Ancient Chinese culture has a unique place among the different cultures of the world. Historical evidences have shown the spread of Chinese culture and traditions to neighboring countries such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Let us have a glimpse into the culture of ancient China.
Did you know?
Ancient Chinese culture has made many significant contributions to the field of science through the inventions of paper, compass, gunpowder, and printing.
Ancient Chinese civilization is one of the most advanced civilizations the world has ever known. Geographically, ancient China was a formidable land. It lacked easy access to land and sea routes, a reason why it could withstand numerous hostile invasions. This made ancient China a prosperous, and a highly independent society. The Chinese civilization has contributed to the world in more ways than one. The inventions that they made, their art and architecture, their overall culture, and most importantly, their wisdom have been influencing and inspiring the world till date.
Evolution of Culture
The Chinese civilization can be traced back to the Neolithic age. It evolved on the banks of both, the Yellow river and the Yangtze river valleys. Over a period of time, many dynasties flourished in China. Following is a list of a few notable ones.
|Xia Dynasty||2100 – 1600 B.C.|
|Shang Dynasty||1700 – 1046 B.C.|
|Zhou Dynasty||1046 – 256 B.C.|
|Qin Dynasty||221 – 206 B.C.|
|Han Dynasty||202 B.C. – 220 A.D.|
|Sui Dynasty||589 – 618 A.D.|
|Tang Dynasty||618 – 907 A.D.|
|Yuan Dynasty||1271 – 1368 A.D|
|Ming Dynasty||1368 – 1644 A.D.|
|Qing Dynasty||1644 – 1911 A.D.|
Though historical records inform us about the existence of the Xia dynasty, the documented history of China can be found from the period of the Shang dynasty. During the Zhou period, the kingdom fabricated into six separate states, which went to war with each other. Qin Shi Huang of Qin dynasty defeated Zhou dynasty, and brought the warlords of the six fighting states together to build the very first Chinese empire. The successive dynasties laid down a strong foundation for bureaucratic systems and management. This enabled the future Emperors to exercise control over unified China.
• The Chinese traditional arts represent the country’s rich heritage. Since the Neolithic period, arts have been prevalent in the country.
• In ancient times, artifacts made of jade, and pottery formed the crux of Chinese arts.
• Bronze was introduced only during the Shang dynasty.
• Chinese porcelain (a form of ceramic ware which is famous worldwide) was used during the Imperial era.
• With the advent of this era, performing arts like theater and dance were introduced in China.
• The rule of Yuan dynasty brought in a remarkable phase of Chinese culture, marked by great paintings of Zhao Mengfu, and the beginning of Chinese opera.
• Many musical instruments were also played in the ancient period.
• Many Chinese art forms were influenced by Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.
• Motifs and designs of birds, flowers, butterflies, dragons, phoenixes, etc. in arts, depicted the inherent liking for nature among the Chinese people.
• Under the rule of the Zhou dynasty, it was said that a student needed to master the Six Arts (liù yì in Chinese) for his all-round development, which included rites, music, archery, chariot racing, calligraphy, and mathematics.
• Apart from these, pottery, painting, sculpture, folk arts, paper craft, martial arts, and metal arts were amongst the diverse art forms that were practiced in ancient China.
• Ancient Chinese architecture is a magnificent and a splendid aspect of Chinese culture.
• The Grand Canal, which was formed by connecting different river systems during the Sui dynasty, is a man-made wonder.
• Even the Great Wall of China that was completed during reign of the Ming dynasty is an architectural wonder of the world.
• The Imperial Mausoleum (built by thousands of architects) is another fine example that showcases the grandeur of royal life, and labors of the common Chinese people in the ancient times.
• Many beautiful imperial gardens were built during the Tang period.
• The ancient Chinese architecture was influenced by Taoism, which stressed on balance or symmetry. The houses in this period had long pillars and curved roofs.
• With the introduction of Buddhism, the artistic sensibilities shifted from Taoism and Chinese folk religion to Buddhism. Big pagoda-style houses came up as a result of transition.
• Later on, a variety of styles and structures were fused in the pagoda architecture.
• The Forbidden City, a stunningly beautiful imperial palace, was built during the Ming period.
