China, history

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This article covers the History of China from prehistoric times to the present. On China today see China.

What is “China”? What is the "History of China?"

The shape and extent of the area labeled “China” on modern maps is a fairly recent development, in historical terms. Even the smaller area that geographers call “China Proper” (the areas that are historically ethnically Han, so excluding Tibet, Mongolia, Manchuria and various Muslim areas in the West) has not always been united, but has often been populated by multiple cultures and/or governed by multiple states simultaneously.

The story of Chinese history has often been told, both in China and in the west, as beginning around 3000 BCE with a society on the Central Plains of North China, the Longshan Culture, that was the main source of “Chinese-ness,” and that gradually “civilized” the supposedly less-advanced “barbarian” peoples around it. Partly because of this long-standing narrative – some of it based in ancient myths – a disproportionate amount of archeological research has been done on the region where Chinese civilization supposedly originated. This focus of research leads to the circular argument that civilization must have begun and spread from the Central Plains because that is where most of the evidence of civilization has been found, and that therefore more effort should be concentrated on finding more evidence in the Central Plains.

In recent decades,though, archeologists and historians have discovered or begun paying more attention to evidence of different ancient cultures throughout what is now “China,” many of which were apparently as technologically and culturally “advanced” in many ways as the Longshan Culture. Written language, however, developed first in the Central Plains, so historians know more about ancient societies in that region than in those that did not yet have writing.

The result of these recent historiographical trends has been to amend the master narrative of Chinese history to recognize that what we now call “Chinese culture” was not the result of the triumph of one civilization over its backwards neighbors, but rather, a confluence of many societies that – by trade, intellectual exchange, conquest, and other processes – contributed to the evolution of a more widespread and common culture.

Pre-Imperial period (to 221 BCE)

At least 500,000 years ago, hominids of the species Homo erectus ("Peking man") lived in what is now China. They apparently were not, however, the ancestors of modern humans, who evolved much later in Africa and then dispersed around the world.

By about the year 10,000 BCE, human hunter-gatherers in China were beginning the long transition to a settled agricultural way of life, developing complex, identifiable cultures, which over time merged with each other into a smaller number of distinct groups. By about 3000 BCE there were five major cultural groups in China Proper. They had systems of interdependent towns and villages of different sizes; traded over long distances; and developed some kind of writing, though it was not related to the current Chinese writing system and has not been deciphered.

There are a number of myths about what happened over the next thousand years or so, but there appears to be no historical basis for the stories of Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor), who supposedly ruled somewhere in China from 2697 to 2597 BCE, or for his successors the three sage-kings.

Xia Dynasty

The Xia dynasty (夏朝 Xià cháo) seems to have ruled the Yellow River valley area from about 2100 BCE to 1600 BCE, though some experts consider this period more legend than history. However, archaeological evidence at Erlitou has shown that at the very least, an early Bronze Age civilization had already developed by that period.

Shang Dynasty

The first large, highly-organized state in China for which there is solid historical evidence is the Shang Dynasty (商朝 Shāng cháo), (ca. 1600–1045 BCE). They ruled only the Yellow River valley and had their capital near Anyang in Henan. Written Chinese characters began to develop during this time, as evidenced by court records carved on turtle and cattle bones.

The Shang state was only one of many states in the region at the same time; it bordered at least two dozen neighboring political entities, often engaging in wars with them. The Shang, however, proved durable for several centuries, and was an important influence on the future development of Chinese culture. It had a sophisticated writing system, of which modern Chinese writing is a direct descendant, that allowed it to operate a bureaucratic government with an organized system of taxation (payable mostly in grain). The Shang also had advanced bronze technology, and practiced an early form of ancestor worship.

Other parts of China had well-developed separate cultures at about the same time. For example, the Lanzhou Culture, around Lake Tai (near modern Suzhou) had advanced jade-working techniques.

Prolonged drought, caused by climate change, in the Shang's territory weakened the regime in what would prove to be its last few decades. The Shang's weakness encouraged a relatively strong neighboring state, Zhou, to enlarge itself by conquering smaller neighbors and ultimately, in 1045, the Shang.

Zhou Dynasty

Subsequent conquests resulted in Zhou rule over an unprecedentedly large area, occupying much of what is now called North China, that is, north of the Yangzi River (but by no means all of what we now call "China" or even "China Proper").

