Geography & Early Settlement of China

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  • 0:01 Chinese Geography and…
  • 1:32 Settling the Yellow River
  • 4:53 The Yangtze River
  • 6:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will discover how the geography of China influenced early settlement and the creation of the first Chinese societies. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Chinese Geography and the Neolithic

Just like everywhere else in the world, China did not just become China the day that people moved in. There is evidence of a human ancestor called 'Homo erectus' living in China many millennia earlier. However, the oldest human remains in China have been dated between 18,000 and 11,000 BC. These early humans were nomadic, meaning they travelled continuously for food rather than settling in one place. This changed around 10,000 BC, when people adopted a sedentary lifestyle, living in one place with non-mobile homes. The period when humans first transitioned from nomadic to sedentary lives is the called the Neolithic Era.

The Neolithic was characterized by a major development that allowed people to stay in one place all year long: agriculture, or the domestication of plants and animals. Through farming, people could raise enough food so that there was a constant supply and therefore no need to move.

The ability to start farming was usually tied to geography. In China, two major river basins provided the abundant resources, fertile soil, and natural defenses needed for people to safely settle down and start building small societies. These rivers were the Yellow in the north, and the Yangtze in the south. It would not be an overstatement to claim that these two rivers are responsible for the rise of Chinese civilization and they have played an important role in Chinese culture to this day.

Settling the Yellow River

In the northern half of China, the Yellow River flows over 3,000 miles from west to east and into the Bohai Sea, near the Pacific Ocean. It floods periodically, filling the river banks with nutritious, fertile soil, making it perfect for agriculture.

The first notable Neolithic culture in China are the Jiahu people, who first started farming the grain millet around 7000 BC. For many centuries, millet was the primary crop of northern China. Little is known about the Jiahu, but they were replaced as the dominant power by the Yangshao culture, which lasted from roughly 5000 - 3000 BC. As new cultures emerged, the Yellow River became a central point of power because it had the best lands and resources.

With the rise of the Yangshao, many of the most ancient practices that the Chinese people today consider part of their culture began. Early forms of writing were developed, along with the practice of using cracked bones to predict the future. People wrote on the bones before tossing them in a fire, which caused them to crack. Bone is more durable than paper or cloth, so many examples of Yangshao writing survived. Although still a relatively small culture, the Yangshao developed new techniques of pottery, bronze, and stone carving and expanded across the Yellow River basin.

For modern-day Chinese, cultures like the Yangshao that developed early societies along the Yellow River are remembered through a mixture of facts and legends. They are heralded as the origins of traditional Chinese society, and the Yellow River remained a focal point of Chinese identity throughout history.

Around the time of the Yangshao culture, early Chinese people began talking about the importance of the river, incorporating into their mythology with beliefs that the river flowed from heaven onto Earth so that people could survive. There were even myths about great men who journeyed so far upriver that they ended up in the stars. They also began the practice of associating the periodic flooding of the Yellow River with divine omens. This had a major influence on Chinese history because the flooding of the Yellow River was often taken as a sign that the emperor had lost the divine right to rule and could be overthrown.

This period also saw the rise of important figures who were probably based on real people, but were also remembered through exaggerated myths and legends. Notable amongst these is Shennong, Emperor of the Five Grains, a legendary figure who invented agriculture and medicine and set important precedents for the marks of a good leader.

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