1.6 Ancient China


Year(s) Event(s)
c. 4000 BCE Neolithic Cultures in China
c. 2205 – 1050 BCE Shang Dynasty
1045 – 771 BCE Western Zhou
771 – 221 BCE Eastern Zhou
475 – 221 BCE Warring States Period
256 – 206 BCE Qin Dynasty
221 – 210 BCE First Emperor of Qin, Shihuangdi


The name China does not refer to the same geographic area as the modern day political entity. Like India what is China changes over time. As we see elsewhere, the geography of China has a great deal to do with how and where civilization developed.

Map 4.1 | East Asia Author: Larry Israel Source: Original Work License: CC BY-SA 4.0

China’s early historical development long predated Japan’s and Korea’s, which is why a discussion of East Asian history logically begins in the second millennium BCE with China’s first dynasty. However, today’s nation of China is much larger than China was in ancient times. In earlier times, the bulk of the Chinese population lived in China proper, by which we mean the historical heartland of ancient China. To the east, China proper is bounded by the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea. To the south, it is bordered by the mountainous jungles of Southeast Asia. To the west and north, China is rimmed by a transitional frontier zone where land suited to agriculture gives way to mountains and plateau or vast expanses of steppe grasslands and desert. At times, the dynasties of China became actively involved in all of these neighboring areas, incorporating them directly into their expanding empires or indirectly as subordinate, tribute-paying states. Those areas include parts of the Korean Peninsula, Northeast China, Mongolia, Central Asia, and Vietnam.

Within China proper, two rivers were particularly important to the formation of agricultural communities that served as the building blocks of Chinese civilization. Those were the Yellow River and Yangzi River. The Yellow River meanders through the northern half of China, where a cool, dry climate is well-suited to wheat and millet farming. Beginning far to the west, this river meanders over dusty plateau, becomes muddied with silt, and then deposits this sediment along its middle and lower reaches. The plains surrounding these reaches are collectively referred to as the North China Plain. Historically, this was the heartland of Chinese civilization. However, the Yangzi River was just as important. Located in south China where the weather is relatively warmer and wetter, its long basin provided fertile soil for rice-paddy agriculture. Over time, the early dynasties expanded into and included the settled agricultural communities in this region.

The countries of East Asia share in the region’s temperate climate and summer monsoon season. During the summer months, warm and moist air originating from the Pacific flows from southeast to northwest, while during the winter months cold and dry air originating from Central Asia moves in the opposite direction. Thus, those areas of East Asia located further to the east and south are generally warmer and wetter, and for longer periods of time. That made them well-suited to rice-paddy agriculture, and rice consequently became the primary cereal crop in southern China, the Korean peninsula, and the islands of Japan (addressed in Module 6). While growing rice is labor intensive, this grain also offers high yields per unit of land, so it has supported population growth in these countries and, therefore, the formation of vibrant civilizations.


“China’s Yellow Earth.” China: Heritage of the Wild Dragon. 2000. Accessed April 9, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=11656&loid=11059. 1:52.


“Artifacts Reveal Ancient Environment to Building Walls with the Yellow Earth.” China: Heritage of the Wild Dragon. 2000. Accessed April 9, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=11656&loid=610361. 9:37.

Key Questions

  • What was the impact of China’s geography on the development of Chinese societies?
  • What made the region around the Yellow River a focal point of settlement?

Exploration – First Chinese Societies

Chinese Creation Myth

Like most civilizations, China has a creation myth. China’s creation myth centers around Pangu. While this origin myth is not part of China’s religious tradition that has more modern origins, Pangu is still celebrated in song and symbolism. Read the story of China’s creation myth and then explore creation myths from around the world.

“Pangu and the Chinese Creation Story.” Ancient Origins: Reconstructing the Story of Humanity’s Past. April 16, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2020. https://www.ancient-origins.net/human-origins-folklore/pangu-and-chinese-creation-myth-00347?nopaging=1

“Pan Gu and Nü Wa.” From Classical Chinese Myths. Jan and Yvonne Walls, translators. Hong Kong: Joint Publishing Company, 1984. http://railsback.org/CS/CSPG&NW.html

Early Chinese Culture

China has a rich culture that, like many others in the world, seems mysterious to us today. This video segment looks at the culture of early Chinese societies and how they created the longest lasting empire in the world.


Key Groups in Ancient China. 2013. Accessed April 9, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=56485.  18:35.

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China is one of the most enduring symbols of the grandeur of Chinese history; it is also a longstanding symbol of oppression in Chinese society. Explore the construction, stories, and history of the Great Wall by reviewing the site at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and then watch the video below.

UNESCO. “The Great Wall.” United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Accessed April 9, 2020. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/438/

“Great Wall of China.” Ancient China. 1996. Accessed April 9, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=8695&loid=13449. 5:57.

Neolithic China, c. 4000 BCE


Figure 4.2 | Neolithic cultures in China c. 4000 BCE | Note the location of Yangshao culture along the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River, where nearly a thousand settlements have been identified by archaeologists. Author: Lamassu Design Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

From about 10,000 BCE agriculture was practiced in China, and we begin to see village settlements in the fifth millennium BCE.  Like the first major civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India, rivers were particularly important to the process of settlement because they offered a stable supply of water for agriculture. Similarly, in China, the first major states emerged along China’s second longest river–the Yellow River. These states are the Xia [shee-ah] Dynasty (c. 1900 – 1600 BCE), Shang [shawng] Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE), and Zhou [joe] Dynasty (1045 – 256 BCE). Each of these kingdoms was ruled by a line of hereditary monarchs hailing from one lineage, which is why they are also referred to as dynasties.

Because written sources don’t become available until the Shang Dynasty, historians have relied heavily on the archaeological record to reconstruct the process by which these states arose. Looking back at the end of the Paleolithic era (c. 10,000 BCE), East Asia was sparsely populated by bands of foragers living in temporary settlements. During the eighth millennium BCE, in China, some of these hunter-gatherers turned to domesticated cereals for a stable food supply and settled into villages so they could cultivate them. Thus, the Neolithic Age (8000 – 2000 BCE) commenced.


“China’s Ancient Civilization.” Ancient China. 1996. Accessed April 9, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=8695&loid=13446. 4:16.

Over the course of those six millennia leading up to the Xia Dynasty, Neolithic communities became more diverse and complex. For instance, for the period 5000 – 3000 BCE, archaeologists have identified at least eight major regional Neolithic cultures located along rivers and coasts. They did so by examining pottery styles and village settlement patterns. One example is Yangshao culture, which was concentrated along the middle reaches of the Yellow River. Over one thousand sites left behind by millet-farming village communities have been discovered. Jiangzhai (c. 4000 BCE), for instance, was a moated village settlement that occupied roughly thirteen acres (see Figure 4.2). It was composed of related lineages and tribal in organization.

Map 4.3 | Location of Yangshao culture (5000-3000 BCE) and Longshan culture (3000-1900 BCE) | Note that they overlapped, but also that Longshan culture came later and eventually supplanted Yangshao culture. Author: Lamassu Design Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0
During the third millennium BCE, Yangshao culture was gradually supplanted by Longshan culture (c. 3000 – 1900 BCE), which emerged further to the east, along the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River. In 1928, when archaeologists excavated a site near the town after which Longshan was named, they found evidence for a culture that had laid the foundations for the kingdoms that emerged in the second millennium BCE, including the ruins of numerous walled towns with cemeteries outside (see Map 4.3). Their rammed-earth walls protected urban areas with public buildings, roads, and drainage systems. The cemetery’s arrangement suggests that people living in the towns were buried alongside clan members, but also that some members were wealthier and more powerful: while most graves had nothing but a skeleton, others contained numerous artifacts, such as pottery and jade.

Based on this evidence, archaeologists have concluded that, during the third millennium BCE, population grew and some of it shifted from villages to walled towns. These walled towns developed into political and economic centers exercising control over and serving as protection for surrounding communities. Individuals with more elaborate graves were likely political and religious leaders, and served as chieftains. Hence, numerous competing chiefdoms emerged, providing the foundation for more powerful kingdoms to follow.

Figure 4.3 | Bronze ritual vessel for heating and drinking wine found at Erlitou Author: User “Editor at Large” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 2.5
Ancient Chinese histories identify the first major kingdom as the Xia Dynasty (c. 1900 – 1600 BCE). However, these were written many centuries after the kingdom about which they speak and, lacking written evidence from the dynasty itself, specialists have been unable to definitively establish its location. Nevertheless, most agree that the Xia capital was located along the Yellow River at Erlitou [are-lee-toe]. At its peak of activity from 1900 – 1600 BCE, this town looks like something more complex than a chiefdom. Erlitou included a central, walled palace complex (see Figure 4.3), workshops for the production of bronze and pottery, and elite burials containing bronze weapons and jade, suggesting a socially stratified, Bronze Age civilization and kingdom. That is why many historians identify it as the capital of the Xia Dynasty.

