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Ancient China

From Academic Kids

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China is one of the world's oldest continuous major civilizations, with written records dating back at least 3,500 years, and with 5,000 years being commonly used by Chinese as the age of their civilization. Successive dynasties developed systems of bureaucratic control, which gave the agrarian-based Chinese an advantage over neighboring nomadic and mountain-dwelling cultures. The development of a state ideology based on Confucianism (100 BC) and the forced imposition of a common system of writing by the Qin emperor (200 BC) strengthened the Chinese civilization. Politically, China alternated between periods of political union and disunion, and was occasionally conquered by external ethnicities, of which many were eventually assimilated into the Chinese identity. These cultural and political influences from many parts of Asia as well as successive waves of immigration and emigration merged to create the familiar image of Chinese culture and people today.


Contents

Prehistoric times

China was inhabited more than a million years ago by Homo erectus. The excavations at Yuanmou and later Lantian show early habitation; however, any connection between these people and modern Chinese is speculative. The Homo sapiens or modern human might have reached China about 65,000 years ago from Africa. Early evidence for proto-Chinese rice paddy agriculture is carbon-dated to about 6000 BC, and associated with the Peiligang culture of Xinzheng county, Henan. With agriculture came increased population, the ability to store and redistribute crops, and to support specialist craftsmen and administrators: in short, civilization as we know it. In late Neolithic times, the Huang He valley began to establish itself as a cultural center, where the first villages were founded; the most archaeologically significant of those was found at Banpo, Xi'an.

History of China
series
The Three August Ones and the Five Emperors
Xia Dynasty
Shang Dynasty
Zhou Dynasty
Spring and Autumn Period
Warring States Period
Qin Dynasty
Western Han Dynasty
Xin Dynasty
Eastern Han Dynasty
Three Kingdoms
Jin Dynasty
Sixteen Kingdoms
Southern and Northern Dynasties
Sui Dynasty
Tang Dynasty
Zhou Dynasty (AD 690)
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period
Song Dynasty
Liao Dynasty
Western Xia
Jin Empire
Yuan Dynasty
Ming Dynasty
Qing Dynasty
Republic of China
People's Republic of China (1, 2, 3, 4)
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Into the Bronze Age

Archaeological sites such as Sanxingdui and Erlitou show evidence of a Bronze Age Civilization in China.

Ancient history

The earliest written record of China's past, dates from the Shang Dynasty in perhaps the 13th century BC and takes the form of inscriptions of divination records on the bones or shells of animals—so-called oracle bones. However the earliest comprehensive history of China, the Historical Records written by Sima Qian, a renowned Chinese historiographer of the 2nd century BC, begins perhaps 1300 years earlier with an account of the Five Emperors (三皇五帝). These rulers were legendary sage-kings and moral examplars, and one of them, the Yellow Emperor, is sometimes said to be the ancestor of all Chinese people. Following this period Sima Qian relates that a system of inherited rulership was established during the Xia Dynasty, and that this model was perpetuated in the successor Shang and Zhou dynasties. It is during this period of the Three Dynasties (Chinese: 三代; pinyin: sāndài) that the historical China begins to appear.

Ming Tombs. Image provided by Classroom Clipart (http://classroomclipart.com)
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Ming Tombs. Image provided by Classroom Clipart (http://classroomclipart.com)

Xia Dynasty

Sima Qian's account dates the founding of the Xia Dynasty (夏朝) to some 4,000 years ago, but this date has not yet been corroborated. Some archaeologists connect the Xia to excavations at Erlitou in central Henan province, where a bronze smelter from around 2000 BC was unearthed. Early markings from this period, found on pottery and shells, have been alleged to be ancestors of modern Chinese characters, but such claims are unsupported. With no clear written records to match the Shang oracle bones or the Zhou bronze vessel writings, the Xia remains poorly understood.

