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Few structures survive from before the 8th century AD. Many early buildings were constructed in wood, which have long since disappeared, with more durable buildings often destroyed by war. Much of what is known has been gathered from references to building in literature, song and artwork.

Until Qin Shi Huang became the first emperor around 220 BC and unified China under a centralised system, there was no such thing as a Chinese national architecture. Under Qin Shi Huang’s rule large and impressively decorated structures were built. This period saw the beginnings of what would later become the Great Wall.

It is from the Tang and Song dynasties that the first surviving structures appear. Buildings were painted in bright colours, with great attention to detail. When the Mongols ousted the Song in the late 13th century they contributed little of their own culture to architecture, instead choosing to imitate and rebuild the style of the Chinese.

Běijīng was the long-standing capital during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The Forbidden City showcases the architecture of the time. In it we can see the epitome of traditional Chinese architectural ideas of monumentality and symmetry, with strong use of colour and decoration.

The roots of Chinese history: From bone soup to empire

What is China, and how long has it had a distinct history? You will often find an assumption, both within China and outside, that the many centuries of Chinese history have been mostly peaceful, with occasional periods where the large united country called China is broken up or placed under attack. However, for most of its history, China has been in conflict either internally or with outsiders. In addition, the shape of China has changed over and over again: from tiny beginnings by the Yellow River (Huáng Hé) to the subcontinent of today. Yet at the same time, the concept of a continuous Chinese history that lasts thousands of years is not simply invention or propaganda. There are powerful links between the peoples of some 5000 or 6000 years ago and the Chinese of today, making it the longest-lasting civilisation on earth.

For many years the earliest ‘Chinese’ dynasty, the Shang, was thought to be legendary, until archaeological evidence proved its existence. In 1899 enterprising peasants living near Ānyáng in Hénán province started selling old cattle bones and turtle shells to boil up for a soup that would act as an antimalarial medicine. The bones were covered in mysterious scratches, and a scholar suddenly realised that they were an early form of Chinese writing. Over the next few decades, archaeologists worked out that the bones were used from as early as 4000 BC to predict events. From around 1766 BC, the society known as the Shang developed in central China. The area they controlled was tiny – perhaps 200km across – but Chinese historians have argued that the Shang was the first Chinese dynasty. The Shang dynasty, by using Chinese writing on ‘oracle bones’, marked its connection with the Chinese civilisation of the present day.

Sometime between 1050 and 1045 BC, a neighbouring group known as the Zhou conquered Shang territory. The Zhou was one of many states competing for power in the next few hundred years, but developments during this period created some of the key sources of Chinese culture that would last till the present day. Constant conflict marked the China of the first millennium BC, particularly the periods known as the ‘Spring and Autumn’ (722–481 BC) and ‘Warring States’ (475–221 BC).

Chinese history has always been defined by the control over writing: this is one of the reasons why the state has been keen to control the way in which the past is written. The writing of one figure in particular, that of the teacher Confucius (551–479 BC), stands out. The system of thought and ethics that he developed underpinned Chinese culture for 2500 years. The 5th-century BC world was both warlike and intellectually very rich, rather like ancient Greece during the same period. Confucius, a wandering teacher, gave lessons in personal behaviour and statecraft, and advocated an ordered society that was obedient toward hierarchies (ruler to subject, husband to wife), but also ethical and that eschewed violence or coercion wherever possible. Yet Confucius’s desire for an ordered, ethical world seems a far cry from the warfare of the time that he lived in.

Confucius was not the only thinker to shape early China: unlike Confucius and his later adherent, Mencius, Xunzi believed that humans were essentially evil; and Han Feizi took it even further, by arguing that only a system of strict laws and harsh punishments, not ethical codes, would restrain people from doing wrong. However, it was Confucian thought that would ultimately underpin Chinese society for the next two millennia.

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The early empires

The period of Warring States ended decisively in 221 BC, with the Qin kingdom’s conquest of the other states in the central Chinese region. Qin Shi Huang declared himself emperor, the first in a sequence of rulers that would last until 1912. Later histories have argued that Qin Shi Huang, was a cruel and ruthless leader who was very different from the civilised dynasties who followed him. This distinction is dubious, however – the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220), which followed the short-lived Qin, took over many of the Qin’s practices of government.

The emperor began massive public works projects, including walls built by some 300,000 men (although the modern Great Wall is mostly of Ming dynasty vintage). He unified the currency, measurements and written language, providing the basis for a unified state, which kept the concept of a unified Chinese state alive in people’s minds, even though it would split on numerous occasions over the centuries. Even in death, he made sure he would be remembered – he ordered the famous terracotta army to accompany him in his tomb. Less dramatic, but equally exciting, are recent discoveries that enable us to know more about everyday life during the Qin dynasty: for example, we know that men (but not women) could initiate divorce, and that criminal punishments could include being forced to build walls and pound grain, as well as mutilation and execution.

The Qin did not long outlive its founder, however, and a peasant, Liu Bang, realised the ultimate dream by rising up and conquering China. He founded the Han dynasty, one so important that the term Han is still used today as a generic term signifying ethnic Chinese. The most important figure in the centralisation of power was emperor Wu (140–87 BC), who institutionalised Confucian norms in government. Concerned with merit as well as order, he was the first leader to experiment with examinations for entry into the bureaucracy, although his dynasty was constantly plagued by economic troubles, as estate owners gathered more and more land under their personal control, with the state unable to stop them. Indeed, the question of land ownership was to be a constant problem throughout Chinese history. Yet the Han’s endemic economic problems and inability to exercise control over a growing empire eventually led to its collapse and downfall. Social problems included an uprising by Daoists (known as the Yellow Turbans). Upheaval would become a constant theme among Chinese dynasties in the centuries to come.

One of the most important cultural changes in China occurred during the decline of the Han dynasty with the arrival of Buddhism. In the next half millennium it would become the dominant religion of China, partly because China was not a unified entity and Buddhist leaders proved more skilled than Taoists in garnering support.

