By Neolithic times, the tribes living in what is now the Yellow River valley were practising agriculture. By the third millennium BCE, stratified bronze-age societies had emerged, most notably the Erlitou culture. The Erlitou dominated northern China and are identified with the Xia dynasty, the first dynasty in traditional Chinese historiography. Erlitou was followed by the Shang and Zhou dynasties, which developed a manorial economy similar to that of medieval Western Europe.[n 2] By the end of the Spring and Autumn period, this system began to collapse and was replaced by a prosperous economy of self-sufficient farmers and artisans during the Warring States period. This transformation was completed when the state of Qin unified China in 221 BCE, initiating the imperial era of Chinese history.
Neolithic and early Bronze Ages
Agriculture began almost 10,000 years ago in several regions of modern-day China. The earliest domesticated crops were millet in the north and rice in the south. Some Neolithic cultures produced textiles with hand-operated spindle-whorls as early as 5000 BCE. The earliest discovered silk remains date to the early third millennium BCE. By Northern China's Longshan culture (3rd millennium BCE), a large number of communities with stratified social structures had emerged.
The Erlitou culture (c. 1900-1350 BCE), named after its type site in modern Henan, dominated northern China in the early second millennium BCE, when urban societies and bronze casting first appeared in the area. The cowries, tin, jade, and turquoise that were buried at Erlitou suggest that they traded with many neighbours. A considerable labour force would be required to build the rammed-earth foundations of their buildings. Although the highly stratified Erlitou society has left no writing, some historians have identified it as the legendary Xia dynasty mentioned in traditional Chinese accounts as preceding the Shang.
Only a strong centralised state led by rich elites could have produced the bronzes of the Erligang culture (c. 15th–14th centuries BCE). Their state, which Bagley has called "the first great civilization of East Asia", interacted with neighbouring states, which imported bronzes or the artisans who could cast them. These exchanges allowed the technique of bronze metallurgy to spread. Some historians have identified Erligang as a Shang site because it corresponds with the area where traditional sources say the Shang were active, but no written source from the time exists to confirm this identification.
Shang dynasty (c. 1600 – c. 1045 BCE)
The first site unequivocally identified with the Shang dynasty by contemporaneous inscriptions is Anyang, a Shang capital that became a major settlement around 1200 BCE. The staple crop of the Shang, a predominantly agricultural society, was millet, but rice and wheat were also cultivated in fields owned by the royal aristocracy. Agricultural surpluses produced by royal fields supported the Shang royal family and ruling elite, advanced handicraft industries (bronze, silk, &c.), and large armies. Large royal pastures provided animals for sacrifices and meat consumption. Other agricultural produce supported the population of Shang, estimated to be about 5.5 to 8 million people.
Since land was only cultivated for a few years before being left fallow, new lands constantly needed to be opened by drainage of low-lying fields or by clearing scrubland or forests. These tasks were performed by forced labour under state supervision, often in the context of hunting expeditions.
Like their Neolithic predecessors, the Shang used spindle-wheels to make textiles, but the Shang labour force was more formally organised. By Shang times, controlled workers produced silk in workshops for the aristocracy. Fields and workshops were manned by labour of varying degrees of servitude. Some historians have called these dependent workers "slaves" and labelled the Shang a "slave society," but others reject such labels as too vague because we know too little about the nature of this labour force.
Western Zhou dynasty (c. 1045 – 771 BCE)
By traditional dating, the Zhou dynasty defeated the Shang around 1045 BCE and took control of the Wei and Yellow River valleys that the Shang had dominated. Land continued to belong to the royal family, which redistributed it among its dependants in a system that many historians have (dubiously) likened to the feudal organisation of medieval Europe. Epigraphic evidence shows that as early as the late 10th century BCE land was being traded, though it was not yet considered private property. Shaughnessy hypothesises that this increase in the land exchanges resulted from the division of elite lineages into branches, increasing demand for land while its supply was diminishing.
The 4th-century Mencius claims that the early Zhou developed the well-field system,[n 3] a pattern of land occupation in which eight peasant families cultivated fields around a central plot that they farmed for a lord. Modern historians have generally doubted the existence of this idealised system, but some maintain that it may have existed informally in the early Zhou, when dependent tenants working on manorial estates paid corvée to their landlords instead of rent, as they would later. Many Chinese historians continue to describe it as historical.
Handicraft industries developed during the Shang, such as textiles, bronze, and the production of weapons, were continued during the Zhou but became completely state-controlled. The Zhou government also controlled most commerce and exchange through appointing jia, officials whose title was later used to mean any merchant.
Spring and Autumn period (771–475 BCE)
The collapse of the Zhou initiated the Spring and Autumn period, named after Confucius' Spring and Autumn Annals. It was a time of war between states, when the earlier semi-feudal system fell into decline and trade began to flourish. Competition between states led to rapid technological advancement. Iron tools became available, producing agricultural surpluses that ended whatever had once existed of the well-field system. Towards the end of this era, the introduction of iron technology caused the complete collapse of the feudal system and ushered in a new era of development. Chinese developments in this era included the first isolation of elemental sulphur in the sixth century BCE.
During the Spring and Autumn period, many cities grew in size and population. Linzi, the prosperous capital of Qi, had a population estimated at over 200,000 in 650 BCE, making it one of the largest cities in the world. Alongside other large cities, Linzi served as a centre of administration, trade, and economic activity. Most of the cities' people engaged in husbandry and were thus self-sufficient. The growth of these cities was an important development for the ancient Chinese economy.
Large-scale trade began in the Spring and Autumn period as merchants transported goods between states. Large amounts of currency were issued to accommodate commerce. Although some states restricted trade, others encouraged it. Zheng in central China promised not to regulate merchants. Zheng merchants became powerful throughout China, from Yan in the north to Chu in the south.
Large feudal estates were broken up, a process hastened when Lu changed its taxation system in 594 BCE. Under the new laws, grain producers were taxed by the amount of land under cultivation rather than an equal amount being levied upon every noble. Other states followed their example. Free peasants became the majority of the population and provided a tax base for the centralising states.
Warring States period (475–221 BCE)
The Warring States period saw rapid technological advances and philosophical developments. As rulers competed to take control of one another's lands, they implemented various reforms, greatly changing China's economic system. Common-born landowners and merchants prospered and the remaining aristocracy lost influence. Some merchants, such as Lü Buwei, may have been as wealthy as minor states.
State-sponsored foundries made iron tools ubiquitous; Cast iron was invented in China during the 4th century BCE. Governments, which controlled the largest ironworks, developed a monopoly on military equipment, strengthening the states at the expense of the feudal lords. Iron agricultural tools allowed a massive increase in surplus farm goods.
the iron plough, draft oxen, row cultivation, and intensive hoeing were introduced.
After Shang Yang's reforms in the 3rd century BCE, land could be bought and sold, stimulating economic progress in agriculture and an increase in productivity. The newly powerful states undertook large-scale irrigation projects, such as the Zhengguo Canal and the Dujiangyan Irrigation System. Large amounts of previously desolate land were cultivated and integrated into the Qin economy. The agricultural boom allowed larger armies.
In this era, the growing power of the state strengthened the monarchy, allowing it to undertake reforms to strengthen the monarch's authority. The most extensive of these reforms was carried out in Qin by Shang Yang, including the abolition of the feudal nobility, redistribution of nobles' land based on military merit, and allowing private ownership of land. He encouraged the cultivation of unsettled lands, gave noble ranks to soldiers who performed well in battle, and established an efficient and strict legal code. Absolute monarchy persisted in China until its gradual weakening under the Song and Ming dynasties.