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A Very Short History of the Ancient World

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As in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and along the Indus River, Chinese civilization began in a major river valley. China is a huge area with a variety of climates and soils. Around 4000 B.C., this huge expanse contained an almost infinite number of ethnic groups and languages. The course of Chinese history, however, is in part dominated by a single ethnic group and language. This history, in which a vast area populated by diverse ethnic groups became, over time, a more or less single culture, began in the Yellow River Valley.

The Yellow River is the most northern of the major Chinese rivers with the Yangtze River directly to its south. Sometime around 4000 B.C., when the area was much more temperate and forested, populations around the southern bend of the Yellow River (northeast of the present-day city of Xian) began to practice agriculture. They sowed millet and, some time later, the Chinese began cultivating rice to the south, near the Huai River. These were a Neolithic, tribal people who used stone tools. They domesticated animals very early on, but they still continued as a hunter society as well. They built one-room pit homes dug into the earth, with roofs of clay or thatch, that were grouped in villages. They had spinning wheels and knitted and wove fibers. And they made pottery decorated with art.

When people were producing more food than they needed to survive, warriors had the incentive not only to plunder but also to conquer. And conquering kings arose on the North China Plain as they did in West Asia. The first dynasty of kings in the North China Plain has been described as belonging to the Xia family -- whose rule is thought to have begun around 2200 B.C. But the first dynasty of which there is historical evidence is that of the Shang family, who are thought to have begun their rule around 1750 B.C.

By force, the Shang unified people in the North China Plain, building an empire in much the same way as other conquerors: By leaving behind a garrison force to police local people; by turning a local king into a subservient ally free to manage local matters; and by taxing the conquered. During the Shang dynasty, the civilization along the Yellow River had canals for irrigating crops. Communities had drains that ran water out of town. They made beer from millet. They extended their trading and used money in the form of cowry shells. Shang merchants traded in salt, iron, copper, tin, lead and antimony, some of which had to be imported from far away. As early as 1300 B.C., a bronze-casting industry had developed. This was later than the rise of bronze casting in Europe and West Asia, but at the time it was the most advanced in the world.

It was around 1300 B.C. that the first known writing appeared in Shang civilization -- writing that developed more than 3,000 characters, partly pictorial and partly phonetic. This writing was done on plate-like portions of the bones of cattle or deer, on seashells and turtle shells and perhaps on wood. They were inscriptions concerned with predicting the future. By applying a pointed, heated rod to a bone or shell, the item cracked, and to which written symbol the crack pointed gave answers for various questions: What the weather was going to be like, would there be a flood, would a harvest succeed or fail, when might be the best time for hunting or fishing -- along with questions about illness or whether one should make a journey.

An Overview of China and Its History

Since very early times, the Chinese have kept voluminous records and it's largely as a result of these records that our knowledge concerning the ancient past, not only of China but also of its neighbors, has survived. Historians describe a Chinese political pattern of dynasties, one following another in a cycle of ascent, achievement and decay; and then rebirth under a new dynastic family.

One of the consistent traits throughout Chinese history has been the capacity to absorb the people of surrounding areas into their own civilization. This success can be attributed to the superiority of their ideographic written language, their technology, and their political institutions; the refinement of their artistic and intellectual creativity; and, most importantly, the sheer weight of their numbers. The process of assimilation continued over the centuries through conquest and colonization until what is now known as China Proper was brought under unified rule. The Chinese also left an enduring mark on people beyond their borders, especially the Koreans, Japanese and Vietnamese.

Another recurrent historical theme has been the unceasing struggle of the sedentary Chinese against threats posed by non-Chinese peoples on the margins of their territory in the north, northeast and northwest. In the 13th century A.D., the Mongols from the northern steppes became the first alien people to conquer all China. Although not as culturally developed as the Chinese, they left some imprint on Chinese civilization while heightening Chinese perceptions of threats from the north. China came under alien rule for the second time in the mid-17th century A.D.; these conquerors -- the Manchus -- again came from the north and northeast.

For centuries, virtually all the foreigners that Chinese rulers saw came from the less- developed societies along their land borders. This conditioned the Chinese view of the outside world: They saw their domain as the self-sufficient center of the universe and derived from this image the traditional (and still used) Chinese name for their country -- Zhongguo -- literally, Central Nation or the "Middle Kingdom." China saw itself surrounded on all sides by so-called barbarian peoples whose cultures were demonstrably inferior. This China-centered ("sinocentric") view of the world was still present in the 19th century A.D. at the time of the first serious confrontation with the West. China had taken it for granted that its relations with Europeans would be conducted according to the tributary system that had evolved over the centuries between the emperor and representatives of the lesser states on China's borders as well as between the emperor and some earlier European visitors. But by the mid-19th century A.D., humiliated militarily by superior Western weaponry and technology and faced with imminent territorial dismemberment, China began to reassess its position with respect to Western civilization. By 1911 A.D., the two-millennia-old dynastic system of imperial government was brought down by its inability to make this adjustment successfully.

Ancient China (1700-221 B.C.)

A line of hereditary Shang kings ruled over much of northern China from about 1700 to 1070 B.C., and Shang troops fought frequent wars with neighboring settlements and nomadic herdsmen from the inner Asian steppes. The capitals, one of which was at the site of the modern city of Anyang, were centers of glittering court life. Court rituals to propitiate spirits and to honor sacred ancestors were highly developed. In addition to his secular position, the king was the head of the ancestor- and spirit-worship cult. Evidence from the royal tombs indicates that royal personages were buried with articles of value, presumably for use in the afterlife. Perhaps for the same reason, hundreds of commoners, who may have been slaves, were buried alive with the royal corpse.

The last Shang ruler, a despot according to Chinese accounts, was overthrown by a chieftain of a frontier tribe called Zhou, which had settled in the Wei Valley in modern Shaanxi Province. The Zhou dynasty had its capital near the city of Xian, or Chang'an as it was then known.

