Chinese history spans nearly three millenia and is better documented than perhaps any other nation. The core of Chinese history consists of the dynastic era, from 221 BC to 1912 AD, when all of China was ruled by a series of emperors in 8 major dynasties.
China was one of only a handful of places to independently develop agriculture. Wheat and rice were first cultivated in the Yellow River valley approximately 11,000 years ago. China also independently developed writing, around 2000 BC. 1000 BC to 221 BC was known as the Warring States Period, because a number of different states competed for power. In the last half of the second century BC, the state of Qin rose above the others to become the first dynasty to unify China.
The Qin dynasty, under Qin Shi Huangdi, unified China in 221 BC. Qin adopted the philosophy of Legalism, which proscribed harsh punishments for minor refractions, and absolute obedience to the emperor. Under his reign, the Great Wall of China was begun, numerous books and scholars were burned alive, and a magnificent tomb filled with terracotta soldiers was built for him. After his death, his son was unable to put down the peasant revolts, and the Qin dynasty fell apart.
The Han dynasty succeeded the Qin and was established by Liu Bang, later Emperor Gaozu. Instead of Legalism, the Han embraced Confucianism, a conservative philosophy developed by Confucius during the Warring States Period and designed to restore order to China. The Han dynasty expanded China's borders deeper into Central Asia, and lasted for nearly 400 years, until around 200 AD. However, barbarian migrations and discontent in the hinterlands led to its fall.
The Sui dynasty was established after a long period of civil unrest following the fall of the Han. Like the Qin dynasty, the Sui were short-lived, but they were one of the most influential dynasties. They established the exam system that lasted until 1905, and they began construction on the Grand Canal, which linked the Yellow River with the Yangtze River.
The Tang dynasty came after the Sui. This dynasty brought China's borders to the edge of Central Asia, until they were stopped by Arab forces at the Battle of the Talus River. The Tang benefited greatly from trade along the Silk Roads.
The Song dynasty was established in the 12th century. It was a period of economic growth in China. The population exploded, and coal began to replace wood as an energy source. This mini Industrial Revolution would not last, because Jurchen nomads from the steppes invaded northern China and established a rival Jin dynasty. The Song remained in power in southern China.
In 1206, Genghis Khan unified the disparate Mongol tribes and went on the offensive against Chinese civilization. The Jin dynasty was quick to fall, as their soldiers had low morale and some of them identified more with the nomadic Mongol horsemen than their now-civilized rulers. Genghis Khan's grandson, Kublai Khan, completed the conquest of China. In 1279, the last Song emperor died, and Kublai proclaimed himself Emperor of the new Yuan dynasty, the first non-Chinese dynasty in history.
Initially the Yuan continued to respect Chinese traditions while bringing their own innovations, such as the elevation of the merchant class and the tolerance of all religions. However, as time went on the Mongol rulers began to assert their identity more heavily and the Chinese populace grew discontent. A series of catastrophic floods and famines signaled the end of the Yuan dynasty in 1368.
The Ming dynasty was established in the aftermath of the Yuan. The Ming oversaw the golden age of Chinese civilization. Large treasure fleets under the command of Zheng He traded with the Indian Ocean basin, and formidable Ming armies brought all of traditional China under their control, while also restoring the Great Wall. The Silk Roads also brought great wealth to the empire, and Confucianism flourished.
However, the Ming grew increasingly introverted. The treasure fleets were recalled and scrapped, conservative philosophy took over and prevented change, and European innovations were shunned. By the 17th century, the Ming were weak, and in 1644 Manchu armies from the north took advantage of a peasant revolt to assert their rule.
The last dynasty to rule China, the Qing continued the Ming's policy of isolation. Although China's traditional lead in technology continued until the 18th century, by 1800 they were at the mercy of European powers. When diplomatic means failed, Great Britain forced open trade with China, and demanded heavy concessions.
