Chapter 3

Ancient and Classic China

In This Chapter

• China’s geography

• Early civilizations of China

• The Zhou, Qin, and Han dynasties

• Chinese achievements

Civilization in China developed along the fertile Huang He or Yellow River over 4,000 years ago. The Shang dynasty emerged from this early civilization to rule China in the eighteenth century B.C.E. Later after the decline of the Shang three more dynasties, the Zhou, Qin, and Han, providedgovernmental and cultural stability to China.

As a result of this cultural stability, three philosophical traditions developedduring this period of classical China, Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism. In addition to these philosophical traditions, other important Chinese cultural and technological achievements came during this period including gunpowder, paper, and the compass. One of the most impressive technological achievements—visible even from space—was and still is the Great Wall of China.

The Benefits of China’s Geography

The geography of east Asia (known to us today as China) was, like the previous civilizationsyou have read about, geographically an ideal place for a civilization to develop. First, China benefits from three major rivers: the Huang He, Chang Jiang, and Xi Jang Rivers. The Huang He River, sometimes referred to as the Yellow River, dominatesthe region, running 2,400 miles from the interior of China to the Yellow Sea, leavings deposits of loess, a rich, yellow soil fertile for agriculture. The region also has a good climate without extremes in weather. Finally, a third of China is mountainous, which, although it does hinder transportation and cultural diffusion, also helps preventdamaging migrations and invasions.

Early Civilizations of China

Very little is known about the early civilizations that developed around the Huang He River. Settlements around the river started around 5000 B.C.E. Later, two distinct cultures emerged and disappeared. The Yang-shoo culture flourished from 3000 to 1500 B.C.E., and the Lungshan culture appeared in the 2500s B.C.E. and disappears from archaeological records by 2000 B.C.E.

Not until the 1700s B.C.E. and the introduction of writing with the Shang dynasty does more information become available about the civilization that developed on the banks of the Huang He River.

The Shang

The Shang dynasty represents the first true civilization that emerged on the banks of the Huang He River. Ruling from their capital city of Anyang, the Shang kings wielded tremendous political and religious power over the people.

The people of the Shang were polytheistic, worshipping many gods and also their ancestors. To learn the will of the gods, the Shang used oracle bones. These were animal bones inscribed with the various questions that the people wanted answered by the gods. In religious ceremony, a heated rod was inserted in the oracle bone, resulting in many different cracks. Then a priest or king would interpret the meaning of the cracks, giving people the answers they wanted.

During the Shang dynasty there was much advancement that made a lasting impression on the culture of China. The Shang developedan ideographic written script, which became the Chinese script. Shang craftsmen worked with bronze metal-casting, ivory carvings, the production of silk garments, and white clay for pottery.


Ideographic is a type of written script in which a graphic symbol represents an idea, concept, or object without expressing the sound that forms its name.

The Shang dynasty, of course, did not last forever. By 1028 B.C.E. the Shang dynasty lacked strong leadership, and an ambitious lieutenant named Wu took the opportunityto march on the capital of Anyang with an army that was loyal to him. At the capital, Wu killed the weak Shang king and established the Zhou dynasty.

What in the World

According to Chinese legend, an early Chinese king ordered his wife to investigate what was killing his mulberry trees. She found some white worms spinning cocoons on the leaves. Accidentally she dropped one of the cocoons into hot water. When she removed it, thread unwound from the cocoon. She had discovered the wonderfully soft silk!

The Zhou

The Zhou dynasty was able to centralize power, stabilize the region, and expand its territory during its time. This was partly because of the new principle of kingshipthat the Zhou dynasty introduced. The principle was the Mandate of Heaven. It stated that if rulers were just, they had the authority to rule from heaven. Because of this principle, Zhou kings were called sons of heaven, which gave the Zhou kings extra authority to accomplish things politically and religiously. The people of the Zhou Empire made impressive technological strides. In warfare, the Zhou armies invented the crossbow and began to use cavalry in battle. Agriculturally, the Zhou people used iron plows and developed better irrigation systems to use the water of the Huang He River. Finally, the Zhou built better roads, which allowed the empire to make more contact with outside groups through foreign trade.

