A very sketchy history of China as a mirror for a History of Italy for Chinese


In all of my time as a student of China, which started in October 1979, the grand problem on the surface or hidden between the lines, has always been the same: why did China, which for most of its history was ahead of the West, suddenly lost steam and fell behind? The question is also at the root of the problems of modern China, which wants to recover the lost time and glory, and find its way back to the forefront of development and civilization.

Many very interesting theories have been floated, and certainly they all make sense to me: the lack of a modern scientific approach, the lack of a powerful bourgeoisie, the excessive power of the emperor, the insularity of the system and the country, China not discovering the American continent and not projecting itself into foreign colonies, et cetera.

In 2003–2004, as cultural attaché to the Italian Embassy, I managed to convince the Central Party School to take the opportunity to send their officials to spend time training in Italy. My argument was that China was set on modernization, which practically meant Americanization and Westernization. Yet when going to America, the Chinese found out a country with a history of only 200 to 300 years.

But America had not sprung out of nowhere; it was the child of the West. In fact Italy, through a quirk circumstances, had been the home of Western civilization for some 90% of the time. That is, if Western civilization is 3,000 years old, 2,700 years of this history, from the Greeks and the Romans all the way to the Renaissance and the early Enlightenment, could be found in Italy. In other words, in Italy the Chinese get have a deeper sense of Western civilization and a better feeling also of America.

Chinese know in their bones, and in their cultural background, that if history is the flesh and bones of knowledge, feelings are what brings culture to life.

Almost a decade after the program was started, and when it had come to an end, a dear friend Huang Jianliang, suggested I write a history of Italy for the Chinese. I was reluctant at first, but then I became enthusiastic about the project. It was the natural completion of the program with the Party School.

The research for this history, however, gave me more than I bargained for. Trying to look at the history of Italy with Chinese eyes, I found that a true divergence between China and the West occurred when the Jesuits brought to Europe the treasure trove of Chinese knowledge. The massive impact of Chinese culture in Europe was comparable perhaps only to the Greek influence on the Roman Empire, something that subjugated and changed Rome forever in the first century BC. However in the mid-19th century, after two centuries of unreserved love, Europe forgot about China. And yet again, as I tried to explain in the book, Europe had been transformed forever.

It occurred to me that what actually happened was not that China was left behind, but the complex and pervasive Chinese influence boosted Europe and its American offspring, bringing about modern times. Modern Europe is actually deeply Sinicized, with a mix of influence of the bureaucracy and regulated market (both inspired by China, as we shall see), and with an idea of balance of powers of Western, Greco-Roman origins.

This is an impression; it is not conclusive. But it is a very strong impression. Similarly, should China now deeply Westernize, as the West then Sinicized? That is also an impression.


For Western readers, this history of Italy could be also helpful in understanding China and its predicaments. Yet for this one should have an understanding of Chinese history, so it was suggested that I should write a parallel Chinese history. I feel a parallel Chinese perhaps is too much, but to provide a real comparative element, I decided to offer a very simplified short history of China, made of strong impressions that could lead the reader to have some idea of what went on in China at the time.

This history owes a debt to many books and scores of people who have been kind enough to share their time with me. I would like here to recommend any and all work by the following people, my teachers: Angus C. Graham, Paul M. Thompson, Sarah Allan, Li Xueqin, Suo Jieran, and Huang Xuanmin. I am greatly indebted to the conversations and the works of Lu Xiang, Zhao Tingyang, Qiao Liang, Wang Xiangsui, Wang Jian, Li Shulei, Yang Ping, Yu Shicun, Zhang Yi, Zheng Bijian, Liu Yazhou, Xu Guodong, Huang Feng, Huang Ping, Fei Anling, Ma Ling, Yu Shicun, Guy Alitto, Sidney Rittenberg and Nicola Di Cosmo. I ask to all of them their forgiveness for treating this deep and profound subject in such a cursory way.

My greatest debt is to a friend who left us too early and who for the first time brought my interest to the Middle East, Zhang Xiaodong. To his memory, this work is humbly dedicated.

