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History Essay: Japanese Samurai and Chinese Scholar-Officials
The Land of the Rising Sun and The Red Dragon are two great nations that have been cultivating their cultural identities since time immemorial and whose cultures run deep in their people’s hearts and blood. The educators in Japan and China made sure to teach their rich cultural history to future generations and were determined not to let it be forgotten. This expository essay will discuss the legendary Japanese Samurai and the Chinese Scholar-Officials both of whom were once great powers in the two nations.
In their most basic forms, the Japanese Samurai and the Chinese Scholar-Officials were merely political entities, who were designated to keep the people morally educated and keep them in line. The Japanese Samurai and the Chinese Scholar-Officials were also designed to separate the people into different classes, which in turn had certain privileges and rights outlined by the political doctrine – and in later cases, in favor of those who rule.
The Japanese Samurai, or bushi , were once hailed as a class of warriors who were incredibly loyal to their masters or feudal lords and emerged in the 10th century C.E. The Japanese Samurai was created to stabilize the social order in society and also to maintain a level of honor and devotion to the feudal lords, unparalleled in Asian societies. They were particularly skilled in handling the bow and the sword. The Japanese Samurai were always present in the Japanese medieval armies.
The Japanese Samurai were known to be the most honorable and loyal class in Japan. The Japanese Samurai had the option to live in the barracks, in a castle, or in their own homes in a castle town located along the major trade routes. The reason for this is to keep them close to their feudal lords, known as daimyo, and to allow them to mingle with the commoners in the surrounding villages. This designation also gave them the power of the emperor or Mikado for they were imbued with the power of the military. The Japanese Samurai’s devotion to their feudal lords was unshakable, and their pride was equally as grandiose.
The word 'Samurai' is synonymous with the phrase "one who serves." Although the Japanese Samurai received little compensation for their services (which later became a huge problem), the status of the Samurai gave them certain inalienable rights within the social strata of Japan. A good example of this is would be kiri-sute gomen , or the "permission to cut down and leave." This gives the Samurai the right, in any situation, to murder a commoner if he felt that he had been shown disrespect or had compromised their honor.
Another perk of being a Japanese Samurai was the leniency they received in the eyes of the law. They weren't totally above the judicial process, but if a commoner and a Japanese Samurai committed the same altercation the commoner could receive punishment as severe as death while the Samurai would get off with a slap on the wrist comparatively. Also, due to the low or lack of compensation, a number of Japanese Samurais had to be both farmers and warriors. However, this was soon abolished as Japanese Samurai had to choose one means of living over the other to make them more dependent and loyal to their feudal lords.
Japanese Samurai were expected to be stoic warriors who follows the bushido, their unwritten famous warrior code of conduct. Upholding the bushido means that the Japanese Samurai had to put their honor, bravery, and loyalty to their feudal lords above their lives. The Japanese Samurai’s top rank known as the hatamoto, were expected to give up their lives in the name of their feudal lord. If the Japanese Samurai expects themselves to be defeated or captured by the enemy, they were to kill themselves through seppuku which is also identified as hara-kiri.
When Japan experienced peace and prosperity and had thus ended the military rule, the feudal lords had spent themselves in depression. Being deeply involved in debt, the feudal lords looked for a new source of money. They ended up borrowing money from their own Samurai. This in turn left the Samurai with little to support themselves. This decision of the feudal lords strained the relationship between them and their Samurai.
Growing stress gradually ate into their idealism and consumed their pride. They dispensed with their hereditary retainers, who should have led their horses and carried their spears in a time of war. They hired townsmen as servants, often first extracting a money payment. Some of the Japanese Samurai who had large families had killed their families and committed junshi or death by following. Others would displace their natural heirs and adopt the son of a wealthy commoner if they could get the father to pay handsomely for this privilege.
This all was extremely significant for it meant the Japanese Samurai class, who was once hailed as great warriors not just in their country, no longer prided themselves. By the end of the Tokugawa period, which was when the Period of the Country at War ended, it was not uncommon for a commoner to purchase the rank of Samurai. This signified the end of the line for the long and honorable tradition.
