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In the ancient world, the states around the Mediterranean were ruled by various forms of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, each of which had varying levels of success. Meanwhile, in China, monarchy appears to be the only form of government that was ever in practice, or at least the only one that had any measure of success.

Are there any examples in ancient China of aristocratic or democratic rule being used or at least considered? What were the circumstances in China that made it more suited to monarchic rule than non-monarchic rule?

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Oligarchic rule existed in Ancient China at some point, I believe. Democracy was never existent in any form. One could argue it is a cultural/social thing, which would have some support... I'll leave the more knowledgeable folk to answer though. –  Noldorin Oct 14 '11 at 0:52
    
What were the oligarchic ones? I know of plenty of instances when the government was effectively under the control of a group powerful officials, but they still maintained a figurehead ruler as though anything other than monarchy was illegitimate. –  lins314159 Oct 14 '11 at 11:46
    
I think this is sort of answered if you look at the "Mandate of Heaven" where there is one Heavenly Emperor and when the gods smile on that one they rule. This has been considered the rationale behind the continual acceptance of dynasties, when one rises they have the Mandate but if they fall and are replace it's considered that the Mandate fell to someone else. –  MichaelF Oct 14 '11 at 11:58
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But why, in spite of the many schools of philosophy, did this concept meet with little challenge? –  lins314159 Oct 14 '11 at 12:17
    
@lins314159 In the later days of the Zhou dynasty, before the Warring states period started for ernest, the Emperor had been reduced to a token figure head with no actual power. The states within the empire were ruled by Lords and aristocrats. These families later took on the title of King as the Warring States period began. –  Rincewind42 Oct 15 '11 at 14:14
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In the ancient world, democracy or oligarchical republics existed only in city-states because it was unfeasible to conduct elections in a large country and potentially could lead to a civil war between the cities.

In China there were no city-states, therefore elections were just not technically possible.

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I think the answer lies in the Chinese idea of the Mandate of Heaven. Literally the ruler was allowed to rule because heaven blessed him. This idea goes all the way back to the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC). Added to this was the philosophy of Confucian Relationships. This gave a very fixed notion of who had what position in society and why. The King or Emperor had an honour but also a duty. Those under him likewise. This was looked on as an ideal of perfection and harmony. When today, Hu Jintao talks about creating a harmonious society, he is harking back all the way to Confucius. These ideas, developed early in Chinese history, have long be a powerful force of conservative rule.

Towards the end of the Warring States Period, a system of Legalism became popular. This was especially promoted by the Qin Emperor and on into the Han Dynasty. Legalism still has its influence in today politics. The Qin tried to suppress Confucianism in favour of Legalism. Legalism also gives a strong distinct role to the ruler of the state. However the rule of law is emphasized. During the Qin, the aristocracy was abolished and a system of meritocracy introduced for all ranks below the Emperor. This change in governmental system as significant in seeing the Qin become the empire they became.

As we advance to the Tang dynasty, Buddhism arrived in China and this brought with it yet more philosophical ideas about the nature of government. It remained a monarchy at the highest levels but the system of governance was heavily influenced by Buddhist teachings.

In the 19th century, we see the Taiping Rebellion (1850 to 1864) in southern and central China. Latterly based around Nanjing. While in practice this was a monarchy or military dictatorship might be a better phrase, it was in theory to be a new form of government. They were based around a corrupted form of Christianity. They also had ideas of shared property and land redistribution. However, the never ending war and the short life of the so called "Heavenly Kingdom" meant that none of these ideas ever got properly implemented.

At the tail end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries, we see a weakening Qing Empire attempting to reform. There were attempts to bring in a constitutional monarchy with a parliament, similar to some western governments. However, politic plays within the Qing fell in favour of the conservative elements and nothing substantive was done. By 1911 there was revolution and in 1912 the emperor abdicated. Over the next 50 years, Chinese seems to have tried out every possible kind of government imaginable. Most didn't last long and we all know what ideology won in the end.

So although China has always had an emperor or monarchy, to think of China as having a single system of government for 2000 years is incorrect. The system under which that monarchy operates and the form of government at lower level has often changed and been reformed.

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+1 Mandate from Heaven. –  Sardathrion Oct 14 '11 at 14:42
    
You got more on it than what I originally mentioned in my comment. Definite +1. –  MichaelF Oct 14 '11 at 16:30
    
Good answer, though I think there's also place to mention the role of traditional Chinese religion and Taoism, in particular the parallel between the bureaucratic hierarchy of the empire and the celestial bureaucracy of the gods –  Squark Oct 14 '11 at 17:27
    
You have to remember that Confucianism consisted of Ancestor worship and also fealty to the Father, as was explained to me the family got larger outside your kin. Keep following the "family" model up and father can go from your father, to mayor, to governor to Emperor. Legalism was against this, one of the reasons for the conflict, but not the only one. –  MichaelF Oct 14 '11 at 18:23
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The Mandate of Heaven could be viewed as just another philosophical concept. Why did a pro-monarchy philosophical concept like this hold so much primacy that philosophies in favour of aristocratic or democratic rule found little acceptance or were not even considered at all? –  lins314159 Oct 15 '11 at 2:27
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Although others may disagree, it seems that the success of "democracy" and "republican government" in places like Greece and Rome were do to special local factors that mostly did not exist in China.

Greece and ancient Rome were both hilly countries, which is to say poor for mass production of food using slave labor. With some other benefits of temperature and soil, they were good for producing delicate, high value-added crops like grapes (for wine) and olives (for oil) that are much more suitable for cultivation by "free" labor. In such a situation, one man was about as good as another, hence the idea of one (free) man, one vote.

The hills also made it harder for a central government to collect taxes, and easy for local-citizen armies to defeat much larger invading forces. Their relative wealth gave the peasants a strong incentive to enlist in such armies. Finally, the above mentioned goods were shipped around the Mediterranean by sea, far from land (and central government control).

Few of these conditions existed in China. The land was relatively flat, and subject to periodic invasions by northern hordes that local levies could not defeat. Only a strong central government (and army) could protect the people and engage in projects such as the Great Wall, that slowed down, but did not totally prevent such depredations. The one high value-added agricultural product, silk, was shipped by land, not be sea, and therefore did not foster "democratic" traditions that way that grapes and olives did.

Rome ceased being a Republic and became an Empire when a series of successful wars reduced foreign markets for wine and oil, and increased demand for (slave produced) grain from newly conquered territories such as Sicily. Essentially, Republican Rome fell when its best "clients" did.

It's probably not a coincidence that in Europe, the freest people lived in mountains (the Swiss), an island (England), or some peninsular combination of thew two (Rome and Greece). Likewise the freest parts of China were Tibet (until recently) and Taiwan, an island.

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Uhm...the terrain of China is varied and very hilly in some areas, it's actual ratio of arable land is quite small so I don't see how your "flat land" argument stands. –  MichaelF Oct 14 '11 at 16:33
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Interesting theory. Is it original? If not, can you provide references? –  Squark Oct 14 '11 at 17:30
    
@Squark: It's "original" insofar as I developed it "independently" of others. Here's another piece along those lines: bleacherreport.com/articles/… –  Tom Au Oct 14 '11 at 19:05
    
@MichaelF: The hilly land in China isn't along the ocean, the other key ingredient in the Greek and Roman experiences, and trade was MUCH less an issue in China. –  Tom Au Oct 14 '11 at 19:07
    
Then you've lost me, first its flat land where barbarians come in then its trade. But if your argument is that sea trade fosters democracy then I disagree. –  MichaelF Oct 14 '11 at 19:39
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