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System of Government in the Zhou Dynasty


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#1 Guest_Liu Bang_*

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Posted 03 December 2007 - 02:17 AM

Dear all,

I recently read up on the system of government in the Zhou Dynasty. Thought I would share some fast facts with you guys, especially those who are unfamiliar with the system of government in the Zhou Dynasty.

Zhou Dynasty had 5 social classes in its society, namely kings and nobles, scholars, farmers, craftsmen and merchants. So why are merchants ranked last? According to books from the Zhou Dynasty, they were not contributing anything productive to the society but rather earning profits by buying other people’s goods. So, they were considered unimportant.

Zhou Dynasty (from 1027 BC to 475 BC)

- Adopted a decentralized government (feudal system)
- King had all lands
- King gave lands to feudal lords, which ruled the land or province for him and promised to be loyal to him
- If feudal lords are found to be disloyal, lands would be taken away from them and they could be executed.

Feudal lords (Kings of Han, Wei, Zhao, Qin and many more during the Zhou Dynasty)

- enjoyed powers on smaller scale
- gave lands to lesser (often their subjects) officials for them to collect taxes, enforce laws, punish criminals and many more
- officials have to obey the feudal lords. If they are caught disloyal, they will be deprived of their lands

Note: Feudal lords have to pay tribute in the form of grains or other precious items or even taels of gold or silver. They had to send their armies to help the king in times of need, if he is attacked by other foreign forces. Peasants have to work for the feudal lords and they have to give a portion of their produce to their feudal lord in return for his protection.



So what are the advantages of the feudal systems?

- king has to deal only with governors (save time and effort)
- does not have to deal with a large bureaucracy
- shares his power around (make him more well-liked)
- shares responsibility

Disadvantages of the feudal system

- Governors may be a threat, may overthrow the king anytime
- Soldiers, officials and citizens may not be loyal
- Hard for the king to know what is going on in the provinces
- Officials or governors can make independent decisions

Fast facts:

- Real servants were buried with the kings when they died
- Confucius was born in the Zhou Dynasty (551 BC)
- Invented the term Mandate of Heaven

Mandate of Heaven: blessings from the gods. In the ancient times, people (mostly the commoners) believed that an emperor can only rule if Heaven supported him. In the wars of China, natural disasters like floods, droughts and famines indicated that the ruler had lost his blessings.

Hope you have a better understanding of the system of government in the Zhou Dynasty!

Liu Bang

#2 Iovah

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Posted 03 December 2007 - 12:47 PM

That is a good introduction for beginners.

I do not exactly agree, however, with the traditional interpretation of society into 5 social groups. The social groups were simple legitimization for the scholars and nobles at the top. It also denies the complexity and division of society. We do know that in the beginning of the Zhou dynasty that the make up of the “commoners"was extremely complex. There were basically four kinds that I can recall off hand: The freeman (non-slave), the yeoman, the serf and the slave. Most I have read say a good amount were serf, but yeomen were common far away from the nobel centers of rule (邑). There were also 国人, which many have interpreted as Freemen societies independent of the nobility. Also, in the period more important than most were artisans - especially metal smiths. These people were monopolized solely by the states and constituted an important class of people. The whole reason of founding these cities was to keep artisans under state control. Consequently, I do not agree with the overly simplified version of the 5 social groups spewed out my Confucians over two millennia ago. I'll do some more research on this over the weekend and show some more examples of the society.
Christopher C. Heselton -- Student of Chinese History

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#3 Chris Weimer

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Posted 03 December 2007 - 02:28 PM

So why are merchants ranked last? According to books from the Zhou Dynasty, they were not contributing anything productive to the society but rather earning profits by buying other people’s goods. So, they were considered unimportant.

I find this interesting, as it was the same with the Romans, who considered merchantalism to be an ignoble class, and senators were forbidden to partake in it. The only means for making money that a nobleman could pursue was in agriculture.
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#4 fireball

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Posted 03 December 2007 - 03:55 PM

So why are merchants ranked last? According to books from the Zhou Dynasty, they were not contributing anything productive to the society but rather earning profits by buying other people’s goods. So, they were considered unimportant.