The Zhou state was not a monolithic empire, but used a feudal system of rule, in which the king granted fiefs to relatives and other powerful men, who thus got the right to rule their lands in return for providing military service and money to the central king. In later ages, many Chinese scholars and social critics, beginning with Confucius (ca. 500 BCE), romanticized the early part of the Zhou period, the Western Zhou (1045–770 BCE), as a "Golden Age" to which contemporary society could be negatively compared.

Because the feudal system encouraged the growth of competing power centers, the Western Zhou political system gradually fell apart, effectively ending in 770 BCE with a disastrous military defeat of the Zhou king by a rival state. During the following several centuries -- known as the Eastern Zhou period (770–221 BCE), divided into the Spring and Autumn period (ending in 475 BCE) and then the Warring States period -- the trend towards disunity was reversed as some states became more powerful than others and conquered them, culminating in what is regarded as the first China-wide empire, the Qin, in 221 BCE.

Many developments and innovations that occurred during the Zhou period were highly influential in shaping the future of Chinese society. The introduction of coinage helped fuel a trade economy, for example, while technological innovations like iron farm implements and animal-drawn plows improved agriculture. But perhaps the era's most lasting influences were intellectual.

To justify its overthrow of the Shang Dynasty, the Zhou regime in its early years developed the theory of the Mandate of Heaven to explain political legitimacy. Many of the Chinese classics (such as the Book of Changes and the Book of Odes) were written or compiled during this time. A category of warriors, the shi, developed into government advisors and bureaucrats, whose successors (sometimes called gentry, scholar-officials, or literati) would guide the governments of many future Chinese states. One such advisor, Confucius (551–479 BCE), articulated his seminal political and social vision, which was later criticized by another influential school of thought, Legalism. The philosophy (and later, organized religion) of Daoism also arose in the latter centuries of the Zhou period, with its central text, the Dao de jing, achieving its current form around 400 BCE.

Qin Dynasty

The Qin Dynasty (秦朝 Qín cháo), 221-206 BCE was established when King Ying Zheng of Qin defeated the Zhou and the six other feudal states, and became the first ruler to unite an area anything like all of China. The empire thus united, Ying Zheng took a new title: Qin Shi Huangdi - the First August Emperor of Qin. The Qin were the first introduce a centralized system of government for all of China. Their capital was at Xianyang, near modern Xi'an. Our word "China," and the word "Chin" in languages of India, probably comes from their name.

Han Dynasty

The Han Dynasty (汉朝 Hàn cháo), 206-220 CE, had its capitals at Chang'an near modern Xi'an (Western Han) and Luoyang (Eastern Han). This was the period of the first Silk Road trade, was also the period when paper was invented. Chinese still use Han as the name of their largest ethnic group and Chinese characters are still called "hànzì" (汉字) in Chinese, with similar cognates in Korean and Japanese. The Han is considered by most Chinese to be the first golden age in Chinese civilization. It is during this period that the first records are found in China of Buddhism, which became a major component of traditional Chinese culture.

Between the Golden Ages

From the fall of the Han until the rise of the Tang 400 years later, China was not united.

Three Kingdoms

The fall of the Han Dynasty saw China split into the three states of Wèi (魏), Shǔ (蜀) and Wú (吴), known collectively as the Three Kingdoms (三国 sān guó). Despite lasting for only about 60 years, it is a greatly romanticized period of Chinese history. The capitals of the three states were at Luoyang, Chengdu and Nanjing respectively.

Jin Dynasty

The Jin Dynasty (晋朝 Jìn cháo), briefly re-unified China from 280-317. Though they continued to exist until 420, they only controlled a small area for most of the period. During the unified period, the capital was at Luoyang and later Chang'an.

From 317-581, China was divided. Capitals of various important states included Luoyang, Nanjing and Suzhou.

Sui Dynasty

The short-lived Sui Dynasty (隋朝 Suí cháo), 581-618, managed to re-unify China. It had its capital at Chang'an. The dynasty embarked on major public works projects including the Grand Canal but bankrupted themselves through massive military campaigns, mainly in Korea.

