The oldest printed map in any culture, a map of West China (Di Li chin Tou) in the Liu Qing Tou (Illustrations of Objects mentioned in the Six Classics), an encyclopedia circa 1155 BCE. Province names are written in white on black, and the line of the Great Wall is clearly visible along the top half of the map.
For millennia China has influenced and been influenced by the world—scientifically, agriculturally, politically, culturally, and economically—and in 2008 had a population of 1.33 billion, larger than any country’s. Despite past political turmoil and natural and human-made disasters, China’s current government has reasserted an imperial unity and expanded its global influence beyond all earlier limits.
China is a very big country. Today China’s land and water mass is nearly 9.6 million square kilometers (fourth after Russia, Canada, and the United States). Its land boundaries extend to fourteen countries—a world record it shares with Russia, although China’s borders out-measure Russia’s by about 2,000 kilometers. The 1.33 billion people living within those borders (as of 2008) give China the distinction of being by far the most populous land on Earth. China is also a very old country. Homo erectus populations lived there about 900,000 years ago, and modern Homo sapiens arrived about 40,000 years ago. Agriculture dates from about 10,000 years ago; Chinese state-building and civilization arose, initially in the Huang (Yellow) River valley, after about 4,300 years ago, and attained lasting and distinctive forms with the establishment of the Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE).
China’s role in world history is correspondingly prominent. To begin with, its distinctive civilization affected neighboring peoples in east Asia—Koreans and Japanese to the east, steppe nomads to the north and west, and tropical gardeners to the south. China has always retained primacy in that part of the world thanks to the skills, the numbers, and the economic and political prowess of its population. As transport and communication improved over time, China’s influence reached ever more widely across Asia, and Chinese civilization continually enriched itself by importing new skills, new knowledge, and new things from afar. Beginning about 100 BCE, with the opening of organized caravan trade along the so-called Silk Roads, this process of interaction began to affect western Asia and even distant Europe as it established an Old World web that eventually expanded around the globe after 1500, creating the tumultuous world we know today.
Early China to 221 BCE
Chinese writers preserved a uniquely comprehensive political narrative. It begins with mythical divine rulers, and no archaeological trace of the first merely human dynasty, the Xia (c. 2100–1766 BCE), has yet been discovered. But in the 1920s excavation at Anyang, seat of the last rulers of the Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE), uncovered thousands of oracle bones inscribed in a script close enough to modern Chinese writing to be readily interpreted. They and other remains show that basic elements of subsequent Chinese civilization had already appeared by 1300 BCE.
Anyang is situated where the Huang (Yellow) River of northern China traverses a region of soft, windblown loess soils. That was where early farmers had begun to raise millet, which was later supplemented by wheat and barley coming across Asia from Mesopotamia. The Shang armies also used horses, chariots, and compound bows, introduced from the western steppe. But script, religion, and family patterns were unique and closely resembled later Chinese practices.
Far-reaching changes came under the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE). First of all, rain-watered agriculture, which had been basic for the Shang peoples, came to be supplemented and soon overshadowed by extending cultivation to the fertile soils of the river floodplain, a process that required massive building of dikes and canals to control and direct the flow of water. When successful, this water engineering assured ample moisture for the harvest and diminished north China’s dependence on uncertain monsoon rains. It also vastly expanded the area of cultivation as the labor of generations of conscripted farmers extended dikes and canals up and down the river valleys and across the coastal plain of north China.
Drainage canals permitted early Chinese farmers to irrigate their new fields and thus to raise rice. Rice grew naturally in shallow water along lake shores and river banks of Southeast Asia, where local gardeners began to harvest it as early as 8000 BCE. But artificial dikes and canals, like those the Chinese built in the northern Huang River valley, enormously extended the area of suitably shallow water. Consequently, by 200 BCE rice had become the main food of China’s rapidly growing population, as it remains to this day.
When low-lying river floodplains began to fill up with cultivated fields, Chinese farmers took on the even more strenuous task of leveling slopes, building dikes around small, artificially leveled fields called “paddies,” and channeling even very small streams to bring water to them. This improvement allowed hillsides in what eventually became central and southern China to produce rice almost as abundantly as the naturally flat river floodplains did.
