[China Watch] A Brief History of China

Today, China is known to the world for its economic, military and technological might.

According to the Lowy Institute, a think tank based in Sydney, Australia, China is an emerging global superpower and a superpower in Asia. In Nikkei Asia Review, Jacques Attali, who served as a counsellor to French President Francois Mitterrand and the first head of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, writes: “China is already a major military power, and in five years will be as militarily powerful in the Western Pacific as the U.S. is in the Eastern.”

He says, “It has world-class companies; it is the world leader in many of the technologies of the future, including artificial intelligence. It has the world’s largest reserves of many strategic materials. It has considerable financial reserves.”

But China’s image as a leader in the world’s economy is not recent. The country counts itself among the four ancient civilisations with historic records dating back over 3,000 years. It is said that China’s earliest rulers were from the Xia Dynasty who remained in power from 2100 to 1600BC, but there is not much proof about the existence of the dynasty.

Shang Dynasty

According to recorded history, however, it was the Shang who ruled the earliest Chinese state, comprising today’s Henan, Anhui, Shandong, Hubei and Shanxi provinces. Shang Dynasty is discussed in the Book of Documents, Bamboo Annals and Records of the Grand Historian – the earliest compilation of the history of Ancient China.

Historians differ on how old the Shang Dynasty is. Some say it was founded in the 18th century BC while others believe it was 16 century BC. However, what is confirmed is that the dynasty thrived during the Bronze Age.

Thousands of bronze artefacts from the ruins of Yin, the last capital of the Shang, located near present-day Anyang in Henan province, were unearthed.

Vessels used in ritual ceremonies, as well as chariots and axes that have been discovered, were all made of bronze. The tomb of the legendary Fuhao, wife of Wu-Ding, a king from the Shang Dynasty, contained 468 works of bronze and 775 pieces of jade. Examples of the early Chinese writing system can be found on oracle bones – another artefact linked to the dynasty.

During the Shang era, Chinese priests used tortoise shells and cattle bones to predict the future, and oracle bones to write down the timeline of the Shang kings.

The religion practised during the era was folk religion which revolved around the worship of many gods.

Use of calendars and development of astronomy and math are some of the hallmarks of the period, which is evident from the inscriptions on tortoise shells.

The founder of the dynasty was Tang, recorded on oracle bones as Da Yi. The dynasty lasted over 600 years and had 30 kings. It came to an end around 1046BC with the final Shang king being Di Xin, also known as Zhou Xin. He was ousted by the rebel leader Wu-wang, who established the Zhou Dynasty.

Zhou Dynasty

The Zhou Dynasty (1046-256BC) was the longest to remain in power in Chinese history. The Zhou lived in today’s Shanxi province and were relatively on good terms with the Shang.

Wu-wang overthrew the Shang ruler, but before he could consolidate his hold, a rebellion broke out which continued for three years before being finally subdued. During the Zhou period, tributary states were created. The original Zhou capital was located near present-day Xi’an in Shanxi on the Wei River. An eastern capital was also built at Luoyang to support the empire in the east.

Zhou era can be divided into two periods – Xi (Western) Zhou (1046-771BC) and Dong (Eastern) Zhou (771-256BC).

One of the Shang concepts that the Zhou developed was the Mandate of Heaven – a belief that the monarch and the ruling house are divinely appointed.

The Western Zhou period saw the rise of the decentralised state in which land was owned by a noble loyal to the king. Western Zhou fell just before the era known as the Spring and Autumn (Chunqui) Period (772-476BC), named for the state chronicles of the time (Spring and Autumn Annals).

The period was known for advancement in music, poetry and philosophy.

Eastern Zhou moved the capital to Luoyang and followed the Western Zhou model but the government began to decline, giving rise to the claim that the Zhou had lost the Mandate of Heaven. This weakness of the monarch threw the country into disarray, known in history as the Warring States (Zhanguo) Period (481-221BC).

Seven states namely Qin, Chu, Zhao, Wei, Han, Yan and Qi competed against each other for supremacy. In the end, Qin emerged the victor.

Among the many contributions made by the Zhou, whose era spanned almost 800 years, the emergence of various philosophical schools of thought, and political and religious innovations were its hallmarks. Famous names in Chinese philosophy – Confucius, Mencius, Mo Ti, Lao-Tzu and Sun Tzu – lived during this period.

