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.

Ancient screens in three vertical panels, each containing Chinese calligraphy bordered by a green and gold pattern.

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 Chinese Develop a System of Writing

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.

Creating the First Books

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.


  1. Analyze Information How did China's geography both help and hinder China's development as a country?
  2. Synthesize What characteristics did the Shang and Zhou governments and social structures have in common?
  3. Analyze Information What aspects of Confucianism and Daoism do you think contributed to their long-lasting influence?
  4. Synthesize Why do you think that many Daoist painters featured water in paintings that represented Daoist beliefs?
  5. Describe What are some of the most notable achievements of early China?

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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