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China | History and China's economic | Culture and life in China | The world's oldest cultures

China is seen variously as an ancient civilization extending over a large area in East Asia, a nation and/or a multinational entity.

With nearly 4,000 years of continuous history, China is one of the world's oldest civilizations. Prior to the 19th century, it possessed one of the most advanced societies and economies in the world; but through successive dynasties it then missed the Industrial Revolution in Europe and began to decline. In the 19th and 20th century, imperialism, internal weakness and civil wars damaged the country and its economy, and led to the overthrow of imperial rule.

In the 1950s, change to economic policies in Taiwan transformed the island into a technology-oriented industrialized developed economy after a period of high growth rates and rapid industrialization. In mainland China, in the 1970s, reforms known as the Four Modernizations improved agriculture, industry, technology and defense, raising living standards and making the PRC one of the great powers. By 2011 challenges included the growing divide between rich and poor, environmental degradation, and rampant corruption.

Historically, the cultural sphere of China has extended across East Asia as a whole, with Chinese religion, customs, and writing systems being adopted to varying degrees by neighbors such as Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Through its history, China was the source of many major inventions. It has also one of the world's oldest written language systems. The first evidence of human presence in the region was found at the Zhoukoudian cave. It is one of the earliest known specimens of Homo erectus, now commonly known as the Peking Man, estimated to have lived from 300,000 to 780,000 years ago.

In China, common names for China include "Zhonghua" and "Zhongguo" , while "Han" and "Tang" are common names given for the Chinese ethnicity. Other names include Huaxia, Shenzhou and Jiuzhou. The People's Republic of China and Republic of China are official names given for the two sovereign states currently claiming sovereignty over the traditional area of China. "Mainland China" is used to refer to areas under the jurisdiction by the People's Republic of China usually excluding Hong Kong and Macau.

In other parts of the world, many names of China exist, mainly transliterations of the dynasties "Qin" or "Jin" (e.g. China, Sino), and Han or Tang. There are also names for China based on a certain ethnic group other than Han, much like the Western rendering of all Arabs as "Saracens". Examples include "Cathay" based on the Khitan and "Tabgach" based on the Tuoba.

Chinese civilization originated in various regional centers along both the Yellow River and the Yangtze River valleys in the Neolithic era, but the Yellow River is said to be the Cradle of Chinese Civilization. The written history of China can be found as early as the Shang Dynasty (c. 1700 – 1046 BC)., although ancient historical texts such as the Records of the Grand Historian (ca. 100 BC) and Bamboo Annals assert the existence of an Xia Dynasty before the Shang. Oracle bones with ancient Chinese writing from the Shang Dynasty have been radiocarbon dated to as early as 1500 BC. The origins of present-day Chinese culture, literature and philosophy developed during the Zhou Dynasty (1045-256 BC).

The Zhou Dynasty began to bow to external and internal pressures in the 8th century BC, and the kingdom eventually broke apart into smaller states, beginning in the Spring and Autumn Period and reaching full expression in the Warring States period. This is one of multiple periods of failed statehood in Chinese history (the most recent of which was the Chinese Civil War).

In between eras of multiple kingdoms and warlordism, Chinese dynasties (or, more recently, republics) have ruled all of China (minus Xinjiang and Tibet) (and, in some eras, including the present, they have controlled Xinjiang and/or Tibet as well). This practice began with the Qin Dynasty: in 221 BC, Qin Shi Huang united the various warring kingdoms and created the first Chinese empire. Successive dynasties in Chinese history developed bureaucratic systems that enabled the Emperor of China to directly control vast territories.

The conventional view of Chinese history is that of alternating periods of political unity and disunity, with China occasionally being dominated by Inner Asian peoples, most of whom were in turn assimilated into the Han Chinese population. Cultural and political influences from many parts of Asia, carried by successive waves of immigration, expansion, and cultural assimilation, are part of the modern culture of China.

The following is a chronology of the dynasties in Chinese history.

In reality, Chinese history is not as neat as is often described and it was rare indeed for one dynasty to end calmly and give way quickly and smoothly to a new one. Dynasties were often established before the overthrow of an existing regime, or continued for a time after they had been defeated. For example, the conventional date 1644 marks the year in which the Manchu Qing dynasty armies occupied Beijing and brought Qing rule to China proper, succeeding the Ming dynasty. However, the Qing dynasty itself was established in 1636 (or even 1616, albeit under a different name), while the last Ming dynasty pretender was not deposed until 1662. This change of ruling houses was a messy and prolonged affair, and the Qing took almost twenty years to extend their control over the whole of China. It is therefore inaccurate to assume China changed suddenly and all at once in the year 1644.

In addition, China was divided for long periods of its history, with different regions being ruled by different groups. At times like these, there was not any single dynasty ruling a unified China. As a case in point, there is much dispute about times in and after the Western Zhou period.