Sharing the language and culture of the Shang, the early Zhou rulers, through conquest and colonization, gradually extended that culture through much of China north of the Yangtze River. The Zhou dynasty lasted longer than any other, from 1027 to 221 B.C. It was during this period that the doctrine of the "mandate of heaven" was first enunciated -- the notion that the ruler (the "son of heaven") governed by divine right but that his dethronement would prove that he had lost that mandate. The doctrine explained and justified the demise of the two earlier dynasties and, at the same time, supported the legitimacy of current and future rulers.

The term "feudal" has often been applied to the Zhou period because the Zhou's early decentralized rule was somewhat similar to medieval rule in Europe. However, whatever feudal elements there may have been decreased as time went on and the Zhou city-states became progressively centralized.

In 771 B.C., the Zhou court was sacked, and its king was killed by invading barbarians who were allied with rebel lords. The capital was moved eastward to Luoyang in present-day Henan Province. Because of this shift, historians divide the Zhou era into Western Zhou (1027- 771 B.C.) and Eastern Zhou (770-221 B.C.). With the royal line broken, the power of the Zhou court gradually diminished and fragmentation of the kingdom accelerated. Eastern Zhou divides into two sub-periods. The first, from 770 to 476 B.C., is called the Spring and Autumn Period after a famous historical chronicle of the time; the second is known as the Warring States Period (475 to 221 B.C.).

The "Spring and Autumn" and "Warring States" periods, though marked by disunity and civil strife, witnessed an unprecedented era of cultural prosperity -- the "golden age" of China. The atmosphere of reform and new ideas was attributed to the struggle for survival among warring regional lords who competed in building strong and loyal armies and in increasing economic production to ensure a broader base for tax collection. To effect these economic, military, and cultural developments, the regional lords needed ever-increasing numbers of skilled, literate officials and teachers, the recruitment of whom was based on merit. Also during this time, commerce was stimulated through the introduction of coinage and technological improvements. Iron came into general use, making possible not only the forging of weapons of war but also the manufacture of farm implements. Public works -- such as flood control, irrigation projects, and canal digging--were carried out on a grand scale. Enormous walls were built around cities and along the broad stretches of the northern frontier.

So many different philosophies developed during the late "Spring and Autumn" and early "Warring States" periods that this era is often known as the "Hundred Schools of Thought." From this era came many of the great classical writings on which Chinese practices were to be based for the next 2,500 years.

Philosophical Influences

The body of thought that had the most enduring effect on Chinese life was that of the School of Literati or Confucian School, which became the basis for the order of traditional Chinese society. Confucius (551-479 B.C.) looked for an ideal social and political order. He believed that the only way such a system could be made to work properly was for each person to act according to prescribed relationships. "Let the ruler be a ruler and the subject a subject," he said, but he added that to rule properly a king must be virtuous. To Confucius, the functions of government and social stratification were facts of life to be sustained by ethical values. His ideal was the junzi, which came to mean gentleman in the sense of a cultivated or superior man.

Mencius (372-289 B.C.) was a disciple who made major contributions to Confucian thought. He declared that man was by nature good and that a ruler could not govern without the people's tacit consent. Thus, the penalty for unpopular, despotic rule was the loss of the "mandate of heaven." The effect of the combined work of Confucius and Mencius was to provide traditional Chinese society with a comprehensive framework on which to order virtually every aspect of life.

Diametrically opposed to Mencius, however, was the interpretation of Xun Zi, another Confucian follower. Xun Zi preached that man is innately selfish and evil and that goodness is attainable only through education and conduct befitting one's status. He also argued that the best government is one based on authoritarian control, not ethical or moral persuasion.

Xun Zi's unsentimental and authoritarian inclinations were developed into the doctrine embodied in the School of Law or Legalism. The doctrine was formulated by Han Fei Zi (d. 233 B.C.) and Li Si (d. 208 B.C.), who maintained that human nature was incorrigibly selfish and therefore the only way to preserve the social order was to impose discipline from above and to enforce laws strictly. Legalism became the philosophic basis for the imperial form of government. When the most practical and useful aspects of Confucianism and Legalism were synthesized in the Han period (206 B.C. to A.D. 220), a system of governance came into existence that was to survive largely intact until the late 19th century.

Taoism, the second most important stream of Chinese thought, also developed during the Zhou period. Its formulation is attributed to the legendary sage Lao Zi, said to predate Confucius, and Zhuang Zi (369-286 B.C.). The focus of Taoism is the individual in nature rather than the individual in society. It holds that the goal of life for each individual is to find one's own personal adjustment to the rhythm of the natural (and supernatural) world, to follow the Way (dao) of the universe. In many ways the opposite of rigid Confucian moralism, Taoism served many of its adherents as a complement to their ordered daily lives. A scholar on duty as an official would usually follow Confucian teachings but at leisure or in retirement might seek harmony with nature as a Taoist recluse.

Another strain of thought dating to the Warring States Period is the school of yin-yang and the five elements. This school explained the universe in terms of basic forces in nature, the complementary agents of yin (dark, cold, female, negative) and yang (light, hot, male, positive) and the five elements (water, fire, wood, metal, and earth).

Still another school of thought was based on the doctrine of Mo Zi (470-391 B.C.?), who believed that "all men are equal before God" and that mankind should follow heaven by practicing universal love. Advocating that all action must be utilitarian, Mo Zi condemned the Confucian emphasis on ritual and music. He regarded warfare as wasteful and advocated pacificism. Mo Zi also believed that unity of thought and action were necessary to achieve social goals. He maintained that the people should obey their leaders and that the leaders should follow the will of heaven. Although Moism failed to establish itself as a major school of thought, its views are said to be "strongly echoed" in Legalist thought.

