Ancient Chinese Civilization

  January 28, 2024   Read time 10 min
Ancient Chinese Civilization
The most striking fact of China’s history is that it has gone on for so long. For about 3 , 500years there has been a Chinese people using a Chinese language. A unified central government, at least in name, has often been taken to be normal, in spite of periods of grievous division.
As a civilization, China has had a continuing experience rivalled in duration only by that of ancient Egypt and this longevity is the key to Chinese historical identity. China has fi rst and foremost been a cultural unit, with a signifi cant attraction for its neighbours. The example of India shows how much more important culture can be than government, and China makes the same point in a different way; there, internally, culture made unifi ed government easier. Somehow, at a very early date, it crystallized certain institutions and attitudes which were to endure because they suited its circumstances. Some of these attitudes seem even to transcend the revolutions of the twentieth century.
We must begin with the land itself, and at fi rst sight it does not suggest much that makes for unity. The physical theatre of Chinese history is vast. China today is bigger than the United States and now contains over four times as many people. The Great Wall, which came to guard the northern frontier, was in the end made up of 2 , 500 – 3 , 000miles of fortifi cations, made over 1 , 700years. From Beijing (Peking) to Guangzhou (Canton), more or less due south, is 1 , 200miles as the crow fl ies. This huge expanse contains many climates and many regions. Above all, northern and southern China are very different. In summer the north is scorching and arid while the south is humid and used to fl oods; the north looks bare and dustblown in the winter, while the south is always green. One of the major themes of early Chinese history is of the spread of civilization, by diffusion, migration or conquest, from north to south, and of the continual stimulation and irrigation of northern civilization by currents from the outside, from Mongolia and Central Asia.
China’s major internal divisions are set by mountains and rivers. Three great river systems drain the interior and run across the country roughly from west to east. They are, from north to south, the Yellow River, the Yangzi and the Pearl River and its tributaries. It is surprising that a country so vast and thus divided should form a unity at all. Yet China is isolated, too, a world by itself since long before the Pleistocene. Much of China is mountainous and except in the extreme south and north-east her frontiers still sprawl across and along great ranges and plateaux. The headwaters of the Yangzi, like those of the Mekong, lie in the high Kunlun, north of Tibet. These highland frontiers are great insulators. The arc they form is broken only where the Yellow River fl ows south into China from inner Mongolia and it is on the banks of this river, towards the eastern part of its present territory, that the story of civilization in China begins.
Skirting the Ordos desert, itself separated by another mountain range from the desolate wastes of the Gobi, the Yellow River opens a sort of funnel into north China. Through it have fl owed people and soil; the loess beds of the river valley, easily worked and fertile, laid down by wind from the north, are the basis of the fi rst large-scale Chinese agriculture. Once this region was richly forested and well watered, but it became colder and more desiccated in one of those climatic transformations which are behind so much primeval social change. To Chinese prehistory overall, of course, there is a bigger setting than one river valley. ‘Peking man’, a version of Homo erectus, turns up as a fi re-user about 600 , 000years ago, and there are Neanderthal traces in all three of the great river basins. The trail from these forerunners to the dimly discernible cultures which are their successors in early Neolithic times leads us to a China already divided into two cultural zones, with a meeting place and mixing area on the Yellow River. It is impossible to separate the tangle of cultural interconnections already detectable by that time. But there was no even progress towards a uniform or united culture. Against this varied background emerged settled agriculture; nomads and settlers were to coexist in China until our own day. Rhinoceros and elephant were still hunted in the north not long before 1000 BC .
As in other parts of the world, the coming of agriculture meant a revolution. In small sections of the area between the Yellow and the Yangzi rivers this happened not long after 9000 BC . In a much larger area people exploited vegetation to provide themselves with fi bres and food. But this is still a topic about which much more needs to be known. Rice was being harvested in some areas along the Yangzi before the eighth millennium BC , and ground just above the fl ood-level of the Yellow River begins to yield evidence of agriculture (probably the growing of millet) around the same time. Somewhat like that of early Egypt, the fi rst Chinese agriculture seems to have been exhaustive or semi-exhaustive. The land was cleared, used for a few years, and then left to revert to nature while the cultivators turned attention elsewhere. From what has been called the ‘nuclear area of North China’ forms of agricultural techniques can be seen later to spread north, west and south. Within it there soon appeared complex cultures, which combined with agriculture the use of jade and wood for carving, the domestication of silk-worms, the making of ceremonial vessels in forms which were to become traditional, and perhaps even the use of chopsticks. In other words, this was in Neolithic times already the home of much that is characteristic of the later Chinese tradition in the historic area.
