Let's Dispense With this "China Is 5,000 Years Old" Myth, Shall We?
Throughout 5,000 years of development, the Chinese nation (1) has made a significant contribution to the progress of human civilization.
-Xi Jinping, The Governance of China - Vol. 1, pg. 3
From the perspective of history, China is an ancient country with 5,000 year history;
-Yan Jirong et al., China's Governance, pg. 3
The Chinese civilization has an incessant history of more than 5,000 years... China has always been a highly unified country.
-Zheng Ping, China's Geography, pg. 2 (emphasis added)
China -a nation with 5,000 years of civilization- has a long history of legal system and development of the legal idea.
-Pan Guoping & Ma Limin, China's Laws, pg. 1
As one of the ancient countries, China is the only nation in the world that has a 5,000-year-old history with an unbroken civilization.
-Peng Guanqian, Zhao Zhiyin & Luo Yong, China's National Defense, pg. 4
For China, a five-thousand-year-old civilization, the Opium War in 1848 can be described as a gigantic axe that brutally split Chinese history and culture.
-Zheng Qian, China's Ethnic Groups and Religions, pg. 8
Walk into what claims to be the "nonfiction" section of a foreign language book store in China, open up a supposedly informational volume about China, from any Chinese publisher, and somewhere within the first 10 pages (usually within the first 5) there will be a mention of China's 5,000 year history. It will invariably be close to the beginning, because the author wants to make sure it is one of the first things they remind the reader about: "we are 'the Mighty China,' we were here before you; your civilization is but a child compared to us, and we are far beyond your limited laowai understanding." It is a critical part of China's ongoing efforts to portray themselves as a superpower when in fact they are not.
In academic work too, one finds this. In six total years of teaching in China, whenever I have given students speaking assignments, if their topic is in any way even tangentially related to China, I have never once seen a student who has not shoe-horned the phrase "China's 5,000 year history" into their speech somewhere. To even try and imagine a Chinese speech without it is like trying to imagine a Guardians of the Galaxy movie without the phrase "I am Groot," or a Donald Trump speech without the phrase "America First." It simply wouldn't happen. Ben Chu quotes a Taiwanese professor describing this phenomenon perfectly.
Chinese officials seem to be forever paying homage to China's long cultural and historical continuum, while ambassadors from the Middle Kingdom in foreign capitals miss no opportunity to lecture their hosts on the special historical status of their nation. (p. 23)
Yes, they're quite proud of (I would even say "obsessed with") their country's longevity, and that wouldn't be a bad thing were it not for one tiny, inescapable problem.
It's complete and absolute bullshit.
Not the most scholarly phrasing for a self-styled academic, but there's just no better way to say it. China's claim of 5,000 years of uninterrupted history is as ridiculous as their claims over Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang and the West Philippine Sea, and having already addressed the subject briefly in a post dedicated to pointing out many of China's lies about history, I have been unable to shake the feeling that this particular one requires greater attention. In this article I will examine the origins of Chinese civilization, if indeed "civilization" is the right word for a population so globally infamous for disgustingly uncouth behavior, and shed some light on just how old the country truly is.
Fun Fact: China has Almost Never Actually Been Called "China."
One of the biggest surprises for early students of Mandarin (or expats struggling to get a survival grasp on the language) is that no word even vaguely resembling "China" has ever existed in the Mandarin Language. The Mandarin word for the country, at least in its shortened form, is Zhong Guo (中国), which literally translates as "Central Nation," though the Chinese like to dress it up in a more palatable Tolkien-esque style as "Middle Kingdom" for Western listeners, and it is also worthy of note that this term never existed as a name prior to Sun Zhongshan's 1911 revolution. Prior to that, the nation we call "China" never even had a name other than the name of the ruling Dynasty, a fact much lamented by the 19th century reformer Liang QiChao (Lee, p. 46). Since the 1911 revolution was not only the first official use of the country's current name, but also a paradigm shift in its mode of government (from an imperial monarchy to at-least-nominally a republic), one might make a case for this being the beginning of "China as we know it," making the country a spry 108 years old, but considering that there was very little cultural discontinuity between pre-1911 and post-1911, that seems a bridge too far.
However, an examination of where the Western name "China" came from does give us some clues as to the country's actual genesis.
