Ancient China: Middle Kingdom through the Tang Dynasty

Soldiers on guard for over 2,100 years

When 13-year-old Qin Emperor Shi Huangdi came to power in 221 B.C.E., one of his first acts was to begin preparing for his death. In addition to his army of over 8,000 clay soldiers, his tomb was lined in bronze and contained a vast wealth of jewels and artifacts beyond imagination. / Courtesy of Judith Serrao, UAE

IHA, Philadelphia


In 1974, researchers uncovered the tomb of Shi Huangdi, the legendary Ch’in (Qin) emperor who unified China and reigned from 221-207 B.C.E. Inside of the tomb were life-sized soldiers made of terracotta (Italian for “baked earth”), lined up neatly in 38 rows. The soldiers were amazing in their detail, with each having different facial features, likely modeled after actual soldiers. They even carried real bronze weapons, with blades that remained razor sharp after 2,200 years.

The quest for immortality

To live forever. That was the goal of ancient Chinese Taoists. They pursued it through many different means including alchemy, diet, gymnastics, and breathing methods.

However, what truly left archaeologists and the rest of the world watching on TV in awe was this: There were over 8,000 soldiers lined up in the tomb! Infantrymen, chariots pulled by life-sized clay horses, crossbowmen, it was a complete army, armed and armored. Stretching 650 feet back into the chamber, these soldiers were created to guard the emperor in the afterlife. Ordered by the emperor at age 13, it took 36 years and 700,000 workers to complete construction of the massive tomb and its army.

A Lesson in Paradoxes

Welcome to the mystery and wonder that is ancient China. In the subsequent readings, you will learn that Chinese culture developed differently from any other ancient civilization. Chinese history is a lesson in paradoxes. Their past is full of natural disasters and wars; yet some of the most beautiful art, literature, and architecture have been created and preserved through the 13 dynastic periods, spanning 4,000 years into the 20th century. These trends are reflected by three of the most influential dynasties of China: the Shang, Han, and Tang.

Written language began in China with the oracle bones and tortoise shells of the Shang dynasty, and the beauty of their bronze work was unrivaled for hundreds of years. The Han dynasty will always be remembered for opening up to the Western world through its use of the Silk Road. Ideas such as Buddhism were exchanged as freely as silk and spices with lands as far west as India and the Roman Empire.

Red hair in China?

A little over a decade ago, researchers found the perfectly preserved bodies of a band of travelers migrating through the bleak western deserts of China. What made this find startling was that the mummies were European, with pale faces and reddish hair. Could this signal the discovery of a new civilization?

China’s most enduring landmark, the Great Wall, was built primarily during the Han period. Its earthen walls protected the Chinese people from foreign invasions throughout the centuries. It was during the Tang dynasty that the most beautiful poetry of dynastic China was written, as were the civil examinations that remained in use into the 20th century. China was, and is, truly a land of invention and discovery.

The major philosophies originating in China, Taoism and Confucianism, will be examined in the hope that we may learn from their vast wealth of knowledge. Brilliant thinkers such as Lao Tzu and Confucius molded the political and religious landscapes of dynastic China with their radical ideas about the nature of man.

Xia (Hsia) c.1994-c.1523 B.C.E. Yu the Great, Huang Di irrigation & farming, domesticated animals, writing
Shang (Yin) c.1523-1111 Fuhao bronze, oracle bones, calendar
Chou (Zhou) 1111-221 Confucius, Lao-tzu iron, written laws, money, feudalism
Ch’in (Qin) 221-206 Shi Huangdi bureaucracy, roads, canals, beginning of the Great Wall
Han 206 B.C.E.-220 C.E. Wu Ti, Wang Mang porcelain, paper, Buddhism, Silk Road, encyclopedia (Shiji)
Three Kingdoms 220-280 growth of Taoism
Jin (Tsin or Chin) 265-420 exploration into southeast Asia
Southern & Northern 420-588 wheelbarrow, advances in astronomy and medicine
Sui 581-617 Sui Wen-ti central government, Great Wall restored, Great Canal built
Tang (T’ang) 618-907 Tai-tsung, Du Fu, Wang Wei land expansion, civil exams, poetry, sculpture, painting
Five Dynasties 907-960 woodblock printing, printing of paper money
Song (Sung) 960-1279 tea, cotton, gunpowder, growth of Confucianism
Yuan (Yung) 1260-1368 Kublai Khan playwriting, medical literature, playing cards
Ming 1368-1644 contact with West, architecture and literature flourish
Ch’ing (Qing or Manchu) 1644-1911 further land expansion, restoration of ancient text

The Middle Kingdom

Yu the Great

To prevent flooding of the north China plain by the Yellow River, Yu the Great organized large-scale projects in irrigation and dike-building. Yu then went on to found the first dynasty of China, the Xia.

