Iron tools entered China in the 7th century B.C. and agriculture grew more efficient as iron-casting techniques were improved. Higher crop yields freed people from the land and led to an increase in the number of and size of cities. The evolution of China from an agrarian society to an urban-mercantile one was accompanied by social change and political unrest.
China was composed of city-states, much like ancient Greece. Peasants owned their own land and exchanged military and civil service with nobles in return for protection. Around the 11th century B.C. society became divided into slaves and slave owners. In the seventh century B.C. merchants were powerful enough to negotiate contracts with lords and emperors instead of being manipulated by them.
Although primitive spade money (See Chinese First No. 2, Early History) was first circulated around 750 B.C. barter remained the primary means of exchange. In the seventh century B.C. coins were minted in China with the names of town printed on them.
During the Eastern Zhou Dynasty ancient shamanist practices were forged into a system of moral beliefs for daily life that later became Confucianism (See Confucianism, Religion). The Zhou also refined writing. It said people in the Zhou Dynasty had also learned to grow fruit trees in orchards.
Excavations have revealed historical documents written on bamboo slips; bronze chimes, regarded as symbols of wealth; string-plucked instruments; three-foot-tall elevated drums; bronze cauldrons; and bronze lamps. One of the largest royal tombs in China was discovered in Henan Province in the early 2000s. Extending for 115 feet and belonging to a king of the Zheng State, it was built in the Spring and Autumn Period (Eastern Zhou Dynasty 770-475 B.C.). Archeologists found lavish jade and metal mortuary objects and elaborate horse'drawn carriages with the remains of horses in the tomb.
Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; 2) Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; 4) Zhou Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; 5) Ancient China Life ancientchinalife.com ; 6) Ancient China for School Kids elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; 7) Oriental Style ourorient.com ; Books: Cambridge History of Ancient China edited by Michael Loewe and Edward Shaughnessy (1999, Cambridge University Press); The Culture and Civilization of China, a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press); Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties by Jessica Rawson (British Museum, 1996); “Early Chinese Religion” edited by John Lagerwey & Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: 2009);
Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History)
Land, People, Power and Migrations in Ancient China
Dr. Eno wrote: “ During the late Zhou, when the patrician states were politically independent, the two basic resources available to rulers were land and population. Defending one’s territorial boundaries was a straightforward notion, but if the land one defended possessed inadequate population, it could not be as easily defended or as fully cultivated; thus state revenues would fall as the costs of military defense increased. Agriculture was a labor-intensive form of production, and although ancient China’s population was high relative to other areas of the world, increased labor capacity more than compensated for increased consumption. Thus possession of a flourishing population was essential. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]
“Despite various devices meant to ensure that people would remain on the land designated for them, it was not possible to prevent unauthorized emigration, and those most likely to emigrate were the able-bodied. One of the key constraints on the behavior of rulers during the late Zhou was the fact that an alienated population could desert the state. Rulers inclined to arbitrary tyranny would increase surveillance and coercive measures against emigration, but these would in turn act as disincentives to stay. The more practical political advisors of the Classical period attempted to devise systems that would optimally balance legal constraints and other forms of institutionalized coercion with well advertised welfare policies – or at least the rhetoric of “caring.”
Sometimes in the early Zhou period entire states were forced to move. At a time when the Zhou were forced to flee eastward, the “Duke Huan, whose forbears had long before been granted by the Western Zhou throne the prerogative to rule over a large estate known as the land of Zheng in the west, had “moved” his estate to a new area in the east. Such removals of patrician ruling houses, which entailed the forced migration of all the people of the patrician state – artisans and merchants of the central walled town and the peasantry from the surrounding countryside whose crops represented the basic income of their lords – were not uncommon during the early centuries of the Zhou. Such migrations highlight the high status of the patrician lords and their personal control over large masses of common people. Later, these migrations ceased, and we may see in this change a transition from a clan-based concept of the estate (or state) to a more familiar territory-based concept.
