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How old is China’s civilization?

By Johnny Erling
Johnny Erling schreibt die Kolumne für die China.Table Professional Briefings

China’s 25 most powerful officials, including only one woman, gathered in the palace of the once-imperial Zhongnanhai Park, in the heart of Beijing. Party leader Xi Jinping had summoned his Politburo and its Standing Committee to the lakeside compound, which was turned into the CP’s headquarters in 1949. China’s inner circle convened until late in the evening of May 27.

The illustrious circle did not gather to discuss crisis management, although on this day Shanghai continued to fight the pandemic, and Beijing feared it would be the next metropolis to go into lockdown. Nor was the international collateral damage threatening China for its silent consent of Putin’s attack on Ukraine as much a topic or the downward spiral of the economy.

Instead, the Party brass – as if they were living in a bubble – listened visibly nonchalant to the remarks of Beijing historian and guest speaker Wang Wei (王巍). Afterward, Xi recapped the latter’s presentation. China’s TV channels featured everyone obediently taking notes. The elite had sat down for their so-called 39th group study session, to which CP leader Xi has been regularly summoning his Politburo every four to six weeks since the last Party Congress in 2017. Its agenda was set by a seemingly otherworldly, academic question: How old is China’s civilization, really?

Excavation of 5,000 to 7,000-year-old cult sites in Xichuan, Henan Province.

Wang Wei, president of the Society for Archaeology, gave a report on the project for researching the origins of China’s civilization (中华文明探源工程), which he has been leading since 2001. The 400 scientists involved were said to have gained new insights into the Yangshao culture along the Yellow River, discovered in 1921, which is one of the earliest Neolithic cultures known to mankind (7000 to 4700 BC). Excavations at the ruins of Liangzhu near Hangzhou (5300 to 4300 BC) would have revealed how complex the earlier urban settlement was organized. In 2019, UNESCO included the site in its World Heritage List. Further discoveries at the Erlitou site, found in 1959 in central China’s Henan, seem to confirm earlier assumptions that Erlitou may have been a sub-center of the Xia reign (2070 to 1600 BC), the legendary first dynasty in the Middle Kingdom, whose existence has so far not been truly archaeologically proven.

But Xi triumphed: China’s researchers would have provided factual evidence “of my country’s millions of years of human history, its ten thousand years of cultural history and its more than 5,000 years of civilization history”. (实证了我国百万年的人类史、一万年的文化史、五千多年的文明史。中华文明探源工程成绩显著。)

For decades, scientists from all academic disciplines have been trying to pin down the origins of Chinese civilization on behalf of the Party. Historians, however, stand by their assessment, reporting about “more than 3,000 years” that can still be dated and documented with the writing on oracle bones from that time.

The Party wants to change this narrative. China’s civilization is unique in the world. There are older cultural societies, such as the Egyptians with their hieroglyphics, which date back 8,000 years. But those ancient empires were declining. China would be different, Xi said: “Its civilization is the only one in the world that has been able to continue without interruption until today.” (中华文明是世界上唯一自古延续至今、从未中断的文明). Aside from national pride, this is also a political and cultural asset for him to exploit. He cited, for example, the ties Beijing wants to forge with the 50 million expatriate Chinese around the world.

Xi demonstrated just how much the issue of periodization means to him during the first visit to Beijing by then-US President Donald Trump on November 8, 2017.

As the first foreign dignitary, Trump was to meet Xi immediately after the end of the 19th Party Congress, which had further extended Xi’s powers. Xi then prepared a spectacular imperial reception for Mr. and Mrs. Trump. Donald and Melania were taken directly from the airport to the cordoned-off imperial palace, where Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan gave them a four-hour tour of all the palaces from 3:30 PM to 7:30 PM and entertained them in courtly fashion. China’s television recorded one of their dialogues. It was first about the 300-year history of the United States. Trump told Xi he had heard that “China has a 5,000-year-old civilization.” Xi responded by referring to a verifiable recorded history of “over 3,000 years”. However, he said, its civilization could be traced “back 5,000 years or even earlier”.