From the misty veil of prehistory emerged the myths of ancient China. Heroes turned to gods, and men and beasts performed miraculous feats. Their myths explain the discoveries of the tools and practices used by the Chinese to the present-day.

Yet Chinese mythology has never contained any clear-cut creation stories. The people of China existed long before creation myths became popular. Instead, the earliest Chinese myths center on issues that everyday people had to face. One example involves a man named Yu.

The Legend of Yu

Flooding worried Emperor Shun. The Yellow River and its springs had overflowed, destroying farmland and putting people in danger. So the emperor consulted his advisors to find a way to stop the flooding. They all agreed that a man by the name of Yu, who could transform into a dragon or a bear, was the only one who could succeed where others had failed.

Yu’s own father, Kun, had tried for ten years to build dams and dig ditches without success, the waters always overflowing any attempts to tame them. Upon the emperor’s request, Yu came up with a plan. Yu knew that in Heaven there was a special “swelling soil” that multiplied when it touched water. He humbly asked the gods for the soil, and received it with their blessings. With the help of a winged dragon, Yu flew all over the land, using the soil to plug 250,000 springs, the sources of the water.

That problem solved, Yu turned his attention to the Yellow River and the flood waters that still remained. Amazingly, the solution came not from the mind of Yu, but in the form of a map on the back of a tortoise shell. Using the map, and later the help of the gods, Yu and his dragon were able to dig irrigation ditches that finally diverted the water off the farmland and saved the day. As a reward for his diligence, upon the death of Shun, Yu the Great became the first emperor of the Xia dynasty.

The Yellow River

The Yellow River, said to be the “Mother of the Chinese People,” gets its color from the huge amounts of silt pulled from its banks and riverbed. / YRCC, Huanghe Feng, Yellow River Pub House, 1996.

The Real Xia

Although the myths of Yu and others made great stories, for centuries they had no archaeological evidence to support them. So what is actually known about ancient China? Until 1928 when archaeologists excavated a site at Anyang in the Henan Province of China, no one knew what parts, if any, of these ancient tales were true. However at Anyang, remnants of cities, bronze tools, and tombs were found in the same places spoken of in ancient Chinese myths. These sites and artifacts proved the existence of the first dynasty established by Yu.

The Xia were able to harvest silk for clothing and artwork, created pottery using the potter’s wheel, and were very knowledgeable about farming practices such as irrigation. The Xia dynasty lasted approximately five hundred years, from the 21st to the 16th century B.C.E. It connected the Longshan people, who were the earliest culture of China known for their black-lacquered pottery, with the Shang dynasty that came much later.

An Impenetrable Land

The Chinese are the longest continuous civilization in the world, spanning 7,000 years of history. How could Chinese civilization survive when so many other cultures have come and gone? One possible answer lies in the physical geography of the region.

The legendary Yellow Emperor, Huang Di

The Yellow Emperor, Huang Di, is supposed to have founded China in approximately 4000 B.C.E. There is no archaeological evidence to support that claim however, leaving Huang Di obscured through the veil of history and Chinese mythology as a part-real, part-legendary figure.

With vast mountain ranges including the Himalayas standing imposingly to the southwest, the Gobi Desert to the north, and the Pacific Ocean stretching out to the east, the Chinese were in relative isolation from the rest of the world until the 1800s. In fact, because they believed they were in the middle of the world, surrounded by natural barriers on all sides, the Chinese thought of themselves as “Zhong Guo” — the Middle Kingdom.

Foreign invaders had great difficulty reaching China, and many of the most important discoveries, inventions, and beliefs of the West remained unknown to the Middle Kingdom. In the early years of their civilization, the Chinese developed a unique writing system, began using bronze for both tools and art, and created folk religions that later evolved into the philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism. These discoveries enabled the Chinese to develop a culture unlike any other the world has ever known.

