These twenty one letters are an excellent window to Ancient China. They give a glimpse of the remarkable history and civilization of China from 2000 BC to 1200 AD.
Starting with a detailed description of the land and the people, the book narrates the major events which happened in the reigns of the Xia, Shang, Zhou, Qin, Sui, Tang, Song, Liao, Western Xia, Jin and the other major dynasties. It not only talks of the wars, conflicts and events of these times but also gives the reader a remarkable insight into the great achievements in arts, painting, literature, religion and the sciences of ancient China.
From the teachings of Confucius, the invention of paper by Cai Lun, the invention of gunpowder by Sun Simao to the beautiful grottoes and paintings by Chinese artists, the reader is led through a fascinating journey of early China. He learns about the terracotta warriors of the Qin dynasty, unearthed at Lintong, Shaanxi province, which has now been declared a world heritage site. He reads about the various systems of governance and laws in ancient China; and the great constructions undertaken by various Emperors including the Great Wall of China. The book eloquently bring out the magnificence of the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), which made Chang’an (now Xi’an), the most prosperous city of the East, rivalling Rome of the Roman empire. Dynastic charts and maps give the reader greater information.
The style is lucid and makes for easy reading. The large number of illustrations makes the book very interesting. Altogether a informative and enjoyable book.
The First Two Dynasties-Xia and Shang
In this letter I will tell you about Confucius, a great thinker and teacher of China who has profoundly influenced Chinese thinking and culture down the ages.
Confucious (551 BC- 479 BC) whose personal name was Qiu was born in Zouyi, Lu (Shandong Province). His ancestors were slave owners of Song but his father died while he was a child and the status of his upper class family gradually declined. He was, for a time, master of ceremonies, and later, appointed as a low-ranking official managing warehouses, tending domestic animals and so on. He also used to take charge of the judicature of Lu. However, as he dissented with those in power—nobles in politics, he resigned and trav’elled from state to state with his disciples to advocate his political beliefs but failed to get accepted. Therefore, when he returned to Lu he took in lots of disciples, and undertook the work of education himself. Further, he also devoted his life to collation and editing of literary works.
Confucius was a great thinker and educationist. He yearned for the formalities of the Zhou dynasty and was worried about the decadence of formalities and social vogue in the later years of Zhou. So he advocated the establishment of proper rites for a harmonious and ideal society.
‘Benevolence’ was the central point of Confucianism. He advocated the idea that ‘the benevolent should hold love for others,’ and proposed a virtuous rule. He emphasized that ‘benevolence’ and ‘formalities and rites’ should supplement each other; and ‘rite formalities’ should be based on benevolence. The nature of formalities was to maintain a ‘social order’. In this social order every person was required to follow a certain discipline. This discipline implied that every person should be loyal to the emperor. In personal relations, the sons should be filial to their fathers and the fathers should be faithful to their wives and benevolent to their children. He advocated that the seniors in age should always he given respect. Confucius also attached great importance to music which he thought would edify people In this letter I will tell you about Confucius, a great thinker and teacher of China who has profoundly influenced Chinese thinking and culture down the ages. Confucious (551 BC- 479 BC) whose personal name was Qiu was born in Zouyi, Lu (Shandong Province). His ancestors were slave owners of Song but his father died while he was a child and the status of his upper class family gradually declined. He was, for a time, master of ceremonies, and later, appointed as a low-ranking official managing warehouses, tending domestic animals and so on. He also used to take charge of the judicature of Lu. However, as he dissented with those in power—nobles in politics, he resigned and trav’elled from state to state with his disciples to advocate his political beliefs but failed to get accepted. Therefore, when he returned to Lu he took in lots of disciples, and undertook the work of education himself. Further, he also devoted his life to collation and editing of literary works. Confucius was a great thinker and educationist. He yearned for the formalities of the Zhou dynasty and was worried about the decadence of formalities and social vogue in the later years of Zhou. So he advocated the establishment of proper rites for a harmonious and ideal society. ‘Benevolence’ was the central point of Confucianism. He advocated the idea that ‘the benevolent should hold love for others,’ and proposed a virtuous rule. He emphasized that ‘benevolence’ and ‘formalities and rites’ should supplement each other; and ‘rite formalities’ should be based on benevolence. The nature of formalities was to maintain a ‘social order’. In this social order every person was required to follow a certain discipline. This discipline implied that every person should be loyal to the emperor. In personal relations, the sons should be filial to their fathers and the fathers should be faithful to their wives and benevolent to their children. He advocated that the seniors in age should always he given respect. Confucius also attached great importance to music which he thought would edify people.
