Ancient China in a Nutshell

Being one of the four major ancient civilizations, ancient China has a particularly rich history. Here we try to give a concise summation on the entire background of China – from its earliest days to the biggest of Chinese dynasties. It was around 5000 BC when Chinese started farming and domesticating animals like dogs and pigs. People in ancient China were now living in settlements around Yellow river in the north and the Yangtze on the south. In fact, the Yellow river banks are regarded as the cradle of ancient Chinese civilization. It subsequently gave rise to earliest of Chinese dynasties – the Xia and Shang dynasties. As a founder of Xia dynasty, Yu the Great gained popular support of diverse contemporary tribes. He curbed the devastation that annual flooding used to bring and saw through an over-haul in farming productions. Eventually, he established himself as a worthy successor of the Legendary Five Emperors in ancient China.

As the ancient Chinese societies started to take a more structured shape under the rule of stable dynasties, they gradually inclined towards a class based orientation. The tradition of keeping work slaves began with Xia dynasty in 21st century BC. It only further flourished during the period of Shang and Western Zhou dynasties. By the time Shang era had arrived, people in China were extensively using bronze to make weapons, vessels, sickles, ploughs and much more. But soon, there were too many dynasties indulged in endless fights to occupy new land and labor. After centuries of turmoil and skirmish, Ying Zheng brought together the different warring regions under the canopy of a unified state. In 221 BC, Zheng declared himself the first emperor of Qin dynasty – the sole ruler of contemporary mainland China. Now known by the name of Shi Huang Di (The First Emperor), Zheng established a uniform government with standardized rules and reforms. He instituted measures for currencies and weights and also began construction of the Great Wall. Later Han dynasty along with subsequent middle age dynasties would further build on his standards. In fact it was during the peak of Han dynasty that trade in ancient China reached new heights. When the Han emperor Zhang Qian bought much of the route to western world under his control, the legendary “Silk Route” was formed. In the next 426 years of Han regime all over a multi-ethnic yet centralized China, it became more united than ever before. After enjoying an unprecedented period of trade surplus, general peace and prosperity, the Han dynasty started to decline in around 168 AD. We will delve more into that in the middle age China section.

The major highlight of ancient Chinese history is the four great inventions that had a lasting impact on the development of human civilization as we know it today. These inventions include paper making, gunpowder, printing and compass. Truth be told, it was only paper whose invention can be truly attributed to ‘ancient’ China as it was invention way back in 105 AD. But it goes without saying that other major inventions and endeavors were in fact a comprehensive culmination of a legendary civilization that starts millennia before. The stories behind how these inventions were made are as fascinating. Gun powder was contrived inadvertently while Chinese alchemists were attempting to formulate the magical potion for immortality. Similarly, it was the engraved name seals that inspired the Chinese to invent fixed type engraved printing. The ancient Chinese culture has a concoction of spiritual and historically significant material that stood the test of time for thousands of years. There were many outside influences and invasions (especially from the Mongols), but ancient Chinese culture preserved its unique identity like none other.

How Ancient China was originated (facts and myths)

The prehistoric period in ancient China starts somewhere around 1.7 million years ago, leading up to the initial years of Xia Dynasty in 21st century BC. Origin of ancient China and its subsequent prehistory deals more with myths and legends than with hard facts and archaeological evidences. Some of the popular mythical stories include the creation of heaven and earth by Pan Gu, Goddess Nv Wa repairing a broken sky by melting rocks and so on. To study a history that spans over such a huge period of time, historians divide the ancient Chinese prehistory into two parts – the Paleolithic Age and the Neolithic age.

Paleolithic era dates so far back that it even precedes Chinese pre-history. It is said to have started around 2.5 million years ago and was succeeded by Neolithic period about 10,000 years ago. This period is primary characterized by the gradual evolution of contemporary hominids into subsequent modern man. Though there isn’t any accurate evidence to back the fact, but it is said the earliest of hominid lived around 1.7 million years ago in China. It was known as Yuanmou Man and was found in present day Yunnan Province. The first detailed human remains found in China were of the famous Peking Man (Homo erectus pekinensis). Its relics were discovered in form of large number of skeletal remnants at Zhoukoudian near Beijing between 1929 and 1937 AD. With an estimated age of half a million years, the Peking man is expected to have emerged from earlier Homo erectus that migrated from then Africa to Eastern Asia. The earliest of east Asian modern man, Homo sapiens, appeared only around 100,000 years ago.

Around 10,000 years ago, there was a gigantic shift in lifestyle of contemporary East Asians. Settlements living in the fertile banks of Yellow river started cultivating plants for food. They began domesticating wild animals and discovered pottery – embarking a new age that we now call the Neolithic era. Mankind in China now started living in closed communities. They were growing plants not just for food but also as medicines and herbs, and as strong fibre material. They were now making pots and jars to store food and creating a staple surplus for their closely knitted groups. The earliest of Neolithic jars excavated from Henan province dated around 7000-6600 BC. These jars had high necks and rims and contained a fermented residue of beverage, honey and fruit. As reflected by the agricultural, social and behavioural progress made in the Neolithic period, it was a far advanced age than the preceding Paleolithic era. This progress culminated into the origin of systematic patriarchal clan societies where males dominated authority and social structure.

These individual societies followed their own culture and traditions. Modern archaeologists made arduous analysis for every minute difference in the jar decorations and shapes to tell apart between these cultures. Yangshao is said to be the first Neolithic culture in ancient China from around 5000-3000 BC. The Yangshao traditions were followed by inhabitants in areas stretching from Yellow river plains in the east to the Gansu in the west. Dewankou culture influenced eastern territories in Neolithic China around the same period. The lower Yangtse saw flourish of three different cultures – Majiabang, Hemudu and Qingliangang, in between 4500 – 3000 BC. The Neolithic culture in ancient China lasted until around 4000 years ago. It ended with the advent of Bronze Age along with the subsequent rise of Xia dynasty in 2070 BC.

Development of Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China is arguably the most famous landmark of ancient as well as modern China. It has been a vivid reflection of rich and diverse history behind ancient China. This fortified barrier runs along Northern China stretching 13, 171 miles in length from west to east. In the west, it starts at the Jiayuguan Pass leading up to opening of Bohai Gulf in the Hushan Mountains of Liaoning Province in the east. Along this extensive path, it crosses eleven different provinces and two autonomous regions – Inner Mongolia and Ningxia. Contrary to the general misconception, the Great Wall wasn’t built under the rule of a single emperor. Most of the history books tell us Emperor Qin Shihuang of Qin dynasty first initiated the construction of the Great Wall to fortify his kingdom against northern rebels. But actual origin of the wall dates far back into the time period of Western Zhou Dynasty ( 11 century BC – 771 BC). At that time, the Zhou Empire was desperate to set up a strong defensive fort to curb repeated attacks from the nomadic tribe of Yanyun. Then, the subsequent fall of Zhou led to the period of Warring States (476 BC – 221 BC). There were seven different factions constantly at war with each other. They were also giving significant efforts in constructing a defensive perimeter against imminent attacks. This resulted in formation of multiple walls that stretched along different directions. When Qin Shihuang finally unified the warring states into Qin dynasty, he not only directed his men to connect all existing walls, but also further extended them to defend against possible invasion attempts.

The subsequent dynasties that followed would keep on further extending the Great Wall’s reach along the northern borders. The dynasties of Han, Sui, Tang, Song and Yuan kept on rebuilding and expanding the physical fortification of Great Wall in the face of omnipresent danger from north. It was perhaps during the reign of Ming Dynasty when the Great Wall saw a period of unprecedented expansion and reinforcement unlike ever before. The famous Ming General Qi Jiguang saw through the completion of most well preserved sections (Simatai, Mutianyu, Jinshanling and Badaling) of the wall. The Ming expansion that went through 14h to 17th century AD in its essence gave rise to the most spectacular sections of the Great Wall that we can see today. The Great Wall was built using four primary building materials – stone, soil, sand and brick. The most astonishing sections we can see today were built from bricks and slabs of stones. In the sections were these key materials could not be supplied, the Chinese used tamped earth, irregular slabs of stone, wood and reeds as they were locally available materials. Bricks were ideally used in construction since their light weight and smaller size made it easier for carrying around. They were also good at bearing larger weights and served for a speedy construction. Stone, on the other hand, was the best heavy material the Chinese could use to build foundations, inner and outer rims and gateways of the wall. The primary workforce responsible for construction of the Great Wall included imperial soldiers, peasants and state prisoners. Of these, the soldiers made up for a bulk of labor. Qin, the first emperor of unified China, had assigned more than 300,000 soldiers to further expand the Great Wall. Besides the soldiers, much of the male peasant population and arrested prisoners were forced to toil hard in the building process. They worked in scorching heat and with very little supplies. Millions of workers died during construction and were buried within the fortified walls.

