The Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC) is the first documented era of ancient China. The Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 BC) following Shang saw the full flowering of ancient civilization in China.
1. HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL CONTINUITY of China; 2. BEGINNINGS AND EARLY HISTORY of China; 3. Shang Dynasty; 4. Zhou Dynasty
1. HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL CONTINUITY
A significant aspect of China is its long cultural and national history. The Chinese people have shared a common culture longer than any other group on Earth. The Chinese writing system, for example, dates back almost 4,000 years. The imperial dynastic system of government, which continued for centuries, was established as early as 221 BC. Although specific dynasties were overturned, the dynastic system survived. China was even ruled at times by foreign invaders, such as the Mongols during the Yuan Dynasty, from AD 1279 to 1368, and the Manchus during the Qing Dynasty, from AD 1644 to 1911, but the foreigners were largely absorbed into the culture they governed. It is as if the Roman Empire had lasted from the time of the Caesars to the 20th century, and during that time had evolved a cultural system and written language shared by all the peoples of Europe.
The dynastic system was overturned in 1911, and a weak republican form of government existed until 1949. In that year, after a long civil war, the People's Republic of China, with a Communist government, was proclaimed. This government and the ruling Communist party have controlled China ever since. Although the dynastic system has disappeared, the People's Republic occupies essentially the same territory and governs the same people. If anything, the culture and power of China seem stronger in the late 20th century than at almost any other period in history. Under the People's Republic, China's role in world economic and political affairs has grown increasingly more important.
2. BEGINNINGS AND EARLY HISTORY
Archaeological evidence suggests that China is one of the cradles of the human race. The earliest known human in China, whose fossilized skull was unearthed in Shanxi Province in 1963, is believed to date back to 600,000 BC. The remains of Sinanthropus pekinensis, known as Peking Man and dating back to 400,000 BC, were excavated in 1923 at Zhoukoudianzhen near Beijing (Peking). Peking Man was closely related to Pithecanthropus of Java and lived during the Old Stone Age. In the upper caves of Zhoukoudianzhen are found artifacts of a late Old Stone Age man (50,000-35,000 BC), who ranks in age with the Cro-Magnon of Europe. This was an early form of Homo sapiens, or modern man, who made tools out of bones as well as stones, made clothes out of animal hides, and knew how to make fire.
Around the 4th or 3rd millennium BC, in the New Stone Age, great changes occurred in the lives of the ancient Chinese. Larger numbers of people began living together at settled places, cultivating land, and domesticating animals. These people made polished stone tools and built shelters in pit dwellings and beehive huts that were covered with reed roofs. Such villages were found mostly in the area of the great bend of the Huang He on the North China Plain. Despite its severe winters, this area was well suited to agriculture. In fact, it closely resembled the other cradles of ancient civilizations, such as the valley of the Nile in Egypt.
The people of this period (3000-2000 BC) also developed the art of making pottery for storing food and drink. Two distinct types have been discovered: red clay pots with swirling black designs in the northwest near Yangshao village, and smooth black pottery in northeast China near Lungshan, a site in Shandong Province.
3. SHANG DYNASTY
The Chinese had settled in the Huang He, or Yellow River, valley of northern China by 3000 BC. By then they had pottery, wheels, farms, and silk, but they had not yet discovered writing or the uses of metals.
The Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC) is the first documented era of ancient China. The highly developed hierarchy consisted of a king, nobles, commoners, and slaves. The capital city was Anyang, in north Henan Province. Some scholars have suggested that travelers from Mesopotamia and from Southeast Asia brought agricultural methods to China, which stimulated the growth of ancient Chinese civilization. The Shang peoples were known for their use of jade, bronze, horse-drawn chariots, ancestor worship, and highly organized armies.
Like other ancient peoples, the Chinese developed unique attributes. Their form of writing, developed by 2000 BC, was a complex system of picture writing using forms called ideograms, pictograms, and phonograms. Such early forms of Chinese became known through the discovery by archaeologists of oracle bones, which were bones with writings inscribed on them. They were used for fortune-telling and record keeping in ancient China.
