January 24th, 2010

Warring States

Filbert Catkins in January

The Indian civilization of the northwest reminds me of the Warring States (476 – 221 BCE) period in China. The Warring States was a dark interlude in the train of China’s history, which, unlike Western history, is a continuous sequence of dynasties. The government in China today is in a succession of dynasties that goes back at least to the Shang Dynasty whose traditional end was 1122 BCE. The Shangs left a literary legacy of inscriptions on ox scapulae and turtle shells that are an early form of the Chinese characters that are used today. The Shang was followed by the Western and Eastern Zhou dynasties. The Zhou left a few books and lengthy inscriptions on wonderful bronze castings. The Warring States were the last two hundred or so years of the Eastern Zhou. My mentor, Herrlee Creel, was one of the first historians to make use of Zhou bronze inscriptions, and I spent a few delightful years under his direction studying the Warring States, the chaotic period when the power of the Zhou kings was no longer adequate to establish order in the north China plain.

The Warring States is almost always described as a period of cruelty, treachery, and unprincipled ambition. The orderly civilization that Chinese historians saw in records of the Zhou dynasty disintegrated into a cluster of warring small states, each trying to get the best of the others. But the Warring States was the period when the great schools of Chinese philosophy and political theory became established. Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism, and military strategy all evolved rapidly while the states warred. Revenge, spite, and bloody battles are found on every page of the history of the period, along with intense intellectual ferment and a desire to return to the orderly days of the Zhou.

The Warring States period was ended by the leader of the warring states, Chin. Chin unified the states into as single state in 221 BCE, recalling the glory of Zhou. Unfortunately, the first ruler of the unified state was a cruel tyrant and could not hold power. He was replaced by the Han Dynasty, which was the first dynasty for which we have a detailed written history. From the Han on, recording of dynastic history was an important function of government. This began a long succession of great historic dynasties. Although the current regime in China may not be ready to acknowledge it, they are the current representative of a long line of mighty dynasties.

I believe that the modern world that we enjoy today owes as great a debt to Warring States China as it does to the golden age of the Greek philosophers. Surprisingly, Socrates ( 469 BCE–399 BCE) and Confucius (551 BCE – 479 BCE) were almost contemporaries.

But back to the Indians of the Pacific Northwest. Before the coming of the white men, the Bostons as they were called, the northwest Indians lived in idyllic splendor. Unlike the Indians of plains who had to scramble for survival, on the northwest coast, food was abundant. Swarms of salmon, halibut, and sea mammals were easily harvested and preserved. Clams, oysters, crabs, and other seafood were lying on the beach. There was no struggle to survive.

The Indians were able to skip agriculture and move on directly to a settled life of huge long houses and mighty totemic art. And they warred continuously, fighting over territory, fishing grounds, and slaves. They were a collection of warring states. It is easy to speculate on what they could have accomplished if they had a written language, or a more organized religion, or indigenous iron, but that kind of speculation only leads to a round of back patting among Europeans who reaped the supposed benefits.

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