The power of iron: China's other pillar of strength

Chinese people probably weren't the first to discover that iron was a cheaper and more effective metal than bronze for making tools and weapons. The Hittites of central Turkey are known to have mastered the technique of smelting iron ore and were hammering on the first blacksmiths' anvils by about 1400BCE, which is when the European and Mediterranean Iron Age is said to begin. The iron they first used probably came from meteorites.

But Chinese metal-smiths, from the region of Wu on the banks of the Yangtze, were the first to work out how best to harness iron found inside the ores of the Earth's rocks. The manufacturing techniques they developed for casting iron were so advanced that they weren't matched in Europe for another 1,500 years.

Iron is a natural gift of the earth that is almost as essential to the development of modern human civilisations as oxygen is to animal life. Iron is by far the most common metal in use today – about 95 per cent of all metals used today are based on it. Without it, modern civilisation would be very different indeed. Iron and steel, its derivative, are the materials of choice for making everything from cars to ships, pipes to forks, and computer disk drives to guns and skyscrapers.

Unlike copper, though, iron is not found in a pure form. Other elements like to react with it – for example, oxygen – making compounds such as a red iron oxide. To get the iron out requires effort and a little know-how, something the Chinese had attained by about 500BCE which is when they built the world's first blast furnace.

When iron ores are heated to about 1,450C a molten liquid is formed. It can then be poured into moulds to make implements of any shape and size. As it cools, the metal becomes strong and rigid. The first iron implements were almost all used in agriculture. Iron ploughs were a magical technological leap forward because they could cut through the hardest of clay soils, turning huge areas of land from scrubby waste into high-yielding fields of rice. The more food, the more people could be fed. This in turn meant a government could become strong by creating well-nourished, easily supplied, permanent standing armies.

Knowledge of how to smelt iron spread rapidly to the north. By the time of the Hà*Dynasty (206BCE-220CE), Chinese metalworking had become established on a scale that was not reached in the West until the 18th century. The Chinese government built a series of large blast furnaces in Henan Province, each one capable of producing several tons of iron a day.

While iron and rice were initially the preserve of the southern Chinese people, those from the silk-weaving north were determined not to be left behind. These were the people who provided the initial impetus to centralise, consolidate, conquer and combine the whole area into a single civilisation. For rice, silk and iron, read: food, wealth and war. It is not hard to see why such deep knowledge of how to exploit the natural world to human advantage became a magnet around which a single, powerful civilisation eventually arose, uniting the people of the two great river valleys.

The Shang Dynasty (1766BCE-1050BCE) were the first Chinese rulers to leave tangible archaeological traces in their wake. Archaeologists excavating a site called Yin in the 1920s uncovered 11 royal tombs and the foundations of a palace. Tens of thousands of bronze, jade and stone artefacts were found. They show that this was a highly advanced culture with a fully developed system of writing, ritual practices and impressive armaments that helped its people conquer and rule lands for miles around. Human sacrifice was common. Many members of the Shang royal family were buried with a complete household of servants, including chariots, horses and charioteers – all thought essential for protection in the afterlife.

Defence against enemies wasn't the only concern of these early Chinese kings of the north. Just as important was the strongly held belief that kings alone provided a critical link between the gods and mankind. Unlike any other rulers we have seen so far, Chinese kings took it upon themselves to perform detailed and highly technical fortune-telling rituals.

This was done in a most bizarre and ingenious way, using turtle shells or the bones of an ox. A heated rod would be pushed into the shell or bone, causing it to crack. Like a modern-day palm reader, the king would interpret the length and direction of the lines to reveal the answers to questions which were important to him and his people. When will it rain? Will we win the next battle? Will we have a bumper harvest this year?

Sometimes these questions would be inscribed on the shells, using a form of symbolic writing that has been easy for modern historians to decipher since they resemble modern Chinese writing so closely. This in itself is testament to how today's China has its roots sunk deep in the past and to the fact that its culture represents by far the longest surviving pattern of continuous civilised human behaviour.

Hundreds of thousands of oracle bones with ancient writing on them have been found in recent times. Most oracle bones have now been traced back to the tombs at Yin, where more than 20,000 were found during the excavations of the 1920s and 1930s. They form the earliest significant body of Chinese writing yet to have been discovered.