China is the world's oldest continuous major civilization, with written records dating back about 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 a common system of writing (200 BC) both strengthened Chinese civilization. Politically, China alternated between periods of political union and disunion, and was often 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.
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 tentative. 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 dates back to about 6000 BC and 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 Huanghe 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.
The earliest written record of China's past, and therefore the beginning of its history, 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. 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: sānd i) that the historical China begins to appear.
Sima Qian's account dates the founding of the Xia 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.
Archaeological findings provide evidence for the existence of the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600-1046 BC), and the archaeological evidence is divided into two sets. The first, from the earlier Shang period (ca. 1600 to 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 (ca. 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.
By the end of the 2nd millennium BC, the Zhou 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.
Qin Dynasty: The First Chinese Empire
Though the unified reign of the Qin 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 word China was probably derived from 秦 q n, which is pronounced similarly to "chin".
Han Dynasty: A Period of Prosperity
The Han Dynasty 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 Xian; hence the new era is termed the Eastern Han Dynasty. 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, a time that has since been greatly romanticized in works such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
- Hill, John E. 2004. The Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu. Draft annotated English translation. (http://depts.washington.edu/uwch/silkroad/texts/hhshu/hou_han_shu.html)
- Hill, John E. 2004. The Peoples of the West from the Weilue 魏略 by Yu Huan 魚豢: A Third Century Chinese Account Composed between 239 and 265 CE. Draft annotated English translation.  (http://depts.washington.edu/uwch/silkroad/texts/weilue/weilue.html)
Jin, Sixteen Kingdoms, and the Northern and Southern Dynasties: The Chinese Dark Ages
Though these three kingdoms were reunited temporarily in 280 by the (Western) Jin dynasty, 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 Chang Jiang. 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 Chang Jiang.
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. The short-lived Sui Dynasty managed to reunite the country in 589 after almost 300 years of disjunction.
Tang Dynasty: Return to Prosperity
In 618, the Tang dynasty was established, opening a new age of prosperity and innovations in arts and technology. Buddhism, which had slowly seeped into China in the first century, became the predominant religion and was widely adopted by the royal family. Changan (modern Xi'an), the national capital, is thought to have been the world's biggest city. The Tang and Han are often referenced as the prosperous ages of China; the Tang, like the Han, established jurisdiction on trade routes. However, the Tang dynasty declined in the end, eventually succumbing to the ambitions of warlords; another time of political chaos followed, the Five dynasties and the Ten kingdoms.
Song Dynasty and its northern neighbors, the Liao and the Jin
In 960, the Song Dynasty (960-1279) gained power over most of China and established its capital in Kaifeng, establishing a period of economic prosperity, while the Khitan Liao Dynasty ruled over Manchuria and eastern Mongolia. In 1115 the Jurchen Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) 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.
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. A period of peace began for nearly all of Asia. This era, called the Pax Mongolica, made it possible for adventurous Westerners, like Marco Polo, to travel all the way to China and to bring 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, being of the latter group, established the Yuan Dynasty (meaning "first"). This was the first dynasty to rule the whole country with Beijing as its 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.
Revival of Chinese culture
Among the populace, however, there were strong feelings against the rule of the "foreigner" (known as D zi 韃子), which finally led to peasant revolts; Mongolian rule was pushed back to the steppes and replaced by the Ming dynasty in 1368. 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. Over 100,000 tons of iron per year were produced. Many books were printed using movable type. Some would argue that Ming was the most advanced nation on Earth.
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 emperor's role became even 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.
Ming: from exploration to isolation
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. Religious lobbies encouraged commercialism and exploration to divert state funds from the anti-clerical efforts of the Confucian scholar gentry. 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 and tropical woods.
By the end of the 15th century, Chinese imperial subjects were forbidden from either building oceangoing ships or leaving the country. The consensus among historians of the early 21st century is that this measure was taken in response to piracy. In any case, restrictions on emigration and shipbuilding were largely lifted by the mid-17th century.
The Qing Dynasty
The last dynasty was established in 1644, when the Manchus overthrew the native Ming dynasty and established the Qing (Ch'ing) dynasty with Beijing as its capital. The Manchus over the next half-century consolidated control of many areas originally under Ming, including Yunnan, and further stretched their sphere of influence over Xinjiang, Tibet and Mongolia at great expense in blood and treasure. The success of the early Qing period was based on the combination of Manchu martial prowess and traditional Chinese bureaucratic skills.
Some historians have viewed the Qing as continuing the decline started in the Ming, while others have argued that the early and mid-Qing were periods of growth rather than decline. 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 all important works on Chinese culture was made. The Qing Dynasty also continued the growth of popular literature such as the Dream of the Red Mansion. Agricultural advances such as triple cropping of rice and the introduction of new crop types discovered in the New World (in particular corn) enabled the population of China to more than double from between 100 million in 1700 to 220 million in 1800.
In this famous French satirical cartoon, China is being divided by the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, France, and Japan
During the 19th century, Qing control weakened, and prosperity diminished. 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 Nanjing. 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.
China's problems were compounded by its own introspectiveness. Chinese officials were slow to adopt modernity and suspicious of social and technological advances which it viewed as a threat to traditional Confucian values. 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. For instance, 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, which undermined the credibility of the Qing regime, and by local initiatives spearheaded by provincial leaders and gentry which 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, which it attempted with 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 and cynicism made most of the military reforms useless. Some of China's new battleships did not even have gunpowder, because the officials in charge had embezzled the maintenance money. 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 death of the reformist Emperor Guangxu, one day before the death of Cixi (some believe Guangxu was poisoned by Cixi), effectively destroyed any chance China had at effective leadership.
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 prot s, 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 (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.
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 cease actively portraying itself as the sole Chinese government.
- Laufer, Berthold. 1912. JADE: A Study in Chinese Archaeology & Religion. Reprint: Dover Publications, New York. 1974.
- A universal guide for China studies (http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/history.htm)
- China History Forum - online Chinese history discussion (http://www.chinahistoryforum.com)