Around 771 B.C.E., the Zhou dynasty’s expansions were halted with a loss in war to enemies from the north. The dynasty then began a slow decline with several periods of civil war. Finally, in 256 B.C.E., the Zhou dynasty’s empire broke into many small city-states ruled by local lords who had once served the sons of heaven.

The Qin

The Qin dynasty was a short-lived dynasty established by one very ambitious and cruel man, Qin Shihuangdi. In 221 B.C.E., with the help of an able army, Qin conqueredthe remnants of the Zhou dynasty. Not wanting to be just a king, Qin took the title First Emperor, or Shihuangdi, and became the Qin dynasty’s first and last emperor. Qin put all of the government under his direct control. Government officials who resisted were put to work or death or both. Many were sent to the northern parts of the territory to help begin building the Great Wall of China, which Qin wanted built to protect his northern border from invaders. (Most of the workers died constructing the wall and are entombed in the wall itself.) Most of the Qin wall is north of the Great Wall that most tourists see today, which was mostly constructed during the much later Ming dynasty.

What in the World

Only foreigners use the term China in reference to the nation. The Chinese use the name “Zhongguo“ for their nation. It means “Middle Kingdom” and refers to the early Chinese belief that the nation was the center of the world.

Qin tried to aid the commerce of his empire by enforcing a standard system of weights and measures and building more canals and roads. Despite these positive achievements, Qin would be considered by most a cruel tyrant. Not a man to accept criticism, he once buried alive some of his detractors. Qin died in 210 B.C.E., and his dynasty died shortly thereafter. Over 2,000 years later, in 1974, Qin’s burial tomb was discovered untouched by grave robbers. One of the more interesting finds at this fascinatingarchaeological site was its 6,000 life-size terra cotta soldiers, all of whom had different faces, suggesting a realism not previously exhibited in Chinese culture.

The Han

By 207 B.C.E., the people of China had had enough of the Qin dynasty. Qin’s son was an ineffective ruler, which made Liu Bang’s move to overthrow the dynasty much easier. By 202 B.C.E., Liu Bang had successfully ended the Qin dynasty, restored order to the empire, and declared himself first emperor of the Han dynasty. The dynasty then ruled for over 400 years.

The most renowned emperor of the Han dynasty was Wudi, who ruled from 141 to 87 B.C.E. His ambition and power allowed him to conquer a great deal of territory in the North and expand trade routes to the West, which became the Silk Road. To make a more efficient government bureaucracy, he instituted a civil service examination that lasted centuries beyond the Han dynasty. During the time that Wudi ruled and immediatelyafter, China enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity that is sometimes called the Pax Sinica or “Chinese Peace.”


China from the late Zhou to the Han dynasty.

Three Great Philosophical Traditions

During the period of classical China (the Zhou, Qin, and Han dynasties), three great Chinese philosophical traditions emerged that would influence south Asia for centuriesto come. Confucianism and Daoism developed in response to the disorder during the decline of the Zhou dynasty. The other philosophy, Legalism, gained favor duringthe Qin dynasty.


The philosophical tradition of Confucianism was started by the teacher K’ung Fu-tzu, better known by his Latinized name, Confucius. Confucius was born around 551 B.C.E. and lived during the chaotic time of the decline of the Zhou dynasty.

Working as a government official, Confucius saw up close and personal how a state did and did not work. After his retirement, he began to think about the interaction between the individual and state. Eventually Confucius traveled across China, sharing his ideas with an ever-growing group of followers. These followers, or disciples,gathered his thoughts on paper in the Analects, the “selected sayings.”

Notable Quotable

"If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character. If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home. If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation. If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.”

Analects, Confucius on order and harmony

Confucius felt that order and hierarchy should be of primary importance. People should live by a principle of ethics in which the well-being of the group comes before that of the individual. Finally, Confucius believed good government was the responsibilityof the ruler, just as being good subjects was the responsibility of the people. Everyone must perform the duty of his or her station for society to work effectively. The ideas of Confucius were very appealing to the people of China during the turbulenttimes of the Zhou dynasty, and continued to be very influential in Chinese culture throughout the centuries—even under the present Communist regime.


Like Confucianism, Daoism appeared in response to the turbulent times of the Zhou dynasty. The founder of the Daoist movement is considered by most to be Laozi, or “Old Master.” Little is really known about Laozi, partially because he shunned publiclife. But his ideas were recorded by some of his followers in the Dao De Jing (The Classic Way and the Virtue).

