How Late Zhou China Reverse-Engineered a Civilization

Henry & Co./Chinese text

When archaeologists discover a sophisticated artifact like the Greek Antikythera mechanism, we conclude that some ancient societies may have been more advanced than previously believed. When we think of advanced civilizations, the image is usually one of advanced technology. Our civilization is advanced because we have rockets and nuclear power. Technology is the systematic application of knowledge, achieving goals that would otherwise be impossible. But not all technologies are material. The ability to organize human relationships, actions, and groups in organized and effective ways is itself a specialized form of knowledge called social technology.

Like material technologies, people can develop social technologies to facilitate the flourishing of society and its people. One might naturally wonder whether great social technology has ever been lost. Just as material technologies like the Antikythera mechanism can be forgotten or destroyed, are some social technologies lost to history?

Ancient China may be one such case—specifically the Shang and Early Zhou dynasties, from roughly 1600 BC to 800 BC. That era met its end as relevant knowledge on how to govern the country was corrupted and lost during the Later Zhou dynasty. With the knowledge fragmented and missing, societal decay ensued. The Warring States Period, which extended from the 5th century to the 3rd century BC, was a chaotic era which resulted from the disrepair and malfunction of this social technology. This spurred the era’s leading thinkers to recognize what was happening, albeit quite late in the process, when it was too late in many ways.

However, that these thinkers recognized what was happening at all is important and noteworthy. The blatant decline of the late Roman Empire did not lead its great thinkers to do the same. The insights and debates of the Later Zhou dynasty about the social technologies behind civilization are worth studying to apply to our own era.

What to Do When Civilization Is Breaking Down

The major figures of China’s intellectual renewal came to define the famous Hundred Schools of Thought. China was unusually sophisticated when compared to the other great powers of the era. Archaeological evidence from the period documents impressive bronze works, superior to anything fashioned in the Middle East. The Zhou inherited the use of beautiful, ornamented bronze vessels called ding from earlier dynasties, using them both in sacred rituals and to symbolize temporal wealth and power. The Early Zhou dynasty spent as much bronze on these vessels as they did on their all-important bronze weaponry. This confounds modern assumptions that ancient societies did not have the material surplus to invest in “non-essentials,” often given as a reason why they appeared to remain in stasis, with little development. In fact, this period in history saw important thinkers even argue against unproductive use of wealth, a stance which would be meaningless unless that kind of investment was normal and prominent.

The assumption that these vessels represent mere luxury is unfounded. Western cathedrals are, on their face, an unproductive use of resources. But in fact, they played a central role in the social order as vehicles of coordination, ritual, legitimacy for power, and social assistance. The willingness of the Zhou rulers to invest huge resources in bronze ding implies that they played a crucial role in the social technology of the day—if one which was lost over time. The value of Zhou social technology can literally be measured in the weight of the precious bronze alloy, and was at least as important as their weaponry.

Even the period’s monumental construction suggests great skill at coordinating experts. Archaeological remains indicate palace buildings and towers of rammed earth and timber. Zhou-era art depicts two-story buildings, possibly for ritual purposes. The decay of these structures makes it difficult to know whether this era, seen by later periods as a golden age, made even greater accomplishments. When Lao Tzu blithely references a nine-story tower in one of the Tao Te Ching’s meditations, is this fantastical musing, or a reference to a real achievement—or at least an attempt? Written sources from the time point to a sophisticated feudalistic society. Reading them today reminds one of medieval Japan two thousand years later, in ways the imperial and bureaucratic China of later eras—that more obviously influenced Japan as we know it—does not.

When confronted with remarkable achievements from the past, archaeologists have been at a loss as to how to explain them. Sometimes, people will fill the gaps with fantastical theories—hence the beliefs about aliens or telepaths building the Egyptian pyramids. A more likely scenario is that either we have lost the memory of certain material technologies or of social technologies which could compensate for them. Which social technologies allowed China to achieve its feats?

Reverse-Engineering Civilization

Confucius, who died just a few years before the Warring States period, has a popular reputation among Westerners today for the wise sayings attributed to him. But his true project was to discover and restore the practices which had made the Zhou dynasty great. By doing so, he believed a ruler could renew an entire society, bringing a decayed, dysfunctional state and people back to health. This was to be achieved with the proper application of rituals by sufficiently virtuous rulers. By pursuing the correct relationships and rites, they could correct the damage done by the decline of the Zhou social order and the resulting warfare. Confucius focused on ascertaining both the correct rituals and the means with which to achieve virtue (德) in rulers. The meaning of 德 is subtle; perhaps it should be thought of as including what we might today understand as prestige, an important resource for any statesman. He crafted his philosophy by extensive research and study of the Zhou dynasty and its predecessors, attempting to reverse-engineer and understand the lost knowledge of the Early Zhou. Confucius sought to fill the gaps in his understanding of social technology by close study of the ritual and literature of a society which no longer existed.

