The account of Chinese history here given is based on a study of the original documents and excavations, and on a study of recent research done by Chinese, Japanese and Western scholars, including my own research. In many cases, these recent studies produced new data or arranged new data in a new way without an attempt to draw general conclusions. By putting such studies together, by fitting them into the pattern that already existed, new insights into social and cultural processes have been gained. The specialist in the field will, I hope, easily recognize the sources, primary or secondary, on which such new insights represented in this book are based. Brief notes are appended for each chapter; they indicate the most important works in English and provide the general reader with an opportunity of finding further information on the problems touched on. For the specialist brief hints to international research are given, mainly in cases in which different interpretations have been proposed.
Chinese words are transcribed according to the Wade-Giles system with the exception of names for which already a popular way of transcription exists (such as Peking). Place names are written without hyphen, if they remain readable.
1 Sources for the earliest history
Until recently we were dependent for the beginnings of Chinese history on the written Chinese tradition. According to these sources China’s history began either about 4000 B.C. or about 2700 B.C. with a succession of wise emperors who “invented” the elements of a civilization, such as clothing, the preparation of food, marriage, and a state system; they instructed their people in these things, and so brought China, as early as in the third millennium B.C., to an astonishingly high cultural level. However, all we know of the origin of civilizations makes this of itself entirely improbable; no other civilization in the world originated in any such way. As time went on, Chinese historians found more and more to say about primeval times. All these narratives were collected in the great imperial history that appeared at the beginning of the Manchu epoch. That book was translated into French, and all the works written in Western languages until recent years on Chinese history and civilization have been based in the last resort on that translation.
Modern research has not only demonstrated that all these accounts are inventions of a much later period, but has also shown why such narratives were composed. The older historical sources make no mention of any rulers before 2200 B.C., no mention even of their names. The names of earlier rulers first appear in documents of about 400 B.C.; the deeds attributed to them and the dates assigned to them often do not appear until much later. Secondly, it