Human Legacy Course/China's First Dynasties

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Human Legacy Course I
China's First Dynasties

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Hello and welcome to the fourth and final lecture of Week 4. In this lecture, we'll be taking a look at China's first dynasties. Our question for today is a unique one:

Who was China's first emperor? The answer to that question is shrouded in mystery. Whoever he may have been, China’s first emperor lived so long ago that historians have not been able to learn anything about him. Ancient legends passed down through the centuries in China, however, tell of a great ruler named Fu Xi who brought civilization to the earliest people of the region.

According to these legends, Fu Xi lived in the 2800s BC. Part god and part man, he found the people of China living as barbarians and worked to bring civilization to the land. He taught people how to cook and to catch fish with nets as well as how to domesticate animals. Fu Xi is also credited with creating the I Ching, a system of predicting the future, and laying the foundation for China’s writing system. For these deeds, ancient legends describe Fu Xi as a great hero and one of China’s greatest emperors.

China's Geography

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The development of civilization in early China was aided greatly by certain geographic features. Long rivers, fertile soils, temperate climates, and isolated valleys all contributed to the growth and development of early China.

Rivers, Soil, and Climates

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Like the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, Egypt, and India, China’s first civilizations developed in river valleys. Two major rivers supplied water for China’s earliest civilizations: the Chang Jiang, also called the Yangzi, and the Huang He, or Yellow River. Both rivers flow east from the Plateau of Tibet to the Yellow Sea.

Annual floods along the Chang Jiang and the Huang He deposited rich soil on the rivers’ flood plains. The valley of the Huang He was particularly fertile, due in large part to the type of soil that the river picked up. Called loess, it was a fine dusty soil that had been carried into China by desert winds.

Although most of eastern China was covered with fertile soils, some regions were better suited for growing certain crops than others. Southern China along the Chang Jiang is warm and receives plenty of rainfall, which made it an excellent region for growing rice. Further north along the Huang He, the climate was cooler and drier. That region was suitable for grains such as wheat and millet.


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The combination of rivers for irrigation and fertile soils for planting allowed the Chinese to thrive. In addition, China’s relative isolation helped early civilization there develop and grow. Much of China is covered with mountains, hills, and desert. These features protected China from invasion. For example, the Himalayas—the world’s tallest mountains—separate southern China from India and the rest of southern Asia. The Gobi, a vast desert, discouraged anyone from reaching China from the west.

Beginnings of Civilization

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Based on archaeological discoveries, historians believe that Chinese civilization began in the Huang He valley, where people started growing crops about 9,000 years ago. According to legend, the earliest Chinese were ruled by a dynasty known as the Xia. However, historians have not been able to find any evidence—either written or archaeological—that the Xia dynasty actually existed. As a result, most historians date the beginning of early Chinese civilization to the rise of the Shang dynasty.

The Shang Dynasty

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According to ancient Chinese records, the Shang dynasty formed around 1766 BC, although many archaeologists believe it actually began somewhat later than that. Centered on the Huang He valley, Shang China created many institutions that carried over into later Chinese cultures.

Government & Society

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During the Shang period, China was ruled by a strong hereditary monarchy. At their capital city of Anyang, Shang kings were surrounded by a court, or gathering of wealthy nobles, who performed rituals intended to strengthen the kingdom and keep it safe.

To help keep order in China, the king appointed governors to rule distant parts of the kingdom. In addition, the king had at his disposal a large army. Besides fighting opponents from outside China, the army was responsible for preventing rebellions.

Shang China was largely an agricultural society. Most people spent their time in the fields tending to crops. From time to time, farmers were called upon to fight in the army or to work alongside slaves on building projects such as tombs, palaces, or walls.

In contrast to the majority of people in China, the Shang ruling elite had free time to spend in pursuit of leisure activities such as hunting for sport. Wealthy members of the elite also enjoyed collecting expensive objects made of bronze or jade.


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Much of what historians know about the Shang comes from studying royal tombs. From this study, they have drawn conclusions about Shang religious beliefs. For example, most Shang tombs contained valuable items made of bronze and jade. In addition, each tomb held the remains of hundreds of sacrificed prisoners of war who were buried with the ruler. From this, historians have concluded that the Shang believed in an afterlife in which a ruler would still need his riches and servants.