Confucius the philosopher

Confucius, as the world remembers him, lived at a time when the Zhou Dynasty ruled over ancient China.

His philosophy and teachings have had such an impact that its effects can be felt even today.

Confucianism – as his philosophy came to be known – had a vast outreach and a magnetic appeal. So much so it rose to the status of state religion during eras of various dynasties that followed. Knowledge of Confucianism became essential to pass civil examinations.

Born as Kong Qiu (551-479BC) in the state of Lu in modern-day Shandong province, he was raised in the city of Qufu, later serving the Lu rulers under various capacities.

As the Zhou Dynasty was on a decline, the states were getting bolder and independent. Chaos had seeped into society, and according to Kong Qiu, only ‘li’ could bring order.

In Confucianism, li is a concept or an abstract idea referring to a ritual or proper conduct.

Over time, Kong Qiu’s followers started calling him Kongfuzi (Our Master Kong), which the West later adopted as Confucius.

The master travelled with his disciples throughout China, sharing his ideas, serving as an itinerant teacher and hoping to find a ruler receptive to his teachings.

Confucius’ philosophy revolved around equality, reverence and compassion.

 According to scholars, the Analects, which is a collection of Confucius’ sayings compiled by his followers, is a reasonably reliable source of his philosophy.

His ideology not only favoured the revival of the virtues of Yao and Shun – ancient China’s mythological kings known as the ‘Sage Kings’ – but also stressed on the ideal of equality and kindness, and it was this very concept that struck the systemic violence prevalent at that time.

The words ‘Junzi’ and ‘ren’ are used to explain the concepts of humanity and kindness. ‘Junzi’ is a philosophical term used by Confucius to refer to an ideal man who practices ‘ren’ which implies benevolence.

The junzi was required to show kindness to all at all times. The concept is explained by Confucius’ Golden Rule: “Do not impose upon others what you yourself do not desire”.

However, Confucius did not want this rule applied at a personal level only; he wanted it followed in the corridors of powers as well. 

He believed that if the rulers practised ren, they would not invade another territory, as they would never want their kingdom to be attacked either. Since they would not want to be exploited, reviled and reduced to poverty, they should not oppress others. He believed that a ruler should lead by example.

A disciple of Confucius, Zigong, asked: “What would you make of a man who could extend this benevolence to the common people and bring succour to the multitudes?” His master replied: “Such a man would be a sage.”

Confucianism always had a political orientation, wanting complete reformation of society. He also stressed the value of ‘yielding’. Instead of imposing oneself on others and seeking power, he believed that sons should yield to their fathers, warriors to their enemies, noblemen to their rulers, and rulers to their retainers.

He never saw family life as a hindrance to enlightenment. Instead, he considered it was a school of spiritual quest. Though Confucius disapproved of warfare, he knew no state could survive without its armies.

When asked what a government’s priorities should be, he replied: “Simply make sure there are sufficient food and sufficient armaments.” However, he said if one of these had to go, it should be weaponry.

The Five Classics along with three others on Confucian thought and one by Mencius make up ‘The Four Books and Five Classics’. These texts collectively form the foundation of Confucianism.

Confucius died in 479BC, but his teachings lived on through his followers. Among them, Mencius and Xunzi remain prominent, becoming the principal interpreters of Confucianism.

Qin Dynasty

During the period of the Warring States (475-221BC), many states fought each other for power. These states were created after the Zhou kings gave territories to relatives and officials who gradually grew in power and declared themselves kings.

In 221BC, Qin Shi Huang, the ruler of the state of Qin, won the war and founded a new dynasty which would rule till 206BC – the shortest reign by a dynasty in Chinese history.

Ying Zheng, as he was also known, was an exceptional leader, diplomat and the first ruler to use the title of emperor, making Qin the first dynasty of Imperial China.

The name China also originates from the word ‘Qin’, which is pronounced ‘Chin’.

Ying Zheng named himself Shi Huangdi (First Emperor). Unlike the Zhou who gave too much power to the states, he centralised the administration, bringing governors under the central government’s control. The Qin capital was Xianyang, a city in Shanxi province.

The First Emperor razed fortifications that separated the other six states and confiscated weapons to prevent any future rebellion.

