It has become a cliché to say that Chinese civilization takes its greatness from Confucius who in turn relied on the rulers of high antiquity known as the Five Emperors. A scholar once said, “It is a fact of history that the beginnings of China’s culture were blessed by the works of Confucius and Mencius and by the paragons of the early sage-emperors. They together more than anyone else perhaps count for the greatness and longevity of China’s civilization.” However, the recent archeological discoveries and scholar studies reveal that the Five Emperors were largely mythical figures and that there were different reasons for the greatness of China other than the wisdom of sage emperors and Confucius. The first written evidence is dated around 900 BC, which refers to the Shang period. The Shang dynasty had the kernels of the subsequent ancestor cult, the concept of Heaven, and the special role of the ruler. However, the concept propagated by Confucius such as moral responsibility of the ruler, the mandate of Heaven, filial piety and many others started to circulate and be emphasized from the Zhou period. Therefore, the reason for the longevity and greatness of the Chinese civilization stems from the diversity of its geographical position, and as a result the diversity of culture, and a constant change of rulers and dynasties that informed developments.
The Longshan period lasted roughly from 3000 till 2000 BC and, even though it used to be considered the period of the late stage of primitive society, recent archeological findings suggest an early civilization that can also be called by some scholars as a chiefdom culture. At the same time it was the period when allegedly the Five Emperors ruled. They were referred to in the texts of the Zhou, Qin, and Han periods and were named somewhat different names. Overall, there are sources that agree on the general name “Five Emperors” and specify the rulers as Huang Di, Zhuan Xu, Di Ku, Yao, and Shun among the others.
According to these sources, the Five Emperors created the following: Huang Di invented things that can be shared, Zhuan Xu made them better, and Di Ku invented calendar. Therefore, scholars are inclined to think that even though China’s territories were ruled by different rulers at that time, the notion of ‘Five Emperors’ refers more to “the theory of the Five Elements” (wu sing). Furthermore, the documents of High Antiquity confirm only the existence of Yao and those rulers who came after him. In Ta Tai li-chi, Confucius did not support the idea that Huang Di could have lived for three hundred years but Confucian scholars did not register his doubts in their writings.
In fact, the earliest written records found to date are bronze pots dated the Late Shang period. In Introduction to Sources of Western Zhou History, Edward L. Shaughnessy explains, “Composed shortly before 900 BC [a set of bronze vessels] is probably the first conscious attempt in China to write history.” Meanwhile, the rough estimation of Yellow Emperor’s reign is the 2600s BC, which means that there is no direct evidence about his life. Other accurate sources of information about ancient times are the oracle-bone inscriptions that account in great details the minutia of royal and commoner life in the Late Shang. Even though the Shang succeeded the Xia dynasty, it became a ‘model dynasty’ because there was no prior evidence about previous rulers. That is the reason why if something was present in the Shang period, it later laid the foundation for subsequent generations to follow their example or at least to interpret their experience as the one that should be copied and emulated.
First of all, the structure of ruling and ritual was adopted by later dynasties. During the Late Shang (around 1200-1045 BC), China had a developing state “whose elites dominated a highly stratified society.” At the head of the state, a dynasty was place with a ruler who passed his throne to males in his ancestral line. Through kinship, the ruler was supported by other influential groups and individuals who could recruit their workers in time of need. It determined layers of hierarchy further continued in other dynasties. It informed power and unity in the dynasty. “Such ties of hierarchal dependency sanctified by religious belief were among the great emotional resources of the evolving state, in which religion and kin were inseparable from secular and political activities.” In Sources of Chinese Tradition, Theodore de Bary argues that there are some assumptions and conventions characteristic of the dynasties starting from the Zhou were not inherent to the Shang. For example, ancient writings did not imply such a great responsibility of the ruler for the order in a state. It was a later interpretation of Confucius picked up by his followers and carried out by other Chinese scholars.
The Shang dynasty somewhat morphed the role of the king and shaman. The role of the king was often divination and reading the cracks on pots to make forecasts. Thus China of the Shang period had a theological form of government based on the cult of ancestors. In its turn, the presence of ritual and some theological concepts allowed the Zhou dynasty later explain their overthrown of the Shang by divine intervention. The Shang had a concept of the High God called Di who had a wide array of powers. Di could protect and could harm, it could manage elements and make an enemy attack. It is different from the Christian or Jew God and the Shang did not seem to find a way how to placate it and as a result did not have a well-established cult of Di. However, the Zhou combines the characteristics of Di and other higher powers and came up with the concept of tian or the Mandate of Heaven to convince the Shang that it was divine provision that they lost their power. De Bary explains it as this: “Thus the Zhou rulers explained the change of dynasties not as an action by which a strong state overthrew a weak one but as a Heaven-directed process.”
Similarly, there are many other concepts and beliefs that were not very significant in the Shang but were interpreted and developed as such by subsequent dynasties and scholars. For example, De Bary says that “The general assumption that the ancestors, when properly treated, continued to smile on their living descendants is again central to much of the religion of Zhou and Han.” The concept of Heaven, or tian, was developed by the Zhou. Even though Di and the Heaven look similar, Di was never considered a moral being and did not require moral actions from the Shang. In fact, De Bary points out that it was Confucius who made the Shang’s religiosity so human and, for example, employed the cult of ancestors for conservatism. In contrast, the Shang could be characterized as orderly and well-organized and these features were fully adopted by the Zhou as the framework for bureaucracy. Thus it becomes clearer that the origins of many components of China’s conventions come from the Shang and they were later popularized and developed by subsequent dynasties arguing that these conventions had always been present in the state.
Returning to the question of China’s greatness, however, Yan Wenming argues that it can to some extent be explained by China’s unique geographical position between the two rivers and flanked by the Tibetan plateau. He says, “A civilization developed out of cultures of a similar developmental level into a system of multiple cultures and ultimately into a unified whole.” Invasions from neighbors could not destroy China; they affected it, made some parts of it change and morph, were absorbed into it, but at the core it remained the same. The geography served as a natural protection for the country so it could develop somewhat isolated, especially the southern part had barriers such as difficult landscape, mountains, and rice paddies that invaders could not overcome. Therefore, the greatness of China was determined by its great diversity: geographical and cultural, as well as political.
Furthermore, the figure of Confucius was specifically proposed during Kang Youwei’s Hundred Days Reforms in 1898 with the unifying purposes. In an attempt to model on Christianity, Kang intended to make Confucius “the center of a ‘national religion’” and the “essence” of Chinese culture. Kang’s initiative did not succeed, but there were many other attempts to employ Confucius to the service of the state’ ideology. As a result, “There are Confuciuses-in-Asia as self-help gurus and as “Asian values” poster boys.” The twentieth century learned how to nullify the content of something and emasculate ideas. Therefore, it is important to go back to the original writings and find out what was written and how it can be interpreted today.
In conclusion, even though the Five Emperors served as a forming component for Chinese civilization, recent discoveries reveal that they were not real people and more likely they served to explain the phenomena that were difficult to grasp at that time. To this effect, Confucius used the Five Emperors to give people a model what to do in order to live in peace and harmony. It is easier to criticize the present and look back at the past to emulate something that seems positive. Sometimes it is done to someone’s benefit. As far back as in the Zhou period, scholars were aware that there were strong and weak state. However, it was convenient for them to use the concept of the Mandate of Heaven to explain the transfer of power. Even though Confucius influenced Chinese culture in a significant way, China’s greatness largely depended upon its geographical position and the diversity of cultures and political approaches.