“Five thousand years of history.” It’s a phrase repeated by both Chinese and non-Chinese. Somehow we are supposed to believe that China has more history than other places. A slightly strange concept anyway, and, regardless of whether you want to define “history” as starting with written records or by the emergence of “civilization” as seen in the first large settlements, the five thousand figure is wrong.
The Shang dynasty (founded around 1600 BC) of the Yellow River valley in northern China is as far back as we have solid archaeological evidence and positive proof of the first written records. Earlier than that, history disintegrates into mythology. But even if you accept the preceding mythical Xia dynasty as the start, it takes you back only to around 2000 BC.
In terms of age, civilizations in other parts of the world precede China. Writing systems in Egypt and Mesopotamia predate Chinese writing by a thousand years. The world’s first city, Uruk, in modern-day Iraq, dates back seven thousand years. Even in comparison to Europe, China isn’t that old. Confucius’ life overlapped with those of Pythagoras and Socrates. China was first unified in 221 BC, a century after Alexander the Great had created the Hellenistic Empire, and just a few centuries before the zenith of the Roman Empire.
Three, three-and-a-half, four millennia — surely all ancient enough. Does it really matter that China doesn’t have five thousand years of history? Yes, it does matter, and not because it’s annoying to have this inaccuracy spouted ad nauseam as historical fact, not to mention the hypocrisy of glorifying history yet so poorly preserving it. The myth is important because of the inference that China is uniquely old and so deserves special consideration. This has real-life consequences. When dealing with China — whether trying to turn a profit or awaiting democratic reforms — the implication is you need to be more patient and just wait a little bit longer. After all, the country has five thousand years of history.
In 1991 former American president Richard Nixon told his biographer, “Within twenty years China will move to democracy” and explained the need for America to have patience: “You can’t rush them. The Chinese look at history and the future in terms of centuries, not decades, the way we do, because they’re so much older as a culture.”
The quotation from the Google CEO at the start of this chapter was also a reference to the need for patience. Here is the full quote: “China is a nation with a five-thousand-year history. That could indicate the duration for our patience.” The year before, Google had set up a Chinese site, Google.cn, which self-censored search results in order to keep the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) happy. Searches on sensitive subjects like Tibetan and Taiwanese independence and the Tiananmen “tank man” came up empty or with sanitized material. So much for Google’s informal company motto of “Don’t be evil.” Despite tarnishing their reputation by caving in to Chinese demands for censorship, there was no commercial pay-off. Google struggled to gain market share and had problems with the Chinese authorities. Events came to a head in 2009 with a series of cyber attacks against Google, targeting the Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents; the attacks originated in China and were tracked to state institutes. Google’s patience finally ran dry; deciding they would no longer censor search results, they redirected their website to Hong Kong.
Aside from patience, the “five thousand years of history” mantra implies the need for extra respect and cultural sensitivity. A good example of this is when Chris Patten, the last Governor General of Hong Kong, was preparing a speech for his swearing-in ceremony. He recounts: “The reference in my draft to the shared historic responsibilities in Hong Kong of ‘two great and ancient civilizations’ was scored out on the grounds that Chinese civilization was much older than the West’s and China might feel offended by the assumption of parity.” Patten, showing the backbone and bluster that would soon have him branded by the CCP as “a whore, a criminal, a serpent,” and, bizarrely, “a tango dancer,” ignored his advisors and went with “two ancient civilizations.”
Chinese history is long and fascinating; there’s no need to spin it, and it’s a shame to see it used by the government and media as an instrument of nationalism. The implied superiority of such a long history begets a dangerous sense of entitlement. And it’s just plain silly. Imagine if we applied the logic of “old civilizations deserve special treatment” to Egypt and the modern Mesopotamian nations of Iraq and Iran, places that actually do have five thousand years of history. Imagine executives explaining, “Our joint venture in Cairo is losing money but we have to be patient — they built the pyramids four-and-a-half-thousand years ago.” Or picture political commentators urging caution along the lines of: “Can’t push the Iranian government too hard for democratic reforms — they had cities when we were still living in caves.”
Lazy writers continue to churn out falsehoods about China’s glorious past and to contrast it against our own “upstart” cultures. They paint hyperbolic vignettes juxtaposing Oriental sophistication with Western crudity; silk-robed scholars sip tea and contemplate poetry while far away in darkest Europe the inhabitants run around in furs. In a recent biography on Sinologist Joseph Needham, author Simon Winchester contrasts the engineering masterpiece of a two-thousand-year-old Chinese irrigation waterworks with Westerners who “still coated themselves in woad and did little more than grunt.”
As well as its sheer age, China being the “longest continuous civilization” is often said to make it unique. The idea of Chinese civilization as a monolithic unchanging entity stretching in an unbroken line through the millennia is another myth that colours perceptions of China past, present and future. Sometimes the falsehoods are not just quaint asides, but the very foundations of narratives. Martin Jacques’ 2009 bestseller, When China Rules the World, is a case in point. Jacques regurgitates the line that China is special because of its antiquity and continuity, and adds his own take on it: China as a “civilization state” rather than a nation state. He sees an ascendant China ruled by Confucian authoritarianism, and, as it becomes more powerful, the reassertion of the age-old sense of superiority and a return to tributary-style relationships with lesser nations. This sort of commentary is demeaning to Chinese people, turning them into passive victims of their history forever condemned to repeat it.