History Files



An Introduction to China

Compiled by Peter Kessler, 1999



The Chinese Historical Era short count estimates a start date of 2637 BC (AD 1998 + 2637 = 4635 Anno Sinarum). The Chinese Historical Era, long count estimates a start of 2852 BC (AD 1998 + 2852 = 4850 Anno Sinarum). The long count is used in the lists, with short count dates in grey alongside.


Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC)

The Shang, a splendid Bronze Age civilisation, marks the true beginning of Chinese history, emerging just as India was falling into its own Dark Ages period (1500-800 BC).

The system of writing we see developing in the Shang already displays most of the characteristics of Chinese characters and was destined to be the only ancient system of ideographic writing to survive into modern usage, both in China and Japan.

However, Shang writing is known mainly from oracle bones. There is no surviving literature or documents from the period. Data like the list of Shang kings or the excavation of Shang royal tombs therefore leaves us pretty much in the dark about historical events, though this is not much different from what is often the case with contemporary Egypt or Mesopotamia.

The sophistication of Shang culture, on the other hand, may be inspected directly in the magnificent bronzes that are featured in many of the world's museums.


Sui Dynasty (590-617)

Besides reuniting the country, the Sui are particularly famous for the building of the Grand Canal. This took essentially the entire duration of the Dynasty, and aroused great resentment from the severity of the forced labour.

More than 3,000,000 workers were impressed, and those evading service were executed. Defeats by the Turks then precipitated rebellion.


Sung / Song (Southern) Dynasty (1127-1279)

The Southern Sung is inevitably remembered mainly as the victim of Mongol conquest. It is noteworthy, however, that the Sung gave the Mongols the hardest time of any of their ultimate conquests.

The final campaign by Qubilai Khan took twelve long years, when most people were lucky if they could resist the Mongols for twelve weeks. One explanation of this is that the Mongols were definitely out of their preferred element. A saying in China is that "in the north, you go by horse; in the south, you go by boat."

The Mongols undoubtedly were more comfortable with horses than with boats. The southern terrain posed a challenge that the Mongols could not meet with their accustomed cavalry tactics.

The Sung state was also more formidably organised than many opponents of the Mongols. The Sung had resources unavailable to the Russians or the Khawarizm Shahs. But the price of resistance to the Mongols was, of course, death. On one account, Qubilai Khan, in the course of his conquest and rule over China, killed "more than 18,470,000 Chinese" (RJ Rummel, Death by Government, Transaction Publishers, 1995, p.51).

This puts him in the same league, at least, as Adolf Hitler. So many Chinese died during the tenure of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty that several ancient surnames, like Ou-yang, simply disappeared.


Yuan (Mongolian) Dynasty (1279-1368)

There are some problems with reconciling the Mongolian dates and names (The Mongols, David Morgan, Basil Blackwell, 1986, and The New Islamic Dynasties, Clifford Edmund Bosworth, Edinburgh University Press, 1996) with the Chinese list of Yuan emperors (Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary, Harvard University Press, 1972, p.1175).


Ming (Bright) Dynasty (1368-1644)

The Ming Emperors, mainly the Yung-Lo Emperor, sent Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He), a Moslem eunuch who started out as a prisoner-of-war slave, on seven great naval expeditions into the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433. Chinese historians report that the largest ships, the baochuan or "treasure ships," were 440 feet long.

However, most of the records of the expeditions were destroyed, and the reported dimensions are unrealistic (eg. a beam of 180 feet, which sounds more like a bathtub than a sailing ship).

Bruce Swanson (Eighth Voyage of the Dragon, Naval Institute Press, 1982, p.33) reports that a modern surviving Chinese junk of five masts, the Jiangsu trader, was 170 feet long. Since baochuan were reported to have up to nine masts, if this is accurate and the number of masts is proportional to the length, we might extrapolate ships of 306 feet in length.

This is comparable to the length of some nineteenth century clipper ships: The Great Republic of 1853, the largest ship of its time, was 325 feet long. Although this is larger, by half again, than Swanson wants to allow, there now have been some archaeological discoveries of ship fittings that seem consistent with the larger sizes.



Manchu Ch'ing / Qin (Clear) Dynasty (1644-1911)

The Manchurian conquest of China was a deeply humiliating experience for the Chinese. The Manchu, indeed, made things harder for themselves, as foreign rulers, with their decree that Chinese men would have to adopt Manchu costume (including the infamous "queue").

This provoked violent Chinese popular resistance and helped the "Southern Ming" princes rally forces against the Manchus for almost two decades.

However, it is noteworthy that subsequent Chinese governments, both Nationalist and Communist, regarded all Manchurian conquests as "intrinsic" parts of China.

Thus Tibet, which had been conquered by both Mongols and Manchus, and was independent after the fall of the Ch'ing in 1911, is claimed as an "intrinsic" part of China even though it had never actually been ruled by Chinese until the Communist invasion of 1950. Culturally, Tibet is a sub-Indian rather than a sub-Chinese civilisation.



Text copyright P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.