A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHINA
10,000 BC people in China lived by hunting and gathering plants. Then,
about 5,000 BC, the Chinese began farming. From about 5,000 BC rice was
cultivated in southern China and millet was grown in the north. By 5,000
BC dogs and pigs were domesticated. By 3,000 BC sheep and (in the
south) cattle were domesticated. Finally horses were introduced into
China between 3,000 and 2,300 BC.
Meanwhile by 5,000 BC
Chinese farmers had learned to make pottery. They also made lacquer (a
kind of varnish made from the sap of the Chinese lacquer tree). The
early Chinese farmers also made baskets and wove cloth (before sheep
were domesticated hemp was woven). The Chinese also made ritual objects
from jade such as knives, axes and rings. The wheel was invented in
China about 2,500 BC.
A More Advanced Society in China
2,000 BC the Chinese had learned to make bronze. They probably started
by making copper in pottery kilns then experimented by adding tin, so
creating bronze. At first bronze was only used for weapons. (It was
probably too expensive for other things).
becoming more common in China. Walls of earth, which was rammed till it
was hard, surrounded some settlements. Warfare probably became more
common because these early societies were becoming richer. As wealth
grew so did the temptation to attack your neighbors and steal their
goods. By 2000 BC there was also a growing gulf between the classes.
People were buried with their goods and some people were buried with far
more than others.
By 2000 BC human sacrifice was
practiced in China. The bodies of the victims were buried under the
foundations of buildings. By 2,000 BC fortune telling was carried out by
heating bones till they cracked then interpreting the cracks. Meanwhile
between about 2,000 and 1,750 BC the semi-legendary Xia ruled parts of
THE SHANG DYNASTY IN CHINA
Shang were polytheists (they worshiped many gods). The most important
god was called Di. Furthermore during the Shang dynasty in China the
practice of ancestor worship began. Ancestor worship is the belief that
the dead can intervene in the affairs of the living. Offerings were made
to them to keep them happy. Ancestor worship became part of Chinese
culture for thousands of years.
Silk was probably first
made in China during the Shang era. It was made by 1300 BC. During the
Shang era bronze was more widely used. Previously it was only used to
make weapons. After 1700 BC bronze vessels were made. However tools such
as sickles, ploughs and spades were usually made of wood and stone.
Shang built the first real cities in China. The first capital at
Zhengdou had walls more than 6 kilometers long. (Later the capital was
moved to Anyang). The Shang also built palaces and temples.
the Shang era slavery was common in China. Prisoners of war were made
into slaves. Human sacrifice was still practiced. When a Shang emperor
died his servants and slaves either committed suicide or were killed to
accompany him into the afterlife. Because of the need to capture slaves
warfare was common in China. After 1200 BC chariots pulled by 2 or 4
horses were used in Chinese warfare.
However the Shang were overthrown by their neighbors the Zhou about 1022 BC. So began the Zhou dynasty.
THE ZHOU DYNASTY IN CHINA
dynasty ruled China from about C. 1022 BC to 221 BC. The first part of
the Zhou era from C. 1022 BC to 771 BC is called the Western Zhou
(because the rulers had their capital in the west of China). The second
part of the era, from 770 to 476 BC is called the Spring and Autumn
period. The last part of the era from 476 to 221 BC is called the
Warring States period.
In Ancient China because
transport and communications were very slow it was difficult for a ruler
to control a wide area. The Zhou kings solved this problem by creating a
feudal state. They gave their followers land. In return the followers
provided chariots and soldiers in time of war. Soon the follower’s
positions became hereditary. Below them were officials who worked as
generals and administrators. At the bottom of society were the peasants
who provided the food supply.
The peasants had to spend
some of their time working on the Lord’s land. Usually land was divided
into 9 sections. Individual families worked eight sections. Everybody
had to work on the ninth section but the crops from it went to the lord.
After 600 BC coins were used in China and some peasants paid their Lord
taxes rather than work on his land. Under the Shang there were many
slaves in China but under the Zhou there were few of them.
were some important technological changes during the Zhou period. The
most important was the invention of iron. It was used for weapons as
early as 650 BC. By about 500 BC iron was used for all kinds of tools.
By about 400 BC Chinese farmers used iron plows drawn by oxen.
300 BC the Chinese invented the horse collar. Previously horses were
attached to vehicles by straps around their necks. The horse could not
pull a heavy load because the strap would tighten around its neck! The
horse collar allowed horses to pull much heavier loads.
the Zhou dynasty the Chinese invented kites. Tea was first mentioned in
China during the Zhou dynasty (although it may have been drunk much
earlier). The umbrella was invented in China in the 4th century AD.
Covered in oiled paper it sheltered the user from both sun and rain.
also changed in China. Previously war was dominated by chariots.
However after 600 BC cavalry began to replace chariots. Furthermore
rulers began to raise large armies of infantry. Peasants were
conscripted to provide them. About 500 BC a general called Sunzi wrote a
book called the Art of War, which was the world’s first military
manual. About 400 BC the crossbow was invented in China.
warfare was frequent during the Zhou era trade and commerce flourished
and Chinese cities grew larger. Furthermore agriculture was greatly
improved by iron tools and by irrigation, which became more common. As a
result of more efficient agriculture the population of China grew
rapidly in the Zhou period.
