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A History of World Societies, Sixth Edition
Web Exercises
Chapter 4: China's Classical Age to 256 B.C.E.

As Chapter 4 demonstrates, China's Classical Age laid the cultural foundation of Chinese civilization. Along with India, China is one of the oldest and most enduring societies in world history. Its attitudes toward ancestors, social hierarchy, tradition, cosmology, and government give it a distinctive flair. These attitudes also promote stability and continuity. After 256 B.C., China was able to absorb new ideas and technology and to survive occupation by foreigners without losing its uniqueness and links to its past. By examining Chinese writing, burial rituals, political concepts, and philosophy, you will gain some valuable insights into this culture.

Helpful Hints:
  • You may want to begin by printing this page. As you explore different sites, use the printout to refer back to the instructions and questions detailed in each activity.
  • On many web sites you can increase the size of the images by clicking on them. Whenever possible, use the larger images to examine fine details in photographs.
Activity One:
  • Geography has played a crucial role in Chinese civilization's stability and continuity. Study Map 4.1 on page 80 of McKay, A History of World Societies (Sixth Edition). Make a list of the natural barriers that encouraged early Chinese civilization's isolation from other cultures and civilizations.
  • For a broader perspective, take a look at this map of Asia, paying special attention to the physical features (e.g. mountain ranges, deserts, etc.) in and around China. For another viewpoint, check out China: A View from Above. (This picture was taken from an orbiting satellite.) Another perspective of China's isolation can be seen at China: Physical Features.
Activity Two:
  • By now you should be able to see that Chinese civilization emerged in the broad floodplains of East Asia. These areas were isolated from the rest of the world by oceans, mountains, and deserts. Map 7.1 on page 186 in McKay, A History of World Societies (Sixth Edition) reveals the names of these barriers. See if you can locate them on the maps referenced in Activity One.
  • After you have familiarized yourself with the geography of China, open this map of central and northern Asia. Print out the map and label the following terms on it.
Taklimakan Desert
Yangzi River
Yellow River
Gobi Desert
Tian Shan
Altai Mountains
South China Sea
Yellow Sea

Activity Three:
  • Review pages 80–86 in McKay, A History of World Societies (Sixth Edition), and write a paragraph explaining the impact of geography on Chinese history. Be sure to consider the themes of continuity and change. You may also want to consult Library of Congress Country Study of China: Physical Environment .
  • Review: Chinese civilization emerged in the Yellow River valley and spread southward from there. (See Shang Civilization, 1200 B.C.) This chapter covers several periods in early Chinese history—the Neolithic Age, the Xia Dynasty, the Shang Dynasty, and the Zhou Dynasty. Many important cultural and political concepts emerged during this time. The rest of these web exercises will review and reinforce these developments.
Activity Four:
  • Writing appeared during the Shang Dynasty. Review page 87 in McKay, A History of World Societies (Sixth Edition). In addition, read more about logographic writing systems in general and Chinese language and writing in particular.  What is the difference between a phonetic and a logographic script? List several advantages and disadvantages of a logographic script. For example, speakers of different languages and dialects can share a logographic script and thus communicate with each other. But, a logographic script like Chinese requires an immense amount of time to learn and master, and thus it limits the level of literacy in a society. How do you think the continuation of a logographic script shaped the history of China? How did it promote continuity with change? Summarize your answer in a paragraph or two.
Activity Five:
  • Chinese cosmology and ancestor veneration had a strong impact on political developments during the Shang and Zhou Dynasties. Shang emperors believed that they could consult the gods and their ancestors through divination and ritual. This belief helped lead to the development of the Mandate of Heaven concept during the Zhou Dynasty. Go to T'ien Ming: The Mandate of Heaven to learn about this belief. How did this idea reflect early Chinese veneration for ancestors and the past? How did it promote continuity with change?
Activity Six:
  • One of the great philosophical traditions, Confucianism, emerged during the late Zhou Dynasty. Confucian philosophy continued to shape Chinese government and society into the twentieth century. To refresh your memory about Confucianism, review pages 92–95 of McKay, A History of World Societies (Sixth Edition). Now read The Analects, excerpts of Confucius's thoughts. How does Confucian philosophy reinforce veneration for the past and ancestors? How does it treat the concept of T'ien Ming (the Mandate of Heaven)? (You might also want to go to The Mandate of Heaven.) How does it reflect continuity and change in Chinese history?
Activity Seven:
  • Read the following overviews of the art and culture of the Shang Period and the Zhou Period.  Make sure to click on the images included on the timelines and examine them closely.  What were the major artistic developments of these two periods?  What continuities do you notice between Shang and Zhou artistic techniques? What notable differences can you detect?