Ancient China

By: Jason Ramel and Alex Horvath

Ancient China was the largest superpower in all of Asia in the ancient world. Ancient China was split into several different dynasties, ruling families, each dynasty with slightly different ways of life. They were at constant war with each other and fought to stay powerful. The ancient Chinese impacted history through their military conquest, major historical figures, their advanced economics, their interactive geography, and their unique culture.


Covering approximately 3.7 million square miles with 9,010 miles of coastline, China makes 6.5 percent of the earth's land mass. This includes 331 million acres of forests, 106 million acres of rocky mountains, plateaus, 158 million acres of deserts in the west (Lu, 33), and plains, deltas, and hills in the east. (19) China also includes, tropical, subtropical, temperate-warm, temperate, continental, and
An ancient map of China. (
highland climate regions. (17) Half of China is a dry climate region. The rainfall in China from May to October accounts for 80 percent of China's total rainfall per year. Located in Southeastern Asia, China borders the East China Sea, the Korea Bay, the Yellow Sea, the South China Sea, Vietnam, and North Korea. The lowest point in China is the Turpan Pendi, at 505 feet below sea level. And straddling the China-Nepal border, Mount Everest is China's highest point at 29,035 feet above sea level. (19) (13) China spans more than 60 degrees of longitude. (23) China also includes many bodies of water. In total, China has 1.8 million square miles of sea (24) and 92.2 million rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and swamps.(33) That includes the Bo Sea, the Yellow Sea, the East and the South China Sea, and all of the Pacific Ocean east of Taiwan. (24)

China had many landforms that the Chinese relied on to raise livestock and to use to connect with the rest of the world. In the Heaven Mountains, the Chinese raised Yili horses and Xinjiang fine-wool sheep. The Yili horses were used to ride on for when the Chinese had to go into battle. The Xinjiang fine-wool sheep were seasonally shaved for their wool, which Chinese women spun into cloth that was used to make clothing. (Lu, 33) China also had many rivers that flowed into the ocean. The Chinese often built communities near these rivers because they were often used to trade on. The most important of these was Huang Ho, the Yellow River. It is called the Yellow River because its waters have a yellowish color, due to the yellow sediment beneath it. Some parts of it are not navigable, even dangerous to attempt to sail in, because of the heavy levels of sediment underneath it. The Yellow River is called “The Cradle of Chinese Civilization” because it is where the earliest Chinese civilization was born. It is also called “the river above ground” because in some parts, it is higher than the land around it, making it prone to flooding. This is fortunate news to some farmers because their farms contained rice patties. (Lu, 39)


The trade of the Chinese connected them with the rest of the world. They have been involved in trade for at least three thousand years. The Chinese started to trade because neighboring countries started to demand products made in China. One path the Chinese used to trade was the Silk Road. The Silk Road extends from Chang’an in China to the Mediterranean Sea. (Simpson, 44)The Silk Road was first thought of when a Chinese emperor sent his minister to buy horses. But on his way, the minister was captur
A map of the Silk Road that Chinese traders used to trade in foreign countries . (
ed by the Xiong Mu. Twenty years later, he returned with information about how neighboring countries admired China’s products. (45)Another way the Chinese traded with the ret of the world was by water. There were many canals snaking throughout China. Chinese traders used these canals to their advantage. They traveled along them by boat, transporting goods such as grain and salt to states that needed them. Traders also took the canals out to sea. There, they sailed to Vietnam, Korea and Japan to trade with them. (44)

The Chinese form of money has been constantly changing. Since some Chinese states used cowrie shells as money, they made bronze coins shaped like cowrie shells. Other states used coins shaped like tools. When Qin Shi Huangdi united China in 221 B.C., he decided that his empire should use only one set of coins. He picked small, round, bronze coins cast with a square hole in the center of the coin. This way saved money and meant that the coins could be carried on a string. (Martell, 36)

