Brief History of China
Part 1 : The Imperial Period
With an emphasis on the recent, there are three
main periods: imperial, republic and peoples republic.
There is archaeological evidence of
'Lantian Man', an upright walking hominid and the more
advanced 'Peking Man' dating back 600,000 years.
China's recorded history dates back
more than 5,000 years.
China's imperial history is one of the
cyclical rise and fall of dynasties interspersed with
periods of warring states and, in the last century, of
revolution, reform and modernization.
The legendary Xia was
possibly China's first
dynasty, though its existence has
yet to be confirmed by concrete historical documentation.
The Shang and Zhou dynasties succeeded the Xia. Together
these 3 dynasties make up the 'Three Dynasties' era
The Shang dynasty (1700
- 1200 BC)
China's first verifiable dynasty. Shang
events were first documented during the Han dynasty and
have been verified by subsequent findings. Bronze
technology and written language developed. The belief in
ancestor worship dates from this period.
The Zhou dynasty (1200
- 256 BC)
Introduced one of the most enduring
imperial period concepts: the 'Mandate of Heaven' - that heaven grants authority to strong and
wise rulers and repeals the mandate from rulers who fail.
The loss of the mandate is believed to be heralded by
natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, famine or
The waning years of the Zhou dynasty -
from 600BC - and those following its collapse in 256BC,
are known as the 'Spring and Autumn' period, or the 'Warring States' period. Though a time of violence, it was also
one of innovation and change. The era witnessed
discoveries in iron smelting, medicine and an increase in
trade and diplomacy.
Intellectually this was a vital time.
Traditional beliefs began to give way in favor of new
ideas based on the writings of Confucius,
a scholar who codified relationships between ruler and
ruled, a central cultural ethic of China and many other
asian countries up to the present.
The Qin dynasty
The first dynasty to unify China. Qin Shi Huang is regarded as China's first emperor. He ruled ruthlessly and even destroyed ancient
practices or literature not corresponding to his ideas.
Although the Qin dynasty lasted only 15
years, its impact on Chinese culture was great. The feudal system was introduced which became a central feature
of imperial China. Weights and measures, currency and the
written language were all standardized, setting the stage
for lasting economic cohesion.
Huge infrastructure projects were
completed, including a road system and an early version
of the Great Wall. One of the most impressive artefacts from the
Qin period is the Terracotta
Army guarding Qin Shi Huang's tomb
China's first great imperial dynasty.
Its founder, Liu Bang, later called Han GaoZu,
introduced Confucianism as a political ideology and the
central governing principle of Han rule. This ideology,
which stressed a harmonious relationship between ruler
and subject, remained dominant in the following
Under Han rule, China expanded
territorially, economically, intellectually and
culturally. The Silk
Road was opened to allow trade in
tea, spices and silk with India, west asia and Rome. The
southern provinces were subdued and brought under Han
control and Buddhism, which became one of the dominant religions in
China, was introduced from India.
The Han dynasty had such an impact on
the national character that to this day the majority of
Chinese still call themselves "Han Chinese".
Following the collapse of the Han
dynasty in 220, China entered a period of disunity.
However, the idea of a unified China was never forgotten.
Though violent and chaotic, the era witnessed the rise of
Buddhism and a thriving system of trade.
Tang dynasty (618-907)
Chinese culture reached a new peak. It
was a time of new ideas in literature, music, art and
agriculture. Tang China encouraged trade and played host
to traders, travelers - and the ideas and religions they
brought. Islam was introduced, though Buddhism remained the
most influential foreign belief.
China's influence on her neighbors
increased. Tang China expanded into Tibet and
both Japan and Korea adopted the Chinese language (though
later developed independently) and Buddhist religion.
Politically, Wu ZeTian,
China's only empress, abolished a civil service based on
birth and created one of China's most enduring
institutions: a civil service based on merit.
