In 1974, farmers were digging a well near Xi’an, China. While digging, they unearthed a strange statue. The men reported the findings, and the Chinese government organized an archaeological team to unearth the statue. Much to their surprise, archaeologists found more than 6,000 life-sized terra-cotta soldiers and thousands of weapons.2 Inscriptions on some of the bronze weapons revealed the archaeologists had discovered Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb.
Qin Shihuangdi forced workers to build a tomb to defend him in the afterlife. In addition to terra-cotta warriors meant to protect the emperor, the pits housed clay chariots, horses, and cavalrymen.
Great care was taken to create the burial ground. Of the thousands of life-sized statues, no two are alike. To create such a vast and intricate clay army, many laborers were worked literally to death. Those who remained alive at Qin Shihuangdi’s death were buried with him.
Archaeologists have found evidence of great technological and military advancements in the pits. They learned about ancient Chinese
techniques for creating weapons and how advanced they were compared with their European counterparts. Today China’s ghost army is a tourist attraction and one of the greatest archaeological finds ever.
In 213 BCE, Qin Shihuangdi ordered many of the country’s books burned. Qin Shihuangdi gave the scholars one month to bring him all of the books. Scholars owned these books because they had been handed down to them from previous generations. At this time, books were not made of paper. Instead, words were written on silk or on bamboo strips tied together. Any books on history and literature were destroyed. Qin Shihuangdi spared books about technology, divination, agriculture, and medicine because they might be needed for practical uses. He also kept one copy of each of the destroyed books in the imperial library, but the copies were destroyed when the library burned down in 206 BCE.
Who Are the Chinese?
Chinese culture is a blend of many groups from history. Today, the Chinese government recognizes 56 ethnic groups, but 92 percent of the Chinese people today are part of the Han ethnic group, which is the largest ethnic group in the world.3 The Han people are named after the Han dynasty, which ruled from 206 BCE to 220 CE, following the Qin dynasty’s fall. Historians believe the Han people originally lived near the Huang River.
Qin Shihuangdi may have been a stern ruler, but he unified ancient China in a way no leader had been able to before. He was also China’s namesake. The name China comes from Qin. Qin Shihuangdi’s system of bureaucracy also served as a model for future rulers. He died in 210 BCE, and the Qin dynasty collapsed only four years later. In 206 BCE, the Han dynasty came to power, ruling the ancient civilization Qin Shihuangdi had unified.
HOW ANCIENT IS ANCIENT CHINA?
Ancient China’s history goes back thousands of years, well before Qin Shihuangdi came into power.
This makes it one of the most ancient civilizations in the world. However, unlike many other ancient civilizations that exist only in artifacts and memory today, the civilization that formed in ancient China has existed uninterrupted for thousands of years. The rich culture that developed in China so long ago has evolved into modern Chinese culture.
Chinese history is tracked by its dynasties rather than by particular periods. A dynasty is a society that was ruled for a particular period by a family or clan. The leadership of the Chinese dynasties was passed down from father to son, or older brother to younger brother. When the quality of government declined, peasants rebelled.
Soon, the old dynasty would be overthrown and a new dynasty took its place. Many Chinese dynasties lasted several hundred years.
Many of the cultures known as ancient China were sandwiched between or around two major rivers, the Huang (or Yellow) River and the Yangtze River. People settled near the rivers because the land was fertile and good for farming.
By the 2000s BCE, these villages had organized into many small states. A series of dynasties may have begun as early as 2205 BCE. Many historians believe the Xia dynasty was the first of these dynasties. The dynasty is recorded in many historic sources, but archaeologists have not been able to find concrete proof of its existence. Following the Xia dynasty, different dynasties ruled parts of China for thousands of years until it was unified by the Qin dynasty. After the fall of the Qin dynasty, ancient China passed from emperor to emperor and dynasty to dynasty. Unlike many European leaders, ancient
China’s emperors focused on bringing the many cultures and regions of ancient China together instead of expanding China’s geography outward. In 1276 CE, Mongol invaders successfully overthrew the
Song dynasty, ending more than 1,400 years of consecutive Chinese rule.
