Yuan and the Shang dynasties of ancient China

Yuan dynasty and the Shang dynasty, of ancient China.

The Shang Dynasty, which lasted from 1600 BC to 1046 BC, was a time of frequent military conflict, political unrest, and innovation. Bronze artifacts and oracle bones used to study the time have been found to show the first recorded Chinese symbols. All tombs found contain weapons of war, and numerous bronze, jade, stone, bone, and ceramic artifacts, indicating a civilized political and social system.

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Founded by a rebel leader who overthrew the Xia ruler, the Shang dynasty was based on agriculture, with distinct features of hunting an animal husbandry sciences. Additionally, the Shang dynasty moved the capitol six times over the reign, finally settling in Yin in 1350, and beginning the golden age of the dynasty. Shang kings who ruled over much of Northern China fought frequently with neighboring settlements.

The culture of the dynasty was centered on court rituals, used to propitiate spirits and honor ancestors. The King was not only the secular ruler, but also the head of the spirit worship cult, as evidence by the burning of royal persons with articles of value, and live slaves. The culture was clearly one of spirits and superstition.

When Shang Zhou, the last Shang king, committed suicide following a defeat by the Zhou people, the surviving clan changed their name to Yin. The succeeding Zhou dynasty relied on the Yin to assist in administrative services. However, the Shang dynasty was officially ended.

In contrast, the Yuan dynasty was established by Kublai Khan, who acquired North China as well as the expansive Mongol Empire in 1264. In 1271, Khan established the first empire to rule all of China, including the not yet won Southern Song. This dynasty, the Yuan, was named in Chinese despite Khan’s inability to speak the language.

In early years of the dynasty, the rule was harsh against the Chinese, due to the Mongol’s negative opinion of these individuals. As such, Khan’s rule was generally bandit like, in that all sources of money and resources were pillaged and spent quickly. The Mongol rulers restricted trade, and spent money on projects such as the Forbidden Palace and the Grand Canal. The Yuan were not interested in assimilating to Chinese culture, and refused to allow many Chinese traditions to continue. Thus, whereas the Shang were entrenched in tradition, the Yuan fought specifically against it. Further, whereas the Shang were primary supporters of innovation, the Yuan suppressed such measures.

Khan then began to reform China to conform to Mongol rule. He centralized the government, making himself the absolute ruler, discriminated against the Han, refused to employ non-Mongol persons, and reformed most governmental and economic institutions. The class structure was changed, becoming segregated by privilege. Whereas the Shang sought to bring together the people and culture of China, the Yuan sought to break the ties between them.

This is not to say, however, that the Yuan dynasty had an entirely negative effect on the development of China. Khan and his rulers improved agriculture, dispersed food to the homeless, increased the number of hospitals, strongly promoted religion and science, developed the arts, and diversified the culture of China due to their vast contacts with other cultural areas. Thus, whereas the Shang often fought neighbors in a struggle for power, Khan used these neighbors to improve conditions. The Yuan fell due to civil unrest, just as the Shang dynasty had done before it, but did serve to drastically alter the culture of China.

Explain how concepts such as the Middle Kingdom, Mandate of Heaven, and filial piety shaped the culture and history of China, particularly the rise and fall of kings, warlords, and emperors.

Throughout history, various concepts such as the Middle Kingdom, Mandate of Heaven, and filial piety have shaped the culture of China, particularly in the rise and fall of kings, warriors and emperors. The term, Zhonggue, or Middle Kingdom, was originally used to describe the states from the Zhou Dynasty and to exclude the states along the Yangtze River. However, by the Han Dynasty, these states had aligned with the politics of the Zhongguo. Thus, the term became synonymous with the area of imperial domain, the territories under direct control of central authority, and the area known as the North China Plain. Following the fall of Han, however, the term became linked to political legitimacy as the Northern states used the term to distinguish themselves from the Southern, “barbarian” dynasties. The term thus became related to geographic, cultural and political identity (Rossabi, 1983).

The term “Mandate of Heaven” originated as a concept of traditional Chinese sovereignty, used to convey the legitimacy used to support the rule of kings. According to the mandate, Heaven would be displeased with rulers who were unwise, and would give the Mandate to someone else. On the other hand, Heaven would bless those who were authoritative and wise. The Mandate has no time limitations, but does have a performance standard. If a king misuses power, the Mandate is taken away (Mote, 1999). In this way, a legitimate emperor does not need to be of noble birth. Noted dynasties such as the Han and the Ming, in fact, were founded by those of modest birth. According to the Mandate, this is acceptable (Mote, 1999).

