A brief introduction of Chinese history
Along with Egypt, Babylon and India, China is one of the oldest nations in the world. The ancient Huang river valley is the cradle of great Chinese civilization. From my point of view, China history can be divided into 4 phases. The first phase is from the beginning to 221 BC. This phase is the childhood of the nation. Her own unified language, unique philosophy, tradition and political system were formed during this phase. The whole country was also unified the first time. The second phase is from 221BC to the end of 6th century. During this phase, China was a powerful empire, expanding forward in each direction, annexing many countries and races. It’s a phase of growth and homogenization. Third phase is from the end of 6th century to 1840. China again reached her peak. Although empire’s power decreased in the end of this phase, The country become more coherent and unity. The national characteristic is more prominent then before. The fourth phase is from 1840 until now, in which Chinese ancient civilization conflicted with other civilization, especially the western civilization. Then China is re-estimating her own traditional culture and joining the international community in a completely new way.
More than 3600 years ago, during 17th century BC and 11th century BC, China was ruled under Shang dynasty. At that time, Chinese carved ancient Chinese characters in tortoiseshells and animal’s bones. It’s called “Jia Gu Wen”(A language written in shells and bones). Ancient Chinese wrote their religious rituals, warfare in this way as well as the oracle from Gods in which they believe Gods told them omen and auspicious. There are around 4500 different characters in Jia Gu Wen. Now, 2000 of them have been recognized. This is the oldest Chinese writing that has been found. This script is a full developed language with abundant vocabulary and expressive grammar. It’s the prototype of modern Chinese characters, which are quite different from western letters. Some Jia Gu Wen characters look very similar to current Chinese characters. Chinese is a pictorial language with thousands of different characters. The reason why Chinese failed to develop a phonetic language like English and many other languages is hard to tell. Maybe because Chinese is a monosyllabic language, each character has only one vowel and one consonant. Otherwise Chinese would have invented phonetic language long ago.
In 6th century BC, there were two great philosophers in China, Confucius and Lao Zi. It was when Socrates was debating in Greece, Buddha was preaching in India. In that splendid century of philosophy, China contributed her own ideas, generated her own philosophers and philosophies that influenced this nation thousands of years. In Chinese history, that period is called Spring-Autumn Warring-State Period. It was a period of great disorder. There were many kingdoms which fought each other over land, power, treasure, and honor. The more Confucius saw the disorder, the more he craved the social harmony. So he established a theory of behavior, moral, and etiquette. He hoped he could find out a king who is willing to carry on his theory. For his great cause, Confucius traveled many kingdoms, visited many kings. However, it was frustrating journey. Those kings are so enthusiastic at power and luxurious life. Nobody had interests in his sublime moral doctrines. At last, disappointed Confucius set up a private school at his hometown, preaching his own teachings. He is a very successful educationist. It is alleged that he has 3000 disciples. Many of his disciples became famous scholars and high-rank officers. The textbooks he complied or his disciples compiled also became classic books in China. Even today, the standard Chinese textbook also has many excerpts of the Confucianism classic books. Many years after his death, Confucianism was adopted as Chinese state philosophy.
In fact, during that period, because of the disorder, people’s ideas are totally free. Academic study was very prosperous. There were many theorists and philosophers, Confucius is one of the most famous, Lao Zi is another important philosopher who is the founder of Taoism. Taoism is an abstruse and obscure theory. It is impossible to describe Lao Zi’s work or even just simply extract his main ideas in this short article. Although his writing has only has around 5000 characters. But there are a variety of books on his theory in China history. Taoism influences China as profound as Confucianism. Latter, Taoism became an important religion in China.