The First Imperial Period (221 B.C.-A.D. 581)

Much of what came to constitute China Proper was unified for the first time in 221 B.C. when the western frontier state of Qin, the most aggressive of the Warring States, subjugated the last of its rival states. (Qin as a western translation becomes Ch'in, from which the English word "China" probably originated.) Once the king of Qin consolidated his power, he took the title "First Emperor" and imposed Qin's centralized, nonhereditary bureaucratic system on his new empire. This centralization, achieved by ruthless methods, was focused on standardizing legal codes and bureaucratic procedures, the forms of writing and coinage, and the pattern of thought and scholarship. To silence criticism, the kings banished or put to death many dissenting Confucian scholars and confiscated and burned their books

Qin expansion was aided by frequent military expeditions pushing forward the frontiers in the north and south. To fend off barbarian intrusion, the fortification walls built by the various warring states were connected to make a 5,000-kilometer-long great wall. What is commonly referred to as the "Great Wall" is actually four walls rebuilt or extended during the Western Han, Sui, Jin, and Ming periods, rather than a single, continuous wall. At its extremities, the Great Wall reaches from northeastern Heilongjiang Province to Gansu Province in the northwest.

A number of public works projects were also undertaken that required enormous levies of manpower and resources, not to mention repressive measures. Revolts broke out as soon as the first Qin emperor died in 210 B.C. and his dynasty was extinguished less than 20 years after its triumph. The imperial system initiated during the Qin dynasty, however, set a pattern that was extended over the next two millennia.

The Han Dynasty

After a short civil war, a new dynasty, called Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), emerged with its capital at Chang'an, now known as Xian. The new empire retained much of the Qin administrative structure but retreated a bit from centralized rule by establishing vassal principalities in some areas. The Han rulers also modified some of the harsher aspects of the previous dynasty; Confucian ideals of government, out of favor during the Qin period, were adopted as the creed of the Han empire, and Confucian scholars gained prominent status as the core of the civil service. A civil service examination system also was initiated. Intellectual, literary, and artistic endeavors revived and flourished. Two of the great Chinese inventions, paper and porcelain, date from Han times.

The Han dynasty, after which the members of the ethnic majority in China, the "people of Han," are named, was notable also for its military activity. The empire expanded westward as far as the rim of the Tarim Basin (in modern Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region), making possible relatively secure caravan traffic across Central Asia to Antioch, Baghdad, and Alexandria. These paths of caravan traffic were referred to as the "silk route" because they were used to export Chinese silk to the Roman Empire. Chinese armies also invaded and annexed parts of northern Vietnam and northern Korea toward the end of the 2nd century B.C.

To ensure peace with non-Chinese local powers, the Han court developed a mutually beneficial "tributary system." Non-Chinese states were allowed to remain autonomous in exchange for symbolic acceptance of Han overlordship. Tributary ties were confirmed and strengthened through intermarriages at the ruling level and periodic exchanges of gifts and goods.

After 200 years, Han rule was interrupted briefly (in A.D. 9-24 by Wang Mang a reformer), and then restored for another 200 years. But riddled with the corruption characteristic of the dynastic cycle, by A.D. 220 the Han empire had collapsed.

Era of Disunity

The collapse of the Han dynasty was followed by nearly four centuries of rule by warlords. The age of civil wars and disunity began with the era of the Three Kingdoms (Wei, Shu, and Wu, which had overlapping reigns). Unity was restored briefly in the early years of the Jin dynasty (A.D. 265-420), but the Jin could not contain the invasions of nomadic peoples. In A.D. 317, the Jin court was forced to flee from Luoyang and reestablish itself at Nanjing to the south. The transfer of the capital coincided with China's political fragmentation into a succession of dynasties that was to last from A.D. 304 to 589. At the same time, there was increasing popularity of Buddhism (introduced into China in the 1st century A.D.) in both the north and south.

Despite the political disunity of the times, there were notable technological advances. Inventions of gunpowder (at that time for use only in fireworks) and the wheelbarrow are believed to date from the 6th or 7th century. Advances in medicine, astronomy, and cartography are also noted by historians.

Classical Imperial China (A.D. 581-1279)

China was reunified in A.D. 589 by the short-lived Sui dynasty (A.D. 581-617), which has often been compared to the earlier Qin dynasty in tenure and the ruthlessness of its accomplishments. The Sui dynasty's early demise was attributed to the government's tyrannical demands on the people, who bore crushing burdens of taxes and compulsory labor. These resources were overstrained in the completion of the Grand Canal.

The Grand Canal of China, which connects Beijing in the north with Hangzhou in the south (both of which served as dynastic capitals), is the world's longest man-made waterway, far surpassing the two grand canals of the modern world: the Suez and Panama Canals. Since most of China's major rivers flow from west to east, the fact that the Grand Canal runs north and south makes it a very important connector between the Yangtze River valley and the Yellow River valley, as well as other minor river systems. At 1,114 miles in length with 24 locks and 60 bridges, construction began in 486 B.C. during the Wu Dynasty. It was extended during the Qi Dynasty, and later by Emperor Yangdi of the Sui Dynasty during six years of furious construction.

Weakened by costly and disastrous military campaigns against Korea in the early 7th century, the Sui Dynasty disintegrated through a combination of popular revolts, disloyalty, and assassination. It was followed by the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907), with its capital at Chang'an (modern Xian), which is regarded by historians as a high point in Chinese civilization -- equal, or even superior, to the Han period. Its territory, acquired through the military exploits of its early rulers, was greater than that of the Han.

Stimulated by contact with India and the Middle East, the empire saw a flowering of creativity in many fields. Buddhism, originating in India around the time of Confucius, flourished during the Tang period, becoming a permanent part of Chinese traditional culture. Block printing was invented, making the written word available to vastly greater audiences. The Tang period was the golden age of literature and art. A government bureaucracy selected through civil service examinations was perfected under Tang rule. This created a body of career officials having no autonomous territorial or functional power base. From Tang times until the closing days of the Qing empire in 1911, scholar-officials functioned often as intermediaries between the grass-roots level and the government.

