With the 2008 Olympics being based in China, many schools have been turning their attention to the country for inspiring lessons and lesson plans. Robert Sinclair offers some ideas

With the Olympic flame already making its momentous journey through the world, eyes are now turning towards Beijing in China for this year’s Olympic Games. Newspapers, television news reports and magazines are full of information on the games and China – and with all this stimuli flying about now is the perfect time to look at the topic of China as a source of cross-curricular teaching and learning. Many curriculum subjects can be incorporated into a study of China, with a study of Chinese history and geography offering a wealth of inspiring lesson ideas. Some primary schools are also now offering Chinese in their language lessons. St Paul’s Primary School in South Manchester has become one of the first in the UK to teach Chinese as part of its curriculum – with help from teachers supplied by the Confucius Institute at The University of Manchester.

History ideas

China is one of the world’s oldest continuous civilizations. The history of China extends as far back as 5,000 years ago. Recorded history is supplemented by archaeological records dating back to the 16th century BC. This means that as a history topic, China offers more than enough for engaging lessons.

A potted history of China

The history of China is complicated, and is typically perceived as being that of a country alternating between periods of political unity and disunity, and occasionally becoming dominated by foreign peoples. However, a (very) brief history follows for your own reference:

  • The beginning – Chinese civilization originated with city-states in the Yellow River valley. The year 221 BC is commonly accepted to be the year in which China became unified under a large kingdom or empire. In that year, Qin Shi Huang first united China. Successive dynasties in Chinese history developed systems that enabled the Emperor of China to control the large territory.
  • Xia Dynasty – The Xia Dynasty is believed to date back to 4,200 years ago. The Shang and Zhou people had existed within the Xia Dynasty since the beginning of Xia. The exact time of the Xia Dynasty is hard to define, but mainly focused on two options, either 431 years or 471 years.
  • Shang Dynasty – The earliest discovered written record of China’s past dates from the Shang Dynasty in perhaps the 13th century BC, and takes the form of inscriptions on the bones or shells of animals — the so-called oracle bones. The Shang Dynasty featured 31 kings, from Tang of Shang to King Zhou of Shang; it was the longest dynasty in Chinese history.
  • Zhou Dynasty – By the end of the 2nd millennium BC, the Zhou Dynasty began to emerge in the Yellow River valley, overrunning the Shang. The Zhou were a people who lived west of Shang, and the Zhou leader had been appointed ‘Western Protector’ by the Shang. The ruler of the Zhou, King Wu, with the assistance of his uncle, the Duke of Zhou, as regent, managed to defeat the Shang at the Battle of Muye. The Zhou initially moved their capital west to an area near modern Xi’an, near the Yellow River.
  • Qin Dynasty – Historians often refer to the period from Qin Dynasty to the end of Qing Dynasty as Imperial China. The Qin Dynasty is well known for beginning the Great Wall of China, which was later augmented and enhanced during the Ming Dynasty.
  • Han Dynasty – The Han Dynasty emerged in 206 BC. It was the first dynasty to embrace the philosophy of Confucianism, which became the ideological underpinning of all regimes until the end of Imperial China.
  • Jin Dynasty – The three kingdoms were reunited temporarily in 278 by the Jin Dynasty.
  • Sui Dynasty – The Sui Dynasty, which managed to reunite the country in 589 after nearly four centuries of political fragmentation, played a role more important than its length of existence would suggest. The Sui brought China together again and set up many institutions that were to be adopted by their successors, the Tang.
  • Tang Dynasty – In 618, Gaozu took the throne, and the Tang Dynasty was established, opening a new age of prosperity and innovations in arts and technology. Buddhism, which had gradually been established in China from the first century, became the predominant religion and was adopted by the imperial family and many of the common people.
  • Yuan Dynasty – Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, wanting to adopt the customs of China, established the Yuan Dynasty. This was the first dynasty to rule the whole of China from Beijing as the capital. Before the Mongol invasion, Chinese dynasties reportedly had approximately 120 million inhabitants – after the conquest was completed in 1279, the 1300 census reported roughly 60 million people. The 14th century epidemics of plague is estimated to have killed 30% of the population of China.
  • Ming Dynasty – Throughout a short-lived Yuan Dynasty, there was strong sentiment, among the populace, against the rule of the foreigners, which finally led to peasant revolts. The Mongolians were pushed back to the steppes and replaced by the Ming Dynasty in 1368.
  • Qing Dynasty – The Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) was founded after the defeat of the Ming by the Manchus. An estimated 25 million people died during the Manchu conquest of Ming Dynasty (1616-1644).
  • Republic of China – Frustrated by Qing’s resistance to reform and by China’s weakness, young officials, military officers, and students began to advocate the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and creation of a republic. A revolutionary military uprising, the Wuchang Uprising, began on 10 October 1911 in Wuhan. The provisional government of the Republic of China was formed in Nanjing on 12 March 1912 with Sun Yat-sen as president, but Sun was forced to turn power over to Yuan Shikai, who commanded the New Army and was prime minister under the Qing government. Yuan Shikai declared himself emperor in 1915. Yuan abdicated and died in 1916.
  • Present – With the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on 1 October 1949, Taiwan was again politically separated from mainland China. However, the actual political and legal status of Taiwan is disputed. Since the 1990s, the Republic of China government that governs Taiwan along with associated islands and some small islands off the coast of Fujian has been pushing to gain greater international recognition, while the People’s Republic of China vehemently opposes involvement by third parties, and insists that foreign relations not deviate from the One-China policy.

With all this history, this short article could not possibly offer all the possible lesson ideas, however here are a few…


QCA Scheme of work for History; Unit 1

Ancient Chinese peoples were capable of producing elaborate movable toys. Using ordinary materials and simple tools, they made toys that were not only fun to play with but were also objects of great beauty. Clay figurines were popular toys and collectibles. These figurines revolved on spherical clay pedestals and would not fall over, even when touched by children. Cloth lion and tiger hand puppets were also popular, as were shadow puppets. Ask the pupils to find out about ancient Chinese toys and compare them to modern-day toys.

Homes and living

QCA Scheme of work for History; Unit 2

Archaeologists have uncovered many Yangshao villages in northern China from around 10,000 BC. In one village, they found the remains of farmhouses, built partly underground, with plaster floors, and roofs held up with wooden posts. About 3,000 BC, another farming group appeared, the Lungshan people. The Lungshan were very advanced for their time. They harvested silk and used it to weave fabrics. They baked strong bricks in ovens and used them to build their homes. Explain to the pupils that there are no written records for very early ancient China and our knowledge of life in ancient China comes from ruins of towns, ancient stories and legends. With this in mind, ask them to find out all they can about what it was like to live in ancient China, what sort of food did they eat, what sort of homes did they live in, what sort of clothes did they wear, etc. Then ask the children to compare life in ancient China to life today. What would it have been like to be a child living in ancient China?

In conclusion…

China offers no end of ideas for cross-curricular lessons. History (see above), geography, literacy (poetry [including Japanese Haiku] and development of writing), mathematics (suan chu – the art of calculation), languages, PSHEE (politics and democracy), art and design, drama (shadow puppets) and music can all be explored through this topic. This article only looks at history – but as a topic China offers much much more.

Useful references

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