Like India, Mesopotamia and Egypt, China developed an early civilization based on irrigation agriculture, in the Hwangho valley. This
civilization developed both cities and a script. Unfortunately, documentation of China's early history is poor and Chinese architecture,
largely wooden constructions, left few remains.
B.) The Concept of the Celestial Empire
The Chinese believed their civilization and state to be the centre of the world (sinocentricity), the Chinese ruler to have a mandate from
heaven (the celestial kingdom).
Every aspect of the state was focussed on the Emperor respectively the dynasty; Beijing translates to northern capital, Nanjing southern
capital etc. In case of changing dynasties, often a new capital was built, other cities renamed to express their new status, provinces
In diplomacy, China assumed the position that it was superior to any neighbouring state, political issues thus not being discussed in
negotiations on egalitarian footing, but in form of supplications addressed to the Emperor by the other party.
C.) Characteristics of the Early Chinese Civilization
China, for most of its history, was an Empire, including numerous ethnical groups. The common bond for most of these ethnic groups
was the Chinese script (written language) and tradition, which early had been collected and scrutinized in the works of CONFUCIUS.
Even today the various dialects of spoken Chinese differ so strongly that Chinese have to learn certain other dialects as if it were a
Over time the borders of the Chinese Empire have changed, and both Chinese script and tradition have strongly influenced ethnic
groups which stress their distinct, non-Chinese identity, such as the Koreans, Vietnamese, Japanese, Mongolians. Therefore it is
appropriate to distinguish between the historical GREATER CHINA, i.e. the Empire at times extending beyond the borders of modern
China, and present-day China.
In contrast to Egypt and Mesopotamia, in China religion seems to always have played a lesser role; in the 6th/5th century B.C., the
philosophers LAO TZU, CONFUCIUS and in the 3rd century MENCIUS laid the foundation to Chinese literature, influential beyond the
borders of China proper.
Core China along the middle Hwangho river had prospered on the cultivation of MILLET; with the expansion into the Yangtse valley and
further south, RICE was planted. The Chinese have invented PAPER, developed the technique to produce refined products such as SILK
and PORCELEIN (chinaware), cultivated TEA. In antiquity, China was connected with the Near East via overland trade routes summarily
referred to as the SILK ROAD, with India both via land and sea routes.
D.) Dynasties, Wars, Religions
Emperor SHIHUANGTI (221-210) had the GREAT WALL OF CHINA constructed to check incursions of the Huns. He was succeeded by the
HAN DYNASTY (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), which expanded Chinese control over Xinjiang, securing a large stretch of the silk road.
During the later Han Dynasty, BUDDHISM made inroads to China. In China, the Buddhist community developed rather independently,
contact with India being limited to singular travels of Chinese Buddhist monks to India in search of Buddhist manuscripts.
After the Han Dynasty, China disintegrated into many smaller states, northern China being overrun by the Huns. Core China was reunited
by the short-lived SUI DYNASTY (581-618) which was succeeded by the TANG DYNASTY (618-906). Another period of disintegration was
followed by the SUNG DYNASTY (960-1126). In 1126, Northern China was conquered by the JURCHEN, invaders from Manchuria;
SOUTHERN SUNG continued to thrive until conquered by the Mongols in 1279/80. The great accomplishment of the Southern Sung was
the introduction of NEOCONFUCIANISM as state philosophy, by scholar-politician CHU HSI.
E.) The Neoconfucianist State
In China, education has always been highly valued. STATE EXAMINATIONS were held, based on the Confucian classics (the ANALECTS,
the I CHING, the SHU CHING, the BOOK OF RITES and the SHIH CHING). Those who passed qualified for political office. The person of
Confucius was publicly revered (some authers say, worshipped).
Confucianism stressed ANCESTOR WORSHIP, FILIAL PIETY, law and order. There are no to equals; the younger has to respect the older,
woman man etc.
F.) Mongol, Ming and Manchu Dynasties
In 1215/1234 the Mongols conquered Northern China, in 1279/80 southern China. The Mongol Empire split in several pieces, the most
important being Kublai Khan's China; he was accepted by the other Mongol Khanates as the highest authority.
The Mongol Dynasty (-1368) pursued a policy of RELIGIOUS TOLERATION and promoted international trade; in its later phase the Mongol
Emperors favoured Buddhism. MARCO POLO lived in China for almost two decades.
In 1368 the Mongols were expelled by the Ming Dynasty, which reintroduced Neoconfucianism as state religion. On the Ming Neoconfucian
sclale, both Buddhist monks and merchants ranked bottom - retaliation against two segments of society which were pillars of Mongol rule.
