China in Antiquity summary and notes



China in Antiquity summary and notes


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China in Antiquity summary and notes



China in Antiquity 




I. The Dawn of Chinese Civilization

            A. The Land and People of China

                        1. Legend: Chinese society was founded by a series of rulers who brought “civilization”

                        2. 7000s B.C.E. agriculture began, particularly near the Yellow and Yangtze rivers

                                   a. The Yangshao and Longshan Neolithic cultures

                        3. Only 12 percent of China is arable

                        4. China isolated by Gobi Desert, Central Asia, and Tibetan plateau

                        5. Agrarian China v. Asian nomads                          

B. The Shang Dynasty (c. 1500s-1000s B.C.E., replaced the Xia dynasty)

                        1. Political Organization

                                   a. Capital was at Anyang

                                   b. Oracle bones earliest surviving writing, a way to communicate with the gods

                                   c. Chariot warfare

                                               1) Chariots perhaps through Indo-European contacts

                                   d. Ritual sacrifices were performed at death of Shang kings

                                               1) Lead to the custom of veneration of ancestors

                        2. Social Structures

                                   a. Farm villages were the basic social unit

                                               1) Clans rather than nuclear families

                                   b. Some class differentiation: aristocratic elite, peasants, a few merchants, slaves

                                   c. Bronze casting

II. The Zhou Dynasty (1000s-200s B.C.E.)

            A. Political Structures

                        1. Capital near present-day Xian and a second capital near modern Luoyang

                        2. More extensive and complex bureaucracy than Shang

                               3. The Mandate of Heaven

                                   a. Heaven: an impersonal law of nature rather than anthropomorphic deity

                                   b. King not divine but ruled as representative of Heaven

                                               1) Kings were chosen because of their talent and virtue

c. If the king did not rule effectively, he lost the Mandate of Heaven and could be replaced by a new king/dynasty

                        4. Zhou began to decline by 500s B.C.E.

            B. Economy and Society

1. The “well field system”: peasants had own lands but also cultivate the lord’s land

2. Merchants were not independent but under control of local lords

3. Late Zhou saw considerable economic and technological growth, including massive water control projects, iron plowshares, the collar harness, natural fertilizer

4. Development of extensive trade in silk, to as far away as Greece

5. Development of a money economy

            C. The Hundred Schools of Ancient Philosophy

                        1. Early Beliefs

                                   a. Under Shang, the belief in one transcendent god, known as Shang Di

                                   b. Evolved into Heaven, an impersonal symbol of universal order

                                   c. Two primary forces of yang (light/male) and yin (dark/female)

                        2. Confucianism

                                   a. Confucius/Kung Fuci/Master Kung (b. 551 B.C.E.)

                                   b. Analects, conversations between Confucius and his followers

                                   c. Ethical politics

                                   d. Act in accordance with the Dao (the way), similar to dharma in India

                                   e. Subordinate individualism to broader needs of family and community

f. Human-heartedness: “Do not do unto others what you would not wish done to yourself”

g. Merit should decide, not heredity

           1) Led to practice of selecting officials through a civil service exam

h. Mencius (370-290 B.C.E.): humans were by nature good

                        3. Legalism

                                    a. Humans by nature are evil, and must be coerced by laws and punishments

                        4. Daoism (Lao Tzu/the Old Master)

                                   a. Dao De Jing (The Way of the Tao)

                                   b. Like Confucianism, this life and not the cosmos is the focus

                                   c. Unlike Confucianism, inaction rather than action, act in harmony with nature

                                   d. Chinese landscape painting often a reflection of Daoism

                        5. Popular Beliefs

                                               a. Belief in numerous gods and spirits of nature, both good and evil

III. The Rise of the Chinese Empire: The Qin and the Han

A. Decline of the Zhou: Warring States Period         

            1. State of Qin won out, becoming the first unified government of China in 221 B.C.E.

B. The Qin Dynasty (221‑206 B.C.E.): Qin Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor

                        1. Political structures: Legalism was the official ideology

                                   b. Books burned

                                   c. Highly centralized state with harsh punishments

                        2. Society and the Economy

                                   a. Unified weights and measures, standardized the monetary and writings systems

                                   b. Reduced power of the aristocracy

                                               1) Aristocrats were required to live in capital of Xianyang

                                   c. Government was anti-merchants

                                   d. Territory expanded, all the way to Vietnam

                        3. Beyond the Frontier: The Nomadic Peoples and the Great Wall of China

                                   a. Threats from the northern nomadic Xiongnu, possibly related to the Huns

                                   b. Qin solution: build a wall—the Great Wall—at great cost

                        4. The Fall of the Qin

a. Rivalry between “inner” and “outer” courts (bureaucracy v. imperial family and eunuchs)

                                   b. Government too oppressive

                                   c. First Emperor condemned, but Legalism set pattern of succeeding dynasties

            C. The Glorious Han Dynasty (202 B.C.E.‑221 C.E.)

                        1. Founded by Liu Bang, took title of Han Gaozu

                                   a. Maintained the Qin’s centralized political institutions, but less harsh

                        2. Confucianism and the State

                                   a. Government was a despotism, capital at Chang’an

                                   b. State Confucianism

                                               1) Civil service examinations, 165 B.C.E.

                                                           a) Most were still from aristocratic families

                                   c. Factionalism at court still a problem

                                   d. Aristocratic families remained powerful in spite of imperial despotism

                        3. Society and Economy in the Han Empire

                                   a. Population increased from 20 million to 60 million

                                               1) Agricultural improvements barely kept up with population rise

                                   b. Expansion of trade, all the way to the Roman Empire

                                               1) State controlled much trade and manufacturing

                                   c. New technologies, including water mills, iron casting, paper, rudder

                               4. Expansion Abroad

                        5. The Decline and Fall of the Han

                                   a. Wang Mang declared the Xin (New) dynasty, 9-23 C.E., but was killed

                                   b. Recovery under the later Han, but the dynasty disappeared by 220s C.E.