City Dwellers, Farmers and Peasants in Ancient China
Dr. Eno wrote: “There are some very basic questions about Zhou society that we are not able to answer clearly, and one of them is the way in which distinctions of social class correlated to the division between urban and rural populations. This text, among others, encourages us to believe that virtually the entire population of ancient China lived within walled towns, the farming population simply moving to temporary field shelters during the spring and summer months. This seems highly unlikely. Apart from being far more tidy than real life ever is, it also requires an astonishingly high degree of both social control and of increased labor, necessary for the transport of goods to these populous urban centers. Moreover, if the countryside were so thoroughly abandoned during the winter months, it would make it quite difficult to defend broad territories from incursions by non-Chinese nomadic peoples, who inhabited geographic pockets throughout the territories under Zhou control. Although the reports of the texts would surely not have come to be had not some patterns resembling this existed to some significant degree in regions of the Chinese cultural sphere, both the degree of uniformity of such structures and their intensity is very suspect. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]
“It seems more likely that the texts we have conflate into one category two very distinct types of farming classes: urban based farmers connected to patrician lineages, whose fortunes required them to cultivate their own lands but whose clan associations required them to live “upscale” within the city, and peasant-farmers, families of no social standing settled on patrician lands to farm for the local lord, whose “title” to their lands was less than free, and who probably had permanent residence in small hamlets, located at some distance from the nearest city. The former class, shi who farmed, would have occupied no single slot in the four-class model of society. Their clan connections would have allowed them to participate in the political life of the city – something peasants clearly could not do – yet their living style would have made them appear more peasant than patrician. /+/
“These sorts of complexities in actual society probably lie behind many inconsistencies in relatively neat textual accounts of systematic norms, such as this one. The relationships between cities and patrician clans, and between farmers who owned their lands, in some sense, and other types of farmers or peasants, are unresolved issues that could occupy our attention at length, and the fact that virtually every early source discusses the peasants as if they were a single homogenous class may be the single greatest distortion in their portrait of ancient China. /+/
“These issues have been at the core of a long-running scholarly-political battle. Mainland Chinese scholars have, over the past five decades, made great efforts to show that the evidence supports the contention that peasants were actually “slaves” (a necessary feature of a Marxist presentation of China’s historical evolution), while Chinese scholars from Taiwan have used the same evidence to argue precisely the opposite conclusion. “ /+/
Villages, Cities and Suburbs in Ancient China
According to the “Treatise on Food and Money”: ““When referring to dwelling places in the fields, we speak of huts; when referring to dwellings in the city we speak of precincts. There, five family dwellings constituted a neighborhood and five neighborhoods constituted a precinct. Four precincts constituted a district and five districts constituted a borough. Five boroughs made up a region and five regions constituted a township. A township thus contained 12,500 households. The Neighborhood Headman held a rank of “lower shi,” and the supervisors for each successively larger unit held a rank one step higher, up to the office of Township Supervisor, who held a ministerial rank. [Source: “Treatise on Food and Money” by Ban Gu, 1st century A.D.<<< ]
Dr. Eno wrote: “In patrician states, the ruler resided within the precincts of a walled fortress-palace within an urban center. Outside the palace walls was the capital city. Within various city neighborhoods lived artisans, who produced goods for the lord’s extended household and retainers, merchants, whose commerce connected the capital to other towns and cities throughout China and who traded at a the city marketplace, and at least some peasants, whose fields were adjacent to the city. Most of the patrician capitals, and all the major ones, were themselves surrounded by thick, high, earthen walls, penetrated by tall wooden gates on each side. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]
“Outside these outer walls there were also communities of peasants who worked fields somewhat more distant from the city, Here, also, were graves of patrician ancestors and graveside shrines, pavilions, hunting preserves, and other areas designated for the use of the privileged elite. The term “suburb” refers principally to these patrician preserves, rather than to any residential use of the lands beyond the outer walls. Certain sacrificial rites and rituals of court took place in the more spacious environs of these suburbs.” /+/
