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?

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    +1. "Always" is a bit overstating the case. Look at the warring states period. However, the area seemed to tend toward unity as a stable state (unlike Europe), and this is IMHO one of the great questions of history. – T.E.D. Oct 17 '12 at 13:29
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    @T.E.D. You are correct. Every several hundred years, China would spend a hundred years or so in disorder. Also, before I forget, I have to thank you for this question; do you remember this post? meta.history.stackexchange.com/questions/266/… – Russell Oct 17 '12 at 15:31
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    The same question could be asked about India or Africa, but remember also that the modern boundaries of China are mostly derived from the extent of the late Qing Dynasty. Historically, Xinjian and Tibet were not integral to "China," nor much of Mongolia. The area controlled by the Ming in the early 15th century is about the same area controlled by the Roman Empire in the early 2nd century. Roman power waxed and waned from around the 3rd century BC to the 15th century AD. – choster Oct 17 '12 at 20:01
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    @choster - Yes, but the RE broke up and never reconstituted, whereas China always did after its breakups. Getting at why is the heart of the matter. – T.E.D. Oct 17 '12 at 21:14
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    It's because the question itself is a tautology. We could turn it around and say: Why was Europe more united than East Asia (which you can define as China, Korea and Japan, which basically were NEVER united*)? China means basically the areas covered by Chinese states (Qin, Han, etc.), so of course it was covered by a single state much of the time, by definition. Of course, depending on how you define 'Europe', it pretty much was never united, either (certainly not all the way from Iberia to the Urals...) *Though the Japanese made a go of it in the 1930s... – AlaskaRon Sep 30 '16 at 6:42

13 Answers 13


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 or sinicization. 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 Chinese, 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.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – MCW Mar 8 '20 at 4:43

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 focused 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, the 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:

Moreover, protobureaucratization was logically incompatible with the governmental arrangements of the Roman Republic, which was controlled by a small number of aristocratic lineages that relied on social capital, patronage relationships and the manipulation of ritual performances to maintain power.

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.

  • I'm glad to see religion mentioned in this answer. Did China ever have any religious wars or schisms? If so I would be surprised. Organized religion (as in Europe) might be overrated if the organization can be done with a homogeneous culture instead. – DrZ214 Oct 14 '15 at 12:33
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    @DrZ214 one of the bloodiest wars in human history was a religious war in China: The Taiping Rebellion 1850-1864 - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiping_Rebellion – codeMonkey Oct 16 '15 at 19:59
  • @codeMonkey The Taipings are much better understood as a Han revolt against the hated Manchus; Hong Xiuquan's 'religion' didn't precede him, survive him, or have any adherents outside areas controlled by his armies. – lly Mar 7 '20 at 10:25
  • Otoh, @DrZ214, of course China had religious wars and numerous schisms, most famously the Yellow Turban Rebellion against the late Han that set off the Three Kingdoms Era. The Buddhist sects were always feuding with one another; the Taoists were generally trying to get the Buddhists outlawed for horning in on their fleece-the-superstitious-peasants turf; and the Confucians looked down on and occasionally banned both. As with the Taipings, though, it can be hard to judge how seriously to take the religious claims of (eg) the Triads, who started as regional religious rebels & ended as HK's mob. – lly Mar 7 '20 at 10:29
  • +1 for foregrounding the bureaucratic tradition, especially legalism surviving no matter what the propaganda said and the way that regional leaders usually had no personal powerbase to work from. It could use more about the importance of transport (Rome's Mediterranean & roads vs. the needs of maintaining China's canal networks & floodwalls) and defensible natural barriers (only really true of Guanzhong in China but separating each major cultural group in Europe) but maybe Scheidel didn't get into that. – lly Mar 7 '20 at 10:43

I think that stems from both geographic and cultural factors. At first it is almost like Jim Thio said, only that it may not exactly be mountains.

If you look at the early agricultural societies in the West, those would be 1) along the Nile River (Egypt) and 2) between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (Mesopotamia). Those are two places divided not by mountains, but by sea and desert. Later there were also agricultural societies on the island of Crete and on the Greek peninsula (which were also cut off from both Mesopotamia and Egypt by the sea). If you look at the early agricultural societies in the East Asia, those would be located primarily between the Yellow River and the Yangtze River, mostly on the North China Plain.