Confucius thought highly of man and valued the power of knowledge. He felt that those who are well read, mentally strong, and practice reasonable meditation should be benevolent. Confucius held that ‘as life and death are preordained by fate, so wealth and rank are decreed by heaven.’ But, at the same time, he also attached importance to efforts by man which he felt would lead to better morality and justice. He stressed a ‘golden mean’ as the way of life.
Confucius believed that education should be open to all and not confined to the nobles and the privileged. So he started private schools which broke the monopoly of officials and nobles in education. It is said that Confucius had 3000 students, including both nobles and peasants. In acquiring knowledge, Confucius gave importance to the teaching of the six arts: rites as per customs, music, archery, riding, writing and arithmetic. He always said, ‘gain new insights by reviewing old materials’ and ‘never pretend to be arrogant with your knowledge.’ He held that people should not feel ashamed to seek advice from one's subordinates.
Confucius own statements were compiled into a book entitled Analects by his disciples. In the end I would like to say that the thoughts of Confucius have become the basis of Chinese culture since the Han dynasty and Confucianism has had a profound influence throughout the east and the world.
I give below some famous sayings of Confucius:
Virtue is not left to stand alone. He who practices it will have.
It is not possible for one to teach others who cannot teach his own family.
The superior man is modest in his speech but exceeds in his actions.
He who merely knows right principles is not equal to him who loves them.
To be able under all circumstances to practice, five things constitutes perfect virtue. These five things are: gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness and kindness.
We don’t know yet about life, how can we know about death?
If you enjoy what you do, you’ll never work another day in your life.
The Magnificent Western Han Dynasty
The Han Dynasty saw a great, powerful and unified empire. To this day, the ethnic majority of China still refer to themselves as the ‘Han People’. Agriculture, handicrafts and commerce flourished and wars were few. As it’s capital was Chang’an (today Xi’an, Shaanxi Province), it was called western Han to distinguish it from east Han which was established later and had Luoyang as its capital.
The over two hundred years of Western Han rule were a period of unprecedented prosperity and stability. That is why these two centuries are called the period of ‘The Magnificent Western Han Dynasty’. It rivalled the Roman empire of the west in its prosperity. The system of administration adopted by Liu Bang was highly decentralised. The princes of the principalities constituting the Han kingdom were made equivalent to dukes (sovereign prince of a small state) and allowed to have their own armies with absolute power. This inevitably led to conflict with the central authority of Liu Bang and led to many wars between the latter and the smaller kings. Ultimately, Liu Bang triumphed and the rule of the dukes ended. In their place marquisates (a big landlord with large power over his subjects) were appointed. These powers too were gradually reduced in the reign of Emperor Wu Ding (156 BC-87 BC), Liu Bang’s successor.
Emperor Wu Ding was a great strategist. He pacified the Huns, a nomadic tribe of the north through ‘royal marriages’ of his tribesmen and them; and subdued the southern tribes living in today’s Guangdong province by wars and inducements. Two other interesting feature of the Han rule was reducing taxes and ‘other burdens of the common people’ like milder punishment. This was also called a ‘policy of inaction.’ The second feature was giving great respect to the teachings of Confucius which meant the courts of the Emperor was full of well read and informed people. It was during the Han Dynasty that China officially became a Confucian state.
Emperor Wu Ding was succeeded by Emperors Zhao Di and Xuan Di. Their rule brought stability and prosperity to the empire. Relying on its powerful military strength and brilliant culture, the empire of Han stood erect in the east of the world, shining in contrast with the Roman Empire which dominated the west.
In the late years of Western Han, the government of Han Dynasty declined. In its last years the then Emperor Cheng Di appointed his nephew Wang Mang as the Defence Minister. The nephew soon dethroned the sitting Emperor Ziyang and proclaimed himself the Emperor and named his regime as the Xin dynasty. Western Han Dynasty thus met its end.
Wang Mang soon started changing the ‘old liberal social system’ of the Hans with his own system in which he tried to control everything from business, money lending and land buying. He introduced serfdom by decreeing that servants be called ‘private dependents.’ Servants were barred from selling or buying land from their masters. He also launched wars against the northern nomadic tribe of Xiongnu twice on a large scale which proved disastrous. The tyranny executed by this new emperor aroused widespread dissatisfaction, causing social and economic chaos, and led to the downfall of Wang Mang’s reign.
The autocratic ways of Wang Mang led to many uprisings and one of them was by Liu Xiu in the north. He was already a king of his area from 6 BC and in 25 AD Liu Xiu proclaimed himself the Emperor at Haonan (Hebei province) and moved his capital to Luoyang in the east. He is known in history as Emperor Guangwu and his dynasty is called the Eastern Han Dynasty. His reign lasted over 60 years from 6 BC to 57 AD.
Liu Xiu abolished the harsh decrees of Wang Mang and issued orders prohibiting the cruel slaughter of servants and others. He freed the slaves and ordered a countrywide check on land holdings to reduce the power of the landlords. All this made him popular.
The improvement of iron-smelting techniques led to mass production of steel and improvement of iron farming tools. He undertook extensive construction of irrigation works which greatly improved farm production. These measures brought prosperity to the people; and consequently the wares of merchants of these times started reaching the western regions and foreign countries.
This era also saw the expansion and consolidation of the Eastern Han dynasty. The northern tribe of Xiongnu was perpetually at war with the Han kings but it was defeated in a number of wars and forced to move westwards. Thereupon, the Han kings attacked Xiongnu in the west. Under the able command of Sima Banchao, the Xiongnu were defeated a number of times in the west till they capitulated. This led to the surrender of more than fifty states of the western region to the authority of Han. Banchao was appointed as Duke of the western region and stationed at Qiuci. The Eastern Han dynasty also pacified the southern area (comprising Guangdong and Guangxi provinces) and the empire reached its zenith.
But then, as in the case of all dynasties, the end has to come one day. In the later years of Eastern Han, the corruption of the ruling class and visitation of providence like floods, drought, locusts, earthquake and plague forced the peasants to move from place to place, leading to uprisings by those who had been deprived of home.
Zhang Jiao was leader of a branch of Taoism Taiping Tao (Doctrine of Justice). He made full use of this doctrine whose basis was equality and sympathy for the common man. Besides, he claimed himself to be the ‘Virtuous Master’, dispensed ‘Taoist Magic Water’ as free treatment for the sick (which made him very popular), and sent his followers to preach everywhere. As the people were already suffering various injustices they readily took to his teachings and his message spread rapidly. He spread the idea that the ‘Blue Heaven’ (referring to the Eastern Han government) had already passed away and it was time for the Yellow Heaven (referring to the ideal leader of Taiping Tao) to take over. He said the country would be blessed in the cyclical year 184 AD which was an obvious call for an uprising against the Eastern Han dynasty. In 184 AD thousands of people rose in a rebellion and as they all wore ‘yellow turbans’ they were called the Yellow Turban Army.
The uprising spread all over the country but as they were not well organized they were defeated by the various military forces led by Yuan Shao, Yuan Shu, Liu Bei and Cao Cao. Shortly afterwards Zhang Ziao died of illness.
Though the Yellow Turban was defeated, the foundation of the Eastern Han Dynasty were shaken and separate regimes were set up by in different parts of the country under different military commanders. This led to a mix-up every where.
