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The early history of China up to 770BCE

Zhou dynasty

China is immensely and justifiably proud of its long history. A continuous Chinese culture has been in existence since earliest times; it is the only civilization that can make that claim. Many European archaeologists have sought to trace early Chinese civilization back to a common origin with that of the Babylonians and Egyptians. Their search has failed to uncover any such a link and Chinese culture is believed to have sprung up entirely independently close to the Yellow River.

Emperor Yao
Emperor Yao

Archeology

Archaeological discoveries (e.g. early human finds at Yuanmou in Yunnan) take the story back as far as 1.7 million years. The uncovering of Peking WG Man (Homo erectus) at Zhoukoudian near Beijing affirms human habitation 0.5 million years ago. Finds at Banpo village near Xian have identified a Yangshao culture at 4,500BCE which was followed by the 3,000BCE Longshan culture . The Yangshao villages used stone tools and fished with bone hooks along the Yellow river valley. They left behind distinctive pottery, using, for some of it, a potter's wheel. The weaving of cloth had also started. The upper reaches of the Yellow River, fed by melting ice, are less prone to flooding than downstream. The Yellow River provides a reliable source of water to irrigate the fertile loess soil which is easy to work with antler and stone tools; and so the location was ideal for early agriculture. As in the Nile river valley, reliable annual crops led humans to settle and form fixed communities rather than live as wandering bands of hunter-gatherers. The whole country at this time was dominated by vast forests with elephants; tigers and rhinoceroses roaming the woods. By 5,500 years ago the Hongshan culture in Liaoning had already begun to produce fine ornaments made from jade.

In other areas of China, other cultures developed independently with very different traditions. For example the Sanxingdui culture (2800-800BCE) in Sichuan produced distinctive bronze heads. Cultivation of rice began as early as 7,000 years ago in the Yangzi River valley.

Late Neolithic China
Extent of Neolithic finds in China with the location of the major settlement sites.

Events

2718BCE Yellow Emperor born
2696BCE Yellow Emperor became ruler
2598BCE Yellow Emperor no longer ruler
1600BCE Shang dynasty began
1046BCE Shang dynasty ended

Legendary era to 2100BCE

audio lecture
China History Podcast relating to this topic by Lazlo Montgomery (audio only).
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The Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors

During this time period the Chinese system of writing evolved from a few simple pictorial characters to the rich script of the Qin Dynasty. Although accurately kept historical records push back China's documented past a long way, there is a point when fact and legend inter-mingle. In the case of Britain the 'legendary' era survives as late as King Arthur in the 5th century CE, whereas in China you need to go back a further 2,500 years to the time of the Yellow Emperor c. 3000BCE , the founding father of China. There is a traditional continuous line of all the Kings and Emperors of China going all the way back to him. The Yellow Emperor is the last of three sovereigns ( San Huang 'three august ones') of a legendary demi-god status; the list of which three sovereigns are included varies between different historical sources: Fuxi 伏羲; Shennong (god of farming); Zhurong 祝融 (god of fire); Gonggong (god of water) and Suiren . Before them there is only the creation myth of Pangu and then Fuxi and Nuwa (his wife according to some) who created the world and people.

Ningxia, rock art, neolithic, archaeology
Ancient rock art of the Helan Mountains on the border of Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. Of Neolithic age this carving probably represents a sun god.

Yellow Emperor

The Legendary era begins with the five Model Rulers starting with Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor Huángdì [2718 BCE - 2598 BCE] who is credited with inventing many of China's key technologies. His wife the Empress Leizu is said to have pioneered innovations such as silk production. The traditional numbering of years starts at the year of the Yellow Emperor's birth. He is considered the founder of China and all Chinese people claim descent from him. The term 'yellow' comes from the time period in which he lived, each period was named according to the cycle of Daoist five elements and 'yellow' is associated with the 'earth element'. His burial place is reputed to be at Huangling north of Xi'an. He was followed by Zhuanxu; Ku; Yao and Shun according to the Han historian Sima Qian, each is believed to have made some contribution to Chinese culture (tea, silk, agriculture, administration, fishing, weiqi, calendar, Yi Jing, medicine etc.). Emperor Yao is credited with devising the calendar and a system of rituals. He is regarded as the Model Emperor against whom all other emperors were measured and found lacking. Confucius frequently mentions Yao as the example of the correct way to rule. Northern China produced pottery; silk and worked with jade (for the manufacture of weapons and ceremonial vessels). Emperor Shun was commended for his care of his blind father; he set perhaps the most important precedent by selecting his successor ‘Yu the Great’ on merit rather than by birthright. It is inaccurate to consider China as a unified 'empire' or 'nation' at this stage, there were a number of independent kingdoms with little interaction between them; the traditional historical record gives a false sense of unity.

