The History of China
The popular shorthand for capturing China’s epic scale is “a nation of one billion people.” In reality, the population currently stands near 1.4 billion. Though this may seem like a pedantic distinction, it’s important to remember that rounding down to 1 billion ignores 400 million people, a number larger than the entire US population.
Crowds on Qingdao beach
Crowds inside the Forbidden City
At Badaling on the Great Wall
Crowds celebrating the 62nd anniversary of the PRC at Tian’anmen Square
China’s huge population is only matched by its history, which is proudly proclaimed by the locals to encompass over 5,000 years. Some dispute this length, however, arguing that the earliest archaeological evidence of China’s first dynasty dates back 4,000 years. While these discrepancies again my seem minor, consider that this duration of 1,000 years is a period more than four times the length of the entire history of the United States.
Despite certain historical disagreements, Chinese civilization is undoubtedly one of the oldest, and its written language, architecture, and beliefs are some of the most enduring in the world. Chinese characters have outlived many of its ancient contemporaries, like Egyptian hieroglyphics and Sanskrit, while the ancient philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism continue to hold sway with many around the world today.
The Dynastic Cycle
While we may recount the history of China as if the country were a continuous entity, it’s important to consider that the story of China’s past is not one of a consistent centralized state ruling over one unified people. On the contrary, the story of the territories that we now call “China” is one of constant conflict and invasion, with periods of harmony and growth punctuated by bitter discord and dissolution.
To truly understand Chinese history, it’s vital to tackle the concept of a dynasty. A dynasty is a succession of kings or emperors from the same family line, and it’s the fundamental unit of most of Chinese history. Truth be told, one of the most constant themes in historical eras (inside China and outside) is that they rise and fall in somewhat predictable cycles.
The cycle begins when a period of disorder creates an opening for new leadership, and a new dynasty is established by force. The newly-installed and energetic rulers go on to create a thriving, stable state that may expand or simply hold its territory, and the population often experiences strong growth. When these golden years begin to wane, leadership peters out, corruption sets in, and wealth is concentrated in a small elite; this inequality sets the stage for internal uprisings which, depending on the dynasty in question, are sometimes compounded by foreign invasions. After a phase of weakness and disorganization, the cycle starts over again, with new leaders building a stronger state by redistributing wealth among a less populated area.
Though this general cycle of dynastic rise and fall holds true for many of China’s ruling ascendancies, things have not always been so orderly. Education systems favoring the wealthy, rebellions and jealous eunuchs, or cousins of the emperor making grabs for power often took China’s history in erratic directions. Many dynasties fell into fractured kingdoms, further diluting the idea of a straight and orderly pattern of hereditarily shifting imperial power.
During your trip in China, you will undoubtedly come across the names of dozens of empires, kingdoms, and significant time periods. For anyone who doesn’t have a PhD in Chinese History, the tsunami of information can be overwhelming. Fortunately, by glossing over some of the key events and influential empires in the Middle Kingdom’s convoluted past, you can begin to get an understanding of the cultural significance of specific dynastic time periods, which will enrich your travel experience by helping you better grasp the essence of China.
Prehistoric China: Paleolithic (1.36 million years ago – 10,000 BCE) & Neolithic (10,000 – 2852 BCE)
Evidence of Homo erectus is littered throughout modern-day China and dates back more than a million years. Stone tools found at a dig site at Xiǎochángliáng (小长梁) have been dated to 1.36 million years ago, while the archaeological site of Xīhóudù (西侯渡) in Shanxi Province holds some of the earliest known evidence of fire use by China's early ancestors (dating back about 1.27 million years). The 750,000 year old Peking Man, one of the best-known and best-preserved specimens of Homo erectus in the world, was discovered in a group of caves 48 km (30 mi) south of Beijing in the 1920s.
The Neolithic era saw some of the first hints of China’s earliest culture, much of which was first discovered at a site in Ningxia Province that features 3,172 cliff carvings dating from 6,000 to 5,000 BCE. The carvings hold more than 8,000 individual characters representing nature, gods, and scenes of hunting and grazing. Another excavation at the Péilǐgǎng (裴李岗) culture site in Xinzheng County, Henan, unearthed evidence of agriculture, buildings, pottery, and ceremonial burial – vestiges of a community that is thought to have thrived around 5,500 to 4,900 BCE. These early glimmers of culture nurtured a growing population that settled in the Yellow River valley, setting the stage for the future development of Chinese civilization.
Neolithic stone sickle displayed at Peiligang culture site, Jiaxian, Henan. It was found in 1976.
Ancient China (2852 BCE – 221 BCE)
Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors (2852 – 2070 BCE)
The semi-mythical history of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors period is recorded largely through fables of supernatural Chinese rulers, heroes, and folklore that make up the origins of Chinese culture. Ancient stories hold that a god named Pangu created the world by splitting heaven and earth, at which point three deities rushed in to populate and shape the new world. According to legend, these three created the first humans and taught them animal husbandry, agriculture, and simple plant-based medicine.
