|Between the Neolithic Banpo Culture and the beginning of the Qin Dynasty, the major features of Chinese civilization were formed. Briefly, here is a summary of 3800 years of history.
The Neolithic age in China began somewhere around 10,000 BC and progressed into the Bronze Age around 2000 BC. Several of the Bronze Age cultures formed alliances between villages and began to cooperate. One of these is called the Xia Dynasty. Some experts believe that this transformation took place in the Yellow River basin within the Erlitou culture 二里头文化 (èrlǐtóu wénhuà, 2000 - 1500 BC). Other experts attribute the change to other early Bronze Age cultures. Most of what we know about the Xia Dynasty is based on myths and folktales. It is important in that it is part of the Chinese identity. The fact is that as the Bronze Age developed world-wide it was accompanied by an increased sophistication and specialization within numerous societies. Within China, there were many groups in both the north and the south undergoing the transition. The Xia Dynasty is just one of many.
The Xia Dynasty 夏朝 (Xià Cháo) is dated as 2207 BC to ~1766 BC -- 442 years and as ~2000 BC to ~1500 BC -- 500 years by different sources. The first traditional ruler was the Yellow Emperor, Huang Di. Most of the myths about the Xia are centered on attributing what might seem to be magical developments to god-like leaders, or to the gods themselves. Various myths account for the discovery of civilization and cooperation, agriculture, flood control, the making of silk, cooking, and the control of fire. Each discovery is attributed to an early "king" or "emperor." The title is honorific. While there is strong evidence for a hierarchical society, it would be a mistake to assume that the form of government developed during later dynasties existed at this early date. At some point, the Xia Dynasty gave way to the Shang Dynasty. We know a little more about the Shang culture, but it is limited.
The Shang Dynasty 商朝 (Shāng Cháo) is also difficult to date and is dated as (~1765 BC to ~1122 BC -- 644 years, or ~1700 BC to 1045 BC -- 656 years, or ~1700 BC to ~1027 BC -- 673 years). As you can see there is quite a bit of overlap between the estimates for the two dynasties. There is much better evidence for its location and structure, although there is no contemporary written record. The important features of the Shang Dynasty were a hierarchical government, the development of sophisticated bronze tools and vessels, the development of advanced art forms as seen in jade carving, and most important, a system of writing.
Religious beliefs were codified and traditions developed based on divination. Much of what is known about the Shang Dynasty is based on Oracle bones found in various sites around the Yellow River Valley. One of the most important sites is near Anyang, at a place called Yin 殷 (Yīn), believed to be a late capital of the Shang Dynasty. Thousands of turtle shells and scapula bones were found there; each engraved with characters. Many of the characters can be traced through history to present day Chinese characters.
Advances in metallurgy led to advances in agriculture, hunting, and the development of a military to wage war cooperatively and efficiently. This allowed Shang rulers to control more and more territory. It also led to their downfall. Once the idea of fighting to take control gets out, other people get ideas, too.
The Zhou 周朝 (Zhōu Cháo) conquered the Shang and began to rule somewhere around 1000 BC (~1121 BC to ~249 BC -- 873 years or ~1045 BC to 221 BC -- 825 years). The Zhou may have been a people in a state or city in Shaanxi ruled by the Xia, or some identify the Zhou with the Erlitou, mentioned previously, who developed a sophisticated Bronze Age culture. The Zhou Dynasty is divided into two periods by historians, the early or Western Zhou and the later or Eastern Zhou Dynasty. The change takes place in 770 BC. This is also when some historians date the end of the Bronze Age in China, although bronze continued to be the primary metal well into the second century AD.
The Western Zhou period was a time of expansion and consolidation. The Zhou rulers established the belief that their rule was linked to the gods, what is called the "Mandate of Heaven." Rituals became formalized and hierarchical. Specialization continued, allowing the development of advanced skills in art, architecture, and military prowess. The ruling class held itself above the people and organized cooperative efforts such as wall building, flood control, and city building and defense. The use of ideographic Chinese characters united people of different languages. The ideographs could be read as symbols and pronounced in the native language. As the Zhou expanded their territory, they established kings to rule locally and report to the central authority.
