Ancient Chinese Culture in Modern Times

We can't explore today's China without knowing at least a little ancient Chinese culture — which dates back to the Paleolithic period more than one million years ago. Evidence of early tools and agricultural practices are dated to the Neolithic period of about 12,000 B.C.


The first referenced dynasty in Chinese history is Xia Dynasty, c. 2100 BC., but the earliest known Chinese writings range from about 1700 B.C.

Feudal systems of government developed around 250 B.C. with the Zhou Dynasty, whose king introduced the idea of authority mandated by heaven.

This all happened long before anyone thought of building the Great Wall of China, about 200 B.C. during the Qin Dynasty.

Chinese History — The Rise of the Imperialists

Ancient Chinese Culture | The Great Wall of China

Qin Shihuang is the first Chinese emperor. His primary goal during his reign was to accrue power. He had some plans for that.

Rebounding from nearly two centuries of war with other Chinese provinces, Qin conquered five fighting states and then enforced "Legalist" philosophy, or a strict adherence to law. This helped to centralize government and as Qin also sponsored a uniform written language, he was further able to enforce law.

What else did Qin do during his 11 or so years in power? He instituted:

  • Roadways: Roads unified the provinces and major cities, and facilitated commerce. Qin also standardized axle lengths to allow carts to travel more easily on these roads.

  • Measurements: Standardized weights and measures also improved the flow of commerce, not to mention the flow of money into imperial coffers. Qin did not introduce taxation but the emperors following him most certainly took advantage of the new measuring system.

  • Money: One more thing to help commerce chug along.

  • The Great Wall of China: This was meant to be a defensive construction, to keep the people safe from nomadic raiding tribes. Succeeding emperors expanded and built over the original wall.
  • What else did Qin do?

    Basically he redefined China, which is why the country is named for him. On the downside though, he had little tolerance for opposing political views. To get his newly formed nation to think as one, he burned books and buried scholars alive.

    The Terracotta Army — Ancient Chinese Culture Has a Solid Footing

    Ancient Chinese Culture | Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin

    We can attribute these 7,000 or more stone soldiers to Emperor Qin too. There were four pits dug to house this army, though only three were filled before construction ended. What was to be found there?

    The largest pit contains the infantry and measures 14,000 square meters. Another pit contains chariots, cavalry and infantry, and a third pit houses command headquarters. Archaeologists have only recovered about 1,000 soldiers so far.

    The tops of the soldiers are hollow, while the terra cotta bottoms are solid. And they were all painted at one point, but the colors have faded away over the centuries.

    Forbidden City — Lots of Chinese Culture, No Starbucks

    Several centuries and dynasties later (in which various battles were fought, murders attempted, and ancient Chinese culture advanced through the most creative means) we arrive at the ruling era of the Ming Dynasty.

    If you've ever seen a pretty blue and white Chinese vase, you know Ming, or more probably, a Ming knockoff. And you've also probably heard of Beijing's famous Forbidden City and Imperial Palace.

    Yung-lo built Forbidden City in the 15th century. It contains hundreds of buildings and 9,000 rooms to serve the more modern emperors of China. Its entrance, Wuman Gate, is build on the exact center of the city.

    Wuman Gate was where conquering generals turned prisoners over to the emperor. Major festivals occurred there, and that's where the following year's calendar was devised.

    It is the Ming dynasty that saw huge artistic and educational advances. Public officers needed to pass literary exams, classical prose and poetry flourished, and various styles in ceramics, pottery and bronze flowed out of Beijing and into homes around the world.

    Chinese Culture | Modern Beijing

    The Imperial Palace houses over 1,000,000 artifacts, though it wasn't until recently that the museum was brought to Western standards for exhibition. Currently, it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site which houses rare items of ancient Chinese culture, including books and government documents from the Ming and Qing dynasties.

    Chinese History | Communism and the Rise of Mao

    In the 19th century, various world powers carved out pieces of China for their own control and subjugation. The political power of the Qing dynasty diminished dramatically.

    Because of civil unrest and violent rebellion, natural disasters and disease, nearly 60 million citizens died in a period of 25 years. (Read 61 Years of Red China for further insights into this period.) The Qing dynasty fell and the Provisional Government of the Republic of China came to power in 1911.

    Chinese History | Rise of Chairman Mao

    The Chinese entered World War I in 1917. Nearly one million Chinese labourers arrived in France, Turkey and Africa to support the Allied movement, and the Chinese government seized German ships docked in Chinese harbors. They also took part in the subsequent peace treaty negotiations, which left them disappointed.

    Before WWI began, the Japanese seized Kiaochow port in east China and Germany controlled that port during the war. When China participated in the peace talks, representatives expected the port to be returned and for Japan to make withdraw certain demands they had been making.

    Neither of these expectations were met and when the news got back to China, students and laborers began an uprising, known as the May 4th Movement. The May 4th protests bolstered the New Tide political party, which had a Communist-like agenda.

    New Tide wanted to do away with foreign influences in China, and they wanted a simplified language so all Chinese citizens could learn to read and write.

    In the meantime, Mao Zedong was an assistant librarian at Beijing University, where he co-founded the Chinese Communist Party. In 1920 he embraced Marxism after reading a translation of The Communist Manifesto.

    Two political powers fought for control of China. The Communist Party of China, or CCP, and the Chinese Nationalist Party sometimes called the Kuomintang or KMT, led to the $#34;Long March$#34; from 1934 to 1936. The KMT forced southern armies of the CPC to retreat to northern and western provinces of China. The series of retreats proved deadly for the CPC, but the marches are the event that sparked Mao Zedong's rise to power, as he rallied his retreating troops through dangerous terrain over 8,000 miles.

    Chinese Political Culture Today

    Chinese Culture | Heavenly Temple Beijing

    If we count Tibet, there are 33 Chinese provinces today. You'll find a map and statistical information for these areas at the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding page. Macau for example, is the Chinese province best known for tourism and gambling, but it's population is only 500,000. Compare that to Beijing's population of over 16 million. . . and a main industry of administration!

    There has been 90 years of communist rule in China, primarily because of an ability to adapt, as we have seen in the people from ancient Chinese culture onwards. Economic reforms of the 1980s have helped to make China a world financial power.

    Though a lack of tolerance for dissent and freedom of speech has been the hallmark of the government, some hope China's newfound wealth will help to ease some of th ose restrictions as the Chinese venture forward into the global marketplace.

    Explore Ancient Chinese Culture for Yourself

    Check out one of these top books and movies set in China's mainland provinces for some pseudo-real Chinese culture!

    » The Good Earth, written by Pearl S. Buck
    » The Last Emperor, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
    » Seven Years in Tibet, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud
    » The Hundred Secret Senses, written by Amy Tan
    » A Many Splendored Thing, written by Han Suyin
    » Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, directed by Ang Lee
    » Enter the Dragon, directed by Robert Clouse

    Ready to travel to China? Check out our Sprial World Travel page for more information.

    Or, continue your expeditions by leaving the Ancient Chinese Culture page and visiting our Ancient Greek Culture page instead.

    What Chinese Movies, Books or Songs Come to Your Mind?
    Tell us what songs, books or movies make you want to walk the Wall or bang on the gates of Beijing!




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