18

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

  • @semaphore your answer is good but I was hoping for a more definite yes/no answer to my question of whether Chinese history spans 5000 years. Or perhaps historians have different views on the demarcation between history and prehistory, and so it depends - in which case a brief discussion would be great. – Kenny LJ Dec 26 '15 at 11:59
  • 1
    Isn't that exactly what my answer is? I gave you a definitive "no", and also listed six different views on how the history could be differently demarcated. What else are you looking for? – Semaphore Jan 8 '18 at 9:26
  • It should be noted that part of what's going on with those kids learning that China's history spans 5000 years isn't just adding in 1000-odd years of legends and ignoring ~800k years of the archaeological record but glossing over what China itself is. There's a separate question to be asked (no one seems to have) about 'How old is China?' with a lot of separate answers. The Xia, Shang, and Zhou were all separate peoples but English mostly thinks of them all as 'China' while excluding the Mongols, including the Qing, excluding various warlords, including the PRC, and excluding Taiwan. – lly Mar 5 at 7:59
  • (cont.) The Chinese boundaries are somewhat different (中國 includes both the PRC and Taiwan for most people on both sides), but like Semaphore noted there's a lot of power in the old written record which is why China only claims to be 5000 years old and feels great affinity to the Erlitou culture but much less of one to the various contemporaneous cultures in Shandong, Sichuan, and the Yangtze delta, let alone the various Indo-Europeans and other nomads kicking around the Tarim Basin. – lly Mar 5 at 8:06
  • (cont.) Another aspect of the answer to your question is that English has 'country,' 'nation', 'state' (plus 'land' &c.) for Chinese 國/國家, people living together under a government. English-speakers would be reluctant to use 'state' to describe ancient governments because of the modern baggage; we'd say the Chinese state changed many times but China has been one entity because its nation (here, people/culture) has been largely continuous. Non-academic Chinese don't look farther back into prehistory bc the lack of known leaders limits the age of their collective 國. – lly Mar 5 at 9:18
30

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 (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.
  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 Hsia/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 recovered oracle bone script records originated during his reign.
  6. 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):

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    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
  • 1
    @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
  • 2
    "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
  • 1
    @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
  • 1
    We agree on that, and I accept your point. – CsBalazsHungary Jul 24 '14 at 7:52
13

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.

(source)

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.

| improve this answer | |
  • The Xia dynasty may be described by early histories, but there is no written archaeological evidence of cultures earlier than the Shang, so any linkage to, e.g. the Erlitou culture is unproven. – mic Aug 30 '19 at 12:13
  • This could be a terser intro to Semaphore's fuller answer but China not being invaded many times by outsiders is nonsense. Aside from the list you already conceded that is as long as the Egyptian list you hold up for comparison, there were (inter alia) the Xiongnu, the Wuhu, various Turks, the Liao, the Khitans, and the western powers, as well as major destructive rebellions by both Han and minorities. – lly Mar 5 at 7:03
  • Similarly, the pictograms haven't changed all that much since the Han but there was a huge and illegible variation in characters before that, as easy for the Chinese to read as Assyrian for us. Meanwhile, Greek and Roman letters long predate the current Chinese characters and have changed less in the meantime. China's spoken language has changed as much as English, gaining tones and losing consonants. – lly Mar 5 at 7:41
  • None of which matters for the histories. Most Chinese can't read, e.g., most of Sima Qian directly but there are translations into modern dialects, like with Beowulf or Chaucer into modern English. – lly Mar 5 at 7:43
8

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.

| improve this answer | |
  • "people were living in the area" doesn't make history. E.g. just because Neantherthals lived in Germany, it doesn't make German history tens of thousands of years old. – Greg Jun 12 '16 at 15:26
  • 2
    @Greg, my point exactly. That's why it is called "pre-history." It could be argued that China didn't exist at all until the Qin legal codes. – axsvl77 Jun 12 '16 at 15:34
  • @Greg, sure it does. The problem isn't whether its accurate for some values of history; most people view history as everything we know about the past and only professionals really make axsvl's distinction about written records. The problem is that it's only accurate for some values of Germany. All the same, details about what we know about the prehistoric people within the borders of present-day Germany are absolutely (and correctly) under the #History heading of its Wikipedia article. – lly Mar 5 at 7:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.