“The Foundations of Eastern Civilization” is a series of lectures by the Great Courses, on the history of East Asia, particularly in terms of the ideas that shaped it. It is told by a couple of professors who are experts on the subject, and are quite easy to listen to. Here are 22 things learned from this lecture series.

1) Confucius was THAT important.

He inspired the civil service exams for China, Vietnam and Korea. Many advisors to the emperor were educated on Confucian grounds. It became a major philosophy of management. There is a Confucian story of an Emperor demanding to see the royal archives, and when the librarian says essentially, “Your majesty, if I am not doing the job to your liking, then just fire me”, and the emperor leaves in shame. While the particular principle (that respect for authority goes down, in the form of delegation, as well as up) may seem strange to us, the fact that an emperor could feel shame over a Confucian tenet speaks to how deep those values are embedded in China’s history.

2) Taoism was an early competitor to Confucianism.

The thing that set it apart is that it said you don’t need to be a scholar to achieve enlightenment. Confucius exalted study, especially study of the Chinese classics. This love of study is expressed in the first quotes of the Analects, and in many other places, besides. Naturally the Taoist principle would be an irksome foil to the Taoists.

3) Mulan was a story of Confucian ancestor worship.

Here was a woman, who had such strong filial piety for her crippled father, that she joins the military in his place. She spends years of her life on campaign. She bears all the pains that the male soldiers bear. And finally when she returns home triumphant, she gives the glory to her father, puts her makeup back on, and resumes her womanly duties in the household.

4) The nomads of the northern steppes were enemies of China for thousands of years.

As you probably already know, the great wall of China was devised to protect against the northern (largely Mongolian) nomads. You probably also know that the Mongolians conquered and held China. The Mongolians weren’t the only nomads in that region to harass the Chinese, and they have pretty much been harassed by those nomads for all of Chinese written history.

5) Legalism was brutal, and led tho the fall of the “Chin” (for China) dynasty and the rise of the Han dynasty.

Legalism was considered the third foundational philosophy next to Confucianism and Taoism. Unlike the other two, legalism asserts that human nature is fundamentally vile, that you should assume everyone will do exactly as much as they can get away with. Under legalism, extreme punishments for minor infractions is the norm, as it is a deterrent to any disobedience.

The fall of the legalistic Chin dynasty is tied to the story of a low-ranking official tasked with moving captives (criminals destined for death) to the northern border for use as slave labor, when they escaped. To the official, failure in this task is itself punishable by death, so he abandoned his post and joined a militia. He ended up leading a peasant rebellion and became the first emperor of the Han dynasty, which would last 500 years.

6) Chinese call themselves the Han after that dynasty.

The Han dynasty was remembered as such a golden age to the Chinese, and was so influential to their culture, that their race is “Han Chinese.”

7) Buddhism spread by morphing its philosophy to the local culture.

For example, in china they argued Buddhism was a type of Taoism, and of the Buddha as a Taoist master. It was a necessary front, as Confucian and some Taoists leveled the criticism that Buddhism was a foreign ideology, and was thus not compatible with Chinese culture.

Confucianism wasn’t that different in that regard. In practice, Chinese Confucianism was rather different from Korean or Vietnamese Confucianism, particularly in terms of who could participate in the civil service exams and what role women were allowed to play in society.

8) Chinese silk was uber popular in the time of Marcus Aurelius but the secret of silkworms was a closely guarded secret.

The Romans were buying silk in droves, and old Roman conservatives would complain about the decadence of women decorating themselves with foreign imports. At the same time, the Romans had no clue how it was made, and the Chinese would kill anyone caught leaving their borders with silk worms in tow.

9) The Kushan people lived in the mountains south of the Gobi desert and facilitated trade between the east and west.

Trade between the continents would not have been possible without these local intermediaries. They were the ones who knew the mountains best, and the Gobi desert was impassible.

