Chinese history

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Summary

China is the oldest continuous major world civilization, with records dating back about 3,500 years. Successive dynasties developed a system of bureaucratic control, which gave the agrarian-based Chinese an advantage over neighboring nomadic and hill cultures. Chinese civilization was further strengthened by the development of a state ideology based on Confucianism and a common written Chinese language that bridged the gaps among the country's many local languages and dialects. Whenever China was conquered by nomadic tribes, as it was by the Mongols in the 13th century, the conquerors sooner or later adopted the ways of the "higher" Chinese civilization and staffed the bureaucracy with Chinese.

Prehistoric Time

China was inhabited more than 1,000,000 years ago by Homo erectus. Modern humans probably reached China about 75,000 years ago. The excavations of Lantian and Yuanmou show early habitation. In neolithic times, the Huanghe valley began to establish itself as a cultural center, where the first villages were founded (as the one excavated at Banpo near Xi'an).

Ancient Chinese History

Chinese historiographers traditionally began their accounts of Chinese history with the foundation of the Xia Dynasty in the 21st century B.C., followed by the Shang Dynasty half a millennium later, but the reliability of these accounts is at issue, since they were written many centuries after the related events. Archaelogical findings provide evidence for the existance of at least the Shang dynasty, however. Shang China had an advanced culture somewhat different from later Chinese civilization, with writing, bronze working, and chariots, the last suggesting possible influence from western migrants akin to the contemporary Hittites and Indo-Aryans. Furthermore Imperial Chinese historiographers were accustomed to the notion of one dynasty succeeding each other, while the actual political situation in early China is known to be much more complicated. It is therefore quite possible that the Xia Dynasty and the Shang Dynasty refers to political entities that existed at the same time just as the Chou Dynasty and the successor state to the Shang Dynasty existed at the same time.

In the 2nd millennium B.C. a second culture began to emerge in the Huanghe valley, overrunning the Shang, and the existence of the Chou dynasty, instituted in the 11th century B.C., is the first for which there is a reliable historical tradition. Although the Chou dynasty appears to have began as a centralized dynasty, power became decentralized. Some historians have termed this system feudal, while others have objected to the term feudal as it tends to stretch the extent of the term feudalism into meaninglessness, and it implies similarities with European feudalism which may not exist.

This period of decentralization is known as the Spring and Autumn Period from the annals which chronicle it. During the Spring and Autumn Period there was consolidation as larger states defeated and absorbed smaller states. This period was an important one for Chinese philosophy and culture as it marked the era in which Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism and Mohism were born. As the political consolidation continued, there remained seven (?) states, and the period in which these few states battled each other is known as the Period of the Warring States. Though there still was a Chou emperor until 256 B.C., he held no power whatsoever.

The Chinese Empire

In the 220s B.C., the duke Zheng of Qin managed to overwhelm the state of Chu, the biggest of the Warring States and then proceeded to conquer the remaining states. Zheng proclaimed himself First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (Qin Shi Huangdi). Though his reign lasted only 11 years, he managed to subdue great parts of what constitutes present-day China and to unite them under a tight centralized government seated in Xianyang (near Xi'an). His sons, however, weren't as succesful and soon the Qin dynasty ended and the Han Dynasty took over the power.

It was the first dynasty to embrace Confucianism, which became the ideological underpinning of all dynasties until the end of the Qing dynasty. Under the Han dynasty, historiography and arts flourished, inventions made life easier and emperors like Wu Di consolidated and extended the Chinese empire by pushing back the Xiongnu (sometimes identified with the Huns) and subjugating areas in the west. The Silk Road was established and for the first time there were trading connections between China and the occident.

But in the 1st century B.C., the Han rulers' power declined and in A.D. 9 the usurper Wang Mang founded the short-lived Xin Dynasty. In A.D. 25, however, the Han dynasty was restored and lasted until the 3rd century A.D.. Then, there was again a period of turmoil, in which three states tried to gain predominance (the Period of the Three States), followed by a bunch of local dynasties (like the Jin dynasty and the Southern and Northern Dynasties), until the Sui Dynasty managed to reunite the country.

In 618 A.D., the Tang Dynasty was established and a new age of flourishing began. Buddhism, which had slowly seeped into China in the first centuries A.D., spread over all of China and was finally adopted even by the royal family. Chang'an (modern Xi'an), the then capital, was supposedly the world's biggest city. Finally, however, the Tang dynasty declined as well and another time of political chaos followed, the Period of the Five Dynasties.

In 960 A.D., the Song Dynasty gained power over most of China and established its captial in Kaifeng. In the 10th century, the Song lost power over Northern China to the Jin Dynasty and moved its capital to Hangzhou. The Song 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 Western Xia who were ruled by Tanguts. The 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.

The Jin Dynasty was defeated and replaced by the Liao Dynasty who were then defeated by the Mongols. The Mongols then proceeded to defeat the Southern Song in a long and bloody war, which was the first war ever in which firearms played an important role, a period of peace began for nearly all of Asia. This so-called Pax Mongolica made it possible for adventurous Westerners, like Marco Polo, to travel the Silk Road all the way to China and to bring the first reports of its wonders to their unbelieving compatriots. In China, the Mongol were divided between those who wanted to remain focused on the steppes and those who wanted to adopt the customs of those they conquered. Kublai Khan was one of the latter group and therefore announced the established Yuan Dynasty, the first dynasty to make Beijing its capital.

