nation since modern times. Many definitions of the state are ambiguous in one way or another. 

Narrowly speaking, the state is a community formed within groups of a certain scope. In Chinese history, ethnic groups usually referred to families or clans. Around the world today, there are many multi-ethnic communities in which members speak different languages. Hence the narrower concept of the state seems to be more applicable. 

Extending this logic, based on the actual conditions of member states in the United Nations, it is appropriate to interpret the state as consisting of three elements: people, territory, and government; or four elements: people, territory, government, and sovereignty. Regardless of the size of a population and territory, or the administrative hierarchy, a government with international recognition and effective exercise of jurisdiction has met the requirements and has been equipped with basic traits of statehood. 

Although the United Nations and other international organizations have stamped some relative hallmarks on state sovereignty, this doesn’t fundamentally change the basic attributes of their members’ sovereignty. Even in the case of a puppet government, which has been completely deprived of sovereignty, its nature as an embodiment of state doesn’t vanish. Thus, population size, spatial sphere, and administrative hierarchy are not necessarily the fundamental markers of state formation. 

In addition, on a global level, we cannot afford to overlook regional differences in social and cultural evolution. Writing systems, metal objects, and the like, which were not indispensable in the Inca, Maya, and Aztec civilizations, are unfit markers of the formation of the state and civilization. 

To ensure that a mark of state formation is practical and applicable, it is essential to cast aside restrictions brought by the peculiarity and partiality of particular or limited cases. The application of science-based principles in line with cognitive rules is a more effective way to accurately pinpoint marks of state formation. 

State evolution in ancient China

China is a relatively independent and large geographic unit. Below the typography, featuring a three-step “staircase,” there are smaller geographic units of various levels. Due to transportation challenges in ancient times, as well as blockades by the sea, mountains, the Gobi desert, and vast steppes, unique geographic traits not only made ancient China independent from the rest of the world in terms of state formation and development, but also distinguished it for certain peculiarities, particularly the continuous development of statehood and civilization. 

The pattern of diverse cultures, akin to a flower with multiple petals, is an important foundation for shaping Chinese civilization’s continuity. Over the course of society’s complex development, reflected by residential, agricultural, and urban revolutions, the multicultural landscape provided broad space to allow and correct mistakes in the exploration of social systems and governance models. Together with persistent social interactions and integration, the landscape not only enhanced unity among different regional cultures, but also maintained the continuity of evolution marked by cultural and social integration in an all-inclusive fashion. 

Unique approaches to retaining historical memories, such as word of mouth, tying knots, and textual documentation, created amid increasing social complexity, further cemented the foundation for the uninterrupted development of Chinese civilization. 

Philosophies that are centered on the people and harmony in diversity have notably underpinned civilizational continuity. During state formation and development in ancient China, religious power was placed under the royal or imperial authority through ritual offerings in intensified administrative practices, thus gradually entrenching a social governance model that stressed the unity of humanity and nature, and putting the people first. As said in the Confucian classic Liji, or Book of Rites, “It was necessary for a sage on the throne of government to begin with the procedure of human duty.”

In the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BCE), the increasingly complete ritual and music system clarified the people-centered governance philosophy. According to the Book of Rites, the ancient kings, in their institution of ceremonies and music, did not seek how fully they could satisfy the desires of the appetite and of the ears and eyes; but they intended to teach the people to regulate their likings and dislikings, and to bring them back to the normal course of humanity. 

Starting from the Zhou era, China had not been a “state” in the general sense, nor was it a concept for a distinct geographic region. The pinyin of the nation, Zhongguo, which literally means “middle kingdom,” also denotes “fair and righteous state.” It observed a ritual system and upheld fairness and justice. It had established political ethics and norms, as well as real capabilities to unify vassal states and even lead faraway regimes. Under the long-term influence of rites, music, and moralization of society, the inclusive idea of harmony in diversity progressively transitioned to unity amid convergence, subtly fostering distinctive cultural, institutional, and intellectual identities. Almost all social stages were transitional in the evolution process, hence the continuous history of ancient Chinese civilization. 

Based on textual accounts and archaeological findings, the state form was relatively clear in the Zhou Dynasty. Apart from the king, or Son of Heaven, nobles with the title of gong (duke), hou (marquis), or bo (earl) in the five-rank system were also permitted to found a state, except for the other two ranks zi (viscount) and nan (baron), which could only be attached to a certain suzerain. 

According to the “Royal Regulations” chapter in the Book of Rites, “The territory of the Son of Heaven amounted to 1000 li [roughly 693 meters by current metric standards] square; that of a duke or marquis to 500 li square; that of an earl to 70 li square; and that of a viscount or baron to 50 li square. (Lords) who could not number 50 li square, were not admitted directly to (the audiences of) the Son of Heaven. Their territories were called ‘attached,’ being joined to those of one of the other vassals.” 

In the Zhou Dynasty, the minimum territorial space for vassal states was 70 li square, equivalent to the present-day size of administrative counties, sometimes a little larger. This basically reflects the way the state was understood in the Zhou era, which counts as crucial proof of state formation in ancient China. 

Distinctive marks

According to Zuozhuan, an ancient commentary on the first Chinese chronological history Spring and Autumn Annals, ritual sacrifice and war were major state affairs. This basically indicates the prominent feature of early states in China. The statement in Guanzi, an ancient Chinese political and philosophical text traditionally attributed to the 7th century BCE philosopher and statesman Guan Zhong, that “propriety, righteousness, honesty, and sense of shame were the four moral principles for sustaining a state; if the four principles were not observed, the state was vulnerable to demise,” further reveals the core governance philosophy of the early states. Based on the above, we can probably identify the following five marks for state formation in early China. 

The first is the mark of ritual offering. Although animism infinitely enlarged the scope of sacrificial objects, state-level sacrificial ceremonies mainly involved Heaven, Earth, and ancestors. Sacrifices to the three objects and offering remains should be one of the important marks of state formation. 

Military comes second. Because the “city” was identical to the “state” in ancient China, defense facilities like city walls and standing military forces with nobles and professional soldiers at the core should be a sign for sustaining mandatory social public power and measuring whether a state had formed. 

Third, rites, or whether there was a hierarchy-based ritual system, matter a great deal, particularly whether ritual vessels, or carriers of the system, were integrated across regions or cultures. 

The fourth mark is spatial, or the presence of large settlement sites, which were able to control areas the size of modern-day counties or even larger, by the standard of vassal states at the rank of earl in the Western Zhou Dynasty. 

The fifth concerns the era. Once a social organization comparable to the state appeared within a certain region, whether the spatial scale of social organizations in neighboring areas reached or surpassed that of modern-day counties, ripple or imitation effects would set off waves of state building. 

Additionally, whether tying knots to keep records, word of mouth, or physical documents, conscious historical memories, especially legends of heroes or ancestors, should be related to the sophistication of society. Fundamentally, historical memories about heroes and ancestors aim to keep and consolidate a group consciousness and strengthen the legitimacy and effectiveness of social organization and management. 

If the above signs appeared in the form of convergence, a state should have already formed. 

Qian Yaopeng is a professor from the School of Cultural Heritage at Northwest University.