Last modified 1 November 2012.
First published 24 September 2002
The Chinese begin to emerge as a distinct civilisation around 2500 BCE. Spreading from the Huang He River in the north of present-day China, a mature, dynastic and highly sophisticated culture comes to dominate much of the territory to the north of the Yangtze River, reaching a peak during the later stages of the Zhou Dynasty (1027 to 221 BCE), when a "golden age" of thought sets a social framework that will have an ongoing and profound effect on the Chinese.
The 'Confucian' school teaches that social order can only be achieved if each person acts in accord with a codified system of ethical behaviour governing relationships. 'Legalist' thinkers believe that the law must be imposed from above and enforced rigorously. During the Han period (206 BCE - CE 220) the two schools will be blended to form a system of government destined to last until the late 19th Century.
The 'Taoist' school places its emphasis on humankind's spiritual upliftment, believing that the highest goal of the individual is to follow the 'Way' (dao) of the universe.
The latter years of the Zhou Dynasty also witness the development of other spiritualist schools of thought. The yin-yang philosophy sees nature as composed of two complimentary opposites - yin (dark, cold, female, negative) and yang (light, hot, male, positive). According to the five elements theory, water, fire, wood, metal and earth are the fundamental essences.
China develops as an imperial power in 221 BCE when rival states are unified under the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, who establishes the short-lived but highly influential Qin Dynasty. Fortifications built by previous dynasties are joined to form the Great Wall, stretching 5,000 km from within 50 km of the Yellow Sea in the northeast to the deserts of Gansu province in the northwest.
The Han Dynasty (206 BCE - CE 220) subsequently extends Chinese influence to the Tarim Basin above Tibet, allowing relatively secure trade between China and empires to the west along the 'Silk Road'. The dynasty also brings technological innovation, with the invention of paper and porcelain being attributed to the Chinese of the time.
The Han Dynasty collapses in CE 220, introducing a 400-year period of rule by warlords. Reunification comes in CE 589, flowering into the cultural high-point of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Buddhism is incorporated into the Chinese tradition, the invention of block printing provides a new outlet for literature and art, and a corps of independent bureaucrats is created to depoliticise government.
The country fragments after the fall of the Tang but is again reunified by a new dynasty. However, the concentration of power and reinforcement of Confucian and Legalist concepts of social obligation and obedience that occurs during the Song period (960-1279) will have a stultifying effect on future social development.
China's next rulers are aliens from the north - the Mongols, led by Kublai Khan. Their Yuan Dynasty will last until 1368 and, as well as opening China more to the rest of the world as most famously documented by the Venetian traveller Marco Polo, will introduce the practice of excluding native Chinese from the most important administrative posts.
Chinese control of the country is reestablished by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). At first adventurous and expansionary, the Ming suddenly turn inward as old Confucian and Legalist ideals are reimposed. However, it is an enemy from without that finally brings them down.
Invading from their Manchurian homeland in the north, the Manchus found China's last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911). Once again Chinese natives are barred from the highest offices, while the Manchus shun assimilation into the Chinese culture that continues to dominate. The Qing expands Chinese influence to new limits, taking the empire as far west as Tajikistan and establishing a protectorate over Tibet. Taiwan is also incorporated into China for the first time. But this time the threat to the dynasty's continuance will come from a new source.
Westerners begin to arrive in China in numbers, first from Portugal, then Spain, Britain and France, seeking the lucrative trade opportunities that China offers or attempting to win new converts to Christianity. Their presence is tolerated but strictly controlled. In order to equalise a one-sided balance of trade, the foreigners begin to import semiprocessed goods, including opium, which is banned by the emperor and has to be smuggled in.
The Qing Dynasty's attempts to stop the illicit trade culminate in the Opium War, fought against British forces in 1839-42, and ending with China's humiliating defeat. China is forced to cede the island of Hong Kong to the British and to free up the system of trade.
Meanwhile, civil unrest with the Manchu reign is growing in countryside, especially in the south. In 1851 the Taiping Rebellion breaks out. The rebellion seeks to establish a new order free from slavery and oppression. It will take the Imperial Army 14 years to crush the revolt, with a cost of over 30 million lives.
China is further destabilised when Russia begins to encroach on Chinese territory in the border regions of the northwest. Then in the south, France takes control of Vietnam and Cambodia and the British annex Burma. From the east, Japan emerges as a new threat, with the war of 1894-95 resulting in another Chinese humiliation. Meanwhile, the foreign stranglehold on vital sectors of the Chinese economy is reinforced. In 1898, the British are granted a 99-year lease over Hong Kong.
Attempts by the Qing to introduce reforms to deal with the crisis prove futile and are undermined by a palace coup. The subsequent 'Boxer Uprising' of 1900 results in the Qing declaring war on the foreigners, who after inflicting another decisive defeat, demand further concessions.
Within China the mood is ripening for the revolutionary overthrow of the old regime and its outmoded notions of governance and order. An organised movement begins to focus around the Sun Yat-sen's Tongmeng Hui (United League), which advocates the 'Three Principles of the People' (san min zhuyi) - "nationalism, democracy, and people's livelihood."
The republican revolution begins among discontented army units in Wuchang in Hubei Province on 10 October 1911 and quickly spreads. By late November 15 of country's the 24 provinces have declared their independence. On 12 February 1912, the last Manchu emperor, the child Puyi, abdicates. On 10 March Yuan Shikai, the commander-in-chief of the Imperial Army, is sworn in as provisional president of the Republic of China at a ceremony held in Beijing.
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