Chinese culture has a history of about five thousand years with no significant changes. As opposed to other ancient cultures, such as those of Egypt, Mesopotamia or India, the continuity of Chinese culture, which began at about the same time as those of these other lands, remained unchanging.
Nonetheless, China itself did not remain static. Dynasties rose and fell, foreign invaders (especially tribes from the north) caused vicissitudes lasting for centuries, and there was civil warfare among the Chinese states. However, compared with Europe, China presents an amazing historic continuity.
The Period of the Five Legendary Emperors 2600-2070 BCE
There are several versions of the early history of China. According to one of them, Chinese history begins with the five rulers known in Chinese as Wu Di 五帝 (literally: the five emperors). Opinions are divided among scholars as to their identity. Some identify them as Fu Xi 伏羲, Shen Nong 神农 (literally: divine peasant), Huang Di 黃帝 (literally: yellow emperor) , Yao 尧 and 舜. Others identify them as Huang Di, Zhuang Xu, Di Ku, Yao and Shun Yu 舜禹.
According to the traditional Chinese conception, prior to the period of the five legendary emperors the Chinese people had been barbarians and only became civilized under their rule. These emperors developed methods of government and introduced ethics and laws to regulate conduct. It was they too who introduced certain key inventions and institutions to humanity. Fu Xi is considered as the first hunter and angler, who initiated the domestication of animals. Shen Nong, who ruled after him, is considered as the inventor of agriculture, medicine and trade. The next ruler was the Yellow Emperor, who is considered as the inventor of the wheel, writing, and the division of time into cycles of 60 years.
The five emperors instituted religious rituals and sacrifices to the gods, mountains and rivers. They did not establish dynasties because they did not consider their sons fit to be emperors. Instead, they selected men whom they considered to be more perfectly qualified. Their times are viewed as the golden age in which the world was perfect.
Each of the five emperors had one of the five elements attributed to him. Had it not been for the importance in Chinese theory of five elements, only two early legendary emperors would have been noted, rather than five.
Yao and Shun are mentioned as the earliest rulers of China in The Book of History 书经 attributed to Confucius. However, the famous Chinese historian Si Ma-Qian 司 马迁 (163-85 BCE) noted in his Historical Records 史记 that the Yellow Emperor was the first emperor in Chinese history. According to Chinese tradition, Fu Xi, Shen Nong and Huang Di (the "Yellow Emperor") were the three sagacious rulers. Another version considers the Emperors Yu 禹 , Yao and Shun as the three sages. Emperor Yu was the founder of the Xia dynasty.
Xia 夏 Dynasty – 2070-1600 BCE
Emperor Yu, founder of this dynasty, is associated with fishing, irrigation and control of floods. The dynasty's last emperor, in contrast, was a cruel despot who evoked an antagonism that led to his deposal. No written records dated to the Xia period have been found, however, to confirm the name of the dynasty and its sovereigns. The names first appeared in later periods.
Shang 商Dynasty (known also as Yin 殷 Dynasty) – 1600-1046 BCE
During this period, China, although maintaining connections with the West, was sufficiently isolated to enable it to develop a unique culture. Ancestors and natural phenomena were worshiped. The supreme authority lay in the hands of the king, whose family's main duty was to hold sacrificial rites, such as the king's burial.
The nobles engaged in warfare, fighting as archers from horse-drawn chariots. Prisoners of war were made slaves or sacrificed. During times of peace, the nobles controlled the administration and engaged in hunting. Every community was ruled by a lord 君, who was usually a member of the royal family. Most of the population earned their livelihood from agriculture. The farmers worked together, harvesting twice a year. Crops were plentiful, even by modern standards.
It was customary at the time to write questions (usually concerning the weather, gods, rites and battles) to be answered by fortune-tellers on oracle bones. The cracks that ensued from heating the bones were deciphered and the answers to the questions were written on the bones. From these unearthed bones, we can learn much about the ruler's life, the nobles and the populace.
The Shang dynasty had several capital cities, among them Anyang 安阳, which was founded ca. 1300 BCE. In 1027 BCE Anyang fell to the hands of rebel armies and the Zhou 周dynasty was established.
