AN01b4_Beginnings of Civilization- River Dynasties in China (Ch.02)
Timeline: 3rd – 1st Millennium BCE (covers the years ~3000 – 250 BCE)
FS: River Dynasties in China- From Legendary Chinese Dynasties to the Foundation of Modern Civilized Life.
China’s modern dynastic history, as we have come to understand it, begins with the Qin. However, there is a uniform cultural thread that had its origins before the Qin and continues to this very day. The origins of Chinese civilization and culture bring us to the Huang He river valley and the ‘legendary’ dynasties.
The three legendary dynasties contribute and refine the elements of Chinese civilization to produce what could arguably be labeled as the longest-lasting, continuous, civilized society.
I. Overcoming and Exploiting Environmental Conditions
The peoples of the Huang He river settlements are believed to be the ancestors of the Han. The Han have traditionally been the largest ethnic group within the area of historical China (which lies in the Northeast of modern China, centered on the North China Plain).
A form of kingship develops here with striking similarities (and differences) to that which developed in Egypt.
Significant topographic barriers and distance lie between the early peoples of the Huang He river valley and other ancient civilizations (Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Indus Valley). The Huang He peoples were in a position to cultivate a civilization with distinct characteristics fostered by the topographic barriers that surrounded them: Tibetan Plateau and Taklamakan desert are to the West; Gobi desert and Mongolian Plateau are to the North; Himalayan mountain range and the South China sea lie to the South; and The Yellow and East China seas are to the East. This condition meant that trade was largely restricted to the region. Also, while daunting, these topographic barriers were not impenetrable. Outsiders did enter the region and people could similarly leave it.
2. River Systems
Three river systems that roughly parallel each other (West-East). The Huang He, while literally meaning “Yellow River” (1), had also acquired the label as “China’s Sorrow”. The second is the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) and the third is the Xi Jiang.
A significant portion of China’s arable land falls within the area between the Huang He and Chang Jiang. This area, the North China Plain, is the heartland of Chinese civilization. It remained the center of Chinese civilization for most of it’s dynastic history.
II. The Legendary Dynasties (2)
A. The earliest civilized society coming from the settlements of the Huang He peoples was the Xia Dynasty (~2000 BCE)
1. Located on banks of Huang He
2. Built Irrigation systems
3. Limited number of artifacts recovered.
B. Shang Dynasty (~1700 – 1027 BCE)
1. Walled Cities
2. Indications that government had access to huge labor force.
3. Frequent warfare increases need for professional soldiers (ie. Chariot training).
4. Foundation of Chinese Cultural Values Emerge
5. Self-identification as “Middle Kingdom”
6. ‘Family’ is society’s building block.
7. Male-dominant social values.
8. Social classes divided into an aristocracy (Warrior-Nobles) and peasantry (Farmers). Relationship between the aristocracy and the Shang king was Feudal (3) in nature.
9. Filial Piety (4) and Oracle Bones. (5)
10. Development of a written language. Did not reflect the variety of spoken languages; many who could not communicate orally could still communicate in writing.
C. Zhou Dynasty (~1027 – 256 BCE)
1. Adopted many cultural traits of the Shang
2. Justification for their conquest of the Shang contributed to the view of the “Mandate of Heaven”.
3. Loss of the Mandate of Heaven triggers the Dynastic Cycle.
4. A larger territory leads the Zhou to depend on an increasingly rigid feudal system for control.
5. Technological and Commercial Expansion
6. Road and Canal Construction.
7. ‘Coin’ as a medium of exchange.
8. Iron-producing furnaces.
III. A New (Violent) Era Emerges
Under the Zhou’s feudal system, local land-owning nobles (lords) became increasingly independent of the ruler. In addition, the lords became increasingly antagonistic towards each other. As the productivity of land contributed to the wealth of the lord, neighboring lords would covet the land of another.
Weakening the Zhou further were the raids conducted by northern and western peoples. Relocating the capital city (near the banks of the Huang He) did nothing to prolong the dynasty. Chinese territory shattered into competing kingdoms led by warlords/ local kings. “The Warring States Period” had begun.
1. “Yellow” meaning the color of the silt carried by the river. “Sorrow” because of the devastating floods.
2. ‘Legendary’ because of their ancient historical setting and separation from modern Chinese dynastic history which was 3rd C BCE – 20th C. CE.
3. Dependent on land ownership. Tribute went from noble to king in return for the privilege of local control.
4. Reverence for ancestors by offering prayer and respect to ancestral spirits.
5. A method of communication with the divine. Requires heating of animal bone or tortoise shell then interpreting the resulting cracks.
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