From about 475 B.C to 271 B.C., during what is known as the "Warring States Period (Metropolitan Museum of Art)," the plains of what is today called "China" were home to a collection of warring kingdoms that had nothing in common except the Han ethnicity and languages which were all derived from the same cave-drawings (Han J., p. 15 - 21). These kingdoms had different customs, laws, languages (2), religions and ways of life, and completely separate political agendas (Cao, 55). They even -quite frequently-fought wars against one another. Essentially, think of the Greek City-States, except more separate since the Greek city-states all spoke the same language and had the same pantheon of gods.
These states could most accurately be referred to as "Proto-Chinese," since calling them “Chinese” makes only slightly more historical sense than calling the Iroquois "Americans," or the Aztecs "Mexicans." But eventually, one of them conquered all the rest. In 221 B.C, one of these states known as "Qin (pronounced 'Chin')" conquered all the others (Lum, p. 62) and molded them into a single, unified nation. This nation was given the name Qin Diguo (literally "Qin God-State," though "Diguo" is usually given the less-than-literal treatment and rendered as "empire") by the Qin monarch who subjugated the other states, Qin Shihuang (often referred to as Shi Huangdi or Shih Huangti, a name roughly translating to "First Universal Emperor," though the character of 'di' translates as 'god' rather than 'emperor' in earlier texts). Chinese legends from earlier times notwithstanding, this, 221 B.C., is the earliest point in history where both archaeological evidence and recorded evidence show that the Han core of present-day China was a single, unified entity. Peter Lum sums it up best.
It is not going too far to say that [Shi Huangdi] created China. Earlier kings had ruled loosely over a feudal society, or over one of several states. After [Shi Huangdi], although there were civil wars, and the country several times broke up into independent kingdoms, the idea of a single supreme ruler and a central government survived. China was a nation. It also began to assume more or less its present shape, expanding to the south, for [Qin Shihuangdi] founded military colonies in an area corresponding roughly to modern [Guangdong] province, with parts of [Guangxi]. (p. 64)
Oh, and it should also be noted, the Qin Empire (the nation from which the Romans and Parthians derived the name "Chinia," which has been mistakenly passed down through Western history from age to age as the name of the empire in the East even as the Chinese themselves declared each new dynasty to be an entirely new nation with an entirely new name, as stated above) existed only for 15 years (Cao, p. 57) before it was overthrown by a new dynasty: the Han.
So there is the most logical answer. China, or something recognizable as its earliest forebear, first came into existence in 221 B.C. Perhaps if one wanted to claim that the Qin State itself was the same entity as the ascendant Qin Empire (which would be a bit of a stretch but I won't go into that), then one could perhaps say the genesis of China was the beginning of the Qin State itself, that is, 897 B.C. (Twitchett & Loewe, p. 20). So, depending which of the two starting points one wants to use, at the time of this writing in June of 2019, China would be either 2,240 years old (measuring from unification), or 2,916 years old (measuring from the founding of Qin).
That's old, but it's nowhere even close to this 5,000 year figure the Chinese are determined to shove down the world's throats. So then, where does the justification for this 5,000 year figure come from? Perhaps a different starting point is being used to measure China's age. If so, then what starting point is being used, and why?
The Earliest Dynasty
The earliest dynasty of Chinese monarchs in any capacity that has ever been actually proven to have existed is the Shang Dynasty from roughly 1600 B.C. to 1046 B.C. (Cao, p. 19 & 20), though this dynasty ruled an "empire" roughly covering present-day Shandong Province, with a bit of Henan and Hebei. They had a feudal bureaucracy, and a culture that heavily featured ritual Human sacrifice (Cao, pg. 22 & 23). The only thing this kingdom had in common with any of the later Chinese kingdom's was its intensely patriarchal society where women were in the same category as livestock. Given that this was not exactly a unique trait in early Human history (recall that this would have been roughly the same era as the Biblical Books of First and Second Samuel), it's hard to use this as a basis for calling this "the beginning of China." So then, what came next?
Well, the Shang Dynasty was replaced by the Zhou Dynasty (named for the fief of the Shang Dynasty lord who killed the Shang ruler), which grew beyond Shang's borders but still never got much larger than Montana. The Zhou Monarch was the one who first declared himself "Son of Heaven" according to Cao (p. 22), and establish the Ba Wang (literally "hegemon king") government, a system of extracting tribute from neighboring kingdoms by declaring them to be under the "protection" of the emperor, who was believed to be lord over all the Earth (Lum, p. 36).
