Questioning China’s “5,000 years” master trope

“About four or five thousand years ago, numerous tribes began mobilizing in the Yellow and Yangtze river basins…” begins this chapter from volume one of the national junior high school history textbook.

The name “China” straddles two different entities, Zhongguo (中國), the Chinese state, and Zhonghua (中華), the Chinese nation. The state, i.e., the Chinese Mainland, consists of one dominant ethnic group, the Han, and 55 or so officially designated non-Han ethnicities or “Minority Nationalities.” The nation refers solely to the Han Nationality. A huge diaspora of Han Chinese live outside the borders of the Mainland, with some 50 million in Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, and perhaps another 50 million in other countries around the world. The Mainland government secures the most legitimacy when these two concepts of “China” are confused and conflated in the public mind. To most Mainland Han Chinese, the terms Zhongguo and Zhonghua together constitute a “Greater China.” Not all in the diaspora identify with the Mainland government, of course; many are hostile to it. Within the Mainland itself, not to mention Hong Kong and Macao, there are divisive fault lines: nationalists who support the government, nationalists who don’t, and people who are averse to nationalism and jingoism altogether, who while they may love their country don’t much care about politics.

But what most Chinese of whatever political persuasion agree upon is the figure used to mark the extent of their lineage: “5,000 years of civilization” and “5,000 years of history.” It’s the most repeated phrase you’ll hear the Chinese use to describe their country. The notion of ancient civilization in the Chinese mind is inseparable from China itself. Thus a statement once leaped out at me from a Mainland publication in an otherwise informative article on recent archeological finds:

China website set up outside the Mainland with a “5000 Years” category for cultural news (

“The origin of Chinese civilization has long been a complicated and confusing issue in China’s academic circles. Though boasting 5,000 years of civilization, the widely acknowledged beginning of the civilization with historical records could be dated to the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC – 1100 BC), thanks to the discovery of oracle bones.” (“More light shed on China’s ancient past,” China Daily, August 21, 2009)

Now, wait a minute here. If this “widely acknowledged beginning of the civilization with historical records” was meant to include the entire world, we were going to have to get a few facts out on the table. But that couldn’t possibly be what was meant, I decided, given the imperfect control Chinese journalists tend to betray over English syntax. Surely what the author intended to say was “the widely acknowledged beginning of Chinese civilization with historical records” (the clumsy definite article of “the civilization” supposedly referring to the “Chinese civilization” of the previous sentence).

I have long been interested in how this “5,000” figure took hold, what founding or inaugurating event it was which established around 3000 BC the entity known as China, and what particular evidence has undergirded this early date. For as even official Chinese accounts will admit, it is an era shrouded in mystery and mythology.

Before we get started, let me make an important distinction. While the terms “history” and “civilization” are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. The history of a culture essentially has no beginning, as any alleged starting point can be pushed back further and further ad infinitum. Thus the Chinese could claim up to 10,000 years of history if they really wanted to, going back to the earliest days of agriculture, with pottery fragments as evidence. But by that logic, all of the great civilizations could claim 10,000 years of history (earlier than that and we have the last Ice Age to contend with). A country’s civilization is a different matter. It refers to organized society and the building of cities, and only gets underway thousands of years after the introduction of agriculture. Civilization is roughly synonymous with a country’s recorded history.

The junior high school history textbook (vol. 1)

I figured the most logical source to turn to would be Chinese high school history textbooks, which could be assumed to have pared everything down to a collection of essential facts shorn of distracting historical or scholarly debates.

Let’s begin with the standard Mainland textbook for first-year (grade 7) junior high school students, Zhongguo Lishi [Chinese History] (Beijing: Renmin Jiaoyu Chubanshe, 2011). After opening chapters on Peking Man and primitive agricultural communities in the Zhejiang Province area harking back 7,000 years, we find the first 5,000-year reference in chapter 3: “About four or five thousand years ago, numerous tribes began mobilizing in the Yellow and Yangtze river basins” [距今约四五千年,我国黄河流城和长江流域,活动着许多部落]. A legendary figure known as Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, united the various tribes to defeat the army of Chi You and establish the Chinese nation. “Tradition has it,” the narrative continues,

“that Huangdi built palaces, manufactured clothing, dug wells, invented the vehicle, and established the foundation for future generations’ livelihood. His wife cultivated silk, his subordinate Cang Xie invented written language, and so on, thereby earning Huangdi the title ‘Grandfather of human culture.’”

