At the beginning

According to mythology, Chinese civilization begins with Pangu, the creator of the universe. Then came a line of sage emperors and heroes who taught the ancient Chinese to communicate and to find food, clothing and shelter. Among these sage-emperors and heroes are Huang Di, Yao and Shun.

Huangdi, the legendary Yellow Emperor

Shen Nong, inventor of agriculture

Ancient China covers 11,000 years of history and is full of colourful characters like Hu the Tiger and fabulous discoveries and inventions, including paper, gunpowder, matches, the compass, the umbrella and even a siesmograph to measure earthquakes.

There is some disagreement among historians over the time periods of the Chinese dynasties and even the names of the Dynasties, but despite the variant dates and spellings, a wealth of remaining artifacts and recorded history leave us with much that is indisputable and absolutely fascinating. Here is a fairly comprehensive overview of Chinese dynasties in chronological order.

The first people seem to have reached China about 50,000 B.C., about the same time as the first people in Europe. These first inhabitants lived in caves, made fires, used stone and bone tools, and, being hunters and gatherers, they wore clothes made of fur and leather. Around 4000-3000 BC, in the Neolithic or New Stone Age, a major change took place when people in China began growing rice and keeping animals like chickens and sheep. People in West Asia had already been farming for about two thousand years; it is not certain whether people in China learned how to farm from them or began doing it on their own, but it is more likely the latter - farming was probably just a natural response to having more and more mouths to feed or dealing with climate changes which altered their habits. When the people began settling down, as opposed to tracking herds and living as nomads, they settled where other early populations typically settled – in a river valley. In this case, it was along the Yellow River in northern China.

Once people began farming, they also began to live in villages comprised of numerous small houses with reed roofs. Around 3000-2000 BC they also began to create pottery.

Again, this is later than in West Asia, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the Chinese learned this art from their neighbours. We know about two kinds of Chinese pottery from this time: red clay pots with swirling black designs from north-west China, and smooth black pots from north-east China. It was also about this time that the Chinese began to use silk to make cloth and to use wagons with wheels.

Stone Age Art : The earliest form of art found in China is pottery. Artifacts from this time include clay pitchers and bowls. Most of the best early pottery comes from a place called Ban’po, for which it is named. Ban'po pottery was formed by hand, without a potter’s wheel, and at first, the polished red pots were plain.

Xia Dynasty : c. 2000 B.C. - c. 1500 B.C.
It is difficult to separate myth from reality when it comes to the Xia, but the people of this time are dubbed the ‘great engineers' because they discovered how to make bronze out of tin and copper, how to manufacture cloth from silk, how to bake bricks to build houses, how to control floods and how to irrigate their fields.


Shang Dynasty : c.1700 B.C. - c.1027 B.C.
The time of rich nobles and poor farmers. the Shang Dynasty was a civilization based on agriculture, although the people augmented their crop food by hunting and raising animals. During this period, the Chinese developed a writing system, began to work in bronze and invented chopsticks, which changed the way people ate. Ancestor worship and human sacrifice were practiced, and kings used oracle bones – of which some 100,000 have been found by archaeologists - to answer questions. Questions were carved on bones and a priest (usually a woman) would study the cracks in the bones after they had been heated with a bronze pin in order to find the answer. People also used bones and tortoise shells to keep financial records, recording payments made. Wars were almost continual, and knights wore bronze armor and went to battle in horse-drawn chariots (which had also begun to be used in West Asia at roughly the same time). Most people were farmers and were very poor, while the rich lived in huge palaces, wore silk gowns and were buried in lavish tombs. Buried with these very wealthy early Chinese were not only entire chariots, artworks and animals, but living people.

By about 1800 BC (the traditional date is 1766 BC), the Shang dynasty had become the first to unite a big part of China under one king. The king had his capital in Anyang, in northern China. The division between rich and poor was widening; some of the population were slaves and many men were soldiers in the king’s armies.
Shang Dynasty Art: By about 2000 BC, the Chinese had learned from the people of West Asia how to make bronze, and they began to make bronze jars and plaques for devotional purposes. Right from the start, these were of very high quality and were cast in molds using the lost-wax technique. Usually they were cast in several different pieces and then soldered together with melted bronze or tin.
Some of them are plain, with just a few lines incised into them. Other jars and goblets are covered with fancy decorations. Some feature abstract designs, others show human faces, plants or animals or even mythical monsters like dragons and demons. Towards the end of the Shang Dynasty, about 1200 BC, people began to write messages on these bronze jars and cups using the earliest Chinese pictograms.
It was probably sometime during the Shang Dynasty that nomadic Indo-Europeans brought the potter's wheel to China, which made pots quicker to make and therefore cheaper and more common.
It was during the Shang Dynasty too, that people in China began using jade for jewelry and decoration.

Zhou Dynasty (also spelled Chou):The term ‘feudal' has often been used to describe this period because the Zhou's early decentralised rule is similar in ways to medieval Europe, but the city-states in China became more and more centralised. There was greater central control over local government and a more routinised form of taxation.
Western Zhou : 1027 B.C. - 771 B.C.
Eastern Zhou (the Spring and Autumn Period 770 B.C. - 476 B.C.) and the Warring States: 475 B.C. - 221 B.C.

The Chou conquered the Shang Dynasty about 1100 BC (the traditional date is 1122), and claimed that their victory proved heaven was on their side.

The first period of Chou rule is called the Western Chou, because at this time the Chou only ruled the western part of modern China. China was divided up into about 200 small kingdoms, and then each of these kings was under the Chou emperor.

This is the same time when the Indo-Europeans were settling in India. Further away, the kingdoms of West Asia, Greece and Egypt were collapsing at the end of the Bronze Age, with Moses probably leaving Egypt about this time. Zoroastrianism was just becoming known.

Art - Art didn’t change greatly during the Western Chou Dynasty; people kept on making bronze sacrificial jars and cups that they made under the Shang emperors, although the jars were often more complicated in shape than they had been before (many were shaped like birds and dragons and other animals). As more people became literate, it became more common to make long inscriptions on the jars. People wrote long inscriptions about their own lives on jars they made for their ancestors and descendants, so they would know what they had achieved.
Under the Eastern Chou dynasty, beginning about 722 BC, people began to use these bronze jars and cups in their own houses, not as a way to honor their ancestors but as a way to display their own wealthy and power. People made sets of cups that they could use at big dinner parties in their houses and they no longer bore inscriptions. People also began to make other things out of bronze: bells, mirrors, belt-hooks, candelabras, and weapons, for example.
There were some new technical ideas employed during the Eastern Chou period as well: for instance, artists began to make the designs on the jars using stamps. And the shapes of the jars became simpler again and more abstract like interlacing patterns, rather than animals. Artists began using gold and silver inlays to decorate their patterns. Towards the end of the Eastern Chou period, about 300 BC, artists began to create the first Chinese paintings with several people and a landscape, often hunting scenes.
They also continued to make jade ornaments and decorations, in complicated shapes and with carvings. Pottery techniques became more complicated too, with wheel-made pots fired at hotter temperatures and therefore made harder and more durable and sometimes with a greenish glaze on the surface.

It was also in the Eastern Chou period that people in China first began to make other kinds of art. Especially in southern China, people began to make things out of lacquer, the colored red sap of the lac tree painted onto wood. Lacquer was used to make beautiful statues, dishes and light-weight boxes.
And at the end of the Eastern Chou period, about 300 BC, people began painting on silk, creating scenes with people and landscapes.

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