The history of China is traditionally seen as a continuous development following a general pattern of expansion and decay. From the heart of Chinese culture, the Hwang-ho and Yangtze basins, the area of central political control spreads out, then, under pressure from war-like barbarians, shrinks back. Native dynasties decay, lose 'the mandate of Heaven' and are replaced by the more vigorous barbarian rulers, who, in their turn, are overthrown and expelled by a resurgence of national feeling.
The prehistoric culture of China shows marked similarities to early Mesopotamian civilizations. Nonetheless, by the first millennium BC, there had arisen a fairly uniform and quite distinct culture, spreading from the Hwang-ho region to embrace almost all of China.
Documented Chinese history can be said to begin with the Shang dynasty (circa 1766-1122 BC), although tradition mentions two earlier dynasties, the Yu and Hsia. The Shang controlled a large area of central China and exacted tribute from many subject peoples. The Shang kings were seen not as warriors, but rather as intermediaries between their subjects and Heaven. Astrology was an important part of this relationship, and many of the earliest Chinese inscriptions are divinations recorded on bone and tortoiseshell. The heavens were mapped, and many stars and planets, including Jupiter, were known. Eclipses were observed and recorded, a calendar was developed, and a decimal counting system was begun. During the reign of the Chou, who defeated the Shang and ruled China over the period 1122-770 BC, a centralized feudal system was developed.
But, as the power of the feudal lords increased, the Chou's central control was diluted, and a period of anarchy, known as the Warring States, ensued. It was during the period 476-221 BC that certain concepts, characteristic of China until almost the present, emerged. Mencius, Lao-tze and Confucius lived at this time and formulated philosophies that were to dominate Chinese thinking for some 2000 years.
The Chin dynasty reunified China in 221 BC, sweeping away the feudal system and re-establishing the central authority.
They were the first true emperors of China and set up the imperial system that was to dominate the country in stable periods until the fall of the Manchus at the beginning of the twentieth century. Under them, the Great Wall was begun in the north. The Chin dynasty was short lived, however and after a period of disruption the Han dynasty became established in 206 BC.
Except for a brief period, they ruled China for the next four centuries. The Han set the pattern for a dynastic imperial authority exercised through a complex civil service.
Standardized histories were compiled, and a classical education became mandatory for those entering the civil service. Buddhism was introduced from India during the first century AD and, helped by the native cult of Taoism, began seriously to rival Confucianism.
The Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-65) opened almost four centuries of political chaos in China. Rival warlords jockeyed for power and the Hsiung Nu (Huns) broke in and set up a series of short lived dynasties.
During this era, China underwent a rapid cultural development. Taoism and Buddhism continued to grow. Indian advances in science, mathematics, astronomy and architecture were adopted, and art flourished.
Under the subsequent dynasty, the Tsin (265-420), feudalism partly revived with the decay of the central authority, but, under the Sui which followed, this was swept away, and China was reunified. A new code of laws was introduced, and the administration was reformed; entry to the civil service by examination was introduced.
Canals were dug to link the major rivers with the River Yangtze, thereby increasing trade and communications.
The Tang dynasty came to power in 618 and imposed a system of government that was to last for 300 years. Like the previous dynasty, it reformed the legal, financial and administrative functions of the central government. Successful military campaigns extended Chinese territory farther than ever before, and the prosperity of the empire encouraged a luxury that surpassed even the Han period. The revival of Confucianism and a renaissance of Chinese literature were also important features of this brilliant era. In 755 a rebellion saw the start of the collapse of the Tang dynasty. By 907 China had entered a period of chaos and depravity, known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, which lasted until the empire was reunited by the Sung in 960.
The new dynasty presided over an era of great scholarly and artistic progress. The Confucian Canon was authenticated, and learning received a new impetus by the improvement of printing through the development of movable type. The novel, a new and popular literary form, appeared at this time. In agriculture, medicine, social welfare, the arts and technology, the achievements of the Sung dynasty preceded similar developments in Western Europe by several hundred years.
While the Sung held sway over central China, the barbarian empires on the northern borders of the country were overrun by the Mongols under Genghis Khan. In 1260 the Sung were also swept aside, by Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis, who established the Yuan dynasty, the greatness and richness of which was described by the Venetian traveler Marco Polo. The Mongols, in their turn, were replaced by the Ming, a native dynasty, in 1368. During their reign, the Portuguese arrived in China, trade links with Europe were established, and the history of modern China began.