5,000 Years of Civilization

A serious question: How many years does Chinese civilization go back, and what criteria are applied to come up with the famous claim of “5,000 years”? This is for a project I am working on; I had written “4,000 years,” which I’d heard (forget where) is more accurate. This ignited an unexpected reaction from some of my Chinese colleagues. So what’s the answer and how do we arrive at it?

UPDATE: You all have to read Sam’s post about this issue (which quotes some of the commenters here).

The Discussion: 63 Comments

I don’t know how we arrive at it or fact-check it or if it’s even remotely accurately, but it’s always been “5,000 years” in my experience.

February 14, 2007 @ 4:44 pm | Comment

It’s always been SAID, or it’s always BEEN? Big difference, I think.

And what are you doing up at this ungodly hour in LA?

February 14, 2007 @ 4:58 pm | Comment

Jeremiah would be the guy to answer this, but I think that they date back to pre-historical, mythical periods (e.g. the Yellow Emperor, Yao, Shun, Jie) rather than the Shang etc.

If you ever really want fun, try pointing out to people that certain things claimed by China – e.g. the Sanxingdui civilization – were ethnically, historically, and linguistically distinct from China. This is a great way to kill a few hours.

February 14, 2007 @ 5:10 pm | Comment

The Xia dynasty, the first “recorded” dynasty, began around/about 2100 BC. So, if you do the math….

Chinese mythology dates such figures as Fu Xi (inventor of writing), Shen Nong (inventor of agriculture), the Yellow Emperor, Yao, and Shun, etc. as dating variously from about 2800 BC to 2400 BC.

And obviously there are archaeological sites in what is now China that are even older than this.

The question is one of interpretation and national pride. Stonehenge dates back to about the same time but you rarely see England trumpeting “X000 years” of continuous history.

There are clearly recognizable elements of contemporary Chinese society that date back to at least the second dynasty (Shang) for which we have written records in the form of the “oracle bones.” These include the prototypes for certain Chinese characters and indication that ancestor worship was part of the religious practice of the ruling clan.

That said, I’ve always found the “5000 year” thing a bit bogus while at the same time rarely saying anything when it comes up in conversation with my Chinese friends. It’s a source of considerable pride I know. But one could look into the archaeological records of any place and find cultural elements that survive over time.

As for 5000 years of political continuity, well that’s even less certain. Current research at different sites shows that the Xia and Shang and Zhou were less successive “dynasties” and more “competing civilization centers” in North China. (Among other less well-known centers in other parts of China like Sanxingdui mentioned by Brendan.) Factor in frequent periods of disunity since then (of varying lengths) and not a few conquest dynasties (most notably the Yuan and the Qing) and proving continuity becomes more a matter of glass half-full/half-empty.

I’m willing to give the Chinese their 5000 years. Sure, why not. It’s certainly not worth the 6000 years of arguing it would take to convince your average Chinese otherwise. But it should be noted that it’s more a matter of faith and pride than one of history.

February 14, 2007 @ 5:11 pm | Comment

You know something, Jeremiah? I’m with you. I changed the number to 5,000 – I don’t want to be hated by everyone after four weeks on the job. Thanks for the brilliant explanation and the Stonehenge analogy.

February 14, 2007 @ 5:27 pm | Comment

If this project you are working on is intended for domestic China, then it should probably say 5,000 years to appease the consumer and not cause unnecessary problems that could take away from the real task at hand, however if this project is intended to be seen by say a western audience that is comparatively eduction on China and Chinese issues, it would probably be a good idea to accommodate those customers. If the dollar is your bottom line, you probably want to just accommodate the customers, and leave the open discussion to the academics and bloggers 😉

Personally I like the Stonehenge comparison as well, and would want to hear something more about the 5,000 explanation before I take it for face value. What’s to stop one from saying the Chinese civilization has been around for 300,000 years with Peking/Beijing Man as their reasoning?

February 14, 2007 @ 6:08 pm | Comment

One of the oldest history book in China is ShiJi edited by Shi Ma Qian around 100 BC which put the history of China starting from Yellow Emperor and dated him 3000 years before Han Dynasty. The book has since been used as the base of the official history of China. That’s the origin of 5000.

Speaking of these numbers, here is something interesting. Old Testament states hat earth came into existence 6000 years ago which is approximately closed to the 5000 of the beginning of Chinese history. One of the crazy scientist Julian Jaynes in his book “The Origin of Consciousness” argues Consciousness raised in our species around 2000 BC.

February 14, 2007 @ 8:26 pm | Comment

Try asking a student what ‘5000 years of history/civilisation’ means – most likely you will be looking at a wall of silent, blank faces.

And even if they could articulate a coherent response and all evidence presented was irrefutable, what the hell is the significance?

To answer my own question, I’m pretty sure it’s just another dreamed-up figure that conveniently (or so the Chinese believe) trumps all other countries in the world, thereby preserving the fragile ego of a nation with an obsessive need to claim to have been/be the first, the biggest, and the best at everything. Thus, when an archaeologist unearths a stick and a round pebble in close proximity to a hole in the ground, the Chinese become the inventors of golf.

Richard, I’m certain that I could upset your colleagues to the same degree by claiming that Britain (or any other nation) has 6000 years of history – it would be interpreted as a ‘demotion’ in the same way as your figure of 4000 was.

I understand the argument for ‘keeping the peace’ in this situation, but I think too many people, and more particularly governments, are willing to appease the Chinese on ego/face-saving/off-limits issues. Time for some tough love. Go with 5000 by all means, but challenge the number first. My favoured approach would be to confront them with another nations longer ‘history,’ if only to watch the neurons begin to misfire.

February 14, 2007 @ 9:07 pm | Comment

Stuart, I learned a long time ago to pick my battles carefully. This isn’t worth martyring my career.

As to the earlier question about the audience, domestic or international, let’s just say I can’t say.

February 14, 2007 @ 10:05 pm | Comment

Great question! You all have inspired me to post on it. If you’re interested you can find it here:

February 15, 2007 @ 12:58 am | Comment

Chinese always like to fudge numbers to make them look good. Truth be damned. Plus, the number 4 is a bad number in Chinese because it sounds like death.

