China: The Formative Centuries

The formative period of Chinese history - the era of the Shang and Chou dynasties, before China was unified politically - was, like the early history of India before its unification by the Mauryan Dynasty, a time during which most of China's cultural tradition arose. As in India, this tradition has lasted into the present century.

The Land

Chinese civilization arose and developed in a vast area, one-third larger than the United States if such dependencies as Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet are included.

For centuries China was almost completely isolated from the other centers of civilization by mountains, deserts, and seas. This isolation helps explain the great originality of China's culture.

China proper is a vast watershed drained by three river systems that rise close together on the high Tibetan plateau and flow eastward to the Pacific.

Three mountain systems also rise in the west, diminishing in altitude as they slope eastward between the river systems. The Yellow River (Huang Ho), traditionally known as "China's Sorrow" because of the misery caused by its periodic flooding, traverses the North China plain.

In this area, the original homeland of Chinese culture, the climate is like that of western Europe.

The Yangtze River and its valley forms the second river system. South of this valley lie the subtropical lands of South China, the home of ancient cultures that were destroyed or transformed by Chinese expansion from the north.

Here the shorter rivers and valleys converging on present-day Canton formed the third major river system.

This pattern of mountain ranges and river systems has, throughout China's history, created problems of political unity.

At the same time, the great river valleys facilitated the spread of a homogeneous culture over a greater land area than any other civilization in the world.

China's Prehistory

The discovery of Peking man in 1927 made it evident that ancient humanlike creatures with an early Paleolithic culture had dwelled in China.

Certain physical characteristics of Peking man are thought to be distinctive marks of the Mongoloid branch of the human race. Skulls of modern humans (Homo sapiens) have also been found.

Until recently, archaeologists believed that the earliest Neolithic farming villages (the Yang Shao culture) appeared in the Yellow River valley about 4500 B.C.

Now a series of newly discovered sites has pushed back the Neolithic Age in China to 6500 B.C. The evidence indicates that China's Neolithic culture, which cultivated millet and domesticated the pig, originated independently from that in the Near East.

The people of China's last Neolithic culture, called Lung Shan, lived in walled towns and produced a wheel-made black pottery. Their culture spread widely in North China.

Most scholars believe that this Neolithic culture immediately preceded the Shang period, when civilization emerged in China about 1700 B.C.

Others now believe that the Hsia Dynasty, considered - like the Shang had been - to be purely legendary, actually existed and flourished for some three centuries before it was conquered by the Shang.

The Shang Dynasty: China Enters History

With the establishment of Shang rule over most of North China and the appearance of the first written texts, China completed the transition from Neolithic culture to civilization.

Shang originally was the name of a nomadic tribe whose vigorous leaders succeeded in establishing themselves as the overlords of other tribal leaders in North China.

The Shang capital, a walled city to which the tribal leaders came to pay tribute, changed frequently; the last capital was at modern Anyang.

The Shang people developed bronze metallurgy and carried it to heights

hardly surpassed in world history.

Bronze was used to cast elaborate ceremonial and drinking vessels (the Shang leaders were notorious for their drinking bouts) and weapons, all intricately decorated with both incised and high-relief designs.

[See Bronze Vessel: Bronze vessels, such as this one from the early tenth century B.C., were designed to contain water, wine, meat, or grain used during the sacrificial rites in which the Shang and Chou prayed to the memory of their ancestors.

Animals were a major motif of ritual bronzes. Courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institutuion, Washington, DC]

The Shang people also developed a distinctive writing system employing nearly 5000 characters, some of which are still in use today.

These characters represent individual words rather than sounds and consist of pictographs, recognizable as pictures of observable objects, and ideographs representing ideas.

Most Shang writing is found on thousands of "oracle bones," fragments of animal bones and tortoise shells on which were inscribed questions put to the gods and ancestral spirits, which were thought to continue a close relationship with their living descendants as members of the family group.

The diviner would ask such questions as "Will the king's child be a son?" and "If we raise an army of 3000 men to drive X away from Y, will we succeed?"

The shell or bone would then be heated and the resulting cracks would be interpreted as an answer to the question.

Shang China was ruled by hereditary kings who were also priests acting as

intermediaries between the people and the spirit world.

Their power was not absolute, being constantly limited by an aristocratic "Council of the Great and Small."

The oracle bones reveal that the kings often appealed to the ancestral spirits in order to overcome the opposition of the council.

Shang kings and nobles lived in imposing buildings, went to battle in horse-drawn chariots resembling those of Homer's Greece, and were buried in sumptuous tombs together with their chariots, still-living servants and war captives.

Warfare was frequent, and the chariot, a new military weapon, facilitated the spread of Shang power through North China.

The power of the kings and nobles rested on their ownership of the land, their monopoly of bronze metallurgy, their possession of expensive war chariots, and the kings' religious functions.

Unlike the common people, the kings and nobles had recorded ancestors and belonged to a clan.

They were the descendants in the male line from a common ancestor to whom they rendered worship and who was usually a god or a hero, but sometimes a fish, an animal, or a bird.

The chief deity, called God on High, was the ancestor of the king's own clan. There were regular animal sacrifices and libations of a beerlike liquor were poured on the ground. The object was to win the aid or avoid the displeasure of the spirits.

Magic was employed to maintain the balance of nature, which was thought to function through the interaction of two opposed but complementary forces called yang and yin.

Yang was associated with the sun and all things male, strong, warm, and active.

Yin was associated with the moon and all things female, dark, cold, weak, and passive.

In later ages, Chinese philosophers all male - would employ these concepts to work out the behavior pattern of obedience and passivity that was expected of women.

The common people were peasants who belonged to no clans and apparently worshiped no ancestors.

Their gods were the elementary spirits of nature, such as rivers, mountains, earth, wind, rain, and heavenly bodies.

Peasants were virtual serfs, owning no land but working plots periodically assigned to them by royal and noble landowners. They collectively cultivated the fields retained by their lords.

Farming methods were primitive, not having advanced beyond the Neolithic level.

Bronze was used for weapons, not tools or implements, and the peasants continued to reap wheat and millet with stone sickles and till their allotted fields with wooden plows.

[See Ancient China: Shang and Chou Dynasties.]

The Chou Dynasty: The Feudal Age

Around 1122 B.C., the leader of the Chou tribe overthrew the Shang ruler, who, it was claimed, had failed to rule fairly and benevolently.

The Chou leader announced that Heaven (Tien) had given him a mandate to replace the Shang. This was more than a rationalization of the seizure of power.

It introduced a new aspect of Chinese thought: the cosmos is ruled by an impersonal and all-powerful Heaven, which sits in judgment over the human ruler, who is the intermediary between Heaven's commands and human fate.

The Chou was a western frontier tribe that had maintained its martial spirit and fighting ability.

Its conquest of the Shang can be compared with Macedonia's unification of Greece.

The other Chinese tribes switched their loyalty to the Chou leader, who went on to establish a dynasty that lasted for more than 800 years (1122-256 B.C.), the longest in Chinese history.

Comprising most of North China, the large Chou domain made the establishment of a unified state impossible.

Consequently, the Chou kings set up a feudal system of government by delegating local authority to relatives and noble magnates.

These vassal lords, whose power was hereditary, recognized the over-lordship of the Chou kings and supplied them with military aid.

The early Chou kings were vigorous leaders who were able to retain the allegiance of their vassals (when necessary, by their superior military power) and fend off attacks from barbarians on the frontiers.

In time, however, weak kings succeeded to the throne, and the power and independence of their vassals increased.

By the eighth century B.C., the vassals no longer went to the Chou capital for investiture by the Son of Heaven, as the Chou king called himself.

The remnants of Chou royal power disappeared completely in 771 B.C., when an alliance of dissident vassals and barbarians destroyed the capital and killed the king.

Part of the royal family managed to escape eastward to Lo-yang, however, where the dynasty survived for another five centuries doing little more than performing state religious rituals as the Son of Heaven.

Seven of the stronger feudal princes gradually conquered their weaker neighbors.

In the process they assumed the title wang ("king"), formerly used only by the Chou ruler, and began to extinguish the feudal rights of their own vassals and establish centralized administrations.

Warfare among these emerging centralized states was incessant, particularly during the two centuries known as the Period of Warring States (c. 450-221 B.C.).

By 221 B.C., the ruler of the Ch'in, the most advanced of the seven warring states, had conquered all his rivals and established a unified empire with himself as absolute ruler.

Chou Economy And Society

Despite its political instability, the Chou period is unrivaled by any later period in Chinese history for its material and cultural progress.

These developments led the Chinese to distinguish between their own high civilization and the nomadic ways of the "barbarian dogs" beyond their frontiers.

A sense of the superiority of their own civilization became a lasting characteristic of the Chinese.

During the sixth century B.C., iron was introduced and mass producing cast iron objects from molds came into general use by the end of the Chou period.

(The first successful attempts at casting iron were not made in Europe until the end of the Middle Ages.)

The ox-drawn iron-tipped plow, together with the use of manure and the growth of large-scale irrigation and water-control projects, led to great population growth based on increased agricultural yields.

Canals were constructed to facilitate moving commodities over long distances. Commerce and wealth grew rapidly, and a merchant and artisan class emerged.

Brightly colored shells, bolts of silk, and ingots of precious metals were the media of exchange; by the end of the Chou period small round copper coins with square holes were being minted.

Chopsticks and finely lacquered objects, today universally considered as symbols of Chinese and East Asian culture, were also in use by the end of the period.

Class divisions and consciousness became highly developed under Chou feudalism and have remained until modern times.

The king and the aristocracy were sharply separated from the mass of the people on the basis of land ownership and family descent.

The core units of aristocratic society were the elementary family, the extended family, and the clan, held together by patriarchal authority and ancestor worship.

Marriages were formally arranged unions between families. Among the peasants, however, marriage took place after a woman became pregnant following the Spring Festival at which boys and girls, beginning at age fifteen, sang and danced naked.

The customs of the nobles can be compared in a general way to those of

Europe's feudal nobility.

Underlying the society was a complex code of chivalry, called li, practiced in both war and peace. It symbolized the ideal of the noble warrior, and men devoted years to its mastery.

The art of horseback riding, developed among the nomads of central Asia, greatly influenced late Chou China.

In response to the threat of mounted

nomads, rulers of the Warring States period began constructing defensive walls, later joined together to become the Great Wall of China.

Inside China itself, chariots were largely replaced by swifter and more mobile cavalry troops wearing tunics and trousers adopted from the nomads.

The peasant masses, still attached serflike to their villages, worked as tenants of noble land-holders, paying one tenth of their crop as rent.

Despite increased agricultural production, resulting from large-scale irrigation and the ox-drawn iron-tipped plow, the peasants had difficulty eking out an existence.

Many were forced into debt slavery. A major problem in the Chinese economy, evident by late Chou times, has been that the majority of farmers have worked fields so small that they could not produce a crop surplus to tide them over periods of scarcity.