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Ancient China Activities & Lesson Plans

Ancient China is called one of the world's cradles of civilization. China has the longest continuous history in the world with over 3,500 years of written history! Many superlatives can be applied to Ancient China: It has the highest mountains! The longest rivers! The largest plateau! The longest wall! And, some of the world's earliest empires. This teacher guide utilizes the popular G.R.A.P.E.S. acronym for teaching about ancient civilizations and focuses on the geography, religion, achievements, politics, economy, and social structure of Ancient China.

Student Activities for Ancient China

Be sure to check out all of our Ancient Civilization guides!

With the activities in this lesson plan, students will demonstrate what they’ve learned about Ancient China. They’ll become familiar with the environment, resources, technologies, religion, and culture of Ancient China and be able to demonstrate their knowledge in writing and illustrations.

Essential Questions for Ancient China

  1. Where is Ancient China and how did its geography impact the development of its culture and technology?
  2. What was the religion of Ancient China and what were some of its characteristics?
  3. What were some of the major achievements of Ancient China in art, architecture, technology, philosophy, and science?
  4. What were the different governments of Ancient China and what were some of their characteristics?
  5. What were some important jobs and major influences on the economy in Ancient China?
  6. What was the social structure in Ancient China? What were the roles of men, women and children? How did enslaved people impact the society and economy?

G: Geography

China is a large country located in eastern Asia and it is home to the world's oldest continuous civilization. China is divided into two main regions: Outer China to the west and Inner China to the east. Outer China contains the Himalayan Mountain Range to the south and east, which has the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest. North of the Himalayas is the Tibetan Plateau which is the largest plateau in the world and nicknamed the "roof of the world". It is extremely cold and snowy. To the north and east of the Tibetan plateau are the Northwestern deserts: the Taklimakan Desert, the Turfan Depression, and the Gobi Desert which have extreme temperatures of heat and cold as well as sandstorms. The Northeastern Plain lies to the east of the Gobi Desert and is very cold and dry land of low hills, plains and prairie grass. Because Outer China contained harsh environments of extreme cold and heat along with the impassable Himalayas, most of Ancient China's earliest peoples were located in Inner China around the two main rivers: Huang He (Yellow) in the north and Chang Jiang (Yangtze) in the south.

People who lived in Outer China were not able to farm as easily. On the Tibetan Plateau, herders raised livestock such as yaks which would provide meat, milk, and wool. In the Northwestern Deserts, some settled in oases which are places in a desert where water can be found. Here they would build homes out of mud, grow cotton and maize, and herd sheep. The Northeastern Plain was dry and cold but the prairie grasses allowed settlers to herd sheep, goats, cattle and horses. These people were nomadic with temporary tent homes that could be moved when food was scarce.

The climate and rivers of Inner China supported more permanent settlements. The Huang He runs through the North China Plain which is a flat grassland in Inner China. It is called the "Land of the Yellow Earth" because of the yellow silt that is carried from the Gobi Desert by winds all the way to the Huang He giving it its name "Yellow River". One of the longest rivers in the world, the Huang He floods often, creating fertile soil in the North China Plain for growing crops such as wheat and millet and for raising livestock like cattle, sheep, oxen, pigs and chickens. However, the flooding can be extreme and can cause much devastation which is why the Huang He is also nicknamed "China's Sorrow". The Chang Jiang or Yangtze River is even longer than the Huang He which is why its name means "Long River." The Chang Jiang Basins that surround the river are warm, wet and good for growing rice which they began growing as early as 10,000 BCE! The Yangtze also has many tributaries which made it useful for travel and transporting goods.

R: Religion

Three major religions or philosophies of Ancient China are called the "three pillars" or the three ways.

Taoism or Daoism was founded by Laozi (Lao Tzu) during the Zhou Dynasty around 500s BCE. Laozi was a philosopher who wrote his beliefs in a book called the Tao Te Ching. The word Tao means "the Way", Taoism taught that people gained happiness and peace by living in harmony with nature. Taoism espouses that there are two sides of nature, the Yin and the Yang and that these must be in balance to have peace.