After a succession of rulers, Yu the Great founded the first dynasty, the Xia, in 2070 BC. Incidentally, it’s from the Xia Dynasty, or 4,000 years ago, that the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan inaugurates the start of “Chinese culture” (as displayed at the entrance to the museum exhibits).

What is noteworthy is that the traditional dating of the Yellow Emperor’s life from 2697 – 2597 (or 2696 – 2598) BC is here omitted from the textbook, as I suspect it would sit uneasily with the broad brush strokes describing his realm as being “about” (约) four or five thousand years ago. It is also noteworthy that no evidence is given for the alleged invention of Chinese writing at this early date (a point to be returned to below). Anthropologists refer to the era just after this as Longshan culture (c. 2500 – 1850 BC), when the first walled settlements appeared.

Front cover of the junior high school history textbook (vol. 1)

Chapter 4 handles the remaining formative period of Chinese antiquity, the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BC) and the Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 256 BC), when ancient Chinese culture flourishes. The other chapters of volume 1 cover the history up through the last dynasty, the Qing.

Volume 2 (grade 8) deals with Chinese history from the Opium Wars to the present. Volume 3 (grade 9) is devoted to world history, and here we get some mention of other ancient civilizations, notably those of Sumer (dated to 3500 BC), Egypt (3000 BC) and briefly, the Indus Valley or Harappan civilization (2500 BC). There is a map showing the territories of these three civilizations along with the Chinese. A practice question has blanks to fill in the relative dates of the four civilizations. One wonders how a student is expected to answer, particularly if he or she feels obliged to mark Chinese civilization as the earliest: “5000 BC” (the Zhejiang agricultural excavations)? “3000 BC”? Or “About 3000 – 2000 BC” (the reign of the Yellow Emperor)? All three volumes are then memorized in preparation for the national senior high school entrance exam known as the zhongkao.

Senior high school history textbook (vol. 1). Note the side-by-side images of Yu the Great and the oracle bone with the earliest Chinese script, misleadingly linking the two as contemporaneous.

The senior high school series, Lishi [History] (Beijing: Renmin Jiaoyu Chubanshe, 2011), recapitulates much of the same history, though with a thematic rather than chronological emphasis. Volume 1 skips over the Yellow Emperor legend to take up Chinese history proper in 2070 BC from the Xia Dynasty. An interesting juxtaposition of images appears on the first page of chapter 1, with a picture of the Xia Dynasty’s founder Yu the Great next to a picture of an oracle bone engraved with early Chinese script, and a caption describing its function. Since no dates are provided in the caption (nor anywhere else in the chapter), any student would naturally assume that the two images are contemporaneous and Chinese script was invented at the time of Yu the Great, not 700 – 800 years later when the first oracle bones actually appeared. The rest of the volume quickly outlines the nation’s history through the Qing Dynasty, before shifting to the significant developments in Western history that have a bearing on present-day China—ancient Greek democracy, the American and French revolutions, and Marxism. The rest (and the bulk) of volume 1 is devoted to modern Chinese history from the opium wars of the 1840s onward.

Front cover of the senior high school history textbook (vol. 1)

Volume 2 handles Chinese and world history from the standpoint of exploration and technology; volume 3 from the standpoint of culture and philosophy. The students read the three mandatory (bixiu) volumes in their first year and a half. Science-tracked students (the majority of senior high students) do not take any more history after this. Arts-tracked students go on to read several out of six optional (xuanxiu) volumes in the series, typically volumes 1 and 2 or 1, 2 and 4, depending on the school. Regarding ancient world history other than the Greek, Egyptian civilization is given brief treatment in volume 6 (“Chinese and World Heritage Sites”), which is not among the volumes covered on the university entrance exam, the gaokao. And not only would curious students be discouraged from wasting valuable study time on volume 6, they would likely be forbidden from reading it, being a dangerous distraction in the hothouse competitive environment of Chinese secondary education. Parents are known to punish their teenage children if caught reading for pleasure, even literary classics, tossing out the offending books like contraband. Not all Chinese parents are so intolerant, but many are.

