China was isolated- to the east was the sea, and to the north and west were deserts and mountains. Like the people of other civilizations, the ancient Chinese settled in a river valley. The two major rivers in the area were the Huang He (黄河) river and the Chang Jiang (长江) river. In Chinese, "huang", or 黄, means Yellow, and "he", or 河, means river. Thus the English name for the Huang He river is the "Yellow River". The Chang Jiang river is called the "Yangtze River", but "Chang Jiang" actually means "long river" in Chinese.

China's location and its rivers often created problems for the Chinese: the Huang He's floods were so disastrous that it was nicknamed "China's Sorrow", the geographic isolation prevented trade, and invaders to the west and north were not stopped by the natural boundaries. Also, only 10% of the land is suitable for farming.

The Chang Jiang river

The Xia and Shang Dynasty

The remains of a Homo Erectus found near Beijing suggest that humans colonized China as long ago as 500 thousand BCE. Early Chinese farming settlements were located along the Huang He. The Xia dynasty was not an official "dynasty", but rather a loose government or culture connecting these early settlements.
The first leader of these cities, Yu (also known as Dayu) was an engineer and mathematician who irrigated the Huang He to prevent the destructive floods. This is retold in an ancient story that Wikipedia summarizes in the following passage:

"Traditional stories say that Yu sacrificed a great deal of his body to control the floods. For example, his hands were said to be thickly callused, and his feet were completely covered with callus. In one common story, Yu had only been married four days when he was given the task of fighting the flood. He said goodbye to his wife, saying that he did not know when he would return. During the 13 years of flooding, he passed by his own family's doorstep three times, but each time he did not return inside his own home. The first time he passed, he heard that his wife was in labor. The second time he passed by, his son could already call out to his father. His family urged him to return home, but he said it was impossible as the flood was still going on. The third time Yu was passing by, his son was older than 10 years old. Each time, Yu refused to go in the door, saying that as the flood was rendering countless numbers of people homeless, he could not rest."

By the 1700s BCE, a people called the Shang had risen to power. Their dynasty lasted to 1027 BCE and oversaw great changes. Their capital, Anyang, was also heavily fortified with earthen walls to protect against the frequent wars. Inside the city, the wealthy lived in houses with clay and straw walls, while peasants lived in huts outside the walls.

Yu the Great

Xia and Shang Culture

In Mandarin, the Chinese language, "China" is translated as "中国", which means "Middle Kingdom". The Chinese saw their country as the center of the civilized world (and indeed, it was one of the first civilizations). Family was central to the society, and elders were respected.
During the Shang dynasty, there was a division between nobles and peasants. Nobles under the king owned the land and governed villages in an early form of feudalism.
The Chinese religion was closely linked to the concept of family: dead ancestors were honored as spirits. The supreme god, Shang Di, was also worshiped. Kings consulted gods through "oracle bones", which were animal bones or shells with questions inscribed on them. When heat was applied, the bone or shell cracked, and the priests interpreted the answer from this.
Oracle bones also reveal another part of Shang culture: writing. The Chinese writing was, and is, not directly linked to spoken language. For example, one could not "sound out" a character. This meant that scholars had to memorize thousands of characters to be literate, making education difficult.

The Zhou Dynasty

The Zhou overthrew the Shang by the 1000s BCE and they brought new ideas to the Chinese, the Shang-influenced culture changed little. One of the ideas that the Zhous introduced was the Mandate of Heaven. It stated that if a ruler was "bad", the gods would take away his right to rule. The new Zhou rulers used this rule for their own political advantage:

"[Shang] has lost the Mandate, and we Zhou have received it... The Mandate of Heaven is not easy to gain. It will be lost when men fail to live up to the reverent and illustrious virtues of their forefathers..."
- a Zhou duke

To the superstitious Chinese, natural disasters were considered a sign of godly displeasure. Bad farming years or floods could give other powerful families the chance to seize the throne.
The Zhou controlled their people and lands through feudalism. As the years passed, the local lords grew stronger and more independent from Zhou rule, resulting in more wars.

Zhou Culture

People: Most were poor peasants who rarely traveled
Clothes: The wealthy wore silk, and the peasants' clothes were made of rough fabrics
Houses: Peasants lived in mud and straw buildings while the wealthy were surrounded by ornate furniture and riches
Religion: The Zhou practiced ancestor worship
Family: Zhou Culture was family-centered. Sometimes more than 100 family members lived together under an elder male.

Video and Audio

A two-part documentary with English subtitles.



The Huang He river is north of the Chang Jiang.