My purpose in this book is to narrate the long history of China within the larger context of world history. At each step along the way, I will try to address these questions: How has the development of Chinese civilization compared with contemporaneous civilizations elsewhere in the world? What has China shared with other civilizations, and what are the unique or distinctive traits of Chinese civilization? What is the history of China’s relations with cultures and peoples beyond its borders? How have foreign peoples—merchants, diplomats, missionaries, and soldiers—affected the development of Chinese civilization? What have been the most important changes and continuities in China’s long history?
Today we think of China as the world’s oldest continuous civilization. An identifiable and sophisticated Chinese culture emerged by 1500 BCE and has shown remarkable continuity in its language, cultural values, and social and political organization over the past three and a half millennia. A major question in the study of China is how such remarkable linguistic, political, and cultural continuity could be maintained for so long over such a large area. Why was China, alone among the early human civilizations, able to sustain political, cultural, and linguistic unity and continuity over an entire subcontinent through a period of three thousand years without the benefit of modern industrial technology?
Jared Diamond has noted that all the great civilizations except China’s have been melting pots of many divergent peoples, languages, and cultures. And he insightfully adds that China began its early history as “an ancient melting pot.”1 That is, the area that defines China today began with a multiplicity of peoples, languages, cultures, and ethnicities, which, beginning in the second millennium BCE, came to be conquered, dominated, absorbed, marginalized, or pushed away by the Han Chinese people, who around 1500 BCE formed a sophisticated civilization with Chinese writing, bronze technology, an efficient and productive agriculture supporting large walled cities and towns, and powerful armies with crossbows, bronze spears, and horse-drawn chariots.
The distinctive patterns of Chinese social, economic, and cultural life have been profoundly influenced by the geographical setting of the East