Zhou 周 Dynasty -1046-221 BCE
The longest dynasty in Chinese history. It was during this period, customarily divided into sub-periods (see below), that the Chinese culture was molded for the generations to come. Science and technology developed and new cities appeared. The most prominent achievements of the period were those in philosophy and literature.
Between the years 1300-1046 BCE, the population ruled by the Zhou dynasty was concentrated west of the territory of the Shang dynasty. The rulers of the Zhou dynasty called themselves "kings" 王, a title intended to proclaim them as the supreme authority.
During the Zhou dynasty armed settlers immigrated to the territories occupied by the Shang dynasty. Members of the Zhou royal family and army commanders were appointed as overlords in these occupied territories. The new feudal lords built walls to fortify their estates. Beyond the walls there were farmlands enclosed by additional walls delineating the borders of the estates.
Western Zhou Dynasty – 1046-771 BCE
This was a period characterized by feudalism, already well established in the Shang Dynasty. Kings divided their lands into more than a thousand estates whose owners became lords. The lords maintained bands of warriors, who were given social and economic privileges, and were also administrators. There appears to have been a wall separating the residential area of the warriors from the peasants, who cultivated the land and bred sheep and cattle. A system of loyalties developed. The individual peasants were loyal to their families, who were loyal to the nobles that ruled the estates. The nobles swore an oath of loyalty to the king and were supposed to protect the peasants against enemies, famine and disease, in return for their work on the estate.
Unlike feudalism in medieval Europe, the nobles were liable to supervision by the police and inspectors. As representatives of the king, the inspectors handed out pensions to the sick, the old and orphans, and acted where necessary to improve the crops. A small group of rulers held political, economic and religious authority. Unlike the medieval European oligarchy, characterized by clerics and warriors, in the Zhou dynasty the ruler and his subordinates were related by blood and worshiped the same ancestors. Division of land was essentially a division of responsibility among family members, constituting an ideal way for the kings to rule distant territories. Population mobility was low and the economy was relatively simple. Natural disasters, however, occasionally caused collapses in this feudal system.
The examination system (through which government officials were selected), and one of the most important institutions in China, developed from the feudal inspection system. The inspectors were expected to show supreme loyalty to China rather than to one man or another. Committees of scholars interviewed the candidates, who came from all strata of the population.
The Zhou dynasty's kings, however, were unable to control the decentralized system for long. They were forced to abandon their lands following nomad invasions from the north in 770 BCE, the beginning of the Eastern Zhou dynasty.
Eastern Zhou Dynasty - 770 – 256 BCE
This dynasty was an independent political power comprised of local nobles not subordinated to the Western Zhou dynasty kings. The latter continued to rule, but their territory shrank. The Eastern Zhou era is often subdivided into two periods: the Spring and Autumn, and the Warring States.
The Spring and Autumn 春秋 - 770-221 BCE
This period is named after the Spring and Autumn Annals 春秋- a historical record of the State of Lu. In the early years of this period, China was divided into 170 feudal states, each ruled by a lord (some called themselves kings). By the end of the period there remained about 40 states. In 771 BCE, the ninth ruler of the Western Zhou dynasty was banished from the capital city by the Mongolian army. Chu and Qin, the semi-barbarian states on the margins of the Middle Kingdom gradually increased in strength. There was a continuing tendency towards assimilation of the smaller and feeble states into the bigger and stronger ones, especially after 500 BCE, until there remained only seven significant states, called "The Warring States"
The Warring States Period- 战国- 475-221 BCE
The Warring States period is named after the Record of the Warring States compiled in the second century BCE. This period marks the gradual disappearance of the feudal system. The royal family progressively lost control over its vassal states. The rulers of the states aspired to expand their territories, usually at the expense of other states, with their desire for peace being less than their desire for new territories. Walls were built along the borders of some states, especially those bordering the nomad lands to the north. Irrigation channels were developed and so too was the administration.
Until the fourth century BCE, ownership of the land was in the hands of the nobility. The peasants cultivated part of the land for their lord and part for themselves. Shang Yang 商鞅 (390-338 BCE), the Prime Minister of the State of Qin 秦, abolished the feudal system by enabling the ordinary folk to purchase land. Thus the peasants, who had been vassals obliged to work for their lord, now became free, but they still had to pay state taxes.