Those deities were succeeded by other mythological characters like the Yellow Emperor, who is considered the ultimate primeval ancestor of the Chinese people, and the Great Yu who is credited with harnessing the floods of the Yangtze River.
Pangu, the creator of the heavens and earth
Xia Dynasty (2070 – 1600 BCE)
Though the Xia is considered by many as the first dynasty of China, it was hardly more than a union of small villages clustered around the Yellow River in and around present day Henan Province. A number of archeologists question whether the Xia was truly a dynasty, and after a 1928 dig in central Henan rooted out artifacts (in particular a bronze smelter) dating back to 2000 BCE, the best consensus the archeological community could come to was that the Xia period was at least a transitional phase from a more primitive Neolithic era into the relatively more progressive and civilized dynasty of the Shang.
What is perhaps most interesting regarding the Xia is that pottery and shells dated to the period bear markings that are now thought to be the precursors to modern Chinese characters. This belief coincides with many classical Chinese texts (such as the Bamboo Annals and Classic of History) as well as contemporary school textbooks, all of which consider the Xia as the starting point of China’s thousands of years of written history.
A type of wine vessel from the Xia Dynasty
Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE)
Somewhat more unified than the Xia, the Shang Dynasty is notable for its location in the heart of China’s Yellow River basin, and was ruled by 31 kings during its tenure. Some of China’s oldest examples of writing were produced by the Shang, most of which consisted of oracle bones (Chinese characters written on tortoise shells). These were most likely used by kings for divination purposes, such as predicting the weather, boosting farming output, or helping to ensure victory in battle. A number of these oracle bones are currently on display at museums around the country today.
The Shang are also believed to have planted some of the first seeds of religion in China through a polytheistic credence that tied various gods to natural phenomena. These multiple deities were all united under one sole god (similar to Zeus in Greek mythology) called Shangdi (上帝; this word for God still used in Mandarin today). The Shang belief also placed heavy emphasis on ancestral worship, which is still an integral part of contemporary Chinese culture.
An oracle bone from the Shang Dynasty
Zhou Dynasty: Western Zhou (1046 – 771 BCE) & Eastern Zhou (771 – 249 BCE)
The Zhou, despite being divided into two distinct time frames, was the longest dynasty in Chinese history, with more than 800 years on the timeline. The founding emperors of Zhou conceptualized the Mandate of Heaven, which proclaimed that a governing force held power over the gods and authorized certain individuals to lead China. The Mandate was also believed to hold that when a ruler’s time was up, it would be signified by a great number of natural disasters. This concept of the Mandate of Heaven became a pillar of imperial Chinese philosophy for the next 3,000 years.
Kneeling before the Mandate of Heaven symbol
The Spring and Autumn Period (770 – 476 BCE) & Warring States Period (475 – 221 BCE)
After centuries of prosperity and expansion under China’s first dynasties, a long period of destabilization and defragmentation followed. During the Eastern Zhou Period, local military officials began abusing their power to gain control of land, which resulted in a number revolts that ultimately destabilized the centralized power of the Zhou – fracturing the kingdom into hundreds of small fiefdoms with some (but not all) local rulers maintaining a level of subservience to the king of Zhou. This tumultuous time became known as the Spring and Autumn Period, and was later followed by the Warring States Period, a time when the country was violently divided by constant strife between rival warlords.
The turbulent years of these two periods turned out to be a great era of change, and precipitated the rise of some of China’s most influential philosophers and schools of thought. Confucius (551 – 479 BCE) began lecturing on a hierarchical social-system emphasizing values like loyalty, familial reverence, civilized conduct, and ancestor worship. The system of social behavior that he developed is to this day one of the cornerstones of Chinese society.
Other philosophies of the time included those of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (The Classic of the Way and its Power), a text that introduced the concept of the Tao – meaning “the path” or “the way” – in the 6th century BCE. The Tao attempted to explain the universe in terms of the basic forces of nature, i.e. the yin and the yang.
This period also gave rise to Legalism, which emphasized the importance of draconian laws to govern society, and Mohism, a set of ideals that preached against what it saw as an overuse of compassion towards human beings. Mohism was seen as Confucianism’s greatest rival, and was just one of dozens of Warring States-era ideologies that together made up the Hundred Schools of Thought.
Imperial China (221 BCE – 1912 CE)
Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 BCE)
China’s long imperial era began when Ying Zheng, the leader of the State of Qin, conquered the neighboring kingdoms of the Warring States period and brought China under a united banner for the first time in history. He gave himself the title Qin Shihuang, meaning “First Emperor,” and imposed a brutal Legalist system to ensure his authoritarian grip on the country. Qin set about burning the books of any teachings he didn’t agree with, and extended the borders of China to the east and the south via a series of military campaigns.
Despite his ruthlessness, Qin Shihuang is rightfully regarded as China’s first emperor, and perhaps more controversially as a national icon. To many, his tyrannical social policies are overshadowed by his contributions to China’s development, which include standardizing the spoken and written language, introducing systemized measuring units, centralizing the government, creating a uniform legal code, and greatly improving the nation’s infrastructure and roads. He also initiated the construction of the Great Wall, and commissioned the building of the Terracotta Warriors.
Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE)
The death of the First Emperor of China in 210 BCE brought the Qin Dynasty into a rapid decline. The empire soon fractured after years of war, eventually being reunited again under a man named Liu Bang as he founded the Han Dynasty. This era ushered in China’s first golden age.
In the beginning (during the Western Han), Confucianism experienced a reemergence, while art, culture, science and literature went through a great renaissance. The term “Han” also became associated with the empire’s ethnic majority, and it is the word still used for China’s dominant ethnic group, which today comprises 91% of the country’s population. The Han Dynasty extended over a massive territory and inflated the Chinese sphere of influence from Southeast Asia to Xinjiang and the Sea of China through an extensive series of military campaigns.
In the midst of Han dominance, an official by the name of Wang Mang revolted and founded the short-lived Xin Dynasty (8 – 23 CE) when he launched a political-military campaign to redistribute land to impoverished peasants. His kingdom never gained much support, and quickly disappeared when Wang was killed in 23 CE.
After the fade of the Xin, the Han Dynasty quickly rebounded, beginning a period known as the Eastern Han. This prolific dynasty crushed neighboring rival kingdoms, established diplomatic ties with places as far as the Roman Empire, and increased foreign trade with distant lands via the Silk Road. The era also witnessed the influx of foreign ideas, like Buddhism from India, enter the realm of China for the first time, while extraordinarily influential inventions, such as paper, came about.
Three Kingdoms (220 – 280 CE), Jin Dynasty (265 – 420 CE) & Sixteen Kingdoms (304 – 439 CE)
For a period of 60 years following the Han Dynasty, China was divided between the three competing kingdoms of the Shu in the west, the Wei in the North, and the Wu in the south. This Three Kingdoms period has been glorified in various Chinese classics of literature, and saw distant regions outside of the traditional Chinese heartland, such as Chengdu (the capital of the Kingdom of Shu), rise to prominence and develop. By 280 CE the rival kingdoms had once again been united under a single dynasty.
This new Jin Dynasty eventually became divided into the Western Jin (265 – 316) and the Eastern Jin (317 – 420), but by the early 300s, the unstable Western Jin had already split up into 16 smaller kingdoms that rose and fell in the blink of an eye. The Jin Dynasty did not completely disappear during the Sixteen Kingdoms, however, and instead became the Eastern Jin Dynasty, which was the largest and most influential kingdom of the period.
Cinematic recreation of warriors of the Three Kingdoms
Southern and Northern Dynasties (420 – 589 CE)
The 169 years of the Southern and Northern Dynasties were a complicated era in Chinese history that witnessed the rise and fall of various competing empires, bloody civil wars and internal strife among various competing dynasties. North of the Yellow River, various branches of the former Kingdom of Wei (the Northern, Eastern and Western Wei), the Northern Qi and Northern Zhou rose and fell, while south of the river the Liu, Song, Southern Qi, Liang and Chen (557 – 589) made up the Southern Dynasties – with the latter being perhaps the most prominent of them all. Despite the political turmoil of the era, Buddhism saw a period of strong growth throughout the kingdoms, and a great many scientific innovations characterized the century.
Map showing the Southern and Northern Dynasties’ borders
Sui Dynasty (581 – 618)
The warring factions of the Southern and Northern Dynasties period were finally united by Emperor Wen of Sui, who moved the capital of his Sui Dynasty to Daxing (modern day Xi’an). Similar to many of their conquering predecessors, the emperors of the Sui implemented various standardization reforms (particularly in law and coinage), improved on the Great Wall, and built roads across vast regions. It was also the Sui Dynasty that initiated construction on the Grand Canal, an immensely long commercial water-highway running from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south (to this day it is the longest manmade waterway in the world).
The rulers of the Sui were strict adherents of Legalism, and implemented their reforms with force, alienating many members of society. The court also oversaw a backbreaking program of compulsory labor, enacted usurious taxes to help finance their monstrous projects, and pursued a disastrous and costly military campaign in Korea. In very little time, the empire had spread itself so thin through poor economic, political and militaristic operations, it could hardly hold itself together. When Emperor Sui Yangdi was strangled by a member of his entourage in 618, the short-lived dynasty consequently met its end as well.
The course of the Grand Canal
The Grand Canal under Sui and Tang dynasties
Tang Dynasty (618 – 907)
With the collapse of the authoritarian Sui, the enormous power vacuum was quickly filled by the powerful Li family, who established one of the wealthiest, most advanced and most powerful empires in world history. The Tang Dynasty, often considered the second golden age of Chinese history, was the antithesis of the Sui. Instead of suppressing the masses, the Tang took a liberal approach to governance, allowing full religious freedom to the people, greatly decreasing regulations on business, and encouraging a more equal status amongst the genders and China's many ethnicities. The progressive Tang is considered particularly ahead of its time, and to this day it the only period in China history to boast a legitimate female ruler: Wu Zetian.