Shang religion centered on the idea of ancestor worship (Animism). The Shang offered gifts to their deceased ancestors in order to keep them happy and fulfilled in the afterlife. For example, they prepared ritual meals with their ancestors in mind. The family actually ate the food, but the steam from the food was believed to nourish the ancestors’ spirits.

As part of their worship, the Shang often asked their ancestors for advice. They sought this advice through the use of oracle bones, inscribed bits of animal bone or turtle shell which were used to make predictions. First, the living person would ask a question of an ancestor. Then, a hot piece of metal was applied to the oracle bone, resulting in cracks on the bone’s surface. Specially trained priests then interpreted the meaning of the cracks to learn the answer.

Shang Achievements

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The development of Chinese writing was closely tied to the use of oracle bones. The earliest examples we have of Chinese writing are the questions asked of oracle bones, actually written on the bones themselves. The Shang also made an imporvement in writing, from pictographs, to ideographs, and lastly, calligraphy.

In addition to writing, Shang religion also led to great advances in working with bronze. Artists created highly decorative bronze vessels and objects, many of which were used in religious rituals. These bronzes are among the best known artifacts of the Shang dynasty.

The Shang made many other advances as well. They were able to build huge, stable structures such as tombs. In addition, Shang astronomers created a precise calendar based on the cycles of the moon. There is also evidence that the Shang may have created one of the world’s first systems of money.

Decline of the Shang

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The Shang ruled China for more than 600 years, until about 1100 BC. In the end, however, ruling China’s growing population proved to be too much for the Shang. Armies from a nearby tribe called the Zhou invaded and established a new ruling dynasty.

The Zhou Dynasty

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After taking over from the Shang around 1100 BC, the Zhou held China for several centuries. Historians often divide the Zhou dynasty into two periods. During the first period, called the Western Zhou, kings ruled from Xian. This was generally a peaceful period, during which the Zhou made many cultural achievements. Later, however, conflict arose in China. In response, the kings moved east to Luoyang, marking the start of the Eastern Zhou period.


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When the Zhou conquered the Shang, their leaders worried that the Chinese people would not accept them. To gain acceptance for their rule, the Zhou introduced the idea that they ruled by the Mandate of Heaven. This principle stated that the gods would support a just ruler, but they would not allow anyone corrupt to hold power. The reason the Shang were overthrown, the Zhou explained, was because they had lost the gods’ favor:

“We do not presume to know and say that the lords of [Shang] received Heaven’s mandate for so-and-so many years; we do not know and say that it could not have been prolonged. It was that they did not reverently attend to their virtue and so they prematurely threw away their mandate.”

— Duke of Zhou, quoted in Sources of Chinese Tradition

Later Chinese rulers used the Mandate of Heaven to explain the dynastic cycle, the rise and fall of dynasties in China. Any dynasty that lost power, they claimed, had obviously become corrupt, and it was the will of the gods that it be overthrown. Historians still use the cycle of dynasties to organize their studies of early Chinese history.

Another note on the Zhou Dynasty is the division of land into territories. These territories, then, were given to a loyal follower (clan leader), who had to provide protections and pay tribute. This, later, was the reason the Zhou Dynasty fell.

Zhou Achievements

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Before the Zhou dynasty, metalwork in China was done almost exclusively in bronze. The Zhou learned how to use iron, which became the backbone of their economy. Iron was strong and could be cast more cheaply and quickly than bronze. Iron weapons also helped strengthen the Zhou army, as did new weapons such as the catapult and the creation of China’s first cavalry.

Under the Zhou, China’s population grew. Farmers learned new techniques that increased the size of their harvests, thereby creating food surpluses. As the population grew, so too did cities. The growth of cities led to the building of roads and canals, allowing better transportation and communication throughout China. In addition, the Zhou introduced coins to China and began the use of chopsticks, which are still used as eating implements in China today.

Decline of the Zhou

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As we have already discussed, conflict arose during the latter part of the Zhou dynasty. Clan leaders within China rose up against the king. As time passed, more and more local leaders turned against the Zhou, further weakening their rule.

