If someone is interested in Chinese history can follow this little guide on history. I will give you a chronology of key dynasties ,key events, key personalities and key developments in Chinese society and culture. So lets start. Chinese history isn’t so simple as some people think. We all know that Chinese civilization is among worlds oldest civilizations. In similar period other civilizations appeared such as Sumerian, Greek and Egyptian civilizations. But Chinese one is only one which survived until today without destruction and extinction what happened to other ancient civilizations which were mentioned but also those of ancient Incas, Aztecs and Mayas and Romans as well.
Neolithic Period (Beginning of the Beginning)
Sometimes it is really hard to say where and when actually Chinese civilization begins. It is like that because it is directly connected with legends and legendary figures such as Dragons, and deity emperors such as Yellow Emperor. Notable figures from this legendary times are Three Sovereigns and 5 Emperors. As First legendary Sovereign in history of China legendarily is considered Fu Xi. Fu Xi is considered as Heavenly Sovereign. Second one is Earthly Sovereign Nu Wa and Third One is Shen Nong about who I will write when I will write about discovery of tea. Five legendary emperors are: Yellow Emperor, Zhuanxu, Ku, Yao and Shun emperor. As most important legendary emperor is considered Yellow Emperor who according to legend ruled around 2700BC-2500BC. From this period Chinese people count time most specifically from about 2698BC during time of Yellow Emperor. So today according to lunar Chinese calendar it is year 4727. All these figures are legendary and mythological beings. Modern historians believe that these 5 emperors are mythological depiction of rulers of smaller territorial units during transition from neolith to feudal states. So lets put myths aside this time and trace real and official history of China. Oldest civilization in China appeared in fertile lands and valleys of two rivers Hoanghe and Yangtze. Oldest discovered settlement appeared in cca 9500BC in valley of Yellow River in todays Henan province. Evidence of agriculture dates from this period and between vast area of these two rivers. In these areas evidence of cultivated rice was proven. On cliffs were found carvings that symbolize moon, sun, hunting, agriculture and deities found in todays Ningxia Autonomous Region. It is believed that they are oldest evidence of Chinese writing. Also cultures from these period were found in todays Hunan, Hubei, Shandong and Sichuan. All of them were quite similar even that they were not too close to each other. Proofs of pottery, exploitation of precious materials such as jade were found too.
Xia from myth to reality (2100BC-1600BC)
Key events and figures:
Statehood is firstly witnessed during Xia dynasty. Xia dynasty can be considered as first state dynasty in history of China. Before that rulers were leading only some clans over smaller territorial unit. Each clan governed over specific territory , lower nobility and peasants living there. They were choosing new ruler under principle of most capable man. According to Nermile( 2016) most probable reason why state appeared were big floods from Yellow River.Than clans united around leader of Xia as the most capable one. His name was Yu and took higher tittle most likely of emperor as it was legendary tittle of previous mythical sovereigns and emperors. ( Nermile, 2016) Yu is considered as capable as he suggested solution to floods by digging canals. Than signs of state appeared when he established dynasty by declaring primogeniture and organizing divisions on lords and peasants.
Until recent years it was believed that this dynasty was legendary but some tools and pottery was excavated near todays Erlitou in Henan province. This dynasty was recorded in Sima Qian records but until recent years existence of this dynasty wasn’t proven. It is believed by some historians that Xia dynasty was actually period of Shang dynasty and that name Xia was coined by Western Zhou court in order to legitimize their overthrwing of Shang dynasty. According to Sima Qian Yu the Great is founder of Xia dynasty. Yu the Great was the first one who established state system and brought Xia clan on power. Yu the Great is remembered as important ruler as he established the canals in order to prevent floods from damaging crops. Last emperor Jie from this dynasty was believed to be careless about people and used very tyrannical methods to oppress people and keep his power. His rule often is depicted with scenes of starvation and very poor harvests. So people from Shang clan overthrew him. Later this became practice for unsuccessful emperors during whose rule starvation and oppression occurred. Location of capital city of Xia state is not known for sure. It is believed but isnt confirmed that capital city was during some time near todays Dengfeng and some time near Gongyi both in Henan province. It is not definitely sure whether Xia rulers had tittle of duke or emperor but most often it is reffered to them as emperors.
