World History/The First Chinese Dynasties
The Mythical Period
According to legend, Chinese history began with a succession of three rulers - half-human, half-animal - followed by five emperors. The three rulers - Fuxi, Nüwa, and Shennong - each are credited with contributing to the early people's lifestyles:
- Fuxi - traditional reign began in 2852 B.C. Introduced domestication of animals and founded the basic social structure of family life.
- Nüwa - wife of Fuxi. She is also credited for his accomplishments.
- Shennong - divine farmer who taught agriculture to the settled peoples.
Following this period, five successors introduced the basic aspects of culture:
- Huangdi, or the Yellow Emperor - traditional reign lasted from 2698 B.C. - 2599 B.C. As with the aforementioned rulers, his existence may be mythical as well; the period of his reign occurred about one millennium before Chinese history was recorded. Nevertheless, he has been regarded as the ancestor of all Han Chinese - the largest ethnic nationality in all of China. Some of his achievements include the institution of Chinese characters (thus leading to literacy), the development of silk (from silkworms), and the establishment of the principles of Traditional Chinese medicine.
- Zhuanxu - credited with the creation of the Chinese calendar, as well as the introduction of religion and astrology (this may or may not correspond to the Chinese zodiac).
- Emperor Ku - dates suggest he ruled from 2412 B.C. - 2343 B.C.; however, little else is known about his contributions.
- Emperor Yao - reign lasted from 2317(?) B.C. - 2234 B.C. He is believed to have served as a "role model" for future rulers due to his dignity and diligence. Some also credit him for creating the popular board game, "weiqi" (also known as "Go").
- Emperor Shun - reign lasted from 2233 B.C. - 2205 B.C. Although he did not follow the bloodline of Yao (Shun was a peasant), he was chosen to succeed the former because of his 'devotion to his (own) father'. Shun's devotion also set an example for future rulers.
Like Yao, Shun also chose his successor rather than continue the family line. He appointed Yu, a paragon who helped to drain the floodwaters around much of eastern China. At this point, archaeological evidence suggests that he founded the Xia Dynasty in 2205 B.C.
The Xia Dynasty (c. 2070 B.C. - 1600 B.C.)
Because Yu was also a Chinese mythological figure, the existence of the Xia dynasty is somewhat debatable, as most of it is based on cultural legends. Nevertheless, archaeological evidence (dated from the Shang and later dynasties) shows that an early farming culture was established around 2205 B.C., centralized in the Huang (Yellow) River Valley and the surrounding region. The early peoples of the Xia were also believed to have created a primitive writing system, though this is also questionable as no written records have yet been found near that region.
Based on available evidence and findings, the Xia developed sufficient agricultural methods and techniques and generally experienced considerable prosperity. Lack of irrigation and flood protection made the region prone to frequent floods and other natural disasters, however. Eventually, the peoples of the Xia were overthrown by rebels c. 1760 B.C., who in turn established new rule in the Huang River Valley.
The Shang Dynasty (c. 1760 B.C. - 1120 B.C.)
Upon establishment c. 1760 B.C., the Shang developed a theocratic government centered around the capital city of Anyang (south of the Huang River, in present-day Henan province). Shang kings were believed to fulfill sacred rather than political purposes; thus, a council of chosen advisers administered various aspects of the government. The dynasty claimed rule over much of northern China, but in reality its control and influence did not spread as far and wide. Farther away from the capital, aristocrats who pledged support to the king governed local areas and managed affairs such as defense, militia, and tax collection. The border territories of Shang rule were led by chieftains who gained the right to govern through connections with and/or acceptance from the royalty.
Society and Class Divisions
Citizens during the Shang dynasty can be classified into four social classes: the king & aristocracy, the military, artisans & craftsmen, and peasants.
The aristocracy were centered around Anyang, the Shang capital, and conducted governmental affairs for surrounding areas. Regional territories were also controlled by the wealthy, although their roles were limited to local districts as opposed to the entire state.
