For the purposes of this article, Ancient China’s civilization refers to that period of Chinese history which began in the early 2nd millennium BCE, when a literate, city-based culture first emerged, to the end of the Han dynasty, in 220 CE.
By this time all the essential foundations of Chinese civilization had been laid down. As such, Ancient China was one of the most crucial periods and places in world history. Its achievements can still be powerfully felt today, in a modern China and its world-wide influence.
1766 BCE: traditional date for the founding of the first historic dynasty in China, the Shang dynasty
1122 BCE: Western Zhou dynasty founded after the overthrow of the last Shang king
771 BCE: Eastern Zhou dynasty period begins after the sack of the Western Zhou capital; the first phase is traditionally divided into two: the Spring and Autumn (771-481 BCE) and the Warring States (481-221 BCE) periods
551-479 BCE: Confucius, China’s preeminent philosopher, lives
221 BCE: The First Emperor, Qin Shih Huang, completes the conquest of all other Chinese states
202 BCE: The Han dynasty founded, after several years of chaos following the fall of the Qin
220 CE: the Fall of the Han dynasty is a convenient marker for the end point of the ancient period of Chinese history.
(For a more detailed description of the geography of China, and how it shaped its civilization, go to the “geography” section in the article The History of China.)
China is a vast country with a huge range of terrains and climates within it: mountains, deserts and coastlands and above all, the great river systems of China, the Yellow River to the north and the Yangtze to the south. All these have helped shape Chinese civilization.
The Yellow River region
The civilization of ancient China first developed in the Yellow River region of northern China, in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE. This is a very fertile region; however the land needs irrigation to make the crops grow, and well-built river embankments to prevent catastrophic flooding.
In ancient times, the main crop in northern China was millet, a food still grown in many parts of the world as a major crop.
This region is regarded as the Cradle of China’s Civilization. It was here that the earliest Chinese dynasties were based. Throughout the ancient period of China’s history it formed the heart of the Chinese world, and it was from here that Chinese civilization spread out across the rest of China.
The Yangtze Valley region
To the south, the great Yangtze valley, with its warm, wet climate, was the first area in the world where rice was grown, sometime before 5000 BCE.
Rice is one of the most nutritious plants in the world. From this region rice cultivation spread far and wide across southern China and into south-east Asia.
For much of ancient times, the Yangtze region remained outside the Chinese culture area. However, from about 700 BCE, the kingdoms and peoples here began to be gradually absorbed into the Chinese world.
The Chinese only expanded into the mountains and coastland of southern China in the later ancient period, after the rest of China had been unified under the rule of emperors. It remained a largely frontier region until later centuries.
The Steppes of Central Asia
To the north and west of the Yellow River region are the wide plains of central Asia. This landscape here is generally unsuitable for farming, and the people have mostly followed a nomadic way of life as herders of cattle, sheep and horses.
Modern scholars believe that various cultural influences travelled along this route in ancient times to help shape China’s civilization. For example, skills in working with metals, and in particular, making bronze objects, seem to have come to China from the Middle East across central Asia. Later, the chariot also apparently arrived in China from the same direction.
The peoples of the steppe were tough warriors, and the mobility that their nomadic lifestyle gave them enabled them to raid swiftly into territory populated by more settled farming populations. They were a regular scourge to the Chinese in ancient times, as well as later.
The Xia Dynasty (2070 BCE – 1600 BCE) is the first dynasty in China to be described in ancient historical chronicles. The Records of the Grand Historian and the Classic of Rites say that Yu the Great, the founder of the Xia dynasty, was the grandson of Zhuanxu, one of the legendary “Five Emperors” who were the first rulers of China.
Yu was successful in stopping devastating floods and increasing the yields from farming (since the floods usually destroyed the crops), and the Xia tribe’s influence strengthened. He was made the leader of the surrounding tribes, and soon afterwards was sent with an army to suppress a tribe which was causing trouble on the kingdom’s borders. He won a great victory, which further strengthened his power.
Shun, the last of the “Five Emperors”, was getting old, and abdicated the throne in favor of Yu, whom he deemed worthy. Yu’s succession as the king marked the start of the Xia dynasty. Shortly before his death, instead of passing power to the person deemed most capable to rule (as had been the case in the past), Yu passed power to his son, setting the precedence for dynastic rule.
Prior to the coming of cities and literacy (the hallmarks of Ancient Chinese civilization), major Stone Age farming cultures had been growing up in China since the 7th millennium BCE. One was located in the Yellow River region, the other in the Yangtze region.
