Michael Storozum: China’s “5,000 Years of History” – Fact or Fiction? (Excerpts)

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Michael Storozum is a professional archaeologist based in Shanghai who studies ancient Chinese societies’ responses to climate change and natural disasters. His work is published in leading scientific journals, and has been featured in a wide range of popular science outlets, including Phys.org and Archaeology Magazine.

The cultural achievements of ancient peoples living within the modern-day political boundaries of China are certainly impressive, and stretch back in time thousands and thousands of years. From a scientific perspective, however, the entire premise of “5,000 years of continuous history” leaves much to be desired. Rather than reveal a continuous culture from 5,000 years ago to the present, new scientifically-oriented archaeological research into China’s deep past will likely reveal a long history of migrations, intermixing populations, and diverse interactions that have helped create modern-day China.

https://radiichina.com/author/michael_storozum/

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Radii China

China’s “5,000 Years of History”: Fact or Fiction?

The recent elevation of the 5,300-year-old site of Liangzhu to UNESCO World Heritage status revives an old debate about modern China’s historical narrative

By Michael Storozum July 15, 2019

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The answer largely depends on how you define the question — namely, how you define “history.”
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History is usually defined as the beginning of a textual record, or written documents. In China, the first decipherable written documents date to the Shang dynasty, around 3,000 to 3,500 years ago. This language, the Jiaguwen, or Oracle Bone Script, is the antecessor of all subsequent written Chinese script, and there are remarkable similarities between Oracle Bone texts and subsequent written language in China, suggesting that this writing system is the origin of modern Chinese script. Although it is undisputed that the Oracle Bones are the progenitor of Chinese script, they’re still nearly 2,000 years short of China’s hypothetical 5,000 years of history.

So, a strictly historical explanation is clearly not viable — there’s no science to support the claim.

Before the Shang dynasty and the development of the first historical records, there was a long prehistoric period in China. Archaeology, although often thought of as a field in the humanities or social sciences, heavily relies on methods in the physical sciences to understand cultural changes over time in ancient societies around the world. Since the discovery of China’s Neolithic cultures in the early 1900s, archaeology in China has primarily focused on defining China’s cultural history: the succession of different archaeological cultures (read: pottery styles) from the early Neolithic (around 10,000 years ago) to the start of the Han dynasty (around 2,200 years ago).

This chronology has been hugely contentious among archaeologists in China and around the world, in part because of a general lack of radiocarbon dates. Ancient carbon found at archaeological sites, when radiocarbon-dated, provides an absolute age for these sites, anchoring specific cultural developments in time. Only within the past several decades have there been enough radiocarbon dates to attempt to pinpoint the beginning of “Chinese civilization.”
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First and foremost, the Xia dynasty is a mythical period of time. The only evidence of the Xia comes from historical texts that post-date this period by thousands of years (see “The Myth of the Xia Dynasty” by Sarah Allan for more). While archaeologists have recovered primary documents from the excavation of Shang and Zhou dynasty sites, no primary textual records have ever been recovered from Xia dynasty sites.

Second, the development of Chinese “civilization” did not happen in just one place. Just as in the recent past, people have migrated across the area known as modern China for thousands of years, bringing with them new ideas and cultural mores, making the focus on Central China detrimental to the project. Unsurprisingly, this project proved much more complex than originally conceived.
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In other words: if we really push the boundaries of the historical and archaeological records, Chinese “civilization” can be said to have a 5,000-year history, but this interpretation bends the facts in important ways. From a historical perspective, the first drips of a continuous historical record begin around 3,500 years ago, and a fully realized and still extant historical record really starts only with the Han dynasty, around 2,000 years ago. From the scientific perspective offered by archaeology, the absolute chronology goes back thousands and thousands of years, but does not necessarily reveal a continuous Chinese identity.
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The cultural achievements of ancient peoples living within the modern-day political boundaries of China are certainly impressive, and stretch back in time thousands and thousands of years. From a scientific perspective, however, the entire premise of “5,000 years of continuous history” leaves much to be desired. Rather than reveal a continuous culture from 5,000 years ago to the present, new scientifically-oriented archaeological research into China’s deep past will likely reveal a long history of migrations, intermixing populations, and diverse interactions that have helped create modern-day China.

https://radiichina.com/china-5000-years-history/

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