Does China Really Have 5,000 Years of History?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012 | By:

It’s often said that China is a nation with 5,000 years of history. What you’re less likely to hear is a discussion of where that magic number comes from. Truth be told, what you find when you go back far enough is a loosely weaved tale of conflicting answers, divergent histories and celebrated heroes of varying authenticity. Try to pin this jumble to modern archaeological evidence, and the picture becomes even more blurry. So please, come along with us as we try to unravel this most sinuous of stories, and find out where – and when – this thing called China really all came from.

2700 BC – 2600 BC: Huangdi (黄帝) or “The Yellow Emperor”

Look for the origins of Chinese society and you’re undoubtedly going to come across one name: Huangdi, the legendary Yellow Emperor, the so-called “founder” of Chinese society. A member of the fabled Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, Huangdi is accredited with being the original unifier of China and setting it on the path of artistic and cultural development. This is all well and good, but there’s a snag – while Han Dynasty Chinese historian Sima Qian (司马迁), who lived well over 1,000 years later, does describe the exploits and existence of the Yellow Emperor, no archaeological evidence of the fabled ruler exists, suggesting that this Emperor is more myth than man.

2100 BC – 1600 BC: The Xia Dynasty (夏朝)

The Xia Dynasty is the first organized Chinese dynasty to be described in historical texts. The aforementioned Sima Qian asserts the existence of the Xia in his Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji, 史记), and other classical texts such as the Bamboo Annals and the Book of Documents (Shujing,书经) also describe such a society. However, modern historians now question whether the Xia constituted a functioning “dynasty” in the way generally defined today. If such a society did exist, it was prior to the development of the oracle bone inscription system, and modern archaeologists have been unable to connect artifacts from the time period to any sort of centralized dynastic system. Despite the insistence of ancient historians, the existence of a fully-fledged dynasty at the time of the Xia is suspect at best.

1600 BC – 1046 BC: The Shang Dynasty (商朝)

While the Xia Dynasty is practically defined by gaps in the archaeological record, the Shang Dynasty’s existence is all but beyond doubt. It’s at this point that the written history and archaeological evidence all start to line up, with thousands of oracle bone fragments and historical artifacts as well as numerous texts all pointing to a society arranged around a singular dynasty. This is where we can legitimately see an organized Chinese nation as we might conceptualize it today.

5,000 Years? Try 3,500

Now, it’s not the aim of this blog to be a wet blanket. The truth of the matter is, if we’re speaking of the geographical boundaries of what is now modern-day China, that magical number of 5,000 is an undersell – the Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian, for example, points to the existence of ancient societies as early as 11–18,000 B.C. It’s all a question of where you draw the line.

The problem with saying China has “5,000 years of history,” however, is that such a number takes into account long periods of time for which little concrete historical evidence exists, periods which fall more into the realms of mythology or folklore than anything else. This is to say, if we define “China” as an organized, dynastic society in the way most historians and archaeologists would conceptualize it, and we define “history” as a record supported by concrete evidence, that so-oft-repeated number is an overestimate of about 1,500 years.

But hey, what’s a millennium or two between friends?

Photo courtesy of Colin Cookman.

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16 Responses to Does China Really Have 5,000 Years of History?

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report

  2. Marcus J. says:

    /Despite the insistence of ancient historians, the existence of a fully-fledged dynasty at the time of the Xia is suspect at best./

    Why? There were plenty of fully fledged kingdoms/empires around in the Mediterranean at that time e.g. Eqypt. Saying there are no ruins is one thing, or that there are no artifacts, but flat out denying the possibility is wrong and frankly more than a tad racist.

    • Theo Gregoire says:

      “Despite the insistence of ancient historians, the existence of a fully-fledged dynasty at the time of the Xia is suspect at best.”

      This is a joke, correct? Horemakhet (Heru on the horizon), otherwise known as the Sphinx by the Greeks, has an ‘earliest’ estimated date of 18,000 years old. And Ta-Merri (Kemet), otherwise known as Egypt by the Greeks, was the last of the Great Nile Valley Civilizations in Africa.

      I defy anybody to tell me that Ta-Merri was not a ‘fully fledged’ civilization, or was sub-servant, in any way, shape, or form, to any other civilization before or since.

      • Keoni Everington (华武杰) says:

        Theo, the author was referring to existence of a fully-fledged dynasty in China at the time, not the entire world. That’s beyond the scope of this blog.

    • Hindsight says:

      This is euro-centric train wreck. The blogger lacked the historic knowledge to confirm these claims. I feel like a spectator watching a dentist lecturing about cardiac surgery. The entire post is silly. At least provide interpretations from the “Records of the Grand Historian” and analyze the evidence to back up your claim.

  3. jin says:

    Is the Longshan culture not Chinese enough for you? They had sophisticaded pottery and money.

    It seems like you are forcing a definition of history to suit your needs.

    Longshan Culture
    龍山文化 ca. 3000 BCE–ca. 2000 BCE


    • Christian Allen says:

      Marcus and Jin, thank you for your comments – we always value constructive criticism and discussion.

      I think the issue is not so much whether people and societies have existed for thousands of years, but rather, where you draw the line in terms of “when this-thing-we-call-China” began to take on its present form. This is to say, it’s not so much looking for evidence of the existence of people in the area as it is looking for the emergence of an organized country resembling the societal structure we see in China today. This blog adopted a more conservative definition of “China”, and drew the line a little firmer in the sand than you or others may have liked. That being said, I in no way intended to demean Chinese culture, and it’s been wonderful to learn about something that is still so uncertain, still such a gray area.