Literature, Science, Arts in the Qin-Han Period
As stated earlier Ying Sheng, the First Emperor who ascended the throne in 221 BC and founded the Qin dynasty despised Cofucianism which preached benevolence and so had all its classics burnt. This trend of anti-Confucianism continued for long. It was at the time of Emperor Wu Din of Han dynasty (around 140 BC) that Confucianism won legitimacy and the three main ideals which this thinker preached viz the subjects should obey their sovereign, the wives should obey their husbands, and the children should obey their fathers as expounded by Dong Zhongshu in the Grand Dew of Springs and Autumn, became the ideological foundation of monarchy for over two thousand years.
In the Han dynasty the teachings of Confucius took on two forms; (a) modern and (b) ancient Confucian classics. In the late western Han times, Confucian studies took on a spiritual form in which history was explained in the name of spirits. Amidst these various schools of thoughts, Buddhism arrived in China in the late Han period. Two monks, An Sigao and Zhi Chen came to China from central Asia and translated lots of classics of Buddhism into Chinese so that the common people now also had Buddhist tenets to follow. Taoism too came into being in the late east Han period with the book Taipingsquingling as the main classic.
Another important activity in this period was the ‘recording of dynastical history’ by official biographers. Many books were written recording the events of these times but perhaps the most famous was the Historical Memoirs by Sima Qian (145 BC - 86 BC). In this book Sima Quin covered 300 years of history from the time of the Yellow Emperor to the reign of Emperor Wu Din. Another famous history book written in these period was The History of the Han Dynasty by Ban Gu. It was a detailed record of events in the Han dynasty and is the first complete historical memoirs of a whole dynasty.
Astronomy and calendar gained further development in Qin and Han dynasties. At the time of Emperor Wu Di of Han, Sima Qian established a new calendar, Santong Calendar, with other astronomical experts which made the calendar more accurate than before. The reign of Emperor Wu Di also witnessed the writing of the first mathematical book The Mathematical classic of Zhoubi, which recorded the ways of calculating the distance of the sun with a bamboo pole measuring the shade of the sun. Some of the other mathematical books brought out during this period were The Mathematics in Nine Sections and Zhouyi Participation Contract.
One of the most remarkable achievements of this period was the invention of paper. This happened in the time of Eastern Han (first century A.D) when Cai Lun used the fibre of hemp to make paper. He further began using tree bark, rags and old fishing net to make paper. He was honored as Marquis of Longting for this achievement and the paper he invented was called Marquis Cai’s paper.
Some other interesting achievements of this period was the invention of seismograph which could forecast earthquakes, thousands of kilometers away. This invention is credited to Zhang Heng, a versatile scholar who also invented Houfengyi—an instrument which could predict the orientation of the wind.
This period also witnessed great progress in the area of stone carvings, bronze artifacts and painting. The silk paintings unearthed from Mawang Tomb in Changsha were of fresh color and fluid lines. Court painters were in existence in the Han dynasty whose duty was to praise the achievements and virtues of the court. The Qin dynasty also set up a music institution for the first time which was further developed by Emperor Wu Di of the Han dynasty.
Lastly, the arts of Qin-Han dynasties were magnificent and in plain simple style. The great pit containing pottery figures in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province is considered a wonder of the world. This massive underground battle array vividly displayed the prowess of the Qin troops annexing the territory of other states. The martial soldiers, high spirited horse pottery and delicate bronze carriages represent the charms of the arts of the Qin.
Glory in a Disturbed Period - Buddhism, Culture and Science
The last few centuries, as you may have noted, were full of strife and turbulence. Kings came and went and so did the dynasties. Wars were aplenty and so was killing. This chaos, since the arrival of Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties created social conditions for the spread of Buddhism. As Buddhism advocated abstention from killing, believed in the possibility of happiness in the next birth through hard work in this life, it touched the suffering people and soon got wide acceptance. Monks from the western region travelled widely in China to preach Buddhism and won ready support from the people and many monarchs. Through long-standing transformation, Buddhism took on a Chinese flavor. In the later Northern Wei, the number of Buddhist temples reached 30,000 and the number of monks and nuns 2,000,000 (two million). This increased to 40,000 temples and 3,000,000 (three million) monks/nuns in the time of Northern Qui.
