II. Ancient and Classical Periods, 3500 B.C.E.–500 C.E. > C. Early Civilizations and Classical Empires of South and East Asia > 4. China, to 221 B.C.E.
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
4. China, to 221 B.C.E.
The Chinese people are now considered part of the larger Mongoloid race. The Chinese language is related to Thai and Vietnamese, all of which are part of the larger Sino-Tibetan group. The importance of family to Chinese society and culture dates far back into Chinese prehistory. Family organization and family names are extremely old in China, and families were unified by worship of common ancestors. The “Chinese,” or Han people, began in the north China plain and then spread south. Early people of the south include the Man and the Tai. Southerners were linguistically and racially kin, though in the north people were racially kin but linguistically diverse.  1
Periodization. Early Chinese history is derived from archaeological evidence and (with due caution) later legend. More systematic history begins with the Shang and particularly the Zhou dynasties. This early political period, vital in Chinese cultural development, ends in 221 B.C.E. with the establishment of a more powerful state.  2
Legendary rulers. Chinese texts speak of three great rulers and three sage kings, all mythical, of high antiquity. The former include:  3
2852–2737 B.C.E
Reign of Fuxi who domesticated animals and instituted the family.  4
2737–2697 B.C.E
Reign of Shennong who invented farm tools and sedentary agriculture.  5
2697 B.C.E.–?
Reign of Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, who created Chinese writing, silk cloth, and the bow and arrow—he was a heroic figure as well.  6
The latter three include:  7
2357–2256 B.C.E
Reign of YAO, who is credited with the calendar for managing agriculture, for beginning centralized government, and for using ritual to foster morality. He sagaciously ignored his own incompetent son to pass the reigns of state to SHUN (r. 2255–2205 B.C.E.), a poor peasant but a filial son. Shun similarly passed the throne to YU (r. 2205–2198 B.C.E.), because the latter had controlled China's flood waters by dredging to the sea, thus creating north China's major river systems. Yu picked an able successor, but the people allegedly opted instead for his son and so was instituted the XIA dynasty (trad. 2205–1966). The last ruler of the Xia was the evil Jie, who was deposed by Tang, who founded the SHANG dynasty (1766–1122). Details of the Xia from historical and literary texts are difficult to corroborate. It was probably in present-day Shanxi Province.  8
The oldest Chinese archaeological evidence comes from Zhoukoudian (near Beijing); between 200,000 and 500,000 years old, Beijing Man (Peking Man) (See Homo Erectus) of the Old Stone Age was found here with certain Mongoloid characteristics. Mongoloid homo sapiens appear c. 20,000 years ago, using Stone Age techniques. Agriculture and ceramics emerge in China c. 12,000 years ago (in the transition from paleolithic to neolithic eras) in the Yellow River region. There is also archaeological evidence for rice agriculture in the Yangzi Valley from prehistoric times. Neolithic or Yangshao culture is associated with painted clay pottery; people lived in small villages, mainly harvested millet, hunted with bows and arrows, domesticated pigs and dogs, used numerous tools made of stone and bone, engaged in fertility rites, and showed respect for their dead through burial. This culture reached its apex c. 3000 B.C.E. and was gradually replaced by Longshan culture, characterized by black, unpainted pottery crafted on wheels. Longshan society was less mobile, more sedentary than before, with walled communities. People harvested rice and millet, domesticated cows and sheep (as well as dogs and pigs), had more buildings and agricultural implements, used a more stratified system of professions and for burial rites, practiced ancestor worship, and divined by means of “oracle bones.” It reached its apex c. 2000 B.C.E.  9
Shang rulers, about thirty in all, came from one branch of Longshan culture centered in present-day Henan province. They covered from the Yellow River plain in the west to as far as Shandong in the east. There were numerous capitals, the last of which was at Yin (or Anyang) where the last twelve kings ruled from c. 1395 B.C.E. The Shang is thus often called the Yin. Capital cities were unprecedentedly large in scale. There were developments in bronze technology and the emergence of horse-drawn chariots. Also new was the earliest form of written ideographic Chinese: oracle bones (made of turtle shells and the clavicles of oxen) were inscribed, placed in a fire, and the cracks were read by diviners. Shang also used elaborate, inscribed bronzes for ceremonies.  10