Shang Dynasty – China’s First Recorded History


Fuhao, the first woman to appear in Chinese written history, commanded an army of 10,000 soldiers during the Shang dynasty. / Lu Yanguang

Recorded history in China begins with the Shang dynasty. Scholars today argue about when the dynasty began, with opinions ranging from the mid-18th to the mid-16th century B.C.E. Regardless of the dates, one event more than any other signaled the advent of the Shang dynasty — the Bronze Age.

It was during the Shang dynasty that bronze working became common. Thousands of artifacts from the ruins of Yin, the last capital of the Shang, were unearthed in the late 1920s and ’30s. Bronze vessels for drinking were used in ritual ceremonies, while bronze chariots and axes were used in battle. As the metal was associated with royalty, the tombs of Shang kings contained hundreds of small bronze objects, even including hairpins.

One of the few undisturbed tombs was that of the legendary Fuhao, wife of Wu-ting. Her tomb by itself contained 468 works of bronze and 775 pieces of jade. Some of the bronze objects found contained the first Chinese characters ever written. Very simple in nature, these characters often represented the name of the object’s owner.

Oracle bones

Oracles written on tortoise shells serve as the earliest evidence of the development of a writing system in China.

Them Bones

In addition to bronze, examples of the early Chinese writing system can be found on oracle bones, another type of artifact characteristic to the Shang dynasty. Ancient Chinese priests commonly used tortoise shells and cattle bones to answer questions about the future. They interpreted the cracks formed by holes punched in the bones. Oracle bones also served as a way for the priests to write down the history of the dynasty and the timeline of kings.

Today, over 150,000 oracle bones have been recovered. Unfortunately, many more artifacts containing early Chinese writing have been lost. Writing made on books of bamboo strips and silk could not survive centuries of burial in the earth. Many of those that did survive were burned by the first emperor of the Ch’in dynasty in approximately 100 B.C.E.

Shang Society

From what has survived archaeologists and historians have learned much of the Shang culture. The Shang were skilled workers in bone, jade, ceramics, stone, wood, shells, and bronze, as proven by the discovery of shops found on the outskirts of excavated palaces. The people of the Shang dynasty lived off of the land, and as time passed, settled permanently on farms instead of wandering as nomads.

The Shang dynasty 1700-1027 B.C.E.

The Shang dynasty emerged in the 17th century B.C.E. as the first true Chinese dynasty. Its boundaries are shown in gray.

To guard against flooding by the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, the ancient Shang developed complex forms of irrigation and flood control. The farming of millet, wheat, rice, and barley crops provided the major sources of food, but hunting was not uncommon. Domesticated animals raised by the Shang included pigs, dogs, sheep, oxen, and even silkworms.

Like many other ancient cultures, the Shang created a social pyramid, with the king at the top, followed by the military nobility, priests, merchants, and farmers. Burials were one way in which the social classes were distinguished. The elite were buried in elaborate pit tombs with various objects of wealth for a possible use in the afterlife. Even an elephant was found among the ruins of an ancient tomb. The people who built these tombs were sometimes buried alive with the dead royalty. The lesser classes were buried in pits of varying size based on status, while people of the lowest classes were sometimes even tossed down wells.

Beginning to Believe

All of the classes however had one thing in common — religion. The major philosophies to later shape China — Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism — had not yet been formed. Folk religion during the Shang dynasty was polytheistic, meaning the people worshipped many gods.

Chinese Bronze Age artwork

This bronze sculpture of a human head with gold leaf is typical of the bronze artwork created during the Shang dynasty.

Ancestor worship was also very important to the Shang. It was thought that the success of crops and the health and well being of people were based on the happiness of dead ancestors. If the ancestors of a family were pleased, life for that family would be prosperous. If the spirits were not pleased however, great tragedies could occur.

In addition, the god worshipped by everyone during the Shang dynasty was Shang Ti, the “lord on high.” Shang Ti was believed to be the link between people and heavenly beings. The souls of ancestors, it was thought, visited with Shang Ti and received their instructions from him. It was therefore very important to make sure that Shang Ti was happy. This was done with various rituals and prayers, offerings, and sometimes even human sacrifices.

