History Lesson #4: Long Ago, In Ancient China…

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Ancient China is an interesting place. Long before the Qin and Han dynasties unified the states that made up Ancient China into one state, China was a bunch of neolithic settlements along the Yellow River. The Yellow River is somewhat like the Indus River. It’s tumultuous, unpredictable, is prone to catastrophic flooding, and has changed course many times. As a result, it has made a name for itself as “China’s Sorrow.” Nothing in this world is entirely good or bad, though, and this river leaves fertile, easily cultivable soil in its wake. It gets its name because its water is tinted yellow from a type of soil called loess.

A cool thing about loess is that it is easy to work and plant crops in. Peasant farmers later on in Ancient Chinese history could not afford metal tools, so they were able to work the land with wooden tools without a terrible amount of trouble. With these factors in mind, let’s talk about China’s earliest settlements.

Image result for yellow river
A map of the Yellow River, found here

We’ve spoken extensively about agriculture and its merits, and we should know very well from the example of Ancient Egypt, especially, how easy it was to farm when provided fertile, mostly stable land to work with. The Ancient Chinese were not forced to construct massive irrigation systems to work the land as was the case in Mesopotamia. Instead, their problem was mostly with keeping the Yellow River from bursting its banks and destroying their settlements. As seen before, it earned its nickname, and there was not much they could do about it in the end. Despite all of this trouble, the Ancient Chinese established a very unique society that was distinct from other hydraulic (river) civilizations.

Ancient China was blocked off from most of the world by geological and geographical barriers: tall mountains, dry plains, and more. This led to them having their own unique way of doing things. There is evidence that there was some contact with their contemporary societies, but it was not enough for them to establish truly close bonds. Instead, they formed alliances or fought with their immediate neighbors and didn’t involve themselves much in more foreign affairs than that.

Composite Song Dynasty depictions of Yu the Great and the Yellow River. 
(National Palace Museum/PD-Art;Beijing Palace Museum/PD-Art)
The sage-king Yu, legendary founder of the Xia dynasty. Image found here

There were three main ruling dynasties that emerged in this time period. The first was the Xia, the second, Shang, and the third, Zhou. The Xia dynasty seized control over the middle regions of the Yellow River valley, which was once occupied by the Yangshao society, a complex network of villages that existed from 5000-3000 BCE. After taking over this land, the Xia established their own culture with a strong tradition of hereditary monarchy. As in other early civilizations, a large scale central government existed to maintain law and order along with orchestrating and maintaining large public works projects. We don’t know much at all about the Xia system of government except that it encouraged urbanization and metallurgy in order to provide the ruling classes with weapons and power.

The Xia dynasty and lands were not overrun and taken over by the Shang dynasty as much as they gradually faded into one another. A cool thing about this dynasty is that they left physical and written records, so it’s a lot easier to see the shape of this society than we could with the Xia.

The Shang ruling elites controlled all of the metallurgy because they were the only ones who could afford to. As we have mentioned before, copper and tin were expensive to obtain and use, so the rulers funneled a lot of resources into making weapons to dominate their stone-wielding enemies. Shang kings also demanded great amounts of tribute to fund their aggressive military campaigns.

The Shangs moved their capital city six times, according to traditional lore. This was originally done for political or military reasons, but the culture followed. The Shang kingdom was a network of cities, with local rulers all recognizing the Shang king. Excavation projects have found that the Shangs had complex burial ceremonies and tombs. One of the wives or consorts of King Wu Ding, Fu Hao, was set to go for the afterlife. Archaeologists discovered thousands of cowrie shells, the remains of sixteen sacrificed humans, 1,600 manufactured objects, among other things and creatures.

The Shang kings didn’t leave many administrative records. It is believed that they ruled by issuing decrees and expecting their militaries and officials to enforce them. The dynasty that followed them provided a much clearer picture of how the government was run. The Zhou rulers and their allies deposed the final Shang king in 1122 BCE. They allowed Shangs to run local administrations, but oversaw the major affairs of the kingdom. They used something called the Mandate of Heaven to justify this takeover, which said that the king was a link between heaven and earth, and so long as the king ruled wisely, he could be king. Once he began to overstep, heaven would grow displeased and find another “son of heaven” to replace him. People would follow this tradition in China until the twentieth century.

Zhou power was decentralized. They could not rule effectively from one court, so they put subordinates in place to rule for them in exchange for loyalty. Things worked in their favor for a bit, but soon subordinates wanted their own power and then infighting began.

Part of this was because the king could not monopolize metallurgy anymore. The use of iron became popular in the first millennium BCE, and it got out of control. The subordinates were able to give their armies iron weapons…which they turned against the central government when they felt like it.

Nomadic peoples from the west invaded the Zhou capital at Hao in 771 BCE, causing a massive disaster that both relocated the capital to the Yellow River valley and turned the loosely united government into a bloody blur of warring states whose warring would not come to an end until a subordinate took over in 221 BCE.

The Family in Ancient China

The patriarchal family system was perhaps the most dominant force in early Chinese society. The noble families had an easier ride than the lower classes did, with nicer food, furniture, and metal objects available to them. It didn’t matter who you were, though. You were part of a family, and family was the most important thing in Ancient China.

It’s thought that a reason for the enormous emphasis on family is the practice of venerating ancestors. Patriarchs took the lead in rites invoking the ancestors, which gave them tremendous power. Women lived in men’s shadow, and their influence was felt less and less as time went on.

Writing and Outsiders

The first writing system in China was a system of pictographs. Most examples of this writing system have perished as they were written on fragile materials. One rather odd example of the writing system survives – oracle bones. These bones contain archaic Chinese writing and were used by Chinese royalty to make important decisions.

An oracle bone, image found here.

These pictographs sometimes were combined into ideographs when pictographs could not get complex enough on their own. Chinese script did not have alphabetic or even phonetic parts to it, which differentiates it from other written language.

Some other examples of writing come from works used as textbooks during the Zhou dynasty. The most influential is perhaps the Book of Songs, a collection of 311 poems that provide a deeper look at Zhou questions, values, and life.

China’s influence was not deeply felt in places like the Indus Valley or Mesopotamia, but they did expand into and have influence over their immediate west and south. The dynasties covered here had a rather tense relationship with the nomads to the west of the Yellow River, who were their on again, off again trading partners who sometimes decided to raid their cities. Although there was frequent contact between the nomads and the Ancient Chinese, the nomads did not imitate the Ancient Chinese. Neither the steppes where they lived nor their way of life accommodated agriculture or the culture of their neighbors.

They had more success expanding into the Yangtze River valley, which is home to a far more tame river that was more easily diverted in order to cultivate rice. The peoples that lived there ultimately fell under Zhou rule and became the beginnings of a Chinese society.

To be continued….

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