How many years of Chinese history?

Just a little test for any history buffs out there. Want to know the EXACT number of years of Chinese history. Must use INTERNATIONAL standards so this means WRITTEN records and you must PROVE your answer with verifiable information. Just curious to see what kind of answers I get.

Just a little qestion for string buffs. How long EXACTLY is a piece of string. Must use INTERNATIONAL standards so this means WRITTEN records and you must PROVE your answer with verifiable information. Just curious to see what kind of answers I get.

Answer to Chinese history question: 500 years.

This is five hundred years, repeated eight times. This reflects the fact that history is an accumulation of knowledge. The Chinese have about 500 years of knowledge, more or less.

Dear Richard:

Thanks for the funny comment, but seriously, I am trying to find out what is the standard for this and I want to see how many different sources are out there, what kind of discrepancies there are, etc. It is for a project that I am working on relating to perceptions (though not necessarily media).

Thanks for your input.

waddya mean Chinese history? We have the PRC, the ROC, various dynasties covering different bits of East Asia at different times.

What counts as China? Will just the Shandong peninsula do? Conventional Chinese history pre-warring states tends to be little more than Shandong history. But that’s not really China is it?

Any answers you get are just going to differ depending on what different people think ‘China’ means.

None of us actually know the answer. But we’d be delighted to discuss the question for weeks on end.

All right. Let’s start with a better definition. No, not province by province. I mean CHINA as in the Yellow River and whatever is meant by Chinese civilization.

There give me whatever dates and information you can but try to tell me the source as well.

Just to get everyone going, how many think it is 5,000 years? and if so, please try to find corroborating “evidence.” But this is mostly about perceptions so I am not going to hold a gun to anyone’s head about giving me “facts.” I am just curious to see what the answers are and why.

So please try to help me in the spirit this was posted. I do not want to get caught in great debates involving semantics or “string.” (Cute Hexuan) though perhaps chopsticks might be an alternate quest.

That’s such a stupid question. Any answer could be equally right or wrong. I go for Xbillion years or however old the earth is sposd to be.


Ask a question like this and be prepared to get in trouble. However, I admire the effort.

I personally have found that the Qin dynasty (221 B.C.E.)seems to make the best sense to me as the “beginning” of Chinese culture. Qinshi Huangdi was the first to standardize currency, characters, weights and measures, as well as build the Great Wall (although in a much smaller version than is seen today), and most importantly, create a conception of Chineseness that has in a certain form come down to us in the present day. That would make Chinese culture about 2200 years old.

One could argue for the earlier Zhou and Shang (as well as the mythical Xia) dynasties of course, but in the research I have done, I have found that these were very different, although related tribal (possibly even feudal) states. The records of the Zhou are very sketchy, and the Shang even more so. Of course, the Warring States period has a lot more textual evidence, but as the name of this period suggests, this was not so much one group/culture (ie Chinese)with many different warring factions, but actually quite different States - each with a different Lord as ruler, and oftentimes very different cultural practices.

For me, I still place my bet on the Qin and the following glory of the Han.

Hope this is of interest,


IIRC, the book we used in calligraphy mentioned findings of bones with something like characters on them dating back about 4000 years. This is often seen as the beginning of the chinese culture. (Don’t have the book here right now.)

I know the tortoise shell oracle bones you are referring to, but believe they date from 1200 BC. Can you confirm this with a source one way or another? Thanks.

European rulers claimed descent from Charlemagne as a way of legitimizing themselves, the Chinese claimed to be carrying the torch of the Zhou, who vanquished the Shang who dispatched the Xia who did in Peking Man.

As Bu Lai En says, it’s arbitrary. The continuity of Chinese culture is a powerful part of the national mythology, but a myth nonetheless. Oracle bones are no more precursors of Chinese culture than the Lascaux watercolors (c. 15,000 BC) are of Monet.

It wasn’t till Marco Polo delivered the first pao-mian that China became recognizably what it is today.

Digression: All Oriented members are direct descendents of Confucius and almost every human alive more than 2,000 years ago. . Never thought you came from such a good family, huh? Conversely, apart from a few who will have no heirs, everyone alive today is the forebear of every person alive a few thousand years from now. For more, see this

Originally posted by brianasmus: I do not want to get caught in great debates involving semantics

Er – if you’re going to ask for the “EXACT number” then seems to me you need to give exact definitions.

But anyway, I know where you’re going with this. The earliest historical events that are credibly described in written records that survive to this date are events from the Shang dynasty. I know that you are trying to show that this is less ancient than most people think.

But most people don’t necessarily equate “the beginning of history” with the “earliest written documention,” as you are doing. After all, isn’t “oral history” a common colloquial phrase?

