Huang He (Yellow River) Valley—China

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Huang He (Yellow River) Valley—China

  • Where was this civilization located (region of the world, region name then and now)?

The Chinese civilization began along the Huang He (He=river). The Huang He begins in a plateau in the Himalayan Mountains. It travels for 3,000 miles across China. The Huang He started as a clear stream but picked up silt along its journey across China. During summer floods, this river spread enough silt on the land to create miles of fertile farmland.
The Huang He is also known as the Yellow River. The river takes its name from the yellow soil washed down in its waters from the mountains. This yellow soil is loess. Loess was also blown by the wind and covered much of northern China.

  • What were the significant geographical features of this region (bodies of water, land forms, climates, vegetation)?

Ancient China was an isolated land because of the numerous mountains, dangerous deserts, and vast seas. In fact, thousands of years passed before overland and sea routes to the West gradually connected China to Central Asia, India, and Europe. The Pacific Ocean to the east of China also prevented foreigners from reaching China.
The Gobi Desert in ancient China is one of the driest deserts in the world. The Taklamankan Desert, which means "enter and you shall never return", is in the northwest.
China also has some of the highest mountain ranges in the world. One of these mountain ranges is known as the Himalayas. Mountains occupy about forty-three percent of China's land area.
Only about twelve percent of China's land is plains and most of that is in the eastern part of China.
Ancient China had two major river systems that generally flowed in a western to eastern direction:
• the Huang He which is also known as the Yellow River
• the Yangtze which is also known as the Chang Jiang

The Huang He river system is about 3,000 miles long. This is about the distance from California to New York. The river empties into the Yellow Sea. This river system provided fertile soil and farmers were able to grow plenty of food. The civilization of ancient China developed along this river. This river has also caused many heartaches because when it floods the land, it kills many people and destroys crops. Without food to eat, people die.

  • How did this civilization/culture begin?

About 4,000 B.C., farming communities developed along the lower part of the Huang He. The Chinese civilization grew from these farming communities.

Farmers could not continue to let the Huang He flood their land every season. About 3,000 years ago, they began building earth levees (lev-eez) to hold back the Huang He. A levee is a wall that keeps a river from overflowing its banks. Farmers also built canals to bring water to their fields.

Because of the farmers’ success, the population of the area grew. The hard work of ancient China's farmers allowed powerful kingdoms to develop throughout China. About 1,700 B.C., a kingdom called the Shang dynasty grew along the Huang He. This dynasty lasted for about 600 years.

  • How did these geographical features impact the development of this civilization (What was their daily life/culture like eg. Clothing, food, customs, beliefs?

Farming Life

  • Most of the people of ancient China were peasant farmers who grew crops on small plots of land. Every member of the family helped grow and harvest the crops.

  • Farmers supplied food to the army and to people in the city.

  • Farmers in the north grew wheat, millet, and barley to eat. Farmers in the south grew rice to eat.

  • Farmers may have kept pigs and chickens, but dairy cows were not kept due to a lack of pasture land.

  • Oxen and water buffalo were used to pull carts and plows.

  • Villagers dug ditches and canals to water the fields.

  • Because there were few farm animals to provide manure for fertilizer, human excrement (dung) was used instead. The human dung was collected daily from villages and taken in carts and wheelbarrows to the fields.

  • Many farmers used simple wooden or stone tools even after bronze and iron weapons were invented.

  • The lives of peasant farmers consisted of many long, back-breaking hours tending to crops.

  • Peasant farmers also had to serve in the army and help with government projects such as building walls and canals.

  • Poor people spent most of their time growing and preparing food, or doing heavy work such as digging and carrying large loads.

  • Since everyone had to pay taxes, farmers often paid their taxes in the form of grain or time spent working for the government.

  • Farmers use a method known as terracing which is cutting flat plains into hillsides. They would farm on the flat plains. The flat plains looked like shelves coming out of the side of a hill. Cutting flat plains into the hillside would also slow erosion in a hilly area.

  • Often the most important building on the farm was the granary. It was a tall, narrow building that was used for storing grain after the harvest.


  • Poor people ate simple meals. Their main foods were rice, grains, millet, vegetables, and beans. If they ate meat, it was usually chicken or wild bird. Once in a while, they ate fish.

  • Wealthy people ate pork, lamb, venison, duck, goose, pigeon. For special occasions they might eat snakes, dogs, snails, sparrows, or bear claws.

  • Both rich and poor people used spices, salt, sugar, honey, and soy sauce to add flavor to the food.

  • Vegetables and fruits were always included in a wealthy person's diet.

  • To save fuel, food was chopped into small pieces and cooked quickly in an iron frying pan, or wok, for a few minutes only.

  • Steaming was also a common cooking method with the rich and poor.

  • People usually drank tea.

  • Water was usually boiled before drinking it.

  • Rice wine was another popular drink.


  • Clothing was a mark of class in ancient China. The type of fabric, the color and decorations on the fabric, jewelry, headgear and footwear all told something about the wearer's position in society.

  • High-ranking people dressed in the finest silk in public.

  • Peasants wore a long, shirt-like garment, made of undyed hemp fiber. Hemp is a rough fabric woven from plant fibers.

  • The type of jewelry worn showed the position of that person in society.

  • A man almost always wore a hat in public. The hat showed the wearer's occupation and status in society.

  • Fashions for the wealthy changed as the years passed; however, the poor continued to wear the same clothing until recently.

  • Women's long hair was arranged in topknots and held in place by hairpins and other ornaments.

  • Wealthy women wore elaborate make-up.

  • People wore thick padded clothing in winter.

  • From the Sui dynasty onward, only the emperor was allowed to wear yellow. Ordinary people had to dress in blue and black. White was for mourning, and children could not wear white while their parents were alive.


