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The History of China – Early Dynastic, Qin and Han

Updated on March 26, 2014

Civilization in China grew quite separately from the rest of the world. In many ways, Chinese civilization was far more advanced than in Europe or Western Asia, who did not know what was happening in China.

The map shows the territories of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. The Shang homeland was by the Yellow River, where its waters left the mountains to flow down on to a broad fertile plain. Here they built their main cities.
The map shows the territories of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. The Shang homeland was by the Yellow River, where its waters left the mountains to flow down on to a broad fertile plain. Here they built their main cities.

The periods of Chinese history are named after dynasties of ruling families. One of the earliest was the Shang dynasty, which began at around 1650BC. Many of the key features of Chinese daily life evolved at this time, such as farming and ancestor worship.

The Shang Chinese also became very skilled at working in bronze and jade. They developed a form of writing which later became the written characters still used in China today.

Shang Chinese pour molten bronze into a mould. The Chinese had developed bronze casting by about 1650BC and used bronze for making dishes and other items. The king appointed special officials to run the industry.
Shang Chinese pour molten bronze into a mould. The Chinese had developed bronze casting by about 1650BC and used bronze for making dishes and other items. The king appointed special officials to run the industry. | Source

China is a vast country, and the Shang dynasty controlled only northern China. The ruling priest-kings were supremely powerful. To the Chinese, they were god-like figures, who could communicate with their ancestors in heaven.

The Shang built many capital cities, and possibly moved them due to floods from China’s great rivers – they built the first at Erlitou, then founded the cities of Zhengzhou and Anyang. Archaeologists have found remains of wooden houses, a palace, storerooms and streets at Anyang. They also found a king’s grave which contained pottery, bronze and jade times, and nearly 4000 cowrie shells, which the Shang used for money. In the tomb were also the remains of 47 other people, most likely servants sacrificed when their ruler died.

For thousands of years the Chinese have farmed the fertile land around the Yellow River, which often floods. The Shang Chinese grew millet, wheat and rice. They also domesticated cattle, pigs, dogs and sheep.
For thousands of years the Chinese have farmed the fertile land around the Yellow River, which often floods. The Shang Chinese grew millet, wheat and rice. They also domesticated cattle, pigs, dogs and sheep.

In the 11th century BC, the Zhou dynasty, from north of Anyang, took over from the Shang. The Zhou rulers introduced coins into China and Zhou craftworkers discovered how to work iron, also inventing the crossbow.

The Zhou ruled for around 800 years, letting local lords look after their own areas. But the lords began to fight each other. The Zhou dynasty ended, and China entered what is known as the Warring States period.

Key Dates

1650 - 1027BC: Shang dynasty. China's first great Bronze Age civilization develops.

1027 - 256BC: Zhou dynasty. The kingdom is divided into many states and the kind rules through local lords.

481 - 221BC: Warring States period. Local noblemen clash in large-scale battles. China becomes weaker.

221BC: The first Qin emperor unifies China.

Beliefs

The ancient Chinese believed spirits controlled everything. They also worshiped their dead ancestors. Once teacher who influenced Chinese beliefs was Confucius (551 - 479BC). Another was Lao-Tze (b. 604BC), founder of Taoism (The Way). This teaches the need to be in harmony with earth, nature and the cosmos.

When a priest wanted to ask ancestor spirits a question, he wrote the question on a piece of bone. He put the bone into the fire until it cracked, then "read" the marks. They were the first form of Chinese writing.
When a priest wanted to ask ancestor spirits a question, he wrote the question on a piece of bone. He put the bone into the fire until it cracked, then "read" the marks. They were the first form of Chinese writing. | Source
From the heartlands along the banks of the Yellow River, the empire of the Qin stretched north to the fort at Juyan, south to Panyu (near modern Canton), and west into the province of Sichuan. Qin is pronounced chin, and the origin of the name China.
From the heartlands along the banks of the Yellow River, the empire of the Qin stretched north to the fort at Juyan, south to Panyu (near modern Canton), and west into the province of Sichuan. Qin is pronounced chin, and the origin of the name China.

