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A History of China by Wolfram Eberhard

Wen Ti's reign had brought economic advance and prosperity


In

theory this path to training of character and to admission to the state service was open to every "respectable" citizen. Of the traditional four "classes" of Chinese society, only the first two, officials (_shih_) and farmers (_nung_) were always regarded as fully "respectable" (_liang-min_). Members of the other two classes, artisans (_kung_) and merchants (_shang_), were under numerous restrictions. Below these were classes of "lowly people" (_ch'ien-min_) and below these the slaves which were not part of society proper. The privileges and obligations of these categories were soon legally fixed. In practice, during the first thousand years of the existence of the examination system no peasant had a chance to become an official by means of the examinations. In the Han period the provincial officials had to propose suitable young persons for examination, and so for admission to the state service, as was already mentioned. In addition, schools had been instituted for the sons of officials; it is interesting to note that there were, again and again, complaints about the low level of instruction in these schools. Nevertheless, through these schools all sons of officials, whatever their capacity or lack of capacity, could become officials in their turn. In spite of its weaknesses, the system had its good side. It inoculated a class of people with ideals that were unquestionably of high ethical value. The Confucian moral system gave a Chinese official or any member of the gentry a
spiritual attitude and an outward bearing which in their best representatives has always commanded respect, an integrity that has always preserved its possessors, and in consequence Chinese society as a whole, from moral collapse, from spiritual nihilism, and has thus contributed to the preservation of Chinese cultural values in spite of all foreign conquerors.

In the time of Wen Ti and especially of his successors, the revival at court of the Confucianist ritual and of the earlier Heaven-worship proceeded steadily. The sacrifices supposed to have been performed in ancient times, the ritual supposed to have been prescribed for the emperor in the past, all this was reintroduced. Obviously much of it was spurious: much of the old texts had been lost, and when fragments were found they were arbitrarily completed. Moreover, the old writing was difficult to read and difficult to understand; thus various things were read into the texts without justification. The new Confucians who came forward as experts in the moral code were very different men from their predecessors; above all, like all their contemporaries, they were strongly influenced by the shamanistic magic that had developed in the Ch'in period.

Wen Ti's reign had brought economic advance and prosperity; intellectually it had been a period of renaissance, but like every such period it did not simply resuscitate what was old, but filled the ancient moulds with an entirely new content. Socially the period had witnessed the consolidation of the new upper class, the gentry, who copied the mode of life of the old nobility. This is seen most clearly in the field of law. In the time of the Legalists the first steps had been taken in the codification of the criminal law. They clearly intended these laws to serve equally for all classes of the people. The Ch'in code which was supposedly Li K'uei's code, was used in the Han period, and was extensively elaborated by Siao Ho (died 193 B.C.) and others. This code consisted of two volumes of the chief laws for grave cases, one of mixed laws for the less serious cases, and six volumes on the imposition of penalties. In the Han period "decisions" were added, so that about A.D. 200 the code had grown to 26,272 paragraphs with over 17,000,000 words. The collection then consisted of 960 volumes. This colossal code has been continually revised, abbreviated, or expanded, and under its last name of "Collected Statues of the Manchu Dynasty" it retained its validity down to the present century.


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