Find more free software            A brief history and geography of China from the most ancient dynasty to 1900.  Note that the borders of what was designated as “China” varied over the centuries, though the fertile area along the Yellow River (Huang He) in Northern China was always central.  From the earliest recorded times, the Chinese have produced beautiful bronzes, pottery, jade and silk - unique arts with exquisite craftsmanship.

China - History and Geography

Photograph of China from space, by NASA
China from space
      Ancient China was built along the two main rivers—first the Yellow River (Huang He) in the north, and later the Yangtze in the south.  In the settlements along the Yellow River, people grew millet in the rich, easily worked loess soil. In the south, people grew rice along the Yangtze river, ate a good deal of fish, together with vegetables, especially water plants such as water chestnuts and lotus.  Along with dogs, pigs and cattle, people in the south had water buffalos to help work the soil.  By the heavy use of human labor, the same area of land in the south could grow about twice as much food as in the north.

Map of the enivronments of China
All Under Heaven
     The seasonal monsoon winds that blow north from the Indian Ocean over Asia produce vast amounts of rainfall in the Himalayan Mountains and the Tibetan Plateau.  Some of this water, along with rich sediments, flows across the Chinese Plain creating fertile farmland. The fertile areas of Eastern China are surrounded by deserts, vast steppes, high mountains and impassable jungles.  Because of this the early civilization of China developed more independently than those of the Indus, Tigris and Euphrates, and Nile River valleys, which were always in contact with each other.  This gave rise to a feeling in China was the world, that it was "All Under Heaven", surrounded by lesser regions populated by barbarians.

Xia Dynasty and before

     The Xia dynasty was recorded in traditional Chinese histories as the oldest of the ancient dynasties. The existence of this dynasty has been disputed, though some archeological evidence for it has been discovered.

     From the sometimes elaborate burials, one can tell that there was already major social stratification—some people were buried with hundreds of grave goods--pots, pieces of jade, etc,. others with nothing.  There were distinct styles in pottery and jade in different  areas, some of which reached high levels of sophistication, especially the thin-walled pottery with an almost metallic luster.

     At the beginning of the Shang Dynasty, the Chinese already had hemp, silk, sophisticated pottery and pictographs on the oracle bones.  It is unclear if these pictographs were a complete written language, capable of narrative, or if these pictographs represented only names, abstract ideas and objects. In either case, they evolved into the modern written Chinese language.

Shang Dynasty and Western Zhou  ----771 BC

Chinese Shang dynasty bronze vessel
Shang Bronze
     The Shang Dynasty had a complete written language, so there is a written record of their accomplishments.  Bronze vases from the Shang, made with sophisticated casting techniques, are large enough to hold a man, and are exquisitely decorated with Chinese characters, plants and animals. The molds were made in pieces, then joined together. They are breathtaking to look at, even if one has no idea how ancient they are.

Ancient Chinese characters on an “oracle shell”, used to tell fortunes
Ancient Chinese characters on an "Oracle Shell" used to tell fortunes
     Soothsayers in the Shang dynasty held  a heated piece of metal against a turtle shell or shoulder blades of cattle to make cracks, which were then “read” as a positive, negative or neutral response to the question which had been posed.  From the inscriptions on these oracle bones, we know that the king “communicated” with his ancestors, asking for success in ventures, good harvests, etc.  The King was considered especially effective in supplications for good fortune for the kingdom.  Participating in rituals and divinations were a major part of the king’s duties.

     Family was extremely important, as one’s ancestors would give help and guidance to dutiful descendants, and one would someday be receiving offerings from one’s own sons and grandsons.  The present family was seen as a point in a line extending both directions: into the past as one appealed to one’s ancestors for help and guidance and into the future as one received the proper rituals and offerings from one’s descendents.

     Accompanying the important burials  were the bodies of a hundred or more servants or slaves sacrificed, presumably to attend to the wishes of the deceased in the afterlife. Along with the dead servants were finely worked bronzes, pottery, jade and other grave goods.  Jade was shaped and polished by sand to form beads and jewelry, requiring many hours of skilled and careful work. The bronze pieces speak of a society where royalty could command labor from many workers, from miners to skilled sculptors, and the people to feed the many artisans, to produce art works for them.  While the jade does not require hours underground hauling up ore, it took many hours of polishing with sand or other abrasives to shape the hard stones.

