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 The first time Huangdi is formally mentioned in a historical document is well more than 2000 years after his supposed time of reign.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.