Ancient China

roughly 23rd—15th century BCE (estimates vary) to 220 CE, the fall of the Han Dynasty

Ancient China is one of the world's oldest civilizations.

Prehistory means the history of a time before any written record. In such cases, it is very difficult to tell anything definite about the prehistory of China or any other country. Even then, historians believe some facts about the China of that period. About a few million years ago Homo erectus, an early human species, lived in China. Later, about 65,000 years ago, modern human beings Homo sapiens reached China from Africa. For food, they hunted wild animals. They also began to pick and gather fruits, eventually resulting in the Chinese learning to farm by 5000 BC. They had started cultivating rice and possibly other types of grains. By 2500 BC, the Bronze Age had come to China. A ruling class with kings and queens had come into society.

Some scholars think that about 4000 years ago, the Xia dynasty ruled China. Yu(Da Yu) was the first ruler of this dynasty. There are few credible sources about Yu (who could have been legendary), his time, and other rulers of the Xia dynasty.

Shang dynasty


Most Chinese historians of that time think that one dynasty came after another but it is possible that two dynasties were ruling in different parts of China at the same time. Therefore, some scholars think that Xia dynasty and Shang Dynasty may have ruled at the same time, but in different areas of China.

There are written records of the history of China which date from 1500 BC in the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BC).[1][2] Turtle shells with writing like ancient Chinese writing from the Shang Dynasty (Chinese: 商朝) have been carbon dated to about 1500 BC. Scholars believe that present-day Henan was the ninth and last capital of kings of the Shang Dynasty. This began what we call the Chinese civilization. Ancient China fought wars and Civil wars and was also sometimes conquered by other people.

Chinese civilization originated in various regional centers along both the Yellow River and the Yangtze River valleys in the Neolithic era, but the Yellow River is said to be the cradle of Chinese civilization. The written history of China can be found as early as the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 – 1046 BC) although ancient historical texts such as the Records of the Grand Historian (ca. 100 BC) and Bamboo Annals say that a Xia Dynasty existed before the Shang. Much of Chinese culture, literature and philosophy further developed during the Zhou Dynasty (1045 – 256 BC).

Zhou dynasty


About 1046 BC, the Zhou Dynasty defeated the last king of the Shang Dynasty and came to power. They changed the capital from Henan to a place near present-day Xi'an, near the Yellow River. The Zhou Dynasty also brought a new theory to China(see the Mandate of Heaven). Almost all dynasties of Chinese rulers continued to repeat this theory. The kings of this dynasty won many new areas. For the first time in the history of China, a large number of people also moved from one area to another area for settlement.

Spring and Autumn period


The Spring and Autumn Period was around the 8th century BC. The Zhou dynasty continued, but its power waned as the lords gained lands and followers. Many kings ruled in different parts of China. China became several fragmented states, each ruled by a different king. In some cases, a king ruled just a village with a small fort.

During this period in China, many new lines of thinking arose. Some of them continue to be important. They are Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism and Mohism.

Warring States period


The Spring and Autumn Period continued for about 300 years. By the 5th century BC, there were only seven main Chinese states left. They had taken over all the smaller areas. These states continued to fight each other. Historians call this period the Warring States Period due to wars and fights among these states. In 221 BC, Ying Zheng, king of the State of Qin, united all seven states. He made himself the Emperor of China and founded the Qin Dynasty.

Between eras of multiple kingdoms and warlordism, Chinese dynasties have ruled parts or all of China. In some eras, control has stretched as far as Central Asia, Tibet and Vietnam. This Chinese imperialism began with the Qin Dynasty: in 221 BC, Qin Shi Huang conquered the various warring kingdoms and created the first Chinese empire. The Qin (Chinese: ) emperor Qin Shi Huang made everyone write the same way. He also had ideas about the state which he based on legalism and fought Confucianism.

Successive dynasties in Chinese history developed bureaucratic systems that gave the Emperor of China direct control of vast territories.

The conventional view of Chinese history is that of alternating periods of political unity and disunity, with China occasionally being dominated by steppe peoples, most of whom were in turn assimilated into the Han Chinese population. Cultural and political influences from many parts of Asia, carried by successive waves of immigration, expansion, and cultural assimilation, are part of the modern culture of China.


  1. William G. Bolt 1986. Early Chinese writing. World Archaeology, 17, (3) "Early Writing Systems", pp. 420–436.
  2. David N. Keightley 1996. Art, ancestors, and the origins of writing in China. Representations, #56, Special Issue: The New Erudition. (Autumn, 1996), pp.68–95 (68).

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