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Overheard at the Forbidden City…

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“China has a history that goes back 5,000 years, right? 5,000 years?” wonders Donald Trump.

“We have 3,000 years with a written language,” Xi says through a translator as the two old dudes wander through an abandoned Forbidden City on the way to dinner.

“I guess the older culture, they say, is Egypt with 8,000,” is Trump’s reply.

“Egypt is a bit more ancient,” Xi concedes. “But the only continuous civilization to continue onwards is China.”

“We are the original people, black hair, yellow skin, inherited onwards,” Xi laughs. “We call ourselves the descendants of the dragon.”

Listen, I never want to be on the same side of any argument as Donald Trump. If Trump came out with a firm stance opposing the immolation of puppies, I’d probably rename my dog “Kindling.” It was also an incredibly — although characteristically —asinine thing to say at a summit of world leaders. And, of course, Trump is an idiot and the worst president by a long shot to ever get elected by the American people.

Xi’s response, knee-jerk though it was, was instructive. The trope that China has 5,000 years of continuous history is so thoroughly embedded in the information landscape here that it’s easy to forget the phrase itself is a rather recent invention.  Sun Yat-sen famously spoke, a century ago, about China and its 4,000 years of history — surely the country hasn’t aged a millennium in just 100 years.

The phrase “5,000 years of history” dates to the early 20th century, as Chinese historians began understanding the history of their own formative nation-state — a concept which in itself was a fairly recent import — in the larger context of world history. The history of “All Under Heaven” had always been synonymous with the history of civilization. Now confronted with the challenge of distinguishing their nation from all the others, historians noticed that China had just a bit more history than most other places in the world, and certainly more than those pesky Western states like Britain and France, never mind upstarts like Germany and the United States.

The trouble was that early-20th-century archaeologists from those pesky Western states kept pulling items out of the sands of places like Egypt and Mesopotamia that disrupted this timeline. A ha! But China has been a continuous civilization… as opposed to the rest of the world, which experienced periodic time-denying black holes.

“Chinese history,” defined however you want to define it, is old. If you look at the earliest archaeological evidence of advanced cultures you can go back to nearly 2000 BCE. That’s 4,000 years right there. Or, if you prefer, the earliest textual evidence goes back to 1200 BCE give or take. That’s 3,200 years. That’s not bad. But it’s not 5,000, a number based on mythological figures and a good deal of rounding up.

All history is continuous, or none of it is

 

The continuous element is also problematic. China today defines itself by the nation-state, but the predecessors of today’s Chinese state were empires that rose and fell, often with long centuries of disunity in between. There was, obviously and importantly, a great deal of cultural continuity even in times when the area that is today China was divided among warring states and emperors, but there was a great deal — or at least nearly the same amount — of cultural continuity in many parts of the world. All history is continuous, or none of it is.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Xi’s response was the joke at the end. The idea that Chinese exceptionalism owes as much to some form of ethnic continuity as to an imaginary historical continuity is a twist often expressed (sometimes in song) by drunk morons in China’s bars, but not often heard from heads of state. The idea that ethnicity is a construct and not a constant is sometimes a hard sell here, I’m just saying.

Then again, Trump is a moron, so he may have missed the whole thing. Better have Melania explain it to him later. She seems like the smarter of the two.

Cover image: Express.co.uk/Reuters

Jeremiah Jenne
    Jeremiah Jenne is a writer, educator, and historian based in Beijing.

    3 Comments

    1. What do you mean by advanced cultures?

      Isn’t yangshao also an advanced culture?

      Also didn’t writing already originate by the Shang dynasty, and might go even further back extending the time line?

      1. Also, didn’t yangshao itself had some inscriptions on the sides of pottery etc.

    2. Not quite sure I follow the “all history is continuous, or its not” argument.

      While I do understand the irritation with hearing “China has 5000 years of civilization! USA only 200 years!” all the time– usually spewed by people ignorant to the fact that political traditions in the US are based on those from Ancient Rome and Greece, and the first pilgrims (christians) can claim decent from a tradition even older–China can easily claim 2000 years of Continuous Civilization in a way that no other place can. It has locality, language, governmental systems, and contemporary historical records. Not many other ‘civilizations’ can claim that much.

      Your gonna have to unpack your continuous history argument a bit more.

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