Chapter 6: Eurasia Social Hierarchies (500 BCE – 500 CE)
Society and State in Classical China
· Chinese society was unique in the ancient world in the extent to which it was shaped by the actions of the state.
· Chinese state officials represented the cultural elite of Chinese civilization for more than 2,000 years.
· This class originated when early Chinese rulers tried to find administrators loyal to the central state rather than to their own families or regions.
· Confucius had long advocated selecting officials on the basis of merit and personal morality rather than birth or wealth.
· An Elite of Officials
o In 124 BCE, Emperor Wu Di established an academy where potential officials were trained as scholars. They studied history, literature, art, and math with an emphasis on Confucian teaching and were then subjected to written examinations in order to be selected as officials. This system of examination lasted until the early twentieth century.
§ The academy enrolled about 30,000 students by the end of the Han dynasty.
§ Although open to all men, the system favored those who were wealthy enough to provide the years of schooling necessary to pass the exams. Proximity to the capital and family connections also helped.
§ It was possible for a bright young commoner to be sponsored by others thus giving him a chance at schooling and examination. In this manner, the system provided a modest measure of social mobility in an otherwise quite hierarchical society.
§ In later dynasties, the system grew to be even more elaborate and became an enduring and distinguishing feature of Chinese civilization.
o Those who were selected entered a realm of enormous prestige and privilege. They wore robes and other finery according to their rank. Senior officials rode around in carriages.
o An imperial edict of 144 BCE stated, “Officials are the leaders of the populace and it is right and proper that the carriages they ride in and the robes they wear should correspond to the degrees of their dignity.”
· The Landlord Class
o When China was unified around 210 BCE most of the land was held by peasant farmers. By the first century BCE, social and economic pressures had created a class of large landowners and impoverished peasants found it necessary to sell their lands.
o Accumulation of land was unsuccessfully opposed by state officials.
§ Landlords were often able to avoid paying taxes thus decreasing tax revenue for the state and putting the tax burden on the peasants.
§ Some landlords kept their own military forces to challenge the authority of the emperor.
o Wang Mang, a high court official on the Han dynasty, usurped the throne in 8 CE and launched a series of startling reforms.
§ He ordered the great private estates to be nationalized and divided up among the landless, government loans to be given to peasant families, limits on land ownership, and an end to private slavery.
§ His reforms were hard to enforce and opposition led to his collapse and assassination in 23 CE.
o Referred to as “scholar-gentry” they benefitted both from the wealth generated by their estates and from the power and prestige accompanied with membership in the official elite. Many had lavish homes in both urban and rural areas.
o The vast majority of China’s population throughout history has been peasants.
o Viewed as the solid, productive backbone of the country
o The peasants were an exploited class, but they were also honored and celebrated in the official ideology of the state.
o Some peasants own enough land to support their families and make a small profit, some barely survive.
o Landlords, the state, and nature can make life difficult.
§ Famine, floods, drought, hail, pests, etc. wreak havoc on crops without warning.
§ State authorities demand taxes, labor on public projects, and military service for young men.
§ Many peasants had to sell their land to large landowners during the Han dynasty and work as sharecroppers – rents could be more than ½ of the crop.
o Periodic peasant rebellions have punctuated Chinese history over the past 2,000 years.
§ Wandering bands of peasants joined forces near the end of the second century CE – the Yellow Turban Rebellion emerged partially provoked by flooding and epidemics.
· Named for the yellow scarves worn around their heads
· Swelled to 360,000 armed members by 184 CE and found leaders, organization, and ideology in a popular form of Daoism.
§ Rebellions, though suppressed by the Han dynasty military, devastated the economy, weakened the state, and contributed to the overthrow of the dynasty a few decades later.
