One of China’s most extraordinary Emperors, Tang Taizong, once said: “When one uses a bronze mirror, one can adjust the clothes and cap. When one uses the past events as a mirror, one comprehends the rise and fall of a nation.” This statement underlines the importance of history in the development of humankind.
In the world, there are many ancient countries with a history longer than China, but unfortunately, they were all interrupted, buried, or destroyed. However, Chinese civilization was handed down continuously for 5000 years. What are the factors contributing to that? In the program “History of Chinese civilization”, Professor of History Zhang Tianliang has revealed four main points.
The ancient civilizations of the world were interrupted or buried
There are ancient countries with a history longer than China, but their civilization was interrupted or buried. For example, concerning the Egyptian pyramids, the pyramid builders at that time were different from the modern Egyptians—who did not know how to build pyramids. Later, Egyptians attempted to reproduce the pyramid, but in reality it resembled a disordered pile of rock, and Egyptian civilization itself went through countless changes.
When Alexander the Great of Macedon, a student of Aristotle, conquered Egypt, Egyptian culture moved towards being a branch of Greece and Rome. Egypt was later a Christian state during the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire). Finally, after the arrival of the Muslims, Egyptian culture became Islamic culture.
Briefly, in the process of development, Egyptian culture was interrupted; moreover, there was a very pronounced change in the middle stage. Hence, the current Egyptian civilization has a form similar to Islam and different from the ancient Egyptian culture.
So it was for ancient Babylon. The people who lived in the area of ancient Babylon are the present-day Iraqis in the Mesopotamian basin. The city of Babylon was only 40 km from the modern Iraqi capital of Baghdad.
Ancient Babylon was originally inhabited by the Sumerians and Akkadians, but later it was conquered by different peoples, including the Assyrians, Chaldeans, etc. After the Chaldeans conquered Babylon, they built the Tower of Babel (mentioned in the Bible). Later, Nebuchadnezzar II built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and other wonders. These ancient buildings are all buried.
In addition, the Babylonian writing of that time was cuneiform, while the present Iraqi script is Arabic, that is, interrupted with antiquity. Because of the inability to read ancient texts, culture was also disrupted.
A similar situation happened in India. Ancient Indian civilization also existed very early, corresponding to the Xia—Shang dynasty of China. India once appeared as a civilization called Harappan civilization. The most developed place of the Harappa civilization was the northern part of the present-day Indian subcontinent. Later, when archaeologists excavated several sites, including Mohenjo-Daro (the city during Harappa’s most flourishing period), they discovered that this place seemed to have been buried by a volcano overnight.
Later, some people migrated to the southeast to the Ganges River basin. At this time, Indian culture entered the Vedic era. Vedic, or Veda (吠陀), means knowledge. It was a very prosperous period of Brahmanism.
Then, about 2500 years ago, Buddha Shakyamuni came to the world. Shakyamuni was the prince of the Kapilavat state. At this time, Indian civilization slightly moved to the southeast. From this, it can be seen that the Indian culture was also interrupted in the middle. It was completely separate from the Harappa civilization.
Chinese civilization: continuous transmission, unbroken history records for 5000 years
Among the ancient civilizations, only Chinese was passed on from beginning to end without interruption. Today’s Chinese are descendants of the ancient Chinese who lived 5000 years ago.
Chinese culture was also enlightened since then, a circuit that has developed ceaselessly to this day.
Chinese civilization also has an outstanding feature: an authentic historical record, without interruption throughout 5000 years.
In other countries, “history revision,” or history correction (修史), is usually a personal matter. If someone is interested in it, they record a few events.
For example, Caesar the Great wrote “Gallic War,” later Thucydides wrote “History of the Peloponnesian War.” Herodotus wrote about the “Greco-Persian War.” Only when a person was interested in a particular event would they record it, but only preaching about incidents that occurred within a few years or decades. Western countries in the past followed that way of recording history.
1- Chinese system of “shiguan”
But China is not like that because China has a complete system of ”shǐguān” (史官: court officials in charge of recording history). The Chinese often refer to themselves as the “Descendants of Yan and Huang,” meaning the descendants of the Emperor Shen Nong and the Emperor Xuanyuan. The latter is known as China’s “first ancestor of humanities.”
Chinese writing was created by Cangjie, who was the “shiguan”—historical official of Emperor Xuanyuan. This possibly suggests that when Cangjie created Chinese characters, one of the essential purposes was to record history. Therefore, from the time of Emperor Xuanyuan, there were historical officials next to the rulers of the dynasties.
Since China has a highly complete system of historical officials, the important events of the country or tribe are all recorded, enabling China to keep an uninterrupted historical record for 5000 years.
2- Worshiping ancestors
The completeness of historical records is also related to the mentality of the Chinese people.
Chinese people deeply revere their ancestors and want to worship their ancestors. From the time of Confucius, Zhou Gong, the Chinese people started “ancestor worship.” What is the significance of ancestor worship? It is indicative of a kind of ancestor belief, inheritance of ancestral culture, which is preserved in historical records through the ages.
3- Unified dynasty
China’s historical record also has another feature, that is, since the Qin Dynasty, China entered a period of unification; the concept of “great unification” has been deeply rooted in the Chinese mind. Although there were many divisions, the overall trend or desire of the Chinese people 2000 years later is still “unification.” What good does this have for historical records?