I think that what briasmus wants to try and find out is whether China really has the ‘5000 years of recorded history’ that it so often claims. The answer will always be controversial (how do you define history?), but I think the question is still interesting.

I think that the key here is ‘recorded history’. Why not follow use the definition favored by historians, and take this to mean a written historical record that is reasonably reliable and complete. This is what separates history from archeology, which does not require these records.

I don’t know much about Chinese history, but I suspect that the written record does not go back 5000 years.

Oracle bones do not really constitute a written record. \a historically useful written record needs to inculde (at least most of) the following: names of rules and the periods they ruled for, the important events of their reigns, palace inventories, trade and taxation records, etc. Ideally the record should also include legal codes, works of literature and more.

A written record that includes most of the above exists in the middle east (Iraq) back until around 4000 years ago. One of the earliest truly solid historical records is Hammurapi’s legal code (dated around 1800 BC).

The written record in the middle east must be a very close competitor to China for the title of ‘oldest civilization in the world’. Though I guess the Babylonian civilization later disappeared, so perhaps China can still claim the longest continuous record?

In Europe, I guess you can argue for a continuous historical record (and cultural development) going back to the Greeks. Many of our modern institutions are descended from Athens (via Rome), and so we can claim an unbroken record of sorts here.

The Greek records go back to around the 6th century BC in a reliable form. Perhaps the record goes back slightly further, but off the top of my head I can’t think of anything that would constitute a decent record going back beyond Herodotus’s record of the Persian wars.

There are written records in Europe prior to Herodotus, for example the (untranslated) Linear A and Linear B inscriptions of the Mycenean kingom in Greece. I am unsure of the dates of these inscriptions. Just over or just under 3000 years ago? The inscriptions mostly appear to be taxation and trade records. The point though is that nobody understands them, and even if they were understood they are clearly not complete enough to constitute a truly useful historical record.

I have pointed out some of the evidence that exists for a European/Middle Eastern historical record. But what kind of equivalent evidence exists in China, and how far back does it go?

I’d be quite interested to know if the records for pre-Qin China are as comprehensive as those in ancient Babylon. Or is our understanding of pre-Qin China based more on archeology and mythology that on solid written records?

Originally posted by kiwi: I think that what briasmus wants to try and find out is whether China really has the '5000 years of recorded history' that it so often claims.

Can you produce a respected current Chinese history text that says that?

All I’ve seen is “5000 years of history” or (more commonly) “5000 year old culture/civilization” – critical difference. Let’s not start the semantics debate again.

Addendum –

Regardless of the definition of “history,” certainly no one claims that

“beginning of history” = “beginning of civilization”

Thanks to all who have submitted.

Clarifications if possible. Take the Lascaux cave paintings first of all, why cannot they be considered part of France’s cultural/civilizational heritage? I only ask to receive your feedback not because I have an opinion myself.

Second, does history necessarily involve “written documents” or can it include “oral history.” How reliable is oral history?

What if any standards are there internationally for defining history?

Thanks again for any and all serious replies.

Sorry I am not an expert at this. Please see my other posts, somehow they started a new thread and I would just as soon keep it all here. Please therefore read one of the other two and respond here.

Brianasmus, the international standard for defining history is the existence of a written historical record, which is why I focused on this in my post. If you are not working from written sources, you are doing archeology rather than history.

As for oral history, there is a sub-discipline of history that looks at this, but the source material is generally interviews, and thus it is not too relevant to ancient Chinese history since the potential sources are all long dead! Oral traditions pretty quickly become myths once they are passed down from one generation to another, and so are not really a useful record in this case.

SCL, OK I guess I added the ‘recorded history’ idea. I was trying to clarify things and make the topic more managable. After all, historians define history as being based on written sources, and so it seemed to provide the ‘international standard’ that brianasmus wants.

I agree with your comment about the beginning of civilization not equalling the beginning of history. For example the Celts had a flourishing culture, but left very little in the evidence in the historical record, and so most history books tend to write them off as basically ‘uncivilized’.

Originally posted by kiwi: ...the international standard for defining history is the existence of a written historical record...etc.

The Chinese word for “culture” is “wenhua,” and the word for “civilisation” is “wenming.” Both these words contain the character “wen,” meaning writing. Therefore, in the Chinese perception at least, the existence of both culture and civilisation is connected with the existence of writing.

The English word “China” is derived from the name of the Qin (Ch’in) dynasty. In fact the Turkish word for China is Cin (beginning with a C circumflex,) which is also pronounced like the English word “chin.” So one might say that the name and concept of China date from the Qin dynasty, which was founded in 221 A.D. Writing existed in the geographical area now occupied by China long before that, but was it “Chinese” if there was not yet any such country as China?