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Does China Really Have 5,000 Years of History?

We examine the origins – and authenticity – of the so-frequently used number

10·24·2012 | 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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