February 15, 2007 @ 1:17 am | Comment

Isn’t China trying to stretch their history back to 6-7000 years to compete with Egypt by claiming the Spring/Autumn emporers?


February 15, 2007 @ 1:36 am | Comment

Uh…. David Li where does it say it the Old Testament that Earth came into being 6000 years ago.? I’ll have to ask you for a verse. Some people have done the geneology math and come up with a number. But it doesn’t say anywhere in the Bible that the Earth is *000 years old.

But I think it is okay to question them or back it up when they say it. Just because they say something doesn’t mean we have to always let them get away with it. Not that I care that much. There is somebody now on Chinadaily’s “Hot topics” section that is going crazy stating what the “Chinese” have invented or discovered. It is like 37 pages. He has too much time. But he made a statment about how the “Chinese” did something 5000 B.C.! I mean come on! They take 1000’s of years and add it to “their” history at a drop of a hat and nobody says a thing.

My question is, are Foreign archeologists allowed to be at these Chinese digs/sites and make their judgements? I wouldn’t trust a Chinese scientist, who works for the gov’t, not to make something nationalistic/patriotic out of anything they find.

February 15, 2007 @ 2:57 am | Comment

Hi Bert,

Yup, I think that’s how they get the number: adding up the characters’ ages in the Genesis. However, this is also the number a lot of creationists are throwing around these days including the newly built Creation Museum. I am not citing the bible time to justify the 5000 made up about Chinese. Just interesting timing coincidence.

The most comprehensive researches into China’s invention and technologies history is the Needham Institute in Cambridge, UK. (http://www.nri.org.uk ). It’s the world up most authority in this area. Needham spent 50 years to publish some 14 volumes of China’s technology achievements.

Speaking of digging, most of China’s archaeologic exploration are international team and the results often get published in the reputable journals like Nature. Archeology is a very international field. Also, it doesn’t do the government any good having their crazy scientists running around claiming stupid theory without the recognition from international experts.

Check out the controversies surrounding Gavin Menzies’s “1421” in which he claimed China discovered North America 50 years before European. Last year was the 600 anniversaries of Zhenghe’s voyages and Beijing has downplay the event even though Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Hongkong were gearing up to the celebration.

February 15, 2007 @ 5:26 am | Comment

The 15th ed. of “The Encyclopedia Britannica” states: “With more than 4,000 years of recorded history, China is one of the few existing countries that also flourished economically and culturally in the earliest stages of world civilization. Indeed, despite the political and social upheavals that frequently have ravaged the country, China is unique among nations in its longevity and resilience as a discrete politico-cultural unit. Most of China’s cultural development has been accomplished with relatively little outside influence, the introduction of Buddhism from India constituting a major exception. Even when the country was penetrated by such “barbarian” peoples as the Manchus, these groups soon became largely absorbed in the fabric of Han Chinese culture.” This seems to be a favorite topic of western bloggers. I have never heard my Chinese friends discuss it.

February 15, 2007 @ 5:34 am | Comment

I think a more interesting work should center around how this year of the Boar 2006 corresponds to year 4705 of the lunar calendar. How did it arrive at that?

I think 5000 years of civilization does not only mean political continuity. Under Yuan dynasty,
Chinese are not forced to adopt the customs of their conquerors. Chinese cultural life continued, much as it had under the Northen Dynasties where Chinese literati continued to read and write Chinese books and ordinary Chinese continuing to worship gods of their choice in their own ways.

As for the Qings, apart from the queue and dress code, they import wholesale of Ming chinese bureaucracy into their governing. Emperor Kangxi gained familiarity with Chinese literati culture as well. You could say the Manchus were more sinicized than the Mongols. These is evident in the longevity of their rule. Yuan – 89 years; Qing – 267 years.

The Xia, Shang and Zhou could be termed as “competing civilization”. What is the reasoning behind this? As far as I know, Shang Dynasty was founded by a subordinate of the last ruler of Xia, King Jie, after he was deposed for his tyranny. The Book of Documents describe the Zhou conquest of the Shang as the victory of just and noble warriors over decadent courtiers led by a dissolute, sadistic king. At the same time, they show that the Zhou recognized the Shang as occupying the center of the world, were eager to succeed to that role rather than dispute it. Notice also the monosyllabic dynasty names as opposed to Korean and Japanese kingdoms ie Gojoseon, Yayoi etc. If this does not mean a continuity of some sort of identical culture, I don’t know what is.

The Shang brought the concept of ancestor worship. Zhou brought the concept of mandate of heaven. Each built and evolved Chinese culture on top of the other. What I’m trying to say is that, in each period, ‘Chinese’ have made use of what they inherited, but also have come up with new ideas and practices. I would like to say Egypt has the longest continuous civilization on Earth, 7000 years, but the fact is they don’t worship Ra any longer. They don’t use hieroglyphics anymore. They adopted Islam and stop practicing mummification. Mummies are cool btw. Same with the builders of Stonehenge, whoever they are, has been replaced by the latin alphabet, Christianity etc . How many ppl know how the stonehenge works? Lunar calendar is still in use side by side as the Gregorian calendar in Chinese culture from Chinese understanding of astronomy.

And another note, the Koreans also like to claim they inherited 5000 years of civilization. The difference is that its not that publicized.

And oh Spring/Autumn period is 722-481 BC. How do you make it extend to > 6-7K years?

February 15, 2007 @ 5:44 am | Comment

All European and Asian civilizations started in Anatolia. Hence, Anatolia is Chinese. Hence, Chinese civilization goes back much longer than 5,000 years. There, matter settled! 😉

(God, I’m so tired of this topic. 5,000 years of history – another one of those bromides that mean nothing.)

February 15, 2007 @ 6:35 am | Comment

The Egyptians and Jews still got China by 2000 years and the Phoenicians were plowing the Atlantic at will before the Chinese learned sailmaking.

Oh, and the Mayan calender is the most accurate from any civilization in the ancient world.

February 15, 2007 @ 6:52 am | Comment


I’d just like to raise some points. I’d argue that Chinese history is roughly the same length as Greek history with the oracle bones playing the same role as Linear B alphabet. Both are examples of a sophisticated writing system that modern scholars can’t understand. Both date from approximately the same time, around 1500 B.C.. Compare this with cuneiform, which dates from 3000 B.C or hieroglyphs which date from the same time. To me, this demonstrates that Chinese culture is roughly contempary with Greek civilization and may even be a little younger.

I don’t understand why Chinese think that they are alone by having elements in their culture that date back from 1000 B.C.. Almost every culture in the world has elements that date back 1000 or 2000 years. China is not alone in that respect. In an “young” culture like the United States, elements of government date back to the Greek city-states and the Roman Republic. I’d argue that the Chinese, in response to being conquered by outsiders for the the past 1000 years, created this idea of being the oldest culture in the world to set themselves apart from their barbarian conquers and created this golden lie to give themselves a sense of pride. Of course, I don’t have any proof of this 😉

I’d also like to argue that oracle bones don’t make up history. I read somewhere a definition of history that went something like this. History is a written record where the writer is writing up events which which he is the at most one or two steps removed. Also, any prejudices of the writer can be judged. The oracle bones fail to meet that test. The story of the four emperors definitely does.

February 15, 2007 @ 8:03 am | Comment

What is meant by CHINESE history? Is it based on language, ethnicity, place, politics, beliefs? I mean, when did US history start? 1492, 1776, before 1492?

Jeremiah — Do real historians bother with stuff like this or does it not really matter?

February 15, 2007 @ 8:31 am | Comment

Thanks for the reply David. I am glad to hear that the digs are international teams. I always wondered if China was open to outside theories of things found in Zhong Guo.

I did have to laugh when a few years ago somebody was making a big deal out of the Chinese “invention” of the chopstick/s. Something like this “The earliest Chinese man needed to pick his food out of the boiling pot (I guess the pot was invented first) and used two sticks to remove the food. The world hasn’t been the same since!” Can this be proven?

Who invented the fork and spoon? Curious.

February 15, 2007 @ 9:30 am | Comment

Koreans boast of “5,000 years of continuous history,” too, calculating their history from the mythological founder Tangun.

February 15, 2007 @ 9:51 am | Comment

A couple of points:

First of all, kudos to Sam for a really thoughtful look at this subject on his Useless Tree blog.

David, Sima Qian is certainly a good place to start and I agree that traditional dating probably starts with the Yellow Emperor, though who established the start date and when is open for debate.

As for texts, The Shiji was written in the 2nd century C.E. Sima Tan and later Sima Qian tried to cover everything they could down to the Han. There were others too, for example, the pre-Qin Classic of Documents (shangshu/shujing-though parts of these works can be dated late as the 4th century C.E.) also describes the activities of Yao and Shun and early antiquity.

At the risk of putting my head in the dragon’s mouth, these valuable texts are useful more for their stories, myths, and chronicles rather than as a tool for the exact dating of events (not unlike, for example, the Old Testment, or the Nihon shoki and the Kojiki in Japan).


I gotta tell you, I knew I’d see a comment just like yours this morning. I even tried to predict it out loud to my wife before I checked the Duck, and sure enough, there it was–nearly point for point just as I predicted. Your views are quite in keeping with many Chinese unfamiliar with the more current research on these subjects. “Wholesale Manchu assimilation” that you cite as a theory is so dead it’s starting to smell. Xia/Shang/Zhou as competing civilization centers reflects archaeological work at sites in North China and along the Yellow River basin. The stories of wicked King Jie, the noble Duke of Zhou, Wise Yao, Filial Shun, and all the others are great. But I’m talking about archaeological evidence here. Some of the research does in fact bear out what is in the Classic of Documents, some of the research however significantly complicates it. I understand that these things tend to irk some Chinese nationalists. And I hear the same arguments on my own blog all the time. When people look at history and challenge cherished myths or problematize once neat storylines, it upsets people. It does in the US, too. It’s not a historian’s intention to piss people off, but it is our job to make people think critically about history, their own and others, and discuss the latest research.


Absolutely we do. For example, when we teach a survey course on US history, where do we start? Columbus? Jamestown? What about Spanish settlement in what is now California? What about the myriad peoples living here before the Europeans? It’s a tough call especially, as with China, the decisions can become wrapped up in contemporary issues of community/cultural pride and politics.

What is “Chinese history” is the first question I ask my students each year. It’s harder to define then you think. If you define it by race/culture, that leaves out the Tibetans and Uighurs among others. If you define it by contemporary borders, that leaves out many of the Mongols, (depending on your view) Taiwan, and the Chinese diaspora. If you define it by language, well the Chinese language, especially spoken, has changed considerably over time. (For example, try reading Tang poetry using modern Putonghua, then try again using Cantonese. Which sounds better?) I wish I knew the answer to this question. It’s why I keep asking it. You want to avoid a teleological story that assumes the end result had to be the P.R.C. as it is today and ignores those stems and branches that might have led in other directions, but at the same time, you want to explain how things came to be the way they are.

As I said before, I never correct people in general conversation when they talk about “5000 years of Chinese history,” it’s not worth it. But, I would hope that people can keep something of an open mind and not be so blinded by adolescent nationalism, simple minded patriotism, and issues of face, that they are unable to think critically and objectively about the fascinating research being done by both Chinese and foreign scholars on China’s rich history.

February 15, 2007 @ 10:03 am | Comment

My wife tells me that when she was in primary school they used to tell her 4000. I feel like I remember reading, perhaps in “The New Chinese Empire,” that the 5000 year thing was a pet project of Jiang Zemin to give nationalists across the nation a hard-on.

February 15, 2007 @ 10:36 am | Comment


I asked about that Xia/Sang/Zhou dig you mentioned. I mentioned that as far as I know, that’s the traditional explanation I gave, so you could spread the new info you have. Your last post still did not offer insights into this.

And what makes the whole Manchu assimilation idea wrong? Much appreciated if you have links or recommendation.

The 5000 years of history might come from the number of years given by the lunar calendar. I don’t really know where the number is obtained, so I offer the suggestion for the author here.

History books have stated the continuous 5k civilization. You could clarify your position on whether this is valid or not.

In the course of your career, I’d think you’ve met some resistance. Many Chinese might resist but also many Chinese will listen.

February 15, 2007 @ 11:55 am | Comment

For your first point, I refer you to the information in David Li’s post on archaeological excavations currently being done in China as one example. As David mentioned, the journal Nature is a good place to start for recent papers.

