Ancient China



Figure 1.--Nothing symbolizes ancient China more than the Great Wall. It is thec only man-made tructure that can be seen with the unaided eye from space. At first short sectiuions were condtructed. Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) (259 210 BC), the first Emperor, srt out to cinnect the vrious segmnts. Much of the original construction no longer exits or is buried within the modern wall. Much of what can be seen today is the work of the Ming. Here we ee a liitle American boy, one of the first tourists to visit the Wall after reltions began to improve. The press caption read, "Little man on the Great Wall: Nine-year old Chritopher Duncan makes good useof his tennis shoes as he walks along the Great Wall of CHina recently during his trip to the People's Republic of China with his parents." The photograph was taken in 1973.

China is one of the oldest civilizations on earth, one of the four great river valley civilizations. Civilization appeared in China about 3,000 BC in the Yellow River valley. The early emperors are legendary figures. The founder of Chinese social order was Fu Hsi. Organized agriculture appears about 2737 BC under Shen Nung. Many of the invention of Chinese cultural life occur under the Yellow Emperors (2704-2585 BC) which many scholars consider the golden age of China. They were followed by the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC) who are remembered for their cruelty. They were followed by the Chou Dynasty which is regarded as the classical period of Chinese history. Aguculture became universal and the arts flirished. The great sages including Confucius, Lao-tse, Mencius, abd Mo Ti appeared. The feudal system developed in China at this time. Despite the humanitarian doctrines of these sages, a devestaing series of feudal wars marched the last years of the Chou. They were replaced by te Ch'in Dynasty. The Ch'in restored order, abolished the feydal system, and drove Hun Tartars back into the Asiatic desert. They also began construction of the Great Wall. The Empire was exte nded south of the Yangtze valley. Shih Huang Ti is sometimes regaded as the "First Emperor". To symbolize a break with the past, Shih ordered the burning of all but practical books on medicine and agriculture--for which he is generally held in repriach by Chinese scholars. The first Han emperor seized power about 202 BC. The Han were the last emperors of Ancient China and ruled until 220 AD. The Mongul hordees were again driven back to Central Asia and Mongolia was added to the Empire. Overland trade routes, chiefly in silks, were established with the West. Competitive examinations in the civil service were adopted. Chinese writing was standarized and printing invented. Buddhism was introduced from India, the first major foreign influence on China. We know little about historic Chinese clothing worn in the socienties of ancient China at this time, but we eventually hope to add such information to HBC. Almost as old as Chinese civilization itself is the history of silk--the oldest textile fabric known to man. We note that the fine clothes worn by the elite often had magnificent embroidery with important imagery. One of the most important images was the dragon which came to symbolize the unity of the Chinese people.

Civilization

China is one of the oldest civilizations on earth, one of the four great river valley civilizations. Civilization appeared in China about 3,000 BC in the Yellow River valley. The early emperors are legendary figures. The founder of Chinese social order was Fu Hsi. Organized agriculture appears about 2737 BC under Shen Nung.

Chinese Culture

Many of the invention of Chinese cultural life occur under the Yellow Emperors (2704-2585 BC) which many scholars consider the golden age of China. It was during the reign of the Yellow Emperors that the cultivation of silk is believed to have begun in China.

Dynasties

Shang (1766-1122 BC)

The great Yellow Emperors were followed by the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC) which is remembered principally for the cruelty of the emperors.

Chou (1122-255 BC)

The Chou Dynasty which is regarded as the classical period of Chinese history. The dynasty indured over 8 centuries. Aguculture became universal and the arts flirished. The great sages including Confucius, Lao-tse, Mencius, abd Mo Ti appeared. The feudal system developed in China at this time. Despite the humanitarian doctrines of these sages, a devestaing series of feudal wars marched the last years of the Chou. They were replaced by te Ch'in Dynasty.

Ch'in (255-202 BC)

Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) (259 210 BC) was the king of the Chinese State of Qin (246-221 BC). Qin was one of tge warring states. China at the time was much like medieval Europe. He launched a massive military campaign to conquer the reival states. He thus became the first emperor of a a single, unified Chinese state (221 BC). The Ch'in restored order, abolished the feydal system, and drove Hun Tartars back into the Asiatic desert. They also began construction of the Great Wall. The most famous part of the Wall was built by the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (220–206 BC). Almost all of this construction no longer eisrs. While Qin Shi Huang established the ideal of a unified cHina, he was hardly the ideal emperor. Unifiing China makes him a pibitoal historical figure, followed by two millenia of imperial ruke. The new emperor advised by Li Si enacted an economic and political reform program. He launched some emense building projects, including building and connectging various sections of the Great Wall that had already been built. And it was Qin Shi Huang who created as part of his huge musoleum the life-sized Terracotta Army to gurd him in death. He built an impressive national road system. These projects were not only costly but were accomplished with lrge loss of life. Chinese historians remenber him as the Empoeror who burned whole libraries and killed numerous scholars, many of whom wee buried alive. This was done to symbolize a break with the past and to get rid of books that might =get his subjects thinking about matters that were inconvient to the Emperor. Books on practical matters (medicine and agriculture) were exempted. Since the Ch'in, sunsequent dynasties have ignored, rebuilt, maintained, and enhanced the Wall. What can be seen tiday is primarily the work of the Ming. Qin Shi Huang despite his accomplishments died a fairly young man, he died at the age of 49 (210 BC). His dynasty did not survive him long. The Ch'in extended the Empire south of the Yangtze valley. Soon after the Emperor's death, rebellions and Mongul incursions appaered that his descendents were unable to put down.

