Historical Background of the Daybook

CASE 5:  Popular Belief in Ancient China

The Warring States Period and its Reforms

Chinese society underwent a major transition during the late first millennium BCE. From sometime in the fifth-century BCE until the emergence of the Qin 秦 Dynasty in 221 BCE, seven major states engaged in fierce economic and military competition for dominance. This era was known as the Warring States Period. During this period, each state implemented reform policies aimed at establishing a centralized state. To consolidate the new empire, a centralized, nonhereditary, bureaucratic system was established that took the place of the old feudal system that had characterized much of the first millennium of Chinese society.

The political reforms required replacing the hereditary nobility with appointed officials. Particularly at the local level, many of these officials would have needed to consult a work like the Daybook. Another effect of de-feudalization was that land was taken from the nobility and redistributed among former “commoners” (mostly farmers), thereby turning those “commoners” into registered, tax-paying citizens. In addition to taxes, these citizens were also expected to provide military and public works service. These reforms naturally freed farmers of dependency on the aristocratic lineages and made them responsible for their own family’s welfare. For this reason these farmers would also have had occasion to consult works like the Daybook, either directly or indirectly.

The Qin State and the Redistribution of Land among Farmers

The Qin state minister, Shang Yang 商鞅 was perhaps the most thorough in his implementation of reform policies. Under the laws and policies Shang Yang established, commoners could earn noble rank, land tenure, and tax exemption through military achievement. This resulted in a social system that allowed for more fluid upward social mobility than had been the case previously. Furthermore, for the purposes of military service, collective legal responsibility, and corvee labor, the State of Qin organized the farmers by residential wards, rather than by kinship affiliation. The administrative officers appointed by the State of Qin not only operated the legal system but also organized production. For instance, the state established an iron monopoly so as to phase out profiteers in the manufacturing and distribution of agricultural implements. This system ensured affordable and high-quality supply of tools for farmers. In such ways the state directly involved itself with the livelihood of the farmers. One reason for the state was interested in the welfare of the farmers is that the newly-created small landholding citizens also supplied the swelling numbers of infantry that were required to meet the demands of increasingly large-scale, destructive intrastate warfare.

Centralization in the Qin Dynasty

Qin troops rapidly dismantled the resistance of rival states and the Qin Dynasty soon emerged triumphant from the ruins of war. The Qin sovereign, Ying Zheng 赢政, then proclaimed himself Shihuang 始皇, which means “the First Emperor.” A major component of consolidating the empire was the standardization of weights and measures, coinage, legal codes and bureaucratic procedures. To facilitate effective communication across the vast empire, imperial expressways that connected the capital with the hinterlands were constructed and the length of the wheel axle was standardized.

To prevent the resurgence of feudal lords, the First Emperor confiscated weapons from the communities the Qin conquered. He also ordered the destruction of the walls and fortifications built by the six other warring states to divide them from each other and from the Qin. A national conscription was instituted: every male between 17 and 60 years of age was obliged to serve one year in the army. With his mighty army, the First Emperor pursued his goal of domestic unification through military expansion in the north and south. In addition to campaigns against the Xiongnu 匈奴 pastoral empire in the Mongolian Plateau, Qin connected the defense walls built by the various warring states to make a 5000-kilometer Great Wall. Beyond this, a number of public works projects—including canals and bridges—were undertaken to consolidate and strengthen imperial rule. A monumental mausoleum for the emperor, furnished with life-size models of the imperial guards, was built near the capital Xianyang 咸阳 (present-day Xi’an 西安).

The enormous levies of manpower and resources required for these imperial enterprises ultimately doomed the empire. Within three years of the First Emperor’s death, widespread revolts by farmers, prisoners, soldiers, and descendants of the remnant nobility occurred throughout China. The Qin Dynasty collapsed a mere two decades after it was established. Although it was short lived, it provided the basis for a centralized empire in which administrators were appointed according to ability rather than inheriting their social station as was the case in other parts of the world. That succeeding dynasties all strove to follow this blueprint testifies to the continuing significance of Qin unification long after the end of the Qin Empire.

The Standardization of Script and the Suppression of Criticism

During the Qin Empire and at the time the Daybook was compiled, Chinese society witnessed two literary events that had a significant impact on its later development. The first was the standardization of writing characters. Qin characters replaced the various scripts in its former rival states and became the standard for the entire empire. The implementation of the new script is attested by numerous archaeological discoveries of legal texts on bamboo and imperial verdicts cast on standard measurements from similar provenances where the Daybook was found.

The second event was the First Emperor’s suppression of criticism, which resulted in the banishment or execution of many dissenting Confucian scholars, as well as the burning of books from the conquered states. These events would be frequently cited in later political documents as models of how NOT to run a government. In fact, the overthrow of the Qin was touted as the triumph of the people over tyranny.

Read a 9th century historian’s account of these events.

Despite the First Emperor’s suppression of rival philosophies, almanacs and divination books were spared because they were regarded as having practical value. This was so even though historians today know that divination books hold the potential to provide a subtle excuse for resistance to tyranny. Thanks to the existence of a large population of freeholders, there was no doubt a perceived need for “how-to” books that could guide farmers or lower officials in making decisions about life’s major events. But how did divination texts get there in the first place?

Now that you have some information about the history of the Daybook, learn about its sources and different versions.

Back to top