People grew crops, made pottery and textiles, and lived in permanent settled villages. The pots and the textiles made life easier — pots meant people could carry and store food and water; and the clothes and other textiles kept people warm. In the south, the most important food staple that people ate was rice, while in the north, it was millet. Millet was ground into flour and made into flat breads like crackers, or eaten as a kind of porridge. The image is a pot from Banpo , a Neolithic settlement in north China.
Another very well preserved Neolithic site was found at Hemudu , in the Shanghai delta. The late Neolithic period BCE , was a time of increased contact between communities in China. Many walled sites were constructed and society was becoming more complex. Around BCE, at Erlitou , in the Yellow River Valley , a civilisation emerged whose people learned how to cast bronze, which they used to make vessels for ritual feasting and drinking. The bronzes found at Erlitou are the earliest in East Asia.
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The Erlitou bronzes are the first manifestation of what was to become the Shang , a civilisation which would eventually encompass the entire central plain of north China. Shang cities had palaces and temples, housing areas for the upper classes and commoners, as well as craft workshops for metal workers, potters and stone carvers, and burial grounds. Several large settlements of the Shang period have been discovered, including Zhengzhou and Anyang.
It is thought that the first Shang city was near the modern day city of Shangqiu. The people of Shang China engaged in large-scale production of bronze vessels and weapons. The Shang people were brilliant metal workers, and created extraordinarily fine bronze vessels using a piece-mold technique unknown anywhere else in the world. Most of the Shang bronzes that survive are cups, goblets, steamers and cauldrons, which were used to heat wine and food for rituals.
The rituals played a central role in ancestral rites, and government. Bronzes came to be a symbol of power. Bronzes were also made during Shang times at other places, such as Sanxingdui in south-west China, a magnificent site discovered in the s. Shang kings communicated with their ancestors through sacrificial rituals using bronzes and through divination. The most common technique of divination involved the diviner applying a heated rod to turtle shells or cattle bones.
The shells and bones would crack, and the cracks were interpreted as the ancestors' answers to questions posed by the Shang kings. The shells and bones are known as 'oracle bones'.
The diviners scratched the questions and answers onto the bones, in a script known as oracle bone script, which is closely related to modern Chinese writing. The oracle bones provide a great deal of information about Shang life — from military activities, harvest, crops, weather, to their families, illnesses, travels, and pastimes such as hunting.
Most of the Shang oracle bones date from about to BCE. Very unusually, she was also a military leader. Most of the information we have about Fu Hao comes from oracle bone inscriptions. There are many inscriptions on the oracle bones showing the king's concern for her when she was ill or pregnant. They also show that Fu Hao was involved in ritual ceremonies and military activities.
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She led numerous military campaigns against the neighbouring tribes. One oracle bone, for example, asks whether Fu Hao should gather soldiers before an attack. Fu Hao's tomb at Anyang is the only Shang tomb that was not robbed before it was excavated. The last king of the Shang is supposed to have given himself over to wine, women and wild, cruel behaviour.
He is said to have had a pool constructed in the palace, filled with wine, with a small island, where trees were planted with branches hung with meat on skewers.
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The king, whose name was Di Xin , and his friends and concubines would drift on canoes, reaching out to eat the roasted meat and fill their cups with wine from the pool. The people were said to have suffered from high taxes to pay for extravagances such as these.
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The Shang campaigned constantly against enemies at their frontiers. To their west were the warlike Qiang , tribespeople whose language may have been a form of Tibetan. Mu Ye is in central Henan. The battle marked the end of the Shang dynasty and the beginning of the Zhou dynasty. In early texts, three great Zhou rulers are said to have made the Zhou state strong. The first of the three was King Wen of Zhou, who formed alliances with neighbouring states and tribes. King Wen was released, but tension grew between Shang and Zhou.
King Wu died only six years later. The third great Zhou ruler was the king's brother the Duke of Zhou, who ruled as regent for his young nephew, and extended the new Zhou territories. He built a new city at modern Luoyang to rule the Zhou dynasty's new eastern lands. The Zhou kings sent out their relatives and trusted subordinates to establish walled garrisons in their new territories, and by BCE, there were around vassal fiefdoms across the Zhou lands, run by regional lords, with ministers and officers to assist them.
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Chinese in later periods - including notably Confucius - looked back on the early Zhou as a golden age. The Zhou is the first period of Chinese history from which texts have been transmitted. The Book of Documents contains speeches made by first Zhou kings. The Book of Changes or I Ching was the text of a new divination system that arose in the place of the old oracle bones. The Book of Songs contains odes that would have been sung at court, as well as poems that probably were originally folk songs.
These books became part of the set of texts known as the Confucian Classics, and would later be memorized by hundreds of thousands of men studying for the Chinese civil service exams. After conquering the Shang , the early Zhou kings sent out their relatives and trusted subordinates to run vassal fiefdoms across the Zhou lands.
However as time went by, the regional lords became more powerful.
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In BC, an alliance of regional lords and barbarian tribesmen killed the Zhou king. The Zhou court moved east to Luoyang , from where the Zhou kings continued to reign, as the 'Eastern Zhou'. The fiefdoms increasingly ignored the Zhou court and acted like independent states, struggling between each other for power.
This was an era of instability, violence, and moral crisis. It was during this era that the intellectual foundations of Chinese civilisation were established, as people questioned the basic principles of how people should live. Confucius lived at this time, as well many other advisers, teachers and philosophers. Laozi , or Lao Tzu , is a legendary figure, who is thought of as the founder of Daoism.
According to tradition, Laozi was a wise official at the Zhou court in Luoyang , who grew weary of the lack of morality he witnessed around him. He left for the west, riding a buffalo. When he reached the mountain pass at the edge of China, the guardian of the pass would not let him leave until he had written down his teachings. People who followed Daoist teachings affirmed the Way, or 'Dao' , an indescribable force that is the source of all that exists. A major theme in the Daodejing is that yielding is better than being assertive. They thought that human actions upset the natural order.
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