• Emperors from different ruling dynasties built varied styles of imperial and summer palaces. These palaces, built on the sides of hills and mountains, boast of rich architectural excellence that prevailed in ancient China.
• Since the number nine was regarded lucky, the structures were designed in such a way that they had nine sections, and the size of each section was in multiples of nine.
• Dragon and phoenix were very important mythical beings in Chinese mythology. The palace and temple walls were embellished with dragon and phoenix motifs, believed to be a representation of the emperors themselves.
Food and Beverages
• In China, millet and rice were harvested around the fourth and fifth millennium B.C. Rice has been the staple food in ancient China since 5000 B.C. Wine, made out of rice, was also very popular.
• The kind of food that the people of ancient China consumed, depended on their geographical location.
• The northern people prepared foods with flavor of garlic and vinegar along with oil, whereas the southern Chinese dishes were more spicy, and cooked with chili and peppers.
• The Chinese also ate fish, chicken, pork, and meat. Their diet included noodles, soybean, and vegetables such as cabbage, peas, beans, bamboo shoots, etc.
• It is interesting to note that the shortage of sources of fuel prompted people to cut food into fine pieces for quick cooking.
• The essence of Chinese food was its color, aroma, and flavor along with the nutritional value.
• The Chinese also believed in the medicinal importance of food. This formed the very basis of traditional Chinese medicine.
• One of the most popular beverages in ancient China was tea. Its invention is credited to the Zhou dynasty, according to Erya, an ancient Chinese dictionary.
• The Chinese people had certain rules for eating. Food was consumed while being seated in a particular order. For example, men were seated first, followed by women, and finally, children.
• Traditional Chinese festivals like the Chinese New Year and the Dragon Boat Festival have been celebrated since the ancient times.
• The Chinese New Year begins on the first day of the first month, according to the lunisolar Chinese calendar. Legend has it that the festival started with a fight against Nian (a mythical beast).
• The ancient Chinese had a belief that Nian will not attack them, if food was offered to it. Since then, they started keeping food outside their house entrances on the first day of the festival.
• People prayed to the God of wealth with the hope that He will bring good fortune to the family.
• The Dragon Boat Festival was celebrated with zeal, even during the ancient times.
• Some sources mention that the festival was celebrated in order to honor the death of Qu Yuan (340 B.C. to 278 B.C.), the royal poet of the ancient state of Chu.
• During the Warring States Period (that resulted in the unification of China under the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C.), the king of Chu decided to ally with the powerful state of Qin.
• Qu Yuan opposed this alliance, following which he was banished by his state, and charged for treachery. Owing to this, he drowned himself in the Miluo river on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.
• The local villagers who admired him, fed the fish in the river with rice, so that it would spare his body. The villagers also paddled out on boats to retrieve his corpse. This marked the beginning of the Dragon Boat Festival.
• Traditional Chinese festivals were celebrated with the aim of spreading good wishes and happiness.
• The traditional Ghost Festival was celebrated on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month. It marked the end of the Ghost Month celebrations.
• Offerings of food were made and ghost money was burned, in order to please the visiting ghosts, ancestors, and spirits.
• In ancient China, people also celebrated the Lantern Festival, Double Ninth Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival, and so on.
Funeral Beliefs and Customs
• Ancient Chinese people believed in the concept of reincarnation. Jade was believed to have the powers to bestow immortality and protection.
• Many royalties were buried with an entire robe made of small jade tiles, attached together with threads of gold or silver.
• Rich people and noblemen were buried with a jade disk or a jade mask on their bodies.
• The size and design of the tombs demonstrated the social ranking or political status of the deceased person. Chinese emperors and affluent people were buried in more elaborate tombs.
• Small spirit utensils or figurines (Mingqi) were also placed in the tomb. Items of daily use like food, beverages, lamps, weapons, musical instruments, clothing, jewelry, silk textiles, trinkets, bronze vessels, lacquers, jades, ceramic and terracotta replicas of buildings, chariots, servants, farm animals, military figurines, food items and utensils, etc. were also kept in the tomb. This was done to look after the requirements of the dead in their afterlives.
