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When did the Chinese civilisation really begin?


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Poll: When do you think Chinese civilisation really began? (40 member(s) have cast votes)

Please state your reasons in this thread, thanks

  1. Around 3000 BC or further back (5000 years or more) (8 votes [20.00%])

    Percentage of vote: 20.00%

  2. Around 2700 BC to the time of Huangdi the Yellow Emperor (6 votes [15.00%])

    Percentage of vote: 15.00%

  3. Around 2200 BC to the time of Sage-Kings Yao and Shun (3 votes [7.50%])

    Percentage of vote: 7.50%

  4. Around 2070 BC (start of Xia dynasty according to PRC chronology project) (4 votes [10.00%])

    Percentage of vote: 10.00%

  5. Around 2000 BC (generally considered to be approximately the starting date for state formation in China) (5 votes [12.50%])

    Percentage of vote: 12.50%

  6. In the 18th century BC (when the first Bronze Age city-palace or capital was constructed at Erlitou, also the start of the Shang Dynasty according to traditional chronology) (5 votes [12.50%])

    Percentage of vote: 12.50%

  7. In the 16th century BC (start of Shang dynasty according to modern chronology) (3 votes [7.50%])

    Percentage of vote: 7.50%

  8. In the 14th century BC (when the last Shang capital Yin at Anyang was first built) (2 votes [5.00%])

    Percentage of vote: 5.00%

  9. Around 1122 BC (start of Western Zhou dynasty according to traditional chronology) (0 votes [0.00%])

    Percentage of vote: 0.00%

  10. In the 11th century BC (start of Western Zhou Dynasty according to modern chronology) (0 votes [0.00%])

    Percentage of vote: 0.00%

  11. 771 BC (start of the Eastern Zhou dynasty) (1 votes [2.50%])

    Percentage of vote: 2.50%

  12. 221 BC (start of the Qin dynasty) (3 votes [7.50%])

    Percentage of vote: 7.50%

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#1 somechineseperson

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Posted 24 March 2006 - 06:39 AM

(To the moderators: please don't merge this with similar threads)

I believe we Chinese people need to have a cultural and ethnic identity that is based on proper and scholarly modern scientific evidence, instead of legends and myths that have not really been proven. We have a very long period of true history already and do not need to rely on myths and legends. On the other hand, if we keep on relying on myths and legends instead of real history, we run the risk of other people, particularly Westerners, discrediting a significant proportion of our entire history altogether.

The purpose of this post is to seperate the realms of unproven legends/myths and true factual history, and thereby provide a formal starting point for the history of our civilisation and people.

In my opinion, to say that Chinese civilisation has a history of 5000 years or even more is not really warranted. Even if we literally believe in Sima Qian's Shiji which places Huangdi the Yellow Emperor as the first ruler of Chinese civilisation, that only goes back to around 2700 BC and not 3000 BC or beyond. So at the maximum the history of the Chinese civilisation does not reach 5000 years.

Furthermore, I must say that there is insufficient evidence to show that the Yellow Emperor really existed. The first time Huangdi is formally mentioned in a historical document is well more than 2000 years after his supposed time of reign. This time period is too long and cannot be considered as proper historical evidence for the existence of the Yellow Emperor. It is as if someone today writes about a figure in the Eastern Zhou dynasty for the first time and another person tries to use this as a piece of evidence for the figure's existence, while during the long period of time between the Eastern Zhou dyansty and the present day there was simply no record of this figure at all. If Huangdi really existed, then there should have been some Shang dynasty or at least Western Zhou dynasty records of him, but there isn't any. Indeed, even the Confucian classics, which are centuries older than Shiji, only mentions Yao and Shun. (Who reigned around 2200 BC according to traditional dates)

According to modern archaeological evidence, during most of the third millennium BC, China was not yet a true civilisation. A true complex civilisation should satisfy all of the following basic criteria:

1. Formation of the political state
2. The beginnings of bronze technology
3. The beginnings of a written script
4. The presence of walled cities and towns
5. The presence of a city-palace as the political centre (capital)

Archaeologically speaking during the third millennium BC North-Central China was still a late Neolithic culture (called the Longshan Culture, which began around 3200 BC). Culturally many features of the later Chinese civilisation had already appeared by then, so the Longshan Culture is culturally ancestral to the later Chinese dynasties, but the Longshan Culture still cannot be considered as a true civilisation, because although during this period there were walled towns in North-Central China, and although after 2500 BC a rudimentary form of a "proto-script" might have already been developed, (according to the textbook The Human Past: World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies) there were still no state societies, no bronze technology and no evidence of a large city-palace as the political centre.