During the Zhou era parts
of the Great Wall of China were built. There was not a single wall, at
first, but different states built their own walls to keep out
barbarians. Later they were joined together. In 486 BC work began on
digging the Grand Canal. At first only one section was built but the
canal was extended by later dynasties.
sacrifice ended during the Zhou era but divination continued. At that
time the Chinese concept of Heaven emerged. Heaven was a kind of
universal force. Heaven chose the emperor to rule but it was a moral
force. If the king or emperor were evil heaven would send natural
disasters as a warning. If the emperor failed to heed the warnings
heaven would withdraw its mandate. Social and political order would
break down and there would be a revolution. Heaven would choose somebody
else to rule.
Zhou period in China there was a class of officials who advised kings
and rulers on the right way to behave and also how to carry out rituals.
The most important of these was Kong-Fuzi (known in the West as
Confucius). During his lifetime the old feudal social and political
order was breaking down. Appalled by this state of affairs Kong-Fuzi
tried to restore ancient principles.
that everybody should accept their role in life and duties towards
others. Rulers had a duty to be benevolent while subjects should be
respectful and obedient. Children should honor their parents and
everybody should honor their ancestors. Kong-Fuzi also believed that
rulers should set a good example for their people.
of all Kong-Fuzi taught consideration for others. At the heart of his
teaching was ‘ren’ which is usually translated goodness or benevolence.
Kong-Fuzi said ‘do not do to others what you do not want done to
yourself’. Kong-Fuzi also taught the importance of courtesy and
moderation in all things. Kong-Fuzi also taught that women should submit
to their father when young, to their husband when married and to their
son if widowed. Women in China were taught values such as humility,
submissiveness and industry.
Kong-Fuzi never wrote any
books but after his death his followers collected his sayings and wrote
them all down. In the centuries after his death his philosophy became
dominant in China and profoundly influenced its culture for more than
One disciple of Kong-Fuzi was Mengzi
(372-289 BC), known in the west as Mencius. He stressed the goodness of
human nature. He also emphasized the rulers duty to look after the well
being of his subjects. Mengzi was opposed by Xuni (298-238 BC). He
believed human nature tended to be evil and must be restrained.
everyone agreed with Kong-Fuzi that rulers should rule by example.
Legalists believed that rulers should be strict. The ruler’s word should
be law. Legalists believed that rulers should be fair but firm and
unwavering. One of the Chinese states, Qin, followed legalist teaching.
The Qin rulers at first shared power with hereditary nobles but they
changed the system so that the parts of their realm were governed by
officials appointed by the ruler.
They also organised
families into groups of 5 or 10 people. The members of each group were
made responsible for each other’s behavior. Legalists believed that
since people are naturally evil punishments should be severe. The people
must be made afraid of breaking the law. They also distrusted merchants
and believed that only people who owned or worked on the land were
Taoism began in
China during the Zhou era. Taoists believe in the Tao, which means the
way. The Tao is an indescribable force behind nature and all living
things. Taoists believe in Wuwei or non-action, which means going with
the natural flow or way of things like a stick being carried along on a
stream. Taoism also teaches humility and compassion. Taoists worship
many different gods.
Ancient Chinese Beliefs
Zhou period is sometimes called China’s formative period because so
much of Chinese philosophy developed at that time. The Chinese form of
divination called I Ching was probably developed during the early part
of the Zhou era. The idea of Yin and Yang also appeared during the Zhou
dynasty. The ancient Chinese believed that all matter is made of 2
opposite and complimentary principles. Yin is feminine, soft, gentle,
dark, receptive, yielding and wet. Yang is masculine, bright, hard, hot,
active, dry and aggressive. Everything is a mixture of these 2
opposites. The ancient Chinese also believed there were 5 elements,
wood, fire, earth, metal and water. During the Zhou period the Chinese
art of acupuncture was invented.
The End of the Zhou Dynasty
771 the Rong, a people from the west, invaded and the Zhou moved their
capital to Luoyang. Afterwards the power of the Zhou kings declined. The
Zhou state broke up into separate states (although it was still
nominally a single state with a Zhou king at its head). The nobles under
the Zhou king effectively became independent rulers. The different
states went to war and the stronger ones conquered the weaker till there
were only a few left. Finally one state, the Qin, conquered its rivals
and its ruler became emperor of China. So began the Qin dynasty.
THE QIN DYNASTY IN CHINA
first Qin emperor was determined to unite China. He called himself Qin
Shuangdi and insisted on being called the emperor of China. He
introduced standard weights and measures and even insisted that axles
should be a standard width!
There were, at that time,
some local variations in Chinese writing. The emperor insisted that all
educated people must use one standard version. Some Chinese scholars
opposed the emperor and quoted from old books to do so. Qin Shuangdi
burned many of the books in China to stop them. He ordered that all
books except those on useful subjects such as divination, medicine and
agriculture should be burned. Any scholars who opposed him were branded
and sent to work as laborers on the Great Wall.
emperor also had 460 scholars buried alive. (Being sent to work on the
Great Wall was often a death sentence anyway as many men died of
exhaustion and exposure).
The Qin emperors also
continued their legalist policies. They banned private ownership of
weapons and they ordered many aristocratic families to move to the
capital, Xianyang (where they could be easily controlled). China was
divided into 34 areas called commanderies. A civilian governor ruled
each but each also had a general in charge of the soldiers in the
region. (The Qin emperors were keen to keep civil and military power in
separate hands!). All officials were appointed by the emperor and were
answerable to him.