It was time to have great monarch. After hundreds of years of war, millions of people were killed in numerous battles. Finally, the strongest kingdom emerged. The emperor, Qin Shi Huang defeated other remained six kingdoms of China in 221 BC, founded the first united empire, the Qin empire. That year was 177 years before Caesar was assassinated in Rome, 41 years after Asoka’s armies conquered Kalinga in India. Qin Shi Huang did something extremely important to China. He created a feudal monarchy, bringing the whole system under his ruling, mapped out and standardized a union of weights and measures, ordered the construction of a roads and canals linking main parts of China, abolished the currencies of the six kingdoms he conquered in exchange for the usage of Qin currency. One of the most important things he did is he unified the Chinese written language. These made China bear all characteristics of a great civilization. To defense the great empire from harassment of northern nomadic nation, he built Great Wall of China. To keep the empire united and under his control. He enacted draconian laws to punish anyone who dare offense the law, confiscated all the weapons of normal people. Further more, he ordered, except Qin’s history books, medicine books, divination books, agriculture books, and the books in national library, any other private books must be confiscated and burned. Anyone who dare talk about Confucian books will be sentenced to death. Anyone who dare criticize the current political policies will be killed as well as his relatives. All private schools were banned. In 212 BC, 460 dissident scholars were buried alive in capital, Xianyang(now, Xi’an). He wanted to control people’s ideas along with people’s behaviors. That’s not all. He did more for himself, huge palaces were built for his luxurious life. He ordered 700,000 labors to build his mausoleum, the famous Terra Gotta Warriors were just buried with him as his underworld guards. At that time, it was the biggest country in the world, however, The empire soon collapse after his death. It wasn’t defeated by foreign invasion. Millions of furious farmers overturned it.
There came the great Han dynasty. Han Wu Di(156BC – 87BC), is an very important figure in Chinese history. Although he is “the Martial Emperor” He restored Confucianism, first made it the only state philosophy. He also set up universities, honored and employed scholars in government. Obviously, he is more famous on his military feats. Han Wu Di thrust Chinese armies into Hun, Korea, Vietnam, and Central Asia, conquered vast territory. An important route to west, the Silk Road was established during his reign. The Silk Road starts from China, passes by India, across Central Asia to Baghdad, Alexandria and Rome. The Silk Road was not only a trade route that existed solely for the purpose of trading in silk, many other commodities were also traded, from gold and ivory to exotic animals and plants. Of all the precious goods crossing this road, silk was perhaps the most remarkable for the people of the West. That’s why it is called Silk Road. Surprisingly, the most significant commodity carried along this route was not silk, but religion. Buddhism came to China from India this way. It is widely believed that some important Chinese inventions were also spread out through this route, like compass, power, and paper. China at this time was the greatest, best organized and most civilized political system in the world, superior in area and population to Roman Empire at its zenith.
The Han empire disintegrated after series of peasant rebellions. In 220, Generals divided empire into three kingdoms. That was famous three-state period. Most of Chinese know this period very well because of a famous novel, <<Three kingdoms>> which is the most popular novel in Asia, written 600 hundred years ago. After the three-state period, China was united again under the administration of Jin dynasty. But Jin fell into pieces in 317. After that, there were hundreds of years of war among many states and kingdoms. Generally, China was divided into two parts during that period, Northern China and Southern China. In Southern China, there five dynasties, Xi Jin, Song, Qi, Liang, Chen. They all set capital in Nanjing. In Northern China, there were sixteen kingdoms earlier, later, Bei Wei, Dong Wei, Xi Wei,Bei Qi, Bei Zhou, All these kingdoms passed to and pro in northern China, The war among kingdoms was rampant. The hope of unification is so irresistible.
Finally, after the period of division and confusion, China arose again completely. Sui dynasty reunited China by the end of sixth century. Maybe the history repeats itself. Similar to the previous Qin dynasty, Sui was short time but full of important feats. The emperor ordered the Grand Canal, the longest in the world to be built which connect Beijing and Nanjing, Yangzi river and Huanghe river. Sui established an examination system, Keju. The scholars who passed the examination could be nominated as officers. The government reformed and reorganized. It set the political foundation for the dynasties onward.
Then come the Tang dynasty. Throughout the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, China was the most secure and civilized county in the world. The empire extended it border further. There were great poetic revival. Millions of people were leading graceful and kindly lives in China during those centuries. The most important monarch of Tang dynasty is Tang Tai Zong, who was a brave general. He defeated all the warlords in China during war. He was, in fact, the real founder of Tang dynasty. The economy was prosperous under his reign. He did start series of wars against some minority races around China, but generally, he took peaceful policy to those races. He arranged a famous marriage between the king of Tibet and a Chinese princess. The peaceful policies helped spread Chinese culture into those areas. China is open country, and the openness of Tang dynasty achieved a higher level than before. The Silk Road, established in Han dynasty, reached its peak. The 754 A.D. census showed that five thousand foreigners lived in the capital, Chang’an; The Turks, Iranians, Indians and others from along the Road, as well as Japanese, Koreans and Malays from the east. Many were missionaries, merchants or pilgrims, Rare plants, medicines, spices and other goods from the west were to be found in the bazaars of the city. A Chinese traveller Xuan Zhuang went to obtain Buddhist scriptures from India along the Road. He carefully recorded the cultures and styles of Buddhism along the way. More than 600 scriptures he had brought back from India. He is still seen by the Chinese as an important influence in the development of Buddhism in China, and his travels were dramatised by in the popular classic <<A Journey to the West>>.
