08 November, 2009

Notes & Queries: Chou Literature, an Iron Age view of Prehistory

Once upon a time books had a life of their own, but in around C7th AD the first wood block printed books appeared in China. This was the beginning of the end, and while this was not yet the soulless reproduction of mechanised printing, this cloning marked a singular change in the life cycle of books.

Until then an individual book could be a being in its own right. Each was original, quite like its parent, but not a perfect copy, depending on the skill, and inclination, of the person that reproduced it.

The power of the book increased with age, and each author, editor, and owner, both real and imaginary, could add authority to the book; attribution, like blood, is everything. These were dynamic objects that were amended, annotated, and appended, But books had enemies and rivals, and most would be broken, butchered, or burnt.

It is one of the tragedies of human civilisation that so few ancient texts survived into the modern era, and it is equally unfortunate that those that did have assumed a vastly disproportionate importance in the world.

A page from the Diamond Sutra, wood block printed in the Tang Dynasty, dated by a colophon “ . . . made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 13th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong” [11th May, CE 868] [1]
In this article I want to look at a piece of literature from the 1st Millennium BC that discusses the evolution of Chinese civilisation as viewed at the time. It is always interesting to find out what the people whose culture we study thought about their own development. It comes from one of the better-known early texts, the I Ching, and more specifically, is one of the additional commentaries 'attributed' to Confucius.
However, since the archaeology of the East is still somewhat mysterious to the West, it is probably best we discuss context, and other matters arising, first.

Confucius: What’s in a name?

For a long time the Wade-Giles system, developed in the 19th Century, was the main method for the transliteration of Chinese, giving us words like Tao. However, in 1958 the Chinese government developed the Pinyin system, and the Tao became the Dao.

So, in Pinyin terms, Confucius [left], the name given him by early Jesuit translators, had a real given name of Kǒng Qiū, the former being his family name. As it was considered proper to refer to teachers as fū zǐ, Confucius was known as Kǒng fū zǐ, literally "Master Kǒng." The character is often dropped in modern Chinese, so we end up with Kǒng zǐ. [2]
Further confusion is added to the naming of Confucius by the traditional practice of giving a new courtesy name [or Zi] on reaching adulthood; his was Zhòng Ní. In addition, numerous names and titles, with all due hyperbole, have been awarded since his death.

[Wade-Giles: Confucius’s real name was K’ung Ch'iu, the former being his family name, and he was known as K'ung fu tzu, literally "Master K'ung," which, dropping the fu character, gives us K'ung tzu.]

Thus we have two separate ways of representing Chinese in English. Pinyin is now considered correct; however, the translations with which I am familiar are Wade-Giles, and so for convenience I will [mostly] use the latter.

China in the first millennium BC

Chinese civilisation ebbed and flowed in terms of both its geographical extent and the degree of central control. It came under pressure from both internal interstate warfare, and in particular, from the vast areas to the west and north, necessitating the Great Wall, which, as we all know, is not visible from space!

The Chou Dynasty [Zhou] lasted from 1027 to 221 BC, replacing the earlier Shang rulers.[3][Buildings of this period were discussed in an earlier article.[4]] It was a period marked by considerable cultural development and a gradual increase in centralisation of the administration over local city-states.
This was a bloody and complex process, although the period is notable for the flowering of literature, in particular philosophy. Many, often competing, philosophies, known as the Hundred Schools of Thought, developed, considering all aspects of culture, and influential figures such as Confucius, Mencius, and Lao Tzu, are associated with this period.
Chou / Zhou Dynasty bronze ritual vessels. Left: a ting vessel for food, C8th BC. Centre: a fu vessel for food, C8th BC. Right: A bronze ying vessel for water, C10th BC [5]
This may be seen as an intellectual response to the new and uncharted waters of creating and running a large multi-ethnic state, with new institutions and administrative challenges. [By the end of this period China had an estimated population of 30 million.]
The development of ideas about governance, such as the divine right of rulers, the "mandate of heaven", goes hand in hand with the development of ideas about personal responsibility, standards of behaviour, and the rule of law, and of course, man's place in the wider scheme of things.
Philosophy became caught up in incessant competition for power between states and dynasties, with different schools competing for influence.
The Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum, location of the terracotta army, compared for scale with Great Pyramid and Pyramid of Khafre at Giza.
In 221BC a winner emerged when the Chou Dynasty was overthrown by the Qin, under Qin Shi Huang [W-G Ch'in Shih-huang][left]. The Qin state adopted the philosophy of Legalism Fa-chia; the "School of Law" maintained a fairly totalitarian view that social order could only be preserved by a strict enforcement of laws, and that the interests of the state superseded those of the individual.[6] Traditional power structures and patronage were discouraged in favour of meritocracy and power vested in institutions and the legal system.