The Han demonstrated clearly that China is fundamentally a Eurasian power in their relations with neighbouring peoples. To the north, the Xiongnu (a name given to various nomadic tribes of central Asia) posed the greatest threat to China. Diplomatic links were also formed with central Asian tribes, and the great Chinese explorer Zhang Qian provided the authorities with information on the possibilities of trade and alliances in northern India. During the same period, Chinese influence percolated into areas that were later to become known as Vietnam and Korea.

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Return to the warring states

Most chronologies suggest that two great empires, the Han and the Tang, were separated by an ‘age of disunion’, although it’s not the case that China’s most important developments only took place during periods of unity. From the Warring States to the Republic of the 20th century, periods of political disunity could, interestingly, also be eras of great cultural richness.

Between the early 3rd and late 6th centuries AD, north China saw a succession of rival kingdoms struggling for power. During this time of disunity a strong division formed between north and south China. The north was controlled by non-Chinese rulers and riven by warfare. The most successful northern regime during this period was the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534), founded by the Tuoba, a people from the north, who embraced Buddhism and left behind some of China’s finest Buddhist art, including the famous site at Dūnhuáng. It was succeeded by a series of rival regimes until nobleman Yang Jian (d 604) managed to reunify China under his new Sui dynasty (581–618). While the Sui was short-lived, Yang Jian’s great achievement was to bring the south back within the territory of a northern-based empire. His son Sui Yangdi then contributed greatly to the unification of south and north through the construction of the Grand Canal. Extended over the centuries, it remained the empire’s most important communication route between south and north until the late 19th century. After instigating three unsuccessful incursions onto Korean soil, resulting in disastrous military setbacks, Sui Yangdi faced revolt on the streets and was assassinated in 618 by one of his high officials.

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The Tang: China looks west

Even today, the common name for ‘Chinatown’ in Chinese is Tangrenjie (literally, Tang people street). It is unsurprising that, nearly a millennium and a half later, the Chinese still think nostalgically of the Tang as their highest cultural peak. The poetry of the Tang is still regarded as China’s finest, as is its sculpture, while its legal code became a standard for the whole East Asian region. As the makers of the 1988 television series River Elegy pointed out, it was an outward-looking time, when China embraced the culture of its neighbours – marriage to Central Asian people or wearing Indian-influenced clothes was part of the era’s cosmopolitan spirit.

The Tang was founded by the Sui general, Li Yuan, and his achievements were consolidated by his son Taizong (626–49). Cháng’ān (modern Xī’ān) became the most impressive capital in the world under Taizong, with a population of perhaps 1 million people, and its own foreign quarter, with a market where merchants from as far away as Persia could be seen mingling with the locals. The city was also marked by the Tang devotion to Buddhism: some 91 temples were recorded in the city in the year 722.

Taizong was succeeded by a unique figure: the only reigning woman emperor in Chinese history, Wu Zetian (625–705). Under her leadership, the empire reached its greatest extent, spreading well north of the Great Wall and far west into inner Asia. Her strong promotion of Buddhism, however, alienated her from the Confucian officials and in 705 she was forced to abdicate in favour of Xuanzong, who would preside over the greatest disaster in the Tang’s history: the rebellion of An Lushan.

Xuanzong appointed minorities from the frontiers as generals, in the belief that they were so far removed from the political system and society that ideas of rebellion and coups would not enter their minds. Nevertheless, it was An Lushan, a general of Sogdian-Turkic parentage, who took advantage of his command in north China to make a bid for imperial power. The fighting lasted from 755 to 763, and although An Lushan was defeated, the Tang’s control over China was destroyed forever. They had ceded huge amounts of military and tax-collecting power to provincial leaders to enable them to defeat the fighting, and in doing so, dissipated their own power. This was a permanent change in the relationship between the government and the provinces; previous to 755, the government had an idea of who owned what land throughout the empire, but after that date, the central government’s control was permanently weakened. Even today, the dilemma has not been fully resolved.

In its last century, the Tang drew back from its former openness, turning more strongly to Confucianism. Buddhism, on the other hand, was outlawed by Emperor Wuzong from 842 to 845. Although the ban was later modified, Buddhism never regained the power and prestige in China that it had enjoyed up until that time. Eventually, the Huang Chao rebellion (874–84) reduced the empire to chaos and resulted in the fall of the capital in 907.

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Open markets, bound feet

Another period of disunity followed the fall of the Tang until the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127) was established. During its life, the Song dynasty was in a state of constant conflict with its northern neighbours. The Northern Song was a rather small empire coexisting with the non-Chinese Liao dynasty (which controlled a belt of Chinese territory south of the Great Wall that now marked China’s northern border) and less happily with the Western Xia, another non-Chinese power that pressed hard on the northwestern provinces. In 1126 the Song lost its capital, Kāifēng, to a third non-Chinese people, the Jurchen, who had previously been their allies against the Liao. The Song was driven to its southern capital of Hángzhōu for the period of the Southern Song (1127–1279), yet the period was immensely culturally rich – even the flight to new capital of Kāifēng gave rise to a powerfully nostalgic literary period.

Although it has become traditional to trace Chinese history through the rise and fall of its dynasties, there are plenty of historical phenomena that don’t really fit into the neat model of successive emperors and their court intrigues. During the Song dynasty, for example, there emerged several phenomena that would last well into the 20th century.

One was the full institution of a system of examinations for entry into the Chinese bureaucracy. The Song did not invent this idea, but it was brought to fruition under them. At a time when brute force decided who was in control in much of medieval Europe, young Chinese men were made to sit tests on the Confucian classics and were only given office if successful (and most were not). The system was heavily biased toward the rich, but it was still remarkable in its rationalisation of authority, and lasted for hundreds of years. The classical texts which were set for the examinations became central to the transmission of a sense of elite Chinese culture. However, the system did become more rigid and clichéd over the centuries. By the 19th century, the stylised answers to questions on antiquity seemed to have little connection to the reality of life in a China that was being forced to open up to the outside world. In 1905, the examinations were finally abolished, making way for tests in ‘Western learning.’

