The legend of Yu offers insights into early China. The Chinese depended so much on rivers for irrigation and transportation that they highly valued the ability to control floodwaters and to develop irrigation systems. The legend also shows how much the Chinese prized devotion to duty. Both themes played a key role in the development of Chinese civilization.
Long distances and physical barriers separated China from Egypt, the Middle East, and India. This isolation contributed to the Chinese belief that China was the center of the earth and the sole source of civilization. These beliefs in turn led the ancient Chinese to call their land Zhongguo (jahng gwoh), or the Middle Kingdom.
To the west and southwest of China, brutal deserts and high mountain ranges—the Tian Shan (tyen shahn) and the Himalayas—blocked the easy movement of people. To the southeast, thick rainforests divided China from Southeast Asia. To the north awaited a forbidding desert, the Gobi. To the east lay the vast Pacific Ocean.
Despite these formidable barriers, the Chinese did have contact with the outside world. They traded with neighboring people and, in time, Chinese goods reached the Middle East and beyond. More often, the outsiders whom the Chinese encountered were nomadic invaders. Such conquerors, however, were usually absorbed into the advanced Chinese civilization.
As the Chinese expanded over an enormous area, their empire came to include many regions. The Chinese heartland lay along the east coast and the valleys of the Huang, or Yellow, River and the Chang River. In ancient times, as today, these fertile farming regions supported the largest populations. Then, as now, the rivers provided water for irrigation and served as transportation routes.
Beyond the heartland are the outlying regions of Xinjiang (shin jyahng) and Mongolia. These regions have harsh climates and rugged terrain. Until recent times, they were mostly occupied by nomads and subsistence farmers. Nomads repeatedly attacked and plundered Chinese cities. At times, however, powerful Chinese rulers conquered or made alliances with the people of these regions and another outlying region, Manchuria. China also extended its influence over the Himalayan region of Tibet, which the Chinese called Xizang (shih dzahng).
Chinese history began in the Huang River valley, where Neolithic people learned to farm. As in other places, the need to control the flow of the river through large water projects probably led to the rise of a strong central government and the founding of what is sometimes called the Yellow River civilization.
The Huang River got its name from the loess, or fine windblown yellow soil, that it carries eastward from Siberia and Mongolia. Long ago, the Huang River earned a bitter nickname, “River of Sorrows.” As loess settles to the river bottom, it raises the water level. Chinese peasants labored constantly to build and repair dikes to prevent the river from overflowing. If the dikes broke, floodwaters burst over the land. Such disasters destroyed crops and brought mass starvation.
About 1766 B.C., the first Chinese dynasty for which scholars have found solid evidence arose in a corner of northern China. This dynasty, the Shang, would dominate the region until about 1122 B.C.
Archaeologists have uncovered some of the large palaces and rich tombs of Shang rulers. The evidence indicates that from their walled capital city at Anyang, the Shang emerged to drive off nomads from the northern steppes and deserts. Shang kings probably controlled only a small area. Loyal princes and local nobles governed most of the land. They were likely the heads of important clans, or groups of families who claim a common ancestor.
In one Shang tomb, archaeologists discovered the burial place of Fu Hao (foo how), wife of the Shang king Wu Ding. Artifacts show that she owned land and helped to lead a large army against invaders. This evidence suggests that noblewomen may have had considerable status during the Shang period.
As in other early civilizations, the top level of Shang society included the royal family and a class of noble warriors. Shang warriors used leather armor, bronze weapons, and horse-drawn chariots. They may have learned of chariots from other Asian peoples with whom they interacted.
Early Chinese cities supported a class of artisans and merchants. Artisans produced goods for nobles, including bronze weapons, silk robes, and jade jewelry. Merchants exchanged food and crafts made by local artisans for salt, certain types of shells, and other goods not found in northeastern China.
The majority of people in Shang China were peasants. They clustered together in farming villages. Many lived in thatch-roofed pit houses whose earthen floors were dug several feet below the surrounding ground. Peasants led grueling lives. All family members worked in the fields, using stone tools to prepare the ground for planting or to harvest grain. When they were not in the fields, peasants had to repair the dikes. If war broke out between noble families, the men had to fight alongside their lords.
In 1122 B.C., the battle-hardened Zhou (joh) people marched out of their kingdom on the western frontier to overthrow the Shang. They set up the Zhou dynasty, which lasted until 256 B.C.
To justify their rebellion against the Shang, the Zhou promoted the idea of the Mandate of Heaven, or the divine right to rule. The cruelty of the last Shang king, they declared, had so outraged the gods that they had sent ruin on him. The gods then passed the Mandate of Heaven to the Zhou, who “treated the multitudes of the people well.”
The Chinese later expanded the idea of the Mandate of Heaven to explain the dynastic cycle, or the rise and fall of dynasties. As long as a dynasty provided good government, it enjoyed the Mandate of Heaven. If the rulers became weak or corrupt, the Chinese believed that heaven would withdraw its support. Floods, famine, or other catastrophes were signs that a dynasty had lost the favor of heaven. In the resulting chaos, an ambitious leader might seize power and set up a new dynasty. His success and strong government showed the people that the new dynasty had won the Mandate of Heaven. The dynastic cycle would then begin again.
The Zhou rewarded their supporters by granting them control over different regions. Thus, under the Zhou, China developed into a feudal state. Feudalism (fyood ul iz um) was a system of government in which local lords governed their own lands but owed military service and other forms of support to the ruler.
In theory, Zhou kings ruled China for more than 850 years. For about 250 of those years, they actually did enjoy great power and prestige. After the 800s B.C., however, feudal lords exercised the real power and profited from the lands worked by peasants within their domains.