On Manchu assimilation, I might suggest the following as good works to begin with:

Crossley, Pamela. A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. (Crossley’s 1990 book, Orphan Warriors, is also a good read.)

Elliott, Mark C. The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Rawski, Evelyn. The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

I might also suggest Angela Zito: Of Body and Brush: Grand Sacrifice as Text/performance in 18th C. China. University of Chicago Press. 1997. which, despite its title, adds a great deal to this discussion.

As for the lunar calendar, I am inclined to defer to Sam on this. (See the link at the top of the post) but it should be noted that much of the work done on what is the “ancient Chinese calendar” came about in the Han.

I have stated my position. Twice. Here’s a third: I don’t buy it, but it’s such an emotional issue for many people, and frankly, isn’t it more a matter of interpretation and faith in any case? Since it’s not polite in casual conversation to attack somebody’s faith or beliefs, I always defer when the topic comes up among friends, relatives, acquaintances, etc. Neither would I argue evolution with a fundamentalist who believes in creationism. I don’t believe in creationism, but I don’t think I’m going to change his mind and it just doesn’t make for a pleasant cocktail party.

As for history textbooks, none of the books which I used as an undergraduate or currently teach in the classroom cites ‘5000 years’ as a point of historical fact. The figure usually comes up when discussing topics such as legendary origins or when we talk about the construction of national myths.

That textbooks in the PRC do frequently use this figure with little qualification I think says more about PRC textbooks than it does about history.

February 15, 2007 @ 12:23 pm | Comment


I believe the 5,000 year figure come from the four emperors and is based on mythology and not history. The equivalent would be for Westerners to argue that the world is 7,000 years old because that is what you get when you add together the all the ages of the people in old and new testament.

February 15, 2007 @ 12:29 pm | Comment

My ancestors go back to the beginnings of life on Earth. 5,000 years, 4,000 years. Bah.

February 15, 2007 @ 1:41 pm | Comment

“My ancestors go back to the beginnings of life on Earth. 5,000 years, 4,000 years. Bah.”

Yes, but the Chinese invented the universe. Top that.

February 15, 2007 @ 2:32 pm | Comment


I actually said that to a Chinese guy once after he gave me the 5,000 year bit. He was completely nonplussed. He went through every possible emotion within 6 seconds: dismay, anger, umbrage, joy, ennui, existential anxiety, grief, hunger, fear — and back to dismay. Ok, most of those aren’t emotions, and one of them was a reference to “The Jerk,” but I discovered that day that this is the best retort to the 5,000 year hokum.

February 15, 2007 @ 2:55 pm | Comment

The Chinese are better than you, ok? Just face it guys…..

better,better, better, better, better, better, better

so there.

my dad earns more money than yours does too AND he could beat up your dad in a fight

i fart in your general direction

February 15, 2007 @ 7:20 pm | Comment

I don’t know how best to calculate the length of Chinese history, etc., but wanted to comment about oracle bones. First, modern scholars can read them, at least many of them. I can read them a little bit myself. And they do make up history. They maybe don’t include an incredible amount of details, and the identification of some of the people and tribes mentioned are argued about, but they record contemporary events. For example, here’s a translation of one:

“Crack-making on guisi day, Que divined: In the next 10 days will there be no disasters? The King prognosticated and said: There is a bad omen, there may come a calamity. On the fifth day, dingyou day, there indeed came a calamity from the West. Zhi Guo reported: The Tufang tribe attacked our eastern borders, harming 2 settlements. The Gongfang tribe also raided our Xibitian (field?).”

Certainly some of the characters are open to interpretation, and things like tense, nuance, whether or not a phrase is a question, etc., are also open to interpretation. But the characters are in most cases clearly early versions of modern characters.

(I can’t give a heji number to identify this piece right now, being at work, but you can see the piece from which this is excerpted on the cover of David Keightley’s book The Ancestral Landscape

February 15, 2007 @ 11:43 pm | Comment

It is interesting how so many people feel strongly for and against this. I lived in Korea for 1 year and never had any 5000 year history continuously shoved down my throat. In fact I never heard it once. Chinese could learn from the Koreans.

February 15, 2007 @ 11:48 pm | Comment


Interesting that you mention about ShiJi as a mythical texts as it reads really boring in that regard. Shan Hai Jin would have been much better read and Shima Qian actually mentioned in ShiJi that Shan Hai Jin was too weird to comment on.

I wonder how historians do researches on those periods in which written texts are scare and archaeologic evidences are sparse. Also, as historians, how does one go about disproving the hypothesis of “5000 years history of China?”

February 16, 2007 @ 12:26 am | Comment

Either you weren’t in Korea long enough, Bert, or you don’t understand the Korean language. The Koreans don’t spout “5,000 years of continuous history” like the Chinese do, but they do brag. In western Seoul, I saw a huge sign overhanging a pedestrian overpass, proudly proclaiming Korea “for 5,000 years the light of Asia.”

February 16, 2007 @ 3:04 am | Comment


Ha ha, I guess I didn’t see that!:) Your right I didn’t learn much of the language in one year. But I don’t remember national issues or history being talked about with the friends I made there. I do remember reading an article in Korea about how their DNA (genetics or something like that) is the purest in the world and therefore they’re the purest humans. That is pretty strong. I agree, Koreans don’t “spout” like Chinese do. That seems to make a difference. Thinking it and being quiet and thinking it and saying it brings different reactions.
I do find that my Chinese friends who have lived abroad don’t seem to be as “proud” about 5,000 years and all that stuff as the ones who never went beyond BJ. I guess that is true with anybody who has had the chance to live in another country for a good period of time, including me.

February 16, 2007 @ 5:03 am | Comment


Good info on oracle bones. Some of the material on the bones has been verified by archaeology. One example is Lady Hao (mentioned on jiaguwen heji number 2634 as well as on other bones). A well-preserved tomb was discovered recently (1990s?) that researchers believe belongs to her.


A few points. The actual quote was referring to several works including the Shi Ji and the Shang Shu: “These valuable texts are useful more for their stories, myths, and chronicles.” I suppose if one is looking for tales of the fantastic, there may be less ‘boring’ texts, but I’ve read the Shi Ji, large parts of it in Chinese, and I find Sima Qian fascinating not only for the scholarship but also for the prose. Others, more gifted in Chinese than I am, may disagree.

