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China - Historical Setting

A 5,000 years period is commonly cited as the date when China became unified under a large empire. China alternated between periods of political unity and disunity at intervals, and was occasionally conquered by external groups of people, some eventually being assimilated into the Chinese population. Thus, Compton's Encyclopedia states that "With more than 4,000 years of recorded history, China is one of the few modern countries that also flourished economically and culturally in the earliest stages of world civilization. Indeed, despite the political and social upheavals that frequently ravaged the country, China is unique among nations in its longevity and resilience."

China has always been on the defensive, and it is the surrounding peoples who have always assumed the offensive against her. The conquests China has made have in reality been the effect of the influence of her civilization. Neighboring peoples came and attacked China, but they soon were amalgamated with the Chinese through the influence of the latter's civilization, and then became sinicized. There was always a marked difference of degree between the civilization of the inhabitants of the center of China and that of her neighbours, so that the moment the latter came in contact with the Chinese they discovered their inferiority, and whatever sort of primitive civilization they might have had among themselves was soon eclipsed by the higher Chinese civilization, and they became Chinese.

Successive dynasties developed a system of bureaucratic control that gave the agrarian-based Chinese an advantage over neighboring nomadic and hill cultures. Chinese civilization was further strengthened by the development of a Confucian state ideology and a common written language that bridged the gaps among the country's many local languages and dialects. Whenever China was conquered by nomadic tribes, as it was by the Mongols in the 13th century, the conquerors sooner or later adopted the ways of the "higher" Chinese civilization and staffed the bureaucracy with Chinese.

The last dynasty was established in 1644, when the Manchus overthrew the native Ming dynasty and established the Qing (Ch'ing) dynasty with Beijing as its capital. At great expense in blood and treasure, the Manchus over the next half century gained control of many border areas, including Xinjiang, Yunnan, Tibet, Mongolia, and Taiwan. The success of the early Qing period was based on the combination of Manchu martial prowess and traditional Chinese bureaucratic skills.

With the exception of fashions in trivial matters, little changed in China for many centuries. Every institution, every custom, and every idea has its foundation in the distant ages and drew its inspiration from the sages of antiquity. Immutability in all that was essential was written on the face of the empire. No fear of organic change perplexed monarchs, or anyone else, in that changeless land, and the people loved to have it so. Sovereigns reigned and passed away, dynasties would come and go, and even foreign powers take possession of the throne, as when a line of Manchu emperors reigned at Pekin; but the national life in all its characteristics went on unmoved by political change and revolutionary violence.

One of the most remarkable spectacles in the world's history is that of this strange empire which, having been time after time thrown into the crucible of political unrest, has always reappeared identical in its main features and institutions, and absorbing rather than being absorbed by the foreign elements which have occasionally thrust themselves into the body politic. The political constitution, the social relations and customary ceremonies were crystallized in their present forms by those ancients on whom, according to the opinion of the people, rested the mantle of perfect wisdom. If the death of the emperor was announced, it was proclaimed in words said to have been used by Yao, who was believed to have lived before the time of Abraham.

If a mandarin wrote a controversial despatch, he based his arguments on the sayings of Confucius; if a youth presented himself at the public examinations, he was expected to compose essays exclusively on themes from the four books and five classics of antiquity; and if a man wrote to congratulate a friend on the birth of a daughter, he did so in phraseology drawn from the national primitive odes, which were sung and chanted before the days of Homer.

But without attempting to deny to China a very high degree of antiquity, it is now pretty universally admitted, on the testimony of the most respectable historians, that this is a point which has been very much exaggerated. The 2200 year history since the first universal emperor is well attested. This would give China an antiquity and continuity similar to that of the Roman Empire [BC 753 - to AD 1806] or the Roman Catholic Church [just shy of two millenia and counting].

The five centuries prior to that time are historical, though much contemporaneous documentation is lacking, and these fragmentary have been corrupted to some extent by subsequent improvements. The San Tai or San Wang, "the Three Houses of Kings," the Hia, Shang and Chou dynasties, together extend over fifteen preceding centuries. The first occupies 440 years; the second, 644; and the last drags out a miserable existence of over 400 years. Most of what is "known" of this period derives from writings dating to the 2nd Century BC, and is the entertaining mixture of adventure and fable of the sort known from King Arthur and the Round Table. The Five Emperors and Three Sovereigns nominally date from 2953 BC to 2195 BC, but theirs is an era of myth and legend.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:12:17 ZULU