Early China to 600 CE

The study of Chinese civilization has rightly received intensive interest from scholars around the world.  Yet these gains are relatively recent in a number of fields, most notably in science and technology.  The ongoing encyclopedic project of Joseph Needham was a watershed event in the study of classical and pre-modern Chinese civilization, for it placed Chinese science and technology on an equal footing for comparison with Western and other non-Western civilizations.

The study of early Chinese civilization relies on archaeological surveys and studies that reveal the rise of substantial river basin settlements, villages and towns along the Yellow River basin from 5000-1766 BCE. These valleys were well watered and connected by their river system and contrasted greatly with the dry and colder climates of the Gobi Desert and other northern and western deserts. These early Chinese settlements are directly comparable with the Harappan settlements along the Indus River in India.  In the Yellow River basin we find the invention of wheels and an early writing system scratched onto bones that were kept to be read later.  It is generally thought that the long and sustained success of the Yellow River settlements was due to their relative protection and isolation from constant roaming marauders as well as changing river courses and sea levels that bothered the Harappan Civilization along the Indus River[1].  Aided by the rich cultivation of rice, we find the development of the Longshan Culture along the lower Yellow River. This interactive map of the Neolithic Period from Princeton University helps students to locate the place and range of development in this period[2].

During the Shang-Zhao dynasties (1600-256 BCE) we find other writing on oracle bones but also the use of complex bronze cast sculptures for large ceremonial vessels. During the later Zhao dynasties the myth of the Mandate of Heaven appeared as a rationale to explain the replacement and succession of rulers.  Accordingly,the appointment or sucession by the next ruler was accorded a status as decreed by the Heavens.  The mythology of the Mandate of Heaven was revived in modern China to rationalize the centralization of power and expansion of the state by Chairman Mao during the Communist Revolution.  Thus revolts, peasant uprisings or power struggles that overthrow an existing ruler may be read as part of the process of transformation[3].

It is in this interregnum that Kong Fuzi or Confucius (c. 551-479 BCE) arose as a great teacher of classical knowledge.  Confucius’ real name is now transliterated as Kong Fuzi.  Confucius’ teachings relied on loyalty and responsibility to family, and of a ruler’s responsibility to ensure the orderly rule that upheld the ruler as a son of Heaven under the Mandate of Heaven.  Out of this system arose a logic of rules and decrees for responsible living and by extension the means of regulating an early form state bureaucracy.  These principles were written down in the Lunyu or Analects.

A number of useful summaries of Confucian thought is found here:


Confucius/Kong Fuzi/Kong Qiu, 551-479 BCE 
Primary Source w/DBQs
 • Selections from the Confucian Analects [PDF] [Asia for Educators]
Primary Source w/DBQs • Selections from the Confucian Analects: On Humaneness [PDF] [Asia for Educators]
Primary Source w/DBQs • Selections from the Confucian Analects: On Confucius as Teacher and Person [PDF] [Asia for Educators]

Another major school of thought in Chinese philosophy is Daoism or Taoism. Taoism was seen by Joseph Needham as an oppositional method of inquiry often used by opponents of the state bureaucracy or by dissenters against the government or dominant powers[4].  We find in Taoist writers a greater emphasis on nature and the natural world.  Hence, a large number of poets, artists and intellectuals use Taoist references and style in their works. Taoism also allows a type of dialogue and merger with Buddhist thought and practices that reach and influenced China

The nearly five hundred year rule of the expansive Qin and Han Dynasties (221 BCE – 220 CE) is the period during which a large territorial consolidation and extension of Chinese power and identity ensues.  The Qin originated form the Szechuan province in the Southwest but expanded their hold on territory into Central and Eastern China.  This Dynasty was replaced by the Han Dynasty based in the north of China.  Under the Han, the new capital city of Luoyang was established. For these later dynasties and empires we benefit from surviving texts including histories written during the Han dynasty by Siam Qiang and other chroniclers.