Shang Dynasty

Archaeological findings provide evidence for the existence of the Shang Dynasty (商朝), c 16001046 BC, and the archaeological evidence is divided into two sets. The first, from the earlier Shang period (c 1600–1300) comes from sources at Erligang, Zhengzhou and Shangcheng. The second set, from the later Shang or Yin period, consists of a large body of oracle bone writings. Anyang in modern day Henan has been confirmed as the last of the six capitals of the Shang (c 1300–1046 BC).

Chinese historians living in later periods were accustomed to the notion of one dynasty succeeding another, but the actual political situation in early China is known to have been much more complicated. Hence, as some scholars of China suggest, the Xia and the Shang can possibly refer to political entities that existed at the same time, just as the early Zhou (successor state of the Shang), is known to have existed at the same time as the Shang.

Zhou Dynasty

By the end of the 2nd millennium BC, the Zhou Dynasty (周朝) began to emerge in the Huanghe valley, overrunning the Shang. The Zhou appeared to have begun their rule under a semi-feudal system. Nevertheless, power became decentralized during the Spring and Autumn Period when regional feudal lords began to assert their power, absorb smaller powers, and vie for hegemony. The Hundred Schools of Thought of Chinese philosophy blossomed during this period and such influential intellectual movements as Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism and Mohism were founded. After further political consolidation, seven prominent states remained by the end of 5th century BC, and the years in which these few states battled each other is known as the Warring States period. Though there remained a nominal Zhou king until 256 BC, he was largely a figurehead and held little real power.

Meanwhile, neighboring territories of these warring states were gradually annexed, including areas of modern Sichuan and Liaoning, and governed under the new local administrative system of commandery and prefecture (郡縣), which had been in use since the Spring and Autumn Period and was very loosely a primitive prototype of the modern system of Sheng & Xian (province and county). The final expansion in this period began during the reign of Ying Zheng, the king of Qin. His unification of the other six powers, and further annexations in the modern regions of Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong and Guangxi in 214 BC enabled him to proclaim himself the First Emperor (Shi Huangdi), forming the first Chinese empire under the Qin Dynasty. This is the background of the Jet Li movie Hero

Qin Dynasty: The first Chinese Empire

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The Qin empire in 210 BC.

Though the unified reign of the Qin (秦) Emperor lasted only twelve years, he managed to subdue great parts of what constitutes the core of the Han Chinese homeland and to unite them under a tightly centralized Legalist government seated at Xianyang (in modern Xi'an). His sons, however, were not as successful; as soon as the Qin reign ended, the Qin imperial structure collapsed. The Qin Dynasty is well known for building the Great Wall of China, which would later be augmented and enhanced during the Ming Dynasty.

The English word 'China' was derived from the porcelain or ceramic ware originally made in China. The phonetic derivative was most probably introduced into the English language from Persian or Sanskrit origins for "Chinese People" which ultimately was derived from 秦 qín and pronounced similarly to "chin".

Han Dynasty: A period of prosperity

The Han Dynasty (漢朝) emerged in 202 BC; it was the first dynasty to embrace Confucianism, which became the ideological underpinning of all regimes until the end of imperial China. Under the Han Dynasty, the Chinese civilization made great advances in historiography, arts and science. Emperor Wu of Han China (Han Wudi) consolidated and extended the Chinese empire by pushing back the Xiongnu (sometimes identified with the Huns) into the steppes of modern Inner Mongolia and wrested the modern areas of Gansu, Ningxia and Qinghai from the Xiongnu; this enabled the first opening of trading connections between China and the occident: the Silk Road.