China’s economy took off during the Song. Previously, most farmers had been self-sufficient and cultivated little for trade. During the Song, cash crops and handicraft products became much more central to the economy, and a genuinely China-wide market emerged, which would become even stronger during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The market faced many crises over the centuries: wars (such as the Taiping conflict in the 19th century and the War of Resistance against Japan in the 20th century), as well as the impact of Communist rule under Mao Zedong, seriously disrupted the market system. But overall, it remained a constant.

Yet another Chinese phenomenon seems to have emerged during the Song: foot binding. We still do not know exactly how the custom of binding up a girl’s feet in cloths so that they would never grow larger than the size of a fist began, yet for much of the next few centuries, it became the norm in Chinese society. It may have been a way of marking ethnic difference between the Chinese and the northern invaders, or a fashion statement, rather like piercing ears and other body parts in today’s world. One thing is certain though – it persisted for centuries. Young Chinese women could not easily be married unless their feet were bound, so their mothers considered it no kindness to spare them. A combination of Chinese reformers and foreign missionaries in the late 19th century finally changed the culture and by the 1920s, foot binding had ended, although there remain a few very old women who still bear its mark today.

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The early modern empires

The fall of the Song reinforced the notion of China’s Eurasian location, and also that the Chinese had not been in control of their relationship with their neighbours for long periods of time. The next period of history certainly reinforced this idea. Genghis Khan (1167–1227) was beginning his rise to power, and turned his sights on China; he took Běijīng in 1215, and his successors took Hángzhōu, the Southern Song capital, in 1276. The court fled and Southern Song resistance ended in 1279. Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis, now reigned over all of China as emperor of the Yuan dynasty. Under Kublai, the entire population was divided into categories of Han, Mongol and foreigner, with the top administrative posts reserved for Mongols, even though the examination system was revived in 1315. The latter decision had the unexpected result of strengthening the role of local landed elites: since elite Chinese could not advance in the bureaucracy, they decided to spend more time tending their large estates instead. Another innovation was the use of paper money, although overprinting created a problem with inflation.

The Mongols ultimately proved less strong at governance than at warfare, and their empire succumbed to rebellion within a century. By 1367 Zhu Yuanzhang, originally an orphan and a Buddhist novice, had climbed to the top of the rebel leadership, and in 1368 he established the Ming dynasty, restoring ethnic Chinese rule.

For the more than half a millennium, from 1368 to 1911, China’s territory, population and cultural impact expanded under two great dynasties, the Ming (meaning ‘Bright’) and the Qing (Clear). Yet by the end of this period, China’s imperial history would come to an end. The impact of Western imperialism and the first wave of industrialised globalisation managed something that years of non-Han invasions from the north had failed to do: reduce China to the status of conquered state.

Zhu Yuanzhang established his capital in Nánjīng, but by the early 15th century the court had begun to move back to Běijīng. A massive reconstruction project was commenced under Emperor Yongle (r 1403–24), establishing the Forbidden City much as it remains today. Although the Ming tried to impose a traditional social structure in which people stuck to hereditary occupations, the era was in fact one of great commercial growth and social change. Women became subject to stricter social norms (for instance, widow remarriage was frowned upon) but female literacy also grew. Publishing, via woodblock technology, took off in a big way.

Emperor Yongle, having usurped power from his nephew, was keen to establish his own legitimacy. In 1405 he launched the first of seven great maritime expeditions. Led by the eunuch general Zheng He (1371–1433), the fleet consisted of more than 60 large vessels and 255 smaller ones, carrying nearly 28,000 men. The fourth and fifth expeditions departed in 1413 and 1417, and travelled as far as the present Middle East. The great achievement of these voyages was to bring tribute missions to the capital, including two embassies from Egypt. Yet ultimately, they were a dead end: they had been carried out so that Yongle could prove that he could outdo his father, not for the purpose of conquest or the establishment of a settled trade network. The emperors after Yongle had little interest in continuing the voyages, and China’s experiment in global maritime exploration came to an end.

Around this time, ships also arrived from Europe. Traders were quickly followed by missionaries and the Jesuits, led by the formidable Matteo Ricci, made their way inland and established a presence at court. Ricci learned fluent Chinese and spent years agonising over how the tenets of Christianity could be made attractive in a Confucian society with very different norms. The Portuguese presence linked China directly to trade with the New World, which had opened up in the 16th century. New crops, such as potatoes and maize, were introduced, varying the diet of the Chinese and stimulating the commercial economy yet further. At this time, merchants often lived opulent lives, building fine private gardens (as in Sūzhōu) and buying delicate flowers and fruits.

Eventually, the Ming was undermined by internal power struggles. Natural disasters, such as drought and famine, combined with a threat from the north. The Manchu, a nomadic warlike people, saw the turmoil within China, and in the 1640s, they launched an invasion.

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The last empire

The Manchu named their new dynasty the Qing (1644–1911). Their victory was won by spilling blood, but they also realised that they would have to adapt their nomadic way of life to suit the agricultural civilisation of China. The Qing neutralised threats from inner Asia by incorporating their homeland of Manchuria into the empire, as well as that of the Mongols, whom they had subordinated. Like the Mongols before them, the conquering Manchu found themselves in charge of a civilisation whose government they had defeated, but whose cultural power far exceeded their own. This meant that for 200 years Chinese society under the Qing existed with two seemingly contradictory realities. On the one hand, the Qing rulers took great pains to get high officials and cultural figures to switch their allegiance to the new dynasty, by showing their familiarity with, and respect for, traditional Chinese culture. On the other hand, the Manchu rulers were at great pains to remain distinct. They enforced strict rules of social separation between the Han and Manchu, and tried to maintain – not always very successfully – a culture that reminded the Manchu of their nomadic warrior past. The Qing flourished most greatly under three emperors who ruled for a total of 135 years: Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong.

Much of the map of China that we know today derives from the Qing period. The country’s territory expanded, and expeditions to regions of central Asia spread Chinese power and culture further than ever. At the same time, military power was never enough. The expansion of the 18th century was fuelled by economic and social changes. The discovery of the New World by Europeans in the 15th century led to a new global market in American food crops, such as chillies and sweet potatoes, allowing food crops to be grown in more barren regions, where wheat and rice had not flourished.

