THEMES IN CHINESE HISTORY
Making dikes on the Yellow River Asked for his views on the French Revolution, Zhou Enlai famously replied that it was too early to say. For about 2,000 years, until 500 years ago, China was the most advanced nation in the world. For most of recorded history Chinese philosophy, poetry, science and government were more sophisticated than those in Europe. Until a few centuries ago the average Chinese probably had a higher standard of living than the average European, and Chinese society in many respects was more prosperous and well organized than society in Europe. China has been home to the world’s largest economy for all but three of the last 20 centuries. It appears ready to reclaim that position within the next 20 years. Many say that China is now ready to dominate the 21st century the same way the United States dominated the 20th century.
Over several millennia, China absorbed the people of surrounding areas into its own civilization while adopting the more useful institutions and innovations of the conquered people. Peoples on China’s peripheries were attracted by such achievements as its early and well-developed ideographic written language, technological developments, and social and political institutions. The refinement of the Chinese people’s artistic talent and their intellectual creativity, plus the sheer weight of their numbers, has long made China’s civilization predominant in East Asia. The process of assimilation continued over the centuries through conquest and colonization until the core territory of China was brought under unified rule. The Chinese polity was first consolidated and proclaimed an empire during the Qin Dynasty (221–206 B.C.). Although short-lived, the Qin Dynasty set in place lasting unifying structures, such as standardized legal codes, bureaucratic procedures, forms of writing, coinage, and a pattern of thought and scholarship. These were modified and improved upon by the successor Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220). Under the Han, a combination of the stricter Legalism and the more benevolent, human-centered Confucianism—known as Han Confucianism or State Confucianism—became the ruling norm in Chinese culture for the next 2,000 years. Thus, the Chinese marked the cultures of people beyond their borders, especially those of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. [Source: Library of Congress]
China has been ruled several times by foreigners. Among the foreign ethnic groups that led China were the Toba, who established the Wei dynasty (A.D. 386-534); the Khitan who established the Liao dynasty (907-1125); the Jurchen who established the Jin dynasty (1115-1260); the Mongols, who established the Yuan dynasty (1234-1368); and the Manchu, descendants of the Jurchen, who established the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). In the case of all these groups tensions between the ruling elite and the Han Chinese majority played a part in the dissolution of their dynasty.
Brantly Womack, a professor of foreign affairs at the University of Virginia, wrote in the Washington Post, “Traditional China’s greatest accomplishment was not its vastness but rather its constant reemergence from periods of disunity and conquest.” Henry Kissinger has pointed out that China’s diplomacy mirrors the game of wei qi, also known as go, in which players try to encircle one another, rather than the Western strategic game of chess in which the goal is checkmate.
China has no tradition of independent historical scholarship. Historians in imperial China were employed by the Emperor to write accounts to justify the Emperor’s rule. The same could be said of modern historians in the Communist party. It was a Chinese tradition that senior mandarins make their views known by praise or condemnation of a piece of literature; it was a favorite tactic of Mao's.
Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) Brooklyn College site academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge chinaknowledge.de ; 5) China History Forum chinahistoryforum.com ; 6) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; 7 ) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History);
Names for China
China was named by Europeans after the ancient Ch'in Dynasty of the 3rd century B.C. This dynasty in turn was named after Emperor Qin (Chin) Shihuang, the man credited with unifying China.
Chung-kho, the Chinese name for China, means "Middle Kingdom.” It is derived from the traditional Chinese belief that China lay in the middle of a flat earth, with deserts and oceans around the edges. The Chinese people call themselves Hans in honor of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), which itself was adopted from the name of a river.
China is sometimes called Cathay. The word Cathay comes form the Karakitay dynasty, an 11th century Buddhist empire in western China. In the Silk Road era this was the first part of China that Europeans reached when the approached China from the west.
China, the World’s Oldest Continuous Civilization
China is the oldest continuous civilization in the world today. All the other great civilizations, such as ancient Egypt, the Mayan empire, Byzantium and ancient Greece died out hundreds or thousands of years ago. The only existing institutions which rival China in longevity are the Catholic Church and England, both of which are about one forth of the age of China.
