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5-08-2015, 22:31

Life in Ancient China

Daily life in ancient China varied greatly depending on whether a person was a noble or a farmer or a man or a woman. Rich or poor, family relationships were highly valued in ancient Chinese culture. The family unit did not consist only of a husband, wife, and children. Instead, several generations often lived together.

Growing Rice

Rice has been grown in China since Neolithic times. It may have been cultivated as early as the 6000s BCE. Rice grows most easily in standing water.

The farmers used a foot-powered pump to bring water from a canal or river to flood the rice field. Rice seedlings were planted by hand, and growing rice was very labor intensive. The Song discovered a different variety of rice, native to Southeast Asia, worked better for the environment of South China.

life and were designed to continue the family line. Elders expected respect, and it was a common practice to pray to and worship one’s ancestors.

As they do today, the ancient Chinese put their surname first, before their personal name, which showed the great importance of the family.


The literature and paintings of ancient China depicted the lives of rulers and aristocrats. Historians do not have as much information about what daily life was like for commoners, except for the few artifacts uncovered in archaeological digs. Historians know farming played an important role in ancient Chinese society because of tools and pottery found in large village sites near the Huang River.

Agriculture was important across different regions of China. More than one-half of the crops we eat today originally came from Asia. Those thought to originate in China include millet, chestnut, walnuts, soybeans, Chinese cabbage, some citrus fruits, and many more. Millet, a type of grain, was one of the main crops in ancient China. Rice grew naturally along the Huang River and was likely harvested as early as 8000 BCE. Starting in the 200s BCE, the Chinese irrigated their crops using canals.

In rural areas, daily life centered on farming tasks. Men and women typically each had their own jobs. Men worked the soil with hoes and wooden spades. They tilled the fields, hunted, and fished.

The Importance of Tea

Tea came to China, probably from Burma, no later than the early first century CE. It was cultivated and prized in China. The ancient Chinese thought tea detoxified the body and gave the drinker energy. During the Tang dynasty, people consumed tea as a social activity or to relax. Poets drank tea while composing their poetry. Author Lu Yu wrote the first book about tea, translated as Classic of Tea, during the Tang dynasty. It detailed tea’s unique properties and how to properly make tea. Tea was sometimes stored in bamboo tubes, and later, during the Song dynasty, it was pressed into bricks for transport.

time cooking, making wine, raising silkworms for silk production, and weaving. In agricultural Chinese society, an oxcart was the most common mode of transportation. An ox pulled a covered two-wheeled cart and helped farmers move agricultural products from rural areas to cities where they could be sold.


Many ancient Chinese lived in bustling cities. Cities were centers of government and trade. They were home to government officials, scholars, merchants, and craftsmen.

Each dynasty established its own capital for the government. Many dynastic rulers chose Chang’an, now known as Xi’an, a city located in the middle of China. The Western Han, Sui, and Tang dynasties all used Chang’an for their capital. During the Tang dynasty, walls built to keep invaders out surrounded Chang’an. Approximately 1 million people lived in Chang’an, likely making it the largest city in the world at the time.1

Walls wrapped around most ancient Chinese cities and villages. In fact, in Chinese, the word for city literally means “walls and markets.” Most cities also housed marketplaces. Items for sale were grouped together, so there were rows selling meat, fish, vegetables, medicines, ready-made clothing, silk, gold, silver, axes, and bridles and saddles.


The type of clothing a person wore indicated his or her status. Both men and women wore tunics, loose clothing that resembled a long shirt and usually reached the knees. The style depended on the person’s place in society. Some wore tunics with pants, whereas others wore floor-length robes. The wealthier a person was, the fancier his or her clothing. Most common people wore clothing made of cotton or hemp. Only the wealthy could afford silk clothing. The ancient Chinese dyed clothing with four colors—red, blue, yellow, and green.

Foot Binding

During the Song dynasty, it became common for young girls, starting from the age of four or six, to wrap their feet in strips of cloth. This made their toes curl up and their feet appear smaller. The girls’ own mothers often broke their feet, over and over again, wrapping after each time. The breaking made the foot smaller and smaller, bringing the toes closer to the heels and preventing further growth. Girls believed the painful foot-binding practice made their feet look dainty, beautiful, and more appealing to men. Girls continued wrapping their feet until approximately age 16, but by then, their feet were permanently deformed, making walking difficult. The custom may have started in the late Tang dynasty with a concubine wrapping her feet like a dancer. One legend says that it started as early as the Shang dynasty by an empress who had a deformed foot. The practice was banned in 1912.

activities still popular today. Common pastimes included soccer, card games, and playing with yo-yos.

