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China’s Five-Thousand Year History: Myth or Reality?

Xian warriors © javierdh/ Public domain/ Pixabay

China claims to have five thousand years of continuous history. Historians tend to reject this claim. At the heart of this debate lie questions about what History is, how it should be measured, and how it relates to contemporary politics. But who is right? And why does this matter? European Guanxi investigates.

The claim

Chinese leaders, officials, writers, journalists, and citizens have repeated that China is a five-thousand year old civilization since the People’s Republic of China’s inception. The Chinese people take great pride in their history. Internationally, that it has a long and continuous history is one of the best-known facts about China: everyone you know is probably aware of this to some extent. In 2007, then Google chief executive Eric Schmidt famously referred to China’s five thousand year history as a symbol that things (i.e. progress) take time (Ross, 2014). More recently, former United States President Donald Trump went one step further and praised China for its “8000-year history” - an obvious mistake that few others could have made, but that is still representative of common perceptions about Chinese history (Linder, 2018). Trump’s gaffe is understandable. Many foreign diplomats report feeling pressured to mention China’s long and continuous history when they visit the country (Ross, 2014). Not doing so, they say, could offend their Chinese hosts (Storozum, 2019). The ‘5000 years’ claim is so widespread that it has even led to perceptions about the exceptionality of Chinese civilization. Martin Jacques, in his 2012 book When China Rules the World, famously argued that China should not be understood as a “nation-state” like all others, but as a “civilization state” instead, the implication being that China is “different,” and will thus not be able to abide by the confines of Western international order (Jacques, 2012).

But is it true?

Not really, but it is not necessarily wrong either. It all depends on the definition of History that is used (Kuo, 2018). In the Western historiographic tradition, the history of civilization starts with its earliest written records. Through this approach, the earliest traces of Chinese civilization are the jiaguwen 甲骨文, oracle bone inscriptions upon which records of royal divinations were carved or inscribed. These oracle bones go back to 1200-1700 BCE (Li, 2002), which would make Chinese civilization ‘only’ 3200-3700 years old. This number is still extremely impressive, although it is more than a millennium short of the ‘5000 years’ claim.

Another definition of History would be to count the start of a civilization with its earliest mentions. The ‘5000 years’ claim traces the origins of Chinese civilization to the “three sovereigns and five emperors” and the mythical Xia dynasty that are mentioned in numerous classics of Chinese folklore (Gordon, 2010). The Chinese word for ‘Emperor,’ for instance, derives from the legendary Huang Di 皇帝 (Yellow Emperor). Unfortunately, there is no written proof for the existence of either these mythical figures or the Xia dynasty (Allan, 1984). But even if the Xia dynasty did exist, its estimated start date, according to the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project commissioned by the PRC in 1996, would be around 2070 BCE, still a millennium short of the ‘5000 years’ claim (Li, 2002).

More recently, another research project commissioned by the PRC confirmed the presence of human civilization on the territory of modern China tracing back to 3000 BCE: the Liangzhu site (Samson, 2018). The Chinese government was quick to proclaim this as ‘proof’ that Chinese civilization is five thousand years old. But for others, it only led to another question: what can be defined as being “Chinese civilization”? After all, the idea that Chinese history has always been linear or continuous is the subject of serious debate among historians of China (Ross, 2014). Over five, four, or three thousand years, the territory of modern China has been inhabited by a variety of peoples. Can we group them all under the banner of “Chinese civilization”? The Liangzhu site confirms the presence of civilization in China five thousand years ago, but it does not prove the existence of the Xia, of the Yellow Emperor, or of any other mythical figure to which the ‘5000 years’ claim traces its origins. As such, ‘people who share a common cultural heritage have lived on the territory of modern China for five thousand years,’ might be a more accurate statement than ‘Chinese civilization is five thousand years old’ (Storozum, 2019).

Where does the claim come from?