Under the Ming, in the early 15th century Admiral ZHENG HE undertook several expeditions to SE Asia, SW Asia and Eastern Africa; these
expeditions proved unprofitable and were discontinued. Early in the 16th century the Portuguese arrived. Chinese overseas trade was
strictly regulated, limited to the port city of CANTON; outside of Canton, at MACAO, the Portuguese established a foothold in 1557. The Dutch
would establish themselves on TAIWAN in 1624 - regarded as non-Chinese at that time.
In 1644 the Manchu conquered China. Emperor KANG HSI in the later 17th/early 18th century expanded Chinese rule over Mongolia, Tibet.
European China trade in these years was very single-sided; the Europeans bought large amounts of tea, porcelain, silk, but the Chinese
were little interested in products the Europeans had to offer; they took silver instead. Much of the silver output of the mines of Mexico and
Peru ended up in China. In the later 18h century Chinese civilization was widely admired in European intellectual circles (ORIENTALISM).
G.) Late Empire, 1820-1911
The Europeans were highly interested in checking the huge trade imbalance with China. A silk industry had emerged in Italy and France
(though Chinese silk still was regarded superior); early in the 18th century J.F. Boettcher had reinvented porcelein, thus founding a (quickly
spreading) European porcelein industry. In the 1820es the British established tea plantations in India.
British merchants found that the Chinese paid high prices for OPIUM, traded as medication. The EIC then produced opium on plantations in
India, for the sole purpose of selling it on the Chinese market. They pushed the opium sales, quickly creating an addiction problem. The
Chinese authorities reacted in 1839 by confiscating and burning opium merchandise. Some of the confiscated merchandise was British; the
British responded by declaring war (OPIUM WAR, 1840-1842). The British navy easily defeated the Chinese. Britain annexed HONG KONG;
China had to open more ports for international trade, among them SHANGHAI, had to laxen trade regulations, had to permit missionary
activity - the first in a line of INEQUAL TREATIES.
Now the trade imbalance developed in favour of the Europeans. A continuing addiction problem, the outflow of silver, missionary activities and
emerging unemployment - coolies who hitherto carried goods on their backs across mountain ranges from the Yangtse to Canton lost their
business to steamers all destabilized the Chinese state. From 1850 to 1864, the TAIPING REBELLION - a peasant movement lead by HUNG
XIU-QUAN, a person who believed to be Jesus' son - threatened to overthrow the Empire alltogether. The Taiping promised a land reform,
distributing land according to each family's needs.
Late in the century, China had to open more ports, had to cede territories (Amur Province to Russia 1858, Far Eastern Prov. to Russia 1860,
Annam and Tonkin to France 1885. Upper Burma to Britain 1886, Taiwan to Japan 1895). Reforms were attempted, but progress was very slow.
In 1900 the BOXER REBELLION targetted the 'FOREIGN DEVILS', the Boxers being Chinese peasants who believed to be invulnerable because
of certain amulets. They aimed at restoring an old China where life was just and economically secure. The rebellion was easily crushed by a
joint international expedition; the colonial powers proclaimed an OPEN DOOR POLICY, providing equal access to the Chinese market to all
international merchants. The Chinese Empire lingered on until the Chinese Revolution of 1911/12.
H.) China 1911-1949
In 1911 SUN YAT SEN proclaimed the REPUBLIC OF CHINA in Canton. YUAN SHI KAI deposed the last Emperor in 1912. The Chinese Empire
disintegrated, Mongolia (1911) and Tibet (1912) declaring independence, many areas in fact ruled by the so-called warlords.
After Yuan Shi Kai's death in 1916, the Republican government in Canton, formed by Sun Yat Sen's GUOMINDANG party, emerged as the
leading force in China. The party was shaped into a modern organization by MICHAEL BORODIN, a Russian communist. Sun Yat Sen's
successor CHIANG KAI CHEK extended the influence of his Republican administration by conducting a number of military expeditions,
subjecting warlords. Then he broke with the communists, who left their stronghold in s. China. They engaged on the LONG MARCH, which
brought them to YENAN in Shansi province.
China's internal troubles were an open invitation to Japanese aggression. The Japanese long planned territorial expansion of their Empire; in
1932/33 they occupied Manchuria, establishing the Empire of MANCHUKUO (under Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China who was deposed in 1912).
In 1937 they staged a full-scale invasion of China, in the NANJING MASSACRE the Republican administration was eliminated. Most of eastern
China was occupied by the Japanese, who established a Chinese puppet administration under WANG CHING WEI. The Nationalist administration
withdrew to CHONGJING (Chungking); the Communists held on to YENAN.
The stationing of Japanese troops in French Indochina (1940) and the Japanese occupation of Burma (1942) only aggravated the position of the
Nationalist Chinese government in Chongjing, threatening its supply lines. By now, the war had escalated into a world war, and, with
Anglo-American support, the Nationalist government was able to hold out. China was treated as one of the victorious allies (although Stalin and
the western allies disagreed as to which Chinese government to recognise). In 1945 the civil war between nationalists and communists resumed.
The Nationalists had by far more, and economically more important areas under their control. But unchecked inflation and rampant corruption
eroded their bases, and the cut of American aid did not help either; in 1949 the Nationalists withdrew from the Chinese mainland, establishing
themselves on TAIWAN. In mainland China, the communists proclaimed the PRC.
I.) Postwar China
The PRC was soon recognized by Britain; the US continued to recognize the Nationalist government (Guomindang) as the sole govt. representing
China. In 1950 the PRC occupied Tibet and sent 'volunteers' to Korea, where they faced US-lead UN troops. A truce was signed in 1953.
In China a socialist society and economy was established. MAO TSE TUNG was unsatisfied with the slow progress of socialist reform, pushing for
the GREAT LEAP FORWARD in 1956 (an attempt to force the industrialization, especially the establishment of heavy industry) and with the ongoing
Destalinization in the Soviet camp. In 1966, treated like a retiree, Mao called on China's youth to purge the state administration (CULTURAL
REVOLUTION). Both events proved disastrous, costing numerous lives.
The Chinese-Soviet relations had deteriorated into an armed border conflict (1968); China and the USSR regarded each other as enemies. In 1971
the US launched the PING PONG DIPLOMACY. By dropping the recognition of Taiwan, recognizing the PRC, supporting its entry into the UN and its
assumption of great power status the US accepted the PRC's ONE CHINA POLICY. With the US withdrawal from Vietnam (1973) another obstacle
was removed. China pursued economic reforms, stressing market forces and the development of a light industry (consumer goods); the US
granted China most-favoured-nation status (i.e. low import tariffs) favouring the Chinese economy.
In 1980 China fought a border war with Vietnam, following the Vietnamese invasion of China's ally Cambodia.
China is the world's most populous nation. In order to check population growth, the government has introduced a ONE CHILD POLICY. China has
granted its ethnic minorities CULTURAL AUTONOMY. Yet, in many areas of ethnic minorities, the immigration of Han Chinese continues, the latter
often dominating the economy and administration.
Economically, China has introduced a ONE COUNTRY, TWO SYSTEMS POLICY, establishing special economic zones where the rules of capitalism
apply, for instance at SHENZEN outside Hong Kong. In 1997 the British handed over Hong Kong to China, in 1999 the Portuguese Macao.
The economic discrepancies within China are enormous; there is a strong inner-Chinese migration, long controlled by the rigid communist system.
K.) Korea, Mongolia, Tibet
During certain periods of its history, Korea was a Chinese vassal state. This relation between vassal and sovereign was an expression of Confucian
diplomacy, which did not accept any two equal sides. In reality, Korean recognition of Chinese overlordship was a formality, Korean tribute a
euphemism for trade. China's "rule" over Korea was, if manifest at all, for the most part of a benevolent nature.
Korea has benefitted from contact with China; Buddhism (4th century), Confucianism and Neoconfucianism (13th century) have been introduced from
China. The Chinese script was widely used, Confucian state examinations held.
Korea opened itself up to trade with the west in 1876. De facto an independent state, but economically, technically and militarily backward, the country
became the object of Japanese desire to expand; after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) the country was declared a J. protectorate, in 1910 it
was annexed. Mass demonstrations in 1919 demanded independence in accordance with Pres. Wilson's 14 points. The Japanese police brutally
suppressed dissent; Korean patriots fled to Shanghai, where they established a government in exile.
At the end of WW II, Korea was partitioned into an American and a Soviet zone of occupation; in 1948 the DPRK and the Republic of Korea declared
independence. In 1950 the (communist) North Koreans invaded South Korea; UN troops intervened, followed by an intervention of Chinese troops on
the North Korean side; in 1953 a truce was signed largely based on the status quo ante.
In the 1960es the Republic of Korea entered a course of fast economic development.
Mongolia, a vast region populated by pastoral nomads herding horses, camels etc., was a theocracy similar to that of Tibet. Having formally been
a part of the Chinese Empire had had a limited impact on Mongolian identity. In 1911 Outer Mongolia declared independence; inner Mongolia stayed
within China. The theocracy was terminated, most monasteries closed down. In 1924 a peoples' republic was declared; Mongolia in fact was a
Soviet satellite, until the collapse of communism in the early 1990es. A part of Outer Mongolia, Tuva, split off in the 1920es; it was annexed by the
USSR in 1994 and now is an autonomous region of Russia.
Tibet is the world's best known Buddhist theocracy, traditionally ruled by the DALAI LAMA, residing in the POTALA, the palace-temple complex in
Lhasa. Tibet is sparsely populated, mostly by pastoral nomads herding animals such as the Yak.
Independent between 1912 and 1950, Tibet was occupied by PRC forces in 1950. Following an uprising, the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, from
where he continues to demand the self-government of Tibet. The country remains under Chinese administration.
This page is part of World History at KMLA Last revised on September 18th 2001