The Qin emperors also built roads
and irrigation canals. Parts of the Great Wall of China already existed
but the first Qin emperor had them joined together. The ordinary people
were forced to work on his projects. Qin rule was harsh and cruel
punishments were common. When Qin Shuangdi died he was buried in a tomb
with over 7,000 terracotta warriors. This ‘army’ was discovered in 1974.
surprisingly the cruel punishments introduced by the Qin emperors
together with he heavy taxes and forced labor caused much resentment. In
northern China a rebellion broke out led by 2 peasants, Chen Sheng and
Wu Yang. Later a second rebellion began further south led by Ixang Yu.
The northern rebellion was defeated but the southern one succeeded. The
last Qin emperor was executed. However Xiang Yu quarreled with his
lieutenant Liu Bang. A civil war began which ended when Xiang Yu was
killed and Liu Bang became the first Han emperor.
THE HAN DYNASTY IN CHINA
Zhou dynasty was China’s formative period when its philosophies
emerged. During the Han dynasty Chinese civilization crystallized.
During this era China was one of the most brilliant civilizations in the
world. Han inventions include the watermill and the chain pump (this
pump was worked by feet and helped to irrigate the rice fields).
first Han emperor was called Gaozi. He was more humane that the Qin
emperors and he abolished many of their savage punishments. He kept some
of the legalist policies of his predecessors but he also adopted some
Confucian policies. His successors came to favor Confucianism more and
more. In 165 BC the emperor decreed that anyone wishing to become an
official must sit an exam, which would test his knowledge of Confucian
teaching. In 124 BC another emperor founded an imperial academy where
candidates studied Confucian classics (The Book of Changes, The Book of
Rites, The Book of Documents, The Book of Songs, and the Spring and
Autumn Annals). If they passed their exams they were given posts as
officials. China came to be governed by a civil service trained in
Like the Qin the Han emperors
distrusted merchants and taxed them heavily. In 119 BC the emperor made
the manufacture of salt, iron and alcohol state monopolies (previously
they were the most profitable industries).
Han agriculture continued to improve partly due to an increasing number
of irrigation schemes, partly due to the increasing use of buffaloes to
pull plows and partly due to crop rotation which was introduced into
China about 100 BC.
The population of China continued
to grow and a census in 2 AD showed it was 57 million. During the Han
era large amounts of silk were exported to the west. It passed through
many hands to the Roman Empire. In return merchants brought gems, glass
and vines to China. The ships rudder was invented in China in the first
About 100 AD a man named Cai Lun invented
paper (previously people had written on silk or bamboo). Meanwhile
Buddhism first reached China in the 1st century AD but it took a long
time to be accepted. During the Han era Feng Shui was developed.
Elements of the craft existed before then but it was during this period
that Feng Shui became a coherent philosophy.
The Fall of the Han Dynasty
168 AD the Han dynasty declined. Internal fighting weakened it. (When
an emperor died there was usually a struggle to see who would replace
him). The dynasty was also undermined by natural disasters and popular
discontent. Two rebellions began in 84 AD, the Yellow Turbans rebellion
and the Five Pecks of Grain rebellion. Both of these were crushed but
the generals sent to defeat them began to act independently of the
emperor. They started to fight each other. In 189 AD one general
captured the capital, Luoyang and killed 2,000 eunuchs. After that the
emperor became a puppet ruler. Generals had the real power. However the
last Han emperor was removed in 220 AD. Afterwards China split into 3
parts each ruled by a general.
THE ERA OF DIVISION IN CHINA
the fall of the Han dynasty China split into 3 kingdoms. The Wei
kingdom in the north, the Shu kingdom in the west and the Wu kingdom in
the south. In 263 AD the Wei kingdom conquered the Shu kingdom. In 280
the Wul kingdom was also conquered and China was briefly reunited.
However peace was short lived.
In the 1st and 2nd
centuries AD a people called the Xiongnu raided northern China. In the
2nd and 3rd centuries the Chinese emperors allowed them to settle inside
China’s borders, hoping they could be assimilated. The emperors
employed the Xiongnu as soldiers. However in 304 the Xiongnu turned on
their masters. They took the city of Luoyang in 311 and then took
Changan in 316. Eventually they overran northern China. The north of the
country then split into rival kingdoms, all with non-Chinese rulers.
This period is called the 16 kingdoms.
fled from the north to the south of the country. However Chinese
civilization did not disappear from the north. The Xiongnu were only a
small minority of the population. Most of the people were Chinese and
they carried on as they had for centuries. In the south Chinese emperors
continued to rule but they were unable to capture the north.
in the late 4th century the Torba, a Turkish people from central Asia,
started taking over northern China. By 386 they had conquered it all.
The Torba then adopted the Chinese way of life. They adopted Chinese
costume and Chinese writing and many of them married Chinese people.
Their rulers learned to speak Chinese. Slowly they people were
assimilated. However a civil war began in northern China in 524. After a
decade of fighting the north split into 2 parts, east and west. They
were reunited in 577. In that year the Chinese invented matches. Then in
581 a general seized the throne and quickly conquered the south.
589 he began the short-lived Sui dynasty. There were only 2 Sui
emperors, Wendi and Yang. The 2 Sui emperors attempted to invade Korea 4
times. Each time they failed. They also undertook expensive public
works such as rebuilding cities and extending China’s Great Canal. The
Great Canal was extended in 605-609 using forced labor so that it
connected north and south China. After Yang’s death China split into
warring states again.
Changes in Society in China
disorder in China and weakness of emperors meant the aristocracy gained
more wealth and power. At the same time many of the peasants were
reduced to serfdom. (Serfs were halfway between slaves and free men).