Han (202 BC-220 AD)

The first Han emperor seized power about 202 BC. The first Chinese Emperor is genealy seen as Qin Shihuangdi. It was his tomb where the terra cotta army was found. He is famed for uniting China. He is also know for trying to destoy all previous Chinese history and putting scholars to death as part of that process. (The cony=tinuity in Chinese history can be seen in the fact that this is not unlike Mao's effort in the Cultural Revolution. A classic book by a Chinese scholar written about the Emperor became a standard in Chinese culture. Every subsequent emperor wanted a similar book. As a result, China today has the best recorded history of any country. [Mah] The Han were the last emperors of Ancient China and ruled until 220 AD. The Han dynasty, after which the members of the ethnic majority in China, the "people of Han," are named, was especially notable for its military effectivness. Rebellions were suppressed. The Mongul hordees were again driven back to Centtal Asia and Mongolia was added to the Empire. The Han military prowess enabled the empire to expand west as the Tarim Basin (modern Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region). This permitted the establishment of relatively secure overland caravan traffic across Central Asia to the west. These caravan routes came to be called "silk route" because the primary product exported by the Chinese was silk, which was only produced in China, to the Roman Empire. The western terminus were Antioch, Baghdad, and Alexandria. Competitive examinations in the civil service were adopted. Chinese writing was standarized and printing invented. Buddhism was introduced from India, the first major foreign influence on China.

Economy

Ancient China economically dominated most of Asia up to the Himilayas. The agricultural revolution and the birth of civilization occurred first in the Middle East. This occured later in China, but entirely independently. While the last of the four great river valley civilizations to develop, but it developed the most efficient agricultural economy. And until very modern times, agriculture was the most important economic sector which supported the great bulk of the population. Technological advances meant that Chinese agriculture was more advanced than European agriculture. These trechnical advances began in ancient times and continued into the medieval era. Until China's free market reforms (1990s) we tended to think about the vast and poor Chinese peasant masses. In fact, until the 18th or even the 19th century, the Chinese were bettr fed and better off than most Europeans. (An exception here was the American colonits.) This is why China developed such a rich and successful society whixch spawned a steady stream of artistic treasures and technological advances.

Education

Most boys in ancient China as in the West never attended school, but worked in the fields like their fathers. Boys from affluent, but not necesarily rich families might attend a school. Schools were mostly in cities, but towns and even larger villages might have a school of some sort. The Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) |introduced tuition free schools paid for by the state. Attendance was still very limited. The schools prepared boys to take an imperial test--essentially a civil service examination. It was a very modern concept. Government positions were awarded on merit, how high the voy scored, not on ancestry. Schools varied, but boys commonly began to study about age 6 years. Primary schools were generally small, often set up in temples. Attendance was daily without weekend breaks. The school day was long, commonly from early in the moning (about 6:00 am) to the afternoon (about 4:00 pm). The teacher sat at the front of the class in a chair. His pupils had stools. The curriculuum consisted of reading abnd writing, but the focus was Confucian philosophy. Boys memorized long texts and wrote essays and poetry. Painting and caligrophy was also important. Math and science were not included in the curriculum. Especially clever boys vied to pass a special test to get into special programs. Most boys stayed at the same school until about age 16-17 years and took the first examination. The spread of Buddhism meant new schools were opened in China (about 500 AD). Boys in Buddhist monasteries also learned to read and write, that Buddhist people were starting. Here children also learned how to read and write, but there were no lessons in painting or poetry. The focus on Confucian philosophy was replaced with Buddhist theology.

Silk

Silk is one of theoldest textile fibers knopwn to man. The history of the silkworm, which is also the story of silk, which originated in ancient China. Some of the stories have been handed down through the generations and are probably based party on fact and partly on legend and myth. Legend dates the developments of silk to the 27th Century BC when the Chinese first began weaving the cacoon fibers into luxurious silk fabric. The most persistant account is that about 2640 BC a Chinese Empress, Si-Ling-Chi, was watching the glistening amber cocoons that little worms were spinning in the mulberry trees in the palace gardens. She unwound one of the threads on a cocoon and found that it was one, very long strand of shiny material. Fascinated, she pulled strands from several cocoons through her ring to form a thicker thread. Eventually, with the help of her ladies of the court, she spun the threads into a beautiful piece of cloth to make a robe for the emperor, Huang-Ti. No other fabric could compete in luxury to silk. This magnificent material, became known at the "cloth of kings". For thousand of years on the royal family of China had silk.

