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China: the longest continuous civilization that has ever existed

Updated on August 31, 2010

In the second millennium BC, the cumulative effects of agriculture and a sudden burst of technological changes gave rise to some of the world’s early civilizations, principally Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley civilizations and China. Of these four, the one with the most longevity was China.

Around 5000 BC, a nomadic dynasty (the Shang) set up the basis for a kingdom which had the power to exert control over the smaller village communities and force them to offer tribute to the Shang.

The combination of the Shang military prowess and the extensive irrigation networks they’d built, set up the foundation for the longest lived continuous civilization that has ever existed. The Shang dynasty and it’s successors planted the seeds for a centralized political system and highly productive agrarian order that has supported approximately 20% of the human race on a consistent basis for most of recorded history.

Chinese civilizations was born of the unification of many village communities that had developed along the Huanghe (AKA the “Yellow River”.) The abundant supplies and rich, fertile soil in areas of the north China plain made it suitable for cultivation and settlement. Another advantage of the area was that it was shielded on the south and the west by mountains, which deterred nomadic tribes from invading via that route. Yet, it was open to trade and migration from the north, which were grass lands. The location was beneficial to the security and growth of the fledgling community.

By 4000 BC, communities supported by sedentary agriculture were spreading all across the region. These growing communities developed in widely spread out complex groups that laid the basis for the Shang dynasty and for Chinese civilization in general. Since the north was open to attack,the constant threat from hostile tribes of nomads forced the people of the China plain to develop defenses and military technologies needed to protect the farmers from invading hoards. They made weapons and engineered defensive walls. Military necessity became the mother of invention.

The locals started as hunters who started supplemented their food supply with limited farming. However, agriculture soon became their primary occupation. Farming made it possible for the people along the Huanghe region to support large and permanent settlements. They developed increasingly elaborate irrigation systems, which were vital to their agrarian base. The next logical step was the development of farming implements. These useful tools, along with the increase in irrigation, allowed these villages to attain higher and higher levels of productivity.

As time went on, hundreds of thousands of Chinese people migrated from the Huanghe to the Shandong peninsula and then to the Yangtze River basin. The Huanghe and the Yangtze River have been the heart and soul of Chinese civilization for thousands of years. Their resources have served the people well. Rivers have always been an important part of the development of society. Often, rivers can be a hazard, such as when flood waters rise, but the Chinese developed the engineering know-how to deal with this problem. They constructed dikes, so they could harness the benefits of the Rivers harmlessly. Again, their environmental need led to a major bit of advancement.

Writing became a key element for the Chinese in developing their identity and advancing their culture. The use of increasingly standardized and sophisticated written characters provided the major social bond that helped a growing number of Chinese people define themselves culturally. The pride they developed about themselves and their culture helped them through the rough times.

But writing had other uses, too. It became the key means of communication between the elite classes of different groups, aiding in negotiation and trade. Writing aided in advancing the knowledge of both science and religion. Further, it provided the basis for the systems of education and bureaucracy that would hold China together through trials and tribulations for the centuries to come.

The Chinese survived nomadic incursions and natural disasters (floods) to go on and profoundly influence the course of history. China devised an amazing share of the machines and pioneering principles that would become a basic part of human advancement. The endurance and longevity of China and its people allowed them time to develop a society that would disseminate its ideas and become an important influence on the world.


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      Turkic 6 years ago

      Chinese are with so many people! I think that is why they are still here

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      Rob 6 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Hi Athu; Glad you found it useful.


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      athu 6 years ago

      thanks 4 givin me such info about china. ur a gud writer!bravo. igot lots of info for my project. once again well written n bravo!

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 7 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Glad you liked it, Good Guy. It is remarkable that such an immense area manages to retain these long held, unifying customs. I guess that's part of the reason they've lasted longer than anyone else.

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      Justin Choo 7 years ago from Malaysia

      A good write-up. Being a Chinese born outside China, I always wonder how the Chinese were able to share a common written language while speaking different dialects, since anceint times, bearing in mind the distance from one end of China to the other end is thousands of kilometers!

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      Rob 7 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Thank you, Polanox. It must be fascinating to live in a country with such an amazing history.

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      Polanox 7 years ago

      Thank you for this short but concise piece. I am a foreigner living in China and I am constantly in awe of the Chinese sense of progress, their pride in their own, and yes, the march of their civilization. They have endured so much, yet they, among all, have this incredible will to surpass and move forward. Every nation on earth has much to learn from Chinese civilization. Just the fact that they have outlived all other ancient civilizations means that the Chinese do know something that the rest of us do not. Thanks again!

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 8 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Thanks for reading, HH.

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      Hello, hello, 8 years ago from London, UK

      This was really interesting and I learned so much. Thank so much for writing and sharing.