History of China

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Template:History of China China is one of the world's oldest continuous major civilizations, with written records dating back 3,500 years. Turtle shells with markings reminiscent of ancient Chinese writing from the Shang Dynasty (商朝) have been carbon dated to around 1,500 BC. These records suggest that the origins of Chinese civilization started with city-states that may go back more than 5,000 years. Two thousand years ago is commonly used as the date when China became unified under a large kingdom or empire. Successive dynasties developed systems of bureaucratic control that would allow the emperor to control the large territory that would become China Proper.

The forced imposition of a common system of writing by the Qin (秦) emperor (200 BC) and the development of a state ideology based on Confucianism (100 BC) marked the foundation of what we now call the Chinese civilization. Politically, China alternated between periods of political unity and disunity, and was occasionally conquered by external groups of people, some eventually being assimilated into the Chinese population. Cultural and political influences from many parts of Asia, carried by successive waves of immigration, merged to create the image of Chinese Culture today.

Prehistoric times

China was inhabited, possibly more than a million years ago, by Homo erectus. The excavations at Yuanmou (元謀) and later Lantian (藍田) show early habitation. Perhaps the most famous specimen of Homo erectus found in China is the so-called Peking Man (北京人) found in 1923. The Homo sapiens or modern human might have reached China about 65,000 years ago from Africa. Early evidence for proto-Chinese rice paddy agriculture is carbon-dated to about 6000 BC, and associated with the Peiligang culture (裴李崗文化) of Xinzheng county (新鄭縣), Henan (河南省). With agriculture came increased population, the ability to store and redistribute crops, and to support specialist craftsmen and administrators. In late Neolithic times, the Huang He (黃河) valley began to establish itself as a cultural center, where the first villages were founded; the most archaeologically significant of those was found at Banpo (半坡), Xi'an (西安).

Ancient histories

Archaeological sites such as Sanxingdui (三星堆) and Erlitou (二里頭) show evidence of a Bronze Age civilization in China. The earliest written record of China's past dates from the Shang Dynasty in perhaps the 13th century BC, and takes the form of inscriptions of divination records on the bones or shells of animals—the so-called oracle bones (甲骨文). However the earliest comprehensive history of China, the Historical Records(史記) by Sima Qian (司馬遷), a renowned Chinese historiographer of the 2nd century BC, begins perhaps 1300 years earlier, with an account of the Five Emperors (三皇五帝). These rulers were semi-mythical sage-kings and moral exemplars, and one of them, the Yellow Emperor (黃帝), is said to be the ancestor of all Chinese people.

Sima Qian relates that the system of inherited rulership was established during the following early period called the Xia Dynasty (夏朝), and that this model was perpetuated in the recorded Shang and Zhou (周朝) dynasties. It is during this period of the Three Dynasties (Chinese: 三代; pinyin: sāndài) that the historical China begins to appear.

Xia Dynasty

Sima Qian's account dates the founding of the Xia Dynasty to some 4,000 years ago, but this date has not been corroborated. Some archaeologists connect the Xia to excavations at Erlitou in central Henan province, where a bronze smelter from around 2000 BC was unearthed. Early markings from this period, found on pottery and shells, have been alleged to be ancestors of modern Chinese characters, but such claims have not been accepted by many scholars. Proof of Xia's existence still requires further archaeological discovery. With no clear written records to match the Shang oracle bones or the Zhou bronze vessel writings, the Xia era remains poorly understood.

Shang Dynasty

Archaeological findings providing evidence for the existence of the Shang Dynasty (商朝), c 16001046 BC is divided into two sets. The first, from the earlier Shang period (c 1600–1300) comes from sources at Erligang (二里崗), Zhengzhou (鄭州) and Shangcheng. The second set, from the later Shang or Yin (殷) period, consists of a large body of oracle bone writings. Anyang (安陽) in modern day Henan has been confirmed as the last of the six capitals of the Shang (c 1300–1046 BC).

Chinese historians living in later periods were accustomed to the notion of one dynasty succeeding another, but the actual political situation in early China is known to have been much more complicated. Hence, as some scholars of China suggest, the Xia and the Shang can possibly refer to political entities that existed concurrently, just as the early Zhou (successor state of the Shang), is known to have existed at the same time as the Shang.