Nevertheless land acquisitions by elite families had gradually drained the tax base. In AD 9 the usurper Wang Mang founded the short-lived Xin Dynasty and started an extensive program of land reform and innovative monetary and economic reforms. These programs, however, were never supported by land-holding families; and, though they favored the peasant and lesser gentry, the instability they produced brought on chaos and uprisings. Emperor Guangwu of Han China reinstated the Han Dynasty with the support of land-holding and merchant families at Luoyang, east of Xi'an; hence the new era is termed the Eastern Han Dynasty (東漢朝). Han power declined again in the midst of land acquisitions, invasions and struggles of consort clans and eunuchs. The Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out in 184, ushering in an era of warlords. In the ensuing turmoil, three states tried to gain predominance in the Period of the Three Kingdoms (三国), a time that has since been greatly romanticized in works such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Jin, Sixteen Kingdoms, and the Northern and Southern Dynasties: The Chinese dark ages

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Though these three kingdoms were reunited temporarily in 280 by the (Western) Jin Dynasty (晉朝), the contemporary non-Han Chinese (Wu Hu) ethnic groups ravaged the country in the early 4th century and provoked large-scale Han Chinese migrations to south of the Yangtze River. In 303 the Di people rebelled and later captured Chengdu. Under Liu Yuan the Xiongnu rebelled near today's Linfen County; his successor Liu Cong captured and executed the last two Western Jin emperors. More than Sixteen states were established by these ethnic groups. The chaotic north was temporarily unified by Fu Jian who was defeated at the Battle of Feishui when he attempted to invade South China. Later on, Emperor Taiwu of Northern Wei reunified north China again, marking the beginning of the Northern Dynasties, a sequence of local regimes ruling over regions north of Yangtze.

Along with the refugees from the North, Emperor Yuan of Jin China reinstated the Jin regime at Nanjing in the south; from this came the sequence of Southern dynasties of Song, Qi, Liang and Chen, which all had their capitals at Jiankang (near today's Nanjing). As China was ruled by two independent dynasties, one in the south and the other in the north, this is called the era of Southern and Northern Dynasties (南北朝).


Sui Dynasty: Reunification

The Sui Dynasty (隋朝) managed to reunite the country in 589 after almost 300 years of disjunction.

The unification is the second shortest dynasty in the history of China after Qin Dynasty, and during this time, millions laboured on the Grand Canal of China, still the longest canal in the world to date.

Personalities

The 1st Sui Emperor was recorded to be extremely frugal in nature. Having been told by a fortune teller in his youth, that he would ascend the Imperial Throne if he stayed away from excesses and corruptions of power, the 1st Sui Emperor sought to project the image of benevolence in his rule. He cut down on court expenses, and helped revitalize the war torn economy of China.

A fable said, that during a famine, to inspire his ministers to be more considerate of the people, he invited them all to dinner and brought out a simple farmer family's meal, and publicly issued blame for himself as incompetent for not being able to improve the lives of the people.

Under his leadership, many of his ministers strived to take care of the people with compassion and mercy, and China recovered some what.

Another fable said, a local prison official was to escort a group of 11 condemned criminals to the capital to be put to death. The official said to the 11 criminals, "You are all condemned men, and by law, you deserve to die, for that is your punishment. But there is famine, and I will not force innocent farmers to take this long journey to escort you to the Capital. So, I will ask you to go by yourselves to the Capital without any escort. And if you do not arrive at the agreed upon time, I will die in your place."

With that, he set the 11 men free. Amazingly, all 11 men reported themselves to the Capital.

Upon hearing this, the 1st Sui Emperor was very pleased by the official's compassion. Immediately, he gave an imperial banquet to the 11 condemned men and their families, and pardoned them. And he promoted the prison official.

The 2nd Sui Emperor was the exactly opposite of his father, excessive and brutal in his spending and power. In order to secure his position as heir apparent, he hid his excesses from his father. He had many concubines, but kept them locked away in back rooms, so his father would not see them. He only kept the most old and ugly servants, and old furnitures around in the main house, so as to put up an appearance of piety and frugality.