The Yellow River region
The Yellow River region was the setting for the emergence of Chinese civilization into the light of history. By c. 4000 BCE, walled and moated towns had appeared. They continued to grow in size.
What looks very much like primitive Chinese characters had also appeared, inscribed on pottery. These characters became more complex as time went by. Other technical advances included the introduction of the potter’s wheel (sometime after c. 3500 BCE), and the production of high quality jade ornaments (after c. 2500 BCE). Finds of luxury grave goods and the remains of large and complex buildings show that a wealthy ruling elite stood out from the population at large.
Metallurgy reached China sometime around 2500 BCE, almost certainly from the Middle East via central Asia. At first this was restricted to copper work, but by c. 1800 BCE, knowledge of bronze casting had entered the Yellow River Valley.
At around the same time there was a dramatic increase in the size and density of some walled settlements in that region. These are the earliest-known cities in East Asia. The region had in fact seen the appearance of a fully urban, literate, Bronze Age civilization, and ancient China finally emerges into the full light of history with the first of its historic dynasties, the Shang.
Most of the history of Chinese civilization, including the ancient period, has traditionally been divided into dynasties – lines of kings or emperors from a single family, following each other on the throne from generation to generation.
During much of the ancient period, what would later be known as “Chinese civilization” was only gradually spreading across the area which today we know as “China”. Thus the early dynastic rulers of China are known as kings, rather than emperors. It is only after the time of the First Emperor, who reigned over a united China from 221 BCE, that the imperial period of Chinese history began.
Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China
Archaeologists have uncovered urban sites, bronze implements, and tombs that point to the possible existence of the semi-legendary Xia Dynasty at locations cited in ancient Chinese historical texts. In 1959, a site located in the city of Yanshi was excavated containing large palaces which some archaeologists have identified as the capital of the Xia dynasty. Unlike the oracle bones of the Shang dynasty, there are no written records from the period to help confirm the Xia dynasty’s existence.
Oracle Bones Found, Dating from the Shang Dynasty
Through the 1960s and 1970s, archaeologists have continued to uncovered urban sites, bronze implements, and tombs at locations linked to the Xia in ancient Chinese historical texts. At a minimum, the Xia dynasty seems to have marked an evolutionary stage between the late neolithic cultures and the later Chinese urban civilization of the Shang dynasty.
The Shang dynasty period saw further strides in material culture, and some of the finest bronzes in world history were produced by Chinese craftsmen of the period. In due course, the Shang dynasty was succeeded by a new line of kings, of the Zhou dynasty.
A Western Zhou bronze gui vessel. Reproduced under Creative Commons license 3.0
Under the early Zhou (or “Western Zhou”) the cultural and political reach of ancient Chinese civilization expanded enormously. This, however, eventually resulted in fragmentation amongst numerous territorial princes. The authority of the Zhou kings declined, and the princes effectively became independent rulers.
The later Zhou (or “Eastern Zhou“) dynasty period was characterised by constant warfare between increasingly large and powerful regional states. It was also a time when important innovations began to emerge, which were to characterise Chinese civilization down to the 20th century. It was at this time that the great philosophies which would shape the Chinese world, including Confucianism, emerged; and it was also the period to which the roots of that distinctly Chinese style of bureaucratic government can be traced.
The final phase of ancient China’s history was characterised by the rise of strong, centralised states, which unified the Chinese people under a single imperial dynasty.
The Qin dynasty emerged when one of the states into which China was divided conquered all the others and unified China under its rule. Its king took the title Qin Shih Huang, “First Emperor”.
The Qin dynasty is famous for imposing a rigid unity on Chinese society, and in building an early version of the Great Wall of China. The Qin regime’s very rigidity, however, made it a short-lived dynasty. It was brought down by regional forces which it had failed to tame and by a peasantry which it had ruthlessly exploited.
The next of these unifying dynasties, however, would rule China for some 400 years. This was the Han dynasty, arguably the most important of all China’s dynasties.
Under the Han emperors the Chinese became so used to being ruled as a single nation that to this day they call themselves the Han people.
It was under the Han that Confucianism triumphed to become the ruling ideology of China. At the same time, an empire-wide bureaucracy, staffed to a large extent by officials recruited and promoted on merit, and imbued with Confucian thought, came to govern China. Even the examination system for recruiting officials, which would come to play such an important role in Chinese life. can trace its roots back to this period.
The Han dynasty lasted until 220 CE, when it broke up into several successor states. Thus began a period of weakness for China, when no single dynasty was able to establish its rule over the whole country for several centuries. This opened the way for non-Chinese peoples from surrounding regions to establish their own states within China.