Abolition of feudalism took place in other Chinese states as well. The lords abandoned their estates, disbanded their forces and moved to the capital, where they came under the close inspection of the government.
The Warring States was the period of the great Chinese philosophers, among them Confucius and Lao zi, who laid the foundations of Chinese thinking. Chinese medicine developed empirically and became coherently systematic.
Education and natural talent replaced family status as important criteria for nomination to official public positions. As the government officials became more expert, the administration became more sophisticated. Land and its produce were traded more often and the use of currency was introduced. Cities grew bigger and their number increased. Some of them became trade centers. All these factors conduced to society in the Warring States period gaining a new level of social mobility. At the end of this period, of the original seven Warring States only one state remained - the State of Qin.
Qin Dynasty 秦– 221-207 BCE
The first emperor in the dynasty called himself Qin Shi Huang Di 秦始皇帝 (259-210 BCE), meaning "the first Emperor of Qin", a title combining the title "Huang" (literally: exalted ruler) attributed to the three sagacious Kings, and the title "Di" (literally: prince), attributed to the five legendary Emperors. In this way, he presented himself as a more glorified ruler than those of the past. From then until the end of the period of empire in the 20th century, Huang Di was used as the title of the emperor. The ruler of Qin added the word "first" to his title to mark an expectation for a long succession of emperors.
Qin Shi Huang Di succeeded in defeating his enemies and unified China under his rule. He established a centralized government with authority over local administrations.
Aspiring not only to create a new beginning but also to obliterate almost entirely the heritage of those who were now his people, Qin Shi Huang Di instigated book burning and had more than 460 scholars murdered (213 BCE), most of them Confucians. Only certain works written on medicine, agriculture and divination survived his decree. At the same time, he also surrounded himself with many scholars, physicians and alchemists, whose studies were focused on developing techniques for anti-aging and achieving immortality.
Although a dictator, Qin Shi Houang Di was also a very efficient administrator. Under his rule standardization of the written language, measures, weights and coins was introduced. He built a road system radiating from the capital and connecting areas previously isolated. He also completed the building of a wall along the northern boundary to protect the empire from the Huns. This wall became a prototype of the Great Wall known to us today.
Even prior to becoming emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di had planned his mausoleum. It was discovered in 1974, east of the modern city of Xian 西安, and found to contain more than 7,000 life-sized terracotta warriors. A short time after his death the central government collapsed and China sank into chaos, with local lords fighting for supremacy.
In 207 BCE the eunuch Zhao Gao 趙高forced the second emperor of the Qin dynasty to abdicate and commit suicide. Zhao Gao, who then seized power, became a cruel tyrant who ruled barely two months before being murdered.
The Qin dynasty, within its short and violent period of rule, had destroyed the old and created a new system. Its influence on the development of China's history was significant. The unification, standardization and centralization that it created granted the Chinese people a sense of unity and identification. The Chinese territory, political ideology and government foundations laid by the Qin dynasty were to last for about two thousand years. The name "China" itself, originating in the name of the dynasty (Qin), derives from this period.
Han 汉Dynasty 206 BCE-220 CE
During this period two dynasties ruled successively: the Western Han 西 汉 (206 BCE-24 CE), whose capital was Chang'an 长安 , and the Eastern Han 东汉 (25 -220 CE), whose capital was Luoyang 洛阳.
One of the leaders of the rebellion against Qin was an uneducated man of peasant origin, named Liu Bang 劉 邦 (256-195 BCE), who became the first emperor of the Han dynasty. Liu Bang, also known as Emperor Han Gao Zu 汉高祖, reunited the empire and named the dynasty "Han" 汉. Like his predecessors, he too was considered a divine authority. One of the legends told about him narrates that his mother conceived him as a result of the appearance of God in her dream, and that when he was born, a dragon was seen flying above her.