By the middle of the 8th century A.D., Tang power had ebbed. Domestic economic instability and military defeat in 751 by Arabs at Talas, in Central Asia, marked the beginning of five centuries of steady military decline for the Chinese empire. Misrule, court intrigues, economic exploitation, and popular rebellions further weakened the empire, making it possible for northern invaders to terminate the dynasty in 907 A.D. The next half-century saw the fragmentation of China into five northern dynasties and ten southern kingdoms.

But in A.D. 960, a new power, Song (960-1279), reunified most of China Proper. The Song period is divided into two phases: Northern Song (960-1127) and Southern Song (1127- 1279). The division was caused by the forced abandonment of north China in 1127 by the Song court, which could not push back nomadic invaders from the north.

The Song dynasty is notable for the development of cities not only for administrative purposes but also as centers of trade, industry and maritime commerce. Landed scholar- officials, sometimes collectively referred to as the gentry, lived in provincial centers alongside the shopkeepers, artisans, and merchants. A new group of wealthy commoners -- the mercantile class -- arose as printing and education spread, private trade grew, and a market economy began to link the coastal provinces and the interior. Landholding and government employment were no longer the only means of gaining wealth and prestige.

Culturally, the Song refined many of the developments of the previous centuries. Included in these refinements were not only the Tang ideal of the universal man, who combined the qualities of scholar, poet, painter, and statesman, but also historical writings, painting, calligraphy, and hard-glazed porcelain. Song intellectuals sought answers to all philosophical and political questions in the Confucian Classics. This renewed interest in the Confucian ideals and society of ancient times coincided with the decline of Buddhism, which the Chinese regarded as foreign and offering few practical guidelines for the solution of political and other mundane problems.

The Song Neo-Confucian philosophers, finding a certain purity in the originality of the ancient classical texts, wrote commentaries on them. The most influential of these philosophers was Zhu Xi (b1130-1200), whose synthesis of Confucian thought and Buddhist, Taoist, and other ideas became the official imperial ideology from late Song times to the late 19th century. As incorporated into the examination system, Zhu Xi's philosophy evolved into a rigid official creed, which stressed the one-sided obligations of obedience and compliance of subject to ruler, child to father, wife to husband, and younger brother to elder brother. The effect was to inhibit the societal development of pre-modern China, resulting both in many generations of political, social, and spiritual stability and in a slowness of cultural and institutional change up to the 19th century. Neo-Confucian doctrines also came to play the dominant role in the intellectual life of Korea, Vietnam, and Japan.

Later Imperial China (1279-1911)

By the mid-13th century, the Mongols had subjugated north China, Korea, and the Muslim kingdoms of Central Asia and had twice penetrated Europe. With the resources of his vast empire, Kublai Khan (1215-1294), a grandson of Genghis Khan ( 1167?-1227) and the supreme leader of all Mongol tribes, began his drive against the Southern Song. Even before the extinction of the Song dynasty, Kublai Khan had established the first alien dynasty to rule all China -- the Yuan (1279-1368).

Although the Mongols tried to govern China through traditional institutions, using Chinese (Han) bureaucrats, they were not up to the task. The Han were discriminated against socially and politically. All important central and regional posts were monopolized by Mongols, who also preferred employing non-Chinese from other parts of the Mongol domain -- Central Asia, the Middle East, and even Europe -- in those positions for which no Mongol could be found.

As in other periods of alien dynastic rule of China, a rich cultural diversity developed during the Yuan dynasty. The major cultural achievements were the development of drama and the novel and the increased use of the written vernacular. The Mongols' extensive West Asian and European contacts produced a fair amount of cultural exchange. Western musical instruments were introduced to enrich the Chinese performing arts. From this period dates the conversion to Islam, by Muslims of Central Asia, of growing numbers of Chinese in the northwest and southwest. Nestorianism and Roman Catholicism also enjoyed a period of toleration. Lamaism (Tibetan Buddhism) flourished, although native Taoism endured Mongol persecutions. Confucian governmental practices and examinations based on the Classics, which had fallen into disuse in north China during the period of disunity, were reinstated by the Mongols in the hope of maintaining order over Han society. Advances were realized in the fields of travel literature, cartography and geography, and scientific education. Certain key Chinese innovations, such as printing techniques, porcelain production, playing cards, and medical literature, were introduced in Europe, while the production of thin glass and cloisonne became popular in China. The first records of travel by Westerners date from this time. The most famous of these was, of course, the Venetian Marco Polo, whose account of his trip to "Cambaluc," the Great Khan's capital (now Beijing), and of life there astounded the people of Europe.

The Mongols undertook extensive public works. Road and water communications were reorganized and improved. To provide against possible famines, granaries were ordered built throughout the empire. The city of Beijing was rebuilt with new palace grounds that included artificial lakes, hills and mountains, and parks. During the Yuan period, Beijing became the terminus of the Grand Canal, which was completely renovated. These commercially oriented improvements encouraged overland as well as maritime commerce throughout Asia and facilitated the first direct Chinese contacts with Europe. Chinese and Mongol travelers to the West were able to provide assistance in such areas as hydraulic engineering, while bringing back to the Middle Kingdom new scientific discoveries and architectural innovations. Contacts with the West also brought the introduction to China of a major new food crop -- sorghum -- along with other foreign food products and methods of preparation.

The Chinese Regain Power

Rivalry among the Mongol imperial heirs, natural disasters, and numerous peasant uprisings led to the collapse of the Yuan dynasty and the Chinese regained power over their people. The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was founded by a Han Chinese peasant and former Buddhist monk turned rebel army leader. Having its capital first at Nanjing ( which means Southern Capital) and later at Beijing (or Northern Capital), the Ming reached the zenith of power during the first quarter of the 15th century. Chinese armies reconquered Annam, as northern Vietnam was then known, in Southeast Asia and kept back the Mongols, while the Chinese fleet sailed the China seas and the Indian Ocean, cruising as far as the east coast of Africa. The maritime Asian nations sent envoys with tribute for the Chinese emperor. Internally, the Grand Canal was expanded to its farthest limits and proved to be a stimulus to domestic trade.