The role of harmonious social relationships is the most widely known attribute of Confucian teaching. But an aspect that is overlooked is Confucius’ emphasis on the traditional Chinese rites. In particular, Confucius was obsessed with the classical Book of Changes, also known as the I Ching, authored by King Wen, the founder of the Zhou dynasty. The prestige King Wen gained through writing the work was part of what allowed the Zhou dynasty to rise over the even more ancient Shang dynasty in the first place and has been variously studied as a great philosophical text, a tool of divination, and a source of mathematical inspiration. Confucius’ interpretation of this work has been respected ever since. However, they were only possible because the original applications of the Book of Changes, whatever they were, had been totally forgotten by his time. Its importance to the Zhou dynasty was uncontestable—yet the original reasons for that importance were nearly impossible to know for certain.

Confucius died thinking himself a failure. He didn’t manage to get a ruler to adopt his solution long enough for a full-scale test. Though he was able to gain the ears of a few statesmen, he lost political fights to other advisers and so fell from favor.

The Book of Changes was merely one instance of a wider problem. The longer social technologies exist, the more varied the understanding of them becomes. The original contexts for their existence can change, or translation errors can occur in their reproduction. Which practices were fundamental to the success of the Early Zhou and their great predecessor dynasties? Which were simply relics? If fundamental, could they even be reproduced in the modern context? It isn’t at all clear that you can reboot the social technology of an essentially intact empire in order to reforge it after it’s broken. Perhaps in the very long run they are identical, but how long do you have to put the shards back together? Confucius’ rivals challenged him on all these grounds.

The Advantages of Jerry-Rigging Civilization

Among his most prominent opponents were the Legalists. Han Fei, who was the great synthesizer of this school during the Warring States era, attacked the Confucian approach several hundred years after Confucius’ death. Han Fei repudiated the notion of following the ancients, instead championing an empirical approach in the Han Feizi: “[T]he sage neither seeks to follow the ways of the ancients nor establishes any fixed standard for all times, but examines the things of his age and then prepares to deal with them.”

To illustrate this point, he compared the Confucian-style approach to a farmer who once caught a hare after it broke its own neck by running into a stump, and then abandoned farming to wait for more hares. In other words, the fact that something worked once doesn’t mean it will work in the future. That things worked in the past was perhaps due to luck or coincidence or conditions that are no longer the case, and so imitating past practices does not guarantee success.

While Han Fei is an important representative of the school, most Legalists were not skeptical of the existence of lost knowledge. Rather, they considered restoring or recovering this knowledge to be impractical. Rather than discussing virtue or harmony, they aimed to design a quick and dirty system built from easily ascertainable first principles so as to save their society in time. Unlike Confucius himself, the Legalists succeeded at a very hard task. Their solution was crafted to allow a king to conquer China, and one did: Qin Shi Huang. The empire fragmented 11 years later after his death, but the Qin dynasty’s successes influenced nearly all the regimes which followed it to adopt China’s well-known centralization and administrative continuity. Their legacy was strong enough that Mao’s China rehabilitated Legalism as a progressive element, unlike the “reactionary” Confucians.

Legalists wouldn’t have the last word, however. While Legalism had solved the problem of reforging the broken empire, building social technologies that substantially facilitated unity, those technologies were not wholly adequate for stability.

The reforged empire proved brittle. After the death of the founding Emperor Qin Shi Huang, devastating rebellions broke out, tearing the new state apart. The harsh laws were built on the Legalist assumption that elites could never be trusted. This assumption had two acute issues. One, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy: confident in their read on human nature, Legalist courtiers distrusted each other as much as adherents of rival philosophies. A Confucian-style focus on filial piety might have proven more effective.

Two, it biased laws and measures towards a harshness that was sometimes counter-productive. The rebellion of Chen Sheng and Wu Guang began when the two commanders were delayed moving their troops by heavy rainstorms. This seems trivial and excusable enough, but a philosophy built on distrust was suspicious of excuses, and the law mandated the death penalty. They reasoned: “If we do nothing, we’re dead, if we rebel we’re dead. Rather than waiting for death, we might as well die for our own kingdom!”

A system can be functional in the founding generation, but rapidly dissolve after the founders are gone. The Legalists had underestimated the necessity of continuity. The special knowledge required to govern a large and complex civilization cannot be reinvented every generation. Since any ruler’s capability for learning and evolution is limited—and some are far less talented than others—dynasties only last a long time when the collective knowledge they possess makes up for the failings or mistakes of any given generation. If the success of the Zhou Dynasty was as arbitrary as the success of the farmer in Han Fei’s parable, it would not have persisted for so long—about 800 years, by far the longest-lasting dynasty in the consensus history of China (excluding ones we deem mythical).

Merely arbitrary success doesn’t extend over hundreds of years. Rather, success of this kind is the result of persistent skillful action, and skill is founded upon knowledge. This doesn’t rule out the hypothesis that a change in conditions made the old knowledge no longer effective, but that is a hard thesis to prove. After all, the institutional knowledge worked for hundreds of years, a period that encompasses many changes in conditions. More importantly, if there are sociological principles that are true in sufficiently large sets of possible conditions, then that knowledge can be reacquired.

But, the Legalists might have argued, aren’t societies naturally robust, able to churn on for centuries without anyone in them having special knowledge? Perhaps functionality is not so difficult in most conditions and doesn’t require special knowledge. Catastrophe strikes only on very rare occasions.

This objection understates the reality of decline. The collapse of a civilization might be a rare event, but it isn’t all that rare. Every millennium sees some empires rise and others fall. This collapse can occur in just decades, or even a few years. This happened in India’s ancient Harappan civilization and in the Middle Eastern Bronze Age Collapse. It’s worth noting that the civilization of the Middle Eastern Late Bronze Age was at a similar level of material development as the early Zhou and nearly contemporary with them. The features many consider unique to Chinese civilization—its longevity, cultural continuity, stability, and robustness to disasters—are seen in a much weaker form in later time periods.

Under the Han dynasty, successor to the Qin, many of the precedents set by the Legalists were integrated into a Confucian framework by a new generation of statesmen and thinkers. Confucianism had been unable to rebuild China purely by replicating previous social technology. There, Legalist pragmatism proved more effective. But in order to provide continuity once new states arose, Confucianism proved adept at sustaining the system’s functionality. Their focus on the continuity of knowledge, by handing it down to future generations through custom and teaching, let them ensure that the achievements of dynastic founders would live on through their successors. Since then, Confucianism has remained a bedrock of Chinese civilization, returned to again and again by rulers—with impressive results.

The Balance of Harmony and Power

The distinctiveness of these schools’ approaches is evident in the way each engaged the great third force of the Hundred Schools: Taoism.

Lao Tzu is another impressive figure of the late Zhou period. Compared to Confucius, his approach was based less on the study of social technological artifacts and more on a strong understanding of the realities behind them. According to Taoist accounts, he was court librarian of the Zhou, caretaker for a very old and extensive but decaying cache of knowledge. Given his exceptional intelligence and access to relevant texts, he might have been better positioned to follow this approach than anyone else at the time. This is attested to by the fact that Confucius was said to have sought him out for information about a book on ritual.

But unlike either of the other schools, Lao Tzu’s tradition focused on internal practice and distanced itself from social and political involvement. Later legends all depict Lao Tzu as journeying away at the end of his life and vanishing from history. The relationship between Confucianism and Taoism was critical, particularly from the Taoist side. While both emphasized harmony, the former’s definition was social, while the latter focused on harmony with nature. This individualism and anti-social bias had consequences all through Chinese history. Virulent strains of Taoist thought informed cults like the Yellow Turbans during their rebellions and contributed to a Chinese suspicion of cult activity that lasts to this day.

Its individualism also put it at apparent odds with Legalism’s infamously harsh focus on order. But despite their extreme differences, Taoism agreed with Legalism that one could not rely on the past for wisdom. This pragmatism in fact led Legalist luminaries to be influenced by Taoist thought. When Taoist teaching began to organize itself into a ritualistic and religious force in the Huang-Lao school, its influence on political thought was through Legalist engagement, including by Han Fei himself. In this reading, Taoist concepts like wu wei—action without effort—refer to the Emperor’s total separation from his ministers, and the requirement that the Emperor’s will demand the same obedience as any force of nature.

All three of these great schools would play central roles in Chinese thought and practice after the Zhou dynasty’s fall. But in each case, they evolved beyond the original intents of their founders. The Legalist and Taoist focus on learning from nature and observance let their adherents bootstrap entire states by doing what worked and abandoning what did not. Moreover, the Legalist appropriation of Taoism made its concepts amenable to state power in a way that its more extreme expressions could not be. But depending on each individual or generation to re-learn the basics could never be a sustainable task. Legalism’s total focus on strategy and power could become a liability if it undermined the regime’s continuity. Confucianism was not able to fully learn and re-establish the social technology of China’s golden ages. However, its insight that such knowledge had to be maintained in order for a civilization to last secured its ascendancy in regimes which its rivals established, but could not maintain themselves.

Each school was able to identify and re-engineer admirable and possibly unique features of epistemic health, stability, and prosperity of later Chinese civilization. These were features the early Zhou displayed in great abundance. This collective fruit provides the greatest lesson for those studying social technology: the loss of this knowledge is common, but a permanent loss is rare. All that is needed is the right ruler or thinker for society to learn it anew.

Samo Burja is the founder of Bismarck Analysis, a political risk consulting firm. He is also a research fellow at the Long Now Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @SamoBurja.