      Thank you for your feedback, and do not hesitate to share your thoughts in the future.

    • Keoni Everington (华武杰) says:

      First of all Jin, there are 18 documented Neolithic cultures in China that predate the Longshan culture by thousands of years. It seems that you are forcing your definition of Chinese history to fit the magic 5,000 number. Our point with this blog is that there’s no magic bullet telling us at exactly at what point this 5,000 mark supposedly starts and why. It seems quite arbitrary, why not the Pengtoushan culture which dates back to 7,500 BCE, they had pottery and cultivated rice? Secondly, the word Neolithic is derived from Greek meaning “New Stone.” That’s because this was the last phase of the Stone Age, and New Stone Age societies are not known for complex, highly stratified societies, with a few exceptions such as Native Hawaiian chiefdoms. Such primative societies traveling in small tribes existed all over the world at this time. With the current base of knowledge of human history and the dearth of physical evidence, there is no proof that there were large scale dynasties present in China during the Neolithic era you speak of.

      • Hugo V. says:

        Very interesting article.

        • Historybuff says:

          I have studied chinese history for 3 years and have accumulated hundreds of hours of study into all the nifty little details. The shang dynasty without a doubt existed. But here is something you probably didnt know. In 1600 B.C. Egypt very well was probably the most advanced civilization but no one matched chinese bronze metallurgy. The amount of artifacts collected and detail in the artwork from bronze bells, spears, drums, forks, and many other artifacts is without a doubt prove that the civilization was developing long before the shang. Also to mention the oracle bone characters is a fully developed script with ten of thousands of characters, several thousand still used today. What did the shang just magically appear in dynasty and coordinated culture form out of thin air. They beat the rest of the world to cast iron and steel. Also the shang kings are all listed in the oracle bones and bamboo and silk scrolls and if i remember the last few xia kings are as well. The great battle that led to the downfall is also mentioned in the shang documents. Why would imperial historians catalog old rulers if it wasn’t necessary to a balanced and complex culture already aware of its history. I would agree if someone wanted to argue that the 3 sovereigns and 5 Emperors were not legendary. But to refute the Xia dynasty is outrageous. That is like saying Confucius did not live, contrary to all the historical, cultural, literal, and practical records to prove otherwise. I am sure Sima Quan wouldn’t have documented records he found irrelevant either. China isn’t known for outlandish fantasies as radical as egypt, sumer, the aztecs or even the greeks and romans, but there are some no doubt. After all were are the greeks, romans, and aztecs, 4000 year old records today in continuity? China is the oldest continuously used written language, civilization, and calendar. That accounts for stability. And i am a american who lives in china!

          • Keoni Everington (华武杰) says:

            Historybuff, the point of this blog was to question the sacred, holy of holies, the 5,000 number itself, not the greatness of Chinese bronze metallurgy or existence of the Xia Dynasty. The point is that there is no magic bullet marking Chinese history exactly 5,000 years ago, it’s an arbitrary number, a myth. As a student history, you should have a problem with baseless mythology like this. Historybuff, please give me the event that occurred exactly 5,000 years ago to the day that represents the dawn of Chinese history, we’d be glad to invite you to write an in-depth blog detailing this precise date. If anything, Chinese history is much older. For example, the Banpo civilization that existed 6,700 years ago had sophisticated kilns than enabled them to create advanced ceramics. But the question is, do you want to include neolithic cultures or not?

  4. Stephen says:

    Great article. I too have always wondered where the 5,000 years number was drawn from. But isn’t counting from 2,100 BC a lot closer to 4,000 than 3,500 years?

    And to Marcus J who says, “Saying there are no ruins is one thing, or that there are no artifacts, but flat out denying the possibility is wrong and frankly more than a tad racist;” racist? What on earth what on earth are you talking about? You wouldn’t know racism if it bit you on the bum.

  5. Keoni Everington (华武杰) says:

    For all you Xia Dynasty proponents, here is a bitter pill for you to swallow: “There currently exists no convincing inscriptional, paleographic, or linguistic evidence for a Xià Dynasty that allegedly preceded the Shāng Dynasty.” Victor H. Mair, “Was There a Xià Dynasty?” Sino-Platonic Papers, 238 (May 2013)

    For the paper in full detail, read it here:

    • Solar says:

      It seems like this blog is arguing that because Xia might not be a fully fledged dynasty, it should not count as a part of Chinese history?

      That’s a pretty ridiculous argument to make.

      A more reasonable argument would be, do artifacts from the purported Xia period exist, and if so, can we see a continuous cultural evolution between these artifacts and the artifacts from the Shang dynasty?

      The answer to that question, by the way, is YES.

  6. Jual Nunez says:

    Amazing how the Bible is always being shown to be reliable.

    • Tom says:

      Thanks Jual Nunez for the reminder. Note the following points that the Chinese addressed their males “first born” or sensei, which means man were born (or created) first. This is in agreement with the Bible’s creation of Adam. Next, is that the man is the head of the house and all his descendants must take after his name as the surname or family name. That’s also in the Bible. Thirdly, there is the “first born” rights in the Bible — a distinct feature of the Chinese culture. And lots more if you care to compare. Hence, just go through the first five books of the Old Testament starting with the creation of Adam, down to Noal and the great flood, then the Tower of Babel….etc., and you can roughly get the “magic” number. But no one can arrive at any EXACT number such as 5,001 years for the Egyptian culture or 4,999 years for Chinese. Give and take, 250 years plus or minus, should be reasonable. But that’s far far closer to the Big Bang theory of hundreds of millions of years, man. Thank you for your patience.