All human societies can be considered to belong to the following five levels primarily based on the level of complexity in their socio-political organisation:

Level 1: Hunter-gatherer societies
Level 2: Simple farming societies
Level 3: Complex farming societies/Chiefdom societies
Level 4: State societies
Level 5: Empires

Nomadic peoples belong to a different category.

This is not to say that societies in higher levels are intrinsically superior than societies in lower levels, but they are definitely more complex.

The level of social organisation of the Longshan late Neolithic culture was level 3, the level of chiefdoms, not level 4, the level of state societies. Therefore technically it was not a true civilisation.

Therefore our history does not really date back that far. So when does it date back to? Most sources I have consulted so far say the Chinese civilisation really began in the period roughly between 2100 BC and 1700 BC. According to the respectable authority on Chinese history, the French historian Jacques Gernet, it is "justifiable to trace the first city-palaces and the first manifestations of Chinese civilisation to the end of the third millennium" (A History of Chinese Civilisation, pg. 40). According to the Xia-Shang-Zhou chronology project conducted by PRC scholars, the Xia Dynasty began around the year 2070 BC, so the history of Chinese civilisation can be dated back to the 21st century BC. However, the results of the Xia-Shang-Zhou chronology project have not been universally accepted, in particular, many Western scholars are rather skeptical about it. According the Western historian of China Patricia Buckley Ebrey, complex civilisation began in China shortly after 2000 BC. Various books that discuss this topic also consider 2000 BC to be the starting point of Chinese civilisation, as an approximate figure of course. According to Cassell's Atlas of World History, which I consider to be a respectable source of general reference, the Bronze Age began in China around 2000-1900 BC and Chinese civilisation began in the year 1766 BC when King Tang established the Shang Dynasty. According to The Human Past: World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies, state formation occurred in China around 2000 BC while the first dynasty, the Xia, began around 1700 BC.

Of course, the question of when did the Chinese civilisation really began is related to but not based on the question of whether or not the Xia Dynasty existed. In recent decades, the most important archaeological site for settling this question as well as sheding light on the most early periods of the history of Chinese civilisation in general is the site of Erlitou in Yanshi, Henan province. According to archaeological discoveries at this site, there are four layers, corresponding to different phases of human habitation. The lower two layers seem to belong to the Longshan late Neolithic phase, while the upper two layers belong to the Bronze Age. The transitional date between the lower and upper layers is roughly in the 18th century BC. What is not yet certain however, is whether Erlitou is a Xia site or a Shang site. Some historians (such as those who wrote and edited Cassell's Atlas of World History) believe that the upper two layers of the Erlitou site belongs to the early Shang Dynasty and the transition between the late Neolithic and the Bronze Age layers marks the beginning of the Shang Dynasty. Traditional Chinese chronology also states that the Shang Dynasty began at around the same time, in 1766 BC. However, other historians, including most PRC scholars and the writers of The Human Past: World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies, believe the traditional Chinese chronology is wrong and the Shang Dynasty only began in the 16th century BC so the Bronze Age layers at Erlitou should be a Xia site. Regardless of which of these two opinions turn out to be correct, we can safely say that Chinese civilisation must have begun at the very latest by the 18th century BC.

There are a few people who believe Chinese civilisation only really has a history of about 3000 years, beginning with the Western Zhou Dynasty. Their argument is that the Erlitou Culture (possibly the Xia dynasty) and Shang dynasty are not truly Chinese, and the Chinese written script was initially created by non-Chinese peoples. I even recently discovered a wikipedia article saying something like this. Needless to say, I edited this article, for just as a time period of 5000 years is too long, a time period of 3000 years is clearly too short. There is no evidence to suggest that the Erlitou Culture and Shang dynasty are not native Chinese. All of the proper mainstream sources I have consulted do not say anything like this. This appears to be a fringe theory, which I personally do not take seriously. Furthermore, if one believes that Chinese civilisation only really began with the Zhou, it would logically imply that there was a abrupt and significantly marked change at the Shang-Zhou transition. Yet both written history and archaeological evidence do not suggest this. According to historians such as Jacques Gernet (author of A History of Chinese Civilisation) and Clive Pointing (author of World History: A New Perspective), there is no good reason to doubt traditional Chinese historical records regarding the Shang-Zhou transition period. Since there is no evidence for a significant and abrupt change at the Shang-Zhou transition, we should say that the Shang and Zhou belong to the same general culture. Indeed, I think there is better evidence to suggest that both the Shang and Zhou were Chinese than to suggest both the Mycenaeans and Dorians were Greek. For after the Dorians conquered the Mycenaean civilisation around 1200 BC, Greece fell into the dark ages for several centuries, yet after the Zhou dynasty replaced the Shang, there was no dark age at all, in fact, things got better. Surely it is more likely for a foreign people to induce the decline of civilisation and cause significant ethnic and cultural displacement and for a people belonging to the same general cultural and ethnic group to largely preserve continuity? For this reason I think it is a logical necessity that if we accept that both the Mycenaeans and the Dorians were Greek peoples, then we must accept that both the Shang and the Zhou were Chinese, and if we do not accept the latter, then we cannot really accept the former either.