China has 4,600 years of recorded history, with the first 600 years or so being of dubious credibility. When someone once asked Mao Zedong what he thought about the French Revolution, he replied it was "too early to say." China is the only nation that has survived throughout recorded history. This has was made possible by a set of common customs (Confucianism) and the belief that China was the center of the world (meaning that lands outside of China were of little importance).
According to the Library of Congress: The History of China, as documented in ancient writings, dates back back some 3,300 years. Modern archaeological studies provide evidence of still more ancient origins in a culture that flourished between 2500 and 2000 B.C. in what is now central China and the lower Huang He (Yellow River) Valley of north China. Centuries of migration, amalgamation, and development brought about a distinctive system of writing, philosophy, art, and political organization that came to be recognizable as Chinese civilization. What makes the civilization unique in world history is its continuity through over 4,000 years to the present century. The Chinese have developed a strong sense of their real and mythological origins and have kept voluminous records since very early times. It is largely as a result of these records that knowledge concerning the ancient past, not only of China but also of its neighbors, has survived. [Source: The Library of Congress]
China has a strong sense of its continuity. For millennia the tradition was for one ruling dynasty to write a history about the dynasty that preceded it. The history of the Qing Dynasty, which lasted from 1644 to 1911, is only being written now almost a century after it ended. To get the official Chinese version of the People’s Republic we probably will have to wait until at least the 22nd century. [Source: George Yeo, Singapore’s foreign minister, Global Viewpoint]
Winston Churchill once described China as a civilization in search of a nation. Some Chinese have described the United States as a nation in search of a civilization. China, alone among the world's great civilizations, evolved in almost total isolation from the rest of the world. This was primarily the result of geography: the sea to the east, the Himalayas to the south, the Gobi desert to the north and inhospitable deserts and high plateaus to the west.
Anthropologists say there are three definite first Pristine States: Mesopotamia (3300 B.C); Peru (around the time of Christ), and Mesoamerica (about 100 A.D.). Probable Pristine States include Egypt (3100 BC), Indus Valley (shortly before 2000 B.C.) and Yellow River Basin in northern China (shortly after 2000 BC). A pristine state is defined as one not influenced by other civilizations.
Mark Kitto wrote in Prospect Magazine, “It is often argued that China led the world once before, so we have nothing to fear. As the Chinese like to say, they only want to “regain their rightful position.” While there is no dispute that China was once the major world superpower, there are two fundamental problems with the idea that it should therefore regain that “rightful position.” [Source: Mark Kitto, Prospect Magazine, August 8, 2012]
A key reason China achieved primacy was its size. As it is today, China was, and always will be, big. (China loves “big.” “Big” is good. If a Chinese person ever asks you what you think of China, just say “It’s big,” and they will be delighted.) If you are the biggest, and physical size matters as it did in the days before microchips, you tend to dominate. Once in charge the Chinese sat back and accepted tribute from their suzerain and vassal states, such as Tibet. If trouble was brewing beyond its borders that might threaten the security or interests of China itself, the troublemakers were set against each other or paid off.
The second reason the rightful position idea is misguided is that the world in which China was the superpower did not include the Americas, an enlightened Europe or a modern Africa. The world does not want to live in a Chinese century, just as much of it doesn’t like living in an American one. China, politically, culturally and as a society, is inward looking. It does not welcome intruders—unless they happen to be militarily superior and invade from the north, as did two imperial dynasties, the Yuan (1271-1368) and the Qing (1644-1911), who became more Chinese than the Chinese themselves. Moreover, the fates of the Mongols, who became the Yuan, and Manchu, who became the Qing, provide the ultimate deterrent: “Invade us and be consumed from the inside,” rather like the movie Alien. All non-Chinese are, to the Chinese, aliens, in a mildly derogatory sense. The polite word is “Outsider.” The Chinese are on “The Inside.” Like anyone who does not like what is going on outside—the weather, a loud argument, a natural disaster—the Chinese can shut the door on it. Maybe they’ll stick up a note: “Knock when you’ve decided how to deal with it.”
History and Population in China
At the time of Christ four fifths of the world's population lived under the Roman, Chinese Han and Indian Gupta empires. The world population at that time was estimated to be 225 million, compared to around 87 million in 4000 B.C.