The last king of the Shang dynasty, Shang Chou, was a cruel man known for his methods of torture. The dynasty had been weakened by repeated battles with nomads and rivaling tribes within China. Shang Chou was ousted by the rebel leader Wu-wang in 1111 B.C.E.

Han Dynasty – Cultural Heights

The giant panda

The giant panda lived for centuries in China’s bamboo forests, and were regarded as semi-divine during the Han dynasty. They are now an endangered species.

After the fall of the Shang dynasty in 1111 B.C.E., the succeeding dynasties of the Chou (1111-221 B.C.E.) and the Ch’in (221-206 B.C.E.) continued the great advances made by the early Chinese. Building techniques improved, and the use of iron became common. A system of hydraulics was used to dig riverbeds deeper, reducing the number of floods that destroyed farmland and endangered lives.

However, during these dynasties there were also times of great disunity. Feudalism became popular during the Chou dynasty, a practice in which the king shared his power with lords, who in turn paid the king for their lands and titles. As the Chou dynasty weakened, lords fought among themselves. This Warring States period (403-221 B.C.E.) only ended when all of northern China was united under the Ch’in regime.

Chinese acupuncture diagrams

The ancient Chinese healing systems of acupuncture and acupressure use diagrams of points, called meridians, to direct energy flow throughout the body.

Although the Ch’in created needed change in China’s government, they were harsh leaders. They supported the idea of Legalism, which taught that human nature could not be trusted, and only with strict laws and severe penalties could society be successful. After only fifteen years, the Ch’in dynasty collapsed, replaced by Liu Pang of the Han. It was he who gained control over the border states, and established one of the most successful periods in Chinese history, the Han dynasty, in 202 B.C.E.

The Rise of the Han

The Han dynasty immediately restored feudal lords to their positions of power. The Chinese people prospered in peace once again. Paper and porcelain were invented during the Han dynasty, as was the wheelbarrow. Legend states that paper was first created in 105 C.E., but archaeological evidence suggests that it was in use up to 200 years earlier. In comparison, paper was not widely circulated in the West until 1150 C.E., over one thousand years later.

The Silk Road trade route

The 7,000-mile Silk Road flourished during the Han dynasty, allowing trade between China and India. / Mike Dowling, “The Electronic Passport to the Silk Road.”

The major achievements of the early Han dynasty revolve around the first emperor to reign under the Mandate of Heaven, Wu Ti. Emperors were under heaven’s rule according to the mandate. Their success was based on the opinion of the gods. If the gods became unhappy with an emperor’s rule, it was believed that signs would be sent to the Chinese people, usually in the form of natural disasters. In this event, the emperor lost the Heavenly Mandate, and was usually overthrown.

The gods must have looked upon Wu Ti favorably, as he reigned for 54 years from 140-87 B.C.E, expanding the borders of China into Vietnam in the south and Korea in the north. However, it was his westward expansion that most influenced what became the Han Empire.

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China runs 4,600 miles, and is said to be the only man-made structure visible from space. / Beijing: Glimpses of History published by Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, China.

Westward Ho!

Wu Ti had heard rumors of powerful and wealthy lands to the west. In 138 B.C.E. the emperor sent the explorer Chang Ch’ien with a party of 100 men to search the western frontier. Thirteen years later, Chang Ch’ien returned with only one of the original 100 men and told amazing stories of capture and imprisonment in central Asia. Although he did not succeed in reaching the lands of Persia, Arabia, or the Roman Empire, Chang Ch’ien did learn plenty about them.

Wu Ti sent Chang Ch’ien to central Asia again a few years later, this time to make alliances using gifts of cattle, gold, and silk. Wu Ti’s chief historian, Ssu-ma Ch’ien, later kept a record of these journeys and much more in his work called the Shiji (Records of the Historian). The Shiji chronicles the history of China from the Xia dynasty up to the reign of Wu Ti.

Chang Ch’ien’s journeys began the widespread use of the trade route known as the Silk Road. Reaching as far west as the Caspian Sea, goods such as ivory, glass, wool, tapestries, exotic fruits and vegetables, precious metals and stones, even animals such as elephants and lions were imported into China. In return, foreign traders received furs, spices, jade, iron, ceramic, and bronze objects, as well as the much sought after silk. By the 1st century C.E., silk clothing became the style and obsession of Roman citizens.

