Early Society in East Asia

There is evidence of settlement in east Asia as early as 200,000 years ago, basically hunting/gathering people who ultimately adopted agriculture because of population pressures, much as had happened in other areas; although it is important to note that it developed independent of Mesopotamian or Harappan Society, as they developed independently of each other.

By 7000 B.C.E. the people of southern China and Southeast Asia had developed the cultivation of rice as their staple crop along the Yangtze (Chang Jing) River. In other areas, along the Yellow (Huang He) River, millet was cultivated as early as 5000 B.C.E. Villages and towns developed independently of each other as domestic agriculture grew; each of which was largely independent or a member of a local state which took care of its own affairs. This changed roughly 3000 B.C.E. when much larger regional states with central authorities emerged.

Political Organization in Early China: Early Chinese civilization, like that of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India was a River Civilization. For much of China, the important river was the Yellow River, so named because of the fine powdery soil known as loess which it washes away along its 2900 mile course, and which turns the water yellow and thick, almost to the consistency of soup. The immense quantity of loess eventually falls out, causing the river to leave its banks, or on occasion change course. Its behavior is as unpredictable as it is destructive, leading to its soubriquet of the "River of Sorrows." The earliest societies built dikes in an attempt to control the riverís flooding. More importantly, the loess which the river deposited was extremely fertile and easy to work; so much so that early civilizations could produce abundant harvests using only wooden implements.

As noted above, numerous independent settlements developed, but in time were coalesced into larger political units. Legend speaks of three dynasties which existed before the more famous Qin and Han dynasties which unified China much later. These were the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties.

Xia: Archaeological evidence of the Xia dynasty has only recently been discovered. Previously, the only evidence of its existence had been legend, which serious scholars had discounted. It is now known that it did exist, and established one of the first hereditary dynasties in China, as early as 2200 B.C.E. Legend indicates its founder was a sage-king known as Yu, who organized public works to control the riverís flooding.

Shang: The Shang dynasty gradually replaced the Xia, and rules portions of Eastern China from 1766 to 1122 B.C.E. Unlike the Xia, the Shang left extensive written records, as a result of which much more is known about them. They learned bronze metallurgy, and also developed the use of wheeled chariots, similar to those in Mesopotamia and India. The Xia had made some use of bronze; however the Shang fully exploited it by controlling access to copper and tin, and by employing workmen to produce large quantities of bronze weapons and tools exclusively for their own use. Bronze was worked in foundries outside cities and the artisans who cast it lived outside city walls. They lived in houses comprised of pounded earth, far superior to the common folk who lived in structures partially below ground. Peasants continued to use stone tools; there was little change from tools used during the Neolithic period. Bronze was used to make fittings for Chariots, which made them devastatingly effective against adversaries who did not have the technology. The use of bronze weapons allowed Shang military forces to easily dominate and control much of the Yellow River Valley. At the same time, the ruling monopoly on bronze production prevented any meaningful resistance from arising. Bronze was also used for ritual vessels used in religious practices. Many are very ornately designed.  Shang bronze vases often have designs which depict animals and insects, primarily the cicada. Since this insect spends a great deal of its lifespan dormant underground, it was an appropriate symbol for the re-birth of ancestors into the spirit world. Wealthy Shang were often buried with a jade cicada in the mouth.

There is strong evidence that bronze metallurgy and the use of horse drawn chariots was introduced to China by Indo-Europeans, much as it had been in India. The designs are quite similar, and the Chinese words for wheels, spokes, axles, and chariots all are derived from Indo-European roots.

Shang religious practice involved worship of a supreme deity, the supreme god-on-high known as Shangdi whose powers far exceeded those of ordinary spirits.  Shangdi controlled the basic forces of nature and human destiny and was so elevated that earthly rulers approached him only through the intermediation of their ancestral spirits. The Shang believed the world to be populated with ghosts, spirits and mythical monsters. Their creation myth spoke of a creative deity whose wife gave birth to ten suns and twelve moons; however a great archer saved humanity from overwhelming heat and light by shooting down the excess suns and moons  Religious practice consisted of the sacrifice of animals and humans, many of whom were buried alive. One Shang tomb was found to contain a chariot complete with horse and driver. Others had whole entourages of servants who were to accompany a ruler in death. Human victims were also sacrificed and buried below the foundations of buildings. Those sacrificed were typically non-Shang "barbarians" who had been captured in war and kept as slaves.