In the West, the diverse landscape prevented early cultures from directly 'meeting' each other and by the time they had actually 'met' they had already become very distinct. And by the time the subcontinent known as 'Europe' had risen to prominence (that happened late because Europe is located north of China; Europe is approximately the same latitude as Japan or Korea, both of which were not agricultural until at least 1000 BC despite agriculture beginning earlier than 5000 BC in Mesopotamia, Egypt and China) a certain culture had already been established in the region by the Roman Empire and Christianity. It would take a long time to describe the exact kind of culture it was but, to make long short, it was an individualistic culture that did not really care about the government and state. It was a kind of culture that tried to distance itself from Roman rule and Empire as that rule was in fact violent.

In China, on the other hand, there were no geographical obstacles that powerful at the early stages of civilization. Therefore different states constantly warred with each other from early times (consequently merging differing cultures to form China proper). Legalist and Confucian morals and political ethics, that were mentioned here, were in fact a response to those constant feuds. As for that, Confucianism in turn did not really care about religious beliefs and local customs, concentrating more on the social order and politics.

Therefore we have in the West 1) very little fertile land for early agriculture (for early agriculture the land must be very fertile, so that agriculture is advantageous compared to hunter-gathering) 2) major religions/philosophies (Platonism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Judaism->Christianity) that began in around the 5th century BC concentrating on uniting cultures that were very much diverse.

On the other hand, in China we have 1) a lot of fertile land comprising 'China proper' that has relatively few natural boundaries, most of which are not as significant as a sea or a desert. (For argument's sake, historically there were places in China that were hard to reach - parts of Vietnam and Thailand in the south and Korea in the north. At certain times China did control those lands, but for short periods of time and those nations certainly do not claim to be Chinese themselves - just as the British do not claim themselves Roman.) There were also 2) major religions/philosophies (Confucianism, Legalism, Taoism) did not try to unite the common cultures, but rather are about an 'order of things' that is above those cultures.

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    Welcome to History.SE, Mark Lazarevski! +1 for a great answer! – Gwen Jun 18 '13 at 15:05
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    I don't know that the sea "separated" these cultures so much as it connected them. It's always been much cheaper to trade by sea than by land, for one thing. – user4139 Jan 7 '16 at 17:55
  • It's easier to migrate from a village near the border in Hungary, to a village near the border in Austria, than to migrate from Egypt to Greece. What matters is the distance between the villages while crossing the border. The sea and the mountains increase this distance, so migration, thus homogenization, is decreased. – Jeno Csupor Feb 24 '20 at 0:28
  • @CsuporJenő In antiquity, that wasn't true for trade or mass movement, except among nomads. – lly Mar 7 '20 at 10:57
  • On the other hand, what @user4139 is forgetting is that the very ancient peoples had no way of sailing directly across the Mediterranean even when the weather might've permitted it. They were restricted to hugging coastlines for the longest time. – lly Mar 7 '20 at 10:59

It is a wrong assumption that Europe was never unified politically.

First, in 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 its height the Greek civilization included not only most civilized parts of Europe but also portions of Middle East and Africa. Northern Europe was not included mostly because it was not that 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 same role.

It was only starting with the High Middle Ages that the European nations began to assert sovereignty, partly because of the falling authority and prestige of the church.

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    Hey, I never thought of it this way; it wasn't that Europe never unified, but that there was nothing in (northern) Europe. I have only one objection; the See couldn't really unify all the princes and lords. Over all, a very good answer that sheds a new view on the question. Thanks. +1 – Russell Oct 18 '12 at 7:35
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    Not voting this down, but I do disagree with the first half (the second half of the answer is largely right though). Most of Greece's empire was Asian, and Rome never ran more of Europe than the extreme western areas. The only times in history Europe came close to being run by one entity were under Napolean and under Hitler, both in the modern era. – T.E.D. Oct 18 '12 at 13:35
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    @Russell - Actually, as bad as my spelling is, I'm kinda proud of myself for getting the two s's. :-) – T.E.D. Oct 18 '12 at 14:30
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    @Russell the western Europe was formally subjected to Holy Roman Emperor, who had the army. All the kings were considered vassals of the emperor. The breakup with France and England happened only when French (and English) kings failed to be elected to the position of emperor and Carolus V of Spain was elected intead. From that time on a rivalry between French kings and the house of Habsburg emerged as the kings claimed that the election of Carolus V was illegal. – Anixx Oct 19 '12 at 7:15
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    @Anixx - The HRE was essentially just Germany and the North of Italy. It was never even close to covering all Europe. – T.E.D. Oct 19 '12 at 12:49

To begin with, the statistics show China was under unified rule 44% of its time. The number for Europe is 18%. So we want to know why (and hope this question makes sense). So it is a comparative history question. In order to establish a comparative history, much effort has to be put in rather than a blind comparison. On this topic, a very good introduction is Rome and China, Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires, edited by Walter Scheidel & al. Its first chapter, Walter Scheidel's thesis "From the 'Great Convergence' to the 'First Great Divergence': Roman and Qin-Han State Formation and Its Aftermath", gives a taste of the recent scholarly work on this issue.