To conclude, My position, based on a number of historical and archaeological sources, is that complex Chinese civilisation began sometime roughly during the period between 2100 BC and 1700 BC, and has been largely continuous ever since. Therefore we can reliably say that the history of our civilisation and people dates back nearly 4000 years.

Edited by somechineseperson, 18 April 2006 - 08:18 AM.


#2 historylover

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Posted 25 March 2006 - 05:45 AM

SCP wrote:
There are a few people who believe Chinese civilisation only really has a history of about 3000 years, beginning with the Western Zhou Dynasty. Their argument is that the Erlitou Culture (possibly the Xia dynasty) and Shang dynasty are not truly Chinese, and the Chinese written script was initially created by non-Chinese peoples. I even recently discovered a wikipedia article saying something like this. Needless to say, I edited this article, for just as a time period of 5000 years is too long, a time period of 3000 years is clearly too short.

Your assessment is reasonable, however the view you've edited gets a lot of press.

The following is a reference article for an introductory Anthropology course in the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

It originally appeared in the NY times April 6, 1999:

Link: http://www.unl.edu/r...110/writing.htm

"Of the earliest writing systems, scholars said, only the Sumerian, Chinese and Mesoamerican ones seemed clearly to be independent inventions. Reviewing the relationship between early Chinese bronze art, "oracle bones" and writing, Dr. Louisa Huber, a researcher at Harvard's Fairbanks Center for East Asian Research, concluded, "Chinese writing looks to be pristine."

But few pronouncements about early writing go undisputed. Dr. Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese language at Penn, offered evidence indicating, he said, that "the Chinese writing system may well have received vital inputs from West Asian and European systems of writing and proto-writing."

Dr. Mair cited an intriguing correspondence between the Chinese script and 22 Phoenician letters and also Western-like symbols on pottery and the bodies of mummies found in the western desert of China. The recent discoveries of the mummies, wearing garments of Western weaves and having Caucasoid facial features, have prompted theories of foreign influences on Chinese culture in the first and second millennia B.C. It had already been established that the chariot and bronze metallurgy reached China from the West.

Though no one seemed ready to endorse his thesis, Dr. Mair said, "We simply do not know for certain whether the Chinese script was or was not independently created."


Well the hallmarks of Shang civilization are bronzework and writing. If these came to the Yellow river valley from "the West", then some would raise the point, "What's so Chinese about the Shang? It is more West Asian or European." I don't think Dr. Mair would make that assertion, but some others certainly would.

There are surprising naked assertions in this news article. The origin of bronze metallurgy in China is far from established (e.g. Qijia, Siberia, Thailand). Moreover, the overwhelming consensus is that Shang bronzes use unique casting methods and many art forms found nowhere else in the world at the time.

The Longshan proto-script connection does not get any specific press in this article. Maybe these findings were made after 1999. The west asian and european proto-writing comparisons don't seem so prevalent now, but then I don't read anthropology journals. However, if there is an established Shang link to the Longshan proto-script (and earlier symbolic findings) than obviously any intriguing correspondence 5000 miles away over high mountains and dry deserts would provide much less influence. Even the Tarim basin is 1500 miles away from the Shang homeland.

Most people do not believe that China (or any civilization) developed in complete isolation. Certainly there is evidence of chariot technology being brought to the Yellow river valley as well as other interchanges thoughout Chinese history. Nevertheless, miniscule, stubborn groups exist that believe early Chinese civilization was brought to China from outside and that do not accept indigenous development. Conversely, there are nativist groups that puff up Chinese accomplishments. Both have agendas to play and both must be viewed with a critical eye.

Now to the question that is posed above. I would apply a logical AND to it. What constitutes being both Chinese AND a civilization? The civilization part you've defined as well as anyone (different people have different definitions). The tougher question is what is Chinese. Years ago in college, I've had professors clearly assert that Chinese civilization was not continuous. The main issue wasn't that civilization existed, but what constituted being Chinese. In their view the slave society of the Shang was very different than the vast Buddhist empire of the Tang. This wasn't satisfactory to me because it discounted the obvious points of continuity throughout Chinese history. The problem with this is that for every 5 people, one will get 6 opinions on this. Even in this forum, you get a variety of views.

