Home » China » The civilization of Ancient China. Zhanguo-Qin-Han era. History and culture. Part 1.

The civilization of Ancient China. Zhanguo-Qin-Han era. History and culture. Part 1.

The Zhanguo-Qin-Han era for China was what the Greco-Roman world became for Europe

The States of China in the Shang and Zhou eras

Chronological framework and geographical conditions

The history of China dates back at least seven millennia since the Neolithic period. Almost a third of it is occupied by the era of the ancient Chinese civilization, one of the oldest civilizations in the world. It dates back to the turn of the III-II millennium BC, when the first proto-urban cultures appeared in the Yellow River basin. The end of it is considered the collapse of the Han Empire (220 AD).

The specifics of natural conditions largely determined a number of important features of the ancient Chinese civilization. The conditions for the emergence of civilization were less favorable here than in the countries of the northern subtropics, such as Egypt and Sumer, and the state was formed later, at a higher level of development of the productive forces. It also played a role that until the second half of the first millennium BC, Ancient China developed in fact in isolation from other civilizations.

The head of the goddess. Hongshan. China. 3 thousand BC.

The head of the goddess. Painted clay, inlaid with jade. Neolithic culture. Hongshan. Liaoping. III thousand BC.

The non-irrigation type of primary centers of ancient Chinese civilization significantly distinguishes it from the so-called hydraulic societies: Ancient Egyptian, Lower Mesopotamian, Ancient Indian, based on artificial irrigation from the very beginning. Irrigation development of the valleys of the two great rivers of China began only in the middle of the first millennium BC, when the ancient Chinese civilization has already passed a thousand-year path of development.

The first centers of civilization (Yangshao, Longshan, Hongshan)

The emergence of the state in Ancient China was preceded by a very long era of the tribal system. In the fifth millennium BC, the Neolithic Yangshao painted pottery culture was formed in the Yellow River basin on the basis of the local Paleolithic and Mesolithic period, which was replaced in the middle of the third millennium BC by the Late Neolithic Longshan black pottery culture. Yangshao was traditionally considered the oldest direct predecessor of Chinese civilization. However, recent excavations have revealed in the north-east of China, in Liaxing, the Hongshan culture that emerged long before Yangshao, which Chinese archaeologists consider, along with Yangshao, the cradle of Chinese civilization.

The domestication of chumiz is associated with the ancient agricultural area of Northern China. Southern China is the primary focus of rice cultivation. The question of the origin and genesis of bronze metallurgy in ancient China is complex and far from being resolved. In any case, at the turn of the third millennium BC, independent centers of the bronze industry existed in the Yellow River and Yangtze basins.

“The Great City of Shang»

A vessel made of clay. Neolithic. China. 4 thousand BC.

A vessel made of red clay. The Neolithic culture of Davenkou. Shandong. Mid-IV-late III millennium BC.

The oldest early class formations belonging to the type of city-states appear on the territory of China in the II millennium BC. Early urban cultures based on flood and atmospheric irrigation are found in Henan, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Shandong, Hebei, Hubei, northern Hunan and Jiangxi. Among them, an exceptional place is occupied by the “Great City of Shang” excavated in Henan, in the area of Anyang, as it is called by the oldest Proto-Chinese “divination inscriptions” of the XIV-XI centuries BC, found there. The Shan city-state was at the head of a fairly large association. His cult center, known as the “Yin oracle”, where thousands of inscriptions on animal bones and tortoiseshell shells were found, served as a divination ritual for Shansky and other allied collectives.

The Shang ruler was called Wang. He had the military powers and functions of the high priest, acted in special cases and organized production. The power of the Vanir seems to have been limited to the council of nobles and the assembly of the people. The Shants fought constant wars, and prisoners of war were sacrificed en masse to their deified ancestors and the spirits of nature. The emergence of private ownership of slaves in Shan society is evidenced by the excavation of medium-sized graves, where several slaves were buried alive together with the owner.

Western Zhou

We know very little about the political history of the Shan State. It is known that at the turn of the II-I millennium BC, it was conquered by the Zhous, who came from the west, from the Wei River basin. As a result of the conquest, the Zhou people created a relatively large but fragile state formation, which tradition calls the Western Zhou. It was headed by hereditary rulers from the Zhou royal family, who took the title “wang”from the Shang. With the ethnic diversity of the West Zhou state and the lack of strong economic and socio-political ties, the legal justification of the legitimacy of the Zhou Wang’s power was of exceptional importance.

The religious teaching developed during this period about the divine origin of “royalty” and the sacred right to rule of the Zhou Wangs was based on mythical ideas and derived from the Zhou cult of Heaven as the supreme deity. Zhou Wang was proclaimed the Son of Heaven (Tianzi) and the “Only” earthly incarnation of him, endowed with the magical power of te, making him a supernatural being — an intermediary between Heaven and people, the world builder and the lord of Tianxia — the Celestial Empire. It was believed that Wang received power from Heaven itself by virtue of sending him a Heavenly Command to reign (Tian Ming).

The West Zhou dual cult of the supreme deity of Heaven and the Son of Heaven was supertribal, interethnic, compatible with communal cults, creating an ideological basis for the cultural and political consolidation of different ethnic communities. However, the West Zhou state itself did not acquire a despotic form of government. Wang’s power was limited by the council of dignitaries attached to him. In urgent cases, representatives of the highest titled Zhou aristocracy, the Zhuhou, took part in resolving matters of national importance (such as the issue of succession to the throne).

A ritual object. Jade. The Shang Era. The second half of the second millennium BC.

A ritual object. Jade. The Shang Era. The second half of the second millennium BC.

The weakening of Western Zhou and the formation of new centers of culture

Since the middle of the IX century BC, the West Zhou state has entered a period of internal political crisis. With the growth of Zhuhou separatism, the military power of the Wangs weakened. In the conditions of the onslaught of the north-Western nomadic tribes that intensified at the beginning of the VIII century BC, the Western Zhou was unable to resist the external threat. Ancestral lands of the Zhou people in the basin of the river. The Wei were captured by the Quanzhong tribe, and in 770 BC, the Zhou capital was moved to the east (to the area of modern China). Luoyang). The territory of the Zhou state, henceforth referred to in the sources as Eastern Zhou, was sharply reduced. Along with him, many independent kingdoms were formed in China by this time. Among them, the kingdoms of the Middle Yellow River and the Great Plain of China stood out for their well-known unity of cultural tradition. Some of them attributed themselves to the descendants of the Zhou people, others to the Yin people, but all of them recognized the supreme sacred authority of the Zhou Wang as the Son of Heaven.

Formation of the community of Huaxia and the Barbarian periphery

On the territory of these kingdoms there was a process of formation of the cultural and genetic community of Huaxia, during which by the middle of the first millennium BC a stable ethno-cultural and political complex of the middle kingdoms (zhongguo) was formed and the idea of their superiority over the rest of the periphery of the “barbarians of the four countries of the world” arose. The idea of the cultural priority of the Zhungozhen (people of the middle kingdoms) becomes an important component of the self-consciousness of the ancient Chinese.

A wine vessel. Bronze. China. 2 thousand BC.

A tiger devouring a man. A vessel for sacrificial wine. Bronze. The Shang Era. The second half of the second millennium BC.

On the territory of China there were states that arose on a local ethnic basis, different from the middle ones in language and culture, not inferior to them in size or level of development, but which the orthodox Zhou tradition treated as “barbarians”. The high ancient culture of these kingdoms is evidenced by the excavations of the last decades. Among the “five hegemons” – powerful political leaders who dictated their will to the entire Celestial Empire during the Chunqiu period (Spring and Autumn), VIII-V centuries BC-four were from the “barbarian” kingdoms:

  • Northwest Rong Kingdom of Qin,
  • The Manchu kingdoms of Chu (in the middle Yangtze)
  • and Wu (in the Yangtze Delta)
  • and the southernmost of all, the ethnically diverse Yue, where the population related to the ancestors of the Vietnamese lived.

Of these, only the Qin recognized the nominal power of the East Zhou Wang. In the Zhanguo period, V-III centuries BC, of the “seven strongest” kingdoms of Ancient China, three were classified as non-Huaxian: the northeastern Yan and the two already mentioned — Chu and Qin. The latter of them had such a prominent role in the history of China that the ethnonym “Qinqi” began to serve as the name of the ancient Chinese. Etymologically, the Latin Syne, the German Hina, the French Shin, and the English Chyna all go back to it.

The Middle kingdoms were in constant contact with neighboring peoples, during which there was a complex process of assimilation and mutual influence. Thus, the formation of the Huaxia community was significantly influenced by the settlement of the Di tribes belonging to the “Scythian world”on the Great Chinese Plain in the VII-VI centuries BC. The excavations of the last decade proved the high cultural level of the Hebei kingdom of Zhongshan, formed at this time by the white Di. Zhongshan products took a worthy place among the best artistic examples of bronze-casting art in the middle of the first millennium BC. In addition to Zhongshan, other states were created by the White Di in Northern China.

An owl-shaped libation vessel. Excavation of the grave of the high priestess. Bronze. The Shang Era. The second half of the second millennium BC.

An owl-shaped libation vessel. Excavation of the grave of the high priestess. Bronze. The Shang Era. The second half of the second millennium BC.

Internal socio-economic system

Like the West Zhou Wangs, the rulers of the East Zhou kingdoms practiced the allocation of land for the administration of noble families and the distribution of land for service. These grants were not properly landed property. With the small-scale nature of the economy and the lack of centralized management, this was a well-justified form of maintaining the government apparatus. Although formally, the sovereign could at any time take away official awards, the transfer of them by inheritance gradually became the rule.