§ Rebellions were often expressed in religious terms
o Viewed as unproductive, making a shameful profit from selling the work of others (by the elite). Stereotyped as greedy, luxury loving, and materialistic. Seen as a social threat, as their ill-gained wealth impoverished others, deprived the state of needed revenues, and fostered resentments.
o State authorities periodically tried to keep merchants under control by…
§ Forbidding them to wear silk, carry arms, and ride horses
§ Forbidding them to hold public office
§ Loan large sums of money to the state
§ Limiting opportunities for profit through state monopolies on salt, iron, and alcohol
o Merchants often prospered despite discrimination against them
§ Some gained respectability by purchasing land and educating their sons for elite exams
§ Many had back-door relationships with state officials who found them useful
Class and Caste in India
· India’s social organization shared certain broad features with that of China.
o Birth determined social status for most people; little social mobility was available; sharp distinctions and great inequalities characterized social life; religious or cultural traditions defined inequalities as natural, eternal, and ordained by the gods.
· India’s social system differed from China in several ways:
o It gave priority to religious status and ritual purity
o It divided society into vast numbers of distinct social groups
o It defined these social groups far more rigidly with even less opportunity for social mobility than in China
· Caste comes from the Portuguese word casta which means “race” or “purity of blood.”
Caste as Varna
· Castes may have evolved from a racially defined encounter between light-skinned Aryan invaders and the darker-skinned native people.
o It certainly grew out of the interaction of many culturally diverse people on the South Asian peninsula.
o Economic and social differences promote the inequalities and growth of the system.
o Notions of race seem less important than economic specialization.
· Around 500 BCE, a clear belief existed that society was forever divided in four great classes known as varna.
o Everyone was born into and remained in one of these classes.
§ Top class – Brahmins, priests who could ensure the proper functioning of the world
§ Ksatriya – warriors and rulers who protect society
§ Vaisya – commoners who cultivate the land
§ Sudras – native peoples in subordinate positions, servants
o Top three classes regarded as pure Aryans and called “twice-born” – they had a physical birth and an initiation into their respective classes.
· According to varna theory, the four classes were formed from the body of the god Purusha and were therefore eternal and changeless.
o In reality, there has been considerable social change to the structure:
§ The top two classes were frequently in conflict over who ranked highest – the Brahmins slowly emerged as the victors
§ Tribal peoples were absorbed into Aryan classes as civilization expanded
§ Tribal medicine men entered the Brahmin varna and warrior groups entered the Ksatriya
§ Vaisya varna evolved into a business class with a prominent place for merchants
§ The Sudra varna became peasant farmers
§ A new category of “untouchables” emerged below the Sudra varna and consisted of people who did work considered to be most polluted and unclean
Caste as Jati
· Another set of social distinctions, deriving largely from specific occupations, arose as the varna system took shape.
· Over time, these groups, known as jatis, blended with the varna system to create classical India’s unique caste-based society.
· The many thousands of jatis became the primary cell of India’s social life, but each was associated with one of the varnas.
o Each varna was divided into many separate jatis, or subcastes.
o Each jati was ranked in a hierarchy known to all.
· The social position of each jati was clearly defined.
o Marriage and eating together were only permitted only within an individual’s own jati
o Each jati was assigned a particular set of duties, rules, and obligations to fulfill
· Ideas of ritual purity and pollution were associated with each caste group. Members of higher castes were in danger of becoming polluted if touched by an untouchable. Thus, untouchables were forbidden to use the same wells, temples, etc as the higher-caste peoples.
· Hindu notions further supported the inequality present in the caste system.
o Your caste of birth generally reflected your good or bad deeds (karma) of a previous life.
o Rebirth in a higher caste depended on how faithfully you performed your caste duties (dharma) in the present life.
· Each jati had the authority to expel members who violated its rules.
· As caste restrictions tightened, it became virtually impossible for individuals to raise their social status during their lifetimes, but it was possible for an entire jati to raise their standing in the local hierarchy of several generations.
o Acquiring land or wealth, adopting behaviors of a higher caste, and finding an “overlooked” ancestor of a higher caste were some ways that a jati could raise its social standing.
The Functions of Caste
· The localized nature of the jati focused the loyalties of most people and weakened the appeal or authority of larger all-Indian states. This is one of the reasons India seldom experienced an empire that encompassed the entire subcontinent.
