KEY HISTORICAL EVENTS
An embryonic Chinese state emerged in the fertile Huang He (Yellow River) basin before 4000 BC. Chinese culture reached the Chang Jiang (Yangtze) basin by 2500 BC and within 500 years the far south was also within the Chinese orbit. Four thousand years ago the Xia dynasty ruled in the Huang He basin. About 1500 BC it was supplanted by the Shang dynasty, the cultural ancestor of modern China.
Shang civilization spread out from the Huang He region. In the west, the Shang came into conflict with the Zhou, whose rulers replaced the Shang dynasty around 1000 BC. Under the Zhou, a centralized administration developed. In about 500 BC one court official, Kongfuzi (Confucius), outlined his vision of society. Confucianism, which introduced a system of civil service recruitment through examination, remained dominant until the mid-20th century.
The Zhou expanded the Chinese state south beyond the Chang Jiang. Dependent territories periodically rebelled against the central authority. In 221 BC the ruler of Qin became the first emperor of China. He built an empire extending from the South China Sea to the edge of Central Asia where work was begun on the Great Wall of China, a massive fortification to keep threatening nomads at bay. The Qin dynasty standardized laws, money and administration throughout the empire but it was short-lived. By 206 BC the state had divided into three.
Reunification came gradually under the Han dynasty (202 BC–AD 200) with its efficient, centralized bureaucracy. A nation with boundaries similar to those of modern China was created. But peripheral territories proved too distant to hold and the Han empire fell to rebellion and invasion. It was followed by the Jin (265–316) and Sui (589–612) dynasties, interspersed by internecine war and anarchy. Reunification was achieved by the Tang dynasty which brought prosperity to China from 618–917. Eventually the Tang empire fell victim to separatism.
Under the Song (960–1127), the balance of power shifted south. The Song state lost control of the area north of the Chang Jiang in 1126 when nomads from Manchuria invaded. A declining Song empire survived in the south until 1279.
The northern invaders were overthrown by the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan (c. 1162–1227), who went on to claim the rest of China. In 1280 Kublai Khan (1251–94), who had founded the Yuan dynasty in 1271, swept into southern China. The Mongol Yuan dynasty adopted Chinese ways but was overthrown by a nationalist uprising in 1368, led by Hongwu (1328–98), a former beggar who established the Ming dynasty.
The Ming empire collapsed in a peasants’ revolt in 1644. The capital, Beijing (Peking), was only 64 km from the Great Wall and vulnerable to attack from the north. Within months the peasants’ leader was swept aside by the invasion of the Manchus, whose Qing dynasty ruled China until 1911. Preoccupied with threats from the north, China neglected its southern coastal frontier where European traders were attempting to open up the country. The Portuguese, who landed on the Chinese coast in 1516, were followed by the Dutch in 1622 and the English in 1637.
The Qing empire expanded into Mongolia, Tibet, Vietnam and Kazakhstan. But by the 19th century, under pressure from rural revolts ignited by crippling taxation and poverty, the Qing dynasty was crumbling. Two Opium Wars (1838–42; 1856–58) forced China to allow the import of opium from India into China, while Britain, France, Germany and other European states gained concessions in ‘treaty ports’ that virtually came under foreign rule.
The Taiping Rebellion (1851–64) set up a revolutionary egalitarian state in southern China. The European powers intervened to crush the rebellion and in 1860 British and French forces invaded Beijing and burnt the imperial palace. Further trading concessions were demanded. A weakened China was defeated by Japan in 1895 and lost both Taiwan and Korea.
The xenophobic Boxer Rebellion, led by members of a secret society called the Fists of Righteous Harmony, broke out in 1900. The Guangxu emperor (1875–1908) attempted modernization in the Hundred Days Reform, but was taken captive by the conservative dowager empress who harnessed the Boxer Rebellion to her own ends. The rebellion was put down by European troops in 1901. China was then divided into zones of influence between the major European states and Japan.
With imperial authority so weakened, much of the country was ungovernable and ripe for rebellion. The turning point came in 1911 when a revolution led by the Kuomintang (Guomintang or Nationalist movement) of Sun Yet-sen (Sun Zhong Shan; 1866–1925) overthrew the emperor and the imperial system. The authoritarian Yuan Shih-kai ruled as president from 1913 to 1916. Following the overthrow of Yuan, China disintegrated into warlord anarchy.
In 1916 Sun founded a republic in southern China but the north remained beyond his control. Reorganizing the Nationalist party on Soviet lines, Sun co-operated with the Communists to re-establish national unity. But rivalry between the two parties increased, particularly after the death of Sun in 1925.
Nationalism and Communism
After Sun’s death the nationalist movement was taken over by his ally Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jie Shi; 1887–1976). As commander in chief of the Nationalist army from 1925, Chiang’s power grew. In April 1927 he tried to suppress the Chinese Communist Party in a bloody campaign in which thousands of Communists were slaughtered. The survivors fled to the far western province of Jiangxi. In 1928 Chiang’s army entered Beijing. With the greater part of the country reunited under Chiang’s rule, he made Nanjing the capital of China.
