I’m constantly being reminded that China is the most ancient country in the world. It’s something that people are obliged to mention at least once every time they meet a foreigner. “Yes, I do like the new BMW 6 series convertible, did you know that cars were invented in China, the oldest country in the world?” is a fairly normal example. Personally, I wouldn’t be too quick to admit to coming from the country that has been developing longest for the least net gain, but that’s just a personal bias. ‘Five Thousand Years and Still Developing’ might be a catchy slogan, but it isn’t one that I’d want greeting tourists as they stepped off the plane in my country.
Now, about China being the oldest country in the world… that isn’t exactly true, but Ill concede that there is a history in this region that goes back a long way, almost as far as some European countries, in fact. Let us examine a few details together:
China, better known as Red China, formally known as the People’s Republic of China (and known by everyone who has ever visited as the People’s Republic of Cheats), was founded October 1st, 1949, after the legally elected government was overthrown by communist rebels. How old is China? Sixty. That’s younger than my father, and come to think of it, he’s in better condition mentally and physically too (though he has no plans to be World Hegemon that I am aware of).
To be fair though, when Chinese talk about how old China is, they are not referring to the PRC. They are talking about their culture. Fair enough, that’s reasonable, even if we are to overlook the fact that there is more culture in a pot of yoghurt. So, how old is the culture? And what is this ‘China’ that the Han are so keen on?
China: A History Lesson.
The first thing you need to understand is that the Chinese don’t know how to measure time properly. Really, I’m not being facetious, they really have no idea of dates and stuff. To them, all the entire history of the universe is measured in terms of Dynasties. Everything from the Big Bang on is subject to rule by a Chinese Dynasty. Sounds crazy, I know, but that’s just the way it is for these people. Unfortunately, the truth is that most of these ‘Dynasties’ did not actually exist in the sense of actual historical fact. Take this one for instance:
Xia Dynasty (ca. 2,070 BC to 1,600 BC)
This was the first ‘Official’ Dynasty, if we look past the even more dubious Dynasties of Homo Erectus et al. Most serious scholars doubt it’s existence, though most will concede that primitive people were scratching a living out of the mud and grass at the time. They probably used fire, and this is why the Chinese claim to have been the inventors of Fire. Hey, you know what? That’s a good enough story that I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt – China has certainly existed since 2,070 BC. Let’s have a look at a map of contemporary China, shall we:
Xia Dynasty 2,070 BC – 1,600 BC
The first actually proven Dynasty, as indicated by actual evidence, was the Shang (1,600 BC to 1,046 BC). However, what is referred to by the Chinese as being a ‘Dynasty’, was really little more than a collection of villages, without much in the way of a unifying power structure. It was, by any meaningful yardstick, no different to Neolithic Europe. The various tribes did apparently possess conceptual art, and scratched pictures of stick figures in shells – the Chinese today claim that this proves that Chinese invented language, but this was no more a language than are chickens scratching their claws in the dust.
The Shang was followed by the Zhou. This was a real Dynasty, or ‘nation’ as we would say. It ran from 1,045 BC to 221 BC. This means that the Zhou got started around the same time as the Iron Age was rolling out product in Europe, the Phoenician and Tamil civilisations were using advanced systems of writing, and the Assyrians (amongst others) were getting started on the Empire Building game. The Zhou were a motley collection of military states that relied heavily on technology such as the chariot (imported from the more advanced Central Asian states) and heavy state control. Some have claimed that the Zhou understood iron-working, and this may even be true, but it was a bronze-age culture. Let’s take a look at the Zhou, shall we?
Zhou Dynasty 1,045 BC – 221 BC
It is incorrect to think of the Zhou as one happy nation, as there were in fact many small nations, each fighting tooth and nail for power over the others. This was a kind of Dark Ages, but the Chinese like names that sound lovely, so they call this the ‘Spring and Autumn Period‘. It was followed by the ‘Warring States Period‘, which was more of the same, but worse. In all, the Dark Ages lasted from the 8th century BC to 214 BC, when China’s first real Chairman seized power. His name was Qin Shi Huangdi, he was a raving homosexual who took to wearing women’s clothes around the palace, and the state he founded is regarded as the model for the first truly Chinese state. Here’s what it looked like:
Qin Dynasty 214 BC – 206 BC
The Qin Dynasty was short-lived, but it set the management style for all future generations of people to be ruled by China. That style consisted of brutal oppression of the masses, rigid control of the people by the state, and absolute power of the Chairman. Everyone was to speak the same, think the same, and act the same. Oh yes, Mister Qin had a very pronounced impact indeed! In the 20th Century, Dictator Mao Zedong was known to have studied Qin Shi Huangdi very closely, and styled his new People’s Republic closely along the lines of the Qin Dynasty. Mao even went as far as practising man-love too. Who says history never repeats?
