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The Xenophile Historian

China Taiwan

A Concise History of China


This chapter covers the following topics:
The Chinese View of History
A Word About Spelling
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To understand the history of a country properly, it always helps to know something about its geography as well; such is the case with China. The land where the Chinese civilization first arose was in the valley of the Yellow River (Huang He in Chinese). The climate is cold and semiarid, where the only reliable water supply is the river itself. The soil, however, is extremely fertile; it is a very soft, stoneless yellow soil called loess (pronounced "loose") by geologists. Both the Yellow River and the Yellow Sea are stained by it, giving them their names; the Chinese idea that yellow is the color of emperors may have also come from the loess. Unfortunately the Yellow River is not an easy river to tame. The loess erodes easily and fills up river beds, raising the water level steadily until it breaks out of its banks and causes floods. And because China's rain pattern follows a monsoon-type seasonal cycle, if enough rain falls on one area to cause flooding, then there will be drought and famine elsewhere. To make matters worse, dams, levees, and other flood-control devices do not work for long on the Yellow River, because when it flows out of its banks it sometimes finds a completely new channel to follow, meaning that the river has changed course several times since the beginning of history.(1) Because of all these problems, the river has been called "China's sorrow."(2)

South of the Yellow River is the Yangtze, the most important river of modern China. Because the north China plain is too cold to grow rice, the Yangtze valley has become China's main agricultural area. Also, the Chinese have always preferred traveling on water over other forms of transportation, so the rivers are the country's east-west highways. To make boating more convenient, the Grand Canal, a 1,000 mile-long north-south waterway, was dug to connect the Yellow & Yangtze Rivers in the sixth century A.D.

South of the Yangtze River the terrain becomes more rugged, and the vegetation changes from deciduous forest to jungle. Communication in this region is difficult, and the Chinese have settled here slowly. These Chinese speak many dialects that are different from Mandarin, the dialect spoken in the north; in fact, northerners and southerners cannot understand each other's speech, only their writing is the same! In addition, there are several non-Chinese ethnic groups living here like the Miao, Yi, and Zhuang; like the American Indians, they are trying to maintain their culture while modern civilization surrounds them. Among these tribes the Yi enjoy a privileged status, because they became the first non-Chinese group to support the communists in 1935.

Chinese language map.

Where ten Chinese dialects are spoken. In Western nations, Yue is often called Cantonese.

It is not only to the south that the Chinese have found natural barriers hindering their settlement. To the west rise up the mountains that form the Tibetan Plateau, "the roof of the world." To the north lies the desolate Gobi desert, home of the Huns, Mongols, and other nomadic tribes that have rarely given China peace for long. To the northeast is Manchuria, a land rich with minerals (and the center of modern Chinese industry) but with a climate cold enough to experience snow up to nine months of the year. Not until 1830 did large numbers of Chinese begin leaving their homeland to live in other countries; their isolation from other centers of civilization such as India, the Middle East, and Europe convinced them that they were the most civilized nation on earth and that China was the best place to live. This egocentric view pictured China as the center of the earth, around which all other countries revolve, and even the Chinese name for China, Zhongguo, means "the Middle Kingdom." Their attitude toward foreigners is affected the same way; foreigners who do not accept the Chinese way of life are "barbarians."(3)

Click here for a map of present-day China (268 KB, will open in a separate window).

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The Chinese View of History

China's history is long; the Chinese have detailed legends of their country and its rulers, going back to 2852 B.C. It is also more detailed and more carefully recorded than that of any other civilization claiming great age, like ancient Egypt. One could go so far as to claim that Chinese culture is almost all history! Unfortunately, the first 2,000 years cannot be verified as fact, for the following reasons:

1. The earliest writing that we have dates to about 1500 B.C.
2. The first historical event recorded by the Chinese that can be dated with any accuracy is a solar eclipse in 841 B.C.
3. The oldest existing chronicles of Chinese history were written around 500 B.C.