The Shang, 2205 -1050 BCE

With the Shang Dynasty, we formally step into China’s historical period. Until the 1920s, the Shang were believed to be mythical. Then archeologists discovered the ruins of Yinxu. Amongst the artifacts discovered were oracle bones that recorded the kings of the Yins. These names almost perfectly matched the oral tradition passed down for generations and thus have proven the existence of the Shang. In 1899, in an apothecary, a Chinese scholar came across mysterious bones that were being ground up for use as medicine. He immediately recognized that the Chinese characters inscribed on them were very ancient. Subsequently, the origin of these bones was traced to fields in Anyang [anne- yawng], China where, beginning in 1928, excavations were carried out.

Similar to the discovery of the Indus Valley Civilization, a lost civilization was revealed on the North China Plain, the one difference being that traditional histories of a later time had documented this one.


“Excavation of Yinxu to Computers Reconstruct Yinxu.” China: Heritage of the Wild Dragon. 2000. Accessed April 9, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=11656&loid=610362. 5:23.


Figure 4.4 | Royal Tomb of Lady Fu Hao | The royal tomb of Lady Fu Hao, principal consort to King Wu Ding. Shang royalty were buried with a rich assortment of personal belongings, bronzes, and servants. Author: Chris Gyford Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

While we don’t see the monumental architecture found in Egypt or Mesopotamia of the same period, the Shang do build large protective walls indicating the presence of enemies and the need for protection.  Three features of Shang life that are distinctive are writing, bronze artwork and the creation of social classes.  Court records were kept on bamboo strips, but these have not survived over the centuries.  What have survived are written records on oracle bones and inscriptions on bronze artifacts. This evidence tells us that the Shang king was both a general and a priest. Shang society was hierarchal. Clan names were passed from father to son, and kingship was passed through the father’s lineage as well and never to women.  The Shang owned slaves, but most slaves were prisoners of war. Farmers in Shang society bear a resemblance both to their Neolithic ancestors and to feudal Europe. Finally, according to archeological evidence, writing was a major element in Chinese culture by 1200 BCE . The creation of a written language made record keeping possible and significantly solidified the power of the Yin. Literacy preserves learning, and, in this case, it preserved early Chinese culture and thought.

The archeological findings were substantial. A diverse array of settlements with a royal capital at the center covered nearly thirty square kilometers. Archaeologists have identified 53 pounded earth foundations as the floors of royal palace-temples and the ruins in their vicinity as residential areas for elites and commoners; sacrificial pits; and workshops for the production of bronze, pottery, and stone. Also, a royal cemetery with eight large tombs and dozens of smaller ones lies to the northwest. The larger graves were roughly half the size of a football field, each accessible through four ramps whose orientation to the cardinal directions gives them the appearance of crosses. Deep down at the bottom of each tomb’s central shaft, wooden chambers were built to house the dead bodies of Shang kings. Shockingly to us, dozens of human skeletons were placed above and below these, presumably as servants to accompany rulers in the afterlife.

Map 4.5 | Shang Dynasty Site at Anyang | This map shows features of the Shang Dynasty site at Anyang, including the location of the palaces and temples of the last nine Shang kings. Yinxu is a Chinese term for Shang ruins. Author: Zhichum Jing, Ph.D. Source: Original Work License: © Anyang Work Station of the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Used with permission.
Anyang, we now know, served as the last capital of the Shang Dynasty, from 1200 to 1046 BCE. It was at the center of a loosely governed territorial state located on the North China Plain. Shang kings directly governed the capital and its vicinity, but likely controlled areas farther out by building confederations with locally powerful lineage chieftains, and regularly hunting, warring, and carrying out rituals with them. Some of those leaders were directly related to the Shang kings, and some were allies by marriage.

Figure 4.5 | Cache of oracle bones found at Anyang, China Author: Xuan Che Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0
The bones are the most important source for understanding this kingdom. Most of the two hundred thousand fragments found so far are either turtle plastrons or scapula from cows. Interestingly, these were used for divination, which is why they are called oracle bones (see Figure 4.5). When Shang kings or his diviners sought to know the future, they would proceed to a temple erected in honor of a Shang deity or the spirits of deceased ancestors in the royal line. Before a stone tablet, they would make a statement about what might happen (for example, “It will rain,” or “If we attack the Mafang [high god], Di will confer assistance on us”), and then apply heat to a hole bored into a bone until it cracked. The crack was viewed as the response from the god or spirit. The king would then determine whether or not it was auspicious, and a record would be inscribed on the bone, sometimes including the actual outcome (see Figure 4.6). From these, we know that Shang elites believed that a high god Di, nature gods, and the spirits of deceased kings controlled the future. That is why Shang kings had massive bronzes cast and carried out sacrifices for them. The bronzes were filled with food and placed at the temples, literally to feed the spirits. Likewise, the sacrificial pits show that  a substantial shedding of blood for these higher powers was a regular occurrence. Shang elites worshipped their ancestors and frequently divined to determine their will.


“Celestial Mandate.” The Power to Predict: Chinese Astronomy and the Mandate of Heaven. 2000. Accessed April 9, 2020.https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=32959&loid=147053. 2:01.


“Oracle Bones.” The Power to Predict: Chinese Astronomy and the Mandate of Heaven. 2000. Accessed April 9, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=32959&loid=147055. 2:44.

The Western Zhou, c. 1046 – 771 BCE


“Early Rulers of China.” Ancient China. 1996. Accessed April 9, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=8695&loid=13447. 3:44.

The Shang constantly warred with their enemies, most notably the Qiang. This is seen in the written record and implied in the large defensive walls around Shang cities. A group known as the Zhou lived between the Shang and the Qiang. While the Shang were successful in defending themselves from the Qiang, around 1050 BCE, they were defeated by the Zhou.

Key Questions

  • Why were the Zhou (and not the Qiang) able to conquer Shang?
  • How was China was governed under the Western Zhou?
  • What caused the disintegration of an independent monarchy and the creation of a puppet government?


“Yin and Qiang at War to Yin Overcome the Qiang.” China: Heritage of the Wild Dragon. 2000. Accessed April 9, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=11656&loid=610363. 6:10.

The Book of Documents, one of the earliest Chinese books, includes an account of the Zhou defeat of the Shang. The Zhou are described as noble and just and their enemy is described as decadent, irresponsible, and sadistic. Of course, these records were written by the Zhou themselves, so we must consider that they would depict their own conquest in the best possible light.  The Book of Documents addresses the Mandate from Heaven explored under the Shang. It seems that Heaven took the mandate away from the Shang due to their corruption and bestowed it upon the Zhou.  In this way, the early Zhou kings were able to solidify their claims to rule.

Different from the Shang, the Zhou didn’t attempt to create a strong central government, and instead ruled through a feudal system. Family members and trusted allies were sent out with soldiers to establish control in the far reaches of the territory. In the early centuries of Zhou rule, during the Western Zhou (1046 – 771 BCE), Zhou kings dispatched kinsmen to territories he granted to them (see Map 4.6). These nobles were allowed to rule their own lands hereditarily, so long as they observed certain obligations to their king.

These lords– dukes, marquis, earls, and barons–then took their families, contingents of soldiers, and emblems of nobility to the granted territory and set up palaces and ancestral temples in walled towns. From there, these illustrious lineages governed a predominantly rural population of farmers living in villages where life was not easy. Living in hovels and with little opportunity to leave their lord’s manors, these farmers were required to work his lands and also to submit a portion of the harvest from their own small farms.

Historians call this method of governing Zhou kinship feudalism. Feudalism generally describes a political and economic system characterized by fragmented authority, a set of obligations (usually of a military nature) between lords and vassals, and grants of land (“fiefs”) by rulers in exchange for some type of service. Indeed, Zhou kings granted land and noble titles to kinsmen in exchange for obedience, periodic visits to the king’s palace, tribute, and military support. However, aside from the presence of royal overseers, a hereditary lord enjoyed relative sovereignty in his own domain. The glue that held the Zhou feudal order together was deference to the king and his Mandate and reverence for their shared history–including, most importantly, the deceased spirits of their related ancestors.