On one hand, the PRC has consistently used this claim to boost domestic patriotism (Gordon, 2010). It is well known that History is written by the winners, but more importantly, history is crucial in the formation of national identity. As stated earlier, the Chinese people are proud of their history. The ‘5000 years’ claim signals that there is something special about Chinese civilization, and thus about Chinese identity, that demarks it from the rest of the world. Over five thousand years, the world has changed, civilizations and dynasties have come and gone, but the Chinese people have remained. Through this claim, then, the PRC can stimulate a sense of national pride. In addition, by referring to China’s continuous history, it can present itself as the legitimate incarnation of a thousands years old civilization.

On the other hand, Western lovers of China are also responsible for this claim since they have fully embraced the narrative of ‘5000 years.’ Western elites have historically tended to ‘mysticize’ the Orient: to portray China as an exotic place with peculiar traditions and an attractive ancient philosophy (Gordon, 2010). This phenomenon was famously called “orientalism” by Edward Said (Said, 1978). Perceiving China as having an ancient history only reinforces this romanticised, orientalized idea of China. As Ross argues, this perception encourages the feeling in the West that “they [the Chinese] were building a civilization while we were still living in caves,” thereby allowing the West to accept the ‘5000 years’ narrative (Ross, 2014).

Does it matter?

Five, four, or three thousand years of history: all are impressive either way, and all would qualify China as having one of the oldest human civilizations. Chinese history is fascinating, terrifying, beautiful, and intriguing all at the same time. Dynasties succeeded one another, each contributing to Chinese culture in their own way. What difference does a starting point make?

Well, first of all, the claim matters to the PRC. Not one, but two archaeological projects were commissioned by the Chinese state in the past 25 years to provide proof for the ‘5000 years’ claim (Storozum, 2019). These projects were massive, they were expensive, and they severely tested the limits of modern archaeological practises. The research was not confined to single sites but was conducted across a large territory in central China. The state would not commission such a project, let alone twice, if it did not truly care about its potential results.

Secondly, the claim matters to historians who see the behaviour of the Chinese state as hypocritical. The criticism that they bring up is that the PRC displays pride in Chinese history, yet also destroys it. As Ross argues, “there is hypocrisy in glorifying one’s history while simultaneously being bad at actually preserving it” (Ross, 2014). The cultural revolution is the obvious case in point. Scholars estimate that the “vast majority of China’s cultural artefacts, old books, and antiques, were destroyed between 1966 and 1976” (Gordon, 2010). Of course, stating that the Chinese Communist Party has been responsible for the single greatest act of destruction against Chinese history is not permitted in the PRC. Today, too, one need only look at the wholesale destruction of Beijing’s hutong 胡同 and Shanghai’s shikumen 石库门 - precious architectural relics of China’s Qing dynasty - to see how the PRC’s modernization drive treats Chinese history (Gordon, 2010).

Thirdly, the claim matters because it has often been used by the PRC to justify the slow arrival of political reforms (Ross, 2014). The ‘5000 years’ claim could also be heard as ‘here, things take time.’ In the 90s and 2000s, the claim was employed to argue that universal norms, such as human rights, could not apply to China since its civilization is ancient and anchored into different ways of thinking (Shanghaiist, 2018). Thus, the claim has been instrumentalized by the PRC to legitimize its governance style.

So …

It is difficult, if not impossible, to truly answer whether or not China has five thousand years of continuous history. However, exploring this question clearly reveals a lot, both about the way that History and civilizations are thought of and about how History is related to domestic politics in the PRC. And if no definite answer can be found, then perhaps there is no need to. It is of course important to remain aware of the context behind claims such as the one that has been analysed in this article. But certainly, there is also value in simply appreciating Chinese history for how incredibly rich, interesting, and ancient it is, whether three, four, or five thousand years old.

Luka De Boni is currently a PhD researcher at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies in Hamburg. His research focuses on the behaviour of authoritarian regimes China and Russia in global governance, particularly in the field of human rights. You can find him on LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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Allan, Sarah (1984). “The Myth of the Xia Dynasty,” The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland Vol.2, 242-256.

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