Social Structure and Organization


In contrast to the Communistic monolithic system on mainland China today, traditional China had many loci of power. They included the imperial government headed by the emperor, the chamber of commerce, the local gentry, the various religious organizations, and the family.[1] Each had its spheres of influence, and many people divided their loyalties among them.

Although the emperor was legally the most powerful and capable of occasional arbitrary acts, his power was never absolute. This was due in part to the Chinese conception of royal power. A Chinese emperor would have never asserted that he was the state, as Louis XIV did in France. The emperor was considered a human institution who sought to satisfy man's needs to be connected with the heavens and to regulate his conduct. Also, the emperor's base of rule was the Mandate of Heaven and he was given the right to rule only as long as he ruled justly and according to this mandate.[2] If the emperor did not rule accordingly then the people had the right to choose a new ruler.

As the Chinese shifted gradually from land-based feudalism towards inter-regional trade, a new class of businessmen made their influences felt. They took it upon themselves to make decisions on not only the circulation of commodities but also the general economic welfare of the public. They resisted taxation and other government involvement in business. Businessmen were so powerful that in the fifth century B.C. Fai Li, a fabulously wealthy merchant, used his financial influence to persuade the state of Ch'i to proclaim a general amnesty benefiting among others, his own son who had been condemned to death there on a murder charge.[3]

Merchants were equally powerful in the Han Dynasty. They held a virtual monopoly on the natural resources in the "mountains" and the "seas" without government authorization.[4] Many merchants gained immense wealth from hoarding and speculation but despite their immense wealth they often refused to aid the imperial government when it became insolvent. Instead, they often took advantage of the government's distress to earn profits by charging excessively high prices. Merchants who had been in control of practically all the commodities in the land, were in essence competing with the throne for the multitude of people.

The gentry of imperial China were commonly recognized as civic leaders. They a were social group that came to be recognized and defined through a system of examination. The academic degrees controlled by the government were used to determine its membership. By the nineteenth century the gentry consisted solely of titled scholars and non-scholarly individuals who purchased academic titles.[5] After formalization of membership, the gentry derived its influence primarily from its academic titles, which were highly valued by Chinese people of all classes. This additional title undoubtedly strengthened their position in the government based on the fact that many were already affluent members of society.

The various religious organizations also had a great deal of influence over the population and their leaders were usually respected. Although one emperor may have preferred one religion to another they were usually given equal blessing. They were free to preach their gospels and as long as they operated within their legitimate spheres, no Chinese emperor would think of interfering with them. There were usually no problems between the emperor and the different religions since the Chinese often believed in one religion but also believed in other traditional rituals. The independence of religious organizations can be clearly seen in the decree issued in 760 A.D. by the Tang emperor Su-tsung conceding that Buddhist monks and priests were not obliged to obey the throne despite the fact that prostration before it was strictly required of all laymen in the realm.[6] This concession was made on the ground that Buddhist priests, while serving Buddha, stood beyond the jurisdiction of a temporal ruler.

Like many traditional societies, the family played an important role in the political power structure of the country. Fathers had the highest authority and families were known by their surnames. Sons were to continue the family lines, and often followed the fathers occupation. Women had some rights but weren't full members of society until they married and bore sons.[7] The family system of China was very strong and occasionally conflicted with the individual's obligations to the state. For example the individual's deep attachment to his family often caused him to evade military service.

Ritual and Religion


Many rituals in China, such as feng-shui have been practiced millions of times over the last two thousand years. Feng-shui, wind and water, is the art of locating graves and houses so that they can benefit from the cosmic forces in the sky and landscape. Feng-shui puts in practice an ancient Chinese way of looking at the world, as a living system in which everything is connected by shared rhythms and resonances. These rhythms are discussed as the cold, dark forces of yin and the hot, bright forces of yang. Along with the five original elements these forces are modes of the vital substance qi. Their interaction produces all things.[8]

Most Chinese assumed this to be true in Ancient China. People felt that their actions influenced nature and what nature did was of significant importance to all. So on the longest night of the year in December the emperor would sacrifice a red (yang) bullock on an outdoor altar south of the capital to make sure the forces of warmth and life would revive.[9] The Chinese also incorporated color into their religious practices. The emperor, the human link with the heavens above, wore green robes to encourage the growth of plant life. Similarly executions had to wait until autumn, the time of harvest and cutting down; otherwise, the seasons would be disrupted. The concept of sacrifices were not limited solely to the emperor; peasants, too, offered sacrifices to the gods. Most Chinese religions and philosophies have been based on this lively view of the world, regardless of whatever else they had taught. The world was a sacred place of power and mystery to them and it was important to cooperate and live in harmony with it rather than to try to dominate it.

Chinese religious beliefs and activities date back to before the Shang dynasty. At that time Divination, a process of heating dried shoulder bones of sheep or deer and reading answers to yes or no questions through the patterns in the cracks, was practiced.[10] Later, the emperors became very important since they were the only ones to have a direct connection with the heavens above. Natural events were seen by the people as an indication of the performance of the emperor's reign. If an emperor ruled justly the crops would be good that year and the weather mild. However, famine and floods might strike the nation if the emperor was unjust.

The Chinese had many rituals at every major event such as cappings, weddings and funerals. The Chinese also believed in ancestral worship which had been practiced by common people since the Han dynasty. The system evolved until it was quite elaborate in the Sung dynasty. There were many strict rules to follow for ancestral worship. It was to be done on the second month of a season. The male members of the family dressed in formal attire for the ceremony. The master of the house then faced the West and all others lined up behind him according to their ranks from north to south. The master would then present the yearly offering and ask for blessings.[11] The Chinese honored their deceased ancestors as if they were still part of the family. Although they did not really believe that their ancestors were still physicallly alive they still treated them with respect.

Chinese superstition is also rooted in their calendar system. The system is basically lunar, its year consisting of 12 months of alternately 29 and 30 days, equal to 354 days, or approximately 12 lunar cycles. Intercalary months have been inserted to keep the calendar year in step with the solar year of about 365 days. People believed that certain days would have certain bearings on activities undertaken each day of the year. They also felt that there was a correspondence between the human and cosmic realm and the interconnections between all phenomena based on the forces of Ying and Yang and the five elements.[12] The natural forces played a major role in the creation of the Chinese calendarical system. I-wen-chih and Ssu-ma T'an thought that there was much to be valued in Ying and Yang for its skill in calendrical calculations, but it's weighed down with superstitious tabus.[13] To help people find a lucky, or at least avoid an unlucky, day to perform a certain event, many almanacs were created. For major events, such as marriages, funerals, departures for distant places, or the undertaking of new enterprises, people looked to the almanac for advice. Many people used these almanacs even more frequently, often as a routine aid in making decisions.]