The six ages of China

From Ming dynasty to Mao, Michael Wood explores the country's six great eras to reveal what has made its civilisation so utterly distinctive, and so fascinating, for so long...

Clay soldier statues of the Chinese Qin dynasty. (Photo by Getty Images)
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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.

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