Another Brick in the Wall

Arguably the greatest achievement in all of Chinese history continued during the Han dynasty — the construction of the Great Wall of China. Originally begun during the Ch’in dynasty, Wu Ti restored the wall, and continued it another 300 miles into the Gobi Desert to protect against attacks from central Asia. The Gobi Desert section was made with stamped earth and reinforced with willow reeds.

The art of porcelain-making

Chinese artisans learned the secret of creating porcelain during the Han period. Europeans figured out the same secret … in 1709.

Yet the Great Wall has survived 2,000 years of invasion and erosion, spanning over 4,500 miles through northern China at the time of its completion. It is now regarded as one of the wonders of the world. The Great Wall came at a high price. At the height of its construction, one mile of wall was created each day, at an average cost of 10 lives per mile.

Highs and Lows

Acupuncture, the piercing of needles into the skin, became popular in the 2nd century C.E. along with herbal medicine as a treatment for common illnesses. The Han also studied in astronomical matters. They believed comets, eclipses, and other unusual celestial events were ominous signs that could be used to predict future disasters. They created atlases depicting the shapes of 29 different types of comets as well as the accurate positions of Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. Sunspots and exploding stars called nova were also first discovered during the Han dynasty.

With only a short interruption by the reformer Wang Mang from 9-24 C.E., the Han dynasty lasted for well over 400 years. But by the beginning of the 3rd century C.E., the corruption in government that signaled the decline of nearly every Chinese dynasty had taken its toll. This corruption combined with political struggles and an increasing population, making a unified China impossible. The Han dynasty of China finally lost its Heavenly Mandate in 220 C.E., beginning nearly 400 years of political chaos.

Tang Dynasty – The Golden Age

Herder's Horse

Both poetry and painting reached their creative peaks in China during the Tang dynasty. Herder’s Horse was painted by Han Gan, one of the most famous artists in Chinese history.

In the chaos that reigned after the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 C.E., no one knew if a unified China would ever again be possible. Warring clans, political murders, and foreign invaders characterized the next four centuries in which the Three Kingdoms (220-280 C.E.), the Western and Eastern Jin (265-420 C.E.), and the Northern and Southern dynasties (420-588 C.E.) did little to build upon the accomplishments of earlier Chinese culture.

The feuding clans of China were finally united once again in 589 C.E. by Wen-ti and the Sui dynasty (581-617 C.E.), a ruthless leadership often compared to the Legalist Ch’in regime. The Sui dynasty accomplished great feats, including another restoration of the Great Wall of China and the construction of the Great Canal linking the eastern plains to the northern rivers. However, the Sui taxed peasants heavily, and forced them into hard labor. Lasting only 36 years, the Sui dynasty weakened after suffering heavy losses in fighting against Korea. It fell apart when the general population lost faith in the government and revolted.

The Grand Canal of China

At 1,100 miles long, The Grand Canal is a building achievement on par with the Great Wall of China. / George Mobley/NGS Image Collection

History Repeating

The rise of the Tang dynasty in China mirrored the rise of the Han over 800 years earlier. Like the Han dynasty before them, the Tang dynasty was created after the fall of a ruthless leadership. And like the Han before them, the Tang dynasty had their own powerful leader, Emperor Tai-tsung.

The first emperor of the Tang dynasty, Kao-tsu (618-626 C.E.), continued many of the practices begun during the Sui dynasty. He granted equal amounts of land to each adult male in return for taxes and continued the trend of local government rule. Kao-tsu also created a monetary system of copper coins and silk ribbons. He wrote a set of laws, revised every two decades that lasted into the Ming dynasty of the 14th century.

One of Kao-tsu’s sons, General Li Shih-min, succeeded in eliminating all political rivals of the Tang and established firm control of the Tang dynasty over the newly reunified China. He then proceeded to murder his brothers, and forced his father to abdicate the throne to him. Preferring his temple name, Tai-tsung took the throne in 626 C.E. The Golden Age of China had begun.

