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China's 5000 years of history

Brace yourselves: China has 5000 years of history

Everyone’s heard the line about “China’s 5000 years of history” (or whatever figure is given), and as far as I can tell, quite a lot of people just swallow this idea, including major media organisations in other countries. Whilst obviously true in a literal sense, this 5000 year line has actually gained hold as an ideological tool rather than being meaningful historiography (see below), but let’s have a quick look at the idea itself first. It usually includes these elements:

  • China has existed for ~5000 years.
  • It has always been ‘China’, which is one thing.
  • Its borders ~2000 years ago were pretty much as they are today.
  • “Chinese people” has always been a concept and this group has always considered themselves to be “Chinese people”.
  • It is the world’s longest continuously existing political polity.

Similar claims about the Chinese language will often get thrown in with these, such as Chinese characters being the world’s longest continuously used writing system. Add in something about Beijing taxi drivers quoting Confucius, and you’ve got yourself a full package-cliché.

The funny thing is, of course, that none of these claims are true.

That point is about as obvious as they come to anyone who knows anything about China, but that doesn’t stop people who should know better from spreading this bit of nationalistic propaganda around. Although most readers are probably well aware of this, it’s still worth quickly refuting the ideas listed above:

Yes, the geographical area that is now the People’s Republic of China was there 5000 years ago and had people in it whose descendants continue to live there. But that’s about as objective as you can get with this claim.

The concept of ‘China’ has been drastically different throughout history. Apart from anything else, different dynasties tended to refer to themselves by their dynasty name rather than terms like ‘China’.

What is politically and geographically ‘China’ has also changed dramatically over the centuries. The starkest example is the relatively recent addition of Xinjiang and Tibet, which together make up almost 30% of China’s area (2800000km² of the PRC’s 9707000km²).

How exactly people in China have defined themselves historically is a hotly debated issue in academia, but in any case it’s clear that people certainly haven’t always thought of themselves as ‘Chinese’. There’s a multitude of other terms like 华人, 唐人 etc. that also try to cover this concept. Then you’ve got to consider the huge number of different ethnic groups that are also put under the ‘Chinese’ umbrella today.

The last point, that China is the world’s longest continuously existing political entity (or whatever), is the one that’s worth pulling out for the most ridicule, though.

Regime changes don’t count in China

When people talk about this 5000 years of history, why do they never see China’s many, many regime changes as cut-off points? Surely the current iteration of ‘China’ as a political entity has existed since 1949, giving it 64 years of history as of October 2013, not 5000. Before that it had a few more regime changes in the same century.

Everyone knows that this 5000 years line is pure propaganda that has been promoted with a cynical political purpose (see below). So why do people who should know better keep chucking it around in news articles and other media?

If regime changes don’t count, then any bit of land and sea on the world map can be said to have whatever number of years of history you like. My point here isn’t to deny that there is 5000 years of history in the area we now call China - that is of course true. What I’m saying is that it’s a banal and fairly uninteresting idea - _everywhere _has 5000 years of history by the same logic, but for some reason other areas aren’t seen in  this way. And it’s no secret what that reason is.

So what’s my actual point with all this? I think it’s best captured by this quote from the excellent book The Great Wall by Julia Lovell:

"Chinese history, or a particular view of that history, quickly became one of the most important weapons in the Party's armoury of patriotic propaganda: the proposition that the Communists were simply the inheritors of a tried and tested model of the unified, authoritarian Chinese nation supposedly established 5000 years ago - a date that coincides roughly with the period attributed to the reign of the Yellow Emperor, China's mythical founding ancestor, said to have ruled in the early third millennium BC. Capitalising on a long-held, though hazy, Chinese public pride in the antiquity of their state, the Communist patriotic education campaign transformed the idea that the Chinese nation leapt, fully formed, into existence thousands of years ago into a cliché spouted tirelessly by agents of the Chinese Politburo, by a number of opportunistic academics and by lazy tour guides, to bludgeon anyone listening - Chinese or foreign - into believing that this is how China always was; and evermore shall be (until the Communists say differently)." -- Julia Lovell, _The Great Wall_,_ _2007, p26

Another passage that gets at the heart of this issue is this one from Lucian Pye:

"The starting point for understanding the problem is to recognize that China is not just another nation-state in the family of nations. China is a civilization pretending to be a state. The story of modern China could be described as the effort by both Chinese and foreigners to squeeze a civilization into the arbitrary, constraining framework of the modern state, an institutional invention that came out of the fragmentation of the West’s own civilization. Viewed from another perspective, the miracle of China has been its astonishing unity. In Western terms the China of today is as if the Europe of the Roman Empire and of Charlemagne had lasted until this day and were now trying to function as a single nation-state." [— Lucian W. Pye](http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/45998/lucian-w-pye/china-erratic-state-frustrated-society)

I have been accused, ridiculously, of trying to claim that China does not have 5000 years of history. If you believe that is my point, please keep re-reading this article until you realise that it is not.