Tang Dynasty

The Tang Dynasty (唐朝 Táng cháo), 618-907, had its capitals at Chang'an and Luoyang. This was the golden age of Chinese poetry, Buddhism and statecraft. It saw the development of the imperial examination system, which attempted to select officials by ability rather than family background. The Tang is considered by most Chinese to be the second golden age in Chinese civilization, and Chinatowns overseas are often known as "Street of the Tang People" (唐人街 Tángrén jiē) in Chinese. China was then divided once again for about fifty years, during which it was under the control of several small short-lived states.

Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD)

see Song Dynasty

Yuan Dynasty: 1260-1368

The enormous sequence of Mongol conquests begun by Genghis Khan eventually engulfed China, as it did most of the rest of Asia.

Yule and Cordier[1], translators of Marco Polo, summarize China's situation in Polo's time as follows:

For about three centuries the Northern provinces of China had been... subject to foreign dynasties; first to the _Khitan_... whose rule subsisted for 200 years, and originated the name... CATHAY, by which for nearly 1000 years China has been known. The Khitan... had been displaced in 1123 by the Chúrchés... of the same blood as the modern Manchus. Already in the lifetime of Chinghiz himself the northern Provinces of China Proper, including their capital. Peking, had been wrenched from them, and the conquest of the dynasty was completed by Chinghiz's successor Okkodai in 1234.

"Chingiz" is Genghis Khan. China is still "Kithai" in modern Russian.

Southern China still remained in the hands of the native dynasty of the Sung, who had their capital at the great city now well known as Hang-chau fu. Their dominion was still substantially untouched, but its subjugation was a task to which Kúblái before many years turned his attention, and which became the most prominent event of his reign.

"Hang-chau fu" is modern Hangzhou, of which Polo wrote: "the city is beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world,"

Kublai Khan extended Mongol dominion to all of China, founding the Yuan Dynasty.

Ming Dynasty: 1368-1644

The Ming period is the only era of later imperial history during which all of China was ruled by a native, or Han dynasty. The success of the Chinese in regaining control over their own government is an important event in history, and the Ming dynasty thus has been regarded, both in Ming times and even more so in the 21st century, as an era of Chinese resurgence.

16th century East Asia.png

All the counties in China had a county government, a Confucian school, and the standard Chinese family system. Typically the dominant local elite comprised high status families comprised of the gentry owners and managers of land and of other forms of wealth, as well as smaller groups that were subject to elite domination and protection. Much attention was paid to genealogy to prove that high status was inherited from generations back. Substantial land holdings were directly managed by the owning families in the early Ming period, but toward the end of the era marketing and ownership were depersonalized by the increased circulation of silver as money, and estate management gravitated into the hands of hired bailiffs. Together with the departure of the most talented youth into the imperial service, the result was direct contacts between the elite and subject groups were disrupted, and romantic images of country life disappeared from the literature. In villages across China elite families participated in the life of the empire by sending their sons into the very high status imperial civil service. Most of the successful sons had a common education in the county and prefectural schools, had been recruited by competitive examination, and were posted to offices that might be anywhere in the empire, including the imperial capital. At first the recommendation of an elite local sponsor was important; increasing the imperial government relied more on merit exams, and thus entry into the national ruling class became more difficult. Downward social mobility into the peasantry was possible for less successful sons; upward mobility from the peasant class was unheard of. [2]

Qing (Manchu) Dynasty: 1644-1911

The Manchus conquered China in the 17th century and ruled it as the Qing Dynasty until the early 20th century.

The ruling elite were always Manchu, and the Han Chinese were repressed in various ways. Notably, Han men were forced to wear the long pigtail as a mark of their inferior status. That said, some Han did achieve high rank in the civil service via the Imperial Examination system. Until the 19th century, Han immigration into Manchuria was forbidden; the Willow Pallisade was built to prevent it.

Chinese had an advanced artistic culture and well-developed science and technology. However, its science and technology stood still after 1700 and in the 21st century very little survives outside museums and remote villages, except in for the ever-popular forms of traditional medicine like acupuncture.

In the late Qing era (19th and early 20th centuries), the country was beset by large-scale civil wars, major famines, military defeats by Britain and Japan, regional control by powerful warlords and foreign intervention such as the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

Military defeats

Despite its origin in military conquest, and the long warlike tradition of the Manchu people who formed its ruling class, by the 19th century the Qing state was militarily extremely weak, lacking modern weapons and plagued by corruption and incompetence.