The content the students are tested on in the gaokao is never spelled out exactly and varies from one year to the next. The best high schools, known as “key” schools, employ teachers with reputations for divining what the students will be tested on and have a knack for deciding which history content to reinforce and which optional volumes to assign. If this sounds confusing, the entire gaokao exam is an impenetrable hermetic concoction only China could have cooked up and bears more relationship to the elitist Imperial Civil Service exam of centuries past than a state-wide exam in the modern era. Favoring their own residents, the prestigious cities—Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, etc.—discriminate against university applicants from other provinces by raising the exam score bar higher for them than locals to get into the same schools. As this has been a sore point engendering huge discontent, these cities, in order to obscure this discriminatory policy, have come up with their own versions of the exam, each differing from the national version, thus making it more difficult to prove discrimination across the board. In turn, the provinces have created their own versions, even assigning different textbook series for their schools. There is much overlap and all students end up studying roughly comparable material, but predicting the content of any version of the gaokao is a black art.

Meanwhile, knowledge of ancient civilizations other than the Chinese is shunted aside, if not intentionally dispatched down the memory hole. To contextualize and understand the development of civilizations, we need a comparative approach, and this is precisely what is avoided, by a clever system of selective displacement. Junior high school students learn about ancient Chinese civilization in the first semester of their first year, and about other ancient civilizations two years later, in the first semester of their third year. Any instructive comparisons that could be made are not explicit and pedagogically driven but implicit, to be worked out haplessly if at all by the student. Senior students learn little about world history except where it has relevance to China, namely the trajectory from ancient Greece to the Opium Wars, Marx and Chinese Liberation. The token gesture to earlier ancient world civilizations is hidden in a show volume (vol. 6) not to be taken seriously, the last volume in an optional series for senior students who themselves are not taken seriously—those tracked into the arts.

Let’s review. In addition to what they may already have imbibed in their youth from exposure to common lore and the mass media, their six years of high school education has equipped the students with the following dates from the ancient Chinese era, some idealized and some with more basis in fact, but all geared to shore up the “5,000-year” starting point. There is the mythologized realm of the legendary Yellow Emperor stretching as far back as 3000 BC (“four or five thousand years ago”), though his birth according to popular tradition took place around the year 2700. Then there is the gray era of the Xia (2070- BC) and the Shang (1600- BC) Dynasties, about which relatively little is known due to the absence of written records, until the discovery of oracle bones in the late Shang Dynasty around 1200 BC (which date neither the junior nor senior high school textbooks mention, as it would conflict with the supposed invention of writing during the Yellow Emperor’s realm almost 1,500 years earlier). Finally, there is the first dynasty grounded in extensive archeological and written records, the Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 256 BC).

Evidence for the starting point of mature civilization in China thus accumulates over time and does not really become overwhelming and uncontroversial until the Zhou Dynasty, 3,000 years ago. One can push the date of Chinese civilization back 5,000 years only by extending history into the realm of hypothesis and myth. The reason why the Chinese endeavor so hard to do this is understandable. First, there is a solidity, a clarion ring to the sound of “5,000” that “4,000” or even “6,000” lacks. The only other round number that would ring as impressively would be 10,000, marking the emergence of agriculture in various regions across Asia from the Near East to China. During the first few millennia of agriculture we are not even close to the beginnings of civilization anywhere. We are in the Neolithic era, when primitive societies were forming and people were learning how to grow crops and domesticate animals in tiny villages so that they wouldn’t have to keep packing up and moving on in search of food.

5,000 years ago (actually a few centuries before that) does happen to be the starting point for the earliest full-fledged civilizations, and China wishes to be counted as a member of this exclusive club. The only problem is, four ancient civilizations appeared long before Chinese civilization reached a comparable stage of development. These civilizations were so much more advanced than China’s that they were already in decline (or were being supplanted by newer kingdoms or empires), having flourished over the preceding two thousand years: that of Egypt, Sumer (Mesopotamia/modern Iraq), Elam (Persia/modern Iran), and Harappa (Indus Valley/modern Pakistan).

Sumerian civilization is traditionally held to be the oldest, starting about 3700 BC and flourishing over the next two millennia until absorbed by the Babylonians. Egyptian civilization starts around 3300 – 3000 BC and lasts for at least three millennia. Elamite civilization rises in 3200 – 2800 BC and begins to decline from 2000 after being overrun by the Persians. (Elamite is sometimes classified more broadly under Mesopotamian civilization due to its geographic proximity and extensive contact with the Sumerian.) Harappan civilization flourishes during 2800 – 1500 BC. By the time of the obscure early Shang Dynasty in China around 1600 BC, long before any Chinese historical records existed, the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations had already expanded to the point where they had merged into each other and formed a so-called “Central civilization,” comprising numerous cities and city states and extensive diplomatic, economic and military integration. Anthropologists have advanced the theory that this Central civilization continued to expand into world civilization, as we know it, and all civilizations (including China’s) are connected to it in some fashion through early trade and the spread of ideas and technology, though ideas flowed in all directions as well.

