Early Chinese Civilization in the Huang-He River Valley

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  • 0:01 Early Chinese Geography
  • 1:34 Great Kings
  • 3:05 Jie, Tang, and a…
  • 4:15 Wu Ting & Downfall
  • 5:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Although Chinese civilization developed along rivers much like cultures in Mesopotamia and Egypt, the idea of royal power took a completely different direction. Learn how the Mandate of Heaven ruled all in Ancient China.

Early Chinese Geography

The China of 8,000 years ago was a very different place than it is today. Obviously, there were no tablets or TVs or even phones, but even geographically, the land was quite different, as it was just about everywhere. Most importantly, a wide strip of land stretching from Africa to China was much wetter than it is now. For people living in what is now, that meant that there were streams and rivers, making it a lush grassland. However, for people in China, the land between the Yellow (or Huang He) and Yangtze rivers was a gigantic swamp.

Nonetheless, as global climates changed, people in the Sahara Desert got unlucky and had to leave, whereas those living in the swamps of China soon found that the land had become especially fertile. Much like the Nile, floods replenished the land's soil, and while occasionally unpredictable, these river floods were seen more often than not as an asset by the people. Soon, people began to settle in small villages and towns, much like they did elsewhere in the world, and grew rice and wheat. Also, they produced pottery and had specialized jobs, much like other early civilizations. How they differed from these early cultures is what makes early China so interesting.

Great Kings

As you can imagine, we don't have many historical sources from this early period, frankly because writing was still some time off. After all, this was all happening before 3000 BC. However, soon the idea of virtue, or a ruler's right to rule, became an important theme in Chinese society. Unlike other regions, where military power was viewed as the only requirement to rule, China wanted to make sure that they were favored by Heaven to rule. After all, if rule on Earth was in chaos, Heaven would punish the rulers with floods and barbarian invasions. Having Heaven on your side as a Chinese ruler was known as having the Mandate of Heaven and was considered to be very important.

To this end, the earliest oral records of any Chinese kings that we have are largely legendary. In fact, in some instances, these early kings seem to be too good to be true, striking a balance between being proud of being king while being kind to the people. However, true or not, these early records are important because so much of later Chinese culture depends on copying them. With these early semi-mythological kings, soon called the Xia Dynasty, we have found some archaeological evidence, but for the most part, they are still in the fog of history.

Jie, Tang, and a Moving Capital

One of the things that made the Xia so unique was that kings were encouraged to skip sons who would not have been good kings. The first kings were selected by their elderly predecessors as worthy successors not because of relation but because of their character. In fact, one of the instances where a father did not choose the most worthy person is the reason that the Xia came to an end, and the Shang Dynasty began. Jie was one of these sons whose father chose him over the best possible choice. Jie worked quickly to make himself hated, spending more time with his beautiful but cruel wife than actually governing the country. To this end, an uprising soon began led by a lesser noble, known as Shang Tang. Shang was originally the head of a kingdom loyal to Jie, but soon convinced enough other lesser kings to join him against Jie, that Jie had lost the Mandate of Heaven. Soon, Jie was on the run, and Shang Tang had established a new dynasty, the Shang Dynasty.

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