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China - History



Chances are, if it exists in the West, it came from the East. Think anything from noodles, calligraphy and ceramics to golf, ice-cream, opera, fireworks, architecture and philosophy. The Chinese were casting bronze around 5000 years ago, and the earliest chopsticks were not far behind. Chinese culture has made one of the greatest artistic contributions to humankind. Sadly, much of China's ancient art treasures have been destroyed in times of civil war or dispersed by invasion or natural calamity.

Within the last 200 years, China has undergone tremendous social and economic upheaval, all taking its toll on the national psyche. Chinese culture took a beating during the Cultural Revolution and is still recovering. There is a large cultural gap between Hong Kong and Macau and the rest of China. Hong Kong and Macau, while outwardly more modern, are also more traditionally Chinese because they didn't experience the Cultural Revolution.

Pre 20th Century History

The Chinese claim a history of 5000 years. The first dynasty, the Xia, is yet to be archaeologically verified but is accepted as lasting from 2200 to 1700 BC, and is described in legends as having been preceded by a succession of god-like sovereigns who bestowed the gifts of life, hunting and agricultural knowledge. The existence of ensuing dynasties is similarly hazy, but clarity increases with each era, revealing agricultural societies who practised ancestor worship.

The Zhou period (1100-221 BC) saw the emergence of Confucianism and the establishment of the 'mandate of heaven' whereby the right to rule was given to the just and denied to the evil and corrupt, leading to the later Taoist view that heaven's disapproval was expressed through natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and insect plagues.

The Chinese were united for the first time during the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC). The dynasty standardised the writing system and completed construction of the Great Wall. The ensuing Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) featured much military conflict and the creation of the Three Kingdoms. Curiously, these war-torn centuries also saw the flowering of Buddhism and the arts.

Unity arose out of the chaos under the Sui dynasty (581-618) and was consolidated under the Tang (618-907), commonly regarded as the most glorious period of Chinese history. Military conquests re-established Chinese control of the silk routes and society was 'internationalised' to an unprecedented degree. Buddhism flourished under the Tang, splitting into two distinct schools: the Chan (Zen) and Pure Land (Chinese Buddhist).

The Song dynasty (960-1279) was marked by a revival of Confucianism and urban and commercial revolutions - it was during the 13th century that Marco Polo commented on the grand scale of China's prosperous cities. Genghis's grandson Kublai Khan's Yuan dynasty (1206-1368) established a capital at what is now Beijing and militarised the nation's administration. The novice Buddhist Hongwu established the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), with capitals at Beijing ('Northern Capital') and Nanjing ('Southern Capital') .

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in China, anchoring off the coast in 1516. A trade mission was established in Macau by 1557, but it was not until 1760 that other powers gained secure access to Chinese markets via a base in Guangzhou. Trade flourished, but in China's favour, as British purchases of silk and tea far outweighed Chinese purchases of wool and spices. In 1773 the British decided to balance the books by encouraging the sale of opium. By 1840 the Opium Wars were on.

The resulting treaties signed in British favour led to the cession of Hong Kong and the signing of the humiliating Treaty of Nanking. A subsequent land-grabbing spree by Western powers saw China carved up into spheres of influence. The Chinese agreed to the US-proposed free-trade Open Door Policy and all of China's colonial possessions soon evaporated, with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia falling to the French, Burma to the British, and Korea and Taiwan to Japan.

Modern History

The first half of the 20th century was a period of utter chaos. Intellectuals searched for a new philosophy to replace Confucianism, while warlords attempted to grab imperial power. Sun Yatsen's Kuomintang (KMT, or Nationalist Party) established a base in southern China and began training a National Revolutionary Army (NRA). Meanwhile, talks between the Soviet Comintern and prominent Chinese Marxists resulted in the formation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921. Hopes of the CCP aligning with the KMT were dashed by Sun Yatsen's death and the rise from the KMT of Chiang Kaishek in Beijing, who favoured a capitalist state supported by a military dictatorship.

The communists were split between those who focused on urban revolt and those who believed victory lay in uniting the countryside. Mao Zedong established his forces in the mountains of Jinggang Shan, and by 1930 had marshalled a guerrilla army of 40,000. Chiang mounted four Communists extermination campaigns, each time resulting in communist victories. Chiang's fifth campaign was very nearly successful because the communists ill-advisedly met the KMT head-on in battle. Hemmed in, the communists retreated from Jiangxi north to Shaanxi - the Long March of 1934. En route the communists armed peasants and redistributed land, and Mao was recognized as the CCP's paramount leader.

In 1931 the Japanese had taken advantage of the chaos in China to invade Manchuria. Chiang Kaishek did little to halt the Japanese, who by 1939 had overrun most of eastern China. After WWII, China was in the grip of civil war. On 1 October 1949 Mao Zedong proclaimed the foundation of the People's Republic of China (PRC), while Chiang Kaishek fled to Taiwan. The USA continued to recognise Chiang as the legitimate ruler of China.

The PRC began its days as a bankrupt nation, but the 1950s ushered in an era of great confidence. The people were bonded by the Korean War, and by 1953 inflation had been halted, industrial production was restored to prewar levels, the redistribution of land had been carried out and the first Five Year Plan had been launched. The most tragic consequence of the Party's dominance was the 'liberation' of Tibet in 1959. Beijing oversaw the enforced exile of the Tibetan spiritual leader and initiated the genocide of a precious culture. To this day hundreds of monasteries still lie in ruins.

The next plan was the Great Leap Forward, aimed at jump-starting the economy into first-world standards. Despite oodles of revolutionary zeal, the plan was stalled by inefficient management, coupled with floods, droughts and, in 1960, the withdrawal of all Soviet aid. The Cultural Revolution (1966-70) attempted to draw attention away from these disasters by increasing Mao's personal presence via his Little Red Book of quotations, the purging of opponents and the launch of the Red Guard. Universities were closed, intellectuals were killed, temples were ransacked and reminders of China's capitalist past were destroyed.

Beijing politics were divided between moderates Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping and radicals and Maoists led by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing. The radicals gained the upper hand when Zhou died in 1976. Hua Guofeng, Mao's chosen successor, became acting premier. Public anger at Jiang Qing and her clique culminated in a gathering of protesters in Tiananmen Square, and a brutal crackdown led to the disappearance of Deng, who was blamed for the 'counter-revolutionary' gathering. Deng returned to public life in 1977, eventually forming a six-member Standing Committee of the CCP.

With Deng at the helm, and the signing of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, China set a course towards economic reconstruction, although political reform was almost nil. General dissatisfaction with the Party, soaring inflation, corruption and increased demands for democracy led to widespread social unrest, typified by the demonstrations of 1989 that resulted in the bloody Tiananmen Square massacre.

Recent History

With the handover of Hong Kong and Macau, China's 'one country, two systems' plan shifted up a gear. Jiang Zemin's leadership charted a new course based on economic growth; overseeing the admission of China into the World Trade Organisation and guiding Beijing to success in the 2008 Olympics bid. His successor, Hu Jintao is set to follow the path of economic modernisation more aggressively still. Continued civil rights abuses, official corruption and the stagnant rural economy are the sharpest thorns in the country's side, but membership of the World Trade Organisation is a great leap forward - though probably not one Chairman Mao would have envisaged.

The biggest barrier to the 'One China' model is the tiny rogue island of Taiwan, which has agreed in principle to the model but paradoxically interprets it in its idiosyncratic, Taiwanese way. China has retorted with rhetoric about 'brothers and sisters' and, just to prove that all families have their problems, have backed it up with a show of military muscle. It's the equivalent of a Chinese burn administered by an older and stronger brother.

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