So I've come up with my own super-simplistic view of what is Chinese.

1. When one sits down with ink and brush and writes hanzi (including jiaguwen) it looks Chinese to me. H.G. Creel said it best in his classic The Birth of China (1937):

"In fact, every important principle of the formation of modern Chinese characters was already in use, to a greater or less degree, in the Chinese of the oracle bones, more than three thousand years ago. This has been one of the most surprising revelations of the recent discoveries." pp. 159-160

2. When one eats with chopsticks, being Scythian does not come to mind; it's being Chinese. The first chopsticks (made of bronze) were found in the Shang dynasty.

3. The spirit world. This is probably rather controversial since what the earliest Chinese believe is not the same as present. Obviously people are more scientifically educated now, and those who believe in the afterlife today have a very different outlook then the Shang (that human sacrifice thing). Nevertheless I still see ritualistic belief of the supernatural among some Chinese that probably existed even before the Shang and continues to this day.

4. Architecture. There is continuity in buildings and wall (casemate) construction. When I look at some of the models of Shang buildings/walls or even earlier, there is a degree of similiarity throughout Chinese history.

The evidence presented makes Erlitou at least a transitional phase of civilization (large palaces, bronze work) if not civilization itself. While one may not need writing as defining civilization, it's considered by many as an important marker on what is Chinese. Maybe soon there'll be new discoveries regarding writing at Erlitou and their relation with the Xia/Shang, but uncertainty regarding this makes this problematic.

Combine this all together, Chinese civilization started around the beginning of the Shang 1600-1500 BCE, but an earlier phase is close to be shown to being part of it.

Edited by historylover, 25 March 2006 - 12:08 PM.


#3 somechineseperson

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Posted 30 March 2006 - 07:33 PM

Now to the question that is posed above. I would apply a logical AND to it. What constitutes being both Chinese AND a civilization? The civilization part you've defined as well as anyone (different people have different definitions). The tougher question is what is Chinese. Years ago in college, I've had professors clearly assert that Chinese civilization was not continuous.

Well it depends on what you mean by "continuous". "Continuity" is really a matter of degree. I would use this term in a more "relative" sense rather than in an "absolute" sense. The point is that the Chinese civilisation is among the most continuous in the world. I don't believe China is the only continuous civilisation, however.

The main issue wasn't that civilization existed, but what constituted being Chinese. In their view the slave society of the Shang was very different than the vast Buddhist empire of the Tang.


Actually although Buddhism was certainly a major religion during much of the Tang dynasty, the official Tang religion was still Daoism.

Just because there are key changes doesn't mean the civilisation is not Chinese anymore. Civilisations and nations have always been changing throughout human history, a similar case to the one you pointed out could easily apply to other civilisations, probably even more so in many ways. Does this mean we can say that no human civilisation is really continuous at all? I don't think such a conclusion is implied by the historical facts of change.

This wasn't satisfactory to me because it discounted the obvious points of continuity throughout Chinese history. The problem with this is that for every 5 people, one will get 6 opinions on this. Even in this forum, you get a variety of views.


"Continuity of civilisation" is really a matter of degree. Chinese civilisation is certainly not absolutely continuous, but it is certainly not absolutely discontinuous either. There is a relative high degree of continuity.

#4 DaMo

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Posted 31 March 2006 - 03:38 AM

I disagree with Dr. Mair's conclusion. There is such a vast pool of characters in Chinese script that some are bound to coincide with West Asian pictograms and/or alphabets at some point in their evolution. Especially given that pictograms are supposed to represent real-life objects. So the character for fish to a Mesopotamian will likely resemble the same for a Chinese or Harappan. In any case, Chinese script has a very traceable evolution from pictograms to logograms to the historical and modern scripts. Also, at least three separate instances (Jiahu, Dawenkou, Shuangdun, and a couple others) of early neolithic proto-character inscription have been discovered in recent times, some dating upto 8000 years ago, with many similarities to early formal Chinese writing. So whatever similarities to foreign scripts may have existed in the past, there were pre-existing native symbols which were just as, if not more similar.

Ditto for another case where four characters on a seal were found in Central Asia (http://www.upenn.edu...01/hughes2.html) where Mair was trying to interpret them as Chinese characters.
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Posted 03 April 2006 - 11:03 AM

Why can't you rely on myths and legends? I think that in any history, they must be taken into account- because - even though they may not have been written down - and came through word of mouth - this last is to a certain extend accurate. The Native Americans rely on their ancient history through word of mouth - they train a young person to repeat history EXACTLY - word by word. BTW, their origins are NOT the origins given by the white conquerors.

