As we approach the hazily delineated border between the prehistory and history of China, it would perhaps behoove us to think about the many facets of this word “history.” The glib among us might wish to label history as simply “that which has happened in the past” and move on, but the reality is far more complicated than that. In some European languages, the word for “history” is the same as that for a story of any other stripe; this begins to clue us into something. History is not so much the past, full stop, as the collected stories we tell about our past. Yes, it is the conduit through which our past informs our present — but, just as importantly, it is also the conduit through which our present informs our past, or at least our understanding of it. All peoples down through time have told one another those histories which seem to make the most sense in light of their shared present — and, human nature being what it is, those which are most flattering to themselves. (Has any people ever not believed themselves to be at some level an exceptional, chosen people?) Past and present live in a fruitful if sometimes uneasy symbiosis, thanks to history.
Of course, human language is a complex, infinitely subtle device, and the word “history” as we use it today reflects this fact as much as any other word. During the Western Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, a new meaning of history began to take root, one that entailed a skeptical study of concrete evidence from the past, that attempted to disentangle itself from myth, legend, and patriotism. More or less since Edward Gibbon showed how it could be done in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, this has been the accepted ideal among professional historians in the liberal West, however much they may sometimes have failed to live up to it in practice. When authors like myself write of separating myth from history, or of some event being “historically proven,” this is the ideal to which we refer.
But China is not and has never been a liberal society, and its attitude toward its own past has always reflected this. In many areas of historical inquiry, the Chinese still emphasize didactic knowledge and received wisdom over the sort of fearless empiricism recently championed in the West. Right through the last gasp of China’s imperial era at the turn of the twentieth century, the country’s almost inconceivably lengthy history was deployed to serve as a justification of the reign of each successive emperor — a proof positive that, after thousands of years of rule by Sons of Heaven governing under the Mandate of Heaven, the way things were were the only way things could possibly be. For a brief window of time during the first half of the twentieth century, some Chinese scholars seemed on the verge of inculcating a different, more Westernized approach to history, but the proclamation of a Communist People’s Republic of China in 1949 heralded a return to ideological rigidity in Chinese historiography that, like so many aspects of the new China, had more in common than one might initially think with what had come before.
Thus the version of their culture’s most distant past that is taught to Chinese schoolchildren today springs almost fully formed from a set of millennia-old Great Books, and much of Chinese historiography remains an exercise in annotating rather than questioning the truths contained therein. This is not to say that Chinese historians are stupid or useless, just that the boundaries of their inquiries are clearly defined by the authoritarian system under which they live. I trust that the parallels with the Chinese scientific establishment’s stubborn refusal to give way on another Big Question, despite the overwhelming body of evidence that Peking Man is not the Chinese people’s direct ancestor, will not require any belaboring.
For we outsiders who wish to understand China better, the unwillingness or inability of those best equipped to reveal their country’s true past to do so is undeniably frustrating. At the same time, though, the stories the Chinese do tell themselves about the earliest period of their culture are by no means useless to us, given that few things reveal the values and priorities of a people more plainly than their most beloved stories. So, I’d first like to share with you where the Chinese say that Chinese civilization came from. Then, I’ll tell you what we can glean by casting a more skeptical, empirical eye back to the remote past. The two contrasting narratives will meet up at the Shang dynasty, the first Chinese dynasty whose existence everyone can agree upon as an indubitable fact.