Qin Shi Huang, becoming First Emperor, unified China under his rule and philosophy and embarked on vast projects like the Great Wall and his famous massive mausoleum with its terracotta army. To ensure order, and to cement the position of legalism, he set about burning and outlawing books of rival philosophies.
During the succeeding Han Dynasty, which overthrew the Qin in 206BC, there was a revival of interest in the surviving Chou texts, and attempts were made to reconstruct the cannon. Texts like the I Ching started to be formalised in his period.

The I Ching is an ancient system of divination or fortune telling, deeply integrated into the wider religious and philosophical culture of the later 1st Millennium BC.

Divination was an important aspect of early Chinese culture, and much of the evidence for the development of writing in earlier periods comes from inscriptions on bones and shells used for this practice [left].

According to the book and its accretions of commentaries and notes, it was written by the founder of the Chou dynasty, King Wen, and his son, the Duke of Chou, developing an even more ancient system.

The attached commentaries are known as the ‘Ten Wings’, and one part describes the progress of Chinese civilisation. It relates these developments to important legendary rulers, and their use of the I Ching as inspiration. I have edited the text, removing the internal set of references, since what is of interest here is the perception of prehistory recorded towards the end of the First Millennium BC.

Shang Dynasty Oracle Bones [7]
A view from the past
11. Anciently, when Pâo-hsî had come to the rule of all under heaven, looking up, he contemplated the brilliant forms exhibited in the sky, and looking down he surveyed the patterns shown on the earth. He contemplated the ornamental appearances of birds and beasts and the different suitabilities of the soil. Near at hand, in his own person, he found things for consideration, and the same at a distance, in things in general.
12. He invented the making of nets of various kinds by knitting strings, both for hunting and fishing.
13. On the death of Pâo-hsî, there arose Shăn-năng. He fashioned wood to form the share, and bent wood to make the plough-handle. The advantages of ploughing and weeding were then taught to all under heaven.
14. He caused markets to be held at midday, thus bringing together all the people, and assembling in one place all their wares. They made their exchanges and retired, every one having got what he wanted.
15. After the death of Shăn-năng, there arose Hwang Tî, Yâo, and Shun. They carried through the changes, so that the people did what was required of them without being wearied; yea, they exerted such a spirit-like transformation, that the people felt constrained to approve their ordinances as right.
When a series of changes has run all its course, another change ensues. When it obtains free course, it will continue long. Hence it was that 'these (sovereigns) were helped by Heaven; they had good fortune, and their every movement was advantageous'.
Hwang Tî, Yâo, and Shun wore their upper and lower garments (as patterns to the people), and good order was secured all under heaven.