Among the Han dynasty was Emperor Han Wudi 汉 武帝 (140-86 BCE), a prominent warrior who was interested in education and adapted the ideology of Confucius as a guide to his rule. He initiated the Imperial examination system, launched a series of military campaigns in Central Asia and opened up the Silk Road to trade with remote markets, expanding to the west and reaching as far as Rome. The price of Imperialism was high, however, and new taxes were imposed to finance his ambitious plans.
The Han dynasty's rulers mitigated the more ruthless aspects of the previous dynasty and restored the Confucian ideals, which had been abandoned by the Qin dynasty. Confucian scholars served as high government officials, and the cultural, intellectual, literary and artistic activities were revived.
During the Han dynasty the Historical Records 史记 were written by Si Ma Qian 司 马迁(145-87 BCE), and there was significant technological progress. The great Chinese inventions – paper, the compass and the seismograph – originated in this period.
The most significant reform introduced in the Han dynasty was the recruitment of talented people to operate the bureaucracy. High government officials were asked to select candidates for public service based on their qualifications rather than connections.
The internal struggles and civil wars that erupted at the end of the Han dynasty, however, brought destruction upon many large cities such as Chang'an and Luoyang, causing the emigration of inhabitants from the cities to the country. As opposed to the cities, the estates of the large families were considered relatively safe and attracted both peasants and city-dwellers.
In the absence of a central political force, large families turned their estates into autarchies. Some of these estates grew huge in size, comprising thousands of families, now ruled by the elite who had come from the original large families.
The Chinese today call themselves "Hans" and consider the Han dynasty as the beginning of their history.
After the fall of the Han dynasty in 221 CE, and until the reunification of the empire in 589 CE, political unity in China ceased to exist. The empire split into "dynasties" that were actually dictatorships established by those who seized power by force. These dictators, however, who in most cases ruled several provinces and passed on the rule to their descendents, never gained the authority and prestige achieved by the Han dynasty emperors.
The Three Kingdoms - 220-280 CE
During this period, China was divided into three Kingdoms: Wei 魏– 220-265 CE, Shu 蜀– 221-263 CE and Wu 吴 – 222-280 CE.
Western Jin 西晋 Dynasty 265-316 CE
This dynasty briefly unified China, but in 316 CE the north and the south again became separated for a long period.
Eastern Jin Dynasty 东晋317-420 CE
The Northern Dynasties (Turkish, Tibetan and others) and the Southern Dynasties: 420-589 CE.
The Southern Dynasties:
Song 宋420-479 CE.
Qi 齐 479-502 CE.
Liang 梁 502-557 CE.
Chen 陈557-589 CE.
The Northern Dynasties:
Northern Wei 魏 386-534 CE.
Eastern Wei 魏 534-550 CE.
Northern Qi 齐 550-577 CE.
Western Wei 魏 535-556 CE.
Northern Zhou 周577-581 CE.
Sui 隋 Dynasty: 581-618 CE
During this period China was reunited once more and the Imperial examination system was restored. In about 600 CE woodcut printing was invented.
Tang 唐 Dynasty: 618-907 CE
This was a period that saw the centralist empire reestablished and significant achievements in Chinese culture. The early emperors of the Tang dynasty were writers and patrons of poets, but the dynasty's end was infected by corruption and murder.
The status of women improved significantly during this period, an improvement attributed to Empress Wu Zetian 武則天 (ruled 684-705 CE). Wu arrived at the harem of Emperor Tai Zong 太宗at the age of 12 in the year 637. The emperor called her Mei 媚(literally: charming), and in China she is known as Wu Meiniang 武媚娘. When the emperor died (649 CE), she and all his other concubines were supposed to enter a Buddhist monastery and live there with shaven heads until the end of their days. But Wu, who was both beautiful and clever, refused to submit to her fate. She returned to the palace as a concubine of the next emperor, Gao Zong 宗 高 (son of one of the previous emperor's wives; ruled 649-681) and became his empress. When Gao Zong fell ill he left all state affairs in her hands. After his death, Empress Wu ruled de facto during the official reign of her son, Emperor Zhong Zong 中宗 . In order to challenge Confucian beliefs against rule by women, she employed scholars to write biographies of notable women. Under her rule, a number of exceptional women contributed to culture and politics. In 705 CE she retired and her son took over active rule. She died at the age of 81.
