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Ancient China

East Asia Geography

Physical map of East Asia

East Asia is home to long rivers, high plateaus, dry deserts, and rugged mountains. East Asia is similar to South Asia because rugged mountains and hazardous deserts create a deadly barrier to foreigners. For thousands of years, East Asian people were isolated from the rest of the world—this allowed them to develop their culture in a very unique way without any interference from outsiders.  East Asia is also farther away from other cultural centers. During ancient times, people didn't travel like people do today. 


Mountains dominate East Asia’s western landscape. The Himalaya Mountains are the southern border between China and India. At 29,029 feet, the Himalayas are the highest mountains in the world. The Plateau of Tibet is on the Chinese side of the Himalaya Mountains. The Himalaya Mountains and the Plateau of Tibet were formed by the slow crash of the Indian subcontinent into the Asian continent. Another Mountain range in western China is the Tian Shan. The name Tian Shan means “heavenly mountains”. They get their name from the beautiful landscapes in this area. The Tian Shan's highest point is 24,406 feet. 

East Asia also has vast deserts. Most of western East Asia has an Arid Climate. The Gobi Desert is found along the border between Mongolia and China. The Gobi is the 5th largest desert in the world and is also the coldest. It is common to see frost or even snow on the sand and gravel dunes. Most of western China is very dry because of the rain shadow created by the Himalaya Mountains. A rain shadow is a dry area on the leeward (opposite of windward) side of a mountainous area. The mountains block rain-producing weather and cast a "shadow" of dryness behind them. The Taklimakan Desert is found in the dry west. It is framed by the Kunlun Mountains to the south and the Tian Shan Mountains to the north. There is very little water in the Taklimakan and crossing it is extremely hazardous.  The mountains and deserts have played an important role in Asian history since they created natural barriers to outsiders.

Picture of Flooded Rice Paddy

Despite the dry and mountainous terrain of East Asia, there are some low plains suitable for early civilization.  The North China Plain is an alluvial plain found along the Huang River on the east coast of China. Alluvial means its made of rich soil deposited by a flooding river.  The North China Plain is the main area where farming is done in China. The main food grown in China is rice. Rice grows best in warm areas that have flooded fields—often called rice paddies (pictured on left). Since rice produces more food per acre than wheat, it can support a much higher population.  

Heavy summer rains and snowmelt support 2 large river systems in East Asia. The Huang He or Yellow River is the 6th longest river in the world.   It is called the Yellow River because the water picks up yellowish loess or silt from the western half of the river (pictured on right). The river is known for the amount of silt or small pieces of dirt it carries. Geographers estimate about 1.4 billion tons of silt flow into the Yellow Sea. Along the Huang in the North China Plain is where China’s early civilization began. The River is also called “China’s Sorrow” because of its deadly floods.

Arial photgraph of Yellow soil in China

East Asia has many different climate types.  Much of China has a Humid Subtropical climate. Another thing that affects the precipitation in East Asia is monsoon winds. Similar to South Asia, the summer monsoon brings heavy rain and the winter monsoon is very dry. This can cause horrible flooding and destruction. Most of the river water in East Asia comes from melting snow and ice in the mountains, but heavy rainfall creates conditions for natural disasters.


More than two-thirds of China is covered in mountains and deserts. Arable land or land that can be farmed, is an important resource. Despite China's large amount of land, very little of it can be farmed. Only about 14 percent of China can be farmed. Many East Asian nations use terrace farming (pictured on right) to create more land that can be farmed. Terraces are created by cutting “steps” into a mountain side and using the flat part of the “step” to grow rice. They leave a lip or edge on each terrace that keeps the water in the paddy.  

This is a picture of Terrace Farming

Early Chinese History

This is a small piece of the oldest pottery ever found in China.

Humans probably reached East Asia between 30,000 and 50,000 years ago. Recently, pieces of clay pottery have been discovered in a Chinese hunter-gatherer cave that dates back to 18,000 years ago—this is the oldest pottery ever discovered (pictured left). Historians believe farming began in China about 7,000 BCE. The first crop grown was a grain called millet. Rice was farmed around the same time, and there is some evidence that points to rice being farmed before millet.