Zhou Dynasty

By the end of the 2nd millennium BC, the Zhou Dynasty (周朝) began to emerge in the Huang He valley, overrunning the Shang. The Zhou appeared to have begun their rule under a semi-feudal system. Near the end of this dynasty, power became decentralized during the Spring and Autumn Period (春秋時代) when regional feudal lords began to assert their power, absorb smaller powers, and vie for hegemony. The Hundred Schools of Thought (諸子百家) of Chinese philosophy blossomed during this period and such influential intellectual movements as Confucianism (儒家), Taoism (道家), Legalism (法家) and Mohism (墨家) were founded. After further political consolidation, seven prominent states remained by the end of 5th century BC, and the years in which these few states battled each other is known as the Warring States period (戰國時代). Though there remained a nominal Zhou king until 256 BC, he was largely a figurehead and held little real power.

As neighboring territories of these warring states, including areas of modern Sichuan (四川)and Liaoning (遼寧), were annexed, they were governed under the new local administrative system of commandery and prefecture (郡縣). This system had been in use since the Spring and Autumn Period and parts can still be seen in the modern system of Sheng & Xian (province and county, 省縣). The final expansion in this period began during the reign of Ying Zheng (嬴政), the king of Qin. His unification of the other six powers, and further annexations in the modern regions of Zhejiang (浙江), Fujian (福建), Guangdong (廣東) and Guangxi (廣西) in 214 BC enabled him to proclaim himself the First Emperor (Shi Huangdi, 始皇帝).

Qin Dynasty: The first Chinese Empire

File:Qin empire 210 BCE.jpg
The Qin empire in 210 BC.

Though the unified reign of the Qin (秦) Emperor lasted only twelve years, he managed to subdue great parts of what constitutes the core of the Han Chinese homeland and to unite them under a tightly centralized Legalist government seated at Xianyang (咸陽)(in modern Xi'an).

His sons, however, were not as successful; as soon as the Qin reign ended, the Qin imperial structure collapsed. The Qin Dynasty is well known for building the Great Wall of China, which would later be augmented and enhanced during the Ming Dynasty (明朝).

The English word China was derived from the porcelain or ceramic ware originally made in China. The phonetic derivative was most probably introduced into the English language from Persian or Sanskrit terms for "Chinese People" ultimately derived from 秦 qín (pronounced similarly to "chin".)

Han Dynasty: A period of prosperity

The Han Dynasty (漢朝) emerged in 202 BC. It was the first dynasty to embrace the philosophy of Confucianism, which became the ideological underpinning of all regimes until the end of imperial China. Under the Han Dynasty, China made great advances in many areas of the arts and sciences. Emperor Wu (Han Wudi 漢武帝) consolidated and extended the Chinese empire by pushing back the Xiongnu (匈奴)(sometimes identified with the Huns) into the steppes of modern Inner Mongolia (內蒙古), wresting from them the modern areas of Gansu (甘肅), Ningxia (寧夏) and Qinghai (青海). This enabled the first opening of trading connections between China and the West, the Silk Road (絲綢之路).

Nevertheless, land acquisitions by elite families gradually drained the tax base. In AD 9, the usurper Wang Mang (王莽) founded the short-lived Xin ("New") Dynasty (新朝) and started an extensive program of land and other economic reforms. These programs, however, were never supported by the land-holding families, for they favored the peasant and lesser gentry, and the instability they produced brought on chaos and uprisings.

Emperor Guangwu (光武帝) reinstated the Han Dynasty with the support of land-holding and merchant families at Luoyang (洛陽), east of Xi'an. This new era would be termed the Eastern Han Dynasty (東漢). Han power declined again amidst land acquisitions, invasions, and feuding between consort clans and eunuchs. The Yellow Turban Rebellion (黃巾之亂) broke out in 184, ushering in an era of warlords. In the ensuing turmoil, three states tried to gain predominance in the Period of the Three Kingdoms (三國). This time period has been greatly romanticized in works such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國演義).