According to Chinese records, between A.D. 2 to A.D. 742 the population of China remained steady at around 50 million. The population fluctuated in different areas, however. The population of the Yellow River Plain decreased from 35 million in A.D. 2 to 25 million in A.D. 140, rose to 31 million in 609 and fell again to 23 million in 742. During Han Dynasty (206 B.C.- A.D. 220) the highest population densities were on the Yellow River in present-day Shanxi and Henan provinces.
Population growth in China has been linked to increased crop yields achieved through innovations, improvements in agricultural techniques and intensification. During the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907) increases in rice production though intensive irrigation resulted in a doubling of the Chinese population, mainly around Yangtze river. Another period or rapid population growth took place during the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1127) green revolution. The population began to rise again after 1450 with the introduction or new rice varieties, sweet potatoes and corn.
History, Hunger, Disease and Famine in China
Chinese history has been shaped very much by food supply, hunger and famine. Historians have shown that peasant uprisings and revolutions have tended to occur during times of high food prices and large population increases while periods of stability have tended to occur when there was enough food to feed everybody.
Famine in 1907 During the Tang dynasty (618 to 907) arts and ideas flourished when record rice harvests were being recorded, but the entire dynasty began to collapse when the rising population began to outstrip the food supply. An Arab traveler to China at end of the Tang dynasty wrote that “Chinese law permits the eating of human flesh, and this flesh is sold publically in markets” as a means of providing enough food
In the 11th and 12th centuries, China imported rice from Vietnamese but still suffered from food shortages.
In the 14th century a series of epidemics and famines killed an estimated 35 million people—one in three Chinese. It is estimated that six million died of starvation during the Great Famine of 1333 and 1337.
A three year drought from 1876 to 1879 in central China resulted in a famine that affected 70 million Chinese and left perhaps nine million dead. According to some reports people turned to slavery, murder and cannibalism to survive and children were sold in the markets as food. There were so many bodies that huge graves, known as "10,000-man holes," were dug. Because of the secretive nature of the Manchu dynasty no one in West knew of the disaster until a year after it was over.
Three million starved to death during the devastating drought in the provinces of Hunan, Gansu and Shaanxi in 1928 and 1929. There was also hunger and starvation under Mao during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The two greatest famines in the 20th century were in China in the 1960s and the Ukraine in the 1930s.
Migration patterns were also defined by the food supply. The population of Hunan increased fivefold between the 8th and 11th century with mass migrations of Han Chinese and the establishment of the region as one of the granaries of China.
Floods and Earthquakes in China
Chinese history has also been shaped by natural disasters Some of the worst floods and earthquakes occurred in China. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the deadliest earthquake ever killed 830,000 people in Shaanxi, Shanxi and Henan Provinces in 1556. Six of the 13 deadliest earthquakes ever occurred in China.
The worst recorded earthquakes (number of dead): 1) Shaanxi, China, Jan. 24, 1556 (830,000); 2) Calcutta, India, Oct. 11, 1737 (300,000); 3) Tangshan, China, July 28, 1976 (242,000); 4) December 26, 2004, Sumatra, Thailand and Sri Lanka (225,000); 5) Antioch, Syria, May 20, 526 (250,000); 6) Yokohama, Japan, Sept. 1, 1923 (200,000); 7) Nan-Shan, China, May 22, 1927 (200,000); 8) Hokkaido, Japan, Dec. 30, 1730; 9) Chihli, China, Sept. 27, 1290 (100,000); 10) Gansu, China, Dec. 16, 1920 (200,000); 11) Messina, Italy, Dec. 28, 1908 (83,000); 12) Shemaka, Caucasia, Nov. 1667 (80,000); 13) Gansu, China, Dec. 26, 1932 (70,000). [Source: The World Almanac]
The worst recorded floods and tidal waves (number of dead): 1) Huang He River, China, August 1931 (3,700,000); 2) Huang He (Yangtze) River, China, 1887 (900,000); 3) China, 1642 (300,000); 4) North China, 1939 (200,000); 5) Chang Jian River, China, (100,000); 6) Holland, 1228 (100,000); 7) Indonesia, Aug 27, 1883 (100,000); 8) Morvi, India, Aug, 11, 1979 (15,000); 9) Bangladesh, Oct 10, 1960 (6,000); 10) Galveston, TX, Sept. 8, 1900 (5,000). [Source: The World Almanac]
Yellow River Flood in 1938