This period saw the translation of many Buddhist sutras1 into Chinese. A Buddhist monk Fa Xian of Eastern Jin went to the homeland of Buddhism, India, in search of Sutras. He travelled for fourteen years in India. The period also saw the drawings of huge portraits of Buddhism. Cao Buxing was regarded as the father of these drawings. Another interesting feature of this period was the building of hundreds of Buddhist grottoes (imitation cave) in various parts of China.
The achievements of literature were represented by Jian’an literature. Jian’an was the title of Emperor Xian Di (196-219) and since he himself was a good writer, the writings of these times took on the name of Jiah’an literature. Among the famous writers were Cao Cao, his son Cao Pi, Kong Rong, Chen Li and many others. A famous book of these time was Seven talents of Bamboo Woods written by seven authors. This represented the literature of Zengshi (240-249). The poems and essays of these authors were full of cynicism.
Private history compiling was very popular at this time. The most famous works include the History of later Han Dynasty by Fan Ye and the History of the Three Kingdoms by Chen Shou.
Taoism in Wei, Jin, Southern and Eastern Dynasties, having absorbed the thoughts of Buddhism and Confucianism, became more colorful. Famous Taoists, Lu Xiujing and Tao Hongjing assimilated the ideology of Confucianism and Buddhism so that Taoism was greatly enhanced. Tao Hongjing wrote many books on Taoism showing this assimilated ideology.
During Wei and Jin periods, Liu Hei’s notes on Mathematics in Nine Sections worked out various scientific formulations. The calendar became more precise and on mechanism, looms became five times more efficient Wang Shuhe, a court doctor, wrote ten volumes of Treatise on Pulse which summarized the experiences in pulse studies. Similarly, two books of a treatise on fever were written On Typhoid fever and Gold Chest Dissertations.
All these achievements indicate that this indeed was a glorious period of creativity in Chinese history.
The Magnificent Tang Dynasty(618-907)
We now come to a very prosperous period of Chinese history—the Tang Dynasty. It’s capital was Chang’an (now Xi’an). Let us first review the historical events.
After the establishment of Tang, the second son of Li Yuan was made Prince Qin. In 626 he defeated all other princes in the battle of succession and became the emperor. He took the title ‘Zhenguan’ and is known in history as Emperor Taizong of Tang.
The reign of Emperor Taizong (618-649) was very successful. He was a enlightened ruler who further strengthened the Secretariat, Grand Council and the Chancery of the Sui period. He was always ready to hear various opinions from officials - even though they may have differed from him. This led to many good officials coming to him including Wei Zheng, who was most famous. He freely gave advice to the Emperor even to the latter's annoyance. He once said to Emperor Taizong ‘the masses are like water which can both hold the ship and overturn it.’
Emperor Taizong pursued with vigor the imperial service examination started by the Sui and this led to the recruitment of many talented people in the royal service. Even the Prime Ministers of his regime came through this civil service examination.
There was a strict enforcement of the laws in his regime without any favors to the privileged. The number of officials was reduced and each official was made accountable. This led to good administration.
Emperor Taizong firmly resisted the Turks from the north and finally annihilated eastern Turks. His regime brought stability and prosperity to the people and so his rule is known in history as ‘Peace and Prosperity of Zhenguan.’
However, in later years Emperor Taizong became impatient with criticism. His wars with Korea brought much misery to the people. In 649, while looking for immortality, Emperor Taizong died from taking pills made of stones and metals.
EMPRESS WU ZETIAN (624-705)
Wu Zeitan, a native of Wenshui, Shanxi province, was brought to the palace by Emperor Taizong. After his death she became a nun but was brought back to the palace by Emperor Gaozong as a concubine. She was a talented woman but very ambitious. She schemed to eliminate the then queen and herself became the empress.
In 683 Emperor Gaozong died and through a series of machinations, Wu Zeitan dethroned the then emperor and herself ascended the throne. She called herself Shang Shen (a sage), renamed herself ‘Zhao’, and changed Tang into Zhou. She became the only empress in China whose rule lasted for nearly fifty years.
