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February 14, 2007


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Thanks for a great and thoughtful clarification to this tricky historiographical problem.

Koreans also claim 5000 years, even though their creation myth gives 2333 BC as the year Old Joseon was founded. They simply round-up from 4310 to 5000.

That the first written documentation of that creation myth comes from the 13th Century AD doesn't seem to matter to anyone.

Chinese sources indicate a state named Joseon around the 7th Century BC. So echoing you, I'd have to say that although it may not be polite to say in the presence of Korean nationalists--and what Korean isn't a nationalist?--2600 years is more like it.

I skimmed through a book out of Harvard Press by a Korean-American Archeologist which put the date at 300 a.d., which would give the Korean 1,700 years. This was based upon Chinese records of Kija. I have been looking for the book ever since and cannot locate it even on Amazon. Believe the title was "deconstructing Korean origins" or somesuch.

Nice and succinct summary of your case on the Chinese. Were we in the west to adopt some of the criteria used here, I suppose we could date Western nations back to ancient Greece. (Though I'd opt for the Celts myself.)

What I'd like to know is when they first started to claim 5000 years, and why they didn't start counting up - i.e. the following year they would update it to 5001 years. Every year that goes by that they continue to claim 5000 years, they're doing themselves out of some more history!

A commenter over at The Peking Duck suggested the 5000 year thing is a Jiang Zemin era emphasis, which seems about right to me. But I would add that that timing further suggests that it is all about reconstituting regime legitimacy away from Marxist ideology and toward neo-traditionalism. Why would a Marxist want to venerate "feudal" society?

"What I'd like to know is when they first started to claim 5000 years, and why they didn't start counting up - i.e. the following year they would update it to 5001 years."

There were a number of anti-Manchu reformers in the late Qing who pushed for the use of a dating system that began with the Yellow Emperor. They even used this dating system in some of their periodicals.

Dear Sam,

I've been reading your blog almost since the beginning but this is the first time I post a comment here (I think...). Your site is for me a source of inspiration on many subjects.

In this particular case, a "Chinese historical timeline", are you and the others tagging an "origin" to "written records"? Also, why the emphasis on "chineseness" as we know it (or we believe to know it)? There has obviously been people living in the region from time immemorial and if we tag migrations, people were walking across the Bering Strait during the last Ice Age.

The oldest bronze vessels found in the region are 3200 years old. And that from an age where they dominated metal working and moulding to a level that is hard to emulate with "modern" technology. That means that they didn't wake up one day and found the molds and the instructions on how to do it; it was a long evolutionary process. And we are talking about metal working. You can, obviously, go much further down that point in history. However, here we are trying to define "Chineseness" from a perspective based on contemporary markers while foregoing the most important variable in the equation: the people that has inhabited the region, and thus evolved into what we know today, for quite a few millennia more than the hypothetical 5000 years.

In any case, I'm far, far from a historian, even a casual one, and my thoughts are based on what I (emphasis on "I") consider a logical observation. However, I would point you to some discussions in the Chinese History Forum, link below. One can spend days in there...

My best wishes to all,


Thanks for the comment. I refer to "Chinese-ness" because that is what is put forward by those who make the 5000 years argument. They are saying "5000 years of Chinese civilization." (I have a coffee mug in my office with this saying on one side and a picture of a smiling Deng Xiaoping on the other). They are suggesting an essential historical continuity which plays into a narrative of national greatness that serves only to stoke conteporary nationalist passions. I am generally anti-nationalist of all sorts. And I think that this kind of focus distorts our historical understandings. So, I agree with you. We should not worry about "Chinese-ness," because that is a modern idea (or it is fundamentally shaped by modern ideas). But as long as nationalists are making the claim, we should counter with critique.
Thanks again for the comment.

Dear Sam,

Thanks for replying. I realize now, and understand, what the drive is behind the critique and I must humbly agree with you.

(I have a coffee mug in my office ,with this saying on one side and a picture of a smiling Deng Xiaoping on the other).

I hope you use that one to hold pens, quills and brushes... Surely, such a picture must be able to sour the strongest coffee.

My best wishes,


I'm about to post to a six-month old entry. My 2-cents worth.

I don't think that identifiable Chineseness really has anything to do with it. The question should be, how far back does Chinese history go? That forces us to ask, 'What is history?'

In the old days, history was the era before written records. Now we're not so sure. People have challenged the cut-off point; civilisation quite clearly existed before conventional 'history' started. This goes equally for Egypt, Europe, and the Middle East as it does for China.

To be honest, I think it's all irrelevant. "5,000 years of history" is a political and cultural statement that has little to do with the facts. It's another way the Chinese have of asserting their national pride, verging on national superiority.

Some might argue, "Don't challenge their beliefs, it's not worth spoiling a cocktail party over". But in another sense it's insulting when Chinese parade such notions of superiority in other people's faces. The myth of 5,000 years of history is not some innocuous little belief; it is part of an edifice of self-serving beliefs including Zhonghua Minzu (ideology of a modern "prison of nations"), China as a "non-aggressive, peace-loving nation", etc. (My favourite recent discovery in this regard is the Qing-dynasty belief, which had been gaining credence in China for some time but was put in writing by the scholar Ruan Yuan, that all Western sciences were of Chinese origin.)

Have I overstepped the line? Yes, I'm sure Chinese friends will bridle at this declaration. But ideologies of nationalism, like that in pre-war Japan, almost always end in grief. If you become too steeped in the Chinese version of history you become like the protagonist in the old H. G. Wells short story "Country of the Blind". You end up letting people convince you that having your eyes removed is for your own good....

That should have read, "History was the era after the start of written records".

Rereading my post, I suspect I sound incoherent. My point in the first section is that if China wants to use its own particular criteria to claim 5,000 years, then other civilisations can extend their history back even further.

The Egyptian pyramids were built around the time of the Yellow Emperor. That means Egypt can claim a lot more history again, because the technology to build pyramids didn't suddenly emerge fully-formed from the earth.

The Ice Man who was found in a glacier in Switzerland was also obviously civilised, even though he was "prehistoric".

In my view, the cause is a peculiar Chinese 'imperialism over the terrain of history'. By making 'ambit claims' on the length of their history, the Chinese are trying to occupy the commanding heights of the past so that they can look down on other people in the present.

You are perfectly coherent, and you have a strong anti-nationalist streak, something I understand and share. I might add to your observations the point that the state plays a particular role in the nationalization of history. In China, since Marxism has declined as a legitimizing ideology, the Party has opened itself to a kind of neo-traditionalism, and for that project "history" has to serve certain political ends and interests. I'm sure you have seen the same thing among conservatives in Japan...

Yes, there was an article concerning this very topic in the Far Eastern Economic Review some years ago (late 90s-early 2000s), before the Mainland government pulled the plug on it (it was obviously discomforting to have Westerners putting forth in-depth analysis of China from their own Special Administrative Region). The article looked at the government-sponsored project to officially recognise and periodise the Shang and Xia eras. Drawing on my admittedly hazy memories, the method was to accept the 5,000 year chronological framework and then arbitrarily assign the imperial reigns to fit, without waiting for archaeological proof. Foreign scrutiny was not welcome.

The article was:

Far Eastern Economic Review. "China: Nationalism Digging into the Future", July 20, 2000, by Bruce Gilley.

I'm sure you've heard of it.

5000 years and still didnt learn to have some manners? (-____-)
Besides, Korea claims to have 6000 years of history. Who is next to claim having a 7000 years history?

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