The history of China, which some people say has been lasting for the past 4,000 years – but we Chinese usually think it has lasted for the past 5,000 years, depending on whether its beginning dates back to Shang or Xia Dynasty -, is long enough to be respected. A Chinese historian, Liang Qichao, advanced a statement last century that there were ‘four ancient civilizations’: Babylonia, Ancient Egypt, Ancient India and China. Whether this statement is acknowledged by others still remains a question, and the Chinese civilization would be the youngest of the four. However, the Chinese civilization would be the only one of the four that lasts until now. During thousands of years these civilizations have been invaded and conquered many times, making their once-advanced civilizations ruined. But China, to our glory, has never been completely conquered. The Mongol Empire, which almost invaded the whole Eurasian continent, also built its government on our homeland. However, their government chose to learn from or even copy our own culture. They chose to change themselves, but not to ruin us. While transfer of government happened all the way through – even a century ago we still didn’t have a sense of modern nation -, the development of the Chinese civilization was never interrupted. Of course, it has a lot of problems and will meet more difficulties in the future, but it is still alive until nowadays. To me, that is enough to be proud of!
Specific conditions can have quite a strong influence on the history and culture of a country or a region. According to A Global History (written by Stavrianos), it is, to a great extent, the specific geographical environment that made the Shang civilization, originating from 17 century BC, so different from any other civilizations in Eurasia. If anyone has interest in looking at a map, he may find out that China is located on the east side of Eurasia, surrounded by mountains, deserts and an ocean, which were all impossible to get through at ancient time. Compared with those located in the center of Eurasia, such as Mesopotamia, China apparently suffered mush less invaders because of those. But in the meantime, the constant war with nomadic people made Chinese people develop their fighting skills. Deserts in northwest China prevented foreign armies to invade us, but didn’t block normal trade between east and west. Compass, gunpowder and printing were introduced to west through a trade path going across the desert, called the silk road. Chinese civilization had kept an appropriate exchange with Ancient Roma, Arab, Persia during a long time. That means that Ancient China, at least sometimes, was not as unenlightened as one could think. Meanwhile, the topography and climate there are extremely suitable for agriculture development (most of the place is under a monsoon climate). Crops growing on this land were merely enough for its people at that time. Like specific conditions make Earth suitable for us to live, those made of the Chinese culture what it is today, guaranteeing its continuity and development over thousands of years.
Before we formally start with the history of China, I’d like to talk about Chinese, the language we use first. As we can figure, when talking about history, writing either names, people or places will be unavoidable. Chinese is considered one of the most difficult languages in the world. (Anyone who doesn’t believe it is welcomed to give it a try!) To those whose Mother tongue is English or French, or any other language where words are built as a combination of sounds, Chinese and Chinese characters seem amazingly different from what they have already known before. Chinese, marked as photography, comes instantly from symbols our ancestors carved. Actually, when a civilization first appeared, people tended to drew or carved some symbols to express themselves. These symbols were like drawings and hard to remember, so most of them gradually abandoned them and invented a totally different way to record things, known as alphabet. However, that was not the case for Chinese. Our Chinese ancestors didn’t give up on the drawing symbols. They chose to constantly simplify them until they became today’s Chinese characters. The very last simplification happened in 1950s-1970s. No matter how much they are simplified now, we can still find an obvious link between them and ancient drawings, which reflects even more apparently on some simple characters.
As a kind of photography, Chinese doesn’t have any alphabet. Round 10 000 characters that make up for this lack of a Chinese alphabet. We don’t use a single ‘b’ because it is meaningless. Only in a word, ‘bee’ or ‘before’, does the letter ‘b’ have its meaning. But Chinese characters can be used alone, although we do also have words consisting of two or more characters. For instance, the word “马上”means ‘immediately’ or ‘at once’, but the single character “马”and“上”do have their own meaning. “马”means horse and “上”means up. It can be really free to express your thoughts. Knowing these, you can even create a new word yourself!
The problem is, it sometimes might be hard to translate Chinese into other languages such as English, and especially names. The British first name Mary is just Mary, you cannot spell something like, err… Maryiana. ‘Mary’ now is simply a name and the word itself doesn’t have real meanings. However, Chinese names (Japanese,Korean as well), consisting of one to three characters, most of the time two, can have their meanings, often the best wishes from parents. My name is Yihan. When it is written as Yihan, it is nothing but five letters. But Yihan, written as 艺涵 in Chinese, has a meaning. “艺”might mean ‘art’ or ‘talent’. “涵”can be explained as self-restraint. Names of places go the same. The capital of China, Beijing, also spelt as Peking, is written “北京”in Chinese. “北”is north and “京”is capital. Beijing means the ‘north capital’, because when it was first built it was in the north of the previous capital Yingtian, now known as Nanjing (南京，南means south, so it can be translated as the south capital. ) How could we know these through the seven letters that form the word Beijing? As you can see, if you are good enough at Chinese, you will find it interesting.
Another difference is the tone. Chinese has a system of tones, which is a particular pitch pattern on a syllable that can be used to distinguish different meanings. We have four different tones in total. For example, characters 依yi 仪yi以yi义yi all spelt ‘yi’ in English, but they are read completely different in Chinese, known as first, second, third and forth tones. I notice that some foreigners find it hard to pronounce the second and third tones correctly… You may want to have a try!
Chinese doesn’t have any concept such as tenses or grammar. Especially in ancient times, people liked to use a lot of ellipsis and inversion, which needed readers to guess.
Language is a vehicle of culture. Translation can solve most of the problems, but not all. If you truly like Chinese culture, learning the language should always be a good choice for you!
Credits:: ciid.dk, blog.hutong-school.com