Question: What do you think makes us “modern”?

When and where did these changes take place?











On the Rise of Cities and Civilization

All these things we just alked about--aren't they ways of underscoring that our planet is right now undergoing its third great revolution, i.e., the process of becoming industrial and modern.

1. The first great transformational moment in human history occurred when human beings first emerged on the planet, probably some two hundred thousand years ago. Among the various human-like species, homo sapiens achieved biological dominance probably due to their manual dexterity, their ability to produce and use tools which, in turn, probably affected their brain development enabling the growth of spoken language skills and the intelligence needed to pave the way for the cooperation necessary to labor together in order--eventually--to engage in agriculture and transition from the tribal, hunting gathering lifestyle of the Paleolithic and Neolithic ages to the sedentary agricultural lifestyle of villages.

2. The second great revolutionary transformation, the Agricultural Revolution, occurred around 9,000 years ago when organized, settled agriculture came to be practiced and Neolithic lifestyles featuring hunting and gathering, were gradually replaced by larger, more complex form of village life. Growing grains and constructing storehouses in which to keep the surplus allowed for more stability in food supplies and making greater population density possible in these villages than was the case in Neolitic communities. BTW, for the last decade or so, scholars have been using the term Anthropocene to describe the present age in which human activities have begun to have a significant impact on the earth's ecosystems. There is no agreed start date for the Anthropocene, but some scientists argue that, based on atmospheric evidence, it may be considered to start with the Industrial Revolution (late eighteenth century), while others link the term to earlier points in time, such as what we are talking about here: the rise of agriculture and the Neolithic Revolution (around 12,000 years BP).

But the growth of agriculture and village life soon led to another major transformation: the emergence of "civilized" societies. This transformation usually occurred in river valleys like the Tigris-Euphrates (Sumer, Mesopotamia), the Nile (Egypt), the Indus (India), and the Yellow River valley in China, among others. Primitive tribal life gave way to village and later city-state lifestyles where societies became more socially stratified and complex; usually written language was present, as were sophisticated relationships with deities and religious expressions such as rituals held a central place in the life of these cultures. These early religions shared a concern with things like water, earth, fire, fertility, renewal, a bountiful harvest, a successful hunt, etc. and usually employed symbols of varying abstraction to express their perception of the eternal truths in the world as they understood them.

The term civilization itself has its orgins in the Latin word civitas meaning city or city-state, so it is usually refers to people living in cities under more complex forms of social organization than could be found in villages or tribal societies. In this sense, the term civilized contrasts with primitive. Civilized societies, then, were based on sedentary agriculture, and featured social stratification and economic specialization.

As one source puts it, civilization occurred when people "built cities, invented forms of writing, learned to make pottery and use metals, domesticated animals, and created fairly complex social structures with class systems."

In other words, some people or groups had emerged that were able to sufficiently establish their dominance over other people or communities in order to get them to contribute grain for those living in the cities and to perform labor to build the buildings and monuments that constituted the cities. Therefore, civilized societies were less egalitarian and communitarian than primitive societies as leaders and ranked social classes began to emerge. As a rule, the groups who came to dominate not only had military might but also claimed privileged access to the gods, or to transcendant powers however they were defined. Other complex social institutions like military forces, educational institutions, scribes and record keeping organizations usually began to appear as well. So, we would look for evidence of:

a. economic specialization

b. simple cities: walls, barracks, temples, palace

c. bronze utensils for cermonial purposes

d. at least a 2-class system

e. writing for ceremonial purposes


Later this would evolve into:

f. more complex cities with markets and craft centers

g. some kind of a money system and market economy

h. use of iron for agricultural tools and weapons

i. writing for abstract purposes

j. greater number of social classes, i.e., rulers, priets or shamans, peasants, artisans, craftspeople, "merchants," etc.

The earliest Bronze Age civilizations were found in the ancient Near East: Sumeria, Mesopotamia, Babylonia, the Hittite city states, ancient Egypt--all 1,000 to 1,500 years prior to the emergence of the Bronze Age in China. So, while China is not the earliest, it is the only one with continuity, with direct linguistic and ethnic ties to the present inhabitants of China.

What about China?

