3.4 Ancient Civilization in China

China was the most isolated of the river valley civilizations. Long distances and physical barriers separated China from Egypt, the Middle East, and India. This isolation contributed to the Chinese belief that China was the center of Earth and the sole source of civilization. These beliefs in turn led the ancient Chinese to call their land Zhongguo (jahng gwoh), or the Middle Kingdom.

Illustration of an ancient Chinese settlement along a river, with many people gathered along its banks.

The Huang River is also called the Yellow River. Its color comes from the loess, or soil, that settles in the water. Great amounts of loess displace the water, causing the river to rise and flood.


  • Understand how geography influenced early Chinese civilization.
  • Analyze how Chinese culture took shape under the Shang and Zhou dynasties.
  • Describe the origins, central ideas, and spread of Confucianism and Daoism.
  • List some achievements made in early China.

Key Terms

  • loess
  • clan
  • dynastic cycle
  • feudalism
  • Confucius
  • Laozi
  • philosophy
  • filial piety
  • oracle bone
  • characters
  • calligraphy

Geography Influences Chinese Civilization

Geographic Barriers Set China Apart

To the west and southwest of China, brutal deserts and high mountain ranges—the Tian Shan (tyen shahn)and the Himalayas—blocked the easy movement of people. To the southeast, thick rainforests divided China from Southeast Asia. To the north awaited a forbidding desert, the Gobi. To the east lay the vast Pacific Ocean.

Despite these formidable barriers, the Chinese did have contact with the outside world. They traded with neighboring people and, in time, Chinese goods reached the Middle East and beyond.

More often, the outsiders whom the Chinese encountered were nomadic invaders. To the Chinese, these nomads were barbarians who did not speak Chinese and lacked the skills and achievements of a settled society. Nomads conquered China from time to time, but they were usually absorbed into the advanced Chinese civilization.

The Varied Regions of China

As the Chinese expanded over an enormous area, their empire came to include many regions.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments