Characteristics of Civilization in Ancient China

I was once instructed to find examples that show that China had the characteristics of civilization, and also to show how Chinese civilization was different from that of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Examples demonstrating that China possessed the characteristics of civilization are numerous. When one considers their ceremonial temples, their Book of Wisdom, the I-Ching, their world renown poetry and cuisine, the simple longevity of their society, and their over crowded cities, it is apparent that the Chinese knew just as much about civilization as did the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians. Conversely, however, the Chinese also differed in their experience of a civil society. We’ll explore the commonalities and differences herein. As you may know, the main five characteristics of a civilization are large population centers in cities, writing, ritual centers, continuity, and the arts.

China had a highly developed cultural core which was used to promote a moral order for its people. As the text “China: The Mandate of Heaven” (Wood) discloses, Confucius proposed that the “state is a moral order sustained by virtue, ritual, and reverence for ancestors.” (Wood) Every aspect of the Chinese civilization was initially imbued with these values. The ceremonial temples, and shrines throughout China were a large part of this. These ritual centers drew millions to China’s major cities. Of note are the famed Taoist temple atop the sacred mountain, Tai Shan, in the Shandong province, and the monument to Confucius in Suzhou, China.

The Chinese Book of Wisdom, the I-Ching, was another example of the presence of the characteristics of civilization in China. Considered one of the benchmarks of Eastern writing, it testified to the importance of the written word in Chinese society. This is a vital document for anyone studying the history of ancient civilization.

Additionally, there were the arts of China. Arts, as we know, are one of the fundamental characteristics of civilization. The poets, Li Po and Du Fu, headed the list of a long tradition of the Chinese arts. If cuisine were allowed to be classified among the arts, then Chinese cuisine would lead the world. It was one of the earliest known, and most sought after cuisines. Their centuries old, famous dishes have evolved into a literal art form.

It is common knowledge that China boasts the world’s largest population. Much of this populous resided and still resides in China’s cities. While the details of the particular living arrangements and standards of living among the millions of residents of cities like Kai Thanks, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and Tianjin are the topic of another setting, none can doubt China’s commitment to living in cities. This is one of the most obvious characteristics of civilization that China demonstrates well.

Finally, China is one of the oldest civilizations on Earth. Their culture and traditions impressively span several millennia, as those who’ve studied any ancient civilization of the world well know. They have demonstrated the type of inter-generational continuity that few other civilizations have enjoyed. While parallels to all of these examples can be found in the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, three examples, in particular, serve to accentuate some differences between the three civilizations.

In ancient China:

1 – One man set the tone forever

2 – Religion was less dogmatic

3 – An integral component of the society was imported

While possessing the same characteristics of civilization as other ancient civilizations of the world, one prime area of difference was with regard to leadership. As stated, one man significantly influenced Chinese society forever… single handedly! In Mesopotamia and Egypt, tribes, elders and divine kings set the tone for society for hundreds of years. Confucius believed and promulgated the belief that ‘goodness’ was the foundation of a successful civilization. Leaders were therefore, only granted authority for as long as they remained ‘upright’. Confucius was concerned with establishing a sustainable moral order on Earth. Confucius alone is to be credited with shaping China’s civilization, past and present. While both Mesopotamia and Egypt had their heroes, their influence was not as far reaching as Confucius’ was on China.

Secondly, in China religion had a much humbler, less dogmatic tone than the religions of Mesopotamia and Egypt. There was less talk of the divine, or divine directives, and more of an emphasis on personal enlightenment and honoring one’s lineage. It seems that the Chinese were more concerned about spirituality than traditional forms and themes of religion. With the introduction of Taoism in China, the ‘right path’ was sought by all. Even this, itself, is a contrast to the religions of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The act of searching for the ‘right path’ was an admission that one did not know the path and had to find it. This thought was juxtaposed with the more dogmatic, propitiation laced polytheistic religions of Mesopotamia and Egypt.

There was also the issue of Buddhism. This was an imported idea from India. While all three civilizations learned from other cultures and made their distinct, major contributions to humanity over the years, among the three, only China imported a major component of its civilization from another country. Buddhism came from India. It seemed to perfectly compliment Confucianism and Taoism, stressing inner enlightenment and ritual meditation. The Chinese quickly adopted and employed its precepts.

Taken together, all of these many examples prove that the Chinese possessed the requisite characteristics of civilization. We could further conclude that the Chinese are masters of city life. Alchemists, if you will, carefully combining the arts, large populations in cities, ceremonial temples and other ritual centers, time honored writings, and an unrivalled continuity into a tightly knit civilization while maintaining significant deviations from the paths toward civilization that Mesopotamia and Egypt had taken.