This is China gives an overview of 5,000 years of Chinese history in just over a 100 pages. From the earliest signs of civilization to everyday life in contemporary China, this book covers a wide range of topics that will help you better understand Chinese history, culture, and its place in the world today. The following questions can be used as a study guide, or as the starting point for in-class discussion. They ask about larger developments and abstract concepts, as well as specific events and important details. In general, these questions are not only meant to guide students during their reading of this book, but also to stimulate their critical thinking and analytical skills.
Before You Start Reading
What do you already know about China? Where does that information come from? Do you think that information is objective/reliable, or not? How does the way China is portrayed in “Western” media influence your ideas about the country and its people? What are your expectations for this book? What do you hope to know about China after you are done reading it?
While You Are Reading
Answering the following questions while you read This is China will ensure that you know the main points made in the book, and ultimately better understand China, its culture, its people, its history and (perhaps) its future.
Chapter 1: The Land and the People (pp. 1–14)
- What does the Chinese term for China, Zhōngguó 中国, literally mean and where does it traditionally refer to? What could this name indicate about the way that the ancient Chinese civilizations saw their own position in the world?
- Chapter 1 is titled “The Land and the People”. Characterize “China’s distinctive physical and human geographies” and explain how they have influenced each other over the course of history. Give some specific examples. (pp. 1–8)
- On page 2, China’s physical geography is compared to that of the United States. Discuss how both the physical and human geography of China, as well as the influence this has on the people and the government, compare to that of the United States or Europe. Do you think such a comparison is useful or even possible?
- What are some of the earliest human cultures in China (during the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras)?
- Discuss how China’s specific human geographical elements, such as ethnicity, religion, philosophy and language (can) influence the life of individual Chinese. And what about the influence it has on governing China as a country/state? (pp. 9–14)
- Name and describe the main religious/philosophical tenets found in China.
Chapter 2: From Prehistory to the End of the Empire (pp. 15–71)
- Name, date, and give at least 2 characteristics of all the Chinese dynasties from the Xia to the Qing.
- What are the different views on the Xia dynasty? Where does this difference come from? Do you think the Xia was legendary, or do you believe it was real?
- How are religious rituals/ancestor worship and state power related during the Shang dynasty?
- What are oracle bones? What was their function during the Shang, and why are they important to us today (or in the recent past)?
- Starting in the Zhou dynasty and lasting until the end of the Qing, the Mandate of Heaven (tianming) has been a key political concept in China. Explain this concept and discuss its pros and cons for a ruling dynasty.
- What are the core values and concepts of Confucian philosophy?
- Besides Confucianism, what other major philosophies blossomed during the Eastern Zhou dynasty?
- Analyze the short lived Qin dynasty. Explain how Qin Shi Huangdi’s achievements can also be interpreted as leading to the dynasty’s demise.
- The terracotta army at Qin Shi Huangdi’s mausoleum, near Xi’an, is one of China’s biggest tourist attractions. What was its original purpose, and what does it tell us about the (religious) beliefs of the Qin ruler?
- As is mentioned on page 33, the Han went through a cycle of governance that would often recur in Chinese history. Describe this ‘dynastic cycle of life’ and give examples from other dynasties. Can you think of an explanation for this phenomenon?
- What were some of the most important achievements/inventions of the Han?
- Characterize the period between the Han and the Sui dynasty, also known as the Southern and Northern dynasties.
- Discuss the Sui dynasty in terms of its relative short length versus the many achievements and its influence on future dynasties and the development of China
- The origins of the civil service examination date back to the first Sui emperor. Describe this system, its historical development and its importance to the Chinese dynastic system and education.
- The Tang is often described as “the golden age of imperial China” (p. 43) and “a cosmopolitan society open to foreign influence” (p. 45). What are some of the characteristics of this era?
- Despite the flourishing period, the Tang also faced severe internal struggles. Name and describe the rebellion (755–763 ce) that weakened the Tang, and explain how it added to the demise of the dynasty.
- The Song dynasty can be divided into two periods: The Northern Song and the Southern Song. How did this divide come about, and analyze the differences between the two periods.
- Whereas the Tang is often characterized by cultural and literary achievements, the Song reached new economical highs. Name some of these economical developments.
- The Yuan dynasty can be seen as a “foreign” or non-Han dynasty. Explain why.
- What were some of the factors contributing to the demise of the Yuan dynasty.
- Analyze the reign of the first Ming Emperor, Hongwu. How could you explain his behavior?
- During the Ming dynasty, popular culture flourished. Give some examples of this. How would you distinguish between popular culture and elite culture? Do you think such a distinction still exists today (in China and/or the West)?