Overall, the Chinese people were better-fed and healthier than ever before, and there were more of them in total – in the 18th century, the population doubled from around 150 million to 300 million people.

Historians now take very seriously the idea that in the 18th century, China was among the most advanced economies in the world. In the 1990s, the historian Kenneth Pomeranz noticed something intriguing: at the start of the 18th century, China (or at least, the Yangtze valley) and Britain were economically in a rather similar position, yet within a century and a half, Britain’s industrial revolution had taken off, whereas China was at the mercy of British gunboats. What accounted for the difference? Pomeranz’ argument was complex, but he suggested that the easy availability of coal and the existence of overseas colonies gave Britain an unmatchable advantage.

The impact of imperialism would be one major reason for China’s slide down the table. However, the seeds of decay were visible long before the Opium Wars of the 1840s. Put simply, as China’s size expanded, its state remained too small. China’s dynasty acted as if its population and territory were still much smaller than they had been, and failed to expand the size of government to cope with the new realities.

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War & society

Many events conspired to bring the Qing down. But from the mid-19th century, war was a constant threat, undermining the government’s level of control. The reality of a society in almost-constant conflict shaped China for more than a century, and even the era of Mao, often considered a relatively peaceful one, can be seen as a series of continuing civil wars. For the Qing, the single most devastating factor was not the Opium War, but the far more devastating Taiping War of 1856–64.

The Taiping may have been the deadliest civil war ever fought. It was started by Hong Xiuquan, a Cantonese who had repeatedly failed the civil service examinations. Hong, who was mentally ill, had a vision that he was in fact the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and had been sent to lead an uprising against the Manchu Qing rulers. From this unpromising beginning, he raised an army that managed to hold large parts of eastern China under its rule for some eight years (1856–64). The Tàipíng Tiānguó, or Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, was an alternative regime with its capital at Nánjīng. Fiercely anti-Manchu, it banned opium and intermingling between the sexes, made moves to redistribute property (these were never very thorough, but they were enough to exercise the excitement of the Communists half a century later), and demanded allegiance to its variation of Christianity, which recognised Hong as Jesus’ brother. The Qing eventually reconquered the Taiping capital at Nánjīng, but not without great cost, including hundreds of thousand of dead.

The attempt to crush Hong’s rebels showed how weak the central government’s troops were, and that the Manchu values of martial prowess had faded away over the two centuries since the defeat of the Ming. Instead, Chinese commanders at the provincial level had to be given authorisation to set up New Armies. Zeng Guofan of Húnán province led one of the most effective of these. Zeng was fiercely loyal to the Qing, but the same could not be said of other local militarists, who used the New Armies not so much to defend the Qing as to build up powerbases of their own. The seeds of the warlord culture that would shape China’s troubled early 20th century were being sown.

The events that brought the dynasty down came thick and fast. The following decades did see the Qing make efforts to reform its practices, and the ‘self-strengthening’ movement of the 1860s involved notable attempts to produce armaments and military technology along Western lines. Yet imperialist incursions continued, and the attempts at self-strengthening were dealt a brutal blow during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–5. Fought between China and Japan (the latter was now a fledgling imperial power in its own right) over control of Korea, it ended with the humiliating destruction of the new Qing navy, and the loss not only of Chinese influence in Korea, but also the cession of Taiwan to Japan as its first formal colony.

Significant steps toward modernisation were taken in the late Qing. One reason was that there was a powerful Asian example of how reform might be carried out: Japan. Since 1868, Japan’s rulers, worried by ever-greater foreign encroachment, had overthrown the centuries-old system of the Shōgun, who acted as regent for the emperor. These aristocrats swiftly determined that the only way to protect Japan was to embrace an all-out programme of modernisation, including a new army, constitution, educational system and railway network. These heady and swift changes in a country which the Chinese had always regarded as a ‘little brother’ gave Chinese reformers plenty of material for consideration.

One of the boldest proposals for reform, which drew heavily on the Japanese model, was the programme put forward in 1898 by reformers including the political thinker Kang Youwei (1858–1927). However, in September 1898, the reforms were abruptly halted, as the Dowager Empress Cixi, fearful of a coup, placed the emperor under house arrest and executed several of the leading advocates of change. Two years later, Cixi made a decision that helped to seal the Qing’s fate. In 1900, North China was convulsed by attacks from a mysterious group of peasant rebels whose martial arts techniques meant that they became known as Boxers, and who wanted to expel the foreigners and kill any Chinese Christian converts. In a major misjudgement, the dynasty declared in June that they supported the Boxers. Eventually, a multinational foreign army forced its way into China and defeated the uprising. The imperial powers then demanded huge financial compensation from the Qing. In 1902, the dynasty reacted by implementing the Xinzheng (new governance) reforms This set of reforms, now half-forgotten in contemporary China, looks remarkably progressive, even set against the standards of the present day. From 1900 to 1910, elections were proposed at the subprovincial level, to be held in 1912–14, with the promise of an elected national assembly to come. The elections never happened because of the republican revolution of 1911, but it is possible now to look back and imagine an alternative world in which Qing China transformed itself into a constitutional monarchy.

Among the figures dedicated to ending, rather than reforming, the dynasty’s rule, was the Cantonese revolutionary Sun Yatsen (1866–1925), who remains one of the few modern historical figures respected both in China and Taiwan. Sun and his Revolutionary League made multiple attempts to undermine Qing rule in the late 19th century, raising sponsorship and support from a wide-ranging combination of the Chinese diaspora, the newly emergent middle class, and traditional secret societies. In practice, his own attempts to end Qing rule were unsuccessful, but his reputation as a patriotic figure dedicated to a modern republic gained him high prestige among many of the emerging middle-class elites in China, though much less among the key military leaders.