I just read about the supposed legend of General Fu Hao of the Shang Dynasty- and it turned out to be true. Her tomb was discovered intact.

And remember, the legend of Troy - turned out to be true.

#6 historylover

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Posted 03 April 2006 - 03:14 PM

<snip>
Just because there are key changes doesn't mean the civilisation is not Chinese anymore. Civilisations and nations have always been changing throughout human history, a similar case to the one you pointed out could easily apply to other civilisations, probably even more so in many ways. Does this mean we can say that no human civilisation is really continuous at all? I don't think such a conclusion is implied by the historical facts of change. <snip>
"Continuity of civilisation" is really a matter of degree. Chinese civilisation is certainly not absolutely continuous, but it is certainly not absolutely discontinuous either. There is a relative high degree of continuity.


Thanks for your points. My best guess as to why some academicians do not consider Chinese civilization continuous is in response to many secondary school world history textbooks stating that China has the longest existing continuous civilization. Such an 'absolute' statement is bound to attract criticism. Myself, I see a great deal of continuity in Chinese history from the beginning - as previously mentioned in my simplistic examples :D .

#7 historylover

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Posted 03 April 2006 - 04:24 PM

Why can't you rely on myths and legends? I think that in any history, they must be taken into account- because - even though they may not have been written down - and came through word of mouth - this last is to a certain extend accurate. The Native Americans rely on their ancient history through word of mouth - they train a young person to repeat history EXACTLY - word by word. BTW, their origins are NOT the origins given by the white conquerors.

I just read about the supposed legend of General Fu Hao of the Shang Dynasty- and it turned out to be true. Her tomb was discovered intact.

And remember, the legend of Troy - turned out to be true.


Many historians do take oral histories including myths and legends into account. However, one has to show how it relates to other available evidence.

Famous examples are Atlantis and Lemuria. Some historians take into account this story and assign it to the Minoan civilization. However, other people believe that they are an incredibly advanced people that ruled the entire world 10,000 years ago. In the latter case, do you think it is unreasonable to ask for more evidence before declaring case closed?

By the same token, one can believe in Huangdi and take myths and legends into account, but is it unreasonable to ask for archaelogical findings of bronze metallurgy, a writing system, walled cities and towns, a central political system, or some other evidence that existed at that time frame? Huangdi may well have existed, but evidence for civilization (depending on one's definition) at 2700 BCE is certainly not clear in China.

Edited by historylover, 03 April 2006 - 04:40 PM.


#8 somechineseperson

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Posted 03 April 2006 - 05:00 PM

Why can't you rely on myths and legends? I think that in any history, they must be taken into account- because - even though they may not have been written down - and came through word of mouth - this last is to a certain extend accurate. The Native Americans rely on their ancient history through word of mouth - they train a young person to repeat history EXACTLY - word by word. BTW, their origins are NOT the origins given by the white conquerors.

I just read about the supposed legend of General Fu Hao of the Shang Dynasty- and it turned out to be true. Her tomb was discovered intact.

And remember, the legend of Troy - turned out to be true.


Suppose Huangdi really is the First King of the Chinese civilisation, then why is there no Shang or Western Zhou records of him? Why is it that even the Shangshu only goes back to Yao and Shun? Why didn't Confucius ever mention such an important (in some ways the most important) figure?

Thanks for your points. My best guess as to why some academicians do not consider Chinese civilization continuous is in response to many secondary school world history textbooks stating that China has the longest existing continuous civilization. Such an 'absolute' statement is bound to attract criticism. Myself, I see a great deal of continuity in Chinese history from the beginning - as previously mentioned in my simplistic examples :D .


I do agree that it is unjustifiable to make statements such as "China is the only continuous ancient civilisation in the world".

Edited by somechineseperson, 06 April 2006 - 11:51 AM.


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Posted 03 April 2006 - 05:57 PM

"In the latter case, do you think it is unreasonable to ask for more evidence before declaring case closed? '

No, of course, not. One should always be open and ready to revise history when new data is found.

#10 somechineseperson

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Posted 17 April 2006 - 07:46 AM

To the person who selected 221 BC (whoever you are):

You've got to be kidding right? There was no Chinese Civilisation before 221 BC? So people like Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, Sunzi etc must be non-Chinese then? It is clearly illogical.

The same thing would apply to the person who selected 3000 BC or earlier. Where is the evidence? Not even the Shiji goes back that far.

Why don't you people give us your reasons for selecting these illogical dates?

