Why was China never wiped out like all the other ancient civilizations?
On China Being the Only Continuous Civilization
China was able to rise and fall many times whereas the ancient Egyptian civilization, the Roman Empire, and the Great British Empire are all“dead”. Why China will not collapse?

Wen Yang
Researcher with the China Institute, Fudan University, and Author of The Logic of Civilization: The Interaction and Evolution of Chinese and Western Civilization.

Mr. Rogers raised his question on a long, civilizational timescale, stretched across six millennia. He mentioned the ancient Egyptian civilization, the Roman Empire, and the Great British Empire. So, we’d better start with a brief outline of the world history.

By the 4th millennium BC, the Egyptian civilization on the banks of the Nile and the Sumerian civilization in the Mesopotamian valley had both reached the height of their glory, and around the same time, the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete also flourished. Although these civilizations seem to be developed independently, their life cycles follow a similar pattern: they reach their pinnacles, then collapse and disappear altogether, after being invaded and conquered by outsiders.

Why did those great civilizations, fail to rise again and die out soon after?

If an immortal spaceman were to look down on the Eastern Mediterranean region from space at this time, he would notice that while most human groups in this region were hunters and gatherers, following food sources, constantly on the move, living a nomadic lifestyle. In his bird’s view, the ancient Egyptian, Sumerian and Minoan civilizations, which developed into complex settled societies, were the outliers

The invention of solar and lunar calendars in ancient Egypt, the construction of large cities and sophisticated irrigation systems in ancient Sumer, and the building of great palaces and road networks on the ancient island of Crete are typical signs of long-term settlement. But for a long time these civilizations were isolated and vulnerable, like small islands in the high sea, in danger of being swallowed up by the raging waves: the invasion of the nomadic peoples.

As the well-known English historian H.G.Wells puts it:

The two ways of life specialized in opposite directions. It was inevitable that nomad folk and the settled folk should clash, that the nomads should seem hard barbarians to the settled peoples, and the settled peoples soft and effeminate and very good plunder to the nomad peoples. Along the fringes of the developing civilizations there must have been a constant raiding and bickering between hardy nomad tribes and mountain tribes and the more numerous and less warlike peoples in the towns and villages.

Between 2278 and 2154 BC, Gutian hordes invaded the Akkadian Empire, bringing an end to an existing civilization without building another in its place. Between 1790 and 1560 BC, the Hittites built an empire in Asia Minor, the ancient Babylonian Empire had lost most of its holdings to the south and east. The ancient power centers of Sumer were thus largely destroyed and abandoned. Between 1782 and 1630 BC, the wandering Western Semites seized the throne of Egypt and destroyed the Middle Kingdom. Between 1400 and 1200 BC, the palace at Cnossos was destroyed, never rebuilt, and left deserted. And finally, sometime around 1177 BC, the most murderous warriors known as the “Sea Peoples” sailed to destroy the established world and start a new one. With their great migration as well came the downfall of ancient Egypt. The Egyptian inscriptions read in part: “They came from the sea in their warships, and no one could stand against them. Resistance was futile, their palaces were burned, and their cities distorted.

This is the history of the eastern Mediterranean area as a whole, it is the triumph of the nomad folks, the devastating conquest upon settled folks one after another. But one could imagine: what if the settled folks won?  If, at some “critical point”, a society of sedentary people not only had a larger population and more land, but had also become well organized, well equipped, educated and trained, and thus strong enough not only to defend their homes, but also to fight back against the nomads and take their base camps, the main historical narrative would have been very different.

Now, if our immortal “spaceman” were to look down on the east end of the Eurasia continent, he would see that in the same historical period, contrary to what happened in the Eastern Mediterranean area, the story in China is the success of the settled folks, who assimilated and integrated with the nomad folks, and followed by the ceaseless expansion of the sedentary civilization.

We see that the Middle East and East Asia followed two distinct evolutionary paths.

In the Middle East, the nomad folks conquered the entire settled folk’s society, and then rebuilt a new society while retaining the nomad tradition on the ruins of the original civilization. In East Asia, through constant resistance and counter-conquest, the settled folks eventually extended the entire settled society to a larger area, and although it would also be ruled by powerful nomadic folks from time to time, the new society still retained the tradition of sedentary civilization in essence.

Mr. Rogers also asked why the Roman Empire and the British Empire became number one for a single period of history and then never recovered after their decline. In fact, the Arab Empire in the 7th-10th  century, the Mongol Empire in the 13th-14th century, and the Ottoman Empire in the 16th-19th centuries, were all the same, they never resurrected after their collapse.

Well, the fundamental reason is this. These empires were all nomadic dominated empires, their rulers were either horse-riding nomads, or camel-riding nomads, or ship-riding nomads, and although the nomadic rulers also learned many cultural establishments and refined arts from the conquered and gradually became part of the civilization, they all follow the same pattern of rise and fall: it begins with the unity upon kindred nomad tribes, then reaching their heyday in the war of conquest and settle down on the conquered land, then at a point in time quickly fall apart after the failure of the fresh overseas adventurers, or the failure of internal ethnic assimilation and cultural integration, or both.

Take the Roman Empire as an example. The barbarian tribes that destroyed the Eastern Mediterranean civilizations were in fact the very creators of the ancient Greco-Roman civilization. Before the establishment of Alexander the Great’s empire, the Celtic barbarians from Gaul entered Rome. 100 years later, Rome unified the Italian peninsula, and 200 years later, the Mediterranean Sea, became a Roman lake. Under such circumstances, the new civilization not only took over all the settled lands of the old civilization, but also constituted a larger and more complex structure of settled society, in which it was no longer possible to revive the old civilizations of ancient Babylon, ancient Persia, and ancient Greece. But as the Roman Empire ran out of foreign settled societies to conquer, and its internal corruption grew, when its northern borders were invaded by the more powerful and ferocious Germanic barbarians, its downfall was inevitable

The rise and fall of the British Empire followed the same pattern. The seafaring pirate people from British islands, having mastered advanced navigation and weaponry, conquered many settled societies on different continents and built a vast empire on which “the sun never sets”. However, when there was no new settled society to conquer, and more powerful rivals arose, it could not escape the same fate as other nomadic-dominated empires.

