Ancient China

East Asia Geography
East Asia Physical Map
East Asia is home to long rivers, high plateaus, dry deserts, and rugged mountains. East Asia is similar to South Asia because rugged mountains and hazardous deserts create a deadly barrier to foreigners. For thousands of years, East Asian people were isolated from the rest of the world—this allowed them to develop their culture in a very unique way.  Mountains dominate East Asia’s western landscape. The Himalaya Mountains are the southern border between China and India. The Plateau of Tibet is on the Chinese side of the Himalaya Mountains. Like the Himalaya Mountains, the Plateau of Tibet was also formed by the slow crash of the Indian subcontinent into Asia. Another Mountain range in western China is the Tian Shan. The name Tian Shan means “heavenly mountains”.


East Asia also has dry areas. The Gobi Desert is found along the border between Mongolia and China. The Gobi is the 5th largest desert in the world and is also the coldest. It is common to see frost or even snow on the sand and gravel dunes. Most of western China is very dry because of the rain shadow created by the Himalaya Mountains. A rain shadow is a dry area on the leeward (opposite of windward) side of a mountainous area. The mountains block rain-producing weather and cast a "shadow" of dryness behind them. The Taklimakan Desert is found in the dry west. It is framed by the Kunlun to the south and the Tian Shan to the north. There is very little water in the Taklimakan and crossing it is extremely hazardous.  The mountains and deserts have played an important role in Asian history since they created natural barriers to outsiders.  

Despite the dry and mountainous terrain of East Asia, there are some low plains suitable for early civilization.  The North China Plain is an alluvial plain found along the Huang River on the east coast of China. Alluvial means its made of rich soil deposited by a flooding river.  The North China Plain is the main area where farming is done in China. The main food grown in China is rice. Rice grows best in warm areas that have flooded fields—often called rice paddies (pictured on left). Since rice produces more food per acre than wheat, it can support a much higher population.  
 
Heavy summer rains and snowmelt support 2 large river systems in East Asia. The Huang He or Yellow River is the 6th longest river in the world.   It is called the Yellow River because the water picks up yellowish loess or silt from the western half of the river (pictured on right). The river is known for the amount of silt or small pieces of dirt it carries. Geographers estimate about 1.4 billion tons of silt flow into the Yellow Sea. Along the Huang in the North China Plain is where China’s early civilization began. The River is also called “China’s Sorrow” because of its deadly floods. 
Terraced Mountain side


East Asia has many different climate types.  Much of China has a Humid Subtropical climate. Another thing that effects the precipitation in East Asia is monsoon winds. Similar to South Asia, the summer monsoon brings heavy rain and the winter monsoon is very dry. 
More than two-thirds of China is covered in mountains and deserts. Arable land or land that can be farmed is an important resource.  Only about 14 percent of China can be farmed. Many East Asian nations use terrace farming (pictured on right) by cutting “steps” into a mountain side and using the flat part of the “step” to grow rice. 


Early History
sciencenews.org
Humans probably reached East Asia between 30,000 and 50,000 years ago. Recently, pieces of clay pottery have been discovered in a Chinese hunter-gatherer cave that dates back to 18,000 years ago—this is the oldest pottery ever discovered (pictured left). Historians believe farming began in China about 7,000 BCE. The first crop grown was a grain called millet. Rice was farmed around the same time, and may have come before millet. Farming created more food, which increased population and allowed people to do different jobs besides constantly looking for food. Eventually, people needed leaders to organize irrigation and store food. Families that controlled land and irrigation became powerful. So, civilization developed in China the same way it developed in South Asia, Southwest Asia, and North Africa.


Ancient China 
It is difficult to be sure about China’s early ancient history. Most historians agree that civilization occurred sometime around 2000 BCE around the Yellow River.  China was home to one of the four early civilizations found around the world. However, China is different from the other civilizations. The culture that developed in Ancient China became the nation of China that exists today.  Of course there have been changes along the way, but the same culture has continued.  The other three civilizations have faded away or been completely overtaken by new people. For this reason, people say China is the oldest continuous civilization in the world. In China, the powerful families that controlled land became leaders of family-controlled governments called dynasties.  Chinese history from ancient times until about 100 years ago is divided by different dynasties. 

Making Silk

The Xia Dynasty (2000 BCE-1600 BCE) was the first dynasty in Chinese history. It lasted around 500 years and included the reigns of 17 emperors--an emperor is similar to a king. The Xia people were farmers, with bronze weapons and clay pottery. One artifact called a "bi" (pictured on right) seems to be a burial artifact.  Bi's have been found throughout Chinese history.  Silk is one of the most important products China has ever created.  Most historians agree that the Xia Dynasty was producing silk clothing, though silk production may have started much earlier.  Silk is made by unraveling the cocoons of Silk Worms.  Each cocoon is made from a single silk thread.  Not all historians agree that the Xia was a real dynasty.  Some believe the story of the Xia were just a mythical story because the stories sound embellished and they don't match exactly with the archeology that has been discovered so far.  The Xia stories come from written history from the next dynasty, but there are some artifacts to support the existence of the Xia Dynasty.  

Oracle BonesShang MapThe Shang Dynasty (1600 BCE-1046 BCE) was originally a clan living along the Yellow River during the Xia Dynasty. A clan is group of very close families that are often viewed as one big family.  The Shang conquered Xia land and gained control of Chinese civilization. The Shang Dynasty lasted over 600 years and was led by 30 different emperors. The Shang were the oldest Chinese civilization to leave behind written records, called oracle bones—turtle shells, cattle shoulders or other bones on which were written important clues to Chinese history. Oracle bones were often used to determine what the gods/nature wanted. If the kingdom needed to know something such as 'will the king have a son' or 'should we go to war', it would be carved into bone or shell.  They would then heat the bone until it cracked.  The crack lines would reveal the wishes of the gods--this process of learning what the gods want is called divination.  During the Shang Dynasty people worshipped many gods.  Ancestor worship was very important since they believed their family members became god-like in the after life. Shang government invented new ways to make bronze crafts.  Thousands of bronze artifacts have been found including some that weigh nearly 2000 pounds.  Its important to understand that other smaller cultures existed in the same time as the Shang in different parts of China, but the Shang left written records and seem to be the most advanced.  Eventually, the Shang were defeated by the Zhou clan.
Zhou Dynasty Art

Zhou Dynasty Map

The Zhou Dynasty
 
(1046 BCE-256 BCE) lasted longer than any other dynasty in Chinese history. The Zhou time period is divided into parts called the Western Zhou and Eastern Zhou because there was a brief disruption in their control of the government.  The Zhou battled with invading armies from the north (Mongolians), so they built large mounds of dirt and rock as barriers that would slow down the enemy--this was not the Great Wall yet, but the idea came before the wall.  The crossbow was another invention of this time--it was extremely effective and feared by enemies.  During the Zhou, the use of iron was introduced to China, which begins the Iron Age in China. Iron tipped weapons were much stronger, and the iron plow helped to increase food production.  
Zhou Dynasty Farming Plan



Agriculture was usually directed by the government.  All farming lands were owned by nobles (wealthy).  They allowed peasants to farm the land similar to the feudal system that developed in Europe in the Middle Ages. The government directed farming by dividing a piece of land into nine squares in the shape of the character for "water well," (井), with the grain from the middle square taken by the government.  The individual farmers kept the square of grain in the surrounding squares and worked the middle square together. This allowed the government to store extra food in case disaster struck.


During the Zhou Dynasty Taoism (also spelled Daoism) and Confucianism developed—the two most important Chinese philosophies. The great Chinese philosopher Confucius developed a way of life called Confucianism.  Confucianism says that all people can be taught and improved if they do the right things.  People should focus on doing the right thing for others, make family the most important,  and respect elders of society. Confucianism is still important today, but it did not become widely followed in China until the Han
Taoism Symbol of Yin Yang
Dynasty.  
The founder of Taoism was named Laozi. Taoism is all about following the "Tao", which means the "way" or "path".  The Tao is the driving force behind all things in the universe.  The Yin Yang symbol is usually associated with Taoism.  Taoists believe you should live in harmony with nature, be humble, live simply without too many possessions  and have compassion for all life.  These philosophies are different from religions because they don't have an all powerful god or gods, although the idea of ancestors and nature are often treated like gods. The power of the emperor was also related to religious beliefs. The Zhou talked about the Mandate of Heaven as the law that allowed Chinese emperors to rule—it said that the ruler was blessed by Heaven to rule the people.  If he lost the blessing of heaven he should be removed. Things that proved the ruling family had lost the Mandate of Heaven were natural disasters and rebellions.  For example, if a draught or flood was particularly bad, people may begin to think the ruling family had lost the Mandate of Heaven.  

