China History

Pre 20th Century History

The Chinese claim a history of 5000 years. The first dynasty, the Xia, is yet to be archaeologically verified but is accepted as lasting from 2200 to 1700 BC, and is described in legends as having been preceded by a succession of god-like sovereigns who bestowed the gifts of life, hunting and agricultural knowledge. The existence of ensuing dynasties is similarly hazy, but clarity increases with each era, revealing agricultural societies who practised ancestor worship.

The Zhou period (1100-221 BC) saw the emergence of Confucianism and the establishment of the 'mandate of heaven' whereby the right to rule was given to the just and denied to the evil and corrupt, leading to the later Taoist view that heaven's disapproval was expressed through natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and insect plagues.

The Chinese were united for the first time during the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC). The dynasty standardised the writing system and completed construction of the Great Wall. The ensuing Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) featured much military conflict and the creation of the Three Kingdoms. Curiously, these war-torn centuries also saw the flowering of Buddhism and the arts.

Unity arose out of the chaos under the Sui dynasty (581-618) and was consolidated under the Tang (618-907), commonly regarded as the most glorious period of Chinese history. Military conquests re-established Chinese control of the silk routes and society was 'internationalised' to an unprecedented degree. Buddhism flourished under the Tang, splitting into two distinct schools: the Chan (Zen) and Pure Land (Chinese Buddhist).

The Song dynasty (960-1279) was marked by a revival of Confucianism and urban and commercial revolutions - it was during the 13th century that Marco Polo commented on the grand scale of China's prosperous cities. Genghis's grandson Kublai Khan's Yuan dynasty (1206-1368) established a capital at what is now Beijing and militarised the nation's administration. The novice Buddhist Hongwu established the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), with capitals at Beijing ('Northern Capital') and Nanjing ('Southern Capital') .

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in China, anchoring off the coast in 1516. A trade mission was established in Macau by 1557, but it was not until 1760 that other powers gained secure access to Chinese markets via a base in Guangzhou. Trade flourished, but in China's favour, as British purchases of silk and tea far outweighed Chinese purchases of wool and spices. In 1773 the British decided to balance the books by encouraging the sale of opium. By 1840 the Opium Wars were on.

The resulting treaties signed in British favour led to the cession of Hong Kong and the signing of the humiliating Treaty of Nanking. A subsequent land-grabbing spree by Western powers saw China carved up into spheres of influence. The Chinese agreed to the US-proposed free-trade Open Door Policy and all of China's colonial possessions soon evaporated, with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia falling to the French, Burma to the British, and Korea and Taiwan to Japan.

Modern History

The first half of the 20th century was a period of utter chaos. Intellectuals searched for a new philosophy to replace Confucianism, while warlords attempted to grab imperial power. Sun Yatsen's Kuomintang (KMT, or Nationalist Party) established a base in southern China and began training a National Revolutionary Army (NRA). Meanwhile, talks between the Soviet Comintern and prominent Chinese Marxists resulted in the formation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921. Hopes of the CCP aligning with the KMT were dashed by Sun Yatsen's death and the rise from the KMT of Chiang Kaishek in Beijing, who favoured a capitalist state supported by a military dictatorship.

The communists were split between those who focused on urban revolt and those who believed victory lay in uniting the countryside. Mao Zedong established his forces in the mountains of Jinggang Shan, and by 1930 had marshalled a guerrilla army of 40,000. Chiang mounted four Communists extermination campaigns, each time resulting in communist victories. Chiang's fifth campaign was very nearly successful because the communists ill-advisedly met the KMT head-on in battle. Hemmed in, the communists retreated from Jiangxi north to Shaanxi - the Long March of 1934. En route the communists armed peasants and redistributed land, and Mao was recognised as the CCP's paramount leader.

In 1931 the Japanese took advantage of the chaos in China and invaded Manchuria. Chiang Kaishek did little to halt the Japanese, who by 1939 had overrun most of eastern China. After WWII, China was in the grip of civil war. On 1 October 1949 Mao Zedong proclaimed the foundation of the People's Republic of China (PRC), while Chiang Kaishek fled to Taiwan. The USA continued to recognise Chiang as the legitimate ruler of China.