  • de Crespigny, Rafe. 1977. The Ch’iang Barbarians and the Empire of Han: A Study in Frontier Policy. Papers on Far Eastern History 16, Australian National University. Canberra.
  • de Crespigny, Rafe. 1984. Northern Frontier. The Policies and Strategies of the Later Han Empire. Rafe de Crespigny. 1984. Faculty of Asian Studies, Australian National University. Canberra.
  • de Crespigny, Rafe. 1989. "South China under the Later Han Dynasty" (Chapter One from Generals of the South: the Foundation and early history of the Three Kingdoms state of Wu by Rafe de Crespigny, in Asian Studies Monographs, New Series No. 16 Faculty of Asian Studies, The Australian National University, Canberra 1989)[1]
  • de Crespigny, Rafe. 1996. "Later Han Military Administration: An Outline of the Military Administration of the Later Han Empire." Rafe de Crespigny. Based on the Introduction to Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling being the Chronicle of Later Han for the years 189 to 220 AD as recorded in Chapters 59 to 69 of the Zizhi tongjian of Sima Guang, translated and annotated by Rafe de Crespigny and originally published in the Asian Studies Monographs, New Series No. 21, Faculty of Asian Studies, The Australian National University, Canberra 1996. [2]
  • Dubs, Homer H. 1938. The History of the Former Han Dynasty by Pan Ku. Vol. One. Baltimore. Waverly Press, Inc.
  • Dubs, Homer H. 1944. The History of the Former Han Dynasty by Pan Ku. Vol. Two. Baltimore. Waverly Press, Inc.
  • Dubs, Homer H. 1955. The History of the Former Han Dynasty by Pan Ku. Vol. Three. Ithaca, New York. Spoken Languages Services, Inc.
  • Hill, John E. 2004. The Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu. Draft annotated English translation.[3]
  • Hill, John E. 2004. The Peoples of the West from the Weilue 魏略 by Yu Huan 魚豢: A Third Century Chinese Account Composed between 239 and 265 CE. Draft annotated English translation. [4]
  • Hirth, Friedrich. 1875. China and the Roman Orient. Shanghai and Hong Kong. Unchanged reprint. Chicago, Ares Publishers, 1975.
  • Hulsewé, A. F. P. and Loewe, M. A. N. 1979. China in Central Asia: The Early Stage 125 BC – AD 23: an annotated translation of chapters 61 and 96 of the History of the Former Han Dynasty. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
  • Twitchett, Denis and Loewe, Michael, eds. 1986. The Cambridge History of China. Volume I. The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 B.C. – A.D. 220. Cambridge University Press.

Jin, the Sixteen Kingdoms, and the Northern and Southern Dynasties

Though these three kingdoms were reunited temporarily in 280 by the (Western) Jin Dynasty (晉朝), the contemporary non-Han Chinese (Wu Hu, 五胡) ethnic groups controlled much of the country in the early 4th century and provoked large-scale Han Chinese migrations to south of the Chang Jiang (長江). In 303 the Di (氐) people rebelled and later captured Chengdu (成都). Under Liu Yuan (劉淵) the Xiongnu rebelled near today's Linfen County (山西省臨汾縣). His successor Liu Cong (劉聰) captured and executed the last two Western Jin emperors. Sixteen kingdoms were established by these ethnic groups. The chaotic north was temporarily unified by Fu Jian (苻堅) who was defeated at the Battle of Feishui (淝水之戰) when he attempted to invade the south of China. Later on, Emperor Taiwu of Northern Wei (北魏太武帝) reunified the north again, marking the beginning of the Northern Dynasties, a sequence of local regimes ruling over the regions north of Chang Jiang.

Along with the refugees from the North, Emperor Yuan of Jin China (晉元帝) reinstated the Jin regime at present Nanjing (南京) in the south. From this came the sequence of Southern dynasties of Song (宋), Qi (齊), Liang (梁) and Chen (陳), which all had their capitals at Jiankang (建康)(near today's Nanjing). As China was ruled by two independent dynasties, one in the south and the other in the north, this is called the era of Southern and Northern Dynasties (南北朝).


  • de Crespigny, Rafe. 1991. "The Three Kingdoms and Western Jin: A History of China in the Third Century AD." East Asian History, no. 1 [June 1991], pp. 1-36, & no. 2 [December 1991], pp. 143-164. Australian National University, Canberra. [5]
  • Miller, Andrew. 1959. Accounts of Western Nations in the History of the Northern Chou Dynasty. University of California Press.