The dominant position in the kingdoms of the Chunqiu period belonged to the hereditary aristocracy, most often related to the royal houses. She subsequently held the highest positions in the state administration, owned the bronze battle chariots that formed the basis of the army. In contrast, the rulers sought to form their armies from infantry units. Since the VI century BC, the struggle of noble families for the seizure of power in their kingdoms, on the one hand, and the offensive of the rulers on the hereditary privileges of the hierarchical aristocracy, on the other, have been widely noted.

Wanting to undermine the influence of this clan nobility, the rulers of the kingdoms tried to rely on personally loyal people from non-noble families, introducing an entirely new system of their official remuneration — “salary” paid in grain, which served as the most important equivalent of value. In a number of kingdoms, the “people of the country” — gozhen-were on the side of the ruler against the clans of the nobility. Their active interference, though sporadic, in the most important matters of not only domestic but also foreign policy can speak of the preservation of the remnants of the people’s assemblies and the council of elders. However, the socio-political significance of gozhen since the second half of the first millennium BC, even in small city-states, is fading away.

In the large kingdoms, a centralized political and administrative system was gradually introduced. The main producers in agriculture were free farmers-community members. By the end of the first half of the first millennium BC in many kingdoms, communal redistribution stops, the land passes into the possession of individual large families. The process of property differentiation of community members is intensifying. At the end of Chunqiu, the practice of mortgaging and alienating private estates, orchards, and vegetable gardens is spreading, although land transactions do not receive any noticeable development. Debt slavery appears, first under the guise of “adoption” and “pledge of children”. And what is significant, with a variety of designations of forms of patriarchal dependence of the slave type in the middle of the first millennium BC, a generalizing term for slaves — nubei-was approved, which then became standard for centuries.

With all the variety and diversity of the state formations of the Chunqiu era, their cultural and historical specifics and uneven development, all of them, according to the nature of class relations, generally belonged to the same early stage of the development of ancient society.

Changes in the political situation in the first millennium BC.

The vessel. Western Zhou. 11th century BC

Ritual vessel. Bronze. Western Zhou. XI-IX centuries BC.

By the middle of the first millennium BC, the political map of Ancient China in comparison with the beginning of Chunqiu significantly changes: from almost two hundred state entities, less than three dozen remain. Among them are the “seven strongest” – the mentioned Qin, Yan and Chu, which belong to the peripheral, and the largest of the middle kingdoms — Wei, Zhao, Han and Qi. The struggle between them for dominance in the Middle Kingdom becomes a determining factor in the political history of the subsequent two-century Zhanguo period.

The beginning of the widespread use of iron, the growth of agriculture and the economy

Since the middle of the first millennium BC, an era of profound changes in ancient Chinese society has begun. Cardinal changes in the development of productive forces were associated with the development of iron smelting, which created conditions for the rapid rise of crafts and agriculture. The spread of iron tools allowed to go beyond the river floodplains, to expand the area of cultivated land. At the beginning of the second half of the first millennium BC, active activity on the creation of hydraulic structures in the basins of the Yellow River, the Huaihe River and the upper Yangtze River falls.

The transition to an intensive farming system was associated with irrigation. After the Qin kingdom implemented major water management measures in the late IV — mid-III centuries BC, irrigated agriculture became the key to its prosperity. Irrigation works were also carried out in other “strongest” kingdoms, which expanded their territories to the limits of entire river valleys. Since that time, the development of the culture of irrigation agriculture has become the most important factor in the progress of Chinese civilization.

A vessel on legs. Bronze. China. 4th century BC

A vessel on three legs in the form of rhinos. Bronze. IV century BC From the excavations of the capital Zhongshan in Hebei.

During the Zhanguo period, trade and craft cities with a population of half a million appeared. The coin form of money is distributed. Large private farms are being created, both agricultural and artisanal, designed for the market. Private slavery gets a powerful incentive. Patriarchal slave-owning exploitation penetrates the community, corrodes it from the inside. In a number of kingdoms, the purchase and sale of land was officially allowed.

Internal reforms of the Qin Kingdom and its rise

In the middle of the IV century BC, the minister Shang Yang in the kingdom of Qin carried out reforms that aimed at political centralization, administrative and territorial reorganization, undermining the power of aristocratic families, changing the tax system to take into account the transformation of the community. Shang Yang introduced unified legislation and legal proceedings, legalized the pledge and purchase of land, abolished the restriction on the size of allotments, interfered with the land ownership of large-family associations, demanding the division of patriarchal farms. He stood for the enslavement of the poor. All previous hereditary titles were abolished. The new ranks of the nobility complained for personal, primarily military, merits, and only they gave the right to occupy administrative posts. Their owners received, in accordance with their status, preferential regulated rights to own land, slaves and other property.