Often they were forced to turn to the lords for protection and the price
During the Era of Division Buddhism grew
in China and many temples and monasteries were built. The Chinese upper
class became more sympathetic to Buddhism and the rulers of the north of
China made it their official religion. Taoism also developed during
this period. Many Taoist scriptures were written at that time. In 618
after several years of war the different parts of China were reunited by
the Tang dynasty
THE TANG DYNASTY IN CHINA
Tang dynasty that lasted from 618 to 907 was one of China’s greatest
eras. During this period China was probably the most advanced
civilization in the world. Under the Tang emperors the arts flourished.
Chinese poetry and lacquer making blossomed. Perhaps the greatest poet
was Li-Bo (701-762).
The Tang emperors extended their
ruler over central Asia and foreign influences seeped into China. As
well as Buddhists there were Muslims in the capital Changan. There were
Trade and commerce also flourished
under the Tang. Gunpowder was probably invented in China around the year
900 AD. At first it was used for rockets, grenades and bombs that were
placed against the wooden gates of enemy cities. Printing with wooden
blocks was also invented in China during the Tang era. The earliest
printed book is the Diamond Sutra, printed in 868 AD.
the first Tang emperor, Gaonzu (618-626) was enthroned in 618 it took
him another 6 years of fighting before he brought all of China under his
control. When he did China entered a period of peace and stability. One
of the most remarkable Tang emperors was the Empress Wu, the only woman
ever to rule China. She was a concubine of the emperor Gaozong
(643-683). (In those days the emperor had one wife, the empress, but he
had many concubines. One emperor had 6,000 of them!). Wu is said to have
murdered her own baby daughter then accused the reigning empress of
being the murderer. Wu then replaced her as empress. In 660 the emperor
suffered a stroke. After that Wu effectively ruled China.
Gaozong died in 683 his son Zhongzong succeeded him, but not for long.
Wu forced Zhongzong to abdicate in favor of another son, who was
effectively her puppet. In 690 Wu did away with puppet rulers and took
the throne herself. She ruled China until 705. Then, when she was very
old, she was forced to abdicate. Wu was a very powerful woman and she
was utterly ruthless.
However from the middle of the
8th century the Tang dynasty declined. In 751 the Chinese were defeated
by the Arabs at the battle of Talas River. Afterwards China lost control
of central Asia. Then in 755 a general named An Lushan led a rebellion.
It was the beginning of a civil war, which lasted for 8 years. The
civil war only ended with help from the Uighurs, a Turkish people. The
fighting caused a great deal of destruction in China. The Tang dynasty
never really recovered.
By the 9th century Buddhism had
grown very influential in China. However monks were exempt from paying
taxes and the emperor Wuzong (840-846) resented this. There was also a
shortage of copper in China to make coins. The Buddhist monks were
blamed because they used so much copper to make bronze statues, bells
and chimes. In 845 Wuzong ordered that monasteries should hand over
their land and property like iron and bronze tools. All monks under the
age of 40 were ordered to return to civilian life. Many temples were
destroyed. The order was rescinded in 846 but it was a severe blow to
Buddhism in China.
Then in 874 another rebellion began.
The rebels captured Gunagzhou (Canton) and massacred foreigners. They
captured the capital Changdan in 880. However the emperor was not
entirely defeated. He asked Turkish people for help. The emperor
recaptured the capital in 884. However the power of the Tang emperors
was failing. The last Tang emperor was removed in 907. The Tang was
replaced by the Song dynasty.
THE SONG DYNASTY IN CHINA
907 China split into separate states once again. The north of China was
ruled by 5 short-lived dynasties. The northeast was an independent
kingdom ruled by the Qidan Liao dynasty. The south split into 10
kingdoms. In 960 Taizu became emperor of the north. He managed to
persuade all but 2 of the southern states to submit to him. His son
Taizong captured the remaining 2 and by 979 China was once again
re-united (except for the north-east which remained independent).
the Song era China’s economy boomed. A new form of early ripening rice
from Vietnam improved agriculture. Irrigation was also extended. The
result was a population boom. Meanwhile trade and commerce prospered and
towns and cities grew much larger. Industries like iron, ceramics,
silk, lacquer and paper making flourished. China was probably the
richest country in the world. Overseas trade also grew. The compass had
been used for divination for centuries but by the 12th century it was
being used to navigate ships.
However Song China was
surrounded by powerful enemies. The result was a suspicion and dislike
of anything foreign. Buddhism declined in popularity because it was a
foreign religion. Under the Song Confucianism underwent a revival.
Educated people saw it as a way of strengthening Chinese culture.
Scholars wrote commentaries on Confucian classics and a new philosophy
called Neo-Confucianism was worked out which dominated China for
The Song emperors created a powerful
bureaucracy to rule China. The civil service was greatly expanded. There
were state schools in China where men could study in order to sit exams
for the civil service. Under the Song the number of schools was greatly
increased. China came to be ruled by an elite of scholar-officials.
China was still independent. It was ruled by the Qidan Liao dynasty.
They also ruled over a people called the Jurchen. However in 1114 the
Jurchen turned on their masters and by 1125 they had captured the entire
northeast. They attacked the rest of China. In 1127 they captured the
capital, Kaifeng. The Jurchen overran all of northern China but they
were unable to capture the south.