Xia Dynasty 2100-1600BCE

Yu's reign, which marked the start of the Xia dynasty, began the recorded history of China. Yu's first task was to repair the kingdom after a great flood, which some have connected this with the Biblical flood of Noah. Archeological research has found a number of autonomous communities each developing their own culture and traditions along the Yellow; Wei and Yangzi valleys, rather than a unified nation state. However some of the individual historical events (for example floods and battles) recorded in the ancient texts have been confirmed by archeology.

At this early stage, long before iron and bronze were available, civilization revolved around simple agriculture close to the Yellow and Wei Rivers (in modern day Shanxi, Henan provinces). Yu the Great, the founder of the dynasty, is the main legendary figure from this period. He is believed to have divided the country into nine regions (and hence a name for China ‘nine regions’ ( jiǔ zhōu), and more importantly built flood defenses on the Yellow River. Rather than just building banks and levees he chose to build canals to redirect the water. Handicrafts such as silk weaving grew in importance. The first cities with tamped earth walls were built. One fragment of a ‘sui’ or farmer's calendar has been dated to this period. During the Xia dynasty the Chinese script was further refined and used extensively for record keeping. A lack of archaeological dating evidence has made the confirmation of details of the Xia dynasty very difficult. Discoveries in 2016 at Lajia in 2016 have given a tantalizing suggestion of a great flood at this time. All this was occurring at the time of the Middle Kingdom of Egyptian pharaohs (c. 2000 to 1700BCE)

Shang Dynasty 1600-1100BCE

Ancient bell

The tyrannical rule of the Emperor Jie of the Xia dynasty led to revolt and overthrow by Cheng Tang of Shang to found the Shang dynasty. Widespread developments began in economic, political and cultural spheres. The first walled cities were built at this time on a standard grid pattern layout. The capital was first Bo (near modern day Shangqiu) and then Yin (near modern day Anyang) both in Henan province. These cities seemed to have been mainly administrative and ritual centers rather; they also offered markets to the majority of people still engaged in agriculture. Shang China had a feudal economy with the landowners exercising absolute control over everyone in their fiefdom. The nobles lived a life of luxury while everyone else scratched a meager existence. Rule was passed solely through the male line, setting a precedent for subsequent dynasties. Warfare was revolutionized by the import of domesticated horses, making chariots the feared instrument of conquest. Although Shang rule was limited to the Yellow River valley its influence spread to the Yangzi river and along the south-eastern coast as far as Guangdong.

Shang dynasty, tomb, Lady Hao, Henan
Tomb of Lady Fu Hao, Yinxu, Henan, China. Available under a Creative Commons License

Development of the Chinese script continued, writing has survived on oracle bones and bronze vessels. About 1,000 characters of the 5,000 characters used in Shang times are still recognizably similar to those of today. The Chinese calendar system of leap months and ten day weeks was developed. In metalwork, they developed the ability to cast elaborate, massive bronze vessels which was unrivaled in the world at the time. The tomb of Lady Hao , the only intact Shang tomb to survive to modern times shows the sophistication of the culture with a diverse range of ornate objects. Buried with their rulers were their many attendants.

audio lecture
China History Podcast relating to this topic by Lazlo Montgomery (audio only).
Lazlo podcast
The Shang Dynasty
Oracle bones Read all about the amazing discovery of 4,000 year old ancient Chinese Writing in our oracle bone section.

Silk production grew in sophistication, although its fragility has meant that, although tools used to make it have survived, no fabric from this distant time remains. China's civilization expanded down the Yellow River to Anhui; Hunan; Shanxi; Hebei and Shandong. Growth was promoted by introducing water engineering for irrigation and flood control.