By the third century BC, war had torn China apart. Seven different states fought each other. For years, no state was strong enough to win a decisive victory and take control of China.

Then in 221BC, the armies of Qin defeated their enemies and brought the seven states together under their leader, Zheng. He took the title Qin Shi Huangdi, the First Sovereign Emperor of Qin.

The first emperor ruled for only 11 years, but the changes he made lasted much longer and helped later dynasties, such as the Han and Yuan, to rule effectively. His empire was so large and contained people of so many different backgrounds, that Zheng had to be ruthless to keep China united. Troops would execute anyone who disagreed with his politics. They would also burn books by writers who disagreed with the emperor.

The dragon was a Qin symbol of good luck. When he came to the throne, Qin Shih Huangdi made the creature his own symbol. Ever since, the emperor, the dragon, and the idea of good fortune have been linked closely in China.
The dragon was a Qin symbol of good luck. When he came to the throne, Qin Shih Huangdi made the creature his own symbol. Ever since, the emperor, the dragon, and the idea of good fortune have been linked closely in China.

Another way of making this huge country easier to govern was to create national systems that all people could use. The First Emperor ordered that everyone in China should use the same systems of weights, measurements and writing. He also began a programme of building roads and canals, so his officials and merchants could travel easily around the country.

The Xiongnu, a nomadic people from the north of China, were always threatening to invade. So the emperor built the Great Wall to keep out the invaders. He ordered his builders to join up many existing walls along China’s northern frontier.

The First Emperor's tomb contined 7,500 life-size terracotta models of the emperor's army, from foot soldiers and crossbowmen to charioteers and officers. Each was based on a real-life soldier.
The First Emperor's tomb contined 7,500 life-size terracotta models of the emperor's army, from foot soldiers and crossbowmen to charioteers and officers. Each was based on a real-life soldier.

Working on the wall was hazardous. For much of its length, the wall ran through mountains. It was exhausting work carrying stone and moving earth to create ramparts. Many workers died. Other people suffered because they had to pay high taxes for the wall.

Qin Shi Huangdi worked hard to keep his empire together. After his death, war caused the empire to break up for a while.

Key Dates

246BC: Zheng becomes rules of the kingdom of Qin.

230 - 222BC: A series of victories brings the armies of Qin control of most of the warring states.

221BC: Qin defeats the last of the warring states. Zheng becomes the First Emperor.

213BC: The First Emperor orders books by authors opposing his rule to be burned.

210BC: Qin Shi Huangdi died.

209 - 208BC: A peasant rebellion reduces the power of the Qin government.

207BC: Qin empire breaks up.

The Great Wall was built as a solid obstacle against invasions. It was also a communications network. Officers signaled to each other using bonfires, and messengers could ride along the top of the wall. It is more than 3000km across Northern China.
The Great Wall was built as a solid obstacle against invasions. It was also a communications network. Officers signaled to each other using bonfires, and messengers could ride along the top of the wall. It is more than 3000km across Northern China.
The Ancient Chinese were very inventive. By 150BC, they had mastered silk-making, invented the wheelbarrow and learned to make paper.
The Ancient Chinese were very inventive. By 150BC, they had mastered silk-making, invented the wheelbarrow and learned to make paper.
The Han Empire. It stretched far into the northwest, along the routes of the silk merchants into central Asia. The Han emperors also pushed into the south, where population increased towards the end of the Han period.
The Han Empire. It stretched far into the northwest, along the routes of the silk merchants into central Asia. The Han emperors also pushed into the south, where population increased towards the end of the Han period.

The period of the Chinese Han dynasty was a time of exciting change. Technology and industry improved, farming became more efficient, and Chinese merchants traded along routes that stretched right across the huge continent of Asia. The developments were so wide-reaching that even today, many Chinese people think of the Han period as the true beginning of China.

This beautiful bronze horse was made nearly 2000 years ago by skilled Chinese craftworkers.
This beautiful bronze horse was made nearly 2000 years ago by skilled Chinese craftworkers.