Wu Zeitan was ruthless against her opponents. She inflicted cruel punishments and murdered hundreds of Tang relations including prime ministers and prefectural governors and officers.
On the other hand Wu Zeitan encouraged agriculture so that the economy benefited, She set up bronze boxes to encourage people to submit their grievances in these boxes, and continued to recruit officials through a royal examination. She believed in Buddhism and went in for large scale construction to give jobs to the people.
However, her loose character and cruelty to opponents made her unpopular in her later years. In her old age she wanted to pass her power to her nephew Wu Chengsi but failed. She died at the age of 83 and was buried next to Emperor Gaozong in Qianling.
EMPEROR XUANZONG (685-762)
The next Emperor of this dynasty was Xuanzong. In 713 Emperor Xuanzong changed the title of his reign into ‘Kaiyuan.’
Emperor Xuanzong was bent on making the country prosperous; so he appointed very able administrators and was always ready to listen to criticism. He reduced taxation and loosened punishment. Du Fu, a leading poet of his times, wrote in his poems, ‘I remember those days of Kaiyuan when Tang was in full bloom. Grains were plentiful enough to flow and rice white enough to shine.’ His poems reflected the prosperity of the times.
However, in his later years Emperor Xuanzong became very arrogant and grew dependant on certain favorites like the treacherous minister Li Linfu. He doted on his favorite concubine Yang Yuhuan and tried to promote the interests of her brother Yang Guozhong which eventually led to his downfall. A provincial governor, An Lushan, a Mongol, rose in revolt and captured vast territories of the Tang empire including the city of Luoyang. He proclaimed himself the emperor with the title of ‘Yan.’
Emperor Xuanzong fled westwards and abdicated his powers to his son Li who proclaimed himself Emperor Suzong. In subsequent battles both An Lushan and Emperor Suzong were killed and Daizong, son of Suzong became the emperor. However, with so many rebellions and subsequent losses in the economy, the Tang dynasty’s glory declined sharply. It continued till 907 AD but the 'Grandeur of Great Tang' ended by 762 AD.
The Northern Song Dynasty(960-1127)
Before the Northern Song Dynasty came into power we had seventy years of confusion in China with one dynasty replacing another in quick succession. So these seventy years are called the period of ‘Five Dynasties and Ten States.’
FIVE DYNASTIES AND TEN STATES (907-979)
In 907, Zhu Wen, a senior general of Tang, dethroned the Emperor (this also marked the end of the Tang Dynasty) and ascended the throne and took on the title ‘Liang.’ From then to 979, when Emperor Taizong of Song Dynasty annihilated Northern Han and got the whole country unified, fifteen reigns appeared in quick succession through seventy years. Five Dynasties ruled in this period along with ten other states. Of the five dynasties, the longest lasted twenty years and the shortest only three years. Politically, it was a dismal period of Chinese history.
These seventy years were full of wars and disasters caused by varied systems, numerous customs, extortionate taxes, not to mention the infertility of politics and economy. There is nothing worth mentioning about these seven decades except that one of the Emperors, Li Yu of Nantang was an accomplished artist who excelled in poems, music and painting.
Zhao Kuangyin was a senior general in the Zhou army. In 959 King Shi Zong died and was succeeded by his seven year old son Gong Di. In 960 Zhao Kuangyin dethroned him and declared himself the king. He was known later as Emperor Tai Zu of Song. He titled the dynasty Song, historically known as the Northern Song with the capital at Kaifeng.
Within a year of his becoming an Emperor, Zhao Kuangyin plotted to deprive his generals of their powers. He held a grand dinner with wine and women. When warmed with wine, he aired his private feelings of suffering and of being an Emperor without power. He entreated them to accumulate more wealth and mildly hinted that they hand over their military power to him. The following day all generals entreated to be dismissed from office one after another. He did so and became very powerful.
