The period of the Shang, Zhou, and Qin dynasties was a time of great cultural, artistic, and technological achievement.
The most important achievement of the Shang dynasty was the development of a system of writing. This occurred sometime before 1500 B.C., the date of the first known record. The Shang writing system, which was based on pictograms, provided the foundation for modern Chinese writing.
Craftsmen of the Shang dynasty also became highly skilled in the working of bronze, a mixture made primarily of copper and tin. Many of the artifacts that survive from the Shang dynasty are vessels — that is, cups, bowls, and pots — fashioned in bronze.
The Shang dynasty is also known for the development of elaborate rituals for the worship of their gods and ancestors. The rituals most commonly involved appealing to the gods and ancestors for help with hunting, farming, and building. The king played the central role in these rituals. Diviners, people who foretold the future, also played a role.
Like the Shang dynasty, the Zhou dynasty is known for its beautiful bronze work. However, China underwent an Iron Age during the Zhou dynasty that began around 700 B.C. After this time, the Chinese made many weapons and farming tools out of iron.
Religious rituals, arts, and writing continued to develop during the Zhou dynasty. The oldest known book of Chinese poetry — a collection of 305 poems called The Book of Songs — and other classic works of Chinese writing were completed during this era.
The Zhou dynasty leaders set up a system of rule that was similar to the feudal system that developed in Europe during the Middle Ages (A.D. 400's-1400's). Under a feudal system, a king gives land to lords. In return, the lords swear allegiance to the king, particularly during times of war. Although the lords ruled over the land given them, they ranked beneath the king in power and importance. The Chinese word for this system is Fengjian.
Although the Qin dynasty lasted a very short time — only about 15 years — its greatest achievement is China's greatest landmark, the Great Wall. Different Chinese states had begun building walls in the second half of the Zhou dynasty. The Qin dynasty linked all these walls and added thousands of more miles of wall, creating the longest structure on Earth.
The Qin dynasty is also known for the tomb of its founder and the first emperor of China, Shi Huangdi. The tomb contained the famous terra-cotta army, more than 6,000 life-sized, terra-cotta statues of soldiers, horses, chariots, and other figures. The army, discovered in 1974, is one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time.
Early Chinese Writing
Shang writing is based on pictures. These pictures are called pictograms, or picto-graphs. Instead of using letters from an alphabet to make up words, Shang writing used pictograms to stand for people, places, things, and actions. The Shang linked these pictograms together to make sentences. Scientists have discovered the meanings of more than 1,000 Shang pictograms. Most of the writing we have from the Shang is on oracle bones, animal bones with markings or writing on them. The bones were used to ask questions of the gods and ancestors and record what was believed to be their answers.
What was the most important achievement of the Shang dynasty?
When did the Iron Age begin in China?
Which dynasty created the Great Wall?