Classical China

Great Wall 

The Great Wall of China; photo credit Claire Reifsnyder

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China was another of the origin points of early civilization in the world. In the Chinese case, civilization emerged in the Yellow River valley (riverine civilization). What I find especially interesting about studying early Chinese history--aside from the unique factors that tended to promote cultural continuity over a long period of time, such as the development of a written script, the fear of outside invasion and the importance accorded social stability--is the complexity of the sequence of ruling dynasties. One of the most important of these dynasties was the Zhou, which technically lasted almost one thousand years (1046-256 BCE) but in reality lasted only about three hundred years (1046-771 BCE); that is still a long time. It was during the Zhou Dynasty that the key political concept central to classical China emerged, i.e., the idea of the "Mandate of Heaven." Rulers claimed the "Mandate of Heaven" as their source of authority to rule. That mandate was conferred on a ruler by ien (heaven), and who could dare to dispute the will of heaven, i.e., no one! Since heaven encompassed all lands, an emperor was lord of all; and since there was only one heaven, there had to be only one ruler on earth. A claimant to the throne, a usurper or rival could always claim that a revolt was justified because heaven had revoked the "mandate."

Please feel free to review my lecture notes on early Chinese history. You may send me any suggested corrections or additions. Another absolutely great source for classical Chinese history (and highly recommended for all of world history) is Larry Gonick's A Cartoon History of the Universe (three volumes) and followed by his A Cartoon History of the Modern World (two volumes).


Some recommended online lectures and websites:

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