One should note that the notion of "reunification" does not lie in the foundation of Rome or Qin-Han empire, as they didn't have the concept of reunification. "Reunification" is merely a political vision (Europe) or reality (China) created during the chaos after the collapse of empires. Indeed, Scheidel argues, "Trajectories of state formation signally diverged from the sixth century c.e. onward", when "Justinian’s attempted reunification of the original Roman Empire was only partially successful" and Europe eventually resulted "in a cluster of polities in which balancing mechanisms prevented the creation of a core-wide empire" whereas "in 6 c.e. China, by contrast, imperial reunification restored the bureaucratic state that largely succeeded" (pp. 5-6).

To explore the deeper reason of such a outcome, if there is any, the author suggested that "a whole variety of factors may have been relevant." In fact, not all factors favor the reunification of China and against that of Europe. One example is the geography. The Mediterranean provided much faster and safer transportation connecting the provinces of the Roman Empire, whereas the rivers and mountains in China made communication more costly for it. Another example is religion. After Rome, Christianity spread across Europe. In contrast, in China, several religions, notably Buddhism and Taoism, competed for power and resources which extended to the time after the reunification of China under Tang.

Among the many factors that favors the reunification of China, one is capitalized in the paper, the state capacity. "It is true that Confucian scholars provided a suitable instrument of state management, whereas the absence of an equivalent group in the Christian West may have made it more difficult for post-Roman regimes to maintain or restore a 'strong' state" (p. 21). China eventually overcame the foreign challenges and restored the unified empire (Sui-Tang) again. Similar challenges were not successfully contained in Europe.

  • It's interesting that the geography of Europe vs China can be used to explain why Europe remained fragmented or - as you do - as an obstacle for unification. – user4139 Jan 7 '16 at 18:03
  • It's interesting how different this answer is from @lins314159's, despite being based on exactly the same source. I wonder if there's a way to combine the two answers, with you both getting credit for the upvotes. – lly Mar 7 '20 at 11:26
  • On the other hand, I would hope that some of this is a misreading of Scheidel, because the idea that the Qin and Han didn't think they were reunifying China is nonsense. Qin very clearly understood itself as helping then replacing the Zhou state, as the Han very clearly understood themselves to be replacing Chu and Qin. It doesn't discount his larger point: their reunifications only made sense because of the collapse of Zhou and Qin. – lly Mar 7 '20 at 11:44
  • Bizarre that he also considers AD 6 an important turning point, given that Wang Mang never did anything but continue the Han with adjustments to restore the supposed golden age of the Zhou and given that the Liu usurpers all very clearly understood themselves as continuations of the Han, not servants to China's abstract reunification. – lly Mar 7 '20 at 11:45
  • Finally, where did your percentages come from? and what're your "the statistics" counting as 'China' and 'Europe' for this unification? Most of us would think the number for Europe should be 0%, as even the Romans never bothered with Ireland, Denmark, most of Romania, &c. – lly Mar 7 '20 at 11:48

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: The Battle Against Rome 2/2 (Youtube).

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: Videographic: A history of modern Sudan (YouTube).

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:

Map of Europe, 1900.