Chinese versus Non-Chinese People
Another recurrent historical theme has been the unceasing struggle of the largely agrarian Chinese against the threat posed to their safety and way of life by non-Chinese peoples on the margins of their territory. For centuries most of the foreigners that China’s officials saw came from or through the Central and Inner Asian societies to the north and west. This circumstance conditioned the Chinese view of the outside world. The Chinese saw their domain as the self-sufficient center of the universe, and from this image they derived the traditional (and still used) Chinese name for their country—Zhongguo, literally Middle Kingdom or Central Nation. Those at the center ( zhong) of civilization (as they knew it) distinguished themselves from the “barbarian” peoples on the outside ( wai), whose cultures were presumed to be inferior by Chinese standards. [Source: Library of Congress]
For centuries, China faced periodic invasions from Central and Inner Asia—including major incursions in the twelfth century by the Khitan and the Jurchen, in the thirteenth century by the Mongols, and in the seventeenth century by the Manchu, all of whom left an imprint on Chinese civilization while heightening Chinese perceptions of threat from the north. Starting in the pre-Qin period, Chinese states built large defensive walls that, in time, composed a “Great Wall.” The Great Wall is actually a series of noncontiguous walls, forts, and other defensive structures built or rebuilt during the Qin, Han, Sui (A.D. 589–618), Jin (1115–1234), and Ming (1368–1643) periods, rather than a single, continuous wall. The Great Wall reaches from the coast of Hebei Province to northwestern Gansu, officially 6,000 kilometers in length, although unofficial estimates range from 2,700 kilometers to as many as 50,000 kilometers, depending on which structures are included in the measurement.
The Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1279) dynasties represented high points of Chinese cultural development and interaction with distant foreign lands. The Yuan, or Mongol, Dynasty (1279–1368) was a period of foreign occupation but of even greater interaction with other cultures. Despite these periods of openness, which brought occasional Middle Eastern and European envoys and missionaries, the China-centered (“sinocentric”) view of the world remained largely undisturbed until the nineteenth century when China first clashed with the European nations. The Manchu had conquered China and established the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), ushering in a period of great conquest and a long period of relative peace. When Europeans began arriving in increasing numbers, Chinese courtiers expected them to conduct themselves according to traditional tributary relations that had evolved over the centuries between their emperor and representatives of Central Asian states who came via the Silk Road and others who came from Southeast Asia and the Middle East via the sea trade. The Western powers arrived in China in full force at a time of tremendous internal rebellion and rapid economic and social change. By the mid-nineteenth century, China had been defeated militarily by superior Western technology and weaponry, and the government was plagued with ever mounting rebellions. As it faced dynastic breakdown and imminent territorial dismemberment, China began to reassess its position with respect to its own internal development and the Western incursions. By 1911 the millennia-old dynastic system of imperial government was hastily toppled as a result of the efforts of a half century of reform, modernization, and, ultimately, revolution. [Ibid]
Migration and Conquest of Neighboring People in China
The dynamism of Chinese history in may ways has been shaped by the merging of many different groups and regions into a one nation and the effort to hold that nation together.
The Han Chinese created much of present day China by conquering territory and overpowering local tribes by sheer numbers through mass migrations. Tribal kingdoms in Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan have long histories of battling the Han Chinese for control of their homelands. Some groups were driven from the fertile valleys by the Han to the hills and mountains where they now live.
"Chinese speakers were especially vigorous in replacing and linguistically converting other ethnic groups, whom they looked down on as primitive and inferior," wrote Jared Diamond, a U.C.L.A profrssor, in Discover magazine. "The recorded history of China's Chou Dynasty, from 1111 B.C. to 256 B.C. describes the conquest and absorption of most of China's non-Chinese-speaking population by Chinese-speaking states.”
