In 1992, archaeologists discovered the earliest known remains of modern man in the Yellow River delta. The discovery’s classification as ‘modern’ hinged on three basic facts associated with human civilization, known in archaeology as the triumvirate - the essential criteria by which we distinguish history from pre-history.
To begin with, the subject, a 5”1’ middle-aged female the researchers dubbed Chung Li (after an arcade game character that was being played in the background of the dig), had teeth worn down by sugars, indicating a diet rich in starch, likely rice or wheat, which are the products of sustained agriculture. This is the first condition satisfied.
The second, weaponized brutality, could be easily gleaned from the nearly seven hundred arrowheads buried deep into the ossature, indicating both advanced projectile force and senseless overkill - a distinctly modern idea. When two small characters of ancient Chinese writing were discovered carved into the skull - a penis and a pointing hand, roughly translated as ‘Fuck you’ - the triumvirate was established. Until such time as new findings overturn it, we can safely say that this is more or less where and when history began.
The discovery confirmed the astonishing timeline of China’s cultural achievement: a written language in use tens of thousands of years before the pyramids of Egypt; an advanced political order that would rise and fall a hundred times over before the Roman republic; a navy that traversed the globe and looked very intently at the world’s coastline five thousand years before Columbus. And sparkling over it all, the colorfully explosive magic powder that was very pretty and didn’t appear to have another use that would maybe turn the tide of history.
The Early Dynasties
China as it exists today would not be unified until the conclusion of the Warring Status period, but stable precursors did exist that covered the most populous region, where Chung Li was found and China began: the Yellow River delta. Although this area is home to some of the most fertile farmlands in the world, it does have the tendency to overflow, drowning crops, destroying structures, and causing cycles of famine. This has earned it the honorifics ‘China’s Little Bitch Goddess’ or ‘River of For Fuck’s Sake’, and given rise to the ancient Chinese folk music known as the ‘delta blues’ - the opposite of yellow.
Nevertheless, the dynasties governing this primordial stew of human civilization were, on the whole, quite successful. The Ding Dynasty lasted four thousand years, with a single inbred family ruling in an unbroken line. Its policies were founded in the rule of law - the earliest legal system on Earth - known as the Shondet, or Instant Death Code. It mandated instant death for any accusation of any offence, with no established rules for what constituted an offence - a robust precursor to common law that remained blind to both prejudice and facts. Though somewhat harsh by modern standards, this system was effective in maintaining order and lasted right through to the Pinprick Revolution, in which the remaining members of the Ding Dynasty, after being pricked by a sewing pin, died in minutes when their blood failed to coagulate.
A relatively peaceful transition to the Hanchu Dynasty was soon achieved, but it wouldn't last long. The ongoing tension between the Imperial capital and the provinces - many of whom had strong traditions of self-rule - erupted into a bloody civil war that would consume the next eight thousand years, with a two hundred-year break to restore lost population known as the Wu Han Yiyi, or Age of Heroic Fucking.
Warring Status Period
China was growing dramatically in this period, but it was also splintering, with over 400 languages that were mutually incomprehensible and competing technologies making cooperation difficult. For example, while the Imperial capital employed a circular wheel for carts and wagons, the Southwest provinces stuck to the triangle design of their ancestors. In the northern provinces, the square wheel was standard.
Challenges from the governing dynasty to modernize were met with outrage from the Triangles and the Squares, as the warring factions came to be called. Switching to square wheels would eliminate an entire class dedicated to pushing the wagon wheels from one side to the next - an elite warrior class known as Pushers. The beefy Triangle Pushers, in particular, were the greatest soldiers of their era.
As tensions mounted, a conference was convened in the capital to address the crisis. But when the Squares got there two days before the Triangles, the old rivalry reignited and war swept over the nation. (These events are dramatized in the Chinese historical film Raise the Red Lantern.)
Age of Heroic Fucking
The millennia-long war decimated the Chinese population, eventually leading to the declaration of a practical cease-fire intended to replenish each side's numbers. This was the Two Hundred Year Orgy fictionalized in the Chinese historical film, Raise the Red Skirt.
It is during this period that opium is introduced on a large scale, as the drug's aphrodisiac properties were exploited for the purpose of population growth. Although its legacy in Chinese culture would ultimately prove controversial, at the time it was much celebrated, with a number of important art works depicting people in the distant corner of a landscape getting totally fucked up and laid like eggs.
When war recommenced, the great poet of the age, Zhang Wang, summed up popular sentiment with his famous abbreviated Haiku: 'It figures.'
Towism, Confusion, and the Birth of Modern China
When the war finally ended, it was through a compromise brokered by the first ruler of the Fungu Dynasty, which would see China through its golden age. The arrangement was that special government ‘tow wagons’ would be commissioned, built, and spread throughout the territories of the Triangles and the Squares. These would be equipped with circular wheels, then hitched to the ancestral wagons of the provinces - with a contingent of Pushers in place, albeit a much smaller one.
Ironically, it is from this uneasy compromise that Chinese philosophy would spring, defining the age and setting the tone for the culture. The Pushers discovered that if they acted like they were pushing the cart rather than actually pushing it, it all ended up the same and no one even really noticed. This Doctrine of Least Effort and Most Drunken, as it came to be known, is encapsulated in the famous Towist principle of wu wei - action without action.
Confusionism, the other great current of Chinese philosophy, evolved in great part as a reaction to Towism. It challenged the very notion of doing anything at all for any reason - even acting like you were doing something. Its founder, the semi-mythical Confusion, taught that everything’s totally going to work out, so just chill. He summed up his philosophy in the single word 'reciprocity', instructing his followers not to do anything for them - what have they ever done for you? Little is known about his life, but his neighbors said that he kept to himself, mostly.
Together, Towism and Confusionism would come to dominate Chinese life over the ensuing millennia, giving flower to the richest body of culture mankind has produced.
Five Dynasties At the Same Motherfucking Time, Bitch
The peace and plenty of these years would culminate in the most freaking awesome period in Chinese history - when there were five. Fucking. Dynasties...all at once. That’s right: five. Suck it.
The dynasties would cooperate on matters scientific, artistic, and social, leading to unprecedented sophistication in government, rapid technological advance, and some of the greatest art in world history. They’d also get together to just dance and shoot the shit, which made them even cooler, really.
Although the progress in Chinese society would lead to high-yield irrigation, sustainable animal husbandry, an intricate bureaucracy, advanced shipbuilding and navigation techniques, and a rigorous tradition of scholarship, they didn’t learn how to blow people up fast enough, and so were eventually overwhelmed and subjugated by a tiny half-frozen island country thousands of miles away.
The Aw Shit Period
The last emperor of China’s final dynasty was deposed by Italian general Bernardo Bertolluci in 1946, leaving a power vacuum that would be filled by cultural revolutionaries led by the giant Yao Ming, whose fury in battle would eventually lead to an NBA contract. (This story is chronicled in the Chinese historical film, Raise the Red Roof.)
Yao’s radical view of Chinese culture as an empty basket to be dunked on would result in the complete reordering of Chinese society, with a central autocratic government charged with making sure there isn’t a disastrous famine that kills millions of people.
Today, that government is beginning to reclaim its lead in world affairs, boldly stowing its secret profits offshore and obsessing itself with the sex scandals of party members. As for the public of this most ancient of civilizations, they are engaged in the great historical work of assembling iPhones, watching movies about giant robots, and being aggressively censored.
The dragon glides on.