16. They hollowed out trees to form canoes; they cut others long and thin to make oars. Thus arose the benefit of canoes and oars for the help of those who had no means of intercourse with others. They could now reach the most distant parts, and all under heaven were benefited.
17. They used oxen in carts and yoked horses to chariots, thus providing for the carriage of what was heavy, and for distant journeys, thereby benefiting all under the sky.
18. They made the defence of the double gates, and the warning of the clapper, as a preparation against the approach of marauding visitors.
19. They cut wood and fashioned it into pestles; they dug in the ground and formed mortars. Thus the myriads of the people received the benefit arising from the use of the pestle and mortar.
20. They bent wood by means of string so as to form bows, and sharpened wood so as to make arrows. This gave the benefit of bows and arrows, and served to produce everywhere a feeling of awe.
21. In the highest antiquity they made their homes in winter in caves, and in summer dwelt in the open country. In subsequent ages, for these the sages substituted houses, with the ridge-beam above and the projecting roof below, as a provision against wind and rain.
22. When the ancients buried their dead, they covered the body thickly with pieces of wood, having laid it in the open country. They raised no mound over it, nor planted trees around; nor had they any fixed period for mourning. In subsequent ages the sages substituted for these practices the inner and outer coffins.
23. In the highest antiquity, government was carried on successfully by the use of knotted cords to preserve the memory of things. In subsequent ages the sages substituted for these written characters and bonds. By means of these, the doings of all the officers could be regulated, and the affairs of all the people accurately examined.
I Ching; Appendix III: [The great treatise], Section II, 11 - 23 [8]
Pâo-hsî is the first of the Three August Ones and Five Emperors, mythical figures from the 3rd Millennium said to have been responsible for founding Chinese culture. He is responsible for the invention of nets for fishing and hunting, a technology that is easily overlooked by archaeologists since organic material is very rarely preserved.
In Richard Wilhelm’s translation, he quotes a Han Period document that describes the state of humanity prior to Pâo-hsî's improvements:

In the beginning there was as yet no moral or social order. Men knew their mothers only, not their fathers. When hungry, they searched for food; when satisfied, they threw away the remnants. They devoured their food hide and hair, drank the blood, and clad themselves in skins and rushes.
Then came Pâo-hsî, and looked upward and contemplated the images in the heavens, and looked downward and contemplated the occurrences on earth. He united man and wife, regulated the five stages of change, and laid down the laws of humanity.

Pai Hu T’ung by Pan Ku [AD 32–92] [9]

Han Dynasty model house
It is fairly predicable that the author creates such a bleak picture of life prior to the intervention of Pâo-hsî. While this view tells us a lot about Pan Ku, it is still an interesting take on the hunting and gathering life in the Mesolithic.

Neolithic Yangshao Culture (ca 5000--3000 BC) boat-shaped vessel with fishnet design [10]
Pâo-hsî 's successor, Shăn-năng, is credited with the invention of agriculture, and in particular, with the wooden plough. The creation of markets is another insightful observation, since a range of specialist occupations, necessitating the exchange of goods, is a feature of the Neolithic.

The appearance Hwang Tî, [the Yellow Emperor], Yâo, and Shun, seems to be marked by further changes in society, which is also marked by clothing, a very important part of social differentiation in ancient China.
Terracotta model ox cart, Sui Dynasty (AD 581 – 618) [11]
Other important developments are transport in the form of boats and wheeled vehicles pulled by draught animals. The reference to gates and clappers implies some degree of urbanisation, as well as danger from violence, also noted in the invention of the bow and arrow.

Embroidered silk from a 4th Century BC, Chou tomb, Mashan, Hubei Province [12]
In the Wilhelm translation [9], the arrow is made from fire-hardened wood, as is the oar in 16. However, what is interesting here, and in the account as a whole, is that there is absolutely no reference to the use of stone tools such as arrowheads.

The writer seems well aware of the state of habitation before the development of housing. The emphasis of the ridgepole, a feature of Neolithic architecture, is very interesting, and occurs elsewhere in the I Ching, as noted in a previous article.[4] The remarks about pre-Neolithic burial practices are also interesting, and in many ways correspond with the archaeological evidence. The practice of planting trees around barrows is something that would be hard to detect for conventional archaeology.

A Han dynasty model house with a courtyard [13]
One of the most interesting observations is that the use of knotted cord as a method of recording preceded writing. From an archaeological perspective, the use of cord would be practically ‘invisible’, but clearly it was an important technology in the organisation of society. It also reminds us that much early record keeping concerned who owned what, or owed what, and to whom.

As a view of prehistory, probably originating in the later 1st Millennium BC, the work is quite insightful about the changes and development in the Neolithic as we perceive them today, and serves to remind us that much that was significant at the time may be invisible to archaeology.