The Han came next, lasting from 202 BC to 220 AD. The Han are the ethnic group that today exercises total control over all territory garrisoned by the Red Army, including Tibet, East Turkestan and even parts of Mongolia. At the time, however, they were far smaller, as can be seen here:
Han Dynasty 202 BC – 220 AD
The First Chinese Dynasty
The Han Dynasty grew by granting neighbouring states the ‘status’ of Autonomous Regions, which over time came to be absorbed by the Han via forced immigration. Despite this, in actual warfare the Han lost at least as many battles as they won, and frequently signed Treaties with their enemies as a means of avoiding being carved up in return. No such Treaties were ever meant to be honoured, of course. Nevertheless, however you look at it, the Han were successful in consolidating Chinese power, and were in fact the first properly Chinese Dynasty. China is therefore definitively 2,211 years old, at least in terms of culture.
After the Han Dynasty fell over, lots of people took turns at running the place, including Tibetans, Turks, Mongolians, and other groups who are today referred to as ‘minorities’, but it wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty raised it’s head that ‘China’ got put back together again. The Tang (618 AD to 907 AD) were arguably the only Chinese Dynasty who were even vaguely enlightened, making Buddhism the State Religion and encouraging trade with the nations to the west. The Tang benefited greatly from the import of technology and ideas from Europe and the Middle East and represent the high water mark of Chinese culture. They also managed to successfully invade a number of regions to the west. Here’s how things looked at their peak:
Tang Dynasty 618 AD – 907 AD
Following the Tang, the region fell back into the Dark Ages, but things looked up with the advent of the Song Dynasty. The Song were not Han Chinese, although the Han today claim otherwise. It was during the Song that the so-called Great Inventions took place. The Song were defeated comprehensively by the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, and nearly all of East Asia became part of the Mongolian Empire. The Chinese today claim that Genghis Khan was Chinese, and thus that China during the so-called ‘Yuan Dynasty’ extended as far as Europe, but of course that is nonsense. After the Yuan Dynasty collapsed (the Mongols never really were much good at administration), large parts of their territory were administered by the Ming Dynasty. The Ming were Han, the men wore dresses and nail varnish, and they inherited a large chunk of land from their former overlords:
Ming Dynasty 1368 AD – 1644 AD
During the Ming, there was constant war with the neighbours, and large empires such as that of Tibet frequently sent them packing. Despite this, the Ming were a strong state, and consolidated their power over ‘minorities’ by forced military colonisation and a huge secret police force that killed hundreds of thousands of people. The Ming invented the philosophical concept of ‘sinification‘ of other ethnic groups by these, and other means.
The Ming were replaced by the Qing who, being Manchu, were as Chinese as the Song and Yuan had been. Despite this, the Chinese today claim that the Qing was also Chinese.
The next, and most recent, Chinese Dynasty was the Chinese Communist Dynasty (1949 AD to present), founded when the legally elected Government was overthrown by Communist rebels. Their leader, Mao Zedong, has gone down as the most brutal dictator in human history, being responsible for more deaths than Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin combined. The brutality of his reign is largely overlooked by Han Chinese today, as he possessed the virtue of hating foreigners even more than he hated his own people. During the Communist Dynasty, China has more than doubled in size, by invading and annexing many of it’s neighbours. Quite an accomplishment, and one which the Han people are keen to continue with in the future, if the feeling on the streets is anything to go by. They are celebrating their 60th birthday today. Many of the men have also taken to mincing about in the streets again. There’s a definite pattern there.
China, sixty years old and going on five thousand, happy birthday. Here’s your Falling Cow:
Happy Birthday, Falling Cow