· Castes provided a modest measure of social security and support. They cared for widows, orphans, and the destitute. Even low-ranking jatis had the right to payments from the social superiors whom they served.
· Caste provided a means of accommodating migrating and invading peoples. Its honeycomb-like structure allowed people from various cultures to find a place within Indian civilization while retaining some of their unique identity.
· The caste system facilitated the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy and powerful.
Slavery in the Classical Era: The Case of the Roman Empire
· There are several theories associated with the beginning of slavery:
o One scholar suggested that the early domestication of animals provided the model for enslaving people.
o War, patriarchy, and the notion of private property also contributed to the growth of slavery.
o Early records suggest that women captured in war were the first slaves.
o Patriarchal societies based on “ownership” may have suggested the possibility of using other people as slaves.
Slavery and Civilization
· Slavery generally meant ownership by a master, the possibility of being sold, working without pay, and the status of an outsider.
· For many it meant “social death” – they usually lacked any rights or personal identity
· Slavery was a long established tradition even by the time of Hammurabi (around 1750 BCE)
· Virtually all civilizations practiced some form of slavery
· Slavery varied considerably over time and place.
o In classical Greece and Rome, slaves were often emancipated for a multitude of reasons.
o Children sometimes inherited the slave status of their parents. In the Aztec Empire however, they were considered free.
o Types of labor also varied from working for the state in high positions to toiling in the fields.
· Slavery was minor in China with only about 1% of the population being slaves.
o Convicts and their families were among the earliest slaves in the Han dynasty.
o Indebted peasants sometimes sold their children into slavery.
· Indian slavery was more restrained than that of other ancient civilizations
o Secular law offered some protection for slaves
o Owners were required to provide adequately for them and were forbidden to abandon them in old age.
o Slaves could inherit and own property and earn money in their spare time.
o Masters who raped their slave women were required to set them free and pay compensation.
o Owners were encouraged to free their slaves and slaves were allowed to buy their freedom.
The Making of a Slave Society: The Case of Rome
· Slavery played an immense role in the Mediterranean, or Western, world
o The Greco-Roman world can be described as a slave society with 1/3 (about 60,000) of the population of Athens being enslaved.
§ Aristotle claimed that some people were “slaves by nature” and should be enslaved for their own good
§ Poor households usually had at least one or two female slaves for domestic work and sexual services
§ Although many were granted freedom, they did not become citizens or gain political rights.
o Slavery was a defining element of Roman society
§ By the time of Christ, the Italian heartland of the Roman Empire had about 2-3 million slaves, representing 33% to 40% of the population.
§ Wealthy Romans could own many hundreds or even thousands of slaves
§ Even people of modest means frequently owned two or three slaves
§ Slaves and former slaves might also own slaves
· People could become slaves in numerous ways:
o Many prisoners of war became slaves – In 146 BCE, 55,ooo people were enslaved en masse from Carthage
o Pirates kidnapped people and sold them to slave traders on the island of Delos
o Roman merchants purchased slaves through networks of long-distance commerce
o Natural reproduction provided more slaves as children of slaves were slaves themselves. These “home-born” slaves had more prestige and were thought to be less troublesome than others.
o Abandoned or exposed children could legally become the slaves of anyone who rescued them
· Slavery in Rome was extremely diverse. It did not identify with a particular racial or ethnic group.
o Romans regarded their slaves as “barbarians” and came to think of certain peoples, such as Asiatic Greeks, Syrians, and Jews, as slaves by nature.
· Christianity did little to deter slavery
o Teachings there held that slaves should be “submissive to their masters with all fear…” and that slavery was God’s punishment for sin.
· Slavery was entrenched throughout the Roman economy
o No occupation was off-limits except military service
o No distinctions existed between jobs for free and jobs for slaves, they frequently labored side by side
o Many were skilled artisans, teachers, doctors, entertainers, actors, public servants, and gladiators
o Slaves were represented among the highest and most prestigious occupations and in the lowest and most degraded.