The answer to your question about what to do when there is limited records or evidence is that we say: “we don’t know.” Was the Xia a fully-formed Chinese dynasty? Possibly. Not likely, but possibly. We don’t know much about the Xia. Is it possible that the Xia were descended from space aliens? Also possible though not very likely. Could I prove that the Xia were not descended from space aliens? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean I have to buy that theory either. On a very general level, I think if person A makes a claim that person B doesn’t believe, it should be up to person A to prove it valid using evidence rather than person B to prove it invalid. Proving a negative is tough. But that’s not really the issue here.

As you noted, the “5000 years” comes from the belief in the antiquity of the Yellow Emperor, a figure of considerable symbolic and mythological significance. That said, the historical record, based on extant primary sources and verifiable through archaeology, begins later. But here’s the salient point: because “5000 years” relies on the dating of a mythological figure, it’s a matter of faith and belief. We could argue, for example, whether or not Noah survived a flood or the events in the life of Jesus. The historical record for these things is scant, at best, but it doesn’t diminish their significance. Nor would it mean that I want to go around “disproving” these sorts of beliefs as a hobby. If asked, as a historian, when does the historical record for “China” begin, (leaving out for the moment just how we define “China” ) I would say with the oracle bones and bronze vessels of the Shang which is when we begin to have written records. Now, when family, friends, and acquaintances begin a sentence with “5000 years of civilization…” I never stand up and say that they’re wrong. They believe that China started with the mythological emperors. Fine. I respect that. It’s a matter of faith. I don’t teach it that way in class, but I do mention that this belief exists. If somone happens to believe it, than I say: Kudos! And a most Happy New Year 4705!

February 16, 2007 @ 10:37 am | Comment

Kudos to all who gave serious, articulated answers and opinions. And to Richard and Jeremiah. This has to be one of the best posts on a Chinese issue I’ve seen anywhere in several years.

February 16, 2007 @ 10:37 am | Comment

Thanks Lirelou; I feel incredibly lucky to have Jeremiah contributing to this site.

It’s been a long, long time. Good to see you, and Happy New Year.

February 16, 2007 @ 12:51 pm | Comment

Actually they are English textbooks not PRC.

Grasso, June; Corrin, Jay & Kort Michael. Modernization and Revolution in China. New York: ME Sharpe, 1997.

“Although the Chinese were not the first to develop civilized life, their civilization, with a continuous history of 4000 years, has been the world’s most enduring.” (pg. 3)

“China proper’s most fundamental geographic division, however, is between north and south. North China, the ancestral home of the Han Chinese and the area where Chinese civilization first took shape about 4,500 years ago, is a large plain through which flows one of the great streams of the world, the Yellow River.” (pg. 6)

Ebrey, Patricia B. Cambride Illustrated History: China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

“Ignoring later historical legends and examining only material remains, these neolithic cultures can be divided by latitude into southern rice zone and the northern millet zone. In the Yangzi valley rice was cultivated as early as 5000 BC, supplemented with fish and aquatic plants such as lotus, water chestnut, and caltrop.” (pg. 17)

So following archeological evidence, 4000 years. If we based on Yellow Emperor, 5000 years.

Documentary produced by the History Channel, Engineering an Empire – China. 2006. Quote: “Only one empire has survive for 4000 years.” (00:10)

So I would think that Chinese are not boasting. For the uninitiated Chinese, they are just dishing out what they read, see and hear.

Just humor me. Let’s imagine a comparable achievement in the West, suppose the Greeks of Homer’s time with their small territorial cheifdoms, survived through the golden age of 5th-century Athens when Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle lived and wrote. Then all the small Greek city-states were conquered by Julius Caesar, who carried this culture north and west through all of Europe, founding a state that continued to survive as “Greek” for the next 2100 years, so that even now all the people of Europe comprise one Greek nation. Suppose further that all languages derived from Greek and Latin came to be identified as mere dialects of Greek allowing everyone to believe that in some sense they all speak the same language. Imagine farther that as other ethnic groups came into the orbit of Greek culture, they assimilated and came to call themselves ethnically Greek, abandoning their earlier French, German, Danish, Swedish, etc. (Lets imagine England to be Japan, damn tommies :), a distinctive identity but borrowing heavily from Greek culture) The capital remained at Athens for long centuries, then perhaps shifts after a period of disunity or conquest to Rome or Paris or Berlin, but it continues to be Greek society. During the invasion of “Greece” from 1237 to 12 42, suppose the Mongols succeed in conquering the whole continent and ruling for hundred of years, eventually becoming as Greek as anyone else. And throughout these two millennia, the social philosophy of Socrates is continually elaborated, becoming a kind of civil religion throughout this vast realm. Something like this did actually happened in China.

February 16, 2007 @ 3:48 pm | Comment

Ebrey was one of the textooks I was thinking about actually. I don’t have a copy with me here in TJ, but as you point out she differentiates between ‘historical legend’ and material evidence. Has agriculture existed for over 5000 years in China? Absolutely. Has it existed as long if not longer in other places? Sure.

According to your sources cited above, 4000 years would be a more accurate number and this is the point from which we started this discussion. If we go back to the original post and the fourth comment in this thread:

“I had written “4,000 years,” which I’d heard (forget where) is more accurate.”

“The Xia dynasty, the first “recorded” dynasty, began around/about 2100 BC. So, if you do the math….”

Great discussion.

February 16, 2007 @ 6:01 pm | Comment

Feedmister, I’m a little confused. Are you being sarcastic? That is what basically happened in the West.

Western culture comes from two cities; Athens, particular Plato and Aristotle and Jerusalem from 700 B.C. to 70 A.D. The Roman Empire, which did unify Western Europe brought the Roman language which produced the basis of Modern French, Spanish, Italian and I think Romanian. In fact in the Roman empire, all the educated spoke and wrote in Greek and not Latin, which continued to the 17th to 18th century. If you want to stretch the point farther, the alphabet used in Europe countries comes from the Phoenician alphabet, which is about three thousand years old. While European culture, like the Chinese, did borrow some ideas and a lot of technology from other countries especially Arabia, the basic components of that culture date back from two thousand to three thousand years. In other parts of the world, we have archaeological evidence of farming cultures dating from 5,000 to 7,000 years. I’d say this is pretty similar to what happened in China.