     People were also sacrificed and buried under the foundations of major building projects, to insure that the building went well. Fortunately, this propensity for human sacrifice later declined.

     A number of things associated with classical Chinese civilization were already evident in the Shang—ancestor worship, an extremely high level of craftsmanship, requiring both artistry and great technical skill; a highly stratified society; the ability to requisition massive amount of labor for military and civil projects; divination, especially that done by the ruler himself; an economy based on peasant farming; written language with characters, not an alphabet; silk, jade and bronze.

Eastern Zhou   770 BC -  256 BC

     In 771 BC, the Zhou king was killed, his son put on the throne, and the capital was moved, dividing the Zhou Dynasty into the Western Zhou and the Eastern Zhou.  It was a period of unrest, with many different states contending with each other for dominance; it was also a period of intellectual excitement and innovation.  Many aspects of Chinese culture—especially Confucianism—started in this period.  Within the Eastern Zhou Dynasty were periods known as Spring and Autumn Period--from the title of a book, “Annals of Spring and Autumn” and the Warring States Period.

     As the many small states within China fought for dominance, the victorious state would add the territory of the vanquished to its own territory; it was then in a better state to attack a new neighbor, and less likely to succumb to an attack itself.  Having more territory—either by war, or by increasing the farmed land with the state, producing more food, and having a larger population from which to draw soldiers became the means of survival and conquest.

     Several philosophies important to Chinese thought developed at this time:

     Daoism is difficult to define, especially since it has resisted attempts at definition.  “Dao” means “way” or “path”, although the Tao Te Ching, attributed to Laozi, says, “The way that can be walked is not the true way.”  Ritual and love of nature are central to Daoism. As an example, certain Daoist priest were said to be able to walk in the rain without getting wet, because they walked between the rain drops.  This story shows some of the mystical nature of Daoism, and the emphasis on the knowledge of nature and living in harmony with it.

     Confucianism – Confucius was a scholar and would-be advisor to a ruler, who developed a model of a state--a highly hierarchical system in which every person knew their role in society and behaved accordingly; the ruler was under an obligation to be just and humane, and those under him to be loyal and obedient.  While Confucius believed in promotion based on merit, only the males of the aristocracy would have had the chance to have an education, and therefore the opportunity to prove their merit by their writing.  Certain aspects of Confucianism are probably an extension and elaboration of ideas that go far back in Chinese custom—the strict hierarchical relationship of people in society, the deep respect for ancestors, including one’s living parents and grandparents, the importance of ritual, and the division of society into the peasants who farmed and the much smaller group of educated men who ran the court and carried out the King’s orders.  Confucius tried to emphasize the importance of moral behavior by the ruler and the scholar-official in his court.

     Legalism is a philosophy of ruling based on the idea that people are best controlled by fear. It promoted strict laws and harsh punishment, and encouraged people to report the wrong-doing of others.  Legalism is based on a hierarchy and laws, in a mirror of Confucianism without the emphasis on humane and moral behavior.

     There was seen to be a hierarchy not only of humans, but of the entire Universe.  Every person and organization was in an exact hierarchy.  There were no parallel systems, no place or situation outside the hierarchy, so there was no “loyal opposition” or legitimate opposing point of view.  Loyal ministers would sometimes try to tell the king if they felt his policy was bad, but they could be punished or even killed by the ruler for doing so.  It was believed that the ruler himself could lose the “Mandate of Heaven” to rule the country, by bad judgment or carelessness, especially if he continued even after having been carefully remonstrated with by his advisors.

Qin   221 BC – 206 BC

     The Qin dynasty was a short one.   “Burn the books, bury the scholars.”    The Emperor (as he called himself, not just king)  was a legalist who burnt “all” the books.

     Qin Shi Huang ordered all books except those on agriculture, forestry, divination and medicine to be turned over to the state, and burned.  The only history books allowed to remain were those by Qin historians. They also buried several hundred scholars, some of them alive.  (Fortunately, the government didn’t find all of the books, or all of the scholars.) 

