In a previous post, we analysed how geography defined the great civilizations. We showed how geography dramatically influences what we do to survive, hold together as groups and create cultural differences. In Eurasia and Africa, geography generated three different basic ways of life 10,000 years ago: large settlements in fixed fertile valleys to work as farmers; others domesticated the animals they hunted and became nomads; a third group sought their resources in the lakes and seas – the maritime civilisations.
From stories, legends and gossip to master narratives
In ancient times, people living in the same river valley and working on the same large infrastructure project were part of a communication network. The stories they told tended to circulate throughout their area, word spread. Other news came from elsewhere, as distant traders brought snippets of gossip, adventurers appeared… but information from elsewhere was intermittent while the stories circulated within the community were continuous and self-reinforcing. They became myths as each person telling the tale eliminated the parts they considered irrelevant and enhanced their most powerful features.
The four ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indian and Chinese civilisations that arose in the great valleys of the Nile River, the Tigris and Euphrates area, the Indus River, and the Huang He are examples of such internal communication networks. In each case, the myriad threads of shared narratives and stories were integrated into a coherent whole, a master narrative. These narratives included visions of the meaning of time and space, which people were relevant to their story, what mattered in life or how it all began, where the universe came from, and where it is all going. In short, they created their model of the world.
These early narratives shaped by geography gradually disconnected from it and took on a life of their own as they filtered out what they believed to be accurate, false, or irrelevant. The information that fits our environment and worldview became the truth. And, we all know that people who share a narrative will resist ideas and information that weaken their conceptual framework and welcome those that enrich and, most significantly, reinforce and confirm it. And this framework became a structure within which a person can live a meaningful life.
About 2,500 years ago, a group of charismatic scholars created belief systems consistent with the master narrative of their specific contexts.
China, from geography to family structure
As we saw In «how geography defined the great civilizations» The Huang He (Yellow River) valley had the most prosperous and thickest topsoil on earth. Otherwise, the region was arid, so the ancient farmers had to rely on the river for irrigation. The river was the source of all abundance, but it could also trigger a sudden catastrophe.
Villagers had to be prepared to respond. When a dam broke, a structure had to be ready. Given the small scale of the communities, the discipline, hierarchy, and obedience necessary for survival began in the family, with the eldest person commanding the efforts. The family-based authority structure and the family as the central place within society became the defining features of Chinese civilisation.
China, a concentric world in a cyclical history
One of the four great Chinese classics, «The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國演義),» portrays a fateful moment at the end of the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) when the future of the Chinese empire was at stake. «The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, it must divide. So it has always been». With this characterisation of the inevitable cycle of Chinese history, the monumental book begins.
China stability, an internal problem
Barbarians continually tried to enter China and sometimes succeeded – especially if the empire was in a period of fragmentation. But the real problem for China was not the barbarians but a fundamentally internal problem. Barbarian successes, droughts, etc., were only symptoms: the ruling dynasty was weakening its rule, something was wrong, and chaos was gaining ground.
A dynasty lost its mandate if it did not perform the ceremonies and properly conduct itself in the eyes of its subjects. The material world had an underlying order that connected all the visible facts of existence.
Coincidences had a meaning, and luck was not random. The connections and correspondences woven through the material world created a pattern that only experts could discern. Living with the underlying pattern brought luck; living for other unaligned purposes brought trouble.
The empire was an intermediary between mortals and the infinite, supernatural reality called Tian (天). Although usually translated as heaven, it was not a place where people who behaved well went, and it was not a place of any kind, nor was it the equivalent of a god as it was not a supernatural will or a will at all.
The Chinese had no interest in personifying Tian by creating images of «him». Tian reflected an impersonal pattern, simply the ubiquitous reality of a seemingly chaotic universe
Confucius , 孔夫子, around 500 BCE
Around 500 BCE, a man named Confucius translated the vision, rituals, and behaviours of Chinese culture into a belief system that was both an explanation of life and a manual of conduct. Confucius did not seek to follow prophetic traditions but based his beliefs on studying ancient divination texts and other Chinese classics, seeking to update and make their contents accessible and applicable.
He focused on the rules of conduct in everyday life, especially in the family environment. He considered that each family member had different roles and, therefore, different standards to fulfil. The children owed obedience to the elders; the elders owed care and affection to the children. The family owed obedience to the father, and the father owed a duty of care to the family. Life was a web of social debts. His disciples compiled his writings and thoughts in a book entitled the Analects.
Confucius taught that people should develop moral intuition by behaving with elegance in all specific circumstances and gave instructions on how to do so in each case. By integrating harmoniously into the larger social project, people could achieve a full and purposeful life.
His recommendations were prescriptions for an ideal society in which the empire and the family were reflections of each other. The father was the emperor within the family; the emperor called Son of Heaven was the father within the empire. When everything worked as it should, the empire and the family formed a single, coherent whole.
In China, under Heaven, we finish another stage of our Journey to the East where we will meet with India, another great river civilization and its system of beliefs.