Chinese civilization originated ~7500 BCE in the Yellow River valley, where fertile loess soil, deposited by winds from Central Asia, allowed easy cultivation. To the south, agriculture also took early root in the Yangtze River valley.
The first grain grown was millet, endemic to the region. Wheat and barley came later, from the Middle East; later still, rice from southeast Asia.
Chinese agriculture has always been labor-intensive, and reliant upon extensive irrigation. Draft animals were not introduced until 700 bce.
Around the turn of the 1st millennium ce, introduction of a superior breed of rice allowed double-cropping: 2 crops per year. This productivity fueled population and urban growth.
A variety of skilled crafts emerged in China during this time, including bronze works; but it was silk that was most valued in trade. The ancient Romans acquired silk over a caravan route that ran through central Asia: the Great Silk Road. China itself was known to the Romans as Sina: the land of silk.
Gunpowder and porcelain (chinaware) were Chinese inventions, as was the magnetic compass, which made its way west via the Arabs.
The Chinese invented the hydraulic hammer by the 1st century bce. The tool pounded, decorticated, and polished grain; an otherwise taxing and tedious manual labor.
The chain pump facilitated irrigation by the 1st century ce: especially useful for lifting water from a lower to a higher level.
Paper and printing were other Chinese inventions, though ones that had mixed results for societal well-being. The Chinese were already using paper money by the time Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, printed the first silver pennies in the late 700s. Far ahead of the curve with sovereign debt, the Chinese had already experienced several cycles of inflation and monetary collapse by the time paper money was first printed in the West.
Despite scientific precocity, China did not develop a sophisticated economy. The government ensured that.
Quality craft works were destined for the imperial court, government officials, and the relatively few propertied aristocrats. Even iron, the working of which the Chinese had mastered, went to weapons and decorative art, but not to tools.
Confucianism frowned on commerce. The few merchants who did amass wealth used it to acquire land, and thus ascend to the aristocracy.
Meanwhile, fertile land and fecund people had its effect. From 50 million in 600, the population doubled in 600 years.
Whereas 75% of the Chinese lived in the north in the 7th century, by the beginning of the 13th century more than 60% were in the central and southern part of the country. To maintain order and collect taxes, the government built an elaborate network of roads and canals. This facilitated trade and led to some geographical specialization of labor.
Mongol military leader Genghis Kahn came to power in the 13th century by uniting the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia. He then displayed an ambition unmatched since Alexander the Great by conquering most of Eurasia. Although many invasions resulted in wholesale slaughters of residents, the Mongols did what barbarian conquerors customarily do: settle in by inheriting the civilization of their host.
During the 13th century, trade between China and the Mediterrean flourished more than it did during Roman times; and more than it would again until the 19th century. A contemporary of Marco Polo described the Great Silk Road as “perfectly safe by day and night.”