Prehistory Of China
Archaeological evidence suggests that early hominids lived in China between 2.24 million and 250,000 years ago. The hominid fossils of Peking Man, a Homo erectus who used fire, were discovered in a cave at Zhoukoudi near Beijing; they have been dated to between 680,000 and 780,000 years ago. The fossilised teeth of Homo sapiens (dated to 125,000-80,000 years ago) were discovered in Fuyan Cave in Dao County, Hunan. Chinese proto-writing existed in Jiahu around 7000 B.C., in Damaidi around 6000 B.C., in Dadiwan from 5800-5400 B.C. and in Banpo from the fifth millennium B.C. Some scholars have suggested that the Jiahu symbols (7th millennium B.C.) represented the earliest Chinese writing system.
Early dynastic rule
According to Chinese tradition, the first dynasty was the Xia, which emerged around 2100 BC. The dynasty was considered mythical by historians until 1959, when sites from the early Bronze Age were found during scientific excavations in Erlitou, Henan. It remains unclear whether these sites are the remains of the Xia dynasty or another culture from the same period. The subsequent Shang dynasty is the earliest confirmed by contemporary records. The Shang ruled the Yellow River plain in eastern China from the 17th to the 11th century BC. Their oracle bone script (from about 1500 BC) represents the oldest form of Chinese writing yet found and is a direct ancestor of modern Chinese characters. The Shang were conquered by the Zhou, who ruled between the 11th and 5th centuries BC, although centralised authority was slowly eroded by feudal warlords. The weakened Zhou state eventually gave rise to many independent states that waged constant war against each other during the 300-year Spring and Autumn period, only occasionally submitting to the Zhou king. At the time of the Warring States period in the 5th to 3rd centuries BC, there were seven powerful sovereign states in what is now China, each with its own king, ministry and army.
The Warring States period ended in 221 BC after the state of Qin conquered the other six kingdoms and founded the first unified Chinese state. Its king Zheng proclaimed himself the first emperor of the Qin dynasty (Qín Shǐhuángor Shǐ Huángdì). He enforced Qin’s legalistic reforms throughout China, in particular the forced standardisation of Chinese characters, measurements, road widths (i.e. the length of chariot axles) and currency. His dynasty also conquered the Yue tribes in Guangxi, Guangdong and northern Vietnam. The Qin dynasty lasted only fifteen years and fell soon after the death of the first emperor, as his harsh authoritarian policies led to widespread rebellions.
After an extensive civil war in which the imperial library in Xianyang was burnt down, the Han dynasty emerged, ruling China between 206 BC and 220 AD and creating a cultural identity among the population that is still remembered today by the ethnonym of Han Chinese. The Han expanded the territory of the empire considerably, with military campaigns that reached Central Asia, Mongolia, Korea and Yunnan, and the reclaiming of Guangdong and northern Vietnam from Nanyue. Han involvement in Central Asia and Sogdia helped establish the overland route of the Silk Road, which replaced the earlier route across the Himalayas to India. Han China gradually became the largest economy in the ancient world. Despite the initial decentralisation of the Han and the official abandonment of the Qin philosophy of legalism in favour of Confucianism, the legalistic institutions and policies of the Qin continued to be applied by the Han government and its successors.
The collapse of the Han dynasty was followed by a period of turmoil known as the Three Kingdoms, whose central figures were later immortalised in one of the Four Classics of Chinese literature. At its end, Wei was quickly overthrown by the Jin dynasty. The Jin fell into civil war after the rise of a developmentally disturbed emperor; the Five Barbarians then invaded and ruled northern China as the Sixteen Kingdoms. The Xianbei united them as the Northern Wei, whose Emperor Xiaowen reversed the apartheid policies of his predecessors and enforced a drastic Sinicisation of his subjects, largely integrating them into Chinese culture. In the south, General Liu Yu enforced the abdication of the Jin in favour of the Liu Song. The various successors to these states became known as the Northern and Southern Dynasties, with the two territories eventually reunited by the Sui in 581. The Sui restored Han power in China, reformed agriculture and the economy, built the Great Canal and promoted Buddhism. However, they quickly fell when their conscription for public works and a failed war with Korea provoked widespread unrest.
