In The Beginning:
The History of China from Prehistory to 221 BC
Relics from the prehistoric era abound in China. Homo Erectus lived in modern-day China more than a million years ago. Yuanmou Man (now housed in Beijing’s National Museum of China), excavated in Yunnan Province in China’s south, could be as much as 1.7 million years old. Meanwhile at more than 1 million years old, Lantian Man (on display in Xian’s Shaanxi History Museum), which was discovered just outside Xian, is the oldest specimen found in northern China.
Numerous relics from the Stone Age can be found at just about any provincial museum in China. But our outline of Chinese history really kicks off around 2800BC, in the mythological(ish) era of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors…
Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors
In the beginning, or at least in the 3rd Millennium BC, there were Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. Depending on the source, the Three Sovereigns (sort of god-kings) were Fuxi, Nuwa and Shennong. In basic terms, Fuxi and Nuwa were creator-type figures, while Shennong’s great achievement was to teach the people agriculture.
Then came the Five Emperors who were particularly wise and benevolent human rulers. The Five Emperors are generally considered to have been Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor), Zhuanxu, Ku, Yao and Shun. Huangdi is considered the ancestor of all Han Chinese and is noted for having taught the people medicine, while Yao and Shun were upheld by Confucius as models of the perfect ruler.
The history of this period was laid out in ancient classics of Chinese literature such as the I Ching (Book of Changes) and Shangshu (classic of History), which were written some time after the fact.
Significance: As the ancestors of all Chinese, you will find frequent reference to these ancient rulers at all sorts of historical sites in China. Moreover, the sovereigns and emperors form part of the pantheon of Taoist gods, so you will often find reference to them in Taoist temples.
Xia and Shang Dynasties
After this period came the first of the dynasties. The semi-to-completely mythological Xia Dynasty lasted from around 2100BC to 1600BC until it was overthrown by the Shang Dynasty (1600BC – 1100BC), which is where recorded history begins. The Shang Dynasty controlled a relatively small portion of north-eastern China along the Yellow River. The later Shang capital of Yin near the modern-day city of Anyang in the far north of Henan Province is where the oldest relics bearing Chinese writing were found. Today, the excavated ruins of the ancient capital are open to visitors as a tourist attraction.
Significance: The Shang Dynasty is especially renowned for producing very early bronzeware. At any large historical museum in China you will likely encounter bronze vessels and weaponry from the Shang Dynasty.
The Zhou Dynasty, Spring and Autumn Period, and Warring States Period
The Shang Dynasty was overthrown by the Zhou Dynasty around 1050 BC, setting up what would be the longest of all the Chinese dynasties. For over 300 years the Zhou rulers, with their capital near modern-day Xian, maintained a strong grip over China and expanded their territory. They also established the idea of the Mandate of Heaven, claiming they had they god-given right to rule, and set up a sort of Chinese feudal system with landlords ruling over principalities.
In 771 BC, due to an attack, the capital was moved eastward to modern-day Luoyang, beginning what is known as the Eastern Zhou Dynasty as opposed to the earlier Western Zhou Dynasty. This marked the start of a decline for the Zhou emperors as the rulers of the various states grew in strength. By the end of the Zhou Dynasty in 256 BC they had been rulers in name only for quite some time. But the start of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty also ushered in an early golden age of Chinese philosophy known as the Spring and Autumn Period (approx 722 BC – 481 BC). It was during this era that great thinkers such as Confucius, Laozi (founder of Taoism) and many others lived.
The somewhat fragile peace that largely held during the Spring and Autumn Period would fall to pieces in the succeeding Warring States Period. This era kicked off in the 5th Century BC and was marked by constant warfare as larger states tried to absorb smaller ones. Ultimately it was the State of Qin that prevailed, conquering its rivals one by one and forming a unified China under the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC.
Significance: This period is most noteworthy for the great thinkers it produced. Philosophers such as Confucius and Laozi lived during the Spring and Autumn Period, while the great military strategist Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War during the Warring States Period. Additionally, the Zhou Dynasty saw the further development of Chinese writing and the first use of iron.
The popular martial arts film Hero (starring Jet Li and directed by Zhang Yimou) is set towards the end of the Warring States Period.