Food and Drink in China, 3000 Years Ago
What did Chinese people eat 3,000 years ago? How did they cook? What kind of tableware or cooking utensils did they use? The increasing number of archaeological finds over the past few decades, especially the discoveries of ancient bronze wares, have shed new light on these questions. Many of the unearthed bronze wares were found with the remains of food or wine. [Source: China.org, March 13, 2003, This article first appeared in 2003's third issue of Collections, a Chinese language monthly magazine ~]
According to China.org: “People of the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties highly valued their way of dining. Delicious and nutritious food was regarded as the basis of ordinary life. Inscriptions engraved on ancient bronze items showed rice and wheat were the major staple foods since the Shang Dynasty. Shi Jing (The Book of Songs), one of the seminal works of the Chinese civilization, featured records of growing grain as well as grain processing. According to Li Ji (Records of Ritual), one of the five early Chinese classics, people at that time had begun to make cake with flour. Generally, the staple food was either boiled in a li or steamed in a yan (See Cooking Below). ~
“As far as meat went, archaeological findings showed Shang people enjoyed a wide variety of animals including horse, cow, chicken, pig, sheep and deer. Of course, only the upper-class was able to enjoy these delicacies. For common people, however, fish was probably the best food they could attain. Over a dozen kinds of fish were mentioned in Shi Jing. Fish-shaped jade items were often excavated, which proved the prominent role of fish in people's daily diets. ~
“People of the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties set forth culinary standards that are still followed today, such as the practice of cutting food into bite size pieces during preparation and not at the table. They stressed both the food and the culinary vessels must be cleaned completely before cooking. They also decreed that harmony among ingredients with respect to their size, shape, fragrance, taste and texture should be the goal of the chef. Diets should be changed with different seasons. To gain a balanced diet, vegetables and fruits were assorted with the main dishes. Seasoning varieties were also dazzling with sweet, hot, sour or spicy flavours, which made the dish tasty and healthy. Sauces made of meat, fish and oyster were also popular. ~
“On the imperial palace menu was the drinking side of the dining experience.Artifacts produced during the Shang Dynasty consisted mainly of wine vessels. It shows the important role wine drinking played in the lives of Shang people. According to historical documents, the best wine at the time was made with millet. Historians argued that the imperial class was so fond of a drop it led to the collapse of the Shang Dynasty. Rulers of the Western Zhou Dynasty learned from Shang people and restricted drinking. ~
“Ancient Chinese were also concerned about the freshness of food and worked out effective ways to preserve food. They built large underground "Lingyin" (cold storage) areas, which were chilled enough to keep food fresh in winter. Salting meat, fish and pickling vegetables was another effective method.” ~
Cooking in China, 3000 Years Ago
According to China.org: “The Chinese have always considered cooking to be one of the first steps out of savagery into civilization. Legend has it that cooking and food were so important in ancient China that Emperor Tang, founder of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.), appointed as his prime minister Yi Yin, a renowned cook who created China's cooking culture.[Source: China.org, March 13, 2003 ~]
“Historians had argued that Shang people living over 3,000 years ago had mastered cooking techniques like steaming, stir-frying, frying and deep-frying. Archaeologists have found that in addition to pottery vessels, a dazzling variety of bronzes were once popular cooking utensils and tableware among the upper-class, which played a significant role in the study of Chinese culinary history. ~
“According to Li Xueqin, an expert on Chinese bronzes at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, these pieces were regarded as sacred vessels and only used during complex ritual ceremonies. Generally, the bronze vessels are divided into four categories according to their uses: cooking vessels, food containers, wine vessels and water vessels. As Li wrote in his works Chinese Bronzes, the ding was one of the most important types of bronzes used for cooking meat. It is either three-legged and round or four-legged and rectangular, which was designed to elevate the vessel and provide a space underneath for a fire to be built. The li was another kind of cooking vessel characterized by its pouch-like hollow legs. Liquid could flow to the legs and be heated more rapidly. ~
