Ancient China: 10 major facts about one of history’s greatest civilizations

From the invention of paper and gunpowder to its cultural and architectural feats, ancient China was undoubtedly one of the most influential civilizations in human history. In view of this, World History Edu presents some very important facts about ancient China and its civilization.

Ancient China is as ancient as they come

Historians estimate that ancient China’s history goes back more than four millennia. As a result, it is not uncommon for it to appear on the list of oldest empires in world history.

Occupying a region in the eastern part of Asia, ancient China had had its first emperor (Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi of the Qin Dynasty) by the year 221 BCE. From then onward, the region would be ruled by powerful emperors, including the first and only empress of China in the person of Empress Wu Zetian (or Empress Zhao).

Longest lasting empire in world history

The last emperor of China was Emperor Puyi of the Qing Dynasty, whose reign ended in 1911, ushering in the Republic of China. Bear in mind that in 221 BCE, Emperor Qin became the first emperor of a unified China as he brought all of China under his rule. What this means is that the empire lasted for more than 2,000 years.  At such staggering number of years, ancient China was unquestionably the longest lasting empire in world history.

Ancient China Facts

Ancient China Facts | Image (from left to right): Emperor Qin, the first Emperor of a unified China, and Emperor Puyi, the last emperor of China

The Yellow River and the Yangtze River were key to ancient China civilization

Only surpassed by the mighty Nile River and the Amazon River, the Yangtze River (6,300 km or 3,900 mi) has been of immense importance to the Chinese for thousands of years. The Yangtze River and the Yellow River – the sixth longest river in the world – were the lifeblood of ancient China as they provided the necessary ingredients (i.e. fresh water, fertile soil, and transportation) for the development of a civilization.

In the case of the Yellow River, a 3,400-mile long river, the villages that sprouted along its banks benefited immensely from the rich soil which was ideal for the planting grains and rearing of sheep and cattle. The Yellow River, also known as Huang He, was so vital that many historians like to call it the Cradle of Chinese civilization.

Today, the Yangtze River is home to the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydro-electric power generation dam.

Read More: The Longest Rivers in the World

It took about 1,000 years to build the Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

Ancient China facts | The Great Wall, one of China’s national pride, was constructed with materials like stones, bricks, wood, and tamped earth.

The original walls of the Great Wall of China is said to have been initiated by Emperor Qin Shi Huang (of the Qin Dynasty), the first emperor of China. In the ensuing 1,000 or so years, several ancient Chinese emperors from different dynasties contributed to attain its current length.  However, the dynasty that built much of the wall was the Ming Dynasty, contributing over 5,000 miles of the wall.

The Great Wall of China was built purposely to halt the advances of invaders into China from the north, especially the Mongols.

Considering how long it took for the wall to reach its current length, historians estimate that millions of workers were needed during construction, many of whom were peasants, prisoners, slaves, and criminals.

In ancient times, thousands of Chinese soldiers were needed to man the several thousands of lookout towers on the Great Wall of China.

Did you know: Over the thousand or so years that it took build the Great Wall, about a million workers perished during construction?

Ancient China discovered silk in the 3rd millennium BCE

Around 2,700 BCE, a member of the royal house is believed to have discovered silk in the emperor’s garden. That person was His-Ling-Shi, Emperor Huang-Ti’s wife. Centuries later, silk would become one of ancient China’s biggest exports, among others such as tea, porcelain, spices and salt. Such was the importance of silk that the famous trade and commerce road that linked China to Eastern Europe and the rest of the world got named the Silk Road.

The Silk Road, which went from the northern borders of China through India, Persia, and Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), was a conduit for the exchange of goods between Europe and Asia, but it also helped in the transfer of ideas, inventions and culture.

In addition to being a conduit for the exchange of goods a between Europe and Asia, the Silk Road from China helped in the transfer of scholarly works, ideas and scientific inventions.

The Silk Road

Tea emerged from ancient China

Tea may be a staple in the West, but did you know that the birthplace of tea was in ancient China? Ancient Chinese were the first-known people to drink tea, often for medicinal purpose. Tea was also a very popular commodity that was exported from China into Eastern Europe along the 4,000-mile long Silk Road.

Printing was invented in ancient China

For a civilization that invented paper (in the 2nd century BCE), it came as no surprise that the ancient Chinese went a step further and invented wood block printing in the late 9th century CE. A movable type of that invention came about two centuries later. At the time, Buddhist prayers and works ranked as the most printed materials in China.

It must be noted that the ancient Chinese were familiar with printing several centuries before German inventor Johannes Gutenberg introduced a movable type of printing press to the continent of Europe in the 15th century CE. Printing was a game changer as it helped in the fast dissemination of information, spurring on the Renaissance Era and Scientific Revolution in Europe.

“The Three Ways”

For several centuries in the life of ancient China, three religions dominated the political, social and cultural landscape. Those three religions – Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism – collectively made up what historians like to call “the Three Ways”.

The philosophies from those religions had tremendous influence on not just the rulers of ancient China but the people as well. For example, the philosophies of Confucius (551 BCE – 479 BCE) went on to form the bedrock of Chinese culture and governance for more than two thousand years.

The Mongols were a thorn in the flesh of ancient China

Ancient China facts | Image: Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan dynasty. Kublai was the son of Genghis Khan, the founder and first Emperor of the Mongol Empire,

Like any powerful empire in world history, Ancient China was not immune from foreign invasion and incursions into its border regions. However, of all those invasions, the ones carried out by the Mongols rank up there as the fiercest. For about a century or so, ancient China had to defend itself from being overrun by the Mongols to the north of its border.

Such were the intensity and frequency of Mongols invasion that ancient Chinese emperors built massive, long walls to keep the Mongols out of China. Ultimately the Mongols conquered ancient China, establishing their own dynasty (i.e. the Yuan Dynasty which lasted from 1271 to 1368) for a brief period.

Read More:  Biography and History of Genghis Khan, the founder and first Great Khan of the Mongol Empire

Ancient China had very peculiar way of developing

Unlike other major human civilizations in the Mesopotamian and Mediterranean regions, the Chinese Civilization emerged in a very distinct manner. Its geographical location meant that ancient China was for long periods of time a bit isolated.

To the north and west of the empire lay the Gobi Desert (1.3 million square kilometer) and the Taklamakan Desert (337,000 square kilometer or 130,000 square miles), both rank up there as some of the world’s largest deserts. To the east lay the Pacific Ocean; and then to the south lay the Himalayan region which is home to the highest mountains in the world.

The insane temperatures and venomous snakes in the north and west somewhat cut off ancient China from the rest of the world, unless for the Mongols who carried out their invasions through the north. Similarly, the impassable mountainous terrain in the Himalayas made it difficult to access ancient China from the south.

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