Sui Dynasty: Reunification

The Sui Dynasty (隋朝) managed to reunite the country in 589 after almost 300 years of disjunction.

The unification is the second shortest dynasty in the history of China after Qin Dynasty, and during this time, millions laboured on the Grand Canal of China (大運河), still the longest canal in the world to date.


Wright, Arthur F. 1978. The Sui Dynasty: The Unification of China. A.D. 581-617. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. ISBN 0-394-49187-4 ; 0-394-32332-7 (pbk).

Tang Dynasty: Return to prosperity

On June 18, 618, Gaozu (唐高祖) took the throne, and the Tang Dynasty (唐朝) was established, opening a new age of prosperity and innovations in arts and technology. Buddhism, which had gradually been established in China from the first century, became the predominant religion and was adopted by the royal family and many of the common people.

Chang'an (長安)(modern Xi'an), the national capital, is thought to have been the world's biggest city at the time. The Tang and Han are often referred to as the most prosperous periods of Chinese history.

The Tang, like the Han, kept the trade routes open to the west and south and there was extensive trade with distant foreign countries and many foreign merchants settled in China.

From about 860 the Tang Dynasty began to decline due to a series of rebellions within China itself, and in the previously subject Kingdom of Nanzhao (南詔) to the south. One of the warlords, Huang Chao (黃巢), captured Guangzhou (廣州) in 879, killing most of the 200,000 inhabitants including most of the large colony of foreign merchant families there. In late 880 Luoyang surrendered to him and on 5 January, 881 he conquered Changan. The emperor Xizong (唐僖宗) fled to Chengdu and Huang established a new temporary regime, which was eventually destroyed by Tang forces. However, another time of political chaos followed: the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period.


  • Benn, Charles. 2002. China's Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517665-0.
  • Pelliot, Paul. 1904. "Deux itinéraires de Chine en Inde à la fin du VIIIe siècle." BEFEO 4 (1904), pp. 131-413.
  • Schafer, Edward H. 1963. The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A study of T’ang Exotics. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1st paperback edition. 1985. ISBN 0520054628.
  • Schafer, Edward H. 1967. The Vermilion Bird: T’ang Images of the South. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles. Reprint 1985. ISBN 0520054628.
  • Shaffer, Lynda Norene. 1996. Maritime Southeast Asia to 1500. Armonk, New York, M.E. Sharpe, Inc. ISBN 1563241447.
  • Wang, Zhenping. 1991. "T’ang Maritime Trade Administration." Wang Zhenping. Asia Major, Third Series, Vol. IV, 1991, pp. 7-38.

Song Dynasty and its northern neighbors, the Liao and the Jin

In 960, the Song Dynasty (960-1279) (宋朝) gained power over most of China and established its capital in Kaifeng (汴京/開封), establishing a period of economic prosperity, while the Khitan Liao Dynasty (契丹族遼國) ruled over Manchuria and eastern Mongolia. In 1115 the Jurchen Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) (女真族金國) emerged to prominence, annihilating the Liao Dynasty in 10 years. It also took power over northern China and Kaifeng from the Song Dynasty, which moved its capital to Hangzhou (杭州). The Southern Song Dynasty also suffered the humiliation of having to acknowledge the Jin Dynasty as formal overlords. In the ensuing years China was divided between the Song Dynasty, the Jin Dynasty, and the Tangut Western Xia (西夏). Southern Song was a period of great technological development which can be explained in part by the military pressure that it felt from the north.


  • Shiba, Yoshinobu. 1970. Commerce and Society in Sung China. Originally published in Japanese as Sōdai shōgyō-shi kenkyū. Tokyo, Kazama shobō, 1968. Yoshinobu Shiba. Translation by Mark Elvin, Centre for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan.

Mongols and the Yuan Dynasty

The Jin Empire was defeated by the Mongols, who then proceeded to defeat the Southern Song in a long and bloody war, the first war where firearms played an important role. Some scholars estimate that about half the population, 50 million Han Chinese people may have perished in total as a result of the Mongols' invasion and conquest. During the era after the war, later called the Pax Mongolica, adventurous Westerners such as Marco Polo travelled all the way to China and brought the first reports of its wonders to Europe. In China, the Mongols were divided between those who wanted to remain based in the steppes and those who wished to adopt the customs of the chinese.