This had been Chinese government's and Chinese scholars' official opinion since Zhou dynasty till modern days. Only in the recent years (later part of 20th century), Chinese started to think differently. However, if you talk to some mainland Chinese businessmen who are very wealthy and very powerful but did not have a good education, they would, sometimes, tell you or hinted at that they regretted not being scholars, but businessmen -- For the foreigners, you might not get that response because it's too personal for these Chinese businessmen and they won't show people other than their close friends and close relatives. Sometimes, they would not show that feeling to even their relatives because it's something of losing face for them.

#5 Guest_Liu Bang_*

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Posted 03 December 2007 - 08:29 PM

However, if you talk to some mainland Chinese businessmen who are very wealthy and very powerful but did not have a good education, they would, sometimes, tell you or hinted at that they regretted not being scholars, but businessmen --


This is true yeah, but why would they prefer to be scholars?

#6 fireball

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Posted 03 December 2007 - 08:38 PM

This is true yeah, but why would they prefer to be scholars?


Scholars are more "清貴". I am not sure how to translate this. It, sort of, means the scholars are less worldly and more precious. They also had less bad smells of the money (using the Chinese phrases); i.e. being corrupted by the money. In addition, most Chinese respect scholars from the bottom of their heart even though they say they don't in these days. The very young generation probably not because they grew up in more westernized world and with more wealth from businesses. However, the more traditional minded Chinese do.

Edited by fireball, 03 December 2007 - 08:41 PM.


#7 Iovah

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Posted 03 December 2007 - 08:48 PM

A great many scholars of Chinese history, however, are beginning to refute this whole "anti-merchant" ideology of Chiense society and state. After all, wasn't Lu Buwei originally a Merchant from a long line of Han (the Kingdom no dynasty) merchants? Many scholars through out Chinese history had their hands steeped in trade as well as lands. Historians in the past claimed that land was the only noble way to gain wealth, but most were also involved in trade, if not directly. Even through land ownership were they participating in trade, after all, farmers would provide them with grain which they in turn would sell to the highest bidder. I study the Qing, and the Qing government officials actively supported, even giving stipends, to merchants in the Northwest regions. They were economically quite intelligent encouraging trade to improve interdependence of the border regions and the core regions to prevent seperatism and improve the economy. Every successful dynasty supported the merchant class. I think on the surface confucians claimed merchants were the lower class as an emphasis of their not producing products or controlling the state, but they were still an important class, and in many ways were more important than farmers in the eyes of the state, but not in ideology.
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#8 Iovah

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Posted 03 December 2007 - 08:59 PM

Scholars are more "清貴". I am not sure how to translate this. It, sort of, means the scholars are less worldly and more precious. They also had less bad smells of the money (using the Chinese phrases); i.e. being corrupted by the money. In addition, most Chinese respect scholars from the bottom of their heart even though they say they don't in these days. The very young generation probably not because they grew up in more westernized world and with more wealth from businesses. However, the more traditional minded Chinese do.


I would translate "清貴" as "morally upright" or "morally principled." I think ideally that may be the case, but after all, we are talking about human beings. We're all corrupted by the stench of money, and to support a scholarly life in ancient China was quite expensive and required money, whether they admited it or now. Any scholar was involved in some business, whether it be land holdings, trade, shops, banking or artisanship. Generally they did not manage, but owned, as a source of income. But, they always maintained this image of incorruptablility.

isn't it ironic how Chinese professors in the mainland act similarly and yet are highly commercial. I was at Beida, and one professor can not even get another professor from the same school to guest lecture at a class for an hour without paying 4000 RMB.
Christopher C. Heselton -- Student of Chinese History

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#9 Guest_Liu Bang_*

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Posted 03 December 2007 - 09:10 PM

Scholars are more "清貴". I am not sure how to translate this. It, sort of, means the scholars are less worldly and more precious. They also had less bad smells of the money (using the Chinese phrases); i.e. being corrupted by the money. In addition, most Chinese respect scholars from the bottom of their heart even though they say they don't in these days. The very young generation probably not because they grew up in more westernized world and with more wealth from businesses. However, the more traditional minded Chinese do.


