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Millennium BCE (covers the years ~3000 - 250 BCE)
Topic: River Dynasties in China
FS: From Legendary Chinese Dynasties to the Foundation of Civilized Life.
Main Idea: China's modern dynastic history, as we have come to understand it, begins with the Qin.
However, there is a uniform cultural thread that had its origins before the Qin and continues to this very
day. The origins of Chinese civilization and culture bring us to the Huang He river valley and the
‘legendary’ dynasties. These three dynasties contribute and reﬁne the elements of Chinese civilization to
produce what could arguably be labeled as the longest- lasting, continuous, civilized society.
I. ‘Chinese’ Civilization Overcomes & Exploits Environmental Conditions
The peoples of the Huang He river settlements are believed to be the ancestors of the Han. The Han
have traditionally been the largest ethnic (cultural) group in the area of historical China (differs from the
current political borders of China). But, they were never the only group present. A form of kingship
develops here with striking similarities (and differences) to that which developed in Egypt.
1. Topography: Signiﬁcant topographic barriers and distance lie between the early peoples of
the Huang He river valley and other ancient civilizations (Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Indus
Valley). The Huang He peoples were in a position to cultivate a civilization with distinct
characteristics fostered by the topographic barriers that surrounded them: Tibetan Plateau
and Taklamakan desert are to the West; Gobi desert and Mongolian Plateau are to the North;
Himalayan mountain range and the South China sea lie to the South; and The Yellow and
East China seas are to the East. This condition meant that trade was largely restricted to the
region. Also, while daunting, these topographic barriers were not impenetrable. Outsiders did
enter the region and people could similarly leave it.
2. River Systems: Three river system that roughly parallel each other (West-East). The Huang
He, while literally meaning “Yellow River”, had also acquired the label as “China’s Sorrow”.
The second is the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) and the third is the Xi Jiang.
A signiﬁcant portion of China’s arable land falls within the area between the Huang He and Chang
Jiang. This area, the North China Plain, is the heartland of Chinese civilization. It remained the
center of Chinese civilization for most of it’s dynastic history.
II. The Legendary Dynasties
A. The earliest civilized society coming from the settlements of the Huang He peoples was the Xia
Dynasty (~2000 BCE).
1. Located on banks of Huang He
2. Built Irrigation Systems
3. Limited Physical Artifacts Remain
B. Shang Dynasty (~1700 – 1027 BCE)
1. Walled Cities
2. Indications that government had access to huge labor force.
3. Frequent warfare increases need for professional soldiers (ie. Chariot training).
4. Foundation of Chinese Cultural Values Emerge
a. Self-identiﬁcation as “Middle Kingdom”
b. ‘Family’ is society’s building block.
c. Male-dominant social values.
“Yellow” meaning the color of the silt carried by the river. “Sorrow” because of the devastating ﬂoods.
‘Legendary’ because of their ancient historical setting and separation from modern Chinese dynastic history which was 3
AN01c4 Unit01: Beginnings of Civilization Ch.02
d. Social classes divided into an aristocracy (Warrior-Nobles) and peasantry
(Farmers). Relationship between the aristocracy and the Shang king was
Feudal in nature.
e. Filial Piety and Oracle Bones.
5. Development of a written language. Did not reﬂect the variety of spoken languages-
many who could not communicate orally could still communicate in writing.
C. Zhou Dynasty (~1027 – 256 BCE)
1. Adopted many cultural traits of the Shang
2. Justiﬁcation for their conquest of the Shang contributed to the view of The Mandate of
3. Loss of the Mandate of Heaven triggers the Dynastic Cycle.
4. A larger territory leads the Zhou to depend on an increasingly rigid feudal system.
5. Technology & Trade Expand
a. Road and Canal Construction.
b. ‘Coin’ as a medium of exchange.
c. Iron-producing furnaces.
III. A New (Violent) Era Emerges
Under the Zhou’s feudal system, local land-owning nobles (lords) became increasingly independent of the
ruler. In addition, the lords became increasingly antagonistic towards each other. As the productivity of
land contributed to the wealth of the lord, neighboring lords would covet the land of another.
Weakening the Zhou further was the raids conducted by northern and western peoples. Relocating the
capital city (from Anyang to Luoyang) did nothing to prolong the dynasty. Chinese territory shattered into
competing kingdoms led by warlords/ local kings. The Warring States Period had begun.
Materials/Sources: Refer to the course calendar for additional assignments and pertinent due dates.
# World History: Patterns of Interaction
# Watch a “Prezi” presentation for this lesson at http://prezi.com/xwskgwkfy-50/l11_river-dynasties-in-china/
Dependent on land ownership. Tribute went from noble to king in return for the privilege of local control.
Reverence for ancestors by offering prayer and respect to ancestral spirits.
A method of communication with the divine. Requires heating of animal bone or tortoise shell then interpreting the resulting cracks.