What’s So Special About Chinese Civilization?

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2011-09-20 00:06
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    The Chinese civilization is one of the most ancient major civilizations of the world and holds a very important position in the history of world civilization. A student of the origins and development of human civilization cannot afford to overlook the origins and development of Chinese civilization. Scholars have researched this issue for many years and have reached some common conclusions concerning fundamental questions about Chinese civilization. This article will discuss the basic features of Chinese civilization.

    The Prototypical Nature of Chinese Civilization

    Chinese civilization, born in the eastern part of the Eurasian continent, served as a prototype for a type of civilization. Scholars in the fields of archeology, palaeoanthropology, palaeography and ethnology have gradually traced the basic lines of development for the remote past of Chinese civilization. The information uncovered so far reveals that human beings lived across a broad region of China at least a million years ago. The Wushan Man found near Chongqing, for example, lived some two million years ago and the Yuanmou Man found in Yunnan lived some 1.7 million years ago. Scientists divide the history of primitive human habitation in China into three periods, from apemen such as Yuanmou Man of Yunnan and Lantian Man of Shaanxi to the paleoanthropus such as Maba Man of Shaoguan, Guangdong and Dingcun Man of Xiangfen, Shanxi, and to the neoanthropus such as the Beijing Upper Cave Man and Ziyang Man of Sichuan.

    Archeological findings show that Chinese rice cultivation can be traced back more than ten thousand years and the way people lived at that time is beyond the imagination of ordinary people today. Chinese civilization grew from its embryonic phase represented by the Yangshao Culture and Longshan Culture, went through a rather complex social development period in the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties, and gradually emerged as a highly developed class society. Then, for more than two thousand years, from the Qin and Han dynasties through the Qing Dynasty, China was a feudal society which experienced many ups and downs.

    Mr. Xia Nai and Mr. Su Bingqi studied the origin of Chinese civilization and came to some very important conclusions. Xia believes that Chinese civilization should be traced back to the Neolithic Age whereas Su thinks the birth of Chinese civilization was a very complex process that may have included prototypes, secondary prototypes and further refinements of secondary prototypes before taking the form of a unified nation of multiple ethnic groups with Han as the principal ethnic group. Their observations have been proved correct by both archeological findings and the results of scientific research. Findings from archeological excavations in particular reveal some new signs of the Neolithic age around 3,500 B.C. in China. In sites of late Hongshan Culture in southeastern Inner Mongolia and western Liaoning, archeologists found large sacrificial buildings, stone heaps marking burial sites, carved jade burial items depicting dragons and other artifacts at the sites of central settlements. These represent the highest level of the Hongshan Culture. In southern China, archeologists found a site group of the Liangzhu Culture in Yuhang, Zhejiang at a site covering more than 30 square kilometers in the Hangzhou-Jiaxing-Huzhou region at the lower reaches of the Yangtze, at the center of which was Mojiaoshan site containing foundations of large palatial buildings. These findings all furnish convincing proofs of the prototypical features of Chinese civilization. 

    One hundred years ago these 3,000 year-old specimen of mature Chinese characters were discovered at the palace and royal ancestral shrines area on the site of Yin ruins in Xiaotun Village in Anyang, Henan. All writing discovered from this period was inscribed on beast bones or tortoise shells and is known as “jiagu” writing in Chinese. The discovery of jiagu writing shows that China had developed a fairly mature system of writing as early as several millennia ago during the Shang Dynasty.

    Around 4,500 individual jiagu characters have now been found, of which around 1,500 have been identified. The jiagu characters plus with the writing developed by different ethnic groups during different periods comprise the big family of Chinese writing and form the “cultural genes” of the long history and brilliant civilization of the Chinese nation. / Photo by Xinhua reporter Wang Song

    Credibility of the Evidence for Chinese Civilization

    Ancient Chinese literature describes the period of Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor) and Yan Di as the dawn of Chinese history and views the period of Xia as China’s first dynasty. People say that China has a history of 5,000 years. They present the Records of the Historian by Sima Qian as evidence. But in the Records of the Historian the periods of the reigns of Huang Di, Yan Di and even the Yao, Shun and Yu periods are described as though they had been ancient historical legends. Even the written history of Xia is sparse, so there is hardly sufficient information for a comprehensive study of the history of those periods. That is why some historians in China and overseas doubt that the history of Chinese civilization goes back as long as five thousand years. Some are even skeptical about the existence of the period of Xia. Nevertheless, the tremendous archaeological achievements producing large quantities of archaeological findings in China over the last 50 years have provided important evidence of the long history of Chinese civilization.