The result of these rebellions was a time known as the Warring States Period. From 403 BC until 221 BC, a number of small states headed by nobles fought each other for land and power. Although the Zhou were still nominally in charge of China, their power was almost nonexistent by the mid-200s BC. Eventually, a new dynasty, the Qin, arose to bring an end to the Warring States Period and the Zhou dynasty.

New Philosophies

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The conflicts of the late Zhou period led many Chinese thinkers to question the nature of society and of people’s roles in it. The effort to make sense of the chaos led to the creation of many new Chinese philosophies, or ways of looking at the world. Of the many philosophies that were created during the late Zhou period, two became particularly influential in later Chinese history. These new philosophies were Confucianism and Daoism.


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Confucianism is based on the teachings of a scholar named Kongfuzi, better known in the West as Confucius. Born around 550 BC, Confucius believed that people should treat one another humanely. They should express love and respect for others by practicing traditional manners and rituals, which included the honoring of one’s ancestors.

Confucius believed that this love and respect had disappeared during his lifetime and that its disappearance was responsible for the violence in society. He believed that by restoring a respect for tradition, society would once again become stable and orderly. His thoughts on how to improve society were later collected in a book called the Analects.

In the Analects, Confucius states that a ruler should treat his subjects fairly. In turn, subjects should reward their ruler with respect and loyalty. In addition, people need to respect the members of their family. Children must respect their parents and elder relatives, and parents have to care for their children with love and kindness. In addition, he writes, it is the duty of all educated people to devote themselves to public service. Even though it may seem so, he is NOT religious. He doesn't talk about gods, the meaning of death, life, or issues of faith.

Confucius’s ideas were influential in Chinese history for centuries. For example, he wrote that a ruler should be advised by qualified, well-informed people, which led China’s emperors to select their advisors based on merit rather than birth. In time, Confucian ideals spread to other parts of Asia as well, including Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.


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Unlike Confucianism, which focuses on improving society, Daoism encourages people to retreat from the laws of society and yield to the laws of nature. At the heart of Daoism is the concept of the dao, or the way. According to Daoist teachings, the dao is the limitless force that is part of all creation. Through the dao, all things in nature are connected. By finding one’s place in nature, it is possible for a person to achieve harmony with the universe.

Daoism embraced an ancient Chinese concept, the notion of yin and yang. Yin and yang represent the balancing aspect of nature: male and female, dark and light, hot and cold. Neither yin nor yang can exist without the other, so it is important that the two remain balanced. When balanced, yin and yang represent the perfect harmony of nature.

Daoism also teaches that politics is not a good thing, and that people should not seek power. Instead, Daoism states that people should work towards harmony with Dao by being quiet, humble, and thoughtful.

The exact origins of Daoism are unclear, but many Daoist teachings are attributed to a philosopher named Laozi. He was among the first people in China to write about Daoist beliefs, which he did in a book called the Dao De Ching. This influential book includes a number of short sayings that summarize Daoist thought. The teachings of the Dao De Jing became so popular in China that some people began to worship Laozi as a god.

Though it eventually proved less influential that Confucianism in Chinese history, Daoism did play a major role in later dynasties. The idea of balance, for example, has been a key concept in China for centuries, largely as a result of Daoist teaching. Daoist philosophy has also led many of its followers to work for the preservation and protection of the natural environment.


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  • Question #1: On what rivers did Chinese civilization develop? Why?
  • Question #2: How might Chinese civilization have developed differently if China had not been so isolated?
  • Question #3: What advances did the Shang dynasty make in China?
  • Question #4: What was the purpose of oracle bones?
  • Question #5: How have Shang burial sites improved historians’ understanding of early Chinese culture?
  • Question #6: What is the dynastic cycle?
  • Question #7: According to the Mandate of Heaven, what made it possible for a government to be overthrown?
  • Question #8: Do you think the Zhou rulers were good for China? Why or why not?
  • Question #9: What role does balance play in Daoist teachings?
  • Question #10: What did Confucius think was the key to a happy society?

Thank you very much for listening to this and I really hope to see you in Week 5. Thank you and goodbye.

Helpful Resources

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