The dates of the selections in this chapter range from approximately the 500s B.C.E. to approximately the 200s B.C.E., which is mostly the Warring States Period in Chinese history (476-221 B.C.E.). During this time period, the different regions of China (each with a separate ruler and tradition) fought to maintain independence and defend their borders. In 221 B.C.E., the Qin/Chin ruler finished the process of unifying China by the sword, becoming the first Emperor. These texts, therefore, predate the unification of China, and some of the advice offered (in particular in the works of Confucius) are meant to be seen in the context of multiple kingdoms; Confucius suggests leaving a kingdom and going elsewhere if the leadership is corrupt, which was no longer possible post-unification.
The works in this chapter are foundational texts to later Chinese literature, politics, and philosophy. The Analects of Confucius, with its focus on ethical and moral issues, provides the reader with a guide to proper behavior (according to Confucius). The Shi king (The Book of Songs/The Book of Odes/The Classic of Poetry) may have been edited by Confucius, according to some sources, and the poems themselves offer a glimpse into the expectations of that society. Daoism, the other influential perspective at that time, is found in the Zhuangzi (both a book and the possible name of the author), which offers a challenge to the Confucian way of thinking. Finally, Sun Tzu’s Art of War remains an influential text to this day, found as it is on the reading lists of military academies everywhere.
Students who are not familiar with Chinese literature and culture often have the same first problem: how to pronounce the names. Chinese is a complex language, so the answer is not straightforward. In Chinese, words must be pronounced using the proper tone. For example, the word “ma” can be pronounced four different ways, and in each case it is a different word.
- First tone: Rising tone (start low and go up the scale, like a rising accent mark)
- Second tone: Falling tone (start high and drop lower, like a falling accent mark)
- Third tone: Falling and Rising tone (begin high, drop low, and rise again, so that the sound is “U” shaped)
- Fourth tone: Steady and High tone (high pitched, steady sound)
Since each syllable of the word has a tone, and most translations do not mark which tone to use, there can be no way for students to know how to pronounce the word (except by taking a class in Chinese). Even then, students would have to choose between a class on Mandarin (spoken in the north) and Cantonese (spoken in the south), since they are too different to be taught as the same language. In addition to several major dialects of Chinese, there are numerous sub-dialects: some unintelligible to each other.
An additional challenge for students looking for research on these texts is that the same word can be spelled differently, depending on the pinyin system used. Pinyin is the way that Chinese characters are converted into letters, so that the sound of the character is approximated. For example, the Chinese character for “person” looks like a type of wishbone, but it is converted to “ren” in pinyin.
There are two major systems of pinyin (and some minor), and each one uses a different format to approximate sounds; both systems can be found online and in anthologies. The medieval Chinese poet Li Bo can be spelled Li Po or Li Bai, depending on the system used. In fact, the western name for “China” results from a series of translations, beginning with the pinyin “Chin” (more commonly translated as “Qin” these days) to describe the dynasty that unified the country in 221 B.C.E.; in other words, “China” is the land of the Chin/Qin.
As you read, consider the following questions:
- What do Confucius and Sun Tzu expect from leaders? What is the proper behavior toward subordinates, and how do you know?
- How do Confucian ideals contrast with Daoist ideals? What seems to be the reason for the difference?
- What kind of behavior does society expect from its people, particularly in the Shi king (Book of Songs)? How do we know, based on the text?
- What is the definition of heroism in these works, based on the texts themselves?
- How would a Confucian hero be different from other ancient world heroes in other chapters, and why?
Written by Laura J. Getty
Thumbnail: Terracotta Mid-rank officer of the Terracotta Army in Xi'an. Image used with permission (David Castor).