The Chinese heartland lay along the east coast and the valleys of the Huang, or Yellow, River and the Chang River. In ancient times, as today, these fertile farming regions supported the largest populations. Then, as now, the rivers provided water for irrigation and served as transportation routes.
Beyond the heartland are the outlying regions of Xinjiang (shin jyahng) Mongolia, and Manchuria. These large regions have harsh climates and rugged terrains. Until recent times, they were mostly occupied by nomads and subsistence farmers. Yet these outlying regions played a key role in China's history.
Nomads repeatedly attacked and plundered Chinese cities. At times, powerful Chinese rulers conquered or made alliances with the people of these regions. China also extended its influence over the Himalayan region of Tibet, which the Chinese called Xizang (shih dzahng).
Chinese history began in the Huang River valley, where Neolithic people learned to farm. As in other places, the need to control the flow of the river through large water projects probably led to the rise of a strong central government. In time, the small farming villages gave rise to ancient Chinese civilization, sometimes called the Yellow River civilization.
Shang dynasty artisans were skilled in creating detailed objects in a variety of materials, including bronze and jade. This is a ceremonial bronze axe head.
The Huang River got its name from the loess, or fine windblown yellow soil, that it carries eastward from Siberia and Mongolia. Long ago, the Huang River earned a bitter nickname, “River of Sorrows.” As loess settles to the river bottom, it raises the water level. Chinese peasants labored constantly to build and repair dikes to prevent the river from overflowing.
When heavy rains and winter melt off swelled the river, it ran high above the surrounding plains. If the dikes broke, floodwaters burst over the land, destroying crops, and leading to mass starvation. In Chinese writing, the character for misfortune is a river with a blockage that causes flooding.
What are some ways that geographical features shaped how people lived in ancient China?
The earliest Chinese civilization may date back 4,000 or more years, but these origins are shrouded in legend. Scholars have found solid evidence that by about 1766 B.C., China's first dynasty, the Shang, dominated a part of the Yellow River valley. The Shang ruled the region until about 1122 B.C.
Archaeologists have uncovered some of the large palaces and rich tombs of Shang rulers. The evidence shows that the Shang capital at Anyang was a walled city. From there, the Shang controlled the North China plain and fought off nomads from the northern steppes and deserts.
Shang kings probably controlled only a small area. Princes and nobles loyal to the Shang dynasty governed most of the land. They were likely the heads of important clans, or groups of families who claim a common ancestor.
Thus, Shang China probably more closely resembled the small kingdoms of Aryan India than the centralized governments ruled by the Egyptian pharaohs. Still, the most powerful Shang kings could muster armies of several thousand to battle threats to their land.
The richly furnished tombs of the kings showed that they were at the top of the social hierarchy. In one Shang tomb, archaeologists discovered the burial place of Fu Hao (foo how), wife of the Shang king Wu Ding. Artifacts show that she owned land and helped to lead a large army against invaders. This evidence suggests that noblewomen may have had considerable status during the Shang period.