By the time the Ming dynasty fell to the Manchurians of the north, the Qing dynasty rose into power and effectively ceased any further construction of the Great Wall. The Ming had put centuries’ worth of effort in fortifying the wall to safeguard their borders from Manchurian attacks. When Emperor Kangxi of Qing dynasty rose into power, he realized all conflicts with the North had settled. So going all ends to reinstate the construction of the Great Wall was simply not worth the time and resource. From the era of Qing dynasty, leading up to the present, there was almost no expansion in the length of Great Wall – other than repeated reconstruction for its conservation. Clearly, the Great Wall never entirely kept the northern and foreign invaders from infiltrating into China. But it worked as a gigantic psychological barrier that planted seeds of doubt and failure in the hearts of imminent enemies. The Great Wall of China is truly the most powerful symbol of China’s might and strength.

Development of Silk Road

The legendary Silk Road was an ancient transcontinental route that connected the contemporary east with the west. This route opened the gateway to ancient China for the western world. Back in those times, it was known as ‘Silu’ among the Chinese. It was in the 19th century when a German geographer noticed a prominent passage from Xinjiang in China opening into Central Asia. Subsequent travelers and historians realized it was a far more intricate and complex network of routes. This led to a gradual expansion of the Silk Road into western Asia, Europe and even the outskirts of Africa. In its essence, the Silk Road was more of a collective name given to a group of different trading routes that linked China to the concurrent Central Asia.

When the ancient Romans conquered much of Central Asia, they came across this fabric of exquisite quality called the silk. They grabbed whatever silk they found in the loot from different conquests. But the mystery behind its exact origin baffled them since pretty much no one could tell where it was made – everyone seemed to have traded it for themselves. Soon, they realized these wonderful pieces of fabric must have been produced in the Far East. But in between the Romans and ancient China lied the endless deserts and treacherous mountain ranges. The Chinese had been raising silkworms and producing silk way before the establishment of Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). But their trade was also limited within the Chinese empire – going only as far off in the west as the western borders. Any trader who veered off beyond would trade his valuables at the first town that came in sight. Things started to look more promising when Zhang Zian of Han Dynasty went into multiple diplomatic missions along a portion of soon-to-be Silk Road in between 138 – 139 BC. The different regions he journeyed through in turn sent their diplomatic envoys to China to establish mutual trade. The Han government officially sent an envoy of 36 people that arrived at Daqin in Ancient Rome in 73 AD.

The subsequent surplus of trade led to rise of a number of settlements along the Silk Road. Now more and more traders were travelling along the route for new business opportunities. Perhaps the most famous of traveler along the Silk Road was Marco Polo who reached China during the reign of Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). He went beyond any of his predecessor or contemporary traveller had gone and spend almost 24 years in his journey across Asia. He also kept a journal in which he wrote the details of contemporary China’s social, political and economic structure. The Silk Road extended into Asia minor through India where upon it opened its branches into Mesopotamia, Egypt, the African continent, Rome, Greece and Britain. China established an intricate partnership with the Parthian Empire in Mesopotamia. At its peak, the route facilitated trade of different kinds of merchandise. Revolutionary Chinese inventions such as paper and gun powder made their way into the west along with a significant cultural impact. But none of the commodity came close to popularity of Chinese Silk, based on which the route was ultimately named. The Chinese had cleverly kept creation and harvesting of silk a secret from outsiders, especially the western traders. It was around 60 AD when the westerners finally caught on with this mystery. Since they were already paying an enormous price for the ever increasing demand of silk, Byzantine Emperor Justinian sent two Roman emissaries disguised as monks to sneak out some silk worms. The scheme turned out to be fruitful as they successfully smuggled back silk worms to Europe where eventually the Byzantine silk industry was established.