Starting in 17th century and lasting for 200 years the fertile Sichuan basin absorbed most of China's growing population, expanding from eight million in 1776 to 44 million in 1840, in an organized effort to populate and develop the region. Today the Sichuan province has China's largest regional population, with over 100 million people. The Yangtze highlands, Yunnan province, Manchuria and Yangtze river valley were all populated by similar migration strategies. In Manchuria the population jumped from 15 million in 1907 to 34 million in 1930. [Source: "Man on Earth" by John Reader, Perrenial Library, Harper and Row]
Flood in 1931
Civilization State and Tributary System
“The Chinese do not think of themselves in terms of nation but civilization; it is the latter that gives them their sense of identity...The maxim of a nation state is ‘one nation, one system’; that of a civilization state is, of necessity, ‘one country, several systems.’...Think back to the constitutional formula that underpinned the handover of Hong Kong : ‘one country, two systems.’ Despite Western skepticism, the Chinese really mean it, as the Hong Kong of today clearly illustrates.”
Jacques also said that China can be viewed as it was in Imperial times as the center of a tributary state system, which organized inter-state relations in East Asia for thousands of years. Jacques wrote: “It was a loose and flexible system of states that was organized around the dominance of China, the acceptance of the latter’s cultural superiority and a symbolic tribute that was paid in return for protection of the Chinese Emperor. That system lasted into about 1900.”
“The deeply rooted attitudes that formed the tributary system have never really gone away, whether on the part of the Chinese or others. Furthermore, the conditions that swept it away—the decline of China and the arrival of European colonialism (and the subsequent influence of the United States) have disappeared....We are now witnessing the rapid reconfiguration of the region around a resurgent China. It is entirely plausible that we might once again see the return, in a modern context, of some element of the tributary state system, thereby challenging the global dominance of that European 1295 invention (the westphalian system of sovereign, independent states.”
Early Chinese Political Philosophers
Tsinghua University professor Yan Xuetong wrote in the New York Times: “Ancient Chinese political theorists like Guanzi, Confucius, Xunzi and Mencius were writing in the pre-Qin period, before China was unified as an empire more than 2,000 years ago — a world in which small countries were competing ruthlessly for territorial advantage. [Source: Yan Xuetong, New York Times, November 20, 2011. Yan Xuetong, the author of “Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power,” is a professor of political science and dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University.]
It was perhaps the greatest period for Chinese thought, and several schools competed for ideological supremacy and political influence. They converged on one crucial insight: The key to international influence was political power, and the central attribute of political power was morally informed leadership. Rulers who acted in accordance with moral norms whenever possible tended to win the race for leadership over the long term.
China was unified by the ruthless king of Qin in 221 B.C., but his short-lived rule was not nearly as successful as that of Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty, who drew on a mixture of legalistic realism and Confucian “soft power” to rule the country for over 50 years, from 140 B.C. until 86 B.C.
According to the ancient Chinese philosopher Xunzi, there were three types of leadership: humane authority, hegemony and tyranny. Humane authority won the hearts and minds of the people at home and abroad. Tyranny — based on military force — inevitably created enemies. Hegemonic powers lay in between: they did not cheat the people at home or cheat allies abroad. But they were frequently indifferent to moral concerns and often used violence against non-allies. The philosophers generally agreed that humane authority would win in any competition with hegemony or tyranny.
China’s Border and Threats
In his book review of Rising China and Its Postmodern Fate: Memories of Empire in a New Global Context by Charles Horner, Andrew Erickson wrote in the Naval War College Review, “Strategic debate in the Qing dynasty regarding the value of China’s western territories reveals enduring tensions in its strategic orientation between continental and maritime frontiers and between factions advocating their respective emphases. Horner quotes one official, whose vividly expressed viewpoint carried the day (perhaps to Beijing’s detriment, in retrospect): The maritime nations are like a sickness of the limbs, far away and light, but Russia is like a sickness of the heart and stomach, nearby and dangerous.” [Source: Andrew Erickson, Naval War College Review, Spring 2010]
“Horner tackles the enduring puzzle of why China’s leaders failed to anticipate maritime threats from Western powers and finds that the Qing government devoted insufficient attention to diplomacy and intelligence abroad and failed to consult knowledgeable overseas Chinese. Nevertheless, by the dawn of the twentieth century, China’s intelligentsia had achieved a deep understanding of the sources of Western power and self-understanding. Significant bureaucratic-curricular reforms proved insufficient, however: a painful consensus emerged that a new intellectual regime . . . would have to consolidate its power before the country’s recovery of national power could begin in earnest. [Ibid]
Book: Rising China and Its Postmodern Fate: Memories of Empire in a New Global Context by Charles Horner (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 2009)
Dynastic Rule in China
Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: In dynastic eras, palace upheavals were often catalyzed by paranoia and jealousies within the imperial family. From Qin Shihuang, the first emperor, to the Empress Dowager Cixi to Mao Zedong, China’s rulers have tended to suspect conspiracies against them and their close kin and have looked for assassins in the shadows. The same fears can arise within aristocratic Communist families today, especially among those vying for leadership positions.
