The origins of China

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Until the overthrow of the Manchus in the early 20th century the Chinese political-cultural system had exhibited an incredible amount of continuity for over 2,000 years, from the Qin and Han dynasties on. It seems a defensible position that just as the Mycenaean Greeks of 3,200 years ago were cultural aliens to Western elites in a way that the Classical Greeks of 2,500 years ago were not, so the Chinese bureaucrats could see themselves in the lettered gentry of 500 B.C.E, but not among the warlords of 1200 B.C.E, thanks to the crystallization of the canon during this critical axial age.

But the Greeks of the Classical period did not emerge out of a historical vacuum, and neither did the Chinese of the Spring and Autumn period. In hindsight the Duke of Zhou has been characterized in some ways as both the Lycurgus and Solon of ancient China, but one assumes that later commentators shaved off his harder edges and refashioned him in their own image, just as the Iliad which purports to tell a Bronze Age tale clearly reflects much of a Dark Age society.

Because of the thinness of the ancient textual evidence (if it exists at all), archaeology is often the only game in town. The new issue of Science has a series of articles putting a spotlight on the ancient physical history of what became China.



  1. Han Chinese idendity was formed during Han dysnasty. Before that, China was like Europe continent. Well, America united Europeans into homogenous white people. Great wall of Han united Han speaking people into Han.

  2. western europe before the reformation might be appropriate analogy to china culturally. the intellgensia could speak to each other because of latin. in fact, this persisted long enough that hungarian protestant students at oxford could make due on latin during the 16th century without english.

  3. Well, America united Europeans into homogenous white people.  
    If by “America” you mean the joint spread of Christianity and Hellenistic culture, then you might have a point. 
    Admittedly, the division between Western+Central (Latin) and Eastern (Greek/Slavic) Europe was quite deep and lasted for some time, as indicated by the sack of Constantinople by Latin crusaders. But by the time of the Rise of Nations in 1830-1848, Western Europe clearly saw the Greeks as part of “us”. Of course, the involvement of an unambiguous “them” (the Ottomans) certainly helped. 
    Note that even today, national identities still take precedence over the sense of common Europeanness (even though the latter is still very real). So I’m not sure “homegeneous” is the right word. 
    It seems to me that Europe is, and has always been, very similar to China in the Warring States period – just even more heterogeneous than that (I’m ready to guess there was much less difference between the languages of Wu and Qin than between Finnish and Greek).  
    The major differences are: 
    1- Our presumptive Qin (leaders that would unify the area by force) have either failed (Napoleon, Hitler) or have had their empires divided after their death (Charlemagne). 
    2- We got rid of the “Warring” part – though that’s admittedly quite recent.

  4. “But by the time of the Rise of Nations in 1830-1848, Western Europe clearly saw the Greeks as part of “us”. Of course, the involvement of an unambiguous “them” (the Ottomans) certainly helped.” 
    Wasn’t the ardent Phihellenism of Western Europeans hugely diminished by their actual encounters with contemporary Greeks? I recall reading that they were bitterly disappointed, and for this reason devised outlandish claims about the ancient Greeks having been displaced by short and swarthy Slavs. 
    If this is so, then I think Western Europe most likely sided with the Greeks as Christians, as opposed to Ottoman Muslims, rather than feeling a profound sense of natural affinity with them.