Clothing and Textiles

The clothing of ancirnt China is a coimplicated topic. The various cultures and dynasties of ancient China great comoplicate any assessment. What is clear that as in other cultures, clothing and adirnment became a matter of social status. Clothing was a way people could exhibit their class standing. The fabric, color, and decorations on of the clothing indicated social position. People of higher classes dressed themselves and their families in expensive fine silks. While there were changes over time, there were also many constant threads. The weakthy, both men and women, wore long robes tied with a sash. One might note that robe-like garments were also worn in the West. This is probably a functional matter. Futted garments were more complicated to weave and thus more exoensive. Under tge robes, the wealthy wore trousers that were fitted tight at the ankles. The wealthy wore silk all year found, the weight of the garments, hiowever, varied seaonlly. Chinese clothing was very colorful and least for the well-to-do tht could aford fine garments. Men tied their hair in a knot covered which would be covered with a cloth or hat. Women had very different dstyles. They braided their hair into often elablorate creations. They twisted the braids and added often higly decorative pins and combs. Peasants who made up the grrat bulk of the population in contrast dressed plinly with a long shirt-like garment made of inexpensive fabrics like hemp fiber. They would also wear hats in pubic, inexpensive straw hats. The Zhou dynasty developed formal laws about clothing, rules rhat would influence subsequent dynasties. This included laws and regulatuions about color, design, and adornment. The rules wee a matter addressed at thge highest level, indicating tge importance attached to dress. The emperor and court officials developed the rules. One of the most important was to reserve the color yellow exclusively for the emperor personal wear. (Just as purple was reserved for the Roman emperor.) Green, red, white, and black developed as symbols for north, south, east, and west. Chinese clothing was destinctive because if their cultural isolation from the other great river valley civilizations developing to the West. In addition to this isolation, for centuries the Chinese were the only civilization to have developed silk. It is considered to be the most luxurious fabrics. It is also one of the oldest. The Chinese developed before the Silk Road developed (27th century BC). It became obe of the most sought after Chinese product which of course is why the tenuous connection between East and West became known as the Silk Road. The Chinese attempted to maintain it as a state secret. It is produced from silkworm cocoons. People collected and unwound millions of cocoons to make silk thread. Hundreds of cocuns might go into even a small garment. We have noted a few images of children in Chinese art, but they are not always dated, making it difficult to assess changes over time. Most of the images we have noted show boys wearing lose tunics and pajamalike long trousers. We do not know precisely when this clothing style developed. We note that the fine clothes worn by the elite often had magnificent embroidery with important imagery.

Hair Styles

We note images of Chinese boys with destinctive hair styles. Nite the haor styles on the boys seen here flying a kite (figure 2). We do not yet, however, have a time line on the development and evolution of these styles.

Clothing Technology

Several authors have addressed the subject of the development of important technologies in China, often centuries, in some csases moillenia, before they appeared in the West. We note, however, that as regards clothing, except for silk, China was not ahead of the west in signifuicant elements of clothing oproduction. At least that is our initial assessment. We do note one important invention that was of critical importance to both clothing production and eventually the industrial revolution. That was the spinning wheel and associated mechanical devices and they all involve silk in some way. Silk has the longest strand of any natural plant or animal fiber. A continous strand from the silk worm may run hundreds of yards. Thus there was a huge need for some kind of winding device. As noted above, silk in China may date from the 27th century BC, although some authors give more conservative estimates, most agrree it was before the 14th century BC. No one knows when the Chinese first developed silk winding machines, but there is mentioin of such deviced in Chinese dictionaries by the 2nd century AD. Actual spinning wheels, however, came much later, perhaps the 11th century AD. [Temple, pp. 120-121.]

Dragon Robes

One of the most important images was the dragon which came to symbolize the unity of the Chinese people. The dragon first appeared in Chinese art abbout 4000 BC and was used as totem in both northern and southern areas of what was to become China. Early dragon images looked like snakes, but gradually over time the image became more detailed with the addition of crocodile feet, a horse head, manes and tail, an ox ear, hare eyes, a tiger nose, fish scales and beard, dog legs, eagle talons, a deer antlers, and other facets. The dragon became the symbol of the emperor. People worshiped the dragon to beung favorable growing conditions, especially rain, for their crops. The dragon thus served as a symbol of harmony, the fundamental spirit of Chinese culture. It also symbolized the cohesive force of the Chinese nation. The dragon not only appeared on clothing, but in other aspects of cultural life such as dragon-lantern dances or dragon-boat races on various festivals. The Chinese cheongsam or popularily known as Mandarin qi pao, are often designed with the Chinese dragon and phoenix images, motifs or icons.

Sources

Mah, Yen. A Thousand Pieces of Gold.

Temple, Robert. The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention (Simon and Schuster: New York, 1986), 254p.






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Created: August 29, 2002
Last updated: 11:36 AM 6/26/2012