Two presidents, two first ladies and a yellow imperial robe: Xi took Trump behind the scenes at the Palace Museum in 2017

When Trump referred to Egypt and its “8,000 years of culture,” Xi replied, “Yes, Egypt is older. But China’s civilization is the only, oldest civilization in the world continuously preserved to this day.” Trump asked if it was still “an original culture today” and was answered, “We are the original people. We have the same black hair and the same yellow skin. We call ourselves descendants of the dragon”. (是原来的人。黑头发、黄皮肤,传承下来,我们叫龙的传人。)

That China claims a civilization “more than 5,000 years old” has been Xi’s credo since he took office in 2012. Shortly before the 20th Party Congress at the end of 2022, which is expected to enable his third re-election and set the course for a “new era of socialism under Xi’s leadership” and the resurrection of the nation, Xi is reaching back to culture. China is special in this regard, he said during the study session: “The Chinese nation has taken a course of development that is different from other civilizations.”

All Party media in the country published synopses of Xi’s teachings to his Politburo. Detached from the lowlands of reality, he seeks to draw recipes for the nation’s rise from the past as well. He revives the old Mao saying to “let the past serve the present” (要坚持古为今用). He repeatedly rambles about “the nation’s cultural gene,” which “is also a spiritual force to realize the great resurrection of the nation.” Because Xi is aware of the fears China’s rise triggers abroad, he also speaks of the “cultural gene of peace”. Beijing must “tell the narrative about China’s civilization well from China’s soil, and convey a trustworthy, lovable and respectable image of China to the world”. (要立足中国大地,讲好中华文明故事,向世界展现可信、可爱、可敬的中国形象。)

It was the second time Xi made his obsession with a “more than 5,000-year-old Chinese civilization” the focus of a Politburo meeting. On September 28, 2020, he demanded to mobilize China’s archaeology to prove it. In the process, he spoke of the inherited “cultural gene” that the nation “uses every day without being aware of it”. (中华民族日用而不觉的文化基因。)

As a correspondent in Beijing, I have twice witnessed the failed political attempt to re-periodize Chinese civilization in the Party’s image. In November 2000, after five years of interdisciplinary research, 200 scholars claimed they could accurately date China’s legendary first three dynasties of the Xia, Shang and Zhou and chronologically list all the ruling houses. The Xia would have ruled from 2070 to 1600 BC, the Shang until 1046 BC and the Zhou until 771 BC. Thus, China’s civilization history was verifiably over 4,000 years old, the People’s Daily rejoiced at the time. It quickly turned out that the researchers came to their verdict only through conclusions, deductions and re-examinations of already known sources.

In 2010, Beijing made another attempt. In a spectacular exhibit, the capital’s museum displayed 400 ancient artifacts from excavations, most of which had never been shown before. But Wang Wei, the curator at the time and the same archaeologist who addressed the Politburo in late May, backpedaled. Although the Party press claimed that the history of Chinese civilization needed to be rewritten, academics in charge at the time called the exhibition a tribute to 60 years of archaeological work since the founding of the Institute of Archaeology in 1950, and said it was not intended to spark a new debate on the periodization of Chinese history.

Jade tablet from an excavation in Wuwei, Gansu (2021)

There is no shortage of Chinese excavations in recent years that have unearthed countless finds, fantastic bronzes, jade ornaments, and spectacular cultural artifacts. They discovered early human settlements, burial sites, hydraulic engineering, rice and agricultural cultivation. China’s archaeologists, however, adhere to the same criteria as their foreign colleagues when they speak of a unified civilization. These include evidence of larger cities, a faith system, infrastructural work, social stratification in the society of the time, and a developed writing system. Many of the excavations revealed former regionally developed advanced civilizations. But they apparently did not yet constitute a unified Chinese civilization.

The problem, as with all of China’s sciences, lies in their political appropriation. To legitimize his and his Party’s absolute rule over China, Xi embeds his century-old Party in the succession of modern Chinese and socialist development all the way back to the “more than 5,000-year history of the development of Chinese civilization”. In his “grand historical perspective” (大历史观), everything is “of the same piece for him, looking to the past as well as to the future” (既向过去看,又向未来看), write Marxist social scientists.

But what if it cannot be proven that China’s civilizational history is as old and as particularly different as Xi hopes? At the very least, he raises the question rhetorically in the Politburo, “Then what would be special about China if it does not have a Chinese civilization that is more than 5,000 years old? Then how could we successfully follow China’s special socialist path today?” (如果没有中华五千年文明,哪里有什么中国特色?如果不是中国特色,哪有我们今天这么成功的中国特色社会主义道路?) Xi is left with no answer.

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