Continuity is the most fundamental feature of Chinese civilization. The understanding of the continuity of civilization must begin with the understanding of history.
The outstanding continuity of Chinese civilization is due in part to favorable natural conditions. Similar to other native agrarian civilizations in the Old World, Chinese civilization also emerged from great river basins. Ancient China had well-developed drainage systems and extremely vast areas fit for human habitation. China’s overall irrigated land area far exceeds five million square kilometers. By the end of the Western Han Dynasty, China’s population had rapidly increased to over 60 million, which was remarkable even at the global level.
Chinese civilization was never limited to great river basins, though. The Chinese ancestors left their mark across plains, grasslands, lakes, hills, and mountains. China’s diverse landscape has given rise to a vibrant culture that continues to enhance the material and intellectual experiences of its inhabitants, fostering a spirit of resilience and adaptability in the face of varying environments.
The continuity of Chinese civilization also arises from China’s “cultural roots of over a million years and the beginning of civilization over ten thousand years ago.” Archaeological evidence shows that humans have existed in China for around one million years, entering the Neolithic Age around 10,000 years ago. In the late Neolithic, a large number of prehistoric cultures with unique styles, diverse patterns of development, and strong local characteristics appeared on the Chinese land.
Myriad facts suggest that Chinese civilization is a native civilization with a strong foundation for development. The available data indicates that prehistoric cultures with deeply rooted traditions played a crucial role in nurturing Chinese civilization, a phenomenon that was exceptionally rare in other parts of the world.
Constant interaction, communication, and blending among various ethnic groups have also contributed to the continuity of Chinese civilization. As General Secretary Xi Jinping stated, a history of China is a history of the integration of various ethnic groups into a pluralistic and unified Chinese nation, and the history of a great motherland created, developed, and consolidated by all ethnic groups. The solidarity and integration of various ethnic groups and the convergence of diversity into unity stem from the cultural inclusiveness, economic interdependence, and emotional closeness among groups, as well as from the internal motivation of the Chinese nation to pursue solidarity and unity. This explains why Chinese civilization demonstrates unparalleled inclusiveness and assimilating ability, and why it can persist and thrive.
Continuity can also be attributed to the sustainable development of Chinese culture. The concepts of “culture” and “civilization” differ in that culture is an important foundation and background of civilization, while civilization can regulate cultural behavior and lead cultural development.
The vitality of Chinese culture comes from the extraordinary creations made by the Chinese nation, and the contributions of many sages such as the Duke of Zhou, Confucius, Laozi, and Xunzi. The cultural inheritance system that emerged in China and its impact on society continue to drive Chinese civilization forward.
Another factor contributing to the continuity of Chinese civilization is that the Chinese people attach great importance to history with self-awareness. They place great value on the documentation of historical events, as evidenced by the abundance of historical records that comprise the majority of surviving ancient Chinese texts. These records constitute a unique and vast treasure trove of knowledge and data that preserves the practical experiences of the Chinese ancestors, serving as an important physical testament to Chinese cultural confidence.
Voltaire believed that the Chinese chronicle was the oldest in the world. It is coherent, exhaustive, and written with rigor. Hegel also acknowledged that the Chinese nation had a well-documented history of at least 5,000 years since ancient times, and it was recorded in a continuous, orderly, detailed, and accurate manner.
Both Voltaire and Hegel observed the richness and coherence of Chinese historical records, but neither realized that these records were marked by continuity, let alone that the continuity of historical books is a true reflection of the objective existence and the continuous development of Chinese civilization.
In summary, the outstanding continuity of Chinese civilization is of great value in the history of world civilization. It demonstrates that Chinese civilization possesses distinctive intellectual characteristics, strong vitality, and intrinsic creativity, which enabled it to withstand various external and internal challenges. Given its substantial contributions to the world, Chinese civilization aspires to contribute even further to humanity.
Yang Gongle is Professor and the Director of the Center for Studies of Historical Theory and Historiography of Beijing Normal University.