China again fall into division after the Tang dynasty. There were Hou Liang, Hou Tang, Hou Jin, Hou Han, Hou Zhou, 5 dynasty ruled northern China in a row. Other ten kingdoms divided southern China. In 960, Zhao Kuang Yin founded Song dynasty. Song united China eventually. The economy, literature and art under Song were very prosperous, however, its military force was not as formidable as its predecessors. In that era of Mongolia, China was conquered along with other countries in the vast continent. Mongolian emperor set up Yuan dynasty, which ruled China from 1271 to 1368. After a series of insurgencies. Yuan dynasty was turned over.
Then came Ming dynasty. The second emperor of Ming dynasty, Ming Cheng Zu, is a great monarch. He sent a great fleet to South-east Asia, Indian Ocean , Persia Gulf and Africa seven times from 1405 to 1433. The fleet was the most powerful navy in the world at that time, which has more than 200 ships, 27,000 soldiers. It was 80 years before Vasco da Gama round Africa to India. Definitely, China could have the chance to become a colony empire. But China didn’t, gave the chance to Europeans without any hesitation. It was a peaceful travel. There was almost no war with other countries. Chinese fleet visited many countries. Those countries also sent envoys to China. Some kings even went to China by themselves. Surprisingly, After the last travel of the fleet. Chinese emperor banned the venture, ordered stop building and repairing those huge ships. The greatest navy disappeared. It was the turning point of China Empire. Since that, China declined gradually. Why would China do this? The answer could be several books of explanation. Generally, the reason is China’s inherent ideology. The emperor as well as most of educated Chinese thought the emperor is ruler of the world. Emperor control China directly. Other countries just pay tributary to China. Emperor thought he is the son of Sky, the father of all nations. As we know that European expanded colonies for raw material and new market. But when Chinese emperor sent fleet to other countries, the purpose is to gain their respect, so that it can fulfill Chinese emperor’s vanity. The money-consuming adventure is not driven by business or social requirement. It started from emperor’s personal interests, so it stopped when the passion faded. Since that, Chinese closed the door. The declination of China Empire became unavoidable.
The Ming dynasty was succeeded by Manchu Dynasty. The rulers of Manchu dynasty were from Tartars minority tribe who originally lived in north-eastern China. It was the last feudal dynasty in China. Although it was a united empire and its territory was much bigger than what China has today, compared to western country, it didn’t have any superior advantage any more. Its political system is rigid, literature froze, the art became stereotyped. Science no longer made any progress, while western world is experiencing industry revolution and colony expansion. Chinese were still in the dream of Celestial Empire.
English came, The British India Company was smuggling millions of pounds of opium to China. When those pedantic Chinese officials refused to let the drug landed, the Opium War of 1840 broke up, in which the Chinese, to their dumbfounded surprise, discovered that they were absolutely no match for the despised foreigners. Hong Kong came into the possession of the English by Treaty of Nanjing after the war. It’s merely a beginning. China was defected by many countries in following years. Russian, Japenese, English, Austrians, Germans, Italians, Frenchmen and Americans all came to China, seized what they want. Beijing was looted. All military and diplomatic struggles only saved China from falling into a colony. Condemned to pay enormous indemnities and humiliated in every possible way by its European neighbors, the Chinese people rose in rebellion in the year 1911. Manchu dynasty was abolished and China was turned into a republic.
