Shang culture (1800 to 1000 BC)
China has been a mystery to much of the world since word of its existence first spread west in ancient times. It was isolated first by geography, and then by a conscious policy on the part of its rulers. It was thought to be one of the oldest civilizations but modern archaeology and research has revealed that the civilizations on Crete, in Egypt, and in Mesopotamia predate it significantly.
China encompassed a number of fertile river valleys, especially the Huang Ho (Yellow) and Yangtze, that were ideal sites for agriculture. New technologies spread gradually from the west and the first Chinese farming communities appeared along these rivers around 5000 BC. Although all ancient civilizations eventually shared a common threshold of agricultural and technological knowledge, the relative isolation of China allowed it to form a unique culture. The Chinese distinguished their civilization by being first to achieve many important advancements.
The first recognized dynasty of Chinese kings is that of the Shang, who were located in the north along the Huang Ho River. Their principal city was An-yang, southwest of modern Beijing. The Chou dynasty overthrew a decadent Shang king and ruled for 400 years from the city of Hao in the northwest province of Shensi. When barbarians from the north sacked Hao, the Chou capital was moved east to Loyang. Although the Chou dynasty soon lost control of most of China, it continued to rule a state of varying size from its central position until 221 BC.
In 221 BC, China was unified by the Ch’in, from whom the country gets its modern name. A new capital was built at Hsien-Yang, also southwest of modern Beijing.
Rise to power
The Shang dynasty ruled over a conglomeration of northwestern Chinese feudal territories from 1766 to 1027 BC. The remainder of the country was made up of territories that the Shang could not reach or influence. In 1027 BC a particularly decadent Shang ruler lost control of the kingdom and succumbed to either revolt or the deliberate attack from the more western province of Chou. A Chou dynasty established itself and then expanded its control to the middle and southern areas of China over the next 400 years. With the help of a deposed queen, barbarians from the north invaded Chou in 722 BC and sacked the capital.The Chou dynasty relocated further to the east but never regained its dominance. The weakening of the Chou led to the Spring and Autumn period (722 to 481 BC) that takes its name from the title of a history of the era. New feudal kingdoms emerged and fought each other for territory, strategic materials, and population centers. Warfare between the feudal territories and barbarians to the north was incessant. By 500 BC, the 200 feudal territories of China had consolidated into 20 independent states.A peace was arranged around 540 BC at a conference instigated by smaller states that had suffered continual invasion and despoiling. Peace lasted 40 years and then hostilities resumed, setting off the age known as the Warring States (481 to 221 BC). Seven major states emerged in this period, but each was subjugated by the Ch’in, one after the other, beginning in 230 BC. In 221 BC Prince Cheng, the Tiger of Ch’in, proclaimed himself Shih Huang-ti—the first emperor of China.
Early Chinese farmers grew millet and vegetables, and kept dogs and pigs. By 4000 BC rice was being grown and became the most important food crop of Asia. By 2500 BC cattle, chickens, sheep, and goats were raised, and water buffalo were being used to pull plows and wagons.Despite the ravages of war, the ancient Chinese economy continued to grow and improve. An elaborate road network improved communications and trade. Massive irrigation projects dammed entire rivers, breaking them into small streams that carried water over extensive plains for rice cultivation. Most impressive were canals connecting rivers or taking water into previously arid regions. The first of these was built in 486 BC to supply troops. The eventual dominance of the Ch’in was due in part to the rapid population growth that resulted from canal and irrigation projects that dramatically increased food production.
Bronze did not reach China until around 1500 BC, and iron followed in the sixth century BC. Another advantage of the Ch’in was their iron deposits and iron industry. Iron tools were more efficient and iron weapons gave their soldiers an advantage in battle. The Chinese were casting iron seventeen centuries before that technology was achieved in Europe, and iron-making was a key factor in the shaping of their society.
China was unique to the ancient world for its general lack of slavery and a large peasant class of land owners. The reasons for this are not fully understood. These two conditions probably contributed to the enormous food production and population that China supported.
