My purpose in this book is to narrate the long history of China within the larger context of world history. At each step along the way, I will try to address these questions: How has the development of Chinese civilization compared with contemporaneous civilizations elsewhere in the world? What has China shared with other civilizations, and what are the unique or distinctive traits of Chinese civilization? What is the history of China’s relations with cultures and peoples beyond its borders? How have foreign peoples—merchants, diplomats, missionaries, and soldiers—affected the development of Chinese civilization? What have been the most important changes and continuities in China’s long history?
Today we think of China as the world’s oldest continuous civilization. An identifiable and sophisticated Chinese culture emerged by 1500 bce and has shown remarkable continuity in its language, cultural values, and social and political organization over the past three and a half millennia. A major question in the study of China is how such remarkable linguistic, political, and cultural continuity could be maintained for so long over such a large area. Why was China, alone among the early human civilizations, able to sustain political, cultural, and linguistic unity and continuity over an entire subcontinent through a period of three thousand years without the benefit of modern industrial technology?
Jared Diamond has noted that all the great civilizations except China’s have been melting pots of many divergent peoples, languages, and cultures. And he insightfully adds that China began its early history as “an ancient melting pot.” That is, the area that defines China today began with a multiplicity of peoples, languages, cultures, and ethnicities, which, beginning in the second millennium bce, came to be conquered, dominated, absorbed, marginalized, or pushed away by the Han Chinese people, who around 1500 bceformed a sophisticated civilization with Chinese writing, bronze technology, an efficient and productive agriculture supporting large walled cities and towns, and powerful armies with crossbows, bronze spears, and horse-drawn chariots.
The distinctive patterns of Chinese social, economic, and cultural life have been profoundly influenced by the geographical setting of the East Eurasian subcontinent, which seems a logical starting point for this survey. For much of China’s history, Chinese rule only included the eastern half of today’s People’s Republic of China (excluding much of Manchuria in the northeast, Mongolia in the north, Xinjiang in the northwest, and the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau in the west and southwest).
The eastern Eurasian subcontinent forms a kind of checkerboard of mountain ranges running north to south and east to west, surrounded by steppe lands, deserts, and mountains. To the north of China are the forested steppe lands of Siberia in the far north, the forested mountains of Manchuria in the northeast, and the arid flat grasslands of Mongolia in the north. To the west lie the barren stretches of the Gobi and Takla Makan deserts, and to the southwest the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, with the world’s highest mountain peaks. To the east the long coastline, with few natural deep harbors, has provided another natural barrier against potential external threats for much of the past three millennia. These peripheral regions of ocean, arid steppes, deserts, and mountains were natural barriers that helped the Chinese maintain relative political and cultural continuity over three millennia.
The geographical setting of China helped facilitate political unity by limiting external threats from beyond China’s borders and by allowing greater ease of communication and transportation within China proper than with the outside world. Throughout China’s history, the peripheral areas have been relatively poor and sparsely populated. Until recently, for example, only 5 percent of the People’s Republic of China’s population lived in these regions. Yet, as will become clear below, these peripheral regions have also been steady conduits of products, customs, and peoples into the Chinese political and cultural realm. Thus, geography has deeply influenced both the remarkable continuity and the profound changes in Chinese life over the past 3,000 years.
Within China proper, or what we might call Inner China, two great river systems—the Yellow River in the north, the Yangzi River in central China—wind their way from west to east, draining water from the Himalayan range and from the other mountains that separate the rivers into the Pacific Ocean. Both rivers have been key factors in the development of Chinese civilization.
The Yellow River of north China is so called because it carries enormous quantities of yellowish silt, the fine-grained loess soil that covers most of the north China plain. Blown eastward from the Gobi Desert over many millennia, and also deposited far and wide by frequent flooding, this “Yellow Earth” (sometimes a metaphor for China itself) covers some parts of north China to a depth of 80 meters (280 feet). Its natural fertility helped facilitate the early development of agriculture and the growing of wheat and millet along the Yellow River around 5000 bce. Because North China is relatively dry (the Himalayas cutting it off from the monsoon rains of South and Southeast Asia), the Yellow River has remained too shallow in many places to serve as an effective shipping route. In the semiarid climate of North China, the Yellow River has been a key source of water for settled agriculture over the past four thousand years.
In central China, the Yangzi River carries far more water than the Yellow River and provides a major transportation and shipping artery through the center of the country. Abundant rainfall and subtropical temperatures in the Yangzi River valley make rice cultivation and double cropping possible. The same rainfall typically leaches fertility out of the soil in the Yangzi valley, but with the abundant application of human and animal wastes, and with the long growing season and abundant rainfall, the southern lower Yangzi valley has been the most prosperous part of China in the last thousand years. In the upper Yangzi, the Sichuan basin provides fertile and flat rice paddies watered with abundant rainfall and irrigation from many smaller tributaries of the Yangzi.