Kublai Khan (忽必烈/元世祖), grandson of Genghis Khan (成吉思汗), wanting to adopt Han Chinese customs, established the Yuan Dynasty (元朝). This was the first dynasty to rule the whole of China from Beijing (北京) as the capital. Beijing had been ceded to Liao in AD 938 with the 16 Prefectures of Yan Yun (燕雲十六州). Before that, it had been the capital of the Jin, who did not rule all of China.

Ming Dynasty: Revival of Chinese culture

There was strong sentiment, among the populace, against the rule of the "foreigner" (known as Dázi 韃子), which finally led to peasant revolts. The Mongolians were pushed back to the steppes and replaced by the Ming Dynasty (明朝) in 1368.

During Mongol rule, the population had dropped by 40 percent, to an estimated 60 million. Two centuries later, it had doubled. Urbanization thus increased as the population grew and as the division of labor grew more complex. Large urban centers, such as Nanjing and Beijing, also contributed to the growth of private industry. In particular, small-scale industries grew up, often specializing in paper, silk, cotton, and porcelain goods. For the most part, however, relatively small urban centers with markets proliferated around the country. Town markets mainly traded food, with some necessary manufactures such as pins or oil.

Despite the xenophobia and intellectual introspection characteristic of the increasingly popular new school of neo-Confucianism, China under the early Ming Dynasty was not isolated. Foreign trade and other contacts with the outside world, particularly Japan (倭國), increased considerably. Chinese merchants explored all of the Indian Ocean, reaching East Africa with the voyages of Zheng He (鄭和, original name Ma Sanbao 馬三保).

Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋) or (Hong-wu, 洪武皇帝/明太祖), the founder of the dynasty, laid the foundations for a state interested less in commerce and more in extracting revenues from the agricultural sector. Perhaps because of the Emperor's background as a peasant, the Ming economic system emphasized agriculture, unlike that of the Song and the Mongolian Dynasties, which relied on traders and merchants for revenue. Neo-feudal landholdings of the Song and Mongol periods were expropriated by the Ming rulers. Great landed estates were confiscated by the government, fragmented, and rented out. Private slavery was forbidden. Consequently, after the death of Emperor Yong-le (永樂皇帝/明成祖), independent peasant landholders predominated in Chinese agriculture. These laws might have paved the way to removing the worst of the poverty during the previous regimes. The laws against the merchants and the restrictions under which the craftsmen worked remained essentially as they had been under the Song, but now the remnants of the older foreign merchant class also fell under these new Ming laws. Their influence quickly dwindled.

The dynasty had a strong and complex central government that unified and controlled the empire. The emperor's role became more autocratic, although Zhu Yuanzhang necessarily continued to use what he called the "Grand Secretaries" to assist with the immense paperwork of the bureaucracy, including memorials (petitions and recommendations to the throne), imperial edicts in reply, reports of various kinds, and tax records. It was this same bureaucracy that later prevented the Ming government from being able to adapt to changes in society, and eventually led to its decline.

Emperor Yong-le strenuously tried to extend China's influence beyond its borders by demanding other rulers send ambassadors to China to present tribute. A large navy was built, including four-masted ships displacing 1,500 tons. A standing army of 1 million troops (some estimate as many as 1.9 million) was created. The Chinese armies conquered Annam (安南) while the Chinese fleet sailed the China seas and the Indian Ocean, cruising as far as the east coast of Africa. The Chinese gained influence over Turkestan. Several maritime Asian nations sent envoys with tribute for the Chinese emperor. Domestically, the Grand Canal was expanded, and proved to be a stimulus to domestic trade. Over 100,000 tons of iron per year were produced. Many books were printed using movable type. The imperial palace in Beijing's Forbidden City reached its current splendor. The Ming period seems to have been one of China's most prosperous. It was also during these centuries that the potential of south China came to be fully exploited. New crops were widely cultivated, and industries such as those producing porcelain and textiles flourished.

During the Ming dynasty was the last construction on the Great Wall. While the Great Wall had been built in earlier times, most of what is seen today was either built or repaired by the Ming. The brick and granite work was enlarged, the watch towers were redesigned, and cannons were placed along its length.