The Eastern Zhou period is distinguished by the growth of power among the various dukes and their subsequent fights for power. This ushered in the Spring and Autumn (777 BC to 476 BC) and Warring States Periods (475 BC to 221 BC). The Zhou rulers were around, but in name only. The real power transferred to sundry dukes who began to establish their own States. Perhaps the Zhou had gotten just too big for the type of government it had established. With a smaller territory the central authority could have held the kings in check, as the territories grew, the contacts between rulers and ruled were sporadic.
The culture continued to develop in the various sub-States. Rituals continued and were elaborated by the kings. Based on Zhou principles, each of the States or Kingdoms continued to practice religious rites, elaborate burial rites, raise armies, support art and trade, and engage in some civic projects. Literacy grew and produced the great age of philosophy which began during the Spring and Autumn Period and culminated with the Hundred Schools of Thought period in the early Warring States Period.
During the Spring and Autumn Period, Confucius 孔子 (Kǒng Zǐ 551 BC – 479 BC) wandered from State to State attempting to get the various governments to follow the ideals and rituals of the past glories of the Zhou. His philosophy is both a reflection of the practices in the past and a reformation of the principles. He strengthened the idea of a hierarchical society by emphasizing filial piety. Filial piety is the honor given by children to parents, but also given by the subjects to the ruler. It is unquestioned obedience, honor, and submission to the needs and wants of the more powerful. In return the parent or ruler owes the child or subject service and protection. They must be sensitive to their needs and guide their path. Each has a role and there is balance. For Confucius, following and practicing the rites, as the Duke of Zhou did, ensures the balance of society and the proper relation between people. Confucius saw little despots sitting on thrones and enjoying their positions without paying attention to the welfare of their people. Because of their self-indulgence defenses were down, roads overgrown, walls crumbling, and agriculture failing.
Laozi 老子 (Lǎozǐ, Late Spring and Autumn or early Warring States) is a reflection of a religious and personal philosophy that emphasized finding a balanced path through life that would be one with nature. As the traditional founder of Daoism (Taoism), Laozi urged an ascetic and peaceful contemplation of nature. He had a great influence on art for centuries to come. The Daoist gods are the traditional gods of Chinese religious practice.
During the early Warring States Period, thinkers such as Mencius, Mozi, Han Feizi, Li Si, and a myriad of other anonymous thinkers debated the proper way to live. In part, the Hundred Schools of Thought period was a reaction to Confucianism, but also to the continued fighting among the various States and territories of the Zhou.
Mencius, a neo-Confucianist, thought that man was essentially good and corrupted by bad culture or environment. Following the rites of government would protect him. The Legalists thought that man was inherently bad and needed strong laws to keep him on the straight and narrow. Mozi proposed that man's path was through self-reflection and universal love. He wanted rulers to eschew worldly goods and devote themselves to the well-being of others. There were "back to nature" thinkers, "back to the simple life" philosophers, and Logicians.
Confucian teaching most closely matched the traditions of the people and the myths of the past. The principles would spread gradually and during the Han Dynasty, Confucianism would be supported by government as a means to justify rule and ensure the hierarchy.
During the Warring States Period there were seven major states: Chu, Han, Qi, Qin, Wei, Yan, and Zhao. At the end of the period there was one, the Qin. In 359 BC the State of Qin was reformed along the lines of Legalist philosophy. The rule of law would apply to all. In 316 BC, Qin began a series of offenses against their neighbors that ended in 221 BC, when Qin conquered Qi. The ruler at that time declared the Qin Dynasty, and took the double title of Huang Di, calling himself Qin Shi Huangdi 秦始皇帝 (Qín Shǐ Huángdì). Shi means first, Huang means emperor, and Di has multiple meanings including; emperor, god, and imperial. The use of Di was meant to link him to the mythical first emperors and kings and to the Mandate of Heaven.
Some World Dates for Context
Great Briton - 2100 to 750 BC
Last update: March 2010
© Marilyn Shea, 2010