This almost-religious belief in the emperor's universal sovereignty and the tributary system would both become staples of China's culture later on.
For this reason, a case could be made to call the Zhou Dynasty the embryo of Chinese civilization, as the ethnocentric tendency and hegemonic worldview that formed the backbone of China's entire cultural identity for millennia began to manifest themselves here, but that's a bit of a stretch. The Magna Carta was the basis for the ideas which were later molded into the U.S. Constitution, but I've never seen a history textbook that claimed the United States was founded in 1215, or which referred to Great Britain as the first U.S. State. Christianity too, is the basis for much of European (and subsequently, North American) civilization, but I don't see many history books claiming NATO was established by Emperor Constantine. It seems that the Zhou, like the Shang before them, could hardly be considered any more "Chinese" than the Roman Empire was "Italian."
The Zhou dynasty collapsed in 771 B.C. amid wars between feudal lords who gave little more than lip service to the Zhou monarch (Lum, p. 36) and the region would not have a central authority again in anything more than name until Qin Shihuang, who would later unite the entire East Asian Plain. Thus, there does not seem to be any logical seminal point to which one can point during either of these dynasties to call "the beginning of China," since nothing readily or easily recognizable as "Chinese culture" can be found to have existed during them.
Of course, this does not even take into consideration the tiny Xia Kingdom, which (supposedly) predated the Shang Dynasty, being (supposedly) founded ca. 2100 B.C. The lack of attention this article gives to the Xia may have something to do with the fact that nothing is known of Xia culture except that they had a penchant for pottery, or it may have something to do with the fact that the Xia Kingdom's best-guessed borders covered an area roughly the size of Portugal (as can be seen from the map above), but in truth, it has more to do with the fact that the Xia Dynasty has never been proven to exist at all (Lum, pg. 25 & 26; Chu, p. 25). But even if one does accept the dubious claims that the Xia Dynasty existed, and even if one is willing to squint hard enough to call them the founders of China, unless the math works a little differently in China (and in five years here I have seen no signs that it does), that still adds up to China being about 4,100 years old.
If China claims to be 5,000 years old, where did they get an extra thousand years?
The answer: mythology
The Yellow Emperor and the Flame Emperor
Huangdi (Yellow Emperor) and Yandi (Flame Emperor) were the chieftains of tribal groups along the Yellow River Valley in the heroic age some 4,000-5,000 years ago. The later generations, in their efforts to enumerate their ancestors' feats, attributed key inventions to these two.
-Cao, pg. 11
Huangdi (the Chinese god of thunder) and Yandi (the god of fire and farming) are two mythological God-Emperors of Chinese legends. It's not clear whether they were gods or men (as stated above, the same words "god" and "emperor" are both translated into the same Chinese character), but they are credited both with supernatural powers and with teaching the Chinese how to farm and smelt metal (in Yandi's case (Chen, p. 44)) as well as build houses and hunt (Huangdi's contribution (Chen, pg. 65)). The two are believed to have fought a war against each other, in which Huangdi overcame Yandi (Chen, pg. 52). Huangdi, in Chinese myths, is worshipped as the supreme ruler of the other gods, and mythology claims that all ethnic Han are descended from him (Chu, pg. 24; Mosher, pg. 188).
There is, of course, no more evidence of the existence of the "Yellow Emperor" than there is of Prometheus or Hercules, and to be frank, one must suspect that the Chinese know this given that the very title of the book this section derives most of its information from (published by the Chinese government) is Chinese Myths and Legends.
So why is this mythological figure relevant to a discussion of China's claim of 5,000 years of history?
Because their claim that their nation has existed for 5,000 years is solely and entirely predicated on being descendants of this mythological figure! (Chu, p. 24)
Despite being an officially atheist country, which regards all religions as superstition, China's official, government-approved claim regarding their country's age is derived from a story which the Chinese know to be a myth. What's more ironic is that the Chinese government fiercely perpetuates this claim in their propaganda films and speeches (Mosher, pg. 180), publishes textbooks insisting there is evidence of his existence and achievements (Cao, pg. 12), and has even gone so far as to invent a birthday for this mythological figure and declare it a national holiday (Chu, pg. 60), on which senior Party members make a point to pay homage to this mythological figure (Mosher, pg. 189).