Map 4.6 | The Western Zhou Dynasty | The capital was located along the Wei River valley, at Haojing. The names of states granted by early Zhou kings to kinsmen and allies, along with their capitals, are indicated. Author: User “Philg88” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

By around 800 BCE, there were about 200 lords. This carried its own dangers as these lords could become too powerful in their own right and no longer be beholden to the king. In 771 BCE, the Zhou king was killed by his vassals and his son was put in charge as a kind of puppet-king.  In order to control the Zhou throne more completely, the capital of the Zhou was moved east and the people become known as the Eastern Zhou.

The Eastern Zhou, c. 771 – 221 BCE


Map 4.7 | Eastern Zhou States (fifth century) | Map of the Eastern Zhou states as they looked during the fifth century BCE. The Zhou kingdom itself had relocated farther east, with its capital at Chengzhou. The map also highlights the state of Qin. This rising power to the west would eventually conquer all of China and establish an empire Author: User “Yug” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The first era of Eastern Zhou rule was a tumultuous one. In essence the Zhou king was little more than a figure head and was never able to regain the authority of the crown. Family and religious ties were too thin and their military strength had waned.

In the absence of a strong central authority and the protection of a defensive military, states began making alliances. These alliances continually shifted and the constant redrawing of territorial allegiances that led to the Warring States period (ca. 403 – 256 BCE). Over the next 250 years, these states averaged one major battle per year until, at the very end, only one remained standing.

New technologies such as the crossbow, armor and helmets, the use of well-trained chariot-led infantry forces, and later the introduction of cavalry made this period particularly brutal. (View the image of a Warring States Period soldier at the following link: http://brandonqindynasty.weebly.com/uploads/1/0/3/9/10391259/8580061.jpeg). One description of an elite soldier states that he wears heavy armor, shoulders a large crossbow and fifty arrows, straps a halberd to his back, buckles a helmet to his head, and places a sword to his side.). Rulers of the various states wanted to increase their territories and needed larger armies to do so. In order to facilitate larger armies, they needed to increase agricultural production and they did this by draining marshes, digging irrigation ditches, and planting more land. Serfdom gradually declined as the labor of peasants became more necessary. The Warring States period’s focus on warfare led to new military practices and ideas. This may be seen in Sun Wu’s The Art of War, arguably the most important book of advice on military strategy and warfare ever produced. Master Sun was a military commander and strategist who served the lords of the state of Wu just prior to the onset of the Warring States period (c. fifth century BCE). The manual of military strategy and tactics attributed to him stresses the importance of formulating a strategy that insures victory prior to any campaigning. Stratagem is critical.


To mobilize large numbers of men for war and supply them with weapons and grain, kings devised ways to make their realms more productive and compliant with their will. Prior to the Warring States Period, it was the norm for nobility to hand out land in their states to kinsmen, just as it had been for the king during the Western Zhou. This practice meant that lesser but related aristocratic lineages lived in estates across each noble’s territory, while also serving as ministers at his court. For a king, however, these men might become an obstacle or pose a threat because they held this land hereditarily. Therefore, they devised better ways to control land in their realms. Whenever new territory was added or a noble line was extinguished, kings created counties and appointed magistrates to manage the villages and towns in that area. The magistrate’s job would then be to register the population, maintain law and order, collect tax revenue, and conscript people for labor projects and military campaigns. And rather than give those posts to kinsmen, kings appointed men from the lower ranks of the nobility or commoners based on their loyalty and merit. Stated more simply, Warring States Period rulers created administrative units and a civil service. Their embryonic bureaucracies included such features as a system of official posts, salaries paid in grain and gifts, administrative codes, and methods for measuring a servant’s performance. Thus, by the end of this period, largely owing to the demands of warfare, the Zhou feudal order had been supplanted by a small number of powerful territorial states with centralized monarchies. Among them, the most successful was the state of Qin, which eventually conquered all of China and became an empire.

But these centuries were not only marked by the growth of states and accelerating warfare between them. Burgeoning turmoil also inspired much thinking about what was needful to restore order and create a good society, as well as what defined the good life. Two major philosophical traditions emerged to address these issues: Confucianism and Daoism.

Philosophy in Ancient China

China’s three major pre-modern philosophical and religious traditions are Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. The first two had their origins in the later centuries of the Eastern Zhou, while Buddhism only began to arrive from South Asia in the first century C.E. Confucianism and Daoism were both responses to the crisis presented by the breakdown of the Zhou feudal order and escalating warfare in China.