The Qin standardised regional written scripts into a single national one, created the first Asian superhighway, the 500-mile Straight Road, along with the Ziwu Mountain range and started work on the Great Wall by expanding the northern border wall – a forerunner to the Great Wall of China later built during the Ming Dynasty.

In 210BC, the First Emperor died and through a series of uprisings, the Qin Dynasty was overthrown in 206BC. Though the dynasty was short-lived, it was the first house to introduce the imperial system, later adopted by successive dynasties.

After the overthrow of the Qins, Xiang Yu – a member of a prominent family in the state of Chu – tried to restore the earlier system, dividing the country among various generals and making each a ruler. This resulted in the creation of 18 separate states, historically known as the ‘Eighteen Kingdoms’.

However, a struggle for dominance soon broke out between Xiang Yu and the generals, among them being Liu Bang. In 202BC, Liu Bang defeated Xiang Yu’s forces and proclaimed himself Emperor Gaozu of Han.

Han Dynasty

Emperor Gaozu founded the Han Dynasty that would rule for almost 400 years, with a short interruption by the Xin Dynasty (9-23AD).

He first set up his capital in Luoyang but later moved it to Chang’an. He followed the governance models of his predecessors – the decentralised system of the Zhou and the Legalism of the Qin. He divided the state into 13 districts known as commanderies (jun) and awarded 10 kingdoms to his family members. The imperial court, however, controlled the western third of the empire directly.

Emperor Gaozu lowered taxes, opened up bureaucratic positions to all and treated commoners better than his predecessors.

China expanded its territory and trade while Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism developed. Even today, the majority ethnic group in China identifies itself as ‘Han Chinese’.

Han’s era was relatively a period of peace which allowed China to grow economically and expand. It is known for its promotion of Confucianism as the state religion, the opening of the Silk Road trade route and development of paper around 105AD.

Silk Road

In 138BC, a man named Zhang Qian was sent on a mission by Emperor Wu to develop contacts with tribes to the west. Zhang Qian returned after 13 years, mapping out a route of his expedition. The map and this route were used frequently, thus becoming the international trade route known as the Silk Road.

Xin Dynasty

Wang Mang was the founder of the Xin Dynasty, which means New Dynasty. The house ruled from 9-23AD. He was a government official in the Han court and the nephew of Empress Wang Zhengyuan. He was made a regent of a young Han emperor but he seized the throne and proclaimed a new dynasty. His reign divided the Han into Xi (Western) and Dong (Eastern) periods, with the Western Han ending in 9AD.

Wang Mang was a Confucian and believed in a single strong ruler. He, therefore, became a one-man government, refusing to delegate responsibilities.

Wang was sincere in implementing Confucian ideals in governance. His fiscal and agrarian enactments revolved around Confucian precepts. He built public halls for rituals, granaries for food distribution, distributed land among the peasants and slashed court budget to fund public programmes. It was his effort to introduce largescale reforms which brought about his downfall.

An uprising, led by rebels known as ‘Red Eyebrows’ (rebels painted a stripe of red over their eyebrows) erupted, which resulted in the death of Wang Mang in 23AD.

He was briefly followed on the throne by Liu Xuan from the house of Han who was proclaimed Gengshi Emperor but being a weak ruler he was deposed by the Red Eyebrows.

Eastern Han Dynasty

The period of the Eastern Han (25-220AD) begins with the reign of Liu Xiu, a descendent of Gaozu, who took the imperial title Emperor Guangwu (25-57AD).

Guangwu moved the capital back to Luoyang and carried out several reforms to prevent the kind of chaos that the Xin faced.

Guangwu’s reforms enabled the continuation of the Han Dynasty. However, rulers who followed him had brief reigns and the empire, which had grown in size, became too difficult for the central government to govern effectively.

In 189AD, a minor fight broke out in the palace between the Empress Dowager’s family and the eunuch allies of the young emperor. A religious cult called the ‘Yellow Turbans’ also got involved, to start a civil war. When the situation worsened, the military stepped in, but the conflict lasted until 220AD when the last Han emperor was deposed.

Three Kingdoms

The Period of the Three Kingdoms (220-280AD) which followed the Han Dynasty’s fall was a period of turmoil, very similar to the Warring States Period. It would be the Sui Dynasty many years later that will finally restore order and unity.

