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China's Prehistoric Through Zhou Dynasty

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  • 1. China: Prehistoric through the Zhou DynastyGeographyThe geography of China, like all the early societies we have examined so far, played a big role in shaping earlyChina (and still shapes it today). Mountains and deserts in the interior helped to keep it isolated while majorrivers led to the spreading of ideas and unification.China has two major geographical areas: the steppe (grasslands), desert, and high plateau are in the west andnorthwest while the eastern region, which borders on the Pacific Ocean, has some smaller mountains but ismuch more suitable for farming. This eastern region can be broken down into northern and southern areas witha major river defining both zones. (We will see later in the semester that a north-south canal system helped tofurther connect the eastern region.)The northern area with a dry (some places with only 20 inches of rain a year), cold climate contains the YellowRiver Valley The Yellow River takes its name from the crumbly yellow soil (called “loess”, less or luess) thatis blown into the water from the northern Mongolian Gobi Desert. The river itself can be unpredictable andrequires much careful management. In some ways through human management (building dikes) led to moreflooding. The southern area has much rainfall and for the most part temperatures remain warm year round withthe southernmost portion being subtropical (think present-day Hong Kong). This area includes the YangziRiver Valley. Both areas provided food resources that for thousands of years have made East Asia one of themost densely populated areas in the world.Language and MigrationUsing linguistics, scholars can trace the migrations of peoples from northern China and see the influence theChinese family of eight languages (the predominant one today is Mandarin) and culture had on Asia. As thesepeople spread into southern China, Chinese (and other Sino-Tibetan languages) replaced the Miao-Yao, Tai-Kadal and Austroasiatic families of languages. In Southeast Asia, Chinese has had some influence, but Tai-Kadal (Laos and Thailand) and Austroasiatic (Vietnamese and Cambodian) are the main families spokentoday. We will see in the coming weeks how Austroasiatic groups spread to Indonesia, New Guinea, Australiaand the various Pacific Islands. (It is believed that many of the Austroasiatic groups started from Taiwan, anisland, which is mostly Chinese speakers today. China was unified much earlier than most other present-daynations as the idea of being Chinese dates back about 4,000 years. Helping to unify China was language.While Chinese is not the oldest written language in the world, it is the oldest still being used today. Thiscommon written language unified people who spoke different dialects of Chinese whether it was thousands ofyears ago or today. (Contrast this with India which not only has many spoken languages, but each has its ownwritten one, too. The Indian constitution today recognizes 22 languages.)PrehistoricThe first Chinese societies in the Neolithic period developed near the Yellow River. In 1953 Banpo Villagewas uncovered and this society has been classified as Yangshao culture. (Banpo, the most intact neolithicvillage in China, is near present-day Xian, a site that served as a capital of China for several dynasties. BanpoMuseum houses the layout of a Neolithic village of the Yangshao culture.) The Yangshao communitiesdomesticated pigs and chickens and grew millet. A little bit later, Yangshao cultures developed in the southwith rice as the staple crop. Agriculture in both the north and south required the coordinated effort of largenumbers of people. Yangshao pottery focused on geometric designs that sometimes formed into animals suchas birds, frogs and fish. Although Chinese legend puts silk production around 2700 B.C.E., however, silksericulture and textiles (which involved silkworm rearing and the loom for weaving) probably developed earlierand maybe as early as 4900 B.C.E. (We will see later in the semester how Chinese silk became a valuablecommodity for people in the Middle East, Europe and Asia and how Chinese rulers wanted to keep the processof making silk a secret.)
  • 2. Early DynastiesFor thousands of years, legend had the Xia (2200-1766 B.C.E.) as the first Chinese dynasty. In recent timesarchaeological digs at Erlitou in northern China (present-day Henan province) has convinced Chinesearchaeologists that this site was part of the Xia Dynasty, making it more fact than fiction. Some archaeologistsfrom the West are not convinced that this site is connected to the Xia. (On page 111-112, the Bentley andZiegler text leans toward the Chinese archaeologist findings.)There is much more evidence to support the actual existence of the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 B.C.E.), with itsorigins in the Yellow River Valley. The Shang eventually included territory from present-day Outer Mongolia toGansu Province and south to the Yangzi Valley. The Shang kings ruled directly over the central area of theirkingdom, but only had indirect rule over peripheral areas of the kingdom. Some of these kings waged waragainst nomadic tribes and engaged in commerce throughout East Asia with some possible indirect trade withMesopotamia. Under the kings guidance cities were built and he also oversaw the distribution of food andmanagement of water resources. Seeing themselves as a go-between between for the gods and their subjects,kings worshiped the spirits of male ancestors. They also practiced divination (see Oracle bones below) andsacrifices. Like their contemporary civilizations in the Middle East and India, the Shang used bronze forweapons and ceremonial vessels and employed the horse-drawn chariot. The Shang (and the Xia) alsoexpanded on the engineering feats of the Yangshao culture, such as building large walls from rammed earth.Logs were used as a frame and then dirt