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China in Place and Time
What were the major continuities and changes in Chinese history?
Geography has had a significant influence on the development of China. Throughout the
history of China, the focus of power was largely in the eastern regions of the country where
the main river valleys of the Yellow River and the Yangtze River are situated. The earliest
settled communities emerged in the Yellow River Valley and successive generations of
rulers generally sought control of these rich agricultural lands, in particular the Northern Plain
between the two rivers.
While the size of the area that successive Chinese rulers controlled, changed over time, the
eastern regions of China continued as key centres of Chinese power.
Below is a series of maps illustrating the extent of Chinese territory at different times in its
history. Map 1 shows China during prehistoric times (Neolithic Age = New Stone Age) and
Maps 2 to 11 show China’s major dynasties. A dynasty is a succession of rulers from the
same family. This meant that the same family maintained power for several generations until
they lost power.
Examine the maps and answer the questions which follow.
3. Zhou
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2. Shang
4. Qin
Maps 1-2:
Maps 3-
1. Neolithic
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5. Han
6. Sui
7. Tang
8. Song
9. Yuan
10. Ming
11. Qing
12. Present
Task: Map Interpretation
1. What evidence is there from these maps that the Yellow River and Yangtze River
remained a focal point of early Chinese history? (Use your knowledge about the
location of these rivers to help you answer this question.)
2. How do the maps illustrate the dominance of the eastern parts of the country in
China’s history?
3. Note one benefit Chinese rulers might get from expansion beyond the eastern part of
the continent?
4. Note one disadvantage Chinese rulers might face by expanding the areas under
Chinese control?
5. Name two periods where the Chinese Empire lost territory.
6. Which dynasty controlled the largest amount of territory?
7. Which dynasty covered the least amount of territory?
How long have humans lived in China?
Humans have lived in China for more than 100 000 years and there is evidence of settled
communities based on agriculture dating to at least 10 000 years ago. These earliest
communities settled in the Yellow River Valley and cultivated grain crops and domesticated
When did ‘ancient’ China exist?
It is difficult to identify exactly what period of Chinese history can be called ‘ancient’ because
there is no specific date when ‘ancient’ China began or ended. Many of the customs and
characteristics of Chinese life, established in the earlier dynasties, continued right up to the 20th
Century. However, many historians see the term ‘ancient’ as more appropriate for the period
from the establishment of the Xia Dynasty in the third millennium up to the end of the Han
Dynasty in 220 AD (CE). A more appropriate name for pre-modern (i.e. pre-20th century) China
is traditional China but it is also referred to as Imperial China.
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Chronology of Chinese dynasties
2220 BC
Legend says that ‘Yu the Great’ controlled the floods of the Yellow River.
Earliest Chinese written script appeared on ‘oracle bones’. These were bones of
animals or tortoise shells on which questions were inscribed. The bones were then
heated and the cracks were ‘read’ as messages from the gods. Exceptional bronze
work also appeared during this period
Conflict characterised this period. The concepts of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ and ‘Yin
and Yang’ developed. The great philosophers, Confucius (father of Confucianism)
and Laozi (father of Daoism) lived during this time.
China is united for the first time under an imperial system when Qin Shi Huangdi
(known as the first emperor) defeated the other states of China.
Birth of Christ
Period of growth and expansion for China. Confucianism was established as the
state philosophy.
220 AD
Age of
Warring between the different states of China.
Grand Canal built.
Paper was invented and art and literature flourished. Empress Wu, the only woman
to govern China directly, ruled during this period.
Gunpowder was invented and foot binding was probably introduced.
China came under the control of foreign rulers for the first time when Mongol ruler
Kublai Khan became emperor. Beijing became the capital and Marco Polo stayed in
the Court of Kublai Khan.
Period of great expansion. China was an advanced maritime kingdom and Chinese
ships may have visited Australia. The Forbidden City, where Emperors lived in
seclusion away from their subjects, was built.