  • Farmers usually made their homes from mud bricks with reed or tile roofs. The bottom floor was often built below ground to help keep the family warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.

  • Some Chinese built their house with timber or bamboo poles. A timber frame held up the roof. The outer walls were sometimes made of brick. The Chinese preferred wood to stone for building because it looked more natural and it was less likely to injure people if the house collapsed during an earthquake.

  • Poor people often cooked outside in the open air. Wealth people had a kitchen indoors on the bottom floor. Servants would also live on the bottom floor.

  • Charcoal or coal was burned in the fireplace to keep the house warm.

  • The nobleman's house showed his wealth and rank in society.

  • The houses of the wealthy had private bathrooms, but the poor had to use communal drains and latrines.

  • The Chinese used toilet paper.

  • A traditional home was divided into different sections by courtyards.

Beliefs and Customs

  • The basis of Chinese life was a belief in harmony and balance.

  • The ancient Chinese worshiped their ancestors and looked to them for advice on how to mange their daily lives.

  • The family held Chinese society together. The family was "all important" in ancient China.

  • Families in China usually included many generations living together - often under the same roof. The oldest male was usually in charge of everyone in the house.

  • There was little individualism in Chinese families. Decisions were made that benefited the entire family and family honor and family achievements were more important than individual needs or achievements.

  • Age demanded respect. The old were considered wise and were treated with honor.

  • Children were taught to respect and obey their elders.

  • Children were taught that they must care for their mothers and fathers in sickness and old age.

  • The family name (our last name) would come first. Then the individual name (our first name) would follow. For example, our principal's name is Ron Seaver. In China, it would be Seaver Ron.

  • Men were seen as superior to women. They kept their family names and carried on the history. Therefore, grandfathers, fathers, uncles and sons were more important than grandmothers, mothers, aunts, and daughters.

  • Boys learned their family's trade, and girls learned to manage a household.

  • A woman had to obey her husband and his mother and his father. It did not matter if you were rich or poor, you had to obey them.

  • A father decided who his daughter was to marry.

  • Poor families sometimes sold their daughters to be servants of the rich.

  • Only sons could go to school, and only a son could inherit property.

  • At a Chinese funeral, people wore white. White is the color of mourning.

  • Children showed respect for their dead parents by fasting and wearing thick clothing.

  • The Chinese enjoyed baths. They washed with soap made from herbs. In towns, most people often paid a small fee to use one of the public baths.

  • Hot water for washing was sold in the street.

  • Wastes were collected at night and carted away outside the city walls.

Entertainment and Pets

  • Poor people enjoyed storytelling and gambling.

  • The Chinese played card games, board games and chess. Frequently, bets would be placed on the games.

  • In the Chinese game of mah-jong, players use small tiles with pictures or symbols on them instead of cards. Mah-jong is similar to the game of Rummy.

  • The wealthy hunted and raced horses. They grew and arranged flowers. They grew miniature trees (bonsai).

  • Dogs were popular pets of the rich. A poor family might have a songbird or a cricket in a cage.

  • Juggling was a common form of entertainment.

  • The ancient Chinese loved entertainment. People who could afford it loved to attend theater and magic shows. They enjoyed watching acrobatics and martial arts displays. Dancing and musical instruments were popular.

  • Theater was often used to tell stories and to spread religious teachings. Actors wore bright costumes. Their lines were often written as poetry and they frequently sung their lines (Chinese opera). The theater used very few scenery props.

  • Wealthy people spent their leisure hours practicing calligraphy, composing poetry, or listening to music.

  • Kite flying, wrestling, horse racing, and cock-fighting were outdoor recreations enjoyed by all Chinese. Cock-fighting is a contest in which people bet which rooster would attack and kill the other.

  • The ancient Chinese liked puzzles because they taught the people to think creatively. A favorite Chinese puzzle is the Tangram. A Tangram is a square cut into seven different shapes. A person tries to put the seven pieces together to remake the square. The seven pieces are also used to create other shapes such as animals.

  • Badminton was played and actually originated in China.

  • Both children and adults in ancient China liked to play a game similar to our modern-day Frisbee toss.


  • Most Chinese worked from dawn to dusk with no days off.

  • The Chinese calendar was based on the moon, and it was divided into twelve groups. Each group was named after an animal.

  • The Chinese New Year was the most important festival. It was in the spring and offerings were made to the spirits. Farmers gave thanks for the earth's abundance.

Social Class

  • The emperor was at the top of the social system.

  • Ancient China was divided into four main classes. Scholars were respected above everyone else because they could read and write. Peasants were the next most important because the country depended on them to produce food. Artisans (people who worked with their hands) were next because they used their skills to make things that everyone needed, such as weapons, tools, and cooking utensils. The lowest class were merchants because they made nothing. All they did was trade goods. Soldiers who made a career of being in the army were not highly regarded and did not belong to a class of their own.

Life in the City

  • Most villages and cities were square. Walls were built around the city to protect it.

  • The villages or cities were laid out in squares and certain classes or types of people lived in each square.

  • The official's home (palace) was built in the center of the village or city. He was the person in charge.

  • Poorer people lived farther away from the palace and the wealthier people. Homes of the poorer people were made from mud bricks with roofs of reeds and grasses. They were crowded close together.

  • Other squares within the city held the artisans' shops. Artists and crafters made tools, jewelry, ornaments and other items. Potters created pots and jars for every day use and ceremonial use.

  • Each village or city had a marketplace. Farmers would come to the marketplace to sell their produce and to buy needed items.

  • Villages and cities had temples.

  • Musicians and jugglers often performed in the streets around the market.

  • Larger cities had teahouses and restaurants.

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