The Middle Kingdom

The title here refers not to a dynastic family, but to a central Chinese concept of the Chinese name for China: Zhōngguó. The term can indeed be translated as Middle Kingdom and reflects its self-identity as the centre of civilisation. Apart from political rationalisations the Chinese were largely isolated by the enormous plateau and desert, the sea, and mountains. In cultural terms the Chinese had developed a sophisticated society, but were surrounded by barbarians. It was easy to extend the notion of cultural superiority and geographical isolation to a sophisticated people centrally placed between the gods and the barbarians. Eventually more complex definitions related internally to the emperor and various parts of his empire.

Yellow River People


What is now China was inhabited by Homo erectus more than a million years ago.[1] Recent datings have shown that stone tools found at Xiaochangliang are 1.36 million years old. The archaeological site of Xihoudu in Shanxi Province is the earliest record of use of fire by Homo erectus, which is dated 1.27 million years old. During this time there were repeated glacial cycles and up to 30% of the earth's surface was covered by ice. Naturally that ice tied up a lot of water and coastal Asia reached out further bridging many of todays islands. Hominid migration into Asia followed both northern and now no-longer available southern routes. At Zhoukoudian (or Choukoutien near Beijing, China) 40 individual Homo erectus fossil remains have been dated to c550,000-230,000 years ago.

Two pottery pieces were unearthed in Liuzhou, Guangxi Province dated 16,500 and 19,000 BC. Early evidence for proto-Chinese millet agriculture is carbon-dated to about 7,000 BC, and associated with the Jiahu site, which is also the earliest site of playable music instruments, and the earliest wine production in world. The earliest Chinese language writing have been discovered as more than 2,000 pictographs dating back 8,000 years, on 3,172 cliff carvings in Damaidi in Yinchuan.[2] Many of these latter symbols bear a strong resemblance to later forms of ancient Chinese characters. With agriculture came increased population, the ability to store and redistribute crops, and to support specialist craftsmen and administrators. In late Neolithic times, the northerly Yellow and Yangtze River vallies began to establish themselves as a cultural center, where the first Chinese villages were founded. Not until the later Han period did China spread into the tropical south. The soil was good in the northern river valleys and the population was able to expand with agricultural increasingly feeding people. Although hunting must have continued to supply food, the growing population increasingly turned to fish and legend credits distinguishing the tastes of 100 different grasses, implying sophisticated agriculture.

The history of China is recorded in traditional historical records that go back to the Three sovereigns and five emperors about 5,000 years ago, supplemented by archaeological records dating to the 16th century BC. China is one of the world's oldest continuous civilizations. Emperor Xiayu Si Wenming, established the Xia Dynasty (2200-1700 BC), which marked the end of primitive society. The Xiayu emperor reigned for 45 years and organised some effective flood controls. The Xia Dynasty is the first recorded dynasty in Chinese history, and lasted nearly 500 years including the reigns of 17 emperors.

Archaeological findings providing evidence for the existence of the Shang Dynasty, c 1600–1046 BC is divided into two sets. The first set, from the earlier Shang period (c 1600–1300 BC) comes from sources at Erligang, Zhengzhou and Shangcheng. The second set, from the later Shang or Yin period, consists of a large body of oracle bone writings. Anyang in modern day Henan has been confirmed as the last of the nine capitals of the Shang (c 1300–1046 BC). There were 31 kings of Shang Dynasty and it is the longest dynasty in Chinese history. The Records of the Grand Historian states that the Shang Dynasty moved its capital six times. The final and most important move to Yin in 1350 BC led to the golden age of the dynasty. The term Yin Dynasty has been synonymous with the Shang dynasty in history, although lately it has been used specifically in reference to the latter half of the Shang Dynasty.

Turtle shells with markings reminiscent of ancient Chinese writing from the Shang Dynasty have been carbon dated to around 1500 BC. Chinese civilization originated with city-states in the Yellow River valley. 221 BC is the commonly accepted year when China became unified under a large kingdom or empire. Successive dynasties in Chinese history developed bureaucratic systems that enabled the Emperor of China to control the large territory. The foundations of Chinese civilization were the Qin Dynasty Emperor's imposition of a common system of writing in the 3rd century BC and the development of a state ideology based on Confucianism in the 2nd century BC. China alternated between periods of political unity and disunity, with occasionally conquests by foreign peoples, some of whom were assimilated into the Chinese population. Cultural and political influences from many parts of Asia, carried by successive waves of immigration, expansion, and assimilation, merged to create Chinese culture.