Once he became the Emperor, he mounted spending on the Imperial Household, building new palaces and obtaining exotic displays of his wealth, while levying heavy taxes upon the people. Under his rule, famines ran rampant across the countryside, and he refused to do anything to help. In some provinces, people were reduced to eating tree barks and some even resorted to cannibalism. Yet, he was still obsessed with his public image as a ruler.

When a foreign diplomat was to visit the Capital, he had all the trees decorated with colorful silk, prompting the diplomat to ask, "How is it that your majesty have clothing for trees, when the people have no food?" Eventually, his oppressive rule broke apart, as rebellions flared across China.


Tang Dynasty: Return to prosperity

On June 18, 618, Gaozu took the throne, and the Tang Dynasty (唐朝) was established, opening a new age of prosperity and innovations in arts and technology. Buddhism, which had gradually been established in China from the first century, became the predominant religion and was adopted by the royal family and many of the common people.

Chang'an (modern Xi'an), the national capital, is thought to have been the world's biggest city at the time. The Tang and Han are often referred to as the most prosperous periods of Chinese history.

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Image provided by Classroom Clipart (http://classroomclipart.com)

The Tang, like the Han, kept the trade routes open to the west and south and there was extensive trade with distant foreign countries and many foreign merchants settled in China.

From about 860 the Tang Dynasty began to decline due to a series of rebellions within China itself, and in the previously subject Kingdom of Nanzhao to the south. One of the warlords, Huang Chao, captured Canton in 879, killing most of the 200,000 inhabitants including most of the large colony of foreign merchant families there. In late 880 Luoyang surrendered to him and on 5 January, 881 he conquered Changan. The emperor Xizong fled to Chengdu and Huang established a new dynasty. Another time of political chaos followed: the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period.


Song Dynasty and its northern neighbors, the Liao and the Jin

In 960, the Song Dynasty (960-1279) (宋朝) gained power over most of China and established its capital in Kaifeng, establishing a period of economic prosperity, while the Khitan Liao Dynasty (辽朝) ruled over Manchuria and eastern Mongolia. In 1115 the Jurchen Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) (金朝) emerged to prominence, annihilating the Liao Dynasty in 10 years. It also took power over northern China and Kaifeng from the Song Dynasty, which moved its capital to Hangzhou. The Southern Song Dynasty also suffered the humiliation of having to acknowledge the Jin Dynasty as formal overlords. In the ensuing years China was divided between the Song Dynasty, the Jin Dynasty, and the Tangut Western Xia. Southern Song was a period of great technological development which can be explained in part by the military pressure that it felt from the north.


Mongols and the Yuan Dynasty

(元朝) The Jin Dynasty was defeated by the Mongols, who then proceeded to defeat the Southern Song in a long and bloody war — the first war ever in which firearms played an important role. Some estimate that about half of the population, i.e. 50 million Han Chinese people may have perished in total as a result of the Mongol's invasion and conquest. During the era after the war, called the Pax Mongolica, adventurous Westerners, like Marco Polo, travelled all the way to China and brought the first reports of its wonders to their unbelieving compatriots. In China, the Mongols were divided between those who wanted to remain focused on the steppes and those who wanted to adopt the customs of those they conquered.

Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, wanting to adopt Han Chinese customs, established the Yuan Dynasty. This was the first dynasty to rule the whole of China with Beijing as the capital. Beijing had been ceded to Liao in AD 938 with the 16 Prefectures of Yan Yun (燕雲十六州); before that, it had been the capital of the Jin, who did not rule all of China.