Daoism develops, c. 600 BCE


Figure 4.9 | An image representing basic elements of Daoist cosmology | According to that cosmology, the yin and yang (at center, black and white) arise from one underlying primordial reality, and then differentiate into powers represented by eight trigrams (whose names are indicated in Chinese on the periphery) Author: User “Pakua_with_name” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 2.5

Those who practiced the philosophy that became Daoism or Taoism believed that working to make things better in earthly society simply made it worse, and that only by following the (yin-yang) flow of the Tao could society be improved. They wanted separate private and public lives and rulers who left the people alone.

Unlike other schools of thought, it is difficult to point to one creator of Daoism. The earliest Dao teachings come from the Laozi (“Old Master”) and the Zhuangzi (“Master Zhuang”), two books dating to the third century BCE, although the development of Daoism dates almost three hundred years earlier. Historians believe the “Old Master” was a fictional sage invented by Warring States Period philosophers who compiled the book attributed to him. Master Zhuang, however, lived during the fourth century BCE.

In later centuries, the Daoism of these early philosophers was taken in new directions. The definition of the Way was broadened to include the idea that individuals have a spiritual essence in need of harmonizing and liberation. By so doing, it was believed, one’s health would be preserved and life prolonged. Daoists even entertained the idea that one could become immortal. To achieve these goals, techniques were developed, including special dietary regimens, yoga, Chinese boxing, meditation, and alchemy.

Over the course of the first millennium CE, Daoism also became a popular and institutionalized religion. Daoist masters, claiming divine inspiration, composed esoteric texts for their followers. These texts explained how the natural world originated from a primordial ether (qi) and its division into two polar forces: the yin and yang (see Figure 4.9). They presented a universe with multiple heavenly and hellish realms populated with divinities and demons. The principal purpose of these Daoists was to attend to a person’s physical and psychological well-being. That involved not only teaching individual techniques for preserving the life spirit, but also the use of exorcism and faith healing to remove malevolent influences. Daoists also developed communal prayers and rituals that could cure illness, free souls from hell, win blessings from heaven, and eliminate sins from the community. Eventually, a Daoist church developed, with its own ordained priesthood, temples, and monasteries.


“History and Beliefs of Taoism.” A Separate Peace: Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Shintoism. 1998. Accessed April 9, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=8315&loid=47299. 3:35.

Key Question

  • What was the impact of philosophy on Chinese rule?
  • How is this impact similar to the Greeks, the Indians, the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians and how does it differ?


Confucius and Confucianism, c. 551 – 479 BCE


Figure 4.8 | Portrait of Confucius from the Tang Dynasty Author: User “Louis le Grand” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain
Confucius lived just prior to the Warring States Period (551-479 BCE). What little we know about his life comes primarily from the Analects, a record of conversations Confucius held with his students compiled after he died. In later centuries, in China, Confucius was revered as a sage and teacher, and even today outside of China some people might think of him as a stern pedant, perhaps calling to mind sayings beginning with “The Master said.” However, in the context of his time, Confucius was anything but stiff and rather a dynamic individual who believed he was mandated by Heaven to return the world to a more socially and politically harmonious time. The Analects not only shows a serious and learned man, but also someone capable in archery and horsemanship, who loved music and ritual, and who untiringly travelled the feudal states in the  hopes of serving in a lord’s retinue (see Figure 4.8).

Confucius was born to a family of minor nobility and modest means in the feudal state of Lu. His father died about the time Confucius was born, and he was raised by his mother, who also passed away when Confucius was young. Like other young men of similar background, he had access to an education and could aspire to serve in some capacity in a feudal state, perhaps at the lord’s court, or as an official or soldier. Confucius chose to become learned and seek office. To his mind, he was living at a time when civilization was collapsing and society was decaying. He believed that, during the early Zhou, the nobility was honorable, observed moral codes, and upheld social standards. He believed that a golden age existed in the past and wished to transmit the ethical values of that time. However, in the course of doing so, he reinterpreted the past and imbued the virtues he stressed with rich, new meanings.

Confucius focused on ethical and moral actions rather than mystical philosophy Confucius emphasized that a society cannot function if people are incapable of taking other’s perspectives and doing their best for them. In addition, he insisted that such virtues as humanity are most fully demonstrated when individuals observe good etiquette. Decorum was important to Confucius. The spread of Confucian ideas owes more to his followers than Confucius himself, over the next three centuries. Anti-Confucianists such as Mozi encouraged the articulation of Confucian thought put forward by men such as Mencius and Xunzi.

