The roots of Chinese history: From bone soup to empire
What is China, and how long has it had a distinct history? You will often find an assumption, both within China and outside, that the many centuries of Chinese history have been mostly peaceful, with occasional periods where the large united country called China is broken up or placed under attack. However, for most of its history, China has been in conflict either internally or with outsiders. In addition, the shape of China has changed over and over again: from tiny beginnings by the Yellow River (Huong He) to the subcontinent of today. Yet at the same time, the concept of a continuous Chinese history that lasts thousands of years is not simply invention or propaganda. There are powerful links between the peoples of some 5000 or 6000 years ago and the Chinese of today, making it the longest-lasting civilisation on earth.
For many years the earliest "Chinese" dynasty, the Shang, was thought to be legendary, until archaeological evidence proved its existence. In 1899 enterprising peasants living near 脛鈧琻yang in Henan province started selling old cattle bones and turtle shells to boil up for a soup that would act as an antimalarial medicine. The bones were covered in mysterious scratches, and a scholar suddenly realised that they were an early form of Chinese writing. Over the next few decades, archaeologists worked out that the bones were used from as early as 4000 BC to predict events. From around 1766 BC, the society known as the Shang developed in central China. The area they controlled was tiny 芒鈧?perhaps 200km across 芒鈧?but Chinese historians have argued that the Shang was the first Chinese dynasty. The Shang dynasty, by using Chinese writing on "oracle bones", marked its connection with the Chinese civilisation of the present day.
Sometime between 1050 and 1045 BC, a neighbouring group known as the Zhou conquered Shang territory. The Zhou was one of many states competing for power in the next few hundred years, but developments during this period created some of the key sources of Chinese culture that would last till the present day. Constant conflict marked the China of the first millennium BC, particularly the periods known as the "Spring and Autumn" (722芒鈧?81 BC) and "Warring States" (475ad-21 BC).
Chinese history has always been defined by the control over writing: this is one of the reasons why the state has been keen to control the way in which the past is written. The writing of one figure in particular, that of the teacher Confucius (551芒鈧?79 BC), stands out. The system of thought and ethics that he developed underpinned Chinese culture for 2500 years. The 5th-century BC world was both warlike and intellectually very rich, rather like ancient Greece during the same period. Confucius, a wandering teacher, gave lessons in personal behaviour and statecraft, and advocated an ordered society that was obedient toward hierarchies (ruler to subject, husband to wife), but also ethical and that eschewed violence or coercion wherever possible. Yet Confucius芒鈧劉s desire for an ordered, ethical world seems a far cry from the warfare of the time that he lived in.
Confucius was not the only thinker to shape early China: unlike Confucius and his later adherent, Mencius, Xunzi believed that humans were essentially evil; and Han Feizi took it even further, by arguing that only a system of strict laws and harsh punishments, not ethical codes, would restrain people from doing wrong. However, it was Confucian thought that would ultimately underpin Chinese society for the next two millennia.