Several rivals to Confucian teaching appear in later Chinese thought.  A legalist challenge to Confucians is found in Mengzi (Mencius) in the 4th century BCE. Selections from the Mencius: On Human Nature [PDF] [Asia for Educators].  Another disciplinary approach that is critical of Taoism is the alternative writings of Xunzi, (310-219 BCE) Primary Source w/DBQs • Selections from the Xunzi: “Human Nature Is Evil” [PDF] [Asia for Educators]
Primary Source w/DBQs • Selections from the Xunzi: “Encouraging Learning” [PDF] [Asia for Educators]
Primary Source w/DBQs • Selections from the Xunzi: “A Discussion of Rites” [PDF] [Asia for Educators]


By the early 3rd century C.E. literature was highly prized at the courts of the early Chinse emperors as well as that of Buddhist monks and clerics who were sponsored in part by the court[5].  The prestige of literature increased so that by the 6th century C.E. the Chinese monk and scholar Liu Hsieh could write extensive tracts comparing classical Chinese literature and its development from prior centuries. In Wen-hsin tiao-lung, or The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, Liu Hsieh (465-522 C.E.) wrote one of the first literary histories and works of criticism.  It is an impressive work that is well worth reading today for its erudition and insight[6].

Lotus Sutra, composed after 483 BCE
Primary Source w/DBQs
 • Selection from the Lotus Sutra: “The Daughter of the Dragon King” [PDF] [Asia for Educators]
The Lotus Sutra, a text of the Mahayana School of Buddhism, was composed well after the death of the historical Buddha (ca. 483 BCE) and written down in Sanskrit even later. The scripture was translated into Chinese in several different versions, the most respected being the translation carried out under the direction of the monk Kumarajiva in 406 CE. This passage is notable for addressing the question of the salvation of women.

Northern and Southern Dynasties Period, 317-589 CE 
Primary Source w/DBQs • The Ballad of Mulan (Ode of Mulan) [PDF] [Asia for Educators]

The General History and Spread of Buddhism to East Asia

Go to this interactive map,  The Spread of Buddhism [Pacific Asia Museum].  The connections across the Silk Road of Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu peoples, and of minorities like Christians, Zoorastrians and Manicheans may be viewed here.  On the visual representation of Buddhism in its sculptures see,:

  • Buddhism[A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, University of Washington]
    • LIving in the Chinese Cosmos >> Buddhism: The “Imported” Tradition [Asia for Educators]
  • Ox-Herding: Stages of Zen Practice[ExEAS, Columbia University]
    The ten ox-herding pictures and commentaries presented here depict the stages of practice leading to the enlightenment at which Zen (Chan) Buddhism aims. The story of the ox and oxherd is an old Taoist story, updated and modified by a twelfth-century Chinese Buddhist master to explain the path to enlightenment.
  • Buddhist Art in East Asia: Three Introductory Lessons Towards Visual Literacy[ExEAS, Columbia University]
    The most immediate goal of this unit is to familiarize students with a few examples from the vast array of East Asian Buddhist art. A more general goal is to achieve visual literacy, which means being able to analyze and articulate how art conveys meaning to and solicits reactions from its audience.


It is during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that Buddhism gains its influence on the Chinese court when the Empress Wu made it the religion of the Empire.  Thereafter Mahayana Buddhism merged with the Chinese state and bureaucracy and adapted itself during the Tang and Song Dynasty.


Hsieh, Liu. The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons. Translated by Vincent Yu-Ching Shih.  New York: New York Review of Books; The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2015.

Museum, Princeton University Art. “Neolithic Period ca. 8000–ca. 2000 B.C.”  http://etcweb.princeton.edu/asianart/timeperiod_china.jsp?ctry=China&pd=Neolithic.

Needham, Joseph. Science and Technology in China. 19 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954-2015.

Owen, Stephen. “Poetry and Thought in Early China.” In The Norton Anthology of World Literature, 805-79. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.

von Sivers, Peter; Desnoyers, Charles A.; Stow, George B. Patterns of World History.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

[1]Peter; Desnoyers von Sivers, Charles A.; Stow, George B., Patterns of World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[2] Princeton University Art Museum, “Neolithic Period ca. 8000–ca. 2000 B.C.,”  http://etcweb.princeton.edu/asianart/timeperiod_china.jsp?ctry=China&pd=Neolithic.

[3] von Sivers., 127.

[4] Joseph Needham, Science and Technology in China, 19 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954-2015).

[5] Stephen Owen, “Poetry and Thought in Early China,” in The Norton Anthology of World Literature (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002).

[6] Liu Hsieh, The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, trans. Vincent Yu-Ching Shih (New York: New York Review of Books; The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2015).