In 1141 the Chinese
emperor made a treaty with them by which they kept the north and he kept
the south. For this reason the Song dynasty is divided into 2 periods,
the Northern Song period before China was split in two and the Southern
Song period afterwards. However the Chinese soon absorbed the Jurchen.
They kept the civil service entrance exams and appointed Chinese men as
officials. The Jurchen also began to wear Chinese costume and speak the
Chinese language. After 1191 the Jurchen were allowed to marry the
Chinese and many of them did so. In 1206 the southern Chinese invaded
the north. However the native Chinese in the north had grown used to
Jurchen rule and they did not rise in rebellion. The invasion was
THE YUAN DYNASTY IN CHINA
in the early 13th century there was a new threat-the Mongols. Under
their leader Genghis Khan they raided northern China in 1213-14. In 1215
they sacked and burned Beijing. Then they turned their attention west.
After the death of Genghis Khan in 1226 the Mongols invaded northern
China and by 1234 they had conquered it all. However in the south the
Song emperors managed to hold the Mongols at bay for some decades.
1264 Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis made Beijing his winter
capital (the summer capital was in Mongolia). In 1272 he began calling
himself Yuan or great founder. So began the Yuan dynasty. Kublai invaded
southern China in 1268 and conquered it in a campaign lasting 9 years.
In 1275 the Mongols captured the strategically vital city of Xian yang.
That proved to the turning point. The old Song dynasty finally came to
an end in 1279 when the Mongols won a naval battle.
Kublai realized it would be more profitable to rule China and tax it
rather than plunder it. He also realized that in order to rule he would
need to win over the Chinese. (According to legend an adviser told him
that you can conquer China on horseback but you cannot rule it on
horseback). Kublai enlisted Chinese officials to help him rule (although
the most senior officials were all Mongols).
the Mongols were never absorbed by the Chinese, unlike previous
invaders. They did not accept Chinese customs. The Chinese remained
second-class citizens. Society was divided into 4 classes. The Mongols
were at the top, and then below them were other non-Chinese people.
Below them were the northern Chinese (who were more accustomed to
foreign rule) then the southern Chinese at the bottom. The Mongols also
extended the Great Canal to their winter capital at Beijing.
period of Mongol or Yuan ruler was not a happy one for China. The
population of China fell significantly and the country became less
prosperous. In the 1350s rebellions broke out in China and Yuan rule
began to break down. In 1368 the last Yuan emperor fled to Mongolia and
the Yuan dynasty was replaced by the Ming dynasty.
THE MING DYNASTY IN CHINA
first Ming emperor Hongwu captured Beijing in 1368 but he moved the
capital to Nanjing. It was some time before he ruled all of China. Not
till 1387 did he rule all the country. A later emperor, Yang Lo, decided
to move the capital back to Beijing. Between 1406 and 1421 he built the
great palace called the Forbidden City. Outside it was the Imperial
City was built for officials. Outside was the outer city for the
Under the Ming emperors China once
again became prosperous and powerful. (Despite the inevitable famines,
which occurred from time to time). In the 16th century new crops were
introduced from the Americas, sweet potatoes, maize and peanuts. These
new foods were very useful because they would grow where other crops
would not. The Ming also rebuilt the Great Wall.
their reign industry and trade flourished in China. Vast quantities of
cotton were spun and huge amount of porcelain were made. In the early
15th century the emperor sent ships on 6 expeditions. They sailed to
India, Arabia and the east coast of Africa. One of them brought back the
first giraffe ever seen in China. However the Ming emperors became
increasingly inward looking and tried to isolate China from the outside
world. (Perhaps the period of Mongol rule increased their distrust of
foreigners and their dislike of foreign influences). The Portuguese
reached China by sea in 1514. In 1557 they were allowed to settle in
Macao. However the emperors were determined to limit contact with
The period of prosperity in China ended in
the early 17th century. In the 1630s Ming rule began to break down.
China was struck by famine and epidemics. Rebellions broke out and the
government was unable to suppress them. The rebels took city after city.
Finally in 1644 the last Ming emperor committed suicide. However there
were 2 rebel factions and the leaders of both claimed to be emperor.
Neither could restore order.
Meanwhile Northeast of
China lived a people called the Manchu’s (they gave their name to
Manchuria). In 1618 they began to conquer the Chinese who lived north of
the Great Wall. From 1636 their leader claimed to be the true emperor
of China and took the name Qing. In 1644 a Chinese general believed the
Manchu’s or Qing were more likely to restore order in China than the
rebel leaders so he let them through the wall. They quickly defeated the
rebels, in the north, and their leader installed himself as emperor. So
began the Qing dynasty.
THE QING DYNASTY IN CHINA
Qing or Manchus easily took control of northern China but it took much
longer for them to conquer the south. They did not control all of China
until 1660. A rebellion occurred in 1673 but it was eventually crushed.
In 1683 the Qing captured Taiwan (the last stronghold of people loyal to
the Ming dynasty). The Qing commanded all men to shave the front of
their heads and tie the hair at the back into a queue. At first the Qing
confiscated much land from the native Chinese and the two races were
segregated. However the Qing gradually adopted Chinese ways and the
Chinese eventually accepted them (to a certain extent) as a legitimate
The Qing created a strong and prosperous
state. By 1697 they had conquered Mongolia and in 1720 Tibet was made a
protectorate. The population of China grew rapidly in the 18th century.
This was partly due to new crops introduced from the Americas. It was
partly due to new forms of rice which made it possible to grow 3 crops a
year in some parts of China.