The traditional story of Chinese civilization’s origins and most distant past is found in The Book of Documents, which is a compilation of texts that were probably written between the beginning and the middle of the first millennium BC, purporting to depict China’s history up to that point. In marked contrast to most Western mythic histories, this book is decidedly specific when it comes to chronology. Translated into our dating system, it states that Chinese civilization began in precisely 2852 BC, with the coming of the first emperor, whose name was Fuxi and who taught his people about family life, music, writing, painting, fishing, animal husbandry, and the uses of silkworms. His successor Shennong took the throne in 2737 BC — like the heroes of many a culture’s mythical stories of the past, these earliest Chinese were much longer-lived than those who came later — after which he invented the plow, showed his people how to trade goods among themselves, and taught them the art of medicine. He ruled for just 40 years, but the reign of his successor Huangdi, better known as the Yellow Emperor, lasted exactly one century, during which he taught his people of the magnet and the wheel and how to write history and to build with brick, how to track the movements of the stars and to maintain a calendar. After a gap to allow the burgeoning civilization to catch its breath, there came Yao in 2356 BC to reign for 101 years, so wisely that he would later be described by Confucius as the best ruler China had ever had or ever could have, the unattainable ideal to which all those emperors who followed him should aspire, however imperfectly. And then came Shun, who during his reign of 50 years introduced a standardized system of measurement and, through the judicious digging of canals and lakes, saved his land from a flood that very nearly overran it. He was the last of the so-called Five Great Emperors, and when he died in 2205 BC the most glorious of all ages of Chinese history passed away. Those that followed could only be the palest shadows of what had once been.
These tales of the Five Great Emperors are possessed of some other universal mythic qualities in addition to the longevity of their protagonists. There is, for example, the presence of a terrible flood, something found in the myths of a disarming number of cultures, a fact which has led many scholars to suspect it to be rooted in some real worldwide catastrophe of the distant past. And then too there is the eternal human tendency to idealize our past at the expense of a shabbier present. To this day, we do it on an individual scale (witness the way that every generation thinks the pop culture of its youth was the best ever), we do it on a national scale (Make America Great Again?), and we do it on a cosmic scale (witness the Christian narrative of a Garden and a Fall). It is thus ironic but not terribly surprising to observe that the period of Chinese history which gave us the The Book of Documents, complete with all of these stories of a better earlier age, would later be itself idealized as another golden age which could only have existed in a superior past. This tendency to romanticize the past seems destined to continue in perpetuity, in China as everywhere else.
That said, The Book of Documents also contains the first manifestations of a more uniquely Chinese view of the past writ large, one which actually stands somewhat in opposition to the aforementioned vision of a world in perpetual decline: the notion of history as a wheel, an eternal recurrence of good emperors slowly yielding to bad, order to chaos, virtue to vice, until the wheel spins around again and a more positive order is restored. Each cycle invariably coincides with the rise and fall of an imperial dynasty. In the The Book of Documents, we see the wheel of history spin through the Xia dynasty, which ruled China between 2205 and 1766 BC, and then the Shang dynasty, which ruled between 1766 and 1123 BC. The purportedly dissipated final years of the Shang are important to us because they mark the point where China’s written historiography meets real archaeological evidence for the first time.
Having reached that point in the traditional narrative, then, let us go back to the beginning in search of a different explanation of how Chinese civilization came to be.
China was one of the first two regions in the world where human beings gave up the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favor of sedentary agriculture; people probably did so there by 7500 BC at the latest, thus joining those of the Fertile Crescent of southwestern Asia and Egypt, a region in which our first archaeological evidence of sedentary farming is only about 1000 years older. Historians and anthropologists have long debated what prompted two disparate groups of humans, living according to everything we know in complete isolation from one another, to make the same momentous change at so close to the same instant in time. There had to have been something other than the guiding hand of evolution in the abstract at work, for Homo sapiens who were genetically almost identical to us had probably been living as hunter-gatherers in both regions for at least 100,000 years by that point. The most likely motivating force was climate change: specifically, the end of the last worldwide ice age. In the Fertile Crescent, what had been a temperate landscape of forests and abundant wild game turned into the parched region we know today, forcing the humans who lived there to cluster close to the great rivers, the only remaining reliable sources of water, and to find new ways to acquire the food they needed to survive. China is not generally known as a desert country today, so the argument for climate change as the motivating force of civilization may initially seem less persuasive there. Yet the environment of Northern Inner China too did become much more arid than it once had been as the ice age ended. And not coincidentally, it is in Northern Inner China that the change to sedentary farming happened first, quite probably in the modern province of Henan, which would still be the locus of Chinese civilization during the Shang period of the second millennium BC.
Needless to say, the archaeological record provides us with nothing like the neat, authoritative lists of emperors and other political developments included in The Book of Documents. By way of compensation, it tells us much more about the daily lives of the people, and how their way of life changed over time. Domesticated pigs, dogs, and chickens, some or all of which may actually have predated the shift to permanent sedentary farming, were eventually joined by water buffaloes for pulling plows, horses for riding and pulling wagons, silkworms for clothing and bedding, and ducks and geese for eating. The founding staple crop of millet was joined by soybeans, hemp, apricots, peaches, and pears. This agricultural revolution spread gradually outward from Henan throughout Northern Inner China, in time even across the Qinling Mountain Range into Southern Inner China, where the people learned to raise an even wider variety of crops, adding citrus fruits, tea, and of course the Southern staple of rice to the list. By the middle of the third millennium BC, the Chinese had learned to work bronze, marking the beginning of a proud metallurgical tradition.
It’s important that we not imagine some sense of grand Chinese solidarity driving all of these developments. No word for or concept of a “China” that was distinct from other lands in the world existed at this stage; how could it when what we now call China was the world as it was known by these people? Contrary to The Book of Documents and its neat roll call of early emperors, it seems unlikely that there was much government at all in China above the village level prior to the second millennium BC. Even the distinction between the “barbarians” of the steppes and the settled people of Inner China didn’t exist prior to that point; the Gobi Desert and the Tibetan Plateau were then more hospitable places than they have since become, with more abundant standing water, such that they too were capable of supporting a modest degree of agriculture. The people who lived there during these early years appear to have been no more warlike than those of Inner China.
Over the course of the second millennium BC, however, the climate of these outlying regions changed for the hotter, drying out the lakes and ponds and killing the crops in the fields. Having no rivers to cluster around, the people who lived there were forced to return to a nomadic way of life, driving their herds of horses and sheep from place to place. They took to raiding their southern and eastern neighbors for those things — grain, silk, metal — which they could no longer produce for themselves. It seems more than reasonable to postulate that the need for protection against these raids was the impetus that led the Northern Inner Chinese to invent the institutions of government above the very local level. As soon as they began to divide the people of the world into the categories of Themselves and dangerous Others, they began to build walls to keep the Others out. Soon every settlement of any size in the North could expect to get its own wall, made of outer shells of wood or brick with earth tamped down in between. Some of these walls were as much as 4.5 miles (7 kilometers) long and 30 feet (9 meters) high. The mobilization of labor it took to build them surely demanded government on an unprecedented scale.
And so we arrive at the Shang Dynasty, the first of those mentioned in The Book of Documents that historians more or less universally agree actually existed. The when of it, however, is less clear; The Book of Documents dates the dynasty’s beginning to precisely 1766 BC, but most skeptical Western historians hew to a date closer to 1500 BC. Although we can theorize that the Shang dynasty may have evolved in response to the incursions of the newly minted nomads of the steppes, we lack other details of its formation beyond the tales of The Book of Documents. Still, we do know that even at its greatest extent it encompassed no more than a fourth or so of Inner China; it included much of the North but the merest sliver of the South. Its capital for at least part of its existence was the city now known as Anyang, near the northern border of Henan province; this is where much of the archaeological evidence of the Shang stems from.
What was this first archaeologically verified Chinese empire like? Historians Caroline Blunden and Mark Elvin provide a portrait:
The Shang was an aristocratic culture, brilliant, luxurious, and savage, resting on a still largely Neolithic agricultural base. The leaders of the Shang clan were addicted to warfare, hunting, wine, and human and animal sacrifices on an enormous scale. The distinctive characteristics of their civilization were the use of bronze for weapons and ritual vessels, the horse-drawn chariot, a coherent administrative structure, the ability to mobilize the human labor needed to build massive walls of rammed earth and great tombs, cities, a relatively accurate calendar, money in the form of strings of cowrie shells, a pantheon of gods, a complex lineage structure, and the worship of ancestors. We also meet for the first time with musical instruments: drums, bells, chiming stones, and ocarinas. The melodies have vanished, but we know they used a tritonic and pentatonic scale. Shang art is dominated by animal motifs, most of them highly stylized. But some are naturalistic, and a few are of imaginary composite monsters.
