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Chinese kids the world over are frequently taught that there is "5000 years of Chinese history". What basis is there for this claim?

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3 Answers 3

The basis for the 5,000 years figure comes from tracing Chinese "history" to the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. This figure includes over 1,000 years of legends. The next 1000 years are semi-legendary, being only somewhat corroborated by historical evidence. We start to have fragmentary historical records for a few centuries after that, but true recorded history is generally held to have begun in the 8th century B.C., less than 2800 years ago.

Therefore, whether Chinese history is really 5,000 years is quite dependent on how broadly you want to define "history". I'll list a few of the major points here:

  1. c. 3,000 B.C. : Fu Hsi, traditionally regarded as the origin of Han Chinese civilisation. The source of the 5,000 years of history claim. First of the Three Sovereigns.
  2. c. 2,400 (2,600) B.C. : The Yellow Emperor, traditionally regarded as the ancestor of the Han Chinese people. In ancient genealogy, progenitor of the royal houses of all three ancient Chinese dynasties. First of the Five Emperors.
  3. c. 2,200 (2,400) B.C. : Emperor Yao, traditional starting point of historical annals. One of the Five Emperors.
  4. c. 2,100 B.C.: The Great Yu, founder of the Xia Dynasty. Start of hereditary dynastic rule in China.
  5. 1192-1150 B.C.: Wu Ding, 29th King of the Shang Dynasty. Source of the oldest Chinese records. The majority of oracle bone script records originated during his reign.
  6. 841 B.C.: Chou Interregnum, established after tyrant king Li of Chou was exiled. Start of consistent recorded history in China.

Contrary to the assertions of some, written history was very prominent in China long before the Tang dynasty. A strong culture of writing existed in Ancient China, as attested to most famously by extensive inscriptions on some 150,000 pieces of oracle bones found from the reign of King Wu Ding of Shang (1250-1192 B.C.) onward. Important documentation of historical events begin to appear en masse in inscriptions on bronzewares by the Chou Dynasty (770-255 B.C.).

Such archaeological sources provide corroboration for ancient history chronicles as well as primary information. The highly influential Han Dynasty Records of the Grand Historian by Ssuma Chhien (139–86 B.C.), for instance, provided a list of Shang Dynasty kings which were confirmed in the early 1900s by oracle bones excavated from Anyang. The oldest extant fragments of this text date from the Northern and Southern Dynasties period (A.D. 420-589).

Canonically, the oldest history text was the Classics of History. It was "edited" together by Confucius (551–479 B.C.) during the Spring and Autumn Era, from a collection of earlier works. The oldest existing copy is a set of excavated bamboo slips, dating from the mid-late Warring States Era (c. 305 B.C.).

Traditional versions of the Classics of History date from the Chin Dynasty (A.D. 265–420), after known original copies were destroyed during the Qin Dynasty's suppression, and the early Han Dynasty recreations lost in warfare. Notably, during this period a set of ancient historical annals were discovered in an old tomb: the Bamboo Annals. It appears to be the official history of the State of Wei (403–225 B.C.) from the Warring States era, and recounted history from pre-Xia Dynasty legends to the reign of King Hsiang (319–296 B.C.). Unfortunately most of its contents has been lost.

A notable example of a well-preserved ancient Chinese history manuscript comes from a set of annals contained in bamboo slips excavated from the tomb of a government official in Yúnmèng. The Shuihudi_Qin Annals recorded major events of the last century of the Warring States era, leading up to the conquest of the six eastern states by Qin. This set of annals were produced during the short lived Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.) and was part of an extensive collection that seemed to have helped the official (whose tomb it was found in) administer the Qin Qmpire's laws.

Major early Chinese historical writings (all dates approximate):

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As I read Fu Xi was more like a mythical figure in chinese history, he said to live 190 years, also Yellow emperor was idealistic figure. I say this is where the legends start and history stops, but +1 for a good collection of data. –  CsBalazsHungary Jul 22 '14 at 14:39
@CsBalazsHungary well, they both belong to the legendary era, so obviously I'm not saying their tales are absolute facts. On the other hand they are recorded in ancient Chinese histories, and there's no reason why the Yellow Emperor couldn't have been a real leader of a Chinese tribal confederacy. I'm not sure what you mean by "idealistic figure" here. –  Semaphore Jul 22 '14 at 14:51
"In traditional Chinese accounts, the Yellow Emperor is credited with improving the livelihood of the nomadic hunters of his tribe. He teaches them how to build shelters, tame wild animals, and grow the five Chinese cereals,[18] although other accounts credit Shennong with the last. He invents carts, boats, and clothing." from wiki. I seriously doubt this was work of a single man. As it stated this is Chinese tradition, so it is more like legend than an actual historical fact. The existence of yellow emperor is not a question, but his historical weight is. –  CsBalazsHungary Jul 24 '14 at 6:04
@CsBalazsHungary For the last time, I'm not trying to debate the historicity of the legends associated with this figure. My answer is trying to point out the various major points in time to which people could (and has) stretched Chinese "history" as including. If you agree that his "existence" is not a question, then his deeds are irrelevant. –  Semaphore Jul 24 '14 at 6:07
We agree on that, and I accept your point. –  CsBalazsHungary Jul 24 '14 at 7:52