Until the 1911 Revolution led by Sun Yat-sen, Chinese history had consisted of 24 dynasties. Broadly speaking, the founding emperor of a dynasty seized power by force and eventually passed the reign to his son. The dynasty would continue until faced with serious problems such as famine, war or revolution. Ultimately, the old dynasty would be overthrown by a new regime, which in many cases was headed by the leader of usurping revolutionaries. [Source: Sun Wukong, Asia Times, July 31, 2008]
Sun Wukong wrote in the Asia Times, “Two points can be taken from this. First, Chinese have historically accepted that ‘whoever has fought on horseback to seize all under Heaven’ is entitled to rule, but such acceptance is not automatically extended to the offspring or relatives of the ruler. Second, because the legitimacy of successive rulers is questioned, Chinese are inclined to replace leaders who fail to run the nation well. As another saying puts it: ‘People take turns becoming the emperor, and this year it may be my turn.’”
“It was through violence that Sun Yat-sen founded the Republic of China, and the same is true for Mao Zedong and the People's Republic of China. Neither man, however, passed their power to their sons. Mao and Deng had fought ‘on horseback’ to seize power and thereby gained the legitimacy to rule. But leaders after them have had to justify their right to rule through performance. President Hu Jintao and his predecessor Jiang Zemin were handpicked by Deng.”
Rise and Fall of Dynasties in China
Emperor Qin After China became unified as a kingdom, its history has been characterized by the rise and fall of dynasties that follow a fairly consistent pattern: the creation a dynasty, unification and the restoration of order under the dynasty, a period of prosperity followed by the decay and collapse of the dynasty, and the eventual re-creation of the kingdom under a new dynasty.
The great Chinese dynasties—Han, Tang, Song, Ming—where punctuated by 60 to 100 periods of unrest in which the kingdom was harassed by attackers from the north or divided into states dominated by competing warlords.
The location of China’s capital has been changed many times. Emperor Qin established the first capital of China in Xian in 221 B.C. and the Han emperors continued to keep their court there during their rule. After centuries of chaos the Sui dynasty established their capital on the ruins of Xian in a city they called Chang'an. Under the Tang emperors, Chang'an grew into a dynamic metropolis of two million people. The Song emperors first had their capital in Kaifeng and then moved it to Hangzhou when they were driven south. The Mongols (Yuan dynasty) moved the capital to Beijing. The first Ming emperor moved the capital south to Nanjing to escape the threat of barbarian attacks from the north. The Ming emperors that followed him moved teh capital back to Beijing in 1420, where it has more or less remained ever since.
While Emperors came and went China changed very little in part because it was governed on a day to day basis by a bureaucratic class that changed very little. The government under this bureaucracy was unresponsive to the needs of ordinary people, unrepresentative, oncerned with control and order, and had little contact with the people it ruled. Some might say the same conditions exist today.
Tan Chung, the dean for many years at the Center for East Asian Studies at Jawaharial Nehru University, has argued that civilizations in China and India endured while those in the West died out was because civilizations in the East followed the “geocivilizational paradigm” while those in West followed the “geopolitical paradigm”
“In the Western Hemisphere,” Tan wrote, “all the brilliant ancient civilizations like Babylonia, Egypt, Greece and Rome have become ruins without being handed down. This was because there was no “geocivilizational paradigm” among them. The “geopolitical paradigm” pushed them to scramble for territory and indulge in mutual destruction. The basic difference between Eastern and Western hemispheres lies here.” He points to the evolution described by Confucius in Analects from the power-seeking Qi state to the Lu state, which stressed cultural development, to the truth-prevailing Tan state as the ideal pursued in the east.