Soon the ranks began to be sold, which opened access to the power of the property nobility. In the army, Shang Yang replaced the chariots — the basis of the military power of the aristocracy — with maneuverable cavalry, bronze weapons — with iron. Only the state had the right to manufacture weapons. The Qin army became one of the most efficient. After the reforms of Shang Yang, the Qin kingdom turned into a military-bureaucratic despotism, according to the type of state system. In its politics and ideology, the outlines of a future empire are already being outlined.

Zhanguo Era culture

The Zhanguo era has entered the tradition as a classic period in the history of spiritual culture in China. Indeed, it was, in a certain sense, a unique era of a broad and open struggle of ideas, in fact, not constrained by any official ideological dogma. Neither before nor after, during the ancient and medieval periods, did Chinese society know such an intensity of intellectual life, such a prevalence of humanitarian teachings. In the city squares, in the streets and alleys, in the palaces of the rulers and the houses of the nobles, ideological disputes took place. In the famous Zhanguo China” academy ” of Jixia (“At the Gate of Ji”) in the Qing capital of Linzi, up to a thousand “men skilled in argument” met at the same time, competing in eloquence.

Battle axe. China. 4th century BC

Battle axe. Bronze. From the excavations of the capital of the kingdom of Zhongshan. IV century BC.

In this era of the “rivalry of the hundred schools”, as it is called by sources, the main directions of philosophical thought of Ancient China were formed: Confucianism, Taoism, etc., author’s works of art were created. It was then, as a result of a long process of overcoming archaic forms of social consciousness and the transformation of mythological thinking in ancient Chinese society, that a new socio-psychological type of personality emerged from the shackles of the traditional worldview. With it comes critical philosophy and theoretical scientific thought.

Folk-mythological thinking

However, at the deep level of mass consciousness, the undifferentiated folk-mythological thinking continued to dominate. The cults of the communal gods continued to play a huge role. In addition to the widespread cult of the ancestors of the family community, community-territorial cults associated with the magic of fertility, in particular spring rites, were widely practiced. Since the Yin era, there have been cults of the forces of nature. The cult of the sacred mountains, accompanied by human sacrifices, remained one of the most persistent. The ritual of sacrifice to the five mountain peaks was led by Zhou Wang. When large political entities began to emerge, communal beliefs had to give way to state-wide ones. Where local cults stubbornly opposed the official ones, the state fought them. So, in 227 BC. e. on the territory captured by the kingdom of Qin Chu, it was ordered to “eradicate local customs”, and after the formation of the empire — to cut down the sacred groves, where the temples of local deities were located.

Bronze helmet. China. 1 thousand BC

Bronze helmet. From an excavation in Liaoning. Mid-I millennium BC.

In the process of adapting the mytho-poetic tradition to the ideology of the ruling class, the motive of the heroes ‘ rebellion was removed from the myths. But it was not possible to eradicate from the people’s memory the titanic image of the flood fighter — the most formidable natural element in China — the mythical hero Gong, who rebelled against the Heavenly Lord and stole the living self-growing land from him for the good of people. According to legend, for this audacity, the gods executed Gong, but the hero’s body was incorruptible, it was torn by owls and turtles and could not be torn apart. After three years of torture, the Heavenly Lord ordered Gong to be cut with a magic sword. And then out of his womb came the son of Yu, who conquered the universal flood.

With the growth of scientific knowledge, criticism of the mythological worldview made its way, which was reflected in the ideology of the Zhanguo era. In the Confucian school, it was conducted from the standpoint of historicization and rationalization, in the Taoist, close to folk art, the use of mythological subjects turned into a literary device. Naive and realistic criticism of mythological ideas is heard in the “Questions to Heaven” – a monument of the middle of the first millennium BC, where it already takes on the features of religious skepticism.

A winged dragon. Bronze, inlaid with silver. IV century BC From the excavations of the capital of the kingdom of Zhongshan in Hebei.

A winged dragon. Bronze, inlaid with silver. IV century BC From the excavations of the capital of the kingdom of Zhongshan in Hebei.

Scientific knowledge

Even in the Shang era, the ancestors of the ancient Chinese knew the count to 30 thousand. The early development of astronomy was probably due to the existence of the lunar year, which had to be coordinated with the natural seasons associated with the solar year, the duration of which was calculated very accurately. In 613 BC, ancient Chinese astronomers first recorded the appearance of Halley’s comet. In the V century BC, Gan De and Gi Sheng compiled a star catalog. Astronomers were able to calculate lunar eclipses and anticipate the possibility of solar eclipses in advance. The periodicity of the movement of the stars, established by ancient Chinese astronomers, played an important role in the emergence of one of the main worldview concepts of ancient Chinese philosophy — the tao (path).

