> topics > History

Continual self-renewal sustains Chinese civilization

WANG RIGEN | 2019-01-31 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A diorama of the Imperial Examinations at the Imperial Examination Museum of China in Nanjing  Photo: FILE


The Chinese civilization has seen thousands of years. Looking back on the history of its evolution, we can imagine how brave and optimistic Chinese ancestors were when coping with pressure from natural disasters and how bold they were to carry out reforms and innovation so as to remove barriers in political systems. Its conscious self-renewal gradually evolved into the inner force driving the Chinese culture to progress.


On the vast land surrounding the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow and the Huaihe rivers, Chinese ancestors farmed on the fertile soil in the warm weather. The agricultural civilization created by the Zhou Dynasty (1029–1256 BCE) in Zhouyuan, modern-day Baoji in Shaanxi Province, ushered in a new era of Chinese agriculture.

During the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE), the Chinese civilization embraced another glorious epoch, when agricultural production entered the Iron Age. All schools of thought contended in the academic and cultural communities, and various philosophies like Confucianism, Legalism and Taoism competed for prominence.

Until the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE), China had extended its clout to kingdoms in the Western Regions. In the southern part, economic and cultural development accelerated, and rice largely entered people’s diets.

In the Tang Dynasty (618–907), such countries as Japan and Korea admired the Chinese civilization so much that many of their institutions were modeled after China’s. After the Song Dynasty (960–1279), the shipbuilding industry thrived in southern regions and overseas trade prospered. Silk, porcelain, tea and ironware were valuables that nobles in foreign countries scrambled for. The rites initially followed by scholar-officials were gradually popularized among commoners, leading to a reverence of ceremonies across society. The increasingly influential Imperial Examinations infiltrated into the Han and other ethnic groups in newly instituted prefectures and counties, the urban culture became ever richer, and technological inventions were unveiled one after another.

Into the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), particularly during the reigns of Emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong, the construction of the Chinese political system reached a new height. Ethnic relationships were harmonized; population flow promoted the integrated development of developed and underdeveloped areas; and Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang also joined the big China family. A unified, harmonious picture was painted in which multiple ethnic groups blended with each other. The period featured sincere mutual appreciation between ethnic groups except for a few wars waged by extreme forces.

In the evolutionary course of more than 5,000 years, stability and development were sometimes hindered by shiftless factions and undermined by rebellions, resulting in occasional disorder at times and prompting efforts to restore order. Nonetheless, generally, the Chinese civilization has developed healthily, since negative forces and disorder were eliminated quickly through reforms and institutional reconstruction. Social stability was the norm throughout the development process.

In terms of state functions, “sacrifice” and “war,” which were regarded most important in the classic The Commentary of Zuo, or Zuo Zhuan, evolved into the Three Departments and Six Ministries (Sansheng Liubu) during the Sui Dynasty (581–618) and the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). These developed further into the Grand Council (Junji Chu), the Court of Ethnic Affairs (Lifan Yuan) and the Office of Foreign Affairs (Zongli Geguo Shiwu Yamen) in the Qing times. Despite the increase in functions, the team of officials remained small to lessen the burden on ordinary people and to motivate them to shore up the growth of agriculture, industry, commerce and fishing.


Flexible institutions
When it comes to the selection of officials, appointing virtuous and capable men to office was the guiding principle, under which the way of selection changed from time to time. According to legend, over 4,000 years ago, Emperor Yao followed the abdication system and handed over the throne to Shun. In the Han Dynasty, the cornerstone of recruitment was recommendation, with more attention paid to evaluating candidates’ moral integrity than their talent. At that time, they had to be tested in terms of righteousness, eruditeness, competence, frankness, filial piety and honesty, to name just a few criteria.

In the Sui and Tang era, the Rectifier-Ranking (Jiupin Zhongzheng) system was abandoned in favor of the Imperial Examinations or Civil Service Examinations, known in Chinese as the Keju System. The objective and fair Imperial Examinations were increasingly institutionalized, offering intellectuals from lower walks of life opportunities to gain higher legitimate status under the protection of the imperial power and threatening the predominance of privileged families in the officialdom.

The Song regime strived to pursue equity in the examinations. As Song-Dynasty scholar-official and poet Ouyang Xiu put it, “the Imperial Examinations were as fair as a scale.” In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the recruitment quota were differentiated for the southern and northern parts of the country given regional cultural disparities. For the first time, merchants were allowed to take the examinations. Placements were guaranteed for border areas, reflecting policy support for culturally backward regions along with a resolution to drive the development of such areas.

After the Imperial Examinations system was implemented extensively, former ways of official selection, such as recommendation, continued to work in certain regions, because the old institutions were still reasonable and flexible to some degree.

The systems were not executed strictly all the time. Take for example the Shelving Seal (Fengyin) system, a vacation system for officials in the Qing Dynasty. The central court solemnly stipulated the system in legal documents, such as the Code of the Qing Dynasty, ordering officials nationwide at all levels to abide by it stringently and requiring grand ceremonies to mark the beginning of the holiday. Normally, officials could take a long leave for almost one month with the Winter Solstice Festival, Spring Festival and Lantern Festival linked together. The length varied, depending on the official’s ranking. When officials’ seals were shelved, the government stopped functioning, entitling them to have a rest after a long year of work, and creating an atmosphere in which officials and civilians could have a good time together.

However, there were always emergencies to handle, so it was impossible to halt government services completely. Under such exceptional circumstances, the central authority could instruct the officials concerned to sacrifice the holiday. In general, the vacation for officials of higher rankings existed in name only, but lower-ranking officials could enjoy the benefit. Regarding personnel appointment, officials were mostly designated to areas other than their birthplaces to prevent corruption to the greatest extent.

In the evolution of the land system, in addition, the tax assessment for farmland was shifted from headcount to crop yield. The reform emancipated some agricultural laborers from the land and expanded the work force for the handicraft industry and commercial activities. Commercial tax revenues generated from booming commerce and trade also eased the burden of farmers and reserved financial resources for temporary military supplies and major national projects.


In the course of its evolution, the Chinese civilization was often stuck in disorder, but never disrupted. It always managed to return to order. Banditry might have been rampant for a period or in certain areas, yet the military and armed civilians were always able to restore order.

Reforms washed away the mud of outdated systems and caused social turmoil, but the rebuilding of order was usually completed within a short span of time. New dynasties could always inherit effective systems from previous eras and establish new institutions that could eradicate longstanding problems. In some dynasties, the system of enfeoffment posed threats to the imperial power because the strength of vassal states swelled, so subsequent new dynasties would revamp central authority. Ideally the emperors were wise and ministers virtuous, but the despotism of monarchs and the power expansion of ministers were unavoidable.

Generally “disorder” of this kind would not last long. Most of the time, it was rectified by multiple administrative systems, including the admonition of ministers and memorials to the throne. Insurgents that held the banner of justice might gain steam, but would eventually surrender themselves or accept official appointments and titles, turning into supporters of the dynasty, as in the cases of Song Jiang in the Song Dynasty and Zheng Zhilong during the transition from the Ming to Qing dynasties.

Therefore, the evolution of the Chinese civilization is a process of continuous development. In history, society was stable generally owing to reform and innovation. In spite of negative forces and disorder, rectifications would be made to pull the Chinese nation out of the mire and bring it back to life.


Wang Rigen is a professor of history from the College of Humanities at Xiamen University.

(edited by  CHEN MIRONG)