By the mid-13th century, much of the commute along Silk Road was already waning citing the instability in Byzantine empire and a number of rebel groups along the route. When the Turks finally took over Byzantines in 1453 AD, the Ottoman Empire effectively closed all ties to Europe through Silk Road. Without a doubt, Silk Road was a channel that brought many different cultures and regions together. It served for the quintessential exchange of art, philosophy, technology, ideas and inventions between east and the west. Centuries worth of trade and diplomatic relations were made possible by the exchange of commercial goods the merchants carried along this legendary route.

Social Structure in Ancient China

Once the ancient Chinese civilization started to take a more structured shape as a society, it also witnessed gradual establishment of different social classes. It all started with advent of farming and domestication of animals around 5000 BC along the banks of Yellow river. By the time earliest of dynasties unified different settlements together, the ancient Chinese society had effectively evolved into a class based orientation. This orientation further evolved over several centuries and regimes of subsequent dynasties. The social structure in ancient China was quite inflexible and irreversible. In terms of social position and status, there was almost no possibility for someone to jump in between already established classes. If you were born in a peasant family, you were destined to live your whole life as a peasant. This culture gained further acceptance when the likes of Confucius openly preached the rigid social structure as an essential ingredient for a peaceful and stable society. From top to bottom in terms of hierarchy, these are the different social classes that shaped the society in ancient China.

Emperor and Imperial Family (Imperial Class)

The imperial family was at the top of social hierarchy in ancient China. The Emperor was the righteous ruler of everyone in the kingdom. The Chinese people believed their Emperor was appointed by the gods themselves. So the Emperors were considered to be beyond the realms and reaches of mortal folks. In terms of stature, their position surpassed the entire ancient Chinese social structure itself. Ideally, no one questioned their actions and motives. They held unopposed control over the military and had the biggest political might all across kingdom.

The Chinese Emperors expected complete loyalty and compliance from their subordinates. Their royal subjects and the imperial military were under oath to act under their command and carry out the orders – regardless of consequences. It was necessary for the king to have a son in order to continue his royal lineage. So the emperors used to have many wives to elevate their chances of having a healthy son. When the emperor would choose a son as his imminent successor, the mother of that son was announced as the Empress of the entire kingdom.

Nobles, officials and scholars (Shi Class)

In ancient China, all the nobles, court officials and scholars fell under the Shi class. But the origin of Shi was certainly never limited to scholars. The earliest of Shi class represented the ancient Chinese warriors – a stark contrast from eventual group of people it would signify in later centuries. Gradually, the orientation of Shi evolved into a class that enveloped the aristocratic scholars. These scholars would complete mandatory classes and then compete to occupy powerful positions in emperor’s court. The period of Zhou and Shang dynasty played significant role in shaping up the Shi class to include court officials, nobles and scholars. The Shi class enjoyed certain privileges that common people had no access to. They were given personal chariots which they used to ride around and command the Emperor’s army during battles. The Shi class also had complete access to almost all civilian job openings in the ancient Chinese Kingdom. It is safe to conclude that the Shi class had a rather dramatic turn from being a coveted warrior class into an equally reputed group of scholars and administrators.

Peasant Farmers (NONG Class)

The peasant farmers in ancient China represented the Nong Class. The cradle of ancient Chinese civilization took a firm shape along with the advent of agriculture and domestication of animal in the Yellow river basin. Agriculture had long been the key sustenance behind the exponential growth of ancient China. The farmers played a pivotal role in producing primary staples that sustained entire communities. Some farmers were able to make it big in farming and used to cultivate on their own lands. The remaining of them worked on farms owned by higher class aristocrats. The ancient Chinese peasants may be rather high in this list, but their lives were marred by repetitive bad weather and unreasonably high taxes.

Life was far easier for farmers who were also landlords. They owned huge chunks of lands and faced only the taxes imposed by the emperor. Then there were farmers who lived in lands owned by these landlords and grew all sorts of crops for them. They worked for the entire yield the landlords made and also paid any extra taxes imposed by those who owned the land. They had to constantly work amid the hottest of summer days and bitter cold winter. Life used to become particularly arduous for them when bad weather would ruin their harvest and they still had to pay taxes to the feudal lords and emperor. Unlike in other classes, women were more actively involved helping men on fields. They also weaved and sewed clothes from fibers – thus providing clothing for the peasant family. They used to sell any surplus piece of cloth to merchants in market.

