This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
The rise of the Middle Land
A Qin strongman unites China’s warring states (c3000–221 BC)
The Chinese call their country Zhongguo, the Middle Land. Originally that meant the Yellow river plain, and our journey – filming my forthcoming series on Chinese history – began there at a Henan temple fair with a million people celebrating Nu Wa, the prehistoric mother goddess who made the Chinese people out of the yellow mud. “We are all brothers and sisters,” one pilgrim told us, echoing DNA discoveries that claim that over a third of all Han Chinese males share just three ancestors only 5,000 years ago (if so, they really are the world’s biggest tribe!)
We also visited the great archaeological discoveries at Erlitou and Anyang, capital of the first great dynasty, the Shang (c1575–1046 BC) with whom many of the great themes of Chinese culture emerge – along with the script still used today. In 1046 BC, the Shang fell to the Zhou, who laid down the idea of the Mandate of Heaven, a conception of moral rulership codified by Confucius in the sixth century BC. But China was still divided into many small states – it could have ended up like Europe but for the ruthless Qin emperor Qin Shi Huang, who in 221 BC created China’s first centralised bureaucratic state by force. That tension between the humanistic and the autocratic is one of the burdens of China’s history.
So our big themes emerge: writing and ritual as sources of power; the Mandate of Heaven; and the importance of family and reverence for ancestors, seen in a moving scene with the Ching family of Wuxi on Tomb Sweeping Day, a festival in which millions offer prayers to their forebears. “Our family goes back a thousand years,” said one old man, “and huge changes have happened to us. Now everybody is asking: what are our roots?” Today everyone in China is asking the same question.
When China opened its arms to the world (AD 618-907)
Ask Chinese people their favourite period and most will say the Tang: an age of political, cultural and commercial greatness, when China went out to the world along the Silk Roads. It also welcomed foreigners, and their ideas and religions – including Christianity. (Just imagine a Daoist mission being received in Dark Age Winchester!)
To really open up to another civilisation requires humility, curiosity and breadth of spirit, and the Chinese had that confidence in the Tang. Another great theme is a new reflective spirit in literature. This was the time of China’s best-loved poets, as we saw in a school near Luoyang when effervescent kids took us through a poem by the eighth-century writer Du Fu about the tragedies of his time.
The Song Renaissance
A golden age of restaurants, football, printing and the Chinese Leonardo (960–1279)
If I could go back to one time and place it would be the world depicted on the great Kaifeng Qingming Scroll from the 1120s. Don’t think of Chinese history as immemorial stability. The opposite is true: it is cycles of destruction and creation. After the fall of the Tang, China fragmented into 16 dynasties in five decades before the glories of the Song.
Song Kaifeng was perhaps the greatest city in the world before the 19th century. It’s not on the main tourist routes but it’s been one of my favourite places since I first went in the 80s. In the alleys are Daoist and Buddhist temples, Christian churches, and women-only mosques; not to mention the last Chinese Jewish community. It had the world’s first great restaurant culture (we shot a Chinese baking competition there with a Song cookbook). They even had football, with clubs, rulebooks, fans – and music.
Long before the Renaissance in the west they had printing, paper money, coke smelting, gunpowder, the magnetic compass, water-driven spinning machines, the endless chain drive mechanism, and the famous astronomical clock built by Su Sung, the Chinese Leonardo.
That’s what makes the Song so exciting, from their debates about good governance to their ideas about the good life, and from their arts to their staggering advances in science.
So why didn’t China become the first modern civilisation, before the west? Foreign invasion played a big part. The fall of Kaifeng to northern barbarians in 1127 was a huge blow. Then the Mongols overthrew the Southern Song in the 1270s, at around the time when Marco Polo described the wonders of Hangzhou. The experience of defeat would haunt them.
The dynasty that gaveus the Forbidden City and Great Wall (1368–1644)
The Forbidden City, the Great Wall, fabulous ceramics: the Ming is how we see historic China. The Ming came out of the shock of Mongol occupation and the civil wars of the 1350s. The founder, Zhu Yuanzhang, was born a peasant, lived as a penniless beggar and wandering monk, but became one of China’s greatest rulers.
It’s a tale of three cities: first Zhu’s splendid capital, Nanjing; then Beijing, the new capital of the usurper Yongle who built the Forbidden City. Yongle wanted to show China to the world and sent the admiral Zheng He to east Africa and the Persian Gulf in giant ships (we filmed the construction of a spectacular full-sized replica in Nanjing).
The third city is Suzhou, the Chinese counterpart to Renaissance Florence, where a rising urban middle class demanded fashion, gardens, theatre and novels. To coin a phrase, if you were tired of Suzhou you were tired of life! But in 1644 the declining and over centralised Ming state fell to the Manchus, China’s last dynasty.
The Great Qing
From world’s greatest empire to “crazy old man of war” (1644–1911)
The Qing dynasty is often seen as a time of decline, but in many ways the 18th century was a brilliant epoch. After the horrors of their conquest, the Manchus restored order, setting out to be more Chinese than the Chinese. Three great emperors reigned between 1661 and 1820; and the first, Kangxi, was one of the greatest in Chinese history. The Qing took control of Xinjiang, Mongolia and Tibet, doubling the size of the empire.
China then was still the greatest and most populous empire on Earth, and by far the biggest market. New wave Qing historians talk now of a diversified economy, and even aspects of what we might call civil society: guilds, cultural clubs, banks, charities, newspapers, even ‘public opinion’ – all features of Enlightenment states in Europe. It was a time of great cultural projects.
Far from the capital, the city of Yangzhou was a centre of printing, painting, novels and theatre; there Kangxi sponsored the printing of the Complete Tang poems (over 48,000 of them!) And then there’s the ‘novel of the millennium’, The Dream of the Red Chamber, an 18th‑century family saga – magical realism long before Marquez or Rushdie. One autumn day in a bar by Beijing’s North Lake a young electro musician with henna’d hair spoke of China’s best-loved book with a smile: “It’s really about the eternal verities: love – and freedom!”
Into this world in 1793 came the British. Ambassador Macartney summed up his hosts with breezy self-assurance and a nautical metaphor: “The Chinese empire,” he said was “a crazy old man of war… which may drift for a while yet, but can never be rebuilt on the same bottom.” China was about to be overtaken.
Jaw-dropping cruelty and success (1911–2015)
In the mid-19th century, China was shaken by a cataclysmic war, the Taiping Rebellion, in which 20 million died. We followed the story into the villages of Thistle Mountain in Guangxi where it all began. The Qing won, but at a price. The imperial system was now in crisis. New ideas flooded in, from naval technology and railways to democracy, feminism and socialism.
Terminally rocked by the Boxer rising (partly motivated by opposition to foreign interference), the empire fell in 1911 and China became a republic. It was on the winning side in the First World War, but the gross injustice of Versailles sparked new upheavals. Was the way forward western or Chinese? A reformed Confucianism, liberal democracy, or Marxist-Leninism?
That the communists won out was really an accident of history: it was the Japanese invasion that turned them into a liberation movement. But the stark truth is that all the 20th century’s Marxist-Leninist states were tyrannies, and Mao’s regime was no exception.
Recently historians have exposed the disasters of Maoism, especially the Great Famine in which tens of millions died, the largest man-made catastrophe in Chinese history. Yet the party held on to power, and though moves to political reform were put on hold after 1989, its economic achievements since have been jaw-dropping.
Modern China faces great challenges – not just economic, but social and political: the rule of law; the representation of the people; the safety of the food chain; the despoiled environment. But the Chinese have been through many ups and downs, and possess incredibly rich resources in culture and civilisation going back millennia. And as always, in the end, the Mandate of Heaven is theirs to bestow.
Michael Wood is professor of public history at the University of Manchester. He has recorded over 100 documentary films on history. Wood’s six-part series The Story of China aired on BBC Two in early 2016.