Farming created more food, which increased populations and allowed people to do different jobs besides constantly looking for food. Eventually, people needed leaders to organize irrigation and store food. Families that controlled land and irrigation became powerful. So, civilization developed in China the same way it developed in South AsiaSouthwest Asia, and North Africa. This change was very gradual and happened differently in certain areas depending on the resources that were available. Some groups never settled, they migrated north, maybe following herds of animals. They eventually crossed the frozen Bering Strait and migrated all the way to North America. They arrived between 15,000 and 20,000 years ago and became the native people of North America. The Navajo, Aztec, Inuit, Inca, Apache, and Shawnee are all decedents of East Asian early people to decided not to stay in one place and farm. 

Ancient Chinese Civilization 

It is difficult to be sure about China’s early ancient history. Most historians agree that civilization occurred sometime around 2000 BCE along the Yellow River.  China was home to one of the four early civilizations found around the world. However, China is different from the other civilizations. The culture that developed in Ancient China thousands of years ago became the nation of China that exists today.  Of course there have been changes along the way, but the same culture has continued.  The other three early civilizations have faded away or been completely overtaken by new people. For this reason, people say China is the oldest continuous civilization in the world. In China, the powerful families that controlled land became leaders of family-controlled governments called dynasties.  Chinese history from ancient times until about 100 years ago is divided by different dynasties. To help keep track, we've highlighted the dynasties below. There are many more, but we've tried to focus on the major dynasties that shaped Chinese history.

Map of the land controlled by the Xia Dynasty
Map of the land controlled by the Shang Dynasty

The Xia Dynasty (2000 BCE-1600 BCE) was the first dynasty in Chinese history. It lasted around 500 years and included the reigns of 17 emperors--an emperor is similar to a king. The Xia people were farmers, with bronze weapons and clay pottery. One artifact called a "bi" (pictured on right) seems to be a burial artifact.  Bi's have been found throughout Chinese history.  Silk is one of the most important products China has ever created.  Most historians agree that the Xia Dynasty was producing silk clothing, though silk production may have started much earlier.  Silk is made by unraveling the cocoons of Silk Worms.  Each cocoon is made from a single silk thread.  Not all historians agree that the Xia was a real dynasty.  Some believe the story of the Xia were just a mythical story because the stories sound embellished and they don't match exactly with the archeology that has been discovered so far.  The Xia stories come from written history from the next dynasty, but there are some artifacts to support the existence of the Xia Dynasty.

This is a picture of ancient oracle bones.

The Shang Dynasty (1600 BCE-1046 BCE) was originally a clan living along the Yellow River during the Xia Dynasty. A clan is group of very close families that are often viewed as one big family.  The Shang conquered Xia land and gained control of Chinese civilization. The Shang Dynasty lasted over 600 years and was led by 30 different emperors. The Shang were the oldest Chinese civilization to leave behind written records, called oracle bones—turtle shells, cattle shoulders or other bones on which were written important clues to Chinese history. Oracle bones were often used to determine what the gods/nature wanted. If the kingdom needed to know something such as 'will the king have a son' or 'should we go to war', it would be carved into bone or shell.  They would then heat the bone until it cracked.  The crack lines would reveal the wishes of the gods--this process of learning what the gods want is called divination.  During the Shang Dynasty people worshipped many gods.  Ancestor worship was very important since they believed their family members became god-like in the after life. Shang government invented new ways to make bronze crafts.  Thousands of bronze artifacts have been found including some that weigh nearly 2000 pounds.  Its important to understand that other smaller cultures existed in the same time as the Shang in different parts of China, but the Shang left written records and seem to be the most advanced.  Eventually, the Shang were defeated by the Zhou clan.