     Among other sources, one scholar had hidden a number of books in the wall of his house, which were found later. (It is not clear if he was one of the ones who was buried.)

     During the Qin dynasty, many things were standardized throughout China, such as the width of cart wheels, making long-distance trade easier.  They seemed to like standardization in general. The Legalists believed in complete adherence to a code of written laws, and the absolute power of the Emperor. Qin Shi Huang  also had  pieces of the Great Wall (still earthen, not the masonry structure that exists today) linked together.

“Terra Cotta Army” figures found in a royal grave
Soldiers of the "Terra Cotta Army"

     The “Terracotta army” was made for the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, presumably to serve and guard him in the afterlife.  An estimated 8,000 life-size figures of warriors, each one different, stand in rows in his tomb.  [see picture]

     The Qin seemed to have been the cruelest dynasty, though the competition was for this honor was fierce.

Han Dynasty 202 BC - 220 AD  (Overlaps with Qin Dynasty)

     The name of this dynasty was taken as the name of China’s largest ethnic group, the people we most typically think of as “Chinese”.

     Emperor Wu, in a series of battles with neighboring kingdoms, greatly increased the size of China. In 206BC,  China ranged from  ~500 km north of Beijing to ~Guilin in the south, from the Pacific Ocean to well past Chongqing, including  Far East Siberia

      Buddhism arrived in China from India, stressing contemplation and meditation.

     There was a continuing problem with raids from the “barbarians” to the north and west.  Some “barbarian” peoples moved in from north and assimilated into China.  It is interesting that small numbers of northern barbarians traded with, and moved into, areas of China, and then adopted Chinese culture and way of life.  Others, however, continued to attack Chinese cities and villages, which probably contributed to the increasing number of Han farmers moving to the south, along the Yangtze river.



Sui  581-617

      A short dynasty, which did succeed in re-uniting Northern and Southern China.

     The Chinese rulers required horses from the Northern tribal groups, who wanted silk, metal objects and other goods from the Chinese. Aristocratic Chinese families in Northern China married their children to leading families of the Northern tribal groups to cement trade alliances  Their children and grandchildren adopted Chinese culture and language, while the Chinese adopted stirrups and the use of  trousers for riding horses from the northern tribes. The founder of the Sui dynasty, and later many Tang aristocrats, who were important in government, were from these part-Chinese, part-tribal families.

Map of the Grand Canal
Grand Canal
      The Grand Canal was extended during this time.  Smaller pieces of canals, mostly linking natural bodies of water, already existed, but work was started on a larger canal to link Northern China and Southern China.  The canal allowed food from the south to be brought to the north.

      The Grand Canal linking north and south was built from Luoyang to (modern) Yangzhou.  Later the canal was extended south to Hangzhou and north to the Beijing area, a length of almost 1200 miles, all accomplished only with muscle power (man and beast).  The canal meant that food from the Yangtze river area could be brought to northern China, and the capital, and army troops could be moved where needed in a hurry.


Tang  618-907

     The Tang dynasty was in many ways an extension of the Sui Dynasty.  China was extended up into Siberia and to the West. The imperial examination system was formalized. Young men underwent a written examination, based on the Confucian classics, to become members of the scholar-official class, the bureaucracy that ran China. 

     Taizong (reigned 626-649) killed his brothers and their sons, then got his father to abdicate in his favor.  Despite all the family bloodshed, he became a wise ruler. As usual for the Tang, he was a blend of Chinese and northern nomad.  There was a pattern of many of the more prosperous peoples from areas around China  adopting Chinese culture when they could.


Song (Northern Song) 960-1276

     The Chinese had long used bolts of silk as unit of exchange (the bolts of silk were not always tangible and did not always change hands; the value of things could be expressed as being worth so many bolts of silk.)  Bronze or iron coins were used, but these were heavy and hard to carry.  During the Song, when the economy and population both grew immensely, the Chinese started using paper money.  Tea drinking also became widespread during this time.