This was a dark period in Chinese history, but by no means as dark as the period which followed the collapse of the western Roman empire in Europe. Society was disrupted, trade declined and many cities shrank, but even in barbarian-occupied areas, administrations staffed by Confucian-educated officials continued to govern. Chinese civilization was preserved intact until, a few centuries later, new dynasties would once again rule the whole of China.
The Confucian bureaucratic state which governed China for more than two thousand years of history first evolved in Ancient China. All of the key governing institutions of imperial China came into being at this time.
China’s pre-20th century state was associated above all else with the rule by emperors – monarchs who ruled the whole of China, and often neighbouring regions as well. They belonged to different dynasties, lines of rulers who followed each other on the throne from generation to generation.
China’s history is traditionally divided into such dynasties, and this was just as true of ancient China as later periods, as we see in the historical summary above.
As we noted, the early rulers, of the Shang and Zhou dynasties, styled themselves “kings”. From the late 3rd century BCE, however, the monarchs of the Qin and Han dynasties ruled over a united China, and as a result they styled themselves “emperors”. In this they were followed by rulers of China until the end of the last imperial dynasty, in the early 20th century CE.
The Mandate of Heaven
Chinese rulers bore the title “Son of Heaven”. They claimed to be Heaven’s representatives on Earth. Emperors were viewed as sacred figures: to disobey them was to disobey Heaven.
The concept of the “Son of Heaven” was closely linked to the idea, very influential in Chinese history, of the “Mandate of Heaven”. By this, a dynasty received divine authority to rule. However, it was believed that if emperors ruled badly or unjustly, their dynasty was liable to lose this mandate. In these circumstances, it was legitimate for rebels attempt to replace the dynasty with a new one, which (by dint of successfully seizing the throne) had shown that it now enjoyed the Heaven’s favour.
Emperors were surrounded by courts. These consisted of the royal family and its attendants, as well as ministers and officials responsible for helping the emperor in governing the huge country.
The court was housed in the royal palace, located in the capital. It was the political centre of the state, and what went there ultimately affected the entire empire. In particular, the decline of dynasties – the Han dynasty is a very clear example – can often be traced to events at court.
The ancient period of China’s history saw the emergence of one of the most impressive governing institutions in world history, the Chinese civil service. This astonishing organization pre-dated Western civil services by some two thousand years.
The roots of Chinese bureaucracy go back to the later Zhou dynasty, when the territorial princes were centralising the government of their states. It came to maturity under the Han dynasty. During Han times, the civil service became a huge organisation, employing many thousands of officials. It was responsible for keeping law and order, collecting taxes, maintaining irrigation systems and flood defences, and a host of other tasks to do with keeping China governed effectively.
More remarkably still, the Han dynasty inaugurated a revolutionary new system of recruiting public officials – by examining candidates for public posts. The examination system was established one of the most revered institutions in Chinese history.
Ancient China saw the transformation of armed forces from feudal forces based around aristocratic warriors, in Shang and early Zhou times, to mass armies composed largely of infantry troops, in the late Zhou, Qin and Han periods. These armies were made up of different kinds of recruits: long service, professional soldiers, peasant conscripts, and non-Chinese tribesmen.
(The balance between these different types changed from period to period, as is detailed in the section on defence in The State in Ancient China.)
The Great Wall 0f China
The defences of China never relied solely on military manpower, however. In the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, the northern and western border states most exposed to raids by steppe nomads had begun to build long walls made of beaten earth to help keep these raids out. After the unification of China under the Qin, the new imperial regime merged these walls into a single system of defence. These walls were he ancestors of the famous Great Wall of China, refurbished into its present form under the Ming dynasty, in the 15th century CE.
During the ancient period, the Han (as the Chinese would later call themselves) spread, through settlement and the assimilation of indigenous peoples, across northern China and down into the Yangtze region (this process is covered in the article Society in Ancient China). Population censuses began being taken during the Han Empire, which record a population of about 50 or 60 million. This makes it, along with the Roman Empire, the largest state in the Ancient World.
Even by the end of the Han dynasty the heart of Chinese civilization lay in the Yellow River region of northern China. It was here that the two capital cities, first Chang’an, and then Louyang, were located. The Yangtze region, and even more the far south and southwest, remained under-populated frontier regions inhabited largely by non-Chinese peoples.