Part 1

The history of China, according to the first written documents found by historians, starts around the 12th or 13th century BC—that is, at the time of the war between a confederation of Greek cities and Troy, as described in The Iliad. We have a mature writing used mainly to note down divinations of the future: interpretations of the meaning of the cracks in bones when exposed to fire. They are logograms: pictograms to indicate, suggest, or remind us of a meaning. Similar techniques were used in other civilizations, but later were replaced by phonetic systems. Why phonetics didn’t replace the logograms in China is still a mystery and the object of speculation and research.

The second distinct element of China in that period is its landmass. Whereas ancient Italians even then were subject to invasions and incursions by land to the north, but mostly by sea (and the rule of the sea becomes soon the strategic element of dominance), in China’s early history, the sea plays no role, as famous seminal 20th-century Chinese philosopher Feng Youlan[1] underlined. The historical political horizon is limited by mountains and deserts to the north and west, mountains and jungles in the south and west, and the sea to the east. We have recurrent incursions, threats, and challenges from land borders in the west and mainly along the huge northern corridor. But from the sea, in the east, for centuries there was only commerce, some raiding, and cultural proselytism with people coming from what are now Korea and Japan learning from China.

The official histories that have tracked China’s history for centuries—and most significantly the first model of imperial history the Shiji (Records of the Great Historian), that of father and son Sima Tan (165 BC–110 BC) and Sima Qian (145 BC–86 BC)—stressed the unity of China since ancient times. In the 13th century BC, the ruling house was the Shang, who according to the traditional chronology ruled from 1766 to 1122 BC. But according to recent chronology project led by historian Li Xueqin, the Shang ruled from c. 1600 to 1046 BC. Before the Shang there was another “dynasty,” which traditionally was thought to have ruled between 1989 and 1558 BC. Modern studies concluded that the Xia existed between 2070 and 1600 BC. Of the Xia, we have no writings; some go as far as saying that the dynasty didn’t even exist, and it was a myth created by later dynasties to justify future invasions and toppling of rulers. Findings suggest that if the Xia dynasty did indeed exist, it was what archeologists now call the Erlitou culture and for a long time overlapped with the Shang.

Although archeology is casting new light on the earlier period, everything is historically shaky and uncertain until we meet the Zhou dynasty, which lasted initially from 1046 until 771 BC. One the earliest historical records, the Shang Shu (the writing of Shang), describes the Zhou conquest of Shang and suggests that the Zhou and Shang might have coexisted for a long time.

Here we see clearly for the first time a strong element that will mark Chinese history until the present: the systematic ideological use of history.

We shall see that this is not alien to Roman history. Romans systematically eradicated the Etruscan contribution to Roman growth in its early years, and even tried to eliminate records of Etruscan writings. They did the same with Carthage and its culture. It is possible that the Greeks did the same with the legacy of the defeated Trojans.

But in China, the impression is that the country is on a different level of sophistication, and the writing of history serves a specific purpose, that of imposing the idea of imperial unity since ancient times and projecting this unity in the future.

Before going too deep into this theme that will appear far more starkly later, it is important to note specific features of the Zhou empire: the stress on administration and organization. The ancient Zhou Li (Rituals of the Zhou), a compendium of what we would now call administrative practices and laws, defines the system by which the empire is and should be organized. Nothing of this kind existed in Greco-Roman history, where laws, we shall see, developed slowly as preferred customs between equals. In China, the administrative laws are clearly dictated from above. There was no society of equals; the ruler was clearly above the others by imposing his order.

The modern traditional interpretation of this, since Wittfogel[2], is that this was dictated by the management of rivers. Rule (zhi) is a word composed of embankment and water, i.e. ruling was controlling and channeling the floods of muddy water[3].

This interpretation however buys into the view of imperial history as the continuity of a united empire since the earliest times. Yet, the historical documents give us a very different picture. We don’t know exactly what kind of rule the Zhou emperor imposed on the land under his rule, and there also are disputes among scholars over whether there was continuity or discontinuity between the Shang and Zhou cultural and political traditions.

But we see clearly that the Zhou empire was dotted with and divided into many “states.” These were called with at least two names, bang or guo.

Guo, the name that became more common, has a clear origin, although it had many variants: it comes from a logogram of a walled entity containing soldiers armed with halberds and mouths or fields. That suggested that the walls were enclosing more than a city, and fields were to be protected by halberdiers. Therefore the enemy was not the chaos of water but foreign attacks. The other term, bang, is even more suggestive. It represents a hill with plentiful agricultural resources.

In neither case do we have the idea of a state that needs protection from floods. This does little to counter the argument for the importance of water management, but we can say that by the eighth century BC, floods were not a huge problem. Hilltops, high above the water, were safe from the rush of waves. This also suggests a political geography quite different from the lowlands periodically flooded by the river Nile in Ancient Egypt or the Tigris and Euphrates in the Middle East.

In the eighth century, we have the reality of hundreds of small states in fierce competition with one another. Their problem was clearing the land of brush and forests for agricultural development; having more people, the basis of wealth at the time; staving off enemies; and conquering new space.

They centered around the river (he) that we call the Yellow River, and were surrounded by barbarian populations in different shapes and forms. These states recognized themselves as belonging to a community, a koinè, and in an earlier period possibly even recognized a common religious/spiritual figure (how much real political leverage he had is unclear) in the person of the son of heaven, tianzi. He was an intensely religious figure represented by the logogram wang, a vertical line uniting three parallel horizontal lines signifying heaven, the world of men, and the world of nature. But certainly by the eighth century, many heads of states started to call themselves “wang.”

The fact that they all called themselves wang means they all referred to one culture and set of ideas; but also that each state claimed a fierce independence, and each had its own church-state system. Recent archeological findings confirm the idea: the system of logograms was common but many individual characters differed from one place to another. We still have vestiges of different languages and writings, for instance, in the two modern Chinese words for “river,” he in the north and jiang in the south.

In this world, warrior-scholars (shi) wandered from one place to another seeking employment as warriors-administrators-teachers. They originated the earliest Chinese philosophy. Again, the fact that they roamed the land proves the existence of a community; the fact that they sought employment to make one state more powerful against other states demonstrates the fierce competition.

In this situation the main danger, we are told by the literature, was not the rare natural disaster, be it earthquake or flood, but war. War didn’t limit itself to a raid on a place and looting its riches, as we shall see was the prerogative of Greek and Roman wars. As wealth was seen not in the loot that could be plundered away, but in wealth production (i.e., good land and people working it), war was about occupying the land and yoking the people. Then states would be annihilated (mie).

This was done by destroying local temples (meaning there were different deities to worship), cancelling local cultures and traditions, exterminating the officers (and later even the soldiers) and the ruling class, and re-dividing the land and surviving population according to the wishes of the winners. The goal was to fully incorporate the conquered state into the old one.

This led to two phenomena in the following centuries. The number of states dwindled, but their organization and administration grew more sophisticated and efficient. This made states understood that the ultimate power, and model for survival, was to make one’s state as efficient as possible. Moreover, some states emerged as extremely powerful and for the first time ever imposed a hegemony. From the early seventh century until the late sixth century, five states imposed their hegemony over China. Of these, the first and most groundbreaking was Duke Huan of Qi (r. 685–643 BC), who with the help of his prime minister, Guang Zhong, centralized the power structure of his state. This proved to all that powerful ideas of an efficient man could change the state.

Guang Zhong set up a system of semi-independent farmers who paid their dues to the state in grain and labor or military service. Land was not theirs but allotted by the ruler, equally divided not based on area but on yield. That is, each farmer had to till an appropriate lot of land most efficiently: one should not be given too little because the farmer would not produce surplus and would have little to do, and one should not be given so much that the land would not be properly taken care of.

As they were given a place in the land and the prime minister was the master, so they were given place in the army and the general was the master.

As we shall see, it is all very different from the assembly of equals in Greek and Roman society. The annihilation wars between states of the same culture and at the same level of technological progress apparently forced states to a greater form of organization, and thus more hierarchy, administration, et cetera.

It is possible that earlier seeds of organizations came from the necessities of water management, but certainly the annihilation wars pushed the organization much further. Moreover, the cycle of rise and fall of hegemonies in that period and the parallel dwindling of smaller states brought China from what is called the Spring and Autumn period to the Warring States period. States were reduced to just a dozen, while annihilation wars were more difficult, risky, and expensive. Hegemony was harder to impose and an understanding of some kind of balance of power emerged. Alliances and counter-alliances were crafted not in order to conquer but to survive and maintain some kind of status quo. That is, despite the bellicose name, wars became less common and less fatal at the time. Yet states still were annihilated until a handful remained.

Things changed with the bold plan for administrative reforms and offensive wars of the Qin king in the second half of the third century BC. Inspired by the drastic legalistic theories and led by prime minister Li Si, the prince of the western state of Qin annihilated all surviving states and established what was really the first unified empire.

His power was direct, radical, and imperial in very modern way, very unlike Augustus who, we shall see, had to carve up powers through the complex machinery of the Roman republic, and whose titles, prince (the first one), or emperor (commander), reveal that below him was a society of equals. The first Chinese emperor was very different. His title was di, the name of the ancient supreme god, with the adjective illustrious (huang)—it was like calling himself “super Zeus” or “super Yahve.” The analysis of the name gives us a sense of the radical break he and his people felt they had to communicate to the public.

The other elements that are a legacy of the first emperor are the unification of the language and of knowledge. This meant destroying all traces of languages other than that imposed by the Qin, and burning all books but the official sanctioned books. Copies of all volumes were kept in the official library. The practice was maintained de facto until modern times.


The China that we now know probably starts here, even if a couple of centuries later the ruling Han kings tried to stretch the idea that the present system also existed in the past to legitimize their government. This was after all very similar to the Romans trying to legitimize their conquest of the Hellenic world by marking their legacy with Troy. The instruments were different, though, and this is not irrelevant.

In Rome, a poet was tasked with the enterprise and this produced the Aeneid, written as a synthesis of the two great Greek poems, the Odyssey and Iliad. In China, the emperor commissioned a massive and detailed reconstruction of the past in a historical work that systematized all past knowledge and knowledge of the past: the Shiji, the records of the grand official historians, written by Sima Tan and Sima Qian. Myth and poetry in Rome contrast with a factual, scientific approach in China.

However to reach that point, two centuries of turmoil had to pass, presenting some of the features of perceived Chinese history.

The Qin Empire was toppled by a popular revolt after the demise of the first emperor. The empire was too strictly organized, too ferocious, and groups of petty officials (intellectuals, we would call them now) started off as bandits and ended up as revolutionaries. This was to become the pattern of imperial rule: the king makes people unhappy, the people turn against him first as bandits, and then if successful, they start a new dynasty.

This happened at the beginning of the second century BC with Liu Bang, the founder of the Han dynasty. In fact, after the passing of the first emperor, the highly tyrannical Qin states crumbled with scores of rebellions. Two main leaders emerged, Xiang Yu and Liu Bang, and 18 different kings. Liu Bang managed to defeat Xiang Yu by also winning the allegiance of the kings. Liu Bang assumed the title of huangdi, like his Qin predecessor, but didn’t re-launch the high-pressure tyrannical organization of Qin.

Possibly this was due to two reasons: the realization of the dangers of an overly centralized state inviting all kinds of reactions and the reality of the alliances that had brought Liu Bang to power. In fact, unlike his predecessor, he didn’t have a well-oiled state machine that would impose its will by annihilating all others. Liu Bang had climbed up by forging and betraying alliances. Although he and his successors tried to pull back on the privileges bartered in those alliances, the system could not entirely turn its back on it.

The other element that became a constant of Chinese history was the threat of its northern neighbors. During Han times, they were the Xiongnu, who are possibly loosely related to Attila’s Huns, who reached Europe and threatened the Roman Empire a couple of centuries later. The Chinese borders were impregnable, as we saw: mountains, impenetrable jungles, and a sea plus small and weak neighbors made it impossible to mount any real challenge to the imperial power, provided the emperor managed to fully control his territory. This was true but for one notable exception, the loose northern border.

It was so sparsely populated and barren that it became economically impossible to conquer it all and to sustain a force substantial enough to repel any and all attacks on the farming-minded Chinese. At the same time, it was also impossible to bar all contact with them, because they provided a necessary resource for the empire and ancient army: war horses, which were difficult to breed in a land geared for effective farming.

The northern barbarians, agile on their horses, would withdraw deep into the northern steppes when harried by imperial forces. Their flight was so deep that it made it economically hard for a superior yet more cumbersome army, that could not live off the inhospitable land, to pursue. Still when the empire withdrew, the barbarians would come back, harrying the exhausted forces.

If the empire tried to buy them off, they would go for more and then blackmail the empire. If the empire tried to settle them by introducing farming at the borders, they could use these new abilities and wealth to seek more and pressure the empire. In sum, as Nicola Di Cosmo put it[4], the Han systematized and perhaps even started a volatile game where the empire had no systemic solution, but were forced to cope with it.

This was the main threat for about two millennia, until the real challenge came from the sea with the Opium Wars in the middle of 19th century.

The other constant threat to the imperial rule came from inside. Excessive control was bad, and lack of control was also bad, as at the turn of the Christian era a senior minister and court regent, Wang Mang, claimed the throne for himself. He started a series of major reforms that were ultimately unsuccessful. They included outlawing servitude, nationalizing land to equally distribute it between households, and introducing new currencies, a change which debased the value of pre-existing coinage.

The main point was also the constant problem of future Chinese imperial rule: uneven distribution of land. Farmers, however managed by the state, were private, and the state allowed more effective, entrepreneurial farmers to lease more land and thus produced more. However once richer, these farmers could bribe officials to avoid taxes. This made them even richer and poor farmers even poorer. The expelled farmers would then go into banditry. Eventually the state would have to deal with a parallel threat of diminishing tax returns and an increase in social disruption and banditry. Bandits, as we saw with Liu Bang, were the first step in revolutions. Yet land redistribution would alienate the gentry, the pillar of internal consensus and revenues, while bandits might be unwilling to go back to farming and possibly would not be as productive at it.

At the time of Wang Mang, the revolutionaries were a Taoist religious sect called Red Eyebrows, because they painted their eyebrows red. Natural disasters, in this case massive floods of the Yellow River circa 3 AD and in 11 AD, caused by lack of upkeep at the embankments, signaled that Heaven was no longer favoring the ruling emperor.

Floods in this case fed the Red Eyebrows’ armies with disgruntled and dislodged farmers who eventually captured the capital and killed the usurper Wang Mang.

The crisis was deep and unsettling for the Han Empire, although heirs of the dynasty recovered control. Yet under the triple pressure of northern barbarians, uneasy management of land, and mounting rebellions, the empire fell forever in the third century AD, right at the time when the Roman Empire almost faced the same fate. Around 180 AD two rebellions by the Five Pecks of Rice and the Yellow Turbans (magical Taoists), toppled the empire. The empire was notoriously split in three, as similarly happened, we shall see, with the Roman Empire at about the same time. But unlike with Rome, the three all survived by fending off one another. In fact no one prevailed and the three underwent further splits.

Bloodshed and indiscriminate wars lasted for some 300 years. The former land of the Han was split between dozens of small or short-lived kingdoms. The total population went down to possibly by a third of what it was in the previous Han time. A new dynasty, the Jin, managed to hold on to a weak imperial rule for less than a century until 420 AD, but their rule was under constant challenge from internal rebellions and pretenders who claimed to be descendants of truer Han stock.

In fact splits were so massive that a return to Han-like unity seemed all but impossible. For centuries, China’s destiny could have turned out similar to that of the Roman Empire, where Byzantium vowed to uphold the Roman imperial continuity but failed to do so, and although people of the former empire bowed to Byzantium, they didn’t recognize its effective power.

[1] See his A History of Chinese philosophy, Princenton 1983

[2]The Hydraulic Civilizations Chicago, 1956 [3] See also my Another China, 2001

[4] See also (2010) “Ancient China and Its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History,” : Cambridge University Press