Part VI. Iron Age China

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Archaeologists employ the ‘three-age system’ (Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age) to characterize and organize artifacts. The ‘three-age system’ exhibits some distinct correspondences with the development of human culture.

In China, the Yangshao and Longshan cultures correspond with the late Stone Age, the Neolithic. Stone artifacts indicate that these were small, decentralized agrarian societies. China’s Bronze Age roughly corresponds with the Shang and Chou dynasties. The bronze military technology centered upon the chariot allowed the Shang and Chou to subjugate the indigenous agrarian population. The stratification of society also required a degree of centralization.

In the 2nd millennium before the Common Era, China first became a political entity as it centralized around the Yellow River watershed in the north. This consolidation occurred under the Shang dynasty, the original Middle Kingdom. In the following centuries (early 1st millennium BCE), this centralization continued under the Western Chou with an expansion of their sphere of influence to the east and south. During the first part of the Eastern Chou, i.e. the Spring and Autumn Era, China began splintering politically under the influence of feudalism. This was a period of decentralization.

During this era of fragmentation, the diffusion of iron technology from the west initiated China’s Iron Age. The introduction of this new metal, which was harder and more plentiful than bronze, destabilized the region. After fragmenting into separate kingdoms, the stronger states employed the iron military technology to conquer and absorb the weaker ones. This belligerent period is deemed the Warring States Era of the late Chou.

This turbulent time ended when one of these ‘warring states’, the Ch’in, achieved supremacy. It was at this time that an expanded China was united under a single emperor. The First Emperor of the Ch’in dictatorship consolidated the north and south to create China’s first empire. This part will examine Iron Age China, i.e. from the Warring States Era to the First Emperor. It will also explore Chinese politics and philosophy of this time period along with their significance to Tai Chi and Journey to the West.


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