Ming Dynasty: Revival of Chinese culture

Among the populace, however, there were strong feelings against the rule of the "foreigner" (known as Dázi 韃子), which finally led to peasant revolts; Mongolian rule was pushed back to the steppes and replaced by the Ming Dynasty (明朝) in 1368. Ming means bright in Chinese, and the period was important especially in the arts. This dynasty started out as a time of renewed cultural blossoming: Arts, especially the porcelain industry, reached an unprecedented height; Chinese merchants explored all of the Indian Ocean, reaching East Africa with the voyages of Zheng He (original name Ma Sanbao 馬三保). A vast navy was built, including four-masted ships displacing 1,500 tons; there was a standing army of 1 million troops (some estimate as many as 1.9 million). Over 100,000 tons of iron per year were produced. Many books were printed using movable type. The imperial palace in Beijing's Forbidden City reached its current splendor largely through the efforts of Ming architects. This was a stable period and the population numbered some 100 million. The Ming period seems to have been one of China's most prosperous. Some would argue that Ming was the most advanced nation on Earth.

It was also during these centuries that the great potential of south China came to be fully exploited. New crops such as maize, cotton, and sweet potato were widely cultivated, and industries such as those producing porcelain and textiles flourished.

Another accomplishment of the Ming was the final and lasting construction of the Great Wall. While the Great Wall had been built in earlier times, most of what is seen today was either built or repaired by the Ming. The brick and granite work was enlarged, the watch towers were redesigned and cannons were placed along its length.

Zhu Yuanzhang, (Hongwu Emperor of China or Hong-wu) the founder of the dynasty, laid the foundations for a state little interested in commerce and more interested in extracting revenues from the agricultural sector. Perhaps because of the Emperor's background as a peasant, the Ming economic system emphasized agriculture, unlike that of Song, which had preceded the Mongolian and relied on traders and merchants for revenues. Neo-feudal land holdings of Song and Mongol period were expropriated with the establishment of the Ming. Great landed estates were confiscated by the government, fragmented, and rented out; and private slavery was forbidden. Consequently, after the death of Yongle Emperor of China, independent peasant landholders predominated in Chinese agriculture. These laws might have paved the way to social harmony and removed the worst of the poverty during the previous regimes. The laws against the merchants and the restrictions under which the craftsmen worked, remained essentially as they had been under the Song, but now the remaining foreign merchants before Ming era also fell under these new laws, and their influence quickly dwindled.

The dynasty is best known for its strong and complex central government, which unified and controlled the empire. Ironically, it was this same complexity that later prevented the Ming government from being able to adapt to changes in society and eventually led to its decline.

The emperor's role became more autocratic, although Zhu Yuanzhang necessarily continued to use what he called the Grand Secretaries to assist with the immense paperwork of the bureaucracy, which included memorials (petitions and recommendations to the throne), imperial edicts in reply, reports of various kinds, and tax records.

During the Mongol rule, the population had dropped 40 percent, to an estimated 60 million. Two centuries later it had doubled. Urbanization thus progressed as population grew and as the division of labor grew more intricate. Large urban centers, such as Nanjing and Beijing contributed to the growth of private industry as well. In particular, small-scale industries grew up, often specializing in paper, silk, cotton, and porcelain goods. For the most part, however, relatively small urban centers with markets proliferated around the country rather than growth being concentrated in a few large cities. Town markets mainly traded food with some necessary manufactures such as pins or oil.

Zheng He's exploration

Despite the xenophobia and intellectual introspection characteristic of the increasingly popular new school of neo-Confucianism, China under the early Ming Dynasty was not isolated; foreign trade and other contacts with the outside world, particularly with Japan, increased considerably. Emperor Yongle strenuously tried to extend China's influence beyond her borders by encouraging other rulers to send ambassadors to China to present tribute. The Chinese armies conquered Annam while the Chinese fleet sailed the China seas and the Indian Ocean, cruising as far as the east coast of Africa. The Chinese gained a certain influence over Turkestan. The maritime Asian nations sent envoys with tribute for the Chinese emperor. Domestically, the Grand Canal was expanded to its farthest limits and proved to be a stimulus to domestic trade.