#11 fcharton

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Posted 17 April 2006 - 08:24 AM

To the person who selected 221 BC (whoever you are):

You've got to be kidding right? There was no Chinese Civilisation before 221 BC? So people like Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, Sunzi etc must be non-Chinese then? It is clearly illogical.

The same thing would apply to the person who selected 3000 BC or earlier. Where is the evidence? Not even the Shiji goes back that far.

Why don't you people give us your reasons for selecting these illogical dates?


If these answers are illogical, why did you put them as options in the first place? ;)

I didn't want to vote in this poll, because I think it is very difficult to say. If you consider the question as "was there a real civilisation in China in year XXX?", then the date can probably be pushed a lot backwards...

On the other hand, I am very tempted to aswer from a modern person perspective : I only know chinese civilisation from the texts, the stories and the artefacts it left. For me, it *really* begins when we start having enough such documents and traces to allow us to get a complete picture of this civilisation.

For china, this would be somewhere between the western and eastern Zhou.

So I voted 771BC (actually, a slightly older date, like 900 BC, might have been a bit better). There certainly was civilisation in China before, but we just have too few evidence left to give a good account of these ancient times.

Francois

#12 somechineseperson

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Posted 17 April 2006 - 12:06 PM

I didn't want to vote in this poll, because I think it is very difficult to say. If you consider the question as "was there a real civilisation in China in year XXX?", then the date can probably be pushed a lot backwards...


Not really. Certainly no further back than about 2100 BC, at the end of the third millennium BC. I am talking about complex civilisation here, not just a neolithic agricultural community. A complex civilisation must have features such as bronze technology, a state society with relatively high centralisation, the presence of large walled cities and a rudimentary writing system. Since China did not enter the Bronze Age until around 2000 BC, the history of Chinese civilisation cannot be significantly older than that date.

On the other hand, I am very tempted to aswer from a modern person perspective : I only know chinese civilisation from the texts, the stories and the artefacts it left. For me, it *really* begins when we start having enough such documents and traces to allow us to get a complete picture of this civilisation.

For china, this would be somewhere between the western and eastern Zhou.

So I voted 771BC (actually, a slightly older date, like 900 BC, might have been a bit better). There certainly was civilisation in China before, but we just have too few evidence left to give a good account of these ancient times.


Your perspective is, I must say, not really a modern mainstream view. For instance, it is generally accepted by modern mainstream historians that Sumerian civilisation began around 3500 BC and Egyptian civilisation began around 3000 BC. However, we certainly do not know more about the early Sumerian and Egyptian civilisations then we do about the Erlitou Culture and the Shang dynasty in China. So according to your logic we shouldn't say that Sumerian and Egyptian civilisations began in 3500 BC and 3000 BC respectively either, should we? Yet these are generally accepted dates. So your logic doesn't apply to Sumer and Egypt. If it doesn't apply for Sumer and Egypt, it doesn't apply for China either.

Do we really not know much about the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties? It is generally accepted that the oldest parts of the standard Chinese classics go back to at least the Western Zhou period, and we also have numerous textual records inscribed on bronzeware that date back to the Western Zhou (e.g. http://www.chinahist...howtopic=10697). For the Shang dynasty we have more than a hundred thousand fragments of oracle bone and shell inscriptions, covering a wide range of Shang life. There is certainly more record for the Shang dynasty than there is for the earliest phases of ancient Sumer and Egypt. The Shang dynasty Chinese script already had more than 4000 logographs, while the earliest Sumerian script, dating back to around 3500 BC, only had 700 symbols, and the earliest ancient Egyptian writing dating back to around 3200 - 3400 BC only have a maximum length of four hieroglyphs in a row! Therefore if we can say that Sumerian and Egyptian civilisations began around 3500 BC and 3000 BC respectively, we should say that ancient Chinese civilisation definitely began with the Shang dynasty at the least. We must not apply a double standard here.

Furthermore, to say that Chinese civilisation only began with the Eastern Zhou would imply a radical cultural and ethnic shift at the Western Zhou-Eastern Zhou transition so that the later period can be considered Chinese but the former period not. However, such a radical shift does not exist. In fact, a radical cultural and ethnic shift did not even exist at the Shang-Western Zhou transition, at any rate it was certainly much less significant than the Mycenean-Dorian transition in ancient Greece, which brought about several centuries of dark ages. Thus if both the Myceneans and the Dorians can be considered to be two phases in ancient Greek civilisation, why can't the same thing apply for the Shang and the Zhou? To suggest otherwise is to introduce a clear double standard.

Edited by somechineseperson, 17 April 2006 - 12:08 PM.


