The Chinese claim a history of 5000 years. The
first dynasty, the Xia, is yet to be archaeologically
verified but is accepted as lasting from 2200
to 1700 BC, and is described in legends as having
been preceded by a succession of god-like sovereigns
who bestowed the gifts of life, hunting and agricultural
knowledge. The existence of ensuing dynasties
is similarly hazy, but clarity increases with
each era, revealing agricultural societies who
practised ancestor worship.
The Zhou period (1100-221 BC) saw the emergence
of Confucianism and the establishment of the 'mandate
of heaven' whereby the right to rule was given
to the just and denied to the evil and corrupt,
leading to the later Taoist view that heaven's
disapproval was expressed through natural disasters
such as earthquakes, floods and insect plagues.
The Chinese were united for the first time during
the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC). The dynasty standardised
the writing system and completed construction
of the Great Wall. The ensuing Han dynasty (206
BC-220 AD) featured much military conflict and
the creation of the Three Kingdoms. Curiously,
these war-torn centuries also saw the flowering
of Buddhism and the arts.
Unity arose out of the chaos under the Sui dynasty
(581-618) and was consolidated under the Tang
(618-907), commonly regarded as the most glorious
period of Chinese history. Military conquests
re-established Chinese control of the silk routes
and society was 'internationalised' to an unprecedented
degree. Buddhism flourished under the Tang, splitting
into two distinct schools: the Chan (Zen) and
Pure Land (Chinese Buddhist).
The Song dynasty (960-1279) was marked by a revival
of Confucianism and urban and commercial revolutions
- it was during the 13th century that Marco Polo
commented on the grand scale of China's prosperous
cities. Genghis's grandson Kublai Khan's Yuan
dynasty (1271-1368) established a capital at what
is now Beijing and militarised the nation's administration.
The Chinese novice Buddhist Hongwu established
the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), with capitals at
Beijing and Nanjing.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive
in China, anchoring off the coast in 1516. A trade
mission was established in Macau by 1557, but
it was not until 1760 that other powers gained
secure access to Chinese markets via a base in
Guangzhou. Trade flourished, but in China's favour,
as British purchases of silk and tea far outweighed
Chinese purchases of wool and spices. In 1773
the British decided to balance the books by encouraging
the sale of opium. By 1840 the Opium Wars were
The resulting treaties signed in British favour
led to the cession of Hong Kong and the signing
of the humiliating Treaty of Nanking. A subsequent
land-grabbing spree by Western powers saw China
carved up into spheres of influence. The Chinese
agreed to the US-proposed free-trade Open Door
Policy and all of China's colonial possessions
soon evaporated, with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia
falling to the French, Burma to the British, and
Korea and Taiwan to Japan.
The first half of the 20th century was a period
of utter chaos. Intellectuals searched for a new
philosophy to replace Confucianism, while warlords
attempted to grab imperial power. Sun Yatsen's
Kuomintang (KMT, or Nationalist Party) established
a base in southern China and began training a
National Revolutionary Army (NRA). Meanwhile,
talks between the Soviet Comintern and prominent
Chinese Marxists resulted in the formation of
the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921. Hopes
of the CCP aligning with the KMT were dashed by
Sun Yatsen's death and the rise from the KMT of
Chiang Kaishek in Beijing, who favoured a capitalist
state supported by a military dictatorship.
The Communists were split between those who focused
on urban revolt and those who believed victory
lay in uniting the countryside. Mao Zedong established
his forces in the mountains of Jinggang Shan,
and by 1930 had marshaled a guerrilla army of
40,000. Chiang mounted four Communists extermination
campaigns, each time resulting in Communist victories.
Chiang's fifth campaign was very nearly successful
because the Communists ill-advisedly met the KMT
head-on in battle. Hemmed in, the Communists retreated
from Jiagnxi north to Shaanxi - the Long March
of 1934. En route the Communists armed peasants
and redistributed land, and Mao was recognized
as the CCP's paramount leader.
In 1931 the Japanese had taken advantage of the
chaos in China to invade Manchuria. Chiang Kaishek
did little to halt the Japanese, who by 1939 had
overrun most of eastern China. After WWII, China
was in the grip of civil war. On 1 October 1949
Mao Zedong proclaimed the foundation of the People's
Republic of China (PRC), while Chiang Kaishek
fled to Taiwan. The USA continued to recognise
Chiang as the legitimate ruler of China.
The PRC began its days as a bankrupt nation,
but the 1950s ushered in an era of great confidence.
The people were bonded by the Korean War, and
by 1953 inflation had been halted, industrial
production was restored to prewar levels, the
redistribution of land had been carried out and
the first Five Year Plan had been launched. The
most tragic consequence of the Party's dominance
was the 'liberation' of Tibet in 1950. Beijing
oversaw the enforced exile of the Tibetan spiritual
leader and initiated the genocide of a precious
culture. Today, the destruction is by no means
The next plan was the Great Leap Forward, aimed
at jump-starting the economy into first-world
standards. Despite oodles of revolutionary zeal,
the plan was stalled by inefficient management,
coupled with floods, droughts and, in 1960, the
withdrawal of all Soviet aid. The Cultural Revolution
(1966-70) attempted to draw attention away from
these disasters by increasing Mao's personal presence
via his Little Red Book of quotations, the purging
of opponents and the launch of the Red Guard.
Universities were closed, intellectuals were killed,
temples were ransacked and reminders of China's
capitalist past were destroyed.
Beijing politics were divided between moderates
Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping and radicals and
Maoists led by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing. The radicals
gained the upper hand when Zhou died in 1976.
Hua Guofeng, Mao's chosen successor, became acting
premier. Public anger at Jiang Qing and her clique
culminated in a gathering of protesters in Tiananmen
Square, and a brutal crackdown led to the disappearance
of Deng, who was blamed for the 'counter-revolutionary'
gathering. Deng returned to public life in 1977,
eventually forming a six-member Standing Committee
of the CCP.
With Deng at the helm, and the signing of the
1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, China set
a course towards economic reconstruction, although
political reform was almost nil. General dissatisfaction
with the Party, soaring inflation and increased
demands for democracy have led to widespread social
unrest, typified by the demonstrations of 1989
that resulted in the bloody Tiananmen Square massacre.
With the handover of Hong Kong and Macau, China's
'one country, two systems' plan shifts up a gear.
Jiang Zemin's leadership charted a new course
based on economic growth, and his successor Hu
Jintao is set to follow the path of economic modernisation
more aggressively still. Continued civil rights
abuses, official corruption and the stagnant rural
economy are the sharpest thorns in the country's
side, but membership of the World Trade Organisation
is a great leap forward - though probably not
one Chairman Mao would have envisaged.
The biggest barrier to the 'One China' model
is the tiny rogue island of Taiwan, which has
agreed in principle to the model but, paradoxically,
interprets it in its idiosyncratic, Taiwanese
way. China has retorted with rhetoric about 'brothers
and sisters' and, just to prove that all families
have their problems, have backed it up with a
show of military muscle. It's the equivalent of
a Chinese burn administered by an older and stronger