Now let’s turn to China.

One conclusion among the Western scholars is that Chinese civilization doesn’t seem to have a beginning. As Dr. Henry Kissinger put it in his book: “China…… strides into the historical consciousness as an established state requiring only restoration, not creation.” Of course, the Chinese civilization has its beginning, but it is not a beginning with some kind of victorious conquest which is more familiar with nomad folks, it is a decisive victory of settled folks who achieved solid unity of kindred villages and towns. From Xuan Yuan the Yellow Emperor to Da Yu the King of Xia in the third Millennium BC, all of the legendary founding rulers of China were reestablishing, not creating, an empire of settled society. Each of these founding rulers made a unique contribution to the progress of settlement, not only in terms of cultural integration and ethnic assimilation, but also in terms of the periodic expansion of territory and population.

Da Yu becoming the ruler of the Xia Dynasty was a landmark event in history. In those ancient times, when great floods were common, people in other parts of the world had only two choices: to be swallowed up by the flood or to flee far away from it. But Chinese people and only Chinese people saw a third option: To rely on human power to level the land and divert the water. A chosen king with a high moral standard managed to unite all kindred lords, gather massive human and material resources in his kingdom to complete this huge engineering project of flood control, and from then on, the settlement of the Chinese people was permanently fixed in the form of “nine states”, which have not changed for 4000 years since then.

Through large-scale water management projects, early Chinese sedentary societies greatly expanded their boundaries and effectively raised their “critical point” of survival from destruction by surrounding nomadic societies. Ancient Chinese texts gave different names to the nomad folks in the directions of south, north, east, and west, showing that by this time China’s sedentary agricultural society had already expanded into an almost circular territory centered in the middle and lower plain of the Yellow River, squeezing all the nomadic tribes into the remote surrounding area. This is why China came to be known as the ‘Central Kingdom’, although its size was sometimes larger and sometimes smaller.

Mr. Rogers realizes that China has fallen many times in history, there have been many periods of civil war, interregnum, and chaos in Chinese history. These periods he refers to are no other than the similar dark ages when China, as an agricultural society of settled folk, was overtaken by nomad folk. Around the same time as when the Germanic barbarian invaded Roman Empire, quite a few wandering tribes living in northern China, known collectively as the “Five Hus”, finally became strong enough to break through the defense boundaries of northern China. However, unlike the Roman Empire, which completely collapsed under the attacks and could not be rebuilt, the “Five Hus” entered China and embraced the Chinese culture based on sedentary civilization and became part of the new “Central Kingdom”. After centuries of great integration, the great empires of the Sui and Tang dynasties, as a reconstruction of the Qin and Han dynasties, encompassed more peoples, covered larger territories, and reached higher cultural peaks.

Then history repeated itself. In the 13th century the Mongol Empire, the greatest steppe empire in human history, rose almost overnight, sweeping over much of the known world, including all of China. But unlike the rest of the world, the Mongol dynasty that was established in the land of the “Central Kingdom” once again out of their own tradition, it was not a nomadic Mongol empire any more, but to a great extent a copy of the Qin and Han sedentary kingdoms. In the case of China, although the rulers were replaced by foreigners, its own cultural sphere actually expanded into the rulers’ homelands. Furthermore, because of the ever-elevating ‘critical point’ of survival, after each collapse, as if by law of nature, the Chinese state has increased its capacity to rebuild itself.

The great unification of the Ming and Qing dynasties from the 15th to the 18th century was a repetition of history – encompassing more peoples, covering a larger territory, and reaching a higher cultural peak. At this point, I believe I have answered Mr. Rogers’ question in a very comprehensive way.

So, knowing all this, how should we understand the world as it is today?

First, we need to recognize that the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation today is still with its uniqueness and cannot be compared to or predicted by the rise and fall of other empires in history. Comparing China to Germany and Japan in recent history or see China as an emerging superpower that threatens existing world order, are misleading if not incorrect.

The historical process of China from its decline to its rejuvenation since the late days of the Qing Dynasty can still be seen as a repetition of history, that is, the rejuvenation of its own tradition and the gradual creation of a new civilization by absorbing elements from different civilizations. This is the unique characteristic of Chinese civilization, and the fundamental reason why it became the most continuous and successful settled civilization in the world.

On a global scale, since the end of the 19th century, with stronger sovereignty of nation-states,  tighter border controls and increasing urbanization, the phenomenon of great migration of ethnic groups, has gradually disappeared, while the population of settled societies has increased dramatically. Compared to most times of human history, we can say that the world today is a globally settled world. There are no longer an entire society of horse-riding, or camel-riding or boat-riding people.

If we take an outline of wo rld history and regard the European colonial and imperialist wars of  conquest in the 17th to 19th centuries as the last great victory of nomad folk over settled folk in the recent six millennia, then the flourishing of sedentary societies throughout the world since the 20th century, especially since the end of the Second World War, means that sedentary civilization has finally dominated the globe and that we have reached some kind of the “end of history”.

Now we are entering a new era, the era of global sedentarization, in which all countries in the world are facing new challenges. Why are there more and more internal conflicts in Western countries? Why has China continuously proposed global initiatives – BRI, Building a Community with a shared future of mankind, GSI, GDI, GCI? The answers lie in the historical perspective described above.

Kris Yang