The Ming maritime expeditions stopped rather suddenly after 1433, the date of the last voyage. Historians have given as one of the reasons the great expense of large-scale sea expeditions at a time of preoccupation with northern defenses against the Mongols. Opposition at court also may have been a contributing factor, as conservative officials found the concept of expansion and commercial ventures alien to Chinese ideas of government. Pressure from the powerful Neo-Confucian bureaucracy led to a revival of strict agrarian-centered society. The stability of the Ming dynasty, which was without major disruptions of the population (then around 100 million), economy, arts, society or politics, promoted a belief among the Chinese that they had achieved the most satisfactory civilization on earth and that nothing foreign was needed or welcome.

Long wars with the Mongols, incursions by the Japanese into Korea, and harassment of Chinese coastal cities by the Japanese in the 16th century weakened Ming rule, which became, as earlier Chinese dynasties had, ripe for an alien takeover. In 1644, the Manchus took Beijing from the north and became masters of north China, establishing the last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911).

The Rise of the Manchus

Although the Manchus were not Han Chinese and were strongly resisted, especially in the south, they had assimilated a great deal of Chinese culture before conquering China Proper. Realizing that to dominate the empire they would have to do things the Chinese way, the Manchus retained many institutions of Ming and earlier Chinese derivation. They continued the Confucian court practices and temple rituals, over which the emperors had traditionally presided.

The Manchus continued the Confucian civil service system. Although Chinese were barred from the highest offices, Chinese officials predominated over Manchu officeholders outside the capital, except in military positions. The Neo-Confucian philosophy, emphasizing the obedience of subject to ruler, was enforced as the state creed. The Manchu emperors also supported Chinese literary and historical projects of enormous scope; the survival of much of China's ancient literature is attributed to these projects.

Ever suspicious of Han Chinese, the Qing rulers put into effect measures aimed at preventing the absorption of the Manchus into the dominant Han Chinese population. Han Chinese were prohibited from migrating into the Manchu homeland, and Manchus were forbidden to engage in trade or manual labor. Intermarriage between the two groups was forbidden. In many government positions, a system of dual appointments was used -- the Chinese appointee was required to do the substantive work and the Manchu to ensure Han loyalty to Qing rule.

The Qing regime was determined to protect itself not only from internal rebellion but also from foreign invasion. After China Proper had been subdued, the Manchus conquered Outer Mongolia (now the Mongolian People's Republic) in the late 17th century. In the 18th century they gained control of Central Asia as far as the Pamir Mountains and established a protectorate over the area the Chinese call Xizang, but which is commonly known in the West as Tibet. The Qing thus became the first dynasty to eliminate successfully all danger to China Proper from across its land borders. Under Manchu rule the empire grew to include a larger area than before or since; Taiwan, the last outpost of anti-Manchu resistance, was also incorporated into China for the first time. In addition, Qing emperors received tribute from various border states.

The chief threat to China's integrity did not come overland, as it had so often in the past, but by sea, reaching the southern coastal area first. Western traders, missionaries, and soldiers of fortune began to arrive in large numbers even before the Qing, in the 16th century. The empire's inability to evaluate correctly the nature of the new challenge or to respond flexibly to it resulted in the demise of the Qing and the collapse of the entire millennia-old framework of dynastic rule.

Emergence Of Modern China

The success of the Qing dynasty in maintaining the old order proved a liability when the empire was confronted with growing challenges from seafaring Western powers. The centuries of peace and self-satisfaction dating back to Ming times had encouraged little change in the attitudes of the ruling elite. The imperial Neo-Confucian scholars accepted as axiomatic the cultural superiority of Chinese civilization and the position of the empire at the hub of their world. To question this assumption, to suggest innovation, or to promote the adoption of foreign ideas was viewed as tantamount to heresy. Imperial purges dealt severely with those who deviated from orthodoxy.

But by the 19th century, China was experiencing growing internal pressures of economic origin. There were more than 300 million Chinese, but there was no industry or trade of sufficient scope to absorb the surplus labor. Moreover, the scarcity of land led to widespread rural discontent and a breakdown in law and order. Localized revolts erupted in various parts of the empire in the early 19th century. Secret societies, such as the White Lotus sect in the north and the Triad Society in the south, gained ground, combining anti-Manchu subversion with banditry.

The Western Powers Arrive

As elsewhere in Asia, the Portuguese were the pioneers in China, establishing a foothold at Macao, from which they monopolized foreign trade at the Chinese port of Guangzhou (or Canton). Soon the Spanish arrived, followed by the British and the French.

Trade between China and the West was carried on in the guise of tribute: Foreigners were obliged to follow the elaborate, centuries-old ritual imposed on envoys from China's tributary states. The sole exception was Russia, the most powerful inland neighbor.

The Manchus were sensitive to the need for security along the northern land frontier and therefore were realistic in dealing with Russia. The Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689), drafted to bring to an end a series of border incidents and to establish a border between Siberia and Manchuria (northeast China) along the Amur River, was China's first bilateral agreement with a European power.

Western diplomatic efforts to expand trade on equal terms were rebuffed. The official Chinese position was that the empire was not in need of foreign -- and thus inferior -- products. Despite this attitude, trade flourished, even though after 1760 all foreign trade was confined to Guangzhou, where the foreign traders had to limit their dealings to a dozen officially licensed Chinese merchant firms.

Trade was not the sole basis of contact with the West. Since the 13th century, Roman Catholic missionaries had been attempting to establish their church in China. Although by 1800 only a few hundred thousand Chinese had been converted, the missionaries -- mostly Jesuits -- contributed greatly to Chinese knowledge in such fields as cannon casting, calendar making, geography, mathematics, cartography, music, art, and architecture. The Jesuits were especially adept at fitting Christianity into a Chinese framework and were condemned by a papal decision in 1704 for having tolerated the continuance of Confucian ancestor rites among Christian converts. This papal decision quickly weakened the Christian movement.