As to siting English textbooks; I think they’re just parroting what the Chinese have been saying because I’ve haven’t seen any evidence that demonstrates that “‘their civilization, with a continuous history of 4000 years, has been the world’s most enduring.” Since Qin Shihuangdi only unified China in 221 B.C., you have to say at the oldest the Chinese empire is only 2300 years old. I think this put strong doubt on the statement “[o]nly one empire has survive for 4000 years.”

February 16, 2007 @ 6:09 pm | Comment

As for Sima Qian, he was castrated while still in the middle of his work. Letter to a friend can be found from here.

I view him as someone who is very professional and upright in character (yes, ironic but no pun intended though) for defending General Li Ling.

Farther translated text by Burton of Shiji – “In the 9th month, the First Emperor was interred at Mt. Li. When the emperor first came to the throne he began digging and shaping Mt. Li. Later when he unified the empire, he had over 700,000 men from all over the empire transported to the spot. They dug down to the third layer of underground springs and poured in bronze to make the outer coffin. Replicas of palaces, scenic towers, and the hundred officials, as well as rare utensils and wonderful objects were brought to fill up the tomb. Craftsmen were ordered to set up crossbows and arrows, rigged so they would immediately shoot down anyone attempting to break in. Mercury was used to fashion imitations of hundred of rivers, the Yellow River and the Yangtze, and the seas, constructed in such a way that they seemed to flow. Above were representatives of all the heavenly bodies, below, the features of the earth. “Man-fish” oil was used for lamps, which were calculated to burn for a long time without going out.”

Prior to 2006, many non-chinese thought this was legend (cite the impossibility of getting that much mercury) but core samples obtained indicates high concentration of mercury in the shape of the Bohai Sea and the marshlands or rivers in the tomb. The tomb now is awaiting new technologies to be opened.

This leads to my next point. Sun Yat-sen was the one who change to the new modern year instead of reign years that backtracked to the Yellow Emperor, not Jiang. During Han dynasty, the lunisolar calendar was first reformed. Before 621 BCE during the Zhou Dynasty, the Chinese determined the start of the month based on visibility of the crescent Moon. Before 589 BCE, intercalation varied between six and eight years every 19 years, but after 589 BCE it remained constant at seven intercalations every 19 years. This shows that the Metonic cycle, named after the Greek astronomer
Meton who used it in 432 BCE, but also known to the Babylonians by around 500 BCE, was in fact known to the Chinese about 100 years earlier. In China it was called the zhang cycle.

My question is on what basis Sun determined to start the calendar at the 61st year of Yellow Emperor’s reign which is 2637 BCE?? Where did he get all this numbers? Shiji was produced at the cost of a ding-a-ling.

February 16, 2007 @ 6:16 pm | Comment

If you’re interested, I wrote a short post about Sima Qian (as well as several other historians) last month. He is somebody I admire a great deal, and his letter to Ren An is one of the most powerful pieces of correspondence in any language ever.

February 16, 2007 @ 7:05 pm | Comment


My complain of ShiJi came out of a discussion with a couple friends developing online games with Chinese characteristic. It’s hard to find a well known story in China suitable as background stories of online games. No fireball down from the sky, no magic, no gods. We kind of traced the whole things back to ShiJi and how it set tone for the Chinese history recording. ShiJi is amazingly secular for its time and purposely stay away from myths and legends. The time of the book’s publication is also interesting. Han was just founded and ShiJi was a major undertaking for the history. There was no manipulation by the emperor to try to tile the history to his favorite such as using it to establish a bloodline from Yellow Emperor. In short, it’s DULL!

Sam over at the Useless Tree wrote an interesting piece responding this blog, especially the statement ‘Can we imagine any definition of “Chinese culture” that does not include Confucius?’ Qin took the legalist approach in ruling and Confucianism was adapted by Han. With 4000 years of history as cited here, about half of time of Chinese history isn’t under Confucianism. How did Confucianism become predominating ideology of China to the point of China as a Confucianism nation. Confucianism has only been briefly challenged in the past 100 years even China has gone through at least 10 dynasties changes including two establishing by invading foreigners.

Sam also wrote “And could we really accept a definition of Chinese civilization that did not include its most important political manifestation, the centralized bureaucratic state?” The massive bureaucracy was later added the meritocratic Imperial Examination.

Add up the secular political ideology, massive bureaucracy and meritocratic selection process, it’s not hard to paint a picture of anonymous ruling class of China of the educated intellects. The structure works well whether the system has emperors, dictators (Jiang, Mao) or a communist party as its head.

The study of complex system often found interesting emerging complex behaviors out of simple agents. I found it’s useful to take this view looking at China. Just curious if there is any researches on China in the direction?

As for asking how to disapprove the 5000 Chinese history, I wasn’t trying to defending the position. Just wonder what kind of methodologies social science employ in these researches. I think there should be more challenge to the positions and it will benefit the social science researches on China. I doubt the field is funded proper level in China, is it?

February 16, 2007 @ 7:59 pm | Comment

For a book related to this topic, I recommend “The Formation of Chinese Civilization: An Archaeological Perspective” by Chang KC., et al. (Yale University Press).

February 17, 2007 @ 12:41 am | Comment

I have a very simple response: “Yes, but only a very small group of elites ever participated in and passed on that culture, and all of you are recently descended from peasants.”

This is very effective, both because it is true and because its truth casts such a regrettable light on previous avowals of cultural grandeur.

February 17, 2007 @ 7:38 am | Comment

Did the idea register with whomever you talked to, Scott? ‘Cuz it doesn’t make much sense to me, honestly. Out of every average peasant’s 族谱, there must be some important names.

Traditional Confucianism is very meritocratic.

February 17, 2007 @ 12:08 pm | Comment


I think you need to go back and ready the Lun Yu a little more carefully. To be sure, Confucius is introducing some very subversive ideas that would later blossom in Wang Yang Ming’s “Every man can be a sage.” But at the same time, he was also clear that one’s happiness involved being happy with one’s lot and place in society.