The most extraordinary venture during this stage, however, was the dispatch of Zheng He's seven naval expeditions, which traversed the Indian Ocean and the Southeast Asian archipelago. An ambitious Muslim eunuch of Mongol descent and a quintessential outsider in the establishment of Confucian scholar elites, Zheng He led seven maritime expeditions from 1405 to 1433 with six of them under the auspices of Emperor Yongle, probing down into the South Seas, across the Indian Ocean, and perhaps as far as the Cape of Good Hope. His appointment in 1403 to lead a sea-faring task force was a triumph of the commercial lobbies that sought to stimulate conventional trade, not mercantilism. The interests of the commercial lobbies and those of the religious lobbies were also linked: both were in conflict with the neo-Confucian sensibilities of the scholarly elite. The first expedition in 1405 consisted of 62 ships and 28,000 men — then the largest naval expedition in history. Zheng He's multi-decked ships carried up to 500 troops but also cargoes of export goods, mainly silks and porcelains, and brought back foreign luxuries such as spices, tropical woods, and a giraffe. When the giraffe arrived in Beijing the emperor went out to greet it in great state. He is reported to have said:

'This event is due to the abundant virtue of the late Emperor, my father, and also to the assistance rendered me by my Ministers. That is why distant people arrive in uninterrupted succession. From now on it behoves Us even more than in the past to cling to virtue and it behoves you to remonstrate with Us about Our shortcomings.'

By the end of the 15th century, Chinese imperial subjects were forbidden from either building oceangoing ships or leaving the country. The aim behind the legislation was to protect the country against pirates, but it also reflected the waning power of commercial interests and of the eunuchs of the court. In any case, restrictions on emigration and shipbuilding were largely lifted by the mid-17th century.


Qing Dynasty

The Qing Dynasty (清朝, 16441911) was founded after the defeat of the Ming, the last Han Chinese dynasty, by the Manchus, formerly known as the Jurchen, who invaded from the north in the late seventeenth century. For many decades, historians played down the differences between the Manchu rulers and their Chinese subjects. Even though the Manchus started out as alien conquerors, they quickly adopted the Confucian norms of traditional Chinese government, in effect becoming honorary Chinese as they ruled in the manner of traditional native dynasties.

The Manchus antagonized the Han Chinese as a result of enforcing the 'queue order' forcing the Han Chinese to adopt the Manchu hairstyle (the pigtail) and Manchu-style clothing. During the 268 years of Manchu rule, numerous Chinese rebellions had ocurred because of the strict rule of hair cutting. The Manchus had a special hair style: the infamous "queue". They cut hair off the front of their heads and made the remaining hair into a long pigtail. The penalty for not complying was death. The traditional Chinese clothing, or Hanfu was also replaced by Manchu-style clothing. Qipao (or Chinese dress ) and Tangzhuang, usually regarded as traditional Chinese clothing nowadays, are actually Manchu-style clothing.

The Manchus edited and forged the history of the former dynasty, Ming Shi (History of the Ming Dynasty). One good example would be the claim that Zhang Xianzhong, who was killed in 1646, had made a stone monument entitled "seven killings". Manchu historians tried to cover up their slaughter of Sichuan Chinese as well as to legitimize Manchu rule over China. To be noted would be the dramatic population drop during the Ming–Qing dynastic transition: In 1620, the first year of Ming Emperor Guangzong's Taichang Era, China boasted a population of 51.66 million people, but in 1651, the eighth year of Qing Emperor Shizu's Shunzhi Era, China only had 10.63 million people. The conclusion is that China's brave men had fallen in martyrdom in the resistance to the Manchu invasion.

To further suppress the Chinese intellectuals, Manchu emperors, like the Qianlong Emperor, resorted to "literary inquisition" [i.e. Wen Zi Yu (imprisonment due to writings)] for controlling the minds and thoughts of Chinese. Wen Zi Yu forbade political writings. Many people died from Wen Zi Yu without even having written anything politically provocative. The Manchu forbade the assembly of scholars or intellectuals into societies, and moreover advocated the "eight-part essay" [i.e. stereotyped essay] as the format for imperial civil service exams.