During the Tang dynasty China strengthened its relationship with the West. The court received foreigners, took an interest in foreign leaders and religions and received Western visitors. Many Chinese people married foreigners, among them Turks, Indians and others from Central Asia. Chinese scholarly monks traveled to Central Asia to learn from Indian masters. The intellectual spirit, curiosity and tolerance that marked this period, encouraged sympathy for foreign ideas and religions. Diplomatic relations existed with Western Asia until the end of the dynasty. The streets of Chang'an 长安 teemed with visitors from Siberia, southern India, Greece, Arabia, Persia and Japan.
While the Chinese in mainland China consider themselves as descendants of the Han dynasty, those Chinese who live in the Pacific Islands see themselves as descendants of the Tang dynasty. Accordingly, the Chinese Quarters, called Chinatown in cities around the world, are named in Chinese "Tang People's Streets" 唐人街 .
The Tang dynasty revived once more the old Imperial examination system based on the classic texts of Confucius. The appointment of new people to the government and the destruction of the nobility's property in the north by the military regimes weakened the powerful aristocratic families and led to the creation of a new upper class. Social status became a product of success in the Imperial examinations.
The Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms五代十国
The Five Dynasties 五代:
Later-Liang 后梁 907–923 CE.
Later-Tang 后唐 923-936 CE.
Later Jin 晋 后 936-946 CE.
Later Han 后汉 947-950 CE.
Later Zhou 后周 951-960 CE.
The Five Dynasties was a period of short-lived empires established in the north as the successors to the Tang dynasty. Their main capital city in the east was Kaifeng 开封and in the west was Luoyang 洛阳. The period of the Five Dynasties was marked by hardships and instability. The dynasties’ main efforts were dedicated to holding on to their territory.
The Ten Kingdoms 十国:
Northern Han 北汉 : 951-979 CE.
Wu : 902- 937 CE.
CE. 937-975 唐 南 Southern Tang
Wuyue 吴越907-978 CE.
Min 闽909-945 CE.
Southern Han 南汉 917-971 CE.
Chu 楚927-951 CE.
Jingnan 荆南 924-963 CE.
Early Shu 前蜀907-925 CE.
Late Shu 后蜀 934-965 CE.
The period of the Ten Kingdoms saw stability to some extent. The strength of the rulers was based on their armies. In many of these kingdoms, national and international trade brought a source of wealth and power.
Liao 辽 or Qidan 契丹 Dynasty 947-1125 CE
China was invaded from the north by the nomadic Khitan tribes, which then adopted the Chinese dynastic name of Liao. The peaceful relations that ensued between the new Liao dynasty and the Chinese led these foreign rulers to abandon their warring pursuits.
Song 宋 Dynasty 960-1279 CE
This period was the golden age of Chinese culture. China was united once again by Emperor Zhao Kuanyin 赵匡胤 (ruled 960-976 CE), the founder of the Song dynasty, whose capital city was Luoyang. Zhao was devoted to the Confucian values and aspired to be remembered in history as a good ruler. Neo-Confucianism arose, answering questions raised by Buddhist philosophy.
The early Song dynasty emperors used their power to create a central government and preferred civilian government officials over the military. The administration widened. Gunpowder, then already known in China, began to be used as a weapon.
The Song dynasty was a period of encyclopedias, catalogs and academies. The Imperial examination system was developed further and now enabled even the poor to gain positions as government officials. China became open to new ideas and to relations with the West. The initially powerful government, however, gradually lost its power, and its western territories too were lost. The attempt to repel foreign attackers failed, and the way lay wide open for the Mongolians to invade China.
In the years 1127-1279 China was divided between the (Chinese) Southern Song dynasty and the (Mongolian Jurchen) Jin ( 金, literally: gold) dynasty that ruled between the years 1115-1234. In 1220, the Song dynasty government made peace with the Manchurian Jin kingdom in order to attack the Liao dynasty. The Liao dynasty, weakened as a result of economic disasters and internal struggles, fell victim to the attacks and withdrew to the west, where the Western Liao 西辽dynasty was founded.
