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China’s “5,000 Years of History”: Fact or Fiction?

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Testing the Past (a literal translation of the Chinese word for archaeology, 考古 kaogu), is a new RADII column by archaeologist Michael Storozum exploring the ways in which this academic field is used to shape today’s China.

Anyone with a cursory experience of China has likely heard of its much vaunted “5,000 years of history.” Even President Donald Trump knows: when he came to China to meet with President Xi Jinping last in November 2017, Xi touted China’s long, continuous history as being exceptional compared to other world cultures. Last week, the inclusion of the 5,300-year-old Liangzhu onto UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites has revived the conversation in Chinese State-backed media. But how does this claim hold up under scientific and historical scrutiny?

The answer largely depends on how you define the question — namely, how you define “history.”

History is usually defined as the beginning of a textual record, or written documents. In China, the first decipherable written documents date to the Shang dynasty, around 3,000 to 3,500 years ago. This language, the Jiaguwen, or Oracle Bone Script, is the antecessor of all subsequent written Chinese script, and there are remarkable similarities between Oracle Bone texts and subsequent written language in China, suggesting that this writing system is the origin of modern Chinese script. Although it is undisputed that the Oracle Bones are the progenitor of Chinese script, they’re still nearly 2,000 years short of China’s hypothetical 5,000 years of history.

So, a strictly historical explanation is clearly not viable — there’s no science to support the claim.

Before the Shang dynasty and the development of the first historical records, there was a long prehistoric period in China. Archaeology, although often thought of as a field in the humanities or social sciences, heavily relies on methods in the physical sciences to understand cultural changes over time in ancient societies around the world. Since the discovery of China’s Neolithic cultures in the early 1900s, archaeology in China has primarily focused on defining China’s cultural history: the succession of different archaeological cultures (read: pottery styles) from the early Neolithic (around 10,000 years ago) to the start of the Han dynasty (around 2,200 years ago).

This chronology has been hugely contentious among archaeologists in China and around the world, in part because of a general lack of radiocarbon dates. Ancient carbon found at archaeological sites, when radiocarbon-dated, provides an absolute age for these sites, anchoring specific cultural developments in time. Only within the past several decades have there been enough radiocarbon dates to attempt to pinpoint the beginning of “Chinese civilization.”

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In 1996, the Chinese government launched a project to determine the chronology of the origins of Chinese history. The Three Dynasties Chronology Project, as it’s officially known, drew its inspiration from the incredibly robust chronology of ancient Egypt, where events and dynasties are often nailed down to the nearest year because of a long textual record (see Y.K. Lee’s 2002 article “Building the Chronology of Early Chinese History”, pp. 15-42, for more). The Chinese project attempted to provide a similarly robust chronology for China’s first Three Dynasties: the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties in Central China, where archaeologists recovered the first evidence of the Oracle Bones. However, there were a number of problems with the general approach to the project.

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First and foremost, the Xia dynasty is a mythical period of time. The only evidence of the Xia comes from historical texts that post-date this period by thousands of years (see “The Myth of the Xia Dynasty” by Sarah Allan for more). While archaeologists have recovered primary documents from the excavation of Shang and Zhou dynasty sites, no primary textual records have ever been recovered from Xia dynasty sites.

Second, the development of Chinese “civilization” did not happen in just one place. Just as in the recent past, people have migrated across the area known as modern China for thousands of years, bringing with them new ideas and cultural mores, making the focus on Central China detrimental to the project. Unsurprisingly, this project proved much more complex than originally conceived.

More recently, the government launched a successor to the “Three Dynasties” project — the “Origins of Chinese Civilization” project — which uses a wide range of scientific methods to develop a more complete body of knowledge concerning the developmental trajectory of ancient societies in both north and south China (see Yuan Jing and Rod Campbell’s paper “Recent archaeometric research on ‘the origins of Chinese civilisation’” for more on this).

Chinese “civilization” did not happen in just one place… people have migrated across the area known as modern China for thousands of years, bringing with them new ideas and cultural mores

A perfect example of the complexity in determining China’s historical record is the Liangzhu site, an ongoing archaeological project in southern China that lends support to China’s claim of 5,000 years of history.

Last Saturday, Liangzhu was designated a UNESCO world heritage site, recognizing its status as an exceptional case of an early “state” in southern China. The Liangzhu site, located outside of Hangzhou, dates back over 5,000 years, and is one of the earliest and most complex Neolithic archaeological sites in China.

Many art forms associated with ancient China, such as the engraved jade tubes (cong) and discs (bi) found at the Liangzhu site, are also found throughout Shang and Zhou dynasty sites in Central China, indicating Liangzhu’s deep connection to “Chinese” cultural values. While archaeologists have known about this site for many decades, only recently have radiocarbon dates been published, earning the site and the Liangzhu culture widespread acceptance as one of the most complex Neolithic cultures in China. Investigations into Liangzhu are just now ramping up, and we should expect to see more work that reveals Liangzhu’s deep connections to China’s “5,000 years of history,” work motivated in some part by a mandate to put Chinese civilization on the same “level” as ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

In other words: if we really push the boundaries of the historical and archaeological records, Chinese “civilization” can be said to have a 5,000-year history, but this interpretation bends the facts in important ways. From a historical perspective, the first drips of a continuous historical record begin around 3,500 years ago, and a fully realized and still extant historical record really starts only with the Han dynasty, around 2,000 years ago. From the scientific perspective offered by archaeology, the absolute chronology goes back thousands and thousands of years, but does not necessarily reveal a continuous Chinese identity.

While sites like Liangzhu are found within China’s modern political borders, and have some similarities to material culture found elsewhere within the country, archaeologists have no way of directly knowing how the ancient Liangzhu people or other peoples in prehistory conceived their own identity. China in the deep past was a diverse place, full of many different types of people who likely thought of themselves in a wide variety of ways. Complex societies like Liangzhu lived within the modern political boundaries of China, but 5,000 years ago, the people who lived in China were not bound by our modern political boundaries or our deeply changed ecologies. They lived in a world largely alien to us.

Complex societies like Liangzhu lived within the modern political boundaries of China, but 5,000 years ago, the people who lived in China were not bound by our modern political boundaries or our deeply changed ecologies. They lived in a world largely alien to us.

The cultural achievements of ancient peoples living within the modern-day political boundaries of China are certainly impressive, and stretch back in time thousands and thousands of years. From a scientific perspective, however, the entire premise of “5,000 years of continuous history” leaves much to be desired. Rather than reveal a continuous culture from 5,000 years ago to the present, new scientifically-oriented archaeological research into China’s deep past will likely reveal a long history of migrations, intermixing populations, and diverse interactions that have helped create modern-day China.

Cover image: Jade cong from the Liangzhu culture(Neolithic) in Zhejiang Museum

Further reading:

Allan, S., 1984. The myth of the Xia Dynasty. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 116(2), pp.242-256.

Lee, Y.K., 2002. Building the chronology of early Chinese history. Asian Perspectives, pp.15-42.

Jing, Y. and Campbell, R., 2009. Recent archaeometric research on ‘the origins of Chinese civilisation’. Antiquity, 83(319), pp.96-109.

Liu, B., Wang, N., Chen, M., Wu, X., Mo, D., Liu, J., Xu, S. and Zhuang, Y., 2017. Earliest hydraulic enterprise in China, 5,100 years ago. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(52), pp.13637-13642.

Michael Storozum
    Michael Storozum is a professional archaeologist based in Shanghai who studies ancient Chinese societies' responses to climate change and natural disasters. His work is published in leading scientific journals, and has been featured in a wide range of popular science outlets, including Phys.org and Archaeology Magazine.

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