- The Qing dynasty was not the first time that the Manchu (earlier known as the Jurchen) ruled at least part of China. When and where had they been in power before? Describe the fate of that 100 year dynasty.
- The Qing dynasty implemented several rules to maintain their Manchu identity. Name some of these, and explain the problems and benefits of such an approach. What impact do you think these rules had on the other ethnic groups (most prominently the Han)?
- Both the Yuan and the Ming dynasty were ruled by “foreign” powers. How did their approaches to government, culture, population etc. differ?
- Several “conflicts within and without” finally led to the end of the Qing dynasty (and dynastic rule in general). Describe these different conflicts. How did these national and international problems influence each other, or do you think they are completely isolated?
- During the final decades of the Qing dynasty, there were several attempts at revival. Name and describe some of these movements/attempts.
- How would you characterize the role of the West in the fall of the Qing dynasty?
Chapter 3: A Century of Change – From 1912 to Today (pp. 73–110)
China as a Republic, 1911/1912–1949 (pp. 73–91)
- The Nationalists came to power in 1911 with Sun Yat-sen as their leader. After his death, he was followed by Chiang kai-shek. Describe these two men and the way that they lead the Nationalists.
- Characterize the rule during the so-called “Nanking decade.”
- Describe the relationship between the Nationalists and the Communist during this period. What were their political, (military) strategic, and ideological differences?
- How would you characterize the role of the USSR in China during the period 1911–1949?
- What was the May Fourth Movement? Discuss its cultural and political goals, and analyze how the historical events that occurred at the time influenced the movement.
- When and why did the so-called Long March take place? Who participated, and what role do you think this historical event played in later decades, for both the political rulers as well as the common people?
- Explain how the war against Japan, and the different tactics that the Nationalist and the Communists employed, influenced the final outcome of the Chinese Civil War between the Nationalists and the Communists.
China under Communist Rule: 1949–End of the 20th century (pp. 91–110)
- What happened to the Nationalist Party after the Communist takeover in 1949? What are the consequences of this result that last until today?
- What were some of the political reforms and campaigns that took place during the early years of Communist rule? What impact do you think these events had on the country, the population, the economy, and the politics?
- Analyze the Cultural Revolution, including its main participants, its original (political) goals and the (unwanted) consequences. Can you think of any long-term consequences that this 10 year long “revolution” has had on the people involved and the country at large?
- After Mao’s death in 1976, China tried to come to terms with its turbulent past. How did this happen and what were some of the “conclusions”? If you had lived through these years in China, how would you have “judged the past”? Can you think of any problems that Chinese may have with the official “final judgment” of their recent past?
- What were Deng Xiaoping’s four cardinal principles, also called the four modernizations? Why do you think these four are so important?
- Describe the 1978 Democracy Wall Movement.
- The 1989 Tian’anmen student protests can be seen as a watershed moment in Chinese history. Explain why, and try to characterize the difference between the periods before and after the protests.
- On page 109 the “third and fourth generation” leaders are discussed. How would you characterize those leaders and in what ways are they different from earlier leaders?
Chapter 4: China Today (pp. 111–126)
- Analyze the characteristics and impact of the most recent national (and international) developments on China. What is the role of typical Chinese concepts (such as harmony, loajia, face, guanxi, and qingke) in the way China has, and will continue, to develop?
- How are political and economical developments related to each other? Do you think they can develop independently from one another?
- What are some of the challenges that China faces in the near future? Do you think these are substantially different from other places in the world? What impact could China’s history (as you know now it very well) have on the problems it is facing and the way it might solve them?
Important Names and Terms
The following names and terms are very important for your understanding of China, and answering the reading questions. Make sure you know who these people are, and what the terms mean.
Individuals and Organizations
- Qin Shi Huangdi (the first emperor of China)
- Li Bai/Du Fu
- Wu Zetian/Cixi
- Sun Yat-sen/Chiang Kai-shek
- Mao Zedong/Deng Xiaoping
- Chinese Communist Party (CCP)
- Nationalist Party
- Beijing/Tian’anmen (square)
- Huang (Yellow) River (Huánghé 黄河)
- Yangzi River (Chángjiāng 长江)
Terms, Concepts, Places, and Events
- Boxer Rebellion
- civil service examination
- Confucius / Confucianism / neo-Confucianism
- Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) / Red Guards / Gang of Four
- dynasty/ emperor
- The Great Wall
- Han Chinese / minorities
- Long March
- Mandarin (language)
- Mandate of Heaven (Tiānmìng 天命)
- May Fourth Movement / New Culture Movement
- Opium War(s)
- oracle bones
- Reform and Opening-Up Policy
- Sino-Japanese War(s)
- Taiping Rebellion