Ancient China is credited with inventing the game of soccer. The sport originated in the Shandong Province of eastern China in the 200s or 100s BCE. The ancient Chinese called the game cuju. It was played for fun and during military exercises.

Playing cards originated in China in the 800s CE. They were made from thick paper two inches (5 cm) high by one inch (2.5 cm) wide.2 Craftsmen printed the cards using wood-cut blocks and then colored them by hand, sometimes with characters from novels.

The Chinese invented the Kongzhu, or yo-yo, more than 1,000 years ago. The yo-yos were made of bamboo attached to a string. Skilled Kongzhu players could make the yo-yo do more than 1,000 tricks.


Although the ancient Chinese invented many modern pastimes, daily life for many people revolved around farming. Ancient Chinese culture depended on agriculture, and agriculture depended on the calendar. Planting and harvesting activities centered on the solar and lunar cycles recorded on ancient Chinese calendars. In the thousands of years of Chinese history, different dynasties from the Han to the Qin observed the solar and lunar positions and calculated the revolution of the earth around the sun. The ancient Chinese calendar had 12 months in a year and 29 to 30 days in a month, with a total of 354 days. However, every two or three years, a month was added, giving the year 384 or 385 days. The calendar was often reset with each emperor, and regions used it differently. Now the Chinese government does not reset the calendar based on a new leader. They use the Gregorian calendar, the calendar used by the Western world, for most time tracking. However, the lunar and solar calendars continue to determine many traditional Chinese holidays.


The Chinese New Year, also called the Spring Festival, was based on the lunar calendar. It began in the middle of the twelfth month and ended in the middle of the first full moon of the first month. This fell between January 21 and February 21. It was the most important holiday in ancient China and a time to honor gods and ancestors.

Before the celebrations began, the houses needed cleaning to rid them of huiqi, “unfavorable breaths,” and to please the gods that inspected the houses. During the celebrations, people offered food and other sacrifices to the gods and ancestors. Scrolls were printed with lucky messages, and children received money from their elders. Firecrackers frightened away evil spirits. Food was, and still remains, an important part of the celebration.

Lantern Festival

The Lantern Festival was the first celebration of the year, celebrated during the first full moon after the Chinese New Year. This festival dates back to the Han dynasty. People jump over fire to get rid of bad luck and light lanterns after dark. Some of the traditional lanterns include riddles on them, and lanterns shaped like the segments of dragons are used in a dragon dance as part of the festivities. The festival is still celebrated in China today.

On New Year’s Eve at midnight, families eat traditional round dumplings shaped like the full moon.

Another ancient Chinese festival, the Dragon Boat Festival, is still popular today. The festival has its roots in the 300s BCE. At the time, a minister named Qu Yuan had been banished by the emperor. Despite his exile, Qu Yuan wrote poems about his love for his country, but he eventually became so distraught he drowned himself. The common people so admired Qu Yuan they wanted his drowned body to be respected, not eaten by dragons or fish. So people decorated their boats like other dragons, racing them up and down the river. They beat gongs and drums to scare away the dragons.


Ancient Chinese burials were also steeped in tradition. Much of what archaeologists know about ancient Chinese culture comes from studying ancient tombs. Chinese built their tombs underground, and some included multiple decorated rooms, particularly those of the Shang dynasty. The wealthy and powerful were buried with many valuable possessions because they believed they would continue in the same social status in the afterlife. Items such as weapons, bells, knives, sculptures, tools, and pottery are common objects modern archaeologists find in tombs. Wine was also placed in tombs so the deceased could hold honorary banquets for ancestors.

Sometimes servants were buried alive in the tombs of royalty as a sacrifice to honor the dead. Empty wine vessels and cups are also often found scattered in the graves. At the end of the funeral, mourners drank the wine and tossed the wine cup into the grave. The mourners paid respect to the dead by leaving objects to place in the grave.