Artisans and craftsmen (GONG Class)

The Gong class represented the artisans and craftsmen – people who were skillful in crafting objects of daily use. In terms of occupational significance, the Gong classes Chinese were similar to the peasants in the sense that they produced essential goods. But a majority of them did not own any land and hence made only a trivial contribution to the overall revenue. In fact, the Gong class was symbolized by the Chinese character that highlighted the term ‘labor’. Regardless of their class, most of them led a reputed life in their localities. Their specific set of skills was passed down from father to son so acquiring their services took some effort. The most skillful artisans used to be employed by the government – they carved new palaces and pagodas for the emperor. Many others were either self-employed or worked for some big name aristocrats and landlords. Then there were the metal workers who rose into their prime at the height of Bronze Age during Han dynasty. Soon, the Chinese metal workers became proficient in molding hot metal to a desired shape. Now they were melding essential daily use products such as cooking pots, ploughs and so on from metal. Some of the Gong classes Chinese were so successful in their craft that they amassed enough wealth to hire their own apprentices and laborers.

Traders and merchants (SHANG Class)

Right at the bottom of ancient Chinese hierarchy were the traders and merchants that collectively represented the Shang class. They were at the base of the social structure because ancient Chinese people were convinced that the Shang class could never contribute any good to the society and only gained profit by trading with others. The Shang class people were traders, sellers and money lenders who were involved in trading of goods and services in exchange of money and other valuables. Regardless of their non-existent social status, some of these traders and merchants made huge amount of wealth by trading within China and along the ancient Silk Route. The richer they were, the bigger the threat they posed to the higher class nobles and even the emperor himself. So the administration would place some heavy restrictions on the Shang class to curb them from posing any real danger. Most of times, these restrictions meant unreasonably high taxes, denied permission to trade in certain areas or even having to join the emperor’s army for certain period of time. Apart from the richest of the merchants, much of the Shang class simply made far smaller profits after a hard day’s work. They also lived quietly and led a simple life. And despite being at the lowest of social hierarchy, the ancient Chinese traders and merchants played a pivotal role in maintaining the trade surplus within and outside ancient China.

Apart from these five different classes, the ancient Chinese social structure also had provisions for keeping people as slaves. But the slave population was never big enough to make up a significant chunk in the entire kingdom. Most of the slaves worked in salt mines and were owned by richer aristocrats and emperors. These slaves were either past criminals, or relatives of criminals. Some people would sell themselves or their children as slaves out of poverty.

Chinese History overview different dynasties

Since the ancient Chinese civilization took off, it had been under the rule of different dynasties until the early 20th century. For thousands of years, ancient China and Chinese dynasties have been synonymous to each other. We already saw in detail the rise and fall of first ancient Chinese dynasties. Towards the end of Zhou era in ancient China, rebellions were risings through much of China on an unprecedented scale. It was right around this time the first empire in the unified imperial China was established.

1. Qin Dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC)

The legendary Qin dynasty was founded by Ying Zheng who unified different warring states after the fall of Zhou Empire in ancient China. The Qin took only 9 years to conquer regions as far as Vietnam in the south and contemporary Korea on the north. Once his dynasty was established, Zheng renamed himself as Shi Huang Di (the first emperor), and immediately instituted a centralized regime. He also standardized weights, measures and local currency. He placed particular emphasis on strengthening state infrastructures. The Qins first initiated the construction of the monumental Great Wall of China. But regardless of the many reforms they bought, the Qins were perpetually paranoid about possible revolts against their regime. In fact, the Qin Emperor once ordered his men to burn down all scholar documents and books to keep the common people from thinking freely. Soon, when their notoriety started to gain new heights, the Qins were overthrown by a general revolt. Even though the Qin ruled only for 15 years, they had a lasting impact on the different dynasties that followed.

2. Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD)

The Hans took over ancient China soon after the fall of Qin dynasty in 210 BC. Liu Bang, the Han emperor, was able to establish his rule within the boundaries previously annexed by the Qin. The Han emperors laid down policies that allowed more freedom and lower taxes on the general people. With the common people reasonably satisfied with their regime, the Han were able to steadily expand beyond the Qin boundaries. In fact, the capital of western Han dynasty was one of the two largest cities in ancient world. It was a bustling city full of monumental palaces, residents and crowded markets.

