The history of China before the Qin Dynasty (221 ~ 206 BC) spans over three dynasties: Xia, Shang, and Zhou.
Descriptions of the Xia dynasty are available in classic texts such as the Classic of History (shang shu 尚书) the Bamboo Annals (zhu shu ji nian 竹书纪年) and the Records of the Grand History (Shiji 史记), which date the period at ca. 2070 ~ ca. 1600 BC. The Erlitou cultural relics site excavated in areas of west Henan and south Shanxi, as well as some other sites, provides physical evidence that a certain state contemporaneous with or equivalent to the Xia dynasty did exist. But contemporary documentary records (like the oracle bones and bronze implements carrying characters of Shang dynasty) have yet to be excavated, as an immediate evidence of the very existence of the Xia dynasty. Therefore, the very existence of this dynasty is still debatable according to some historians.
Bamboo Annals （竹书纪年 zu shu ji nian）
Contemporary documentary records of the Xia Dynasty are absent. People learn about the history of Xia Dynasty mostly in history records of later generations such as the Bamboo Annals.
Erlitou Relics Site
The Erlitou cultural relics site excavated in areas of west Henan and south Shanxi, as well as some other sites, provides physical evidence that a certain state contemporaneous with or equivalent to the Xia dynasty did exist.
The founder and first king of the Xia dynasty was Yu the Great (大禹 da yu). Yu abandoned the previous rule of succession which featured abdication of the old, incumbent king in favor of a younger, venerable successor, and set the precedence for dynastic rule or the hereditary system, opening a period of family or clan control in the next four thousand years. He distinguished himself for his success in stopping the flooding, and acceded to the throne by 舜Shun’s abdication, but passed the throne to his own son Qi启.
|Yu, the Great, who rose to fame and prestige for his success in controling floods, acceded to the throne and passed it to his son Qi, setting the precedence for hereditary rule in Chinese history.|
As the first dynasty in Chinese history, Xia dynasty gives a name to the Chinese nation or civilization, known as Hua-Xia 华夏. The Chinese lunar calendar still in use today was invented in the Xia dynasty, too.
The last ruler of Xia dynasty was Jie 桀, who is said to be a corrupt and brutal king and was overthrown by Tang 汤, the founder of the next dynasty – Shang.
While it takes further evidence to prove the Xia dynasty’s existence, the historicity of the Shang dynasty is well established by matching archaeological findings with historical records documented by later generations. There have been direction information about it from the Shang-era inscriptions on bronze artifacts and from oracle bones (bones like turtle shells, cattle scapulae that bear hieroglyphs – early form of Chinese characters).
|Oracle bone bearing early forms of Chinese characters.|
Si Mu Wu Ding 司母戊鼎
Bronze implement used by the Shang court in sacrifices.
Ruins of Yinxu near modern day Anyang, the site of the last capital of the Shang Dynasty. Major Yin royal tombs, palace foundations and ritual sites were uncovered.
The Shang dynasty had a long history (ca. 1600 ~ 1046 BC) and relocated its capital many times. The Ruins of Yin (殷墟 yin xu) near modern day Anyang is the site of the last capital of the Shang dynasty, where major Yin royal tombs, palace foundations and ritual sites were uncovered. The period of Yin as its capital marked a golden age of the dynasty. However, the last Shang king, named 纣 Zhou, was a corrupt and brutal king, just like Jie, the last ruler of the preceding Xia dynasty. His ruthlessness provoked rebels led by the Zhou, a vassal of the Shang in the west. King Zhou’s army lost the Battle of Muye （牧野） and King Zhou committed suicide, marking the fall of the Shang dynasty.
King Wu of Zhou led his army to overthrow corrupt and ruthless King Zhou of the Shang Dynasty, founding the Zhou Dynasty.
Following the Shang dynasty was the Zhou dynasty, which is the longest dynasty in Chinese history (1046 ~ 256 BC). King Wu of Zhou conquered the Shang dynasty at the Battle of Muye in 1046 BC, marking the beginning of the Western Zhou dynasty.
Early Zhou dynasty saw the set-up of the “feudal” system (known as 封建 fengjian) under which the Zhou kings maintain their authority over the vast territory through enfeoffing the land to scores of noble vassals in return for their service and allegiance. The system functioned well initially, as the vassal states rallied around the Zhou kings against foreign tribes. Confucius was to constantly show nostalgia about the orderly fashion of the system. However, as familial relationship between the Zhou kings and the regional rulers thinned over generations and the rulers of the vassal states gained strength and prestige over time, the fengjian system became strained.
Chinese ancient wine cup. The Western Zhou Dynasty was strictly hierarchical. The size, pattern and material of the wine cup varied with the rank of the nobleman using it.
Official, ceremonial garment of the nobleman, like the wine cup, also varied with the rank and status of the nobleman.
A set of musical instrument known as bianzhong 编钟 excavated at the Tomb of Marquis of Zeng.
A map of late Spring and Autumn Period, Eastern Zhou Dynasty. The demesne, along with the prestige and authority, of the Zhou king kept dwindling, compared with his vassal states, throughout the Eastern Zhou Dynasty.
King You replaced Queen Shen with Baosi, a concubine of his, which enraged Queen Shen’s powerful father, the Marquis of Shen. The Marquis joined hands with Quanrong, a foreign tribe in the west, killed the King and sacked the Zhou capital, Haojing, in 770 BC. The grandson of the Marquis was proclaimed the new king, who subsequently relocated the capital to Chengzhou in the east. This marks the beginning of the second half of the Zhou dynasty – Eastern Zhou.
A best-known story in Chinese history. King You of (Western) Zhou tried to please his new queen Baosi by igniting beacon fire at which the vassal nobles rushed to help, leading their troops, only to find themselves cheated. A foreign invasion did come some time later, and the king ordered to ignite the beacon fire again. However, no reinforcement came this time. The king was killed in battle. His son was to relocate the Zhou capital eastward, opening the Eastern Zhou Dynasty.
The Zhou kings, having lost the bulk of his income which had previously come from the royal demesne round the former capital of Haojing, saw their authority and prestige keep dwindling throughout the Eastern Zhou dynasty. The territory and strength of the vassal states have developed and surpassed that of the king. They vied for hegemony through constant wars in the “interstate” relations, and the Zhou kings became figureheads with merely nominal authority. Effective influence and control over the vassal states were impossible. And in 256 BC, it was finally annexed by the Qin state which was to reunify China under Qin dynasty.
The Eastern Zhou dynasty is popularly divided into two halves: the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period. Both Periods were one of the most important periods in Chinese history, with rich cultural sources for Chinese ancient culture of later times.
A painting illustrating various scholars during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. Eastern Zhou Dynasty was a period when various schools of thinking flourished, popularly known as the age of Hundred Schools of Thought.
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