Key Questions

  • What ideas did Confucius teach? How were these ideas spread?


“Confucius to Chinese Social Reform.” Age of Empire: History of the World. 2012. Accessed April 9, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=57507&loid=610365. 6:19.


The Qin Dynasty, c. 256 – 206 BCE


“Qin Dynasty.” The Word and the Sword: History of the World. 2012. Accessed April 9, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=57508&loid=258526. 2:02.

In 256 BCE, the Qin overthrew the Eastern Zhou. Thirty years later, the Qin would unify China once again, but this period of control would be brief as the Qin Dynasty would collapse less than 20 years after unification.  The accomplishments of the First Emperor (Shihuangdi) are vast and include the construction of the Great Wall of China and the reunification of China.

In 1974, farmers digging a well in a field located in northwest China uncovered fragments of a clay figurine. Little did they know, they had chanced upon what has turned out to be one of the most fascinating archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century. Subsequent excavation revealed that beneath the fragment lay a massive underground pit filled with over seven thousand terracotta figurines modeling archers, infantrymen, and charioteers. Another pit contained terracotta cavalry and infantry units that likely composed a military guard, while a third one contained high ranking officers and war chariots in what was perhaps a command post. These three pits are part of a much larger complex of underground vaults spread across twenty-two square miles. Most importantly, a large, forested burial mound towers over the neighboring fields containing these underground armies. This is where the First Emperor of Qin [cheen] was buried after he died in 210 BCE. Although it hasn’t yet been excavated, experts believe the tomb is a microcosm of the emperor’s palace, capital city, and empire. The pits, then, contained the army protecting his realm in the afterlife. With this discovery, our understanding of how China was unified under one empire after a long period of warfare was advanced immeasurably.


“Bingmayong’s Terra Cotta Warrior to Shi Huangdi’s Armory.” China: Heritage of the Wild Dragon. 2000. Accessed April 9, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=11656&loid=610366. 4:56.

In 219 BCE, while touring his realm, the First Emperor of Qin [cheen] (259 – 210 BCE) erected a stone tablet atop a mountain with an inscription proclaiming:

They [the Qin ministers] recall and contemplate the times of chaos: When [regional lords] apportioned the land, established their states, And thus unfolded the pattern of struggle. Attacks and campaigns were daily waged;  They shed their blood in the open countryside. . . . Now today, the August Emperor has unified All-under-Heaven into one family— Warfare will not arise again! Disaster and harm are exterminated and erased, The black-headed people live in peace and stability, benefits and blessings are lasting and enduring.[1]

Indeed, just two years prior, in 221 BCE, the First Emperor had brought the Warring States Period to a close by defeating the last remaining state. Hence, he had realized the aspirations held by the many rulers he subjugated, that is, to unify the known world under one powerful monarch and, by so doing, to initiate an age of peace and prosperity, one rooted in obedience to a sagely ruler.

Map 4.8 | The Qin Empire in 210 BCE | The capital was located along the Wei River Valley at Xianyang. Author: User “Itsmine” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The title “First Emperor of Qin,” however, was assumed by this conqueror only in the wake of his final victory, and it made sense. Having crushed the many warring kingdoms, the First Emperor did indeed create something new and more significant: an immense territorial state centrally administered from his capital, by a monarch with unchallenged sovereignty.  So how did his state–the Qin kingdom–prevail?


“First Emperor of China.” Ancient China. 1996. Accessed April 9, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=8695&loid=13448. 4:55.

When the First Emperor inherited the Qin throne at the age of 13 in 246 BCE, he became King Zheng [jung], young ruler of the most powerful of the seven remaining Warring States. Looking back, he would understand that he had inherited a state whose origins dated back to the Western Zhou Period, when land to the west of the Zhou kings was granted as a fief to his chieftain forbears and the title of duke was bestowed upon them. The Dukes of Qin were important players throughout the centuries of warfare and alliances so characteristic of the Eastern Zhou, and especially after the reforms of Duke Xiao [she-ow] (r. 361 – 338). These reforms were based on the advice of his chancellor Shang Yang [shawng yawng], an individual famed for being one of the founders of another major intellectual tradition that developed during the Warring States Period: Legalism (see below).