The Opium War, 1839-1842

During the 18th century, the market in Europe and America for tea, a new drink in the West, expanded greatly. Additionally, there was a continuing demand for Chinese silk and porcelain. But China, still in its pre-industrial stage, wanted little that the West had to offer, causing the Westerners, mostly British, to incur an unfavorable balance of trade. To remedy the situation, the foreigners developed a third-party trade, exchanging their merchandise in India and Southeast Asia for raw materials and semiprocessed goods, which found a ready market in Guangzhou. By the early 19th century, raw cotton and opium from India had become the staple British imports into China, in spite of the fact that opium was prohibited entry by imperial decree. The opium traffic was made possible through the connivance of profit-seeking merchants and a corrupt bureaucracy.

In 1839, the Qing government, after a decade of unsuccessful anti-opium campaigns, adopted drastic prohibitory laws against the opium trade. The emperor dispatched a commissioner, Lin Zexu (1785-1850), to Guangzhou to suppress the illicit opium traffic. Lin seized illegal stocks of opium owned by Chinese dealers and then detained the entire foreign community and confiscated and destroyed some 20,000 chests of illicit British opium. The British retaliated with a punitive expedition, thus initiating the first Anglo-Chinese war, better known as the Opium War (1839-42). Unprepared for war and grossly underestimating the capabilities of the enemy, the Chinese were disastrously defeated, their image of imperial power tarnished beyond repair.

The Treaty of Nanjing (1842), signed on board a British warship by two Manchu imperial commissioners and the British plenipotentiary, was the first of a series of agreements with the Western trading nations later called by the Chinese the "unequal treaties." Under the Treaty of Nanjing, China ceded the island of Hong Kong to the British. The treaty was followed by other incursions, wars, and treaties that granted new concessions and added new privileges for the foreigners.

The Taiping Rebellion, 1851-64

During the mid-19th century, economic tensions, military defeats at Western hands, and anti-Manchu sentiments all combined to produce widespread unrest, especially in the south. South China had been the last area to yield to the Qing conquerors and the first to be exposed to Western influence. It provided a likely setting for the largest uprising in modern Chinese history -- the Taiping Rebellion.

The Taiping rebels were led by Hong Xiuquan (1814-1864), a village teacher and unsuccessful imperial examination candidate, who soon had a following in the thousands. Hong's followers formed a military organization to protect against bandits and recruited troops not only among believers but also from among other armed peasant groups and secret societies. In 1851, Hong and others launched an uprising in Guizhou Province, proclaiming the "Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace" with himself as king.

The Taiping army, although it had captured Nanjing and driven as far north as Tianjin, failed to establish stable base areas. Additionally, British and French forces, who were more willing to deal with the weak Qing administration, came to the assistance of the imperial army. Before the Chinese army succeeded in crushing the revolt, however, 14 years had passed, and well over 30 million people were reported killed.

As the Qing Dynasty weakened, foreign encroachments continued to threaten the integrity of China. The first step to carve up the empire was taken by Russia, which had been expanding into Central Asia. By the 1850s, Tsarist troops also had invaded the Heilong Jiang watershed of Manchuria, from which their countrymen had been ejected under the Treaty of Nerchinsk. In 1860, Russian diplomats secured the secession of all of Manchuria north of the Heilong Jiang River and east of the Wusuli Jiang (Ussuri River).

The foreign stranglehold on the vital sectors of the Chinese economy after 1860 was reinforced through a lengthening list of concessions. Foreign settlements in the treaty ports became extraterritorial -- sovereign pockets of territories over which China had no jurisdiction. The safety of these foreign settlements was ensured by the menacing presence of warships and gunboats.

At this time, the foreign powers also took over the peripheral states that had paid tribute and acknowledged Chinese authority. France colonized Cochin China, as southern Vietnam was then called, and by 1864 had established a protectorate over Cambodia. Following a victorious war against China in 1884-85, France also took Annam. Britain gained control over Burma. Russia penetrated into Chinese Turkestan (the modern-day Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region). Japan, having emerged from its century-and-a-half-long seclusion and having gone through its own modernization movement, defeated China in the war of 1894-95. The Treaty of Shimonoseki forced China to cede Taiwan and the Penghu Islands to Japan, pay a huge indemnity, and recognize Japanese hegemony over Korea. In 1898, the British acquired a 99- year lease over the so-called New Territories of Kowloon, which increased the size of their Hong Kong colony.

Britain, Japan, Russia, Germany, France and Belgium each gained spheres of influence in China. The United States, which had not acquired any territorial cessions, proposed in 1899 that there be an "open door" policy in China, whereby all foreign countries would have equal duties and privileges in all treaty ports within and outside the various spheres of influence. All but Russia agreed.

The Hundred Days' Reform and Its Aftermath

In the 103 days from June 11 to September 21, 1898, the Qing emperor Guangxu (1875-1908) ordered a series of reforms aimed at making sweeping social and institutional changes. Influenced by Japan's success with modernization, the reformers declared that China needed more than "self-strengthening" and that innovation must be accompanied by institutional and ideological change.

The imperial edicts for reform covered a broad range of subjects, including stamping out corruption and remaking the academic and civil-service examination systems, legal system, governmental structure, defense establishment, and postal services. The edicts attempted to modernize agriculture, medicine, and mining and to promote practical studies instead of Neo- Confucian orthodoxy. The court also planned to send students abroad for first-hand observation and technical studies. All these changes were to be brought about under a de facto constitutional monarchy.

Opposition to the reform was intense among the conservative ruling elite, especially the Manchus, who, in condemning the announced reform as too radical, proposed instead a more moderate and gradualist course of change. Supported by ultraconservatives and with the tacit support of the political opportunist Yuan Shikai (1859-1916), Empress Dowager Ci Xi engineered a coup d'etat on September 21, 1898, forcing the young reform-minded Guangxu into seclusion, and she took over the government as regent. The Hundred Days' Reform ended with the rescindment of the new edicts and the execution of six of the reform's chief advocates.