In Chinese City States under the Shang and especially the Zhou (approximately 1500 BCE and 1000 BCE respectively), one would expect to find:

a. walled cities in which there lived a


b. a ruling military elite

c. who conducted religious rituals with elaborate and ornate bronze vessels for offerings of wine and food to the ancestral spirits

shang shang

d. who also practiced divination first with oracle bones


and then with an elaborate system of hexagrams that were extremely penetrating with their Images, their Names, and their Judgments. The hexagrams operated like "snapshots" of moments in time, including as assessment of the circumstances, and arrived at conclusions as to whether action was favorable or not.


e. they also enjoyed court music, dance, and song/poetry

f. finally, they started keeping records of ritual practices and the histories of their city states

NOTE: The Shang also believed their ancestors influenced their destiny. They offered their ancestors food, wine and special prayers which they believed would help them in time of need and bring them good fortune. The respect for ancestors forged strong family ties amongst the Shang people. They had specific rules about how family members should act toward one another. Children were taught to obey their parents and to honor older people. Wives were socialized to obey their husbands. Traditional Chinese values regarding family, duty and honor originated in this period and were later cemented in Confucian teachings.

The central focus of the Shang civilization was the king. It was believed that the kings received their power from the spirits of nature and their wisdom from their ancestors. This belief forged a strong link between religion and government. There was no separation of church and state as we have in modern America. The following quote from David N. Kneightley, a leading scholar on the Shang political culture, briefly explains the situation:

�Shang religion was inextricably involved in the genesis and legitimacy of the Shang state. It was believed that Di--or Shangdi--the high god, conferred fruitful harvest and divine assistance in battle, that the king's ancestors were able to intercede with Di, and that the king would communicate with his fore-fathers. Worship of the Shang ancestors, therefore, provided powerful psychological and ideological support for the political dominance of the kings. The king's ability to determine through divination, and influence through prayer and sacrifice, the will of the ancestral spirits legitimized the concentration of political power in his person. All power emanated from the theocrat because he was the channel, the one man, who could appeal for ancestral blessings, or dissipate the ancestral curses, It was the king who made fruitful harvest and victories possible by the sacrifices he offered, the rituals he performed, and the divinations he made. If, as seems likely, the divinations involved some degree of magic making, of spell casting, the king's ability to actually create a good harvest or a victory by divining about it rendered him still more potent politically. (Chang, p.202)

This passage is indicative of how the connection to divine wisdom legitimized the power and authority of the king. This special link to the supernatural gave the king exclusive license to conduct religious rituals. The kings asked for special advice from the ancestors before making important decisions. To communicate with the ancestors, the kings had questions scratched on a flat polished piece of bone. A hole was then drilled into it and a hot bar put in the hole. Heat from the bar produced cracks on the bone which were believed to be the ancestors' replies to a king's questions. A special interpreter gave the king the meaning of the ancestors' replies. These bones are known as oracle bones and the writing on them is the oldest known form of Chinese writing. The king was important because of what he represented, a connection to the unseen world of ancestors and spirits.

See some slides

As scholar David Keightley has pointed out, "It is unlikely that the full Shang state, except at its center, can be associated with a defined and bounded territory....The polity seems to have been conceived in terms of personal power (who was in control) and kinship associations (what relationship he had to the center)....The state itself was conceived of, not as Shang territory, but as a series of pro-Shang jurisdictions, each with its particular relationship to the center." So it was almost 2,000 years later in the Japanese archipelago when confederations of elite groups were emerging, building large burial mounds for their leaders, placing desired objects in these tombs, and were loosely united through sacrifical and ritual practices. In other words, government and rule was not about controlling territory, but managing elite leaders and stratifying them through sacrificial and ritual practices. That is why we have some probelms figuring out precisely when the earliest form of the state took shape in Japan.

BTW, just for comparative purposes, the earliest Jewish city-states with the first monarchs like Saul, David and Solomon, emerged about 1000 BCE, so around the same time as the Zhou Dynasty. Prior to that, Jewish communites were probably mostly tribal groups who received the teachings of Yaweh from one of their religious leaders, Moses, while wandering in the desert. In Iran, we saw the great Zoroaster, ca. 600 BCE. In India, of course, there was the great teacher Shakyamuni, the Buddha, 563-483 BCE, and the Upanishads and Vedas appear ca. 550 BCE. In Greece, there were the three great philosophers: Socrates, 469-399 BCE, Plato, 427-347 BCE, and Aristotle, 384-322 BCE, while in China we had Confucius, 551-479 BCE; and Laozi, 606-530 BCE??, Mozi (480-390 BCE), Mengzi, Xunzi, Zhuangzi, etc. With all this going on, people often thing of this as a great "Axial Age" in human history.

Food for thought: how does the first empire, the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), differ from its Xia and Shang city-state predecessors?

Transition from Shang to Zhou and the "Mandate of Heaven"

As John Minford, in his book on The Yijing points out, Shang sacrifice and warfare could a pretty brutal business with lots of Human Sacrifice, usually by beheading. They posited that their Ancestral Diety, Di, was most powerful and he could best be accessed when sacrifices involving cattle, sheep, millet wine, grain and even human beings were made to the Shang Ancestors who would then intercede with Di on the behlaf of the Shang Kings.

