Neolithic China:

Before the accepted first dynasty in China, the Shang, the Chinese were farming millet, domesticating pigs and chickens, creating stone tools and pottery, eventually producing silk, and building infrastructure with dirt and wooden frames.

Shang Dynasty (1600-1029)


-The Shang Dynasty had a writing system that consisted of several hundred characters.
-Slaves were usually prisoners of war and sometimes used for human sacrifices
-Urban areas were for elite citizens, lower classes lived on the outskirts in agricultural villages


Oracle Bone with a message from "Di" to the Shang people

Most of what we know of the Shang culture comes from the oracle bones (bones of cows, turtle shells, etc.) that contained written descriptions of the King, his court, and religious practices. They were supposedly written by the gods.

-Religion: The Shang dynasty had a polytheistic belief system. The gods contained a hierarchy that mirrored that of the class system in China at the time, with the supreme god, Di, in place of the King. The gods represented different aspects of the natural world, and had control of the harvest, draught, etc. Shang royalty was buried with their family and servants, jewelry, weapons, and other items of value, suggesting a belief in the afterlife.

-Warriors were considered an elite class. They used bronze weapons and rode on horse drawn chariots.

Humans and the Environment

The Shang did not have access to, or the technology to create, stone infrastructure. They had to create buildings out of
earth with wooden frames. This form of architecture was not able to last in the hot climate.


Urban areas were the centers of economic wealth in China. They were surrounded by agricultural villages, that imported the crops to be stored within the city.


–The Shang ruler can communicate with his ancestors, who can pass his messages onto the gods. Most of his career involved traveling around to ensure the loyalty of his people throughout the vast dynasty.

To what extent was the Shang Dynasty a civilization? How well did it represent an "early civilization"?

  • Had a system of writing
  • Centered in cities that contained most of the uncovered infrastructure
  • Agricultural surpluses supplied by sources outside of the city (allowed for specialized labor and cultural development such as art and worship)
  • Had a religious system based around the natural world
  • Had an omnipotent monarch

Zhou Dynasty (1029-256)


The Zhou Dynasty had many more written documents than the Shang.
-The Book of Documents contained political and economic records, including a detailed record of the King's career.
-The Book of Song was composed of poems and ballads that described all aspects of life for each class. Most of what we know about the roles of women during this time came from the Book of Songs. Descriptions of arranged marriages and affairs outside of marriage.

-The Book of Changes contained a detailed meaning of all the standard patterns of long and short stalks when thrown randomly into a pile. This was the first philosophical piece of writing in China.
-Elite women were treated as servants in their households.


In 771 BCE, The Zhou Dynasty weakened through uprisings and was forced to retreat into the eastern territory of the old dynasty. This era of the Zhou was known as the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. Disputes continued during this time, which led to technological changes in warfare, from warriors being the elite, to much larger armies of poor farmers and the working class.
-The Spring and Autumn Annals were written works that discussed the changes in lifestyle during this period.

Two new philosophies became popular during the Eastern Zhou: Confucianism, which suggested that society should be structured like a family and members of that family should act accordingly, and Daoism, which said that structure should be left behind for a more fulfilling life. Confucius (Konzi) created Confucianism, and a philosopher named Laozi supposedly invented Daoism.
-Yin and Yang is another cultural phenomenon of the time. It originally suggested that women and men created a balance in society, but women gradually became inferior to men.

All of the cities were mapped out according to stars, with roads set up in grids and all major buildings faced South.

-Tian was the chief diety of the Zhou, he was supposedly more compassionate than Di.
-feng shui

Humans and the Environment

The Zhou Dynasty originated in the Wei River valley. While popular crops and animals were pretty consistent with the past, warfare was changed by the use of Iron starting in 600BC, and the creation of steel. Chariots eventually became outdated and were replaced by warriors on horseback.


The “feudal” system of government, that consisted of Wu splitting his dynasty up among friends and relatives, lessened the burden of main
taining loyalty throughout the dynasty for Wu, but also gave the chosen friends and relatives an opportunity to profit from the regions that they were governing.

Map of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty and Modern day China

During the Shang Dynasty, Wen, a prisoner of a Shang elite, started an uprising against Shang leaders. Wu, his son, attacked the capital and helped secure their victory.
Wu then became the first emperor of the Zhou. Under Di, the new chief diety, Wu became the "Son of Heaven" and the first Chinese leader to obtain a divine mandate. After Wu's death, his son Cheng was too young to rule, so his uncle, known as the Duke of Zhou, stood in for him. The Duke of Zhou was celebrated by Confucius along with others, because he gave the throne to his nephew immediately after he reached an age suitable enough for rule.
In 771 BC the total political rule of the Zhou monarchs crumbled from uprisings, and most portions of dynasty became practically independent. The monarchs remained as figureheads, but never retained the rule that they had previously.

Eventually, the political system of the Zhou Dynasty became more complex, with better records of taxes, population, and agriculture.

During the Warring States Period (481-221 BCE), disputes between the different portions of the dynasty worsened, and only seven states came out of it. The period was marked by constant warfare, and led to the development of a new political party:
-The Qin, whose followers were called Legalists, supported a stronger, more involved, system of government. The Qin were led by Lord Shang, who eventually overthrew the Zhou leaders. Shang's tactic was to weaken the power of nobility in order to gain power himself.

To what extent was the Zhou Dynasty a civilization? How was it "more civilized" than the Shang Dynasty?

  • The Zhou had a sophisticated written language.
  • They lived in a diverse culture with some of the first philosophical (Confucianism, Daoism), religious, and political views (Legalists).
  • Although archeologists found fewer traces of infrastructure in China than from other early civilizations, there is some evidence of grand architecture within the ancient cities.
  • Technological advances in agriculture led to the discovery and production of silk, which became an important economic resource later on when China began to trade with other parts of the world.
  • Advances in warfare included: riding horseback, creating steel weapons and tools, and the substitution of a large army from an exculsive, elite one.
  • The King secured his rule with a divine mandate.

Bulliet, Richard, et al. Earth and Its People, AP Edition, (Boston: Wadsworth, 2011) p. 5
Pictures from:
"Acts Upon a Stage: A Look at Chinese Divine Culture through the History of Chang'an City." Pureinsight. Web. 14 Sept. 2012. <>.
"Leawood Middle School Blogs." Shang, a Dynasty, People, God, or City? Web. 14 Sept. 2012. <>.
"Zhou Dynasty." , History, History of Ancient China, China's Dynasties. Web. 14 Sept. 2012. <>.