The PRC began its days as a bankrupt nation, but the 1950s ushered in an era of great confidence. The people were bonded by the Korean War, and by 1953 inflation had been halted, industrial production was restored to prewar levels, the redistribution of land had been carried out and the first Five Year Plan had been launched. The most tragic consequence of the Party's dominance was the 'liberation' of Tibet in 1959. Beijing oversaw the enforced exile of the Tibetan spiritual leader and initiated the genocide of a precious culture. To this day hundreds of monasteries still lie in ruins.

The next plan was the Great Leap Forward, aimed at jump-starting the economy into first-world standards. Despite oodles of revolutionary zeal, the plan was stalled by inefficient management coupled with floods, droughts and, in 1960, the withdrawal of all Soviet aid. The Cultural Revolution (1966-70) attempted to draw attention away from these disasters by increasing Mao's personal presence via his Little Red Book of quotations, purging opponents and launching the Red Guard. Universities were closed, intellectuals were killed, temples were ransacked and reminders of China's capitalist past were destroyed.

Beijing politics were divided between moderates Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping and radicals and Maoists led by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing. The radicals gained the upper hand when Zhou died in 1976. Hua Guofeng, Mao's chosen successor, became acting premier. Public anger at Jiang Qing and her clique culminated in a gathering of protesters in Tiananmen Square, and a brutal crackdown led to the disappearance of Deng, who was blamed for the 'counter-revolutionary' gathering. Deng returned to public life in 1977, eventually forming a six-member Standing Committee of the CCP.

With Deng at the helm, and the signing of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, China set a course towards economic reconstruction, although political reform was almost nil. General dissatisfaction with the Party, soaring inflation, corruption and increased demands for democracy led to widespread social unrest, typified by the demonstrations of 1989 that resulted in the bloody Tiananmen Square massacre.


 China since 1989

For some three years, China’s politics were almost frozen, but in 1992, Deng, the man who had sent in the tanks, made his last grand public gesture. That year, he undertook what Chinese political insiders called his ‘southern tour’, or nanxun; the Chinese term had been used in premodern times to refer to the emperor visiting his furthest domains. By visiting

Sh?nzhèn, the boomtown on the border with Hong Kong (and appearing to local news reporters riding a golf buggy in a theme park), Deng indicated that the economic policies of reform were not going to be abandoned. The massive growth rates that the Chinese economy has posted ever since have justified his decision: in the first decade of the 21st century, annual growth has run at a historically unprecedented rate of about 10%. Deng also made another significant choice: grooming Jiang Zemin – the mayor of Shàngh?i , who had peacefully dissolved demonstrations in Shàngh?iB?ij?ng

The post-Deng leadership has taken on something like a regular pattern. After two five-year terms for Jiang Zemin, the 16th and 17th Party Congresses in 2002 and 2007 confirmed Hu Jintao as Jiang’s successor. Jiang’s period in office was marked by huge enthusiasm for economic development, along with cautious political reform (for example, the growth of local elections at village level, but certainly no move to democracy at higher levels). Since 2002, Hu and his prime minister, Wen Jiabao, have made more efforts to deal with the inequality and poverty in the countryside, and this remains a major concern of the party, along with reform of the CCP itself.

In the two decades since 1989, China has become far more influenced by globalised modernity than even in the 1980s. China has placed scientific development at the centre of its quest for growth, sending students abroad in their tens of thousands to study science and technology and develop a core of scientific knowledge within China itself.

The country also has a powerful international role. China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It is also seeking economic and diplomatic influence in Africa South America . However, China’s preference for remaining neutral but friendly may not be able to last long into the new century: crises such as the Russian incursion into Georgia in 2008, the ever-volatile North Korean situation, and the scramble for mineral resources in Africa

Nationalism has also become a popular rallying cry at home. This does not necessarily mean xenophobia or anti-foreign sentiment, although there are occasions (such as the reaction to the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade Kosovo <spanWar) that have led to violence against foreign targets and persons. But it is clear that China’s own people consider that the country’s moment has arrived, and that they must oppose attempts – whether by the West, or Japan <span– to prevent it taking centre stage in the region. Its long history has, for now, begun to bring China back to the prominence it once enjoyed.


Copyright 2010 Lonely Planet Publications , all rights reserved, used with permission 


Back to top