Western Xia Dynasty 西夏: 1032-1227
The Xia dynasty, whose founders were neighbors of China (speaking the Tangut language) to the north, ruled a state spread across northwest China, including the Chinese provinces of Gansu 甘肃, Shanxi 陕西 and Ningxia 宁夏.
Yuan 元 Dynasty: 1280-1368.
After a long period of foreign rule in its north, China fell to the hands of Mongolian tribes. In 1206 these tribes selected Genghis Khan (literally: the ruler of the world) (1162 -1227) as their leader and began a campaign of conquests that was continued by his successors, who expanded the empire across Asia. The Mongolian army gradually conquered all the lands of China.
Kublai Khan (ruled 1260-1294), grandson of Genghis Khan, established a powerful dynasty. The Mongolian government attracted international delegations more than ever before. The capital moved to the Beijing area and the atmosphere there became more international. First impressions from China made their way to Europe in the book written by Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant who dwelt in China between 1275-1292 , and was received in Kublai Khan's court in 1275.
Ming 明 (literally: light) Dynasty 1368-1644
China was reunited after 400 years by Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋, the son of poor peasants. Zhu founded the Ming Dynasty, the last Chinese (descendant of Han) dynasty. In this period neo-Confucianism was dominant, there were trade relations with Europe and Christian missionaries came to China. This was an age of flowering literature – the age of books such as The Golden Lotus (or The Plum in the Golden Vase), The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West (or Monkey).
The Ming dynasty, like the contemporary European Renaissance, was the age of the discovery of the world and of man. The philosopher Wang Yangming 王阳 明 (1472-1529) founded a neo-Confucian school of his own, discussing nature, the function of the mind and its connection with the world. He believed that it is not the world that shapes the mind, but the mind that gives reason to the world; that all men possess an internal knowledge of the distinction between good and evil; and that turning to this internal knowledge in the search for an original mind encourages a kind of individualism, according to which every man has the potential for wisdom.
The number of academies, which had become centers of knowledge since the Song dynasty, increased considerably, especially in the south. The academies reflected the dissatisfaction with the standard education. There was a feeling that whereas the state schools and the Imperial examination system merely led to position, wealth and corruption, the academies offered education leading to knowledge.
The aspiration to discover the world in this period finds its expression in the maritime journeys of Zheng He 郑和 (1371-1433) who sailed to India, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula and Africa. There are scholars who claim that he even reached America.
During the 16th century, a series of foolish, hasty and careless rulers ruled China. Eunuchs promoted themselves and became involved in state affairs. Discussions concerning the Imperial rites and the appropriate titles for the emperors' ancestors evoked internal struggles, hastening the end of the dynasty. Moreover, the Mongolians again threatened China from the north. By the end of the 16th century China had been weakened by attack and invasion by the Japanese.
Qing 清 (literally: purity) Dynasty 1644-1911
This dynasty was founded by the Manchu, who invaded China and established their own government. These people were the Jurchens, relatives of the founders of the Jin dynasty, who had conquered northern China during the 12th century, before Genghis Khan defeated them. During the Yuan dynasty (1280-1368 CE), the Mongolians had ruled them.
The Manchurians retained their ethnic identity during their occupation of China. Consequently, there were two kingdoms: one for the conquerors and one for the conquered. The empire was divided into 18 provinces, each ruled by a government official.
The success of the Qing dynasty's rule can be attributed to the great Manchurian rulers, who respected the Chinese traditions, as had done the late Ming rulers. Nevertheless, the Manchurians were not themselves allowed to marry Chinese or to bind their women's feet, as was customary among the Chinese. Likewise, an effort was made to keep alive the Manchurian language. The Chinese, who were used to combing their hair in a special style as a sign of maturity, were now required to adapt the hairstyle of the Manchurians, who shaved the sides of their head and braided the rest.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Westerners began coming to China. Political relations between China and the West were established when the emissary Earl McCartney arrived from England as the head of a delegation to negotiate with the Manchurians over improving trade conditions between China and England. The British wished the emperor to enable British ships to trade, to anchor and to store merchandise in other Chinese ports, and not only in Guangzhou 广州 (Canton) and Shanghai 上海. The emperor, however, saw in this delegation a sign of submission. Consequently, the Manchurian government officials demanded that the members of the British delegation kowtow 折腰 before the audience and the emperor. The British delegation refused to do so, and the emissary returned to England with no agreement, but with a grudge. This event was one of a series that culminated in the war between England and the Manchurian empire.