One of the reasons we know so much about them is that the Shang invented the first system of writing known to have existed in China. The importance of this achievement defies exaggeration. Of course, the same statement is true anywhere writing appears in the world, but writing was if anything even more significant for China than for most places — for, as I mentioned in an earlier chapter, logographic writing would become the glue that would bind together a wide continuum of spoken languages, thereby permitting a single coherent China to exist. Coming up with the concept of writing from whole cloth, as the Shang appear to have done, is no mean feat; it has probably occurred no more than a handful of times in the entire history of humanity. Indeed, the vast majority of writing systems in use in the world today can trace their roots back to one of just two of those occasions: the invention of cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia in approximately the fourth millennium BC and the invention of written Chinese during the second millennium BC.
On the other hand, to call writing an “invention” is perhaps misleading in itself. Certainly there was no eureka moment for written Chinese, no instant when a single brilliant inventor realized that one could preserve and transmit information over a span of generations by employing a set of signs with agreed-upon meanings. Chinese writing rather must have evolved slowly, from pictures of things to singular pictograms that could convey simple fixed messages — think of a stop sign of today — to glyphs representing discrete units of meaning that could be combined to build out arbitrary new statements.
Our first archaeological evidence of a mature form of written Chinese dates from 1200 BC or shortly thereafter. Rather than the clay tablets of ancient Mesopotamia or the papyrus scrolls of ancient Egypt, it is found on some 150,000 separate fragments of “oracle bones.”
A word of explanation is obviously required. Bones were a means of divination in Shang China: priests would ask the gods and/or the spirits of the ancestors a question put to them by the emperor or some other elevated entity, then touch a hot poker to a bone from a recently sacrificed animal — or possibly from a sacrificed human. They then read the cracks which formed in the bone to determine the gods’ answer. By 1200 BC, the priests had begun to inscribe the questions and the gods’ answers into the bones themselves after the ceremony was complete — perhaps as another necessary part of the ritual, perhaps simply to keep a record of proceedings. Sometimes two contradictory answers were written, with the one chosen by the gods marked appropriately.
The written Chinese found on these oracle bones differs from the Chinese writing of today about as much as ancient Latin differs from modern Italian — a substantial divide in everyday terms, to be sure, but not an overly daunting one by the standards of comparative linguistics. Scholars versed in classical Chinese can read the messages on the oracle bones without too much difficulty. Through them, the year-to-year concerns of these people of a distant past reach us unfiltered. They deal with matters of weather and agriculture: “This rain will be disastrous for us.” They deal with matters of politics and war: “It should be Zhi Gao whom the emperor joins to attack the Bafang, [for if he does the god] Di will [confer assistance] on us.” And they deal with matters of fertility and childbirth: “Lady Hao will give birth. If it be on a ding day, it will be good. [After] 31 days, on jiayin she gave birth. It was not good. It was a girl.” The oracle bones preserve the name of at least one Shang emperor, Wu Ding. He is thus the very first documented emperor of Chinese history, in the sense of satisfying the evidentiary standards of the fussy West.
By those same standards, it remains an open question whether the Shang used writing for other purposes than keeping records of oracular divinations, for no other examples of written Chinese from prior to 1000 BC have been discovered. Still, it does rather defy belief to presume that such a sophisticated tool would only have been used for such an esoteric purpose as this one. It seems more probable that the Shang, like the Chinese of the following millennium, wrote most of their missives on bamboo or silk rather than the more durable medium of bone, and that these others have all been lost to us as a result.
From this point, the timelines of The Book of Documents and that of skeptical, evidence-focused historians of China are more or less in sync. Both tell us that the Shang Empire fell into decline and was overthrown by a man named Wu — not the same as the aforementioned Shang Emperor Wu Di — from a region of Inner China known as Zhou in or about 1046 BC. This event marked the beginning of the Zhou dynasty. It appears to have been the newly crowned Emperor Wu who first explicitly formulated the doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven to justify his usurpation of the throne. It would go on to become one of the most crucial aspects of the Chinese view of their own history — and, for that matter, of their present at any given juncture.
