The Ideology of a Total State in Early China

The age of the Warring States (453-221 BCE) that preceded the establishment of the Chinese empire is often associated with woeful political turmoil, extreme levels of violence, and political depravity. Yet it was also one of the most fascinating, dynamic, and intellectually productive periods in China’s long history. It was the age of novel departures and profound changes in all walks of life, from economy, which benefitted dramatically from the widespread introduction of iron tools to military affairs (the replacement of aristocratic, chariot-led armies by mass infantry armies staffed by peasant conscripts) to politics, which witnessed the formation of centralized and bureaucratized territorial states that replaced the loose aristocratic polities of the Bronze Age (ca. 1500–400 BCE). Add to this the major social change, namely the demise of the hereditary aristocracy and the rise of the much broader stratum of shi 士 (sometimes translated as “men-of-service”), the men who owed their positions primarily to their abilities rather than their pedigree. These profound changes required new approaches to a variety of administrative, economic, military, social, and ethical issues: old truths had to be reconsidered or reinterpreted. For intellectuals eager to tackle a variety of new questions, this was the golden age.

The Warring States period is renowned for its intellectual creativity. As is suggested by its nickname, the age of the Hundred Schools of Thought, it was marked by immense pluralism and diversity of opinions. Yet polemics aside, there were ideas that thinkers of different ideological affiliations held in common. All of them sought the ways to attain peace and stability, and orderly rule to the entire known world (which was for them largely coterminous with would be China). All agreed that only political unity in “All under Heaven” will put an end to the devastating warfare. But how to attain this goal was bitterly contested. Many thinkers cherished hopes that the future unifier will be a morally upright leader who will unify the world without bloodshed and oppression. On the opposite side of the spectrum stood political realists, the most notable of whom was the major reformer Shang Yang (d. 338 BCE). For him and his followers who contributed to the Book of Lord Shang the solution was different: create a powerful state that will fully utilize material and human resources under its control and set on a course of continuous expansion until the last of the rivals be subjugated.

The Warring States period is renowned for its intellectual creativity. As is suggested by its nickname, the age of the Hundred Schools of Thought, it was marked by immense pluralism and diversity of opinions.

To attain this goal, Shang Yang and his intellectual associates dispelled with the common expectation that political power should belong to morally cultivated persons. The properly functioning state should be based on impartial norms, laws, and standards, which will not depend on the leaders’ moral and intellectual qualities. Nor should the state try to change the covetous nature of its inhabitants. The people’s strive to attain material benefits and enhance their social status is a given and cannot be altered. Yet there is nothing bad about this. One just needs to establish a political system which will utilize the humans’ innate covetousness to channel the population toward socially desirable behavior. The Book of Lord Shang explains: “Human beings have likes and dislikes; hence the people can be ruled. The ruler must investigate likes and dislikes. Likes and dislikes are the root of rewards and penalties. The disposition of the people is to like ranks and emoluments and to dislike punishments and penalties. The ruler sets up the two in order to guide the people’s will and to establish whatever he desires.” (9.3).

The system of ranks of merit effectively transformed the society from one based on pedigree into a much more open one in which individual merit, especially military merit, determined social position.

This is in a nutshell the rationale of Shang Yang’s theory. To properly motivate the people, the ruler should employ a combination of positive (rewards, ranks, emoluments) and negative (punishments, penalties) incentives. A clear, fair, and unequivocal implementation of these two will direct the people to the pursuits desired by the ruler. Punishments should be merciless and inevitable. The system of mandatory denouncement of evildoers and uniform implementation of harsh penalties will nip the transgressions in their bud. But positive incentives are no less important. To motivate the people to fight, Shang Yang overhauled Qin’s social system replacing the pedigree-based order with the new system of ranks of merit for which most males were eligible. The eight lowest ranks were distributed in exchange for military achievements, in particular the decapitation of enemy soldiers, or could be purchased by wealthy individuals in exchange for grain. Successful rank holders could be incorporated into the military or civilian administration and thereafter be promoted up the social ladder. Each rank granted its holder economic, social, legal, and sumptuary privileges. The ranks were not fully inheritable; the heir normally received a rank one or two positions lower than his father, and the decrease was sharper for the holders of higher ranks. The system therefore generated a much higher degree of social mobility than had prevailed in the aristocratic age.

Shang Yang’s reforms set Qin on the course of empowerment until it finally unified the Chinese world in 221 BCE. However, this achievement marked the dead end of the ideology of a total state.

The system of ranks of merit effectively transformed the society from one based on pedigree into a much more open one in which individual merit, especially military merit, determined social position. This system dramatically increased the motivation of Qin’s soldiers to fight and attain merit on the battlefield, which contributed to Qin’s army becoming one of the most formidable war machines in China’s history. Yet to function well the system of positive incentives, i.e., ranks of merit and adjacent economic and social benefits, should be exclusive. The Book of Lord Shang denounces any alternative routes of enrichment (e.g., through commerce) and socio-political advancement (e.g. through learning). “If the people can get benefits and emoluments without having to risk their lives in the face of difficulty, then emoluments are issued, but the state remains poor” (9.4). The authors summarize: “Those who do not work but eat, who do not fight but attain glory, who have no rank but are respected, who have no emolument but are rich, who have no office but lead—these are called ‘villains’ (18.6)”.

This dramatic assaults on the entirety of autonomous social and economic elites betrays Shang Yang’s desire to establish the state’s total control over political, social, and economic power and even over social prestige. Whether or not the goal was fulfilled in the state of Qin is debatable, although undoubtedly Qin advanced in this direction. The short-term results were most impressive. Shang Yang’s reforms set Qin on the course of empowerment until it finally unified the Chinese world in 221 BCE. However, this achievement marked the dead end of the ideology of a total state. Qin’s oppressive and hyperactive state mechanism became counterproductive once the age of fierce interstate warfare came to the end. The Qin dynasty was wiped out by the popular rebellion only 14 years after its establishment. In the aftermath of its downfall, intellectuals—who disliked Shang Yang’s derisive attitude to their stratum—discredited his ideology and caused its eventual abandonment.

*All citations are from ‘The Book of Lord Shang: Apologetics of State Power in Early China’ (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), Edited and Translated by Yuri Pines.
Yuri Pines

Yuri Pines

Yuri Pines 尤銳 is Professor of Chinese History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His monographs include The Book of Lord Shang: Apologetics of State Power in Early China (2017); The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and Its Imperial Legacy (2012); and Envisioning Eternal Empire: Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Era (2009).

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