Ancient Chinese historians knew nothing of their Neolithic forebears, whose existence was discovered by 20th-century archaeologists. Traditionally, the Chinese traced their history through many dynasties to a series of legendary rulers, like the Yellow Lord (Huang Di), who invented the key features of civilization—agriculture, the family, silk, boats, carts, bows and arrows, and the calendar. The last of these kings was Yu, and when he died the people chose his son to lead them, thus establishing the principle of hereditary, dynastic rule. Yu’s descendants created the Xia dynasty (2205-1570 bc), which was said to have lasted for 14 generations before declining and being superseded by the Shang dynasty.
The Xia dynasty may correspond to the first phases of the transition to the Bronze Age. Between 2000 and 1600 bc a more complex Bronze Age civilization emerged out of the diverse Neolithic cultures in northern China. This civilization was marked by writing, metalwork, domestication of horses, a class system, and a stable political and religious hierarchy. Although Bronze Age civilizations developed earlier in Southwest Asia, China seems to have developed both its writing system and its bronze technology with relatively little stimulus from outside. However, other elements of early Chinese civilization, such as the spoke-wheeled horse chariot, apparently reached China indirectly from places to the west.
No written documents survive to link the earliest Bronze Age sites unambiguously to Xia. With the Shang dynasty, however, the historical and archaeological records begin to coincide. Chinese accounts of the Shang rulers match inscriptions on animal bones and tortoise shells found in the 20th century at the city of Anyang in the valley of the Huang He (Yellow River).
The Shang Dynasty (1570-1045 bc)
Archaeological remains provide many details about Shang civilization. A king was the religious and political head of the society. He ruled through dynastic alliances; divination (his subjects believed that he alone could predict the future by interpreting cracks in animal bones); and royal journeys, hunts, and military campaigns that took him to outlying areas. The Shang were often at war with neighboring peoples and moved their capital several times. Shang kings could mobilize large armies for warfare and huge numbers of workers to construct defensive walls and elaborate tombs.
The Shang directly controlled only the central part of China proper, extending over much of modern Henan, Hubei, Shandong, Anhui, Shanxi, and Hebei provinces. However, Shang influence extended beyond the state’s borders, and Shang art motifs are often found in artifacts from more-distant regions.
The Shang king’s rule was based equally on religious and military power. He played a priestly role in the worship of his ancestors and the high god Di. The king made animal sacrifices and communicated with his ancestors by interpreting the cracks on heated cattle bones or tortoise shells that had been prepared by professional diviners. Royal ancestors were viewed as able to intervene with Di, send curses, produce dreams, and assist the king in battle. Kings were buried with ritual vessels, weapons, jades, and numerous servants and sacrificial victims, suggesting that the Shang believed in some form of afterlife.
The Shang used bronze more for purposes of ritual than war. Although some weapons were made of bronze, the great bulk of the surviving Shang bronze objects are cups, goblets, steamers, and cauldrons, presumably made for use in sacrificial rituals. They were beautifully formed in a great variety of shapes and sizes and decorated with images of wild animals. As many as 200 of these bronze vessels might be buried in a single royal grave. The bronze industry required centralized coordination of a large labor force to mine, refine, and transport copper, tin, and lead ores, as well as to produce and transport charcoal. It also required technically skilled artisans to make clay models, construct ceramic molds, and assemble and finish vessels, the largest which weighed as much as 800 kg (1,800 lb).
The writing system used by the Shang is the direct ancestor of the modern Chinese writing system, with symbols or characters for each word. This writing system would evolve over time, but it never became a purely phonetic system like the Roman alphabet, which uses symbols (letters) to represent specific sounds. Thus mastering the written language required learning to recognize and write several thousand characters, making literacy a highly specialized skill requiring many years to master fully.
The Zhou Dynasty (1045?-256 bc)
In the 11th century bc a frontier state called Zhou rose against and defeated the Shang dynasty. The Zhou dynasty is traditionally divided into two periods: the Western Zhou (1045?-771 bc), when the capital was near modern Xi’an in the west, and the Eastern Zhou (770-256 bc), when the capital was moved further east to modern Luoyang.