What exactly constitutes “civilization” is a complex issue and a matter of great debate, but foremost among the defining criteria is the invention of true writing. A writing system is a conventionalized means of communication capable of productive syntax and cross-cultural translation. In order for primitive writing (notches or marks for tallying purposes; non-linguistic symbols, icons and pictographs) to advance to true writing, its users must undergo a leap of the imagination to make a transformative discovery known as the rebus principle (in practice this process may take generations or centuries). This occurs when they manage to solve the puzzle of how to render foreign names into their own script. Linguistically the only solution is to assign distinct sounds to various characters or graphs already in use and then combine the graphs to form the names. We play the rebus game whenever we arrange pictures for people to guess at the words from their sounds, as in the following symbols standing for “To be or not to be”:


Without the rebus principle, we are only dealing with pictographs, and whatever message the sequence stands for, say “Two bee colonies lie within rowing distance from another two bee colonies.” The rebus principle transforms the graphs into a new message, assigning to each a fixed sound ([tu], [bi], etc.). The same graphs in the same sequence now signify something completely different, Hamlet’s line; or they could represent the best phonetic approximation of a foreign name, say “Tobee O’Notterbee.” Note that these new meanings have nothing to do with our bee colonies message. That’s the whole point. The rebus principle frees symbols up to represent something independent and more powerful than mere iconic representation: phonetic representation, or speech.

Once writing becomes phoneticized, once previously existing graphs start standing for distinct phonemes or syllables, they can be productively combined to match all the words and ideas in the spoken language (and in other languages as well). An infinite number of sequences can be formed, and we thus have a language-generating machine for transforming fully formed speech into writing and enabling sophisticated abstract thinking. For the first time, speech can be written down and recorded in its entirety without sacrificing precision of expression and transmitted to anyone literate in the language. With the training of translators, speech can be transmitted across cultures as well, dramatically improving communication over long distances. The effects on social organization are profound. Complex record keeping creates collective memory and enables bureaucratic control and administration of a large population.

All the early civilizations came into existence in part because they developed a writing system that realized the rebus principle. In the case of the Sumerian and Egyptian, we have a rough idea of when this occurred. Simple tokens for counting—an early form of currency—appear in the Mesopotamian region as far back as 8000 BC. Around 3500, symbolic marks on the tokens signal the first primitive writing, followed by the invention of pictographs around 3200. Sumerian pictographic script discovered the rebus principle soon thereafter, though another 700 – 800 years passed before it was fully phoneticized and elaborated into a writing system with literary capability.

The earliest Egyptian hieroglyphs also appeared around 3300 – 3200 and became fully phoneticized by 2700. We know much less about the Elamite and Harappan writing systems because they have never been deciphered. Relics of Elamite writing go back to 3100; sometime after 2500 the script adopts Sumerian cuneiform characters. This indicates phoneticization had occurred by then, and they had chosen cuneiform as the most flexible phonetic system. The earliest relics of Harappan writing can be dated to 3500. It had likely evolved into a fully elaborated writing system by the middle of the third millennium, at the height of Harappan development. The Harappans, incidentally, had one of the most sophisticated infrastructures of any ancient civilization, including a comprehensive public sanitation system that is said to have been superior to that of modern Pakistan’s.

In China, cliff carvings of pictographs and marks and etchings on pottery can be dated to 3000 or even back to 6000 BC. Some Chinese scholars have attempted, on scant linguistic grounds, to claim this early writing as the beginning of Chinese writing—what Sinologist John DeFrancis terms “chauvinistic scholarship.” A recent example is Five Thousand Years of Chinese Characters, authored by the Hanban/Confucius Institute and published simultaneously in English and in Chinese as《字五千年》(Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2009). This is not to say that there wasn’t at that time a developed social organization and refined aesthetic production. The jade figurines of the northern China Hongshan culture (4000 – 2500 BC) are a testament to advanced Neolithic society. It’s just that pictographs are not true writing.