Map of the Zhou Dynasty

The Zhou Dynasty (1046 BCE-256 BCE) lasted longer than any other dynasty in Chinese history. The Zhou (pronounced "Jow"), time period is divided into parts called the Western Zhou and Eastern Zhou because there was a brief disruption in their control of the government.  The Zhou battled with invading armies from the north (Mongolians), so they built large mounds of dirt and rock as barriers that would slow down the enemy--this was not the Great Wall yet, but the idea came before the wall.  The crossbow was another invention of this time--it was extremely effective and feared by enemies.  During the Zhou, the use of iron was introduced to China, which begins the Iron Age in China. Iron tipped weapons were much stronger, and the iron plow helped to increase food production.

This is a collection of pictures of bronze Zhou Art

Agriculture was usually directed by the government.  All farming lands were owned by nobles (wealthy).  They allowed peasants to farm the land similar to the feudal system that developed in Europe in the Middle Ages. The government directed farming by dividing a piece of land into nine squares in the shape of the character for "water well," (井), with the grain from the middle square taken by the government.  The individual farmers kept the square of grain in the surrounding squares and worked the middle square together. This allowed the government to store extra food in case disaster struck.

This is a graphic of the Zhou Farming method
Painting of Confucius during the Tang Dynasty

During the Zhou Dynasty Taoism (also spelled Daoism) and Confucianism developed—the two most important Chinese philosophies. A philosophy is a basically the way of life that helps to understand the world. In this case, Chinese philosophies are very similar to religions.  The great Chinese philosopher Confucius developed a way of life called Confucianism. Confucianism says that all people can be taught and improved if they do the right things.  People should focus on doing the right thing for others, make family the most important,  and respect elders of society. Family is extremely important in this philosophy. Confucianism is still important today, but it did not become widely followed in China until the Han Dynasty. Confucianism formed the cultural values and social beliefs that shape Chinese culture today. 

Image of the yin-yang symbol

The founder of Taoism was named Laozi. Taoism is all about following the "Tao", which means the "way" or "path".  The Tao is the driving force behind all things in the universe.  The Yin Yang symbol is usually associated with Taoism.  Taoists believe you should live in harmony with nature, be humble, live simply without too many possessions  and have compassion for all life. These philosophies are different from religions because they don't have an all powerful god or gods, although the idea of ancestors and nature are often treated like gods.


The power of the emperor was also related to religious beliefs. The Zhou talked about the Mandate of Heaven as the law that allowed Chinese emperors to rule—it said that the ruler was blessed by Heaven to rule the people.  If he lost the blessing of heaven he should be removed. Things that proved the ruling family had lost the Mandate of Heaven were natural disasters and rebellions.  For example, if a draught or flood was particularly bad, people may begin to think the ruling family had lost the Mandate of Heaven. This was a change from the past belief of the "divine right of kings" which is basically the children of the king or lord automatically became the next king or lord once the father dies. The Zhou interpretation of the Mandate of Heaven was different because there was no guarantee that the children of the emperor would "hold the Mandate" or even that the Zhou family would keep the Mandate of Heaven.

Imperial China

Map of Qin empire

From 221 BCE to 206 BCE the Qin Dynasty (pronounced "chin") gained control of civilized China.  The Qin didn’t last very long, but made an important impact on China’s future. During and before this time, Ancient Chinas was not one large unified culture of people. China is very large and there were very different regions and peoples outside of the colored areas you see in these maps. The Qin greatly expanded their civilized territory and brought more regions under their control and connected them with "imperial roads" This expansion of territory under one ruler created China’s first empire. The brutal leader Qin Shi Huang declared himself the first true emperor of China.


This dynasty designed standard currency (money), standard wheel axle size (to make roads all one size), and standard laws that applied to the entire empire. Standardize means to make the same.  The Qin also standardized the different systems of writing into one system called small seal script that much of China still uses today.  Qin Shi Huang enforced a philosophy called Legalism that focuses on people following laws and taking instructions from the government. However, many followers of Confucianism were more loyal to their family and other Confucian traditions. To silence their protests, the emperor banished or put to death many Confucian teachers and burned their Confucian books. At one point Qin Shi Huang killed 460 Confucian teachers by burying them alive!