Like the Shang kings, the Zhou kings sacrificed to their ancestors, but they also sacrificed to Heaven (Tian). The Shu jing (Book of History), one of the earliest transmitted texts, describes the Zhou’s version of their history. It assumes a close relationship between Heaven and the king, called the Son of Heaven, explaining that Heaven gives the king a mandate to rule only as long as he does so in the interest of the people. Because the last Shang king had been decadent and cruel, Heaven withdrew the Mandate of Heaven (Tian Ming) from him and entrusted it to the virtuous Zhou kings. The Shu jing praises the first three Zhou rulers: King Wen (the Cultured King) expanded the Zhou domain; his son, King Wu (the Martial King), conquered the Shang; and King Wu's brother, Zhou Gong (often referred to as Duke of Zhou), consolidated the conquest and served as loyal regent for Wu’s heir.
The Shi jing (Book of Poetry) offers another glimpse of life in early Zhou China. Its 305 poems include odes celebrating the exploits of the early Zhou rulers, hymns for sacrificial ceremonies, and folk songs. The folk songs are about ordinary people in everyday situations, such as working in fields, spinning and weaving, marching on campaigns, and longing for lovers.
In these books, which became classics of the Confucian tradition, the Western Zhou dynasty is described as an age when people honored family relationships and stressed social status distinctions (see Confucianism). The early Zhou rulers did not attempt to exercise direct control over the entire region they conquered. Instead, they secured their position by selecting loyal supporters and relatives to rule walled towns and the surrounding territories. Each of these local rulers, or vassals, was generally able to pass his position on to a son, so that in time the domain became a hereditary vassal state. Within each state, there were noble houses holding hereditary titles. The rulers of the states and the members of the nobility were linked both to one another and to their ancestors by bonds of obligation based on kinship. Below the nobility were the officers (shi) and the peasants, both of which were also hereditary statuses. The relationship between each level and its superiors was conceived as a moral one. Peasants served their superiors, and their superiors looked after the peasants’ welfare. Social interaction at the upper levels was governed by li, a set of complex rules of social etiquette and personal conduct. Those who practiced li were considered civilized; those who did not, such as those outside the Zhou realm, were considered barbarians.
The Zhou kings maintained control over their vassals for more than two centuries, but as the generations passed, the ties of kinship and vassalage weakened. In 770 bc several of the states rebelled and joined with non-Chinese forces to drive the Zhou from their capital. The Zhou established a new capital to the east at Chengzhou (near present-day Luoyang), where they were safer from barbarian attack, but the Eastern Zhou kings no longer exercised much political or military authority over the vassal states. In the Eastern Zhou period, real power lay with the larger states, although the Zhou kings continued as nominal overlords, partly because they were recognized as custodians of the Mandate of Heaven, but also because no single feudal state was strong enough to dominate the others.
The Eastern Zhou period witnessed various social and economic advances. The use of iron-tipped, ox-drawn plows and improved irrigation techniques produced higher agricultural yields. This in turn supported a steady population increase. Other economic advances included the circulation of coins for money, the beginning of private ownership of land, and the growth of cities. Military technology also advanced. The Zhou developed the crossbow and methods of siege warfare, and adopted cavalry warfare from nomads (wandering pastoral people) to the north. Social changes were just as important, particularly the breakdown of old class barriers and the development of conscripted infantry armies.
As the king’s political authority declined, the states on the periphery of the old heartland gained the most power because they had room to expand their territory. During the 7th and 6th centuries bc, brief periods of stability were achieved through alliances among states, under the domination of the strongest member. By the late 5th century bc, however, the system of alliances had proved untenable. The years from 403 to 221 bc became known as the Warring States Period because the conflicts were particularly frequent and deadly.
In addition to warring with and sometimes absorbing other Zhou states, the peripheral states of Chao, Yen, Qin, and Chu expanded outward, extending Chinese culture into a larger area. The southern state of Chu, for example, expanded rapidly in the Yangtze Valley. Chu also defeated and absorbed at least 50 small states as it extended its reach north to the heartland of the Zhou territory and east to absorb the old states of Wu and Yue. By the 3rd century bc, Chu was on the forefront of cultural innovation. It produced the greatest literary masterpieces of the late Zhou period, which were later collected in the Chu ci (Songs of the South). The Chu ci is an anthology of fantastical poems full of images of elusive deities and shamans who can fly through the spirit world.