Bone libraries and others: ancient times. The earliest known libraries were connected with palaces and temples. In China, records of the Shang dynasty (1767?-1123? BC) were written on animal bones and tortoise shells. An early library called "The Healing Place of the Soul," in the palace of Egypt's King Ramses II (1304?-1237 BC) at Thebes, consisted of thousands of papyrus scrolls. Among the most important libraries in the ancient Near East was the palace library of Ashurbanipal (668?-627? BC) at Nineveh in Assyria. This early type of national library, collected "for the sake of distant days," consisted of over 30,000 clay tablets. Early librarians were usually priests, teachers, or scholars. The first known Chinese librarian was the philosopher Lao Tse (Laozi), who was appointed keeper of the royal historical records for the Zhou rulers about 550 BC.
4. ZHOU DYNASTY (1122-221 BC)
The Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 BC) saw the full flowering of ancient civilization in China. During this period the empire was unified, a middle class arose, and iron was introduced. The sage Confucius (551-479 BC) developed the code of ethics that dominated Chinese thought and culture for the next 25 centuries (See Confucius
The Zhou conquest of the Shang was given an important meaning by later moralistic interpretations of the event. The Zhou kings, whose chief deity was heaven, called themselves "Sons of Heaven," and their success in overcoming the Shang was seen as the "mandate of heaven." From this time on, Chinese rulers were called "Sons of Heaven" and the Chinese Empire, the "Celestial Empire." The transfer of power from one dynasty to the next was based on the mandate of heaven.
Zhou rule in China continued for nearly nine centuries. During that time great advances were made. The long period of the Zhou Dynasty is divided into two subperiods: Western (Early) and Eastern (Later) Zhou, named for the locations of the capitals.
Western (Early) Zhou (1122-771 BC)
Western Zhou territory covered most of the North China Plain. It was divided into about 200 princely domains. The Zhou political system was similar to the feudal system of medieval Europe. The Zhou people combined hunting and agriculture for a living. Associating the success or failure of crops with the disposition of nature, the people prayed to numerous nature gods for good harvests. One of the ruler's duties was to placate heaven and Earth for all people. Failure to do so deprived him of the right to rule. Such beliefs are still widely held today among the Chinese people. Ancestor worship also developed during the Zhou period and has been important in East Asia for the last 2,000 years.
The Zhou were invaded in 771 BC by a less cultured, more militaristic people from the northwest. The capital was moved east to Luoyang. From this point on, the dates are considered reliable. The manner in which the Western Zhou fell followed a pattern that was repeated throughout Chinese history. People who led a nomadic, or wandering, life in the northern steppe land would invade settled agricultural communities to solve periodic food shortages.
The conflict between the nomads and settled farmers has been a continuing feature of Chinese history. Settled Chinese called the nomads "barbarians," a term applied to all peoples of non-Chinese culture up to the 20th century. From this concept an idea developed that China was the center of the
civilized world, hence the traditional name "Middle Kingdom/Country," referring to China.
Eastern (Later) Zhou (771-221 BC)
The Eastern Zhou is also two periods. The first is Chun Qiu, the Spring and Autumn period (771-481 BC), named for a book credited to Confucius. The second is Zhan Guo, the Warring States period (481-221 BC).
In the Spring and Autumn period, iron replaced bronze for tools and weapons. The use of iron led to an increase in agricultural output, growth of the population, and warfare among the states. By the 4th century BC the number of states had shrunk to seven. In 256 BC the princes of those states assumed the title of king, stopped paying homage to the Zhou king, and continued to fight for supremacy. The strongest of the seven states was Qin.
The disruption caused by this prolonged warfare had a number of long-range consequences. One was the rise of a new social group, the scholars (士, shi). They were forerunners of the scholar-officials of the Chinese Empire, who became the most influential group in China. In the Later Zhou period, however, they were a relatively small group of learned people. Often wandering from state to state in search of permanent employment, the shi worked as tutors to the children of feudal princes and as advisers to various state governments. The most famous of these scholarly shi was Confucius.