Ancient China Lesson Plans

Dear Reader,

I have posted before about out studies in ancient history (see here, here, and here). Overall, I have not been happy with the curricula we have found. I wanted something that would treat each culture separately. There is lots out there on Greece, Egypt, and Rome. But finding materials on Mesopotamia and China has been harder. We are just finishing up our unit on ancient China now so I thought I would share what we did in case others are also struggling to find materials.

My ideal would have been to find a good spine book that tells the story of Chinese history in a narrative form. I would have used it to provide a framework and then supplemented with other materials that go more in-depth on individual topics. But I couldn’t find a spine book like that. They may be out there but I didn’t turn one up at a child’s level. Instead, what I found and used to structure our study was a study guide put out by Zeezok Publishing. It is called Ancient China to the Great Wall . . . and Beyond and is written by Judy Wilcox (Elyria, OH: Zeezok, 2003).  What I liked about this guide is that it gave me a framework on which to hang any topics we might study. It goes through Chinese history dynasty by dynasty and along the way also deals with other topics like art and poetry. It suggests other resources and readings as well as providing summaries for each dynasty. It also suggests activities such as doing one’s own calligraphy, but we did not use these. I did find that it gave different dates for the dynasties than other sources I looked at so I would use those with caution.

So I came up with a schedule of what topics to cover when based on Wilcox’s book and inserted other works in the right places to fit the topic of the day or week. I also compiled a selection of read-aloud books which did not deal with a specific topic but which we would read after the day’s other work.  These were usually the most enjoyable books, and I hope they gave us a flavor for life in China through the stories they told. I will give you the whole outline of what we did below, but here are some of the other books on which I relied heavily:

The World’s Story,Volume I: China, Japan, and the Islands of the Pacific by Eva March Tappan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914). I love Tappan’s books. We used her stories of Greece and Rome for our spines when we studied them. The World’s Story series is 14 volumes (I think) that cover different regions of the world, telling their stories and culture through their own myths, legends, songs, and historical accounts. Unfortunately, I did not find this thorough enough to be our spine, but I heartily recommend her works.  The World’s Story can be found free digitally online.

The following two books are of the compendium variety so common today with brief blurbs on different topics. They are not my ideal but I was hard pressed to find good accounts of ancient Chinese history. You need not use these two specifically but they are the ones I had access to. I used them just to provide a little background detail before moving on to more interesting things.

See Through History: Ancient China by Brian Williams (New York: Viking, 1996).

Ancient China edited by Carol Michaelson (San Francisco: Time Life Books, 1997).

Longer read-alouds:

Strange Stories from Ancient China by Teresa Ng (Amazon Digital Services, 2011) . Kindle e-book

Little Pear by Eleanor Frances Lattimore (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1959).

More about Little Pear by Eleanor Frances Lattimore (New York, W. Morrow, 1971). These Little Pear stories are wonderful. My kids gobbled them up.

The Little Girl Lost by Eleanor Raper. This is available as an e-book at Project Gutenberg here.

Little Yellow Wang-lo  by M.C. Bell. See Project Gutenberg.

Peeps into China by Eliza Caroline Phillips. See Project Gutenberg.

Topical books:

Bamboo Valley by Ann Whitehead Nagda (Norwalk, CT : Soundprints, 1997).

Elephants and Golden Thrones by Trish Marx (New York : Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2008). This book contains and introduction and then many shorter stories and anecdotes. We did not read them all.

The Empress and the Silkworm by Lily Toy Hong (Morton Grove, Ill. : Albert Whitman & Co., 1995).

Kubla Khan: the Emperor of Everything by Kathleeen Krull (New York : Viking Children’s Books, 2010).

The Monkey King by Aaron Shepard (Amazon Digital Services, 2009). Kindle e-book. Our only complaint was it ended too soon. We’d love to read more about the Monkey King.

Long is a Dragon by Peggy Goldstein (Berkeley, CA: Pacific View Press, 1991).

Science in Ancient China by George Beshore (New York : F. Watts, 1998).

Silk Route by John S. Major (New York: HarperCollins, 1995).

The Story about Ping by Marjorie Flack ([New York] : Puffin Books, 1977).

The Travels of Marco Polo by (). I picked this book because I owned it. There are many others out there on Marco Polo to choose from.

You wouldn’t want to be in the Forbidden City! by Jacqueline Morley (New York : Franklin Watts, 2008).

And many, many books by Demi. Apparently, he is good enough to have only one name. Whoever he is, he has many books relating to China. They are all picture books though some are longer than others. And every one we could get our hands on we found worthwhile.

So that is the bibliography. Now here are the lesson plans. I would introduce each dynasty by reading the summaries from Ancient China to the Great Wall . . . and Beyond [henceforth GWB] and then read the blurbs from See Through History [STH] and the Time Life Nature Discovery Series Ancient China [NCD]. We would enter each dynasty into our book of centuries and then move on to the more interesting topical reading associated with each, having the children narrate as we went along. We would when appropriate also draw in our book of centuries. And we would end most days by reading from one of the longer read-alouds listed above. I just did as much each day as we could handle. I think the whole study has taken us about 10-12 weeks.

Plan of Study:

1. Introduction and geography

subtopics: climate and regions of China; food; Chinese symbols; river life

reading:  Bamboo Valley;Demi’s  Kites, Happy New Year, and The Boy who Painted Dragons;  The Story about Ping and Demi’s Magic Boat

Activity: Label a map with landmarks and regions (Tibet, Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, China Proper) of China (see GWB for help on these).