The end of the Qing dynasty came suddenly. Throughout China’s southwest, popular feeling against the dynasty had been fuelled by reports that railway rights in the region were being sold to foreigners. A local uprising in the city of Wuhan in October 1911 was discovered early, leading the rebels to take over command in the city and hastily to declare independence from the Qing dynasty. Within a space of days, then weeks, most of China’s provinces did the same thing. Provincial assemblies across China declared themselves in favour of a republic, with Sun Yatsen (who was not even in China at the time) as their candidate for president. Yuan Shikai, leader of China’s most powerful regional army, went to the Qing court to tell them that the game was up: on 12 February 1912, the last emperor, the 6-year-old Puyi, abdicated.

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The Republic: China changes shape

The Republic of China lasted less than 40 years on the mainland, and it continues to be regarded as a dark time in China’s modern history, when the country was under threat from what many described as ‘imperialism from without and warlordism from within.’ Yet there was also new space during the period for new ideas and culture. In terms of freedom of speech and cultural production, the Republic was a much richer time than any subsequent era in Chinese history. Yet the period was certainly marked by repeated disasters, rather like the Weimar Republic in Germany with which it was almost contemporary.

Sun Yatsen had returned to China from his trip abroad when the 1911 Revolution broke out, and briefly served as president, before having to make way for the militarist leader Yuan Shikai. In 1912, China held its first general election, and it was Sun’s newly established Kuomintang (Nationalist) party which emerged as the largest grouping. Parliamentary democracy did not last long, as the Kuomintang itself was outlawed by Yuan, and Sun had to flee into exile in Japan. However, after Yuan’s death in 1916, the country split into rival regions ruled by militarist warlord-leaders. Supposedly ‘national’ governments in Běijīng often controlled only parts of northern or eastern China and had no real claim to control over the rest of the country. Also, in reality, the foreign powers still had control over much of China’s domestic and international situation. Britain, France, the US, and the other Western powers showed little desire to lose those rights, such as extraterritoriality and tariff control.

The city of Shànghǎi became the focal point for the contradictions of Chinese modernity. By the early 20th century, Shànghǎi was a wonder not just of China, but of the world, with skyscrapers, neon lights, women (and men) in outrageously new fashions, and a vibrant, commercially minded, take-no-prisoners atmosphere. The racism that came with imperialism could be seen every day, as Europeans kept themselves separate from the Chinese of the city. Yet the glamour of modernity was undeniable too, as workers flocked from rural areas to make a living in the city, and Chinese intellectuals sought out French fashion, British architecture, and American movies. In the prewar period, Shànghǎi had more millionaires than anywhere else in China, yet also hosted the first congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The militarist government that held power in Běijīng in 1917 provided 96,000 Chinese who served on the Western Front in Europe, not as soldiers but digging trenches and doing hard manual labour. This involvement in WWI led to one of the most important events in China’s modern history: the student demonstrations of 4 May 1919.

The Paris Peace Conference that ended WWI was bad news for the Chinese. Germany had been defeated, but its territories on Chinese soil were not going to be handed over to China. Instead, they would be awarded to Japan. Just five days later, on 4 May 1919, some 3000 students gathered in central Běijīng, in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, and then marched to the house of a Chinese government minister closely associated with Japan. Once there, they broke in and destroyed the house. This event, over in a few hours, became a legend. Even now, any educated Chinese will understand what is meant by the words ‘May Fourth’ – no year necessary. For the student demonstration came to symbolise a much wider shift in Chinese society and politics. The May Fourth Movement, as it became known, was associated closely with the New Culture, which intellectuals and radical thinkers proposed for China, underpinned by the exciting ideas of ‘Mr Science’ and ‘Mr Democracy’. In literature, a May Fourth generation of authors wrote works attacking the Confucianism which they felt had brought China to its current crisis, and explored new issues of sexuality and self-development. There was a new politics, most notably, the young Chinese Communist Party, founded in 1921. In the intervening decades, the Communists have become the world’s largest governing party, and have long been the establishment in Chinese politics. Yet they still regularly attribute their origins to the rebellious students who marched on 4 May 1919.

The outrage symbolised by the May Fourth demonstrations gave rise to a whole range of innovative thinking collectively termed the ‘New Culture’ movement, which stretched from around 1915 to the late 1920s. In China’s cities, literary figures such as Lu Xun and Ding Ling wrote fiction that was designed to alert China to its state of crisis. The shooting of striking factory workers in Shànghǎi by foreign-controlled police on 30 May 1925 (known as the ‘May Thirtieth Incident’) inflamed nationalist passions still more, giving hope to the Kuomintang party, now regrouping in Guǎngzhōu.

The CCP, later the engineer of the world’s largest peasant revolution, started with tiny, urban roots during this period. It was founded in the intellectual turmoil of the May Fourth movement, and many of its founding figures were associated with Peking University, such as Chen Duxiu (dean of humanities), Li Dazhao (head librarian), and a young Mao Zedong (a mere library assistant). In its earliest days, the party was more like a discussion group of like-minded intellectuals. Few of its members had developed a strongly theoretical view of Marxism. It was Soviet assistance that helped shape the CCP, which would find itself in alliance with the Kuomintang leader, Sun Yatsen.

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The Northern Expedition

After years of vainly seeking international support for his cause, Sun Yatsen found allies in the newly formed Soviet Russia. The Soviets ordered the fledgling CCP to ally itself with the much larger ‘bourgeois’ party, the Kuomintang. At the same time, their alliance was attractive to Sun: the Soviets would provide political training, military assistance, and finance. From their base in Guǎngzhōu, the Kuomintang and CCP trained together from 1923, in preparation for their mission to reunite China.