Shang state and society witnessed the origins of the patrilineal family and ancestor worship, as well as increasing differentiation in social and status roles from earlier times. There were three principal classes in Shang times: hereditary nobles and their families, commoners, and slaves (often sacrificially buried) who were largely war captives. The Shang state was a centralized monarchy. While Shang times saw the further development of settled agriculture, hunting remained important.  11
c. 1133 B.C.E
King Wu, song of King Wen who hatched a plot to break with their erstwhile ally, the Shang, came to power. He erected a new capital at Hao (near present-day Xi'an) and invaded Shang unsuccessfully in 1124 B.C.E.  12
1122?–771 B.C.E
The WESTERN ZHOU was, like the Shang, descended from Longshan civilization and settled in the Wei River valley of Shaanxi.  13
1122 B.C.E
The second attack defeated the Shang under the rule of the last “evil” Shang king, Shou. According to tradition, Wen was a wise, kind ruler, while Wu was a strong and tough one.  14
1116 B.C.E
Wu died at Hao. Tradition has it that he had wanted to sack Yin but was prevailed upon by his brother, the Duke of Zhou, who is credited (as regent to the boy ruler Cheng) with giving the Zhou longevity and a firm institutional basis, especially after crushing a rebellion of the last Shang heir and bringing the Yellow River plain under Zhou hegemony. The Duke of Zhou was later revered. Zhou built a city at Luoyang on the opposite side of the Yellow River plain to balance Hao. Yin was destroyed. Cheng died in 1079 B.C.E. by which point Zhou institutions were soundly in place.  15
771 B.C.E
King You (r. 781–771) was killed and Hao pillaged by northern border peoples. Hao was thereafter abandoned by Zhou descendants for the new capital at Luoyang. End of western Zhou.  16
The state system of the western Zhou was less centralized with small city-states and graded (feudal) rankings. Zhou lords and vassals were unified via bonds of kinship or marriage. The Zhou king was simultaneously the political leader and the paterfamilias of a large extended family. Over time the ties of the regional states to the Zhou loosened, and they acquired characteristics of their own. By the 8th century B.C.E., there were about 200 such states. There were also non-Zhou peoples on the borders and in the large state of Chu south of the Zhou in the Yangzi Delta. From the 9th century, there were interstate troubles and clashes with border peoples increasingly.  17
Western Zhou culture, religion, and society showed marked developments. Two major works describe this era, though both were written much later: Zhouli (Rites of Zhou), traditionally believed to depict state organization, and Yili (Propriety and Rites), depicting proper behavior for the cultivated gentleman. The Zhouli pictures a centralized feudal system with fiefs (or states) probably centered on walled towns where the lords lived, the surrounding terrain falling to their control. The “central states” (later the term for “China”) were considered the most culturally advanced. Lords paid personal homage to the Zhou king, offered military support, had their heir confirmed by the king, paid taxes, and kept local order. The king was responsible for peace in the entire realm, maintained through garrison forces throughout the land. There were countless bureaucratic titles which are now difficult to understand. Originally tied to Zhou religious beliefs, the idea of a “mandate of heaven” emerges; omnipotent heaven rules through the men upon whom it confers its mandate, and it can withdraw same. Victory over a dynasty in battle was used ex post facto to prove a change in heaven's will. Rulers were rigorously obliged to listen to able ministers, for governments ruled to keep peace and social order and for the welfare of the common people. To ignore the latter's feelings was conceived of as tantamount to betraying heaven. While Zhou elite society was organized around common ancestors, commoners lived in nuclear families. From early on, government service was considered the highest calling; scholarship was revered and early became an avenue into public service. Farmers were esteemed in theory as the basic producers. Social mobility in the western Zhou is still a moot point, but there was less “slavery” than in the Shang. The economy was based on settled agriculture of a manorial sort. Barter exchange remained, and hunting declined. There was also population growth through expansion and greater stress on agriculture.  18
770–256 B.C.E
The EASTERN ZHOU marked the end of centralized control by the Zhou king and the commencement of increasingly strong regional powers. The state of Qin, initially a semi-Sinic state like Chu, was given control over northern Shaanxi, homeland of the Zhou, and gradually became extremely strong in the west. The states of Jin in the north and Qi in the east (Shandong) were also quite powerful.  19
c. 700 B.C.E
Qin, Jin, Qi, and the semi-Sinic state of Chu in the south were the most important regimes. Honors continued to be paid by all to the Zhou in Luoyang, but the latter had little real power.  20
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.