History of Chinese History
Chinese history, until the twentieth century, was written mostly by members of the ruling scholar-official class and was meant to provide the ruler with precedents to guide or justify his policies. These accounts focused on dynastic politics and colorful court histories and included developments among the commoners only as backdrops. The historians described a Chinese political pattern of dynasties, one following another in a cycle of ascent, achievement, decay, and rebirth under a new family. [Source: The Library of Congress]
“Because of its length and complexity, the history of the Middle Kingdom lends itself to varied interpretation. After the communist takeover in 1949, historians in mainland China wrote their own version of the past--a history of China built on a Marxist model of progression from primitive communism to slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and finally socialism. The events of history came to be presented as a function of the class struggle. Historiography became subordinated to proletarian politics fashioned and directed by the Chinese Communist Party. [Ibid]
“A series of thought-reform and antirightist campaigns were directed against intellectuals in the arts, sciences, and academic community. The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) further altered the objectivity of historians. In the years after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, however, interest grew within the party, and outside it as well, in restoring the integrity of historical inquiry. This trend was consistent with the party's commitment to "seeking truth from facts." As a result, historians and social scientists raised probing questions concerning the state of historiography in China. Their investigations included not only historical study of traditional China but penetrating inquiries into modern Chinese history and the history of the Chinese Communist Party. In post-Mao China, the discipline of historiography has not been separated from politics, although a much greater range of historical topics has been discussed. Figures from Confucius--who was bitterly excoriated for his "feudal" outlook by Cultural Revolution-era historians--to Mao himself have been evaluated with increasing flexibility. Among the criticisms made by Chinese social scientists is that Maoist-era historiography distorted Marxist and Leninist interpretations. This meant that considerable revision of historical texts was in order in the 1980s, although no substantive change away from the conventional Marxist approach was likely. Historical institutes were restored within the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and a growing corps of trained historians, in institutes and academia alike, returned to their work with the blessing of the Chinese Communist Party. This in itself was a potentially significant development. [Ibid]
Interpretations of History in China
The West has traditionally look upon history in terms of material progress—from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, for example—while the Chinese have traditionally emphasized history’s continuity, especially in terms of the Chinese remaining Chinese through all of history’s changes and upheavals. Confucianism, the Imperial system, the Chinese written language are all credited with helping China maintain its Chineseness.
History promulgated today by the Communist Party is molded to fit the four main stages of the Marxist concept of social development: 1) primitive society; 2) slave society; 3) feudal society; and 4) semi-feudal/ semi-colonial society.
Many towns and even villages have local, amateur historians. Often they are quite knowledgeable and have researched their topics of expertise quite thoroughly even though their education never advanced beyond the sixth grade.
The Chinese are great practitioners of revisionist history, especially today. Historians and textbooks make a point of highlighting the atrocities and injustices committed against the Chinese by the West but brush over atrocities and injustices committed by Chinese against others, such as their invasions of India and Tibet, and have made nationalistic claims such as that the ancient kingdom of Koguryo, founded in northern Korea, was Chinese not Korean.
Recording History in China
The Chinese method of chronicling history was established in the second century B.C. and was practiced until the end of the imperial period in 1911. Early Chinese histories—such as The Era of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms— were essentially lists. Records of what happened more than 2,000 years ago were often written a considerable length of time after the events they describe and were based as much on legends as facts.
The traditional recorded history of China before the establishment of the Chou dynasty in 1122 B.C. is almost entirely legendary. Empirical evidence is based on archeological information from the Shang dynasty and other periods.
Each dynasty complied the history of the previous dynasty and established special imperial offices in charge of storing and compiling historical documents. These offices included the Grand Council Archives, the Palace Archives, the Grand Secretariat Archives and the Historiography Office Archives.