Confucianism was based on the teachings of Kongfuxi (Confucius) who was born in 551 BCE. Confucianism was a philosophy whose goal was to create a more just and peaceful society. Confucius taught about the importance of treating others with respect and fairness. While Confucius did not write down his teachings, others did and many of his quotes are famous sayings today. For example: "Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you". Confucianism deeply influenced Chinese government and culture in ancient times and continues to influence it today.

Buddhism is one of the three major religions in China. It came from India founded by Siddhartha Gautama or Buddha who lived from 563 BCE to 483 BCE. Buddha was a Hindu prince that renounced his wealth to seek enlightenment. Buddhism focuses on understanding and eliminating suffering, karma, birth, and rebirth. It is the fourth largest religion in the world.

A cornerstone of these Ancient Chinese philosophies is filial piety, which means the virtue of respect for one's parents, elders, and ancestors. They believed in ancestor worship, heaven, and the importance of living right to please the gods. These religions were philosophies that influenced not only the way people lived, but the social hierarchy, the government, science, and the arts.

A: Achievements

The Ancient Chinese developed one of the world's first writing systems using logographs or Chinese characters to represent words. They promoted the three perfections which were calligraphy (artistic writing), poetry, and painting. Art and writing were very important in Ancient China and required years of practice and discipline.

In addition to writing and painting, craftspeople in Ancient China created beautiful works of art out of stone, pottery, porcelain and green jade which was considered a lucky stone. They also worked with bronze and later iron to create vessels, statues and weaponry. The Ancient Chinese built beautiful wood framed homes with ceramic tiled roofs as well as massive temples and palaces.

Another one of Ancient China's engineering achievements was the Great Wall. The Great Wall is a 5,500 mile long wall built in stages throughout China's history to protect it from invaders, like the Mongols of the north. Construction began in the 7th century BCE by the Chu State and lasted until 1878 in the Qing Dynasty. Most of what is remaining today was built during the Ming Dynasty about 600 years ago. Infrastructure was extremely important for travel, trade, and controlling the rivers. The Silk Road, a 4,000 mile network of trade routes from China to the Middle East to Europe, allowed for the exchange of goods, cultures, religions and ideas. The land surrounding the Huang He and Chang Jiang were rich for farming and the Ancient Chinese made great strides in agriculture and irrigation. They built hydraulic engineering systems of canals, levees and dams. The Grand Canal in China is the longest canal in the world at 1,100 miles long and built in 468 BCE!

Ancient China is also credited with major inventions that we still use today: paper, silk, umbrellas, the abacus, the wheelbarrow, kites, porcelain, and lacquer. Silk was used for clothing as well as porcelain, a fine form of pottery was valued by the wealthy and traded with other countries for thousands of years. The Ancient Chinese developed a compass made from lodestone which uses the magnetic pull of the earth to always point north. The Ban Liang coin was the first standardized unit of currency in Ancient China that was established under China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi. Paper money was developed during the Tang dynasty in the 7th century. They also made great advances in medical care using herbs and acupuncture. Ancient China made strides in military tactics and weaponry creating spears, daggers, swords of bronze and later iron, chariots and the first use of gunpowder in fireworks and cannons.

P: Politics

Rulers would pass down their power to a member of the family, usually the oldest son. These families would then rule for many years creating a time period called a dynasty. Whenever a new family took power, a new dynasty would begin. The king or emperor had absolute power. His word was considered sacred because the Chinese believed that emperors were given the right to rule by the "Mandate of Heaven". This meant that they believed the gods had given their blessing for the emperor to rule. If the gods decided that the ruler or members of the dynasty were behaving incorrectly, they would punish them and the ruler would lose the Mandate of Heaven.

The Zhou created this idea and used it to justify their overthrow of the Shang dynasty. The first emperor to unite all of China under his rule was emperor Qin Shi Huangdi in 221 BCE. Since then there have been over 500 emperors of China. The dragon, a symbol of good luck, was associated with the emperor and his family. Emperors could have many wives, but only one was called the empress. Below the emperor were government workers and civil servants whose jobs were to run the cities, collect taxes, and enforce the laws. These positions were held by men who had to pass exams to become government officials, but they were also wealthy landowners who were part of the nobility.

