China emerged as one of the world's earliest civilizations, in the fertile basin of the Yellow River in the North China Plain. For millennia, China's political system was based on hereditary monarchies, or dynasties, beginning with the semi-legendary Xia dynasty in 21st century BCE. Since then, China has expanded, fractured, and re-unified numerous times. In the 3rd century BCE, the Qin unified core China and established the first Chinese dynasty. The succeeding Han dynasty saw some of the most advanced technology at that time, including papermaking and the compass, along with agricultural and medical improvements. The invention of gunpowder and printing in the Tang dynasty completed the Four Great Inventions. Tang culture spread widely in Asia, as the new maritime Silk Route brought traders to as far as Mesopotamia and Somalia. Dynastic rule ended in 1912 with the Xinhai Revolution, as a republic replaced the Qing dynasty. The Chinese Civil War led to the break up of the country in 1949, with the victorious Communist Party of China founding the People’s Republic of China on the mainland while the losing Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan, a dispute which is still unresolved.
Since the introduction of economic reforms in 1978, China's economy has been one of the world's fastest-growing. As of 2016, it is the world's second-largest economy by nominal GDP and largest by purchasing power parity (PPP). China is also the world's largest exporter and second-largest importer of goods. China is a recognized nuclear weapons state and has the world's largest standing army and second-largest defense budget. The PRC is a member of the United Nations, as it replaced the ROC as a permanent member of the UN Security Council in 1971. China is also a member of numerous formal and informal multilateral organizations, including the ASEAN Plus mechanism, WTO, APEC, BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the BCIM and the G20. China is a great power and a major regional power within Asia, and has been characterized as a potential superpower.
The English word "China" is first attested in Richard Eden's 1555 translation of the 1516 journal of the Portuguese explorer Duarte Barbosa. The demonym, that is, the name for the people, and adjectival form "Chinese" developed later on the model of Portuguese chinês and French chinois. Portuguese China is thought to derive from Persian Chīn (چین), and perhaps ultimately from Sanskrit Cīna (चीन). Cīna was first used in early Hindu scripture, including the Mahābhārata (5th century BCE) and the Laws of Manu (2nd century BCE). In 1655, Martino Martini suggested that the word China is derived from the name of the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC), a proposal supported by many later scholars, although there are also a number of alternative suggestions.
The official name of the modern state is the "People's Republic of China" (Chinese: 中华人民共和国; pinyin: Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó). The shorter form is "China" Zhōngguó (中国), from zhōng ("central") and guó ("state"), a term which developed under the Western Zhou dynasty in reference to its royal demesne. It was then applied to the area around Luoyi (present-day Luoyang) during the Eastern Zhou and then to China's Central Plain before being used as an occasional synonym for the state under the Qing. It was often used as a cultural concept to distinguish the Huaxia people from perceived "barbarians" and was the source of the English name "Middle Kingdom". A more literary or inclusive name, alluding to the "land of Chinese civilization", is Zhōnghuá (中华). It developed during the Wei and Jin dynasties as a contraction of "the central state of the Huaxia". Before the PRC's establishment, the proposed name of the country was the People's Democratic Republic of China (simplified Chinese: 中华人民民主共和国; traditional Chinese: 中華人民民主共和國; pinyin: Zhōnghuá Rénmín Mínzhǔ Gònghéguó) during the first CPPCC held on 15 June 1949. During the 1950s and 1960s, after the defeat of the Kuomintang in the Chinese Civil War, it was also referred to as "Communist China" or "Red China", to be differentiated from "Nationalist China" or "Free China".
Archaeological evidence suggests that early hominids inhabited China between 2.24 million and 250,000 years ago. The hominid fossils of Peking Man, a Homo erectus who used fire, were discovered in a cave at Zhoukoudian near Beijing; they have been dated to between 680,000 and 780,000 years ago. The fossilized teeth of Homo sapiens (dated to 125,000–80,000 years ago) have been discovered in Fuyan Cave in Dao County, Hunan. Chinese proto-writing existed in Jiahu around 7000 BCE, Damaidi around 6000 BCE, Dadiwan from 5800–5400 BCE, and Banpo dating from the 5th millennium BCE. Some scholars have suggested that the Jiahu symbols (7th millennium BCE) constituted the earliest Chinese writing system.
According to Chinese tradition, the first dynasty was the Xia, which emerged around 2100 BCE. The dynasty was considered mythical by historians until scientific excavations found early Bronze Age sites at Erlitou, Henan in 1959. It remains unclear whether these sites are the remains of the Xia dynasty or of another culture from the same period. The succeeding Shang dynasty is the earliest to be confirmed by contemporary records. The Shang ruled the plain of the Yellow River in eastern China from the 17th to the 11th century BCE. Their oracle bone script (from c. 1500 BCE) represents the oldest form of Chinese writing yet found, and is a direct ancestor of modern Chinese characters.
The Shang were conquered by the Zhou, who ruled between the 11th and 5th centuries BCE, though centralized authority was slowly eroded by feudal warlords. Many independent states eventually emerged from the weakened Zhou state and continually waged war with each other in the 300-year Spring and Autumn period, only occasionally deferring to the Zhou king. By the time of the Warring States period of the 5th–3rd centuries BCE, there were seven powerful sovereign states in what is now China, each with its own king, ministry and army.