In the 18th century trade
and industry boomed in China. The iron industry prospered and vast
quantities of cotton were made. China also made huge amounts of
porcelain. Much of this was exported to Europe. Increasing amount of tea
was exported to Britain. The Chinese imported some iron goods and wool
from Britain but the British had to pay for most of their tea with
silver. After 1750 they were confined to Guangzhou and were not allowed
to trade in any other port. In 1793 they sent Lord McCartney to try and
negotiate a trade treaty with the Chinese emperor. However the emperor
made it clear he was not interested in manufactured goods from Europe
and he refused to change the terms of trade.
although China was once a very advanced civilization she was now falling
behind Europe in technology. Soon she would be weaker than the European
Worse the British found it increasingly hard
to pay for tea and other goods with silver. So they exported large
amounts of opium to China. Imports of opium were banned in 1800 and in
1813 smoking opium was made illegal. However the British soon joined
forced with Chinese smugglers. The British ships anchored off the coast
and Chinese boats took tea out to them. They brought British goods back
to the shore. Increasingly the British resorted to exchanging opium for
tea. Soon there were many opium addicts in China.
The Opium Wars
Opium Wars were a shameful episode in British history. The Chinese
government took action to combat this menace. In 1839 an official called
Lin Zexu was sent to Guangzhou to stop the opium smuggling. He
commanded the British to hand over their stores of opium. Reluctantly
they obeyed. However the British government sent a fleet to blockade
Guangzhou and the ports of Ningbo and Tanjin. In 1841 a Chinese official
negotiated a treaty. He agreed to give the British Hong Kong and pay
what it cost the British to send a fleet to China. However neither side
was satisfied with this treaty and the war resumed.
British sent a second fleet and occupied several ports. This time the
Chinese were forced to pay a much larger amount of money. They were also
forced to open 5 ports to British merchants (Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou,
Ningbo and Shanghai). British citizens were to answer only to the
British authorities if they committed any crime while they were in
China. Chinese tariffs on British goods were to be only 5%. Soon
afterwards the Chinese were forced to sign similar treaties with other
European countries. Unfortunately the Chinese had fallen behind in
military technology and they were no match for the European forces.
first Opium War of 1840-42 was followed by a second conflict. Neither
side was satisfied with the treaty of 1842. The Chinese naturally
resented the treaty. The British accused Chinese officials of ‘dragging
their feet’ and obstructing trade. Conflict came to a head in 1856 when
the Chinese boarded a ship called The Arrow. In 1858 the British sent
another fleet to China and the Chinese were forced to sign another
treaty. Ten more ports were opened to trade and foreigners were to be
allowed to travel around China.
In 1859 British
officials returned to ratify the treaty but they were prevented from
entering China. However in 1860 the British sent another expedition.
This time the British burned the emperor’s summer palace. China was
forced to open ports in the north to trade and to pay a large sum of
money to Britain.
The Decline of the Qing Dynasty
the late 18th century the Qing dynasty was in decline. This was partly
due to a rise in the population. The population of China began to
outstrip its resources and the peasants grew poorer. As a result
rebellions broke out. In the years 1796-1804 the White Lotus sect led a
rebellion. Although that rebellion was eventually crushed it was
followed by another rebellion in 1813 led by the Eight Trigrams sect.
This rebellion cost 70,000 lives before it was defeated.
by far the most serious rebellion was the Taipeng rebellion of
1850-1864, which is estimated to have cost 20 million lives. It was led
by Hong Xichuan who believed he was the Son of God and the younger
brother of Jesus. He preached a mixture of some Christian beliefs and
some Communism. His followers sold their property and put the money in a
common fund. Land was distributed among his followers. He also banned
foot binding, smoking opium and wearing the queue. His followers also
destroyed Buddhist and Taoist temples. He took Nanjing in 1853 and led a
long rebellion. It took the Qing more than a decade to crush it.
Furthermore other rebellions broke out in China. It took another 4 years
to put down bandits in the north called the Nanin. There were also
rebellions by Muslims in outlying areas. These were not defeated until
In the late 19th century the Chinese government
made some attempts to introduce European technology. None of them were
very successful. In partnership with Chinese merchants the government
opened coalmines, started a steam shipping company and opened iron works
and cotton mills. They also built a telegraph network and a small
network of railways.
However all these efforts at
reform met with resistance from traditional Confucian scholars. Worse in
1893 the Empress Cixi took some money intended for the navy and used it
to build a marble ship in the shape of a paddle steamer. China remained
fundamentally unchanged in the late 19th century, unlike Japan, which
In 1894 came war with Japan. A
rebellion broke out in Korea in 1894 and Chinese troops were sent there.
However the Japanese navy sank a Chinese troop carrier, provoking war.
The Japanese army and navy quickly won stunning victories and the
Chinese were forced to sign a humiliating treaty. They were forced to
cede Taiwan to Japan and to allow the Japanese to build factories in
China. China was also forced to pay a large sum of money. Afterwards
European powers took advantage of China’s weakness by forcing her to
cede more territory to them.
After the shock of the
Sino-Japanese war many Chinese realized that China must modernize
otherwise she would be carved up between the foreign powers. In 1898
some officials persuaded the emperor to decree a series of reforms.
However the Empress Dowager (a retired empress) Cixi put a stop to it.
She arrested most of the reformers and executed them on the trumped up
charge that they were plotting to overthrow the government.
