China’s long history has produced a wealth of intriguing stories, some better known than others. Here are ten facts you may not have known about Ancient China to whet your appetite for more.
The Great Wall is Not One Wall, But Many
The iconic structure of brick and stone that we know today as the Great Wall of China dates mostly to the sixteenth century, when the Ming Dynasty indulged its passion for building walls.
They were following in a long tradition: The earliest walls so far discovered, in the Longshan district of Shandong, date back to the third millennium.
By the Warring States Period (around 475 – 221 BC), each state had its own walls, which the First Emperor proceeded to enlarge upon when he united China.
Subsequent dynasties copied suit, the line of their walls marking the ebb and flow of China’s expansion. The walls weren’t that effective at keeping out the barbarians, but they definitely made a statement.
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China Ruled the Seas During the Ming Dynasty (Albeit Briefly)
Six huge fleets of ‘treasure ships’ set out from China in the years between 1405 and 1421, during the reign of the Ming emperor Yongle. Under the command of Admiral Zheng He, the fleets sailed to south-east Asia, India, Arabia and down the African coast, nearly a century before the voyages of Vasco da Gama.
The Earliest Examples of Chinese Writing are Records of Divination
The earliest surviving Chinese texts date to around 1200 BC. Inscribed on ox shoulder-blades and turtle plastrons, the Shang used these texts to record communications with the ancestors; hence the name ‘oracle bones’. Divination occurred by first applying great heat to the bones and then observing and interpreting the cracks.
China’s Female Monarch: The Empress Wu
The canny and ruthless Empress Wu was consort to the Tang emperor Gaozong. She became the effective ruler in 660, when Gaozong suffered a stroke. Empress Wu continued to rule from behind the scenes after his death in 683, when Gaoong was succeeded by two of his sons in succession.
Empress Wu orchestrated a coup in 690, establishing the Zhou Dynasty and reigning in her own right. A patron of Buddhism and a wily political operator, she transferred the capital from Chang’an to the more favourably situated Luoyang, before being forced to abdicate in 705.
China’s Diamond Sutra is World’s Oldest Printed Book
The Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist text, is the world’s earliest printed book, dating to the year 868. Archaeologist-explorer Aurel Stein discovered the text in the early twentieth century in the hidden library caves of Dunhuang in the north-east of China.
Dunhuang was a major staging point on the Silk Road, the route by which Buddhism made its way from India to China. The Diamond Sutra is now in the British Library.
Zhang Qian’s Epic Journey Opened Up the Silk Road
Much of China’s history has been a response to the semi-nomadic peoples of the desert and steppe. In order to fight them, the Chinese needed horses. In one of the great ironies of history, the semi-nomadic peoples to the west were the best suppliers of the necessary steeds. The Han emperor Wudi (141-87 BC) sent Zhang Qian as an ambassador to the west, to search for a supply of horses and to negotiate for allies.
Zhang Qian’s mission was ultimately unsuccessful but epic, including ten years as a prisoner of the Xiongnu, the main enemy at the time. His report of the regions to the west did, however, open Chinese eyes to the potential of these regions, and laid the foundation of the great trading route that would become known as the Silk Road.
First Emperor’s Tomb: Still Never Excavated
The First Emperor, Shi Huang Di, began building his tomb long before he died in 210 BC. While the surrounding area has been excavated, following the chance discovery of the terracotta warriors by a farmer in 1974, the tomb itself has not been excavated. According to the Han historian Sima Qian, the tomb contains a microcosm of the world, including models of palaces and pavilions. The Yellow and Yangtze rivers were reproduced in quicksilver, and booby-traps were laid to ensnare anyone trying to break in.
Sacrificial Pits at Sanxingdui: Evidence of a Surprisingly-Diverse Ancient China
For a long time, archaeological orthodoxy maintained that Chinese culture began in the north, cradled between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. The discovery of the sacrificial pits at Sanxingdui in Sichuan in the 1980s helped to revise the picture.
Archaeologists found two large pits, containing bronzes in the shape of human heads, many of them of monumental stature, and quite unlike anything found elsewhere in China. Contemporary with the Shang (about 1300-1050 BC), the makers of the Sanxingdui bronzes remain wonderfully mysterious.
Chinese Belief: Jade Preserves the Human Body
The belief that jade, a stone revered in China for thousands of years, could preserve the human body is tied to religious Daoism and the quest for immortality. The wealthy dead were buried in jade suits, like that found encasing the body of Prince Liu Sheng. Prince Liu Sheng died in the 2nd century BC; his burial suit comprised 2498 small plaques sewn together with gold wire.
Distilled Alcohol Started During Han Dynasty
A decorated brick excavated from an Eastern Han tomb (dated to between 25-220 AD) is one of the earliest representations of alcohol distillation. It was likely meant to guarantee the deceased an afterlife in which such activities continued. Scholars have speculated that the methods used for alcohol distillation grew out of the alchemical experiments of the Daoists, who aimed to produce potions that would confer immortality.
China: Ancient and Still Mysterious
From the world’s oldest printed book to the Silk Road and un-excavated tombs, China’s ancient mysteries continue to hold interest for modern archaeologists and hobbyists alike.
Rawson, J. Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties. (1996). British Museum Press.
Wilson, M. Chinese Jades. (2004). V&A Publications.
Lovell, J. The Great Wall: China Against the World 1000 BC – AD200. (2006). Atlantic Books.
Lewis, M. E. China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty. (2009). Harvard University Press.