Central Themes and Key Points
Early China and the Shang Dynasty

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.

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