Exploring Ancient Chinese Culture

When one hears of the word ‘China’, the first image that comes up in most peoples’ minds is the ancient Chinese dynasty, led by an emperor. Despite its economic and technological edge over the rest of the world, the history of this land and the ancient secrets it holds still fascinates travelers and visitors throughout the world.

The ancient Chinese culture is more than 5000 years old. This was the time when its culture, architecture, and art was lauded throughout the globe, resulting in its philosophy spreading as far as the Enlightenment and French Revolution, influencing the culture and the people in those areas. Due to the ancient Chinese culture’s roots which have influenced Chinese philosophy, religion, and politics, the popularity of this culture had spread into faraway lands. Even today, the ancient Chinese religions of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism have shaped the Chinese culture as we know it and the Chinese writing style is one of the world’s most ancient writing styles, having its own uniqueness and distinctiveness. 

Let’s take a look at the evolution of ancient Chinese culture and some aspects of the culture that has evolved into the present-day culture of the region.

Ancient Chinese Culture (1600–221 BC) — Development and Features:

Before the imperial era (221 BC onwards), the ancient Chinese culture was a bit ambiguous. Later, owing to contact with other states’ cultures, modifications began to occur in the Chinese culture. However, the basic forms established during the Zhou and Shang eras still appear in current Chinese culture in everything from religion, to dress, to traditions, to writing in characters. The people of the Shang era (c.1600–1046 BC) developed cultural forms like pictographic writing, clothes, and typical foods and underlining large-scale construction projects. Later on, these traditions saw further changes in the Zhou era (1046-221 BC) with the development of modern Confucian philosophies and imperial dynasties. 

How Ancient Chinese Culture Was Defined

Various historians use the expression “ancient culture” to mean the culture of the Zhou and Shang dynasties. Imperial culture originated in 221 BC with the Qin Dynasty. In the imperial eras, the educated leaders and dynastic courts relied upon the historical records of Sima Qian as the cultural model for their kingdoms. This gave rise to the modern Chinese culture that we know of today. 

Ancient Chinese Culture and Sima Qian

Since times immemorial, Chinese people have customarily believed that the Huaxia tribe created the Chinese culture. According to ancient texts, the Huaxia were situated in the Central Plain near Beijing before the commencement of the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC) and spread southwards and westwards along the Yellow River. They believed in this owing to the concepts of an ancient Chinese historian named Sima Qian (130–86 BC). Sima Qian was a man who explained that the supernatural, Yellow Emperor, and his conquering Huaxia tribe was the foundation of the Han people, their culture, and civilization. His history, Records of the Grand Historian (太史公書 Tàishǐgōng Shū or 史记 Shǐjì), were written before his death and before 86 BC regarding the foundational text of Chinese civilization. In short, his text and work are attributed to Confucius, and historians modeled ancient culture.

Some aspects of Chinese Ancient Culture

Ancient Chinese culture approximately from 3,600 to 2,200 years ago supports modern Chinese culture in everything from religion, to traditions and to writing as well. Here are a few aspects of the ancient culture which still exist to this day.

  • Pictographic Characters for Writing

Archaeological researches show that by 1200, Shang was writing in pictograms that were slightly identical to the characters which are used in Chinese writing today. Scholars have observed that certain characters like the word for father, 父 fù, is identical to the characters that the Shang wrote. New characters are comprised of small pictograms. 

  • A High Esteem for Writing, Literature and Historical Records

It has been observed that the Shang people have heavily commented on writing for record-keeping. Their inscriptions have been seen on hundreds and thousands of oracle bones and on their living figure metal formations. The writing was perhaps a significant feature of their routine life, but a majority of their writings have been lost since they had written them on things such as parchments that have deteriorated. This highlights that education and writing were a vital portion of ancient culture and were of great value in all the imperial eras starting from the Qin conquest in 221 BC till the year 1912.

  • The Style of Arts and Crafts

The Shang produced heavy, large, and geometrically complex bronze objects in characteristic styles that the Zhou clan who were subjects of the Shang Dynasty in the very beginning, continued after conquering the empire. Their bronze work style was found to be totally dissimilar from the bronzes of the concurrent Sanxingdui civilization in Sichuan. This indicates that the ancient people of the Zhou and Shang dynasties maintained a different artistic culture and refused to adopt the Sanxingdui style.

  • A Liking for Jade

Contrary to other cultures that prized bronze over other metals, the Shang people, as well as people of the Zhou era, preferred objects made of jade. Archeologists digging the ancient ruins of Chinese sites have discovered a huge quantity of jade ornaments, artwork, and other objects that had been designed for ritual ceremonies and decorations. The people of the Shang dynasty even used jade to make body armor. Later, this jade was used to encase the bodies of royal emperors that are preserved to this day. 

  • The Tea Drink

One of the beverages that the people of the Shang dynasty were particularly fond of was tea. This became evident when archeologists discovered tea in the 2nd century Han emperor’s tomb. However, ancient records say that tea was considered a medicinal drink during the Zhou era. Moreover, it was thought that tea was first cultivated in Yunnan during the Shang period. Thereafter, the tradition of drinking tea spread to other Zhou era states and neighboring countries.

  •  The Silk 

One other thing that has its roots in the ancient Chinese culture is silk. Chinese people have been credited with the invention of silk fabric. In fact, the earliest records of the invention of silk date back to 37 Century BC in Henan. Eventually, the manufacturing of silk cloth was quite advanced during the Shang era. This is the reason why silk weaving is still prevalent in modern-day China and mainland Chinese produce more than half of the world’s silk. 

  • Ancient religion and Daoism

The people of the Shang dynasty worshipped their own ancestors in addition to famous persons who had passed away. They believed that the dead souls could harm, as well as heal, people and this belief in ancestral worship are still present to this day. 

The Last Word

The traits of the ancient Chinese culture explained above are just a tiny glimpse into the vast world of Chinese history. The modern-day Chinese culture still holds some features of the ancient past, fragments of which can still be observed during Chinese festivals such as Chinese New Year when people take a great part in attending to clan burial places and temples as well as engaging in rituals and customs of the past. Nevertheless, tourists and travelers visiting China are sure to get enticed by the features of the ancient past that can still be seen in Chinese art, architecture, and museums. 

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Antonia January 8, 2021 0 Comments