They repeatedly lost against the Western powers. Two Opium Wars (鸦片战争 yāpiàn zhànzhēng), pitted China against Western powers, notably Britain and France. China quickly lost both wars. After each defeat, the victors forced the Chinese government to make major concessions. After the first war 1839-1842, the treaty ceded Hong Kong island to Britain, and opened five "treaty ports" (Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Shanghai and Ningbo) to Western trade. After the second, Britain acquired Kowloon (the peninsula opposite Hong Kong island), and inland cities such as Nanjing and Hangkou (now part of Wuhan) were opened to trade.

Defeat in the Second Opium War, 1856-1860, was utterly humiliating for China. The British and French sent ambassadors, escorted by a small army, to Beijing to see the treaty signed. The Emperor, however, did not receive ambassadors in anything like the Western sense; the closest Chinese expression translates as "tribute-bearer". To the Chinese court, Western envoys were just a group of new outsiders who should show appropriate respect for the emperor like any other visitors; of course the kowtow (knocking one's head on the floor) was a required part of the protocol. For that matter, the kowtow was required in dealing with any Chinese official. From the viewpoint of Western powers, treating China's decadent medieval regime with any respect at all was being generous. The envoy of Queen Victoria or another power might give some courtesies, even pretend for form's sake that the Emperor was the equal of their own ruler. However, they considered the notion that they should kowtow utterly ludicrous. In fact, it was official policy that no Briton of any rank should kowtow in any circumstances.

Also, the Chinese engaged in various stalling tactics to avoid actually signing the humiliating treaty to which their envoys had already agreed, and the scandalous possibility of an envoy coming before the Emperor and failing to kowtow. The ambassadors' progress to Beijing was impeded at every step. Several battles were fought, in each of which Chinese forces were soundly thrashed by numerically inferior Western forces. Eventually, Beijing was occupied, the treaty signed and embassies established. The British took the luxurious house of a Manchu general prominent in opposing their advance as their embassy.

In retaliation for Chinese torture and murder of captives, including envoys taken while under a flag of truce, British and French forces also utterly destroyed the Yuan Ming Yuan (Old Summer Palace), an enormous complex of gardens and buildings outside Beijing. It took 3500 troops to loot it, wreck it and set it alight, and it burned for three days sending up a column of smoke clearly visible in Beijing. Once the Summer Palace was reduced to ruins a sign was raised with an inscription in Chinese stating "This is the reward for perfidy and cruelty". The choice to destroy the Palace was quite deliberate; they wanted something quite visible that struck at the upper classes who had ordered the crimes. Like the Forbidden City, no ordinary Chinese citizen had ever been allowed into the Summer Palace, as it was used exclusively by the Imperial family.[3] This is still a highly controversial action: was it utter barbarism equivalent to burning the palace at Versaiiles, or a well-chosen and forbearing gesture from someone who could have sacked and burned Beijing instead?

In 1884-1885, China and France fought a war that resulted in China's accepting French control over their former tributary states in what is now Vietnam. The Qing armies acquitted themselves well in campaigns in Guangxi and Taiwan. However, the French sank much of China's modernized Fuzhou-based naval fleet in an afternoon.

They also lost repeatedly against Japan, partly because Britain had helped modernise Japanese forces as a counter to Russian influence in the region. In 1879, Japan annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom, then a Chinese tributary state, and incorporated it as Okinawa prefecture. Despite pleas from a Ryukyuan envoy, China was powerless to send an army. The Chinese sought help from the British, who refused to intervene. In 1895, China lost the Sino-Japanese war and ceded Taiwan, the Penghu islands and the Liaodong peninsula to Japan. In addition, it had to relinquish control of Korea, which had been a tributary state of China for a long time.

The Qing also had internal troubles, notably several Muslim rebellions in the West and the Taiping Rebellion in the South.

The Taiping Rebellion, 1851-1864, was led by a charismatic figure claiming to be Christ's younger brother.[4] It was largely a peasant revolt. The Taiping program included land reform and eliminating slavery, concubinage, arranged marriage, opium, footbinding, judicial torture and idolatry. The Qing government, with some Western help, eventually defeated the Taiping rebels, but not before they had ruled much of southern China for over ten years. This was one of the bloodiest wars ever fought; only World War II killed more people. Nanjing, which was their capital, has an interesting Taiping museum.

Flashman and the Dragon[5] is a hilarious but informative historical novel set in the this period. As in all the Flashman novels the hero is the British officer Harry Flashman — a drunken, cowardly, lecherous scoundrel who through great deviousness and phenomenal luck is thought a great hero — but the historical material is generally highly accurate, except of course for Flashy's part in it. In this one, he spends time on an intelligence mission in the Taiping capital and meets their key leaders. Later he is sent along on the march to Beijing, and is captured and kept in the Summer Palace as a boy toy for Cixi.

The Chinese resented much during this period — notably missionaries, opium, annexation of Chinese land and the extraterritoriality that made foreigners immune to Chinese law. To the West, trade and missionaries were obviously good things, and extraterritoriality was necessary to protect their citizens from the corrupt Chinese system. To many Chinese, however, these were yet more examples of the West exploiting China.

Around 1898, these feelings exploded. The Boxers, also known as the "Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists" (义和团 yì hé tuán) led a peasant religious/political movement whose main goal was to drive out evil foreign influences. Some believed their kung fu and prayer could stop bullets. While initially anti-Qing, once the revolt began they received some support from the Qing court and regional officials. The Boxers killed a few missionaries and many Chinese Christians, and eventually besieged the embassies in Beijing. An eight-nation alliance — Germany, France, Italy, Russia, the United Kingdom, the U.S., Austria-Hungary and Japan — sent a force up from Tianjin to rescue the legations. The Qing had to accept foreign troops permanently posted in Beijing and pay a large indemnity as a result. In addition, Shanghai was divided among China and the eight nations.

Reforms 1900-1908: too little, too late

The Boxer Rebellion was a humiliating fiasco for China: the Qing rulers proved visibly incompetent and lost prestige irreparably, while the foreign powers gained greater influence in Chinese affairs. The humiliation stimulated a second reform movement--this time sanctioned by the empress dowager Cixi herself. From 1901 to 1908, the dynasty announced a series of educational, military, and administrative reforms, many reminiscent of the "one hundreds days" of 1898. In 1905 the examination system itself was abolished and the entire Confucian tradition of merit entry into the elite collased. The abolition of the traditional civil service examination was itself a revolution of immense significance. After many centuries, the scholar's mind began to be liberated from the shackles of classical studies, and social mobility no longer depended chiefly on the writing of stereotyped and flowery prose.

New ministries were created in Beijing and revised law codes were drafted. Work began on a national budget--the national government had no idea how much taxes were collected in its name and spent by regional officials.

New armies were raised and trained in European (and Japanese) fashion and plans for a national army were laid. The creation of the "new army" reflected rising esteem for the military profession and the emergence of a new national elite that dominated China for much of the 20th century. . More officers and men were now literate, while patriotism and better pay served as an inducement for service.

The movement for constitutionalism gathered momentum following the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, for Japan's victory signalled the triumph of constitutionalism over absolutism. Under pressure from gentry and student groups, the Qing court in 1908 issued plans for the inauguration of consultative provincial assemblies in 1909, a consultative national assembly in 1910, and both a constitution and a parliament in 1917. The consultative assemblies were to play a pivotal role in the unfolding events, politicizing the provincial gentry and providing them with new leverage with which to protect their interests.

Revolution planned

Ironically, the measures designed to preserve the Qing dynasty hastened its death, for the nationalistic and modernizing impulses generated or nurtured by the reforms brought a greater awareness of the Qing government's extreme backwardness. Modernizing forces emerged as business, students, women, soldiers, and overseas Chinese became mobilized and demanded change. Government-sponsored education in Japan, available to both civilian and military students, exposed Chinese youths to revolutionary ideas produced by political exiles and inspired by the West. Anti-Manchu revolutionary groups were formed in the Yangtze cities by 1903, and those in Tokyo banded together to form the "Revolutionary Alliance" in 1905, led by Sun Yat-sen.

Republic: 1912-1949

For more information, see: Republic of China (1912-1949).

Dictatorship of Yuan Shikai 1911-1916

By 1911 China had 400 million people and the beginnings of a modern railroad system. The administrative system remained hopelessly inadequate; for example the central government never knew how much was raised in taxes (only a small part of which it obtained). Unrest with the failures of the Qing dynasty continued to escalate, despite belated efforts at reform. Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) created a revolutionary ferment based in the worldwide Chinese diaspora. The old dynasty collapsed in 1911 as soldiers of the modernized army revolted, and the emperor abdicated in early 1912. A republic was proclaimed on January 1, 1912, but power was held by a Yuan Shikai (1859-1916), a soldier. The Nationalist ("Kuomintang" or KMT) party won the first national elections in 1912, but Yuan had the KMT leader assassinated, crushed republican uprisings in 1913 (called the "Second revolution"), shut down parliament, and ruled as dictator. Yuan's foreign policy was subservience to the foreign powers; he accepted Japan's Twenty-One demands, giving Japan control of Manchuria and a voice in internal affairs; it was a humiliation the people rejected. Yuan even tried to proclaim himself emperor, but the spirit of republicanism was too strong and a rising revolt, based in the south, was about to overthrow him when he suddenly died of natural causes in June 1916.[6]

Age of Warloards, 1916-1927

After Yuan's death power devolved to regional warlords, and there was little or no central government until 1928.[7]

KMT government 1927-1937

Under the leadership of the KMT (Kuomintang), headed by Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975), the central government finally suppressed the local warlords who effectively controlled many provinces. Japan seized Manchuria in 1931, and in 1937 invaded all of China, defeating the government armies, seizing the coast, the major cities, and setting up a puppet government that controlled most of the population. China's resistance was ineffective.[8]

Communists Party CCP

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in Shanghai, China's largest city, in 1921. It was allied with the KMT but in classical Marxist style its goal was initially to foment revolution among urban workers. It was controlled by Stalin in Moscow through the Comintern. In 1927, however, a bloody anti-Communist coup by the KMT, destroyed the CCP in the cities. Forced into the countryside, the CCP broke with Russian guidance and developed a new strategy based on agrarian revolution, mobilizing poor peasants by promising to confiscate and redistribute the lands held by landlords. Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) took the lead.[9]

Mao had long engaged in rural party work in his native Hunan province. In 1926 he foresaw China's 400 million peasants "rising like a hurricane" to throw off the "oppressive yoke" of landlord domination. This essay, with its call for the formation of peasant associations and its prediction of dire consequences for all who stood in the peasants' way, provided a blueprint for Mao's revolutionary strategy of "surrounding the cities from the countryside."

To implement his strategy Mao developed a well-trained and highly disciplined "Red Army" capable of withstanding KMT attacks and he organized local governments, or "soviets," where Communist control could be consolidated. A soviet republic was proclaimed in 1931 in Jiangxi, where the Communists controlled a rural mountainous area of about 10,000 square miles (26,000 sq km) with some 15 million inhabitants.

The strength of the red army and the durability of the Jiangxi Soviet Republic were severely tested between 1931 and 1934, as the Kuomintang waged five successive military encirclement campaigns against the Communists. Confronted with a larger and better-equipped enemy, Mao and his chief military strategist, Zhu De (Chu Teh) (1886-1976), refined the tactics of "people's war": enlist the support of local peasants through benevolent treatment of noncombatants; avoid conventional battles with superior enemy forces; isolate the enemy and overextend his supply lines; concentrate superior tactical forces to encircle and annihilate individual enemy units; and attack the enemy only under favorable conditions.

The essential preconditions for a successful people's war were the maintenance of high morale among red army soldiers and the securing of the widest possible base of civilian support. Without the latter, the guerrilla fighter was a "fish out of water." Without the former, a numerically and materially inferior force would be unable to maintain discipline and fighting effectiveness. Underlying both preconditions was the premise that a sense of purpose was vital to the success of the revolution. As Mao put it in 1936, "The contest of forces is [a contest] of the power and morale of men.... In war, it is man, not matériel, that counts." This voluntarist strain in Mao's thought, stressing the need to place "politics in command," is widely regarded as one of Mao's most important--and controversial--innovations in Marxist theory.[10]

The Long March: 1934-36

In 1934-35, the CCP fled the KMT with over 100,000 men and women. They divided into several armies, marched 6000 miles inland through a brutal terrain of frigid mountain passes, freezing rivers and marshes in search of a sanctuary to continue their revolution. Desertion was common, local peasants refused to join, and local landlords raided the marchers. The army traded opium for supplies, and women were forced to leave their newborns behind with peasant families because a crying infant could endanger troops. Critical tactical blunders led to the bloody sacrifice of soldiers in hopeless battles. Only 7000 survived the march. Intraparty struggles and betrayal brought repeated rounds of purges, as Mao emerged as chairman of the Politburo and became the unchallenged leader of the CCP[11]

The Long March became the heroic memory of the CCP, and virtually all the Communist leaders of the next 70 years were marchers or their children.[12]

World War II: 1937-1945

China suffered millions of deaths in the long war, even though battles were few. The Japanese killed tens of thousands of civilians in the occupied territories. Tens of thousands more died when Nationalist troops broke the levees of the Yangtze to stop the Japanese advance after the loss of the capital, Nanking. Millions more Chinese died because of famine during the war.

Millions of Chinese moved to the western regions of China to avoid Japanese invasion. Cities like Kunming ballooned with new arrivals. Entire factories and universities were often taken along for the journey. Japan captured major coastal cities like Shanghai early in the war; cutting the rest of China off from its chief source of finance and industry.

The city of Chongqing became the most frequently bombed city in history. [13]

Though China received Lend Lease economic and military aid from the United States, China did not have sufficient infrastructure to properly arm or even feed its military forces. Much of the aid was lost to corruption and extreme inefficiency.

Communist forces led by Mao were generally more successful at getting support or killing opponents than Nationalists. They were based mainly in Northern China, and built up their strength to battle with the Nationalists as soon as the Japanese were gone.

In occupied territories under Japanese control, civilians were treated harshly.

Civil War: 1945-1949

China was allied with the U.S. and Britain against Japan, and at war's end joined the United Nations as a permanent member of the 5-nation Security Council, with a veto. The Americans attempted to force a negotiated settlement between the KMT and the Communists, but failed.

People's Republic of China: 1949 - present

In the face of economic collapse the Communists won the civil war in 1949 under Mao Zedong (1893-1976). Mao established a dictatorship, driving the KMT to Taiwan. Taiwan is recognized as an integral part of China in theory, but in practice has been independent since 1949. Mao liquidated millions of opponents, fought the United States in the bloody Korean War (1950-53), and broke with the Soviet Union over the issue of who best represented the Marxist orthodoxy.

Great Leap Forward

The Great Leap Forward (1958-60) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) were the two periods of leftist domination in the history of China. Although the Great Leap Forward was much more disastrous in both human and economic terms, the Cultural Revolution receives the more negative assessment in China. This harsher review of the Cultural Revolution stems from the facts that it occurred more recently, was much longer in duration, and that many of its victims were cadres and intellectuals.[14]

Cultural Revolution, 1966-75

Mao's regime imposed strict controls over everyday life and cost the lives of tens of millions of people. The Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 was inspired by Mao and devastated the intellectual class. Tens of thousands of intellectuals and teachers were educators were insulted, tortured, driven to suicide or executed by their students. Mobilized as members of the Red Guards, a new youth organization, the students attacked the educators as "capitalist intellectuals." From 1967 to 1978, the state "send-down" (rustication) policy 17 million urban youth to live and work in rural areas, with a pwermanent negative impact on their intellectual development and careers. [15] The upheaval was not limited to the cities. Maoist political ideology and teachings provided the catalyst for village conflicts that brought out traditional grievances and further escalated the conflicts. Some of the catalysts were student activists carrying out Mao's teachings, factional disputes, and the Four Clean-up campaigns that purged village officials and corruption. These conflicts spread to traditional grievances like lineage and hamlet hostilities and disputes over leadership and rights. Often, the conflicts caused by Party politics intersected traditional conflicts to the extent that the root causes of the conflicts were lost. This resulted in further escalation of the conflicts, which became more complex and widespread. In rural China an estimated 750,000 to 1.5 million people were killed, and about as many permanently injured; 36 million who suffered some form of political persecution. The vast majority of these casualties occurred from 1968 to 1971, after the end of the period of popular rebellion and factional conflict and the establishment of provisional organs of local state power.[16] Mao's policies were illustrated in posters that used art for political purposes. The posters glorified Mao, criticized his opponents, urged cooperation among all revolutionary groups, and condemned capitalism and foreign imperialists.[17] Major leadership changes and purges occurred at the top, involving Lin Biao, the Gang of Four, and Deng Xiaoping. In 1976, after the death of Zhou Enlai in January, the replacement of Deng in April, and Mao's death in September, a short, dramatic struggle ended with the arrest of the Gang of Four, the end of the Cultural revolution, and the transition to the post-Mao era.