10) Eunuchs got undue trust because they couldn’t father enemy clans nor screw the concubines.

Indeed, the history of China is largely a power contest between the Emperor, the regional lords and the high eunuchs.

There is a story of one imported slave, a Muslim eunuch who rose to prominence in the Chinese court. The Emperor made him captain of a grand expedition to explore other parts of the world at around the same time as the age of discovery in Europe.

11) During the Tang dynasty, China was an economic and scientific world leader.

There were even Christian churches and mosques built in its capital.

12) The periods of more liberal change brought a conservative backlash where China would retreat inwards and become quite hostile to foreigners.

This happened at the end of the Tang Dynasty, for example. Also the above story of the eunuch captain and his expedition: he returned to China with many stories, but the expedition was so grand in scope and thus so expensive that further expeditions were deemed not valuable for trade. It didn’t help that the captain returned during one of these periods of contraction.

13) The fu-man-shu was a symbol of subjugation.

The Ming dynasty became the Qing dynasty changed northern Manchurians (nomads) conquered china, forcing Chinese men to grow the manchu beards and shave their heads as a symbol of subjugation. Chinese culture however proved infectious among the Manchurian aristocracy, causing a rift between them and the military. This eventually leading to a military coup.

14) The question of land reform in China is an ancient one and has been the topic of multiple peasant revolts.

How one parcels out land in China has been proposed in many different ways, and some of the Communist ideas on it are far from new.

15) In spite of China’s large size only a small proportion of the land is suited to agriculture.

Thankfully with the increased power of agriculture, with genetic engineering and vertical farming at our disposal, there will be more than enough food to feed a growing Chinese population. Unfortunately this is only a recent development.

16) Korea was once divided into three kingdoms, and there is a long history of a North/South split, encouraged by Chinese interference.

The 20th century war of North vs South Korea, with the Chinese backing the North, has earlier precedents in history.

17) Nearly all of China’s communist leaders have engineering degrees.

It’s a totalitarian technocracy.

18) One emperor had as many as 1,000 concubines.

This did not end well for him. His excess and his time spent away from governing gave the eunuchs free reign over China. When the peasants got sick of how horribly they were being treated they blamed the Emperor. When they learned of the emperor’s excesses, they revolted and if I recall correctly, killed him.

19) “A journey to the west” was an enormously influential catalogue of a Chinese adventurer’s attempt to find a missing tribe.

You could think of the book as equivalent to the adventures of Marco Polo, both in topic and in influence (Marco Polo’s travels inspired Columbus, for instance). The book ultimately encouraged the birth/revival of the silk roads.

20) One empress wrote a book on Confucian values for women. In it she encourages that women get educated.

Because of the importance of the family in Confucian values, and of importance of the woman in maintaining the home, the question of education was debated across history. The empress argued that women need virtue just as much as men need virtue, and that women, like men, learn their virtue from study. Therefore women must be educated so that they can be proper Confucian wives.

21) The role of women varied considerably between China, Vietnam and Korea.

Women were freer in Vietnam, whereas in Korea were never responsible for themselves. For 100% of their lives, Korean women were expected to obey a man. Initially the father, then the husband. China was somewhere in between.

22) Unlike in Korea, China’s civil service exam allowed anyone to enter and show his/her merits.

One of the biggest societal implications of the civil service exams was that they offered upward mobility for Chinese peasants. Often a village would band together and pay to send its brightest sons to the capital to spend three days straight in the equivalent of a prison cell, writing essays on the interpretation of specific Analects. If I recall correctly, people who died during the exams would be thrown out the window, and the families would come and collect the body outside of the building. By contrast, the civil service exams in Korea only admitted members of the Korean aristocracy. I imagine Korean society was comparatively stratified because of this.

All in all, I found this to be a very informative and enjoyable lecture series. The next book I’d like to read on Chinese history is called “The Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government”, but I have no clue how I’m going to get my hands on it.

Have a great week!