Among the common people, however, there were strong feelings against the rule of "the foreigners", which finally led to a peasant revolt that overthrew the Yuan dynasty and established the Ming Dynasty. This dynasty started out as a time of renewed cultural blossom: Arts, especially the porcelain industry, reached an unprecedent height, Chinese merchants explored all of the Indic ocean and even reaching Africa with the voyages of Zheng He. Some historians, such as John Fairbanks have argued that this renovation turned into stagnation, and that science and philosophy were caught in a tight net of traditions smothering any attempt to venture something new. Others have pointed out that this view of the Ming Dynasty is inconsistent with the growing volume of trade and commerce that was occurring between China and southeast Asia. When the Portuguese reached India, they found a booming trade network which they then followed to China. In the 16th century Europeans started to appear on the eastern shores and founded Macao, the first European settlement in China.

The last dynasty was established in 1644, when the nomadic Manchus overthrew the native Ming dynasty and established the Qing (Ch'ing) dynasty with Beijing as its capital. At great expense in blood and treasure, the Manchus over the next half century gained control of many border areas, including Xinjiang, Yunnan, Tibet, Mongolia, and Taiwan. The success of the early Qing period was based on the combination of Manchu martial prowess and traditional Chinese bureaucratic skills.

Some historians have viewed the Qing as continuing the decline started in the Ming, while others have argued that the early and mid-Qing were periods of growth rather than decline. The Qian Long emperor commanded the compilation of a catalogue of all important works of Chinese philosophy and literature, under emperor Kang Xi, the most complete dictionary of Chinese characters ever was put together. The Qing Dynasty also saw the growth of popular literature such as the Dream of the Red Lantern and agricultural advances such as triple cropping of rice which caused the population of China to more than double from between 180 million in 1700 to 400 million in 1800.

During the 19th century, Qing control weakened, and prosperity diminished. 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 erupted in 1840. China lost the war; subsequently, Britain and other Western powers, including the United States, forcibly occupied "concessions" and gained special commercial privileges. Hong Kong was ceded to Britain in 1842 under the Treaty of Nanking. In addition, the Taiping rebellion and Nian rebellions, along with a Russian-supported Muslim separatist movement in Xinjiang, drained Chinese resources and almost toppled the dynasty. .

By the 1860's, the Qing dynasty had put down the rebellions with the help of militia organized by the Chinese gentry. The Qing dynasty then proceded to deal with problem of modernization, which it attempted with the Self-Strengthening Movement. In the Sino-French War and the Sino-Japanese War, the New Armies created by the Qing dynasties were defeated, which produced calls for greater and more extensive reform. After the start of the 20th century, the Qing Dynasty was in a dilemma. It could proceed with reform and thereby alienate the conservative gentry or it could stall reform and thereby alienate the revolutionaries. The Qing Dynasty tried to follow a middle path, but proceed to alienate everyone.

The Republic of China

Frustrated by the Qing court's resistance to reform, young officials, military officers, and students--inspired by the revolutionary ideas of Sun Yat-sen --began to advocate the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and creation of a republic. A revolutionary military uprising on October 10, 1911 in Wuhan, led to the abdication of the last Qing monarch. A provisional government in Nanjing was formed with Sun Yat-Sen as President, but Sun was forced to turn over power to Yuan Shi-Kai who commanded the New Army. Yuan Shi-Kai proceeded in the next few years to abolish the national and provincial assemblies and to have himself named emperor. Yuan's imperial ambitions were fiercely opposed by his subordinates and faced with the prospect of rebellion, Yuan backed down. He 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" during which China was ruled and ravaged by shifting coalitions of competing provincial military leaders.

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 organized the Kuomintang (KMT or "Nationalist People's Party"), and entered into an alliance with the fledgling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). After Sun's death in 1925, one of his protégés, Chiang Kai-shek, seized control of the KMT and succeeded in bringing most of south and central China under its rule in a military campaign known as the Northern Expedition. Having defeated the warlords in south and central China by military force, Chiang was able to secured the nominal allegiance of the warlords in the North. In 1927, Chiang turned on the CCP and executed many of its leaders. The remnants fled from their based in southern China into the mountains of eastern China. In 1934, driven out of their mountain bases, the CCP's forces embarked on a "Long March" across China's most desolate terrain to the northwest, where they established a guerrilla base at Yan'an in Shaanxi Province.

During the "Long March," the communists reorganized under a new leader, Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung). The bitter struggle between the KMT and the CCP continued openly or clandestinely through the 14-year long Japanese invasion (1931-45), even though the two parties nominally formed a united front to oppose the Japanese invaders in 1937. The war between the two parties resumed after the Japanese defeat in 1945. By 1949, the CCP occupied most of the country.

Chiang Kai-shek fled with the remnants of his KMT government and military forces to Taiwan, where he proclaimed Taipei to be China's "provisional capital" and vowed to reconquer the Chinese mainland. The KMT authorities on Taiwan still call themselves the "Republic of China."

With the proclamation of the People's Republic of China on October, 1st, 1949. China was divided again, into the PRC and the ROC, with two governments that each regarded themselves as the one true Chinese government and denoucing each other as illegitimate. This remained true until the early 1990's when political changes on Taiwan led it to no longer actively portray itself as the sole Chinese government.

For their respective histories after 1949, see the entries on the history of the PRC and the history of Taiwan.

See also: Chinese historiography


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