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Big Era Four: Landscape Unit 4.2

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Emergence of Complex Society in East Asia
1200 BCE - 200 BCE

Why This Unit?

Many teachers discuss modern China in their world history courses. They may mention that the Chinese style of statecraft began more than three millennia ago in the Shang period and continued to the twentieth century. It also spread in some measure to other parts of East Asia, including Japan and Vietnam. This unit explores this formative period when "big government" became an enduring characteristic of mainland East Asia. The unit will help teachers explain more fully how the early Chinese rulers used technologies in ways that differed from those in early complex societies in the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, and Indus valleys. The centralized authority created by the Shang dynasty encouraged innovation in tools for both military power and agriculture. The Shang period also laid the foundation for the "Mandate of Heaven," which is a concept that most teachers use to show the unbroken style of statecraft practiced by rulers of China. Shang monarchs used prescribed ritual sacrifices to ask their ancestors to relay messages to Di, their central deity. During the Zhou dynasty that followed, Di became a more abstract idea of moral order in the cosmos. The Zhou concept led to the formalized idea of the "Mandate of Heaven."

This unit will also introduce the historical debate over how the relationship between predominantly sedentary, agricultural states in East Asia and predominantly pastoral nomadic tribes in Inner Asia affected the style of centralized states in both regions.

Historians also rely on evidence from un-looted tombs to interpret how early complex societies looked and worked. Teachers can build on students' interest by showing them pictures of the interesting treasures that were found in ancient Egypt in the tomb of King Tut or in the Jade burial site of Qin China. Students will see the important role that royal tombs played in the social hierarchy of complex society in East Asia.

Unit Objectives

Upon completing this unit, students will be able to:

1. Compare early complex society in East Asia with those in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt.

2. Categorize data about social class stratification, labor specialization, ancestor worship, and technology in the Shang and Zhou dynastic periods in China.

3. Describe how pastoral nomadic groups in Inner Eurasia might have regarded early complex society in East Asia.

4. Use primary accounts from the writings of Confucius to match what he thought about the role and historical significance of burial and sacrificial rituals during the Shang and Zhou periods.

Time and Materials

Teachers will need about one week to complete all of the lessons in this unit. Teachers with limited time should only use the first lesson to give students the landscape view of the emergence of complex society in East Asia.


  • An outline map of East Asia.
  • Access to Patricia Buckley Ebrey's web site, "A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization," University of Washington, Alternatively, look at books on the Shang and Zhou tomb excavations.
  • Some large paper and drawing materials for students to draw the tombs.
  • Excerpts from the Confucian classics.
  • Copies of the readers’ theater script.
  • Complete Teaching Unit in PDF format

Table of Contents

Why This Unit?


Unit Objectives


Time and Materials




The Historical Context


This Unit in the Big Era Timeline




Lesson 1: Emergence of Complex Society in East Asia


Lesson 2: Reader's Theater: The One That Got Away


Lesson 3: According to Master Kung


This Unit and the Three Essential Questions


This Unit and the Seven Key Themes


This Unit and the Standards in Historical Thinking




Correlations to National and State Standards and to Textbooks


Conceptual Link to Other Teaching Units


Complete Teaching Unit in PDF Format


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