China as Neolithic Exemplar

The actor David Carradine may have led a troubled life but he experienced no such trouble as Kwai Chang Caine, a Buddhist monk on the move in the old American west. From 1972-1975, the Kung Fu series was must watch television for kids my age, even if we had no idea that Caine was a Shaolin Temple monk trained in the cool arts of Zen. Despite some absurd juxtapositions, Grasshopper brought some much needed serenity and justice to the wild west.

Jamil Anderlini of the Financial Times recently visited Shaolin for an interview with its controversial abbot, Shi Yongxin. When asked about the subservience of religion to the state in China, the abbot responds:  “Throughout history it is the same: Religion must respect the emperor, respect the government. If a religion doesn’t respect the government, it will have difficulty surviving. We have to rely on the government to publicize and promote us.” Anderlini’s impression is that the abbot sounds “like an executive from a global marketing firm.”

Perhaps, but I think the abbot sounds more like an astute historian and pragmatist. Since the rise of the Shang Dynasty in 1766 BCE, religion and government in China have been tightly linked. While some have claimed that later dynasties were essentially secular, most claims of this sort focus on Confucian legalism and court intellectuals; they minimize the large and important role that religion played in maintaining the realm and legitimating rulers.

In “The Religious Commitment: Shang Theology and the Genesis of Chinese Political Culture,” historian David Keightley explains the connections:

Shang religion was inextricably involved in the genesis and legitimation of the Shang state. It was believed that Ti, the high god, conferred fruitful harvest and divine assistance in battle, that the king’s ancestors were able to intercede with Ti, and that the king could communicate with his ancestors.

Worship of the Shang ancestors, therefore, provided powerful psychological and ideological support for the political dominance of the Shang kings. The king’s ability to determine through divination, and influence through prayer and sacrifice, the will of the ancestral spirits legitimized the concentration of political power in his person.

There were similar developments around the world, which varied according to time and place. Wherever we find newly organized or rising city-states, we find that religion is married to power. Keightly recognizes this: “There is nothing uniquely Chinese in this account so far. Religious belief has played similar roles in the genesis of other states.” While coercion can provide a measure of control in larger-scale societies, having people internalize power — or exercise “self control” — is far more effective. 

Although these kinds of arrangements eventually broke down in many parts of the world (thus setting the stage for the Axial Age), in China they were transformed and reinvigorated (in large part by Confucian ideas). There has been a great deal of continuity in China for the last 3,000 years. The names may change, but the basic ideas are incredibly resilient.

Reference:

Keightley, David N. (1978). The Religious Commitment: Shang Theology and the Genesis of Chinese Political Culture History of Religions, 17 (3/4), 211-225

ResearchBlogging.org

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6 thoughts on “China as Neolithic Exemplar

  1. razib

    Although these kinds of arrangements eventually broke down in many parts of the world (thus setting the stage for the Axial Age), in China they were transformed and reinvigorated (in large part by Confucian ideas).

    can you say more?

  2. Cris Post author

    There is a quite a bit more to say on this issue. The gist: during the Neolithic formative (the period during which city-states arose), rulers/elites always identified themselves with the divine, and claimed exclusive access or asserted their own divinity. The constant rise and fall of such rulers over a 3,000 year period made it clear that such claims were not legitimate or had to be false. If rulers had special access to the divine or were divine, there should not be constant turnover and turmoil (due to warfare, ecological disasters, and coups). Eventually, people began to realize that claims to legitimacy based on the supernatural were not legitimate.

    I will find a couple of specific examples of this and post on them.

  3. J. A. Le Fevre

    The ploy to affiliate the head of state with the deity du jure lasted in some circles into the twentieth century.
    Haile Selassie (means: “Power of the Trinity”) lead Ethiopia 1916 – 1974, presented himself as an incarnate messiah while emperor (1930 on); full title in office was “His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and Elect of God”.

  4. David

    A key component of the Axial Age was the linkage of the Divine with the Moral. Thus to Kong Fu Tse rulers and dynasties that failed were moral failures foremost. Obligations to the Divine were moral obligations. In this way one could rationalize the failure of something that was supposed to be divine by association.

  5. Cris Post author

    There is some doubt as to whether China should even be included in what Jaspers considered to be Axial movements or developments.

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