Society and culture: There is no much evidence of how society during this period looked like. Most of evidence says that emperor and aristocracy were on top and that relations to villagers was like master and slave. Chinese society was strictly hierarchical with an emperor on top. Aristocrats were ruling elite and right hand of emperor. Villagers could have own crops but also had to work for feudal master. If they were slaves than they didn’t have any property and they completely depended on lord. During Xia period slavery was more present than feudalism Villagers mostly harvested rice. Silk production is also evidenced. Pottery was one of main crafts. One of main achievements of this period is also that lunar calendar started to be used. People mostly believed in natural forces and worshipped them. Human sacrifice of prisoners and slaves to please deities and worship them or worship heaven was common.
Shang dynasty- 1600BC-1046BC Bloom of new empire
Key events and figures: In Battle of Mingtiao Shang leader Tang defeated Jie tyrannical emperor. He has learnt on example of Jie how country shouldn’t be ruled. Tang didn’t oppress people and as records say he was very compassionate ruler. During first 9 emperors of Shang dynasty life of people bloomed, governance was stable and culture and science were developing. First emperor of Shang dynasty also established council and ministers what showed that he wasn’t absolutist ruler. There are much more reliable records of existence of this dynasty than about previous dynasty. Also more archaeological evidence exists about Shang dynasty. Some modern historians believe that maybe data about Xia dynasty dates from period of Shang dynasty and that both dynasties ruled in parallel time over different areas and that as result of their conflict was victory of Shang dynasty. During this dynasty was recorded city capital and reliably considered that it was what is todays Anyang in Henan province.
When unstable periods of Shang dynasty came tyranny and oppression again increased and this few rebellions of vassals but rebel armies were defeated. Vassal rulers after defeat got some autonomy in order to motivate them not to rebel anymore. Emperor Zhou of Shang dynasty behaved same like last emperor of Xia dynasty and because of that he became last ruler of Shang dynasty. He led luxurious life while people were starving and as addition to that he used to torture and oppress people with loyal army and loyal feudal lords. He was also torturing some of ministers who made mistake. Corruption increased and unsatisfied elements of aristocracy and vassals united with other kingdoms among which was most notable King Wu from (Zhou clan) who led war against emperor Zhou. Shang dynasty was defeated and Emperor Zhou murdered. King Wu came to power united other vassals and aristocrats and put Zhou dynasty on throne. It is almost completely clear that Shang rulers held tittles of emperors.
Society and culture:
There is much more evidence about social relations in Shang dynasty period than that about Xia. Aristocrats were main servicemen of emperor who had unlimited power. Merchants and craftsmen were free citizens living in towns and they always enjoyed such status through history of China. Merchants could move freely on their trips when they went to sell or buy items. Craftsmen could keep their own shops. Every aristocrat could have serfs as much as he could afford. They had small own piece of land but they had to work on much larger land and all credits went just to feudal lord. Villagers could be sold or set free too.
During Shang dynasty economy bloomed especially agriculture and crafts. Fishing also becomes important sector of economy as large number of population lived in valleys on shores of rivers. Because of that fishing becomes very dominant. Crafts contributed to development of industry such as production of porcelain and bronze wares. Carving of these wares that were used for cooking, decoration, rituals or drinking wine became common. Also techniques of processing jade were developing. Silk production was on rise and one of most common crafts. Thanks to production of so many crafts and development of agriculture commodity exchange was on rise and thanks to that trade became important branch of economy. Very significant is continuous use of irrigation.
Among arts painting and carving developed. Painting was mostly done on sculptures and figures made from porcelain or bronze. Also music developed during these times. There is discovered evidence of ocarinas and drums from this period. Artists were free citizens of Shang Empire.
When its about education and science conceptualizing writing system and development of calendar occurred. Chinese symbols became more widely used in communication and were carved on bones, turtle shells and bronze objects. During Shang dynasty use of lunar calendar became more accurate than before. Philosophers were first scholars who preached wisdoms and educated aristocratic youth. Further about education importance will be spoken during Zhou dynasty. There is evidence that astronomy and math was developing. There is written evidence that solar and lunar eclipses were recorded. Also recording of positions of various stars was accurately recorded.