As this enormous engineering effort gradually expanded across the landscape—a process that took millennia and may not have reached its final limits in the Himalayan foothills even today—China’s population began to assume the close-packed density and imposing numbers that still characterize the country. Human muscles, assisted by shovels and wheelbarrows (a Chinese invention), did almost all the work. It remains the most extensive, drastic, and successful remodeling of a natural landscape ever undertaken by humankind.
Impact of Rice Cultivation
In time similar rice paddies spread to Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Java, Sumatra, and all the great river valleys of Southeast Asia, as far away as the Ganges River in India. Wherever wet rice cultivation spread, dense rural populations arose and supported royal or imperial governments. Something like half of humankind came to depend on this sort of agriculture and still does. And because its two great rivers drained such extensive watersheds, China remained by far the largest and most populous country among all the rice-growing lands.
Rice, like other grains, must be harvested when ripe, and harvests must be stored to feed the farmers throughout the year and provide seed for next year’s harvest. Stores of grain in turn allowed governments and an ever-growing class of landowners to arise by collecting part of the harvest as taxes and rents, thus turning once-independent farmers into peasants. Rice-growing peasants had more to spare than other grain farmers, since a single rice seed ordinarily produced several stalks carrying more than a hundred seeds in all, while wheat farmers of medieval Europe made do with a seed-to-harvest ratio of only about 6 to 1. But this did not mean that Chinese farmers were rich. Instead, taxes and rents rose high enough to transfer extra food to city folk—rulers, landlords, artisans, and casual laborers. Accordingly, from the time rice became the staple crop in China, cities grew larger than was possible in rain-watered lands elsewhere.
Despite its unrivaled productivity, irrigated rice cultivation had serious costs. Standing water in paddy fields made malaria and the debilitating disease schistosomiasis very common; for a long time the Yangzi (Chang) River valley—today the most fertile and populous region of China—remained notoriously unhealthy and was less densely populated than the north.
In the north, however, China’s other main river, the Huang, reacted to confinement between human-made dikes by clogging its channel with silt it had picked up when flowing through the soft loess soils. As happens along the lower Mississippi River today, silt soon raised the lower course of the Huang above the level of the land outside the dikes. Efforts to forestall floods by building higher dikes could stave off disaster for a while, but sooner or later the river broke through, and resulting floods became greater and more damaging than before. The Huang River thus earned the nickname “China’s sorrow.” No other river carries so much silt, and the Huang is correspondingly unstable. In historic times unusually high floods on several occasions have shifted its lower channel by several hundreds of miles.
Increasing Rule of Landowners
The large-scale water engineering that reshaped China was initiated by enterprising local landowners who conscripted farmers to do the work. As new fields came into existence, landowners’ income and authority increased, and local rulers emerged who were strong enough to pay no attention to the distant emperors. But from the start they quarreled among themselves. Centuries of upheaval ensued, while rising agricultural wealth sustained intellectual and cultural efforts to contain the ills of intensified warfare among all the rival the rival states.
Confucian and other schools of thought competed in words as vigorously as the rival armies did in battle, defining much of what became classical rules of behavior for later generations. But ideas in and of themselves had little to do with the ultimate restoration of public order. Rather, when the Zhou dynasty died out in 256 BCE, even the pretense of imperial unity was abandoned; the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) came to a climax in 221 BCE when a single warlord from the state of Qin on the northwest borderland subdued all rivals. His rule (Qin dynasty, 221–206 BCE) did not long survive. Instead, after another bout of warfare, China attained a more lasting imperial and cultural unity under the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE).
Imperial China (206 BCE to 1912)
The Han dynasty turned out to be a lasting model for later dynasties in Chinese history, and the advantages of imperial government in uniting the fertile river valleys of north and south China with shifting control over borderlands were so great that whenever a dynasty collapsed, a new emperor and dynasty soon emerged after relatively brief civil wars. Today, for all its ideological departures, Communist China looks like a new dynasty of a quite traditional sort. This amazing continuity presumably reflects the fact that Chinese people came to prefer unity and learned to feel themselves a single people in spite of local dialectical differences that made their spoken language unintelligible across long distances.
Written characters, however, can also be voiced in different ways and used to record languages as different from Chinese as Japanese and Korean, just as the numerals 1, 2, and 3 represent entirely different words in English, French, and German. Eventually the characters of classical Chinese literature, as edited, elaborated, and preserved by Confucian scholars—and then propagated by formal education among untold millions of Chinese across two thousands years—provided a set of ideas and precepts that both restrained and guided rulers and also taught obedience to the emperor and his officials, just as long as the Mandate of Heaven kept him on the throne. The Han dynasty was the first to patronize Confucian scholars, and the emperors spent much time performing ancestral rituals designed to maintain good relations with heaven and the lesser spirits, as Confucius (551–479 BCE) had prescribed. Even when Buddhism won a large following at court and in the country at large, subsequent dynasties continued these rituals to be safe from supernatural harm.
The Confucian style of commitment to imperial unity was in turn sustained by the way bulky goods, which were paid as taxes in kind, could be carried in barges along canals (initially constructed for drainage and irrigation), and delivered to the imperial capital across long distances. At first the Yangzi Valley remained isolated from the Huang River network of canals, and thus its resources could not easily reach the imperial court. But in 611 CE the Grand Canal was opened, connecting China’s two principal river systems so that canal boats could move safely and cheaply to and fro between the imperial capital, which remained in the north, and the far reaches of the Yangzi Valley. Nothing close to such a capacious, cheap, and safe transport system existed elsewhere. The Chinese government and people prospered as a result, spreading rice paddies and building cities throughout the hills and valleys of the Yangzi River watershed, more than doubling China’s size and resources by the time the lengthy pioneering effort neared completion.
Massive expansion southward in turn allowed the government to cope, not quite so successfully, with the problem of protecting itself and its subjects against outside dangers. Enlarged tax income made it easy to elaborate court rituals for propitiating heaven and other powerful spirits. Keeping steppe nomads at a distance and preventing their destructive raids were more difficult. Horses raised themselves on the grassy steppes; nomad tribesmen spent much of their lives in the saddle, guarding their herds against outsiders, and, when opportunity offered, raiding horses from one another or invading Chinese borderlands to seize grain or anything else they found useful.
The Great Wall—and its Impact
Men mounted on horses moved far faster than infantry could ever hope to do. Because fortified walls were an obstacle horsemen could not easily overcome, the famous Great Wall of China was constructed across centuries in hope of stopping their raids. Infantry equipped with crossbows (a Chinese invention) could indeed repel steppe attackers from on top of the wall as long as enough bowmen were already in place to meet them. But hundreds of miles of wall and open country between its gaps required more men on guard than even the Chinese empire and its canal transport system could support day after day, year round.
Two alternatives existed: hiring nomads to stop their fellows from attacking by paying them with what they might otherwise have seized or training and supplying enough Chinese cavalrymen to meet and defeat steppe raiders. Both methods were tried over and over, but the problem would not be lastingly solved until after 1750. Hired nomads could change sides at any moment, while keeping horses in China was horribly expensive. In the absence of natural grass, a horse ate many times as much grain as a man needed, so matching steppe horsemen with enough Chinese cavalrymen was costly. A more successful tactic was to establish peaceful relations with nomad chieftains, giving them goods they desired as gifts in return for ritual recognition of obedience to the Chinese emperor. But such treaties often broke down, and raids began anew.
Nonetheless, over centuries the effect of raiding and gifting between China and the peoples of the steppe was to familiarize nomads with more and more aspects of Chinese civilization, eventually spreading key Chinese inventions far and wide throughout Eurasia. Chinese armies and armed expeditions also extended Chinese influence westward from time to time, beginning in 101 BCE, when the Han Emperor Wudi sent an expedition to the Ferghana Valley in modern Uzbekistan to bring back a breed of “blood-sweating” horses capable of carrying heavily armored men on their backs. For centuries thereafter caravans connected China with western Asia along what westerners called the Silk Roads. As a result, communication within the Eurasian web attained a new velocity and regularity that increased little by little and reached a climax under the Mongol conqueror Chinggis Khan (often spelled Genghis Khan, 1126–1227) and his successors.
To begin with, China had much to learn from Indians and west Asians. Buddhist holy men began to filter into China even before the Han dynasty collapsed; during the years of civil strife and divided sovereignties that ensued, the new religion won many adherents, including the emperor who founded the Sui dynasty (581–618 CE) and reunited China in 589. Buddhists retained imperial favor until 843, when Confucians succeeded in disbanding Buddhist monasteries and prohibiting their religion. But the Confucians had to borrow much from the Buddhists in order to refute them, so restored Confucianism came to resemble the other high religions of Eurasia more closely than before. Buddhist sects continued to exist, especially among the poor and oppressed, and often sparked rebellions when a dynasty began to weaken.
Buddhist art also affected older Chinese styles profoundly. In particular, the landscapes and portraiture of classical Chinese painting owed much to their Buddhist predecessors. More important for Chinese society as a whole was the fact that Buddhist monasteries introduced the Chinese to the habit of buying and selling goods for daily consumption. In ancient China money had played almost no role. Taxes, rents, and services were paid in kind, and peasants lived on what was left after taxes and rents had taken their share. Buddhist monks, however, coming from India along the Silk Roads, were accustomed to selling the produce of landed estates that pious believers deeded to them and then using money to buy whatever the monastery needed. Before their dissolution in 843, each monastery in China therefore became the center of a local market; Chinese townsmen and peasants far and wide soon learned the uses of money by buying from and selling to the monasteries.
Cash and Carry
Use of money became widespread enough that under the Song dynasty (960–1279), the imperial government found it convenient to collect taxes in money rather than in kind. Before a century had passed more than half the government’s income took the form of first metal, then paper currency. Consequently, millions of ordinary peasants started to sell part or all of their harvest to pay taxes. Thereupon, goods of common consumption—rice, salt, iron, silk, and innumerable others—began to circulate along the waterways of China. Even a small difference of price made it worthwhile for merchants to carry goods to distant markets along the canal system; all the advantages of specialized production, which the Scottish economist Adam Smith later analyzed so convincingly, came into operation among something like 100 million Chinese. China began to grow in population, wealth, and skill more rapidly than ever before, while the government fanned the whole process by spending its cash income on whatever it needed.
Simultaneously, agriculture intensified after a new species of early-ripening rice reached China from the south after 1000. Wherever water was available all summer long, this meant that Chinese farmers could raise two crops a year, thereby doubling production per acre. Needless to say, the effect was enormous. Work intensified, and population increased and became denser than ever, since throughout the well-watered plains families could survive on half as much land as before. The social discipline of working ceaselessly to keep fields, dikes, and canals in order made the Chinese workforce far more diligent and productive than most others, and eventually gave it an enormous advantage in competition with foreigners, as we shall see.
This superiority began to show under the Song dynasty, when important new industries appeared, not the least of which was the manufacture of guns and gunpowder. Newly perfected porcelain began to rival silk among China’s exports, and, when the discovery of how to make coke out of coal solved a long-standing fuel shortage in northern China, large-scale iron works multiplied. Fragmentary tax records show that iron production almost quadrupled from 32,500 tons a year in 998 to 125,000 tons in 1078, but that pace was not long sustained, and by 1260 production had dropped to a mere 8,000 tons per year.
Guns and Gunpowder
Chinese officials shaped by the Confucian tradition distrusted captains of industry almost as much as soldiers. Such persons, left to themselves, officials feared, might become rich and powerful enough to threaten their public authority. So the fact that officials closely supervised weapons manufacture from the start, and then monopolized the sale of iron agricultural implements in 1083, may have upset prices and made iron production unprofitable. But no one knows what actually happened. We do know that most imperial tax income went to supporting armies along the steppe frontier, and as its steppe neighbors became more formidable, the Song government began systematically to reward the inventors of new and more efficient weapons. Gunpowder weapons accordingly came quickly to the fore.
The Song government soon needed all the help it could get, for in 1127 it was driven from northern China by a new tribal steppe confederation. Nonetheless, strenuous investment in naval vessels, defended by newfangled guns and catapults as well as by crossbows, allowed the dynasty to survive as the Southern Song (1127–1279), ruling from a new capital in the south on the Yangzi River. But after a new steppe confederacy under Chinggis Khan conquered north China in 1227, his grandson Khubilai Khan ordered Chinese artisans to build a navy for him, and he used it to overrun south China, thus founding the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368).