Ditto the claim of the so-called precursor “Changle bone scripts” discovered in 2004 in Shandong and dated to 2500 BC, crude and as yet undecipherable pictographs, with no demonstrated link to the earliest Chinese writing per se, namely the large corpus of characters found on oracle bones in the late Shang Dynasty around 1200 BC (or 1400 by some accounts). The writing system revealed on the oracle bones appears already fully formed and elaborated and had apparently undergone at least substantial phoneticization by this time, suggesting Chinese characters had gotten an earlier start, perhaps at the outset of the Shang Dynasty or even earlier. It cannot have been that much earlier, though, given the lack of archeological evidence of complex urban formations before Erlitou culture in 1800 BC (the Luoyang area of present-day Henan Province). It was also during the late Shang Dynasty, after 1200, that bronze ware and metalwork began to display great aesthetic workmanship and beauty, which would correspond to an urban society of sufficient development and wealth to support highly specialized craftsmen and artists.

It might therefore come as a disappointment to Chinese readers (if they didn’t simply dismiss this as the resentful musings of a Westerner envious of their culture) to discover that their civilization, by the criteria of development of other ancient civilizations, is not really 5,000 years old but closer 3,000 or at most 3,500 years old.

I would be at pains to stress that this is not a race or contest of civilizations, much less one that I have any stake in. I am American national of northern European extraction. My country’s date of independence is a mere 239 years ago, the land colonized by the English some 400 years ago. It would not do to fudge these facts by saying that the United States is about 200 or 300 years old in order to stretch my nation’s inception back as far as possible. The point is, I don’t feel the need to. My native language goes back only some 750 years, not 1,500 years as is usually claimed in standard textbooks on the history of English (we have our own forms of cultural-nationalism); my ancestor country, England, a modest 1,500 years. “Western” civilization itself extends only as far back as the ancient Greeks, about 2,800 years ago, less than Chinese civilization. The Indo-European family of languages from which English ultimately derives can be traced back much further, of course, to around 2000 BC or earlier, but this lineage emerges out of historical obscurity and is a moot point anyway, since by no stretch of the imagination can English claim such as its heritage and still call itself “English.”

I am attracted to these issues not in order to safeguard my own patriotic identity in the face of a rising and confident China (or a formerly humiliated and now resurgent China, to ape the language used in the Chinese media), but purely out of intellectual curiosity. Likewise, anthropologists and archeologists are serenely immune to the impulse born of insecurity to establish that the cultural or ethnic lineage they hail from is in any respect superior (unless you want to destroy your academic reputation). The modern study of ancient societies and civilizations is incompatible with the urge to bias analysis in favor of one culture over another. This can only exaggerate the favored object and diminish the lesser object of study (true, Western historical scholarship has only fitfully emerged from a long tradition of Orientalist obscurantism). All ancient civilizations are equally interesting to the scholar, or potentially interesting, and one would want to study all of them if given the luxury of time.

If archeologists one day discovered the remains of a hitherto unknown, much earlier and vaster Chinese civilization, going back even before Sumer and Egypt, unearthing as well a corpus of Chinese writing so complete as to fix it unmistakably as the world’s oldest writing system, this would not be a source of distress for those of us who are not Chinese. Such a hypothetical discovery would be exciting for everyone as it would force a radical revision of our knowledge of ancient civilizations and provide new answers to the kinds of questions anthropologists are motivated to ask. Not: “Which culture is the oldest and therefore the greatest?” But: “What do different civilizations share in common?” or “What conditions enabled civilizations to arise independently of one another in the third and fourth millenniums BC and not before that?”

Anthropology is not a sports contest, an Olympics for scholars. The sports metaphor is not entirely facetious. After years of living on the Chinese Mainland, I detected what seemed to be an upsurge in references to China’s “5,000 years” around the time of the Beijing 2008 Olympics. It was as if the need to claim the mantel of the oldest civilization was as important as the need to win the most gold medals. But if enough people hear something, they start believing it. Perhaps the rest of the world will end up believing it through Chinese propaganda drives abroad and the opening of Confucius Institutes in many countries.

There is a face-saving way out of this, requiring a slight shift in emphasis. The Chinese also like to claim that their civilization is the oldest living civilization, extending up to the present day. This too isn’t quite correct. Egyptians, Iraqis, and Persians would certainly beg to differ, though what they cannot claim which the Chinese can is a form of writing that is still in use (the former three having switched to the Arabic script after the seventh century AD): the extraordinary body of over 50,000 Chinese characters. So while the Chinese cannot truly claim 5,000 years of civilization, they can claim to have the longest continuously used writing system. That’s not something to be ashamed of.

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