The occupations of the Chinese were very important to the rest of the community. The farmers of ancient China cultivated small plots of land to grow crops. The crops they grew were supplied to the army during battles and to the city. Sometimes, the farmer didn’t own enough land to grow all of the crops. So, they cut terraces into the sides of hills to enlarge the land space without having to buy new land. (Simpson, 32) Astronomers studied and recorded the stars. There were only a few selected to be astronomers, so if an unauthorized person was caught handling astronomical equipment, they would be severely punished. (46)



The Chinese had many different armies that fought each other in every dynasty. At first the soldiers who fought were
A scene from a Chinese battle. (
peasants forced to fight. These wars were only fought to protect borders from one another. There were about thirty states of China with thirty different armies that were in constant conflict with each other. (Hall 26) These men were not barbarians and fought with honor and followed rules stated by a book called "The Art of War".(58) For example, when the Duke of Song saw Chu warriors cross a river he and his men could have destroyed them right there but, instead he waited for them to cross. When he attacked them on the other side he and his men were destroyed by the Chu. Even though he failed he was honored for following the rules. Later however, in the Late Zhou dynasty the armies were much more savage and fought to kill. This was taking place during the Warring States period in the second half of the Zhou Dynasty. This started in 403 B.C. and was 300 years of fighting between the states that used to be under the control of the Zhou. (53) The soldiers became more advanced than just peasants and they had a higher social status. If a peasant wanted to be more honored he would join the military. (54) A high rank soldier would have to know martial arts and be brave enough to go on a suicide run right into the enemy. A soldier was honored by the amount of enemy heads they brought back from battle. Some soldiers would go into villages and kill its inhabitants or kill prisoners of war even though it was against the rules. Most men and resources went to the war. (55) In early times people fought until the enemy surrendered, but in the Warring States period the reason was to completely eliminate the enemy. People would not stop until they had complete victory. Some objectives were to take cities that were surrounded by walls so the enemy would surround the walls until the people starved. In early China people would fight very briefly but in later times they were fought for years losing many lives. Some battles were fought over plains with over one million soldiers at a time.
(Hall 55)


Bronze was used for many purposes including weaponry. These weapons gave rulers power over their subjects and made the empire easier to rule. The development of the empire became much faster because the enemy was fighting with stone weapons from the Neolithic age and they had advanced the Bronze Age. The advanced weapons were good for defending borders and conquering new land. (Hall 20) Battles became much fiercer with a new invention, the chariot. It was a chair with two wheels with a horse pulling it along into battle. The driver would carry an eight foot long spear and would impale their targets. An average Shang army would
A sword that a Chinese soldier would have used in battle. (
consist of horse and elephant cavalry, and infantry soldiers. (28) There would be between several hundred thousand an
jade sword that the rich used (
d a million infantry troops. Long range soldiers used weapons like bow and arrow and a spear. Close range combatants would use a sword or a halberd (long wooden pole with a blade attached to the top) which was good for slicing. Generals would carry expensive jade blades with them for self defense. (Steele 58) Later, iron was created and replaced bronze. It was easier, faster, and cheaper to produce than bronze. It was strong and light so it was a good weapon for combat. Another new weapon that was introduced in this time period was the crossbow. The crossbow was a lot easier to use than the original bow and arrow. These made farmers good warriors. They could also take out chariots from long range. It also made casualties a lot higher. (56)