Under the succeeding Tang and Song dynasties, the Chinese economy, technology and culture experienced a golden age. The Tang Empire returned control of the western regions and the Silk Road, making the capital Chang’an a cosmopolitan urban centre. However, it was devastated and weakened by the An Shi Rebellion in the 8th century. In 907, the Tang dissolved completely, as local military governors were ungovernable. The Song dynasty ended the separatist situation in 960, creating the balance of power between Song and Khitan-Liao. The Song dynasty was the first government in world history to issue paper money and the first Chinese polity to establish a permanent standing navy, supported by the developed shipbuilding industry along with maritime trade. Between the 10th and 11th centuries, China’s population doubled to about 100 million, largely due to the expansion of rice cultivation in central and southern China and the production of abundant food surpluses. The Song dynasty also saw a revival of Confucianism in response to the growth of Buddhism during the Tang dynasty, and a flourishing of philosophy and the arts as landscape art and porcelain reached new levels of maturity and complexity. However, the military weakness of the Song army was observed by the Jurchen-Jin dynasty. In 1127, Emperor Huizong of Song and the capital Bianjing were conquered during the Jin-Song Wars, and remnants of the Song retreated to southern China.
In the 13th century, China was gradually conquered by the Mongol Empire. In 1271, the Mongol leader Kublai Khan founded the Yuan Dynasty; the Yuan conquered the last remnant of the Song Dynasty in 1279. Before the Mongol invasion, the population of Song China was 120 million citizens; by the 1300 census, that number had dropped to 60 million. A peasant named Zhu Yuanzhang overthrew the Yuan Dynasty in 1368 and founded the Ming Dynasty. Under the Ming Dynasty, China experienced another golden age, developing one of the strongest fleets in the world and a rich and prosperous economy amid a flourishing of art and culture. During this time, Zheng He travelled all over the world, reaching as far as Africa. In the early years of the Ming Dynasty, the capital of China was moved from Nanjing to Beijing. With the rise of capitalism, philosophers such as Wang Yangming further criticised Neo-Confucianism and expanded it to include concepts of individualism and the equality of the four professions. The scholar-official class became a sustaining force of industry and commerce in the tax boycott movements, which, along with famines and the wars against the Japanese invasion of Korea and the Manchu invasions, led to a depleted treasury.
In 1644, Beijing was taken by a coalition of peasant rebels led by Li Zicheng. The last Ming emperor, Chongzhen, committed suicide when the city fell. The Manchurian Qing dynasty then allied with Ming general Wu Sangui and overthrew Li’s short-lived Shun dynasty, subsequently taking control of Beijing, which became the new capital of the Qing dynasty.
End of dynastic rule
The Qing Dynasty, which lasted from 1644 to 1912, was China’s last imperial dynasty. The Ming conquest (1618-1683) cost the lives of 25 million people and China’s economic size shrank drastically. After the southern Ming, further conquest of the Dzungar Khanate brought Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang into the empire. The centralised autocracy was strengthened to combat anti-Qing sentiment with policies of upgrading agriculture and restricting trade, the Haijin (‘sea ban’) and ideological control as represented by the literary inquisition, leading to social and technological stagnation. In the 19th century, the dynasty experienced Western imperialism after the First Opium War (1839-42) and the Second Opium War (1856-60) with Britain and France. China was forced to sign unequal treaties, pay compensation, open treaty ports, allow extraterritoriality for foreign nationals and cede Hong Kong to the British in the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. The First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) led to the loss of Qing China’s influence on the Korean peninsula and the cession of Taiwan to Japan.
The Qing dynasty also began to experience internal unrest in which tens of millions died, most notably in the failed Taiping Rebellion that raged in southern China in the 1850s and 1860s, and the Dungan Rebellion (1862-77) in the northwest. The initial success of the Self-Strengthening Movement of the 1860s was wiped out by a series of military defeats in the 1880s and 1890s.
In the 19th century, the great Chinese diaspora began. Losses due to emigration were compounded by conflicts and disasters such as the North China Famine of 1876-79, which killed between 9 and 13 million people. In 1898, the Guangxu Emperor drafted a reform plan to establish a modern constitutional monarchy, but these plans were thwarted by the Empress Dowager Cixi. The ill-fated anti-Western Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 further weakened the dynasty. Although Cixi promoted a programme of reforms, the Xinhai Revolution of 1911-12 brought an end to the Qing dynasty and established the Republic of China.