The development of writing was facilitated by the transition from writing on narrow bamboo boards to writing on silk and from a scratching stick to a scribal brush. The size of the writing material ceased to limit the volume of the text, which created an opportunity for actual written creativity. Mathematics, physics, and especially mechanics developed, driven by the needs of irrigation, fortification, and fortress construction.

Ritual bronze from the royal burial. Ancient China. 5th century BC

Ritual bronze from the royal burial with human sacrifices. Hubei. V century BC.

The development of natural science knowledge contributed to the establishment of spontaneous dialectical and naive materialistic views. Early dialectical ideas were reflected in the natural — philosophical work – “The Book of Changes” (“Yijing”). Based on its postulate about the variability of all things, the authors of the philosophical treatise of the middle of the first millennium BC “Xicizhuan” developed the idea of movement as an integral property of the objective world and presented the cardinal Yijin concept of “Taiji” (the great limit) as primordial matter — a kind of initially dual entity that generates the opposite substances yang and yin.

In the Zhanguo era, there was a cultural convergence of the kingdoms, which was facilitated by the spread of ancient Chinese hieroglyphic writing. Due to its lack of a direct link between reading and graphic writing, it could be used by native speakers of any language. Literacy covered a fairly broad segment of the population and was considered a sign of education. It is significant that the royal decrees were not just announced, but recorded on tablets and displayed at the city gates for public inspection. The movement of human masses in the course of continuous wars and migrations caused by the colonization policy of the “strongest” kingdoms led to a gradual mixing and leveling of dialects, in connection with which a single oral ancient Chinese language began to take shape.

The shaft of the axe. The Zhanguo era. Ancient China

An element of the axe shaft. Gold with inlay. From an excavation in Hebei. The Zhanguo era.

The Philosophy of Ancient China

The Zhanguo era is considered the” golden age ” of Chinese philosophy. At this time, there are philosophical teachings in the proper sense of the word. The most important of them are —

  • Confucianism,
  • Taoism,
  • Moism
  • legism (fazia)

— they had a great influence on all the subsequent development of Chinese philosophical and socio-political thought.


Confucianism emerged at the turn of the VI-V centuries BC. Its founder is considered to be the Teacher Kun (Kunzi, in Latin transcription-Confucius, 551-479 BC) – a wandering preacher from the kingdom of Lu, who was later deified. The state cult of Confucius with the official ritual of sacrifice, established in the country in 59 AD, existed in China until 1928. Teacher Kun expounded his teachings verbally in the form of a dialogical interview. The sayings of Confucius were then written down by his disciples and compiled into the treatise “Lunyu” (“Conversations and Judgments”).

For many centuries, “Lunyu” was a kind of catechism of Confucianism and up to the XX century. formed the basis of primary education in Chinese schools, where students were required to memorize it by heart. The official tradition associated with the name of Confucius an exceptional reverence in China for literacy, “book learning”. Confucius opened a private school for the first time in Chinese history. The Confucius school was dominated by a practical philosophy related to the problems of morality and governance. Confucius did not focus on questions of existence, but on man and human society. Subsequently, the Confucians created their own canonical literature, which included the “Book of Changes”, “Book of Songs”, “Book of Legends”, and the Luscian chronicle “Chunqiu”, allegedly written by Confucius.

A guardian spirit from the grave. 5th-3rd centuries BC China

A guardian spirit from the grave. From the excavations in Henan. V-III centuries BC.

Throughout the later history of Ancient China, Confucianism underwent significant changes. Under the conditions of the ancient Chinese Han Empire, it turned from a religiously colored, but mainly political-socio-ethical teaching into a philosophical and theological system and even claimed the role of a world religion, although they were not destined to come true.

In general, ancient Confucianism is striking in its archaism, the huge role of the ancestral cult in it, strong remnants of mythological, socio-anthropomorphic consciousness, the inseparability of the physical from the moral. It adopted the traditional ancient beliefs in the supernatural power of Heaven as the supreme deity, developed the doctrine of the conscious Will of Heaven and the sacred nature of the power of the earthly ruler as the Son of Heaven.

According to Confucianism, the social structure, as well as the structure of the world, is eternal and unchangeable, everyone in it, according to the Will of Heaven, occupies a strictly defined place. Heaven has ordained the division of people into:

  • “managers” — “noble men”, “capable of moral self-improvement” (Confucius referred to them only as aristocrats by birth)
  • “managed” — “low, despicable people”, immoral by nature, who are destined from above to engage in physical labor, “feed and serve” the ruling elite

The credo of Confucius: “The ruler must be the ruler, the father the father, the son the son.” Confucius was opposed to the introduction of written law, calling for the revival of ancient customs and methods of government. His ideal was the Western Zhou era.