Jin Dynasty

In 265AD, a Sima prince, Sima Yan, deposed the last of the Cao emperors and established the Xi Jin Dynasty.

Sima Yan, known by his posthumous title, Wudi, was an able monarch. His court established one of China’s earliest legal codes. Wudi held most of his domains together, reuniting China under one monarch.

After Wudi’s death (290AD), the country was divided among the family, which weakened the empire. War of the Eight Princes encouraged nomadic groups known as the ‘Five Barbarians’ to attack the central government. The Xiongnu sacked the Jin capital of Luoyang in 311AD.

The Jin government reorganised under a new emperor in the ancient capital of Chang’an (Xi’an), but it too fell to attacks. The Jin court then moved to the south-east, forming government in Jiankang (Nanjing) in 317AD.

 This dynasty came to be known as the Dong Jin. Much of the population of this kingdom comprised refugees from the north who had fled the barbarian invasions. Though the Dong Jin was inflicted by revolts and wars with the northern states, it regained access to the Central Asian trade routes and had also produced a society of some cultural brilliance. Buddhism had a strong influence on this dynasty.

But even then, it would not be able to prevent a coup. Huan Xuan would be the first to revolt but he would be overthrown by a general named Liu Yu.

Liu Yu would proclaim himself emperor and establish the short-lived Liu-Song dynasty – the first of the southern dynasties (Nanchao) of the Six Dynasties period.

Sui Dynasty

The 37-year reign of the Sui Dynasty (581-618AD), though brief, was an important period in the history of China. It ended the almost three centuries of disunity, which had divided China into several warring states vying for control and carried out reforms.

In 581AD, Yang Jian seized the government of northern Zhou from his base in Guanzhong and unified the north. He then gathered an army of over half a million and sailed down the Yangtze River, capturing Nanjing. By 589AD, the south had fallen, and Jian, known posthumously as Emperor Wen (Wendi), became the first emperor in 300 years to rule over a united China. He made Chang’an his capital.

The Sui Dynasty consisted of two emperors – Wen, who reigned from 581-604AD and his son Yangdi (Yang Guang) who ruled from 604 to 618AD. Both rulers centralised the administration system, established a lenient law code and carried out land reforms.

An examination system was introduced to select local officials, with successful candidates sent to provinces different from their hometowns for around four years. The governance system introduced by the Sui survived until the Tang Dynasty and even after.

The Sui also conducted many military campaigns to expand territory. Initially, the campaigns in the south were a success, conquering territories from the Annam and the Champa in Vietnam.

The Sui expeditions against Goguryeo in Korea and northern Manchuria, however, set the dynasty’s decline. Several invasions resulted in failures. The defeat to Goguryeo and the peasants’ hardships led to a rebellion in 613AD, which was only fuelled by more defeats, this time to the Eastern Turks.

When Yangdi was assassinated in 618 by the son of his general, the Sui Dynasty fell and the government was taken over by Li Yuan, later to be known as Gaozu, the founder of the Tang Dynasty.

Tang Dynasty

Tang Dynasty, which remained in power from 618 to 906AD, is remembered for its promotion of poetry, printing and Buddhism. It would not be wrong to say that the Tang era was a golden age for Chinese arts and culture.

Li Yuan (Emperor Gaozu) was an official in the Sui government and was tasked with suppressing the peasant revolts and preventing incursions of Turkish nomads into North China. However, Li Yuan rebelled against the Sui ruler, captured the capital and proclaimed the Tang Dynasty.

Gaozu’s first task was to strengthen the defence of China against further Turk attacks. He also took steps to centralise the government and increase its efficiency, continuing with almost the same officials employed by the Sui. Gaozu ruled until 626AD, abdicating in favour of his son Li Shimin who became Emperor Taizong.

Taizong was a brilliant strategist, considered one of the greatest rulers in Chinese history. He set the standard for rulers of the Tang Dynasty through his commitment, religious tolerance and governance. On the whole, China prospered under his reign.

After he died in 649AD, his son Li Zhi became Emperor Gaozong. The dynasty was briefly interrupted when Wu Zhou, the empress consort of Gaozong, seized power after Emperor Gaozong’s death in 683AD, first exercising control through her sons and then proclaiming herself the Empress Wu Zetian in 690AD. She even announced a new dynasty – the Zhou.