Dynastic Histories

The earliest discovered written record of China's past dates from the Shang Dynasty 1523-1027 BC, as inscriptions of divination records on the bones or shells of animals.. Archaeological findings providing evidence for the existence of the Shang Dynasty, c 1600–1046 BC is divided into two sets. The first set, from the earlier Shang period (c 1600–1300 BC) comes from sources at Erligang, Zhengzhou and Shangcheng. The second set, from the later Shang or Yin period, consists of a large body of oracle bone writings. Anyang in modern day Henan has been confirmed as the last of the nine capitals of the Shang (c1300–1046 BC). There were 31 kings from Tang of Shang to King Zhou; and it is the longest dynasty in Chinese history. The Shang Dynasty moved its capital six times, the last move to Yin in 1350 BC led to the golden age of the dynasty. Later Chinese historians were accustomed to the notion of one dynasty succeeding another, but the actual political situation in early China is known to have been much more complicated. Some scholars suggest that the Xia and the Shang might refer to political entities that coexisted, just as the early Zhou (successor state of the Shang), is known to have coexisted with the Shang.

Imperial China

Emperor Qin


The Great Wall as now mapped covered 8,850 kms: it cost millions of lives.[3]


The Great Wall

The long lasting and successful Zhou dynasty gained considerable power, which translated into expanded territories. To manage the extended empire, the Zhou kings increasingly decentralized and by 878 BC, power had become fragmented and central Zhou feudal power declined. China consisted of hundreds of states, some only as large as a village with a fort. After further political consolidation, seven prominent states remained by the end of 5th century BC, however, these few states battled each other for control. Neighboring territories of these warring states, including areas of modern Sichuan and Liaoning, were gradually annexed. In c230 BC the population was an estimated 30m, considerably greater than all of Europe. A final expansion began during the reign of Ying Zheng, the King of Qin. His unification of the other six powers, and further annexations in the modern regions of Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong and Guangxi in 214 BC enabled him to proclaim himself the First Emperor (Qin Shi Huangdi).

Historians often refer to the period from Qin Dynasty to the end of Qing Dynasty as imperial China. Though the unified reign of the Qin Emperor lasted only twelve years, he managed to subdue great parts of what constitutes the core of the Han Chinese homeland and to unite them under a tight, centralized, Legalist government at Xianyang (in modern Xi'an). The doctrine of legalism emphasized strict adherence to a legal code and the absolute power of the emperor. This philosophy, while very effective for expanding the empire militarily, proved unworkable for governing in peace time. Qin brutally silenced political opposition, including burning and burying scholars. This led to the later more moderate Han schools of political governance. The Qin Dynasty is well known for beginning construction of the Great Wall of China, which was later extended and enhanced during the Ming Dynasty. The other major contributions of the Qin included unifying the legal code, and the development of a standard written language, and currency for China. Even something as basic as the length of axles for carts had to be made uniform to ensure a viable trading system existed throughout the empire.

The Han Dynasty emerged in 202 BC. It was the first dynasty to embrace the philosophy of Confucianism, which became the guiding doctrine until the end of imperial China. Under the Han Dynasty, China made great advances in many areas of the arts and sciences. Emperor Wu (Han Wudi consolidated and extended the Chinese empire by pushing back the Xiongnu (sometimes identified with the Huns) into the steppes of modern Inner Mongolia, wresting from them the modern areas of Gansu, Ningxia and Qinghai. This enabled the first opening of trading connections between China and the West, the Silk Road. Nevertheless, Han power declined again amidst land acquisitions, invasions, and internal feuding.

T'ang China c680


The Sui Dynasty managed to reunite the country in 589 after nearly four centuries of political fragmentation. The Sui brought China together again and set up many institutions that were to be adopted by their successors, the Tang. In 618, Li Yuan siezed power in a coup and as the emperor Gaozu established the Tang Dynasty. Gaozu's son was the Emperor Taizong who is considered one of the greatest Chinese leaders. The Empress Wu rose from being the Taizong's ruthless concubine to become the only Chinese emperor. The Tangs opened a new age of expanded security, trade, prosperity and innovation in arts and technology. The Silk Road was re-opened for 60 years in 639, after being closed by various rebellions. Buddhism, which had gradually been established in China from the first century, was adopted by the royal family and many of the common people. Chang'an (the modern city of Xi'an) was the national capital and is thought to have been the world's biggest city at the time. The Tang and the Han are often referred to as the most prosperous periods of Chinese history. The Tang, like the Han, kept the trade routes open to the west and south and there was extensive trade with distant foreign countries and many foreign merchants settled in China.