The great Han dynasty historian Sima Qian wrote an amazingly detailed history of this period. As with the Xia dynasty the end of the Shang came with the tyrannical and vicious rule of a ruler, in this case King Zhou (aka Zhou Xin). He led a profligate and debauched life and is noted for filling a lake with wine and devising cruel tortures for entertainment.


General Nao Chi
General Nao Chi, Zhou dynasty

Western Zhou Dynasty 1100-770BCE

Zhou dynasty, bronze, dish
Ancient Chinese bronze ware. This morning dish 37 cm in diameter has austere and graceful modeling with inscribed clear Chinese characters, is of Western Zhou date

King Wu of Shaanxi, occupying the Wei valley, overthrew the Shang and established the Zhou dynasty. They were probably outsiders of mixed barbarian (from Gansu province) and Chinese origin. They split the land into 71 fiefdoms for princes and dukes. However it is likely that at this early stage each walled town was fairly autonomous with its own ruler.

The Zhou dynasty introduced many innovations that have endured for thousands of years. The first three Zhou rulers are remembered for their exemplary leadership and remain admired for their military prowess, cultivation of the arts and unselfish rule. The early part of Zhou rule was regarded as a ‘Golden Age’ throughout much of Chinese history. The post of Emperor had the title ‘Son of Heaven’ ( tiān zǐ) and held the key responsibility of maintaining the rituals needed by the heavenly deities. The concept that the emperor ruled with the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ was important as it permitted rebellion when it was judged by the people that misrule or natural disasters signaled Heaven's displeasure and the loss of the Emperor's right to rule. A successful revolt against Zhou Li Wang in 841BCE attested to this principle. The Mandate is still considered powerful even into modern times; the devastating Tangshan Earthquake of 1976 was shortly followed by the death of Chairman Mao. Like the Pope in medieval Europe the emperor was considered the primary link to the gods of heaven and Shangdi in particular. During the early period it was common for human sacrifices to take place after troubling events that were considered signs of heavenly displeasure such as natural disasters. Sacrifices also took place on the death of the emperor; with many high officials buried with him; however this practice slowly fizzled out during the dynasty.

audio lecture
China History Podcast relating to this topic by Lazlo Montgomery (audio only).
Lazlo podcast
The Western Zhou Dynasty

China (Zhongguo - which can be transliterated as the central country) became a meaningful concept at this time. Even though people lived in isolated small communities there was already a feeling of cultural unity with a shared civilization. The world was envisaged as a series of three concentric squares with the Chinese capital at its center, with level of barbarity increasing further out. It is from this viewpoint that the name for the nation 'Central' or 'Middle' Kingdom originated. Kings of 'tribes' to the south accepted a limited degree of fealty to the Zhou rulers. However most of the cultural activity happened in northern China around the Yellow River with its capital at Luoyang. The nation was surrounded by wasteland, deserts, limitless oceans and barbarians launching frequent raids on the settlements. China began to see herself as the cultural and geographical center of the World. This China-centered view persisted for three thousands years - into the Qing dynasty. In the Zhou dynasty the first walls were built to defend China's northern border; these were later to be joined together in the Great Wall. It is only in the later stages of the Western Zhou that historical records become more consistent and reliable and no longer just tales of the actions of the Emperors. The great capital city of Zhou was at Hao south-west of modern day Xi'an. After over 300 years, the Western Zhou dynasty was in turn overthrown by the Quanrong nomadic tribes and disaffected fiefs. The capital city was sacked and destroyed. The son of the defeated emperor set up the new capital further east at Luoyang. This was the start of the Eastern Zhou which is traditionally divided into two periods :Spring and Autumn and Warring States.

Mandate of Heaven

Emperor Yongle, Ming dynasty
Emperor Yongle (Chengzu) of the Ming Dynasty, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, 220 x 150 cm. Located at the National Palace Museum, Taibei. This picture shows him seated on the Dragon Throne. Image available under a Creative Commons license .

