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A Long and Glorious History

If you’ve spent any amount of time in China, you have probably encountered the phrase “China has a long and glorious history.” In fact, you’ve probably encountered it so many times that you are tempted to roll your eyes when you hear it.

In 2002, Chinese writer Huo Shui wrote a piece for ChinaSource Quarterly titled “Beyond the Shadow of History,” in which he takes an in-depth look at this “long and glorious history” and how it affects the thinking and attitudes of Chinese people today, and provides the context of China’s rise. In the first section of the article, he gives a drive-by summary of Chinese history, from the Xia Dynasty to the present:

Chinese people have often said that China has a long and glorious history. Since the Xia dynasty, when handwriting was first introduced, there have been at least three thousand years of recorded history. As we Chinese look back on this heritage, we cannot help but feel very proud of it.

Indeed, in the perpetual flow of human history China has played a significant role on various occasions. During the Tang and Han dynasties 1,000 and 2,000 years ago respectively, China was the most dominant country in the East. Printing, gunpowder and the compass were invented in China and later exported via the Silk Road to Europe where they were widely used. The Chinese civilization also had a strong influence over Japan, Korea, Vietnam and other Asian nations. More importantly, beginning with the Han dynasty, Confucian thought established itself as the dominant philosophy and paradigm that shaped the foundation of Chinese politics and society for centuries to come.

During the Han dynasty, the centralization of Chinese feudal society achieved a high level. As the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties came and went, this feudal system matured. The unique characteristic of China’s economy during those days of feudalism was that of a self-enclosed and self-sufficient nation. Confucian philosophy provided the moral fabric that laid the foundation for this society and, with the standardization of the Chinese written language, it became the people’s religion. If the Western nations had not developed and risen above the rest of the world in recent centuries, China would probably have continued on her feudal path.

Nevertheless, a long history can become heavy baggage. An excessive centralized feudal system suppressed the vigor of Chinese society and China declined over the last three hundred years. At the same time, Western nations rose via the Renaissance, Industrial Revolution and capitalism. Even Japan joined the Western world as a developed nation after the Meiji Restoration. Suddenly, China discovered that her once formidable empire was no longer. After the 19th century, Western nations, using their military might, forced China to open her doors. Her previous pride and glorious history were replaced by humiliation and pain. The once proud civilization had become history.

The people of China became angry and resentful toward the corruption and incompetence of the Qing dynasty then in power. Many intellectuals realized that something had to be done quickly before China began an even steeper plunge. Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, the most influential of the reformers, attempted a top down political reform. They acquired Western science, technology and military equipment while still maintaining the old centralized feudal system in hopes of restoring China to her previous powerful status. The reform failed. Rather than saving the Qing dynasty, the reform movement of 1898 actually increased the resolve of the Chinese people to overthrow it.

For China, the first half of the 20th century was a bloody one. The Boxer Rebellion, the 1911 Revolution, the Sino-Japanese War and the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists all occurred within this short span of history. By 1949, China’s violent revolutions finally came to an end. Under the Communist Party’s rule a series of political movements followed: the land reform, the Three Against and the Five Against campaigns, the Anti-Rightists campaign, the Great Leap Forward and, finally, the Cultural Revolution.

Then, at the end of the 70s, Deng Xiaoping began a new reform with joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) as one of its main goals. Today, more than 20 years of effort have finally paid off. At this time, when most of the world is in an economic slowdown, China is enjoying a steadily growing economy. China is re-emerging on the world’s center stage as a rising superpower. The sleeping giant has finally wakened.

Now people are asking what the difference is between today’s new China and the old China. What have the Chinese people learned from their own culture during this transition?

Eye-rolling notwithstanding, those of us who are engaged in China need to grasp what this “long and glorious history” means to our Chinese friends and colleagues.

Image credit: Xi'An_2011 05 24_009 by Harvey Barrison, via Flickr.
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio