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A Short History of China
From Ancient Dynasties to Economic Powerhouse
By Gordon Kerr
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2013 Gordon Kerr
All rights reserved.
Geography of the Middle Kingdom
China is the third largest country in the world, measuring more than 5,200 kilometres from east to west and more than 5,500 kilometres from north to south. This huge expanse of land is stitched together by mountain ranges that form barriers between habitable river valleys. Dominating this land mass are two great river systems – the Yellow River to the north and the Yangtze River in the centre.
The Yellow River rises in the Bayan Har Mountains in Qinghai Province in western China and flows through nine Chinese provinces. It traverses the northern deserts before flowing south through a hilly area of fertile soil perfectly suited to cultivation. At the end of these highlands, the river turns to the east, now yellow from the silt it carries, its banks wide apart, and crosses the alluvial plain before emptying into the Bohai Sea. Often called 'the cradle of Chinese civilisation', it cuts across the Wei valley to the west of Beijing, an area considered the birthplace of ancient Chinese cultures and a region of great prosperity in early Chinese history. The Yangtze, Asia's longest river, carries a greater volume of water than the Yellow River. It rises in the glaciers of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, flows eastwards across southwest, central and eastern China and into the East China Sea at Shanghai. Its river basin is home to around a third of the population of the People's Republic of China.
Naturally, the regions through which these rivers flow differ greatly in every way. In the north, the temperature is colder and the terrain is flatter and more arid. It has a shorter growing season and alkaline soil in which crops such as wheat and millet flourish. The area north of the Yellow River does not enjoy sufficient rainfall for agriculture without irrigation. The silt collected by the river builds up the height of the riverbed, rendering the Yellow River prone to flooding and farmers and governments have, over the centuries, built dykes to maintain the course of the water. Nonetheless, floods, when they occur, are devastating, inundating vast swathes of land. Around the Yangtze, the weather is warmer and wetter, its annual rainfall of more than sixty inches making it especially suited to the cultivation of rice and the practice of double -cropping. The navigability of much of the Yangtze has made travel by boat more common in the south than the north.
Great physical features separate China from the world. To the north lies the steppe, the grassy plains of Inner Asia that stretch across Eurasia to the Ukraine and where animal husbandry is more successful than crop cultivation. These regions are populated by the traditional enemies of the Chinese – pastoralist peoples such as the Mongols and the Xiongnu. Arid deserts separate China from these lands. Meanwhile, to the west of south and central China lies the foreboding mountainous region of Tibet and to the southeast are forested mountain spurs and jungle. Off the coast are the South and East China Seas, sheltered by an arc of islands beyond which lies the Pacific Ocean.
This isolation was a significant factor in Chinese history and in the Chinese view of the world right up to the nineteenth century. For millennia, the Chinese thought of their land, bounded as it was by vast oceans, high mountains and infertile deserts, as 'All-Under -Heaven' (tianxia), the entirety of earth and the very centre of civilisation.CHAPTER 2
Neolithic Times and Early Empires
Early human beings – Homo erectus – first arrived on the Chinese subcontinent more than a million years ago, having spread during the Ice Age from Africa and west Asia. The best-known example of Homo erectus is Peking Man (Sinanthropus pekinensis), the name given to fossil remnants found in the 1920s and 1930s during excavations at Zhoukoudian, southwest of Beijing. It is now estimated that he may have lived as much as 680,000 or 780,000 years ago. The bones of forty-five men, women and children were discovered at Zhoukoudian, alongside evidence of tools. Peking Man was ape -like in appearance, but would have possessed basic speech skills and would have used his hands to manipulate objects. The remains were located in caves and it was in such places that he sought shelter. Homo sapiens – what we like to think of as modern human beings – arrived in East Asia about 100,000 years ago. Remains found in the Upper Cave at Zhoukoudian belong to a more advanced creature who lived about 50,000 years ago. His tool-making showed distinct improvement, the sharpness of the stone blades improved by a more efficient flaking method. Bone needles were now being used to sew hides to make clothing and these people hunted and fished but also gathered fruits, berries and edible roots.
By 5000 BC, Neolithic cultures had emerged in many of China's river valleys, practising agriculture, making pottery and textiles and living in village settlements. The development of agriculture had been facilitated by climate change, the weather becoming warmer and wetter. This led to more permanent settlements and social organisation. People were living in villages that consisted of pit dwellings, beehive-shaped huts made of mud and with reed roofs. Rice was being cultivated in the Yangtze valley region as early as 5000 BC and the diet would have been supplemented with fish and aquatic plants. In the north of the country where it was too cold and dry for rice cultivation, millet was the principal crop. It was during the Neolithic period that the domestication of animals began. At the time, woolly mammoths and wild horses could be found on the plains, while tigers and bears stalked the hills. Animals were hunted, some being killed for food while others were taken alive. Primitive man learned the skills of animal husbandry and dogs, pigs, sheep, cattle, chickens and horses were domesticated for practical purposes. Pottery for storage of food and drink was being made, most notably in the region of the Great Bend of the Yellow River (Huang He) where red clay pots decorated with purple or black lines have been found.