Religion and culture
The religion of ancient China was dominated by ancestor worship. Kings traced their ancestry back directly to Shang-Ti, the ancestor and founder of the people, and the ruler of the natural world. Shang-Ti and deceased forebears were petitioned by sacrifices for guidance in all aspects of life. Political power was linked to the spiritual. The ruler was the Son of Heaven and ensured the welfare of the people. These ancient beliefs were modified eventually into a state religion by two competing philosophies that developed around the sixth century BC in response to growing dissatisfaction with feudalism.The oldest of these philosophies was Taoism, based on a collection of profound sayings. Conformity to the Tao was achieved by unassertive action and simplicity. Taoism urged a return to a naturally sharing society that was cooperative, not acquisitive. A typical Taoism saying read “He who feels punctured must have been a bubble.”The second and most influential philosophy was Confucianism, a more practical and socially aware doctrine. This was a philosophy of honesty and cooperation in relationships based on loyalty to principles. Virtue was acquired by self-cultivation and self-denial. The Confucian ideal was a perfection of the human personality through sacrifice in deference to traditional values passed down from one’s ancestors. Heaven was the reward of the dutiful descendant.
The various dynasties of China ruled over a hierarchy of feudal states linked by kinship and vassalage. Feudal society was supported by peasant farmers who produced a surplus of food and provided unpaid labor.
Following the formation of the first empire in 221 BC, the long failing feudal society was replaced by a new structure. The aristocracy were only relatives of the emperor. Four classes of society were ranked below them. The shih were lesser nobility, land-owners, and scholars. The nung were the peasant farmers who paid taxes, labored on public works, and served in the armies. The kung were the artisans, and the shang were the merchants.
Ancient Chinese architecture was concerned primarily with building walls. Walls defended villages and towns, but also divided towns into sections. Controlling access to sections of cities enhanced the power of authorities. The earliest walls were built of earth tamped down between wooden slats that held it in place. The use of earth in this manner led to two major characteristics of Chinese architecture—walls did not usually bear loads and roofs supported generous overhangs to keep water off the walls. Walls were improved first with sun-dried bricks on their facings and then with fire-baked bricks by the end of the Warring States period.
The Great Wall of China was constructed following the unification of 221 BC for two purposes. It was intended first to keep out or discourage attacks by mounted barbarians from the north. It also was an outlet for the labor of thousands of men who had previously served in the massive armies now made unnecessary by the unification.
The ancient Chinese fielded armies that at times dwarfed those seen previously in the Near and Middle East. Casualties from a battle often numbered 100,000 or more according to records well regarded today for accuracy. Professional armies were supplemented by large militia levies called up for temporary service.The most militaristic states were those to the north and northwest who were forced to become proficient in war because of repeated attacks by mounted barbarians. Provinces in this region learned to fight large field armies from neighboring states as well as the barbarian hordes. The three dominant dynasties of ancient China originated in the northern provinces.
Chariot archers dominated the battlefields of the Bronze Age Shang era, but they were supplanted by mounted archers and large infantry armies armed with iron weapons. An early technical achievement was the crossbow, not seen elsewhere for many centuries. Crossbows were manufactured in large quantities for the arming of the militia, as well as regular troops. This fact influenced the widespread building of walls for protection. For reasons not known, armor was made predominantly of wood and bamboo.
Decline and fall
The empire established in 221 AD was further modified by the former Han dynasty up to 9 AD. In that year a usurper grabbed the throne and ruled for 16 years. Attempts to reform land ownership failed, however, and the usurper was eventually beheaded. This period makes a convenient break point in Chinese history, even though the empire continued to exist into the twentieth century AD.LegacyThe principle legacy of ancient China was its philosophy, including the concepts of face, ancestor worship, virtue, and balance with nature (Yin-Yang), which continue to shape its culture today. The most recognizable physical legacy is the Great Wall, the only man-made object on Earth visible from space.