Shang Yang introduced many measures, laying the foundations for future Qin greatness. He believed that the basis for state power lay with an obedient and disciplined farming population, because that was the principal source of revenue and conscripts for the army. So he organized villages across the land into units of five families each, and made the members of each unit responsible for each other. Every member would be rewarded based on the amount of grain the unit produced or the number of severed heads returned from the battlefield. For meritorious service to the state, a unit could advance along a system of ranks, each of which bestowed certain privileges. But should any member commit a crime, everyone would be severely punished. To make this more effective, the Qin state developed a legal code with clear lists of penalties for specific crimes, made it publicly available, and applied it uniformly to people regardless of their social status. Also, the Qin was among the most effective in establishing a civil service and county system to administer the law. Qin subjects lived under a regime with a transparent set of expectations, and also a system of rewards and punishments. Such rationality in matters of efficiently organizing a state through the uniform application of laws and regularizing administration, as implemented by Shang Yang, were a mark of legalist thinkers’ methods.

After Duke Xiao’s and Shang Yang’s time, Qin rulers assumed the title of king and engaged in numerous battles, destroying several neighboring states. Some of these were major engagements. According to one account, after the Qin kingdom defeated the state of Zhao, a Qin general ordered 400,000 captured soldiers buried alive. Also, the Qin put an end to the Zhou royal line after conquering their territory in 256 BCE. Hence, King Zheng was heir to a kingdom whose success in battle derived in part from legalist reforms. In line with that tradition, he too employed a legalist advisor.

Map 4.9 | Warring States & Qin Conquest | This map shows states that yet remained at the end of the Warring States Period, when the state of Qin was unifying China through massive military campaigns. Dates for the fall of each state are indicated, the last being the state of Qi in 221 BCE Author: Ian Mladjov Source: Original Work License: © Ian Mladjov. Used with permission.

As of 230 BCE, only six other Warring States remained. Over the next decade, King Zheng led a series of massive campaigns each of which entailed both sides fielding over one hundred thousand soldiers. This was a bloody time, as one state after another fell. By 221 BCE, the Chinese realm was unified under Qin rule.


“Shi Huangdi and the Iron Age.” China: Heritage of the Wild Dragon. 2000. Accessed April 9, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=11656&loid=14489 2:44.

Although the Qin Dynasty was brief-lived, it had a lasting effect on China because of the stable administrative foundation it laid. The First Emperor of Qin and his advisors invented the title used by all subsequent rulers. They made newly conquered territory a part of their centralized bureaucracy. From his royal court and central administration, the emperor governed a land organized into a hierarchical system of commanderies (provinces that began as military outposts) and counties. His regime standardized currency and the system of writing, and issued regulations for uniform weights and measures.

The emperor was also a great builder. Over 6800 kilometers of road were laid to connect the capital at Xianyang to each province and the northern border. Walls built by former northern states to protect against non-Chinese nomads to their north were linked together in an earlier version of the Great Wall. All of these measures served to facilitate communication and commerce across the land and, therefore, political stability and cultural unification. As a symbol of his power, the First Emperor also constructed an imposing palace (see Figure 4.10) and mausoleum. For all these reasons, historians mark Qin unification as the beginning of China’s imperial era.

Legalism Develops, c. 250 BCE

The third great school of thought, and one that was very important in its own day, was Legalism. Legalists were also concerned with ending the Warring States period. They believed that peace was required to create a strong, unified country, but they believed the only way to achieve peace was through a strong military force that used war as a tool.

Key Questions

  • How did the teachings of Daoism, Legalism and other Chinese schools of thought differ from Confucianism? Are there similarities? If so, what are they?


The legalists were in tune with the efforts rulers were putting forth to strengthen their states. Their goal was to devise the best techniques for organizing a state’s territory and people so as to maximize a ruler’s power and control in times of both war and peace. Legalists believed that the best way to do so was to concentrate authority in one central administration governed by an absolute monarch. The Legalists were realists who saw other ideologies as ephemeral and impractical. With the end of the Warring States period, Legalism became the philosophy of the Qin Dynasty as noted above.


“Qin Legacy.” The Word and the Sword: History of the World. 2012. Accessed April 9, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=57508&loid=258528. 3:46.


[1] Adapted from a translation in Yuri Pines, “The Messianic Emperor: A New Look at Qin’s Place in China’s History,” 264-265.