But usually merchants earn more than scholars in the olden days, don't they?

#10 Sparhawk

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Posted 03 December 2007 - 09:25 PM

But usually merchants earn more than scholars in the olden days, don't they?


In the olden days, earthly possessions wasn't the measure of a man. Scholars were cherished and respected for their devotion and dedication. For what they possessed within and could share and teach to others...
Luis

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#11 fireball

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Posted 03 December 2007 - 09:29 PM

I agree most of the scholars are not as pure as they say when it comes to money. Actually, a lot of scholars wanted to become government officials so that they could start getting money from other people! :) However, I am talking about concepts here. Most of the Chinese population still respect educated people more than the average populations. My mom's comment about someone she respects was usually something like, "He is a learned person."

I have no doubt the imperial governments all had better regards towards the merchant class more so than the farmers' class behind the public's eyes, but they also made sure the merchant classe would not rise up high enough to endanger the scholar class. Many dynasties actually had rules that the officials could not own businesses. I think I have read that there were a few periods of time the merchant class could not enter the Imperial Exams, but I am not quite sure about that. At the beginning of the dynasties, the emperors generally gave out orders the merchants could not wear silk or bright colored clothing and could not do this and that things. I think it was precisely because of Lu Buwei of Qin dynasty caused all these emperors and scholars worried about the merchant class. If you read the old novels of the imperial China, almost all the merchants who became rich wanted to send their sons to study so that they could become the scholars and then government officials. Most likely, they would only let the sons inherit the business if they could not become good scholars. Just look at the modern day Chinese parents, most Chinese parents would have their children study hard not to have them help the family business if the parents' financial situations are OK.

Yes, the merchants earned more than the scholars in the old days as well as the modern time. However, the scholars could become the government officials, and the government officials could take over the merchants' money and properties and businesses easily.

Btw, even if the government officials could not own businesses, they could give the businesses to their relatives or servants or friends to run them as the front men. Many officials did exactly that.

Edited by fireball, 03 December 2007 - 09:31 PM.


#12 Guest_Liu Bang_*

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Posted 03 December 2007 - 09:42 PM

In the olden days, earthly possessions wasn't the measure of a man. Scholars were cherished and respected for their devotion and dedication. For what they possessed within and could share and teach to others...


Thanks Sparhawk! I guess this is the answer i am looking for!

#13 tung2sai

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Posted 04 December 2007 - 12:50 AM

Just my opinion, but some of these scholars sound like semi-priests.

Like there might be some corrupt, some who become government officials or own some type of business of course to make some type of living.
But it seems overall these scholars were expected to be the moral minds of the community, spreading knowledge of any type and doing some type of good deeds to assist or uplift people.

Generally speaking, what did these scholars actually study?

#14 tung2sai

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Posted 04 December 2007 - 12:52 AM

Mandate of Heaven: blessings from the gods. In the ancient times, people (mostly the commoners) believed that an emperor can only rule if Heaven supported him. In the wars of China, natural disasters like floods, droughts and famines indicated that the ruler had lost his blessings.

Hope you have a better understanding of the system of government in the Zhou Dynasty!

Liu Bang



Just a quick question, does the characters for Mandate of Heaven also mean Heaven's son (child)?

#15 fireball

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Posted 04 December 2007 - 12:57 AM

Just a quick question, does the characters for Mandate of Heaven also mean Heaven's son (child)?


I think it's "天命" (heaven fate), so not Heaven's son (child).

Generally speaking, what did these scholars actually study?


Confucian classics.




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