In the late Neolithic period, it is evident from the spread of pottery designs and shapes that different cultures were coming into contact with each other. This also, of course, led to conflict between communities. Metal began to be used to manufacture weapons and settlements were building defensive walls. It can be assumed that a hierarchy of sorts had developed by this time, with chieftains leading their men into battle. Religious elites were also emerging, evident in human sacrifice that was being carried out at the time. Captives would have been the victims of such rites, seen as a means of placating gods or ancestors or simply emphasising the power of the elites. Elaborate burials also demonstrate the fact that some individuals were more elevated socially than others.
Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors (c. 2852 BC to c. 2070 BC)
People gathered themselves into tribes or clans for protection and these clans allied with others in order to provide security against enemies for their herds, grazing lands, hunting grounds and settlements. From one such alliance emerged the legendary chieftain, Huangdi, also known as the Yellow Emperor who, according to tradition, reigned from 2697 to 2597 BC or 2696 to 2598 BC. Huangdi was one of the group of semi-mythological rulers and culture heroes known as the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors who are said to have lived between about 2700 BC and 2100 BC. They were demigods whose magical powers, knowledge and innovations, according to tradition, helped China develop from a primitive to a sophisticated society. They are said to have lived to a great age and their rule brought a period of lasting peace. Details vary according to sources, but to Fu Xi, the Ox-tamer, was attributed the invention of the family and the domestication of animals; the invention of the plough and the hoe is credited to Shennong, the Divine Farmer; Nüwa, possibly the wife or sister of Fu Xi, is seen as the creator of mankind.
Huangdi, often referred to as the ancestor of the Huaxia race – the Chinese people – is said to have invented the bow and arrow and to have secured the plain of the Yellow River for his people. Tradition holds that he fought the first battle in Chinese history, the Battle of Banquan, sometime during the twenty-sixth century BC, a battle that is credited with the formation of the Huaxia tribe which was the basis for Han Chinese civilisation.
It was a time of transition as society moved from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age and metal implements and tools began to supplant stone ones. By this time, farming was well developed and farmers were using irrigation techniques to water their land. Silk was being made and wood was being used in the construction of houses. Transport, too, was developing with the use of carriages and boats and the first signs were emerging of efforts to create a written language.
Xia Dynasty (c. 2070 BC to c. 1600 BC)
Around 2000 BC a more sophisticated Bronze Age civilisation emerged. It domesticated the horse, used writing, worked metal and produced goods that led to a stratification of society, both political and religious, with some families becoming wealthy and powerful. One such was the Xia who are thought to have emerged towards the end of the third millennium BC as a ruling dynasty, the earliest to be described in such venerable ancient chronicles as Zhushu Jinian (Bamboo Annals), Shujing (Book of Documents) and Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian). The Xia would rule until midway through the second millennium before the birth of Christ. It is worth noting, however, that as China's first written system on a durable medium – the oracle bone script – was not devised until the thirteenth century BC, the existence of the Xia has yet to be proved by the only means available – archaeological investigation.
According to Chinese texts, the Xia dynasty was founded by Yu the Great (c. 2200–2100 BC), the grandson of Zhuanxu, one of the legendary Five Emperors. According to the legend of China's Great Flood, Yu's father, Gun, was ordered by King Yao (c. 2356–2255) to solve his kingdom's problems with flooding. For nine years, Gun built earthen dikes across the land designed to control the waters. But during a period of heavy flooding, the dikes collapsed and the project was deemed a failure. Gun was executed by King Shun who had succeeded Yao as ruler. Shun recruited Yu to take over from his father but instead of building more dikes, Yu dredged new river channels, to serve both as outlets for the torrential waters, and as irrigation conduits to farmlands some distance away. He worked at this task for thirteen years with the help of around 2,000 people and succeeded at last in containing and managing the flood waters.
Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 BC to c. 1046 BC)
In about the sixteenth century BC, the Xia were defeated by the neighbouring tribe, the Shang, a mainly agricultural people who went on to rule for almost six hundred years. King Tang of Shang (c. 1675 – c. 1646 BC) had been determined to bring an end to Xia rule and allied with neighbouring tribes to this end. He seized the throne and sent the last Xia ruler, Jie (c. 1728 – c. 1675 BC), into exile. The Shang did not hold sway over a very large part of China but their influence was far-reaching, their technology and decorative motifs being copied throughout the Yangtze valley.