• A great example of this funerary art form is the terracotta army, buried with Emperor Qin Shi Huang for protecting him in his afterlife.
• A dangerous looking beast or a human sculpture was placed outside a tomb as a ‘tomb guardian’.
• The practice of sacrificing humans during burial came to an end during the Qin dynasty. However, animals like horses and dogs were buried along with their masters, even during the Han dynasty.
• A strong class system was prevalent during the ancient times. The four social hierarchies were shi, the gentry scholars; nong, the peasants; gong, artisans and craftsmen; and shang, merchants and traders.
• Men from affluent families often took up places in the court, as warriors.
• They also worked as scholars, who used their intellectual prowess for guiding the emperor on strategic matters.
• Many people worked as peasants, and had to toil very hard on farmlands to scrape a living.
• Many artisans worked as painters, calligraphers, musicians, poets, etc. Men were also involved as architects in building tombs, palaces, buildings, etc. Many were involved in building the Grand Canal and the Great Wall of China.
• The merchants acted as traders, bankers, shopkeepers, moneylenders, etc., and indulged in the exchange of goods and services.
• Other vocations pursued during the ancient era by men included working as priests, domestic servants, fishermen, hunters, laborers, soldiers, guards, court eunuchs, etc.
• Women were expected to stay at home and run the household. They looked after cooking, cleaning, sewing, weaving, and undertaking other laborious chores around the house. They were also supposed to take care of children.
• However, some peasant women had to go and work in the farms, alongside looking after their homes, in order to earn a sufficient living.
Attire and Hairstyles
• The apparels of the ancient Chinese people differed according to their social ranks. The rich and the royal classes wore silk clothing, while the working classes wore clothes made of ramie or hemp.
• The Mongol emperor Kublai Khan gave impetus to cotton clothing.
• The three traditional Chinese clothing were pien-fu (a two piece ceremonial costume), changshan (a long dress), and shen-i (a long robe with loose sleeves).
• Both men and women wore long tunics with belts or sashes.
• They wore padded clothes with pants throughout winter.
• From the Sui dynasty onwards, only the emperor was allowed to wear yellow color. The poor people were only allowed to wear blue or black colored clothing.
• The color code for clothes during mourning was white, and during celebration or happiness, a red attire was preferred.
• Embroidered designs were a unique feature of traditional Chinese clothing. People used ornamental shells and stone beads for embroidering the garments.
• Both men and women sported long hair as they believed that their hair was a gift from their parents. Therefore, cutting of hair was not considered auspicious.
• Men wore various head gears to cover their heads, a tradition which was enthusiastically followed under the rule of different dynasties.
• Women braided their hair and pinned them up. They also decorated it with various hair clasps, crowns, combs, and hairpins.
• Married women wore different hairstyles than the unmarried ones.
• People wore jewelry made of jade, turquoise, coral, gold, silver, and even blue kingfisher feathers.
• Intricate designs of dragons and phoenixes were incorporated in the jewelry.
• Both men and women wore jewelry. Men donned special badges to mark their ranks or social status, while women wore jewelry to look beautiful.
• Men sported ornate knobs on their hats, representing their civil or military positions.
• Necklaces and bracelets were common forms of jewelry for both men and women.
• Small earrings were worn. Men wore one earring, whereas the women wore a pair of them.
Shoes and Foot Binding
Credit: Underwood & Underwood/LOC/via Wikimedia Commons (PD)
• Men chose to wear black leather shoes on formal occasions, and beautiful silk and leather ones on special occasions.
• Many Chinese men who couldn’t afford silk and leather, wore cotton shoes.
• Women in ancient China were subjected to an inhuman practice of binding their feet to make them look smaller.
• Tiny feet known as Lotus Feet were a symbol of sensuality and beauty. Having tiny feet was a must for girls of elite classes, in order to find wealthy husbands.
• Later on, even the working class families started following this tradition in pursuit of a wealthy match.
• Bones of the toes were broken, bend, and bound for years.
• Silk wrappings were used to cover the feet. The feet were then placed in beautifully embroidered Lotus shoes.
• However, this practice disfigured the feet of the women, and often resulted in bacterial infections.