The Boxer Rebellion
1900 Chinese resentment of foreign interference boiled over into the
Boxer rebellion. It began with a secret society called the Harmonious
Fists. They hated Christian missionaries and foreign influence. The
society grew rapidly after 1898 and friction between them and the
missionaries grew. Afraid, the British sent 2,000 men to protect their
nationals in Beijing.
However the Boxers cut the
railway to Tianjin and the British were forced to withdraw their
soldiers. Cixi decided to join the Boxers and she declared war. The
foreigners in Beijing shut themselves in their buildings and the Chinese
lay siege. However a force of 20,000 European soldiers marched into
Beijing and sacked it. Afterwards the Chinese were forced to pay a large
sum of money to the Europeans as compensation.
The Fall of the Qing Dynasty
1901 the Empress Dowager, Cixi, changed her mind and decided some
reform was needed after all. Primary and secondary education was changed
to include western subjects. Then in 1905 the civil service entry
exams, which had been used for 2,000 years, were abolished. Some attempt
was made to reform the army and navy. In 1908 she agreed to make the
Chinese monarchy a constitutional one. In 1909 provincial assemblies
were elected. However only a limited number of men were allowed to vote
and the assemblies had little power. After 1910 there was a national
assembly but it too have very limited power. The limited reforms of the
Qing satisfied nobody and in 1911 they were swept away by a revolution.
China became a republic.
THE CHINESE REPUBLIC 1911-1949
the early 20th century many people decided the only thing to do was to
sweep away the old order. Leading the revolutionaries was Sun-Yat-Sen
(1866-1925). He put forward 3 principles, nationalism, democracy and
socialism. In 1905 he formed the Revolutionary Alliance of Tongmen Hui.
Some soldiers in Wuchang with revolutionary ideals formed an
organisation called the Literary Society. In 1911 they were planning
revolution. However they accidentally set off a bomb. Realizing the
government would now be alerted they decided to start the revolution
The revolution soon gathered pace and
spread across southern China. Province after province seceded from the
Qing Empire. However the Qing turned to a man named General Yaun Shikai.
This man had been a regional governor but the Qing dismissed him, as
they feared he was growing too powerful. Now they recalled him and gave
him wide powers to crush the revolution.
his forces were repulsed at Nanjing the general decided to change sides.
He made a deal with the revolutionaries. He would make China a republic
if he could be President. Sun Yat-Sen and the other revolutionaries
feared that a divided China would be easy prey for the foreign powers so
they agreed to his terms. The Qing were persuaded to abdicate in
February 1912. Yuan Shikai became president of China. A parliament was
elected in February. The largest party were the nationalists of
Kuomintang with Sun Yat-Sen at their head.
general had no intention of sharing power with parliament and soon made
himself dictator. The Kuomintang were banned at the end of 1913 and
parliament was closed in January 1914.
The Warlord Years
General Yuan died in 1916 China descended into semi-anarchy. Central
government had little power and warlords controlled the provinces. In
1916 the Japanese took over the German ‘sphere of influence’ in
Shangdong. After the war, in 1919, it became clear that the victorious
powers intended to let Japan keep it. This news provoked 3,000 students
to demonstrate in Beijing on 4 May 1919. They burned the Minister of
Communication’s house. Although the police moved to suppress the
demonstration in Beijing similar protests took place elsewhere in China.
The protest gave rise to a movement called the Fourth of May movement
which rejected Confucian values and sought to modernize China. Although
the Kuomintang were banned in 1913 they simply moved their base to
Guangzhou and continued to operate.
In 1921 the Chinese
Communist Party or CCP was founded. Communism was based on the ideas of
Karl Marx (1818-1883). According to him society went through an
inevitable series of stages ending in Communism. The workers, he said,
would inevitably rise up against the capitalists and Capitalism would be
replaced by Socialism in which the state would own industry. However
the state would ‘wither away’ leaving a classless society or Communism.
Needless to say the promised utopia never materialized.
of the founders of the Communist Party was Mao Tse-Tung (1893-1976). By
1935 he became head of the new party. At first the Communists decided
to co-operate with the Kuomintang. For a time the two joined forces.
China was changing in the early 20th century. Industry was expanding
rapidly (although the country remained overwhelmingly agricultural) and
China saw a wave of strikes and labor unrest in the 1920s. Then in 1926
the Kuomintang decided to unite China. From their base in the south they
sent an army of 150,000 men into the north. The warlords in some of the
northern provinces were defeated and by the end of 1926 large parts of
northern China were brought under Kuomintang control. In 1928 the
Northern Expedition was renewed and in April Kuomintang forces entered
Beijing. China was reunited.
Meanwhile the Kuomintang
and the Communists argued. In the autumn of 1927 Mao Tse Tung led a
peasant rebellion called the Autumn Harvest Uprising. However it was
crushed. In December 1927 there was an uprising in Guangzhou and a
Communist government was very briefly established in the city but
government forces soon crushed the movement.
the Kuomintang said that China was not ready for democracy. Instead
China became a military dictatorship led by Chiang Kai Shek. In 1930 Li
Lisan led another Communist rebellion but it was easily crushed. However
in the countryside Mao Tse Tung adopted a much more successful policy.
From his base in a mountain range he carried out guerrilla warfare. He
created a well-disciplined force that conducted ‘hit and run’ raids and
hid whenever the enemy advanced, avoiding pitched battles. His men were
able to wear down and demoralize them. Guerrilla warfare proved to be
extremely successful in the 20th century.
