A History of Ancient China

By Tim Lambert

After 10,000 BC people in China lived by hunting and gathering plants. Then, about 5,000 BC, the Chinese began farming. From about 5,000 BC rice was cultivated in southern China and millet was grown in the north. By 5,000 BC dogs and pigs were domesticated. By 3,000 BC sheep and (in the south) cattle were domesticated. Finally, horses were introduced into China between 3,000 and 2,300 BC.

Meanwhile, by 5,000 BC Chinese farmers had learned to make pottery. They also made lacquer (a kind of varnish made from the sap of the Chinese lacquer tree). The early Chinese farmers also made baskets and wove cloth (before sheep were domesticated hemp was woven). The Chinese also made ritual objects from jade such as knives, axes, and rings. The wheel was invented in China in about 2,500 BC.

By 2,000 BC the Chinese had learned to make bronze. They probably started by making copper in pottery kilns and then experimented by adding tin, creating bronze. At first, bronze was only used for weapons. (It was probably too expensive for other things).

Warfare was becoming more common in China. Walls of earth, which was rammed till it was hard, surrounded some settlements. Warfare probably became more common because these early societies were becoming richer. As wealth grew so did the temptation to attack your neighbors and steal their goods. By 2000 BC there was also a growing gulf between the classes. People were buried with their goods and some people were buried with far more than others.

By 2000 BC human sacrifice was practiced in China. The bodies of the victims were buried under the foundations of buildings. By 2,000 BC fortune-telling was carried out by heating bones till they cracked and then interpreting the cracks. Meanwhile, between about 2,000 and 1,750 BC, the semi-legendary Xia ruled parts of China.

The Shang Dynasty

The Shang were polytheists (they worshipped many gods). The most important god was called Di. Furthermore, during the Shang dynasty in China, the practice of ancestor worship began. Ancestor worship is the belief that the dead can intervene in the affairs of the living. Offerings were made to them to keep them happy. Ancestor worship became part of Chinese culture for thousands of years.

Silk was probably first made in China during the Shang era. It was made by 1300 BC. During the Shang era, bronze was more widely used. Previously it was only used to make weapons. After 1700 BC bronze vessels were made. However, tools such as sickles, plows, and spades were usually made of wood and stone.

The Shang built the first real cities in China. The first capital Zhengdou had walls more than 6 kilometers long. (Later the capital was moved to Anyang). The Shang also built palaces and temples.

During the Shang era, slavery was common in China. Prisoners of war were made into slaves. Human sacrifice was still practiced. When a Shang emperor died his servants and slaves either committed suicide or were killed to accompany him into the afterlife. Because of the need to capture slaves, warfare was common in China. After 1200 BC chariots pulled by 2 or 4 horses were used in Chinese warfare. However, the Shang were overthrown by their neighbors the Zhou about 1022 BC. So began the Zhou dynasty.

The Zhou Dynasty

The dynasty ruled China from about C. 1022 BC to 221 BC. The first part of the Zhou era from C. 1022 BC to 771 BC is called the Western Zhou (because the rulers had their capital in the west of China). The second part of the era, from 770 to 476 BC is called the Spring and Autumn period. The last part of the era from 476 to 221 BC is called the Warring States period.

In Ancient China because transport and communications were very slow it was difficult for a ruler to control a wide area. The Zhou kings solved this problem by creating a feudal state. They gave their followers land. In return, the followers provided chariots and soldiers in times of war. Soon the follower’s positions became hereditary. Below them were officials who worked as generals and administrators. At the bottom of society were the peasants who provided the food supply.

The peasants had to spend some of their time working on the lord’s land. Usually, the land was divided into 9 sections. Individual families worked in eight sections. Everybody had to work on the ninth section but the crops from it went to the lord. After 600 BC coins were used in China and some peasants paid their Lord taxes rather than work on his land. Under the Shang, there were many slaves in China but under the Zhou, there were few of them.

There were some important technological changes during the Zhou period. The most important was the invention of iron. It was used for weapons as early as 650 BC. By about 500 BC iron was used for all kinds of tools. By about 400 BC Chinese farmers used iron plows drawn by oxen.

About 300 BC the Chinese invented the horse collar. Previously horses were attached to vehicles by straps around their necks. The horse could not pull a heavy load because the strap would tighten around its neck! The horse collar allowed horses to pull much heavier loads.

During the Zhou dynasty, the Chinese invented kites. Tea was first mentioned in China during the Zhou dynasty (although it may have been drunk much earlier). The umbrella was invented in China in the 4th century AD. Covered in an oiled paper it sheltered the user from both sun and rain.

Warfare also changed in China. Previously war was dominated by chariots. However, after 600 BC cavalry began to replace chariots. Furthermore, rulers began to raise large armies of infantry. Peasants were conscripted to provide them. About 500 BC a general called Sunzi wrote a book called The Art of War, which was the world’s first military manual. About 400 BC the crossbow was invented in China.

Although warfare was frequent during the Zhou era trade and commerce flourished and Chinese cities grew larger. Furthermore, agriculture was greatly improved by iron tools and by irrigation, which became more common. As a result of more efficient agriculture, the population of China grew rapidly in the Zhou period.

During the Zhou era parts of the Great Wall of China were built. There was not a single wall, at first, but different states built their walls to keep out barbarians. Later they were joined together. In 486 BC work began on digging the Grand Canal. At first, only one section was built but the canal was extended by later dynasties.

Ancient Chinese Beliefs

Human sacrifice ended during the Zhou era but divination continued. At that time the Chinese concept of Heaven emerged. Heaven was a kind of universal force. Heaven chose the emperor to rule but it was a moral force. If the king or emperor were evil heaven would send natural disasters as a warning. If the emperor failed to heed the warnings heaven would withdraw its mandate. Social and political order would break down and there would be a revolution. Heaven would choose somebody else to rule.

During the Zhou period in China, there was a class of officials who advised kings and rulers on the right way to behave and also how to carry out rituals. The most important of these was Kong-Fuzi (known in the West as Confucius). During his lifetime the old feudal social and political order was breaking down. Appalled by this state of affairs Kong-Fuzi tried to restore ancient principles.

Kong-Fuzi taught that everybody should accept their role in life and their duties towards others. Rulers had a duty to be benevolent while subjects should be respectful and obedient. Children should honor their parents and everybody should honor their ancestors. Kong-Fuzi also believed that rulers should set a good example for their people.

Most of all Kong-Fuzi taught consideration for others. At the heart of his teaching was ‘ren’ which is usually translated as goodness or benevolence. Kong-Fuzi said ‘Do not do to others what you do not want to be done to yourself’. Kong-Fuzi also taught the importance of courtesy and moderation in all things. Kong-Fuzi also taught that women should submit to their fathers when young, to their husbands when married, and to their sons if widowed. Women in China were taught values such as humility, submissiveness, and industry.

Kong-Fuzi never wrote any books but after his death, his followers collected his sayings and wrote them all down. In the centuries after his death, his philosophy became dominant in China and profoundly influenced its culture for more than 2,000 years.

One disciple of Kong-Fuzi was Mengzi (372-289 BC), known in the West as Mencius. He stressed the goodness of human nature. He also emphasized the ruler’s duty to look after the well-being of his subjects. Mengzi was opposed by Xuni (298-238 BC). He believed human nature tended to be evil and must be restrained.


Not everyone agreed with Kong-Fuzi that rulers should rule by example. Legalists believed that rulers should be strict. The ruler’s word should be law. Legalists believed that rulers should be fair but firm and unwavering. One of the Chinese states, Qin, followed legalist teaching. The Qin rulers at first shared power with hereditary nobles but they changed the system so that the parts of their realm were governed by officials appointed by the ruler.

They also organized families into groups of 5 or 10 people. The members of each group were made responsible for each other’s behavior. Legalists believed that since people are naturally evil punishments should be severe. The people must be made afraid of breaking the law. They also distrusted merchants and believed that only people who owned or worked on the land were trustworthy.


Taoism began in China during the Zhou era. Taoists believe in the Tao, which means the way. The Tao is an indescribable force behind nature and all living things. Taoists believe in Wuwei or non-action, which means going with the natural flow or way of things like a stick being carried along on a stream. Taoism also teaches humility and compassion. Taoists worship many different gods.

The Zhou period is sometimes called China’s formative period because so much of Chinese philosophy developed at that time. The Chinese form of divination called I Ching was probably developed during the early part of the Zhou era. The idea of Yin and Yang also appeared during the Zhou dynasty. The ancient Chinese believed that all matter is made of 2 opposite and complementary principles. Yin is feminine, soft, gentle, dark, receptive, yielding, and wet. Yang is masculine, bright, hard, hot, active, dry, and aggressive. Everything is a mixture of these 2 opposites. The ancient Chinese also believed there were 5 elements, wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. During the Zhou period, the Chinese art of acupuncture was invented.

The End of the Zhou Dynasty

In 771 the Rong, a people from the west invaded and the Zhou moved their capital to Luoyang. Afterward, the power of the Zhou kings declined. The Zhou state broke up into separate states (although it was still nominally a single state with a Zhou king at its head). The nobles under the Zhou king effectively became independent rulers. The different states went to war and the stronger ones conquered the weaker till there were only a few left. Finally, one state, the Qin, conquered its rivals and its ruler became emperor of China. So began the Qin dynasty.

