A Concise History of China
Chapter 1: AN INTRODUCTION TO CHINESE HISTORY
This chapter covers the following topics:
To understand the history of a country properly, it always helps to know something about its geography as well; such is the case with China. The land where the Chinese civilization first arose was in the valley of the Yellow River (Huang He in Chinese). The climate is cold and semiarid, where the only reliable water supply is the river itself. The soil, however, is extremely fertile; it is a very soft, stoneless yellow soil called loess (pronounced "loose") by geologists. Both the Yellow River and the Yellow Sea are stained by it, giving them their names; the Chinese idea that yellow is the color of emperors may have also come from the loess. Unfortunately the Yellow River is not an easy river to tame. The loess erodes easily and fills up river beds, raising the water level steadily until it breaks out of its banks and causes floods. And because China's rain pattern follows a monsoon-type seasonal cycle, if enough rain falls on one area to cause flooding, then there will be drought and famine elsewhere. To make matters worse, dams, levees, and other flood-control devices do not work for long on the Yellow River, because when it flows out of its banks it sometimes finds a completely new channel to follow, meaning that the river has changed course several times since the beginning of history.(1) Because of all these problems, the river has been called "China's sorrow."(2)
South of the Yellow River is the Yangtze, the most important river of modern China. Because the north China plain is too cold to grow rice, the Yangtze valley has become China's main agricultural area. Also, the Chinese have always preferred traveling on water over other forms of transportation, so the rivers are the country's east-west highways. To make boating more convenient, the Grand Canal, a 1,000 mile-long north-south waterway, was dug to connect the Yellow & Yangtze Rivers in the sixth century A.D.
South of the Yangtze River the terrain becomes more rugged, and the vegetation changes from deciduous forest to jungle. Communication in this region is difficult, and the Chinese have settled here slowly. These Chinese speak many dialects that are different from Mandarin, the dialect spoken in the north; in fact, northerners and southerners cannot understand each other's speech, only their writing is the same! In addition, there are several non-Chinese ethnic groups living here like the Miao, Yi, and Zhuang; like the American Indians, they are trying to maintain their culture while modern civilization surrounds them. Among these tribes the Yi enjoy a privileged status, because they became the first non-Chinese group to support the communists in 1935.
Where ten Chinese dialects are spoken. In Western nations, Yue is often called Cantonese.
It is not only to the south that the Chinese have found natural barriers hindering their settlement. To the west rise up the mountains that form the Tibetan Plateau, "the roof of the world." To the north lies the desolate Gobi desert, home of the Huns, Mongols, and other nomadic tribes that have rarely given China peace for long. To the northeast is Manchuria, a land rich with minerals (and the center of modern Chinese industry) but with a climate cold enough to experience snow up to nine months of the year. Not until 1830 did large numbers of Chinese begin leaving their homeland to live in other countries; their isolation from other centers of civilization such as India, the Middle East, and Europe convinced them that they were the most civilized nation on earth and that China was the best place to live. This egocentric view pictured China as the center of the earth, around which all other countries revolve, and even the Chinese name for China, Zhongguo, means "the Middle Kingdom." Their attitude toward foreigners is affected the same way; foreigners who do not accept the Chinese way of life are "barbarians."(3)
1. The earliest writing that we have dates to about 1500 B.C.
For these reasons, the first two millennia of Chinese history are often regarded by non-Chinese scholars as a bunch of legends, if not outright myths. However, in more recent periods the Chinese have been extremely honest in recording what happened, so the details given to us concerning the first dynasties--the Xia, Shang and Western Zhou--may actually be true; we just have no way of knowing for sure.(4)
Here is a story showing the importance the Chinese placed on true history. During the Age of Warring States (see Chapter 2), a general in the feudal state of Qi (modern Shandong) murdered his duke. The duke's official historian recorded this coup by writing, "General Cui murdered his ruler." The general heard of this, executed the historian, and appointed his brother to take his place. He asked the brother what he intended to write about the murder. "I shall record the event exactly as it happened," answered the new historian. The general was furious and had him put to death also. A third brother (they were from a family of scholars) was appointed and asked the same question. "I shall write the truth," he answered, "and I shall also have to record the fact that you have put to death two of the state historians." The general gave up; he saw that his name was getting blacker with everything he did, and that there was no way of escaping history. Hopefully he acted more carefully after that.
For most of recorded history, China was unified, and their records give the impression that it has been this way from the beginning. However, in recent years archaeology has uncovered several ancient cultures in the area, from Sichuan to Shandong; so far twenty-two cultures have been identified just for the neolithic era (before 1500 B.C.). This means that in the past there were several "Chinas." Apparently each of these cultures formed a tribe or nation, with those in Henan and Shaanxi provinces being the most advanced. Later on, in the period between 1000 and 200 B.C., the whole north China plain merged to form first one culture, then one nation. This process was strongly encouraged by the state policies of the Qin and Han dynasties (see Chapter 3), so the records of the defeated states were either lost or destroyed. It now appears that when the historians talked about the Shang Dynasty replacing the Xia, and the Zhou dynasty replacing the Shang, what they really meant was that a nation named Shang conquered a nation named Xia, and later a third nation named Zhou conquered Shang. A parallel in the west would be the Romans conquering and absorbing the Etruscans, only to fall to German-speaking tribes like the Goths and Lombards. Now that the European nations are trying to unite, perhaps two thousand years from now historians will see Europe's history as the rise & fall of royal houses, rather than the rise & fall of separate nations. The rediscovery of these lost Chinese cultures is already rewriting the history books; perhaps the stories behind them will soon be discovered, too.
Another important concept in Chinese history is the idea of a "Mandate of Heaven." Before the last dynasty was abolished in 1912, the Chinese believed in a divine-right monarchy; the first emperor of each dynasty was seen as having been given the right to rule from Shang Di, the god of Heaven. Whenever the emperors grew cruel or incompetent, it was said that the Mandate of Heaven had been taken away from them, and bestowed upon the family of the person who overthrew the last monarch of the dynasty. Floods, earthquakes, famine, widespread corruption, and successful barbarian invasions were seen as signs from the gods that the mandate had been removed, and a revolution was often soon to follow. This has given the Chinese a strong cyclic view of history, a belief that no ruling dynasty will last forever. However, unlike India's cyclic theory of history, which says that the ups and downs of civilizations are god-ordained and unchangeable, the Chinese believe that their cycles are caused by the actions of men, and the emperor was doing his proper duty when his actions postponed the next downswing for as long as possible. That belief gave scholars a strong incentive to study history, so that they would learn from previous examples how to run the state properly.
Unlike other very old nations, China is still going strong, and likely to remain a nation to reckon with for the foreseeable future. This has given the Chinese a tremendous pride in the durability and continuity of their own civilization. One of their proverbs states that, "Just as all water becomes salty when it flows into the sea, so everyone who comes to China becomes Chinese." This reveals another secret of China's success as a civilization; while they have often been conquered by an invader with superior military capability, the overwhelming numbers of the Chinese people allowed them to assimilate their conquerors. What these alien rulers wanted the most were gold, silk, political power, grand titles, and marriages with Chinese princesses to make their rule legitimate. To get all these things, and the cooperation of their Chinese subjects, the rulers adopted Chinese ways of doing things and Chinese ways of thinking. Those who refused to become Chinese were thrown out of the country, when the Chinese got tired of having them around.
1. It is used in all English-language publications that are printed in Mainland China. Taiwan, however, still uses the older Wade-Giles system that was developed by missionaries; be aware of the differences.
C = pronounced like the "TS" in "bits," or the Hebrew letter Tsadee.
This is the End of Chapter 1.
A Concise History of China
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