Chinese civilization is one of the oldest, continuous
civilizations on earth.
Early settlements from the Neolithic period (such as Banpo village)
begin in the river valleys as they do elsewhere in the world.
The Shang (c. 1750-c.1050 BCE) is an early dynasty (succession of
rulers of same line of descent) marked by impressive bronze technology
and the beginning of China’s distinctive writing system.
- Several elements found in Shang civilization remain important
throughout Chinese history. These include: the notion of a supreme
heavenly power (referred to as Shangdi, or “God above” a personified, non-corporeal deity; later, by the Zhou dynasty, the
term “Tian,” or “Heaven,” is also used); the belief in the
power of the spirits of ancestors to affect events on earth; and
the importance attached to rituals venerating ancestors and the
role assigned to the king in performing these ceremonial rituals.
- China’s writing system (referred to as Chinese “characters”)
first appears in the Shang dynasty on tortoise shells and cattle
bones (called “oracle bones”) used for divination. Written
language is a central determinant of the development of civilization;
the Chinese writing system was the first developed in East Asia.
- Although there are many mutually unintelligible dialects in China,
there is only one system of writing — a major unifying factor
in Chinese history. (Chinese characters have no set pronunciation;
the sound attached to each can vary depending on the dialect.) Therefore,
all literate Chinese could communicate through writing. Similarly,
scholars in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam learned the Chinese written
language and were able to participate in an East Asian cultural conversation
through writing — even though they spoke languages that, in
the case of Korean and Japanese, came from a completely different
language family (Uralic) than that of the Chinese language (Sinitic).
(Colloquial, or spoken, Chinese and the formal grammatical structures
used in written Chinese remained distinct until the 20th century,
when colloquial Chinese, “baihua,” became the language
used in schools).
NOTE: Two systems of rendering Chinese words into
English are commonly used: the Wade-Giles system (named after scholar
translators) and the Pinyin system (developed more recently by the
People’s Republic of China). Refer to the AFE
unit on Chinese language for charts showing how spelling conventions
of the Wade-Giles system correspond to those of the Pinyin system.