Sun died of cancer in 1925. The succession battle in the party coincided with the sudden rise in antiforeign feeling that came with the May Thirtieth Incident. Under Soviet advice, the Kuomintang and CCP prepared for their ‘Northern Expedition’, the big 1926 push north, that was supposed to finally unite China and free it from splits and exploitation. In 1926–27, the Soviet-trained National Revolutionary Army made its way slowly north, fighting, bribing, or persuading its opponents into accepting Kuomintang control. The most powerful military figure turned out to be an officer from Zhèjiāng named Chiang Kaishek (1887–1975). Trained in Moscow, Chiang moved steadily forward and finally captured the great prize, Shànghǎi, in March 1927. However, there was a horrific surprise in store for his Communist allies. Chiang’s opportunity to observe the Soviet advisers close-up had not impressed him; he was convinced that their intention was to take power in alliance with the Kuomintang and then thrust the latter out of the way to seize control on their own. Instead, Chiang struck first. Using local thugs and soldiers, Chiang organised a lightning strike that rounded up CCP activists and union leaders in Shànghǎi, and killed thousands of them.

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The Kuomintang in power

Chiang Kaishek’s Kuomintang government officially came to power in 1928 through a combination of military force and popular support. It suppressed political dissent with great ruthlessness, and was marked by corruption. Yet the Kuomintang record in office also had its strong points. Chiang’s government began a major industrialisation effort, greatly augmented China’s transport infrastructure, and successfully renegotiated what many Chinese came to call ‘unequal treaties’ with Western powers. In its first two years, the Kuomintang also managed to double the length of highways in China and increased the number of students studying engineering. Throughout its life though, the government never really controlled more than a few (very important) provinces in eastern China. Regional militarists continued to control much of western China; the Japanese invaded and occupied Manchuria in 1931; and the Communists re-established themselves in the northwest. Chiang was permanently hobbled by leading the ‘national’ government of a country that was actually significantly disunited.

In 1934, Chiang launched his own attempt at an ideological counter-argument to communism: the New Life Movement. This was supposed to be a complete spiritual renewal of the nation, through a modernised version of traditional Confucian values, such as propriety, righteousness, and loyalty. The New Life Movement demanded that the renewed citizens of the nation must wear frugal but clean clothes, consume products made in China rather than seek luxurious foreign goods, and behave in a hygienic way. Yet it never had much success. While China suffered from a massive agricultural and fiscal crisis, prescriptions about clothes and orderly behaviour did not have much popular appeal.

However, the new policies did relatively little to change life on the ground in the countryside, where over 80% of China’s people lived. The Kuomintang did undertake some rural reform, including the establishment of rural cooperatives, but their effects were small. The party also found itself unable to collect taxes in an honest and transparent way.

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The communists in retreat

During all this time, the CCP had not stood still. After Chiang had turned on them, most of what remained of the CCP fled into the countryside. A major centre of activity was the base area in Jiāngxī province, an impoverished part of central China. It was here, between 1931 and 1935, that the party began to try out systems of government that would eventually bring them to power. However, by 1934, Chiang’s previously ineffective ‘Extermination Campaigns’ were beginning to make the CCP’s position in Jiāngxī untenable. The CCP commenced the action that even today remains a legend: the Long March. Travelling over 6400km, 4000 of the original 80,000 Communists who set out arrived, exhausted, in Shaanxi (Shǎnxī) province in the northwest, far out of the reach of the Kuomintang. They were safe, but they were also on the run. It seemed possible that within a matter of months, Chiang would once again attack the Communists, and this time wipe them out.

The approach of war saved the CCP. There was growing public discontent at Chiang’s seeming unwillingness to fight Japan. In fact, this perception was unfair. The Kuomintang had undertaken retraining of key regiments in the army under German advice, and also started to plan for a wartime economy from 1931, spurred on by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. However, events came to a head in December 1936, when the militarist leader of Manchuria (Zhang Xueliang) and the CCP kidnapped Chiang. As a condition of his release, Chiang agreed to an openly declared United Front, in which the Kuomintang and Communists would put aside their differences and join forces against Japan.

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War & The Kuomintang

China’s status as a major participant in WWII is often overlooked or forgotten in the West. The Japanese invasion of China, which began in 1937, was merciless, with the notorious Nánjīng Massacre (also known as the Rape of Nánjīng), which took place in the weeks between December 1937 and January 1938, among the many atrocities committed against the population. The Kuomintang had had to abandon their capital of Nánjīng and the city was left defenceless when Japanese troops arrived at the gates. Unrestrained by their commanders, out-of-control Japanese soldiers, indulged in weeks of mass killings, rapes, and destruction of property that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Yet this was just one of a series of war crimes committed by the Japanese Army during its conquest of eastern China. The government had to operate in exile from the far southwestern hinterland of China, as its area of greatest strength and prosperity, China’s eastern seaboard, was lost to Japanese occupation.

In China itself, it is now acknowledged that both the Kuomintang and the Communists had an important role to play in defeating Japan. Chiang, not Mao, was the internationally acknowledged leader of China during this period, and despite the many flaws of his government, he maintained resistance to the end. However, his government also found itself increasingly trapped. It had retreated to Sìchuān province and a temporary capital at Chóngqìng, which was safe from land attack by Japan, but still found itself under siege. Day by day, year by year, the city was subjected to some of the heaviest bombing in the war. From 1940, supply routes were cut off as the road to Burma was closed by Britain, under pressure from Japan, and Vichy France closed connections to Vietnam. Although the US and Britain brought China on board as an ally against Japan after Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the Allied ‘Europe First’ strategy meant that China was always treated as a secondary theatre of war. Many harsh comments were made within China and by Westerners about Chiang Kaishek’s corruption and leadership qualities, and while these accusations were not groundless, they also missed an important part of the bigger picture, for without Chinese Kuomintang armies (who had kept 1 million Japanese troops bogged down in China for eight years), the Allies would have found it far harder to win the war in the Pacific. The Communists had an important role as guerrilla fighters, but they did far less fighting in battle than the Kuomintang.

