Guns, Germs, and Steel | Study Guide

Jared Diamond

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Guns, Germs, and Steel | Part 4, Chapter 16 : Around the World in Five Chapters (How China Became Chinese) | Summary



Most states and nations form as a result of conquering many other peoples and bringing them under a unitary government. Is this also true for China, which is routinely seen as ethnically and linguistically homogeneous? Diamond argues in this chapter that China was able to form a remarkably homogeneous society with the Qin Dynasty starting in 221 BC in a process called sinification, but most of the ethnic diversity of societies was pushed to other parts of eastern Eurasia, the Polynesian islands, and beyond.

There is a diversity of languages spoken in China even though it is dominated by speakers of Mandarin and related languages. Other language groups include the Miao-Yao (the speakers of which are sometimes known as the Hmong) and the Austroasiatic family group, which includes Vietnamese and Cambodian. Over the course of millennia, most of these speakers were moved out of southern China as Sino-Tibetan speakers became dominant. The cultural north-south distinction in China was reflective of different geographies in each region, although they were not so different as to impede the development and spread of agriculture, settlement, and the domestication of animals such as the water buffalo. This spread gave rise to China's dynastic societies and relative homogeneity.


Chapter 16 is one of the shortest and least developed in the book. Diamond is attempting to argue that his geographic factors explain the rise of Chinese culture and society as well, but they are not explicitly drawn together here, and the reader is left to infer how the example of Chinese society relates to much of the argument in Parts 2 and 3.

Diamond's overall point is that "thanks to the achievements of East Asia's first farmers, China became Chinese, and peoples from Thailand to ... Easter Island became their cousins." He sketches this picture in a very general sense; agriculture developed in both northern and southern China and helped draw already similar peoples closer together and consolidate power. The Chinese would come to dominate the entire region, including Southeast Asia and even the Korean Peninsula and Japan, aided by use of the Chinese writing system.

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