In 1934 the
Kuomintang attempted to encircle the Communists. Mao decided to break
out. About 90,000 soldiers escaped the trap and embarked on a long march
to the north of China. This Long March became legendary although less
than 20,000 of those who took part survived the march. Then in 1937
Communists and Kuomintang agreed to a temporary truce to fight the
In 1931 the Japanese occupied Manchuria. In
1932 they created a separate state with a puppet government called
Munchuko. In 1937 the Japanese invaded the rest of China. The invasion
began with the ‘rape of Nanjing’ when tens of thousands of people in
that city were murdered. Women were raped and buildings were burned.
However the Japanese were unable to conquer all of China due to its
In the 1930s some modernization occurred in
the coastal cities of China. Many new railways were built and many more
roads were metaled. The amount of electricity generated increased 7
times over. Industrial output was small but it was growing. Coal mining
boomed. Cotton spinning also grew. However the interior of China
remained overwhelmingly agricultural. When the Japanese invaded in 1937
Chiang Kai Shek attempted to evacuate many people, especially skilled
workers to the unoccupied areas of China. Industrial machinery was also
evacuated west. However to finance the fighting the Kuomintang were
forced to print money. The result was rampant inflation which undermined
The Revolution in China
August 1945 Russia declared war on Japan. As a result Russian troops
occupied Manchuria after the Japanese surrender. When they withdrew the
Communists were left in control of Manchuria. In 1946 the civil war
resumed between Communists and Kuomintang. At first the Kuomintang were
successful and they recaptured southern Manchuria and other parts of
northern China. However the Communists turned to guerrilla warfare and
successfully harassed the Kuomintang and their lines of communication.
the middle of 1947 the Communists were winning the war. Then in
November 1948-January 1949 the Communists won a victory at Huai-Hai.
They encircled an army of 300,000 Kuomintang and eventually forced them
to surrender. After that the Kuomintang position swiftly collapsed. The
Communists took Beijing in January 1949. In April they took Nanjing and
in May Shanghai. The remaining Kuomintang then fled to Taiwan and in
October Mao Tse Tung declared the Peoples Republic of China in Beijing.
The Early Years of the Peoples Republic
the Communists industry was nationalized. The peasants were encouraged
to pool their resources and form their small farms into co-operatives.
Any opposition to the Communist regime was ruthlessly suppressed.
1958 Mao launched an attempt to greatly increase output of farming and
industry. It was called The Great Leap Forward. Agricultural
co-operatives were joined together to form larger units called communes.
Creches and nurseries were set up so women could work.
were encouraged to make steel in their own makeshift furnaces. Many
peasants were forced to work on water conservation works.
However the Great Leap Forward proved to be a disaster. Most of the steel was of very poor quality and could not be used.
farm output greatly declined and there was a terrible famine in China
in 1959-62. Far too much labor was diverted to making steel or building
projects leaving not enough for the harvests which in some areas were
left to rot. Worse crops fell prey to locusts. In 1958 Mao launched a
campaign to kill sparrows (because they ate grain seeds). However
sparrows also ate locusts and other insects. Huge numbers of sparrows
were killed and without natural predators the number of locusts greatly
increased, making the famine worse. Bad weather in 1959 and 1960 made
the famine worse still.
Yet even though there was a
famine and people were starving China continued to export grain. An
estimated 36 million people in China died in the famine. Not all died of
starvation. Starving people were executed for stealing food. It was the
worst man made famine in history. However Mao was unmoved by the
famine. He said ‘To distribute resources evenly will only ruin the Great
Leap Forward. It is better to let half the people die so that the other
half can eat their fill’. Nevertheless The Great Leap Forward was a
failure and it had to be abandoned. Afterwards Mao lost some of his
The Cultural Revolution in China
1966 to reassert his authority Mao launched the Cultural Revolution.
Students began to call themselves the Red Guard and they held rallies in
Beijing. Soon a movement began to root out old habits, beliefs and
attitudes and cause a cultural revolution. The Red Guard began to attack
intellectuals and also officials. In 1967 they forced the mayor and
other officials in Shanghai to resign. The same thing happened in other
cities as well. Many party officials were purged and removed from power.
the Cultural Revolution religion was persecuted in China. Many places
of worship were destroyed. (Mao like all Marxists was an atheist and he
However in 1968 Mao realized that
things were going too far. The Red Guard was disrupting industry and
agriculture. Mao ordered them to disband. Mao himself died in September
In 1989 a mass demonstration was held in
Tiananmen Square in Beijing demanding democratic reforms. It was crushed
by the Chinese army.
China’s Economic Miracle
the late 20th century China introduced a market economy. As a result
China became an amazing success story. The economy grew very rapidly in
the last years of the 20th century and by the mid-1990s China had become
an affluent society. Consumer goods like TVs and fridges became common.
In the last years of the 20th century the government switched to a
market economy. Peasants in communes were given contracts. They were
given a certain amount of land and agreed to grow a certain amount of
crops. If they grew any excess they could sell it. In industry factories
were given more autonomy. They were allowed to make their own
agreements with their suppliers and their customers. If they made large
profits they could pay their workers bonuses. The new slogan was ‘To be
rich is glorious!’. Four special economic zones were formed in the east
of China. The result was a huge increase in Chinese industrial output
and a great improvement in Chinese standards of living.
2005 there was a significant sign of China’s growing economic power
when Shanghai overtook Rotterdam as the largest port in the world. China
is predicted to become the world’s largest economy by 2040. Today the
population of China is 1.35 billion.