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.
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
Through 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.