Natural riches – rice, silk, iron – were the key to the development of the great civilisations that arose in the Far East between 5,000 and 2,000 years ago: yet another example of the story of humanity being interwoven with that of the planet we inhabit. It was nature, too, that set a limit to the expansion of the mighty Chinese Empire, in the form of the impenetrable Himalayas (formed about 40 million years ago by the smashing of a former part of Africa – India – into Asia). And, as we shall see, this natural barrier also played an important part in the evolution of two of the planet's most ancient religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, which began to spread their world-changing message around this time.
The rice age: How a powerful and enduring civilisation took root in China
If an Olympic gold medal were to be awarded to the largest, most robust human civilisation ever to have existed on the earth, there would only be one serious contender: China.
Modern China is awe-inspiring. It is home to 1.3 billion people, more than a fifth of the world's population. It has the fastest-growing economy in the world, and can arguably take the credit for cradling more inventions and discoveries that have made a real difference to people's lives than any other country in history. The list includes the blast furnace, paper, gunpowder, the compass, printing and competitive examinations.
Most impressive of all is its age. It is as ancient as any of those early civilisations that grew up around the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, all of which have long since collapsed or been subsumed into other encroaching cultures and empires. Yet the foundations of modern China, both politically and culturally, were laid down more than 3,000 years ago.
This land of fiery dragons and giant pandas (there are still a few left) is humankind's most remarkable survivor, and, quite possibly, it is now this civilisation more than any other that holds the key to the future of both mankind and the overall health of the planet. What was it that made this great power so different and so special, and has enabled its ancient culture to survive to this day?
By about 2000BCE, two distinct civilisations were emerging in China along the banks of its river systems, the Yellow River to the north and the enormous Yangtze, located further south. Roaming hunter-gathering tribes probably began cultivating crops as early as 7000BCE along the banks of the Yangtze, the greatest river system in east Asia. With its source in the glaciers of Tibet, this mighty river flows west to east, then, after twisting and turning over the course of some 4,000 miles, it finally spills its muddy load into the East China Sea.
By about 3000BCE, frequent flooding of the river and its 700 tributaries made this an ideal place for growing rice, an almost magically productive and nutritious source of food which has the best record of any crop on Earth for supporting large, intensive human populations. Today India and China are the most populous human civilisations largely thanks to their early production of rice, which can, under natural conditions, feed more humans per hectare than any other staple agricultural crop.
Rice is highly nutritious and remarkably resistant to pests. Flooded paddy fields provide ideal habitats for water-loving creatures such as frogs and snakes that feed off insects which otherwise spoil crops. Water cover is also perfect protection from the threat of self-sowing weeds, significantly increasing the chances of a successful crop. Nutrients flow freely around the waterlogged soil of paddy fields, renewing them just as the nitrogen-rich mud revitalised lands flooded by the Nile each year, giving the ancient Egyptians their head start thousands of miles to the west.
But growing rice is hard work. Each plant has to be sown individually, and expertise in irrigation is necessary to ensure flooding at the right times of the year. Thankfully, the abundance of a suitable natural workforce in the form of water buffalo meant that people here learnt early on how to harness animal power for ploughing, puddling and harrowing the fields.
The rich allure of rice didn't go unnoticed by the people living further to the north, along China's other river system. The Yellow River Valley wasn't suitable for cultivating rice, because the climate wasn't wet enough. Instead, people there had their own staple crop, millet, which they made into noodles. Although nutritious, millet seed cannot be made into leavened bread, so it never really caught on in Western civilisations, which have tended to use it as birdseed.