Over several millennia, China absorbed the people of surrounding areas into its own civilization while adopting the more useful institutions and innovations of the conquered people. Peoples on China’s peripheries were attracted by such achievements as its early and well-developed ideographic written language, technological developments, and social and political institutions. The refinement of the Chinese people’s artistic talent and their intellectual creativity, plus the sheer weight of their numbers, has long made China’s civilization predominant in East Asia. The process of assimilation continued over the centuries through conquest and colonization until the core territory of China was brought under unified rule.
The Chinese polity was first consolidated and proclaimed an empire during the Qin Dynasty (221–206 B.C.). Although short-lived, the Qin Dynasty set in place lasting unifying structures, such as standardized legal codes, bureaucratic procedures, forms of writing, coinage, and a pattern of thought and scholarship. These were modified and improved upon by the successor Han Dynasty Library of Congress – Federal Research Division Country Profile: China, August 2006 (206 B.C.–A.D. 220). Under the Han, a combination of the stricter Legalism and the more benevolent, human-centered Confucianism—known as Han Confucianism or State Confucianism—became the ruling norm in Chinese culture for the next 2,000 years. Thus, the Chinese marked the cultures of people beyond their borders, especially those of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.
Another recurrent historical theme has been the unceasing struggle of the largely agrarian Chinese against the threat posed to their safety and way of life by non-Chinese peoples on the margins of their territory. For centuries most of the foreigners that China’s officials saw came from or through the Central and Inner Asian societies to the north and west. This circumstance conditioned the Chinese view of the outside world. The Chinese saw their domain as the selfsufficient center of the universe, and from this image they derived the traditional (and still used) Chinese name for their country—Zhongguo, literally Middle Kingdom or Central Nation. Those at the center (zhong) of civilization (as they knew it) distinguished themselves from the “barbarian” peoples on the outside (wai), whose cultures were presumed to be inferior by Chinese standards. For centuries, China faced periodic invasions from Central and Inner Asia—including major incursions in the twelfth century by the Khitan and the Jurchen, in the thirteenth century by the Mongols, and in the seventeenth century by the Manchu, all of whom left an imprint on Chinese civilization while heightening Chinese perceptions of threat from the north.
Starting in the pre-Qin period, Chinese states built large defensive walls that, in time, composed a “Great Wall.” The Great Wall is actually a series of noncontiguous walls, forts, and other defensive structures built or rebuilt during the Qin, Han, Sui (A.D. 589–618), Jin (1115–1234), and Ming (1368–1643) periods, rather than a single, continuous wall. The Great Wall reached from the coast of Hebei Province to northwestern Gansu, officially 6,000 kilometers in length, although unofficial estimates range from 2,700 kilometers to as many as 50,000 kilometers, depending on which structures are included in the measurement.
The Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1279) dynasties represented high points of Chinese cultural development and interaction with distant foreign lands. The Yuan, or Mongol, Dynasty (1279–1368) was a period of foreign occupation but of even greater interaction with other cultures.
Despite these periods of openness, which brought occasional Middle Eastern
and European envoys and missionaries, the China-centered (“sinocentric”)
view of the world remained largely undisturbed until the nineteenth century
when China first clashed with the European nations. The
Manchu had conquered China and established the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), ushering in a period of great conquest and a long period of relative peace. When Europeans began arriving in increasing numbers, Chinese courtiers expected them to conduct themselves according to traditional tributary relations that had evolved over the centuries between their emperor and representatives of Central Asian states who came via the Silk Road and others who came from Southeast Asia and the Middle East via the sea trade. The Western powers arrived in China in full force at a time of tremendous internal rebellion and rapid economic and social change. By the mid-nineteenth century, China had been defeated militarily by superior Western technology and weaponry, and the government was plagued with ever mounting rebellions. As it faced dynastic breakdown and imminent territorial dismemberment, China began to reassess its position with respect to its own internal development and the Western incursions. By 1911 the millennia-old dynastic system of imperial government was hastily toppled as a result of the efforts of a half century of reform, modernization, and, ultimately, revolution.