Ancient History/China/Introduction

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An introduction to China[edit]

What differentiates Chinese history from the history of any culture of the world is its sheer magnitude. China is the oldest civilization that has continued an unbroken history into the contemporary world, and its pre-history, still being uncovered by archeologists, goes back at least as far as the famous Peking Man who lived nearly 400,000 years ago. The Chinese Neolithic Period is made unique to archaeologists by the sheer number of tools found littered within the cultural borders of its peoples. So one must always keep in mind that when discussing the history of China, you are discussing, without question, both the largest and longest living of civilizations that you can experience in the 21st century.

But the most remarkable aspect of Chinese history to any student (for the sheer massiveness of it all can prove an intimidating wilderness for any beginner) must be its unrivaled documentation. Chinese culture places an immense value on knowledge of their own history, and so current events have been documented meticulously throughout the country’s lifespan, beginning with the famous, “Records of the Grand Historian,” written in the Han Dynasty under the reign of Emperor Wudi by Sima Qian (who we will discuss later in the chapter on the Han Dynasty). In fact, when in the 1400’s, when in Italy Dante Alighieri and the Western World was concerned with the metaphysical questions enumerated in the “Divine Comedy,” Luo Guangzhong was writing the first novel in China, “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” which was itself based on historically accurate events that occurred in China between 190 and 280 AD! Literary works such as these, as well as dry, written annals, serve as guidebooks for the initiate, to lead you through the maze of foreign names and Dynastic cycles. But before we test ourselves against the veritable jungle of Chinese chronology, there are a few key principles to Chinese history that must be understood.

The Basics[edit]

Being so well established, Chinese history has certain patterns and principles, outlined and discussed by historians who themselves lived in antiquity, at least from our perspective. The historian/philosopher Zhu Xi, who lived in the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) outlined all of the legitimate dynasties up until his own, saying that only the Zhou, Qin, Han, Jin, Sui and Tang dynasties are “proper”, even though the common thought was that there were several more dynasties before that, and several vied for power in the dynastic shifts. He also elaborated that the rulers of Zhou (who were overthrown in civil war) were to be known as merely “kings” not “emperors”. This merely illustrates how central to politics and culture records and histories were to the Chinese people.

But above all of these petty definitional questions rises the one basic principle from which all of Chinese history is derived. It is enumerated in “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” as both the opening and closing lines. As it reads there, it is:

“The Empire long divided must unite, long united must divide. Thus has it ever been.”

The Chinese view of history is a cyclical one, a constant process of dynastic unity, and inevitable civil disarray. The Zhou Dynasty, then the Warring States Period. The Han Dynasty, then the Three Kingdoms Period, and so on and so forth. It could be compared to Hegel's dialectic version of history, save that the Chinese interpretation of the inevitable cycle is a much different one. Chinese history must be viewed by the learner, as we enter this jungle, through the lenses with which the culture looks upon its own history: from the perspective of the cyclical pattern, the cultural pride, and the ubiquitous and imperative striving for a Unified China.

A note on pronunciation[edit]

PINYIN ENGLISH WADE-GILES
c ts as in "tsar" tz'
z dz as in "adze" tz
j j as in "jug" ch
zh j as in "jobs"
q ch as in "China" ch'
x an airy combination halfway between "s" and "sh" hs

A common theme in any introduction to Chinese history is a discussion of the different English translations you will find of the same words, or names. The historian Sima Qian referred to above may be called by that name, or, under another system, he may be known as Ss'uma Ch'ien.

The two primary systems of English translation of Chinese texts are:

  • The Wade-Giles system, developed in 1867 by Thomas Francis Wade. It was later expanded and improved upon Herbert Alan Giles. This system is used mainly in the early translations of many Chinese texts, which were popular in the mid to late 1800's and early 1900's. This system is often associated with the flowery language of those early translations, and is given a negative connotation for being out of date, and too dry and scholarly for common use outside of academic circles.
  • The Pinyin system. This is the official transliteration system for Chinese to English, and as such, it will be employed in these articles almost exclusively. Any translations done in the Wade-Giles system exist only because no Pinyin counterpart could be found. But in the cases that a reader may have preexisting knowledge and be confused by these translations, or run across other translations in their own research (which we encourage you to do), the table at left should be sufficient to explain the significant differences in the systems.