As for the meritocracy of the examination system, a popular theme in the scholarship of the 1950s and 1960s, later research using broader sample bases (including affinal kin for example) shows remarkable elite consistency in many localities. The myth of any peasant being able to become a jinshi is not dissimilar from the American myth that anyone can become president. Sure, it’s true in theory and it does happen enough to keep the myth going, but it REALLY helps to have a rich uncle, connected Daddy (or Mommy), and the right friends.

Frankly, I think you’re just upset at Scott’s very, very funny line and are assuming that we, as lao wai, don’t know anything about Confucianism. Sadly, you’re mistaken. Many people on this board have read Confucius in translation and in Chinese. Sorry.

February 17, 2007 @ 12:21 pm | Comment

Jeremiah, great point about the difference between what Confucius taught and what later construed as Confucianism.

I am way past the age of being upset over little things like that. Honest if it was funny, it somehow didn’t register with me. How’s the “cultural grandeur” is not mine when in my soul the happiness is so connected toJeremiah, great point about the difference between what Confucius taught and what later construed as Confucianism.

I am way past the age of being upset over little things like that. Honest it really didn’t register with me. How’s the “cultural grandeur” is not mine when in my soul the happiness is so connected to ĺ´ºÕß,´º·þ¼È³É.¹ÚÕßÎåÁùÈË,ͯ×ÓÁùÆßÈË,Ô¡ºõÒÊ,·çºõÎèö§,Ó½¶ø¹é? Never mind лÁéÔË was in my family.

February 17, 2007 @ 1:00 pm | Comment

Uuuh, the inline Chinese editing screwed this up. Try again:

Jeremiah, great point about the difference between what Confucius taught and what later construed as Confucianism.

I am way past the age of being upset over little things like that. Honest it really didn’t register with me. How’s the “cultural grandeur” not mine when in my soul the happiness is so connected to 暮春者,春服既成.冠者五六人,童子六七人,浴乎沂,风乎舞雩,咏而归? Never mind 谢灵运 was in my family.

February 17, 2007 @ 1:05 pm | Comment

Scott made the right point. The system allows the small group of elite to rule over a large mass of peasant as well as surviving the changing of dynasties.

Coming from a rich family always help regardless to the society background. Even communist party with the previous purge of landlord class, I suspect a study of the background of the officials would revival the same thing. I have met enough provincial officials around China who can recounter their ancestors’ serving in Qing, even Ming court.

The questions I am interested in isn’t the debate of the fairness of the system but how the system emerge in the ancient time when imperial and political power were passing down from bloodline.

Jeremiah, could you point me to the studies to the affinal kin studies?

February 17, 2007 @ 1:25 pm | Comment

Karl Wittfogel argued in the 1940s that the elite of China more or less self-perpetuating and that despite the examination system, social mobility was in fact quite limited. This view was challenged by Edward Kracke (1947) who looked at lists of jinshi and found that only slightly more than half of those who passed the examinations had a father or grandfather who had also passed the exam. Kracke concluded that in the Song, as opposed to the Tang, a group of ‘new men’ made their way into the bureaucracy. Ho Ping-ti (1967) echoed Kracke’s findings in his study of social mobility in the Ming and the Qing. At the root of both arguments was a representation of late Imperial China as socially fluid and meritocratic and, in these ways, more ‘modern’ than Europe would not become until much later.

But these views came under assault in the 1970s and 1980s. The criteria for a ‘new man’ included somebody without a father or grandfather who had passed the exam, but didn’t include among others, uncles, inlaws, and affinal kin. Works challenging the social mobility theory include Hillary Beattie (1979) on elites in Tung-Cheng County and Robert Hartwell (1982) and Robert Hymes (1986) on elites during the Song.

There’s also those scholars, after Bourdieu, who looked at the influence of cultural and social capital in perpetuating elite status. See Benjamin Elman (1991), John Chaffee (1985), and Craig Clunas (1992). Whatever you think of Bourdieu, they’re a fascinating read.

David, this is a rich and fascinating subject that has been debated back and forth. The books above are just the few I could think of off the top of my head, but there are many more works out there.

February 17, 2007 @ 1:45 pm | Comment

David, equally you can find a large number of peasants whose family trees trace back to past nobilities. I will venture to guess whichever family bothers to keep record can find past glories. That’s at least the case for both sides of my family.

A sizable portion of Lis (the most popular Li) probably can trace their genealogy back to the Tang emperors or those who were given their name by them. By your anecdote itself it can’t prove there is no or little class mobility in the Chinese history.

Jeremiah, great stuffs.

February 17, 2007 @ 2:26 pm | Comment

Marvelously instructive thread.
But that won’t deter my adding an unscientific idiosyncratic treatment.

Surely it’s easy to concede (speaking here as a cultural heir of the Greeks by way of that island where Stonehenge is) that China has more continuity of culture farther back than pretty much anybody else who survives. Such a pity that that doesn’t seem to be enough for many Chinese. (And no one seems to have noted how many Westerners who consider Romulus and Remus to be mythological will accept Chinese historical myths as fact.)

BTW, what is the oldest work of literature that a literate Chinese is likely to have read in, say, college? (And how well established is the date?) And what is the oldest known Chinese joke? The comparison to Homer (epics and joke, both) would be interesting. Natch, his dates are not clear but one has some idea of them. I don’t count the Bible, not much of which is arguably — scholar-arguably — as old as Homer.

But my easy answer to “How many Thousands?” is, Look at the pots. The Shang Dynasty produced bronzes and ceramics that *look* Chinese. This is, of course, because the Chinese have loved and copied antiquities since — since antiquity. Fine, that’s cultural continuity. (It wouldn’t be if they’d started copying them in 1,000 AD; archaism mustn’t reach too far back at one reach.)

Now look at pieces from 2,000 BC or not very much earlier.
They look Neolithic. I defy any mere avid museum-goer who is not a specialist to identify the Chinese pieces in a collection of Neolithic pots from around the world.

So, 4,000 years; and before that many interesting and often beautiful things were going on, but they were Chinese civilization in the sense that they were civilization and in China. (Cf. Chinese dinosaurs, of which so many remarkable ones have been discovered lately.)

Simple-minded answer, but it’s good enough for amateur use.

