Is Chinese history only 5,000 years? Legends say 50,000 years!

SiMa Qian, China's oldest known historian

SiMa Qian, China’s oldest known historian

If you ask a Chinese person about the length of Chinese history, it is easy for them to tell you we have 5,000 years history. But I suspect this easy answer is because so many historical materials were lost in the past 2,200 years since “Burning and Burying” (焚书坑儒, Fen Shu Keng Ru) in Qin Shi Huang (The first emperor of a united China, 秦始皇).

When SiMa Qian, a historian in the Han Dynasty about 2,000 years ago, wrote Shi Ji, the most dependable historical book that Chinese refer to most, what he wrote were just legends from the old folks. In the following d 2,000 years, the numerous domestic wars and tomb robbing ruined a lot of historical books also. Now, Chinese people can’t know the history before the Shang Dynasty (B.C. 13th century).

Why then do the Chinese say the country has 5,000 years history? Because SiMa Qian started Shi Ji with Huang Di, the first leader of Chinese, which actually only exists in legends. However, the legends also include the chiefs much more ancient than Huang Di, such as Fu Xi, Sui Ren and others. Most historians just call them fairy tales, and they can’t be regarded as true history. Nevertheless, legends are stories written by ancient people, and ancient people wrote the stories because of some events happening then. So many materials have been lost, so could we lengthen Chinese history to over 5,000 years?

I think the discovery of the Shang Dynasty is a good instance to show the process of rediscovery of  Chinese history. Shang’s history was carved on oracles. However, after thousands of years of wars and changes of dynasties, the records of history of Shang was unknown to the Chinese people until the 1890s, when oracles were found by a Chinese government official in Beijing.

Since then, thousands of Chinese historians have recognised 2,500 out of 4,500 oracle characters. Now, the history of Shang in Shi Ji has been confirmed to be accurate. But how about Xia Dynasty?

Based on C14 measurement, Chinese and Japanese historians believe that the Xia governed the central area of China during B.C. 2100~B.C. 1600. When SiMa Qian wrote about it, he used the legends from farmers. Unfortunately, according to current knowledge, there should be no writing Chinese characters in the Xia era. Many people doubt the authenticity, but the folk legends can help a lot sometimes.

Yu, a Chinese tribe chief living during B.C. 22nd century, dealt with the flood and then set the capital city at Yang Cheng. But where is Yang Cheng? SiMa Qian said nothing about the location of it, and historians have never found that Chinese used characters before the Shang Dynasty. Therefore, the only evidence is just the legend of farmers.

In the 1970s, a group of archaeologists came to the hill where the farmers nearby told them Yang Cheng was located. Amazingly, archaeologists did discover an ancient city under the hill! According to the scale and complexity of the city, they asserted that it was Yang Cheng. Yu is known as the founder of the Xia Dynasty, since Yang Cheng has been proven to be real, so Xia Dynasty should also be recognised.

The discovery of Yang Cheng shows the usage of folk legends, and now we should also use the legends to explore the time before Xia. The timetable during Huang Di to Jie (夏桀, the last king of the Xia Dynasty) was recorded on a book buried in the tomb of a king in the Spring and Autumn period. Unfortunately, the book was dug out and lost about 1,700 years ago. The scholars then copied merely a little part of the book and published as Bamboo Annals. However, the key details were lost after all, so we still can’t confirm that the history of China before Xia actually exists. Up until now, it only exists in legends.

According to the legends, Chinese history was actually started by a few ancient tribes and their chiefs. He Luo Ji taught people how to live in caves. The tribe may have lived in the time about B.C. 53000 (calculated based on legends. The time of the following history is same). Then Xun Fei Ji took the place of He Luo Ji, and was the first ofh 22 generations of Chinese chiefs. Of course, all of them lived in caves.

After Xun Fei Ji, chief Chen Fang Shi taught people how to use leaves and plants to make clothes. About B.C. 50000, You Chao Shi moved the people out of caves and then built the most simple residences. By this time, Chinese people ended the cave living age and started clan’s regime. The first one was Sui Ren Shi, a tribe which invented how to drill wood to make fire, and how to use fire to cook meat. Sui Ren Shi originated in Mt. Kun Lun, which is near the northern bounder of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

Sui Ren saw the origin of the Qiang Rong people. A branch of it went to the south and became what is Tibet today. The other branch went to the east and settled in the area that is Gan Su province today. In Chinese legends, we call this branch Sui Ren Shi. Because of the use of fire, Sui Ren Shi was respected as the top leader by hundreds of Chinese tribes then. That’s why we think Sui Ren as the start of the first clan regime in China.

At Sui Ren Shi’s time, Chinese society  transformed from a condition like animals to a matriarchal society. If the legends of Sui Ren Shi is right, Chinese culture should be expanded to at least 10,000 years instead of 5,000 years as we often believe today. The first chief of the Sui Ren succeeded the leadership of Chinese ancient activity in B.C. 50000, but the form of ancient Chinese culture was finished in B.C. 79th century. Since then, China entered the era of being governed by many tribes. Fu Xi tribe, Shao Hao Tribe,Yan Di tribe, Huang Di tribe and others were the rulers of central China for the next 5,800 years until the foundation of the Xia Dynasty.

In reality, we have no actual historical evidence to confirm those tribes did rule China in ancient times. Many historians reason that Fu Xi Shi ruled China during B.C. 7724~B.C. 5008. However, it is just a math game. What archaeologists have found are countless potteries and stone tools. Also based on C14 measurement, we can guess that the potteries and stones were produced and used some time during the lengthy period from  B.C. 50000 to B.C. 2500, the time which legends say those chiefs ruled. Though there is a lack of dependable character or words written in that era, the archaeological achievements may  confirm the legends are reasonable.

Reviewing the legends of the tribal chiefs in China during B.C. 50000~B.C. 2100, there were more than 200 clans of tribes that ruled China and developed the original Chinese culture. It is said that the development of the Chinese language (ancient symbolic characters) took place around B.C. 16000. Pottery found was painted with some shapes, but modern people can’t clarify what the shapes mean. I think the shapes noted some issues in ancient China, because in the folk legends, the activities of each clan are relatively clear.

As example, the names of each chief of each clan are known, and the events in each tribe are also clear. I believe that the ancient characters might be known by many Chinese scholars before “Burning and Burying.” If it is only folk legends, without the support of historical records, the activities of the ancient tribes couldn’t be so clear. I suggest that historians should also pay more attention to the marks on ancient pottery, and match the marks with the legends. If the work is useful, we can make the end of Sui Ren Shi’s rule as the start of Chinese civilisation. Thus, Chinese history is much longer than 5,000 years.

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  1. Is China’s basic education a success, or does it destroy the morality of society? | China Daily Mail

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