     A group of nomadic people from the area of Manchuria successfully attacked the capital of Kaifeng and captured the Emperor and his son.  The capital was moved to the south, in Hangzhou.  This era is called the

Southern Song   to 1276

     While most of the rest of the Song was spent trying to regain the northern part of China, commerce and the art flourished during this time.

     The cruel custom of binding young girls’ feet to make them small started during the Song.  It began in the upper classes, and eventually spread to all but the poorest peasants.  Not only was the process very painful, but it was also dangerous (from the foot becoming infected) and left the girl barely able to walk, so that she could not do heavy work in the fields. 

Yuan (Mongol), Liao and Jin 1276-1368

     The Mongols conquered the Southern Song in 1276.  Though the rulers in several of the previous dynasties had ancestry that was  part-Chinese, part-nomadic tribe, the Yuan was the first dynasty where the  Chinese themselves considered they were being ruled by foreigners.  The language of government was Mongolian, and so were the majority of the highest officials. The Mongols conquered the Southern Song in 1276.  

     Kublai Khan, grandson of Ghenghis Khan, ruled China from 1260 to 1294.  His advisors included Mongols and members of many other tribal peoples, and possibly even an Italian (Marco Polo), because Kublai Khan did not entirely trust the Han Chinese.

Ming 1368-1644

The Chinese “Great Wall”
Great Wall
     The Mongol empire disintegrated, and the Chinese rebelled (again), at last able to throw off the Mongols and have a Chinese emperor, though a man of peasant origins. Taizu mistrusted the scholar-officials, and had a huge number of them—at least 30,000--executed, including his chief minister and everyone connected with him.

     Under the Ming, the capital was moved to Beijing, and the Forbidden City was built.  The masonry Great Wall—the version we know today-- was built during the Ming dynasty—defense of the known seems to have suited the Ming better than exploration or progress.

Map of the Great Wall
The Great Wall under the Ming Dynasty
     The Ming were aware of the other civilizations in the world, to an extent previous dynasties had not been.  By being so rigid and conservative, by not learning from the Europeans and taking the best elements of other cultures and adapting them to China, the Ming rulers kept China from developing, and therefore weak and defenseless.

Entrance to the “Forbidden City” where the Chinese Emperor and his family lived
The "Forbidden City" where the emperor and his family lived
     Zheng He sailed a huge fleet of ships into the Indian Ocean as far west as Mogadishu in Africa, and possibly further.  He brought back all sorts of wonders, including zebras and  giraffes.  This amazing trip failed to impress the scholar-officials at court, and was not only never followed up, it was ignored in the histories written of the time.

Qing (Manchu)   1644-1900

     After the collapse of the Ming dynasty, the Manchus from the North conquered  China. Unlike the Mongols to the west, the Manchus  were a settled people, not nomadic tribesmen,  who lived by fishing as well as farming.  The Manchu created a social structure outside the Great Wall, which helped them as they attacked inside the Wall.  Like the Mongolians, the Manchus were considered a foreign government by the Chinese.

     Men under the Manchus were forced to wear their hair in Manchu style—the hated “pigtail”.  Much of the Chinese structure of government was kept, with the Manchus in the positions of highest power.

     In trying to be “Chinese” the Qing became even more conservative.  The Neo-Confucianists made social structures became ever more rigid; they banned fiction, plays, the re-marriage of widows—all kinds of behavior deemed deviant. These “reforms” limited the lives of common people, especially women. Like the rulers of the Ming dynasty, the Qing tried to isolate China from foreign influences.  China was kept in a semi-feudal state, and was utterly unable to defend itself against modern countries in Europe and Japan.

     Under the Qing China achieved its greatest territorial extent, including Tibet, Mongolia, Korea, Taiwan, parts of what are now Russia and Kyrgyzstan and controlling Nepal, Southeast Asia, Burma and the Ryukyu Islands.  Military pressure from Britain, France, Germany, Japan and Russia, an inability to grow enough food for a greatly increased population, economic decline partially caused by demand for opium that was introduced to China by the British, and frequent rebellions weakened the empire.  By the time of the collapse of the Qing dynasty much territory had been permanently lost and much of China was under foreign control.




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