Chinese kids the world over are frequently taught that there is "5000 years of Chinese history". What basis is there for this claim?
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:
- c. 3,000 B.C. : Fu Hsi (pinyin Fu Xi or Fuxi), traditionally regarded as the origin of Han Chinese civilisation. The source of the 5,000 years of history claim. First of the Three Sovereigns.
- 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.
- c. 2,200 (2,400) B.C. : Emperor Yao, traditional starting point of historical annals. One of the Five Emperors.
- c. 2,100 B.C.: The Great Yu, founder of the Hsia/Xia Dynasty. Start of hereditary dynastic rule in China.
- 1192-1150 B.C.: Wu Ding, 29th King of the Shang Dynasty. Source of the oldest Chinese records. The majority of recovered oracle bone script records originated during his reign.
- 841 B.C.: Chou/Zhou Interregnum, established after the tyrant King Li 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/Zhou 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 Ssu-ma Chhien/Sima Qian (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/Sima Jin Dynasty (A.D. 265–420), after known original copies were destroyed during the Chin/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-Hsia/Xia Dynasty legends to the reign of King Hsiang/Xiang (319–296 B.C.). Unfortunately most of its contents have 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 Yunmeng. The Shuihudi Chin/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 Chin/Qin. This set of annals were produced during the short lived Chin/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 Chin/Qin Empire's laws.
Major early Chinese historical writings (all dates approximate):
- ??? B.C. - The Classics of History
- 1046-??? B.C. - The Book of Chou/Zhou (original)
- 722-481 B.C. - The Spring and Autumn Annals (of the State of Lu)
- 5??-4?? B.C. - The Discourses of the States
- 389 B.C. - The Chronicle of Tso/Zuo (Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals)
- ???-2?? B.C. - The Records of the Generations
- ???-2?? B.C. - The Bamboo Annals
- ??? B.C. - Yan Yin's Spring and Autumn Annals
- 239 B.C. - Lu Pu-wei/Lu Buwei's Spring and Autumn Annals
- 100 B.C. - Records of the Grand Historian
- 018 B.C. - The Biographies of Eminent Women
- A.D. 04? - The Book of Yue
- A.D. 056 - The Wu and Yue's Spring and Autumn Annals
- ??? B.C. - A.D. ??? - The Stratagems of the Warring States (a compilation)
- A.D. 111 - The Book of Han
- A.D. 196 - The Records of Han (Tung-kuan/Dongguan Records of Han)
- A.D. 297 - The Records of the Three Kingdoms
- A.D. 376 - The Annals of the Later Han
- A.D. 445 - The Book of the Later Han
Well, to be factual, more like 4100 years+ of history is available for study. The Xia Dynasty is dated back to c. 2100 BC - 1600 BC, and numerous sites have been found meeting these dates. Well before that, dates and historical records get more and more inaccurate and enter into the realm of legends. "5000 years" seems 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 little compared to the European and Middle-Eastern writing systems, so their historical documents in any form or shape are still readable for researchers who've studied the evolution of the pictograms. To get the history recorded there is an important factor as well: China wasn't invaded many times by different cultures. Here I compare with Egyptian history: Copt, Greek, Roman, Arab, and colonial eras succeed 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) and the imperial Japan managed to partially conquered China.
I like @Semaphore 's answer above. I'd like to clarify a little:
What kind of history are you asking about?
There is an important distinction between recorded history and pre-history. Generally speaking, when people speak about history, they are referring to recorded history, which requires the answer to be no, Chinese history is between 2,500 and 4,000 years old, depending on how reliable you view the source material.
Pre-history relies more on legends, oral history, and archeology. Chinese pre-history extends at least 10,000 years - to at least 8,000 BCE. For example, the domestication of millet occurred about 12,000 years ago, as shown by an archeological site containing >50,000 kg of millet in storage containers. This article (which I find interesting) give the details about an ancient neolithic agricultural community, that had evidently existed for some time prior to their storage of these vast quantities of grain.
So we have about 12,000 y.b.p. as a starting date for agriculture. People were living in this region at least 750,000 years before that! So when did pre-history begin?
History, however, relies to a great deal on written records. The written history for the warring states period 476 - 221 BCE., is very strong. So it can be agreed that History in China is more than 2500 years old (2015-476 ~ 2500 years).
Written history before this time becomes less historical and more legendary. Certainly the Zhou dynasty information is more factual, and again, @Semaphore's answer speak very well about the historocity of the Shang. The older history includes something like this:
After the heaven and the earth were founded, there was Tiānhuáng who had twelve heads, cast his magic to fill the earth with water. He lived until his age of eighteen thousand.
Of course, this is an extreme example. See this SE question. I think a reasonable start to Chinese recorded history is 4000 years before present. Either way, Chinese recorded history is between 2500 and 5000 years old, depending on your view of the source material.