The question, then, is "why in the world would the Chinese government try to base a historical claim, especially one that is central to their identity, off of a myth?"
Well, part of it has to do with the re-emerging "Chinese exceptionalism" mentality that is going vogue in China, and part of it has to do with China's desperation to to somehow make other nations see China in that same light in order to fuel Beijing's ambitions of re-establishing the Sinocentric World Order they long for. But the shorter answer, to put it bluntly, is a Sino-Egyptian pissing contest.
My Country's Older Than Yours
I mentioned above that if one takes the Xia Dynasty to be the genesis of Chinese civilization, then this makes China roughly 4,000 years old. This, as Lum points out, makes China much younger than Mesopotamia or ancient Egypt (p. 16). Basically, in the 1990's, Chinese head-of-state Jiang Zemin went on a state visit to Egypt and someone casually mentioned "hey, here's a country that can lay claim to an older civilization than yours," and the Chinese (who, after all, absolutely MUST be the superlative in all things) immediately and arbitrarily decided to add a millennium to their country's age (Chu, p. 25), and as it is apparently essential in China's eyes for the world to believe this fish-story, they have taken care to repeat it ad nauseum.
If you know the Chinese like I do, that insistence on repeating something is grounds enough alone to question it.
By the most logical measurement (that is, from Qin Shihuang's unification of the proto-Chinese states into the "Qin Diguo") China can legitimately claim to be 2,240 years old this year, making them roughly the same age that the Roman Empire would be if it still existed. That's older than most nations on Earth, I'll freely grant, but it is less than half the age they claim to be. Any figure higher than that is nothing more than China's signature gift for hyperbole. Of course, the other half of this "5,000 years of continuous and uninterrupted civilization," specifically, the "uninterrupted" part, is as patently ludicrous as the Party's claims regarding the country's age...
...But that will have to wait for another article.
(1) The words translated here (and throughout Xi's book) as "Chinese nation" were Zhonghua Minzu in the original Mandarin, and as Jacob Shapiro notes in an article for Geopolitical Futures, there is some room for debate about the meaning of this highly-racially-charged phrase, derived from the Japanese term Minzoku, which was roughly the equivalent of the German Volk.
(2) Though their written languages used the same characters, this can hardly be said to be the same language. English, Spanish, German, French, Latin, Italian, Portugese, Vietnamese, Bahassa and Tagalog, for instance, all use the same alphabet.
Cao Dawei & Sun Yanjing. Trans. Xiao Ying, Li Li & He Yunzhao. China's History. Beijing, 2010. China Intercontinental Press.
Chen Lianshan. Trans. Zhang Fengru & Chen Shanshan. Chinese Myths and Legends. Beijing, 2009. China Intercontinental Press.
Han Jiantang. Trans. Wang Guozhen & Zhou Ling. Chinese Characters. Beijing, 2016. China Intercontinental Press.
Lee, Sangwook. "The Beginning of the Path to Self Discovery: A Study on Liang QiChao's Concept of a Nation." 2013. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences , University of Pittsburgh. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/9b7d/b67a509af344e79a674808dd9e4ef949ae84.pdf , accessed 20 June, 2019.
Lum, Peter. The Growth of Civilization in East Asia: China, Japan and Korea to the 14th Century. New York, 1969. S. G. Phillips.
SBN 87599-144-0 (No ISBN)
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Department of Asian Art. List of Rulers of China. October 2004, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chem/hd_chem.htm . Accessed 19 June, 2019.
Pan Guoping & Ma Limin. Trans. Chang Guojie. China's Laws. Beijing, 2009. China Intercontinental Press.
Peng Guanqian, Zhao Zhiyin & Luo Yong. Trans. Ma Chenguang & Yan Shuang. China's National Defense. Beijing, 2010. China Intercontinental Press.
Shapiro, Jacob. "Defining Xi's 'Chinese Dream.' " Geopolitical Futures. 17 October, 2018. Web, 20 June, 2019.
Twitchett, Denis & Loewe, Michael. The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 1: The Ch'in and Han Empires, 221 BC-AD 220. Cambridge, 1986. Cambridge University Press.
Zheng Ping. Trans. Xiao Ying. China's Geography. Beijing, 2011. China Intercontinental Press.
Zheng Qian. Trans. Hou Xiaocui, Rong Xueqin & Huang Yin. China's Ethnic Groups and Religions. Beijing, 2010. China Intercontinental Press.