The conservatives then gave clandestine backing to an anti-foreign and anti-Christian movement of secret societies called Yihetuan or Society of Righteousness and Harmony -- a movement better known in the West as the Boxers. In 1900, Boxer bands spread over the north China countryside, burning missionary facilities and killing Chinese Christians. Finally, in June 1900, the Boxers besieged the foreign concessions in Beijing and Tianjin, an action that provoked an allied relief expedition by the offended nations. The Qing declared war against the invaders, who easily crushed their opposition and occupied north China. Under the Protocol of 1901, the court was made to consent to the execution of ten high officials and the punishment of hundreds of others, expansion of the Legation Quarter, payment of war reparations, stationing of foreign troops in China, and razing of some Chinese fortifications.

In the decade that followed, the imperial court belatedly put into effect some reforms. These included educational and military modernization patterned after the model of Japan, and an experiment, if half-hearted, in constitutional and parliamentary government. One effect, to be felt for decades to come, was the establishment of new armies, which, in turn, gave rise to the return of warlords.

The Republican Revolution of 1911

Failure of reform and the fiasco of the Boxer Uprising convinced many Chinese that the only real solution lay in outright revolution, in sweeping away the old order and erecting a new one patterned preferably after the example of Japan. The leader of this revolution was Sun Yat- sen (1866-1925), a republican and anti-Qing activist who became increasingly popular among the overseas Chinese and Chinese students abroad, especially in Japan. In 1905 Sun founded the Tongmeng Hui (or United League) in Tokyo

This movement, generously supported by overseas Chinese funds, also gained political support with regional military officers and some of the reformers who had fled China after the Hundred Days' Reform. Sun's political philosophy centered on the Three Principles of the People: "Nationalism, democracy, and people's livelihood." The principle of nationalism called for overthrowing the Manchus and ending foreign hegemony over China. The second principle, democracy, was used to describe Sun's goal of a popularly elected republican form of government. People's livelihood, often referred to as socialism, was aimed at helping the common people through regulation of the ownership of the means of production and land.

The republican revolution broke out on October 10, 1911, in Wuchang among discontented modernized army units whose anti-Qing plot had been uncovered. The revolt quickly spread to neighboring cities, and Tongmeng Hui members throughout the country rose in immediate support of the Wuchang revolutionary forces. By late November, 15 of the 24 provinces had declared their independence of the Qing empire. On January 1, 1912,, Sun Yat- sen, having returned to China from the United States where he had been raising funds, was inaugurated in Nanjing as the provisional president of the new Chinese republic.

But power in Beijing already had passed to the commander-in-chief of the imperial army, Yuan Shikai, the strongest regional military leader at the time. To prevent civil war and possible foreign intervention, Sun agreed to Yuan's demand that China be united under a Beijing government headed by Yuan. On February 12, 1912, the last Manchu emperor, the child Puyi, abdicated and on March 10, in Beijing, Yuan Shikai was sworn in as provisional president of the Republic of China.

But by the end of 1915, there were widespread rebellions, and numerous provinces declared independence. With opposition at every quarter and the nation breaking up into warlord factions, Yuan Shikai died of natural causes in June 1916, deserted by his lieutenants.

Nationalism and Communism

After Yuan Shikai's death, shifting alliances of regional warlords fought for control while China also was threatened by the Japanese. When World War I broke out in 1914, Japan fought on the Allied side and seized German holdings in Shandong and later took authority over southern Manchuria and eastern Inner Mongolia. When the Paris peace conference of 1919 afer World War I confirmed the Japanese claim to Shandong and Beijing's sellout became public, internal reaction was shattering. On May 4, 1919, there were massive student demonstrations. The political fervor, student activism, and iconoclastic and reformist intellectual currents set in motion by the patriotic student protest developed into a national awakening known as the May Fourth Movement, which. helped to rekindle the then-fading cause of republican revolution.

In 1917, Sun Yat-sen had become commander-in-chief of a rival military government in Guangzhou in collaboration with southern warlords. In October 1919, Sun reestablished the Guomindang party to counter the government in Beijing. By 1921, with Sun's efforts to obtain aid from the Western democracies ignored, he turned to the Soviet Union, which initiated a dual policy of support for both Sun and the newly established Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Thus the struggle for power in China began between the Nationalists and the Communists.

The CCP was still small at the time, having a membership of only 1,500 by 1925 compared with the Guomindang, which in 1922 already had 150,000 members. In 1924, Chiang Kai-shek, one of Sun's lieutenants from Tongmeng Hui days, became head of the Whampoa Military Academy outside Guangzhou, which was the seat of government under the Guomindang-CCP alliance. This began his rise to prominence that would make him Sun's successor as head of the Guomindang and the unifier of all China under the right-wing nationalist government.

Sun Yat-sen died of cancer in Beijing in March 1925, but the Nationalist movement he had helped to initiate was gaining momentum. During the summer of 1925, Chiang, as commander-in-chief, set out on a long-delayed expedition against the northern warlords. Within nine months, half of China had been conquered.

In early 1927, the Guomindang-CCP rivalry led to a split in the revolutionary ranks and by mid-year the CCP was at a low ebb. By 1928 all of China was at least nominally under Chiang's control, and his Nanjing-centered government received prompt international recognition as the sole legitimate government of China..

The decade of 1928-37 was one of consolidation and accomplishment by the Guomindang. Great strides were made in education but there were forces at work during this period that would eventually undermine the Chiang Kai-shek government. The first was the gradual rise of the Communists. Conflict with Japan, which would continue from the 1930s to the end of World War II, was the other.

Mao Tse-tung, who had become a Marxist at the time of the emergence of the May Fourth Movement (he was working as a librarian at Beijing University), had boundless faith in the revolutionary potential of the peasantry. He advocated that revolution in China focus on them rather than on the urban proletariat, as prescribed by orthodox Marxist-Leninists. Mao turned the local peasants into a politicized guerrilla force. By the winter of 1927-28, the combined "peasants and workers" army had some 10,000 troops with their base in the southeastern province of Kiangsi.