The History of the Republic of China begins after the Qing Dynasty in 1912, when the formation of the Republic of China put an end to over two thousand years of Imperial rule. The Qing Dynasty, also known as the Manchu Dynasty, ruled from 1644 to 1912. Since the republic's founding, it has experienced many tribulations as it was dominated by numerous warlords and fragmented by foreign powers.

In 1928, the republic was nominally unified under the Kuomintang (KMT, the Chinese Nationalist Party) after the Northern Expedition, and was in the early stages of industrialization and modernization when it was caught in the conflicts between the Kuomintang government, the Communist Party of China which was converted into a nationalist party, remnant warlords, and Japan. Most nation-building efforts were stopped during the full-scale War of Resistance against Japan from 1937 to 1945, and later the widening gap between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party made a coalition government impossible, causing the resumption of the Chinese Civil War.

A series of political, economic, and military missteps led the Kuomintang to defeat and retreat to Taiwan in 1949, establishing an authoritarian one-party state that considered itself to be the sole legitimate ruler of all of China. However, since political liberalization began in the late 1970s, the Republic of China has transformed itself into a multiparty, representative democracy on Taiwan.

The history of the administrative divisions of China is quite complex. Across history, what is called 'China' has taken many shapes, and many political organizations. For various reasons, both the borders and names of political divisions have changed—sometimes to follow topography, sometimes to weaken former states by dividing them, and sometimes to realize a philosophical or historical ideal. For recent times, the number of recorded tiny changes is quite large; by contrast, the lack of clear, trustworthy data for ancient times forces historians and geographers to draw approximate borders for respective divisions. But thanks to imperial records and geographic descriptions, political divisions may often be re=drawn with some precision. Natural changes, such as changes in a river's course (known for the Huang He, but also occurring for others), or loss of data, still make this issue difficult for ancient times.

China stretches some 5,026 kilometres (3,123 mi) across the East Asian landmass bordering the East China Sea, Korea Bay, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea, between North Korea and Vietnam in a changing configuration of broad plains, expansive deserts, and lofty mountain ranges, including vast areas of inhospitable terrain. The eastern half of the country, its seacoast fringed with offshore islands, is a region of fertile lowlands, foothills and mountains, deserts, steppes, and subtropical areas. The western half of China is a region of sunken basins, rolling plateaus, and towering massifs, including a portion of the highest tableland on earth.

The vastness of the country and the barrenness of the western hinterland have important implications for defense strategy. In spite of many good harbors along the approximately 18,000-kilometer coastline, the nation has traditionally oriented itself not toward the sea but inland, developing as an imperial power whose center lay in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River on the northern plains. China also has the Tibetan Plateau, a very large, high altitude plateau, to the south. To the north of the Tibetan Plateau lie the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts, which stretch from the extreme northwest eastward through Mongolia.

The People's Republic of China is one of the world's largest countries in total area behind Russia and Canada, and very similar to the United States. Whether China or the United States is the third largest country in the world in total area is related to (a) the validity of claims by the PRC on territories such as Taiwan, Aksai Chin, Trans-Karakoram Tract, and South Tibet (Aksai Chin and Trans-Karakoram Tract also claimed by India), and (b) how the total size of the United States is calculated: The CIA's The World Factbook gives 9,826,630 km2, the United Nations Statistics Division gives 9,629,091 km2, and the Encyclopedia Britannica gives 9,522,055 km2. Figures for the size of China differ slightly depending on where one draws a number of ill-defined boundaries. The official figure by the People's Republic of China is 9.6 million square kilometers. The Republic of China based in Taiwan but claiming to be the government of China puts this figure at 11 million square kilometers, but this includes Mongolia, a state whose sovereignty has been recognized by the PRC. China's contour is reasonably comparable to that of the United States and lies largely at the same latitudes. The total area is estimated to be 9,758,801 km2, with land accounting for 9,326,410 km2 and water for 270,550 km2 (around 3 percent).

China was for a large part of the last two millennia the world's largest economy. However, in the later part of the Qing Dynasty, China's economic development began to slow and Europe's rapid development during and after the Industrial Revolution enabled it to surpass China.

Many analysts assert that modern China is one of the leading examples of state capitalism in the 21st century.

The Culture of China is one of the world's oldest and most complex cultures. The area in which the culture is dominant covers a large geographical region in eastern Asia with customs and traditions varying greatly between towns, cities and provinces.

Today there are 56 distinct recognized ethnic groups in China. In terms of numbers however, the pre-eminent ethnic group is the Han Chinese. Throughout history, many groups have been assimilated into neighboring ethnicities or disappeared without a trace. At the same time, many within the Han identity have maintained distinct linguistic and regional cultural traditions. The term Zhonghua Minzu has been used to describe the notion of Chinese nationalism in general. Much of the traditional cultural identity within the community has to do with distinguishing the family name.

Since the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors period, some form of Chinese monarch has been the main ruler above all. Different periods of history have different names for the various positions within society. Conceptually each imperial or feudal period is similar, with the government and military officials ranking high in the hierarchy, and the rest of the population under regular Chinese law.[7] From the late Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE) onwards, traditional Chinese society was organized into a hierarchic system of socio-economic classes known as the four occupations. However, this system did not cover all social groups while the distinctions between all groups became blurred ever since the commercialization of Chinese culture in the Song Dynasty (960–1279 CE). Ancient Chinese education also has a long history; ever since the Sui Dynasty (581–618 CE) educated candidates prepared for the Imperial examinations which drafted exam graduates into government as scholar-bureaucrats. Trades and crafts were usually taught by a shifu. The female historian Ban Zhao wrote the Lessons for Women in the Han Dynasty and outlined the four virtues women must abide to, while scholars such as Zhu Xi and Cheng Yi would expand upon this. Chinese marriage and Taoist sexual practices are some of the customs and rituals found in society.

Chinese religion was originally oriented to worshipping the supreme god Shang Di during the Xia and Shang dynasties, with the king and diviners acting as priests and using oracle bones. The Zhou dynasty oriented it to worshipping the broader concept of heaven. A large part of Chinese culture is based on the notion that a spiritual world exists. Countless methods of divination have helped answer questions, even serving as an alternate to medicine. Folklores have helped fill the gap for things that cannot be explained. There is often a blurred line between myth, religion and unexplained phenomenon.

While many deities are part of the tradition, some of the most recognized holy figures include Guan Yin, Jade Emperor and Buddha. Many of the stories have since evolved into traditional Chinese holidays. Other concepts have extended to outside of mythology into spiritual symbols such as Door god and the Imperial guardian lions. Along with the belief of the holy, there is also the evil. Practices such as Taoist exorcism fighting mogwai and jiang shi with peachwood swords are just some of the concepts passed down from generations. A few Chinese fortune telling rituals are still in use today after thousands of years of refinement.

Hundreds of ethnic groups have existed in China throughout its history. The largest ethnic group in China by far is the Han. This group, however, is internally diverse and can be further divided into smaller ethnic groups that share similar traits.

Over the last three millennia, many previously distinct ethnic groups in China have been Sinicized into a Han identity, which over time dramatically expanded the size of the Han population. However, these assimilations were usually incomplete, and vestiges of indigenous language and culture still often remain in various regions of China. Because of this, many within the Han identity have maintained distinct linguistic and cultural traditions while still identifying as Han.

Several ethnicities have also dramatically shaped Han culture, e.g. the Manchurian clothing called the qipao became the new "Chinese" fashion after the 17th century, replacing earlier Han styles of clothing such as the Hanfu. The modern term Chinese nation (Zhonghua Minzu) is now used to describe a notion of a Chinese nationality that transcends ethnic divisions.

China's many different ethnic groups speak many different languages, collectively called Zhōngguó Yǔwén, literally, "speech and writing of China", which span eight primary language families. Most of them are dissimilar morphologically and phonetically. Even within each family, most are mutually unintelligible. Zhongguo Yuwen includes the many different Han Chinese language varieties (commonly called Chinese) as well as minority languages such as Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur and Zhuang. China has 292 living languages and 1 extinct language (Jurchen) according to Ethnologue.

Putonghua or Standard Mandarin is the official national spoken language. Hong Kong, Macau and several other autonomous regions have additional official languages. For example, Tibetan has official status within the Tibet Autonomous Region, Mongolian has official status within Inner Mongolia and Uyghur has official status within Xinjiang.

There are large economic, social and practical incentives to be functional in Putonghua, a standardised form of the Mandarin group of dialects which are spoken in northern and southwestern China. Putonghua serves as a lingua franca among the various language groups within mainland China.

The Shanghai School is a very important Chinese school of traditional arts during the Qing Dynasty and the whole of the 20th century. Under efforts of masters from this school, traditional Chinese art reached another climax and continued to the present in forms of "Chinese painting", or guohua for short. The Shanghai School challenged and broke the literati tradition of Chinese art, while also paying technical homage to the ancient masters and improving on existing traditional techniques. Members of this school were themselves educated literati who had come to question their very status and the purpose of art, and had anticipated the impending modernization of Chinese society. In an era of rapid social change, works from the Shanghai School were widely innovative and diverse, and often contained thoughtful yet subtle social commentary. The most well-known figures from this school are Ren Xiong , Ren Yi (also known as Ren Bonian), Zhao Zhiqian , Wu Changshuo , Sha Menghai (calligraphist), Pan Tianshou , Fu Baoshi . Other well-known painters are: Wang Zhen, XuGu, Zhang Xiong, Hu Yuan, and Yang Borun.

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Related : China | History and China's economic | Culture and life in China | The world's oldest cultures