Chinese script – on which so much of China’s civilization would be based – was in place at least 3 , 200years ago. Like Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphic script, Chinese began as pictographs, but soon developed phonetic associations as well. Uniquely among great civilizations, however, written Chinese characters remained graphs that stood for words, rather than developing a phonetic alphabet. ⅉ, the character for ‘man’ (pronounced ‘ren’ in northern China today), has remained more or less the same since Chinese script began. While clearly a pictograph in form, it came to stand for the word ‘man’, and as such could be combined in other characters based on its meaning and sound. Already in the second millennium BC , written Chinese had become a fl exible and complex system which over a great span of historical time was taken over in most parts of eastern Asia. In the beginning it had been used for divination and clan symbolism, but soon it became an administrative and literary language. For the élite, the written form of Chinese came to defi ne the country’s culture, and for large numbers of people – well outside the borders of any Chinese state – mastering it came to defi ne the essence of civilization.
We can also fi nd in these times the appearance of a clan structure and totems, with rules and regulations on behaviour within the clan or the family. Kinship in this form is almost the fi rst institution which can be seen to have survived to be important in historical times. The evidence of the pottery, too, suggests some new complexity in social roles. Fragments of pottery dating from around 9000 BChave been found on several sites in north-central China. Already these ceramics were made by coiling clay, adding distinctive forms of decoration, and hardening the wares in fi re. There are also clear signs that there was a differentiation between coarser pots for everyday use and fi ner, thin-bodied ceramics used for ritual occasions. Already things were being made which cannot have been intended for the rough and tumble of food preparation and storage; a stratifi ed society seems to be emerging before we reach the historical era.
One material sign of a future China already obvious at this stage is the widespread use of millet, a grain well adapted to the sometimes arid farming of the north. It was to be the basic staple of northern Chinese diet until about a thousand years ago and sustained societies which in due course arrived at literacy, at a great art of bronze-casting based on a diffi - cult and advanced technology, at the means of making exquisite pottery far fi ner than anything made anywhere else in the world, and, above all, at an ordered political and social system that identifi es the fi rst major age of Chinese history. But it must be remembered once more that the agriculture which made this possible was for a long time confi ned to small parts of China, and that many parts of this huge country only took up farming when historical times had already begun.
Recent archaeological excavations have shown that starting from around 3000 BCthere were a number of population centres in China, even far outside the river valleys of the east-central region. From Sichuan in the west to Hunan in the south and Liaodong in the north there were independent communities that gradually began to communicate with each other. We can see how symbols, such as the dragon, and the use of specifi c materials, such as jade, spread throughout the region. Even though the key political units in early Chinese history emerged in the core areas along the great rivers in the north, there is little doubt that a number of cultural elements from elsewhere became part of the Chinese palimpsest, helping to create the different layers of meaning that became China. It is probably more useful to concentrate on documenting these exchanges rather than attempting to push the project of Chinese political unity back in time to a Xia dynasty which is supposed to have ruled in the late third millennium BC . The Xia may or may not have existed, but lively towns with thousands of inhabitants existed beyond any archaeological doubt even before a large political entity was created.
The narrative of early times is very hard to recover, but can be outlined with some confi dence. It has been agreed that the story of continuous civilization in China begins under rulers from a dynasty called Shang, the fi rst name with independent evidence to support it in the traditional list of dynasties which was for a long time the basis of Chinese chronology. (From the late eighth century BCwe have better dates, but we still have no chronology for early Chinese history as well founded as, say, that of Egypt.) It is more certain that somewhere about 1700 BC(and a century each way is an acceptable margin of approximation) the Shang, which enjoyed the military advantage of the chariot, imposed themselves on their neighbours over a sizeable stretch of the Yellow River valley. Eventually, the Shang domain was a matter of about 40 , 000square miles around northern Henan: this made it somewhat smaller than modern England, though its cultural infl uences reached far beyond its periphery, as evidence from as far away as south China and the north-eastern coast shows.

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