The Fruits of Labor

Tai-tsung maintained many of the political policies already in place. He shrank the government at both the central and state levels. The money saved by using a smaller government enabled Tai-tsung to save food as surplus in case of famine and to provide economic relief for farmers in case of flooding or other disasters. Civil exams based on merit were used once again and resulted in wise court officials.

The 13 Emperors, late 7th century silk painting

Emperor Tang Taizong commissioned this portrait of himself with 12 previous emperors tracing back to the Han dynasty as a warning to his son, the prince, to learn from the mistakes of his ancestors. / ©1996 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The only major military pressure came from the Turkish frontier, but the Turks were defeated by 657 C.E., beginning 150 years of Tang control over the region. As a result of these improvements and victories, the common people were successful and content. It was during this successful era that woodblock printing and gunpowder were invented.

Meanwhile, the borders of the Tang dynasty expanded far into Korea and central Asia. China became even larger during the Tang dynasty than it had been during the Han. The Chinese regularly communicated with lands as far west as Persia, present-day Afghanistan, and the Byzantine Empire. Goods and, more importantly, ideas continued to be exchanged on the Silk Road.

The Melting Pot Boils Over

The capital cities of the Tang dynasty, Ch’ang-an and Loyang, became melting pots to many cultures and a large number of beliefs such as Zoroastrianism and Islam. Buddhist missionaries had begun the difficult journey from northern India to China as early as the 1st century C.E., but it was not until the Tang dynasty that Buddhism reached its height of popularity in China. By the mid-7th century, new Buddhist schools of thought had developed a distinctly Chinese flavor, including the Ch’an school, which later evolved into Zen Buddhism.

Chinese trade routes during the Tang dynasty

The Tang dynasty was a period of expansion, especially in trading with foreign lands. Caravan routes traveled as far as Syria for items ranging from glassware and tapestries to jasmine and other exotic herbs.

However, during the late Tang period the economy was suffering. The emperor Wu-tsung, a devout Taoist, attempted to eliminate Buddhism from 843 to 845 C.E. by closing thousands of temples in order to take control of their wealth. Although the attempt to destroy Buddhism lasted only a short time, the religion never recovered, instead beginning a steady decline in China. The decline of Buddhism and conflicts between the Chinese and foreign traders marked the beginning of a change in Chinese attitudes. After hundreds of years of cultural exchange, by 836 C.E. no foreigners would be welcome in China.

Poetic Justice

A great contribution of the Tang dynasty came years after the death of Tai-tsung, when the dynasty was at its political and economic height. The Tang dynasty was a golden age of art and literature for the Chinese. Li Po, Tu Fu, and Wang Wei were poets renowned for the simplicity and naturalism of their writings. The poetry and art of the times however were deeply affected by the rebellion of northeastern troops against court officials in the capital city of Ch’ang-an in 756 C.E. Named after the leader of the rebel troops, the An Lu-shan Rebellion caused the deaths of countless people, including members of the royal family, and marked the beginning of the end for the Tang dynasty.

The decline of the dynasty increased during the second half of the 9th century as factions within the central government began feuding. These feuds led to political plots and scandals, with assassinations not uncommon. The dynasty split into ten separate kingdoms as the central government weakened. After a series of collapses beginning around 880 C.E., northern invaders finally destroyed the Tang dynasty. The Golden Age was over.

Taoism and Confucianism – Ancient Philosophies

Pooh and the Tao

Although he is an animal with Very Little Brain, Winnie the Pooh understands better than most what it is to live effortlessly and happily, two characteristics of the Taoist way.

“Those who know do not say; those who say do not know.” –Lao-tzu

“The superior men are sparing in their words and profuse in their deeds.” –Confucius

The 6th century B.C.E. was an amazing time of philosophical growth for ancient China. It was during that time that the two most influential spiritual leaders native to China, Confucius and Lao-tzu, are thought to have lived and taught. The philosophies that they practiced, Taoism and Confucianism, existed simultaneously in dynastic China, attracting countless numbers of followers over the past 2,500 years. The fascination of both the Eastern and Western worlds with these two legendary figures and the philosophies that they created remains strong.

