Misconception 4: Ancient China was Backwards and Oppressive
During the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C.E.-206 B.C.E.), emperors became China’s supreme rulers. Even though ancient Chinese society never formed a constitution, Confucian ideology played a similar role in controlling imperial power.
Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu wrote “Three Discourses on Heaven and Humans” for Emperor Wudi, in which he expounds on why emperors must abide by the Confucian principle of renzheng (benevolent governance). From the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) onward, Confucian thinking kept the emperor in constant check.
Since the Sui (581 C.E.-618 C.E.) and Tang (618 C.E.-907 C.E.) dynasties, China was administered under the “Three Departments and Six Ministries” system (Sansheng Liubu Zhi), which is similar to the Western world’s system of checks and balances. The emperor’s decrees were re-examined and verified by the Censorate, which had the power to reject imperial edicts.
Ancient China also enjoyed freedom of speech. The Song dynasty’s founder, Emperor Taizu, vowed to never kill his ministers and censors, thereby allowing them the freedom to express their opinions and stances.
Since the beginnings of Chinese civilization, private property was always well respected. Before the Communist Party wrested power, government involvement only extended to the county level (equivalent to today’s city level). With the exception of enforcing military conscription, tax collection, and mandatory labor in public projects, the government did not otherwise interfere with the average citizen.
The Taoist School emphasizes the balance of yin and yang and the Confucian School advocates harmony in disagreement. Thus, ancient China was a multivariate, yet tolerant society. This was especially notable during the Tang Dynasty, when Buddhism and Taoism, as well as Western religions like Christianity and Judaism, openly coexisted and flourished in China.
As the Son of Heaven, the Chinese emperor was required to obey Heaven’s decrees. He had to revere the gods, and respect traditions, culture, and his ancestors. This was not unique to China, as throughout history, similar examples can be found in ancient Rome and Europe’s Middle Ages.
During the Han Dynasty, China established the Imperial College providing systematic education to foster the elite. During the Sui Dynasty, the empire developed a comprehensive and impartial system for selecting bureaucrats and officials. Opportunities for equal education were also opened to the Chinese people after Confucius began the practice of private tutoring. The literary arts of ancient China also flourished; no one in modern times has yet to come close.