Nixon and China

Nixon visits Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing, Feb. 1972

n 1972 the world was stunned when American President Richard Nixon visited Beijing, ending the cold war between the two countries and opening an era of détente and friendship that continues into the 21st century.[18]

After 1978, Mao's successor Deng Xiaoping focused on market-oriented economic development, and by 2000 output had quadrupled, population growth ended (by imposing a one-child policy), and good relations were secured with the West. For much of the population, living standards have improved dramatically and the room for personal choice has expanded, yet political controls and Internet censorship remain tight.

China's economy during the last quarter century has changed from a centrally planned system that was largely closed to international trade, to a more market-oriented economy that has a rapidly growing private sector and is a major player in the global economy.

Further reading

For a detailed guide go to the Bibliography tab above

  • Eberharad, Wolfram. A History of China (2005), 380 pages' full text online free
  • Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, and Kwang-ching Liu. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China (1999) 352 pages excerpt and text search
  • Fairbank, John King and Goldman, Merle. China: A New History. (2nd ed. 2006). 640 pp. excerpt and text search
  • Gernet, Jacques, J. R. Foster, and Charles Hartman. A History of Chinese Civilization (1996), called the best one-volume survey; excerpt and text search
  • Hsü, Immanuel Chung-yueh. The Rise of Modern China, (6th ed. 1999), highly detailed coverage of 1644-1999, in 1136pp. excerpt and text search
  • Latourette, Kenneth Scott. The Development of China (1917) 273 pages; full text online
  • Michael, Franz. China through the Ages: History of a Civilization. (1986). 278pp; online edition from Questia
  • Perkins, Dorothy. Encyclopedia of China: The Essential Reference to China, Its History and Culture. (1999). 662 pp. excerpt and text search
  • Roberts, J. A. G. A Concise History of China. (1999). 341 pp.
  • Schoppa, R. Keith. The Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History. (2000). 356 pp. online edition from Questia
  • Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China (1991), 876pp; well written survey from 1644 to 1980s excerpt and text search; complete edition online at Questia
  • Wang, Ke-wen, ed. Modern China: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Nationalism. (1998). 442 pp.
  • Wright, David Curtis. History of China (2001) 257pp; online edition


See also

External links


  1. The Travels of Marco Polo
  2. Dardess, A Ming Society (1996)
  3. Henry Loch (1869), Personal narrative of occurrences during Lord Elgin's second embassy to China, 1860
  4. Jonathan D. Spence (1996), God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, W. W. Norton, NY
  5. {{ | author = George MacDonald Fraser | title = Flashman and the Dragon | date = 1985 }}
  6. Hsü, (1999) ch 20
  7. Hsü, (1999) ch 20
  8. Spence, Search for Modern China (1990) ch 14-16
  9. Spence, Search for Modern China (1990) ch 14
  10. Spence, Search for Modern China (1990) ch 15-16; Spence, Mao Zedong (2006); quote in Baum (1964)
  11. John M. Glionna, "China's reality check on Long March," Los Angeles Times, Jan. 16, 2008
  12. Sun Shuyun, The Long March: The True History of Communist China's Founding Myth (2007)
  13. Chóngqìng.
  14. William A. Joseph, "A Tragedy of Good Intentions: Post-mao Views of the Great Leap Forward." Modern China 1986 12(4): 419-457. Issn: 0097-7004 in Jstor
  15. Xueguang Zhou and Liren Hou, "Children of the Cultural Revolution: the State and the Life Course in the People's Republic of China." American Sociological Review 1999 64(1): 12-36. Issn: 0003-1224 in Jstor
  16. Jonathan Unger, "Cultural Revolution Conflict in the Villages.} China Quarterly 1998 (153): 82-106. Issn: 0305-7410 in Jstor ; Andrew G. Walder, and Yang Su, "The Cultural Revolution in the Countryside: Scope, Timing and Human Impact." China Quarterly 2003 (173): 74-99. Issn: 0305-7410
  17. Patricia Powell, and Joseph Wong, "Propaganda Posters from the Chinese Cultural Revolution." Historian 1997 59(4): 776-793. Issn: 0018-2370 in EBSCO
  18. For primary sources and details see "Record of Historic Richard Nixon-Zhou Enlai Talks in February 1972 Now Declassified"