#13 fcharton

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Posted 17 April 2006 - 05:01 PM

Well, I certainly agree that there was civilisation (whatever you mean by this) in China before the 9th century BC, and that as it was a civilisation in China, it was probably the chinese civilisation (it is a pure matter of definition anyway).

What I was trying though, was to answer what I thought your original question was:
when did the chinese civilisation really begin? (emphasis mine).

My impression was that dating chinese civilisation is next to impossible, because civilisation is an unprecise concept, and so that the interesting word in the question was "really"...

If you had asked me the same question for Greece, I probably would have answered Homer's time, (which makes Ancient China and Ancient Greece somehow contemporary in my book).

In other word, I believe a civilisation "really" begins when it starts producing works like Homer for Greece and the Shijing, Shujing, and Chunqiu for China.

Consider this as a purely personal interpretation of your question... I am merely giving my opinion, and have no intent to convert anyone...


As for Sumer, Egypt and double standards, I really don't care about who is older, who was stronger, who had the longer lances, who had the bigger sword... I find people who support their national teams in the Olympics silly and boring, and I hate it all the more when the "national teams" consist of people who were dead several millenia ago.

And anyway, nothing good ever comes out of this kind of debate...

Francois

Edited by fcharton, 17 April 2006 - 05:07 PM.


#14 Kenneth

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Posted 17 April 2006 - 05:16 PM

There has been a thread on this before.
Myths are no basis to date a societies beginning, since even the precise dates will be mythical and simply fables. To use the logic of accepting myth means there could be no end to nonsense if we want to go back to creation or demi-gods and culture heroes. 'Dream time' 'Garden of Eden' 'Atlantis' means everyone can make a grab at being first but this is an ethereal concept and simply a construct of cultures at a later date, certainly not anything we should use for dating societies outside of our own storytelling. It has little bearing for comparison with physical evidence of a cultures presence.

Simple societies do not seem to be a basis for defining an emerging 'civilisation'...can we call the Australian Aboriginies, often said to be 50,000 years of culture as a civilisation older than Sumeria or Uruk?
At the time of the fabled Yellow Emperor the Chinese ancestors were living in a primitive state that has little to define it from other neolithic societies beyond the actual forms that pottery and stone were worked.
There is no sign of a great change or burst of learning at these times of initial culture heroes, and the impact of this character and others like him has never been reflected in a change of the societies at the time. This is the realm of legend and not reflected in anything changing at the time they are attributed to. They are stories that date from long after the period they were placed in.


There should be some standard over 'civilisation' and for me it requires ALL the ingredients of what the society is going to become. We need cities/permanent settlements, we need farming and a surplus of production/food which in turn leads to invention and specialisation in artisans.
Central authority is required to allow for one of the biggest steps...metallurgy. There needs to be the authority to mine and commision the production of metal objects, tools & weapons.
One of the final stages, at least a defining one in terms of Chinese civlilisation...undeniable after all the boasts of continuality of culture...is a fully formed and complete writing system.
THIS is what ends the prehistoric period, a contemporary (not a later contrived) history in the societies own words.

In this way no mythical culture hero...as certainly the earliest figures are..should be a basis for dating 'civilisation'. Those are fables, and even if they form a purpose these are still not history.
Neolithic societies are not 'civilisation' as we would use as a start date for the Chinese society. These lack several elements of later periods and many have no culture names beyond what modern archeaologists give them, i.e most are named after the modern regions they occur in.
Erlitou requires future evidence for a complete written script and history before we can truly assign this as the start of Chinese civilisation. This may have existed and been lost, or may even be found yet...but characters on pottery alone do not bring a culture out of the pre-historic past. Erlitou is a transitional culture and should not be simplistically equated to Xia. Untill at least the name of a King or an edict, an inventory or a recorded event is found then the beginning of the modern system of Chinese writing still (on current evidence) commences with the Shang.

To keep it simple I put the beginning date at the beginning of a contemporary recorded history. That is the Shang. That is the earliest we have evidence for at present.

I can see the basis for earlier and later datings but each has its limits. Qin has a little merit but it seems more geographic unity and standardisation and not a real basis for a date that we could put even later into Han on the same logic.
IN terms of what we call 'history' and pre-history' that is where I draw the line. No earlier culture has all the elements that allow for a clear connection to all the dynasties that follow it. The connection to neolitihic cultures to later dynasties is often unclear but from the Shang we have a clear progress which continues through to modern Chinese culture.
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#15 somechineseperson

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Posted 17 April 2006 - 06:18 PM

Fcharton, I hope you are not taking this personally in anyway...I am just treating this as an objective historical and archaeological matter.