Beginning during the Song dynasty, and lasting from approximately 1000 CE to 1500 CE, China was a world leader in economic and technological development. Many historians see modern China as beginning during this time.
“The Chinese had a very cultured and civilized society. Song Dynasty silks, for example, were remarkably advanced. The Chinese were using very sophisticated looms with up to 1,800 moving parts. China was simply far more developed technologically and culturally than any state in the West.”4
—Robin Yates, China expert
Chinese history goes back thousands of years.
Humans most likely came to the area between 30,000 and 50,000 years ago. In approximately 10,000 BCE, peoples who had previously been nomadic began settling down, building villages, and creating tools. In several thousand years, these villages became vast kingdoms ruled by powerful dynasties. Each dynasty is associated with particular advancements or accomplishments.
China’s Neolithic period, during the latter part of the Stone Age, lasted from approximately 10,000 BCE to 2000 BCE. During this time, nomadic hunters and gatherers settled into a more permanent village-type life. They began farming millet in the north and rice in the south. Archaeologists have even found jade and metalworking evidence dating back to this time. Tombs from the era contain large amounts of highly developed pottery. The clay pottery used in burial rituals often features red and black line paintings.
THE FIRST DYNASTIES
The dynasties of ancient China covered a portion of what we now know as modern China. Each state occupied certain territories until the unification of China under the Qin dynasty.
The mythical Xia dynasty was likely one of the earliest dynasties, lasting from approximately 2100 BCE to 1600 BCE. Historians believe the mostly agricultural Xia society may have settled near the Huang River, where archaeologists have uncovered artifacts including bronzes, copper, jade, and pottery. Little concrete information is known about this mysterious dynasty, or whether it truly existed.
Historians do know that between 1800 BCE and 1600 BCE, the Shang dynasty came into power in the northeast part of China, with the Huang and Yangtze Rivers running through the middle. This powerful dynasty lasted hundreds of years, until approximately the 1040s BCE. The Shang dynasty was an agricultural society with farmers growing crops and raising animals. People also relied on hunting for food. They worshiped their deceased ancestors and sought their advice.
Archaeologists have discovered oracle bones from this period. Oracles used these bones to seek answers about the future. The oracle carved the questions into the bones and then performed a ceremony to obtain answers. The oracle bones show the Shang people had a developed writing system.
Folklore or History?: The Xia Dynasty
The Xia dynasty is thought to be the first Chinese dynasty, but to date, archaeologists cannot verify its existence. However, some archaeological finds may give credibility to the reality of the Xia dynasty. Archaeologists discovered bamboo strips, which people used as books at that time, inscribed with stories about the Xia. But these stories were written down more than 2,000 years after the dynasty ended. The Xia history was first passed down by word of mouth. Historians in the 1920s doubted the stories because the written records did not match the artifacts. However, in the 1950s, archaeologists found what was possibly one of the Xia’s dynasty’s nine capitals in the Henan Province. Carbon dating places the city between the Neolithic and Shang dynasty periods. Western scholars believe more evidence is needed to determine whether the Xia dynasty really existed because no written records match the archaeological findings.
For many years, no one knew if the Shang dynasty was real or legendary. Then in the 1920s, archaeologists found more than 25,000 bones and turtle shells with writing and cracks on them near Anyang, the Shang capital.1 The bones were from the shoulder blades of oxen.
Oracles used the bones to help the royal family contact their ancestors to ask them questions. The oracle carved the questions into the bones. Then, the oracle would take a hot poker and touch the shells or the bones until they cracked. The oracle interpreted the cracks to give an answer.
Based on the writings, historians know many of the questions concerned current and future events, such as who would win the war or whether the king would remain healthy. The questions also revealed a lot about farming methods, medicine, the legal system, and even textile production.
To date, more than 150,000 bones with writing have been found.2 The bones are the earliest written records of Chinese history still in existence.
The Mandate of Heaven
When the Zhou dynasty overthrew the Shang dynasty, the Zhou used the “Mandate of Heaven” to justify their actions. The mandate said a ruler kept his power only until heaven became upset with him. Natural disasters, military defeat, or the inability to produce an heir were all signs an emperor was not fit to rule. Because there was only one heaven, only one emperor could rule at a time. If he failed to look after the people, he would lose his right to rule. If an emperor was overthrown, it was a sign that heaven was upset with him.