For these reasons, the first two millennia of Chinese history are often regarded by non-Chinese scholars as a bunch of legends, if not outright myths. However, in more recent periods the Chinese have been extremely honest in recording what happened, so the details given to us concerning the first dynasties--the Xia, Shang and Western Zhou--may actually be true; we just have no way of knowing for sure.(4)

Here is a story showing the importance the Chinese placed on true history. During the Age of Warring States (see Chapter 2), a general in the feudal state of Qi (modern Shandong) murdered his duke. The duke's official historian recorded this coup by writing, "General Cui murdered his ruler." The general heard of this, executed the historian, and appointed his brother to take his place. He asked the brother what he intended to write about the murder. "I shall record the event exactly as it happened," answered the new historian. The general was furious and had him put to death also. A third brother (they were from a family of scholars) was appointed and asked the same question. "I shall write the truth," he answered, "and I shall also have to record the fact that you have put to death two of the state historians." The general gave up; he saw that his name was getting blacker with everything he did, and that there was no way of escaping history. Hopefully he acted more carefully after that.

For most of recorded history, China was unified, and their records give the impression that it has been this way from the beginning. However, in recent years archaeology has uncovered several ancient cultures in the area, from Sichuan to Shandong; so far twenty-two cultures have been identified just for the neolithic era (before 1500 B.C.). This means that in the past there were several "Chinas." Apparently each of these cultures formed a tribe or nation, with those in Henan and Shaanxi provinces being the most advanced. Later on, in the period between 1000 and 200 B.C., the whole north China plain merged to form first one culture, then one nation. This process was strongly encouraged by the state policies of the Qin and Han dynasties (see Chapter 3), so the records of the defeated states were either lost or destroyed. It now appears that when the historians talked about the Shang Dynasty replacing the Xia, and the Zhou dynasty replacing the Shang, what they really meant was that a nation named Shang conquered a nation named Xia, and later a third nation named Zhou conquered Shang. A parallel in the west would be the Romans conquering and absorbing the Etruscans, only to fall to German-speaking tribes like the Goths and Lombards. Now that the European nations are trying to unite, perhaps two thousand years from now historians will see Europe's history as the rise & fall of royal houses, rather than the rise & fall of separate nations. The rediscovery of these lost Chinese cultures is already rewriting the history books; perhaps the stories behind them will soon be discovered, too.

Another important concept in Chinese history is the idea of a "Mandate of Heaven." Before the last dynasty was abolished in 1912, the Chinese believed in a divine-right monarchy; the first emperor of each dynasty was seen as having been given the right to rule from Shang Di, the god of Heaven. Whenever the emperors grew cruel or incompetent, it was said that the Mandate of Heaven had been taken away from them, and bestowed upon the family of the person who overthrew the last monarch of the dynasty. Floods, earthquakes, famine, widespread corruption, and successful barbarian invasions were seen as signs from the gods that the mandate had been removed, and a revolution was often soon to follow. This has given the Chinese a strong cyclic view of history, a belief that no ruling dynasty will last forever. However, unlike India's cyclic theory of history, which says that the ups and downs of civilizations are god-ordained and unchangeable, the Chinese believe that their cycles are caused by the actions of men, and the emperor was doing his proper duty when his actions postponed the next downswing for as long as possible. That belief gave scholars a strong incentive to study history, so that they would learn from previous examples how to run the state properly.

Unlike other very old nations, China is still going strong, and likely to remain a nation to reckon with for the foreseeable future. This has given the Chinese a tremendous pride in the durability and continuity of their own civilization. One of their proverbs states that, "Just as all water becomes salty when it flows into the sea, so everyone who comes to China becomes Chinese." This reveals another secret of China's success as a civilization; while they have often been conquered by an invader with superior military capability, the overwhelming numbers of the Chinese people allowed them to assimilate their conquerors. What these alien rulers wanted the most were gold, silk, political power, grand titles, and marriages with Chinese princesses to make their rule legitimate. To get all these things, and the cooperation of their Chinese subjects, the rulers adopted Chinese ways of doing things and Chinese ways of thinking. Those who refused to become Chinese were thrown out of the country, when the Chinese got tired of having them around.

