Ancient Civilizations: China

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13092

Ancient China had some amazing engineers and inventors, magnificent underground tombs for its emperors, and the longest-lasting civilization in history. Oh, and they built a great wall, too!


World, World

learning style
Auditory, Kinesthetic, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Have you ever found something on the street, on the sidewalk, or in a field and wondered what it was and who it belonged to?

That happened to some Chinese farmers digging a well in 1974.

Watch this video clip and see if you can guess what the discovery meant!

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Ancient Chinese civilization arose from small farming villages and became a powerful empire of amazing inventions, highly skilled artists, and artisans.

Early History

The early Chinese people were isolated from other civilizations by their land's location and geography. China has the Himalayan Mountains in the south, great deserts in the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the east.

Like other ancient civilizations, ancient China began with farming settlements in river valleys. Civilizations began to grow near China's two main rivers, the Yellow River and the Yangtze River, around 4000 BC.

map of China

Early Chinese farmers grew rice in the Yangtze River valley in the south and millet (a type of grain) in the Yellow River valley in the north.

In their early history, the people were troubled by flooding. When the rivers flooded, they could wipe out whole villages. It was so bad that they called the rivers "the Great Sorrow." Yet they knew the rivers were their source of food, too!

So eventually, they learned to work together to control the rivers and the floods. They built dams to allow the river to flood certain areas, canals to divert the river along different paths, and reservoirs to hold water for times of drought. And they learned to build their homes on stilts or high ground.

traditional wooden buildings in China

There are ancient myths about a man called "Yu the Great" who got dragons to redirect the rivers so they wouldn't flood. Archaeologists have discovered evidence that these myths may be based on an actual person who helped engineer the dams, canals, and reservoirs: King Yu, ruler of the first Chinese dynasty. (A dynasty is a family group that rules a country for some time.)

King Yu as imagined by Song Dynasty painter Ma Lin


Throughout its history, China has had many dynasties! But we'll focus on the five dynasties from 2200 BC to 220 AD.

King Yu's dynasty was called the Xia dynasty, lasting from 2200 BC to 1600 BC. Historians don't know much about this period other than that the people learned how to control the rivers and floodwaters and that their farming prospered.

During the next dynasty, the Shang dynasty (1600 BC to 1046 BC), China was still not a tightly controlled country. Other than a few towns and the capital of Anyang, there were still just scattered farming villages. The people worked with wooden or stone tools and kept cattle, hens, and sheep. The Shang didn't have an army to enforce their control, and there were a lot of battles between tribes.

Around this time, the Chinese learned the secret to making silk from the cocoons of silkworms. This was the beginning of a great industry for China, and it was a secret they kept for thousands of years!

cocoons of silkworm for silk making

Their artisans also made beautiful pottery, stone statues, intricate bronze vessels, and bells.

A people called the Zhou took over the capital and set up their dynasty in 1046 BC. They gained control over some tribes and territories, but the country was still not completely united. The Zhou dynasty lasted until 256 BC.

During this period, a man named Confucius started to think about all the disorders and problems in the country. He decided that men needed to learn to behave properly and be kind and unselfish. His ideas spread and became an important part of Chinese culture.

The First Emperor

The Zhou dynasty was conquered by prosperous merchants called the Qin. The great leader of the Qin was Qin Huang, who became China's first emperor.

Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China

His name (pronounced "Shin") is where we get the name "China." He divided power among his officials and gained control over a vast territory, uniting the Chinese people for the first time.

map showing unification of Qin Dynasty

Emperor Qin did many things to make his empire stronger, Use the slider beneath the images below to read about them.

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But he also did some questionable things, too. He collected almost all of the books in the empire and burned them!

  • Why do you think he did that?

He built a huge underground tomb for himself, employing hundreds of thousands of people for over 30 years. What the farmers found in the field in 1974 was part of his vast underground palace complex.

Watch the following clip.

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Finally, Qin thought he should live forever because he was great. So he drank mercury, thinking it would bring him eternal life, but it killed him.

After Qin died, his nobles fought among themselves, allowing an outsider, Liu Chi, to declare himself emperor and start the Han dynasty. There was a lot of fighting during the Han dynasty, and many times, it looked like China would fall apart.

But the upper classes, who owned the land, tried to keep order. Many of them accepted the teachings of Confucius and lived lives of peace and leisure. They studied science and created beautiful literature, music, and art.

Explore Top 10 Marvelous Types of Ancient Chinese Art to learn more about Han art as well as art from other dynasties.

Lives of leisure also provided free time to study and think, allowing the Chinese to come up with some amazing inventions!

Head over to the Got It? section to learn more about them and to create your timeline of ancient China!

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