HISTORY OF CHINA’s unbroken story: from 500,000 years ago

Northern China, in the plains around the Huang Ho (or Yellow River), bears evidence of more continuous human development than any other region on earth.

500,000 years ago Peking man lives in the caves at Zhoukoudian, about 30 miles (48km) southwest of the modern city of Beijing. This is the farthest north that Homo erectus has been found, and hearths in the caves are probably the earliest evidence of the human use of fire. The same caves are occupied 20,000 years ago by modern man, Homo sapiens sapiens, during the Stone Age. And 3500 years ago a nearby river valley becomes the site of one of the first great civilizations.

The Shang dynasty: 1600 – 1100 BC

The city of An-yang, rediscovered in the 20th century, is an important centre of the first Chinese civilization – that of the Shang dynasty, which lasts from about 1600 to 1100 BC. Known to its occupants as the Great City Shang, its buildings are on both banks of the Huan river, to the north of the Yellow River.

An-yang is at the heart of a society in which human sacrifice plays a significant role. Archaeology reveals this, as does an extraordinary archive of written records – stored on what the peasants of this area, in modern times, have believed to be dragon bones.

The dragon bones are the records, kept by the priests, of the questions asked of the oracle by the Shang rulers. The answer is found by the method of divination known as scapulimancy.

The priest takes a polished strip of bone, usually from the shoulder blade of an ox, and cuts in it a groove to which he applies a heated bronze point. The answer to the question (in most cases just yes or no) is revealed by the pattern of the cracks which appear in the bone. With the bureaucratic thoroughness of civil servants, the priests then write on the bone the question that was asked (and sometimes the answer that was given), before filing the bone away in an archive.

Sacrifice, silk and bronze: 1600 – 1100 BC

Several of the inscriptions on the oracle bones mention sacrifices, sometimes of prisoners of war, which are to be made to a silkworm goddess. There is even a Shang court official called Nu Cang, meaning Mistress of the Silkworms.

Silk, China’s first great contribution to civilization, has been an important product of the region for at least 1000 years before the Shang dynasty and the beginning of recorded . The earliest silk fragments unearthed by archaeologists date from around 2850 BC.

The writing on the Shang oracle bones is in pictorial characters which evolve, often with only minor modifications, into the characters used in written Chinese today – 3500 years later. There can be no better example of the continuity underpinning Chinese civilization.

The excavations at An-yang demonstrate that Shang craftsmen have reached an astonishing level of skill in the casting of bronze. And they reveal a reckless attitude to human life. A building cannot be consecrated at An-yang, or a ruler buried, without extensive human sacrifice.

The roots of Chinese culture: 1600 – 1100 BC

The area controlled by the Shang rulers is relatively small, but Shang cultural influence spreads through a large part of central China. In addition to their writing of Chinese characters, the Shang introduce many elements which have remained characteristic of this most ancient surviving culture. Bronze chopsticks, for example, have been found in a Shang tomb.

The Shang use a supremely confident name for their own small territory; it too has stood the test of time. They call An-yang and the surrounding region Chung-kuo, meaning ‘the Central Country’. It is still the Chinese name for China. And the Shang practise another lasting Chinese tradition – the worship of ancestors.

Most of the elaborate bronze vessels made in Shang times are for use in temples or shrines to ancestors. The richly decorated urns are for cooking the meat of the sacrificed animals. The most characteristic design is the li, with its curved base extended into three hollow protuberances – enabling maximum heat to reach the sacrificial stew.

The bronze jugs, often fantastically shaped into weird animals and birds, are for pouring a liquid offering to the ancestor – usually a hot alcoholic concoction brewed from millet.

In Shang society the worship of ancestors is limited to the king and a few noble families. The good will of the king’s ancestors is crucial to the whole of society, because they are the community’s link with the gods. Over the centuries the king becomes known as the Son of Heaven. The shrine to his ancestors – the Temple of Heaven in Beijing – is the focal point of the national religion.

In subsequent dynasties, and particularly after the time of , ancestor worship spreads downwards through the Chinese community. It becomes a crucial part of the culture of the Confucian civil servants, the mandarins.