While the great majority of people remained engaged in agriculture and lived in farming villages, the ancient period saw towns and cities spread across China. Most of these were administrative centres, where provincial officials were based along with their staffs. Many were tiny by modern standards. The Han censuses show only twelve cities of more than 50,000 inhabitants; most of the rest would have been far smaller. Nevertheless, the capital of Han China was always among the largest cities in the world – at times, THE largest. Chang’an, the capital of the early Han emperors, had a quarter of a million inhabitants, and the later Han capital, Louyang, half a million.
Ancient China’s economy and society was based on agriculture. The vast majority of Chinese families lived in small farming villages, dotted across intensively cultivated landscapes.
Chinese agriculture possessed, from ancient times, its own characteristics. Almost everywhere, it was dependent on the careful and unremitting management of water: to irrigate the fields of millet in North China, keep back the river floods near the great rivers, and swamp the paddy fields of southern China.
Their social position and economic condition of farmers has been different at different time. In early times, under the Shang and early Zhou, they were serfs, semi-servile bondsmen tied to their particular lords. From middle Zhou times, as the old feudal aristocracy disappeared, more and more of them became free owners of their small farms. Later again, in later Han times, their status declined again.
Whatever the farmers’ condition, as the centuries went by Chinese agriculture became more and more productive. New crops and the spread of iron tools and new techniques led to more intensive farming. From later Zhou times, government became active in promoting agriculture, especially by bringing new land under irrigation, These various factors resulted in population growth.
Trade and industry in Imperial China
As agriculture became more productive and population increased, trade and industry also grew. The introduction of coinage in later Zhou times facilitated trade, and technological innovations such as the development of steel-making contributed to industrial expansion.
Another major factor was state intervention. Under the Qin and Han, the standardisation in such things as weights and measures and road building would have had a major impact.
International trade first gained prominence under the Han dynasty. By gaining control over the eastern steppes of central Asia, the Han enabled the Silk Road, that great trade route across Asia to the Middle East and Europe, to become established. At the same time, the conquest of south China opened up the maritime trade to south east Asia. Although the south remained an underpopulated frontier zone in ancient times, a few important ports were established on the coast. It was in this period that Canton began its long history as a centre of international commerce.
Merchants and craftsmen in Chinese society
Craftsmen must have formed a privileged class in early China. Their products, including some of the finest bronzes ever produced, must have been highly valued by the ruling elite in Shang and early Zhou times, and this must have conferred a certain status on their makers.
In middle and later Zhou times, merchants became more influential as a class, and the economic expansion under the Han dynasty especially benefitted the urban classes. Government policies designed to keep merchants in their place could not halt them from growing in numbers and wealth.
The societies of early China, under the Shang and early Zhou dynasties, were dominated by an hereditary feudal aristocracy. Later, however, the position of this group declined, and a new social class emerged, that of the gentry – small landowners who provided rulers with their growing number of officials. By the time of the Qin and Han dynasties, a career in government was effectively open only to members of the gentry class.
By mid-Han times, however, a new super-elite of great landowners was emerging, its members enriched by holding high office. This new class would dominate Chinese society and politics in the centuries that followed.
In pre-modern China, the family was of almost sacred significance, an attitude giving rise to, and reinforced by, the practice of ancestor veneration.
The existence of ancestor veneration is attested in the earliest texts from ancient China, the Shang dynasty oracles, and throughout China’s long history the rise and decline of “higher” religions and modes of thought – Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism and so on – never undermined the practice, which might with some justification be thought of as the basic sacred tradition of China.
Women had a subordinate place in the Chinese family from ancient times. Their duty was to obey, first their fathers, then their husbands, and then, after their husbands’ deaths, their eldest sons. This should not be exaggerated, however: children of both sexes were taught to obey and respect their parents.
Ancient beliefs and practices
It seems clear that many of traditional Chinese religious and philosophical ideas and practices were already present when written records begin, and probably for long before. Such elements as divination, ancestor veneration, feng-shui, the Dao and the supreme god Di are all evidenced in the Shang oracle bones inscriptions.
Zhou Schools of Thought
It was in mid- and late-Zhou periods, however, that the schools of thought developed which were so profoundly to influence Chinese thinking down to the 20th century. Four of these stand out as by far the most influential.