A central factor in the war between the Chinese Empire and the British Empire was the opium trade. Opium smoking had been introduced to China from Java, in the 18th century. At the beginning, it was known to the Chinese as a medicine, and its use as a source of pleasure began only in the 19th century. By the end of the 18th century it was understood that opium could damage the health, and in 1829 its use was banned; but the population ignored the ban.
From 1800 on the consumption of opium rose. The earliest consumers were from the upper classes, but the habit gradually passed to government officials and soldiers, and then to the rest of the population.
The West India Company sold opium in China, and countless Chinese became addicted to the drug. The British imported large quantities of opium from Bengal in India, and got rich by selling it. Before the opium trade China's exports had exceeded its imports, but now the Chinese currency was devalued.
During the years 1839-1842 and 1856-1860, opium wars were fought between Britain and China. China yielded in both wars and was forced to tolerate the opium trade. It was at that time that Hong Kong was leased to Britain by China and became a British territory.
In 1851, following this humiliation, civil war (called Tai Ping 太平) broke out in China. A group of Christians with their leader Hong Xiuquan 洪秀全 (1817-1864), a mystic who had converted to Christianity and declared himself a new messiah and Jesus' younger brother, rose against the Qing government. Hong and his followers founded the "Heavenly Kingdom of the Great Peace" 太平天囯, and took over considerable parts of south China. In this civil war, which ended in 1864, more than 20 million people perished. Hong declared himself absolute ruler of the kingdom. In the government examinations the candidates were now tested on the New Testament and not on Confucianism. Private possession was abolished. Gambling, drugs and slavery were banned. The new ruler, however, received neither support from the Western countries nor from the Chinese public.
In 1906 the Chinese government began diplomatic efforts to convince countries to limit their opium export to China. By 1908, Britain had agreed to reduce export of the drugs.
The Republic of China 1912-1949
The Manchurian Empire came to an end following the initiative of a group led by Sun Yat Sen 孙中山 (1866-1925), leader of the Nationalist party, the Guo Ming Tang 国民党. Sun Yat Sen founded a government in Nanjing in 1912 and declared the establishment of the Chinese Republic. This uprising won public support and the Manchurian dynasty was forced to abdicate. The army commander at the time in Beijing, Yuan Shikai袁世凯 (1856-1916), had his own aspirations. The nationalists united with Yuan and established a government in Beijing, with Yuan as their president. Yuan eventually dissolved the parliament and became an autocrat, aspiring to found a new empire. The nationalists and Sun Yat Sen and his followers were banned by law and they found refuge in Guangdong.
In 1919 an anti-Imperialist national movement named May Fourth Movement 五四运动 expressed China’s outrage over the Versailles treaty, according to which Shandong was to be transferred to Japan rather than being returned to the Chinese. This movement marked the beginning of modern China.
In 1921 the Communist party was established in China. After Sun Yat Sen's death in 1925, Jiang Kai Sheck 蒋介石(1887-1975) who had been the military adviser to Sun Yat Sen in 1925, led a coalition of nationalists and communists in the north.
In 1928, the government, ruled by the military, was dissolved and a new Chinese republic was established in the capital city Nanjing.
As opposed to Mao Zedong 毛泽东(1893-1976) and others who were the followers of Sun Yat Sen, for Jiang Kai Sheck it was more important to build a strong national state than to bring about equality in Chinese society. He did not subscribe to Mao's trust in the peasant class. His supporters were from the military and members of the new merchant class in Shanghai and other trade centers. Shortly after Sun Yat Sen's death, a struggle started in the Nationalist party (Guo Ming Dang) between the political left and the military right.
Jiang Kai Sheck emerged as the new leader, although the leftists limited his moves. In 1927 he expelled the communists from the Guo Ming Dang, and in 1928 Mao founded a separate peasants' state in Hunan 湖南, his native province.
