Ancient China for Kids – Books, Music, and Mulan

Ancient China is difficult.

Maybe it is because I just don’t know where to start.

Maybe it’s because people my age generally weren’t taught a great deal of eastern history growing up so a lot of it is “new” and it’s hard to put everything in context. Really, can you off the top of your head put the Shang, Zhou, Qin, and Han dynasties in order?

(Just FYI, that was the right order I just gave you.)

To begin our study of ancient China we focused mainly on the accomplishments of Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China. Historically, this is right on track with where in the world’s history we left off with ancient Greece. He was the emperor roughly around the same time that Rome was really starting to put pressure on everyone in the Mediterranean region. There were a couple of dynasty’s before his, but he is credited with giving China it’s name (Qin is pronounced “chin”) and under his rule the country became more unified. He tried to accomplish a unified monetary system, unified language, and unified measurements, etc.

You’ll also remember him as the guy who built the Great Wall of China. Boy, is that a sad history.

You may also remember him as the guy who had all those terra cotta warriors built to protect his tomb. If you haven’t heard yet of the terra cotta warriors (or anything about this guy), I highly recommend this book.

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It is a wonderful combination of history and archeology. So many times we read history books and forget all the work that was put in to getting that information! The terra cotta warriors were found in the 1970s, so although the history is old, the excitement is still new. I keep waiting for China to eventually dig up this guy’s actual tomb and see what is inside! If it is anything like what ancient Chinese historians claim it is, it’s going to seriously rival or even overshadow the tombs of ancient Egypt.

Plus, there are booby traps. I am kind of curious to know how those held up over 2000+ years.

We read another interesting book about the Great Wall which was less intellectually intensive, but still effective in teaching. (Although they made the emperor sound like a much nicer guy than all the other books did. I just have a hard time having warm feelings towards anyone whose goal is to keep the populace ignorant so he can maintain power. Burning books, killing educated and educators and stuff. You know, just bad.) While younger children would have a harder time with the first book about the terra cotta warriors, they wouldn’t have a problem with “The Great Wall of China” by Leonard Everett Fisher.IMG_4213

Because I’m not familiar with the all the Chinese dynasties, it was helpful for us to start with on major historical figure.  We also found a book that spoke of the more day to day living in China during this era. Basically, it seemed, people were poor, life was hard, famines were frequent, and there were a lot of officials taking notes of everything.  (Sorry, blurry picture.)

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Once we kind of got a grip on a major event in ancient Chinese history, we broadened our base a bit. Finally, we were able to figure out about the Yangshao and Longshan peoples, and the following Shang, Zhou, Qin (the one guy we knew about), and Han dynasties. Although our history study was a little out of order, it gave us an anchor for organizing the new information into our brains. We could equate Huangdi with the end of the Golden Age of Greece, and then historically place everything else either before or after that. (What I really need to do is start a system of timelines, but I haven’t gotten that far yet. Shoot me an email or comment if you have any help to share in that regard. Timelining the history of the entire world just seems overwhelming.) This first book below, “Ancient China: Beyond the Great Wall,” was excellent for broadening our ancient Chinese historical knowledge. The second book, “Treasures from China,” was also helpful. Those jumping right in to a study of the ancients might enjoy the second book as it includes more general information on archeology as well.

This book was little less enticing to the small children. (Lots of words, small print.) I think I could have easily gotten my 5th grader to read it. Actually, he probably has read it. But I wouldn’t encourage this for elementary age children. Especially with the books already mentioned above. For a secondary level, this book would be great!

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But with China – and eastern history and culture in general – there is so much more to learn that is new and interesting. We also learned about Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, and even Legalism. We learned about the variety of other gods and goddesses that were worshipped in addition to the occasional formal religions like those mentioned before. We learned about the contributions ancient China has made to western civilizations: things like gunpowder, paper, kites, wheelbarrows, and ice cream to name a few. We broadened our scope a little bit to take in general Chinese culture and just kind of hoped that these practices were ancient enough to fit back into the BCs or early ADs. We spent a good amount of time talking about Chinese fairy tales, Chinese New Year, we played with tangrams (I did NOT know tangrams were Chinese! So fun!) and of course, Chinese food – which gets an entire post all to itself.

I have a much softer spot in my heart for Chinese food than for Greek food. Mongolian Beef? Yes, please! Spanakopita? Uh….

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We even found a fabulous (!!!) musical piece called “Flying Dragon and Leaping Tiger” from a Chinese percussionist that we listened to in our morning symposiums. If THAT isn’t a great way to get your heart racing first thing in the morning, I don’t know what is. (Although if you really needed other suggestions, I’m sure we could come up with a few.)

Again, I have no idea how musically developed ancient China was, although many of those dynasties created beautiful works of art and encouraged philosophy, music, and education. I’m guessing, though, with all those warlords, famines, and constant back breaking labor, the ordinary Chinese peasant didn’t spend much time developing much music at all. At this point in our studies, we were just going for Chinese culture and trying to get a good feel. (This is the best recording on YouTube I could find. Trust me, you just have to get past the beginning shrill. If you have Amazon prime, search for it in Prime Music from Hok-Man Yim. It really is outstanding if you get the right recording!)

And, of course, we watched Disney’s Mulan.

Disclaimer: I am NOT a Disney fan at ALL. My children will probably never go to Disneyland and I’m not even sad about it.

(Please don’t cast your stones!!)

But I think Mulan is a fantastic movie! So the kids sat down and watched it one afternoon, and then came up to me afterwards and told me about all the things they thought were historically inaccurate in the movie.

What kind of children am I raising, anyway!

So we had to look a few things up. What they really wanted to know was whether the emperor in the movie was supposed to be Qin Shi Huangdi, because the big bad guy Hun referenced him as the man who “built this wall.” The emperor in the movie is wise, old, respected, and likable – all things we had come to learn that Huangdi was NOT. Many of the books we read contradicted how long the wall took to build. However, we are going to still give the credit to Huangdi because he was the one who took all the smaller pieces and joined them together. His work project, as far as I know, was of the biggest scope. The guys who came after him added on, but “The Wall” was built under the command of The First Emperor. So no, the “real” Mulan did not live during the time of the first emperor. She is a character from a Chinese fairy tale dating to about 700 years AFTER the wall was built. Nobody really knows whether the character in the poem was based on a real person, although I suppose it’s probable. Similar things had happened before. The Chinese had invented gunpowder very early on, but they hadn’t made any fireworks out of it in ancient China for sure. I think that didn’t come around until the Tang dynasty – which was much later.

So I’m explaining this to my 1st grader and suddenly his face falls and he asks desperately, “So the ‘I’m your worst nightmare!’ part isn’t true? But that’s my favorite part!!”

No, honey. There was no little dragon strapping himself to fireworks. I’m really sorry.

Actually, there aren’t any real dragons at all.

See that? I just crushed that little boy’s heart.

But there are some true-to-the-poem things about Mulan in the movie. She did in fact have a little brother. Although in the movie “Little Brother” was a dog.

Anyway, I’m chalking this little activity up as critical thinking and internet researching skills! Points for creative usage of a Disney film! It will probably be that last time I bring any Disney princess movies into my homeschool.

Today marks our last day of studying ancient China. We’ve still got a couple of activities to wrap up so we can officially conclude with a big Chinese New Year celebration, but as far as planning and introducing new material, we’re done. Don’t worry, medieval China is only a year away.

You know you’ve done a good job when you tell the kids that’s all you’ve got and they shout out, “NOOOOOO!”

It’s enough to melt a homeschooling mom’s heart.

Be sure to check out our Chinese New Year activities though! I’m really excited for the celebration coming up!