· Rights of slaves
o Owners were supposed to provide the necessities of life but the price was absolute subjection to the will of the master
o Slaves lacked all rights and could not legally marry
o Any money or possessions they accumulated legally belonged to their masters and could be seized at any time
o If a slave murdered his master, law demanded the lives of ALL the victim’s slaves
o Freeing of slaves was common, and in the Roman Empire, freedom was accompanied by citizenship.
Resistance and Rebellion
· Slaves responded to enslavement in many ways
o Most did what they needed to do to survive
o Many Roman prisoners of war chose to commit mass suicide rather than become slaves
o Once enslaved, many resorted to “weapons of the weak” – theft, sabotage, working poorly, pretending illness
o Fleeing to the anonymous crowds of a city or to remote rural areas
o Owners were occasionally murdered
§ Most famous uprising occurred in 73 BCE when Spartacus, a slave gladiator, led 70 other slaves from a gladiator school. For 2 years they set Italy ablaze and their numbers grew to perhaps 120,000. They captured slave owners, crucified some, and made others fight as gladiators. They eventually succumbed to the Roman legions and many were nailed to crosses along the Apian Way.
§ Nothing of this scale happened again in the Western world of slavery until the Haitian revolution in the 1790s.
§ Roman slave rebellions never attempted to end slavery altogether, they just sought freedom for themselves
Comparing Patriarchies of the Classical Era
· Every human community has created a gender system and sought to define masculine and feminine roles
o Since the First Civilizations, those defined have been patriarchal – dominance of men over women
o Inequalities of gender are more widespread than slavery
o Men had legal and property rights that women did not
o Public life was a male domain, women remained in domestic settings
o Polygamy was accepted and men could claim the right to regulate their social and sexual lives
o Women were seen as weak and feared as potentially disruptive, thus they required the control and protection of men
o The degree and expression of patriarchy varied from one civilization to the next and changed over time
o In some societies, patriarchy interacted with class to generate, usually, a more restrictive life for upper-class women
A Changing Patriarchy: The Case of China
· During the Han Dynasty, gender issues became more explicitly patriarchal, more clearly defined, and linked to Confucian ideology.
o Patterns of thinking in terms of opposites gained gendered and unequal terms. Yang was superior, viewed as masculine, and related to heaven, rules, strength, rationality, etc. Yin was submissive, viewed as feminine, and related to earth, subjects, weakness, emotion, and darkness.
o The adage “Men go out, women stay in” emphasized the public and political roles of men.
o The idea of “three obediences” suggests that a women is subordinate first to her father, then to her husband, and finally to her son.
· The female Chinese writer, Ban Zhou, tells of the birth rituals the reinforce a woman’s inferiority
o Baby placed below the bed to show that she is “lowly and weak”
o Baby given a piece of broken pottery to play with to teach her of her duty to be industrious
o Birth was announced to ancestors with an offering saying that she was responsible for continued ancestral worship in the home
· Not all women in classical China were passive, inferior, and submissive
o A few, like emperors’ wives, had considerable political authority
o Writers praised women of virtue as wise counselors to their husbands and fathers
o Mothers of sons were given considerable honor for producing the next heirs
o In the upper class, a woman’s dowry was considered her own property and gave her some leverage in her marriage
o A woman’s role in the production of textiles made her labor quite valuable to the family economy
o Wives were distinguished from concubines since they alone could produce heirs
· The collapse of the Han dynasty led to changes in the gender system
o Confucianism was discredited
o Invasion and rule, of small northern states, by pastoral and nomadic peoples loosened the strictness of patriarchy over 5 or 6 centuries
o By the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), elite women were capable of handling legal and business affairs. They also rode horses and played polo wearing men’s clothing
§ Tang legal code recognized a married daughter’s right to inherit property from her birth family
o The reign of Empress Wu (690-705 CE), a former concubine and the only woman to ever rule as emperor, further weakened patriarchy. Some of her actions seemed deliberately designed to elevate the status of women.
o Growing popularity of Daoism (dao as “mother”) provided new images and roles for women. Feminine virtues of yielding and passive acceptance were urged.
Contrasting Patriarchies in Athens and Sparta
· Athens, so celebrated for its democracy and philosophical rationalism, offered little to its women, whereas Sparta, often condemned for its militarism and virtual enslavement of helots, provided a somewhat wider scope for the free women of the city.
