The Intertwined Role of Steppes Nomads and Early Chinese Civilization


Episode 2: Journey to the East

The Foundations of Eurasian Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

This lecture is an introduction to the Benjamin’s 48 episode course The Foundations of Eurasian Civilization.

About half the course is devoted to China, considered the cradle of Eastern civilization. However it will also cover China’s immense influence on the West, beginning with the Confucian about efficient bureaucracy,* and the essential role of numerous Chinese inventions in the  industrialization of western society.

By the fall of the Tang dynasty in 740 AD, China had created the wealthiest and most powerful state (population two million) the world had ever seen, thanks to Chinese peasants creating the world’s most successful commercial farming system.

At the same time, the steppes nomads to the north of the first Chinese cities (and their ferocious horse archers – see Barbarian Empires of the Steppes) also had a massive influence on early Chinese civilization. Their repeated booty raids on China would lead the first Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huangdi (founder of the Qin/Ch’in Dynasty) to build the first border length wall in 221 BC.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers were conscripted to build the wall, with tens of thousands losing their lives. The wall failed to stop the raids.

It would be the steppes nomads, and their domestication of the Bactrian camel, that made possible the Silk Roads, the first overland network of international trade.

*American founding father Benjamin Franklin was a big fan of Confucius and adopted many of his ideas in developing his approach to democratic government.

Film can be viewed free with a library card at Kanopy.

China: Ancient Civilization Born in Isolation

Episode 14 China: Born in Isolation

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

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