    Mr. Xia Nai, in his work The Origin of Chinese Civilization published in the 1980s, points out that archaeological studies of the origin of Chinese civilization should focus on three types of historical remains, i.e. cities as political, economic and cultural centers, the written language and metallurgical products, which he calls “the three elements of civilization.”

    The first element of civilization is cities. Quite a number of sites of ancient cities have been uncovered in China, including large cities dating at least as far back as the late period of Yangshao Culture. The Xishan ancient city site in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, and the Chengtoushan ancient city site in Lixian County, Hunan Province, are believed to be at least 6,000 years old. More sites of ancient cities dated later in the period of the Longshan Culture were found scattered over a much broader area. The second element is written language. The most ancient example of written language discovered in China were carved on turtle shells and animal bones or cast in bronze ware. These provided samples of a mature written language. The symbols on pottery of the Yangshao Culture and Longshan Culture prior to the period of Shang, especially those of the Dawenkou Culture and Liangzhu Culture, are generally believed to be closely related to a written language. Potteries of the Dawenkou Culture decorated with symbols are believed to be around 2,500 B.C. and the writing on pottery and jade articles of the Liangzhu Culture are believed to be between 3,000 B.C. and 2,300 B.C. The third element is metallurgy. The semicircular copper plates found at the ruins at Jiangzhai, Shaanxi Province, are the most ancient metal articles ever discovered in China. The tiny bronze knives found at Linjia sites in Gansu, that are believed to belong to the Majiayao Culture and date to around 3,000 B.C., are the oldest bronze articles ever excavated in China.

    Back in 1959, archaeologist Xu Xusheng made an archaeological survey of the district believed to be the main area of activity of the Xia Dynasty according to ancient records. His search brought him to the Erlitou Site in Yanshi, western Henan. The archaeological excavations covered an area of four square kilometers and lasted half a century. The excavations uncovered the ruins of a group of palatial buildings and buildings housing workshops for bronze metallurgy, pottery kilns and bone articles, crisscrossed with roads and containing burial sites. Archaeologists unearthed royal-use bronze ritual artifacts, jade ornaments and various types of pottery, shedding new light on the formation of imperial power in ancient China. The findings of the first excavations conducted by Chinese archaeological institutions in 1928 at the site of the Yin ruins produced rich archaeological findings and revelations that further proves the existence of the Shang Empire, for which there are only sporadic references in Chinese classics. This also further proves the credibility of the Records of Yin, Records of the Historian by Sima Qian, and other classic literature writings. The more than 150,000 pieces of turtle shells and animal bones with writing on them unearthed at the Yin ruins not only furnish evidence of the independent development of the written form of the Han language, but also illustrate the rules that govern the formation of written language in ancient China. That has exerted a fundamental impact on the Chinese culture over the last 3,000 years, and this written language is still being used by one quarter of the human race today. The Yin ruins has also yielded the largest amount of bronze articles yet uncovered, totaling around 6,000 articles. The unique technology developed by this highly developed civilization is convincing proof of the credibility of early Chinese civilization.

    The Integrity of the Chinese Civilization

    The development of the Chinese civilization shows great diversity as well as unity. The Chinese nation gradually emerged during the Qin and Han periods. It refers to the country created jointly by all the ethnic groups living in China and is also the general term for the 56 nationalities within the territory of China today. The mainstream population of the Chinese nation is the result of the convergence of many independent ethnic groups through a long process of contact, mixing, uniting and merging to become an integral whole consisting of many elements that are intermingled. The course of the evolution of Chinese civilization has primarily been one of melting different civilizations into one through mutual accommodation instead of mutual elimination. China with its vast land area and many ethnic groups and the handicaps of many local dialects has succeeded in maintaining its cultural pattern of unity in diversity primarily by relying on the people’s ties with the Chinese culture and ideology and a uniform written language. Chinese civilization has ultimately developed into an integral whole after traversing a long course of competition, conflict, mutual accommodation and merging between its different local cultures.

