Daily Life in Ancient China

By Tim Lambert

Philosophy and Religion in Ancient China

The Chinese worldview was very different from the Western worldview. The Ancient Chinese Heaven was a kind of universal force. Heaven chose the dynasty 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.

Chinese culture was heavily influenced by a man named Kong-Fuzi, known in the West as Confucius. Kong-Fuzi taught that everybody should accept their role in life and their duties toward 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. Later women in China were taught values such as humility, submissiveness, and industry.

The religion of Taoism was founded in Ancient China. Confucianism was a system of ethics but Taoism is a religion. 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 a pantheon of gods. Buddhism reached China in the 1st Century AD

The Ancient Chinese also believed in Yin and Yang. They believed that all matter is made of two 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 two opposites. The Ancient Chinese also believed there were five elements, wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. During the Zhou period, the Chinese art of acupuncture was invented.

Yin Yang

Ancestor worship was an important part of life in Ancient China. Each family had a household shrine where they burned incense and made offerings. People believed the dead could help the living and prayed to them. The Chinese also believed in ghosts. (People who died and had no descendants to care for them or who were neglected by their family).

Society in Ancient China

In a Chinese family, the father had authority over his wife and children. Marriages were arranged by parents with the help of go-betweens. However many wealthy men kept concubines.

Children were supposed to be obedient. In China, male heirs were very important as they carried on the family. Girls were valued less than boys and baby girls were sometimes left outside to die or were drowned. In any case, infant mortality was high. People would have many children but not all would live to adulthood. Some boys went to school. There they learned the teachings of Confucius by heart. They also learned calligraphy. Of course, only a minority of boys went to school. Most did not. Instead, they worked in the fields from an early age.

Foot binding became common in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). When they were 4 or 5 girls sometimes had their feet bound. If that was done eventually the girl’s feet became deformed so they had difficulty walking. However ‘lily feet’ were considered men.

In Ancient China the upper class were officials called Mandarins. To become a Mandarin you had to pass certain exams. The exams were, in theory, open to almost all men. However Chinese merchants were held in low esteem.

Imperial China produced some great women. Among them were the great women poets Xue Tao (768-831), Yu Xuanji (c 844-1868), Shangguan Wan er (664-710and Li Qingzhao (1084-1155). Liang Hongyu (c 1100-1135) was a Chinese woman general.

Farming in Ancient China

Life in Ancient China was hard. Most farmers were poor. They owned chickens and pigs and sometimes an ox or mule. In the North, people grew crops of wheat or millet while in the South they grew rice. (Growing rice was backbreaking labor as the fields had to be irrigated and rice plants were planted by hand). In the 16th century, new crops such as sweet potatoes, maize, and peanuts were introduced.

Other crops included tea, sugar, and cotton. (Ordinary women worked in their homes weaving cotton). On the coast and in China’s many rivers people fished. Cormorants were trained to catch fish but they had rings or cords around their throats to prevent them from swallowing the catch! Rich people owned vast estates but they usually rented them out as parcels of land. Rich people preferred to live in towns and rarely dwelt in the countryside.

Food in Ancient China

The rich in Ancient China ate very well. They ate grains like rice, wheat, and millet. They also ate plenty of meat including pork, chicken, duck, goose, pheasant, and dog. Vegetables included yams, soya beans, broad beans, and turnips as well as spring onions and garlic. They also ate plenty of fish. Soup was made with shark fins, bird nests, bear paws, and sea slugs. People drank wine made from rice or millet. They also drank tea.

Poor people ate a boring diet. In the South of China, they ate rice. In the North, they ate wheat in the form of noodles, dumplings, or pancakes. However, famines occurred periodically and they caused great suffering.

Weapons in Ancient China

Before 600 BC chariots dominated warfare in China. 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. Gunpowder was probably invented around the year 900 AD. It was used for rockets, grenades, and bombs that were placed against the wooden gates of enemy cities.

The Great Wall of China

Houses in Ancient China

Rich people lived in large wooden houses arranged around a courtyard. Roofs were often of tiles and were built in a curved shape. However, even in a rich house, there was little furniture but rich people were very fond of their gardens. Poor people lived in huts of perhaps 2 rooms. Roofs were often thatched and furniture was very basic such as wooden benches.