Major Historical Figures

Impotant People and What They Accomplished

Ancient China was mythically created by the legendary “Five Emperors of China.” The first of the emperors was Huang Di. He was also called the Yellow Emperor. Historians say his achievement were endless. He alone helped bring China to its greatness. According to legend he invented calligraphy, ancient Chinese writing, pottery, the wheel, medicine, the lunar calendar, and the
A picture of Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor. (
magnetic compass. He also made rules for laws and for religious ceremonies. He made the “South Pointing Chariot” it always point south no matter which way the chariot is pointing. His wife was said to have domesticated silk worms to produce silk for clothing. His great great grandson was Yoa. The beginning of his rule started out peaceful. But, according to legend, one day 10 suns appeared and started burning villages and boiling rivers. So Yoa enlisted the help of an archer named Yi. Yi was san excellent archer and killed 9 of the suns but Yoa told him not o kill the last one because he knew the people would need a sun to in order to survive. People loved Yoa and he was a wise and greatly respected ruler. During this time floods ravished the land killing crops and livestock. Yoa needed the help of a great engineer. He heard of one named Shun who lived in the country. He called Shun to him and tested him for three years to see if he was worthy of a task like this. He passed every single one and was ready to take on this great task. Shun then became co-emperor. He needed help doing all this so he hired an assistant. The assistant was the son of the chief engineer of the palace and his name was Yu. Yu took over his father’s job and solved the problem by redirecting the river flow. After Yoa died Shun became sole emperor so he promoted Yu to co-emperor. When Shun died the people wanted Yu to become emperor instead of Shun’s son. (Hollihan-Eliot 27-28)


The most important aspect about the ancient China civilization is their cultural advances in their society. Their religion was part of everyday life and included worshipping their ancestors. The ancient Chinese worshipped their ancestors because they believed that the ancestors controlled their fate. If one member of a family didn't worship their ancestor, the whole family would be disgraced. But if they did worship their ancestor, good luck would be brought to the family. To please their ancestors, they guarded the ancestor's tomb and left offerings. (Shuter, 18) Xia rulers would control their subjects by telling them that if they didn’t worship their ancestor at that moment, the spirits wouldn’t think highly of them. (Hall, 21) Shang rulers controlled their subjects with oracle bones, also known as dragon bones. The ruler would carve Chinese symbols into a tortoise shell. Then he would heat the tortoise shell until cracks appeared. Then he would read the cracks and tell his subject their future. (Hall, 25) The ancient Chinese also had many myths and legends explaining the creation of all things. One legend tells of how before the world was created, there was chaos, in the shape of an egg. Inside of chaos growing, was Pan Gu, the first man. When Pan Gu grew to large to fit in chaos, he cracked it in half. When he cracked chaos in half, the top half became the sky, Yang. Yang represented all the bright, male, dry things of nature. The bottom half became the earth, Yin. Yin represented all the dark, female, wet things of nature. (Simpson, 23) Another legend tells of Nu Wa, who was sad that there were no human beings on the earth, just plants and animals. So she grabbed up a handful of mud and formed it in her image. Then, she breathed life into it, and so the first noble was born. Then she kept doing that until she grew tired. So she threw blotches of mud on the ground. When she breathed life into these, they became the peasants and slaves. A third legend tells of how
The twelve zodiac animals. (
the twelve zodiac animals were chosen. All the animals were invited to Heaven for a banquet. There, twelve animals were selected to represent the zodiac. The ancient Chinese also had animals that they believed would brighten their future. If you lived in ancient China, you might see many people wearing animal charms around their necks. They did this because they believed the charms would protect them from evil. (22) Also, you would see many people painting pictures of tigers on their doors because they believed the tigers would keep evil demons away. (23) Lastly, the ancient Chinese had many religious festivals. The most important of these was the Chinese New Year Festival. The dates of the festival change depending on the Chinese calendar, which was based off of phases of the moon. But it always started on the first full moon. The ancient Chinese held huge feasts and since red was such a luck color, they wrote poetry on red paper and put it on their doors to bring good luck. Also, a huge Chinese dragon, or lung, moved through the town square, accompanied by crashing cymbals and loud firecrackers to ward off evil spirits. This festival has been occurring for 2000 years and is still celebrated today. (Hall, 60)