Sword. Bronze. Ancient China. 5th century BC

Sword. Bronze. Ancient China. 5th century BC

The religious and philosophical problems of Confucianism were developed by Mengzi (372-289 BC), theoretically justifying the postulate of the Will of Heaven, implemented through the “humane rule” of a highly moral sovereign. The basis of the “humane government” was the unquestioning adherence to tradition, which does not allow deviation from the precepts of the divine ancestors — the rulers of the “golden age” of antiquity, led by Yao and Shun. Mengzi put forward the concept of the Punishment of Heaven-Gemin (Changing the Will of Heaven), trying to present the violent change of power as retribution sent from above, but not as a rebellion from below.

Confucianism sanctified social inequality, stood guard over the monarchy, presenting it as the only form of government acceptable to Heaven. “Just as there cannot be two suns in the sky, so a people cannot have two rulers,” Mengzi proclaimed. The teachings of Confucius and Mengzi on “humane government” were intended to justify the right of hereditary noble families to political domination, raised to the Will of Heaven.

The aristocratic morality of early Confucianism was clearly manifested in the teachings of Xunzi (313-238 BC) on ritual. Embracing ethical, political, and legal norms, ritual is the highest form of distinction between “those at the top” and”those at the bottom.” The dominance of some over others, Xunzi declared the eternal state of society. He argued (unlike Mengzi) that the nature of people is inherently evil, that social and property inequality is rooted in human nature, and demanded that class distinctions between the nobility and the people be observed.

The famous phrase of Confucius: “I transmit, not create” – became fundamental to the theory and practice of orthodox Confucianism, which opposes the new, condemning any hint of free thinking. The ideas of Confucianism about the independence of knowledge from practical activity became an obstacle to the development of natural and applied sciences. Despite some elements of naive-materialistic thinking in early Confucianism, later it developed in line with idealistic philosophy.

A vessel with dragons. Ancient China. 4th century BC

Bronze vessel with dragons. From an excavation in Hebei. IV century BC.


The tradition connects the emergence of Taoism with the name of a semi-legendary sage from the kingdom of Chu, supposedly an older contemporary of Confucius, Laozi, who was considered the author of the natural philosophical treatise ” Daodejing “(“The Book of Tao and Te”; written, apparently, in the IV-III centuries BC). In contrast to the metaphysical Confucianism as a whole, the Taoist worldview is imbued with bright features of spontaneous dialectical thinking. The main category of the Tao teaching was interpreted as “the way of nature”, “the mother of all things”. The social ideal of ancient Taoism was a return to the” natural”, primitive state and intra — communal equality-the” golden age ” of the Taoist utopia. Taoists strongly condemned social oppression. They condemned wars, opposed the wealth and luxury of the nobility, the extortion of the authorities, which reduced the people to poverty, and scourged the cruelty of the rulers and the arrogance of the dignitary elite. Laozi put forward the theory of non-action, which in terms of sociology, on the one hand, was aimed at limiting the arbitrariness of those in power, and on the other — preached passivity as a principle of life, condemning the masses to follow the tao — the natural course of things.

The ancient Taoists recognized the objectivity of the world, opposed the deification of the sky. They taught that the sky, like the earth, is just a part of nature. The world in their view consisted of the smallest indivisible material particles of qi and was in constant change, where everything infinitely passed into its opposite: “incomplete becomes complete, crooked-straight, empty-filled, old-new.” The Taoists denied the cult of the ancestors, rejected sacrifices to the sky, earth, rivers, mountains, and other deified natural phenomena.

The ideas of ancient Taoism were developed by the philosopher Lezi (V-IV centuries BC). Lezi, nicknamed the Protection of Robbers, originally from the kingdom of Zheng, came from among artisans. The treatise named after him has reached a late record, but, according to scientists, it reliably sets out the views of the thinker. Lezi was an outstanding materialist and dialectician of antiquity, interpreting the category of tao as “the eternal self-movement of matter”. He declared: “Things themselves are born, themselves develop, themselves form, themselves color, themselves know, themselves strengthen, themselves exhaust, themselves disappear. It is not true to say that someone intentionally generates, develops, shapes, colors, gives knowledge, power, causes exhaustion and disappearance.”

Decoration of the chariot drawbar. Ancient China. 5-3 centuries BC.

Decoration of the chariot drawbar. Gold-plated bronze with silver. From the excavations in Henan. V-III centuries BC.

Lezza’s theory of matter is close to the idea of the atomistic structure of matter. As a material substance in his teaching, there are two primary elements:

qi (ether, air)

ji (seeds)

“All the darkness of things comes out of the seeds and returns to them,” he said. The philosopher regarded the sky as “an accumulation of air” and the earth as “an accumulation of solid matter”. He developed a materialistic concept about the eternity and infinity of the universe, about the multiplicity of worlds, one of which is the earthly world. Lezza is a scientific-materialistic, atheistic in its orientation, teaching about the evolution of life on Earth from the simplest organisms to humans. Lezzi rejected the idea of a divinely ordained destiny for man, of an afterlife and the immortality of the soul. The thinker argued that the human soul consists of the same particles as his body, but only lighter and warmer.