The Chinese Communist party, advised by Moscow, tried to instigate revolts in cities such as Guangdong; but these were suppressed. Jiang Kai Sheck encircled the communist regions with military barricades, preventing the movement of supplies.
Determined to continue the Communist revolution, Mao and his followers started the Long March (along 9,600 kilometers), through 11 provinces and a population of about 200 million peasants, before they arrived at a safe place in Shanxi 陕西; only around 25% of them survived the march! Following the Long March, Mao Zedong emerged as leader of the Chinese Communist party.
In 1931 relations between China and Japan deteriorated following the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, leading to an outright war between 1937-1945. The Western Allies supported the Chinese in their fight against the Japanese occupation and the war ended in Japan's defeat. Nonetheless, China remained weak. The Communists, who had increased in strength through the war, now confronted the Nationalists. Efforts to negotiate a peace agreement between the two parties failed, and civil war broke out, in the wake of which the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan.
The People's Republic of China – From 1949 until the Present
In 1949 the Communists founded the People's Republic of China. Private possessions were confiscated. Millions of individuals were labeled ‘enemies of the people’ and were killed. China became isolated from the rest of the world, and the Chinese people were incited against the West.
In 1957 Mao launched the Hundred Flowers Campaign, calling upon intellectuals to express their ideas. Responding to his call, they did so freely, but their ideas often did not match the expectations of the government. The "Rightists" among them were sent for "re-education" for criticizing the regime "from a mistaken point of view".
1966 saw the beginning of China's Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976, following the death of Mao and the arrest of the Gang of Four (Mao's widow and her three associates) a month later. During the ten years of the Cultural Revolution schools were closed and millions of youth were sent to rural areas to work in the countryside and learn from the peasantry. One positive aspect of the revolution lay in its giving equal opportunities to all, with no discrimination between rich and poor.
In traditional China, the four main social classes, in descending order, had been the 士 - scholars who passed the government examinations and became government officials, 衣- peasants, 工- craftsmen and artists, and 商- merchants. Even lower than the merchants were the soldiers, actors and criminals. There had been a slave class as well, but in China the slaves were not as numerous as they had been in the West.
In 1926 the Nationalists altered the hierarchy of the classes. At the top was the merchant class and afterwards, in descending order, were the scholars, the craftsmen and artists, and at the bottom – the peasants.
Following the Cultural Revolution, the social status hierarchy changed once again. Mao aspired to a classless society, but it was the peasants whom he respected the most and after them the scholars. The merchants returned to the bottom of the hierarchy.
Since 1949, four stars have appeared on the flag of the People's Republic of China, representing the four classes as categorized by Mao Zedong: workers, peasants, petit-bourgeoisie, and patriotic capitalists. These four stars appear beside a bigger one, the big rescuing star 大救星 that represents the Communist Party. The People's Republic of China's flag replaced the empire's flag, on which a dragon had been depicted.
Though the Communists' declared aspiration had been to establish equality, during the Cultural Revolution human rights, democracy and traditional culture were crushed. Millions of people were mentally and physically abused.
In 1978 Deng Xao Ping 邓小平(1904-1997), Mao's successor, began to initiate economic reforms that brought swift economic growth to China. The relations between China and the West improved considerably, as did the relations with Japan.
In 1984, an agreement was signed that would transfer the sovereignty of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997. According to the agreement, the principle of "one country two systems" was to be practiced, meaning that China would refrain from interfering in Hong Kong's affairs for 50 years - until 2047. China currently aspires to reach a similar agreement with Taiwan.
To expand your knoledge about China's history I recommend the podcast of Laszlo Montgomery in the following web site:
To expand your knoledge about China's history I recommend the podcast of Laszlo Montgomery in the following web site:
 The five elements – wood, metal, water, earth and fire - were used in Chinese philosophy to describe interactions and relationships between phenomena. See also the chapter on the Chinese perception of the world.
 Oracle bones were pieces of bone or turtle shell used in royal divination.
 The examinations were open to all male citizens. Passing them ensured a position as a public official who was granted wealth and social prestige. For more on the Imperial examinations see the chapter: On Study, Education and Ignorance.
 A name adopted by the conquerors in 1635.
 A former Chinese custom of touching the ground with the forehead as a sign of respect or submission.