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A Word About Spelling

Western missionaries, Yale University, and the modern Chinese government have all attempted to write Chinese in a phonetic form using the Latin alphabet. None of these scripts are popular enough to replace the traditional Chinese picture writing that uses tens of thousands of characters; the Chinese are willing to simplify their writing system, but they are not willing to give it up because too much of their heritage is tied into it. In fact, the Chinese language does have an advantage in the fact that it is not phonetic; anybody who can read it can understand anybody who can write it, no matter what languages they speak. Chinese ideograms change more slowly than the sounds used to pronounce the words they represent, meaning that a citizen of modern China can read 2,000-year-old texts with less difficulty than an American student trying to understand Beowulf or Chaucer. For this reason, when Europeans started working on a phonetic Chinese alphabet, the Chinese suggested that it would better for the West to learn Chinese script instead, so that everyone could read everyone else's language; the idea never caught on, presumably because the Europeans didn't want to go back to school. However, we will need a way to write Chinese sounds/words in a way that English readers can understand, without forcing them to spend years studying the Chinese characters themselves. Henceforth I will be using the Pinyin system of writing Chinese with Western letters, for the following reasons:

1. It is used in all English-language publications that are printed in Mainland China. Taiwan, however, still uses the older Wade-Giles system that was developed by missionaries; be aware of the differences.
2. Pinyin has been used extensively in Western media since 1979.
3. Pinyin is closer to the correct phonetic pronunciation of Chinese than any other Latinized Chinese script invented so far. In most cases Pinyin words are pronounced phonetically, with a few notable exceptions:

C = pronounced like the "TS" in "bits," or the Hebrew letter Tsadee.
E = pronounced like the "U" in "but," if there is no other vowel in the syllable.
EI = pronounced like the "AY" in "day."
IAN or UAN = the "A" is pronounced like a short "E"; however, this does not apply if the syllable ends in a "G."
OU = pronounced "O."
Q = pronounced "CH."
X = pronounced "SH."
ZH = pronounced "J."

To give two examples, the word spelled Zhou in Pinyin is pronounced "Joe," and Qian is pronounced like "Chee-enn."

This is the End of Chapter 1.


1. For example, today the river flows into the Yellow Sea, on the north side of the Shandong peninsula, but before the flood of 1947 it ran to the south of the peninsula, where the border between the provinces of Shandong, Jiangsu, and Anhui now exists.

2. However, the worst flood in modern Chinese history happened along the banks of the Yangtze River, not the Yellow River. Here in 1931, a three-year drought ended with summertime flooding that affected more than 51 million people, and killed 3.7 million from drowning, disease and starvation. This makes it the most devastating natural disaster of the twentieth century, and inspired the Chinese government to build the Three Gorges Dam in the 1990s. Outside of China, though, the flood got less attention than the Great Depression and the ongoing civil war between the warlords, Guomindang and communists (see Chapter 6), so it has been forgotten.

3. In fact, the Chinese words meaning "barbarian" and "foreigner" are one and the same.

4. Today's historians do not agree on the chronology of China before the 841 B.C. eclipse. The traditional dates, calculated by a first-century historian named Liu Xin (46 B.C.-23 A.D.), give 2205 B.C. for the founding of the Xia dynasty, 1766 B.C. for the Shang dynasty, and 1122 B.C. for the Zhou dynasty. Those are the dates used on this website. However, we also have a history book called the Bamboo Annals, which was buried with the Duke of Wei in 296 B.C., and rediscovered nearly six centuries later. Because it was written before the book burning of the Qin dynasty (see Chapter 3), some scholars consider it more trustworthy; the dates it gives are 1989 B.C. for the founding of the Xia, 1554 B.C. for the founding of the Shang, and 1045 or 1027 B.C. for the founding of the Zhou. Alternative methods of dating, like the radiocarbon method, have been tried on artifacts, and the dates obtained lean toward the "low chronology" of the Bamboo Annals, but they are not as reliable as radiocarbon dates for objects from drier climates. Just keep in mind that if you read any other texts on Chinese history, you can expect to see disagreement on the earliest dates. The good news is that the Chinese chronologies have less of an impact on the big picture than the disputed chronologies for other civilizations (e.g., Egypt). Because most of the nations around China got started after 841 B.C., only Korea is affected by whether the high or low chronology is used.

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© Copyright 2016 Charles Kimball

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A Concise History of China


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