It was perhaps under the rule of Emperor Wudi (141 BC – 86 BC) when the Han dynasty was at its height. Literature, philosophy and poetry gained more popularity. The first of the standard historical records named “Shiji” were initiated. Eventually, the western Han fell at the turn of first century AD. But the Hans rose and prospered again as the Eastern Han dynasty in between 25 and 220 AD.

3. Middle Dynasties (220 AD – 960 AD)

After the fall of Han dynasty in 220 AD, ancient China saw the rise and fall of a number of ruling fraternities that tried to gain control over contemporary China. Leading all the way up to 960 AD, China saw a period marred by recurring instability and disunity. The most noticeable attribute to this historic phase is the introduction of Buddhism during the Six Dynasties period. It followed short-lived ruling successions like the Three Kingdoms, Jin Dynasty and Sui Dynasty.

It was only under the rule of Tang Dynasty when this middle period saw a rare stability in between 618 – 907 AD. At its peak, the Tang dynasty had retained the social and economic affluences last seen in the Han period. In fact, they went on to become the second largest and longest surviving dynasty after the Han Empire.

4. Song Dynasty (960 AD – 1279 AD)

Also known as Sung Dynasty, the Song prevailed and prospered in China for more than three centuries in between 960 AD and 1279 AD. The Song era can be divided into two parts – Northern Song (960 – 1127) and the Southern Song (1127 – 1279). For these three hundred years, the medieval China was at the pinnacle in terms of advancement in agriculture, printing and iron-production. The then economic might of China was recognized by the likes of Marco Polo who travelled through much of Asia in late 13th century.

The Song made remarkable achievements in Science and culture. They developed modern typography and compass. They also invented the various uses of gunpowder and further polished its efficiency. Many historians state that China saw a growth unmatched by anyone else till then on a global scale. Almost six centuries later, a similar scale of commercialization and industrialization commenced the early days of modern Europe.

5. Yuan Dynasty (1279 AD – 1368 AD)

The Yuan Dynasty rose 10 years after Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, ascended the throne in 1261 AD. The Mongols led by Legendary Genghis Khan had previously annexed the entire central China, much of central Asia and Eastern Europe. During the Yuan era, for the first time in its history, China was completely under foreign occupation. It had become a central part of an enormous Mongolian Empire.

The might of Yuan Dynasty lied within its formidable military force and agriculture based economy. They came up with far superior agricultural techniques that resulted in a significantly increased annual yield. Even though the Yuan were complete outsiders, their presence never abstained the Chinese culture. The Mongol administration lacked much of the political finesse and intellect the Chinese system had. So they gradually melded into the pre-existing Chinese administration to handle the vast Mongol Empire.

6. Ming Dynasty (1368 AD – 1644 AD)

The rise of Ming Dynasty started with the peasant’s uprising against Yuan Mongols around 1352 AD. The uprising turned into a major warfare when Zhu Yuanzhang was chosen the general from rebel side. By 1368, the rebels had officially overthrown the last of Yuan. Yuanzhang declared himself the new emperor and the Ming era followed. Once in rule, Yuanzhang gave immediate attention to complete restoration of Chinese            culture and values. Large scale architectural and aesthetic projects were begun to rejuvenate Chinese art last seen during the Song era.

The first Ming emperor also focused on preventing rampant corruption among his officials and gave due punishment whenever necessary. He was succeeded in a coup led by his fourth son Zhu Di. Zhu then went on to lead a surprisingly peaceful and prosperous rule in the Ming Dynasty. The Ming era came to its ultimate end in 1644 AD when the last Ming emperor Weizong was overthrown by rebel military forces.

7. Qing Dynasty (1644 AD – 1912 AD)

Qing was the last imperial dynasty that ruled China. Ironically, the last ruling dynasty was founded by Manchu people of non-Chinese origin.  The Manchu pounced at the opportunity created by a weakened central China after the fall of Ming Empire. Once the administration was in their hands, they cleverly integrated Chinese intellectuals in their chain of command. It was specifically during the reigns of Kangxi and Qianlong when the Manchus displayed a remarkable penchant in embracing contemporary Chinese culture.