The Taiping Rebellion in the 1850s was started by a failed scholar-official, Hong Xiuquan, who proclaimed his own version of Christianity. His promises of equality and communal ownership of property appealed to the peasant masses, and at its height Hong controlled much of southern China. However, his followers began to turn against him, and the Qing were able to put down the rebellion.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, it became clear that reform was needed. The self-strengthening movement advocated adopting Western ideas and technology in order to match them. One emperor tried to establish a constitutional monarchy along the lines of Western Europe, but the Empress Dowager Cixi had him deposed. By the 1890s, the weak Qing dynasty was unable to oppose the West.
Chinese dissatisfaction with the West led to the Boxer Rebellion. Thousands of Chinese, believing that they were impervious to bullets, overran the Western section of Peking and besieged them. Eight nations, including the newly industrialized Japan, took over Beijing and defeated the Boxers.
The Qing Dynasty began to collapse soon afterward. With Western dominance established, traditional Confucian values were slowly eroded and the civil service exam was abolished in 1905. Empress Cixi's resistance to westernization and attempts to consolidate power resulted in mutinies and the rise of secret organizations like the Triads. The final Qing emperor, a young boy named Puyi, was deposed in 1912.
Republic of China and WarlordismEdit
The fall of the Qing in 1912 resulted in an era of instability. Although a republic was established under Sun Yat-sen, many regions were controlled by warlords who fought among each other. After 1930, most of the warlords had been pacified, but a communist insurgency led by Mao Zedong threatened the central government.
In 1937, Japan invaded China. The conflict between the communists and nationalists died down so they could better oppose the Japanese. The Japanese were able to quickly gain control of the coast, but they were unable to assert themselves inland.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States provided assistance the Chinese fighting against the Japanese. By the end of World War II the Japanese had been completely expelled from China. The war between the communists and nationalists flared up immediately. By 1949, the communists had won and the nationalists had fled to the island of Taiwan.
The new government under Mao Zedong switched China's economy to socialism. China also provided troops to North Korea during the Korean War. In 1959, Mao started the Great Leap Forward, which attempted to bring China's economy on par with the West. It was a massive failure, and led to the starvation of hundreds of thousands of Chinese peasants. However, China was able to successfully develop an atomic bomb during this period.
In the 1960s, Mao, wishing to solidify communist party rule in China, initiated the Cultural Revolution. His intent was to modify traditional Chinese values to better suit communism. Unfortunately, communist fervor went too far, and thousands of people lost their lives or their livelihoods.
Deng Xiaoping's reforms led to the rapid growth of the Chinese economy, as well as urbanization. Special economic zones were established where the government had less sway in the economy. However, discontent grew due to the lack of political reforms to accompany the economic ones. In 1989, protesters occupied Tiananmen Square for several weeks until the military forced them out bloodily.
Although most other communist nations collapsed in 1991 or shortly thereafter, China remained an economic powerhouse. In 1997, the United Kingdom returned the wealthy financial center of Hong Kong to China, and Portugal returned Macau two years later.
Chinese economic growth has continued into the 21st century. It has been speculated that China will join the United States as a superpower. Indeed, the Chinese economy is close to surpassing that of the U.S., and China now fields a well-equipped, modern military.
China is a socialist state. Although private enterprise is allowed, the government controls much of the economy. The sole political party in China is the Communist Party, which is the largest political party in the world.
The main political leaders of China are the President and the Chairman of the Communist Party. The Vice President is chosen by the President. Although Party leaders are ostensibly elected, they are usually rigged. Corruption is rampant within the party.
Although traditionally agriculturally, China has rapidly industrialized and is now the world's largest manufacturer due to its large population and cheap labor. Many Western countries outsource production to factories in China.
The Chinese language is one of the oldest document living languages, dating back to nearly 2300 BC. It includes many dialects, sometimes considered languages, including Mandarin, Wu, Yue, and Min. It is a member of the Sino-Tibetan language family.
Religion in China is a complex issue. Chinese traditional religion is practiced in some regions, particularly rural areas. Buddhism, popular during the Tang dynasty, is also known. However, most people, particularly since the rise of communism, do not practice a religion in the Western sense. Confucianism is usually considered a philosophy rather than a religion, as is Daoism. There are also small populations of Christians, as well as native Muslims, particularly in Xinjiang.