Painting of Emperor Qinshihuang

Mongolian invasions from the north were a constant problem in China.  The Qin government ordered walls built in the past to be connected to make a larger and stronger wall.  This is usually recognized as the beginning of the Great Wall of China.  Despite what you might think, the building of the Great Wall was unpopular with the people who saw it as a waste of resources.  Each dynasty built new wall or improved the previous dynasty's wall.  Most of the Qin Wall is gone today or been replaced.  The wall that still exists today was mainly built by a later dynasty called the Ming.  A number of public projects, including canals and bridges, were also built to help strengthen trade and transportation.

An amazing tomb was made for the emperor, larger than a football field and larger than anything in Ancient Egypt. It is still sealed, but legend says there are rivers of mercury and models of the entire Chinese empire inside.  Outside the tomb is a life-sized army of clay soldiers, discovered in 1974 CE.  This is known as the Terra Cotta Army.  Terra cotta means baked clay. There are over 8,000 unique soldiers, over 600 total horses, 130 chariots, as well as acrobats and musicians--all individually, hand made of clay! Archeologists are still trying to put them back together as most were broken into pieces over time. Although the Qin Dynasty was short-lived, its standardization of Chinese life left a deep impact on later dynasties in China. It is from this dynasty that we get the name “China”.  The first emperor died in 210 BCE and was replaced by a weak and young son.  Eventually, rebellion started and a member of the Qin army took control of the empire, which began a new dynasty.

Great Wall of Qin Dynasty

The Han Dynasty began in 206 BCE and lasted 400 years until 220 CE and is considered to be one of the greatest periods in the entire history of China. Like the Zhou Dynasty, the Han Dynasty is divided into Western Han and Eastern Han because of a short disruption when someone tried to replace the Han family--they were unsuccessful.  Han culture defines Chinese culture today.  In fact, most Chinese citizens today claim "Han" as their ethnic background.  The government made Confucianism the official belief system of the empire.  The empire grew greatly during this time, conquering land in modern Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam, and even into Central Asia. The empire had grown so much the emperor needed a larger government to rule it. He started a system of examinations (tests) to find qualified people to do civil (government) jobs such as road building or tax collecting. This system of tests is called Imperial Examinations. In fact, most modern nations use a similar system to find qualified people in a fair way.

Terracotta Army Pit 1
Clay Soldiers
Han Dynasty map
Painting of people making paper
Porceilan bowl

Many things were invented during this time including paper, steel, the compass, and porcelain. Porcelain is a very hard type of ceramic (clay pottery) used to make crafts that were highly valued by people around the world. Porcelain is made from special clay that is heated until it melts and basically turns to glass. Porcelain dishes, cups, and bowls are often called "Fine China" because until a few hundred years ago, all porcelain was produced China. The Han Dynasty was also known for its military power. The empire expanded westward as far as the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, which allowed the government to guard and control the trade traffic across Central Asia. Trading goods was a major part of ancient economies. Chinese goods often found their way thousands of miles away from China. In fact, during this time Chinese goods such as silk fabric, porcelain, spices and many other products were becoming very popular in Ancient Rome. Merchants and traders would travel in groups called caravans across mountains and deserts to sell their goods.

The paths of caravan traffic are often called the "Silk Road" because the route was used to export Chinese silk. The Silk Road trade were the first consistent contact that China made with other civilizations. It wasn't only good that were exchanged along the Silk Road, but also ideas. Another important result of the Silk Road travel was the religion of Buddhism reaching China. Buddhism is a major religion in China today.

Chinese dynasties would continue to rule China until Medieval times when the Mongolians finally conquered China a little over 800 years ago in the 1200's CE.  Chinese families eventually fought back and regained control, which they maintained until 1911 when Chinese people finally forced the emperor out of power for the first time. This left a big empty space for control of China. As other groups tried to grab the power of the government a civil war began.  Again, China is unique because they have continued the same culture since ancient times without invasion from other civilizations armies or even ideas until the very end.  Oddly enough, there are very few examples of architecture from Ancient China or even Imperial China. The reason is because China primarily used wood as its main building material.  Similar to Ancient Iraq (Mesopotamia) using clay, very few ancient structures exist today, but the lack of stone monuments in no way represents a lack of advanced society, innovation, and greatness. 

Silk Road map
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