Authority and Law in Ancient China
Lack of space compels us to focus our attention almost exclusively on the China of the Chou dynasty, that is, on the span of eight centuries beginning late in the eleventh century B.C. and ending abruptly in 221 B.C. with creation of a new centralized form of empire. 1 Even within these chronological limits, moreover, we must concentrate, at the risk of possible distortion, on the evolution of but a few concepts. Concerning the many philosophical theories which, during the second half of the dynasty (sixth century B.C. onward), arose out of the breakup of the old way of life that then took place, we can say extremely little.
Feudalism is the word commonly, and with considerable justice, applied to the political system that operated during the early centuries of the Chou. Only a small part of the country was directly ruled by the Chou kings themselves. The remainder was divided into a host of petty states or principalities, held by titled nobles who were linked to the house of Chou by ties of vassalship. Within each state, most of the land was in turn subdivided among relatives, officials and courtiers of the presiding noble. Beneath this ruling class lived the great mass of commoners, most of whom were peasant serfs hereditarily bound to the lands they cultivated for their overlord proprietors. 2
The entire population was thus, in theory, integrated into an ascending pyramid capped by the Chou monarch, whose claim to universal sovereignty is graphically expressed in the following passage from the Book of Odes (Ode 205):
Everywhere under vast Heaven
There is no land that is not the king's.
To the borders of those lands There are none who are not the king's servants.
A characteristic feature of this political system was its reliance on custom and personal relationships rather than on any clearly defined body of law. Its resulting arbitrariness, however, was to some extent tempered by certain moral and religious considerations. The aristocracy, for example, were expected to live according to an elaborate but (in early Chou times) unwritten code of politeness and honor known as li—a word that may be variously rendered as rites, ceremonies, traditional mores, customary morality, etc. These li, however, were excessively refined and laborious to learn, so that it is questionable whether they affected the commoners, save indirectly, to any great extent at this time.
Among the psychological factors giving the aristocracy its power and prestige, probably none was more important than the cult of the ancestors. Unlike the commoners (who at this period bore no surnames), each aristocratic clan maintained genealogies through which it traced descent from famous ancient heroes. To the spirits of these heroes the clan members offered periodic solemn sacrifice, in return for which they received powerful aid and protection.
The dominance of this cult probably goes far to explain one of the most striking differences between early China and many other ancient civilizations: the absence in the former of a universal church or a significant priesthood. For this there is a two-fold explanation. In the first place, the ancestral sacrifices of each clan were necessarily offered only to its own clan ancestors, not to those of any other clan. Secondly, these sacrifices, in order to be effective, had to be performed by the clan members in person, not by priestly proxies. As a result, the ancestral cult was inevitably divisive rather than unifying in its____________________