The Old Master

Lao-tzu, translated as either “Old Master” or “Old Boy,” is believed to be the author of Taoism. Very little is known of his life; he may not even have existed. According to myth, at his birth around 604 B.C.E., Lao-tzu came from the womb as an old man, white-haired and full of wisdom. He eventually took a position as head librarian of the Imperial Archives. Saddened by society’s lack of goodness, Lao-tzu decided to leave his home in Luoyang to live out the rest of his life in quiet and solitude somewhere beyond the Great Wall of China, possibly near Tibet. As he passed through the city gates for the final time, the gatekeeper asked Lao-tzu to write down his parting thoughts. The “Old Master” agreed, and three days later returned with a small book. Lao-tzu then left civilization, never to return. His writings were titled the Tao Te Ching, and became the most important text of Taoism.

The Vinegar Tasters

Lao-tzu smiles while the Buddha and Confucius wince after they taste-test vinegar. The philosophies of ancient China are summarized in the faces of its three most colorful characters.

According to Taoism, the entire universe and everything in it flows with a mysterious, unknowable force called the Tao. Translated literally as “The Way,” the Tao has many different meanings. It is the name that describes ultimate reality. The Tao also explains the powers that drive the universe and the wonder of human nature. Taoists believe that everything is one despite all appearances. Opinions of good and evil or true and false only happen when people forget that they are all one in the Tao. Therefore, it is the aim of Taoists not to forget, and if forgotten to remember that oneness. However, Lao-tzu reminds believers that the Tao is difficult to grasp: “the Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.”

Over time a Taoist religion evolved, becoming somewhat different from the philosophy of Taoism just described. While religious Taoism held some of the same beliefs, it also called for worship of many gods and ancestors, a practice that began during the Shang dynasty. Other religious practices included the cultivation of bodily energy called “chi,” the creation of a system of morals, and use of alchemy in attempts to attain immortality. The folk religion of Taoism became popular after its adoption by China as the state religion in 440 C.E., and continues to be practiced even to the present-day.

Confucius and the Analects

The other driving philosophy of dynastic China was created by a politician, musician, and philosopher named Confucius. Born in 551 B.C.E., Confucius wandered throughout China, first as a government employee, and later as a political advisor to the rulers of the Chou dynasty. In later life, Confucius left politics to teach a small group of students. After his death in 479 B.C.E., the ethics and moral teachings of Confucius were written down by his students to become the Lun-yü, or Analects. Many of his clever sayings are still followed today. “It is as hard to be poor without complaining as to be rich without becoming arrogant.”

Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism

Lao-tzu, known as the “Old Master,” wrote his parting thoughts on the Tao or The Way before he left civilization. The Tao Te Ching, as this writing came to be known, has influenced millions during the last 2,500 years.

Learning to be human was the goal of Confucianism. According to Confucius, each person should act with virtue in all social matters; family, community, state, and kingdom, to ensure order and unity. Man’s virtue in all its forms is called “jen.” “Jen” is all encompassing and unable to be defined, in some respects similar to the Tao. Confucian ceremonies contained many rituals based in the Five Classics, especially the I Ching, or Book of Changes. Procedures for birth, marriage, and death were rigid and specific. For example, according to Confucian funeral tradition, a willow branch is always carried behind the body of the deceased symbolizing the soul of that person.

However, by far the most influential aspect of Confucianism remains the Analects: “Not to teach a man who can be taught, is to waste a man; to teach a man who cannot be taught, is a waste of words. The wise will lose neither men nor words.” It was sayings such as this one that made Confucianism the social philosophy of China from the Han dynasty in 202 B.C.E. until the end of dynastic rule in 1911.

Rival Philosophies

Taoism and Confucianism have lived together in China for well over 2,000 years. Confucianism deals with social matters, while Taoism concerns itself with the search for meaning. They share common beliefs about man, society, and the universe, although these notions were around long before either philosophy. Both began as philosophies, each later taking on religious overtones. Legend states that Confucius and Lao-tzu did in fact meet to discuss the Imperial Archives. Lao-tzu was unimpressed by the beautiful robes worn by Confucius, and did not agree with looking back on the past. “Put away your polite airs and your vain display of fine robes. The wise man does not display his treasures to those he does not know. And he cannot learn justice from the Ancients.”

Regardless of the disagreements between Lao-tzu and Confucius, both Taoism and Confucianism have served as guides. They have led China through the peaks and valleys of its vast history, the longest continuing story on the planet.