The Republic of China was controlled by Nationalist Party. The Nationalist government is very weak and corruption, who failed to unite China by force. China was still divided by provincial warlords. After the Russian revolution, communism was spread into China as a new thought. Chinese Communist Part was founded in 1921. After series of insurgent wars, it grew up gradually. Japanese wanted to occupy China exclusively. They invaded China during World War II. Nationalist Party and Communist Party were busy at civil war. China again was defected. Millions of Chinese were slaughtered by Japanese army. In 1937, Japanese army occupied Nanjing, the capital of Nationalist China. 300,000 Chinese citizens were slaughtered under Japanese army’s organization in six weeks. This is the notorious inhuman Nanjing Massacre. Then the Nationalist Party and the Communist Party stopped civil war, fought against Japanese together. The Japanese unwisely attacked American Pearl Harbor in 1941, it lost the war completely in 1945. So, the China civil war broke again immediately after defeating Japanese. With the support of the farmers and workers, Communist Party won the civil war at last. Nationalist Party ran away from China mainland to Taiwan, there they maintained its government in the island.
This is another turning point of China history, On Oct 1st, 1949, Mao Zedong, the leader of Communist Party, spoke in his Hunan accent, declared the foundation of People’s Republic of China in Beijing, the capital.
The P.R.China was born in war and grew up along with war. Its first adversary is United States. Because of the difference of ideology, they hated each other inherently and fought each other over Korean peninsular. After pushing the front to and pro, both sides realized it is impossible for either part to occupy the peninsular exclusively. They signed a truce, divided Korea into North Korea and South Korea.
After fighting against US, Communist Party got down to construct communism. They confiscated all private property, set up collective farms and state-own firms. The Party started the "Great Leap Forward" movement. The Chinese people hoped that they would develop methods of industrialization which would emphasize manpower rather than machines. Small steel furnaces were built in villages. Peasants and workers had to abandon their fields and factories in order to run these furnaces. Mao Zedong had hoped that this effort would help his nation and people out of poverty; but the system failed and brought about a human catastrophe. The Great Famine happened in 1958-1961 is the greatest tragedy in recorded human history. Some 30 million people starved to death. Many of them are female and Children.
In 1962, China and India fought over territory.
Because of the inner conflicts of Communist Party, Mao started Cultural Revolution in 1966. From 1966 to 1976, it was the unprecedented disordered period in China history, Mao was lionized. Crazy Chinese youngsters went to the street, assembling, demonstrating, debating, and propagandizing. They broke into temples, churches, destroying antique, burning books. Numerous monks, nuns, priests were blew by them. They even blew and insulted their own teachers publicly. The knowledge was treated as evil. The more educated you are, the more wicked you are. Many famous editors, writers, generals, athletes, actors, scholars, officials with many unknown people were tortured to death. Mao praised and increased the violence by enacting law stop policeman from intervening the violent activities. It’s difficult to know the exact number of people who died of cultural revolution. However, it is estimated that more than 2 million to 7 million people were killed. China exhausted her own elites and energy by endless political movement. Mao died in 1976. The Cultural Revolution ended.
Deng Xiaoping came into power after Mao. He realized the importance of economy, resolved to boost China’s modernization. He acted fast and effectively. One Child policy was adopted during his time. China has the largest population in the world. The newly added population consumes too much GDP. The policy is set that every couple only can have one child. This policy makes china birth rate decrease drastically. He dismantled the communism farms, distributed the land to farmers (although without ownership), encourages foreign investment and advanced technology. Most of communist policies of Mao era were abolished. It’s an new era of Reform. Everything destroyed in cultural revolution was recovered. He also set up special economic zones. Shenzhen, once was a small village nearby Hong Kong, becoming a metropolis at a fabulous speed after being set up as a special economic zone in 1980 by Deng Xiaoping . In the mean time, most parts of China were undergoing a similar kaleidoscopic development. Many private and foreign manufacturers are set up. Import and export increased fast. The economic relationship with other countries reached the highest level. Nothing went smoothly. In the end of 1980’s, Communist Party took wrong economic policy, it caused serious inflation. The corruption has become rampant since he started Reform. The students who crave for democracy assembled in Tian’anmen square and demanded democracy as well as punishing corruption. He decided to put down the political movement. Many people were killed in June 4th, 1989. The exact number of death is still unknown. After the 6.4 event, Deng Xiaoping pushed the reform further. He made decision, convert China from planned economy to market economy, igniting a new round of economic growth of China. His strategy was successfully carried out. Deng Xiaoping died in Feb, 1997. In the same year, Hong Kong was returned to China according to his one country, two systems policy.
Zhou Keke 2004-10-03