The Tang's advanced governing ideology paved the way for impressive accomplishments. The civil service was reorganized to incorporate Confucian ideals via a process of choosing officials based off their unyielding knowledge of the Confucian Classics. A great boom was sparked in the economy as manufacturing took off and foreign trade skyrocketed, largely a product of the exquisite works churned out by Tang painters, poets and sculptors, products that were coveted around the world. China’s legal code also became a standard for all of East Asia.
While the vibrancy of the Tang era was seen and felt around the empire, it was surely most vigorous in the capital of Chang’an (present day Xi’an), which not only ballooned to become the largest city in the world, but also one of the planet's most culturally dynamic and influential. The empire itself numbered more 80 million inhabitants by its apex in the early 10th century. Its borders stretched farther than any empire had before, occupying much of the eastern Silk Road into modern day Xinjiang, and rounded the borders of Korea, Kyrgyzstan, and central Vietnam. With much of the Silk Road under control, and other major land and sea routes locked down, commerce with Europe, the Orient and the Middle East flourished.
It was also during the Tang that diplomatic relationships with neighboring countries were established, including the introduction of Chinese culture to the Japanese. The writing system used in Japan today is largely made up of Chinese characters (which the Japanese call kanji), most of which were brought to the island by the Tang’s cultural emissaries. These characters were also used in Vietnam and Korea for hundreds of years, and are believed to be the influence behind the two countries' current writing systems. Tang architectural styles became pervasive throughout Asia as well, while their philosophies, inventions and innovative concepts extended the empire's sphere of influence far beyond its physical borders.
Tang emperors, for the most part, adhered to Buddhism. For this reason, much of China’s most glorious Buddhist grottoes, sculptures, art, and temples were built during the years of the Tang reign. Princess Wencheng contributed to the spread of Buddhism when she went to Tibet to marry the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo. It is said that after introducing her beliefs to Songtsen, Princess Wencheng, the king converted to the faith and soon introduced it to Tibet. Taoism also thrived during this time, while Confucianism played a major role in the high stability of Tang society, which was described by Chinese and foreign emissaries alike as being one of the most harmonious in the world.
Statues of Songtsen Gampo (center), Princess Wencheng (right), and the Nepali Princess Bhrikuti Devi (left)
Despite great innovations, the internationalization of Chinese culture, and a revival of Buddhist thought, a series of internal rebellions, eventually erupted, consequences of the dynasty's costly military campaigns, a system of over-taxation, and their failure to find a balance between centralized and regional governance. By the early 10th century these rebellions became too much, and China's most dynamic golden age completed its cycle by fracturing into chaos.
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907 – 960) & Liao Dynasty (907 – 1125)
Historians traditionally refer to this period as the “Ten Kingdoms,” but the actual number of factions is still unclear. Regardless, the demise of the Tang that threw China into the depths of war and civil unrest eventually led to the establishment of as many as five independent dynasties in the north, and more than 12 in the south.
The Liao Dynasty (aka the Khitan Empire), founded by a non-Han people, arose during this time and occupied a large swath of land in the northern part of China, over the areas known as Manchuria, Mongolia, Korea and Southern Siberia. This empire was able to remain independent from the Han dominated Song Dynasty for more than one hundred years.
Liao Dynasty Map
Song Dynasty (960 – 1279)
In the pattern of the dynastic cycle, the Song Dynasty eventually conquered its rivaling factions to once again consolidate most of China under a single ruler. In many ways, it picked where the Tang left off, becoming a hotbed of innovation and culture. The Song was the world's first government to use paper currency and the first to establish a permanent standing navy, while two of China's most notable inventions - gunpowder and the compass - were created during the years of the Song.
The highly controversial tradition of foot binding appears to have begun during this period as well. The origins of this painful ritual, in which a girl’s feet were bound up in cloth so that they would never exceed the size of a fist, eventually grew into a Chinese social norm, and came to influence Western perceptions of Chinese gender roles and relations well into the 20th century.
Foot-binding was common in the Southern Song Dynasty
Western Xia, or Tangut Empire (1038 – 1227)
The Song never truly took control of all of China since the Liao Dynasty occupied the northern lands, and the Western Xia (also known as the Tangut Empire of the Tangut people) ruled over a small territory around present day Gansu Province. Though much of the their history was destroyed by the Mongolian world conquest, it’s believed that the Tangut (who had their own distinct written language of extremely complex, multi-stroke characters) made great advancements in the fields of military, law, science, literature and art.
Western Xia Map
Jin Dynasty (1115 – 1234)
The Jin Dynasty was founded by a clan of the Jurchen people who are the ancestors of the Manchus. For this reason, the Jin Dynasty is often referred to as the Jurchen Empire. The Jurchen proved to be incredibly skilled in the military arts, completely conquering the Liao Dynasty and taking a great deal of land from the Jin Dynasty by pushing them past the Yellow River. No matter how skilled the military of the Jurchen was, however, nothing could prepare them (or the world for that matter) for the wave of horror that was about to be unleashed from China to Europe.
Jin Dynasty Map
Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368)
Considered by many to be history’s greatest warrior, Genghis Khan - and his group of fearless nomadic warriors - set off to conquer the world in the 13th century. The unprecedented military power of the Mongols utterly crushed any force that stood in its way through an ingenious military strategy of lightning warfare, a sort of hit, run, and repeat tactic made possible by the Mongols' mastery over the horse and the bow (which were used in conjunction). These armies - largely consisting of mounted archers - moved fast and could strike from distance, devastating the traditional tactics of the world's standing forces.
To this day, opinions of Ghengis Khan throughout China are largely mixed. Praises for him point to the fact that he drastically improved trade between the East and West by bringing the Silk Road under one cohesive political system. Ghengis Khan is also known to have been highly tolerant of different religions, as well as to have instituted a system of meritocracy that promoted intellectualism. Critics point to the brutality of his military campaigns, and note that the population of northern China dropped by around 3/4 during his conquest, though it is unsure how much of this was due to migrations southward.
After Genghis Khan’s death, his grandson, Kublai Khan, continued his conquest of China, establishing the Yuan Dynasty over most of today's PRC (People's Republic of China) after 65 years of war. Kublai wasted no time in moving his capital to a location just south of modern-day Mongolia, which he named Dadu (meaning Great Capital). Dadu was the first imperial installation in a previously minor settlement that would grow to become one of China’s most significant cities – Beijing. After moving the capital to China, the Mongols, who originated from the rugged steppes of southern Siberia and were perceived by their southern neighbors to have barbaric practices, adopted many Chinese values and customs into their way of life.
Because the Mongols were particularly open to influences of the cultures they conquered, the somewhat rigid system with which they initially governed eventually gave way to a great deal of religious and social tolerance throughout their empire. Much of Mongolian rule became defined by the allowance of local figures to hold official positions, meaning that Han and other ethnicities maintained influence in their regions, instead of these areas being governed by a strict Mongol ruling class.
Despite its rather progressive stance, the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty was short lived. The sheer size of the massive empire, a lack of a central government, and rebellions from secret Buddhist sects like the White Lotus and Red Turbans ultimately toppled the dynasty. But instead of entering a state of strife, war and disunity, the Great Yuan was immediately replaced with a new empire that proved to be among the most successful in Chinese history.
Genghis Khan - Founder of the Mongol Empire
Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644)
The fall of the Yuan opened the door to a Han empire that ushered in not only a third golden age for the Chinese civilization, but also one of the most stable and successful governments in world history. The Hongwu Emperor, the first ruler of the Ming Dynasty, established a hierarchical Confucian system of self-sufficient communities across the country, developed the world’s largest (by a great margin) navy, and established a standing army of more than one million. The Ming Dynasty is also responsible for building the Forbidden City, reconstructing massive portions of the Great Wall, extending the Grand Canal and turning the city of Nanjing into the nation’s capital.
The Ming’s greatest success perhaps lay in its maritime expeditions. Between the years 1405 and 1433, the Yongle Emperor, one of China’s most famous rulers, launched an extraordinary series of overseas expeditions. He appointed the Muslim eunuch Zheng He as admiral of a fleet of dozens other massive vessels - altogether boasting a crew of tens of thousands - to sail the seas searching for knowledge in the outside world and establishing diplomatic relations and trade with foreign countries. Zheng He’s fleet sailed all throughout Southeast Asia into the Indian Ocean, and made it as far as the Arab Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, successfully extending China’s influence with the outside world.
The initial success of these expeditions prompted the Yongle Emperor to commission further quests of exploration around the globe. There is even some evidence that suggests the Chinese made it around the Cape of Good Hope along the west coast of Africa all the way to Europe. Astonishingly enough, there are also records indicating that the Chinese reached the shores of North and South America in the year 1421. If this is true, the Chinese would have reached the new world seven decades before Columbus.
Zhu Di - Yongle Emperor
The later years of the Ming Dynasty saw a great globalization of China as ships arrived from Europe, foreshadowing the tumultuous effect that foreign influence would have on China during the later years of the subsequent Qing Dynasty. It was during the late Ming that the English established themselves in modern-day Guangzhou, the Jesuits came in the 1580s in hopes of promoting Catholicism on a grand scale, and the Portuguese captured Macau – directly linking a Chinese port with the rest of the world.
Though famines and rebellions gripped the Ming empire by its final years, it was the act of the traitorous general Wu Sangui, who opened the gates of the Great Wall at Shanhaiguan Pass to the invading Manchurians, that ultimately caused the dynasty's collapse. The Manchu's quickly crushed Ming resistance within the country, establishing China's last dynasty under the Qing. Much of the maritime records were destroyed during this turbulent time, leaving the world with little information on what may have been some of the greatest oceanic explorations the world has ever seen.
Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912)
With the Manchu establishment of the Qing Dynasty after overcoming the Ming at Shanhaiguan Pass, these nomadic descendants of the Jurchens became the second non-Han ethnic group to rule a unified China. They, like the Mongols, had a distinctive culture, language, alphabet (that was written vertically) and, interestingly enough, a unique hair style.
The queue (or bianzi), a recognizable male haircut with the front of the head shaved and the back grown out and braided into a long pony tail, was the traditional style of Manchuria. Once the Manchus were in control of China, this style became mandatory for all men as a show of allegiance to the Qing.
The distinctive Manchu male hairstyle.
Just like the Mongols, the Qing gradually found themselves adopting many aspects of traditional Han Chinese culture. By the end of their reign, the Qing Manchus were virtually Chinese in traditions and customs, though the unique Manchu practice of braiding the queue remained for the duration of the empire.
The early days of the Qing Dynasty are considered by some scholars to be a continuation of the third golden age that was begun by the Ming. One of the Qing's earliest leaders, the Kangxi Emperor (1661 – 1722), expanded China’s territory to include Mongolia, Nepal, Tibet, and parts of Central Asia. By the 18th century, China’s population had doubled, going from around 150 million to 300 million, while its territory and economy enjoyed a two-fold increase as well. In fact, during these prosperous early years, the Qing Dynasty boasted one of the most advanced economies in the world.
But while governments in the West continued to explore and expand their trade, technology and influence around the globe, the Qing, perhaps because of China's history as an advanced civilization, decided that the outside world had little to offer their empire, and largely cloistered themselves off. Europeans found limited trade with China, and as they continued to push for more commerce, it became apparent that the nation had grown stagnant under Qing rule.
Things took a turn for the worst in the mid-19th century when the Qing tried to outlaw the sale of British opium within China. Unscrupulous British merchants had been amassing large fortunes of the sale of the drug, and when their lucrative commodity was outlawed, they petitioned the crown for war. The resultant First Opium War (1839 – 1842) and Second Opium War (1856 – 1860) saw devastating defeats for the Qing - whose military technology was centuries behind the British - and resulted in the court's forced signing of the Unequal Treaties, a series of concords that ceded great areas of land to the British and the French (who supported the British in the wars). These swathes of relinquished land were known as concessions; they worked like small, fully autonomous colonies within major port cities like Tianjin, Shanghai and Qingdao. Enormous trading rights were granted to these colonial powers as well, and the British were given complete control of the territory in and around Hong Kong Island.
The Opium Wars were the beginning of a 100-year period that the Chinese still refer to as the “Century of Humiliation” (circa 1840 - 1940), a time marked by the rapid disintegration of the Qing through revolts, military defeats and the concession of land to foreign governments.
The situation continued to worsen for the Qing after the Opium Wars. With the foreign powers gaining more control over the country, Chinese society fell into disarray as uprising and revolts further tore into their territory. Most notable of all the insurgencies was the Taiping Rebellion (1850 – 1864), the largest rebellion in world history, which took place after a man named Hong Xiuquan claimed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus, united a radical army of peasants, and ravaged the country in an attempt to convert the nation into a fundamentalist Christian republic. Hong actually captured Nanjing and ruled over eastern China for several years, but he was ironically defeated by a united Qing and European force. Around 20-30 million people died in the revolt, and its relative success even sparked similar peasant-powered upheavals around the country.
China slipped deeper into the Century of Humiliation when the Japanese attacked a weakened Qing government in 1894 to gain control of the Korean Peninsula. The success from capturing Korea further led the Japanese to take more, and they ended up occupying Taiwan and the Pescadores Islands off the coast of China. This belligerent action by Japan began the First Sino-Japanese War.
Soon another uprising erupted when a band of young and angry Chinese nationalists sought to expel the foreigners from their homeland. The young men practiced a vigorous brand of martial arts that they believed made their bodies impervious to bullets, and soon began attacking foreign missionaries, merchants, businesses and churches around Beijing, sparking a wave of outrage from the international community. This Boxer Rebellion (1899 – 1901) - so-called because of the martial arts practiced by the rebels - was publicly supported by Empress Dowager Cixi. The foreign powers banded together under the Eight Nation Alliance (Great Britain, France, Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia, Japan, Germany and the USA), which quickly overran the Boxers, occupied Beijing, and spitefully punished the Qing court through further unfavorable treaties and the burning and looting of imperial complexes in Beijing, namely the Old Summer Palace. More concessions were given up to these eight foreign powers, especially in the cities of Tianjin and Shanghai.
Empress Dowager Cixi
Empress Dowager Cixi and Emperor Guangxu died within two days of each other in 1908, and the two-year-old Emperor Puyi officially took over the dynasty. From there, it was only a short time before the city of Wuhan declared its independence from the failing Qing Dynasty (known by this time as the “Sick Man of Asia”) in October 1911, angry over rumors that railway rights to China’s southwest had been sold to foreigners. Other cities soon followed, and in 1911 the Xinhai Revolution unfolded as a group of nationalist revolutionaries, inspired by the democratic ideas of exiled Dr Sun Yat-sen, successfully overthrew the Qing royal family and brought the 2,000 years of Imperial China to an official end.
Qing Dynasty Map
Modern China (1912 – Present)
The Republic of China (1912 – 1949)
Elected as the first president of China, Dr Sun Yat-sen (1866 – 1925) was the co-founder of the KMT (Kuomintang) political party, which ruled the newly formed Republic of China (ROC) in the wake of the dissolution of the Qing. Sun officially took on the role of president in 1912, but only served for several months before he transferred power to general Yuan Shikai, a move that proved to undermine the ROC’s legitimacy when Yuan attempted to have himself proclaimed emperor of China.
Dr. Sun Yat-sen
After Sun Yat-sen passed away in 1925, power over the KMT fell into the hands of a high ranking party official, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (1887 – 1975). With the KMT still not in complete control of the nation and Marxist rebels gaining force, Chiang took a hard line approach not only against the Marxists, but also against the rivals within the KMT, purging many whom he felt threatened his power.
Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek
By 1928, Chiang had swept the communists back into the mountains and solidified power within the KMT. But while his government kicked off a major industrialization campaign, boosted Chinese transportation infrastructure and improved China's trade relations with Western powers, Chiang also oversaw ruthless suppression of political dissent, and never succeeded in controlling more than a few provinces in the eastern part of the country. Furthermore, western China remained controlled by warlords, the Japanese invaded and occupied Manchuria in China’s northeast in 1931, the Communists slowly re-established themselves in the northwest, and the Soviets invaded Xinjiang in 1934.
Unfortunately for the KMT, the worst was yet to come. Soon Imperial Japan set out to establish a global empire, beginning with an invasion of China in 1937. The early stages of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937 – 1945) proved too much for the under-trained KMT forces, and through a campaign of carpet bombings over major Chinese cities, Japan succeeded in occupying most of coastal China and capturing the capital of Nanking (present day Nanjing).
It was in Nanking where the Japanese unleashed a horrendous offensive of destruction, torture and rape during a hellish six-week period. By some estimates, more than a quarter million innocent civilians were brutally killed during what is known today as the Nanking Massacre (aka the Rape of Nanking), one of the worst atrocities of WWII.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the USA declared war on Japan and launched an offensive in the Pacific. In August 1945, US President Harry Truman authorized the use of atomic weapons on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forcing Japan into surrender and ending the Second Sino-Japanese War and WWII.
War between the Communists of the CCP and the Nationalists of the KMT quickly resumed, as the Chinese Civil War raged for another five years. The KMT, strained of money, man power and morale from decades of fighting insurgents and foreign invaders, no longer had the breath to fight, and the CCP under the leadership of Mao Zedong eventually took control of the country, culminating in Chairman Mao's iconic speech from atop Tiananmen Tower on October 1, 1949. Here he proclaimed a new China as a socialist People’s Republic of China (PRC), while Chiang Kai-shek and roughly 2 million other Nationalist sympathizers to the tiny island of Taiwan.
The People’s Republic of China (1949 – Present)
Chairman Mao proclaims the founding of the People’s Republic of China
Portrait of Mao Zedong at Tian'anmen Tower
After decades of war, China was a in shambles, and the people desperate for hope, change and a leadership that would bring their country into a new era of prosperity. An ambitious slate of land reform, nationalization and building projects quickly increased confidence amongst the masses. China’s participation in the Korean War (1950 – 1953) marked a time of uncertainty, but the adoption of the Soviet-style Five Year Plan kept the government clicking along while a collectivist agenda was put in place to control agricultural production.
A confident Mao in 1956 gave his blessing to the Hundred Flowers Movement, which invited criticism of government policy from intellectuals. “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools contend” was the motto of the movement, generating a rush of criticism that Mao had not anticipated. He swiftly instituted an anti-rightist campaign that made intellectuals out to be enemies of socialism. Huge numbers of academics and thinkers were forced to renege on their criticism, while others were deported to labor camps and publicly tortured and humiliated.
After the Hundred Flowers Movement, Mao commissioned the Great Leap Forward (1958 – 1961) by unleashing more radical policies with wide-scale economic and social reforms. Mao intended the Great Leap Forward to create a bright and prosperous communist nation, but in reality the sweeping reforms unfolded with little economic benefit and the starvation of millions. It was and still is regarded as a catastrophic failure by a great many people.
Mao persisted, however, and in 1966 he instituted the Cultural Revolution, which aimed to completely rid the country of foreign influence, capitalism, and the “Four Olds”: old culture, old customs, old habits, and old ideas. He created an army of young Red Guards, who were used to terrorize the nation, turning neighbor against neighbor in a flurry of criticism and denunciation that lasted from 1966 – ’76. Teachers and intellectuals disappeared into manual labor or worse, while Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian temples were torn down and their monks re-educated in Maoist doctrine. An unknown number of people (perhaps thousands) were branded capitalists or counterrevolutionaries and tortured and killed. Also during this time, Mao’s cult of personality grew immensely, and statues, portraits and posters of the Chairman proliferated throughout every town and village. Even to this day Mao's Cultural Revolution is one of the few of his policies openly admitted by the CCP to have been a disaster.
At the time of Mao’s death in 1976, the country was on the brink of ruins as the nation found itself bankrupt, socially divided, paranoid and in a general state of hysteria. But the death of Chairman Mao allowed for reformists to finally take control of the CCP and issue a new set of reforms in one last attempt to save the country from total collapse. The Gang of Four – a group of high ranking CCP officials, including Mao’s last wife, Jiang Qing, who promoted the Cultural Revolution – were imprisoned and blamed for the failures of the Cultural Revolution, and soon much of Mao’s radical institutions were abandoned. Collective farms were closed, and farmers were permitted to sell a portion of their crops on the free market.
Deng Xiaoping (1904 – 1997) became the new leader of the CCP, and he quickly ushered in the period of Reform and Openness using the idea of “Four Modernizations” to get China back on track in agriculture, industry, science, and national defense. Deng sought to create “socialism with Chinese characteristics” by keeping and reforming the socialist state of China, all while adopting an open economy that was integrated with the outside world.
Time Magazine chose Deng Xiaoping as their Man of the Year, 1985
Recreation of Deng Xiaoping's 1984 meeting with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
The first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) based off Deng’s model began in Shenzhen, right across the border from Hong Kong. It proved to be a tremendous success, leading the government to establish other SEZs along the coastal regions of China. With a new policy in place, and the mood of the country improving, Deng announced that to “get rich is glorious,” and that it was alright for some people to “get rich first.” The country took a 180 degree turn virtually overnight, and began its journey towards becoming a global economic powerhouse.
The surge in wealth in the 1980s masked a seething stress in society. The gung-ho reform of China’s economic system was not matched by similar enthusiasm for political reform, making corruption and suppression of dissent commonplace. When Hu Yaobang, revered for his moderate and reformer tendencies, died in the spring of 1989, mourners gathered in Tiananmen Square for what would grow into an unprecedented demonstration. At its peak, nearly a million Chinese workers and students teemed around the Gate of Heavenly Peace, much to the chagrin of the Communist Party, who feared how this might appear to the outside world. Eventually, the group dwindled to just a few thousand who refused to move. On June 3 martial law was declared as tanks and soldier-filled armored vehicles rolled down the streets. The brutal repression of the demonstrators that ensued ended with a death toll that is speculated by some to have been in the thousands.
Deng’s successors, Jiang Zemin (1992 – 2004), Hu Jintao (2004 – 2012) and Xi Jinping (2012 – 20??) followed Deng’s path, continuing an aggressive program of economic development, all of which has contributed to a roaring economy. Despite good times, local news is chock full of controversial Taiwan stories (some referring to the island as China’s “little sister” who should finally come home), and there’s a steady drumbeat of unrest among the Uighur population in western Xinjiang, along with protests and self-immolations amongst Tibetan monks in Lhasa as Tibet drives for independence.
The Future: a Fourth Golden Age?
At this stage in its long history, China feels that it has just about regained the prominent and powerful position it once held on the world stage. Given the many highs and lows, triumphs and scandals of its past, where China will go from here is a subject of unending speculation, fear, investment, optimism and joyfulness, depending on who you ask inside and outside of the Middle Kingdom.
Certainly, there is much hype about China becoming the new world superpower, but there are many hurdles in its way: the economy has slowed down after the 2008 world financial crisis, companies which used to outsource to China are moving elsewhere as costs are becoming too high, the government monopoly on power and tight censorship have created a non-transparent society unfavorable for business, corruption is rampant, and the wealth gap (which is already one of the largest in the world) is rapidly expanding.
On the other end of the spectrum, if we truly learn from history, and if the past is any indication of the future, by following the dynastic cycle there’s no reason not to believe that 21st century China could be listed along the side of the Han, Tang, Ming and Qing Dynasties as one of the most prosperous and influential in history. Despite all the obstacles that lay ahead, the CCP is playing their cards well by properly investing in infrastructure, health and education, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, and becoming an outsourcer instead of an outsourcing destination.
It’s impossible to predict the future, and only time will tell what lays in store for China. Regardless of which direction the country goes, nothing can take away from its thousands of years of fascinating history, or deny its thriving current state.