Emperor Kangxi commanded the most complete dictionary of Chinese characters ever put together at the time, and under Emperor Qianlong, the compilation of a catalogue of the important works on Chinese culture was made. Tens of thousands of books viewed by Manchu emperors as politically unacceptable were destroyed when compiling the catalogue.

The Manchu also adopted predatory methods of land deprivation. They set up the Eight Banners system in an attempt to avoid the possibility of being assimilated into Chinese society. Eight Banners were military institutions set up to provide a structure with which the Manchu 'bannermen' were meant to identify. Banner membership was to be based on traditional Manchu skills such as archery, horsemanship, and frugality. In addition, they were encouraged to use the Manchu language, rather than Chinese. Bannermen were given economic and legal privileges in Chinese cities, meaning that they could often avoid working because they had an 'iron rice bowl of privilege'.

Over the next half-century, the Manchus consolidated control of some areas originally under the Ming, including Yunnan, and further stretched their sphere of influence over Xinjiang, Tibet and Mongolia.

In this famous French political cartoon, China is being divided by the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, France, and Japan
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In this famous French political cartoon, China is being divided by the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, France, and Japan

During the 19th century, Qing control weakened. China suffered massive social strife, economic stagnation, explosive population growth, and Western penetration and influence. Britain's desire to continue its illegal opium trade with China collided with imperial edicts prohibiting the addictive drug, and the First Opium War erupted in 1840. China lost the war; subsequently, Britain and other Western powers, including the United States, forcibly occupied "concessions" and gained special commercial privileges. Hong Kong was ceded to Britain in 1842 under the Treaty of Nanking. In addition, the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) and the Nian Rebellion (捻軍起義) (1853-1868), along with Russian-supported Muslim separatist movements in Gansu province and Chinese Turkestan (i.e. Xinjiang province), drained Chinese resources and almost toppled the dynasty. Indeed the largest rebellion, the Taiping Rebellion, involved around a third of China falling under control of the Taiping Tianguo ruled by the "Heavenly King" Hong Xiuquan. Only after almost fourteen years were the Taipings finally crushed - the Taiping army was destroyed in the Third Battle of Nanking in 1864. In total between twenty million and fifty million lives had been lost, making it the second deadliest war in human history, only surpassed by the Second World War. Imperial unity and strength was seriously impacted and the decline of the Qing Dynasty towards terminal collapse was inevitable.

China's problems were compounded by the Manchus' policy of suppressing Han Chinese. Manchu officials were slow to adopt modernity and suspicious of social and technological advances which they viewed as a threat to their absolute control over China. (Gunpowder was widely used by the army of the Ming Dynasty and then forbidden by the Manchu rulers after they took over China.) Therefore, the dynasty was ill-equipped to handle Western encroachment. Western powers did intervene militarily to quell domestic chaos, such as the horrific Taiping Rebellion and the anti-imperialist Boxer Rebellion. General Gordon, later killed in the siege of Khartoum, was often credited with having saved the Manchu dynasty from the Taiping insurrection.

By the 1860s, the Qing Dynasty had put down the rebellions at enormous cost and loss of life. Further, the suppression of the rebellions was achieved chiefly by armies commanded or advised by western leaders -- thus undermining the credibility of the Qing regime -- and by local initiatives spearheaded by provincial leaders and gentry, that decentralized authority within the Empire and helped contribute to the rise of warlordism in China. The Qing Dynasty then proceeded to deal with problem of modernization, through the Self-Strengthening Movement. However, the Empress Dowager, with the help of conservatives, initiated a military coup, effectively removed the young Emperor from power, and overturned most of the more radical reforms. Official corruption, cynicism, and imperial family quarrels made most of the military reforms useless. Some of China's new battleships didn't even have gunpowder, because the officials in charge had embezzled the maintenance money, and a huge amount of the capital had been spent to construct Yiheyuan. As a result, the Qing's "New Armies" were soundly defeated in the Sino-French War (1883-1885) and the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895).