“The ding and li often came with spoons featuring a long handle and a sharp tip, which was used for picking meat out of the vessel. The yan was a steamer. It has pouch-like legs that can be filled with water like a li. Its upper part was like that of a ding. A rack was connected to the base so it could hold the food to be steamed. Historical documents showed each type of vessels was designed for a specific kind of food and could not be misused. As for the bronze wine vessels, the jue and gu were the most common. The jue was an odd-looking wine cup with three long, flat, pointed legs. It had a handle and a long spout with an upward tail that served as a counterweight. ~
“The most peculiar features were two small umbrella-like columns on the top. Research shows the two columns might have been used for hanging spice bags, which were immersed in the wine. Another assumption is that since men did not shave their beards at that time, the columns were used to divide their beards and prevent them from being stained by the wine. ~
“In the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties, the bronze wares were not only used for cooking, but were an indication of social status. Often, a series of ding of varying sizes showed the rank of the owner, depending on how many pieces were in a set. According to historical documents, emperors in the Western Zhou Dynasty could use nine ding, dukes could only use seven, senior officials five and lower-ranking officials three. Commoners were forbidden to use them and violators could be punished by death.” ~
3,000-Year-Old Cellar with Melons and Apricots Found in North-Central China
A poem in the “Book of Songs”, a collection of poetry from the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century -771 B.C.) to the Spring and Autumn Period (770 – 475 B.C.), says food kept in “ling yin” — meaning cool places — will stay fresh for three days in the summer. [Source: Zhang Xiang, Xinhua, November 20, 2010]
In November 2010, Chinese archeologists announced they had found remains of ancient fruit — mostly well-preserved apricot and melon seeds — in a 3,000-year-old cellar in China’s Shaanxi Province. Zhang Xiang of Xinhua wrote: “The cellar was a rectangular pit about 105 centimeters long, 80 centimeters wide and 205 centimeters deep, said Dr. Sun Zhouyong, a researcher with the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archeology. Sun and his colleagues found the pit in 2002, about 70 centimeters underground the Zhouyuan site, ruins of Western Zhou dynasty (1046-771 B.C.) 100 kilometers from Xi’an. After eight years of research, they concluded it was a cellar used to preserve fruits for aristocrats. [Source: Zhang Xiang, Xinhua, November 20, 2010 *^*]
“In each corner of the pit, Sun and his colleagues found a little round hole. “We assume the cellar had something like a shade that was fixed on the four holes but had decayed over the years.” Inside the cellar the researcher could see, even with naked eye, huge piles of nuts and seeds. “We sorted them out with care, and found about 500 apricot nuts — 108 of which were complete with carbonized pulp, at least 150 melon seeds and 10 plum seeds,” said Sun. They also found millet and grass seeds. “Most of the seeds were intact and very few were carbonized,” said Sun. “It was so amazing that scientists who conducted lab work suspected they were actually put away by rodents in more recent times.” *^*
“Sun and his colleagues sent three apricot nuts to Beta Analytic in Florida, the United states, last year for carbon 14 test to determine their age. “The test results indicated they were about 3,000 years old, dating back to a period between 1380 B.C. and 1120 B.C.,” said Sun. “Seemingly the fruits had been stored in an acidic and dry environment, so dehydration was extremely slow and the nuts were not carbonized even after so many centuries.” *^*
“Zhouyuan site, where the cellar was unearthed, was believed to be a dwelling place for Duke Danfu, an early leader of the Zhou clan. It was known as the cradle of the Western Zhou Dynasty, one of the earliest periods of China’s written history. “Presumably, the aristocrats had stored fruits in their family cellar,” said Sun. The cellar, with roughly 1.7 cubic meters of storage, could store up to 100 kilograms of fruits, he said. *^*
Foods and Food Preparation in Classical Era China
Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The diet of most people in Classical era China (roughly 6th to 3rd century B.C.) “was overwhelmingly vegetable. Although the records of huge ritual slaughters of livestock indicate that the ancestors had an insatiable taste for meat, the ordinary person tasted very little or none. Only in wealthier districts and among the patrician class were domesticated animals raised for food. The most common of these were pigs and dogs (sorry); cattle, sheep, and goats were also husbanded, along with fowl, such as chicken, goose, pheasant, and quail. Hunting yielded a variety of prized foods for the high elite, particularly several varieties of deer; fish were a delicacy in inland areas. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]
