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The recorded history of Chinese civilization can be traced to the Yellow River valley, said to be the ‘cradle of Chinese civilization’. The Xia Dynasty was the first dynasty to be described in ancient historical chronicles, though to date, no concrete proof of its existence has been found. Nevertheless, archaeological evidence has shown that at the very least, an early-bronze-age Chinese civilization had developed by the period described.
The Shang Dynasty, China’s first historically confirmed dynasty, and the Zhou Dynasty ruled across the Yellow River basin. The Zhou adopted a decentralized system of government, in which the feudal lords ruled over their respective territories with a high degree of autonomy, even maintaining their own armies, while at the same time paying tribute to the king and recognizing him as the symbolic ruler of China. It was also the longest-ruling dynasty in Chinese history, lasting about 800 years. Despite this longevity, during the second half of the Zhou period, China descended into centuries of political turmoil, with the feudal lords of numerous small fiefdoms vying for power during the Spring and Autumn Period, and later stabilized into seven large states in the Warring States period. This tumultuous period gave birth to China’s greatest thinkers including Confucius, Mencius and Laozi, who made substantial contributions to Chinese thought and culture.
China was eventually unified in 221 BC by Qin Shi Huang, the ‘First Emperor’, and the Qin Dynasty instituted a centralized system of government for all of China, and standardized weights and measures, Chinese characters and currency in order to create unity. Up to today, the ideal of a unified and strong centralized system is still strong in Chinese thought. However, due to despotic and harsh rule, the Qin dynasty lasted for only 15 years as the Han Dynasty took over in 206 BC after a period of revolt. With the invention of paper and extensive trade with the West along the Silk Road, along with relatively benevolent imperial rule, the Han was the first golden age of Chinese civilization. Ethnic Chinese consider themselves to be part of the ‘Han’ race till this day.
The collapse of the Han Dynasty in 220 CE led to a period of political turmoil and war known as the Three Kingdoms Period, which saw China split into the three separate states of Wei, Shu and Wu. Despite lasting for only about 60 years, it is a highly romanticised period of Chinese history. China was then briefly reunified under the Jin Dynasty, before descending into a period of division and anarchy once again. The era of division culminated with the Sui, which reunified China in 581. The Sui were famous for major public works projects, such as the engineering feat of the Grand Canal, which linked Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south. Sections of the canal are still navigable today.
Bankrupted by war and excessive government spending, the Sui were supplanted by the Tang Dynasty, ushering in the second golden age of Chinese civilization, marked by a flowering of Chinese poetry, Buddhism and statecraft, and also saw the development of the Imperial Examination system which attempted to select court officials by ability rather than family background. Chinatowns overseas are often known as “Street of the Tang People” (唐人街 Tángrén jiē) in Chinese. The collapse of the Tang Dynasty once again saw China divided, until it was reunified by the Song Dynasty. This collapse was preceded by the secession and independence of Vietnam in 938 CE. The Song ruled over most of China for over 150 years before being driven south of the Huai river by the Jurchens, where they continued to rule as the Southern Song, and although militarily weak, attained a level of commercial and economic development unmatched until the West’s Industrial Revolution. The Yuan (Mongol) dynasty first defeated the Jurchens, then proceeded to conquer the Song in 1279, and ruled their vast Eurasian empire from modern-day Beijing.