The Han emperors took over the government of the Qin dynasty. They organised China into a series of local provinces, each with its own commander. The Qin dynasty had ruled by force by the Han emperors found more peaceful ways of wielding their power. When Han ironworkers discovered how to increase the temperature of their furnaces, they were able to make a much wider range of better quality products. The emperors saw value of this and put all the iron foundries under state ownership. This gave them control of all the tools and weapons that were produced.

This object was used to detect earthquakes. The slightest tremor loosened a trigger in a dragon's jaw. The jaw opened, releasing a ball into a frog's mouth below.
This object was used to detect earthquakes. The slightest tremor loosened a trigger in a dragon's jaw. The jaw opened, releasing a ball into a frog's mouth below.

The emperors also tried to control trade, especially the rich trade in silk, which Chinese merchandise carried along the overland routes across central Asia. Neighbouring areas were only allowed to trade with China if they paid regular tribute to the emperor.

The Han emperors also set up a civil service to administer the empire. They created a huge number of officials who got their jobs by taking an examination. Candidates had to answer questions on the teaching of philosopher Confucius. This civil service, with its system of examinations, lasted some 2000 years – much longer than the Han dynasty itself.

The Chinese used silk for kimonos, wall hangings and, before the Han invented paper and ink, even as a writing material. Silk making began in China some 4000 years ago. The Chinese kept the details of its production secret and earned a huge income.
The Chinese used silk for kimonos, wall hangings and, before the Han invented paper and ink, even as a writing material. Silk making began in China some 4000 years ago. The Chinese kept the details of its production secret and earned a huge income. | Source
This body of a Han princess, wrapped in jade, dates back from the 1st century BC. The Chinese believed jade was magical. They thought it would preserve anything wrapped in it forever.
This body of a Han princess, wrapped in jade, dates back from the 1st century BC. The Chinese believed jade was magical. They thought it would preserve anything wrapped in it forever.

The most important of all the changes that took place under the Han emperors were in technology. Paper and fine porcelain, or china, were both Han inventions. Scientists of the Han period even made the world’s first Seismograph for predicting earthquakes. They also invented a water clock, the wheelbarrow and the stern-post rudder, for better steering of boats at sea. At the same time, merchants brought many new materials into China, from wool and furs to glass and pearls. Peaceful and wealthy, Han China was probably the most advanced civilization if its time.

Key Dates

207BC: Gaozu overthrows the Qin dynasty. The Han dynasty rules from the city of Chang'an.

140-87BC: The reign of Han Wu Di. He defeats the northern nomads. The Han empire reaches its largest extent.

124BC: Competitive examinations for the civil service begin.

119BC: Iron industry nationalized.

AD25: Later Han period begins. The emperor moves the capital to Luoyang.

AD105: An official called Cai Lun develops the paper-making process.

AD220: Power struggles weaken the court and the Han empire collapses.

Which period of Chinese history was the most interesting?

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    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Very thorough and informative hub about China's dynasties. Well done Danida. Great images too.

    • Danida profile image
      Author

      Danida 3 years ago from London

      @Jodah: Thank you!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      This was a very interesting hub, as my knowledge of Chinese history is pretty much zilch. I especially liked learning about all the contributions the Chinese have made to society throughout history, from coins to civil service exams.

    • Tolovaj profile image

      Tolovaj 3 years ago

      China has so interesting history you can spent a whole life exploring it and having great time, too. Well, it seems its future won't be boring either! Beautiful presentation!

    • Danida profile image
      Author

      Danida 3 years ago from London

      @Tolovaj: China really does have a rich history and certainly a rich future!

    • Danida profile image
      Author

      Danida 3 years ago from London

      @FlourishAnyway: China is a really well known country but a lot of people don't know much about its roots, except the Great Wall! They've made a lot of great contributions and inventions.

    • Suzanne Day profile image

      Suzanne Day 3 years ago from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

      A really thorough look at the Shang, Quin and Han dynasties. Very useful and thoughtful hub - voted useful!!!

    • Danida profile image
      Author

      Danida 3 years ago from London

      @Suzanne Day: Thank you!!

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