In the Northern Song Dynasty, the rulers strengthened their control over prefectures (including government, military forces and censorate). Civil officials were invested with powers to handle local matters which reduced the power of military officers and a system was established whereby important matters from different regions were immediately reported to the imperial government. Various other measures were also taken to make it a more centralized government. The Northern Song Dynasty was the first government in world history to issue bank notes or paper currency, and the first Chinese polity to establish a permanent standing navy. All these steps considerably increased the strength of the feudal aristocracy of the Northern Song Emperors.
Social life during the Song was vibrant; social elites gathered to view and trade precious artworks, the populace intermingled at public festivals and private clubs and cities had lively entertainment quarters. The spread of literature and knowledge was enhanced by the earlier innovation of woodblock printing and the 11th century innovation of movable type printing. Pre-modern technology, science, philosophy, mathematics, and engineering flourished in the Song. The spinning wheel appears in one of its earliest representations.
Philosophers such as Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi reinvigorated Confucianism with new commentary, infused with Buddhist ideals, and emphasized a new organization of classic texts that brought out the core doctrine of Neo-Confucianism. Although the institution of the civil service examinations had existed since the Sui Dynasty, it became much more prominent in the Song period, and was a leading factor in the shift of an aristocratic elite to a bureaucratic elite.
A Thriving Culture
As you must have read in these letters the last two hundred years were full of wars and strife in China. But in the area of culture this period saw great ferment and development. Let us first examine the developments in Confucianism.
Lixue, also known as daoxue, was a Confucion school formed by Buddhism and Taoism. Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073), in the early period of the Northern Song Dynasty, was the progenitor of this school. His thoughts are known as Neo-Confucianism. He advocated the idea that all tangible material things came from the absolute substance while ‘the Absolute’ was just the intangible. His disciples, ‘the two Cheng brothers’, developed these thoughts further by saying that ‘reason’ is the source of all material things and the essence of living. According to them the broad masses must resign themselves to reality and place themselves at the disposal of the feudal order.
Zhu Xi (1130-1200) of the Southern Song Dynasty period epitomized the thoughts of Neo-Confucianism. He believed that things in the world came from reason and reason from heavenly principles; and the heavenly principles were the public orders issued by the monarch. According to him, people must ‘eradicate human desires and maintain heavenly principles’. The Neo- Confucianism, as propounded by Zhu Xi, exerted great influence on later generations and gained great ascendancy in the Song empire. The Cheng brothers, Zhu Xi and some other Confucians even won places in the Confucian temples and were offered sacrifices when people held a memorial ceremony for Confucius. In the following centuries, Zhu Xi’s explanation and analysis of Confucianism became an orthodox learning.
HISTORICAL WRITINGS, LITERATURE AND ART
In the Song Dynasty many books of history were written. One of the most influential was History as a Mirror written by Sima Guang. This book recorded the history of 1362 years, from the beginning of the Three Powers in the Warring States to the end of the Five Dynasties and later Zhou. Some other good books of history written during this period were: Historical Collections by Zheng Qiao of the Southern Song Dynasty, New History of Tang compiled by Quyang and others, and Old History of Five Dynasties by Xue Juzheng. Infact, the number of history books and chronicles of events in the times of various rulers would run into over a hundred. It can be said that this period of Chinese history is very well documented.
Ci poetry of the Song dynasty enjoyed a high prestige in Chinese literature. This poetry depicted the life and feelings of the people. Lu You was a famous poet of this era and his poems are full of patriotic enthusiasm. Drama in the Song period consisted of storytelling, ballad singing and puppet shows. Praiseworthy works in literature of the Liao and Jin were The West Chamber zhugongdiao (a ballad form of Song).
This period also witnessed the establishment of many art academies. Landscape painting gained ascendancy in the early years. Painter Wang Tigjun of the Jin was well known at landscape painting. Later, emphasis was on the painting of flowers and birds. In the field of figure painting, the most representative work was The Festival of Pure Brightness on the River by Zhang Zeduan of the Northern Song Dynasty.