The doctrine, which began in the 700s BCE, was accepted throughout much of ancient Chinese history.
Bronze vessels from the time also include inscriptions. Both the oracle bones and bronze vessels give clues about what was important to the Shang people based on the types of questions they asked.
The Zhou dynasty came into power in 1046 BCE after overthrowing the Shang dynasty. The Zhou dynasty lasted for hundreds of years in the northeastern part of China, until 256 BCE. This dynasty created the foundation for the politics and culture of China for the next 2,000 years. During the Zhou dynasty, much progress was made in agriculture. The Zhou built canals, damming the rivers to help irrigate the crops more consistently. The irrigation system meant reliable crops, and the Zhou population increased with more food available.
A TIME OF CONFLICT
During the Zhou dynasty, the various states of China struggled for power. The era from 770 BCE
to 476 BCE is known as the Spring and Autumn period. This was a time of intense power struggle between many small states. The great philosopher Confucius lived from 551 BCE to 479 BCE. His way of thinking inspired Confucianism, one of the main philosophical and ethical systems of thought in Chinese history. It emphasized moral perfection and promoted the good of the people over the good of the individual. During the Spring and Autumn period, the Chinese began using coins as money. Before this time, shells and silk had been used as money.
The year 475 BCE marks the beginning of the Warring States period. By this time, the many small states had been organized into seven larger states, which fought for supreme rule of ancient China. It was a time of disunity because of war, but it was also a time of cultural advancement. The constant state of war forced competition between the states. Each state tried to build the strongest army and improve its technology and economy. At this time, weapons and tools for farming were mostly fashioned from iron, a technology that continued to improve from the Zhou dynasty onward. The Warring States period ended with the unification of ancient China under the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE.
A UNIFIED CHINA
Under the rule of Qin Shihuangdi, the Qin dynasty unified the country, taking over many smaller states and creating a government with supreme rule. However, the Qin dynasty lasted only 14 years. After Qin Shihuangdi’s death, his advisers fought, and soon the Han dynasty came into power.
The Han dynasty ruled nearly uninterrupted for more than 400 years. Chinese culture flourished during this time. Confucianism became more accepted, and Buddhism, a religion that had originated in India, also began flourishing. The Silk Road, a major trading route for many goods, developed, connecting China to the Mediterranean Sea. This allowed Chinese ideas, discoveries, and inventions to reach other parts of the world.
Paper and porcelain also developed during this dynasty. The Chinese invented new methods for preserving foods, including pickling and salting techniques. They also established civil service exams for court officials, which meant one could obtain a position in the government through hard work and skill, rather than only by birthright, as had been the case in the past.
THE SIX DYNASTIES PERIOD AND BEYOND
From 220 to 589 CE, different dynasties ruled ancient China, but none ruled for very long. Invaders from the northern border took over northern China, and a succession of dynasties ruled over southern China. But Chinese culture and art blossomed despite the political divisions. Celadon, a type of glazed pottery, was invented. More sophisticated sculptures, paintings, and calligraphy appeared during this time. Buddhism also thrived. Gradually,
China reunified under the short-lived Sui dynasty, which began ruling northern China in 581.
Ancient Chinese art continued to thrive during the Tang dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 907. Poetry and literature flourished during this time. The Tang dynasty also made advances in pottery, and potters created multicolored glazes. Printed books were invented during the Tang dynasty. Wu Zhao, the first female emperor, reigned from 690 to 705.
During the years between the Tang dynasty and the beginning of the Song dynasty, in 960, a period known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms represented a quick succession of rulers. The country split into at least ten kingdoms. When the Song dynasty took control, it ruled a region covering most of eastern and central
China for more than 300 years. This was a time of advancement for the Chinese. The economy grew with trading and the expansion of the country. Neo-Confucianism, a hybrid of Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist ideas, became part of the civil service examinations.
However, a foreign power would soon seize China. Mongol warriors invaded China from the north in 1211, gradually taking over more and more of the region. By 1279, Mongol invaders had successfully taken over all of China.