Episode 14 China: Born in Isolation
The Big History of Civilizations (2016)
Dr Craig G Benjamin
In this lecture, Benjamin mainly focuses on the early Chinese civilizations arising in the rich alluvial flood plains of the Yellow River. As in the Indus Valley civilization, their immense success related in large part to the formidable barrier the Himalayan mountains presented to invading nomads.
Archeological evidence suggests that by 7000 BC Yellow River valley inhabitants had domesticated millet. By 5000 BC they were living in villages and growing millet, mung beans and hemp (for clothes) and keeping domesticated pigs, cattle, sheep and ducks. They were also producing beautiful painted pottery and bone tools.
By 3000 BC (under the Xia Dynasty), they had domesticated silk worms, built walled cities, invented potters wheels, and produced bronze tools and carved jade ornaments for their ruling elite.
The Shang dynasty ruled in the Yellow River Valley from 1600 -1045 BC. The first Chinese cities appeared during this period, along with the first written language. Peasants, who served as tenant farmers on the large landholdings of the wealthy, could be conscripted by the king into the military. Enemy captured in war were kept as slaves and were sacrificed during royal funerals. Believing they passed to another realm after death, people worshiped ancestors in the hope of winning their protection.
The Shang kings used their powerful military to conquer cities outside the Yellow River Valley for tribute and slaves. However the Shang Dynasty was no match for the Zhou dynasty, which defeated them militarily in 1045 BC. The latter ruled for 800 years, employing a decentralized structure allowing local kings to rule their own city-states, provided they supply tribute and soldiers to the Zhou king.
During the 9th century BC, regional armies gained access to iron and rebelled against the Zhou dynasty. Five hundred years of continual unrest gave rise to the major Chinese philosophies, as scholars sought ways to end war and establish more ethical governance.
- Confucius (551-479 BC) taught that people should be able to obtain social status through education and ethical living, as well as through heredity. He supported social hierarchy and disapproved of profit-seeking.
- Daoism, which appeared during the 4th century BC, taught that human beings could achieve fulfillment by better understanding their own nature and living as simply as possible.
- Legalism, which appeared around 400 BC, was a school of political philosophyadopted during the Qin dynasty. It promoted strict laws with harsh collective punishment and taught that education, philosophy and commerce were useless professions.
The improved governance and military strength resulting from a legalistic approach enabled the Qin dynasty to reunite Yellow River city-states. Despite its short reign (221 – 206 BC, however, it laid a military and administrative foundation for both the Han dynasty and the Chinese imperial system, which lasted until 1912 AD.
The film can be viewed free on Kanopy