When the Japanese Samurai were no longer in service to the feudal lords, they were encouraged to learn the principles of Confucianism and pass on the knowledge to the young ones. As Confucianism also revolves around faith, duty, and loyalty, the former Japanese Samurai had little trouble adopting this ideology. The principles of Confucianism had also been imbued in their bushido incorporating in its kindness, frugality, honesty, and care for their family and the elders.
Apart from the military activities that showcased the Japanese Samurai’s strength, unbeknownst to many was that the Japanese Samurai were the ones who cultivated a few unique Japanese traditions that had been imbued into their cultures. Some of these practices are the Japanese art of tea ceremony and flower arranging.
By the 4th B.C., the ancient Chinese society had been divided into 4 classes, placing the scholar elite or Chinese Scholar-Officials at the top since they are the ones advocating for the teachings of Confucius. The Chinese Scholar-Officials’ purpose however was to run affairs of state, guiding and manipulating the lives of the lower classes. They were tasked to put the public’s interest and good above their own – as per the teachings of Confucius.
One of the most esteemed positions a Chinese man could attain in that era was that of a Scholar-Official. Though you need not be a rich man, the one requirement was to be a well-educated man. To prove this, one had to pass a series of civil examinations on the ancient ideas of Confucius. These examinations produced jinshi, known as the presented scholar, and were the ones who successfully graduated from the examinations.
Since the position of Scholar-Official was such an honorable one, it was not uncommon for a man's family to help pay for his education – if he seemed a worthy student. The role of a Chinese Scholar-Official was similar to what people nowadays know as a mayor or senator. They are tasked to look over the affairs of states in different regions of China and upheld the ideals of Confucianism. More than 3,000 Chinese Scholar-Officials ruled more than 1,200 counties with the help of the gentry and government clerks.
The Chinese Scholar-Officials dealt with merchants and kings alike, overseeing trade, and tried to keep everyone 'honest' by spouting the sacred ideas of Confucius . The idea of letting the Scholar-Officials lead the counties was a good one, as they were to oversee the government administration and culture of their people, but it was very difficult to maintain the image of the good man with so much corruption in the marketplace. Because of the prevalent corruption in the lower classes of Chinese, which were the merchants and tradesmen, the Chinese Scholar-Officials soon had to use harsher punishment for those who will not abide by their Confucian teachings in an attempt to maintain stability and order.
The Chinese Scholar-Officials discouraged the role of merchants in society saying that living to gain profit and accumulating their wealth would inevitably lead to moral degeneration and would restrict them from achieving happiness. Soon, the Scholar-Officials began to realize the power of their positions. The temptation of money and wealth began to corrupt their Confucian ideals.
It was then that the Chinese Scholar-Officials formed pacts with local merchants, giving them certain trading privileges if the local Scholar-Officials were allowed a portion of the profits. This continued for many years, weakening the Chinese economy and severely corrupting the government, and soiling the families’ honor. The ideas of Confucius were becoming nothing more than a thin veil to obscure the corruption of the Chinese government, a fate that was to befall the Japanese Samurai as well.
In addition to this, as the Chinese people were becoming more literate, they have turned to what is considered to be the path to the cultivation of the moral self – the arts. The Chinese Scholar-Officials began spending their time painting, writing poetry, playing weiqi and qin, and practicing calligraphy. The Chinese Scholar-Officials’ perception of their deterioration in regards to their morals as they have let themselves be corrupted to and fall into the social ills they have spoken of have led them to pursue the arts.
These two elite classes had a few similarities but the idea of Confucianism may be the most notable thing that the Japanese Samurai had in common with the Chinese Scholar-Officials. But since the scholarly abilities were lacking in the Japanese Samurai they failed to spread the principles of Confucianism to the Japanese educated community. In several ways, the paths of the Japanese Samurai and Chinese Scholar-Officials entwined with each other. But in many, many more ways they were as different as night and day.
The Japanese Samurai and the Chinese Scholar-Officials had many things in common. Their rise to power and their lording over the men with which they lived. Their shining lives and dark deaths, and their fall from the grace of the people were witnessed by the world that once revered them. They were a sign of their times, to be blown away by the sands of time, and washed into the history books.
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Department of Asian Art. (2004, October). Scholar-Officials of China. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/schg/hd_schg.htm
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