The Mandate of Heaven is a sort of cosmic seal of approval which the ineffable forces of the world grant to an emperor who earnestly endeavors to rule wisely and virtuously. When wisdom turns into caprice and virtue into decadence, on the other hand, the Mandate is withdrawn, and the straying emperor, or possibly even his entire dynasty, is toppled. Ripe though the Mandate of Heaven is for opportunistic exploitation — insurrection can always be justified by claiming the Mandate has been lost by the current ruler and given to his would-be usurper — its importance to the traditional Chinese conception of the perfect state can hardly be emphasized enough. The eminently quotable twentieth-century popular historian Will Durant describes that conception more completely as
an emperor ruling as the vicar and “Son of Heaven,” and holding power through the possession of virtue and piety; an aristocracy, partly of birth and partly of training, administering the offices of the state; a people dutifully tilling the soil, living in patriarchal families, enjoying civil rights but having no voice in public affairs; and a cabinet of six ministries controlling respectively the life and activities of the emperor, the welfare and early marriage of the people, the ceremonies and divinations of religion, the preparation and prosecution of war, the administration of justice, and the organization of public works. It is an almost ideal code, more probably sprung from the mind of some anonymous and irresponsible Plato than from the practice of leaders sullied with actual power and dealing with actual men.
And yet, with just a few deft substitutions — Party chairman for emperor, ideology for religion — Durant’s description still captures fairly well the face which even the current Communist government of China prefers to present to its own citizens and to the world.
Although he reigned for just three years from his new capital of Hao, well to the southwest of Anyang on the site of the modern city of Xi’an, Emperor Wu is remembered as one of the preeminent heroes of traditional Chinese history. And indeed, the Zhou dynasty’s first century or so truly does seem to have been another golden age of peace and prosperity for the territory it encompassed. Primary-source evidence for this is admittedly rather thin on the ground, but more records have reached us from this period than from that of the Shang dynasty (among them some parts at least of the The Book of Documents itself). Inevitably, the scholars of a few centuries later would remember these years as another of those halcyon ages of the past to which their own shabby present and future could never hope to compare. Emperor Wu, his descendants, and many of those around them were held up as role models of honorable selflessness. Take, for instance, the story of the Duke of Zhou, the brother of Emperor Wu.
When Wu died, he left behind only a single, very young son who was in no way ready to take the throne. Second only to the deceased emperor in the people’s estimation thanks to his bravery in the recent uprising against the Shang, the Duke was well-positioned to seize power for himself without further ado. Instead he consulted with the spirits of the ancestors, and, upon being informed that the Mandate of Heaven had passed to the young Emperor Cheng rather than himself, he served as regent only while he waited for his youthful liege to come of age, putting down an attempted coup by two more of his own brothers in the process. Then, when the time came, he humbly stepped aside. To celebrate his piety and steadfastness against temptation, the spirits sent a strong wind on this occasion to flatten all of the grain in the fields, followed by another from the opposite direction to set it upright again.
According to legend, the Duke of Zhou was also a great scholar, the author of the oldest work of Chinese literature known to most Westerners, the only one commonly known by its Chinese name: the I Ching (“Book of Changes”). A favorite in Western New Age circles for quite some decades now, the I Ching is a manual for divination, a way of consulting the spirits for guidance when facing dilemmas large or small. Back in the day, the supplicant posed a question to the ineffable forces and then randomly drew six plant stalks from a bundle containing equal numbers of short and long stalks. The drawn combination of short and long guided him to one of 64 passages in the book that would cast light on his situation and suggest a way forward. More recently, the plant stalks have been replaced by other ways of generating binary random outcomes, such as a handful of coins.
The guidance offered by the I Ching is predictably vague. An example:
There is benefit in perseverance. If the gentleman has a particular goal and attempts to attain it, at first he may lose his way, but ultimately he will achieve it. It is beneficial to make friends in the west and the south, but avoid friends in the east and north. Peaceful perseverance will yield good fortune.
Easy though it is on one level to mock such plausibly deniable, generic advice, many in the East and the West insist that the I Ching helps them to think about problems in new lights. And more power to them.