The greatest representative of classical Taoism was the brilliant artist of the word, who occupies a unique place in Chinese culture, Zhuangzi (about 369-286 BC). Information about his life is extremely scarce. It is known that he was born in the Song kingdom. Zhuangzi’s philosophy is contradictory, along with idealistic propositions, it contains deep materialistic ideas and ingenious guesses about the universe. The basis of the thinker’s teaching is the concept of the tao. The Tao (the true ruler, the great teacher) appears in his doctrine as the essence of being, the substantial basis of the world, the absolute one principle from which all things are constantly changing in the eternal cycle of the universe. Life is a continuous stream of movement. The universality of changes and the transition of phenomena into their opposite make all qualities relative.

The ritual bell. Bronze. China. 4th century BC

Ritual bell. Bronze. IV century BC From the excavations of the capital Zhongshan in Hebei.

Zhuangzi asserted the natural equality of people, defended the right to individual morality, denied the division into “noble” and “insignificant”, sympathized with the slave share, passionately denounced the greed and hypocrisy of those in power. Among his heroes there are many hard workers, skilled craftsmen. Zhuangzi stated that the ethical principles of Confucianism “humanity”, “justice”, ” duty “are alien to the true nature of man and are as unnecessary to him as the”sixth finger on the hand”. He was particularly preoccupied with the problem of life and death. Solving it materialistically, the philosopher argued: “With the death of the body, the soul of man disappears.” Chuangzi debunked the postulate of a purposeful “Will of Heaven”. The thinker likened the world element to a “huge melting pot”, in which all the “darkness of things”is constantly and eternally melted down.

The general ideological orientation of ancient Taoism, its condemnation of social injustice, corresponded to the sentiments of the community masses, which was the reason for its popularity. It reflects the passive protest of the social grassroots against exploitation. At the same time, natural philosophical views and the breadth of ethical principles attracted representatives of the ruling class to Taoism, but in their interpretation, the doctrine of non-action often acquired a pronounced individualistic character.


The Moist school, which opposed Confucianism, actively joined the ideological struggle. The name of this school comes from the name of its founder Mo Di, or Teacher Mo (about 468-376 BC). The place of his birth is not established, perhaps he lived in Chu, where his teachings were widely spread. The teachings of Mo Di were directed against the dominance of the hereditary aristocracy, its privileged social and political position.

Mo Di denounced the parasitism of the noble family, its moral degeneracy, the luxury of its courts, contrasted it with the hard working life of the commoners and demanded relief from the situation of the people’s lower classes. Mo Di put forward a utopian program for the reconstruction of society based on the principle of “universal love and mutual benefit”. He proposed to abolish the system of inheritance of positions and ranks of nobility, to deprive the power of “insignificant relatives” of rulers and court nobles, ” like the deaf, who were put as musicians.” The thinker proposed to form a management apparatus from top to bottom, nominating wise people from the people, regardless of the origin and nature of the occupation. “If the farmer, the artisan, or the merchant: shows remarkable abilities, then it is necessary to entrust him with the affairs of management in proportion to his abilities,” he declared.

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

The teachings of the Moists were contradictory. In many ways, it was close to the interests of the bulk of free producers. A notable contingent in his school was the urban underclass, from which Mo Dee also came. At the same time, the doctrine put forward by him was not directed against exploiters as such. Being aimed at fighting the ruling hereditary aristocracy and its Confucian ideologues, it not only did not infringe on the new, property-owning slaveholding nobility that emerged from the depths of the community and was eager for political power, but also objectively was to a large extent an expression of its ideology. It is significant that wealth appears in the teachings of the Moists as a virtue, and poverty is condemned as an immoral phenomenon. “Wealth comes from hard work, and poverty comes from carelessness,” Mo Di argued.

Moism seems to reflect the interests of the urban self-governing community. The Moists were the defenders of cities that had been subjected to aggression, and a significant part of Mo Di’s treatise is devoted to the art of their defense. Mo Di put forward the foreign policy doctrine of equality of states as the basis for peaceful inter-state relations. He demanded an end to internecine wars, which he considered a calamity for the people and a violation of the Will of Heaven. “When troops invade someone else’s territory. they trample down crops, destroy cities, fill up canals, burn ancestral temples, slaughter cattle, kill the disobedient, and bind the captured and take them away… men are turned into slaves, women into slaves, ” he wrote. The thinker divided wars into aggressive ones, which he condemned, and defensive ones, which he justified.

Mo Di put forward the idea of the social role of labor. In the capacity for purposeful activity, the philosopher saw the main difference between humans and animals. Defending the thesis of the great importance of the active principle, Mo Di opposed both the teachings of Confucius with his contempt for physical labor, and Laozi’s theory of non-action.

