If you look at a map of China through the ages, you will usually find (from about the Han up) a huge mass representing China. On the other hand, you look at a map of Europe, and you'll usually see a huge number of states. Why was China able to unify and not Europe?
China (or at least its core) had a central, unifying culture built around philosophers such as Confucius and Lao-tse that was attractive to people over a wide land area. Also, the Chinese written language was developed from pictograms that represented "words," which although pronounced differently in different locations, could have the same meaning over wide land areas.
This core culture was widely admired, which is to say that people on the "edges" of "China" were often open to assimilation. And the country was fortunate that when conquered, it was by more "backward" (but fiercer) people such as the Mongols and Manchus who were glad to adopt Chinese culture, and also impose it on conquered people.
In Europe (at the risk of oversimplifying), there were three main cultural linguistic groups, Latin, Germanic and Slav, of roughly equal power and influence. While the balance of power shifted back and forth over the centuries, no one group became dominant. And often, they could not impose their culture over smaller subgroups that got in their way. In theory, Latin might have fulfilled the function of a common language like Chines, but (apart from modified forms such as French, Spanish or Italian, in most of the former Roman territories), it never took hold over the common people in the rest of Europe. Nor was there a common culture in most of Europe, at least until the time of the Enlightenment.
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It is a wrong assumption that Europe was never unified politically.
First, in the ancient times the cultural development of different European peoples was very diverse. The most advanced peoples of Europe adopted the Greek culture, alphabet and gods. You can see this on the example of Etruscans who used the Greek alphabet and worshiped the Greek gods. The same can be said about the Balkan peoples, Spanish peoples and to a certain degree about Italians. Germanic and Celtic peoples of the time also used Greek alphabet for their languages.
At the height the Greek civilization included not only most civilized parts of Europe but also portions of Middle East and Africa.
The North Europe was not included mostly because it was not that much developed at the time.
Later the civilization of Rome followed which also included the the most civilized parts of Europe and Mediterranean with some other areas as client states.
In the Middle ages, the Catholic Church and the Holy See took the role.
It was only starting with high middle ages the European nations began to assert sovereignty, partly because of the falling authority and prestige of the church.
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In Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires, the first chapter by Walter Scheidel, From the "Great Convergence" to the "First Great Divergence", makes the case that the Chinese style of government focussed on centralising power while the Roman style allowed for a great deal of autonomy for appointed officials.
The Warring States era pitted states of similar size against each other for centuries, necessitating governmental reforms that strengthened the power of the central government. Qin implemented various measures that weakened the power of nobles, established standards across the kingdom (everything from language and currency to the size of axles) and allowed the central government to reach into all areas of society, with ultimate power being in the hands of the king. When Qin conquered its rival states, it sought to impose this same system throughout China, and despite its rhetoric, Han actually adopted most of Qin's institutions. Rome had comparatively brief periods in which it was matched against opponents of similar strength. Thus, its war efforts did not require the same level of internal reform and centralisation. Scheidel writes also that:
Scheidel notes that Chinese cities were typically governed by officials who came from outside the region. Thus, they were viewed as government appointed administrators rather than the community leaders who formed city councils in the cities of the Roman Empire. In times of disunity, Chinese warlords were more likely to be acting as pretenders to the throne than as representatives of regional interests.
In terms of philosophy and religion, China was founded on a combination of legalism and Confucianism. Both of these stressed the importance of centralised control and an ordered society. Rome was founded upon first paganism, then Christianity. Scheidel does not mention the former, but Edward Gibbon makes the case that paganism allowed for greater tolerance of the local customs of conquered areas, and it makes sense that this also allows for greater acceptance of autonomous government. When Rome turned to Christianity, it was to "churches that had evolved outside and in some sense in opposition to the imperial state" and therefore "could not offer comparable services" in terms of governance to Confucian scholars.
There was always somebody around Europe applying the Divide and Conquer strategy. When the Roman empire was at it's peak they consistently attacked, or supported the enemies of, the strongest of the Germanic tribes to make sure none of them would become too strong. Even those desperately trying to make friends with the Romans... if they were too strong.. peace was impossible. As Augustus, emperor of Rome so memorably put it "We will make sure we always support the weaker side, so they can keep fighting the stronger ones, and we're sitting pretty and the Germanic tribes are no longer a trouble for us" Augustus, Rome, 9.ad. Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAQqIcBamhs&feature=player_detailpage#t=2343s
The same has been true later on except then it was the British making sure no one would become too strong. Most of the African nations they created were nations the locals didn't really want to make, and they were made specifically with civil war in mind. Sudan for instance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fj4hWU3VNr0.
When the French became all powerfull in 1812 the British did all they could to weaken them. And then Germany started rising in 1880 and by 1910 the British were onto them this time.
Also at the rape at Versaille in 1919 the divide and conquer strategy was thoroughly applied to central europe. Czechaslovakia and Poland were created out of thin air and Germany was shrunk and made to pay enormous fines etc. Also Austria-Hungary, Germany's main ally was completely dissolved. Map of Europe in 1900: https://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hist151/maps/big1900_files/1900big.jpg
So this division within Europe is not a coincidense but a design. The same goes for the middle East and Africa.
But why wasn't somebody maintaining division within China in the same way.. well, the west did try to break China up in the 19th century, the country was split up into provinces each under the jurisdiction of a given western nation. The problem was that the Chinese were much more populous than the entire western world combined, plus traveling this distance was still quite expensive. So maintaining a large army that far away was logistically difficult. Also anti western sentiment in China grew with time and eventually became such that life for westerners there became bad. Also, the United States was against any trade restrictions with China.
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The foundation of the ideal of being Chinese for different Sinitic peoples (northern Han, Wu, Cantonese, Min etc) might have been stronger than Christianity in Europe and prestige of Roman empire. Besides (and related) nationalism and individualism in Europe might have been factors while Chinese are more social community.
Look at internet. No barrier of entry. So google grab all the niche. It's things like that. Now look at your local store. Why they don't expand all the way to Arab?
The answer is something called barrier of entry. It's just as costly for google to expand to your neighbor than to Arab. So they expand everywhere. Your local coffee shop doesn't have that luxury.
The same goes in China. No mountains means there is no barrier of entry for the most disciplined, smart, meritocratic king to expand everywhere else (it's really a bad thing but does sound positive).
In Europe, they got mountains forcing kings to maintain niches.
China contains plenty of land. In business term, there is no barrier of entry for those with lower marginal cost to expand to new territory.
Europe is mountainous.
Say I am winning. I may have the best army. People may fear me more. It costs less for me to screw others than for you to fight against me. But alas, all these mountains is hard to travel. The peasants don't talk my language.
In other word, in Europe, defender got more "home territory" advantage. In china attackers have about equal advantage with defenders.
Note: Well, the case of three kingdom period in China where China is NOT united, actually supports my point. Cao Cao cannot conquer Sun Quan precisely because there is a river that gets in the way (or so simplistically said). So natural state boundary often coincide with hard to pass terain. Europe has more of it than China.
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Let me throw my two cents into this debate. The other reasons that China was able to unify because of race and religion.
China has one pre-dominant ethnic group, Han, sharing a common written language ('hanzi') and common familial bonds (millions of Li, Zhang, Chen, etc).
Chinese are generally religion-agnostic. That's why Buddhism and Taoism have coexisted in China for millennia. Chinese people believe more in "good fortune", ie. karma, than any particular religion.