Early Chinese Civilization

Chinese civilization demonstrated in its legal code what is to us a perverse aversion to logical thinking. The Chinese had laws, but they were not laws as we think of them: they were more like guidelines. “While the early Zhou kings are said to have greatly admired the legal practices of their Shang predecessors and to have promulgated their own distinctive laws, there is no evidence of general law codes in China at this period. Royal judgements appear to have been viewed as providing general principles rather than specific prescriptions for punishing misdeeds and resolving disputes. The absence of specific legal codes accords with the later Chinese view that precise laws encourage rather than prevent wrongdoing.” (Trigger, Understanding Early Civilizations, pg 233)

The Chinese writing system, which developed independently, was initially a purely logographic system derived from a pictographic system. Each symbol represented an entire word. This was the way that the Sumerian, Egyptian, and Mayan writing systems developed. However, all these logographic systems evolved to deal with demands for greater expressiveness. In all cases, the writing systems added phonic elements, so that the sounds of the language were in some manner reflected in the writing system. In the Egyptian system, these took the form of rebus elements. In the Sumerian system, they appeared as a steady shift towards syllabic graphemes. That is, instead of representing entire words with single graphemes (written symbols), they started combining symbols for single-syllable words to form multi-syllable words.

But the Chinese writing system developed by adding phonic indicators to logograms to differentiate words that were close in appearance but different in pronunciation. For example, suppose that I invented a writing system in which this symbol means “cat”:


I could then extend the meaning of the symbol by adding a little sound indicator to it, like so:


Of course, this requires the existence of the symbols m, s, and f, which are alphabetic; the Chinese system isn’t quite like this, but this gives you an idea of the visual strategy. The matter is complicated by the fact that Chinese is a tone language: the tone with which a syllable is spoken determines its meaning. For example, the ubiquitous syllable “li” has dozens of different usages, depending upon the tone used and the context.

These factors disconnected the Chinese writing system from its sound system. Although there were some relationships between glyphs and sounds, those relationships were never complete; you couldn’t figure out how to pronounce a word by looking at its glyph. Moreover, because the Chinese writing system is morphemic (each word is represented by its own glyph), literacy in Chinese requires the memorization of thousands of glyphs. Here’s a quick sample to give you an idea of just how complicated it can become:


human woman ear horse fish sun moon rain cloud

Such a system requires years of training to master, longer than that required to learn any alphabetic writing system. This suppressed literacy in China for thousands of years; literacy was confined to an educated elite. Thus, the Chinese never enjoyed the benefits of mass literacy that triggered the Greek explosion of rationalism. Fortunately, the Chinese had such a large population that, even with a low rate of literacy, the number of literate people was large enough to permit some degree of the intellectual interchange that writing permits; this engendered some degree of intellectual progress in Chinese society.

Unfortunately, other factors conspired to obstruct the development of rationalism in China. The most serious problem was the low social rank enjoyed by merchants. Unlike Greek society, Chinese high society considered merchants to be low-class money-grubbers. You could make a decent living as a merchant, but you could never rise to a high position through this avocation. Moreover, the government controlled the economy so tightly that Chinese culture never developed the rationalism that was forced upon merchants elsewhere by the harsh logic of the marketplace.


Chinese attitudes towards learning were another factor holding back the progress of Chinese thought. Chinese culture considered itself the highest form of civilization on the planet, despite being quite ignorant of the outside world. The Chinese knew a great deal about East Asia, but as far as the rest of the world was concerned, they simply didn’t care and had no interest in learning from or about the outside world. This kept them out of the loop of the advance of ideas. The best example of this is the use of gunpowder. The Chinese invented this technology. The Europeans, always eager to learn better ways of killing each other, learned about gunpowder soon enough and quickly developed the technology of guns. China didn’t learn about guns until they were looking down the barrels of European guns. Ideas flowed out of China, but not back in.

But what about Chinese science and technology? Or Chinese thinking practices?

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