The Moists contributed to the development of a spontaneous scientific worldview. The followers of Mo Di (the” late Moists”) rejected his theistic propositions, and came to the identification of the laws of formal logic, in particular contradictions. They were the first in the history of Chinese philosophy to study the process of cognition, to declare the external world as an objective reality as the subject of cognition, and to consider the collective labor experience of people as the source and criterion of the reliability of knowledge. The Moists developed mathematics, physics,and engineering. Their teaching was characterized by practical purposefulness. In the Chu and Qin kingdoms, they advocated reforms against the hereditary aristocracy.


The political and philosophical movement Legism (fazia) was born simultaneously with Confucianism and Taoism — in the VII-VI centuries BC. e. It opposed the first, with the second it had largely common ideological features. Its most important representatives were Shang Yang (executed in the kingdom of Qin in 338 BC) and Han Feizi (poisoned in the kingdom of Qin in 223 BC). Legists materialistically interpreted the tao as the natural path of nature. Han Feizi opposed sacrifices, the worship of gods and spirits, and exposed the cult of ancestors. Philosophical problems in legalism were subordinated to specific tasks of the state system.

The Legists demanded the introduction of uniform, binding laws for all, aimed at protecting private property and asserting the sole power of the ruler. Proclaiming the publicity of the law, the legists insisted on punishments for the slightest violation of it on the principle of: “In a strict family, there are no obstinate slaves.” The ideal of the Legist political system, which was vividly expressed by Han Feizi, anticipated the future imperial statehood. With the greatest consistency, the legist reforms were carried out by Shang Yang in the Qin kingdom. The Legists were the ideologists of the property nobility associated with the development of slavery, and the new bureaucratic bureaucracy.

In line with materialistic ideas, the teachings of Yang Zhu (430-360 BC) developed. He was originally from the kingdom of Wei, came from a communal environment, owned a small field, and had several slaves. The works of Yang Zhu have not survived, although, according to Mengzi, in his time, “the words of Yang Zhu filled the Middle Kingdom.” His teachings were fiercely attacked by Confucians, Taoists, and Legists alike. Ideological opponents did everything to “shut up Yang Zhu”. His views are known indirectly, from the writings of other philosophers.

At the center of Yang Zhu’s philosophy is the naively materialistic doctrine of man. Yang Zhu believed that nature and man as an integral part of it are subject to the necessity inherent in the things themselves. In an objectively existing world, everything “happens by itself.” One must understand the tao (the law of nature) and not act contrary to it. Man consists of the same “five primary elements” as the whole of nature, differing from other living beings only by reason. Yang Zhu’s idea of the world as the unity of heaven, earth, and man, which is widespread in ancient Chinese philosophy, has a materialistic character. Arguing that heaven, earth, and man as parts of nature are not subject to a super-worldly, intelligent force, the philosopher gives an essentially atheistic interpretation of the concept of heaven, denying the divine essence of the latter.

Solving the problem of life and death puts Yang Zhu on a par with the greatest atheists of the ancient world. Yang Zhu regarded death as a natural phenomenon. “According to the law of nature, there is no immortality. According to the law of nature, there is no eternal life, ” the thinker said. Yang Zhu regarded the enjoyment of life and the happiness of the individual as an ethical ideal. “One should enjoy life, not worry about what will happen after death,” he taught. However, when Yang Zhu stated that “we must do what our senses want, we must act as our soul wants”, he meant reasonable satisfaction of needs and argued that excessive desires harm human nature.

With exceptional sharpness, he denied the possibility of an afterlife, rejected the cult of ancestors, funeral rites, sacrifices. The humanism of Yang Zhu’s ethical views is revealed in his condemnation of violence and social hypocrisy, in his sympathy for the underprivileged, in his willingness to “rest the tired, feed the hungry, warm the frozen.” The philosopher opposed both poverty and excessive wealth. Yang Zhu’s philosophy is life-affirming: the meaning of life is in a person’s desire for happiness, in the development of his physical and spiritual essence.


In the era of the Struggling Kingdoms, the first works of individual creativity in poetry appear. The source of ancient Chinese literature was the oral folk tradition, and above all myths.

In the kingdom of Chu, the great poet of ancient China, Qu Yuan (340-278 BC), was a lyricist and tragedian. His poems are distinguished by the refinement of form and depth of content, saturated with mythological images. In exile, he created the ode “The Grief of the Exile” — his poetic confession. It laid the foundation for the song genre of fu-lyric and lyric-epic odes with a prose introduction, which were developed in the following era.

The Chu poet Song Yu (290-223 BC) contributed to the development of poetry. In contrast to the mournful and pessimistic poems of Qu Yuan, Song Yu’s lyrics are imbued with a sense of joy in life. He is considered the first singer of love and female beauty in China. The poetry of love’s longing is reflected in the odes “Wanton Dent”, “High Mountains of Tang”, in “Ode to the Immortal”.

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