During the Shang period, wheeled vehicles became increasingly common and horses began to be harnessed and used to pull war chariots and royal carriages. They were responsible for the invention of many musical instruments and Shang astronomers made observations about Mars and various comets. The Shang developed a system of writing that has been preserved on bronze inscriptions as well as on pottery, horn, jade and other stones. In particular, it has been found on oracle bones – turtle shells, the shoulder blades of cattle and other bones – which were used for divination. Thousands of these bones were discovered at the end of the nineteenth century near Anyang, one of the Shang's five capitals, providing vital information about the politics, economy and religion of the Shang and confirming as truth much of what had previously been regarded as legend or myth.
The Shang used bronze to make a wide array of implements and weapons, from sacrificial vessels to needles and spears. This led to a differentiation in types of labour and a more productive society. The surplus that was generated was used in trade and, as craftsmen congregated in specific areas, it encouraged the growth of urban communities. As in other fledgling societies, cowrie shells were used as currency. Shang cities were stoutly protected with walls made of beaten earth sometimes measuring more than fifty feet at their base.
Shang craftsmen made huge, highly decorated bronze ritual vessels and a great deal of the goods they manufactured, such as wine cups and weapons, are of unsurpassable quality. Slaves were used in the production of such items and they were also used in the construction of palaces for the Shang rulers and their families. When the ruler died, he was interred with items and even slaves – buried alive – whom, it was believed, he would need in the next world. Chariots and the skeletons of charioteers as well as countless priceless items made of jade, gold, bronze and stone have been excavated from such tombs. Their size is evidence of the power of the Shang rulers, their ability to engage sufficient numbers of workers to excavate holes up to forty feet deep, to construct immense burial chambers and to fill in the site afterwards with layers of compacted earth.
It was not just military supremacy that guaranteed a ruler his rank. He also served as a priest in the worship of the god Di and the royal ancestors. It was because he was the best placed person to communicate with these ancestors who in turn were best placed to communicate with Di, that he was felt to be a suitable ruler.
The Shang were undone by constant warfare against their enemies and oppression by their rulers of their slaves. During the decisive and bloody Battle of Muye, fought around 1046 BC, the Shang ruler's slaves transferred their allegiance to the enemy – King Wu of Zhou. The Shang were defeated and their last king, the cruel and oppressive Di Xin (also known as Zhou; ruled 1075–1046 BC), one of the most decadent of all Chinese rulers, committed suicide by setting fire to his palace.
Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC to 256 BC)
Western Zhou: c. 1046 BC to 770 BC
The Zhou period is the earliest from which texts have been handed down. The classic Confucian work, the Book of Documents (Shujing), claims to contain the Zhou version of their history, describing the defeat of the Shang as a victory over a decadent state led by a dissolute ruler. Initially an illiterate and fairly backward people, the Zhou assumed many of the practices and customs of the Shang, including their farming methods, their writing system and their facility with bronze. They would rule for 900 years and during that time there would be great change including an explosion of intellectual and artistic excellence.
King Wu died several years after his conquest of the Shang and was succeeded by his son, King Cheng (ruled 1042–21 BC), although his youth meant that a regent, the Duke of Zhou, had to be installed to rule in his place. The duke stamped out rebellion among the king's family and also added to the territory ruled by the Zhou.
The Zhou king was the sole source of authority and government. He kept his princes and nobles in line using feudal means – a system known as fengjian – by distributing estates to them. While they ruled independently within their own lands, they effectively became his vassals and had to protect him and his court if attacked. They paid tribute to their ruler and rendered homage to him in a strictly observed ritual.
During the Western Zhou, the dragon began to be a powerful symbol to the Chinese, signifying the water god and representing, therefore, the strength and fertility brought by rain. The dragon soon became the exclusive emblem of the ruler, his throne becoming known as the 'dragon throne'. The Duke of Zhou devised the 'Mandate of Heaven' doctrine that was to define Chinese dynastic rule. The ruler was called the 'Son of Heaven' and enjoyed the sole right to perform important rituals and offer sacrifices designed to guarantee the harmony of the seasons and the reliability of harvests. Thus, the Son of Heaven, expected to live a scrupulous life, would be held responsible for disasters and catastrophes such as bad harvests. It was thought that such events reflected on his moral probity and the Zhou believed that Heaven would withdraw its mandate from an evil ruler. This, they claimed, is what had happened in the case of the Shang.
Excerpted from A Short History of China by Gordon Kerr. Copyright © 2013 Gordon Kerr. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Geography of the Middle Kingdom 14
Chapter 2 Neolithic Times and Early Empires 16
Chapter 3 Turmoil, Re-unification and a Golden Age 44
Chapter 4 Chaos, Appeasement and Invasion 57
Chapter 5 Recovery and the End of Empire 69
Chapter 6 Prelude to Revolution 115
Chapter 7 From Radical Reform to Global Superpower 136
Epilogue: China at the Crossroads 515
Further Reading 153