The Jin Empire was defeated by the Mongols, who then proceeded to defeat the Southern Song in a long and bloody war, the first war where firearms played an important role. During the era after the war, later called the Pax Mongolica, adventurous Westerners such as Marco Polo travelled all the way to China and brought the first reports of its wonders to Europe. In China, the Mongols were divided between those who wanted to remain based in the steppes and those who wished to adopt the customs of Han Chinese. Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, wanting to adopt Han Chinese customs, established the Yuan Dynasty. This was the first dynasty to rule the whole of China from Beijing as their temporary capital.

During Mongol rule, the population had dropped by 40 percent, to an estimated 60 million. Two centuries later, it had doubled. Urbanization thus increased as the population grew and as the division of labor grew more complex. Large urban centers, such as Nanjing and Beijing, also contributed to the growth of private industry. In particular, small-scale industries grew up, often specializing in paper, silk, cotton, and porcelain goods. For the most part, however, relatively small urban centers with markets proliferated around the country. Town markets mainly traded food, with some necessary manufactures such as pins or oil.

Despite xenophobia and intellectual introspection, China under the early Ming Dynasty was not isolated. The Ming emperors moved their capital permanently to Beijing. Foreign trade and other contacts with the outside world, particularly Japan, increased considerably. Chinese merchants explored all of the Indian Ocean, reaching East Africa and America with the voyages of Zheng He.[4] The Ming dynasty had a strong and complex central government that unified and controlled the empire. The emperor's role became more autocratic, although Zhu Yuanzhang necessarily continued to use what he called the "Grand Secretaries" to assist with the immense paperwork of the bureaucracy, including memorials (petitions and recommendations to the throne), imperial edicts in reply, reports of various kinds, and tax records. It was this same bureaucracy that later prevented the Ming government from being able to adapt to changes in society, and eventually led to its decline.

Emperor Yong-le strenuously tried to extend China's influence beyond its borders by demanding other rulers send ambassadors to China to present tribute. A large navy was built, including four-masted ships displacing 1,500 tons. A standing army of 1 million troops (some estimate as many as 1.9 million) was created. The Chinese armies conquered Annam, while the Chinese fleet sailed the China seas and the Indian Ocean, cruising at least as far as the east coast of Africa. The Chinese also gained influence over Turkestan, and several maritime Asian nations sent envoys with tribute for the Chinese emperor. Domestically, the Grand Canal was expanded, and proved to be a stimulus to domestic trade. Over 100,000 tons of iron per year was produced, and many books were printed using movable type. The imperial palace in Beijing's Forbidden City was expanded to its current splendor. The Ming period seems to have been one of China's most prosperous. It was also during these centuries that the potential of south China came to be fully exploited. New crops were widely cultivated, and industries such as those producing porcelain and textiles flourished. During the Ming dynasty the final construction on the Great Wall was completed. While the Great Wall had been begun by the Qin, most of what is seen today was either built or repaired by the Ming. The brick and granite work was enlarged, the watch towers were redesigned, and cannons were placed along its length.

Ancient Inventions

China has a long coastline, many large rivers, and canals: water travel led to the invention of rowing oars by 6000 BC. Since much of China is tropical, concern for meat-preservation led to the use of salt also by 6000 BC. Rome led Europe in the demand for Chinese silk, which had been used since c3630 BC. With a large population to feed, agriculture was a major Chinese conceren. Fossilized domesticated rice has been dated to c12000 BC, and has been confirmed as having been grown in the Yangtze Valley by 7000 BC. Rice is often cooked by steam, and pottery steamers have been found dating to c5000 BC. Soybean cultivation began in China in c2000 BC. To cool people a rotary fan was developed in c180 and was hydraulically powered by 1000. By c1500 BC tea was being drunk as a medicine and by 100 BC was widely drunk in China.[5]

Terracotta army charriot: c211 BC


The Silk Road

A Chinese invention to gain materials and sell silks and spices to Egypt, Rome, and Byzantium. Italians found the secret worms and China lost its trade monopoly.


It was the Chinese who set the calendar at 365.25 days in c700 BC. Perhaps the greatest Chinese developments were: the compass, gunpowder, paper, and printing. The first records indicating a lodestone, or basic compass is in c350 BC, albeit the recorded use of the compass was delayed until c900 when Chinese ships reached India. Similarly experiments, which led to gunpowder, began in c300 BC, although the first records of gunpowder is from c870 AD and a hand cannon was developed in c1200. Paper was similarly invented early in c105 AD. The first Chinese book was printed in 868, but printing for textiles was achieved in c220 and reached Europe via the Arabs. Curiously India ink was developed by the Chinese in c200 BC, with burnt pigments from India. However, additional developments litter scientific and social histories.