Wu Zetian had acquired her governance skills from Taizong as she was his constant companion. Being a keen observer, she learnt the skills of governance from Taizong and followed his example. Wu ruled until 705AD when she was forced to abdicate in favour of her son, Li Xian, who restored the Tang Dynasty.

Li Xian assumed the title Emperor Zhongzong and reigned till 710AD. However, he was known to be a nominal ruler as the main power laid with his wife, Empress Wei.

Tang Dynasty reached its height during the reign of Empress Wu’s grandson, Emperor Xuanzong. His 43-year rule from 712 to 756AD witnessed cultural and scientific growth.

He patronised poets, painters and writers. Names like Li Bai, Bai Juyi, Wang Wei and Li Shangyin lived in the Tang era. Woodblock printing also developed in this period – the earliest examples dating back to 650AD.

But, just like it had happened with the previous dynasties, Tang too could not survive internal dissent. Decadence set in and by 860AD, there was complete chaos.

In 907AD, the Tang Dynasty was overthrown by a warlord, Zhu Wen, who assumed the title Emperor Taizu, the first emperor of the Hou Liang Dynasty.

The political vacuum created with the collapse of the Tang Dynasty led to the fragmentation of China into five dynasties and 10 kingdoms.

In the next 50 years, these short-lived dynasties would come and go, and finally, as had happened in the past, an individual would rise and reunite the country.

Song Dynasty

The Song Dynasty (960-1276AD) was an era which saw significant advancements in the fields of agriculture, iron-making and printing.

Zhao Kuangyin, a general with the Later Zhou, would unite the states and lay foundations for the Song Dynasty, setting up his capital in Kaifeng.

His regnal name would be Taizu, and to check the powers of the generals, he would introduce a rotation system for army leaders and give civil service a higher status than the army.

Emperor Taizu emphasized science and education, and this was the reason Song China saw economic growth. Trade rose through the export of tea, silk and porcelain. Many commercial cities sprang up during the period as economic wellbeing led to an increase in the population of cities.

Concerning governance, a progressive system was introduced where government officials were hired through highly competitive exams. Neo-Confucian became dominant whereas Daoism and Buddhism’s influence waned.

Song’s military expeditions, however, proved costly. In an attempt to annex the Viet territory in the south where the Ly Dynasty ruled, two invasions were launched but both failed, as a result of which the Song government suffered financially. These losses coupled with some other key factors led to the demise of the Northern Song Dynasty.

A member of the imperial house, however, managed to set up the Southern Song government, taking the name Gaozong, who made the wealthy city of Hangzhou his capital in 1132AD.

Kaifeng was taken over by the Jurchens who then founded the Jin Empire (1115-1234AD). The South Song Empire witnessed an economic as well as scientific revolution much like its preceding Northern Song Dynasty. Some of the biggest cities were built and agriculture, commerce and industry grew. But, the Southern Song rulers, just like their predecessors, took wrong military decisions.

In 1234AD, the Song army joined hands with the expansionist Mongol army to attack the Jin Empire whom they defeated easily. However, the Mongols then turned against the Song and after fierce fighting, Hangzhou was captured in 1279AD, signalling an end to an era that witnessed some of the greatest economical and educational achievements.

The Mongols, under Kublai Khan, took over and founded China’s first foreign-led dynasty which history would know as Yuan.

Yuan Dynasty

After the Mongols defeated Southern Song in 1279 following a naval battle of Yashan, which saw the last Song ruler, eight-year-old Emperor Bing, drown himself at sea, Kublai Khan acquired total control of northern and southern China.

He proclaimed himself Emperor Shizu with his seat of government in Dadu, present-day Beijing. The dynasty would rule China till 1368AD.

Kublai Khan conducted several campaigns during his reign to bring China’s neighbours under the empire’s control. Two invasions were carried out to subdue Japan (1274 and 1281AD) but with little success. Vietnam, Myanmar and Java (1292AD) too were attacked but the Chinese empire only managed to gain a regular tribute from the Pagan kingdom in Myanmar and the Champa and Dai Viet kingdoms of Vietnam.

At its zenith, the Yuan controlled an area stretching from far north of Mongolia to parts of Vietnam and from the Pacific Ocean to Central Asia.