A third river system, the West River in the far south of today’s China, also flows from the Himalayas to the Pacific, but it drains a much smaller area and has fewer tributaries than the Yangzi River. The far south of China, with its rugged mountains, thick tropical rain forests, and accompanying tropical diseases, was fully incorporated into the Chinese state only in the last thousand years. This region is also the home of the largest number of non-Chinese peoples, hill tribes, and ethnic minorities, many of whom originated farther to the north but were pushed southward by the expanding Han Chinese settlers, especially in the last millennium. The West River delta regions in southeastern China enjoy abundant rainfall and a year-long growing season that allows three crops a year. The four major centers of Chinese population today are the eastern plains and deltas of the three great river systems and the Sichuan basin in southwest China.
When looking at China in the context of world history, several distinctive Chinese traits stand out. Since the early emergence of civilization along the Yellow River, Chinese agriculture has been the most labor intensive and the most productive in the world. Wet rice production, for example, is extremely labor intensive and also extremely efficient in the numbers of people it can sustain per acre of paddy land. Thus, the very nature of Chinese agriculture provides a strong impetus for population growth. Throughout most of its history China has been one of the most densely populated areas on earth.
Some have argued that the labor demands of irrigation and water management have conditioned the Chinese to be a collective-minded rather than an individualistic people. Karl Wittfogel famously argued that this “hydraulic society” produced a unique form of “Oriental despotism,” in which the needs of the ruler and the collective always took precedence over the needs and rights of the individual. While most scholars today reject any simplistic geographic determinism, it is undeniable that the Chinese have long shown a keen interest, and great skill, in organizing people for specialized tasks on a large scale, whether for wet rice cultivation, bronze or pottery making, or the building of roads, dams, canals, and defensive walls.
Another strong continuity in Chinese civilization has been a respect for ancestors and an emphasis on family life organized in a patriarchal fashion, that is, with descent traced through the male line, the senior male assuming authority over everyone else, and males alone inheriting property. Royal tombs from as early as 1200 bce reveal that ancestor worship was a key social practice at least among the political and social elite. When Confucius in the fifth century bce praised filial piety as the foundation of all moral virtues, he was affirming values that were already centuries old.
A final distinctive trait that has been evident throughout the last four millennia in China is a tendency toward what I might call an optimistic humanism. Chinese thinkers have generally seen the universe as a friendly place and human beings as capable of steady moral improvement if not perfection. They have also generally seen all of human life and the entire cosmos as one interrelated whole where every single entity is ultimately related to every other entity. This holistic worldview is evident in most Chinese approaches to ethics, cosmology, society, government, economics, medicine, and history.
Cultural continuity will thus be a major theme in the history that follows. But cultural continuity is only one side of the coin in China’s long history. Change is the other equally important factor. We should keep in mind, for example, that the geographical parameters of today’s China did not take shape until the eighteenth century, less than 250 years ago. China’s geographical boundaries throughout its history were constantly shifting, sometimes expanding and sometimes contracting. And contrary to the popular stereotype of China as isolated and unaffected by the outside world, China was frequently influenced in profound ways by the peoples and cultures beyond its borders, whether by armed nomads to the north and west, Arab traders traveling by the Silk Route or by sea from the Middle East, Indian traders and Buddhist missionaries from South Asia, non-Chinese peoples including Koreans and Japanese in the Northeast, Vietnamese in the Southeast, Tibetans in the Southwest, and hundreds of hill tribes in what today is south and southwest China.
I cannot give a detailed picture of every phase of Chinese history in this short book, but I will try to cover the essential developments in each period, with special attention to the ways the Chinese people lived and viewed their world. I will also try to situate these developments within the context of world history, noting parallel or contrasting developments elsewhere, and paying particular attention to Chinese contacts and interactions with other peoples and places. The sorry history of imperialism in modern times has made the Chinese (and the rest of us, too) more self-consciously nationalistic about their (and our) country and its past. As Victor Mair has noted, modern nationalism and narrow academic specializations everywhere have led historians today to downplay international, interethnic, and intercontinental contacts and influences, especially in earlier times. The popular assumption of Chinese (and many Western) historians has been that China developed its unique form of civilization without many outside influences or contributions. I will challenge this assumption directly. I believe it is no denigration of Chinese genius or ingenuity to note how often the Chinese have borrowed institutions, inventions, products, and procedures from non-Chinese outsiders, sometimes willingly and sometimes reluctantly or by force, but all the while adapting them all to Chinese purposes.