with some water was pounded into place. After the dirt dried theframe was removed, producing a wall almost as hard as concrete. At present-day Zhengzhou, a rammed earthwall from the Shang period has been excavated. It is 1,800 meters long on each side and about 9 meters tall.In some places it is 20 meters thick.Chinese writing and Oracle BonesAs mentioned above, the Chinese dialects spread from northern China into southern China and some ofSoutheast Asia. But crucial to solidifying Chinese culture and bringing about (formal and sometimes partial)unification for much of the past 4,000 years was the development of the Chinese writing system (Chinesecharacters). The roots of the written characters occurred during the Shang period as symbols on oracle bones.The writing that has survived from the Shang was on cattle or sheep scapula and turtle plastrons, whichprovided flat surfaces for writing. (Writing was probably done on other surfaces such as silk or bamboo, butwithered away with time.) These "bones" were used to tell the fortunes and forecast future events for the royalfamily. The diviner (fortune teller) would pose a question or make a prediction and then heat the shell or bone.Sometimes holes were drilled before applying the heat. Cracks would result on the bone/shell and from this thediviner would determine answers to the questions posed. Some of the bones found have the answers towhether the prediction or question came true. (Go here to see an example of an oracle translated.) These bonesgive valuable insights into royal life and religious practice during the Shang Dynasty. Of concern for the Shangrulers were issues with enemies, descriptions of royal ailments and problems with crops and weather. Some ofthe bones/shells contain the name of the diviner. The longest oracle bone statement was less than 200characters. Over the several centuries that the oracle bones were created, it appears that later inscriptions areshorter and simpler so the writing gets more compact. In the years to come, archaeologists and linguists mightbe able to tell more from the oracle bones because only about 40 percent of the 5,000 characters used on thevarious bones found have been deciphered. (For the evolution of the Chinese characters, see page 126 inBentley and Ziegler.)Zhou DynastyWhile there was no dramatic population decline or major problems in cities in China, the late rulers of theShang Dynasty suffered losses of tribute states and had trouble containing rivals. The biggest rival (andsometime ally) were the Zhou to the northwest. Originally, the Zhou had been herdsmen, but they becameinfluenced by Shang ideas and technology and started to imitate the Shang. In 1122 B.C.E, the Zhou killed theShang king and thus started their own dynasty, which ruled over a larger geographical area than the Shang. Tohelp justify their actions, the Zhou created the concept of the “Mandate of Heaven”. (In the Sanders reader,pages 78-81, their is a version of the "Mandate". Notice, how it does not refer to the Zhou takeover, but to theShang deposing the the earlier Xia.) While the Zhou were heavily influenced by the Shang, they did give up thepractice of oracle bone divination. As a result the priestly power of the elite faded, leading to a separation of
  • 3. religion and government. The Zhou period saw the development of a number of important philosophies --Confucianism, Daoism and Legalism, all of which we will examine in a few weeks and are discussed inChapter 8 of Bentley and Ziegler.The Zhou Dynasty is broken down into two major time periods -- the Western Zhou (1122-771 B.C.E.) with acapital near modern-day Xian and the Eastern Zhou (771-221 B.C.E), where the capital shifted to the eastnear present-day Luoyang. The Eastern Zhou can be further sub-divided: the Spring and Autumn Period(771–481 B.C.E.) and the Warring States Period (480–221 B.C.E.) Technological achievements of theEastern Zhou all had a military component including the building of long stone walls for defense, iron andsteel metallurgy, the crossbow and horseback riding. Warfare shaped the Eastern Zhou as during the firstperiod rulers tried to gain tribute from the outlying areas with honor seeming to be as important as winning.Then during the Warring States Period, the fighting became more intense with larger armies and much morepolitically motivated. States would draft armies as sometimes all males over 15 were conscripted to fight.These large armies became effective at defeating smaller chariot-based armies. The crossbow, invented in thesouthern state of Chu, allowed the foot soldier to fire from much farther away than a horseman with the bowand arrow. Soldiers started wearing more armor (mostly leather strips and iron helmets) to defend against thepowerful crossbow. It was during the Warring States period that Sun Tzus The Art of Warfare was composed(Sanders reader pages 128-135).Lasting nearly a thousand years and at times containing much turmoil and violence, the Zhou Dynasty was thefoundation for many of China’s cultural and literary traditions. Writers and philosophers tried to find order in achaotic and violent world. Collections such as the Book of Changes, the Book of History, and the Book of Riteshave influenced China for thousands of years. Perhaps the most vital of these Zhou classics is the Book ofSongs (Bentley and Ziegler page 122). It discusses famous kings and heroes, but also key social norms andpolitical issues that were important to peasants. Also during the Zhou period, the family unit evolved inChinese society with a strong sense of solidarity and strong patriarchal head. Thus helping to shape thefamily was the veneration of ancestors with the patriarch of the family taking the lead in carrying out the rites inhonoring family ancestors. (We will see later in the semester how Confucianism focuses on the family.)Material is from Professor OBriens lecture notes, Jared Diamonds Guns, Germs and Steel and Patricia BuckleyEbreys East Asia: A Cultural, Social and Political History.