Shang rulers imposed taxes in the form of agricultural produce which they in turn used to support a large and effective military force, and secure the support of allies. They typically ruled by decree rather than from a code of laws; and were dependent upon their military and political allies to ensure that their will was enforced. The Shang state consisted of a network of walled towns each with its own ruler who was subordinate to the Shang Kings. It is estimated that as many as 1000 towns may have come under their control. Shang Kings were known by names which represented the days assigned for sacrifices to the sprits. His legitimacy was dependent on his performance of solemn rituals which established him as an extension of the sacred ancestors. Loyalty to the Shang was to the King himself, not to a "state." Aside from religious duties, the King was a leader in time of war. During times of peace, he spent much of his time hunting; hunts might last for months. Hunting served as good preparation for war as well as furnishing food and sacrificial animals. Rulers also maintained an elaborate civil service system of advisors, ministers, metallurgists, etc. However, there were only a few major important cities. No one city was more important than the others, in fact the capital itself moved from city to city at least six times throughout the history of the dynasty. Each city contained bronze foundries, as well as government structures. They were important both politically and also as economic and social centers.

One such major city was known as Ao, which had city walls constructed of "pounded earth." The procedure of using pounded earth involved layering soil in wooden frames and then pounding it with wooden mallets until it had the consistency of solid rock. After the soil was solidified, a new layer was added. The walls of Ao were remarkable, measuring 33 feet high and 66 feet thick at the base. It is estimated that the labor of ten thousand laborers was required for a period of twenty years to complete the wall. It was so durable that a portion of it still stands.

A more important (and successor capital) city was Yin. Excavations have revealed elaborate palaces, residential neighborhoods, and most importantly, the tombs of Shang Kings. The tombs, similar to Egyptian tombs, contained numerous tools, implements, pottery, and even money to assist him in the next life. The tombs also contained the remains of animals and servants, all of whom were executed to serve the king in the next life.

Zhou: Zhou people originally clashed with the Shang, however they eventually allied to oppose nomadic tribespeople from the steppes. Eventually the Zhou superseded the Shang, and ruled northern and central China until 256 B.C.E.

The Zhou rulers justified their authority on the basis of the Mandate of Heaven. This theory maintained that events on earth were closely related to events in heaven; that heavenly forces chose an earthly ruler on the basis of his merit. This ruler became known as the "son of heaven." He was an intermediary between heaven and earth, and had a duty to rule fairly, honorably, and with justice. As long as he did so, harmony would exist between heaven and earth; however if he failed to do so, then the cosmos was suddenly out of balance, turmoil and sorrow would result; and the heavenly powers would select a new ruler. Zhou rulers used this so called mandate to justify their overthrow of Shang rulers. Chinese rulers up until the twentieth century claimed to rule by virtue of the Mandate of Heaven, and called themselves the Son of Heaven.

The Zhou state was so large that it could not be ruled by decree from a central location. As a result, Zhou rulers entrusted authority to govern to subordinates who owed allegiance to them. In return for the right to rule, subordinate government supervisors visited the Zhou capital of Hao periodically and delivered taxes, provided military forces if needed, and accounted for their stewardship. Many of these subordinate rulers were related to the Zhou rulers; however if they were not related, they often arranged marriages to strengthen ties between them and their appointed governors.

In time, the Zhou governmental system weakened. Subordinate rulers gained more and more power in their own right and became traditional governors. They set up their own governments, taxation systems, even armies, and ignored their obligations to Hao. Unlike the Shang, the Zhou rulers had been unable to monopolize the production of bronze. Subordinate rulers were able to stockpile weapons of bronze; plus during later years, iron metallurgy was discovered. Iron ore was cheaper and more abundant than copper and tin, which made it impossible to monopolize. Subordinates soon armed their forces with iron weapons, and effectively resisted the central government.

Hao was overrun by nomadic tribes and the capital relocated. In the meantime, the former subordinate rulers had become so powerful that they often fought with each other for control of territory. The period was so violent that it is known in Chinese history as the Period of the Warring States. In 256 B.C.E. the last Zhou ruler abdicated under pressure from his former subordinates, and no unified government existed for a period of thirty years.

Society and Family in Ancient China: Early in Chinese history, in fact by the time of the Xia dynasty, social and class distinction had appeared. The ruling family and associated noble families lived in palatial mansions constructed of pounded earth. They collected taxes from their subjects, normally in the form of agricultural products. They were the sole users of bronze weapons as well as bells, utensils, jars, wine cups, even serving dishes. Bronze was so expensive that it was beyond the reach of the common folk; the nobility possessed and consumed it conspicuously as a sign of their social status.