“Classical Chinese ate a variety of fruits and vegetables, but it is unclear to what degree these were cultivated; many were simply gathered from the borders of settled areas. Among the vegetables that may have been grown in garden plots were turnips, leeks, and lettuces.Melons and cucumbers were also raised. Lotus roots, water chestnuts, ginger, cinnamon, and in some areas bamboo shoots were probably gathered wild. /+/
“Wheat, like millet, was not generally ground. Only late in the Warring States period did the practice of grinding wheat into flour and producing “cake” arise. Instead, wheat, like millet, was generally eaten boiled, or seared and then boiled, in a kind of gruel to which flavoring, vegetables, and meat could be added. (This is not far removed from much Chinese cooking today). Grains were also in demand in the manufacture of alcoholic drinks, which were used in many rituals of the patrician lineage cults, and were also considered essential for the drunken orgies which many members of the elite found an important form of relaxation after a busy day examining the state treasuries. /+/
2,400-Year-Old Dog Soup Found in Xian
In a Warring States tomb in Shaanxi Province a team of researchers found a soup containing what they believe to be dog bones. One researcher sampled what was said to be the world”'s oldest soup, which is cloudy and green due to the bronze vessel it was stored in for more than 2,000 years. [Source: Archaeology magazine, January/February 2012]
In December 2010 AFP reported: Chinese archaeologists announced they had discovered a 2,400-year-old pot of bone soup near Xian. The soup and bones were discovered in a small, sealed bronze vessel in a tomb being excavated to make way for the extension of the airport in Xian. The liquid and bones in the vessel had turned green due to the oxidation of the bronze. [Source: AFP, December 13, 2010 <=>]
"It's the first discovery of bone soup in Chinese archaeological history," the Global Times quoted Liu Daiyun of the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology as saying. "The discovery will play an important role in studying the eating habits and culture of the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.)." <=>
Liu told the Times of London took the lid off the three-legged and was amazed to find it was half-full of liquid. “I was really shocked." he said. “My guess is the liquid did not evaporate because of the lid and the because the tomb had been tightly sealed for more than 2,000 years." Archaeologists also dug up another bronze pot that contained an odorless liquid believed to be wine in the tomb, which could belong to either a member of the land-owning class or a military officer, the report said.
Sports in Ancient China
kemari, a tsu-chu-like game
played in Japan today Tsu Chu (also known as Cuju) is an ancient ball game first recorded the ancient texts. “Warring States” and “Historical Records”. Tsu means “to kick the ball with feet” and Chu may be directly translated as “a ball made of leather and stuffed.” The game was played to celebrate emperors’ birthdays and by emperors and courtiers for entertainment. Tsu chu is said to have emerged in ancient China as early as 2500 B.C.. It gave birth to kemari — a Japanese ball game with a different set of rules — that was played in A.D. 8th century and is still played today.
Aileen Kawagoe wrote on the Heritage of Japan website: “The goal of Tsu Chu was to kick a ball through an opening (measuring about 30 to 40 centimeters or 1 foot in diameter) into a small net fixed onto erected bamboo canes. Considering that the opening was small and elevated at about 9 meters (30 feet) above ground, it is presumable that a high level of skill was needed to play. During the Ts’in Dynasty (255 B.C. – 206 B.C.) the Chinese game of Tsu Chu was used by soldiers for martial arts training or as physical exercises, in which all body parts except the hands could be used to drive the ball into the goal. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com <^>]
“The earliest record of Tsu Chu was found in a military manual of the Han Dynasty, Tsu Chu was known to have been played by the 3rd – 2nd century military soldiers. Players kicked a leather ball stuffed with feathers and hair through a goal measuring only a foot wide. This is thought to be the earliest form and origin of the sport of soccer in the world. The first international game of football was thought to have been played between Chinese Tsu Chu players and Japan’s Kemari players in 50 B.C., according to a recently discovered ancient text. <^>
The Korean version of Ch’ukku, said to have been imported from China and to date to the Samguk era or Silla period (57 B.C. - A.D. 935) — it was played by the nobility and soldiers with a ball made of rice straw. Given the close connections of the Asuka period with Korean immigrants and royalty, it is likely that the first appearance of kemari during the Asuka period came with the Korean immigrants.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, University of Washington
Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.
Last updated September 2016