Well, to be factual, more like 4100 years+ of history is available for study. Xia Dynasty is dated back to cca 2100 BC - 1600 BC, numerous sites approves these dates. Before these days dates and historical records get more and more inaccurate and entering into the realm of legends. "5000 years" seems more like a generous rounding up, but it is not very far from reality.

The Xia Dynasty (2070 BC - 1600 BC) is the first dynasty in China to be described in ancient historical chronicles. The Records of the Grand Historian and the Classic of Rites say that Yu the Great, the founder of the Xia dynasty, was the grandson of Zhuanxu, one of the legendary "Five Emperors" who were the first rulers of China.


Chinese history is well documented since their writing system of pictograms changed relatively few compared to the European, Middle-Eastern writing systems. So their historical documents in any form or shape still readable for researchers who studied the evolution of pictograms. To get the history recorded there is an important factor as well: China wasn't invaded many times by different cultures. Hereby I compare with Egyptian history: Kopt, Greek, Roman, Arabic, Colony eras are switching each other. In China they assimilated everybody they could, and only the Mongols could force them to knees as a country. Other than Mongols, Manchus could conquer China (and became a Dynasty in the row) and the imperial Japan managed to partially conquer China.

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It is very difficult to find any Chinese historical writing that is not a copy which is verifiably earlier than the Tang dynasty (about 700 A.D.). The Nestorian Stele (781 A.D.) is one of the earliest known historical documents written in Chinese. There are some earlier writings, such as copies of the Analects of Confucius on stone supposedly dating to around 175 A.D., however, these are philosophical writings, not history.

There is a historical tradition in China which dates back far before the Tang dynasty and was primarily oral, but it is difficult to know how much of it is has any basis in reality. The Chinese routinely made up "facts" of various kinds and ascribed them to ancient "historians" and this practice was considered normal and acceptable. It is more or less impossible to verify anything before the Tang dynasty because there are no stone inscriptions comparable to those we have for Egypt, Greece, Babylon, Sumaria etc. Even verifying events from the Tang dynasty is difficult.

What is clear is that before the Tang dynasty, writing was very rare and Chinese society was illiterate. We know this because all the tombs and other ancient sites before the Tang dynasty never have any inscriptions. For example, the famous Terra Cotta Army of the emperor conventionally dated to the 3rd century B.C. is gigantic, yet contains no inscriptions or writing whatsoever (except inventory marks on the weapons), and as a rule other such sites before the Tang dynasty are the same way.

China had a very strong oral tradition which continued right into the 20th century. It was required of students to memorize and be able to recite long passages from Confucius and other philosophers. History was much less important, but was apparently memorized in the same way. Unfortunately, cultural upheavals and evolution affect such traditions, which has left pre-Tang history in a very uncertain state.

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I found this answer interesting but am in no position to judge its veracity. Down-voters care to comment? –  Kenny LJ Jul 25 '14 at 7:04
@KennyLJ Unfortunately, there are a lot more people who are interested in "promoting" China, than in doing objective and factual history (even in the US). Obviously, they don't appreciate people like me applying Western standards of scholarship to Chinese "history". It is an interesting contrast to the Japanese, who are an extremely factual people. Comparing Japanese historical records to Chinese ones is like night and day. –  Tyler Durden Jul 25 '14 at 9:08
I'm not in a position to seriously judge any answer. However the other answers give me at least the appearance of being better substantiated (e.g. by giving some links) and moreover conform more to what I believe is plausible. What you say might certainly be correct, but I'd have to read more about it OR you have to provide better evidence for your points. –  Kenny LJ Jul 27 '14 at 13:55
the first statement is false, the oldest written chinese memories are from Shang Dynasty from around 1200-1050 BC –  CsBalazsHungary Aug 12 '14 at 11:29
Mostly turtle shells, for example: farm3.staticflickr.com/2122/1797193886_45b5511aa4.jpg –  CsBalazsHungary Aug 12 '14 at 12:53

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