China is often considered one of the most politically, culturally, and linguistically monolithic countries in the world. Since 221 B.C., China has been united under one government. Also, the vast majority of Chinese people speak Mandarin, and most of those who do not speak one of a relatively small number of other languages (6 or 7) that are closely related to Mandarin. But how, exactly, did China become “Chinese”—or rather, how did China stay Chinese for so many centuries?
In this chapter, Diamond will apply the theory of geographic determinism to Chinese history in an attempt to explain one of the biggest anomalies in history—how China has remained so linguistically, culturally, and politically similar over the course of the last 2,000 years (while so many other countries have gone through revolutions and paradigm shifts in the same amount of time).
China’s culturally monolithic nature is especially surprising because of the geographic differences in the country. Northern China’s climate is much drier and colder than Southern China’s—if environment is such an important determinant of culture, why is China China, instead of half a dozen different states, each with a different culture and language?
The first step in trying to explain Chinese history is to study Chinese geography. Yet the diversity of Chinese geography (particularly in its longitude) seemingly supports the existence of many small, culturally diverse states—why, then, the existence of one powerful state?
Let’s look at the Chinese language more closely. There are eight “big” languages spoken in China, all closely related to Mandarin. But there are also hundreds of “little languages,” spoken by thousands, or tens of thousands, of people. Many of these languages are structurally linked to languages more commonly spoken in modern-day Thailand, or Cambodia, or Laos, or Myanmar. Further linguistic history indicates that the earliest speakers of Mandarin Chinese lived in Northern and Southern China. Often, a new language “replaces” another in a region because the new language is spoken by powerful warriors or colonists. In this case, the colonists drive out many of their enemies into other regions, spreading the defeated groups’ languages. So really, the question is, what allowed the Mandarin-speaking Chinese peoples to drive many other ethnicities into surrounding Southeast Asia, thereby uniting all of China under one authority?
By tracing the history of languages in China, one can begin to understand the patterns of cultural diffusion between the different regions of the country. If two regions of China share some of the same languages (or at least words), then it’s likely that the two regions interacted with one another at some point in the past. In the case of China, however, one can draw further conclusions. The resemblances between “little languages” in China and major languages in Cambodia and Thailand suggest that the populations of many Southeast Asian countries are descended from peoples who were driven out of their homeland by the ethnic Chinese.
In ancient times, ethnic Chinese people living in both Northern and Southern China were hunter-gatherers. But the ethnic Chinese were some of the earliest peoples to experiment with agriculture and domesticated animals. Rice and millet grew easily throughout China, thanks to the temperate climate, and there were many large mammals to be domesticated. In the manner Diamond has discussed earlier on, China’s access to large mammals and agriculture led to the discovery of metallurgy and other sophisticated technologies, as well as rigorous social hierarchies. Unusually, though, China may have been the site of independent agricultural centers in both the north and the south.
In this brief section, we’re offered a simplified overview of Chinese history, beginning with the discovery of agriculture and leading up to the development of metallurgy and complex technologies. Diamond has already explained the basic principles of such a historical process in Part Two, so he doesn’t go into tremendous detail about that process here. However, it is important to note that the Northern and Southern Chinese may have developed agriculture independently, due to the climate and the availability of crops.
How did the different parts of China interact with one another? Chinese people in both the north and the south had access to agriculture. Thanks to China’s unique network of large rivers, they could also travel north and south fairly easily—far more easily than could peoples in the Americans or Africa. As a result, many technologies diffused throughout China, including rice cultivation, writing, and ironwork. Most of these technologies diffused from north to south (writing, for example), but a few diffused from south to north (smelting). The result was that the ethnic Chinese were culturally and politically unified from north to south.
The rivers connecting between north and south China are anomalous because they seem to represent an exception to Diamond’s rule that diffusion is easier from east to west than from north to south. In spite of some climate differences between the north and the south, rivers connected most of China, explaining why many technologies spread throughout the Chinese region. Notably, Diamond does not fully explain why technology diffused mostly from north to south, or why the Northern Chinese seemed to develop more important technologies than the Southern Chinese.
The formation of a Chinese dynasty began in 221 B.C. in Northern China. Chinese states in the north, with their powerful weaponry and sophisticated agriculture, united with the ethnic Chinese in the south. One reason for the unification of China under one state was cultural: the Chinese peoples in the north and the south shared many of the same technologies, thanks to cultural diffusion in the preceding centuries.
Notice that Diamond doesn’t offer an explanation for why the Northern Chinese took control over all of China, instead of the Southern Chinese (who also had agriculture and complex technology). Critics have pointed out that Diamond is better at explaining why agricultural societies triumphed over non-agricultural societies than he is at explaining why some agricultural societies triumphed over others.
The unified ethnic Chinese drove out non-ethnic Chinese peoples living in China, and eradicated non-ethnic Chinese culture, which they regarded as “barbaric.” For instance, many early Chinese emperors burned books in non-Chinese languages, making the culture of the newly united China increasingly monolithic. In spite of the geographic differences between the different regions of China, one important geographic feature—the presence of easily navigable rivers—allowed the ethnic Chinese in the north and south to unify, use their superior technology and organization expel other cultures, and make Chinese culture unusually monolithic.
Just as the Northern and Southern Chinese united because of their similar cultures and their long history of exchanging crops and technologies, the other peoples of China were either driven out or culturally eradicated. While Diamond doesn’t fully address why state formation began in Northern Chinese agricultural centers instead of Southern China agricultural centers, he does show why agricultural centers of China were able to force many hunter-gatherer cultures out of China.