Mark’s History of China, part 1: from the Paleolithic to the last emperors

Beginnings and unification 

The word ‘China’ is not used by the Chinese themselves, but was coined by the Indians. The Chinese call their country Zhōngguó (中国), meaning “central state”). Close to a million years ago, Peking man lived and used fire near today’s Beijing. Then Homo Sapiens moved in by 100,000 years ago, and started writing things down around 7,000 years ago, when Europeans could just about manage a spear point from antlers. At 2,000 BC, the Chinese had a feudal national culture that gradually united. During the worst wars, the brightest thinkers lived, wrote blistering poetry and founded Confucianism and Daoism.

In 221 BC, 38-year-old Ying Zheng became the first emperor of a united China, and founder of the Qin Dynasty as the wars ended for a while. Ying standardised measurements, weights, writing, and created the Great Wall of China as a unified concept. He built a lot of roads and burnt a lot of books. He buried 460 scholars alive for hanging on to old books which he’d wanted destroyed. He then had a vanity terracotta army of almost 10,000 life-size men and horses built to help him out after his death (at 50). He stamped out coup plotters by executing them, and their families, ‘to the third degree’, which sounds ominous indeed. He had a weakness for musicians, though; when they changed allegiance, he just had their eyes gouged out. One angry blind lute player tried to kill the emperor with his instrument, made more deadly with lead in the fretboard. But, being blind, he missed of course, and the emperor made an exception and had him flayed alive.

The first emperor became obsessed with immortality and sent hundreds of elixir hunters to find him the magic drink. None of them came back, so his court alchemists had a go and started feeding him mercury. That swiftly killed him, and by then, the people had got quite enough of all the laborious building projects and executions, so the empire was taken over by the Han dynasty just three years after Ying Zheng died, and they have been in charge for most of the time since then. Today the Han Chinese make up about 92% of the population. Back in the day, they were the Romans of the Orient, ruling an empire of about the same size and population as the Caesars did.


Everybody knows how inventive the Chinese have been: paper, ink, printing, gunpowder, bombard weapons, porcelain, lacquer, bricks, banknotes, brandy, the umbrella, the toothbrush, the compass, civil servant exams, crossbows, footballs, tofu, oils wells, pipelines, sunglasses, tea, toilet paper, and envelopes were all thought up in China, alongside a global wish list of agricultural innovations. The Chinese already had gaslight around 500 BC, and internal-combustion rocket propulsion was up and working in 1264! 

Two interesting emperors 

Since Ying Zheng unified the country, a dozen dynasties have led us to the current day. 7th-century Wu Zetian, an ex-concubine, was the only female emperor China ever had, and she had to execute the queen, the queen-mum, and massacre fifteen branches of the imperial family to eliminate rivals to her throne. Running China from her mid-thirties onward, she strangled her own infant daughter, framing a rival for her death. Throughout Chinese history, enforced suicide has been the standard way of removing opponents. Wu Zetian had these suicides take place in front of her, just to be absolutely sure. China expanded and thrived under her rule, and she held on to the throne until she was 79.

Often, the last emperor of a dynasty would be the savage brute, obsessed with concubines, booze, and cruelty. Before his fifteen-year reign of misery, third-century Sun Hao had already driven just about everyone close to him to suicide. After that, he had people he did not like punished by gouging out their eyes and peeling off their facial skin. Others he beheaded with a red-hot saw, and he organised entire execution festivals where his opponents and their extended families were painfully dispatched. When his faithful senior minister suffered a stroke and became paralysed, Sun did not believe him and had him whipped, burnt, and cut into pieces, and then exiled his entire clan. When any man in his surroundings wanted to marry, he inspected the bride-to-be first and if he liked her enough, she would be his concubine instead.

He was deeply into prophecies and moved his capital, as well as his court, over 500 km to another city and back again, just to outwit omens. Yet he was totally deaf to competent advice. When millions of wood shavings floated down the Yangtze, his generals understood that somebody was building a war fleet upstream, but Sun wanted none of it and focused on nude dancers instead. When the hostile navy indeed came, he was captured by the first emperor of the next dynasty, and, despite his atrocious past, pardoned and left to drink and party for six more years until his liver gave out, still only 41 years old. 


Most of the plagues that decimated Europe originated in China, and in the thirteenth century, the bubonic plague killed off 70 million Chinese, about half of the population at the time. This disease is still very much with us: even today, every so often, someone along the former Silk Route contacts the plague in China; one such case was in 2014, one of thousands globally every year.

Almost 500 emperors ruled China over the years, 20% of them overthrowing the previous dynasty to get to the throne. Many of them were brilliant organisers who facilitated China’s stable rise up until the Industrial revolution. But the last three were no match for the many foreign interventions, and this cast their divine right to govern in a questionable light. In these wars, the Chinese armies were beaten ten times  in succession, by Burma (1769), Vietnam (1789), the British (1842), the British, French, and Americans (1860), the Uzbekis (1870), the French again (1885), and the Japanese (1895). Then, more defeat came at the hands of Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary together (1900), followed by Japan once more (1931-1945).

These disasters were bad enough, but there were also many civil wars, where whoever won it; China lost. By far the deadliest conflict in all of world history was one of these; the bloodiest war of all time: forty million dead in the third century AD during the Three Kingdom Wars. That meant that an insane 70% of all Chinese died  a reliable number since censuses were carried out several times per dynasty to get the taxation right. Later, twenty-five million perished between 1618 and 1683. Another national disaster, the Taiping Rebellion, sparked by American Christian missionaries’ leaflets, caused the deaths of twenty million Chinese between 1850-1864. Finally, bookending WWII, eight million gave up the ghost during the last civil war from 1927 until 1952, from which Mao emerged triumphant. So, I can understand that in 1978, Deng Xiaoping decided to concentrate his entire 155 cm on the economy instead, for a change, and this has been China’s focus ever since.

(In the second and final part of Mark’s History of China I will get into Mao and beyond.)