Following the aristocracy came the Shang military, who were respected and honored for their skill. There were two sub-divisions: one for infantry (foot soldiers) and one for chariot warriors. The latter were noted for great skill in warfare and hunting, and evidence has shown that horses and other cavalry were utilized by the Chinese during the late Shang period, c. 1250 B.C.
Artisans and craftsmen comprised the 'middle class' of Shang society. Their largest contribution was their work with bronze, which the Chinese developed as early as 1500 B.C. Bronze weapons and pottery were commonly made, but the most prominent creations included ritual vessels and treasures, many of which were discovered via archaeological findings in the 1920s and 1930s. Shang aristocrats and the royalty were believed to have been buried with large supplies of bronze valuables, particularly wine vessels and other ornate structures.
At the bottom of the social ladder were the peasants, the poorest of Chinese citizens. They comprised the majority of the population, and were limited to farming and selling crops for profit. Archaeological findings have shown that masses of peasants were buried with aristocrats, leading some scholars to believe that they were the equivalent of slaves, but other scholars have countered that they were similar to serfs. Peasants were governed directly by local aristocrats.
Early Chinese Culture
The Shang dynasty gave birth to much of modern Chinese culture, and thus set the 'template' for further development by future dynasties.
Chinese writing had its origins in Shang culture as a means to unify the various dialects spoken by regional Chinese. The earliest forms of writing were depicted using pictographs, where primitive drawings conveyed symbols, objects, and ideas. Although not as detailed as Egyptian hieroglyphics or other ancient forms of writing, the pictographs served as a basic form of written communication. As years passed and the language grew, ideographs replaced these pictures, and used more simplified symbols to communicate. Combinations of symbols produced characters, which could be used to express more complex ideas. Over time, more and more characters became incorporated into the Chinese language. Scribes learned the writing system to record historical accounts and other royal documentation; they used calligraphy as a 'script' to record such observations.
Shang religion was characterized by a combination of animism (spiritual control of the world) and ancestral respect and worship. Natural and mythological symbols such as the moon, sun, wind, rain, dragon, and phoenix were controlled by respective gods, to whom peasants prayed for bountiful harvests. Festivals became common and celebrated the gods in hopes for a good spring harvest. The great god Shang Di, believed to rule over humanity and nature, was consulted by rulers for advice and wisdom. Thus, Shang kings believed themselves to be divine rulers. Priests frequently consulted both the gods and rulers as well - they inscribed divine questions on oracle bones (dried animal bones, especially turtle shells) and heated them until a series of cracks appeared on the surface. These cracks were interpreted in an attempt to seek answers to such questions.
The Chinese also established a lunar calendar that was used to predict and record events such as harvests, births, and deaths (of rulers and peasants alike). The system assumed a 29-day month that began and ended with each new moon; twelve lunar months comprised one lunar year. Priests and astronomers were trained to recalculate the lunar year and add enough days such that each year lasted 365 days. Because the calendar was used to time both crop planting and harvest, the king had to employ skilled astronomers such that predicted dates (and successes) of annual harvests would help him maintain support from the people.
The Zhou Dynasty (1122 B.C. - 256 B.C.)
Toward the end of the Shang dynasty, a new faction of rebels amassed within the empire. Naming themselves the Zhou, they overthrew the last of the Shang kings in 1122 B.C. and instituted the Zhou dynasty, with its capital at present-day Xi'an.
"Mandate of Heaven"
The Zhou claimed that their rule had been justified by the mandate of heaven, the idea that the king was chosen by the gods (as the "Son of Heaven") but could be deposed if he ruled unfairly or tyrannically. In other words, the Zhou believed that the last Shang king lost his mandate and 'transferred' it to the new ruler, who in turn became 'blessed' by the gods. The mandate of heaven was also used to justify the demise of the Xia dynasty as well, and would be repeated by future dynasties.