9 aspects of Chinese ancient culture
Ancient Chinese culture from about 3,600–2,200 years ago underpins modern Chinese culture in everything from traditions to religion to writing: see how.
1. Pictographic Characters for Writing
Archaeological discoveries show that by 1200, the Shang were writing in pictograms that were somewhat similar to the characters used today in Chinese writing.
Scholars have discovered that some characters such as the word for father, 父 fù, look somewhat similar to the characters that the Shang wrote. Modern characters are composed of small pictograms. For example, the top pictogram in the character in the picture is the sun.
2. A High Esteem for Writing, Literature and Historical Records
The Shang seemed to rely heavily on writing for record keeping. Their inscriptions have been found on tens of thousands of oracle bones and on their surviving bronze metal creations. Writing was probably an important feature of daily life, but most of their writings have been lost since they would have written them on parchments or others things that deteriorated.
This emphasis on writing and education was an important part of ancient culture, and it was also important in all the imperial eras beginning with the Qin conquest in 221 BC and ending in 1912.
The Shang and Zhou emphasized the importance of historical record keeping and venerated the records, and later people did too. This is a key aspect of their ancient culture that is still seen in modern Chinese culture.
3. The Style of Arts and Crafts
The Shang produced large, heavy, and geometrically intricate bronze objects in characteristic styles that the Zhou clan who were initially subjects of the Shang Dynasty continued after they took over the empire.
Their bronze work was very different in style than the bronzes of the contemporaneous Sanxingdui civilization in Sichuan even though it is known that there was trade between the two cultures. It shows that the ancient people of the Shang and Zhou dynasties maintained a distinct artistic culture with their own motifs and never adopted the alien style of the Sanxingdui.
Anyone familiar with Chinese artistic style can see that the Sanxingdui masks’ facial features are very different than those of ancient Chinese art and that the geometrical patterns and decorations of the Sanxingdui are foreign.
The Sanxingdui bronze object pictured below for example seems oddly irregular and off-balance, with projections seeming to defy the center of gravity, but the people of the Shang and Zhou and succeeding eras generally created objects that are geometrically balanced around the center of gravity. This sense of proportion and order has always been a characteristic of Chinese art and craftsmanship.
4. A Preference for Jade
The Shang prized jade objects unusually highly compared to other cultures, and the people in the Zhou era did as well. Archeologists have discovered a substantial quantity of jade ornaments, artworks and other objects that were made for ritual ceremonies and decoration. The Shang even used it to make body armor, and in later eras, royalty were encased in jade burial suits.
Jade objects had religious significance, and this is an unusual tradition of ancient culture that many modern Chinese retain. They consider it to be quite an auspicious material, and many still wear it as an amulet as you can observe in China today.
5. Tea Culture
Archeologists discovered tea in a 2nd century Han emperor’s tomb, and ancient records say that it was considered a medicinal drink in the Zhou era. It is thought that tea was first cultivated in Yunnan during the Shang Dynasty era. From there, the custom of drinking tea spread through the Zhou era states and then to other countries.
During the Tang Dynasty and afterwards, tea was a major export to the Tibetan Empire along the Tea Horse Road, and it is still China’s most popular natural health beverage.
Other than water, green tea is the most commonly drunk beverage in China. Chinese produce more green tea than any other kind of tea (black, red, green, white). About 80% of the world’s green tea is grown in China. Chinese commonly consume dozens of varieties of tea.
6. The Silk Culture
Another Chinese characteristic stemming from the ancient past is the love of silk. Chinese people were the inventors of silk fabric . The earliest example of silk fabric dates from 3,630 BC in Henan. Silk cloth manufacture was well advanced during the Shang Dynasty era.
The ancient people thought that Confucius himself wrote:
The wife of the Yellow Emperor Huangdi was having tea under a mulberry tree when a silkworm cocoon fell into her cup. As she watched, a strand of fiber unspun from the cocoon, and she realized that the strong filament could be used to make cloth.
Thus, an industry was born. She taught her people how to raise silkworms and later invented the loom.
Whether or not this story is true, it is known that the Shang and then the Zhou had a tradition of sophisticated silk weaving. They traded in silk, and a Shang-era silk garment was found in a contemporaneous tomb in Egypt.
Silk weaving and the preference for silk is another cultural tradition that continues in modern times. Mainland Chinese produce more than half of the world’s silk.
