100,000 BC: Early Human Migration and Settlement in China

Episode 3 Early China and the Mysterious Xia

Foundations of Chinese Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

Benjamin begins this lecture by discussing the remains of 40 Homo erectus skeletons discovered in China over the last century. This is the first evidence that pre-human hominids migrated from Africa to Asia long before the first human beings emerged. Archeological evidence suggests they had discovered fire.

The oldest human remains from China date from 100,000 BC. Like early human migrants elsewhere, these were hunter gatherers living in small groups and using infanticide and senicide to limit group size. Like hunter gatherers elsewhere, they worshiped spirits associated with nature and their ancestors.

Over time, however, like early humans elsewhere, they began growing food and living in larger communities.

China’s Neolithic (late Stone Age) Era dates from roughly 8,000 – 3,000 BC and there is evidence of agriculture along it’s major rivers by 7,000 BC. The main crop along the northern Yellow River was millet and along the southern Yangtze River was rice. There is also evidence of domestication of chickens, pigs, silkworms and horses (originally domesticated on the Eurasian Steppes – see https://archive.org/details/horsewheelandlanguage).

By 4,000 BC, there’s evidence of different neolithic cultures trading with one another. By 3,000 BC, there’s evidence they’re waging war against war with one another.

In 2100 BC, the first (Xia) hereditary dynasty formed after “great King Yu” bequeathed his throne to his son Xi. The territory ruled by the Xia Dynasty consisted mainly of farmland with a number of substantial villages and a few urban centers. Xia artisans mastered the use of bronze and jade carving, as well as creating a calendar noting lunar and solar movement. Owing to their ability to communicate with the spirit world, Xia kings also served as shamans.

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


Understanding Chinese History Through Its Geography

Part 1: Yin and Yang: Geography of China

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

In his introduction to the course Foundations of Eastern Civilization, Benjamin devotes an entire lecture to the impact of China’s unique geographical features on Chinese civilization.

The third largest country in area, after Russian and Canada, China is only slightly bigger than the US. The two countries also share a number of geographical features (northern hemisphere, roughly same size, extensive coastlines, diverse geography and history of uncivilized Wild West).

China’s Yangtze and Yellow Rivers clearly had a major impact on economic development, owing to devastating floods occurring on both during monsoon season. The Yangtze is the third longest river in the world after the Amazon and Nile.

China has four distinct geographic regions:

  • The eastern alluvial plains (at the mouth of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers) – featuring extremely rich river sediment, these plains have been farmed (with wheat, millet and sorghum) and densely settled for many thousands of years. This region has consistently sustained the densest populations in human history.
  • The southern hills – enjoy much more temperate weather (subtropical in places). It was here wild rice was domesticated.
  • The western mountains – consisting of mountain ranges interspersed with harsh  deserts, this region protected China from Western expansionist empires prior to  the European Age of Exploration. Comprises two-thirds of China’s land mass.
  • The northern grasslands – for thousands of hears, homeland to thousands of nomadic steppes warriors with enormous influence on the direction of Chinese civilization.

According to Benjamin, China’s relative isolation from the outside world forced early Chinese emperors to focus on the internal integration of 56 different ethnic groups.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on 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