EVERYDAY LIFE IN ANCIENT CHINA
By Tim Lambert
Chinese Philosophy and Religion
The Chinese world-view was very different from the Western world-view. The Ancient Chinese Heaven was a kind of universal force. Heaven chose the emperor to rule but it was a moral force. If the king or emperor were evil heaven would send natural disasters as a warning. If the emperor failed to heed the warnings heaven would withdraw its mandate. Social and political order would break down and there would be a revolution. Heaven would choose somebody else to rule.
Chinese culture was heavily influenced by a man named Kong-Fuzi, known in the West as Confucius. Kong-Fuzi taught that everybody should accept their role in life and duties towards others. Rulers had a duty to be benevolent while subjects should be respectful and obedient. Children should honour their parents and everybody should honour their ancestors. Kong-Fuzi also believed that rulers should set a good example for their people.
Most of all Kong-Fuzi taught consideration for others. At the heart of his teaching was 'ren' which is usually translated goodness or benevolence. Kong-Fuzi said 'do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself'. Kong-Fuzi also taught the importance of courtesy and moderation in all things. Kong-Fuzi also taught that women should submit to their father when young, to their husband when married and to their son if widowed. Later women in China were taught values such as humility, submissiveness and industry.
The religion of Taoism was founded in Ancient China. Confucianism was a system of ethics but Taoism is a religion. Taoists believe in the Tao, which means the way. The Tao is an indescribable force behind nature and all living things. Taoists believe in Wuwei or non-action, which means going with the natural flow or way of things like a stick being carried along on a stream. Taoism also teaches humility and compassion. Taoists worship a pantheon of gods.
Buddhism reached China in the 1st Century AD
The Chinese also believed in Yin and Yang. They believed that all matter is made of 2 opposite and complimentary principles. Yin is feminine, soft, gentle, dark, receptive, yielding and wet. Yang is masculine, bright, hard, hot, active, dry and aggressive. Everything is a mixture of these 2 opposites. The ancient Chinese also believed there were 5 elements, wood, fire, earth, metal and water. During the Zhou period the Chinese art of acupuncture was invented.
Ancestor worship was an important part of life. Each family had a household shrine where they burned incense and made offerings. People believed the dead could help the living and prayed to them.
The Chinese also believed in ghosts. (People who died and had no descendants to care for them or who were neglected by their family).
In a Chinese family the father had complete authority over his wife and children. A woman was ruled by her father, or by her husband or (if widowed) her son. Marriages were arranged by parents with the help of go-betweens and children had no say in the matter. However many wealthy men kept concubines.
Children were supposed to be obedient. In China male heirs were very important as they carried on the family. Girls were valued much less than boys and baby girls were often left outside to die or were drowned. In any case infant mortality was high. People would have many children but not all would live to adulthood.
Only boys went to school. There they learned the teachings of Confucius by heart. They also learned calligraphy. Of course, only a minority of boys went to school. Most did not. Instead they worked in the fields from an early age.
When they were 4 or 5 girls had their feet bound. Eventually the girl's feet became deformed so they had difficulty walking. However 'lily feet' were very attractive to men.
In China the upper class were officials called mandarins. To become a mandarin you had to pass certain exams. The exams were, in theory open to almost all men. However Chinese merchants were held in low esteem.
Life in Ancient China was hard and often short. Most farmers were very poor. They owned chickens and pigs and sometimes an ox or mule. In the North people grew crops of wheat or millet while in the South they grew rice. (Growing rice was backbreaking labour as the fields had to be irrigated and rice plants were planted by hand). In the 16th century new crops such as sweet potatoes, maize and peanuts were introduced.
Other crops included tea, sugar and cotton. (Ordinary women worked in their homes weaving cotton).
On the coast and on China's many rivers people fished. Cormorants were trained to catch fish but they had rings or cords around their throats to prevent them from swallowing the catch!
Rich people owned vast estates but they usually rented them out as parcels of land. Rich people preferred to live in towns and rarely dwelt in the countryside.
The rich, of course, ate very well. They ate grains like rice, wheat and millet. They also ate plenty of meat including pork, chicken, duck, goose, pheasant and dog. Vegetables included yams, soya beans, broad beans and turnip as well as spring onions and garlic. They also ate plenty of fish. Soup was made with shark's fin, bird's nest, bears paws and sea slugs. People drank wine made from rice or millet. They also drank tea.
Poor people ate a boring diet. In the South they ate rice. In the North they ate wheat in the form of noodles, dumplings or pancakes. However famines occurred periodically and poor Chinese were lucky if they had enough to eat.
Before 600 BC chariots dominated Chinese warfare. However after 600 BC cavalry began to replace chariots. Furthermore rulers began to raise large armies of infantry. Peasants were conscripted to provide them. About 500 BC a general called Sunzi wrote a book called the Art of War, which was the world's first military manual. About 400 BC the crossbow was invented in China.
Gunpowder was probably invented around the year 900 AD. It was used for rockets, grenades and bombs that were placed against the wooden gates of enemy cities.
Rich people lived in large wooden houses arranged around a courtyard. Roofs were typically of tiles and were built in a curved shape. However even in a rich house there was little furniture but rich people were very fond of their gardens.
Poor people lived in hovels of perhaps 2 rooms. Roofs were often thatched and furniture was very basic such as wooden benches.
A history of China
A history of Shanghai