7. Worship of Heaven and Rulers
The Shang had a belief in a supreme god called Shangdi, who represented Heaven. In the Zhou era, it was believed that Shangdi presided over big issues such as war, harvests, natural disasters, and the succession of dynasties.
Sophisticated ceremonies such as the annual Prayer for Good Harvests by the emperors became part of Chinese tradition. See the Temple of Heaven.
The Mandate of Heaven principle meant that China’s rulers were revered as the representatives of Heaven on earth, and so emperors enjoyed the utmost respect, bordering on worship… as long as everything was going well.
A key political concept passed down from the ancient eras is the concept of
the Mandate of Heaven described by Sima Qian and thought to have been espoused by Confucius. This idea is also somewhat original to the Chinese, though it is reflected in other ancient cultures around the world. The ancient Chinese believed that if a dynastic clan or a particular dynastic leader became corrupt or misruled, “heaven” would signal that it was time for a change of dynasties via various omens such as natural disasters, signs in the heavens, ominous dreams, prophecies, etc.
The ancient historical accounts and some recent archaeological evidence show that the people of the Zhou era believed that the first Zhou king conquered the Shang Dynasty because the Shang lost the Mandate of Heaven. They believed that the first Shang King defeated and conquered the Xia Dynasty in the same way.
The Zhou believed that the last Shang king was very corrupt and misruled so badly that he made the people suffer. He killed his own son and tortured and murdered his ministers, so he lost Shangdi’s Mandate to rule. Then the last Shang Emperor was defeated by the Zhou rulers because his own troops and slaves rebelled and joined the Zhou in 1046 BC.
From the fall of the Qin Empire onwards, a series of serious natural disasters and the large loss of life were interpreted by the populace as signs that a dynasty had lost the Mandate of Heaven, and almost every major empire and large kingdom since then has fallen after such a serious of disasters. The people rose up in rebel armies and turned in revolt against the rulers as it is said that the Shang slaves and troops rebelled against the last Shang emperor.
8. Folk Religion and Daoism
The Shang also worshiped their own ancestors and notable dead people. They believed the dead souls could both harm and help people, and this key ancient belief in ancestor worship is still current in Chinese culture and most Chinese worship their ancestors. These concepts were part of the folk religion.
Since the Shang believed that the soul continued to live afterwards, they tried to equip the souls at burial with items they might need (including sacrificing humans and animals to go with them for their use) and did things like giving food or money to spirits. This tradition continued through the Qin and Han Dynasty eras down to the present day.
The Qin Emperor’s huge Terracotta Army is an example of the elaborate expense that was showered on many other emperors and kings throughout history to benefit them in the afterlife, and most modern Chinese still offer food, spiritual money, and other items to their ancestors especially on select days such as the Hungry Ghost Festival and the Qingming Festival . People often sacrifice fresh fruit and food, but nowadays they often place plastic flowers and fruit at graves.
Most Chinese might also worship at shrines of historical figures. Perhaps half of all Chinese still worship small idols representing dead historical figures such as successful generals. They place them in their houses and places of business.
Zhou era Taoism, as described by the ancient texts, the Dao De Jing (道德經) and Zhuangzi (莊子), became China’s largest native religion. Taoism predates Buddhism, which arrived in the early centuries AD from India.
9. A Tradition of Mega Building Projects
The Shang and Zhou also set a tradition for big construction and engineering projects. It is recorded that the first Xia king named King Yu was granted the Xia Kingdom at the age of 53 because he had been very successful in controlling the floods of the Yellow River through gargantuan engineering projects. He greatly increased agricultural output through his projects. He even carved out a channel through a valley for the river to flow through.
Whether or not this story is true, following in the tradition, the Shang and Zhou dynasties and the various states of the Zhou era undertook unusually large construction and irrigation projects such as long defensive walls of the states of the Yan, Zhou and Qin that were built before the Qin Great Wall (215 BC) and the Dujiangyan irrigation and flood control project that was built in 256 BC.
The succeeding ancient empires continued this political and economic policy. Large empires sometimes used millions of laborers for a single project such as the Grand Canal . Even in modern times, the building of mega construction projects such as the Three Gorges Dam , the biggest and most expensive dam project in the world, is inspired by this ancient tradition.