How Geography Isolated Ancient China

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  • 0:02 Early Chinese Civilization
  • 0:59 Deserts & Tundra
  • 2:36 Jungles & Seas
  • 4:15 Mountains
  • 4:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Unlike many other ancient cultures, China was effectively isolated from many other early civilizations. Geography played a huge role in this isolation - this lesson will help you learn how.

Early Chinese Civilization

Much like civilizations in Mesopotamia, India and Egypt, the first cultures in China developed in river valleys, specifically the Yellow River (also called Huang He) and Yangtze River. However, while geography allowed the Mesopotamians, Indians and Egyptians to have some limited contact with each other, it effectively trapped the Chinese. In this lesson, we will take a look at how geography isolated early Chinese development. Of course, any discussion of China's early geography must feature those two great river systems, the Yellow River and the Yangtze River. Communication was possible along the rivers, as was farming. In fact, the Shang Dynasty largely spread out from an original base on the Yellow River. However, while the land close to the rivers may have been ideal for civilization, the land farther away still acted as an impressive barrier.

Deserts and Tundra

Imagine you were a Chinese settler who lived during the time of the Shang Dynasty, the first confirmed dynasty of Chinese history, which ruled the Yellow River Valley more than 3500 years ago. If you were intrepid enough to leave your village and journey away from the borders of the empire, you'd run into the same boundaries that allowed China to develop its unique culture. If you were to start journeying north, you'd soon leave the land of the Shang and find that the average temperature cooled down greatly. Great cold winds blow over this frozen tundra, and the name for the area of Russia that borders this part of China, Siberia, is synonymous with bitter cold. No civilization is possible this far north, and aside from a few hunters, little is possible in the way of human life.

But let's say that instead of heading north, you headed west. Again, you'd run into a formidable barrier, but far from freezing like you would in the north, you'd soon find yourself in the Gobi Desert, one of the largest deserts in the world and one with some of the greatest differences in temperature. During the summer, high temperatures can reach 122 degrees Fahrenheit. More common, however, are the cold winds from Siberia that keep this desert frigid, with temperatures below zero degrees commonplace. As you carry more clothes to stay warm, you have to work harder to move, meaning you get thirstier, which, in the desert, is never a good thing. Needless to say, the Gobi's cold temperatures could act as a more impressive barrier than a much warmer desert.

Jungles and Seas

If the settler version of you decided against traveling to the north or west, perhaps you'd like to try the east? However, the East China Sea blocked any movement onward, as did strongly independent countries in Korea and Japan. While these cultures were willing to take the best parts of Chinese knowledge over the next several hundred years, they were not willing to open their doors to Chinese settlement, so the east was effectively blocked for the Chinese. While the sea would eventually be a highway for Chinese trade expeditions, right now it was an effective stop sign.

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