Well, I certainly agree that there was civilisation (whatever you mean by this) in China before the 9th century BC, and that as it was a civilisation in China, it was probably the chinese civilisation (it is a pure matter of definition anyway).


The Shang dynasty is certainly not just considered Chinese because it happened to have existed in what is geographically China. There is much more than that. For one thing, the fully developed Chinese script came into use during this time, and the modern Chinese script is its direct descendant.

As a comparison, consider the Sanxingdui Bronze Age Culture found in today's Sichuan province in China. Sanxingdui is usually said to be "Chinese" precisely only in the sense you have mentioned here: Namely that it existed in the region that is now within the political boundaries of China, but historically and culturally there is virtually no link between the Sanxingdui Culture and the civilisation that first developed in Central China. Therefore Sanxingdui is only "Chinese" in the geographical sense.

The Shang dynasty is clearly not like this.

What I was trying though, was to answer what I thought your original question was:
when did the chinese civilisation really begin? (emphasis mine).

My impression was that dating chinese civilisation is next to impossible, because civilisation is an unprecise concept, and so that the interesting word in the question was "really"...


That was my original question, but one of my reasons for asking "When did the Chinese civilisation *really* begin" is because essentially many people include much of the late neolithic period in the third millennium BC (when the Yellow Emperor supposedly lived) to be a part of the history of Chinese civilisation proper, but strictly speaking, a neolithic culture is not a true civilisation.

I don't wish to debate with you simply for the sake of debating, fcharton, however, in the interest of objective history, I must say that as far as mainstream modern scholarship is concerned, the criteria for a culture to be counted as a true civilisation is not really imprecise as you say. I have already given the rather precise criteria for civilisation in my original post in this thread:

1. Formation of the political state
2. The beginnings of bronze technology
3. The beginnings of a written script
4. The presence of walled cities and towns
5. The presence of a city-palace as the political centre (capital)

Strictly speaking all of these criteria must be fulfilled for a culture to be considered as a true civilisation.

If you had asked me the same question for Greece, I probably would have answered Homer's time, (which makes Ancient China and Ancient Greece somehow contemporary in my book).

In other word, I believe a civilisation "really" begins when it starts producing works like Homer for Greece and the Shijing, Shujing, and Chunqiu for China.

Consider this as a purely personal interpretation of your question... I am merely giving my opinion, and have no intent to convert anyone...
As for Sumer, Egypt and double standards, I really don't care about who is older, who was stronger, who had the longer lances, who had the bigger sword... I find people who support their national teams in the Olympics silly and boring, and I hate it all the more when the "national teams" consist of people who were dead several millenia ago.

Actually for Greece mainstream historians believe civilisation began with the Myceneans in the 16th century BC, centuries before Homer.

Please note also that I am not trying to *compete* in some sort of *ancient history's equivalent of the Olympics*. All I was saying was simply that one cannot apply a double standard in objective history. If historians state that Sumer, Egypt and Greece began in 3500 BC, 3000 BC and 1600 BC respectively, when there was certainly no equivalent of a Homer-like text, then one must also agree that Chinese civilisation began when there was no such thing also. At any rate, to have a Homer-like text is not a necessary basic pre-requisite criterion for a culture to be considered as a true civilisation.

I am not trying to somehow argue that "the Chinese civilisation was older and better than everybody else's" or anything like that, otherwise I wouldn't have said Greek civilisation began centuries earlier with the Myceneans and the ancient Egyptians began 1000 years before China, would I? If I was really such a person, who would sacrifice objective historical truth for the sake of nationalist glory, I would certainly have said Chinese civilisation does have 5000 years of history, on par with Sumer and Egypt, wouldn't I? Please do not misunderstand me.

So I am not trying to argue with you personally, I am just stating what the mainstream view on this matter is, the production of classical literary works is not considered to be a necessary criterion for a true civilisation according to the mainstream view, which is why in general historians say that true Greek civilisation began with the Myceneans, not with the writers of the Homeric Epics.

And anyway, nothing good ever comes out of this kind of debate...

Francois


Is that really so? As I said before, you must not take my opposition towards some of your ideas personally. Whatever you think my purpose in this thread is, I am trying to have an objective historical discussion here. I am not going to say that my love for China is not involved here at all, nor do I think such a sentiment is wrong at all, even in an objective discussion. However, do please note that I will never sacrifice objective historical truth for the sake of nationalist agendas. This is why I do agree that the Yellow Emperor most probably is just a legend.

Finally, I am sorry if my tone in the previous post is somewhat too hard...

Yours Sincerely




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