    Chinese civilization has never been interrupted throughout its history, primarily due to two factors. One is the vast territory covered by Chinese civilization, which has created an overall force defying attempts at conquest or division. The Chinese civilization has developed into a cultural unity firmly held together by political, economic and cultural ties. There were times when the very existence of Chinese civilization was seriously threatened by other cultures, but the might of this cultural unity absorbed and assimilated the foreign cultures. Two is the culture of the Chinese civilization itself, which has played a huge role in protecting and continuing Chinese civilization through ties of blood. For instance, the Chinese people have always extensively revered the Yan Emperor and the Yellow Emperor, the founding ancestors of China, and this common reverence has had far-reaching impact in maintaining the integrity of civilization. An analysis carried out by Mr. Dai Yi revealed numerous factors that have had a significant effect on Chinese culture, including economic conditions, political structure, social structure and geographical conditions. First of all, Mr. Dai points out that China was an agricultural society where the economy consisted mainly of self-sufficient small peasant operations with little development of a commodity economy. In this type of agricultural society, the people tend to be industrious and plain living, and the society in general is conservative and stable. Second, the political system and political structure of China was a feudal dictatorship for thousands of years. This situation, which lasted more than two thousand years beginning with the Qin Dynasty, has left a very deep impression on traditional Chinese culture. Third, the Chinese society for a long time was based on the clan system headed by a patriarch. Attitudes toward the patriarchal clan systems are deep-rooted and provide a basis for the formation of traditional Chinese culture. Fourth, geographical conditions have also greatly influenced the formation of Chinese culture. China is located in the eastern part of the Asian continent facing the sea to the east and surrounded by mountains and deserts on the western and northern sides. This geography has enabled Chinese civilization to develop into an independent and integral cultural system.

    The Continuity of the Chinese Civilization

    All four of the major ancient human civilizations have evolved in the basins of major rivers. Ancient civilizations in the world began to appear one after another around 3,500 B. C.. The ancient Egyptian civilization emerged in the basin of the Nile, the Babylonian civilization emerged in the basin between the Tigris and Euphrates, the ancient Indian civilization emerged in the basins of the Ganges and the Indus and the ancient Chinese civilization emerged in the basins of the Yellow River and the Yangtze River. However, all these ancient civilizations, with the exception of Chinese civilization, were interrupted at various times in their history of cultural development.

    Although Chinese civilization did not appear as early as the other three, it is the only uninterrupted culture of the four. The traditional Chinese culture has enjoyed continuous development throughout its history, despite numerous hardships and trials. The people of the Chinese nation have common cultural roots, a common ethnic background and a common written language all based in the Chinese civilization which has lasted without interruption to this day – a unique phenomenon in the history of humankind. Prof. Yuan Xingpei believes that geographical factors may shed some light on this point. He says that the Chinese civilization has been developing in a much larger region than the other three, and that the limited space available to the other three made it difficult for them to recover and continue following an invasion from a powerful alien ethnic group or natural disaster. The Chinese civilization, on the other hand, had a much larger region in which to operate, enabling it to assimilate and integrate with any alien culture or force and to recover from severe natural disasters.

    The ancestors of the ethnic groups making up the Chinese nation have been living and multiplying in the vast land of China since the civilization first dawned on the country. The people living in China today are the descendants of those who created the ancient Chinese civilization and the Chinese people are carrying on and developing this civilization in accordance with their own logic. Chinese civilization has displayed a high degree of cohesiveness in its development and this cohesiveness has prevented interruption and the formation of different branches while continuing to absorb new cultural elements and grow. Mr. Su Bingqi points out that China is the only large country in the world that has such a long history of developing a large cultural system without interruption.

    The Advanced Nature of the Chinese Civilization

    Technological advances provide the common foundation for all human activities. They have a profound impact on our way of life, economic growth and cultural values. For a long time, Chinese inventors played a leading role in advancing world technology. During the more than 1,800 years from the Spring and Autumn Period through the Song Dynasty, China remained at the forefront of technological progress in the world. After more than 5,000 years of migration, evolution and merger, the Chinese nation has grown into the most populous nation on earth and has a brilliant traditional culture. The tenets of the pre-Qin scholars with their far-reaching influence, the voluminous Chinese classics, the rich and colorful poems, songs and ballads, the unique and superb works of calligraphy, paintings and sculpture and the four major inventions that have tremendously benefited the world  are all a source of admiration and marvel throughout the world.

    It was China that invented the metallurgical techniques for smelting iron directly from iron ore and pouring molten iron into moulds to make cast iron items in about 600 BC. This invention alone greatly advanced the use of metal tools and significantly contributed to the upgrading of weapons and led humankind into the Iron Age. It was also China that invented deep drilling technology in about 300 B. C., enabling people to obtain mineral riches from underground. The Chinese invented porcelain to replace pottery, thus marking a definite end to the Stone Age. Porcelain articles have become essential items in practically every home on the planet. Knowledge about natural science discovered and applied in China to meet human needs far surpassed that of the West from the first century B.C. through the fifteenth century. The Tang Dynasty at its zenith made China the most powerful country in the world in terms of international economic, political and cultural exchange. Around 1700 A. D., China and India, the two giants of Asia, still led the world in national income. It was only during the mid and late Qing Dynasty that Chinese civilization began to lag behind other civilizations of the world.

(From Qiushi in Chinese No.19 2009)

Note: Author: Director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage of the PRC

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