What Ancient China can tell us about Power and Society

I’ve been recently reading a lovely book about Chinese history alongside my Song of Ice and Fire binge lately, and the two have dovetailed in quite a pleasing fashion. The main point of similarity between both: the examination of power.

First, please bear in mind that this is a huge simplification that I’m writing without the book with me, so there may be corrections that come along later when I have reference points with me!

English: China Map, Qin State, 260BCE

Chinese states at the start of this period. A nice squabbling mix

Reading through the societies developed by the Qin and Han dynasties, the way that power develops in what the author calls the “palace” period of Chinese history is fascinating. From the beginning, it seems, power was concentrated to family heads, who through their connection to the ancestors held religious and social power through that connection. The emperors of the various principalities (China wasn’t yet unified) claimed total ritual and religious authority, which was dispersed through various powers claimed through ceremonial rights, according to the distance from the head of the family; societal power therefore evolved along family lines.

Over time, the religious grounding to this got “outsourced” to palace officials as the heads of families were too preoccupied to attend to the rituals, and the central authority assigned these rights to the household rather than particular members. While ensuring loyalty to the central authority and curbing the power of aristocratic families, this over time led to an accumulation of real power by these servants, which steadily evolved into the aristocratic “mandarin” class which became a large feature of the Chinese system from this point to roughly the 19th century. And all the while the framework of a society structured by a central figure with a divine mandate (whether from the ancestors or, later, gods) underpinned it all. Confucianism, for all its being associated with Chinese history as a whole, went against this somewhat by supporting a notion of individual responsibility and endeavour, but that’s a huge tangent.


You rebel, you!

The thing to take away from all this for fantasy world creation is that the shape and evolution of power will shape societies. This needs to be borne in mind when creating forms of government, both in terms of titles and the people’s understanding of power, and the real application of that power.

This may seem obvious, but is rarely applied in most fantasy and sci-fi novels, particularly those where governmental changes (particularly the nauseating “true heir” arc that seems so common in fantasy) are an integral part of the storyline. What happens when people buck the system? Do they have the existing power and authority to do so? Going to Lord of the Rings, Aragorn only does so with the authority of the elves and Mithrandir at his back; the normal people of Gondor may not accept some stranger as king whatever his claims, and Boromir says as much. From the other side, Urza in Magic: the Gathering’s Artefacts Cycle of novels accumulates the power of several states  and titles to wage a war against his brother without apparent effort or social upheaval. The novels do point out that there is vast environmental damage, and Urza’s name is a curse-word for generations after, but the power structures that Urza creates and uses all seem to fall into place as if by magic. Which probably isn’t the sort of magic that the series is after.

The overall point of this is that the society created in fantasy worlds needs to be structured, and logical. If you want to build a psedo-Medieval Europe setting (which most seem to want to do) understand how the historical setting worked as a functioning social system to work out the right consequences for the events in your story. Don’t bend social rules to fit your narrative, build a narrative that fits your society, and work out the consequences based on your society. While plenty of writers build characters and then “let the story run away with them”, few seem to do this for societies. Michael Moorcock lamented this  as far back as 1978. Although Moorcock’s main point was political, his point impacts the potential richness of fantasy as a whole. It just doesn’t seem that people have listened much since. This is a shame, and the genre is poorer for it.

I really like the social model of ancient China, and might build something similar for Mists of Albion soon. Expect a discussion of power and authority in Albion’s existentially mutable system later this week. I’m currently househunting, but hopefully this won’t interrupt the blog too much, as I think we’ve found somewhere!

And as a side note, I may begin writing short stories for elements of Albion as ways of expanding on the various elements of the setting, in a somewhat poor attempt to make it more organic. Stories a bit like this.

About Aramithius

I'm always interested in the birth and expression of new ideas, from world creation to philosophical and metaphysical exploration. Fantasy and its related genres are the perfect vehicle for this sort of thing, and I enjoy exploring it in various ways.
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