When it comes to peoples beliefs they were mostly related to worshiping nature and living in harmony with nature. Worship of nature, sun, moon, heaven, earth and worship of ancestors was common. They celebrated Lunar New Year too. People believed that nature is source of everything what comes whether its good or bad and in that order they believed that they have to worship it. Many things during that time depended on nature such as harvests and nature could produce good weather, little rain but also cold or too hot weather and storms.Human sacrifice was still common.
Western Zhou dynasty- 1046BC-771BC
Key events and key figures: It was dynasty that ruled China for longest period in comparison to all other Chinese dynasties. Zhou dynasty ruled for about 800 years and it had 37 kings. Reign of Zhou is divided into two periods Western Zhou( 1046Bc-771BC) and Eastern Zhou( 771-256BC). Geographical division is based on fact where power was centered and whether capital city was in Eastern or Western part of land. Ruling of this dynasty can be characterized both by stable periods but also by turbulent times of civil wars and rebellions of regional rulers. It is so long period and more chapters deserve attention on this long period and both on governance and society of Zhou period.
So this chapter we will finish with Western Zhou. Capital of Western Zhou was Fenghao and its ruins were found in todays Xian( Shaanxi province). Xian was few times capital of China. Zhou kings had there palace, gardens and shrine for worshipping ancestors. First few years of Western Zhou were still unstable as civil war was ongoing. Wu abolished tittle of emperor used by Shang and declared official tittle of King. King Wu the founder of Western Zhou died and his son Cheng was too young so regency was established. Main regent was Duke of Zhou whose name was Dan. Brothers of Wu the founder of Zhou dynasty disliked centralization of power in hands of Duke of Zhou so they united with some vassal kings and rebels of Shang clan that wanted to restore power. Duke of Zhou didn’t fought only war with them but also put the practice of worshipping Heaven as official and compulsory practice that all future rulers should obey. Worship of Heaven was done by people but also some emperors used it. But now it became obligatory practice on which legitimacy of king/emperor was based. The term Mandate of Heaven appeared about which I spoke in second and eleventh chapter of my trip stories. Duke of Zhou made this practice compulsory in order to build new legitimacy against Shang clan and other rebel vassal kings. So since Western Zhou it became annual practice of every emperor. Kings and later emperors of other dynasties started annually to practice worship of Heaven to pray for good harvests in ritual sacrificial ceremonies what would guarantee them support among people who believed that he has mandate of Heaven. So if the year was successful in trade or harvests than king/emperor was considered as successful and that Heaven still wants to give him mandate. On contrary was believed that he doesn’t have mandate of Heaven and new legitimate ruler is needed. This practice was used to legitimize rule of king and later emperor until beginning of XX century.
Duke of Zhou won the war, united some regional kings and rewarded loyal vassals with new lands. Throne was given to Cheng son of Wu when he got enough experienced and his rule was stable. Also his son Kang was prosperous ruler. Other following rulers Zhao, Mu, Gong, Yi, Xiao and another Yi of Western Zhou dynasty were successful and prosperous continuously. King Zhao was defeated in battle with king of Chu on the south and was killed too. There is a legend that King Mu of Zhou went on trip to meet deity Queen Mother of the West. This period was peak period of prosperity and stability of Western Zhou. Ruler Yi the second was famous for boiling disobedient vassals in pot. During the King Li of Zhou more rebellions and destabilization of Zhou rule started. Harvests and economy were poor during reign of Li and peasants organized rebellion too. It was first peasant rebellion recorded in Chinese history. Li was exiled in 841BC and Gong He a nobleman was elected by vassals to become regent. He was regent for 14 years until son of Li became old enough to inherit throne. Lis son Xou of Zhou ruled successfully for first period and restored loyalty among vassals and people. He was succeeded by You of Zhou who was last ruler of Western Zhou. He was really disrespectful person as he married his concubine and abandoned his wife a daughter of Shen an famous nobleman. Shen organized a war against You of Zhou and supported barbarian tribes Quanrong to attack his lands. Also Shen united with vassals and turned loyal noblemen of You against him and this led to failure of You. You was defeated and killed. After that aristocracy and relatives of Zhou dynasty moved to the East and formed another capital and era of Eastern Zhou dynasty begins.
