Prehistory: Hominid activity dates back 4 to 5 million years in China, and evidence has been found of early paleolithic hominids living some 1 million years ago. The remains of Homo erectus (Peking Man or Sinanthropus pekinensis), found southwest of Beijing in 1927, date from around 400,000 years ago. Some 7,000 neolithic sites (some as old as ca. 9000 B.C.) have been found in North China, the Yangzi (Changjiang or Yangtze) River Valley, and southeast coastal areas. These sites include a neolithic agricultural village in Shaanxi Province, dating from around 4500 B.C. to 3750 B.C., with a moat for security and evidence of wood-framed, mud and straw houses, colored pottery, slash-and burn farming, and dead buried in nearby cemeteries. The oldest neolithic city found in China was uncovered by archaeologists in Henan Province and dates back to between 4,800 and 5,300 years ago.
Early History: The first recognized dynasty—the Xia—lasted from about 2200 to 1750 B.C. and marked the transition from the late neolithic age to the Bronze Age. The Xia was the beginning of a long period of cultural development and dynastic succession that led the way to the more urbanized civilization of the Shang Dynasty (1750–1040 B.C.). Hereditary Shang kings ruled over much of North China, and Shang armies fought frequent wars against neighboring settlements and nomadic herders from the north. The Shang capitals were centers of sophisticated court life, and the king was the shamanistic head of the ancestor- and spirit-worship cult. Intellectual life developed in significant ways during the Shang period and flourished in the next dynasty—the Zhou (1040–256 B.C.). China’s great schools of intellectual thought—Confucianism, Legalism, Daoism, Mohism, and others—all developed during the Zhou Dynasty.
From its earliest origins, China’s history has been one of migration, amalgamation, and development that brought about a distinctive system of writing, philosophy, art, and social and political organization and civilization with continuity over the past 4,000 years. Since the beginning of recorded history (at least since the Shang Dynasty), the people of China have developed a strong sense of their origins, both mythological and real, and kept voluminous records concerning both. It is as a result of these records, augmented by numerous archaeological discoveries in the second half of the twentieth century, that information concerning the ancient past, not only of China but also of much of East, Central, and Inner Asia, has survived.
The Imperial Period: Over several millennia, China absorbed the people of surrounding areas into its own civilization while adopting the more useful institutions and innovations of the conquered people. Peoples on China’s peripheries were attracted by such achievements as its early and well-developed ideographic written language, technological developments, and social and political institutions. The refinement of the Chinese people’s artistic talent and their intellectual creativity, plus the sheer weight of their numbers, has long made China’s civilization predominant in East Asia. The process of assimilation continued over the centuries through conquest and colonization until what is now known as China Proper was brought under unified rule. The Chinese polity was first consolidated and proclaimed an empire during the Qin Dynasty (221–206 B.C.). Although short-lived, the Qin Dynasty set up lasting unifying structures, such as standardized legal codes, bureaucratic procedures, forms of writing, coinage, and a pattern of thought and scholarship. These were modified and improved upon by the successor Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220). Under the Han, a combination of the stricter Legalism and the more benevolent, human-centered Confucianism—known as Han Confucianism or State Confucianism—became the ruling norm in Chinese culture for the next 2,000 years. The Chinese also left an enduring mark on the people beyond their borders, especially those of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.
Another recurrent historical theme has been the unceasing struggle of the largely agrarian Chinese against the threat posed to their safety and way of life by non-Chinese peoples on the margins of their territory. For centuries, most of the foreigners that China’s officials saw came from or through the Central and Inner Asian societies to the north and west. This circumstance conditioned the Chinese view of the outside world. The Chinese saw their domain as the self-sufficient center of the universe, and they derived from this image the traditional (and still used) Chinese name for their country—Zhongguo, literally Middle Kingdom or Central Nation. Those at the center (zhong) of civilization (as they knew it), distinguished themselves from the “barbarian” peoples on the outside (wai), whose cultures were inferior by Chinese standards. For centuries, China faced periodic invasions from Central and Inner Asia—including major incursions in the twelfth century by the Khitan and the Jurchen, in the thirteenth century by the Mongols, and in the seventeenth century by the Manchu, all of whom left an imprint on Chinese civilization while heightening Chinese perceptions of threat from the north. Starting in the pre-Qin period, Chinese states built large defensive walls that, in time, came to form a “Great Wall.” The Great Wall is actually a series of non-connected walls, forts, and other defensive structures built or rebuilt during the Qin, Han, Sui (A.D. 589–618), Jin (1115–1234), and Ming (1368–1643) periods, rather than a single, continuous wall. The Great Wall reaches from the coast of Hebei Province to northwestern Gansu, officially 6,000 kilometers in length, although unofficial estimates range from 2,700 kilometers to as much as 50,000 kilometers depending on what is being measured.
The Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1279) dynasties represented high points of Chinese cultural development and interaction with distant foreign lands. The Yuan, or Mongol, Dynasty (1279–1368) was a period of foreign occupation but even greater interaction with other cultures. Despite these periods of openness, which brought occasional Middle Eastern and European envoys and missionaries, the China-centered (“sinocentric”) view of the world was largely undisturbed until the nineteenth century, when China’s first serious confrontations occurred with the European nations. The Manchu had conquered China and established the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), ushering in a period of great conquest and a long period of relative peace. When Europeans began arriving in increasing numbers, Chinese courtiers expected them to conduct themselves according to traditional tributary relations that had evolved over the centuries between their emperor and representatives of Central Asian states who came via the Silk Road and others who came from Southeast Asia and the Middle East via the sea trade. The Western powers arrived in China in force at a time of tremendous internal rebellion and economic and social change. By the mid-nineteenth century, China had been defeated militarily by superior Western technology and weaponry, and the government was faced with mounting rebellions. Facing dynastic breakdown and imminent territorial dismemberment, China began to reassess its position with respect to its own internal development and the Western incursions. By 1911 the millennia-old dynastic system of imperial government was brought down as a result of the efforts made during a half century of reform and modernization and, finally, revolution.
Republican China: The end of imperial rule was followed by nearly four decades of major socioeconomic development and social-political discord. The initial establishment of a Western-style government—the Republic of China—was followed by several efforts to restore the throne. Lack of a strong central authority led to regional fragmentation, warlordism, and civil war. On top of this came the invasion of Manchuria and China by Imperial Japan and the ensuing chaos of World War II and return to civil war. The main figure in the revolutionary movement that overthrew imperial rule was Sun Yatsen (1866–1925), who, along with other republican political leaders, endeavored to establish a parliamentary democracy. They were thwarted by warlords with imperial and quasi-democratic pretensions who resorted to assassination, rebellion, civil war, and collusion with foreign powers (especially Japan) in their efforts to grab power. A major political and social movement during this time was the May Fourth Movement (1919), in which calls for the study of “science” and “democracy” were combined with a new patriotism that became the focus of an anti-Japanese and antigovernment movement. Ignored by the Western powers and in charge of a southern military government with its capital in Guangzhou, Sun Yatsen eventually turned to the new Soviet Union for inspiration and assistance. The Soviets obliged Sun and his Guomindang (Nationalist Party). Soviet advisers helped the Guomindang establish political and military training activities. A key individual in these developments was Jiang Jieshi (1888–1975; Chiang Kai-shek in Yue dialect), one of Sun’s lieutenants from the early revolution days. But Moscow also supported the new Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which was founded by Mao Zedong (1893–1976) and others in Shanghai in 1921. The Soviets hoped for consolidation of the Guomindang and the CCP but were prepared for either side to emerge victorious. The struggle for power in China began between the Guomindang and the CCP as both parties also sought the unification of China.
Sun’s untimely death from illness in 1925 brought a split in the Guomindang and eventually an uneasy united front between the Guomindang and the CCP. Jiang Jieshi’s military academy trained a new generation of officers who would soon embark on the Northern Expedition. Zhou Enlai (1898–1976), who later become premier of China under the communists, was a political commissar at this academy. Jiang, who succeeded Sun Yatsen, broke with his Soviet advisers and with the communists but by 1927 was successful in defeating the northern warlords and unifying China. The years 1928 to 1937 are often referred to as the Nanjing Decade because of the national development that took place under Jiang’s presidency before World War II when China’s capital was in Nanjing (Southern Capital). The Northern Expedition had culminated in the capture of Beijing, which was renamed Beiping (Northern Peace). Thereafter, the Nanjing government received international recognition as the sole legitimate government of China.
With the 1927 split between the Guomindang and the CCP, the CCP began to engage in armed struggle against the Jiang regime. The Red Army was established in 1927, and, after a series of uprisings and internal political struggles, the CCP announced the establishment in 1931 of the Chinese Soviet Republic under the chairmanship of Mao in Jiangxi Province in south-central China. After a series of deadly annihilation campaigns by Jiang’s armies, the Red Army and the CCP apparatus broke out of Jiangxi and embarked on their epic 12,500-kilometer Long March of 1934–35 to a new stronghold in Shaanxi Province in the north. During the march, Mao consolidated his hold over the CCP when, in 1935, he became chairman, a position he held until his death in 1976.
Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, established the puppet government of Manchukuo in 1932, and soon pushed south into North China. The 1936 Xi’an Incident—in which Jiang Jieshi was held captive by local military forces until he agreed to a second front with the CCP—brought new impetus to China’s resistance to Japan. However, a clash between Chinese and Japanese troops outside Beiping on July 7, 1937, marked the beginning of full-scale warfare. Shanghai was attacked and quickly fell. An indication of the ferocity of Tokyo’s determination to annihilate the Guomindang government is seen in the major atrocity committed by the Japanese army in and around Nanjing during a six-week period in December 1937 and January 1938. Known in history as the Nanjing Massacre, wanton rape, looting, arson, and mass executions took place. In one horrific day, some 57,418 Chinese prisoners of war and civilians reportedly were killed. Japanese sources admit to a total of 142,000 deaths during the Nanjing Massacre, but Chinese sources report upward of 340,000 deaths and 20,000 women raped. Japan expanded its war effort in the Pacific, Southeast, and South Asia, and by 1941 the United States had entered the war. With Allied assistance, Chinese military forces—both Guomindang and CCP—defeated Japan. Civil war between the Guomindang and the CCP broke out in 1946, and the Guomindang forces were defeated and had retreated to a few offshore islands and Taiwan by 1949. Mao and the other CCP leaders reestablished the capital in Beiping, which they renamed Beijing.
People’s Republic of China: The communist takeover of the mainland in 1949 set the scene for building a new society built on a Marxist-Leninist model replete with class struggle and proletarian politics fashioned and directed by the CCP. The People’s Republic of China was barely established (October 1, 1949) when it felt threatened by a possible attack from the United States, which was at war in North Korea, and elected to support its neighbor, the new communist state, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Chinese People’s Volunteer Army invaded the Korean Peninsula in October 1950 and, with its North Korean ally, enjoyed initial military success and then a two-year stalemate, which culminated in an armistice signed on July 27, 1953. During this time, China took control of Tibet. It also embarked on a political rectification movement against “enemies of the state” and “class struggle” under the aegis of agrarian reform as part of the “transition to socialism.”
Periods of consolidation and economic development facilitated by President Liu Shaoqi (1898–1969) and Premier Zhou Enlai were severely altered by disastrous anti-intellectual (such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign, 1957), economic (the Great Leap Forward, 1958–59), and political (the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, 1966–76) experiments directed by Mao Zedong and his supporters. During this time, China broke with the Soviet Union by 1959, fought a border war with India in 1962, and skirmished with Soviet troops in 1969. In 1969 Mao anointed Lin Biao (1908–71), a radical People’s Liberation Army marshal, as his heir apparent. By 1971 Lin was dead, the result of an airplane crash in Mongolia following an alleged coup attempt against his mentor. Less radical leaders such as Zhou Enlai and Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping (1904–97), who had been politically rehabilitated after his disgrace early in the Cultural Revolution, asserted some control, and negotiations were held with the United States, ending a generation of extreme animosity. The 1976 death of Mao brought an end to extremist influence in the party and the onset of pragmatic economic reforms and opening to the outside world under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping and his supporters.
Reform-era activities began in earnest in 1978 and eventually made China one of the largest world economies and trading partners as well as an emerging regional military power. The Four Modernizations (agriculture, industry, science and technology, and national defense) became preeminent forces within the party, state, and society. The well-being of China’s people increased substantially, especially along coastal areas and in urban areas involved in manufacturing for the world market. And yet, the so-called “fifth modernization”—politics—occurred at too slow a pace for the emerging generation. China’s incipient democracy movement was subdued at the same time as China’s economic reforms were launched, in 1978–79. As Deng consolidated his control of China, the movement rose to the fore again in the mid-1980s, and pro-reform leaders were placed in positions of authority. Zhao Ziyang (1919–2005) was premier, and Hu Yaobang (1915–1989) was CCP general secretary. Deng himself never held a top position and was satisfied with being the “power behind the throne.” The democracy movement, however, was violently suppressed by the military in the 1989 Tiananmen incident.
In the years after Tiananmen, conservative reformers led by Deng protégé Jiang Zemin (who became president of China, chairman of both the state Central Military Commission and party Central Military Commission, and general secretary of the CCP) endured and eventually overcame world criticism. Deng went into retirement, and the rising generation of technocrats ruled China and oversaw its modernization. Political progress gradually occurred. Term limits were placed on political and governmental positions at all levels, and succession became orderly. Elections involving several candidates for the same position began to take place at the local level. Tens of thousands of Chinese students went overseas to study; many returned to participate in the building of modern China, some to become millionaires in the new “socialist economy with Chinese characteristics.” As a sign of its emerging superpower status, in October 2003 China launched its first man into space, on a 14-orbit, 22-hour journey. Plans for a second launch were later announced for 2005. As the twenty-first century began, a new generation of leaders emerged and gradually replaced the old. Position by position, Jiang Zemin gave up his leadership role and by 2004 had moved into a position of elder statesman, still with obvious influence exerted through his protégés who were embedded at all levels of the government. The “politics in command” of the Maoist past were often subliminal but still present as technocrat Hu Jintao emerged—by 2004—as the preeminent leader (president of China, chairman of both the state Central Military Commission and party Central Military Commission, and general secretary of the CCP) with grudging acceptance by Jiang and his supporters.