Since the possession of bronze in any form was a conspicuous sign of both wealth and social status, the nobility collected in exorbitant amounts. The tomb of one Marquis Yi, a provincial governor under the Zhou dynasty, contained bronze weapons and decorative items weighing in total over eleven tons.

The diet of the upper classes was more elaborate than the poorer folk. The nobility often dined on fish, pork, poultry, peasant, mutton, and even rabbit, normally prepared with rice. The lower classes had to be content with vegetables and porridges made from millet, wheat, or rice.

Class status was largely hereditary, one was born to privilege. The upper classes possessed extensive land holdings but generally lived in cities. They generally held military or administrative positions with the monarch. They received at least a rudimentary education, and were even instructed in rules of etiquette. The poorer folk and slaves worked the fields of the nobility.

One rule of etiquette stated that when in polite company, one should show honor to his host by not gulping his food, swilling wine, picking his teeth at the table, play with his food, or "make unpleasant noises."

The common folk owned no land, but were required to work in the fields or serve in the military for the upper classes in exchange for protection and for plots of land on which they could cultivate their food. In exchange, they were expected to pay a portion of their harvests to the landlord. They lived in subterranean dwellings which often were three feet or more below the surface and which had thatched roofs. Peasant women were responsible for indoor activities such as making wine, tending silkworms or weaving; men were responsible for outside activities such as farming, hunting, and fishing. Those who worked the soil relied primarily on wooden sticks or spades tipped with bone or stone. Such tools would have been useless in many areas, but because of the soft loess, the soil was worked easily. By 600 B.C.E., iron tools were in common use.

A small "middle" class of artisans and craftsmen lived in the cities and worked almost exclusively for the privileged classes. (The lower classes could not afford their wares.) They lived a comfortable existence in small but expensive homes of pounded earth. Among them were jewelers, embroiders, and silk manufacturers. Merchants and trade also worked in China, probably as early as the Xia dynasty. Even though China was largely isolated from the rest of the world by the Himalaya Mountains and the Gobi desert, trade from areas as far as Mesopotamia and Malaysia (primarily tin) reached the merchants there. Cowrie shells, used for money, were also traded. These originated in Burma or the Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean. There is no clear indication of the items used by the Chinese for trade, although pieces of Shang pottery have been discovered in India.

A substantial portion of Chinese trade was conducted by sea. As early as 2000 B.C.E., even before the Xia dynasty, Chinese mariners were constructing and sailing vessels propelled by oars. This enabled them to trade as far as Korea, across the Yellow Sea. By the time of the Zhou dynasty, shipbuilding had become a prominent business. By this time, Chinese mariners had mastered the skill of navigation by the stars.

At the bottom of the social ladder were slaves, most of whom were war captives. They performed hard labor, such as clearing fields or building walls and structures with pounded earth. During the Shang dynasty, slaves were often sacrificed during funeral services or other rituals.

Family and Patriarchy: Early Chinese dynasties ruled through family and kinship groups. The family unit was extremely important in ancient Chinese culture, as in other cultures. The Chinese family often practiced Veneration of Ancestors; based on the belief that the spirits of ancestors passed into another realm from whence they could support survivors provided the surviving family paid proper respect to them, and ministered to their needs. Often tools, weapons, jewelry, etc. were buried with the dead, and sacrifices of food and drink were common. This feeling of kinship with departed family members resulted in strong family bonds.

There was no form of organized religion in ancient China; as a result the head of the family, usually the oldest male, presided over ceremonies honoring the spirits of ancestors. The society as a whole was strongly patriarchal. All public authority was held by men who wielded absolute political and military authority. During early times, women were entitled to some distinction; in fact two queens of the Shang dynasty had temples dedicated in their memories after their deaths. Over time however, the role of men became so important that Chinese inheritance, which had always been matrilineal, became patrilineal. Even the most important woman was honored only in association with her husband.

Early Chinese Writing and Cultural Development: As noted above, there was no organized religious practice in ancient China. Matters normally addressed in religious terms such as the origins of the world, etc. were explained by myth and legend. Chinese scholars did speak of an impersonal heavenly power known as tian, literally "heaven," which bestowed or removed the Mandate of Heaven; but there was no supreme deity who intervened in human affairs. As a result, there was no large priestly class. Some few priests existed who presided over rituals venerating royal ancestors; but for most Chinese the ritual of veneration was performed by the eldest family male. As a result, writing, which was practiced as early as 2000 B.C.E., had no religious significance.

Writing also was not used by merchants for record keeping, as had been the case with cuneiform; rather it was for royal purposes only. Royal scribes recorded important events on strips of bamboo or silk, most of which have been lost to the lapse of time. Tremendous numbers of written instruments were destroyed by opposing forces during the Period of the Warring States, so much so that precious few specimens of ancient Chinese writing have survived. Surviving evidence of Chinese writing consists almost exclusively of Oracle Bones, which were used by fortune tellers. Questions were written on broad bones such as turtle shells or the shoulder bones of sheep after which the bone was heated until it developed a network of cracks. The position of the cracks presumably answered the question presented. The fortune teller would read the information provided and write the response on the bone. Often, later scribes would add information about the events that happened after the fact. Surviving Oracle Bones contained inquiries about day to day concerns of the Shang royal court, such as the success of a battle or harvest, was sacrifice in order, or was a pregnant queen to bear a son or daughter.

The earliest Chinese writing was in pictograph form, similar to hieroglyphs. Pictographs were often combined to represent complex or abstract notions, thus forming an ideograph. There was no alphabetic or phonetic component. Modern Chinese writing is largely based on ancient writing although some change has occurred over time. Ancient Chinese writing contained over two thousand characters. Modern day Chinese has over five thousand.

An example of an ideograph is a combination of pictographs of a mother and child which in todayís Chinese means "good." Many oracle bones have been lost because farmers who dug them up in past centuries called them "dragon bones" and sold them to pharmacists to be ground into powder which presumably had medicinal purposes. Fortunately, over one thousand oracle bones are still in existence.

Literature and Thought in Ancient China: By the time of the Zhou dynasty, Chinese literature appeared, including works of poetry and history, descriptions of ritualistic practices, essays on moral or religious or philosophical issues etc. Among these are the writings of Confucius. Some writings were so important that they became textbooks in Chinese schools. The most famous of these was the Book of Changes, which explained the art of telling the future. There was also a Book of History, which justified the existence of the Zhou state and called on subjects to obey their rulers; a Book of Etiquette, also known as the Book of Rites, which explained how one conducted himself in polite company.

The most famous surviving work of literature is the Book of Songs, also known as the Book of Poetry or the Book of Odes. It has 311 entries which cover every facet of life. Some are quite beautiful, as shown in the following example, Number 41: Bei Feng:

Cold blows the north wind ;
Thick falls the snow .
Ye who love and regard me ,
Let us join hands and go together .
Is it a time for delay ?
The urgency is extreme !

The north wind whistles ;
The snow falls and drifts about .
Ye who love and regard me ,
Let us join hands , and go away for ever .
Is it a time for delay ?
The urgency is extreme !

Nothing red is seen but foxes ,
Nothing black but crows .
Ye who love and regard me ,
Let us join hands , and go together in our carriages .
Is it a time for delay ?
The urgency is extreme !

Ancient China and the Larger World: Chinese agriculture, and with it Chinese culture, spread north and west from the valley of the Yellow River to the steppes of eastern Asia where agriculture was not practical. As the society expanded, it came into contact with nomadic peoples, some of whom became agricultural and joined Chinese society; while others migrated north and west to avoid absorption. These latter eventually migrated to the grassy steppes of central Asia which did not lend itself to agriculture or foraging. These people became the ancestors of the Turks and Mongols. They herded horses, sheep, goads and yaks across the steppes. They relied on these animals for food and sustenance and often migrated widely, since the grasslands were often sparse. They covered such a wide expanse of territory that they often became the intermediaries between trading networks in Asia; and also established routes which Indo-European migrants used to travel to China, and who brought knowledge of horse-drawn chariots and bronze with them. They often traded horses for textiles and metal goods which they could not produce themselves.

The nomads of the steppes die not emulate Chinese ways. They organized themselves into clans under the leadership of warrior chieftains; and did not adopt writing until roughly 700 C.E. Although the trade network between the two societies was mutually profitable, relations were poor at best. Nomads frequently attacked Chinese towns to seize items they needed, very similar to Viking attacks on Western Europe many years later.

Chinese society also expanded to the south to the Yangtze River valley which was quite fertile and lent itself to rice cultivation. The Yangtze is not as pernicious or unpredictable as the Yellow, so floods were not a problem; however it was necessary to construct irrigation systems which would allow for the flooding of rice fields. Many of the people who lived in the area prior to the expansion of ancient China adapted Chinese society as their own; still others, primarily hunters and gatherers, migrated out of the area to the hills and mountains where agriculture was not practical. Still others migrated to Taiwan, Vietnam, and Thailand.

Eventually, cities also developed in the Yangtze River valley. The inhabitants of the area adopted Chinese social and political traditions and Chinese writing. Eventually, Chinese society was uniform within the valleys of the two rivers.