Northern and Southern
Song dynasties (907 - 1276)
With the fall of the Tang, power once
again shifted to the provinces. Five separate dynasties
rose and fell in the years 907-960. Between 960-1127, the
Northern Song dynasty, founded by Song Tai Zu, held sway.
In 1127 the Northern Song was pushed
south by invaders from the north. The Southern Song
dynasty (1127-1276) prospered south of the YangZi River
inventing, among other things, gunpowder, fine porcelain
and moveable type print.
Was instigated by a Mongol
conquest of China that led to the collapse of the
Southern Song. The Mongol invaders established Kublai Khan,
grandson of Genghis
Khan, as its first emperor.
The empire ruled by Kublai Khan was the
largest the world has ever seen, stretching from the
Pacific to the Adriatic.
Yuan China was open to foreign
influence, missionaries and travelers. In Kublai's court
a cosmopolitan array of foreigners served active duty. Marco Polo
spent several years in Kublai's service, and related his
experiences in 'The Travels of Marco Polo'.
The Mongol capital was situated in
present day Beijing and construction of the Forbidden City began in this period.
By the early 14th century, however, the
Yuan dynasty began to lose its grip on China. Rebellion
by northern tribes dissatisfied with Mongol rule,
followed by famine and floods in the south, prompted the
Turban Society to launch a
rebellion, which helped pave the way for the fall of the
Yuan in 1368.
Zhu YuanZhang (later named Hong Wu), a
former rebel leader of the Red Turban Society founded the
Ming dynasty. Hong Wu was an extreme despot - he purged
his civil servant corps and literati twice, killing
thousands. Under Ming rule, state power was consolidated
with the creation of an autocratic government.
After the opening of China's doors to
foreign influence during the Yuan dynasty, Ming China
closed them tightly. Emperor Wu, claiming that
nothing from the "barbarian" outside world was
needed in China, instituted an isolationist policy. Most trade and diplomatic relations
were halted. The Great Wall's construction was completed
to stem invasion from the north. It is a lasting icon of
this isolationist policy.
China had been a great seafaring
nation. However, after 1424 seafaring expeditions were
forbidden and European countries rose uncontested as the
great seafaring nations of the age. However, Ming China
did expand the empire's control - parts of Turkestan,
Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam and Myanmar were brought under
Because of the isolationist policy, the
vitalizing benefits of trade were virtually totally lost
and Chinese culture turned inward.
Culturally the Ming period is famous
for its artistic accomplishments, especially the blue and
white glazed porcelain vases - which were, and still are,
highly valued both in China and abroad.
Corruption, court intrigues and inept
emperors led to peasant uprisings. Then, a Manchu
invasion from the north, unhindered by the Great Wall,
brought the fall of the Ming in 1644.
China's last dynasty. The Manchu
rulers immediately suppressed the peasant rebellions that
had rocked the Ming - but it took them 20 years to
consolidate their power.
The early Qing period saw an increase
in agricultural production, the construction of massive
flood control and other public works projects, and a
flourishing of the arts and scholarship.
Much of the Qing period was one of
wealth and expansion. China expanded to its greatest size
ever, incorporating Inner and Outer Mongolia and
Turkestan. Qing emperor QianLong (1736-1796),
regarded as one of China's greatest rulers, presided over
a period of wealth and expansion during which China
reached the apex of its power.
However, China's prosperity was not to
last. Increased population, food and land shortages,
official corruption and expensive military campaigns
threatened Qing prosperity and authority. Increased
contact with the militarily superior west in the later
half of the 19th century further hastened the fall of the
Qing in 1911.
Western nations had been trading with
China for centuries, despite the closed-door policy.
Under the Qing, trade was restricted to GuangZhou
(Canton). This system of trade, known as the Canton System, was regulated to the extreme. Despite the
regulations, western nations, Britain in particular,
flocked to China.