The era saw enormous growth in trade, science and literature. Being mainly an agrarian economy, superior techniques were employed in farming which resulted in greater yield. The dynasty favoured international trade.

The use of paper currency was promoted while science, astronomy and medicine reached greater heights. Literature saw the growth of theatre. ‘Yuan Drama’ is considered one of the heritages of Chinese literature.

The period is also known for its diplomatic activities with many foreign envoys, merchants and travellers coming to China, the most prominent among them being the famous Italian traveller, Marco Polo. He introduced China to the outside world through his notes, The Travels of Marco Polo.

However, one major change seen during the first Yuan emperor’s reign was the employment of foreigners as administrators, with Mongols occupying the top position in the hierarchy. Even Marco Polo served as an official in Kublai Khan’s government.

Artisans, craftsmen and merchants benefitted from favourable tax measures and low-cost loans. Goods were transported through roads, canals and ships. These policies enhanced business, especially of silk and fine porcelain, and ushered in an exchange of ideas and technologies.

The religious belief of the Mongols was Shamanism where a priest or priestess invoked spirits from the supernatural world and directed them into the physical world for healing and other purposes.

Since some foreigners employed by the Yuan emperors as well as merchants were Muslims, many Mongols converted to Islam. So much so, Islam acquired the status of a minority religion.

Kublai’s successor, his grandson Temur Oljeitu (1294-1307AD) followed his predecessor’s policies and carried out economic reforms, but the reigns of subsequent rulers were short-lived.

In the early part of the 14th century, the country was hit by natural disasters like the flooding of the Yellow River, droughts and epidemics. Millions of people perished or became homeless. In 1351AD, the Red Turban Rebellion broke out, claiming the Yuan had lost the Mandate of Heaven.

The dynasty was finally brought down by Zhu Yuanzhang, an important leader of the Red Turban Rebellion, who attacked Dadu in 1368, forcing Emperor Toghon Temur to flee to Mongolia where the dynasty survived till 1635AD under the new name – Northern Yuan Dynasty.

Zhu declared himself the ruler of China in 1368, taking the regnal name Hongwu Emperor, establishing the Ming Dynasty.

Ming Dynasty

Ming dynasty founder Zhu Yuanzhang came from humble origins. After his parents died as a result of natural disasters, he spent several years at a Buddhist monastery. In 1352AD he joined a rebel group that opposed the Yuan Dynasty. He rose among the ranks, ultimately becoming an important rebel leader who would then invade Nanjing.

In 1368, he captured Dadu (Beijing), toppled the last Yuan emperor and founded the Ming Empire, which would be the last ethnic Chinese dynasty that would rule till 1644.

Zhu Yuanzhang, who took the title Hongwu Emperor, promoted a centralised government, staffing his court with officials who passed the Neo-Confucian Imperial Examinations. He limited the power of eunuchs, who had been involved in court intrigues in the earlier eras.

Believing that the empire depended mostly on agriculture, he initiated pro-peasant reforms, reducing taxes, building canals and promoting new methods of farming. He did not pay much importance to merchants, imposed high taxes on them and even introduced the sea ban policy called Haijin, which prohibited private sea trade.

Emperor Hongwu was succeeded by his grandson, Zhu Yunwen, who was known as Jianwen Emperor. However, his rule did not last long and was toppled by his uncle, Zhu Di in 1402AD, who would rule as Yongle Emperor. His rule is known as a period of prosperity.

Since the Mongols were a constant threat, Yongle Emperor moved his capital from Nanjing to Beijing in 1421AD and started construction of the Forbidden City.

Repair work on the Great Wall of China also commenced in his era. He rebuilt the Grand Canal, which helped increase trade in the north.

Yongle Emperor invested on a big fleet, which was headed by Zheng He, regarded as China’s greatest explorer who would lead expeditions to India, the Persian Gulf and as far as Africa between 1405 and 1433.

By 1557, China was exporting products, especially silk and porcelain, to other countries. Neo-Confucianism was the main religion in the Ming period. However, Christian missionaries also started visiting China, the most prominent being Matteo Ricci, who arrived in China in 1583 from Italy and initiated the first Catholic mission in the country.

Literature developed and with better-equipped printing presses, a large number of books on a variety of topics were easily available to citizens.