Similar was the progress in calligraphy. Most of the monarchs of the Northern Song Dynasty were fond of penmanship, among them being Tai Zong, who once ordered to print the imperial collection of books of successive dynasties in excellent calligraphy so that it could be a model for teaching calligraphy to others.
These developments in the fields of philosophy, history, literature and the arts is a testimony of the wonderful progress China made in these years, in spite of the political turbulence of these centuries.
Religion and Literature In The First Millenium
In my 14th and 15th letters I had told you how king Ashoka and later king Kanishka spread Buddhism outside India. But what about India? Did Buddhism develop in India and if not, why?
It seems Buddhism never became the predominant religion in India. After the Mauryas and king Kanishka, Hinduism revived although in a different form. Gone were the gods of the Vedic period like Indira ( lord of thunder), Varuna ( the omnipresent god) or Rudra. Instead, we find the rise of new gods like Brahma ( the god of creation ), Vishnu (the god who preserves the universe) and Shiva ( the god of destruction). Along with this was the change in the mode of worship. Deities and idol worship make their entry; new rituals, very much more complicated than before are introduced.
All this was done by the Brahaman ( the priestly class), who threatened by the rise of Buddhism and Jainism in the earlier years, wanted his flocks back. He did this by various ways including going to the villages singly or in groups and preaching, having temples made and convincing people that only by visiting and praying in them could they obtain salvation ( of course he became the priest in these temples), or getting close to a king, making him their follower through mysticism and superstition, and through him spreading their hold on the masses. By the time the Guptas became the emperors of India in the 4th century A. D., Hinduism had revived. The Guptas only furthered its growth.
The Gupta and the subsequent period saw the rise of new methods of worship like Bhakti, intense worship through devotional clapping and singing, introduction of new gods in different parts of India, many of them local, like Balaji in Tamil Nadu, and the construction of numerous temples, dedicated to different gods. In the 8th century a great Hindu philosopher and an excellent organizer called Shankaracharya developed the worship of Vishnu (the god who preserves the universe), and set up four great temples in the four directions of India- Sringeri in Mysore (south), Dwarka in Kathiawar in Gujarat(west),Puri in the east (Orissa), and Badrinath in the Himalayas in the north. Indeed, by the 12th century A.D.,Hinduism in its many forms was the dominant religion of India; Buddhism having disappeared and Jainism becoming one of the many forms of Hinduism.
Now let me turn to the literature of this period. The language still was Sanskrit whose scientific grammar was codified by Panini in the 4th century B.C. in his book Astadhyay (Eight Chapters). The great poet of this language was Kalidas who flourished in the Gupta empire in the 4th century A. D. He authored four great dramas Kumarsambhava (the birth of the war-gods), Raghuvamsa (the dynasty of Raghu), Meghdoot (the cloud messenger), and Abhijnashakuntala (the recognition of Shakuntala).The last, now known to the masses as Shakuntala, is reckoned as his masterpiece.
Kalidasa was followed by many other poets like Kumaradasa who wrote Janaka-harana (the rape of Sita), Bhatti of the 7th century who wrote a poem on the story of Rama in his works known as ‘ Bhatti Poems’, and Magha, who wrote a long poem about how Krishna slayed Sisupala. Bana in the 7th century, Kalhana who chronicled Kashmir , and Jaydev whose Gita Govinda (song of the cowherds), written in the 12th century ii Bengal, is still sung in religious festivals of that province, were some of the other great poets and authors of their times.
Along with Sanskrit, which was the language of the courts and the intellectuals, the other language of Aryan India were the many dialects of Prakrits. One of this dialect was Pali which is still the religious language of the Buddhists of Sri Lanka, Burma and South- East Asia.
Down south, the great language of this period was Tamil which was developing in its own consistent way in Tamil Nadu. Further north, the inscriptions of Kanarese started appearing from the 6th century AD, whereas Telugu of Andhra Pradesh became a really important language under the Vijaynagar Empire. East of Tamil Nadu in Kerala, the language which gained ascendancy was Malayalam. All these languages, except perhaps Tamil, were greatly influenced by Sanskrit and have very rich literatures of their own. Bye and lots of love. Dadaji