Impact on Daily Life

All the cultural advances of the ancient Chinese greatly impacted their daily lives. First, society impacted the ancient Chinese. In the beginning of the Xia Dynasty, around 2000 B.C., the people were nomadic hunters, roaming the wilderness of China. When the leaders started encouraging farming to the people, the civilization shifted from a nomadic community to an agricultural community. They also started creating metal tools, replacing the wooden tools they used before. Some rulers tried to abolish farming but failed since farming was so widespread. (Hall, 19) When towns were built, the nobles lived a life of luxury, while the lower class struggled to exist. The nobles lived in fabulous walled mansions, while the lower class was forced to live in the countryside, completely vulnerable to attacks. (Hall, 21) Another way culture affected the daily life of the ancient Chinese was their clothing. The peasants wore simple tunics and pants made of undyed hemp fibers. They also wore sandals made from weaved pieces of straw. In the north,
The type of clothing that a rich Chinese woman would wear. (
peasants wore fur hats and sheepskin jackets. In the south, they wore cone shaped hats to protect them from the sun and rain. The officials and nobles dressed ostentatiously to show off their wealth. The style and color of each status were stated by the law. If a peasant was caught wearing noble status clothes, they would be put in jail. The emperor was the only person allowed to wear yellow. (Steele, 44) A third way the Chinese were impacted by culture was food. Even though rice was the base of all foods in China, it was mostly used in South China, where it was grown. In the north, wheat flour was used to make noodles and bread. The north was known for its pancakes, dumplings, lamb, and duck. In the west, hot chili peppers were famous. Mushrooms and bamboo shoots grew all along the Yangtze River, so they
A Chinese Man's Clothing (
were common. Meats such as chicken, pork, and fish were spiced with ginger and garlic to add flavor. Also, exotic meats such as dog, monkey, turtle, and bear were rare treats. All food dishes were steamed, stewed, or fried and were eaten in bowls using chopsticks. (Steele, 26) The fourth way the Chinese were impacted by culture was family life. The first rule children learned was that they should obey their parents because they would take care of them when they were old. Men were considered more important than women. When a woman got married, she had to obey her husband. The only way for women to gain power was if they became a grandmother and her husband died. This was because elderly people were greatly respected. Elderly people were so respected that during a celebration, families would visit the graves of their ancestors to pay their respects to them.


The Chinese architecture varied on how rich you were or your social status. In the Xia dynasty, peasant houses were usually circular. The floors they made were just shallow pits in the ground. This idea was made by the great emperor Huang Di. They made the walls by a process called "wattle and daub". They would take wooden poles and weave them with branches and sticks to make a sturdy structure. Then, they would cover it in made to make a strong outer layer to protect from rain and wind. This process was highly advanced for their time and was only used by the Chinese throughout history. (Hall 19) During the Shang dynasty the palaces
An ancient Chinese palace. (
were made out of wood. Later in Chinese history they changed that because, they were to easy to burn down. Peasants during the Shang Dynasty had walls that were dirt packed so tightly that it formed a concrete structure. The houses had wooden poles to hold up the roof. Even though these were harder than the walls in the Xia dynasty they were much more dense and could break much more easily. Another large part of the Chinese architecture was the tombs they buried their kings in. A king's tomb could be as big as 58 x 53 ft and 40 ft. into the ground. The coffin were they kept the king's body was usually 8 ft. tall. ( 34-36) If you were a traveler in China you would usually go to an inn for the night. An inn is a large room were all the travelers ate and slept. The food is usually included form the cost of staying for a night. Most inns didn't have washing facilities ( bathtubs), toilets, or bedding of any kind. People would eat and sleep on the floor. ( Shuter 32) If a traveler was lucky they would get invited to a noble's house. These houses were very private and the public wasn't usually allowed to see. Nobles lived in houses built around two court yards. One court yard was used for entertaining important guests. That courtyard had a pond that fish would swim in to show the guests of the hosts good nature. The other courtyard was where the women and children would play. This courtyard had trees that the children could climb on. (33) The nobles and wealthy people would have running water which was very advanced for their time. (32)


