China is the world’s oldest civilization. It’s roots trace back as far as the fifth millennium B.C.E. The Shang kings ruled until about the eleventh century B.C.E, when the Zhou people came from the northwest and conquered them. This is when the new Zhou Dynasty began and ruled for some eight centuries making it the single longest period of Chinese history.
The Zhou dynasty introduced organized agriculture, which replaced the previous emphasis on hunting. The principles of societal relationships that the Zhou formulated were to influence later Chinese civilization. In the 8th century BCE the political system began to weaken significantly. With the decline of the feudal king’s power feudal chiefs made themselves overlords. This eventually led to the conquering of the states and for the Qin dynasty to begin.
It wasn’t until the middle of the Zhou dynasty that the two great philosophical and religious traditions took hold. These were Confucianism and Taoism. Confucianism came about from the teachings of Confucius. He received his education from the village tutor. He went on to study poetry, history, music, hunting, fishing, and archery. He then dedicated his career to teaching. Confucianism emphasized the importance of traditional values of self-control, propriety, and filial piety to maintain a productive and good society. There were four qualities that were valued in Confucian teaching; li, jen, te, and wen. Li represents propriety, ceremony, and civility. It requires the development of proper attitudes and a due respect for established forms of conduct. It also incorporates five key rules that serve as the centrality of the family in Chinese life.
These basic social rules of human relationships are: courtesy, politeness, good manners, respect, and duty. Jen, also known as benevolence, represents the ideal relationship that needs to exist between people. Based on respect for oneself, jen extends this respect to others via acts of charity and courtesy. Te refers to virtue and the power of moral example rather than physical strength of might. Wen refers to the arts of peace, music, poetry, art, and other cultural activities. Confucius believed the arts were a form of moral education. Confucianism was viewed as a source of hope for China and also the importance of what it meant to be Chinese.
Taoism, like Confucianism, is principally concerned with morality and ethical behavior. Its founder was Laozi, whose name means “Old Master”. Taoism is a way of ordering one’s life to achieve peace and harmony with the rest of creation. Taoism also values te or power. In Taoism te is the sense of essential identity and integrity. Taoist also encourages wu-wei, which is a kind of creative calm without excessive purposefulness involving relaxing the conscious mind. Taoism also illustrates the concept of wu-wei with examples from nature, especially water. Water adapts itself to its surroundings, flowing over or filling what it encounters. The Taoist ideal of p’u, which means “unpainted wood”, stresses simplicity. Taoist paintings use only simple lines, suggesting much in little. Taoism is a philosophy that represents both unity and opposites; Ying and Yang. Taoism includes many deities that are worshipped. It also promotes achieving harmony and union with nature, the pursuit of spiritual immorality, being “virtuous”, and self-development. Some Taoist practices also include, meditation, feng shui, fortune telling, and reading and chanting of scriptures.
Taoism and Confucianism tend to represent the yin and yang of Chinese religious philosophy. Some examples include Confucianism representing the classical, social responsibility, emphasizes humans, and that is practical while Taoism represents romantic, responsibility towards nature, emphasizes nature, and it’s mystical.
Both religion and culture were a very big part of the Zhou dynasty. During this dynasty a system called “Mandate of Heaven” was used. This system gave the king power to rule as long as he satisfied the gods and the people. In the event that he didn’t, he could be overthrow by his people and a new leader would be chosen. This was a very strong believe during the Zhou dynasty. People put a lot of trust I their leader but also had high expectations of them. The reason this was such an important system is because the people believed that the king was in fact chosen by a godly order and that their main responsibility would be to keep the gods happy. Zhou religion was based on Daoism, which believed as long as people are doing the right thing harsh consequences would be avoided. Daoism was known as the ‘way” which encompasses doing the right thing so that nothing goes wrong. Zhou religion included complex ceremonies and different types of rituals. They also practiced ancestor worship and divination.
One of the most important deities during the Zhou dynasty was T’ien. They believed this God held the entire world in his hands. Deceased emperors were also believed to be in heaven and would be pleased with sacrifices so that this could bring rain and fertility rather than earthquakes or floods. Priests also held a very important role during the Zhou dynasty. They made astronomical observations and also helped determined dates for festivals and events on the Chinese lunar calendar.