One of the things the early Zhou rulers did when they defeated the Shang and took over from them was to say, in effect, look your Shang rulers were getting way out of hand. We did not want to come in and conquer them, but seriously: their performance of Sacrifical rites had come to incorporate not just animal slaughter and sacrifice but even bloody human sacrifice.

In order to communicate effectively with their Gods and the Ancestors, the Shang Rulers, functioning as High Priests imbibed lots of strong liquor, probably cannabis, and possibly other halucinogenic substances. The Zhou offered a more civilized way to perform Divination: let's use plant life--the Yarrow Stalks--to consult the great oracle, the Book of Changes (Yijing) which was beginning to take shape around this time. We will make Sacrifice more civilized and orderly, more of a serious, sober affair. This, they claimed, is in harmony with Heaven's wishes; it is what Heaven (Tian 天) wills for us to do. It is the way it should be.

In other words, Tian was not happy with the way that the Shang were conducting their sacrifices; that is why the Zhou were sent to conquer them. Hence, the Zhou justified their place and their rule by saying that they were just being compliant with Heaven's Will, a notion that would eventually be stabilized and incorporated into the idea of "The Mandate of Heaven" (天命) which holds that Kings assume their rulership position because they are the most Virtuous and that this is what Heaven wishes. As the Shu jing, or Book of History advises a new ruler, "The Ways of Heaven are not invariable: on the good-doer it sends down all blessings, and on the evil-doer it sends down all miseries. If you are virtuous, be it in small things or in large, and the myriad regions will have cause for rejoicing. If you do not behave in a virtuous manner, be it in large things or in small, it will bring the ruin of your ancestral temple."

Some assumptions imbedded in this "Mandate of Heaven" doctrine are:

1) Heaven grants the ruler the right to rule;

2) Since there is only one Heaven, there can only be one ruler at any given time;

3) The ruler's virtue determines his right to rule; and,

4) No one dynasty has a permanent right to rule.

So, in effect, the Mandate of Heaven became a justification for rebellion against an unjust, tyrannical, or incompetent ruler. If a rebellion was successful in overthrowing the monarch--later called the emperor, or the Son of Heaven (Tian)--then that was a clear sign that the former had lost the support of Tian, and therefore, had lost the Mandate of Heaven and the rebel leader had gained it. That is why it is often referred to as "the right to revolution" in China and why it differs from the European notion of the Divine Right of Kings which held that God endowed the Kings with the right to rule forever!

Frederick Mote has an interesting idea about how, what with all the Sacrifices and Divination, Shang was what we might call a “Holy Man” culture. In other words, there were key people who functioned as advisers to the Shang King on the spirit world. They were called Ju and Confucius' ancenstry was from one of these families. But when the Zhou took over from the Shang, they transformed this role, turning into more one of rational, secular scholar-specialists so in the Zhou Dynasty it was more of a “Wise Man” culture.  Under the Zhou, Sage Kings, Philosophers, replaced spirits as the repositories of knowledge about the world, about government and society.  Their accumulated wisdom was recorded in books and archives that people could interpret rationally.  Now, the Wise Man’s command of written records replaced the Holy Man’s ability to summon the spirits, and offerend an alternative to their access to the spirit world.  That is why Chinese philosophy seems to have such a rational, this-worldly focus.

Ritual came to be seen as something that contributed to the harmony of the cosmos.  This is how humans make their contribution to the stability and harmony of the cosmos: by ordering our own word and life appropriately to mirror the harmony found in nature and the cosmos.  The Zhou scholars had access to what the Sage-Kings had prescribed because they could READ, RECORD, perform DIVINATION under the new, less bloody method of Yarrow Stalks, and INTERPRET the results according to the Great Book of Divination, the Yijing.  You had to be trained and literate in order to do this.  So an approach of Reasonableness gradually replaced arbitrary authority as a governing principle.  So the JU, the early scholars, were like Priests in other cultures, but China did not have one big organized religion, so they lacked the sanction of a religion behind them.  But they acquired a mystique of legitimacy and propriety which made them equally authoritative. 

--they ordered the ceremonial relations between the living and the spirits of the departed ancestors.
--the observed astronomical phenomena to understand the seasons, make the calendar, etc. so important to agricultural societies: when and what to plant, and  where?
--the literate men of the court commanded historical data, knowledge of the precedents, and recorded the wisdom of their predecessors, especially the great Sage Kings.

