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Old men in china playing chess in the park in Temple of heaven. With nearly 4,000 years of continuous history, China is one of the world's oldest civilizations. Prior to the 19th century, it possessed one of the most advanced societies and economies in the world; but through successive dynasties it then missed the Industrial Revolution in Europe and began to decline. In the 19th and 20th century, imperialism, internal weakness and civil wars damaged the country and its economy, and led to the overthrow of imperial rule.