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Impact of Han Dynasty on the Development of Chinese Society: Analytical Essay

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Imperial China lasted two millennia, and many differing thoughts and religions stemmed from this passage of time. During this time, massive amounts of information was collected. This along with the multitude of ideas give a startling view into this long span of time. During the time of the dynasty, each generation of Chinese history brought different changes to the public with major influences from philosophy helping them to evolve their society. Many emperors used their experiences with philosophers in order to make decisions that effected the citizens they ruled over. This multitude of diverse thoughts and beliefs had an impact on the laws passed during this time and the social norms within the society that these laws effected. Within the area and period, multiple movements caught wind and spread far and wide over the empires. Confucianism and Gautama Buddha both helped many emperors during their life in advising them to make the correct moral decisions. In 500 BC, Confucianism's key aspects started to enter into the social life and government of those in the Zhou dynasty. The Han dynasty is where Buddhism first took root in China’s society around the first century. Each ideology influenced many different aspects of the dynasty’s law and social norms. Each philosophy changed through the decades and brought new outlooks to how certain dynasties should rule. Within the society of imperial China, you can see the need for the people to latch onto hope, something that many philosophy’s and religions offered. When choosing a deciding factor in the argument of whether the philosophy of Chinese Buddhism or Confucianism was more important, one must take in all the accounts to find an answer.

One of the most known and popular philosophies to come out of China is Confucianism. Explaining Confucianism can be difficult as it is a very prominent philosophy in ancient China. There are many different versions within the dynasties that succeed each other. Confucianism inspired a lot of movements that created inspiration for other philosophical ideas. When Confucianism first took off in the Zhou dynasty, the dynasty was at a decline which sparked many great minds to do what they do best: think. With Confucius being born during the Zhou dynasty he saw the rift that was happening that would later form the western and eastern Zhou. The Analects were written in 500 BC, these “analects” consisted of lessons written by Confucius. The analects became popular due to their usage of it by those in power during the Zhou dynasty because they already had a strong relationship with heaven that came with the defeat of the Shang dynasty. A key aspect in the analects were essays pertaining to rituals, this allowed people to consider the idea of returning to how they once governed and back to older traditions. Although the Analects were some of Confucius's first works the idea by philosophers did not get accepted until the Han dynasty with emperor Wu. “Confucianism held a dominant position in China. It performed an important role in reinforcing the centralized monarchy and shaping ideology” (Jacobs, pg. 29). Other schools of thought had to compete with Confucianism since it had become so popular within the dynasties. “We will begin with the building blocks of an inner disposition – filial piety, dutifulness, honesty, sincerity, rightness, wisdom, and courage – and see how all of this comes together in the attitude of humanity” (Rainey, pg. 23). In my opinion Confucianism offered the people a safeguard, it was a philosophy centered around subjects that they were familiar with and that were easily understood. It was a philosophy that didn’t demand to much thinking, he made his statements very clear in his Analects and many other works. According to Arthur Waley in his “The Analects of Confucius” the founder of Confucianism was humble and had denied he had any large amounts of knowledge but instead, he was a lover of learning and self-growth. Following a man who rejects the praise of possessing such knowledge is much easier than following one who accepts it without question. It is common knowledge that the ancient world was a harsh place to live no matter the location. Confucius offered a moral compass for many emperors to follow, in the Han dynasty ethics started to become of more importance to law-making decisions. An argument ensues during the Han dynasty that is rule of law vs. rule of man. In order to conclude to the winner being rule of man, the concept of Li in Confucianism was important. Li, the concept of ritual. According to Rainey in her book “Confucius and Confucianism: The Essentials” Confucius speaks of rituals not just something religious but also something that needed to be conducted into our everyday life, such as proper conduct. This concept helped the rule of man win over rule of law simply because at the time dynasties were in power. Handing over all the power to each emperor corresponded to Confucius’s idea of ritual. This can also be an example of how the ideas formed under Confucianism change with each dynasty. In the Zhou dynasty, ruled by men had not yet been formed, and “Mencius thought that citizens were more important than the government, and the government was more important than the ruler” (Zhou, pg. 621), this idea was not popular and quickly died out and the concept was altered over time. A school of thought that rivaled Confucius's ideas was legalism.

“The Legalism school argued that law should be applied equally among all individuals, regardless of the position of an individual” (Zhou, pg. 622). These two philosophies were founded around the same time and they share very few similarities. Legalism could be described as the opposite of Confucianism since it focuses more on the law and legal affairs while Confucianism is more focused on the harmony of society. Legalism did not acquire much traction till the Qing dynasty. There is a clear distinction of the difference between Confucianism and Legalism. Despite the difference, during the Qin dynasty, there was a merge of both philosophies. Both sides had pros and cons but to the citizens, it was easier to support Confucianism simply due to how legalism focuses so much on the emperors instead of the citizens. Confucianism has influenced each dynasty not only through law but also through familial ties. The family seems to be the most important to China in regards to seeing the world as a whole compared to western thoughts on the topic. Confucianism played an enormous role in that due to the stance of filial piety in the philosophy. “It is not surprising that they emphasized filial piety, given that, in their time, sons were rebelling against fathers and family relations were often deadly – certainly in the families of rulers. Confucius saw filial piety as an antidote to his times” (Rainey, pg. 24). Putting such intense focus on filial piety helped in many ways in creating the unity and harmony that Confucius wanted. It helped restore the relationship within families that is also stretched to the emperors. Creating the importance for relationships sparked the idea of the importance of every relationship. Writing in such a topic emphasizes in how easy for people this would be to follow in comparison to other philosophers’ ideas.

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Buddhism has been the source of many debates for the duration of history. It is followed by a simple question, religion or philosophy? I have found that the terms seem to be interchangeable depending on the location and interpretation of the belief. In India Buddha is not considered to be a God. He is considered to be many different things, teacher or prophet but in China, he is prayed to and worshiped like a God. Buddhism is interesting because unlike the other philosophy and religions founded in China this was not native to the country, it was brought in. The founding of Buddhism happened in India but it didn’t stay within those boundaries. Similar to Confucianism, Buddhism also experienced multiple changes and formed branches with each dynasty and country it traveled to. Like most things the connection that brought Buddhism into China was trade. When Buddhism made contact with China many changes ensued to fit it more perfectly into the Chinese culture. Buddhism offered new a new way of thought compared to Confucianism, Buddhism offered individualistic salvation. Since Buddhism was an external way of thinking to China it did receive backlash from people thinking it was incorrect because of the stronghold Confucianism had on the people. Due to the differences between the two philosophies when Buddhism first entered China it wasn’t fully accepted in its original form. “Buddhism was attacked as unfilial…they were unfilial when they shaved off their hair, for in so doing they were violating the teaching of the Hsiao-Ching, which stressed the necessity to return our body, hair, and skin intact to our ancestors” (Chen, pg.16). This is a good example of how the culture of India clashed with that of China. In order for the religion to be accepted it would have to adhere to the culture of the country accepting it. According to Chen, there were some cases of those cutting their hair and receiving tattoos and still being praised by Confucius. Filial piety is very important to society in China and monks are important to the structure of Buddhism. Since becoming a monk requires you to leave your home. It is seen as unfilial but Chen claims that since one is becoming a monk they are transforming into a vehicle for the conversion and salvation of his parents. This form of expressing filial piety is simply different to the traditional way Confucius stated before. Some people were attracted to the allure of Buddhism because some “Chinese intellectuals dissatisfied with the Confucian classical learning established since the Han dynasty and turned their attention to cosmological questions” (Guang, pg.308). This new wave of thinking offered a more complex way of questioning the world around us. It created a reason for Confucianism to push back which offered different interpretations and responses to this new philosophy. Allowing the opposing side to converse and argue helps to have a healthy balance between the schools of thought. Each side is about bettering one’s self and becoming more morally focused. In the book “Buddhist impact on Chinese culture,” Xing Guang explains how the questions concerning life after death was not offered by Confucianism but by Buddhism. It started the questioning of things outside of the physical world. Buddhism influenced Chinese philosophy because each one flatters the other. A way China contributed their own culture to Buddhism is by influencing the eating habits installed into the religion. Kieschnick says in his book “Buddhist vegetarianism in China” that Tibet monks generally eat meat even though in India there are multiple texts demanding a strict vegetarian diet. Buddhism seems to me like something many people would flock to during Ancient China. The book “Death of Woman Wang” is riddled with stores both fiction and non-fiction during the Qing dynasty and is a good example of how in many instances the ancient times were filled with death and injustice. Everyone in this book only knew suffering and in Buddhism suffering is a vital part of life and it provides hope and how to escape suffering. Buddhism’s push into China forced many to see a different way of looking at their life, it offered individualistic practices. Along with introducing new concepts, eating habits, and hope Buddhism also helped influence the language as well. When Buddhism first made contact with China there was clearly a language boundary since it had originated in India. Once there was a following in China of Buddhism a translation of the sacred text was crucial. “Buddhist terminology contributed to Chinese vocabulary tremendously and some of these terms have already embedded in the blood of Chinese language that people do not even know that they are originally from Buddhist literature” (Xing, pg. 315). Buddhism also influenced multiple movements throughout the domain of China. Daoism is another popular philosophy that originated within China. “According to Tang Yijie, Buddhism had served as a model for the establishment of Daoism in China as an organized church, with a religious canon and a spiritual community” (Xing, Pg. 313). Due to the influence that Buddhism had on Daoism, you can see that they used Buddhism as a model for this new sect of ideas. Looking throughout the culture of the Chinese, once you’ve become well-read on the topic of Buddhism it becomes easier to see how heavy the influence was.