We can imagine that, if the world were divided into ten thousand countries, each of which was like a small city, like the “city-states” of ancient Greece, then within that small locality it would be difficult to have any “seismic” events. Moreover, because there is little in the way of human and financial resources, it is hardly possible to have a shocking incident. Life is relatively calm and stable, so usually, there would not be much to record.
Let us take an example to make it easy to imagine. A children’s fairy tale often has a sentence like this: “The prince and the princess lived happily ever after.” Yet, when we see this verse, the story ends. Why? Because a happy life doesn’t need anything, nor does it need to take notes.
The records are all about conflicts. That’s why it’s said that if “the world is divided into ten thousand countries,” there is not much to record, and there is no need to keep too many historical records. But moreover, if the world is divided into ten thousand countries, there are countries that record a little, and there are countries that do not.
Perhaps the fact that the historical record in Europe is not as complete as China’s is related to the feudal system there. Feudalism in Europe also belonged to a closely related category of duchy or princely states, each featuring a castle. In fact it is a very small country, where very little is recorded.
This is not the same as Qin Shi Huang, who performed incredible feats of merit such as, “South conquered Baiyue, North attacked Xiongnu, and unified writing, currency, quantity (length, volume, mass) etc., so they must be recorded.
While looking at Chinese history, we find that the historical record was relatively ambiguous when China entered the period of division. The most typical example is the period of the “Sixteenth Kingdoms of the Eastern Jin Dynasty.”
After the Western Jin Dynasty moved south of the Yangtze River, the northern part of China was occupied by five ethnic minorities, namely the Xiongnu, Xianbei, Jie, Di, and Qiang, collectively referred to as Wuhu. Some may find this period very familiar with characters like Murong Fu … in martial arts novels.
The history of the Sixteen Kingdoms period is relatively simple. While “Jin Shu” (the official account of the Jin dynasty) shows the history of the Jin Dynasty in great detail, the Northern Thirteen Kingdoms record is simplified. Another example is the Three Kingdoms period, when there was no “shiguan” or historical official in the state of Shu. So in “Annals of the Three Kingdoms” by Chen Shou, the historical records of Shu are very simple.
Talking about historical records of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, the Five Dynasties include Liang, Tang, Jin, Han, and Zhou. They basically occupied the area north of the Yangtze River. In the south appeared nine governments, together with Northern Han called the “Ten Kingdoms.” During the Five Dynasties, besides recording events related to the Emperor, there were also events related to great ministers. As for the history of the Ten Kingdoms, in the ‘Five Great History,’ records are simplified, and each country has only one page.
When it comes to the Song dynasty, many people think that this is the period of unification, but the Northern Song and Southern Song are the period of division. At that time, the world had many countries close together. The Liao and the Jin states were deeply influenced by Han culture, so their historical records were relatively complete. In the “Twenty Four Histories” (24 significant Chinese official historical records), there are “History of Liao” and “History of Jin.” But the history of Western Xia during the Song Dynasty is almost unrecorded. And the Kingdom of Dali also records very simply.
The examples above indicate one thing: when China was divided, the small countries almost did not record history. Also, Europe’s lack of historical records probably had a particular relationship with feudalism. Only the ‘unified’ dynasty took the historical record seriously.
4- Respect for and fear of history
In addition to attaching importance to historical records, the Chinese also have respect for and fear of history. For example, the atheist Chinese Communist Party is an organization that is not afraid of heaven and earth. Mao Zedong once said, “I am a monk holding an umbrella against the Law and Heaven,” but during the great famine, Liu Shaoqi used a sentence to convince Mao Zedong to stop his crazy actions.
Liu Shaoqi told Mao Zedong that: “People who eat each other must be recorded in books,” meaning that “the great famine caused people to eat each other, the great famine has reached such an extent, so this has to be recorded in the book, both you and I (Mao and Liu) have to write it down.”
After listening to this, Mao Zedong stopped the frenzied “Great Leap Forward.” Even the lawless and arrogant like Mao Zedong fear history and care about their own reputation.
Therefore, in terms of historical records: China has a complete historical system and consistent writing throughout thousands of years; the Chinese aspire to establish a ‘unified’ dynasty, with the spirit of ancestor worship and historical respect, etc., all made the history of 5000 years of China uninterrupted.
Continuous historical records for 5000 years have helped China to preserve the quintessence of civilization since ancient times, which shows the vital role of history.
However, each person or era benefits from history more or less differently depending on their starting point, purpose, and motivation for historical research. For example, the Chinese Communist Party also actively researches history. Still, its purpose is not to find out the true face of history but in the hope of finding historical data to prove and defend the legitimacy of its communist regime.
Furthermore, if one studies history only focusing on trifling historical facts, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if we ignore the “big history” or the “whole picture,” which is the great historical perspective, we may miss out on something fundamental in history.
Many generations of Chinese historians in ancient times aspired to be like Sima Qian (206 BC-AD 220): “Study the relationship between God and people, understand the changes from ancient times to today, and establish their own historical perspective,” then, from history filtering out a spiritual essence to inherit. That noble spirit has helped achieve the glorious 5000 years of Chinese civilization.
Reference: “History of Chinese Civilisation” – series of lectures by Professor Zhang Tianliang on Land of Hope TV.