One of Chiang’s senior colleagues placed little faith in the West. In 1938, Wang Jingwei, a former prime minister and prestigious figure in the Nationalist movement, announced that he had gone over to Japan. Two years later, he was allowed to inaugurate a ‘restored’ Kuomintang government at Nánjīng. Wang’s story was that he was the rightful heir of Sun Yatsen, and that the Japanese were merely assisting him. In practice, the Japanese had the whip hand over his government and Wang was probably fortunate to die of cancer in 1944, as he would have certainly been tried and shot after the war. Today, he is regarded merely as a traitor in China, yet his actions were more complex. In 1940 many observers would have bet on a Japanese empire conquering Asia for generations to come. In this scenario, China could fight alone, but would be unlikely to prevail. Wang made a mistaken bet on who would win the war, but at the time it was not an illogical bet, and his widow argued that by compromising with Japan, he saved the lives of many of the people living under Japanese occupation.

The real winners from WWII were the Communists. They undertook important guerrilla campaigns against the Japanese all across northern and eastern China, but the really key changes were taking place in the bleak, dusty hill country centred on the small town of Yán’ān, capital of the CCP’s largest base area. During the wartime years, the cult of Mao’s personality, which began with the sinisterly named Rectification movements during the war, would culminate in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

The ‘Yán’ān way’ that developed in those years also solidified many of the factors that would shape the CCP’s vision of China: land reform involving redistribution of land to the peasants, lower taxes, a self-sufficient economy, ideological education, and, underpinning it all, the CCP’s military force, the Red Army. By the end of the war with Japan, the Communist areas had expanded massively, with some 900,000 troops in the Red Army, and Party membership at a new high of 1.2 million. Above all, the war with Japan had helped the Communists come back from the brink of the disaster they had faced at the end of the Long March. The Kuomintang and Communists plunged into civil war in 1946 and after three long years, the CCP won. On 1 October 1949 in Běijīng, Mao declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

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Mao’s China

Mao’s China wanted, above all, to exercise ideological control over its population. It called itself ‘New China’, with the idea that the whole citizenry, down to the most remote peasants, should find a role in the new politics and society. The success of Mao’s military and political tactics also meant that the country was, for the first time since the 19th century, united under a strong central government.

Most Westerners – and Western influences – were swiftly removed from the country. The US refused to recognise the new state at all. However, China had decided, in Mao’s phrase, to ‘lean to one side’ and ally itself with the Soviet Union in the still-emerging Cold War. The 1950s marked the high point of Soviet influence on Chinese politics and culture. However, the decade also saw rising tension between the Chinese and the Soviets, fuelled in part by Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalin (which Mao took, in part, as a criticism of his own cult of personality). The differences between the two sides came to a head in 1960 with the withdrawal of Soviet technical assistance from China, and Sino-Soviet relations remained frosty until the 1980s.

Mao’s experiences had convinced him that only violent change could shake up the relationship between landlords and their tenants, or capitalists and their employees, in a China that was still highly traditional. In the first year of the regime, some 40% of the land was redistributed to poor peasants. At the same time, some million or so people condemned as ‘landlords’ were persecuted and killed. The joy of liberation was real for many Chinese at the time; but campaigns of terror were also real, and the early 1950s were not exactly a golden age.

As relations with the Soviets broke down in the mid-1950s, the CCP leaders’ thoughts turned to self-sufficiency in the economy. Mao, supported by Politburo colleagues, proposed the policy known as the Great Leap Forward. This was a highly ambitious plan to use the power of socialist economics to increase Chinese production of steel, coal, and electricity. Agriculture was to reach an ever-higher level of collectivisation. Family structures were broken up as communal dining halls were established: people were urged to eat their fill, as the new agricultural methods would ensure plenty for all, year after year. The Leap engendered great enthusiasm around the country, with Chinese in rural and urban areas alike taking part in mass campaigns that were not just economic but also cultural and artistic.

However, the Great Leap Forward was a monumental failure. Its lack of economic realism caused a massive famine and at least 20 million deaths. Yet the return to a semi-market economy in 1962, after the Leap had comprehensively ended, did not dampen Mao’s enthusiasm for revolutionary renewal. This led to the last and most bizarre of the campaigns that marked Mao’s China: the Cultural Revolution of 1966–76.

Mao had become increasingly concerned that post-Leap China was slipping into ‘economism’ – a complacent satisfaction with rising standards of living that would blunt people’s revolutionary fervour. Mao was particularly concerned that the young generation might grow up with a dimmed spirit of revolution. For these reasons, Mao decided that a massive campaign of ideological renewal, in which he would attack his own party, must be launched.

Mao was still the dominant figure in the CCP, and he used his prestige to undermine his own colleagues. In summer 1966, prominent posters in large, handwritten characters, appeared at prominent sites, including Peking University, demanding that figures such as Liu Shaoqi (president of the PRC) and Deng Xiaoping (senior Politburo member) must be condemned as ‘takers of the capitalist road’. Top leaders suddenly disappeared from sight, only to be replaced by unknowns, such as Mao’s wife Jiang Qing and her associates, later dubbed the ‘Gang of Four’. Meanwhile, an all-pervasive cult of Mao’s personality took over. One million youths at a time, known as Red Guards, would flock to hear Mao in Tiananmen Sq. Posters and pictures of Mao were everywhere. The Red Guards were not ashamed to admit that their tactics were violent: a group of youths in Hāěrbīn in 1966 declared: ‘Today we will carry out Red Terror, and tomorrow we will carry out Red Terror.’ Immense violence permeated throughout society.

While Mao initiated and supported the Cultural Revolution, it was also genuinely popular among many young people. It was strongly anti-intellectual and xenophobic, condemning those such as doctors or teachers who were accused of being ‘expert’ rather than ‘red’. This led to movements such as the ‘barefoot doctor’ programme, in which Mao promoted a policy by which the peasants themselves were given the opportunity to train in basic medicine and provide healthcare in the villages. Although inadequate, the programme brought healthcare to parts of China that had had few such facilities, even in the years after 1949.

Yet the Cultural Revolution could not last. Worried by the increasing violence, the Army forced the Red Guards off the streets in 1969. And the early 1970s saw a remarkable rapprochement between the US and China; the former was desperate to extricate itself from the quagmire of the Vietnam war, the latter terrified of an attack from the now-hostile USSR. Secretive diplomatic manoeuvres led, eventually, to the official visit of US President Richard Nixon to China in 1972, which began the reopening of China to the West, although it would be more than a decade before ordinary Chinese and foreigners would be able to meet each other in any numbers within China itself. Slowly, the Cultural Revolution began to cool down.