After the start of the 20th century, the Qing Dynasty was in shambles. Corruption was rampant and population growth had impoverished the people. The Qing court was dominated by Empress Dowager Cixi, a conservative figure who resisted most efforts at reform. The reformist Emperor Guangxu died one day before the death of Cixi (some believe Guangxu was poisoned by Cixi).

The Republic of China

Frustrated by the Qing court's resistance to reform and by China's weakness, young officials, military officers, and students—inspired by the revolutionary ideas of Sun Yat-sen—began to advocate the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and creation of a republic. A revolutionary military uprising, the Wuchang Uprising, began on October 10, 1911 in Wuhan. The provisional government of the Republic of China was formed in Nanjing on March 12, 1912 with Sun Yat-sen as President, but Sun was forced to turn over power to Yuan Shikai who commanded the New Army and was Prime Minister under the Qing government, as part of the agreement to let the last Qing monarch abdicate. Yuan Shikai proceeded in the next few years to abolish the national and provincial assemblies and declared himself emperor in 1915. Yuan's imperial ambitions were fiercely opposed by his subordinates and, faced with the prospect of rebellion, Yuan broke down and died shortly after in 1916, leaving a power vacuum in China. His death left the republican government all but shattered, ushering in the era of the "warlords" during which China was ruled and ravaged by shifting coalitions of competing provincial military leaders.

A little noticed event (outside of China) in 1919 would have long-term repercussions for the rest of Chinese history in the 20th century. This was the May Fourth Movement. The discrediting of liberal Western philosophy amongst Chinese intellectuals was followed by the adoption of more radical lines of thought. This in turn planted the seeds for the irreconcilable conflict between the left and right in China that would dominate Chinese history for the rest of the century.

In the 1920s, Sun Yat-Sen established a revolutionary base in south China and set out to unite the fragmented nation. With Soviet assistance, he entered into an alliance with the fledgling Communist Party of China (CPC). After Sun's death in 1925, one of his protégés, Chiang Kai-shek, seized control of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party or KMT) and succeeded in bringing most of south and central China under its rule in a military campaign known as the Northern Expedition. Having defeated the warlords in south and central China by military force, Chiang was able to secure the nominal allegiance of the warlords in the North. In 1927, Chiang turned on the CPC and relentlessly chased the CPC armies and its leaders out of their bases in southern and eastern China. In 1934, driven out of their mountain bases (such as the Chinese Soviet Republic), the CPC forces embarked on the Long March across China's most desolate terrain to the northwest, where they established a guerrilla base at Yan'an in Shaanxi Province.

During the Long March, the communists reorganized under a new leader, Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung). The bitter struggle between the KMT and the CPC continued openly or clandestinely through the 14-year long Japanese invasion (1931-1945), even though the two parties nominally formed a united front to oppose the Japanese invaders in 1937, during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) portion of World War II. The war between the two parties resumed after the Japanese defeat in 1945. By 1949, the CPC occupied most of the country. (see Chinese Civil War)

Chiang Kai-shek fled with the remnants of his government and military forces to Taiwan, where he proclaimed Taipei to be the Republic of China's "provisional capital" and vowed to reconquer the Chinese mainland.

Post modern independence

With the proclamation of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949, China was divided yet again, into the PRC on the mainland and the ROC on Taiwan and several outlying islands of Fujian, with two governments, each of which regarded itself as the one true Chinese government and denounced the other as illegitimate. This remained true until the early 1990s when political changes on Taiwan led the ROC to understand that they would never reoccupy China again. Since then, they are trying actively to be recognized by the world community as a legitimate state, but People's Republic of China have been insisting on their One-China Policy. Since most Taiwanese do not regard Taiwan as a part of China, they see Taiwan's history as its own separate branch.

For more information see People's Republic of China and History of Taiwan.


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