It is my belief that these two philosophies became vital to the growth of Imperial China. Confucianism was a very understandable philosophy that was alluring to the commoners due to the simplicity of the teachings. Each one offered new concepts to the dynasties and helped the emperors make decisions based on morals. From my perspective tradition holds a very valuable place within these two movements. With Confucius came with the importance of tradition and harmony. Buddhism and Confucius are different in how the inspired conversations and in what the topic was about. Buddhism inspired the thought process on the afterlife while Confucius inspired the idea of morals and virtue. In the end, I believe these two come to the same conclusion in different ways. The beginning of these two are different like almost all beginnings and they had different influences but they both focus on the idea of self-betterment which appealed to the exploration of morals, virtues, and how you achieve it. Even though they have similarities the difference of the two are large. Confucius is much more positive than the beliefs behind the suffering of Buddhism. Even though they both had multiple influences on Imperial China each one provided more in contrasting areas. In my opinion, Confucianism had more influence on the laws and government than Buddhism. It was used in more debates against or for the government and had more texts that pertained to the government. This could be because of the outlook on Buddhism being foreign and having to be altered in small ways to become Chinese Buddhism. Confucius focused a lot on the law when he would teach and write on the topic of ritual propriety. In the genre of philosophy, language, and diet I think Buddhism influenced the Chinese more in ways that has stayed true when put up to the modern day.

When looking back at the civilizations before ours, it becomes difficult to say that our lives are hard in comparison. The thought has proved time and time again how resilient the human race is along with many other civilizations during the previously mentioned time period. I think that with the circumstance of the time and how we would describe them now as primitive due to their outlook on many topics such as women and the power that social classes have. Each philosophy influenced China more than the other in different categories. Comparing the two and ultimately deciding if one is better than the other or deciding if one is more influential seems as though it's unimportant, which is certainly not the case.

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