Map of Europe 1900

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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    I disagree. If Rome "attacked the strongest of the Germanic tribes" then it was "conquer" and not "Divide and Conquer". Should lead straight to unification, not to division. Why Chinese fractions didn't try to divide China? And most importantly please do check your facts: Medieval Europe under British hegemony!?! Germany rising in 1880!?! Czechoslovakia and Poland created out of thin air in 1919!?! – kubanczyk Oct 19 '12 at 12:17
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    No, attacking the strongest one weakens the strongest one, making the group more divided within. Yes Britain wasn't that strong until the 17th century so it wasn't much it keeping Europe divided until then. Germany was very much rising in 1880, can read about it here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_Empire. And no, there was no Czechaslovakia or Poland in 1918. If you google "europe map 1900" you will find many maps pretty much all the same. They look like this: mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hist151/maps/big1900_files/…. – user202 Oct 19 '12 at 14:03
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    I happily provide more "misinformation" for you to ignore. This covers October-November 1918 when thousands of people (undoubtedly incited by British and French, no?) in a matter of days or weeks disarmed German units and formed their independent states: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Polish_Republic#The_beginnings, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origins_of_Czechoslovakia. Here is what the local people decided: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upper_Silesia_plebiscite – kubanczyk Oct 19 '12 at 16:36
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    Here Augustus emperor of Rome declares his policy towards Germania: youtube.com/… [We will always support the weaker one, and they will slaughter each other and we will sit pretty and have no trouble from them] Augustus, Rome, 9.ad. (indirect quotation). And that's why the Germanic tribes remained divided, the Romans always supported the weaker ones, to keep them fighting each other. – user202 Jan 2 '13 at 14:10
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    @Felix Goldberg - It didn't last past the end of the Western Empire. The idea that outside and inside powers worked actively to keep Europe from unifying is historical fact - in the Middle Ages, it was at various times the Vikings, the Muslims, the Turks and the Mongols, and then the British took over and kept at it until WWII, when it finally blew up in their faces. I'm genuinely puzzled as to why you think this is a conspiracy theory - it's sound history. – RI Swamp Yankee Jan 4 '13 at 15:11

The great civilizations of Eurasia has mostly risen up around rivers that go through big fertile plains. This is true for the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Indian and Chinese civilizations.

Europe's only candidate, the Eastern European plains, with Volga, was too cold and had too harsh winters to allow a big Neolithic/Bronze age civilization. As such, Europe was not a candidate of unification at this time, and the ability to keep a European empire together without one big river as the heart of the communication probably didn't arise until the Renaissance.

That Europe therefore has not become united until the last few decades (and even then it's rather split in two: Russia and EU) is hardly surprising from a purely geographic perspective. Europe is a "peninsula of peninsulas" and there are no geographic features to grow a civilization around.

A harder question is why only Rome succeeded in unifying the Mediterranean.

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    The Rhine and Danube cross Europe from one corner to the other, and nearly meet in the middle. Surely that's at least as good starting point for unity as the two widely-separated great river valleys of China. – user4139 Mar 20 '14 at 5:04
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    @JonofAllTrades Yangtze is 6300 km long, the Yellow river 4800 and the Rhine 1200. So I'm not so sure. The Rhine and Danube have been important centres for civilizations, but they each just covers quite a small but of Europe. It's hard to see them as unifying, as they go different ways, and are essentially isolated from each other by the alps. – Lennart Regebro Mar 21 '14 at 10:06
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    The Rhine and Danube run clear across the continent, from the North Sea to the Black; the number of kilometers is not the question, but rather the connectivity they allow. Far from being separated by the Alps, their headwaters are a mere 12 km apart, whereas the two great river systems of China are typically ~200 km apart in the middle of the country. So if we concede that river valleys are critical to early civilization, why did China end up largely unified despite having two widely-separated great river valleys? – user4139 Mar 24 '14 at 3:56
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    @JonofAllTrades It is the connectivity, but the length is relevant in that. It's really amounts to the amount of people you can connect so it's also about the type of land they run through. And that the sources of the rivers are near is really irrelevant (and also not actually true), as it's about getting a boat from one place to another. 12km of walking, or a waterfall, all makes a big dent into this. So empires arise where there are large areas where you can travel, trade and fight easily. Danube + Rhine does not make one such area, or it would at least at some point have been unified. – Lennart Regebro Mar 24 '14 at 13:17
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    In addition to that, Spain is isolated from the rest of Europe by Mountains, and so is to a large extent Italy. That means that their area of communication is the Mediterranean. And that's why the Roman empire was not a European Empire. – Lennart Regebro Mar 24 '14 at 13:20

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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    How does the ability to expand allow for easier reunification? I would have thought it was the other way around. Also, China has plenty of mountains. If you want to make the claim that they're in unimportant places, I'd like to see some citations. Off the top of my head, I can cite the case of the mountains in Hanzhong as a huge barrier to reunification during the three kingdoms period. – lins314159 Dec 24 '12 at 13:16
  • Yea. There is one river that separate the south and the north. There is one mountain. That's pretty much it. Much less mountainous. – user4951 Dec 24 '12 at 13:28
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    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? – user4951 Dec 24 '12 at 13:29
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    +1 This answer is not all clear but it contains a very good idea: the influence of mountains on the political landscape. – Felix Goldberg Dec 26 '12 at 14:48
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    Well, the case of three kingdom period actually supports my point. Cao Cao cannot conquer Sun Quan precisely because there is river. So natural state boundary often coincide with hard to pass terain. Europe has more of it than China. – user4951 Mar 31 '13 at 9:51

Chinese rulers put in place an extensive education and annual examination system to allow everyone in the country to serve the government and rise in society. This deliberately designed system for upward mobility was not seen in any other country of the time, and may have served as a catalyst for all people to assimilate and become loyal citizens. In fact these philosophies and values (mainly Confucius) were part of their studies, and were tested in the national exams.