So it was specialized Book Learning that gave the JU their competence and authority.  Confucius’ family was descended from these Shang Aristocrats but he pioneered a new role for these people by looking back to and defending the Early Zhou political order.  He reminded them of what made the Zhou great by proclaiming that “I follow Zhou.” In this way, he preserved and universalized Zhou cultural and intellectual values and channeled them into the mainstream of Chinese life.  It was not just the Documents, but the Languages (Poetry, Songs), the Music, the Dance, and the Rituals of the old days.  Look at Kings Wen and Wu, and King Wu’s son, the Duke of Zhou. 

In Confucius’ day it was the “Warring States,” a time of turbulence and dislocation—and this called for a creative response and serious reflective and systematic thinking about human nature and human society.  It appears at first glance that Confucius looked back to a golden age so was nostalgic, a social conservative; but, actually, he was much more.  The change in the nature of warfare displaced the old cavalry knights, the shih, so they gradually morphed into the Scholar Officials, the junzi or Noble Man who manifested a solid, constructive, rational approach to knowledge and conduct that was they key to weathering these turbulent, unsettled times.  What was needed was grounded individuals with a strong ethical sense.  So, by spearheading this new social role for leaders, Confucius was being innovative:

  1. Created the role of the private teacher, the professional scholar and later officials.
  2. Created and established the idea of schools or private academies where teachers could teach their students—and he also created the curriculum, the content of this education, by identifying the Six Books—which constituted a version of a broad, liberal arts education: History, Literature, Poetry, Music, Philosophy, Ethics, and Ritual—all guides to better human conduct. 
  3. Since he accepted students from all social backgrounds, he basically undermined and eventually destroyed the aristocratic basis of the old society, so that the Junzi (君子) that had formally been defined as the offspring of the elite class, were now understood to be those who demonstrated their intellectual and moral superiority by mastery over the core texts of the culture.  Over time, methods would be developed for candidates to demonstrate their worthiness for office and their overall moral superiority by showing their command over existing literature and knowledge.  So the criteria for assigning STATUS in society was redefined in a revolutionary manner.

Loyalty, Courage, Trustworthiness, Humanity, Kindness, Generosity, Benevolence, Compassion, and command over Correct Ritual Forms established the person’s integrity.  Confucius generated a new language, a new discourse, for talking about the Noble Man, Junzi (君子), the Jen person, who influenced others by Moral Suasion not violence or coercion.  Instead, they lead by example, and sway people by Moral and Ethical reasoning, not force.

3. To bring us back to where we started, then, the third major revolutionary transformation of life on this planet was the Industrial Revolution which began with the phenomenal growth of knowledge stemming from the scientific revolution in Europe between 1450-1700 and culminating in the industrial revolutions of modern times. Indeed, this process is often called "modernization" in reference to a dynamic form of innovation based on the unprecedented growth in human knowledge and the systematic application of science to modern life in the form of technology.

Initially, the intellectual revolution that ushered in the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Science and Empiricism (1450-1700), and later the Enlightenment, was purely a European phenomenon. However, we should note that during the period of the Enlightenment in Europe (1700s), European thinkers such as Voltaire, Leibniz, Quesnay and the Physiocrats were interested in Chinese philosophy in the 1700s. The role of the Chinese emperor as a ruler responsible for the welfare of all the people, the emphasis on agriculture as the basis of the country's wealth, the importance of education, the use of the civil service exams to select educated men for government service, and other elements of Confucian thought are studied by philosophers in France in the 18th century prior to the French Revolution. They were thiunking that THIS is the way to set things up: a rational system based on Knowledge, on learning and on the reswults of rigorous examinations. Let the brightest people, the "Philospher Kings" govern instead of having the Pope, the Priests and the Roman Catholic Church dictating everything. German Romantic philosophers like Goethe, Fichte, Schellling and especially Schopenhauer, were starting to learn things about Confucius, about the Dao, and Buddhism and it was transforming their worldview.

China, of course, had also had its ages when its (proto-) science was advanced, being responsible for the "Four Great Inventions: the Compass, Gun Powder, Papermaking and Printing." They also had huge cities with impressive markets, amazing pottery and ceramics, and goods were being transported all over China thanks to roadways and elaborate systems of canals and advanced shipbuilding and navigation techniques. Moreover, by 1100 or so they were a fully commercialized, money economy. But all of this did not translate into an Industrial Revolution in China. Why, we might wonder?

In the meantime, beginning in the 19th century, the western imperial powers expanded to other parts of the globe and brought with them the fruits of the industrial revolution and the material progress that European powers had enjoyed. This put societies in East Asia and other parts of the world in a difficult spot: they either had to adopt some of the technology and social organization found in the west or do nothing and be completely exploited, dominated and controlled by them.

Another list of what we expect to find in emerging civilizations: