China's prehistory, supported by
archaeological evidence of the Lantian Man, an upright walking hominoid,
and the more advanced Peking Man, dates back 600,000 years. It's recorded
history dates back more than 5,000 years. Throughout, China's history is
one of the cyclical rise and fall of dynasties interspersed with periods
of warring states and finally, of revolution, reform, and modernization.
Myth has it that
the legendary Xia was China's first dynasty. It is reputed to have
lasted 439 years, though its existence has yet to be confirmed by concrete
historical documentation. The Shang and Zhou dynasties succeeded
the Xia. Together these 3 dynasties made up the Three dynasties era (2200-256BC).
The Shang dynasty (1700-1200BC)
was China's first verifiable dynasty. Shang events were first documented,
during the Han dynasty and have been verified by subsequent findings.
Under Sheng rule, China's knowledge of bronze technology and of its
written language increased. The belief in ancestor worship, a
central tenant of the Chinese belief system, dates from this period.
dynasty (1200-256BC) introduced one of the most lasting ideas of Chinese
politics, the Mandate of Heaven. Under this doctrine, 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 drought.
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 and 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 during
this violent time, Confucius codified relationships between ruler and
ruled, which, creating what was to become the central cultural ethic of
China and many Asian countries.
The Qin dynasty
(221-206BC) was the first to unify China. Qin Shi Huang is remembered
as China's first emperor. He ruled ruthlessly and with absolute authority
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
and 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 artifacts from the Qin period is
the Terracotta army guarding Qin Shi Huang's tomb in Xian.
The Han dynasty
(206BC-220AD) was 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 dynasties. 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.
During the Tang
dynasty (618-907) Chinese culture reached its most sophisticated 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 both adopted the Chinese language and Buddhist religion.
Politically, Wu Zetian, China's only empress, did away with the civil
service based on birth created one of Imperial China's most lasting institutions,
a civil service based on merit.
With the fall
of the Tang, power once again shifted to the provinces. 5 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
of China led to the collapse of the Southern Song. The Mongol invaders
established the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). Kublai Khan, the grandson
of Genghis Khan was its first emperor. The empire ruled by Kublai 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
messianic Red Turban Society to launch a rebellion, which helped pave the
way for the fall of the Yuan in 1368.
- later Hong Wu - a former rebel leader of the Red Turban Society founded
the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). 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
After throwing open its doors to
foreign influence during the Yuan dynasty, Ming China closed them tightly.
Emperor Wu, claiming nothing from the outside barbarian world was needed
in China, instituted an isolationist policy. Most trade and
diplomatic relations were halted. The Great Wall's, construction
was completed - futilely as it turned out - to stem invasion from the
north. It is the most lasting example 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. Despite its isolation, Ming China expanded her empire's control and
parts of Turkestan, Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam, and Myanmar were brought
under Chinese Influence.
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 are, highly valued in China and
Corruption, court intrigues and
inept emperors led to peasant uprisings, a Manchu invasion from the north,
unhindered by the Great Wall, and the fall of the Ming in 1644.
invaded China during the last years of Ming rule and founded China's final
dynasty, the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Manchu rulers immediately
suppressed the peasant rebellions which had rocked the Ming, however,
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 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 great rulers, presided over a period of wealth and expansion
during which China reached the apex of its power.
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 trade
imbalance. Opium, by no means unknown in China, was heretofore a
drug of only 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 strictly punished.
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 and irrevocably opened. The term
Gunboat Diplomacy stems from the gunboats used by the British to
force China's doors open to trade.
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 5 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 subjected only to the laws of their
homeland, not to the laws of China. The treaty system remained in force
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 and futile
attempt to regain control and institute reform. Ci Xi, the
Empress Dowager and dominant political figure in the Qing court,
highlighted 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
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 secrete
The Boxers were one such
society. They adhered to a mystical faith, which included spells and
rituals, which, they claimed, made them invincible to the foreigner's
bullets. The Boxer's anti-foreign stance won them the official support of
the Qing court. The Qing court gave its explicit blessing to the Boxer
Uprising (1900) in which hundreds of foreigners were massacred.
An international army defeated the Boxers by 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 (later the Kuomintang), Sun Yatsen's
revolutionary society, finally toppled the Qing, thus ending 2,000
years of imperial rule.