This taught that people must accept their place in society if society is to be harmonious. However, social relationships should be reciprocal. Thus, while a son should obey his father, the father should act considerately towards the son. (More on Confucianism)
The Daoists believed that a person must live in accordance with the flow of nature; trying to change the way things are is futile.(More on Daoism)
The philosopher Mozi (c. 468-382) believed that anything that helped people’s welfare and contributed to peace was good; anything that did not was bad. People should practice universal love, and not live selfishly. (More on Mohism)
The legalists said that the most important thing was that the state should be strong. To achieve this, all people should obey the ruler and his officials without question. For his part, the ruler should do whatever it takes to strengthen the state, whether it is immoral or not. (More on Legalism)
Throughout China’s long history these philosophical strands have never been mutually exclusive. Many educated Chinese have been Confucians in public life, Daoists in the privacy of their own homes, and when serving in an official post have happily pursued Legalist policies. The different philosophies have also deeply influenced each other so that, for example, the dominant of the three, Confucianism, has had strong Daoist and Legalist elements within it.
At first, though, these four schools seem to have regarded themselves as exclusive rivals for people’s allegiances. The Qin dynasty came to power through the application of Legalist principles, and sought to eliminate all other schools of thought. After that dynasty fell, however, the Han dynasty enshrined Confucianism as the official ideology of the state. As such, it was probably forced to take in ideas from other schools, particularly Legalism and Daoism, in order to remain relevant to the needs of government and officials.
Apart from works on divination and religious rites, literature in Ancient China really got going in mid-Zhou times – the time of Confucius and other philosophers.
A number of works, dating to Zhou and Han times, gained the status of “Classics“, and came to be viewed almost as religious texts. They embodied the foundations of Confucian thought, and would have a profound influence on Chinese civilization.
Works of history
The other major strand of Chinese prose literature was history. The Han historian Sima Qian (c. 145-87 BC) set the standard for historical writing for the next two thousand years. Henceforth, history would be a major feature of Chinese literature.
So far as poetry was concerned, here again the Han period set in place foundations which would be followed and elaborated upon for hundreds of years. Two strands became popular: the first, Shih, consisted of short poems written in a compact, spare style; the second, Fu consisted of longer, more ornate verses. The interaction between these two styles would give a particular character to Chinese verse, reflecting a varying mix of the discipline of Shih with the expressiveness of Fu.
Apart from the beautiful bronzes dating to Shang and early Zhou times, few works of art have come down to us from Ancient China. Nevertheless, wonderful small clay models of houses, horses and people designed to be placed in graves show that Han artists strove for realism as well as lively movement. Also, writings from the Han period mention lively paintings adorning the walls of fine houses.
Click here for the start of a sequence of maps showing the history of Ancient China
For a sequence of maps showing ancient China in the broader context of East Asian history: history of East Asia
Click here for a Timeline on Ancient Chinese history
Also, the article on The Origins of Civilization has a small section dealing specifically with China.
The broader regional context is covered in The history of East Asia.
Dynasties in Ancient China:
The main sources I have used for the history of ancient China are:
Hucker, C.O., China’s Imperial Past, Stanford, 1975 – the most informative of the books I have used, and very readable.
Roberts, J.A.G., The Complete History of China, Sutton, 2004 – also a very good introduction, and also highly readable.
Eberhard, W., A History of China, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977 – very useful to be read in conjunction with other general histories, but to be used with caution – it embodies some sociological models which have been ditched in recent years.
An even older book, but enormously informative and insightful, is Fitzgeralsd, C.P., China: A Short Cultural History, Barrie & Jenkins, 1953 (despite the title, not that short – 624 pages).
A recent book which has been well received is Keay, J., China, A History, 2010. (I haven’t yet read this, but I have read his India, A History, which is good).
Loewe, M., Crisis and Conflict in Han China, Allen & Unwin, 1975, offers a brilliant insight into the workings of Han government.
A lavishly illustrated work on archaeology for the general reader which includes good sections on China, is Renfrew, C. (ed.), Past Worlds: The Times Atlas of Archaeology, Times Books, 1995, p. 92-3, 146-7, 190-5
A work on general archaeology aimed more at students, but eminently readable and with very useful coverage of ancient China and the roots of Chinese civilization, is Scarre, C. (ed.), The Human Past, Thames & Hudson, 2005, p. 234ff., 552ff.
If you want a quick introduction to the archaeology of ancient China, try the small but beautifully illustrated handbook by Debaine-Francfort, C., The Search for Ancient China, Thames & Hudson, 1999.
For an insightful look at government in ancient China, see Finer, S. E., The History of Government, I, Ancient Monarchies and Empires, OUP, 1999, p. 442ff.
The Ancient History Encyclopedia has a very useful series of pages on Ancient China: start at the general Ancient China page and follow the appropriate links.
The British Museum’s website Ancient China is a wonderful teaching resource.
Wikipedia’s coverage of Ancient China is as usual vast, and is particularly useful if you want to chase down a specific topic (though coverage of some topics can be a bit patchy).