  • Duyvendak, J.J.L. China’s Discovery of Africa (London: Probsthain, 1949)
  • Sung, Ying-hsing. 1637. T’ien kung k’ai wu. Published as Chinese Technology in the seventeenth century. Translated and annotated by E-tu Zen Sun and Shiou-chuan Sun. 1996. Mineola. New York. Dover Publications.

Qing Dynasty

File:China Proper.jpg
An 1875 map of China proper by Milner (Thomas)

The Qing Dynasty (清朝, 16441911) was founded after the defeat of the Ming, the last Han Chinese dynasty, by the Manchus (滿族), formerly known as the Jurchen, who invaded from the north in the late seventeenth century. For many decades, historians played down the differences between the Manchu rulers and their Chinese subjects. Even though the Manchus started out as alien conquerors, they quickly adopted the Confucian norms of traditional Chinese government, in effect becoming honorary Chinese as they ruled in the manner of traditional native dynasties.

The Manchus antagonized the Han Chinese as a result of enforcing the 'queue order' forcing the Han Chinese to adopt the Manchu hairstyle (the pigtail) and Manchu-style clothing. During the 268 years of Manchu rule, numerous Chinese rebellions had occurred because of the strict rule of hair cutting. The Manchus had a special hair style: the infamous "queue". They cut hair off the front of their heads and made the remaining hair into a long pigtail. The penalty for not complying was death. The traditional Chinese clothing, or Hanfu (漢服) was also replaced by Manchu-style clothing. Qipao (Chinese dress, 旗袍) and Tangzhuang (唐裝), usually regarded as traditional Chinese clothing nowadays, are actually Manchu-style clothing.

The Manchus edited and forged the history of the former dynasty, Ming Shi (History of the Ming Dynasty, 明史). One good example would be the claim that Zhang Xianzhong, who was killed in 1646, had made a stone monument entitled "seven killings". Manchu historians tried to cover up their slaughter of Sichuan Chinese, as well as to legitimize Manchu rule over China. To be noted would be the dramatic population drop during the Ming–Qing dynastic transition: In 1620, the first year of Ming Emperor Guangzong's Taichang Era (明光宗泰昌年間), China boasted a population of 51.66 million people, but in 1651, the eighth year of Qing Emperor Shizu's Shunzhi Era (清世祖順治年間), China had only 10.63 million people. The conclusion is that China's brave men had fallen in martyrdom in the resistance to the Manchu invasion.

To further suppress the Chinese intellectuals, Manchu emperors, like the Qianlong Emperor (乾隆皇帝/清高宗), resorted to "literary inquisition" --i.e. Wen Zi Yu (imprisonment due to writings, 文字獄) -- for controlling the minds and thoughts of Chinese. Wen Zi Yu forbade political writings. Many people died from Wen Zi Yu without even having written anything politically provocative. The Manchu forbade the assembly of scholars or intellectuals into societies, and moreover advocated the "eight-part essay" (八股文) [i.e. stereotyped essay] as the format for imperial civil service exams.

Emperor Kangxi (康熙皇帝/清聖祖) commanded the most complete dictionary of Chinese characters ever put together at the time, and under Emperor Qianlong, the compilation of a catalogue of the important works on Chinese culture was made. Tens of thousands of books viewed by the Manchu emperors as politically unacceptable were destroyed while compiling the catalogue.

The Manchu also adopted predatory methods of land deprivation. They set up the "Eight Banners" system (八旗制度) in an attempt to avoid the possibility of being assimilated into Chinese society. "Eight Banners" were military institutions, set up to provide a structure with which the Manchu "bannermen" were meant to identify. Banner membership was to be based on traditional Manchu skills such as archery, horsemanship, and frugality. In addition, they were encouraged to use the Manchu language, rather than Chinese. Bannermen were given economic and legal privileges in Chinese cities, meaning that they could often avoid working because they had an "iron rice bowl of privilege".

Over the next half-century, the Manchus consolidated control of some areas originally under the Ming, including Yunnan (雲南), and further stretched their sphere of influence over Xinjiang (新疆), Tibet (西藏) and Mongolia (蒙古).

File:China imperialism cartoon.jpg
In this famous French political cartoon, China is being divided by the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, France, and Japan

During the 19th century, Qing control weakened. China suffered massive social strife, economic stagnation, explosive population growth, and Western penetration and influence. Britain's desire to continue its illegal opium trade with China collided with imperial edicts prohibiting the addictive drug, and the First Opium War (鴉片戰爭) erupted in 1840. China lost the war; Britain and other Western powers, including the United States, thereupon forcibly occupied "concessions" and gained special commercial privileges. Hong Kong (香港) was ceded to Britain in 1842 under the Treaty of Nanking (南京條約). In addition, the Taiping Rebellion (太平天國) (1851-1864) and the Nian Rebellion (捻軍起義) occurred.

The 2 Opium wars and the opium trade were costly outcomes for the Chinese, not just in monetary terms but also in terms of social cost. The Manchu Imperial treasury had been declared bankrupt twice arising from indemnities incurred in the Opium wars, and a large outflow of silver due to opium trade (in tens of billions of ounces). China's wealth was, in this case, simply sucked dry. China suffered two extreme famines exactly twenty years after each opium war in the 1860s and 1880s, and the Manchu imperial authority literally left the general population to fend for themselves -- even during the Taiping insurrection of the 1860s. To a great extent, the whole countryside was devoid of vegetation, and widespread cannibalism was even reported. Socially it had been crippling. Of the 400 million in China then, 300 million were children -- and the remaining 100 million, adults. Fully a third of these adults were serious opium addicts. With this in mind, the pressure on the remaining 67 million sober adults -- having to support the entire Chinese population -- was immense. As result, the country was in semi-anarchy.

This situation has been far-reaching for the generations that followed, and even now. China remains poor and has never fully recovered from such a purge. A sizable outflow of able-bodied population left China to look for living. Some returned, and others settled in Europe, North America and Southeast Asia. These people are the ancestors of most of the 40 million overseas Chinese today.

(捻軍起義) (1853-1868), along with Russian-supported Muslim separatist movements in Gansu province and Chinese Turkestan (i.e. Xinjiang province), drained Chinese resources and almost toppled the dynasty. Indeed the largest rebellion, the Taiping Rebellion, involved around a third of China falling under control of the Taiping Tianguo, ruled by the "Heavenly King" Hong Xiuquan. Only after almost fourteen years were the Taipings finally crushed - the Taiping army was destroyed in the Third Battle of Nanking in 1864. In total between twenty million and fifty million lives had been lost, making it the second deadliest war in human history -- surpassed only by the Second World War. Imperial unity and strength was seriously impacted, and the decline of the Qing Dynasty towards terminal collapse became inevitable.

China's problems were compounded by the Manchus' policies of suppressing Han Chinese. Manchu officials were slow to adopt modernity, and suspicious of social and technological advances that they viewed as a threat to their absolute control over China. (Gunpowder had been widely used by the army of the Song and Ming Dynasties, then forbidden by the Manchu rulers after they took over China.) Therefore, the dynasty was ill-equipped to handle the Western encroachment. Western powers did intervene militarily to quell domestic chaos, such as the horrific Taiping Rebellion and the anti-imperialist Boxer Rebellion (義和團起義). General Gordon, later killed in the siege of Khartoum, Sudan, was often credited with having saved the Manchu dynasty from the Taiping insurrection.

By the 1860s, the Qing Dynasty had put down the rebellions at enormous cost and loss of life. Further, the suppression of the rebellions was achieved chiefly by armies commanded or advised by western leaders -- thus undermining the credibility of the Qing regime -- and by local initiatives spearheaded by provincial leaders and gentry, that decentralized authority within the Empire and contributed to the rise of warlordism in China. The Qing Dynasty then proceeded to deal with the problem of modernization, through the Self-Strengthening Movement (自強運動). However, the Empress Dowager (慈禧太后), with the help of conservatives, initiated a military coup, effectively removed the young Emperor from power, and overturned most of the more radical reforms. Official corruption, cynicism, and imperial family quarrels made most of the military reforms useless. Some of China's new battleships didn't even have gunpowder, because the officials in charge had embezzled the maintenance money, and a huge amount of the capital had been spent to construct the Summer Palace, Yiheyuan (頤和園). As a result, the Qing's "New Armies" were soundly defeated in the Sino-French War (1883-1885) and the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895).

At the start of the 20th century, the Qing Dynasty was in shambles. Corruption was rampant and population growth had impoverished the people. The Qing court was dominated by Empress Dowager Cixi, a conservative figure who resisted most efforts at reform. The reformist Emperor Guangxu (光緒皇帝/清德宗) died one day before the death of Cixi (some believe Guangxu was poisoned by Cixi).

The Republic of China

Frustrated by the Qing court's resistance to reform and by China's weakness, young officials, military officers, and students—inspired by the revolutionary ideas of Sun Yat-sen (孫中山) —began to advocate the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and creation of a republic. A revolutionary military uprising, the Wuchang Uprising, began on October 10, 1911 in Wuhan (武漢). The provisional government of the Republic of China (中華民國) was formed in Nanjing on March 12, 1912 with Sun Yat-sen as President, but Sun was forced to turn over power to Yuan Shikai (袁世凱) who commanded the New Army and was Prime Minister under the Qing government, as part of the agreement to let the last Qing monarch abdicate. Yuan Shikai proceeded in the next few years to abolish the national and provincial assemblies and declared himself emperor in 1915. Yuan's imperial ambitions were fiercely opposed by his subordinates, and faced with the prospect of rebellion, Yuan broke down and died shortly after in 1916, leaving a power vacuum in China. His death left the republican government all but shattered, ushering in the era of the "warlords" when China was ruled and ravaged by shifting coalitions of competing provincial military leaders.

A little noticed event (outside of China) in 1919 would have long-term repercussions for the rest of Chinese history in the 20th century. This was the May Fourth Movement (五四運動). The discrediting of liberal Western philosophy amongst Chinese intellectuals was followed by the adoption of more radical lines of thought. This in turn planted the seeds for the irreconcilable conflict between the left and right in China that would dominate Chinese history for the rest of the century.

In the 1920s, Sun Yat-Sen established a revolutionary base in south China, and set out to unite the fragmented nation. With Soviet assistance, he entered into an alliance with the fledgling Communist Party of China (CPC, 中國共產黨). After Sun's death in 1925, one of his protègés, Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), seized control of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party or KMT, 國民黨) and succeeded in bringing most of south and central China under its rule in a military campaign known as the Northern Expedition (北伐). Having defeated the warlords in south and central China by military force, Chiang was able to secure the nominal allegiance of the warlords in the North. In 1927, Chiang turned on the CPC and relentlessly chased the CPC armies and its leaders from their bases in southern and eastern China. In 1934, driven from their mountain bases such as the Chinese Soviet Republic (中華蘇維埃共和國), the CPC forces embarked on the Long March (長征) across China's most desolate terrain to the northwest, where they established a guerrilla base at Yan'an in Shaanxi Province (陝西省延安市).

During the Long March, the communists reorganized under a new leader, Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung, 毛澤東). The bitter struggle between the KMT and the CPC continued, openly or clandestinely, through the 14-year long Japanese invasion (1931-1945), even though the two parties nominally formed a united front to oppose the Japanese invaders in 1937, during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) portion of World War II. The war between the two parties resumed following the Japanese defeat in 1945. By 1949, the CPC occupied most of the country. (see Chinese Civil War)

Chiang Kai-shek fled with the remnants of his government and military forces to Taiwan (台灣), where he proclaimed Taipei (台北) to be the Republic of China's "provisional capital" and vowed to reconquer the Chinese mainland.

Post modern independence

With the proclamation of the People's Republic of China (中華人民共和國) on October 1, 1949, China was divided yet again, into the PRC on the mainland and the ROC on Taiwan and several outlying islands of Fujian (福建省), with two governments each regarding itself as the one true Chinese government and denouncing the other as illegitimate. This remained true until the early 1990s, when political changes on Taiwan led the ROC to understand that they would never reoccupy China again. Since then, they have been trying actively to be recognized by the world community as a legitimate state, while the People's Republic of China have been insisting the world recognize their One-China Policy. Many Taiwanese regard Taiwan as a part of China but are reluctant to live under a communist controlled government.

For more information see People's Republic of China and History of Taiwan.

See also

Further Reading

  • Laufer, Berthold. 1912. JADE: A Study in Chinese Archaeology & Religion. Reprint: Dover Publications, New York. 1974.

External links

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