The Chinese had a very complicated science that affected the way we use our science today. One of the most important aspects of the Chinese science was their farming. The majority of people were farmers. People lived by the Yangtze and Huang rivers because they provided rich soil fore farmers to grow food on. The river left behind mud and silt that was very fertile which made farming rice easier. In the northern part of China wheat and millet was grown to make noodle and dumplings. These farms were small plots of land owed by peasants who grew for their own family. In the south where it was wet and warm people grew rice. Most dishes in the south were based off rice because it was one of the only things that could be grown down there. The rice was grown on large plantations owned by rich people who lived in nearby cities. The plantations were tended by hired peasants. In warmer parts of China oranges and pears were grown on orchards that were located in the middle of the city. (Steele 30) Another part of the ancient Chinese science was their medical practice. People were taught that your body was a gift from your parents and it was disrespectful not to take proper
Some of the natural medicines that doctors used. (
care of it. They believed that exercising and eating herbs kept you healthy and your ancestors happy. A famous Chinese physician created five animal based exercised to keep your body fit. They were the tiger, deer, ape, bear, and crane, these were very popular and effective. Another theory was that if two spirits that represented evey thing in the universe, Yin and Yang, were unbalanced inside of you, you would fall sickly ill. Docters would perform one of three treatments: herbal, acupuncture, and moxibustion. (Michaelson 42) Acupuncture was the most popular way of treating people in ancient China. Acupuncture was poking someone with a needle to help cure them. It was believed to release energy that was blocked up to stop pain. There are 650 known accupoints (places to poke on the body) but, only 450 was used because the other 200 would kill the person. For example, accupoints on the head would relieve one from migraines, insomnia, and help treat malaria. Another part of the Chinese medical system was herbs. Special blended herbs were cooked into soups that were inhaled through the nose. These relaxed the muscles and were very affective on most patients. An unknown poet once said, "Delicious dishes banish tablets and pill, nourishing food is drug for the ill." Another author named Li Shizhen compiled 1,892 herbs and 11,000 prescriptions in a book called, "Bencai Gongma". ( Lu, 28) Moxabustion is burning herbs onto a needle that was injected into one's body. It spread healing warmth through your body. It is one of the oldest forms of medicine in the world. (Michaelson 42) A type of moxabusion is burning wolfberry onto a needle then injecting it, this helps eyesight and people with diabetes. Another one is senna that cleanses one's respiratory system. ( Lu, 28) The Chinese were also skilled mathematicians. They used a decimal system based on counting tens. It helped weigh crops when they were sold. They also invented the abacus which was they earliest form of a calculator. It used sticks with stones to calculate values or amounts of things. They were the most skilled at math in the ancient world. (Steele 30)