Culture and Society during Western Zhou: Chinese culture and society developed very well during reign of Western Zhou.
Social relations became even more organized than before. Instead of emperor king was on top. Feudal system expanded and was consolidated. Clear system of how noble people should pay taxes to sovereign was established. Also system of relationships between military, regional vassals and king was strengthened. Later it was even more clearly defined during Eastern Zhou and with guidance of Confucius about what I will speak in next chapter.
More evidence on how family life in average family looked like was found. Society was strictly patriarchal and head of household was father and husband. He was main person who was bringing income to house while wife and daughters had to work as housewife. Male could choose which son will be educated and which one will stay to help in house. He could also choose whom his daughters can marry. Basically we see that male was dominant in family relations and had to be obeyed and respected. Also it is visible that marriages were prearranged. In later period family relations were determined and described in normative way by Confucius who strictly divided role of man and woman in family. His philosophy put women on lower level and believed that they had to be submissive and obey.
When it comes to economy agriculture was still primary source of income. In comparison to Shang period more different cereals, vegetables and fruits were cultivated and fertile land was more systematically organized. Textile industry and production of bronze wares expanded. Larger architectural projects were organized and achieved. On architectural projects worked slaves. Slavery wasn’t daily phenomena of Western Zhou society but when there was need for larger projects forced labor was common practice. Irrigation system was developed and extended so this let to growth of population. Trade was even more increasing since surpluses appeared. Well-field System was feudal system of agriculture. According to that system farm was divided on 9 parts. Central field was public ownership in hands of feudal landowner and every other field was in ownership of one peasant family. So each family could harvest own field and full product went to its hands. While all 8 families harvested public field and products went in hands of aristocrat and part of that went to hands of Zhou king as tribute. Inheriting land went from father to son. If father didn’t have son than land was given to another owner. This feudal system and division of land and inheriting land by Confucius was named Fengjian.
Social norms were also changed in comparison to the Shang period. While in Shang period excessive drinking was common Western Zhou rulers considered it as immoral and banned large drinking goblets as a measure to forbid and ban overdrinking on ceremonies. Ritual ceremonies were conceptualized of worshipping nature, Heaven, sun, moon, earth and various deities became very common and part of daily life. First Zhou ruler declared sacrificing of humans on official ceremonies as cruel practice and banned it forever. Sincethat time never in history of China sacrificing of humans was conducted. Instead of that on worship ceremonies sacrifice of animals was common in some areas while in others wasnt. On official state worship of Heaven it was common. Other ceremonies such as family celebrations, weddings, funerals became very conceptualized and every detail had to be obeyed in order to fulfill ceremony successfully.
Major book from this period is Yi Jing a book which describes a universe, changes and cycles in world and nature. As a basis of universe according to this book is Yin Yang which is believed to date from Neolithic period. Yi Jing is considered as major origin of pre Daoism. Shamans and priests used this book to explain the world and balance and also used it in rituals.
When it comes to education and science writing system was even more widely used than before calendar as well. Also astronomic observation of stars was more detailed and accurate.
Arts were further developing. Except making sculptures of bronze, porcelain or jade and music poetry appeared. The Book of Diviners and Book of History appeared. Book of Diviners was used by fortune tellers to recite texts in their rituals.
All in all: Xia dynasty was for long time considered as legendary only because of lack of relevant data and close linkage of Yu the Great to previous legendary emperors. There is also a theory that Xia dynasty didnt exist but during that first dynasty is Shang and Yu the Great ruler of Shang.. This is often based on idea that Western Zhou created a story of overthrow of Xia by Shang in order to legitimize Zhous overthrow of Shang. Legitimacy of Xia and Shang was based on declaring lineage to legendary sovereigns and emperors. Legitimacy of Zhou was based on Mandate of Heaven what became major doctrine during ancient and imperial China.
In next chapter we will continue with Eastern Zhou dynasty a turbulent era but with large achievements for Chinese civilization and period that set roots to civilization and idea that still exist today.
In two weeks China History Guide 2, Enjoy China 😉