Chinese Martial Arts
• In ancient China, board games and movement games were common, both of which originated from war training.
• Generals were given training in board games, whereas movement games or martial arts were taught for the purpose of fighting and self-defense.
• In those times, the most popular board game was Go, which is said to have originated around 2000 B.C.
• It was believed that the Yellow Emperor had invented martial arts for the first time, in about 2600 B.C. (much before the Shang dynasty).
• By around 550 B.C., Sun Tzu wrote ‘Art of War’, describing the techniques of martial arts. It was around the same time that the Taoists started practicing Tai Chi.
• During the time of the Han dynasty (around 50 A.D.), Pan Ku wrote a book about Kung Fu. The theory behind Kung Fu fighting styles was rooted in ancient Chinese philosophy.
• There were two categories under Kung Fu – internal and external. The former involved training the spirit (shen) and mind (xin), whereas in external Kung Fu, one needed to exercise muscles, tendons, and bones.
• It was practiced as a unique combination of art, exercise, self-defense, and self-discipline.
Role of Women
• Many men followed the Confucian principles and teachings which asserted that women were subservient to men.
• The birth of a girl child was not treated with happiness as fathers had to give away heavy dowry during their marriages.
• Women had no voice or right in choosing their husbands.
• If their husbands died, women were not allowed to remarry, even if they were of a tender age. Even if a woman dared to remarry, she was sentenced to death.
• The primary duty of a woman was to bear male heirs, and look after the domestic household.
• She had no right to stop her husband from taking other wives and concubines (as it was legal then) unless she belonged to a rich family with a considerable social standing.
• The inhuman practice of foot binding was rampant.
• Women were not sent to schools for education. Some women learned to read from their brothers, and taught their children.
• Women even developed the secret Nushu language of communication, which was privy to women only.
• However, some notable changes occurred in the status of women during the Han and Tang dynasties. Empress Wu Zetian is one of the notable empresses of China who brought about considerable change to the situation of women, by trying to bestow them with equal status as that of the men.
Language, Script, and Literature
• The Chinese language is one of the oldest written languages in the world. It has a logographic script, where each individual grapheme represents a word.
• The language of communication for many years during the pre-modern period was the classical Chinese language.
• One of the earliest references of written script can be traced to the Oracle bones belonging to the Shang dynasty). Oracle bones were used for divinations. The questions to be asked were carved on the bones with a sharp tool in the Oracle bone script. The diviner would then heat the bone, which would cause it to crack. He then interpreted the cracks and wrote the inferences on a shell or a bone.
• During the Zhou dynasty, cinnabar ink and brush began to be used, which led to writing, calligraphy, and drawing on silk.
• Later on, paper and printing were also invented, developed, and widely used. The writers, poets, philosophers, and scholars garnered a special respect in the imperial court.
• Literary works like Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian, Analects by Confucius, Tao Te Ching by Laozi, Water Margin by Shi Nai’an, Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin, Book of Songs by Qu Yuan, Lessons for women by Ban Zhao and Eighteen Verses Sung to a Barbarian Whistle by poetess Cai Wenji have made notable contributions to Chinese literature.
• The Chinese scholars set up government educational establishments for training the children.
• Five national schools to teach the Six Arts to the children of the noble men were set up during the Shang and the Zhou dynasties.
• Around the Spring and Autumn period as well as the Warring States period, education gained popularity, even among the common people.
• Confucius encouraged private teaching for all ages and hierarchies by starting his own schools. He delineated his own philosophy and principles to the students. After this effort, many private schools came into existence.
• Both the private and government schools trained students for taking the imperial exams for gaining various jobs in the royal court.
• Elders and family members imparted ‘family education’ which stressed on morals, social responsibilities, and attainment of wisdom.
• As compared to men, very few women were educated. Their reading was mostly limited to books that instructed them about moral behavior and their duties towards men.
The customs and traditions of the ancient Chinese people differed greatly from one region to the other. Till today, the principles and teachings of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Legalism continue to influence the lives of many people worldwide. Be it history, mythology, cuisine, literature or music, the ancient Chinese culture still represents its uniqueness over other cultures of the world.