Ancient Views Of Society: East And West
Until the modern era, China did not have a word for society. The current term shehui means an organized assembly. In the ancient world, China utilized the idea of wenming (civilization), which literally meant the brightness of culture or the clarity of writing. It also had the idea of zhongguo (Middle Kingdom), denoting the middle of the world on a geographical plane and the middle of the universe (between heaven and earth) on a cosmological plane. During the pre-Qin era (third century B.C.E.), Chinese society was a living matrix of ideas and events, of spirituality and materiality. James Sellmann describes this world as "hylozoistic—a living world empowered with qi [life force]" (p. 5). As a "foci-field model" or "field cosmology," the pre-Qin society was conceived as an organic complex that changed as the seasons changed.
The Chinese philosophical coupling of yin-yang was an organizing principle that connected the heavens to earth and established all worldly changes. Political decision making relied on proper timing: the right season, the right pitch of the pipes, the right state of mind. The balance of space and time was the key to harmony in the Chinese dynasties to come.
In highly stratified and patriarchal societies such as the West and Middle East, women might constitute a society within a society. While similar situations existed in the Far East, the harmonizing balance of Chinese philosophy accommodated women throughout history to occupy prominent roles ranging from calligrapher to empress.
In the Roman world, socius was a word that meant friend—hence the English word society as a modern word related to a community of friends. In the ancient world, one could not get by without friends who shared common values, common work, and common lands. Thus the Roman word communitas as applied to society symbolized the collectivity of physical and spiritual relations that bound together a people, as in the slogan senatus populusque Romanus—the Senate and the People of Rome. Roman community was bound together by a sense of civitas or citizenship as defined by the civil virtues of Rome. The English word civilization derives from the Latin and carries the sense of a social, political, cultural, religious, and philosophical whole. The Middle Ages in Europe saw the splintering of Roman civilization into church and state, or into religious and political spheres of influence. As towns began to develop and the world split more visibly into city and country, social philosophers' views on society also bifurcated.