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4.7: Shang and Zhou Dynasties (1766 BCE – 256 BCE)

  • Page ID
    64625
  • In China, the Xia dynasty was one of the first ancient civilizations to be described in historical records. There is some archeological evidence showing the Xia dynasty existed from 2100 to 1600 BCE as they settled on the Yellow (Huang) River. The Xia dynasty eventually evolved into the Shang dynasty (1766-1046 BCE) and the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE), controlling a significant area and considered the birth of Chinese culture.

    As with most other ancient civilizations, the Chinese dynasties located along significant rivers, including the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, natural water supply in the valleys from the heavy snowpack in the Himalayan Mountains. The snow melts, and summer rains frequently flooded the valleys causing deadly deluges and depositing silt. One difference between China and Egypt was the typography, Egypt had a gentler slope for the river, and even though it would flood, the Egyptians were able to control the river with small levees and irrigation processes. However, in China, the amount of water flowing out of the Himalayas caused torrential flooding (4.27), difficult to control for irrigation with ordinary methods. The Yangtze and Yellow river flowed from the Tibetan Plateau to the China Sea across thousands of miles.

    Yellow river
    4.27 Yellow river

    The Yellow River is Asia’s second-longest river, and the Shang and Zhou dynasties took advantage of the flooding and developed a method to control the raging waters for irrigation, constructing the first 10-meter high earthen dam in 591 BCE. The Shaopi Reservoir is still in use today, one of the longest-used dams in the world, the Zhou credited as the early hydraulic engineers. The dam gave them the freedom to design a sizeable irrigation system to grow rice in paddies. The dam and irrigation system were so large it significantly diverted parts of the river for their agricultural needs to increase the crop yields.

    Similar to other cultures, the Shang constructed specialized tombs for those of elite status, including the tomb of Lady Fu Hao (4.28). The wooden walls and lacquered coffin disintegrated when excavated; however, the bronze, jade, bone, and pottery objects buried with her as grave goods, were preserved. Along with the remains of Lady Fu Hao, archaeologists found the remnants of six dogs and sixteen skeletons historians believe were her slaves who sacrificed.

    Lady Fu Hao
    4.28 Lady Fu Hao

    The early Zhou dynasty coexisted with the Shang dynasty towards the end of their reign and shared the same language until the Zhou conquered and overthrew the Shang. The Zhou continued to thrive and prosper, planning and building more settlements that spread throughout the eastern plains. Advances in agriculture spurred population growth, and with the discovery of iron in the mountains, the use of iron increased as the bronze age gave way to the iron age. They developed methods of extracting and melting iron a full millennium before Europe.