Chinese history is often lacking in analysis and criticism and offers few insights other than what is recorded. "Chinese civilization," wrote Boorstin, "suffered from its antiquity, its precocity and its continuity. The greatness of ancient models, the unbroken series of records, and the early effectiveness of central government all reinforced reverence for ancestors and stifled efforts to look at unauthorized vistas of the past or to speculate on what might have been." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
Sima Qian (145 B.C.-?) is regarded as China’s greatest historian. His Records of the Historian contains 520,000 characters and is regarded as the greatest historical work in China. Qian professed an "undying loyalty to the crown” even though he was castrated for "defaming the Emperor" after he wrote a letter in defense of a general who was criticized for losing a battle. Spared from execution because his skills were considered too valuable, Ch'ien wrote a chronological history divided up into five sections: 1) Basic Annals on Important Rulers; 2) Chronological Tables; 3) Treatises on Political Economic, Social and Cultural Themes; 4) Hereditary Houses; and 5) Biographies of Important Men Who Were Not Rulers.
Asked for his views on the French Revolution, Zhou Enlai famously replied that it was too early to say.
Loss of Historic Sites in China
A government survey released in 2009 found that 23,600 registered relics had disappeared in recent years because of theft or illicit sales, while tens of thousands of culturally significant sites had been plowed under for development. Important Han, Tang, Song and Yuan-era sites include Cao Wei - Northern Qi city at Yecheng, the Tang - Song city at Yangzhou, and the Southern Song city of Linan. There has been excavations of several imperial mausoleums and cemeteries and a number of porcelain kilns. The survey and excavation of the Han and Tang capital cities, Changan and Luoyang, and the Yuan Dynasty capital, Dadu , which have allowed archaeologists to study the evolving principles of urban design across successive dynasties.
“Aggressive development in China has swallowed up tens of thousands of historic sites in the last three decades. Officials from the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) told the Guardian the damage caused over the last 20 years was worse than during the Cultural Revolution. Swaths of Beijing's historic courtyard homes have fallen to the wrecking ball in just the last decade. The old town in Dinghai, Zhejiang, has been almost completely destroyed. The Shanghai family home of the famed architect IM Pei, supposedly protected by the city, has gone. In some cases such as Qianmen, a centuries-old shopping street in the capital historic buildings have been replaced with ersatz versions. In others, sites have vanished entirely. Last month there were reports that illegal mining in Inner Mongolia had destroyed a section of the Great Wall. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, December 14, 2009]
“Shan Jixiang, director of SACH, said it had examined more than 775,000 sites. Some 30,995 of the items on a 1982 list have vanished. ‘As our country's economy developed, major irrigation and high-speed electricity projects started construction. Urbanization sped up and newvillage [building] projects were carried out. Though the cultural heritagedepartments at all levels [of government] have tried hard to protect sites, they still could not avoid the disappearance of some,’ the administration said in a statement. ‘Major natural disasters like earthquakes and floods have also resulted in the disappearance of many cultural heritage sites, while illegal activitiesand crimes like tomb-robbing destroyed some as well.” [Ibid]
“Liu Xiaohe, deputy director of the survey, told the state newspaper China Daily that officials were doing all they could to preserve as much as possible. He pointed out that in one case China spent 300m yuan (£26.5m) to relocate Sichuan's 1,700-year-old Zhangfei temple when the Three Gorges dam was built, rather than see it destroyed.But he added: ‘We have about 800,000 historical sites in China, but only 80,000 people are working for relics protection. Places like the Palace Museum [better known to foreigners as The Forbidden City] take up more than 2,000 of them, which means some places have no one to take care of them. What we can do now is try our best to protect the significant sites, likethe Summer Palace, while for those less important sites I am afraid they should give way to economic development.” [Ibid]
“‘The last 20 years have been the worst time for cultural heritage site protection with the rapid development,’ he said. ‘It is even worse than in the Cultural Revolution then, most damage was to movable items, but not to ancient tombs or buildings or old towns. For example, many ancient tombs have been robbed and in the [redevelopment] of old towns many old buildings have been demolished. Beijing used to have 25 protection areas and I believe only half of them are still well protected now.” [Ibid]
Image Sources: 1) Famine picture, let Petot Journal Ann Ronan ; 2) Flood Image, Xinhua; 3) Emporer Qin, Wikipedia; 4) Mao, Noll's China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; 5) English sailor, Ohio State University; 6) Yellow River dikes, Columbia University , Wiki Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated December 2012