The Mandate of Heaven tiān mìng is an important concept running through Chinese history. The Emperor of China only did so as long as he had the support of heaven (the realm of the gods). The Mandate of Heaven (another translation is ‘God's will’ or transliterating ‘heaven fate’) was a guiding principle as far back as the Shang and Zhou dynasties. The Emperor was known as ‘Son of Heaven tiān zǐ, the sole human link between Earth and the controlling Heavens above. As the only intermediary no other ruler was his equal and this lead to clashes with European powers that wanted to be treated as equals.

The sign that the mandate had been lost would be made evident by all kinds of calamities including natural ones: earthquakes; storms; floods; famine and plague. Other signs could be a more direct result of actions such as cruelty; corruption; military defeat and incompetence. These were all interpreted as signs of the displeasure of the gods. To rise in rebellion when these signs occurred was justified. A new dynasty would claim their seizure of the Imperial throne was a proof of their mandate, because the success of the rebellion was seen as heaven's approval of the transfer of the mandate.

The alternative guiding philosophy of the Legalists and kings in medieval Europe was by divine right. The right to govern was by birthright and could not be challenged; so rebellion could never be justified. The Mandate can therefore be viewed as the pinnacle of Confucian philosophy. The ultimate responsibility is the Emperor's duty towards heaven from which all other duties flow. The mandate implies the ruler is the most virtuous person, and will lose the mandate should his virtue weaken. Symbolically this duty included the proper rites at the Temple of Heaven at the start of each year. The emperor would kowtow at the temple to show his subservience to heaven. When China was ruled by foreign people (e.g. Mongols and Manchus) the new rulers needed to prove that they now took on the Mandate, and they aimed to to this by performing the appropriate ancient rites. If the Empire is rocked by natural disasters or revolts the appropriate response was for the Emperor to admit to his shortcomings and adopt a new reign name, effectively restarting his reign from scratch.

The ‘Mandate of Heaven’ philosophy is still evident today. The Communist government of China will be tolerated as long as it delivers the goods: increased prosperity for the masses, should this falter then revolt will inevitably follow as a natural consequence, loyalty to a regime/dynasty is never permanent. Chairman Mao himself is famous for the maxim 'to rebel is justified '.

Source references used for this page: Book : A Map History of Modern China, Catchpole, Heinemann, 1976 pp. 1-2, 4-6 Book : China : A short cultural history, G.P. Fitzgerald, The Cresset Press, 1950 p. 16-30 Book : China: A Concise History, Meyer, Littlefield Adams, 1984 p. 32-33 Book : China: A Macro History, Huang, Sharpe,1990 p. 8-9 Book : Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs, C.A.S. Williams,Tuttle,1993 p. 385 Book : Chronicles of the Chinese Emperors, Ann Paludan, Thames and Hudson, 1998 pp. 6-13, 27-39 Book : Early Civilization in China, Willaim Watson, Thames and Hudson, 1966 pp. 10-15, 45-58, 62-82 Book : Everyday Life in Early Imperial China, Michael Lowe, Carousel, 1973 pp. 19-23, 30 Book : History: China Handbook Series, Foreign Languages Press, 1982 p. 1-12 Book : Insight Guides:China,APA, 1994 p. 47-57 Book : Journeys in north China, Manchuria, and eastern Mongolia, Alexander Williamson, Smith, 1870 p. 10-11 Book : Lonely Planet: China, 1988 pp. 10-11, 56-60, 258-264 Book : Nagel's Encyclopedia guide: China, Nagel, 1978 p. 106 Book : The Cambridge Encyclopedia of China, ed. Brian Hook, Cambridge University Press, 1991 p. 145-149 Book : The Cambridge Illustrated History of China, Patricia Embury, Cambridge University Press, 2010 pp. 24-27, 32-33 Book : The First Emperor of China, Frances Wood, Profile Books, 2007 p. 7 Book : The Sextants of Beijing, Waley-Cohen, Norton, 1999 p. 13-14 Book : The Treasures and Dynasties of China, Bamber Gascoigne, Jonathan Cape, 1973 p. 11-30 Mandate of Heaven (wikipedia) Xia dynasty (9news) Xia dynasty (totallyhistory) Zhou dynasty (wikipedia)
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