Women did the laborious work of tending the silkworms and processing the cocoons into thread. They then wove silk threads into a smooth cloth that was colored with brilliant dyes.
Poems and odes from the Book of Songs were put on strips of bamboo as part of a painting, or on wooden screens such as this one.
Only royalty and nobles could afford luxurious silk robes. In time, silk became China's most valuable export. To protect their control of this profitable trade item, the Chinese kept the process of silk making a secret for hundreds of years.
The ancient Chinese developed a system of writing. It used both pictographs and ideographs, signs that expressed thoughts or ideas. The oldest examples of Chinese writing appear on oracle bones, used by priests to predict the future. Shang priests wrote questions addressed to the gods or to the spirit of an ancestor on animal bones or tortoise shells. These questions generally required a yes or no answer. Priests then heated the bone or shell until it cracked. By interpreting the pattern of cracks, they could provide answers or advice from the ancestors.
Written Chinese took shape almost 4,000 years ago. Over time it evolved to include tens of thousands of characters, or written symbols. Each character represented a word or idea and was made up of a number of different strokes. By contrast, alphabet-based languages such as English or Arabic contain only two dozen or so symbols that represent basic sounds. In recent years, the Chinese have simplified their characters, but Chinese remains one of the most difficult languages to learn.
Despite its complexity, the written language supported unity. Isolated by geographic barriers, people in different parts of China often could not understand one another's spoken language, but they all used the same system of writing. Not surprisingly, in earlier times, only the well-to-do could afford the years of study needed to master the skills of reading and writing. Working with brush and ink, Chinese scholars later turned writing into an elegant art form called calligraphy.
Under the Zhou, the Chinese made the first books. They bound thin strips of wood or bamboo together and then carefully drew characters on the flat surface with a brush and ink. The earliest Chinese books included histories and religious works. I Ching, a handbook for diviners, is still used by people who want to foretell the future.
Among the greatest Zhou works is the Book of Songs, a collection of poems that address the lives of farming people, praise kings, or describe court ceremonies. The book also includes tender or sad love songs.
How did a uniform system of writing benefit the Chinese?