The massive commercialization of Song China and accompanying improvements in weaponry soon spread far and wide within Eurasia. Steppe peoples were the first to feel the impact, as the rapid development of their military formidability demonstrated. Indeed, the Mongol Empire at its height extended across all of Asia to the shores of the Mediterranean and northward into Russia. No empire since has equaled its extent. For two or three generations after the 1240s, thousands of soldiers, merchants, captives, and caravan attendants moved continually back and forth across the steppe.
The mingling of peoples that the Mongol conquests provoked was extraordinary. We know that when a papal emissary, William of Rubruck, reached the Mongol capital at Karakorum in 1253 he met the wife of a goldsmith who had been born in Flanders a few miles from his own birthplace; about a century later the Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta tells how he met a merchant from his native Morocco in south China. Innumerable such encounters spread detailed knowledge far and wide about superior Chinese skills. It is striking to realize that the three inventions the English philosopher Francis Bacon would later declare to have made Europe modern—the compass, gunpowder, and printing (together with its essential partner, paper-making)—all reached Europe from China by word of mouth and without leaving any written record. Motifs of Chinese painting also traveled throughout the Muslim world, eventually so misunderstood that stylized drawings of the massive Yangzi River gorges became perches for peacocks.
Borrowing from afar always involved transformation and adjustment to a new environment. That had been true of Chinese borrowing from India and west Asia in earlier times as they developed their own Buddhist sects and forms of mounted warfare. European, Indian, and west Asian responses to gunpowder, printing, and the compass were just as varied, but everywhere the new Chinese techniques affected warfare, shipping, and communication, even though Muslims at first rejected printing.
Native Chinese were never fully reconciled to foreign rule, and when the Huang River broke through its dikes and, before finding a new path to the sea, devastated much of northern China, they knew that the Mandate of Heaven had been withdrawn from their Mongol rulers. Plague also ravaged China in the 1330s, and the government mismanaged the paper currency by indulging in reckless inflation. Not surprisingly, public order broke down until, after years of fighting, a new and authentically Chinese dynasty, the Ming (1368–1644), united the country once more. As the Mongol power collapsed, caravan linkages across Asia diminished without breaking off entirely. But the Chinese promptly began to explore alternative sea routes after defenses along the northwest frontier seemed sufficiently secure, allowing the third Ming emperor, Zhudi (1402–1424), to embark on an ambitious program of overseas exploration and expansion into the Indian Ocean.
Altogether, six armadas, dispatched between 1405 and 1433, carried hundreds of ships and thousands of men to the shores of the Indian Ocean, touching on the coast of east Africa and even penetrating the Red Sea. Wherever the ships appeared the Chinese admiral, Zheng He, collected rarities as gifts and demanded that local rulers recognize the dominion of the Chinese emperor. The scale of these expeditions dwarfed that of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, who started on his voyage to India in 1497 with just four ships; but unlike the Portuguese discovery of the sea route to India, Zheng He’s voyages had no enduring effect. Instead, when the next Ming emperor incautiously led an army onto the steppes in 1449, his Mongol enemies captured him. Even though he was released the next year, memories of Chinggis Khan were far too fresh for the Chinese to spend any further resources on the fleet. Instead, sailing the seas was forbidden until the 1570s, and the imperial navy was allowed to rot away.
Overseas Trade Declines
Private overseas trade from Chinese ports dwindled as long as sailing remained illegal, but Chinese emigrants had already begun to prosper throughout southeast Asia and continued to thrive until recent times. So the Chinese never withdrew entirely from the seas. What might have been if they had anticipated Europeans by crossing the Earth’s oceans and reaching both the Americas and Europe sometime before 1450, as they were certainly capable of doing, beggars the imagination. This is perhaps the most dramatic turning point in world history—an abdication whose long-term consequences still reverberate.
Nevertheless, from their own point of view, China’s rulers were wise in concentrating public effort on safeguarding their landward frontier while closely regulating trade with the European and other foreign merchants who began to visit their ports after 1520, when the first Portuguese ship showed up. For little by little the Chinese began to prevail against the steppe horsemen, and by 1750 Chinese frontiers had shifted far to the west, approximately doubling the total area of the empire and subjecting millions of Tibetans, Turks, Mongols, and Manchus to Chinese rule.
Circumstances go far to explain this seismic shift in China’s relation with the steppe peoples. First of all, beginning in the time of the Mongol empire, bubonic plague spread across Eurasia, killing up to one-third of the population on its initial onslaught. Probably the plague bacillus had emerged from one of its long-standing homes in the Himalayan foothills when Mongol horsemen raided northern Burma (Myanmar) in 1252–1253 and then carried it back in their homeland, where a new array of burrowing rodents—the normal carriers of the infection—offered the bacillus a new set of hosts.
Within a few decades the disease became endemic across the entire Eurasian steppe, infecting burrowing rodents of several species; after the initial catastrophic attacks on human populations in China, west Asia, and Europe between the 1330s and 1349, lesser outbreaks of plague recurred from time to time across the agricultural lands of Eurasia until as recently as the 1920s. We have no written record of what happened among steppe dwellers, but it seems certain that their exposure was greater than among farmers, since wherever they pitched their tents the reservoir of infection among the burrowing rodents of the grasslands lay immediately under their feet. Nomad populations shrank substantially as a result, and nomad strength in war diminished accordingly.
Eventually people adopted folkways that diminished exposure to the plague bacillus: For example, in 1920 Manchus knew not to come near infected marmots in their homeland, so it was the ignorant, immigrant Chinese who killed them for their fur and caught the plague. This development brought European and Japanese doctors to the scene, where they duly discovered Pasturella pestis and its mode of transmission between rodent and human populations. The plague today has therefore ceased to matter among humans, even though the bacillus now infects burrowing rodents around the Earth, even in the United States.
The development of more efficient handguns and crossbows after about 1550 and of better supply systems was another factor in weakening nomads against the Chinese (and Russian) armies. The Ming dynasty began to expand its power into the steppe, organizing mobile armies of foot soldiers, equipped more often with crossbows than with hand guns, and supplied by wagon trains trained to form defensive circles in case of nomad attack. These tactics proved effective and soon allowed Chinese settlers to begin to move into the grasslands wherever moisture was sufficient to sustain crops.
Nonetheless, between 1644 and 1683 China suffered a second conquest from the steppes when Manchu cavalrymen took advantage of quarrels among rival Chinese generals, seized Beijing, and proclaimed a new dynasty, the Qing (1644–1912). The Manchus were already familiar with Chinese ways and were correspondingly more acceptable to their Chinese subjects than the Mongols had been. Their cavalry, supplemented by Chinese infantry, made a formidable force and allowed the Chinese to expand their power westward until they encountered the equally expansive Russian Empire. Thereupon, two treaties—signed in 1689 and again in 1727—defined the new boundaries between China and Russia. The last steppe confederacy to resist the Chinese met defeat in 1755, and Tibet was subdued between 1755 and 1779, bringing China’s imperial boundaries to limits that still prevail.
This expansion westward was also sustained by a massive growth in China’s population. Here it was crops introduced from the Americas—potatoes, sweet potatoes, and peanuts—that made the most difference. Sweet potatoes, in particular, tolerated poor soils and could grow on higher slopes and other marginal locations where rice could not thrive. They therefore became significant in south China, while ordinary potatoes played the same role on a somewhat smaller scale in the north.
Communication with Europe expanded and became far more precise after 1601 when a Jesuit mission was admitted to the Ming court. Surprisingly, the Chinese made the Jesuits responsible for correcting the Chinese calendar to fit the seasons properly. The emperor and his ministers believed that rituals assuring the harvest could work only when offered at the right time of year, and nothing mattered more than that. Later they also asked the Jesuits to cast cannon for their armies and to supervise a ground survey and then make a map of the entire empire.
Jesuit missionaries continued to be active at the Chinese court until 1706 and year after year reported everything they did to Rome. They attracted only a handful of converts but nevertheless found much to admire in Chinese practices; European readers of their detailed reports often did so, too. In particular, the long-standing Chinese practice of recruiting government officials by written and oral examinations seemed rational to learned Europeans, and several German states imitated the Chinese example early in the eighteenth century. A little later Chinese decorative art, as transmitted by porcelain and embroideries, became suddenly fashionable as well. And radical eighteenth-century French writers, such as Voltaire, thought the Chinese example of a country without priests or revealed religion was far superior to European superstition. In short, the two civilizations were exchanging ideas among experts as never before and on a scale that began to affect them both in far-reaching ways.
Overall, therefore, the Chinese government and economy prospered at home and abroad until the closing decades of the eighteenth century. But by about 1775, population pressure on the land began to provoke rebellions, and trade in opium imported by the English East India Company created addicts in Guangzhou (Canton) and adjacent regions despite official efforts to prohibit it. The Chinese rebuffed a British effort to negotiate a trade treaty in 1793 when Lord Macartney refused to prostrate himself before the emperor, as court ritual required. Thereafter, frictions over opium continued to mount until the British navy showed up on the Chinese coast in 1841–1842 and proceeded to bombard coastal ports into submission and even interrupted traffic on the Grand Canal. A series of “unequal” treaties ended this Opium War, transferred Hong Kong to British control, opened Chinese ports to European traders, established a uniform 5 percent tariff, and gave Europeans the protection of consular and mixed courts for settling disputes among themselves and with the Chinese.
Such harsh humiliation was impossible for the Chinese people to accept, while European admiration for things Chinese turned into something like disdain for their helplessness. At the bottom of Chinese society, half-baked efforts to adopt European secrets of power began to spread among angry young men, as the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864) showed. It was led by a man who, after repeatedly failing the imperial examinations, met an American Baptist missionary from Tennessee and subsequently claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ, sent by God to bring heaven to Earth and rid China of its corrupt foreign rulers in the bargain.
For a few years the Taipings met with widespread success, overthrowing the imperial administration in south China and almost capturing Beijing. But Britain and France sent armed forces to safeguard their treaty rights, and after occupying Beijing and sacking the emperor’s summer palace in 1860, they joined forces with local Chinese militias and defeated the Taiping rebels by 1864. By then between 20 and 30 million Chinese had died, and much of the country had been laid waste. The dynasty barely survived, harassed by increasing diplomatic and military pressure not just from Britain and France but also from Russia, a newly united Germany, and most acutely from neighboring Japan. In 1900 the so-called Boxer Rebellion, provoked this time by an underground Buddhist sect, tried to drive the foreigners away, only to meet defeat. Desperate efforts at self-strengthening ensued, but starting to build a European-style army merely created a disloyal officer corps that joined rebellious students to overthrow the dynasty in 1912.
Post-Imperial China (1912–present)
Although China evolved from a republic to a people’s republic under Communist rule, and then to a nation reopened to the free world under the leadership of Deng Xioping in 1978–79, the rebellions, wars, and general disorder in the years after the Qing dynasty closely resembled previous dynastic transitions.
Three Prominent Figures
Three figures dominated the tumultuous political scene in republican China after 1912: Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925); Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975), and Mao Zedong (1893–1976). Sun Yat-sen was trained abroad as a medical doctor, but turned into a revolutionary conspirator before becoming the first president of Republican China (1912–1949) in 1912. As head of the newfangled Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang), he aimed to reshape Chinese society, but local warlords operating in many provinces resisted his leadership, and by the end of his life the Guomindang found itself sharing power with the rival Communist Party, modeled in part on the Russian example.
Chiang Kai-shek, trained as a soldier in Japan and Russia, became head of a new military academy organized by the Guomindang before succeeding Sun Yat-sen after Sun’s death. Chiang quarreled with the Communists in 1927 and compelled them to withdraw from around Guangzhou, where Mao Zedong had already begun to recruit an army of guerrillas among impoverished peasants. After months of marching the Communists found refuge in the northwest, where supplies of arms could reach them from across the Russian border.
Chiang then set out to defeat competing warlords and was able to occupy Beijing before the Japanese army invaded Manchuria in 1931 and then China proper in 1937. Chiang’s armies eventually had to retreat up the Yangzi River all the way to Chungking (Chongqing), while Japan set up a puppet Manchu emperor over the rest of China. Nonetheless, the United States and Britain recognized Chiang’s government throughout World War II and made Chiang’s China a founding member of the United Nations Security Council.
