4,000 years of records

Updated 8 August 2016

According to the ancient book Shu Jing, the Book of History, (one of the Five Classics) there has been a ‘China’ for over 4,000 years – see Footnote.

Chinese history begins with the so-called Three Dynasties: the XiaShang, and Zhou. Until around 75 years ago, these three dynasties were thought to be legendary. However, since the major excavations at Yinxu (1928-37) where oracle bones naming Shang (1,600 – 1,100 BCE) kings and their diviners, it is now believed to be history as recorded by Sima Qian (145 – 86 BCE) in his Shi ji (Book of the Historian). The Shi ji also has a list of Xia kings, including the legendary founder Emperor Yu the Great who apparently taught his people about flood control and irrigation thereby enabled bountiful harvest to be reaped. As Xia excavations are uncovering distinct artefacts, the view amongst archaeologists and historians is that it is only a matter of time before the authenticity of the Xia (2,000- 1,600 BCE) will be confirmed.

See recent report (August 2016) about scientific excavations relating to the Great Flood and hinting at the existence of the Xia dynasty – https://chindia-alert.org/2016/08/06/science-and-history-align-to-hint-at-chinas-founding-legend-china-real-time-report-wsj/

See also: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/sci/2012-07/02/c_131689452.htm

For fully authenticated records we start with Emperor QinShi Huangdi (259 BCE – 210 BCE) – the ‘First Emperor’ who started to build the Great Wall and whose terracotta soldiers have been uncovered in Sian. He proclaimed that his dynasty would last 10,000 years. But, sadly, it lasted a little beyond his reign. However, the emperor unified China for the first time. Something that would, more or less, last until modern times. He reformed politics, economy and culture. He codified law and established a working tax system. Coinage and measurements were all standardized. The emperor also standardised Chinese writing, which promoted the development of the Chinese culture.

From then, written records of Chinese historical events which – despite major discontinuities due to invasions, rebellions, and revolutions – have been continuous.

Invaders who managed to overcome the dynasty in power invariably adopted Chinese civil administration, language and culture and within three or so generations became ‘Chinese’. Although there were times when several contending regimes ruled over parts of China, more often than not, a single ruler presided over most of what is China today.

China was never colonised per se as India was. But having suffered for over a century great humiliation at the hands of not only many western powers, Britain being the main culprit, but also at the hands of a neighbour, Japan, Chinese have a persistent negative collective memory of foreign powers.

Sixty-year calendar cycle

The historical records usually contain both dynastic and political information such as the reigns of kings and outcomes of battles – which may be hyped by the victor; as well as economic information, such as the yields of harvests and taxation revenues – which are more likely to be factual. The dating of events usually starts from the beginning of a new dynasty – the regnal year.

Fortunately, China has been following a 60-year cycle based on five-element (wood, fire, earth, metal, water) multiplied by 12-zodiac years (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, pig). According to tradition, it was invented by Huang-di or the Yellow Emperor, who is a legendary Chinese sovereign and cultural hero. He is said to be the ancestor of all Chinese.Tradition holds that he reigned from 2697-2597 BCE. He is regarded as the founder of Chinese civilization and pre-dates even the Xia dynasty. The first year of the first 60-year cycle began in 2696 BCE on 16 February, by the Gregorian calendar. BTW – this makes the current Year of the Tiger – 2010 – year 4,708 in the Chinese calendar!

China has suffered its share of political turmoil over the centuries, often alternating between an indigenous dynasty and one founded by foreign conquerors, such as the Mongols (Yuan, 1271 — 1368) replacing Jin (1115 — 1234) or Manchus (Qing, 1644 — 1911) replacing Ming (1368 — 1644).

Or, often, one dynasty succumbing to over-indulgence and decadence supplanted by another, sometimes triggered by a revolt led by a peasant turned charismatic leader. For instance, the Tang dynasty, one of China’s ‘golden ages’ collapsed due a peasant-leader led revolt. Incidentally, most big cities have a China Town. The Chinese name for this is Táng rén jiē which means “Tang people’s street”. Such is the folk memory of the ‘golden age’ of China that the label sticks even today! 

And sometimes, a stable and long-lasting dynasty may splinter into a few contending ones, for a while. But, more often than not, a majority of China would be under a single ruler – see Chinese history timeline.

Despite the chaos that prevailed from time to time, there is continuity in Chinese historical records that surpasses that of nearly every other nation.

Four great inventions of China

China has been the source of many significant inventions including papermaking, the compass, gunpowder, and printing.

Many people are surprised to know that modern agriculture, shipping, astronomical observatories, paper money, umbrellas, wheelbarrows, multi-stage rockets,
brandy and whiskey, chess, and much more, all came from China. Chinese are materialistic and practical – somewhat different from Indians as we will show on the next page.

This information has been compiled by Joseph Needham and his colleagues in a study of ancient Chinese books on science, technology and medicine. His research has been published in the yet to be completed, multi-volume, Science and Civilisation in China. Some of Needham’s work has been condensed in a well-illustrated paperback The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention by Robert Temple.

Incidentally, some would add noodles as the fifth great Chinese invention!



 The Five Classics refer to The Book of Songs (Shī Jīng), The Classic of History (Shū Jīng), The Classic of Rites (Lǐ Jì), The Book of Changes (I Ching), and The Spring and Autumn Annals (Chūn Qiū), all of which are said to be compiled or revised by Confucius.

  1. The Book of Songs is the earliest collection of Chinese poems and it is the source of Chinese verse and the starting point of the Chinese realistic epic. Therefore, The Book of Songs serves as the most valuable and important material in the study of the Chinese language from the 11th century to the 6th century B.C.
  2. The Classic of History is a compilation of documentary records related to events in ancient China.
  3. The Classic of Rites is the earliest and most complete record of social hierarchies and ceremonies in ancient China.
  4. The Book of Changes, also referred to as Zhou Yi (Book of Changes of the Zhou Dynasty), is regarded as the most preeminent among all Classics in ancient China.
  5. The Spring and Autumn Annals were the official chronicles of the states during the Pre-Qin Period, however, only that of the State of Lu covering the period from 722 BC to 481 BC survived.

from: Cultural China

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7 Responses to “4,000 years of records”

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