Man in Society:

The Individual in the Classical Greek Period, the Chinese Period of the Warring States, and the Qin Dynasty

           In anthropology, a theory exists regarding parallel evolution of species.  This theory also exists in various other fields of science, including zoology.  The same theory rings true in the realm of history, where historians see patterns and similarities among peoples who had no contact with each other.  Two societies that exemplify this through the roles of individuals in society are Classical Greece and China during the Period of Warring States and the Qin (Ch’in) Dynasty, even if minor differences existed.

          The period of Greek history known as the “classical” period lasted from circa 500 BCE to the Macedonian conquest of Greece by Phillip of Macedon in 338 BCE (Spielvogel 104).  During this period, Greece saw great achievements in government, art, architecture, and other socio-cultural realms.  However, it was also a period of great strife.  Early in the period, the Greeks fought wars against Xerxes and his Persian forces and a civil war between the Delian League, which consisted of the city-state of Athens and its allies, and Sparta and its allies (Spielvogel 106).  The period ended with the conquering of the fragmented and internecine city-states of Greece by Phillip II of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great.

          China had similar identity problems throughout its entire history, with one dynasty conquering the next and wiping away the traces of the old regime, replacing them with the trappings of the new.  The Period of the Warring states, during which the forces of various ruling families fought 468 wars, lasted from 463 BCE until about 222 BCE, and followed the fall of the Zhou Dynasty.  The dynasty that succeeded the Period of the Warring States was the Qin (Ch’in) Dynasty, which lasted from circa 220 BCE to 206 BCE.  It is from the Qin (Ch’in) Dynasty that the world took the name “China.”  The Qin (Ch’in) Dynasty was responsible for the beginnings of the Great Wall of China, a standardized system of weights and measures, the creation of a universal monetary system, and the creation of the first truly unified government in Chinese history.  From the Period of the Warring States comes The Art of War by Sun Tzu, a text still read by military officers and scholars to this day.

          The role of an individual in Classical Greek society depended on gender and one’s status in the social hierarchy.  Men who were also citizens had the most power in that society and the most responsibilities.  Expectations for these men included participation in religious festivals and cults, military service, service to the community at large, and the funding of festivals.  Also expected of men was to be strong and take care of their wives.  Evidence for this expectation of strength is in the art of the age, including the statue known as Doryphoros from the fifth century BCE (Spielvogel 112).  According to Aristotle, the Greek citizen was “both courageous and intellectual,” which demonstrates another expectation for the male citizen in Greek society (Kishlansky 60).  The role of male foreign residents of a Greek city-state had many of the same responsibilities as citizens, such as the funding of festivals and serving in the military.  Female citizens of a Greek city-state were to remain in the home, but could participate in cults and religious festivals.  A female citizen’s primary responsibility was to raise future citizens.  Expected of slaves of all genders was hard, faithful work.

          In China, the individual was subservient to the family.  In this society, however, it rings true that the male of the family is the most important, and the sooner a male came in the birth order, the more power and responsibility they held.  The Chinese practiced the concept of ancestor worship, further emphasizing the idea of a family or clan being more important than an individual.  The men ruled in Chinese society, over both their families and sometimes their clan.  Expectations for men included strength and the ability to support their families, indicated by the Chinese symbol for “man,” which is a combination of the symbol for strength and the symbol for a rice field (Spielvogel 85).  In addition to men being strong, however, there was the expectation of morality, even in war.  In The Art of War, Sun Tzu writes that there are five constants that govern war, one of which being the Moral Law, which “causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger” (Kishlansky 83).  Apparently, obedience was also a responsibility of the Chinese individual, obedience and subservience to those ruling over them.  Subservience was an especially key attribute of Chinese women.  Evidence of this is the Chinese script, in which the word for “woman” is a figure in a submissive posture (Spielvogel 85).

          Several attributes and responsibilities link the role of the individual in these two societies.  The expectation of strength in the male individual is one example of this.  The idea of men holding the reins of power is another concept shared.  In addition to this, men took care of and supported their families.  In both societies, women remained in the home and took care of household affairs.  Women stayed out of the public eye as an expectation of the societies in which they lived.

          Few differences exist between these two societies, and only two or three are major.  Greeks funded festivals and military service was compulsory.  In China, while they did pay taxes, they did not fund festivals, per se, and military service did not seem to be compulsory for all, at least not according to the sources at hand.  In China, unlike Greece, the family, not the individual, was paramount.

          Classical Greece and China from 463 BCE to 206 BCE evolved cultures in a parallel manner.  Evidence of this is the deep similarities in the roles of the individual in these societies and societal behavior as a whole.  Both of these socialites were warlike and development greatly influenced by wars, thus leading to the importance of strength in the male individual.  Women in both societies remained in the home, raising a family, while the man was in the public realm, making decisions for the society and family.  The largest difference is the differing emphasis placed on the individual – in China, the family was more important, in Greece, the individual was paramount.


Jackson J. Spielvogel and William J. Duiker.  World History to 1500 (Stamford, CT: Wadsworth, 2001)