For a second time in its history China came under foreign rule. The Manchus (from
Manchuria) forced all Chinese men to shave their heads and wear a pigtail as a sign
of obedience to the Emperor. Europeans forced China to open up to trade.
Revolution brought the Imperial system to an end in 1912 when the last emperor
Beside each of the following statements write the name of the dynasty to which the event
a) Rulers came from Mongolia
b) Foot binding for women may have been introduced
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c) Empress Wu ruled
d) Gunpowder was invented
e) Paper was invented
China was united for the first time
g) Rulers came from Manchuria
h) Marco Polo visited China
The Grand Canal was built
Confucius lived
k) Oracle bones were used
Chinese ships may have visited Australia
How did the Chinese explain the rise and fall of dynasties and the changing nature of
rule in China?
Chinese dynasties often ruled for long periods of time but eventually a dynasty would find itself
being challenged and eventually overthrown. The Chinese believed that there were certain
patterns which characterised government in China and influenced how events unfolded. This was
called the ‘dynastic cycle’.
Central to understanding the dynastic cycle and how it explained Chinese history is the concept
‘Mandate of Heaven’. Heaven represented divine authority and a ruler was expected to rule justly
with the interests of his people at heart. If he did this then Heaven would continue to bless his
reign and those of his sons, as long as they continued to be just rulers. Failure to rule justly could
result in the dynasty being overthrown and a new ruler taking power.
The emperor was all powerful and to rebel against the Son of Heaven (Emperor) was to
challenge divine authority. When a new ruler seized power from another ruler, he needed to
justify what he was doing by ensuring that Heaven approved of his actions. He had to show that
he had a mandate or permission to rule. He did this by highlighting the inadequacies of the
former ruler or pointing to natural disasters or other problems to show that Heaven had
withdrawn its mandate.
A new dynasty or family of rulers would be established and the process (cycle) would begin
TASK: Sequencing a dynastic cycle
Below are some of the key stages in a dynastic cycle. Number the different stages so that
they are correctly sequenced and correspond to the numbers on the diagram. The first stage
has been done for you.
Different stages in a dynastic cycle
Dynasty rules for a long period. The government becomes extravagant and
corrupt, increasing taxes. Administrators ignore the people.
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New dynasty restores peace and prosperity and claims the Mandate of Heaven.
Natural disasters such as floods, famine and earthquakes, as well as foreign
invasions, increase the dissatisfaction of the people.
The people join rebel bands, the emperor is defeated and the successful rebel
leader declares himself the new emperor.
The lives of ordinary people are improved under the new dynasty.
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Review: Understanding continuity and change
It is certain that all things change in time but within these changes certain traditions and
ways of doing things often continue. The dynastic cycle shows the processes of change from
one dynasty to another but it also shows there was a continuous pattern to these changes.
Which of the following are examples of change and which ones demonstrate the continuous
nature of Chinese history?
Description of event/process
Change or Continuity
Rebellion overthrows a dynasty
All new emperor uses the title ‘Son of Heaven’
China ruled for several thousand years by emperors
Mongols invade China and establish a new dynasty
Review: Key terms and concepts
Write the following terms beside the appropriate explanations in the table below.
Son of Heaven
dynastic cycle
Mandate of Heaven
The belief that the position of ruler or emperor had to be approved by the gods
(Heaven) and that this approval could be withdrawn if a ruler did not rule
responsibly or in the interests of his people. It could justify rebellion against a
ruler and the introduction of a new family of rulers.
The title given to the reigning emperor to indicate that the gods approved of
his reign and he had the support of Heaven.
The belief that each dynasty goes through a series of stages from its
beginning to its end. The beginning of a dynasty, when the Mandate of
Heaven has been secured, is peaceful and prosperous. However, over time
the government becomes corrupt and does not look after the welfare of the
people. The people rebel and if they succeed, the Mandate of Heaven is lost.
A new dynasty takes its place and the cycle begins again.
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