Then Japan’s defeat in 1945 reopened the struggle between Chinese Communists and the Guomindang (Nationalist Party), and despite U.S. efforts to support Chiang, Mao’s forces prevailed, setting up the People’s Republic of China in October 1949. Chiang and a remnant of his army withdrew to the island of Taiwan, where their successors still remain in power.
Chaos before and after the end of the Qing dynasty closely resembled previous dynastic takeovers, and Mao’s government behaved very much like a new dynasty, even though it depended upon a small circle at the top of the Communist Party rather than upon a court circle of Confucian officials serving a new ruling family.
Internationally, Mao’s victory at first seemed to strengthen the Communist cause enormously, and for a while U.S. politicians were much agitated by their “loss” of China. Yet, in fact, Russian and Chinese Communists were rivals as much as allies from the start, and 1968–1969 border disputes even led to brief armed collision between the two governments. U.S. president Richard Nixon took advantage of this rift to reestablish diplomatic relations with China in 1972, thus recognizing its growing economic and political power.
Since then China has gone from strength to strength. Mao’s successors, notably Deng Xiaoping, relaxed efforts at collectivization of farm land in 1981, allowing peasants to produce what they chose and to sell their surpluses at will. Parallel private competition with state-run factories soon provoked urban and industrial expansion on a quite extraordinary scale—as much as 12 percent growth in gross national product a year. Chinese products soon became cheaper and often better than anything available elsewhere. Exports swelled accordingly, and other countries, with the United States in the lead, went deeply in debt by importing all sorts of consumer goods from China. In 2008 China hosted the Olympic Games, a crowning glory for a government that has never ceased to face foreign criticism for its suppression of human rights in Tibet and elsewhere.
And yet all is not well in the new China. Ecological pollution is widespread and acute. Population presses heavily on resources, and official efforts to diminish the birth rate by prohibiting couples from having more than one child may strain normal generational transitions. The vast and controversial Three Gorges Dam under construction on the Yangzi River, and scheduled for completion in 2009, has displaced more than a million people and may damage age-old methods of irrigation; and innumerable other disasters, like the 2008 earthquakes in Sichuan Province may arise. But so far, at least, the Communist government has been successful in reasserting political unity, restoring the nation’s wealth, and expanding China’s worldwide influence beyond all earlier limits and can triumphantly expect the future to take care of itself.
Ebrey, P. B. (1999). The Cambridge illustrated history of China. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Gernet, J. (1996). A history of Chinese civilization. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Hansen, V. (2000). The open empire: A history of China to 1600. New York: Norton.
Needham, J. (1954–1999). Science and civilisation in China (Vols. 1–7). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
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Source: McNeill, William H. (2009). China in World History. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 325–339. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Illustration of an irrigation flume constructed in wood. Such flumes, along with dikes and irrigation canals, would be used for agriculture, particularly for the cultivation of rice. From the Tu Shu Ce Zheng.
During the Han dynasty, China established peaceful relations with nomad chieftains, giving them goods they desired as gifts in return for obedience to the Chinese emperor. But such treaties often broke down and raids began anew. This particular illustration is an early Qing dynasty representation of the exchange of tribute.
The Great Wall is the most recognized international symbol of China, constructed across centuries in an attempt to halt raids from steppe nomads. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.
Paper money was invented in China, and quickly spread around the globe. This particular note is from 1380.
The Chinese invented gunpowder and rocketry, which was then exported to the rest of the world. Efficient handguns were developed after about 1550.
The Temple of Heaven was where imperial emperors reinforced the Mandate of Heaven, the concept that the emperor ruled over all of creation with divine blessing. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Ancient junks sail amidst modern boats on the Huangpu River in Shanghai. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Dead Chinese soldiers at Fort Taku, Tianjin, in 1860. These soldiers were killed by Anglo-French forces in one of the key battles of the second Opium War. PHOTO BY FELICE BEATO.
The burning the Summer Palace, one of the two residences of the Qing emperors, was a turning point in the conflicts of the nineteenth century and a painful symbol of foreign aggression. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
A portrait of Mao is prominently displayed on a government building in China. Mao’s image remains an icon of the Communist Party three decades after his death.
China in World History (Shìjiè lìsh? zh?ng de Zh?ngguó ????????)|Shìjiè lìsh? zh?ng de Zh?ngguó ???????? (China in World History)