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The era of reform

Mao died in 1976, to be succeeded by the little-known Hua Guofeng (1921–2008). Within two years, Hua had been outmanoeuvred by the greatest survivor of 20th-century Chinese politics, Deng Xiaoping. Deng had been purged twice during the Cultural Revolution, but after Mao’s death, he was able to reach supreme leadership in the CCP with a programme startlingly different from that of the late Chairman. In particular, Deng recognised that the Cultural Revolution had proved highly damaging economically to China. Deng took up a policy slogan originally invented by Mao’s pragmatic prime minister, Zhou Enlai – the ‘Four Modernisations’. The party’s task would be to set China on the right path in four areas: agriculture, industry, science and technology, and national defence.

To make this policy work, many of the assumptions of the Mao era were abandoned. The first, highly symbolic, move of the ‘reform era’ (as the post-1978 period is known) was the breaking down of the collective farms. Farmers were able to sell a proportion of their crops on the free market, and urban and rural areas were also encouraged to set up small local enterprises. ‘To get rich is glorious,’ Deng declared, adding, ‘It doesn’t matter if some areas get rich first.’ As part of this encouragement of entrepreneurship, Deng designated four areas on China’s coast as Special Economic Zones, which would be particularly attractive to foreign investors.

Politics was kept on a much shorter rein than the economy, however. Deng was relaxed about a certain amount of ideological impurity, but some other members of the leadership were concerned by the materialism they saw in reform-era China. They supported campaigns of ‘anti-spiritual pollution’, in which influences from the capitalist world were condemned. Yet inevitably the overall movement seemed to be toward a freer, market-oriented society.

The new freedoms that the urban middle classes enjoyed gave them the appetite for more. After student protests demanding further opening-up of the party in 1985–6, the prime minister (and relative liberal) Hu Yaobang was forced to resign in 1987 and take responsibility for allowing social forces to get out of control. He was replaced as general secretary by Zhao Ziyang, who was more conservative politically, although an economic reformer. In April 1989, Hu Yaobang died, and students around China used the occasion of his death to organise protests against the continuing role of the CCP in public life. At Peking University, the breeding ground of the May Fourth demonstrations of 1919, students declared the need for ‘science and democracy’, the modernising watchwords of 80 years earlier, to be revived. On 4 May 1989 itself, protesters in Tiananmen Sq held up signs, written in Chinese and English, proclaiming ‘Hello Mr Democracy’.

In spring 1989, Tiananmen Sq in Běijīng was the scene of an unprecedented demonstration. At its height, nearly a million Chinese workers and students, in a rare cross-class alliance, filled the space in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, with the CCP profoundly embarrassed to have the world’s media record such events. By June 1989, the numbers in the Square had dwindled to only thousands, but those who remained showed no signs of moving. On the night of 3–4 June, the party acted, sending in tanks and armoured personnel carriers. The death toll has never been officially confirmed, but it seems likely to have been in the high hundreds or even more. Hundreds of people associated with the movement were arrested, imprisoned, or forced to flee to the West.

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China since 1989

For some three years, China’s politics were almost frozen, but in 1992, Deng, the man who had sent in the tanks, made his last grand public gesture. That year, he undertook what Chinese political insiders called his ‘southern tour’, or nanxun; the Chinese term had been used in premodern times to refer to the emperor visiting his furthest domains. By visiting Shēnzhèn, the boomtown on the border with Hong Kong (and appearing to local news reporters riding a golf buggy in a theme park), Deng indicated that the economic policies of reform were not going to be abandoned. The massive growth rates that the Chinese economy has posted ever since have justified his decision: in the first decade of the 21st century, annual growth has run at a historically unprecedented rate of about 10%. Deng also made another significant choice: grooming Jiang Zemin – the mayor of Shànghǎi, who had peacefully dissolved demonstrations in Shànghǎi in a way that the authorities in Běijīng had not – as his successor by appointing him as general secretary of the Party in 1989.

The post-Deng leadership has taken on something like a regular pattern. After two five-year terms for Jiang Zemin, the 16th and 17th Party Congresses in 2002 and 2007 confirmed Hu Jintao as Jiang’s successor. Jiang’s period in office was marked by huge enthusiasm for economic development, along with cautious political reform (for example, the growth of local elections at village level, but certainly no move to democracy at higher levels). Since 2002, Hu and his prime minister, Wen Jiabao, have made more efforts to deal with the inequality and poverty in the countryside, and this remains a major concern of the party, along with reform of the CCP itself.

In the two decades since 1989, China has become far more influenced by globalised modernity than even in the 1980s. China has placed scientific development at the centre of its quest for growth, sending students abroad in their tens of thousands to study science and technology and develop a core of scientific knowledge within China itself.

The country also has a powerful international role. China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It is also seeking economic and diplomatic influence in Africa and South America. However, China’s preference for remaining neutral but friendly may not be able to last long into the new century: crises such as the Russian incursion into Georgia in 2008, the ever-volatile North Korean situation, and the scramble for mineral resources in Africa and energy resources around the globe mean that China is having to make hard choices about which nations it wishes to favour. China’s cultural impact is beginning to grow as well. The country is building Confucius Institutes, Chinese-language teaching institutes based on the British Council model, around the world in countries around the world, in an attempt to familiarise a far-wider range of people with China’s language. And in high art, China is making a dramatic impact. In 2007, the works of the artist Zhang Xiaogang earned nearly $57 million, making him the second highest-earning artist in the world.

Nationalism has also become a popular rallying cry at home. This does not necessarily mean xenophobia or anti-foreign sentiment, although there are occasions (such as the reaction to the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo War) that have led to violence against foreign targets and persons. But it is clear that China’s own people consider that the country’s moment has arrived, and that they must oppose attempts – whether by the West, or Japan – to prevent it taking centre stage in the region. Its long history has, for now, begun to bring China back to the prominence it once enjoyed.

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