By 1760, Britain's East India Company
had joined the traders in GuangZhou in search of tea,
silks and porcelain. Britain's thirst for tea created a
balance of trade vastly favoring China. China was a
willing exporter, but disdained western goods. Silver
flowed into China and remained there.
In 1793, Britain tried in vain to
establish a trade treaty with China. However, her
overtures to the Qing court were rebuffed. Britain's
traders took the matter into their own hands and began a
clandestine trade in opium to counteract the
Opium, by no means unknown in China,
had previously been a drug only for the very wealthy.
Cheap opium, imported from India, had, by 1820, created a
vast number of addicts. As the numbers rose, China's
trade surplus became a deficit.
In 1836, the emperor strictly
prohibited trade in Opium. Dealers and users were to be
harshly punished. However, his order went unheeded. In
1840, in another attempt to stem the trade, chests of
opium were seized and burned in Canton (GuangZhou). This
action served as the impetus for Britain to start the First Opium War, in which China's markets were forcibly opened.
The term Gunboat Diplomacy stems from the gunboats used
by the British.
After 2 years of fighting, the Treaty of NanJing (1842) ended the First Opium War. China was no
longer allowed to isolate herself from trade and
diplomacy with the west. The treaty stipulated five
Treaty Ports to be opened to trade, provided for the 99
year lease of Hong
Kong to the British crown, and
ensured the humiliating practice of extraterritoriality.
Extraterritorialty stipulated that
foreigners in China were to be subject only to the laws
of their homeland, not to the laws of China. The unfair
treaty system remained in force until 1943.
The Qing's humiliating defeat at the
hands of foreigners in the Opium War heralded the
collapse of the dynasty. Its defeat, compounded by
floods, famine and government corruption irrevocably
weakened its mandate to rule.
By 1850, China was in chaos, engulfed
by internal rebellions. A Chinese Christian evangelist, Hong XiuQuan, led the notorious TaiPing Rebellion, the largest of the
rebellions. He preached Christianity, radical economic
and political reforms, and anti-foreign rhetoric. His
call to arms in 1850 was taken-up by 20,000 chinese angry
at Qing rule.
The TaiPing Army swept though the
YangZi basin swelling in numbers along the way. The
rebellion was only suppressed with the help of the
European powers, who took action for fear of a China
controlled by Hong's anti-foreign government.
Following the suppression of the
TaiPing Rebellion, the Qing government made a
half-hearted but futile attempt to regain control and
institute reform. Ci
Xi, the Empress Dowager and
dominant political figure in the Qing court, exemplified
the court's lack of commitment to reform. The Summer
Palace, including the beautiful, though useless, marble
boat, was built at this time under Ci Xi's orders using
misappropriated navy funds.
In the waning years of the 19th century
China was plunged deeper into chaos. The Qing dynasty was
further weakened, and its military ineptitude laid bare,
when China suffered another humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese war. As demands from foreigners for trading,
economic and political concessions mounted, so too did
anti-foreign sentiment in China. Peasants began to form
secret anti-foreign societies.
The Boxers were one such
society. They adhered to a mystical faith that included
spells and rituals, which, they claimed, made them
invincible to the foreigners' bullets. The Boxer's
anti-foreign stance won them the semi-official support of
the Qing court which gave its blessing to the Boxer Uprising (1900) in which hundreds of foreigners were
An international army defeated the
Boxers and Ci Xi fled Beijing. Though the dynasty held on
for another 10 years, the Boxer uprising signals the
effective end of all but nominal Qing control.
After the Boxer rebellion, the Qing
government made one last ditch attempt to reform and
regain its mandate to rule. However, it had fallen from
grace. As power devolved to provincial rulers, rebellion
and uprisings became the norm.
In 1911, a popular uprising, led by the
Tong Meng Hui (that later became the KuoMinTang), Sun YatSen's
revolutionary society, finally toppled the Qing, thus
ending 2,000 years of imperial rule.
Next : Republic