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China boasts one of the longest single unified civilizations in the world. Its history is characterized by dramatic shifts in power between rival factions, periods of peace and prosperity when foreign ideas were assimilated and absorbed, the disintegration of empire through corruption and political subterfuge, and the cyclical rise of ambitious leaders to found each new empire.

First Settlers

From around 8000 BC, settlements of populations based on a primitive agricultural economy began to emerge in the eastern coastal regions and along the rich river deltas of the Huang He (Yellow River), the Yangzi, and the Wei. These civilizations focused on hunting, gathering, and fishing, and the cultivation of millet in the north and rice in the south. Each civilization is notable for its own distinct style of pottery, such as the bold earthenware of the Yangshao (5000– 3000 BC) and the black ceramics of the Longshan (3000–1700 BC).

Bronze Age China and the First Kingdoms

The first dynasty in China was founded by the Shang around 1600 BC. The Shang lived in large, complex societies and were the first to mass-produce cast bronze. Power centered on the ruling elite who acted as shamans of a sort, communicating with their ancestors and gods through diviners. Elaborate bronze food and wine vessels were used both for banqueting and for making ancestral

offerings. Inscriptions on oracle bones provide the first evidence of writing, dating from around 1300 BC
In 1066 BC, the Zhou seized power, establishing their western capital at present-day Xi’an. The Western Zhou initially sustained many of the traditions of the Shang, but later reorganized the political system, and replaced the use of oracle bones with inscriptions on bronze and, later, writing on silk and strips of bamboo

The Eastern Zhou (770–221 BC) is divided into the Spring and Autumn period (named for the annals written by Confucius, 770–475 BC) and the Warring States period (475–221 BC). The Eastern Zhou period saw the capital moved to Luoyi (now Luoyang, Henan Province) and was dominated by political conflict and social unrest as rival factions jockeyed for power. Some 25 emperors reigned during its duration. It also saw economic expansion and development as the use of iron revolutionized agriculture. It was in this climate of unrest that the philosophical ideologies of Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism emerged.

Foundation of Imperial China

The Warring States Period was finally brought to an end as the Qin emerged victorious. In 221 BC, Qin Shi pronounced himself the first emperor (huangdi) of China and ruled over a short yet decisive period of history. The Qin state was based on the political theories of Legalism, which established the role of the ruler as paramount and espoused a system of collective responsibility. Following unification, Qin Shi conscripted thousands of workers to join together the defensive walls to the north, creating the Great Wall. He standardized the system of money, and weights and measures, and laid the foundations for a legal system. A ruthless ruler, Qin Shi died in the belief that his famous terracotta army would protect him in the afterlife from his numerous enemies.

The founding of the Han dynasty (206 BC– AD 220) heralded a “golden age” in Chinese history. Emperor Gaodi (r. 206–195 BC) established the capital of the Western Han (206 BC–AD 9) at Chang’an (Xi’an), and retained much of the centralized administration established by the Qin. Subsequent emperors developed the civil service examination to select able men for state office. Han society was founded on the principles propounded by Confucius, and the Confucian classics formed the basis of the civil service examination. Daoism and yin-yang theory coexisted with ancestor worship and would form the basis of indigenous Chinese belief .

The Han empire expanded with regions of Central Asia, Vietnam, and Korea being brought under Chinese control. In 138 BC, General Zhang Qian was sent to establish diplomatic links with Central Asia and returned with tales of rich pastures and “heavenly horses.” The fine thoroughbreds of Ferghana (in modern Uzbekistan) were traded in exchange for Chinese silk, starting the flow of goods along the fabled Silk Road .

Han rule was briefly inter rupted as Wang Mang seized power in AD 9, only to be restored by Guang Wudi (r. AD 25–57), who establish ed the Eastern Han capital in Luoyang. Once more, the Han expanded Chinese territory. Paper was by now in use for much official documentat ion and the first Chinese dictionary was produced. Buddhism began its spread to China with the first Buddhist communities being established in Jiangsu province.

Period of Division

From the rule of Hedi (r. AD 88–105), the Eastern Han declined. Civil war finally split the country in 220. The next 350 years were characterized by almost constant warfare as China was ruled by over 14 short-lived dynasties and 16 “kingdoms.”

China was divided into the Northern and Southern dynasties (265–581), each region taking on its own distinct character. Foreign peoples took control of the North, such as the Toba branch of the Xianbei, who founded the Northern Wei in 386. These rulers were receptive to foreign ideas and religions, creating some of the finest Buddhist cave complexes first at Yungang, near their capital in Datong, and from 494, at Longmen, when they moved their capital to Luoyang.

As foreign invaders took control of the North, the Han Chinese retreated south to establish their new capital at Jiankang (Nanjing). In a climate of relative stability, the south became the economic and cultural center as the population shifted to the Yangzi delta. Philosophy and the arts flourished alongside a renewed interest in Daoism and a growing interest in Buddhism.

Unification and Stability

Following military successes against the Liang and the Chen, the Northern Zhou general Yang Jian (541–604) pronounced himself emperor, taking the name Wendi, and founded the Sui dynasty in 581. This brief but significant dynastic rule established political and social sta bility. He undertook an extensive program of works including extending the Great Wall and the beginnings of the Grand Canal. The second emperor, Yangdi (569–617), restored diplomatic relations with Japan and Taiwan and extended trade to Central Asia.

Tang Dynasty

The Tang Dynasty is widely regarded as one of China’s golden ages, characterized by economic prosperity, territorial expansion, and political stability. During this period China reached its largest size to date: from Korea to Vietnam and across Central Asia to southern Siberia. Trade flourished by land and sea, stimulating the flow of luxury goods between East and West. Foreign religions were tolerated and Buddhism gained popular and imperial patronage. The arts and literature of the Tang are still considered to be among China’s finest, notably the famous poets Li Bai and Du Fu.


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