The Historical Backdrop to the Third Economic Bomb: A Brief Guide to Early Chinese History – The Land and the People and the “First Emperor”

October 6, 2013 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

1. Introduction

On current trends, China is about to become by far the largest economy in the world. Yet may Westerners seem not adequately advised about China. The Chinese have perhaps six outstanding characteristics: first, it is the most populous nation the world; second, it is the oldest continuous culture in the world; third its cultural integrity, based on a common written language, is a consequence of an utterly ruthless leader; fourth, it has experienced a greater degree of genocide than any other culture; fifth, it has enjoyed thousands of years of invention and innovation, which sparked the European age of discovery and the industrial revolution; and sixth, its recent rapid growth is unprecedented in its momentum and scale. The information in this article is an essential prelude to understanding the significance of China’s re-emergence to becoming the most significant economic, military and political power in the world.

2 The land and the people of China

China is by far the largest country by population, comprising (according to the CIA World Factbook) about 19% of the world’s population, or 1.35 billion people in July 2013. This is about 28% more than the next most populous nation of India, which has some 960 million people. (However, if British India had hung together, instead of separating into the nations of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Greater India would now be the most populous country in the world.) The Han Chinese constitute over 91.5% of China’s population, with Zhuang, Manchu, Hui, Miao, Uighur, Tujia, Yi, Mongol, Tibetan, Buyi, Dong, Yao, and Korean, comprising the other 8.5%.

China is the third largest country by area (after Russia and Canada) occupying 9.326 million square kilometres, and it is slightly larger than the USA. Its climate is extremely diverse, ranging from tropical in the south, with a monsoon climate in the south east, to sub Arctic in the north. The north west contains the vast, dry, and cold sand dune desert of Taklimakan; in the south east the Tibetan plateau, averaging 4,400 m above sea level, is the highest populated cold desert in the world (excluding Antarctica itself, which does not have a self supporting population).

China has about half the arable land than the similarly sized USA, as shown in the following table:



Land area (million km 2 )



Arable land



Meadows and pastures



Forest and woodland






According to Chinese estimates, only around 10% of the land (or 478,220 sq kilometres) is arable and irrigated. Although 14% of the Chinese land area is forested, industrialisation is reducing that area fairly rapidly, and 45% of China’s land is composed of mountains, high plateaus, and deserts. Most of the population is located on the hills, the river valleys and coastal plains of the east. It has been estimated that 1.08 billion people (80% of the population) are crammed into 1.6 m sq kilometres, at 675 persons per square kilometre, which is about 36% more densely populated than the Netherlands (495 people per square kilometre of land) which is the most crowded of European countries. This works out at less than 1,500 square metres of land per person for all purposes. Only the very high productivity of agriculture in the three great river valleys (the Yellow, Yangtze and West rivers) allow for such crowdedness. For comparison, it has been estimated that only about 17% of Japan is flat enough to permit settlement or development of any kind, so Japan’s 127.3m people live on 57,410 km2, at a population density of 2,216 people per km2 or 451 m2 per person for all purposes. On some measures the China of the Eastern coastal strip and the river plains is about a third as crowded as Japan, on average – very crowded.

3 The Unifying Actions of Shih Huang Ti, The “First Emperor

The Chinese culture is mankind’s oldest continuous civilisation. Heiroglyphs were in use in Egypt in about 3,000 BC, and were originally pictographs. Ideograms in the form of pictograph writing appeared in China about 1500 BC, and their first use seems to have been to record (on bone inscriptions) how to make beer.

China is called by that name because its first unification was achieved by the emperor of the Chi’n state in 221BC. It is difficult to know much about the ancient China which existed before the first emperor, because that emperor – Shih Huang Ti – destroyed so much and so thoroughly that even when his empire was overthrown many of his innovations were irreversible. He destroyed China’s feudal system by relocating all of its aristocratic families hundreds or thousands of miles away from the land they had previously owned, breaking all links between the old nobilities and the land. Shi Huang Ti forcefully introduced many innovations, but two of these have lasted for millennia. These are a standard system of Chinese ideograms, so that written Chinese could be (and still is) read and understood in every part of China, and the joining-up and completion of 1,400 miles of the Great Wall.

To enforce a standardised script, Shih Huang Ti destroyed virtually everything in the written culture of the old feudal system of Chinese kingdoms, when he decreed (in 221 BC) the burning of nearly all the books in the old scripts of the Chinese Kingdoms, except for these kept at the Lo Yang library. All the old ways of writing, as well as the previous literature, history and written traditions of old China, went up in flames with the books. He disarmed the previously rival armies by decreeing that all weapons (except those in the hands of the Chi’n army) were to be taken to the capital and melted down, and ensured the people had much work to do through two giant projects – first, the construction of a vast system of imperial roads, radiating on to the capital, and second, the Great Wall completion project, which was built by the “band of criminals” (defined as all the opponents to the new centralised empire). The bitterness of these developments has lasted millennia. As Professor Fitzgerald comments:

“Even today, after more 2,000 years, the people repeat that a million men perished at the task, and every stone cost a human life.”
C.P Fitzgerald, “China – A Short Cultural History”, Century Hutchinson, Melbourne, p 140.

The cultural loss of the old books is still mourned by Chinese monks and scholars. However, it is hardly possible to imagine China today without its commonly understood identically written language (even if the ideograms are differently spoken in different provinces) which forms a firm cultural foundation for Chinese civilisation.

When the first empire collapsed, the Huns attacked North-West China, and depopulated it to such an extent that this area, which had previously been the prime centre of Chinese culture and innovation, was greatly weakened. The great library of Lo Yang (the sole location into which one copy of all the old books had been collected) was entirely destroyed, and nearly all of the centuries of recorded Chinese culture and history of the previous provinces and states of China, everything which had been written in the old ideograms, perished in the flames.

© George Tait Edwards 2013


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This post was written by George Tait Edwards

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