Remains of Homo erectus, found near Beijing, have been dated back 460,000 years. Recent archaeological studies in the Yangtse River area have provided evidence of ancient cultures (and rice cultivation) flourishing more than 11,500 years ago, contrary to the conventional belief that the Yellow River area was the cradle of the Chinese civilization. The Neolithic period flourished with a multiplicity of cultures in different regions dating back to around 5000 B.C. There is strong evidence of two so-called pottery cultures, the Yang-shao culture (3950-1700 B.C.) and the Lung-shan culture (2000-1850 B.C). Written records go back more than 3,500 years, and the written history is (as is the case with Ancient Egypt) divided into dynasties, families of kings or emperors. The voluminous records kept by the ancient Chinese provide us with knowledge into their strong sense of their real and mythological origins - as well as of their neighbors.

By about 2500 B.C. the Chinese knew how to cultivate and weave silk and were trading the luxurious fabric with other nations by about 1000 B.C. The production and value of silk tell much about the advanced state of early Chinese civilization. Cultivation of silkworms required mulberry tree orchards, temperature controls and periodic feedings around the clock. More than 2,000 silkworms were required to produce one pound of silk. The Chinese also mastered spinning, dyeing and weaving silk threads into fabric. Bodies were buried with food containers and other possessions, presumably to assist the smooth passage of the dead to the next world. The relative success of ancient China can be attributed to the superiority of their ideographic written language, their technology, and their political institutions; the refinement of their artistic and intellectual creativity; and the sheer weight of their numbers.

A recurrent historical theme has been the unceasing struggle of the sedentary Chinese against the threats posed by non-Chinese peoples on the margins of their territory in the north, northeast, and northwest. China saw itself surrounded on all sides by so-called barbarian peoples whose cultures were demonstrably inferior by Chinese standards. This China-centered ("sinocentric") view of the world was still undisturbed in the nineteenth century, at the time of the first serious confrontation with the West. Of course the ancient Chinese showed a remarkable ability to absorb the people of surrounding areas into their own civilization. The process of assimilation continued over the centuries through conquest and colonization until what is now known as China Proper was brought under unified rule.