February 17, 2007 @ 4:49 pm | Comment

A quick and very unscientific survey suggests that the oldest assigned literature in high school is the Analects (Confucius, 551-479 but probably compiled 4th century BCE) and the Spring & Autumn Annals (attributed to Confucius but also compiled about the 4th century BCE.)

I love your “Look at the Pots” theory. I may have to crib that.

February 17, 2007 @ 5:49 pm | Comment

Archaeologists indeed “Look at the Pot” to trace the origin of Chinese civilization. From the book I mentioned above.

“As early as 3000 B.C.E., several agricultural areas, each with its own characteristics, emerged in north and south China. This is most evident in the Yellow River basin and in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Significant cultural changes occurred in the regions along the basins of the two major rivers, ushering in a new period, the Longshan. It spans more than a millennium and can be divided into early and later stages (i.e., ca. 3000-2600 and ca. 2600-2000 B.C.E.).

… …Toward the end of the Longshan period, there changes begin to suggest a qualitatively new stage in Chinese history: the emergence of a new type of settlement that may on the evidence be called urban, a form of government that may properly be labeled a state, and thus a new stage of human development that can be referred to as civilization. ……

The most obvious archaeological evidence for these tremendous changes is a radical change in ceramic style at the beginning of the period. In all the large and small cultural systems along the basins of these two rivers, a new style emerged, characterized by gray and black pottery and by various tripodal and ring-footed vessel types. Although the shapes and decorative styles differ from region to region, they have much in common. ”

February 17, 2007 @ 8:24 pm | Comment


Thanks a lot for the points. I will check them out soon. However, just want to make a point from what you describe as the debate here. I think a system of equal opportunities is one which nobody is legislated against to, e.g. one can’t take examine if one was from Hunan. The system shouldn’t mean the outcome would be fairly distributed according to the population. It’s normal that ones with close relatives who are JinShi are more likely to become JinShi. Just as today in America, one can still certain kids whose parents have college degrees are more likely to go to colleges.

Thanks again for the insightful pointers.


I am waiting for the day the dig up the tomb of Wu Zhe Tian, examine her DNA and find me related to her! That would make me so happy! 😉

I think my mentioning of bloodline has gotten this a bit off track. As the landlord classes often coming from the retired officials, it’s not hard to image there are peasants with ancestors serving in courts. One theory I have came across to explain why Hunan has unproportionally large numbers of revolutionaries in the early 20th century was because many Ming officials chose early retirement to Hunan while Qing took over.

It’s pretty interesting you used the word “nobilities.” For a group of elite who are closely related, it would be in their benefits to institute policies of kinships selection of the group membership. However, the imperial examine was developed to divert from such system. One didn’t have to have a uncle who married to the third cousin who was sister to someone who married to a JinShi to enter the examine.

What interests me is how the system got nudged to go the direction instead of if the system has been fair in the history.


Look at the pot is interesting. I like your argument that “they were Chinese civilization in the sense that they were civilization and in China.” Technologies evolved and I am really curious what would constitute “Chinese-ness” in defining a cut-off point between the pre-Chinese civilization living in China and Chinese civilization? They didn’t suddenly disappear like the Maya but just gradually developed into what became recognized as the Chinese characteristics. In that sense, would it be wrong to count them as part of Chinese history?

Anyway, firework is going crazy outside of my windows! Happy Golden Pig Year! The discussion here is great!

February 18, 2007 @ 12:36 am | Comment

Watch how the US State Department explains Chinese history:


And even the fucking Falun Gong is on the CCP’s side with the “5000-year-history” theory:

“Chinese People Humiliated

The Chinese people, with all their history, culture, art and other accomplishments during more than 5000 years continue to be humiliated by the totalitarian and corrupt party in power since 1949…….”

Looks like even China’s most deadly enemies who brought you such famous tails as organ harvesting and cannot deny the 5000-year-history.

Actually come to think of it, no, I take it back. FLG is NOT China’s most deadly enemy. Because even in their most passionate moment of hatred against the CCP, at least they acknowledge that China was a world leading civilization with 5000 years of history.

So WHO do I think are the most deadly enemies of China. Well, well well………

February 18, 2007 @ 3:44 am | Comment


Who do you think is Chinese deadliest Enemy?

February 18, 2007 @ 7:26 am | Comment

Kenzhu, don’t expect to get into a serious dialogue with PKU. He frequenty spams the comments here and in the forum, and there’s never engagement, just ridicule. My recommendation: don’t feed the trolls.

By the way, I guess if the FLG says it, it must be true. Look at his reasoning: “Even the FLG “says the number is 5,000, implying that the FLG are anti-China and would try to portray it in the worst light as possible. But this is simply not true. The FLG do not deny China’s history or try to de-legitimize China’s great culture. Their enemy is the CCP, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom.

Sorry, I guess I just fed the troll.

February 18, 2007 @ 1:00 pm | Comment

As a Taiwanese, I feel quite ashamed that I did not know half so much as how this ‘5000 year’ thing came about before. I just took it without a doubt because that is what I learned from the high school textbook. Thank you for all the interesting insight.

But I think for some people all these arguements will just go to waste. I remember how shocked I was when last year the bbc ‘Have your say’ (live broadcast) invited some Chinese scholars to talk about the progress in China, and one of these scholars went on boasting the ‘6000’ years of wisdom and civilization totally unchallanged. I simply could not understand how under ccp rule, the Chinese suddenly gained 1000yr more of civilization, must be magic. Just to show you lots of people actaully cited these numbers without much thinkings. This week again on the bbc discussion about China, English or Chinese alike, repeatedly cited the 6000 yr civilzation. So maybe it was just a figure of speech and we should not read too much into it.

February 19, 2007 @ 2:48 am | Comment

6000 years of wisdom and civilization? Wisdom, not necessarily so at times but they might be talking about some early neolithic cultures like the Yangshao or Longshan or other myriad of cultures, depending on what your definitions are.

Anyway, its all just a numbers game by a number of different opinions, but officially its gonna be 4 or 5K.

I’m pretty sure soon, there’s gonna be much more elementary and high schoolers that will spit the same thing out, only this time, by non-chinese kids as so many Confucius Institutes have been springing up like mushrooms after the rain. My only wish is that, all this will demonstrate a genuine understanding of Chinese culture instead of some “chinese fever” fad.

February 20, 2007 @ 8:40 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.