Ancient Chinese culture
Ancient Chinese culture, before the imperial era (from 221 BC), has obscure beginnings. Later invasions and contact with foreign cultures has colored Chinese culture, but the underlying forms established during the Shang and Zhou eras still appear in modern Chinese culture in everything from religion, to traditions, to dress, to writing in characters.
The Shang people (c.1600–1046 BC) developed cultural forms such as pictographic writing, typical foods and clothes, and emphasizing large-scale construction projects. These traditions were emulated afterwards in the Zhou era (1046–221 BC) when Confucian philosophies developed, the imperial dynasties, and modern China.
How Ancient Chinese Culture Was Defined
Many historians use the phrase “ancient culture” to mean the culture of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. Imperial culture began with the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC. During the imperial eras, the dynastic courts and educated leaders relied on the historical records of Sima Qian as the cultural model for their empires.
Ancient Chinese Culture Was Defined by Sima Qian
Chinese have traditionally believed that the Huaxia tribe originated Chinese culture . Ancient texts say that the Huaxia lived in the Central Plain near Beijing hundreds of years before the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC) started and spread westwards and southwards along the Yellow River basin.
They have traditionally had this belief because the foremost ancient Chinese historian, Sima Qian (~130–86 BC), described that the supernatural, Yellow Emperor and his victorious Huaxia tribe were the origin of the Han people and their civilization and culture.
It is said that his history, Records of the Grand Historian (太史公書 Tàishǐgōng Shū or 史记 Shǐjì), that was written before 86 BC before he died about the foundational text of chinese civilization. his work along with texts that are attributed to Confucius , and other historians modeled ancient culture.
His writings about the founding of the early civilization, their ancient traditions, philosophy, and religion, as well as his biographies of famous people such as Confucius (551–479) and the first Qin Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, basically defined ancient Chinese culture for the last 2,200 years. Chinese people consciously or unconsciously have modeled their lives on Sima Qian’s accounts.
The Reliability of Sima Qian’s History
Some of Sima Qian’s history of the Shang (c. 1600–1046 BC), Zhou (1046–226 BC), and of the first Emperor of the Qin (259–210 BC) have been partially verified by archeological discoveries.
For example, Sima Qian wrote the names and some biographical details about many Shang rulers who lived 1,000 years before his time, and 23 of these names were found in Shang oracle bone records discovered during the past 100 years. This lends credence to his writings about the origins of the Xia of which there is as yet no archeological evidence.
So, whether Sima Qian’s writings accurately reflected the early ancient culture or are myth and construct, for thousands of years, people thought his histories were true. Following in the tradition of ancestral veneration and religious esteem of the Xia and Shang Dynasties, they imitated and adopted the culture he described as their own.
The Origins of Chinese Culture
Historical records from the Shang era (1600–1046 BC) are scanty, but ancient Chinese historical records that date from about 2,200 years ago say that the Han people originated from the Huaxia tribe of the Yellow Emperor who lived on the Central Plains.
For thousands of years, people have believed the tradition that the Central Plain was the original domain of the
Sima Qian described that the Yellow Emperor won wars around 2500 BC to become the ruler of the Central Plains, the original heartland of the the Yellow Emperor’s Huaxia tribe, and the lower reaches of the Yellow River .
His and other ancient accounts, such as the Bamboo Annals that were discovered in 281 but written six centuries earlier, provide evidence that that the Yellow Emperor established a capital city called Zhoulu in the Central Plain that was perhaps near Beijing.
The histories say that the descendants of the Huaxia, the Xia Dynasty , were notable for carrying out huge long-term construction projects involving thousands of people to control Yellow River flooding and thereby benefiting by abundant harvests. Expensive large-scale landscape-altering construction became a tradition in successive empires and is still a hallmark of Chinese culture today.
It is written that one of the Yellow Emperor’s descendants became the first king of the Xia, and he began the Xia Dynasty by making his son the ruler of the kingdom. In this way, he set the tradition of multi-generational hereditary clan rule of kingdoms and empires, i.e. dynasties , that was followed ever after until the end of the Qing era in 1912.
Based on ancient texts and archeological evidence , the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BC) and Zhou Dynasty existed from about 1600 to 221 BC. These empires were in the Central Plain and the lower and middle reaches of the Yellow River. They developed an ancient culture that later empires emulated, and many of their cultural traits are still a part of Chinese culture.
Though there is little archaeological evidence about civilization in the region of modern China before 2,000 BC, there is speculation that the Erlitou site (1900–1600 BC) on the Central Plain is a Xia city since it was inhabited during the period of time the Xia Dynasty is said to have existed.
The Distinctiveness of the Ancient Cultures
The Shang and Zhou treasured writing, and this in part allowed them to survive for such long periods of time. Little is known about the cultures of the civilizations that neighbored the Shang Empire such as the Sanxingdui . However, no samples of writing has been found in the Sanxingdui site northeast of Chengdu or at other Shang-era sites.
The Sanxingdui did not undertake large-scale construction either. It is clear that the culture of the Shang and Zhou were distinctive in that they were literate and emphasized large-scale construction, and they had a distinctive artistic tradition.
Archaeological discoveries about the Shang show us that they had peculiar cultural traits such as an emphasis on keeping records in pictographic writing, worship of Shangdi, and a propensity for major multi-year construction projects. Like the Chinese of more recent times, they had favorite instruments such as gongs, bells, and flutes, and they drank tea and wore silk garments. They developed artistic motifs, religion and political philosophy that the people have followed for the last 3,000 years until present times.