I believe it's partly to do with coastal access. Countries and city states particularly in older times needed shipping lanes to trade and prosper. Regions further inland were highly dependent on coastal regions to provide them with access to these trade routes. Thus these regions on the coast grew wealthy and powerful, while those inland were somewhat disadvantaged. For those reasons it was easy for the coastal areas to exert power and influence, and it made sense for those further inland to cooperate.

If you look at Europe, no part is a long distance from the coastline, so the playing field was much more level and they could be more self sufficient due to easy sea access. Whereas in China the Eastern areas had a clear trade advantage, which is why the great cities like Beijing and Shanghai developed on the East coast.

Of course, there were inland trade routes as well like the silk route, so it's not completely one sided. Therefore it makes sense that both inland and coastal regions cooperated to get the most out of international trade.


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.

  • What does it mean "social community"? Are you referring to Confucian ideals of order? – Felix Goldberg Jan 8 '13 at 17:53
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    I agree that it might. However, it also might not. While you could be dead-on, its fairly easy to make reasonable-sounding general speculations of these kinds. Newspaper astrologers make their livings that way. So I'd like to see some kind of backup for such things before upvoting. – T.E.D. Jan 8 '13 at 20:06
  • Nationalism and individualism are quite new phenomenons. I don't think that's relevant. – Lennart Regebro Oct 12 '13 at 10:12

I don't think it is simply a matter of "Chinese culture was superior to all others in the region while European cultures were equal to each other" as the accepted answer says.

Instead, I think it has to do simply with history.

In Europe, there was an era of powerful city-states. The notion was that a group of people who banded together to live in a massive city would control and use the resources of their land for themselves and not have to share (forced or not) with others. They felt that each city should be able to care for itself.

This notion remained with Europeans throughout the centuries and there were always groups who preferred to keep borders small and were not interested in expansion, all they wanted was to look after their own community.

Even when things like the Roman Empire came along, it eventually dissolved because of a desire people had to be part of smaller, more intimate groups, rather than large nations and empires. This has repeated itself throughout history - as any time a nation tries to take over large amounts of land in Europe, it eventually dissolves back into much smaller groups. Because that's how the people WANT it to be.

This did not happen in China. There was no major "city-state" era in which people got attached to the notion of keeping things local. Even among the smaller states that did exist in the beginning, the theme seems to be that they were more interested in conquering their neighbors rather than looking after themselves.

That is what remains today. China is one of the largest countries in the world and Europe is full of much smaller countries who are STILL breaking apart to get as small as possible (Montenegro just separated from Serbia just a few years ago). When is the last time a group in China separated from the country? How about separated peacefully? Not for a long time!

This is also why concepts like communism are popular in China, where there is no sense of localization. Throughout their history they have always shared land and resources with as many people as possible (everyone in the vast kingdom). Meanwhile, in Europe, from the time of the city-states until now, there has always been a sense of locality with everything. People only want to share resources with their family and close neighbors, they don't want to share them with people hundreds of miles away. This is why concepts like communism failed in Europe, there has never been a history of "sharing" on a large scale there.

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    -1 It's not like Tibet does want to be separate. It's not allowed to. The question is why China has been able to keep the empire together, your answer essentially goes "because it was kept together" which doesn't answer the question. – Lennart Regebro Oct 12 '13 at 10:06

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.

  • 1
    So it this an answer or a question? – Felix Goldberg Jan 4 '13 at 12:01
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    Strange mixture of fact and opinion. The last sentence is clearly not responsive to the question and undermines the credibility of the prior assertions. – MCW Jan 4 '13 at 12:45
  • It's not top noch stuff, but it does add a few ideas. It's a hard one but, +1 – Russell Jan 4 '13 at 16:49
  • Sorry, downvote. – Felix Goldberg Jan 8 '13 at 17:52
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    Mixing up cause and effect. China has zillions of ethnicities who gradually homogenized under and melt into Han rule. – Greg Mar 8 '20 at 7:22

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