By 1934, however, Chiang's army had surrounded the Red Army base. Faced with annihilation if they remained, on October 16, 1934, 100,000 soldiers of the Red Army forced their way through the Nationalist blockade and began their trek by a circuitous route toward the northwestern province of Shensi (or Shaanxi), some 8,000 miles away.

The Long March is considered one of the great turning points in the history of the Chinese Communist Party. Soldiers and government and party leaders and functionaries numbering about 100,000 (including only 35 women, the spouses of high leaders) set out on a circuitous retreat in a gigantic arc heading west, then north and finally northeast to their destination in Yan'an, northwest of Beijing. They walked for nearly an entire year, averaging between 17 and 26 miles a day. During the course of their journey, soldiers of the Red Army crossed 24 rivers, 11 provinces, and 18 mountain ranges, some at an altitude of 16,000 feet or more. Seven out of every 10 who started did not make it. The March itself became legendary, and its survivors were given credit for having accomplished one of the greatest human feats in the entire Chinese Communist Revolution

The Long March is also extremely significant in that during its course, Mao Tse-tung was officially given leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, an event that would solidify the party and greatly shape its future development; during the next 10 years, the movement would grow rapidly.


Few Chinese had any illusions about Japanese designs on China. Hungry for raw materials and pressed by a growing population, Japan seized Manchuria in September 1931 and established ex-Qing emperor Puyi as head of the puppet regime of Manchukuo 1n 1932,.the Japanese began to push from south of the Great Wall. Chinese fury against Japan was predictable, but anger was also directed against the Guomindang government, which seemed more preoccupied with anti-Communist campaigns than with resisting the Japanese invaders.

The Chinese resistance stiffened after July 7, 1937, when a clash occurred between Chinese and Japanese troops outside Beijing (then renamed Beiping) near the Marco Polo Bridge. This skirmish not only marked the beginning of open, though undeclared, war between China and Japan but also hastened the formal announcement of the second Guomindang-CCP united front against Japan. However, this uneasy alliance soon began to break down and after 1940, conflicts between the Nationalists and Communists became more frequent in the areas not under Japanese control.

Mao was able to adapt Marxism-Leninism to Chinese conditions, teaching party cadres to lead the masses by living and working with them, eating their food, and thinking their thoughts. With skillful organizational and propaganda work, the Communists increased party membership from 100,000 in 1937 to 1.2 million by 1945.

In 1945, China emerged from World War II as nominally a great military power but actually a nation economically prostrate and on the verge of all-out civil war. The situation was further complicated by an Allied agreement at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 that brought Soviet troops into Manchuria against Japan. This let the Communists later move and arm themselves with the equipment surrendered by the withdrawing Japanese army.

At this point, the Communists were well established in the north and northeast and although the Nationalists had an advantage in numbers of men and weapons, they were exhausted by the long war with Japan and attendant internal responsibilities. In January 1949, Beiping was taken by the Communists without a fight, and its name changed back to Beijing. Between April and November, many major cities passed from Guomindang to Communist control with minimal resistance. In most cases, the surrounding countryside and small towns had come under Communist influence long before the cities. After Chiang Kai-shek and a few hundred thousand Nationalist troops fled from the mainland to the island of Taiwan in December 1949, there remained only isolated pockets of resistance. This left the Communists in control of mainland China and the Nationalists ruling Taiwan, a situation that still exists today.


China Timeline:

Early China: 5000-221 B.C.
  • 5000-2700 B.C. - Yangshao culture
  • 3500-2000 B.C. - Longsham culture
  • 2005-1500 B.C. - Xia Dynasty
  • 1700-1027 B.C. - Shang Dynasty
  • 1027-771 B.C. - Western Zhou Dynasty
  • 770-221 B.C. - Eastern Zhou Dynasty
    • 770-476 B.C. - Spring and Autumn period
    • 475-221 B.C. - Warring States period
Early Imperial China: 221 B.C.-A.D. 316
  • 221-207 B.C. - Qin Dynasty
  • 206 B.C.- A.D. 9 - Western Han Dynasty
  • A.D. 25-220 - Eastern Han Dynasty
  • 220-265 A.D.: Three Kingdoms period
    • 220-265 A.D. - Wei
    • 221-263 A.D. - Shu
    • 229-280 A.D. - Wu
  • 265-316 A.D. - Western Jin Dynasty
  • 317-420 A.D. - Eastern Jin Dynasty
  • 420-588 A.D. - Southern and Northern Dynasties
    • Southern Dynasties:
      • 420-478 A.D. - Song
      • 479-501 A.D. - Qi
      • 502-556 A.D. - Liang
      • 557-588 A.D. - Chen
    • Northern Dynasties:
      • 386-533 A.D. - Northern Wei
      • 534-549 A.D. - Eastern Wei
      • 535-557 A.D. - Western Wei
      • 550-577 A.D. - Northern Qi
      • 557-588 A.D. - Northern Zhou
Classical Imperial China
  • 581-618 A.D. - Sui Dynasty
  • 618-907 A.D. - T'ang Dynasty
  • 907-960 A.D. - Five Dynasties (collapse of central government )
    • 907-923 A.D. - Later Liang Dynasty
    • 923-936 A.D. - Later Tang Dynasty
    • 936-946 A.D. - Later Jin Dynasty
    • 947-950 A.D. - Later Han Dynasty
    • 951-960 A.D.- Later Zhou Dynasty
  • 960-1126 A.D. - Northern Song Dynasty
  • 1127-1279 A.D. - Southern Song Dynasty
Later Imperial China
  • 1280-1367 A.D. - Yuan Dynasty
  • 1368-1644 A.D. - Ming Dynasty
  • 1644-1911 A.D. - Qing (Manchu) Dynasty
Post-Imperial China: 1911 A.D.-Present
  • 1911-1949 A.D. - Republic of China
  • 1949 A.D.-Present - The People's Republic of China (mainland China)
  • 1949 A.D.-Present - Republic of China (Taiwan)


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