Smallpox had been diagnosed and a small pox vaccination was used in China in c950. The early development of agricultural improvements included row cultivation of crops, the first iron plow has been dated to c500BC, Unfenced fields were cultivated by a plow, usually drawn by a water buffalo. Irrigation techniques included a wooden, square-paddle chain pump operated by foot. Fields were drained by open ditches and diking. Human excrement, oil cakes, and ash fertilized the soil. To harness the power of horses, the Chinese (or possibly their Mongol neighbours) invented the iron stirrup, a horse collar, and a harness. All of these latter were invented early in c100BC-200AD. Acupuncture medical techniques were recorded in c200 BC. The wheelbarrow was widely used in China by c100 BC.

With a long coastline hampered by severe weather ship safety was critical and the Chinese developed a series of designs. The Chinese junk was built in c100AD, and multiple water-tight bulkheads were recorded in c450, Chinese ships could carry 700 people and 235,000 kg of cargo. Somewhat earlier than the Wright brothers, the Chinese mastered manned flight by kite in c550. Cast iron techniques had been perfected by 400 BC and used a blast furnace, coke, and the bellows in production. To better arm their armies, the Chinese developed a crossbow in c550 BC, which fired metal arrows (or bolts). The advantage of the Chinese crossbow, fitted with metal parts, was that: it could be fired much faster than a longbow; it required less training; and the first multiple, or repeating, crossbow has been dated to c300 BC. The Chinese were aparently adept at exploiting their collective brainpower and led the world in large cartographical developments. The earliest printed map has been dated to c350 BC. Canal locks have been dated to c950.

For Rome, the East meant silks and spices, the trade for which the Chinese carefully controlled. Although harnessing the silk worms had begun in c2700 BC, and probably Chinese silk has been found in Egypt dated to c1070 BC, the Chinese managed to control the trade until the Crusader era. Serious trade led to the opening of the Silk Road, which actually followed the path of evangelising Buddhist monks. The Chinese interest in Central Asian Jade and metals established the inter-continental trade routes.

Mongol China

Kublai Khan & Marco Polo


Möngke Khan unwittingly provided his brother Kublai, or Qubilai, with a chance to become Khan in 1260, assigning Kublai to a province in North China. Kublai expanded the Mongol empire and became a favorite of Möngke. Kublai's conquest of China is estimated to have killed over 18 million people.

Later, though, when Kublai began to adopt many Chinese laws and customs, his brother was persuaded by his advisors that Kublai was becoming too Chinese and would become treasonous. Möngke kept a closer watch on Kublai from then on but died campaigning in the west. After his older brother's death, Kublai placed himself in the running for a new khan against his younger brother, and, although his younger brother won the election, Kublai defeated him in battle, and Kublai became the last true Great Khan.

He proved to be a strong warrior, but his critics still accused him of being too closely tied to Chinese culture. When he moved his headquarters to Beijing, there was an uprising in the old capital that he barely staunched. He focused mostly on foreign alliances, and opened trade routes. He dined with a large court every day, and met with many ambassadors, foreign merchants, and even offered to convert to Christianity if this religion was proved to be correct by 100 priests.

By the reign of Kublai Khan, the empire was already in the process of splitting into a number of smaller khanates. After Kublai died in 1294, his heirs failed to maintain the Pax Mongolica and the Silk Road closed. Inter-family rivalry compounded by the complicated politics of succession, which twice paralyzed military operations as far off as Hungary and the borders of Egypt (crippling their chances of success), and the tendencies of some of the khans to drink themselves to death fairly young (causing the aforementioned succession crises), hastened the disintegration of the empire.

Another factor which contributed to the disintegration was the decline of morale when the capital was moved from Karakorum to modern day Beijing by Kublai Khan, because he associated more with Chinese culture. Kublai concentrated on the war with the Song Dynasty, assuming the mantle of ruler of China, while the more Western khanates gradually drifted away.


1          Adapted from Grahame Clark, World Prehistory, In New Perspective, pp. 288-319; and History of China; History of China at,; Condensed China, Brennan McKinney, Zhou Feudalism - Fragmentation and the Warring States Period at,; Chinese History for Beginners at,; China, Timeline of Chinese Dynasties at,; Travel China, History of China at,; and Mongol Empire at,

2          See BBC Report, Chinese writing '8,000 years old',, dated 18 May 2007.

3          See BBC Report, Great Wall of China 'even longer',, dated 20 April 2009.

4          See a contentious account by Gavin Menzies, 1421 The Year China Discovered America.

5          The recounting of Chinese inventions is taken from: List of Chinese inventions at,; and Randy SmithRandy Smith, The West's Debt to China? at,

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