The Qin Dynasty

The first Qin emperor was determined to unite China. He called himself Qin Shuangdi and insisted on being called the emperor of China. He introduced standard weights and measures and even insisted that axles should be a standard width!

There were, at that time, some local variations in Chinese writing. The emperor insisted that all educated people must use one standard version. Some Chinese scholars opposed the emperor and quoted from old books to do so. Qin Shuangdi burned many of the books in China to stop them. He ordered that all books except those on useful subjects such as divination, medicine, and agriculture should be burned. Any scholars who opposed him were branded and sent to work as laborers on the Great Wall. However, the emperor also had 460 scholars buried alive. (Being sent to work on the Great Wall was often a death sentence anyway as many men died of exhaustion and exposure).

The Qin emperors also continued their legalist policies. They banned private ownership of weapons and they ordered many aristocratic families to move to the capital, Xianyang (where they could be easily controlled). China was divided into 34 areas called commanderies. A civilian governor ruled each but each also had a general in charge of the soldiers in the region. (The Qin emperors were keen to keep civil and military power in separate hands!). All officials were appointed by the emperor and were answerable to him.

The Qin emperors also built roads and irrigation canals. Parts of the Great Wall of China already existed but the first Qin emperor had them joined together. The ordinary people were forced to work on his projects. Qin rule was harsh and cruel punishments were common. When Qin Shuangdi died he was buried in a tomb with over 7,000 terracotta warriors. This ‘army’ was discovered in 1974.

Not surprisingly the cruel punishments introduced by the Qin emperors together with heavy taxes and forced labor caused much resentment. In northern China, a rebellion broke out led by 2 peasants, Chen Sheng and Wu Yang. Later a second rebellion began further south led by Ixang Yu. The northern rebellion was defeated but the southern one succeeded. The last Qin emperor was executed. However, Xiang Yu quarreled with his lieutenant Liu Bang. A civil war began which ended when Xiang Yu was killed and Liu Bang became the first Han emperor.

The Han Dynasty

The Zhou dynasty was China’s formative period when its philosophies emerged. During the Han dynasty, Chinese civilization crystallized. During this era, China was one of the most brilliant civilizations in the world. Han inventions include the watermill and the chain pump (this pump was worked by feet and helped to irrigate the rice fields).

The first Han emperor was called Gaozi. He was more humane than the Qin emperors and he abolished many of their savage punishments. He kept some of the legalist policies of his predecessors but he also adopted some Confucian policies. His successors came to favor Confucianism more and more. In 165 BC the emperor decreed that anyone wishing to become an official must sit an exam, which would test his knowledge of Confucian teaching. In 124 BC another emperor founded an imperial academy where candidates studied Confucian classics (The Book of Changes, The Book of Rites, The Book of Documents, The Book of Songs, and the Spring and Autumn Annals). If they passed their exams they were given posts as officials. China came to be governed by a civil service trained in Confucian thought.

Like the Qin the Han emperors distrusted merchants and taxed them heavily. In 119 BC the emperor made the manufacture of salt, iron, and alcohol state monopolies (previously they were the most profitable industries).

Under the Han, agriculture continued to improve partly due to an increasing number of irrigation schemes, partly due to the increasing use of buffaloes to pull plows, and partly due to crop rotation which was introduced into China about 100 BC.

The population of China continued to grow and a census in 2 AD showed it was 57 million. During the Han era, large amounts of silk were exported to the West. It passed through many hands to the Roman Empire. In return, merchants brought gems, glass, and vines to China. The ship’s rudder was invented in China in the first century AD.

About 100 AD a man named Cai Lun invented paper (previously people had written on silk or bamboo). Meanwhile, Buddhism first reached China in the 1st century AD but it took a long time to be accepted. During the Han era, Feng Shui was developed. Elements of the craft existed before then but it was during this period that Feng Shui became a coherent philosophy.

After 168 AD the Han dynasty declined. Internal fighting weakened it. (When an emperor died there was usually a struggle to see who would replace him). The dynasty was also undermined by natural disasters and popular discontent. Two rebellions began in 84 AD, the Yellow Turbans Rebellion and the Five Pecks of Grain Rebellion. Both of these were crushed but the generals sent to defeat them began to act independently of the emperor. They started to fight each other. In 189 AD one general captured the capital, Luoyang, and killed 2,000 eunuchs. After that, the emperor became a puppet ruler. Generals had real power. However, the last Han emperor was removed in 220 AD. Afterward, China split into 3 parts each ruled by a general.

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