The Oldest Living Civilization

An old missionary student of China once remarked that Chinese history is “remote, monotonous, obscure, and-worst of all-there is too much of it.” China has the longest continuous history of any country in the world—3,500 years of written history. And even 3,500 years ago China’s civilization was old! This in itself is discouraging to the student, particularly if we think of history as a baffling catalogue of who begat somebody, who succeeded somebody, who slew somebody, with only an occasional concubine thrown in for human interest. But taken in another way, Chinese history can be made to throw sharp lights and revealing shadows on the story of all mankind—from its most primitive beginnings, some of which were in Asia, to its highest point of development in philosophy and religion, literature and art.

In art and philosophy, many people think, no culture has ever surpassed that of China in its great creative periods. In material culture, though we think of the roots of our own civilization as being almost entirely European, we have also received much from Asia—paper, gunpowder, the compass, silk, tea, and porcelain.

We Were Once the “Backward” Ones

There is nothing like a brief look at Chinese history to give one a new and wholesome respect for the Chinese people. We are likely- today to think of the Chinese as a “backward” people who are less civilized than we are, and it is true that in what we carelessly speak of as civilization—mechanization and the fruits of scientific discovery—they have, in the last hundred years, lagged behind the procession and are only beginning to catch up. There are reasons for this temporary backwardness which we will take up later. It is wholesome to realize, however, that this attitude of superiority on the part of Western nations has existed for only about a hundred years.

Until the Opium War of 1840–42 the European merchants and voyagers who reached the distant land of China had looked upon the Chinese with a good deal of awe as a people of superior culture. They still had much the same attitude as Marco Polo, who, in the thirteenth century, had told the people of Italy that China under the rule of the Mongols had a much more centralized and efficient system of government than European countries had. Coming from the banking and trading city of Venice, he admired the wide use of paper money in China. To a Europe which had not yet begun to use coal he also described how the Chinese mined and burned a kind of stone which was much superior to wood as fuel.

 

Western World

Dynasties

Chinese World

B.C.

Hammurabi

HSIA

 

1800

BRONZE AGE

NEOLITHIC AGE. Agricultural communities in Yellow River valley cultivated loess soil with stone tools. Domesticated dog and pig. Hunting and fishing tribes in Yangtse valley.

 

 

SHANG

1700

 

 

 

1600

 

 

 

1500

EGYPTIAN NEW EMPIRE

BRONZE AGE. Primitive Yellow River city states. Probable use of irrigation. Shang-inscribed bones give base line of history. Sheep and goats domesticated. Writing. Beautiful bronze castings. Potter’s wheel. Stone carving. Silk culture and weaving. Wheeled vehicles.

 

Moses

1400

 

 

 

1300

 

 

Trojan War

1200

 

 

 

 

1100

 

CHOU

ANCIENT FEUDALISM. Expansion from Yellow River to Yangtse valley. “City and country” cells. Increased irrigation. Eunuchs. Horse-drawn war chariots. 841 B.C. earliest authenticated date.

 

IRON AGE

1000

Solomon

 

 

900

Lycurgus

 

 

 

800

Carthage founded

 

 

 

Glass.

700

Hebrew prophets

 

 

Greek lyric poets

 

600

 

IRON AGE. Round coins. Magnetism known.

 

 

CLASSICAL PERIOD. Confucius. Lao-tze.

500

Persian Wars

 

 

Socrates

 

400

Plato

 

 

Aristotle

Mencius.

300

Alexander

Bronze mirrors.

 

Punic Wars

BEGINNING OF EMPIRE. Great Wall.

200

 

CHIN

Palace architecture. Trade through Central Asia with Roman Empire. Ink

 

Carthage and Corinth destroyed

HAN

100

 

 

 

 

 

A.D.

Birth of Christ

First Buddhist influences.

 

Jerusalem destroyed

 

100

 

Paper.

 

Marcus Aurelius

 

200

 

3 KINGDOMS (CHIN; WEI; SUNG, CHI, LIANG, CHEN)

 

 

 

Tea.

300

Constantine

Political disunity but cultural progress and spread.

 

Roman Empire divided

 

400

 

Buddhism flourishing. Use of coal.

 

Odoacer takes Rome

Trade with Indo-China and Siam.

500

 

 

 

Justinian

 

 

 

 

600

 

SUI

Large-scale unification. Grand Canal.

 

Mohammed’s Hegira

TANG

ZENITH OF CULTURE. Chinese culture reaches Japan. Turk and Tungus alliances.

700

 

 

Moslems stopped at Tours

Revival of Confucianism weakens power of Buddhist monasteries. Mohammedanism. Cotton from India. Porcelain. First printed book. State examinations organized. Rise of Khitan. Foot binding. Poetry, painting, sculpture.

800

Charlemagne

 

Alfred

900

 

 

Holy Roman Empire

5 DYNASTIES

1000

 

LIAO, CHIN, SUNG

Wang An-shih.

 

CRUSADES

Classical Renaissance. Paper money.

1100

 

Rise of Jurchid. Compass.

 

 

Navigation and mathematics.

1200

Magna Carta

MONGOL AGE. Jenghis Khan. Marco Polo. Franciscans.

 

 

 

1300

RENAISSANCE

YUAN

Operatic theater. Novels.