Major Dynasties

Xia (2205-1575 BCE) - Believed to be more legendary than factual, the Xia is still considered the first dynasty in Ancient China.

Shang (1570-1045 BCE) - The Shang ruled the area surrounding the Huang He.

Zhou (1045-256 BCE) - The Zhou overthrew the Shang and created the Mandate of Heaven theory to justify their rule. The Zhou was the longest ruling dynasty.

Qin (221 BCE - 206 BCE) - Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi was the first to declare himself emperor and conquer all of China under his rule. He also began the Great Wall; standardized currency, weights, measures, and writing; and improved infrastructure by building roads and canals.

Han (206 BCE - 220 CE) - The Han dynasty ruled for over 400 years, promoted Confucianism and created a strong, organized government. Poetry and literature thrived under this dynasty.

Six Dynasties (222-581 CE) - For over 300 years, China was not united under a single emperor, but divided.

Sui (589-618 CE) - After the period of the Six Dynasties, the Sui again united China under one rule. During their reign the Great Wall was expanded. The Grand Canal, the longest canal in the world, was also built during this time.

Tang (618-907 CE) - The Tang dynasty was known as a period of peace and prosperity, nicknamed the "Golden Age of Ancient China". During this dynasty, the arts, literature, and advances in technology all flourished.

Five Dynasties (907-960 CE) - Following a revolt by the peasants, the Tang dynasty was overthrown and a period of division followed.

Song (960-1279 CE) - The Song Dynasty once again reunited all of China under one rule. At this time there were many advances in science and technology leading to the inventions of gunpowder and the compass.

Yuan (1279-1368 CE) - The Song Dynasty was defeated by the Mongols following a long and deadly war. The Mongol leader was named Kublai Khan and he established the Yuan dynasty.

Ming (1368-1644 CE) - The Ming Dynasty is considered the last of the great Chinese dynasties. After overthrowing the Mongols, they finished the Great Wall along the north to ensure the Mongols would not invade again. The Forbidden City, a massive palace and complex built for the Emperor, was also built.

E: Economy

Ancient China's economy was mainly agrarian, meaning that most people farmed. The land surrounding the Huang He and Chang Jiang rivers was fertile for growing crops such as wheat, millet, rice, fruits, and vegetables, and raising livestock. Artisans and craftspeople worked with pottery, porcelain, metals like bronze and later iron to craft vessels, sculptures, and weapons. They also made lucrative commodities like paper and silk, which were then sold by merchants and traders. China created a standardized form of currency called the Ban Liang coin under the first emperor Shi Huangdi in 210 BCE. The first known paper money was invented under the Song Dynasty which ruled from 960-1279 BCE.

S: Social Structure

Ancient China had a strict social hierarchy. It was a very patriarchal society, meaning that men had most of the power and women were in a subservient role. Women were often married in arranged marriages set up by a matchmaker. They went from living in their father's home to living with their husband and did not have the right to own property. Male children were prized as being more valuable than female children and it was a tragic practice that sometimes female babies were left to die if their families did not want them. Ancient Chinese also practiced the belief of filial piety, meaning that they had great respect for their elders for their experience and wisdom.

The hierarchy of Ancient China placed the emperor and his family at the top followed by the nobility. Nobles were members of the army, government officials, scholars, and wealthy landowners. Knowledge and academic pursuits were highly respected. Nobles lived in luxury and enjoyed pastimes like hunting. Lower on the social hierarchy were peasants who were farmers, craftspeople and artisans, merchants and traders. Craftspeople were bronze workers, stonemasons or artisans crafting functional and beautiful items out of jade, pottery, or porcelain. Farmers made up the largest social class, but in many cases they did not own the land they worked. The land was owned by nobles and farmers had to give most of their harvests to them, keeping only enough for themselves to live on. Merchants and traders were also vital to society but were seen as a lower class. At the very bottom of the social hierarchy were enslaved people who were usually prisoners of war. They were laborers, builders, or servants and had no rights beyond what their enslavers granted them.

For more information on Ancient China and other middle school social studies topics, check out Savvas and TCi.

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