I used the website China Family Adventure to show us the food.

2. Hian dynasty

This early dynasty is legendary and is not included in all lists as the first dynasty. We found little outside reading on it but looked briefly at our background info books: GWB pp. 12-13, STH, and NCD pp. 6-7.

3. Shang dynasty

subtopics: oracle bones, writing and pictograms, silk and clothing, foot binding, Shang king’s burial

background reading: GWB pp. 14-15, NCD pp. 8-9

World’s Story (henceforth WS) pp.207-222; Long is a Dragon

silk and clothing: WS pp.73-74; NCD pp.36-41, 52-53; The Empress and the Silkworm

I did not ask my children to try calligraphy but after reading about it my eight-year-old began trying to copy the symbols.

4. Zhou (or Chou) dynasty

subtopics: classes of society and feudalism, Taoism and Confucianism, Yin and Yang, Mongol attacks and warring states period

classes and feudalism: read GWB pp. 19-20; STH pp. 10-15, 24-29; NCD pp. 30-35; Lu Pan by Demi.

Taoism and Confucianism: read GWB pp. 20-21; STH pp. 18-21; NCD pp. 22-23, 28-29; WS pp. 2-37; Demi’s Legend of Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching.

Mongol invasion and the warring states period: read GWB p.23

5. Tsin (or Qin or Chin) dynasty

subtopics: coins and roads, science and astronomy, the Great Wall, Terra Cotta army, jade, dragons

background reading: GWB pp. 24-26; NCD pp. 11-17; STH pp. 16-17, 32-35; WS pp. 40-48

science, astronomy, and inventions: read NCD pp. 46-47;  Science in Ancient China (This is a long book and we took a few days to read it. After looking at all the Chinese invented, this is a great time to draw crossbows and the like in your books of centuries.)

6. Han dynasty

subtopics: music, inventions (including wheelbarrow, terrace farming, crossbows and paper), Buddhism, power struggles

background reading: GWB; NCD pp. 54-55; STH pp.36-37; WS pp.49-52; Demi’s Chen Ping and His Magic Axe

Buddhism: WS pp. 53-55; Demi’s Dalai Lama, Buddha and Buddha stories (We found we had had enough after the first two and didn’t actually read Buddha Stories).

power struggles: WS pp. 56-62

7. Sui dynasty

subtopics: pagodas, grand canal

reading: GWB; NCD p.19

8. Tang dynasty

subtopics: poetry, mandarins, porcelain and lacquerware, gunpowder

reading: GWB; NCD pp. 20-21, 24-27; WS pp.64-72; Demi’s Artist and Architect

We also went to an art museum at this point and saw lots from the Tang and Song dynasties.

9. Song dynasty

subtopics: calligraphy, poetry, art, zodiac, medicine and acupuncture

reading: GWB; STH pp.22-23; NCD pp. 42-43, 48-51; WS p.75; Demi’s Su Dong Po and Liang and the Magic Paintbrush and Dragon’s Tale

10. Mongol Invasion and Genghis Khan

reading: WS pp. 78-84, 92-97; Demi’s Genghis Khan

11. Yuan dynasty

subtopics: Kubla Khan, silk route, Marco Polo

reading: GWB; NCD pp.44-45; WS pp. 100-130; Silk Route; Kubla Khan: Emperor of Everything; Travels of Marco Polo

The World’s Story is really wonderful on this section. It contains passages from Marco Polo’s own book.

12. Ming dynasty

subtopics: Beijing and the Forbidden City, MIng vases, the monkey king

reading: GWB; STH pp.40-43; You wouldn’t want to be in the Forbidden City!; Elephants and Golden Thrones; The Monkey King

13. Qing (or Tsing or Manchu) dynasty

subtopics: opium war, Taiping and Boxer rebellions, missionaries, the last emperor

reading: GWB; WS pp. 146-173, 176-203

14. Republic and revolution

reading: GWB; WS pp. 243-256

And that’s it. That’s how we studied ancient China. Feel free to use our plan or to tweak it for your own purposes.


5 responses to this post.

  1. […] and India which I have no problem covering at some point (we have done a brief unit on India and a long one on China) but since they are not at this point impacting American history, I don’t really want to […]


  2. Posted by Jackie on August 10, 2017 at 4:18 am

    Thank you for the wonderful information!
    I do have frustration finding good books on ancient China. I am new to Charlotte Mason. What is GWB?

    Here are some I have come across that is very interesting:
    My favorite:
    China: Menschen Landschaft Kultur Geschichte by Alison Bailey

    Books by Ronald G Knapp

    Books by Anchee Min (adolescent or adult- rated R in my opinion on some of them but still really good)

    Many books by Grace Lin


  3. […] Asia more broadly. If you are looking for books for younger kids, I had an earlier booklist on China here and some books on the Boxer rebellion in this list. You can find all my lists of living books […]


  4. […] First off, if you (like I) am a bit lost on the history of China and want a guide to walk you through it, try Judy Wilcox’s  Ancient China to the Great Wall . . . and Beyond. What I liked about this guide is that it gave me a framework on which to hang any topics we might study. It goes through Chinese history dynasty by dynasty and along the way also deals with other topics like art and poetry. It suggests other resources and readings as well as providing summaries for each dynasty. It also suggests activities such as doing one’s own calligraphy, but we did not use these. I did find that it gave different dates for the dynasties than other sources I looked at so I would use those with caution. You can see how we divided up the readings when my kids were little in this post. […]


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