Republic of China (1912-49)
On 1 January 1912, the Republic of China was founded and Sun Yat-sen of the Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party) was proclaimed provisional president. However, the presidency was later given to Yuan Shikai, a former Qing general who proclaimed himself Emperor of China in 1915. Faced with popular condemnation and resistance from his own Beiyang army, he was forced to abdicate and restore the republic.
After the death of Yuan Shikai in 1916, China was politically fragmented. Its Beijing-based government was internationally recognised but virtually powerless; regional warlords controlled most of its territory. In the late 1920s, the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek, then director of the Republic of China Military Academy, managed to bring the country back under its control through a series of skilful military and political manoeuvres that became known as the Northern Expedition. The Kuomintang moved the country’s capital to Nanjing and introduced “political tutelage”, an intermediate stage of political development outlined in Sun Yat-sen’s San-min programme to transform China into a modern democratic state. The political division of China made it difficult for Chiang to fight the communists, against whom the Kuomintang had been fighting in the Chinese civil war since 1927. This war was successful for the Kuomintang, especially after the communists retreated in the Long March, until Japanese aggression and the Xi’an Incident in 1936 forced Chiang to confront Imperial Japan.
The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), a theatre of the Second World War, forced an uneasy alliance between the Kuomintang and the Communists. Japanese forces committed numerous wartime atrocities against civilians; in total, up to 20 million Chinese civilians died. An estimated 200,000 Chinese were massacred in the city of Nanjing alone during the Japanese occupation. During the war, China, along with the UK, the US and the Soviet Union, were designated as the “Trustees of the Mighty” and recognised as the Allied “Big Four” in the United Nations Declaration. Along with the other three great powers, China was one of the Big Four Allies of World War II and was later considered one of the main victors of the war. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, Taiwan, including the Pescadores, was returned to Chinese control. China emerged victorious but was devastated by the war and financially drained. The continuing distrust between the Kuomintang and the communists led to the resurgence of civil war. In 1947, a constitutional order was introduced, but because of the ongoing unrest, many provisions of the ROC constitution were never implemented in Mainland China.
People’s Republic of China (1949-present)
The main fighting in the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949 with the Communist Party’s control of most of mainland China and the Kuomintang’s retreat off the coast, reducing the ROC’s territory to Taiwan, Hainan and the surrounding islands. On 1 October 1949, Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China. In 1950, the People’s Liberation Army succeeded in seizing Hainan from the ROC and incorporating Tibet. However, the remaining nationalist forces continued to lead an insurgency in western China in the 1950s.
Mao’s regime consolidated his popularity with the peasants through land reform, in which between 1 and 2 million large landowners were executed. Under his leadership, China developed an independent industrial system and its own nuclear weapons. The Chinese population almost doubled from about 550 million to over 900 million. However, Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”, a large-scale economic and social reform project, resulted in an estimated 45 million deaths between 1958 and 1961, most of them from starvation. In 1966, Mao and his allies launched the Cultural Revolution, which triggered a decade of political recrimination and social upheaval that lasted until Mao’s death in 1976. In October 1971, the PRC replaced the Republic of China in the United Nations and took its seat as a permanent member of the Security Council.
In 1976, Mao died. The Gang of Four was quickly arrested and blamed for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping took power and introduced major economic reforms. The Communist Party loosened state control over citizens’ personal lives, and communes were gradually dissolved in favour of private land leases. This marked China’s transition from a planned economy to a mixed economy with an increasingly open market environment. On 4 December 1982, China adopted its current constitution. The violent crackdown on student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 led to condemnations and sanctions against the Chinese government by various countries.
Jiang Zemin, Li Peng and Zhu Rongji led the nation in the 1990s. Under their government, China’s economic performance lifted an estimated 150 million peasants out of poverty and maintained an average annual GDP growth rate of 11.2 %. In 2001, the country officially joined the World Trade Organisation and maintained its high economic growth under the leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao in the 2000s. However, the rapid growth also had serious impacts on the country’s resources and environment and caused major social dislocation. Living standards improved rapidly despite the recession in the late 2000s, but centralised political control remained tight.
Preparations for a decadal leadership change in the Communist Party in 2012 were marked by factional strife and political scandals. During the 18th Chinese National Communist Party Congress in November 2012, Hu Jintao was replaced as General Secretary of the Communist Party by Xi Jinping. Under Xi, the Chinese government began large-scale efforts to reform the economy, which was suffering from structural instabilities and slowing growth. The Xi-Li government also announced major reforms to the one-child policy and the prison system.