The Chinese unique artwork affected people's art for years to come. One of the most important things that made China
Chinese bronze work dating back to Shang Dynasty. (
famous was their skilled bronze work. They were the first to master alloys in the ancient world. An alloy is a combination of two or more metals mixed together to make a new kind. Bronze was made from copper and tin. Nine parts copper was mixed with one part tin. They were melted from their ore and was mixed together in a process called, "smelting". The Chinese made bronze into pots, pans, statues, bells, mirrors, tools, ritual vessels, and most importantly weapons. ( Steele, 38) These were better than wood or stone tools that the peasants used. The bronze was very valuable and only the rich could afford it. For example, in a wealthy person's home you would find incense in, "eggshell ware which was a bronze bowl on top of a bronze stand. (Hollihan-Elliot 31-34) The Chinese bronze castings were the first in history and were very detailed. They were also made into a variety of shapes through molds. Bronze was also used to make instruments like bells and drums. In central China archeologists found a set of very detailed rums weighing 93 lbs. In northern China bells weighing 338 lbs. were found and had paintings describing the birth of a famous emperor. The bells had no clapper and was struck with a wooden pole. These bells were also very expensive so they were only played on special occasions. The wood banging against the bronze made a sound so loud that it was used to in battle to signal to the troops to retreat. A very important peice of bronze artwork was the "nine tripods" created by the mythological emperor Haung Di himself. The tripods were passed down from dynasty to dynasty over the years. (Hall, 37) The Chinese were the first to invent pottery. Over 6,000 years ago Huang Di of the Xia dynasty created pottery. The clay was baked in ovens at 1,600 degrees Farenheit. Later, they were left out in the sun to bake for a long time. This made extravagant white patterns on the pottery. After it was dry, a glaze was painted on it to make it shiny and attractive. Towards the end of the ancient Chinese Empire they invented porcelain. It was the finest and most delicate pottery of all. It was also one of China's most important exports. Later, it was people started just calling it "China". Lacquer was a plastic like material that was used to cover wood. This made it stronger and more attractive. It was a reddish color when it hit wood or leather. (Steele, 40) Another major aspect of Chinese art was silk. The Chinese tried to keep people from knowing the secret of silk. The punishment of telling an outsider the secret was death for both of the people. Even though India eventually found out the secret to making silk the Chinese were still the best. Silkworm farmers first feed the worms with mulberries for five weeks. Then, the worms were mature and spun a cocoon of fine filements. The cocoons were dipped in boiling water to kill the worms and seperate the filements. Later, they were wound into reels up to 4,000 ft. long, then the filaments were spun into thread which was then woven on a loom. They used silk to make many products. They were very expensive, therefore only wealthy people were able to afford them. Later, they learned how to make elaborate patterns on it. In ancient China, writing was considered an art. The earliest writing were inscriptions on oracle bones from the Shang dynasty. Later, they were printed on bamboo, wood, and silk. In the Zhou dynasty a government official suggested that pulping roots, rags, and old fishnets could create paper. Scientists think the oldest complete book is "The Diamond Sutra" that dates back from 868 A. D. (Lu, 48) Their language consist of symbols called charachters. Each stands for sounds and words, there are over 40,000 charachters in the alphabet. Each one is printed with 11 brush strokes, this kind of painting is called calligraphy. (Steele, 48) Another important part of Chinese art was their stone work. It was the first material to be worked in China. It began about about 5,000 years ago durring the Xia dynasty. It was used to make everyday things and important things. Farmers used it as a hand mill to grind up grain into flour. But more importantly, it was used to make ornaments. Jade was the
Chinese symbol for art (
most important stone to the Chinese and it was very expensive. Wealthy people's statues were mostly just made out of jade. People thought its magic powers would preserve the dead through the stone. Emperors were buried in suits made of 2,000 overlaping jade plates. Buddism made jade very popular. (Steele, 36) The Chinese were the most elite painters in the world. In imperial China, paintings were the most respected form of artwork. It was also a pass time for scholars and some emperors. Paintings were based on ideas of harmony and simplicity from the Buddist religion. Important paintings were painted on scrolls of silk. It was also on walls, screens, and fans of the rich. The subjects of the pictures changed over time. Some included misty mountains and rivers of dourthern China. Some included famous people like ancestors and emperors. For pictures only need a few brushstrokes to capture the spirit of the painting. (46) Music also influenced Chinese arts. The earliest Chinese poetry was sung by the authors. The, "Book of Song' was a book full of work hyms and folk songs, it is about 3,000 years old. Most musicians worked in wealthy households. A band included orchestras, drums, gongs, panpipes, bronze bells, fiddles, an dstringed instuments. Music was an important part of life, models of musicians were put in tombs to entertain the dead. (50)


The Chinese was a very powerful and important civilization in the ancient world. They are onr of the biggest contributers to history. They were very advanced in their society and from that they became very powerful. THey used their enviorment o help them and their economic system was very complex. They also had a strong and destructive military that helped them create an empire, with the help of famous figures in history. But, one of the most important parts of their society was their culture. From all of these aspects they greatly contributed to history.


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