Just like the preceding dynasties, Qing enjoyed a prosperous beginning and middle period. But soon after the death of Emperor Qianlong in 1799, the Qing rule was repeatedly marred by rebellions, wars and natural disasters. In its last decades, the Qing court was already non-functional. The last Empress Dowager Cixi ruled behind the scenes until her death in 1908. Finally, imperial China also fell along with the ultimate fall of Qing in 1912.

The First Chinese Dynasties

The Yellow river valley is generally quoted as the ‘Cradle of ancient Chinese Civilization’. At around 5000 BC, it was in areas enveloped by this fertile valley where earliest of Chinese settlements surfaced. With the help of sustained agriculture, these settlements became prosperous villages. In time, the ancient Chinese society started to take a more structured shape. Eventually, the first of centralized governments were established in each of such villages. These governments then evolved into the first of the ancient Chinese dynasties that ruled different factions in prehistoric China. In chronological order, the first of prehistoric Chinese dynasties consists of three different names. Historians put Xia dynasty as first authentic and organized ruling body in ancient China. Prior to the era of Xia, the contemporary ruling fraternities deal more in terms of mythology than fact. It is said the ‘Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors’ were the then mythological rulers of ancient China. But in terms of historically immaculate facts and figures, the first Chinese dynasties can be summed up by these names.

The Xia Dynasty

The foundation of Xia dynasty dates so far back that many considered it as a myth similar to the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. The Xia ruled over a major part of contemporary mainland China between 21st and 16th century BC. Their rule marked the monumental transition for ancient China from primitive orientation to a well-structured society. It was founded by the legendary Xia leader Yu the Great. The ruler was chosen based on the abdication system (a tradition that lasted only one generation). The next 500 years of Xia dynasty saw the reign of 17 different emperors. People in Xia era never really bothered to keep written records, so their history was passed down orally. Archaeologists only found Bronze Age instruments and objects in the sites supposed to be earliest settlements of Xia dynasty. Although they did date back those findings to around 2000 – 1500 BC, the significant lack of written records keep much of Xia history in dark.

Shang Dynasty

Unlike Xia, Shang dynasty is truly the first well documented and recorded dynasty with strong archeological evidences from ancient China. In the beginning, the Shang was a small tribe that lived in the lower regions of Yellow river during the period of Xia dynasty. However, when the 17th Emperor in the Xia dynasty came in throne, the Shang tribe had already became a power with reckoning might. Eventually, the Shang dynasty was founded by King Tang in 1675 BC who overthrew the Xia rule by defeating their last emperor. For the next 600 hundreds, the Shang regime was ruled by 30 different Shang emperors. The Shang era saw ancient China at the height of its Bronze Age. People would wield bronze into weapons, vessels, sickles, ploughs and much more. The Shang emperors also gave ample priority to agriculture and the seasonal harvests. Fresh water fishing also started to take the form of an extensive fishing industry. None of the first dynasties had control over entire mainland China. The Shang rule centered its base in the Northern Plains of China. Eventually, Shang dynasty fell at the hands of rebels from Zhou province.

Zhou Dynasty

The Zhou dynasty actually coexisted along with the Shang dynasty. They ruled all over the Zhou province where as the Shang dynasty controlled much of Northern China. Everything was going smooth until around the year 1046 BC. The monarch fraternity of Zhou province decided it was time to revolt against the Shang as they felt the northern dynasty was no longer mandating the issues of common people. By the time dust had settled in the brutal battle of Muye, King Wu had established the Zhou reign over much of contemporary China. The Zhou then went on to rule for almost a millennium. They brought about some major cultural and political reforms that were further modified and adapted in the imperial era. The Zhou dynasty ruled over the largest chunk of land among the first dynasties. So a number of feudal states were created for the ease of governing. The Zhou emperor held the ultimate control over each feudal state. But the Zhou faced extensive partitioning in around 4th century BC which only kept on taking a more violent turn. By 203 BC the entire Zhou faction had weakened and split into seven different warring states.

After the fall of Zhou dynasty, the warring states were in continuous conflict in their bid to grab new land and manpower. This period also marked the finale of the first dynasties in ancient China. When the Qin dynasty, one of the warring factions, was finally able to conquer all remaining states into one in 221 BC, the imperial China was born