 

 

Lamaism.

1400

Printing in Europe

MING

Yung Lo builds Peking.

 

Turks take Constantinople

Period of restoration and stagnation.

1500

AGE OF DISCOVERY

Portuguese traders arrive.

 

 

Clash with Japan over Korea.

1600

Religious Wars

Nurhachi.

 

 

 

1700

American, French, Industrial Revolutions

CHING

Critical scholarship.

 

Canton open to Western trade.

1800

 

Treaties with Western powers. Spread of

 

 

Western culture. Taiping Rebellion.

1900

First World War

Boxer Rebellion. 1911 Revolution. Nationalist

 

Russian Revolution

REPUBLIC

Revolution. Unification under Chiang Kai-shek.

 

Second World War

Japanese invasion and World War II.

China in fact had a civilization similar to that of Europe before the Industrial Revolution, and superior to it in many ways. The agriculture of China was more advanced and productive than that of Europe because of the great use of irrigation: and the wide network of canals that supplied water for irrigation also provided cheap transport. The Chinese bad reached a high level of technique and art in the malting of such things as porcelain and silk, and in general the guild craftsmen of their cities were at least equal to those of the cities of pre-industrial Europe.

Moreover the Chinese had gone a good deal further than Europeans in the use of writing as a vehicle of civilization and -government, and everything which that means. They had extensive statistics of government and finance at a time when Europe had practically none. They used written orders and regulations when Europe was still dependent on government by word of mouth.

The historical chart shows what was happening in China at the time of well-known events in the Western world. Note that some of the highest points in Chinese civilization came during the darkest days in Europe. The central column of the chart shows a succession of Chinese dynasties. A dynasty is the reign of one ruling family, and some families remained in power for several hundred years before they were overthrown either by another Chinese family or by barbarians from the north.

In the Beginning

The Chinese people did not come to China from somewhere else as did our own early settlers but are thought to be the direct descendants of the prehistoric cave men who lived in North China hundreds of thousands of years ago. Chinese civilization as we know it first developed along the great bend of the Yellow River, where the earth was soft and easily worked by the crude tools of China’s Stone Age men who lived before 3000 B.C.

From the Yellow River the Chinese spread north, east, and south, sometimes absorbing aboriginal tribes, until by the time of Confucius (500 B.C.) they occupied most of the coun­try between the Yangtze River and the Great Wall, and had developed from primitive Stone Age men to men who could domesticate animals, irrigate land, make beautiful bronze weapons and utensils, build walled cities, and produce great philosophers like Confucius.

At the time of Confucius, China consisted of many small states ruled by feudal lords. While they were loosely federated under an emperor it was not until 221 B.C., when the last of China’s feudal kingdoms fell, that China was united as a single empire. The imperial form of government lasted from 221 B.C. to 1911 A.D.

China’s first emperor, Shih Huang Ti, is known as the builder of the Great Wall, which runs from the sea westward into the deserts of Central Asia—a distance about as great as from New York City to the Rockies. The purpose of this stupendous job of engineering was to protect the settled Chinese people from the raids of barbarian nomads who lived beyond it. Much of this great walled frontier is still standing today.

How Dynasties Rose and Fell

Sketch of the Great Wall of ChinaThrough the 2,000 years of China’s empire, students can trace a sort of pattern of the rise and fall of dynasties. A dynasty would come into power after a period of war and famine had reduced the population to the point where there was enough land and food to go around. There would be prosperity, a civilized, sophisticated, and lavish court, families of great wealth and culture scattered over the country, and a flowering of art, literature, and philosophy. Then gradually the population would increase and the farms be divided, the landlords would refuse to pay taxes, thus weakening the government, and at the same time would collect more and more rent from the peasants. There would be savage peasant rebellions. Out of these rebellions would arise warriors and adventurers who enlisted the outlawed peasants, seized power by the sword, and overthrew the dynasty.

Once in power, the successful war lord would need to bring into his service scholars who understood administration and the keeping of records. These scholars were largely from the landlord class, the only class with leisure to acquire an education. While they built a government service for the new dynasty they founded landed estates for themselves and their heirs. As the power of the landlords grew the state of the peasants worsened and the same things would happen all over again.

Several times dynasties were founded by nomad warriors from beyond the Great Wall. The last dynasty of the empire was founded by Manchus from Manchuria, who ruled in China from 1644 until the empire fell in 1911. It is said that China has always absorbed her conquerors. Until the Japanese invasion her conquerors have been barbarians who looked up to the higher civilization of China and eagerly adopted it. The armored cars and tanks of a more mechanized civilization are not so readily digested.

Of What Use Today Is an Old Civilization?

One may ask, “What good does it do the Chinese to have such an old civilization?” There is a very real advantage, which visitors to China often sense when they cannot explain it. The values of culture and of being civilized have existed in China so long that they have soaked right through the whole people. Even a poor Chinese with no education is likely to have the instincts and bearing of an educated man. He sets great store by such things as personal dignity, self-respect, and respect for others. Even if he knows the history of his country and his native region only by legend and folklore instead of reading, still he knows it—usually a surprising amount of it. And he has a tremendous hunger and aptitude for education, which is one of the reasons why the future progress of China, once it is freed from foreign aggression, is likely to be amazingly rapid.