Laozi believed that people attained wisdom and happiness by seeking the dao, or “path,” in all things. That path is aided by seeking harmony with nature, which included rejecting social structures and renouncing worldly ambitions.

The yin and yang symbol represents the Daoist theory of harmony. The yin is the cool, dark, feminine, and submissive side of people, while the yang is the warm, light, masculine, and aggressive side of people. All people have both elements, and harmony is obtained when people have the elements in balance.

The slightly mystical nature of the Daoist philosophical tradition made it an attractivealternative to Confucianism, and it quickly spread throughout China and later had a strong cultural influence on Japan and Korea.


The last philosophical tradition that developed during classical China was Legalism, led by two men, Han Fei Zu and Li Si. Legalism had a few tenets that struck a chord in the Qin dynasty, when it gained widespread acceptance.

First, according to Legalist thought, human nature is essentially evil. A ruler must provide strict discipline to overcome the evil of human nature and maintain order. Legalists also believed that education was unnecessary; most people should be put to work to produce for the state. (After reading the tenets, you can see why the Qin dynasty loved Legalism!)

After the Qin dynasty, Legalism fell out of fashion, mostly because of its association with the tyrant Qin. Its influence has been minimal in Chinese history in comparison to Confucianism and Daoism.

Chinese Society

In addition to the philosophical traditions of Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism, Chinese society was influenced by the concepts of family and social class. Like the philosophical traditions, both stressed a need for order and harmony.

The Family

The Chinese family structure during the classical period revolved around what we call today the nuclear family: parents and children. It was also based on a hierarchicalstructure, with the father on top, followed by the oldest son, younger sons, the mother, and finally the daughters. Strict rules and expectations maintained the hierarchy,with a focus on duty, respect for ancestors, and filial piety.

Regrettably, the status of women suffered in this family hierarchy. Women in the family were subservient to fathers and brothers regardless of age or ability. And partly because of this subservient status, few women were able to receive an education.


Filial piety means the duty of family members to subjugate their needs and desires to those of the male head of the family or ruler.

Social Classes

Social class in classical China was also based on the desire for order and harmony. At the top of the social structure were the landowners. In most civilizations, peasants generally make the lower class, but that was not the case in classical China. The peasants, who made up about 90 percent of the population,formed the class below the landowners. The lower classes were the merchants, which consisted of shopkeepers, bankers, and traders. Movement between the classes wasn’t prohibited, but with the Chinese emphasis on order, harmony, and duty, most of the population remained in the class in which they were born.

What in the World

Paper was so valued in China that it was against the law to step on a piece of paper that had writing on it.

Achievements of Classical China

The classical period of China was a time of unprecedented advancement in science and technology. In the field of astronomy, the Chinese calculated the solar year as 36514 days and recorded and predicted solar and lunar eclipses and even Halley’s Comet in 240 B.C.E.

In agriculture they improved irrigation systems, fertilized their crops, and practiced veterinary medicine on their livestock. During this period the Chinese also developedmany key inventions, including gunpowder, the wheelbarrow, suspension bridges, the compass, and paper. All of these achievements clearly put China ahead as a civilization and made life in China easier than anywhere in the world to that point.

Notable Quotable

"There Seres (Chinese) ... study to pass their lives in peace … and so free are they from wants that, though ready to dispose of their own products,they purchase none from abroad.”

—Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman statesman on China and the Silk Road, 380 C.E.

The Silk Road was also an impressive achievement of classical China. The peace and prosperity of the efficient Han dynasty allowed for the growth of large-scale trade, which helped to create the continuousnetwork of roads that started with the Han dynasty in China and ran from the Kushan Empire in northern India to the Parthians of Persia and finally to the Roman Empire.

For 2,000 years the Silk Road formed the world’s longest road. In addition to being a route to export the luxury items of silks and spices from China, it provided the way for the positive influence of Buddhism to eventually spread into China.

The Least You Need to Know

• Civilization in China developed along the Huang He River.

• The Zhou, Qin, and Han dynasties provided stability to the region.

• Three philosophical traditions were developed during the period of classical China.

• Many of the Chinese cultural and technological achievements came during the classical period.

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