· In Athens…
o Between 700 & 400 BCE, women experienced growing limitations.
o Women were excluded from public life and had no role whatsoever in council, juries, etc.
o In law, they had to be represented by a guardian, and the proceedings did not even mention them by name, only as someone’s wife or mother.
o Aristotle justified women’s exclusion from public life and their general subordination to men because of their inherent “inadequacy” (inability to produce sperm) and because of their similarities to domesticated animals who need to be ruled.
o Women were respected to remain inside the home
o They generally married in their mid-teens to men 10-15 years older
o Their main function was the management of domestic affairs and the production of sons
o Women could own personal property obtained through dowry, gifts, or inheritance, but land was passed through male heirs.
o Women could only negotiate small contracts – the value had to be less than a bushel of barley
o Aspasia, born to a wealthy family in Miletus who believed in educating its daughters, was the exception in Athens. She was treated as an equal by her partner Pericles and moved freely about the cultured circles in Athens.
· In Sparta…
o Troops remained constantly ready for war to keep the helots in their place. (The helots were the slave-like neighbors of Sparta who vastly outnumbered the free citizens of Sparta.)
o All boys were removed from their families at age 7 to be trained by the state military camps. They remained in training until they were 30.
o Spartan men were warriors above all.
o The military-mindedness of Sparta, strangely enough, offered more freedom and fewer restrictions to women.
o To strengthen their bodies for bearing warrior sons, girls were encouraged to take part in sporting events – sometimes competing in the nude
o Girls’ education was prescribed by the state
o Young women usually married men their own age (18 years) and cut their hair short in a masculine fashion. They were also not segregated or secluded. These actions helped put them on a more equal basis.
o Marriage often began on a trial basis to make sure children could be produced. Divorce and remarriage were readily available if not.
o Women exercised much more authority in the household since the men were gone so frequently.
o Spartan women were severely criticized by other Greek states for immodesty, controlling land estates, and living in luxury.
o Women still lacked formal roles in public life
Reflections: Arguing with Solomon and the Buddha
· What is more impressive – the innovations and changes or the enduring patterns and lasting features of these civilizations?
o Ecclesiastes/King Solomon – “What has been will be again; what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
o Buddha/“impermanence” – “everything changes; nothing remains without change.”
· Clearly, there were new things under the sun.
o The Greek conquest of the Persian Empire was both novel and unexpected.
o The Roman Empire unified the Mediterranean basin in a single political system.
o Buddhism and Christianity emerged as new, distinct, and universal religious traditions.
o Dynasties, empires, and civilizations, thought to be solidly entrenched (such as the Chinese and Roman), collapsed.
· But, much that was created in the classical era – particularly its social and cultural patterns – has demonstrated an impressive continuity over many centuries.
o China’s scholar-gentry class retained its prominence throughout the ups and downs of changing dynasties.
o India’s caste-based social structure still endures as a way of think and behaving for hundreds of millions of people.
o Slavery was massively revived in Europe’s American colonies after 1500 and remained an important and largely unquestioned part of all civilizations until the 19th century.
o Patriarchy has surely been the most fundamental, long-lasting, and taken-for-granted feature of all civilizations.
§ These assumptions were not effectively challenged until the 20th century.
§ Even so, patriarchy has continued to shape the lives and thinking of the vast majority of humankind.
o Religious and cultural traditions begun during the classical era are still honored and practiced by hundreds of millions in the 21st century.
· Continuity and change alike have long been part of the fabric of history.
1. Compare and contrast the varnas and jatis of classical India’s caste system? Did the caste system effectively include or exclude migrating peoples?
2. Explain how the patriarchal views of Athens differed from those of Sparta. Do you see any similarities between them and the patriarchal views of today? Please explain.
3. How did China’s social structure differ from the caste system of India? How was it similar?
4. Slavery has played a large role in most civilizations. Explain how people came to be slaves in the Roman Empire, what rights they had as slaves, and how they responded to enslavement.