IV. Daily Life in Ancient China

            A. The Role of the Family

                        1. Central to Chinese society, not least because of rice cultivation

                        2. Filial piety and the five relationships

3. Government attempted to impose control through the Bao-jia system of mutual control and surveillance by five or ten families

B. Lifestyles

            1. Houses of tile and brick for the elite, but mud, thatch, and wooden planks for peasants

            2. Staple foods were millet in the north and rice in the south

C. Cities         

            1. Most Chinese lived in the countryside

            2. First towns were forts for the aristocracy

            3. By Zhou era, larger towns for trade and commerce

            4. Chang’An covered 16 square miles

D. The Humble Estate: Women in Ancient China

                            1. Female subservience the norm, both philosophically and in practice

V. Chinese Culture

            A. Metalwork and Sculpture

                               1.Bronze Casting under the Shang dynasty

                                   a. Bronze vessels both for use and for ritual

                                   b. Iron by 800s B.C.E.; Chinese cast iron was better than West’s wrought iron

                        2.The First Emperor’s Tomb, discovered in 1974 near Xian

                                   a. Thousands of terra-cotta warriors

            B. Language and Literature

                            1. Writing based on pictures/ideas (ideographs/“characters”), not on phonetic symbols

a. Became the written system for an expanding Chinese civilization even though spoken languages were often mutually unintelligible

                        2. Earliest surviving was from Zhou, written on silk or strips of bamboo     

                        3. Confucian Classics: The Rites of Zhou, Analects, Way of the Dao, The Book of Songs

                                   a. Primary purpose was moral and political   

            C. Music: aesthetics, but also to achieve political order and refining the human character

                        1. Flutes, stringed instruments, bells and chimes, drums and gourds

VI.  Conclusion 







1. “A Treatise on the Yellow River and Its Canals”—What does the excerpt indicate about Chinese

technological capacity at the time?  What were the goals and priorities of Emperor Yu, according to Sima Qian?  What elements in Chinese society might have led to Yu’s success? (page 68)


2. “Life in the Fields”—What aspects of ancient Chinese society are exemplified in this excerpt?  Would

the life of Chinese peasants differ from peasants in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, or in the Ganges River

region?  Why or why not?  What kinds of services did Chinese peasants provide for their lords?  Would

these, too, be similar to services provided in other non-Chinese societies?  Why or why not? (p. 70)


3. “Environmental Concerns in Ancient China”—What policies does Mencius want Chinese emperors to

follow?  Why?  What challenges would face the emperor and his government in implementing Mencius’

vision?  Does Mencius’ advice have a modern ring to it?  How do his statements relate to Confucian

ideals? (p. 73)


4. “The Way of the Great Learning”—In what way is a Confucian supposed to acquire the Great

Learning? Why is the “investigation of things” so important?  Why does it say that all must follow this

approach?  Compare this excerpt from “The Great Learning” with the ideas of Arthasastra in Chapter 2.

What are the similarities?  Are there any differences?  Do you agree that the cultivation of individual

character is the root of society?  Why or why not? (p. 75)



5. “The Daoist Answer to Confucianism”—What is “the answer”? How does it differ from the ideas of

Confucianism?  Is Daoism a philosophy of balance or of opposites?  Could one be both a Daoist and a

Confucian?  Why or why not?  What influence might Daoism have had on Chinese landscape painting?

(p. 77)


             6. “The Art of War”—Why has Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” been so influential?  Does his advice seem

             relevant to modern war?  Can one find examples of his advice being followed today?   Why or why not? 

             Why does Sun Tzu assert that “subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of

             excellence”?  In what way does his perspective make war an “art”? (p. 79)


7. “Memorandum on the Burning of Books”—Why did Li Su urge the government to burn most books?

How did he think the burning and related measures would create stability? What assumptions did

Legalism harbor about humanity and the state?  Why does Li Su believe knowledge of history to be

particularly dangerous?  Where would Li Su’s advice likely to be admired and followed today?  Why?

(p. 80)

8. “Love Spurned in Ancient China”—Why might this poem be chosen for an anthology by Confucius? 

What lesson might Confucius draw from this poem? Does the poem suggest anything about the status of

women in ancient China?  Is the poem “timeless” or is there anything uniquely Chinese in this poem?  If

so, what? (p. 91) 





1.Have students study the maps in the text (and others, if desired) of China and neighboring areas to

evaluate the impact of topography, climate, and geography on early Chinese development. 


2. Ask students to compare the geographical setting of ancient China with the geography of the Middle

East and India. What if any factors unique to China that could assist in explaining China’s singular



3. Invite students to study the significance of the rise of the Shang and Zhou dynasties on the structure of

governmental and economic institutions. Do they see similarities with the ancient societies examined

previously in the Middle East and India? 


4. Suggest students compare and contrast the Qin and Han dynasties as to their relative importance to later

Chinese society. Perhaps a debate setting could discuss which was more “modern” and why.


5. Ask students to examine the nature of gender relations and to probe possible links between them and

family and agricultural development. 


6. Assign students, individually or in groups, to research the origins and tenets of Confucianism, Legalism

and Daoism and then present their findings to the class. Another option would be to have advocacy

presentations set against the events of the late Zhou era or even the events of today’s world.


7. Ask students to compare two or three of the early Chinese dynasties and then assess their relative

importance in early Chinese development. 


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