Humour and fiction were popular dictions and so were full-length novels. Book illustration gained prominence during this period.

By the middle of the 17th century, the empire was inflicted by crises, ranging from financial troubles, military campaigns to natural calamities.

Low agriculture produces, mainly caused by the ‘Little Ice Age’ that reduced temperatures, led to famine and drought. Frequent floods and deserting soldiers also added to the empire’s woes. Rebellions were breaking out throughout the country with two major uprisings led by Li Zicheng and Zhang Xianzhong, who captured various parts of the country.

Li Zicheng founded the short-lived Shun Dynasty in Xi’an. With the empire in chaos, the last Ming ruler, Chongzhen Emperor, committed suicide. Though the Southern Ming government was set up in Nanjing, it did not last long and neither did the Shun Dynasty.

The Manchurian forces from north-eastern Asia invaded China in 1644 and established the Qing Dynasty with Emperor Shunzhi occupying the throne.

Qing Dynasty

After the tragic end of the last Ming emperor and ousting of the breakaway governments in Xi’an and Nanjing, the Manchus established firm control over China. They made Beijing their capital and the era of the new Qing Dynasty began.

The Qing would become the second foreign dynasty to rule over China after the Yuan and also the last before the country became a republic in 1912.

A Jurchen tribal leader, Nurhaci from the Aisin Gioro clan, united the Jurchen tribes in 1582 and founded the Later Jin Khanate in Manchuria, a region in East Asia.

He attacked the Ming Empire, capturing Shenyang in the northeastern province of Liaoning. His successor, Hong Taiji, renamed the dynasty the ‘Great Qing Empire’ in 1636 and continued from where his father had left. However, he died in 1643.

A committee of Manchu princes then chose his five-year-old son Fulin to lead the Manchus. Because of his age, the committee appointed Dorgon, Nurhaci’s son, as regent. Dorgon ruled on behalf of his young nephew, who was proclaimed Emperor Shunzhi, till his (Dorgon) death in 1650 after which the young emperor took direct control.

Dorgon inducted Ming officials which helped the nascent empire and re-introduced the imperial examinations – a popular move among the bureaucracy. Manchu-style pigtails were also introduced by him.

It was with Emperor Kangxi’s rule, whose reign was the longest by any Chinese emperor, that the Qing golden age commenced, ushering in many cultural and administrative reforms.

Kangxi set up a strong government, cutting down on his staff and reducing state expense. He lowered taxes, introduced pro-farmer policies and came down hard on corruption. He is also remembered for developing a standardised dictionary of the Han language which is still in use.

On the military front, he crushed rebellions, including the ones started by three former Ming generals whom the Qing emperors had granted territories for siding with them, blocked Russian advances and even signed an agreement with them in 1689 known as the Treaty of Nerchinsk under which a major part of Siberia came under Chinese rule.

The emperor promoted exports of many products, including that of silk and tea and introduced potatoes and corn in China.

The golden period continued into Emperor Qianlong’s reign, who came to the throne in 1735. He was known for his patronage of arts, publishing thousands of poems and also taking steps to preserve Manchu culture.

The Qing were, however, conservative which was visible from the society of the period. Nevertheless, creative work thrived. Works of poet Yuan Mei and novelist Cao Xueqin attracted attention.

The 19th century saw China becoming involved in military conflicts with the West. The first Opium War in 1840 pitted China against Great Britain. Conflicts with Britain forced China to give up Hong Kong. Another Opium War followed in 1856, which continued till 1860.

Besides, foreign confrontation, internal chaos also weakened the Qing. Among the many rebellions, the Taiping Rebellion was the worst. Dissent within the imperial house, particularly the clash between Emperor Dowager Cixi and her nephew Emperor Guangxu as well as the Boxers Rebellion in 1899 hastened the dynasty’s downfall.

The final straw was a revolution led by Sun Zhongshan, also known as Sun Yat-sen. The Nationalist Party of China rose against the Qing in 1911 in Wuchang. Their revolt spread and many provinces broke away from the empire. The last emperor, Xuantog, abdicated in 1912 and Yuan Shikai became the new republic’s president.

Republic of China

The Xinhai Revolution in 1911 fuelled an uprising which spread to 15 provinces that declared independence. The revolutionaries elected Sun Yat-sen as the provisional president of the republic, and after negotiations, the last Qing emperor stepped down in 1912.

Sun later ceded power to Yuan Shikai, the head of the powerful Beiyang army – a dominant military force founded by the Qing – who then became the president of the Republic of China. But the alliance between the revolutionaries and Yuan Shikai did not last long. Distrust persisted between the two over several issues, including the country’s capital.

Over time Yuan Shikai, with the support of the Beiyang Army, became more powerful restricting Sun to his home province of Guangdong.

The country held its first elections in 1913 which were won by Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party). Song Jiaoren, who was a candidate for the slot of the prime minister, was assassinated, which was followed by a crackdown on his party.

Sun Yat-sen fled to Japan and Yuan Shikai became the main power. So much so he even declared himself Hongxian Emperor, assuming his move would receive both domestic and international support.

However much to his dismay, he faced opposition even from his supporters, forcing him to abandon the title. Shortly after, he died in 1916, his Beiyang army disintegrated and the country descended into further turmoil.

Regional commanders with their private armies exerted authority over their respective areas. Most of the north became embroiled in civil wars, with each warlord vying for power.

The country had witnessed divisions in the past, and that too during the periods of strong dynasties. The Qing, during their end, was anything but strong. This decline empowered local warlords, especially three rival factions – the Zhili clique led by Feng Guozhang, Duan Qirui’s Anhui clique and the Fengtian clique, headed by Zhang Zuolin.

The warlord armies grew in number, and most of those joining were driven by economic desperation. In over a decade the size of these armies rose from 500,000 in 1916 to two million in 1928. A national government in Beijing though recognised internationally, was not legitimate. However, it did benefit from foreign trade and taxes, and this motivated the warlords to seize it.

Between 1920 and 1924, Beijing changed hands between various warlords, each controlling the Beiyang government. During the warlord era, China suffered administratively, socially and economically. The peasants, in particular, faced the brunt.

Sun Yat-sen, meanwhile, reorganised Kuomintang and reached out to the Soviet Union which sent a team of advisers, led by Mikhail Borodin, to Guangzhou in early 1923 to assist the party. The Soviets asked Sun Yat-sen to join hands with the Chinese Communist Party, and this laid the foundation of the First United Front.

An academy was set up in 1924 with the support of Chinese and Russian communists in Guangzhou known as the Huangpu Military Academy.

Soviet trainers were sent by the Comintern to train the officers and by 1925, an army was ready which was further strengthened by the joining of four provincial armies, thus forming the National Revolutionary Army under the command of Chiang Kai-shek, also known as Jiang Jieshi.

However, Sun Yat-sen died in March 1925 and was succeeded by his long-time ally, Chiang Kai-shek, who took over Kuomintang and led the Northern Expedition, reunifying most of China and ending the Warlord era.

He set up a national government in Nanjing, starting the ‘Nanjing Decade’ that continued from 1928 to 1937. This was a period of a relatively-stable government. Policies were introduced to support economic growth, industrialisation and investment.

The Central Bank of China was established in 1928 and a national currency based on paper banknotes rather than silver coins was issued. The government invested in infrastructure. It, however, had its challenges. Japan invaded Manchuria in the north-east of China in 1931, and in 1937, launched a full-scale invasion of China.

The nationalists and the communists had just forged an alliance called the Second United Front. Their forces put up resistance, but they were no match to the Japanese technological superiority. The national government had to move its base from Nanjing to Chongqing in western China. However, the Japanese could not overrun the entire country, and the Sino-Japanese war remained a stalemate.

By 1940, the Japanese controlled the north-eastern coast and areas up to 400 miles inland. They even installed a puppet government in Nanjing under Wang Jingwei, a political rival of Chiang Kai-shek. It was not until 1941 when China received foreign assistance. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour which drew the United States into World War II, making China one of the allies.

The Second United Front collapsed with the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, and China became entangled in a civil war that broke out in 1946.

Finally, the communists, led by Mao Zedong, emerged victorious in 1949, establishing the People’s Republic of China. Chiang and the remaining Kuomintang forces fled to Taiwan where they formed a government in exile. Mao Zedong would rule the country as chairman of the Communist Party of China from 1949 till his death in 1976.


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