The History Of China, as documented in ancient writings, dates 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.
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.
Of the consistent traits identified by independent historians, a salient one has been the capacity of the Chinese to absorb the people of surrounding areas into their own civilization. Their success can be attributed to the superiority of their ideographic written language, their technology, and their political institutions; the refinement of their artistic and intellectual creativity; and the sheer weight of their numbers. The process of assimilation continued over the centuries through conquest and colonization until what is now known as China Proper was brought under unified rule. The Chinese also left an enduring mark on people beyond their borders, especially the Koreans, Japanese, and Vietnamese.
Another recurrent historical theme has been the unceasing struggle of the sedentary Chinese against the threat posed to their safety and way of life by non-Chinese peoples on the margins of their territory in the north, northeast, and northwest. In the thirteenth century, the Mongols from the northern steppes became the first alien people to conquer all China. Although not as culturally developed as the Chinese, they left some imprint on Chinese civilization while heightening Chinese perceptions of threat from the north. China came under alien rule for the second time in the mid-seventeenth century; the conquerors–the Manchus–came again from the north and northeast.
For centuries virtually all the foreigners that Chinese rulers saw came from the less developed societies along their land borders. This circumstance conditioned the Chinese view of the outside world. The Chinese saw their domain as the self-sufficient center of the universe and derived from this image the traditional (and still used) Chinese name for their country–Zhongguo () , literally, Middle Kingdom or Central Nation. China saw itself surrounded on all sides by so-called barbarian peoples whose cultures were demonstrably inferior by Chinese standards. This China-centered (“sinocentric”) view of the world was still undisturbed in the nineteenth century, at the time of the first serious confrontation with the West. China had taken it for granted that its relations with Europeans would be conducted according to the tributary system that had evolved over the centuries between the emperor and representatives of the lesser states on China’s borders as well as between the emperor and some earlier European visitors. But by the mid-nineteenth century, humiliated militarily by superior Western weaponry and technology and faced with imminent territorial dismemberment, China began to reassess its position with respect to Western civilization. By 1911 the two-millennia-old dynastic system of imperial government was brought down by its inability to make this adjustment successfully.
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. 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.
Chinese civilization, as described in mythology, begins with Pangu (), the creator of the universe, and a succession of legendary sage-emperors and culture heroes (among them are Huang Di , Yao, and Shun) who taught the ancient Chinese to communicate and to find sustenance, clothing, and shelter.
The first prehistoric dynasty is said to be Xia (), from about the twenty-first to the sixteenth century B.C. Until scientific excavations were made at early bronze-age sites at Anyang ( ), Henan ( ) Province, in 1928, it was difficult to separate myth from reality in regard to the Xia. But since then, and especially in the 1960s and 1970s, archaeologists have uncovered urban sites, bronze implements, and tombs that point to the existence of Xia civilization in the same locations cited in ancient Chinese historical texts. At minimum, the Xia period marked an evolutionary stage between the late neolithic cultures and the typical Chinese urban civilization of the Shang dynasty.
Thousands of archaeological finds in the Huang He ( ), Henan Valley ( ) –the apparent cradle of Chinese civilization–provide evidence about the Shang () dynasty, which endured roughly from 1700 to 1027 B.C. The Shang dynasty (also called the Yin () dynasty in its later stages) is believed to have been founded by a rebel leader who overthrew the last Xia ruler. Its civilization was based on agriculture, augmented by hunting and animal husbandry. Two important events of the period were the development of a writing system, as revealed in archaic Chinese inscriptions found on tortoise shells and flat cattle bones (commonly called oracle bones or ), and the use of bronze metallurgy. A number of ceremonial bronze vessels with inscriptions date from the Shang period; the workmanship on the bronzes attests to a high level of civilization.
A line of hereditary Shang kings ruled over much of northern China, and Shang troops fought frequent wars with neighboring settlements and nomadic herdsmen from the inner Asian steppes. The capitals, one of which was at the site of the modern city of Anyang, were centers of glittering court life. Court rituals to propitiate spirits and to honor sacred ancestors were highly developed. In addition to his secular position, the king was the head of the ancestor- and spirit-worship cult. Evidence from the royal tombs indicates that royal personages were buried with articles of value, presumably for use in the afterlife. Perhaps for the same reason, hundreds of commoners, who may have been slaves, were buried alive with the royal corpse.
The last Shang ruler, a despot according to standard Chinese accounts, was overthrown by a chieftain of a frontier tribe called Zhou (), which had settled in the Wei () Valley in modern Shaanxi ( ) Province. The Zhou dynasty had its capital at Hao (), near the city of Xi’an ( ), or Chang’an ( ), as it was known in its heyday in the imperial period. Sharing the language and culture of the Shang, the early Zhou rulers, through conquest and colonization, gradually sinicized, that is, extended Shang culture through much of China Proper north of the Chang Jiang ( or Yangtze River). The Zhou dynasty lasted longer than any other, from 1027 to 221 B.C. It was philosophers of this period who first enunciated the doctrine of the “mandate of heaven” (tianming or ), the notion that the ruler (the “son of heaven” or ) governed by divine right but that his dethronement would prove that he had lost the mandate. The doctrine explained and justified the demise of the two earlier dynasties and at the same time supported the legitimacy of present and future rulers.
The term feudal has often been applied to the Zhou period because the Zhou’s early decentralized rule invites comparison with medieval rule in Europe. At most, however, the early Zhou system was proto-feudal (), being a more sophisticated version of earlier tribal organization, in which effective control depended more on familial ties than on feudal legal bonds. Whatever feudal elements there may have been decreased as time went on. The Zhou amalgam of city-states became progressively centralized and established increasingly impersonal political and economic institutions. These developments, which probably occurred in the latter Zhou period, were manifested in greater central control over local governments and a more routinized agricultural taxation.
In 771 B.C. the Zhou court was sacked, and its king was killed by invading barbarians who were allied with rebel lords. The capital was moved eastward to Luoyang ( ) in present-day Henan ( ) Province. Because of this shift, historians divide the Zhou era into Western Zhou (1027-771 B.C.) and Eastern Zhou (770-221 B.C.). With the royal line broken, the power of the Zhou court gradually diminished; the fragmentation of the kingdom accelerated. Eastern Zhou divides into two subperiods. The first, from 770 to 476 B.C., is called the Spring and Autumn Period ( ), after a famous historical chronicle of the time; the second is known as the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C. ).
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