As if the I Ching wasn’t enough, the Duke of Zhou is also credited with writing The Classic of Poetry, a collection of no less than 305 poems that represent the earliest examples of Chinese verse to have come down to us. Even in translated form, they retain a peculiar, melancholy beauty. Take this one, about the weary lives of soldiers on the march, as relatable to the troopers of today as those of 3000 years ago.
Which plant is not yellow?
Which day don’t we march?
Which man does not go
To bring peace to the four quarters?
Which plant is not brown?
Which man is not sad?
Have pity on us soldiers,
Treated as though we were not men!
We are neither rhinos nor tigers,
Yet are led through the wilds.
Have pity on us soldiers,
Never resting morn or night.
A thick-furred fox
Scurries through the dark grass.
Our loaded carts
Proceed along the Zhou road.
The first, best century of the Zhou dynasty eventually tailed off into decadence and corruption, as the Chinese philosophy of history tells us is inevitable. Another emerging constant of Chinese history marked the times as well: the nomads who lived outside the borders of the empire raided the outskirts of the Zhou capital of Hao with impunity as the power and prestige of the dynasty declined. The Zhou responded by building more walls, always a sure sign of a regime in abeyance. One of the old stories tells of a Zhou emperor who became a Chinese version of the boy who cried wolf: he loved to light the capital’s beacon towers and watch the barons from the countryside rush in with their armies to give aid — and then enjoy the look on their faces when they realized it was a false alarm. Sure enough, on the day when the nomads really did come, the barons shook their heads and stayed home while their capital was sacked.
About 770 BC, with the depredations of the nomads becoming intolerable, the Zhou moved their capital to a more sheltered spot near the very center of the empire: the city of Luoyang in modern-day Henan Province. While the Zhou dynasty continued as a nominal entity thereafter, the emperor became a figurehead at best; the real power rested with feudal kings, each ruling their own fiefdoms and warring against one another. It would be so for the next 500 years.
Appropriately enough given the martial discord which marked it, this age produced The Art of War, another of the few Chinese texts which are known to most Westerners, attributed to a general named Sun Tzu who may or may not have actually existed and may or may not have written it if he did. A collection of aphorisms and broad advice on tactics and strategy, The Art of War was first embraced in the West by Napoleon. It was adopted as a training manual by many Western military academies in the twentieth century, and has now become a pop-culture favorite to rival the I Ching; a cottage publishing industry applies the lessons of Sun Tzu to everything from business to sports to, Lord help us, romantic relationships.
But the Chinese even during this period were often ambivalent about war — which is very much to their credit rather than otherwise, of course. The written Chinese glyphs which are generally translated as “military” are the sign for a spear and the sign for “stop.” The proper use of the military, in other words, is to prevent wars rather than prosecute them. Some of the wisest words of the time emerge from the mouth of a feudal king named Chu, just as he is being congratulated by his advisors for winning a major battle. The king stops them in their tracks. The fact that a battle had to be fought at all, he explains, was down to his failure of leadership.
“Military” means to prevent violence, store weapons, preserve greatness, secure achievements, pacify the people, harmonize groups, and increase wealth. Now I have caused the bones of the soldiers from two states to lie exposed on the battlefield; this is violence. I have made a show of weapons to coerce the feudal lords; this is not storing weapons. Since I have caused violence and have not placed the weapons in storage, how could I have preserved greatness? Furthermore, the enemy state still exists; so how could my achievements be secure? In many ways I have gone against the people’s wishes; so how could they be pacified? I have not been virtuous but have used force against the feudal lords; so how could the groups be harmonized? I have found profit in other men’s cries and peace in their disorders. This has given me glory, but how has it increased wealth? There are seven military virtues, but I have not achieved a single one of them.
With wisdom like this in the field alongside armies, it’s no surprise that this period produced the first and in some ways the greatest of all flowerings of Chinese philosophy. The most famous Chinese philosopher and arguably the most important single Chinese person ever to have lived sprang from this fecund soil. Had the man whom we Westerners call Confucius not come along, China and all of the Asian world around it would be very different places today.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)