By 475 BCE the provinces/states of the Zhou kingdom were more powerful than the Zhou central government.  The states rebelled and fought one another in a series of brutal wars, which began a period of over 200 years of war called the Warring States Period.  Eventually, one family (Qin) united all others into one empire.  This is usually recognized as the first empire of China, which begins a new time period called Imperial China. Imperial basically means "empire of". 
Imperial China
From 221 BCE to 206 BCE the Qin Dynasty 
(pronounced "chin") gained control of civilized China.  The Qin didn’t last very long, but made an important impact on China’s future. The Qin expanded their territory and created China’s first empire. The brutal leader Qin Shi Huang declared himself the first true emperor of China. This dynasty designed standard currency (money), standard wheel axle size (to make roads all one size), and standard laws that applied to the entire empire. Standardize means to make the same.  The Qin also standardized the different systems of writing into one system called small seal script that much of China still uses today.  Qin Shi Huang enforced a philosophy called Legalism that focuses on people following laws and taking instructions from the government. However, many followers of Confucianism were more loyal to their family and other Confucian traditions. To silence their protests, the emperor banished or put to death many Confucian teachers and burned their Confucian books. At one point Qin Shi Huang killed 460 Confucian teachers by burying them alive!

Map of Qin Wall


Mongolian invasions from the north were a constant problem in China.  The Qin government ordered walls built in the past to be connected to make a larger and stronger wall.  This is usually recognized as the beginning of the Great Wall of China.  Despite what you might think, the building of the Great Wall was unpopular with the people who saw it as a waste of resources.  Each dynasty built new wall or improved the previous dynasty's wall.  Most of the Qin Wall is gone today or been replaced.  The wall that still exists today was mainly built by a later dynasty called the Ming.  A number of public projects, including canals and bridges, were also built to help strengthen trade and transporation. 

An amazing tomb larger than a football field or anything in Ancient Egypt was made for the emperor.  It is still sealed, but legend says there are rivers of mercury and models of the entire Chinese empire inside.  Outside the tomb is a life-sized army of clay soldiers, discovered in 1974 CE.  This is known as the Terra Cotta Army.  Terra cotta means baked clay.  There are over 8,000 unique soldiers, over 600 total horses, 130 chariots, as well as acrobats and musicians--all made of clay! Archeologists are still trying to put them back together as most were broken into pieces over time.  Although the Qin Dynasty was short-lived, its standardization of Chinese life left a deep impact on later dynasties in China. It is from this dynasty that we get the name “China”.  The first emperor died in 210 BCE and was replaced by a weak and young son.  Eventually, rebellion started and a member of the Qin army took control of the empire, which began a new dynasty.
Han Dynasty Map
The Han Dynasty
began in 206 BCE and lasted 400 years until 220 CE and is considered to be one of the greatest periods in the entire history of China. LIke the Zhou Dynasty, the Han Dynasty is divided into Western Han and Eastern Han because of a short disruption when someone tried to replace the Han family--they were unsuccessful.  Han culture defines Chinese culture today.  In fact, most Chinese citizens today claim "Han" as their ethnic background.  The government made Confucianism the official belief system of the empire.  The empire grew greatly during this time, conquering land in modern Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam, and even into Central Asia. The empire had grown so much the emperor needed a larger government to rule it. He started a system of examinations (tests) to find qualified people to do civil (government) jobs such as tax collecting. This system called Imperial Examinations. In fact, most nations use a similar system to find qualified people in a fair way.

Han Style Porcelain
Many things were invented during this time including paper, steel, the compass, and porcelain. Porcelain is a very hard type of ceramic (clay pottery) used to make crafts that were highly valued by people around the world. Porcelain is made from special clay that is heated until it melts and basically turns to glass. Porcelain dishes, cups, and bowls are often called "China" because until a few hundred years ago, all porcelain was produced China. The Han Dynasty was also known for its military power. The empire expanded westward as far as the edge of the Taklimakan Desert, which allowed the government to guard the trade traffic across Central Asia. 

The paths of caravan traffic are often called the "Silk Road" because the route was used to export Chinese silk. The Han dynasty also extended and fortified the Great Wall to protect the Silk Road. Another important product of the Silk Road was the religion of Buddhism which reached China during this period.

Chinese dynasties would continue to rule China until Medieval times when the Mongolians finally conquered China.  Chinese families eventually fought back and regained control, which they maintained until 1911 when China experienced a civil war.  Again, China is unique because they have continued the same culture since ancient times.  There are very few examples of architecture from Ancient China or even Imperial China. The reason is because China primarily used wood as its main building material.  Similar to Ancient Iraq (Mesopotamia), very few ancient structures exist today.