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Agriculture on the North China Plain

According to Science News (April 24, 2015) hunter-gatherers formed permanent settlements between 10,500 and 10,000 years ago on the North China Plain along the great Huang He (Yellow River). They hunted deer and other game, fished and gathered food. After hundreds of years, a farming lifestyle developed. They grew millet, and they raised dogs, pigs and chickens.

Legend describes the first dynasty of kings in the North China Plain as that of the Xia family, said to have ruled from around 2070 to 1600 BCE. They were overthrown by warriors from the Wei River Valley in the west, and they were not just passing through. By now, conquest might produce a stable source of wealth or sustenance, and a new dynasty was established, to be known through historical evidence and called the Shang.

The Shang Dynasty ruled for a little more than 500 years. The ruled a warrior society, with chariots that carried an archer, a driver and sometimes a man with a spear. The Shang built an empire in much the same way as other conquerors: by leaving behind a garrison force to police local people or by turning a conquered leader into a subservient ally and collector of taxes.

The Shang Dynasty had canals built for irrigating crops. Shang civilization imported goods. Shang merchants traded in salt, iron, copper, tin, lead and antimony. And, as early as the 1300s BCE, a bronze casting industry developed.

The Shang emperor was chief priest. Nature was viewed as moved by numerous gods called kuei-shen – a word also meaning ghost or spirit. Priests led sacrifices to their gods. These were attempts at bribery, done in the hope that the gods would exercise magic for them.

The frequency of floods and other calamities led the people to believe that some gods were good and others demonic. They believed in an evil god who led travelers astray and devoured people. Shang emperors associated themselves with the good gods and told their subjects that heaven was where the ancestors of Shang emperors dwelled.

Society had become divided between aristocrats and common people. Aristocrats were concerned with their status and boasted about their ancestral roots. They kept records of their family tree. Common people, on the other hand, had no surnames and no pedigree and did not participate in ancestor worship. Aristocrats believed that their ancestors lived at the court of the gods and had powers to help guide and assist their living descendants. Aristocrats saw their ancestors as needing nourishment, and at grave sites they offered them food and wine – a ritual that males alone were allowed to perform. When an aristocrat wanted a special favor from an ancestor, he might supplement the offerings by sacrificing an animal. If an emperor wanted a special favor from the gods he might have a human sacrificed.

Eventually an emperor appeared to have lost favor with the gods. Emperor Zhouxin (1075-1046) was disturbed by rebellions that had broken out among people that Shang monarchs before him had conquered. A pastoral people to the west of Shang civilization allied with the rebels, Emperor Zhouxin was said to have lost his "Mandate from Heaven." The Shang were overpowered at the battle of Mu-ye and the emperor beheaded. The Zhou Dynasty was born.

The Zhou borrowed from Shang culture. They claimed that all lands belonged to heaven, that they were the sons of heaven and, therefore, other peoples were their subjects. Aristocrats on the North China Plain continued their attempt to appease the gods with gifts and animal sacrifices. The sacrificing of humans diminished from what it had been under the Shang emperors, buteach year a young woman was offered as a bride to the river god. And Zhou emperors had their wives or friends join them in their grave.

In 771 BCE it the Zhou dynasty's turn to lose control of its empire. A family squabble had led the queen and her father to ally themselves with a neighboring tribe, and that tribe overran the Zhou capital – Xianyang – and killed the Zhou emperor. The queen's son took power in a new capital: Luoyang. Local rulers recognized only their own power. Local rulers raided, warred with each other and made alliances. For some of them war was a sport – better than a good hunt. What was to be called China's Warring States period, roughly around 480 BCE, had begun.

Local rulers imitated the Zhou emperors by having scholars at their court: men who conduct sacrifices, funerals and to taught the ruler's children. Among the scholars was a man named Kongfuzi, to be Latinized to Confucius (551-479 BCE). Confucius believed in authoritarianism and social hierarchy. He blamed the ills of his day on leaders neglecting the rituals of the now powerless Zhou emperors. He would like to have seen a return to the good ol' days when a Zhou emperor ruled over all of what had been their empire.

More on ancient China: The anti-Confucian, Mozi

For China to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE) go here.


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Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.