In 1934 the Communists were forced to retreat from Jiangxi province. Led by Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung; 1893–1976) they trekked for more than a year on the 5,600-mile Long March. Harried by the Nationalists they eventually took refuge in Shaanxi province.
In 1931 the Japanese invaded Manchuria. By 1937 they had seized Beijing and most of coastal China. The Nationalists and Communists finally co-operated against the invader but were unable to achieve much against the superior Japanese forces.
During the Second World War (1939–45), a Nationalist government ruled unoccupied China ineffectually from a temporary capital in Chongqing. At the end of the war, Nationalist-Communist co-operation was short-lived. The Soviet Union sponsored the Communist Party, which marched into Manchuria in 1946. So began the civil war which lasted until 1949. Although the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek received support from some western countries, particularly the United States, the Communists were victorious. On 1 Oct. 1949 Mao declared the People’s Republic of China in Beijing.
Chiang fled with the remains of his Nationalist forces to the island of Taiwan, where he established a government that claimed to be a continuation of the Republic of China. At first, that administration was recognized as the government of China by most Western countries and Taiwan kept China’s Security Council seat at the United Nations until 1971. Chiang’s authoritarian regime was periodically challenged by Red China, which bombed Taiwan’s small offshore islands near the mainland. In the 1960s and 1970s, Taiwan gradually lost recognition as the legitimate government of China and in 1978 the USA recognized the People’s Republic of China.
In 1950 China invaded Tibet, independent since 1916. Chinese rule quickly alienated the Tibetans who rebelled in 1959. The Tibetan religious leader, the Dalai Lama, was forced to flee to India. Since then, the settlement of large numbers of ethnic Chinese in the main cities of Tibet has threatened to swamp Tibetan culture.
During the 1950s and 1960s China was involved in a number of border disputes and wars in neighbouring states. The Communists posted ‘volunteers’ to fight alongside Communist North Korea during the Korean War (1950–53). There were clashes on the Soviet border in the 1950s and the Indian border in the 1960s, when China occupied some Indian territory.
From the establishment of the Peoples’ Republic of China, Communist China and the Soviet Union were allies. Communist China initially depended upon Soviet assistance for economic development. A Soviet-style five-year plan was put into action in 1953, but the relationship with Moscow was already showing signs of strain. The two Communist powers fell out over interpretations of Marxist orthodoxy. By the end of the 1950s the Soviet Union and China were rivals, spurring the Chinese arms race. Chinese research into atomic weapons culminated in the testing of the first Chinese atomic bomb in 1964.
Mao introduced rapid collectivization of farms in 1955. The plan was not met with universal approval in the Communist Party but its implementation demonstrated Mao’s authority over the fortunes of the nation. In 1956 he launched the doctrine of letting a ‘hundred flowers bloom’, encouraging intellectual debate. However, the new freedoms took a turn Mao did not expect and led to the questioning of the role of the party. Strict controls were reimposed and free-thinkers were sent to work in the countryside to be ‘re-educated’.
In May 1958 Mao launched another ill-fated policy, the Great Leap Forward. To promote rapid industrialization and socialism, the collectives were reorganized into larger units. Neither the resources nor trained personnel were available for this huge task. Backyard blast furnaces were set up to increase production of iron and steel. The Great Leap Forward was a disaster. It is believed that 30m. died from famine. Soviet advice against the project was ignored and a breakdown in relations with Moscow came in 1963, when Soviet assistance was withdrawn. A rapprochement with the United States was achieved in the early 1970s.
Having published his ‘Thoughts’ in the ‘Little Red Book’ in 1964, Mao set the Cultural Revolution in motion. Militant students were organized into groups of Red Guards to attack the party hierarchy. Anyone perceived to lack enthusiasm for Mao Zedong Thought was denounced. Thousands died as the students lost control and the army was eventually called in to restore order.
After Mao’s death in 1976 the Gang of Four, led by Mao’s widow Jiang Qing, attempted to seize power. These hard-liners were denounced and arrested. China effectively came under the control of Deng Xiaoping, despite the fact that he held none of the great offices of state. Deng pursued economic reform. The country was opened to Western investment. Special Economic Zones and ‘open cities’ were designated and private enterprise gradually returned, on a small scale at first.
Improved standards of living and a thriving economy increased expectations for civil liberties. The demand for political change climaxed in demonstrations by workers and students in April 1989, following the funeral of Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang. Protests were held in several major cities. In Beijing where demonstrators peacefully occupied Tiananmen Square, they were evicted by the military who opened fire, killing more than 1,500. Hard-liners took control of the government, and martial law was imposed from May 1989 to Jan. 1990.
Since 1989 the leadership has concentrated on economic development. Hong Kong was returned to China from British rule in 1997 and Macao from Portuguese rule in 1999. The late 1990s saw a cautious extension of civil liberties but Chinese citizens are still denied most basic political rights.
Beijing was chosen for the 2008 Olympic Games. China’s treatment of Tibet came under the international spotlight in the build-up to the games, following violent protests in Tibet’s capital city, Lhasa.
For the background to the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, see HONG KONG: Key Historical Events.