One final point worth noting is that during the Sung Dynasty [AD 960–1279] there was considerable interest in early aspects of Chinese culture, and some archaeology was undertaken to recover and study early artefacts.[14]
The extraordinary continuity and sheer scale of Chinese civilisation provides a view of the past that is similar to, yet at the same time very different from, other regions of the world. This also helps to reminds us, as archaeologists and historians, that the many features of 'civilisation' are not phenomenon associated exclusively with any particular area of the world.
Sources and further reading:
[1] Diamond Sutra from Cave 17, Dunhuang, ink on paper, British Library Or.8210/ P.2http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jingangjing.jpg [Accessed 09/11/2009]
[2] Riegel, Jeffrey, "Confucius", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/confucius/ [Accessed 09/11/2009]
[3] Poon, L., History of the Zhou Dynasty.http://www-chaos.umd.edu/history/ancient1.html#zhou [Accessed 09/11/2009]
[4] 21. Thrust, trusses, and not going down the aisle.http://structuralarchaeology.blogspot.com/2009/02/21-thrust-trussesand-not-going-down.html
[5] From the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Washington D.C.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Freer_009.jpg [Accessed 09/11/2009]
[6] Legalism. Overview Of World Religions, Division of Religion and Philosophy
University of Cumbria
http://philtar.ucsm.ac.uk/encyclopedia/china/legal.html [Accessed 09/11/2009]
[7] After: Chinese Oracle Bones, Shang Dynasty, Linden-Museum, Stuttgart (Germany)http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shang-Orakelknochen.JPG [Accessed 09/11/2009]
[8] Legge, J., [tr] (1899): The I Ching, Sacred Books of the East, vol. 16http://www.sacred-texts.com/ich/index.htm [Accessed 09/11/2009]
[9] Wilhelm, R.,[tr] (1968): I ching or book of changes. 3rd edition, London. ISBN 0 7100 1581 p329.
[10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CMOC_Treasures_of_Ancient_China_exhibit_-_boat-shaped_pot.jpg [Accessed 09/11/2009]
[11] Cernuschi Museum, Paris http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cernuschi_Museum_20060812_147.jpg [Accessed 09/11/2009]
[12] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chinese_silk,_4th_Century_BC.JPG [Accessed 09/11/2009]
[13]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Earthenware_architecture_models,_Eastern_Han_Dynasty,_7.JPG [Accessed 09/11/2009]
[14] Fraser J. T., & Haber F. H. (1986): Time, Science, and Society in China and the West (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, ISBN 0-87023-495-1, ), pp. 227.


Timothy Reid said...

Hi Geoff

Excellent post though a bleak life in the Mesolithic seems contrary to instinct and survival.

Interesting comparison with the pyramid of Khafre and that of Qin Shi Huang.

How wonderful and central to our existences are the knots tied independently often for literary, mathematical and survival purposes by people from maybe every culture known.

Geoff Carter said...

Thanks Tim, I always fancied life in the Mesolithic, if the climate were reasonable, somewhere like the South of France, would be OK!
It is sometimes difficult in the West, with our somewhat Mediterranean centred view, to appreciate the scale and quality of Chinese archaeology, you simply run out of superlatives!
So much of what was important in the past lies beyond what is visible to archaeology.

Ahsanul Karim said...

Ancient history gives us inspiration to perform better

Geoff Carter said...

. . . a chance to learn from the mistakes of the past

nothingprofound said...

Geoff-great article. Shows how much of our knowledge of the past is arbitrary and in some cases based on accident. Like what you said about existing texts being overrated in importance due to the loss and destruction of so many other texts.

Geoff Carter said...

Thanks Marty, indeed you need look no further than Plato’s reference to Atlantis.

It is perhaps inevitable, that if we are conditioned to see some ancient texts as ‘sacred’, the significance and authority and of this particular group of artefacts may outgrow their original cultural context.

Nari said...

It is very interesting to note the use of knotted cords to make records. It was also used in the Inca empire much later. I have often wondered about Chinese influence on the west coast of Latin America. I was staggered to see the traditional wood carving at Vancouver airport after spending days looking at Shang dynasty art in a museum in Taipei. To my eye there was a clear resemblance. It is possible to cross the North Pacific accidently and arrive in British Columbia. Empty fishing boats from Japan and Korea do it by themselves.