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Chinese Imperial System

Updated on June 23, 2014
A famous Buddha statue in Mile county, Honghe.
A famous Buddha statue in Mile county, Honghe. | Source


All political systems contain flaws due to the 'human factor'. The Chinese Imperial System was no different, yet its longevity and ability to manage a large population might suggest it worked
better than most. The imperial system lasted for over 2000 years and by 1850 had a population numbering 400 million. Its values based on the Mandate of Heaven, kinship system of ancestor worship, and Confucianism were its most enduring qualities. Belief in the divine order and rule helped to overcome the human factor, and contributed to the system's endurance. The Mandate of Heaven's importance to the Chinese people was even carried into the communist regime when in 1976 several events culminated in the people's belief that the mandate had been withdrawn from the government (2). Whether divine control was real or not didn't seem to be a factor, even the illusion of it could inspire the majority to support the ruling government.

Mandate of Heaven

Philosophers of the Zhou dynasty were the first to incorporate the Mandate of Heaven or "tianming" (3). The ruler, also known as the "son of heaven", was considered the only channel by way of his ancestors, to Ti, the high god. Through this divine connection the ruler was responsible for the welfare of his subjects, and natural order (Bodley 225). As long as the order was maintained, the king held the Mandate and his imperial rule, and was supported by self sufficient villagers through taxes, tribute, and labour. Like many political systems, a dynasty would eventually lose its mandate through corruption, rebellion and/or cataclysmic events. A period of chaos would ensue, yet a new dynasty based on divine right of rule would emerge from the ashes and begin anew. This was to be later emphasised and strengthened by the Confucian ideology which became a way of life firmly embedded into the Chinese thinking.


Confucianism became state sponsored and constructed an ordered way of life where every aspect was taken into consideration. "Li" , or ritual, stated the appropriate mode of behaviour for any situation. "Ren" promoted benevolence toward others. "Jungzi", or the concept of the noble man, became a standard of excellence attained through study for each person and encouraged a concentration on the five relationships where one would also practice filial piety, or duty to one's parents and ancestors. This kinship system promoted family values and bonds which in turn "minimised the potential for conflict" (Bodley 218) that the vast inequality between the elite and peasantry would have incurred. The Mandate of Heaven moved from the sole responsibility of the ruler to include all people and their obligations to the welfare of their relations (4). Taoism and Buddhism were incorporated into the Confucian lifestyle and brought about a spiritual element including the concepts of heaven, hell, sin, karma, and judgement (Bodley 240).


Four Stages of Government

Historian Jack Dull identified four stages of imperial Chinese government (Bodley 219). The first stage, patrimonial (descent traced through male ancestors), ran from 1766 - 221 BC. This period established the Mandate of Heaven and formalised it as a reason for legitimate rule. This was also the era when Confucius (551 - 479) formulated his ideas and taught. 221 BC ushered in a second stage, meritocracy, where theoretically, local individuals within the different regional governments were promoted on merit. A constant struggle against corruption created the need for provinces where officials oversaw the commanderies. During this stage Confucianism was recognised by the state (141 - 87 BC), and Buddhism was introduced. The third stage, Aristocracy (220 -906) was dominated by "hereditary hierarchy of social status" (Bodley 220). The Gentry stage ( 960 - 1911) saw the development of the exam system. The five classics studied were the "I Ching" (the Book of Changes concerned with divination according to Confucian ethics), the "Shu Ching" (Book of Documents which laid out ideal forms for government), the "Shih Ching" (Confucian poetry), the "Li Chi" ( Book of Rites specifying duties and rituals for all ), and the "Ch'un-ch'iu" (Spring and Autumn Annals of dynastic history)( Bodley 228). All were based on Confucian and dynastic values. This particular imperial system allowed for more people to strive for and reach social mobility, thus giving more of the population a vested interest in maintaining the system. In a strange twist, the civil service exam was abolished in 1905, only six years before the imperial system came to an end. Although the stages may have differed in their method, the imperial system continued to rule, in no small part due to the Confucian way. Leon Stover and Takeko Stover described the system as a "liturgical government", and argued that "Confucianism created a form of moral nationalism that held the empire together in the absence of overt political or military force" (Bodley 232). Through Confucianism the peasantry were taught that "inequalities are in the nature of things" (Mencius), and one should "seek no happiness that does not pertain to your lot in life" (Confucius).

Tang Dynasty (AD618-906). Excavated 1975, Xi'an City, Shaanxi Province.  Shaanxi History Museum
Tang Dynasty (AD618-906). Excavated 1975, Xi'an City, Shaanxi Province. Shaanxi History Museum | Source


Many of our societies and forms of government present and past, would be hard pressed to match the endurance of the Chinese Imperial dynastic system. Perhaps a page could be taken from the Chinese system where the basis of government concentrated on family values, and spiritual openness without dogmatic rhetoric.


1) Bodley, John H. Cultural Anthropology Tribes, States, and the Global System Third Edition. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2000


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