Over time, the Mandate was used to rid the empire of those kings believed to have violated Heaven’s blessings. In times of flood, famine, or other disaster, the people of China invoked the Mandate to show the current emperor or king was displeasing Heaven, and should therefore be removed. As such, the Mandate was responsible, at least in part, for the removal of emperors and rulers thought to be unwise.

The concept of filial piety is the belief that the love and respect of one’s ancestors is a virtue to be cultivated. The concept means to take care of one’s parents, to avoid rebellion, and to show love, honor, and courtesy to relatives. Additionally, one should ensure male heirs, conceal the mistakes of parents, and carry out sacrifices at the time of their death (Traylor, 1988). While the concept of filial piety is the first virtue for the Chinese culture, it has become a point of contention between emperors and the people. China has forever held a diversity of religion, and in some, filial piety is not practiced. For emperors such as those in the Han Dynasty, such a belief was to be punished. During this dynasty, the emperor made ancestor worship required by law. Those refusing to participate were subjected to corporal punishment (Traylor, 1988).

When Buddhism was introduced to China, it was adapted to accommodate filial piety. Those rulers who argued that the Buddhist monks were in rejection of filial piety were quickly denounced. Because monks serve humanity, and thus, are respecting their parents, their inability to ensure heirs did not place them in violation of law (Traylor, 1988).

Clearly, concepts such as these helped to shape the history of China, and to rid the empire of unwanted rulers. While the concept of Middle Kingdom served to define the people, the concept of the Mandate of Heaven helped the people to rid the empire of rulers believed to be unwise. The concept of filial piety helped to shape the religious beliefs of the country, and helped to rid the country of those whose beliefs did not agree with traditional faith.

Explain the different factors that made the transition of prehistoric humanity from the Paleolithic age to the Neolithic age revolutionary.

The transition from the Paleolithic age to the Neolithic age was revolutionary due to a number of different factors. First, the technological tools needed to progress to a new age took several thousand years to develop. During the Paleolithic period, the population used stone knives, spear points, and bone tools to hunt and kill food sources. By the Neolithic period however, these individuals had developed ways to domesticate animals for food and clothing use, leaving the hunters to focus on agriculture. Such a drastic change would have been difficult, considering the lack of experience or knowledge of animal husbandry (Bellwood, 2004).

Additionally, there was drastic changes in location between these two periods, and thus, a change to climate and available resources. The Neolithic man was able to adapt to entirely different ecosystems, showing a nearly impossible level of adaptation. While necessary, such adaptation forced a drastic change the living conditions and ways of life (Bellwood, 2004).

Further, the people of the Paleolithic age lived in small groups of 35 to 50 people. This small group functioned well, since smaller hunting parties were required. However, by the Neolithic period, villages were needed, due to availability of fertile soil and water sources. Such a drastic change in social order in such a small timeframe would have been a revolutionary alteration to daily living (Bellwood, 2004).

Another factor showing the revolutionary change was the change from nomadic living to permanent housing. With the increasing food supply due to farming and improved hunting methods, and due to cyclical changes in environmental patterns, such a change was necessary to ensure survival. For a society whose entire livelihood was tied to the migration patterns of animals, this factor is a vital change (Bellwood, 2004).

As mentioned, the technological advancements required for progress were vast, but were somehow attained by the Paleolithic people. The plow, loom, wheel, clay bricks, and calendars were all developed, despite a lack of knowledge surrounding such technical aspects (Bellwood, 2004).

Perhaps the largest factor in the transition was the changing global climate.

During the late Paleolithic period, the farmers of the Middle East concentrated on grain crops and plants that originated in a wet climate. However, these climates changed drastically, forcing the farmers to develop new farming methods to avoid starvation. As a result, some began to travel long distances to find food, but always remained near a water source. The key factor at this time was the change due to the end of the last ice age. As some climates warmed and made planting more efficient, others became nearly void of plants (Bellwood, 2004).

There were many factors involved in the transition to the Neolithic period that made the change revolutionary. Changes in farming, technology, animal domestication, and social orders forced a drastic lifestyle change for the people of the time. Further, changes in climate and weather systems forced a change in crop-based society and in daily lives of farmers. Such changes, often seen to destroy a civilization, served only to speed up the evolutionary process already occurring.


Bellwood, P. (2004). First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies. New York: Blackwell Publishers.

History of China.” China Discovery. Travel China Guide. 2004. Obtained April 27, 2007 at http://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/history/.

Mote, F.W. (1999). Imperial China: 900-1800. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Rossabi, M. (1983). China among Equals: The Middle Kingdom and Its Neighbors, 10th-14th Centuries. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Traylor, K.L. (1988). Chinese Filial Piety. Bloomington: Eastern Press.

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