The Zhou dynasty: c.1100 – 256 BC

In about 1050 BC (the date is disputed among scholars by several decades in either direction), a new power is established in China. This is the Zhou dynasty, deriving from a frontier kingdom between civilization and marauding tribes, westward of An-yang, up towards the mountains. After forming a confederation of other neighbouring states, the Zhou overwhelm the Shang rulers. The new capital is at Ch’ang-an (now known as Xi’an), close to the Wei river.

From here the Zhou control the entire area of central China, from the Huang Ho to the Yangtze. They do so through a network of numerous subordinate kingdoms, in a system akin to feudalism.

In 771 BC the Zhou are driven east from Xi’an, by a combination of barbarian tribes and some of their own dependent kingdoms. They re-establish themselves at Loyang, where they remain the nominal rulers of China (known as the Eastern Zhou) until 256 BC. During this long period their status is largely ceremonial and religious. Their main role is to continue the sacrifices to their royal ancestors – from whom the rulers of most of the other rival kingdoms also claim descent.

In the 8th century there are hundreds of small kingdoms in central China. By the end of the 5th there are only seven. Tension and constant warfare give the period its character.

Confucius and Confucianism: from the 6th century BC

A lasting result of these troubled centuries is the adoption of the ideas of K’ung Fu Tzu, known to the west as Confucius. Like other spiritual leaders of this same period (Zoroaster, Mahavira, Gautama Buddha), Confucius is essentially a teacher. As with them, his ideas are spread by his disciples. But Confucius teaches more worldly principles than his great contemporaries.

The unrest of his times prompts him to define a pattern of correct behaviour. The purpose is to achieve a just and peaceful society, but the necessary first step is within each individual. Confucius lays constant emphasis on two forms of harmony. Music is good because it suggests a harmonious state of mind. Ritual is good because it defines a harmonious society.

The Confucian ideals are deeply conservative, based on an unchanging pattern of respect upwards, to those higher in rank (older members of a family, senior members of a community), which brings with it a corresponding obligation downwards. The pattern is extended outside this immediate world, with the highest respect accorded to the dead – in the form of ancestor worship.

This concept of mutual obligation shares something with feudalism, but it gives less honour to military prowess. It is more like a utopian bureaucracy, with responsible Confucians on hand at every level to oil the machinery of state.

Confucius runs a school in his later years, proclaiming it open to talent regardless of wealth. His young graduates, more intellectually agile than their contemporaries, are much in demand as advisers in the competing kingdoms of China. So the master’s ideas are spread at a practical level, and his disciples begin as they will continue – as civil servants. Known in China as scholar officials, they acquire the name ‘mandarin’ in western languages from a Portuguese corruption of a Sanskrit word.

The idea of a career open to talent becomes a basic characteristic of Chinese society. By the 2nd century BC China’s famous examination system has been adopted, launching the world’s first meritocracy.

Daoism: from the 4th century BC

Confucianism is so practical a creed that it can scarcely be called a religion. It is ill-equipped to satisfy the human need for something more mysterious. China provides this in the form of Daoism.

Laozi, the supposed founder of Daoism, is traditionally believed to have been an older contemporary of Confucius. It is more likely that he is an entirely mythical figure. The small book which he is supposed to have written dates from no earlier than the 4th century BC. It is an anthology of short passages, collected under the title Daodejing. Immensely influential over the centuries, it is the basis for China’s alternative religion.

Daodejing means ‘The Way and its Power’. The way is the way of nature, and the power is that of the man who gives up ambition and surrenders his whole being to nature. How this is achieved is a subtle mystery. But the Daodejing suggests that the Way of water (the humblest and most irresistible of substances) is something which a wise man should imitate.

In the late 20th century, an era of ecology and New Age philosophies, the ‘alternative’ quality of Daoism has given it considerable appeal in the west. In Chinese history it is indeed alternative, but in a different sense. In the lives of educated Chinese, Daoism has literally alternated with Confucianism.

Confucianism and Daoism are like two sides of the same Chinese coin. They are opposite and complementary. They represent town and country, the practical and the spiritual, the rational and the romantic. A Chinese official is a Confucian while he goes about the business of government; if he loses his job, he will retire to the country as a Daoist; but a new offer of employment may rapidly restore his Confucianism.

The same natural cycle of opposites is reflected in the Chinese theory of Yin and yang, which also becomes formulated during the long Zhou dynasty.

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